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.

Mining company operates in repressive Eritrea, questions abound

This week the Guardian published my story on the role of Australian and foreign mining companies in Africa. One of the companies I identity is Australian firm Danakali, currently operating in Eritrea. 10 days before publication I emailed questions to the corporation seeking answers. No response. A few days later I emailed again and called its Perth office. Again, nothing. Now, a few days after my story was released, the company’s CEO and Managing Director Paul Donaldson has emailed me some answers. He’s unhappy with my article and its lack of “objectivity”. I’ll let readers decide whether a company operating in one of the world’s most repressive regimes has questions to answer about its behaviour. The following are my original questions and Donaldson’s answers:

Operating in Africa can be a challenging regulatory environment. How does your company operate in a country such as Eritrea?
We are a small company in the feasibility study stage. We have a group of local geologists, safety, environmental and administrative personnel based in our Asmara office. They are all our employees and are on annual salaries. We have safety and travel protocols for commuting between office and site, have introduced risk assessment processes before conducting any site work and do monthly safety inspections at site.

Requirements for mining are outlined in the Eritrean Mining proclamation which identify the need for a bankable feasibility study with an accompanying social, environmental impact assessment and environmental management plan before a mining license can be granted. We work closely with the ministry of land and environment and the ministry of energy and mines to ensure that we meet/exceed these requirements.

A look at our asx announcements will demonstrate to you that our SEIA is being done to the equator principles, and that we have been conducting environmental baseline assessments to support the environmental impact assessment. The work is also being conducted by a Perth based environmental group who have been engaged to ensure this work is done to meet the equator principles, which is of the highest standard and underpins the social and environmental management plan.

In conducting this work, and again with reference to our published information, this includes stakeholder engagement and is particularly relevant to communities in close proximity to the resource.

Eritrea has been accused by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for its human rights abuses. How does your company ensure that human rights abuses aren’t being breached during its operations?

Firstly you should already be aware that we are not actually in operation. We are in feasibility study stage. All of our study work is conducted by paid personnel – both nationals and where appropriate expats. Secondly, the joint venture company is currently working through its operating policy’s which will be adopted when the project is further advanced. This includes corporate, social responsibility that ensures that human rights abuses do not occur. The existing Bisha operation which is a joint venture between the Eritrean National Mining company and Nevsun have led the way in this respect (I note there is no mention of them in your article).

What kind of relationship does your company have with the Eritrean government?
As per our company presentations – we have a good working relationship with the government. We meet regularly with the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Land and Environment. The Eritrean National Mining company is our joint venture partner.

Do you think that Australian companies, operating outside Australian borders, should have to abide by any basic operating standards, regulations etc and should this be enforced by the Australian government?

Publicaly listed Australian companies do have to abide by standards of good corporate governance. It is a condition. Safety, environmental, training performance all form part of public company reporting protocols when in operation.
Having said that, my views are as follows:
1. The first priority is to comply to the local regulations, which most African countries have, albeit at different levels of maturity

2. After that foreign companies should be working with the regulators within the relevant jurisdiction to continually lift the bar on standards

3. Companies should always be self and third party auditing to ensure compliance to their own policy and standards

4. It is not appropriate for the Australian government to enforce regulations in another country. However, it is important to foster information sharing between emerging and developed mining jurisdictions.

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How to make mining corporations in Africa respect human rights

The reality of international and Australian mining corporations in Africa can be grim for local civilians. My latest Guardian investigation examines these issues. I interview a journalist from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Will Fitzgibbon, about his organisation’s recent work on the subject and the following is the full interview extracted in the Guardian:

What’s been the overall response to your recent report?

There has been a very positive response to the ICIJ project Fatal Extraction. Australian politicians, civil society and lawyers involved in business and human rights and concerned by the social and environmental impacts of mining see this as what it is – the most detailed investigation into Australia’s corporate mining footprint in Africa.

There are some very engaged actors in this sector, including Oxfam and the Human Rights Law Centre. But there is also a sense that Australia’s debate on corporate impacts and alleged violations overseas is much more limited than elsewhere. In Canada, for example, there have been lengthy parliamentary debates and deep media analyses of comparable allegations in a way that is yet to happen in Australia.

Should companies have to abide by strict regulatory laws?

The jury is still out on whether new laws are the most pressing response to this problem. Many argue that there’s a lot that can also be done in terms of company reporting to investors and of promoting voluntary and transparent application of international principles of business and human rights.

How should the Australian government tackle the problem?

What struck me most was successive governments’ incuriousness about the impacts that mining companies could be having overseas. The first step is awareness, which can then feed in to decisions relating to aid funding of mining-related projects, investment decisions by government bodies and diplomatic support. I hope that ICIJ’s work is a a contribution to that raising of awareness.

Given the size of Australia’s overseas resource presence, there would seem to be a case for more Australian leadership on implementing and championing global business and human rights principles. Time and time again, experts inside and outside Australia told me they wish there was more interest from within Australia.

One constant refrain I heard from victims, lawyers and even politicians from Senegal to South Africa was that they wanted their grievances to be heard in Australia. Even for well-resourced civil society organizations, it is difficult to find avenues of redress or complaint within Australia. Legal barriers are high and costly while non-judicial systems supposed to assist  those impacted by Australian multinationals, such as the OECD National Contact Point based inside the Treasury, are underfunded and almost forgotten by Australia’s decision-makers. Advocates in Africa also complain about how difficult it is to grab the attention of Australian investors and shareholders in companies accused of wrongdoing or implicated in scandal.

Other countries, such as Canada and France, have experimented with monetary fines for companies found guilty of gross human rights abuses or revoking potential government export support. Canada even introduced an ombudsman with a specific mandate to receive and investigate allegations of corporate abuses by Canadian extractive industry companies operating overseas.

Why are the problems so ignored?

Part of it is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ There is a huge imbalance between Australia’s diplomatic and business interests in Africa.  We still have one of the lowest numbers of embassies and high commissions in Africa among our peers yet we have mining companies, sometimes literally flying the Australian flag, in places like Burkina Faso, Niger, Madagascar and Zambia.

Mining operations often happen in remote corners of countries that few Australians know of.

What’s more, language barriers, especially in Francophone Africa, limit the spread of news back home that relates to Australian companies.

Reporting in Africa requires a lot of costly footwork. It is hard to get information without spending days searching through filing cabinets in regional bureaucratic offices. Interviews with those who have suffered can take months to organize. Lots of media don’t have the capacity to invest in these kinds of stories. That’s part of what ICIJ does – the leg work and data analysis that traditional, for profit media cannot often do.

What’s been the response in Africa?

This project by ICIJ is perhaps the largest ever Africa-based collaboration of journalists. With ICIJ working together with journalists on the ground, we were able to help produce some great examples of investigations that countries with more difficult media environments, like Mali, have rarely seen.

Bringing together the behaviour of Australian companies as a corporate entity across an entire region rather than just one-off stories has helped draw attention to the issue for decision-makers in Africa. Ultimately, these are the men and women who sign off on deals with companies and make the choice between firms from Australia, Canada, China, Brazil or elsewhere.

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How foreign mining companies breach human rights in Africa

My investigation in the Guardian:

Australian miners are making a killing overseas. With little regulation or oversight, billions of dollars are being made in some of the most remote places on Earth.

The necessity of partnering with autocratic regimes has proved no impediment to investment. Human rights have been breached. Victims are largely invisible.

None of this should be surprising. If Australian companies operating internationally are mentioned in the media, it appears in the business pages and discusses the strengths of a CEO or share price. Rio Tinto, for example, receives largely uncritical coverage despite in the 1980s the corporation facing serious allegations of human rights abuses around the world, including in Papua New Guinea.

Two American non-profit media organisations, the Centre for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, recently bucked the trend and released a stunning report, Fatal Extraction, on Australian mining companies working in Africa (in which no allegations were made against Rio Tinto). How revealing that this research was led from America and not Australia itself.

The findings of the report, produced in collaboration with African journalists on the ground, were shocking.

From the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Malawi, grim details of death, maiming and police and army brutality were revealed.

A lead investigator on the report, Will Fitzgibbon, told the Guardian that while the response to the report was “positive”, there was also a sense that “Australia’s debate on corporate impacts and alleged violations overseas is much more limited than elsewhere. In Canada, for example, there have been lengthy parliamentary debates and deep media analyses of comparable allegations in a way that is yet to happen in Australia.”

I asked Fitzgibbon how these violations should be addressed in Australia. He said:

“The jury is still out on whether new laws are the most pressing response to this problem. Many argue that there’s a lot that can also be done in terms of company reporting to investors and of promoting voluntary and transparent application of international principles of business and human rights.”

Australia’s lack of interest in alleged corporate crimes in far-away places is related to a worrying incuriousness among reporters and politicians (the Greens are a key exception).

“There is a huge imbalance between Australia’s diplomatic and business interests in Africa. We still have one of the lowest numbers of embassies and high commissions in Africa among our peers yet we have mining companies, sometimes literally flying the Australian flag, in places like Burkina Faso, Niger, Madagascar and Zambia,” Fitzgibbon said.

Eritrea is one country that should be under the spotlight.

“The economy of Eritrea has experienced considerable growth in recent years,” explains the website for Australian mining company Danakali. The Perth-based firm, which until recently was known as South Boulder Mines, has partnered with the Eritrean National Mining Company to develop a massive potassium-bearing salts deposit around 350km from the country’s capital, Asmara.

Danakali’s managing director Paul Donaldson said, “The Danakil region of East Africa is recognised as an emerging potash [potassium salts] province, and to date over 10bn tonnes of potassium bearing salts have been identified.”

Online intelligence magazine Geeska Afrika explained: “Eritrea has many benefits it can offer potential investors. It has a safe and stable government with an educated and disciplined work force.”

Absent from all the propaganda was any mention of Eritrea as one of the most repressive nations in the world. A UN report in June detailed horrific allegations of abuse committed by the regime. Human Rights Watch argued that “this authoritative report rightly condemns the horrific patterns of torture, arbitrary detention, and indefinite conscription that are prompting so many Eritreans to flee their country”. A sizeable majority of refugees leaving Eritrea and attempting to reach Europe are fleeing from this regime. I’ve met many Eritreans in South Sudan who prefer to live in a war zone than under the Eritrean dictatorship.

Danakali has been engaged in Eritrea since at least 2013. An independent Eritrean media outlet had accused the company of benefitting from forced labour. I can find no public response from the company about the country’s human rights record and the unavoidable ethical issues that arise from partnering with an autocracy. They have not responded to requests for comment.

Apart from a major Eritrean rebel group this year warning the firm to stay away due to environmental concerns and allegations that the indigenous Afar community was being pushed off its lands to make way for the development, the Australian company has not faced any serious questions over its work in Eritrea.

Australia has an inglorious history of turning a blind eye to profitable bad behaviour. Although the Australian Wheat Board paid kickbacks to the Saddam Hussein regime in the 1990s and early 2000s for favourable contracts, lengthy legal wrangling resulted in few significant scalps.

With only one journalist working for an Australian media organisation permanently based in Africa, ABC’s Martin Cuddihy in Kenya, the continent is easily ignored or dismissed. South America is even more woefully unrepresented. Finding stories of Australian corporate malfeasance on either continent requires expensive and time-consuming work.

Of course this is not just a problem facing Australia. The Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York has been pushing the United Nations for years to end the impunity enjoyed by American and European firms operating in developing states. The US Supreme Court has increasingly accepted arguments from multinationals that they have no responsibility for human rights abuses in the countries in which they operate.

I’ve spoken to senior human rights lawyers in Australia who say it’s also incredibly tough to pursue a successful case against a mining giant through the Australian courts. The people of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea have been waiting for decades for any compensation from the Rio Tinto-owned mine that caused a brutal, decades-long civil war.

Australia sells itself as a nation that can teach the world about responsible mining – Afghanistan is one willing student – but the record suggests our corporations have a callous disregard for the rights of civilians.

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Radio New Zealand interview on British multinational Serco

British multinational Serco is causing trouble in New Zealand, with behaviour at its privately-run prisons fraught with violence and unaccountability. It’s the normal Serco way and only fools will be surprised.

I was interviewed by Radio New Zealand’s Sunday Morning (on a very bad phone line in South Sudan) on the company’s inability and unwillingness to operate with necessary staffing levels and training. It’s a point I’ve investigated in my forthcoming book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out of Catastrophe:

[New Zealand] Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga says some of the information provided to him on Serco’s running of Mount Eden Prison has not been up to standard.

Under the private contractor, the facility has been the subject of a string of complaints about organised fights, contraband, prisoner injuries and the death of one inmate.

Corrections has appointed a director to manage the day-to-day running of the prison from tomorrow and will impose financial penalties on Serco.

Mr Lotu-Iiga said he was unhappy with the flow of information from his department on the running of the prison.

“I’ve made it clear that I’ve been disappointed about some of the communication of reports and other information that could come up the chain through myself and through the chief executive.”

Mr Lotu-Iiga expects the situation at Mount Eden Prison to begin to settle with his department in charge from tomorrow.

Serco deliberately understaffs its operations worldwide in order to make as much money as possible, according to an independent journalist who has written books about the company.

Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein told Sunday Morning that governments believed they were being efficient by outsourcing prisons or detention centres, but it came at a human cost.

Mr Lowenstein said he has found it was very hard to get information from Serco or governments about their operations, without whistleblowers.

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Iran nuclear deal masks US and China arms race

My piece for American website Mondoweiss:

The global arms race has never been more lucrative. America and China are engaged in unprecedented levels of spending around the world to influence and shape global affairs. The effects are devastating on civilians but Washington and Beijing insists they’re “stabilizing” nations. It’s one of the deadliest myths of the 21st century.

Saudi Arabia has executed at least 100 people since January, half of which were for non-violent drug offences. The country’s bombing campaign in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians and exacerbated a humanitarian catastrophe in the Arab world’s poorest nation.

None of these facts have any bearing on America’s attitude towards its close Middle Eastern ally. Between 2010 and 2014, both countries reached $90 billion of weapons sales that included planes and armored vehicles. Despite calls from activists to halt the huge increase in arms deals between Western nations and Saudi Arabia, Riyadh claims it fears the rise of Iran and Islamic State and is now the world’s biggest defense importer.

The effect on regional violence will be devastating with the Obama administration overseeing the largest expansion of weapons’ dealing in history. Washington is bribing Israel with arms to accept the Iranian nuclear deal (and despite the bluster Netanyahu will eventually accept it) while continuing to sell weapons to the dictatorial Egyptian regime. Jordan is receiving precision-guided missiles for its fight against Islamist militants and Bahrain, even after brutally crushing a pro-democracy movement in 2011, knew it would still receive military support from America.

A nuclear agreement between Washington and Iran is undeniably better than a military conflict but Muslim civilians in the region will pay a steep price. The Wall Street Journal captured the mood with its headline: “US seeks to ally concerns of allies on nuclear deal”. This is code for bribing autocracies with more weapons:

“The U.S. is specifically looking at ways to expedite arms transfers to Arab states in the Persian Gulf and is accelerating plans for them to develop an integrated regional ballistic missile defense capability, a senior administration official said.”

When US Secretary of State John Kerry talks of Tehran increasing instability in the Middle East, it’s worth remembering who is introducing so much defense equipment into the region. Arming dictatorial allies is one of the darkest legacies of the Obama era.

Defense contractors are excited about the prospect of increased tension in the Middle East. Insecurity leads to strong business. Defense company Lockheed Martin is predicting that foreign sales will soon represent 20 percent of its business. In a sign of its seriousness, the firm opened the Center for Innovation and Security Solutions in Abu Dhabi in late 2014 to assist the United Arab Emirates and design more efficient ways to partner with US allies. Another firm, Raytheon, is seeing increased sales with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar and the UAE.

Grant Rogan, CEO of Blenheim Capital and a military sales expert, recently told Foreign Policy that American weapons’ deals could soon skyrocket. “The Saudis and Emiratis don’t trust the [Iranian nuclear] deal, no matter what the deal is”, he said. He expected advanced radar systems “happening in Saudi substantially faster if there’s no deal — or if it’s a deal that doesn’t defang Iran.”

However, America’s dominance of global arms sales is being challenged like never before. China is especially appealing to developing countries, keen on buying “military set meals”, a starter pack of basic defense gear. South Sudan has been a willing buyer despite the regime pursuing a brutal war against its civilian population. Although Beijing has spent billions of dollars building infrastructure in countless areas around the world in the last decade, including Africa, growing environmental, debt and labor issues have increased skepticism towards China’s development model.

“China’s leaders demonstrate little appreciation of the yawning gulfs that separate African people from their rulers, even in newly democratic nations”, writes journalist Howard French. Washington claims to believe in good governance and freedom of speech but its policies have entrenched authoritarianism across Africa under the guise of “fighting terrorism”.

China and America are now engaged in a race for African dollars, a continent with resources and a growing middle class to embrace and exploit. Founder of military contractor Blackwater, Erik Prince, works with Frontier Services Group alongside China’s biggest state-owned firm, Citic Group, to get some of the estimated $1 trillion Beijing intends to spend in Africa by 2025.

Despite China’s partial colonization of Africa, Washington has accelerated covert operations in the last years to support, train and arm militaries and rebel groups. American journalist Nick Turse, writing in his new bookTomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, explains how George W. Bush and particularly Barack Obama have engendered a pivot towards Africa “spanning almost fifty countries”. These include “drone assassinations in Somalia, a proxy war in Mali, shadowy ops in Chad and antipiracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea.” US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is a secretive organization with little strategic depth.

The effect, like in the Middle East, has been to hugely destabilize an already fragile continent. At an Obama-led US-Africa summit in Washington in 2014, African leaders were desperate for new weapons to fight wars that neatly fit with Washington’s “war on terror”. Think Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram, one example of a US-backed army committing gross abuses of human rights in its battle against extremism.  The deadly reality is that American efforts have failed spectacularly, causing suffering for African civilians and increasing the chances of blowback on the American homeland.

The Global Peace Index released its 2015 report and found an increasingly unstable world. Arms dealing by China and America are directly contributing to this result and yet their involvement in this deadly trade is too rarely acknowledged.

Past the rosy headlines of an Iranian and American détente lies the grim reality for millions of civilians in Africa and the Middle East. For them, Washington and Beijing will continue selling weapons to leaders for whom the ideas of democracy and peace are foreign concepts.

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Australia may send asylum seeker back to danger in Afghanistan

I’m proud to have been asked to sign the following statement (latest information here):

Prominent Australians urge Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to save the life of Nadir Sadiqi

Nadir’s life hangs in the balance. You alone in this country, Mr Dutton, have the power to decide whether Nadir lives or dies.

Nadir arrived by boat in Australia five years ago, leaving behind his much-loved family and village in Afghanistan and escaping for his life. Nadir had still been a boy when his father had been killed by the Taliban for refusing to fight for them and his two older brothers had been abducted and tortured and presumably murdered. A decade later, it was Nadir’s turn. He was savagely beaten and left for dead because he too refused to fight for the Taliban, this time against Western forces, including Australians.

Nadir has spent five years in detention in Australia, teaching himself and reaching a high level of English and all the while trying to gain permanent protection – not easy when the villagers who could have corroborated his story have been killed or have fled into hiding. Despite his best efforts, Nadir’s claims for protection have been rejected and he has been ordered to return to Kabul in August.

Nadir knows no-one in Kabul. He’s acquired a foreigner’s accent and dresses in western-style clothing and would immediately stand out as an easy target. Bumper stickers on cars in Kabul state that people who work with foreigners should be killed. Any connection or perceived sympathy for the West, makes anyone in Afghanistan a target, but particularly a member of a persecuted ethnic minority like the Hazara, to which Nadir belongs.

The threat to Nadir’s life has been further intensified as a result of the Australian immigration department’s negligent data breach early last year. This led directly to a second Taliban threat that if he ever returned to Afghanistan they would find him and kill him.

The Afghan minister for refugees and repatriation has recently requested that all countries with whom Memorandums of Understanding had been signed should revise them and not return asylum seekers to Afghanistan. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade currently warns all Australian citizens not to travel there due to the ‘extremely dangerous security situation and the very high threat of terrorist attack’.

A Sydney Morning Herald investigation into asylum seekers returned to Afghanistan from Australia under the Howard years found that twenty had been killed and dozens more had disappeared. The first Hazara asylum seeker to be refouled by the Abbott government had been abducted by the Taliban within a month and severely tortured before escaping. Soon after, another Hazara with Australian citizenship was tortured and murdered. The risk for both of these men had been their connection to Australia, an ‘infidel country’.

Renowned expert on Afghanistan, Professor William Maley has stated ‘there should be an absolute moratorium on the involuntary removal of Hazara asylum seekers to Afghanistan’. Phil Glendenning, president of the Refugee Council of Australia and regular visitor to Afghanistan for the past ten years has stated that ‘no one with any knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan could possibly come to the conclusion that conditions are conducive to safe return’.

How can Australia, in the face of such powerful evidence and advice to the contrary, decide it is safe for this man to be returned to this place? We implore you, Mr Dutton, not to return Nadir to Afghanistan.

Buddies Refugee Support Group, Sunshine Coast, Qld.

Supported by:

Phillip Adams, AO – Broadcaster, journalist, writer and film producer, Fr Rod Bower – Archdeacon of the Central Coast, Anna Burke MP – Federal Member for Chisholm, Julian Burnside, AO, QC – Barrister, writer and human rights advocate, Jane Caro – Social commentator, writer and lecturer, Mark Darin – radio presenter, Senator Richard Di Natale – Leader of the Greens, Fr Jeremy Greaves – Archdeacon of the Sunshine Coast, Bruce Haigh – Political commentator and retired diplomat, Caroline Hutchinson – Journalist and radio presenter, Mark Isaacs – Author and former recreations manager on Nauru, Thomas Keneally, AO – Author, Dr Carmen Lawrence – Director of Centre for the Study of Social Change at UWA and former state premier, Antony Loewenstein – Independent journalist, Guardian columnist and author, Hugh MacKay, AO – Psychologist, social researcher and writer, Senator Claire Moore – Labor senator, Samille Muirhead – Journalist and radio presenter, Hon Melissa Parke, MP – Federal member for Fremantle,Rod Quantock, OAM – Comedian and writer, Dr Rosie Scott – Novelist, Mark Seymour – Musician, songwriter and vocalist, Jack Smit – Activist and coordinator, Project SafeCom, Frederika Steen, AM – Human rights advocate and retired immigration officer, Senator Larissa Waters – Greens senator, Tim Winton – Novelist

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Three women speak truths in Bentiu, South Sudan

My investigation in the Guardian:

Julia John

Julia John with one-year-old Tuach, in Bentiu camp. Photograph: Antony Loewenstein

The number of South Sudanese seeking refuge in the UN compound in Bentiu has risen above 100,000, the organisation has announced, making it the country’s largest camp for those fleeing the civil war that has killed more than 50,000 people since 2013.

South Sudan marked the fourth anniversary of independence from Sudan earlier this month, but the ongoing conflict between forces loyal to the president, Salva Kiir, and rebels supporting his former deputy, Riek Machar, has left little to celebrate.

Humanitarian organisations say they are struggling to cope with the influx of people to the camp, and conditions are grim as the rainy season – which runs from April to November – envelops everything in thick mud.

With the 100,000 milestone reached, three women living in the camp spoke about how they ended up there – and what they want for the future.
‘I don’t want to live alongside my enemies’
My name is Julia John (pictured above) and I’m 25 years old. I have three children, one-year-old Tuach, three-year-old Nyachiew and eight-year-old Nyawuora. I’ve been in this camp for 18 months. There was fighting outside my house in Bentiu town and we had to flee. My husband, Henry, is also here. Every day I am cooking, collecting firewood, getting water and taking care of my children. I hope for peace and the guns silenced. I will return to my home but I don’t want to live alongside my enemies.

I was hopeful in 2011, during our independence, for a South Sudan with no killing. I want to tell President Salva Kiir that many people have been killed and we need peace. As a woman in South Sudan, we are suffering because when we try to help our children, men can rape and kill us. When we go to collect firewood near this camp, government troops can get us. We are vulnerable.

I know some women who are getting treatment in Juba [the capital] after being attacked. In this camp, the UN supports us but we need firewood and charcoal because we have to leave this place to find them and that brings risk for us from government soldiers. I hope the UN and NGOs can address this.
‘We are not free in our own country’
Tabitha Nyakuon Gai, who walked for two days to reach the safety of the camp

Tabitha Nyakuon Gai, who walked for two days to reach the safety of the camp Photograph: Antony Loewenstein

My name is Tabitha Nyakuon Gai and I’m 36 years old. I’m from the Nhialdin area in Rubkona County. I have six children. I’ve been in this camp for one month. I had to walk two days to get here. My husband is fighting with the rebels and I don’t know where he is. I’ve had no contact with him since September last year. I miss him.

It’s hard to manage kids on my own. My husband fights a just war because the government has killed so many people. Every day I collect firewood and then sell it to make a little money to buy milk for my children.

In 2011 at independence I was happy because I didn’t want to be with Sudan anymore. I wanted to be free. We thought we should be united so it’s hard to believe that we are not free in our own country anymore. Hope disappeared in one minute. I’m worried about my kids’ future – there are no schools, and only the UN gives us food. If the UN leaves, who will feed us?

President Kiir has been in power for 10 years [Kiir served as regional governor before independence] so if I meet him I’ll tell him to leave office. It’s time to give the role to somebody else. Riek Machar has been waiting for so long, give him a chance and then after that Machar can hand over power to somebody else. It’s not right that one person holds power for so long.
‘Now there’s just insecurity’
Nyaduop Machar Puot

Nyaduop Machar Puot, who has lived for two months in the camp at Bentiu Photograph: Antony Loewenstein

My name is Nyaduop Machar Puot and I’m 37 years old. I have five children. I came from Boau village in Koch country. It took me six days to walk here. My cattle were taken and house burned. I had to flee. I had no choice. A government-affiliated militia attacked me. I saw women and children burned alive in a tukul [traditional South Sudanese home] by militias. When I saw people burned alive I knew I had to leave my village. I saw two people killed like this and they were my friends. My husband is still back in the village. I don’t know if he’s OK. He could not leave with us because he’s an old man with bad legs. I’ve been two months here in Bentiu.

When independence was declared in 2011, I expected there would be services for my kids and now there’s just insecurity. Today I cannot walk freely. I cannot help my children because South Sudan is at war and in a mess.

My message to President Kiir is that your turn is done. Let Machar take over. If Kiir doesn’t agree, both men should leave and not seek power. It’s time for new people at the top.

Compared to life in the village, life in this camp is safer. I still need shelter here because I’m living in temporary housing [her family resides in a flood-prone area of the camp]. The UN tells me it’s coming soon. I hope so because I need to protect my family.

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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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