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In place of war, open up Iraq

Mary Kaldor
13 February 2003

Mary Kaldor
Mary Kaldor

Arguments over the US and Iraq often assume that war is the only way to bring about regime change – that, therefore, people who oppose the war are against regime change in Iraq. Indeed, spokespeople of the anti-war movements – especially those such as Tony Benn or George Galloway who actually have meetings with Saddam Hussein – sometimes appear as apologists for the Iraqi regime. The appearance of condoning dictatorship, from these former or current British Labour MPs or others, ends up discrediting the anti-war movement.

An unacknowledged lesson from the cold war era may be relevant here – for, in the end, although this is often not acknowledged, it was regime change in Eastern Europe that ended this dangerous conflict. And pressure from the peace movement helped to bring about regime change in a peaceful way.

What we learned in the 1980s was that it was very difficult to separate peace and human rights. Violations of human rights are a cause of conflict and, at the same time, war and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are themselves violations of human rights.

Now, in the very different but comparable case of Iraq, I am concerned that the peace movement has not taken on board the lessons of the 1980s peace movement about the importance of human rights.

Beyond the binary

In the 1980s, people like me who supported dissidents in eastern and central Europe were often accused by those on the left of being ‘pro-American’. Those who opposed nuclear weapons were tainted as ‘fellow-travellers’ by the right. When peace activists supported the east European opposition, we helped to break the polarisation that reinforced each side.

A similar same kind of binary world-view tends to prevail today. Those who oppose the war are often dubbed the pro-Saddam Hussein gang; while to be in favour of regime change is seen as being pro-Bush or Blair.

Yet the anti-war movement would be taken much more seriously if we were seen to offer a genuine set of proposals to undermine Saddam Hussein, while the claim of Bush and Blair to be on the side of the Iraqi people would look rather hollow if there were a serious alternative to the humanitarian catastrophe that could easily result from war.

I do not believe that Saddam Hussein is much of a threat to the west, at least for the moment. If we are concerned, however, about what Saddam is doing to his own people and his neighbours, it can be argued that war is a most unpredictable and dangerous method of regime change. The biggest risks are to the Iraqi people themselves, who have already suffered enough.

If the war starts with a bombing campaign, Saddam Hussein may well kill as many people as possible for fear of an uprising and use his WMD, if he has them. In the fog of war, warlords are likely to seize local fiefdoms in the name of religion, tribe or ethnicity, resulting in the kind of widespread violence that American troops have not shown themselves able to manage.

Beyond the risks to the Iraqi people, there are unpredictable consequences for the Middle East and for the world. The Israel–Palestine conflict may worsen; there is talk of further expulsions of Palestinians to Jordan and Egypt. Or Turkey may use the opportunity to take control of parts of northern Iraq; likewise Iran in the south.

Above all, a war would have frightening global implications. Nowadays, the distinction between war and human rights violations is increasingly difficult to sustain. We say, for example, that in Afghanistan casualties from collateral damage were relatively low; there were ‘only’ some 1,300 casualties, not counting 3–400 people who died of starvation because they did not have access to humanitarian supplies, together with a similar number of Taliban fighters killed from the air.

But what seems ‘relatively low’ from the perspective of war is extremely high from the perspective of human rights. Those who are vulnerable to the ideologies of the terrorists perceive this method of counting to be hypocritical; massacres on this scale in New York or Halabja are truly shocking, so why is ‘collateral damage’ different and acceptable?

This polarisation of perception is likely to lead to an increase in terrorist attacks, contributing to a broader political polarisation on a global scale, greatly weakening those who favour peace and human rights.

Even if the war is short, and the regime crumbles ‘cleanly’, insofar as this legitimises the American strategy of pre-emption through the global war against tyrants and terrorists, such a polarisation is inevitable. Those of us who oppose the war, none the less have a responsibility to put forward proposals about how regime change in Iraq might be done in a peaceful way.

A dual strategy: from above and below

What worked in the 1980s was the opening up of totalitarian regimes, achieved both from above and from below. On the one hand, new international instruments such as the Helsinki Final Act offered some hope to dissidents and opposition groups – hope of a legal framework that overrode national sovereignty. On the other hand, direct support to opposition groups – both material and psychological – helped to expand political space. Every possible opening was seized upon, starting with the most moderate regimes in Hungary and Poland.

Of course, Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship is much more brutal than the ‘socialist’ regimes in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. His regime can be compared to the worst excesses of Stalinism. Some would say that there are no openings to be grasped.

Yet the return of the weapons inspectors is, in itself, a new opening. It used to be assumed both by Saddam Hussein and among Iraqi people that the United States implicitly supported Saddam’s rule. The failure to finish off the regime after the Gulf War of 1991 was explained by the fact that the United States feared any alternative to Saddam Hussein.

That belief has crumbled in the last few months. Evidence from the Iraqi Communist Party (which still has members on the ground) and from the International Crisis Group suggests that Saddam Hussein is beginning to weaken. People are talking more freely than before. By agreeing to the weapons inspectors, he has lost some of his seeming invincibility.

Saddam Hussein is following the worst possible course of action for his own survival in power. By partly cooperating with the inspectors, he looks weak. But because he does not cooperate fully, the pressure on him is sustained. What if he were to cooperate fully? Would the international community then have to lift the sanctions and allow him to remain in power? The Germans and the French are already arguing for extending the inspection regime. Shouldn’t their initiative also embrace human rights issues?

The peace movement could push for more international measures designed to sustain the pressure on the regime, to make openings in the totalitarian system and to offer some opportunities to Iraqi opposition groups. Among the Iraqi opposition, some argue – and this is borne out by experience of other totalitarian regimes – that once holes begin to emerge in the structures of power, the whole edifice can quickly disintegrate.

In place of war, an alternative scheme

Many proposals have been put forward by members of the Iraqi opposition. Earlier United Nations (UN) resolutions dealing with the repression of the Iraqi population have tackled such issues as the return of refugees, or rights to free speech and association.

A new UN resolution aimed at opening up the regime and providing instruments that could be exploited by courageous opposition groups might call for:

  • A permanent monitoring system on WMD.
  • The establishment of an ad hoc international court to try some 300 or so war criminals. Saddam Hussein and his immediate entourage should be indicted. The foreign bank accounts of these people will be frozen and they will be unable to travel.

It should be made clear that there will be amnesty for others, perhaps under a South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (It is sometimes argued that it is better to offer an exit strategy for Saddam Hussein. But quite apart from the fact that he is unlikely to accept an exit strategy, this approach offers hope to those who are not immediately implicated in the regime.)

  • Iraq should accept a monitoring system regarding human rights violations. This has already been agreed in Security Council Resolution 689. There should be demands for the return of refugees, the right of opposition parties to open offices inside Iraq and develop their activities, or for scheduling democratic elections under international supervision.
  • Oil for Food Programme should be governed by the UN and not the government, as in northern Iraq. Also, the continuation of the Oil for Food Programme might be conditional on reductions in military spending and increases in health and education spending.

    Where would this leave military pressure? Military pressure has been important in bringing about the return of the weapons inspectors. Does that mean that the threat of war has to be sustained? I do believe that troops should continue to be deployed around the borders to be available to protect Iraqi citizens. But the protection of civilians, in my view, is very different from outright invasion.

    The current moment is very dangerous. There is a risk that the split in the international community means that the US will go to war with the support of Britain and right-wing regimes like those of Italy, Spain and Denmark, not to mention some of the east and central European countries.

    Instead, the approach outlined above could be put forward by Britain and others to reunite Europe in a way that just might contain the other rogue state, the United States.

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