Clay foot diplomacy is all the rage in Canberra, and the Australian government has become a solid practitioner. Having stuck its neck out across continents and seas to proclaim the need to investigate China over the origins of the novel coronavirus, the Morrison government now finds itself in the tightest of corners. Very much one to bite the hand that feeds it, Australia is trying to prove in international relations that you can, from behind the curtain, provoke your largest trading partner while still hoping to trade with it.
China is not of that view, seeing Australia’s policy towards it in recent years as a log of disagreeable actions. The Chinese tech giant Huawei was excluded from its 5G network. Ten investment deals across a range of industries have also been blocked, including animal husbandry, infrastructure and agriculture. They have seen Australia strident on what China regards as matters of domestic concern: Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Australia is also finding itself ever more comfortable in relationships such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, where it keeps company with the United States, Japan and India in an arrangement that is well on the way to becoming “openly anti-China”.
The ones to endure the “deep reflexion” demanded of Australia by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian have not been politicians. It has fallen to the importers and exporters to receive Beijing’s directed fury. In May, the Australia-China barley trade was all but eliminated by tariffs in the order of 80.5 percent. In November, tariffs ranging from 107 to 200 percent were imposed on Australian wine, a sorry blow for Australian wine makers salivating at courting some 52 million wine drinkers in the PRC. Australia’s largest wine company, Treasury Wine Estates, claimed to have received a tariff rate of 169.3 percent. As the managing director of Clare Valley’s Taylor Wines, Mitchell Taylor, explained, “A tariff of this scale will basically kill the industry overnight.” Winemakers in neighbouring New Zealand, and those in France and Chile, will be happy to see a rival in the Chinese market so dramatically shrunk.
Australian farmers and traders are baffled and more than a touch concerned that Canberra has misjudged the situation. Feeble suggestions occupy ministerial briefs about whether China can be taken to the World Trade Organisation. Trade minister Simon Birmingham has been unable to secure a line with his Chinese counterparts. There is not much by way of tea and conversation being had by the two sides.
Then came a doctored image from Chinese political computer graphic artist Fu Yu. It’s in the old image of propaganda accounts: use a murdering, invading soldier as a prop. Find a suitable, vulnerable civilian. In this case, the picture centres upon what is supposed to be an Australian soldier and an Afghan child. The soldier has his blood smeared knife pressed against the child’s throat. The child is holding a lamb. The picture is helpfully captioned: “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace.”
Provocative and apt enough: the Australian effort in Afghanistan, along with those of other forces, has been marked by an irregular war of relentless savagery that has tended to elude domestic understanding. Australia’s own role has been distinguished by a lengthy spell of action by special forces that were found by the recently released Brereton war crimes inquiry to have committed a goodly number of civilian killings.
China’s foreign ministry sensed an opportunity. On November 30, Zhao Lijian tweeted the image. “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers,” he chided. “We strongly condemn such acts & call for holding them accountable.” Prime Minister Scott Morrison, instead of ignoring it as a provocative prod with hook attached, was all indignant and promptly fell for the hook. “The post made today, the repugnant post made today of a falsified image of an Australian soldier threatening a young child with a knife, a post made on an official Chinese government account, posted by the deputy director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is truly repugnant.”
In making such a statement, Morrison gave the coverage on Australian atrocities and misdeeds in Afghanistan even more air. He returned to hollow notions of noble soldiers in uniform sent overseas to do kindly things, ignoring their nastier missions. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Frances Adamson called upon the Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye to lodge an official complaint. Pleas were made to Twitter to take down the image but on this occasion, the social media platform has not been for turning. An apology from China’s ministry of foreign affairs is also being sought.
Such moves have led to a cycle of mocking and rebuke. “On what grounds does Morrison feel angry over the use of this cartoon by the spokesperson of Chinese FM?” asked Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Global Times, a state-owned publication. For his part, Fu felt didactic, telling Morrison “to make sure his Government’s military force becomes more disciplined to avoid any similar international tragedy”.
Having found himself in full righteous gear, Morrison has unconvincingly called “on China to re-engage in … dialogue. This is how countries must deal with each other to ensure we can deal with any issues in our relationship, consistent with our national interests and respect for each other’s sovereignty. Not engaging in deplorable behaviour.” Unfortunately for the prime minister, international relations is very much about deplorable behaviour, something which Australia has not been exempt from.
Another Iranian nuclear scientist has been assassinated. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed by an elaborately planned and executed ambush. The complexity of the attack and the resources required to carry it out strongly indicate a state actor. Fingers of blame quickly pointed at a likely assassin: Israel. The United States was probably in some form of collaboration since it is widely considered that before Israel carries out such killings it informs the US.
Assassinations are nothing new to Israel or the US. The US admitted to the assassination of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani earlier in 2020.
At the time of this writing, no one has admitted to the extra-judicial killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Usually targeted killings are carried out in the dark.
Despite whatever charges Julian Assange may be accused of, it is well known that the WikiLeaks publisher was targeted for exposing the war crimes of the US government. In an upside-down Bizarro World, the screws are being ever so gradually tightened on Assange by the war criminals and their criminal accomplices. It is, in fact, a slow-motion assassination being played out before the open and closed eyes of the world.
Following the geopolitically coordinated undertaking to abrogate Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange was arrested and imprisoned in Belmarsh maximum security prison for the relatively minor charge of skipping bail.1 He continues to be held pending an extradition request from the US for violating its 1917 Espionage Act for “unlawfully obtaining and disclosing classified documents related to the national defense.”
Incarceration has been woeful for Assange in Belmarsh. The UN special rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Nils Melzer, has been highly critical of the treatment of Assange, describing it as “psychological torture.”
Since 2010, when Wikileaks started publishing evidence of war crimes and torture committed by US forces, we have seen a sustained and concerted effort by several States towards getting Mr. Assange extradited to the United States for prosecution, raising serious concern over the criminalisation of investigative journalism in violation of both the US Constitution and international human rights law.
Since then, there has been a relentless and unrestrained campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation against Mr. Assange, not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, Sweden and, more recently, Ecuador.
Melzer has called for the “collective persecution” to end.
The medical profession has also spoken out against the mistreatment of Assange. A top medical journal, The Lancet, carried the message of 117 physicians in its headline: “End torture and medical neglect of Julian Assange.”
The US extradition case against Assange was pursued during the Trump administration, but one should not expect clemency for Assange from president-elect Joe Biden. Biden has argued that Assange is “closer to being a high-tech terrorist than the Pentagon Papers.”
One brave Democrat, though, has bucked her party’s mainstream. The Hawaiian congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard introduced H.R. 8452, the Protect Brave Whistleblowers Act. Gabbard also called for the immediate dismissal of charges against Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.
Recently, circumstances have become bleaker for Assange because of a reported COVID-19 outbreak where “at least 56 people in his house block in Belmarsh prison, including staff and inmates, were found to have been infected.”
Wikileaks earlier reported that Assange, along with almost 200 other inmates of his house block, have been under lockdown since November 18.
Australia has done nothing for its citizen Assange. Australia is said to function at the behest of the US. This is so much so that Australia has put itself in a precarious economic situation with its largest trade partner, China. Furthermore, Australia has a long history of its own war criminality that it ignores.
What should people of conscience do? People opposed to war crimes; warring in general; persecution of publishers, journalists, and whistleblowers; and people who support freedom of the media and the right of the public to be informed should be doing what they can to bring about pardons for Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and other politically targeted prisoners of conscience.
Assange’s greatest “crime” was to reveal the US military establishment’s insouciance for innocent human life by releasing the video Collateral Murder.
What about those of us who claim to stand for social justice and peace? Do we not have a responsibility to do what we can to stymie the stealthy assassination of a man by the military-industrial-governmental complex for exposing its murderous nature? Bystanding is immoral and cowardly. Do something; there are simple things that anyone can do. Write letters. Sign petitions. Speak out. Saving Assange, Manning, Snowden, and others persecuted by governments is saving our humanity; it is saving ourselves.
Australia is currently undergoing a wave of shocked realisation that for multiple years in Afghanistan some of its troops behaved outside what we are told is normal behaviour, and killed innocent young men. How could they do such a thing? And all done beyond the sight or knowledge of any soldier of higher rank than Sergeant! The public acknowledgment that its soldiers are less than perfect has led to a wave of political and upper military gnashing of teeth and solemn vows that the guilty will be punished.
Who do they think they are kidding? War crimes are part of waging war. Australian troops committed war crimes in Vietnam, admittedly now in Afghanistan, and undoubtably in Syria and Iraq, two other ongoing wars in which Australian troops are involved, although one would hardly know it from reading the local newspapers or watching the nightly television news.
The report that has just been (partially) published, revealing the latest catalogue of this behaviour, took four years to produce. It will likely be as many years again before any soldier faces a trial. There has been no explanation as to why this investigation, headed by a Supreme Court justice (and reserve military officer) has taken so long. The accused in the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes, each of vastly greater size than this latest Australian effort, were tried, convicted and where appropriate executed in a fraction of the time the present inquiry has taken in Australia.
For all the handwringing that is now going on, the fundamental issues have not even been touched upon, this alone discussed or resolved. The fact that the present revelations are very likely to go down a very long memory hole is evident from what the report, and more especially the decisions upon the report, are carefully avoiding. That is, why is Australia even involved in this fake war that has now been going on for at least 40 years and showing no sign of ending in any foreseeable future.
Let us just start at the official beginning of this current war, ostensibly because the Taliban government of Afghanistan at the time (an historical fact allowed to fade into insignificance) reportedly refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington DC.
In fact, the Taliban government, not unreasonably, asked for evidence as to bin Laden’s responsibility for the events of 9/11. The Americans refused and attacked anyway, dragging their loyal acolyte Australia along with them. To this day, no such evidence has been produced and neither is any likely to be produced. The evidence is overwhelming that the buildings destroyed on 9/11 had been pre-wired, including WTC7 which was never hit by any flying object, much less an aeroplane, and collapsed in its own footprint at free fall speed just after 5 pm on the day of 9//11.
This factual history is not new, and these facts have persisted despite constant attempts by the mainstream media to wish them away. After all, if the buildings came down through pre-set explosives, the whole story of Muslim hijackers goes down the proverbial and with it the justification for the attack on Afghanistan and much else that has ensued for the past 19+ years.
We now also know that attacking Afghanistan was discussed at the first cabinet meeting of the then newly elected Bush presidency in early 2001. Another fact kept well away from the mainstream media because it raises too many questions.
If 9/11 was not the real reason for invading Afghanistan in late 2001, then what was? The answer is twofold: drugs and geography. First, let’s look at drugs. The Taliban government had virtually stopped the production of opium in the areas of Afghanistan they controlled in 2001. Given Afghanistan’s role as the world’s principal supplier of the commodity, the Taliban government was, to put it mildly, very bad for business.
It is a well-established fact that one of the immediate consequences of the successful United States led invasion in October 2001 was in immediate restoration of the poppy crop. That now stands at record levels and provides a very nice supplement to CIA funds, another fact carefully avoided by the mainstream media.
All of the Allied troops assisting the United States in its control of Afghanistan, including Australia, play their part in safeguarding the crop from attack, harvesting it, and passing it on for processing into heroin and hence export to the ever-voracious markets in Europe and North America. That export crop is worth billions of dollars a year to the CIA and associated groups and they are unlikely to give it up willingly.
The other compelling reason for the United States presence in Afghanistan is geography. Afghanistan shares a border with seven other nations, none of whom are on good terms with the United States, and all of which the United States covets as weapons for its ongoing war against Russia and China.
When one looks at the geopolitics of the region it is not difficult to infer that geography was and remains the main reason for the United States invasion. Geography (and the arms trade) was the main reason the British fought three wars there in the 19th century.
The fact that the United States has supplanted the United Kingdom as the principal foreign power in the region is merely changing one colonial oppressor for another. The role and the objectives remain precisely the same as they have for at least 200 years: western control of valuable land located close to China and Russia. As the French would say, plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose (the more things change the more they remain the same).
Which brings me back to the role of the Australians. That remains unchanged. They are, as they have been for the past 60 years, the United States’ lacky in whatever scheme the United States dreams up in its attempt to roll back the irresistible rise of China. Such loyalty is now extracting a price from the Chinese who have systematically shredded an ever-growing number of key Australian exports to that country.
This has led to much local outrage and protestations of innocence, which are as convincing as Australian claims in Afghanistan they are helping to train Afghanistan fighters. Some very big chickens are coming home to roost and Australia is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Alternative markets for the 40% of Australian exports that go to China will not be replaced in the immediate future.
Australian Ministers are making all sorts of protestations and trying to put a brave face on what is, in fact, an almost unmitigated disaster. There is a lot of pain yet to be felt by the Australian public. Protestations against China will gain no traction because the real root of the problem lies in Australia’s unwavering adherence to the United States viewpoint. That is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. There is a great deal more pain on the way for Australian consumers.
Australia’s ambassadorial offices and political leaders have a consistent record of ignoring their citizens in tight situations. David Hicks, Mamdouh Habib and Julian Assange are but a few names that come to mind in this inglorious record of indifference. In such cases, Australian public figures and officials have tacitly approved the use of abduction, torture and neglect, usually outsourced and employed by allies such as the United States.
Australian diplomacy, to that end, is nastily cheap. It comes at heavily discounted prices, when it comes at all. To then see the extent of interest and effort in seeking the release of Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert from Iranian captivity, is as interesting as it is perplexing. A work ethic in Canberra has come into being. Nothing was spared securing the release of Moore-Gilbert, where she had been imprisoned for espionage charges and spent 804 days in detention. Fears for her wellbeing spiked with her transfer to Qarchak women’s prison, not known for its salubrious facilities. She had previously spent time at Tehran’s Evin prison.
Efforts were made by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who raised Moore-Gilbert’s detention in four meetings with her Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. As she confirmed, the release “was achieved through diplomatic engagement with the Iranian government.”
Iranian authorities put it to the Australians that they wanted three of their covert operatives – Saeid Moradi, Mohammad Kharzei and Masoud Sedaghat Zadeh – released. The three men in question had been held in Thailand for planting explosive devices in Bangkok in an effort to assassinate Israeli diplomats in 2012. Whatever the skills of these operatives, bomb making was evidently low on the list. An accidental explosion holed their rented Bangkok villa. Moradi was sentenced to life for his attempt to kill a police officer. The police officer survived; Moradi’s legs did not, lost when a grenade he tossed bounced back and detonated. Kharzei received 15 years for possessing explosives.
With the list handy, the Australian government approached Thai contacts. Moore-Gilbert’s release had, Payne claimed, become a matter of “absolute priority”. Israeli government officials were also engaged. A secret agreement was reached, involving what was effectively a prisoner exchange.
Whatever else is said of her case, the issue of the effort and labour put in is significant. Throw in the cliché of being an academic with Middle-Eastern expertise working in foreign climes, and you have a recipe rather richer than is advertised.
The heavily scripted nature of the affair is screamingly evident. Media coverage of Moore-Gilbert’s release, and the circumstances of her detention, has avoided much in the way of analysis. The tone is very much that of the official press release. What we get, instead, are the anodyne statements from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, supposedly “thrilled and relieved” by the outcome. “The tone of her voice was very uplifting, particularly given what she has been through.” We also get notes of worry. Amber Schultz of Crikey expressed concern about the prolonged “ordeal” that would continue to face Moore-Gilbert upon her return to Australia.
That Moore-Gilbert’s release was, in fact, brokered as part of a broader prisoner release is not laboured over. The prime minister is cryptic in his statement. “If other people have been released in other places, they are the decisions of the sovereign governments. There are no people who have been held in Australia who have been released.” Skirted over, as well, is Moore-Gilbert’s relationship with an Israeli, which, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, led to “baseless claims that she was a spy for Israel.”
Iran’s Young Journalist Club has its own serve on the subject, making mention of the release. Moore-Gilbert “was swapped for an Iranian businessman and two other nationals incarcerated abroad on delusional accusations, Iranian news agencies reported.” It notes a report by the IRNA news agency claiming that the academic “had passed a two-year special training course for her spying mission.” She attained fluency in Persian “and was prepared to perform espionage activities in Iran.” What interested the IRNA was her second visit, when “she entered Iran on the recommendation of the Zionist regime [Israel] on the lunar calendar month of Muharram”. Details are sketchy on what Moore-Gilbert supposedly did. She “travelled to different cities as part of her mission and gathered information.”
For her part, Moore-Gilbert, in letters smuggled out of Evin prison, denies ever being a spy. “I am not a spy. I have never been a spy, and I have no interest to work for a spying organisation in any country.”
The standard concern by some in the media stable is that such exchanges are common instruments in Tehran’s foreign policy arsenal. The Australian director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, suggested “a clear pattern by Iran’s government to arbitrarily detain foreign and dual nationals and use them as bargaining chips in negotiations with other states.” The executive director of the Australian Israel and Jewish Affairs Council Colin Rubenstein saw the practice of using hostages in exchanges “for terrorists is typical of the tyrannical Iranian regime.” Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow with the Middle Eastern program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes “hostage-taking as a tool of statecraft for four decades now. The Revolutionary Guards are blatant about it and believe it delivers results.”
Such concerns are legitimate and consistent, though the circumstances for each situation varies. Attention should be paid to the quarry being traded. The Iranian Republic has a striking appetite for detaining academics and researchers. French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Iranian-Swedish academic Ahmadreza Djalali, have all been the subject of Tehran’s ire. Djalali, also accused of spying for Israel, faces execution.
The question not being asked is why Moore-Gilbert was that valuable so as to warrant the release of three Iranian agents. Afshon Ostovar, an academic based at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Department of National Security Affairs, sees little in the incongruence; Iran negotiation strategy, he more than implies, lacks proportion. “It seems rather puzzling that Iran’s imprisonment of an innocent foreign grad student [sic] should lead to the release of three of its covert agents jailed for failed explosive attacks in Thailand but that’s how the Islamic Republic does business.”
One person not exactly cheering the prisoner swap is Israel’s former ambassador to Thailand, Itzhak Shoham. On Israel’s Channel 12, he vented. “I don’t know anything about this deal beyond what was published. Of course it saddens me to see the pictures as [the Iranians] celebrate instead of rotting in prison, if they haven’t already been executed.” Rather abstractedly, Shoham had one consolation: that the former chief of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, was killed in January in a US drone strike.
This prisoner exchange is also odd in another respect. Such instances are usually occasions of much fanfare for Tehran. Iranian television anchors tend to be at hand, noting the names of the released figures and their return to families. “The reason for Iran’s refusal to name those freed remains unclear,” states the cautious Times of Israel. “However, Tehran has long denied being behind the bomb plot and likely hopes to leverage the incoming administration of US President-Joe Biden to ease American sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump.”
The nagging question remains: Why did the Australian government regard Moore-Gilbert’s case as exceptional?
The Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry was always going to make for a gruesome read – and that was only the redacted version. The findings of the four-year investigation, led by New South Wales Court of Appeal Justice and Army Reserve Major-General Paul Brereton, point to “credible evidence” that 39 Afghan non-combatants and prisoners were allegedly killed by Australian special forces personnel. Two others were also treated with cruelty. The Report recommends referring 36 cases for criminal investigation to the Australian Federal Police. These involve 23 incidents and 19 individuals who have been referred to the newly created Office of the Special Prosecutor.
The Report goes into some detail about various practices adopted by Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan. The initiation rites for junior soldiers tasked with “blooding” – the first kill initiated by means of shooting a prisoner – come in for mention. “This would happen after the target compound had been secured, and local nationals had been secured as ‘persons under control’.” “Throwdowns” – equipment such as radios or weapons – would then be placed upon the body. A “cover story” would thereby be scripted “for purposes of operational reporting to deflect scrutiny.”
A “warrior culture” also comes in for some withering treatment, which is slightly odd given the kill and capture tasks these men have been given with mind numbing regularity. “Special Force operators should pride themselves on being model professional soldiers, not on being ‘warrior heroes.’” When one is in the business of killing, be model about it.
As with any revelation of war crimes, the accused parties often express bemusement, bewilderment and even horror. The rule at play here is to always assume the enemy is terrible and capable of the worst, whereas somehow, your own soldiers are capable of something infinitely better. “I would never have conceived an Australian would be doing this in the modern era,” claimed Australian Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell.
History has precedent for such self-delusions of innocence abroad. The atrocity is either unbelievable, or, if it does take place, aberrant and capable of isolation. The killing of some 500 unarmed women, children and elderly men in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai on March 16, 1968 by soldiers of the US America Division was not, at least initially, seen as believable. When it came to light it was conceived as a horror both exceptional and cinematic. A veteran of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division went so far as to regard My Lai as “bizarre, an unusual aberration. Things like that were strictly for the movies.”
The investigating subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee responded to My Lai in much the same way, suggesting a lack of sanity on the part of the perpetrators. The massacre “was so wrong and so foreign to the normal character and actions of our military forces as to immediately raise a question as to the legal sanity at the time of those men involved.”
The Brereton Report also has a good deal of hand washing in so far as it confines responsibility to the institution of the army itself. “The events discovered by this Inquiry occurred within the Australian Defence Force, by members of the Australian Defence Force, under the command of the Australian Defence Force.”
Even here, troop and squadron commanders, along with headquartered senior officers, are spared the rod of responsibility. The Report “found no evidence that there was knowledge of, or reckless indifference to, the commission of war crimes, on the part of commanders at troop/platoon, squadron/company or Task Group Headquarters level, let alone at higher levels such as Commander of Joint Task Force 633, Joint Operations Command, or Australian Defence Headquarters.”
Such a finding seems adventurously confident. If accurate, it suggests a degree of profound ignorance within the ADF command structure. For his part, Campbell acknowledged those “many, many people at all sorts of levels across the defence force involved in operations in Afghanistan or in support of those operations who do wonder what didn’t they see, what did they walk past, what did they not appreciate they could have done to prevent this.”
The Report also sports a glaring absence. The political context in terms of decisions made by Australian governments to use such forces drawn from a small pool is totally lacking. Such omissions lend a stilted quality to the findings, which, on that score, prove misleading and patently inaccurate. Armies, unless they constitute the government of a state, are merely the instruments of political wish and folly. Nonetheless, the Report insists that, “It was not a risk [the unlawful killings] to which any government, of any persuasion, was ever alerted. Ministers were briefed that the task was manageable. The responsibility lies in the Australian Defence Force, not with the government of the day.”
Prime ministerial and executive exemption of responsibility is thereby granted, much aided by the persistent fiction, reiterated by General Campbell, that Australian soldiers found themselves in Afghanistan because the Afghans had “asked for our help.”
History may not be the ADF chief’s forte, given that the government at the time was the Taliban, accused of providing sanctuary to al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Needless to say, there was no invitation to special forces troops of any stripes to come to the country. The mission to Afghanistan became a conceit of power, with Australia’s role being justified, in the words of the Defence Department’s website, to “help contain the threat from international terrorism”.
It is also accurate to claim that Australian government officials were unaware of the enthusiastic, and sometimes incompetently murderous activities of the SAS in the country. On May 17, 2002, Australian special troops were responsible for the deaths of at least 11 Afghan civilians. They had been misidentified as al-Qaeda members. The defence minister at the time, Robert Hill, told journalist Brian Toohey via fax that the special forces had “well-defined personnel identification matrices” including “tactical behaviour”, weapons and equipment. These suggested the slain were not “local Afghan people.” This turned out to be nonsense: the dead were from Afghan tribes opposed to the Taliban.
John Howard, the prime minister responsible for deploying special operations troops to Afghanistan in 2001, is understandably keen to adopt the line of aberrance in responding to the Report’s findings. The ADF was characterised by “bravery and professionalism”, and the disease of atrocity and poor behaviour could be confined to “a small group of special forces personnel who, it is claimed, amongst other things, were responsible for the unlawful killing of 39 Afghan citizens.”
This is much wilful thinking, though it will prove persuasive to most Australian politicians. In Canberra, there are few voices arguing for a spread of responsibility. One of them is the West Australian Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John. “The politicians who sent [the special forces] to #Afghanistan & kept them there for over a decade,” tweeted the sensible senator, “must be held to account, as must the chain of command who either didn’t know when they should’ve or knew & failed to act”.
Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion/XR recently interviewed Peter Carter, M.D., who has the distinguished title – Expert IPCC Reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The interview was conducted to get to the bottom of what science says about the state of affairs, specifically the health of the planet.
The following is a video link to that brilliant interview, inclusive of a treasure trove of contemporary science events (time: 41:21 November 11, 2020).
Additionally, a synopsis of the interview follows herein, but it does not do justice to the emphasis as expressed by the participants:
Dr. Carter is currently reviewing the 6th Assessment (AR6) of the IPCC. Additionally, he reviewed the IPCC Special 1.5°C Report of 2018 that exposed a new reality about the global climate emergency. As a result, the depth and breadth of a true emergency is gaining recognition throughout the world. The fact that 1.5°C above baseline is now the prescribed upper limit to global warming accomplished more than just turning heads.
Dr. Carter: “We are in a climate emergency, in an unprecedented Earth emergency… it’s an emergency of our climate, an emergency of our oceans… this is not one of many challenges, this is the challengefor all of humanity.”
The upcoming 26th COP (Conference of the Parties) to be held November 2021 in Glasgow is on the docket for scientists and bureaucrats, as well as big moneyed interests, to knock heads in a formal setting to discuss the state of the planet. If all goes according to plan, like past COPs, powerful economic interests will sabotage what would otherwise be a rather dim forecast of a planet in various stages of collapse, some terminal.
We’ve seen this act (COP) repeat over and over, ever since COP1 in Berlin in 1995, as each successive COP-ending-ceremony finds the Parties congratulating each other, slaps on the back, for one more successful climate conference of 20,000-30,000 able-bodied professionals wiped-out from overconsumption of Beluga caviar and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, but subsequently carbon emissions increase the following year, and every following year thereafter. What’s to congratulate?
More to the point, the annualized CO2 emissions rate is +60% since COP1, not decreasing, not going down, not once. After 25 years of the same identical pattern, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the take-home-work from all 25 COPs mysteriously turns into the antithesis of the mission statement of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Dr. Carter has a unique front-row seat to science; thus, the following highlights of his interview include a wide range of topics that assuredly demonstrate new all-time climate records, none of them positive, successively, each and every year:
At the outset, Dr. Carter commended XR (Extinction Rebellion) for insisting on a target of “net zero emissions within a matter of years,” not decades. That dovetails nicely with his viewpoint that the climate story should be labeled “the terrible truth,” and something that society must face up to.
Correspondingly, Dr. Carter praised the current Secretary-General of the UN António Guterres (Portuguese) for telling the truth. In his first public statement about climate change, he famously zeroed in on the heart of the issue: “Climate change is an existential threat to the survival of life on Earth, particularly including human kind.”
At this late point in time, there are no easy choices. The challenge ahead is daunting: “Everything is accelerating, everything is at a record high. In a nutshell, everything is getting worse faster.” (Carter)
Global warming has morphed into a quasi-heat machine as global temperature for the first six months of 2020 registered 1.3°C above baseline, a number that has new significance ever since the IPCC Special Report/2018 about the risks of exceeding 1.5°C.
Accordingly, it is generally acknowledged that 2.0°C above baseline is, in Dr. Carter’s words: “Out of the question, a catastrophe!”
Carter: “A world at 1.5°C is a disastrous world, no question.”
Carter: “2.°C is an impossible world.”
The problem arises because global surface heat is accelerating, not decelerating. Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration, accelerating like never before, is widely acknowledged by scientists throughout the world. New research published only a couple of weeks ago shows atmospheric carbon dioxide now at the highest level in twenty-three million (23,000,000) years.
Moreover, there is random CO2 data that goes back as far as 40 million years, bringing to light one more bleak data point, namely: We are increasing CO2 faster than at any time over the past 40 million years that’s 100 to 200 times faster than natural background rates. As such, according to Carter: “It’s gotten so out of whack that we are now looking at survival for our children, not survival of our grandchildren.”
It’s not only atmospheric greenhouse gases that are gassing like crazy. We are also changing the chemistry of the oceans for the first time since humans first gathered around fire. The world’s leading expert on “ocean heat” has researched how many Hiroshima bombs equal the amount of heat added to the ocean on a daily basis. Which is a major byproduct of global warming. “As of a few years ago, the answer was three (3) Hiroshima bombs per second; now it is five (5) Hiroshima bombs per second… and that’s real” (Carter).
It’s impossible to fully comprehend numbers like that, which may be one of the biggest obstacles to fully understanding the depth and breadth of climate change. But still, 5 Hiroshima bombs per second! Wow!
Meanwhile, according to Dr. Carter, the root cause of climate change is that countries are not de-carbonizing. It is at the heart of the problem, countries not de-carbonizing, the world not de-carbonizing. Moreover, making matters doubly worse, the rate of de-carbonization has actually slowed over the past few years.
Carter: “So, we’re doing things worse, instead of doing things better.”
The Arctic is a key factor in the planet’s unwieldy climate dilemma. According to Carter: We are now looking at the Arctic switching from a cooling source to a warming source as the ice melts away, losing its big ice reflector, which in past years reflects 80-90% of solar radiation back into outer space where it belongs, but lo and behold, with the loss of most of the ice, the background is dark, not reflective, it absorbs 80-90% of solar radiation, heating things up double or triple time.
In one of the biggest human feats of all time, The Anthropocene Era (the current geological age of human influence) flexed its muscles enough to almost totally undermine the infrastructure of the planet’s largest solar reflector, Arctic sea ice. It’s impossible to conceive how quickly multi-year ice, the true infrastructure of the Arctic, melted (almost a Blue Ocean Event, but not yet) in a very short time frame of only a few decades. Nobody knows the specific repercussions, but in general, it’s not viewed favorably and possibly really bad. It’s part of the global warming end game.
NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) publishes an Arctic report card every year. “In 2016 the results were downright shocking but surprisingly not picked up by the media. The report said that Arctic permafrost warming, thawing, and emitting had switched the Arctic from a ‘carbon sink’ to a ‘carbon source.” (Carter)
According to Dr. Carter re the NOAA report: “It is Earth catastrophic news. This is not modeling; it is actual catastrophic news happening in real time. There is no other way to look at it.”
And it’s not just the Arctic that is under siege: “We’ve lost the Great Barrier Reef,” which has been obvious over the past few years due to a heated ocean that is devastating coral reefs. The GBR suffered its third major bleaching in five years. “Nothing like this has ever happened before… to the Great Barrier Reef.” (Carter)
“We have two gems on Earth, (1) the Amazon rainforest and (2) the ocean. In the ocean, the GBR is the largest living organism on the planet, easily viewable from outer space. It is dying.” (Carter)
It hurts and hard to believe that we could lose the largest living organism on the planet. That’s all one needs to know that something is horribly wrong. The Amazon rainforest and the GBR are the planet’s two most significant canaries in the coalmine. They’re both under considerable stress, and dying.
Dr. Carter has tracked Amazon fires for six years via NASA satellite reports. Earlier in the month, he “was shocked to his core,” monitoring more fires in the Amazon rainforest than he’d ever seen, “Way-way-way more fires… Those fires, I look at them every couple of days now, they’re now encroaching and showing up in the entire Amazon. These fires, by the way, are intentional.”
With massive fires blazing around the world, on every continent this year, except Antarctica, Carter recommends the nations of the world come together to apply pressure to stop Amazon fires, “so that the Amazon is left in some kind of state of retrieval and not completely destroyed.”
Moreover, unprecedented endless fires are hitting Siberia hard. These fires will never extinguish. Russia calls them “Zombie Fires” because they subside but keep on burning at a lesser rate in smoldering peat in the winter and return with a vengeance the following spring/summer, emitting vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
In the final analysis, survival of civilization that resembles the current setup means the notorious neoliberal brand of capitalism needs a major work-over. The world community has been fully exposed to the ruthlessness and rapaciousness behind rampant, nearly unchecked, neoliberal capitalism; e.g., it searches out and captures the world’s lowest wages with the world’s weakest regulations to manufacture goods for the richest people… and that’s just for starters.
According to Dr. Carter: We must-must-must change the world’s economic direction as the current system destroys our planet faster and ever faster. It’s the sixth mass extinction, accelerating at an unbelievable pace: “It is, for certain, the most rapid extinction Earth has ever experienced.” (Carter)
Those are fighting words Down Under where they’ve already had a scrape, or a preview, with runaway global warming, circa 2019, as bats dropped dead out of the sky, streets buckled, and fruit on trees cooked from the inside out, too much heat for too long.
“If we continue to emit, there’s no question about what’s going to happen. Earth is going to become an intolerable place to live with intolerable heat waves, but those heat waves will not be just intolerable, they will crush our crops because there’s a definite limit to heat that crops can tolerate, even with irrigation.” (Carter)
The prominent Hot House Earth analysis (Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene, Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, et al) a couple of years ago alarmed people, discussing the danger of cascading climate feedbacks impacting individual components of the climate system. Nowadays, there’s a rub, a very big rub: “They’re actually happening altogether at the same time.” (Carter)
Roger Hallam: “We’ve established two things so far in this interview: (1) If this (abuse, overuse of the climate) carries on, they’ll be no humans left; humans are going to die and it’ll be the end of the human race. (2) The mechanism for which this happens is the compounding effect of feedbacks triggering, and thereafter triggering more and more feedback loops and more trigger points.”
Accordingly, what’s evolving is a “slow death scenario” with hundreds of millions starving, which is the end game of excessive global warming. Similar climate conditions have occurred in the past, but not nearly as fast, not even close. Nature is much, much slower than the human fast lane as the two ingredients mix like oil and water.
Adequate food and water are the main risks to human survival in a world of collapsing ecosystems. It’s a known fact that excessive global heat causes multiple levels of damage to crops. Regrettably, with the world already at 1.3°C above pre-industrial, another 0.2°C pushes some crop growing regions into flashing red zones.
“We’ll lose food production at 1.5°C.” (Carter)
All over creation, danger is flashing in unison: “All of the accelerating data trends together result in a trend that the biosphere is headed in direction of collapse, meaning the human species will be lost.” (Carter)
Agriculture is one of the worst offenders of the climate system. In all respects, organic agriculture is the best form of agriculture. Modern agriculture is a huge emitter of greenhouse gases and other suspect chemicals. Ironically, changing agricultural practices is another “must do” for survival.
Carter: “We must change our agriculture in order to survive… All of our energy and climate plans of all governments and corporations throughout the world are, not only for more, but continued increasing greenhouse gas emissions… so, we’re headed for a post-agricultural world. We’re changing the climate of the past 10,000 years into a completely different climate which is not an agricultural climate.”
A post-agricultural world is defined as one without enough food to feed all of the people. Shortages hit hard… grocery stores carry empty shelves and on it goes.
In the face of scientific evidence of trouble looming ahead, the only plans society at large has to combat it all lead to “global suicide.” Today’s most prominent economic system has roots in the late 19th century, circa: The Gilded Age, when nobody had heard the word ecosystem.
Hallam: “If you have not got enough food and if you have infectious diseases, then, you’re going to get social breakdown; social breakdown gets you to the security issue of transporting food… in other words, like all these things, they’re are interrelated, and they go exponential, they happen fast, it doesn’t just gradually creep up on societies; once a society passes a certain point, it will cascade downwards with slaughter and death. That’s what we’re looking at.”
Carter: “We’re now facing what people call ‘the unthinkable.’ But, ironically, we cannot afford not to think about it. That’s one of the principal values of XR; it challenges people to sit up and think, pay attention.”
To date, it’s clear that warnings have not worked: “For example, the 2007 IPCC Assessment stressed over and over again, and again, that emissions had to be in decline by 2015 for a 2°C limit. We’re already years and years too late.“ (Carter) That was 13 years ago.
According to Carter: The world community needs to sink their teeth into the science and wake up. The world needs to take a hard look because what’s happening is equivalent to “the crime of all time, undercutting all society… Our perverse form of economics is destroying the planet, disrupting all the oceans, poisoning the oceans, entire oceans with acidification, with heating, which disturbs and breaks down all the healthy ocean currents and… it is the definition of evil.” (Carter)
There are solutions: “The most effective, definitively effective, immediately effective, readily doable action that everybody in the world can do is Go Vegan. In theory, we can all do that. If we do that, emissions drop immediately.” (Carter)
Hallam: “Enormous changes in our personal lifestyle are now necessary. Let’s not beat around the bush, they’re necessary. It’s necessary for people to massively reduce their travel; it’s necessary for people to review their lifestyles, their jobs, and their careers. Because we’re facing a massive indescribable suffering of billions of people if we don’t… it seems unavoidable. I cannot avoid that conclusion.”
Hallam: Extinction Rebellion is at the forefront of a fundamental new message, which is: “If a government does not change, we shall… go into a rebellion via civil disobedience against the government in order to fundamentally reduce carbon emissions… It’s not actually that complicated, is it?”
At the end of the day, Dr. Carter suggests a glimmer of hope, the potential for a “Golden Age.” Acknowledging humanity has accomplished a lot that is good, which we must not forget, he suggests we need to build upon it and break away from that which is destructive.
Australia has given the world two influential and disruptive exports in the field of media. One, currently in London’s Belmarsh Prison, is facing the prospect of extradition to the United States for charges that could see him serve a 175 year sentence in a brutal, soul destroying super max. The other, so the argument goes, should also be facing the prospect of incarceration for what he has done to politics in numerous countries. But media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the gruesome presence behind Fox News and News Corp, is unlikely to spend time in a cell any time soon. The same cannot be said for Julian Assange of WikiLeaks.
Ingratiatingly, politicians have made the journey of pilgrimage to the not-so-holy Murdoch to keep in his good books. Disgracefully, though motivated by perceived necessity, British Labour’s Tony Blair wooed Murdoch prior to the 1997 UK general election he was to win. The victory for New Labour led to an association between Blair and Murdoch that was, according to former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, “almost incestuous”.
Blair’s kowtowing did its magic. As former deputy editor of TheSun, Neil Wallis, recalls in the first instalment of the documentary series The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, he was flayed by Murdoch for initially running what he called a “fairly standard” front page on the election. This was the same paper that boastfully declared on April 11, 1992, that, “It’s The Sun Wot Won It.” Labour, then led by Neil Kinnock, was favoured in the polls to defeat John Major’s weary, dysfunctional Conservatives. Murdoch, and his paper, would have none of it. On election day, the paper’s headline bellowed: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”
By 1997, attitudes had changed. Wallis recalls entering his office after editing the first edition. Murdoch called: “Hated your paper this morning,” he raged. “Two or three minutes later my door opens, Rupert comes up and says ‘you’re getting this wrong. You’ve got this totally wrong. We are not just backing Tony Blair but we are going to back the Labour party and everything he does in this campaign 200%. You’ve got to get that right.”
The paper’s endorsement for Blair followed but came with its pound of tantalising flesh. Blair was required to write a puff piece for the paper promising a referendum should he wish Britain to embrace the Euro currency. Former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, forever associated with the Brexit campaign and Murdoch worship, saw this intervention as crucial. “The price of Rupert Murdoch’s support for Tony Blair was that Blair promised he would not take us into the European currency without a referendum, and if Rupert Murdoch had not done that we would have joined the Euro in 1999 and I doubt Brexit would have happened.”
In a 2016 study published in Social Science Research, the authors found that The Sun’s endorsement for Labour in 1997 led to a boost of support in the order of 7%. In 2010, the same paper’s return to backing the Conservatives increased support by 15%. Even if these figures were to be scaled back significantly, they would still suggest a degree of staggering influence.
It is precisely such power that has become something of an obsession for former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Rudd has never resiled from the view that Murdoch was directly responsible for his demise. True, his own knife-wielding colleagues in the Australian Labor Party, addled by negative poll ratings, were happy to do the deed, but it was Murdoch who sang the tune of encouragement. At the launch of his second volume of autobiography in 2018, Rudd claimed that Murdoch “is ideologically, deeply conservative, deeply protective of his corporation’s commercial interests and, therefore, prosecutes a direct agenda through his newspapers which I’ve been on the receiving end [of].”
Another former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, albeit from the conservative side of politics, is also convinced, having become something of a crusader against Murdoch and his foot soldiers. On the ABC’s Insiders program, he warned of the costs accruing to Australia in permitting the dominance of Murdoch’s press imperium. “We have to work out what price we’re paying, as a society, for the hyper-partisanship of the media.” He cast his eye to the United States “and the terribly divided state of affairs that they’re in, exacerbated, as Kevin [Rudd] was saying, by Fox News and other right-wing media.”
This had led to an alliance of sorts between the two men on this point, despite Turnbull’s previous description of Rudd as one of those “miserable ghosts” that haunt politics after the fact. A wiser Turnbull understands Rudd that much better after his own party initiated a palace coup, leading to the ascent of Australia’s current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.
While an online petition against the dominance of the Murdoch press imperium seems like peashooter stuff, Rudd’s initiative has gathered momentum. His petition, now tabled in Australia’s Parliament, specifically calls for a royal commission “to ensure the strength and diversity of Australian news media.” Having received 501,876 signatures, it notes concern “that Australia’s print media is overwhelmingly controlled by News Corporation, founded by Fox News billionaire Rupert Murdoch, with around two-thirds of daily newspaper readership.” Australians holding views contrary to the Murdoch line “have felt intimidated into silence.” Adding to this such matters as the “mass-sackings of news journalists,” the stripping influence of digital platforms on media diversity, News Corp’s closure of 200 smaller newspapers after their acquisition and “relentless attacks on the ABC’s independence and funding”, the picture is bleak.
The petition’s tabling caused a flutter of interest in Parliament. While Murdoch is unlikely to break out into sweat at efforts made by Australia’s politicians to investigate his reach of influence, any inquiry will be irritating. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is certainly hoping to cause a stir, having pushed members of the Senate to establish an inquiry into media diversity in response to Rudd’s petition. “Australians have become increasingly concerned about the concentration of media ownership and the power and political influence of Murdoch.” The Senator is also keen to see the two former prime ministers “speak frankly and have the protection of parliamentary privilege, which is important when you’re talking about issues of power and influence”.
Murdoch’s hirelings are ready. Unfortunately for Hanson-Young, the News Corp imperium is skilled in camouflaging inertia against change with promises of activity. The inquiry’s terms of reference are also shallow, omitting any reference to News Corp Australia while calling for an examination of the “state of media diversity, independence and reliability in Australia and the impact that this has on public interest journalism and democracy.”
News Corp Australia’s executive chairman, Michael Miller, was cool in his statement, noting that the company had participated in at least nine previous media inquiries. “As always, we will continue to constructively engage in these important conversations.” Murdoch will be hoping that the conservative Morrison government, and a good number of Labor opposition figures, will not go wobbly in preventing change. History may well prove him right. Again.
The extraordinary amount of cover in the Australian mainstream media of the results of the United States election is quite unparalleled and in any other political event. The bias of the media is readily apparent: they expect a Democratic party victory and no alternative is given much space. The result is not, in fact, as clear cut as they would like us to believe. Certainly, on the claimed results Joe Biden has a convincing lead, and the local media happily endorse that, referring in unfailing deprecatory terms to Trump’s refusal to concede defeat.
Some other observers do not see such a clear-cut result. They point to a number of anomalies in key states where an apparent Trump lead in the polls literally vanished overnight. The reason was attributed by those doing the counting as “discovering” – at 3 am and 4 am, tens of thousands of votes that had somehow been missed. By an amazing coincidence, nearly all of those votes turned out to be for Biden.
Such a result is theoretically possible, but it is so unlikely that the chances of actually being the case, in five or six States which recounted similar experiences, but one can safely say that the results have been rigged. Trump has announced his intention to take his challenge to their electoral veracity all the way to the Supreme Court. Whether they will agree to hear his case, and if they do will they declare Trump the winner is at this point simply unknown.
Electoral shenanigans are not, of course, a rare or even recent event. The 2000 election between George W Bush and Al Gore had a controversy over who won Florida. The Supreme Court refused to intervene and Bush was declared the winner, a result somewhat surprisingly accepted by Gore.
The controversy this year however, is not likely to be lightly considered by either party and we can expect a bitter fight all the way to 20 January 2021 when the winner is due to be sworn in for the next four-year term.
The big question for Australia is: does it matter? It is possible to ascertain some differences in domestic policy but those are largely irrelevant to most Australians. The key issues for this country will be in United States foreign policy and here the differences are much harder to ascertain.
The key issue will be the relationship of the United States to both Russia and China. Trump has certainly blown hot and cold on both countries, largely ignoring the advice given to him by Henry Kissinger at the start of his presidency in 2017 to develop a good relationship with Russia at China’s expense.
Kissinger saw a division between Russia and China as being in the United States’ interest. Trump largely ignored that advice, preferring to wage quasi war; i.e., of the non-shooting variety, against both countries.
The United States could not expect to win an actual hot war against either country, let alone both, so the warfare has been waged by a variety of other means. In Russia’s case the attack has had a number of key elements. The first has been to allege “Russian interference” in the United States electoral system. That there was never a shred of convincing evidence to support this claim did not stop its endless repetition. The Australian media has been only too happy to repeat this fiction.
A second line of attack has been to accuse Russia of endless misdeeds, both internally and among its European neighbours. The endless distortion about the factual situation in Ukraine from Russia’s alleged “annexation” of Crimea to the shooting down of MH 17 over Ukraine are but two examples of this endless economic and political warfare. The latest has been the alleged Russian poisoning of Alexi Navalny, a story so full of holes and improbable assumptions one might have thought that western leaders would be too embarrassed to repeat it. Apparently not.
The American led attacks on Russia have multiple aims. Economic self-interest is not the least of these, with the open assertions of Russian misdeeds designed to encourage the Europeans to cancel the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 project and buy the significantly more expensive American alternative instead.
Similar tactics can be seen in the economic and political warfare being waged by the United States on China. These include, but are not limited to, the ongoing campaign to disrupt Hong Kong’s return to China after 170 years of British domination. That the residents of Hong Kong never even had the vote during this long period of United Kingdom control is carefully left out of the discussion. Instead, Hong Kong was ruled from London.
China’s alleged ill-treatment of the Uighur population is another mode of attack. That persons in this part of western China that are being detained are Muslims recently returning from fighting on behalf of the United States in its multi-faceted Middle Eastern campaigns, particularly in Iraq and Syria, is never mentioned in the Western media.
The Chinese also see ever increasing contact between the United States and the province of Taiwan, including most recently an agreement between the US and Taiwan for the latter to buy billions of dollars of weapons from the former. It is difficult to perceive a Biden administration following a different pattern from that of the Trump administration.
The Australian government is not going to find a Biden administration assist in altering its deteriorating relationship with China. Biden has already indicated that he will not be any friendlier towards China than has been the case under Trump. Australia can expect a continuation of the process of squeezing of its economic and other ties to China. That this is a direct consequence of its adherence to the United States foreign policy towards China is irrefutable.
The Australian government has seemingly forgotten the old adage: as you sew, so shall you reap.
Nothing in the foreign policy statement of either Prime Minister Scott Morrison or Labor leader Anthony Albanese suggest that the result of the United States election will lead to any significant change in Australian foreign policy. The deterioration of the relationship with China is only one such trend that is unlikely to change, much to Australia’s damage.
The same is true of virtually all areas of Australian foreign policy. The recent belated revelations about the conduct of Australian troops in Afghanistan is symptomatic of a broader problem. Stories of Australian atrocities are not new to those of us who have followed this particular misadventure. What has been notably lacking from all the media accounts arising out of the latest revelations is that there has not been a single question raised about the obvious point: what are Australian troops doing in a foreign country 18 years after they first invaded on the basis of a colossal lie?
To return to the original questions posed above of the implications of a change of leadership in the United States next January. The short answer is that there will not be significant changes. Australia will continue to act as the United States’ junior partner; ventures in foreign wars will continue; and China will slowly but surely push Australia into being the poor man of Asia.
It is not too late to make a fundamental change in foreign policy. It would be unwise to count on it happening.
It was a penultimate day in the Australian state of Victoria. The state government had announced that some of harshest coronavirus lockdown restrictions in the developed world would be easing. Melbourne’s restaurants, bars and cafes could resume inviting customers through their doors. Retail outlets could reopen. Confident claims of “crushing the virus” frothed and bubbled on social media.
This elevation of mood provided ideal distraction for another ugly event. Early last week also saw the arrest of 60 people protesting the removal of a fiddleback tree deemed sacred to some members of the Djab Wurrung people. It was akin, one academic suggested, to seeing Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burn. The tree was the fruit of a practice involving the placing of a child’s placenta, with a seed, into the earth. This is not the only one: other birthing trees of even older vintage are threatened by the Western Highway upgrade. Over centuries, they have provided sanctuary for the safe delivery of generations of Djab Wurrung people.
The removal of the 350 year old “directions tree” – a spiritual site for guidance – is seen as cold and necessary business, part of a widening of a section of the Western Highway between Buangor and Ararat. It is also a stretch of highway connecting Melbourne and Adelaide, a bloody section of road known for fatalities and injuries. In the words of Premier Daniel Andrews, “If we waited around for an absolute consensus, then that deadly stretch of road would go unimproved, and we would see more people dying.”
As a spokesperson for Victoria Police explained in a statement, “Police have a strong dedicated presence along the Western Highway today as part of an operation to remove camps and protestors from restricted areas as highway work construction continues between Buangor and Ararat.”
Since 2018, the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy has had a presence along the existing highway between Ararat and Buangor, a generally peaceful guerrilla faction protecting cultural, sacred growth. The protest group sees the contested area as “part of the song line” bolstered by the findings of artefacts. Were the full upgrade to be implemented along the 12km stretch, “3,000 trees will be gone, including the sacred trees and their protected habitats.”
According to Greens senator Lidia Thorpe, the destruction of such trees was tantamount to inflicting spiritual murder. Their forms evoked human shape – such as the “grandfather tree” resembling “an old man guarding” the birth site. “When these trees, these places are destroyed, it’s like a death. We can’t get them back.”
With the eviction by police last week, one of the embassy members, Amanda Mahomet, claimed to have been expelled from her home. “It’s been our home not by choice, for 3 years. Everything you have physically, mentally and spiritually has been ripped from us in a matter of minutes, and to watch innocent friends and family there protecting country forcibly and violently removed was traumatic.”
Journalist Madeline Hayman-Reber of the Gomeroi yinnar was furious and inconsolable. “The Andrews Government had used today as a political distraction from the desecration of a sacred Djab Wurrung women’s site, to silence the voices of Djab Wurrung mob, women and allies.” The action was “completely sinister. While the colony is celebrating, mob are in mourning.”
The picture is a more clotted one. The Victorian government claims that the felled tree did not have cultural significance – at least to the members of the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, who were consulted in assessing the site. Aged and majestic as it was, local elders failed to detect the standout markers of cultural significance present in other vegetation. In a statement by the EMAC, the tree sported “no cultural modifications” and was “unlikely to have pre-dated European civilisation”. In February 2019, the government did make a concession of sorts, agreeing to change the originally planned route of the highway. In the process, 15 trees inside the boundary were spared.
As with other battles over matters of cultural importance, development objectives clash with local political differences. Thorpe is adamant that the Corporation did not have a monopoly of a voice for all Djab Wurrung people. Lawyer Michael Kennedy, who represents Thorpe’s mother, Marjorie, wonders why a cheaper route which would follow the old northern part of the highway was not taken. The reply from Major Road Projects Victoria has been unequivocal: that route fell short of design standards and environmental protection; 8,000 trees would have also been lost, as opposed to the current number of 3,000.
To date, the protesters have had some measure of success in the courts. Despite the arrests and the loss of the directions tree, an interim injunction was granted by a Victorian Supreme Court judge halting the road project till the next court hearing on November 19. Federal intervention, however, has not been forthcoming.
The executive officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Legal Services, Roxanne Moore, has also demanded an inquiry into the circumstances leading to the arrests at the embassy camp. She had her eye on “the use of these COVID-19 powers by Victoria Police” and instances of police violence. “We really need to see some serious scrutiny being put on to police actions for the Djab Wurrung protest.”
Victoria Police subsequently confirmed that a number of protesters were arrested for breaching COVID-19 regulations, yet another instance of protests being quelled by the use of pandemic powers. In a statement, the police claimed that there was no inappropriate use of force, or “issues requiring medical attention”. Gabriel Lillington, the last protestor at the site, described a rough, workmanlike approach by the authorities in removing members of the embassy. The police “just tried to read out a trespass statement and they immediately started forcibly moving protesters and the Indigenous Djab Wurrung people.”
The message of reconciliation has certainly taken a concerted beating. Rhetorically, the Andrews government has been pleased to pursue negotiations towards a treaty. Functionally, and practically, the agenda for development continues, marked by weaknesses in the Traditional Owner Settlement Act and the legal structure on protecting sacred sites. As with other instances of sacred site desecration in Australia, the pattern is similar: proposed development, potentially destructive to the site in question; claims of full consultation with elders and local community members; disagreement among indigenous members.
For Djab Wurrung woman Sissy Eileen Austin, this was all too much. She promises to step down from the First Peoples’ Assembly, the body representing aboriginal interests in the Victorian treaty negotiations. The felling of the fiddleback, and the removal of the protestors, has soured an already troubled process. “There are conflicting agendas here,” writes Austin, “one where the government is supporting the progression of the treaty and the other where they’re comfortable in proceeding with the irreversible destruction of significant cultural heritage.” A relationship complex and abusive.
In 2016, Australian Major General Jeff Sengelman approached the then chief of the Australian army Lieutenant General Angus Campbell with a nagging worry. The concern lay in allegations that Australian special forces had committed various war crimes in Afghanistan. Sengelman was then special forces commander; Campbell was chief of the army. Sociologist Samantha Crompvoets was duly commissioned to write a report on “Special Operations Command Culture interactions”. It was leaked in 2018, and claimed that Australia’s special forces had engaged in the “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations” aided by a timorous leadership and perception of impunity.
Campbell duly tasked the inspector-general of the Australian Defence Force, James Gaynor, with the role of investigating war crimes allegations connected with the Special Operations Task Group during stints in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016. Paul Brereton, a New South Wales Supreme Court judge and major general in the Army Reserve, was given the task of leading the inquiry. For four years, it has been conducted under conditions of utmost secrecy. The instrument directing the inquiry, and the terms of reference of the inquiry, remain unpublished.
The report is expected to be completed by year’s end, though some preparations for softening the blow are already being made. The IGADF annual report of 2018-9, tabled in parliament in February, at least alludes to the fact that more than 338 witnesses have been examined since March 2016, noting “55 separate incidents or issues under inquiry covering a range of alleged breaches of the Law of Armed Conflict, predominantly unlawful killings of persons who were non-combatants or were no longer combatants, but also ‘cruel treatment’ of such persons.” Exclusions are already clear: decisions made during the “heat of battle,” for instance, are of no concern. Focus, instead, “is on the treatment of persons who were clearly non-combatants or who were no longer combatants.”
In an interview with journalist Stan Grant in an online conference series, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds was not optimistic about what would be unearthed. “I think that will make some very significant findings, ones that I’m certain will make Australians uncomfortable and also dismayed at. So, I think we do need to prepare ourselves for that.” While she had not seen the report, she felt that there was enough to be troubled by, though “that in no way reflects on our current serving men and women both here and overseas who are doing an extraordinary job for your nation.”
The Senator is keen to push the point that things have improved since those dark days. Army Commander Lieutenant General Rick Burr also made the point in a note to Australia’s soldiers that, “This is not who we are and not what we stand for.” He seemed to show some fondness for the bad apple theory, “concerned about the impact of those findings on those of you who served in Afghanistan and other operations and who served as professionals with pride and integrity. You did the right thing.”
The ADF establishment has been particularly concerned with what is seen as the isolation of the special unit arm from the rest of the army. Over the course of 20 rotations over 11 years in Afghanistan, “catastrophic and cultural shortfalls” have been identified within the Special Operations Command. The Special Air Service Regiment and commandos have also been at each other’s throats in what can only be described as competitive viciousness.
Lying behind such lines of inquiry is a policy of containment: the idea that atrocities can be stemmed, cordoned off, and identified as the work of a few rotters within a rotten culture. Identify the culture and its advocates; neutralise them. Burr is confident that this has already taken place, using the insufferable language of organisational management in describing “substantial cultural and professional transformation.” The question as to why such outfits should be deployed in the first place is never asked, leaving politicians and commanders immune and smug from the horrors of war and the stupidities of armchair planning.
While the IGADF inquiry has been moving slowly along, the exposes have come thick and fast. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has become the main font of disturbing revelations, its Afghan Files a trove of bloody and brutal adventurism. The impact of their exposure led to investigations by the Australian Federal Police, not into allegations of such atrocities, but those who wrote about them. Only this month, ABC journalist Dan Oakes received the comforting, if cold news, that he would not be prosecuted by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions in the aftermath of raids conducted on the national broadcaster last year. The CDPP waved the magic wand of public interest, and thought it poor form to be pursuing a journalist for exposing the misdeeds of Australia’s military effort in Afghanistan. But more troubling for Oakes, the CDPP thought that any prosecution would have stood a reasonable chance of success.
Another matter of concern regarding the future efficacy of the inquiry has also surfaced. This month, the ABC obtained an internal Defence Department bulletin noting the placing of an embargo on the shredding of any records relating to ADF operations in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2015. The embargo stemmed from the Afghanistan Inquiry Task Force established with the “primary role” of preparing “Defence to receive and respond to the IGADF Afghanistan Inquiry report.” Startling that this should have taken four years, but the Defence Department saw little trouble with it. According to the dull formulation of a spokesperson, “In accordance with these requirements, key operational records relating to planning and conduct become eligible for destruction after 20 years.”
This should have caused a flurry of consternation. For Rawan Arraf, director of the Australian Centre for International Justice, the timing of the embargo raised “serious questions about whether the Defence Department has had the proper processes in place; whether it has been complying with its regulations and international guidelines on record keeping and data protection, especially where it’s relevant to investigating any potential violations of international humanitarian law or the laws of armed conflict.”
While the findings of such inquiries will duly fill the books of military history, they will not alter the central problem in Australian military and foreign policy: that constant craving to deploy personnel to harsh foreign theatres without obvious strategic necessity. Australia’s SAS and the commandos can rightly be seen to be the Ghurkhas of the US military, an elite annexe serving as auxiliaries for foreign power.
Troubled and ruined, Afghanistan has been killing, maiming and driving the imperially minded insane for centuries. It has mocked and derided invaders, swallowed up armies. The tag of military professionalism is mere dinner table formality in the face of unconventional warfare; when engaged in such areas of battle, the rules will go out the window. By all means, hold the soldiers to account for such cruelties, but the same could be said about those who sent them there in the first place, decision makers who remain perennially immune from a prosecutor’s brief.