Revealed: the invisible millions who have been killed by Britain's foreign policies

For decades, the Foreign Office has backed coups, installed despots and connived in mass murder. Paranoid conspiracy theory? On the contrary, says Mark Curtis, the incriminating evidence is there for all to see. Brian Cathcart meets him

Wednesday 03 November 2004 01:00 GMT

One June day almost 40 years ago, the United States privately informed the British government that it was about to push the war in Vietnam into a new phase by bombing Hanoi, the northern capital. This news caused anguish in London.

One June day almost 40 years ago, the United States privately informed the British government that it was about to push the war in Vietnam into a new phase by bombing Hanoi, the northern capital. This news caused anguish in London.

Downing Street's distress, as documents quoted in Unpeople - a new book on dubious British foreign policy by the historian Mark Curtis - make depressingly clear, was not prompted by any concern for the Vietnamese who would be killed, nor by the deliberate intensification of the conflict. It was because of its inability to give the Americans the wholehearted public endorsement it felt they deserved.

Harold Wilson, the prime minister, wrote apologetically to President Lyndon Johnson to say that his problem was the British public, who could not see the US point of view because they were "not suffering the tragedy of the losses which your people are suffering". Britain would only make a token expression of regret at the bombing, he said, because "this is the price I have to pay for being able to hold the line in our own country".

This squalid little episode from 1966 is richly resonant today, when British opinion is once again proving insufficiently pro-American for a Labour prime minister. For Curtis it is also evidence of another problem. The documents that tell the story, and many other similar stories in his new book, have been open to public inspection at the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) for years, but according to Curtis, almost no one has been interested.

"I find it absolutely astonishing," says Curtis. "There has been a colossal failure to document and analyse the history of British foreign policy. These stories are not hidden; they are not lost or hard to find, and the subjects are relevant and well-known, but the academics have simply failed to tell them. The only explanation I can give is that they are not a critical enough community."

Curtis is certainly critical enough to make up for their perceived failure. His title, Unpeople, may refer in part to a British public routinely treated with contempt by its own policy-makers, but it has much more to do with the populations around the world, from Vietnam to Nigeria, Guyana to Indonesia, who appear to be completely expendable in the eyes of the Foreign Office and Downing Street.

A chronicle of the relentless historical link between British opportunism and other people's suffering, the book is primarily designed, Curtis acknowledges, to demonstrate the hollowness of any claim to high-mindedness when it comes to modern Iraq. "The idea that UK policy in Iraq has anything to do with human rights, democracy, or the interests of the Iraqi people is simply laughable," he says. "Ministers should be ridiculed when they say that. The last thing they want in Iraq, or anywhere else in the Middle East, is democracy."

Month upon month of sifting files at the National Archives has armed him with an arsenal of documentary evidence of Britain saying one thing in public and doing quite another in private, usually at the expense of "unpeople", who may be abused, starved or massacred. The language, at times, makes the flesh creep, as with Wilson's toadying to Washington or with the delight that greets the military coup that brought the monstrous Idi Amin to power in 1971.

"Our prospects in Uganda have no doubt been considerably enhanced," wrote Eric le Tocq of the Foreign Office about events in Kampala, adding that even better results might follow if other African military chiefs would only follow Amin's lead - for example, in Kenya. "This could conceivably produce a government better disposed to Britain than Kenyatta's political heirs."

Wishing for coups and causing them, propping up despots, protecting the profits of oil companies, selling arms to governments at war with their peoples, playing fast and loose with the law: this, says Curtis, is the pattern of British policy in the developing world over the past half-century.

"What the record shows is that, more than anything, we don't like independent, popular governments, nationalist governments who want to do things their own way, using their own resources - look at Nasser in Egypt, look at Mossadeq in Iran, look at Jagan in Guyana." An Iraq that might know its own mind, by implication, is not on the agenda in Whitehall.

But don't we all know in our hearts that foreign policy is really about national self-interest? After all, it is an old saying that diplomacy is war by other means. Should we be surprised that, in the privacy of official memos, diplomats and politicians say outrageous things?

"In a way, it is no surprise," Curtis admits. "But what is surprising is that large sections of the media still seem to accept the public face, the false face.

"There is a continuity here. The political and military planners are learning from the past, even from events as far back as Suez. They knew from the past that Iraq required a public-deception strategy, a deliberate strategy to mislead us into accepting war."

What is missing, he suggests, is a corresponding cynicism, an ability to recognise this deception from past experience, in the media and the public (he has some kind words, though, for The Independent, among others).

And where there is cynicism, Curtis believes it is often misinformed. "This poodle theory, the idea that the British will do bad things just to stay on good terms with the Americans, I don't really accept it. It's worse than that, because we think like them. If you look at the history, before the US came along, Britain behaved just like the US does now. All these things the Americans do around the world, we would be doing if only we could."

Though the picture he paints is often shocking, in person, at least, Curtis is not so much angry as baffled. He doesn't know why, given British governments' questionable record abroad, the media do not give ministers a much tougher ride on foreign policy than they do, and he accepts that there is no overt conspiracy of editors to protect the Establishment. Nor can he understand why academic historians have not put more of the past trangressions before the public.

A mild-mannered 41-year-old originally from Dorset, Curtis cut his historical teeth at the LSE and the Royal Institute for International Affairs before moving into the NGO sector, working as a researcher and lobbyist for Action Aid and then Christian Aid. He is now the director of the World Development Movement, a smaller campaigning organisation. Unpeople, which is strongly concerned with the Iraq war, is his second book about foreign policy, after Web of Deceit: Britain's real role in the world, and may not be his last. There is much, much more material out there, he insists.

In the meantime, just in case Unpeople is not provocative enough, he is writing an article for a learned journal under the title "The Failure of British Academia", challenging historians about what he sees as the untapped resources in the National Archives.

How do the academics react to his work? "Total silence, that is the way they deal with it," he says. "They don't hear what they don't want to hear." They may have trouble ignoring him for much longer.

Iraq, 1963

Five thousand members of the Iraqi Communist Party were hunted down and killed by the military regime that seized power in a February 1963 coup. The hit-list of names was provided by the CIA. British documents show that officials knew of the massacres and welcomed the new regime.

A Foreign Office official wrote that "such harshness may well have been necessary as a short term expedient". The new rulers "have shown courage and steadfastness in hatching and executing their plot" and they should be "somewhat friendlier to the West", the Foreign Office stated.

Britain's ambassador, Roger Allen, told the Foreign Office a week later that "the present government is doing what it can, and therefore it is my belief that we should support it and help it in the long term to establish itself so that this communist threat may gradually diminish".

The new regime "probably suits our interests pretty well" and will "need all the support and money it can get". Saddam Hussein, a junior Ba'ath party member, was involved in the torture of leftists during the coup. It showed he could rely on the West to support Baghdad's repression.

The new regime also launched a brutal offensive against the Kurds, who were demanding autonomy. British officials described this as a "terror campaign" yet supplied arms to Baghdad: 18,000 rockets to the Iraqi air force, 280,000 rounds of ammunition, mortar bombs, machine guns and helicopters.

Demolition equipment was exported knowing that it "will probably be used... for the demolition of Kurdish villages". Twenty-seven Hawker Hunters previously supplied by Britain were used in "indiscriminate air attacks" against villages.

Iraq also used poison gas but when the Kurdish leader, Mustafa Barzani, privately appealed to Harold Wilson in 1965 to prevent the further use of such weapons, Wilson decided not to reply. This complicity was the precedent for Baghdad's chemical attacks against Kurds in the 1980s.

Aden, 1964

Britain resorted to brute force to crush a revolt in the Radfan province of Aden, a British 'protectorate', in 1964. Officials recognised in private that Radfanis lived in gross poverty with little help from the government. Yet the High Commissioner, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis, suggested sending soldiers "to put the fear of death into the villages" while ministers authorised the military to "harass the means of livelihood".

Though kept secret, Britain's use of "anti-personnel bombs" was widespread; "the public relations aspect" of these "will want very careful handling", the Ministry of Defence noted.

The chiefs of staff noted that "the greatest need is for an early and clear PR policy for such operations to be established in London". Bribes were also paid to local political leaders "to help undermine the position of the People's Socialist Party" and "to prevent their winning coming elections".

Yemen, 1962

MI6 secretly supplied arms and aid to Royalist forces in Yemen to destabilise the republican government that took power in 1962. This fuelled a civil war, which cost up to 200,000 lives.

Defence Secretary Peter Thorneycroft proposed organising "tribal revolts" and "deniable action... to sabotage intelligence centres and kill personnel engaged in anti-British activities". Mine-laying and sabotage operations were conducted along with "assassination or other action against key personnel... especially Egyptian intelligence service officers". At the same time, Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home told parliament that "our policy towards Yemen is one of non-intervention in the affairs of that country".

Britain secretly arranged for a private company, Airwork Services, to train Saudi pilots and recruit RAF pilots as mercenaries to fly combat operations, for which Israel allowed its territory to be used. The Foreign Office stated that "we have raised no objection to [British aircraft] being employed in operations, though we made it clear to the Saudis that we could not publicly acquiesce in any such arrangements".

Whitehall's fear was of similar Arab nationalist revolutions in the Gulf, threatening pro-British regimes. Ministers supported the rebels knowing they could not win but to ensure "a weak government in Yemen not able to make trouble".

Nigeria, 1967-70

At least one million people died in the 1967-70 war when the federal military government (FMG) in Lagos brutally crushed a rebellion in the separatist region of Biafra. While professing neutrality in public, the Wilson government gave FMG leader General Gowon numerous private messages of support.

Parliament was told that only "limited" and "traditional" quantities of British arms were reaching the FMG. Yet secretly, supplies were massively stepped up: 36 million rounds of ammunition, 60,000 mortar bombs, 42,000 Howitzer rounds, as well as thousands of rifles and helicopters. Dozens of armoured cars were supplied knowing that they "have undoubtedly been the most effective weapons in the ground war and have spearheaded all the major federal advances", Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart wrote.

British policy was determined by the £200m oil investment by Shell/ BP, then partly owned by the British government. Commonwealth Minister George Thomas stated that "the sole immediate British interest in Nigeria is that the Nigerian economy should be brought back to a condition in which our substantial trade and investment in the country can be further developed, and particularly so we can regain access to important oil installations".

'Unpeople: Britain's secret human rights abuses', by Mark Curtis (Vintage, £7.99), is available from Independent Books Direct for £7.99 including p&p, to order, call 08700 798 897. For more information visit

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