My new book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, is now out and last week I was interviewed by the great Californian radio show, Middle East in Focus. We talked about war contractors making money in Afghanistan, privatised immigration centres in America and beyond:
My story in Al Jazeera America:
When an earthquake struck Nepal in April, thousands of locals died in the carnage. But many foreigners had far more luck as members of Global Rescue, a company committed to rescuing its clients from dangerous environments. “Why shouldn’t we be able to hire private armies to ensure our safe return home from vacation?” posed a recent article in Wired, headlined “The tricky ethics of the lucrative disaster rescue business.”
Global Rescue is booming, opening offices in Pakistan, Thailand and beyond. There’s nothing illegal about its operations, and its mandate makes a certain amount of sense: Anybody in the middle of a natural disaster would want to be helped immediately. But the corporation’s interests aren’t humanitarian — they’re profit-driven, with an annual membership costing approximately $700. In Nepal, limited numbers of helicopters were fought over to transport injured foreigners, while the vast majority of Nepalese had no choice but to wait for help from overwhelmed relief services. “It’s beyond our scope” to assist those locals trapped on snowy mountains, said Drew Pache, a Global Rescue employee and former U.S. special forces operative.
It’s hard to find a better characterization of disaster capitalism than this — companies making money off catastrophe from the privileged few while ignoring the desperate pleas of the majority. But it’s not just natural disaster that fuels such profiteering. From Greece and Papua New Guinea to Afghanistan and Haiti, countless industries are thriving by applying this rule to immigration, war, mining and aid. These businesses aren’t conducted secretively, in part because it’s nearly impossible to hold an American company to account if it breaches human rights in a faraway nation. Their success builds on an ideology, empowered by the existing political and media structures, that exploits the widespread anxiety or panic that follows a man-made or natural crisis. Companies such as Global Rescue thrive because of it. The process depends on powerful forces pushing through exploitative policies in the name of relief, progress or reform.
Further profits are being harvested from Europe’s refugee crisis. In Britain, the private outsourcing company Serco still runs the Yarl’s Wood immigration center, a facility with a shocking record of abuse against detainees. Despite this being known for years, David Cameron’s Conservative government reappointed the multinational firm in late 2014 with another eight-year contract. It makes no sense — I visited the center last year and found depression and bleakness — unless we view it through the grim lens of disaster capitalism. Companies such as Serco exploit the refugee crisis in Libya and Syria to bully and fund politicians and guarantee an increase in their bottom line. Serco is savvy enough to see dollar signs from the guaranteed exodus of people — and in turn, today’s political system, fueled by excessive money and donations, all but ensures this outcome.
The profit motive for firms isn’t a new phenomenon. Recall the East India Co., arguably one of the world’s first disaster capitalists, which oppressed Indian and Chinese locals to become leading corporate raiders. But the global reach of today’s companies and their extravagant takings place them in a unique and often unassailable position.
For example, British multinational security firm G4S, the largest of its kind in the world, continues to operate despite suffering innumerable scandals in the last decade. The firm is always willing to exploit a crisis for profit, including by offering protection to Western travelers or by building and staffing detention centers during the current refugee crisis. Its underpaid employees in South Sudan and South Africa are prone to abuse or accidents because the company simply won’t spend enough on training. Last year on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, an Iranian asylum seeker, Reza Barati, was murdered while in the supposed care of the company and the Australian government. Nobody has yet been brought to justice.
In Greece, years of harsh austerity have left the country economically broken. The collapsed health care system is keeping citizens sick and unable to access vital medicines. Instead of relieving this pain, the European Union has advocated mass privatization, including of water and airports, which will enrich the outsourcers but do nothing to help the Greek people. The governing party Syriza has struggled to fulfill its anti-austerity election commitments, and the far-right, neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn continues to draw support.
Disaster capitalism’s logic is clear as long as the system, according to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, is “rigged.” This logic is on clear display in the U.S. as well. Since the global economic meltdown in 2008, financial firms such as Bank of America received tens of billions of dollars of government money to save them from collapse while committing vast fraud in the process. Virtually nobody was punished. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, legally obligated to hold these companies to account, didn’t just squib his responsibility, he even returned to corporate law firm Covington & Burling after leaving office earlier this year to work again with corporations on its client list that he failed to prosecute when in office.
While the financial elite plays with each other’s toys, the American population has rarely been so reliant on state handouts. More than 1 in 5 children need food stamps. The middle class often struggles to pay rent, students are burdened with debt, and Americans, according to studies, have little hope for the future.
To defeat the current stasis requires challenging business as usual. Imagine a political system in which doing business with such outlaw outfits was either banned outright or reduced to a tiny trickle. Corporations such as Chemonics and Dyncorp, with dubious records both in the West and in developing nations, should not receive further governmental contracts unless they implement drastic internal changes to ensure accountability. That would be a massive first step in reducing the ability of disaster capitalists to get what they want from the political system.
My investigation in New Matilda:
Barely a day goes by without new allegations of sexual assault, self-harm, violence or dysfunction at Australia’s privatised, immigration centres.
Whether on the mainland, Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, detention contractors Serco and Transfield are seemingly immune from censure. No controversy, failure or aggression by their staff is enough to lose the billion-dollar deals with Australia.
They’re bullet proof, protected by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) and a political culture that refuses to apologise or care if human rights are breached.
The recent news that Transfield was named “preferred bidder” by the then Abbott government, for another five years running the offshore facilities, was therefore unsurprising. The decision goes to the heart of a broken relationship between failing accountability and refugees who are deemed unpeople, those not worthy of appropriate support.
They’re often brown, Muslim and poor, easily dismissed and silenced in an age of mass migration and incarceration. If the litany of revelations and secrecy from this year’s Senate inquiries, including details of alleged water-boarding, weren’t enough to kill Transfield’s chances of having its contract renewed, then there must be something else at play.
I’ve spoken exclusively to a person involved in a bid for Australia’s immigration detention contract. He agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity and I didn’t view his statements as being solely based on self-interest. I’ll call him Greg.
From my discussion with him I understand there were up to nine bids for the contract including Transfield/Wilson Security, Serco, Spotless, Agility Logistics and five other large and small entities from Australia and PNG.
Many of the bidding companies are experienced in the profitable business of detention. Transfield is the incumbent offshore service provider while Serco has the on-shore contract. Other bidders have previously undertaken large-scale projects for the Commonwealth Government including building offshore processing facilities and providing logistics services.
Greg was shocked that Transfield was announced as the “preferred bidder”. He told me that when bids were submitted in April, he thought Transfield had a good chance of retaining the contract because it appeared to have done a “reasonable job” and hadn’t been accused of abuse and mismanagement like G4S, a previous service provider on Manus Island.
Then came the Senate enquiry and everything changed.
“I thought they couldn’t possibly retain the contract after these allegations”, Greg said. “There are over 100 serious allegations made against the company and they were totally unprofessional in their responses to questions from the Senators.
“They took even the simplest of questions on notice and behaved in an arrogant way towards them. They were caught out manipulating the truth and withholding critical pieces of information. Not to mention they spied on a member of the Australian Parliament during her visit to Nauru.”
Since the Senate enquiry there have been more allegations of sexual abuse including a rape allegation. The three accused Wilson Security employees were quickly evacuated from PNG and returned to Australia before PNG police could interview them. Transfield and Wilson had, until recently, been reluctant to assist the PNG police with enquiries.
I asked Greg why he thought Transfield had obtained the contract and he pointed out the close connections between the company and the Liberal Party. The company’s Chair is Diane Smith-Gander, a well-connected business woman who is President of the Chief Executive Women, a group of 300 senior women.
After the recent elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to the Prime Ministership, she was quoted as calling on the government to more clearly focus on women. The former Chairman of Transfield, Tony Shepherd, is now the head of the Commission of Audit established by former PM Tony Abbott.
“The decision to reward Transfield was probably a captain’s call given the closeness of Transfield’s current and former chairpersons to the Liberal Party”, Greg argued.
Greg confirmed that rumours of Transfield’s demise had been circulating for weeks before the announcement at the end of August that they were the preferred tenderer.
“When the announcement was made there was stunned silence in our office”, he said. “The Government wants us to believe that the bid from the company with hundreds of allegations of mismanagement, human rights abuse, child sexual abuse and employee complaints was still a better option than any other bid.”
With no feedback on the failing bids, Greg told me that this was clearly a political decision, outside the scope and consideration of the tender.
“Sort of makes government tendering a pointless exercise,” he said. The decision to reward Transfield, he argued, “puts Australia in the same league as undeveloped countries in terms of corruption.”
Privately managed offshore processing centres are set to continue for the foreseeable future. “If offshore processing has to occur then surely it’s better to be done by a team that treats the people properly”, Greg explained.
Sadly this isn’t a new phenomenon and has been occurring in Australia for years. For more than two decades, Canberra has been sending its refugees to corporations with no financial incentive to treat people with respect. Of course, this isn’t a problem unique to Australia. Both Britain and the United States outsource some of their immigrant facilities to companies, such as Serco and CCA, with a history of mismanagement and abuse.
Public outrage, if it occurs at all, is small and mostly politically impotent. A rare and notable exception is the growing divestment campaign in Australia against Transfield, hitting the company where it counts, the bottom line.
Even Transfield head Diane Smith-Gander missed out on heading Tourism Australia because the government feared her association with Transfield would focus attention on the toxic immigration issue.
There is current debate in Washington about immigration and prison reform, to lower massive incarceration rates, but virtually nobody is talking about the profit motive as a key factor in perpetuating the skyrocketing number of people behind bars. However, Democrat Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is pushing for an end to privatised prisons.
In August, Transfield chief executive Graeme Hunt defended his company from an onslaught of criticism and claimed that his firm was just “executing the services we’re contracted to.”
He then explained the nub of the privatised immigration issue by arguing that off-shore detention had “been issued and implemented by two successive governments of different political persuasions, remains supported by both major parties and, so far as I can tell, the vast majority of the Australian people”.
A bipartisan commitment to cruelty against refugees is a global scourge from Europe to Australia. Until desperate people are treated with dignity and respect, and not numbers to be processed, jailed and outsourced to multinationals with woeful human rights records, the detention industrial complex will continue to thrive.
* Antony Loewenstein is one of Australia’s most prominent freelance journalists, and the author of a new book, Disaster Capitalism, available here.
My investigation in Alternet:
The industrial park in Caracol, northern Haiti, never receives tourists. It’s a collection of factories producing clothes for some of America’s leading retailers including Walmart and Target. The opening of the facility in 2012 saw then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, actors Sean Penn and Ben Stiller, and fashion designer Donna Karan attend and celebrate the establishment of a center that was advertised as producing 65,000 jobs. “We had learned that supporting long-term prosperity in Haiti,” Hillary Clinton said, “meant more than providing aid.”
Today, it’s clear the promises were empty. “People unfamiliar with the area [Caracol] may see the people standing in front of the park looking for jobs and think the Caracol Industrial Park was a great idea,” Castin Milostène told me recently. He’s a coordinator of AREDE, a campaign group of Haitian grassroots organizations working with vulnerable Haitians to influence aid accountability after the devastating 2010 earthquake. ActionAid is the convener. “You may see the need and think we should have many more parks,” he continued. “But the people standing at the doors of the park looking for work have nothing, they don’t even earn on average 58 gourdes (US$1) a day — they are living in extreme poverty.”
I visited Caracol in 2012 and found few signs of employment. Many poor Haitians loitered outside the main gates looking for work and complaining about low wages. Prime agricultural land was taken with farmers left landlessand given little compensation. The US$300 million investment in the South Korean-run factory has quickly become yet another failed attempt to boost Haiti’s economy. The Financial Times headlined a story about the situation this year, “Haiti’s economy held together by polo shirts and blue jeans.”
This tragically captured the precarious nature of America’s close neighbor, a situation exacerbated by Washington’s 100-year meddling in a country that it doesn’t believe should be allowed to chart its own, independent path. Many Haitians know that United States Marines landed in Haiti in 1915 and occupied the nation for 19 years. The commercial interests that contributed to President Woodrow Wilson sending a military force have changed little in a century. One of the architects of the occupation, Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, infamously admitted in 1935, “I helped make Haiti…a decent place for the National City Bank Boys.”
Haiti is undergoing profound political trauma. Recent elections were flawedwith millions of citizens feeling disempowered from the process of government. More than five years after the earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left the capital Port-au-Prince like a war zone, the nation is wracked with an administration that is incompetent and corrupt and a government installed by the Obama administration in 2011. Only 11 elected officials remain in Haiti and President Michel Martelly is one of them.
The country is facing huge challenges. Cholera continues to ravage the population (and the United Nations, which brought the disease to the country, refuses to take responsibility for it), neighboring Dominican Republic seems determined to expel its Haitian immigrants back to an economically volatile state and billions of dollars in foreign aid has either disappeared or been stolen by foreign contractors or local officials. The American Red Cross stands accused of incompetence and dishonesty over the money it raised after the 2010 earthquake.
“Haitians often use the proverb, Lave men, swiye ate[wash your hands, dry them in the dirt] to describe the often contradictory US policies towards Haiti, and the proverb applies more than ever to the Obama administration,” explained Brian Concannon Jr., executive director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti based in the United States.
Timothy Schwartz, an American anthropologist and author with decades of experience in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, speaks scathingly of American complicity in Haiti’s malaise. He argues that Washington simply doesn’t try to understand that throwing more unaccountable and privatized aid at the problem isn’t going to solve the structural issues. He targets Cheryl Mills, a trusted appointee of Hillary Clinton, who was intimately involved in working with the former Secretary of State.
“She [Mills] tried to force programs on Haiti that didn’t fit,” Schwartz told me. “One example is that rather than repairing damaged houses after the earthquake, she disregarded advice from USAID and those on the ground in Haiti and tried to build massive new housing complexes, something that failed over and over because of the primacy of the informal land tenure system — there essentially are no ‘legal’ titles and hence the projects would collapse under legal scrutiny – and the egregiously corrupt construction companies that operate in the arena of international concessions…To this day that housing disaster that Mills created goes on with homes being built that should have cost 3 to 5 thousand dollars running into the 30s and 40s of thousands.”
It’s the same mindset when building more industrial parks. Local Haitians are barely consulted. During my two trips to Haiti over the last years, a constant refrain from locals was how many of them were ignored when they had warned to anybody who would listen about the economic and environmental destructions caused by clothing factories. In place of a sustainable policy that would create long-term jobs with fair pay, Haitian politicians and their American masters advocate policies to benefit foreign corporations.
According to research undertaken by the Solidary Center, an American non-profit organization aligned with the labor movement, Haiti’s garment industry is beset with low wages, arbitrary firings and poor conditions. Although there are over at least 32,000 clothing workers registered nation-wide (and around 5000 employees at Caracol), employers constantly set unrealistic quotas and low prices per piece assembled, making it impossible for workers to earn the production minimum wage in a standard eight-hour day.
The Center’s Haiti co-ordinator gave me examples of workers being discriminated against in Caracol and elsewhere: “One union reported that its members must show up to the factory on Saturdays and wait in line for hours to receive their earnings. For instances in which the employer does not have exact change, the workers are shorted what they are owed.” Workers can barely afford to pay for lunch and transportation to and from the factory.
Viewing Haiti as a repository of cheap labor defines Washington’s relationship with Port-au-Prince. Padilla Peralta, author of the book, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, and lecturer in humanities at Columbia University to previously incarcerated adults, told me that he completely rejected the uneven dynamic between the two nations. “Why should Haitian bodies have to be subordinated to the imperatives of global capital?”
He urged the Obama administration to reverse a century of domination. “The US should commit itself to providing as much efficaciously disbursed humanitarian aid as possible — and resist the temptation to tip the scales in favor of specific candidates most likely to be pliable to American geopolitical-corporate interest (but I know better than to hope that it will).”
The proposed presidential election in October is not guaranteed to take place. Political uncertainty surrounds the entire process. This could be a unique opportunity for Washington to change its relationship with its neighbor if only there was the will.
The following review of my newly released book is written by Robert J. Burrowes and appears in The Lahore Times:
In his just-released book, ‘Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe‘, Antony Loewenstein offers us a superb description of the diminishing power of national governments and international organisations to exercise power in the modern world as multinational corporations consolidate their control over the political and economic life of the planet.
While ostensibly a book about how national governments increasingly abrogate their duty to provide ‘public’ services to their domestic constituencies by paying corporations to provide a privatized version of the same service – which is invariably inferior and exploitative, and often explicitly violent as well – the book’s subtext is easy to read: in order to maximize corporate profits, major corporations are engaged in a struggle to wrest all power from ordinary people and those institutions that supposedly represent them. And the cost to ordinary people (including their own corporate employees) and the environment is irrelevant, from the corporate perspective.
Loewenstein spent five years researching this book so that he could report ‘the ways in which our world is being sold to the highest bidder without public consent’. In my view, he does this job admirably.
Taking as his starting point the observation of famed future studies and limits to growth expert Professor Jørgen Randers that ‘It is profitable to let the world go to hell’, Loewenstein set out to describe precisely how this is happening. He went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to explore the world of ‘private military companies’, Greece to listen to refugees imprisoned in ‘brutal’ privatized detention centres, Haiti to investigate its ‘occupation’ by the United Nations and ‘aid’ organizations following the earthquake in 2010, and Bougainville to understand the dilemma faced by those who want progress without the price of further corporate environmental vandalism (for which they have paid heavily already).
Loewenstein also checked out the ‘outsourced incarceration’ that now ensures that the US rate of imprisonment far exceeds that in all other countries, the privatized asylum seeker detention centres in the UK which are the end product of ‘a system that demonizes the vulnerable’, and the equivalent centres in Australia which ‘warehouse’ many asylum seekers in appalling privatized detention centres, including those located on offshore islands.
It is easy and appropriate to be outraged by some of the details Loewenstein provides, like the ‘three strike’ laws in the United States ‘that put people behind bars for life for stealing a chocolate bar’, but it is obviously important to comprehend the nature of the systemic crisis in which we are being enveloped by ‘disaster capitalism’ if we are to have any chance of resisting it effectively. So what are it’s key features?
In essence, predatory corporations (which usually keep a low profile) are financed by government money (that is, your taxes), supported by tax concessions and insulated from genuine accountability, political criticism and media scrutiny while being given enormous power to provide the infrastructure and labor to conduct a function, domestically or internationally, which has previously been performed by a government or international organization. If this happens at the expense of a nation truly exercising its independence, then too bad.
Moreover, because the corporate function is being performed ‘solely to benefit international shareholders’ which means that maximum profit is the primary aim, both the people who are supposedly being served by the corporation (citizens, refugees, prisoners…) and the corporation’s own employees are invariably subjected to far greater levels of abuse, exploitation, violence and/or corruption than they would have experienced under a public service equivalent.
Loewenstein provides the evidence to demonstrate this fact in one case after another. The ones that I found most interesting are the use of mercenaries in Afghanistan which provided further evidence that US policy, and even its military strategy and tactics ‘on the ground’, is being progressively taken over by corporations, and the ‘occupation’ of Haiti, post-earthquake in 2010, by the UN and NGO ‘aid’ agencies which forced locals into the perpetual victimhood of corporate-skewed ‘development’.
The use of private military companies (jargon for government-contracted companies that hire and deploy mercenary soldiers, ‘intelligence’ personnel, private security staff, construction teams, training personnel and provide base services such as food, laundry and maintenance) in Afghanistan has meant that there are far more US contractors than US soldiers in Afghanistan and ‘troop withdrawal’ means just that: troops not contractors. The occupation is far from over, Loewenstein notes.
Moreover, he asserts, the US mission in Afghanistan is ‘intimately tied to these unaccountable forces’. As many of us have been observing for considerable time, with control of US government policy now largely in the hands of the US elite (a select group compared with the military-industrial complex of which departing president Eisenhower warned us in 1961), its controlling tentacles reach ever more deeply into US actions at all levels. This is reflected in the way that military tactics are often designed in response to the development of weapons (such as drones) rather than, as should be the case, policy and strategy determining the nature of the tactics and weapons (if any) designed and used. It’s not so much that the corporate ‘tail’ is now wagging the government ‘dog’: the ‘tail’ is now bigger and more powerful than the ‘dog’ itself. In essence, the ‘US government interest’ means the ‘US corporate interest’.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is not the only ‘horror story’ in Loewenstein’s book. I was particularly pained by his account of the multi-faceted violence that has been inflicted on Haiti since the devastating earthquake on 12 January 2010 that affected three million Haitians, killing more than 300,000. On 1 February 2010, US Ambassador Kenneth Merton headlined his cable ‘The Gold Rush Is On’ and went on to explain his excitement: ‘As Haiti digs out from the earthquake, different companies are moving in to sell their concepts, products and services.’ Merton’s lack of compassion for those killed, injured or left homeless by the earthquake is breathtaking.
Tragically, it isn’t just corporate exploitation of Haitians that exacerbated the adverse impact of the earthquake. The United Nations was horrific too. The evidence clearly pointed to its responsibility for a cholera epidemic shortly after the earthquake, which affected more than 700,000 people, killing 9,000. And given the responsibility of UN troops, allegedly present to enhance safety, for previous violence against Haitians, most Haitians simply regarded the presence of UN troops as ‘another occupation’ following the French colonization, which they overthrew in 1794, and the US occupation which led to the Duvalier dictatorships, that were resisted until their defeat in 1986.
But whatever damage the UN has done, it is the governments of the US, France and Canada, whose aid dollars via many corporations never reach those in need, NGOs like the Clinton Foundation, and the predatory corporations that truly know how to exploit a country. This is why the civil infrastructure in Port-au-Prince remains unrepaired nearly six years after the earthquake and the average city resident still lives in ‘rubbish, filth, and squalor’. Somehow, the corporations that were given the aid money to rebuild Haiti or provide other services were able to absorb billions of dollars without doing much at all. Although, it should be noted, company profits have been healthy. Are they held accountable? Of course not. Disaster capitalism at its best.
So can we predict the outcome for Nepal following its earthquakes earlier this year? We certainly can. The corrupt diversion of aid funds to corporate bank accounts. And ordinary Nepalese will continue to suffer.
I could go on but you will be better off checking out the book yourself. Loewenstein writes well and he has fascinating material with which to hold your interest. By the way, his personal website if you want to keep track of his journalism is here. He has recently been doing research in South Sudan.
So is there anything I didn’t like? Well, given my own passion for analysis and strategy, I would have liked to read more about Loewenstein’s thoughts on why, precisely, this all happens and how we can get out of this mess. He is an astute observer of reality and hopefully, in future, he will be more forthcoming in making suggestions.
In the meantime, if you are interested in understanding why many individuals have a dysfunctional compulsion to make profits at the expense of human and environmental needs, my own analysis is briefly outlined in this article: ‘Love Denied: The Psychology of Materialism, Violence and War‘. But there is much more detail explaining the psychological origins of violent and exploitative behaviours in ‘Why Violence?‘
And if you are someone who does not outsource your own responsibility to play a role in ending the elite-driven violence and exploitation in our world, you might like to sign the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World‘. The Nonviolence Charter references other documents for action if you are so inclined.
Anyway, apart from this observation, the main reason why I think this is such a good book is because it gave me much new and carefully researched information that got me thinking, more deeply, about issues that I often ponder. There is a good chance that it will enlighten you too.
Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?‘ His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is at http://robertjburrowes.wordpress.com
My article in Foreign Policy:
In the middle of a hot, clear day on Aug. 21, roughly 2,000 people packed around the John Garang Mausoleum in downtown Juba to shout down the latest deal to end South Sudan’s nearly two-year-long war. Organized by the government, it was an event for true believers, those somehow insulated from the economic ravages of the war: young boys and girls in school uniform, men in suits, and women in colorful dresses. As a DJ sang over pre-recorded music blaring on massive speakers, praising South Sudan and its president, Salva Kiir, participants held large signs written in English declaring “one army, not two” and “no regime change through violence.”
For regime loyalists in the crowd, the nation’s success or failure was connected inextricably to Kiir, seen by them as the liberating hero who brought independence to South Sudan. On Aug. 19, a letter was distributed on the letterhead of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling party, calling on the government not to sign any peace agreement with the opposition. It opposed the “recolonization” of South Sudan by foreign powers, Sudan, the U.N., or the African Union — a fear expressed by many locals.
It did not come as a surprise then that the cease-fire penned in the last days of August has failed, and did so almost as soon as it began. Despite both government and rebel forces agreeing to stop fighting from midnight on Aug. 29, days after Kiir signed a peace agreement with rebel leader Riek Machar to stop the 20-month conflict in the country, little has changed on the ground. Clashes in Unity State are ongoing with the government and opposition both accusing the other of breaking the peace. In late August, a town in Payinjiar County was allegedly shelled by government troops trying to wrestle it back from the rebels.
Both Kiir and Machar have maintained that they are still committed to the deal — Kiir is set to present the agreement to the national legislature for ratification on Tuesday, and Machar has promised approval on a similar timeline — blaming the other for breaking the peace. But there is ample reason to doubt their commitment: If the deal fully falls apart, it will be at least the seventh to collapse just after being signed. And the West, so far, has appeared powerless to stop the carnage. On Friday, the U.N. Security Council met to discuss an arms embargo and sanctions against leaders who have thwarted the latest attempt at peace.
One of the most daunting impediments to a sustainable peace in the country is the people who run it — for the moment, the elites only stand to lose, both financially and politically, from a settlement. And the international community has struggled to address that ugly fact. Though the U.N. has threatened new sanctions, few would change the country’s dysfunctional patronage system. There has yet to be a concerted attempt to focus on vested interests, including asset freezes in outside countries. Although NGOs, such as the Enough Project’s recently launched endeavor The Sentry, have begun to target the financing of Africa’s worst conflicts, state efforts have lagged behind.
Even as he signed the latest cease-fire agreement, President Kiir made it clear that he was deeply suspicious of the deal pushed by African nations, the United Nations, and United States. “The current peace we are signing today has so many things we have to reject,” he said. “Such reservations, if ignored, would not be in the interests of just and lasting peace.” During the signing of the peace agreement, Kiir even attached a list of amendments, rejected by the Obama administration, outlining his concerns.
Components of the deal include demilitarizing the capital Juba, cessation of hostilities, reinstalling Machar as vice president, sharing oil fields, and improving humanitarian access for civilians. It also calls for a transitional government to take power in 90 days.
Arguably, Kiir only signed because Washington and the U.N. threatened an arms embargo and new sanctions designations against senior military and government figures; it’s a stalling tactic he has used before. On Sept. 1, the United States reiterated that threat: State Department spokesman Mark Toner reminded the warring parties that “anyone acting to spoil the peace agreement implementation will face consequences.” The State Department declined to comment further on the chances of the United States imposing sanctions if the conflict persisted.
South Sudan won its independence from Sudan in 2011, but the country collapsed into war in December 2013 as Kiir and Machar, his former deputy, fought over power sharing and access to copious oil reserves. Although reliable figures are hard to find, the International Crisis Group has publicly stated that the death toll could be at least 100,000. Hundreds of thousands of children are living without education, and 2.2 million — more than one-sixth of the country’s population — have been forced from their homes, with almost 200,000 taking shelter at U.N. bases. At least 40 percent of the population is severely hungry, and levels of brutality are extreme.
So what can the West do?
Humanitarian leaders have called for action that better targets the elites perpetuating the war. After the recent signing of the peace agreement, international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Enough Project, and Oxfam, continued advocating for tough measures against leaders and military heads who willfully caused civilian suffering. They also called for effective mechanisms to implement justice for victims and perpetrators. There is still no road map toward establishing a robust court capable of hearing cases of war crimes or genocide; a proposal in the peace agreement calls for a court with South Sudanese and Africans overseeing violations of international law. Meaningful sanctions with bite remain an option for America if war continues, though Washington’s engagement is likely to be minimal as the Obama administration is consumed with troubles in the Middle East.
Alex de Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation, recently wrote, “Political survival [in South Sudan] is determined by the iron laws of the marketplace: The politician needs a political budget sufficient to secure the loyalty of subordinates and to compete with rivals.” Kiir’s hesitation to agree to peace, de Waal explains, was “because he has a limited and shrinking political budget, the price of loyalty has not decreased, and the number of claimants on those funds is increasing. In the current political marketplace system, he cannot make peace without more money.” More pointedly, fighting will continue as long as the current patronage system for dividing wealth survives. Sanctions can’t fix it, but targeting assets is an important first step toward ultimately replacing the corrupt political system.
The U.N. and the United States, however, have so far been unable or unwilling to do so. Justine Fleischner, the Sudan and South Sudan policy analyst with the Enough Project, told me that her organization wants a court to “prosecute economic and atrocity crimes, including pillaging and grand corruption.” The U.S. Department of Justice’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, she said, “is another tool that may be deployed to support efforts to prosecute economic crimes,” but the political will to pursue those committing the crimes is absent.
An arms embargo, which was reportedly discussed at the U.N. on Friday, is “notoriously difficult to implement, and any effective arms embargo on South Sudan would have to be regionally and globally enforced,” she said. Weapons are coming from countries such as Uganda, China, Israel, and Sudan. Even with the peace agreement signed and the most serious sanctions taken off the table, Fleischner believes that the difficulties of enforcement aren’t a reason to avoid an arms embargo. “It would allow the U.N. Panel of Experts to more closely monitor arms flows. It would also provide a basis for secondary sanctions and public exposure directed at any state or entity facilitating arms deals.”
It’s a position shared by Human Rights Watch. Jehanne Henry, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, told me, “No matter what happens with this peace deal, we think the U.N. should be taking steps to impose an arms embargo, widen and implement sanctions [on] individuals responsible for serious crimes against civilians, and take concrete steps to plan a justice mechanism.”
While the U.N. contemplates updating the remit of its peacekeepers to help implement an already faltering peace agreement, the people of South Sudan are no closer to experiencing a peaceful present and future. Rhetorical battles over peace deals mean nothing for the millions of civilians caught in the crossfire. If the U.N. and Washington are serious about ending the endemic violence and corruption in South Sudan, a radical new strategy must be adopted, targeting the key players behind the violence. Unless this happens soon, the already bad situation can only get worse.
My following article appears in Al Jazeera America:
“Envy isn’t a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” Chicago Tribune editorial board member Kristen McQueary wrote in a recent column, referring to the monster storm that nearly wiped out the city of New Orleans in 2005. “Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth.”
McQueary wished for a storm to wipe away Chicago’s corruption, slash the city’s budget and introduce private education. However, she did not mention how African-Americans in New Orleans were disproportionately affected by the disaster or how race became a determining factor in what was rebuilt, how and where.
A decade on, much remains unfinished. New Orleans still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, though a recent study by the Data Center found a 67 percent drop in the city’s prison population since Katrina. The private prison industry appears pleased with its successes, contracting many facilities with troubled records. At least a quarter of New Orleans’ population gets by at or below the national poverty line. Illiteracy is rife. But not everyone agrees: According to a new study by Louisiana State University, a majority of white residents in New Orleans said they believe that the city has mostly recovered, while black residents reported the opposite.
McQueary’s column received a deluge of criticism. “I wrote what I did not out of lack of empathy or racism but out of long-standing frustration with Chicago’s poorly managed finances,” she explained in a follow-up post the next day. But it was too late: No amount of call for “revolutionary change” in Chicago and an end to “borrowing our way into bankruptcy” would repair the damage.
None of this should have been surprising. McQueary was being honest about a phenomenon that Canadian writer Naomi Klein termed disaster capitalism, which profits from vulnerable people’s misery. McQueary was tone deaf to the human cost of her preferred policies. For example, she endorsed dismissing labor contracts and teacher unions,calling for “a free-market education” model and “a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur.”
In practice, this means deregulating and privatizing companies and services with lower pay for employees, fewer unions and inflexible working hours. The prevailing neoliberal economic order ensures that the profit motive is built into the delivery of services. This is why avoiding another Katrina requires examining what Klein refers to as “the reality of an economic order built on white supremacy.”
Politicians and commentators the world over see disaster capitalism as rational and necessary after a natural or man-made crisis. This is good for you, we’re told; better housing, schooling and infrastructure will follow. In reality, however, the much-vaunted austerity — sold as an answer to economic woes in Greece, Puerto Rico and cities across the United States that lack a secure safety net for the poor — simply doesn’t work. But it lines the pockets of corporations that see the crisis as a financial opportunity.
Since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many myths have developed around the crisis and its aftermath. The news isn’t uniformly negative. Studies show that New Orleans residents are more able to deal with stress and express great pride in their city’s culture in the last decade. In addition, black residents now have better choices of fresh food at grocery stores than they did before the disaster hit. Yet this shift wasn’t a result of multinational corporations opening stores in the neighborhoods but an outcome of the Fresh Food Retailer’s Initiative, a cooperative plan that offers low-interest loans for grocers to get started or rebuild in troubled areas of New Orleans.
Privatization advocates contend that Katrina brought essential reforms to Louisiana’s education system. But the facts tell a different story. “A key part of the New Orleans narrative is that firing the unionized, mostly black teachers after Katrina cleared the way for young, idealistic (mostly white) educators who are willing to work 12 to 14 hour days,” wrote Andrea Gabor, a professor of journalism at Baruch College, in a detailed story in The New York Times last week. “For outsiders, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for some students, but it also hurt the most disadvantaged pupils.”
Similarly, public housing in New Orleans remain a mess, with the state increasing rents for residents in areas that many say lack a cohesive community spirit. There is a long waiting list for subsidized housing.
To be clear, poor quality structures were blights on the city even before Katrina. But the United States’ slow economic recovery has emboldened officials in Louisiana and elsewhere who argue that privatized services are far preferable to a well-financed public system. The flood of corporate donations to politicians augments these arguments.
Disaster capitalism is a readily exportable commodity. New Orleans still pulses to a resilient rhythm, but those pushing for more private housing, schools and infrastructure are rarely held to account. Without accountability for the abuses of corporate-backed privatization policies, its advocates will simply move on to another city or country to maximize their profits at the expense of poor and marginalized citizens.
Countless companies are already cashing in as the climate crisis takes hold across the United States. For example, many New Yorkers fear that hurricane precautions are excluding the city’s poorest residents while protecting the richest homeowners. The billion-dollar disaster rescue industry, allowing wealthy customers to pay companies to, say, rescue them from a flood or fight fires during a wildfire, is thriving; this is the privatization of humanitarian aid. Corrupt politicians are making a fortune from rebuilding New Orleans and New York after hurricanes.
The most vulnerable in our society deserve to be treated as human beings and not as an experiment in social engineering. Disaster capitalism distorts democracy by elevating the voices of a few wealthy people above the desires of the majority. Even 10 years after Katrina, McQueary can still write blindly about radical change through privatization while ignoring the great determinant of public access in the United States: race.
I was recently interviewed by the ANU Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) in Australia on the Israel/Palestine conflict and the Middle East. It’s been published by the ANU Arabic and Middle Eastern Society (an anonymous, Zionist troll has posted a response with Israeli talking points):
The ‘Arab-Israeli/Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ has spanned for over half a century and been the repeated object of failed peace-processes and unsuccessful diplomacy. Students for Justice in Palestine are in conversation with independent journalist Antony Loewenstein to explore the growing criticism that diplomatic attempts to understand and resolve the conflict ignore human rights in a way that greatly impedes the attainment of a ‘just peace’ and a solution to the conflict.
SJP: Why are human rights important to the attainment of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
AL: Human rights are central to resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict. Supporters of Israel claim the situation is complicated when in fact this masks the brutal reality of a nearly 50 year Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and around 600,000 illegal Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Condemned by countless UN resolutions and virtually every nation in the world (except, it must be noted, Australia and the US, placing them as outliers in the international community), Israeli behaviour, the daily indignities of check-points across Palestinian territory, restrictions on Palestinian work and marriage, regular raids into Palestinian communities by the Israeli army and the detention and torture of Palestinian children and a constant lack of Palestinian stability, is condemned around the world, leading to the growth of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, a non-violent and legitimate tactic akin to the successful campaign against apartheid South Africa. The comparisons are apt, a point stressed by many black South Africans who suffered under apartheid and have witnessed today’s Israel. Desmond Tutu is just one notable figure who concurs.
SJP: What is your perspective on the labelling of individuals and organisations that discuss the Israeli government’s human rights abuses, as ‘anti-Semites’?
AL: The “anti-Semitic” smear used against critics of Israel is a tired and desperate ploy to both silence and control debate. It cheapens real anti-Semitism, a worrying trend worsened by Israeli violence, and intimidates people keen to honestly debate Israel/Palestine. Being against the Israeli occupation is an increasingly mainstream position, and Israel’s Netanyahu government, right-wing, inflammatory and with no intention of ending the occupation, is the best argument against blind Western support for Israel imaginable. Arguing for a two-state solution, the default and tired view echoed by governments and liberal Zionists the world over, is removed from reality on the ground in Palestine, where Palestinians are being daily pushed off their land by Israeli-state backed colonists. I have seen this with my own eyes during my many visits to Palestine.
SJP: There are student groups throughout the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland who have a strong focus on raising awareness around Palestinian human rights. In comparison, Australian students seem less engaged with this issue. Why do you think this is?
AL: Student activism on Palestine is growing globally, and many universities are now seriously discussing pressuring their administration to divest from companies who are directly profiting from the Israeli occupation. I hope this movement grows in Australia, though it’s undeniably difficult when both Labor and the Liberals blindly support Israel. This isn’t about principle or knowledge but a deluded belief that Australia aligning itself with the US and the US-Australia alliance requires offering uncritical backing for Israel. This places Australia on the extreme end of Zionist extremism.
ANU Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a group of ANU students and staff dedicated to increasing awareness of issues in Israel-Palestine on ANU campus.
My story in the Guardian:
We don’t know whether the Australian military has killed or injured civilians in Iraq, and if so, how many. Since Canberra joined the US-led mission against the Islamic State (Isis) on 8 October 2014, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has provided barely any information about its operations.
So the new report by Airwars, a British organisation comprised of journalists and researchers, is welcome. It aims to demystify the war against Isis and document how many civilians are dying in Iraq and Syria.
Airwars has found at least 459 non-combatant deaths, including 100 children, from 52 airstrikes. Over 5,700 airstrikes have been launched since 2014.
Yet the US military central command cites the deaths of only two civilians. The discrepancy between these figures – two deaths, or 459 – should be startling. The US State Department pledged to “review its findings” after Airwars issued its report, with a spokesman saying “That’s why we’re looking into them and trying to see where the – what the right number is, to be frank.”
Australia’s role in the anti-Isis coalition is shrouded in secrecy. Operation Okra is described as “conducting air combat and support operations in Iraq and is operating within a US-led international coalition assembled to disrupt and degrade ISIL.”
The ADF issues very sparse monthly reports on how it is going about this mission. Australian jets are spending thousands of hours in the air, and have completed over 100 airstrikes, dropping more than 400 bombs and missiles, yet we are told only about the jets’ capabilities, and given pretty pictures of them in action.
I asked the ADF a number of questions, including why the public wasn’t being told more, whether Australia was aware of its actions causing harm or death to civilians, and whether its “rules of engagement” aimed to minimise civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure. My questions were largely ignored. I was told:
For operational security reasons, the ADF will not provide mission-specific details on individual engagements against Daesh. The ADF will not release information that could be distorted and used against Australia in Daesh propaganda. Australia’s Rules of Engagement are designed to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.
A spokesperson for the Minister for Defence, Kevin Andrews, added that, “the Abbott government has every confidence in the professionalism of the Australian Defence Force to act in accordance with Australia’s Rules of Engagement, which are designed to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure”.
When Airwars questioned Australia’s lack of information sharing – unlike, say, Canada, which releases information on a timely basis – it received the same, pro-forma response from the ADF.
Airwars project leader Chris Woods, a British journalist and author of “Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars”, told me that Australia’s lack of transparency was worrying.
“Of the 12 nations in the Coalition which have bombed Daesh in Iraq and Syria over the past year, Australia is pretty much near the bottom in terms of transparency and accountability”, he said.
“The Saudis and the Belgians are worse, though not by much. Once a month we get a chart saying how many bombs have been dropped – and that’s it. No details of locations struck. No word of the dates on which strikes occurred.”
Woods condemns Canberra’s reason for secrecy as inappropriate for a democracy.
“The excuse for this paucity of information is that Daesh might use any improved reporting ‘for propaganda purposes’. That’s absurd, of course. Canada, the UK, France and others all report happily on where and when they strike,” he says.
“And transparency really does matter. The Coalition tells us that each member nation is individually liable for the civilians it kills. If Australia refuses to say anything about its strikes, how can there be any justice for those affected on the ground if something goes wrong?”
This ADF obsession with secrecy and obsessively trying to control the message is nothing new. Remember that in 2013, the ADF tried and failed to isolate Fairfax reporters Paul McGeough and Kate Geraghty during their time in Afghanistan. As McGeough put it, they were “effectively denying our right as journalists to cover any of the story”.
Successive Australian governments have long demanded secrecy in matters of war, immigration and trade. It’s an attitude that presumes the public either doesn’t really care about what governments do; or that enough journalists are willing to swallow spin in exchange for access, embeds with Australian troops or spurious “exclusives” with the military and strategists.
Australia’s current war against Isis has continued this tradition of secrecy. As former army intelligence officer James Brown wrote recently in The Saturday Paper, “how much progress is Australia making against Daesh? It’s painfully hard to tell.” Yet there is no demand for the ADF to open up.
Paul Barratt, former secretary of the Department of Defence and president of the campaign for an Iraq War inquiry, says that the Abbott government’s attitude “reflects both its habits of secretiveness and the lack of a coherent strategy – more policy on the run.
“What started out as humanitarian relief using existing assets in the Middle East was rapidly transformed into boots on the ground in a training role, and aircraft both flying combat missions and refuelling other coalition aircraft for combat missions in Syria. There is little sign that this has been thought through or that it is heading in the direction of an achievable goal.”
I’ve long argued that reporters and media organisations should collectively push back against restrictive ADF methods by refusing to be embedded without greater freedom in the field. Apart from visiting the troops for state-managed photo ops, independent reporting of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is preferable because it’s civilians who bear the brunt of the conflict.
Journalists should also ignore “exclusives” from the ADF until it recognises it’s creating an unacceptable mystery around actions undertaken with taxpayer dollars. Would the ADF loosen its rules? I’m confident it would, not least of all because it craves publicity.
If it doesn’t, we would at least have the spectacle of the ADF defending its tenuous position on disclosure.
My feature in Foreign Policy:
BENTIU, South Sudan — Every day, some 200 people stream into Bentiu, the site of South Sudan’s largest camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Women trudge past armed U.N. peacekeepers while carrying large pots and bags on their heads and tiny children in their arms. They sit on the cracked brown earth in the blistering sun and heat, sometimes for hours, waiting to be fingerprinted. Camp workers photograph children for identification purposes, while the World Health Organization and other medical groups vaccinate them against measles and cholera. Nearby, hundreds of camp residents gather as World Food Programme workers distribute basic food rations such as sorghum and oil.
Bentiu, in Unity state near the border with Sudan, sits at the center of South Sudan’s never-ending storm. The United Nations established the camp in December 2013 after a violent power struggle broke out between President Salva Kiir’s ethnic Dinka forces and Nuer-majority rebels under the command of Riek Machar, his former deputy. More than 43,000 lived in the camp at the end of 2014, according to U.N. figures. Its population has now ballooned to 100,000, while 60,000 more live in similar, smaller facilities around the country.
Ruon David Kuol, a tall, 33-year-old man sporting a pressed purple- and white-striped shirt, arrived at the Bentiu camp from nearby Bentiu town in January 2014 with his wife and four children. But after five months, his family set off on foot for the Sudanese capital of Khartoum — some 580 miles away — leaving him behind. They did not feel safe at Bentiu, a place where women are often raped and killed by soldiers when they leave the camp for firewood and charcoal, Kuol said. It’s a problem across South Sudan. On July 21, Human Rights Watch issued a report implicating soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), South Sudan’s military, and militias in mass rape, looting, the burning of homes, and spreading widespread destruction across Unity.
“Living here is not like home. But my house was burned down by government troops. I cannot leave the camp, even [for] Bentiu town [just] down the road. I’m too scared,” said Kuol, who now serves as a liaison between his community and the camp authorities and who wants the “war crimes” being committed in his country to stop. “The guilty must be held accountable,” he said.
Such justice seems a dim prospect here, a country of 11 million where tens of thousands have died in the fighting between Kiir and Machar. Already dilapidated infrastructure, schools, and medical facilities have collapsed, and the economy is in free-fall, as some 7.8 million suffer from food insecurity; this year, South Sudan topped the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index. According to U.N. figures from this July, there are now some 1.6 million IDPs in South Sudan, and nearly 608,000 South Sudanese refugees live in neighboring countries. Currently, some 11,500 overstretched U.N. peacekeepers are stationed across South Sudan.
With the government and international community both unable or unwilling to broker peace, the desperate plight of IDPs like Kuol and his family will grow only more dire. “The country is different shades of shit,” one senior U.N. official in the capital, Juba, said.
Flying this month into Bentiu on a U.N. helicopter, one could see abandoned, burned-out buildings, as well as tens of thousands of cattle gathered near the center of town. The heavy rains had left behind lush, green fields.
The International Organization for Migration says it has registered 6,000 civilians in the area, but the government claims there are 15,000 people in Bentiu town, mostly IDPs. The discrepancy is hard to explain. But the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), an independent humanitarian organization tasked with camp management in Bentiu, said that government officials could be exaggerating numbers to receive more supplies for their own men — a pervasive but tough-to-prove allegation heard across South Sudan. “It should be the job of the government to help its own people,” DRC’s Gilbert Ogeto said.
Nature also seems to be conspiring against those in the camp. When the rain pours in Bentiu, it’s like a torrent of gray and red mud turns everything into porridge. Shopkeepers selling cell phones, flip-flops, sugar, clothes, and other basics navigate the onslaught.
During the rainy season in 2014, thousands of people lived in makeshift shelters in Bentiu’s U.N. camp, where they waded through waters reaching to their waists. Conditions were abominable, with the camp flooding and children drowning in their own homes. Roughly four children under age 5 were dying every day due to disease and malnutrition.
Determined not to face a repeat of this situation in 2015, U.N. officials used the dry months to begin raising land and installing water channels. In 2015, the U.N. and the International Organization for Migration oversaw the expansion of the camp to accommodate the influx of civilians. The new, stronger houses, built from bamboo and plastic sheets, are more resistant to the natural elements. Many IDPs are excited about living in these structures, though weary of war and uncertain when they’ll be able to return home.
But few observers expected the surge of IDPs at Bentiu, a surge largely due to the increased fighting in surrounding areas, Ogeto said. “There were plans to expand the facility in early 2015 for an additional 40,000 people. Now there are over 100,000, and we [are] planning for 120,000,” he added. A U.N. official also said that the facility couldn’t manage the “projected” IDP numbers, and many NGOs worry about being able to fund their activities if the numbers greatly exceed 100,000.
While officials are impressed with improvements to the camp, they know that ensuring its total security is impossible. Gunmen, allegedly SPLA troops, have sneaked into the Bentiu camp this year and killed residents. Armed government soldiers stalk its periphery, whose protective barriers and fences are easily breached. Barbed wire to fully secure the expanded areas is also in short supply. “Secure means different things to different people,” one U.N. security consultant remarked, acknowledging the impossibility of completely securing a site with over 100,000 people.
James Madut Ruei, a 50-year-old community elder, has lived in the Bentiu camp for 18 months and has witnessed the worst of the atrocities — including those by the SPLA. In April, government forces began an 18-month campaign against the rebels in Unity. On June 30, the U.N. issued a report alleging that the SPLA has engaged in major human rights abuses. Ruei spoke of a particularly grisly incident, also detailed in the report, of soldiers, reportedly fueled by ethnic hatred, raping women and girls before pushing some of them into huts and burning them alive. “It’s too much. It’s genocide. Only God knows when things will improve,” Ruei said. He often feels helpless in the face of the conflict, he said, and wants the international community, especially the United States, to pressure South Sudanese leaders to broker peace.
None of the horrors of Bentiu were inevitable. They rose, instead, only after the United States and the rest of the international community turned its back on South Sudan.
For decades, Christians in the United States had championed the cause of Christian-majority South Sudan in the region’s bloody fight with Muslim neighbors to the north. They found a strong backer in then-President George W. Bush, whose administration pushed for the peace talks that led to South Sudan’s secession from Sudan. In 2011, President Barack Obama welcomed a newly independent South Sudan as a strategic asset against a resurgent China in Africa. But when the conflict between Kiir and Machar exploded in 2013, Washington was distracted by other things, like the rise of the Islamic State and the war in Syria. Key U.S. posts, including ambassador and special envoy to South Sudan, sat empty for many months as weapons and support flowed to both sides of the conflict from China, Uganda, Sudan, and Israel.
In the years leading up to South Sudan’s independence, through media appearances and meetings with U.S. and U.N. officials, high-profile Westerners like actor George Clooney and John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project, campaigned vigorously for South Sudan’s independence, with seemingly little thought for the bloody consequences to come. Fortunately, Clooney and Prendergast are now demanding that the United States, South Sudan, and its neighbors pursue a new peace process, one with “biting consequences for those South Sudanese government and rebel leaders who continue to fan the flames of war and who are completely insulated from the suffering of their people,” as they wrote with a colleague in a recent article. Clooney and Prendergast have also launched a campaign to target the money fueling Africa’s worst conflicts. “With billions in oil revenues missing from state coffers, hundreds of acres of land bartered away for pennies on the dollar, and currency speculation running rampant, South Sudan was hijacked by violent kleptocrats long before it became an independent state,” said Akshaya Kumar, Sudan and South Sudan policy analyst with the Enough Project, in congressional testimony on July 10.
In an interview earlier this year with Foreign Policy, Princeton Lyman, Obama’s special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan in 2010 and 2011, said that Washington’s use of contractors instead of the U.S. military to work alongside South Sudan’s military was a key failing. He argued that the split between Kiir and Machar might have been avoided with deeper U.S. military engagement. “We would have seen the cracks that occurred in December 2013. We might have been able to anticipate it more and do something more about it,” he said.
As the months wore on through 2014 and into this year, Juba felt forgotten by Washington and the international community. The government’s relationship with U.N. officials, in particular, deteriorated sharply, imperiling those at the Bentiu camp and others like it. Speaking off the record, countless U.N. officials at the camp said that Kiir’s government has grown less tolerant of public criticism of its actions. Toby Lanzer, the former top U.N. official in the country, was kicked out in June by the government for being overtly critical of the regime, and other U.N. officials have been threatened with expulsion for placing blame for the endless fighting and abuses on the military and government. South Sudan’s government is also currently blocking passage of a U.N. food barge on the Nile, the latest restriction on civilians getting much needed supplies in rebel-controlled areas. As a result of the growing acrimony, U.N. sources say, the organization now rarely publicly challenges official actions by South Sudan’s government. The U.N. also stands accused of turning a blind eye to a Canadian aid worker who was raped in 2015 at its Bentiu camp.
The U.N.’s patience with the South Sudanese government is wearing thin. While there is no indication that the U.N. will leave South Sudan or be kicked out anytime soon, a senior U.N. official in Bentiu was exasperated with the war’s escalation and the apparent lack of urgency by the government to end it. “Even if the U.N. leaves tomorrow,” he said, “civilians would flee to Sudan, and the South Sudanese government still wouldn’t feed its own people.”
South Sudan seems to be mimicking Sudan’s fraught relationship with the U.N., but “they’re not as clever,” one senior U.N. official said in Juba, “but getting better. They believe they can militarily defeat the rebels or its leader, Machar, will die or be killed. I don’t think the government will yet kick out the U.N. entirely because they still crave international support and legitimacy.”
U.S. policymakers are finally signaling a shift toward accepting reality. On July 9, the four-year anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, criticized by many Africa watchers as being too close to the continent’s dictators, issued a statement congratulating South Sudan on its independence, while ripping into Kiir and Machar “and their cronies [who] are personally responsible for this new war and self-inflicted disaster.” She promised that the United States, “along with the international community, will punish those determined to drive South Sudan into the abyss.”
Calls from activists in the United States and Africa for Obama to strongly engage the South Sudan issue during his visit to Africa were strong. On July 27, the president and regional officials met to discuss the creation of a regional intervention force and the potential for harsher sanctions against South Sudanese leaders. He condemned both Kiir and Machar during his speech to the African Union in Ethiopia. The International Crisis Group released a report on July 27 that argued that a regional solution to the war is “the best — if imperfect — chance to end the conflict and prevent further regionalisation.”
Things in Bentiu, meanwhile, are unlikely to change anytime soon. Nyamai Marko Liah, 27, and Nyawai Puot Chuol, 30, arrived in Bentiu in early July, each with four children. They wore clean, colorful dresses. They’re both married to the same man, Nyak Nong, who escaped to Sudan at the outbreak of the conflict. They haven’t seen him since, but occasionally speak to him via satellite phone. “If I could meet President Kiir and rebel leader Machar,” Liah told me, “I’d ask them to negotiate.… But we don’t see any sign of peace in this country.”
My piece for American website Mondoweiss:
The global arms race has never been more lucrative. America and China are engaged in unprecedented levels of spending around the world to influence and shape global affairs. The effects are devastating on civilians but Washington and Beijing insists they’re “stabilizing” nations. It’s one of the deadliest myths of the 21st century.
Saudi Arabia has executed at least 100 people since January, half of which were for non-violent drug offences. The country’s bombing campaign in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians and exacerbated a humanitarian catastrophe in the Arab world’s poorest nation.
None of these facts have any bearing on America’s attitude towards its close Middle Eastern ally. Between 2010 and 2014, both countries reached $90 billion of weapons sales that included planes and armored vehicles. Despite calls from activists to halt the huge increase in arms deals between Western nations and Saudi Arabia, Riyadh claims it fears the rise of Iran and Islamic State and is now the world’s biggest defense importer.
The effect on regional violence will be devastating with the Obama administration overseeing the largest expansion of weapons’ dealing in history. Washington is bribing Israel with arms to accept the Iranian nuclear deal (and despite the bluster Netanyahu will eventually accept it) while continuing to sell weapons to the dictatorial Egyptian regime. Jordan is receiving precision-guided missiles for its fight against Islamist militants and Bahrain, even after brutally crushing a pro-democracy movement in 2011, knew it would still receive military support from America.
A nuclear agreement between Washington and Iran is undeniably better than a military conflict but Muslim civilians in the region will pay a steep price. The Wall Street Journal captured the mood with its headline: “US seeks to ally concerns of allies on nuclear deal”. This is code for bribing autocracies with more weapons:
“The U.S. is specifically looking at ways to expedite arms transfers to Arab states in the Persian Gulf and is accelerating plans for them to develop an integrated regional ballistic missile defense capability, a senior administration official said.”
When US Secretary of State John Kerry talks of Tehran increasing instability in the Middle East, it’s worth remembering who is introducing so much defense equipment into the region. Arming dictatorial allies is one of the darkest legacies of the Obama era.
Defense contractors are excited about the prospect of increased tension in the Middle East. Insecurity leads to strong business. Defense company Lockheed Martin is predicting that foreign sales will soon represent 20 percent of its business. In a sign of its seriousness, the firm opened the Center for Innovation and Security Solutions in Abu Dhabi in late 2014 to assist the United Arab Emirates and design more efficient ways to partner with US allies. Another firm, Raytheon, is seeing increased sales with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar and the UAE.
Grant Rogan, CEO of Blenheim Capital and a military sales expert, recently told Foreign Policy that American weapons’ deals could soon skyrocket. “The Saudis and Emiratis don’t trust the [Iranian nuclear] deal, no matter what the deal is”, he said. He expected advanced radar systems “happening in Saudi substantially faster if there’s no deal — or if it’s a deal that doesn’t defang Iran.”
However, America’s dominance of global arms sales is being challenged like never before. China is especially appealing to developing countries, keen on buying “military set meals”, a starter pack of basic defense gear. South Sudan has been a willing buyer despite the regime pursuing a brutal war against its civilian population. Although Beijing has spent billions of dollars building infrastructure in countless areas around the world in the last decade, including Africa, growing environmental, debt and labor issues have increased skepticism towards China’s development model.
“China’s leaders demonstrate little appreciation of the yawning gulfs that separate African people from their rulers, even in newly democratic nations”, writes journalist Howard French. Washington claims to believe in good governance and freedom of speech but its policies have entrenched authoritarianism across Africa under the guise of “fighting terrorism”.
China and America are now engaged in a race for African dollars, a continent with resources and a growing middle class to embrace and exploit. Founder of military contractor Blackwater, Erik Prince, works with Frontier Services Group alongside China’s biggest state-owned firm, Citic Group, to get some of the estimated $1 trillion Beijing intends to spend in Africa by 2025.
Despite China’s partial colonization of Africa, Washington has accelerated covert operations in the last years to support, train and arm militaries and rebel groups. American journalist Nick Turse, writing in his new book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, explains how George W. Bush and particularly Barack Obama have engendered a pivot towards Africa “spanning almost fifty countries”. These include “drone assassinations in Somalia, a proxy war in Mali, shadowy ops in Chad and antipiracy efforts in the Gulf of Guinea.” US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is a secretive organization with little strategic depth.
The effect, like in the Middle East, has been to hugely destabilize an already fragile continent. At an Obama-led US-Africa summit in Washington in 2014, African leaders were desperate for new weapons to fight wars that neatly fit with Washington’s “war on terror”. Think Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram, one example of a US-backed army committing gross abuses of human rights in its battle against extremism. The deadly reality is that American efforts have failed spectacularly, causing suffering for African civilians and increasing the chances of blowback on the American homeland.
The Global Peace Index released its 2015 report and found an increasingly unstable world. Arms dealing by China and America are directly contributing to this result and yet their involvement in this deadly trade is too rarely acknowledged.
Past the rosy headlines of an Iranian and American détente lies the grim reality for millions of civilians in Africa and the Middle East. For them, Washington and Beijing will continue selling weapons to leaders for whom the ideas of democracy and peace are foreign concepts.
My article in Le Monde Diplomatique English:
The UN Security Council recently imposed new sanctions on South Sudan including travel bans on six South Sudanese citizens. Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, praised the move saying: “The Security Council took strong action in support of a peaceful end to the conflict in South Sudan by sanctioning six South Sudanese individuals for fuelling the ongoing conflict and contributing to the devastating humanitarian crisis in their country.”
But the reality is that only one of the listed men, Major-General Marial Chanuong Yol Mangok, has a passport. This is largely a toothless travel ban on non-travellers. Many observers of South Sudan argue that the latest round of sanctions will do little to stop the country’s turmoil.
Even an arms embargo would only be successful if UN members enforce it:Israel and others still sell weapons to the war-torn nation. But an embargo has its place (the lifting of an international arms embargo on Somalia in 2013reportedly resulted in a rise of human rights abuses).
But neither President Salva Kiir nor rebel leader Riek Machar (the two men leading a brutal war for victory) are touched by the latest UN moves. Opposition figure Lam Akol told Associated Press that “if the sanctions are meant to encourage the spoilers to be serious for peace, and to warn them that not doing so has a price or punishment, then they should target the right people.”
South Sudan stands at a precarious point in its young history — 9 July was the fourth anniversary of independence and yet there was little to celebrate. I attended a government-organised “celebration” in the middle of the capital, Juba, on a searingly hot day. Although thousands of locals attended, many in full suits and fancy dresses, it was hard to discern any real enthusiasm. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni spoke, and warned against “outsiders” meddling in African affairs while his gunships flew overhead. President Kiir pledged to bring peace to South Sudan and remove corruption, promises that after years of war were hard to believe.
Since December 2013, when political and ethnic simmering tensions between Kiir and Machar exploded in bloodshed in the capital Juba and across the country, the nation has been rocked by extreme violence and dislocation. The world’s newest state has become one of the most reliant on international donors and aid to barely keep alive.
The exuberance that greeted the 2011 independence vote has largely disappeared. I never meet any locals in South Sudan who want to be once again controlled by Sudan under President Omar al-Bashir — for years under his rule the Muslim north routinely abused its southern, Christian neighbours — and yet millions of internally and externally displaced refugees are losing any hope of a secure future.
Today around eight million civilians, out of a population of 11 million, face food scarcity and at least 40% of the country is predicted to suffer from severe hunger by the end of July. In other parts of the nation, such as Unity and Western Jonglei States, some households face catastrophe and likely starvation, according to the USAID-backed Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) issued a report in late June that accused government soldiers of “widespread human rights abuses” in Unity State. The allegations included the sexual abuse of women and girls, and the burning alive of girls in their homes. The report stated: “This recent upsurge (in fighting) has not only been marked by allegations of killing, rape, abduction, looting, arson and displacement, but by a new brutality and intensity. The scope and level of cruelty that has characterized the reports suggests a depth of antipathy that exceeds political differences.”
The scale of the humanitarian crisis is immense. UNMISS runs “protection of civilian” camps and as of 6 July they were housing 153,769 people nationwide in eight locations. Cholera outbreaks are increasing while the current rainy season means vast swathes of the country are inaccessible by road. Billions of dollars of global, financial support is being pledged on an annual basis for the UN and NGOs to administer assistance, but I’m hearing there’s donor fatigue after years of grinding conflict with a rising death toll (tens of thousands, at the very least). In the brutal calculation of donor contributors, South Sudan may become less of a priority than, say, Syria or Iraq, though the needs are only increasing.
None of this carnage was inevitable. It’s a man-made disaster that was emboldened by the choices made by western powers and supporters in the lead-up to the 2011 independence vote. Buyer’s remorse is now ubiquitous. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently visited South Sudan and powerfully reported on the conditions faced by suffering civilians. While he acknowledges his own backing for the Kiir government in 2011 — though “now it’s difficult not to feel despair” — there’s little reflection on lessons that should be learned from the experience.
The US, like all nations, doesn’t support states out of love or belief in human rights: it’s always about strengthening interests. South Sudan was framed as a bulwark against Muslim Sudan that had given shelter to Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s and remains close with Iran. Furthermore, China has spent the last decade colonizing Africa and furnishing various regimes with infrastructure and weapons. The US wanted a foreign policy success in the heart of the continent, while warning Beijing to stay off its turf, and for a brief time President Obama was able to claim this. It didn’t last long.
American actor George Clooney was another prominent and politically significant backer of South Sudanese independence. Few questions were asked, however, about the regime that was set to lead the country. Now Clooney is far more honest about the reality and wants to “dismantle the financial networks profiting from Africa’s deadliest wars.” If only these insights had been offered before 2011: “After securing their country’s independence, South Sudan’s political leadership embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from the state treasury, leaving little for education, health or other services. Soon, this violent kleptocracy degenerated along factional lines.”
The only way the conflict in South Sudan will cease is if enough pressure is placed on its political leaders and military. Any hopes that the African Union would be a positive influence on peace negotiations (and there’s little evidence so far that it has been) were dashed during the recent controversy over Omar al-Bashir and his escape from South Africa after a possible one-way ticket to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his alleged crimes against humanity. The African Union expressed its outrage over the moves to extradite Bashir, claiming the ICC had an obsession with prosecuting Africans instead of pursuing leaders in other parts of the world. So South Sudanese leaders presumably have nothing to worry about.
Four years after South Sudan’s declared independence, the future viability of the state is in question. With millions of citizens facing extreme hunger and displacement, it’s natural to fear what will happen in the coming years. Like the ongoing conflict in Syria, another country that can no longer be described as a unified entity, South Sudan is experiencing an economic collapse and humanitarian tsunami. It’s the civilians who suffer the most and it’s for them that renewed peace talks and negotiations must be intensified. The troubles in South Sudan reflect deep failures from an international community that seems far more interested in celebrating successes than stopping bloodshed.