Foreign Military Bases and the Global Campaign to close them

A beginner's guide

21 July 2009

There are more than a thousand foreign military bases worldwide which have become the infrastructure for imperial wars and have severe social and environmental impacts locally that have prompted growing resistance.

Contents

1. How many foreign military bases are there worldwide?
2. Smaller bases, more extensive foreign military presence
3. What is the problem with military bases?
4. Korea: a case study of military impunity
5. What function do the foreign military bases serve?
6. Case study: The Netherlands submits itself to US military command
7. What part do military bases play in overall military strategy?
8. How do communities resist foreign military bases?
9. The growth of an international network against foreign military bases
10. Success story: Campaigning leads  to closure of Manta base, Ecuador
11. What role has Transnational Institute played in the campaign against foreign military bases?
12. How can this Network help me?
13. How can I help this Network?

1. How many foreign military bases are there worldwide?
Foreign military bases are found in more than 100 countries and territories. The US currently maintains a world-wide network of some 1000 military bases and installations. In addition, other NATO countries, such as France and the UK have a further 200 such military locations within the network of global military control.

The biggest “host” countries are those that once lost a major war in which the US was involved. Germany, Italy, Japan and Korea are the four biggest ‘hosts’. France and the UK mainly have bases in the remains of their colonial empires. The UK is strong in the South Atlantic and around the Mediterranean, France is strong in the South Pacific and in Africa. Russia currently has six military facilities in former Soviet Republics and India has one in Tajikistan.

2. Smaller bases, more extensive foreign military presence
Over the past decades, there has been a slow decline in the total number of foreign military bases, largely as a result of the end of the Cold War. But at the same time, there has been a rapid growth in the number of countries ‘hosting’ a foreign military presence. In other words, the new strategy seems to be to have smaller detachments in ever increasing number of countries.

Together with the shift towards smaller bases in more countries, there has also been a shift away from massive troop deployments to smaller spread-out facilities, where intelligence gathering, training, and military-led development aid can be combined.

The recent spread of bases is a clear indication of what are considered the new international battle grounds: Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

3. What is the problem with military bases?
There are two principal problems with foreign military bases:

1. All these facilities are integral to preparations for war, and as such undermine international peace and security. Without the bases in Turkey, Germany, Diego Garcia, Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf States, the Iraq invasion could not have happened. The bases serve to proliferate weapons, increase violence and undermine international instability.

2. Bases cause  social and environmental problems at a local level. Communities living around the bases often experience  high levels of rapes committed by foreign soldiers, violent crimes, loss of land or livelihood, and pollution and health hazards caused by the testing of conventional or non-conventional weapons.  In many countries the agreement that permitted the base stipulates that foreign soldiers who perpetrate crimes can not be held accountable, since they are granted immunity.

4. Korea: a case study of military impunity

Since the Korea war, the US maintains a formidable military presence in Korea in the form of more than 100 bases and facilities. The “Status of Forces Agreement” between the two countries states that US servicemen can not be held accountable for their crimes under Korean law. This has led to stark cases of impunity: In 2002  two teenage girls on their way to a birthday party were run over by a US tank. The US refused to let the driver of the tank be tried in Korea. Instead, they were repatriated where a US military court recorded a 'not guilty' verdict. In 2006 alone, 2,600 car accidents were reported in Korea involving US servicemen. Korean victims were left without the means to claim damages. Korean insurance companies refused to cover the damages, reasoning that the bill ought to be paid by the guilty party, but the guilty party enjoys legal immunity.

5. What function do the foreign military bases serve?

  1. They host about 160,000 US citizens: soldiers, civilians and ‘other’ personnel. This figure excludes active duty personnel in ongoing wars and occupations, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also does not include the thousands of military and personnel stationed in US overseas territories such as Hawai’i, Guam, Puerto Rico and Kwajalein Atoll.
  2. Base are launching platforms for military maneuvers: Aerial bombings in Pakistan are launched from Diego Garcia; the Manta base in Ecuador is used to coordinate covert military actions in Colombia; military facilities in Iraq and Turkey are used as coordination centres for ‘behind the lines’ intelligence missions into Iran and Syria
  3. Bases are often forward storage facilities for all sorts of weaponry including nuclear arms.
  4. Some bases are test-ranges for new weaponry,  including nuclear testing; others are training grounds for US soldiers, or joint training locations.
  5. Other facilities serve as  intelligence operations, such as the world-wide network of “Echelon” bases that monitor all email, phone and data communications traffic.
  6. In recent years, we have seen that foreign military bases are also used for the extra-judiciary transport, imprisonment and torture of people. Guantanamo Bay is the best known example, but many other facilities in Diego Garcia, the Middle East and Europe are implicated.

6. Case study: The Netherlands submits itself to US military command
The Netherlands is a typical US ally. The Netherlands ‘hosts’ seven US military facilities, including Volkel base which has nuclear warheads, two undisclosed locations for the US Airforce, two army bases in Schingen and Brunssum, and two Antillean bases leased to the US. The stated function of these two bases is to monitor and intercept drug-transport on the Caribbean Sea, but there’s a common understanding that the same bases are used for reconnaissance flights over Colombia. The Netherlands is therefore indirectly involved in the Colombian civil war. Both the largest airport, Schiphol and the largest harbour, Rotterdam Europort ‘host’ a ‘US administrative military facility’, allowing the US to bring in shipments of arms and materials into the Netherlands without having to report to Dutch customs. Moreover all pilots flying on the Dutch airliner KLM have to sign a contract that includes the provision that, in case of war, they take their marching orders not from the Dutch government, but from the US air force.

7. What part do military bases play in overall military strategy?

Military bases are the backbone of the military apparatus of the US, NATO and the EU. They serve to either directly overthrow governments on the battle ground or provide the obvious muscle to apply pressure at the negotiations table. Many of the 300 overseas military interventions and invasions of the US in the past century were only possible because the US had well-positioned military facilities to launch and support these military operations.

The global military network of military bases is not surprisingly seen as a threat to the national security of any country not siding with the US or NATO. Russia, China and many other countries have therefore in part felt obliged respond to this threat which contributes to the continuing arms race.

Iran for example, faces a block of countries openly hostile to its regime. From their perspective, they are acutely aware that two of its neighbours (Iraq and Afghanistan) are now occupied by the same group of countries, and that eight more neighbouring countries host US or NATO military bases. Looking at the broader region, Iran is furthermore faced with three US-backed nuclear powers, Israel, Pakistan and India, and the deployment by the US of nuclear warheads in Turkey. Regardless of what one thinks of the regime in Iran, we have to recognise that the Iranian government sees little choice but to try and counter the real and present threat to its national integrity and sovereignty. Realising that it cannot ‘outgun’ the military block it’s facing, Iran predictably resorts to the only viable military strategy it has: To try and create a credible deterrence: nuclear or otherwise.

8. How do communities resist foreign military bases?
Resistance to foreign military bases is as widespread as the problem itself. There are  450 community-based campaigns against foreign military bases which are members of the international No-Bases Network.

Some of the more famous examples include:

  • Okinawa, Japan, where 30% of the island has been used by the US military since the World War II. For many years, local citizens have protested high levels of rapes, violent crimes, pollution, and impunity of foreign soldiers. When  the US announced plans to build another base in 2004, by creating a new island where local fishermen used to fish, Okinawans started a three-year-long daily blockade of the construction work. In 2008, the construction was finally stopped by a US court on ecological grounds.
  • In Vieques, Puerto Rico, inhabitants were expelled from their homes and towns to make way for a US bomb testing range. For decades the Viequeans protested the US occupation of two thirds of the island, eventually with success. In 2004, the navy withdrew. The US left without cleaning up the mess though, which makes it impossible to live on most of the island to date.
  • In Diego Garcia, part of what the UK calls the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) all citizens were rounded up in 1973, put on ships and literally dumped on the shores of Mauritius – when the UK made a deal with the US allowing them to host an airbase there.  Over the past three decades, the Chagossians have won every court case imaginable in the UK for the right to return, only to be blocked by British executive orders that clearly violates the separation of powers that we normally take for granted in a modern democratic state.

9. The growth of an international network against foreign military bases
Since 2003 different local community campaigns resisting military bases have started to join forces to tackle the global spread of military bases with an international campaign. The groups formed the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases, or No Bases Network in 2007 during a global conference on foreign military bases held in Quito and Manta, Ecuador

The Network has two main objectives:

1.To support the local and regional groups that are members of the Network by sharing information, developing joint strategies, and helping new campaigns to get on their feet.
2.To create space in international forums and at the UN for a critical debate both on the legality and necessity of foreign bases as a method of military domination and on the need for codes of conduct or ‘setting minimal standards’ for the use of existing bases. For this, the network actively engages with other international civil society networks and with intergovernmental forums, such as the NPT 2010 Review Process. The Network also lobbies  ‘host nation governments’ and in Brussels and Washington.

The network's website www.no-bases.org is the place where all this information comes together. Campaigns share news about all these bases, as well as  announcements, reports, videos and photos of their actions.

10. Success story: Campaigning leads  to closure of Manta base, Ecuador
In March 2007, the No Bases Network held its first global conference on foreign bases, in Quito and Manta, Ecuador. 400 participants from 40 countries came together to share analyses, and to jointly shape the future of the network. The process leading to the Conference triggered heated debate on the subject in Ecuador itself, and strengthened the local and national no-bases campaigns. Between the first preparatory meetings and the eventual conference, the political landscape in Ecuador changed drastically, when the population elected the one political party that wanted to close the US base in Manta. The combination of a strong vigorous local campaign and international support played a critical role in the decision by Ecuador's government under the newly elected President Rafael Correa to close the Manta military base.

11. What role has Transnational Institute played in the campaign against foreign military bases?

Since 2003, TNI has been playing a leading role in the forging of the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases, or No-Bases Network. Since 2008, TNI also hosts the international secretariat of the network.

12. How can this Network help me?
Information on bases as well as contact details of many of the member campaigns can be found on the http://no-bases.org website. The website has a section for documents, video documentaries, links to official documents, and for maps. If you are involved in campaigning a against a base or bases in general, you are welcome to register as a campaigner, enabling you to post announcements, calls, and news from your campaign. In addition, the Network has a general e-list, and several regional e-lists. 

13. How can I help this Network?
Become a member, and spread the word. One of the main challenges or the Network is simply to educate people. Most people – ‘host countries’ and ‘base exporting countries’ alike – are unaware of the existence, magnitude and consequences of the world-wide network of military bases. Most people, once they realise, are appalled and ‘want to do something about it’. Raising awareness of the impact of military bases creates public debate and helps challenge the militarist logic of a global military presence of a handful of countries.

Ending the occupation of Iraq is not enough, we need to bring ALL troops home.

July 2009

About the authors

Wilbert van der Zeijden

Wilbert van der Zeijden is a political scientist and former Coordinator of the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases. He works with the Dutch organisation IKV Pax Christi as researcher on nuclear issues