Women’s Protection in Syria: Stop Support For Terrorists!

A ‘new report by the London School of Economics’ (LSE), so announced the British press – The Times, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror – describes sexual crimes against women in Syrian prisons. It alleges these to be a matter of state policy. Published just ahead of Geneva talks about a political settlement in Syria, the press interpreted it as supporting renewed calls for regime change.

The paper provides no new grounds for that conclusion, however. In fact, its sweeping allegations obscure good reasons why, under present circumstances, a responsible approach to the problem of sexual violence in Syria would involve supporting the government against the terrorist insurgents.

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Syrian Christians

United Nations research had previously found (in 2015 and again in 2016) that while some conflict-related sexual violence was perpetrated by state personnel, ‘non-State actors account for the vast majority of incidents’.[1] The UN made clear that efforts to defeat groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, as the Syrian government is committed to, ‘are an essential part of the fight against conflict-related sexual violence.’ Such groups use sexual violence as part of their strategy to spread terror among those that oppose their ideology. They engage in trafficking of women and slavery. They drive the displacement of women who, then, ‘remain at high risk, even when they reach the supposed refuge of neighbouring countries.’

Marie Forestier, the LSE paper’s author, complains that the UN paid ‘disproportionate attention’ to the terrorist groups as perpetrators of sexual violence in Syria. She wants to highlight crimes on the government side, and she relays some horrific allegations about some individual cases. This illustrates specific experiences of a problem that the UN had signaled. However, while harrowing in themselves, these testimonies cannot speak to the comparative scale of the problem.[2] Forestier therefore does not show the UN’s concerns about the egregious sexual violence of the terrorist insurgents to be disproportionate. Furthermore, her interviews relate to experiences from a period – 2012 and 2013 – that is earlier than covered by the UN reports of 2015 and 2016. Forestier herself admits that accusations of sexual violence on the government’s side were ‘most frequent from late 2011 to 2013, in disputed areas such as the Damascus suburbs, and in central and coastal governorates … with a peak in 2012, and comparatively fewer cases in 2014.’ She thereby shows the situation was worse in places where the government had to fight insurgents and improved when the government regained control. In light of her own admissions, it seems perverse to cite limited older evidence in criticizing considered conclusions of fuller and more up-to-date reports.

The perversity is heightened with unwarranted generalizations in the present continuous tense. Press coverage has, unsurprisingly, transmitted the message that the most shocking details of individual allegations from up to five years ago capture what is occurring on a general and continuing basis today. Forestier herself even makes demonstrably false general claims in the present tense. For instance, she says: ‘According to an estimate by United Nations investigators, Syrian security forces detain tens of thousands of people at any one time.’ However, the source she cites for this claim says no such thing.[3]

Some of her most damaging claims are simply inexplicable, as when she says: ‘According to testimony, the overwhelming majority of men committing rapes have been State forces.’ This extraordinary claim flies in the face of the palpable evidence and reports of the UN. Bizarrely, the source Forestier cites for it is an article on ‘general data on sexual violence by state forces’ attained for 129 other conflicts, not including Syria, and during a period (1989-2009) prior to the outbreak of war in Syria.[4]

The LSE paper’s headline message thus misrepresents what is actually shown regarding the extent of the government’s responsibility for sexual violence. Buried within its text are admissions that the paper should only ‘be considered as a starting point for further research’ and that ‘it is impossible to conclude that sexual violence by regime forces is a mass phenomenon.’ Yet this did not stop Forestier making such damaging accusations as that ‘rape can be considered as part of a general policy from the authorities’ (p.12).[5]

Regardless of lack of evidence, she seems determined to convey a message of rape and sexual violence being state policy approved at the highest levels.[6] Yet she admits: ‘The decision to resort to sexual violence (or tolerate it) seems to have fallen under the regional level or even the branch and military unit level’. ‘No information indicates that high-level officials in Damascus ordered rapes’ and ‘the President or high level security officials probably didn’t give explicit orders’.

She rightly notes that ‘commanders may be prosecuted where they know or should have known of the abuses and failed to take action to stop them.’ She also correctly observes that ‘ending impunity is central in preventing sexual violence.’ I would add that ending impunity, like bringing the problem itself under control, requires well functioning institutions. The Syrian government is evidently aware of this, and, under difficult conditions, has sought to improve its systems for the protection of women and children, as welcomed by the UN OHCHR. But the good functioning of institutions is favoured by peaceful conditions rather than by war.

One does not have to be an enthusiast for the present government to recognize its legitimacy and the simple fact that it is uniquely well-placed as things stand now, and foreseeably, to protect ordinary men, women and children against violent threats.

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Freed from ISIS

A realistic general presumption has to be that rape and sexual violence tends be more common in war than in peacetime.[7] That is a reason – on top of so many others – why war should be avoided. A country that finds its territory turned into a battleground has to reckon with sexual violence being more prevalent than in peacetime, while its resources to tackle the problem are diverted and diminished. A government that has to defend its people against armed insurgents, particularly when these routinely engage in sexual violence, faces extraordinary challenges. That does not absolve it of responsibility for ensuring good conduct by its own forces. The practical ability of a government to maintain discipline, however, is not enhanced by having to engage on many fronts with ruthless opposition.

Realistically, and morally, the best way to avoid rape in war is to avoid war itself. I cannot believe that Marie Forestier would disagree on this general point, but I am less sure what she thinks with regard to the specific case of Syria, or even whether she has fully thought it through.[8] The thrust of her argument would support continued efforts by foreign powers, exercised through terrorist proxies on the ground, to depose the government of Syria, something that could only worsen further still the problem of sexual violence.

… [11]

It may incidentally be worth noting that the Syrian army prominently features all female units, including the famed Lionesses for National Defence unit of the elite Republican Guard.[12] Western commentators who note the propaganda value of this also grant that its success reflects the wider social solidarity that has made the Syrian Arab Army so resilient. As a French commentator observes, ‘The war in Syria is a face-off between two societal structures and Assad is showing that, in his system, women have an important role, even in the defence forces’.[13] If the Syrian government sees the propaganda value of promoting women’s equality, we might reasonably suppose it would see the irrationality of undoing such reputational gains by pursuing a delinquent policy of the kind Forestier alleges.

The fact is that what people widely believe throughout Syria – in Arab areas as in Kurdish – is that the overwhelming problem of sexual violence, like that of extremist violence more generally, comes from ISIS and other terrorists that violate, torture, enslave, traffic and oppress women. This is consistent with the UN findings. Forestier’s allegations are consistent only with the foreign drive for ‘regime change’.

For anyone genuinely concerned to deal with sexual violence occurring in – and occasioned by – conflict situations, a central preventive strategy is not starting a war in the first place, and not prolonging a war needlessly once started. It certainly means not intervening in a war on the side of those inflicting by far and away the most extensive and egregious sexual crimes.

In short, if the government had been supported in its efforts to defeat the insurgents, a great deal of sexual violence would have been avoided. Forestier’s claims, seen in this light, in being unfounded, are counterproductive and irresponsible. The view she opposes has a coherence hers lacks. It also has basic morality on its side. The problem with Forestier’s paper is not simply that it is poor research and writing.[14] The real concern is that, in being publicly promoted, it has been fed into the narrative beyond academia that would continue seeking to destabilise Syria (and the wider Middle East) and to prolong conflict against the Syrian government. One effect of this would be to prolong the circumstances in which sexual violence continues unabated on that territory.

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Civilians freed by Syrian Army

[1] United Nations Security Council, Conflict-related sexual violence Report of the Secretary-General 23 March 2015: https://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2015/203. United Nations Security Council Report of the Secretary-General on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, 20 April 2016, S/2016/361 http://www.peacewomen.org/node/94106.

[2] I do not take propose to take issue with any of Forestier’s reporting of testimonies, even though her methodology is unclear. (For instance, she mentions that three interviews with survivors ‘were excluded because they seemed exaggerated or false’ yet she does not explain how she decided whose word to give how much credence to, particularly in cases where she was speaking through a translator via phone to someone she hadn’t met.)

[3] The source she cites is UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Commission
of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, A/ HRC/31/68, 11 February 2016, http://www. ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/ CoISyria/A-HRC-31-68.pdf. (Having checked that source I find the only mention of thousands of people refers to ISIS crimes. I could not find any statement remotely resembling her claim, and I would readily correct the record here if she can direct me to it with a page reference.)

[4] Dara Kay Cohen and Ragnhild Nordas, “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Introducing the SVAC dataset, Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Introducing the SVAC dataset, 1989−2009”, Journal of Peace Research 51(3) (2014), 418-428.

[5] This assumption is manifest, too, in her claim – made much of in the press reporting of her paper – that sexual assault in detention was so routine that contraception was supplied. Damning as this may be, assuming it is true, it does not self-evidently suggest that those assaults were part of a policy as distinct from an atrocious practice. It could in fact be taken to suggest a desire of perpetrators to prevent evidence of violations coming to light.  A related claim involves the testimony of a victim that her attacker used Vaseline. Forestier takes this, along with the contraception, to ‘indicate that rapes followed a regular pattern that involved some degree of organisation and were part of a broader state policy of widespread repression against the civil population.’ Since the organization required is that of a visit to a pharmacy, and we can have no idea how widespread the practice was, we cannot simply infer what Forestier claims about a ‘broader state policy’.

[6] At one point she asserts that ‘when soldiers or militiamen raped women during military operations, this was part of the attack against their adversaries and their relatives. Thus, rape can be considered as part of a general policy from the authorities.’ But the inference stated after her ‘thus’ is a non sequitur: she provides no reason to think such attacks follow from a policy rather than opportunism or vindictiveness.

[7] The presumption has to be defeasible, but it seems clear that simply to presume the contrary would be imprudent. For a discussion see e.g. Doris E. Buss, ‘Rethinking “Rape as a Weapon of War, Feminist Legal Studies (2009) 17.2: 145-163.

[8] Her puzzling take on the situation is illustrated by a claim like this: ‘the Syrian government has sought to increase antagonism between communities’ and ‘to frame the conflict as a fight between Alawites and Sunnis instead of a struggle for democracy.’ Yet the government owes its resilience precisely to a longstanding and conscious strategy of defusing sectarian tendencies. (The government has consistently framed the conflict as an attack on the secular multi-faith state by primarily Islamist jihadists.) Furthermore, however much a desire for greater democracy may originally have motivated the political opposition, the conflict that has ensued was taken over by jihadists committed to imposing the most anti-democratic regime imaginable.

[11] This passage originally mentioned the example of the Kurdish women’s units and has been edited on advice from early readers. (Original 1 March 2017; amended 2 March 2017)

[12] Daily Mail 26 March 2015 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3011838/Syria-s-female-tank-drivers-Battalion-800-women-commandos-fierce-clashes-rebels-line-Damascus.html#ixzz4ZnIjB3tT

[13] Fabrice Balanche, quoted by France 24, 2 April 2015: http://www.france24.com/en/20150402-syria-women-soldiers-assad-army-propaganda

[14] Given its status as a Working Paper, the academic community is aware that Forestier’s claims have not been peer-reviewed. The wider world does not observe such niceties. The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail and The Times did not. Most tweeters do not. They all present it as coming from the prestigious LSE. Which is fair enough, given that it features conspicuously on the LSE website. Since LSE has promoted this paper, there is a case for saying they should own it and answer for it. If my argument in this post is correct, there is a case for suggesting they should retract it.  

Posted in disinformation, global justice, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 15 Comments

NGOs Fabricating Evidence Against Syria

Last week, Amnesty International published a report that was severely criticised for literally fabricating evidence to support implausible accusations against the Syrian government.[1]  The report included a project of ‘Forensic Architecture’ that served in guiding the imagination as to the horrors that might be perpetrated in a building used for torture and execution. Computerised modelling of this kind may have its uses, but it clearly has limitations when it comes to determining who may have done what in a building. A computer can only simulate on the basis of inputs. The inputs come from elsewhere, and they may or may not be reliable or appropriately detailed.[2]

This week, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that they too have been commissioning  research in Forensic Architecture. This might seem a strange thing for an organisation of doctors to be doing.  Still, their ostensible concern is that the bombing of hospitals – something contrary to the law of war and human morality – should not go unrecorded nor, ultimately, unpunished. An added difficulty is that ‘often, the only real redress available to MSF is to publicly denounce perpetrators of bombings in the hope that the damage to their image will incite them to modify their practices.’ Denunciations may have little enough effect, particularly when even the grounds for them is uncertain. Where there is a known threat of danger to the staff running a hospital, MSF prudently does not even attempt to operate.  The organisation does sometimes offer support of some kind to medics who do work in war zones, however, like the province of Idlib in Syria.

Just over a year ago, the MSF-supported Ma’arat Al Numan hospital in Idlib province was hit by an airstrike. At the time, ‘Dr Mego Terzian, president of MSF’s French section, publicly accused the Russian-Syrian coalition of being responsible for the bombings – a conviction based on an analysis of the context, the military forces present and testimonies from Syrian civilians (some known to MSF for some time) who were at the scene.’ However, the accusation sparked ‘much heated debate within the MSF Movement. On what grounds is MSF accusing Russia and Syria? How reliable are the witness statements it is using to support its allegations?’ (See also my recent article on How We Were Misled About Syria by MSF.)

Now, MSF tells us, ‘The Forensic Architecture team has conducted an investigation based on videos and photographs circulating on social media, taken by medical personnel, activists and ordinary citizens.’

And?

‘While their investigation does not provide solid evidence, it does confirm MSF’s conviction as to the responsibility of Syrian and Russian forces in the bombing of the hospital in Ma’arat Al Numan.’

So, no evidence, and yet a confirmation of a ‘conviction’?

I think perhaps the research team promoting this new use of computerised modelling should make clear the limitations of its proper use. The recent case of Amnesty International appealing to the same source of non-evidence highlights an overreach that the researchers now risk seeming complicit in. The timing of the release of these dramatic pieces of non-evidence hardly looks accidental to any serious observer. Do the people at Forensic Architecture really want to be seen as partners in a continued drive to destabilise the Middle East?

As for MSF, and this goes for Amnesty International too, their publications on Syria sometimes read like the worst kind of tabloid journalism. Exaggerated headline claims backed up by no supporting evidence, and with crucial caveats, if included at all, tucked away where they are unlikely to register with any but the most cautious readers.

Is there something going on in the direction of those organisations that is not quite what ordinary supporters among the public believe?

 

[1] On the fabrication see Tony Cartalucci. The report was critically analysed by Rick Sterling as well as Moon of Alabama. The former UK Ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, who had earlier visited the prison in question, stated the report ‘would not stand scrutiny’. A former prisoner there, who remains an opponent of Assad, stated that while atrocious things certainly occurred, the scale of Amnesty’s claims was preposterous. Further critical discussions are cited here.

[2] MSF say, ‘Investigations use amateur photographs and video footage to help reconstruct the “crime scene”‘. Specifically, they add, ‘Using cartography, image analysis, and legal and architectural expertise, research agency Forensic Architecture collects and analyses images taken of a crime committed by a State to establish the facts and ascertain who was responsible.’ An obvious question concerns the difference between establishing the facts of physical changes undergone by a structure and attributing responsibility for causing them, since the latter challenge necessarily involves input of extra-architectural data.

 

Posted in Amnesty International, MSF, Syria, Uncategorized, war | Leave a comment

Amnesty International on Syria – at it again!

Writing recently about how we were misled by Amnesty International’s reports on Syria, I was criticised – for using the past tense.

This week Amnesty International has published a ‘new’ report – Syria: The Human Slaughterhouse – that presents no new evidence of the deaths it purports to be documenting. Even the BBC’s take on it makes clear: ‘it does not have evidence of executions taking place since December 2015’. The publication repeats previous claims about the years 2011-2015, and extrapolates.[1]

Such grave allegations need to be taken very seriously, but that starts with being scrupulous about their basis.

Previously I showed how Amnesty International did not follow its own prescribed research guidelines for earlier reports; it did not do so this time either.[2]

Those guidelines were those set out by Secretary General, Salil Shetty, and I think he could give a clearer steer on the need to observe them. In an interview, it was put to Shetty that accusations of bias are sometimes levelled at Amnesty International. His reply was that, since the organisation is criticised from all sides, ‘it must be doing something right’. This facile reply is fallacious. I can think of one controversial Amnesty representative, for instance, who has been accused of making unjustified claims against the governments of both Israel and Syria. I suspect many people who check will think he is wrong in one of those cases, although not necessarily the same one, without thereby assuming either he must be right in the other. I myself would simply regard him as simply insufficiently reliable.

Even if it is in fact true that the organisation is doing ‘something’ right, I do not think Amnesty should be content that this is good enough. I would want to insist that Amnesty needs to be tenacious in ensuring not to get it wrong. Its practice in Syria of extrapolating on the basis of conjectures made following conversations with representatives of the opposition is not guaranteed to ensure that.

What I think the grassroots supporters of Amnesty International need above all to be concerned about is what the organisation is trying to achieve with this new publication. With more constructive possibilities of international involvement following the end of the siege of Aleppo, what is the reason for reviving attempts to demonise the Syrian government?

Whatever excesses any parties need eventually to be held to account for, the concern of Amnesty International is supposed to be with human beings, and their interest lies overwhelmingly in achieving peace – not in stoking the embers of the war.

 

[1] A critical discussion of this is available at http://www.moonofalabama.org/2017/02/amnesty-report-hearsay.html

[2] For the 2012 report, which covers the first year of the five referred to in the new publication, I showed, point by point, that the report admits failing to fulfil some of the research criteria and fails to show it has met any of them. Substantially the same verdict applies to what is said here for 2012-2015; regarding the period 2015-2016, which many readers will understandably, but mistakenly, assume the ‘new’ evidence relates to, no evidence at all is even claimed to be presented.

Posted in Amnesty International, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 4 Comments

How We Were Misled About Syria: Channel 4 News

Difficulties faced news organisations attempting to cover events in the war in Syria, particularly in the eastern part of Aleppo when under siege. Western journalists had stopped even trying to enter that area for fear of being kidnapped, or worse, at the hands of one or other of the armed factions holding the area. International relief agencies and NGO’s were not to be found on the ground either, for the same reasons.

This is one of the two main problems for media coverage of Syria that Eva Bartlett highlighted at a UN press conference in November 2016 when talking about her first hand experience of conditions in Aleppo.[1] Asked by a journalist from a mainstream publication why she seemed to be challenging ‘all these absolutely documentable facts that we’ve seen from the ground’, she pointed out that he was referring to a hearsay narrative, not facts, because ‘sources on the ground? You don’t have them.’

Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear had earlier in 2016 grappled with this problem, of “safe access denied to objective independent journalists from outside”, and had devised a strategy for circumventing it. He commissioned coverage from a Syrian woman called Wa’ad Alkateab who could move safely in the opposition-held area. She went on to make a series of films – Inside Aleppo – that, thanks to the prominence Channel 4 gave them, became influential in forming public opinion about the circumstances in Aleppo.

This neat side-stepping of the first problem, however, put Channel 4’s coverage at risk of succumbing to the second problem highlighted by Eva Bartlett: any testimony coming out of opposition-held areas has to be considered compromised. For we have to assume that whatever is reported from the opposition-held area is only what those with the guns will permit. So the presumption must be that information coming out is unlikely to be the whole truth and may contain untruths.

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For some reason, this presumption – which follows from the most basic principles of credible journalism – seems at times to have been suspended by Channel 4 News in its coverage of Syria. It entered no caveats about the reports and tended to treat their content – without corroboration or independent evidence – as if it had come from verified sources.[2] Channel 4 was thus knowingly complicit in promoting a narrative that was necessarily one-sided.

To take just one obvious example of partiality: Alkateab’s films prominently feature the medical facility where her husband Hamza Al-Khatib played a central role, and we hear repeatedly how the Syrian government and its Russian allies are bombing areas with civilians including the children they treat. What we would never know from these films is that there are many more hospitals in the larger part of Aleppo treating children and other civilians who are victims of rockets and mortars launched into residential areas by fighters from the opposition enclave in the eastern part.[3] These, moreover, can be corroborated.[4]

It should go without saying that a single individual will always have their own limited perspective; an individual with a strong ideological commitment who is deeply embedded with oppositional militants must be assumed to be partial. (The commitment may be sincere and held with good intention but this does not diminish the questions about its partiality.)

Role to play.jpg

This may be why people at Channel 4 responded in a particularly defensive manner to the simple moral force of Eva Bartlett’s cautionary words. They engaged in a rather disingenuous attempt to discredit her. An article published on their website, that merely took issue with one incidental in Bartlett’s account, was promoted by Channel 4 people – from Jon Snow and Ben de Pear down – as if it had disposed of her critique of mainstream coverage in Syria.[5] The article in fact made no comment on her main points.

Two major claims Bartlett had made – that there were no independent news sources on the ground in Aleppo and that any sources used there should be regarded as compromised – were incontrovertibly true. The factual truth of the first was clearly acknowledged by Channel 4 itself, as we noted. The truth of the second is of a normative kind that would be accepted by any decent journalist under the circumstances prevailing in Aleppo.

What is really at issue, therefore, if we assume agreement about the basic standards of reputable journalism, is whether anyone has an effective reply to her main substantive argument about coverage of the war in Syria, namely, that it involves the promotion of a narrative that lacks a basis in verifiable fact. Bartlett claims that the mainstream media have systematically occluded an entire side of the Syrian story, and they have done so in a way that supports the interests of the NATO and Gulf states that were pressing for ‘regime change’ in Syria; in doing this, they have supported the visitation of a devastating war upon the Syrian people that has been unnecessary and unjustified. The mainstream media are thereby complicit in an egregious contravention of the laws of war and human morality.

Channel 4’s defensiveness on the subject indicates that they saw the charge applied to them as a part of the mainstream consensus. But if they were going to answer it, why did they not play what should have been their strongest card? If Bartlett’s claim is that people on the ground contest the mainstream narrative, why not appeal to contrary testimony from the ground that supports it? They have the Alkateab videos, after all, and these repeatedly show people injured or bereaved by bombings. The thing is, what those videos show is something that is not in dispute: people are being killed by war, and it is difficult to run medical facilities in conditions of war. By contriving to suggest that Bartlett is denying this, which she is obviously not, they evade the real challenge.

In fact, a major evasiveness is at the heart of the series Inside Aleppo. If we bear in mind that the films are shot in an area of the town that is being besieged by the Syrian army and the Russian air force, then we realise this is because there is considerable military resistance being put up. Yet in the Alkateab films there is an eerie silence about the military forces on the ground around them. Although in the film of the couple and their baby entering Aleppo we catch sight of one of their companions carrying an AK47, the rest of the time we see nobody onscreen bearing any arms. Nor do we hear anything about any of the score or so of armed brigades, dominated by the militias of Al Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria) that are controlling the town and holding at bay the combined military might of Syria and Russia. We do not even hear anything explicit about the so-called ‘moderate opposition’ that the mainstream media refer to.

moderate bakery bombers.png

As it happens, though, Channel 4 did make one film showing the ‘moderate opposition’ at work. It was billed as giving ‘a glimpse into why Syrian and Russian forces have so far been unable to re-take the whole of Aleppo.’[6] Up Close with the Rebels (released in October 2016) features an example of so-called ‘moderate rebels’ in action. In his voiceover, Krishnan Guru-Murthy introduces the action as “one small but famous victory, as rebels fought back against the forces of Bashar Al-Assad”. With this vicarious sharing of their glory, the Channel 4 man is in no doubt about who they are: they are “Islamist fighters”, he tells us, noting also that “many civilians in West Aleppo are frightened of these rebel fighters”, which would not be surprising given that they are “launching rockets into the western side of the city”. “This group is well equipped”, he adds, “paid for and supplied by Gulf States, mainly Qatar.”

I think we need to pause here. It appears that the film thereby illustrates, point by point, exactly what Bartlett has said about the anti-government forces being foreign-funded terrorists that the ordinary citizens of Syria want to be protected from. Guru-Murthy appears to be corroborating Bartlett’s account as against that promoted by Channel 4.

The manner of the reporting, though, is truly strange. It involves glorifying in the victory of jihadi terrorists while admitting that ordinary civilians in the greater part of Aleppo are in fear of these fighters. I literally cannot imagine what was going through the head of Guru-Murthy as he was saying all this out loud. Nor can I imagine how exactly he thinks the ordinary civilians trapped in the eastern part of Aleppo felt towards these and all the other fighters ruling their lives. After all, he and his colleagues dared not even set foot there.

Still, worse is to come. It relates to a story that shocked the world, in July 2016, when from Aleppo came news – and footage – of a group of Islamists severing the head off a twelve-year old boy with a small knife.[7] That group was Nour Al-Din Al-Zinki, and several of the men directly involved are clearly recognizable in photos that circulated the globe.

One of the men involved in decapitating the twelve-year-old features centre stage in Channel 4’s film.

That, then, is what you find if you actually get up close with the rebels. Channel 4, on being apprised that ordinary observant members of the public apparently knew, or cared, more about the people they were working with than its own news team did, hastily withdrew the video from its website. (I say hastily, as to my knowledge Channel 4 has issued neither apology nor explanation for sending out a news report and then retracting it after people may have relied on it.) The film remains readily accessible elsewhere on the internet – as does the harrowing footage of the decapitation.

The films by Alkateab remain on Channel 4’s catalogue, and it is to be noted that she was not responsible for the Nour Al-Din Al-Zinki footage. But a friend of hers was. Abdul Kader Habak was driving the car that brought Waad and her family into Aleppo. He, like her husband, is interviewed in her film. They presumably all enjoy the same protection.

I make no claim to know which individuals belong to which groups, armed or otherwise, in the ‘rebel-held’ area, but anyone curious enough to look at their public facebook and twitter feeds will see that Wa’ad and Hamza are passionately committed to the anti-government cause. They even use their own baby as a symbol of their struggle. None of this necessarily means their testimony is untrue. But Channel 4 was surprisingly uncritical in its showcasing of the material.[8]

aleppo-day

The truth or otherwise of stories from Channel 4’s sources in eastern Aleppo was to be put to the test in the final days of the siege. These saw intense tweeting from the rebels, and retweeting of it by the Channel 4 news team. ‘Massacre was imminent’, and eastern Aleppo was about to ‘fall’ to the merciless forces of the Syrian ‘regime’. These would probably be the ‘last messages’ before government forces ‘annihilated’ them in #holocaustaleppo. Channel 4 bought into this fully, even featuring a filmed ‘letter’ by Wa’ad which starts “Maybe this will be my last letter to you and the world…”.[9]

In the event, those same people would soon be tweeting again from Turkey or other rebel-held parts of Syria. Meanwhile, according to the kinds of observer that regard Eva Bartlett with respect – and according also to the copious footage showing it – the majority of the population of eastern Aleppo, reunited with the western part, celebrated their liberation, welcoming the Syrian army, and the Russians that followed with their sappers to clear buildings of mines and booby-traps left behind by the ‘moderate rebels’.

As the liberated city has started to rebuild and function again, the Western media have gone silent. Channel 4 no longer talks much about Aleppo. But if the news bandwagon may have moved on, real lives have been lost or changed forever as a result of a war that was unjustified and unnecessary. The rest of us must try and learn from such awful chains of events as led to the unspeakable carnage and displacement in Syria.

Most of us know nothing about Syria except what we can glean from the media – either mainstream news outlets or independent investigators on social media. We are not in a position to check facts as such. Yet we can assess the credibility of testimony, even if only by ascertaining whether it is internally consistent rather than self-contradictory. A fully self-consistent story is not guaranteed to correspond to the true facts, of course, but one that is internally inconsistent cannot be the whole or unalloyed truth.

An account of the circumstances in Aleppo, that was internally consistent during the siege, and vindicated by subsequent events, was provided by those few witnesses from the West who were on the ground. The testimony of Eva Bartlett is consistent with that of a number of other independent observers with first hand experience in Syria at this historic moment who show sides to the story closed off by the mainstream media. They include US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, filmmaker Carla Ortiz, journalist Vanessa Beeley, peace campaigner Jan Oberg, and Virginia State Senator Richard Black.

These individuals, have in varying degrees and ways been vilified, patronised or ignored by mainstream outlets – deploying the low tactics of those who cannot win an argument by means of reason or evidence.  But why should news agencies even be in the business of making an argument?  What exactly is the social role and purpose of the press?

I have chosen to focus on Channel 4, of all the news outlets that promoted the orthodox narrative, for several reasons. Channel 4 has a better reputation among much of the public than some other news outlets: it is thought to have high journalistic standards, and since it also has a public service remit, people tend to expect its coverage to exhibit investigative integrity and objectivity. Yet with regard to its coverage of Syria, not merely did Channel 4 disappoint those expectations, it went the extra mile to reinforce a misleading narrative by commissioning a partisan filmmaker to produce its flagship series of programmes on the war in Syria.

In my opinion, the Channel 4 News team owe a collective apology to Eva Bartlett for suggesting she was discredited when the truth was quite otherwise. I also think that Channel 4 owe us, the public, a commitment to do better than this in future. As for what Channel 4 owes to the people of Syria? The harms of this war can never be made good. Harms of future wars may yet be mitigated or even avoided, and I believe the one thing Channel 4 can and should do is join the side of truth with those who are seeking ways to break up the monolithic deceptions that our communications are increasingly being submerged in.

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[1] Eva Bartlett speaking to United Nations Press Conference 9 December 2016: full version; short version featuring the claims discussed here.

[2] “During the summer we made a conscious decision to try and report what was happening in Syria, and particularly in Aleppo, on a daily basis. One person, Wa’ad al Kateab, has made this possible.” Ben de Pear, Channel 4 News, October 2016 http://insidealeppo.com/ It was never made especially clear in Channel 4 news reports on Aleppo how much they relied on this one source, and references to reports on the ground – while unattributed – were also often in the plural. Something to note, however, is that there was not necessarily a plurality of viewpoints coming out of the Aleppo Media Centre, which was the one functioning agency on the ground in eastern Aleppo. Other journalists used and referred to by channel four include Abdul Kader Habak (the cameraman on Up Close With The Rebels) and ‘a photographer for Reuters’ who I presume would be Abdalrhman Ismail, both of whom appear to move freely among militants. So while Wa’ad was possibly not the only source, there was still no meaningful corroboration since all sources accessed by Channel 4 should most safely be assumed to have been compromised in similar ways. Quite generally, Chanel 4 have tended to treat anti-government claims as true whereas they always voice scepticism in relation to claims on the other side, even on those rare occasions where they air them (as in Thomson example below) or the occasional interview, as with Jon Snow’s shameful haranguing of the Aleppo parliamentarian Fares Shehabi on 30 November 2016 https://www.channel4.com/news/aleppo-syrian-mp-fares-shehabi.

[3] For background and useful sources on this see Vanessa Beeley. ‘Channel 4 Joins CNN in Normalising Terrorism, Then Removes Their Own Video’, 21st Century Wire, 9 October 2016.

[4] Corroboration includes that of the Aleppo Medical Association. For background on the real situation of medical facilities across the whole of Aleppo, which is entirely occluded in the Channel 4 films, see for instance: Tim Anderson, ‘The Aleppo Hospital’ Smokescreen: Covering up Al Qaeda Massacres in Syria, Once Again’, Global Research, 9 May 2016; Eva Bartlett, ‘Western corporate media ‘disappears’ over 1.5 million Syrians and 4,000 doctorsSOTT 14 August 2016; Vanessa Beeley, ‘Journey To Aleppo Part II: The Syria Civil Defense & Aleppo Medical Association Are Real Syrians Helping Real Syrians’, Mint Press News, 27 September 2016.

[5] All Channel 4 in reality even attempted to debunk was an aside by Bartlett about how the White Helmets, in staging some of their videos, sometimes used the same actor more than once. Their article goes to great lengths to show there is reasonable doubt about that matter.

Channel 4 were not dishonest about the limited nature of their piece in its title: ‘Eva Bartlett’s Claims About Syrian Children’. The promotion of it by all the colleagues on the news team, however, presented it as a definitive ‘fact check’ or ‘debunking’ of Bartlett. And that is how it went out into the wider world. Representative – and influential – was the tweet of famous Channel 4 anchor Jon Snow on 21 December 2016 linking to an altered title ‘FactCheck: Eva Bartlett’s Syria Claims’, which transforms the narrowly appropriate original one into one that implies a more comprehensive ‘debunking’. He tweets: ‘Even Syria’s children are caught up in lies and propaganda: A remarkable fact check puts the record straight’. All the piece actually does is show there to be reasonable doubt about Bartlett’s claim that the White Helmets publicity featured some children on more than one occasion. Doubt on this score does not even affect her claim that some of the videos were staged (since staging can be done with different actors each time, obviously). On this more substantial claim, the Channel 4 piece does not say much, but it does seek to show that at least one of the White Helmets filmed rescues was genuine. While not disputing that some of their rescues will have been genuine, I would just note that the reasons Channel 4 give would not establish the case for the example they look at. They say this: ‘The long sequence in which rescuers [are shown] painstakingly clearing rubble away from around the girl suggests that it would have been difficult to fake this footage. Someone would have had to have buried a screaming child up to their chest in rubble and carefully assembled a large amount of heavy wreckage around and on top of her – an extraordinary logistical challenge and an extraordinary collective act of child abuse.’

Certainly, it would be an extraordinary collective act of child abuse. As for the logistical challenge, however, it is no more difficult to place some rubble around and above the child than it is to then pick it off. Of course, we ordinary people will recoil at the very thought of seeing this as simply a logistical challenge, because it is such an ‘extraordinary collective act of child abuse’. But we are not terrorists or obliged to work with them. It cannot be a rebuttal of Bartlett’s claims that the White Helmets are embedded with terrorists to show that for her claims to be credible they would have to act in ways that are consistent with terrorist acts. The problem of how children are used, abused and even weaponised by armed groups in the pay of NATO AND Gulf states is a very real one. That the White Helmets are paid from those sources is a matter of public record; that some of them bear arms is illustrated by various videos, including Channel 4’s own documentary Up Close With The Rebels, where, at 2:27, one of the jihadis is clearly seen sporting a jersey with white helmets logo.

Among the various dishonest tactics carefully used in connection with the attempt to discredit and isolate Bartlett is the use of this kind of statement: ‘Supporters of the Assad regime have variously accused the White Helmets of being puppets of western powers, peddlers of faked footage or even terrorist fighters posing as humanitarian workers, all of which the organisation vigorously denies.’ The fact is, anyone who studies the evidence now widely available in the public domain can reasonably infer that the White Helmets are indeed a tool of the western powers, that they have indeed issued faked footage, and that some of them do have demonstrable terrorist affiliations. One can infer these things without have any view at all about Assad. The Channel 4 piece flirts with dishonesty by implying that scepticism about the White Helmets is the preserve of dupes of Assad.

[6] ‘Published on 4 Oct 2016, 20:08 ‘This report, filmed by Syrian cameraman Abdul Kader Habak, gives a glimpse into why Syrian and Russian forces have so far been unable to re-take the whole of Aleppo.’ http://newsvideo.su/video/5313805

[7] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3697770/US-backed-Nour-al-Din-al-Zenki-behead-boy-accused-al-Quds-spy-Assad.html

[8] I am not the first to criticize Channel 4’s coverage of Aleppo. As well as Vanessa Beeley’s piece cited in n3, see also Daniel Margrain, ‘Syria: the Western media’s unending propaganda war’, Scisco Media 5 December 2016.

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4H9xia3Mis&t=292s. Channel 4 cites ‘multiple reports of summary executions of civilians’ 13 Dec 2016 (https://www.channel4.com/news/inside-aleppo-latest-from-source-in-the-city), which presumably come from the same ‘activists on the ground’ that Jon Snow uncritically relays statements from in this item – https://www.channel4.com/news/aleppo-have-we-reached-the-endgame. In the same item, Alex Thomson includes an interview run by Russian TV where civilians leaving the east call the militias in charge there “animals from hell” who had prevented them having food and tried to stop them leaving (https://www.channel4.com/news/aleppo-have-we-reached-the-endgame). In response to this, Thomson comments from his studio, ‘blaming the rebels may well be genuine, but it could also save your life.’ What? This gratuitous comment he permits himself is given no substantiation. So an identifiable individual manifestly suffering on the screen in front of him is treated as an object of scepticism and insinuation while unidentified activist sources can come out with any tales they choose and these are treated as tantamount to fact.

There is a certain amount of misdirection in the editing too. While referring to unattributed ‘reports’, Channel 4 would run stock footage (unlabelled as such) showing for instance the White Helmets on the ground – as in this one: https://www.channel4.com/news/east-aleppo-bombardment-continues-with-dozens-reported-dead – but they were in reality keeping a very low profile in those days. Misleading interviews, too, as in this one – https://www.channel4.com/news/the-latest-from-aleppo – with a ‘teacher’ who also featured as one of the ‘last days’ webcam publicists, and who later (in February 2017) is writing on Facebook that ‘it is not easy to leave five years of fighting for freedom … The Evil has won a battle but I hope we will get the Freedom in the final stage.’

A particularly egregious practice at Channel 4 is to permit themselves to claim to know Syrian government plans and strategies. Channel 4 is prepared to report on the basis of unspecified sources about ‘what appears to be a deliberate strategy by the Russians to block the evacuation of medical staff from what remains of eastern Aleppo’ (https://www.channel4.com/news/inside-aleppo-latest-from-source-in-the-city) This echoes earlier claims, as in the report that asserted the Syrian government had a plan to make life too unbearable for civilians to stay in Aleppo (https://youtu.be/U7Y_46OE35QS). Such claims are not only preposterous but also implicitly reinforce a disputed claim that it is not the armed militias who are keeping the ordinary population trapped in the area they still hold. This poor journalistic practice seems to be somewhat engrained. We find as recently as 20th January 2017 in the Press Gazette: ‘Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear told Press Gazette: “Waad and her family really were on the last bus to get out of Aleppo and we know that they and the other doctors and activists and journalists in the city were the number one target of the Assad Regime.”’ http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/channel-4-news-filmmaker-waad-al-kateab-safe-in-turkey-after-escaping-aleppo-siege-on-last-bus-out/ The claim is preposterous in more ways than are worth analysing, but the only question I’d trouble to ask is how de Pear thinks he knows this.

Posted in Channel 4, disinformation, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 27 Comments

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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NOTES

[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!

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[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)

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

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[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.

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