A powerful short film from the Centre for Constitutional Rights on Yemeni man Fahd Ghazy who has been imprisoned for 12 years. No crime. No guilt.
This is what causes terrorism and resistance:
A powerful short film from the Centre for Constitutional Rights on Yemeni man Fahd Ghazy who has been imprisoned for 12 years. No crime. No guilt.
This is what causes terrorism and resistance:
My weekly Guardian column:
The secret CIA files appeared just before Christmas. One detailed how CIA operatives could maintain cover, using fake IDs, when travelling through foreign airports. Israel’s Ben Gurion airport was said to be one of the hardest to trick.
The other document, from 2009, was an assessment of the CIA’s assassination program. It raised doubts about the effectiveness of the program in reducing terrorism. Likewise with Israel’s killing of Palestinians.
In Afghanistan, the CIA discovered that murdering Taliban leaders could radicalise the militants, allowing even more extreme actors to enter the battlefield. The Obama administration ignored this advice and unleashed “targeted killings” in the country. Unsurprisingly, the insurgency is thriving.
These vital insights into the “war on terror” were released by WikiLeaks and received extensive global coverage.
Since 2010, when WikiLeaks released Collateral Murder, showing American forces killing Iraqi civilians, there have been multiple covert – and public – attempts to silence the organisation. Julian Assange has now been stuck in London’s Ecuadorian embassy for two and a half years fighting an extradition order from Sweden over allegations of sexual misconduct. There is an ongoing US grand jury examining the organisation’s role in publishing war and State Department cables. On Christmas Eve, WikiLeaks revealed that Google had turned over the Gmail account and metadata of a WikiLeaks employee in response to a US federal warrant.
The organisation’s ability to stay afloat – and continue to source and release insightful documents – among all this is remarkable.
There is some good news: Visa and MasterCard are being sued for refusing to allow funds to flow to WikiLeaks, and Assange’s lawyers are confident that the current impasse with Sweden will be resolved (although the irregularities over the case are deeply disturbing).
But the reality remains that the public image of Assange has taken a beating after years of legal fights, the botchedAustralian WikiLeaks political party and constant smears by journalists and politicians. We apparently want our heroes to be mild mannered and non-combative. We supposedly need them to be polite and not uncover countless, dirty abuses by western forces. We clearly don’t forgive them for not being perfect. Or perhaps we have a limit to how many war crimes we want to hear about with nobody facing justice? That’s hardly WikiLeaks’ fault. The group has made mistakes, and will make many more, but as a supporter since its 2006 inception, I’m struck by its resilience.
WikiLeaks has been warning against the dangers of mass surveillance for years. The 2014 Assange book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, features an insightful essayon the dangers of Google’s desire to lead American interventionist foreign policy. The book gained headlines across the world. In the month of its release, the organisation offered new documents on German company FinFisher selling its spying equipment to repressive regimes.
The emergence of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and his ability to live a relatively free life in Russia is partly thanks to WikiLeaks, which helped him escape Hong Kong and claim asylum in Moscow. Snowden remains free tocontinue campaigning against the dangers of global surveillance, unlike Chelsea Manning who is now suffering in an American prison for bravely leaking American cables. WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison, a British citizen, lives in exile in Germany due to fears of returning home after working to protect Snowden. This is the definition of heroism.
Just because WikiLeaks’ Assange and Harrison no longer appear in the media daily doesn’t mean their contribution isn’t significant. Take the recent report published by Der Spiegel that showed western policy in Afghanistan aimed to kill as many Taliban leaders as possible, regardless of the number of civilians caught in the crossfire. The thinking was summarised by the head of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) intelligence in Afghanistan, who once said during a briefing: “The only good Talib is a dead Talib.”
This story built on the 2010 WikiLeaks release of Afghan war logs and uncovered yet another level of the “kill everything that moves” mentality that’s been unofficial US military policy since at least Vietnam.
The danger of discounting or ignoring WikiLeaks, at a time when much larger news organisations still can’t compete with the group’s record of releasing classified material, is that we shun a rebellious and adversarial group when it’s needed most. The value of WikiLeaks isn’t just in uncovering new material, though that’s important, it’s that the group’s published material is one of the most important archives of our time. I’ve lost count of the number of journalists and writers who tell me their work wouldn’t have the same insights without the State Department cables. My recent books have been similarly enriched.
States across the world talk of democracy and free speech but increasingly restrict information and its messengers.
“This war on whistleblowers is not ancillary to journalism, but actually it directly affects it,” says Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “It’s making it much more difficult for the public to get the information they need.”
WikiLeaks remains at the forefront of this struggle.
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.
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.
It’s been a crazy year filled with ISIS, war, Tony Abbott, terrorism and much in between. I was interviewed by Triple R’s Spoke about it all:
This week 15,000 people marched in Dresden, Germany against “Islamisation”, immigrants, globalisation, whatever. Far-right group Pegida organised the rally. My family is from Dresden, many perished in the Holocaust and only a few escaped with their lives. This growing fascist movement in Europe is deeply worrying. I was interviewed by VICE about it all:
Many have pointed to Germany’s past and the significance of these marches occurring in Dresden. Antony Loewenstein, an atheist Jew, journalist and Guardian columnist, said that because a lot of his family died in Dresden during World War Two, the thought of “anti-Islam Nazis marching through the streets is shocking.”
He told VICE News: “These current marches are a chilling reminder that racism, hatred against minorities… and dishonest appropriation of anti-Communist history is alive and well. PEGIDA panders to ignorance and fear in a population that feels increasingly disconnected from globalization, blaming asylum seekers and Islam for problems of a privatised state.”
Read the whole piece.
This week’s horrific terrorist attack in Sydney, a crazed self-styled cleric held people hostage in the Lindt cafe in central Sydney killing three people including the gunman, has shocked the country and generated global headlines. Too much of the media coverage was exploitative and sensational, framing the event as led or even inspired by ISIS. Rupert Murdoch’s outlets were particularly egregious.
I was asked to comment about the wider political issues for Al Jazeera America. I wasn’t an eyewitness to the siege so offered some context for such events in Australia and globally:
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.
My weekly Guardian column:
It’s a good time to be in the weapons business. Three of the leading US defence contractors, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, are all making unprecedented profits.
In December, Northrop will host an event at the Australian War Memorial to mark the company’s expansion into the Asia-Pacific region. It will be launched by Federal defence minister David Johnson. It’s a curious location because, as Crikey’s tipster drily noted, “without the endeavours of arms companies stretching back centuries, there’d be significantly fewer Australians for the War Memorial to commemorate”.
Northrop’s US-based corporate HQ decided in the last 18 months to open a major office in Australia. In March the company purchased Qantas Defence Services, a firm that provides engine and aircraft maintenance to the Australian Defence Force and global militaries. It was an $80m deal. In September 2013, Northrop bought M5 Network Security, a Canberra-based cyber-security outfit.
Northrop appointed Ian Irving as CEO of the Australian outfit in June, as part of a plan to capitalise on the “strategically important market” of the Asia Pacific. The centrepiece of that plan is to give smaller enterprises in the defence space access to Northrop’s global supply chain. That’s nothing to be sneezed at: they’re a vital defence contractor for the US military and the company’s weapons have been used in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
Irving explained to Australian Defence Business Review in July that he was pleased to sell the Australian government the firm’s MQ-4C Triton surveillance drones. The machines will be used to monitor the nation’s borders and protect “energy resources” off northern Australia. Northrop Grumman Australia is set to make up to $3bn from selling the drones. Countless European nations are equally desperate to use drones to beat back asylum seekers.
Despite all this, a Northrop spokesman assured me that the company’s growing presence in Australia has no connection to the Abbott government’s increase in defence spending.
As Northrop’s Australian expansion makes clear, arms manufacturing thrives in an integrated global defence space. Australia is an important market for that other military powerhouse, Israel. In 2010 leading Israeli arms company Elbit Systems sold a $300m command control system to the Australian military. In August 2013 Elbit announced the $5.5m sale of “an investigation system” to the Australian federal police that was tested in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
That’s a trend that has become commonplace since the 9/11 attacks. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in August, “[Weapons companies] need to sell in the large international defence markets – where the products are scrutinized partly on the uses the IDF makes of them on the battlefield.”
In August pro-Palestinian activists climbed on the roof of Elbit’s Melbourne offices to protest its involvement in the recent Israeli military incursions in Gaza, after which the company’s share price soared. Amnesty International recently accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during the war.
Defence contractors rarely stop with the profits from war and colonisation. In Britain, Lockheed Martin is now reportedly bidding for a massive National Health Service contract worth $2bn. In the US, Northrop was a presenting sponsor at a recent Washington DC event for honouring war veterans.
It’s rare to read about arms trading in the Australian press; even the country’s largest privately owned small arms supplier, Nioa, rarely registers beyond the business pages. Our politicians are also loathe to speak out, and are happy to have factories and bases in their electorates, and donations for their parties.
The Greens do oppose military trading with Israel. Leader Christine Milne tells me that, “given the continuing disregard by Israel of international calls to halt settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories and the disproportionate response used against the people of Gaza, the Australian Greens have repeatedly called on the Australian government to halt all military cooperation and military trade with Israel”.
Greens senator Lee Rhiannon spoke in parliament last year, saying “if any of the military equipment that Australia has sold to Israel has been used in Israel’s deplorable wars in the Gaza strip which has killed thousands of civilians, the Australian government should be held accountable for this”.
Australia, the 13th largest spender on arms globally, has a choice. We can keep embracing these merchants of death, and the botched deals and waste that they bring. Or we can reject the the rise of Northrop and its associates, and refuse to participate in an investment culture that continues a cycle of violence both at home and abroad.
My weekly Guardian column:
The horror of ebola in West Africa has taken thousands of lives and spread fear around the world. This fact, coupled with ignorance and misinformation, has created the perfect storm. The risk is real, but you wouldn’t know the full picture from watching last weekend’s American 60 Minutes. Lara Logan’s report took her to Liberia, but it did not include any black African voices. It was as if colonialism never died, and the life-saving Americans were the only barrier between calm and chaos.
Meanwhile in Australia, last week’s news that private company Aspen Medical was awarded a $20m contract to run an ebola response in Sierra Leone was given surprisingly little scrutiny. Federal health minister Peter Dutton praised the company’s record and claimed that the firm was chosen because “they’ve got the capacity and the logistical capacity to deliver very quickly what governments want on the ground.” He played the patriotism card –“Aspen is an Australian company” – and said that Aspen “will have this up and running efficiently, effectively, saving lives.”
Non-government organisations with months of front line exposure in battling ebola were shunned for a corporation that won’t face any freedom of information requests because it’s a private entity. We have to take it on trust that taxpayer dollars will be spent appropriately. With former senior politicians and civil servants on Aspen’s board (a typical feature of companies that succeed in winning government contracts globally) financial benefits and political knowledge for the company are assured.
The company, established in 2003, has a history assisting Australian defence in the Solomon Islands, policing in East Timor and a range of other activities in the customs, health and fossil fuel arenas. Since 2007, the department of defence has awarded Aspen contracts worth more than $200m.
But deeper questions are being ignored in the rush to do something – anything – about Ebola. While it’s incredibly brave and noble for Australian nurses and doctors to volunteer with Aspen to establish a 100-bed treatment unit, most media coverage framed the discussion over awarding Aspen the contract as a partisan battle between the Abbott government and Labor opposition.
Victorian Greens senator and public health expert Richard Di Natale has been one of the sole voices questioning Aspen’s qualifications. He tells me that the contract “has a real stink about it. I’m at a loss. The only plausible explanation is that a government is so ideologically committed to advancing private interests, even when it’s counter-productive. ”
Di Natale says that Aspen’s win without a tender process bastardises democracy. “If it went to tender, a range of NGOs would have been able to get personnel in the field much more cheaply”, he argues. He worries that “mission creep” could happen, and that Aspen will require more funds to complete further work. The Greens MP is planning a trip to West Africa to examine the reality on the ground and hopes to receive help from Canberra in facilitating his visit.
He’s blunt on the reasons the Abbott government took so long to respond: “There aren’t any votes in black Africans dying. We’ve led the world in developing a vaccine for the Hendra virus which affects race horses, and yet when it comes to something like Ebola both in Australia and in the US we haven’t given it appropriate concern.”
One of the leaders in fighting Ebola remains Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Its Geneva headquarters tells me that they have concerns with the for-profit model that’s creeping into disaster relief. “Our concern is an uncoordinated approach overall that is inflexible and aid-money rather need-driven. It should not be about what governments want but what is needed to respond effectively to the needs on the ground.”
The scale of MSF’s commitments and the money it is spending places Aspen’s meager program in perspective. This year, the NGO has sent more than 700 international staff to the region, and admitted more than 5,600 patients in four West African states while providing roughly 600 isolation beds and two transit centres. This year, this has cost around $74m. As a rich Western nation, Australia’s contribution is stingy.
This era of unaccountable neo-liberalism has brought moves to privatise disaster management across the world. Recall former US Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggesting in 2012 that federal emergency assistance should be outsourced? Hurricane Sandy brought out the usual suspects of rent-seekers and disaster capitalists looking to make money from misery.
This ideology must be fought when fighting wars, disease or natural catastrophes at home or abroad.