The political landscape of our world is complex, confusing, and nuanced. It is comprised of political systems vastly different to our own. Some capitalist, some socialist. Some democratic, some authoritarian. And within the authoritarian often exists groups fighting for liberation. Some countries are fraught with poverty and social injustice. Some have been torn apart by civil war. Some are still battling to resolve century-old disputes over land or debt.
When trying to navigate an understanding or the complexity of foreign wars and politics, we often look to our government as a moral guide. Who are the good guys, and who are the bad? Which authoritarian regimes are brutal human rights abusers, and which are strong leaders who bring “stability” to developing countries? Which group of rebels are fighting for a just cause, and which are simply terrorists?
Often, our leaders take a pious moral high ground, condemning a cherry-picked selection of brutal dictators and violent insurgents, all the while maintaining friendly and mutually beneficial relationships with despotic human rights abusers, and selling arms to ruthless and barbaric rebel groups in an effort to overthrow their enemies.
Our leaders often brush under the carpet the relationships they have fostered with tyrants and terrorists. They try to either hide or defend their support for human rights abusers and war criminals. But it doesn’t take much digging to expose these insidious connections. Here are five of the most brutal regimes and terrorists the UK government has gotten into bed with in recent years.
Augusto Pinochet, Chile
Since the 18th and 19th-century wars of independence, political instability and civil war has plagued Latin America, with many an authoritarian dictator inflicting terror on their people. Chile, nevertheless, had enjoyed a democratically elected government from the 1930s into the 1970s. However, the election of Salvador Allende and his Marxist coalition party in 1970 saw Chile transform into a fascist dictatorship that lasted nearly 20 years.
In 1973, in reaction to a programme of renationalisation which saw the copper, coal, iron and nitrate industries being placed back into public hands, a CIA-backed military coup was staged against Allende’s government by General Augusto Pinochet. Following the coup, Pinochet assumed the position of leader in Chile, and would go on to rule the nation until 1990. During his 17 year dictatorship, the Chilean people were subjected to brutal oppression. Political opposition parties were outlawed, and in the weeks following the coup thousands of people, considered by the new regime as too “left-wing”, were rounded up and taken to a make-shift concentration camp that was the National Stadium. Hundreds were murdered, and hundreds more are missing to this day. Pinochet also established the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), a Gestapo-like secret police organisation, whose sole purpose was to silence political dissidents by terrorising the Chilean population. Over the 17 year period, a total of 40,018 “dissidents” and their families were clandestinely captured and imprisoned in detention camps. Thousands were subjected to barbaric torture, and many ended up dead.
It wasn’t until 1998, eight years after the end of the regime under which so many Chileans suffered horrible fates, that the law caught up with Pinochet. Pinochet was in the United Kingdom seeking medical treatment when a Spanish judge issued an international warrant for his arrest, on 94 counts of torture of Spanish citizens. Pinochet was placed under house arrest by the British authorities, and a complex legal process ensued, with Pinochet’s lawyers fighting to keep him from being extradited to Spain.
Pinochet was never extradited. He never faced trial. He died before justice could be brought to him. His lawyers continued to fight the criminal charges until his death, sighting everything from immunity of ex-heads of state from prosecution, to inability to stand trial due to ill health and dementia.
But it wasn’t only his lawyers that had a role in protecting the dictator from prosecution. During his dictatorship, Pinochet found a close ally in Margaret Thatcher. They fostered a friendship based on a mutual admiration of one another’s free market economic reforms, which ultimately lead to Pinochet supporting the UK during the Falkland’s war through providing intelligence and refuge to British troops. They remained close allies throughout Pinochet’s bloody rule, and during his hour of need, Thatcher offered her support. She campaigned for his release, stating he had “brought democracy to Chile”. Perhaps in part because of pressure from Thatcher, Home Secretary Jack Straw ruled that he should not be extradited to Spain, and in 2000, Pinochet returned to Chile without facing trial for the charges made against him.
Until his death, there were many more attempts to bring Pinochet to justice, all unsuccessful, due to his lawyers’ claims that he was too unwell to be tried for his crimes. Indeed, many an opportunity was missed to prosecute this sadistic, murderous leader. Thatcher and the British government’s insidious role in this heinous injustice is indisputable; the people of Chile who suffered atrociously under his rule will never see him punished for his crimes, and culpability falls with the British government.
Indonesian dictator Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for 30 years, was responsible for “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century” in which up to a million people were killed in the space of just two years.
Suharto, a Major General, came to power following a so-called coup attempt by Indonesia’s communist party, an event which is still shrouded in controversy and secrecy. During the PKI-lead coup attempt in 1965, six majors were killed, but Suharto came out unscathed. Unorthodox opinion states that Suharto used this failed coup attempt to persuade then president Sukarno to transfer power to him. Suharto then orchestrated the bloody slaughter of up to a million people, using the failed coup attempt by the PKI to justify the killing spree – a necessary purge of the dangerous “communists”. It wasn’t only members of the PKI that were targeted – labour and civic leaders, and other so-called “sympathisers” and their families were murdered by the army and vigilante groups, which included some of Indonesia’s most infamous gangsters.
Thanks to Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 “The Act of Killing”, it is now widely known that the CIA were complicit in Suharto’s killing spree, as they provided him with a list of 5000 suspected communist leaders. The US and Britain, who were working tirelessly to suppress communist revolutions around the world, were largely supportive of Suharto, despite his murderous tendencies. Indeed, Senior CIA operations officer in the 1960’s, Ralph McGehee, described the takeover and subsequent bloody purge as “the model operation” for the US-backed coup that saw Pinochet rise to power and quash political opposition through similar barbaric means.
The British government also played their part in the brutal slaughter of Indonesia’s leftists. It has been reported that Britain provided Suharto with warships for the purpose of carrying troops down the Malacca Straits towards the dictator’s human targets. Britain also provided support for the Suharto regime in the form of armoured vehicles and fighter bombers during the 1975 invasion and subsequent occupation of East Timor, in which 200,000 people were killed in one of the most horrific genocides in recent history.
Suharto’s rule came to an end in 1998. Allegations of corruption and economic meltdown lead to civil unrest, with many calling for Suharto to step down as president. Having been deserted by his political allies, he was forced to resign.
Suharto, like Pinochet, was never punished for his crimes. Attempts were made to prosecute him for corruption, but he never stood trial due to ill health. He died in 2008. No efforts were ever made to prosecute him for the mass murders that were committed under his authority.
The Saudi Royal Family
Since 9/11 the United Kingdom and the United States have been fighting a “war on terror”. This war has seen our government invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, and spend who knows how many billions of pounds trying to wipe out the Islamic fundamentalist organisations Al-Qaida, the Taliban, and more recently ISIS. We are constantly bombarded with rhetoric from our leaders about the threat of extremism and how it must be stamped out at all costs. Any diplomatic or peaceful solution is out of the question, because, of course, “you can’t bargain with terrorists”. This stance has resulted in the recent heavy criticism of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for his attempts to enter into discussions with the “terrorist” organisations Hamas and Hezbollah, who seek liberation from the Israeli occupation in Palestine and Lebanon.
Indeed, these groups are fearsome and barbaric, but they are as equally persistent. Our governments have been trying to eradicate them for over a decade to no avail, with thousands of civilian casualties being caught in the cross-fire, the most recent and notable case being the US bombing of a hospital in Kunduz during an airstrike targeting Taliban fighters. The policy clearly isn’t working, so attempting to find a peaceful solution seems like a logical step to make.
Not to Prime Minister David Cameron, who has accused Jeremy Corbyn of being a “Britain-hating terrorist-sympathiser”. It would seem that to him, on a moral level, Islamic fundamentalists are not people he wants to reach any sort of peaceful agreement with. An understandable sentiment, given their extreme ideology and tendency towards abusing human rights.
However, it appears that Cameron’s moral indignation does not extend to all ideological extremists, given his close relationship with the Saudi royal family. Britain, of course, has long been allies with Saudi Arabia, a country that has been governed under Islamic law by an absolute monarchy since 1932. In that time, they have become renowned for their harsh imposition of Sharia law, human rights abuses, and lack of women’s rights. Women are not permitted to drive, and they must seek a male guardian’s permission to work, vote in local elections, or even leave the house. Homosexuality, adultery and blasphemy are all punishable by public execution, with execution methods including beheading, stoning, and crucifixion. The Saudi Kingdom has been accused of sanctioning more beheadings this year than ISIS (who David Cameron has condemned as a “terrorist death cult”).
Since becoming prime minister, David Cameron has solidified his relationship with our long-standing ally. The recent revelation of a “secret vote-trading deal” between the UK government and the Saudi royals, made to ensure both states were elected to the UN human rights council, has prompted renewed criticism of the UK’s relationship with the Saudis. This criticism has intensified due to fresh outrage at the sentencing of a 17-year-old peaceful protester to death by crucifixion, and revelations that Britain has been supplying millions of pounds worth of military equipment to the Saudi kingdom. It is believed that this equipment has been used in the attacks on Yemen and Syria, where there have been thousands of civilian casualties. Indeed, getting into bed with the Saudis, Islamic extremists with an appalling human rights records, is disturbingly ironic, deeply hypocritical, and exposes Cameron’s anti-extremist ideology as untenable rhetoric.
Muammar Gaddafi, Libya
Gaddafi came to power in 1969, following a bloodless coup on King Idris’s government. He would go on to rule Libya as a dictator for 42 years before he fell from power in 2011. On the 15th of February 2011, Gaddafi’s security forces opened fire on protesters in Benghazi, which lead to a country-wide rebellion. The British government was quick to condemn the use of violence on protesters, and Gaddafi’s military efforts to recapture Benghazi and other rebel-controlled areas.
But the British government were not always so critical of the oppressive Gaddafi regime. Despite previous poor relations, due in part to Gaddafi’s anti-western sentiment and policy, Tony Blair struck up a “new relationship” with the dictator in 2003, following Libya’s abandonment of their nuclear weapons program.
As part of the “new relationship,” the pair agreed to collaborate with one another in efforts to “counter terrorism”. During this covert cooperation, Libyan offices were allowed to work in the UK, where they intimidated Libyan refugees into acting as informants for Libyan and British intelligence agencies. Furthermore, M15 and M16 deployed their expertise to aid Gaddafi in the kidnap of Libyan dissidents and their families, who were then flown to Tripoli where they faced imprisonment and torture.
Why would Tony Blair be interested in helping this Tyrant capture political dissidents? Recovered documents suggest that MI5 and MI6 hoped to gain intelligence from those victims they helped capture. The intelligence agencies submitted more than 1,600 questions to be put to two opposition leaders who were imprisoned in Libya following their kidnap. MI5 and MI6 were most likely aware that Gaddafi’s security forces would stand a better chance of obtaining the information they wanted, given that the regime had previously been accused of torturing prisoners. Indeed, both men claim they were subjected to horrific abuse while imprisoned in Libya.
Several victims of Blair’s and Gaddafi’s intelligence gathering program have started legal proceedings against MI5, MI6, the Home Office and the Foreign Office, following the recovery of documents from Libyan government buildings that corroborate their claims of intimidation, kidnap, imprisonment and torture.
Saddam Hussain, Iraq
It may come as a surprise to see Saddam Hussein’s name on this list, given our part in the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003. Under the pretence that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction, the US-led coalition began the invasion with an air strike on the presidential palace on the 19th March 2003. Ground troops proceeded to take control of swathes of Iraq, and the Ba’ath government fell just three weeks later.
Though the primary purpose of the invasion, as stated by Blair and Bush, was to disarm Saddam, the coalition also made it their mission to “free the Iraqi people” from Saddam’s 24 year dictatorship. Indeed, in the name of keeping the Ba’ath party in power, Saddam committed many an atrocity against his own people. Maintaining the Ba’ath parties secular, socialist, and Arab-nationalist ideologies proved difficult for Saddam. Rival Shi’ite factions aspired to create a Shia theocracy, while the ethnic Kurdish in the north sought independence from Iraq. Such groups were violently oppressed. In response to these threats, Saddam built a “people’s army”, a paramilitary group whose responsibility was to counter attempted coups. The Department of General Intelligence worked to expose and imprison dissidents, and became notorious for its assassinations and use of torture. In 1988, he attempted to wipe out the Kurdish population in a horrific genocidal killing-spree that saw over 180,000 Kurds murdered, some by use of chemical weapons. In total, it is estimated that 250,000 Iraqis died at the hands of this ruthless tyrant.
Though the UK invaded Iraq and toppled the Ba’athist government in 2003, bringing an end to the decades of tyrannical oppression, years earlier the UK government became entangled in the Iraq-Iran war, and in the heinous crimes Saddam committed during that period.
The Islamic uprising of 1979, which saw Iran become an Islamic republic governed by Shia Muslims, brought about tensions between Iraq and Iran. Saddam perceived the new government as a threat to his Ba’ath party, who had oppressed Iraq’s Shia majority since it came to power. Believing the Iranian revolution would inspire a similar revolt in Iraq, Saddam invaded Iran in 1980. The war lasted 8 years, and over a million people were killed. Saddam was quick to employ military tactics that amounted to war crimes, readily deploying chemical weapons against Iranian civilians and even against his own people; it was during the war that the Kurdish genocide took place.
Though the British government never expressed direct support for the invasion, they continued to supply Saddam with military equipment and materials, making them complicit in the war and in Saddam’s crimes. It has even been reported that Britain supplied Saddam with chemicals used to make mustard and nerve gas, the gases that were used in the Kurdish genocide. Why Britain did this is not completely clear. Perhaps they were keen to quash Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, or perhaps they simply saw an opportunity for profit. In any case, it would seem that Britain’s complicity extended beyond turning a blind eye to the brutal oppression of the Iraqi people.
Indeed, these five cases demonstrate that the British and American governments, who claim to be the beacons of human rights, are happy to discard their morals. If it serves their self-interest, and the people suffering are in a faraway land, they are happy to get behind oppressive regimes that they would normally line up to condemn. Their pious moral high ground is a façade for their self-serving medelling.