The allegations of torture by British soldiers in Iraq bear chilling comparison with America’s worst excesses
The inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa is due to report by the end of the year. It will detail how Mousa died in Iraq in September 2003, allegedly brutalised by British soldiers in a “free for all”; and how it was that he and nine other men in the same incident were allegedly hooded, forced into painful stress positions, and deprived of sleep, food and water.
The Guardian article this week, which reported that many more civilians died in army custody than previously thought, should shock the conscience of the nation. The evidence of Lieutenant Colonel Mercer to the inquiry reveals that as early as May 2003 – four months before Mousa’s death – there were “a number of deaths in custody” with “various units”. It appears there were, by then, at least nine deaths. The Ministry of Defence refuses to answer questions from us or the Guardian as to where, how or why these Iraqis died, and refuses to confirm or deny whether any of these deaths were ever investigated and if so with what outcome.
Although we are acting for one family referred to in the article, we have no idea about the other cases. And the story could be a lot worse: an ex-Royal Military Police (RMP) major told BBC radio last October that there were “hundreds” of similar cases.
Further, there are thousands of torture allegations being made by more than 100 Iraqi clients in new cases. We applaud the efforts of those who have succeeded in obtaining an inquiry into alleged British complicity in torture by various overseas regimes. But the public and the government also need to face up to our history of actual torture. The evidence from the Mousa inquiry and the allegations in these other cases may allow a chilling comparison to be made with the worst excesses of the US at Guantánamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, with the Stasi in the cold war, or the British in post-colonial wars.
Apart from the techniques banned by the Heath government in 1972 (hooding, stressing, food and water deprivation, sleep deprivation, the use of noise), which returned as standard operating procedure in Iraq, the array of allegations is staggering: mock executions; the use of tiny refrigerated spaces; electric shocks; forced nudity; threats of rape to female relatives; prolonged solitary confinement; loud, hardcore pornography played incessantly; disorientation by various means; simulated drowning; dog attacks; masturbation and other sexual acts; urinating on detainees; giving urine not water to drink; as well as systematic abuse through rifle-butting, kicks, punches, forced exertion and prolonged shouting at detainees.
The MoD insists our brave soldiers behaved impeccably save for a few rotten apples and that there is no evidence of coercive interrogation techniques. Now the Iraq historic allegation team, comprising of RMP investigators and others, will investigate whether anyone should be prosecuted by a military court martial.
However, these other deaths in custody are not being investigated; the thousands of allegations of the use of coercive interrogation make it difficult to see how much more evidence of systemic issues is needed; and the RMP is a discredited and failed organisation that is incapable of dealing with these cases, and in any event its soldiers are the subject of some of the allegations.
The damage caused to the French in Algeria by its use of torture is well known. The same damage may have been caused to the British battle for Iraqi hearts and minds. To perpetuate that damage by this alleged cover-up would be immeasurably stupid: as we now know from Bloody Sunday, when the state is involved in wrongdoing the nation requires not a Widgery but a Saville.
While everyone seems to be watching the Arctic extent with intense interest, it’s bipolar twin continues to make enough ice to keep the global sea ice balance near normal. These images from Cryosphere today provide the details. You won’t see any mention of this in the media. Google News returns no stories about Antarctic Sea Ice Extent.
Here’s the graph, see for yourself.
Here’s global sea ice:
Speculators set up a casino where the chips were the stomachs of millions. What does it say about our system that we can so casually inflict so much pain?
By now, you probably think your opinion of Goldman Sachs and its swarm of Wall Street allies has rock-bottomed at raw loathing. You’re wrong. There’s more. It turns out that the most destructive of all their recent acts has barely been discussed at all. Here’s the rest. This is the story of how some of the richest people in the world – Goldman, Deutsche Bank, the traders at Merrill Lynch, and more – have caused the starvation of some of the poorest people in the world.
It starts with an apparent mystery. At the end of 2006, food prices across the world started to rise, suddenly and stratospherically. Within a year, the price of wheat had shot up by 80 per cent, maize by 90 per cent, rice by 320 per cent. In a global jolt of hunger, 200 million people – mostly children – couldn’t afford to get food any more, and sank into malnutrition or starvation. There were riots in more than 30 countries, and at least one government was violently overthrown. Then, in spring 2008, prices just as mysteriously fell back to their previous level. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, calls it “a silent mass murder”, entirely due to “man-made actions.”
Earlier this year I was in Ethiopia, one of the worst-hit countries, and people there remember the food crisis as if they had been struck by a tsunami. “My children stopped growing,” a woman my age called Abiba Getaneh, told me. “I felt like battery acid had been poured into my stomach as I starved. I took my two daughters out of school and got into debt. If it had gone on much longer, I think my baby would have died.”
Most of the explanations we were given at the time have turned out to be false. It didn’t happen because supply fell: the International Grain Council says global production of wheat actually increased during that period, for example. It isn’t because demand grew either: as Professor Jayati Ghosh of the Centre for Economic Studies in New Delhi has shown, demand actually fell by 3 per cent. Other factors – like the rise of biofuels, and the spike in the oil price – made a contribution, but they aren’t enough on their own to explain such a violent shift.
To understand the biggest cause, you have to plough through some concepts that will make your head ache – but not half as much as they made the poor world’s stomachs ache.
For over a century, farmers in wealthy countries have been able to engage in a process where they protect themselves against risk. Farmer Giles can agree in January to sell his crop to a trader in August at a fixed price. If he has a great summer, he’ll lose some cash, but if there’s a lousy summer or the global price collapses, he’ll do well from the deal. When this process was tightly regulated and only companies with a direct interest in the field could get involved, it worked.
Then, through the 1990s, Goldman Sachs and others lobbied hard and the regulations were abolished. Suddenly, these contracts were turned into “derivatives” that could be bought and sold among traders who had nothing to do with agriculture. A market in “food speculation” was born.
So Farmer Giles still agrees to sell his crop in advance to a trader for £10,000. But now, that contract can be sold on to speculators, who treat the contract itself as an object of potential wealth. Goldman Sachs can buy it and sell it on for £20,000 to Deutsche Bank, who sell it on for £30,000 to Merrill Lynch – and on and on until it seems to bear almost no relationship to Farmer Giles’s crop at all.
If this seems mystifying, it is. John Lanchester, in his superb guide to the world of finance, Whoops! Why Everybody Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, explains: “Finance, like other forms of human behaviour, underwent a change in the 20th century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts – a break with common sense, a turn towards self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn’t be explained in workaday English.” Poetry found its break with realism when T S Eliot wrote “The Wasteland”. Finance found its Wasteland moment in the 1970s, when it began to be dominated by complex financial instruments that even the people selling them didn’t fully understand.
So what has this got to do with the bread on Abiba’s plate? Until deregulation, the price for food was set by the forces of supply and demand for food itself. (This was already deeply imperfect: it left a billion people hungry.) But after deregulation, it was no longer just a market in food. It became, at the same time, a market in food contracts based on theoretical future crops – and the speculators drove the price through the roof.
Here’s how it happened. In 2006, financial speculators like Goldmans pulled out of the collapsing US real estate market. They reckoned food prices would stay steady or rise while the rest of the economy tanked, so they switched their funds there. Suddenly, the world’s frightened investors stampeded on to this ground.
So while the supply and demand of food stayed pretty much the same, the supply and demand for derivatives based on food massively rose – which meant the all-rolled-into-one price shot up, and the starvation began. The bubble only burst in March 2008 when the situation got so bad in the US that the speculators had to slash their spending to cover their losses back home.
When I asked Merrill Lynch’s spokesman to comment on the charge of causing mass hunger, he said: “Huh. I didn’t know about that.” He later emailed to say: “I am going to decline comment.” Deutsche Bank also refused to comment. Goldman Sachs were more detailed, saying they sold their index in early 2007 and pointing out that “serious analyses … have concluded index funds did not cause a bubble in commodity futures prices”, offering as evidence a statement by the OECD.
How do we know this is wrong? As Professor Ghosh points out, some vital crops are not traded on the futures markets, including millet, cassava, and potatoes. Their price rose a little during this period – but only a fraction as much as the ones affected by speculation. Her research shows that speculation was “the main cause” of the rise.
So it has come to this. The world’s wealthiest speculators set up a casino where the chips were the stomachs of hundreds of millions of innocent people. They gambled on increasing starvation, and won. Their Wasteland moment created a real wasteland. What does it say about our political and economic system that we can so casually inflict so much pain?
If we don’t re-regulate, it is only a matter of time before this all happens again. How many people would it kill next time? The moves to restore the pre-1990s rules on commodities trading have been stunningly sluggish. In the US, the House has passed some regulation, but there are fears that the Senate – drenched in speculator-donations – may dilute it into meaninglessness. The EU is lagging far behind even this, while in Britain, where most of this “trade” takes place, advocacy groups are worried that David Cameron’s government will block reform entirely to please his own friends and donors in the City.
Only one force can stop another speculation-starvation-bubble. The decent people in developed countries need to shout louder than the lobbyists from Goldman Sachs. The World Development Movement is launching a week of pressure this summer as crucial decisions on this are taken: text WDM to 82055 to find out what you can do.
The last time I spoke to her, Abiba said: “We can’t go through that another time. Please – make sure they never, never do that to us again.”
Increasingly, despite its early military and political successes, it appears unlikely that Israel can endure for long as a colonial project.
In order to firmly secure its existence – as firmly as that is possible for any state – a settler state has to overcome three challenges. It has to solve the native problem; break away from its mother country; and gain the recognition of neighboring states and peoples. It can be shown that Israel has not met any of these conditions.
Consider Israel’s native problem. In 1948, in the months before and after its creation, Israel appeared to have solved its native problem in one fell swoop. It had expelled 80 percent of the Palestinians from the territories it had conquered. In addition, with the rapid influx of Arab Jews, Palestinians were soon reduced to less than ten percent of Israel’s population.
So, had Israel licked its native problem for good? Not really.
The Palestinians inside Israel pushed back with a high natural rate of growth in their numbers. As a result, despite the continuing influx of Jewish immigrants, the Palestinian share of Israel’s population has grown to above 20 percent. Increasingly, Jews in Israel see Israeli Arabs as a threat to their Jewish state. Some are advocating a fresh round of ethnic cleansing. Others are calling for a new partition to exclude areas with Arab majorities.
The Palestinians expelled from Israel in 1948 did not go away either. Most of them set up camp in areas around Israel – the West Bank, Gaza, southern Lebanon and Jordan. In 1967, when Israel conquered Gaza and the West Bank, it could expel a much smaller fraction of the Palestinians from these territories. In consequence, with more than a million additional Palestinians under its control, Israeli had recreated its native problem.
Israel’s native problem has grown worse since 1967. Already, the Palestinians equal or outnumber Israeli Jews between the Sea and the Jordan River. In the years ahead, moreover, the Palestinian share will continue to rise.
Having run out of solutions – such as rising net immigration of Jews and ethnic cleansing – Israel has been implementing draconian measures to handle its native problem. With Egyptian collaboration, it maintains a medieval siege over Gaza; it neutralizes the Palestinians in the West Bank with the apartheid wall, expansion of settlements, settler-only roads, intimidation and humiliation of Palestinians, and military control over the Jordan Valley.
However, these remedies are creating new problems. They lend support to charges that Israel is an apartheid society not a democracy. As a result, slowly but steadily, Western publics are throwing their support behind the campaign to divest from, boycott and impose sanctions on Israel.
Has Israel broken away from dependence on its mother country/countries?
In the absence of a natural mother country, Zionism worked with surrogates. Quite a few of them. Indeed, there is not a Western country – including Russia in its previous incarnation as Soviet Union – that has not served as a surrogate mother country to the Jewish colonial project.
The Jewish settlers in Palestine lost the support of Britain – their leading surrogate mother – in the early years of World War II, but retained it long enough to create their own state. Over the next few years Israel took on several new surrogates, not counting the Jewish diaspora: including the Soviet Union, France, Germany and the United States. Starting in the late 1950s, however, the United States became the leading mother country to Israel. This was the result of a powerful dynamic largely directed by Israel and the Jewish lobby in the United States.
Over the years, the United States has subsidized Israel, armed it, allowed it to acquire nuclear weapons, and gave it immunity from the sanction of international laws. Under the protection of the United States, Israel quickly gained hegemony over the Middle East: it became a law unto itself.
Still Israel is not an autonomous state.
It could not sustain its current military posture without the annual military grant of some three billion dollars from the United States and the tax-free donations from American Jews. More importantly, without the US veto at the United Nations, Israel could not continue its occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights, its siege of Gaza, its pre-emptive wars against its neighbors, and its policy of assassinations against Arabs. In short, without US-backed immunity, Israel would become a pariah state.
Arguably, this dependence does not place Israel at risk, since it is primarily an artifact of the Israel lobby in the United States. Over time, however, as the damage that Israel causes to US interests filters to the American electorate, unqualified US support for Israel may be in jeopardy.
Finally, there is the question of gaining the recognition of its neighbors.
Israeli gains on this front are more apparent than real. The Arab regimes that have recognized Israel, or are eager and ready to recognize it, have little legitimacy. Should these regimes collapse, their replacements are likely to resume their early confrontational posture towards Israel.
This is not mere speculation. Under the despotic Shah Iran was friendly to Israel, but after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 Iran became an ideologically committed adversary of Israel. As the powers of the secular generals in Turkey have been clipped, Turkey too has been revising its friendly ties with Israel.
In recent years, Israel has been running into a new problem: the loss of legitimacy with growing segments of civil society in the Western countries.
Driven by the contradictions of an exclusionary settler-state, as Israel has ratcheted its violence against Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, as it has tightened its siege of Gaza, as it deepens its apartheid regime in the West bank, as it threatens to strips Arab Israelis of their rights, it has slowly called forth a new form opposition to its policies.
Angry at the complicity of their governments in Israeli crimes, segments of civil society in Europe, Canada and the United States have been moving forward with calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Increasingly, despite vigorous opposition from the Jewish establishment, this movement has been spreading among academics, students, trade unions, church groups, dissenting Jewish organizations, and human rights activists. Some of them have been organizing convoys, over land and sea, to break the blockade of Gaza.
As the failure of Israel’s colonial project looms larger, its nervous leaders will increasingly seek security in new and more dangerous wars. Increasingly, Israel will become an intolerable threat – if it isn’t already – to the Middle East, the world, and no less to Jews everywhere. Zionism was founded overwhelmingly by secular Jews, but, in order to succeed, it created a new religious myth of Jewish restoration, galvanized messianic tendencies among Western Christians, and created the myth that Israel alone shields the West from a resurgent Islam and Islamicate. It will not be easy putting these genies back in the bottle.
Perhaps, the best chance of unwinding the Zionist colonial project lies with the Jews themselves. Only when liberal segments of the Jewish diaspora are convinced that Zionism endangers Jewish lives, only when they act to countervail the power of the Jewish lobby in leading Western societies, will Israel finally be moved to dismantled its apartheid regime. In the end, the alternative to this orderly dismantling of Zionism is a destructive war in the Middle East that may not be limited to the region. Whatever else happens, it is unlikely that Israel or US interests in the Middle East will survive such a war.
M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave, 2009) and Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI, 2006). Visit his website at http://qreason.com; and write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.