Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

A stench of hypocrisy hangs over West's concern for Syria

Grim toll: relatives try to identify bodies after a poison gas attack in a Syrian town
Grim toll: relatives try to identify bodies after a poison gas attack in a Syrian town

The Old Firm are on their way back and spoiling for a fight. The UK and France, the colonial powers which carved out the unnatural borders of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, appear to believe they have unfinished business in the region, putting manners on recalcitrant Arab regimes. The US is all set to weigh in.

The fact that military intervention is predictably likely to make matters worse rather than better won't stay their hands. The hypocrisy and double standards will blithely be ignored.

The clearest example of inconsistency concerns the kidnap, rendition and torture of Syrian-born Canadian citizen Maher Arar. He was detained on September 26, 2002 at JFK Airport as he travelled home with his family from a holiday in Tunisia. His subsequent ordeal is by far the most investigated story of rendition. He won an apology and damages of more than $10m (£6.4m) from the Canadian government.

From the US, no apology and not a cent.

At the terminal building at New York to await a connecting flight, Arar was taken aside for questioning. It was later shown that the Canadian security authorities had passed inaccurate "intelligence" on him to their US equivalents. He was searched and finger-printed, then moved to a different location and questioned for two days about his associates, his political views and whether he had ever met Osama bin Laden. He denied everything.

Arar was then handcuffed and, with his legs shackled, taken to a maximum security prison where he was strip-searched, threatened with deportation to Syria and, again, interrogated about militant Islamic groups. After a fortnight, he was put back into handcuffs and shackles, dragged aboard a private plane, flown to Jordan and handed over to Syrian security police.

He says he was driven across the border and held for 10 months in a dank cell no more than six feet by three and repeatedly beaten with frayed electrical cables, kicked, punched, and threatened with electric shocks if he didn't own up and provide information. He says he lied that he had been to a training camp in Afghanistan. He says the nature of the questions suggested that they had been supplied to Assad's interrogators by a US or Canadian agency.

Arar was released on October 5, 2003 after 374 days in the clutches of the Assad regime. He returned to his job as an engineer in Ottawa. His wife, Monica, a professor at Ottawa University, had waged a non-stop campaign for his release and now led calls for an inquiry. After a formal investigation by the Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar, the Canadian government accepted his innocence, admitted its role and paid compensation.

The point is: the US outsourced the torture of Arar to a regime which is now denounced by Obama as a foul dictatorship with no legitimacy and with which no civilised country should associate.

Then there's the question of Halabja, a Kurdish town in Iraq on which the government of Saddam Hussein dropped a huge quantity of poison gas during the Iraq-Iran war. Halabja, population 60,000, had been captured on March 15, 1988 by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, at that time in alliance with Tehran. Saddam's response was swift and merciless.

At dawn the following morning, Iraqi bombers sharked across the sky, dropping chemical bombs from Migs, supplied by Russia, and Mirages, supplied by France. The town was smothered in a fog of death.

The first journalists to arrive were Iranian. The pictures which shocked the world – dreadfully, dispiritingly similar to the recent images from Damascus – were by photo-journalist Kaveh Golestan, later killed covering the US invasion of Iraq for the BBC.

An Iranian reporter described the scene: "The streets were strewn with corpses. People were killed instantaneously in the midst of the ordinary acts of everyday life. Babies still sucked their mothers' breasts... In the space of a few hours, 5,000 people had died."

Five thousand dead in a town little bigger than Omagh.

Just months later, a resolution calling for sanctions was passed by both Houses of Congress – and then vetoed by George Bush Snr. Bush then authorised a billion-dollar loan to Saddam.

In August 1988, the UN sub-committee on human rights rejected by 11 votes to eight a resolution condemning the Saddam dictatorship. Of Western-orientated powers, only the Scandinavian countries, Canada and Australia supported the move.

Iraq was seen at the time as a secular bulwark against Islamic Iran. It was later established by the Scott Inquiry that the Tory Government had secretly encouraged the Matrix Churchill company to break UN sanctions to re-supply Saddam's army.

It was the invasion of oil-rich Kuwait in 1989, not Saddam's gassing of 5,000 of his own people, which prompted the West to invade.

They had trusted the Syrian regime to torture on their behalf and stood by while Saddam gassed five times as many civilians as is now alleged against Assad. What reason could there be for trusting them now?

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