via Mohandas Gandhi

It seems as though our obsession with image over substance in the West has not gone unnoticed by the world’s autocrats and dictators. As the Guardian has reported, London has become a major center for PR firms employed by states with, let’s say, not quite commendable human rights records who want to be seen as progressive, stable democracies (without actually having to go through the headache of becoming an actual democracy). And its working.

Rwanda, where in the run up to this month’s election the opposition has been contending with threats and assassinations, is perhaps the biggest PR coup. Sure journalists may be getting murdered and opposition leaders are being gunned down, but President Kagame has a Twitter and Facebook account, so surely he must be a progressive, forward thinking kind of guy, right? Most Western governments—including the US and UK—seem to think so.

The absurdity of the situation is not limited to Rwanda, though. As Francis Ingham of Public Relations Consultants Association says, “Autocratic governments are realising they need to be more sophisticated in the way they act rather than just telling people how it is.” Because God forbid a government should tell people “how it is”! Apparently Ingham’s idea of sophistication is as follows: say you’re a government whose members have been accused of war crimes and genocide. You may think the “sophisticated” thing to do would be to hand over those members to an international tribunal to face justice for the crimes they’ve been accused of and for the government to look into how to prevent such atrocities from happening again. Well, if that’s how you’re thinking, then you’re probably not working in PR. The better thing to do is to pretend that such crimes never happened and instead stick to those happy sounding talking points like peace, prosperity, and enterprise, just as Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa did in an article that was pitched to the Guardian by PR group Bell Pottinger: “We are ready to engage positively with anyone and everyone around the world who wishes to help us achieve our dream of a united and prosperous land and enable Sri Lanka to take its rightful place in the world as an island of unsurpassed beauty, enterprise and now peace.” Unfortunately, a UN war crimes investigation doesn’t quite fit into Rajapaksa’s PR message of peace and prosperity.

So we’ve been hearing for the past couple days now how Republicans are lining up to repeal the 14th Amendent, which guarantees citizenship for those born in the United States (including those born to illegal immigrants). And most of the press has been lining up to report on the issue, but for the most part they’re all failing to report on one thing: this will never never NEVER happen. Changing the Constitution is not the same as just passing any old law. First, to even propose an Amendment, two thirds of both houses of Congress must vote for the proposal. That would mean that you would need Republicans to control two thirds of both houses of Congress (which is basically a mathematical impossibility) and, if you somehow managed to pull that off, you would need 100 per cent of Republican Congressmen and Senators to vote for the proposal (again, not going to happen). But even if the Republicans defied the laws of nature and controlled two thirds of both houses and voted unanimously for the proposal, they would then have to get 75 per cent of either state legislatures or state ratifying conventions to ratify the amendment (again, something of an impossibility given the extremity of the issue). Which means the 14th Amendment is not going anywhere.

So everybody calm down! The Republicans are not going to take away the 14th Amendment and to report on this issue like it is even an issue is to give legitimacy to the morons that come up with these policies. Next time they come up with something this stupid, ignore it! Because there is never going to be any substantive reform of immigration so long as everybody is distracted by non-issues like this.

There was this article in The Independent newspaper last week concerning a report that has confirmed what plenty of people long suspected: in the wake of the 2004 Battle of Fallujah birth defects, infant mortality, and cancer have skyrocketed in the city. From what I can tell, this report received absolutely no coverage in the mainstream American press (and only scant attention in the international press).

Some of what is described in The Independent is pretty horrific: paralysis of the lower limbs; a girl born with two heads; an infant mortality rate eight times the rate of neighbouring Kuwait; a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer; a ten-fold increase in female breast cancer; an 18 per cent drop in male births; and a 38-fold increase in leukemia (which is almost double the 17-fold increase experienced in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb).

The main culprit for all of this? The Independent points the finger at white phosphorous, a chemical agent meant to be used as a smokescreen for camouflaging troop movements, but which can be lethal if it comes into contact with skin. The US initially denied using white phosphorous in Fallujah until it was forced to back peddle when bloggers noted that the Army’s own Field Artillery Magazine mentioned its use in the battle (smart one, guys). Not surprisingly, the military denies using it against civilians, but there is plenty of evidence to show otherwise, particularly from the RAI documentary Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre. White phosphorous is a chemical weapon that, in so many words, causes people to burn to death. So long as it is exposed to oxygen, it will burn anything it comes into contact with, including flesh and bone. If the burning itself doesn’t prove fatal, then the massive organ failure that results when it gets into the blood stream probably will. Under international law, however, it is only banned if the intent is to use it as a weapon against humans rather than for camouflage purposes, which is why the US is insistent that it never targeted civilians. But there’s a problem here: phosphorous is, essentially, smoke. It doesn’t matter one bit where one “intends” it to go, phosphorous blows around and covers a fairly large, amorphous area and anybody who happens to be stuck in that area (like, say, the people of Fallujah) will be exposed to its effects. Thus, any claim by the military that it did not target civilians is at best deceitful. Any use of white phosphorous in a populated, urban area is, by the very nature of the weapon, a targeting of civilians and needs to be seen that way.

There’s another suspect behind Fallujah’s current crisis, however, that is not mentioned in The Independent article, which is the use of depleted uranium (DU) bullets. Because of their comparatively superior armor penetrative capabilities, DU bullets are the ammunition of choice for the US military in Iraq. In three weeks alone, during the start of the war in 2003, between 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of depleted uranium were spread over Iraq in the form of ammunitions, a number that has undoubtedly ballooned since then. DU is a radioactive material and a known carcinogen. As the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) says, “Repeated cellular and animal studies have shown that uranium is a kidney toxin, neurotoxin, immunotoxin, mutagen, carcinogen and teratogen.” So how likely is it that DU is responsible for Fallujah’s current woes? To my knowledge, there have been no reliable estimates of how much DU may be scattered throughout Fallujah, but as the ICBUW says: “It is thought that DU is the cause of a sharp increase in the incidence rates of some cancers, such as breast cancer and lymphoma, in areas of Iraq following 1991 and 2003. It has also been implicated in a rise in birth defects from areas adjacent to the main Gulf War battlefields.” So it seems pretty likely that a mass of radioactive material dumped on a city may have something to do with that city’s soaring cancer and birth defect rates. But that’s just a hunch.

Whether the culprit is white phosphorous or depleted uranium, we should not have to wait for a verdict in this one case to realize that both of these weapons deserve to be banned. With either weapon, the evidence is clear that those who suffer the most from their use are not soldiers and insurgents, but civilians. The price Iraqis have paid and are currently paying because of the US military’s insistence on its right to use these weapons is, at best, a humanitarian disaster and, at worst, a war crime.

An article from the latest issue of The Nation, WikiLeaks in Baghdad, about how civilian casualties are not so much the result of errors or “a few bad apples”, but from a chain of command whose goal is to “out-terrorize the terrorists.”

Excerpt:

“When one [IED] went off, you were supposed to open fire on anybody,” says Stieber. “At first I would just fire into a field. Then I wouldn’t fire at all.” He describes an IED that went off near a crowd of teenagers. “I said I wouldn’t fire,” even though “other people were firing,” he recalls. Like Stieber, Corcoles describes incidents in which he purposely aimed his gun away from people. “You don’t even know if somebody’s shooting at you,” he says. “It’s just insanity to just start shooting people.” Stieber pointed out that in incidents like these, it was very rare for US military vehicles to stop to help the wounded or assess how many people had been injured or killed.

Stieber was intimidated and reprimanded by his command for refusing orders to shoot. “One time when I didn’t fire, people in my truck were yelling at me for the rest of the mission. When we got back, one or two leaders got up in my face and kept yelling at me and stuff,” he says. The command eventually stopped sending him on missions as a gunner, and Stieber says he “faced a lot of criticism for it.” Corcoles saw this too. “One night our truck got hit by an IED and Josh didn’t fire, and another soldier didn’t fire,” he says. “And they were getting yelled at: ‘Why aren’t you firing?’ And they said, ‘There’s nobody to fire at.'”

Brian Stewart, one of Canada’s most respected journalists, has written a condemnation of the Harper government’s campaign against Canadian human rights and foreign aid NGOs. For decades, these NGOs have received funding from both Liberal and Conservative governments and depend on this government funding to survive. Harper, however, has been less accommodating than his predecessors. For some time now, the Harper government has been “de-funding” groups that dare to criticize the government. The government, of course, claims that this de-funding has nothing to do with political differences, but because the NGOs failed to focus on the three priorities of foreign aid: children and youth; food security; and sustainable growth. But as Stewart points out, “it was just last fall when the auditor general complained that Canada’s foreign policy priorities, or “themes,” have been reshuffled five times in the last 10 years, producing an astonishing 12 different themes in all.” If the government can’t decide what it’s foreign aid priorities should be, then maybe they should let NGOs decide for them. But, of course, this has nothing to do with what areas of international development NGOs are deciding to focus on, it has to do with this government’s unwillingness to put up with critical debate. As Stewart ominously states, “I wonder how we will be able to judge anything in this field in the future with any confidence if independent voices are silenced and independent information dries up out of fear of government retaliation.”

In one of the largest leaks in U.S. military history, Wikileaks has released over 90,000 classified documents to the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel. Much of what is revealed won’t exactly come as a surprise. I doubt, for example, that most people will be shocked to hear that Pakistan, which is receiving more than $1billion a year from the U.S., has been aiding the Taliban insurgency. What is significant about the documents is that they reveal a systemic incongruity between what the military knows and what they’re telling the public and media. Some of the highlights include:

  • Reconnaissance drones, which are used to survey and strike targets and whose use has doubled under President Obama, are mired in technical problems and glitches that contradicts the official portrait painted of them as a reliable panacea for the war. 38 drones have crashed on combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and because each drone is packed with advanced technology, each crash necessitates dangerous retrieval operations by troops, often into Taliban held territory.
  • Task Force 373: a “black” unit, independent of the chain of command, that receives its orders directly from the Pentagon and has been tasked with the extrajudicial killing or capturing of 2,000 senior Taliban and Al-Qaida figures without trial. According to the Guardian: “[The leaked documents] raise fundamental questions about the legality of the killings and of the long-term imprisonment without trial, and also pragmatically about the impact of a tactic which is inherently likely to kill, injure and alienate the innocent bystanders whose support the coalition craves.” The documents reveal numerous cases where civilians were killed or wounded by TF-373. These cases were often covered up in official statements to the press. In one incident, TF-373 called in an air attack on a village, despite the Taliban appearing to have already retreated from the area. After the bombing, the military released a press statement claiming to have killed several militants, with no mention of civilian casualties. The leaked documents, however, reveal the press statement was a lie and a secret memo documenting the casualties of the attack reads as follows: “12 US wounded, two teenage girls and a 10-year-old boy wounded, one girl killed, one woman killed, four civilian men killed, one donkey killed, one dog killed, several chickens killed, no enemy killed, no enemy wounded, no enemy detained.”
  • NYT: “The Taliban have used portable heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft, a fact that has not been publicly disclosed by the military. This type of weapon helped the Afghan mujahedeen defeat the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.”
  • The Afghan police force, which the Pentagon is spending billions on to train, is largely viewed as incompetent and corrupt by Afghanis. According to the NYT: “The reports recount episodes of police brutality, corruption petty and large, extortion and kidnapping. Some police officers defect to the Taliban. Others are accused of collaborating with insurgents, arms smugglers and highway bandits. Afghan police officers defect with trucks or weapons, items captured during successful ambushes or raids.”
  • Hundreds of civilian casualties, coalition information on which has often been either false or misleading. In one incident, Polish troops, possibly in a revenge attack, mortared a wedding celebration, killing 6 civilians. Although those troops were eventually put on trial, most incidents of civilian casualties are not investigated. Under General McChrystal, efforts were made to try to lessen civilian casualties. His replacement, General Petraeus, is, however, expected to loosen “restraints aimed at cutting civilian deaths.”

The general picture revealed by the documents is that the war has been far less of a success than is portrayed by the Pentagon or the White House. The insurgency, for example, has been far more effective than is portrayed by the military. According to the documents, the insurgents are often controlling the pace and direction of the war and bleeding the U.S. military in what the NYT calls “a war of small cuts.”

In response to the leak, the White House is accusing Wikileaks of putting lives at risk, a claim that is contradicted by the Guardian, noting that “most of the material, though classified “secret” at the time, is no longer militarily sensitive. A small amount of information has been withheld from publication because it might endanger local informants or give away genuine military secrets. Wikileaks, whose founder, Julian Assange, obtained the material in circumstances he will not discuss, said it would redact harmful material before posting the bulk of the data on its “uncensorable” servers.””

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