Media Lens: Massacers That Matter (Parts 1 and 2)
By David Edwards
The 'responsibility to protect' (R2P), formulated at the 2005 UN World Summit, is based on the idea that state sovereignty is not a right but a responsibility. Where offending states fail to live up to this responsibility by inflicting genocide, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity on their own people, the international community has a responsibility to act. Economic sanctions and the use of military force can thus be employed as 'humanitarian intervention'.
A second version of R2P, proposed by the [Gareth] Evans Commission, goes much further. It authorises 'regional or sub-regional organisations' such as Nato to determine their 'area of jurisdiction' and to act in cases where 'the Security Council rejects a proposal or fails to deal with it in a reasonable time'.
Gareth Evans – described by the BBC as someone 'who has championed the doctrine that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians' – has an interesting CV. John Pilger wrote in 2000:
'One of the nauseating moments of the East Timor tragedy was in 1989, when Gareth Evans, the then Australian foreign minister, raised his champagne glass to his Indonesian equivalent, Ali Alatas, as they flew over the Timor Sea in an Australian aircraft, having signed the Timor Gap Treaty. Below them was the small country where a third of the population had died or been killed under Suharto.'
'Thanks largely to Evans, Australia was the only western country formally to recognise Suharto's genocidal conquest. The murderous Indonesian special forces known as Kopassus were trained in Australia. The prize, said Evans, was "zillions" of dollars.'
R2P is often described as an 'emerging norm' in international affairs. But as Noam Chomsky has noted, Japan's attack on Manchuria, Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, and Hitler's occupation of Czechoslovakia were 'all accompanied by lofty rhetoric about the solemn responsibility to protect the suffering populations'. In fact, R2P has 'been considered a norm as far back as we want to go'.
On March 18, 2011, the day before Nato launched its assault on Libya, the BBC quoted from a speech by prime minister David Cameron:
'On the 23rd February the UN Secretary General cited the reported nature and scale of attacks on civilians as "egregious violations of international and human rights law" and called on the government of Libya to "meet its responsibility to protect its people."'
Two weeks earlier, the BBC had published an interview with Gareth Evans, asking:
'Is there a clear-cut case for a "responsibility to protect" justification for intervention in Libya?'
'Absolutely… The question now, of course, is whether a step further should be taken to go down the military path and I think, morally, the case is overwhelming.'
Two weeks later, on March 22, 2011, with Nato bombing underway, Jonathan Freedland focused in the Guardian on how 'in a global, interdependent world we have a "responsibility to protect" each other'. Freedland's article was titled:
'Though the risks are very real, the case for intervention remains strong – Not to respond to Gaddafi's chilling threats would leave us morally culpable, but action in Libya is fraught with danger'
One day later, the Guardian's former Middle East editor Brian Whitaker wrote under the title:
'The difference with Libya – Unlike Bahrain or Yemen, the scale and nature of the Gaddafi regime's actions have impelled the UN's "responsibility to protect."'
Whitaker examined the origins and development of R2P, concluding that it had at last borne fruit: 'it deserves to be recognised as an intervention based on principle and not as the "petro-imperialist" plot that Gaddafi claims it to be'.
The following day, also in the Guardian, Ian Williams discussed the origins and merits of R2P:
'Under those principles, as Brian Whitaker demonstrates, the Libyan operation emerges with great credibility. Gaddafi had been repeatedly warned to stop killing his own people, but carried on using heavier and heavier weapons…'
Like other liberal commentators, Williams caveated freely, noting concerns about flaws in R2P, about 'Washington's methods and motivations', and so on. But his conclusion was clear enough.
These articles were all published between March 22-24, 2011, shortly after Nato began its attacks. Whitaker referenced Freedland, Williams referenced Whitaker, an echo chamber in which three senior journalists all took seriously both R2P and the idea that the Libya 'intervention' was an example of the doctrine in action.
At the beginning of March, Timothy Garton Ash had also written in the Guardian on the application of R2P in Libya:
'To intervene or not to intervene? That is the question… I defy anyone to watch Gaddafi's planes attacking besieged towns and not accept that there is at least a legitimate question whether outside powers should intervene in some way to prevent him killing more of his own people.'
Although 'unconvinced' that a no-fly zone would be 'justified – at the time of writing' (our emphasis), Garton Ash nevertheless asked:
'And do we not have some responsibility to protect the people who have risen against him, if only in the form of the no-fly zone supported by Libyans?'
In yet another Guardian piece the following week, Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Philippe Sands, professor of law at University College London, commented:
'International law does not require the world to stand by and do nothing as civilians are massacred on the orders of Colonel Gaddafi…'
'It would be tragic for the Libyan people if the shadow of Iraq were to limit an emerging "responsibility to protect", the principle that in some circumstances the use of force may be justified to prevent the massive and systematic violation of fundamental human rights.'
The Guardian was not alone in tirelessly promoting R2P as a basis for a Western war in Libya. Also in March 2011, human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson asked in the Independent:
'Will the world stand idly by once Colonel Gaddafi, a man utterly without mercy, starts to deliver on his threat to "fight to the last man and woman" – and, inferentially, to the last child?'
Robertson also discussed the origins and development of R2P, concluding:
'The duty to stop the mass murder of innocents, as best we can, has crystallised to make the use of force by Nato not merely "legitimate" but lawful.'
Ostensibly at the other end of the media 'spectrum', Matthew d'Ancona wrote of Libya in the Telegraph on March 27:
'It is surely a matter for quiet national pride that an Arab Srebrenica was prevented by a coalition in which Britain played an important part…'
'"R2P" is being given a trial run in Libya, and the results of the experiment will have momentous consequences in the decades ahead.'
Clearly, in March 2011, readers were bombarded with commentary promoting R2P as a basis for Western military 'intervention' in Libya. As we have discussed, many of the alleged horrors said to justify Nato's assault – Gaddafi's use of vicious foreign mercenaries and Viagra-fuelled mass rape, his planned massacre in Benghazi – were sheer invention. The violent chaos that has befallen Libya since Nato's war, however, is very real.
Some interesting questions arise. How did the same politicians and journalists respond to the overthrow of the democratically elected Egyptian government on July 3, 2013 by a military force trained, armed and supported by the United States? How did politics and media respond to the appalling and undisputed August 14 massacre of civilians by this same military? And how heavily did the much-loved R2P doctrine – allegedly rooted in ethics rather than realpolitik – feature in coverage of these crimes?
Comparing Obama on Libya, Syria And Egypt
According to the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Research, 1,295 Egyptians were killed between August 14-16, with 1,063 losing their lives on August 14 alone. The violence was one-sided, as the Guardian reported:
'But the central charges – that most Brotherhood supporters are violent, that their two huge protest camps were simply overgrown terrorist cells, and that their brutal suppression was justified and even restrained – are not supported by facts.'
To put the slaughter in perspective, 108 people were killed in the May 25, 2012 massacre in Houla, Syria, which was instantly blamed by the West on Syrian president Assad personally, leading to a storm of denunciations and calls for a Western military 'response'.
So how does the US-UK political response compare on Libya, Syria and Egypt?
The Guardian quoted Obama's view on Libya in an article entitled, 'Obama throws the weight of the west behind freedom in the Middle East':
'While we cannot stop every injustice, there are circumstances that cut through our caution – when a leader is threatening to massacre his people and the international community is calling for action. That is why we stopped a massacre in Libya. And we will not relent until the people of Libya are protected, and the shadow of tyranny is lifted.'
With standard objectivity, the Guardian described this as 'a stirring speech', one that placed the US 'unambiguously on the side of those fighting for freedom across the Middle East'.
How did this US commitment to human rights manifest itself in the aftermath of the vast massacre committed by the Egyptian military junta on August 14? Obama commented:
'We appreciate the complexity of the situation… After the military intervention [sic] several weeks ago, there remained a chance to pursue a democratic path. Instead we have seen a more dangerous path taken.
'The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government [sic] and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest. We oppose the pursuit of marshal law.'
Obama cancelled joint military exercises but he did not even suspend the annual $1.3 billion of aid to Egypt's armed forces. Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, commented:
'This is a rocky road back to democracy. We continue to work at it.'
The New York Times noted that the $1.3 billion in military aid 'is its main access to the kind of big-ticket, sophisticated weaponry that the Egyptian military loves'. Global Post listed the 10 biggest 'defence' contracts involving major US corporations like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and AgustaWestland.
Spencer Ackerman wrote in the Guardian:
'Perhaps the most mystifying thing about the cosmetic US response to Wednesday's massacre in Egypt is the reluctance for the US to use its massive aid leverage over Cairo's generals.'
This must indeed be 'mystifying' for journalists who believe that the United States is 'unambiguously on the side of those fighting for freedom'. Indifference to mass slaughter notwithstanding, Ackerman affirmed the happy truth:
'Paramount among US concerns was that the military not massacre Egyptian civilians.'
UK foreign secretary William Hague, who has tirelessly demanded war against Libya and Syria in response to crimes real, imagined and predicted, had this to say about the killing of many hundreds of civilians in Egypt:
'Our influence may be limited – it is a proudly independent country – and there may be years of turbulence in Egypt and other countries… We have to do our best to promote democratic institutions and political dialogue….'
Patrick Cockburn supplied a rare, honest summary of at least part of the ugly truth:
'For all their expressions of dismay at last week's bloodbath, the US and the EU states were so mute and mealy-mouthed about criticising the 3 July coup as to make clear that they prefer the military to the Brotherhood.'
This helps explain why the Lexis media database finds exactly two articles containing the words 'Egypt' and 'responsibility to protect', or 'R2P', since July 3. One is a single-sentence mention in passing in an Observer editorial focusing on Syria. Ironically, the other cites a statement issued by Egypt's interior ministry after the August 14 bloodbath:
'Upon the government's assignment to take necessary measures against the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins, and out of national responsibility to protect citizens' security, the security forces have started to take necessary measures to disperse both sit-ins.' ('Voices from the violence,' Independent, August 15, 2013)
R2P is simply not an issue for the US-UK alliance in Egypt. But what is so striking is that R2P is simultaneously not an issue for the ostensibly objective and independent 'free press'.
Source: Media Lens
By David Edwards
Corporate media coverage of atrocities in Egypt, Libya and Syria has closely matched US-UK government interpretations and priorities.
While the US government has refused to describe what was very obviously a military coup in Egypt on July 3 as a coup, many media have also tended to shy away from the term, referring instead to the 'ousting' and 'removal' of the elected government.
In reporting atrocities in Libya and Syria, the BBC focuses heavily on the word 'crime', but described the mass murder in Egypt on August 14 as a 'tragedy'. Killing in Syria is routinely described as a 'massacre', but in Egypt often as the less pejorative 'crackdown'.
In February 2011, The Times insisted that 'there is incontrovertible evidence' that demonstrators in Benghazi 'are being blown apart by mortar fire'.
The ethical response to these and other alleged crimes by the Gaddafi 'regime':
'British officials and private citizens must do all they can to cajole, pressure and exhort it out of power.' (Leading article, 'In bombing its own civilians, Libya stands exposed as an outlaw regime,' The Times, February 23, 2011)
Compare The Times' response the day after the August 14 massacre of perhaps 1,000 people by a military junta that had overthrown the democratically elected government:
'The legitimacy of Egypt's interim regime hangs by a thread after yesterday's killings.' (Leading article, 'Murder in Cairo,' The Times, August 15, 2013)
The Times at least recognised that there had been 'a massacre' following 'a coup d'état'. But whereas Gaddafi's 'outlaw regime' had to be forced 'out of power' – not just by officials but by UK 'private citizens' – Egypt's 'interim regime' somehow retained shreds of 'legitimacy'.
Should coup leader General al-Sisi be cajoled and ejected?
'General al-Sisi's most urgent task is to rebuild… faith. He still commands the support of many those who took to the streets in July… the US should enforce its own laws and suspend its aid to Egypt. It is too soon to give up on progress… but it will take more than hope to make it happen.' (Leading article, 'Crisis management,' The Times, August 17, 2013)
It will take more than hope, but less than bombing, it seems. Private citizens can stand easy.
In 2011, the Independent celebrated the resurrection of 'humanitarian intervention':
'The international community has managed to come together over Libya in a way that, even a few days ago, seemed impossible. The adventurism [sic] of Bush and Blair in 2003 looked as if it had buried the principle of humanitarian intervention for a generation. It has returned sooner than anyone believed possible.'
On the success in Libya:
'Concern was real enough that a Srebrenica-style massacre could unfold in Benghazi, and the UK Government was right to insist that we would not allow this.'
'We', of course, are legally and morally qualified to decide what to 'allow' in the world, despite 'our' occasional 'adventurism'.
The banner front page headline of the Independent on Sunday (IoS) raged in the aftermath of Syria's Houla massacre, long before responsibility had been established:
'There is, of course, supposed to be a ceasefire, which the brutal Assad regime simply ignores. And the international community? It just averts its gaze. Will you do the same? Or will the sickening fate of these innocent children make you very, very angry?' (Independent on Sunday, May 27, 2012)
Should we, then, be 'very, very angry' about 'the sickening fate' of unarmed civilian protestors massacred in cold blood in Egypt? The IoS editors have not commented, but their sister paper observed:
'The Obama administration made its displeasure felt yesterday by cancelling joint military exercises. Yet Washington still refuses to call a coup a coup, preferring the influence that goes with $1.3bn annual aid to Egypt's military. It is high time that leverage is put to use. All support should now be withdrawn, pending free elections.'
No, 'action', no 'intervention', just withdrawal of support. The hand-wringing conclusion was positively Pinteresque:
'The transition from autocracy to democracy was never going to be easy.'
The Observer's 'Honest Passion' For War
The title of a March 13, 2011 Observer leading article was clear enough:
'The west can't let Gaddafi destroy his people'
Again, it goes without saying that the West is legally and morally qualified to determine what is and is not allowable in this world. After all, consider 'our' track record. The editors continued:
'It won't be too long, at this rate, before Benghazi itself is threatened. And be equally clear what will happen when it is: there will be another bloodbath, this time a slaughter of men and women who dared to stand against a vile regime. Who'll sit comfortably through what will doubtless be dubbed another Srebrenica?'
In a state of Churchillian high emotion, the Observer's editors demanded 'a common position which brooks no more argument' – further discussion would not be tolerated. Instead, we were all to 'pledge, with the honest passion we affect to feel that, whether repulsed in time or not, this particular tyranny will not be allowed to stand. Libya is part of freedom's future: it must not be buried by a quavering past'.
When official enemies are targeted, readers are personally exhorted to take action. We, as private citizens, are not to 'turn away'. We are to 'cajole, pressure and exhort', to passionately 'pledge' to do our bit for history. This is deeply flattering to readers' sense of self-importance. And ironic, given the media's consistent refusal to discuss foreign policy issues at election time, and given the major political parties' range of choice on foreign policy: war or war.
After Tripoli fell to Libyan 'rebel' forces in 2011, the Guardian wrote of Nato's assault:
'…it can now reasonably be said that in narrow military terms it worked, and that politically there was some retrospective justification for its advocates as the crowds poured into the streets of Tripoli to welcome the rebel convoys earlier this week'.
So who won the argument for and against the assault?
'Because it was a close argument, there should be no point-scoring now.'
Again, we'd had our fun, there was nothing more to discuss.
A Guardian leader immediately after the August 14 massacre noted that the reaction of the international community 'failed lamentably to match the significance of these events'. The US government's comments were 'all rhetorical statements, unless and until the US is prepared to cut its $1.3bn aid to Egypt's military' (our emphasis).
So while the Guardian had assailed readers with the West's 'responsibility to protect' with force in Libya (See Part 1 of this alert), and has again, now, in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria (see below), the need in Egypt was merely for the US to cut off aid.
The Telegraph also celebrated Nato's assault on Libya:
'As the net tightens round Muammar Gaddafi and his family, Nato deserves congratulations on having provided the platform for rebel success.'
And, after Houla, Assad simply had to go:
'Even the Russians, who have been remarkably obtuse over Syria, must surely now see that.'
By contrast, amazingly, a Telegraph leader after the coup, and even after the August 14 massacre, was titled:
'Democracy in Egypt is on the brink of collapse'
Was this an attempt at black humour? The editorial warned that, 'if order collapses, or can be maintained only by a state of emergency, then the prospects are bleak for democracy in Egypt'.
As if the massacre of hundreds of civilians by a military junta did not already indicate the complete collapse of 'democracy' and 'order'.
Should the West take military action? Alas, 'we are powerless to intervene', but using economic levers 'we must seek to bring pressure to bear where we can'.
Damascus Gas Attack? 'Red Lines' Crossed, Broken, Smashed
As this alert was being written, one week after the massacre in Egypt, claims emerged of a major gas attack killing hundreds of civilians in Damascus, Syria. Channel 4's Sarah Smith asked the question that arises so readily, so naturally, for UK journalists:
'Syria chemical weapons horror – is it time for intervention?' (Smith, Snowmail, August 22, 2013)
No need for UN inspectors to gather factual evidence of chemical weapons use; Smith, Channel 4's business correspondent, already knew what had happened and who was to blame:
'There seems little doubt that red lines have now been crossed, broken and smashed to pieces. But what will anyone do about it?'
The 'red lines' of course referred to Obama's warning to the Syrian government that its use of chemical weapons would trigger US 'intervention'. No-one is pretending the US would bomb the 'rebels'.
In similar vein, a Guardian leader commented, again with no serious evidence:
'There is next to no doubt that chemical weapons were used in Ghouta in eastern Damascus… Nor is there much doubt about who committed the atrocity.'
A second leader continued to mislead readers, insisting on the need for 'clear and persuasive information' indicating that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons:
'That information may well exist – much of the evidence points in that direction.'
In reality, the truth is simply unknown. Even US intelligence officials argue that the responsibility of the Syrian government, let alone Assad, is no 'slam dunk'. Chemical weapons experts are also clear that much doubt remains.
It is of course possible that government forces launched the attacks, although it would have been an inexplicably foolish, indeed suicidal, act for Assad to order the mass gassing of civilians three days after UN inspectors had arrived in the country. In the Daily Mail, Peter Hitchens offered a rare rational comment on this theme:
'In those circumstances, what could possibly have possessed him to do something so completely crazy? He was, until this event, actually doing quite well in his war against the Sunni rebels. Any conceivable gains from using chemical weapons would be cancelled out a million times by the diplomatic risk. It does not make sense. Mr Assad is not Saddam Hussein, or some mad carpet-biting dictator, but a reasonably intelligent, medically-trained person who has no detectable reason to act in such an illogical and self-damaging fashion.
'The rebels, on the other hand (in many cases non-Syrian jihadists who are much disliked by many ordinary Syrians because of the misery they have brought upon them), have many good reasons to stage such an attack.'
And recall that on May 6, speaking for the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria, Carla Del Ponte said, 'there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated. This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities'.
No matter, the front page of the Independent read:
'Syria: air attacks loom as West finally acts' (Independent, August 26, 2013)
Even the Independent's Robert Fisk commented:
'The gassing of hundreds in the outskirts of Damascus has now taken Syria across another of the West's famous "red lines" – and yet again, only words come from Washington and London.'
Once again, as in the case of Houla, there was instantly little or no doubt about responsibility.
Once again, the talk was of 'options', 'possibly airstrikes against missile depots and aircraft that Mr Assad would not like to lose,' the Guardian surmised.
And once again, discussion of the West's 'responsibility to protect' (R2P) exploded across the media 'spectrum': on the BBC, in an Independent leader and an article by Katherine Butler, in an Observer leader, in numerous editorials, letters and articles in the Telegraph, Times and elsewhere. In the last four days, the Guardian has published a flurry of articles discussing R2P in relation to Syria by Joshua Rozenberg, Malcolm Rifkind, Paul Lewis, John Holmes and Julian Borger.
The Lexis database continues to find (August 29) exactly no discussions of R2P in relation to the massacre by the West's military allies in Egypt.
We ought to find it astonishing that the corporate media can flip direction with such discipline – instantly, like a flock of starlings – between such clearly self-contradictory positions.
In truth, it takes a minimal capacity for rational thought to see that the corporate 'free press' is a structurally irrational and biased, and extremely violent, system of elite propaganda.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Brian Whitaker at the Guardian: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Brian_Whit
Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian: email@example.com Twitter: @_jfreedland
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @rusbridger
Sarah Smith at Channel 4 News: email@example.com Twitter: @sarahsmithC4
Source: Media Lens