Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein trav­els across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Britain, Greece, and Australia to witness the reality of disaster capitalism. He discovers how companies such as G4S, Serco, and Halliburton cash in on or­ganized misery in a hidden world of privatized detention centers, militarized private security, aid profiteering, and destructive mining.

Disaster has become big business. Talking to immigrants stuck in limbo in Britain or visiting immigration centers in America, Loewenstein maps the secret networks formed to help cor­porations bleed what profits they can from economic crisis. He debates with Western contractors in Afghanistan, meets the locals in post-earthquake Haiti, and in Greece finds a country at the mercy of vulture profiteers. In Papua New Guinea, he sees a local commu­nity forced to rebel against predatory resource companies and NGOs.

What emerges through Loewenstein’s re­porting is a dark history of multinational corpo­rations that, with the aid of media and political elites, have grown more powerful than national governments. In the twenty-first century, the vulnerable have become the world’s most valu­able commodity. Disaster Capitalism is published by Verso in 2015.

Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Too little to celebrate in South Sudan

My article in Le Monde Diplomatique English:

The UN Security Council recently imposed new sanctions on South Sudan including travel bans on six South Sudanese citizens. Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, praised the move saying: “The Security Council took strong action in support of a peaceful end to the conflict in South Sudan by sanctioning six South Sudanese individuals for fuelling the ongoing conflict and contributing to the devastating humanitarian crisis in their country.”

But the reality is that only one of the listed men, Major-General Marial Chanuong Yol Mangok, has a passport. This is largely a toothless travel ban on non-travellers. Many observers of South Sudan argue that the latest round of sanctions will do little to stop the country’s turmoil.

Even an arms embargo would only be successful if UN members enforce it:Israel and others still sell weapons to the war-torn nation. But an embargo has its place (the lifting of an international arms embargo on Somalia in 2013reportedly resulted in a rise of human rights abuses).

But neither President Salva Kiir nor rebel leader Riek Machar (the two men leading a brutal war for victory) are touched by the latest UN moves. Opposition figure Lam Akol told Associated Press that “if the sanctions are meant to encourage the spoilers to be serious for peace, and to warn them that not doing so has a price or punishment, then they should target the right people.”

South Sudan stands at a precarious point in its young history — 9 July was the fourth anniversary of independence and yet there was little to celebrate. I attended a government-organised “celebration” in the middle of the capital, Juba, on a searingly hot day. Although thousands of locals attended, many in full suits and fancy dresses, it was hard to discern any real enthusiasm. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni spoke, and warned against “outsiders” meddling in African affairs while his gunships flew overhead. President Kiir pledged to bring peace to South Sudan and remove corruption, promises that after years of war were hard to believe.

Since December 2013, when political and ethnic simmering tensions between Kiir and Machar exploded in bloodshed in the capital Juba and across the country, the nation has been rocked by extreme violence and dislocation. The world’s newest state has become one of the most reliant on international donors and aid to barely keep alive.

The exuberance that greeted the 2011 independence vote has largely disappeared. I never meet any locals in South Sudan who want to be once again controlled by Sudan under President Omar al-Bashir — for years under his rule the Muslim north routinely abused its southern, Christian neighbours — and yet millions of internally and externally displaced refugees are losing any hope of a secure future.

Today around eight million civilians, out of a population of 11 million, face food scarcity and at least 40% of the country is predicted to suffer from severe hunger by the end of July. In other parts of the nation, such as Unity and Western Jonglei States, some households face catastrophe and likely starvation, according to the USAID-backed Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) issued a report in late June that accused government soldiers of “widespread human rights abuses” in Unity State. The allegations included the sexual abuse of women and girls, and the burning alive of girls in their homes. The report stated: “This recent upsurge (in fighting) has not only been marked by allegations of killing, rape, abduction, looting, arson and displacement, but by a new brutality and intensity. The scope and level of cruelty that has characterized the reports suggests a depth of antipathy that exceeds political differences.”

The scale of the humanitarian crisis is immense. UNMISS runs “protection of civilian” camps and as of 6 July they were housing 153,769 people nationwide in eight locations. Cholera outbreaks are increasing while the current rainy season means vast swathes of the country are inaccessible by road. Billions of dollars of global, financial support is being pledged on an annual basis for the UN and NGOs to administer assistance, but I’m hearing there’s donor fatigue after years of grinding conflict with a rising death toll (tens of thousands, at the very least). In the brutal calculation of donor contributors, South Sudan may become less of a priority than, say, Syria or Iraq, though the needs are only increasing.

None of this carnage was inevitable. It’s a man-made disaster that was emboldened by the choices made by western powers and supporters in the lead-up to the 2011 independence vote. Buyer’s remorse is now ubiquitous. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently visited South Sudan and powerfully reported on the conditions faced by suffering civilians. While he acknowledges his own backing for the Kiir government in 2011 — though “now it’s difficult not to feel despair” — there’s little reflection on lessons that should be learned from the experience.

The US, like all nations, doesn’t support states out of love or belief in human rights: it’s always about strengthening interests. South Sudan was framed as a bulwark against Muslim Sudan that had given shelter to Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s and remains close with Iran. Furthermore, China has spent the last decade colonizing Africa and furnishing various regimes with infrastructure and weapons. The US wanted a foreign policy success in the heart of the continent, while warning Beijing to stay off its turf, and for a brief time President Obama was able to claim this. It didn’t last long.

American actor George Clooney was another prominent and politically significant backer of South Sudanese independence. Few questions were asked, however, about the regime that was set to lead the country. Now Clooney is far more honest about the reality and wants to “dismantle the financial networks profiting from Africa’s deadliest wars.” If only these insights had been offered before 2011: “After securing their country’s independence, South Sudan’s political leadership embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from the state treasury, leaving little for education, health or other services. Soon, this violent kleptocracy degenerated along factional lines.”

The only way the conflict in South Sudan will cease is if enough pressure is placed on its political leaders and military. Any hopes that the African Union would be a positive influence on peace negotiations (and there’s little evidence so far that it has been) were dashed during the recent controversy over Omar al-Bashir and his escape from South Africa after a possible one-way ticket to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his alleged crimes against humanity. The African Union expressed its outrage over the moves to extradite Bashir, claiming the ICC had an obsession with prosecuting Africans instead of pursuing leaders in other parts of the world. So South Sudanese leaders presumably have nothing to worry about.

Four years after South Sudan’s declared independence, the future viability of the state is in question. With millions of citizens facing extreme hunger and displacement, it’s natural to fear what will happen in the coming years. Like the ongoing conflict in Syria, another country that can no longer be described as a unified entity, South Sudan is experiencing an economic collapse and humanitarian tsunami. It’s the civilians who suffer the most and it’s for them that renewed peace talks and negotiations must be intensified. The troubles in South Sudan reflect deep failures from an international community that seems far more interested in celebrating successes than stopping bloodshed.

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Land grabbing becomes global phenomenon

My investigation in Australian publication New Matilda:

International aid often comes with big strings attached. Antony Loewenstein is in South Sudan researching his explosive new book.

Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet. Industrial-size sugar plantations and a soon to open dam are strangling indigenous communities over more than 375,000 hectares. Ethiopia is experiencing economic growth (though it’s a brutal dictatorship) and yet millions of its citizens suffer from chronic food shortages.

The government has sold vast tracts of land to a Turkish agri-business firm and other foreign investors, all without consultation with the Kara people. Forced displacement is common though the Ethiopian government denies it. A Malaysian company stands accused of disenfranchising the Suri people with its plantation in South-western Ethiopia. India is at the forefront of taking land across Ethiopia.

American photographer Jane Baldwin has been visiting the Omo River for a decade, documenting the gradual erosion of local rights, and she tells me via email that foreign investors threaten “self-sustaining agro-pastoral communities.” A local woman from the Nyangatom tribe, who can’t be named due to threats against her life, says that, “They are taking this river to sell the hydroelectric power. We say to them, if this river is taken from us, we might as well kill ourselves so we won’t starve to death. If you decide to make a dam there, before you start the dam, you better come here and kill us all.”

Ethiopia is just one country affected by land grabs conducted by Wall Street bankers, business opportunists and countries hungry for fertile territory. In Africa, global hedge funds are purchasing vast areas of land in Mali, Sierra Leone and Tanzania. A recent investigation by the Huffington Post and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that the World Bank was complicit in the removal of the indigenous Sengwer people in Kenya.

American academic Michael Kugelman, from the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars and co-editor of The Global Farms Race, says that the main problem with foreign land deals is the lack of benefit to local stakeholders.

“Impoverished and food-insecure countries are giving away not only their precious farmland but also the food that springs from it”, he tells me via email.

He explains that the key players buying up resources are China, the Gulf countries, East Asian states and the West – and they mostly target sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. The need for reliable sources of farmland across Africa and the globe in an age of deforestation and climate change means controlling food production – or the arable land on which food can be grown – can give immense leverage over developing states. TIAA-CREF is one firm, an American financial group, who has invested US$5 billion in farmland from Brazil to Australia despite the lack of quick returns.

Yet local communities are often denied a voice. Australia’s four big banks – ANZ, Commonwealth, Westpac and National Australia Bank (NAB) – were accused in a 2014 Oxfam Australia report of kicking people off their lands in Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Indonesia and Cambodia in the agricultural and timber industries by funding local firms with poor records. For example, ANZ was caught backing a sugar plantation in Cambodia that involved child labour and forced evictions, though the bank denied the abuses.

More than one year later, after a public awareness campaign, Oxfam Australia’s Kelly Dent, working on its Economic Justice team, tells me via email that only NAB and Westpac have made small but important steps to work internationally with agribusinesses that, “respect the rights of all communities to free, prior and informed consent on land decisions.” No Australian bank has adopted the zero tolerance for land grabs measures recommended by Oxfam Australia.

In February the Australian government announced a partnership with ANZ Bank to “create a partnership that will significantly improve access to finance for many Pacific Islanders and enable them to participate in the formal economy, in some cases for the first time”. There were no details or guarantees that the necessary safeguards would be in place to ensure human rights were respected or confirmation that land grabs would be excluded.

Vulnerable nations are prime targets for investment. South Sudan attracted the eye of former Wall Street trader Phil Heilberg. He had leased one million acres of prime farmland in the 2000s and wanted one million more to lease in a country that was, until recently, the biggest in Africa and 10th largest on the planet before South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Through his company Jarch Capital, with former State Department and CIA officials on its board, Heilberg envisaged being a key private landowner in Africa.

At the end of 2013, civil war engulfed South Sudan. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, sexual violence became endemic, children were recruited to fight and millions faced severe hunger. The war continues to rage today and Heilberg is no closer to securing his prize.

Today, despite a surplus of food in the fertile eastern regions, poor infrastructure and investment means that up to 50 per cent of the country’s food is imported. Heilberg tells me via email that foreign investment in food production is vital.

“When the World Food Program is your constant food supplier for decades, there is clearly something wrong.  Now we know that civil war has been the main culprit but South Sudan is large. Local farmers could co-exist with commercialised farming and greatly reduce prices.”

Jarch Capital is committed to “frontier Africa.” Heilberg met with the President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, last year. He and other foreign executives visited the capital Malabo to examine opportunities in the infrastructure, transport, fishing, mining and energy sectors. Equatorial Guinea is one of the most repressive nations in Africa.

“We signed an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with Equatorial Guinea last February for agriculture,” he says. “However, though agriculture gets the most attention, our main interests are in the mining sectors and hydrocarbons.”

There are potentially huge riches in South Sudan. According to a 2011 report by the South Sudan Law Society (SSLS), a South Sudanese think-tank, between 2007 and 2010 foreign interests acquired or sought 2.64 million hectares of land for biofuels, agriculture and forestry – a larger area than the entire country of Rwanda. Ongoing war has hugely reduced South Sudan’s attractiveness for investment.

The grab goes deeper than agricultural land. SSLS’s Research Department Director, David Deng, explains to me on the phone that the nation’s “war economy” means less regulation, and that some “investors come here under the guise of agriculture but are looking for minerals and resources”.

I recently visited areas in South Sudan where locals told me there were huge deposits of gold, diamond and copper but no industrial size companies have yet committed to exploration. However, a major oil deal with Spain’s Star Petroleum has raised eyebrows due to its secrecy and the company’s opaque structure.

Some frame the acquisition of land as a totemic struggle between the east and the west with the latter losing. A major investor in Africa is David Murrin, a former oil company geologist. He now runs Spartent Global Solutions, a security consultancy, and Emergent, an asset management company that has worked in Zambia, South Africa and Luxembourg. He tells me via email that America is an empire in decline, “lacking strategic vision”, while China “and those in ascension have it in spades, driven by the need to acquire resources to sustain expansion.”

It’s little wonder global resistance to land acquisition is growing. Large groups such as La Via Campesina, “the peasants’ way”, have spent 20 years fighting for food sovereignty on the streets, at the UN and in trade negotiations. Protestors in Haiti, Ivory Coast and Egypt have demanded cheaper food and decent subsidies. Powerful corporations push out small farmers, making food sovereignty impossible while hiking up prices.

Even the World Bank admits that the vast bulk of foreign investment in Africa doesn’t help the continent’s people, with aid and agricultural support often a smokescreen for multinationals looting nations’ wealth.

* Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist based in South Sudan and author of the forthcoming book Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.

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Nothing to celebrate on South Sudan’s 4th independence anniversary

My piece in Al Jazeera English today:

It’s hard to think of a better example of the UN Human Rights Council’s failure. In early July, it decided to send monitors to South Sudan “to report on the situation of human rights and to undertake a comprehensive assessment of alleged violations and abuses of human rights, with a view to ensuring accountability”.

African nations watered down a resolution pushed by the US and UK, they wanted to establish a permanent UN expert on the country, and simply called for more fact-finding in the war-torn land. The facts are already clear, as Human Rights Watch states:

“The Human Rights Council may not be able to stop the violence in South Sudan. But it can make a contribution to protecting civilians by at least putting leaders responsible for grave human rights violations on notice that there will be no impunity for their crimes.”

US representative Keith Harper, who presented the resolution to the UN Security Council, saw the situation in South Sudan as “one of the most grave situations we face […] in the world”.

South Sudan marks the fourth anniversary of its independence on July 9. Back in 2011 the international community, especially the US, praised the country’s official split from Sudan. It was framed as a Christian, democratic victory against a despotic, Muslim north.

The South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to decide their own destiny, a people who had been abused by their northern neighbour for decades, and yet only four years later the country is struggling to cope with an overwhelming humanitarian crisis. The New York Times editorialised in June that, “South Sudan must rank among the most astounding failures in Africa”. The economy is in free-fall.

The facts are stark. Nearly eight people out of a population of around 11 million are facing severe hunger. Malnutrition and deadly cholera are ravaging parts of the state. Children are abducted to fight.

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) recently released a report outlining shocking testimony from local civilians alleging government atrocities including the burning alive of women and girls and extreme sexual violence. UNICEF has accused armed government groups of castrating young boys, raping girls and then slitting their throats.

South Sudan’s civil war was sparked in December 2013 with a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar. Retaliatory killings ran along ethnic lines, the main groups are Dinka and Nuer, and the conflict has killed at least tens of thousands of people.

Nobody knows the exact figure because the ability (or interest, for many parties) in bringing accountability for the atrocities is low. Media access is poor due to few roads and major logistical challenges getting to remote areas where the fighting takes place.

This is a war being waged with impunity at a time when the “international community” – a term, Noam Chomsky says, “regularly used in a technical sense to describe the United States joined by some allies and clients – is distracted by its bumbling response to the ISIL threat. South Sudan now faces some toothless, UN-imposed sanctions and little else.

This outcome was not pre-ordained. It is a man-made disaster with little incentive for the warring parties to cease killing each other. There is a grim calculation, made by the government and rebel forces, that they can win and beat their opponents into submission or death.

Many of the political and military leaders have never known democracy, and all that it entails, but rather years of conflict against Sudanese forces. Now, when peace was achieved for a fleeting moment, it was squandered in a desperate attempt for complete victory.

Equally complicit are the Western powers believing, despite all evidence to the contrary including a lack of sustainable or functioning institutions in 2011, that the new state would somehow function without the required homework on nation-building. Recent history is filled with such examples – think East Timor after its independence vote in 1999, the subsequent violence from Indonesian militias followed by years of internal political squabbles – when outsiders pledge support only to find themselves embroiled in situations over which they have little understanding or patience.

The viability of South Sudan as a sovereign entity is in doubt. One local journalist told me in the capital Juba that it is hard to call yourself an independent nation when the UN and NGOs are trying to help 75 percent of your population avoid starvation.

The African Union will protect its own – see its recent backing of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in South Africa against moves to extradite him to the International Criminal Court – highlighting the challenges of expecting African help for South Sudanese troubles.

Human rights groups along with influential parties should be pressing the warring sides harder to negotiate a peace settlement with teeth and accountability, without which the world’s newest nation will continue its descent into chaos.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan and best-selling author of many books, including the upcoming Disaster Capitalism (Verso).

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Failing states in the modern world

My essay in literary journal Meanjin:

“In Europe there are shelves of books dedicated to every war, archives full of documents, special rooms in museums. Nothing of the kind exists in Africa. Here, even the longest and greatest war is forgotten, falls into oblivion. Its traces vanish by the day after: the dead must be buried immediately, new huts created on the site of burned ones … History in these parts appears suddenly, descends like a deus ex machina, reaps its bloody harvest, seizes its prey, and disappears.”

 Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life, 1998

Wai is a tiny speck on the map in South Sudan’s Jonglei State. I was travelling with the departing UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and American actor Forest Whitaker. We arrived in an old Russian helicopter in an area that was sheltering 25,000 men, women and children who had fled nearby fighting. This wasn’t a typical refugee camp, there weren’t rows of tents or permanent structures but a mass of people living on whatever ground they could find, mostly in the open under trees or the occasional mud hut. Women sat with malnourished babies, waiting to receive UN-provided porridge-style food for their children.

The UN’s response in Wai was a remarkably fast operation; a few months before we landed there was literally nothing there apart from cracked dirt. The huge cost of running the humanitarian program countrywide ran to billions of dollars every year, making it one of the most acute internal disasters in the world.

During the hastily arranged community forum in a shady field, Amos told the assembled crowd that she appreciated many of them ‘walking for so many days to get here’. Men and women were dressed in their Sunday best and despite the searing heat, around 45° Celsius, they looked immaculate in ill-fitting and slightly oversized suits. This was rebel territory, the South Sudanese government wasn’t welcome, and the military governor, dressed in a green and white long-sleeve shirt and wide-brimmed hat, politely but firmly told the delegation that his people were suffering from a lack of reliable water, food and shelter. ‘Our children are traumatised,’ he said through a megaphone. ‘They need schools.’

Similar problems existed in rebel-held Ganyiel in Unity State. During a visit organised by the World Food Program (WFP), I saw tens of thousands of men, women and children lining up for not enough rations that had been dropped by C130 planes. Because the area was cursed with swamps and constant flooding, the WFP had to deliver supplies in the few months of the dry season. One local woman, Angela, who had been living in the area for more than a year with five children, gave me a message for her country’s leaders: ‘I’m telling [President] Salva Kiir and [rebel leader] Riek Machar to fight each other with their own hands and stop killing our kids.’

The ongoing troubles were upsetting US Secretary of State John Kerry. After yet another failed round of peace talks in March this year between the South Sudanese warring parties, he chastised leaders who were enjoying luxurious accommodation in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and not feeling obliged to settle their differences. ‘We are well past the point where enough is enough,’ he said. ‘Leaders must put the interests of their people above their own. The violence must end.’

It was a futile call for reconciliation. Although Kerry had announced in 2012 that Washington had helped ‘midwife the birth of this new nation’, America’s desperation for a foreign policy success in Africa had failed shortly after it launched. The world’s newest nation emerged in 2011 with great fanfare, President Barack Obama’s blessing, a huge aid budget and virtually no infrastructure. It was also to be a stinging response to China’s twenty-first-century colonisation of the continent.

After the decades of war between Sudan and southern rebels that killed millions of people, little thought had been given to how a new state would function. In December 2013 conflict exploded between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, causing the death of tens of thousands and unleashing intense fighting between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups. America’s leverage over the crisis was limited despite presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama publicly pledging support for South Sudanese independence. A 2015 investigation published in Foreign Policy magazine found Washington curiously uninterested after violence surged in 2013, unwilling to pressure its friends to stop the killing.

I’ve seen the reality of this dysfunction and its devastating effect on civilians. Since moving to South Sudan in early 2015 (my partner is working here with an international aid organisation), I’ve witnessed snapshots of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The figures are startling. More than 2.5 million civilians are at risk of food insecurity, a figure that could rise to 4 million by the end of 2015. The population is around 11 million. At least 12,000 children were taken and forced to be soldiers in the last twelve months. The UN Special Envoy on Sexual Violence, Zainab Bangura, said in 2014 that the number of rapes in the country were the most shocking she had ever seen. On this year’s International Women’s Day, Oxfam head Winnie Byanyima wrote that ‘violence against women has worsened because of mass displacement, and the presence of more men with guns and the impunity under which they are left free to act’.

The facts seem overwhelming, obscuring the human toll of a war that barely registers on the international news agenda. Perhaps it’s too easily framed as just another African catastrophe with no easily recognisable goodies and baddies. The world’s coverage of Ebola was a stark reminder that black lives only mattered when they started affecting the security of white lives in the West. In a time of ISIS, extremism in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and beyond, South Sudan struggles to rise above the daily dose of beheadings, airstrikes and Islamic militancy. But if there is one thing I’ve discovered after years reporting in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran and other places easily dismissed as failing states, it’s that personal tales of resistance reveal far more about humanity than the predictable greed and ignorance of leaders and their political and media courtiers.

South Sudan’s needs are great. Literacy has been stubbornly low for years; around 70 per cent of the population is illiterate, with endemic teacher shortages and poor training of those educating the youth. The Yei Teaching Training College, in the country’s south, is the leading institution preparing the next generation of educators, but the challenge is immense: only one-third of the state’s 28,000 teachers are qualified.

In Wai and Ganyiel the failure of leaders to provide their own people with a viable future was clear. Perhaps it was unsurprising considering the quality of politicians empowered to lead the nation. Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an expert on Sudan, explained in 2014 that the new state

obtained independence as a kleptocracy—a militarised, corrupt, neo-patrimonial system of governance. By the time of independence, the South Sudanese ‘political marketplace’ was so expensive that the country’s comparatively copious revenue [principally from oil] was consumed by the military-political patronage system, with nothing left for public services, development or institution building.

This reality hits me daily. There are few paved roads or street lights, although China recently provided sixty-three solar-powered traffic lights across the capital, Juba. We live in a secure compound. Opportunistic day- and night-time criminal attacks are on the rise. Oil revenues have dived due to the conflict but Erik Prince, former head of private security agency Blackwater, with his new company Frontier Services Group, was hired by South Sudan in late 2014 to help boost output. The government announced in 2015 a wider examination of extracting minerals, guaranteeing exploitation by foreign firms. There’s no accountability for war crimes committed by either side in the conflict since December 2013. Small arms are ubiquitous, with millions of weapons in the hands of civilians and the military.

Although I meet countless locals who long for a peaceful future, disillusioned with corrupt leaders who fail to deliver, I’ve heard nobody question the sense of declaring independence in 2011. I’m sure a similarly high majority would praise East Timor’s 1999 break from a brutal Indonesian occupation. But serious questions should be asked about the ways in which Washington, the UN, the West, African neighbours and global aid groups are today de facto managers of a broken South Sudanese nation. 

What do we call a country that exists more on paper and in the mind than reality? Ninety-nine per cent of South Sudanese voted for independence in 2011 and yet its long-term viability is far from assured. It’s one of the ‘fake states’ of the twenty-first century, entities that only survive on life support because of extensive international aid. This is not to deny the rights of people for self-determination and freedom from oppression—the South Sudanese were treated like second-class citizens by their Sudanese neighbours for decades—but to ask legitimate questions about the forces that were marshalled to create it.

The list of backers was long. From actor George Clooney and former Clinton official John Prendergast to American evangelicals and State Department officials. The events of 11 September 2001 spurred on the campaign to back a sovereign and Christian South Sudan; Muslim Sudan had sheltered Osama Bin Laden and was framed as a terrorist-supporting state. Beijing spent the decade cleverly making friends across Africa and mining its resources, investing in infrastructure and arming various conflicts, while the United States was distracted fighting futile wars in the Middle East. President Obama aimed to correct this by hosting an African Leaders Summit in 2014 that claimed to be about improving governance across the continent. US weapons dealers licked their chops at the prospect of new opportunities, seeing business in Nigeria, South Sudan, Chad, Mauritania, Algeria, Mali and elsewhere.

Washington still sees Africa through the prism of its ‘war on terror’, training, arming and assisting local militaries with hideous human rights records. These inconvenient truths haven’t stopped the Pentagon spending billions of dollars on establishing a network of unofficial bases from Burkina-Faso to Kenya and Uganda to Djibouti. American journalist Nick Turse has found evidence of US military involvement in forty-nine out of fifty-four countries in Africa through its AFRICOM network (based in Stuttgart, Germany, because no African nation would host it). That’s imperialism in anyone’s language.

South Sudan is a small piece of this largely unreported puzzle. Washington had high hopes for this African friend, imagining a new state that would be a beacon of energy independence and democracy in the heart of the continent. But this exclusive relationship turned to dust with China’s economic domina-tion of the region, including massive investment in the oil sector. South Sudan is just one nation in a long list of African countries that will, in time, be a market for China’s manufacturing products. More than a million Chinese nationals have called Africa home since 2001, moving there to build new lives and businesses. Chinese colonialism is happening but so far with a (mostly) calmer and kinder face than the US variety.

The rise of ‘fake states’ in the modern age is a symptom of the NGO-isation of whole countries. Take Palestine. Countless billions have flowed into an artificial entity that doesn’t exist in a way that other states do. A corrupt and bloated Palestinian Authority (PA) shows how the occupied have willingly serviced the belligerent occupiers. After decades of ‘negotiations’ between Israel and the PA, all the Palestinians have to show for it are more than 600,000 settlers on occupied territory. This arrangement is the perfect way to avoid serious negotiations towards statehood because the Americans, Europeans and Australians continue to pump money into a system that everybody knows keeps the surrounded population barely above water. Which is exactly the point. Israel destroys Gaza every few years, ‘mowing the lawn’ in local lingo, knowing that naive international NGOs and other countries will rebuild what’s been lost. Meanwhile Palestinians are further away than ever from independence with an extreme Israeli government in place.

This is not to condemn all NGOs, many of which provide vital humanitarian assistance. But have international agencies inadvertently (or deliberately?) created a system in which areas are deemed ready for sovereignty—Palestine, Iraq or South Sudan—but then live at the whim of aid donors and international monetary funds? One journalist in Juba tells me that many aid workers and some reporters are secular missionaries with a belief that they can improve people’s lives through their work.

I’m not solely blaming the West for South Sudan or Palestine’s failures—the people of both countries have influence and agency—but does the creation of ‘fake states’ contribute to the disempowerment of locals and inhibit their ability to positively affect their own countries? Many South Sudanese tell me they routinely feel powerless to shape the direction of their new nation, cut out of decision-making processes by an opaque system that rewards cronyism. It’s hard to imagine a secure future when warring factions and entrenched interests continue to fight over the spoils of war. President Salva Kiir has not stood for election since  independence in 2011 and in March 2015 his parliament granted him a further three-year term.

It’s the civilian populations who suffer most. The excitement of South Sudanese sovereignty brought a marvellous moment that should be cherished. Palestine will one day be free. Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria will eventually break away from occupation. But who will pick up the pieces and how long will they stick around? I’ve seen the effects of a corrupt and bloated UN bureaucracy in Haiti that refuses to take legal responsibility for introducing deadly cholera to a nation that hadn’t known the disease for a century. The people there were already suffering from a devastating 2010 earthquake. State-building is a slow and painful business that can’t be left in the hands of the UN or private contractors. After centuries of brutal colonisation the West is hardly best placed to lecture others on good governance without acknowledging its own bloody legacy.

The resilience of people living in the most abject poverty should give us pause to reflect on populations who barely flicker in our consciousness. Donating to an aid group when a catastrophe hits isn’t enough to absolve us of responsibility for the work being done in the name of humanitarianism. South Sudan, Palestine, Iraq and Syria aren’t nations to be patronised or colonised. Their citizens deserve health, sustainability and peace with real and lasting independence.

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Resource curse alive and well in Afghanistan

My following investigation is published by the Guardian:

Afghanistan faces an existential crisis over its untapped natural resources. After decades of war and insecurity, the Afghan government and foreign investors are pushing to exploit minerals under the ground but real dangers exist with little enforced regulation. Like Papua New Guinea and Haiti, two other nations with natural wealth that are blighted by the “resource curse”, Afghanistan could be seriously considering leaving resources untouched to ensure peace, stability and a clean environment but the economic imperative is too strong.

Taliban territory is less than one hour from Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Logar Province has traditionally been an insurgent stronghold and regularly sees violent clashes between Afghan security forces and militants. I went there recently to visit the Chinese-owned Aynak mine, one of the largest copper deposits in the world and set to commence operations in the coming years (though an exact date hasn’t been specified).

Its site is an archaeological treasure trove for Buddhist artefacts, but Afghan president Ashraf Ghani announced this year after a visit to Beijing that his government wanted to move ahead with the mine to earn much-needed revenue for his aid-dependent state. The Buddhist treasures are nearly 2,000 years old and reveal an ancient civilisation that stretched across China, India and Japan. Archaeologists have discovered gold jewellery, silver platters and a human skeleton amidst the ancient town.

A secret contract was signed between Kabul and Beijing in 2007 and only this year the Afghan government finally agreed to release its contents. But insecurity, falling global copper prices and a lack of transport for the minerals has stalled the enterprise. It still remains Afghanistan’s largest project in a nation with trillions of dollars worth of resources under the ground.

Locals in Logar’s Davo village told me that their lives had become hellish since the mine’s arrival including being kicked off their lands, pressured by insurgents and the government to leave the area entirely and little economic development. On a bright, sunny day with Afghan and American helicopters roaring overhead, I sat in a compound with 10 men to hear about the impact of the mine. Nazir Khan, a young man who lives in the house in which the meeting took place, escorted me into the area because it was too unsafe in the afternoon with Taliban and Isis-affiliated groups for outsiders to travel alone.

Chief elder Malik Mullah Mirjan explained that his community was promised many benefits after the establishment of Aynak. “The Chinese company confiscated our property and we have never been compensated or paid by anybody,” he said. “We felt like they invaded and stole our land.”

Mirjan said that there was no “consultation” about the process and very few employment opportunities despite assurances of jobs for the community. He said he would still back the mine but nobody from the government had ever come and explained how they would benefit. Consultation is undeniably difficult in a war zone but all 10 men were offended that it had been assumed by Kabul authorities that they were expendable to the project and could be pushed aside. Environmental destruction was rife, he continued, from the building of dirty roads and polluting of waterways by early mining excavations.

“There’s no good intention on the part of the Chinese or Afghan government. The army protects the mining project and not us,” he said. The police regularly beat and insulted his family and friends for raising questions about the mine; they were told to shut up. Insurgents threatened violence. Some Taliban wanted no mining at all and opposed anybody who tried to secure a deal with the government to benefit from it. Other Taliban were more pragmatic and insisted on a financial cut when the mine commenced operations.

Aynak is symbolic of Afghanistan’s declining fortunes since the 2001 fall of the Taliban and the American-led war. The state was shocked with weapons, money, foreign troops and aid but with little oversight or accountability the results from a long occupation and massive amounts of foreign aid have been desultory. Attacks against foreigners and Afghan civilians are soaring.

With western aid drying up and few foreign troops remaining in the country, the Afghan government is desperately looking for ways to sustain itself. Mining is offered as a compelling answer. Australia funds initiatives to assist Afghan mining but I was told in Kabul that this was little more than helping Australian businesses benefit from the potential gold rush.

In May this year, the Western Australian government supported a summit of the Australian Afghanistan Business Council to discuss development of the Afghan mining sector. West Australian mines and petroleum minister Bill Marmion said at the meeting: “Western Australia is our nation’s resources powerhouse, and I am confident our regulatory and industry experience will help guide positive mining development in Afghanistan.” Afghanistan and Western Australia signed a deal in 2012 to back Kabul’s “sustainable” mining industry.

Canberra assists many resource-rich states, including Papua New Guinea, but the results of this support have been poor for the people themselves. In theory, mining has the possibility of making a country rich but all too often mineral exploitation guarantees poor governance. Rampant corruption, illegal smuggling, warlordism and a lack of regulation are key factors against a sustainable mining sector in Afghanistan.

In Hairatan, a town in northern Afghanistan on the border with Uzbekistan, a railway runs to the nearest major town, Mazar-i-Sharif, to transport oil and gas. The government in Kabul says this relatively safe area of the country is a strong example of resources being managed responsibly to benefit the nation. But local oil traders I met in the area told the opposite story: how they’re forced to pay exorbitant taxes for little return while the insurgency grows around them.

Masoom Qasemyar, a former interpreter for Swedish forces, told me outside the Hairatan oil and gas trading office that earning revenues from indigenous resources was the only way for the state to grow. That said, he had no faith that the authorities would manage them intelligently.

A report in April found that the nearly US$500m granted by the US government to back the Afghan mining industry had failed because both the Afghan ministry of mines was incapable of managing new contracts, while US evaluation of any progress was close to non-existent.

I asked many Afghans about the prospect of leaving resources in the ground to avoid worsening corruption and environmental destruction, and whether alternative ways to raise money could be found. Javeed Noorani is an independent researcher on mining and co-founder of the Natural Resources Monitoring Network, a gathering of communities from across the country to bring national attention to mining issues. He said leaving resources in the ground was the ideal situation if Afghanistan couldn’t provide social and environmental safeguards.

“Communities are so poor living around mines and when powerful people come to extract they’re exposed to violence,” he said. “If the government doesn’t intervene when minerals are being exploited, and they already are across the state, we transition from one conflict to another.”

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What Somali pirates explain about imperialism

My following book review appears in today’s Weekend Australian newspaper:

Imperialism still casts a dark shadow over modern Africa. Former colonial powers France, Britain, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Germany largely spend their aid dollars in nations they used to rule. Oxfam France’s Christian Reboul told The Guardian this makes sense for Paris “because the former French colonies in Africa are de facto the poorest countries in the world”.

The other European states are equally complicit in African disadvantage. African success stories, such as Kenya and Ghana, have developed despite foreign meddling, not because of it.

Somalia is one of the most troubled countries in Africa. Blighted by decades of civil war, an al-Shabab insurgency and perennial insecurity, its presence on the news is due to terrorist attacks or failed US military involvement, such as the incident that became the book and film Black Hawk Down.

Filmmaker and journalist John Boyle shows in this revealing book that Somalia was the bastard child of Italy and Britain. It was granted independence in 1960, and the result was “a poor, underdeveloped, divided, fledgling country with little real chance of success”. As in the case of many borders in the Middle East now being destroyed by Islamic State, “the boundaries drawn by former colonial powers had little bearing on the true situation”.

Boyle wants to understand why so many Somali men are becoming pirates and causing havoc along the Somali coastline and Indian Ocean. The reason is twofold. Massive ships from Asia and Europe started pillaging fish stocks in the 2000s in areas that used to sustain Somali fishermen. Resentment grew.

Compounding this was the role of Italy, Somalia’s former ruler, in dumping huge amounts of contaminated waste at sea because it was far cheaper than trying to dispose of it cleanly in Europe. A Mafia syndicate controlled the trade; the UN issued reports that were mostly ignored.

“No one knows how many more [toxic] canisters still lie off the Somali shores,” Boyle explains, “slowly seeping their poison into the sea and the food chain. The planet’s most unfortunate nation, ungoverned, devastated by civil war, drought and famine, its oceans pillaged, now also had to suffer toxic and radioactive waste causing sickness, deformity and death.”

Somali piracy was born with a legitimate grievance, a demand for global fishing ships in their waters to pay a fine for taking stock. What started as a small operation soon became a hugely profitable enterprise. Opportunism soared as savvy businessmen realised hijacking large ships and demanding million-dollar ransoms was an easy way to make money.

Boyle argues that “most pirates today are no longer themselves displaced fishermen but members of nomadic land-based clans who generally have little or no knowledge of the sea. Rather than poor fishermen seeking redress, today’s pirates are more akin to drug dealers.”

This industry is utterly foreign to Westerners. When actor Tom Hanks starred in the 2013 film Captain Phillips, the story of the container ship Maersk Alabama, which was overwhelmed by Somali pirates, the motivation of the Somalis themselves was almost invisible.

Boyle does much better, though his writing sometimes veers into sensationalism. This is redeemed by his interviews with Somalis who are alleged pirates and end up in jail in the Seychelles. Mohamed Hassan Ali, 39, says he had no education and wanted to be a mechanic from a young age. “Before the pirates scared them away, the foreign ships were always taking our nets,” he explains. It was soon impossible to make a living selling fish and Mohamed found himself accused of attacking an Iranian ship. He denies the charges and says that because of the strong anti-Somali sentiment in the Seychelles, the venue for many court cases against piracy, he never received a fair trial.

The cost of piracy to the global economy was estimated in 2012 to be $US12 billion. Boyle shows how insurance companies are some of the biggest winners from the surge in piracy. But another, less discussed reason for piracy’s popularity is the exclusion of Somalia and similar failed states from the global economy.

Boyle only briefly touches on this issue, his focus is mostly on human stories, but it’s an integral factor in the relative success of kidnapping by militant groups worldwide. Easy money breeds greater demand for further violence when no alternatives are offered in Mogadishu and beyond.

Sustainability is not a word usually associated with Somalia. Global fish stocks are depleting fast and a report in Science in 2006 predicted that at the current commercial rate of fishing the oceans could be almost empty by 2050. Boyle concludes with a plea that Somalia’s fishing industry be managed and protected because otherwise “there will always be young men willing to risk their lives in small boats”.

Antony Loewenstein is a journalist and author. His forthcoming book is Disaster Capitalism.

Blood Ransom: Stories from the Front Line in the War Against Piracy

By John Boyle

Bloomsbury, 304pp, $29.99

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The sordid connection between Israel and South Sudan

The National publishes my following investigative feature (PDFs of the cover story: cover.sudan and spread.sudan):

The squalid guest house sits alongside a main road in South Sudan. Every night migrants arrive but few of them stay very long. They’re mostly men from Eritrea or Ethiopia who have fled racism and imprisonment in Israel looking for a better future. They stay in single rooms with a dirty mattress, searching for people smugglers for overland passage to Sudan and then Libya. Europe is the ultimate destination. They know the risks, from ISIL militants to corrupt police officers, but feel they have nothing left to lose.

Less than 30 minutes from Juba, the South Sudanese capital, the area of Shirikat is their unofficial home. The day before I visit, eight men arrive late at night and depart early in the morning for Khartoum, one step closer to taking a boat across the Mediterranean.

South Sudan has become one of the most unlikely sources of migrants, likely to be in the thousands, who are dying in unprecedented numbers this year in rickety boats heading for Italy or Greece. According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than a fifth of the 26,200 migrants who crossed the sea to reach Italy from January to April this year were originally from Eritrea.

In Shirikat, barefoot children run through muddy puddles while Indian, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Sudanese men sit around all day looking for any way to make money. It’s usually manual labour from washing dishes to lifting concrete on a building site. The heat is debilitating. Goats wander the dirty pavement and look for food. Migrants smoke shisha and play cards in a small motel behind a timber yard. For US20 cents, people can rent a small, tin shower block and wash themselves.

Yared Tekletsion is a relative success story. Born in Eritrea and 24 years old, he lived for three years in Tel Aviv as a sous chef. We meet in a seedy bar during the day with South Sudanese men sitting drinking on plastic chairs. “I never thought I would stay in Israel,” Tekletsion says. “I felt racism from the Israeli police and people every day. I have many Eritrean friends in Israel and racism makes them scared. They just work and go to church.”

Tekletsion fled Eritrea after beginning his mandatory army service and realising that he would never be free in his own country. The nation is one of the most repressive in Africa, restricting speech, the media and movement.

His path to Israel took him through Sudan, Egypt and Sinai. Years later he accepted an Israeli government offer to leave for Uganda and then made his own way to Juba.

“Life in South Sudan is good,” he tells me. “In Israel they didn’t want others [non-Israelis] to succeed but here nobody asks for my papers. I’d like to go back to Israel on holiday and give advice to my fellow Africans there; don’t go to Europe, it’s too dangerous, come here and find a job.”

Tekletsion, a Christian and irregular Sunday churchgoer, runs a building supplies business. He says it’s hard to convince new arrivals from Israel to stay in South Sudan because the country is poor with few services or employment opportunities.

South Sudan, the world’s newest state after declaring its independence in 2011, is facing a humanitarian crisis. Millions are displaced due to ongoing fighting, the economy has collapsed, tens of thousands have been killed since hostilities began in December 2013, children are recruited to fight, rape is endemic and food insecurity affects at least half the population of 11 million people.

Israel views South Sudan as a willing recipient of its surveillance equipment and defence and weapons technology. In 2013, South Sudan announced it would sell oil to Israeli companies.

Israel has maintained a close relationship with the South Sudanese for decades, especially after the 1967 Six Day War, when rebel leaders sought advice from Israel for their fight against northern Sudan. South Sudanese leaders were impressed with Israel’s military success. In the following decades Israel armed the Christian South Sudanese against the Muslim north, a country today that does not recognise Israel and allies itself with Iran (though this year’s Saudi-led strikes on Yemen have pitted Iranian interests against Sudanese ones because Khartoum has sided with Saudi Arabia). After 9/11, the United States joined Israel in massively strengthening its ties with South Sudanese rebels against a northern neighbour who had sheltered Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.

In the 2000s, with fighting raging across Sudan, many South Sudanese fled to safety in countries such as Australia and Israel. Dislike of African migrants soared in Israel, leading to growing moves to expel them. “We’re not in Tel Aviv, we’re in Africa!” shouted a Jewish protester in Tel Aviv during an anti-refugee rally in 2011. The Israeli government continued to back South Sudanese claims for independence while urging their people to return home.

But with little infrastructure in Juba, poor health care and education, as well as ongoing insecurity, South Sudanese migrants rightly believed they were owed protection. Israel disagreed despite many of the young asylum seekers never having seen South Sudan and viewing Israel as their home.

Robel Kosu doesn’t share Tekletsion’s optimism. Another Eritrean migrant who arrived in Juba four months ago, he spent six years in Israel working various jobs. The police regularly harassed him and he protested with his fellow Eritreans. At 25 years old, he is now desperate to leave Juba and get to Europe. He spends his days fighting off malaria and sitting outside a hardware shop watching the world go by.

Like Tekletsion, he left Israel voluntarily but was given US$3,500 (Dh12,900), flown to Rwanda, then told to leave by Rwandan officials, transported by bus to Uganda and then urged by fellow Eritreans to try South Sudan. “Israeli officials told me that it’s better for you to leave but Africa is a bad place,” he says.

His story matches the many others from migrants I hear in Juba, a path from Israel to South Sudan with corrupt officials, kidnapping threats and no work papers. Nearly every migrant I meet wants a future in Europe and doesn’t fear drowning in the Mediterranean.

Without identification or a passport, Kosu says that his life is in limbo. He hasn’t seen his parents or most of his siblings for years. “I feel like an outlaw. In Africa we have poor minds. I want to live where I am free, like Europe, America or Australia.”

Israel has a black, African population that it desperately wants to expel or ignore. There are about 46,000 asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. They face institutional racism from the government, judiciary, army and public. In a 2012 poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute Peace Index, a majority of Israelis agreed with a statement by Likud member of the Knesset Miri Regev, the newly appointed minister for culture and sport, that Africans are a “cancer in the body” of the nation. Thirty three per cent of people believed that violence against Africans was justified. Large protests by Ethiopian Jews, held in Tel Aviv in May, highlighted the racism shown by police towards them. It’s not just Palestinians feeling the brunt of state persecution.

Israel houses thousands of African refugees indefinitely in the Holot detention centre and Saharonim prison in the Negev Desert. Conditions are grim. One man inside Holot, Adil Aldao from Darfur, describes it as a “concentration camp” where food is unhealthy and stimulation is limited. “My freedom is buried in Holot,” he says.

Israel gives African migrants 30 days to leave, rarely accepting their refugee claims. Israel has only ever accepted a handful of Eritrean and Sudanese migrant claims; the recognition rate is less than 1 per cent over the past six years. The alternative is long-term detention. More than 9,000 asylum seekers have left Israel since 2013 and Israel claims this is due to its “voluntary return” programme. In reality, the government has signed secret agreements with Rwanda and Uganda and flies people to these destinations pledging job assistance and financial support. Ugandan journalist Raymond Mujuni exposed in late 2014 that Uganda had signed a deal with Israel to take thousands of its unwanted migrants in exchange for weapons and agricultural knowledge.

All the Africans I interview in Juba and a recent report by two Israeli NGOs both find empty promises to migrants by the Israeli authorities as they face abuse by people smugglers and risk of kidnapping and death.

Israel was one of the first countries to welcome South Sudan’s independence in 2011. In 2012, they sent over 1,000 migrants back to Juba and Israel continues to deny that the remaining South Sudanese in their cities are refugees, treating them poorly. The first South Sudanese ambassador in Tel Aviv was appointed in 2014. Ambassador Ruben Marial Benjamin ignored numerous requests for comment.

Israel’s main interest appears to be selling arms to South Sudan. It overlooks its blatant human rights abuses, a tradition that has seen brutal African militaries armed and trained for decades. Israeli defence exports to South Sudan are stable and the South Sudanese army is using Israeli weapons. A South Sudanese delegation is visiting Israel in June to attend the country’s leading defence expo. Israeli Meretz politician Tamar Zandberg recently demanded that Israel cease selling weapons to Juba and follow a European Union arms embargo.

The South Sudanese government tells The National that there is no formal agreement between the nations to accept refugees from any country. Thousands have arrived in the last years without any state support.

A handful of dedicated advocates in Israel and South Sudan are working with the affected communities to help. After the South Sudanese community was deported from Israel, Israeli Rami Gudovitch co-founded the Come True project, under NGO Become, a sponsorship programme funding the education of 120 deportee children at the Trinity boarding school in Uganda. The group has plans to establish a similar school in Juba.

“I believe it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to make his effort to make the lives of refugees bearable,” Gudovitch says. “My country, Israel, was formed by refugees fleeing from the Nazis while the world turned its back to them … Every single European person who chose to protect and assist Jewish refugees in the Second World War is being remembered by the survivors and their families and friends. Helping refugees is a moral opportunity of the highest degree.”

In Juba, Hakim Monykuer Awuok has formed a partnership with Gudovitch to build a closer relations between Israel and the South Sudanese migrants who lived in Israel. An employee of the ministry of education and co-founder of NGO Empower Kids, Awuok tells The National that he believes Israel should treat its migrants with respect. “It’s a waste of such talented people to be deported here from Israel,” he says. “Building a school is one way to help them.”

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian columnist and author based in South Sudan.

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Interview about my documentary-in-progress, Disaster Capitalism

I was recently interviewed by Green Left Weekly newspaper:

Independent journalist and author Antony Loewenstein has made a name for himself writing about war crimes, human rights abuses and corporate profiteering.

For the first time, he is seeking to speak truth to power through the medium of film — with his first documentary Disaster Capitalism now in production. Loewenstein is also releasing a new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe through Verso in September.

Green Left Weekly‘s Paul Benedek spoke to Loewenstein

* * *

Until now, your work has been writing book and articles. What made you move into film with Disaster Capitalism?

For many years, I have realised the power of film and TV to emotionally reach people in ways that the written word cannot.

After a number of books that I know could have benefitted from a complimentary film — My Israel Question would have shown the vicious reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and The Blogging Revolution would have featured some of the inspiring dissidents challenging repressive regimes globally — I started talking to Australian filmmakers in 2010/2011 when I began researching my book, Profits of Doom.

To cut a long story short, various partnerships started and stalled, various local funders showed interest, then didn’t. I realised that I should just start filming myself as I was visiting Christmas Island and Curtin detention centres, Haiti, Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I shot on an HD handycam, the images looked fine, but I was keen to collaborate with a filmmaker to shape my vision.

Who is the team you are working with on the film and what role/s are each of you playing?

In 2012, I met New York filmmaker Thor Neureiter through a mutual friend and we visited Haiti together. Since then we’ve been filming, raising money and crafting the documentary from different corners of the globe. Norwegian filmmaker Spencer Austad, based in Australia, is also involved, and he filmed me in Bougainville and Afghanistan.

Thor is the director, producer and cinematographer, Spencer is the co-cinematographer and I’m the presenter, writer and co-producer. Sydney-based production company Media Stockade are our producing partners.

Briefly sum up the theme of Disaster Capitalism, and why this is an important film to make.

The film features three countries: Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Afghanistan. We are investigating the reality and rhetoric of aid and development and how they shape, affect and change people’s lives, often negatively.

Natural resources are often cited as the best way to help developing nations thrive, but in all three nations minerals and mining are leading to greater poverty and displacement. Despite all these problems, many people are making serious money. This is an inevitable result of exploitative policies that aim to enrich local and foreign contractors at the expense of the population.

The aim of the film isn’t simply to shock and seduce people, it’s shot in a beautiful way, but to show how these industries could be different. Our outreach plan includes showing the film to a wide audience, from cinemas to film-festivals, the UN and aid workers and screenings in Haiti, PNG and Afghanistan themselves.

Where has the film taken you, who have you met and what are one or two highlights?

We have travelled twice to each country, Haiti, PNG and Afghanistan, and each time we wanted to have local characters tell their stories, about how the promises from the international community regularly falls short.

One of the highlights was recently visiting Logar Province in Afghanistan, one of the hearts of the insurgency, to meet villagers displaced by the Chinese-owned Aynak mine nearby, one of the largest copper deposits in the world.

The Afghan and Chinese governments and the Chinese company all claim the mine is beneficial to the country, but we saw and heard angry village elders explaining how they faced violence, uncertainty and poverty because of it.

As a film team working very differently from established or mainstream film production companies, what technology has the team used and what have been the challenges on the shoot?

The challenges are immense because we have faced rugged terrain, an insurgency, poverty and access issues. We have shot on a Sony FS100 camera and Black Magic Design camera, Go Pro, iPhone 6 and other devices.

What avenues have you used to fund the film until now, and what are the plans for further funding to complete it?

We have self-funded, raised money on Kickstarter and successfully applied for money from the Bertha Foundation, funders of Citizen Four, Dirty Wars and other successful documentaries. We’re currently speaking to local and international funders to raise the remaining amount. If readers would like to help, they know where to find me.

Where is the film currently at, what needs to be done to complete it and when are you aiming to release it?

Principal shooting of the film is complete, with only minor shooting still required in a few locations. We are raising funds for post-production and hope to have this completed within the next six to 12 months. This project began four to five years ago, so we’re committed to finishing it as soon as possible.

Where do you plan on the film ending up, do you have a distributor and what is your distribution plan?

Our aim for the film is for a global cinema release, to be seen by as many people as possible. We will aim for film festivals, TV, Al Jazeera, BBC, Netflix and a range of other options.

We do not yet have a distributor but are talking to a few. The distribution and outreach plan revolves around changing the conversation on aid and development in a way that challenges the gatekeepers in that industry.

To achieve this goal, we’ll have an active social media campaign and partner with local and global human rights NGOs to spread the message. We’ll also use our various media platforms to discuss the film.

Do you think film is a medium that other progressive journalists and writers should be looking at moving into?

Although making a documentary is a slow process, I certainly believe in its power and worth to compliment other types of writing and activism. There’s a reason Naomi Klein is making a documentary version of her book, This Changes Everything, on climate change. She wants to reach large audiences with a message.

Disaster Capitalism has similar goals because these issues don’t just affect elite policy makers at the UN or NGOs. As our film shows, locals are often negatively affected by policy decisions made in Western nations. We are all complicit.

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Papua New Guinea must be more than mines to Australia

My weekly Guardian column:

After years of uncertainty, the once-profitable copper mine on Bougainville, an autonomous province of Papua New Guinea (PNG), could well be reopened.

The chairman of Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), Peter Taylor, told the Australian recently that “the Bougainville government seems to want the mine reopened, but we have to sit down … and see what’s doable.”

BCL’s Panguna mine opened in 1972, three years before PNG was granted independence from Australia. Bougainvilleans barely benefited from the operation, a deal that smacked of colonial arrogance and resulted in pollution.

In response, locals launched a rebellion in the 1980s against the mine, BCL, and the PNG and Australian governments. The resistance won the ensuing civil war but at a steep human cost: up to 20,000 killed and infrastructure broken.

Today Bougainville is beset by poverty and economic stagnation. I witnessed this myself during two visits in recent years.

The polls opened last week to elect a new government in the lead-up to an independence referendum scheduled before 2020. The local government, along with BCL and Canberra, is pushing for the mine to be Bougainville’s financial saviour first.

But according to a Jubilee Australia report last year, the vast majority on the island oppose BCL’s return. This tallies with what I heard in towns and villages.

The potential reopening of the mine is one piece of an Australian strategy to open up South Pacific nations to foreign interests. As Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop said in 2014: Australia should “stimulate the [PNG] private sector through growth”.

The situation in Bougainville perfectly encapsulates the parlous state of affairs in PNG as it approaches the 40-year anniversary of its break with Australia.

On 16 September 1975 a ceremony was held in the PNG capital Port Moresby, at which Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, Prince Charles and PNG’s first prime minister, Michael Somare, declared PNG a constitutional monarchy with membership of the Commonwealth.

The country was was granted independence but its path has been torturous ever since. Canberra never allowed its northern neighbour to fully leave a relationship of dependency, and today provides $577m annually in aid that primarily benefits Australian companies making money there.

The PNG exposed blog – an independent and reliable news and analysis website – has criticised Australia’s attempts to teach PNG leaders how to avoid corruption.

According to the blog, Canberra turns a blind eye to billions of dollars of “PNG taxpayers money [siphoned] through Australian banks and into real estate schemes in Brisbane and Cairns, posh Australian public schools, its glitzy casinos and expensive private hospitals”.

Forty years after breaking free from Australia, PNG suffers shockingly high levels of HIV infection, maternal health issues, domestic violence, aggression against women and illiteracy. Even the PNG government itself admits that “PNG’s adult literacy situation is in dire straits”.

This isn’t solely Australia’s fault; endemic corruption has blighted PNG for decades (US State Department cables released by Wikileaks confirm this). Yet Western donors and resource companies are principally to blame for engaging in neo-colonialism, treating the country as nothing more than a source of wealth for outsiders.

Some of the mining projects currently in operation may be familiar: Ok Tedi, Porgera, Lihir, Ramu. They’re all environmentally destructive and offer little benefit to local communities. At the Porgera gold mine, cases of “extreme sexual violence” by security guards against tribal women and girls resulted in offers of compensation.

It’s unsurprising that most Papua New Guineans I met were sceptical about foreign investment in their country, knowing they would never feel or see any benefit from it.

Others are more hopeful, like US Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. During her time as US Secretary of State, she was open in admitting that the huge energy resources in PNG, especially the Exxon-Mobil LNG gas pipeline that opened in 2014 and is already struggling due to collapsing global commodity prices, was part of a regional contest with China. She chastised China for “wining and dining” Asia-Pacific politicians.

“If anybody thinks that our retreating on these issues is somehow going to be irrelevant to the maintenance of our leadership in a world where we are competing with China, that is a mistaken notion,” she said.

The people of PNG have only been impoverished by so-called leadership from Washington and Canberra. Meanwhile, corruption is rife; PNG’s anti-corruption agency, Taskforce Sweep, was starved of funds earlier this year following allegations they made against prime minister Peter O’Neill.

Perhaps the clearest indication of how Australia views PNG is the Manus Island asylum seeker deal. Slammed by a leading PNG provincial governor as “neo-colonialist”, locals receive little benefit and are really helping the Australian Liberal and Labor parties solve a domestic political problem.

Journalist Jo Chandler, writing recently in the Monthly, shows in great detail the way “Australia is primarily concerned with building the infrastructure to service their interests and comforts.” This is also an accurate summary of the dynamic between Port Moresby and Canberra since 1975.

There’s huge potential in PNG to be a nation that isn’t known internationally for mining and witch burning. Grassroots groups, such as the Madang-based Bismarck Ramu Group, aim to protect local communities and inform them of viable alternatives to resource extraction – such as agriculture.

Yet this year’s 40th anniversary of independence should be a sombre occasion to reflect on four decades of failed Australian interference in PNG. Canberra views Port Moresby as overseeing a massive quarry Australian firms have the right to plunder. We dump asylum seekers on PNG territory while still claiming to be a victim of unscrupulous people smugglers. And our aid money? It’s is an insurance policy against a failed state on Australia’s northern border.

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African migrants kicked out of Israel, suffering in South Sudan

My Guardian investigation is published today:

Robel Tesfahannes spends his days looking for work in Juba. An Eritrean who recently arrived in South Sudan after six years in Tel Aviv, Tesfahannes is one of a new wave of refugees forced out of Israel by the country’s increasingly tough stance towards migrants.

He is covered in tattoos, including a message on his right arm to Israelis: “I hate them but I can’t live without them.” Tesfahannes says that with “no money I have no aims. But you have to keep moving, always. I live risk to risk.”

Robel Tesfahannes

Robel Tesfahannes Photograph: Antony Loewenstein

Tesfahannes left Eritrea in 2008, fleeing mandatory military service in a regime that tolerates no dissent, and travelled through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt before arriving in Israel. He says he was briefly imprisoned before being released into the community.

“The Israeli government said bad things about us Africans,” he says, “and I felt Israelis looked at us suspiciously.” He alleges that he was routinely harassed by Israeli police and eventually decided that he had to leave.

The country recently announced a deal with Rwanda to deport Eritrean and Sudanese migrants there, claiming they would be given visas and allowed to work. In return, Rwanda would receive economic benefits.

But Tesfahannes says the promise of work and security never materialised.

Instead his journey from Israel to the world’s newest nation was a tortuous one. Given $3,500 (£2,200) in cash on departure by Israeli officials, he was flown to Rwanda earlier this year with 10 other Eritreans.

Tesfahannes says he was given three nights’ accommodation in Kigali before being told by a Rwandan official that he had to pay $150 (£98) to secure safe passage to Uganda. No work opportunities were ever discussed, he said.

With no identification, passport or money, the 25-year-old is in limbo, dreaming of making the journey north to Europe.

Until recently, Israel provided a one-off monetary incentive for asylum seekers to leave the country voluntarily if they signed a document giving their written consent.

Now the state will give them 30 days to leave; those who refuse will face a hearing that could lead to indefinite detention.

Israel has around 50,000 Africans within its borders, including 2,000 at the Holot detention camp in the Negev desert. The prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has referred to them as “infiltrators”.

A report recently published by two Israeli NGOs supported Tesfahannes’s claim that African migrants sent from Israel to Rwanda, Uganda or elsewhere in Africa under the new policy are given no work rights or protections when arriving.

“The fees for two nights’ stay at a local hotel in Uganda are paid for by the state of Israel. After that, the asylum seekers are asked to leave,” the report says, “with no identification documents and no possibility of proving where they have come from”.

A day after a boat sank in the Mediterranean in April causing the deaths of 700 migrants, the country’s transportation minister Yisrael Katz said that the drownings justified Israel’s policy and its fence along its border with Egypt “which blocks the job-seeking migrants before they enter Israel”.

Last Sunday in Tel Aviv thousands of Israelis and ethnic Ethiopians protested to highlight the racism against Africans, after a video emerged showing a black Israeli soldier being assaulted by a policeman.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon denies that the country harasses migrants: “African migrants in Israel are treated fairly and humanely,” he said. “The police intervenes when Israel’s laws have been broken. It does so with restraint and acts under legal scrutiny.”

A spokeswoman for the Rwandan directorate of immigration declined to comment on the allegations, while Uganda has denied any agreement with Israel to receive migrants.

Tesfahannes says that he came to South Sudan because other Eritrean migrants in Kampala told him it was a safer place to stay before making the move towards north Africa, and eventually Europe.

In Juba, Tesfahannes has little money. A brother still working in Israel has sent him some US dollars, but he has few friends and no family here. His tattoos have scared off potential employees. “I’m like a dog,” he says. “In Africa dogs are shot and killed, we’re like animals. Dogs are not killed in Europe.”

The majority of migrants arriving in South Sudan from Israel live in Shirikat, a poor area near the capital city, on the road to Uganda. In the single, dirty rooms of a guesthouse people-smugglers arrange the dangerous trip to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, one stop on the way up to Libya.

Tesfahannes acknowledges that he may have to stay in South Sudan if he can’t raise the funds to leave. “I’m not scared of drowning in the Mediterranean,” he says. “God decides my fate. I want to have a wife and kids one day if I don’t die first.”

He cannot return to Eritrea because of the regime’s ongoing repression, and is stateless – like many migrants making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

The International Organisation for Migration fears 30,000 people could drown making the journey this year, unless the European Union establishes an effective search and rescue service.

South Sudan, a country riven by civil war with millions facing food insecurity, is ill-prepared to handle this influx of outsiders. The government does not know how many Africans are crossing its borders, though Eritreans in Juba say it’s in the thousands, with more on the way.

Tesfahannes, who lives in a tiny hotel room for US$3.50 a night, wants to work and leave Juba as soon as possible. “Even with a rich mind, with no money you are nothing here.”

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Punishing migrants is a sure way towards greater unrest

My weekly Guardian column:

Surely bombing yet another Muslim country is a mistake. But that’s exactly what Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni has called for – attacks on Islamic State (Isis) positions in Libya to stem the flow of refugees streaming into Europe.

Calls for tough action, like Gentiloni’s, are growing in response to refugees drowning during the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Ocean. Last year nearly 5,000 men, women and children perished at sea. This year at least 1,600 people have already died.

The desire to shut the door to Europe entirely is perhaps understandable, but it’s the wrong decision. It dishonestly uses the fantasy of small and ordered queues of asylum seekers to sell Europe as a safe haven.

And yet the modern, international system of protecting asylum seekers, set up in the wake of the Holocaust, has never looked more incapable of dealing with some of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War.

Over 4 million Syrians have fled their country since 2011. Aside from the refugees pouring into Italy, around 100 Syrians arrive every day by boat on Greece’s Dodecanese islands.

The country is logistically incapable of managing the influx and struggles with some of the most unaccepting attitudes to refugees in Europe (though a new, left-wing Syriza government is already releasing thousands of immigrants housed in horrible detention centres, sites I witnessed in Corinth in 2014). Some in Europe are more open. A recent poll found that 50% of Germans were in favour of taking more refugees.

The UN is practically begging Western nations to shelter Syrian refugees but the response from America, Britain, Australia and Canada has been desultory. The Saudi-led campaign against Yemen is likely to cause more people to flee a country that was already struggling before the current bombing. African leaders, from where many migrants are coming due to repression, are largely mute.

In Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment is electorally popular. It’s not a tough sell. Economic uncertainty, questions around migrant integration, Al-Qaeda or Isis-inspired violence against civilians and questions around European identity end up expressing themselves in a fear of Islam and terrorism, which are doubts politicians exploit.

And the sheer scale of refugee arrivals in Italy is even causing some asylum seekers themselves to wonder with whom they have been travelling. There are often no checks or registration on arrival and some told Foreign Policy recently that it was entirely possible that members of Isis or other militant groups were travelling among them as a way to enter Europe.

European state identity is morphing into a less homogenous collection of nations. It’s undeniably becoming more socially conservative, Muslim and unfamiliar to traditional, Christian sensibilities.

The EU’s possible solution to these changes, mimicking Australia’s offshore detention network, is to establish processing camps in non-EU nations such as Niger, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey – as a way to keep the problem away from Europe.

To implement such a system in states that already have huge asylum burdens guarantees poor conditions and corruption. This has been Australia’s experience with awful Pacific island detention camps which have done next to nothing to alter the increasingly desperate nature of 21st century migration flows, except to keep them from settling safely in Australia.

Canberra finds itself making deals with repressive states like Cambodia and Vietnam, and tiny Island nations like Nauru, but is mistaken if it believes resettling refugees there will deter a family leaving war-torn Syria, Libya or Iraq trying to reach somewhere secure.

After all, the west’s participation in Middle Eastern wars is what’s accelerating this huge population transfer. Libya, where Gentiloni wants to drop his bombs, was meant to be peaceful after the 2011 overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. But Libya is broken, with French oil producer Total SA cutting and running this month.

The result of Europe’s lack of investment in Libya after the end of the dictator has borne results: political chaos, violence and a wave of refugees fleeing. Not that this has stopped Libya’s broke, ruling government still having money for a Washington-based lobbyist – though it’s unclear who is paying the bill.

The EU is showing every indication of wanting to push the refugee “problem” off its soil, a sign of its unwillingness to deal with the fruits of its foreign policy. Adequate search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean are not happening due to the spurious argument that saving people will only encourage more to come.

The result is many more deaths at sea; because of their brown and black skin, governments don’t fear a public outcry to save them. The compassionate and correct response is to not allow people to drown. Instead, European nations are pushing for drones to monitor the Mediterranean (with Israeli government and corporate assistance, since they’re global leaders in the technology) and warships on the Libyan coast.

Europe, like Australia, views this issue as a security threat and not a humanitarian crisis. The response follows this logic. People smugglers are framed as the ultimate enemy. Rarely are Western policies acknowledged as being part of the problem.

One solution is to ease the path for migrants to enter the EU in a safe and responsible way. It is increasingly difficult for refugees to claim asylum in overseas embassies, forcing them to take alternative paths. Last year nearly half of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean came from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia – and yet the EU does little to find solutions in those states.

The EU hosts few of the world’s refugees, the UNHCR has found that 86% of the world’s total reside in developing nations, so rhetoric about a supposed migrant “invasion” is false. Australia argues similarly, though its intake could be far higher, too.

Europe is mimicking an Australian immigration architecture that profits from surveillance and detention. Greek journalist Apostolis Fotiadis, author of the just released book Border Merchants, wrote after the recent Mediterranean drownings that, “promoting reactionary policies dressed up with words of grief seems to have become a habit [for the EU].”

Europe is learning, as Australia surely will, that constructing a fortress around their privileged nations while politicising human tragedies is a road to further unrest.

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Why Western leaders love dictatorships

My weekly Guardian column:

Western-friendly dictators can die in peace, knowing they’ll be lauded as soon as they stop breathing. So it was for Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who recently passed away at the age of 91. Tributes poured in from across the globe. Barack Obama called him “visionary” while Australian prime minister Tony Abbott mourned a “friend”.

Neither man mentioned that Lee presided over an authoritarian state where dissent was barely tolerated, where even his commemoration was marked by the authorities shutting down events at Speaker’s Corner, the only place in the country where protest is permitted.

Singapore may have become a global business hub in a matter of decades, a remarkable economic feat, but growing numbers of its young citizens no longer believe or accept that silence in the face of repression is acceptable. Clean sidewalks may not be enough anymore to satisfy a public yearning for more.

After Lee’s death, Singapore arrested a local teenager for daring to post a video slamming the deceased leader’s record. Greater freedom of speech and rights is on the agenda for its globally connected youth.

This is the problem with dictators admired in elite western circles for being able to dismiss the will of the people even more successfully than elected politicians; the population eventually wants change.

In the eyes of the west, Singaporean autocracy was less important than the building of a stable Asian nation that enriched western and Asian businesses. Lee Kwan Yew didn’t need to push this message too hard to convince anybody. After all, the west is more than happy to deal with China, another success story with a deplorable human rights record and worsening attacks on civil society.

The tradeoff – stability and prosperity for authoritarianism – is global. When Saudi King Abdullah died in January this year, Australian government buildings lowered their flags to mark the death. Obama flew to the funeral to pay respects to the royal family.

Alongside a massive entourage, including the CIA director and a host of Democrat and Republican figures, Obama’s goal was to confirm the primacy of the special relationship between Saudi Arabia and America and reassure the unelected sheikhs that he wasn’t intending to leave them isolated against an ascendant Iran, which has increasing control over four regional capitals – Sana’a, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut – as a result of Washington’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that unleashed a chain-reaction of shifting alliances.

Saudi Arabia beheads its own people, its legal system is opaque, it refuses women basic rights, like permission to drive, and tolerates no criticism of its rule. Its abundant oil is used ruthlessly to keep heads of state in line; Obama, Abbott and other western heads of state are unwilling to challenge a country that is known to export terror.

The response to another autocrat’s death, Indonesia’s Suharto, in 2008, was also enthusiastic. Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating damned critics who dared condemn the dictator as “a cruel and intolerant repressor” when in fact he had “saved Indonesia from destruction”. Left unsaid were the million Indonesians killed after Suharto’s bloody ascension to the presidency in the 1960s and the occupation of East Timor.

The New York Times obituary noted his rule as “one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century”. This didn’t bother Keating, who saluted Soeharto for bringing “stability” on Australia’s doorstep.

How dictators are revered in their death wholly depends on their usefulness to western interests. When US-backed Iraqi-forces executed Saddam Hussein in 2006, few mourned his bloody rule. Yet for decades, Hussein was a close American ally, during a time when he was at his most murderous against internal dissent.

Washington even provided the location of Iranian troops to Saddam’s Iraq in 1988, to assist in a chemical weapons attack. It was only when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 that America designated him an official enemy.

But is the west’s insistence on stability helping reduce violence? Aligning with the darkest forces on the planet for the sake of oil, access or apparent geo-strategic positioning is guaranteed to achieve the opposite. Western leaders inevitably end up preparing grandiose and intrusive plans to control the monsters they’ve unleashed. Dirty alliances, escalation and invasions with unpredictable outcomes; this seems like all our leaders know. Afterwards come the glowing eulogies.

Many leaders are happy to play the Washington game and are feted accordingly. Criticism of abuses in Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Israel are muted because military, strategic or economic benefits to both sides are integral to these relationships. Deaths of their rulers would bring salutatory statements from Britain and America. Conversely, Russia is deemed a national security threat because it refuses to be bought by economic threats from the US.

When you dance with the devil, you’ll be bitten on the behind. Democratic security and moral integrity is weakened when western friends commit abuses and they’re ignored or rationalised. You can tell an awful lot about so-called western values when leaders fawn at the feet of autocrats when they die.

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