Philosophy and Social Action, 17 (3-4) July-December 1991 The New Technologies



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Philosophy and Social Action, 17 (3-4) July-December 1991




The New Technologies

of Political Repression:

A New Case for Arms Control?

Steve Wright

Despite the lofty rhetoric in which world leaders pay lip service to human rights and development, the stark truth is that many so-called liberal democracies are helping tyrannical regimes industrialise repression. Future historians will be able to label the twentieth century as the dark age of torturing states rather than the relatively amateurish Spanish Inquisition in the sixteenth century. This paper explores technical ways that governments of major liberal democracies have actually backed state terror and state repression. It focusses upon a trade in special equipment meant to protect unpopular, illegitimate and authoritarian governments in the Third World against upheavals and insurrection.

Until the 1980s, most political scientists tended to ignore the realities of current procedures and techniques of state terror and repression and deny any connection of such practices with Western liberal democracies. There are few government or academic grants to be awarded to those willing to probe the murkier realms of national security ideology and state terror. For an excellent discussion of why the social and political sciences have seemed blind to political repression see McCamant (1984).

The issue of another arms trade built on the state security industry has also has been generally underexplored by the peace research community to date, apart from a few notable exceptions such as Michael Klare (1972, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1985; Klare and Arnson, 1981), Michael Stohl and George A. Lopez (1984, 1985), Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (1979), Michael Randle (1980), Richard Falk (1977), and Miles Wolpin (1981, 1986). Thankfully, in the last few years substantial progress has been made to develop new critical theory in this field. Some of the first concise theoretical overviews and approaches to conceptualising and measuring state terror were provided by Stohl (1983) and Stohl and Lopez (1984, 1985).

The US 'Contragate' scandal revealed some of the machiavellian ways that government can independently back state terrorism in other countries. Such episodes, and the suspicion that the facts on many more have been either covered up or creatively shredded, have understandably increased public nervousness about these issues. Indeed the last few years have seen a gradual blurring between military weapons and equipment sold to the police, intelligence and paramilitary formations.

What is presented below is a series of snapshot summaries of research undertaken in this field, explaining what repression technology is and the 'state of the art'; trends in research and development in the police-industrial complex; the main role and functions of the technology of political control; the dominant patterns of trade and who the key suppliers and recipients are. Using case examples from Britain and other NATO countries who supply the torturing states, there is also an attempt to explore the connection between this secret trade and what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (1979) have called the political economy of human rights and Johan Galtung (1971) has called structural imperialism.

The paper examines some methods used by companies within NATO's police-industrial complex to market the technology of political control and analyses case studies of collusion, particularly in regard to the 'multi-national merchants of repression.'

Many of the technologies discussed below are and will be used to threaten, harass and torture those who speak and promote humanitarian programmes for a more equitable form of development. They will provide technical fixes to supplant more peaceful and visionary alternative approaches to development. Currently such technologies and their associated operating logics are either removing forever the voices of conscience which can build better ways forward, or transforming socio-political development into a more militaristic and violent form.

If all the voices arguing for 'thinking in a new way' are brutally squashed by the secret police and torture squads of the old praetorian guard, what chance progress? The conclusion examines whether or not the trade in technologies to quell internal dissent is a proper matter for professional arms controllers. Alternatively, do non-government organisations, trade unions, peace and disarmament groups, the churches and Amnesty International have a more important and effective role to play in making sure that all future exports of state security supplies are subject to full democratic accountability and control?


The Technology of Repression

Repression technology is the broad term used to describe the hardware, software and liveware (human) components of manipulative programmes of socio-political control. The modern technological 'hardware' of political control includes area-denial technologies such as concertinas of barbed razor wire used to seal off selected zones; helicopter-mounted crowd monitoring equipment; surveillance and night vision cameras; telephone-tapping systems; public order vehicles used either to disperse or capture; riot weapons (for example, shotguns, watercannon, plastic bullets, chemical irritants CN, CS and CR,1 electroshock devices, optico-acoustic field systems, injector weapons); advanced communications and automatic vehicle tracking systems; human identity recognition technologies; computerised data and intelligence banks with remote access terminals (in police vehicles, border checkpoints, etc.); prefragmented exploding ammunition, silenced assassination rifles and precision infrared nightsights; image intensifiers; restraining and prison technologies, including leg shackles, thumb cuffs, blunt trauma inducing drugs, gallows, guillotines, execution chambers, interrogation and torture technologies.

All such equipment is used to speed up processes of socio-political control and make them more efficient in targetting and removing dissident elements who question the status quo.

Apart from this hardware, there are also numerous standard operating procedures which form the 'software' components of the trade. Examples supplied to authoritarian regimes are riot and counter-insurgency training, advisory support, technical assistance including teaching of scientific methods of interrogation, torture and the more brutal forms of human destruction.

In any bureaucracy of repression, there are personnel schooled in the ideological attitudes necessary to keep such systems in operation. They include the various technical advisors; counter-insurgency strategists; paramilitary, intelligence and internal security police training officers; the merchants who actually supply the equipment as well as the 'white collar mercenaries' who act as key technical operators in the bureaucracy of any repressive system. This 'liveware' category includes all the people who are conditioned to actually put into practice the software and hardware components of a particular policy of repression.
Research and Development for the New Technologies of Repression

As technology of political control, all this equipment is carefully designed to fulfill certain control functions, the power and scope of which are determined by the political context and which change with it.

For example, modern riot technology — the so-called 'less-lethal' weapons — can be used to disperse, harass, kill or punish crowds. In the 1970s it formed the politician's dream technical fix — a non-lethal weapon. For example US Congressman James Scheur (1970) commented in awe: "We can tranquilize, impede, immobilize, harass, shock, upset, stupefy, nauseate, chill, temporarily blind, deafen or just scare the wits out of anyone the police have a proper need to control."

Yet some of these weapons, such as the plastic bullets used to suppress the intifada on the West Bank and Gaza, can kill. A key design criterion is that they should appear rather than actually be safe. The new technologies of political control have been designed with this public relations requirement in mind. Military scientists at the US Army Human Engineering Laboratory have commented in this regard: "It is preferred that onlookers not get the impression that the police are using excessive force or that the weapon has an especially injurious effect on the target individuals. Here again, a flow of blood and similar dramatic effects are to be avoided." (Wargovitch et al., 1975)

Of course the effects are the same, but the intent is masked. As a result, the media barely mentions the application of modern riot technologies overseas.

Information on such weapons is shared between US research laboratories and Britain's Porton Down, which scan pure scientific research undertaken at universities for profitable new options. The next generation of incapacitants was discovered in this way. For example, the evolution of CR as the next riot control irritant began from a chemical curiosity innocently mentioned in the scientific literature by two Salford College of Technology chemists, precipitating a full investigative research programme by Porton Down (Wright, 1987a).

Similarly, work has been undertaken on armoured internal security vehicles to mask their coercive appearance. Individual companies undertake their own research to sanitise their product's image and the public relations merchants sell them as 'Discreet Operational Vehicles' (Savage, 1985). The latest vehicles such as the electrified AMAC riot tank and CRAYs look like ambulances and hence excite less public interest when on standby (although they still carry an armoury of riot weapons to deliver organised violence).

Therefore, while these technologies must be effective, many clients require wares which are not provocative in appearance, so as not to alert the media and generate either a greater crisis or a further erosion in international confidence. Repression is most effective when it is ubiquitous yet invisible.

A new generation of computerised surveillance technology, vehicle-tracking, identity recognition and night vision devices have come on to the market to cater for such demands. For example the new JAI camera can take several thousand pictures of a demonstration within a few seconds — freeze-framing individual participants for later arrest. One system recently patented called WIZARD digitalises human faces so that individuals can be recognised in crowds by a suitably programmed camera.

The general trend in research is to move towards integrating several technologies into one. An example is the creation of semi-intelligent area-denial intruder-detection zones. In weaponry, the research drift is towards flexible response. The result is weapons such as the Arwen Ace which can fire gas, dye, smoke or plastic bullets and the Sky-media FRAG-12 (or 'Hamburger gun') which can fire gas followed by a prefragmented finned torpedo filled with high explosive which makes human hamburgers from all the occupants of a room or car. On sale for the first time at the 1988 Copex exhibition, it was presented as a police rather than a military weapon despite having the explosive power of a 40mm grenade.

Many companies design solutions looking for problems. A classic example is the Synchro-fire system which is advertised with the logo: "When negotiations fail you still have a viable alternative". It is, in effect, a radio-controlled automated firing squad. One firemaster automatically shoots all the guns currently on target without anyone touching a trigger, taking a bit more of the guilt out of state-sponsored executions.

Not all of the technology is commercial in origin. For example, the riot techniques which comprise the colonially based counter-revolutionary operations of the British Army (Army Land Operations Manual, 1969) were adapted along the lines of the Hong Kong police riot procedures to make the British police national riot manual of 1981 entitled 'Public Order: Tactical Options'. Using previously restricted US government documents, Michael McClintock (1985a, 1985b), a senior researcher with Amnesty International, revealed how the standard US Army field manuals on counter-terror were transferred from Vietnam to Latin America virtually word for word.

The overall outcome of these research and development efforts to build new state security supplies is to reproduce the same processes of vertical and horizontal proliferation which are typically associated with other forms of arms races.

Structure, Role and Function of the Repression Trade

The unprecedented acceleration in total world military expenditures over the last 40 years has become a growing concern and source of apprehension for all those in the peace research community. Global military expenditure during 1989-1990 is expected to reach an all time record of $1 trillion. Military expenditure in the Third World has increased twice as fast as in the so-called developed world between 1960 and 1986, and its share of arms spending has risen from 8% to over 20% during the same period (Sivard, 1988). In 1983, Third World governments imported nearly $25 billion worth of armaments from the major industrialised nations (Grimmett, 1984). The structure of world military expenditure and the geographical location of arms suppliers and recipients succinctly summarise the prevailing patterns of dependency and domination between North and South. The major arms exporters are the industrialised countries — United States, Soviet Union, Britain, Germany, Italy and France — whilst the importers are predominantly in the Third World.

The world arms trade has led to a rapid global militarisation since 1960 (Falk, 1977; Kidron and Smith, 1983). Accompanying this process of militarisation has been a series of wars, predominantly involving nations in the South, yet largely funded and serviced by industrialised states in the North. Most of these wars were internal state security conflicts, involving revolts, coups d'etat, counter-insurgencies, insurrections, states of emergency, counter-terror operations and revolutions against the status quo (Kende, 1971, 1978).

In 1984, Amnesty International prepared a global survey of torturing states. If the torturing states are mapped, it quickly emerges that these states are virtually identical with the most militarised nations in the Third World. Since highly militarised regimes are almost continuously engaged in conflicts with their own peoples, coercive internal security patterns of control predominate and these create an ever increasing demand for more powerful tools for mass repression.

Consequently, whilst the lion's share of the international arms trade consists of large weapon systems such as aircraft, submarines, tanks and artillery for waging external conflicts (see the SIPRI Yearbook on World Armaments and Disarmament), it also includes a trade in specialised technologies, tactics, training and weapons specifically designed for quelling internal dissent.

In Britain, this trade in the tools of repression only received widespread public attention following the exposure by the New Statesman of 8 July 1983 that the government was selling execution ropes, leg shackles, etc. At about the same time it also emerged (Observer, 13 May 1984) that a firm of British architects (Richard Sheppard, Robson and Partners) were bidding to design prisons and multiple execution chambers for Libya in high quality steel. (In the end, after several modifications, the Libyans still rejected the firm's plans.)

Leg shackles and other medieval restraining technologies are merely the crudest component of what Michael Klare (1979) has termed 'the international trade in repression.' The more sophisticated police technologies referred to above, once allowed to be used indiscriminately, become advanced tools of socio-political control.

They are most likely to be used when a highly authoritarian or militarised regime is least popular or undergoing a period of destabilisation.1 Topical examples include the Pinochet regime in Chile, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the Chinese approach to the destroying Tibetan nationalism, Yugoslavian attempts to thwart the Kosovo demands for a homeland and the Israeli approach to crushing the Palestinian intifada. What often characterises such conflicts are ethnic differences between the elites, including the military and police, and their opponents (Enloe, 1980).

The actual monetary value of this international trade in internal security technologies, perhaps $4 to 5 billion if paramilitary equipment, counter-insurgency armoured vehicles and computer systems are included, is small when compared with the arms trade as a whole (Klare, 1979). Yet the fact that over 50 Third World governments are now controlled or actually run by the military makes this trade in repression a critical factor in the overall political economy of human rights.

Its effect of enhancing the operational efficiency of human rights violators means that the transfer of repressive technologies probably has a greater direct impact on more people's lives than the rest of the arms trade put together. This is because whilst major weapons systems contribute to massive structural violence in the Third World by locking up much needed capital, they are deployed in combat for only a small fraction of their lives — if at all. Repressive technologies are used virtually continuously by the many illegitimate governments locked in struggle against their own peoples. The export of repression technology increases the operational capacities of repressive states. Transfers of such equipment speed up their efficiency in targetting and punishing those who either question or dissent from the status quo.

The repression trade can enhance every stage of producing a new generation of prisoners of conscience: capture; interrogation; torture and extra-judicial execution. Recognising this trend towards industrialising the entire process of repression, Amnesty International decided to include the campaign against the repression trade within its mandate during the early 1980s.

Here I am concerned with a number of basic questions. What exactly is the technology of repression? How does its transfer facilitate a direct transmission of repressive capacity? Why does this trade occur and who is responsible? Who actually controls the supply of political control technology and what criteria are used to limit its export? Answering such deceptively straightforward questions is an arduous undertaking, not just because of the complexity of the issues involved but also because of the official secrecy surrounding all aspects of this trade.

The international trade in repression may simply be conceptualised as just one of the more concrete manifestations of structural and cultural imperialism. Yet it plays a key role in maintaining what Galtung has defined as structural violence within and between nations (Randle, 1980). Even so, there are still problems in actually conceptualising this trade since only a few of the items which comprise it actually fit neatly into a straightforward weapons category. Some of these exports such as communications equipment and computers are considered to have a 'dual role', in that they have potential civil as well as internal security applications. Computerised communications networks, for instance, can be used by the police for legitimate law enforcement purposes in democratic societies, yet when such equipment is transferred to unaccountable, militarised or tyrannical regimes, its role in enhancing the forces of oppression becomes perfectly clear.

Of course the centre nations are not immune from repression. As in the nations of the periphery, state coercion is likely to increase in a similar way, should government legitimacy decline. This process has been described schematically by Marjo Hoefnagels (1977). Over the last several years many examples have emerged in European liberal democracies of such a rapid switch in tactics (for example in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain during the 1984-5 miners strike, and anti-nuclear demonstrations in West Germany and France) (European Group, 1982). Whether state repression occurs in centre or periphery nations, what clearly emerges is that the highest levels of coercion are always directed at the most significant political opponents in any given time period.


The Export of Repression

The leading exporters of what have been euphemistically termed 'security supplies' are the same countries that are primarily responsible for the arms trade as a whole, namely the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France and Italy. Other major suppliers include Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. A more recent trend, however, is for sub-imperial powers in the Third World, such as Brazil, Israel, Argentina, South Africa and Singapore (see SIPRI Yearbooks; Jane's Weapon Systems; Jane's Infantry Weapons; Dewar, 1979), to become exporters of this equipment in their own right (Klare, 1979). The predominant flow of exports for socio-political control is from the industrialised countries to the Third World, although transfers of these technologies take place increasingly within existing power blocs of NATO and the Warsaw Pact and to their respective allies and client regimes.

There are also curious exceptions, as in the case of the supply of French surveillance equipment to the Soviet Union for policing the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The Soviet Union has had sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment manufactured by Tektronix smuggled in from the US (Guardian, 3 July 1986). Another example is the Chinese thumb cuffs on sale at the 1986 MILIPOL exhibition in Paris (documented by photographer David Hoffman).

Since 1978, the flow of major weapons to Third World nations has actually declined, largely due to their enormous costs. However, demand for the much cheaper and often more urgently required internal security technologies has mushroomed. As the ruling elites of the Third World have increasingly militarised their societies, international debt problems have correspondingly risen with all the associated pressures on ordinary people as their needs are marginalised. Factors such as increasing prices of food and basic necessities, expensive or nonexistent health care and decreasing amounts of money to live on whilst prices rise, irresistibly lead to vociferous demands for political change to break the external imposition of economic apartheid. Instead of initiating structural reform which may undermine their own position and alliances, the elites in many nations seek technical fixes to buy time through enhanced political repression. The ratchet effect of poverty, repression and militarism can then accelerate with renewed force.

In many Third World states now, revolution and massive social upheaval are the norm with only the army, the police and the state intelligence agencies protecting corrupt regimes from collapse. In this context, new policing technologies become the lifeblood of repressive regimes and allow them to create what are in effect human rights exclusion zones. The repression trade highlights the mutual dependence of repressive regimes and their supplier nations — a symbol of the real relationship behind the mask of what is presented as co-operation in law enforcement.

The Merchants of Repression

Who then are the key NATO manufacturers of state security supplies? Many of the companies in the police industrial complex are well known for other consumer supplies including cars, fireworks, electronics, telephones, hi-fis and computers. To name but a handful, some of the larger suppliers include:

Belgium: Fabrique National of Herstal;

France: Panhard, Saviem;

Germany: Heckler & Koch, PK Co., Mercedes-Benz, Rheinstahl;

Italy: Fiat;

Netherlands: Phillips;

Switzerland: Mowag;

United Kingdom: Alvis, Daimler, GKN Sankey, Glover, Hotspur, Short Brothers, Plessey, Shorrock, Racal, Rank, Marconi, Feranti, ICI, ICL, Royal Ordnance, Schermuly, Brocks, Pye Telecom;

US: Cadillac Gage, Federal Laboratories, Motorola, Rockwell International, Chubb, E Systems Inc; General Ordnance, Smith & Wesson, Fargo International.

There are in fact now thousands of companies involved in this business.



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