By Beth Heron
In August 7th, 2014, Barack Obama authorised drone strikes in Northern Iraq:
“Today, America is coming to help…When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I think the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye”. According to the US Department of Defense report from later that day, it was the many American people, present in the city of Erbil, capital of Kurdish Iraq, that the first Strikes were to protect.
In an article in the International Business Times released 22 days before Obama authorized strikes, a human rights activist living in Erbil, Jihan (last name not provided for security reasons), forecasted ‘There is no way they will come here…It is so safe here, we have the security that other places do not’.
Why did Jihan think that Erbil had ‘security that other places do not’? Erbil is oil-rich. Both ExxonMobil and Chevron - two American energy corporations were drilling in the region at the time. The headquarters of the two companies are situated in the U.S and they sell to the U.S and E.U markets. There were thousands of Americans living and working in Erbil in August 2014. The West has historically allied with Kurdistan over the past century, albeit always abandoning them after they have got what they want.
It could be argued that these alliances were formed to create a stable region, in order for the U.S to quench its oil hungry thirsts. President Obama, in an interview conducted just days before airstrikes were approved in the area, stated that ‘The Kurdish region is functional in the way we would like to see’. This communicates a highly Western-centric, neocolonial attitude from the White House regarding Kurdistan’s land and resources.
Perhaps the journalist Steve Coll writing in the New York Times gives the most accurate evaluation: ‘Obama’s defense of Erbil is effectively the defense of an undeclared Kurdish oil state whose sources of geopolitical appeal – as a long term, non-Russian supplier of oil and gas to Europe, are best not spoken of in polite of naïve company’ He goes on to describe American policy in Iraq as ‘one vile task after another’.
On the 8/9th of August, US Admiral John Kirby announced 1 - 3 strikes had been conducted by US aircraft, reporting that the strikes targeted ISIL mobile artillery that the U.S claimed were attempting to attack Peshmerga militia, who were protecting the city of Erbil. Kirby remarked that the ‘United States military will continue to take direct action against ISIL when they threaten our personnel and facilities’. From the very inception of this war against so-called Islamic State organisation, insidious and obfuscating language has been used to manage the public understanding. What did Kirby mean by ‘personnel and facilities’? As we have already come to understand, Erbil holds an unprecedented amount of oil, oil that at this point was tied into the U.S corporations ExxonMobil and Chevron.
It does not require a deep investigation to see how complex of the US led Coalition’s entanglement in the region really is. The Coalition partners comprise of the US, the UK, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE, Turkey and Bahrain all of which have different policies on transparency and accountability vis a vis warfare, yet have the capacity to revoke responsibilities in this particular conflict due to the civilian casualty cell based centrally in the US. During the campaign, which at the time of writing has been going on for 1,307 days, an alleged minimum of 6238 civilians have been killed by Coalition forces.
This conflict therefore cannot be packaged as a humanitarian intervention - since the incentive of the war was never wholly to protect civilians against the so-called Islamic State organisation - nor can it be claimed claim to be a war waged to deter acts of terrorism in the West. The latter point is too often assumed by politicians from members of the Coalition who try and shape domestic power through a politic of fear.
The terrorism and counter-terrorism expert Patrick Cockburn, commented “It should be firmly said that, if Saddam and Gaddafi had not been overthrown, it is unlikely that Salman Abedi would have been in a position to slaughter people in Manchester”. This stance is also taken by Jeremy Corbyn, who was politically slammed for attributing recent domestic terror incidents to our the West’s foreign policies in the Middle East. How can we work toward diplomatic relations when the press frames any detailed or nuanced analysis as apologist or unpatriotic? As populist politics reduces discourse to bitesize, it is ever more important to push for meaningful transparency and public accountability regarding our foreign policies and (mis)conduct in conflict.
Scotland and Transparency
What is Scotland’s record on transparency in conflict? Back in early 2016 Brendan O’Hara MP for Argyll and Bute reportedly pushed for David Cameron to address civilian casualty allegations stating that the"reports are deeply worrying if correct. We are all committed to destroying Daesh - it is about how best we do that - and if it these reports are confirmed - it casts a real shadow over the UK Government's strategy” however reportedly when “The SNP asked David Cameron straightforward and essential questions about the aims and strategy of his bombing campaign when it was proposed and did not get answers”.
There is little evidence to suggest the matter was pushed further. The Scottish Parliament states it is built on four founding principles.
1) Accountable: The Scottish Parliament is answerable to the people of Scotland. The Scottish Parliament should hold the Scottish Government to account.
2) Open and Encourage participation: The Scottish Parliament should be accessible and involve the people of Scotland in its decisions as much as possible.
3) Power Sharing: Power should be shared among the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and the people of Scotland.
4) Equal Opportunities: The Scottish Parliament should treat all people fairly”.
Party political rhetoric often reflects these principles, especially when set out next to Westminster’s more closeted approach. However, when on issues of foreign policy especially that of war and arms the rhetoric contradicts policy and actions and does not align with these ‘four founding principles’.
Why is this? There are multiple reasons, all of which rest on a backdrop of governmental structure and responsibility. Holyrood is responsible for devolved issues, reserved issues remain in the hands of Westminster. Major devolved issues are, agriculture, forestry and fisheries education and training,environment, health and social services, housing, law and order, local government, sport and the arts, tourism and economic development, and many aspects of transport.
Reserved issues are, benefits and social security, immigration, defence, foreign policy, employment, broadcasting, trade and industry, nuclear energy, oil, coal, gas and electricity, consumer rights, data protection, the Constitution. With reserved issues the UK Parliament makes the laws and policies, devolved issues were initiated from 1998 when the Scottish Parliament was given the power to make new laws on certain issues that then apply to Scotland alone.
However, this devolution model still keeps Westminster as the overarching Sovereign on all matters, even devolved ones, although it would be unusual for Westminster to impose new laws on devolved issues, however they still able to do this if they so wish.
There is a distinct lack of transparency on Scottish matters where the devolved and the reserved intersect. When considering the arms industry, the military and foreign policy there is of course an overlap on matters of education, training, and economic development (devolved) with major reserved matters such as trade and industry, data protection, defence and foreign policy.
Conflation of matters is demonstrated in multiple areas, one of which is the use of Scottish pension funds to bankroll arms firms, investigated by journalist Billy Briggs for the Ferret last October. According to Briggs, £420 million is distributed through eleven pension funds, invested via local authorities in arms companies throughout Scotland.
He highlights arms firms ‘Northrop Grumman which trains the Saudi military, Honeywell which makes Reaper Drones and Lockheed Martin which sells arms to Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among other nations.’ Part of the sum is an investment of ‘£12m in a US arms giant in Fife linked to allegations of war crimes in Yemen’. Representatives of CAAT commented that, “Scotland’s councils should “use their influence to set a positive precedent” and send the message that the arms trade is an “immoral and illegitimate business”, whilst MSP John Finnie of the Scottish Greens said he was “shocked and appalled to learn about some of the horrendous industries that their pension money is being invested in”.
There is little to no evidence of SNP’s, Scottish Labour or Scottish Conservative’s responding in any way to this controversial investment model. However, 97% of Scottish MP’s at Westminster voted against intervention in the Syrian Civil War against the so-called Islamic State Organisation, a vote record which Nicola Sturgeon was keen to publicise, though there is a clear contradiction between MSP’s stance on bombing in Syria and the investment into arms and support of arms export in Scotland that contributes to many civilian casualties and frequently breaks the laws of war in other parts of the world. In light of military misconduct the UN have formed an expert body to analyse allegations, with a focus on Yemen. It must surely be the case that those nations who are delivering weapons and training would face at least some form of ostracisation by the security council for such compliance. If this evidence was not concrete enough, a smart-bomb discovered in a conflict zone in Yemen, was able to be traced back to a factory in Fife due to the numerical code on the bomb.
Due to the cross-over of matters it is therefore difficult to see where Scottish Government's responsibilities are regarding militarism, the arms trade and the conduct of warfare. Rhetoric and accounts in the media are too few and often contradictory, consequently it is difficult for civic society to hold Scottish Ministers to account.
Contradictions on wider military issues most recently extend into the matter of Nicola Sturgeon and the leaked Prestwick memos, the first minister has refused to be transparent on the US militaries use of Prestwick as a stop-off before continuing on to conflict zones. A precedent for an independent nations citizens frustration in this, and push for public accountability is the Republic of Ireland’s situation with the use of Shannon Airport by the US, many protests have occurred in opposition to this over the years - a consequence was the imprisonment of activist and writer Margretta D’Arcy. It could be argued that Scottish Citizens’ lack of clarity on the levels to which their politicians are implicated and/or forced impotent on foreign policy issues, such as Prestwick, demotivates civic opposition through the lack of clarity granted to citizens.
In order to uphold the four principles on which the Scottish Parliament claims to be built, there must be revision into how we talk about where reserved and devolved issues overlap in particular those that so closely affect human rights. In addition a concerted effort needs to be made by the Scottish Parliament to work with civic society groups in order to develop diplomatic practices that are more thoughtful and nuanced than the hard power foreign policies adopted by Westminster.
If the SNP are against a war but are willing to machine, deal and train in arms as citizens we need to be allowed to see the detail of that contradiction and have pubic accountability for this duality. By restricting this there is no open participation only open secrets, which in turn makes fools of the electorate.
Amongst the wastelands of propaganda, much work is done by civic society in order to ‘make sense of the war’ and hold Coalition members to account (Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Syrian Body Count, Airwars to name but a few). In Jay. D. Aronson’s text ‘The Politics of Civilian Casualty Counts’, he refers to the Wikileaks release of the Iraq War Logs on October 22nd 2010 as a pivotal moment in the actions of state and non-state groups monitoring civilian casualties.
According to Aronson, the War Logs showed that despite the U.S claiming it did not keep records of civilian casualties, they were in fact monitoring, their counts, albeit giving ‘lower than almost all other available estimates’. Due ‘to the lack of transparency in these reports…little was known about the sources used to gather the underlying data’ and ‘the amount of information available on particular incidents’.
Aronson cites this revelation of a lack of transparency as the point when ‘a host of organizations and institutions…emerged to fill the gap’ In a critique of the broader conditions for nonstate actors archiving civilian casualties, Aronson notes, that, ‘because they lack large-scale presence on the ground, they are forced to use a variety of imperfect methodologies to record and estimate deaths from violent conflict. This represents an interesting case of the state actively producing ignorance, while civil society and the scientific community attempt to produce politically sensitive knowledge under very difficult circumstances’.
With Aronson in mind, what can be done by a small nation such as Scotland to avoid the production of ignorance? Is there potential to develop better working arrangements between civil society and the Scottish Parliament in order to reshape the way we deal with war analysis, the laws of war, accountability and transparency? Back in 2015 the first minister helped launch the “Women in Conflict Initiative and Peace Fellowship Programme”, with two civic society groups, which put Scotland at the head of table for the Women’s advisory board on internal Syrian peace. This of course demonstrates the soft power potential and progressive peace-building that Scotland can access when it works with civic society. However, the delivery of a peace keeping fellowship for Women who are within the conflict countries does seem to be only addressing the aftermath rather than the corruptions that exist within the instigiting parties.
These aspects are uncovered by Airwars, a journalist-led transparency organisation, which has tracked airstrikes and archived civilians casualty allegations in Iraq and Syria since the war against the so-called Islamic State organisation began in August 2014. Through the use of a detailed methodology combining eye witness with online sources, including reporting by local media groups and individuals. The organization then cross-checks this information with military reports released with by the US-led Coalition.
According to the group’s analysis, the UK’s record on transparency is good relative to other Coalition members, since information on strike location and munitions is published on a weekly basis via the Operation Shader webpage. After processing data the Airwars team provide recommendations via strongly substantiated reports which are geared to each Coalition partners specific characteristics, as can be seen in this transparency auditfrom November 2016.
According to Chris Woods, director of Airwars, “As far as we understand it, the MoD has no dedicated civilian harm monitoring cell. Instead, operations personnel are tasked to assess allegations of civilian harm as MoD becomes aware of them. We're also unclear whether MoD has a presence in the Coalition's civilian harm cell”. However, “Where Airwars has submitted potential allegations, MoD has responded in a timely and sometimes detailed manner. We've been able for example to engage in dialogue about specific allegations. In 2016, for example, MoD assessed dozens of events in which RAF aircraft might have been implicated”. This is indicative of the potential benefits of the state working with NGOs such as Airwars.
However, the overall engagement from the MOD to Airwars still does not address civilian casualty allegations thoroughly enough: “For Airwars, MoD has certainly demonstrated a willingness to assess allegations of civilian harm. However, with more than 1,600 British airstrikes against ISIS, many in heavily populated urban areas, we do not share the MoD's view that its airstrikes have caused no civilian harm - something that would be unprecedented in the history of warfare. We therefore believe that the MoD's casualty assessment processes are likely unfit for purpose at present - since they appear incapable of detecting civilian harm, despite all indications from the ground suggesting otherwise”. Dismissal of allegations reduce international laws of war to a shambles, only serving to keep solid Western notions about morality at war, which are continuously bent to maintain a Western oppression of the Middle East.
This is demonstrated by the “selective” and “America-first” human rights rhetoric expounded by the Trump administration. According to Elisa Epstein of Human Rights Watch, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “laid out the Trump administration’s Syriastrategy. Yet he never mentioned US refugee or aid policy – surely integral aspects of any US strategy in Syria”. Epstein believes this rhetoric on human rights should not be underestimated, and ultimately trickles down into policy and attempts to limit the power of civic society has in human rights policy and discourse.
This is why the collaboration of civic society with the nation state is vital to alleviate the production of ignorance and bring us closer to a politics of demilitarisation. If civic society organisations can produce such a volume of material, on a low budget, relying only on a small cohort of staff - what can be achieved by the diplomatic soft powers of a nation such as Scotland? Arguably, Scottish Parliament should use its platform to deliver on transparency and accountability in conflict in order to 1) protect civilian life and place this at the centre of decision making and 2) Develop a foreign policy which follows ideologically in the direction of UN diplomatic strategy, collaborate with civic society groups to develop detailed conflict resolution strategies.
Mark Fuller QC put it well when he said “For as the utility of hard power declines,and that of soft power increases,it ill-behooves any policy maker serious about improving the peace-making record of the UK, not to recognise Scotland’s growing capacity to act in this area. The positive values that underpin Scotland’s current civic nationalism and humanitarianism can only make it a greater force for good in the world”. The raging conflict in Syria and Iraq is far from over, and when there was allegedly more civilian lives lost over a month in the fall of Raqqah last August than in the whole of the war in Afghanistan the design of diplomatic work needs to change. Scotland can play a significant part in this if it pushes for transparency policies and both collaborates with and invests in civic society.