The spider’s web

By Stephen Gowans

A reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, Geoffrey York, says the warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, expected to be issued by the International Criminal Court next week, will be hailed as a sign that nobody is above the law and even a sitting president has no immunity from prosecution. (“ICC readies first arrest warrant against head of state,” February 26, 2009).

Mr. York is indeed correct in predicting this will be said, but what will be said, and what the reality is, are miles apart.

There are two ways the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, and whatever allies they care to protect, can, and do, enjoy immunity from prosecution: By refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the court, true of the US, China and Russia, and by wielding their veto power over the UN Security Council’s authority to order the court to investigate grave breaches of international law.

In matters of the court, it would be more apt to say that international law is like a spider web. Only the weak get caught in it, while the leaders of powerful countries brush it aside.

Fletcher: Where’s the Substance?

By Stephen Gowans

Bill Fletcher Jr. has weighed in on Zimbabwe’s unity government with an article in The Black Commentator titled Zimbabwe: Transition to Where? Anyone expecting to learn anything significant about Zimbabwe from Fletcher will be sadly disappointed. He offers nothing more than pious expressions of benevolence and the reduction of complex events stretching over three decades to the personality of a single man, Robert Mugabe.

Fletcher, executive editor of The Black Commentator, tells us “The cholera epidemic must be brought under control, but so too must (Zimbabwe’s) inflation and massive unemployment.” He’s on pretty safe ground here. No one wants more cholera, more inflation and more unemployment.

Zimbabwe, he continues, “certainly needs economic and healthcare support from foreign governments.”

Will Zimbabwe get it? Will strings be attached? Will the strings tie Zimbabwe up into a neo-colonial straitjacket?

Fletcher: Pious expressions of benevolence from a champion of causes no one is against

Fletcher: Pious expressions of benevolence from a champion of causes no one is against

Fletcher says that the US and Britain were “responsible for the mess that unfolded within Zimbabwe” because they “reneged on financial commitments when Zimbabwe was liberated from white minority rule.”

But if Washington and London were prepared to create a mess in Zimbabwe, what makes Fletcher think they’re prepared to undo it?

Sadly, Fletcher fails to ask why the US and Britain reneged on their financial commitments. Is there any chance of Washington and London providing genuine economic and healthcare support now?

The truth of the matter is that the US and EU have made plain the conditions under which they are prepared to provide aid to Zimbabwe. The same conditions apply today, as applied last year, and the year before, and the year before that: Zimbabwe must respect private property (abandon and possibly reverse land reform) and reverse discriminatory measures that favor black owners and investors over foreign (and specifically Western) investment. Does Fletcher think the unity government should accede to these conditions and abandon the previous government’s land reform and affirmative action programs for black investors? He doesn’t tell us.

One gets the impression that Fletcher hasn’t really thought through these questions or even kept abreast of events in Zimbabwe.

He attributes the conflict between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and the opposition MDC to the structural adjustment program imposed on Zimbabwe in the 1990s by the IMF as a condition for renegotiating its foreign debt. Fletcher correctly points out that Mugabe acceded to the IMF-imposed conditions, but he misses two significant facts:

-Mugabe’s government had backed away from the structural adjustment program by the time the MDC was formed;

-The MDC has become the standard bearer for policies under the Washington consensus.

Contrary to what Fletcher implies, it is not Zanu-PF that favors IMF policies; it is the MDC.

Indeed, it could be argued that Mugabe’s rejection of the structural adjustment program was one of the principal reasons Britain and the EU helped form the MDC as a vehicle to counter the Zanu-PF government.

Fletcher also misses the mark on the outcome of Zimbabwe’s last elections, noting that “it appears that the MDC won” but that “ZANU will not fully concede.”

No one is in doubt as to who won the last elections (except possibly Fletcher). The combined opposition won a majority of legislative seats. In Senate elections, the opposition won as many seats as Zanu-PF did. Huh? Doesn’t Fletcher say that Zanu-PF resorts to electoral fraud to stay in power? He does. So, how does he explain the outcome of the last elections?

Zimbabwe’s constitution requires a run-off if presidential candidates fail to get over 50 percent of the vote. In the run-off round, Tsvangirai dropped out, claiming his supporters were being intimidated by Zanu-PF and government directed violence. However, his name remained on the ballot, the vote went ahead, and he lost.

Fletcher stays comfortably within the bounds of the preferred narrative when he tells us that “while Tsvangirai was giving his inaugural address, ZANU-PF aligned authorities were in the process of arresting one of Tsvangirai’s aides.” This is true, but what Fletcher doesn’t tell us is who was being arrested and why. Instead, he introduces an implicit accusation: that there are no charges of substance against Tsvangirai’s aide — actually deputy agriculture minister designate Roy Bennett — and that his arrest was politically inspired to undermine the unity government.

First, the idea that Bennett was arrested as part of a sinister plot hatched by Mugabe is sheer question begging. The only evidence Fletcher can advance is the theory that Mugabe is power-hungry and that Bennett’s arrest must, therefore, be related.

Second, there was an outstanding warrant for Bennett’s arrest in connection with charges brought against him in 2006 in connection with an arms cache. He had been granted bail, but fled the country. When Bennett received word he was to be appointed deputy minister of agriculture he returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa, where he had been living since 2006. At that point, he was arrested on the outstanding charge.

Third, arresting a single appointee could hardly bring down the unity government, and, significantly, hasn’t.

Finally, while Bennett may indeed by innocent, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion, as Fletcher has, that opposition members are innocent simply because they’re members of the opposition.

More troubling than Fletcher’s failure to grasp what is happening in Zimbabwe is his failure to come to terms with the question of whether it’s more important for Zimbabwe to cleave to liberal democratic forms or that it democratize its pattern of land ownership and achieve a substantive democracy, in which Zimbabwe’s political life is free from domination by outside powers. It might be said that this is a false dichotomy, but that would be to bury our heads in the sand. Much of what has happened in Zimbabwe since the late 1990s can be understood as a conflict between black nationalism and neo-colonialism. To think that any Third World country could pursue an anti-neo-colonial project with an inherited British parliamentary system without considerable conflict is naïve.

Zimbabwe’s land reform has been deeply offensive to the US, Britain and the EU. Zanu-PF’s program of economic nationalism has been no less offensive. To suppose that these powerful states have not tried to influence the political process in Zimbabwe to undermine these projects, flies in the face of mountains of evidence, including publically available US government documents, which demonstrate otherwise.

Equally shocking is that people who are ready to dismiss their critics as conspiracy theorists, put forward a conspiracy theory view of Zimbabwe that says all that has happened in the country over the last thirty years can be understood as an outcome of the thirst for power of a single man. That will get you published in the New York Times. It shouldn’t get you published in serious left-wing media.

Obama: The Evil Empire’s Pleasant Face

By Stephen Gowans


Obamamania was on full display Thursday in Canada’s capital, as the new US president made his first foreign visit – a six hour stop to wintry Ottawa, to exchange bromides with Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper.


When Obama stepped off Air Force One at Ottawa’s snow-swept airport he immediately thanked the Canadians who had worked to get him elected. That Canadians would volunteer their time and money to help the Obama campaign in an election they could not  vote in reveals how wide Obama’s popularity is in Canada. It also reveals that Canadians recognize that the world’s longest undefended border does not insulate them from decisions approved in Washington. They do not, therefore, look upon US politics with indifference.


Given Canadians’ obsessive interest in the political affairs of their closest neighbor, and their sense that Obama represents a welcome relief from the dark and frightening night of the Bush presidency, it is not so outlandish to suggest that Obamamania may be more fervent in Canada than it is in many parts of the United States. 


On the eve of Obama’s visit, Canadian newspapers vied to outdo each other in the race to provide their readers with essential information about the 44th president of the United States. “Why is Obama so sexy?” they asked. “Find out how Obama stays in shape.” And “Obama’s Canadian connection.  His sister lives in Burlington, Ontario!”


Nothing about Obama was overlooked, except what mattered most — his decisions.


Friday’s headline in The Ottawa Citizen provided an especially embarrassing glimpse of how infatuated Canadians have become with Bush’s successor, and how obsessed they are (or at least their media are) with the minutia of the Obama presidency, and how ignorant they are of its substance.


“Six hours that B-rocked Ottawa.


“A few of us stood and watched. A lot of us got stuck in traffic. We twittered. We fawned. We groaned. We spent millions. He flew into Ottawa. He met with Stephen Harper. He left Parliament Hill. He bought a Beaver Tail.”


See Obama arrive. He arrives good. See Obama’s limousine. It is big. Obama loves Canada. Hurray for Obama. Long live Obama. He has a nice smile.


Obamamania ought to be written up as new chapter in Charles McKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, to nestle between chapters on the South Sea Bubble and Tulipomania.


And yes, Obamamania can be aptly described as mass insanity, for it is based on delusion and estrangement from reality. Canadians, like many others in the world, believe that Obama is different from George Bush. To be sure,  he is. He’s younger, smarter, friendlier, fitter, more articulate, cuddlier and has more melanin. But Canadians, like everyone else, have been bamboozled into believing that US policy under a younger, smarter, friendlier, fitter, more articulate, cuddlier and more melanin-replete Obama, as president, will be different than it was under a dumber, darker, flabbier, less articulate, repellent and melanin-scarce Bush, as president.


A colleague of mine was at first skeptical, then shocked, to discover that Obama is dispatching more troops to Afghanistan.  It seems the label “anti-war” candidate kept many from even a cursory examination of Obama’s policy statements during the presidential campaign – and from keeping tabs on what he’s been up to since. Why pay attention to policy statements and cabinet appointments and broken promises (referred to in Friday’s New York Times not as broken promises but as “recalibrations”) when there are more important matters to attend to – like Obama’s shoe size, where he spent his 2004 vacation, and his wife’s “refreshing” style.


Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian signer-songwriter, wrote a song many years ago which  contained what I always thought to be a cautionary line meant for his compatriots about the behemoth that lies to their south.


“Let us not be beguiled,

By a nation so wretched,

With a handshake so mild.”


Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Koreans, Cubans and others would be mystified. Handshake? What handshake? But Canadians, more often than not accomplices in US aggressions against Third World peoples, are accustomed to mild handshakes and not the fist the unfortunates who sit on oceans of oil and prized geo-strategic positions and who get in the way of US corporate profit-making have been met with….and under presidents who wore pleasant smiles and were young and fit and sexy too.


Obama: the wretched nation’s latest version of the mild handshake.    

The criminals are running the court

By Stephen Gowans

The International Criminal Court, the body which has jurisdiction over grave crimes committed under international law, is expected to issue a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and genocide in the coming weeks.

This will happen not too long after over 200 organizations, including the Palestinian Authority, asked the ICC to investigate war crimes committed by Israel in its three week long assault on the Gaza Strip.

While we don’t know for sure that warrants for the arrest of Bashir will be issued, or that the ICC will turn down the request to investigate Israeli war crimes, both are widely expected to happen.

So why is Sudan caught it the ICC’s web, while Israel looks like it will easily brush it aside?

The answer lies in the nature of the ICC’s jurisdiction.

The court has jurisdiction in two areas. The first is over states that voluntarily submit to its authority. Many countries have signed the treaty that established the court, thereby agreeing to allow the ICC to investigate and try grave crimes committed on their territories. But there are notable exceptions: the United States, Russia and China, refuse to ratify the treaty. Israel also rejects the ICC. And so too does Sudan.

Media reports have made much of the fact that Israel does not accept the court’s jurisdiction. Appeals to the ICC for a war crimes investigation are therefore viewed as frivolous and little more than a publicity stunt. How can the ICC investigate Israeli war crimes, if Israel rejects the court?

The groups that have brought the appeals either naïvely believe that the court is neutral and capable of taking on Israel (and therefore the US), or know the score and are hoping that raising the issue with the ICC will reinforce a point that Israel has made, itself, many times over – that its greatest export is war crimes.

But Sudan no more accepts the court’s jurisdiction than Israel does. So how is it that Bashir has been indicted on war crimes charges and could be dragged before the court, while the Middle East branch of War-Crimes-R-Us enjoys its usual impunity?

The reason is that the ICC also “has jurisdiction over situations in any State where the situation is referred by the United Nations (UN) Security Council,” as the court’s web site explains. This means that the US, China and Russia can use their permanent presence on the Security Council to order the ICC (whose jurisdiction they themselves do not accept over their own territories), to investigate war crimes in countries that similarly reject the court’s authority over their territories.

In other words, the ICC can investigate grave crimes under international law in any country so long as the UN Security Council tells it to.

This works out well for the big three — the US, Russia and China. They’ll never have to answer for grave crimes before the ICC because they refuse to recognize the court – that is, they refuse to recognize its jurisdiction over their own territory, but when it comes to other countries’ territories, well, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.

It’s like your dad telling you not to drink, even though he’s plastered every afternoon by 4:00, and has arranged for the local psychiatric hospital to force feed you daily doses of Antabuse to keep you on the straight and narrow while he pops off to the pub for another pint.

At the same time, the terrible trio can fail to order the ICC to investigate war crimes committed by allies, or to veto resolutions that do.

It is because the US can veto any effort to refer Israel’s grave crimes in Gaza to the ICC, and because the US, far from being an honest broker, has always acted to facilitate Israel’s crimes, that no one in Israel is breaking out in a sweat over scores of groups beseeching the ICC to look into what no one could have avoided seeing over three weeks in January – that Israel ran a clinic on how to violate every article of war. Anyway, isn’t calling for an investigation into whether Israel committed war crimes kind of like demanding an inquiry into whether McDonald’s sells hamburgers?

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon broke off contact with Bashir on the advice of legal counsel, who told him he should limit contact with an alleged war criminal. The Secretary General has since resumed contact, but Ban never struck George W. Bush from his Rolodex and he continues to dialogue with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, though the evidence both men have committed war crimes is mountainous.

The key here, however, is that neither man is alleged by the ICC to be a war criminal. And because Washington has considerable influence over the ICC, they never will be. The criminals are effectively running the court.

Washington suppressed Kenyan exit poll to keep Kibaki in power

By Stephen Gowans

Q: When does the US government hide an exit poll that calls a foreign election into question?

A: When it doesn’t want the candidate who got the most votes to win.

That’s what happened when a US government-financed exit poll cast doubt on the victory of Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki in a December 2007 election.

In a January 31, 2009 New York Times article, “A chaotic Kenya vote and a secret US exit poll,” reporters Mike McIntyre and Jeffrey Gettleman revealed that the “results of an exit poll, paid for by the United States government, that supported the initial returns” favoring the challenger, Raila Odinga, were kept secret.

The exit poll showed Kibaki losing by six percentage points.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, favored by the US government in Kenya's December 2007 election, lost the vote according to a suppressed US government-financed exit poll.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, favored by the US government in Kenya's December 2007 election, lost the vote according to a suppressed US government-financed exit poll.

When Kibaki claimed he had won the election, despite charges of ballot counting fraud and its own exit poll that called the result into question, Washington rushed to congratulate him and urged Kenyans to accept the outcome of the disputed vote.

The US government favored Kibaki, who “had a good relationship with the Bush administration and generally supported American counterterrorism policies in East Africa,” the article says.

Odinga, on the other hand, was viewed skeptically by US officials, because “he was educated in East Germany and named his son after Fidel Castro.”

During the election the US ambassador, Michael Ranneberger, tried to influence the vote in Kibaki’s favor, proposing to release “a voter survey showing Mr. Kibaki ahead and trying to block a roughly simultaneous one favoring Mr. Odinga.” Ranneberger also “made public comments praising Mr. Kibaki and minimizing” corruption in Kibaki’s government.

The poll was conducted by the International Republican Institute, the international arm of the Republican Party, with funding provided by USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. The IRI receives much of its funding from the US Congress’s NED, the National Endowment for Democracy, whose ostensible mission is to promote democracy abroad. Its real mission is to promote the foreign interests of US banks, corporations and investors, by backing political parties and movements that oppose governments that fail to provide a congenial climate for US investment and exports.

While presented as an organization with an admirable mission, the NED was established to do openly what the CIA used to do covertly – meddle in the internal affairs of other countries. The US government established the NED after the CIA’s role in funding overseas political parties, church groups, cultural organizations, dissidents and trade unions was revealed in the press. These revelations served to discredit these organizations, most social democratic and all vehemently anti-communist.

By changing the paradigm from covert to overt funding and by replacing the CIA with a new “democracy promotion” organization as the source of funding for US fifth columns, it was hoped the stench of secret CIA funding would be lifted, even though the objective was the same: to manipulate the internal affairs and elections of other countries to serve the interests of US capital.

The IRI is involved in many countries, including Zimbabwe, where it has played an active role in formulating the policy platform of the Movement for Democratic Change. That platform, not surprisingly, favors the creation of a climate favorable to foreign investment and exports, and advocates robust privatization and elimination of subsidies, tariff barriers and affirmative action for domestic investors – measures congenial to the interest of the US corporate ruling class.

The hollowness of the US government’s pro-democracy stance is so frequently revealed, it’s hardly necessary to point it out. Its backing of Israeli efforts to reverse the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections that brought Hamas to power and its support for innumerable corrupt and despotic Arab regimes shows that the US government’s conception of democracy is roughly synonymous with its foreign policy interests. New revelations that it concealed an exit poll that pointed to electoral fraud in order to protect a favored candidate in Kenya’s December 2007 election, simply reinforces the view that Washington is not democracy’s champion, but its greatest enemy.