Probing UK War Crimes in Iraq. Bravo, ICC. Thank You, WikiLeaks

UK war crimes in occupied Iraq
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Preliminary investigation into UK activity in occupied Iraq

UK war crimes in occupied Iraq

UK war crimes in occupied Iraq

The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court stated today that she will resume an investigation into conduct of forces of the United Kingdom during the Iraq occupation. In 2006, the previous Prosecutor issued a statement saying that he had decided not to proceed with investigations. Earlier, as we now know from Wikileaks, he had reassured diplomats that he had no intention of investigating conduct of the occupying forces in Iraq. Today’s statement by the Prosecutor notes that new information has been received in a submission by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and Public Interest Lawyers. The full communication, delivered to the Prosecutor in January of this year, can be found here. The Prosecutor should be congratulated for her courage in taking this step. It will no doubt incur the wrath of the right wing press and conservative politicians who think that there are two standards of justice, one for the global south and another for those who wrote the Magna Carta. Last week, the Prosecutor indicated that she would begin an investigation into the Ukraine as a result of that country’s declaration accepting jurisdiction of the Court. And presently, France is promoting a resolution in the Security Council aimed at referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. For the Court, this activity in States outside Africa where very strategic interests of major powers are involved is a welcome development. It will help to transmit a message that this is an independent and impartial institution capable of judging the strong and not only the weak. 

Up to 1,000 British soldiers face an investigation into war crimes allegedly committed during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the following occupation of the country. The charges are mostly based on testimony given by detainees in Iraq and are related to the abuse and torture of detainees.

Slavery: Ancient and Modern

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A new 2013 Global Slavery Index has been published by the Walk Free Foundation, in which we read that Mauritania tops the list of countries where slavery is an issue, when ranked in proportion to population size. Many media outlets were quick to transform this into a headline, which has already blazed its trail through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

There are some important observations to consider when reading these headlines, which I want to highlight:

  • The index uses a broad definition of “modern slavery” which includes child marriage and human trafficking, including illegal immigration. In the case of Mauritania, what exists there, and is still being witnessed today, is descendant slavery, as found in several countries in the index, and which is anything BUT modern. The number of Mauritanian citizens being trafficked is so tiny it defies measurement, and while child marriage is legal under Sharia law, marriage itself is so popular that once again, the numbers are going to be incredibly difficult to determine with any measure of accuracy. Those cases of child marriage we do hear of are mostly in more remote, rural areas with scant statistical records.
  • The population of Mauritania has not been reported using an official census since 2000, and even then, the numbers were deliberately under-reported, as noted by the World Bank and the UN, the secondary sources used by this new index. All numbers for population for the past 13 years have been estimated and extrapolated from other data sources. These sources are studies which will also determine the scope of aid programs, a major source of income for successive, corrupt, governments of Mauritania. Therefore we must assume the numbers reported for those studies is impacted by the opportunistic greed of the ruling administration.
  • The percentage arrived at by the index is 4%. This is in stark contrast to the figure of 10% to 20% usually reported by NGOs and human rights organisations. No explanation is offered for this apparent discrepancy. Clearly, the government, which remains sternly in denial of the continued existence or practice of slavery in Mauritania, will consider this a major PR coup in its favour.
  • Hillary Clinton has noted that the new index is “not perfect” and therefore, we should expect to see changes to it as it develops over time.
Freed into homelessness and unemployment, former slaves in Mauritania build makeshift villages from found materials. But they are often made homeless again, their shanty-towns bulldozed in land-grabs, as happened in Leimghetty, outside the capital, Nouakchott, in May 2013

Freed into homelessness and unemployment, former slaves in Mauritania build makeshift villages from found materials. But they are often made homeless again, their shanty-towns bulldozed under order of state officials, as happened in Leimghetty, outside the capital, Nouakchott, in May 2013

We must take the issue of slavery seriously, because it is widespread and damaging and goes against everything decent human beings hold dear. But we don’t need glossy reports or “world leaders” (see video below) moralising about the subject as much as we need to see real concrete plans about how this scourge is going to be eradicated, and sensible actions which offer practical help for the victims to regain a dignified independence as well as their liberty.

At the moment, it looks like the main concern about slavery as far as many states are concerned, is that the proceeds are part of the “grey economy,” and therefore those doing the enslaving are also avoiding paying tax. It would seem that governments are more comfortable with the notion of fostering the sprawling mass of aid and development organisations, and collecting income tax from their often very highly-paid executives, while the rest of the agencies’ funds are able to legitimately avoid standard company tax because they are registered charities.

With new, harsher penalties being announced by the UK for anyone found guilty of trafficking, there is a great deal of justifiable public concern for the fate of the victims in all this, which is not clear from the statements being issued. These concerns are echoed in every country where trafficking or slavery is a problem. In Mauritania, for example, “international pressure” has led to a succession of rules, laws and proclamations from the government of the time, paying lip-service to the exhortations of donor organisations and countries willing to invest or otherwise bring revenue into the state coffers, with humanitarian strings attached. Yet each time the regime has banned or outlawed the practice of slavery, it has led to groups of people being “freed” by their former owners out of panic and fear, rather than concern. This has created a group of socially isolated former slaves, cast out of a bad but familiar situation, into an even more extreme state of insecurity, with no food, shelter, or work, and lacking even a basic education.

How extreme? Bad enough that some of them were forced to seek shelter in the refugee camp built to house those displaced from the conflict in neighbouring Mali. What happened when they were supposedly discovered? The UNHCR refused to feed them, and stopped issuing food rations to the entire camp, provoking a riot during which the food stores were broken into and rations seized by angry, humiliated, hungry, people with nowhere else to go and no other choices. That camp has been open since January 2012, and those Mauritanians were there almost from the start, but they were initially useful in boosting numbers for fund-raising appeals and supplying dramatic subtext to help justify the deployment of French and other military forces in Mali. Now, they’re surplus to requirements. Ironically, it is against the law to be homeless in Mauritania, land of the nomad. Expelling these Mauritanians from the refugee camp will subject them to risk of arrest and possible imprisonment, and certainly to harassment.

Such groups are likely to be found in every country where slavery is a current issue, and several where it has supposedly been eliminated, although their situations will vary. They all need support, and it should be delivered with as much publicity and enthusiasm as the speeches and statements and statistics, if not more.

RELATED STORIES

The Western Sahara Sand Trap

Sand Berm, Western Sahara
Photo: AFP
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The world has changed in many ways in the past 50 years. Global population has doubled, and well over half of the people alive in the world today were born after the United Nations requested, in 1965, that Spain de-colonise the territory of Western Sahara, which it had occupied since the late 19th century. But Spain would not relinquish the last colonial country in Africa so readily, and for the next 7 years the request for Spain to organise a referendum to establish the will of the people with regard to the future of Western Sahara was an annual fixture on the UN agenda.

To break out of this state of political limbo required more than a yearly repetition of the referendum request. The POLISARIO (Frente Para la Liberación de Saguia Al Hamra y Rio de Oro) was established in 1973 to force a change in tempo, by voicing the demands of the Saharawi and confronting the Spanish military. The initial impact seemed promising: the following year the first census was conducted and hopes began to rise that a lasting solution for independence was at hand. Those hopes evaporated as neighbouring Mauritania and Morocco replaced Spain as occupiers in 1976, and began a military pincer movement against the Saharwi. Increasingly, local inhabitants were driven into desert regions or to Algeria as refugees, victims of ambitious geopolitical competition between Morocco, which continues to uphold its territorial claims, and Mauritania, which eventually relinquished and withdrew.

Sand Berm, Western Sahara Photo: AFP

Sand Berm, Western Sahara
Photo: AFP

And that is where we find the Saharwi today. Trapped in the sand behind a gigantic berm 2,700 kilometers long, laced with unknown thousands of landmines, heavily guarded by an estimated 100,000 Moroccan troops, with UN peacekeeping force MINURSO deployed to ensure the 1991 ceasefire agreement is upheld. Despite voting in favour of it, the Kingdom of Morocco has still not acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty and, while both sides have agreed to cooperate with MINURSO to identify and remove mines and other unexploded ordnance, the berm is not included in the agreement. All major settlements, including the capital, are on the side occupied by Morocco, which encourages settlers and enters into trading agreements for Western Saharan resources such as phosphates, oil, fisheries, and even the sand. Goods produced in the occupied territory are regularly discovered being mislabelled “Made in Morocco”. All of these infractions are vigorously denounced by activists, with some notable successes in recent years.

Photo: canariasahora.es

Saharwi Refugees
Photo: canariasahora.es

On the other side of this monstrous wall the Saharwi wait to reclaim their rights, while their resources are plundered. They live on the goodwill of others, humanitarian assistance and charitable donations, while the wealth of their land lines the coffers of Morocco. It is estimated that between 90,000 and 165,000 people are living in the 5 camps they created over thirty years ago, when they fled the fighting. A reliable population census would facilitate the referendum these people were promised, which explains the wide gap between the lower estimate from Morocco and the upper estimate from the Saharwi. They didn’t expect to be living in these camps for so many years, decades even. Some of them have family on the other side of the barrier they have not seen for 30 years. MINURSO tries to arrange reunions, but the list is long and only a few people at a time can be granted this brief respite.

Gdeim Izik camp destroyed by military to crush 2010 protests

Gdeim Izik camp destroyed by military to crush 2010 protests

The record of human rights abuse against the Saharwi is appalling, including aerial bombardment, the use of white phosphorous, arbitrary detention, torture, persecution, and rape.  Although this situation has existed for many years, the UN envoy requested an extension of MINURSO’s mandate after the brutal repression of a mass demonstration and sit-in at Laayoune on 10 November 2010. Some keen-eyed observers have labeled this event as the true beginning of the uprisings that have engulfed the region since then, the so-called “Arab Spring”.  After a two-year delay, Saharwi activists were given sentences ranging between 20 years and life in a military trial, condemned by Amnesty International as “flawed from the outset.” The protests, and the military repression against them, continue. The UN mission is not documenting human rights abuses in Western Sahara, so activists have created their own crowdsource space to gather reports and evidence.

Most fascinating, that  in this desert wilderness against a backdrop of despair, democracy has bloomed. The POLISARIO has a functioning government supported by local committees, and a refreshingly progressive attitude towards equality and discrimination on gender, education, disability, and religion. Communities had no choice but to adapt to develop, improving in stages with each successive generation of these fiercely independent and strong-willed people. As often happens under extreme hardship and oppression, creative pursuits, especially music and community events, play a very important role in Saharwi culture. One of the best-known musical artists, Mariem Hassan, is welcomed around the world. This October, a repeat of the hugely successful FiSahara Film Festival is planned. The project is run by the Spanish Network of Organizations in Solidarity with the Western Sahara (CEAS), a non-profit NGO based in Spain with humanitarian projects in the Saharwi refugee camps. Organisers are currently processing registrations, and making arrangements to house visitors with refugee families from 8 to 13 October in the Tindouf camp. They are looking for volunteers to help with everything from maintaining the website to promoting the event.

Photo: festivalsahara.com

Photo: festivalsahara.com

How much longer can this situation endure? With the increasing availability of the internet facilitating information sharing, and the development of online social and support networks, the story of the Saharwi is beginning to spread despite these long years of ignorance, and Morocco’s determination to suppress information. Those monitoring the situation in Mali also have a wary eye on Western Sahara, and some analysts probe the possible dynamics of relationships between the POLISARIO rebels, the MNLA, and sundry Islamist groups currently occupying large areas of northern Mali, especially as the 3 aid workers kidnapped from the Tindouf camp in October 2011 were in the hands of such groups.  As Saharwi youth become increasingly frustrated with the status quo, some feel the time is right for a change, even breaking the truce, if the UN can’t get its act together and force a referendum in the very near future. This makes them a choice target for recruitment by the rebel gangs who support their antics by trafficking people, drugs, contraband, and weapons across the Sahel region.

Mauritania’s World Bank Bubble

Don't mention the workers from Mali
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Shameful waste! “Consultancy Project to recruit a Technical Assistant” the grand sum of $250,000 was apparently awarded in 2003 to a contractor, GEOIDD in Tunisia, for this basic recruitment service. But then follow the link from that page, and the project name is listed as Rajasthan, India. Are they just insanely sloppy or cooking the books?

Now it's Mauritania

Now it’s Mauritania

and now it's Rajasthan

and now it’s Rajasthan

Here is another – a “study” worth $246,000 awarded to a company “TANSITEC” in Switzerland, which also links to Rajasthan, not Mauritania.

Almost half a million dollars on two items, and what is there to show for it?

Even a cursory examination of the “consultancy” and “study” and “audit” costs, over the life of this 11 year development programme, will show money being squandered on costly but nonsensical projects like the ones above, with little or no immediately apparent or tangible benefits. This programme began before General Aziz staged his military coup in 2008, continuing after he came to power, and it indicates widespread mismanagement and/or corruption on an international scale.

Just one example of a questionable Mauritanian infrastructure and development project was for urban development in Atar, where Mauritanian company Macoba TP (part of the AZIZI group) and Spanish construction company Franjuan were appointed to work with local contractors. Seven local firms were reportedly involved, and they engaged 100 labourers - including some from Mali – to install 46,600 square meters of paving covering 4km of drainage pipes and gutters. The news item posted 7 October 2011 about this project on cridem.org has “vanished” (still visible via the Internet Archive here). Mention of labour from Mali is a big clue for the story disappearing – this project was supposed to create work for Mauritanians, not Malians.

Don't mention the workers from Mali

Don’t mention the workers from Mali

Also missing is the World Bank website page about the contract which went to Macoba-Franjuan (still visible on a Chinese site that published a copy, here). The decision to remove evidence of this project may indicate that World Bank prefers not to have anyone look too closely at the bid and tender process for standards compliance. We can be sure that China would be more than interested, since they bid on many construction projects in Mauritania.

Some of the images from the October news item are missing but you can see some photos on the Adrar info site here, from January 2012, when the mayor was chuffed with himself about how well the project was going, and here in August the same year, when several snags and unfinished areas were highlighted.

This paving project was part of a larger, long-term, Urban Development Programme with a total budget of almost US$100  million funded by various international organizations via the World Bank . The project closed 30 June 2012, and the details page and reports are available here in English. The stats, such as exist, are baffling. Atar is the regional capital of the state of Adrar and boasts a population of more than 24,000, who celebrated completion of the drainage project on 28 June 2012. This begs the question why there is such a small increase reported (8,305 – from 17,000 in 2011 to 25,305 in 2012) in the number of people, in all urban capitals across the country, provided with improved drainage services.

Woman from the Leimghetty neighbourhood of Dar Naim near Nouakchott shows her legal title to build on the land where the state just destroyed her home and is now ignoring demands for re-housing or compensation

Woman from the Leimghetty neighbourhood of Dar Naim near Nouakchott shows her legal title to build on the land where the state just destroyed her home and is now ignoring demands for re-housing or compensation

My current theory is this: they don’t care about the numbers, or where the money seems to be going, or even whether some of the projects are imaginary, because the purpose of the entire shambolic scam is to line the pockets of corrupt officials whose companies, and those of their cronies, profit from contracts to undertake the various “improvements”. This buys the required mix of compliance and silence so that, once real estate prices have been boosted by roads, drainage, etc, even more financial shenanigans can take place, as the already wealthy endlessly shuffle their ill-gotten gains around.

I further assume this is the reason for evicting tens of thousands of the poorest people in Mauritania from their hovels. In a recent example, dozens of families in Leimghetty [ar] have been left homeless for over a month after the national guard sent in bulldozers to destroy their huts – over their heads in some cases. All this happened even as the government was issuing advice to citizens to “stay indoors” during the hottest parts of the day, as temperatures soared to 50 degrees Celsius. The homeless families have been completely ignored by officials from the interior ministry, who are under orders to clear the land and to hell with the people, even the most vulnerable such as the elderly, infirm, and mothers with babies, who are slowly being grilled into oblivion under the scorching sun. Don’t think for one moment that the World Bank is not aware of this. They are aware and they do not care. In fact, they want these slums demolished, and they note that :

“The amount paid by low-income people to have access to land property rights is very low as compared to the existing land market value. Depending on local conditions, additional arrangements needs to be put in place to ensure that only targeted people are benefitting from such programs, and will keep this benefit.”

No doubt they are looking forward to a property price boom.

ECHELON, PROMIS, PRISM: Global Interception to Global Deception

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The history of spying and being spied upon is as old as dirt, but lately there’s this feeling that, left unchecked for too long, it’s got out of hand. We have an equally long history of allowing previous chances to pay attention slip from our grasp. Looking back just a few years, ECHELON is one example:

Global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON)

Global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON)

From the European Parliament website Report (11 July 2001) on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system):

The system known as ‘ECHELON’ is an interception system which differs from other intelligence systems in that it possesses two features which make it quite unusual:

The first such feature attributed to it is the capacity to carry out quasi-total surveillance. Satellite receiver stations and spy satellites in particular are alleged to give it the ability to intercept any telephone, fax, Internet or e-mail message sent by any individual and thus to inspect its contents.

The second unusual feature of ECHELON is said to be that the system operates worldwide on the basis of cooperation proportionate to their capabilities among several states (the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), giving it an added value in comparison to national systems: the states participating in ECHELON (UKUSA states(8)) can place their interception systems at each other’s disposal, share the cost and make joint use of the resulting information. This type of international cooperation is essential in particular for the worldwide interception of satellite communications, since only in this way is it possible to ensure in international communications that both sides of a dialogue can be intercepted. It is clear that, in view of its size, a satellite receiver station cannot be established on the territory of a state without that state’s knowledge. Mutual agreement and proportionate cooperation among several states in different parts of the world is essential.

Possible threats to privacy and to businesses posed by a system of the ECHELON type arise not only from the fact that is a particularly powerful monitoring system, but also that it operates in a largely legislation-free area. Systems for the interception of international communications are not usually targeted at residents of the home country. The person whose messages were intercepted would have no domestic legal protection, not being resident in the country concerned. Such a person would be completely at the mercy of the system. Parliamentary supervision would also be inadequate in this area, since the voters, who assume that interception ‘only’ affects people abroad, would not be particularly interested in it, and elected representatives chiefly follow the interests of their voters. That being so, it is hardly surprising that the hearings held in the US Congress concerning the activities of the NSA were confined to the question of whether US citizens were affected by it, with no real concern expressed regarding the existence of such a system in itself. It thus seems all the more important to investigate this issue at European level.

(my emphasis)

As this excerpt illustrates, there is an established, ongoing programme of mutual cooperation, and individual citizens of their respective countries don’t make a fuss because they wrongly assume they are not targets. The hidden truth here is really sad: neither government or people are concerned about bad stuff happening in other countries. We’re fine with investing, trading, travelling, or studying abroad, but if there’s a problem, we want to scurry home and pull up the drawbridge.

More recently, we heard about “PROMIS” – for example, in this post from 2006 which states:

“National Security Agency (NSA) computers have been downloading financial and personal files of all American citizens as a result of upgrades to the Echelon satellite network and software program which is part of the Prosecutor’s Management Information System (PROMIS).

SOG says that NSA also has a “7-10 second lead time” which effectively affords the agency the opportunity to delay the release of currency, stock and bond sales transactions which permits a criminal advantage to agency officials and other high-level associates who game the system of the world’s financial markets”

(my emphasis)

These historic reports explain why so many people, myself included, maintain that the current media revelations about PRISM are not actually news. We have been aware for some time that nothing and no one is “safe” from prying electronic eyes. For most of us, this issue is not about having “something to hide”: it’s about exercising the right to go about your business and not have your private and personal life intruded on without good reason by anyone, and especially not the government that is supposed to serve you. Worse, and decidedly more underhand, is the notion of another country’s government spying on you, then sharing that information with your government in some shady secret information exchange deal. It is about being innocent until proven guilty in a public court of law, with the right to defend yourself. Basically, we don’t want our phone conversations, correspondence or bank accounts to be the target of extrajudicial electronic snooper drones. We don’t want government more loyal to its clandestine relationships with other countries than to the electorate.

Are4D7z - ImgurIf you were not previously aware, or not focussed on these risks, you can thank Edward Snowden and the media coverage of PRISM for bringing these concerns to the front page.The PRISM reports are being issued with exceptionally useful timing, coinciding initially with meetings between China and the US, and then just ahead of the G8 summit.  This inevitably leads to speculation over why non-news is being pushed so hard, and whether there is an alternative agenda. We can’t know for sure what the deal is with these PRISM revelations, we can only throw around a few guesses or wait for more information to come to light. There are several possibilities being mulled over, from diverting attention away from other news items, to inciting civil unrest and manufacturing dissent among grassroots movements on a par with the Occupy protests. Proponents of the latter point out that Edward Snowden’s story also contains some subtle, and not so subtle, messages targeting anti-establishment activists. For example, reports mention he had an Electronic Frontier Foundation  bumper sticker on his laptop lid, and his responses in the Guardian’s Q&A include a plug for an upcoming “Restore The Fourth Amendment” 4 July march. The main thing to keep in mind is that all news must be regarded with a critical if not cynical eye. There is enough evidence of news being used to misdirect and manipulate popular opinion; what matters is how, and if, we choose to react.

Photo: New York Daily News

Photo: New York Daily News

Who is Edward Snowden, and why should you care? He is being hailed as a hero by some, a traitor by others, and even an actor of sorts. Apart from establishing his credibility, there is really no good reason to form an obsession about Edward Snowden, especially if that diverts attention away from the far more important content of his message.

Did he really work for the US Government? Evidence that he did can be gleaned from a comment Snowden posted on the Ars Technica forum back in 2006, when he was considering his preferences for being sent overseas for two years on assignment:

“Although I’m not a diplomat, I work for the Department of State. I actually signed up because of the opportunity for foreign travel [...] I also don’t see the allure of “Scandinavian” countries, but that’s simply because I don’t want to live in a country where warmth and comfort are only spoken of in bedtime stories. China is definitely a good option career-wise, and I’ve already got a basic understanding of Mandarin and the culture, but it just doesn’t seem like as much “fun” as some of the other places. Who knows where the “needs of the service” will actually end up placing me, though. Azerbaijan, anyone? Scared

Despite his preferences, Snowden was apparently posted to Geneva. Since he already knew some Mandarin, I think that makes Hong Kong a less surprising choice of venue for his initial exile. Snowden may not like cold countries, but a lot has changed since 2006. Perhaps global warming can take care of the rest.

Is he now a wanted criminal? Despite reports that US government is angered by Snowden’s whistleblowing, it has yet to issue an international arrest warrant, meaning he should be free to travel anywhere, with the possible exception of the United States.

*Featured image for this post is from a platoon page on the “Battlefield 3″ gaming website for the Tom Clancy Splinter Cell MMO‘s “Third Echelon“.