Human Rights and Liberal War
A chapter from Andrew Murray's Stop the War its Critics
As long as there has been imperialism, there have been wars to enforce it and justifications – religious, humanitarian, strategic - to exculpate it. There has been no military aggression without a “civilising mission”, no armed occupation not blessed by “sacred trust”. For every General or oil corporate executive, a parson and a Fabian.
The latter have never been mere window dressing or supernumeraries. They have been an essential element in securing a broad domestic base for an aggressive foreign policy. Blood and profit unaccompanied by high ideals of improvement from above, of leading the benighted by the hand towards a better future, would stand too naked before the world. One could write the whole history of the left in Britain, where imperial traditions run deep and steady, in terms of the struggle, not just betweensupporters and opponents of the general and the banker, but between those who march abroad with the priest and the social reformer, at the point of the bayonet if needs be, and those who oppose the hypocrisies of imperialism.
As a brief case study, the 2002 Guardian article by Katharine Viner, now the paper’s Editor-in-Chief, on “feminism as imperialism”, written in the wake of George Bush and Tony Blair using women’s liberation as a justification for their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is outstanding. She traces the abuse of women’s rights in the service of Empire back to the great Victorian proconsul Lord Cromer, amongst others. Cromer used the oppression of women in Egyptian society as a rationale for enforcing British rule there by all means required, incidentally protecting British bondholders into the bargain. When he returned to his homeland after years of service to the Empire he took up the reins of the campaign against women’s suffrage.
Such examples abound in the history of Empire. The rhetoric has changed. Since the second world war, saving people around the world from the depredations of sundry “Hitlers” (Nasser, Saddam, Mullah Omar, Milosevic, Putin, Assad and so on) has been the standard trope when intervention is required, notwithstanding that some at least of the “new Hitlers” owed their position precisely to western support to begin with. Labour’s shadow foreign secretary and Corbyn opponent Hilary Benn deployed thisline of analogy, casting Islamic State as a collective Hitler, to hysterical Conservative and media approval when trying and failing in the Commons debate on bombing Syria to win a majority of his colleagues to support the government.
Every age gets its appropriate parson, adapting the ideological imperatives of the period to the exigencies of interventionism. Today, overt arguments of strategic or commercial advantage cannot be countenanced, whatever role they actually play (and it is generally decisive, as the revelations relating to the French intervention in Libya once more establish). Planting the cross at the point of a sword is too 19th century, and stopping the spread of Communism too 20th. In the 21st, as Viner recognised, interventionism must be justi͠ed primarily by reference to spreading human rights, feminism, gay rights and the general liberation of the oppressed from illiberal rule. That this is applied selectively goes without saying, but the argument has so far survived both the charge of hypocrisy and the observable fact that people’s actual rights, up to and including the right to life itself, have generally deteriorated as a consequence of these liberal wars. The endurance of the policy of liberal interventionism is in part due to the skill of its public champions, as well as the support of the powerful interests driving an imperialist policy.
The parson for our times is Peter Tatchell. Celebrated and courageous fighter for gay rights since way before that became fashionable he has since broadened his selfproclaimed remit (he answers to no organisation, but to his conscience alone) into “human rights campaigner”. Despite having a wealth of targets around the world to choose from, there has come to develop a strong correlation between regimes he challenges, usually justifiably, on their human rights record and regimes which are also in the cross-hairs of the western powers for one reason or another. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was a favourite for Tatchell’s attentions (he got brutally beaten by Mugabe’s security for his pains) at the same time as Tony Blair was fantasising about overthrowing his government by force. Tatchell’s campaign on human rights deserves sympathy, and the action of Mugabe’s thugs unequivocal condemnation, but whether it sustains his view, expressed in an article considering whether murdering Mugabe might be justified (he was against on balance) and unlikely to be shared by any black Zimbabweans, that Mugabe is “a monster…Ian Smith with a black face, only many times worse” (my emphasis – AM). Such rhetoric can appear insensitive to the history of imperialism and racism, or lacking in perspective at any event.
More recently, Tatchell disrupted a London concert by a Russian musician in protest not at Putin’s homophobic attitudes and policies, but at his intervention in Ukraine, a country and an issue in which Tatchell had never previously shown any noticeable interest. Maybe this helps to make his human rights campaigning more acceptable to establishment audiences. It is perhaps not coincidental that the man vilified by the media in the most unpleasant terms when he was Labour’s unsuccessful candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election is more recently lauded by the Daily Mail as perhaps “the bravest man in Britain.” His transition from threatening radical to “national treasure” seems to be fairly well advanced.
Tatchell has a history with Stop the War too. He loomed large in the attacks on Corbyn and StWC over Syria in November/December 2015, even though his voluminously-archived and comprehensively-indexed personal website, where it seems almost all his writings are to be found, reveal no previous engagement with the Syrian crisis at all. He appeared on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show, hosted by the bilious red-baiting bully Andrew Neil, shaking his head more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger at how he had once been a supporter of Stop the War, but the organisation had now lost its way. This was dissimulation at best.
Part of the rationale for his intervention might simply be a desire to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, since Tatchell is an activist in the Green Party. But it surely has far more to do with the fact that, his dishonest self-presentation on the BBC notwithstanding, he has in fact been an opponent of the anti-war movement from its inception, and always from the same vantage point. StWC has, in Tatchell’s telling, been an apologist for whatever regime presides in the country the British government is intent on attacking.
Thus, on 30 September 2002, as the first truly vast demonstration against the attack on Iraq was taking place: “It is …deeply disturbing the way the Stop The War campaign is ignoring the Iraqi government’s monstrous human rights violations, and offering no counter-plan for overthrowing the murderous regime in Baghdad. The leafets and posters of the Stop the War Coalition do not mention Saddam’s repression of his own people. There is not a word about the brutalities of detention without trial, torture, execution and the ethnic cleansing of Kurds and Shiites.” And on March 12 2003, almost the eve of “shock and awe”: “Although an opponent of an American and British attack on Iraq, Mr Tatchell criticised the anti-war movement for “failing to speak out loudly against Saddam’s human rights abuses and offering no alternative strategy to end the tyranny in Baghdad. The Left’s do-nothing, oppositionist stance borders on appeasement. It colludes with Saddam’s oppression, and is a shameful betrayal of Iraqis struggling for democracy and human rights.” Here the basic Tatchell sermon is established in outline. Yes, the proposed war is bad. But something must be done about the threatened regime. And it is up to the antiwar movement to decide what that something should be. If it does not provide an “alternative strategy” for regime-change intervention, then it is lining up with unspeakable dictators.
This line of argument is objectionable on several grounds. First, while it would indeed be appropriate for democrats in Britain to express solidarity with those fighting for democracy in Iraq, it is scarcely the business of anyone in the west to work out and impose a regime-change strategy in another country, a former colony least of all. Second, the anti-war movement’s main message is – to oppose war. No-one in 2002 and 2003 was in the slightest doubt regarding the depredations of Iraq’s regime. It was pointless and counter-productive to reproduce on our placards against the invasion the very arguments which the government was deploying to promote it.
That was not just Stop the War’s position. It was the position of the many Iraqi democrats and oppositionists who spoke from its platforms at the time and since. They neither wanted an Anglo-American invasion of their country, nor did they particularly want anyone else to tell them how to secure their liberation from Saddam. Least of all did they need Peter Tatchell’s strategic wisdom, which urged the West to maintain the no-fly zone then being imposed over southern and Kurdish Iraq (Tatchell’s misunderstanding concerning no-fly zones, believing them to be a non-military option, is a confusion we will have to return to) and then equip “the Kurds and Shias who already have viable armies” with the wherewithal to overthrow Saddam – “tanks, helicopter gun-ships, fighter planes, heavy artillery and anti-tank and aircraft missiles.” This was to be combined with Gandhian “non-violent” resistance by those Iraqis unable to fly helicopter gunships or drive a tank.
This masterplan bears two hallmarks of Tatchell’s sermons on war and peace, which we shall encounter again – first, a ready acceptance of the categories and confections, priorities and premises of the war party, and second a colossal absence of serious strategic thinking. Under the first head, note the reference to a battle-ready “Shia army” – such a thing existed in 2003 only in the imagination (or drawing rooms) of Georgetown neo-cons. Furthermore, by building up his fairy-tale forces on a religious sectarian basis, Tatchell was actually anticipating the plans of the US occupation by a good few months. And as far as the general levity of the strategy goes, was it really credible to ship all the munitions needed to launch such an armed struggle into southern Iraq, firmly controlled as it was by Saddam’s forces, and hope thereby to sustain a bloody civil war, combined with pacifist “people’s power” in some obscure alchemy, until victory? If that was the “alternative strategy” needed to save the honour of the anti-war movement it could only have been adopted at the price of ridicule from a public which would want to know why the anti-war movement was actually in favour of - war. Nor did a single Iraqi political force advocate the Tatchell Plan either.
Tatchell’s views on the anti-war movement received little or no attention during the crisis of 2002-03. But he was nothing daunted. His determination to attack Stop the War resurfaced at almost every opportunity. As the war danger – and StWC’s campaigning – switched focus towards Iran Tatchell was there too. This from February 6 2005: “The STWC and SWP are campaigning against a US invasion of Iran. Good. But they have shamefully vetoed any protests against the Tehran regime. This refusal to support Iranian democrats and socialists replicates their failure to back the anti-Saddam opposition in Iraq.“
As the anti-war attention reverted to Afghanistan, he advised that “I can’t accept the simplistic calls for immediate troop withdrawal…a hasty NATO withdrawal will not bring peace.” Why the Tatchellite reticence? The need to support Afghan women against the Taliban, as advocated by Bush and Blair (and their wives) back in 2001. More modest than in 2003 he did add that “I haven’t got the answers” but “anti-imperialism cannot be allowed to trump human rights.” And he did indeed turn up on a Stop the War protest called to demand an end to the occupation of Afghanistan bearing a placard which, in the style of St Augustine, urged troops out of Afghanistan…but not just yet.
Libya? “It is very disappointing the way some of my left-wing colleagues disparage the UN-sanctioned military strikes against Gaddafi, but fail to offer any alternative strategy to protect the civilian population,” he told the Daily Telegraph in 2011. “Those who condemn the war have a moral duty to explain how they would save the many Libyans who will be slaughtered if Gaddafi triumphs.”
At least there is a consistency of message in the sermonising directed at the left: The underlying assumptions of the interventionists must be accepted. And so too must their strategies, unless the anti-war movement can come up with a better one, for saving Afghan women, protecting Libyan civilians and so on. This in spite of the overwhelming evidence that the military interventions themselves achieve none of these things. There are times when doing nothing is better than doing the only things which are being proposed by those in high office.
So to Syria, and the by now well-worn routine. It is not enough to oppose Britain joining the bombing of Syria. On November 2 1015 Tatchell tweeted: “Time for a UN no-fly zone, arms embargo, civilian safe havens and peacekeepers.” But by December 13 2015: “I support military aid to Kurds & Syrian democratic forces to liberate themselves. Heavy artillery, anti-tank, anti-aircraft.” From an arms embargo to flogging any munitions going in six weeks! The essential frivolity of Tatchell’s approach is obvious once more. Like David Cameron, he envisages an army of “moderate” or “human rights” anti-Assad rebels who could utilise such armaments against all-comers (and there are unfortunately many in Syria). This is as fantastic as his phantom Iraqi Shia brigades in 2003.
It is only exacerbated by the insistence, once more, on a “no-fly zone” to be enforced by giving “Kurds etc” (love that etc!) anti-aircraft missiles. In fact, the demand for a no-fly zone and refugee safe havens, however superficially attractive it may sound, goes further still. The weaponry he proposes to deploy in the hands of the “Kurds etc” would in no sense be sufficient to impose a no-fly zone on the Syrian air force, never mind the Russian. But such a nudge to the arms race in Syria would lead to a military and political escalation – that is, a wider and more general war – and bring peace and an end to the tremendous civilian suffering not one step closer. There is also the danger of the advanced weaponry Tatchell is keen to bestow on “etc” actually falling out of the latter’s hands and into those of IS or the Al-Nusra Front (Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate). This is a concern which has limited Obama’s willingness to supply such weaponry to parties in the Syrian conflict, but it does not seem to have crossed Tatchell’s mind.
Perhaps this is to take it all more seriously than we should. Plan Tatchell is more likely just the self-indulgent proposal of someone who wishes at all costs to demarcate himself from the anti-war position but has made no study at all of the situation in Syria). At any event, this is not an anti-war position, but instead the advocacy of a different strategy for the war the USA and Britain are presently engaged in (although it is quite similar to the strategy they followed towards Syria for three years from 2011). Rather than demand that the British government seriously engage in the peace process aimed at ending the Syrian civil war, Tatchell prefers to indulge in Boy’s Own wargames which basically involve deepening and prolonging a horrifying civil war by pouring heavy and advanced weaponry into the battle zone
Taking this fifteen year record as a piece, Tatchell can obviously be acquitted of being anti-interventionist, or even in any real sense anti-war. He is consistently for intervention through arms sales – there can be no question that Tatchell, a famously austere personality, is a lobbyist for the arms industry, but it is indisputable that the latter are getting a pretty good advocacy service from him for free - and he is for externally-inspired or even externally–imposed regime change. It is usually believed that Peter Tatchell is anti-war, just not anti-war with the same outlook and under the same slogans of the anti-war movement. This view is surely wrong. He is in fact pro-war, merely not for the exact wars the imperialists are proposing to fight in the way they are planning to fight them.
So does “anti-imperialism” trump “human rights”, or vice-versa? Obviously this is very similar to the canard promoted by the late Fred Halliday post-2001 that there is now an “anti-imperialist” left and an “anti-fascist” left, and all must choose between the two. It is a false polarity. To take a purely historical view of the question, imperialism has been the most consistent violator of human rights over the last century and a half. The liberalism it has unevenly upheld in its homelands has been bought at the price of the installation of regimes of unbridled or barely-bridled repression in the subjected parts of the world. Evidently this was true of colonialism, which serially violated every individual human right, including the most basic right to life in epic numbers, it also violated the collective human right to self-determination. Its modus operandi was closely aligned with fascism, and it even shared many of the racist assumptions of Nazism. Indeed, it took Nazism – imperialism on steroids – to make the British Empire look not so bad after all. By any other standard it would rank as the most anti-human enterprise of the last two hundred years. Colonialism also generated a special form of “blowback” in that the practices by which the white man ruled the African, the Arab and the Asian were substantially incorporated into European fascism’s repertoire and deployed “at home” in the 1930s. The general shift to neo-colonial rule in the twenty years after the end of World War Two did not substantially change this relationship – wherever the powers intervened (mainly the USA, but Britain must still get a mention) it was to supress democracy and basic liberties in favour of support for notionally independent but basically satellite anti-communist dictatorships.
Of course, Tatchell and most on the left would acknowledge this. Yet we are in effect asked to believe that the leopard has changed its sports and that intervention to overthrow dictatorships across the world will now guarantee better outcomes in terms of human rights. The record on this point is unambiguous. Saddam’s dictatorship, for example, was an atrocious violator of people’s rights. Today’s Iraq, it could be argued, despite the ravening sectarianism, Olympic-class corruption, state-sponsored and private-initiative terrorism, and economic collapse is marginally better. Still, the balance must be further nuanced – was the Christian right to worship better protected in Saddam’s Iraq or US-occupied Iraq? The figures for the collapse of Iraq’s Christian community tells its own story. Yet even if there has been a smidgen of progress from the “human rights” point of view, it has been bought not just at the cost of perhaps a million lives and of four millions displaced persons, but of the virtual collapse of the integrity of the country itself. The “rights” position in Afghanistan tells a broadly similar story, while in Libya the position would seem to be still worse.
But if the interventions by imperialist powers do nothing for human rights, this does not absolve the left of the obligation to defend common democratic values around the world, and express solidarity with those fighting for them in their own countries. That can and does involve as range of activities to put pressure on obnoxious regimes. The long campaign run by the Anti-Apartheid Movement against the South African regime is a shining example. Pickets, boycotts, lobbying, mass demonstrations, media work and more were deployed to assist the South African people’s struggles. So, of course, were more direct forms of support, including the brave activities of Communists and Socialists who went to South Africa itself to undertake underground work in support of the African National Congress. All this work was done in opposition to the British state and successive British governments, of course. At no time did the AAM find it expedient to urge British military intervention in South Africa, or even request British arms sales to the freedom fighters of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
The movement of solidarity with the Palestinian people (demonstrations which Tatchell also tries to disrupt from time to time) is carrying forward some of the same lessons. Of course, different situations require different approaches. But any plan for solidarity and support for human rights which depends on the British state leading the charge is likely to be flawed from the start. From Tony Blair’s failed “ethical foreign policy” to today’s coddling of Saudi Arabia even as it goes on a beheading spree it is evident that human rights gets a very low billing when push comes to shove.
Tatchell mistakes people-to-people or movement-to-movement support, which has always been a foundational value of the labour movement and the left, for intervention (whether directly, by the military, or indirectly, by arms sales) by the establishment and its power apparatus. Stop the War will always stand in the former tradition, and place such issues in the overall setting of its primary purpose, anti-war campaigning; but will never likely embrace the latter."
Source: Stop the War and its critics