The issue of the Sydney Biennale receiving financial support from Transfield, a company profiting from running detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, has troubled many artists and activists (my recent Guardian column examined it).
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
Years after America officially withdrew from the country it invaded in 2003, Iraq remains in chaos. The issue is largely ignored in the press these days, except for the occasional horrific tale of carnage. Nobody senior in the western world has found themselves in the dock defending their justifications for the war.
While examining the lack of legal oversight, the lack of planning or concern for the aftermath of the inevitable fall of Saddam Hussein, and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny preceding what amounted to a US war of aggression, it’s worth reflecting on the viability of making a peaceful, citizen’s arrest on former Australian prime minister John Howard for his central role in this story.
This idea has a clear and principled pedigree. In 2010, Guardian columnist George Monbiot initiated the ArrestBlair.org campaign for the purpose of rewarding anybody who made a peaceful citizen’s arrest of the former British leader. Blair was accused of “crimes against peace” and the crime of aggression. Because the political and media elites continue to insulate Blair and his colleagues from legal culpability over the Iraq war, alternative methods were required.
To this day, Iraqis are enduring insecurity, violence, kidnapping, sexual violence, extremism and terrorism. The legacy of the conflict is absolutely devastating. And yet the politicians who took America, Britain and Australia into the conflict work and play openly.
Howard, who led Australia into Iraq in 2003, remains a free man, lecturing around the world. He was given an award at Tel Aviv University this year for his “unwavering, courageous advocacy of the state of Israel spanning decades”, is often quoted in the media, and gave a talk at Sydney’s Lowy Institute in 2013 defending the morality of removing Hussein from power.
No apologies, no mea culpas and no serious questions followed. The vast bulk of the political elite prefers to ignore what transpired in 2003, and there are no serious calls to hold Howard accountable for alleged breaches of international law in joining George W Bush’s operation (Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry is a notable exception).
In Britain, the Downing Street memo revealed the illegality of the war without a UN resolution. In Australia Howard’s government, according to countless interviews with insiders at the time, had no interest in gaining advice about the legality of the enterprise. Blindly supporting the US alliance, and a desire to crush a former American ally, was paramount. Then defence department head Ric Smith has said that he “was not aware of any senior official advising against it [going into Iraq] in my time .” In reality, John Howard ministers took no advice before joining the war.
The head of the department of prime minister and cabinet, Peter Shergold, told journalist Paul Kelly in his 2009 book The March of the Patriots that “it would be wrong to think they [Howard and then foreign minister Alexander Downer] were not interested in advice but the advice they wanted … was about the conduct of the war and capabilities, not the decision to go to war.”
Britain’s Chilcot inquiry, yet to release its report amidst accusations of political interference, heard in 2010 that every senior legal advisor at the Foreign Office before the war concluded that it breached international law. Despite these damning facts, Blair and his foreign secretary Jack Straw are seemingly immune from prosecution or even serious investigation.
This is where the power of the people becomes vital, if for only symbolic reasons, to highlight the institutional failure of our nominally democratic system to hold the highest office bearers to account. International law must apply to all.
This January, Monbiot praised the latest individual who confronted Blair, at a restaurant in London, and wrote that:
It has already succeeded in doing two things: keeping the issue – and the memories of those who have been killed – alive, and sustaining the pressure to ensure that international law binds the powerful as well as the puny.
The evidence against Howard is long and detailed. He has continued to claim it was “near universal” that Saddam had WMDs and Iraq was therefore a threat to the world. In fact, countless officials, insiders,weapons inspectors and secret services questioned the accuracy of these “slam dunk” assessments. The head of Britain’s MI6 told Blair in 2002 that “the intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy.” In Australia, senior intelligence officer Andrew Wilkie resigned in 2003 over his claims that Howard was abusing intelligence reports over Iraq. No independent legal advice was sought, and therefore the party cabinet decision on war was not a transparent process .
Even former Howard government minister, Nick Minchin, admitted in 2010 that he regretted Australia was “not able to be more successful in persuading the Bush administration to remain focused on Afghanistan rather than in opening up another front in Iraq.” Minchin argued that he “knew that the decision [to invade Iraq] having been made, Australia had to support it.” There was no mention of legal advice supporting Canberra’s entry into the conflict.
Margaret Swieringa, a senior Australian public servant who worked as a secretary to the federal parliamentary intelligence committee from 2002 until 2007, wrote in 2013 that Howard’s use of intelligence reports was fundamentally flawed. She knew, as an insider, that, “none of the government’s arguments [of Iraq’s apparent immediate threat] were supported by the intelligence presented to it by its own agencies. None of these arguments were true.”
A campaign to hold Howard to account wouldn’t be a stunt. It would be a serious attempt to keep the most devastating war in a generation in the public arena by reminding those most implicated that there is a price to be paid if such actions are ever repeated again.
A full public inquiry into the Iraq war, including the war powers used by Howard to take Australia into a conflict opposed by a great number of Australian people, is required.
A stunning work from the new investigative site The Intercept – founded by Jeremy Scahill, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the articles already speak for themselves; critical, punchy and unafraid to take on power – reveals the British and American attempts to destroy Wikileaks and attack its supporters. As a backer of Wikileaks since the beginning, in 2006, I continue to believe its documents are some of the most important this century:
Top-secret documents from the National Security Agency and its British counterpart reveal for the first time how the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom targeted WikiLeaks and other activist groups with tactics ranging from covert surveillance to prosecution.
The efforts – detailed in documents provided previously by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – included a broad campaign of international pressure aimed not only at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but at what the U.S. government calls “the human network that supports WikiLeaks.” The documents also contain internal discussions about targeting the file-sharing site Pirate Bay and hacktivist collectives such as Anonymous.
One classified document from Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s top spy agency, shows that GCHQ used its surveillance system to secretly monitor visitors to a WikiLeaks site. By exploiting its ability to tap into the fiber-optic cables that make up the backbone of the Internet, the agency confided to allies in 2012, it was able to collect the IP addresses of visitors in real time, as well as the search terms that visitors used to reach the site from search engines like Google.
Another classified document from the U.S. intelligence community, dated August 2010, recounts how the Obama administration urged foreign allies to file criminal charges against Assange over the group’s publication of the Afghanistan war logs.
A third document, from July 2011, contains a summary of an internal discussion in which officials from two NSA offices – including the agency’s general counsel and an arm of its Threat Operations Center – considered designating WikiLeaks as “a ‘malicious foreign actor’ for the purpose of targeting.” Such a designation would have allowed the group to be targeted with extensive electronic surveillance – without the need to exclude U.S. persons from the surveillance searches.
In 2008, not long after WikiLeaks was formed, the U.S. Army prepared a report that identified the organization as an enemy, and plotted how it could be destroyed. The new documents provide a window into how the U.S. and British governments appear to have shared the view that WikiLeaks represented a serious threat, and reveal the controversial measures they were willing to take to combat it.
In a statement to The Intercept, Assange condemned what he called “the reckless and unlawful behavior of the National Security Agency” and GCHQ’s “extensive hostile monitoring of a popular publisher’s website and its readers.”
“News that the NSA planned these operations at the level of its Office of the General Counsel is especially troubling,” Assange said. “Today, we call on the White House to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the extent of the NSA’s criminal activity against the media, including WikiLeaks, its staff, its associates and its supporters.”
Illustrating how far afield the NSA deviates from its self-proclaimed focus on terrorism and national security, the documents reveal that the agency considered using its sweeping surveillance system against Pirate Bay, which has been accused of facilitating copyright violations. The agency also approved surveillance of the foreign “branches” of hacktivist groups, mentioning Anonymous by name.
The documents call into question the Obama administration’s repeated insistence that U.S. citizens are not being caught up in the sweeping surveillance dragnet being cast by the NSA. Under the broad rationale considered by the agency, for example, any communication with a group designated as a “malicious foreign actor,” such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, would be considered fair game for surveillance.
Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in surveillance issues, says the revelations shed a disturbing light on the NSA’s willingness to sweep up American citizens in its surveillance net.
“All the reassurances Americans heard that the broad authorities of the FISA Amendments Act could only be used to ‘target’ foreigners seem a bit more hollow,” Sanchez says, “when you realize that the ‘foreign target’ can be an entire Web site or online forum used by thousands if not millions of Americans.”
Back in January 2013 I signed a statement as a Jew in a global campaign backing the Palestinian right of return. The same New York-based Jews have collected signatures for a new, equally vital statement and my signature appears below:
We salute the American Studies Association’s courageous endorsement of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli academic institutions, which are leading accomplices in more than six decades of ethnic cleansing, colonization, war crimes, and apartheid.
As Jews, we refuse to remain silent as a so-called “Jewish state,” armed by the U.S. and its allies, commits these injustices with impunity in our name.
Contrary to baseless charges of “anti-Semitism,” BDS resembles the boycotts that “singled out” similarly racist regimes in Jim Crow United States and apartheid South Africa.
Applying the same standards to apartheid Israel, BDS demands nothing more — nor less — than freedom and justice throughout all of historic Palestine, by calling for:
• An end to Israeli military occupation of the 1967 territories
• Full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel
• Right of return for Palestinian refugees, as affirmed by UN resolution 194
We call on Jews of conscience everywhere to honor our own proud heritage of resistance to oppression and injustice by standing with the Palestinian people, BDS, the ASA, and the growing international movement in support of these fundamental human rights.
Partial list of initial signers
(List in formation; affiliations listed for identification only. Add your name here.)
- Avigail Abarbanel, psychotherapist, activist, writer; Inverness, Scotland
- Gabriel Ash, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-Switzerland
- Prof. Jonathan Beller, Humanities and Media Studies; Director, Graduate Program in Media Studies, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn
- Prof. Steve Brier, historian, New York
- Eitan Bronstein Aparicio, Tel Aviv
- Nora Barrows-Friedman, journalist; Oakland
- Max Blumenthal, journalist and author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel
- Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic Culture, UC Berkeley
- Lenni Brenner, author of Zionism In The Age Of The Dictators
- Estee Chandler, Community Organizer, Los Angeles
- Mike Cushman, Convener, Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (UK)
- Eron Davidson, award-winning filmmaker, Roadmap to Apartheid, USA
- Warren Davis, labor and political activist, Philadelphia, PA
- Hedy Epstein, Nazi Holocaust survivor and human rights activist; St. Louis, MO
- Samuel Farber, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Brooklyn College, CUNY
- Joel Finkel, Jewish Voices for Peace-Chicago
- Prof. Cynthia Franklin, Co-Editor, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, University of Hawai’i
- Lee Gargaliano, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-US
- Dr. Terri Ginsberg, film and media scholar, New York
- Sherna Berger Gluck, emerita faculty, California State University, Long Beach; founding member, US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel; Israel Divestment Campaign
- Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence, Berkeley
- Hector Grad, Prof. of Social Anthropology, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid
- Ira Grupper, former National Co-Chair, New Jewish Agenda (1989-1993)
- Jeff Halper, Director, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD)
- Stanley Heller, Host, “The Struggle” Video News, TSVN
- Shir Hever, Jewish Voice for Just Peace, Germany
- Tikva Honig-Parnass, former member of the Zionist armed forces (1948); author of False Prophets of Peace: Liberal Zionism and the Struggle for Palestine
- Adam Horowitz, Co-Editor, Mondoweiss
- Selma James, Global Women’s Strike; International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-UK
- Jake Javanshir, Independent Jewish Voices, Toronto
- Emily Katz Kishawi, Jewish Anti Zionist Network, San Francisco
- Sara Kershnar, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-International
- David Klein, Organizing Committee, US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
- Toby Kramer, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-US
- David Letwin, activist and teacher, Al-Awda NY: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition
- Michael Letwin, Former president, Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW Local 2325; Organizing Committee, US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel; Al-Awda NY: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition
- Dr. Les Levidow, Open University, UK
- Brooke Lober, PhD candidate, Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Arizona
- Antony Loewenstein, Australian journalist and author
- Jennifer Loewenstein, Faculty Associate, Middle East Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Samantha Liapes, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network
- Barbara Lubin, Executive Director, Middle East Children’s Alliance; Oakland, CA
- Prof. David Makofsky, Research Anthropologist, People’s Republic of China
- Mike Marqusee, author of If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew
- Thomas Mayer, Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado at Boulder
- Linda Milazzo, writer, activist, educator, Los Angeles
- Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action-Los Angeles/People Against Racist Terror (ARA-LA/PART)
- Prof. Bertell Ollman, Dept. of Politics, New York University
- Prof. Ilan Pappé, Israeli historian and socialist activist
- Miko Peled, writer, activist, author of The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine
- Prof. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, Sakharov Prize laureate, Jerusalem
- Karen Pomer, granddaughter of Henri B. van Leeuwen, Dutch anti-Zionist leader and Bergen-Belsen survivor
- Roland Rance, Jews Against Zionism, London
- Michael Ratner, President Emeritus, Center for Constitutional Rights (for ID purposes only); New York
- Ruben Rosenberg Colorni, Journalist, The News Junkie Post, Activist – Youth for Palestine; The Hague
- Lillian Rosengarten, activist for Palestinian liberation and a bi-national Israel/Palestinian State; New York
- Prof. Jonathan Rosenhead, London School of Economics
- Ilana Rossoff, community organizer; New Jersey
- Cheryl Rubenberg, retired associate professor of Middle East politics at Florida International University (Miami)
- Josh Ruebner, Author of Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace
- Margot Salom, Just Peace for Palestine; Brisbane
- Yom Shamash, Independent Jewish Voices; Vancouver
- Tali Shapiro, Boycott from Within; Israel
- Sid Shniad, Independent Jewish Voices; Vancouver
- Jonatan Stanczak, Managing Director, The Freedom Theatre
- Marsha Steinberg, BDS-LA for Justice in Palestine
- Prof. Miriam Swenson, educational psychology
- Steve Terry, criminal defense attorney; Brooklyn, NY
- Sam Weinstein, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-Labor
- Abraham Weizfeld, Administrative Secretary, Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians
- Marcy Winograd, former congressional candidate, Los Angeles
- Bekah Wolf, UC Hastings College of Law Student; Co-founder, Palestine Solidarity Project
- Sherry Wolf, Associate Editor, International Socialist Review
- Dr. Roger van Zwanenberg, Non-Executive Director, Pluto Books Ltd.; London
My weekly Guardian column is below:
But a major sponsor is Transfield, a company used by the Australian Federal Government to handle refugee services and which therefore profits from the asylum seeker industry on Nauru and Manus Island. This association has caused refugee activists to call for a boycott of the Biennale.
Sydney design academic, Matthew Kiem, recently penned an open letter to visual arts teachers to send a strong, public message to the Biennale that association with a company like Transfield was ethically unacceptable. He wrote in part:
The most appropriate response to this situation is to boycott the Biennale. While this may feel as though we are giving something up, it is in fact one of the best opportunities we have to make a material impact on the supply chains that permit the detention industry to work. We are in a particularly strong position here given that our decisions could have the effect of redirecting a significant number of students, income, and kudos away from [this event] and towards other kinds of experiences and discussions … A strong response this year is the best way to ensure that future Biennales are not funded through [companies associated with asylum seeker detention].
Kiem told artsHub that “we can and should be putting pressure on the Biennale organisers to find other ways of funding art.”
In the last week I’ve seen countless high profile refugee activists writing on Twitter that they intend to boycott the event and will encourage supporters and the public to follow suit.
Thus far the Biennale has stayed relatively quiet on the matter, though last Friday tweeted:
Naming and shaming corporate sponsors of cultural events and products has a long and noble history. London’s Tate Modern is backed by BP, causing British activists to stress the corporation’s questionable environmental practices. This year in Australia the Minerals Council, in an attempt to sex up and soften its image, is sponsoring a popular commercial radio program. Online protest was guaranteed.
Actor Scarlett Johansson recently found herself in the crosshairs of pro-Palestine advocates because she backed Sodastream, a company with a factory in an illegal settlement in the West Bank. Her reputation has taken a hit and the role of Palestinian workers under occupation received global attention. Other firms operating in the West Bank, while brazenly saying they don’t fear future boycotts, are naive if they don’t think similar actions will soon affect them.
In America recently the gender equality organisation Catalyst awarded weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin for “supporting women’s advancement”. I know there were a number of employees at Catalyst who expressed dismay at the tragic irony of praising a corporation that sells technology to some of the worst abusers of women in the world, such as Saudi Arabia. Separating politics from ethics is impossible.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, a critical social media campaign against the Biennale, currently developing organically, has the potential to embarrass the event and highlight the often vexed question of corporate sponsorship of artistic and cultural events. If the boycott grows, it won’t be the first time that these tactics have been employed in Australia over funding.
Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island festival faced outrage in 2002 when it was announced that Forestry Tasmania would be a sponsor in 2003.Artists boycotted, including novelist Peter Carey, and the move caused a vital debate about the ways in which organisations, often with a problematic public image, aim to alter perceptions by backing arts events. Principled participants have a potential choice; be involved and risk being seen as complicit or remove themselves and remain pure. In the real world, such decisions, especially for artists who need and crave exposure, are not easy matters.
Although it’s true that Transfield has a long history of backing various artistic forms, the last years have seen a conscious choice to enter the world of asylum detention. Both Serco and G4S know how financially beneficial this is.
The exact nature of Transfield’s work is mired in mystery – a press release on 29 January merely referred to Garrison Support Services and Welfare at both Manus Island and Nauru – but it’s clear that management sees further opportunities with Tony Abbott’s government; Canberra has a bottomless pit of money to “stop the boats” and punish refugees.
The links between the Biennale and Transfield are not hidden – the chairman of the Biennale, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, is also an executive director at Transfield.
Is this really the kind of corporation to which a leading arts event wants to be associated? What message does this send to the wider community? Should it be acceptable to earn money from the grubby business of imprisoning asylum seekers while at the same time backing glittering artistic works?
I’ve asked the Biennale to address these contradictions. “Our understanding”, they write, “is that the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru are run by the Serco Group, which is not a Biennale sponsor.” This is incorrect; Serco has no known involvement.
“If any sponsor were found to be directly involved in the abuse of refugees, or anyone else for that matter, we would naturally reconsider our relationship.”
The statement continues: “Transfield Services has been a long time supporter of the Biennale. They supply food, clothing and other provisions to a number of industries and government projects. They are a listed company with high ethical standards and a publicly stated code of conduct.”
Addressing the call to boycott the event, “we believe that the campaign is well intentioned but misguided.” I ask about the potential social media campaign against them. “Many of us at the Biennale hold strong views on the refugee issue,” they argue. “We would not knowingly associate with the abuse of a disadvantaged group like the refugees. We believe that any action to hinder the Biennale would damage the ability of 94 artists to exhibit their work and gain exposure for their talent. That would be regrettable.”
How the Biennale and related events are funded should be key public questions, especially in an age where far too many companies want to mask their dirty profit-making with shiny, artistic treats. It is our responsibility to demand better.
Welcome to the smell of futility. The last months have seen an avalanche of Zionists, liberal Zionists, columnists and fear-mongers claiming that boycotts against Israel are dangerous, yet offering nothing to end the occupation.
The latest, via Haaretz, is the Netanyahu government potentially spending huge dollars on attacking BDS backers. There’s one small problem (as usual): it’s about spin and does nothing to end daily violence against Palestinians:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a meeting Sunday evening to discuss how to cope with the growing threat of the economic boycott on Israel in light of continued occupation and settlement construction in the West Bank.
Senior Israeli officials said prior to the meeting that the plan was to try to decide on a strategy and determine whether to launch an aggressive public campaign or operate through quieter, diplomatic channels.
The discussion had been scheduled to take place last week, but canceled at the last minute due to the political row between Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Sunday’s meeting will take place amid a different confron
tation – this time between Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
The previous discussion was supposed to include a broad forum of ministers. The Science Ministry asked to separate the discussion on the economic boycott threat from a discussion on the academic boycott threat, since there is already a strategy for the latter, while the former has yet to be dealt with.
The discussion, scheduled to begin at 5:30 P.M., will only include Lieberman, Bennett and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is expected to present a plan his ministry has been working on.
According to plan, Israel should be proactive in its opposition to organizations who promote boycotts against Israel. The plan proposes to invest substantial resources in organizing a public campaign.
Minister Steinitz is demanding a budget of 100 million shekels for implementation of the plan, which would include PR materials and aggressive legal and media campaigns against pro-boycott organizations.
The Foreign Ministry has a different approach. Diplomats think the non-governmental organizations pushing for a wide-ranging boycott against Israel and not strictly against the settlements are relatively marginal and that a public campaign against them will only play into their hands, bolstering them.
The Foreign Ministry thinks the public response to organizations promoting a boycott against Israel should be constricted. It wants to focus on less public diplomatic activity to combat such initiatives and believes advancing the peace process with the Palestinians will stave off a large portion of the boycott threats.
One of the issues to be discussed at the meeting is whether to file legal suits in European and North American courts against organizations that are proponents of the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Ministers will also consider whether to take legal action against financial institutions that boycott settlements, or boycott Israeli companies that are somehow operating in or connected to the settlements.
Another consideration is whether to activate the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., specifically AIPAC, in order to promote legislation in Congress against the economic boycott of Israel, akin to the legislation that was passed in the 1970’s against the Arab boycott.
One of the issues that will be raised during the discussion is that there is a lack of knowledge and inefficient tracking by Israeli intelligence of pro-BDS organizations.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry has provided the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence department a budget of several million shekels for the purpose of bolstering military surveillance of such organizations. However, the need for the prime minister to instruct the Shin Bet Security Service and the Mossad on the efforts is likely to come up.
My following feature appears in the January edition of Britain’s New Internationalist magazine:
Outsourcing detention to private companies is a recipe for a disaster, says Antony Loewenstein.
Imprisoning immigrants is good for business. In the US it’s common for lobbyists hired by leading prison companies to magically convince officials to write legislation that benefits their bottom line.
US magazine The Nation revealed in June 2013 that the massive corporation Geo Group had used the firm Navigators Global to lobby both houses of Congress on ‘issues related to comprehensive immigration reform’. It’s obvious why: billions of dollars are there for the taking with bi-partisan support for locking up thousands of undocumented migrants.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the collusion between big business and government are the clauses inserted into contracts that ensure people remain behind bars. In 2012, a letter to 48 state governors from the country’s biggest for-profit private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), offered to purchase and run public state prisons. However, the deal required the states to sign a 20-year contract guaranteeing 90-per-cent occupancy during the period. The states refused to accept this lousy deal, but in Arizona three privately run prisons require a 100-per-cent occupancy or fines are incurred. This is vulture capitalism of the crudest kind.
The past 30 years have seen a global trend towards outsourcing prisons, detention centres, juvenile justice facilities, hospitals and a range of other essential services. Under the guise of ‘efficiency’, major political parties of the centre-left and centre-right have rushed to embrace the least transparent companies such as Serco, G4S, Dyncorp, Blackwater and others.
Politicians are seduced by the idea. Lavishly appointed trips organized by the contractor help to convince them that the state has no business managing public services. Democracy has suffered; services have not improved.
The problem is particularly acute in Australia. In 2011, I visited the Curtin Detention Centre, a desert camp for asylum-seekers, in the remote West. Around 1,000 men were warehoused there; Afghans, Iranians, Sri Lankans and others. British transnational Serco, which runs all of Australia’s detention centres, managed the place with ruthless efficiency. Australia has the dubious honour of being one of the few nations in the world that has outsourced its entire refugee network to private contractors.
I met Yugan, a Tamil asylum-seeker, in Curtin. He was in his mid-20s, spoke good English and was already knowledgeable about Australia after more than 18 months locked up in mandatory detention. He was warm, funny and inquisitive. Australian immigration officials and Serco guards gave him little information about his application for asylum – thousands of Tamils have arrived on Australian shores since the brutal end of the long-running Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 – and he did not know when he might be released into the community or forcibly returned to his unsafe homeland.
Why was Yugan locked up for so long in a high-security prison environment? Luckily, his story ended well. Granted a protection visa a few weeks after we met, he now lives in Perth, the capital of Western Australia. I saw him in October 2013 and he was adapting well to his new life. He regularly visited asylum-seekers who remained in detention, continued to campaign for justice in Sri Lanka and spoke at public rallies calling for a change in Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.
Not every story ends like this, of course. There are high incidences of self-harm, with many asylum-seekers languishing in detention for years and/or returned to unsafe countries. Post-release, many suffer mental trauma due to the extended time away from normal life.
The quest for profit can aggravate poor conditions in detention. When I spoke to Serco staff in Australia and a senior company whistleblower, they detailed the corporation hierarchy’s contempt for spending appropriate funds on support for staff or asylum-seekers in their care. Countless guards told me that they were suffering mental trauma after receiving little or no appropriate training before being thrust into remote centres alongside fragile refugees. The whistleblower explained that ‘there is no care about conditions [in detention], such as people sitting or lying in shit in tents, but it’s all about whether the right forms are filled in’.
Privatization lies at the heart of Australia’s asylum policy. In 2009, the then Labor government, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, signed a contract with Serco for AUS $370 million ($342 million). By 2013, that figure ballooned to over AUS $1.86 billion ($1.7 billion) though the exact figures are not known, such is the deliberate obfuscation of the contractual agreement (‘commercial-in-confidence’ agreements are the antithesis of transparent democracy).
The new conservative government of Tony Abbott has every intention of maintaining the outsourcing agenda and is expanding secretive camps for asylum-seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Australia’s border policy is neo-colonialism with a cheque in one hand and a stick in the other.
Conditions in offshore detention are said to be even worse. A former detention manager on Manus Island told TV station SBS in July 2013, ‘in Australia, the facility couldn’t even serve as a dog kennel. The owners would be jailed.’
Of course, this is the neoliberal model, applied globally, so we should not be too surprised at the results. Despite the troubled records of Serco and G4S in Britain and beyond, successive Australian leaders are seduced by the concept of ‘efficiency’ and seem willing to outsource their own responsibility to firms that rarely exercise any of their own. It’s a recipe for human rights disasters.
In Britain, both Serco and G4S are currently being investigated by the country’s Serious Fraud Office for allegedly charging for tagging criminals who were imprisoned, dead or did not exist. The contracts were worth millions and Serco’s chief executive resigned.
Such news should disqualify the firms from being able to bid on other contracts. But David Cameron’s government is allowing G4S to run for future work, including probation services worth around $800 million. G4S earns roughly 10 per cent of its annual revenue from British government contracts, while Serco receives 25 per cent of work from the British tax-payer.
The list of human rights abuses by both companies is long. It includes the death of Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga at the hands of G4S guards in 2010. The fact that a private company is paid to deport people using rough, physical restraint shows the woeful state of government responsibility for the most vulnerable.
It does not have to be this way. In the US, growing numbers of states – including those run by Republicans – are ditching a failed model of enriching private prison corporations, and are sentencing fewer people to long prison terms. It’s hardly revolutionary, but it’s a start. Warehousing asylum-seekers is not reducing the number of desperate citizens globally searching for a better life and it only helps the bottom line of companies like Serco.
The New York Times editorialized in November 2013 that European prisons are a model the US should consider. However, Europe shouldn’t be idealized. Countries in the European Union, reflecting the continent’s rightward political shift, are hiring private detention centre companies to house asylum-seekers.
Ireland, Spain, Italy and France are already utilizing this failed approach and Greece, a nation with neo-Nazis in parliament, will be following shortly. The Greek Ministry of Public Order recently announced it would issue public tenders – designed for private security companies – to outsource six temporary detention facilities.
Treating refugees with respect, and releasing them into the community while their claims are processed, is a practical and humane way for states to behave towards individuals who deserve patience and investment. We have a choice between becoming insecure ghetto-dwellers, with private corporations to hide our dirty secrets; or a truly globalized world with inspiring values.
Antony Loewenstein is an Australian independent journalist and author of many books, including the 2013 Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World’.
My weekly Guardian column is published below:
The mood in Port au Prince’s flashiest hotel was cautiously optimistic. A business conference was held this January at the Karibe Hotel with a range of local and international businesspeople. Called Restore Haiti, the event was held more than four years after the devastating 2010 earthquake that left the capital in ruins and killed up to 200,000 people. There, delegates heard about the myriad of ways to make money in the Caribbean nation.
One of the first speakers was George Andy Rene, managing director of the official body Investment Facilitation Centre. He repeated the popular government mantra since taking office in 2011: “Haiti is open for business”. “We need to counter the negative image of Haiti in the global media”, he said. However, Texan Christian entrepreneur Fred Eppright, of Bridge Capital, issued a blunt warning: the international image of Haiti remains dire and in desperate need of improvement. By all means support Haiti, he argued, but be aware of the risks.
A dynamic and increasingly thriving Haiti is one the US-backed government wants the world to see. President Michel Martelly and prime minister Laurent Lamothe, whose faces are plastered across billboards and propaganda material throughout the country, are close to the Obama administration and have benefitted from their association withHillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. For example, some industrial parks were built thanks to US funds; the much-heralded one in the north of Haiti, at Caracol, has fallen far short of official expectations.
This doesn’t stop the US from continuing to push the tired and failing economic model of low paying textile factories to fill the stores of its own country; after decades of advocating the same ideas, without success, it shows the weakness of the Haiti state that its leaders continue to agree to it.
After the 2010 earthquake, billions of dollars from across the world were pledged to the country and yet the vast bulk of this money never reached Haiti, remaining in the pockets of inefficient foreign contractors. As I documented in my 2013 book Profits of Doom, Haiti has suffered both decades of brutal dictatorship and Washington-based policies that alienated workers, slashed wages and cemented permanent poverty.
I returned to Haiti in January with New York film-maker Thor Neureiter to film footage for a documentary about disaster capitalism. I wanted to see what progress, if any, has occurred in the last years and how ordinary people are coping with endemic deprivation. Are they gaining from the government’s aggressive pro-business approach? Although there are undoubtedly signs of progress, including new housing, a modern airport and a private university, the vast bulk of citizens never experience any of it and told me government services are invisible to them.
Haiti is a nation that exists on two levels. Five percent of the country’s population owns the vast bulk of the nation’s wealth. The capital has a number of expensive hotels for the country’s elite, westerners and rich tourists. Attending the closing night of the Port au Prince International Jazz Festival, I saw a sea of expats, diplomats and wealthy Haitians partying in style. It felt like I was a million miles from the sea of shanty towns a few kilometres away, where hundreds of thousands of people live in tents. It’s hard to blindly celebrate knowing this stark fact.
Sexual assault and rape are key problems in Haiti’s slums. NGO KOFAVIV is a leading female-run organisation aiming to tackle it. The founders, Eramithe and Malya, lost their homes in the 2010 earthquake and lived for a time in a tent city. Today, they have countless men and women working in the camps to raise awareness of a rape hotline, counseling and women’s empowerment. Support from international donors is waning, with many looking for fresher disasters to assist. The lack of long-term funding and infrastructure is a constant complaint amongst a range of local charities and organisations. “The world remembers us only when we’re desperate, then moves on” is a refrain I heard a number of times.
Malya told me that there’s still a social silence around sexual assault in Haiti but that “the last years have seen authorities, including the police, starting to take the crimes more seriously.” One day I walked around the Kid refugee camp in the Christ Roi area of Port au Prince with KOFAVIV’s Georjhy. Thousands of citizens have been forgotten in this squalid area, remaining here for more than four years. KOFAVIV’s male and female agents walked across the dirty ground to distribute pamphlets and information to young women, telling them that they have rights, pointing out that they have somebody to call if in trouble, promising a sympathetic ear. It’s deceptively simple, but it’s a very effective tool for activists to use on the ground.
When the United Nations allegedly brought cholera to Haiti in 2010, killing thousands of people – a plague that the international body does not acknowledge to this day – it seemed that the nation was doomed (the UN, aside from the military component, is also conducing a number of useful projects in the country).
But here and there, hope lives. Jerry Rosembert Moise is one of Haiti’s most provocative graffiti artists. His work appears across the country, including on walls in the exclusive Port au Prince suburb of Pétionville. He comments on the failing government, lack of opportunities for the youth and excessive and wasteful US aid. “We’re all looking for a better future”, he said to me.
One late night he found a bare wall and with a few cars passing by, started spraying a new artwork showing two men with their hands in each other pockets stealing money. It was, he told me, representative of modern Haiti, “a country where we all need to find a way to make a living and get ahead.”
Like I found in Papua New Guinea in late 2012 – another country ruthlessly exploited by outside powers for the benefit of foreign corporations – Haiti regularly sees a new coat of paint slapped on its face to hide the grime. The sprawling slum of Jalousie, the terraced area in Port au Prince, was painted in a multitude of colours, “urban botox” style, to give a better view for the guests at a new upmarket hotel. That’s one way to view progress.
Although I saw a range of private and government programs attempting to provide better housing and employment opportunities for Haitians on this trip – for example, a Haitian-made tablet device by Surtab is an intriguing opportunity – the neo-liberal, exploitative economic model currently being imposed on the nation has failed many times before and leaves millions of citizens, many of whom I met and heard, in a state of despair and daily desperation.
• For a collection of Antony Loewenstein’s photos from Haiti, see here.
During the SuperBowl last night, a game I watched here in New York with a mixture of confusion and amazement during the litany of mundane celebrity-endorsed advertisements, the questions over SodaStream were strong. This pro Israeli-occupation company, now supported by actress Scarlett Johansson, found itself in a storm of controversy. Deservedly so. Al Jazeera America reports:
Edward Snowden recently spoke extensively on German TV about the role of US intelligence in the post 9/11 era. He goes into detail why Washington-led policies are a threat to global security. Oddly enough, or perhaps not, this interview has been virtually ignored in the US:
In Profits of Doom, Antony Loewenstein investigates the effects of predatory, vulture or disaster capitalism on individuals, communities, the environment, and future prospects of entire countries. Loewenstein’s work is powerful because he goes to Afghanistan, Christmas Island, Papua New Guinea, and other places ravaged by greed, corruption, complacency, and misdirected aid. He takes us there, and he talks to people at all levels, unafraid to present us with opinions that contradict his own (though reinforcing his own argument effortlessly through the picture he paints of the damage done).
In Australia, he visits detention centres, exploring the effects (on the detainees, the staff, and the wider community) of privatisation, revealing the fact that companies with dodgy track records are still given contracts. To avoid fines, there is also a culture of dishonesty: ‘… cover-ups of breaches [such as incidences of abuse] are routine and both tolerated and implicitly supported by the highest echelons of the Serco [company] hierarchy’. Loewenstein discovers a general ignorance of asylum seekers’ rights in order to maximise profits (ie. drawn-out processing times), and a dehumanisation of asylum seekers who, at the top, are referred to as ‘products’.
In Papua New Guinea Loewenstein visits ‘an abandoned wasteland’, Bouganville, where there are talks to reopen the mine which caused so much strife and continues to effect the environment. Disaster capitalism, as Loewenstein describes it in regards to PNG, is predatory corporations supported by foreign aid payments and tax concessions, insulated from media and political scrutiny, preventing a country from reaching true independence. In another village, Loewenstein hears of women selling their bodies for food because the company that has moved in has stopped them from fishing.
In Afghanistan Loewenstein looks at the local war economy, investigating private security personnel—their role in the conflict, how the officials see it and how the locals do.
In Haiti Loewenstein finds large parts of the capital Port-au-Prince still in pieces after the 2010 earthquake, and provides many examples of ‘canny capitalists sifting through the ashes of disaster, looking for business opportunities’. For those who argue in favour of job creation when multinationals move in, Loewenstein has found that it’s more likely that cheap, exploitative labour is the effect, in vulnerable areas, tying locals to an (often restricting, often polluting) corporation, removing other chances of sustainable growth in a community.
Loewenstein uncovered an unfortunate structural failure where many big NGOs (not all, there are some great examples of on-the-ground charities working with locals in the book) act as conduits to ensure Western business interests.
Profits of Doom provides essential, eye-opening information about systems of exploitative capitalism, how they operate, who profits, and the effects on the ground. It’s written in an accessible, engaging style, with quotes from people at all levels, and Loewenstein’s first-hand observations and experiences. I was a big fan of his 2008 book The Blogging Revolution, and will continue to read the work of a journalist whose concerns are undeniably relevant, who investigates and presents cases with care, rigour, and verve.
Antony Loewenstein’s website/blog is always a great source of information on current events.
Loewenstein will also be appearing at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.