During the recent Byron Bay Writer’s Festival this event, broadcast by ABCTV1’s Big Ideas, was a robust discussion on the rights, responsibilities and pressures of conflict reporting in a post 9/11 world:
In this session writers Abbas El-Zein, Antony Loewenstein and Washington Post journalist David Finkel deliver strikingly different perspectives on the Iraqi and Afghan wars. An intense discussion develops about the nature of reporting and advocacy, with Finkel and Loewenstein very much opposed.
Finkel has covered wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, documenting the impact of war on the psyche of the soldiers at the front. Loewenstein explains that whilst he is not without empathy for the plight of the individual soldier, his sympathies lie with the Iraqis and the Afghans.
Finkel drives home the need to tell a story without an agenda “so that readers can feel what war can be.” El-Zein is in agreement and observes “the job of a journalist isn’t to judge” but to deliver to the public the most comprehensive information available.
This session was filmed at the Byron Bay Writers Festival and moderated by Jacqui Park.
For the last years I’ve been working with New York based film-maker Thor Neureiter on a documentary about Disaster Capitalism. We successfully raised money on Kickstarter last year and we’re currently pursuing funding from a range of global sources. Film-making is a long, painful and challenging process.
I’m happy to release the new teaser that shows the progression of the work. Hopefully this whets your appetite:
I’ve returned from the wonderful Byron Bay Writer’s Festival where I’ve enjoyed the outdoor festival in the sun talking about Gaza, Palestine, politics, war (on a very interesting and sometimes heated panel with Washington Post journalist David Finkel and writer Abbas El-Zein and another one on free speech) and vulture capitalism. My 2013 best-selling book, Profits of Doom, has just been released in an updated edition so I spoke to a packed audience about the issues within it:
My weekly Guardian column:
Libya was sold as a glorious, liberating war. London’s Tory mayor Boris Johnson wrote in March 2011 that the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi was “of course … a good idea”. He was cautiously optimistic that a Western-led military campaign would not be a “disaster” like Iraq in 2003. “What kind of democracy do we hope will bloom in the desert soil, after decades in which political parties have been banned?” he mused.
Johnson was joined by a host of world leaders, journalists and humanitarian interventionists calling for overwhelming firepower to be deployed against the Libyan army. The western-backed Misrata militias killed Gaddafi and optimism about Libya’s future was in the air. The subject of Libya and the left was much-canvassed, including by Australian writer Guy Rundle, who wrote:
“For my money once a request was made for support [from Libyan rebels], and in explicit terms, honouring it was simply delivering on an implicit promise made by the notion of international solidarity.”
Current events prove this sentiment was badly misplaced, if not naïve. Libya is now divided by civil war, armed groups roam the streets and violence is ubiquitous. The United Nations and American ambassador have fled.
The New York Times last weekend explained the failure of the intervention instigators to invest enough time and energy in nation-building. “In the absence of a strong government,” journalist Kareem Fahim wrote, “a monstrous shadow state was emerging, centred on the power of militias made up of men who fought Colonel Gaddafi and never put down their arms.”
The delicate job of constructing an inclusive democracy since the fall of Gaddafi has been complicated by the extremism of Islamist forces, incompetence and corruption in the political class and the shift in global interest to other conflicts. Amnesty International reported just before the 2012 election that democratic institutions were weak, and were struggling to cope with the Misrata militias, who were engaged in ethnic cleansing and conducting arbitrary arrests and torture. This report was barely covered in the global press.
Libya is mostly ignored today because foreign correspondents are busier than ever. Although an army of brave freelancers and citizen journalists are invaluable when it comes to covering war, mainstream resources are dwindling. In a new book by reporter Anjan Sundaram, on his experiences as a stringer in Congo, he explains how the site of one of the worst genocides in modern times was largely ignored by editors in Western capitals.
“The Western news media are in crisis and are turning their back on the world”, he argued recently in the Times. “We hardly ever notice. Where correspondents were once assigned to a place for years or months, reporters now handle 20 countries each. Bureaus are in hub cities, far from many of the countries they cover. And journalists are often lodged in expensive bungalows or five-star hotels. As the news has receded, so have our minds.”
Libya has suffered this fate. After initial fascination with the Arab Spring reaching Tripoli, media interest dwindled and moved onto other places, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine. There was little talk of the pragmatic reason London, Paris and Washington wanted access to Libya: huge oil reserves.
With chaos now descending across the state, and Libyan weapons spreading to Syria, Mali and beyond, the silence from those who backed the 2011 war is deafening. They’ve simply moved onto the next conflict, the next place to advocate intervention, the next editor and journalist guaranteed to completely ignore their record of backing the last disaster. Amnesia and eternal forgiveness are hallmarks of corporate punditry.
One of the leading arguments in favour of bombing Libya and overthrowing Gaddafi was the concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P). It was constantly cited as a key justification for assisting the beleaguered Libyan population. David Cameron, the British prime minister, and former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, were just two of the prominent advocates of R2P in 2011.
Three years on, the crisis in Libya barely rates a mention, and R2P reeks of selective application. When British journalist Mehdi Hasan asked French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, a supporter of Western military action against Muslim states, whether he took any responsibility for the troubles in Libya in 2013, he ducked and weaved. He preferred to boast of his desire to bomb Syria. When asked whether a military force should be stationed in Palestine to defend its civilians, he admired Israel’s inherent humanity.
I feel like I’ve been writing this same column for over a decade, reminding politicians, journalists and commentators that the internet is the ultimate record of their advocacy for violence against unarmed peoples in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine or Libya. With a record like this, it’s no wonder humanitarian intervention is associated with creeping colonialism.
We never hear any R2P backers pushing for a military intervention in Gaza to protect the Palestinians from Israeli missiles. Nobody is talking about protecting Egyptian civilians from the brutal, US-backed dictatorship in Egypt. Barely a word is raised to protect the repressed activists in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s dressed up as solidarity, a responsibility to protect, or an intervention to prevent breaches of human rights, from Iraq to Libya these are grotesque experiments on helpless civilians, the conclusions of which are clear for us to see.
My weekly Guardian column:
The Sri Lankan Navy band was busy last week, learning the tune to Waltzing Matilda. They played it to welcome Scott Morrison, the Australian immigration minister, who was visiting to launch two patrol boats donated by the Australian government. A photo of the moment,tweeted by journalist Jason Koutsoukis, showed Morrison sitting alongside president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Perhaps it didn’t worry Morrison that there are growing calls to prosecute Gotabaya Rajapaksa for war crimes, because of his actions in 2009 during the Sri Lankan civil war. Australia has been aware of Sri Lanka’s breaches of human rights for some time.
Australia is now closer to the regime than ever, because of their assistance in implementing Morrison’s tough border protection strategy. As Emily Howie, the director of advocacy and research at the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, reported in 2013, “the Australian government is actively funding and supporting Sri Lanka to undertake these interceptions [of asylum seekers].”
Her report was based on interviews she gathered in Sri Lanka with people who wanted to leave and were stopped, interrogated and often tortured. Howie wrote in The Conversation that arbitrary detention, beatings and torture are routinely meted out to those in custody, Tamil and Sinhalese, with Canberra’s knowledge.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) works closely with its Sri Lankan counterparts, providing training, intelligence, vehicles and surveillance equipment. This has been happening for years. From time to time, stories surface alleging that AFP offers have been present during Sri Lankan police beatings and interrogations of returned asylum seekers. If true, this fits into a wider pattern of Western officials colluding with thuggish militias and authorities over the last few decades, including in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Britain has had its own peculiar involvement in the darkness of Sri Lanka’s recent past. A groundbreaking new report by British researcher and journalist Phil Miller, a researcher at London-based Corporate Watch and regular contributor to Open Democracy on detention issues, outlines how brutal British tactics utilised in Northern Ireland were brought to Sri Lanka in its war against dissidents and Tamils.
The report uncovers new evidence of government and mercenary elements colluding to put down Tamil independence and calls for equal rights. From the early 1980s, London denied any official involvement in training Sri Lankan “para-military [forces] for counter-insurgency operations” but documents show how the British were working closely with Colombo to stamp out the Tamil Tiger insurgency.
Britain saw a unique opportunity to maintain influence with Colombo by training a generation of Sri Lankan officers. London set up a military academy there in 1997, supplied a range of weapons to the army, assisted Sri Lankan intelligence agencies, protected Sri Lanka in international forums against abuse allegations and pressured various governments to ban the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
One month after the end of the civil war in 2009, Britain was working to assist the growth of Sri Lanka’s police department. There was no concern over the serious allegations of massive human rights abuses of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan military. The agenda was economic and political, with Liam Fox, the British defence minister, explaining in June 2011 that Sri Lanka played a vital role in combating international piracy.
“Sri Lanka is located in a pivotal position in the Indian Ocean with major international shipping routes between the Far East and the Gulf within 25 miles of your coast”, he said.
Russia, China, Israel and America have sold military hardware to Colombo both before and after 2009. Wikileaks cables show the US government recognised the Sri Lankan military’s role in atrocities during the civil war. Although the Tamil Tigers undeniably committed terrorist acts, state terrorism by the Sri Lankan establishment was far worse. Australia’s view has been consistent for decades: Canberra rarely recognises state terrorism if committed by an ally.
Australia’s former high commissioner to Sri Lanka, Bruce Haigh, stationed in the country from 1994, recalls how the high commission in Colombo would regularly liaise with its Sri Lankan counterparts, run training programs and accept Colombo’s line that any and all Tamils associated with the liberation struggle were terrorists.
This mindset existed long before September 11. Little has changed, though. Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, has gone even further than his mentor, John Howard, by expressing sympathy for a Sri Lankan regime that tortures its opponents and refuses to endorse an independent investigation into the end of the civil war.
How nations like Australia should relate to Sri Lanka and other human rights abusing countries is a tough question, when Canberra itself routinely breaches its international obligations. At the very least, we should call for rights to be recognised and improved in foreign lands and at home.
My weekly Guardian column:
On a searing hot day last weekend I took the train an hour out of Athens to the Greek city of Corinth. There, one of the country’s largest detention centres sits behind high walls. It was the recent site of a mass hunger strike by asylum seekers, whose protest has now gone nation-wide.
I gained rare access to the Corinth centre with a former refugee as my guide. I spoke to Hazara men who had been imprisoned for as long as two years. We stood behind a fence topped with barbed wire while the detainees gathered on the other side, longing for discussion and human contact.
One man had been shot in the foot by a guard and the bullet remained inside his body. They all claimed to be the victims of physical and psychological abuse by the police. None of them wanted to remain in Greece because of the harsh conditions of their incarceration, and hoped to get to Germany or Sweden in the near future. After 15 minutes of hurried conversation, and despite our protests, we were eventually moved on by police.
Greece is on the frontline of European nations receiving desperate refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The poor conditions inside state-run facilities are well-documented. Many of the men who we spoke with in the Corinth centre had been swept up in Greece’s inhumane Operation Xenios Zeus, launched in 2012, to rid the streets of asylum seekers.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of those picked up were found to be in the country legally, the plan was an effective political fix to show the government was tough on “illegal” immigration. Detainees can now be held indefinitely. Detention centres are set to be privatised.
None of this could happen were it not for Greece’s fractious political climate. The recent European elections saw support surge for the far-right Golden Dawn, backing grow for the leftwing party Syriza and the deep denial (or is it shamefaced acceptance?) by the political class of bigotry among their Greek constituents.
It’s no accident that fascist organs are gaining strength in Greece, across Europe and the rest of the world. Even Indonesia is seeing Nazi chic. Many admire the positions of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, because they’re skilfully exploiting economic unease, unemployment and fear of immigrants and Islam. Greece has also seen the return of anti-Roma and anti-Jewish sentiment.
I met one of Golden Dawn’s leading MPs, Ilias Panagiotaros, outside Athens’ high court. He was accompanied by the party leader’s wife, Golden Dawn MP Eleni Zaroulia. Panagiotaros spoke with determined calm, saying that his party is surging in support in spite of it being investigated by the government as a possible criminal organisation. A few hours after we spoke, Zaroulia was placed under house arrest.
“The cases against GD leadership are 100% political persecution”, Panagiotaros explained. “Every GD MP believes in country and nation, heritage, pride and dignity.” A whistle-blower from inside the party recently revealed that the ultimate goal of the group was to create a “one-party state” and attacking immigrants was viewed as a “badge of honour”.
He praised Putin, said Russia would soon be the world’s leading super-power, liked Moscow’s monitoring of all NGOs (“99% of NGOs should face justice here and be in jail because they’re agents of globalisation”), accused all Muslim immigrants in Europe of being “jihadists” who “plan to take over Europe” and condemned the privatisation of public services (despite Golden Dawn MPs routinely backing the government in outsourcing policy).
He praised Israel and said he would like to copy its laws against “illegal immigration” and was equally effusive towards Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. He “has been tough on illegal immigration and I support his position”.
He claimed that all Muslim immigrants coming to Europe should go elsewhere. “If Syrians, Libyans or Iraqis need to go somewhere they should go to the US, the country that caused the wars in their countries. Let the US take these people in.”
I asked Panagiotaros about photos which emerged this week in a leading Greek paper of the currently imprisoned Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos saluting in front of the Nazi Swastika, and other party members’ nostalgia for Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess. He dismissed my concerns.
“So what if our leader was photographed next to a Nazi swastika 40 years ago?” he said. “If you ask every leader in Europe what they were doing decades ago you may find some interesting stories, too.”
I visited another leading Golden Dawn supporter, Dr Epaminondas Stathis, a retired orthopaedic surgeon and losing 2014 European election candidate. His home, an hour from Athens, is a mansion replete with large statues, candelabras, paintings on every wall in every room and many images of Jesus. He said that as he’s “been fighting for patriotic, nationalist ideas all my life”.
He explained that successive governments have for 40 years “destroyed the economy, closed farms and shops; we’ve had a humanitarian crisis for at least 10 years”. What Greece needs, he explained, was a party that respected Greek heritage.
The whiff of conspiracy against the group was never far from the surface, a view that is shared by many Greek citizens who have little faith in the government, media or legal system.
One of the great unreported reasons for the Greek crisis, and barely investigated by the local press except for independent journalist Apostolis Fotiadis, is the European Union’s imposition of disaster-capitalism policies. The aim is to weaken the sovereignty of member states, while allowing corporate interests to buy and exploit assets at low prices. Privatising so much of Greece has been a colossal failure and yet rightwing Greek politicians talk of continuing it. The country has become a giant fire sale, despite massive popular opposition.
These are the political conditions that almost guarantee disruption and unease. While corruption remains rampant and wages low – I’ve spoken to countless young Greeks who tell me that a reasonable wage here is around US$10,000 a year – the appeal of simple fixes, such as offered by Golden Dawn, will thrive. Whether alternative parties of the Left, in Greece and beyond in Europe, will capitalise on these tensions and resist Brussels-directed privatisation is the great challenge of the modern European project.
During last week’s Sydney Writer’s Festival, I was involved in a fantastic event about World War One Poetry with Tony Birch, Colin Friels, Judy Davis, Jennifer Mills, Omar Musa and Maxine Beneba Clarke. It was organised by Jeff Sparrow at Overland magazine.
I read the following piece:
My father’s father, Fred Loewenstein, was born in Dresden, Germany. The brother of Fred’s mother was Hans Roth. He was born on the 20 July 1890 and fell, on active service with the German army, around the 13 October 1916. He had been awarded, as an Under-Officer, the Iron Cross 2nd Class. I visited his grave in Dresden in 1998.
Too often in war our political and media classes demand we support the home team, ignore the abuses by our own side and demonise the enemy. It is why when in 2012 a remarkable book, Poetry of the Taliban, was published there was predictable outrage by the same conservative forces, generals and media hacks who had led the West into a predictable disaster in Afghanistan. The book remains an essential tool in understanding the resilience, beauty, contradictions and brutality of a relatively small force that has defeated America and its allies in a nation long known as the “graveyard of empires”.
During World War I, there was much poetry written by the German forces, including Jews. Emmanuel Saul was the son of a Rabbi, born in 1876, and when war broke out he volunteered to fight. He was killed on the Russian front in 1915.
This poem by Saul, called To My Children, is a moving work praising the importance and nobility of the German cause. It reminds us that unless we understand the “other” side in war, we are destined to repeat the mistakes and crimes of the past.
Here’s an extract from a very long piece.
The following review by Kate Galloway appears in the Alternative Law Journal:
Antony Loewenstein; Melbourne University Press, 2013; 261 pages; $32.99 (paperback)
In this extensively researched book, journalist Antony Loewenstein takes the reader on a world tour. From the remotest parts of Australia — at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, Christmas Island and James Price Point, to Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and finally Haiti — Loewenstein prosecutes his argument that, worldwide, ‘vulture capitalism’ is thriving on the misery of those dispossessed and impoverished by disaster.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this is that there is no incentive to stop the misery — as this would impinge on profits. For example though Australian detention centres are bursting at the seams, the more asylum seekers who arrive by boat, the more call there is for the services of Serco, the current provider of detention facilities to the Australian government. While detainees were referred to as clients (until the recent direction of the new minister, Scott Morrison, that they be called ‘illegal’ arrivals and ‘detainees’) it is of course the Australian government that is the client of Serco, and its shareholders who are the stakeholders in a profit-making venture.
The book reads journalistically, and Loewenstein is adept at setting the scene in each site he visits. The reader is brought along with the pace and mood, as the author engages with company officials and locals alike. While very readable, the message is strongly brought home about the context for this ‘disaster capitalism’ and its effects, sustained ‘when the lines between the public and private realms are rendered invisible’.
For those in favour of small government, there may be an argument as to the ‘efficiency’ of privatisation of services. However the scale and pervasiveness of the profit-driven model of service delivery chronicled in this book calls on us to question the very nature of what it is that governments are there to do. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the Panguna mine on Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea. As a result of the mine’s operations and dispossession of local people, the very sovereignty of PNG itself has been challenged through a bloody separatist movement. Now lying idle, the mine’s operation has caused significant environmental damage and social disruption. How this model of public/private partnership can be sustained is debatable at best.
This book will appeal to those who care about justice and who question the devolution of the role of government as a consequence of neoliberal ideals. Importantly, through the six case studies, it offers a cohesive argument against blurring the public/private enterprise divide in the interests of a sustainable and just world.
KATE GALLOWAY teaches law at James Cook University.
A stunning investigation by the Washington Post on what the American war in Afghanistan has supported; one of the most brutal thugs in the country:
In Afghanistan, his presence was enough to cause prisoners to tremble. Hundreds in his organization’s custody were beaten, shocked with electrical currents or subjected to other abuses documented in human rights reports. Some allegedly disappeared.
And then Haji Gulalai disappeared as well.
He had run Afghan intelligence operations in Kandahar after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and later served as head of the spy service’s detention and interrogation branch. After 2009, his whereabouts were unknown.
Because of his reputation for brutality, Gulalai was someone both sides of the war wanted gone. The Taliban tried at least twice to kill him. Despite Gulalai’s ties to the CIA and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, United Nations officials and U.S. coalition partners sought to rein him in or have him removed.
Today, Gulalai lives in a pink two-story house in Southern California, on a street of stucco homes on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
How he managed to land in the United States remains murky. Afghan officials and former Gulalai colleagues said that his U.S. connections — and mounting concern about his safety — account for his extraordinary accommodation.
But CIA officials said the agency played no role in bringing Gulalai into the country. Officials at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security would not comment on his relocation or immigration status, citing privacy restrictions. Gulalai and members of his family declined repeated inquiries from The Washington Post.
As the United States approaches its own exit from Afghanistan, Gulalai’s case touches on critical questions looming over that disengagement. What will happen to thousands of Afghans seeking to accompany the American exodus? And how will U.S.-built institutions in that country — particularly its intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) — treat those left behind?
Despite a substantial record of human rights abuses, Gulalai was able to bypass immigration barriers faced by Afghans whose work for the United States made them potential targets of the Taliban. Many have been turned away because of security objections submitted in secret by U.S. spy agencies.
Since its inception, the NDS has depended on the CIA to such an extent that it is almost a subsidiary — funded, trained and equipped by its American counterpart. The two agencies have shared intelligence, collaborated on operations and traded custody of prisoners.
Gulalai was considered a particularly effective but corrosive figure in this partnership. He was a fierce adversary of the Taliban, officials said, as well as a symbol of the tactics embraced by the NDS.
“He was the torturer in chief,” said a senior Western diplomat, who recalled meeting with a prisoner at an NDS facility in Kabul to investigate how he had been treated when Gulalai entered unannounced. The detainee became agitated and bowed his head in submission. “He was terrified, which made sense,” the diplomat said. Gulalai was “a big wheel in a machine that ground up a lot of people.”
U.S. officials said the CIA has taken measures to curb NDS abuses, including training its officers on human rights and pushing the organization to allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross and other monitoring groups. But even after Gulalai’s departure, U.N. reports have documented widespread mistreatment of prisoners by the NDS.
Retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, who was commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan until last year, warned that “human rights is going to be a weakness for some period of time.” Allen, who suspended prisoner transfers to the NDS after reports of abuse, said the organization has made progress but described its reliance on torture as an institutional “reflex.”