PR man to Europe's nastiest regimes
Tuesday November 30, 2004
Whenever, as this past week, eastern Europe is on the news, so too is a man called John Laughland. Last Sunday he was playing Ukrainian expert on the BBC's The World This Weekend, the day before he was here in the Guardian defending the Ukrainian election "result", and at the beginning of the month he was writing for the Spectator - also on Ukraine.
Laughland's great strength is that he sees what no one else in the west seems to. Where reporters in Kiev, including the Guardian's own Nick Paton-Walsh, encounter a genuine democracy movement, Laughland comes across "neo-Nazis" (Guardian), or "druggy skinheads from Lvov" (Spectator). And where most observers report serious and specific instances of electoral fraud and malpractice on the part of the supporters of the current prime minister, Laughland complains only of a systematic bias against (the presumably innocent) Mr Yanukovich.
A quick trawl establishes this to be the Laughland pattern over the past few years and concerning several countries. Laughland has variously queried the idea that human rights are a problem in Belarus, or that the Serbs behaved so very savagely in Kosovo. He has defended Slobodan Milosevic, criticised the International Tribunal in the Hague and generally argued that the problem in countries normally associated with human rights abuses is, in fact, the intervention of western agencies.
It was the British Helsinki Human Rights Group hat that he was wearing last Sunday. On its website the BHHRG - of which Laughland is a trustee - describes itself as a non-governmental organisation which monitors human rights in the 57 member states of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Laughland is listed as a trustee, the historian Mark Almond (to be found writing about the Ukraine in last week's New Statesman) is its chairman.
Founded in 1992, the BHHRG sends observers to elections and writes reports which - along Laughlandish lines - almost invariably dispute the accounts given by better known human rights organisations. This stance has led to the BHHRG being criticised by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (established in 1976) as preferring "the role [is to take] PR flak for a new breed of authoritarian rulers in Europe" to the business of actually monitoring abuses.
So what on earth is going on here? I know nothing about BHHRG's finances, but the ideological trail is fascinating. Take the co-founder of the group, Christine Stone. She was a lawyer before she helped set up BHHRG. Since then she has "written for a number of publications including the Spectator and Wall Street Journal on eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union".
This information comes from a US website called Antiwar.com where, for a while, Stone had a regular Thursday column. But Antiwar.com was not a leftwing site opposing the Iraq war. It was a rightwing site set up to oppose the Kosovo intervention in 1999. Its "editorial director" was a man called Justin Raimondo who was active in the small US Libertarian party before joining the Republican party. In the 1992, 1996 and 2000 elections he supported the campaigns of Pat Buchanan, the far-right isolationist candidate.
Raimondo is also an "adjunct scholar" with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. This is a libertarian think-tank in Auburn, Alabama, founded by one Lew Rockwell, who describes himself as "an opponent of the central state, its wars and its socialism". A contributor to Rockwell's own site is Daniel McAdams, who is - in his own words "honoured to be associated" with the British Helsinki Human Rights Group.
Trail 2. Laughland is also European Director of the European Foundation (patron, Mrs M Thatcher), which - judging by its website - seems to spend most of its time and energy sending out pamphlets by arch-Europhobe Bill Cash. A synopsis of one of Laughland's own books, however, notes his argument that, "Post-national structures ... and supranational organisations such as the European Union - are ... corrosive of liberal values (and) the author shows the ideology as a crucial core of Nazi economic and political thinking."
Beginning to get the picture now? Trail 3 leads us to Sanders Research Associates, a "risk consultancy" for which Laughland is, according to their website, "a regular contributor" and to which companies can subscribe for information and advice. The "principal" is a Chris Sanders. The kind of steer Sanders gives his customers can be adduced from this report on the morning of the US presidential election. "We will be very surprised," he wrote, "if on Wednesday John Kerry has not won a clear majority of electoral college votes and that his supporters are not nursing substantial post vote celebration hangovers, if not still drinking the champagne."
Lots of people got that one wrong, and some blamed their own judgment. Not Sanders. "Our bet," he says following the results, "is that we will soon be adding an investigation into the biggest vote fraud in history.'"
Sanders, it seems, is not beyond the odd bit of conspiracising. In a bulletin from June 2002 he also has something to suggest about the Twin Towers atrocity. "It was obvious then, and it is obvious now," he writes, "that something besides the brilliance of a band of terrorists or the incompetence of America's security apparatus was responsible for the disaster of 9/11." But he doesn't tell us what that "something" was.
Sanders on America and Laughland on Ukraine, however, are not the most amazing features of Sanders Research Associates. That distinction belongs to the report on Rwanda written for Sanders by a Canadian lawyer named Chris Black. Black is the only person I have ever seen putting the word genocide in quotation marks when applied to Rwanda. Rwanda, you see, was all the US's fault, and wasn't carried out by Hutus in any case. It was all got up to justify US intervention in the region. He condemns the "demonising (of) the Hutu leadership".
Since 2000 Black has been the lead counsel representing General Augustin Ndindiliyimana, chief of staff of the Rwandan gendarmerie, at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He is also chair of the legal committee for the international committee for the defence of Slobodan Milosevic. Last year (though not for Sanders) Black went on a delegation to North Korea. The report he wrote on his return is full of references to happy peasants, committed soldiers and delightful guides. The North Korean system, he suggested, being "participatory", was in many ways more democratic than parliamentary systems in the west.
This is weird company. And what we seem to have in Laughland and his associates is a group of right-wing anti-state libertarians and isolationists, suspicious of any foreign entanglements, who have somehow morphed into apologists for the worst regimes and most appalling dictators on the planet.
And where does it all end up? A couple of weeks ago Sanders commended to his clients "John Laughland's series of articles [showing that] the attack on Iraq is just the southern offensive of a larger campaign to tighten the noose on Russia." And he continued, "What is less well understood are the risks that the unravelling political compact in Israel poses for the United States and Great Britain, whose political processes, intelligence services, military, media and financial establishments are so thoroughly enmeshed with Israel's."
Read that last sentence again and then ask yourself: in what way are Britain's media and financial interests "thoroughly enmeshed" with Israel's?