Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein trav­els across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Britain, Greece, and Australia to witness the reality of disaster capitalism. He discovers how companies such as G4S, Serco, and Halliburton cash in on or­ganized misery in a hidden world of privatized detention centers, militarized private security, aid profiteering, and destructive mining.

Disaster has become big business. Talking to immigrants stuck in limbo in Britain or visiting immigration centers in America, Loewenstein maps the secret networks formed to help cor­porations bleed what profits they can from economic crisis. He debates with Western contractors in Afghanistan, meets the locals in post-earthquake Haiti, and in Greece finds a country at the mercy of vulture profiteers. In Papua New Guinea, he sees a local commu­nity forced to rebel against predatory resource companies and NGOs.

What emerges through Loewenstein’s re­porting is a dark history of multinational corpo­rations that, with the aid of media and political elites, have grown more powerful than national governments. In the twenty-first century, the vulnerable have become the world’s most valu­able commodity. Disaster Capitalism is published by Verso in 2015.

Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Why Palestine is a growing movement on universities globally

I was recently interviewed by the ANU Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) in Australia on the Israel/Palestine conflict and the Middle East. It’s been published by the ANU Arabic and Middle Eastern Society (an anonymous, Zionist troll has posted a response with Israeli talking points):

The ‘Arab-Israeli/Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ has spanned for over half a century and been the repeated object of failed peace-processes and unsuccessful diplomacy. Students for Justice in Palestine are in conversation with independent journalist Antony Loewenstein to explore the growing criticism that diplomatic attempts to understand and resolve the conflict ignore human rights in a way that greatly impedes the attainment of a ‘just peace’ and a solution to the conflict.

SJP: Why are human rights important to the attainment of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

AL: Human rights are central to resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict. Supporters of Israel claim the situation is complicated when in fact this masks the brutal reality of a nearly 50 year Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and around 600,000 illegal Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Condemned by countless UN resolutions and virtually every nation in the world (except, it must be noted, Australia and the US, placing them as outliers in the international community), Israeli behaviour, the daily indignities of check-points across Palestinian territory, restrictions on Palestinian work and marriage, regular raids into Palestinian communities by the Israeli army and the detention and torture of Palestinian children and a constant lack of Palestinian stability, is condemned around the world, leading to the growth of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, a non-violent and legitimate tactic akin to the successful campaign against apartheid South Africa. The comparisons are apt, a point stressed by many black South Africans who suffered under apartheid and have witnessed today’s Israel. Desmond Tutu is just one notable figure who concurs.

SJP: What is your perspective on the labelling of individuals and organisations that discuss the Israeli government’s human rights abuses, as ‘anti-Semites’?

AL: The “anti-Semitic” smear used against critics of Israel is a tired and desperate ploy to both silence and control debate. It cheapens real anti-Semitism, a worrying trend worsened by Israeli violence, and intimidates people keen to honestly debate Israel/Palestine. Being against the Israeli occupation is an increasingly mainstream position, and Israel’s Netanyahu government, right-wing, inflammatory and with no intention of ending the occupation, is the best argument against blind Western support for Israel imaginable. Arguing for a two-state solution, the default and tired view echoed by governments and liberal Zionists the world over, is removed from reality on the ground in Palestine, where Palestinians are being daily pushed off their land by Israeli-state backed colonists. I have seen this with my own eyes during my many visits to Palestine.

SJP: There are student groups throughout the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland who have a strong focus on raising awareness around Palestinian human rights. In comparison, Australian students seem less engaged with this issue. Why do you think this is?

AL: Student activism on Palestine is growing globally, and many universities are now seriously discussing pressuring their administration to divest from companies who are directly profiting from the Israeli occupation. I hope this movement grows in Australia, though it’s undeniably difficult when both Labor and the Liberals blindly support Israel. This isn’t about principle or knowledge but a deluded belief that Australia aligning itself with the US and the US-Australia alliance requires offering uncritical backing for Israel. This places Australia on the extreme end of Zionist extremism.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian columnist, documentary filmmaker and author of many books including ‘My Israel Question’ and the forthcoming ‘Disaster Capitalism’. 

ANU Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a group of ANU students and staff dedicated to increasing awareness of issues in Israel-Palestine on ANU campus.

 

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Radio New Zealand interview on British multinational Serco

British multinational Serco is causing trouble in New Zealand, with behaviour at its privately-run prisons fraught with violence and unaccountability. It’s the normal Serco way and only fools will be surprised.

I was interviewed by Radio New Zealand’s Sunday Morning (on a very bad phone line in South Sudan) on the company’s inability and unwillingness to operate with necessary staffing levels and training. It’s a point I’ve investigated in my forthcoming book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out of Catastrophe:

[New Zealand] Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga says some of the information provided to him on Serco’s running of Mount Eden Prison has not been up to standard.

Under the private contractor, the facility has been the subject of a string of complaints about organised fights, contraband, prisoner injuries and the death of one inmate.

Corrections has appointed a director to manage the day-to-day running of the prison from tomorrow and will impose financial penalties on Serco.

Mr Lotu-Iiga said he was unhappy with the flow of information from his department on the running of the prison.

“I’ve made it clear that I’ve been disappointed about some of the communication of reports and other information that could come up the chain through myself and through the chief executive.”

Mr Lotu-Iiga expects the situation at Mount Eden Prison to begin to settle with his department in charge from tomorrow.

Serco deliberately understaffs its operations worldwide in order to make as much money as possible, according to an independent journalist who has written books about the company.

Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein told Sunday Morning that governments believed they were being efficient by outsourcing prisons or detention centres, but it came at a human cost.

Mr Lowenstein said he has found it was very hard to get information from Serco or governments about their operations, without whistleblowers.

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UK Institute of Race Relations reviews Profits of Doom

Britain’s Institute of Race Relations, “at the cutting edge of the research and analysis that inform the struggle for racial justice in Britain, Europe and internationally”, has reviewed my recent book, Profits of Doom, in its Race and Class publication:

instituteofracerelationspodreview

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How and why the “war on drugs” kills millions

My following book review appeared in the Weekend Australian on 28 February:

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

By Johann Hari

Bloomsbury, 390pp, $29.99

The numbers are staggering. More than two million American citizens are in prison, about 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated population. Many are African-American and Hispanic, in jail for drug offences. Race and the selective application of justice is a key theme of Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream, a stunning examination of the “war on drugs”.

Hari, a British journalist, takes a trip down memory lane, to the US of a century ago when it was possible to “go to any American pharmacy and buy products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine”. But a key instigator of the war on drugs, Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger, soon found his enemy.

Singer Billie Holiday, a drug addict, was one of the most public victims of Anslinger’s zeal against black individuals who dared to question their second-class status. Holiday was a crusading woman who had been beaten, raped and abused for most of her life but her strength, and threat to the then social order, was to resist the suffocating, low expectation of her skin ­colour.

Anslinger warned the US House of Representatives’ committee on appropriations that Mexican immigrants and African-Americans were undermining social cohesion by excessively smoking marijuana. He had been informed of “coloured students at the University of Minnesota partying with female students (white) and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result? Pregnancy.”

This sounds comical today but Anslinger’s vision remains alive. Hari argues “the main reason given for banning drugs — the reason obsessing the men who launched this war — was the blacks, Mexicans and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people”. In the 21st century, it’s black Americans and Latinos who disproportionately feel the full weight of the law for often relatively minor drug offences.

The Obama administration still spends billions every year fighting a war that it knows can’t be won. Addiction is seen as a moral evil instead of a condition that should be treated compassionately.

Former policewoman Leigh Maddox, who spent years arresting and imprisoning drug offenders, tells Hari she eventually realised that “nobody ever trained me on the collateral consequences of marijuana arrests. I had no idea … It’s not something they’re made aware of. It’s go out and get numbers [arrests]. Do your job.” Today she runs a legal clinic in Baltimore, working with students to remove the arrest records of drug offenders. It’s one way to assuage her guilt for sending so many young people into a broken justice system.

Hari is an acclaimed writer who was caught plagiarising a few years ago, but this book is a redemption, and already a New York Times bestseller. It skilfully constructs a narrative around compelling, personal stories, the usually ignored or forgotten individuals who are selling or using various substances; living, avoiding or dying in the “war on drugs”.

Rosalio Reta was an American man who had killed for a Mexican drug cartel but eventually tired of his life and confessed to American officials. Hari visits the border town of Juarez, where he witnesses resistance to a US-led drug war that enriches politicians and police and causes intense suffering among a local population that is forced to flee, kill or remain silent.

He examines Portugal, a nation that ended the persecution of addicts and users in 2001. The numbers speak for themselves, a revolution in method and treatment. Drug use has dropped. “In the United States,” Hari writes, “90 per cent of the money spent on drug policy goes to policing and punishment, with 10 per cent going to treatment and prevention. In Portugal, the ratio is the exact opposite.”

Hari’s sympathies are never hidden: he’s opposed to the war on drugs. Chasing the Scream presents a persuasive argument that prohibition has not reduced drug consumption or abuse, but pushed generations into lives of misery, crime and imprisonment.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of the forthcoming book Disaster Capitalism.

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Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe

The annual yearly round-up by the brilliant Charlie Brooker (plus Adam Curtis) on a period filled with ISIS, insane amounts of inane TV and a little optimism:

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Russell Brand’s “Revolution” hits anti-capitalist mark

My weekly Guardian column:

Political success for society’s invisible souls is rare. So when US investor Westbrook Partners announced last week that it had withdrawn from evicting families at the New Era estate in East London, it was cause for celebration. Instead of building expensive properties, the company sold its development to Dolphin Square Charitable Foundation, an affordable housing organisation. People who faced skyrocketing rents now have security and hope before Christmas.

British writer and comedian Russell Brand was key to this victory. His support of the campaigners on the ground and on social media led The Independent to describe New Era as “Proof that [his] revolution may actually be working”.

After New Era, it’s harder than ever to mock him as “the voice of the discontented wealthy”, as the Observer’s Nick Cohen did in his review of Brand’s book, Revolution. On the contrary: protest organiser Lindsey Garrett said Brand’s involvement “gave us a bigger voice. And rather than taking over, he gave us a much bigger audience to speak to”.

Accusations of hypocrisy and shallowness are also getting harder to make. When it comes to inequality, housing, income – all the things the left is supposed to be interested in – Brand seems to understand that the personal really is the political. As he wrote on New Era:

“Drawn in initially by the importance and ubiquity of the cause, housing is the issue of our time, I was compelled to stay, as if held by the heart, by a deeper issue, both social and personal. By something I didn’t even know I was grieving; the loss of community, our connection to each other.”

More broadly, his thinking on issues like climate change – he says agreements like Kyoto are “not worth a wank in a windsock” – accords with the thesis of (among others) Canadian writer Naomi Klein, in her bestselling book This Changes Everything. Admittedly, Klein’s language is rather less fruity.

Now it seems to be Brand’s turn to do the mocking: of the insular world of star fucking that permeates our culture; of the ennui and flatness of modern life; and of the insularity of the media elite.

He is convincing a legion of followers that there’s more to life than, “do a gram, drop a pill, download an app, eat some crap, get a slap, mind the gap, do a line, Instagram, little grope in the cab”. He acknowledges his luck and wealth while constantly taking the piss out of himself. He likes having money but fears losing it.

Squarely in the 1%, even as he reminds us “the richest 1% of British people have as much as the poorest 55%”, Brand enrages his critics because his celebrity and wealth give him easy access to media and money.

Case in point: he is making a documentary about inequality that’s reportedly funded by some of the big bankers he’s going after. Does this neuter his anti-capitalist message? Surely it could instead be seen as a savvy way of culture jamming an establishment that thrives on extravagance.

The filmmaker Michael Moore, director of hugely popular documentaries challenging US hegemony and capitalism, was plagued by similar accusations of hypocrisy. One New York Times bestseller, Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man, is devoted to these kinds of attacks.

So what if people like Brand and Moore are sometimes pompous, or narcissistic, or populist, or inconsistent? Or if they don’t correspond with the cliche of the ascetic Marxist revolutionary? What matters is what these multi-millionaires do with their money.

Moore has produced any number of films that both entertain and challenge orthodox views of state violence, health care and capitalism itself. Earlier this year, he joked wryly that, “Entertainment is the big dirty word of documentary. ‘Oh no! I’ve entertained someone. I’ve cheapened my movie!’.”

Or as Brand puts it: “The revolution cannot be boring.”

A public feeling economic anxiety, at turns enraged and defeated, might agree. People flock to hear the stories Moore and Brand have to tell, no matter how much scorn is poured on them by critics.

“Aren’t we all, in one way or another, trying to find a solution to the problem of reality?” Brand writes in Revolution. What his solution looks like might depend on how you see him: media darling, irritant, inspiration, guru, reformed drug addict, former husband to singer Katy Perry, author, founder of daily news hackThe Trews, opponent of voting or man of the people. Take your pick.

Plenty have picked “hate object”, which, like the accusations of hypocrisy and selfishness, will be harder to justify after the New Era win. Surely it’s time to acknowledge that Brand – like Michael Moore – is actually a working class voice who belongs in the mix?

As he told Democracy Now, “If you sort of go, ‘Hey, I’m actually from a background where people are affected by stuff like this. This is what we think. Can we talk about this in a different way?’ people are so fiercely territorial and protective, it’s interesting”.

Brand isn’t the messiah (or just a naughty boy, for that matter) and his messagepisses off plenty of people. So does his method, sometimes. But his apology to an RBS worker whose lunch inadvertently became a casualty of a film shoot is heartfelt:

“Jo, get in touch, I owe you an apology and I’d like to take you for a hot paella to make up for the one that went cold … When I make a mistake I like to apolgise and put it right. Hopefully your bosses will do the same to the people of Britain.”

He’ll apologise for the small things; many of the established columnists who dump on Brand won’t apologise for getting it wrong on the big-picture issues, like the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, national security and the like.

On these stories, Brand speaks for the mainstream far more than many self-described national security experts. A 2013 Pew poll in the US found that a majority of citizens were more worried about civil liberties than terrorism. His recent comments on the Sydney siege nailed the way governments implement excessive state surveillance after a terror attack – increasingly a mainstream concern.

Nevertheless, anybody famous who proclaims themselves dissatisfied with society’s options is bound to be accused of wankery and ungratefulness by some. So be it. But Brand is a fascinating man, who dares to ask a huge audience to question the causes of housing shortages, corporate power and state terrorism. He is also ready to swing his star power behind the cause of a few dozen families facing eviction before Christmas. And he makes these issues relevant to millions.

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US Senate report on torture shows state violence goes unpunished

My weekly Guardian column:

The details shocked. Shackled prisoners were treated like cattle, watched by their CIA interrogators. Testimony from one observer stated that men blindfolded and tied “were made to run down a steep hill, at the bottom of which were three throws of concertina barbed wire. The first row would hit them across the knees and they would plunge head first into the second and third rows of wire”.

This wasn’t CIA torture after the September 11 attacks, exposed in detail in a recent Senate report, but the Phoenix programme, instituted by the CIA and US, Australian and South Vietnamese militaries in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 to “neutralise” the Vietcong. The result was more than 60,000 people tortured and killed. No senior politicians, generals or decision-makers were prosecuted for these crimes. A culture of immunity, despite occasional media and public outrage, thrived across the US.

Questioned before a US House operations subcommittee in the late 1960s to investigate widespread Phoenix-inspired torture, future CIA head William Colby used language that sounds familiar today. It’s just the official enemy that has changed. The “collateral damage” was justified, he said. Phoenix was “an essential part of the war effort … designed to protect the Vietnamese people from terrorism.”

In 2007, decades after its cessation, the CIA was still worried that the public felt Phoenix was an “unlawful and immoral assassination programme targeting civilians.” Instead, they claimed, it was “pacification and rural security programmes”.

Compare this to today’s CIA head, John Brennan, who defends his agency’s behaviour in the “war on terror” as doing a “lot of things right.” This arrogance only exists in an environment that doesn’t punish those who sanction abuses at the highest level and a mainstream media that gives equal time to torturers while virtually ignoring the victims. American torture’s grim legacy in Afghanistan is one of the least reported aspects of the last decade.

While it was the French who first introduced electrical torture to Vietnam, it was the Americans, writes journalist Mike Otterman in his book American Torture, who advised the Vietnamese “how to make the torture more painful and effective. Under American supervision, Vietnamese interrogators often combined electrical torture with sexual abuse”.

Otterman reminds us that US torture wasn’t an invention after the terror attacks of 2001 but part of a continuum of unaccountable US cruelty from Latin America to Asia, the Middle East and beyond. It’s revealing that this pedigree is so rarely explained or investigated in the rush to condemn (or praise, depending on your worldview) Washington-directed brutality under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

This history is relevant during the current debate over post September 11 torture. The Senate report is an important contribution to the public record but the lack of any prosecution, censure or official condemnation goes to the heart of modern political culture. Obama has acquiesced in this position. The effect, writes journalist Andrew Sullivan, is that America has ensured that these crimes will occur again: “That will be part of his legacy: the sounds of a torture victim crying in the dark, and knowing that America is fine with it.”

A culture that celebrates television shows such as 24, Homeland and Spooks, where torture is central to capturing the bad guys and glamorises its use, makes real-life torment easier to justify or ignore. An Amnesty poll this year found 29% of Britons, higher than in Russia, Brazil and Argentina, believed torture could be justified to protect the public.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken after the release of the Senate torture report found that 59% of Americans felt that the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified. This is in spite of the fact that one of the key findings in the US Senate report was that CIA torture was ineffective in hunting down extremists. Evidence from a US Senate armed services committee report into torture in 2009 found that such abuses were only guaranteed in bringing false confessions.

The Senate torture report has brought a handful of politicians demanding full transparency of their government’s role since 2001. The head of Britain’s Commons intelligence and security committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants Washington to release all documents showing London’s role in the CIA’s rendition programme though it’s sad he acknowledges London’s relative weakness when “requesting” the USA to hand over the details.

The silence has been deafening in Australia with no major politicians demanding openness from Canberra on its role under former prime minister John Howard in sanctioning the illegal incarceration of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is one of the few modern politicians with a history of questioning the pernicious role of group-think in government. In 2004, he published a searing book, Axis of Deceit, on Australia’s real reason for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and it wasn’t weapons of mass destruction. Thus far Wilkie has not commented on the CIA report, although he has accused the Abbott government of crimes against humanity for its treatment of asylum seekers.

The failure to punish torturers in the US fits neatly into a wider social malaise. The powerful don’t go to jail; it’s the weak that suffer for their foibles. The lack of any substantial prosecutions for Wall Street illegality is symptomatic of the rot inside the political class. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi’s shows in his book The Divide how this occurs. “Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty”, he argues, “our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process.”

When “we” break the law, it’s with benign intent and good intentions (an editorial in the Australian makes this spurious case). But when “they” do it, they’re criminals who should be punished. Elites protect elites. Where was the outcry when the CIA hired private mercenary company Blackwater after 9/11 to assassinate “enemies” in Afghanistan?

Instead of trials for those accused of endorsing torture, we’re left with articles, essays and works like The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld, “a prosecution by book”, written by the Centre for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner. It’s a solid tome but desperately short of what’s required in a healthy democracy for individuals at the highest levels of government who order harsh crimes.

The ability of the state to retroactively justify illegal behavior when caught is a feature of every nation on earth, not just the US. But demanding other countries abide by international law, when western nations so blatantly ignore it, is the height of hypocrisy. The shocking details in the US Senate report demand accountability but there’s little public appetite for it.

Retired Navy JAG John Hutson warned in 2008 against trials for post 9/11 crimes because “people would lawyer up”, a tacit admission that the legal system is gamed by the wealthy and powerful to escape justice. There’s hardly a more illustrative example of the modern state’s failure.

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Proposed Australian citizenship bill guarantees isolation

My weekly Guardian column:

The legislation on asylum seekers that immigration minister Scott Morrison pushed through the Senate last week, granting him even wider powers, is not the only area in which he is seeking to extend and concentrate his influence over the lives of vulnerable people.

The Australian Citizenship and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 is yet another attempt by Morrison to give himself and his department massive, largely unchecked power to control individuals’ futures. Most of the affected aren’t asylum seekers but may include citizens undergoing drug rehabilitation or suffering from a mental illness. They face being potentially blocked or losing Australian citizenship. The bill outlines the various ways in which the minister can deny, block or rescind citizenship for any individual, former asylum seeker or not, who he believes obtained this privilege dishonestly.

The bill aims to change the definition of Australian citizenship. The minister already has the power to sever visas but this goes further to potentially affect thousands of Australian citizens who are living productive lives today. Morrison’s moves against asylum seekers aim to drop the established norms of natural justice. The citizenship bill continues this appalling trend where the minister and his department are deemed more knowledgable than independent oversight. It’s a change that must be rejected though the public response has so far been almost non-existent.

The bill aims to grant the minister powers to determine an individual’s “good character”. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection explains in its submission to a Senate committee why the government believes the law should change: “As an elected member of parliament and minister of the Crown, the minister has the privilege of representing the Australian community and has gained a particular insight into the community standards and values.”

These “values” may be news to the thousands of asylum seekers languishing in horrific conditions on Nauru and Manus Island, forced to suffer months and years of detention for the “crime” of legally arriving by boat.

Another section of the submission demands “setting aside” decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) “concerning character and identity if it would be in the public interest to do so.” The idea that a minister, Morrison or somebody else from any political party, is better placed to decide on character is an absurd proposition that denies recent history of a mostly successful process. The AAT isn’t a perfect body, but for the immigration department to state that its position is null and void shows contempt for any independent review. This obsession with centralising power guarantees secrecy and grave errors.

Despite the government claiming that it would only ignore the AAT in cases where decisions fall outside community expectations and standards, the Law Council of Australia opposes the proposal, saying it “undermines the independent review process which is provided by the AAT.”

The Law Council’s submission is concise and powerful. It praises the AAT as “generally designed to promote good decision-making and provide individuals affected by adverse decisions with a relatively straight-forward, inexpensive mechanism by which to seek review.” This echoes Morrison’s aim to restrict the ability of individuals to challenge rejection by his department.

The Law Council also condemns the proposal that the department could make decisions on citizenship “in the public interest.” It argues that such a term “should be defined and limited to decisions affecting the Australian economy, affecting Australia’s relations with other countries, concerning national security or concerning major political controversies.”

Another disturbing section of the bill revolves around granting the minister the right to determine “fraud” or “misrepresentation” of an Australian citizen, including children, and then potentially revoking that person’s papers. Crucially, as the Law Council details, “this is regardless of whether the person was convicted of an offence in relation to the fraud or misrepresentation.” Australia would be a country where a minister determines guilt “outside of any criminal proceedings.” The presumption of innocence is trashed in this bill.

Melbourne-based Carina Ford, an accredited immigration law specialist who works in this area, says that the bill revolves around a belief that, “the executive thinks that they’re in a better position to make decisions than tribunals.”

“I have concerns with a minister having the power to overrule AAT tribunal decisions. Australia has a system of separation of powers and it’s problematic when a minister can overrule it. This government has been doing that in terms of citizenship and character. We should have faith in our tribunals, they are able to make the right decisions.”

Ford argues that the Abbott government’s platform of securing Australia’s borders partly explain this bill. She worries that unjust decisions are assured. These are “draconian powers if somebody has provided a fraudulent document. It will be very difficult to get citizenship, even if it may have been 10-15 years ago for a person who has been paying tax and living safely here. A decision made when you’re 18 may come and bite you when you’re 28.”

Morrison’s thirst for power follows a global trend. In Britain the current issues of immigration and citizenship are inexorably tied to the rise of Ukip and prime minister David Cameron’s quest to toughen his country’s stance against European citizens. Across Europe the rhetoric against immigrants is growing, fuelling public insecurity about jobs and the economy. The Cameron government has made obtaining citizenship much harder.

In America, the power of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is staggering, affecting the options of millions of current and future citizens. Scapegoating for simply being immigrants is routine and lacks any serious accountability mechanism.

Morrison’s push to grant himself even larger influence should be resisted for the simple reason that his department proudly avoids scrutiny. The Abbott government, so fond of excluding critics in its Team Australia campaign, should not be trusted to decide the “good character” of vulnerable citizens.

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Stand firm against the Murdoch war on public broadcasting

My weekly Guardian column:

The terms of the current battle in Australia over the ABC, its budget and place in public life have been set by its most vociferous critics, mostly in the Murdoch press. If only the lines weren’t so predictable. Their campaign fits neatly into a global trend: to reduce the public’s faith in public broadcasting, and to prepare for its selloff to corporate competitors.

Neutering the BBC and ABC, and the US public broadcasters NPR and PBS, is part of the Murdoch empire’s core business. As many of its papers continue to lose money every day, it’s no surprise that their fixation on halting so-called digital “mission creep” is a worldwide obsession.

The BBC

In 2013, Rupert Murdoch tweeted about his favourite enemy, the BBC: “huge lack of balance in UK media with 8,000 BBC left wing journalists far outnumbering all national print journalists.” He added that the BBC was a “massive taxpayer-funded mouthpiece for tiny circulation leftist Guardian”.

And in 2006, James MacManus, executive director of News International, said it was “outrageous” that the BBC was able to run on public money because the broadcaster had “blatantly commercial ambitions” and was trying to “create a digital empire”.

The same criticisms were made of ABC managing director Mark Scott in the papers last week: that he is creating a “superfluous digital empire” that impinges on the commercial realities of privately-owned media.

The message from Murdoch and other commercial enterprises is that their investment in journalism and innovation keeps a vibrant press alive – and that any limit to their commercial operations is an intrusion on free speech.

What that means in practice is quite different. To the Murdoch empire, a “free” press means the right to, for instance, sponsor the tricks of prominent British Murdoch reporter Mazher Mahmood – the “fake sheikh”.

For a well-resourced and independent BBC, the Guardian’s Peter Preston argued in his commentary on the BBC’s Mahmood expose, freedom is the “in-house means to dig, expose, take risks, and clear its decks for action” – vital journalistic functions that serve democracy.

Although many in the UK still like and admire the BBC, the institution has fallen greatly in the last ten years. Scandals, mismanagement and the perception that the broadcaster remains too close to the political establishment have harmed the BBC’s reputation. The cover-up of the crimes of serial paedophile Jimmy Savile was a watershed moment for the BBC – nearly half the British public lost trust in the Beeb after the scandal broke.

The difference is, every scandal at the public broadcaster is ammunition for the critics and privatisers. As British journalist Charlotte Higgins wrote earlier this year in the wake of ongoing crises in the BBC:

“It is in the nature of BBC rows to escalate quickly to question the very basis on which it is run. Some of the corporation’s enemies clearly hold the view that if one undermines the foundations, the edifice might be more swiftly destroyed: like digging a mine in a medieval siege.”

Murdoch would be pleased to recently read that the foundations are indeed getting shaky: BBC management is considering placing leading current affairs shows into a commercial subsidiary, yet another arm of the organisation that could suffer hits to their credibility were it exposed to commercial realities. David Cameron’s government has always been amenable to Murdoch’s grander ambitions – in opposition he argued the BBC “was squeezing and crushing … commercial competition” in Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. Labour leader Ed Miliband has also had a cosy relationship with the media mogul, despite a recent critical turn.

PBS and NPR

The American public are fighting an even more important battle. A mere six corporations control 90% of the press, and consumer confidence in the media is at an all-time low. Publicly funded outlets PBS and NPR have been marginalised and starved of funds for so long that they now sometimes take corporate largesse, diluting their integrity.

Republican critics of US public broadcasting argue that the high salaries of top management, and the success of its childrens’ programmes like Sesame Street, are arguments for cutting it loose from taxpayer funding. Again, parallels can be drawn with the Australian example: just look at the intense interest in Quentin Dempster’s salary and the children’s show, Peppa Pig.

Were PBS or NPR to be diminished, a handful of multinational media outlets would completely dominate the US media market. Murdoch’s burning desire to still consume Time Warner would guarantee an even larger voice for the multinational.

During the 2012 US presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said Washington should “stop the subsidy” to PBS, due to his ideological set against state funding for media. In reality, like with the ABC and BBC, government support is tiny and decreasing. NPR and PBS received $445m from 2012 to 2014, .012 percent of the federal budget.

Stations in rural areas are closing and shrinking and public radio states are decreasing, leaving only corporate alternatives. A 2012 poll found 55% of voters opposed cuts in public television spending. Murdoch, through Fox News, New York Post and Wall Street Journal, tirelessly campaigns and backs candidates who argue that the digital revolution makes public media obsolete.

We hear exactly the same rhetoric in Australia. The Lewis review urged the ABC to dump digital radio and charge for online content, opening the way for Murdoch to capitalise on a reduced ABC footprint.

The ABC

The aim isn’t to kill public broadcasting outright but to force a long war of attrition that slowly chips away at public’s respect and broadcasters’ desire to fight. It’s a messy strategy, but it’s working: trust in state-owned media like the ABC is in slow decline, even though it still leaves its critics for dead.

It’s a sign of how far this debate has skewed that the vast majority of heated conversations on public broadcasting are framed in purely economic terms. Can we afford it? Should we pay for it? How much does it cost? Can we sell off divisions?

We’re never discussing that terms of the debate disallow or discourage dissenting points of view. It’s far easier to obsess over the dry economics of an industry that doesn’t make anything tangible, like manufacturing or agriculture. The ABC is forced to explain its relevance in the face of ongoing attacks, when its charter prioritises the very things its commercial critics would see diminished: multiculturalism, education, diversity – and independence.

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Serco bleeding but helped by Australian immigration contract

My article appears today in The Guardian:

British multinational Serco is in trouble. After years as the favoured outsourcer for public services in Britain and countless countries around the world, the latest figures show a financial crash of unprecedented proportions. The firm announced it is writing down its business value by nearly AU $3bn with no dividend for shareholders and a plea for an injection of a billion more dollars. This is a “bitter pill”, according to its chief executive Rupert Soames.

Revealingly, the corporation admitted that without its Australian detention network, its profit would have been even worse. In other words, imprisoning asylum seekers in poor conditions for extended periods of time in remote locations is good for business. Serco won the contract to manage all of Australia’s mainland facilities and Christmas Island in 2009 – I was part of a team that first published the contract between Serco and Canberra in 2011 – and the profits have soared ever since.

From a $370m contract in 2009 to well over $1bn today, surging refugee boats have been invaluable to Serco’s bottom line. Serco has benefitted from an opaque reporting process and desperate federal politicians and bureaucrats who needed corporate help with an immigration system that ran out of control when asylum seekers started arriving in large numbers from Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond. Neither the government nor Serco could handle the influx, and both detainees and guards suffered.

During the writing of my book Profits of Doom, I spoke to a senior Serco manager who told me how his superiors gamed the system to increase income. Staff are reduced to “keep profits high” and managers are routinely moved from the most difficult centres such as Darwin and Christmas Island because they’re told that “if they get abatements [fines from Canberra], they’ll be fired’’.

Another senior Serco source recently told me that his company had planned to turn the Australian centres into less prison-like environments. A spike in boats ruined that dream, he lamented.

It’s a sign of the times that a company like Serco, with murky financial statements masking its true economic shape, is continually rewarded for failure with new and larger contracts. Just this week, the Australian government announced a “cop on the beat” system within the immigration department to strengthen oversight. This is little more than window dressing after years of Serco and government obfuscation over assessing self-harm inside detention, profit margins, guard misbehaviour and a culture of secrecy that pervades everything the firm does in Australia and Britain (I recently witnessed this when visiting the notorious Yarl’s Wood facility in England).

Vulture capitalism has become the ideology of our age, with Serco just a symptom of wider economic failure. Outsourcing remains hugely appealing, with Mitie now becoming the UK Home Office’s largest provider of immigration detention. A clean-skin, without the troubles of G4S and Serco, proves that it’ll take more than a Serco collapse to arrest three decades of privatised failure.

Privatisation doesn’t deliver better and cheaper services for our society, or even shareholder democracy. The public knows it. It’s time to empower individuals who want to wrest power from the corporations and return it to the people.

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The dark reality of Britain’s privatised immigration system

My weekly Guardian column:

Yarl’s Wood is a Serco run immigration removal centre in Milton Ernest, built in an industrial park more than an hour from central London. Allegations have been made against Serco staff, including of sexual assaults by guards against detainees, yet the British government continues to use the facility.

During a visit inside the centre, I briefly experienced the prison-like conditions suffered by immigrants on a daily basis. After submitting myself to a biometric reading of my index finger – a Serco brochure in reception helpfully informed me that the information could be kept indefinitely because the Data Protection Act is so vaguely worded – I met a young couple from Sri Lanka who were confused and anxious.

The woman was pregnant, and told me Serco staff often didn’t believe her when she said she needed to visit a local hospital for care. She was depressed and worried about her baby. She regularly missed meals and begged me to help them get out. Thankfully, they were released shortly after my visit, to an undisclosed location.

Emma Mlotshwa is the head of Medical Justice, an NGO that provides doctors to immigrants in detention. They offer independent assessments of asylum seekers condition while campaigning for the end of prolonged incarceration. She told me that the system was making people sick.

“The lowest price wins the contract”, she said. “They cut corners, which results in less care, lower paid staff, lower qualified staff – and at Yarl’s Wood, this deliberately aims to fudge responsibility between Serco and the Home Office. Serco often tries to stop us visiting, saying detainees can’t be found or we have the wrong paperwork.”

One thing is clear: keeping the Sri Lankan couple locked up for months was about punishment; they weren’t a security risk, nor flush with funds and able to disappear into the community. This brutal treatment is supposedly a deterrent for future migrant arrivals landing in a country where politics is increasingly defined by leaders who talk tough against the most vulnerable.

The desperation of immigrants behind bars was repeated during my visits to the Geo Group-run Harmondsworth and Serco-managedColnbrook sites, both near Heathrow airport. The centres will be taken over later this year by Mitie, a less well-known British provider than G4S and Serco.

In October 2013, a large fire broke out in Mitie’s Campsfield detention centre. Subsequent investigations found no sprinklers had been installed. Mitie’s CEO, Ruby McGregor Smith, told me that when her firm took over the facility from the Home Office, she wasn’t asked to install a sprinkler system.

She was confident that she had a “good team” to manage what would soon be, according to the corporation’s February press release, the “largest single private sector provider of immigration detention services to the Home Office, less than three years after entering the market”.

I asked McGregor Smith why she thought her company could run these centres any differently than other contractors. She talked of a more “humane” policy towards asylum seekers – she damned G4S and Serco for their failings in Australia, and argued that both firms were clearly incapable of managing remote facilities, but didn’t admit this to the government in Canberra.

She also slammed competitors for having a “prison culture”. “There’s a danger”, she said, “that if you bring in companies who have run some of the toughest prisons in the world to run detention centres, you won’t get anything different. That’s all they know.”

Nick Hardwick, Britain’s chief inspector of prisons, told me that contractors like Serco, G4S or Mitie aren’t entirely to blame for problems in detention centres. “What causes people’s despair in immigration removal centres, the bulk of them, why they are such unhappy and sad places, is because of people’s distress in how their immigration case is being handled. It’s not generally about the centre itself.”

When detainees are released, they still often face indefinite insecurity. In Sheffield, I visited G4S housing in one of the poorest areas of the city. On a windy summer day, with Roma children playing in the streets, I saw squalid houses, with up to nine men packed into small rooms. I heard stories about the Home Office taking years to reach a decision on immigration claims, which precludes many migrants from building a decent life, given their lack of work rights.

G4S in Sheffield is opposed by local campaigners, such as the South Yorkshire migration and asylum action group. The privatisation of asylum seeker housing has led to allegations of corruption, incompetence and wilful blindness. A senior Serco source in Australia told me last year that his company wanted to run all Australia’s asylum housing, concerned that the immigration centres would empty and their bottom line suffer.

The political class in Britain rarely highlights the personal cost of outsourcing the most basic social services. The complete privatisation of welfare services is a real possibility, despite G4S and others failing to assist the unemployed after being paid by the state to do so. Across the UK, Europe and the world, the same few companies are competing for an ever-widening range of contracts.

What I saw and heard across Britain confirms the startling facts: poverty is soaring and the government and corporate media response is to pass these people into the warm embrace of multinational bureaucracy.

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How the West has always backed brutal Sri Lanka

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 IrelandIraq 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.

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