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Vol. 31 No. 15 · 6 August 2009

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This letter is now illegal

Tariq Ali’s Diary notwithstanding, Asif Ali Zardari’s misdemeanours can no longer be satirised (LRB, 23 July). Helpless citizens who have been exchanging anti-Zardari jokes in which he is referred to as a dacoit, Mr Ten Per Cent, Mr Thirty Per Cent, as a US drone, a thief, a liar, a womaniser, a murderer, are to be deprived of this liberty. Rehman Malik, Zardari’s business associate, whose day job is to act as the country’s interior minister, has pushed through a new law that makes the circulation and transmission of ‘ill-motivated and concocted stories against the civilian leadership’ illegal; the authors of such stories will be ‘punished’. It is a truly atrocious law and a serious blow to what few civil liberties and modes of expression we have left. It is unbelievable that it should have been passed so quietly, without any opposition in the National Assembly. Spoofing, spamming, and having an email address registered to a name other than the one on your passport are also punishable with jail sentences. The real joke is that these measures will increase the circulation of satirical jokes a hundredfold: they will travel by word of mouth, as they did in the days before mobile phones and the internet. Those who have been texting Zardari directly will, sadly, now have to search for other means to communicate with their leader. This letter is now illegal. Whether articles such as Ali’s are also proscribed has yet to be determined.

Meanwhile Muhammad Aslam, Benazir Bhutto’s former protocol officer and himself a lawyer, who was on guard duty on her jeep’s running board the day she was murdered, has publicly accused Rehman Malik, among others, of being a prime suspect in the case. Aslam has demanded that the police register a case against the interior minister. The worms are crawling out of the can, which might help explain the rush to introduce the new law.

Tanveer Ansari

Readers of Tariq Ali’s Diary about Pakistan may be interested to learn that, like the last but one US ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, also served as US ambassador to Colombia during the implementation of Plan Colombia – Patterson in 2000-3, Wood in 2003-7. This recycling of diplomatic personnel makes sense given that the US government has held Plan Colombia up as an example of successful counter-insurgency and nation-building.

Yet the counter-insurgent and counter-narcotics policies implemented under Plan Colombia have created a humanitarian disaster. The UN high commissioner for human rights reports that Colombia has the largest internally displaced population in the world, apart from Sudan but surpassing even Iraq’s. According to the International Trade Union Congress, more trade unionists were murdered in Colombia in 2008 than in the rest of the world combined. If Colombia is the measure of US foreign policy success, what hope for Afghanistan, Pakistan, or – closer to the US – Mexico?

Forrest Hylton
New York

The burden of Rory Stewart’s article (LRB, 9 July) and now Tariq Ali’s is that the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan are unwinnable, a complete disaster, and that Obama, by accepting the logic of these wars, has doomed his presidency just as JFK did his by accepting the argument for building up a US military presence in Vietnam. Both articles are well argued and may well be right.

If so, the implications are heavy. It’s not just one more case of ill-fated Western intervention in the Third World. What’s being said is that the whole notion of a forward Western strategy against Islamist terrorism is wrong. Presumably the right thing to do is to leave Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Taliban, abandon hope for all those there who are more moderate (or who are women) and instead set about building Fortress Britain, Europe and America.

But I can well see why Obama and Brown don’t like the idea of just sitting at home, waiting for more attempted 9/11s and hoping they can nip them in the bud. First, neither the British nor the American electorate is likely to tolerate leaders who say our fate is to get hit and we’d better accept it. Second, a great deal of al-Qaida’s strategy has been based precisely on the assumption that the Western response to its terror campaign would remain as limp-wristed as it was under Clinton.

R.W. Johnson
Trafalgar, KwaZulu-Natal


Neal Ascherson is unduly modest about his own service, both in the Malayan Emergency – a term which he oddly declines to use – and in attempting to save the life of the convicted terrorist Lee Meng (LRB, 23 July). Ascherson served in a crack unit and commanded a successful ambush. His intervention on Lee’s behalf was extraordinarily courageous, given his conditioning and youth. He implies that he accepted the need to contain Communism uncritically at the time, as ‘almost all of us’ did (myself included). But in fact, after his National Service, and while still a Cambridge undergraduate, he published a semi-autobiographical story in Granta which questioned the right of the state to send out young men to kill. Here again, considering the period, his age and his class, he showed exceptional insight and moral courage.

Ascherson’s analysis of the Malayan Communists is too black and white. In ideological terms, their inspiration was the October Revolution: Marx, Lenin and Stalin were their icons, not the Chinese leadership. The enormous pride in China as a nation was real but by no means universal. Not only was the Chinese community itself deeply divided; long experience of Communist tactics in the labour movement had raised many doubts in Chinese minds. Ascherson makes no mention of the greatest blow suffered by the insurgents: the prompt recognition of the new independent Malaya by mainland China. This happened when I was ‘blundering about in the Malayan jungle’ myself. Massive defection followed, including, within two years, the whole of Johore.

Ascherson’s analysis of Communism more generally is also too didactic. When I joined the Foreign Office in 1960 I inherited an intellectual tradition which had no difficulty in distinguishing between the Soviet Union’s pursuit of its national interests and its broader, ideological ambitions. The issue was whether the former was basically defensive or expansionist; and it seemed reasonably clear that cautious consolidation was almost always the priority. Ideological expansionism was more reckless, carried out without thought for the good of the countries concerned and using whatever stooges the Russians could find. And it had the further, often devastating, effect of provoking counter-measures under the Truman Doctrine. Despite the harm this caused, I have always felt a certain respect for Harry Truman. His determination to defend the ‘American Way of Life’ was no platitude. He saw the defence of the American constitution as his prime duty. In this respect he remains an example to the degenerate populists of today.

David Campbell

Great Arse

Peter Campbell, in his piece on the Codex Sinaiticus project at the British Library, refers to the Wicked Bible of 1631, which is currently on display here in the Library, and writes: ‘“The adulterer’s Bible" of 1631 omits a “not" so that Exodus 20.14 reads “Thou shalt commit adultery," and in Deuteronomy 5.24, replaces “greatness" to give “The Lord hath showed us his glory and his great arse"’ (LRB, 23 July). The first of those is correct – visitors to the exhibition can see the hapless printer’s error in front of them. Sadly, the second seems to be a fabrication, or at least a highly dubious assertion which found its way into Wikipedia (I’ve now removed it).

Rob Ainsley
British Library

Droit d’ingérence

In his review of Pierre Péan’s book about Bernard Kouchner, Christopher Caldwell attaches too much importance to UN General Assembly Resolution 43/131, which, he states, codified the right to disregard national sovereignty and intervene in countries experiencing humanitarian crises (droit d’ingérence) and was invoked by the Security Council to open a corridor for the Kurds fleeing Iraq in 1990-91 (LRB, 9 July). Resolution 43/131 has as its departure point the sovereignty of states, which it reaffirms twice. While it stresses the important contribution of inter- and non-governmental organisations in providing humanitarian assistance, this requires the consent of states.

The Security Council’s response to the plight of the Kurds was Resolution 688 of 5 April 1991, which did not cite 43/131 and went beyond its consensual basis by insisting that Iraq allow immediate access by international humanitarian organisations to all those in need of assistance. While 688 invoked the language of Chapter VII of the UN Charter (enforcement) in its references to threats to international peace and security, it was not adopted under Chapter VII. The military delivery of humanitarian assistance in northern Iraq by the US-led joint task force was taken over by the UN in early May 1991, with the consent of Iraq.

In agreeing with Péan that this was the start of a path that led to Somalia, Kosovo and back to Iraq, Caldwell over-conflates the concept of a right to humanitarian assistance to relieve suffering with that of an armed intervention to stop egregious abuses (in its resolution adopting the outcome of the 2005 world summit, the General Assembly recognised a ‘responsibility to protect’ populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity). There are obvious links between the two concepts, but also important differences. The former covers non-state humanitarian organisations while the latter is by definition a matter for states. The right to receive humanitarian assistance is unconditional (though its delivery should respect humanitarian principles, and thus be solely on the basis of need and without discrimination). The responsibility to protect is only engaged, and its exercise only legitimate, in specific circumstances. Justification of such an armed intervention is understood to require: that the abuses prompting intervention meet a threshold of gravity; proper purpose (the right intention or motivation); the exhaustion of all reasonable non-violent options; proportional means (the minimum necessary to halt the abuses); and reasonable prospects of success, with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction.

Caldwell argues that while there were ‘good grounds’ for opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for those who accept the droit d’ingérence and other tenets of ‘Kouchnerism’, there were no principled ones: once the humanitarian case for going to war against Saddam Hussein was established everything else was beside the point. But in order to establish the humanitarian case for going to war, criteria of the sort outlined above have to be met. Kouchner thinks they were, and that it was a legitimate war, however flawed its justification by those who prosecuted it. That is an opinion, not the application of a principle. It does not render unprincipled the opposition of those who may accept a droit d’ingérence and a responsibility to protect but who believe that the invasion was not justified under international law and failed to meet the criteria I have listed. Indeed, it can be argued that the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent humanitarian case made for it have reduced the likelihood that the international community will agree to act even when these criteria are clearly met.

Nicholas Morris
Craigrothie, Fife


In Greece @ is a papi: ‘a duck’ (Letters, 23 July). And the ubiquitous Honda 50 is a papaki: ‘a little duck’. Real ducks are quite rare in Greece, hence perhaps confusion about what they look like.

Simon Darragh
Walmer, Kent

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