Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney based journalist, activist and author. He spoke to Red Flag’s Alexis Vassiley about his latest work, the recently published Profits of doom: how vulture capitalism is swallowing the world.
Tell us a bit about the book.
Profits of doom looks at the way in which vulture capitalism has infected the world. I went to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and Australia, especially Western Australia, to examine the ways in which detention centres, intelligence, resources and aid have increasingly been sold to the highest bidder – often the worst kind of human rights abusers.
This is bipartisan, but there’s very little public consent for it; whenever an opinion poll is taken about privatisation in these areas, the vast majority oppose it.
The idea behind the book is to challenge that. There is an alternative – there are people and groups around the world and Australia that are fighting it and think there can be a different way.
What has been the role of the Australian state, aid, and companies like Rio Tinto in Papua New Guinea?
One of the articles of faith in parts of the left is that aid is good – that Australia as a rich Western country has an obligation to help those less fortunate. In theory I support that. The problem is that too much of the $500 million in aid per year going to PNG – which since 1975 has been officially independent from Australia – actually does not stay there.
It’s the concept of boomerang aid – so much aid goes to private, for-profit Australian companies, and too little actually empowers local communities. When the foreign aid groups leave, there’s virtually nothing left. I met a lot of people in PNG who view Australian aid as a noose around their neck. It is too aligned with mining interests, yet there are countless examples, not least in Ok Tedi and Bougainville, where Australian mining companies have committed appalling human rights abuses.
Bougainville had a very profitable Rio Tinto mine, but with massive pollution spewing from the mine and human rights abuses. In 1988 the locals rose up, resulting in a brutal nine year civil war. The PNG government, the Australian government and Rio Tinto were on one side and the Bougainville Resistance Army on the other.
Remarkably the locals won but at great cost: 15-20,000 were killed. In 2013 the Australian government is paying white consultants to go over to Bougainville and help them draft legislation to allow the return of Rio Tinto.
This is problematic, as there has never been any compensation or clean-up. The Australian government’s agenda seems to be that the way you develop a poor society is through mining, and through backing Australian businesses, including those like Rio Tinto with an appalling human rights record. But there’s a great deal of resistance within Bougainville, within PNG and indeed in Australia to all of this.
You write of the massive profits made by the British multinational Serco out of the human misery inflicted on asylum seekers. What is the relationship between the government and Serco?
Serco’s record in Britain is unbelievably appalling. Successive government reports find human rights abuses against women and vulnerable children. Yet in 2009 the Rudd Labor government awarded it a $370 million contract to manage our detention centres. Fast forward to 2013 and it’s over $1.86 billion.
And the government is so desperate to cover up mistakes that both sides need the other. You speak to Serco, they say talk to the immigration department; you talk to the immigration department and they say talk to Serco. It’s a revolving door that reduces transparency, and that’s exactly what the government wants. It’s very difficult for journalists to access detention centres. Humanising asylum seekers, seeing their faces, hearing their stories means people might empathise with them. This is dangerous to a political system that requires people to be demonised.
Has your research for the book changed your political views?
I don’t know if it has fundamentally changed my views. But I suppose it did open my eyes to the fact that there is actually a massive groundswell of opposition to what is being done in our name across the world, with mining, with detention centres, with privatised war. The challenge is finding a way to harness that opposition into some kind of effective force to bring political change.
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
This month, the United Nations accused Canberra of potentially breaking international law by forcibly repelling refugee boats back to Indonesia. Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, said that the international body was “concerned by any policy or practice that involved pushing asylum-seeker boats back at sea without a proper consideration of individual needs for protection.” He continued: “any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the 1951 refugee convention and other international law obligations.”
The comments were brushed aside as soon as they were uttered. Prime minister Tony Abbott’s administration insists that its policies are legal and safe, and the vast bulk of Australians apparently back even harsher methods against asylum seekers. It is now clear who has won this battle, and it isn’t the forces pushing for moderation.
After 20 years of steadily increasing cruelty towards refugees, it’s time to admit that we’ve reached a stalemate. Simply arguing for a more humane approach has failed. Reason, international law and common sense are no match against inflammatory media reporting, false fears about asylum seekers living in the community, and politicians proudly punishing the most vulnerable in the name of “deterrence.”
Enter the need for a new approach, one that seriously ups the ante: sanctions against the Australian state for ignoring humanitarian law. Australia deserves nothing less. A price must be paid, in a political and economic sense, for flagrantly breaching Australian and international conventions. This could be directed at both the multinationals such as Serco and G4S, who are administering the government’s policies, and the bank accounts and assets maintained by government ministers and officials.
Australian citizens must feel this global isolation in their daily lives, and be made to realise that business as usual is a choice that will bring tough penalties. Locking up children on remote Pacific islands, without proper medical or psychological care, is designed for only one purpose: pain. States opposed to these breaches must gather together and take action, regardless of the inevitable short-term bleating from the Australian government. Activists around the world and at home must have a clear target and goal: to make Canberra believe that the ramifications are simply too high to maintain the current system of a privatised detention network.
Western state powers believe they are immune from prosecution. The idea of a senior western leader or official being charged for war crimes or abuses of power is almost unheard of. The recent news that British human rights lawyers are pushing for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute local military figures and politicians over serial breaches against detainees in Iraq after 2003 was an important reminder that it isn’t only presidents in dictatorships that might face the wrath of The Hague. We are surely not far away from a precedent being set with the sight of a London or Washington-based official found guilty for covering up systematic assaults against Iraqis or Afghans during the last decade.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, explains how the US system is designed to protect the powerful at the expense of the majority. There are countless officials after 9/11 who haven’t been jailed for ordering and performing waterboarding, sexual assaults, illegal interrogations, hiding prisoners in black sites and invading nations. President Barack Obama has ferociously protected the worst abusers, including CIA torturers, and provided immunity.
The relevance to Australia is clear. Western leaders live under the belief that they can behave as they like to the powerless and invisible. Asylum seekers are essentially voiceless, reporters are barred from visiting where they’re warehoused in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and the daily drumbeat of dishonest rhetoric wrongly accuses them of being “illegal”.
Even the threat of sanctions against Australia would enrage the Abbott government and its backers. Australia is a democracy, they will claim. Australia’s decisions are checked and approved by lawyers, they may argue. Australians can vote out recalcitrant regimes, they could state.
And yet transparency over asylum seeker policy has arguably never been more absent. There are far too few journalists dedicated to investigating the refugee issue, media organisations prefer sending their “journalists” to junkets in Los Angeles promoting Australian celebrities, and the result is an immigration bureaucracy that rightly believes its actions have few consequences, shielded from censure.
Sanctions against Australia would wake them up immediately – even though the usefulness of traditional sanctions are questionable. Imagine if immigration minister Scott Morrison feared leaving the country amidst threats of questioning if he landed at Heathrow airport because of the abuse of asylum seekers in his care.
The first, obvious step is rousing worldwide support to place serious pressure on Australia and make its officials and leaders uncomfortable. Ask them tough questions in global forums. Demand they explain why dumping vulnerable men, women and children in isolated prison camps doesn’t warrant sanctions. Tell them that the humane treatment of asylum seekers, at a time when the globe is struggling to cope with millions of displaced Syrians and growing numbers of climate refugees, is vital in a connected world.
The Australian government feels invincible, protected under America’s security blanket and selling its dirty coal to the world. We are sold the myth that building remote detention camps will protect us from the “hordes” trying to enter our promised land. It’s impossible not to conclude that Australia, a colonial construction, doesn’t see itself akin to Canada, the US and Israel as countries struggling to cope with people various officials call “infiltrators”. That bubble must be burst, and the threats of sanctions will be the required shot. Until Australia and its defenders appreciate the necessity to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect, they should feel the world’s opprobrium.
Talk is no longer enough. The UN has had more than 20 years to convince Australia to abandon mandatory detention and its associated ills. Frankly, it hasn’t tried hard enough. Absent of a complete overhaul of the UN system, something that is long overdue, let legitimate legal sanctions be threatened and used.
It’s a price every Australian, myself included, should feel.
After watching the awful CBS show this morning in New York, Face the Nation, with laughable coverage of the NSA and establishment figures backing its secrecy and illegality, here’s Glenn Greenwald with a reality check on the need to push back against state intelligence gathering:
In response to political scandal and public outrage, official Washington repeatedly uses the same well-worn tactic. It is the one that has been hauled out over decades in response to many of America’s most significant political scandals. Predictably, it is the same one that shaped President Obama’s much-heralded Friday speech to announce his proposals for “reforming” the National Security Agency in the wake of seven months of intense worldwide controversy.
The crux of this tactic is that US political leaders pretend to validate and even channel public anger by acknowledging that there are “serious questions that have been raised”. They vow changes to fix the system and ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic “reforms” so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge.
This scam has been so frequently used that it is now easily recognizable. In the mid-1970s, the Senate uncovered surveillance abuses that had been ongoing for decades, generating widespread public fury. In response, the US Congress enacted a new law (Fisa) which featured two primary “safeguards”: a requirement of judicial review for any domestic surveillance, and newly created committees to ensure legal compliance by the intelligence community.
And now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards. “Individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress,” he gushed with an impressively straight face. “One thing I’m certain of, this debate will make us stronger,” he pronounced, while still seeking to imprison for decades the whistleblower who enabled that debate. The bottom line, he said, is this: “I believe we need a new approach.”
But those pretty rhetorical flourishes were accompanied by a series of plainly cosmetic “reforms“. By design, those proposals will do little more than maintain rigidly in place the very bulk surveillance systems that have sparked such controversy and anger.
That, in general, has long been Obama’s primary role in our political system and his premiere, defining value to the permanent power factions that run Washington. He prettifies the ugly; he drapes the banner of change over systematic status quo perpetuation; he makes Americans feel better about policies they find repellent without the need to change any of them in meaningful ways. He’s not an agent of change but the soothing branding packaging for it.
The role of corporate media is to serve powerful business interest and advertisers; serving the public good ain’t really a serious consideration.
New data from the US is both disturbing and unsurprising and shows even more reason why alternative and indy media must grow in power (via IPS):
If people outside the United States are looking for answers why Americans often seem so clueless about the world outside their borders, they could start with what the three major U.S. television networks offered their viewers in the way of news during 2013.
Syria and celebrities dominated foreign coverage by ABC, NBC, and CBS – whose combined evening news broadcasts are the single most important media source of information about national and international events for most Americans. Vast portions of the globe went almost entirely ignored, according to the latest annual review by the authoritative Tyndall Report.
Latin America, most of Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia apart from Afghanistan, and virtually all of East Asia – despite growing tensions between China and Washington’s closest regional ally, Japan – were virtually absent from weeknight news programmes of ABC, NBC, and CBS last year, according to the report, which has tracked the three networks’ evening news coverage continuously since 1988.
Out of nearly 15,000 minutes of Monday-through-Friday evening news coverage by the three networks, the Syrian civil war and the debate over possible U.S. intervention claimed 519 minutes, or about 3.5 percent of total air time, according to the report.
That made the Syrian conflict and the U.S. policy response the year’s single-most-covered event. It was followed by coverage of the terrorist bombing by two Chechnya-born brothers that killed three people at the finish line of last April’s Boston Marathon (432 minutes); the debate over the federal budget (405 minutes); and the flawed rollout of the healthcare reform law, or Obamacare (338 minutes).
The next biggest international story was the death in December of former South African President Nelson Mandela (186 minutes); the July ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and its aftermath; the coverage of Pope Francis I (157 minutes, not including an additional 121 minutes devoted to Pope Benedict’s retirement and the Cardinals’ conclave that resulted in Francis’ succession); and the birth of Prince George, the latest addition to the British royal family (131 minutes).
The continued fighting in Afghanistan came in just behind the new prince at 121 minutes for the entire year.
The strong showings by the papal succession, Mandela’s death, and Prince George’s birth all demonstrated the rise of “celebrity journalism” in news coverage, Andrew Tyndall, the report’s publisher, told IPS. He added that “a minor celebrity like Oscar Pistorius (the South African so-called “Bladerunner” track star accused of murdering his girlfriend) attracted more coverage [by the TV networks – 51 minutes] than all the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in the  months before Mandela’s death.”
An average of about 21 million U.S. residents watch the network news on any given evening. While the cable news channels – CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC – often get more public attention, their audience is actually many times smaller, according to media-watchers.
“In 2012, more than four times as many people watched the three network newscasts than watched the highest-rated show on the three cable channels during prime time,” Emily Guskin, a research analyst for the Pew Research Centre’s Journalism Project, told IPS.
As in other recent years, news about the weather – especially its extremes and the damage they wrought – received a lot of attention on the network news, although, also consistent with past performance, the possible relationship between extreme weather and climate change was rarely, if ever, drawn by reporters or anchors.
Last year’s tornado season, severe winter weather, drought and wild forest fires in the western states constituted three of the top six stories of the year, according to the report. Along with the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, those four topics reaped nearly 900 minutes of coverage on the three networks, or about six percent of the entire year’s coverage.
“A major flaw in the television news journalism is its inability to translate anecdotes of extreme weather into the overarching concept of climate change,” noted Tyndall. “As long as these events are presented as meteorological and not climatic, then they will be covered as local and domestic, not global.
“An exception in 2013 was Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines,” he noted. That event captured 83 minutes of coverage among the three networks, making it the single biggest story by far out of Asia for the year.
By comparison, the growing tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea – which many foreign-policy analysts here rate as one of the most alarming events of the past year if, for no other reason, than the U.S. is committed by treaty to militarily defend Japan’s territory – received a mere eight minutes of coverage.
Two other major U.S. foreign policy challenges received more coverage. North Korea and the volatile tenure of its young leader, Kim Jong-un, received a total of 87 minutes, including 10 minutes to visiting basketball veteran Dennis Rodman, of coverage during 2013.
Events in Iran, including the election of President Hassan Rouhani and negotiations over its nuclear programme, received a total of 104 minutes of coverage between the three networks over the course of the year, nearly as much attention as was given the British royals.
Libya received 64 minutes of coverage, but virtually all of it was devoted to the domestic controversy over responsibility for the September 2012 killings of the U.S. ambassador and three other officials there. The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and the civil war and humanitarian disaster in the Central African Republic received no coverage at all.
As for the Israel-Palestinian conflict which Secretary of State John Kerry has made a top priority along with a nuclear deal with Iran, it received only 16 minutes of coverage in 2013. “Palestine has virtually disappeared from the news agenda,” noted Tyndall.
My weekly Guardian column is published below:
The sight of Australian citizens associated with the WikiLeaks party sitting and chatting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad during their recent “solidarity mission”, along with their comments about the regime, is a damning indictment on a party that ran a dismal election campaign in 2013 and has never bothered to explain its subsequent collapse.
For WikiLeaks supporters such as myself (I have been backing the group since 2006), this latest PR exercise is nothing more than an act of stunning political bastardry. It does nothing to push for true peace in Syria, and essentially amounts to a propaganda coup for a brutal dictatorship. It’s also a slap in the face to the WikiLeaks backers who are still expecting answers about why the party imploded without public review or reflection.
The problem isn’t meeting Assad himself. He’s the (unelected) leader of Syria and an essential part of any resolution of the conflict, still supported by many Syrians who fear Islamic fundamentalism. Saudi Arabian-backed extremism across the Middle East, implicitly supported by the Western powers now focused on Assad’s butchery, is spreading sectarian carnage by pitting Sunni against Shia, leading to the death of thousands. Syrian civilians are suffering the full brunt of this madness. Saudi funding for Syrian “rebels” – in essence backing Al-Qaida terrorism – is repeating the playbook used against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, enriching militants in a battle that will inevitably come back to bite the Saudis and their Western allies.
A third way is, for the time being, out of sight. And in this context, it’s hard to see how the WikiLeaks party can judiciously show solidarity to Syria’s besieged people.
When the WikiLeaks party delegation returned to Australia, various members expressed their views about the trip. Activist Jamal Daoud, who wrote in 2012 that he supported Assad, blogged that he had heard while in Syria that “the alternative to the regime is total chaos.” Although acknowledging that meetings were held with both regime and rebel representatives, Daoud clearly believes that the regime remaining in place is the ideal outcome.
John Shipton, chief executive of the party and the father of Julian Assange, spoke to ABC Radio in Melbourne to defend the mission. He mouthed the talking points of the regime itself – that they’re fighting terrorism in cities and towns across the country – and claimed that the WikiLeaks party is planning to set up an office in Damascus in 2014. “We’ll continue to expose the truth to the Australian people and to our international audience”, he said. Shipton added that as the delegation walked around Damascus, they found “a lot of support for the government” – which is undoubtedly true, but likely to be similar to journalists being taken around by minders from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and finding nearly universal backing for the dictator.
Sydney University academic Tim Anderson – who wrote in 2007 that Cuba is a democracy and the US is not, ignoring the lack of an open press and the Castro brothers’ authoritarian ruling in the process – also defended his participation in the mission after The Australian newspaper attacked him. He went on to state: “forget the absurd myth of a single man [Assad] ‘killing his own people’. That line is designed to pull the wool over our eyes. This is a ‘regime change’ exercise that went wrong, because Syria resisted.”
It is deeply problematic that Anderson and other side players downplay or brush aside the gross abuses committed by the regime, which have occurred both during the war and during Bashar and his father Hafez’s decades-long rule.
Considering how the mainstream media will spin such a trip must be a major consideration when talking about “truth” in a modern, complex war. How support for a peaceful resolution practically occurs when facts on the ground are notoriously difficult to assess should be the heart of the matter. Instead, it appears that the WikiLeaks party was caught up in an inevitable maelstrom of their own naive making. If you visit Syria and are pictured meeting Assad, you should make damn sure you’re on the front foot to rebut the likely criticisms and provide a cogent and detailed rebuttal to what you saw, and why a few WikiLeaks party members from Australia can make any difference to the war. You should also know that any “solidarity mission” to Syria will be used by either side as a way to bolster their claims and defend their own crimes, of which there have been plenty by all sides.
Moral and political clarity is vital – which is why, for example, the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was rightly condemned in my view after he voiced support for Iran and Syria in the process of opposing ”US imperialism“, and refused to oppose human rights abuses in both nations. Equally, being a supporter of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination shouldn’t automatically lead to backing Fatah or Hamas, two groups with a documented record of abusing their own citizens.
The situation in Syria is dire, with dirty hands on all sides. As it stands, the solution is not with the Baath party, nor the Al-Qaida-aligned rebels – but this is a decision for the Syrian people to decide. Encouraging a peaceful settlement and negotiations must be the goal. The WikiLeaks organisation remains an essential tool in holding governments to account, but its Australian-based party’s visit to Syria exposes the dangers of believing that the “enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It is not.
Nick Turse is one of America’s most concise chroniclers of empire.
His latest essay in TomDispatch attempts to gain information about the real number of US special operation forces operating across the globe. It’s a tough task but goes to the heart of what America has become:
This year, Special Operations Command has plans to make major inroads into yet another country — the United States. The establishment of SOCNORTH in 2014, according to the command, is intended to help “defend North America by outpacing all threats, maintaining faith with our people, and supporting them in their times of greatest need.” Under the auspices of U.S. Northern Command, SOCNORTH will have responsibility for the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and portions of the Caribbean.
While Congressional pushback has thus far thwarted Admiral McRaven’s efforts to create a SOCOM satellite headquarters for the more than 300 special operators working in Washington, D.C. (at the cost of $10 million annually), the command has nonetheless stationed support teams and liaisons all over the capital in a bid to embed itself ever more deeply inside the Beltway. “I have folks in every agency here in Washington, D.C. — from the CIA, to the FBI, to the National Security Agency, to the National Geospatial Agency, to the Defense Intelligence Agency,” McRaven said during a panel discussion at Washington’s Wilson Center in 2013. Referring to the acronyms of the many agencies with which SOCOM has forged ties, McRaven continued: “If there are three letters, and in some cases four, I have a person there. And they have had a reciprocal agreement with us. I have somebody in my headquarters at Tampa.” Speaking at Ronald Reagan Library in November, he put the number of agencies where SOCOM is currently embedded at 38.
“Given the importance of interagency collaboration, USSOCOM is placing greater emphasis on its presence in the National Capital Region to better support coordination and decision making with interagency partners. Thus, USSOCOM began to consolidate its presence in the NCR [National Capitol Region] in early 2012,” McRaven told the House Armed Services Committee last year.
One unsung SOCOM partner is U.S. AID, the government agency devoted to providing civilian foreign aid to countries around the world whose mandate includes the protection of human rights, the prevention of armed conflicts, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and the fostering of “good will abroad.” At a July 2013 conference, Beth Cole, the director of the Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation at U.S. AID, explained just how her agency was now quietly aiding the military’s secret military.
“In Yemen, for example, our mission director has SVTCs [secure video teleconferences] with SOCOM personnel on a regular basis now. That didn’t occur two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, five years ago,” Cole said, according to a transcript of the event. But that was only the start. “My office at U.S. AID supports SOF pre-deployment training in preparation for missions throughout the globe… I’m proud that my office and U.S. AID have been providing training support to several hundred Army, Navy, and Marine Special Operations personnel who have been regularly deploying to Afghanistan, and we will continue to do that.”
Cole noted that, in Afghanistan, U.S. AID personnel were sometimes working hand-in-hand on the Village Stability Operation initiative with Special Ops forces. In certain areas, she said, “we can dual-hat some of our field program officers as LNOs [liaison officers] in those Joint Special Operations task forces and be able to execute the development work that we need to do alongside of the Special Operations Forces.” She even suggested taking a close look at whether this melding of her civilian agency and special ops might prove to be a model for operations elsewhere in the world.
It’s the first day of 2014 and what a way to begin the new year.
Today’s Australian newspaper features this story on page one by Jared Owens and Rick Morton. As a Wikileaks supporter since 2006, right from the beginning (and I remain a public backer of the organisation), it’s tragic to see the Wikileaks Party in Australia, after a disastrous 2013 election campaign, descend into political grandstanding. My comments below were based around tweets I sent a few days ago to former Wikileaks Campaign Director Greg Barns.
The conflict in Syria is filled with Western and Saudi hypocrisy and brutality on all sides:
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has condemned the WikiLeaks Party’s “extremely reckless” meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, warning the foray is “deeply counterproductive” and undermines sanctions placed on the pariah regime.
But John Shipton, who is Julian Assange’s father and chief executive of the WikiLeaks Party, defended his decision to meet Assad, saying it was better than siding with “the liver-eaters and the head-choppers” of the rebel opposition.
Some of WikiLeaks’ most steadfast supporters, however, joined the government and opposition in condemning the “solidarity mission” to Syria that toured Damascus and was shown in state-run media visiting senior members of the regime.
Police also disputed the regime’s claims to the delegation that Canberra had “turned a blind eye” to a prominent Sydney imam who was allegedly “responsible for” the kidnapping of 106 women and children during a massacre of civilians by jihadi rebels on August 4.
The Foreign Minister warned that the WikiLeaks mission, which claimed to represent Australia, “could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour”.
“I find it extraordinarily reckless that an organisation registered as a political party in Australia would seek to insert itself into the conflict in Syria and engage with a leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including using chemical weapons against his own people,” Ms Bishop told The Australian.
“Their actions could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour. Further, the Syrian regime is subject to wide-ranging sanctions and WikiLeaks’ actions are deeply counterproductive.
“Australia, as a member of the UN Security Council, is actively pursuing humanitarian efforts in Syria. It is not a place for political parties to pursue their political ends.”
Mr Shipton insisted his party’s enemies would attempt to smear the “fact-finding” mission to Syria.
He claimed the mission mirrored international efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict after almost three years of bloodshed and more than 125,000 deaths.
“We’re clearly on the right side of history here, and who would want to be on the side of the liver-eaters and the head-choppers that plague the poor people of Syria?” Mr Shipton said.
“I have no interest in supporting the Syrian government at all, or the opposition. That’s their thing they fight about.
“I’m interested in the effect on the people of Syria and the strategies the contending (regional and world) powers are putting into place there.
“In Damascus they’ve got four hours of electricity a day and random mortar fire at night … You could smell the aftermath of gunfire in the air.”
Mr Shipton was spending New Year’s Eve with Mr Assange, who is being harboured in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Ecuador supports the Syrian government and has offered asylum to Assad and his inner circle if they ask for it.
Author Antony Loewenstein, a supporter of WikiLeaks, backed “peaceful dialogue” with Assad but insisted the WikiLeaks Party’s solidarity mission “whitewashes the crimes of the regime”.
“It’s sad to see the WikiLeaks Party visit Syria and show ‘solidarity’ with Assad, a brutal dictator who is responsible for the death of countless civilians. The Saudi and Western-backed ‘rebels’ are equally complicit in war crimes,” Mr Loewenstein said. The head of the Islamic Friendship Association, Keysar Trad, accused the WikiLeaks Party of blatant hypocrisy for giving Assad the publicity coup of being visited by an Australian delegation.
“It’s very disappointing to see WikiLeaks, which supports openness and human rights, to be meeting with one of the biggest human rights abusers of our time,” Mr Trad said.
“It’s disrespectful to all the families who have been victims of the Assad regime.”
Mr Trad defended the prominent Sydney imam whom Syrian officials claimed was involved in the kidnapping of 106 women and children during a massacre of civilians by rebels in the province of Latakia on August 4.
These claims were made to the WikiLeaks delegation.
Mr Trad said he personally knew the imam, describing him as an eminent scholar and respected member of the Australian community.
It was implausible that the sheik would have been involved in any form of violent activity in Syria, he said.
NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas yesterday said NSW Police had not heard of any such claims against the imam. Mr Kaldas said federal agencies would routinely alert NSW Police about any such allegations concerning someone from NSW.
Opposition frontbencher Chris Bowen described the WikiLeaks mission as an “extraordinary” and “irresponsible” development that was “surprising even for them”.
“The Assad regime has been widely criticised, and correctly criticised around the world, and for an Australian political party to think it’s sensible to go and have discussions and try to provide some legitimacy is something which they have to explain and they would find very difficult to explain how that’s a sensible, responsible or appropriate thing to do,” Mr Bowen.
But three other senior WikiLeaks party figures – former Senate candidates Alison Broinowski, Gerry Georgatos and deputy chairman Omar Todd – backed the delegation’s motives.
Mr Georgatos likened it to the first olive branches offered to South African leaders that ultimately dismantled apartheid.
The Greens declined an opportunity to comment.
Mr Shipton said individual delegates – himself, University of Sydney academic Tim Anderson (who was acquitted of the 1978 Sydney Hilton bombing), Sydney Shia activist Jamal Daoud and WikiLeaks activist Gail Malone – paid the “pretty weighty” cost of the tour. But he declined to estimate how much he had paid.
He denied seeking any favours from the Syrian regime, saying they “were getting impatient with us and were glad to see us gone”.
Mr Shipton said he had asked a team of Syrian journalists to become their Damascus “transparency office”, sending “proper information” back to Sydney about the conflict.
“We did find, wandering around the place talking to people, a lot of support for the government. They seemed to be quite warm towards their government and as the crisis has unfolded their support has grown,” he said.
Their translator, western Sydney-based Mr Daoud, is a well-known opponent of the anti-Assad insurgency.
Mr Shipton said there were no formal links between the WikiLeaks Party and Dr Anderson, a former member of the Ananda Marga religious sect who was jailed and later acquitted of the terrorist bombing of the Sydney Hilton that killed two council workers and a police officer in 1978.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING: EAN HIGGINS, CAMERON STEWART
UPDATE: The Guardian published the following story about this Wikileaks story on 1 January by Oliver Milman:
WikiLeaks has revealed it did not “know or approve” of its Australian political party’s visit to Syria to meet Bashar al-Assad, amid criticism from both the government and Labor over the trip.
A WikiLeaks party delegation, reportedly including its founder Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, held talks with a number of high-ranking Syrian officials, with a picture released by the Syrian government of ameeting with the president himself.
Before the visit, the party stated it was going as part of its “peace and reconciliation” efforts, as well as warning over the dangers of western intervention into the bloody three-year Syrian civil war. Shipton said he wanted to show “solidarity” with the Syrian people and told a local TV station that WikiLeaks would be opening an office in Damascus this year.
But WikiLeaks has distanced itself from the trip, saying via Twitter that while peace brokering is a “good idea”, it “did not know or approve” of the delegation’s visit to Syria.
Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign affairs minister, said Syria was not a place for “political parties to pursue their political ends”.
“I find it extraordinarily reckless that an organisation registered as a political party in Australia would seek to insert itself into the conflict in Syria and engage with a leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including using chemical weapons against his own people,” Bishop told The Australian newspaper.
“Their actions could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad’s behaviour. Further, the Syrian regime is subject to wide-ranging sanctions and WikiLeaks’ actions are deeply counterproductive”.
Labor has also criticised the visit, with Chris Bowen, the shadow treasurer, calling the decision “extraordinary”.
“The Assad regime has been widely criticised and correctly criticised around the world,” he said.
“And for an Australian political party to think it’s sensible to go and have discussions and try and provide some legitimacy, is something I think which they have to explain.”
It’s understood that the visit was initially intended as a “fact-finding” mission before meetings with Syrian government officials were brokered. Members of the visiting group, which included the academic Tim Anderson and activists Jamal Daoud and Gail Malone, are expected back in Australia next week.
Several former members of the WikiLeaks party have told Guardian Australia the trip has caused further consternation within the party, which was formed last year but endured a fraught federal election campaign after several of its candidates resigned amid dissatisfaction over preferencing and internal party processes.
Antony Loewenstein, an author and long-term supporter of WikiLeaks – although never a member of the political party – told Guardian Australia the situation was a “sad state of affairs”.
“I don’t think meeting Assad is the issue, although he is a brutal dictator, no doubt about it,” he said. “The problem is the optics of it, that they are being used as a prop by a regime that has undeniably killed tens of thousands or more civilians.”
The WikiLeaks party has been contacted for comment on the trip but not responded.
One of the great unspoken truths of the 21st century. After this week’s shocking terrorist acts in Russia, it’s possible (though impossible to know) that Saudi Arabia may be behind the carnage (they threatened as much a few months ago).
The venerable Patrick Cockburn, writing in the UK Independent, on the ominous signs of sectarian madness in the Middle East and globally. The West turns a blind eye:
Anti-Shia hate propaganda spread by Sunni religious figures sponsored by, or based in, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, is creating the ingredients for a sectarian civil war engulfing the entire Muslim world. Iraq and Syria have seen the most violence, with the majority of the 766 civilian fatalities in Iraq this month being Shia pilgrims killed by suicide bombers from the al-Qa’ida umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). The anti-Shia hostility of this organisation, now operating from Baghdad to Beirut, is so extreme that last month it had to apologise for beheading one of its own wounded fighters in Aleppo – because he was mistakenly believed to have muttered the name of Shia saints as he lay on a stretcher.
At the beginning of December, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula killed 53 doctors and nurses and wounded 162 in an attack on a hospital in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, which had been threatened for not taking care of wounded militants by a commentator on an extreme Sunni satellite TV station. Days before the attack, he announced that armies and tribes would assault the hospital “to take revenge for our brothers. We say this and, by the grace of Allah, we will do it”.
Skilled use of the internet and access to satellite television funded by or based in Sunni states has been central to the resurgence of al-Qa’ida across the Middle East, to a degree that Western politicians have so far failed to grasp. In the last year, Isis has become the most powerful single rebel military force in Iraq and Syria, partly because of its ability to recruit suicide bombers and fanatical fighters through the social media. Western intelligence agencies, such as the NSA in the US, much criticised for spying on the internet communications of their own citizens, have paid much less attention to open and instantly accessible calls for sectarian murder that are in plain view. Critics say that this is in keeping with a tradition since 9/11 of Western governments not wishing to hold Saudi Arabia or the Gulf monarchies responsible for funding extreme Sunni jihadi groups and propagandists supporting them through private donations.
Satellite television, internet, YouTube and Twitter content, frequently emanating from or financed by oil states in the Arabian peninsula, are at the centre of a campaign to spread sectarian hatred to every corner of the Muslim world, including places where Shia are a vulnerable minority, such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Malaysia. In Benghazi, in effect the capital of eastern Libya, a jihadi group uploaded a video of the execution of an Iraqi professor who admitted to being a Shia, saying they had shot him in revenge for the execution of Sunni militants by the Iraqi government.
There is now a fast-expanding pool of jihadis willing to fight and die anywhere. The Saudis and the Gulf monarchies may find, as happened in Afghanistan 30 years ago, that, by funding or tolerating the dissemination of Sunni-Shia hate, they have created a sectarian Frankenstein’s monster of religious fanatics beyond their control.