Will airstrikes help in Syria and Iraq?
On 26th September parliament was recalled to vote on whether Britain should join in the air strikes against the Islamic terrorist group ISIS in Iraq. MPs voted decisively, by 524 votes to 43, to send Tornado aircraft to assist the US and French air strikes, designed to destroy ISIS bases and so assist the Iraqi troops on the ground.
Our MPs did not vote on the need for our Tornados to join US air strikes against the same adversary in neighbouring Syria. The Labour leader Ed Miliband, in prior talks with Cameron, insisted that Syria was a different legal case – we were invited in to Iraq by the ruling government, but there could be no dealing with the Syrian government under Assad. Syria was therefore a different legal case for intervention, and a vote in parliament was likely to go against the government, as happened last year when our MPs voted against military involvement in the civil war in Syria.
The difficult problem of international intervention to combat evil was faced when the United Nations was formed in 1945. War between nations was clearly to be ruled out: the UN had been created for this purpose. But internal conflict was a different, much more complex matter. The moral guidelines in preventing wars between nations were quite clear, but the right of the international community to intervene militarily in civil disputes within sovereign nations was more questionable. So much depended on the individual case that it was not possible even to lay down general guidelines.
The need to respect national sovereignty was addressed in the UN Charter. ‘All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state’ (Chapter 1, Article 2:4). The UN’s major remit was the universally beneficial function of preventing war, with an additional wider operation ‘to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character . . . ’ (Chapter 1, Article 1:3).
The question of the case for ‘humanitarian intervention’ in situations where there are terrible abuses, including massacres, within nations remains unresolved. There is a lack of commitment to the UN process yet, paradoxically, the UN has received much censure for failure to intervene in Bosnia and Rwanda to prevent such atrocities.
Today the idea is being considered that there are basic human rights that are inviolable anywhere, that sovereignty is not an absolute right, and that States have a responsibility to protect their citizens from mass atrocity crimes. And that the international community in turn has a responsibility to intervene in such cases through coercive measures (sanctions), with military intervention as a last resort, a matter for the UN Security Council.
Very much a last resort. The problem is that military interventions have an appalling track record. Strategic bombing, of the kind now adopted in Iraq, has never worked. In the second world war, the bombing of London achieved nothing except a hardening of resolve. In Vietnam the cruel massive bombing of the North to ‘weaken the resolve’ of Hanoi did the opposite, and proved to be a prelude to the defeat of US forces.
Combatting evil should obviously be the province of the United Nations, and not be the self-appointed task of any individual nation. Military operation by a ‘coalition of the willing’ has proved a poor substitute for a genuine legitimised United Nations intervention. Eventually, if a more stable, peaceful world is ever to be achieved, the United Nations will have to play a central role, and the question of military intervention will not be a matter for the parliaments of individual nations to decide upon. The question of the kind of action required in each case will be discussed in the Security Council, and in the extreme case of military intervention, forces will be made available from member States, as has occurred in the case of the successful UN interventions in East Timor and the Ivory Coast.
As always, the opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Kingston Peace Council, though when the ISIS crisis was discussed at our October meeting there was a general consensus that the most hopeful way of combatting evil lay with an increased role of the UN, rather than with military interventions by individual nations, as at present. Apropos, see Steve Hensel’s poem below.
A feature-length film of the life of Tony Benn is at present showing in several cinemas nationwide. Jim McCluskey went to see it recently at the Odeon in Richmond. Here is his report on director Skip Kyte’s version of the life of a rare man, sadly missed.
This afternoon, Sunday, at 4.30 I went to the Odeon in Richmond and saw the 90-minute film, ‘The Will and Testament of Tony Benn’. This is a marvelously engaging production. Highly recommended. As the Times reviewer said ‘It makes you long for the time when politicians had charisma and ideas’. She might have added integrity and humanity. Benn said every political decision is a moral one, ‘Is it right or is it wrong?’ Tell that to the warmongering Cameron or the gunrunning Cable! How times change. The cinema, by the way, was almost empty.
Tony Benn said it the way it is. We desperately need politicians like that (such as, for example, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnall) today.
There is a campaign we can all support which will go viral if we all get behind it.
OPEN BETHLEHEM is an international campaign started by Leila Sansour (website www.openbethlehem.org). She had a remarkable Palestinian father who told her endless stories about his home town, Bethlehem, when she was a small girl in Moscow. She dreamed of going to this miraculous place but when she did her disappointment was painful and tangible. Israeli occupation has strangled the life of the city by check points, seized and razed olive groves, Israeli “military zones”, a maze of Israeli-only highways, a plethora of concrete townships on the hill tops, both ‘illegal’ settlements and ‘legal’ ones (though all are in fact illegal), route detours, barriers gates and passes obstructing movement, shattered windows, bomb damaged buildings and ruins, overcrowded housing and unmade roads with dust clouds regularly stirred up by Israeli military vehicles.
Those able to escape abroad do so, and many remaining live on the breadline and UN handouts. Agriculture, industry, trade and tourism are strangulated by the draconian Israeli military. A once thriving hub of world tourism, trade, agriculture, culture and industry is remorselessly dying. Nowadays a few half hour tourists are bussed in by the Israelis so Bethlehem hardly notices. The vibrancy of this former exquisite centre of world culture, drawing visitors from the four corners of the earth to which many Bethlehem residents now flee if they can, has been brutally repressed and the glint in its eye has faded.
The overwhelming impression is of concrete walling 9 metres high snaking in and out between buildings and down the middle of once-thriving roads - a mind-boggling maze shutting light and air from homes and windows, and concrete, more concrete and yet more. It resembles nothing so much as a desolate prison.
Leila’s father, of an old Catholic family, adored his home town. He expressed his faith in its future by helping build world-class education at Bethlehem University. Now even that is under pressure. Leila self-describes as ‘her father’s daughter’. As a teenager she found life too stifling so she moved around studying at universities in Russia, France and Britain, finishing with an MA in philosophy. But she is best known for her films and campaigning – “Jeremy Hardy v The Israeli Army”. She was inspired by a small camera her father gave her as a child to record the magical festivals. Now, unless someone does something for Bethlehem it will be crushed. She realized that if something needed to be done it was best she did it.
“Open Bethlehem is an international campaign that works to draw attention to the plight of the historical city of Bethlehem and to mobilize global engagement to keep Bethlehem open ... Bethlehem has been a tourist destination since before tourism was invented ... Open Bethlehem will focus on the distribution of a documentary [film] that chronicles events from the last decade of life in the city, creating an intimate portrait of Bethlehem as it has never been seen before ... a historical town in peril.”
People who share the Open Bethlehem vision can be ambassadors for the city. There will be seminars to support volunteers and all ambassadors will be awarded the “Bethlehem passport”. Over 300 have been issued including to the Pope, Rowan Williams and Desmond Tutu who said: “Open Bethlehem is a nonviolent attempt to save a city that belongs to many in the world ... Bethlehem should not be allowed to die slowly from strangulation.”
Anyone can organise a screening of the documentary and Ben Jamal of Richmond and Kingston PSC plans to do so. But this issue urgently needs to be shared with a wide audience. As many interested local groups as possible could be alerted and maybe a large enough audience could be found to be able to hire a decent sized space locally to screen the film which is due for release around Christmas 2014. Screenings can be accompanied by talks and special events. The aim is to bring the story to millions of people and gain thousands of new ambassadors.
“One of the most remarkable and moving documentaries ... about this unreported story. The tragedy of Palestinians encapsulated in the life of one town – Bethlehem. See the film, then go to Bethlehem and see for yourself.” Jon Snow.
Noel Hamel, September 2014.
Now that I am going, off to spend the remaining years in Australia after virtually a lifetime in Britain and almost the same time in the peace movement, (it’s nothing you’ve done – it’s a family thing), it’s time for an assessment. The most obvious thing that comes to mind is all the people I have met, who are dedicated to opposing militarism and transforming our war-prone world into a more rational, more peaceful, more prosperous place. It sounds boastful to say it, but I do feel that you are my kind of people.
That said, how have we done, all these last decades? Sometimes, looking back, it seems that we might as well not have bothered. When I joined Kingston Peace Council there were only five nations in the world who boasted possession of nuclear weapons; now there are nine, if we count North Korea. At present, all the members of the nuclear ‘club’ are busy upgrading their nuclear weapons, whilst at the same time protesting that they would like to see a world free of the nuclear menace. At home, they emphasise the necessity of keeping their weapon of mass destruction just in case. Whilst abroad they claim they are working ‘in good faith’ towards a nuclear-free world.
When the time comes for the great debate in 2016, when Britain’s parliament has to decide whether Britain should commit to an expensive upgrade of Trident, you may be sure that the tired old claims, discredited over and over again by rational argument, will resurface in the debate. It will be claimed that Britain is, uniquely, to be trusted with nuclear weapons, that we need them for our security in an uncertain world, though such weapons are dangerous, and pose a terrible threat, in other hands. It will no doubt also be mentioned time and again, that Britain needs nuclear weapons for prestige and power, that we must not go embarrassingly naked into the conference chambers of the world. A great society will be equated with a militarily powerful society.
Such is the responsibility of the grass roots anti-nuclear movement. Change has always come, as Tony Benn once said, by pressure from below. The people are rarely given anything that they have not fought for. And there are hopeful signs in the air today. These are tough times, and both major political parties claim that belts must be tightened – a benign way of saying that welfare and NHS cuts will be savage, because we cannot afford the luxurious lifestyle of past times. At the same time, they will be asking for extra billions of taxpayers’ money to be spent on this upgraded nuclear weapon, and, understandably, the British people will not ‘go gentle into that good night’, one does hope and expect.
Of course, we all know of stronger arguments than money, why we should turn away from nuclear weapons, and during the debate these will be aired by the ‘awkward squad’ of Labour and Lib Dem MPs, and perhaps now from some on the Tory benches too. The times, they are a-changing, and in a world threatened by natural dangers, a population explosion, a degrading environment, and global warming, the self-inflicted problem of nuclear weapons will come under increased scrutiny, as it compromises efforts to address these other, looming problems.
Back to thanking you all. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to have made such friends. I will obviously be keeping in touch, continue to be a member of Kingston Peace Council, and there may be an occasional missive from ‘our man down under’.
This mainstay argument for keeping nuclear weapons (and updating them) is really the only legitimate argument any nation could have for retaining a nuclear arsenal. It is the only argument our leaders ever put forward – when in 1996 the World Court declared that the only time nuclear weapons could conceivably be used was ‘in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake’, the ready British establishment reply was ‘the Government is confident that the ICJ’s Advisory Opinion on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons does not require a change in the United Kingdom’s or NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy. We would only ever consider the use of nuclear weapons in self defence, which includes the defence of our NATO allies, and in extreme circumstances.’
Kathleen Lonsdale, a Quaker scientist, addresses this argument for keeping a nuclear arsenal in Is Peace Possible? in the following way:-
If a mad-dog aggressor arises in a world of the future that is still armed, and armed with nuclear weapons, he can destroy that world and his own nation with it, and nothing can stop him except a miracle. God help us all if it happens. It could not happen in an unarmed world. An armed world breeds ‘mad dogs’.
Lonsdale was writing long before North Korea joined the nuclear ‘club’. This concise way of saying that until a negotiated elimination of nuclear weapons is achieved, with necessary safeguards to prevent ‘mad dogs’ making them, humanity will always be at risk, seems to me a complete answer to those who want to hang on to their weapons of mass destruction ‘just in case’.
Sent by our Welsh correspondent Lib Rowlands-Hughes
This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody.
There was an important job to be done, and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Anybody wouldn’t do it.
It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.
The South African experience
Both Sweden and Switzerland once started on a nuclear programme and then changed their minds. Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus all once hosted Soviet nuclear weapons, but sent them back to Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But South Africa remains the only country to have gone through with a nuclear weapon programme, created a stockpile of nuclear weapons, and then after a change of heart, destroyed their stockpile and joined the Non Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear nation.
The International Peace Bureau and Physicians for Social Responsibility organised a conference in Helsinki on 18 October 2013 titled Nuclear Exits – Countries Foregoing the Nuclear Option. The former president of South Africa F. W. de Klerk was invited to explain why and how his country gave up the Bomb. What follows is a condensed summary of his inspiring speech, printed in Medicine, Conflict and Survival, Vol 30, Supplement 1, August 2014.
In 1974 South Africa took the decision to build a number of Hiroshima-sized bombs, against the background of expanding Soviet influence in southern Africa. A buildup of Cuban forces in Angola prompted thoughts about the need for a deterrent. Six atom bombs were made under a cloak of secrecy, with the idea that in a dangerous situation the major nuclear powers could be persuaded to intervene if made aware of the SA nuclear stockpile.
For the next 16 years the nuclear programme was kept secret. In 1989 de Klerk was elected president, and tackled two key problems - to embark on a radical programme to end apartheid and to dismantle SA’s nuclear weapons. The previous year an agreement had been reached between Angola, Cuba and the US, resulting in the withdrawal of 50,000 Cuban troops. This in turn opened the way to implement a UN plan for the independence of Namibia, which had been ruled by South Africa under a disputed League of Nations mandate. The more settled political climate (this was also the time when the Berlin wall came down) ‘removed one of South Africa’s central concerns relating to democratic transformation’. A window of opportunity had opened, ‘and I did not hesitate to jump through the window’.
Mandela was released, soon to become the first president of a democratic South Africa, and ‘we did not want to take our leap of faith encumbered by nuclear weapons’. ‘Accordingly, soon after I became president we took the decision to dismantle our atom bombs.’ The enrichment plant at Pelindaba was decommissioned, and early in 1990 all nuclear devices were dismantled. All nuclear materials were recast and returned to the Atomic Energy Corporation, the nuclear facilities were decontaminated and returned to non-nuclear commercial purposes.
These steps having been taken, the way was clear for South Africa to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear State on 10th July 1991.
After noting that modern H-bombs make Hiroshima-sized bomb appear puny, and that the US has spent an estimated 4 trillion dollars on its nuclear weapons, de Klerk remarked to Conference that ‘Ultimately however, the world will only be safe when all the nuclear states follow South Africa’s example and dismantle their nuclear weapons’.
Noteworthy is the fact that South Africa’s renunciation of nuclear weapons was a top-level decision, with no obvious pressure from civil society.
It does seem unlikely that the British establishment will ever react in the same way, and give up the British nuclear weapon without enormous pressure from below. To judge from the policy statements from the main political parties, British politicians are in love with the Bomb, and the power it confers at top tables.
I have written a history of nuclear arms, from the time when the atom bomb was no more than a twinkle in the eye of two German scientists in the years before the second world war, through Hiroshima and the genesis of the Cold War, in which nuclear weapons played a central role, through to the invention of the hydrogen bomb, the intercontinental ballistic missile and the satellite navigation system able to direct a bomb capable of vaporizing the population of an entire city to within yards of its target, through to the spread of the technology from an initial single source to a situation where nine nations are now acknowledged members of the nuclear ‘club’.
Clearly, mistakes have been made. The early attempts at control, when the Bomb was merely an atom bomb in the armoury of one nation, very nearly succeeded, but in the end they failed, and instead an arms race commenced that has led to today’s dangerous impasse. I have tried to tell the history in a plain, straightforward fashion, as the plain history of the Bomb needs no anti-nuclear advocacy.
One puzzling feature of the Bomb’s history has been the public acceptance of the danger. A consideration of the appalling consequences of a nuclear exchange, started either deliberately or as the result of human error, should have caused much more protest from the threatened public. The whole public should have become anti-nuclear campaigners, insisting that their leaders arrange matters more sanely, but instead there was a majority acceptance of the threat as unavoidable, and the best way to security was to build bigger and bigger nuclear bombs. I have devoted a chapter (chapter eleven: Acceptance) to this conundrum, but the possible reasons of the public’s tolerance that I have found do not add up to a convincing explanation.
I have done my best to ensure factual accuracy. The book was written more for the general public than for KPN readers, who are already well aware of the history and the dangers. However I have no doubt failed to emphasise some aspects of the story sufficiently, and may have left out some parts of the story altogether. If those KPN readers with Kindles would take the trouble to download the book and get back to me with their critiques, either directly or as a review on the Kindle site, I would be grateful.
KPN readers are well aware that white poppies are for remembering all the victims of war, and so against any militarist glorification of war. This year, one hundred years after the start of the first world war, wearing a white poppy seems even more important.
In fact, most victims of modern wars are civilians. In the first world war, for every thousand soldiers who died, there were one hundred civilian deaths. In the second world war, where civilians were in the front line, for every thousand soldiers who died, there were two thousand civilian deaths.
White poppies can be obtained in various sizes of packs direct from the Peace Pledge Union (www.ppu.org.uk), or singly from Kingston Peace Council, price 70 pence.
Newsletter Editor for this issue: Harry Davis
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this edition are not necessarily those of Kingston Peace Council/CND