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Commentary on a meeting with Richard Caborn

Commentary on a meeting with Richard Caborn, MP for Sheffield Central

(written by John Smith)


Richard Caborn is a junior minister at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). He is thus a member of the UK government, and bears his share of responsibility for the UK government’s wretched policy towards the peoples of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. In charge of the DTI, Caborn is responsible for the enforcement of the sanctions regime: the Sanctions Licensing Unit, which must give permission for any goods being sent or taken to Iraq, is an office within the DTI.
As one of his constituents, I wrote him a letter, setting out my principal objections to government policy (appended). Along with Heather Hunt – another member of the Sheffield Delegation to Iraq – we followed up this letter with a visit to Richard Caborn in his surgery. The encounter lasted for around 25 minutes, and was civil and serious on both sides. Richard Caborn asserted that he would be pleased to keep channels of communication open, both with himself and as a conduit for transmitting our concerns further up the government chain.
We should of course accept this offer.

Richard Caborn defends UK government policy

Richard Caborn made it clear to us that, as a member of government, he couldn’t say anything which departed from the official script.  We were supposed to accept that we’d never know whether he has any feelings or opinions of his own towards Iraq...
Several times during our meeting Mr Caborn avoided answering a question or responding to a criticism by saying, “you are entitled to your opinion.” We know that we’re entitled to our opin-ions; his repeated reminders were unnecessary. We are also entitled to straight answers to our questions.

The official script takes the form of a detailed statement by the Foreign and Commonwealth Of-fice (FCO) on current government policy on sanctions, no-fly zones etc. This is the same text which anyone writing to their (Labour) MP on Iraq will get back in the form of a letter forwarded from the FCO. This essentially argues that sanctions are not responsible for civilian suffering in Iraq, and that the UK government is concerned about the fate of the Iraqi people and is bombing Iraq out of humanitarian motives.
Many issues and points of fact in the FCO letter were rebutted by Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, the two successive UN Humanitarian chiefs who resigned in protest at sanctions, in an exchange with Peter Hain (who was responsible for the Middle East and Africa desk at the Foreign Office until his replacement by Brian Wilson earlier this year) in the letters page of the Guardian which appeared in early 2001. Contact the campaign if you would like to read this exchange. 

We had our own questions when we went to Mr Caborn’s surgery. We tried to get a response to questions not covered in the FCO text. In this, we had no success.
We presented evidence gathered by the Sheffield Delegation concerning the impact of sanctions on the civilian population. We insisted that the UK government, of which he is a part, must take responsibility for the consequences its actions. We insisted that Mr Caborn and his friends cannot be allowed to wash their hands of the Iraqi people, and hide behind “it’s all his fault”.
Richard Caborn smirked, and said “you are entitled to your opinion”.
We pointed out the different ways in which sanctions in fact strengthen the Saddam regime vis-à-vis the Iraqi people. He tried another line of defence. He reminded us that Britain took the lead in drafting UN Security Council Resolution 1284, which was passed in December 1999. This reso-lution, he told us, offered an end to sanctions if the Saddam regime allows the return of UN weapons inspectors.
We pointed out that UNSCR 1284 did not propose to end sanctions even were Iraq to be certi-fied free of WMD. If Iraq allowed the so-called weapons inspectors to return; if they succeeded in proving a negative, i.e. that Iraq was free of banned weapons; and if the George W. Bush admini-stration accepted these findings (a good deal less likely than flying pigs)—even then all Iraq would gain would be a 120-day rolling suspension of sanctions, which a US or UK veto would cause to be reimposed at the drop of a hat. No-one would want to invest in Iraq under such conditions. Furthermore, Iraq would continue to be subject to sanctions over any item which the US and UK governments deem “dual-use”.  We pointed out that, far from reflecting the “will of the interna-tional community” as asserted by Caborn, only the US and UK out of the five permanent mem-bers voted for the resolution, and that the Hans von Sponeck and Jutta Berghardt, head of the World Food Programme, both resigned in protest at sanctions policy in general and UNSCR 1284 in particular.
Once again, “we were entitled to our opinion”.

Sanctions on apartheid, sanctions on Iraq

Peter Hain and Richard Caborn both like to hark back to their past activism in the Anti-Apartheid Movement (Richard Caborn was national treasurer of the AAM, while Peter Hain once famously dug up a cricket pitch to prevent a match between a white-only South African team and their English guests – an action which would make Peter Hain a terrorist under the Labour govern-ment’s recently-enacted ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation ). “You can see which side my heart is on,” said Caborn, indicating a photograph of himself with Nelson Mandela.
A common refrain of Caborn and Hain is that sanctions on South Africa are analogous to sanctions on Iraq. They claim that both are motivated by opposition to tyranny, of apartheid or of Saddam Hussein.
But - it is preposterous to argue that sanctions on apartheid provide a precedent for sanctions on Iraq!
While millions of South Africans demanded sanctions, the only Iraqis who favour continuation of the sanctions are the war traders, and Messrs. Caborn and Hain know this. On its own, this fact is enough to make nonsense of their argument.
Another big difference is that the campaign for the economic and military isolation of apartheid was as much a campaign aimed at the governments and corporations of the UK and US as it was aimed at the apartheid rulers in Pretoria. The sanctions fight of the seventies and eighties was aimed at breaking the links between the racist rulers and the multinationals, arms manufacturers and governments of, above all, the US and UK. We shouldn’t forget that successive Labour and Conservative governments presided over a UK economy which controlled 60% of all foreign in-vestments in apartheid South Africa, in defiance of calls for sanctions coming from the imprisoned Mandela and even from the UN itself. US Presidents and British Prime Ministers sold arms to apartheid and even connived with South Africa’s acquisition of nuclear weapons (these weapons were destroyed by the ANC government).
Labour and Tory governments alike spent decades circumventing and defying sanctions on South Africa. They have spent the last decade laying siege to Iraq. There is just no comparison between the two!
There is a Middle Eastern analogue of apartheid South Africa, but it is not Iraq. It is Israel. Both apartheid and Zionism were/are founded on racial exclusion and oppression. The Zionist project is precisely to convert the Palestinian-administered territories into Bantustans, reserves of cheap labour to be exploited by Israeli capitalism. Most important of all, both the white supremacy in South Africa and the Zionist occupation of Palestine derive(d) their power from their economic, political and military ties with other imperialist powers, the US and UK in particular. The affinity between Zionism and white supremacy was most clearly revealed by Israel’s crucial assistance to apartheid South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme.
Just like in South Africa, the resistance of the oppressed must be combined with an international campaign to isolate the oppressors. Sanctions on Israel, not Iraq!

Sanctions and sovereignty

A main aim of sanctions on Iraq is to extinguish Iraq’s sovereignty over its economy and territory. Iraq isn’t allowed to trade. Its oil revenues are paid into a New York account, beyond reach of the Iraqi government. It is not allowed to defend itself.  The whole world knows that, whatever is in the UN resolutions authorising sanctions, the real aim of the US and UK is to use sanctions to ex-ert control over whatever government rules Iraq. Sanctions are therefore a gross violation of Iraq’s national sovereignty.
Iraq’s rights as a sovereign nation are inscribed in international law; these laws codify the right of nations to self-determination and national sovereignty which were the fruit of the struggle against the colonial empires before and after World War II, an epoch of struggle finally completed by the overthrow of the white supremacy in southern Africa.
Ever since they were forced to concede independence to their colonial subjects, the US and UK have devised new ways to undermine that independence and negate their hard-won national sovereignty (“debt slavery” has proven very effective in this regard).
Sanctions – whether economic, political or military, or a combination of the three –  are a form of coercion used by rich, powerful states against weaker, nominally independent states. By defini-tion, they are a violation of the sovereignty of the target nation. Whether unilateral or under the guise of the UN; whether a hypocritical humanitarian motive is asserted or not, sanctions are part of the panoply of modern imperialism, and should be opposed in principle.
What is exceptional about both apartheid and Zionism is that the subject population had/have no national sovereignty to be violated. There was/is no nation which they are part of. The struggle for sanctions against apartheid was directed against those who denied the people their sovereign rights as human beings, and this is why a campaign to boycott and isolate Israel is today both appropriate and necessary.
For the South African people, “nation-time” only arrived in 1994. Nation-time for the Iraqi people arrived in 1958, when a popular uprising toppled the colonial regime and broke Iraq free from the British Empire. The popular nationalist regime began a land reform, nationalised part of Brit-ain’s oil industry, admitted girls into the schools and expanded education. The British government pressed its western allies to take sanctions against the Iraqi economy and the regime was subse-quently overthrown in a bloody CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953. And so began the Ba’ath party dictatorship over Iraq. A similar story in Guatemala, Chile, Indonesia, and scores of Arab and other Third World nations.
Citing South Africa as a precedent for Iraq does a grave disservice to the struggle against apart-heid, because apartheid was not just another Third World tyranny. Messrs. Caborn and Hain use the struggle against apartheid to justify imperialist aggression against Iraq, to defend a policy which has killed 1.5 million people. Their arguments are specious, self-serving, and insincere; they are the arguments of unprincipled politicians.


Appendix:  text of letter to Richard Caborn

To:     Richard Caborn M.P.
From:  John Smith, on behalf of the Sheffield Delegation to Iraq

Dear Mr Caborn,

I am one of your constituents, a participant in the Sheffield Delegation to Iraq which visited that country at the end of last year to find out how the Iraq’s civilian population is coping with the consequences of ten years of sanctions and bombs.
I have made an appointment to meet you at your surgery next Friday (19 January).  I will be accompanied by Ms Heather Hunt, another member of the Sheffield Delegation. The purpose of this meeting is to confront you, in your capacity as M.P. for Sheffield Central and as a minister in the UK government, with the principal facts we discovered and the principal conclusions we have drawn.
Our aim in meeting you is to record your response to the following prepared statement. We are sending this statement in advance in order to give you time to make a considered response, and in order to get the most out of the short amount of time we will have with each other next Friday.
We shall also deliver to you a sheaf of petitions we have collected from members of the Sheffield public. We would like to photograph the handing-over of this petition, and make an audio recording of our encounter.

Principal findings:
Everywhere in Iraq we saw signs of economic collapse, a principal aim and consequence of the sanctions and of the 1991 destruction of the civilian and economic infrastructure, including of its Iraq’s fresh water supplies. To illustrate the extent of sanctions – Iraq used to be the world’s biggest exporter of dates, yet for ten years it has not been allowed to sell a single date.
We found widespread fear of the consequences for human health of the one million Depleted Uranium bullets fired on Iraq in 1991. We note that the UK government and its US ally have prevented the W.H.O. or any other U.N. agency from conducting a study of the correlation between the huge increase in child cancers and congenital deformities and the use of these dreadful weapons, and that nothing has been done to clear up the mess.
The result of the economic collapse is a catastrophic decline in living standards, affecting all working people and a big part of the middle class. UN estimates indicate that 70% Iraq’s people are unemployed, and that the buying power of those lucky enough to receive a wage has fallen by a stunning 95%. Most of the people we met could not afford the food and medicine they need to stay alive and healthy. They survive thanks to meagre rations and Iraq’s culture of social and family solidarity.
Many we met said they considered sanctions to be worse than being bombed – at least you knew the bombing would stop and you could then rebuild. But the sanctions just go on and on, affecting everything, everywhere, day and night, week after week, year after year. And they inflict misery upon everyone except the people whom the US and UK governments claim to be targeting.
Everywhere we went we asked people what message they would like us to take back to the people of Sheffield. “End the sanctions!” was the unanimous response, from the schoolchildren, from the street traders, the widow in the slums, the archbishop, the telephone engineer, the taxi-driver, the hotel porter.
Sanctions weaken the Iraqi people and strengthen the vicious Saddam regime. They reinforce Saddam’s spurious nationalist credentials, provide him with an alibi for all his peoples’ suffering, allow him to smear all opponents as being in league with foreign aggressors, give him a pretext to maintain martial law, and add the power of the ration-book to his control over the people.

Principal conclusions:
The UK government is guilty of a crime against humanity, and we hold members of this government to be collectively and individually responsible for this crime. We reject the justifications advanced for why this unimaginable human suffering is necessary. We are told that Iraq must be rid of “weapons of mass destruction” – yet the UK and its US ally armed Saddam in the first place, and are today funnelling billions of dollars worth of weapons to other violent and repressive regimes in the region, such as Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The historical record shows that successive UK governments have pursued an odious imperialist policy towards Iraq and the Middle East in general. The current policy of sanctions and bombing is merely the latest chapter in shameful litany of crimes against the peoples of the region. The truth is that the US and UK governments have never, ever, favoured the overthrow of the tyrannical regime in Baghdad. Before 1990, they cosseted Saddam, even when he used poison gas against Kurdish villages in 1988. Since 1990, their aim has been to change the leader, not the regime. Powerful evidence for this was provided at the end of the Gulf War, when the peoples of north and south Iraq rose up against the Iraqi regime. General Schwarzkopf ordered his troops to prevent rebels from capturing weapons, let the elite Republican Guards pass unscathed through American lines, and stood back and watched while the uprising was drowned in blood.
We call on the UK government take responsibility for the suffering of the Iraqi people, to end its support for sanctions, to institute – along with other governments – a clear-up of the swathes of Iraq contaminated with DU, and to remove its military forces from the region.

Yours Sincerely,

John Smith

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