Keeping the spotlight on the West’s ongoing devastation of Afghanistan and Syria
by Ian Sinclair
21-22 January 2023
Amnesty International’s 1991 Annual Report should be required reading for all media studies and journalism students.
“The Iraqi Government headed by President Saddam Hussein had been committing gross and widespread human rights abuses” in the 1980s, including using chemical weapons, the human rights organisation explained.
The report goes onto note Amnesty International publicised gruesome evidence of the atrocities and appealed directly to the United Nations Security Council in 1988 to take urgent action. “However, the world’s governments and media took only token interest, and none of the UN bodies took action.”
Then something happened. “The response to Amnesty International’s information on Iraq changed dramatically on 2 August 1990, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait.”
“Suddenly, the telephones at the organization’s International Secretariat in London were busy with inquiries about Iraq’s human rights record. Pictures of the victims of chemical weapons appeared widely on television. Exiled Kurds, who had battled for so long to have their stories heard, were invited to speak to the media. Amnesty International’s own reporting of the abuses perpetrated in Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion made front pages across the world”.
What Amnesty International doesn’t mention is the shameful support given to Hussein in the 1980s by the US and UK, meaning it was in their interest not to draw attention to the Iraqi leader’s atrocities. However, in August 1990 Iraq’s human rights record suddenly became useful to the UK and US governments.
This is a textbook example of the propaganda role played by the UK media – how their laser-like focus on human rights abuses is switched on (and off) depending on the UK government’s interests, and not because of anything to do with the human rights abuses themselves.
This sudden shift also occurs after Western military intervention ends. Take, for example, what happened following the saturation news coverage of the Gulf War when deadly US-UK-led UN sanctions were levelled on Iraq in the 1990s.
“During the worst years of the sanctions, the Western media largely ignored the horrifying impact in terms of hunger, disease and physical and mental stunting of Iraqi children – and hundreds of thousands of child deaths,” Milan Rai, the founder of Voices in the Wilderness UK, which campaigned against the sanctions, tells me. “On our sanctions-breaking visits to Iraq as part of the Voices in the Wilderness campaign, we would often be accompanied to children’s wards by journalists from other parts of the world, such as TV Globo from Brazil, but rarely by media from our own countries, the US and the UK.”
Similarly, once Muammar Gaddafi had been lynched in October 2011, and Libya supposedly liberated, the UK media’s attention quickly shifted away from the collapse of the North African country, despite – or because of? – the US-UK-NATO playing a key role in destroying Libya as a viable state.
Today, Afghanistan and Syria have the unfortunate distinction of being nations the Western media, after a period of intense coverage, has largely forgotten about, even though the US, supported by its faithful lapdog the UK, continues to ravage these nations.
In Afghanistan “nearly 19 million people are estimated to remain acutely food insecure in the second half of 2022, with nearly 6 million people still considered to be on the brink of famine,” the Disasters Emergency Committee warned in November.
In August 2022 United Nations special representative Dr Ramiz Alakbarov said “the situation can be best described as a pure catastrophe… you’ve seen people selling organs, you’ve seen people selling children.” (Hat tip: these two quotes were published in Peace News newspaper).
The same month, Vicki Aken, the Afghanistan country director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), explained the causes of the humanitarian emergency: “At the root of this crisis is the country’s economic collapse. Decisions taken last year to isolate the Taliban – including the freezing of foreign reserves, the grounding of the banking system, and the halting of development assistance which financed most government services – have had a devastating impact.”
To be clear, it the US, UK and other Western countries who have undertaken these actions, following the Taliban taking back control of Afghanistan in August 2021. After speaking to several international experts, in December 2021 the Guardian reported “large parts of Afghanistan’s health system are on the brink of collapse because of western sanctions against the Taliban”. Even David Miliband, the warmongering ex-UK Foreign Secretary and now CEO of the IRC, understands the West’s culpability. “We are not punishing the Taliban. It is ordinary Afghans that are paying the price of peace,” he told the Guardian in February 2022. “It is not just a catastrophe of choice, but a catastrophe of reputation. This is a starvation policy.”
Shockingly, in February 2022 US President Joe Biden signed an executive order releasing some of the $7bn in frozen Afghan reserves held in the US to be given to American victims of terrorism, including relatives of 9/11 victims.
In Syria successive waves of Western sanctions have broadened in number and scope over time, a 2022 UNICEF discussion paper explained. “Initially targeting individuals at the beginning of the conflict in 2011” the sanctions implemented under the 2019 US Caesar Act targeted “Syrian government’s financial resources, economic foundations and external actors dealing with the Syrian government.” In addition to these direct targets, the sanctions “create a ‘chilling effect’ that discourages technically legal transactions that business judge to be too risky,” researcher Sam Heller explained in a 2021 report for The Century Foundation US think-tank. This “raises the cost” of “even humanitarian transactions”, he noted.
The same year the World Food Programme estimated 12.4 million Syrians – nearly 60 percent of the population – were food insecure.
After interviewing more than 24 humanitarian aid workers, diplomats and aid workers, in his report Heller noted “The deterioration of Syrian food security is the product of many factors. It is, foremost, the result of an economic crisis that has overtaken Syria since 2019, and the dramatic depreciation of the national currency. Many Syrians can simply no longer afford to feed their families… key imports have also been disrupted, including wheat needed for bread; and fuel, whose scarcity has affected food supply and prices.”
“All this has been exacerbated by Western sanctions on Syria,” he stated.
Similarly, a 2021 report written by Zaki Mehchy and Dr Rim Turkmani for the Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics noted sanctions “have directly contributed to… a massive deterioration in the formal economy associated with a weakening of legitimate business and civil society, and increased suffering of ordinary people.” (Incidentally, the report also argues sanctions have contributed to “greater reliance of the Syrian regime on Russia and Iran, and less political leverage for Western countries” and “the establishment and strengthening of a network of warlords and ‘cronies’ with a vested interest in regime survival and a criminalised economy”).
The role of western sanctions in creating extreme hardship for ordinary Syrians has been understood for years. In 2016 The Intercept obtained an internal email written by “a key UN official” that cited the sanctions as a “principal factor” in the erosion of the country’s health care system. And a 2017 Reuters report was titled Syria Sanctions Indirectly Hit Children’s Cancer Treatment.
More recently, after a fact-finding mission to Syria in November, Alena Douhan, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures, concluded “Primary unilateral sanctions, secondary sanctions, threats of sanctions, de-risking policies and over-compliance with sanctions have been exacerbating Syria’s humanitarian crisis, which is already affected by 12 years of conflict and terrorist activity, destruction of infrastructure, COVID-19, a growing economic crisis in the region, and millions of IDPs and refugees.”
She went on to note “the imposed sanctions have shattered the State’s capability to respond to the needs of the population, particularly the most vulnerable, and 90% of the people now live below the poverty line.”
I’m not aware of any polling done on the US and UK public’s awareness of the West’s role in intensifying these two humanitarian crises but given the paucity of media coverage it seems likely it’s very low.
So UK anti-war and peace activists have an important job to do: push past the media’s indifference and concentrate the public’s gaze on the continuing deadly impacts of Western foreign policy in Afghanistan and Syria.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.