Saddam Hussein and other killers

Argus title : Are we also guilty of atrocities?

Saddam Hussein has been found guilty of crimes against humanity and condemned to death. The judge didn’t even declare him guilty before he announced the death penalty.

It was just one more bizarre twist in a trial which has been characterised by chaos, violence, threats and intimidation, the murder of defence lawyers and a refusal to allow the accused to speak freely in his defence.

There is no doubt Saddam is guilty of terrible crimes. However, the way in which the trial has been conducted brings no credit on the Iraqi government or the occupying forces.

The supposedly independent court has prevented the accused man from raising issues which might be embarrassing to the USA and Britain. This has required some fancy footwork, since many of Saddam’s worst atrocities took place while he was a close ally of the USA and Britain. In fact, we supplied him with chemicals he needed to gas thousands of Iranian soldiers and Kurds.

Small wonder the court stopped him talking about the support he received from both Donald Rumsfeld, until recently George Bush’s Secretary of Defence, and former US President George Bush Senior.

The journalist Robert Fisk wrote recently “ … on 25 May 1994, the US Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs produced a report entitled “United States Chemical and Biological Warfare-related Dual-use exports to Iraq and their possible impact on the Health Consequences (sic) of the Persian Gulf War”.

The report referred to the 1991 war. According to Fisk it informed the US Congress about “US government-approved shipments of biological agents sent by American companies to Iraq from 1985 or earlier. These included Bacillus anthracis, which produces anthrax; Clostridium botulinum; Histoplasma capsulatum; Brucella melitensis; Clostridium perfringens and Escherichia coli. The same report stated that the US provided Saddam with “dual use” licensed materials which assisted in the development of chemical, biological and missile-system programmes, including chemical warfare agent production facility plant and technical drawings (provided as pesticide production facility plans).”

Britain contributed in its modest way. In 1988, we exported £200,000 worth of thiodiglycol, one of two components of mustard gas, to Baghdad and another £50,000 worth the following year. In 1988 we sent thionyl chloride to Iraq in 1988 at a price of only £26,000. Fisk points out that just eight years later, Britain prohibited the sale of diphtheria vaccine to Iraqi children on the grounds that it could be used for “weapons of mass destruction”. It’s hardly surprising that the court didn’t want Saddam to testify.

Saddam has been condemned on the basis of dubious legal practice. His death will be judicial murder by a corrupt puppet government known to be complicit in widespread torture and killings.

This has not prevented senior British politicians from lining up to support the court’s decision. With the honourable exception of Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, few have spoken out against the sentence.

I feel sickened by it. I can understand why someone might kill in anger, but not the ritualized humiliation and bureaucratic torture which characterizes the death penalty.

In any circumstances, capital punishment degrades societies which practice it. However, given the complicity of the USA and Britain in Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, its use against him is obscenely hypocritical.

Few are likely to be surprised. Murder and hypocrisy twist like a poisonous subterranean stream through the roots of British colonial politics. What has changed is public awareness of it. There was a time when ordinary Britons refused to believe their government could be guilty of unjust killing or assassination. Now they are all too ready to accept it.

Whether it be the death by apparent suicide of the government scientist Dr David Kelley, or the killing by apparent car accident of Diana Princess of Wales, the public is now likely rather than otherwise to scent conspiracy when sudden death occurs.

On the day after Saddam was sentenced, the Guardian newspaper ran a small story about an independent international inquiry on collusion between instruments of the British state and unionist paramilitaries in Ireland during the mid 1970s. The authors of the study report that as many as 74 murders by a loyalist paramilitary gang in the 1970s may have involved collusion with serving police and soldiers.

The inquiry investigated allegations that atrocities were carried out by an Ulster Volunteer Force faction operating under security force protection. The authors found credible evidence of training, weapons and information being provided by officers of the Northern Ireland police force the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and soldiers of the Ulster Defence Regiment.

The journalist Owen Boycott said the “report suggests that collusion in Armagh was systematic and involved senior officers. It relied on ballistics evidence as well as the testimony of a former RUC officer who has admitted involvement with the gang.”
The Daily Express newspaper is the one British newspaper which consistently expresses suspicions that Princess Diana was murdered. In common with many British people I believe it’s perfectly possible she was – not, as Mohammed Al Fayed suggests, because she was having a relationship with a Muslim, but because she was campaigning effectively against landmines.

Now, the horror of landmine use is being eclipsed by the carnage caused by cluster bombs. This week in Geneva at a review of the conventional weapons treaty, Sweden supported by Austria, Mexico and New Zealand has proposed a convention making their use illegal, in the same way that the Ottawa treaty banned landmines. Shamefully, the UK, with the US, China and Russia, has done all it can to block this.

The journalist George Monbiot writes: “Perhaps this is unsurprising. Most of the cluster bombs dropped during the past 40 years have been delivered by Britain’s two principle allies – the US and Israel – in the “war on terror”. And the UK used hundreds of thousands of them during the two Gulf wars.”

Cluster bombs are small, about the size of a drinks can. They are packed inside a bigger bomb and are designed to scatter over a wide area. Many do not detonate. The unexploded bombs then remain undetected until they are disturbed – usually by civilians and all too often by children. Many are killed or eviscerated. The lucky ones lose limbs. The bomblets remain lethal even decades after they have been dropped.

George Monbiot reports: ”They are as devastating to civilian population as landmines or possibly worse, because far more of them have been dropped….A report published last week by the independent organization “Handicap International” estimates that around 100,000 people have been killed or wounded by cluster bombs. Of the known casualties 98% are civilians. Most of them are hit when farming, walking or clearing the rubble where their homes used to be. Many of the victims are children, partly because the bombs look like toys”.

Monbiot adds: “These weapons are arguably already illegal. A protocol to the Geneva convention prohibits attacks which “are of a nature to strike military objects and civilians or civilian objects without distinction” and “which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” As he points out, a 98% civilian casualty rate is surely “excessive”.

The numbers dropped are huge. The US dropped 297 million over Indochina over the course of the Vietnam war. The US and the UK dropped 54 million on Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War and around 2 million during the 2003 Iraq invasion. This year Israel dropped 4 million cluster bombs over Lebanon, almost all of them during the final 72 hours. Of these around 40% are reported not to have exploded. Monbiot reports that since the invasion more than two Lebanese civilians have been blown up each day.

The only other country which has used the bombs extensively is Russia, which dropped large quantities in Afghanistan and scatters them in Chechnya. They’ve been used less extensively by Serb forces, Sudan, Libya, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Hizbullah and warring factions in Tajikistan. As Monbiot says “What good company we keep”.

This brings us back to Saddam, the mass murderer who was once one of our very best friends in the Middle East. Times having changed, our allies are now the new butchers and torturers of Baghdad, and we are about to oversee Saddam’s death by hanging.

However, a small moral niggle remains. It seems we and our close allies are also guilty of the mass killing of civilians. It’s an interesting moral conundrum.

As Saddam’s body swings gently in the back-draft of history, who will dare put us on trial?

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