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Briefings & Documents Menu / Anti-war Briefings Menu / Briefing 01

20 September 2001

Justice Not Vengeance

  On 11 September 2001, three hijacked civilian airliners were flown into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The US and UK have threatened to use military force in retaliation. Their primary target is Afghanistan, home of Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, but the Pentagon is also pressing for a massive assault on Iraq.  

No Evidence

US Vice-President Dick Cheney has said that there is no doubt that Osama bin Laden played 'a significant part' in the atrocities. (Independent, 17 Sept. p. 5) But there is no evidence at this point to support this claim.

The first country to announce a breakthrough in the investigation was Germany, when it confirmed that three of the suicide hijackers had once been based in Hamburg. Germany's chief federal prosecutor Kay Nehm said that his office was investigating a small extremist Islamic group: '"These people were of Arab background and [had] formed a terrorist organisation with the aim of launching spectacular attacks on institutions in the US," he said.' (FT, 14 Sept., p. 6)

On 16 Sept., the German chief prosecutor still had no hard evidence on any Osama bin Laden connection: 'Despite a weekend of intense police activity in Germany, however, the country's chief prosecutor said he still had no evidence linking the alleged hijackers to the Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.' (Guardian, 17 Sept., p. 11) Incidentally, this was paragraph 31 in a full page inside story. It should have been a front-page headline.

According to the Daily Telegraph, 'In public Mr Blair is playing the role of the warrior king, declaring that Britain is already "at war with terrorism",' but in private he has been a voice for restraint. 'In his two telephone conversations with Mr Bush, Mr Blair raised concerns... In particular, he stressed that no strike should be made until sufficient evidence had been gathered to decide the target fairly and properly.' (18 Sept., p. 12) He is not alone. 'Arab leaders - caught between public opinion which has been embittered by US support for Israel and genuine outrage at the brutality of the attacks - are sending an increasingly clear message from the Islamic world: we need evidence.' (FT, 20 Sept., p. 6)

The Independent has learned from FBI sources that the case against bin Laden is 'largely circumstantial', 'a tangled web of contacts, connections and semi-autonomous cells stretching most of the way around the globe.' 'The perpetrators are believed to have had little or no direct contact with the top man. At most they would have participated in training at one of Mr bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. What US investigators have got is, primarily, a series of connections of the type: Person A, who was seen in a meeting with Person B, who was identified in court as an associate of Person C, who either spent time in Afghanistan or admitted a link to some other suspected member of al-Qa'ida', Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. (20 Sept., p. 5)

It is worth going back a few days to a Daily Telegraph interview with the director of Europol, the EU's anti-terrorist organisation (15 Sept., p. 9). Jurgen Storbeck 'cautioned against jumping to conclusions before the mass of evidence had been properly sifted.' Europe's head of anti-terrorism said: "Bin Laden is not the automatic leader of every terrorist act carried out in the name of Islam. It's possible that he was informed about the operation; it's even possible that he influenced it; but he's probably not the man who steered every action or controlled the detailed plan. As for the idea that, sitting in Afghanistan, he could have controlled the last phase of the operation is something we should not accept without a lot of doubt."

"There are a lot of people with the same philosophy who may have been to bin Laden's training camps, but are not necessarily under his orders," Mr Storbeck added. (Daily Telegraph, 15 Sept., p. 9)

The Independent's Andrew Gumbel describes the FBI case against bin Laden as 'not what a prosecutor in a high profile murder or terrorism case would call an open and shut case'. (19 Sept., p. 5) This is a euphemism for grasping at straws.

No legal justificiation

Even if there were solid evidence to implicate Osama bin Laden, this would not justify military action in law.


One nonviolent route, which has not been exhausted, is extradition. The Taliban's position seems to be that extradition is 'premature' (which it surely is, on the basis of the evidence so far), but that they would study 'any evidence' (Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, ambassador to Pakistan, Independent, 13 Sept., p. 8) One member of the Pakistani delegation which pleaded with the Taliban to hand over bin Laden, Nasirullah Khan Babar, said, "If it was proven that Osama was involved, I think this time the Taliban would extradite him." (Guardian, 19 Sept., p. 1)

This was reinforced by the statement by the Taliban Information Minister, Qudrutullah Jamal: 'Anyone who is responsible for this act, Osama or not, we will not side with him. We told [the Pakistan delegation] to give us proof that he did it, because without that how can we give him up?' (Independent, 19 Sept., p. 1)

The issue of extradition seems to turn on the issue of proof. Thus far, Britain and the US seem to be prioritising threats and bullying over the evidence.

Looming Humanitarian Disaster

The Western world is rightly paying the minutest attention to the suffering of those affected by the destruction in New York. But mass suffering is not confined to lower Manhattan. 'As many as five million people in Afghanistan, a quarter of the population, are facing famine, according to the [UN] World Food Programme' (WFP). Aid workers 'crucial to the maintenance of programmes that keep Afghans alive' have been withdrawn because of the threat of a US-led assault. Until 11 Sept., the WFP distributed food to 3 million people in the country, and was about to expand its provision to 5 million people.

'Peter Goossens, deputy director for Afghanistan, said that stores would be empty by the middle of next week.' He said, "It is only early days, but already this is potentially a disaster." (Telegraph, 18 Sept., p. 5)

As part of its plan to capture bin Laden and destroy his organisation, Washington forced Pakistan to close its border with Afghanistan, so that no suspects could escape. But the World Food Programme warned that 'More than 1.5 million people may [try to] leave Afghanistan in search of food and safety now foreign aid workers have left'. (Telegraph, 15 Sept., p. 4)

Millions are about to face homelessness and famine, even if the US does not drop a single bomb. As long as vital aid workers are kept out of Afghanistan by the US/UK threat of war, there is no alternative to disaster. The 'war on terrorism' is also a 'war on the civilian population of Afghanistan', but the television cameras and the newspaper photographers are not capturing their fear and pain. Five thousand people were murdered in New York, and that is a horrific crime, but that cannot justify creating an unnecessary famine for millions of the poorest people in the world.

The use of force

Even if there was an airtight case against bin Laden, and there were no massive effects on millions of desperately poor families, there would be no justification for the threats against Afghanistan. According to the Charter of the United Nations, nations are not permitted to use force against other nations, except in self-defence - in very particular circumstances.

It is up to the UN Security Council to determine if there has been aggression or an act of war against the USA, and to decide what to do if there has been such a 'breach of the peace' 'to maintain or restore international peace and security'. (Article 33) UN Security Council Resolution 1368, adopted the day after the destruction of the Twin Towers nearby, expressed the 'readiness' of the Security Council to 'take all necessary steps' to 'respond to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and to combat all forms of terrorism, in accordance with its responsibilities under the Charter of the United Nations'. But it did not authorise the use of force, or delegate the use of that force to individual nations or military alliances. It is against international law, therefore, for Britain and the US to take military action unilaterally.

Article 51 Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.

The use of armed force in self-defence is justified in international law, under the UN Charter, only when the armed attack is so sudden and extreme that the need for action is 'instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation'. This wording comes from US Secretary of State Daniel Webster, speaking in the 1830s, condemning a British act of claimed 'self-defence' which sent a US ship over the Niagara Falls. Webster's definition has stood the test of time, and was relied upon at the Nuremburg Tribunal. It is described as 'customary international law.'

It is plain that there has been ample time for 'deliberation' since the attack, and there is an enormous array of possible remedies at hand. It would therefore be against international law for Britain and the US to take military action against the suspected perpetrators of the atrocities, even if (a) there were hard evidence of Osama bin Laden's involvement, and (b) the world were prepared to regard the coming military action as "self-defence". Menzies Campbell of the Liberal Democrat party has said in Parliament, 'Retaliation is not self-defence by any legal measure with which I am familiar.' (Daily Telegraph, 15 Sept., p. 6)

The UN Charter explicitly states that the resolution of 'any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security', shall, first of all, 'seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice' (Article 33). This London and Washington have failed to do.

It seems almost universally accepted that the United States should be free to fire its missiles at whichever country it believes to be harbouring its enemies. This is a right we would not accord to any other country. It is a terrorist doctrine.

The need for understanding

Jonathan Sayeed, Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, said in Parliament when it was recalled, 'There has to be some understanding why there is so much hatred for so many institutions in the United States. Unless we deal with some of the deep-seated causes, then more terrorists will come to the fore.' (Independent, 15 Sept., p. 10)

Former British ambassador to NATO (1986-92) Sir Michael Alexander has urged 'the free world as a whole, not the US alone' to 'develop a common strategy of response that goes beyond mere retaliation'. The strategy must defend 'our way of life' and punish 'those who violate it.' 'But it must also embrace a co-ordinated attack on the underlying injustices, the consequences of which are visible at the Channel Tunnel and in the waters around Australia as well as in New York and in Washington, that fuel and will continue to fuel a war under way for some time but now becoming hideously obvious.' (letters, Independent, Review, 14 Sept., p. 2)

Studs Terkel, the US author, says, 'Peace is indivisible, the world is one and we are not the invincible guardians of the world we once were. For the first time we have been touched, and other people have been touched in different ways. Unless we learn what it is to be that bombed child, wherever that place is - whether it be Vietnam or Iraq or wherever - we have learned nothing.' (Guardian 2, 14 Sept., p. 9)

For an authoritative view, we turn to an observer of the Middle East region with unparalleled credentials - Robert Fisk. Fisk observes, 'this is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia paid and uniformed by America's Israeli ally hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.

'Ask an Arab how he responds to 20,000 or 30,000 innocent deaths and he or she will respond as decent people should, that it is an unspeakable crime. But they will ask why we did not use such words about the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children in Iraq, why we did not rage about the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And those basic reasons why the Middle East caught fire last September the Israeli occupation of Arab land, the dispossession of Palestinians, the bombardments and state-sponsored executions ... all these must be obscured lest they provide the smallest fractional reason for yesterday's mass savagery.' (Independent, 12 Sept).

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