Notes From the Margins…

Amnesty’s ‘Year of Rebellion’ report

  • January 10, 2012
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Amnesty International’s new report: The Year of Rebellion: The State of Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa is an extraordinarily moving and also salutary document, which provides a broad overview of the tumultuous events that shook the Arab world in 2011.

Reading it I was struck by various things:

1) The courage, creativity and passion with which so many mostly young people have taken on the corrupt and ossified regimes that have ruled them for so long. As Amnesty puts it

It was a year like no other, when the whole region shook as ordinary people summoned up the courage to provide a demonstration of “people”s power” such as the region had never seen before and, incredibly, to sustain it even when the might of the state and its repressive security forces were deployed against them

2) The key role played by women in the rebellions. This role is highlighted by the report in country after country.  As the report points out, the strong female participation in the protests and rebellions hasn’t been reflected in the new governments/political movements that have begun to emerge in the wake of the old regimes, from which women have been largely marginalised.

Such participation  is nevertheless strikingly at odds with the Western image of Arab women as passive victims of oppression – an image that was once integrated into ‘liberal interventionist’ scenarios that purported to ‘save’ Arab/Muslim women by bombing them.

3) The report also spells out with brutal clarity the sheer viciousness with which so many of the despots and dynastic rulers in the Middle East and North Africa responded to the protests and demands for change from their populations. Snipers and soldiers shooting at unarmed crowds, beatings, torture, sexual violence against women, attacks on doctors and nurses – all these methods have been used on a systematic basis in various countries in an attempt to terrorise the protesters back into their homes.

Such methods are hardly a historical novelty in the region, but never before have so many of its regimes resorted to such intense repression at the same time. Nor were these methods restricted to the more established autocracies and dictatorships.  In the ‘fledgling democracy’ which the Anglo/American occupation has just bequeathed to Iraq, the Maliki government’s response followed a well-beaten path:

The 2011 protests… began in early February when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the lack of water, electricity and other  basic services, rising prices, unemployment and endemic corruption, and to demand greater civil and political rights. The various forces under the control of  the authorities, including police, the military and other security forces, responded with excessive force, killing and injuring protesters. They also made  frequent arrests, in many cases followed by torture.  Most of those arrested were released without charge.

The repression was often directly or indirectly facilitated by the same countries that now (belatedly) chose to condemn it,  according to Amnesty, since

Much of the weaponry was sold and supplied by
European countries  (including the Russian Federation) and the USA and much of it should never have been authorized, given the overwhelming evidence of the substantial risk that governments in the Middle East and North Africa would use conventional arms to facilitate or commit serious human rights violations against people of their own country.

Which brings me to point 4), namely the opportunism, duplicity and cynical realpolitik of Western governments in the region, summed up by the report in the following damning terms:

As millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa showed their hunger for the freedoms and rights enjoyed in other parts of the world, many powerful governments performed political somersaults or continued to ignore human rights violations in the region as they sought to protect their own political and economic interests. Some of them abandoned autocrats that were former allies in the face of unstoppable rebellions. Others quietly helped their friends to stay in power. Some offered military help to opposition forces. Some ignored the plight of opposition movements as they were slaughtered in the streets. None took timely, effective and consistent action to protect the human rights and  interests of the region”s disenfranchized people.

Indeed. And nowhere were these double standards more glaring than in Libya, where Nato intervened ostensibly to mitigate a humanitarian catastrophe, yet did little or nothing to help the tens of thousands of migrant workers in Libya displaced by the war, even when they tried to reach Europe:

At least 1,500 men, women and children are estimated to have drowned while attempting this journey. The true total was probably far higher. Governments and institutions failed to put in place effective mechanisms to prevent such deaths at sea, including by increasing search and rescue operations, and by ensuring that rescue operations comply fully with human rights and refugee law.

5) Lastly, the report reveals once again the striking  disparity between the realities of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and the way it has so often been depicted by Western commentators. Less than a decade ago, American neocons and liberal interventionists alike routinely depicted the region as a cultural and political wasteland that had become mysteriously detached from the modern world.

In David Frum and Richard Perle’s atrocious propaganda tract An End to Evil: How to Fight the War on Terror, the entire Middle East was dismissed as a ‘fetid environment’ infested with ‘venomous vermin’ ie. terrorists.

These narratives of cultural atrophy and backwardness were politically useful constructions, which presented Western violence as the only credible cure to the disease from which the region was supposedly suffering. Thus the manipulative arch-spook and ‘terrorism expert’ Michael Ledeen once dismissed US National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft’s anxiety that war with Iraq might turn the Middle East into a ‘cauldron’ on the grounds that

One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today.

Not all supporters of Western military adventurism in the region were as openly bloodthirsty as this, but the image of the Middle East as a politically retarded and backward region incapable of generating change from within was often invoked to justify ‘regime change’ and democracy-building wars of choice.

In 2011 the people of the Middle East and North Africa undertook their own forms of regime change,  and there is no indication that the ‘war on terror’ had anything to do with their efforts.  If these movements have forced Western governments to undertake the most convoluted political manouevres, the energy and dynamism unleashed by the rebellions has galvanised and inspired similar movements across the world, from Madrid and New York to London and Moscow, even in West Jerusalem.

As the Amnesty report makes clear, the process of democratisation and liberation remains incomplete and up in the air, and in many countries are being subjected to  a sustained attempt to snuff these movements out.

But whatever happens over the coming years, 2011 has destroyed the dishonest, self-interested and often racist characterisations of the region and its peoples that had dominated the last decade.  In doing so they  have opened up a new world of hope and possibility in the ‘fetid swamp’ and provided millions of people with a vision of the future that they are unlikely to let go of anytime soon.

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  1. Susan Dirgham

    10th Jan 2012 - 9:48 pm

    Matt, Australians for Syria have been trying to get Amnesty to be balanced and fair on Syria and not to be a political player which allies itself with Qatar, the US, Saudi Arabia, Britain and others who seem intent on overthrowing the Syrian government no matter what the cost in terms of lives and stability in Syria and wider region. The concept of Peace and the hard, dedicated work needed to achieve it appear to be things few people consider these days. Instead, cliches, platitudes and slogans are being used to disguise very complex truths. In regard to Syria, the people are being forgotten. If Amnesty had any credibility today it would be telling the world about the fatwas of extremist clerics such as Sheik Qaradawi and Adnan al-Arour; they incite people to commit violence of the most brutal kind, but Amnesty has been silent on this, which in my mind places it on the side of these extremists. Fine words and silence on extremism is no help for the people of Syria who experience fear and terror on a daily basis. It seems we are becoming ‘armchair anarchists’: let’s destroy this flawed secular state of Syria which we know virtually nothing about. We put our trust in the research skills and political stand of a few individuals rather than listen to millions of Syrians and consider how our repeated cliches may impact on their lives.

    Australians for Syria have held rallies outside the Amnesty office in Melbourne, and Amnesty Australia has taken note of our concerns and let the London office know about the killings of innocent people by ‘armed men’ in Syria. One Aussie told the story of the killing of his young uncle in April; he was killed with his two friends when they were on their way to sell produce in a market. We wait for Phillip Luther and his team to respond to such stories (there are hundreds, if not thousands) and the calls of extremist clerics which incite killings. And if they don’t? Perhaps the well-intentioned members of Amnesty will have a voice.

    • Matt

      11th Jan 2012 - 7:45 am

      I was also struck by the way that the Amnesty report refers to the violence in Syria as if only the regime were responsible, the single reference to an armed opposition being ‘ Most were civilians who appeared to have been shot dead by government forces at peaceful protests or funerals, though members of the security forces were also among those killed, including some who were shot by other soldiers apparently when they refused to turn their guns on protesters.’

      I’m also opposed to military ‘intervention’ in Syria and aware that elements with the US/Europe/Israel are keen to promote one. However I have a problem with what you’re saying for various reasons:

      1) I don’t recognize the Assad dynasty as a government that legitimately represents ‘millions of Syrians’, and I am not remotely surprised that many Syrians want to change it. I know that al-Qaradawi and al-Arour have urged the overthrow of the regime, but I’m not aware that they have ‘incited people to commit violence of the most brutal kind’ (even though they may have).

      In any case, your emphasis on ‘extremist preachers’ /external interference as a cause of the violence in Syria sounds a lot like the ‘external conspiracy’ theses that inevitably occur whenever such regimes come under pressure from their people (and which were – ironically – once directed against Syria and Iran by the Anglo-American occupiers as a pseudo-explanation for the insurgency).

      Have there been externally-directed attempts to destabilise Syria and make the situation worse? I wouldn’t be at all surprised, though I haven’t seen evidence to prove it. But ultimately it seems to me that the best way to end the violence would be for Assad to leave and allow Syrians to negotiate a new political future without external interference.

      2) Despite the one-sided media coverage in the media, everything suggests that the Assad regime has responded even to peaceful demands for political change. I have not seen anything that contradicts the Amnesty report’s assertion that the security forces have used ‘sustained and grossly excessive force, including lethal force, against protesters and even mourners attending funerals of protesters’- a response that it shares with many other regimes in the region.

      3) I don’t believe that Amnesty is an infallible witness – or that it is not susceptible to manipulation, but I don’t accept your distinction between ‘the research skills and political stand of a few individuals’ on one hand, and ‘millions of Syrians’ on the other – or that Amnesty is acting as an accomplice of Western states seeking to promote ‘regime change’ in Syria.

      Human rights is Amnesty’s remit, and Syria is hardly the only state that has been singled out for criticism in the report – which is also critical of the complicity of the ‘international community’ in repression in the region.

  2. David Macilwain

    11th Jan 2012 - 12:06 pm

    I’m afraid I can’t share your relative optimism about the achievements of 2011, in bringing some improvement to the position of people through the MENA countries in their struggle to throw off the oppression of their leaders and their foreign backers. Part of the problem for them is in fighting the extraordinarily effective propaganda machine of the West, and the coopting of Al Jazeera into this effort is one of the keys to this success. Nowhere is this more evident in Syria, where the exhortations of Al Jazeera’s resident Imam, Sheik Qaradawi, for Syrian Sunnis to throw off the Shia Heretics by whichever means is effective was the main reason that AJ was ejected from Syria.
    The Assad government, and the majority of Syrians who support it ( as revealed in a YouGov poll recently 55% of Syrians polled wanted Assad to remain) now see AJ as a diseminator of false information and fake videos, and vehicle of the “West’s” campaign for regime change. As it is now operated by and in the interests of the Qatari royals, whose agenda is coincident with that of Saudi Arabia and the US and UK in particular, and in view of the critical role of Qatar in deposing Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi and replacing him with an unruly horde of jihadis and fundamentalists allied to the Gulf states, Al Jazeera can no longer be taken as a reliable source of information on anything around the Arab world; it is completely compromised.
    A useful analysis of what is going on in the Arab world, but particularly in Syria, was provided by Aysling Byrne recently:
    Things are not at all as they are portrayed in Syria in the Western press, but this misrepresentation extends to NGOs like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, partly because their sources of information come through the same false channels, but also because they support the general thrust of “democracy and human rights for all ” that is used by the West as the cover for resource exploitation and political control.
    A key element in the narrative of groups like Amnesty and Avaaz ( which is waging a very aggressive campaign against Assad) is that countries opposing intervention in Syria are complicit in the regime’s alleged crimes, and must be brought to account. Russia and China ‘stand in the way’ of freedom and democracy and human rights, motivated by self interest. While they may truly believe this, as some truly believe that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to peace and stability, the reality is otherwise. Russia is not fooled by the West’s propaganda, or the blandishments of corrupt gulf monarchies, or the hypocrisy of Israel, and also sees itself as the ultimate target of the campaign against Syria and Iran.
    On Amnesty in particular, one could do worse than read a criticism by Franklin Lamb several months ago, following Amnesty’s hospital torture allegations.

    • Matt

      11th Jan 2012 - 4:52 pm

      Interesting links, and I agree with much of what they say. It’s clear that human rights rhetoric is being used in the ongoing attempt to ‘take out’ Syria by various countries, as we have seen in other countries over the last decade or so.

      It’s also clear that the concern by the West and its allies with Syria is self-interested and driven by geopolitical objectives esp. viz a viz Iran.

      But that doesn’t mean that the Assad regime has any more legitimacy than its counterparts in the region – or that the current upheaval is an imported destabilisation campaign (even if some countries are doing their best to fan the flames), nor does the unreliability of some of the human rights testimonies coming from Syria mean that they are entirely fictitious.

      The Aisling Byrne critique concedes that much when it argues that

      All this is not to say that there isn’t a genuine popular demand for change in Syria against the repressive security-dominated infrastructure that dominates every aspect of people’s lives, nor that gross human-rights violations have not been committed, both by the Syrian security forces, armed opposition insurgents, as well as mysterious third force characters operating since the onset of the crisis in Syria, including insurgents

      I can’t prove or disprove the Franklin Lamb piece, obviously, and it may well be that Amnesty and other organizations have had the wool pulled over their eyes in some areas. It could also be that Lamb saw what the regime wanted him to see.

      Dictatorships also deceive and manipulate. The YouGov poll that you mention does indeed say that 51 percent of Syrians don’t want Assad to resign, but it also notes that ‘among those who do not think President Assad should resign, reasons are driven by fear regarding the future of the country rather than support as they do not want to see Syria become another Iraq’ – hardly a ringing endorsement.

      The poll also concludes that ‘those who do not think President Assad should resign do not really want him to stay in power either as over half of them (51%) believe it is best for Syria if he remains in power but with the guarantee of free democratic elections in the near future’.

      Polls taken in the midst of an insurgency/rebellion can’t be considered the ultimate guide to the sentiments of the Syrian people in any case, but there are clearly many reasons why some Syrians might want Assad to stay that have nothing to do with the legitimacy or popularity of his regime.

      As far as I’m concerned, the sooner it goes the better – but that is a matter for Syrians. It is not for ‘us’ ie. the West to decide. Opposing such ‘interventions’ ie. wars shouldn’t mean that we end up as de facto apologists for dictatorships however. In my opinion they have to go – all of them, but neo-imperialist wars are not the way to do it.

  3. Susan Dirgham

    13th Jan 2012 - 11:50 am

    Hi Matt,

    In a discussion about Amnesty these days, there should be some reference to the appointment of Suzanne Nossel as Amnesty International US Executive Director. It indicates how ‘political’ Amnesty has become. From memory, the previous director was a pastor who focused on human rights in the US with particular focus on capital punishment, whereas Ms Nossel’s background is with the State Department and the UN. She has written a paper called ‘Smart Power’, which apparently has inspired Hilary Clinton. (Smart as distinct from hard (Reagan?) or soft (Bill Clinton) perhaps?)

    The other thing that should be brought into the picture is the internal dissension Amnesty faced in 2010. It was apparently related to Amnesty being somewhat ambivalent in its approach to Islamic extremists despite the misogyny and calls to violence of some.

    One quote from a blog at the time expresses the problem Amnesty faced then and has yet to resolve.

    “It is correct for Amnesty hold human rights positions on fair trial, torture, diplomatic assurances and work against renditions and the closure of Guantanamo Bay. However, these positions should also require us to hold salafi-jihadi groups and other religious absolutists accountable. Human rights abuses of torture, for example, should not be used to justify, legitimise and finally partner with proponents of violent jihad such as Moazzam Begg.”

    Amnesty should not rest on its laurels. It is an enterprise. So my neighbor or colleague who is a dedicated voluntary AI worker does not reflect Amnesty the organization. Like any organization or body, I would guess individuals within it who have positions of power are determining the culture and agenda. Amnesty is not God. It must be examined, especially now when ‘Smart Power’ is able to justify war for the best of humanitarian reasons, it is claimed.

    According to an entry in Wikipedia: “AI neither supports nor condemns the resort to violence by political opposition groups in itself, just as AI neither supports nor condemns a government policy of using military force in fighting against armed opposition movements. However, AI supports minimum humane standards that should be respected by governments and armed opposition groups alike. When an opposition group tortures or kills its captives, takes hostages, or commits deliberate and arbitrary killings, AI condemns these abuses.”

    As far as Syria is concerned, I am aware of armed opposition (or are they simply thugs or terrorists) killing captives, and taking hostages. As I wrote in my previous comment above, examples of this have been given to Amnesty. Let’s hope they respond soon.

    The Amnesty bubble was burst for me last year. AI needs a revolution inside out. But how do such organizations reform?

    • Matt

      13th Jan 2012 - 12:07 pm

      Well, anything that has ‘inspired’ Hilary Clinton is certainly worth calling into question, though I’m not aware of the book. Once again, I repeat that I don’t consider Amnesty infallible or immune to political manipulation. But I simply don’t agree that Amnesty’s criticisms of ‘human rights abuses of torture’ were used to ‘justify, legitimise and finally partner with proponents of violent jihad such as Moazzam Begg’.

      I don’t believe that Moazzam Begg was any such thing, and I thought that Gita Sahgal’s criticisms were wildly misplaced and misjudged.

      No doubt Amnesty – if it is to fulfil its own remit – should criticize the failure to ensure ‘minimum humane standards…by governments and armed opposition groups alike’ in Syria or anywhere else’.

      However your suggestion that the armed opposition consists simply of ‘thugs or terrorists’ sounds alarmingly similar to the kind of meaningless language that governments routinely use to de-legitimise opposition and distract attention from their own crimes/abuses.

  4. Susan Dirgham

    13th Jan 2012 - 11:43 pm

    Hi Matt,
    One thing I make an effort to do is to avoid “meaningless language routinely used to de-legitimise opposition and distract attention from their own crimes/abuses.” To do that, it is necessary in my mind to listen to the stories of the people.

    When I lived in Syria, my eyes were open to the problems there. But in the British Council classrooms, I met many many well-intentioned, highly-capable people who I believed would be among those to take Syria to a better place. (NB: Syria must be one of the most extraordinarily difficult countries to govern and problems can’t disappear over night because ‘we’ or Syrians want them to.) Many of my students may have been in the initial demonstrations in Damascus when there were demands for reform from genuine peaceful demonstrators. Those pressures on the government were perhaps necessary to put President Assad in a position where he could introduce reforms without the pressure from people within the ‘old guard’ to stop him. (In 2004, I was in a situation once to observe this pressure. But that is a story which takes some telling.)

    Please check this link to a page with a quote from “The Islamist” by Ed Hussein. Ed was a colleague of mine at the British Council and he writes a little about the students’ feelings about the president and revolutionary change.

    Like you, I do not like political rhetoric, especially from people in positions a long way from danger. The voices of Syrians in Syria must be heard, not just those anonymous voices with stories which suit the single, simplistic narrative.

    The stories I know to be true include the following:
    On 17 April, the brother-in-law of a good friend was killed in Homs along with his two teenage sons and nephew, who were aged about 13,14, and 15. It was a public holiday and they were moving house. One of the sons asked his dad if it was dangerous to drive where they were going and his dad apparently said something like they weren’t going to let fear affect the way they led their lives. They would have been targeted because their car had army number plates.
    In the same month, the uncle of an Australian friend was killed by armed men. He was a young farmer with two friends who were on their way to a market in Damascus to sell their produce. Their car was sprayed with bullets; two were killed, but my friend’s uncle was wounded. He was killed later at the makeshift hospital he was taken to. (His throat was cut.) The farmers were perhaps targeted because the number plates showed they were from out of town. My friend said Al-Jazeera claimed his uncle had been killed by soldiers.
    The father of an Australian friend disappeared a few months ago when he was driving somewhere in or near Homs. It is presumed he is dead. He was a man in his 70s.
    About a month ago, the parents of another Australian friend were driving from their village to another when they were nearly forced off the road by men with long beards. The men kept trying to get them to stop. It was a nightmarish situation, apparently. (It is assumed the men were Salifist extremists.)
    About a week ago, the nephew of an Australian friend was forced off a public bus along with everyone else, but he and several other men were taken away by the …………. (whatever you choose to call them). It is assumed he was taken away because he is doing his army service. His parents were rung from their son’s mobile and they were berated for allowing their son to do army service for the #@%* government. They fear he has been killed. Or they may be keeping him alive to force him to go on video to say he has joined the ‘Free Syria Army’. (Abductions are apparently happening for this reason.)
    A friend whose relative is a doctor in a hospital has told me of people being killed by armed men/extremists/thugs/mercenaries and their body being chopped up, put into bags and left at the front of the family home. (I have seen the most horrific images on Youtube and TV of people being killed etc. Many of these cannot be accessed on the Internet now. One of the most infamous, which I viewed, was the tossing of the mutilated bodies of soldiers into the Orontes River. While this is being done, you can hear people sing out “God is great”. NB: almost all of my Syrian friends are Muslims from the different sects, but like any normal people they condemn extremism especially when it produces such brutal behaviour.)
    A priest in Melbourne told the story to his congregation of one of his good friends being killed in Homs and his body being left, cut up, in a bag on the steps of the church. (A friend was in the congregation to hear this.)
    An Australian friend visited Damascus and went to one area which has had a lot of trouble according to Al-Jazeera. He spoke to a shopkeeper there who explained that the locals weren’t causing trouble but armed people were coming in from a nearby district to stir up trouble. He said children from that area had been killed while playing in the street and their bodies taken away; the claim was that the bodies would be photographed and the government held responsible for their deaths. (My friend heard this story before 9-year-old Sari Saoud was shot and killed outside a shop in Homs. Sari’s parents were in a front pew of a church in Damascus a week or two ago when there was a service for those killed across Syria. Leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox churches spoke as did the Mufti of Syria, whose son was assassinated together with his university teacher a couple of months ago.)
    An Australian friend married to a Syrian reported the story of the daughter of her friend who was kidnapped. She was released but it is assumed she was raped. Such things are happening, I understand, to intimidate the population and stir up civil strife.

    Matt, these are just the stories I have heard from my sources. I have heard others which confirm such terror is widespread and it affects many but from people I don’t know so well.

    There seems to be a media blackout on such stories. Why?

    If millions of people support the president and the maintenance of an independent secular state, what is the agenda of the armed opposition? How will they deal with millions of these people? See links below for interviews of young people in Damascus last week. (This is an interesting alternative site, BTW.)

    I am very busy on Twitter trying to speak out about the alternative reality in Syria. One person who has challenged me is @war4freedom. What happened to the concept of peace??!/SusanDirgham

    violence of armed men I have been hearing since the

    • Matt

      14th Jan 2012 - 9:34 am

      Hi Susan. These are terrible stories, and, as you say, largely unreported by the MSM, not to mention by Western governments. So it’s good – and important – that you are trying to make them more widely known. Just to make myself clear – I’m not doubting the truth of these stories, nor is it my intention to glorify the armed opposition to Assad – which I simply don’t know enough about one way or another.

      But I remember how, in Fallujah for example, the armed resistance to the Anglo-American occupation was attributed to salafists/jihadists/terrorists/thugs/wildmen as a justification and a rationale for the ferocious violence that was unleashed on that city – violence whose effects are still being felt in the prevalence of malformed babies produced by radiation.

      There is no doubt that in Fallujah – as was the case elsewhere in Iraq – the insurgency did contain salafist/jihadist/islamist elements – whichever categorisation you prefer – and that insurgents also committed terrible crimes and atrocities. But as far as I was concerned, armed resistance against the occupation was legitimate and was in fact an inevitable product of an illegal and aggressive war and the occupation that followed.

      Bad regimes do not necessarily produce noble freedom fighters who engage in ‘good’ violence – even if the latter may come to believe that any forms of violence are justifiable. But the ultimate cause and context of such violence, in my opinion is injustice/tyranny/military occupation.

      So I don’t accept the ‘secularism’ versus ‘jihadism’ scenario in Syria – a card that has been played by many regimes in the MENA with frequently catastrophic consequences ie. Algeria. The rise of political Islam is partly a consequence of undemocratic and tyrannical governance by regimes like the Ba-athists or the FLN which present themselves as defenders of secularism and monopolise political power to the exclusion of any other voices except their own.

      That is why I believe – from a distant vantage point admittedly, but it’s the only one I have – that Assad has to do more than ‘reform’, he has to quit power, and the sooner the better, preferably through negotiation, in order to defuse the violence and bring about the possibility – however remote – of a new political order.

      Unfortunately dynastic regimes that consider their power to be a permanent right, rarely do this.

  5. Susan Dirgham

    17th Jan 2012 - 11:11 am

    Matt, I thought you and visitors to your page may be interested in the France 24 interview with the Archbishop of Aleppo, Jean Jeanbart.

    He explains reasons for supporting President Assad.

    The following is taken from a flyer presented at a rally in Hobart organized by the local Syrian community there:

    People’s reasons for supporting the President Bashar al-Assad president might include a belief that –

    1. his rule has transformed Syria in the last 10 years in regard to economic reforms & social freedoms
    2. he has introduced historic political reforms
    3. he is open-minded, honest and represents those who want an end to corruption
    4. he is not likely to be corrupted by the oil-rich elite of the ME or by religious extremists
    5. he has stood up to Israel which still occupies Syria’s Golan Heights with strength and dignity and has been a willing partner in peace talks
    6. he is articulate and principled; he doesn’t rely on political rhetoric or depend on an ideology to form his views
    7. his rule unites Syrians of all religious and ethnic backgrounds

    As an activist for peaceful reform in secular Syria and someone opposed to outside interference in Syria, I’m busy on Twitter most days. It means I’m teaching myself to make remarks both meaningful and pithy. This is today’s attempt:

    Ideologies eschew alternate views of world.What is ideology in West? (It rarely allows other voices on Syria.) “Western exceptionalism”?

    (Perhaps I should have written “US exceptionalism”. )

    BTW, beware of repeats of ‘propaganda’. Tonight on the Oz ABC TV news there was an item presented as if it was news, although it was the story of a boy killed in Daraa in April last year and reported by Jane Corbett in her BBC documentary on Syria in September. I very much doubt that the boy was killed by soldiers or police, though he could have been caught in crossfire. But perhaps millions of people form their judgement of Syria based on such single unverified stories, and repeats of them 9 months after the event.

    In the future, there may be a comprehensive study done on the reporting on Syria. Mainstream media’s insistence on presenting one simple, single narrative that relies on unsubstantiated claims of mostly anonymous people may one day be considered ‘criminal’ not just for its lack of journalistic integrity and commonly accepted standards, but also because it is enabling a US supported armed rebellion and extremist terror against a population who want both peace and control of their own destiny (in a secular society). If there is no such study undertaken, there will be very good reason to fear for the world. And if there is, let’s hope it is very soon in coming so it can perhaps help stop the crimes that are being committed against Syrian people on a daily basis in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’.

    • Matt

      17th Jan 2012 - 12:14 pm

      Thanks for this Susan. As regards propaganda, there was a terrible Newsnight report last night about Syria which bears out much of your thesis regarding the one-sided nature of MSM reporting. I assume you’ve seen Patrick Cockburn’s piece about al-Jazeera?

      The interview you mention is certainly another perspective, and I’m sure that many Syrians must share it – especially as the current crisis unfolds. But there is clearly another side to Assad’s regime and there are clearly many Syrians who are not fans – and not all of them are carrying out atrocities or stooges in a Western/Qatar/Saudi destabilisation plot.

  6. Susan Dirgham

    19th Jan 2012 - 7:14 am

    When it comes to Amnesty and Syria, it is not difficult to find something to write. So here goes again. (Thanks for the opportunity, Matt.)

    Today, I tried to add a comment to an Amnesty Australia page. There has been a pretty healthy debate on one particular page. I wanted to refer to a few of the very solid recent articles that have been written about Syria and the propaganda war. Curiously, my comment didn’t go up and this was the reason given:

    Action Denied: Blacklisted Item Found

    It is curious to find Patrick Cockburn’s article banned by Amnesty.

    This is a quote from the article:
    “…….people who run newspapers and radio and television stations are not fools. They know the dubious nature of much of the information they are conveying. The political elite in Washington and Europe was divided for and against the US invasion of Iraq, making it easier for individual journalists to dissent. But today there is an overwhelming consensus in the foreign media that the rebels are right and existing governments wrong. For institutions such as the BBC, highly unbalanced coverage becomes acceptable.

    Sadly, al-Jazeera, which has done so much to shatter state control of information in the Middle East since it was set up in 1996, has become the uncritical propaganda arm of the Libyan and Syrian rebels.”

    I can find no mention of Amnesty. Do you think that AI should worry about this questioning of the single narrative re Syria, which has dominated the mainstream media for so long?

    • Matt

      19th Jan 2012 - 2:26 pm

      It does seem odd that the article is blacklisted – assuming there hasn’t been some kind of technical glitch, even if Amnesty were mentioned in it. In the past Cockburn himself has quoted Amnesty favourably, including in Libya where he cited an Amnesty report dismissing media reports that Gaddafi’s troops were engaging in mass rape as an instrument of war.

      So Amnesty does challenge establishment pro-war narratives and misinformation, even if so far it has not been able to do so in the case of Syria…will that change? We’ll see.

  7. Susan Dirgham

    23rd Jan 2012 - 10:28 am

    Hi Matt,

    In regard to the blacklisting of Patrick Cockburn’s article, a friend tested my claim by trying to submit a comment on the Amnesty Australia page with the link to Cockburn’s article in The Independent.

    My friend’s comment received the same response as mine: it was blacklisted . Today he sent a message to the London office to complain as well as to the Melbourne Amnesty office to inform them.

    As for Amnesty’s reporting on Libya and relating that to Syria, I think the article by Franklin Lamb is interesting on that question. I would value your response to that.

    Franklin Lamb, an active Amnesty member, visited both Libya and Syria. He wrote this:

    “For their part, Syrian medical staff, more than two dozen I met individually with, complained to this observer that AI’s Report is deeply flawed and that in fact Syrian hospitals welcome foreign visitors for tours and dialogue with all questions honestly addressed. Syria’s medical profession has justifiably taken umbrage at what it considers, as one Physician described, “Amnesty International’s “gratuitous defamation of Syria’s medical community.”

    From twitter, I sometimes come across references to some very interesting articles. One I have just read can be found at this link:

    “The two narratives vs. reality of the Syria crisis”
    Wednesday, January 11th, 2012 | A post by Camille Otrakji

    The author, Camille Otrakji, writes, “It is clear that regime change and public relations specialists are working on shaping the Syria crisis narrative hoping to help topple the Syrian regime. Parallel to the legitimate protest movement there is substantial deception. Media institutions are followers and willing consumers of talking points they are fed by the revolution’s communication specialists. The sophistication of the opponents’ approach is evident by the amount of material churned and the speed of its availability.” “The top 25 most common arguments promoted through various degrees of deception to Syrian, Arab and international public opinions” are presented by the author.

    The PR campaign has been orchestrated so people in the West who have in most cases never visited Syria can feel good about themselves: they can feel confidence in their right to speak on behalf of 22 million Syrians because they have been persuaded by Al-Jazeera, Amnesty, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the UN, and Hilary Clinton to believe that they are on the side of ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’ while being against ‘tyranny’ and another ‘brutal Arab dictator’. Their hearts and imaginations have been seduced by slogans. While the people of Syria, who live a reality much more human and complex, struggle and grieve – mostly alone.

    • Matt

      24th Jan 2012 - 2:14 pm

      Susan, I contacted Amnesty’s office in London about the supposed ‘blacklist’ of Patrick Cockburn, and their press officer looked into it for me.

      This is his reply:

      ‘This is an unfortunate quirk of our website’s comment spam filter, nothing more. If someone enters a URL that includes an offensive term or phrase (in this case part of the author’s name!) they will receive the following automated message:

      Action Denied: Blacklisted Item Found

      You can test this by entering this URL instead, where I’ve removed the offensive item:

      Just to be clear, we don’t ‘blacklist’ any comments on our website. We post-moderate comments and reserve the right to remove them manually if they breach of our (very standard) terms and conditions of use. This happens pretty rarely. The spam filter is in place to ensure nothing horribly awful gets published, but it is imprecise and occasionally throws up errors like this.’

      Hope that helps. I think that disagreements over the way that Amnesty has covered events in Syria are one thing, but I think we should avoid weaving such criticisms into some kind of conspiratorial narrative.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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