Sentenced To Death By Drone Strike: Justice In The War On Terror

Reyaad Khan - Ruhul Amin - Drone Strike - Syria - Britain

No one should mourn the deaths of two British ISIS fighters in Syria. But by using RAF drones to kill British citizens abroad, the United Kingdom has effectively re-established the death penalty for certain crimes, this time with no judicial review, no legal framework and no accountability

Did Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, both British citizens, deserve to die in Syria at the hands of an RAF Reaper drone missile?

No right-thinking person is likely to be mourning their deaths, certainly. But while feeling satisfaction that two murderous traitors have been blown off the face of the earth is one thing, it is quite another to approve of the way in which these events came about. And given what we know, we should not approve.

From the Guardian:

David Cameron is facing questions over Britain’s decision to follow the US model of drone strikes after the prime minister confirmed that the government had authorised an unprecedented aerial strike in Syria that killed two Britons fighting alongside Islamic State (Isis).

Speaking to the Commons on its first day back after the summer break, Cameron justified the strikes on the grounds that Reyaad Khan, a 21-year-old from Cardiff, who had featured in a prominent Isis recruiting video last year, represented a “clear and present danger”.

[..] The strikes were authorised by the prime minister at a meeting of senior members of the National Security Council some months ago after intelligence agencies presented evidence to ministers that Khan and Hussain were planning to attack commemorative events in the UK.

You do not have to be a quisling Islamist sympathiser or virtue-signalling civil liberties absolutist to feel uneasy about the fact that the Prime Minister can order the execution of a British citizen on foreign soil with no judicial review, let alone a formalised process approved by Parliament.

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Should We Punish Artists For Their Political Beliefs?

LSO Valery Gergiev
Maestro Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony Orchestra

 

Music and politics make uneasy bedfellows, and this timeless truth has only been reconfirmed with the continuing tumult and unrest in Ukraine.

Russia, the protagonist in this latest crisis, provides ample recent evidence that politics and music are best kept apart. The punk band Pussy Riot, for example, is hardly ever out of the headlines in recent months, with members being jailed, released, threatened and attacked by the authorities merely for adding their voices to the civic discourse, for wanting to make themselves and their beliefs heard.

But at the other end of the artistic spectrum, for the fine arts – especially classical music – the problem is not the Russian government’s persecution of artists, but artists’ apparent eagerness to praise the political leadership and to lend President Vladimir Putin their credibility.

The most famous current case is the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Gergiev was one of the most prominent Russian artists to sign an open letter in support of Vlarimir Putin’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. Part of the letter’s text reads:

In the days when the fate of our compatriots in the Crimea is decided, Russian cultural figures can not be indifferent observers with a cold heart . Our common history, our cultural roots and spiritual origins , our fundamental values ​​and language have united us forever. We want to see the commonality of our peoples and our cultures have a strong future. That is why we firmly reiterate support for the position of President of the Russian Federation and Ukraine Crimea.

Sometimes, these messages of support for Vladimir Putin’s policy of aggression are downright perplexing, such as when the Russian Writer’s Union decided to make their love and support for Putin known in a very Soviet style open letter, a sloppy wet kiss to power. Craven though they can sometimes be, one can hardly imagine the British or American press joining together as one to praise and defend the Cameron or Obama foreign policies.

At other times, however, particularly in the case of artists responsible for institutions that depend on government support, the situation is not so clear-cut and such acts of public sycophancy may be part of the inevitable cost of doing business. The Financial Times picks up on this point:

There is little doubt [Gergiev’s] position is compromised. Deep down he is a nationalist, as his ill-judged support for the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 demonstrated. At his two Mariinsky theatres in St Petersburg, he has 3,000 employees on his payroll and a rich tradition to maintain. No other figure could raise the kind of money that Gergiev does to keep the Mariinsky going. Much of that money comes from members of the Putin circle. If Gergiev is presented with a petition in support of government policy, he is obliged to sign – unlike prominent freelance musicians such as Denis Matsuev and Yuri Bashmet, who have foolishly toed the line.

This is perhaps a distinction worth making, though it could equally be argued that the brave and moral thing to do would be to speak out against government malfeasance, consequences be damned. US country music group The Dixie Chicks tried this approach in 2003 when they spoke out against their president and their country’s imminent invasion of Iraq.

The aftermath was not pleasant, and it is a brave person who now does what the Dixie Chicks did – and this was in the United States, where the rule of law still means something. One can only imagine what might befall the likes of Gergiev if they actively spoke out against their government, when even maintaining a diplomatic silence would invite negative repercussions.

But of course Valery Gergiev would not speak out against Vladimir Putin’s policy of bullying and undermining Ukraine; he actively supports it, his signature to the open letter was enthusiastically given. So the question then becomes one of whether artists with differing political or world views should continue to be welcomed in foreign concert halls, or be else ostracised and made artistic pariahs?

A significant weight of critical opinion seems to be coming down on the side of ostracisation and intolerance. Prominent human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has already made headlines by protesting Valery Gergiev’s continued association with a top-flight British artistic institution, going so far as to hijack the opening night of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Berlioz season in November 2013 and later issuing an open letter to the LSO, effectively demanding Gergiev’s dismissal. The letter concludes:

It is our view that Mr Gergiev’s current position is untenable and he should be suspended with immediate effect until he officially withdraws his name from the list published on the Russian Culture Ministry’s website and fully explains his position on the Anti-Homosexual Propaganda Bill.

If he decides he is not prepared to do this, his employment should be terminated as he is not an appropriate person to be in receipt of UK public funding. He supports discriminatory legislation which goes against the UK values of equality and diversity, and he supports Russian military action which the prime minister and foreign secretary have unequivocally condemned.

Ironically, the open letter sent by the Peter Tatchell Foundation and the Ukrainian Institute uses the same basis of government-policy-as-justification that we see in the Russian Ministry of Culture’s letter of support from Russian artists. Tatchell’s letter demands that Gergiev be fired because he supports a policy “which the prime minister and foreign secretary have unequivocally condemned”. Does this then mean that any artist or artistic institution not in complete accordance with the current views of the British government should be denied funding and actively picketed?

As is so often the case with campaigners from the political left, it is never enough to let the people vote with their feet on matters of moral principle. Rather, they instinctively turn to the government to invoke its power to make people fall into line. If it transpired that Valery Gergiev was jetting off between concerts to personally help foment unrest in eastern Ukrainian cities, people would be outraged and his situation would immediately become untenable. But he has not, and would never do this. Ultimately, Gergiev is guilty of little more than supporting the overwhelming view – however wrong it may be – among his own countrymen, something that most of us would likely do ourselves.

The Washington Post also picks up on this point, noting that famous Soviet artists were welcomed when they performed in the West even at the height of the Cold War, at a time when diplomatic relations were far more precarious than they are now:

If a musician chooses not to take a stand, he or she is often automatically charged with collaboration in any case. Gergiev, through his support of a challenging regime, may have in some sense “deserved” the protests at some of his concerts in 2013 (though this was not a reaction many Soviet artists got when they performed in the West at the height of the Cold War, sent by an even more suspect government).

For those in the West who watch Russia’s bullying and takeover of parts of Ukraine with mounting concern and anger, it may well provide a moment of catharsis and sweet justice to send the likes of Valery Gergiev packing prematurely from the London Symphony Orchestra, and to see other prominent Russian artists who do not disavow their country similarly exiled.

But it is precisely at times like these – when passions are high and tempers flared – that humanity most needs to remain in touch with the few common threads that unite us all. Music is perhaps the most precious of these unifying threads. After all, while the West may have a legitimate quarrel with the Russian government, the Russian people are largely innocent, as much victims of Putin’s repressive regime as the people of Ukraine and Crimea.

And even when prominent artists such as Valery Gergiev weigh in on the “wrong” side of an international dispute or a political debate, how can it be right to sever an important international cultural tie, a key reminder (to quote John F. Kennedy) that whatever our many differences, “We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal”?

In the end, it was Valery Gergiev together with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus who answered the conundrum most eloquently, with their recent concert performance of Alexander Scriabin’s First Symphony, part of Gergiev’s ongoing promotion of the Russian classical repertoire and a concert attended by Semi-Partisan Sam.

Sitting in London’s iconic Barbican concert hall, the rich sound of the LSO’s strings and peerless brass section enveloping the audience as the symphony drew toward its noble conclusion, hearing the chorus intone “Slava isskustvu vo veki slava!” – Britain’s finest musicians conducted by a Russian maestro – it hit home that if anything is truly transcendental, if anything must be held sacred and kept apart from our cynical, self-serving and sometimes hypocritical geopolitics, it should be music.

From the text of the choral finale to Scriabin’s first symphony, in praise of art’s unifying gift to humanity:

You are an exalted vision of life,
you are celebration, you are peace,
you bring your enchanted visions
as a gift to humankind.
In those cold, dark moments
when our souls are troubled,
mankind can discover in you
life’s joys, consolation and forgetfulness.

Gather here, all nations of the earth,
let us sing the praises of art!
Glory, eternal glory to art!

 

 

More on Scriabin‘s first symphony hereMore on the London Symphony Orchestra here.

 

Ron Paul, The New Russian Apologist

RonPaul

 

Former US congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) is nothing if not consistent – an admirable and all too rare quality in a politician. But just sometimes, the unflinching adherence to a particular principle or policy can be a bad thing – witness the Tea Party’s stance on taxation, the National Security Cheerleader Caucus’ enthusiasm for government surveillance, or the legislate-by-Bible-verse preference of the religious right.

Ron Paul has now sadly joined this group of ideologues, not because many of the points that he makes have suddenly stopped being timely, persuasive and correct, but because he now makes them in such a way that they no longer inform or educate, but merely generate material to be used by enemies of the United States and the West as ready-made propaganda pieces.

Indeed, some of Paul’s recent pronouncements on the Ukraine crisis and the Russian usurpation of Crimea are so one-sided and so determined to examine only the faults of the West while negating or ignoring the faults of Russia, that one wonders what his motivation could possibly be. Paul seems to be adopting a one-man Fox News Strategy, whereby he single-handedly attempts to redress what he sees as an inherent bias or gross imbalance by coming down incredibly hard on one side of an argument – whilst proclaiming all the while to be fair and balanced.

The latest fodder for Kremlin-apologists came on Sunday, when Paul penned an op-ed for his own Ron Paul Institute website, the subtitle of which could easily have been ‘I told you so.’ In this piece, he lashes out at the monetary and other forms of assistance given to Ukraine over the past ten years by US-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs):

But what do the US taxpayers get, who were forced to pay for this interventionism? Nothing good. Ukraine is a bankrupt country that will need tens of billions of dollars to survive the year. Already the US-selected prime minister has made a trip to Washington to ask for more money.

And what will the Ukrainians get? Their democracy has been undermined by the US-backed coup in Kiev. In democracies, power is transferred peacefully through elections, not seized by rebels in the streets. At least it used to be.

As with most effective attempts to mislead, there is just enough truth contained in this statement to suggest respectability and provide a stepping stone to reality, but not too much that it might get in the way of the misinformation being delivered.

It is certainly the case that the National Endowment of Democracy, a private and non-profit organisation, is active in Ukraine. But the NED is not secretive about this fact. Indeed, they detail all of their activities and funded initiatives across all of the countries where they work on their own website. Details of their funded work in Ukraine can be read here.

It is certainly possible that organisations such as the Human Rights Training Center or the Ukrainian Catholic University are nothing but shadowy US puppet organisations, greedily taking in American taxpayer money and using it to subvert the will of the Ukrainian people, just as it is possible that Barack Obama became president of the United States for the sole purpose of gathering material to aid in his upcoming romantic comedy about living and working in the White House. Possible, in other words, but eyebrow-raisingly unlikely.

But the narrative sounds very good to anyone predisposed to view any American or Western activity with suspicion, and so by floating unsubstantiated assertions that western-funded NGOs are doing anything other than trying to promote and build the strong institutions required for democracy to flourish, Paul is playing into a harmful narrative which misconstrues the intentions of his own country and those of the West.

In a separate intervention last week, Paul rhetorically asked:

Why does the US care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?”

The thought does not seem to occur to Paul that perhaps the United States does not care about the flag – that perhaps it is not the small piece of land that is at stake, but rather the way that it changed hands so rapidly under threat of force that is the problem. And, regrettably, he seems all too willing to recall previous bad actions and mistakes made by the United States to excuse current crimes committed by Russia:

“Where were these people when an election held in an Iraq occupied by US troops was called a ‘triumph of democracy’?

Iraq was certainly very recent, but to make a blasé statement such as this without giving a thought to the many differences between the invasion of Iraq (non-permanent and not for acquisition of land) – however terrible and wrong it may have been – and the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, is propagandist point-scoring at its worst.

No strangers to propagandist point-scoring themselves, the Kremlin-funded Russia Today network predictably seized on Ron Paul’s latest op-ed, and folded it into their continuing efforts to spin the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory as something entirely consistent with international law, recent precedent and human decency.

RT.com wasted no time putting their own helpful gloss on Ron Paul’s words:

According to Paul, high-funded intervention doesn’t equate to spreading democracy. Instead, he wrote, the US has invested in a country where power has been passed along not by the way of a democratic election, but rather the ousting of the country’s presidents by his opponents.

Of course, the regime of Viktor Yanukovych ousted by the supposedly undemocratic popular uprising in Kiev was itself busily trying to subvert the Ukrainian democracy by cracking down on freedom of speech, silencing dissent and dramatically increasing the powers of the president, which rather muddies the waters and exposing the Ron Paul / Russia Today line as the one-sided propaganda that it is.

Ron Paul accuses President Obama of doing many of the things in America that Viktor Yanukovych did in Ukraine, albeit on a slightly smaller scale – certainly, Obama’s war on whistleblowers and the surveillance state that he has tolerated and expanded can be said to chip away at the foundation of democracy. And yet this outrage at the illiberal policies being enacted in America is nowhere to be found when he looks at the former Yanukovych government, who, for all Paul seems to know or care, were benign arbiters of justice and democracy, unjustly pushed from office by a baying mob of anti-democracy fanatics.

If the recent Edward Snowden / NSA / surveillance debate have taught us nothing else, we have at least been reminded that democracy and its institutions are fragile and never more than one generation away from serious damage, subversion or destruction. When countries such as Britain and America – who have traditionally held aloft the flame of liberty and democracy – now suffer under governments that think nothing of secret surveillance of their own citizens, detain people or subject them to indefinite curtailments on their freedom without trial or allow those who permitted torture to take place to avoid justice, how much more fragile and in need of support must be those nations with a much shorter history of democratic government?

And in this context, is NGO money spent to strengthen democratic institutions in countries around the world not one of the best investments that the West could make?

The suggestion is not that Ron Paul has no right to speak out against past US failings – he has a longstanding and admirable track record of doing so. But the problem comes when his zeal to remind people of past US and Western failings leads him not to condemn those same actions by other countries, but rather almost to praise them as a perverse means of restoring parity within the global order.

In his recent speech to the Russian parliament, Vladimir Putin ranted, raved and gave the world a stark insight into his paranoia, his sense of inadequacy and the huge chip on his shoulder concerning how his country is perceived by the rest of the world. Railing against the West, he said:

Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle, “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

They did it before, so now we can do it, too.

Ron Paul is in many ways a visionary, and is certainly a real American patriot. Which is why it is concerning that he and the dictator from Russia find themselves singing from the same hymn sheet.

On Responding To Russian Aggression

 

Not necessarily something to be proud of, but this blog may have finally found common ground with Senator Lindsey Graham.

Politico reports that Graham has told President Obama to stop the idle threats about “costs” and “consequences”, and to regain some credibility by taking real, tangible action in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Sunday that President Barack Obama needs to “stop going on television and trying to threaten thugs and dictators.”

“It is not your strong suit. Every time the president goes on national television and threatens [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin or anyone like Putin, everyone’s eyes roll, including mine,” the South Carolina Republican said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Graham’s own starter for ten:

“President Obama needs to do something,” Graham said. “How about this: Suspend Russian membership in the G-8 and the G-20 at least for a year, starting right now and every day they stay in Crimea after the suspension. Do something.”

This intervention is just a condensed version of the critique and suggestions made earlier by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who also places the emphasis on concrete actions rather than new ways to scold from the sidelines:

This is a critical moment in world history. The credibility of the alliances and security assurances that have preserved the international order is at stake. If Putin’s illegal actions are allowed to stand unpunished, it will usher in a dark and dangerous era in world affairs.

To his credit, President Obama has taken some of this advice – John Kerry is being dispatched to Kiev as an initial show of solidarity. William Hague is heading there too. That’s a good start. But it is the more tangible displays of disapproval that are now required most, from Britain, America and everyone else.

That means boycotting the Paralympic Games, freezing the overseas assets of Russian regime officials, and booting the country out of all international organisations such as the WTO and the G8. Revoking some visas and cancelling all intergovernmental cooperation on everything would also go some way to showing that Russia cannot behave in this way and expect to remain a respected part of the international community.

And if Putin retaliates by turning off the gas supply? Well, maybe the governments of Britain and Europe should have paid more attention to their energy security.

Defending Gibraltar

It is irking see the Conservatives so publicly and comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Labour recently on a variety of issues, most recently related to education and welfare. To witness the same thing now happen in the sphere of foreign policy is yet another worrying sign that the Conservative-led coalition government is coasting at this point, perhaps made complacent by the recent uptick in economic indicators, and taking their eye off the ball.

The Telegraph reports that Gareth Thomas, the Labour shadow minister for Europe, has raised concerns that Britain is not doing enough to forcefully push back against recent Spanish misbehaviour with regard to Gibraltar:

Gibraltar is a territory “under siege” and Spain should be made to account for its actions in relation to The Rock, the shadow minister for Europe has said.

Gareth Thomas, the Labour MP for Harrow West, said that residents of Gibraltar were concerned that Britain was not doing enough to defend them from Spanish harassment. The past 12 months have seen the highest ever number of incursions by Spanish ships into Gibraltar’s waters, with the almost double the incidents from 2012.

“I was struck by the sense that the Gibraltarians have of being under siege,” said Mr Thomas, who visited Gibraltar in November. “Spanish ships are coming into their waters on a regular basis.”

We have seen this before. The leaders of countries that are in the doldrums, facing economic malaise and restive populations (hi, Argentina), suddenly dredging up ancient grievances against Britain. Grievances that were once dead and buried during happier economic times. If you are going to make the case that the absence of the Falkland Islands or Gibraltar is like a gaping hole in your respective nation, I would have slightly more sympathy if we didn’t hear your plaintive appeals only during times of economic recession.

I refer you to the Treaty of Utrecht.
I refer you to the Treaty of Utrecht.

This continual harassment of a British overseas territory is unacceptable, and one cannot help but feel that the diplomatic protest by the UK in response has been far too small. Relying on a corrupt body such as the European Commission to mediate the dispute by visiting Gibraltar was clearly never going to be the answer, and why William Hague thought that this option would be sufficient to resolve the situation is mystifying. Diplomatic pressure is clearly failing in this case, and more stringent unilateral action may be required to bring the Spanish back into line. Bullying behaviour tends only to respond to a show of strength, a clear assertion that the bullying will no longer be tolerated.

Of more concern to me, though, is the fact that William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has failed to make it sufficiently clear that Britain will not tolerate these childish antics. I had not expected someone so competent and capable to drop the ball or fail to forcefully defend the interests of the UK to the extent that he clearly has. Showing forebearance to Spain on the issue of Gibraltar, particularly given the childish means by which the Spanish government chooses to pursue its non-cause, is no longer cute or charming or patient. It’s weak.

Michael Gove on education, Iain Duncan Smith on welfare and now William Hague on foreign policy, all caught napping and hit from the right by their Labour counterparts. I don’t know whether a weekend retreat is in order at one end of the spectrum, or a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle at the other, but David Cameron urgently needs to get his cabinet to come out of cruise control.