The following was broadcast today on ABCTV1:
Can vulture capitalism be stopped?
That’s the question put up by Antony Loewenstein in his last book ‘Profits of Doom: How vulture capitalism is swallowing the world’.
He’s a writer, photographer, blogger, doco-maker and always a provocateur. He’s in conversation here with Chip Rolley, editor of the ABC’s The Drum.
The focus of this exchange is the implications of privatising prisons, detention centres, aid and security in this country and on a global scale.
To put this conversation in context, it took place at the Perth Writers Festival right after the riot on Manus Island and the death of refugee inmate Reza Barati.
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
This month, the United Nations accused Canberra of potentially breaking international law by forcibly repelling refugee boats back to Indonesia. Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, said that the international body was “concerned by any policy or practice that involved pushing asylum-seeker boats back at sea without a proper consideration of individual needs for protection.” He continued: “any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the 1951 refugee convention and other international law obligations.”
The comments were brushed aside as soon as they were uttered. Prime minister Tony Abbott’s administration insists that its policies are legal and safe, and the vast bulk of Australians apparently back even harsher methods against asylum seekers. It is now clear who has won this battle, and it isn’t the forces pushing for moderation.
After 20 years of steadily increasing cruelty towards refugees, it’s time to admit that we’ve reached a stalemate. Simply arguing for a more humane approach has failed. Reason, international law and common sense are no match against inflammatory media reporting, false fears about asylum seekers living in the community, and politicians proudly punishing the most vulnerable in the name of “deterrence.”
Enter the need for a new approach, one that seriously ups the ante: sanctions against the Australian state for ignoring humanitarian law. Australia deserves nothing less. A price must be paid, in a political and economic sense, for flagrantly breaching Australian and international conventions. This could be directed at both the multinationals such as Serco and G4S, who are administering the government’s policies, and the bank accounts and assets maintained by government ministers and officials.
Australian citizens must feel this global isolation in their daily lives, and be made to realise that business as usual is a choice that will bring tough penalties. Locking up children on remote Pacific islands, without proper medical or psychological care, is designed for only one purpose: pain. States opposed to these breaches must gather together and take action, regardless of the inevitable short-term bleating from the Australian government. Activists around the world and at home must have a clear target and goal: to make Canberra believe that the ramifications are simply too high to maintain the current system of a privatised detention network.
Western state powers believe they are immune from prosecution. The idea of a senior western leader or official being charged for war crimes or abuses of power is almost unheard of. The recent news that British human rights lawyers are pushing for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute local military figures and politicians over serial breaches against detainees in Iraq after 2003 was an important reminder that it isn’t only presidents in dictatorships that might face the wrath of The Hague. We are surely not far away from a precedent being set with the sight of a London or Washington-based official found guilty for covering up systematic assaults against Iraqis or Afghans during the last decade.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, explains how the US system is designed to protect the powerful at the expense of the majority. There are countless officials after 9/11 who haven’t been jailed for ordering and performing waterboarding, sexual assaults, illegal interrogations, hiding prisoners in black sites and invading nations. President Barack Obama has ferociously protected the worst abusers, including CIA torturers, and provided immunity.
The relevance to Australia is clear. Western leaders live under the belief that they can behave as they like to the powerless and invisible. Asylum seekers are essentially voiceless, reporters are barred from visiting where they’re warehoused in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and the daily drumbeat of dishonest rhetoric wrongly accuses them of being “illegal”.
Even the threat of sanctions against Australia would enrage the Abbott government and its backers. Australia is a democracy, they will claim. Australia’s decisions are checked and approved by lawyers, they may argue. Australians can vote out recalcitrant regimes, they could state.
And yet transparency over asylum seeker policy has arguably never been more absent. There are far too few journalists dedicated to investigating the refugee issue, media organisations prefer sending their “journalists” to junkets in Los Angeles promoting Australian celebrities, and the result is an immigration bureaucracy that rightly believes its actions have few consequences, shielded from censure.
Sanctions against Australia would wake them up immediately – even though the usefulness of traditional sanctions are questionable. Imagine if immigration minister Scott Morrison feared leaving the country amidst threats of questioning if he landed at Heathrow airport because of the abuse of asylum seekers in his care.
The first, obvious step is rousing worldwide support to place serious pressure on Australia and make its officials and leaders uncomfortable. Ask them tough questions in global forums. Demand they explain why dumping vulnerable men, women and children in isolated prison camps doesn’t warrant sanctions. Tell them that the humane treatment of asylum seekers, at a time when the globe is struggling to cope with millions of displaced Syrians and growing numbers of climate refugees, is vital in a connected world.
The Australian government feels invincible, protected under America’s security blanket and selling its dirty coal to the world. We are sold the myth that building remote detention camps will protect us from the “hordes” trying to enter our promised land. It’s impossible not to conclude that Australia, a colonial construction, doesn’t see itself akin to Canada, the US and Israel as countries struggling to cope with people various officials call “infiltrators”. That bubble must be burst, and the threats of sanctions will be the required shot. Until Australia and its defenders appreciate the necessity to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect, they should feel the world’s opprobrium.
Talk is no longer enough. The UN has had more than 20 years to convince Australia to abandon mandatory detention and its associated ills. Frankly, it hasn’t tried hard enough. Absent of a complete overhaul of the UN system, something that is long overdue, let legitimate legal sanctions be threatened and used.
It’s a price every Australian, myself included, should feel.
I appeared last Friday on ABCTV News24′s The Drum and we discussed vast human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, highlighted by the Commonwealth meeting in Colombo, and Australia under Prime Minister Tony Abbott turning a blind eye to Sri Lankan torture and abuse in the name of stopping people getting onto refugee boats.
With the privatised nature of Australia’s immigration system, I raised issues covered in my book Profits of Doom about the inevitable problems with under-staffed and under-trained employees work in remote detention centres.
I launched my book Profits of Doom at Curtin University in Perth on 29 November to a packed house (more details and photos here and audio is here). The focus was on Australia’s privatised immigration detention system.
Dr Caroline Fleay from The Centre for Human Rights Education (CHRE) introduced me with a generous speech that I re-publish below:
Profits of Doom – Perth Book Launch
Centre for Human Rights Education
29 October 2013
Book Launch Introductions
It is my pleasure to introduce Antony Loewenstein.
Antony is an independent journalist, blogger, photographer and documentary film-maker. He has written and co-authored a number of best-selling books, including My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution. He has written for The Nation, Huffington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, Haaretz, and is now a weekly columnist for The Guardian. He has also appeared on a range of television current affairs programs on the ABC, the BBC, Al Jazeera English, and a range of other media outlets. And, of course, he is the author of Profits of Doom.
I first met Antony at the Perth Domestic Airport, very early in the morning, in November 2011. Antony had been persistently emailing during the second half of 2011 as he knew through some mutual acquaintances that Linda Briskman and I were visiting the Curtin immigration detention centre, and he wanted to come along for the purposes of his research.
So up we flew to Broome and then hired a car for the 2 hour drive to the detention centre which is about 50 km from Derby. I spent many long hours with Antony during the following four days and I learned a few things about him as a journalist and as a person. One thing that I did observe was his skill in finding out information from those who work within the detention system. But the thing that impressed me most about him was his empathy that was clearly evident as we sat and talked with the few people detained in that large centre that we were allowed to meet with. Antony’s response to what he witnessed, and to what he was told by the people we visited about being in detention for many months, I think speaks volumes about his understanding of the issue.
And this is reflected in the book we are very happy to be launching in Perth tonight.
Antony’s book, Profits of Doom, provides a much needed spotlight on the operations of some of the private corporations that make large profits in industries that emerge from government outsourcing. And they do so in an environment where the details of much of their operations
One of these corporations, Serco, is a big player in Australia and two of the chapters in the book explore their role in the immigration detention industry. One of the big problems of privatisation in immigration detention is that it deepens the system’s lack of transparency.
The involvement of private corporations in this area not only enables governments to expand immigration detention, it also helps to obscure what is going on within detention centres.Commercial-in-confidence clauses that apply to contracts between the government and private operators mean that it is exceedingly difficult to access information in relation to costs and other operational matters, as Antony highlights in his book.
Accountability issues around who is responsible for what happens within immigration detention centres become more opaque under a system of privatisation. For example, in the midst of a rooftop protest and following the death of someone detained at the Villawood immigration detention centre in 2010, Serco told media reporters to contact the Department of Immigration for comment. In turn, the Department said they could not comment in any detail on Serco’s operations.
Profits of Doom helps to lift a lid on the secrecy of Serco and its operations within Australia’s detention network. For one thing, the book highlights the hefty profit rates that Serco is making out of its immigration detention contract.
But Antony’s writing also allows us to get some understanding of the remote sites of detention at the Curtin airbase in the north of WA, and on Christmas Island. His writing helps us to get a sense of the people detained within those electrified fences, and those responsible for enabling this government policy. He highlights how this privatised system of imprisonment harms the people it detains. And he highlights how it harms some of the staff who become traumatised by what they witness, and what they have become complicit in.
As Antony expresses it: “desert prison camps are not normal”. Indeed, imprisoning people for indefinite periods of time in any site of detention is not normal.
Antony’s book is a compelling read and I highly recommend it.
Please welcome Antony to talk more about his book and these issues.
I was in Perth, Western Australia last week for a Profits of Doom book tour.
There was a large public event at Perth’s state library. I spoke alongside Greens Senator Scott Ludlam about my book, left politics, the Greens and how to effect positive change (I was interviewed on Perth Indymedia radio on similar issues).
Here’s the video from the fascinating evening:
Australia’s official attitude towards asylum seekers is based on cruelty and punishment. We too rarely hear from refugees themselves, the privatised system deliberately obscures their stories and faces.
The Global Mail has produced a stunning piece of multi-media, video journalism that details the reasons Hazara man like Hussein must leave Pakistan, due to threats on their life, and find safe haven somewhere. He films the journey from Pakistan to Australia.
Moving, revealing and telling work.
The wonders of the internet. I was informed this week that a leading daily media outlet in Asuncion, Paraguay, Ultima Hora, published a great article about my new book, Profits of Doom. The journalist, Guido Rodriguez, emailed me to explain that the message of the book resonated with many people in his country.
The following is a Google Translate version of the article so read with that in mind:
I would translate the title of the book and Profits of Doom, the brilliant journalist, photographer and documentary filmmaker Antony Loewenstein.
His reading is very timely, because [President] Horacio Cartes has asked to end the antagonism between politicians and businessmen at the top of Panama.
Antagonism What is it?
The problem of the moment is the collusion between businessmen and politicians, forgetting others.
Cartes proposes a public-private partnership as a solution to our problems. Well, this alliance exists in Haiti (Loewenstein tells us) and has allowed the construction of an industrial complex.
Is not it very similar to the industrial complex that our government proposed to build on the Parana to Rio Tinto?
Comparisons aside, the fact is that in the industrial complex of Haiti are paid wages below the legal minimum wage (five dollars per day), and the happy resort aims to become a center for recruiting cheap labor for multinationals.
Needless to say that Haiti is a very poor country with huge problems: it has a 60% unemployment and need to import at least 75% of its rice.
What it shows is that Loewenstein overcoming those problems should not expect the entry of speculative capital.
After the devastating earthquake of 2010, the country received a good amount of dollars in international aid, the results were not as expected.
It was not only because of the inefficiency and corruption that was, but the error in judgment: speculative capital have no interest in developing any poor country.
By the way neoliberal little Haiti’s future, moreover with vast natural resources (gold, copper, zinc), now tempt multinationals.
This author calls the curse of natural resources, thinking about what happened in Papua New Guinea with the arrival of multinational corporations.
The most famous case is that of the Panguna Mine on the island of Bougainvillea, whose inhabitants took up arms against the exploitation of gold and copper which caused tremendous ecological destruction.
Rebels won, but at a high price: thousands of deaths, destruction, poverty. The culprit was the BCL company, formed by the public-private partnership of local government and Rio Tinto.
Iraq and Afghanistan are other cases studied in Profits of Doom. Iraq’s oil wealth is obvious, what is less known are the mineral deposits in Afghanistan, which attract the attention of companies not necessarily charitable.
Another common feature of these two countries was the privatization of war.
For reasons of supposed efficiency, was entrusted to private companies, the food, the intelligence services and security, say the privatization of war.
In late 2012 (says Loewenstein), had 109,000 private contractors in Afghanistan, nearly twice the number of soldiers.
It has the private sector efficiency, but that the mercenaries earn much more than the soldiers of the occupying armies.
Decidedly, this little privatizing model can promise to Paraguay.
A new report (via Common Dreams) reveals the fallacy of this Western elite pushed scheme:
Haiti’s Caracol Industrial Park—the U.S. State Department and Clinton Foundation pet project to deliver aid and reconstruction to earthquake-ravaged Haiti in the form of private investment—is systematically stealing its garment workers’ wages, paying them 34 percent less than minimum wage set by federal law, a breaking report from the Worker Rights Consortium reveals.
Critics charge that poverty wages illustrate the deep flaws with corporate models of so-called aid. “The failure of the Caracol Industrial Park to comply with minimum wage laws is a stain on the U.S.’s post-earthquake investments in Haiti and calls into question the sustainability and effectiveness of relying on the garment industry to lead Haiti’s reconstruction,” said Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic and Policy Researchin an interview with Common Dreams.
Caracol is just one of five garment factories profiled in this damning report, released publicly on Wednesday, which finds that “the majority of Haitian garment workers are being denied nearly a third of the wages they are legally due as a result of the factories’ theft of their income.” This is due to systematic employer cheating on piece-work and overtime, as well as failure to pay employees for hours worked.
WRC charges that the wage theft at these 5 factories is “typical” across the country’s garment industry, leading to the suppression of national wages at deep poverty levels. As a result, workers have trouble affording food, shelter, and medical care, the report finds.
Through a series of in-depth interviews, as well as review of pay records, researchers discovered that the problem of wage theft throughout the country’s garment industry is “egregious” at Northern Haiti’s Caracol Industrial Park, which sits at the center of U.S. ‘reconstruction’ efforts and is slated to employ an estimated 20,000 people.
Financers included the Inter-American Development Bank, the U.S. State Department, and the Clinton Foundation, who invested a total of $224 million with promises to uphold high labor standards. Its anchor tenant is the Korean S&H Global factory, which sells garments to Walmart, Target, Kohl’s, and Old Navy, according to the report.
The largest post-earthquake U.S. investment in Haiti, Caracol’s backers have championed it as a model for privatized reconstruction. In a July press release, the U.S. State Department champions the park as a chance to “spur economic growth and bring jobs to Haiti’s underserved regions.”
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former U.S. President Bill Clinton attended Caracol’s opening ceremony a year ago. “We’re sending a message that Haiti is open for business again,” Hillary Clintondeclared upon the announcement of the opening.
The Clinton Foundation did not immediately respond to a request from Common Dreams for an interview.
Prolific author, blogger and commentator Antony Loewenstein has targeted disaster capitalism in his new book, Profits of Doom. It’s an ambitious book seeking to not only build on Naomi Klein’s work from the The Shock Doctrine but to ‘generate a global debate’. A wide ranging text; part philosophy, part travelogue, built on a frank and unrelenting account of disaster capitalism as it applies to the resource sector, war, environmental catastrophes, foreign aid and detention centres. While only time will tell wether it achieves it’s ambition, it does provide a valuable insight into mining in Australian and Papua New Guinea [PNG] – two of the Mineral Policy Institute’s favourite subjects.
The PNG chapter, entitled Papua New Guinea – the resource curse, roams from Panguna to Ramu Nickel to the PNG LNG terminal near Port Morseby. Along the way it discusses the effectiveness of Australian Aid in PNG, the social and environmental impact of mining, attitudes to Australia, the Bougainville crisis and much more. Supported by interviews and numerous [footnoted] media accounts, Loewenstein delivers a personal narrative account of people impacted by the resource industry or working to reduce it, mixed with his own opinion on the impact of the resource curse in PNG.
Along the way we meet a number of people and either hear from them directly or via Anthony’s own words. Willy from Bougainville has a ‘faint hope that Australia will start thinking beyond money and mining’. Rosa Koin, from our friends at BRG, is critical of Australian aid, rejects mining and believes in empowered communities feeding themselves. Frank tells a short, but confronting story on what happens when families lose ownership of land and access to fishing.
While Loewenstein is not a extractives or PNG specialist, his work in other areas, including in this book, offer a valuable insight into the impact of the Australian Government and mining industry in PNG. While hard to choose, these concluding quotes go the heart of the problem and echo perspectives from our recent Hidden Valley documentary.
On economics …. “Nations with vested interest in PNG don’t overly care about its economic system as long as they can perform their resource extraction effectively…”
On PNG’s future… “What needed in PNG is a new model of investment, one that doesn’t treat the country’s natural wealth as jewels to be admired then taken. [and later] PNG shouldn’t be condemned to remain a land that offers little to locals and much to Western shareholders. Twenty-first century independence is possible”
Whether you share Loewenstein’s views or not, you will be confronted and challenged by the impact of [disaster] capitalism on the ground.