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

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

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

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

Why Palestine is a growing movement on universities globally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

no comments – be the first ↪

How little we know about the Western war against ISIS

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.”

Recall how it wasn’t until Wikileaks released the Afghan War Logs and Iraq War Logs in 2010 that the world discovered the extent of death, abuse and cover-up caused by the US in both states.

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.

no comments – be the first ↪

Civilians in South Sudan bearing brunt of cruel war

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.”

no comments – be the first ↪

Iran nuclear deal masks US and China arms race

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 bookTomorrow’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.

no comments – be the first ↪

Too little to celebrate in South Sudan

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.

no comments – be the first ↪

Nothing to celebrate on South Sudan’s 4th independence anniversary

My piece in Al Jazeera English today:

It’s hard to think of a better example of the UN Human Rights Council’s failure. In early July, it decided to send monitors to South Sudan “to report on the situation of human rights and to undertake a comprehensive assessment of alleged violations and abuses of human rights, with a view to ensuring accountability”.

African nations watered down a resolution pushed by the US and UK, they wanted to establish a permanent UN expert on the country, and simply called for more fact-finding in the war-torn land. The facts are already clear, as Human Rights Watch states:

“The Human Rights Council may not be able to stop the violence in South Sudan. But it can make a contribution to protecting civilians by at least putting leaders responsible for grave human rights violations on notice that there will be no impunity for their crimes.”

US representative Keith Harper, who presented the resolution to the UN Security Council, saw the situation in South Sudan as “one of the most grave situations we face […] in the world”.

South Sudan marks the fourth anniversary of its independence on July 9. Back in 2011 the international community, especially the US, praised the country’s official split from Sudan. It was framed as a Christian, democratic victory against a despotic, Muslim north.

The South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to decide their own destiny, a people who had been abused by their northern neighbour for decades, and yet only four years later the country is struggling to cope with an overwhelming humanitarian crisis. The New York Times editorialised in June that, “South Sudan must rank among the most astounding failures in Africa”. The economy is in free-fall.

The facts are stark. Nearly eight people out of a population of around 11 million are facing severe hunger. Malnutrition and deadly cholera are ravaging parts of the state. Children are abducted to fight.

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) recently released a report outlining shocking testimony from local civilians alleging government atrocities including the burning alive of women and girls and extreme sexual violence. UNICEF has accused armed government groups of castrating young boys, raping girls and then slitting their throats.

South Sudan’s civil war was sparked in December 2013 with a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar. Retaliatory killings ran along ethnic lines, the main groups are Dinka and Nuer, and the conflict has killed at least tens of thousands of people.

Nobody knows the exact figure because the ability (or interest, for many parties) in bringing accountability for the atrocities is low. Media access is poor due to few roads and major logistical challenges getting to remote areas where the fighting takes place.

This is a war being waged with impunity at a time when the “international community” – a term, Noam Chomsky says, “regularly used in a technical sense to describe the United States joined by some allies and clients – is distracted by its bumbling response to the ISIL threat. South Sudan now faces some toothless, UN-imposed sanctions and little else.

This outcome was not pre-ordained. It is a man-made disaster with little incentive for the warring parties to cease killing each other. There is a grim calculation, made by the government and rebel forces, that they can win and beat their opponents into submission or death.

Many of the political and military leaders have never known democracy, and all that it entails, but rather years of conflict against Sudanese forces. Now, when peace was achieved for a fleeting moment, it was squandered in a desperate attempt for complete victory.

Equally complicit are the Western powers believing, despite all evidence to the contrary including a lack of sustainable or functioning institutions in 2011, that the new state would somehow function without the required homework on nation-building. Recent history is filled with such examples – think East Timor after its independence vote in 1999, the subsequent violence from Indonesian militias followed by years of internal political squabbles – when outsiders pledge support only to find themselves embroiled in situations over which they have little understanding or patience.

The viability of South Sudan as a sovereign entity is in doubt. One local journalist told me in the capital Juba that it is hard to call yourself an independent nation when the UN and NGOs are trying to help 75 percent of your population avoid starvation.

The African Union will protect its own – see its recent backing of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in South Africa against moves to extradite him to the International Criminal Court – highlighting the challenges of expecting African help for South Sudanese troubles.

Human rights groups along with influential parties should be pressing the warring sides harder to negotiate a peace settlement with teeth and accountability, without which the world’s newest nation will continue its descent into chaos.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan and best-selling author of many books, including the upcoming Disaster Capitalism (Verso).

no comments – be the first ↪

The important logic of BDS against Israeli occupation

There is increasing global pressure on Israel over its brutal treatment of the Palestinians. The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign is thriving due to daily abuses and racism against Arabs in Israel proper and the occupied, Palestinian territories. The Israeli government is scared (see here and here) and even Hillary Clinton, in a transparent move to secure money for her Presidential campaign, pledges to fight BDS.

I’ve been writing about this issue for over a decade and always Zionists and Israel defenders simply believe that better PR will address their legitimacy problems; very few seriously believe that ending a nearly half-century occupation is even part of the equation. That’s why they’re losing so badly.

I’ve been interviewed for a feature in The Jerusalem Report (part of the right-wing Jerusalem Post). The PDF is here: Taking on BDS

Read and judge for yourself but a few points (apart from getting my surname wrong). It barely mentions the occupation, dishonestly – and seriously, this is the best pro-Israel types can do? – links BDS to anti-Semitism and interviews two Australian academics whose book on BDS has a weird obsession with me, shows stunning ignorance in the reality of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and asks the world to hug Israelis instead of boycotting them; no wonder “liberal Zionists” are flailing about for relevance as Israeli racism soars.

If this is part of the anti-BDS push, the movement has a long and proud period ahead.

no comments – be the first ↪

Failing states in the modern world

My essay in literary journal Meanjin:

“In Europe there are shelves of books dedicated to every war, archives full of documents, special rooms in museums. Nothing of the kind exists in Africa. Here, even the longest and greatest war is forgotten, falls into oblivion. Its traces vanish by the day after: the dead must be buried immediately, new huts created on the site of burned ones … History in these parts appears suddenly, descends like a deus ex machina, reaps its bloody harvest, seizes its prey, and disappears.”

 Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life, 1998

Wai is a tiny speck on the map in South Sudan’s Jonglei State. I was travelling with the departing UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and American actor Forest Whitaker. We arrived in an old Russian helicopter in an area that was sheltering 25,000 men, women and children who had fled nearby fighting. This wasn’t a typical refugee camp, there weren’t rows of tents or permanent structures but a mass of people living on whatever ground they could find, mostly in the open under trees or the occasional mud hut. Women sat with malnourished babies, waiting to receive UN-provided porridge-style food for their children.

The UN’s response in Wai was a remarkably fast operation; a few months before we landed there was literally nothing there apart from cracked dirt. The huge cost of running the humanitarian program countrywide ran to billions of dollars every year, making it one of the most acute internal disasters in the world.

During the hastily arranged community forum in a shady field, Amos told the assembled crowd that she appreciated many of them ‘walking for so many days to get here’. Men and women were dressed in their Sunday best and despite the searing heat, around 45° Celsius, they looked immaculate in ill-fitting and slightly oversized suits. This was rebel territory, the South Sudanese government wasn’t welcome, and the military governor, dressed in a green and white long-sleeve shirt and wide-brimmed hat, politely but firmly told the delegation that his people were suffering from a lack of reliable water, food and shelter. ‘Our children are traumatised,’ he said through a megaphone. ‘They need schools.’

Similar problems existed in rebel-held Ganyiel in Unity State. During a visit organised by the World Food Program (WFP), I saw tens of thousands of men, women and children lining up for not enough rations that had been dropped by C130 planes. Because the area was cursed with swamps and constant flooding, the WFP had to deliver supplies in the few months of the dry season. One local woman, Angela, who had been living in the area for more than a year with five children, gave me a message for her country’s leaders: ‘I’m telling [President] Salva Kiir and [rebel leader] Riek Machar to fight each other with their own hands and stop killing our kids.’

The ongoing troubles were upsetting US Secretary of State John Kerry. After yet another failed round of peace talks in March this year between the South Sudanese warring parties, he chastised leaders who were enjoying luxurious accommodation in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and not feeling obliged to settle their differences. ‘We are well past the point where enough is enough,’ he said. ‘Leaders must put the interests of their people above their own. The violence must end.’

It was a futile call for reconciliation. Although Kerry had announced in 2012 that Washington had helped ‘midwife the birth of this new nation’, America’s desperation for a foreign policy success in Africa had failed shortly after it launched. The world’s newest nation emerged in 2011 with great fanfare, President Barack Obama’s blessing, a huge aid budget and virtually no infrastructure. It was also to be a stinging response to China’s twenty-first-century colonisation of the continent.

After the decades of war between Sudan and southern rebels that killed millions of people, little thought had been given to how a new state would function. In December 2013 conflict exploded between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, causing the death of tens of thousands and unleashing intense fighting between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups. America’s leverage over the crisis was limited despite presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama publicly pledging support for South Sudanese independence. A 2015 investigation published in Foreign Policy magazine found Washington curiously uninterested after violence surged in 2013, unwilling to pressure its friends to stop the killing.

I’ve seen the reality of this dysfunction and its devastating effect on civilians. Since moving to South Sudan in early 2015 (my partner is working here with an international aid organisation), I’ve witnessed snapshots of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The figures are startling. More than 2.5 million civilians are at risk of food insecurity, a figure that could rise to 4 million by the end of 2015. The population is around 11 million. At least 12,000 children were taken and forced to be soldiers in the last twelve months. The UN Special Envoy on Sexual Violence, Zainab Bangura, said in 2014 that the number of rapes in the country were the most shocking she had ever seen. On this year’s International Women’s Day, Oxfam head Winnie Byanyima wrote that ‘violence against women has worsened because of mass displacement, and the presence of more men with guns and the impunity under which they are left free to act’.

The facts seem overwhelming, obscuring the human toll of a war that barely registers on the international news agenda. Perhaps it’s too easily framed as just another African catastrophe with no easily recognisable goodies and baddies. The world’s coverage of Ebola was a stark reminder that black lives only mattered when they started affecting the security of white lives in the West. In a time of ISIS, extremism in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and beyond, South Sudan struggles to rise above the daily dose of beheadings, airstrikes and Islamic militancy. But if there is one thing I’ve discovered after years reporting in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran and other places easily dismissed as failing states, it’s that personal tales of resistance reveal far more about humanity than the predictable greed and ignorance of leaders and their political and media courtiers.

South Sudan’s needs are great. Literacy has been stubbornly low for years; around 70 per cent of the population is illiterate, with endemic teacher shortages and poor training of those educating the youth. The Yei Teaching Training College, in the country’s south, is the leading institution preparing the next generation of educators, but the challenge is immense: only one-third of the state’s 28,000 teachers are qualified.

In Wai and Ganyiel the failure of leaders to provide their own people with a viable future was clear. Perhaps it was unsurprising considering the quality of politicians empowered to lead the nation. Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an expert on Sudan, explained in 2014 that the new state

obtained independence as a kleptocracy—a militarised, corrupt, neo-patrimonial system of governance. By the time of independence, the South Sudanese ‘political marketplace’ was so expensive that the country’s comparatively copious revenue [principally from oil] was consumed by the military-political patronage system, with nothing left for public services, development or institution building.

This reality hits me daily. There are few paved roads or street lights, although China recently provided sixty-three solar-powered traffic lights across the capital, Juba. We live in a secure compound. Opportunistic day- and night-time criminal attacks are on the rise. Oil revenues have dived due to the conflict but Erik Prince, former head of private security agency Blackwater, with his new company Frontier Services Group, was hired by South Sudan in late 2014 to help boost output. The government announced in 2015 a wider examination of extracting minerals, guaranteeing exploitation by foreign firms. There’s no accountability for war crimes committed by either side in the conflict since December 2013. Small arms are ubiquitous, with millions of weapons in the hands of civilians and the military.

Although I meet countless locals who long for a peaceful future, disillusioned with corrupt leaders who fail to deliver, I’ve heard nobody question the sense of declaring independence in 2011. I’m sure a similarly high majority would praise East Timor’s 1999 break from a brutal Indonesian occupation. But serious questions should be asked about the ways in which Washington, the UN, the West, African neighbours and global aid groups are today de facto managers of a broken South Sudanese nation. 

What do we call a country that exists more on paper and in the mind than reality? Ninety-nine per cent of South Sudanese voted for independence in 2011 and yet its long-term viability is far from assured. It’s one of the ‘fake states’ of the twenty-first century, entities that only survive on life support because of extensive international aid. This is not to deny the rights of people for self-determination and freedom from oppression—the South Sudanese were treated like second-class citizens by their Sudanese neighbours for decades—but to ask legitimate questions about the forces that were marshalled to create it.

The list of backers was long. From actor George Clooney and former Clinton official John Prendergast to American evangelicals and State Department officials. The events of 11 September 2001 spurred on the campaign to back a sovereign and Christian South Sudan; Muslim Sudan had sheltered Osama Bin Laden and was framed as a terrorist-supporting state. Beijing spent the decade cleverly making friends across Africa and mining its resources, investing in infrastructure and arming various conflicts, while the United States was distracted fighting futile wars in the Middle East. President Obama aimed to correct this by hosting an African Leaders Summit in 2014 that claimed to be about improving governance across the continent. US weapons dealers licked their chops at the prospect of new opportunities, seeing business in Nigeria, South Sudan, Chad, Mauritania, Algeria, Mali and elsewhere.

Washington still sees Africa through the prism of its ‘war on terror’, training, arming and assisting local militaries with hideous human rights records. These inconvenient truths haven’t stopped the Pentagon spending billions of dollars on establishing a network of unofficial bases from Burkina-Faso to Kenya and Uganda to Djibouti. American journalist Nick Turse has found evidence of US military involvement in forty-nine out of fifty-four countries in Africa through its AFRICOM network (based in Stuttgart, Germany, because no African nation would host it). That’s imperialism in anyone’s language.

South Sudan is a small piece of this largely unreported puzzle. Washington had high hopes for this African friend, imagining a new state that would be a beacon of energy independence and democracy in the heart of the continent. But this exclusive relationship turned to dust with China’s economic domina-tion of the region, including massive investment in the oil sector. South Sudan is just one nation in a long list of African countries that will, in time, be a market for China’s manufacturing products. More than a million Chinese nationals have called Africa home since 2001, moving there to build new lives and businesses. Chinese colonialism is happening but so far with a (mostly) calmer and kinder face than the US variety.

The rise of ‘fake states’ in the modern age is a symptom of the NGO-isation of whole countries. Take Palestine. Countless billions have flowed into an artificial entity that doesn’t exist in a way that other states do. A corrupt and bloated Palestinian Authority (PA) shows how the occupied have willingly serviced the belligerent occupiers. After decades of ‘negotiations’ between Israel and the PA, all the Palestinians have to show for it are more than 600,000 settlers on occupied territory. This arrangement is the perfect way to avoid serious negotiations towards statehood because the Americans, Europeans and Australians continue to pump money into a system that everybody knows keeps the surrounded population barely above water. Which is exactly the point. Israel destroys Gaza every few years, ‘mowing the lawn’ in local lingo, knowing that naive international NGOs and other countries will rebuild what’s been lost. Meanwhile Palestinians are further away than ever from independence with an extreme Israeli government in place.

This is not to condemn all NGOs, many of which provide vital humanitarian assistance. But have international agencies inadvertently (or deliberately?) created a system in which areas are deemed ready for sovereignty—Palestine, Iraq or South Sudan—but then live at the whim of aid donors and international monetary funds? One journalist in Juba tells me that many aid workers and some reporters are secular missionaries with a belief that they can improve people’s lives through their work.

I’m not solely blaming the West for South Sudan or Palestine’s failures—the people of both countries have influence and agency—but does the creation of ‘fake states’ contribute to the disempowerment of locals and inhibit their ability to positively affect their own countries? Many South Sudanese tell me they routinely feel powerless to shape the direction of their new nation, cut out of decision-making processes by an opaque system that rewards cronyism. It’s hard to imagine a secure future when warring factions and entrenched interests continue to fight over the spoils of war. President Salva Kiir has not stood for election since  independence in 2011 and in March 2015 his parliament granted him a further three-year term.

It’s the civilian populations who suffer most. The excitement of South Sudanese sovereignty brought a marvellous moment that should be cherished. Palestine will one day be free. Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria will eventually break away from occupation. But who will pick up the pieces and how long will they stick around? I’ve seen the effects of a corrupt and bloated UN bureaucracy in Haiti that refuses to take legal responsibility for introducing deadly cholera to a nation that hadn’t known the disease for a century. The people there were already suffering from a devastating 2010 earthquake. State-building is a slow and painful business that can’t be left in the hands of the UN or private contractors. After centuries of brutal colonisation the West is hardly best placed to lecture others on good governance without acknowledging its own bloody legacy.

The resilience of people living in the most abject poverty should give us pause to reflect on populations who barely flicker in our consciousness. Donating to an aid group when a catastrophe hits isn’t enough to absolve us of responsibility for the work being done in the name of humanitarianism. South Sudan, Palestine, Iraq and Syria aren’t nations to be patronised or colonised. Their citizens deserve health, sustainability and peace with real and lasting independence.

no comments – be the first ↪

Papua New Guinea must be more than mines to Australia

My weekly Guardian column:

After years of uncertainty, the once-profitable copper mine on Bougainville, an autonomous province of Papua New Guinea (PNG), could well be reopened.

The chairman of Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), Peter Taylor, told the Australian recently that “the Bougainville government seems to want the mine reopened, but we have to sit down … and see what’s doable.”

BCL’s Panguna mine opened in 1972, three years before PNG was granted independence from Australia. Bougainvilleans barely benefited from the operation, a deal that smacked of colonial arrogance and resulted in pollution.

In response, locals launched a rebellion in the 1980s against the mine, BCL, and the PNG and Australian governments. The resistance won the ensuing civil war but at a steep human cost: up to 20,000 killed and infrastructure broken.

Today Bougainville is beset by poverty and economic stagnation. I witnessed this myself during two visits in recent years.

The polls opened last week to elect a new government in the lead-up to an independence referendum scheduled before 2020. The local government, along with BCL and Canberra, is pushing for the mine to be Bougainville’s financial saviour first.

But according to a Jubilee Australia report last year, the vast majority on the island oppose BCL’s return. This tallies with what I heard in towns and villages.

The potential reopening of the mine is one piece of an Australian strategy to open up South Pacific nations to foreign interests. As Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop said in 2014: Australia should “stimulate the [PNG] private sector through growth”.

The situation in Bougainville perfectly encapsulates the parlous state of affairs in PNG as it approaches the 40-year anniversary of its break with Australia.

On 16 September 1975 a ceremony was held in the PNG capital Port Moresby, at which Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, Prince Charles and PNG’s first prime minister, Michael Somare, declared PNG a constitutional monarchy with membership of the Commonwealth.

The country was was granted independence but its path has been torturous ever since. Canberra never allowed its northern neighbour to fully leave a relationship of dependency, and today provides $577m annually in aid that primarily benefits Australian companies making money there.

The PNG exposed blog – an independent and reliable news and analysis website – has criticised Australia’s attempts to teach PNG leaders how to avoid corruption.

According to the blog, Canberra turns a blind eye to billions of dollars of “PNG taxpayers money [siphoned] through Australian banks and into real estate schemes in Brisbane and Cairns, posh Australian public schools, its glitzy casinos and expensive private hospitals”.

Forty years after breaking free from Australia, PNG suffers shockingly high levels of HIV infection, maternal health issues, domestic violence, aggression against women and illiteracy. Even the PNG government itself admits that “PNG’s adult literacy situation is in dire straits”.

This isn’t solely Australia’s fault; endemic corruption has blighted PNG for decades (US State Department cables released by Wikileaks confirm this). Yet Western donors and resource companies are principally to blame for engaging in neo-colonialism, treating the country as nothing more than a source of wealth for outsiders.

Some of the mining projects currently in operation may be familiar: Ok Tedi, Porgera, Lihir, Ramu. They’re all environmentally destructive and offer little benefit to local communities. At the Porgera gold mine, cases of “extreme sexual violence” by security guards against tribal women and girls resulted in offers of compensation.

It’s unsurprising that most Papua New Guineans I met were sceptical about foreign investment in their country, knowing they would never feel or see any benefit from it.

Others are more hopeful, like US Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. During her time as US Secretary of State, she was open in admitting that the huge energy resources in PNG, especially the Exxon-Mobil LNG gas pipeline that opened in 2014 and is already struggling due to collapsing global commodity prices, was part of a regional contest with China. She chastised China for “wining and dining” Asia-Pacific politicians.

“If anybody thinks that our retreating on these issues is somehow going to be irrelevant to the maintenance of our leadership in a world where we are competing with China, that is a mistaken notion,” she said.

The people of PNG have only been impoverished by so-called leadership from Washington and Canberra. Meanwhile, corruption is rife; PNG’s anti-corruption agency, Taskforce Sweep, was starved of funds earlier this year following allegations they made against prime minister Peter O’Neill.

Perhaps the clearest indication of how Australia views PNG is the Manus Island asylum seeker deal. Slammed by a leading PNG provincial governor as “neo-colonialist”, locals receive little benefit and are really helping the Australian Liberal and Labor parties solve a domestic political problem.

Journalist Jo Chandler, writing recently in the Monthly, shows in great detail the way “Australia is primarily concerned with building the infrastructure to service their interests and comforts.” This is also an accurate summary of the dynamic between Port Moresby and Canberra since 1975.

There’s huge potential in PNG to be a nation that isn’t known internationally for mining and witch burning. Grassroots groups, such as the Madang-based Bismarck Ramu Group, aim to protect local communities and inform them of viable alternatives to resource extraction – such as agriculture.

Yet this year’s 40th anniversary of independence should be a sombre occasion to reflect on four decades of failed Australian interference in PNG. Canberra views Port Moresby as overseeing a massive quarry Australian firms have the right to plunder. We dump asylum seekers on PNG territory while still claiming to be a victim of unscrupulous people smugglers. And our aid money? It’s is an insurance policy against a failed state on Australia’s northern border.

3 comments ↪

Why Western leaders love dictatorships

My weekly Guardian column:

Western-friendly dictators can die in peace, knowing they’ll be lauded as soon as they stop breathing. So it was for Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who recently passed away at the age of 91. Tributes poured in from across the globe. Barack Obama called him “visionary” while Australian prime minister Tony Abbott mourned a “friend”.

Neither man mentioned that Lee presided over an authoritarian state where dissent was barely tolerated, where even his commemoration was marked by the authorities shutting down events at Speaker’s Corner, the only place in the country where protest is permitted.

Singapore may have become a global business hub in a matter of decades, a remarkable economic feat, but growing numbers of its young citizens no longer believe or accept that silence in the face of repression is acceptable. Clean sidewalks may not be enough anymore to satisfy a public yearning for more.

After Lee’s death, Singapore arrested a local teenager for daring to post a video slamming the deceased leader’s record. Greater freedom of speech and rights is on the agenda for its globally connected youth.

This is the problem with dictators admired in elite western circles for being able to dismiss the will of the people even more successfully than elected politicians; the population eventually wants change.

In the eyes of the west, Singaporean autocracy was less important than the building of a stable Asian nation that enriched western and Asian businesses. Lee Kwan Yew didn’t need to push this message too hard to convince anybody. After all, the west is more than happy to deal with China, another success story with a deplorable human rights record and worsening attacks on civil society.

The tradeoff – stability and prosperity for authoritarianism – is global. When Saudi King Abdullah died in January this year, Australian government buildings lowered their flags to mark the death. Obama flew to the funeral to pay respects to the royal family.

Alongside a massive entourage, including the CIA director and a host of Democrat and Republican figures, Obama’s goal was to confirm the primacy of the special relationship between Saudi Arabia and America and reassure the unelected sheikhs that he wasn’t intending to leave them isolated against an ascendant Iran, which has increasing control over four regional capitals – Sana’a, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut – as a result of Washington’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that unleashed a chain-reaction of shifting alliances.

Saudi Arabia beheads its own people, its legal system is opaque, it refuses women basic rights, like permission to drive, and tolerates no criticism of its rule. Its abundant oil is used ruthlessly to keep heads of state in line; Obama, Abbott and other western heads of state are unwilling to challenge a country that is known to export terror.

The response to another autocrat’s death, Indonesia’s Suharto, in 2008, was also enthusiastic. Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating damned critics who dared condemn the dictator as “a cruel and intolerant repressor” when in fact he had “saved Indonesia from destruction”. Left unsaid were the million Indonesians killed after Suharto’s bloody ascension to the presidency in the 1960s and the occupation of East Timor.

The New York Times obituary noted his rule as “one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century”. This didn’t bother Keating, who saluted Soeharto for bringing “stability” on Australia’s doorstep.

How dictators are revered in their death wholly depends on their usefulness to western interests. When US-backed Iraqi-forces executed Saddam Hussein in 2006, few mourned his bloody rule. Yet for decades, Hussein was a close American ally, during a time when he was at his most murderous against internal dissent.

Washington even provided the location of Iranian troops to Saddam’s Iraq in 1988, to assist in a chemical weapons attack. It was only when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 that America designated him an official enemy.

But is the west’s insistence on stability helping reduce violence? Aligning with the darkest forces on the planet for the sake of oil, access or apparent geo-strategic positioning is guaranteed to achieve the opposite. Western leaders inevitably end up preparing grandiose and intrusive plans to control the monsters they’ve unleashed. Dirty alliances, escalation and invasions with unpredictable outcomes; this seems like all our leaders know. Afterwards come the glowing eulogies.

Many leaders are happy to play the Washington game and are feted accordingly. Criticism of abuses in Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Israel are muted because military, strategic or economic benefits to both sides are integral to these relationships. Deaths of their rulers would bring salutatory statements from Britain and America. Conversely, Russia is deemed a national security threat because it refuses to be bought by economic threats from the US.

When you dance with the devil, you’ll be bitten on the behind. Democratic security and moral integrity is weakened when western friends commit abuses and they’re ignored or rationalised. You can tell an awful lot about so-called western values when leaders fawn at the feet of autocrats when they die.

no comments – be the first ↪

Opposing Washington’s violence against Venezuela

I’m happy to have recently signed this statement on Washington’s unprovoked aggression against Venezuela (via Telesur):

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has added his name to a growing list of Australian journalists, academics, politicians, trade unionists and solidarity activists calling on U.S. president Barack Obama to revoke his executive order against Venezuelan .

On March 9, Obama issued the order which imposed sanctions on a number of Venezuelan state officials and deemed Venezuela to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

In response, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (Melbourne), with the support of the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network, initiated an open letter to Obama.

The letter has over 70 signatories, including Assange, renowned journalists John Pilger and Antony Loewenstein, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, two socialist local councillors, officials from four different trade unions, academics from ten universities, and representatives from a range of political parties and solidarity organisations.

The letter urges the U.S. president to revoke the executive order and “stop interfering in Venezuela’s domestic affairs and cease making reckless public statements regarding Venezuela’s democratic processes.”

It also encourages Obama to “demonstrate to Latin America that the U.S. is capable of establishing relations based on the principles of peace and with respect for their sovereignty.”

Obama’s recent actions have seen relations continue to sour between the U.S. and the rest of the Americas. At the recent Summit of the Americas, held in Panama April 10-11, numerous regional heads of states expressed their support for Venezuela and called on Obama to revoke the executive order.

no comments – be the first ↪

South Sudan burns while its people suffer

My following essay appears in Al Jazeera America:

On a blazing hot March day in the town of Ganyiel in South Sudan’s Unity state, 19-year-old Elizabeth cautiously smiled. Born in Yei, a southwestern town near the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the young woman was unafraid to criticize her country’s leaders.

“Stop killing,” she said referring to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his main rival, rebel leader Riek Machar. “We need peace.”

Elizabeth completed school — one of the few South Sudanese citizens who have done so — and speaks basic English. “Only WFP gives us food. We can’t find it anywhere else,” she said pointing at the World Food Program workers handing out aid in an open field of cracked brown dirt. “There’s not enough in the market. And there’s too much water in the land to cultivate crops.” For Elizabeth, living in Ganyiel with her young son and mother and with her husband in Ethiopia looking for work, the future was bleak.

Civil war has raged across Africa’s newest nation since December 2013. Tens of thousands have died amid horrific allegations of mass rape, recruitment of child soldiers and war crimes. Peace talks between Kiir and Machar have broken down numerous times. A recently leaked report from the African Union (AU) suggested that it temporarily take over the country and exclude Machar and Kiir from the transitional government. In South Sudan, nobody believes the AU is up to the task. In fact, many argue that it’s a ploy to steal the country’s oil and other natural resources. The AU denies making these recommendations.

Ganyiel, a relatively peaceful area, has attracted more than 100,000 civilians displaced by the civil war. But it suffers constant flooding, raising concerns about worsening living conditions. The United Nations says 2.5 million people in South Sudan are facing severe food insecurity. This number could reach 4 million by the end of the year, in a country with a population of 11 million. Meanwhile, South Sudanese leaders — almost all of them men — stay in luxury hotels and endlessly negotiate an elite power-sharing deal in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

“If the men got out of the way,” said the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, “women would probably just run the country much better.”

I visited Ganyiel last month with the WFP, which was delivering tons of sorghum and cooking oil, using 10 planes to air-drop the supplies. “We constantly have to make decisions where to drop and deliver food,” one of the aid workers said, noting the huge demand and lack of resources. In other words, some needy families will miss out on the meager food handouts and have to fend for themselves under inhospitable circumstances. Temperatures can soar to 115 degrees in the summer months.

It’s easy to write off the humanitarian disaster in South Sudan as just another local conflict, a bloody African civil war with no resonance beyond its borders — a confusing mix of tribal groups fighting over land and power, disconnected from the modern world or even regional players. This would be incorrect, not least because the fingerprints of the United States, the European Union and major African powers are everywhere.

The U.N. and international nongovernmental organizations admit that they’re unable to provide more than Band-Aid solutions. South Sudan joins a growing list of quasi-nation-states, including Palestine, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which exist more on paper than in reality.

This is not to deny the South Sudanese people’s hard-won freedom from oppressive Sudan, where they were often treated as little more than chattel. In his book “The Shadow of the Sun,” the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski recalls visiting what was then southern Sudan in 1960 and witnessing the viciousness of a war between north and south that the West essentially ignored. Millions died in the following decades.

“We are in a world in which man, crawling on the earth, tries to dig a few grains of wheat out of the mud, just to survive another day,” he wrote. Little has changed in the decades since his trip.

Except, of course, South Sudan is now an independent country, with huge Chinese and American contributions. The U.S. invested heavily in South Sudan’s independence, hoping to find a reliable strategic ally that would help counter the predominantly Muslim Sudan, buy U.S. weapons and challenge Beijing’s growing influence on the continent. China was far cleverer in its strategic aims, funding infrastructure and oil resources with an eye on the long game. Washington now appears distracted in other theaters of war. But Beijing continues to court Sudanese leaders. The United States still provides huge amounts of foreign aid, underscoring the kind of dependent relationship it hopes to engender.

But Kiir isn’t necessarily playing along with Washington’s cajoling. In a speech at a rally in the capital, Juba, recently, he appeared uncompromising toward his local opponents and foreign pressure. This did not stop a South Sudanese student from calling for Kiir to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for being a “revolutionary icon and peacemaker.”

Millions of South Sudanese desperately need food, water and hygiene assistance. But that is not enough. The elite’s powermongering and apathy for peace have dispossessed millions of people, from Bor to Wai and Ganyiel to Juba. It continues to polarize citizens and erode the country’s social relations. The U.N. Security Council is considering targeted sanctions, and critics are calling for travel bans, asset freezes and denying the children of elites access to Western education. These levers of pressure may already be too late.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan and a best-selling author of many books, including the upcoming “Disaster Capitalism.” He’s working on a documentary with the same name. 

no comments – be the first ↪