Monthly Archives: July 2012

Cultures of Resistance review

Cultures Of Resistance Review

Dispatches From The Edge

July 23, 2012

Cultures Of Resistance

Directed by Iara Lee

73-minute documentary

Caipirinha Productions

When we think of “resistance,” what mostly comes to mind is guerrilla warfare: Vietnamese closing in on the besieged French at Dien Bien Phu; Angolans ambushing Portuguese troops outside of Luanda; Salvadorans waging a war of attrition against their military oligarchy. But resistance doesn’t always involve roadside bombs or military operations. Sometimes it is sprayed on a Teheran wall, or rapped in a hip-hop song in Gaza. It can be a poem in Medellin, Colombia—arguably one of the most dangerous cities in the world—or come from a guitar shaped like an AK-47. In short, there are few boundaries or strictures when it comes to the imagination and creativity that people bring to the act of defiance.

That art can be powerful stuff is the central message that Brazilian filmmaker Iara Lee brings to her award-winning documentary “Cultures of Resistance.” Her previous films include  “Synthetic Pleasures,” about the impact of technology on mass culture, and “Modulations,” on the evolution of electronic music. Her most recent film is “The Suffering Grasses,” about the civil war in Syria.

Lee began “Cultures” in 2003, just before the Bush administration invaded Iraq, and her six-year odyssey takes her through five continents and 35 cities: Burma, Brazil, Rwanda, Iran, Burundi, Israel, Nigeria, the Congo, and Liberia, to name a few. In each case she profiles a grassroots movement that embodies the philosophy of non-violent resistance to everything from political oppression to occupation.

Lee, a co-founder of the Cultures of Resistance Network, is a social activist in her own country, where she has aided Amazonian Indians resisting the destruction of their lands and organized against the reign of violence—from both criminals and the police—in Brazil’s slums or Favelas. She is also a member of the Greenpeace Foundation, a member of the advisory board of the National Geographic Society, and a part of the world-wide campaign to ban cluster munitions.

She was also on the MV Mavi Marmara in 2010, the Gaza-bound Turkish ship boarded by Israeli commandos. Nine human rights campaigners were killed in the confrontation, and Lee managed to smuggle out video footage of the incident. However, U.S. media outlets refused to air it. Lee’s view of the world is not the sometimes distant lens of many documentarians, but the prism of an activist.

“Cultures” is a surprising film. Lee is a strong supporter of non-violence, but “Cultures of Resistance” is hardly about how hugs will free us all. She recognizes that resistance in the face of oppression—or indifference—can spark anger. The film begins with a remarkable segment on the Amazon’s Kayapo tribe resisting the construction of the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River. At one point the Indians’ frustration boils over and they attack an Eletrobras official—the company is the largest utility company in Latin America—with clubs and fists, tearing off some of his clothes and sending him off in bloody retreat. The unspoken point of the segment is that if non-violent resistance is ignored, things can turn ugly.

This is a lovely film, but there is darkness in it as well, some of it quite disturbing. Racks of skulls line a hut in Rwanda, where some 800,000 people were massacred in 1994, and a deserted church in that country is filled with piles of clothes, invoking the memory of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But the message of the segment is not death, but life, and how post-genocide communities are coming together to rebuild.

Many of the profiles come from Africa: Nigeria, where local people are up against international oil cartels and their own corrupt government; The Congo, where a civil war over minerals has killed more than five million people; Liberia, where former child soldiers are being integrated back into post-civil war society.

But Lee casts her nets widely. The “Teheran Rats” are graffiti artists who wage clandestine war with spray cans in Iran. Hip-hop artists in Israel say they “sing rap for people who don’t listen to rap.” Poets from around the world gather in Colombia: “Poetry does not overthrow governments, but it does open consciousness and hearts,” one poet says.

Lee has an eye for beauty and drama. “Cultures” has a clear point of view, but it is not overly didactic, preferring to use juxtaposition and interviews—and lots and lots of good music—to make its points. A simple black and white shot of a very young child holding a semi-automatic pistol does a much better job of highlighting the problems of violence in the favelas than would some expert pumping out numbers. Not that the numbers are not there, just that Lee first gets the viewers attention through the art: information follows.

One of the films messages is that cultures of resistance—those that have the audacity to say “no”—have things in common. Leadership is not something that resides in one group of people or in a given country, but is everywhere that people dig their heels in and fight back. The Buddhist monks that challenged the military dictatorship in Burma share common ground with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Israelis opposed to the occupation of Palestinian lands, and Palestinians resisting the spread of Israeli settlements, meet in the medium of rap.

“We don’t have planes, missiles or white phosphorous” Lee told journalist Lisa Mullenneaux, “but we have our freedom to resist oppression. To sing, dance, and express how we feel about world politics. Global solidarity is the only thing that can promote real change.”

In a sense, Lee turns Emma Goldman’s slogan “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution” into “dancing can be revolution.”



Filed under Reviews

Moral Drones and the New York Times

Moral Drones and the New York Times

Dispatches From the Edge

July 8, 2012

 “…it may be a surprise to find some moral philosophers, political scientists, and weapons specialists believe unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.”—Scott Shane, national security reporter for the New York Times, “The Moral Defense For Drones,” 7/15/12

First, one should never be surprised to find that the NY Times can ferret out experts to say virtually anything. Didn’t they dig up those who told us all that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons? Second, whenever the newspaper uses the words “some,” that’s generally a tipoff the dice are loaded, in this case with a former Air Force officer (who teaches philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School), a former CIA deputy chief of counterintelligence, and political scientist Avery Plaw, author of  “Targeting Terrorists: A License To Kill?”

Shane has a problem, which he solves by a nimble bit of legerdemain: he starts off by raising the issue of law, sovereignty, radicalizing impact, and proliferation dangers (in three brief sentences), then quickly shifts to the contention that “most critics” have “focused on evidence that they [drones] are unintentionally killing innocent civilians.”

He doesn’t present any evidence that most criticism has focused on the collateral damage issue, but this allows him to move to the article’s centerpiece: “the drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare.”

Actually, critics have focused on a wide number of issues concerning drones. Is using drones in a country with which we are not at war, and one that opposes their use, a violation of international law? Is targeting an individual a form of extrajudicial capital punishment? Is killing American citizens a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of a trial by a jury of one’s peers? Is the use of armed drones by the White House bypassing the constitutional role of Congress to declare war? Does the role of the CIA in directing killer drones violate the prescriptions of the Geneva Convention against civilians engaging in armed conflicts?

But for argument’s sake, let’s focus on the point about civilian casualties. According to Shane, the professor of philosophy has found that “drones do a better job at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.” Shane adds that the drone operators “can even divert a missile after firing if, say, a child wanders into range.”

Nice touch about the kid, but according to London-base Bureau of Investigtive Journalists, *as of February of this year, drones have killed some 60 children, among between 282 to 535 civilians. Other estimates of civilian deaths are much higher.

But, points out the Times, the kill ratio suffered by civilians when Pakistan took back the Swat Valley from its local Taliban, and when Israel goes after Hamas, are much higher. And then, quoting the CIA guy: “Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare it with what we are doing today.” In short, civilians should be thankful they are not subjected to the brutality of the Pakistani and Israeli armies, or firebombed into oblivion?

Shane manages to avoid mentioning Part IV of the additions to the Geneva Conventions (1977) on the protection of civilian populations “Against the Effects of Hostilities.” Article 49 and 50 are particularly relevant. Essentially they boil down to the stipulation that only “military objectives” can be targeted.

The Time’s security expert also fails to mention the policy of “signature strikes,” which means anyone carrying weapons, or hanging out in a house used by “militants,” is fair game. “Signature strikes” are an explicit violation of Article 50: “The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.”

Of course, none of us know what criteria are used to identify someone as a “militant” or a “terrorist,” because the Obama administration refuses to release the legal findings that define those categories. In Yemen, many of the targeted “terrorists” are not Al Qaeda members, but southern separatists who have been fighting to re-establish the Republic of South Yemen. In any case, people are being killed and we have no idea how they ended up sentenced to death.

For instance, it is apparently a capital offense to try to rescue people following a drone strike, or to go to the funeral for those killed. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, some 50 rescuers have been killed, and more than 20 mourners. Many of these small villages have strong kinship ties, and helping out or mourning the dead is a powerful cultural tradition. Acting as a kinsman to someone the White House defines as an “enemy” may end up being fatal.

In some ways the civilian deaths are a straw man, not because they are not important, but because “critics” have focused on a wide number of issues brought up by the drones. Among them is the apparent dismantling of Congress’s constitutional role in declaring war. When some members of Congress raised this issue with respect to the Libyan War, and whether it fell under the rubric of the Wars Power Act, the Obama administration argued that it did not, because the Libya operation did not “involve the use of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties, or a serious threat thereof.”

But as Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute points out, the Libyan operation certainly involved “something we used to think of as war: blowing up stuff, lots of it.” The U.S. air war was the key to overthrowing Qaddafi. U.S. planes and drones carried out attacks and directed strikes by allied aircraft. The Americans also resupplied allied aircraft with bombs and missiles, and provided in-air refueling.

Given the enormous expansion of drones, the definition of war as limited to acts likely to lead to “casualties” opens up a Pandora’s box. The U.S. currently has more than 7,000 drones, many of them, like the Predator and the Reaper, are armed. The U.S. Defense Department plans to spend about $31 billion on “remotely piloted aircraft” by 2015, and the U.S. Air Force is training more remote operators than pilots for its fighters and bombers.

Fleets of armed drones could be released to fight wars all over the world, with casualties limited to mechanical failures or the occasional drone that wandered too close to an anti-aircraft system. Under the White House’s definition, what those drones did, and whom they did it to, is none of Congress’s business.

What in the Constitution gives the power of life and death over U.S. citizens to the President of the United States? The militant American-Yemini cleric Anwar-al-Awlaki was no admirer of the U.S., but there is no public finding that he ever did anything illegal. Never the less, a drone-fired Hellfire missile killed him last October. And a few weeks later, another drone killed his Denver-born 16-year old son, Abdulraham-al-Awlaki, who was out looking for his father. Ibrahim-al-Banna was the target of that strike, but as one U.S. official told Time, the son was in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” That particular statement is an explicit violation of Article 50 of the Conventions.

“The question is, is killing always justified?” asks University of Texas at El Paso political scientist Armin Krisnan. “There is not public accountability for that.”

The Yemen strike has sparked outrage in that country, as have other drone strikes. “This is why AQAP [Al Qadea in the Arabian Peninsula] is much stronger in Yemen today that it was a few years ago,” says Ibrahim Mothana, co-founder of Yemen’s Watan Party.

There are lots of critics raising lots of difficult to answer questions, and they focus on much more than civilian casualties (although that is a worthy topic of consideration). The “moral” case for drones is not limited to the parameters set by the NY Times. In any case, the issue is not the morality of drones; they have none. Nor do they have politics or philosophy. They are simply soulless killing machines. The morality at play is with those who define the targets and push the buttons that incinerate people we do not know half a world away.


Dear Conn,

Thanks for referencing the Bureau’s work in your International Policy Digest piece.

A quick correction – the drone data you cite from us is out of date (it looks like Obama-only numbers from a few months back)

Presently we report (for Pakistan alone) from 2004 to today

Total US strikes: 335 
Obama strikes: 283 
Total reported killed: 2,513-3,226 
Civilians reported killed: 482-835 
Children reported killed: 175 
Total reported injured: 1,198-1,324

Do let me know if you ever need numbers crunching for your work – we’re always happy to oblige,


Chris Woods
Senior Reporter
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
Twitter: @chrisjwoods
The Myddleton Building, 167-173 Goswell Road
London  EC1V 7HD
M (+44 (0)7711 633528
O (+44) (0)20 7040 0085
Fax: +44 (0)20 7040 0077
Check out our website:
Follow us on Twitter:


Filed under FPIF Blogs, Lebanon, Yemen, Etc, Middle East, Military, Pakistan

Iran Sanctions: War By Other Means

Iran Sanctions: War By Another Name

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

July 9, 2012

Now that the talks with Iran on its nuclear program appear to be on the ropes, are we on the road to war? The Israelis threaten it almost weekly, and the Obama administration has reportedly drawn up an attack plan. But in a sense, we are already at war with Iran.

Carl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of modern warfare, defined war as the continuation of politics by other means. In the case of Iran, international politics has become a de-facto state of war.

According to reports, the annual inflation rate in Iran is 22.2 percent, although many economists estimate it at double that. In the last week of June, the price of chicken rose 30 percent, grains were up 55.8 percent, fruits up 66.6 percent, and vegetables up 99.5 percent.   Iran’s Central Bank estimates unemployment among the young is 22.5 percent, although the Financial Times says “the official figures are vastly underestimated.” The production sector is working at half its capacity.

The value of the Iranian rial has fallen 40 percent since last year, and there is a wave of business closings and bankruptcies due to rising energy costs and imports made expensive by the sanctions.

Oil exports, Iran’s major source of income, have fallen 40 percent in 2012, according to the international Energy Agency, costing the country just under $32 billion over the past year. The 27-member European Union (EU) ban on buying Iranian oil will further depress sales, and a EU withdrawal of shipping insurance will make it difficult for Teheran to ship oil and gas to its diminishing number of customers. Loss of insurance coverage could reduce Iran’s oil exports by 1/5 million barrels a day, or $4.5 billion a month. Energy accounts for about 80 percent of Iran’s public revenues.

Whipsawed by energy sanctions, the worst may be yet to come. The U.S. has already made it difficult for countries to dealing with Iran’s Central Bank, and the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that would declare the Iranian energy sector a “zone of proliferation concern” that would strangle Teheran’s ability collect payments for its oil exports. Other proposals would essentially make it impossible to do business with Iran’s banks. Any country that dared to do so would find itself unable to conduct virtually any kind of international banking.

If the blizzard of legislation does pass, “This would be a significant ratcheting-up of the economic war against Iran,” Mark Dubowitz told the Financial Times. Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who has lobbied for a series of economic assaults against the Palestinians, China, and Hezbollah.

But the “war” has already gone far beyond the economic sphere.

In the past two years, five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated. The hits have been widely attributed to the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, and the People’s Mujahidin of Iran (MEK), an organization the U.S. designates as “terrorist.”

Last year a massive explosion rocked the Bid Ganeh military base near Teheran, killing 17 people, including the founder of Iran’s missile program, Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam. According to Israeli media, the camp was sabotaged by the MEK working with Mossad. Deadly attacks directed at Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have been tied to Jundallah, a Sunni group with ties to U.S. and Israel intelligence.

It is no secret—indeed, President Obama openly admitted it—that under the codename “Olympic Games,” the U.S. has been waging cyber war against Iran. The Stuxnet virus shut down a considerable portion of Iran’s nuclear program, although it also infected infrastructure activities, including power plants, oil rigs, and water supplies. The virus was designed to attack systems made by the German company Siemens and has apparently spread to China, Pakistan and Indonesia.

The U.S. is also suspected of being behind the Flame virus, spyware able to record keystrokes, eavesdrop on conversations near an infected computer, and tap into screen images. Besides Iran, Flame has been found in computers in the Palestinian West Bank, Lebanon, Hungary, Austria, Russia, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates.  Because “malware” seeks out undefended computers no matter where they are, it has a habit of spreading beyond its initial target.

Most of the media is focused on whether the failure of the talks will lead to an Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and there is certainly considerable smoke out there.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been threatening to attack Iran for the past two years. According to Gideon Rachman, a leading columnist for the Financial Times, some Israeli officials have told him Tel Aviv will attack sometime this summer or early fall. One source told him “Israel will wait until September or October because the weather is better and it’s closer to the US elections.”

But the Independent’s (UK) Patrick Cockburn, one of the more reliable analysts on the Middle East, thinks the Israeli threats are “the bluff of the century.” Cockburn argues that there is simply no reason for Tel Aviv to go to war, since the Iranian economy is being effectively strangled by the sanctions. But the saber rattling is useful because it scares the EU into toughing up the siege of Teheran, while also shifting the Palestinian issue to a back burner.

There are serious divisions within Israel on whether to go to war, with the Israeli intelligence and military generally opposed. The latter’s reasons are simple: militarily Tel Aviv couldn’t pull it off, and politically an attack would garner worldwide sympathy for Iran. Recent statements downgrading the threat of Iran by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz suggest the Netanyahu government is finally feeling the pressure from divisions within its own ranks and may be backing off from a military confrontation.

And the US?

According to Paul Rogers, a Department of Peace Studies professor at Bradford University and OpenDemocracy’s international security editor, the Pentagon has drawn up plans for a concentrated attack on Iran’s nuclear industry, using a combination of bombers and cruise missiles. The U.S. recently beefed up its military footprint in the region.

But while the possibility of such an attack is real—especially if congressional hawks get their way—the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence establishment are hardly enthusiastic about it. And in any case, the US is carpet-bombing Iran’s economy without firing a shot or sending air crews into harm’s way.

While Iran is generally depicted as the recalcitrant party in the current nuclear talks, it has already compromised, even agreeing to ship some of its enriched uranium out of the country and to guarantee the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to all nuclear facilities. Teheran has also converted one-third of its 20 percent enriched uranium into plates, making it almost impossible to use the fuel for nuclear weapons. Weapon’s grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent.

In return, Teheran is demanding the right to enrich to 3.5 percent—the level one needs to power a civilian reactor—and an end to sanctions.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not ban enriching uranium—indeed, it is guaranteed by Articles III and IV—as long as the fuel is not weaponized. “Iran is raising eyebrows,” says Yousaf M. Butt of the American Federation of Scientists, “but what it is doing is a concern—not illegal.”

However, the P5+1—the permanent UN Security Council members, Britain, France, the US, Russia, China, plus Germany, is demanding an end to all enrichment, shipping the enriched fuel out of the country, and closing the enrichment plant at Fordo: “stop, shut, and ship.” In return Iran would get enriched fuel for medical use and some spare parts for its civilian airlines. The sanctions would remain in place, however, although it would open the subject up for discussion. The problem is that many of the more onerous sanctions are those independently applied by the U.S. and the EU. Russia and China have expressed opposition to the independent sanctions, but so far have not shown a willingness to openly flaunt them.

It will be hard for Teheran to make further concessions, particularly if there is no light at the end of the sanction tunnel. Indeed, some of the demands seem almost crafted to derail a diplomatic solution, raising the suspicion that the dispute is less about Iran’s nuclear program than a concerted drive to marginalize a country that has resisted European and U.S. interests in the Middle East. Isolate Iran enough, the thinking goes, and it might bring about regime change. Moscow or Beijing don’t support such an outcome, but they have little influence over what Washington and Brussels do independently.

There is no evidence that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Indeed, the body of evidence suggests the opposite, including the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate that Teheran mothballed its program in 2003. But evidence is irrelevant when the enormous economic power of the US and the EU can cow the rest of the world, and force a country to its knees without resorting to open hostilities.

In short, war by other means.



Filed under Iran, Middle East, Military, Oil