What do we know about Bashar Al-Assad?

His reputation precedes him. Many of us know Bashar Al-Assad by repute as the ruthless dictator of Syria mercilessly bombing his own people in order to hold onto power. We have also heard that he was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his own people, many of whom were also tortured.[1]

We know of this reputation thanks to our news media, and organisations like Amnesty International.

Something else we know, however – and not just as hearsay – is that Assad was shown to have the support of that overwhelming majority of Syrian people who re-elected him as their president in 2014.[2]

Why would people vote for someone who was committing mass murder and human rights violations against them? They surely knew he was doing this?  (We did, and, like Amnesty International, we were not even there! We knew thanks to BBC, CNN, Channel 4, Al Jazeera, and the other leading news outlets.)

Millions of people were displaced by the destruction of infrastructure and life in Syria, and most of those who had become refugees will not have voted in the election.  Yet an inference I am ready to draw from the vote is that the people remaining – who will include friends, colleagues, family, and all kinds of associates of those displaced – evidently did not lay blame for the wreckage of life in their country on Assad. This is hard to square with the assumptions we have been led to accept.

If there was extra-judicial killing and torture in Syrian detention centres, then the 88.7% of Syrian people who re-elected their President evidently did not feel any brutal attentions were directed against them, or against anyone they were fond of. There must have been some very unpopular people among the other 11.3%. Fighters for Al Nusra/ Al Qaeda, ISIS/ The Muslim Brotherhood could fit the description of being unpopular.[3]

If the Syrian security forces have in fact treated armed enemies of the secular state unlawfully, they should certainly be held to account for it, and so should their commander-in-chief if he authorised it.

I do not know if he did. I know that the likes of CNN have not accounted for any claims to know what exact orders Assad did or did not give to anyone.

On the other hand, they do have plenty of knowledge of who was providing support to the terrorist fighters, even if they tend to be reluctant to share it. Partly because a lot of what they get from key sources is off the record. However, leaks happen.  John Kerry, the US Secretary of State during the period of the war on Syria has apparently been audio-taped giving an admirably clear overview of the situation.


So that is one more thing we know. Major international powers found Assad insufficiently biddable, and wanted him out of their way.

No matter, it seems, at what human cost?

What do we know about Bashar Al-Assad?  Since I cannot speak for anyone else, I simply commend the question to you.  (The internet is not short of interviews and other material to help learn more.)

But let there be no dispute about this moral principle: those who use their power to cause death and suffering to many thousands of innocent people should be called to account for the egregious harms they have done.




[1] Yet, in fact, for all the times this as been repeated, it has yet to be established on the basis of verified evidence, as I discussed in my previous blog, ‘How We Misled About Syria: Amnesty International’.

[2] Our news media and Amnesty International all but ignored this fact. I only learned it lately. I suspect it is not widely known outside Syria. There may even be readers who are hearing it here for the first time! To check some news items that did record the event see the sources in note [24] in my previous blog.

[3] The position of the Syrian Kurds in relation to Assad’s government is worth mentioning in this context. Their leader Saleh Muslim is quoted as saying that while they would prefer a different leader, the bigger issue is that “if the regime collapses because of the salafis [fundamentalist Islamic militants] it would be a disaster for everyone.” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-civil-war-kurdish-leader-says-collapse-of-assad-regime-would-be-a-disaster-despite-its-10515922.html


Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

How We Were Misled About Syria: Amnesty International

Most of us living outside Syria know very little of the country or its recent history. What we think we know comes via the media. Information that comes with the endorsement of an organisation like Amnesty International we may tend to assume is reliable. Certainly, I always trusted Amnesty International implicitly, believing I understood and shared its moral commitments.

As a decades-long supporter, I never thought to check the reliability of its reporting. Only on seeing the organisation last year relaying messages from the infamous White Helmets did questions arise for me.[1] Having since discovered a problem about the witness testimonies provided by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), I felt a need to look more closely at Amnesty International’s reporting.[2] Amnesty had been influential in forming public moral judgements about the rights and wrongs of the war in Syria.

What if Amnesty’s reporting on the situation in Syria was based on something other than verified evidence?[3] What if misleading reports were instrumental in fuelling military conflicts that might otherwise have been more contained, or even avoided?


Amnesty International first alleged war crimes in Syria, against the government of President Bashar Al-Assad, in June 2012.[4] If a war crime involves a breach of the laws of war, and application of those laws presupposes a war, it is relevant to know how long the Syrian government had been at war, assuming it was. The UN referred to a ‘situation close to civil war’ in December 2011.[5] Amnesty International’s war crimes in Syria were therefore reported on the basis of evidence that would have been gathered, analysed, written up, checked, approved and published within six months.[6] That is astonishingly – and worryingly – quick.

The report does not detail its research methods, but a press release quotes at length, and exclusively, the words of Donatella Rovera who ‘spent several weeks investigating human rights violations in northern Syria.’ lutherAs far as I can tell, the fresh evidence advertised in the report was gathered through conversations and tours Rovera had in those weeks.[7] Her report mentions that Amnesty International ‘had not been able to conduct research on the ground in Syria’.[8]

I am no lawyer, but I find it inconceivable that allegations of war crimes made on this basis would be taken seriously. Rovera herself was later to speak of problems with the investigation in Syria: in a reflective article published two years afterwards,[9] she gives examples of both material evidence and witness statements that had misled the investigation.[10]  Such reservations did not appear on Amnesty’s website; I am not aware of Amnesty having relayed any caveats about the report, nor of its reviewing the war crimes allegations.  What I find of greater concern, though, given that accusations of crimes already committed can in due course be tried, is that Amnesty also did not temper its calls for prospective action.  On the contrary.

In support of its surprisingly quick and decisive stance on intervention, Amnesty International was also accusing the Syrian government of crimes against humanity. Already before Deadly Reprisals, the report Deadly Detention had alleged these. Such allegations can have grave implications because they can be taken as warrant for armed intervention.[11] Whereas war crimes do not occur unless there is a war, crimes against humanity can be considered a justification for going to war. And in war, atrocities can occur that would otherwise not have occurred.

I find this thought deeply troubling, particularly as a supporter of Amnesty International at the time it called for action, the foreseeable consequences of which included fighting and possible war crimes, by whomsoever committed, that might otherwise never have been. Personally, I cannot quite escape the thought that in willing the means to an end one also shares some responsibility for their unintended consequences.[12]

If Amnesty International considered the moral risk of indirect complicity in creating war crimes a lesser one than keeping silent about what it believed it had found in Syria, then it must have had very great confidence in the findings. Was that confidence justified?

If we go back to human rights reports on Syria for the year 2010, before the conflict began, we find Amnesty International recorded a number of cases of wrongful detention and brutality.[13]Deadly Reprisals.png In the ten years Bashar Al-Assad had been president, the human rights situation seemed to Western observers not to have improved as markedly as they had hoped. Human Rights Watch spoke of 2000-2010 as a ‘wasted decade’.[14] The consistent tenor of reports was disappointment: advances achieved in some areas had to be set against continued problems in others. We also know that in some rural parts of Syria, there was real frustration at the government’s priorities and policies.[15] An agricultural economy hobbled by the poorly managed effects of severe drought had left the worst off feeling marginalized. Life may have been good for many in vibrant cities, but it was far from idyllic for everyone, and there remained scope to improve the human rights record. The government’s robust approach to groups seeking an end to the secular state of Syria was widely understood to need monitoring for reported excesses. Still, the pre-war findings of monitors, are a long way from any suggestion of crimes against humanity. That includes the findings of Amnesty International Report 2011: the state of the world’s human rights.

A report published just three months later portrays a dramatically different situation.[16] In the period from April to August 2011, events on the ground had certainly moved quickly in the wake of anti-government protests in parts of the country, but so had Amnesty.


In promoting the new report, Deadly Detention, Amnesty International USA notes with pride how the organisation is now providing ‘real-time documentation of human rights abuses committed by government forces’. Not only is it providing rapid reporting, it is also making strong claims. Instead of measured statements suggesting necessary reforms, it now condemns Assad’s government for ‘a widespread, as well as systematic, attack against the civilian population, carried out in an organized manner and pursuant to a state policy to commit such an attack.’ The Syrian government is accused of ‘crimes against humanity’.[17]

The speed and confidence – as well as the implied depth of insight – of the report are remarkable. The report is worrying, too, given how portentous is its damning finding against the government: Amnesty International ‘called on the UN Security Council to not only condemn, in a firm and legally binding manner, the mass human rights violations being committed in Syria but also to take other measures to hold those responsible to account, including by referring the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. As well, Amnesty International continues to urge the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Syria and to immediately freeze the assets of President al-Assad and other officials suspected of responsibility for crimes against humanity.’ With such strongly-worded statements as this, especially in a context where powerful foreign states are already calling for ‘regime change’ in Syria, Amnesty’s contribution could be seen as throwing fuel on a fire.

Since it is not just the strength of the condemnation that is noteworthy, but the swiftness of its delivery – in ‘real-time’ – a question that Amnesty International supporters might consider is how the organisation can provide instantaneous coverage of events while also fully investigating and verifying the evidence.


Amnesty International’s reputation rests on the quality of its research. The organisation’s Secretary General, Salil Shetty, has clearly stated the principles and methods adhered to when gathering evidence:

we do it in a very systematic, primary, way where we collect evidence with our own staff on the ground. And every aspect of our data collection is based on corroboration and cross-checking from all parties, even if there are, you know, many parties in any situation because of all of the issues we deal with are quite contested. So it’s very important to get different points of view and constantly cross check and verify the facts.’[18]

Amnesty thus sets itself rigorous standards of research, and assures the public that it is scrupulous in adhering to them. This is only to be expected, I think, especially when grave charges are to be levelled against a government.

Did Amnesty follow its own research protocol in preparing the Deadly Detention report? Was it: systematic, primary, collected by Amnesty’s own staff, on the ground, with every aspect of data collection verified by corroboration and by cross-checking with all parties concerned?

In the analysis appended here as a note [ – [19] –] I show, point by point, that the report admits failing to fulfil some of these criteria and fails to show it has met any of them.

Given that the findings could be used to support calls for humanitarian intervention in Syria, the least to expect of the organization would be application of its own prescribed standards of proof.

Lest it be thought that focusing on the technicalities of research methodology risks letting the government off the hook for egregious crimes, it really needs to be stressed – as was originally axiomatic for Amnesty International – that we should never make a presumption of guilt without evidence or trial.[20] Quite aside from technical questions, getting it wrong about who is the perpetrator of war crimes could lead to the all too real consequences of mistakenly intervening on the side of the actual perpetrators.


Suppose it nevertheless be insisted that the evidence clearly enough shows Assad to be presiding over mass destruction of his own country and slaughter in his own people: surely the ‘international community’ should intervene on the people’s behalf against this alleged ‘mass murderer’?[21] In the climate of opinion and with the state of knowledge abroad at the time, that may have sounded a plausible proposition. It was not the only plausible proposition, however, and certainly not in Syria itself. Another was that the best sort of support to offer the people of Syria would lie in pressing the government more firmly towards reforms while assisting it, as was becoming increasingly necessary, in ridding the territory of terrorist insurgents who had fomented and then exploited the tensions in the original protests of Spring 2011.[22] For even supposing the government’s agents of internal security needed greater restraint, the best way to achieve this is not necessarily to undermine the very government that would be uniquely well-placed, with support and constructive incentives, to apply it.

I do not find it obvious that Amnesty was either obliged or competent to decide between these alternative hypotheses. Since it nevertheless chose to do so, we have to ask why it pre-emptively dismissed the method of deciding proposed by President Al-Assad himself. This was his undertaking to hold an election to ask the people whether they wanted him to stay or go.


Although not widely reported in the West, and virtually ignored by Amnesty[23]a presidential election was held in 2014, with the result being a landslide victory for Bashar Al-Assad. He won 10,319,723 votes – 88.7% of the vote – with a turnout put at 73.42%.[24]

Western observers did not challenge those numbers or allege voting irregularities,[25] with the media instead seeking to downplay their significance. ‘This is not an election that can be analysed in the same way as a multi-party, multi-candidate election in one of the established European democracies or in the US, says the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen in Damascus. It was an act of homage to President Assad by his supporters, which was boycotted and rejected by opponents rather than an act of politics, he adds.’[26] This homage, nonetheless, was paid by an outright majority of Syrians. To refer to this as ‘meaningless’, as US Secretary of State, John Kerry did,[27] reveals something of how much his own regime respected the people of Syria. It is true that voting could not take place in opposition-held areas, but participation overall was so great that even assuming the whole population in those areas would have voted against him, they would still have had to accept Assad as legitimate winner – rather as we in Scotland have to accept Theresa May as UK prime minister. In fact, the recent liberation of eastern Aleppo has revealed Assad’s government actually to have support there.

We cannot know if Assad would have been so many people’s first choice under other circumstances, but we can reasonably infer that the people of Syria saw in his leadership their best hope for unifying the country around the goal of ending the bloodshed. Whatever some might more ideally have sought – including as expressed in the authentic protests of 2011 – the will of the Syrian people quite clearly was, under the actual circumstances, for their government to be allowed to deal with their problems, rather than be supplanted by foreign-sponsored agencies.[28]

(I am tempted to add the thought, as a political philosopher, that BBC’s Jeremy Bowen could be right in saying the election was no normal ‘act of politics’: Bashar Al-Assad has always been clear in statements and interviews that his position is inextricably bound up with the Syrian constitution.  He didn’t choose to give up a career in medicine to become a dictator, as I understand it; rather, the chance event of his older brother’s death altered his plans. Until actual evidence suggests otherwise, I am personally prepared to believe that Assad’s otherwise incomprehensible steadfastness of purpose does indeed stem from a commitment to defending his country’s constitution. Whether or not the people really wanted this person as president is secondary to the main question whether they were prepared to give up their national constitution to the dictates of any body other than that of the Syrian people. Their answer to this has a significance, as Bowen inadvertently notes, that is beyond mere politics.)

Since the Syrian people had refuted the proposition that Amnesty had been promoting, serious questions have be asked. Among these, one – which would speak to a defence of Amnesty – is whether it had some independent justification – coming from sources of information other than its own investigations – for genuinely believing its allegations against the Syrian government well-founded. However, since an affirmative answer to that question would not refute the point I have sought to clarify here I shall set them aside for a separate discussion in the next episode of this investigation.

My point for now is that Amnesty International itself had not independently justified its own advocacy position. This is a concern for anyone who thinks it should take full responsibility for the monitoring it reports. Further discussion has also to address concerns about what kinds of advocacy it should be engaged in at all.[29]



[1] For background on concern about the White Helmets, a concise overview is provided in the video White Helmets: first responders or Al Qaeda support group? For a more thorough discussion, see the accessible but richly referenced summary provided by Jan Oberg. On the basis of all the information now widely available, and in view of the consistency between numerous critical accounts, which contrasts with the incoherence of the official narrative as made famous by Netflix, I have come to mistrust testimony sourced from the White Helmets when it conflicts with testimony of independent journalists on the ground – especially since reports of the latter are also consistent with those of the people of eastern Aleppo who have been able to share the truth of their own experiences since the liberation (for numerous interviews with people from Aleppo, see the Youtube channel of Vanessa Beeley; see also the moving photographic journals of Jan Oberg.)

There have certainly been efforts to debunk the various exposés of the White Helmets, and the latest I know of (at the time of writing) concerns the confession featured in the video (linked above) of Abdulhadi Kamel. According to Middle East eye, his colleagues in the White Helmets believe the confession was beaten out of him (report as at 15 Jan 2017) in a notorious government detention centre (http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syrian-white-helmet-fake-confession-filmed-assad-regime-intelligence-prison-344419324); according to Amnesty International, which does not mention that report in its appeal of 20 Jan 2017, states that there is no evidence he was a White Helmet and it is not known what happened to him (https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2017/01/man-missing-during-east-aleppo-evacuation/). What I take from this is that some people want to defend the White Helmets, but that they cannot even agree a consistent story to base it on under the pressure of unexpected events in Aleppo showing behind the scenes – literally – of the Netflix version of events. It is also hardly reassuring about the quality of AI’s monitoring in Syria.

[2] My critical inquiry about Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was sparked by learning that their testimony was being used to criticise claims being made about Syria by the independent journalist Eva Bartlett. Having found her reporting credible, I felt compelled to discover which account to believe. I found that MSF had been misleading about what they could really claim to know in Syria.

In response to that article, several people pointed to related concerns about Amnesty International. So I had the temerity to start questioning Amnesty International on the basis of pointers and tips given by several of my new friends, and I would like to thank particularly Eva Bartlett, Vanessa Beeley, Patrick J.Boyle, Adrian D., and Rick Sterling for specific suggestions. I have also benefited from work by Tim Anderson, Jean Bricmont, Tony Cartalucci, Stephen Gowans, Daniel Kovalic, Barbara McKenzie, and Coleen Rowley. I would like to thank Gunnar Øyro, too, for producing a rapid Norwegian translation of the MSF article which has helped it reach more people. In fact, there are a great any others too, that have I learned so much from in these few weeks, among what I have come to discover is a rapidly expanding movement of citizen investigators and journalists all around the globe. It’s one good thing to come out of these terrible times. Thanks to you all!


[3] For instance, it is argued by Tim Anderson, in The Dirty War on Syria (2016), that Amnesty has been ‘embedded’, along with the Western media, and has been following almost unswervingly the line from Washington rather than providing independent evidence and analysis.

[4] The report Deadly Reprisals concluded that ‘Syrian government forces and militias are responsible for grave human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes.’

[5] http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=40595 – .WIGzeZIpGHk

[6] ‘In the areas of the governorates of Idlib and Aleppo, where Amnesty International carried out its field research for this report, the fighting had reached the level and intensity of a non-international armed conflict. This means that the laws of war (international humanitarian law) also apply, in addition to human rights law, and that many of the abuses documented here would also amount to war crimes.’ Deadly Reprisals, p.10.

[7] Rovera’s account was contradicted at the time by other witness testimonies, as reported, for instance, in the Badische Zeitung, which claimed responsibility for deaths was attributed to the wrong side. One-sidedness in the account is also heavily criticized by Louis Denghien http://www.infosyrie.fr/decryptage/lenorme-mensonge-fondateur-de-donatella-rovera/ Most revealing, however, is the article I go on to mention in the text, in which Rovera herself two years later effectively retracts her own evidence (‘Challenges of monitoring, reporting, and fact-finding during and after armed conflict’). This article is not published on Amnesty’s own site, and is not mentioned by Amnesty anywhere, as far as I know. I commend it to anyone who thinks my conclusion about Deadly Reprisals might itself be too hasty. I think it could make salutary reading for some of her colleagues, like the one who published the extraordinarily defensive dismissal of critical questions about the report in Amnesty’s blog on 15 June 2012, which, I would say, begs every question it claims to answer. (The author just keeps retorting that the critics hadn’t been as critical about opposition claims. I neither know nor care whether they were. I only wanted to learn if he had anything to say in reply to the actual criticisms made.) While appreciating that people who work for Amnesty feel passionately about the cause of the vulnerable, and I would not wish it otherwise, I do maintain that professional discipline is appropriate in discussions relating to evidence.

[8] ‘For more than a year from the onset of the unrest in 2011, Amnesty International – like other international human rights organizations – had not been able to conduct research on the ground in Syria as it was effectively barred from entering the country by the government.’ (Deadly Reprisals, p.13)

[9] Donatella Rovera, Challenges of monitoring, reporting, and fact-finding during and after armed conflict, Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) 2014.

[10] The article is worth reading in full for its reflective insight into a number of difficulties and obstacles in the way of reliable reporting from the field, but here is an excerpt particularly relevant to the Syria case: ‘Access to relevant areas during the conduct of hostilities may be restricted or outright impossible, and often extremely dangerous when possible. Evidence may be rapidly removed, destroyed, or contaminated – whether intentionally or not. “Bad” evidence can be worse than no evidence, as it can lead to wrong assumptions or conclusions. In Syria I found unexploded cluster sub-munitions in places where no cluster bomb strikes were known to have been carried out. Though moving unexploded cluster sub-munitions is very dangerous, as even a light touch can cause them to explode, Syrian fighters frequently gather them from the sites of government strikes and transport them to other locations, sometimes a considerable distance away, in order to harvest explosive and other material for re-use. The practice has since become more widely known, but at the time of the first cluster bomb strikes, two years ago, it led to wrong assumptions about the locations of such strikes. … Especially in the initial stages of armed conflicts, civilians are confronted with wholly unfamiliar realities – armed clashes, artillery strikes, aerial bombardments, and other military activities and situations they have never experienced before – which can make it very difficult for them to accurately describe specific incidents.’ (Challenges of monitoring, reporting, and fact-finding during and after armed conflict) In light of Rovera’s candour, one is drawn to an inescapable contrast with the stance of Amnesty International, the organization. Not only did it endorse the report uncritically, in the first place, it continued to issue reports of a similar kind, and to make calls for action on the basis of them.

[11] ‘This disturbing new evidence of an organized pattern of grave abuses highlights the pressing need for decisive international action … For more than a year the UN Security Council has dithered, while a human rights crisis unfolded in Syria.  It must now break the impasse and take concrete action to end to these violations and to hold to account those responsible.’ Deadly Reprisals press release. The executive director of Amnesty International USA at that time was on record as favouring a Libya-like response to the Syria ‘problem’. Speaking shortly after her appointment she expressed her frustration that the Libya approach had not already been adopted for Syria: ‘Last spring the Security Council managed to forge a majority for forceful action in Libya and it was initially very controversial, [causing] many misgivings among key Security Council members. But Gaddafi fell, there’s been a transition there and I think one would have thought those misgivings would have died down. And yet we’ve seen just a continued impasse over Syria… .’ Quoted in Coleen Rowley, ‘Selling War as “Smart Power”’ (28 Aug 2012)

[12] The question of what Amnesty International as an organization can be said to have ‘willed’ is complex. One reason is that it is an association of so many people and does not have a simple ‘will’. Another is that public statements are often couched in language that can convey a message but with word choice that allows deniability of any particular intent should that become subject to criticism or censure. This practice in itself I find unwholesome, personally, and I think it ought to be entirely unnecessary for an organization with Amnesty’s moral mission. For a related critical discussion of Amnesty International’s ‘interventionism’ in Libya see e.g. Daniel Kovalik ‘Amnesty International and the Human Rights Industry’ (2012). Coleen Rowley received from Amnesty International, in response to criticisms by her, the assurance ‘we do not take positions on armed intervention.’ (The Problem with Human Rights/Humanitarian Law Taking Precedence over the Nuremberg Principle: Torture is Wrong but So Is the Supreme War Crime’, 2013). Rowley shows how this response, unlike a clear stance against intervention, shows some creativity. I also note in passing, that in the same response Amnesty assure us ‘AI’s advocacy is based on our own independent research into human rights abuses in a given country.’ This, going by the extent to which AI reports cite reports from other organisations, I would regard as economical with the truth.

In my next blog on Amnesty International, the role of Suzanne Nossel, sometime executive director of Ammesty International USA, will be discussed, and in that context further relevant information will be forthcoming about the purposes Amnesty’s testimony was serving in the period 2011-12.

[13] Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review, October 2011,‘End human rights violations in Syria’. Without wanting to diminish the significance of every single human rights abuse, I draw attention here to the scale of the problem that is recorded prior to 2011 for the purpose of comparison with later reports. Thus I note that the US State Department does not itemise egregious failings: ‘There was at least one instance during the year when the authorities failed to protect those in its custody. … There were reports in prior years of prisoners beating other prisoners while guards stood by and watched.’ In 2010 (May 28) Amnesty had reported ‘several suspicious deaths in custody’: http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/annual-report-syria-2010. Its briefing to Committee on Torture speaks in terms of scores of cases in the period 2004-2010: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde24/008/2010/en/

For additional reference, these reports also indicate that the most brutal treatment tends to be meted out against Islamists and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. There are also complaints from Kurds. A small number of lawyers and journalists are mentioned too.

[14] Human Rights Watch (2010), ‘A Wasted Decade: Human Rights in Syria during Bashar al-Assad’s First Ten Years in Power’.

[15] According to one account: ‘As a result of four years of severe drought, farmers and herders have seen their livelihoods destroyed and their lifestyles transformed, becoming disillusioned with government promises of plentitude in rural areas. In the disjuncture between paternalistic promises of resource redistribution favoring Syria’s peasantry and corporatist pacts binding regime interests to corrupt private endeavors, one may begin to detect the seeds of Syrian political unrest. … the regime’s failure to put in place economic measures to alleviate the effects of drought was a critical driver in propelling such massive mobilizations of dissent. In these recent months, Syrian cities have served as junctures where the grievances of displaced rural migrants and disenfranchised urban residents meet and come to question the very nature and distribution of power. … I would argue that a critical impetus in driving Syrian dissent today has been the government’s role in further marginalizing its key rural populace in the face of recent drought. Numerous international organizations have acknowledged the extent to which drought has crippled the Syrian economy and transformed the lives of Syrian families in myriad irreversible ways.’ Suzanne Saleeby (2012) ‘Sowing the Seeds of Dissent: Economic Grievances and the Syrian Social Contract’s Unraveling.

[16] The names, dates, and reporting periods of reports relevant here are easily confused, so here are further details. The Amnesty International Report 2011: the state of the world’s human rights mentioned in the text just here reports on the calendar year 2010, and it was published on May 13 2011. The separate report published in August 2011 is entitled Deadly Detention: deaths in custody amid popular protest in Syria’ and covers events during 2011 up to 15 August 2011.

[17] Crimes against humanity are a special and egregious category of wrongdoing: they involve acts that are deliberately committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population. Whereas ordinary crimes are a matter for a state to deal with internally, crimes against humanity, especially if committed by a state, can make that state subject to redress from the international community.

[18] Salil Shetty interviewed in 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Unl-csIUmp8

[19] Was the research systematic? The organising of data collection takes time, involving procedures of design, preparation, execution and delivery; the systematic analysis and interpretation of data involves a good deal of work; the writing up needs to be properly checked for accuracy. Furthermore, to report reliably involves various kinds of subsidiary investigation in order to establish context and relevant variable factors that could influence the meaning and significance of data. Even then, once a draft report is written, it really needs to be checked by some expert reviewers for any unnoticed errors or omissions. Any presentation of evidence that shortcuts those processes could not, in my judgment, be regarded as systematic. I cannot imagine how such processes could be completed in short order, let alone ‘in real-time’, and so I can only leave it to readers to decide how systematic the research could have been.

Was the evidence gathered from primary sources? ‘International researchers have interviewed witnesses and others who had fled Syria in recent visits to Lebanon and Turkey, and communicated by phone and email with individuals who remain in Syria … they include relatives of victims, human rights defenders, medical professionals and newly released detainees. Amnesty International has also received information from Syrian and other human rights activists who live outside Syria.’ Of all those sources, we could regard the testimony of newly released detainees as a primary source of information about conditions in prison. However, we are looking for evidence that would support the charge of committing crimes against humanity through ‘a widespread, as well as systematic, attack against the civilian population, carried out in an organized manner and pursuant to a state policy to commit such an attack’. On what basis Amnesty can claim definite knowledge of the extent of any attack and exactly who perpetrated it, or of how the government organizes the implementation of state policy, I do not see explained in the report.

Was the evidence collected by Amnesty’s staff on the ground? This question is answered in the report: “Amnesty International has not been able to conduct first-hand research on the ground in Syria during 2011” (p.5).

Was every aspect of data collection verified by corroboration? The fact that a number of identified individuals had died in violent circumstances is corroborated, but the report notes that ‘in very few cases has Amnesty International been able to obtain information indicating where a person was being detained at the time of their death. Consequently, this report uses qualified terms such as “reported arrests” and “reported deaths in custody”, where appropriate, in order to reflect this lack of clarity regarding some of the details of the cases reported.’

[This would corroborate descriptions of the pre-2011 situation regarding police brutality and deaths in custody. These are as unacceptable in Syria as they should be in all the other countries in which they occur, but to speak of ‘crimes against humanity’ implies an egregious systematic policy. I do not find anything in the report that claims to offer corroboration of the evidence that leads the report to state: ‘Despite these limitations, Amnesty International considers that the crimes behind the high number of reported deaths in custody of suspected opponents of the regime identified in this report, taken in the context of other crimes and human rights violations committed against civilians elsewhere in Syria, amount to crimes against humanity. They appear to be part of a widespread, as well as systematic, attack against the civilian population, carried out in an organized manner and pursuant to a state policy to commit such an attack.’]

As for corroboration of more widespread abuses and the claim that the government had a policy to commit what amount to crimes against humanity, I find none referred to.

Was the evidence relied on cross-checked with all parties concerned? Given that the government is charged, it would be a centrally concerned party, and the report makes clear the government has not been prepared to deal with Amnesty International. The non-cooperation of the government with Amnesty’s inquiries – whatever may be its reasons – cannot be offered as proof of its innocence. [That very phrase may jar with traditional Amnesty International supporters, given that a founding principle is the due process of assuming innocent before proven guilty. But I have allowed that some people might regard governments as relevantly different from individuals.] But since the government was not obliged to have dealings with Amnesty, and might have had other reasons not to, we must simply note that this aspect of the research methods protocol was not satisfied.

[20] I would note that a range of people have disputed whether there was any credible evidence, including former CIA intelligence officer Philip Giraldi http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/nato-vs-syria/ while also affirming that the American plan of destabilizing Syria and pursuing regime change had been hatched years earlier. That, unlike the allegations against Assad, has been corroborated from a variety of sources. These include a former French foreign minister http://www.globalresearch.ca/former-french-foreign-minister-the-war-against-syria-was-planned-two-years-before-the-arab-spring/5339112 and General Wesley Clark http://www.globalresearch.ca/we-re-going-to-take-out-7-countries-in-5-years-iraq-syria-lebanon-libya-somalia-sudan-iran/5166.

[21] Although quotation marks and the word alleged are invariably absent in mainstream references to accusations involving Assad, I retain them on principle since the simple fact of repeating an allegation does not suffice to alter its epistemic status. To credit the truth of a statement one needs evidence.

Lest it be said that there was plenty of other evidence, then I would suggest we briefly consider what Amnesty International, writing in 2016, would refer to as ‘the strongest evidence yet’. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/03/from-hope-to-horror-five-years-of-crisis-in-syria/ (15 March 2016; accessed 11 January 2017) The evidence in question was the so-called Caesar photographs showing some 11,000 corpses alleged to have been tortured and executed by Assad’s people. A full discussion of this matter is not for a passing footnote like this, but I would just point out that this evidence was known to Amnesty and the world as of January 2014 and was discussed by Amnesty’s Philip Luther at the time of its publication. Referring to them as ‘11,000 Reasons for Real Action in Syria’, Luther admitted the causes or agents of the deaths had not been verified but spoke of them in terms that suggest verification was close to being a foregone conclusion (remember, this was five months before Assad’s election victory, so the scale of this alleged mass murder was knowledge in the public domain at election time). These ‘11,000 reasons’ clearly weighed with Amnesty, even if they could not quite verify them. To this day, though, the evidence has not been credibly certified, and I for one do not expect it will be. Some reasons why are those indicated by Rick Sterling in his critical discussion ‘The Caesar Photo Fraud that Undermined Syrian Negotiations’. Meanwhile, if Amnesty International’s people had thought up hypotheses to explain why the Syrian electors seemed so nonchalant about the supposed mass murdering of their president, they have not shared them.

[22] Although this was very much a minority perspective in the Western media, it was not entirely absent. The Los Angeles Times of 7 March 2012 carries a small item called ‘Syria Christians fear life after Assad’ http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/07/world/la-fg-syria-christians-20120307  It articulates concerns about ‘whether Syria’s increasingly bloody, nearly yearlong uprising could shatter the veneer of security provided by President Bashar Assad’s autocratic but secular government. Warnings of a bloodbath if Assad leaves office resonate with Christians, who have seen their brethren driven away by sectarian violence since the overthrow of longtime strongmen in Iraq and in Egypt, and before that by a 15-year civil war in neighboring Lebanon.’ It notes ‘their fear helps explain the significant support he still draws’.

This well-founded fear of something worse should arguably have been taken into account in thinking about the proportionality of any military escalation. The LA Times article carries an interview: ‘”Of course the ‘Arab Spring’ is an Islamist movement,” George said angrily. “It’s full of extremists. They want to destroy our country, and they call it a ‘revolution.’ “… Church leaders have largely aligned themselves behind the government, urging their followers to give Assad a chance to enact long-promised political reforms while also calling for an end to the violence, which has killed more than 7,500 people on both sides, according to United Nations estimates.’ The LA Times carried several articles in a similar vein, including these: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/world_now/2012/03/church-fears-ethnic-cleansing-of-christians-in-homs-syria.html; http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2012-05-09/syria-christians-crisis/54888144/1.

We also find that support for Assad’s presidency held up throughout the period following the initial protests: Since then, support for Assad has continued to hold up. Analysis of 2013 ORB Poll: http://russia-insider.com/en/nato-survey-2013-reveals-70-percent-syrians-support-assad/ri12011.

[23] No mention is made to it on Amnesty’s webpages, and the annual report of 2014/15 offers a cursory mention conveying that the election was of no real significance: ‘In June, President al-Assad won presidential elections held only in government-controlled areas, and returned to of ce for a third seven-year term. The following week, he announced an amnesty, which resulted in few prisoner releases; the vast majority of prisoners of conscience and other political prisoners held by the government continued to be detained.’ (p.355, available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/pol10/0001/2015/en/)

[24] Reported in the Guardian 4 June 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/04/bashar-al-assad-winds-reelection-in-landslide-victory. The total population of Syria, including children, was 17,951,639 in 2014. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Syria

Although most of the Western press ignored or downplayed the result, there were some exceptions. The LA Times noted that ‘Assad’s regional and international supporters hailed his win as the elusive political solution to the crisis and a clear indication of Syrians’ will.’ http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-prisoner-release-20140607-story.html In a report on Fox News via Associated Press, too, there is a very clear description of the depth of support: Syrian election shows depth of popular support for Assad, even among Sunni majority. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2014/06/04/syrian-election-shows-depth-popular-support-for-assad-even-among-sunni-majority.html The report explains numerous reasons for the support, in a way that appears to give the lie to the usual mainstream narrative in the West.

The Guardian reports: ‘Securing a third presidential term is Assad’s answer to the uprising, which started in March 2011 with peaceful demonstrators calling for reforms but has since morphed into a fully fledged war that has shaken the Middle East and the world. And now, with an estimated 160,000 dead, millions displaced at home and abroad, outside powers backing both sides, and al-Qaida-linked jihadist groups gaining more control in the north and east, many Syrians believe that Assad alone is capable of ending the conflict.’

Steven MacMillan offers a pro-Assad account of the election in New Eastern Outlook http://journal-neo.org/2015/12/20/bashar-al-assad-the-democratically-elected-president-of-syria/

[25] Despite assertions from the states committed to ‘regime change’ that the election result should simply be disregarded, international observers found no fault to report with the process http://tass.com/world/734657

[26] It is deemed of so little consequence by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office that its webpage on Syria, as last updated 21 January 2015 (and accessed 16 January 2017) still has this as its paragraph discussing a possible election in Syria in the future tense and with scepticism: ‘there is no prospect of any free and fair election being held in 2014 while Assad remains in power.’

[27] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27706471

[28] A survey conducted in 2015 by ORB International, a company which specializes in public opinion research in fragile and conflict environments, still showed Assad to have more popular support than the opposition. The report is analysed by Stephen Gowans: http://www.globalresearch.ca/bashar-al-assad-has-more-popular-support-than-the-western-backed-opposition-poll/5495643

[29] For earlier and preliminary thoughts on the general question here see my short piece ‘Amnesty International: is it true to its mission?’ (12 Jan 2017)

Posted in Amnesty International, disinformation, Syria, Uncategorized | 57 Comments

Amnesty International: is it true to its mission?

Amnesty International has a moral mission: ‘to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of human rights’. Could that be an impossible mission for an organisation that calls for military intervention on human rights grounds? This question arises from an attempt to understand Amnesty International’s role in the war in Syria.


Critics have argued that by justifying military action against the legitimate government of Syria, Amnesty International was complicit in producing an avoidable humanitarian catastrophe:[1] this is not to say those state powers seeking regime change in Syria waited on Amnesty’s blessing; but their action was lent legitimacy in the public’s eyes by Amnesty’s clear support for it.

Whatever one thinks of the criticism, I believe we have reason enough to ask: did Amnesty International do more harm than good for human rights in Syria?

That will be the question for my next blog, but I meanwhile have something to say as a prelude to that fuller inquiry.

As a decades-long supporter of Amnesty International, I would never wish to undermine its moral mission. As a troubled observer, though, I have concerns about how Amnesty pursued its mission in Syria (and recently I suspended my support for that reason). As an investigative philosopher, I believe the problem can usefully be analysed by reference to the mission itself.

Amnesty’s mission – ‘to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of human rights’ – is perhaps really not one mission, but four:

– to undertake research focused on ending grave abuses

– to undertake action focused on ending grave abuses

– to undertake research focused on preventing grave abuses

– to undertake action focused on preventing grave abuses.

The two undertakings focused on ending abuses were foundational for Amnesty International. To identify and bear witness to cases of wrongful arrest and inhumane treatment, particularly of prisoners of conscience, was the original research aim, as most supporters understood it. The findings of the research were then the basis of actions aimed at putting public moral pressure on the perpetrators to end the abuse. There are limits to the effectiveness of moral pressure, to be sure, and there has always been debate within Amnesty about its stance towards more forceful kinds of persuasion. Such debates can be difficult ones. But difficult is not the same as impossible.

The third undertaking is not impossible either: a competent research team can engage in investigations aiming to identify impending threats to human rights. It is perfectly possible to engage in research so focused, although whether the findings will be proven correct, of course, is quite another matter. The nature of the research will centrally involve the methods and approaches of social scientists, and this sort of research does not generate exact predictions. If the third undertaking is difficult rather than impossible, though, it is because of its relatively modest ambition. It is modest in relation, specifically, to the fourth.


The fourth undertaking, ‘action focused on preventing grave abuses’ could mean wildly different things. Simply doing research into causes of potential abuses might be regarded as a kind of action; it is certainly an activity. On a starkly contrasting interpretation, the action could be very decisive and material. Even military intervention is included under a hawkish interpretation of action focused on a purported responsibility to protect against grave abuses.[2]

So which interpretation should be taken to define Amnesty’s mission?  I dare say some supporters of the organisation may assume its moral mission does not include the promotion of harmful force. Yet the interpretation allowed by the organisation today does not preclude even the promotion of war.

In allowing that interpretation, Amnesty International must answer the question of what ethical criteria, exactly, it invokes when it decides whether to advocate for a war.

I think this is an impossible question in a practical sense because every specific context in which it would arise will have myriad distinctive complexities, as well as uncertainties and imponderables. Any general guidelines set out in advance will need to be adapted to the specific case, which means you’d need to have criteria for permissible adaptations, and then guidelines for them, and so on.

It is also impossible in a more fundamental moral sense: for the question is about the conditions under which action focused on preventing grave abuses of human rights can permissibly violate human rights. I believe Amnesty International’s ordinary members and supporters generally think the organisation should not be in the business of assessing which human rights violations are permissible. They will assume that none are. If I am right in the reasoning here, then, by allowing a hawkish interpretation of its fourth undertaking, Amnesty renders its own mission impossible.

I wonder if the millions of ordinary honest men, women and children who support the moral mission of Amnesty International might want to think about taking a stand in relation to the organisation itself.

In my next blog, I shall turn to a question that might encourage that thinking. It is the question that prompted these preliminary thoughts: how well has Amnesty International fulfilled the overarching moral imperative of protecting people’s human rights in Syria?



[1] Full references for the relevant criticisms will be provided in the main discussion that will follow in the next blog. Here I would just like to thank those who, following my recent discussion of the testimony of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Syria, encouraged me to press a related question about Amnesty International. The fellow investigators I’ve learned a great deal from are numerous, but I’d like to mention particularly Tim Anderson, Eva Bartlett, Vanessa Beeley, Patrick J. Boyle, Jean Bricmont, Tony Cartalucci, Adrian D., Joe Emersberger, Jan Oberg, Gunnar Øyro, Rick Sterling.

[2] See, for instance, the paper by Suzanne Nossel who, at the time of its publication, was Director of Amnesty International USA, ‘Advancing Human Rights in the UN System’, IIGG (International Institutions and Global Governance Program) Working paper May 2012.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

How We Were Misled About Syria: the role of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

msf-blamesI have unbounded admiration for the doctors who volunteer for the invaluable and often dangerous work of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The question concerns MSF’s policy of ‘bearing witness’. MSF will speak out – even against governments – when it thinks a humanitarian situation could and should be dealt with differently by those it holds responsible.[1] It has done so in Syria.

But if none of MSF’s international doctors have been on the ground in Syria’s war zones since 2015,[2] how can MSF claim to bear witness for what is happening there?

MSF has relayed reports from the rebel-held areas to which, exclusively, its supplies and support have been dispatched. The reports – including allegations of government attacks on hospitals and civilians – come from people working with the permission and protection of such groups as Al Nusra, Isis and other foreign jihadis and mercenaries. These anti-government forces are known to exercise a rule of terror and to be not overly concerned about ordinary citizens’ access to medical attention. That is precisely why the MSF doctors withdrew from the areas under their control.[3] So there is scope to ask who the medics on the ground were, and who they were treating. russi-plus-asad

My question, though, simply concerns the reliability of uncorroborated witness statements coming from potentially compromised sources. For while press statements have been issued from various MSF offices around the world, it appears MSF had no independent access to verifiable information from Syria.

In fact, the public unavailability of detailed or verified information is a matter of record: even John Kirby of the US State Department could only assert that ‘relief agencies that we find credible are levelling these accusations’.[4]

The most prominent relief agency, and visible in all video footage linked to the alleged bombings, is the White Helmets.  It is a matter of record that the White Helmets are funded by the NATO and Gulf states whose avowed aim is regime change in Syria; or-38096it is generally believed that they work closely with terrorist organisations (how else could the Netflix documentary have shown them roaming so freely in a zone where MSF and Western journalists dared not set foot?[5]). Their independence and integrity are widely questioned.[6]

So while MSF has often been cited as an independent source of support for White Helmet testimony, its press statements have in fact merely repeated White Helmet claims![7]

Whether intending it or not, MSF thereby became complicit in purveying a particular narrative that suffused the Western media during the period from 22 September to 22 December 2016.[8] Before September, the media had been perfectly clear that the citizens of eastern Aleppo were being held captive, effectively as human shields, by forces dominated by jihadist terrorists.[9] That changed following the uncompromising statement by Samantha Power to the UN Security Council, in which she invoked the White Helmets as victims and witnesses of Russian and Syrian aggression.[10]

Western governments and media re-designated the terrorist groups as ‘moderate rebels’.[11] Concurrently, anti-government activists like Lina Shamy started tweeting in English, the celebrated twitter account in the name of the child Bana was created, and there followed a flow of ‘famous last webcams’ from purported ordinary civilians voicing fears of impending massacre by the Syrian government.

Those of us in the West who were uncertain about the authenticity of all this social media activity in a zone lacking basic infrastructure, let alone wifi,[12] were coaxed to accept the mainstream narrative because a respected organisation like MSF apparently bore witness to it.[13] Few of us realised that MSF was merely repeating White Helmet testimony, not independently verifying it.

The consistent testimony now coming from the people who have been liberated in eastern Aleppo suggests a quite different story from the one that Netflix and our media have promoted.[14] The Helmets themselves appear to have melted away with the departure from Aleppo of the jihadists and mercenaries. If there were any genuinely independent doctors working with them in Aleppo, they too have yet to be heard from. But most telling, in view of White Helmet claims to have saved some 70,000 lives (or whatever exact number we are invited to believe), is that not a single person interviewed in liberated Aleppo has thanked them.

So, in seeking to bear witness against the Syrian government, MSF has made claims on a basis that is uncertain and contested.[15]  By so publicly associating itself with the White Helmets and their narrative it may have risked compromising the reputation it relies on to attract international doctors.

Those of us who deeply appreciate the service to humankind of MSF’s international doctors are left to hope the organisation coordinating their work can be more sure to avoid bearing false witness.[16]

The problem with the false narrative is no trivial one, for it perpetuates a fundamental misrecognition of the causes of the war – and thus of all the casualities the doctors have to deal with.  A false narrative not only gives impunity to the guilty but it supports them in moving ever onwards with their murderous designs. It distracts from the ethical truth, too, that the jihadis and the states supplying them with arms and opportunity are in fundamental breach of the law and morality of just warfare.

[1] The background for this founding principle – of témoignage (‘bearing witness’) – is cited on their website: ‘Hundreds of thousands of people died in the Biafran war because of a deliberate government policy. On their return from the region, a group of young French doctors were frustrated and outraged by the inability of the Red Cross to say publicly what had happened.’ https://www.msf.org.uk/advocacy-and-temoignage

[2] MSF Voice from the Field in Syria: Dr. Nathalie Roberts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61cmnPLk6uE

[3] Dr Nathalie Roberts has described how in the earlier days of the war in Syria, MSF had followed its usual working procedures in opposition-held areas but with the arrival of Islamic State group that became impossible: “they were not allowing all the patients to access the hospital”, they then started appropriating MSF supplies and even kidnapping MSF staff. They could not continue to work in a place where the occupying groups would not allow the doctors to do their medical job. (Dr Roberts interviewed on 13 March 2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oQVUssxK-U

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/us-spokesperson-loses-temper-with-rt-journalist-over-syria-bombing-questions-a7423146.html

[5] I personally first became curious about the White Helmets from viewing the Netflix documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wj4ncIEDxw), and the question I mention in the text here is the one I simply could not get past. I was therefore not surprised to find that others had already offered powerful critiques of the organisation.

I also had trouble imagining how people working in such desperate conditions would have the leisure to keep up with the latest Western craze of the Mannequin Challenge, and also the insensitivity to do a facsimile rescue for the purpose. The video of this PR own goal was quickly removed by the White Helmets’ promoters but remains available elsewhere at time of writing, e.g.:

A discussion of it is here:

[6] The critical sources now on the internet are far too numerous to mention, but indicative examples include:

An especially thorough investigation, with detailed consideration of a range of perspectives, not only the critical ones, is provided by Jan Oberg: http://blog.transnational.org/2016/11/tff-pressinfo-392-just-how-grey-are-the-white-helmets-and-their-backers/

[7] The spokespersons bearing MSF witness to the public are quite numerous and remote from Syria. They seldom make explicit the source of their information, but when they do we find it is the White Helmets.

Sam Taylor, for instance, who is Syria communications coordinator for MSF and is based in Jordan, uncritically reproduced White Helmets material: ‘The civil defense, also known as the White Helmets, said the hospital and adjacent buildings were struck in four consecutive airstrikes.’ ‘Video posted by the White Helmets showed lifeless bodies, including children, being pulled from a building and loaded into ambulances amid screams and wailing. Distraught rescue workers tried to keep away onlookers, apparently fearing more bombs.’ http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/airstikes-aleppo-hospital-1.3556632

Taylor does mention another authority: ‘Shortly after midday Thursday, new airstrikes in rebel-held areas killed at least 20 people in two neighbourhoods, the Syrian Civil Defense and the Observatory said.’ By ‘Observatory’, he presumably means the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Although this sounds like an independent organisation, it is in fact a single individual named Rami Abdulrahman (sometimes referred to as Rami Abdul Rahman) living in Coventry in the UK; and he is presumably as independent as one can expect from an opposition exile whose small network of informants in Syria consists largely of anti-government activists. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/world/middleeast/the-man-behind-the-casualty-figures-in-syria.html Certainly, he is no more directly a witness than is MSF’s spokesperson. Needless to say, the Observatory’s credibility and independence is disputed: http://russia-insider.com/en/media-criticism/man-behind-vaunted-syrian-observatory-human-rights-shown-all-his-full-absurdity; http://landdestroyer.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/syrian-ngos-working-directly-with.html; http://journal-neo.org/2015/12/12/the-syrian-observatory-for-human-rights-is-a-tool-of-western-propaganda/
Despite this lack of verified independent evidence, Taylor was prepared to state on behalf of MSF that a hospital attack ‘was deliberate’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebrpj689Ib8. While the basis for the accusation is not given, the cumulative effect of this sort of public statement is evident. Pablo Marco Blanco, MSF’s Operations Manager for the Middle East in Barcelona, effectively endorsed the accusation, while admitting that the basis of the information was unconfirmed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XI5KMAvfYDU. Similar communications came from Muskilda Zancada, ‘MSF head of mission in Syria’ in Barcelona. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4s9uEp6Ujs). Zancada also stated that ‘civilians are targeted’ http://www.msf.org/en/article/syria-update-airstrike-al-quds-hospital. Paul McPhun, Executive Director MSF Australia, speaking from Australia (10 October 2016) likewise makes categorial statements about targeted bombings in Aleppo, but without indicating the source of his knowledge.
It is even possible that the accusations are true. Yet it is also possible that they are not. The fallibility of MSF sources has been illustrated by how Teresa Sancristoval, Head of MSF’s Emergency Unit for Aleppo, was clearly being fed her information in Barcelona from people with an oppositional stance towards the Syrian Government because they were ‘afraid of the retaliations they can suffer’ http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/east-aleppo-ceasefire-fails-shelling-resumes-and-hope-fades (see note 7).

While I have no doubt that all MSF statements are made from a standpoint of agonised human sympathy, and in good faith, they take on a life of their own when picked up by the media and disseminated for further purposes.

In the end it is clear that what matters from the humanitarian point of view is that the bombing should stop. When MSF call for all sides to stop, they can claim to speak for humankind. When they complain of ‘targeted and indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian and Russian armed forces’ (http://www.msf.org/en/article/syria-crisis-update-28-november-2016) they create unnecessary controversy: if bombing both targeted and indiscriminate is to stop on the government side, that is as much as to say – from the government’s perspective – that it should simply allow the ISIS and Al Nusra terrorists free rein over the people and sovereign territory that it has a duty to defend. MSF do not want to say exactly this, I assume, but my point is that the organisation seems not to have a firm enough grip on its communications policy or a sufficiently coherent approach to defining its extra-medical mission.

[8] MSF statements from Syria condemning the Syrian and Russian governments have been demonstrably lacking in certainty or detail. For instance, in relaying reports of attacks on hospitals around Aleppo in May they note that ‘one was the MSF-supported al Sakhour hospital in Aleppo city, which was forced to suspend activities after being bombed at least twice on consecutive days.’ (https://www.msf.org.uk/country/syria) An inexact statement like this – being equivocal as to whether the number of bombings was two, three, or some other number – may or may not be true; it cannot claim to have been properly verified, since a verification would make clear whether or not a third or further bombings had occurred.

MSF uncritically accepted the veracity of the ‘famous last webcams’ coming out of besieged eastern Aleppo. As late as 14 December 2014 MSF wrote on their own website: ‘Whatever hope remained is rapidly dissipating. People are terrified, almost certain that their own deaths are near. Messages in which they say goodbye to their love ones are proliferating.’ http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/east-aleppo-ceasefire-fails-shelling-resumes-and-hope-fades ]

MSF do not appear to have known as much as one might hope or expect about the doctors they supported in terrorist-held Aleppo and whose words they relay to the public. The doctors communicating from terrorist-held Aleppo whose testimony the MSF publicly cited just prior to the liberation of Aleppo were apparently not looking forward to the end of the siege, and MSF even believed that their forebodings were shared by the ordinary people of Aleppo: ‘Like the rest of the population, “doctors are terrified and losing hope,” says Teresa Sancristoval, Head of MSF’s Emergency Unit for Aleppo. “They are afraid of the retaliations they can suffer. For the last two days, our exchanges have been more about goodbye messages and requests for evacuation than anything else. They feel abandoned to their fate and with no way out.”’ http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/east-aleppo-ceasefire-fails-shelling-resumes-and-hope-fades
[9] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/02/us-syria-policy-tatters-moderate-rebels-disband
[10] As Stephen Cohen has pointed out, the sea change came with the breakdown of negotiations between Obama and Putin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPp8eKBjcyA&t=974s
The view was then forcefully asserted against Obama by Samantha Power.
In her speech to UN Security Council she singled out the White Helmets as victims and witnesses of Russian and Syrian attacks. She declared: ‘This is not the day, this is not the time to blame all sides, to draw false equivalencies. It is not the time to say that “airstrikes took place,” or “civilians were killed.” It is time to say who is carrying out those airstrikes, and who is killing civilians.’ https://usun.state.gov/remarks/7453
[11] Some insights into the unreliability of the mainstream narrative have occasionally been heard from within mainstream media outlets. For instance:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1B2xFqfEgY (‘Tulsi Gabbard tells the truth about Syria’ on CNN)
Carla Ortiz Speaks about her Experience in Aleppo and The Little Syrian Girl
Criticisms have of course been extensive in the Russian media. Since promoters of the Western narrative do not regard the Russia Today (RT) channel as a reliable source, I mention just a couple of interviews that they might concede have some credibility – one from a Church of England clergyman and one from a former UK ambassador to Syria:
‘Consistent stories of brutality at the hands of the Syrian rebels’ – Rev. Andrew Ashdown
US effectively siding with Al-Qaeda in desire to get rid of Assad – former UK ambassador to Syria
[12] Common sense scepticism on this point is supported by the first hand testimony of Carla Ortiz about trying to get internet connections in Aleppo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=il7I1FTRSwY.

[13] I have seen MSF cited as a source to discredit the account of Syria given to the UN by Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uap0GwBYdBA
In fact, I was first prompted to do the research that led to writing this blog because a respected and well-informed friend on Facebook invoked MSF as a refutation of Bartlett’s claims. I believe it has since become clear that events have entirely vindicated Bartlett.

[14] Some examples of interviews with newly liberated citizens in Aleppo:


[15] Stronger criticism of MSF than I am making is found in Miri Wood’s ‘Guide to Understanding How ‘Unhospitals’ Cannot Be Bombed’ http://www.syrianews.cc/guide-understanding-unhospitals-cannot-bombed/ ; MSF’s relationship with the Syrian Government is known to be an uneasy one: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/12161437/Medecins-Sans-Frontieres-run-by-French-intelligence-says-Assad-regime.html

[16] MSF takes a certain pride in fostering debate and allowing some plurality of political views to be aired within the organisation: it does not attempt, as ICRC does, to hold a single public line. (Rony Brauman, ‘Médecins Sans Frontières and the ICRC: matters of principle’, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 888, 31 December 2012: https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/article/review-2012/irrc-888-brauman.htm)

Yet the public hears MSF-branded messages and thinks they represent the honest and considered position of a respected organisation. They are encouraged to do so by the fact that press releases and comments are issued by the organisation and not as independent opinions of particular members.

While it is not my place to tell MSF how to conduct its affairs, I would say that their internal plurality of opinion is not necessarily a virtue: if they cannot agree on certain matters of principle about bearing witness, then the wise option might be simply to refrain, as ICRC do. At any rate, some of their internal philosophical debate strikes this reader as unhelpfully verbose and analytically unclear. More specifically relating to Syria, it is reasonable to believe that the geopolitics of the region and the machinations of its various protagonists are as complex and challenging, in their way, as are the medical emergencies in a war zone. Even the most judicious political analyst would not be much use in dealing with the latter. The people in MSF offices might reflect on whether the converse does not also apply.

We are not in a position to know if Syria or Russia should answer any charges in respect of the conduct of war.  We do know that their enemies must, and, more crucially, that they face the more fundamental charge of having attacked Syria and its people without just cause.

I find a rather bitter irony in the MSF position that they distinguish themselves from the ICRC in not being willing to patch up victims simply in order to make possible further harm to them; for that could be said to be what they are doing by wishing that a sovereign people should not use full lethal force against merciless invaders on its soil.

Posted in disinformation, MSF, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 33 Comments

Water: a human right?

Is there a human right to water? Nestle’s CEO once notoriously suggested that the idea is an extreme one put about by NGOs.[1]


Just this week, the same corporation has sparked controversy in a municipality of Ontario by outbidding the local community for control of a local water supply. That water now stands to be packaged and sold for profit while the local people’s future water security is compromised. This local situation illustrates a global problem of profits taking priority over people’s vital interests.[2] Meanwhile, the availability of freshwater is now – like our climate – reaching its ‘planetary boundaries’.[3]

Surely, if one accepts the framing of vital moral imperatives in the language of human rights, then one only has to understand the vital importance of access to water in order see sufficient reason for it to be counted among them?[4]

But even supposing that is so, what would follow? This is a question examined in my newly published article on ‘A Global Right of Water’.  Some thoughts from that follow.

The moral purpose of invoking a human right might be interpreted in different ways. Some have invoked the right to water to resist privatization of water supplies. Bolivian protesters, for instance, issued the Cochabamba Declaration: ‘water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government, therefore, it should not be commodified, privatized or traded for commercial purposes.’[5] A contrasting view is that ‘water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good.’[6] But if those two views are at odds, the spirit of the first can be maintained without necessarily refuting the second. For one can maintain that a human right should trump any mere right of property, in the event of a conflict between them, while still allowing private sector involvement on condition that it is entirely constrained to respect human rights principles. Where people have little reason to trust in the will or power of their government to enforce such constraints, though, the Cochabamba position would seem morally and politically justifiable.

The unresolved questions about the status of a human right to water, then, are not so much about its moral justification as its status in international law. There are questions such as whether international law generates such a right, what precisely it would mean, and what difference it could make. This is still relatively uncharted territory, since only recently have such questions become live ones.[7]

The uncertain legal status of a human right of access to water is in significant respects similar to that of a right to an adequate environment (Boyle 2012). These ‘new’ rights do not readily fit into inherited understandings of human rights as fundamental freedoms. Nor can they straightforwardly be assimilated to recognized social and economic rights.

Water is not a social good like healthcare, education, shelter and food that can be produced by labour: there can feasibly be obligations to produce and distribute those goods as required. Water, as a resource in sufficient supply to sustain a human settlement, cannot be produced, but can only be found; and if it cannot be found anywhere suitably accessible, there is nothing anyone can feasibly be obliged to do within the scope of social and economic duties. What would have to happen would involve geographically shifting the community (e.g. move somewhere more fertile) or transforming natural geographical features (e.g. divert a river). Either of these more radical shifts is liable to have knock-on effects for other communities whose own access to water (and other territorial resources) will thereby be affected. In fact, transboundary conflicts over water have become increasingly familiar in recent years as populations and their resource demands augment.

Thus, in virtue of its environmental dimension, the just implementation of a right of water is subject to further challenges than are social and economic rights. A particular challenge is that the duties involved in making them good can be about not only ensuring adequate fair access to goods but also constraining aggregate demand on resources.

A question of justice, then, is who has duties to do what in order to assure a right of water is fulfilled for all.

While we do need to know where water is physically to come from, we should not assume that duties to bear the costs of ensuring its supply, where needed, necessarily fall on those with territorial rights over locations with water resources. In fact, we should not assume that the water must come from an unused territorial source at all, rather than from a reduction in others’ demands on the available sources.

We should thus also reflect on what to assume is involved in ‘making good’ human rights deficits with regard to water. Actual patterns of water use around the world are affected by a variety of factors. As Hoekstra and Mekonnen (2012) helpfully summarise, water used can be of three distinct kinds – surface or ground water, rainwater, and polluted water. While the uses of direct concern for human rights are in hydration and hygiene, a great deal of water is used in industrial production, and by far the largest proportion of global water use is in agriculture. Water embedded in agricultural products can be exported, and so a wealthy country that imports this ‘virtual water’ can have large ‘external’ footprint. Large amounts can also be used in poor countries, though, due to inefficient agricultural practices.[8] In view of this, what needs to be done to secure sufficient access to water resources to support human rights is likely to involve quite complex considerations about not just the material location of water but also about the political economy of its use.

To meet these points, I propose, we should adopt the alternative understanding of what it means to think of a country – or, indeed, any other entity for which a water footprint might be calculated – as availing of more than its fair share of the Earth’s freshwater and thus as presumptively carrying the greater burden of obligation. If we grant the premise that no individual has a greater right to water than any other does, then we can allow a defeasible presumption that a just distribution can make reference to per capita water use. On this basis an entity with a larger water footprint per capita can be designated a presumptive over-user. Over-users may be under presumptive obligations to make do with less water.

Adopting the perspective I have commended, we would identify as potential sources of water not only territorial reserves but also those amounts of water that are currently subtracted from territories. Industrial production, and especially agricultural production – which accounts for the vast majority of water consumption globally – use water extensively in the production of their goods. Many of these are exported and thus serve the interests of non-residents of those territories. The water thereby absorbed into the footprint of foreign businesses that could potentially be released may or may not be sufficient to supply the entire need – since demographic and climatic changes may also affect patterns of need – but there are several reasons for thinking it an avenue worth pursuing before recommending mass migration as a solution. In general, to prevent a problem, by removing its cause, is better than having to remedy its effects. When doing so means allowing people to stay in their homelands and preserve their accustomed livelihoods rather than have to make their way in foreign and not necessarily so hospitable parts, it also has more to commend it in terms of basic human values.*

* A fuller version of this argument has just been published as Tim Hayward, ‘A Global Right of Water’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 40.1 (September 2016): 217-233. Open access pre-print available on my Academia page.



Boyle, Alan 2012. “Human Rights and the Environment: Where Next?” European Journal of International Law 23: 613–642.

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2002) General Comment 15, The right to water (Twenty-ninth session, 2003), U.N. Doc. E/C.12/2002/11.

Hoekstra, A.Y., Mekonnen, M.M. (2012) The water footprint of humanity. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences 109, 3232–3237.

Rockström, Johan, et al*. 2009. “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity’.” Nature 461: 472–5.

Salzman, J.E. (2005) ‘Thirst: A Short History of Drinking Water’. SSRN Scholarly Paper No. ID 869970). Social Science Research Network, Rochester, NY.

Shue, H. (1980) Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Vörösmarty, C.J., McIntyre, P.B., Gessner, M.O., Dudgeon, D., Prusevich, A., Green, P., Glidden, S., Bunn, S.E., Sullivan, C.A., Liermann, C.R., Davies, P.M. (2010) ‘Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity’. Nature, 467, 555–561.



[1] Brabeck’s statement having provoked public outrage, Nestle ‘clarified’ his view:


[2] Not only is consumption globally increasing, but interdependence of consumption patterns also affects the situation: ‘about one-fifth of the global WF in the period 1996–2005 was not meant for domestic consumption but for export. The relatively large volume of international virtual water flows and the associated external water dependencies strengthen the argument to put the issue of water scarcity in a global context’ (Hoekstra and Mekonnen, 2012: p.3236)

[3] (Vörösmarty et al. 2010) (Rockström et al. 2009)

[4] The moral demand, put simply, would be of a right of access for everyone to such water as is required for the possibility of a healthy life. This would be a basic right, in the sense of Henry Shue (1980), because non-enjoyment of its substance would preclude enjoyment of any other rights whatsoever. See also the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (2002), Art. I.1: ‘The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.’

[5] (In Salzman 2005: p.2)

[6] This is from the Dublin Statement, issued by governments represented at the 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment declaring (Salzman 2005: p.2n15)

[7] Water did not feature in authoritative statements on human rights until, in 2002, the United Nations’ Committee on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights referred, in its General Comment 15, to a human right to water that ‘entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.’ (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 2002: Art. I.1) Subsequently, in 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized rights to water and sanitation; and in the same year the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution acknowledging those rights to be implied by the right to an adequate standard of living.

[8] Some countries may have large per capita footprints because their agricultural use of water is inefficient. For instance, ‘For Niger, the consumption of cereals per capita is 1.4 times the global average, but the WF of cereals per ton is six times the world average.’ (Hoekstra and Mekonnen 2012: p.3234)]

Posted in climate change, ecological space, environment, environmental ethics, fair trade, global justice, health, human rights, political philosophy, responsible investment, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Flu Vaccine for Kids: an offer you can refuse?

C0179059-Nasal_spray_seasonal_flu_vaccine-SPL-20140715104758311Our six year old came home from school with a request for parental consent to a flu vaccination for him. I wondered if it was needed or useful, and I wondered out loud on facebook. Several friends offered their thoughts in posts and private messages. (These replies came from researchers in immunology, public health, and policy-making as well as practising doctors and nurses.) The upshot of this quick survey was that flu viruses are constantly evolving, so the generic ‘flu’ is a moving target, and vaccines aimed at a selection of strains have a limited hit-rate. They can have some side effects. There is also some uncertainty about long-term effects.

Promoters of the vaccination programme offer speculation about how attacking the virus in kids – the most liberal spreaders-around of the disease – can have wider social benefits, especially over time. But the evidence to date on this is thin.[1]

Interestingly, the only consistent definite finding from the academic research on this subject is that we need more research.   That conclusion obviously suits the researchers, but it is also used as a basis upon which to propose ever wider and more extensive trials and roll-outs. In one academic paper we can read ‘it could conceivably prove that viral vaccines are as useful in the prevention of bacterial otitis, pneumonia, sepsis and even meningitis as bacterial vaccines are—but if we do not look, we will not find out.’[2]

So at present it is unproven and uncertain. Meanwhile ‘looking in order to find out’ involves mass experimentation on our children. Research to date is interpreted as suggesting that pressing ahead will probably do little harm and could on balance do a little good across society as a whole. But it is not known for sure, and it does not have the degree of assurance associated with vaccinations of proven usefulness. Vaccines against meningitis and other series diseases were developed in response to a clear and pressing clinical need. But while the early use of flu vaccines itself was directed to protecting groups at clear clinical risks to themselves of morbidity and mortality,[3] the subsequent roll out to groups at minimal individual risk appears to have a different sort of rationale.

Given the pressures on resources both for schools and the health service, why is such priority accorded to this programme? The clinical case does not seem particularly powerful; and such public concern as may have started to arise in recent years seems to have been manufactured by communications from the parties involved in promoting the vaccines.

Here in Scotland, the supplier of the vaccine[4] appears to be the large pharmaceutical company Sanofi, a company that pools early stage research with Astrazenica. These are massive companies with a shared business interest in expanding their joint market area. In this business environment, it would not be any surprise to find that their strenuous promotion efforts have leached through into an increasingly business-driven health service and been abetted by lobby-able politicians.

Clearly, if you have a product that has to be purchased year on year for huge numbers across a population, then you have a good opportunity for making profits, and if you plough some of these back into further research and development you can probably make the case for extending your roll-out still further. The entire 18-65 age group is there awaiting the picking.

Meanwhile, what should we parents think? The accompanying leaflet my child brought home is called ‘Child flu immunization – what you need to know’. To be told by a faceless authority ‘what you need to know’ is to be subject to an assertion of unaccountable power. What I need to know is for me to decide! For starters, I’d like to know who exactly is promoting this programme within NHS Scotland and Scottish Government, who decided to award Sanofi this contract, and on what basis. Then we’d know who to expect authoritative answers from. I guess I’ll send these questions on to my MSPs.


[1] Osterholm, M.T., Kelley, N.S., Sommer, A., Belongia, E.A., 2012. Efficacy and effectiveness of influenza vaccines: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases 12, 36–44.

[2] Thors, V., Smith, C., Finn, A., 2013. Should all children be immunised against influenza? Arch Dis Child 98, 846–849: p.848.   [The article comes with this declaration of interests: ‘VT is an ESPID Research Fellow and is currently undertaking research partially funded by a grant to the University of Bristol from Astra-Zeneca. AF undertakes consultancy and clinical research for all the main vaccine companies including most of those manufacturing flu vaccines. All funding related to these activities is paid to his employers, the University of Bristol and University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust. He receives no personal remuneration related to these activities and has no other financial interest in these companies or any related intellectual property.’]

[3] The National Flu Immunisation Programme 2016/17 UK Gov.

[4] NSS National Procurement, Flu Vaccine Distribution Arrangements 2016/17: Overview of Order Arrangements and Frequently Asked Questions (Updated: 11 July 2016)


Posted in health, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

They hold our values in contempt

“As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism,” said Hilary Benn, and “we are here faced by fascists. … They hold our values in contempt, they hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt … . And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.”  That is why “socialists and trade unionists and others joined the international brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco.”

Indeed, those socialists and trade unionists put their boots on the ground and their lives on the line.  To invoke their memory in support of dropping bombs from a great height on Syria with no realistic prospect of meaningful ground troop involvement is calumny.

“It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria”, says the shadow foreign secretary in a sickening flourish.

Go on, then, you and your brave tory friends in blue and in red, do YOUR bit, like the real fighters against fascism did.  Then you’ll show them how wrong they are to hold you in contempt.

Meanwhile, if your plan is to bomb them into respect for your Tolerance and Decency, you might want to ease up on the crying to the press everytime someone posts you a picture of disrespectfully dead babies that haven’t quite got your message.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment