Unpeople, Dirty Wars and a Web of Deceit – Britain’s Foreign Policies

British soldiers patrol a street in the southern city of Basra, Iraq, Nov. 18, 2004. (Photo: Essam al-Sudani / AFP-Getty Images)

According to new research, Britain bears “significant responsibility” since 1945 for the direct or indirect deaths of 8.6 million to 13.5 million people throughout the world from military interventions and at the hands of regimes strongly supported by Britain.

Less than a year after the publication of Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, a highly praised book that critiques modern British foreign policy, British popular historian Mark Curtis has aggravated the authorities yet again with his latest publication, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses.

This book, like its predecessor, uses declassified files to reveal Britain’s foreign policies since 1945 toward Russia/Chechnya, Israel, Uganda, Chile, Vietnam, Nigeria and the Middle East.

Curtis chronicles the “dirty war” conducted by Britain in North Yemen in the 1960’s – a conflict which lasted for a decade and claimed up to 200,000 lives – Britain’s intervention in Oman in 1957, and the British backed coups in Sharjah in 1965, Abu Dhabi in 1966 and Oman in 1970. [Sharjah and Abu Dhabi are two of the seven sheikdoms that became the United Arab Emirates in 1971.]

Curtis also recounts the British backing of repressive and brutal regimes in Iraq from 1958 until1968, and its complicity in Iraq’s use of chemical weapons and aggression against the Kurds.

The most searing accounts, however, regard the Blair government’s selling of the war on Iraq to the British public, citing fallacious intelligence reports and claims, and the “irrelevance of international law.”

Curtis said he came up with the term “Unpeople” because he thought it adequately described the British government’s attitude towards people who are expendable in Britain’s pursuit of economic and political goals.

“Last year,” Curtis said in a phone interview, “there was a British army officer who was quoted in Iraq as saying the Americans view the Iraqis only as Untermenschen, the Nazi concept of subhuman. In a way, the British have no real different regard for Iraqis than Americans, but [Unpeople] is a kind of similar concept. The attitude of the British policy making elite’s towards people on the opposing end of policies, I really don’t believe that has changed very much, not from the files I’ve seen. The attitudes towards people on the ground are very rarely a factor in decision making at all.”

What is unique about Curtis’s research is that he is the only person to have accessed these declassified files, despite many of the files being available to the public for over a decade. Curtis thinks this is due to more emphasis being placed on critiquing U.S. rather than British foreign policy, in Britain as much as elsewhere.

“I think that many activists on the Left know far more about, and write far more about the U.S. than Britain,” he said. “I have been trying to encourage writers to pay more attention to the U.K. than the U.S. I think there is an intellectual understanding of that, but I think partly it has got to do with what I think is a failure of the academic community. At least in the U.S. there is a large body of very good critical analysis of U.S. foreign policy … whereas in the U.K. academics have been appalling in revealing these secret documents. One amazing thing is how long these documents sit just in the archives where no one has looked at them … academics are simply failing to reveal this stuff.

“There are not that many people looking at Britain as a discipline, within international relations or politics whereas you get courses on U.S. foreign policy and the E.U.’s role in the world. There aren’t that many courses or specialists working solely on Britain which is amazing in itself considering this country’s role in the world.”

Curtis, who is currently the director of the London-based World Development Movement, believes history is crucial to understanding how contemporary British foreign policy is shaped: “If you look at some of the files that were revealed during the [2004] Hutton enquiry for example in the U.K. around planning for Iraq, and compare them to some of the secret files I have uncovered with regard to Iraq [in 1963] or other countries, they reveal exactly the same cynicism about the public, about the need to pull the wool over the public’s eyes … they reveal the same kind of great power machinations as 30 years ago.”

These machinations are geared toward maintaining Britain’s great power status and its place on the world stage, “and ensuring the global economy is organized to benefit western corporations,” Curtis said. “Those in essence are the two ultimate goals of British foreign policy and I don’t think they have changed over time.”

On the probability of genuine democracy in Iraq, Curtis is far from optimistic.

“When  [British Premier] Blair now stands up and says we are supporting democracy in Iraq, to me the proper response to that is to burst out laughing,” he said. “The idea that Britain would in any way be interested in promoting a genuine democracy in a state in the Middle East is so ridiculous based on our knowledge of what kind of regimes Britain supported in the past and what its interests are in the region.”

Britain and America’s interests in Iraq were not solely about oil. “I do think it was about the U.S. demonstrating its military might, and wanting to reshape the wider Middle East,” Curtis said.

In regard to what the Bush administration calls the broader Middle East, Curtis talked of the recent, seemingly unrelenting media coverage of Iran’s nuclear programs: “My interpretation is that the Europeans are trying to stop an American intervention by trying to get the Iranians to curb their uranium enrichment program, and the Europeans are actually quite fearful of what the Americans will do.”

Curtis said that Britain’s foreign and defense policies are based on the United States’ war on terror rationale. “I refer to in the book the [British government’s] 2003 white paper on defense which outlines these unprecedented plans for intervention around the world, really under the pretext for fighting terrorism,” he said. “This is really the new rationale now for Britain’s interventionist foreign policy. Previously it was humanitarian intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, but now it is terrorism.”

In British domestic politics, Curtis said that after the criticism Blair has faced over the war on Iraq, in the media as much as from within his own party, the threat of terrorism against Britain could play out in two ways.

“If there were a major terrorist attack on Britain,” he said, “Blair would be very vulnerable, because people know that Blair was presented with intelligence reports two weeks before the invasion of Iraq saying that if Britain invaded Iraq the terror threat toward the U.K. would increase, and yet he still went ahead. On the other hand they are obviously using the wider threat of terrorism and the war against terror rather like Bush is using it in America, of scaring the public and justifying an interventionist foreign policy.”

However, Curtis believes that the massive demonstrations that took place in Britain against the invasion of Iraq may have deterred Blair’s government from “further adventures.”

“It must be the case,” he said, “that Bush and Blair discussed Iran and Syria, probably at the same time as Iraq, and everyone knows that Iran and Syria have been in Bush’s targets, but presumably what Blair is now telling Bush is that there is no way he can carry the British public if the U.K. were to sign up to some American attack on any other country at the moment. The huge public protests have probably had a deterrent on Blair.”

Curtis calls for significant change to occur within Britain’s political system to prevent such an aggressive foreign policy from continuing, which are frequently carried out without a mandate by the British public.

“We have significantly been kept in the dark as to this country’s real role in the world,” he said. “We the public don’t know a fraction of what this country has been up to in the last 50 years, even though the evidence of what the country has been up to is actually sitting there ready to be documented by interested academics or journalists. That is the reason for wanting to write these books, to expose what’s been going on in our name for such a long time, and to compare it to what is going on now and show that not much has changed really. Britain is a very centralized decision making system at the end of the day, and there is only a democratic façade really. The actual democratic elements of policy making are few and far between. A prime minister can get away with whatever he or she wants, and clearly elites want to keep it that way. They don’t want the public interfering in policymaking and they have been protected in that system by the fact that we the public know very little what they have been actually doing. It is not a giant conspiracy at all, it is not that conspiratorial, but the system has served to protect elites from public scrutiny and properly holding them to account.”

Curtis’s book is a powerful condemnation of Britain’s real role in the world, in which the reader is left shaken by the contempt and ambivalence of the British government toward other people and what is done in the name of the British public.

Mark Curtis’s Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses (2004) and Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (2003) are published by Vintage.