War frames: prisoners depict their experiences in Iraq at the Venice Biennale

An exhibition in Jeremy Deller’s British pavilion by jailed ex-soldiers explores social injustice through the prism of the Iraq conflict

The theme of social justice – and injustice – looms large in Jeremy Deller’s British pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the world’s most important contemporary art event. The artworks inside the imposing white building in the Giardini include a mural of the Victorian social reformer William Morris hurling the vast yacht of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich into the waves.

A less publicised aspect of Deller’s exploration of social injustice is a room of drawings in the exhibition by imprisoned ex-servicemen that examines the Iraq war. The pictures by inmates of Shotts, Everthorpe and Parc prisons include portraits of those embroiled in the scandal over Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Alongside them are displayed disturbing images of scenes remembered by those who fought in the conflict, such as a sniper’s view of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) hiding under his bed, Iraqi civilians executed by al-Qaida on suspicion of being British informants, and two soldiers smoking crack in Wellington barracks, London, before deployment.

Struck by the fact that one in 10 ex-servicemen are prisoners, a year ago the artist turned to the Koestler Trust, a charity that has been promoting arts in the British criminal justice system for more than 50 years, to find former soldiers to participate in the pavilion. He initiated the collaboration by bringing the prisoners photographs of some of the public figures caught up in the invasion of Iraq, and their discussion about them led to the men also recounting their personal experiences of fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.

Deller says: “The reason I used prisoners is because this work is about the nature of criminality. I thought it was a good idea to have [the likes of Blair, Campbell and the former head of MI6 John Scarlett] drawn by people who’d been on the receiving end of their decisions. It was about inverting the power process. If you are in prison you have no power. And most of those characters still are very powerful.

“So, on the one hand, you have a very traditional portrait gallery of men who have been involved in [pursuing] the war, or victims of the war like Reg Keys, whose son [Lance Corporal Tom Keys] was killed in Iraq – people on the receiving end, like some of the soldiers were. Then you have very personal images that give you a little insight into daily life in the army. They all had strange little stories or vignettes. They just drew those and I encouraged that.”

Chris, 37, a former member of the Royal Highland Fusiliers who served in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, now imprisoned in HMP Shotts, Scotland, had not done any drawing before getting involved in the British pavilion project. But he was keen to participate because he “wanted to show people that military life is not all …read more  

Former UK military chiefs voice objections to Syria attacks

Leading figures warn of unintended consequences, but foreign policy analysts insist red line crossed

Former leaders of the British armed forces led objections on Tuesday to military strikes against Syria following last week’s poison gas attack in Damascus, which killed hundreds and injured thousands.

General Lord Dannatt, former head of the British army, and Lord West, former first sea lord, both warned of unintended consequences if, as seems increasingly likely, US forces launch missiles against President’s Bashar al-Assad’s military facilities in the coming days.

A former UK ambassador to Syria, Sir Andrew Green, urged Russia and China to use their influence against Assad rather than military force while Lord King, the former defence secretary, said it was imperative to find a solution, “and it mustn’t be military”.

Backing strikes were the former prime minister Tony Blair, who warned of “the consequences of wringing our hands instead of putting them to work”, and foreign policy analysts from Chatham House in London and the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, who said Assad had crossed a red line by using chemical weapons.

Geoffrey Robertson QC said in the Times that there “is a right for regional groups like Nato and the Arab League to use force to stop crimes against humanity such as a state mass-murdering its citizens by poison gas”. Robertson went on to say that the United Nations would not require a full mandate to go ahead with limited strikes as long as evidence was first established that the Assad regime was responsible for last week’s attacks.

“It’s wrong,” said Dannatt of the strike plan being drawn up in Washington, Paris and London. “Because although undoubtedly by any moral standards at all using chemical weapons against your own people – which is what on the balance of probabilities it now seems Assad has done – this does not constitute an open invitation for the international community to impose themselves on the internal affairs of another country.”

He said that one of the many unknowns about Syria was “what the effect of these strikes would be on the developments and consequences of the civil conflict”.

Lord West, a former minister, urged diplomacy before military aggression and was among those worried that the west could find itself sucked into a vortex of violence in the region. He told the Daily Mail he was “very wary” of an attack and said if Assad was responsible for the attack, there should be a UN resolution condemning him. “The region is a powder keg,” he said. “We simply can’t predict which way military action will go.”

The sense of military disquiet preceded the chemical attack. General Sir David Richards, who only stood down as chief of the defence staff earlier this summer, is understood to have previously cautioned against attacking Syria, while on Tuesday a former senior naval officer, Rear Admiral Chris Parry, said he believed London and Washington were repeating a mistake by turning to the military before properly establishing their objectives.

“More responsibility needs to be thrown at Russia and …read more  

UK and US finalise plans for military strikes against Syrian regime

Arab League backs allies’ judgment that Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible for Damascus chemical attacks

Britain and the US are finalising plans to launch limited punitive military strikes at the end of the week against the regime of Bashar al-Assad over the “abhorrent” use of chemical weapons near the Syrian capital, Damascus, last week.

As the Arab League threw its weight behind the allies’ judgment that the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attack, the US and Britain paved the way for intervention, saying it would be a response to a violation of international law and not aimed at regime change.

General Sir Nick Houghton, chief of the defence staff, will outline to a meeting on Wednesday of the UK’s National Security Council (NSC) a series of arm’s-length options for targeted attacks against Syria.

Houghton, who is expected to reiterate the military’s misgivings about entering the conflict, is expected to tell ministers the UK could assist US forces with cruise missile strikes launched from submarines, warships and aircraft against targets such as command and control bunkers.

David Cameron announced a recall of parliament on Thursday to allow MPs to formally debate the proposed intervention.

The Commons is expected to endorse military action – with a handful of rebels on all sides – after Ed Miliband indicated on Tuesday evening that Labour will reluctantly support the government motion, which will closely refer to international law.

Cameron said any use of chemical weapons was “morally indefensible and completely wrong,” adding that any action taken “would have to be legal, would have to be proportionate. It would have to be specifically to deter the future use of chemical weapons”.

Without spelling out any detailed plans, he signalled limited action. “This is not about getting involved in a Middle Eastern war or changing our stance in Syria or going further into that conflict. It is nothing to do with that. It is about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong, and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.”

The next step towards military strikes – which could be launched between late on Thursday, following the vote at Westminster, and the end of the weekend – is expected to be taken on Wednesday when John Kerry, the US secretary of state, releases more information linking the Assad regime to the chemical weapons attack on the Ghouta area east of Damascus.

Kerry is expected to say there is definitive proof linking the regime to the attack on the basis of “open sources” such as evidence from international doctors, a judgment that only the regime could have launched such a large attack, and intercept intelligence of Syrian communications from, among others, the Israelis.

Kerry’s judgment is expected to be followed by a decision by Barack Obama on the exact form of a military strike, which will be designed to act as a deterrent to prevent the future use of chemical weapons by Assad or any other regime.

The White House made clear that the action would not be designed to widen the Syrian conflict or overthrow the regime. …read more  

Syria crisis: British military chief to set out options for strikes

General Sir Nick Houghton poised to detail alternatives – but also to reiterate misgivings about entering conflict

The head of the British military will on Wednesday outline a series of arm’s-length options for targeted attacks against Syria that have been refined over several months to minimise the risk of retaliation from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

At a meeting of the national security council (NSC), the chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nick Houghton, is expected to tell David Cameron the UK could assist US forces with cruise missile strikes launched from submarines, warships and aircraft against targets such as command-and-control bunkers.

But Houghton is also expected to reiterate the military’s misgiving about entering into the conflict even if it can be proved beyond doubt that Assad was behind last week’s chemical attack in Ghouta, east of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

He is likely to highlight the potential for Assad’s regime to lash out with attacks of its own that could include attempts to strike Britain’s sovereign bases in Cyprus with Scud missiles.

“A number of military options will be provided to the prime minister,” said one Whitehall source. “They have been worked on for several months. The NSC will then have to ask itself: what will any future attacks actually achieve, and are we prepared for the potential consequences? These are political judgments, not military ones. Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us a lot about the dangers of getting involved in other people’s civil wars.”

Though the Ministry of Defence today refused to be drawn any of these issues, a team of specialists at the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) in Northwood, north London, is known to have been working on a set of detailed contingency plans, liaising with counterparts in the US military to prepare credible options for action in Syria.

Nobody in Washington or London is prepared to countenance “boots on the ground”, and an air war against Assad’s well-equipped jet fighters and anti-aircraft defences is equally unappealing. So strategists have been looking at ways of hitting a limited number of regime targets over a short period with precision missiles and laser-guided bombs.

The hope is that these attacks would deter Assad from using chemical weapons and make it more difficult for him to launch them, even if he wanted to.

The US is reported to be considering a two-day campaign, according to the Washington Post – a timescale that chimes with British hopes any attacks would be seen as warning shots rather than the first steps in a broader campaign.

Though this limited action is unlikely to take place before MPs have had a chance to discuss the matter on Thursday, the momentum for striking sooner rather than later has been growing since the weekend.

Britain could offer warships and submarines equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which could be launched miles away from the Syrian coast. The Trafalgar-class submarine HMS Tireless is reported to be already in the region.

The RAF could be involved, too. During the Libyan …read more  

Kenya: murdered British army officer's widow pays tribute to husband

Lieutenant Colonel David Parkinson’s widow, Sonja, also condemns his killers but says she intends to remain in Kenya

The widow of a former British army officer murdered at their Kenyan home by an armed gang intends to remain in the country they both loved, she said.

Police in Kenya said they were pursuing important leads following the murder of Lieutenant Colonel David Parkinson, 58, who was killed with a machete when five robbers, also armed with a gun, broke into the house as the couple slept in the early hours of Sunday.

His wife Sonja, 52, managed to flee the attack and lock herself in a strong room, emerging once the men had left to discover her husband dead, according to local reports.

In a statement on Tuesday she condemned his killers as evil and his murder as senseless.

The thieves are believed to have been taken a number of items, including a laptop, a phone, a bottle of champagne and her purse, thought to contain very little money.

The couple, originally from Hurstpierpoint in West Sussex, were attacked at their Lolldaiga Hills cattle ranch in the town of Nanyuki, 125 miles from Nairobi.

Parkinson, who served with the Parachute Regiment for 30 years and received an OBE in 1998, was a leading figure in conservation. He spent five years as deputy director at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a nearby game reserve, and had been responsible for the management and development of Lolldaiga Hills, a 49,000-acre ranch and conservancy since January. He was also a director for the eastern unit of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum.

As the couple’s daughters, Anna, 33, and Renate, 30, travelled from the UK to Kenya, his wife paid tribute to their father.

“David was brutally killed in the most senseless way. The men responsible for his death are evil. We hope that they will be caught and brought to face the full consquences of their actions. At present they remain at large and continue to pose a serious threat to others,” she said in a statement released through the British high commission in Nairobi.

“In our darkest hours, whilst trying to make sense of the loss and my husband and Anna and Renate’s father, we have been uplifted by the overwhelming support that we have received from the communities that we live in and work with, and from the swift and professional response by the Kenya Police Service and the Kenyan administration. “David was a good man, a loving husband and great father, son and brother. After his military career he directed his energies into conservation and training in Kenya. His activities have resulted in direct improvements to the lives and skills of many in the surrounding community. They too are telling us that his loss is also their loss and that they too are sharing our pain”.

She continued: “I intend to remain in Kenya. Like David I love the country and its peoples. My family are keen to continue his legacy,”

Police commander Marius Tum said detectives investigating the murder were pursuing important …read more