The future of peace and human rights in West Asia

The article below is a speech made by Steve Bell on “The future of peace and human rights in West Asia” to a Foundation of Dialogue and Solidarity of United Nations (FODASUN) conference in Tehran on 11 December.

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I want to thank FODASUN for the privilege of addressing you, and wish the conference every success.

As an anti-war and anti-imperialist activist in Britain, I believe the possibility of peace and human rights in West Asia depends upon ending imperialism’s intervention in the region. 

The major imperialist powers – the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, etc., all claim to be promoting peace and human rights.  But their words and deeds are in conflict.  What is being promoted is not supposedly “universal values”.  Rather it is narrow state interests hidden in rhetoric – with marginal concern about the welfare of hundreds of millions of the population in West Asia.

Least there be any doubt, the West’s justification for supporting Israel’s current, genocidal war is that Israel is a free, democratic society.  The Palestinians practice terrorism, promote insecurity, and are an immature society that needs to be house-trained.

Such asymmetry justifies the refusal to recognise a Palestinian state, its right to defend itself, and the national rights of Palestinian civil society.

In reality, the Israeli state is supported because it is the most reliable ally of imperialism in the region.  Israel’s apartheid regime is of only formal concern to its allies.  Just as they supported the South African regime for decades, despite its apartheid system.

If we reject the conventional hypocrisy of the imperialist ruling class, that should not lead us to reject peace and human rights. A lie on their lips does not have to be so on ours.

Rather, let us reject the aristocratic individualism of the Western bourgeoisie.  The starting point is not the individual, it is the people and their sovereignty.  The peace, justice, freedom and development the people need have to be taken by the risen nation.  In that sense, the struggle for national independence remains a struggle to secure the elementary ground for the free development, in every sense, of the people.

For the Palestinians, the very continuation of the people depends upon securing statehood.  Such is the value of an independent state that the imperialists prefer to create a system of chaos than tolerate genuinely independent state powers.  That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from this century’s US interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Nor is this just about direct military intervention.  The supposed justification for sanctions is as an alternative to war.  Debates in the formation of the League of Nations were based on the experience of “total war” against civilian populations during 1914-1918.  At that time, Woodrow Wilson, US President said:” …if thoughtful men have thought, and thought truly, that war is barbarous … the boycott is an infinitely more terrible instrument of war.”

The use of sanctions against the peoples of West Asia, and the Global South generally, represents acts in an undeclared war.  Sanctions deny a society its connections with the world economy, create shortages of essential commodities and services, fuel inflation and currency devaluation, and promote complex forms of deprivation for the majority of the population.

Iraqi born academic, Yasmin Husein Al-Jawahari, wrote in her book on the impact of sanctions on Iraq: “Sanctions stripped the broad majority of the Iraqi people of the economic rights essential for preserving the dignity and respect of human beings, and Iraqis died in large numbers because of hunger and disease.  This was seen in the dramatic increase in communicable diseases, in maternal, child and infant mortality and morbidity, and in the immense suffering of the chronically ill and of a large number of physically and mentally disabled people.  Due to the collapse of public health care, and to increased environmental pollution, malnutrition is widespread and other kinds of disease have emerged, including an array of physical abnormalities among the new born.”

Yet in the West there is little clarity about sanctions.  This has led some activists to support sanctions whilst claiming to support Iranian women. 

The economist Shahrokh Fardust writes: “…the per capita real income of Iran’s citizens in 2019 was nearly 30 per cent lower than it would have been had sanctions not been imposed in 2012-2019.  Moreover, real private consumption, which grew by about 5 per cent a year during 1995-2011, declined by 1.5 per cent a year during 2012-2019, a cumulative decline of about 12 per cent.”

Such a cut in living standards falls particularly heavily on women, who have to cover for reductions in welfare spending, as well as reductions in the household income.  In addition, there are complex impacts upon family life in general.

In an academic study based on interviews with women in Iran, Nazanin Shahrokni writes: “The economic strains caused by sanctions have exacerbated the financial obstacles to starting a family … due to the toman’s collapse, family resources that could be used to enable younger adults to marry have been exhausted… statistical evidence confirms the decline in young people getting married as a result of sanctions and the associated economic hardships… Another key change relates to the declining percentage of births linked with the decision of married couples to postpone or even abstain from having children.”

Such profound impacts upon the lives of millions of Iranian women are ignored by many in the West who claim to be defending Iranian women’s rights.

Western concerns for the welfare of Muslim women have been a key theme of colonialism for the past two centuries.  Before the politicians took it up, both missionaries and travellers were convinced their home states should conduct a civilising crusade.  The essence of this was summed up in the famous phrase of Gayatari Chakravorty Spivak: “White men are saving brown women from brown men.”

This attitude remains today.  In Afghanistan the twenty year long assault on the people’s sovereignty, development and mortal bodies was conducted, in part, apparently to save Afghan women.  First Lady, Laura Bush, explained how concern for those women was so strong that, “the hearts of those in the civilised world would break.”  Yet the broken-hearted, civilised world is applying sanctions and has stolen Afghan’s national reserves, leading to 97 per cent of the population becoming impoverished. Such gallantry!

I think it valuable to dwell on the real material position of women and men under sanctions.  Alongside a broadly individualist perspective on human rights, the dominant narrative in the West is that material conditions are not pertinent to human rights.  There are no constitutional rights to housing, employment or health provision.  These are subject to the individual accessing relevant markets, or the limited budget of the state.

Take again the measure of women’s position. In imperialist circles Iranian women are seen as oppressed because of hijab legislation.  Yet these same circles actively support, or display an interested silence, when Muslim women in France, Denmark, Switzerland, and elsewhere, are denied the right to wear niqab, abaya or hijab.  Apparently, there exists a right to not wear hijab, but no right to wear hijab.

Kevan Harris’s notable work on the welfare state in Iran demonstrated a crucial change in the position of Iranian women.  Life expectancy for women increased from around 59 years in 1979 to 77 years by 2015.  Infant mortality declined from 80 deaths per thousand to 14 per thousand in the same period.  Young women’s literacy rose from 42 per cent in 1975-1976 to 97 per cent in 2012.  For women in work, access to social security rose from less than 5 per cent in 1981 to over 62 per cent by 2015.  And access to free, primary health care rose from just under 20 per cent in 1983 to around 90 per cent in 2010.

These are extraordinary achievements, and under sanctions!  Yet the West prefers to measure the progress of Iranian women by a piece of cloth, rather than the reduction in the maternal mortality rate.

This surely must be a distinctive point. Those who dismiss material concerns have no expertise to lecture on human rights.

How then does the future look – if the economy, state revenues and provision are the foundation of human rights?

Surely it is that the emerging economies of the Global South offer a more generous perspective than those of the imperialist North.  The essential choice is whether to prioritise relations with a hegemonic, but declining, US with its allied institutions in the World Bank, IMF, etc. Or whether to prioritise relations with developing economies, including BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, etc.

The US decline is expressed in the world economy.  The World Bank stated that China surpassed the US in 2017 as the largest economy in PPP terms.  Today, China is 20 per cent larger than the United States.

Equally, the power the US exerted through its alliance with other imperialist powers no longer dominates the world economy.  In 1990, the G7 countries had a combined value of just under 24 trillion dollars – while the BRICS economies had a combined value of just under 7 trillion dollars.

By 2022, this imbalance was reversed.  The G7 economies now have a combined value of just over 42 trillion dollars.  The BRICS economies, even before the recent new members, had a value of just under 44 trillion dollars.

Despite attempts to present matters otherwise, the data reveals a relative decline of imperialism and a qualitative growth of the developing countries of the Global South, with China at its core.

In the last 5 years, the Chinese economy has grown on average 4.5 per cent, compared to an average growth of 1.8 per cent in the US.  That means that China is growing two and a half times as fast as the US.

The nations of West Asia have a unique opportunity to promote a new form of development by “looking east”.

That does not exclude gaining access to Western markets or its advanced technologies.  But the fundamental rights of the people, and the ability of governments to maintain the state’s independence, are premised on advancing the options created by the emergence of a multi-polar world.  The stronger the integration of the Global South economies, then the stronger their bargaining position in relations with the Global North.

Peace and human rights can be won.  Across all continents, the movement of millions of people to support the Palestinians shows that the global majority want peace with justice, and independent rights for all the world’s peoples.  Let us take inspiration from the Palestinians’ resilience, and the youth of the world organising for the Palestinians’ freedom.

Image: ‘Major bases used by US Forces in the Middle East’. Graphic from Al Jazeera.