The strange advocacy of pro-war anti-war activist Peter Tatchell

On Thursday 10th December, British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn attended a dinner organised by the Stop the War Coalition (StWC). Corbyn has long been associated with StWC, and until very recently was it’s chairman.

There was a small protest outside the building where the dinner was held, attended by, among others, the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, and James Bloodworth, who supports the U.S. bombing of Iraq.

As here:



(Tatchell, centre; Bloodworth, right)

Tatchell et al allege that StWC have been insufficiently critical of the Assad regime, and Russia’s bombing of Syria. While it is true that StWC’s activism hasn’t been focused on the Assad regime and Russia, I personally don’t see much of a problem with that.  The job of anti-war activists in the U.K. should be to, first and foremost, stop the wars being waged by the U.K. regime.

Tatchell himself claims to be against all bombing in Syria. As here:

However, for over two years, Tatchell was calling for a ‘no-fly zone’ and ‘safe havens’ to be implemented in Syria.

Here he is at a StWC demo in 2013, calling for exactly that:

And here’s a tweet of his from October 2015, also calling for a ‘no-fly zone’:

A ‘no-fly zone’ in the conventional sense of the term is an inescapably pro-war demand. As Philip Breedlove, the senior General within NATO, said in 2013:

‘It is quite frankly an act of war and it is not a trivial matter . . . It would absolutely be harder than Libya . . . This is a much denser, much more capable defense system than we’d faced in Libya . . . I know it sounds stark, but what I always tell people when they talk to me about a no-fly zone is . . . it’s basically to start a war with that country because you are going to have to go in and kinetically take out their air defense capability’.

‘Safe havens’ would also require a massive military presence to protect them, and Joe Stork, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, has said that ‘There is no indication these so-called safe zones will actually be safe for civilians’.

Bizarrely, Tatchell wanted the regime in Nigeria – which itself has been accused of bombing and massacring civilians – to be one of the countries which implemented these ‘no-fly zones’ and ‘safe havens’. As here:

Why even mention these states as ‘enforcers’ if he wasn’t calling for outside powers to militarily intervene in Syria?

And  it’s frankly a strange kind of ‘humanitarianism’ that puts forward such vicious abusers as the saviors of Syrian civilians.

Tatchell now says that, when he calls for a ‘no-fly zone’, he thinks this should be enforced by giving anti-aircraft missiles and heavy artillery to Syrian rebel groups, rather than bombing. As here:

(Why he is calling for an ‘arms embargo’, at the same time as calling for heavy weaponry to be given to Syrian rebel groups, i’m sure only he knows)

However, even this is an inescapably pro-war demand, which will almost certainly escalate the war in Syria. As Oxfam said in 2013:

. . . sending further arms into Syria would simply fuel the deadly arms race which is unfolding on Syrian soil, and it will be civilians who pay the highest price.

Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. Secretary General, has also said that ‘It is essential to stem the flow of arms pouring into the country’, while Navi Pillay, in her role as the U.N.’s human rights rapporteur, said that ‘The…provision of arms to the Syrian government and to its opponents feeds additional violence’.

There is also the very real danger of these weapons falling into the hands of groups like ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, as Amnesty recently pointed out.

Tatchell’s position, then, even if it now does fall short of calling for bombing (‘no-fly zones’), is not in any way, shape or form ‘anti-war’. He is in favour of military intervention in Syria, via the provision of heavy weapons to rebel groups, and the setting up of ‘safe havens’.

Tatchell has recently denied that the demo he attended outside of the StWC dinner called for bombing, and accused the people who alleged this of lying. As here:

However, photos from the demo appear to show that some people were indeed holding placards supportive of airstrikes / bombing. A Sky News report showed these scenes:

Is there really any other way to interpret those signs – ‘Thanks to British friends for the airstrikes’ and ‘Airstrikes liberated Sinjar’ – than as being supportive of airstrkes / bombing? I don’t think so.

Quite simply, then, and while it is not a nice term to throw around – I certainly don’t use it lightly – it is Peter Tatchell who is potentially lying. At best, he wasn’t aware of the posters some of the people on his demo were holding.

Tatchell has a reputation as a human rights campaigner and anti-war activist. And,  I would say, the human rights aspect is warranted and well earned. He’s been a tireless campaigner on a number of human rights issues for decades, and I don’t wish to denigrate that.

On the issue of war, though, he has made a habit in recent years of saying ‘I am anti-war – but here is my pro-war demand, and if the left / anti-war movement don’t go along with it, shame on them!’.

Here he is basically saying ‘I am anti-war, but the occupation of Afghanistan must continue for the good of Afghans’.

And here he is basically saying ‘I am anti-war, but Libya must be bombed for the good of Libyans’.

Even as far back as 2003, he was arguing for a kind of ‘intervention lite’ approach to Iraq, writing that while he was opposed to an outright invasion, ‘The international community should train and arm the Iraqi opposition forces, especially the Kurds and Shias who already have viable armies’, providing ‘tanks, helicopter gun-ships, fighter planes, heavy artillery and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles’.

What could possibly have gone wrong?

My problem with Tatchell, then, is that he’s essentially agitating for military intervention in Syria, while claiming the mantle of the anti-war movement, and smearing the actual one (e.g. he has previously accused the ‘anti-war movement’ of ‘collusion with Assad’).

While Tatchell is certainly entitled to his opinions, and surely thinks the policies he is advocating are for the greater good, there can be no doubt that he criticises the StWC from the vantage point of someone whose views are, unlike theirs, pro-military intervention in a number of ways.

People would do well to remember that.

Edit: this post was amended on 16/12/2015, to remove the claim that James Bloodworth is a ‘drone supporter’. Bloodworth has clarified that he ‘doesn’t know’ if he supports drones or not. He does, however, support the U.S. bombing of Iraq, in which drones are being used. I’m happy to issue the correction.

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17 Responses to The strange advocacy of pro-war anti-war activist Peter Tatchell

  1. A no-fly zone can be enforced by giving the victims of Assad’s barrel bombs anti-aircraft missiles. No bombing needed

  2. Yes Peter, the blog post acknowledges that this is now your position. However, it also points out that this is itself a pro-war demand that will escalate the war and lead to more suffering; and that ‘safe havens’ will require a massive military intervention force to police them.

    Therefore, your views on Syria are objectively pro-war and pro-military intervention.

  3. HRI Mark says:

    As a matter of interest, regarding Peter’s proposal to give the victims of Assad’s barrel bombs anti-aircraft missiles – how does Peter propose to stop those missiles falling into the hands of ISIS and/or Al Qaeda, especially as arms provided to the rebels are universally acknowledged to have made that journey?

  4. Phil White says:

    Peter, you dont seem to know what a no-fly zone is. lt is not what the name implies. Look at Iraq between the two Gulf Wars, look at Libya. A no-fly zone means lots of flying, and huge amounts of bombing – it means only ‘our’ forces get to fly.

    See what General Breedlove says about the necessity of taking out anti-aircraft weapons.

    Russia are now the ones who decide if there is a no-fly zone in Syria, and who gets to fly.

  5. Richard Matz says:

    IMO, at the heart of PT’s proselytising Mission Civilisatrice (the French for “civilizing mission”) lies nothing more than the old colonial assumption of the over-riding moral superiority of Western culture to the extent that ‘we’ have the innate right and responsibility to impose it on ‘lesser civilisations’, by military force if necessary.

    The omnibenevolent Mistress Toynbee concisely articulated this notion back in 2000:
    ‘In our political and social culture we have a democratic way of life which we know, without any doubt at all, is far better than any other in the history of humanity. Even if we don’t like to admit it, we are all missionaries and believers that our own way is the best when it comes to the things that really matter.’
    (‘The West really is the best’, Polly Toynbee, The Observer, March 5, 2000)

    Tony Blair & George Bush agreed. This ideology also provides a moral fig-leaf for the naked appropriation and outright theft of the conquered land’s valuable natural resources. It was used to argue for the disastrous Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria, and forms the basis of the ‘right to bomb/protect’ arguments put forward by the ‘liberal’ establishment.

    I’ll leave the last word to Edward Said from his book, Orientalism:

    “Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort. And, sadder still, there always is a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires, as if one shouldn’t trust the evidence of one’s eyes watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest Mission Civilisatrice.”

  6. Ben says:

    It’s a dirty trick to conflate someone’s views with people protesting near them. By that logic, we all endorse everyone’s views on every march we go on, from loony Tankies waving pictures of Stalin to ortho-Trots defending the ‘deformed Workers State of North Korea’. Give it a rest.

  7. Niko says:

    But this misses the point, Ben. Peter T. is calling for the West or other countries to intervene to control who flies and who does not fly… This itself presupposes a massive intervention. And thus is objectively pro-war…

  8. Ben, Tatchell claimed that it was a ‘lie’ that he was outside the StWC event ‘with people urging UK bombing of Syria’. But people on the same demo *were* holding signs singing hosannas to British airstrikes.

    And the other things I link to make it abundantly clear that he has advocated pro-war policies in regards to Syria. There is simply no doubt and no debate. If he just straight forward admitted it, I would disagree, but would respect his opinion.

    He doesn’t though. He dismisses these claims as ‘slurs’ – in effect, calling people like me liars – whilst himself smearing the anti-war movement (‘collusion with Assad’, etc). That’s why i’ve tried to highlight the issue.

    Giving heavy weapons to the rebels, calling on Nigeria, Brazil and India to set up ‘no-fly zones’ and ‘safe zones’ – these are all forms of military intervention, whichever way you want to spin it.

  9. l8in says:

    Reblogged this on L8in.

  10. tracy says:

    Tatchell has got to be some kind of spook.

  11. Andrew says:

    This is a hard read. Seems like a lot of jibber jabber to try and find something to criticise Tatchell about. I think he’s done some good work here and appears to be genuinely concerned with stopping the abuse of Syrian civilians.

    The barrel bomb link up there is nonsense.

  12. Stuart King says:

    What is wrong with providing weapons to the (non-jihadist) opposition to Assad to protect themselves and the civilian population? The alternative is to allow Russia and Iran to arm one side and to carry on dropping bombs on civilians to crush the rising. Is this what the people who oppose this really want? Tatchell’s position is different in this respect to Syria Solidarity UK which supports western military imposed safe-havens.

  13. The Kurdish demo supporting airstrikes was a completely separate demo by other people. Nothing to do with me and the Syrians I was with. We were not part of it. So I was telling the truth. Our small vigil clearly and consistently said: “Don’t bomb Syria.”

    I dislike the way this blog focuses on me and ignores the Syrian democrats and Lefts who were there. I was supporting them. Not the other way around. This blog’s narrative disempowers the crucial Syrian voices who must take centre stage. It is their country and their fight. Their voices must be heard.

    Thank you.

  14. Peter, you are a fairly influential human rights campaigner, who has a mainstream media platform, and who has been using that platform to criticise StWC.

    I don’t think it is unreasonable to point out that your views on Syria over the last few years have generally not been ‘anti-war’ – quite the opposite, in fact – lest anyone is under the impression that you are against military intervention in Syria.

  15. Seamus says:

    On Mr T’s other international interventions:

  16. Pingback: Countering Peter Tatchell’s pro-war anti-war arguments on Syria | Ian Sinclair journalism

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