ABCTV Big Ideas on Profits of Doom and vulture capitalism

The following was broadcast today on ABCTV1:

Can vulture capitalism be stopped?

That’s the question put up by Antony Loewenstein in his last book ‘Profits of Doom: How vulture capitalism is swallowing the world’.

He’s a writer, photographer, blogger, doco-maker and always a provocateur. He’s in conversation here with Chip Rolley, editor of the ABC’s The Drum.

The focus of this exchange is the implications of privatising prisons, detention centres, aid and security in this country and on a global scale.

To put this conversation in context, it took place at the Perth Writers Festival right after the riot on Manus Island and the death of refugee inmate Reza Barati.

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The ethics of the US alliance

The job of US State Department favourites (journalists, commentators and politicians who routinely rehash US government talking points over war, peace and the Middle East) must be exhausting. Defending the indefensible while still being on the information drip-feed.

Welcome to the US embassy, the free champagne, caviar and PR tips are in the boardroom.

I was recently attacked, with about as much credibility as Israel when talking about Palestinian rights, by Lowy Institute flak Michael Fullilove over my recent Guardian comments on Russia and Ukraine.

Australian academic Scott Burchill is one of the country’s most astute observers of this pernicious trend. This latest piece by him is spot-on:

Reflexive support for state power and violence by America’s cheerleaders in Australia takes many forms. There are ad hominem attacks on those who disclose Washington’s nefarious secrets, such as its slaughter of journalists in Iraq or its illegal surveillance apparatus directed by the NSA. There is a conspicuous silence when US drones murder civilians in Yemen, Pakistan and  Afghanistan.

Currently there is confected outrage when a rival state cedes territory it considers to be a legitimate strategic asset, but convenient amnesia when questions about invasions and occupations by friends and allies are raised.

Compare the reaction to President Putin’s annexation of Crimea, which has so far resulted in one fatality, with Saudi Arabia’s incursion into Bahrain in 2011 which killed many innocent Shi’ites but which Washington refused to even call an “invasion”. Coincidently, just as Crimea houses the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet, Bahrain plays host to the US Fifth Fleet.

Consider Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, which has killed thousands of Palestinians since 1948, and dispossessed many more, but would not have been possible without Washington’s connivance.

Perhaps there is a closer parallel. We are approaching the 40th anniversary of Turkey’s illegal invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus. Mass expulsions of Greek Cypriots, property theft and egregious human violations including killings and unexplained disappearances, followed the initial attack in July 1974. But Ankara remains a valued NATO ally and there are no suggestions in Washington or Canberra that economic sanctions be imposed on Prime Minister Erdoğan, his business cronies or predecessors. Some invasions and land grabs, such as Indonesia’s 24 year occupation of East Timor which Canberra and Washington enabled, are just fine with us.

Hypocrisy, double standards and selective outrage dominates foreign affairs commentary. Amongst the current avalanche of hysterical Putin bashing in the Western media one fact is always omitted. The US is the most promiscuous interventionary state in the world, with mass slaughters in Afghanistan and Iraq being only the most recent examples of its addiction to military violence. In both these cases Australia was an enthusiastic accomplice.

To those infatuated by power, however, these actions – for which apologies are never issued nor reparations paid – are not crimes, merely “wrong-headed and foolhardy” because Washington’s impact on the world is “benign” (Michael Fullilove) and it remains an “overwhelming force for good in the world” (Greg Sheridan, Kevin Rudd). Just ask the Vietnamese.

Perhaps the strangest claim by American boosters in Australia is that Washington is unfairly singled out for criticism by “the left” and thugs like Putin get off lightly. According to a former Liberal Party staffer, “It’s interesting how little the green-left in Australia has said about Russia’s conquest of Crimea which, under international law, is part of Ukraine. Had the United States done it, I think the green-left would have gone berserk.” (Gerard Henderson ).

Actually, the alleged silence of “the left” is neither interesting nor surprising. Despite its own significant responsibility for what has happened in Ukraine, there is no obsession with Washington’s crimes in the Australian media or across the broader political class. But there should be one.

There is no alliance between Australia and Russia. We don’t have intelligence sharing agreements with Moscow. There are no technology transfers and no Russian troops rotating through Darwin. We don’t play host to “joint facilities” with Russia, have routine ministerial meetings with officials in Moscow or regular bilateral summits between our heads of government. We have no influence on Moscow’s political elite.

We do, however, have limited leverage in Washington. The alliance gives us access to their decision makers, regardless of whether our opinions are welcome. With that opportunity comes a responsibility to exert influence where we can, especially to curb America’s propensity to meet its global political challenges with extreme violence. This does not constitute a disproportionate preoccupation with US foreign policy, as the local Washington lobby would have us believe. As our major ally that is precisely where our focus should be.

It is also our ethical duty. In democratic societies, responsibility for the consequences of our actions extends to the decisions taken by governments on our behalf because we can participate in the process of formulating policy. The US alliance is a policy choice for Australia and there is no evading the moral consequences of that relationship, including the international behaviour of “our great and powerful friend”.

Our leaders closely align themselves with their counterparts in Washington, and claim to share both common values and a similar view of the world. In Iraq and Afghanistan, as in several wars before, we have been willingly complicit in acts of aggression and breaches of international law. Drawing attention to these crimes, as opposed to those committed by others we have no influence upon, does not constitute anti-Americanism. It is our moral and political responsibility. Like charity, analysis and criticism should begin at home.

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Western hypocrisy over Russia

Brilliantly strong Gideon Levy in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

Saddam Hussein has already been executed, and so has Osama bin Laden. But all is not lost for the enlightened West. There is a new devil, and his name is Vladimir Putin. He hates gay people, so the leaders of the enlightenment did not go to Sochi. Now he is occupying land, so sanctions and boycotts will be imposed upon him. The West is screaming bloody murder from wall to wall: How dare he annex territory in Crimea?

The United States is the superpower responsible for the greatest amount of bloodshed since World War II, and the blood of its victims cries out from the soil of Korea and Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. For years, Washington meddled in Latin America’s internal affairs as though those affairs were its own, installing and overthrowing regimes willy-nilly.

Moreover, the number of people in American prisons, and their proportion of the population, is the highest in the world, and that includes China and Russia. Since 1977, 1,246 people, some of whom were innocent of the charges against them, have been executed in the United States. Eight U.S. states limit speech against homosexuality in ways that are remarkably similar to the anti-gay law Putin enacted. It is this superpower that, with its allies and vassal states, is raising an outcry against the new devil.

They cry out against the occupation of the Crimean peninsula as if it were the most awful occupation on earth. They will punish Russia for it, perhaps even fight a world war for the liberation of Sebastopol. America can occupy Iraq — the war on terror and the weapons of mass destruction justify that, as everybody knows — but Russia may not invade Crimea. That is a violation of international law. Even a referendum is a violation of that law — which the West observes so meticulously, as everybody knows.

But of course, the truth is as far from the world of this sanctimonious double standard as east is from west. The annexation of Crimea may be problematic, but it is less problematic than the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel. It is more democratic than Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s land-swap proposal; at least Russia asked the inhabitants under which sovereign power they wished to live, something it has never occurred to Lieberman to do.

Russia’s reasons for the annexation of Crimea are also more convincing than the de facto annexation of the Israeli occupied territories. The Russians and the Israelis use the same terminology of ancestral rights and historical connection. The Israelis add reasons from the Bible, and mix in issues like sanctity and messianic belief. “Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to … their home shores, to their home port, to Russia!” said Putin; in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about “the rock of our existence.” But while most of the inhabitants of Crimea are Russian, most inhabitants of the territories are Palestinian — such a minor, insignificant difference.

Russia is also more honest than Israel: It states its intention of annexing the territory. Israel, which for all intents and purposes annexed its territories long ago, has never dared admit it.

The Israeli occupation does not cry out to the world — not for sanctions and certainly not for threats of war — as the occupation of Crimea does. Netanyahu is not the devil, either in the eyes of the Americans or the Europeans, and Israel’s violations of international law are almost never mentioned. The Israeli occupation, which is more cruel than that of Crimea, is not recognized, and the West does not do a thing to truly bring it to a halt. The United States and Europe even provide it with funding and arms.

This is not to say that Russia does not deserve to be criticized. The legacy of the Soviet Union is horrific, and democracy in Russia is far from real, what with Putin declaring war on the media and on free expression and with the disgraceful Pussy Riot affair; there is rising corruption and, with it, the rule of the oligarchs. Putin does not speak as nobly as U.S. President Barack Obama, but then Guantanamo is run by America, not Russia.

For all the pompous Western talk of justice and international law, it’s actually the Western devil who wears Prada, all the while doing far more than Russia to undermine those vaunted values.

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It’s time for Australia to face up to its dark military past and present

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

Official, government-mandated story telling should be treated with suspicion. How else to to separate the truth from hagiograhy?

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott was in Darwin last week-end to attend a welcome home ceremony for soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. “Australians don’t fight to conquer”, he said in a voice filled with emotion. “We fight to help, to build and to serve. So yes, it was worth it. The price was high but the cause was great and the success has been sufficient.”

Abbott announced that a national day of commemoration for the Afghan war will be held for the first time on 21 March 2015. It’s hard to imagine that this occasion will be anything other than a chance for the state to praise the soldiers who fought in the war, rather than any serious examination of our legacy in Uruzgan province, where 40 men died during our deployment and 261 were seriously wounded. Around 400 “military personnel” remain in the country.

On the ground in Afghanistan, the evidence for any long-lasting and positive legacy is lacking, with many infrastructure projects now abandoned. Britain faces a similar desultory result in the Helmand province.

The coming years will see plenty of celebration and reflection on the contribution of Australia (and Britain) to countless conflicts since the first world war. Author Thomas Keneally recently said he hoped that “no one says ‘Australia was born at Gallipoli’. Australia was born in 1901, and there needs to be a certain amount of de-mythologising. Let’s hope the historians win out over the politicians, who strike me as fairly jingoistic.”

Keneally was correct to call for a rational recollection of the horrors of war (“we let them down when they came back”) though it’s arguable whether Indigenous Australians would agree the country started in 1901. Aboriginal people already feel ignored by official historians, as shown in John Pilger’s documentary Utopia, when he visits the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and finds no recognition of Aboriginal involvement in our foreign or local, frontier wars.

Ask any soldier about the brutality of war – and I’ve spoken to many in Afghanistan – and few of them idealise the battle. Yes, tales of heroism are guaranteed and the latest Hollywood blockbuster Lone Survivor proves that there’ s still an appetite for an Afghan war movie without any Afghans. But the toll of post-traumatic stress, mental health problems, lost limbs and suicide, now an epidemic amongst returning US war veterans, cannot be ignored. Moreover, far too often in the western consciousness local, ethnic voices are diminished or ignored.

War isn’t glorious or beautiful but messy, bloody and destructive. Victory isn’t clean or pretty, a fact that any objective observer will recognise when assessing the the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars with a very questionable outcome (an indisputable victory would perhaps embolden Canberra, London and Washington to embark on yet more colonial adventures). Instead, as Dirty Wars author Jeremy Scahill explains, the Obama administration now prefers covert assassination squads and drones to defang an unseen enemy.

So how should we, as a nation, remember the fallen and living, the disabled and broken, both our own victims and the ones we’ve created in foreign lands?

The job of governments who send men and women into battle is to insulate the public from the bloody mission, but our focus surely must be on avoiding futile and costly foreign wars for the sake of backing our bigger allies. I hope for a day when an Australian prime minister, along with both major sides of the political divide, have the moral fortitude to reject an American request for soldiers or grunt. The world is not designed to be conquered by newest weapons, fastest satellites, deadliest missiles and metadata-acquired intelligence.

James Brown, a former Australian army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, argues in his new book Anzac’s Long Shadow that the lack of skeptical thinking, and excessive spending on first world war commemorations, is “creating a culture in which critical analysis is rare and difficult. That is very dangerous for a military that should be adapting to face new threats.” He’s right, to a point. And yet his vision remains narrow, as Brown then argues that, “it is bizarre and inexcusable that there is as yet no commissioned official military history of the conflicts in East Timor, the Solomons, Iraq or Afghanistan … Serving generals should be making the case to government for the urgent completion of these histories so that the military can learn and improve, but they are not.”

This is exactly the wrong way to approach history. The “official” version of wars are guaranteed to ignore what the public needs to know and feel (look at the Pentagon’s deeply dishonest rendering of the Vietnam war to commemorate the conflict’s 50th anniversary). The 2013 New York Times best-selling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, uncovers new research by journalist Nick Turse that torpedoes the idea that the infamous My Lai massacre was an anomaly. Instead, we discover that US forces routinely killed Vietnamese non-combatants on an industrial scale. Former US army medic Jamie Henry is just one man who tried to detail the atrocities committed by his unit, but the military ignored his allegations and shunned him.

The danger signs are here if we care to look, and a true reckoning of any military past is incomplete without hearing the testimony of all participants, not just our own.

This is the kind of real history that the late Howard Zinn tried to capture in A People’s History of the United States; unvarnished, honest, truthful. Is Australia even willing to begin a similarly sober conversation about our eagerness to join distant wars?

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Detention centre owners making a killing

My following feature appears in the January edition of Britain’s New Internationalist magazine:

Outsourcing detention to private companies is a recipe for a disaster, says Antony Loewenstein.

Imprisoning immigrants is good for business. In the US it’s common for lobbyists hired by leading prison companies to magically convince officials to write legislation that benefits their bottom line.

US magazine The Nation revealed in June 2013 that the massive corporation Geo Group had used the firm Navigators Global to lobby both houses of Congress on ‘issues related to comprehensive immigration reform’. It’s obvious why: billions of dollars are there for the taking with bi-partisan support for locking up thousands of undocumented migrants.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the collusion between big business and government are the clauses inserted into contracts that ensure people remain behind bars. In 2012, a letter to 48 state governors from the country’s biggest for-profit private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), offered to purchase and run public state prisons. However, the deal required the states to sign a 20-year contract guaranteeing 90-per-cent occupancy during the period. The states refused to accept this lousy deal, but in Arizona three privately run prisons require a 100-per-cent occupancy or fines are incurred. This is vulture capitalism of the crudest kind.

The past 30 years have seen a global trend towards outsourcing prisons, detention centres, juvenile justice facilities, hospitals and a range of other essential services. Under the guise of ‘efficiency’, major political parties of the centre-left and centre-right have rushed to embrace the least transparent companies such as Serco, G4S, Dyncorp, Blackwater and others.

Politicians are seduced by the idea. Lavishly appointed trips organized by the contractor help to convince them that the state has no business managing public services. Democracy has suffered; services have not improved.

The problem is particularly acute in Australia. In 2011, I visited the Curtin Detention Centre, a desert camp for asylum-seekers, in the remote West. Around 1,000 men were warehoused there; Afghans, Iranians, Sri Lankans and others. British transnational Serco, which runs all of Australia’s detention centres, managed the place with ruthless efficiency. Australia has the dubious honour of being one of the few nations in the world that has outsourced its entire refugee network to private contractors.

I met Yugan, a Tamil asylum-seeker, in Curtin. He was in his mid-20s, spoke good English and was already knowledgeable about Australia after more than 18 months locked up in mandatory detention. He was warm, funny and inquisitive. Australian immigration officials and Serco guards gave him little information about his application for asylum – thousands of Tamils have arrived on Australian shores since the brutal end of the long-running Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 – and he did not know when he might be released into the community or forcibly returned to his unsafe homeland.

Why was Yugan locked up for so long in a high-security prison environment? Luckily, his story ended well. Granted a protection visa a few weeks after we met, he now lives in Perth, the capital of Western Australia. I saw him in October 2013 and he was adapting well to his new life. He regularly visited asylum-seekers who remained in detention, continued to campaign for justice in Sri Lanka and spoke at public rallies calling for a change in Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.

Not every story ends like this, of course. There are high incidences of self-harm, with many asylum-seekers languishing in detention for years and/or returned to unsafe countries. Post-release, many suffer mental trauma due to the extended time away from normal life.

The quest for profit can aggravate poor conditions in detention. When I spoke to Serco staff in Australia and a senior company whistleblower, they detailed the corporation hierarchy’s contempt for spending appropriate funds on support for staff or asylum-seekers in their care. Countless guards told me that they were suffering mental trauma after receiving little or no appropriate training before being thrust into remote centres alongside fragile refugees. The whistleblower explained that ‘there is no care about conditions [in detention], such as people sitting or lying in shit in tents, but it’s all about whether the right forms are filled in’.

Privatization lies at the heart of Australia’s asylum policy. In 2009, the then Labor government, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, signed a contract with Serco for AUS $370 million ($342 million). By 2013, that figure ballooned to over AUS $1.86 billion ($1.7 billion) though the exact figures are not known, such is the deliberate obfuscation of the contractual agreement (‘commercial-in-confidence’ agreements are the antithesis of transparent democracy).

The new conservative government of Tony Abbott has every intention of maintaining the outsourcing agenda and is expanding secretive camps for asylum-seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Australia’s border policy is neo-colonialism with a cheque in one hand and a stick in the other.

Conditions in offshore detention are said to be even worse. A former detention manager on Manus Island told TV station SBS in July 2013, ‘in Australia, the facility couldn’t even serve as a dog kennel. The owners would be jailed.’

Of course, this is the neoliberal model, applied globally, so we should not be too surprised at the results. Despite the troubled records of Serco and G4S in Britain and beyond, successive Australian leaders are seduced by the concept of ‘efficiency’ and seem willing to outsource their own responsibility to firms that rarely exercise any of their own. It’s a recipe for human rights disasters.

In Britain, both Serco and G4S are currently being investigated by the country’s Serious Fraud Office for allegedly charging for tagging criminals who were imprisoned, dead or did not exist. The contracts were worth millions and Serco’s chief executive resigned.

Such news should disqualify the firms from being able to bid on other contracts. But David Cameron’s government is allowing G4S to run for future work, including probation services worth around $800 million. G4S earns roughly 10 per cent of its annual revenue from British government contracts, while Serco receives 25 per cent of work from the British tax-payer.

The list of human rights abuses by both companies is long. It includes the death of Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga at the hands of G4S guards in 2010. The fact that a private company is paid to deport people using rough, physical restraint shows the woeful state of government responsibility for the most vulnerable.

It does not have to be this way. In the US, growing numbers of states – including those run by Republicans – are ditching a failed model of enriching private prison corporations, and are sentencing fewer people to long prison terms. It’s hardly revolutionary, but it’s a start. Warehousing asylum-seekers is not reducing the number of desperate citizens globally searching for a better life and it only helps the bottom line of companies like Serco.

The New York Times editorialized in November 2013 that European prisons are a model the US should consider. However, Europe shouldn’t be idealized. Countries in the European Union, reflecting the continent’s rightward political shift, are hiring private detention centre companies to house asylum-seekers.

Ireland, Spain, Italy and France are already utilizing this failed approach and Greece, a nation with neo-Nazis in parliament, will be following shortly. The Greek Ministry of Public Order recently announced it would issue public tenders – designed for private security companies – to outsource six temporary detention facilities.

Treating refugees with respect, and releasing them into the community while their claims are processed, is a practical and humane way for states to behave towards individuals who deserve patience and investment. We have a choice between becoming insecure ghetto-dwellers, with private corporations to hide our dirty secrets; or a truly globalized world with inspiring values.

Antony Loewenstein is an Australian independent journalist and author of many books, including the 2013 Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World’.

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Never ignoring the realities of vulture capitalism

One of Australia’s leading literary bloggers, Angela Mayer, has positively reviewed my 2013 book, Profits of Doom:

In Profits of Doom, Antony Loewenstein investigates the effects of predatory, vulture or disaster capitalism on individuals, communities, the environment, and future prospects of entire countries. Loewenstein’s work is powerful because he goes to Afghanistan, Christmas Island, Papua New Guinea, and other places ravaged by greed, corruption, complacency, and misdirected aid. He takes us there, and he talks to people at all levels, unafraid to present us with opinions that contradict his own (though reinforcing his own argument effortlessly through the picture he paints of the damage done).

In Australia, he visits detention centres, exploring the effects (on the detainees, the staff, and the wider community) of privatisation, revealing the fact that companies with dodgy track records are still given contracts. To avoid fines, there is also a culture of dishonesty: ‘… cover-ups of breaches [such as incidences of abuse] are routine and both tolerated and implicitly supported by the highest echelons of the Serco [company] hierarchy’. Loewenstein discovers a general ignorance of asylum seekers’ rights in order to maximise profits (ie. drawn-out processing times), and a dehumanisation of asylum seekers who, at the top, are referred to as ‘products’.

In Papua New Guinea Loewenstein visits ‘an abandoned wasteland’, Bouganville, where there are talks to reopen the mine which caused so much strife and continues to effect the environment. Disaster capitalism, as Loewenstein describes it in regards to PNG, is predatory corporations supported by foreign aid payments and tax concessions, insulated from media and political scrutiny, preventing a country from reaching true independence. In another village, Loewenstein hears of women selling their bodies for food because the company that has moved in has stopped them from fishing.

In Afghanistan Loewenstein looks at the local war economy, investigating private security personnel—their role in the conflict, how the officials see it and how the locals do.

In Haiti Loewenstein finds large parts of the capital Port-au-Prince still in pieces after the 2010 earthquake, and provides many examples of ‘canny capitalists sifting through the ashes of disaster, looking for business opportunities’. For those who argue in favour of job creation when multinationals move in, Loewenstein has found that it’s more likely that cheap, exploitative labour is the effect, in vulnerable areas, tying locals to an (often restricting, often polluting) corporation, removing other chances of sustainable growth in a community.

Loewenstein uncovered an unfortunate structural failure where many big NGOs (not all, there are some great examples of on-the-ground charities working with locals in the book) act as conduits to ensure Western business interests.

Profits of Doom provides essential, eye-opening information about systems of exploitative capitalism, how they operate, who profits, and the effects on the ground. It’s written in an accessible, engaging style, with quotes from people at all levels, and Loewenstein’s first-hand observations and experiences. I was a big fan of his 2008 book The Blogging Revolution, and will continue to read the work of a journalist whose concerns are undeniably relevant, who investigates and presents cases with care, rigour, and verve.

Antony Loewenstein’s website/blog is always a great source of information on current events.

Loewenstein will also be appearing at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.

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Talking Profits of Doom and messing with vulture capitalism

I was interviewed by Red Flag newspaper late in 2013 about my book Profits of Doom:

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney based journalist, activist and author. He spoke to Red Flag’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.

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Why it’s time for UN sanctions against Australia

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.

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Arena Magazine reviews Profits of Doom

The following review (arenaprofitsofdoom) of my book Profits of Doom appears in Arena Magazine this month.

 

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US media largely ignores world; citizens remain insular

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 [11] 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.

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America’s special-ops reach into every corner of the planet

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.

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How Western-backed Saudi fundamentalism is causing chaos

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. 

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