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Degree Speech to the University of Florence

by Harold Pinter (10th September 2001)

I am deeply honoured to be given this degree by such a great University.

It will come as no surprise to you, I'm sure, when I say that how we use language has always been, for me, a major preoccupation. Recently, I have been particularly interested in the term 'humanitarian intervention' as used by NATO to justify its bombing of Serbia.

I would like to read you an eyewitness account of the NATO bombing of the market place of Nis in 1999. The writer is Eve-Ann Prentice.

"The little old lady looked as if she had three eyes. On closer inspection, it was the effect of the shrapnel which had drilled into her forehead and killed her.

At first, the dead had seemed almost camouflaged among the rubble, splintered trees and broken glass but once you began to notice them, the bodies were everywhere, some covered in table cloths and blankets, others simply lying exposed where they had fallen. Houses with picket fences and window boxes bursting with blooms were now riddled with scars. Widows in black leant on their garden gates, whimpering into handkerchiefs, as they surveyed their dead neighbours lying amid the broken glass, gashed trees, smouldering cars and crumpled bicycles. Plastic bags lay strewn near many of the dead, spilling parcels of fruit, eggs and vegetables, fresh from the market.

It was Friday 7th May 1999 in the southern city of Nis and NATO had, they said, made a mistake. Instead of hitting a military building near the airport about three miles away the bombers had dropped their lethal load in a tangle of back streets close to the city centre. At least thirty-three people were killed and scores more suffered catastrophic injuries; hands, feet and arms shredded or blown away altogether, abdomens and chests ripped open by shards of flying metal.

This had been no "ordinary" shelling, if such a thing exists. The area had been hit by cluster bombs, devices designed to cause a deadly spray of hot metal fragments when they explode."

The bombing of Nis was no 'mistake'. General Wesley K Clark declared, as the NATO bombing began: "We are going to systematically and progressively attack, disrupt, degrade, devastate and ultimately - unless President Milosevic complies with the demands of the international community - destroy these forces and their facilities and support". Milosevic's 'forces', as we know, included television stations, schools, hospitals, theatres, old people's homes - and the market-place in Nis. It was in fact a fundamental feature of NATO policy to terrorise the civilian population.

The bombing of Nis, far from being 'a mistake', was in fact an act of murder. It stemmed from a 'war' which was in itself illegal, a bandit act, waged outside all recognised parameters of International Law, in defiance of the United Nations, even contravening NATO's own charter. But the actions taken, we are told, were taken in pursuance of a policy of 'humanitarian intervention' and the civilian deaths were described as 'collateral damage'.

'Humanitarian Intervention' is a comparatively new concept. But President George W. Bush is also following in the great American presidential tradition by referring to 'freedom-loving people' (I must say I would be fascinated to meet 'a freedom-hating people'). President Bush possesses quite a few 'freedom-loving' people himself - not only in his own Texas prisons but throughout the whole of the United States, in what can accurately be described as a vast gulag - 2 million prisoners in fact - a remarkable proportion of them black. Rape of young prisoners, both male and female, is commonplace. So is the use of weapons of torture as defined by Amnesty International - stun guns, stun belts, restraint chairs. Prison is a great industry in the United States - just behind pornography when it comes to profits.

There have been and remain considerable sections of mankind for whom the mere articulation of the word, 'freedom' has resulted in torture and death. I'm referring to the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of people throughout Guatemala, El Salvador, Turkey, Israel, Haiti, Brazil, Greece, Uruguay, East Timor, Nicaragua, South Korea, Argentina, Chile, The Philippines and Indonesia, for example, killed in all cases by forces inspired and subsidised by the United States. Why did they die? They died because to one degree or another they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression which is their birthright. On behalf of the dead, we must regard the breathtaking discrepancy between US government language and US government action with the absolute contempt it merits.

The United States has in fact - since the end of the Second World War - pursued a brilliant, even witty, strategy. It has exercised a sustained, systematic, remorseless and quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide, while masquerading as a force for universal good. But at least now - it can be said - the US has come out if its closet. The smile is still there of course (all US Presidents have always had wonderful smiles) but the posture is infinitely more naked and more blatant than it has ever been. The Bush administration, as we all know, has rejected the Kyoto agreement, has refused to sign an agreement which would regulate the trade of small arms, has distanced itself from the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Biological Weapons Convention. In relation to the latter the US made it quite clear that it would agree to the banning of biological weapons as long as there was no inspection of any biological weapons factory on American soil. The US has also refused to ratify the proposed International Criminal Court of Justice. It is bringing into operation the American Service Members Protection Act which will permit the authorisation of military force to free any American soldier taken into International Criminal Court custody. In other words they really will 'Send in the Marines'.

Arrogant, indifferent, contemptuous of International Law, both dismissive and manipulative of the United Nations - this is now the most dangerous power the world has ever known - the authentic ' rogue state' - but a 'rogue state' of colossal military and economic might. And Europe - especially the United Kingdom - is both compliant and complicit, or as Cassius in Julius Caesar put it: we 'peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves'.

There is, however, as we have seen, a profound revulsion and disgust with the manifestations of US power and global capitalism which is growing throughout the world and becoming a formidable force in its own right. I believe a central inspiration for this force has been the actions and indeed the philosophical stance of the Zapatistas in Mexico. The Zapatistas say: 'Do not try to define us. We define ourselves. We will not be what you want us to be. We will not accept the destiny you have chosen for us. We will not accept your terms. We will not abide by your rules. The only way you can eliminate us is to destroy us and you cannot destroy us. We are free.'

It is certainly true that the police action in Genoa recently made it clear that the forces of reaction and repression remain savage, vicious and merciless.

But we are free. And I believe that this brutal and malignant world machine must be recognised for what it is and resisted.

Harold Pinter (10 Sep 2001) - Harold Pinter   |    essays index    |    weed's home page

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revised 18 November 2005