August 2010

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┬áback 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.