American University of Beirut

Robert Fisk's Acceptance Speech

June 24, 2006

Ladies and gentlemen, I must firstly thank you for giving me this honorary doctorate. Secondly I must thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. 

In March of this year, the American Associated Press news agency acquired through the Freedom of Information Act the transcripts of some of the grossly unfair drumhead military court hearings to which the Muslim prisoners of Guantanamo Bay have been subjected. In one of these documents, a British Muslim, Feroz Ali Abbassi - who has since been released and has spoken of widespread and systematic torture in Guantanamo - pleads with an American colonel acting as a judge to be given the evidence against him. He was, after all, being told to defend himself against evidence which was not being revealed to him. Under international law, Abbassi pleaded, he had a right to know what this secret evidence was. 

The American air force colonel acting as judge then replied - and I am quoting from the official American record of this trial, remember - he replied as follows: 

"Mr. Abbassi, your conduct is unacceptable and this is your absolute final warning. I do not care about international law. I do not want to hear the words of international law again. We are not concerned about international law." 

A pretty good example of President Bush's foreign policy. But by reading that astonishing quotation to you today, I am not making the obvious point; that the American colonel-judge is a disgrace to the uniform he wears. I am trying to understand what we in the world are now facing. 

For over the past five years, ever since the international crimes against humanity of September 11th, 2001, we westerners have been complicit - by our false denials, our sleight of hand, our fear of offending the world's only superpower, our growing culture of secrecy - in crimes against humanity, atrocities which stain our name and which will forever be associated with us as western people. 

I know that this statement across the Atlantic, might sound like arrogance. Who is a European, who impotently watched the slaughter of 250,000 Muslims in Bosnia, to lecture the United States on morality? Who am I as a European, whose people have not forced Turkey to acknowledge the genocide of one and a half million Armenians as a condition of entry to the European Union, to condemn America in its so-called 'war on terror'? 

Well, I am sick of listening to any critic of the Bush administration being called anti-American. I condemn Tony Blair for his groveling to the Bush administration - but no one calls me 'anti-British'. When I condemn Middle East dictators and Middle East tortures, no one calls me 'anti-Arab'. Unless, of course, I criticize Israeli torture or human rights abuses in which case a chorus of voices - often anonymous - accuses me of being anti-Israeli or - that most pernicious and slanderous of lies when directed against decent people, of being anti-Semitic. 

I am certainly anti-Bush. And against Israel's policy of stealing land for Jews and Jews only from the Arabs to whom it belongs. And against cruel Arab leaders - most of whom were and still are friends of Europe and America - who have tortured and bludgeoned their people into submission. 

But what poses, I believe, the greatest threat to all that we Westerners believe in - or think we believe in - is the sustained, savage, physically revolting policies now being carried out in our name by the American military on, what is increasingly becoming clear, are the orders of President George W. Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Rumsfeld and the other super-conservatives in Washington. 

The evidence now emerging from secret and semi-secret American prisons around the world is of systematic torturing and killing, of secret 'renditions' to other countries - especially to other Arab countries - where torture is routinely used against men and women. In some cases, they have been done to death under torture. This has happened after these victims have been taken to their torture chambers by aircraft which have used European airspace and refueled at European airports and overflown Arab airspace on their route to perdition. 

What we must acknowledge is that America can - and should be - and has been a great force for good in the world. The founding of this fine university in the 19th century is one example. After the First World War, many American diplomats in the Middle East argued for the creation of one modern and democratic Arab state that would stretch from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the eastern boarder of what is today Iraq. The British and French destroyed these dreams by carving up the Middle East into little, largely undemocratic statelets which would do the bidding of our dying empires. 

After the Second World War and the powerful Roosevelt demands that the world should enjoy freedom from want, it was the United States which was the principal creator of the United Nations - Lebanon was a founder member - which, along with the Geneva Conventions, remains - or should remain, despite the antics of the Bush administration - the basis of our international laws and the most fundamental protection of our freedoms. 

But today we are faced by another desperate challenge. To stand up to a rogue American administration which is destroying all this fine history and all the legislation which was painfully set in place to protect life and freedom after 1945, which is fighting an ever crueler war in Iraq, costing the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis. How can we westerners who lectured the Soviets and the Eastern bloc states and the African dictatorships- yes, and the Arabs too - about the need for freedom and an end to torture, maintain our standards of decency and prestige when we remain such allies of the Bush administration. 

Today, millions of Americans need our help - not just Europeans but Arab states whose leaders claim they value freedom - to end the iron shield which is now being placed over the free world. We westerners and Arabs too can only help, I think, and can only dissociate ourselves from the horrors perpetrated in our name and in the name of democracy - by consistent, firm and total opposition to the way in which George W. Bush and his government are destroying our political, moral foundations. 

Had international law been obeyed, we would never have supported the cruel regime of Saddam Hussein for so many years. Had international law been obeyed, we would not have illegally invaded Iraq and delivered its people into the supposedly democratic hell-disaster which they now endure. 

We Europeans should refuse rendition flights through our airports, refuse to assist US forces unless their tortures are locked up and their military killers sent to prison, insist that our military and political assistance is conditional upon the freedoms which our nations together fought for in the Second World War. 

We should do this with friendship and compassion for all Americans but with absolute insistence that the United States must behave according to the rule of law rather than the rule of anger and torture. 

Always, we westerners claim that we are coming to liberate the Middle East. That's what Napoleon told the Egyptians. It's what we the British told Iraqis when we invaded in 1917. It's what Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair told the Iraqis in 2003. And then we always come to your lands with our Abrams tanks and our swords and horses and Apache helicopters and Humvees. I think most Arabs would like to live in democracies. I think most Arabs would like some human rights from our western supermarket shelves. But most of all, I suspect they would like another kind of freedom. Freedom from us-- and this we do not intend to give them. The word I hear most in this region of the world is a crying demand for justice. And again, we do not give you justice. 

Why cannot the West have a mature relationship with the Middle East? This great university is proof that it is possible. Who can deny that the American University of Beirut has not influenced Lebanon's culture, its freedoms and its literacy and its sense of imagination? 

When Osama Bin Laden endorsed the attacks on America on September 11th, 2001, all it needed to manipulate this crime against humanity into a right-wing policy of oppression was for one man to persuade a nation that the world had changed forever. President Bush did that. So did Mr. Blair. And so we began the long march down the crumbling staircase of our own post-war morality. 

Well as someone who lives among you in the Middle-East, among the very Arab population so patronized and vilified and threatened and occupied, I can only say that I will not let 19 murderers change MY world - nor should you. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for the privilege of speaking to you today. 

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