My feature in US magazine Mondoweiss:
Palestinians in Jerusalem, and the state of the city itself, are routinely ignored in much international press coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict. While the rise in Jewish, religious fundamentalism is central to understanding the current state of Israel – a recent Reuters report on religious Zionism within governmental and military ranks provided a cogent explanation of Israel’s far-right, nationalistic turn – Jerusalem is a city increasingly turning against its Arab population.
Grassroots Jerusalem is an organization dedicated to challenging this situation.
Grassroots Jerusalem’s website is an online platform with partners from 80 community groups in 40 Palestinian communities of Jerusalem. A mapping section online is a unique tool to provide the Palestinian narrative routinely lost in mainstream Israeli society. Grassroots Jerusalem criticises the ways in which, “the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) designs and provides a variety of maps to International Non-Governmental Organizations. The UNOCHA maps leave the West side of Occupied Jerusalem blank and unrepresented and do not display the Palestinian neighborhoods and villages displaced during the Nakba of 1948 nor the Israeli colonies which replaced them.”
2016 is a time where the Arabic language is increasingly marginalized within Israeli life, leaving the roughly 20 percent of Palestinians within Israel excluded. Israel is destroying Palestinian homes and buildings in partially annexed Jerusalem. The Palestinian village of Kafr Walaja was targeted this month. A recent Haaretz report about the demolitions didn’t mention why such actions are now commonplace. +972 Magazine explained:
“Hundreds of people have lost their homes and entire communities are in danger of expulsion. Settler groups such as Regavim [run by Australian-Israeli Ari Briggs], along with people such as MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) have been putting pressure on the authorities to carry out the demolitions, whose entire purpose is to expel Palestinians from Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli civil and military control. The Jewish Home party’s formal plan is to annex Area C to Israel, leaving the rest of the Palestinians imprisoned in Areas A and B.”
One of the most insidious modes of disenfranchising Palestinians from their own territory is the Israeli use of alleged “breach of allegiance” to the Jewish state. A deliberate policy of forced displacement, Israeli officials have instituted a number of ways Palestinians can be slowly but surely reduced numerically to maintain a large Jewish majority. Munir Nuseibah, human rights lawyer and academic based in Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, recently wrote in Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, about the history of these policies and why they should be resisted:
“It is no longer enough for a Palestinian Jerusalemite to be actually living in Jerusalem and to maintain his/her center of life in the city. Palestinian Jerusalemites are now expected to commit to the new undefined criterion of ‘allegiance.’ The Israeli human rights organization HaMoked, which is based in Jerusalem, has challenged this new policy in the Israeli Supreme Court. However, the Court has not yet decided the case. Similarly, the case of the four Palestinian political leaders whose residency was revoked in 2006 is still pending.
“No one knows yet how many residencies have been revoked according to the relatively new criterion of “allegiance,” but at least a few more cases are pending in the Supreme Court. HaMoked has made an application based on the freedom of information act to force the Ministry of Interior reveal this information. It is worth noting that international humanitarian law forbids the expectation of allegiance from a population under occupation.”
Based in a small East Jerusalem office, and currently in the middle of a crowd-funding campaign to raise $100,000, which aims to allow them to become independent of foreign funding sources.
The group is deeply critical of how “international aid usually comes with a price: donors dictate their own agendas and ignore the voices of the people. They also perpetuate the need for aid by implementing unsustainable projects and perpetuate the occupation by treating it as a humanitarian crisis and not a political one.”
“This cycle has created an ‘INGO industrial complex’ that has become a rampant problem in the global South. The humanitarian approach keeps Palestinian civil society and grassroots leadership on short term funding cycles, fragmented programs with no coordinated vision that are authorized by international staff who are neither elected nor permanent residents of the city. The INGOisation of the occupation unintentionally draws the attention away from the real problem (occupation!) with increasingly privatized systems. It should be called what it is in the bigger picture: benevolent colonialism.”
The raised money will contribute to training more Jerusalemite guides for tours of the city and an updated edition of the Wujood (“Existence/Presence”) guidebook to Jerusalem. I have a copy of this fascinating book, partly funded by the European Union, which features nearly 150 pages of information about the city’s history, culture and logistics. Grassroots Jerusalem is also committed to publishing a Jerusalem atlas of maps.
I recently sat down and spoke to two of the group’s leaders, Amany Khalifa and Fayrouz Sharqawi, to discuss Grassroots Jerusalem, fighting Israeli occupation, media misrepresentation of Palestinians and foreign funding:
Fayrouz: “We currently have no donors. We had an EU grant 2011-2014 and they wanted to give us more money but we refused. They wanted partnerships between Israeli and Palestinian groups and we’re against normalisation. We rejected the money which is rare here. The US, EU and UN all give out so much money but what are they really achieving? Grassroots funding is to be independent. Ideology is dictated by foreign agencies. The hierarchy is very up down and not down up. It’s short-term funding, project based and against long-term strategy. We’re trying to build a model for other Palestinian groups. We’re aiming to raise $100k through the crowd-funding campaign.
We run Palestinian political tours around Jerusalem, mostly in English but also in Arabic including inside 1948 Palestine. We’re also aiming to reach Palestinians who don’t know their own history. We want to show the many Palestinian communities in Jerusalem and support them. We want to take tours behind the [separation] wall, which is difficult now due to logistics and time, such as Abu Dis and Shuafat refugee camp.
Amany: Whenever there’s a stabbing [in Jerusalem], the media focuses on this and not about the daily, non-violent resistance by Palestinians from local councils to other local groups in Jerusalem. We want to show the world the real Jerusalem, not just Via Dolorosa.
In the Old City, there are mostly only Jewish sites (a recent Haaretz article explained) and few Muslim ones on maps. The Judaization of Jerusalem continues. People don’t know that East and West Jerusalem are false divides. It’s not like the Berlin Wall here. Israel has drawn rules that make Jerusalem indivisible.
Fayrouz: I have to explain my right to exist even before Israel exists. I have to justify my experience in Palestine. I get asked [by journalists] why I don’t accept Israel’s right to exist. I hate this game. In the US, people pick between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, different narratives. Same here in Palestine. We have many people and journalists ask if this is a 3rd intifada. We get asked this all the time. Mainstream journalists ask about Palestinian violence.
Israeli policy is maintaining a 70% Jewish demographic balance with 30% Palestinian. This is the long-term Israeli strategy. We are fighting Israeli propaganda globally. Many journalists have Israeli type questions in their minds.
Amany: We have a right to resist Israeli occupation. We are hopeful. It’s not our right to judge Palestinian resistance. Resistance can’t go by the book. The last Israeli war with Hamas showed Hamas digging tunnels under Israel into a kindergarten and choosing not to attack, focusing on military targets. I call it the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces] not IDF. I went to Hebrew University, it’s a military factory, production of militarised society. There has been Palestinian resistance since the occupation of 1948. In the 1970s, planes were hijacked to raise the Palestinian cause. It’s ridiculous when the Palestinian Authority talks about co-existing with Israel.
We think international aid and money to Palestinians should stop. 70 years of occupation, the international community spiting in our faces and they want us to maintain the status-quo.
Fayrouz: The Palestinian Authority is the number one traitor, collaborator. [President Mahmoud] Abbas speaks against the will of the people, saying he wants peace. Abbas is worse than the Israeli government. PA has been critical post the Oslo peace agreement; Israel couldn’t control the West Bank without the PA.
Palestinians want to live. We want to liberate ourselves. We were hopeful during Oslo.
Yasser Arafat was a leader, a hero pre Oslo, but he brought catastrophe upon us [accepting the Oslo agreement]. He had no choice, his arm was twisted. Who forced Arafat into this situation?
Amany: The international community means governments influenced by multinational corporations.
We grew up to admire [Palestinian freedom fighter] Leila Khaled but now she supports the Assad regime. I can’t accept that.
Fayrouz: Everybody has a say over Jerusalem except Palestinians. No Palestinian leadership. PA is a failure, with no presence in Jerusalem, and development is decided by outside forces who are unelected. There are almost 400,000 Palestinians who have no real say. Our role is to collect Palestinian voices and amplify them. Our role is to network between Palestinian groups, to find almost one voice to speak to journalists about Palestinians.
Amany: “Peace-building” came with Oslo while the occupation grew. We’re not naïve that speaking to Israelis can help. The use of beautiful language can help, we’re told, but when you leave the meeting, Israelis and Palestinians go their own ways.
Our role is focusing on Palestinian communities. Building connections between Jerusalem, West Bank, Gaza and Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria.
There are maybe 20 anti-Zionists in Israel who could be partners. Anti-Zionism is the least I expect from partners. Without acknowledging the 1948 Nakba, Israel’s fascism, there’s no point in conversation.
We’re often asked why we don’t educate or teach Israelis. Non-violence is a privilege, impossible to implement.
Fayrouz: The majority of Palestinians don’t believe in dialogue and peace-building. Some believe that this helps make us lose even less. Growing numbers of Palestinians in Jerusalem want to be residents here. All options for Palestinians are decided by others. We’re tired of compromise.
It’s been 15 months since we received any salary for Grassroots Jerusalem. When we talk about, say, refugees returning to 1948 Palestine, we’re told by donors we’re too political. Donors are scared including European donors. One outside group who owned property in East Jerusalem said they wouldn’t rent office space to us because they were worried about the Israeli response. It’s our city.
BDS success shows that this issue is all about money.
Amany: We think BDS should work more organising Palestinian groups here. They should speak to us. It’s hard and impossible for me, living here, to avoid Hebrew University so what can Palestinians do to support BDS? Somebody has to visit local Palestinian communities. You can support BDS and invest here in our communities.
Fayrouz: We ask tourists to boycott Israeli businesses and support Palestinian tourism. We encourage foreigners who want to come and volunteer in Palestine to not go to West Jerusalem and have fun in Israeli bars. What’s their real goal here?
The position of Palestinians in Israel itself remains a daily challenge to assert one’s right to equality. I recently met a young Palestinian, Israeli woman in Jerusalem, living in the north of Israel, who said that having an Israeli passport made her an outcast in the Arab world. She couldn’t access many nations because of this document and she craved another nation’s passport. She wouldn’t want to bring up her children in Israel to suffer the same way she had with institutionalised racism and discrimination.
When I said I tried to avoid buying products from the settlements at local shops and supermarkets in Jerusalem, she said she didn’t really care because it made no difference. For her, Israel and the settlements were the same entity, the same country, the same laws. “It’s already one country”, she said. She argued that businesses in Israel proper and the settlements both pay tax to the Israeli state and the Israeli government funds and supports the illegal settlement project.
My column in the Guardian:
New South Wales Premier Mike Baird recently visited Israel and Palestine, the first for a sitting leader of the Australian state. After travelling to the occupied West Bank and seeing the Aida refugee camp, Baird wrote on Facebook that the situation was “heartbreaking.” He continued:
“I don’t know where the cycle of thousands of years of violence ends. But I do know that all kids should be able to dream. That they should have hope of a better future.”
Baird’s motherhood statements, pushing the human angle of the conflict, diluted the politics. He didn’t mention the Israeli occupation, its nearly 50-year existence and effects on Palestinian children. Human Rights Watch recently stated that, “Israeli security forces are abusing Palestinian children detained in the West Bank. The number of Palestinian children arrested by Israeli forces has more than doubled since October 2015.” Amnesty issued a report this month telling Israel to protect human rights defenders and activists from Israeli military and settler violence.
Baird also briefly went to Bethlehem and met its first female mayor. He wrote that Vera Baboun was a teacher and “fierce advocate for her community as she seeks to solve some very complex problems.”
Channel 9 News and Sky News covered Baird’s time in the West Bank, at least the word “occupation” was briefly uttered by one report, yet they both grossly exaggerated the journey into a supposedly brutal war zone. It’s nothing of the sort. I’m based in East Jerusalem and safely travel to the West Bank without fear of attack.
Apart from scant time in the West Bank, Baird’s trip was principally about deepening NSW’s economic, medical cannabis and policing ties to Israel. Co-ordinated by the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Baird was effusive in his praise for Israel. He told the Australian Jewish News that Israel is an “incredible nation” that is “leading the world in so many ways”. He wanted his trip to represent a “critical turning point” in relations between NSW and Israel, “going from being … allies and friends to significant collaborators and economic partners.”
Baird inked a deal with Israeli arms manufacturer, Elbit Services, to provide a flight simulator to help the Australian Royal Flying Doctor Service. Elbit is subject to a worldwide campaign against its involvement in Israel’s military and building of the separation wall through Palestinian territory.
The politics around Israel/Palestine are changing in Australia, however, and Baird’s visit won’t change this reality. Outgoing Labor MP Melissa Parke – who worked as a UN lawyer in Gaza – tabled a petition in parliament urging Australia to back the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The Greens’ Lee Rhiannon is an outspoken opponent of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Although many politicians and journalists from most media outlets routinely take free pro-Israel lobby trips to Israel with a few minutes in the West Bank, and despite growing opposition in the NSW Labor party, the Australian public are becoming less tolerant of the Israeli occupation and regular attacks against Gaza.
Roy Morgan polling from 2011 showed that a majority of Australians opposed expanding Israeli colonies in the West Bank, and in 2014 a majority also thought that Australia should vote yes for Palestinian recognition as an independent member state at the UN. These trends have had no effect on Australia partneringwith Israelis weapon’s manufacturers over the last decade; Canberra is keen to purchase battle-tested armaments.
The boundaries of acceptable political debate in Australia are narrow. Think of so-called Labor dissidents pushing for the party to recognise Palestine at some point in the indeterminate future when such a policy is irrelevant to facts on the ground after nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
The Palestinian Authority, the likely head of this “state”, is an authoritarian and corrupt body backed by the west, including Australia. What’s brave calling for them to rule over Palestinians? On the ground in Palestine, the idea of “recognising” Palestine elicits confusion. Many Palestinians tell me they crave global support and recognition but after years of empty gestures and UN resolutions their scepticism is warranted. Palestinian politicians haven’t faced an election in over 10 years.
I know that some activists in Australia celebrated Mike Baird’s brief trip to Palestine as a sign that political leaders have to at least show interest in the Palestinians in 2016. Perhaps. But until journalists and politicians talk more honesty about Israel’s stranglehold on the Palestinian territories, public opinion will continue to turn away from the Jewish state.
My feature in the Australian literary journal Overland:
Flying into Bentiu, a town in northern South Sudan, is unnerving. The front of a broken plane, cockpit windows smashed, sits close to the dusty airstrip; long green grass sprouts around the cracked fuselage. Soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a former guerrilla movement and now the country’s official army, live in tin sheds around the rocky runway. The young men, some in uniform and many not, are armed with AK-47s. They loiter, looking bored. Gunfire can be heard in the background. The sky is heavy with grey clouds.
Bentiu occupies a grimly unique position within recent South Sudanese history. In 2014, the town was the sight of a massacre, one of the worst atrocities of the civil war. Rebel forces killed hundreds of civilians and used public radio broadcasts to encourage the rape of women of different ethnicities, later releasing a statement that boasted of ‘mopping and cleaning-up operations’.
It’s July 2015, just a month before the signing of the peace agreement. I have been living in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, for most of the year, working as a freelance journalist; my partner is employed by an international NGO. Juba is a challenging place to be based; our existence was defined by security concerns, a collapsing economy, nightly curfews and growing crime. Temperatures in summer are regularly over forty-five degrees and water shortages are common.
South Sudan is land-locked, sharing borders with Uganda, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Like its neighbours, the country continues to endure the after effects of colonisation, having been occupied in the twentieth century by British interests. Much of the land is swamp or tropical forest, and the country hosts one of the largest wildlife migrations in the world.
I travelled to Bentiu by a slow-moving Russian UN helicopter. From the air, burnt-out buildings dot the swampy land. Tens of thousands of cattle are scattered among them, guarded by locals. Cattle-raiding is endemic in South Sudan, a brutal tactic used by government forces and militias to starve various groups of people. Cattle are the heart of the nation – cattle is not only used for food, but also for cultural practices, such as marriage (as bride price) and compensation after disputes – but years of war have left many without this precious commodity.
The trip from Juba took three hours and I was accompanied by Indian and Rwandan peacekeepers. There are over 12,500 uniformed UN peacekeepers in South Sudan – from a range of countries, including Cambodia, Australia, Zimbabwe and Yemen – making it one of the largest UN missions in the world.
A single muddy road littered with abandoned trucks and cars leads from the airport to Bentiu town and onto the sprawling UN base for internally displaced persons. The number of people seeking protection at the camp has swelled over the last two and a bit years of fighting; now, around 120,000 civilians live in a site originally built to house less than half that number. Almost every imaginable UN agency, international NGO and humanitarian group is involved in feeding, housing, rehabilitating and providing medical care.
The UN camp was established in December 2013, soon after violence erupted in Juba between President Salva Kiir’s faction, drawn primarily from the Dinka ethnic group, and those loyal to Riek Machar, Kiir’s former deputy, mainly from the Nuer ethnic group. At independence in 2011, both sides had been publicly committed to the new nation. But it didn’t last: tensions escalated, with both Kiir and Machar wanting more power. South Sudan is suffering today because these military men – both of whom spent decades fighting for independence – are unable to transition from combatants to democrats. Since it began in late 2013, the conflict has engulfed vast swathes of the state, destroying any hope that was felt locally and internationally in the first years of independence.
Indeed, the world’s newest nation has collapsed. ‘There has been so much killing, abuse and destruction of property here. It’s immense,’ an anonymous senior UN official at the refugee camp tells me (few UN authorities in Bentiu are authorised to speak openly to the media). Tens of thousands have been killed, and millions have been displaced internally and externally. Of the around twelve million people who live in South Sudan, 70 per cent face severe hunger. The economy is in freefall, with government forces and rebels fighting regularly over desperately needed oil reserves. Education and healthcare facilities have been unable to cope under the strain of the conflict. In 2014, the government hired former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and his new firm, Frontier Services Group, to help boost oil output, but there is little evidence it’s working.
Bentiu heaves with broken humanity. The camp looks similar to those that have sprung up in response to other African conflicts, from Central African Republic to Congo. But things were supposed to be different in this new nation. South Sudan was born nearly five years ago amid so much hope – something much of Africa can’t claim. Yet the country has disintegrated. Many of the refugees in Bentiu are exhausted and confused, unsure how their country is again unsafe for them and their children. They can’t plan more than a few days ahead, and their hopes of a better future have been extinguished by fighting and ethnic strife. But this time things are different: the tensions, I am told, aren’t historical or cultural, but rather fuelled by leaders with grim agendas.
The Bentiu camp stretches as far as the eye can see. Flimsy houses made of bamboo and plastic sheets are positioned near little stalls selling flip-flops, baby formula, dresses, broken mobile phones, bags of sugar and glucose biscuits. During the rainy season, April to November, vast parts of the camp overflow with mud and debris. In the camps early days, flooding was common; some residents lived in water up their waists, and children drowned in their own homes. The UN was unprepared for the sheer numbers of arrivals: one official says the situation was ‘unforeseen’ because few expected the war to escalate so quickly. The UN has also been accused by Canadian Megan Nobert of ignoring her rape and not taking responsibility for the attack at their Bentiu base in 2015. The alleged attacker was subcontracted by the UN, but agencies failed to properly investigate.
I have looked at photos of the early days of the camp and can see that much has changed. The UN and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours on improving conditions. There is clear evidence of raised land, water channels and new wooden structures that are incomparably less dirty and cluttered than the old ones.
In one of the homes I meet Julia John, a 25-year-old woman who shares the space with her husband and three young children, as well as with her sister, her sister’s children and her mother. Their tidy space has just two single beds, a small table and rug, plastic chairs and dresses hung as wall decoration. Julia tells me of her desire to return home, but also of her fear of living alongside her ‘enemies’. She fled the fighting in January 2014 and has been in the camp ever since. ‘I hope for peace, but am not hopeful,’ she says.
Julia’s old property is only a few kilometres from the camp, but to her it feels so much further away. Every day when she leaves the UN base to search for firewood, she faces the threat of rape; soldiers routinely abduct, assault and disappear women. Julia has asked the UN and NGOs to provide firewood inside the camp to avoid the treacherous journey – so far they have not complied.
As a result of ongoing fighting in the region, around 200 new arrivals flow into the Bentiu camp each day. I hear testimony from survivors of horrific acts of violence committed against the Nuer by government soldiers and its militias. There are stories of boys being castrated and of women and girls being publicly gang raped. Nyaduop Machar Puot, a mother of five, explains that she recently witnessed ‘women and kids [being] burned alive in their tukuls [traditional South Sudanese huts]’ in her area of Koch county. She had to flee with her family because her own house was burned down and her cattle stolen.
In July last year, Human Rights Watch released a report that featured interviews with more than 170 victims and witnesses of government and militia enforced violence in Unity (one of South Sudan’s twenty-eight states). The report concludes that the mass rape, beating, killing and dislocation were the result of ‘decades of impunity’ in the region and a lack of accountability, trials or proper investigation. It predicts that this legacy will continue to fuel further crimes in South Sudan.
Back in Juba, the crowds gather for South Sudan’s fourth anniversary celebration. Locals sing and dance in colourful dresses and formal suits that glisten in the sun. Some listen as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the only major international dignitary to attend, ominously warns of ‘outsiders’ meddling in South Sudan’s affairs. He blames former colonial powers, such as Britain, France and Portugal, for African woes and argues that ‘tribalism [and] sectarianism are wrong ideas’ that should be dismissed.
Uganda has provided thousands of troops to back the South Sudanese government since the 2013 conflict erupted. Most of these were withdrawn in 2015, though a handful remain. Israel and China also arm and back government forces, while Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir assists the opposition. South Sudan has become a proxy war. Sudan continues to destabilise a nation it never wanted to be independent (much of the valuable oil sits within South Sudanese borders), Israel has a long history of supporting African dictatorships and China wants access to South Sudan’s resources. Everybody has dirty, meddling hands. This is the modern face of imperialism. Foreign troops don’t need to occupy a nation for it to be controlled by outside forces.
Museveni’s speech is followed by President Kiir thanking his ‘fellow citizens’ for their years of struggle. He offers few practical solutions to the problems now facing the nation.
The mood at the event is muted – there is little to celebrate. People look forlorn, perhaps unsure why they have come, apart from loyalty to the independence cause. Not even the marching band can rouse the masses. I am looked at with suspicion; zealous security guards in sunglasses ask foreigners wearing sunglasses to remove them. Entrepreneurial women sell nuts and national flags, many of which wilt in the sun. Thousands of discarded, plastic water bottles litter the dusty ground.
South Sudan’s current crisis is entirely man made and yet the nation’s international backers chose to ignore the warning signs. There was a gaping democratic deficit at the heart of the liberation movement; its leaders’ known corruption was overlooked for geopolitical reasons.
Sovereignty wasn’t simply given to the South Sudanese by benign powers. The South Sudanese spent decades fighting for independence against an oppressive northern neighbour, and did so with international backing. I haven’t met any South Sudanese who don’t support separation from Khartoum. Decades of blood and pain were spent gaining freedom and this is why so many South Sudanese are today despairing at their country’s disintegration. ‘Everybody’s a loser in war,’ one man tells me when I visit Bor, in Jonglei state. ‘We’re all losers. We want peace.’
Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956, but subsequent decades saw Khartoum’s leadership apply a similar mindset to its southern section as its former colonial rulers. In his classic 1966 novel on colonialism Season of Migration to the North, Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih eloquently encapsulates this attitude: ‘They have left behind them people who think as they do.’
There were decades of civil war between Khartoum and its southern population over land, oil, dignity and prestige. Between 1983, when then President Jaafar Nimeiri introduced Sharia law, and 2005, when a peace agreement was finally signed, two million people died and four million were displaced. Both the SPLA and the Sudanese forces committed widespread abuses. Human Rights Watch released a report in 1994 that was eerily prescient in its predictions, warning that ‘the leaders of the SPLA factions must address their own human rights problems and correct their own abuses, or risk a continuation of the war on tribal or political grounds in the future, even if they win autonomy or separation.’ The SPLA and its backers never undertook this necessary accounting.
Today, due to the war, some South Sudanese survive on a diet of roots, water lilies, grass and leaves. Whole families have been forced to hide in dirty marshes, sometime for days, to escape violence. While in Bentiu, a number of women recount to me the brutality of militias, describing how babies were killed before their eyes. These women don’t expect justice or compensation, though they want both. I ask whether they dream of soldiers facing trial for war crimes when the country eventually finds peace – the idea is dismissed as fanciful.
Last August’s peace agreement includes provisions for a hybrid court staffed with South Sudanese and African nationals. It’s a bold initiative that shuns the more traditional route of the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body treated with suspicion across Africa because it rarely investigates crimes by Western nations. But there is little political will to establish this court for South Sudan because the organisation tasked to deliver it, the African Union, is made of leaders who are themselves facing warrants for arrest. This includes Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is charged with alleged genocide in Darfur.
In a tragic historical irony, South Sudan’s leaders are now mimicking its northern neighbour’s fraught relationship with the UN, the West and humanitarian groups. Government forces are stealing food from civilians, blocking the delivery of aid and studiously responding to allegations of abuse by claiming a Western and African conspiracy against their sovereignty. It’s an absurd suggestion, not least because the nation is only independent on paper; without foreign aid, the country and its population would not survive.
It’s an uneasy time for free speech in South Sudan. At least seven reporters were murdered in the country last year. None of the culprits have been found. In 2015, President Kiir threatened journalists critical of his leadership with death. Francis, a Juba-based reporter, tells me that he has to self-censor his work or he would not have a job. He doesn’t fear for his life, but knows his ability to be a critical journalist is severely curtailed.
As a state, South Sudan struggles to function in any capacity. Habib Dafalla Awonga, Director General for Programme Coordination at South Sudan’s HIV/AIDS Commission, explains to me how the war has hampered his ability to get reliable data on infection rates. He estimates that around 2.7 per cent of the population are HIV-positive, but has no way of sourcing definite numbers. It’s probably way higher, especially among soldiers sleeping with sex workers. Despite these concerns, Awonga accuses the West of ‘pushing a gay agenda’ because international HIV/AIDS bodies demanded protections for men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers.
This view that Western films, music and popular culture lead people towards sins such as homosexuality and sex work is commonly held across the continent. There are no publicly known gay groups in South Sudan, and being openly gay is impossible. Edward Emest Jubara, Acting Director General for Culture and Heritage in the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, told a local newspaper in July that ‘a relationship between a man and a man is unacceptable in our society’. He was responding to comments made by President Obama during his July visit to Africa, when he urged the continent to abandon anti-gay discrimination. These attitudes are why American evangelical churches view South Sudan, as they do neighbouring Uganda, as prime territory for spreading their anti-gay and anti-abortion agenda. Though exact numbers are unknown, a growing number of American evangelical groups are operating in South Sudan, and they’re finding a receptive audience to their message.
South Sudan’s issues manifest in a range of other hurdles, too. Only 2 per cent of the nation’s roads are paved, making it near impossible to access remote communities in the rainy season (aid groups are forced to rely on expensive UN flights). This year the UN is trying to raise US$1.3 billion from governments for humanitarian efforts. It’s a tough call when there are so many other pressing crises. Because Africa is largely ignored in the international media unless there is an Ebola outbreak or genocide – Black lives don’t matter here – South Sudan can’t compete with a sectarian, proxy war in Syria or post-US invasion chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan. Africa is still easily framed as the dark continent: uncivilised, violent, savage. Yet South Sudan joins a long list of dysfunctional African states, from Burundi to Guinea-Bissau, that are crying out for peace.
Being based in South Sudan has forced me to examine the uniqueness of the country’s crisis and how it compares to other, equally horrific situations in nearby countries. The most media-savvy citizens in Juba know that their nation is mostly ignored by the international media, that the conflict is not deemed important enough to warrant serious attention – the victims are non-people, nameless and disposable. But they have learnt that the ‘international community’ – a generic term that usually means what Washington and its allies want – has been unable and unwilling to pressure the warring factions. They also know that President Obama’s focus has been on the various conflicts in the Middle East. And while no South Sudanese express a desire for American military intervention, many wish for Washington to be more assertive in resolving the current conflict.
There is no doubt that the level of brutality in South Sudan is worse than almost any other conflict I’ve reported; depraved attacks against Palestinians and Afghans are not uncommon, but the scale and intensity in South Sudan is particularly harrowing. The remoteness of the conflict and the lack of accountability for war crimes has exacerbated extremism against civilians. I hear again and again vivid descriptions of rape and murder that shock me to my core.
South Sudanese leaders and military chiefs understand little about governance and that has led to endemic corruption. Between the 2005 peace agreement with Sudan and independence in 2011, Juba obtained over US$13 billion in oil revenues; a significant amount of this went to security expenditure and salaries. Development was largely forgotten.
But what is often ignored in the just-ified criticisms of state officials is the complicity of self-interested outsiders. For example, the China National Petroleum Corporation was keen to establish firm ties with Juba both before and after independence, in order to become a major political player in East Africa. But flowing oil has done little for the local population.
In 2015, to protect its economic interests, China deployed 1051 combat-ready troops to bolster the UN mission in South Sudan. The other, less publicly discussed agenda was to protect its financial posit-ion in an unstable nation. This signals a significant shift in Beijing’s thinking towards Africa. There are now at least 3000 Chinese soldiers, sailors, engineers and medical staff stationed across the continent.
According to Eric Olander, chief editor of the China Africa Project, China’s long-held ideology of non-interference is being tested in South Sudan. ‘At what point,’ he asks, ‘does a peace process where China is actively immersed in Juba’s domestic politics along with Beijing’s first deployment of combat-ready troops in Africa cross the line from peacekeeping to intervening in another country’s internal affairs?’
These geo-strategic manoeuvrings have no relevance for the millions of South Sudanese civilians suffering due to the conflict. In Wai, for instance, around 25,000 people live under trees and in a few mud shelters. There are no tents. Women and children sit on the ground almost motionless, mosquitoes buzzing around them, waiting for basic medical care and food handouts of oil and sorghum. It reminds me of the infamous images from Ethiopia in the 1980s. There are tens of thousands of others like this across South Sudan: communities left to fend for themselves because they cannot be accessed by aid groups. Nobody knows how many have died in the last few years due to starvation. No-one is counting the numbers.
These gruesome realities are at least condemned by the Obama administration, though it’s mostly lip-service. During Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia in July, he accused Kiir and Machar of dragging their nation into the ‘despair of violence’. But the Obama years have seen significant – largely ignored – expansions of the US’ military footprint across Africa, including deepening relationships with some of the continent’s most brutal dictators. This has contributed to instability and abuses in Libya, Mali, the Gulf of Guinea and elsewhere.
In his book Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, Nick Turse notes that at least forty-nine of Africa’s fifty-four countries have had some US military presence or involvement in the last decade. It’s arguably one of the greatest colonisation projects of the twenty-first century and virtually nobody knows about it. South Sudan was supposed to be central to this plan: a reliable client state in the heart of Africa, a base from which the US could challenge China’s growing military and political power on the continent. Its strategic importance for Washington, after years of losing influence to Chinese infrastructure and funding projects, has withered since the outbreak of the civil war. The failure of the US to assist in building infrastructure or to respond to human rights violations and state corruption has been critical in South Sudan’s ongoing instability.
But almost as soon as conflict erupted in 2013, Washington was distracted by the civil war in Syria, the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. Uncritical praise for the South Sudanese regime soon became more circumspect, despite the billions of dollars being spent on propping up the government. One unnamed US official was recently reported as saying that ‘the parties have shown themselves to be utterly indifferent to their country and their people, and that is a hard thing to rectify’.
Accountability for this catastrophe is difficult to find, especially from the high-profile American backers who spent years pushing for South Sudan’s independence. Few questions were asked on the suitability of South Sudanese leaders, their human rights record or their ability to manage a new state. This is hardly unsurprising: Beijing and Washington traditionally prefer partnering with reliable autocrats.
In the mid 1990s, a small group of American activists and officials began a campaign to push for South Sudanese independence. The three key individuals were Susan Rice (then assistant secretary of state for Africa, now Obama’s national security advisor), Gayle Smith (then at the National Security Council and now administrator of USAID) and John Prendergast (then at the National Security Council, soon the State Department and now co-founder of the Enough Project). Actor George Clooney later became active over Sudan’s abuses in Darfur. Arguably, South Sudan became a cause célèbre because helping build a new state seemed romantic and justified in a post-September 11 world.
Very few of these individuals looked too closely into who they were backing in South Sudan. Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University and a leading Sudan expert, tells me that ‘South Sudan’s leaders believed that they had the backing of the US administration, with celebrity activists as their enforcers, to defy the rules of that club. The SPLA was permitted to get away with murder because they had a chorus of supporters who would unfailingly chant that the other side was worse.’
Thankfully, some have recognised the need for change. Last year the Enough Project launched ‘the Sentry’, a project targeting the financial enablers of violence in South Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere across Africa.
Meanwhile, in the southern town of Yei, near the borders with Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, there is an illusion of tranquillity. Many refugees fleeing Darfur and the Nuba Mountains reside here, and the dusty streets feel relatively peaceful. American and Australian evangelicals operate His House of Hope – Bet Eman Hospital for Women and Children and the Reconcile Peace Institute. Both organisations do important work, but nowhere is safe for long because of the sporadic outbreaks of violence. Civilians are scared, not trusting the words of politicians.
In South Sudan more generally, the hope that went with independence has largely evaporated. There is currently no indication that a comprehensive and sustainable peace deal will completely stop the violence and allow the country to develop its infrastructure and resources. A UN report from earlier this year concludes that both Kiir and Machar should face sanctions for their roles in the war. Without concerted international pressure to cease the violence and to establish accountable trials and a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission, South Sudan is destined to remain mired in conflict. Its determined people deserve far better from the major global powers that, just a few years ago, promised them the world.
Crikey is one of Australia’s best independent news websites. I contributed extensively over the years from 2009 – 2012. Its current departing editor, Marni Cordell, with whom I worked when she edited another great Australian site, New Matilda, has written a revealing article that interviews previous Crikey editors and their experiences. It contains this anecdote that proves once again that being critical about Israel/Palestine is full of political and financial risks:
Misha Ketchell (2005-2006) says he felt sick “pretty much every morning” as Crikey ed. “I don’t miss the sheer terror of being on that tight morning deadline, or coming home at the end of the day a shell of a human being. I’ve never since worked under the same sort of compressed time pressure that we did at Crikey in those early days.”
One of the most awkward, however, was “probably when I published a poem that Guy Rundle wrote as a tribute to Antony Loewenstein, called ‘Ballad of the self-hating Jew’.
“When the poem arrived I realised it was genuinely affectionate tribute to Loewenstein, but it was riffing in a typical Rundle edgy way and I was worried that some people might not get the satire and think it was anti-Semitic,” he says.
“I rang Antony and asked him to vet the poem. He liked it and said we should publish it, so we did. Then the calls started to come in accusing us of anti-Semitism. Some very important advertisers pulled their advertising. Eric Beecher was great about it — he never said a word — but I knew it hurt Crikey commercially.”
For the record, I still like the poem so here it is (this will make most sense for people living in Australia):
by Guy Rundle (for Antony Loewenstein):
He was trucking down Carlisle St
With a bagel in his hand
Someone said to someone
Who is that awful man?
Him? Oh my dear I thought you knew
That’s the neurotic, self-hating Jew
He thinks it’s not impossible
That Israel is in error
And even if you’re airborne
Terror is still terror
Mass killing might be wrong!
Gosh even torture too?
Yes, amazingly, cos he’s a neurotic quite
psychotic, self-hating Jew
He believes peaceful neighbours
Can’t be built from rubble
And it’s possible that Begin
Was Arafat sans stubble
That Dershowitz is crazy
And Danby might be too
He’s a neurotic, psychotic, ingrate
third rate, self-hating Jew
He’s pretty sure that AIJACS
Will get a surface clean
(sotto voce: Gaza for example)
But you shouldn’t inhale it,
If you know what I mean
He disagrees with Leibler (gasps)
So alas it must be true
He’s a third rate, ingrate, simple inexplicable,
Utterly despicable, neurotic, quite psychotic, blue meanie party pooping self-hating Jew
He thinks that Eretz Israel
Needs someone to restrain her
Says he likes chopped liver
But not if it’s called “Qana”
He’s a yarmulke-wearing mullah
And once we’ve whacked Hezbollah
(any day now)
We’ll settle his hash too
Ingrate third rate, neurotic, quite psychotic
Vanunu in a muu-muu, self-hating Jew.
The following article appears today in the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age and is written by Garry Maddox. The headline is, “Australia’s foreign aid is largely wasted because of corruption, says documentary maker Antony Loewenstein”:
Australian feature films have largely avoided hot political subjects lately – though that may change with Matthew Saville’s planned film on the Tampa crisis – but documentary makers have been far from reluctant.
Well-known journalist Antony Loewenstein has written and appears in Disaster Capitalism, about the “the dark side of moneymakers and aid exploiters” in Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea, which has been selected for North America’s largest documentary festival, Toronto’s Hot Docs, which starts later this month.
And after four years working on the film with director Thor Neureiter, Loewenstein concludes that the amount of Australia’s foreign aid that is wasted is “huge”.
“The vast majority of aid that Australia has given to PNG in the last years, especially in Bougainville, has gone to waste,” he says.
“That’s not to say there’s not been valuable projects. I’ve seen with my own eyes in Bougainville certain medical facilities and support networks that have helped people.
“But so much of the aid in PNG has gone into corruption … too often Australian aid is tied to pushing corporate mining interests.”
Although the country’s involvement with Haiti has been limited, Loewenstein says the vast majority of aid to Afghanistan “was funnelled through the corrupt Afghan government and also warlords that the Australian government partner with.” He sees that as “a huge problem”.
Disaster Capitalism, which is “90 per cent shot”, will feature in Hot Docs Forum, which gives the filmmakers 15 minutes to pitch to financiers, producers, distributors, sales agents and broadcasters from around the world.
Speaking from East Jerusalem, Loewenstein tells Short Cuts the aim of the film is to make viewers more aware of where their aid money is going.
“It’s not a call to stop aid,” he says. “It’s to make it smarter aid, more targeted and more engaged aid with locals on the ground.
“As we’ve seen in Haiti, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea, aid is not actually helping the people it claims to be helping.”
Loewenstein says Disaster Capitalism has been a tough film to shoot.
“In all three countries logistics are tough,” he says. “Security, particularly Afghanistan, is incredibly shady.”
My essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, known as “El Chapo,” was recaptured by Mexican marines in January. It was the latest in a long history of farcical escapes and imprisonments that have dominated the life of the world’s most infamous drug boss.
His legacy is clear. Unmarked graves of mass killings are ubiquitous across Mexico, a product of both failed policies against cartels and complicity with them. The civilian death count in the last decade alone is estimated at over 100,000 people, with at least 25,000 missing — comparable to the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mystery still surrounds the drug trade. When the cartel head was recently interviewed by Sean Penn in Rolling Stone, veteran “war on drugs” chronicler Don Winslow condemned the article for its myopia, and bias. He called it a “brutally simplistic and unfortunately sympathetic portrait of a mass murderer.”
Guzman’s capture, and the way it was covered, highlight a narrative about the “War on Drugs” that has dominated the media for years. It’s a myth that revolves around determined Mexican officials targeting drug bosses and successive American administrations funding a drug war to destroy the dealers, pushers, and producers. Anabel Hernandez exposed this narrative as a lie in her book Narcoland (2010), a massive bestseller in Mexico. In it, she detailed the intimate connections between every level of the Mexican state and the cartel run by Guzman, the Sinaloa. Washington was complicit in the game, according to Hernandez. Any real battle against drugs was an illusion, for show, she argued — and she named all the officials, including Mexican presidents, with ties to the narco trade.
The real Washington agenda in Mexico was compromised, and never about destroying the drug trade. In 2014, the Mexican newspaper El Universal found evidence in court documents that DEA agents had met Sinaloa cartel members between 2002 and 2012 and left its business free to operate in exchange for information on rival cartels. The DEA was willing to accept Sinaloa carnage to pursue another, apparently noble agenda, fatally breaking Washington’s publicly stated opposition to Guzman’s empire. It’s a tactic that’s been similarly used by the DEA, with equally devastating results, in Afghanistan and Colombia. In this worldview, civilian deaths are a necessary casualty.
Despite decades of narco killings, little is still known about the secretive “War on Drugs.” Journalist Ioan Grillo, author of the book Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, writes that both countries have wrongly pursued a “cartel decapitation strategy.” “While these kingpins rot in prisons and graves,” Grillo notes, “their assassins have formed their own organizations, which can be even more violent and predatory.” It’s an extreme form of cross-border capitalism that rewards groups involved in politics, mining, money laundering, fraud, and all forms of criminality. It’s arguable that these gangs would continue making money even if all drugs were legalized.
Narco History (OR Books, 2015) is a perfect backgrounder to the “War on Drugs.” In it, Mexican author Carmen Boullosa and American academic Mike Wallace uncover a century of failed drug policies that have only worsened the violence consuming Mexican and American communities. “We argue that the very term ‘Mexican Drug War’ is profoundly misleading,” they write, “as it diverts attention from the American role in its creation.” As they explain,
“Americans understandably view the blood-drenched bulletins from below the Rio Grande as dispatches from a different world. They are reports from a distant battlefield, limning a Mexican Drug War — presumably a conflict of Mexico’s making, hence Mexico’s responsibility alone. But we believe the term to be a misnomer, as the complex phenomena to which it refers were jointly constructed by Mexico and the United States over the last hundred years … What is perhaps less appreciated is how much the present situation dates to America’s long-ago coupling of a voracious demand for drugs with a prohibition on their use or purchase.”
Beginning in the 1910s, the authors explain, “Mexico was not a helpless, hapless victim. Powerful forces within the country profited hugely and happily from supplying gringos with what their government forbade them.” Prohibition, criminalization, and racism are early targets of the author’s wrath as key instigators of instability and corruption. They cite Southern American whites who believed that cocaine made black men rape white women. “It was not fear of drugs per se that drove the prohibitionists, so much as fear of the social groups who used them,” they argue. Henry Aslinger, the fanatical antidrug head in the US, was explicitly racist in his pronouncements. “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he said.
The authors clarify how the long and porous border between Mexico and the United States has contributed to the drug trade. In the early 1900s, “border crossing was a breeze because there were no official restrictions or quotas on Mexican movement north.” American agricultural companies wanted cheap labor and Mexicans were the solution (returning to their homeland in the winter). Drugs moved easily between the two countries, particularly opium.
Fearing an underclass that could challenge Mexico’s social and political hierarchies, Mexico launched a “war on drugs” that was essentially a war on the poor people most susceptible to the trade, mirroring the way Chinese and blacks were demonized for drug use in the United States. As Wallace and Boullosa write, “revolutionary elites associated alcoholism, opium addiction, and marijuana consumption with lower-class illiterates and (mistakenly) with indigenous Indians — ‘backward’ social sectors. Drugs were perceived as obstacles to forging a new model citizenry, one that could build a modern, progressive, and civilized Mexican nation.”
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 in America pushed the drug onto the black market where it remains to this day, despite an increasing number of US states legalizing and regulating it. But even back then, voices of reason existed. Dr. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, head of the Mexican Federal Narcotics Service, was a respected physician for his work at Mexico City’s Hospital for Drug Addicts. In October 1938 he published a prescient paper titled “The Myth of Marijuana,” in which he argued that it was a relatively harmless substance that didn’t induce criminal behavior or psychosis. He opposed Mexico’s prohibition of the drug and pushed for a government-sanctioned monopoly on drug distribution. America vigorously opposed the idea. Narco History doesn’t explicitly say it, but Viniegra’s report, had it been adopted by America and Mexico in the 1930s, could have saved both nations decades of violence, rampant corruption, and drug lords like Guzman.
Former Mexican President Vincente Fox today claims that all drugs will be legalized in Mexico within 10 years, which may be one way to halt the apocalyptic drug-related violence that has wracked the nation for decades. Mexico’s Supreme Court approved in 2015 the growing of marijuana for recreational use, bringing the drug’s legalization one step closer.
By the mid-1970s, Mexico was supplying 75 percent of America’s marijuana, guaranteeing corruption on an industrial scale in both nations. It wasn’t until Richard Nixon declared an official “War on Drugs” that a new, more brutal phase emerged. “Not even Nixon still believed that marijuana drove people to rape and murder,” the book argues, “but he did believe, as did many cultural conservatives, that cannabis was doing something worse — undermining American civilization itself.”
Such a challenge required a monumental effort, and in 1974 Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). At its inception, it had 1,470 agents and an annual budget of less than $75 million. Today, its budget is more than $5 billion annually, and it has offices in 62 countries. There are serious questions about whether the DEA, a government body that alleges clear connections between drug trafficking and terror plots, are stopping threats or just staging them against low-level drug pushers or innocent people, to prove they can effectively prosecute criminals. Although a senior DEA agent in Kenya recently told me that the “links can’t be shown [in court] because of the nature of the information,” hard evidence is mostly lacking.
Nixon’s legacy — an endless war against groups and individuals he believed were deviant —continued long after his resignation. Narco History artfully details President Ronald Reagan’s expansion of the drug war against the Mexican people (though it was never framed that way, the results were devastating for farmers and peasants who relied on the drug trade to make a pitiful living.) Marijuana, Reagan laughably said, was “probably the most dangerous drug in America.” Despite the American government pumping huge amounts of money into tackling Mexican drug barons, contraband continued flowing into America, a country with an insatiable appetite for illicit substances.
President Reagan wasn’t deterred. Perhaps the most egregious example of Washington’s hypocrisy in the “War on Drugs” involves the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. The administration wanted to back the Contras, a paramilitary group aiming to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. The cynicism and brutality of the policy is explained in Narco History:
“One idea they [the US government] hit upon was to covertly ferry arms to the Contras via Mexican drug dealers. Félix Gallardo, at that point running four tons of cocaine into the United States every month, provided ‘humanitarian aid’ to the Contras in the form of high-powered weaponry, hard cash, planes, and pilots. Indeed, a Caro Quintero ranch became a training facility, run by the DFS — the CIA’s faithful Mexican affiliate. In return, Washington looked the other way as enormous amounts of Mexican-processed crack cocaine flooded the streets of US cities, the super-addictive, mass-marketed drug wreaking havoc in poor communities, and triggering an Uzi-driven competition for market share that sent crime rates spiking.”
By the 2000s, drug violence was soaring in Mexico, a direct result of the US-backed, militarized “War on Drugs.” This led to a stream of Mexicans seeking shelter in America, millions over the years, and yet it was rarely explained in American political and media discourse why these individuals were coming in the first place. Drug and criminal gangs, such as the Zetas, were kidnapping, extorting, and killing the desperate souls fleeing for their lives (these stories are beautifully and painfully reported in The Beast by Óscar Martínez.) The Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land details how growing numbers of Mexicans are fighting back against the cartels and arming themselves for the battle.
There’s little evidence that either Mexico or America is intent on seriously changing its approach to drug gangs. Although Mexican towns like Juarez are less apocalyptically violent than a few years ago, Narco History concludes with a cautious tone. While noting large public acceptance in America for marijuana legalization, a massive shift since the 1960s, the authors argue that the “war on drugs” has always been a battle to subdue minorities — America’s culture of mass incarceration against Hispanics and African-Americans attests to this theory — and it continues to be the case in both Mexico and America:
“Legalization of marijuana (and perhaps other drugs) would not be a magic bullet. Believing it would end the drug wars overnight would be as delusional as was the fantasy of prohibitionists that banning alcohol would usher in ‘an era of clean thinking and clean living.'”
America’s role and responsibility in Mexico is contested. Despite many arguing for continued funding of Mexican political reform, a recent New York Times letter by Laura Carlson, Mexico City-based director of the Americas Program in the think tank Center for International Policy, questioned this morality. “As a political analyst living and working in Mexico for the last three decades,” she wrote,
“I have watched with horror how the United States-Mexico drug war strategy has led to the explosion of violence and criminal activity here. The deep-rooted complicity between government officials and security forces on the one hand and cartels on the other means that the training, equipment and firepower given in aid and sold to the Mexican government fuel violence on both sides […] Victim organizations that have organized throughout the country demand that the United States stop funding the drug war under any guise.”
Narco History, a timely, insightful, and passionately argued short volume, is essential reading to understand why both Mexico and America have been ravaged for over a century by cartels, politicians, and gangs. The authors aren’t starry-eyed about legalization (although they support it) because they fear that drug cartels, such as Guzman’s Sinaloa, could become corporations and sell marijuana or other drugs legally on the market. What’s required for a wholesome change in Mexico’s dysfunctional political structure is “a complete dismantling of the anti-drug regime.” Tragically, at present, there’s too much money to be made for the war to stop.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian columnist and author of many books including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).
My book review in The Australian:
Rwandan President Paul Kagame is feted across the world, celebrated for rescuing his country after the 1994 genocide and bringing stability to a devastated nation. Kagame’s government has received billions of dollars in aid and weapons for more than 20 years from the US, Israel, Britain and the EU, not to mention the Clinton Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative and many others. Just this year Kagame was invited to speak at the Harvard Business School, and feted in Toronto by its cultural and business elites.
Kagame rules over a country of spectacular beauty, rare mountain gorillas and streets of deceptive cleanliness. He feels protected, confident that his foreign donors will keep the money flowing while internal dissent is extinguished. Few questions are asked about his military forces killing tens — or perhaps hundreds — of thousands of people in the Congo after 1994. Nobody wants to hear about journalists and writers critical of the Kagame government, or military leaders, disappearing or being murdered in the capital Kigali and elsewhere. Grenade attacks against civilian targets are dismissed and rarely reported.
The revelations in this book, one of the finest works of reportage in living memory, reveal the depravity at the heart of modern Rwanda, backed and defended by guilt-ridden Western states. Author Anjan Sundaram, who lived in Kigali for years teaching journalism, funded by the EU and Britain, confronts an EU ambassador about his backing for state terror. “Aren’t you worried about giving money to a dictator?” Sundaram asks. “I have no problem with giving money to a director,” the man replies. “He runs one of the most efficient governments in Africa. I’m proud to be giving him money. By giving him money we influence their policies. We are for freedom of speech. We will influence the government in the right direction.”
Bad News dismisses this notion as wilful fantasy. Sundaram explains how Kagame and his cronies institute an “army of flatterers” to ask the President only softball questions at press conferences: “Your Excellency, I was asking myself the other day why our government is so capable and professional.” Loyalty is rewarded with favours, money and promotion.
Sundaram, whose fine first book, Stringer, reported on the largely ignored Congo conflict from the perspective of a young foreign correspondent, befriends Rwandan journalists in an attempt to understand why the country became an autocracy. He is told about how every part of the country is organised into administrative units to allow monitoring of citizens. There is no privacy. His friend Moses tells him that people want to please the state, fearing punishment if they do not, and will happily report anything suspicious to higher authorities.
Rwandans live in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Gibson, a friend of Sundaram, says: “We hide from the government, which wants to see us all the time. So you now see the truth in our country is hidden, you need to look not for what is there, but for what they hide. You cannot pay attention to what they show you, but need to listen to those who are kept quiet. You need to look differently in a dictatorship, you need to think about how to listen to people who live in fear.”
This book’s strength lies in its ability to convey the nightmare of today’s Rwanda and the international community’s complicity in it. Sundaram cites the UN’s choice of Kagame as head of a high-profile committee on improving the welfare of citizens around the world. The group included Bill Gates, Nobel prize-winner Muhammad Yunus and CNN founder Ted Turner. “[UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon] said the committee would be a collection of development ‘superheroes’. A number of messages of congratulations for Kagame came in from foreign leaders and dignitaries. The President said in response that he was honoured. The more the President’s statements went unchallenged by Rwandan journalists and citizens, the more the world believed in their truth.”
The 1994 genocide permeates the book: for survivors, for outsiders who didn’t help, and for donors looking away once more in the face of repression. “Never again” in the case of Rwanda appears to mean tolerating a dictatorship because, were they to halt aid, donors fear being accused of ignoring a nation in need. Unquestioning Western aid is a justifiable target because Sundaram shows that building roads, schools and infrastructure is only one part of a nation’s rebirth. Without freedom of speech or movement, and civic life, Rwanda is almost guaranteed to face further serious violence.
Bad News offers no simple solutions to Rwanda’s descent into autocracy. Western states that offer almost uncritical backing of Kagame bear partial responsibility for creating millions of fearful citizens who know that obedience to the leader is essential for survival.
Antony Loewenstein is a Middle East-based independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
By Anjan Sundaram
Allen and Unwin, 240pp, $29.99
My column in the Guardian:
Charisma and persuasion matter in politics. Though neither trait guarantees fair policies or outlook – think Tony Blair backing the catastrophic war against Iraq, or Malcolm Turnbull hailing himself as a free speech champion before pressuring the ABC over its robust journalism – image is apparently more captivating than ever in the 21st century.
That’s the mainstream consensus, anyway. The last 12 months have challenged this reality. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour party and Bernie Sanders as a viable US Presidential candidate proves that the general public increasingly craves potential leaders who understand economic disenfranchisement (likewise the allure of Donald Trump).
Both men’s popularity is despite them being unconventional left-wing politicians, outsiders with little love for the Labour or Democratic elites, with strong messages against the political and media establishments.
Sadly, it’s highly unlikely that anybody remotely as critical of the system will appear in Australia to lead one of the two major political parties. A relatively buoyant economy – despite a growing homeless problem and rampant wealth inequality – has insulated Australia from the worst excesses of the global financial crisis. As a result, the country is left with leaders who rarely stray from reflexive, pro-US and neo-liberal positions on the economy, foreign affairs, intelligence and spying.
Both the United States and Britain have suffered greatly in the last decades from a bi-partisan obsession with supposedly free trade, crony capitalism and privatisation. America’s infrastructure is literally falling apart. The results are clear to see with four out of every 10 households in the UK below the poverty line and 46 million Americans equally poor.
These individuals are mostly invisible in political campaigns and yet Sanders and Corbyn are articulating how this happened and what to do about it. Austerity is rejected. For example, Sanders has an economic plan that favours high spending for vital services and increasing taxation on corporations. Many young people are flocking to him.
Latest opinion polls place Corbyn’s Labour neck-and-neck with the Tories despite Corbyn being accused of turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism in his own party. His ascension doesn’t mean that the Labour party isn’t still filled with politicians, officials and former leaders who loathe any deviance from the establishment view on politics and are committed to destroying Corbyn and what he claims to represent; the promotion of equality and justice for the majority of the population.
In Australia, why is it impossible to even imagine a person such as Corbyn or Sanders rising to a leadership position? Labor is led by Bill Shorten, a man of stunning unpopularity though both the Liberal and Labor parties are, according to the latest polls, as popular as each other. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is pandering to the far-right base of his party, men he fears could topple him. The Greens are languishing in third place.
The prospect of an election on 2 July (or whenever it may be) will bring little change to Shorten’s posture. His party’s long-term erroneous belief, despite diving membership numbers, is to differentiate itself only marginally from political opponents. Therefore, expect continued blind support for the Liberal party’s positions on foreign policy, spying for Washington through the Five Eyes network, and data retention.
There are some obvious reasons that a proudly left-wing candidate would have little chance in Australia. A reactionary Murdoch empire would aim to topple anybody pushing for, say, companies to pay more tax, asking questions about the nature of the US alliance over intelligence sharing, spying on neighbours and foreign companies. How about ending the privatisation of all prisons, public services and immigration detention centres? It would be deemed as radical, unfriendly to big business and shunning our biggest ally.
The majority of Australians oppose privatising public services, believe the government should be far more critical of Israeli actions in Palestine and want a strong and publicly-funded Medicare and university sector (the deregulated system for higher education in the US has led to massive student fees and institutions turning into corporations).
Of course there remains vital criticisms of the policies pushed by Corbyn and Sanders, including their ability to seriously challenge the might of corporate donors and big business if they made it to power. Recall the Syriza party in Greece promised to unwind harsh austerity then capitulated to even stricter economic strangulation.
But can you imagine an Australian political leader pledging to massively increase funding for schools and universities, hugely invest in sustainable energy solutions, reduce defence spending and not join every failed US misadventure in the Middle East? While much of this is the current Greens party platform, its failure to attract widespread political support is symptomatic of a political and media clique that hates genuine outsiders.
Political uniformity in Australia, with few politicians daring to vote against their party on issues of moral or social significance – sending asylum seekers to be abused on remote Pacific islands or increased surveillance powers – doesn’t create allegiance, but dogma.
What the rise of Corbyn and Sanders shows is that within the strict confines of mainstream politics it’s possible to generate huge public passion for politics. Corbyn has invigorated huge numbers of young Britons and Sanders attracts massive rallies. In Australia, Turnbull and Shorten are lucky to generate any passionate interest in themselves or their parties beyond the true believers.
One of Israel’s biggest newspapers staged the country’s first national conference against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement this week in Jerusalem. Yedioth Ahronoth and its website Ynet organized a day-long event that featured the majority of leading Israeli politicians and many cultural figures. Fear, paranoia, anger and determination was ubiquitous amongst the panelists and audience. BDS could never have imagined a more high-profile advertisement for its agenda.
Co-sponsored by Sodastream, World Jewish Congress, Bank Hapoalim and StandWithUs, who are organizing their own anti-BDS event in Los Angeles in April, the aim of the day was to counter the worldwide growth of BDS. The organizers stated that, “without knives or missiles but with an explosive payload consisting of outrageous lies – genocide, apartheid and crimes against humanity – the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is conquering a growing number of strongholds in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. From the campuses of California to the supermarkets of Paris, the academic, economic and cultural boycott is becoming a palpable threat to the international status of the State of Israel.”
Held in the Jerusalem Convention Center, hundreds of young and old participants from across the globe were treated to a collection of images in the foyer mocking the intentions of BDS supporters. One picture featured two black Africans standing on dry land while pro-Palestinian flotillas headed out to sea in the opposite direction. “Let’s wave these, maybe we’ll get some support, too”, one of the impoverished looking Africans said to the other while holding Palestinian flags. Another image showed an Israeli soldier saying to what was presumably a Palestinian woman, “Ho, cute baby.” A man sitting in a director’s chair labelled BDS shouts, “Cut! We need more hatred! The world won’t buy that!”
The professionally organized conference was slick. Throughout the day, short videos with ominous music were shown to the crowd. The clips were of BDS supporters, BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti (a name repeatedly mentioned during the day, including threats to remove his permanent resident status), global protests against Israel and musicians who refuse to play in the Jewish state.
Speaker after speaker either confirmed the BDS threat or said it shouldn’t be exaggerated. There was confusion how to tackle a problem that couldn’t be destroyed by conventional military means. Yedioth Ahronoth Editor-in-Chief Ron Yaron said that BDS should not be underestimated. There was a “feeling that you have been marked…We don’t want to wake up in 10 years to find ourselves in a position like apartheid South Africa.” He quickly dismissed any comparison between the two nations.
An “information kit for Israelis studying abroad” was available listing the “lies” and “truth” about Israel. It’s a curious document. While acknowledging that, “not every closing of every store in Hebron is fair and not every delay at every checkpoint is justifiable”, occupation (though this word isn’t used) is still sugar-coated. “In spite of the obvious improvements in the lives of Palestinians from 1967 until today, Israeli rule has also created serious issues for Palestinians.” The 1948 Nakba is explained away as “there were some instances of expulsions [but] these were not the rule.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, hailed as a moderate in some of the American media despite recently meeting with members of Lev HaOlam (a group dedicated to supporting businesses in the occupied West Bank), condemned BDS. “The BDS movement is a movement founded on the non-acceptance of Israel’s existence”, he said. “We must differentiate between criticism and de-legitimization. We must show the world the claims of the BDS movement are based on hatred and enmity of the State of Israel.” Rivlin praised Israel’s democratic nature and “one of the most ethical armies in the world”. He closed his remarks by saying that, “the Israeli flag should be held high and we should be proud”. The crowd cheered.
Ron Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, told the gathering that, “our enemies have failed to destroy Israel militarily and economically. Having failed, they are trying to destroy Israel politically.” He accused “well-financed anti-Israel groups” of poisoning the minds of Jews on US campuses. “Most Jewish students are ill-equipped to defend themselves”, he argued. The irony was lost on the crowd that the US Zionist community has already spent tens of millions of dollars trying to polish Israel’s image with little discernable effect. There’s no evidence that BDS groups have received any comparable financial backing.
Lauder pledged to push the US Congress and other nations “to make economic boycotts illegal.” There are signs that the US Congress is taking note and pushing to criminalize constitutionally protected speech and non-violent resistance. France is leading the way with other countries likely to follow. Such legislation guarantees BDS activists will break the law and challenge its moral and legal basis.
Successive politicians slammed BDS and never mentioned the occupation (a word that only appeared during the day when questioning BDS allegations against Israel). Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan linked BDS to jihadism and Islamist terrorism, a connection repeatedly made across every panel. “Supporters of BDS justify their actions because of the ‘occupation,’ but if we really look at them, they also wave Hamas flags and call for the destruction of the State of Israel. This fight is not over any particular thing in our lives – but over our right to live here.” Erdan was pleased that every US Presidential candidate spoke out against BDS at the recent AIPAC conference in Washington DC. “Not Bernie Sanders”, he said, “but I’m sure he’ll be against it, too…With the help of God and you all, we will succeed.” Erdan recently claimed that BDS was a threat “to the international community” as well as Israel.
Haaretz journalist and commentator Gideon Levy has written for years that the majority of the Israeli media are mouthpieces for the government of the day. They may disagree with certain policies now and then but in the end they’ll side with Israel’s pro-occupation regime. The anti-BDS conference offered more evidence to prove Levy’s point. Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Ben Dror Yemini praised Israel’s democracy and relished “exposing” critics “who publish lies”. Another Yedioth reporter, Ronen Bergman, after recounting one of his Israeli intelligence sources “recently telling me that we can fight Hizbollah, Iran and its nukes but we haven’t yet defeated BDS; it’s a strategic challenge for the Israeli state”, asked whether “we defeat BDS like we did Hamas and Islamic Jihad 15 years ago [during a wave of suicide bombings]?”
One of the more predictably disappointing speakers was EU Ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, who was recently defamed in a video by Israeli settlers comparing him to Hannibal Lector. After refusing pro-Palestinian activists request to withdraw from appearing on stage with Dani Dayan, former head of the settler movement and just appointed Israeli consul-general in New York, his comments were timid. After stating that EU policy towards the settlements was that they were illegal, he continued: “Our policy is engagement with Israel. We are Israel’s largest trade partner, and we are Israel’s most important international partner in science, technology, and the list goes on.”
He was asked if an Israeli company had offices or factories in both Israel and the occupied territories was reason to label its product from the settlements (as is now happening in the EU with products from the West Bank). He said no. “Settlement products are welcome on the EU market”, he stated, undermining any effort to hold Israeli companies to account.
A flurry of Israeli politicians appeared, mouthed anti-BDS platitudes and left the building. Labor Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, who recently proposed a policy of forcibly separating from the Palestinians, praised the IDF as “working to the highest goals” and compared BDS to classic anti-Semitism. Yair Lapid hoped to “motivate the start-up nation”.
Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon said there was “no evidence that the Israeli economy was affected” by BDS though pledged to help any Israeli company that was. Israeli farmer Bar Heffetz recently wrote on Facebook that BDS was having an effect on sales to Europe. Kahlon said that Palestinians were the ones suffering the most from BDS “as the boycott harms the exports from the settlements, where most of the workers are Palestinians.” Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said it was fashionable to “be vegan and hate on Israel” and wanted Israel to “change its policies [and] support the IDF as a moral and strong army.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett wanted Israel to “change the narrative and highlight our strong points. Trade with Europe is up and Israel is a steady light tower in an Arab storm.”
Challenging the official position that BDS wasn’t harming the Israeli economy, a panel with Israel’s leading industrialists argued otherwise. Former Intel Israeli President Shmuel Eden said that BDS was a “terrible threat” and “we are losing young, Jewish Americans”. Michael Jonas, CEO of Afek Oil and Gas, accused BDS of “terror” and expressed displeasure that many Arab states didn’t recognize its drilling in the occupied Golan Heights. Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of Sodastream, said Israel was in a “war” and denied that his company’s recent move to open a new plant in the Negev had any connection to BDS pressure (a contrary position to what he argued last year). “We needed a bigger plant and in the Negev, one hour from Ramallah, gives Palestinians work. This isn’t an apartheid state; we need co-existence.” Ofra Strauss, chairperson of the Strauss Group, urged more publicity about US and Israeli ties. “I grow in pride when people around the world drink Sodastream”, she said.
A sign of the anti-BDS campaign’s desperation was asking American actress and comedian Roseanne Barr to give the keynote address. She has a history of defaming Islam. Her talk rambled between accusing BDS of being “fascist” and “right-wing” and denying Israel was occupying any Palestinian territory at all (a position shared by virtually all of the day’s speakers). The crowd cheered throughout her talk. “It’s a huge turn-on being in service as a Jew”, she said to applause.
A panel dedicated to “beating the boycott movement on social media” consisted of mostly StandWithUs employees. “Strategic consultant” Chen Mazig, self-described “good friend” of Roseanne Barr, called prominent Palestinian writer and tweeter Ali Abunimah “a raving fanatic, a lunatic. He hates Jews”. Honest Reporting CEO Joe Hyams wanted the audience to “focus on the 85%-90% of people [online] who are undecided about Israel”. His organization routinely publishes propaganda for the IDF.
By late afternoon, and the program running overtime, US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, repeated US talking points about Israel and vigorously opposed BDS. Interestingly, he urged Israel to resume peace talks with the Palestinians because, “when we have such a tool, our hand is strengthened, not with the core advocates of BDS, who have a truly anti-Israel agenda independent of the conflict, but with those who are persuadable, and there are significant numbers of such people.” It was a theme repeated by Tzipi Livni earlier in the day. BDS would apparently suffer if at least the illusion of peace talks took place.
Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, a hard-right politician who has called all Palestinian people the “enemy”, said that “justice ministers around the world are great friends of Israel. They all love Israel and want to cooperate with it, especially in light of Israel’s experience in the war against terrorism.” She’s right; this co-operation is deepening and will likely continue to do so after more attacks like the ones recently suffered in Europe.
By day’s end, with all the fish, chicken, salad and marzipan chocolate eaten, the final session was about the cultural boycott of Israel and how to beat it. Actress Yael Abecassis said that she was a “spokesperson [for Israel] as soon as I leave the house, when I leave the country. We are all soldiers.” Musician Idan Raichel said that BDS activists had never successfully cancelled his performances. Producer Shuki Weiss, who revealed that Elton John was asked to sign an Israeli loyalty pledge before his show in Tel Aviv, said that few international musicians were listening to the BDS call by former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters.
It was a surreal day, filled with determination to defeat BDS, but participants were seemingly incapable of truly understanding why the movement was surging globally. Anti-Semitism was the oft-stated reason. The current mood in Jewish Israel is nationalistic, belligerent, fearful and contemptuous of Palestinians, pro-military and intolerant of dissent. International media is being blamed for Israel’s poor global standing.
BDS is working. Israeli companies are increasingly moving out of the West Bank to avoid being boycotted (though corporate media outlets like the Financial Times continue to produce plush spreads about the “start-up nation”). In many ways, the West Bank and Israel are already indivisible politically and morally; it’s one state with Jews and Arabs facing different rights and laws. Israel proper is complicit in establishing and deepening the West Bank colonies. De-facto annexation of the West Bank is happening today. Gaza remains broken.
The fact that this anti-BDS event happened at all, after years of Zionist groups and the Israeli government claiming the movement was irrelevant, was a clear sign that BDS has started to bite. Mossad is already pushing a cyberwar against BDS activists. The anti-BDS conference revealed that there are few strategies being contemplated apart from more money for US campuses to spread Israeli propaganda and funds to better sell the country’s supposed benefits to an increasingly skeptical world.
There’s no doubt that draconian legislation against BDS could hamper the movement’s rise in the short term, and BDS leaders could be targeted by political, social or military means, but the underlying trajectory of Israel is clear. The US and its allies are now supporting the “first signs of fascism in Israel”, Gideon Levy recently said. BDS will continue to grow globally because Israel is helping its cause on a daily basis.
Yesterday I was interviewed by ABC Radio Adelaide from Australia by host Peter Goers on Israel/Palestine, disaster capitalism and Papua New Guinea:
I was recently interviewed by Lulaine Compere for leading American music magazine The Source:
The system of capitalism is always being debated. In most countries people are fighting it, seeking to replace it, or trying to improve it. The mere presence of capitalism also brings with it values and ideas that will have huge consequences for the people who live under it. The ideals and virtues of capitalism hold true, even in times of disaster and chaos. Antony Loewenstein, an Australian journalist, explains this phenomenon in his new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out of Catastrophe . As a current columnist for the Guardian, he has written on this and other similar topics for not only the Guardian, but also other publications like The New York Times, The Nation, and The Washington Post. The Source got a chance to speak with Loewenstein about the premise of his book and to explain what is disaster capitalism.
The Source: What was the motivation behind writing your book Disaster Capitalism?
Antony Loewenstein: As an investigative journalist who doesn’t subscribe to the embedded reporter mindset, I wanted to write a book that questioned the economic system of our age in some of the most challenging places on the planet, such as Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. Furthermore, how does privatized immigration and war affect civilians in Greece, Britain, Australia, the US and Britain? By visiting these nations, and understanding how rarely the voices of those most affected by discriminatory economic policies are heard in the mainstream media, I hoped to show readers that the corporation has become more powerful than the state, and why that’s a big problem for democracy and accountability.
How does this book differ and how is it similar to Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine?
I was inspired by Klein’s book and wanted to expand her thesis. The Shock Doctrine was released in 2007 and much has changed since then, especially the 2008 global financial crisis. A key focus of my book is the privatized immigration industry across the globe. I wanted to investigate who was making money from the refugee “crisis” in Europe, Australia, the US and beyond, and why exploiting this issue was morally and economically irresponsible.
Is disaster capitalism “imperialism” by another name?
In many ways, yes. Take Afghanistan, consumed by war for decades. There are an estimated trillions of dollars of resources under the ground, but the excavation so far has been beset by corruption and violence. Is it even possible to responsibly mine in the country with a rising insurgency? What about climate change concerns? Imperialism, a word that the corporate media so rarely uses in the 21st century when discussing Western government and corporate policies, is little different to past exploitation by the major powers and multinationals, except that globalization today has allowed domination to occur on an unparalleled scale.
Should it be morally wrong or unethical for a company to make money during a disaster or in the aftermath?
No. It all depends on what the company is doing and how. Are they employing locals and training them? The profit motive often distorts the priorities of a corporation in a disaster or war zone, though I’m not idealizing the state, either. An entity that can and does regularly fail to provide adequately for its citizens—think New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. A key problem with corporations operating in disaster zones, man-made or natural, is the lack of regulation, oversight and accountability. In Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, one of the world’s biggest copper mines, run by Rio Tinto, caused a civil war and pollution in in the 1970s, 80s and 90s and yet today, the company has paid no compensation and is talking about re-opening the site. It’s an almost invisible struggle against huge odds. I wanted to show how one company could take on a major mining player and win, though at a huge personal cost.
How should the rules of capitalism change or adjust should a disaster strike?
When a disaster strikes, necessary regulations should already be in place, but my book investigates how this is so rarely the case. Even in first-world nations, such as the US and Australia, the ongoing refugee “crisis” finds politicians and their media supporters supporting a “whatever it takes” mentality to manage it. Out of sight and out of mind is often viewed as a positive, short-term solution. For example, Australia is the only country in the world to completely privatize its asylum seeker facilities, including those based on remote Pacific islands. The conditions are awful; mental health problems are rampant and sexual and psychological abuse are common. None of these issues have stopped wily companies from bidding on contracts and making a profit from the misery of others.
Do you see the topic of disaster capitalism being discussed in some part by politicians throughout the world?
The vast majority of corporate politicians don’t discuss disaster capitalism because they’re complicit in continuing it. There are exceptions. US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has pledged to abolish privatized prisons and immigration centers due to the abuses within them.
Where are the latest examples of disaster capitalism taking place in the world?
In Afghanistan, there are still tens of thousands of private contractors with virtually no oversight. There are also many private contractors fighting ISIS in Iraq, but we don’t know the exact number. Once again, US President Barack Obama fights his wars with no transparency. Since 2001, the US has pledged to spend $110 billion in reconstructing Afghanistan and there’s very little to show for it.
Are there opportunities for disaster capitalism to be played out in more developed countries like U.S., Europe and Russia?
Disaster capitalism is borderless and knows no ideology other than the profit motive. Globalization allows unregulated corporations to travel the world looking for nations with low or no tax rates. Without a concerted international effort to challenge tax havens, disaster capitalism will continue to thrive.
What is the role of non profits and NGOs, where disaster capitalism can or is taking place?
NGOs and non-profits can play a central role in disaster and war zones. I’ve seen this myself in Haiti, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere. But too often, accountability for NGO actions are missing. For example, the American Red Cross raised huge amounts of money after the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but little of the money has helped the Haitian people. This case, and many others, is why the public should demand far greater scrutiny of groups that cloak themselves in benign intent.
Can you talk about the links between donor funds from donor countries, companies in those donor countries, the needs of the people in the disaster area, and what appears to be the freezing out of professionals in those countries? Can you also explain the diverging agendas that seem to happen when all these forces collide?
After the Haitian earthquake in 2010, the US government pledged to give the country billions of dollars in support. In reality though, much of this money went to US corporations, who failed to deliver on the ground in Haiti. A major insight during the reporting of my book is how little accountability exists within the aid world, when there’s a major incentive to keep the donor money rolling in. During my work in many troubled places, I’ve seen committed aid workers helping people in need, but it’s important to ask if prolonged conflicts are benefiting long-term NGOs. I want to see locals in developing nations being far more empowered by outside forces, through training, jobs etc, rather than being bystanders in their own country.
What has been the reaction from people about your book?
I’ve been pleased with the global response to the book, including a very positive review in the UK Guardian. I’ve toured the book in the UK and US, and found countless people keen to share their dismay with the political and economic direction of their nations. The immigration issue has been especially potent because the mass of people coming into Europe and the US are easily demonized as numbers and irritants, dismissed and turned into a number to be profited from. We need to resist this dangerous and immoral capitalist tendency.
What are the future plans for the book?
The book will be released in paperback later this year. I’ve also been working for years on a documentary called Disaster Capitalism with New York film-maker Thor Neureiter. It features stories from Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. We’re currently working on a rough edit of the feature. In recent great news, we’ve been accepted into the prestigious Hot Docs film festival in Toronto in May.