Moving report, on NBC News, by Ayman Mohyeldin that details the current Israeli violence in Gaza. Slowly but surely Americans are being exposed to the reality of Israel’s crimes in Palestine:
My weekly Guardian column:
On a searing hot day last weekend I took the train an hour out of Athens to the Greek city of Corinth. There, one of the country’s largest detention centres sits behind high walls. It was the recent site of a mass hunger strike by asylum seekers, whose protest has now gone nation-wide.
I gained rare access to the Corinth centre with a former refugee as my guide. I spoke to Hazara men who had been imprisoned for as long as two years. We stood behind a fence topped with barbed wire while the detainees gathered on the other side, longing for discussion and human contact.
One man had been shot in the foot by a guard and the bullet remained inside his body. They all claimed to be the victims of physical and psychological abuse by the police. None of them wanted to remain in Greece because of the harsh conditions of their incarceration, and hoped to get to Germany or Sweden in the near future. After 15 minutes of hurried conversation, and despite our protests, we were eventually moved on by police.
Greece is on the frontline of European nations receiving desperate refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The poor conditions inside state-run facilities are well-documented. Many of the men who we spoke with in the Corinth centre had been swept up in Greece’s inhumane Operation Xenios Zeus, launched in 2012, to rid the streets of asylum seekers.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of those picked up were found to be in the country legally, the plan was an effective political fix to show the government was tough on “illegal” immigration. Detainees can now be held indefinitely. Detention centres are set to be privatised.
None of this could happen were it not for Greece’s fractious political climate. The recent European elections saw support surge for the far-right Golden Dawn, backing grow for the leftwing party Syriza and the deep denial (or is it shamefaced acceptance?) by the political class of bigotry among their Greek constituents.
It’s no accident that fascist organs are gaining strength in Greece, across Europe and the rest of the world. Even Indonesia is seeing Nazi chic. Many admire the positions of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, because they’re skilfully exploiting economic unease, unemployment and fear of immigrants and Islam. Greece has also seen the return of anti-Roma and anti-Jewish sentiment.
I met one of Golden Dawn’s leading MPs, Ilias Panagiotaros, outside Athens’ high court. He was accompanied by the party leader’s wife, Golden Dawn MP Eleni Zaroulia. Panagiotaros spoke with determined calm, saying that his party is surging in support in spite of it being investigated by the government as a possible criminal organisation. A few hours after we spoke, Zaroulia was placed under house arrest.
“The cases against GD leadership are 100% political persecution”, Panagiotaros explained. “Every GD MP believes in country and nation, heritage, pride and dignity.” A whistle-blower from inside the party recently revealed that the ultimate goal of the group was to create a “one-party state” and attacking immigrants was viewed as a “badge of honour”.
He praised Putin, said Russia would soon be the world’s leading super-power, liked Moscow’s monitoring of all NGOs (“99% of NGOs should face justice here and be in jail because they’re agents of globalisation”), accused all Muslim immigrants in Europe of being “jihadists” who “plan to take over Europe” and condemned the privatisation of public services (despite Golden Dawn MPs routinely backing the government in outsourcing policy).
He praised Israel and said he would like to copy its laws against “illegal immigration” and was equally effusive towards Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. He “has been tough on illegal immigration and I support his position”.
He claimed that all Muslim immigrants coming to Europe should go elsewhere. “If Syrians, Libyans or Iraqis need to go somewhere they should go to the US, the country that caused the wars in their countries. Let the US take these people in.”
I asked Panagiotaros about photos which emerged this week in a leading Greek paper of the currently imprisoned Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos saluting in front of the Nazi Swastika, and other party members’ nostalgia for Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess. He dismissed my concerns.
“So what if our leader was photographed next to a Nazi swastika 40 years ago?” he said. “If you ask every leader in Europe what they were doing decades ago you may find some interesting stories, too.”
I visited another leading Golden Dawn supporter, Dr Epaminondas Stathis, a retired orthopaedic surgeon and losing 2014 European election candidate. His home, an hour from Athens, is a mansion replete with large statues, candelabras, paintings on every wall in every room and many images of Jesus. He said that as he’s “been fighting for patriotic, nationalist ideas all my life”.
He explained that successive governments have for 40 years “destroyed the economy, closed farms and shops; we’ve had a humanitarian crisis for at least 10 years”. What Greece needs, he explained, was a party that respected Greek heritage.
The whiff of conspiracy against the group was never far from the surface, a view that is shared by many Greek citizens who have little faith in the government, media or legal system.
One of the great unreported reasons for the Greek crisis, and barely investigated by the local press except for independent journalist Apostolis Fotiadis, is the European Union’s imposition of disaster-capitalism policies. The aim is to weaken the sovereignty of member states, while allowing corporate interests to buy and exploit assets at low prices. Privatising so much of Greece has been a colossal failure and yet rightwing Greek politicians talk of continuing it. The country has become a giant fire sale, despite massive popular opposition.
These are the political conditions that almost guarantee disruption and unease. While corruption remains rampant and wages low – I’ve spoken to countless young Greeks who tell me that a reasonable wage here is around US$10,000 a year – the appeal of simple fixes, such as offered by Golden Dawn, will thrive. Whether alternative parties of the Left, in Greece and beyond in Europe, will capitalise on these tensions and resist Brussels-directed privatisation is the great challenge of the modern European project.
My weekly Guardian column:
Since last week’s victories by the militant group Isis against a weak, US-backed, Iraqi government, the same, failed protagonists from the 2003 invasion have come out of the woodwork to advocate another military intervention.
Although some journalists, like The Independent’s prescient Patrick Cockburn, have been warning about the growing power of Isis, voices on the ground are few and far between in western media. Mostly we get the same old neo-cons who took us to Iraq in the first place.
That’s a shame, because local reporters and bloggers have a unique perspective. Instead of listening to think-tanks pushing to bomb, a tour through the internet turns up plenty of thoughts from those suffering the direct consequences of the carnage in Iraq.
Niqash is a website that features Iraqi journalists from across the nation and publishes in Arabic, Kurdish and English. Reporter Abdul-Khaleq Dosky this week interviewed Bashar al-Kiki, the Kurdish head of the provincial council in Ninawa, and asked him about life inside Mosul since it fell to Isis.
“The whole of Mosul is under Isis’ control,” al-Kiki explained. “Isis has also allocated one mosque in the city for tawba [repentance or confession]. People are expected to go this mosque to repent past acts and to show their loyalty to Isis.”
Mustafa Habib‘s analysis of the retreat from Mosul is fascinating: he argues that the Iraqi army didn’t desert, but was ordered to leave. It remains unclear by whom but he quotes Hakim al-Zamily, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defence committee, who says:
“There can only be a handful of people who know who actually gave those orders for the army to withdraw. One of them must be al-Maliki [the Iraqi prime minister.] But up until now he’s said nothing about this.”
Users of social media in Iraq have been perennially blocked by the government. Many Iraqis outside the country have been tweeting about their families trapped in Mosul. Iraqi blogger Maryam Al Dabbagh, now in the UAE, has an essential Twitter feed with moving details about life under Isis control.
The absence of Iraqi voices on the plight of their own country isn’t a new phenomenon. One of the most articulate Iraqi bloggers, Baghdad Burning, moved from Iraq to Syria after 2003 and is now in another Arab city. Her last post, in April 2013, was full of anger about the fate of her homeland:
“We learned that you can be floating on a sea of oil, but your people can be destitute. Your city can be an open sewer; your women and children can be eating out of trash dumps and begging for money in foreign lands.”
Kurdish journalist Fazel Hawramy runs a good Twitter account on Iraq, and has been reporting for The Guardian. Then there’s Isis, which is mounting its own social media campaign. Ironically, there is also an apparent Isis critic tweeting from within the group.
Of course, many Iraqis don’t use social networks at all. In any modern war it’s dangerous to take Facebook posts and Tweets as representing anything more than the views of a select few. Journalism from the streets still remains vitally important.
We should also ask why western reporters are taken to be the most trusted authorities wherever they are reporting. An anonymous journalist, writing from Mosul last week, explained in Niqash that the Baath Party may be making an effort to restore its power in Iraq. However, the author wrote:
“It was still clear who was really in charge: Isis. The same source in Mosul said that after gaining control of the whole province of Ninawa, ISIS then gave the Naqshbandi Army [militias linked to the Baathists] 24 hours to remove their pictures of Saddam Hussein.”
The Iraqi people face years more hardship and uncertainty. What the country doesn’t need is more blowhards looking to preserve American prestige. That was lost the day Iraq was invaded in 2003. Listening and engaging local voices has never been more important, if for no other reason to prove that Baghdad’s problems won’t be fully solved in London, Tehran, Washington or Canberra.
I was interviewed this week on Triple R’s Spoke show about US drone strikes in Yemen, killing Australians and the law:
My following interview appears in the Guardian:
During an event at the Sydney writer’s festival last month, Israeli writer and author Ari Shavit told a packed auditorium that his country was “an oasis in the Middle East”. He explained to the audience, who largely appreciated his words despite some grumblings when he condemned the occupation of the Palestinian territories, that “the Zionist revolution is a phenomenal success”.
Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, has received plaudits from the cream of the liberal, American, political elite. Even former Israeli prime minister and defence minister Ehud Barak writes on the back cover that Shavit “is being brutally honest regarding the Zionist enterprise”.
The book attempts to challenge Zionist myths. One of the more celebrated chapters revolves around Shavit’s recounting of Israeli forces driving the Arab residents from the Palestinian town of Lydda in 1948. He doesn’t shy away from explaining the violence inflicted but then writes that, “I know that if it wasn’t for them [the militias], the State of Israel would not have been born … They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.”
During an exclusive and extensive conversation with Shavit, he tells me that despite decades of conflict and negotiation the “only solution is the two-state solution”.
He continues: “It is the moral and political duty of every Israeli prime minister to try to achieve the two-state solution. Because I have some doubts if this final status peace agreement can be signed today, the next step should be trying to create two-state dynamics that will lead to a two-state solution. We must end the occupation for sure, which if it can’t be done in these circumstances immediately must be done gradually by a settlement freeze and then a withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.”
Shavit also believes that the Palestinians have a responsibility to build a viable state of their own. They “should use whatever land liberated for them in order to have development projects and rebuild a new kind of Palestinian reality,” he says. “You then have Israel moving forward, what I call a nation saving project that ends the occupation, while Palestinians are going into a nation building process to hopefully build a democratic, life-loving Palestine.”
On the first page of My Promised Land, Shavit writes that, “as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.” I ask him if he still feels that way in the 21st century, as a man in his late 50s. He does. “Although Israel seems to be strong, politically, economically and militarily, at the same time we are intimidated. The two pillars of Israel’s existence are occupation and intimidation and there is a tendency on the Left to see occupation and overlook intimidation and on the Right to focus on intimidation and overlook occupation. Both are there and both are unacceptable.
“Peace-loving people around the world should also address that Israel’s security concerns are not just an issue for generals and strategic experts, or because of Jewish neurosis and our history, but we’re intimidated because of Iran and brutal, violent forces in the region such as Hamas, Hizbollah and Islamist forces in Syria.”
My Promised Land hasn’t received universal praise. American historian Norman Finkelstein just released an entire book, Old Wine, Broken Bottle, debunking the book. Others condemn Shavit’s many writings advocating violence against Israel’s enemies in the Middle East.
Independent Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf, writing in +972 Magazine, sees the work as the “Zionist story, retold by the elite, for the elite”. Sheizaf attacks “the intellectualisation of violence – and ultimately, murder – [as] a central theme with elites in the US and Israel, due to the inherent contradiction between their values and the massive implementation of military force they often pursue.”
Sheizaf condemns Shavit for obsessively focusing on powerful Ashkenazi, Jewish men with the almost complete exclusion of Mizrahi Jews, another large and influential section of Israeli society. “Every social or political group remains the object of the same view”, the reviewer concludes, “deprived of an existence that stretches beyond the role it plays in the Ashkenazi elite’s drama.” Furthermore, Sheizaf wonders about the lack of women in Shavit’s narrative.
Shavit counters these critics not by responding directly to them but by telling me that he refuses to accept that Israel, of all nations “with a past” such as Australia, should not be welcomed. He argues that it can’t be that “liberal Americans, liberal Canadians, liberal Australians and liberal New Zealanders will say that of all the peoples in the world, Israel is the only one that is sinful and morally wrong. Most nations, if not all nations, have skeletons in their past and I thought it was my moral duty to address the side that many Zionists and Israelis do not address. But to take that out of context and not see the larger tragedy of Jewish history and the larger impressive and sometimes even heroic parts of Israeli and Zionist history, that’s wrong.”
What does the success of Shavit’s book in the US reflect about the current climate towards the Jewish state? The author tells me that, “I think there are many people who have an issue with Israel’s present policy, mainly occupation and settlements, and yet they have a sense that there is a need to have Israel, that Israel is legitimate, just and a necessary entity.”
I ask Shavit about the growing global movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, which the author strongly rejects. “The only way to win the battle within Israel [against Jewish extremism] is to have a strong sense that the international community will stand by Israel,” Shavit says to me, “totally accepts Israel’s legitimacy, and will stand by it post occupation.
“If people are not Israel haters and are into really ending the occupation in a reasonable way, the policy should be the exact opposite of BDS. Go to Israelis, hug them, promise them love and support once they do the right thing and demand of them to do the right thing. Right now so many Israelis have deep suspicions whether this kind of [BDS] pressure will end the moment they end the occupation.”
During Shavit’s Sydney writers’ festival event, he continually claimed that, “Israel is not settlers or soldiers” and yet the occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank has been a fact for nearly 50 years. Although he wants to “avoid the blame game” – he praises pro-settlement, Zionist lobbyists around the world because “I’m not ashamed that we have some organisations speaking up for the Jewish minority” – he’s aware that there is growing global impatience with maintaining the status quo.
Ultimately, Shavit fears the “cancer eating Israel from within” and tells me that, “we cannot survive another decade with the suicidal ways in which Israel is building more settlements”. But he has some hope that “a realistic peace concept, rather than a utopian one” can appear to convince the majority of Israelis that “they must act to save Israel from occupation”.
The history of Western governments talking about democracy and freedom while backing the most thuggish groups in the world is long and sordid.
The UK-based Corporate Watch does a wonderful job of uncovering the many links between business and government.
Here is its Phil Miller on a story that shows why we always need to separate rhetoric from reality:
Margaret Thatcher gave her approval to British mercenaries working with a Ugandan paramilitary unit during the bloodiest human rights abuses in the East African country’s civil war, newly-released documents reveal.
Falconstar Limited, run by ex-SAS officers Jeremy Trevaskis and Peter Le Marchand, trained the Ugandan Police Special Force, a notorious group implicated in mass killings, beatings and rape during President Milton Obote’s crackdown after the fall of Idi Amin.
Trevaskis wrote to Prime Minister Thatcher in September 1983 to inform her that Falconstar was “in the process now of completing a major contract with the Government of Uganda, where we have trained over 1,500 Special Force constables in two years”, adding that this had “made a large contribution to internal security and to foreign investors’ confidence in Uganda”.
Thatcher’s private secretary, David Barclay, wrote in reply: “Mrs Thatcher was most interested to read about Falconstar’s services, and sends her best wishes for continued success.”
Just months before in July 1983, Malcolm Rifkind, then Foreign Office Minister for African Affairs, had warned Obote about human rights abuses when he visited Uganda.
Human Rights Watch has said the civil war from 1981-1986 was characterized by “military excesses against civilians which are believed to have exceeded the brutality of the Amin era”. An estimated 300,000 Ugandans died and 500,000 were displaced.
Corporate Watch found the papers among Downing Street files released under the 30-year-rule at the UK National Archives. This latest revelation comes from the same batch of Thatcher’s correspondence which showed the Prime Minister secretly dispatched an SAS officer to advise the Indian government on storming the Golden Temple in Amritsar and gave tacit approval to SAS veterans training Sri Lankan commandos to suppress Tamil rebels in 1984. The respective situations in Uganda, Sri Lanka and India’s Punjab region ranked among the world’s worst conflicts in the mid-1980s.
A stunning investigation by the Washington Post on what the American war in Afghanistan has supported; one of the most brutal thugs in the country:
In Afghanistan, his presence was enough to cause prisoners to tremble. Hundreds in his organization’s custody were beaten, shocked with electrical currents or subjected to other abuses documented in human rights reports. Some allegedly disappeared.
And then Haji Gulalai disappeared as well.
He had run Afghan intelligence operations in Kandahar after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and later served as head of the spy service’s detention and interrogation branch. After 2009, his whereabouts were unknown.
Because of his reputation for brutality, Gulalai was someone both sides of the war wanted gone. The Taliban tried at least twice to kill him. Despite Gulalai’s ties to the CIA and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, United Nations officials and U.S. coalition partners sought to rein him in or have him removed.
Today, Gulalai lives in a pink two-story house in Southern California, on a street of stucco homes on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
How he managed to land in the United States remains murky. Afghan officials and former Gulalai colleagues said that his U.S. connections — and mounting concern about his safety — account for his extraordinary accommodation.
But CIA officials said the agency played no role in bringing Gulalai into the country. Officials at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security would not comment on his relocation or immigration status, citing privacy restrictions. Gulalai and members of his family declined repeated inquiries from The Washington Post.
As the United States approaches its own exit from Afghanistan, Gulalai’s case touches on critical questions looming over that disengagement. What will happen to thousands of Afghans seeking to accompany the American exodus? And how will U.S.-built institutions in that country — particularly its intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) — treat those left behind?
Despite a substantial record of human rights abuses, Gulalai was able to bypass immigration barriers faced by Afghans whose work for the United States made them potential targets of the Taliban. Many have been turned away because of security objections submitted in secret by U.S. spy agencies.
Since its inception, the NDS has depended on the CIA to such an extent that it is almost a subsidiary — funded, trained and equipped by its American counterpart. The two agencies have shared intelligence, collaborated on operations and traded custody of prisoners.
Gulalai was considered a particularly effective but corrosive figure in this partnership. He was a fierce adversary of the Taliban, officials said, as well as a symbol of the tactics embraced by the NDS.
“He was the torturer in chief,” said a senior Western diplomat, who recalled meeting with a prisoner at an NDS facility in Kabul to investigate how he had been treated when Gulalai entered unannounced. The detainee became agitated and bowed his head in submission. “He was terrified, which made sense,” the diplomat said. Gulalai was “a big wheel in a machine that ground up a lot of people.”
U.S. officials said the CIA has taken measures to curb NDS abuses, including training its officers on human rights and pushing the organization to allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross and other monitoring groups. But even after Gulalai’s departure, U.N. reports have documented widespread mistreatment of prisoners by the NDS.
Retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, who was commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan until last year, warned that “human rights is going to be a weakness for some period of time.” Allen, who suspended prisoner transfers to the NDS after reports of abuse, said the organization has made progress but described its reliance on torture as an institutional “reflex.”
My weekly Guardian column:
The news that the US had killed two Australian “militants” in a drone strike was announced in mid-April. Christopher Havard and “Muslim bin John”, who also held New Zealand citizenship, were allegedly killed by a CIA-led airstrike in eastern Yemen in November last year.
Readers were given little concrete information, apart from a “counter-terrorism source” who claimed that both men were foot soldiers for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, though they may also have been collateral damage (the real target being other terror heads).
The Australian government claimed ignorance of the entire operation. “There was no Australian involvement in, or prior awareness of, the operation”, a spokesman said. New Zealand prime minister John Key released some more details, saying that the country’s GCSB spies had been authorised to spy on him. “I knew that he had gone there [to Yemen] and gone to a terrorist training camp”, he stated.
Since publication of these bare facts, little new information has emerged from the government or other sources – except for some reporting in The Australian about Havard’s apparent transformation after he converted to Islam in his early 20s and went to Yemen to teach English. The paper editorialised in support of the strike: “to be killed in this way is regrettable”, it wrote, but obliterating civilians without a trial was acceptable because “such attacks have done much to stop the terrorists committing even more atrocities.” There was no condemnation of the scores of civilians killed by drones since 9/11.
It’s of course morally convenient to believe that the death of these men will make the world a safer place by removing “threats” without the need to place western soldiers in harm’s way – this is, after all, the apparently compelling logic of drone warfare. But it’s a myth challenged by the former drone pilots featured in the recently released documentary Drone, in which ex-Air Force pilot Michael Haas explains that:
‘You never know who you’re killing, because you never actually see a face. You just have a silhouette. They don’t have to take a shot. They don’t have to bear that burden. I’m the one that has to bear that burden.”
Yet, uncertainty be damned, the Australian government seems to keep on supporting the CIA killings with most of the media following without question.
Fairfax Media headlined one story “Abbott government defends drone strike that killed two Australian Al-Qaeda militants” without challenging that the two men were, indeed, militants or affiliated with Al-Qaida – they may or may not have been, but innocent civilians have been killed by drones before. The sentence “alleged militants, according to the government” never appeared in the article (this is a relatively common habit in journalism – see for example this essential take-down of a New York Times report on drone killings in Yemen).
I’ve reported independently from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and accurate journalism requires finding reliable sources on the ground (or corresponding with individuals through email, phone, encryption or Twitter) who can confirm or challenge the official version. It’s not rocket science, though definitive information can be scarce in a war zone.
In the last days I’ve reached out to various sources in Yemen (some of the best are here, here and here) and asked Sanaa-based Baraa Shiban to comment. His answer is revealing. “The lack of transparency has became a fixed strategy for the US in its drone war. The US announced recently the death of almost 30 militants in a training camp in Abyan, south of Yemen, but can’t release a single name; this tells it all.”
Taking the word of security sources and the state, when this information is so often wrong or deliberately skewed by anonymous officials who strategically leak to justify their counter-terrorism policies, is sadly all too common. “We don’t know the facts” is not a shameful statement. To be skeptical shouldn’t be a flaw, but an asset.
The desultory lack of debate over this latest drone attack is a sadly familiar tale (former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser lent a rare voice of criticism, saying Australians assisting the US drone program could face crimes against humanity charges). The Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan, former army officer and Australian diplomat, offered a commonly-held view of the deaths: “If it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and were not deliberately targeted”, he wrote, “then I don’t think either the Australian government or public will lose much sleep over their passing.”
This misses the point entirely. The two men are dead, so arguments about the legality of their assassination should surely have happened before the US fired its missiles. Shanahan expressed confidence without evidence that Australia “would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power.” This is a familiar refrain echoed by governments, too: that if you’re standing, sitting or socialising with militants, with or without your knowledge, your life could be in jeopardy.
The effect of this random violence, along with the devastating signature strike policy – drone attacks based on “suspicious” behaviour without knowing names or identities of people – is well documented. In Yemen, hatred of the US, along with major social and political tensions, is growing amongst a poor and scared population.
Although the Yemeni regime works openly alongside Washington in its war against perceived enemies (unlike Pakistan, which many say behaves in a similar way but feigns opposition to appease the angry masses) the death of dozens of alleged Al-Qaida militants and civilians at a major base in the remote southern mountains last week will only inflame tensions in the nation.
Let us not forget that the US drone program, massively accelerated under the Obama administration, is mired in secrecy. Earlier this month, a US federal appeals court ordered the government to release legal advice relating to the killings of three US citizens in Yemen in 2011. The American Civil Liberties Union correctly argued that it was unacceptable for the US to both claim the program was classified and yet leak selective information to favoured journalists to “paint the program in the most favourable light.”
The latest killing of two Australian citizens is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning. If these men were threats to national security, then the public deserves to know why and the legal backing behind it. The countless lies during the “war on terror” warrants skepticism of official claims.
My weekly Guardian column:
The Australian government recently successfully blocked the release of sensitive documents that would have revealed the complicity of Indonesian forces in massive abuses during their occupation of East Timor.
Canberra directed the National Archives to refuse the request of University of NSW associate professor Clinton Fernandes to see internal Australian files on Indonesian military actions in Timor more than 30 years ago. Administrative appeals tribunal president justice Duncan Kerr argued that “ongoing sensitivities” between Canberra and Jakarta were part of the reason for his decision. In other words, secrecy was preferable to transparency and justice.
The case proves that history remains threatening. The issue revolves around Indonesian actions in late 1981 and early 1982, when Indonesia forced around 145,000 conscripted East Timorese civilians to form a human chain to march across huge areas of land with the military behind it to find hiding guerrilla forces. The operation resulted in a massacre in Lacluta, Viqueque.
The Indonesian military then made a concerted attempt to smear the leader of the Catholic church in East Timor, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes, who had expressed serious concerns of a famine because the conscripted subsistence farmers were unable to plant their crops in time for the next harvest. During it all, the Australian government provided military aid to Indonesia, and is specifically said to have continued to supply Nomad aircrafts, despite knowing that Indonesian forces were using them in East Timor, in violation of Indonesia’s formal undertaking not to do so.
Fernandes tells me that if proven, Canberra’s complicity would speak volumes about its selective belief in applications of justice. Offenders would have to be punished, he says, not just for deterrent purposes but because international crimes must be highlighted.
“This case is not a contest between Australians and Indonesians”, he says. “Rather, it is a contest between those who want justice to prevail and those who want to cover up. The fact remains that East Timor suffered perhaps the largest loss of life relative to total population since the Holocaust. To ignore this is to mock the dead and make cynics of the living.”
Needless to say, Timor barely features in the media anymore – it’s a historical footnote with a story that ends with Canberra as the saviour of the nation in 1999, when rampaging Indonesian thugs were destroying the capital, Dili. To this day, the mainstream media continues to praise then prime minister John Howard as the brave warrior intervening to save Timor. Fernandes shows that it’s a yarn that isn’t based on fact in his compelling 2004 book, Reluctant Saviour.
The Timor case is a textbook case of political rhetoric versus reality, and shows how the lack of decent media coverage can further obscure the thin line between facts and government-mandated narratives. Take another example: in Vietnam, the effect of the chemical Agent Orange used by Washington during the war continues to deform children, yet there has never been any serious prosecutions for the horrific crimes committed in the name of “fighting communism.” It took 40 years for the US to announce they would launch a project to clean up a dangerous chemical, after the government spent decades questioning the extent of its toxicity.
Such disparities between narratives is a problem that continues to dog corporate media in the post 9/11 age of embedded journalism.
Look at Iraq, which more than 11 years after the US-led invasion, remains mired in political corruption and violence. Very few reporters bother visiting the country anymore. This makes the trip of Australian peace activist Donna Mulhearn in early 2013 all the more remarkable. She didn’t just see Baghdad but found a way to Fallujah, and witnessed the disturbing sign of birth defects likely caused by US-fired depleted uranium.
Unfortunately, such first-hand, on the ground reports are increasingly far and between. Instead, most of our media landscape is polluted with former military generals and so-called experts, some of them who led the wars in the first place.
While unrelated to the above conflicts, take Jim Molan, former commander of Australian forces in Iraq, supporter of more troops in Afghanistan and key adviser in drafting the secretive Operation Sovereign Borders against asylum seekers. The Australian Financial Review noted his work in its 2013 Power List; the ABC regularly relies on his analysis. What is noticeably absent from this fawning are any difficult questions regarding the time he spent on deployment.
Scott Burchill, senior lecturer at Melbourne’s Deakin University’s School of International and Political Studies, tells me that the rise of Molan reveals a notable lack of curiosity into his past: “Jim Molan can write a book boasting about his leadership of the allied attack on Fallujah in Iraq and become a ‘go to guy’ for the ABC on Australia’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he has consistently supported an escalation of the conflict”.
And yet to my knowledge, Molan has never been asked by a mainstream journalist about his role in Fallujah. Why not? If I was to interview him, I would ask him about the high number of civilian casualties, and demand details about the 2004 US-led siege imposed on the city – and that’s just to start with.
There’s a similar lack of curiosity in the public arena into the recent career of Australian counter-insurgency figure David Kilcullen, offered fawning profiles in the press celebrating his apparent skills in defeating insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan while working for the Pentagon. Even this year, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a complete disaster for western forces and interests (let alone the locals in both nations), Kilcullen is asked questions in Foreign Policy, but sadly evades answering them: “We’ve had our heads down chasing bad guys around Iraq and Afghanistan.” Burchill tells me that for sections of the media, Kilcullen “remains an ‘expert’ and a ‘highly sought-after consultant’”.
The legacy of our foreign military adventures don’t stop when journalists and editors either lose interest, or don’t pursue stories aggressively enough. It would be nice to see them demanding answers – and backing Fernandes’ quest to find the truth about East Timor wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
The job of US State Department favourites (journalists, commentators and politicians who routinely rehash US government talking points over war, peace and the Middle East) must be exhausting. Defending the indefensible while still being on the information drip-feed.
Welcome to the US embassy, the free champagne, caviar and PR tips are in the boardroom.
I was recently attacked, with about as much credibility as Israel when talking about Palestinian rights, by Lowy Institute flak Michael Fullilove over my recent Guardian comments on Russia and Ukraine.
Australian academic Scott Burchill is one of the country’s most astute observers of this pernicious trend. This latest piece by him is spot-on:
Reflexive support for state power and violence by America’s cheerleaders in Australia takes many forms. There are ad hominem attacks on those who disclose Washington’s nefarious secrets, such as its slaughter of journalists in Iraq or its illegal surveillance apparatus directed by the NSA. There is a conspicuous silence when US drones murder civilians in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Currently there is confected outrage when a rival state cedes territory it considers to be a legitimate strategic asset, but convenient amnesia when questions about invasions and occupations by friends and allies are raised.
Compare the reaction to President Putin’s annexation of Crimea, which has so far resulted in one fatality, with Saudi Arabia’s incursion into Bahrain in 2011 which killed many innocent Shi’ites but which Washington refused to even call an “invasion”. Coincidently, just as Crimea houses the Russian Navy’s Black Sea fleet, Bahrain plays host to the US Fifth Fleet.
Consider Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, which has killed thousands of Palestinians since 1948, and dispossessed many more, but would not have been possible without Washington’s connivance.
Perhaps there is a closer parallel. We are approaching the 40th anniversary of Turkey’s illegal invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus. Mass expulsions of Greek Cypriots, property theft and egregious human violations including killings and unexplained disappearances, followed the initial attack in July 1974. But Ankara remains a valued NATO ally and there are no suggestions in Washington or Canberra that economic sanctions be imposed on Prime Minister Erdoğan, his business cronies or predecessors. Some invasions and land grabs, such as Indonesia’s 24 year occupation of East Timor which Canberra and Washington enabled, are just fine with us.
Hypocrisy, double standards and selective outrage dominates foreign affairs commentary. Amongst the current avalanche of hysterical Putin bashing in the Western media one fact is always omitted. The US is the most promiscuous interventionary state in the world, with mass slaughters in Afghanistan and Iraq being only the most recent examples of its addiction to military violence. In both these cases Australia was an enthusiastic accomplice.
To those infatuated by power, however, these actions – for which apologies are never issued nor reparations paid – are not crimes, merely “wrong-headed and foolhardy” because Washington’s impact on the world is “benign” (Michael Fullilove) and it remains an “overwhelming force for good in the world” (Greg Sheridan, Kevin Rudd). Just ask the Vietnamese.
Perhaps the strangest claim by American boosters in Australia is that Washington is unfairly singled out for criticism by “the left” and thugs like Putin get off lightly. According to a former Liberal Party staffer, “It’s interesting how little the green-left in Australia has said about Russia’s conquest of Crimea which, under international law, is part of Ukraine. Had the United States done it, I think the green-left would have gone berserk.” (Gerard Henderson ).
Actually, the alleged silence of “the left” is neither interesting nor surprising. Despite its own significant responsibility for what has happened in Ukraine, there is no obsession with Washington’s crimes in the Australian media or across the broader political class. But there should be one.
There is no alliance between Australia and Russia. We don’t have intelligence sharing agreements with Moscow. There are no technology transfers and no Russian troops rotating through Darwin. We don’t play host to “joint facilities” with Russia, have routine ministerial meetings with officials in Moscow or regular bilateral summits between our heads of government. We have no influence on Moscow’s political elite.
We do, however, have limited leverage in Washington. The alliance gives us access to their decision makers, regardless of whether our opinions are welcome. With that opportunity comes a responsibility to exert influence where we can, especially to curb America’s propensity to meet its global political challenges with extreme violence. This does not constitute a disproportionate preoccupation with US foreign policy, as the local Washington lobby would have us believe. As our major ally that is precisely where our focus should be.
It is also our ethical duty. In democratic societies, responsibility for the consequences of our actions extends to the decisions taken by governments on our behalf because we can participate in the process of formulating policy. The US alliance is a policy choice for Australia and there is no evading the moral consequences of that relationship, including the international behaviour of “our great and powerful friend”.
Our leaders closely align themselves with their counterparts in Washington, and claim to share both common values and a similar view of the world. In Iraq and Afghanistan, as in several wars before, we have been willingly complicit in acts of aggression and breaches of international law. Drawing attention to these crimes, as opposed to those committed by others we have no influence upon, does not constitute anti-Americanism. It is our moral and political responsibility. Like charity, analysis and criticism should begin at home.
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
Years after America officially withdrew from the country it invaded in 2003, Iraq remains in chaos. The issue is largely ignored in the press these days, except for the occasional horrific tale of carnage. Nobody senior in the western world has found themselves in the dock defending their justifications for the war.
While examining the lack of legal oversight, the lack of planning or concern for the aftermath of the inevitable fall of Saddam Hussein, and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny preceding what amounted to a US war of aggression, it’s worth reflecting on the viability of making a peaceful, citizen’s arrest on former Australian prime minister John Howard for his central role in this story.
This idea has a clear and principled pedigree. In 2010, Guardian columnist George Monbiot initiated the ArrestBlair.org campaign for the purpose of rewarding anybody who made a peaceful citizen’s arrest of the former British leader. Blair was accused of “crimes against peace” and the crime of aggression. Because the political and media elites continue to insulate Blair and his colleagues from legal culpability over the Iraq war, alternative methods were required.
To this day, Iraqis are enduring insecurity, violence, kidnapping, sexual violence, extremism and terrorism. The legacy of the conflict is absolutely devastating. And yet the politicians who took America, Britain and Australia into the conflict work and play openly.
Howard, who led Australia into Iraq in 2003, remains a free man, lecturing around the world. He was given an award at Tel Aviv University this year for his “unwavering, courageous advocacy of the state of Israel spanning decades”, is often quoted in the media, and gave a talk at Sydney’s Lowy Institute in 2013 defending the morality of removing Hussein from power.
No apologies, no mea culpas and no serious questions followed. The vast bulk of the political elite prefers to ignore what transpired in 2003, and there are no serious calls to hold Howard accountable for alleged breaches of international law in joining George W Bush’s operation (Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry is a notable exception).
In Britain, the Downing Street memo revealed the illegality of the war without a UN resolution. In Australia Howard’s government, according to countless interviews with insiders at the time, had no interest in gaining advice about the legality of the enterprise. Blindly supporting the US alliance, and a desire to crush a former American ally, was paramount. Then defence department head Ric Smith has said that he “was not aware of any senior official advising against it [going into Iraq] in my time .” In reality, John Howard ministers took no advice before joining the war.
The head of the department of prime minister and cabinet, Peter Shergold, told journalist Paul Kelly in his 2009 book The March of the Patriots that “it would be wrong to think they [Howard and then foreign minister Alexander Downer] were not interested in advice but the advice they wanted … was about the conduct of the war and capabilities, not the decision to go to war.”
Britain’s Chilcot inquiry, yet to release its report amidst accusations of political interference, heard in 2010 that every senior legal advisor at the Foreign Office before the war concluded that it breached international law. Despite these damning facts, Blair and his foreign secretary Jack Straw are seemingly immune from prosecution or even serious investigation.
This is where the power of the people becomes vital, if for only symbolic reasons, to highlight the institutional failure of our nominally democratic system to hold the highest office bearers to account. International law must apply to all.
This January, Monbiot praised the latest individual who confronted Blair, at a restaurant in London, and wrote that:
It has already succeeded in doing two things: keeping the issue – and the memories of those who have been killed – alive, and sustaining the pressure to ensure that international law binds the powerful as well as the puny.
The evidence against Howard is long and detailed. He has continued to claim it was “near universal” that Saddam had WMDs and Iraq was therefore a threat to the world. In fact, countless officials, insiders,weapons inspectors and secret services questioned the accuracy of these “slam dunk” assessments. The head of Britain’s MI6 told Blair in 2002 that “the intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy.” In Australia, senior intelligence officer Andrew Wilkie resigned in 2003 over his claims that Howard was abusing intelligence reports over Iraq. No independent legal advice was sought, and therefore the party cabinet decision on war was not a transparent process .
Even former Howard government minister, Nick Minchin, admitted in 2010 that he regretted Australia was “not able to be more successful in persuading the Bush administration to remain focused on Afghanistan rather than in opening up another front in Iraq.” Minchin argued that he “knew that the decision [to invade Iraq] having been made, Australia had to support it.” There was no mention of legal advice supporting Canberra’s entry into the conflict.
Margaret Swieringa, a senior Australian public servant who worked as a secretary to the federal parliamentary intelligence committee from 2002 until 2007, wrote in 2013 that Howard’s use of intelligence reports was fundamentally flawed. She knew, as an insider, that, “none of the government’s arguments [of Iraq’s apparent immediate threat] were supported by the intelligence presented to it by its own agencies. None of these arguments were true.”
A campaign to hold Howard to account wouldn’t be a stunt. It would be a serious attempt to keep the most devastating war in a generation in the public arena by reminding those most implicated that there is a price to be paid if such actions are ever repeated again.
A full public inquiry into the Iraq war, including the war powers used by Howard to take Australia into a conflict opposed by a great number of Australian people, is required.