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Dr. Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed at @bkampmark.

Beautiful Plots: Israel Sabotages the Natanz Nuclear Facility

Over the weekend, Iran marked National Nuclear Technology Day. The stars of the show were going to be new advanced centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant. Unfortunately, the stars did not shine, and President Hassan Rouhani and his officials were left with a reminder of the previous time the centrifuges at Natanz crashed. In 2010, a joint US-Israeli operation against Iran’s nuclear program is said to have destroyed a fifth of the Iranian centrifuges, using the Stuxnet virus.

A sequence of events have been viewed cumulatively as suggesting that this was no error of engineering so much as plain sabotage. Israel was again the central agent of perpetration, a not implausible accusation given its relentless efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The latest came last November, when Iran’s chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was slain by a gun operated by artificial intelligence. At this feat, Brigadier-General Ali Fadavi was almost admiring in description: the gun had “focused only on martyr Fakhrizadeh’s face in a way that his wife, despite being only 25 cm away, was not shot.”

Itamar Eichner of YNet was happy to indulge in questions regarding the latest incident at Natanz. Was the politically troubled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raising a toast with officials of Mossad, the IDF and Shin Bet ahead of Independence Day auspicious? And why did US Defence Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III pay a visit to Israel on April 11, the day the attack took place? Defence analyst Ron Ben-Yishai, also of YNet, suggested that it was “reasonable to assume that the problem … might not have been caused by an accident, but by deliberate sabotage intended to slow the nuclear race accelerated by the negotiations with the US on removing sanctions.”

Israeli and US officials have confirmed that Israel did play a role, though the speculation as to what actually happened at Natanz remains a feast of various courses. The Times of Israelprovided some detail: a bomb had been planted in advance at the nuclear enrichment facility near the main electricity line, more than implying that Iran’s nuclear program has been infiltrated and compromised. According to Channel 13 news, the device went off on Sunday at 4 in the morning, after which the facility was evacuated. The bomb crippled the entire facility, leading Channel 13 defence analyst Alon Ben-David to conclude that this was “the worst attack that Iran’s nuclear program has suffered … at the most important Iranian nuclear facility.”

An unnamed Israeli intelligence official told the Kan news that the damage to the site was “extensive” in nature, having affected various types of centrifuges. Others read from the same script in their assessments to Channel 13, citing “severe damage at the heart of Iran’s enrichment program.” In the New York Times, another intelligence official explained that the remotely detonated device had disabled both primary and backup electrical systems.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, preferred to minimise the effect of the blast, claiming on April 12 that the explosion had been “small” and took place “at the electricity distribution centre.” The damage caused could be “quickly repaired.”

But as with the killing of Fakhrizadeh, some officials could not help but be impressed by the manner of execution, inadvertently confessing to the sheer seriousness of it. “The enemy’s plot was very beautiful,” came the reflection from Fereydoun Abbasi, head of the Iranian Parliament’s energy committee. “I’m looking at it from a scientific point of view. They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”

Such violent behaviour on Israel’s part is heavily leveraged against the relationship with the US. While the Biden administration moves in a constipated fashion towards re-establishing a patchy dialogue with Tehran over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) talks, Israel persists in remaining a spoiler. The nagging question was whether Israel was unilaterally roguish in order to purposely disrupt such incipient diplomacy, or whether the White House had given a barely noticeable nod of approval for the operation. Doing so would make Israel the agent of disposition, thereby weakening Tehran’s future discussions on the nuclear agreement.

The White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, for her part, was not giving much away, showing that transparency remains, at least in certain areas of the Biden administration, aspirational. “The US was not involved in any manner,” she stated during her April 12 press conference. “We have nothing to add on speculation about the causes or the impacts.” As for planned talks to re-establish the nuclear deal, the Press Secretary claimed that discussions would still proceed on Wednesday in Vienna, expected “to be difficult and long. We have not been given any indication about a change in participation for these discussions.”

Iranian legislators have been none too impressed, insisting that the country’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suspend talks. Abbas Moghtadaei, deputy chairman of the Parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, suggested that talks undertaken “under pressure have no meaning.”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh did not shy back from calling the attack “a crime against humanity” though it was not a crime with much effect. “All decommissioned centrifuges are IR1 and will be replaced with new centrifuges.” Such an act of “nuclear terrorism” triggered Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which permits sovereign states to defend its territory when attacked.

Revenge will come in cold and calculated doses: an assault on Israeli-owned shipping; harrying missile fire from bases in Yemen or Syria; the use of drones on specific Israeli targets. On this, Ben-David had a bland observation to make. “Yesterday signifies that the faceoff between Israel and Iran has escalated to a higher level.” Of even greater concern to Tehran is the obvious point, openly admitted by Moghtadaei, that there have been “very obvious security infiltrations.” Charges of incompetence and treason have begun to thicken the atmosphere.

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Nimble Failure: The Australian COVID-19 Vaccination Program

“I am not going to be talking about numbers today,” Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly told Australia’s Radio National on April 12. This echoed suggestions from the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who had adopted the position that Australia best forget meeting any clear vaccination targets. Having left battling the pandemic to State governments, the Federal government has found itself unable to execute its program, if one dare call it that.

Part of the monumental failings of the government can be put down to its stubbornness in prioritising the use of one vaccine. AstraZeneca was meant to be the vaccine wonder, the Godhead, the miraculous deliverer. CSL, Australia’s only vaccine manufacturer, was given the task of producing the majority of 54 million ordered doses at its Broadmeadows factory in Melbourne. Many of those now risk being essentially useless.

AstraZeneca’s product has been plagued by a profile that has become a ballooning public relations nightmare. While various medical authorities in Europe delayed the application of jabs fearing a possible link between the vaccine and a rare blood-clotting syndrome, Australia looked on with goggle-eyed wonder, insisting that no pause was necessary. Administrative objectives took priority over medical ones.

Last week, Morrison’s medical advisers made things even more trying by suggesting that the AstraZeneca vaccine be ruled out for those under 50. In a media release on April 8 by the Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy and Chief Medical Officer Kelly, it was revealed that they had “received very important advice” from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). ATAGI had been considering European and US findings regarding any possible link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and any possible cause of “thrombosis with thrombocytopenia” characterised by “blood clots with low platelet counts.”

In Europe, one in every 250,000 people who had received AstraZeneca had been diagnosed with the rare blood clot condition. But Australia had not been spared, with one patient suffering thrombosis and a low platelet count after being vaccinated on March 22.

ATAGI had recommended that those under 50 years of age should take the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine instead. “This recommendation is based on the increasing risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 in older adults – and hence a higher benefit from vaccination – and a potentially increased risk of ‘thrombosis with thrombocytopenia’ following AstraZeneca vaccination among those aged under 50.”

The advisory group also recommended, obliquely, that the AstraZeneca vaccine might still be used for adults aged under 50 in cases “where the benefits clearly outweigh the risk for that individual” and the individual in question had made “an informed decision based on an understanding of the risks and benefits.” Patients, it would seem, beware.

Ominously, the health officers had to accept that the decision to accept the ATAGI advice would have “implications for the vaccine rollout program.” One of them was already in evidence by the end of last week. Victoria’s Department of Health was taking few chances. “Until updated consent forms and consumer information are available from the Commonwealth Department of Health, and immunisation teams have been familiarised with these materials, it is advised that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 is not administered to eligible persons aged under 50 years.”

Those who had made vaccination appointments for April 9 at the Royal Exhibition building in Melbourne were denied the jab. “They just turned me away,” St. John Ambulance employee Athena Stathoulas explained to the ABC. “I had no idea it was for 50s and over. I had no notification.”

The Morrison government has been scrambling. The Prime Minister announced on Friday that Australia had secured a further 20 million Pfizer vaccine doses, in addition to current orders for 20 million. He tried to distract critics by noting that 170 million doses of vaccines in total, spanning deals with Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Novavax and COVAX, had been secured. (Delivery has been quite another matter.)

None of this could conceal the fact that vaccination timetables had been shredded. An October deadline had been proposed for all Australians wishing to be vaccinated to receive at least one dose. Prior to that, the government had dreamily suggested a target of 4 million vaccinated Australian adults, with all remaining adults being finished by October. On April 8, Morrison emphasised “uncertainties” and “many, many variables” that doomed any coherent planning. “This is not a certain world and we’re not on our own. The whole world is dealing with the same uncertainty.”

Government incompetence has also taken on a patriotic dimension. Stupidity can be forgivable, if it is shown to be defending the national interest. Agriculture Minister David Littleproud is a startling example of this, refusing to consider how ordering other vaccines might ameliorate the problem. Having not consulted the entire Australian population on the matter, he could confidently tell Channel Nine that he did not “think any Australian would want the Chinese vaccine or the Sputnik vaccine.” He spoke of an approach “calm and methodical about making sure that we give the best vaccine with confidence, and however long it takes”.

The National COVID-19 Commission, through member Jane Halton, is also of the same view. “The trick now is for people to calm down a little bit and get back to basics.” Pfizer would be the stand-in hero here. Think, warbles Halton, that “there will be 40 million doses in total” of it.

The current state of calm, understanding of basics, and methodical application means that a further two years will be required for Australians to be fully vaccinated. Daily tallies such as 27,209 are a far cry from the suggested number put forth by epidemiologist Mary-Louise McClaws, who opines that a total between 100,000 and 120,000 would be eminently more suitable.

AstraZeneca’s future is not promising in other respects. The European Medicine Agency is currently reviewing reports on a possible cause of capillary leak syndrome. Other drug titans are also not being spared scrutiny, with Johnson & Johnson’s own Janssen vaccine potentially being tarnished by the same blood clot problem. “At present, no clear causal relationship has been established between these rare events and the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine,” stated the company in an email.

The damage, certainly in terms of public relations and the vaccination program, deepens. But in Australia, the issue cuts deeper. Bureaucratic incompetence has become the Siamese twin of unoriginal selections and poor supply lines. With the State governments having performed the lion’s share of the work protecting populations from COVID-19, the Federal government has shown various, fabulous ways of soiling the stable. A near future of closed borders, snap lockdowns and an increasingly enfeebled economy, seems likely.

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When Prince Philip Became a Monument

The student from Ghana was insistent. “I want to meet him.” The stubborn, well-attired fool, groomed and keen to make a good impression, was attending the Senate House ceremony in Cambridge for honorary awardees. He was not the only one. In attendance on this warm June day in 2006 were a gaggle of rascals, well-wishers and rogues. This was gawking made respectable.

The awardees were justifiably brilliant. There were the establishment birds of paradise: the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, a man who soporifically charmed; and the Bank of England governor, Mervyn King. The mad cat mathematician’s contribution was also honoured in the form of string theorist Edward Witten of Princeton. Honorary doctorates in law were also conferred upon educator Charles Vest and writer Njabulo Ndebele. Ahmed Zewail scooped the honorary doctorate in science and novelist Margaret Drabble the honorary doctorate in letters.

The ceremony was softly coated in formal Latin, the awards themselves granted to the bright and the brightest, the hall acting as a brace of history. But it was the Duke of Edinburgh who, as ever, managed to cut through what would have otherwise been a stuffy gathering with his immemorial manner. Cambridge University’s chancellor turned up to preside, and, his cloak train held by the unfortunate subaltern, appeared like a decorated reptile, gown merged with body.

The reception – for that is what many there had hoped to get a hack at – saw Prince Philip make his various social sorties. These had the usual devastating air about them. Old mocking remarks about colonies; jabs of casual racism garnished with a mock innocence. Andrew O’Hagan of the London Review of Books was not wrong to observe that his questions would often lie “somewhere between existential brilliance and intergalactic dunce-hood.” To the student from Ghana, who sauntered up to him expecting a nugget of revelation, he said this: “I say, are you still a colony of ours?”

The Prince Philip treasury is laden with such remarks, the sort that inspired other family members such his grandson Prince Harry while enraging commentators such as Hamid Dabashi. To a Scottish driving instructor, the Duke of Edinburgh inquired how it was possible to “keep the booze long enough to pass the test”. To an Australian Aboriginal: “Still throwing spears?” To a group of British students on a royal visit to China: “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”

A national treasure? A petrified disgrace? For Dabashi, very much the latter, with one redeeming feature. “He is not faking it,” railed the Columbia University professor of Iranian studies in 2017. “This is who he is – and the long panoply of his racist, sexist, elitist, misogynistic, class-privileged and unhinged prejudices is a mobile museum of European bigotry on display.”

A man such as the Duke of Edinburgh operated in a different dimension, distanced from revolutionary tremor and social evolution, even as the country he presided over with Queen Elizabeth II changed. To expect such a man to evolve with an institution created before an understanding of genetics was hope defiant of experience. He was expected to remain in the putty of permanent infantilism – at least on some level, more role than man. Accepting monarchy is accepting a condition of long service, and the Westminster model demands that the sovereign reigns but does not rule. And that role was reserved for Prince Philip’s wife, Queen Elizabeth.

So much came to massaging him into roles he did not want, and situations he would have thought peculiar. A man condemned to opening buildings most of his life is bound to get tetchy at some point, strapped to concrete, pillars and boredom. Presiding over the opening of structures can risk turning you into a monument, a biped structure condemned to endless ceremonies of tenured stiffness. Naturally, he had to assume the role of consort as robot, breaking occasionally into performance, his sparkles of misguided human observations rippling through the institutional straitjacket.

The role of service can be deforming. The Duke of Edinburgh Awards is touted as an example of “Prince Philip’s belief in the infinite potential of young people”. The Royal had a rather different view of it: the awards were not to be celebrated as some deep, insightful contribution to society. It was simply something to do. At points, he seemed to have strange attacks of modesty. On one occasion, he admitted that his greatest speech involved the utterance of a few words: “I declare open the Olympic Games of Melbourne, celebrating the sixteenth Olympiad of the modern era.”

In the biography of the queen mother by William Shawcross, we find a note written by a newly married Prince Philip to his mother-in-law, touching in so far as it shows an awareness of role and position. “Lilibet is the only ‘thing’ in this world which is absolutely real to me and my ambition is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also have a positive existence for the good.”

A profound shock was the emerging force of media scrutiny, prompting him to call it “a professional intruder”. That was, is, its job, so you could not “complain about it.” So, in front of the media, he would be able to tell the young children’s rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai that children went to school because parents wanted them out of the house. Many wearied parents would have agreed; even the youthful Malala stifled a giggle.

The river of tributes duly flowed on the announcement of his passing. Few were more suited to delivering one than Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister, in various previous incarnations, had merrily offended a good portion of the earth’s nations and races. “Prince Philip earned the affection of generations here in the United Kingdom, across the Commonwealth and around the world,” said the Prime Minister. “By any measure, Prince Philip lived an extraordinary life – as a naval hero in the Second World War, as the man who inspired countless young people through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and, above all, as Her Majesty The Queen’s loyal consort.”

Not much difference was noted on the Labor side of politics. “The United Kingdom,” wrote Sir Keir Starmer, “has lost an extraordinary public servant in Prince Philip.” He noted a life marked by dedication to country, a distinguished career in the Royal Navy during conflict, and decades of service.

From outside Britain, Barack Obama was off the mark, unable to resist the urge to be modern and very contemporary. “At the Queen’s side or trailing the customary two steps behind, Prince Philip showed the world what it meant to be a supportive husband to a powerful woman.”

From the European Union, there was understanding without hyperbole. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen preferred a no-nonsense approach, expressing her sadness and extending “sincere sympathy to Her Majesty The Queen, the Royal Family and the people of the United Kingdom on this very sad day.”

During the reception of the honorary graduands that day in 2006, the strawberries being readily consumed, the champagne flowing like arteries let, Prince Philip could still muster a few remarks, speared, sharpened, and directed. He mocked those who had not been to Cambridge, geniuses who never had the chance to go to that great educational wonder in the Fens. “Is it true that there are actually a few of you who did not go to Cambridge?” To see him in motion was to see an institution within a man, bones and flesh going through tasks he did with a certain measure of irritation and resignation. The heat of battle must have been much more fun.

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Fatuous Defence: Australia’s Guided Missile Plans

Even in times of pandemic crises, some things never change. While Australia gurgles and bumbles slowly with its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, there are other priorities at stake. Threat inflators are receiving much interest in defence, and the media is feeding on it with a drunken enthusiasm. We live in a dangerous environment, and think-tankers, parliamentarians and commentators are starting to get a sweet taste for imminent conflict.

The latest instalment in this pitiable train towards conflict was revealed in Canberra last month. Australia, it seems, wants to make its own guided missiles. In a joint statement, the Prime Minister and Ministers for Industry and Defence outlined the enterprise. “The Morrison government will accelerate the creation of a (AU)$1 billion Sovereign Guided Weapons Enterprise, boosting skilled jobs and helping secure Australia’s sovereign defence capabilities.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined his views in a media release on March 31. “Creating our own sovereign capability on Australian soil is essential to keep Australians safe, while also providing thousands of local jobs in business right across the defence supply chain.”

In making the announcement, he opted for a chalk and cheese comparison. “As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, having the ability for self-reliance, be it in vaccine development or the defence of Australia, is vital to meeting our own requirements in a changing global environment.” That specious idea ignores the point that the weapons are going to be made, not by Australian arms companies (they can barely even manage any credible local production) but by foreign entities.

Australia’s Department of Defence is on the hunt for a “strategic industry partner,” which, in all likelihood will be one of the giants such as Raytheon Australia, BAE Systems Australia or Lockheed Martin Australia. The mere fact that such companies have tagged Australia at the end of their antipodean corporate base is no reassurance about a local killing capability. But the newly appointed Defence Minister Peter Dutton gives the impression that the selection will be somehow competitive and balanced, promising to resort to a “Smart Buyer” process in picking the said partner. Such smartness is bound to be bereft of any intelligence, as with previous procurement deals that go pear shaped within a matter of months. (At this writing, the Australian-Naval Group future submarine contract is sinking under incompetence, disagreement and cost.)

Dutton praises the idea of having an Australian base for the manufacture of such guided weapons, as they will “not only benefit and enhance our ADF operational capacity but will ensure we have adequate supply of weapon stock holdings to sustain combat operations if global supply chains are disrupted.” Given Australia’s poor performance in coping with disruptions to the supply of COVID-19 vaccines, despite the propaganda about sovereign capability in that field, this is actually mildly amusing.

We already know from government mutterings that the US will be crucial (when is it not?) in feathering the Australian project, giving it a faux independence. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, heavily commercialised, compromised and bound to the US-Australian insecurity complex, prattles constantly about the need to get involved with useless machinery that only serves to inspire the arms manufacturers of other countries.

Take this number from Andrew Davies from last month, thinking that it might not be such a bad idea to get on board the hypersonic weapons bandwagon. Australia, he suggested, “might well join” the major powers in acquiring them. The country, he claims, has “some world class researchers.” The nub: Australians have been “in joint programs with the US for over 20 years.”

The announcement about guided missiles excited ASPI’s director of defence, strategy and national security, Michael Shoebridge, a man who has been salivating for a proper war for some few years now. The latest initiative was “being driven by the two Cs, China and COVID.” Shoebridge fantasises about long-range anti-ship missiles and new vehicles with missile capabilities. In June last year, he warned of “a glaring gap we must close in our ability to supply the Australian Defence Force with precision munitions – notably missiles. Advanced missiles give the militaries the edge in combat.” His nightmare: Australian impotence in the face of supply disruptions; a slow production rate from overseas sources; abandonment. This is particularly more acute given that Australia is no longer interested in peacekeeping missions. Blame, he says, “the deteriorating strategic environment in our region” – a real favourite expression in the Prime Minister’s office and ASPI.

With Canberra making it clear that it wishes to continue a hissing and booing campaign against China even as it ingratiates Washington, the entire process has a heavy tang of needless stupidity. As to whether it actually benefits Australia in any concrete sense, a clue is offered by Dutton. “We will work closely with the United States on this important initiative to ensure that we understand how our enterprise can best support both Australia’s needs and the growing needs of our most important military partner.” If that is sovereign capability and independence, one hates to think what vassalage looks like.

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The Future of Australian Universities: Bogans of the Pacific

When Nobel Laureates open their mouths in despair and anger, their observations tend to be worth noting. Immunologist Professor Peter Doherty was willingly doing so last week, and found himself indignant at the merciless cuts to courses and subjects in Australian universities. He was particularly worried about what was happening at the University of Melbourne, which is removing various subjects in the sciences as part of its “pandemic reset programme.”

His sombre words were recorded in The Age: “If we are serious about tackling climate change with technology, if we are serious about preventing more pandemics, then research and the study of science of technology need to be right up there as a national priority and properly funded.” Australia risked “becoming the bogans of the Pacific.”

A touch harsh, perhaps, given that “bogan” is a word defined in the Australian National Dictionary as “an uncultured and unsophisticated person,” “boorish” and “uncouth.” But both meaning and consequence are clear enough. Australian teaching and research institutions are being ravaged by the razor ready commissars of administration who cite one alibi for their hazardous conduct: the pandemic. Little time is spent on focusing on why the Australian university sector, bloated as it is, began to cannibalise funding and focus on single markets, such as that of China, sacrificing, along the way, standards.

The approach by the University of Melbourne is a template of savagery. In September last year, some 200 professors who sit on the academic board issued a warning at the imminent loss of 450 jobs. The letter to Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell warned that the pandemic restructure plan was destined to “damage our capacity to deliver on our public purposes in the short and long term.” The University risked engendering distrust and damaging morale, harming “our reputation as a preeminent university, both nationally and globally.”

A university spokesman at the time brought out the usual, meaningless formulae one has come to expect from the chancellery. First, embroider the message with caution; second, celebrate the institution you promise to ransack; third, claim that the ransacking will actually do it good in the future. The institution was taking a “considered and rational approach to critical decisions that must be made during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure it continues to be Australia’s leading university that is focused on outstanding teaching and research, not just for today but well into the future.”

Just to show how rational and considered these bureaucratic wonks can be, cuts have been made to such important parts of the university as the Veterinary School’s teaching hospital at Werribee. In an effort both futile but necessary, staff and supporters of the hospital tried to put their case to John Fazakerley, Dean of Veterinary and Agricultural Science. “The university’s Pandemic Reset Programme proposals do not recognise the correlation between skilled professional staff and teaching in a hospital that provides a high standard of care.” Did they ever?

Other sectors in the university are also being given more than a haircut. In November, 209 voluntary redundancies, a cheery form of remunerated execution, were announced, all paving the way for the euphemistically termed “professional services redesign” for staff working in finance, data and reporting, occupational health and safety, facilities management, research outputs and post-award finance support. (That’s bureaucracy for you.)

What is particularly stinging to Doherty, however, is the move to torch specific subjects and make various positions redundant. Staff at Melbourne University have been told that subjects with low enrolment will be scrapped. These include physical cosmology, quantum field theory and advanced environmental computation. In all, 11 units in chemistry, physics, biology and earth science risk being discontinued or suspended. Senior teaching positions in the fields of genetics, chemistry and biosciences will be made redundant. Office staff and lab technicians also find themselves in this mess.

The assault on science teaching and research is not merely the work of the surfeit barbarians in the chancellery. Australian higher education is imperilled, not merely by a university management class keen to squeeze students and productive staff into oblivion but a Federal Parliament that sees little value in them. A country facing the sharper side of climate change, brutal weather, environmental destruction and energy crises would be expected to be pouring money into degrees directed towards their study. But scientific illiteracy, along with other forms, is as contagious as the novel coronavirus.

In October 2020, changes made to higher education with the blessing of the Centre Alliance and One Nation parties in the Australian Senate saw an effective reduction of 29% to the subject of environmental science. Dianne Gleeson, president of the Australian Council of Environmental Deans and Directors, called this budgetary slicing “one of the largest funding cuts to any university course.” It would do away with the technologically heavy side of the course: the use of satellites, drones, analytical equipment from DNA sequencing.

The move did not seem to discourage Catriona Jackson, the perennially ignorant chief executive of Universities Australia. Australian universities, she promised, “remain committed to providing world-class degrees in all aspects of environmental studies, recognising the growing importance of this discipline.”

The disturbing irony in this tragedy (or monstrous cock-up) is that slashing cuts were always going to happen. The central problem is that the wrong things, not to mention positions, are being slashed. A further commodification of the tertiary sector, with degree programs reduced to market-based fictions with stated “objectives,” is promised. When the Australian government and universities speak about “job ready” packages, they are bound to be rendering students both unready and distinctly boganised.

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Priti Patel and the Death of Asylum

Nothing makes better sense to the political classes than small time demagoguery when matters turn sour. True, the United Kingdom might well be speeding ahead with vaccination numbers, and getting ever big-headed about it, but there is still good reason to distract the voters. Coronavirus continues to vex; the economy continues to suffer. In February, the Office of Statistics revealed that Britain’s economy had shrunk by 9.9%. The last time such a contraction was experienced was in 1709, when a contraction of 13% was suffered as a result of the Great Frost which lasted for three devastating months.

With Brexit Britain feeling alone, it is time to resort to mauling targets made traditional during the 2016 campaign to exit the European Union: the asylum seeker, the refugee and anyone assisting in that enterprise. And the person best suited to doing so is the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who outlined the government’s New Plan for Immigration on March 24th. It has three objectives with one overarching punitive theme “to better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum.” The authenticity of that need will be aided by deterring “illegal entry into the UK, thereby breaking the business model of criminal trafficking networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger.” Those with “no right to be” in the UK will also be more easily “removed”.

It is in the nature of such policies to conceal the punitive element by extolling virtues. “The UK accepted more refugees through planned resettlement schemes than any other country in Europe in the period 2015-2019 – the fourth highest resettlement schemes globally after the USA, Canada and Australia,” reads the policy statement. “The UK also welcomed 29,000 people through the refugee family reunion scheme between 2015 and 2019. More than half of these were children.”

This self-praise ignores the inconvenient fact that the UK received fewer applications for asylum than European states such as France and Germany in 2020. According to the UNHCR, both countries received four times the number in 2020. “The number of arrivals in the UK in 2020,” remarks academic Helen O’Nions, “was actually down 18% on the previous year.”

It does not take long, however, to identify and inflate the threats: people crossing the English channel in their “small boats reached record levels, with 8,500 … arriving this way” in 2020. Sinister imputations are made: 87% of those arriving in small boats were male. In 2019, 32,000 illegal attempts were made to enter the UK, but foiled in Northern France while 16,000 illegal arrivals were detected in the UK.

The Home Office laments the rapid increase of asylum claims; decisions cannot be made “quickly”; “case loads are growing to unsustainable levels.” Never mind the UN Refugee Convention and human rights: what matters is bureaucratic efficiency. To achieve that, Patel hopes to “stop illegal arrivals gaining immediate entry into the asylum system if they have travelled through a safe country – like France.” Any arrivals doing so could not be said to be “seeking refuge from imminent peril.” Stiffer sentences are also suggested for those aiding asylum. “Access to the UK’s asylum system should be based on need, not on the ability to pay people smugglers.”

Much of what the Home Office makes of this is nonsense. It entails a fantasy about a model cut, idealised asylum seeker: those with state documents from the persecuting state, clearly of the identifiable sort, all morally sound. The murkier reality necessitates deception as an indispensable part of the process. To not have documents makes travel impossible. Alternative routes and means are therefore required.

The threat to relocate and refuse those seeking asylum would also breach the UK’s own Human Rights Act of 1998, obligating the state to prevent people from being returned to places where they are at the risk of torture, inhuman, degrading treatment or cruel and unusual punishment. That principle is also a cardinal feature of the Refugee Convention.

The view from those who actually have more than a passing acquaintance with the field is vastly different from Patel’s. Politely, some 454 immigration scholars in the UK have told the Home Secretary in an open letter that she does not know what she is talking about. The New Plan, for instance, may have 31 references, but “there is just one reference to research evidence, a research paper on refugee integration.” The undersigned scholars suggest that Patel look more deeply, as the plans being proposed “not only circumvent international human rights law, but are also based on claims which are completely unfounded in any body of research evidence.”

The scholars also note that asylum seekers and refugees lack safe and legal routes, with countries across Europe, North American and Australasia going “to huge efforts and massive expense in recent decades to close down access to the right to asylum.”

The markings of the New Plan resemble, all too closely, the Australian approach of discrimination which has become an exemplar of how to undermine the right to asylum: an obsession with targeting those people smuggling “gangs” and associated business rackets, merely code for targeting those fleeing persecution; distinguishing the method of arrival in order to demonise the plight of the asylum seeker; the decision that, irrespective of the claims of asylum, no sanctuary would ever be given to certain individuals because they chose to jump a phantom queue and not know their place.

The open letter also notes the “distinct and troubling echoes” of “the Australian Temporary Protection Visa programme and the vilification of people with no option but to travel through irregular means to flee persecution and seek sanctuary.”

Another unsavoury aspect of the British turn in refugee policy towards the antipodean example can be gathered by the possible use of offshore detention centres. Canberra relies on the liberal use of concentration camps on remote sites in the Pacific, centres of calculated cruelty that serve to destroy the will of those whose governments have already done much to encourage their flight. The official justification is one of killing asylum seekers with kindness: We saved you from almost certain drowning at sea, only to seal you within the confines of legal purgatory. In the New Plan, one senses a touch of envy for it.

In October last year, it was revealed that the UK Prime Minister’s office was considering the detention of asylum seekers in places as varied as Moldova, Morocco and Papua New Guinea. According to documents obtained by The Guardian, the Foreign Office had been charged with a task by Downing Street to “offer advice on possible options for negotiating an offshore asylum processing facility similar to the Australian model in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.” Patel herself had flirted with the idea of establishing centres at Ascension and St. Helena, though she has had to content herself with ill-suited military barracks on the mainland that facilitated the spread of COVID-19.

Alison Mountz, in The Death of Asylum, makes much of this transformation of the island from a point of transit to that of hostile containment. From field research conducted in Italy’s Lampedusa Island, Australia’s Christmas Island and the US territories of Guam and Saipan, Mountz argues that “the strategic use of islands to detain people in search of protection – to thwart human mobility through confinement – is part of the death of asylum.” Officials such as Patel are happy to help matters along.

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The Adani Business Formula: Dealing with Myanmar’s Military

Corporate morality can be a flexible thing. Some companies see tantalising dollar signs afloat in the spilt blood of civilians and dissidents. Military governments, however trigger crazed, offer ideal opportunities; potentially, corners can be cut, regulations relaxed. The Adani Group has shown itself to be particularly unscrupulous in this regard.

In many ways, it is fitting. The group’s record in a range of areas suggests that the profit motive soars above any other consideration. Environmentally, Adani is an irresponsible, wretched beast. A shonky Adani coal ship, the MV Rak, sank off the coast of Mumbai in August 2011 with devastating effects on marine life, the fishing industry, beaches and tourism. Its lacklustre response to dealing with the mess suggested environmental vandalism of the highest order.

In terms of employment practices, the company has been found to underpay its workforce and use child labour in the bargain. As for corporate strategy, Adani is happy to spread largesse for favours. The illegal export of 7.7 million tonnes of iron ore between 2006 and 2010 mobilised the company in a campaign of suppression and concealment. The Ombudsman of the Indian state of Karnataka took an interest in Adani’s conduct and found a vast bribery enterprise covering local politicians, customs officials, members of the police force, the State Pollution Control Board, the Port Department and the Weight and Measurement Department.

So why stop there? With the killing of demonstrators in Myanmar well underway, human rights groups and activists turned their sharp focus towards Adani’s record on port investment and its involvement with the military junta. The grounds of concern were already laid in 2019, when the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar listed Adani Ports and its commercial links with the military conglomeration, the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC).

The previous year, the UN Mission had issued a call for the top military commanders of Myanmar to be investigated and prosecuted for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity against ethnic groups in the states of Arakan (Rakhine), Kachin and Shan and for alleged genocide against the Rohingya of Arakan state. The fact finding mission was stern in judgment: “no business enterprise active in Myanmar or trading or investing in businesses in Myanmar should enter into an economic or financial relationship with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw, or any enterprise owned or controlled by them or their individual members.”

The International Criminal Court has also authorised the Prosecutor to investigate alleged atrocities by the military, including deportation and other inhumane acts and the persecution of the Rohingya inside Myanmar. While Myanmar is not a State Party to the court’s jurisdiction, Bangladesh, which received the bulk of the displaced Rohingya, is.

In Port of Complicity: Adani Ports in Myanmar, a March 2021 report by the Australian Centre for International Justice and Justice For Myanmar, the authors focus on Adani Port’s commercial ties with the MEC military conglomerate. In May 2019, Adani Ports entered into an agreement to construct, operate and transfer land held by the MEC for 50 years in an investment that promises to run to US$290 million. Land is being leased for the construction of the Ahlone International Port Terminal 2. The very property in question is a source of concern. “Due diligence obligations,” warn the authors, “would require Adani Ports to investigate whether the land is the subject of illegal appropriation by the military.”

The report also draws upon documents obtained by Justice for Myanmar, revealing that Adani Ports’ subsidiary in Myanmar, the Adani Yangon International Terminal Company Limited, paid US$52 million to the MEC, including $30 million in land lease fees. The rest constitute land clearance fees.

Through its Australian arm, the Adani Group released a statement seeing little problem with the commercial deal with a military-run corporation, despite acknowledging arm embargoes and travel sanctions on important members of the junta. Such facts did not “preclude investments in the nation or business dealings with corporations such as MEC.” The company also “rejected insinuations that this investment is unethical or will compromise human rights.”

In December 2020, Adani reiterated that understanding to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, seeing no problems between ongoing arms embargoes and travel restrictions on “key members of the military.” A more constructive reading of company intentions was encouraged. “The Adani Group’s vision is to help build critical infrastructure for nations across key markets and help in propelling economic development and social impacts.”

Following the February 1 coup, Adani issued a statement denying any engagement with the junta over the 2019 approval of the port. “We categorically deny having engaged with military leadership while receiving this approval or thereafter.” This was a curious version of events, given the July 2019 visit by a Myanmar military delegation led by Commander-in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to Adani Ports’ headquarters based in Mundra, India. Ten days prior to the visit, the US State Department had targeted Min Aung Hlaing and three senior members of the military with travel bans, citing their “responsibility for gross human rights violations, including in extrajudicial killings in northern Rakhine State, Burma, during the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya.”

The tour presented the general and his coterie a happy occasion for photo and video opportunities, many of which were posted on his personal website and the website of the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar Defence Services. Gifts were also exchanged between the CEO of Adani Ports, Kiran Adani, and the Senior General.

Caught out by this howler, the company, through a spokesperson, attempted to minimise the significance of the meeting. The general and his delegation were on an official visit to India; visiting Mundra was merely an informal matter. “In 2019, the government of India hosted the Myanmar general Min Aung Hlaing and Mundra Port was only one such location out of the multiple sites on this visit.”

The military regime in Myanmar is becoming the subject of interest in certain foreign capitals. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) within the US Treasury has targeted the two main military holding companies, the MEC and Myanma Economic Holdings Company Limited (MEHL) with sanctions. “These companies,” states the US Treasury, “dominate certain sectors of the economy, including trading, natural resources, alcohol, cigarettes, and consumer goods.” Various high ranking military officials, former and current, have links to the holding companies and their various subsidiaries.

Superbly disingenuous, a spokesperson for Adani Ports has suggested watchfulness at this increasingly sordid picture: the company was “watching the situation in Myanmar carefully and will engage with the relevant authorities and stakeholders to seek their advice on the way forward.” In what can only be regarded as an exercise in moral vacuity, the same spokesperson claimed that the Yangon International Terminal project was “an independent container terminal with no joint venture partners.”

The Myanmar-Adani nexus comes with broader, blood-stained implications. The company’s Australian operations in the Carmichael coal project in Queensland, long challenged by a determined grassroots effort, raises the question of ethical financing. “The question for Australia and Australians is whether we want to be hosting a company that is contributing to the enrichment of the Myanmar military,” asks Chris Sidoti, an Australian lawyer who was on the 2019 UN Mission. Investing in Adani was tantamount to the indirect financing of the Myanmar military. “This is a question especially for sovereign wealth funds and pension funds that should have a highly ethical basis for their investment decisions.” As ever, some room to hope.

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Cancelling Art, Dark Mofo and the Offended Classes

Last week, Australians found themselves delighting in another fit of cancel culture, this time in the art world. Tasmania’s Dark Mofo art festival prides itself on being gritty but the mood was very much about removing any grit to begin with. Interest centred on the project of Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, who had proposed soaking a Union Jack Flag “in the blood of its colonised territories.” The blood would come by way of donations. First Nation peoples “from countries claimed by the British Empire at some point in history, who reside in Australia” would furnish the liquid.

Given what followed, festival organisers might have preferred one of Sierra’s other suggestions: a work that would have involved vast amounts of cocaine. Social media outrage followed. People purporting to speak for the offended, while also counting themselves as offended, railed and expectorated. Festival curator Leigh Carmichael tried to be brave against the howling winds of disapproval. “At this stage we will push on,” he told ABC Radio Hobart on March 23. “Provided we can logistically make this work happen, we will.” He acknowledged that, “These were very dangerous topics, they’re hard, they hurt.” For criticisms that the work was being made by a Spanish artist, Carmichael was initially clear: to make work taboo for people from specific localities could constitute “a form of racism in itself.” Then inevitable equivocation followed. “This artist is about their experience and whether a Spanish artist has the right to weigh in, I don’t know.”

Within a matter of hours, Carmichael’s position had collapsed: Sierra’s project was cut and put out to sea. “We’ve heard the community’s response to Santiago Sierra’s Union Flag.” Grovelling and capitulation before this all powerful community followed. “We made a mistake, and take full responsibility. The project will be cancelled. We apologise to all First Nations people for any hurt that has been caused. We are sorry.”

David Walsh, Tasmanian founder of MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) and responsible for running the festival, was open to self-education and reflection, having not seen “the deeper consequences of this proposition.” He had thought the work “would appeal to the usual leftie demographic. I approved it without much thought (as has become obvious).” A bit of old fashioned, censoring conservatism was called for.

Brian Ritchie, bassist for the Violent Femmes and artistic director of Mona Foma, the museum’s summer festival, felt righteous, firstly, wanting to distance his own outfit as “a completely different and separate organisation” before weighing into rubbishing the cultural sensitivity credentials of the work and the artist. “Exploiting people while claiming to protest on their behalf is intellectually void. Stupid programming is aesthetically null. Controversy outweighing the quality of the work is bad art.”

The cancellation was approved by the bloated entities across the academy, certain ethnic groups and the professionally enraged. Critique ranged from the identity of the artist (Spanish, foreigner, coloniser) to the merits of the work itself. “A coloniser artist intending to produce art with the actual blood of colonised people is abusive, colonising and re-traumatising,” came the social worker assessment from novelist Claire G. Coleman. “The idea is disgusting and terrible and should not have been considered.”



If every traumatic, disgusting incident (rape, pillage, massacres, wars, the crucifixion) were to be considered a bad idea for representation, the canvasses best be left empty, the art shows barren. Never depict, for instance, that Tasmania’s lands are blood soaked by European conquest. Do not, as Australian artist Mike Parr did in June 2018, bury yourself beneath a busy street of the state capital Hobart to get to the hidden truth. That way lies trauma.

The art content commissars were also keeping close eye over how the depiction might have been properly staged, if it was even possible. Such a contribution can be found in the journal Overland. “Simply stating or depicting that the beginnings of the Australian colony were brutal and bloody for Indigenous people is a passive act,” moaned the very selective Cass Lynch. She demands, expects. “The concept on its own isn’t active as an agent of truth-telling, it doesn’t contain an indigenous vice or testimony, it has no nuance. On its own, it leans into the glorification of the gore and the violence of colonisation.” Blood, it would seem, is no indicator of truth.

In such convulsions of faux sensitivity to the First Nations, the arts sector (for this is what it has become in Australia, a corporatized, sanitised cobbling of blandness, branding and safe bets) justified not merely the pulling of the piece, but that it should have ever been contemplated to begin with. In the commentary on Sierra, the Indigenous peoples are spoken of in abstract and universal terms: they were hurt and all have one, monolithic voice; and “white curators” should have thought better in letting the project ever get off the ground. Thinking in cultural police terms, Paola Balla asked “how this was allowed to be programmed in the first place? And what structures support white curators to speak of Black traumas?” Such questions are bound to embolden art vandals across the world keen on emptying every museum for being inappropriately informed about “power structures.”

Ironically enough, in this swell of ranting about voices and representation, the artist in question was deprived of it. Sierra, in a statement released on March 25, called treatment of his work “superficial and spectacular” and his own treatment as a “public lynching.” His quotes had been misconstrued; he had been “left without a voice, without the capacity to explain and defend” his project. He had hoped the blood-soaked Union Jack would inspire reflection “on the material on which states and empires are built” and reveal how “all blood is equally red and has the same consistency, regardless of the race or culture of the person supplying it.”


Image from pedestrian.tv


Sierra’s shabby treatment did not go unnoticed. Parr took issue with the festival organisers’ “cowardice and lack of leadership.” Michael Mansell, Chair of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania urged Carmichael to push on with the work. “The artist challenges Tasmanians about whether Aboriginal lands were peacefully or violently taken, and uses the blood-smattered Union Jack to express his view.” By all means disagree with the artist and even feel offended “but that cannot justify stifling the artist’s freedom of thought.” A sinister result had followed from the cancellation of the project. “The unintended consequence of the objectors is that the discussion about truth telling will now be ignored, put aside.”

There are parallels in this fiasco with previous instances of rage over what can and cannot be depicted in the shallow art lands of the Antipodes. The cultural police also took issue with Australian photographic artist Bill Henson in 2008 for his portrayals of children as sexual beings. On May 22 that year, twenty Henson photographs featuring “naked children aged 12 and 13” were confiscated by police from Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 gallery. Jason Smith of the Monash Gallery of Art defended Henson, claiming that his work “has consistently explored human conditions of youth, and examined a poignant moment between adolescence and adulthood.”

Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was having none of it. There were simply certain things you could not touch, that art should not enable you to understand. Henson had erred into vice. “Kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected,” he spluttered. Rudd found the photographs “absolutely revolting” despite having not seen them. “Whatever the artistic view of the merits of that sort of stuff – frankly I don’t think there are any – just allow kids to be kids.” Jenny Macklin, Minister for Families at the time, moralised before the Nine Network about how children were “just getting bombarded with sexualised images all the time, and it’s that sexualisation of children that I think is wrong.” Now, just as then, artists have been put on notice.

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Increasing Nukes and Trimming the Military: Global Britain’s Skewed Vision

Campaigners for the abolition of nuclear weapons had every reason to clink glasses with the coming into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in January. Nuclear weapon states and their allies still persisted in calling the document unhelpful and unrealistic; the self-appointed realists have preferred the go-slow approach of disarmament, a form of moderated insanity.

In March, it became clear that the United Kingdom, one of the opponents of the TPNW, had decided not only to look the other way but walk in the opposite direction. The threshold of British nuclear warheads is to be increased to 260, though the authorities maintain an intentional ambiguity about the exact number. This reverses a decision arrived at a decade ago, which promised to cut the maximum threshold for nuclear warheads from 225 to 180 by the middle of this decade. In the words of the Defence Command Paper of the Ministry of Defence, titled Defence in a Competitive Age, “Some nuclear-armed states are increasing and diversifying their arsenals, while increases in global competition, challenges to the multilateral order, and proliferation of potentially disruptive technologies all pose a threat to strategic stability.”

Such a direction is very much at odds with public support for Britain joining the TPNW. A poll conducted in January for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament found that 59% of the public expressed support for signing the treaty, including 50% of conservative voters and 68% of Labour voters. The policy also breaches undertakings made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue efforts to disarm. Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, decried the decision as “toxic masculinity on display”, “irresponsible, dangerous and violates international law.” UNA-UK’s Head of Campaigns Ben Donaldson remarked that the UK government could best “invest in measures to combat climate change and pandemics, not trigger a dangerous new arms race.”

The push towards more nukes would seem to be a compensation for reducing numbers in other areas of defence. While the nuclear arsenal is slated to increase, the number of soldiers in service will decline: from the current target of 82,040 to 72,500 in 2025. (Even here, a bit of make-believe is taking hold, given that the Army currently has 76,350 soldiers in service.) Effectively, Britain wants to roar with less, all part of what Defence Secretary Ben Wallace calls “increased deployability and technological advantage.”

The justifications for doing so, outlined in the Defence Command Paper, are the immemorial ones: new threats, new security environments, and a topsy-turvy world. “The notion of war and peace as binary states,” writes Wallace in the paper’s foreword, “has given way to a continuum of conflict, requiring us to prepare our forces for more persistent global engagement and constant campaigning, moving seamlessly from operating to war fighting.”

The review identifies “four overarching trends” of concern for the UK: the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, China’s assertiveness and “the influence of middle powers”; systemic inter-state competition, including between governments with “democratic and authoritarian values”; the challenge of technology, beneficial “but also becoming an arena of intensifying geopolitical competition”; and various transnational challenges requiring “collective action, such as climate change, biosecurity risks, terrorism and serious and organised crime.”

This sounds much an ominous promise to commit Britain to a state of affairs reminiscent of that most absurd of US policies: the waging of permanent war for permanent peace. But Wallace wishes to be farsighted, urging the dinosaurs to move over and forget “the shield of sentimentality to protect previously battle-winning but now outdated capabilities.”

The theatre for this commitment will not just be the conventional ones centred on the NATO alliance. Officially, Britain is again looking east of Suez, with an eye to drawing in old allies. “Our partnerships with Canada, Australia and New Zealand will be at the heart of our tilt towards the Indo-Pacific, as we work to support them to tackle the security challenges in the region.” Central to the “tilt” will be the maritime partnership with India. The object of the exercise is clear enough. “The rising power of China is by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today.” Britain had “to be prepared to push back to protect our values and global interests, while maintaining our ability to cooperate in tackling global challenges such as climate change and the mutual benefits of our economic relationship.”

The way this Global Britain vision is going to be achieved is a novel one. Fewer personnel will have fewer tanks (reduced from 226 to 148 upgraded versions). The RAF will oversee the retirement of its older Typhoons (“equipment that has increasingly limited utility in the digital and future operating environment”) and Hercules transport aircraft. The Navy will also farewell its share: two of the oldest T23 frigates. “We will bring Type 31 and Type 32 frigates into service, these new vessels are not just replacements for existing platforms, they will be more flexible than their predecessors.”

The defence paper abounds in the terms of an accountant gone wild, intoxicated by notions of bottom lines and efficiencies. Fleets are to be rationalised or retired; capabilities must be increased; the stress must be on the digital. But on the subject of nuclear weapons, Global Britain’s eyes remain very much focused on the past, shackled to the notion that a greater number of nukes somehow guarantee security. A certifiably barbaric relic of thinking.

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Confused in Afghanistan: The Biden Administration’s Latest Trick

The Biden administration continues to engage in that favourite activity White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki can only describe as “circling back”. And much circling is taking place in the context of Afghanistan.

The cupboard of calamities is well stocked, with the US facing an emboldened Taliban keen to hold Washington to its word in withdrawing the last troops by May 1. In doing so, there is little chance that the US sponsored government in Kabul would survive. But dithering past the date will also be an open invitation to resume hostilities in earnest.

As things stand with the Afghanistan Peace Agreement, the Taliban have every reason to chortle. “There is little sign that this particular peace process,” opines Kate Clark of the Afghan Analysts Network, “has blunted the Taliban’s eagerness, in any way, to pursue war.” Not only have they been brought into any future power sharing arrangements with Kabul; they are also entertaining a new constitution with a good dose of Islamic policing. A powerful Islamic Jurisprudence Council with veto powers over laws is contemplated. All of this comes with the departure of US troops provided the Taliban prevent Al Qaeda and other designated terrorist groups from operating within the country’s borders.

Cadres of the security establishment in Washington are worried at easing the imperial footprint. Left with few options, the Biden administration has resorted to delaying tactics, hoping for the creation of an interim power-sharing government that would lead to a more comprehensive peace settlement.

Policy wonks are not impressed. Madiha Afzal and Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute take a withering view of the Taliban: they are not to be trusted on any reduction in violence or constructive power sharing. The only question for them is whether US forces remain, or leave. As with previous justifications for keeping up the pretence for foolish, bloody and failed interventions, the argument is a familiar hoary old chestnut: to extricate yourself from the nightmare would see the perpetration of a bigger one. “As difficult as it is to remain in this longest war, the most likely outcome of pulling out of Afghanistan would be very, very ugly, including ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and the ultimate dismemberment of the country.”

Afzal and O’Hanlon acknowledge the bill to be considerable, though they do so with cool regret: the cost to the US taxpayer could be up to $10 billion annually; 10 to 20 casualties would also be added to the accounts “if the Taliban resumes its previous use of force against US forces.” Not taking up the burden would encourage the troops of other countries to leave while seeing conflict move to the cities, “which have generally remained under government control throughout the past two decades.”

With the interim government plan taking shape, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has decided to further baffle allies in Kabul. In a letter to Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani seen by TOLOnews, Blinken states that, “Although we have not yet completed our review of the way ahead, we have reached an initial conclusion that the best way to advance our shared interests is to do all we can to accelerate peace talks and to bring all parties into compliance with their commitments.”

To this waffle, Blinken has a suggestion: “pursuing a high-level diplomatic effort with the parties and with regional countries and the United Nations.” The Foreign Ministers of Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the United States should be convened by the UN. Written proposals to the Taliban and Ghani are also promised “aimed at accelerating discussions on a negotiated settlement and ceasefire.” While they are not meant to “dictate terms to the parties,” the Afghans have every reason to assume the opposite, given that they involve “foundational principles that will guide Afghanistan’s future constitutional and governing arrangements,” “a new inclusive government” and “terms of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”

Then comes the insertion of Turkey, which would have come as a delight to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, busily shredding the remnants of liberal democracy in his country. Senior-level meetings of both sides would take place in Turkey “in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” Hardly a vote of confidence for supporters of constitutional strength and sobriety, and striking coming from an individual who enjoys berating states such as China for their human rights blemishes.

The rest of Blinken’s points resemble a counselling session: a revised proposal for a Reduction-in-Violence strategy that will take 90 days; the need for all Afghan leaders to remain united and, in doing so, “build consensus on specific goals and objectives for a negotiation with the Taliban about governance, power-sharing, and essential supporting principles.” Blinken then falls into that unfortunate habit prevalent in the advertising school of thought in US foreign policy. Tactics and “public messaging that will demonstrate unity of effort and purpose” should be pursued. Public relations should do it.

The tone of the note, with its Quiet American theme, did not impress various Afghan advocates. Kabul-based lawyer Kawun Kakar found the “prescriptive nature and context of the letter disturbing.” He acknowledged that the US was “frustrated by the ‘endless war’” and the lengthy talks in Doha but imposing “complicated substantive” and “procedural conditions” and “deadlines do not seem realistic.” The parties, as things stood, were simply too far apart to guarantee any durable peace, while letting in other major powers into an already messy picture was ill-considered.

Vice President Amrullah Saleh did little to hide his dissatisfaction. “They [the Americans] have the right to decide on 2,500 US soldiers and sign deals with the Taliban as they please. But it is also our right to make decisions about 35 million people of Afghanistan not based on anyone else’s calendar.”

Biden’s Afghanistan policy risks fouling up even before anything solid is minted. “US forces will stay,” worries Eli Lake, “risking a new round of attacks from the Taliban. But they will not stay long, depriving the US of its already dwindling leverage to force the Taliban to adhere to the 2020 deal.” The worst of all worlds.

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Coming to the Playing Field: Biden Puts Australia First

It has gotten tongues wagging in the diplomatic corps of Beijing, Washington and distant Canberra. The opening session of the two-day summit between China and the United States in Anchorage, Alaska was ill-tempered. “We do not seek conflict,” insisted White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan from the outset, “but we welcome stiff competition, and we will always stand up for our principles, for our people, and for our friends.” There was little doubt that what followed was stiff.

Particular concern was expressed regarding claims of economic coercion exerted by Beijing towards US allies, with Australia featuring. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was all reiteration, outlining a list of sins to add to accusations of coercion: China’s policy towards Tibet and the Uighurs in Xinjiang; actions in Hong Kong and the stance on Taiwan; assertiveness in the South China Sea; and cyber-attacks on US targets. “Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” stated a grave Blinken. “That’s why they’re not merely internal matters and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here today.”

The “rules-based international order” proved to be the stubborn fixation. “That system is not an abstraction,” lectured Blinken. “It helps countries resolve differences peacefully, coordinate multilateral efforts effectively, and participate in global commerce with the assurance that everyone is following the same rules.” Sullivan attempted to rub matters in, talking about the Quad leaders’ summit “that spoke to the can-do-spirit of the world’s democracies and committed to [realizing] the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Beyond the ritualistic cant of order and rules, Sullivan was convinced that the US approach to China benefited “the American people and protects the interests of our allies and partners.”

Given that rules-based-orders have been forged by guns, bombs and steel, along with a good measure of coercion of the military and economic sort, this was mighty rich indeed. It was certainly too rich for China’s highest ranking diplomat, Yang Jiechi. Himself no slouch in the field of history, he spoke of the “United Nations-centred international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called ‘rules-based’ international order.” He suggested that the US “change its own image” and “stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world.” As for human rights, the US had its own backyard problems. “They did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter.”

On the subject of interference, Yang was unsparing and accurate. In certain cases, he argued, the “problem is that the United States has exercised long-arm jurisdiction and suppression and overstretched the national security through the use of force or financial hegemony.”

State Councillor Wang Yi sought clarification and a more nuanced view. Why see China’s relationship with Australia and Japan as identical to that of the US? “I don’t think we could know from all being together because for all of those instances, they each have their own set of issues and different positions are involved.” Were the US to “indiscriminately protest and speak up for those countries just because they are your allies or partners” the development of international relations would be “very difficult”.

Undeterred, Sullivan moved into the register of US exceptionalism, claiming that “a confident country is able to look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve.” Oddly, he called this “the secret sauce of America.” Taking much of it, he praised the US for its constant reinventions, collaborations and producing “the kind of progress that benefits all of us, and is rooted in a concept of human dignity and human rights that is truly universal that every man, woman, and child in this world aspires to.” At that point, a bucket should have been passed to the sauce-filled advisor.

The unfortunate consequence of the buttering up of allies and rebuking China is a certain big-headedness, one encouraged by the recent remarks of the White House Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell that “we are not going to leave Australia alone in the field.” Campbell’s reputation in the Australian security establishment is “Mr Asia in Washington,” to use the words of the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove, has caused spells of giddy excitement in Canberra. He, extols the Sydney Morning Herald, “understands not only Australia’s geopolitical significance but is well-versed in its domestic politics.”

This has caused an outbreak of Australian fawning, with Canberra content that its own bellicose, and self-damaging approach to China, has been sound, justifiable diplomacy. Trade Minister Dan Tehan, speaking to reporters in Canberra, was prostrate in gratitude. “I think all Australians should be reassured by the fact that the Americans have come out and they’ve got our back, and they won’t leave us alone on the playing field.” Foreign Minister Marise Payne was delighted by Campbell’s remarks, which was a “very clear and unequivocal statement of the importance of allies and partners, and is very much acknowledged and appreciated.”

Neither Blinken nor Sullivan seemed acquainted or cared to acknowledge Australia’s own China policies, which featured, as economist Percy Allan ably points out, a range of provocations after signing a free trade and investment agreement with Beijing in 2015. A few of the seven grounds he mentioned can be cited: the blocking of over 100 Chinese imports by resorting to anti-dumping provisions found inappropriate by the Productivity Commission under WTO rules; the crusade against Huawei and 5G technology; the selective condemnation of Chinese human rights abuses without noting those of other states in the region (Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia) including Australia’s own policy towards refugees; and publicly requesting an investigation by the World Health Organisation into the origins of COVID-19 having consulted the Trump administration but not Beijing.

All of this wrangling troubles a few sane voices, including Stan Grant of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “Make no mistake: we are now in a phase of preparation for war. China is becoming more aggressive in tone and actions, while the US is strengthening its regional alliances.” And Australia found itself in the “crosshairs of this new great power rivalry” in which Canberra had made a choice. “We are paying a price with a deteriorating relationship with China and our exporters are suffering.”

Former Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh was less glum, finding the talks refreshingly revealing. “Today, in my opinion, marked a turning point in international relations; China drew a line in the sand, did not bend at the knee nor tug its forelock.” Its significance remains undigested.

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Green Passes and Dark Inequalities: The Push for COVID Immunity Passports

Sensible, ideal, wonderful – if you happen to be in the European Union. This is the air of confidence surrounding the March 17 proposal for a digital COVID immunity passport, or what is officially being called the Digital Green Certificate.

The Digital Green Certificate is actually a bundle of three: vaccination certificates stating the brand of vaccine used, data and place of inoculation and number of doses administered; negative test certificates (either a rapid antigen test or a NAAT/RT-PCR test); and medical certificates for those who have recovered from COVID-19 in the last 180 days.

The measure is discrimination made sound, preference made prominent. The essential requirement to obtain such a pass is evidence that you have been vaccinated by a jab with a vaccine approved by the European Medicines Agency. But the European Commission did append a qualification to this requirement. Member states could decide whether to accept vaccines that the EMA had yet to approve. Not in itself reassuring, given the varied approaches European states have taken to the international vaccine market.

Such administrative and bureaucratic impositions are the stuff of nightmares for ethicists and philosophers. For those in economics, business and management, it is an eminently sensible idea that will enable people to move within Europe, preferably in time for summer.

The director of Eagle Travel, David Reculez, put the case for the defence. “For us, the travel agencies, the new certificate is really a good hope because it will definitely help people to travel again.” People wanted to travel in a safe way without being hampered by “hard rules or quarantine”.

Countries with tourist-heavy economies – Greece, Spain and Croatia, for instance – are enthused. On February 23, Greece’s Digital Governance Minister Kyriakos Pierrakakis announced the use of vaccination passports. Agreements have been struck with Israel, Cyprus and Serbia to enable a generous flow of vaccinated residents this summer. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has had the ear of the EU President Ursula von der Leyen, pushing for a unified EU position on the matter, despite his country’s separate bilateral efforts.

France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium are, to various degrees, opposed and sceptical. France’s minister of state for tourism, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne thought “the idea of restricting movement to only people who are vaccinated” a “premature” debate given that only “4 to 5% of the European populace had been vaccinated.” The country’s minister for European Affairs Clément Beaune found it “shocking, while this vaccination campaign is still underway in Europe, that there would be more rights for some people than for others. This is not our conception of protection and access to vaccines.”

A number of health practitioners and bioethicists hold similar concerns. Sarah Chan of the Usher Institute for Population Health Sciences and Informatics in Edinburgh makes a convincing case for the prosecution. “I think vaccine passports have the potential to be unnecessarily divisive. It’s likely to lead to negative consequences, particularly in being unfair and creating inequalities.”

In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that “there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination” including combating variants of SARS-CoV-2; the duration of protection following vaccination; the timing of booster doses and whether vaccination offered protection against asymptomatic infection.

Prioritising vaccinations for travel “could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe COVID-19 disease.” To introduce “a requirement of vaccination as a condition for travel has the potential to hinder equitable global access to a limited vaccine supply and would be unlikely to maximize the benefits of vaccination for individual societies and overall global health.”

We can already see the green pass concept deployed in Israel. The incentive to do so is clear. “With the green pass,” encourages the voiceover of an advertisement promoting the idea, “doors simply open in front of you…We’re returning to life.”

The country has been using an app to show who has been fully inoculated against coronavirus or those who have recovered from infection. For both vaccinated individuals and recovered coronavirus patients, the pass is valid till June 6, 2021. It acts as a form of exclusive access, a mark of approval should you wish to go to concerts, theatres, gyms and hotels. Hoteliers such as Armin Grunewald, whose establishment can be found near the Sea of Galilee, told the Guardian that, “People were looking happy and liberated”.

Cryptographers and students of information security were less merry. The Ramzor app has been blighted by problems since it was launched. In the view of computer scientist Orr Dunkelman, based at Haifa University, it unnecessarily reveals information such as the date a person recovered from COVID-19 or received a vaccine. It also employs an old encryption library susceptible to security breaches. Ran Bar Zik, software columnist for Haaretz, goes so far as to call it “a catastrophe in the making,” suggesting a paper vaccination form instead.

In February, the Knesset approved a law allowing the Health Ministry to provide the name, national identification number, phone number and address of any citizen who can be vaccinated but has not received a jab, to a range of authorities. These include the Education Ministry and the Welfare Ministry. At the time of its passage, Tamar Zandberg of the Meretz party suggested that, “Disclosing such information is a slippery slope, and damage’s people’s privacy.”

An uncomfortable spectre is unfolding. While paperwork certifying good health has been a feature of transport and travel – the WHO’s Yellow card showing certified vaccinations for such infections as cholera, plague and typhoid being a most known example – COVID-19 green certificates are another matter. Epidemiologist Christopher Dye and sociologist Melinda C. Mills, writing in Science, remark that, “The greatest risk is that people for whom vaccination is unacceptable, untested, inaccessible, or impossible are denied access to goods and services.” They consider the various instances where inequity can manifest: ethnic minorities reluctant to take the jab; a lack of data on vaccine efficacy for people at risk (pregnant women for instance); unreachable, undocumented migrants; the digital technological divide; and eligibility requirements.

In a global sense, the unvaccinated in the COVID-19 age risk becoming the great modern unwashed, derided or ignored, socially and politically excluded. The effect is analogous to depriving people of passports, alienating them from citizenship citing biomedical grounds. Dye and Mills are optimists confident that such passports can “be guided by exemplary science, appropriate technologies, and fair use for all.” But as with previous categories of the invisible and the undocumented, verifiable vaccination passes loom as rigid hierarchies of compliance, surveillance and division.

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A Climate Change Vandal goes to Paris: Mathias Cormann and the OECD

The hallmark of any institution is the ability to withstand ironic dysfunction. The United States under the stewardship of that unintentional comic George W. Bush made John Bolton ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton had loathed the body, wishing for it to implode under its own weight. The parliamentary chamber of the European Union, between 1999 and 2020, hosted that most anti-EU of proponents, the bilious Nigel Farage. Hatred for European institutions did not stop the little Englander from drawing a salary and being rather cavalier with his expenses.

The Organisation for Economic Development is the latest institution to encounter its dose of fair perversion. For the first time in its history, its secretary general will be from outside the Americas and Europe. In terms of birth, Mathias Cormann is Belgian. But in terms of pedigree, he is a veteran of Australian conservative politics, having been a cabinet minister and, it should be said, powerbroker, in the Liberal Party.

Very little chance was given to Cormann in his bid. The field of applicants seemed too varied, too strong. His abysmal record on climate change policy was seen as the most obvious handicap. “Governments are not stupid, they have highly intelligent officials and ambassadors who work out what is really going on and advise them,” claimed Bill Hare, climate change scientist and chief executive of Climate Analytics.

But the former finance minister kept making it through the rounds. Lobbying efforts on his behalf were unsparing. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison rang numerous world leaders. Meetings were held between senior officials and ambassadors. Candidates began withdrawing their bids.

Swiss candidate Philipp Hildebrand, whose pitch focused on climate change, pulled out, citing lack of support. The former EU trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, fell at the final hurdle. She had also promised an aggressive approach towards climate change, declaring that she would use her post to globalise Europe’s carbon-tax scheme on high-emission imports. This was a bit much even for the new climate conscious administration in Washington.

Of the 37 ambassadors to the OECD, a few recorded the view that it had been a “very close race.” France and the UK decided on Cormann but Malmström was unable to secure a unified bloc of voters. Christopher Shorrock, the UK representative, told the Financial Times that both candidates had “broad support” but a straw poll showed “Cormann as the candidate with the most support.”

Sending Cormann to the OECD could be seen as a Trojan horse gesture on the part of Australia’s Morrison government. As a front bencher in right wing administrations, climate change was treated as a secondary concern. Suggestions to turn his adopted country towards the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 were denigrated as the musings of extremists.

The Australian Greens leader, Adam Bandt, was almost desperate in trying to convince each of the ambassadors with a vote not to appoint him. His letter from last November to the voting bloc documented various highlights of Cormann’s time in parliament. He had voted to “repeal Australia’s successful carbon price” in 2014. He had attempted to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewal Energy Agency. “As finance minister, he tried to abolish the very same green finance bodies he will no doubt be promoting as evidence of his green credentials for the job.”

The OECD itself has reproached Australia’s climate change policies. In a 2019 report, the organisation notes Australia’s “progress in decoupling the main environmental pressures from economic growth” but that it remains “one of the most resource- and carbon-intensive OECD economies.” The country was on track to meet its 2020 climate target but needed to “intensify efforts to reach its Paris Agreement goal of reducing GHG emissions (including emissions from land use change and forestry) by between 26% and 28% below its 2005 levels by 2030.”

Cormann’s lobbying exercise, one well aided by the tax-payer funded services of a Royal Australian Air Force jet, chose to focus on other matters. Here was a European connected to the Asia-Pacific. He was keen to be a “consensus” candidate. If needed, he would waffle about the green agenda. During his campaign, he proposed that the OECD “provide important global leadership to drive ambitious and effective action on climate change” and “help economies around the world achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050”.

In a statement released after his selection thanking the organisation, Cormann made the mandatory salute to environmental policy, putting the case that the OECD will continue to “drive and promote global leadership on ambitious and effective action on climate change to achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050.” But it was merely one of a range of other objectives: maximising the economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic, reaching multilateral understanding on digital taxation and, as ever, the promotion of “market-based policies and a rules-based international order.”

His vision statement similarly talks of the need to “get to zero net emissions as soon as possible. Climate policy responses will increasingly need to factor into long-term planning.” Not exactly the sort of language he was known for when a member of the Australian government.

The narrative of a climate change vandal turned green advocate failed to convince the environmental lobby that campaigned against Cormann as a viable choice. On being notified of Cormann’s appointment, Greenpeace’s international executive director Jennifer Morgan was aghast. “We have little confidence in Mr Cormann’s ability to ensure the OECD is a leader in tackling the climate crisis when he himself has an atrocious record on the issue, including opposition to carbon pricing.”

It is unlikely that the new secretary general will be able to do much in the way of redirecting climate change policy. The consensus, if it can be called that, is increasingly towards decarbonising the economy even as COVID-19 recovery is pursued. Whether the OECD continues being relevant with Cormann at the helm is the pressing question. Till an answer is provided, activists such as Hare will just have to accept that governments can be monumentally stupid.

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The University Deception: Rankings and Academic Freedom

Forget the global university rankings of any list. The global university promotion exercise is filled with snake oil and perfumed refuse, an effort to corrupt the unknowing and steal from the gullible. The aim here is to convince parents, potential students and academics that their institutions of white-collar crime are appealing enough to warrant enrolment and employment at.

Writing in 2019, Ellen Hazelkorn, who has had an eye on the rankings system for some years, observed that 18,000 university-level institutions could be found across the globe. “Those ranked within the top 500 would be within the top 3% worldwide. Yet, by a perverse logic, rankings have generated a perception amongst the public, policymakers and stakeholders that only those within the top 20, 50 or 100 are worthy of being called excellent.”

Rankings are complicated by a range of factors: methodological problems in arriving at the figure, what institutions themselves submit, their wealth (endowments, well moneyed donors, grants received) and age (old ties, networks), and, fundamentally, what is being asked of that institution. Such grading systems have been found, as Nancy Adler and Anne-Wil Harzing describe it, to be “dysfunctional and potentially cause more harm than good.”

One factor that does not find itself into the rankings bonanza is that of academic freedom. This surely would be one of the primary considerations in what is irritatingly called the “knowledge economy.” None of the three most consulted registers – the QS rankings, Times Higher Education or the Shanghai Academic Rankings of World Universities – makes mention of it.

This has obvious implications. Higher education institutions in countries where repression, censorship, surveillance and punishment of academics are condoned do not need to worry about being compromised in the climb up the ladder. An obvious example is the application of the Chinese National Security Law to Hong Kong, which has seen entities such as the Chinese University of Hong Kong sever ties with the freshly elected student union. Campus events at both CUHK and the University of Hong Kong have also been cancelled for fears of violating the NSL.

The PRC is merely an obvious example. Countries supposedly romping home in any academic freedom contest also face questions. In Australia, thuggish administrators and academic turncoats are moving in on crushing the contrarians, reducing the entire teaching syllabus and research agenda to the drool of wonky projections and outcomes. The idea is simple: You must be decent and liked, boringly acceptable in discourse and compliant in observing directives from management. The project is guaranteed through such slime-coated documents as the “code of conduct,” which is meant to make everyone good by keeping education and incompetence in the higher echelons of university governance safe. Discomfort is eschewed; different thoughts suppressed.

Australian learning and research institutions, as in other developed countries, have been tempted by various powerful financial incentives – money from Chinese sources, for instance – to make any campus criticism difficult. Last year, the University of Queensland took a dim view of the protest efforts of student activist, Drew Pavlou citing 11 allegations of misconduct in a bulky 186-page document befitting any show trial process. Pavlou was suspended for “prejudicing” the university’s reputation by, in his words, “using my position as an elected student representative to express support for Hong Kong’s democratic protesters.” UQ’s Vice Chancellor Peter Høj was damning in silence, telling the university’s alumni in a July 17, 2020 email that UQ lived and breathed “an ongoing commitment to the protection and promotion of free speech every day.”

A number of scholars and activists have suggested an institutional corrective to the deceptive picture of rankings. The Academic Freedom Index is one such proposal, developed by members of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), the Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), the Scholars at Risk Network and the V-Dem Institute.

In their report Free Universities: Putting the Academic Freedom Index Into Action, Katrin Kinzelbach, Ilyas Saliba, Janika Spannagel and Robert Quinn hope to “bring a rights and freedoms perspective into debates on higher education governance and policy.” They make the point that academic excellence and reputation are currently considered mere functions of outputs in the current scheme. “As a result, institutions in repressive environments have climbed the reputation ladder and now occupy the top ranks.” Confidently, the authors make the claim that featuring an adjusted rank “would lower the chances for institutions constrained by such restrictive environments to improve their international reputations and attract academic talents.”

The AFi is also drawn from 2,000 experts who were asked to contribute on various indicators “in the de facto realization of academic freedom”: the freedom to teach and research; freedom of academic exchange and dissemination; institutional autonomy; campus integrity; and freedom of academic and cultural expression.

As with any index, questions will be asked about what is left out. There is also something inherently artificial in the exercise of correcting a ranking using the AFi measure. Even the contributors to the report admit to not knowing “enough about academic freedom and the factors that sustain or threaten it.” Declining levels of academic freedom are noted in Belarus, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Zambia; Gambia is earmarked as being stellar for permitting scholars’ freedom to collaborate and disseminate their findings.

As Saliba explained, most states which had witnessed a deterioration of academic freedom relative to 2019 were those implementing “novel regulations that limit freedom to research, teach and publish” and initiated “repressive political acts against pro-democracy movements with a strong base among students and faculty.” These are conventional measures, and do not consider the more subtle forms of suppression and regulation to be found in various Western states. Australian institutions, for instance, maintain their undeservingly high rankings, suggesting that much more needs to be done to make the index accurate.

A recommendation to the collective can be suggested. One of the most potent threats to the academy lies in the commercial and corporate bureaucratisation of the university, suggesting that the very notion of rankings, drawn from a global knowledge economy parcelled in the language of outcomes, is not only misplaced but deeply flawed. The AFi has merit on some level, but does not shed light on the more sinister policies focused on reputation management. In its current form, the index risks becoming a tool for managers keen to show they are making changes which leave no substantive effect.

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Matters of Communication: Handelsblatting the Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine

The Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is fast becoming a subject of notoriety. First, will States obtain it? Second, will they use it? The first answer has generally been affirmative, given the vaccine’s ease of storage and relative cheapness. The second is becoming increasingly difficult.

Orders have been made and supplies – some of them anyway – furnished, but vials and batches are not being used. Countries are either restricting or suspending the jab. AstraZeneca finds itself mounting what can only be a round-the-clock communications battle trying to dissuade officials not to put the brakes on.

Various artillery pieces have been marshalled against it. In late January, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed disappointment with the vaccine a mere few hours before the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved its use on all adults. “The real problem on AstraZeneca is that it doesn’t work the way we were expecting it to,” he told press members. “We’re waiting for the EMA results, but today everything points to thinking it is quasi-effective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older.”

Even before any rollout, the vaccine’s name was already being blackened, if not smudged. The EMA’s words of approval (“as there is reliable information on safety in this population, EMA’s scientific experts considered that the vaccine can be used in older adults”) seemed lost in the noisy scepticism being promoted by such outlets as the Handelsblatt. In late January this year, the finance paper claimed that the vaccine “apparently has an effectiveness of only 8% in the elderly,” an assertion drawn from an “anonymous government source.” A follow-up story did not allay any doubts, with the paper insisting it had the words of an unnamed health ministry bureaucrat. “Confusion is out of the question. According to data available to us so far, effectiveness in people over 60 is less than 10%.”

The falseness of the claim did little to trouble the paper’s political correspondent, Gregor Waschinski. “I understand that some would like to see the story substantiated with actual data,” he tweeted. “However, this is not an academic preprint but a sourced piece of political reporting.” This reduction of scientific accuracy to political, sloppy expediency prompted Markus Lehmkuhl, a science communications academic based at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, to despair. “Precise scientific information” had been attributed to one “unsuitable source, who, to make matters worse, did not want to be quoted by name.”

Recommendations from various countries advocating not using AstraZeneca’s vaccine for the elderly subsequently proliferated. STIKO, the German Standing Committee on Vaccination, was quick in recommending against using the vaccine for those aged 65 and over. The Committee head, Thomas Mertens, tried to clear the air of confusion induced by the Handelsblatt’s reporting. The recommendation was “not about critique of the vaccine, but of the lack of data,” he told the BMJ. “When there is more and better data, STIKO will change its recommendation.”

France followed. “This recommendation will be re-examined in the light of availability of additional data,” promised France’s national health authority HAS. Sweden’s Public Health Agency also revealed it was waiting for data “from an ongoing and large US clinical trial in Phase 3” that “will include a sufficient number of older participants to be able to draw more certain conclusions regarding the protective effort.”

In South Africa, a more drastic step was taken. Use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was totally suspended, with fears about efficacy, notably against the South African COVID-19 variant. The February 10 announcement from the Health Minister Zweli Mkhize showed a tilting of the government towards the Johnson & Johnson candidate. “Given the outcome of the efficacy studies [the government] will continue with the planned phase one vaccination using the Johnson & Johnson vaccines instead of the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

The latest round of concerns centre on whether the vaccine, or certain batches of it, have encouraged the forming of blood clots. Italy’s medicines authority AIFA took what it called a “precautionary” measure to ban the ABV2856 batch after the deaths of two men in Sicily following inoculation. The agency added that no link had yet been established between the vaccine and subsequent “serious adverse events.” Austria’s own decision to suspend use was directed at the company’s ABV5300 batch after a woman died 10 days after inoculation due to “severe blood coagulation problems” (multiple thrombosis).

Batch ABV5300, delivered to 17 EU countries, compromises 1 million doses. Of those, suspensions as precautionary approaches have taken place in several countries, including Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Luxembourg.

Rumbles have also been registered in Scandinavia after Denmark recorded the death of a 60-year-old woman from a blood clot after receiving a dose from the ABV5300 batch. A two-week suspension of shots was imposed. “It is currently not possible to conclude whether there is a link,” wrote Health Minister Magnus Heunicke on Twitter. “We are acting early, it needs to be thoroughly investigated.”

Norway did not wish to be out of step “This is a cautionary decision,” chorused the director of infection prevention and control at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI). The duration of the suspension was not clarified. “We … await information to see if there is a link between the vaccination and this case with a blood clot.” And just to make the picture complete, Iceland joined the vaccine suspension family.

On March 11, the EMA tried to stem any prospect of panic. “There is currently no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions, which are not listed as side effects with this vaccine.” It added that the benefits of the vaccine “continue to outweigh its risks and the vaccine can continue to be administered while investigation of cases of thromboembolic events is ongoing.”

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) called the measure by Iceland, Denmark and Norway merely “precautionary,” “It has not been confirmed that the report of a blood clot was caused by the AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine. People should still go and get their COVID-19 vaccine when asked to do so.”

Speaking for the MHRA, Dr Phil Bryan stated that, “Blood clots can occur naturally and are not uncommon. More than 11 million doses of the COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca have now been administrated across the UK.” The reported blood clot cases were “not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population.”

The medical wisdom on this remains consistent: certain adverse events will happen; comorbidities can play a distracting role. To quote Dr Peter English, till recently Chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, the introduction of a new vaccine with “reports of adverse events such as this” was far from “unusual.” On the contrary, it showed “that adverse reaction monitoring systems are working” rather than indicating a causal link between the reaction and the vaccination.

A meaningful strategy against pandemic suppression is not merely whether successful vaccines can be made, let alone successfully delivered, but whether the communications work. Unfortunately for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the patchy reputations of pharmaceutical giants, and the specific way reports on the efficacy of the product have gotten traction, have damaged it. The risks of being Handelsblatted are never far away.

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