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.”
My weekly Guardian column:
The news that the US had killed two Australian “militants” in a drone strike was announced in mid-April. Christopher Havard and “Muslim bin John”, who also held New Zealand citizenship, were allegedly killed by a CIA-led airstrike in eastern Yemen in November last year.
Readers were given little concrete information, apart from a “counter-terrorism source” who claimed that both men were foot soldiers for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, though they may also have been collateral damage (the real target being other terror heads).
The Australian government claimed ignorance of the entire operation. “There was no Australian involvement in, or prior awareness of, the operation”, a spokesman said. New Zealand prime minister John Key released some more details, saying that the country’s GCSB spies had been authorised to spy on him. “I knew that he had gone there [to Yemen] and gone to a terrorist training camp”, he stated.
Since publication of these bare facts, little new information has emerged from the government or other sources – except for some reporting in The Australian about Havard’s apparent transformation after he converted to Islam in his early 20s and went to Yemen to teach English. The paper editorialised in support of the strike: “to be killed in this way is regrettable”, it wrote, but obliterating civilians without a trial was acceptable because “such attacks have done much to stop the terrorists committing even more atrocities.” There was no condemnation of the scores of civilians killed by drones since 9/11.
It’s of course morally convenient to believe that the death of these men will make the world a safer place by removing “threats” without the need to place western soldiers in harm’s way – this is, after all, the apparently compelling logic of drone warfare. But it’s a myth challenged by the former drone pilots featured in the recently released documentary Drone, in which ex-Air Force pilot Michael Haas explains that:
‘You never know who you’re killing, because you never actually see a face. You just have a silhouette. They don’t have to take a shot. They don’t have to bear that burden. I’m the one that has to bear that burden.”
Yet, uncertainty be damned, the Australian government seems to keep on supporting the CIA killings with most of the media following without question.
Fairfax Media headlined one story “Abbott government defends drone strike that killed two Australian Al-Qaeda militants” without challenging that the two men were, indeed, militants or affiliated with Al-Qaida – they may or may not have been, but innocent civilians have been killed by drones before. The sentence “alleged militants, according to the government” never appeared in the article (this is a relatively common habit in journalism – see for example this essential take-down of a New York Times report on drone killings in Yemen).
I’ve reported independently from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and accurate journalism requires finding reliable sources on the ground (or corresponding with individuals through email, phone, encryption or Twitter) who can confirm or challenge the official version. It’s not rocket science, though definitive information can be scarce in a war zone.
In the last days I’ve reached out to various sources in Yemen (some of the best are here, here and here) and asked Sanaa-based Baraa Shiban to comment. His answer is revealing. “The lack of transparency has became a fixed strategy for the US in its drone war. The US announced recently the death of almost 30 militants in a training camp in Abyan, south of Yemen, but can’t release a single name; this tells it all.”
Taking the word of security sources and the state, when this information is so often wrong or deliberately skewed by anonymous officials who strategically leak to justify their counter-terrorism policies, is sadly all too common. “We don’t know the facts” is not a shameful statement. To be skeptical shouldn’t be a flaw, but an asset.
The desultory lack of debate over this latest drone attack is a sadly familiar tale (former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser lent a rare voice of criticism, saying Australians assisting the US drone program could face crimes against humanity charges). The Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan, former army officer and Australian diplomat, offered a commonly-held view of the deaths: “If it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and were not deliberately targeted”, he wrote, “then I don’t think either the Australian government or public will lose much sleep over their passing.”
This misses the point entirely. The two men are dead, so arguments about the legality of their assassination should surely have happened before the US fired its missiles. Shanahan expressed confidence without evidence that Australia “would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power.” This is a familiar refrain echoed by governments, too: that if you’re standing, sitting or socialising with militants, with or without your knowledge, your life could be in jeopardy.
The effect of this random violence, along with the devastating signature strike policy – drone attacks based on “suspicious” behaviour without knowing names or identities of people – is well documented. In Yemen, hatred of the US, along with major social and political tensions, is growing amongst a poor and scared population.
Although the Yemeni regime works openly alongside Washington in its war against perceived enemies (unlike Pakistan, which many say behaves in a similar way but feigns opposition to appease the angry masses) the death of dozens of alleged Al-Qaida militants and civilians at a major base in the remote southern mountains last week will only inflame tensions in the nation.
Let us not forget that the US drone program, massively accelerated under the Obama administration, is mired in secrecy. Earlier this month, a US federal appeals court ordered the government to release legal advice relating to the killings of three US citizens in Yemen in 2011. The American Civil Liberties Union correctly argued that it was unacceptable for the US to both claim the program was classified and yet leak selective information to favoured journalists to “paint the program in the most favourable light.”
The latest killing of two Australian citizens is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning. If these men were threats to national security, then the public deserves to know why and the legal backing behind it. The countless lies during the “war on terror” warrants skepticism of official claims.
My weekly Guardian column:
The Australian government recently successfully blocked the release of sensitive documents that would have revealed the complicity of Indonesian forces in massive abuses during their occupation of East Timor.
Canberra directed the National Archives to refuse the request of University of NSW associate professor Clinton Fernandes to see internal Australian files on Indonesian military actions in Timor more than 30 years ago. Administrative appeals tribunal president justice Duncan Kerr argued that “ongoing sensitivities” between Canberra and Jakarta were part of the reason for his decision. In other words, secrecy was preferable to transparency and justice.
The case proves that history remains threatening. The issue revolves around Indonesian actions in late 1981 and early 1982, when Indonesia forced around 145,000 conscripted East Timorese civilians to form a human chain to march across huge areas of land with the military behind it to find hiding guerrilla forces. The operation resulted in a massacre in Lacluta, Viqueque.
The Indonesian military then made a concerted attempt to smear the leader of the Catholic church in East Timor, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes, who had expressed serious concerns of a famine because the conscripted subsistence farmers were unable to plant their crops in time for the next harvest. During it all, the Australian government provided military aid to Indonesia, and is specifically said to have continued to supply Nomad aircrafts, despite knowing that Indonesian forces were using them in East Timor, in violation of Indonesia’s formal undertaking not to do so.
Fernandes tells me that if proven, Canberra’s complicity would speak volumes about its selective belief in applications of justice. Offenders would have to be punished, he says, not just for deterrent purposes but because international crimes must be highlighted.
“This case is not a contest between Australians and Indonesians”, he says. “Rather, it is a contest between those who want justice to prevail and those who want to cover up. The fact remains that East Timor suffered perhaps the largest loss of life relative to total population since the Holocaust. To ignore this is to mock the dead and make cynics of the living.”
Needless to say, Timor barely features in the media anymore – it’s a historical footnote with a story that ends with Canberra as the saviour of the nation in 1999, when rampaging Indonesian thugs were destroying the capital, Dili. To this day, the mainstream media continues to praise then prime minister John Howard as the brave warrior intervening to save Timor. Fernandes shows that it’s a yarn that isn’t based on fact in his compelling 2004 book, Reluctant Saviour.
The Timor case is a textbook case of political rhetoric versus reality, and shows how the lack of decent media coverage can further obscure the thin line between facts and government-mandated narratives. Take another example: in Vietnam, the effect of the chemical Agent Orange used by Washington during the war continues to deform children, yet there has never been any serious prosecutions for the horrific crimes committed in the name of “fighting communism.” It took 40 years for the US to announce they would launch a project to clean up a dangerous chemical, after the government spent decades questioning the extent of its toxicity.
Such disparities between narratives is a problem that continues to dog corporate media in the post 9/11 age of embedded journalism.
Look at Iraq, which more than 11 years after the US-led invasion, remains mired in political corruption and violence. Very few reporters bother visiting the country anymore. This makes the trip of Australian peace activist Donna Mulhearn in early 2013 all the more remarkable. She didn’t just see Baghdad but found a way to Fallujah, and witnessed the disturbing sign of birth defects likely caused by US-fired depleted uranium.
Unfortunately, such first-hand, on the ground reports are increasingly far and between. Instead, most of our media landscape is polluted with former military generals and so-called experts, some of them who led the wars in the first place.
While unrelated to the above conflicts, take Jim Molan, former commander of Australian forces in Iraq, supporter of more troops in Afghanistan and key adviser in drafting the secretive Operation Sovereign Borders against asylum seekers. The Australian Financial Review noted his work in its 2013 Power List; the ABC regularly relies on his analysis. What is noticeably absent from this fawning are any difficult questions regarding the time he spent on deployment.
Scott Burchill, senior lecturer at Melbourne’s Deakin University’s School of International and Political Studies, tells me that the rise of Molan reveals a notable lack of curiosity into his past: “Jim Molan can write a book boasting about his leadership of the allied attack on Fallujah in Iraq and become a ‘go to guy’ for the ABC on Australia’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he has consistently supported an escalation of the conflict”.
And yet to my knowledge, Molan has never been asked by a mainstream journalist about his role in Fallujah. Why not? If I was to interview him, I would ask him about the high number of civilian casualties, and demand details about the 2004 US-led siege imposed on the city – and that’s just to start with.
There’s a similar lack of curiosity in the public arena into the recent career of Australian counter-insurgency figure David Kilcullen, offered fawning profiles in the press celebrating his apparent skills in defeating insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan while working for the Pentagon. Even this year, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a complete disaster for western forces and interests (let alone the locals in both nations), Kilcullen is asked questions in Foreign Policy, but sadly evades answering them: “We’ve had our heads down chasing bad guys around Iraq and Afghanistan.” Burchill tells me that for sections of the media, Kilcullen “remains an ‘expert’ and a ‘highly sought-after consultant’”.
The legacy of our foreign military adventures don’t stop when journalists and editors either lose interest, or don’t pursue stories aggressively enough. It would be nice to see them demanding answers – and backing Fernandes’ quest to find the truth about East Timor wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
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.
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.