Gays most definitely allowed in the military


St Andrews under Occupation

Old news this, but only just been able to get on my blog. Students of the University of St Andrews have occupied Parliament Hall in solidarity with English students and in protest of, inter alia, the University’s position on the Browne report. A full report will follow after the occupation has ended and I’ve caught up with work. In the meantime please follow the links to our Twitter page and our blog.

Solidarity to other occupiers!

Categories: Activism Tags: ,

The Fischer Controversy

Ok, I’ve been snowed under with work recently, so haven’t had any time to do anything for the blog. Hopefully I will get a new post up within the week though. In the meantime here’s a small essay of mine I rushed out for history…


In 1961 the release of Fritz Fischer’s Griff nach der Weltmacht caused a ripple in the waters of Germany, because it pinned the blame for WWI on Germany again. To understand why it was so controversial, it is imperative to understand the context in which Fischer’s thesis emerged. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1918, says that the “war guilt” lay with Germany. Article 231 accepts the “responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.” While Germany only agreed to this interpretation of history under duress, it created the precedent that Germany was to blame for the war. “This” James Joll writes “was to impose on German historians… the duty of assembling the evidence to refute the view that Germany was responsible for the war.” (1966: 101) So for example, in 1919 the German government released a number of internal documents entitled Die Grosse Politik der europaische kabinette which attempted to aid historians in their revisionism. The emerging consensus in Germany, therefore, became the idea that the fault did not lie entirely at German hands. For example, the Franco-German Historians Commission of 1951 concluded that “German policy in 1914 did not aim for the unleashing of a European war.” (Mombauer 2002: 121) Therefore, with this context in mind, it is very easy to see just how Fischer’s thesis, which basically accused elements within Germany of pushing for war, became such a controversial topic; “the thrust of his case upset the consensus which most West Germans appeared to have reached.” (Cannon 1988: 133) However, it is important to say that the basic idea was “Many left-wing Germans …[and]… some foreign scholars” held the view that Germany maintained war guilt (Taylor 1975: 120) But these were very much a minority, and seen as “out-of-hand radicals.” Fischer also received substantial support from East Germany, for example Fritz Klein used Fischer’s research to claim “along Marxist-Leninist lines that the war had been the result of ‘monopolistic capitalism’.” (Mombauer 2002: 146) What the Fischer controversy did, therefore, was bring the debate of Germany war guilt to the mainstream, rather than dissident circles and Soviet historians.

Fischer’s main thesis was that Germany was ready to establish herself as a great power, and ready to risk the outbreak of war in order to realise that goal. He traces Germany’s rise to an industrial superpower, and then by the 1890s Fischer asserts that Germany chose a policy of protectionism in order to “compete against the so-called “three world powers””(Moses 1975: 58). Fischer goes on to say that there were a number of domestic pressures for war, or for policies that would likely lead to war, that influenced German decision makers. Fischer based his argument on the mountains of official documents in the national archives. For example, Theobald von Bethmann, the German chancellor, wrote a memorandum on the 9th of September 1914, where he laid out Germany’s war aims; “France must be so weakened that she cannot rise again as a great power, Russian must be pushed as far as possible from the German frontier” (Fischer 1969: 106). Fischer claimed that this showed the German war aim. Fischer also claimed that the “program has strong similarities… with the ideas of a number of leading German industrialists” (Joll 1966: 106), who were heavily linked to Bethmann, and this shows the ideas were conceived beforehand. “The idea” Fischer writes “had taken root even before the war among a party of German bankers and industrialists.” (1969: 101) Fischer shows the link with these people and Bethmann (1969: 101-3), and writes that “Bethmann Hollweg appeared deeply impressed” by the arguments (1969: 101-2).

This view has been challenged in what I perceive to be three waves. Firstly was the attempt by German historians to try and salvage Bethmann’s “conventional picture as the liberal statesman” (Joll 1966: 106). In 1964 Karl Erdmann presented an evaluation of the Fischer thesis where he “attempted to diminish the stigma of “guilt” on the Chancellor” by looking at the Riezler diary to try and understand Bethmann’s motives further (Moses 1975: 2). Erdmann concluded that “[t]he conception of Bethmann Hollweg’s policy in the July crisis” doesn’t fit the idea of “Germany wilfully pushing into war.” (Mombauer 2002: 158) Fischer’s critics claimed that the Riezler diaries conclusively refuted Fritz Fischer’s thesis. Fischer’s assistant, Imanuel Geiss, however, wrote a paper directly countering the claims of Erdmann, claiming that Riezler had “certain embarrassingly aggressive traits” and that this directly influence the decision to go to war (Moses 1975: 2). He evidences this by looking at two books Riezler wrote before the war which, he claimed, showed that his ideas were aggressive before the war. This position received support from an unlikely figure in Ritter who wrote “If what in your view Riezler’s diary reveals is correct [that Bethmann had “desire” for war with Russia], I would have to discard my article [criticising Fischer].” ( Fischer 1988: 210) 1 However what Andreas Hillgruber pointed out was that the ideas of Riezler and Bethmann were consistent with the views of historians at the time, and in no way radical. Hillgruber attempted to portray the two men as heroes rather than Machiavellian plotters, saying that Bethmann was “forced to take the initiative in the crisis” and that his “real motive was defensive.” (Moses 1975: 3) Modern historians are critical of Fischer’s perception. Epstein writes that Ritter et al show that Fischer “misunderstands the complex figure of Chancellor Bethmann” (1966: 195), and Jarausch says that the “Fischer impulse has by now largely been spent.” (1988: 225)
The second wave of criticism was led by Gerhard Ritter, Fischer’s most prominent critic, who subjected Fischer’s use of evidence to scrutiny and concluded “that Fischer is often deplorably careless in detail and sometimes guilty of a priori prejudice in the interpretation of sources.” (Epstein 1966: 195) This position is backed up by modern historians such as Raffael Scheck, who says that “Germany seems not to have entered the war in order to conquer specific territories… In the first months of the war, with German troops advancing toward Paris and defeating the first Russian armies, however, victory seemed within reach, and immediately politicians and economic interest groups started thinking about the terms of peace.” In particular he looks at Bethmann’s September Program, where the thrust of Scheck’s criticism is that the memorandum was written four weeks into the war, and that the memorandum does not reflect the aims of the war, merely the aims of the war from 9th September 1914. The fact that Fischer maintains this shows the Germany war aims, suggests in the mind of Scheck that Fischer is indeed displaying a priori prejudice.
The third wave has been one of looking at the role of Austria-Hungary in starting the war. Fischer’s claim that Germany bares “war guilt” rests on the assumption that Germany was behind the outbreak of war. Hamilton and Herwig, however, claim that “serious scholarship into the origins of the war focuses… on Austria-Hungary.” Fischer claimed that Germany had Austria-Hungary “on the leash”, and so her actions in starting the war were related to German pressure, but modern historians dispute this view entirely. The Fischer thesis relies on the idea that Germany was the key agent behind the war, but regardless of the debate over Germany’s intentions, it is clear that “[t]he initial decision for war… was made in Vienna not Berlin.” (2004: 67) With this in mind, the modern view on the outbreak of war seriously diminishes Fischer’s thesis, which only stands if we believe Germany started the war. By focusing not on Fischer’s use of sources or portrayal of figures, modern historians render Fischer obsolete by showing that a different state caused the war.
Fischer and his allies have fought back against these criticisms however. Fischer points out, correctly, that historians have only focused on a tiny fraction of his work. Fischer writes that “Gerhard Ritter concentrated his attacks on the second chapter – one out of twenty-three – of my book,” and that his intention was “to analyze the socioeconomic forces of… imperial Germany.” (1988: 221) Fischer responded to the criticisms saying the war started due to Austria-Hungary by saying that “Germany’s leading decision-makers had been willing to seize the opportunity offered by a crisis in the Balkans… to bring about war.” (Mombauer 2002: 149) However, a number of Fischer’s disciples disagree with Fischer on key points. For example, John Moses says it was “wrong and unhistorical” for Fischer to highlight the desire for power in Germany when it was in all major powers at the time (1975: 49). What Epstein claimed the Fischer thesis showed was that “it could no longer be maintained that German policy had been without direction or aimless”, even if Fischer didn’t adequately show German war guilt in starting the conflict (Mombauer 2002: 148). Mombauer concludes that “some compromise positions have been advanced” due to Fischer’s arguments. Namely: “the illusion of a German Reich surprised by war and innocent in its outbreak.” (2002: 162)
The debate on German war guilt has, to my mind, had two distinct phases. The first phase was from 1918-1961, which was a period of German historians dismissing the German war guilt established in Versailles, which finished in a broad consensus. The second wave was created by the Fischer controversy, which again created another era of historians trying to disprove the war guilt claim. The Fischer controversy has itself faced three periods of historical debate. The first was in the immediate aftermath, where German historians tried to preserve the image of Bethmann et al by pointing out separate documents to Fischer’s. Then later historians have had two criticisms of Fischer; 1) his use of sources (e.g. Scheck, Ritter) and 2) the fact that war originated in Austria-Hungary (Hamilton and Herwig). However, a number of Fischer’s claims still hold water, for example the idea that Germany was innocent and surprised by war was comprehensively demolished by Fischer. Therefore, while a great deal of Fischer’s work has been refuted by historians, his theses have had a lasting impact on how Germany’s role in the outbreak of war was seen.

1.  The essay was only published when Rothfels [the man in correspondence with Ritter] “somewhat softened his statement” about Riezler


  • Cannon, John, Doyle, William, Greene, Jack (eds.) The Blackwell Dictionary of Historians (Oxford, 1988)
  • Epstein, Klaus, Gerhard Ritter and the First World War in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 1, No. 3 (London, 1966), pp. 193-210
  • Fischer, Fritz, Germany’s Aims In the First World War (London, 1969) Since no translator is cited, I assume it is the author’s own
  • Fischer, Fritz, Twenty-Five Years Later: Looking Back at the “Fischer Controversy” and Its Consequences, and Jarausch, Konrad, Revising German History: Bethmann Hollweg Revisited in Central European History, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 207-223, pp. 224-243
  • Hamilton, Richard and Herwig, Roger, Decisions for war, 1914-1917 (Cambridge, 2004)
  • Joll, James, The 1914 Debate Continues, in Aston, T.H. (ed.) Past and Present 34 (Oxford, 1966)
  • Mombauer, Annika, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus (London, 2002)
  • Moses, John, The politics of illusion : the Fischer controversy in German historiography (London, 1975)
  • Schech, Raffael, Military Operations and Plans for German Domination of Europe: (accessed 24th October)
  • Taylor, A. J. P., Fritz Fischer and His School in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Chicago, 1975) pp. 120-124
  • Treaty of Versailles article 231, 1919

Exposing myths: terrorism as the weapon of the strong

There are very few acknowledged truths in international relations, but one that seems to prevail is the idea that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. This truism seemed only to be strengthened by the horrific events of 9/11, where 19 amateur terrorists with a budget of half a million dollars brought the world’s greatest superpower to its knees.

But the idea of terrorism solely as the weapon of the weak is wrong. In fact, throughout history terrorism has overwhelmingly been the weapon of the strong, against the weak. 9/11 is the exception, not the norm. Such a bold assertion needs an explanation, and to do so firstly we need to look at what we mean by terrorism, and why the prevailing wisdom is contrary to the historical record. Then I will look at various case studies of American foreign policy, where terrorism has been the weapon used in order to suppress the weak. After 9/11 the world was aghast. But far too many people in the world, namely Latin Americans, recognised the effects of terrorism all too well.

Firstly we must understand what terrorism is. It is an understatement to say that the task of defining terrorism in academia is a difficult one. As David Tucker said; “Above the gates of hell is the warning that all that enter should abandon hope. Less dire but to the same effect is the warning given to those who try to define terrorism.” The first “war on terror” was declared by Ronald Reagan back in the 1980s, and historians have traced the roots of terrorism back to pre-1789. The League of Nations made the first attempt in the 1930s, and 80 years on, there seems to be no consensus.

So why can academics not agree?I believe the reason for this problem lies not in the problems of definition (indeed, descriptions of terrorism are uniform in a surprising amount of places) but in the inability of academics to admit what is staring them in the face; that we are a terrorist state.Looking at the official definitions, there are a number of agreements made. Namely;

1)      Damage to people and or objects is caused, or intended. There is minor debate over how far this should go (i.e. economic harm) but generally there is a consensus.

2)      It is an attempt to influence the government or population, through instilling fear. This is made clear in almost all serious attempts at definition

3)      There is a cause being advanced, whether political, economic, religious or ideological

The debate about definition tends to focus around minor points like state/non state, peacetime/wartime etc. Another point to consider is that terrorism is a tactic, not an end in itself. The use of the word “terrorism” should be used no differently than, say, the word “guerilla”, in that it describes someone who uses the tactic. This is yet another reason why the so called “war on terror” is nonsensical. It is, by definition, declaring war on a tactic. The US government might as well go for it and declare a “war on camping” while they’re at it.

The definition I will use for this essay is the one put forward in the US code; “terrorism is the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature… through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.” My personal definition would be something along the lines of “Terrorism is the use of, or threat of, violence against persons or non-personal objects with an aim that is political, religious or ideological in nature through instilling fear against a government or a collective.” But then I’m not an expert with 15 letters in front of my name, so someone else’s definition will have to suffice. Plus in using an official US definition, it helps to highlight the blatant hypocrisy of the topic.

The question is, why can’t academics agree with these very basic and very obvious conclusions, without having to meddle with the meanings? The answer, I believe, is simple.

One explanation of the difficulty given is the use of the aphorism “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” in any debate on terrorism. This well-known quote is, however, misleading. As I mentioned, terrorism is a tactic, not an end in itself, and therefore it is quite possible to be both a freedom fighter and a terrorist. As a CIA “how to guide” exhoriting Guatamalans to take up violence (i.e. terrorism) against the Arbenz regime put it: “sabotage, like all things in life, is good or bad depending on whether its objective is good or bad”. But, while the quote is inaccurate, it is very revealing. While technically speaking the word “terrorist” is not definitely negative, it carries with it a great deal of connotations. You’d be hard pressed to find an example of a “good guy” being called a terrorist, even though they deserve the term just as much as the “bad guys”. Case in point; Raul Diaz Peña. As Eva Golinger writes;

“The escaped convict, Raul Diaz Peña, was sentenced in 2008 after a lengthy trial proving his guilt as one of the material authors of a terrorist attack with C4 explosives against the embassies of Colombia and Spain that took place February 25, 2003 in Caracas.

Diaz Peña escaped from his Venezuelan jail cell on September 5 and after arriving in a commercial airliner at the Miami International Airport, was somehow able to easily enter the US, despite his status as a convicted terrorist and fugitive from justice.

A mere week after his US arrival, CNN broadcast him in prime time.

“How many other students are political prisoners in Venezuela”, Janiot asked of the terrorist. “Were you tortured”, she inquired, with concern in her voice. At the end of the interview, the stellar journalist of the US network wished the fugitive terrorist “good luck”, lauding him for escaping Chavez’s “terrible dictatorship”.”

There is no question that Diaz is a terrorist. But because he committed his atrocities against an official enemy, he is a freedom fighter. Should he have bombed two embassies in America, he would be reviled as a terrorist. The difference in how we use the terms is based on who the terrorism is done to, rather than what was actually done. A “terrorist” is someone who commits terrorism against a good guy. A “freedom fighter” is someone who commits terrorism against a bad guy.

The term “terrorism” is now inseparable from the cultural value of the term. While in its technical sense it is a neutral word, merely describing the tactic the person uses to achieve their aims, it carries with it a number of inextricable connotations which make it impractical to use in discussion.

This represents a serious problem, therefore, with the definition of the term “terrorism”; how do we manage to define terrorism so that it describes terrorism that we disagree with, but not terrorism that we support?

The above section is a minor discussion on the problems with defining terrorism, but it becomes important when considering the idea that terrorism is the weapon of the strong. The major problem, even worse than the Diaz dilemma, is that the United States has committed actions that clearly fall within any standard definition of terrorism. This is, in a nutshell, why terrorism is so hard to define, and why we perceive terrorism to be the weapon of the weak; because we cannot believe we commit terrorism.

The main way experts try and distort the realities of terrorism is introduce the idea that terrorism is almost always the work of non-governmental organizations rather than states. For example, Al Qaeda is a clear example of an NGO terrorist organization (although, once there was a need, we were informed of their “connections” to the Iraqi state). But there is a clear need to criticise state backed terrorism; that is, terrorism backed by official enemies. The Iranian backing of Hezbollah and Hamas, for example, clearly needs commenting on. So on narrow grounds we accept state terrorism.

One book looking at the evils of state sponsored terrorism is Terrorism as State-Sponsored Covert Warfare by Roy Cline and Yonah Alexander. The book tells us “[i]n the 1970s, international terrorism became an indispensible tactical and strategic tool of totalitarian dictatorships in their struggle for power and influence within and among nations.” (p. 1) Cline and Alexander go on to inform us “[b]y the 1980s, terrorism has become one of the greatest threats to the strategic interests of the west” (p. 45) and then goes on criticise Cuban funding for the vile terrorist group the ANC (p. 50). What this book, written in 1986, doesn’t inform us is that at the time the US government was waged numerous terrorist wars of its own throughout Latin America. The record of US death squads in Latin America is well documented, [1] and that very year the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found America guilty of sponsoring the Contra terrorist groups in Nicaragua. Needless to say this doesn’t find in with the doctrinal view of terrorism, and is therefore without merit, so no comment is needed.

The long and bloody history of US terrorist atrocities is well documented, so I will briefly look at a couple of poignant examples.

Cuba – Castro’s rebels took control of Cuba by early 1959, and yet as soon as May the US began to arm Guerrillas hostile to the new regime, and their policy became increasingly hostile. “During the winter of 1959-60 there was a significant increase in CIA-supervised bombing and incendiary raids piloted by exiled Cubans.” [2] By March the government made the formal decision to overthrow Castro, in a document entitled “A program of covert action against the Cuban regime”. Translated from Orwellian; terrorism. The “program of covert action” became known as Operation Mongoose; “a program of paramilitary operations, economic warfare and sabotage.” [3] “Throughout the 1960s, the Caribbean island was subjected to countless sea and air commando raids by exiles, at times companied by their CIA supervisors, inflicting damage upon oil refineries, chemical plants and railroad bridges, cane fields, sugar mills and sugar warehouses…” etc. [4] A 1962 declassified memo on Operation Mongoose states “[t]here should be considerably more sabotage” in Cuba. Terrorist attacks did not end after the missile crisis. As Harvard professor Jorge Dominguez writes; “On 9 April [1963] sabotage actions were approved against a railway bridge, some petroleum storage facilities, and a molasses storage vessel. Actions were subsequently carried out against a petroleum refinery, a power plant, a sawmill, and a floating crane in a Cuban harbour” before going on to condemn these actions as “U.S.-government sponsored terrorism.”

El Salvador – “In December 1981, the American-trained Atlacatl Battalion began its systematic execution of over 750 civilians in the Salvadorian village of El Mozote, including hundreds of children under the age of twelve. The soldiers were thorough and left only one survivor. At first they stabbed and decapitated their victims, they they turned to machine guns when the hacking grew too tiresome [a later exhumation found the bullets used were made for the US government]” [5]

Guatemala – “Between 1981 and 1983 in Guatemala, the [US trained] army executed roughly 100,000 Mayan peasants unlucky enough to live in a region identified as the seedbed of a leftist insurgency. In some towns, troops murdered children by beating them on rocks or throwing them into rivers as their parents watched. “Adios, nino” – good-bye, child – said one soldier, before pitching an infant to drown. They gutted living victims, amputated genitalia, arms, and legs, committed mass rapes, and burned victims alive. According to a surviving witness of one massacre, soldiers “grabbed pregnant women, cut open their stomachs, and pulled the fetus out” [6]

In these countries “bodies regularly appeared on early-morning city streets bearing the marks of unhurried, meticulous cuts, amputations, and burns made while the victim was still breathing.” [7]

Nicaragua – “[T]he US-backed contras decapitated, castrated, and otherwise mutilated civilians and foreign aid workers. Some earned a reputation for using spoons to gorge their victims’ eyes out. In one raid, Contras cut the breasts of a civilian defender to pieces and ripped the flesh off the bones of another” [8]

That is just a sample of the literature on the subject, and it is uncontroversial to say that what the US government sponsored was terrorism. Going back to the US Code’s definition, it is clear all of the criteria are met;

That is just a sample of the literature on the subject, and it is uncontroversial to say that what the US government sponsored was terrorism. Going back to the US Code’s definition, it is clear all of the criteria are met;

  • calculated use of violence or threat of violence – Check
  • to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature – Check
  • through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear – Check

In 1985, after the Boeing 727 hijacking, Ronald Reagan said; “We must act against the criminal menace of terrorism with the full weight of the law. There can be no place on earth where it is safe for these monsters to rest, or train, or practice their cruel and deadly skills.” That Reagan was providing a place on earth where it was safe for monsters to rest, or train, or practice their cruel and deadly skills didn’t seem to deserve comment. George Bush told us after 9/11; “By aiding and abetting murder, the Taliban regime is committing murder.” A valid comment, but one that under no circumstances can be applied to the far greater murder aided and abetted by America.

America’s terrorist war against these places were not an isolated incidents. The scars of Reagan’s “counterterrorism” in Latin America are still present today. Those whose families were murdered, raped, or tortured in the name of justice bear witness to the simple fact that terrorism is terrorism, no matter who does it, or in whatever name they carry it out in.

9/11 was one of the most horrific days in history; one that will never be forgotten. But it was a rare form of terrorism, one where the strong is the victim.

People rarely recognise that what the US does, and has done, is terrorism. The road to acknowledging this is long and tough, but the need to travel this road is vital if we are to succeed in our “war against terrorism”. But the “war against terrorism” isn’t just about defeating those who commit it against us, and bringing them to justice, but in defeating those who commit it in our name.

[1] See e.g.–02.htm

[2] Managing the Counter Revolution, Stephan Streeler, p. 216

[3] Conflicting Missions, Piero Gleijeses, p. 106

[4] The CIA: A forgotten history, William Blum, p. 209

[5] Empire’s Workshop, Greg Grandin p. 90

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid p. 89

[8] Ibid p. 90

Edit – This article is designed, in part, to be a critique of American foreign policy. But it is worth noting that America is hardly the only state to use terrorism as a political strategy. The use of violence to control or pursuade a population through fear is a well used policy. Take for example this Amnesty International report on Darfur. Page 8 says “[t]his strategy [of using janjaweed] allows the central government to control large groups of civilians, by spreading fear amongst them and reinforcing repression and is apparently aimed at collectively punishing the communities from which armed groups emerge.” Again, this is a clear example of state terrorism.

Bill Hicks gets his wish

BBC: US ban on openly gay military personnel suspended

So apparently they can have gay people around them while they’re killing kids/hostages.

The illegality of the Gaza flotilla raid

After taking an almighty hit in its political stock after Invasion Cast Lead, you would be forgiven for thinking that Israel would shy away from any controversial actions for quite some time. The invasion’s damage to Israel politically was severe in all quarters,1 and unanimous feeling towards Israel was running high. However on May 31st 2010, Israel carried out a number of raids on vessels travelling to the Gaza Strip in order to bring aid, and undermine the blockade, one of which, the raid on the MV Mavi Marmara, resulted in nine casualties.

The events of that night are still hotly debated. Video footage from both sides apparently showing the other at fault was released,2 but the wildly differing eyewitness accounts make it difficult to definitely know what happened.

With this in mind, there is one area with which we can say with some certainty if the raid was legitimate: was the raid on the flotilla legal under international law.

The Israeli government, while coming under fire by the UN and other international bodies with alarming frequency, still claims to abide by international law. Therefore we should examine their claims about why the raid was legal.

The first point to consider is that the raid was undertaken in international waters.

If the flotilla had entered Israeli waters, then clearly Israel has a right to board the ships. But the flotilla never entered Israeli waters. Therefore we have to consider the legality of boarding a ship in international waters.

When asked “Does Israel agree that this incident occurred in international waters?” the Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev replied:

“Do you know, according to international law that question is irrelevant, because if you know your international humanitarian law, the San Remo memorandum states, specifically 67A, that if you have a boat that is charging a blockaded area you are allowed to intercept even prior to it reaching the blockaded area if you’ve warned them in advance, and that we did a number of times and they had a stated goal which they openly expressed, of breaking the blockade. That blockade is in place to protect our people.

If you look at international law, if someone is breaking your blockade, intends to do so, has been warned, you are allowed to intercept, and that’s exactly what we were doing.”

The key text to consider, therefore, is the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, 12 June 1994. The relevant area is part III chapter V:

“Neutral merchant vessels

67. Merchant vessels flying the flag of neutral States may not be attacked unless they:

(a) are believed on reasonable grounds to be carrying contraband or breaching a blockade, and after prior warning they intentionally and clearly refuse to stop, or intentionally and clearly resist visit, search or capture;”

This is what applies to the raid. Now, at first glance Israel’s position looks safe. There is no question the flotilla aimed to “breach (sic) a blockade”; they received “prior warning” and “clearly refused to stop”. None of these points are controversial.

However, while on its own 67. seems to give legality to the raid, there’s more to consider. For the law to apply here, the blockade itself must be legal and legitimate. It is not legal to board a ship in international waters if the blockade it is breaching is illegitimate. As Dr. Ben Saul writes “there can be no authority under international law to enforce a blockade which is unlawful.” Douglas Guilfoyle, a maritime legal expert at the UCL, while maintaining the raid was legal, says “Whether or not Israel had a right to intercept the ship on the high seas depends on whether it was engaged in a legal blockade.”

Therefore the whole argument about the legality of the raid depends on the legal status of the blockade; if the blockade is legal, than so is the raid, and vice versa.

The San Remo manual deals with the permissibility of a blockade, and that’s where we shall look first. Part IV section III says

“102. The declaration or establishment of a blockade is prohibited if:

(a) it has the sole purpose of starving the civilian population or denying it other objects essential for its survival; or

(b) the damage to the civilian population is, or may be expected to be, excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade.”

Now point (a) does not apply to the blockade. For all the humanitarian problems it causes, the aim of the blockade is not “starving the civilian population or denying it other objects essential for its survival”. Israel does let in some food; but the bare minimum it can get away with. The people of Gaza are not starving, or lacking the very basic essentials they need to survive, but they are being held on the brink. The Guardian writes; “Israel’s policy was summed up by Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, earlier this year. ‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,’ he said. The hunger pangs are supposed to encourage the Palestinians to force Hamas to change its attitude towards Israel or force Hamas out of government.” He talks of “hunger pangs” not mass starvation. Barbaric, but it does not fulfil point (a).

Point (b), however, is a different matter. There are two main points to consider; 1) The damage to the civilian population. 2) The direct (key word) military advantage gained.

Point 1 is grim reading. The effects of the siege have been well documented by NGOs and international organisations alike. Their findings are remarkably similar.

Amnesty International (pdf):

“More than 1.4 million Palestinian men, women, and children are trapped in the Gaza Strip…Their daily lives are marked by power shortages, little or no running water of poor quality and deteriorating health care. Mass unemployment, extreme poverty, and food insecurity both exacerbate and are deepened by the impact of the Israeli blockade.”

“[T]he Israeli authorities are collectively punishing the entire population of Gaza, the majority of whom are children, rather than targeting those responsible for carrying out rocket or other attacks.”

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director Malcolm Smart;

“The blockade is strangling virtually every aspect of life for Gaza’s population, more than half of whom are children.”

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations:

“Livelihoods and lives of people living in the Gaza Strip have been devastated by over 1 000 days of near complete blockade.”

“Water resources in the Gaza Strip are critically insufficient”

“61% of people in the Gaza Strip are considered to be food insecure and are reliant on food assistance from humanitarian agencies for their health and well being”

UN Humanitarian Coordinator:

“Since the imposition of Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip in June 2007, the formal economy in Gaza has collapsed. Over sixty (60) percent of households are now food insecure”


“We estimate about 255,000 children under five in Gaza with about 26,265 at risk of undernutrition and 657 most likely to be severely wasted”

“A new poverty survey conducted by UNRWA showed that the number of Palestine refugees completely unable to secure access to food and lacking the means to purchase even the most basic items, such as soap, school stationary and safe drinking water (‘abject poverty’) has tripled since the imposition of the blockade in June 2007”

The sheer lunacy of Israel’s blockade was exposed by a congressional visit in 2009. The Independent writes

“Members of the highest-ranking American delegation to tour Gaza were shocked to discover that the Israeli blockade against the Hamas-ruled territory included such food staples as lentils, macaroni and tomato paste.

“When have lentil bombs been going off lately? Is someone going to kill you with a piece of macaroni?” asked Congressman Brian Laird.”

102 (b) requires that the blockade be proportional to the safety concerns of the blockading state. Clearly lentils and macaroni are not weapons that can harm Israel directly, so the reason for blocking them is quite clearly not out of military necessity.

True, as the Independent goes on to say; “It was only after Senator John Kerry, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised the issue with Defence Minister Ehud Barak after their trip last month that Israel allowed the pasta in.” The effects of letting pasta into Gaza are as of yet unkown. However this graphic from GISHA shows the continued banning of seemingly random items.

As GISHA found out, there is “a document that reportedly establishes the minimal nutritional requirements for the subsistence of the residents of the Gaza Strip. This document purportedly contains detailed tables of the number of grams and calories of each kind of food each resident should be permitted to consume, broken down by age and sex, apparently in order to establish a minimal threshold for restrictions on the admission of goods.”

The conclusion is that there is a “humanitarian crisis deliberately imposed by political actors” in Gaza.

The UN Mission stated that:

This also the position of the UN Report;

“[the] Mission is satisfied that the blockade was inflicting disproportionate damage upon the civilian population in the Gaza strip and that as such the interception could not be justified and therefore has to be considered illegal”

So what is the “concrete military advantage” of this “humanitarian crisis”?

The Israeli position is spelt out by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affair’s legal expert Sarah Weiss Maudi:

“The reason why there is a naval blockade in effect off the coast of Gaza is because Israel is currently in a state of armed conflict with the Hamas regime that controls Gaza. The Hamas regime has bombarded Israeli communities in Israel, Israeli civilians in Israel, with weapons that are smuggled to Gaza by various routes, and one of these routes is the sea. Under international law a maritime blockade is a recognized and legitimate tool that can be used during an armed conflict. Various naval handbooks of western states, including the naval handbook of the United States and of the UK, recognize the blockade as a legitimate tool during maritime armed conflict.”

So the direct benefit of the blockade is that Hamas does not receive arms by sea. Without question, Israel has a right to protect her citizens from terrorist attacks launched from Gaza. However, has this been effective? The answer, sadly, is no. The blockade has failed to cut back the number of rocket attacks on Israel. In fact, the graph of rocket attacks in 2008 show the folly of the blockade:

There is a five month lull in terrorist attacks. But not because of the blockade. The reason for the dramatic drop in attacks is that Israel and Hamas had a ceasefire agreement, while lasted until November 4th when Israel broke it to provoke the inevitable backlash that would give it the legitimacy for the slaughter of Operation Cast Lead.

Therefore, the blockade is both irrelevant, in that peace can be achieved through other channels, and forbidden under 102 (B) because the effects of the blockade on Palestine are far, far too excessive in comparison to the minor gains for Israel (or indeed, the losses for Israel, as it manages to antagonize the Palestinian people further).

The illegality of the blockade is well documented. Namely: The recent UNHRC report, the UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, United Nations Special Rapporteur Richard Falk, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Goldstone Report, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and B’Tselem.

All of these are independent NGOs or authorities, many of which have also heavily criticised Palestinian actions as well as Israeli. All conclude the blockade is illegal. If we are to take sides on this debate, who do you side with? On the one hand you have the Israeli government and a handful of “intellectuals” to back up their position. On the other and you have the worlds leading NGOs, human rights groups, international organisations. Who do we believe?

Israel will not change its policies depending on the opinions of the UN or human rights organizations. Indeed Israel has flagrantly violated international law in the past, without repercussions. International law is heavily weighted in Israel’s favour, so when it so clearly manages to break even that, it is clear something is wrong. But international law cannot be enforced by the UN. It can only ever be enforced by two ways; 1) by other, stronger states 2) by the population of the state. 1 is highly unlikely; the world’s sole superpower is fully behind Israel. There are two theories to describing American foreign policy towards Israel; the “Israeli lobby argument” most notably put forward by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, and the US hegemonic theory. Whichever theory we take to be true, it is clear that US policy (at the administrative level) will not change towards Israel. Either the lobby is too strong, or US imperial interests will continue. No other country in the world is able to go against the US, and much of Europe, in forcing Israel’s hand.

Therefore the only options for applying international law to Israel are clear; the people of Israel must demand this, or the American people must demand America change its foreign policy.

Neither are remotely easy, but that is the scale of the task facing those who wish to see justice done. Yet again, it falls to the ordinary man and woman to give justice to those who has escaped it for far too long. Either people will put an end to violations of international law, or violations of international law just might put an end to people.

1. E.g. see This Time We Went Too Far, Norman Finkelstein on the impact the invasion had on the opinions of Jews in America, traditionally some of the most steadfast supporters of Israel

2. For example see the video released by the Israeli military about the attack on the commandos, and the video apparently showing an “execution”.

A criticism of the limits of the Harm Principle

The right over our own bodies is a key debate in political philosophy, from Hobbes’ state of war giving everyone the right to everyone’s body, to Locke’s belief in self-ownership. But none have been as influential as Mill’s Harm Principle, which at first glance gives a clear limit to the use of coercive force on an individual, but has been challenged as promoting very little limitations. Therefore to examine whether the principle provides Mill with a clear limitation on the use of coercive force by the state, we need to examine how it fits in with Mill’s wider view of utilitarianism, if it is universal, and what the limit is on “harm.”

One way the principle could give limitations is because it is part of a wider utilitarian view of the world. Mill supports the principle because he believes it will fulfil the aims of utilitarianism; that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness”.1 Classical objections to utilitarianism notwithstanding, there are problems this presents to the principle. Firstly freedom from coercive force is not an intrinsic right; it is merely an instrumental one. As a result the principle only stands so long as it promotes happiness. Mill himself stated the only reason for supporting liberty is “general utility.”2 So if there was a situation where no limit on coercive force was better than a limit, Mill would disavow it. However Mill’s response would be that there is no situation where a greater outcome would arise from the state using coercive force when they’re not preventing harm to others. As each member knows what is in their best interests, any attempt to force them to do differently will have a negative impact and create less happiness. For Mill freedom is part of a wider “utility in… the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”3 The basis to the principle lies in the assumption that the “member of a civilized community” knows what is best for them, and that needs to be examined.

Arguably the principle does give a clear limitation on the use of coercive force by the state as it says that “any member” of a “civilised community” is protected by the principle. So for example person X decides to smoke outside of another’s vicinity, the state cannot stop him even if “it would be better for him to do so.” (pg 936) Even though it is for “his own good… physically (sic.)” the state cannot force him to stop, because X is the best judge of his own happiness.(ibid) This gives a clear limitation; the state has no right in the personal affairs of a citizen. However Mill goes on to qualify the term “civilized community” as one where the citizens don’t need to be“protected against their own actions” compared to “backwards states” where the communities need coercion for their own good.(id) Furthermore the principle for Mill applies to children, those who are “below the age the law” decides is right for adulthood (ironically the state decides when the state gets to use coercive force on someone. If a state decided adulthood was reached at 50, there would be no limitations on state coercion on anyone below 50 according to the principle, before maturity suddenly hits them, apparently).(id) In short, the principle belongs only to those “in maturity of their faculties.”(id) What this bottles down to is that there is a qualification a member of a community needs to meet; that they don’t need protecting from themselves, but that qualification isn’t defined by the principle. Furthermore, we can draw even more distinctions from this. Addicts will lose their right to self as they’re not in a position to judge what’s in their own good, for example. Mill doesn’t solve the problem of how we distinguish the “civilized” from the uncivilized. He is doubtless referring to England as a “civilized community” as opposed to the “barbarians” of nations overseas.(pg 937) However this belief is based on racial prejudice rather than derived from the principle. Civilization is a matter of opinion; “barbarians” consider themselves to be the “civilized”. A “civilized” citizen needs not be protected from himself, but the principle gives the “civilized” man the right to harm himself. The assumption from Mill is that a “civilized” person knows what is in their best interests, as opposed to the “barbarian” who doesn’t, but he gives us no way of telling if a person is “civilised” or a “barbarian.” For the principle to apply to someone they have to know what’s good for them, but as the principle doesn’t tell us how we judge this, we can’t know if someone is a “member of a civilised community.” Therefore the principle doesn’t provide a clear limitation on the use of coercive force by the state because it doesn’t define who the principle refers to.

However the most important aspect of the principle is what is meant by harm. Mill accepts that each person is part of a community, and therefore actions taken by that person, even if personal, can have an affect on others, and so the debate is whether harm can be done unto others by the member. Mill states that a person’s “own good… is not a sufficient warrant.” Prima facie this gives a clear limitation, but when you understand a person is part of a community, it can be perceived differently. The use of state coercion to prevent X from murdering Y would be just according to the principle, because clearly the state is preventing harm to Y. But if person X smokes and develops lung cancer. The principle allows this, as it was his choice. But person X is the father of Y. His death will cause Y to go hungry and suffer. To all intensive purposes, X’s smoking has harmed Y. Therefore a state could forcibly prevent X from smoking because in doing so it is preventing harm Y, in just the same way it prevents X from murdering Y. Going back to X’s chain-smoking, if Y was asthmatic and X smoked in his vicinity, then the state can stop X from harming him. But then X smokes privately, but Y pathologically hates smoking and every time he thinks of X smoking, he is harmed psychologically. Taking the principle to an extreme conclusion, almost any activity can be banned if someone is harmed; for example Fred D’Agostino’s “Dancehaters” example.4 This led critics of Mill such as Robert Wolff to state “this distinction between those aspects of my life which affect the interests of others, and those aspects in which they don’t take an interest, it extremely tenuous.”5  However Mill “insisted that such psychological distress is not really harm at all” and so the line is drawn for Mill at physical harm. If Y is offended by X smoking, tough.6 However, it isn’t true that psychological distress isn’t harm. Firstly it can lead to physical harm anyway, for example bullying leading to nervous breakdowns. Secondly consider the example given by Gaus; X tells his younger sister Y that her mother died of a terrible disease that is passed down through the females in the family. Y then worries her whole life she will die the same way. X clearly has causes harm to Y.7 Therefore while Mill states the limitation for harm is drawn at psychological distress, really it can cause harm, and therefore Mill’s limitation is flawed.

While it is hard to define what harm is, it is also difficult to define how much harm a person can cause. For example, X enjoys taking LSD. No-one loves X, so no-one is distressed by his habit. However, X buys his LSD from a criminal gang. The money he spends pays for the gang, who harm people. The consequence of X’s habit is that a gang causes more harm to people. However X’s role is small and indirect. Mill doesn’t specify if any level of harm justifies coercive force by the state, or whether a certain level of harm is allowed before the state should intervene. The most likely answer would be the state is allowed to coerce X when the happiness lost by them doing so is smaller than the unhappiness prevented by coercing X, although this is not elaborated on. Another example is economic harm. In repossessing X’s home, the bank is causing him harm, so should the state step in? Mill’s answer is no, because the unhappiness created by allowing certain levels of harm in the economy is beset by the level of happiness caused by letting it operate. Therefore the principle allows a level of harm to happen to people before the state coerces anyone, because if the benefits of not coercing someone to prevent harm outweigh the benefits of not doing so, then the state shouldn’t do it.

On balance it is clear that the principle does not provide clear limitations on the use of coercive force by the state because it does not adequately give definitions to key parts. Mill allows no limitations to people who do not know what is in their best interest, and yet he does not tell us how to define these people, bar racial prejudice. It is a fairly common feature of repressive states to label their dissidents mentally unstable; not making a fine distinction in the principle can justify this policy. In not defining what harm is he leaves it open ended where we draw the line on what constitutes harm. Taking the principle to a radical but logical conclusion you could say there are no limitations on the use of coercive power because every decision we make can harm someone in some way. Therefore, the principle does not provide Mill a clear limitation on the use of coercive force by the state.

* All references to On Liberty come from Classics of Modern Political Theory, Steven Cahn (ed.), Oxford University Press, 1997

Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, pg 7

2 Mill quoted in The Liberal Self, Donner, pg 160

Three Essays, John Stewart Mill, Richard Wollheim (intro.), pg xiii

4 See Social Philosphy, Gaus, pg 141

5 Robert Wolff quoted in Ibid, Gaus, pg 141

Id., Gerald Gaus, pg 142

Id., Gaus, pg 143

Yes, this is an abridged version of an essay…