Monthly archives: March 2007

Treatment of Captives

Terry Jones makes the legitimate point that we should look at the mote in our own eye. Nor can we just point at the Americans. Baha Musa was undoubtedly no terrorist; yet this father was also undoubtedly beaten to death by Briitish soldiers when in British detention in Iraq. Nobody was convicted. He was by no means the only one.

Two wrongs do not make a right; nor was that the fault of any of those held captive in Iran. I pray that the Iranians treat them very well indeed – even better let them go immediately.

But the truth is that, thanks to Blair and Bush, we have no right any more to lecture any other country on universal rights and treatment of captives.

No hoods. No electric shocks. No beatings. These Iranians clearly are a very uncivilised bunch

Terry Jones

Saturday March 31, 2007

The Guardian

I share the outrage expressed in the British press over the treatment of our naval personnel accused by Iran of illegally entering their waters. It is a disgrace. We would never dream of treating captives like this – allowing them to smoke cigarettes, for example, even though it has been proven that smoking kills. And as for compelling poor servicewoman Faye Turney to wear a black headscarf, and then allowing the picture to be posted around the world – have the Iranians no concept of civilised behaviour? For God’s sake, what’s wrong with putting a bag over her head? That’s what we do with the Muslims we capture: we put bags over their heads, so it’s hard to breathe. Then it’s perfectly acceptable to take photographs of them and circulate them to the press because the captives can’t be recognised and humiliated in the way these unfortunate British service people are.

It is also unacceptable that these British captives should be made to talk on television and say things that they may regret later. If the Iranians put duct tape over their mouths, like we do to our captives, they wouldn’t be able to talk at all. Of course they’d probably find it even harder to breathe – especially with a bag over their head – but at least they wouldn’t be humiliated.

And what’s all this about allowing the captives to write letters home saying they are all right? It’s time the Iranians fell into line with the rest of the civilised world: they should allow their captives the privacy of solitary confinement. That’s one of the many privileges the US grants to its captives in Guant’namo Bay.

The true mark of a civilised country is that it doesn’t rush into charging people whom it has arbitrarily arrested in places it’s just invaded. The inmates of Guant’namo, for example, have been enjoying all the privacy they want for almost five years, and the first inmate has only just been charged. What a contrast to the disgraceful Iranian rush to parade their captives before the cameras!

What’s more, it is clear that the Iranians are not giving their British prisoners any decent physical exercise. The US military make sure that their Iraqi captives enjoy PT. This takes the form of exciting “stress positions”, which the captives are expected to hold for hours on end so as to improve their stomach and calf muscles. A common exercise is where they are made to stand on the balls of their feet and then squat so that their thighs are parallel to the ground. This creates intense pain and, finally, muscle failure. It’s all good healthy fun and has the bonus that the captives will confess to anything to get out of it.

And this brings me to my final point. It is clear from her TV appearance that servicewoman Turney has been put under pressure. The newspapers have persuaded behavioural psychologists to examine the footage and they all conclude that she is “unhappy and stressed”.

What is so appalling is the underhand way in which the Iranians have got her “unhappy and stressed”. She shows no signs of electrocution or burn marks and there are no signs of beating on her face. This is unacceptable. If captives are to be put under duress, such as by forcing them into compromising sexual positions, or having electric shocks to their genitals, they should be photographed, as they were in Abu Ghraib. The photographs should then be circulated around the civilised world so that everyone can see exactly what has been going on.

As Stephen Glover pointed out in the Daily Mail, perhaps it would not be right to bomb Iran in retaliation for the humiliation of our servicemen, but clearly the Iranian people must be made to suffer – whether by beefing up sanctions, as the Mail suggests, or simply by getting President Bush to hurry up and invade, as he intends to anyway, and bring democracy and western values to the country, as he has in Iraq.

‘ Terry Jones is a film director, actor and Python

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New York Times Readers

For the many thousands of New York Times readers currently linking to here, you probably want to scroll down and read the posts towards the bottom of the front page first, then work your way scrolling up.

Don’t miss clicking on the comments, as other people’s contributions are often more interesting than my own.

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Iraq/Iran Maritime Boundaries

Foreign Policy magazine has a blog which has just published an article calling me a “gadfly” and saying I am “missing the point”. The point being a highly contentious statement by former Bahraini government legal adviser Kaiyan Kaikobad that the maritime boundary drawn by the UK MOD has become part of international law by usage.

Actually, I hadn’t missed this point at all. Kaikobad’s view is quoted in the LA Times, and I spent rather a lot of time explaining to the journalist writing the artcle what was wrong with his argument. Whether the LA Times carried any of my points I do not know.

The Foreign Policy blog article follows, with the rejoinder I have sent them:

Obviously, the seizure of 15 British marines and sailors and the Iranians’ use of them as pawns in a propaganda game is a deadly serious business. Yet there’s also plenty of farce amid the danger:

The Iranians also blundered in diplomatic talks by giving the British their own compass reference for the place where they said the 14 men and one woman had been seized. When Britain plotted these on a map and pointed out that the spot was in Iraq’s maritime area, the Iranians came up with a new set of coordinates, putting the seizure in their own waters.

Whoops. Turns out, though, that the border issue isn’t as black and white as either side claims. King’s College of London’s Richard Schofield, an expert on the Iran-Iraq border, explained in a telephone interview that although “basically, there is a boundary” nowadays along the Shatt al-Arab, that’s not the case further out in the Persian Gulf where the British sailors and marines were taken prisoner. Below is the map presented by the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD):

That’s what lends the claims of gadfly Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, a whiff of plausibility. Murray, who also headed the Maritime Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1989 to 1992, writes on his website that “there is no agreed maritime boundary between Iraq and Iran in the Persian Gulf,” a milder version of his earlier argument that the boundary used by the MoD “is a fake with no legal force.”

Murray is missing the point. True, as Schofield says, “the boundary that [the MoD] showed further south was a little disingenuous, because it doesn’t have the same legal force or weighting, by any means, as the Iran-Iraq boundary.” Explains Schofield, “It’s more just a provisional indication of what Iraq’s territorial water claims might be.” But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander; if there’s no clear border, then Iran doesn’t have a case, either. And as Kaiyan Kaikobad, an associate professor of international law at Durham University, observes in the LA Times, “If you can show that over a reasonably long period of time, that this was the line that both countries actually agreed on, there’s lots of rules in international law that allow that line to become not only a de facto line, but a de jure line.” So the MoD could be right after all.

Rather than seizing the opportunity to chalk the whole thing up to a misunderstanding about maritime law, though, the Iranians keep digging themselves into a deeper diplomatic hole, and the British are happy to hand them the shovel. It’s clear from the Iranian actions that this isn’t really about territorial waters, in any case. After all, the Iranians could have politely notified the British Navy that their boat was in the wrong spot, and the two sides could have worked it out like gentlemen. Instead, we get an absurd hostage situation and a diplomatic crisis. So what’s it about?

I have replied:

I am rather unable to understand why you should be so gratuitously rude about me in your blog, first calling me a “gadfly”, then saying that I am “missing the point”.

Firstly, I am not missing the point at all – that neither Britan, Iraq nor Iran has a plain case is precisely my point. You give the impression that I support Iranian claims and actions, which I most certainly do not.

Secondly, I am unsure why you should choose to take the view that Kaiiyan Kaikobad’s view is more valid than the practically identical views of Richard Schofield and I

There are major problems with Kaikobad’s view that state practice can result in a de jure as well as a de facto line.

Firstly, there are no judgements that enshrine that view in the area of maritime boundaries since the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea entered into force.

Secondly UNCLOS provides that, in the absence of an agreed boundary, neither side should attempt to enforce territorial water claims beyond a median line. It is very plain that this is for the purpose of conflict avoidance, and does not prejudice either state’s rights in the eventual resolution of the boundary dispute.

So Kaikobad’s view that working accommodation does bring de jure permanent solution is incompatible with UNCLOS, which is becoming generally accepted as enshrining customary international law in this area.

Thirdly, the wisdom of UNCLOS in this regard is demonstrated if you consider the ramifications of Kaikobad’s view. If going along with a working arrangement would lead to its acceptance as de jure, then the only way a state could maintain a quite legitimate claim would be by the exercise of force to show it did not go along. Kaikobad’s view is a recipe for conflict. If you think about it logically, if Kaikobad’s view were true, then the Iranians would have to initiate some sort of military action or lose their claim. Is that desirable?

Kaikobad is an interesting man of strong views, but not an entirely definitive authority.

Look, it is a free country and you are perfectly entitled to publish about me what you like. But to disagree with a point is not to miss it, and I hope this convinces you that was an unfair characterisation.

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Lancing the Spin

The best available scientific estimate of deaths due to the invasion and occupation of Iraq is 655,000, as of July 2006. Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, wrote in Comment is Free earlier this week about the misuse of scientific advice by the government, and its attempts to discredit the research published in his journal.

A report on the BBC FOIA request, that revealed the government machinations in detail, can be read here.

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Media Training for Young Central Asians

This training is run by people I know and trust, and seems an exciting development in teaching media skills to young Central Asians and push the bounds of information and free comment. For interested potential participants, more information in Russian is here.


Listen (mp3)

Read (Word Doc)

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British Intelligence Directly Implicated in CIA Kidnapping and Detention Site in Poland?

RawStory claim to have knowledge of a British intelligence memo demonstrating that the UK both: had knowledge of CIA illegal detention sites in Poland; and urged that sources in Poland keep information on CIA activities quiet.

POLAND – The CIA operated an interrogation and short-term detention facility for suspected terrorists within a Polish intelligence training school with the explicit approval of British and US authorities, according to British and Polish intelligence officials familiar with the arrangements.

Intelligence officials identify the site as a component of a Polish intelligence training school outside the northern Polish village of Stare Kiejkuty. While previously suspected, the facility has never been conclusively identified as being part of the CIA’s secret rendition and detention program.

Only the Polish prime minister and top Polish intelligence brass were told of the plan, in which agents of the United States quietly shuttled detainees from other holding facilities around the globe for stopovers and short-term interrogation in Poland between late 2002 and 2004.

According to a confidential British intelligence memo shown to RAW STORY, Prime Minister Tony Blair told Poland’s then-Prime Minister Leszek Miller to keep the information secret, even from his own government…

For the full article go here

Blairwatch provides additional analysis and comment.

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Both Sides Must Stop This Mad Confrontation, Now

There is no agreed maritime boundary between Iraq and Iran in the Persian Gulf. Until the current mad propaganda exercise of the last week, nobody would have found that in the least a controversial statement.

Let me quote, for example, from that well known far left source Stars and Stripes magazine, October 24 2006.

‘Bumping into the Iranians can’t be helped in the northern Persian Gulf, where the lines between Iraqi and Iranian territorial water are blurred, officials said.

“No maritime border has been agreed upon by the two countries,” Lockwood said.’

That is Royal Australian Navy Commodore Peter Lockwood. He is the Commander of the Combined Task Force in the Northern Persian Gulf.

I might even know something about it myself, having been Head of the Maritime Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1989 to 1992, and having been personally responsible in the Embargo Surveillance Centre for getting individual real time clearance for the Royal Navy to board specific vessels in these waters.

As I feared, Blair adopted the stupid and confrontational approach of publishing maps ignoring the boundary dispute, thus claiming a very blurred situation is crystal clear and the Iranians totally in the wrong. This has in turn notched the Iranians up another twist in their own spiral of intransigence and stupidity.

Both the British and the Iranian governments are milking this for maximum propaganda value and playing to their respective galleries. Neither has any real care at all for either the British captives or the thousands who could die in Iran and Basra if this gets out of hand.

Tony Blair’s contempt for Middle Eastern lives has already been adequately demonstrated in Iraq and Lebanon. His lack of genuine concern for British servicemen demonstrated by his steadfast refusal to meet even one parent of a dead British serviceman or woman, killed in the wars he created. He is confronting an Iranian leadership with an equal lust for glory and lack of human concern.

It is essential now for both sides to back down. No solution is possible if either side continues to insist that the other is completely in the wrong and they are completely in the right. And the first step towards finding a peaceful way out, is to acknowledge the self-evident truth that maritime boundaries are disputed and problematic in this area.

Both sides can therefore accept that the other acted in good faith with regard to their view of where the boundary was. They can also accept that boats move about and all the coordinates given by either party were also in good faith. The captives should be immediately released and, to international acclamation, Iran and Iraq, which now are good neighbours, should appoint a joint panel of judges to arbitrate a maritime boundary and settle this boundary dispute.

That is the way out. For the British to insist on their little red border line, or the Iranians on their GPS coordinates, plainly indicates a greater desire to score propaganda points in the run up to a war in which a lot of people will die, than to resolve the dispute and free the captives. The international community needs to put heavy pressure on both Britain and Iran to stop this mad confrontation.

The British people must break out of the jingoism created by their laudable concern for their servicemen and woman, and realise that this is just a small part of the madness of our policy of continual war in the Middle East. That is what we have to stop.

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Fake Maritime Boundaries

The British Government has published a map showing the coordinates of the incident, well within an Iran/Iraq maritime border. The mainstream media and even the blogosphere has bought this hook, line and sinker.

But there are two colossal problems.

A) The Iran/Iraq maritime boundary shown on the British government map does not exist. It has been drawn up by the British Government. Only Iraq and Iran can agree their bilateral boundary, and they never have done this in the Gulf, only inside the Shatt because there it is the land border too. This published boundary is a fake with no legal force.

B) Accepting the British coordinates for the position of both HMS Cornwall and the incident, both were closer to Iranian land than Iraqi land. Go on, print out the map and measure it. Which underlines the point that the British produced border is not a reliable one.

None of which changes the fact that the Iranians, having made their point, should have handed back the captives immediately. I pray they do so before this thing spirals out of control. But by producing a fake map of the Iran/Iraq boundary, notably unfavourable to Iran, we can only harden the Iranian position.

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Captured Marines (Again)

My two earlier posts have caused quite a stir, so here are some further observations.

Sadly, but perhaps predictably, both the British and Iranian governments are now acting like idiots.

Tony Blair has let it be known that he is “utterly confident” that the British personnel were in Iraqi waters. He has of course never been known for his expertise in the Law of the Sea. But let us contrast this political certainty with the actual knowledge of the Royal Navy Commander of the operation on which the captives were taken.

Before the spin doctors could get to him, Commodore Lambert said:

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Equally, the Iranians may well claim that they were in their territorial waters. The extent and definition of territorial waters in this part of the world is very complicated”.

That is precisely right. The boundary between Iran and Iraq in the northern Persian Gulf has never been fixed. (Within the Shatt-al-Arab itself a line was fixed, but was to be updated every ten years because the waterway shifts, according to the treaty. As it has not been updated in over twenty years, whether it is still valid is a moot point. But it appears this incident occurred well south of the Shatt anyway.) This is a perfectly legitimate dispute. The existence of this dispute will clearly be indicated on HMS Cornwall’s charts, which are in front of Commodore Lambert, but not of Mr Blair.

Until a boundary is agreed, you could only be certain that the personnel were in Iraqi territorial waters if they were within twelve miles of the coast and, at the same time, more than twelve miles from any island, spit, bar or sandbank claimed by Iran (or Kuwait).

That is very hard to judge as the British government refuse to give out the coordinates where the men were captured. If they really are utterly certain, I find that incomprehensible. Everyone knows the Gulf is teeming with British vessels and personnel, so the position of units a few days ago can hardly be valuable intelligence.

Until a boundary is set, it is not easy to posit where it should be. It has to be done by negotiation or arbitration. I have participated in these negotiations, for example on the boundary between the Channel Islands and France.

With a dead straight coastline with no islands, and a dead straight border between two countries hitting the coast at a right angle, you could have a straight maritime border between the two running out from the coast at a right angle. This never happens.

In practice, you agree a series of triangulation points on both coastlines and do a geometric triangulation exercise to find a line running out from the coast. Coasts of course can be very odd shapes. Draw an imaginary coast and border on a bit of paper and try it yourself. You will soon see why the rules permit you to take into account the general trend of the coastline, and even the angle of the land border. Those are not problems of geometry but old fashioned horse trading.

First, of course, both sides will argue about which triangulation points on the coast to accept. You are allowed, for example, to draw a line across a bay entrance and use that as the coast, but there is plenty of room for the other side to argue over where that line is drawn.

That is only the start. For territorial seas (but not the 200 mile exclusive economic zone) uninhabited rocks and sandbanks count. Again huge room for argument here – the ownership of a useless sandbank is not necessarily a settled thing. Sticking your triangulation point on a sandbank twelve miles out can make a huge difference.

Then it really gets complex. What if the sandbank only appears at low tide? What if it is dry all day, but only at certain times of the year? What if it is prone to move about a bit?

You haggle like mad over this. “You can’t have that sandbank unless we have this one plus this spit.” You also then get into weighting. “That bit of land is only around half the time, so we’ll give it one third weighting” – in other words we will allow 33.3% more sea than you would get if it didn’t exist and we just used a point on the coast.

Massive volumes have been written on the prinicples behind these negotiations, but they tend to ignore the fact that ultimately it has to come down to political negotiating skills between a vast range of justifiable possible agreements. That is why we just can’t know where the boundary is between Iran and Iraq in this area, which has enough sandbanks to keep me happy thinking about it for centuries. If either side needs a negotiator…

Anyway, the UK was plainly wrong to be ultra provocative in disputed waters. They would be allowed to enter Iranian territorial seas in hot pursuit of terrorists, pirates or slavers, but not to carry out other military operations.

The Iranians had a right to detain the men if they were in seas legitimately claimed as territorial by Iran. Indeed, it is arguable that if a government makes a claim of sovereignty it rather has to enforce it, possession being nine parts of international law. But now the Iranian government is being very foolish, and itself acting illegally, by not releasing the men having made its point.

The story leaked by Russian intelligence claiming knowledge of US plans to attack Iran on 6 April has had great publicity in Iran, if very little here. Personally I doubt it is true. But it seems to me a definite risk that the Iranians will decide to keep the marines against that contingency.

That would be very unfortunate. The Iranian government, by continuing to hold the British personnel, are foolishly providing new impetus to Bush and Blair, whose attempts to bang the war drum against Iran have so far met profound public scepticism. We don’t need any more oil wars.

If Blair actually sought the release of our people, rather than anti-Iranian propaganda, he would stop making stupid macho noises and give an assurance that we intend to resolve not only this problem but all disagreements with Iran by peaceful means, and give specific reassurance that no attack is imminent.

But if the Iranian government wait for Blair to behave well, the marines will rot for ever. They should let the men (and woman) go now, with lots of signs of friendship, thus further wrongfooting Bush and Blair.

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Lying About The Dead

An extraordinary story appeared once this morning on BBC News 24, and then was buried.

The BBC World Service has obtained a document. It is an official appraisal by British government scientists across government departments, commissioned by 10 Downing Street, of the study published by the Lancet that estimated 655,000 dead in Iraq. The appraisal says that the methodology is correct and that the study “follows best practice”.

Astonishingly, the official DFID verdict was that 655,000 dead is “If anything, an underestimate”.

Yet the Government poured scorn on the Lancet study, despite having commissioned a report from their own scientists that said it was good. Who can doubt that if the government scientists had rubbished the study, the number ten spin machine would have publicised that like crazy?

Doubtless the Official Secrets Act will be wheeled out to try and sit on the government scientists’ report, which the BBC already seems to have reburied, showing its typical craven attitude towards the Blair government.

Personally, I did not know how much credence to give the study published in the Lancet, not being technically equipped to evaluate it. We can now be confident that the death toll in Iraq was over 600,000 a year ago, and probably over 700,000 now.

There is much talk of Blair’s legacy. In fact he has two major legacies. 700,000 rotting corpses, and the culture of lies that sought to suppress the truth about it.

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British Marines Captured By Iran

I explained that in international law the Iranian government were not out of order in detaining foreign military personnel in waters to which they have a legitimate claim. For the Royal Navy to be interdicting shipping within the twelve mile limit of territorial seas in a region they know full well is subject to maritime boundary dispute, is unneccessarily provocative. This is especially true as apparently they were not looking for weapons but for smuggled vehicles attempting to evade car duty. What has the evasion of Iranian or Iraqi taxes go to do with the Royal Navy? The ridiculous illogic of the Blair mess gets us further into trouble.

Incidentally, they would under international law have been allowed to enter Iranian territorial waters if in “Hot pursuit” of terrorists, slavers or pirates. But they weren’t doing any of those things.

Having said all that, the Iranian authorities, their point made, should now hand the men back immediately. Plainly they were not engaged in piracy or in hostilities against Iran. The Iranians can feel content that they have demonstrated the ability to exercise effective sovereignty over the waters they claim.

Any further detention of the men would now be unlawful and bellicose. One of the great problems facing those of us striving hard to prevent a further disastrous war, this time on Iran, is that the Iranian government is indeed full of theocratic nutters.

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Hawa Yakubu

I was greatly saddened to learn of the death of my good friend, Hawa Yakubu. She was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. When I last saw her, even in the terrible pain of her last illness she was still great fun, surrounded by the usual throng of friends and family, insisting on struggling out to eat with us.

Hawa was the most powerful political figure in Northern Ghana, but her influence went much wider. She was on the closest personal terms with every West African President or politician of importance. I recall sitting late with her after a dinner, discussing a particularly tricky point in the Sierra Leone/Liberia conflict resolution. She thought nothing of whipping out her mobile phone and calling up President Obasanjo of Nigeria to bring him in to the discussion. It was almost 2am. It says volumes that he was delighted to be awoken by his old friend.

Her own political base spread across the Savannah belt well beyond Ghana’s borders, yet it was not tribal or inherited. She was a tireless advocate for peace and development, and that rare thing in West Africa, a Northern Christian of very liberal views. She was both a very proud Ghanaian, and contemptuous of the effects of arbitrary colonial borders. ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States – and latterly the African Union were passions with her. She was very much a pan-African nationalist, though she would have laughed at the label. She resigned her Ghanaian ministerial position in order to be able to stay in the ECOWAS parliament.

Tireless peacemaker, advocate of regional integration and the breakdown of trade barriers, she was also the most forceful and articulate exponent of women’s development issues, with a strong technical grasp on everything from micro-finance to telecommunications. These interests were more important to her than political party. Her decision that she could do more good by withdrawing backing from the Rawlings regime was a crucial factor in Ghana’s close-run transition to genuine democracy. Yet she will be truly mourned by all political sides.

She was also completely non-corrupt. Anything she had, she shared freely with her large extended family. She kept open house, and her lifestyle was very modest by any standards. She simply never gave a moment’s thought to making money out of her work.

We rather had that in common. I am now trying to borrow some money to buy a ticket to Ghana, once I can get details of her funeral. Hawa would have laughed at that.

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Elimination of Uzbek Human Rights Movement

From Amnesty US, an upsetting summary of the Uzbek government’s campaign to wipe out the last remnants of pro-democratic opposition in Uzbekistan. I know the majority of the people named in this report personally. This comes as the German presidency seeks to move the EU towards closer relations with the Karimov regime.



Government crackdown on human rights defenders

Secret trials and torture in the ‘information war’

The ruthless campaign by the government of Uzbekistan to silence human rights activists and journalists shows no sign of abating. The imprisonment, ill-treatment and harassment of individual human rights defenders has accelerated as protests over the killings of hundreds of unarmed men, women and children in Andizhan on 13 May 2005 refuse to go away.

President Islam Karimov conceded publicly in October 2006 that failures by local authorities might have contributed to unrest in the eastern town of Andizhan. Yet his government is still rejecting any independent international investigation of reports that the security forces fired indiscriminately at largely peaceful demonstrators. Instead, hundreds of protesters were detained and scores of people have reportedly been sentenced to up to 22 years in prison, including several prominent human rights defenders. Most of the trials were closed or secret.

International organizations have been forced to close their operations in Uzbekistan, including the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in March 2006. The government has continued to renege on its promise to allow access to prisons by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Some of the harshest punishments have been inflicted on Uzbekistan’s own human rights defenders. Amnesty International is calling on the government of Uzbekistan to stop the persecution of human rights activists and journalists, and for effective action by the international community in support of those who courageously stand up for human rights.

Prisoners of conscience

Some human rights defenders have been prosecuted on charges that were reportedly fabricated, and sentenced to long prison terms after grossly unfair trials that denied basic rights of defence and failed to meet international legal standards.

See details of individual cases…

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Bob Woolmer and The Law of the Sea

Life sometimes throws up connections which take us aback. Yesterday I was blogging about Bob Woolmer, and about the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as it covers the current spat in the Gulf over the Iranian detention of British marines.

I spent three successive Februaries of my life – three months in all – representing the UK at the annual UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, which was aiming to break a twenty year deadlock and get the Convention into force. This was viewed, rightly, as a major British priority, with both navigation and continental shelf provisions being essential national interests. A major aim was to prevent just the kind of gratuitous interference in shipping in which we have ourselves been indulging lately in the Persian Gulf. It doesn’t take too much thought to understand why it is in the UK interest that shipping should not be subject in general to armed interference.

Where was that conference every February? Jamaica. Where did I live all those months? The Pegasus hotel, in which Bob Woolmer has now been murdered. I know it intimately. So do generations of cricketers. The conference always coincided with the Kingston test, and the teams usually used the Pegasus. I once had the honour of being knocked flat in the lift by a boisterous Merv Hughes mock fighting with Alan Border. I also got to speak with Clive Lloyd over breakfast. I will never forget the impression he gave of incredible latent power, not just physical, like nobody else I ever met.

The Convention on the Law of the Sea had been stalled for decades, unable to enter into force because of a dispute between the developed and developing worlds over the ownership of minerals on the deep seabed, beyond continental shelves. In particular, the dispute was driven by over-optimistic estimates of the future value of Manganese nodules found around deep volcanic vents. The Convention proposed that companies exploiting the deep seabed should pay a levy to an international authority, which would apply it to international developmental purposes. The developing countries, represented by the G77, were for huge levies and great regulation. The US were totally against the whole principle. The Europeans were prepared to go along if levies were small and regulation light.

The negotiation had become completely hidebound as each group entrenched its position over twenty years of these meetings in Jamaica. I was able to play a key role in breaking down these barriers, simply by not accepting the position as hopeless and by reaching out to the G77. The fall of the iron curtain removed the hardline Soviet position behind the G77, and the coming of Clinton to replace Bush was going to make the US more flexible. At the key moment, the UK had the chairmanship of WEOG, the Western negotiating group, and I happened to be leading the UK delegation for ten days prior to the arrival of our very senior and greatly respected international legal expert.

I had gained the trust of the G77 group by the simple expedient of drinking with them over weeks and treating them as colleagues not opponents. The fact I was an Africanist helped. The key drafting of what became the Protocol amending the Convention was put down on paper by UN Deputy Secretary General Satya Nandan, G77 chair Dolliver Nelson and WEOG chair me, late one balmy Jamaican evening as we sat with our legs dangling in the Hotel Pegasus swimming pool, rum punches in hand. And that wording stuck through the next eighteen months of negotiation that resulted in the Convention entering into force.

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Things Fall Apart

I went today to speak to a national conference of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. I was delighted to be invited because I have always had a huge amount of respect for them and the good work they do. When the followers of George Bush or Osama Bin Laden make me despair of religion, I think of the Quakers as an antidote.

I was talking at 11.15, so I got up in Shepherds Bush at 6.45 to get there by train. The journey was complicated by weekend engineering works, but I made it to Swanwick at 11am. Alarm bells started to ring when the taxi driver had not heard of the Hayes conference centre. Nor had the guard at the Marina, the girl in the pub, or the man in the Post Office. It turned out I was at Swanwick in Hampshire, and the conference was at Swanwick in Derbyshire, several hundred miles away.

The Hampshire Swanwick has a railway station. Swanwick in Derbyshire doesn’t, so when I bought a ticket nobody asked me which one I wanted. But when I looked through my agenda it did in fact say Swanwick, Derbyshire. So it was entirely my fault.

I had clerical and other assistance from day 1 of my working life, and subsequently PAs and drivers, and servants at home. I was always very aware just how reliant I was on this assistance. I think this comes over in my book. I may be bright, but I am not at all practical. Get me to a meeting and I will have complete command of the brief and the meeting, but without help I will never get there. In many ways I am the archetypal absent-minded bumbler, brain always on a knotty question while I lose my spectacles. I have lost four mobile phones this year. I really feel quite depressed about it; now I face the every day problems of self management that everyone has to deal with, I simply cannot cope. Despite trying very hard indeed.

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The Timing of Accusations?

On the morning of the same day when the British marine forces were detained, British sources were busy briefing on Iranian involvement in attacks in Southern Iraq. Obviously, just a coincidence.

It is about one year since the last, failed, attempt by the UK to implicate Iran in attacks on their forces in Iraq.

The Independent 5th Jan 2006: “MPs and soldiers’ families have demanded an explanation from the Government after a U-turn over claims that Iran was complicit in the killing of British soldiers in southern Iraq. Britain has dropped the charge of Iranian involvement after senior officials had repeatedly accused the Tehran regime of supplying sophisticated explosive devices to insurgents. Government officials now acknowledge that there is no evidence, or even reliable intelligence, connecting the Iranian government to the infra-red triggered bombs which have killed 10 British soldiers in the past eight months.”

Shaped charges formed the core of the allegations last year – this time they are only claiming reports from local sources and clearly state they have no proof. As again, it is perhaps the timing of the accusations that is of most interest.

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British Marines Captured By Iranians

The capture of British Marines by Iran has happened before, then on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. It will doubtless be used by those seeking to bang the war drum against Iran, though I imagine it will be fairly quickly resolved.

Before people get too carried away, the following is worth bearing in mind. I write as a former Head of the Maritime Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Iranians claimed the British soldiers had strayed into Iranian territorial waters. If they had, then the Iranians had every right to detain them for questioning.

The difficulty is that the maritime delimitation in the North West of the Persian Gulf, between Iraq, Kuwait and Iran, has never been resolved. It is not therefore a question of just checking your GPS to see where you are. This is a perfectly legitimate dispute, in which nobody is particularly at fault. Lateral maritime boundaries from a coastal border point are intensely complicated things, especially where islands and coastal banks become a factor.

Disputes are not unusual. I was personally heavily involved in negotiating British maritime boundaries with Ireland, France and Denmark just ten years ago, and not all our own boundaries are resolved even now. There is nothing outlandish about Iranian claims, and we have no right in law to be boarding Iranian or other shipping in what may well be Iranian waters.

The UN Convention on the Law of The Sea carries a heavy presumption on the right of commercial vessels to “innocent passage”, especially through straits like Hormuz and in both territorial and international waters. You probably won’t read this elsewhere in these jingoistic times but, in international law, we are very probably in the wrong. As long as the Iranians neither mistreat our Marines nor wilfully detain them too long, they have the right.

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The Death of Bob Woolmer

Like many cricket fans, I am greatly saddened by the extraordinary death of Bob Woolmer.

I remember warm summer Saturday afternoons in Norfolk where I would sit with my grandfather before the television, watching the Test match, the slightly sickly ripe fruit smells from the orchard wafting through the open window.

I could easily google to check, but what follows is memory; accuracy is not the point.

English cricket was at a low ebb. We were regularly getting blasted out by the sheer pace and skill of the Australian and West Indian bowlers, and had little with which to reply. John Snow and Bob Willis were not quite in the same league, and after that Chris Old, Geoff Arnold, Paul Lever were from an altogether lesser world, much as I loved and cheered their straining efforts.

Now Bob Woolmer was never much more than military medium. Heavily built, even in his prime he always looked a bit like he had on a sweater under his shirt. He could wobble the ball about a bit, but his selection was a sign of England’s bowling paucity.

At Kent, in a team outrageously endowed with batting talent, he wasn’t particularly regarded for his batting. In his first Test, I believe he came in at number 10.

What followed was truly remarkable. As England’s premier batsmen dangled their bats listlessly outside off stump apparently longing to give an edge, Woolmer was compact, deft and organised. Not aggressive, but not a nurdler either – he could play meaty drives that looked classical, foot advancing to meet the pitch of the ball and without room for a wafer between bat and pad.

Thus he began a climb up the batting order that represented one of the more extraordinary careers in Test cricket, from tail-ender to middle and top order and ultimately opener. His Test career was all too brief, but he established himself firmly in the pantheon of my adolescent heroes. He went on to pioneer modern cricket management, with great success in South Africa.

Now this murky end. The Irish defeat of Pakistan was glorious fun; a shadow will now hang as to whether it really was too good to be true. The extraordinary world of massive betting on cricket and match-fixing again seems to surface before us. It is impossible not to remember that Woolmer was Hansie Cronje’s coach when he was throwing matches, and wonder again at Cronje’s own violent end.

I do hope Woolmer was an innocent victim in all of this. When I remember him now I recall his courage as a batsman, the warm sun and my grandfather. Let it stay that way.

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Uzbek Cotton Industry

Two very interesting bits of information on the Uzbek cotton industry. The first is an extract from a chapter on the disappearance of the Aral Sea, from the excellent book “When the Rivers Run Dry” by Fred Pearce. If the Aral Sea were anywhere else in the World, this monumental environmental catastrophe would receive massive publicity. As it is, it is almost entirely forgotten.

My only thought is that the situation is even worse than Pearce outlines. It is very hard to get any worthwhile statistics on Uzbekistan, and all those used by international organisations ultimately derive from Uzbek government sources. There are no independent research institutes allowed in Uzbekistan. In fact the proportion of the population enslaved on state farms is closer to 60% than 40%.


Chapter 25


About five kilometres out to sea, I spotted a fox. It wasn’t swimming. For the sea as marked on the map is no longer a sea. The fox was jogging through endless tamarisk on the bed of what was once the world’s fourth largest inland body of water. In the past 40 years, most of the Aral Sea in Central Asia has turned into a huge uncharted desert. For the most part, no human has ever set foot there. This new desert is adding dry land the size of a small English county every year. It cannot be long before someone decides that it should be protected as a unique, virgin desert. But for now, such is the scale of what has happened here, that the UN calls the disappearance of the Aral Sea the greatest environmental disaster of the 20th century.

Till the 1960s, the Aral Sea covered an area the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined and contained more than a thousand cubic kilometres of water. It was renowned in the Soviet Union for its blue waters, plentiful fish, stunning beaches and bustling fishing ports. Most atlases still show a single chunk of blue. But the new reality is very different. The sea is broken into three hypersaline pools, containing only about a tenth as much water as before. The beach resorts and promenades lie abandoned. The fish died long ago. As the fox and I peered north from near the former southern port of Muynak, there was no sea for 150 kilometres. It felt like the end of the world.

What has caused this environmental Armageddon? The answer lies in the death of the two great rivers that once drained a huge swathe of central Asia into the Aral Sea. The biggest is the Amu Darya. Once named the Oxus, it was as big as the Nile. In the fourth century, Alexander the Great fought battles on its waters as he headed for Samarkand and the creation of the world’s largest military empire. It still crashes out of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. But, like its smaller twin, the Syr Darya from the Tian Shan mountains, it is largely lost in the desert lands between the mountains and the sea.

During the 20th century, these two rivers were part of the Soviet Union. And Soviet engineers contrived to divert almost all their flow ‘ around 110 cubic kilometres a year — to irrigate cotton fields that they planted in the desert…

Today in Uzbekistan, the biggest producer, the government is still the only purchaser, and meeting cotton production targets remains a national obsession. During the harvest season, cotton employs a staggering 40 per cent of Uzbekistan’s workforce, including hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren. Every province, every canal network and every farm has its production target. Even as the old collective farms are privatised, the targets persist, and farmers and officials can lose their land and jobs for failing to meet them. And cotton still consumes most of the region’s water.

During October 2004, during my visit, the government declared that Uzbek cotton production had exceeded 3 million tonne for the first time in several years. Ministers were interviewed on the TV standing in cotton fields brimming with pride. Officials that had seemed uptight and nervous suddenly relaxed. The bottles of vodka came out. Nobody cared that in the process the ratchet on the Aral Sea had been given one more turn.

The amount of water used here is simply insane. Today the countries around the Aral Sea ‘ Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — occupy five of the top seven places in the world league table of per-capita water users. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the two countries that take their water from the Amu Darya, use more water per head of population than any others on Earth. The Aral Sea basin is very far from being short of water. The problem is the simply staggering level of water use…


I also received, courtesy of exiled Uzbek dissident Evgeni Dyakonov, a set of photos showing the condition of state-forced child labour in the Uzbek cotton fields. These are not sensationalist; they are very much the everyday conditions in which hundreds of thousands of Uzbek children are forced to live for months. The harvest can begin in late August with temperatures well over 40C, and finish in late November with temperatures well below freezing. I have seen children picking cotton in the snow.

I think the photos may originally be from the Environmental Justice Foundation, who have done good work on Uzbk cotton.

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CIA Torture and Khalid Sheik Mohammed

The following further thoughts on confession under torture are from my good friend and fellow Ambassadorial refusenik Ann Wright.

The Sheikh and The Torture Senator

By US Army Reserve Colonel (Retired) Ann Wright

Last week senior al-Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly confessed during his Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) at the US prison in the US Naval Station, Guantanamo, Cuba to having planned virtually every al-Qaeda attack on the United States. But during the military tribunal proceedings, he also said he was tortured during his four year confinement in CIA secret prisons. Senators Levin and Graham viewed the Guantanamo proceedings over a special video link into the US Senate. Afterwards, Senator Levin said that Sheikh Mohammed’s allegations of torture by US officials must be investigated.

Senator Levin, you don’t have to go far to find someone who knows about Sheikh Mohammed’s torture.

I was in the audience February 12, 2007 during the Washington, DC screening of the new HBO documentary ‘The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.’ After watching the documentary, panelists Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Kennedy discussed prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib.

To the amazement of the audience, Graham said, with a twinkle in his eye, that ‘Americans don’t mind torture, they really don’t.’ Then he smiled broadly, almost gleefully, and said that the US had used certain interrogation techniques on ‘Shaikh Mohammed, one of the “high value” targets,’ techniques that “you really don’t want to know about, but they got really good results.”

I firmly believe that Graham’s statement acknowledged that US officials have tortured prisoners, and he, as a Senator, knew what was done and agrees with the torture because ‘it got results.’

Except you don’t know what the results are. In the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, it appears that with torture you can get someone to confess to masterminding the entire al-Qaeda attack on the United States. Senior FBI officials are questioning some of Sheikh Mohammed’s assertions of guilt and remind us of the FBI’s concern about torture techniques used by both the CIA and the US military on prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo, techniques that can elicit confessions just to get the torturers to stop.

In January, 2007, I was in the city of Guantanamo, Cuba with human rights activists calling for the closure of the US military prison on the fifth anniversary of the first prisoners being sent there. With us was former prisoner, Asif Iqbal, a 23-year old who told us that he had been beaten by US interrogators until he confessed to helping plan the 9/11 attacks. In reality, he was a completely innocent young man who happened to be in Afghanistan when the U.S. attack began and was swept up with hundreds of other local people. He told us how prisoners in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo confessed to anything the interrogators wanted to prevent further torture.

As a 29 year US Army/Reserves Colonel and a 16 year former US diplomat, I am horrified that US Senators have been complicit in knowing of criminal acts of our intelligence agencies and doing nothing to stop them. Graham told 400 of us in the audience on February 22 he knew of the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Graham is a military lawyer and a civilian lawyer. He knew that the torture of Sheikh Mohammed was a criminal act and did nothing to stop it.

Senator Levin, if you want to know about torture committed by US government officials, please put under oath your colleague Senator Lindsey Graham and ask him ‘what he knew and when he knew it.’

PS, HBO filmed the Senator’s remarks. Please watch the HBO video and see his comments for yourself.

About the author: Ann Wright is a 29 year retired US Army Reserve Colonel

And a 16 year US diplomat who served in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia and Mongolia. She was on the team that reopened the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan in December, 2001. She resigned from the US diplomatic corps in March, 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq.

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