Daily archives: March 23, 2007

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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