I am looking forward to Christmas this year. I haven’t really known where I was supposed to be at Christmas since my mother died eight years ago. This makes me realise how much Christmas is full of nostalgic memories of childhood and excitement and treats provided by one’s parents. Don’t get me wrong I’ve had perfectly good Christmases with various friends and relatives, but the absolute certainty of where I’m supposed to be was gone. This year I’m looking forward to being at home with my nephew and his wife and new baby, my brother and his wife – the new grandparents – and a friend and her small daughter from Birmingham. Obviously this means cooking and shopping but my brother will help and my warm sense of anticipation underlines how these traditional festivities are best enjoyed at home with family and friends.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish a happy Christmas to those who celebrate Christmas and a kind and generous New Year to everyone.
Veritas Forum in Oxford
On 14 November I went to Oxford to discuss “just war” with Prof. Nigel Biggar who has just published a book titled In Defence of War. (See video below.) I argued that the question put by the organisers of the meeting, “Under what conditions is it right for a state to intervene with military force?”, was not a good question for debate because it tends to exclude consideration of options that might prevent war or remedy the problem that is leading to consideration of war.
I then went on to argue that I have great respect for “just war” teaching, which argues that war is only justified where the cause is just, it is declared by legitimate authority, is motivated by right intention, is a last resort, the use of force is proportional to the wrong and there is a prospect of success; but in practice the teaching doesn’t help much in real-life situations. I did in fact try to bring up “just war” teaching in the Cabinets before the decision to go to war in Iraq but no one was interested in that discussion.
But in fact since the Nuremberg trials and the end of the Second World War where the Nazi leadership were convicted of crimes against peace, and then the establishment of the United Nations in order to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, all countries have agreed never to take military action against another member and agreed the only legitimate use of force is to deter aggression or as authorised by the Security Council; “just war” is no longer simply a question for judgement based on just-war principles for each individual country.
The interesting test I set myself was to run through the various conflicts I have had to make a judgement about in the course of my 27 years in Parliament. The list is shockingly long.
The Falklands War in 1982 was a just war insofar as a fascist government had invaded a British colony but it was deeply regrettable that there had not been a negotiation with Argentina to resolve the question of the sovereignty of the Falklands before that time. But what was shocking was how the prospect of war created an atmosphere of nationalism and excitement across the country, particularly amongst the menfolk. Mrs Thatcher, who had been elected in 1979 and whose cuts and the consequent rise in unemployment had made her deeply unpopular, got a real electoral bounce from the war. This helped me to understand how governments have used wars in history to distract their people and creating national fervour.
The first Gulf War in 1990 was again a just war, supported by countries across the world because Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait with no justification. But in the course of this I resigned from the Labour front bench because a journalist asked me my view of the bombing of the bunker – which had led to excruciating pictures of the death of women and children who had been sheltering there. I said I was willing to believe that this was was a terrible mistake but I could not understand why water and sanitation infrastructure across Iraq was being bombed. Neil Kinnock, who was then the leader of the Opposition, sent for me and said I must apologise for this statement. I refused and therefore resigned. The lesson of this incident is that opposition parties become neurotic about proving their patriotism in the course of war so that even a legitimate criticism of the tactics being employed is not permitted.
Bosnia, 1992 to 1995: Labour was still in opposition. I was extremely critical of of the failure of the UK and the UN to take firmer action against the mass use of rape, the siege of Sarajevo and the deliberate ethnic cleansing directed against a largely secular Muslim population. The feeble UN operation provided supplies but was not authorised to use force, and therefore Serbian fighters even stole supplies from UN convoys. The problem of course was that the Russians felt great solidarity with Serbs and therefore would not support a stronger UN mandate. But the UK did not adopt a principled position on this conflict and Tony Blair, who was then the leader of the Opposition, made no criticism of the government position. This of course raises the question of what is to be done when one of the members of the Security Council takes an unreasonable position and prevents appropriate UN action (which the US, usually supported by the UK, has done repeatedly over Israeli breaches of international law).
Kosovo, 1999: after the failure of the Rambouillet talks and the Serbian record of ethnic cleansing, I supported the NATO military action in Kosovo. This was not authorised by the Security Council, but even Kofi Annan, the then Secretary General of the UN, said that he had not become Secretary-General to protect the sovereignty of states rather than the human rights of people. It is generally agreed that this action led to a development of thinking on international law to permit military action to prevent a humanitarian disaster. This was reaffirmed by the UN General Assembly in 2005 in its support for the idea of the Responsibility to Protect.
Sierra Leone, 1999: by now we were in government and I was heavily involved in trying to support the Lome peace accords in Sierra Leone and the disarmament and demobilisation of rebel forces. The UN peacekeeping operation was weak and rebel forces were taking UN troops hostage. UK troops were deployed to evacuate the Europeans in Freetown because it was likely that the capital would fall again to the rebels. At the last minute it was decided that the UK troops should not withdraw.Shortly afterwards an action to rescue UK troops that had been taken hostage led to a fighting with one of the rebel groups and considerable loss of life on their side. UK troops then stayed and help to train the new Sierra Leonean army. There was not a war involving UK troops as is sometimes claimed, but this is an example of military action to strengthen a UN peacekeeping operation that made a significant contribution to the end of the terrible civil war in Sierra Leone.
Rwanda, 1994: I was strongly involved in the reconstruction of Rwanda after we formed our government in 1997, but shockingly I read nothing about the genocide when it was taking place in 1994. There was clearly very little coverage if any in the UK media. This is shocking in itself. The failure of the international community to take action to prevent genocide which was predicted and organised when there was a UN peacekeeping operation present and asking for authority to act is a deep disgrace on the conscience of all members of the Security Council.
Afghanistan: I supported the invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001 because Al Qaeda were openly training in Afghanistan and the Taliban government refused to take action. There was little fighting during the invasion, the Taliban melted away and the UN under Ambassador Brahimi took on the role of consulting Afghans and then helping put in place new constitutional arrangements. The deployments to Helmand in 2006 took place after I’d left the government but seemed to me, then and now, a grave mistake. At the time the Secretary of State for defence John Reid said he expected UK troops to return without a shot being fired!
Iraq, 2003: it is now widely understood that the route to war was strewn with lies and the failure to make responsible preparations for the post-invasion situation was a consequence of this. The people of Iraq continue to suffer very terribly from the consequences. This caused me to resign from the government.
Israeli invasion of Lebanon, 2006: my friend Margaret Beckett was then Foreign Secretary and shamefully would not even call for a ceasefire.
Operation Cast Lead, the bombardment of Gaza in December 2008, was an unforgivable crime against peace and against humanity. I suspect that in history this will turn out to have been a turning point in the withdrawal of international support for the state of Israel and its constant breaches of international law.
Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar
I have just returned from a trip to Jakarta, Hanoi, and Yangon and Naypyidaw. Indonesia is a candidate member of the EITI, Vietnam is considering membership and the government and civil society in Myanmar is very keen to join. It was moving to sit at a meeting with representatives of the government, companies and civil society in a country where civil society has not been treated with any respect by the government for more than 50 years (see news-clipping here). I am attaching a copy of my New Year message to friends of EITI so that those who are interested in knowing why I am spending so much time as chair of the international Board of the EITI can get an idea of what it is trying to achieve.
For those interested in understanding a little more of Burma/Myanmar I recommend George Orwell’s Burmese Days, which shows how hatefully racist British colonialists were to the Burmese, and The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint U, which records the history that led up to the suffering and oppression of recent years.
The situation in Syria becomes ever more terrible for the people of the country. The only answer is a halt to the fighting, which requires cooperation between Russia and the West and the Gulf states to stop arming both sides. However, there is an important article in the current London Review of Books by Seymour Hersh which makes clear that America’s claim that they have clear evidence that the chemical weapons attack in August 2013 was the work of the Syrian government was an untruth.
The death of President Mandela
All that needs to be said has been said but here is a touching, short film of Madiba dancing.
The decision of President Peres not to go to the Memorial for Mandela and Prime Minister Netanyahu, saying it was too expensive for him to make the journey, was a recognition of Mandela’s strong support for the Palestinian cause. It was also a case of the government of Israel declaring themselves an international pariah. In this regard here is a moving tribute for Mandela from Marwan Barghouti, who is still detained in an Israeli prison. I recommend to all who are concerned about the Israel/Palestine situation a new book, Goliath by Max Blumenthal, which shows how the poison of the oppression of the Palestinians is eating away at the reality of Israel.
Homo sapiens has been around for roughly 200,000 years and left Africa about 50,000 years ago. The first evidence for domesticated crops is 11,000 years ago… More than 97% of human experience, in other words, lies outside the grain-based nation states in which virtually all of us now live (James C Scott reviewing Jared Diamond’s The World until Yesterday – What we can learn from traditional societies, LRB 21 November 2013.
Theodore Roosevelt was the first US president to invite the black intellectual Booker T Washington for dinner at the White House. The backlash was vicious “the action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing 1000 niggers in the South before they will learn their place” said Ben Tillman the Democratic senator for South Carolina (Edward Luce reviewing The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, November 2013)
“For decades more than 40% of all Americans have consistently told Gallup pollsters that God created humans in pretty much their present form, less than 10,000 years ago.” Controversy has been triggered in evangelical circles by findings from the genome that modern humans in their genetic diversity cannot be descended from a single pair of individuals. Rather there were several thousand “first humans”; this challenge to the historical existence of Adam and Eve has created a crisis for evangelical Christians persuaded by genetic science, because without an historical Adam who sinned there was no reason for Jesus Christ to come to earth (Lexington Economist November 23, 2013)
Of the 2 million Americans who went to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan most returned describing themselves as physically and mentally healthy, but about 20 to 30% have returned with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder linked personality changes, memory problems, depression or suicidal thoughts. That means there are potentially 500,000 young veterans bearing mental wounds with no easy cure (FT review by Christine Spolar of “Thank you for your service” by David Finkel )
There were 50 million people living in the whole Roman Empire (“In Our Time”, BBC Radio 4 December 12, 2013)
There are currently around 7,000 languages spoken in the world, but more than half are expected to disappear in the next 50 years (High Life magazine December 2013)