Dirty Wars is the best book of 2013

Jeremy Scahill’s stunning investigative book, Dirty Wars, is the most compelling book of the year.

Green Left Weekly asked me to name my best book of 2013. Easy choice:

The corporate media are filled daily with stories of “terrorists” being killed, captured and droned in the far corners of the globe. Since 9/11, the Bush and Obama administrations have pursued a ruthless policy of global assassination and counter-insurgency in the name of democracy. It’s been a costly and deadly sham and leading American investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill reveals in this detailed book, along with a stunning documentary of the same name, why these actions are making the US and the West a far more dangerous place. We are facing terrorism because we are committing terrorism. Scahill uncovers some of the darkest aspects of the “war on terror’ by speaking to the civilians, victims, contractors and undercover agents in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and beyond. America has the most sophisticated technology in the world but excessive and illegal policies are creating a walled ghetto that provides illusory security.

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How US/Australia intelligence collusion rightly concerns Asia

My weekly Guardian column is here:

Australia has an identity crisis that has never been resolved. Are we a US client state, happy to host any number of American troops and spying assets, or a fully integrated part of Asia? Do we crave true independence, or are we happy to remain America’s ‘deputy sheriff‘ in the Pacific region?

There’s nothing stopping Canberra from having close relations with both worlds, but our regional posture over the last decades has shown a muddled understanding of how to achieve this. We usually arguably prefer to remain tethered to an arrogant Anglosphere whose influence is waning.

When we do look to Asia, it’s not solely about business ties enriching Australian corporations. We too often back the most autocratic regimes imaginable, such as Indonesia’s Soeharto (fans of former prime minister Paul Keating should recall his fondness for one of the most brutal leaders of the 20th century). Canberra’s complicity in the Indonesian occupations of East Timor and West Papua also signals a willingness to ignore human rights for the sake of political expediency.

Australia’s love of foreign conflicts are infamous; this is noticed across (particularly Islamic) Asia. We marched in unison with the US in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – three devastating wars which we comprehensively lost. A decent nation, unlike our own, would offer an apology and compensation for having civilians pay a hefty price for our aggression, or for polluting the ground with deadly chemicals. Our brutishness is not forgotten by the millions of occupied people who experienced it first-hand; terrorism is born this way. Billions of dollars in annual foreign aid isn’t enough to buy us the forgiveness that’s required.

The current diplomatic storm between Australia and Indonesia highlights the myriad of problems with a country Tony Abbott claims is “our most important relationship.” The ability of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to disrupt Australian government policies on asylum seekers, the live cattle trade and intelligence sharing shows how vulnerable Canberra is in its relations with our northern neighbour.

We deserve the embarrassment and awkwardness and yet surveillance state backers, such as Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, claim to be confused over Jakarta’s anger – but just imagine the outrage in Australia if leaks emerged showing SBY snooping on Abbott’s mobile phone (which may well be happening now). Also never forget that Jakarta already operates a brutal network of spies on its own citizens in Papua; nobody’s hands are clean.

Abbott’s response has been predictable; this is a man who sees nobility in the anglosphere, conveniently ignoring the colonial legacies of their rule. As for the Labor party, it has no credibility on the issue because the spying occurred under their watch. A Royal Commission into Australia’s out of control intelligence and security services is the least Abbott should be doing. With new revelations appearing almost daily following Snowden’s leaks, only the most loyal propagandist for unlimited state power would claim that his documents haven’t led to a vital public discussion over the excessive scope of state intrusion on privacy and liberty.

The real scandal of Canberra’s current problems with Indonesia is that we are helping the US with its dirty work. Tapping SBY’s phone and gaining its contents has interest for both the US and Australia, but SBY and his wife aren’t the only targets – in all likelihood, Indonesian civilians with no connection to terrorism or extremism are also being monitored. Snowden documents prove that close allies of the US, such as Britain, allow Washington open access to potentially millions of their own citizens. Australia could be equally supine.

The sheer scale of worldwide snooping, assisted by compliant allies such as Australia, has been exposed by Snowden’s leaks. He should be immediately granted asylum in Australia (his liberty is undeniably threatened in his homeland) for such services to local and international understanding of US behaviour (much of which is illegal, something that doesn’t seem to bother the NSA’s most passionate supporters). An adversarial media should interrogate governments and officials of all stripes and not make life comfortable for those in power.

So where to for Australia’s relationship with Asia? A mature nation treats its neighbours with respect and engagement. Trust takes more than presidential or prime ministerial visits. Speaking out against human rights abuses should also be crucial for Australia. An independent stance means having constant public discussions about the role of a former colony entering the 21st century in a region that likes the idea of declining US hegemony.

And in the meantime, let the leaks continue, and increase – for sunlight always scares the powerful who act in secrecy, too often outside the law.

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Hold the champagne, but nuclear deal with Iran (probably) avoids war

Robert Fisk on the winners and those who are pissed that a war against Tehran may not now happen:

It marks a victory for the Shia in their growing conflict with the Sunni Muslim Middle East. It gives substantial hope to Bashar al-Assad that he will be left in power in Syria. It isolates Israel. And it infuriates Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Kuwait and other Sunni Gulf States which secretly hoped that a breakdown of the Geneva nuclear talks would humiliate Shia Iran and support their efforts to depose Assad, Iran’s only ally in the Arab world.

In the cruel politics of the Middle East, the partial nuclear agreement between Iran and the world’s six most important powers proves that the West will not go to war with Iran and has no intention – far into the future – of undertaking military action in the region. We already guessed that when – after branding Assad as yet another Middle Eastern Hitler – the US, Britain and France declined to assault Syria and bring down the regime. American and British people – those who had to pay the price for these monumental adventures, because political leaders no longer lead their men into battle – had no stomach for another Iraq or another Afghanistan.

Iran’s sudden offer to negotiate a high-speed end to this cancerous threat of further war was thus greeted with almost manic excitement by the US and the EU, along with theatrical enthusiasm by the man who realises that his own country has been further empowered in the Middle East: Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Assad’s continued tenure in Damascus is assured. Peace in our time. Be sure we’ll be hearing that Chamberlonian boast uttered in irony by the Israelis in the weeks to come.

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The heartbreaking journey taken by asylum seekers

Understanding the mentality, background and reason for asylum seekers coming to Australia is vital to humanise their stories.

The New York Times magazine has an incredible feature in its magazine this week, written by Luke Mogelson (background to the story here) and photographed by Joel Van Houdt, that stunningly captures the challenges, heartache and uncertainty of refugees desperately wanting to settle in Australia from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.

This is one of the most lyrical and moving pieces of journalism I’ve read in ages:

It’s surprisingly simple, from Kabul, to enlist the services of the smugglers Australian authorities are so keen to apprehend. The problem was that every Afghan I spoke to who had been to Indonesia insisted that no Western journalist would ever be allowed onto a boat: Paranoia over agents was too high. Consequently, the photographer Joel van Houdt and I decided to pose as refugees. Because we are both white, we thought it prudent to devise a cover. We would say we were Georgian (other options in the region were rejected for fear of running into Russian speakers), had sensitive information about our government’s activities during the 2008 war (hence, in the event of a search, our cameras and recorders), traveled to Kabul in search of a smuggler and learned some Dari during our stay. An Afghan colleague of mine, Hakim (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), would pretend to be a local schemer angling for a foothold in the trade. It was all overly elaborate and highly implausible.

When we were ready, Hakim phoned an elderly Afghan man, living in Jakarta, who goes by the honorific Hajji Sahib. Hajji Sahib is a well-known smuggler in Indonesia; his cellphone number, among Afghans, is relatively easy to obtain. Hakim explained that he had two Georgians — “Levan” and “Mikheil” — whom he wished to send Hajji Sahib’s way. Hajji Sahib, never questioning our story, agreed to get Joel and me from Jakarta to Christmas Island for $4,000 each. This represents a slightly discounted rate, for which Hakim, aspiring middleman, promised more business down the road.

A few days later, we visited Sarai Shahzada, Kabul’s bustling currency market. Tucked behind an outdoor bazaar on the banks of a polluted river that bends through the Old City, the entrance to Sarai Shahzada is a narrow corridor mobbed with traders presiding over stacks of Pakistani rupees, Iranian rials, American dollars and Afghan afghanis. The enclosed courtyard to which the corridor leads, the exterior stairwells ascending the surrounding buildings, the balconies that run the length of every floor — no piece of real estate is spared a hard-nosed dealer hawking bundled bricks of cash. The more illustrious operators occupy cramped offices and offer a variety of services in addition to exchange. Most of them are brokers of the money-transfer system, known as hawala, used throughout the Muslim world. Under the hawala system, if someone in Kabul wishes to send money to a relative in Pakistan, say, he will pay the amount, plus a small commission, to a broker in Sarai Shahzada, and in return receive a code. The recipient uses this code to collect the funds from a broker in Peshawar, who is then owed the transferred sum by the broker in Sarai Shahzada (a debt that can be settled with future transactions flowing in reverse).

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David Hicks deserves justice, an apology and compensation

My weekly Guardian column is published today:

It’s hard to think of an Australian individual since 9/11 who has experienced more humiliation and abandonment by the federal government than David Hicks. Julian Assange, who declared he felt abandoned by the Australian government, perhaps comes close. As they both found out, an Australian passport is no guarantee of protection against a superpower determined to aggressively impose its will.

Hicks is currently launching legal proceedings in the US to overturn his 2007 conviction for providing material support for terrorism – a crime he and his legal team say does not exist. A 2012 ruling in a US appeals court found that a similar conviction against Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Hamdan, was invalid because US law did not recognise material support for terrorism as a war crime at the time Hamdan engaged in the activity for which he was charged. Both Hicks and Hamdan were prosecuted under a 2006 law, and the US appeals court ruled that its retroactive application was illegal. Hicks is now trying to follow Hamdan in having his conviction quashed.

Here’s what we know about Hicks. He was born in Adelaide in 1975 and worked various jobs across Australia. He converted to Islam in the 1990s, stating he wanted to be around people who “shared his desire for belonging”. Drawn to what he saw as the oppression of Muslims in foreign lands, he left for Albania to join the Kosovo Liberation Army. By late 1999, he visited Pakistan to study Islam. In early 2000, Hicks joined the radical militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), and received training to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. He wrote in a letter that “there are not many countries in the world where a tourist, according to his visa, can go to stay with the army and shoot across the border at its enemy, legally”. He was in Afghanistan in September 2001 and, though he had no knowledge or involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks, he was captured and sold to the US for $1,000 and subsequently flown to Guantánamo, where he remained without valid charge.

Hicks maintains he was interrogated, tortured and held in isolation for nearly six years in Guantánamo – including 244 days in solitary confinement in a closet-sized cell without sunlight. He says he was also experimented on by US military doctors during his incarceration (a new study by The Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism found that doctors tortured suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay). Amnesty International maintains that Hicks was illegally detained without fair trial for years, and that when he did have one, the military commission he appeared before never met international standards for fair trials.

This didn’t stop Australian commentators from baying for blood, however. In 2011, News Limited’s Miranda Devine dismissed any critics of Guantánamo’s detention practices as whingers. Those thinking that “suspected terrorists” being “smacked around a bit” constituted overly harsh treatment were naive, she wrote. In other words, Hicks deserved what he got. When Hicks was still in Guantánamo Bay in 2007, Devine also referred to him as “a well-trained terrorist, an al-Qaida ‘golden boy’… and the enemy traitor when Australian troops were on the ground [in Afghanistan].” For years Hicks was primarily referred to in the corporate press as a “terrorism supporter” by Murdoch columnists such as Tim Blair – fair trial be damned.

Repeat government smears against individuals deemed suspect is nothing new. During the Cold War, many reporters were happy to be spies and display their deluded patriotic duty. Australian citizen and journalist Wilfred Burchett, who dared investigate the “other side”, was denied his passport for years because he refused to play the insider game of praising the capitalist west. In the “war on terror”, we see a new generation of journalists who blindly re-hash propaganda dressed up as fact about war, illegal detention and intelligence.

There is documentary evidence suggesting that in 2007, former prime minister John Howard asked the US to manage the Hicks issue. Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of military commissions, told US journalist Jason Leopold in 2011 that he had concerns about the Bush administration charging Hicks. There was “no doubt in my mind”, Davis added, that “this was an accommodation to help Howard by making the David Hicks case go away [in an election year].” The alleged political fix, which was always denied by Howard, bothered the vast bulk of the Australian population.

It’s perfectly legitimate, indeed crucial, to ask Hicks tough questions about his background, his belief in the Taliban and his nauseating old letters denigrating Jews and praising bin Laden. But none of this justifies long-term jailing, torture and psychological abuse. Colonel Morris Davis told the Australian in early November this year that the treatment meted out to Hicks at Guantánamo was “at least as good, if not better” than towards other detainees. It was an absurd statement – suggesting that Hicks may have been tortured, but it could have been worse.

Hicks tells me that his lack of both education and friends caused him to “make some unfortunate decisions” before 9/11. He says he now far better understands the world and reads widely. “I always wanted to help people”, he says, “but today it’s not through resistance, though the Australian government uses violence and sends troops to fight in various wars.” He condemns the vast bulk of the media for following the lies told about him for all these years. “Nobody is calling for accountability or a royal commission [about my case]. I would support this or a full judicial review.”

Although he has no contact with the other former Australian Guantánamo captive Mamdouh Habib, he rightly believes that he deserves monetary compensation, like Habib received, for his years of suffering. He’s not currently pursuing a compensation claim, but it’s something he hopes will happen one day soon.

Today, Hicks works as a panel-beater in Sydney and fears leaving the country. “I have a passport”, he says, “but with the targeting of individuals who supported Edward Snowden, including Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda in London, I’m scared of traveling. If the US can go after them, and they’re big names, they could get me in spite.”

Justice for Hicks – through a formal apology and legal readdress – is vital to restore a modicum of Australian credibility. Heads should roll. Careers should end. Dignity can only be restored if apologies and compensation are offered.

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Launching Profits of Doom at Curtin University in Perth

I launched my book Profits of Doom at Curtin University in Perth on 29 November to a packed house (more details and photos here and audio is here). The focus was on Australia’s privatised immigration detention system.

Dr Caroline Fleay from The Centre for Human Rights Education (CHRE) introduced me with a generous speech that I re-publish below:

Profits of Doom – Perth Book Launch

Centre for Human Rights Education

29 October 2013

Caroline Fleay

Curtin University

Book Launch Introductions

It is my pleasure to introduce Antony Loewenstein.

Antony is an independent journalist, blogger, photographer and documentary film-maker. He has written and co-authored a number of best-selling books, including My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution. He has written for The Nation, Huffington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, Haaretz, and is now a weekly columnist for The Guardian. He has also appeared on a range of television current affairs programs on the ABC, the BBC, Al Jazeera English, and a range of other media outlets. And, of course, he is the author of Profits of Doom.

I first met Antony at the Perth Domestic Airport, very early in the morning, in November 2011. Antony had been persistently emailing during the second half of 2011 as he knew through some mutual acquaintances that Linda Briskman and I were visiting the Curtin immigration detention centre, and he wanted to come along for the purposes of his research.

So up we flew to Broome and then hired a car for the 2 hour drive to the detention centre which is about 50 km from Derby. I spent many long hours with Antony during the following four days and I learned a few things about him as a journalist and as a person. One thing that I did observe was his skill in finding out information from those who work within the detention system. But the thing that impressed me most about him was his empathy that was clearly evident as we sat and talked with the few people detained in that large centre that we were allowed to meet with. Antony’s response to what he witnessed, and to what he was told by the people we visited about being in detention for many months, I think speaks volumes about his understanding of the issue.

And this is reflected in the book we are very happy to be launching in Perth tonight.

Antony’s book, Profits of Doom, provides a much needed spotlight on the operations of some of the private corporations that make large profits in industries that emerge from government outsourcing. And they do so in an environment where the details of much of their operations

One of these corporations, Serco, is a big player in Australia and two of the chapters in the book explore their role in the immigration detention industry. One of the big problems of privatisation in immigration detention is that it deepens the system’s lack of transparency.

The involvement of private corporations in this area not only enables governments to expand immigration detention, it also helps to obscure what is going on within detention centres.Commercial-in-confidence clauses that apply to contracts between the government and private operators mean that it is exceedingly difficult to access information in relation to costs and other operational matters, as Antony highlights in his book.

Accountability issues around who is responsible for what happens within immigration detention centres become more opaque under a system of privatisation. For example, in the midst of a rooftop protest and following the death of someone detained at the Villawood immigration detention centre in 2010, Serco told media reporters to contact the Department of Immigration for comment. In turn, the Department said they could not comment in any detail on Serco’s operations.

Profits of Doom helps to lift a lid on the secrecy of Serco and its operations within Australia’s detention network. For one thing, the book highlights the hefty profit rates that Serco is making out of its immigration detention contract.

But Antony’s writing also allows us to get some understanding of the remote sites of detention at the Curtin airbase in the north of WA, and on Christmas Island. His writing helps us to get a sense of the people detained within those electrified fences, and those responsible for enabling this government policy. He highlights how this privatised system of imprisonment harms the people it detains. And he highlights how it harms some of the staff who become traumatised by what they witness, and what they have become complicit in.

As Antony expresses it: “desert prison camps are not normal”. Indeed, imprisoning people for indefinite periods of time in any site of detention is not normal.

Antony’s book is a compelling read and I highly recommend it.

Please welcome Antony to talk more about his book and these issues.

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Nightmare reality of US Special Forces in Afghanistan

America and its allies never intended to bring “democracy” or “freedom” to Afghanistan. The reality has been covert missions tasked to root out “terrorism”. When the vast bulk of foreign forces leave the country post 2014, this CIA-led killing machine will continue. Welcome to US nation building.

This is a stunning investigation by Matthieu Aikins in Rolling Stone about the murder of 10 Afghan villagers and the likely (US military) responsible:

In the fall of 2012, a team of American Special Forces arrived in Nerkh, a district of Wardak province, Afghanistan, which lies just west of Kabul and straddles a vital highway. The members installed themselves in the spacious quarters of Combat Outpost Nerkh, which overlooked the farming valley and had been vacated by more than 100 soldiers belonging to the regular infantry. They were U.S. Army Green Berets, trained to wage unconventional warfare, and their arrival was typical of what was happening all over Afghanistan; the big Army units, installed during the surge, were leaving, and in their place came small groups of quiet, bearded Americans, the elite operators who would stay behind to hunt the enemy and stiffen the resolve of government forces long after America’s 13-year war in Afghanistan officially comes to an end.

But six months after its arrival, the team would be forced out of Nerkh by the Afghan government, amid allegations of torture and murder against the local populace. If true, these accusations would amount to some of the gravest war crimes perpetrated by American forces since 2001. By February 2013, the locals claimed 10 civilians had been taken by U.S. Special Forces and had subsequently disappeared, while another eight had been killed by the team during their operations.

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ABC Radio Perth interview about Profits of Doom and religion/faith

I was interviewed this week by ABC Radio Perth’s Afternoon presenter Russell Woolf about my book Profits of Doom, Israel/Palestine and ethics:

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Profits of Doom receives positive coverage in Paraguay

The wonders of the internet. I was informed this week that a leading daily media outlet in Asuncion, Paraguay, Ultima Hora, published a great article about my new book, Profits of Doom. The journalist, Guido Rodriguez, emailed me to explain that the message of the book resonated with many people in his country.

The following is a Google Translate version of the article so read with that in mind:

I would translate the title of the book and Profits of Doom, the brilliant journalist, photographer and documentary filmmaker Antony Loewenstein.

His reading is very timely, because [President] Horacio Cartes has asked to end the antagonism between politicians and businessmen at the top of Panama.

Antagonism What is it?

The problem of the moment is the collusion between businessmen and politicians, forgetting others.

Cartes proposes a public-private partnership as a solution to our problems. Well, this alliance exists in Haiti (Loewenstein tells us) and has allowed the construction of an industrial complex.

Is not it very similar to the industrial complex that our government proposed to build on the Parana to Rio Tinto?

Comparisons aside, the fact is that in the industrial complex of Haiti are paid wages below the legal minimum wage (five dollars per day), and the happy resort aims to become a center for recruiting cheap labor for multinationals.

Needless to say that Haiti is a very poor country with huge problems: it has a 60% unemployment and need to import at least 75% of its rice.

What it shows is that Loewenstein overcoming those problems should not expect the entry of speculative capital.

After the devastating earthquake of 2010, the country received a good amount of dollars in international aid, the results were not as expected.

It was not only because of the inefficiency and corruption that was, but the error in judgment: speculative capital have no interest in developing any poor country.

By the way neoliberal little Haiti’s future, moreover with vast natural resources (gold, copper, zinc), now tempt multinationals.

This author calls the curse of natural resources, thinking about what happened in Papua New Guinea with the arrival of multinational corporations.

The most famous case is that of the Panguna Mine on the island of Bougainvillea, whose inhabitants took up arms against the exploitation of gold and copper which caused tremendous ecological destruction.

Rebels won, but at a high price: thousands of deaths, destruction, poverty. The culprit was the BCL company, formed by the public-private partnership of local government and Rio Tinto.

Iraq and Afghanistan are other cases studied in Profits of Doom. Iraq’s oil wealth is obvious, what is less known are the mineral deposits in Afghanistan, which attract the attention of companies not necessarily charitable.

Another common feature of these two countries was the privatization of war.

For reasons of supposed efficiency, was entrusted to private companies, the food, the intelligence services and security, say the privatization of war.

In late 2012 (says Loewenstein), had 109,000 private contractors in Afghanistan, nearly twice the number of soldiers.

It has the private sector efficiency, but that the mercenaries earn much more than the soldiers of the occupying armies.

Decidedly, this little privatizing model can promise to Paraguay.

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Aid Watch event on Profits of Doom and politics of development

With the release of my recent book, Profits of Doom, I’ve been doing many public events discussing the issues. This was a great one, organised by the wonderful NGO Aid Watch on 19 August:

A major concern with the Australian aid program is that it favours commercial interests in aid delivery. The commercialisation of aid often results in ‘boomerang aid’ – where aid ends up funding private Australian companies, consultants, advisors, and goods and services, bypassing those who need it the most and returning large economic gains to Australia. The rapidly expanding areas of public-private partnerships demonstrate a commitment to assisting Australian business.

Commercialisation of aid is concerning because of the lack of transparency, public oversight and accountability in aid provision, and because contracts are often bound by commercial-in-confidence agreements.

AID/WATCH invited guest speakers Wendy Bacon and Antony Loewenstein to discuss these issues and the impacts on targeted communities.

Wendy Bacon is an investigative journalist and Professor of Journalism at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, who has investigated and written about Australian corporate interests and the foreign aid program. She discusses ‘Tracking Corporate Aid’.

Author and journalist Antony Loewenstein discusses aid and development in the context of vulture capitalism, the topic of his latest book, “Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World.”

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Unquestioning aid is worst kind of support for the world

My following article appears today in ABC Religion and Ethics:

Cholera is killing Haitian men, women and children. For three years the United Nations has refused to take full responsibility for its Nepalese peace-keepers bringing the deadly disease to a nation they were tasked to protect. More than 8,300 people have died and more than half-a-million citizens have been made sick. Even today, with overwhelming evidence of UN complicity, the organisation refuses to pay compensation to the victims.

The New York Times editorialised last week:

“there is no denying that the United Nations has failed to face up to its role in a continuing tragedy. It should acknowledge responsibility, apologize to Haitians and give the victims the means to file claims against it for the harm they say has been done them. It can also redouble its faltering, underfinanced response to the epidemic, which threatens to kill and sicken thousands more in the coming decade.”

It’s hard to get past the tragic irony of the situation. A devastating earthquake hits the nation in January 2010 and kills tens of thousands of people. Already weakened infrastructure is destroyed and the world rushes to help. More than three years later, the country remains mired independence on foreign aid and USAID contracts. Haiti is independent in name only.

When I visited Haiti in 2012, I saw a once proud people struggling to adapt to handouts. Poverty was rampant.Wikileaks documents prove that the United States uses Haiti as a battering ram against perceived enemies and demands authorities keep the minimum wage criminally low to benefit American multinationals.

My new book, Profits of Doom, aims to show that unparalleled amounts of aid and development routinely contributes to a nation going backwards, and that private corporations have a strong incentive to maintain the status quo of replacing the role of governments while providing inferior services. In reality – as I demonstrate in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and across Australia – what I call vulture capitalism has led to unaccountable activities in the areas of war, intelligence, detention centres, aid, resources and mining.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have pledged to reduce Australia’s aid budget. This was met by a wave of outrage by aid organisations and advocates, all claiming the most vulnerable across the world would be negatively affected.

Politicising Australia’s aid budget is nothing new – all governments use foreign assistance to push Australian business interests, such as Canberra backing Rio Tinto’s plans to re-open its polluting mine in Bougainville in Papua New Guinea – but there ismounting evidence that valuable programs will be cut by the new Coalition government. This should be challenged, but not without questions being raised about the effectiveness of Australia’s aid spending.

Across PNG I hear about organisations, like the Madang-based Bismarck Ramu Group, who are questioning successive PNG governments that are reliant on an Australian development model that has failed to lift the country out of poverty and instead backs environmentally destructive mining, such as BHP’s Ok Tedi mine.

There are alternatives - like tourism and agriculture – but they’re rarely as financially beneficial to Australian corporations. AusAid’s Mining for Development is implementing the wrong kind of assistance, something Australian NGO Jubilee is challenging through its #NotOnMyWatch campaign, demanding accountability for mining firms operating in challenging overseas environments.

Afghanistan is another country facing immense challenges, and yet Western involvement since 11 September 2001 has largely made the problems worse. Millions of American dollars has been mis-spent on failed programs and the Afghan people, once the vast bulk of Western troops leave by the end of 2014, will wonder what has been achieved over the last decade. A growing middle-class exists, enjoying bowling and frozen yoghurt, but only a tiny minority are able to afford these luxuries.

Copper mining, at the Mes Aynak site outside Kabul, is being touted as the possible saviour of the country, reaping billions for a select few elites. In reality, I can’t think of one developing country that has wisely extracted its resources to benefit the bulk of its population.

Aid isn’t the answer to Western guilt; it’s merely the beginning of a conversation.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World. You can listen to Antony in conversation with Andrew West on RN’s Religion and Ethics Report.

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Fortress Australia keeping out persecuted Hazaras from Afghanistan

It’s a shameful irony that can’t be forgotten. Australia has had troops in Afghanistan since 2001, supposedly to fight terrorism and the Taliban. The Hazaras are constantly under attack by extremists and many of them must flee for a safer life. Australia may be trying to convince Hazaras not to leave but the terrible facts on the ground make that unlikely.

This Wall Street Journal article details the reality of Australia’s draconian asylum seeker policy:

Wazira, a 37-year-old mother of six, abandoned her home and apple orchard in Afghanistan’s rural Wardak province last year and moved with her whole family into a single room on the fringes of the Afghan capital.

“We didn’t have any choice but to come to Kabul,” she says. “The Taliban were forcing us to prepare food for them. But if we did, the government would harass us. We were stuck in the middle.”

More than 590,000 Afghans had been displaced from their homes by fighting and Taliban threats by late August, according to the United Nations, a 21% increase since January and more than four times the number in 2006, when the insurgency began in earnest. Wazira, who like many Afghans goes by one name, is one of more than 12,000 displaced people from Wardak province alone who now share homes around Kabul, according to the U.N.

U.N. officials worry that widening violence could kick off an exodus abroad when American-led forces leave the country next year.

For those trying to leave Afghanistan altogether, the first stop often is neighboring Iran or Pakistan. Some who are wealthy or lucky enough head for Europe or Australia, which already is coping with an influx of Afghan boat people. Some 38,000 people from Afghanistan have managed to get into industrialized nations to apply for asylum last year, more than from any other country, according to the U.N., and the highest figure since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

“The desperation is incredible,” says Richard Danziger, the Afghanistan head of the International Organization for Migration, a U.N. affiliate that is helping resettle the refugees.

The bulk of Afghan migrants aim for Western Europe, according to U.N. data. Last year, about 7,500 Afghans applied for asylum in Germany, followed by Sweden, which received 4,750 applications, and Turkey, which got 4,400. Only 204 Afghans applied for asylum in the U.S.

Australia is regarded by many Afghans as a land of especially good opportunity. The number of Afghan refugees showing up on Australian beaches hit 4,256 last year, up from 118 in 2008, according to the Australian government.

“In our village, people are mainly talking about Australia: Who reached it from our village? Who sent money from Australia? How is the route?” says Ali Shah, a 60-year-old baker from the Muqur district in Ghazni province, a Taliban stronghold.

Last year, Mr. Shah fled his home with 10 family members. “Muqur is not safe,” he says. “The Taliban run their own government. They control checkpoints and administer justice.” Mr. Shah is now jobless and living in a different district. His 25-year-old son, Sabir, left Afghanistan this spring, hoping to reach Australia.

The journey to Australia often begins with a smuggler in Kabul. One such operative, who uses the name Hadi, told a Journal reporter that he charges up to $10,500 for visa and travel to Indonesia. It would cost another $5,000 to attempt to reach Australia by boat, he said. The cost means that many would-be migrants are, by Afghan standards, relatively affluent, such as small-business owners.

Many who head for Australia, including Mr. Shah’s son, belong to the ethnic Hazara minority that has been persecuted by the Taliban, and that has the most to lose should the Taliban return to power after the American withdrawal.

“All the people are worried about what will happen after 2014, and so are the Hazaras,” says Afghan Hazara leader Mohammed Mohaqeq, who is running for vice president in next year’s national elections. He survived an assassination attempt in June. “Security is getting worse everywhere,” he says.

Hayatullah Saadat, 28, an English-speaking management graduate from an Indian university, says he hopes to get to Australia next spring, by boat if necessary. “I came back from India and thought: ‘I have to help Afghanistan,’ ” he says. “But then I lost hope. Nobody is sure about their income. Nobody is sure about their life.”

The journey to Australia typically takes refugees through Pakistan or India, then Malaysia and Indonesia. Some have died on the last leg when the Indonesian fishing boats they were traveling in sank.

After Australia tightened its immigration policy, many refugees now are stranded in Malaysia and Indonesia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s conservative coalition, elected in September, is promising to use the Australian Navy to intercept and forcibly return refugee boats to other countries’ waters. His predecessor, Kevin Rudd, had instituted a policy to remove asylum-seekers to poorer countries such as Papua New Guinea to be processed and resettled there.

As a result, the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, which has long served as the starting point for the sea crossing to Australia, is becoming packed with Afghans. Some 80 refugees are living in the dilapidated Mahkota Hotel in the Sulawesi town of Makassar, one of scores of rundown residences filled with Afghans. The International Organization for Migration is paying for the housing.

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