Both the prime minister and the Foreign Minister are trained lawyers. As part of the training they would have been imbued with some of the most profound and enduring concepts of the common law. These include such fundamental points as the presumption of innocence; the onus of proof being upon the accuser; the standard of proof in serious cases being very high; that the evidence should be considered by an impartial arbiter; that the conclusion should be based upon admissible evidence; and that one should refrain from prejudicial pre-trial statements at the risk of being held in contempt of Court.
Both politicians frequently express their belief in the “rules based international order” and the “rule of law”, both phrases acknowledging a support of a legal based process in the conduct of national and international affairs.
That their professed support for basic notions of justice and legal process is no more than a rhetorical device was made abundantly clear in the joint media release of 27 March 2018 and the subsequent joint press conference in which they unleashed a barrage of criticism at Russia over that countries alleged involvement in the alleged nerve gas attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English provincial town of Salisbury.
One of the notable omissions from Turnbull and Bishop’s media release and press conference was any reference to the word “alleged.” It was simply assumed by the pair that Russia was guilty and deserving of punishment.
Their professed outrage did not even have the benefit of originality. The United Kingdom government had sent out a six-slide PowerPoint presentation to 80 foreign embassy officials in Moscow. That document was leaked and its contents published in the Kommersant business daily.
In that document, the section headed “A New Phase of Russian Aggression” the following points were made:
1. A military grade Novichok nerve agent was positively identified by experts at Porton Down, an 0PCW accredited laboratory.
2. Novichok is a group of agents developed only by Russia and not declared under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
3. Its use is a violation of the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons under article 1 of the CWC.
4. It was the first use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.
5. We are without doubt that Russia is responsible. No country bar Russia has the combined capability, intent and motive. There is no plausible alternative explanation.
In a separate slide headed “A Long Pattern of Russian Malign Activity” the United Kingdom government listed a series of “malign” incidents, which they attributed to Russia. These included the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006; the 2008 invasion of Georgia; the 2014 occupation of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine; the 2014 shooting down of MH 17; the 2016 interference in the United States presidential election; and now the attempted assassination of the Skripals.
All of these points were faithfully echoed by Turnbull and Bishop in the media release and the joint press conference. Let us look briefly at each of the five bullet points listed above and repeated by Turnbull and Bishop.
A military grade Novichok nerve agent positively identified by Porton Down.
Novichok is not properly described as a nerve agent. The term is a translation from the Russian meaning “new type”. In the United Kingdom High Court decision of Justice Williams on 22nd of March 2018 His Honour referred to the evidence (given in secret) of the Porton Down “experts.” The blood samples taken from the Skripals he said, indicated exposure to a “nerve agent or related compound…… a Novichok class nerve agent or closely related agent.”
It is precisely because of this lack of certainty that the United Kingdom belatedly (and contrary to the CWC) finally referred the matter to the OPCW for technical analysis. This followed repeated requests to do so from the Russian government, which were ignored, as were requests from the Russian government for blood samples that they were entitled to pursuant to the CWC. The results of that technical analysis will not be known for some weeks. One might have thought that withholding judgement until that analysis was available would at the very least be a prudent course to follow.
Novichok developed only by Russia and not declared under the CWC.
This is also demonstrably false. Research into the Novichok type agents were experimented with in the 1980s in a Soviet controlled laboratory in Uzbekistan. Their developer Dr Vil Mirzayanov defected to the United States in the 1980s and published a book detailing his experiments. This book, which was published in 1992, included the “recipe” for producing Novichok type nerve agents.
Notwithstanding the convenient availability of the “recipe” there was no successful production of a Novichok type agent until very recently, by Iran, under the supervision of the OPCW. The veracity of Dr Mirzayanov’s work was doubted by the OPCW itself, which did not list Novichok class agents on its schedule of banned substances.
The Chemical Weapons Convention was not opened for signature until 13 January 1993 and did not come into force until 1997. It was therefore impossible for Russia to declare anything to the OPCW when that body did not exist.
The relevant history of this matter is detailed for example in an interview given by a former senior OPCW official to the Insurge website and published under the heading “Former OPCW official: No, conclusive proof of Russian complicity in Salisbury attack.”
The Uzbekistan Laboratory was demolished by the United States pursuant to an OPCW program. The United States, along with a number of countries including the United Kingdom were perfectly capable of replicating and improving upon Mirzayanov’s published research.
The OPCW has also certified that Russia’s chemical weapons stock has been destroyed. If the United Kingdom and Australia have evidence that this is not the case then they ought to provide that evidence instead of making wild and baseless allegations.
Article 1 certainly does prohibit the use of chemical weapons. Notwithstanding this ban they have been used for example, by terrorists in Syria, armed, financed and supported by the United States, United Kingdom, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The use of those weapons was yet another example of an attempt to blame Syria and its allies Russia and Iran for actions by groups fighting for the regime change objectives of the United States and United Kingdom.
The first use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II.
This is another falsehood. Porton Down is and has been since its founding in 1916 a major chemical and biological weapon’s research centre, conducting experiments on both animals and humans.
Even the United Kingdom newspaper the Guardian, in the days when it was more willing to challenge the official mythology, published an article by Rob Evans as far back as 2004. The article was entitled “The Past Porton Down Can’t Hide” and demonstrated that human beings were experimented upon in the post-World War II period, in Europe and elsewhere, resulting in multiple deaths.
Russia is the only country with the combined capability, content and motive. There is no plausible alternative.
This claim is simply risible. A number of countries had and have the capability. As to intent and motive, no one, least of all the British, have been able to ascribe a plausible motive to Russia. On the contrary, there are powerful arguments why Russia would not be so inclined to so publicly and clumsily attempt to murder a former spy whom it had pardoned and released in an exchange many years earlier.
That is more than can be said of the United Kingdom and United States, both of whom have multiple reasons for demonizing Russia in advancing their own geopolitical objectives. As to “plausible alternatives”, these have been set out by Richard Sakwa, a respected British analyst. Logic and common sense are not the least of the components missing from the British argument.
In respect of the second set of allegations relied upon by the British and faithfully echoed by Turnbull and Bishop, analysis similarly exposes the claims for the disinformation and propaganda that they are.
With Litvinenko’s death for example, it has never been established who was responsible. A British judicial inquiry (ironically at the time when Theresa May was Home Secretary) was unable to confirm who was responsible, despite a valiant attempt to smear Russia. As to who was responsible, there were a number of plausible alternatives, as William Dunkerley (The Phony Litvinenko Murder 2017) and the present author among others have made clear.
The British and their Australian acolytes similarly play fast and loose with the history of the Russian-Georgian mini-war in 2008 where Georgia manifestly was the aggressor. A history of this conflict was analysed in a 702-page report by the European Union. One sentence from page 11 of the report makes my point: “The shelling of Tskhinvali by the Georgian armed forces marked the beginning of the large scale conflict in Georgia.”
Russia reclaimed Crimea which had been part of Russia for centuries until “gifted” by Khrushchev to Ukraine in 1954. The absorption of Crimea back into Russia followed an overwhelming vote in favour by the Crimeans (more than 90% of whom supported Putin in the recent Russian presidential election). If one wishes to talk about the destabilization of Ukraine, then the American financed and organized coup in February 2014 would be a good starting point.
One would then go on to examine the nature and conduct of the frankly fascist regime in Kiev, and their constant violation of the Minsk accords. Neither aspect gets much coverage in the United Kingdom or Australian media. That would after all disrupt the “blame Russia” narrative with some uncomfortable truths.
The United Kingdom and Australia repeat the claim that Russia was responsible for the shooting down of MH 17. That’s a tragedy that is actually the subject of an ongoing enquiry headed by the Dutch. It has gone very quiet lately and the likely reason is that the US satellite data which recorded the whole incident has been handed over to the Dutch authorities on condition that it was not published. The only plausible reason for such an embargo is that the satellite data do not support the “Russia did it” narrative.
The British and the Australian governments also repeat the tired and long since discredited narrative alleging Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Special prosecutor Mueller has striven mightily for 18 months and has come up with exactly zero in evidence to support the narrative of Russian interference.
There is on the other hand ample evidence of interference both before and after the election by forces within the United States closely associated with the Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and former President Obama. Even the joint House intelligence committee has given up on chasing that phantom. Not that one would know that from reading the Australian media or listening to its politicians so addicted to fake narratives such as demonstrated by the media release and press conference of Turnbull and Bishop.
In short, it may readily be seen that Turnbull and Bishop violate each and every one of the common law principles they purport to uphold. Instead, they act as no more then lackeys of US and UK imperialism. It would almost be laughable were it not for the fact that their hubris, ignorance and stupidity may well involve Australia in yet another war. The consequences of that are too terrible to contemplate.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.