Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency – the UN’s anti-nuclear watchdog – left Syria on June 25 after spending three days collecting samples and other materials from the al-Kibar site bombed by Israel in September last year. Syria invited the IAEA to inspect the site after the US and Israel alleged in April that the destroyed buildings had housed a nuclear reactor built with the assistance of North Korea. Olli Heinonen, the deputy director of the IAEA, who led the mission to Syria, said that Syria had cooperated fully with his mission, and he was satisfied with the trip. He said that the samples his team had taken would need to be analysed before any conclusions could be drawn.
In purely factual terms there is little else to say on the story. Its implications, however, are extremely dangerous. The accusation of developing nuclear weapons has become a smear from which it is impossible to escape; no matter what a country does, it is impossible to prove its innocence. By inviting the IAEA in and cooperating with it, Syria may hope to minimise its vulnerability; but there is no neutral world court to rule in its favour, and the experiences of Iraq, before the US invasion in 2003, and Iran subsequently demonstrate how the findings of UN inspectors such as those of the IAEA can be twisted to their own purposes by the powers that dominate the UN – the same powers, not coincidentally, that have raised the accusations against Syria in the first place.
In fact, revelations by former UN officials and inspectors such as Hans Blix and Scott Ritter have revealed far more about the inspectors than that their findings are misused. Ritter, who has written on both his own experiences as a weapons inspector in Iraq and the US’s subsequent campaign against Iran, has pointed out that the UNSCOM inspections in Iraq during the 1990s were also used as a cover by the US for intelligence gathering in preparation for future attacks on the country. Not only are UN inspections useless for preventing the US from attacking, therefore; they are actually dangerous for the countries targeted. Little wonder, therefore, that they are treated with hostility and suspicion wherever they go, which Western commentators present simply as sign that their targets have something to hide.
Damascus clearly hopes that it can gain time, if nothing else, by cooperating with the IAEA. But it finds itself in an impossible situation, knowing that the US and Israel will attack it if they want to; then, its innocence and cooperation will be no defence.
Muslim activists living and working in Western countries are constantly reminded that we enjoy freedoms and privileges that we would not have in most Muslim countries. There is undoubtedly an element of truth in that. We should be clear, however, that this owes nothing to any supposed moral qualities of Western democracy; for those willing to see it, there is ample evidence that Western states are as willing as any other to persecute dissidents when they feel it necessary.
In this issue are two articles on the appalling treatment of Muslim political prisoners in Britain and the US, by Fahad Ansari and Tahir Mahmoud. The former’s article includes a quote from one former detainee that deserves to be highlighted:
“I have been treated in prison in ways that even Algerian authorities would be ashamed to consider. In Algeria, they kill you physically [along] with verbal insults. In Britain, they kill youpsychologically, with a smile ... I am only seeking…the right to a fair, open trial. If I have done something wrong, I should be put on trial and punished. If not, then I should be released and allowed to get on with my life. Is this too much to ask?”
Most Muslim prisoners are persecuted not for what they have done, but for what they believe; their unacceptable beliefs include things that virtually all Muslims share, such as a desire for the Muslim world to be free of Western hegemony, and that Muslim societies should be ordered on the basis of Islam. The result is that all of us are potentially vulnerable to such treatment, which is perhaps why many Muslims prefer to ignore these realities. Fortunately there are Muslim groups, such as the Islamic Human Rights Commission and Cageprisoners, that are committed to standing up for these victims of persecution. These groups deserve all our support; any of us could need their services some day, if our activities are assessed to be more effective than they have been so far.