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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.

Punishing the Unvaccinated: Europe’s COVID-19 Health Experiment

Forget any notions of juicy carrots; the stick approach of savage punishment is in vogue with the Greek government in pushing vaccination rates. It is far from the only one. Across a number of countries in Europe, governments wishing to drive up levels of COVID-19 vaccination have decided to abandon suasion and the generous supply of medical information in favour of penalties and punishments.

In Austria, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg was very much a standard bearer for that cause, citing stubbornness on the part of the citizenry of his country. (Only 69% of those eligible have received at least one dose, a rate significantly behind that of other western European states.) “We have enough vaccines,” he told CNN prior to announcing his resignation. “Science gave us the possibility, the exit ticket out of this vicious circle of virus waves and lockdown discussions. And simply not enough people are using this possibility and taking this exit ticket.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is now openly entertaining the idea, one sparked by the emergence of the Omicron COVID variant. “We have the vaccines,” she told reporters in Brussels this month, “the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere. And this costs.” It was time to “encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union.”

Such ideas had already been circulating in legal and political debates for some time. The European Court of Human Rights decision of Vavřička and Others v. The Czech Republic, handed down in April this year, is said to have opened the door. That particular case involved parents in the Czech Republic who had refused to have their children vaccinated for a range of reasons, including religious ones. They were punished by fines, and their children excluded from kindergarten.

The majority found that the mandatory childhood vaccination policy was compatible with Article 8 (the right to respect and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Any lawfulness of interference with the physical integrity of a person, the court accepted, would have to have some basis in the domestic law of the country.

The court also found that a policy object of protecting the health of members of society in general, and declining voluntary vaccination rates which would jeopardise the goal of herd immunity, could justify such rules.

Even the dissenting finding of Judge Wojtyczek acknowledged that the Convention did “not exclude the introduction of an obligation to vaccinate in respect of certain diseases, coupled with exceptions based upon conscientious objection.”

The latest experiment along these lines is taking place in Athens, with the Mitsotakis government suggesting that those over 60 will be fined €100 if they refuse vaccination past mid-January. (The number of those unvaccinated in that group hovers at around 520,000.) In doing so, Greece makes itself something of a pioneer in targeting a specific age group. Currently, it has laws mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for staff working in health care facilities and those involving care of the elderly and disabled.

Rather than calling it what it is – a punitive measure that risks being disproportionate – the government prefers another angle. “It’s not a punishment,” claims the Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “I would say it is a health fee.” For the Greek PM, it’s all numbers, age and a few false comparisons. “Experts estimate that the importance of the vaccine in a 70-year-old person is equivalent to 34 vaccinations of younger ones in terms of public health.”

With such sophistry, it is little wonder he is facing trouble. Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek finance minister and current sitting member, is one promising to make things difficult. As a critic of the punitive policy, he blames himself for having mockingly suggested that odious idea to the Prime Minister. “I had the Prime Minister in front of me in Parliament (two months ago) and… I said, ‘Imagine that you were to introduce a $200 fine every month for the unvaccinated… what effect is this going to have?”

Taking the cudgel and baton to the sceptics and the obstinate in the population, Varoufakis observes, is tantamount to feeding their cause in the most divisive way imaginable. Some people are going receive the jab as a result of it, but the nation will be divided and opponents feel “that they are being martyred for being concerned.”

He makes a few important points on the policies of the Mitsotakis administration. The first is the absence of trust citizens have towards government, whose officials have done much to erode. The second is that citizens are generally suspicious what their government might do next – for instance, bribing them, tickling their pleasure tendencies and hoping that they will fall for a vaccination fix. In many countries, this measure has been used in several instances: vouchers, drinks, meals, and straight cash bribery.

An article recently published in Nature emphasises the salient nature of the first point. “In countries with a high level of consensus regarding the trustworthiness of science and scientists, the positive correlation between trust in science and vaccine confidence is stronger than it is in comparable where the level of social consensus is weaker.”

Previous studies on the nature of Greece’s unwillingness to receive vaccinations show that the government has much work to do. A study published in January this year in Global Health and Policy found that, of a sample of 1004 respondents, a mere 57.7% expressed any desire to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The authors found the pressing “need for public health officials to take immediate awareness raising measures.”

Any vaccination policy that calls for exclusions and excommunications is one that can only admit to failure. Authoritarianism, be it in terms of health or any field of government endeavour, comes a distant second to the power of persuasion and reassurance. And history has thrown up some dark precedents, which can provide rich fodder for opponents, when countries decided to violate the physical autonomy of humans for the sake of the broader public good. Sensible if traditional on this score, Varoufakis makes a sound recommendation: present the facts.

 

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Omicron and the Travel Ban Itch

Stick to the script: owe that duty of care to your population, so the legal experts in government tell you. Self-interest pays, if in small amounts. These rigid, formulaic assumptions have done wonders to harm and deter any spirit of cooperation regarding dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

History’s record of humanity’s response to plagues, pandemics and disease is one of isolation, marginalisation, and exclusion. The infected shall be kept away and sealed off from the healthy and wealthy. This, inevitably, results in partiality, prejudice and distinctions. Omicron, having been pumped with the prestige of a potential COVID super variant, has given dozens of countries grounds to stop travel, halt movement and stem flights. As always, these measures have been applied unevenly and hypocritically.

First reported by South Africa, the country now has the distinction of being, along with a range of other Southern African countries, pariahs in terms of international travel. Little wonder that individuals such as the Chair of the South African Medical Association, Dr. Angelique Coetzee are alarmed at what was essentially a replay of the initial global response to COVID-19.

In Coetzee’s judgment, Omicron, while seemingly harder to detect, does not deserve a ladle full of fear. “Looking at the mildness of the symptoms that we are seeing, currently there is no reason for panicking, as we don’t see severely ill patients.” The prevailing “clinical complaint is severe fatigue for one or two days, with the headache and body aches and pains.” She also noted instances of a scratchy throat and dry coughing.

South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla similarly reported that his country’s “clinicians have not witnessed severe illness. Part of it may be because the majority of those who are positive are young people.”

Vaccine manufacturers such as Moderna have been quick off the mark in sowing seeds of mild panic, claiming that existing COVID-19 vaccines will be less effective against Omicron. According to the company’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, the number of Omicron mutations on the spike protein – the part of the virus famed for infecting human cells – and the speed of transmissibility, suggested an imminent “material drop” in effectiveness.

This less than responsible prediction, in the absence of cold hard trials and laboratory results, was marvellous for speculators and someone was obviously making a packet on the sliding of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which slipped 652 points (1.9%) on November 30. The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also fell 1.9% and 1.6% respectively.

The World Health Organisation has never been partial to the idea of a travel ban in the face of disease. But it finds itself in a difficult position. Closing the borders can inflict harm; but not encouraging closures might result in retrospective condemnation from governments who fear their populace and chances of survival at the ballot box. The stance taken towards Omicron is that the haste on the part of many countries in sealing Southern African countries off has been irrational and disproportionate.

In a statement from WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, concern was expressed that countries such as Botswana and South Africa “are now penalized by others for doing the right thing.” Nation states should “take rational, proportional risk-reduction measures, in keeping with International Health Regulations.”

Suggestions included passenger screenings prior to and after travel, or the use of quarantine for international travellers. “Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of Omicron, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”

The Director-General also made the pertinent point that the Delta variant remained pre-eminently dangerous. With the tools already available to combat that mutation, using them effectively would invariably also “prevent transmission and save lives from Omicron.”

These are also views held by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has also suggested a testing regime for travellers rather than a shutting of the door. “With a virus that is truly borderless, travel restrictions that isolate any one country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive – they are ineffective.”

On a cooperative and collaborative level, the travel ban on South Africa has also had a discernible effect. As Maria Van Kerhove, the WHO’s lead on COVID-19 remarked, South African researchers, despite being keen to share data, samples and information, find themselves facing obstacles in actually having samples “shipped out of the country”.

As with other pandemics, gross inequality shadows, imposes and manifests in every phase of the response. “We are living through a cycle of panic and neglect,” laments Tedros. Be it the imposition of national quarantines, international closures, restrictions on access to diagnostic equipment, protective equipment, vaccines, the moneyed shall find their way to the top, if only because they were there to begin with. Those without bountiful lucre, few resources other than ambition and little else other than hope, will be squashed, or at the very least find themselves isolated and delayed.

In the whirlwind that is viral change and adjustment, the WHO has uttered some statements of sense. But these are not going to find a home in countries which have invested billions in pandemic infrastructure and restrictions. Vaccine mandates are being retained in some countries with high vaccination rates, which tends to make more than a mild mockery of the vaccination program itself.

The talk of boosters means that those who have not satisfied the next round of regulatory safety will be barred from bar and border; from restaurant and recreation facility. It is also a reminder that wealthier, high-income states will prioritise their own populations, leaving such collective efforts to immunise the globe, such as COVAX, behind. Doing this will only serve to delay the vaccination of poorer countries and encourage the next roaring mutation to stumble onto the world stage. There are many other potential Omicrons in the pipeline.

In the meantime, countries such as South Africa may well rue their candour in disclosing a variant it was so quick to identify and sequence. There is little to suggest that Omicron actually originated there but such details will never get in the way of irrational impulse and shoddy judgments.

 

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Backing Horses: Australia’s Solomon Islands Intervention

The history of humanitarian or policing missions is a history of taking sides, disruptive partiality and the forfeiture of the very object powers claim when intervening in another country. Things become particularly absurd when the individual or government pleading for such help to an outside force is struggling to survive yet making grand statements about democracy and the like.

Take Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of the Solomon Islands, who has made full use of the security agreement with Australia, signed in 2017 to make future meddling in his country a smooth affair. That understanding had been reached after fourteen years, when Australian-led forces found themselves involved in the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI). “We know that a failed state in our region, on our doorstep,” Prime Minister John Howard stated in July 2003 with forced justification, “will jeopardise our own security.”

Since 2017, the Solomon Islands has continued to sunder under the stresses of poverty, uneven development, corruption and tensions between the capital and the provinces. The ditching of the longstanding relationship with Taiwan by the Sogavare government in 2019 became, in effect, a matter of contention between the main government and the Malaitan administration of Premier Daniel Suidani. Emboldened, companies and entities linked to the Chinese Communist Party began to exert their influence.

Malaita’s niggling and harrying premier, unpersuaded by Honaria’s pro-Beijing drive to foster development, initiated its own measures in the province. The 2019 Auki Communique notes how the Malaita Provincial Government (MPG) “strongly resolves to put in place a Moratorium on Business licenses to new investors connected directly or indirectly with the Chinese Community Party.”

The document also has a religious barb directed against the CCP, acknowledging “the freedom of religion as a fundamental right” and the “Christian faith and belief in god by Malaitan and MOIan [Malaita Outer Islands] peoples” which was in opposition to the “CCP and its formal systems based on atheistic ideology.”

In May last year, Suidani was unsettled by the central government’s insistence that the China Civil Engineering Corporation (CECC) conduct a feasibility study on Malaita North East Road from Fouia to Manu. “We are strongly opposed to PRC communist ideology and investment,” the Premier objected in a statement.

To ensure that his motivations were given a full, dramatic flourish, Suidani, when he fell ill that same year, parried away suggestions from the central authorities that he accept medical aid from China. Taiwan, instead, took him in, leading the Chinese embassy in the Solomon Islands to issue a curt statement. “China firmly opposes any official contacts in any form between Taiwan and any officials from countries having diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.”

The Suidani government has also accepted development aid from the United States, the latter opportunistically furnishing the Malaitan administration with the sum of US$25 million in October 2020. All this time, the Premier has maintained warm relations with Taiwan, a move which has been reciprocated, showing a country very much divided against itself.

In October, a motion of no confidence was presented to the Premier in the Malaita legislature, said to have been the brainchild of the central government in Honiara. Protesters gathered and marched through the provincial capital of Auki to seek its withdrawal. Sogavare’s backers relented.

The snatches of commentary from The Solomon Times may well be unreliable, but the sentiment of the protests was unequivocal enough. Outside the Assembly Hall, the marchers spoke of how, “This is a government of the people, so if the central government cannot listen then we have to stand up and talk.” Suidani, punch drunk with an almost authoritarian air of confidence, declared that, “There is no such thing as an Opposition group, the MARA government is the executive and non-executive.”

It is precisely this patchwork of tensions and confusions Australian forces find themselves shoring up. Simplistically, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison hopes that local flavour, allegiances, and factions can be ignored with judicial care. “Australia’s response,” he reasons, “is under the treaty that we have with the Solomon Islands and that is with the people of the Solomon Islands – that is between two governments, and that is there regardless of who is running either of those governments.”

Inconsistently, and incredulously, he also stated that Australia sought to “take no part in the internal issues of the Solomon Islands but simply to ensure that any issues can be addressed in a calm and peaceful way.”

The moment those forces and personnel were deployed, Australia became a standard bearer for the status quo and defender of Sogavare. Celsus Talifilu, an advisor to Suidani, asks a pressing question on that very issue. The presence of the Australians “on the ground gives a very strong moral boost to Prime Minister Sogavare and his government. They are here at the invitation of Sogavare – how can you be neutral?” Only the Malaitans, suggested Talifilu, were the ones defending democracy. “We were thinking Australia would see the stand we are taking.”

Australian police and soldiers now find themselves in Honiara ostensibly to restore order. Papua New Guinea has sent a small contingent, and Fiji is also promising a number. The broader aim is to shore up a regime that is deservedly doomed and risks dying of natural, democratically induced causes. Prior to the intervention, it was even reported that police were having discussions with Sogavare about his possible resignation. Now, the regime is digging in, warning of “another evil plan” by anti-government protestors to devastate the capital.

Unnaturally, Canberra is doing all it can to assure that the regime is placed on Australian life support, suppressing the local resistance movement that could topple it. And all this has been done while Honiara maintains relations with the PRC. The Prime Minister of the Solomons has every reason to feel smug.

 

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Where there are Tailings, No Grass Grows: Serbians Protest against Rio Tinto

Another fault line has opened in the mining wars. In Serbia, resistance is gathering steam against various deals made between Belgrade and companies that risk environmental degradation and lingering spoliation.

In this regard, the globe’s second largest metals and mining corporation, features prominently. Rio Tinto, bruised in reputation but determined in business, finds itself in a hunting mood in the Balkans, hoping to establish a lithium mine and processing plant in the valley of Jadar.

As the infamous destroyer of the Juukan Gorge Caves outlines in a statement, the Jadar site is intended to “produce battery-grade lithium carbonate, a critical mineral used in large scale batteries for electric vehicles and storing renewable energy.” This greening shift – because all canny mining entities are doing it – promises to “position Rio Tinto as the largest source of lithium supply in Europe for at least the next 15 years.” In an effort to make matters sound even more impressive, Jadar will also “produce borates, which are used in solar panels and wind turbines.”

The company has been extensively involved in cultivating relations with the government of Aleksandar Vučić. As far back as 2018, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić was already convinced what the future lithium borate project might hold. “As Jadar can significantly influence the development of the whole region, the government has established an inter-ministerial working group to cooperate with the investor on all aspects of the project.” Capitulation, rather than cooperation, would be the more accurate description.

How the Anglo-Australian mining giant finds itself in this position has been troubling to local activists and the citizenry of Jadar for years. The Ne damo Jadar (We won’t let anyone take Jadar) group is particularly concerned by the clandestine memoranda of understanding signed between the company and the Serbian government. Zlatko Kokanović, vice president of the group, states the position with irrefutable clarity. “Rio Tinto’s proposed jadarite mine will not only threaten one of Serbia’s oldest and most important archaeological sites, it will also endanger several protected bird species, pond terrapins, and fire salamander, which would otherwise be protected by EU directives.”

An online petition against the mine, which has garnered 283,364 signatures to date, also notes the risk posed to “thousands of sustainable multi-generational farms” through the poisoning of water sources. This was bound to occur given generous use of sulphuric acid in separating the lithium from the jadarite ore.

Rio has countered this by vague promises that it will conduct sound environmental assessments and neutralise any risks arising from sulfuric acid, arsenic and the inevitable tailings that will follow. In the words of the CEO Jakob Stausholm, “We are committed to upholding the highest environmental standards and building sustainable futures for the communities where we operate.” Stausholm promised, “that in progressing this project, we must listen to and respect the views of all stakeholders.”

Ever since Rio Tinto began sniffing around in Serbia, evidence of such listening and respect has been in short supply. Requests and concerns by locals go unaddressed. Its use of private security goons has also been a point of some nastiness. Marijana Petković, a member of Ne damo Jadar, insists that they have been harassing and conducting surveillance of villages which are proximate to the mine. One has to keep the local tribes in check.

In June, the company claimed that the security contractors were “engaged to carry out activities in full compliance with the Law on Private Security, which provides for both the way of securing private property and moving at a certain time between several mutually separated places/facilities.”

The company also countered with its own claims that, as a law-abiding entity, it has been unjustly attacked by fractious thugs intent on disrupting the prospects for local improvement. After a protest that same month, Rio Tinto stated that “employees working on the Jadar project were examined for injuries at the Loznica Emergency Centre, where they were provided with assistance.”

Serbian lawmakers have certainly been facing a mouthful from the Alliance of Environmental Organisations of Serbia (SEOS) and the Kreni-promeni organisation. The latter has produced a video to counter Rio Tinto’s own glossy narrative of the lithium project which has saturated much of the media. Hearty efforts by Kreni-promeni to convince the Serbian public broadcaster RTS to broadcast its rebuttals have so far failed.

 

Massive protests in Serbia against Rio Tinto (Image from balkangreenenergynews.com – Photo by: @luxymus, Kreni-promeni / Facebook

 

The eternally calculating Vučić has decided to put the issue of Rio Tinto’s lithium mining effort to a referendum, enabling the mining giant to further step up its campaign to convince voters. The protestors are in no doubt that the measure is designed to secure approval in order to outmanoeuvre the contrarians.

A large protest movement is taking shape in Serbia, centred on the importance of clean water, air, soil and observance of sound environmental regulations. The month of November saw protesting efforts that involved blocking roads in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Kragujevac, Užice, Loznica and Kruševac, amongst others.

Rio Tinto, environmental vandal par excellence, has shown, along with other mining giants, a marked tendency to ignore local grievances and fears while flattering gullible authorities with promises of a glittering future. The future for the Jadar valley, outlined by one sceptical ecologist, Mirjana Lukić Anđelković is suitably dark. The company, she told the morning program TV Nova S “Wake Up” in March this year, promises to mine for six decades and “make a mountain of tailings.” Where there are tailings, “there is no grass, nothing grows.”

 

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Arming Against China: The US Global Posture Review

Get the Marines ready. Store the supplies. Marshal the allies. The United States is getting ready for war (the preferable term in Washington is policing) in the Indo-Pacific region, and is hoping to do so with a range of expanded bases across client states, or what it prefers to call friends.

On November 29, the Pentagon announced that US President Joe Biden had accepted the recommendations made by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III in the Global Posture Review commissioned in February. The news might have been delivered by Austin himself, but this solemn duty fell to Mara Karlin, discharging her duties as deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. As the GPR remains classified, we are left with a sketchy performance that should make many across the Indo-Pacific seek cover and a bunker.

For the most part, Karlin’s performance was gibberish, masked by lingo hostile to meaning. The review was intended to “inform” the approach of the Biden administration in terms of national defence strategy, which did not mean that it would necessarily inform anybody else. “That guidance asserts that the United States will lead with diplomacy first, revitalize our unmatched network of allies and partners and make smart and disciplined choices regarding our national defense and responsible use of our military,” Karlin stated. How reassuring.

She continued in non-revelatory fashion to mention how the “global posture review assesses DOD overseas forces and footprint along with the framework and processes that govern our posture decision making.” The GPR had “strengthened our decision-making processes by deliberately connecting strategic priorities, global trade-offs, force readiness and modernization, interagency coordination and allied and partner coordination to global posture planning and decisions.”

The only thing to conclude from this remarkable display of non-meaning was that the US imperium was on the march, and it was keen to ensure that its allies would be marching in step with it. At one point, Karlin let the cat out of the bag. A primary focus of the GPR is the Indo-Pacific, with China proving to be the continuing fixation. Cooperation between Washington, its allies and its partners to “advance initiatives” that aid regional stability and deter Chinese military aggression and threats from Pyongyang, are matters of urgency.

This puts Australia, Guam and various Pacific Islands in the spotlight, with the US keen to use them as staging grounds in any forthcoming conflict with Beijing while reducing their troop presence in other global theatres. The press conference was not quite so blunt, but the implications were clear enough. According to Karlin, the Pentagon will seek a “range of infrastructure improvements in Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Australia.” New US rotational fighter and bomber aircraft deployments to Australia and further logistics cooperation with Canberra are promised.

When asked by a journalist why Australia and Guam had been specifically mentioned in the address, Karlin showed some rare candour in admitting that “those were notable, which is why I cited those specifically” though the US was broadly “engaged in consultations with our allies and partners across the Pacific.”

The remarks pertaining to Australia simply affirmed the observations made by Austin in September, the same month the trilateral AUKUS security partnership between Australia, the UK and the US was announced. AUKUS, explained Austin at the time, would “help contribute” to the concept of “integrated deterrence in the region,” an unimaginative way of saying that the US would lead a regional policing effort in the Indo-Pacific, with the assistance of Australia and like-minded partners. While Washington sought “a constructive, results-oriented relationship with the PRC, we will remain clear-eyed in our view of Beijing’s efforts to undermine the established international order.”

Such a clear-eyed disposition involved making good use of Australian territory, with Canberra agreeing to “major force posture initiatives that will expand our access and presence in Australia.”

Access is imperial speak for US power. It sounds so much better than military occupation. Becca Wasser of the Center for a New American Security is well versed in that argot. “If you want to change posture – whether that is expanding or consolidating bases, or deploying new capability – you need access,” Wasser told Breaking Defense. “Access is something only allies and partners can provide and changes to access usually require a lengthy consultation process.” Appearances must be kept.

A sense of how the GPR has been received can also be gathered from the security think-tankers, those delightful sorts who make it their tanking business to find enemies for budget reasons. A co-authored report by John Schaus of the hawkish Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and Michael Shoebridge of the Canberra-based US appendage, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, praises the Review as “an enormous opportunity to signal, and demonstrate, US commitment to regional security in ways that will reassure partners and deter potential adversaries.”

There is an unabashed encouragement of greater US garrisoning and military presence in Australia. Australia would commit to investing in and expanding naval facilities in Darwin and on the west coast. This, in turn, could be “matched with a greater US naval presence at these facilities, for the purpose of joint activity through the Indian Ocean and up into Southeast Asia.”

The authors take issue with conservative US troop numbers that had been present through Marine Corps rotations in Northern Australia during the Obama-era. It was time to roll up the sleeves and co-opt Australian real estate and resources to advance Washington’s agenda. “Specifically, the United States should forward deploy Navy surface, subsurface, and uncrewed vessels to Australia; expand the Air Force rotational presence to include larger numbers and more frequent presence of high-endurance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms; and increase both Marine and Army presence to facilitate greater training and integration within the alliance.”

While the GPR remains under lock and key, we can be certain that many of the bellicose wishes of Schaus and Shoebridge are bound to be there. The war monger’s script is getting increasingly long and relentless.

 

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Foreseeable Risk: Omicron Makes its Viral Debut

It has been written about more times than any care to remember. Pliny the Elder, that old cheek, told us that Africa always tended to bring forth something new: Semper aliquid novi Africam adferre. The suggestion was directed to hybrid animals, but in the weird pandemic wonderland that is COVID-19, all continents now find themselves bringing forth their types, making their contributions. It just so happens that it’s southern Africa’s turn.

On November 26, the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Evolution (TAG-VE) was convened to assess the threat posed by B.1.1.529. Named Omicron, its emergence was reported by South Africa to the World Health Organization on November 24. While the Delta variant had continued to remain dominant, instances of this new infection had been recorded, with the first specimen collected on November 9.

Omicron’s debut brings with it a set of menacing questions. It has, for instance, a “large number of mutations.” Initial impressions point to a higher risk of re-infection relative to other variants of concern. It may have a growth advantage and spread more quickly.

This need not have happened – or at least, the risk of having such a new mutation would have been lessened – had solemn obligations to protect global public health been observed. Instead of ensuring global vaccine equity, a number of affluent countries have held up debates and filibustered their way to preventing waivers on intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines.

The COVAX facility enabling the distribution of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries has been slow. Despite receiving support, in principle, from 41 high-, middle- and low-income countries last year, it had received little by way of contributions and almost nothing by way of interest by the time the report of the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness had been published.

In May, the Biden administration finally relented in accepting, albeit narrowly, an IP waiver. “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections,” stated Ambassador Katherine Tai of the Office of the US Trade Representative on May 5, “but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”

The response from Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla was one of panic. The proposed waiver did not consider the “scarcity of highly specialized raw materials needed to produce the vaccine.” With Pfizer’s vaccine requiring 280 different materials and elements from 19 countries, the CEO warned that inexperienced and less competent entities would rush out to mount competition for those same products. Like a dragon guarding its treasure, Bourla suggested that any such waiver threatened “to disrupt the flow of raw materials.”

A statement from the German government also summed up the mood of the affluent detractors: “[T]he limiting factors in the [availability] of vaccines are production capacities and quality standards, not patents.” There was no substitute to sophisticated technology: “high-tech shots can’t be made at the local soap factory.”

The emergence of this new variant has all the makings of a nightmare pictured in redux format, though structural biologist James Naismith is confident that this was hardly “doomsday”. The US chief of infectious diseases, Anthony Fauci, is also waiting to draw any conclusions. “Until it’s properly tested … we don’t know whether or not it evades antibodies that protect you against the virus.”

The WTO is keen to examine the variant and claims that a fortnight of studious examination is required. In what is bound to return with critical fury at some future date, it is urging caution of countries in terms of closing borders. Attention should be spent, instead, on enhancing surveillance and sequencing efforts “to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants.” Traditional reporting mechanisms should be used, and field investigations and laboratory assessments made.

Certain countries are not waiting for the laboratory reports. The issue at the start of 2020 was one of speed, or, as it transpired, lethargy. Delays and hesitancy proved catastrophic. Like the movement of capital, the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread effortlessly.

US officials have accordingly announced that flights from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi will be prevented from entering the country on November 29. The UK has also blocked entry into the country from Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, save for UK or Irish nationals, or UK residents. “We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” explained the UK Health Secretary, Sajid Javid.

The European Union has also imposed a temporary ban on travel from southern Africa. “The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” stated a German Health Minister Jens Spahn. The European Commission has also encouraged Member States within the EU to “activate the ‘emergency brake’ on travel” from designated southern African countries and others affected. “All travel to these countries should be suspended,” insisted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “They should be suspended till we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant.”

Having full foresight and knowledge about the threat posed by such mutations, officials from the EU and the United States have again shown a selfishness in the field of vaccination policy that has served to endanger the globe, including their own citizens.

Ever slowly, the citizens of the world are coming to the realisation that such vaccines will always risk being imperilled in the absence of fair and equal distribution across the globe. Given the freedom to mutate in unvaccinated populations, more variants of SARS-CoV-2 will emerge to penetrate the protective shield.

 

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The Taiwan Foreign Policy Fetish

Australian foreign policy towards Taiwan, as things stand, is a distant fantasy in floating mist. There is little to connect them, but Australia’s political classes have a habit of fabricating relations with those it cares little for, nor understands, all in the name of forced obedience. For decades, a puppy loyal Australia has committed forces without condition or qualification, refusing to understand the circumstances of their deployment, or the people who they will either kill or die for. The result is an astonishing global deployment of personnel with admirable ignorance to theatres most of its citizens would fail to name.

The recent Taiwan fetish risks continuing this trend. Australia’s Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, is a figure who has fallen head over heels with the latest, potential casus belli. Known by the late and very mischievous Bob Ellis as the simian sadist, Dutton is adamant that Australia will find itself at war over a bit of real estate whose history he has little knowledge of. “It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action,” Dutton recently told The Australian. “And again, I think we should be very frank and honest about that, look at all the facts and circumstances without pre-committing, and maybe there are circumstances where we wouldn’t take up that option, (but) I can’t conceive of those circumstances.”

In saying that it would be “inconceivable” that Australia would not find itself at war with the United States over Taiwan, the unimaginative, already pre-committed Dutton received the attention of China’s Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian, who called his comments “extremely absurd and irresponsible,” the mark of someone “obsessed with the Cold War mentality and ideological prejudices.”

Dutton’s execrable chest thumping was inspired by typically vague remarks from Australia’s paternal ally, who had recently promised, along with the United Kingdom, submarines with nuclear propulsion as part of the new AUKUS security agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at a New York Times forum earlier this month, was pressed, as previous occupants of his office have, on whether Washington would defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict.

Blinken’s response had a bit of everything: dovish caution, chicken hawk pretence, hypocritical babble. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which obligates the US to supply Taipei military equipment for reasons of self-defence but leaves the issue of a firm security commitment open, shaped his initial remarks. Making sure Taiwan had “the means to defend itself” was “the best deterrent against any very, very, very unfortunate action that might be contemplated by China.”

This did not prevent the United States from lending a hand to “sure that we preserve peace and stability in that part of the world.” A “unilateral action to use force” by any power would constitute a threat to that peace and security and, in that event, “many countries, both in the region and beyond … would take action in the event that happens.” US intervention would take place to defend that “international rules-based order” developed by Washington against those who dared challenge it, “whether it’s China or anyone else.”

In her November 23 speech to the National Security College at the Australian National University outlining the purpose of Australia’s foreign policy, Opposition front bencher Senator Penny Wong gave few surprises. As is often the case with the Australian Labor Party when suffering in opposition, painful, even constipated caution, is preferred over clarity and conviction. “We must expand the choices and options available to us, to enable management of differences without escalation of conflict.”

But Wong did, at the very least, venture towards some sane ground in taking issue with Dutton’s assertion that Australia would “join” a war over Taiwan with Washington with no conditions. This was “wildly out of step with the strategy long adopted by Australia and our principle ally.” While Prime Minister Scott Morrison had avoided “the same febrile language” as his defence minister, Dutton was “amping up war, rather than working to maintain longstanding policy to preserve the status quo – as advocated by the Taiwanese leader, Tsai-Ing Wen.”

Dutton, simmering and seething such observations, sallied with a rebuttal, encouraging all who cared to hear him that China-the-regional-monster was the problem, rather than his own particular lust for war. “The Chinese Communist Party has a presence in 20 different locations in the South China Sea,” he stated. There were “butting up against the Japanese shipping vessels in the East China Sea.” The international rule of law, Dutton proclaimed, “should prevail and people, including our country and every other country, should adhere to that law.”

 

Cartoon by Alan Moir (moir.com.au)

 

Wong had been, according to Dutton, “irresponsible” and suggested that the Labor Party was “walking away” from the AUKUS security arrangement. The glue binding the three states, madly made and foolishly sought, has certainly increased the likelihood of Australian participation in any conflict with Chinese forces in the event the US are involved. The submarine promise is merely a sentimental, spectral hook.

Officials in Beijing have every reason to scoff at invocations of international law and its sacred bonds, especially when they come from a minister who shows no evidence of reading, let alone awareness, in the field. Australia has had, over the years, a rich history of reading international law the way any enterprising gangster and rule-breaker might wish to do. Bugging diplomats and representatives of a friendly, impoverished nation under false pretences for economic gain (East Timor); invading a country (Iraq) without any security justification in a crime against peace; and indefinitely locking up asylum seekers and refugees who arrive by boat, are all proud instances of how Australia, and the likes of Dutton, observe and disparage the ius gentium.

In this, the Taiwan fetish becomes a Cold War iteration in the haunted, twisted imagination of certain policy makers, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute to the war drummers in the Morrison government. Nonsense flows easily when abstractions and hypotheticals can be passed around with such ease. Sweetly and pathetically, Australian politicians are again reminding us that blood lust, especially from those who have the least reason to fight, remains unquenchable.

 

 

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Totalitarian Cyber-Creep: Mark Zuckerberg in the Metaverse

Never leave matters of maturity to the Peter Panners of Silicon Valley. At their most benign, they are easily dismissed as potty and keyboard mad. At their worst, their fantasies assume the noxious, demonic forms that reduce all users of their technology to units of information and flashes of data. Such boys (they are mostly boys), felt somehow left out by the currents of reality, their own world excruciatingly boring and filled with pangs of childhood disturbance and regret. So they sought vengeance upon us all: imposing a global regime of fairly useless cyber architecture that saps intelligence in the name of experience, destroys imagination even as it celebrates it, and luxuriates in a lowly prurience.

Facebook, in particular, has been trying to push such a model using a tactic all companies in distress have sought to adopt: rebranding. Be it the scandals disclosed by the Facebook papers, the scrutiny over the use of algorithms by the company, the inability to combat galloping misinformation on its platforms, or the stark amorality of the company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, the chance to seek the metaverse has presented itself.

Enter, then, the world of Meta Platforms, aided by the virtual reality headset company Oculus, which was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion. Astute watchers then would have been the strategy afoot at the time; most, however, thought the decision misguided and destined to flop.

The metaverse has become a goal for not just Facebook, but the likes of Unity Technologies and Epic Games, though Facebook is distinctly not interested in gaming. It can be seen to be a sort of Internet 2.0, envisaged as shared 3D spaces streaked by virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR respectively). You can access that reality via a pair of glasses or some virtual reality set and get transported to a virtual space populated by avatars. “The essence of virtual and augmented reality is that you need to have a technology that delivers this feeling of presence,” Zuckerberg mentions in an interview this year. “The sense that you are actually there with another person and all the different sensations that come with it.”

According to Facebook, the metaverse will feature a totalising system of various functions and services designed to be “the successor to the mobile internet.” There will be Horizon Home for social interactions, “the first thing you see when you put on your Quest headset.” Video conferencing and phone conversations will be replaced by Quest for Business.

For all the company’s egregious sins, this new technology will be pursued, says Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Facebook Reality Labs and Nick Clegg, Vice President of the company’s global affairs, “responsibly”. In September, $50 million in research development was promised to ensure that such products met that mark, an amount somewhat piddly when compared to other areas of research the company lavishes money upon.

On November 15, there were further announcements that the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital would “focus on improving our understanding of how we can foster young people’s digital literacy and embed wellness into emerging metaverse technologies.” The children, it seems, will not be spared.

All this tells us that Facebook is moving towards its next stage of surveillance capitalism, a relentless drive towards extracting and squeezing every bit of nutriment of being that is human behaviour. The privacy of users, already tattered and battered by the predations of Facebook data privateers, can be further diminished, even as it is supposedly protected. “Metaverse technologies like VR and AR are perhaps the most data-extractive digital sensors we’re likely to invite into our homes in the next decade,” reasons Marcus Carter of the University of Sydney’s Socio-Tech Futures Lab.

Zuckerberg has spent some time contemplating the road of enthronement in the VR/AR market. The amount of money Facebook has heaped upon its VR and AR research and development division is eye watering. One estimate places it at $10 billion. Critics can at least take comfort in the fact that most of the company’s social VR/AR products to date have tended to splutter into well-deserved oblivion or flounder in “invite-only beta phases.” Then there is the issue of the headsets themselves, cumbersome bits of hardware saddled across the user’s face like a harness.

None of that gets away from the sinister premise in this new company strategy. Zuckerberg and his minions seek to corporately control the metaverse, using VR and AR to identify behavioural biometrics unique to each user. Everything from body gyration to eye movement becomes fair game. “We should all be concerned about how Facebook could and will use the data collected within the metaverse,” writes virtual reality enthusiast Bree McEwan.

In truth, we should be more than concerned. Facebook’s strength of influence has been its embrace of the innocuous even as it gears up for inflicting the next societal harm. But its increasingly centralising tendencies – making the user generate a marketable portrait of usage and behaviour – will be given a further kick along with the metaverse.

With Oculus and the Facebook account linked, one headset, and one user, ever greater pools of marketized data will be generated. Work, fitness, entertainment, social choices will all become a deeper quarry to be mined and monetised by salivating wonks in a corporate enterprise. This is totalitarian cyber-creepism run mad. And Zuckerberg just might get away with it.

 

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The Establishment Panic at Cryptocurrency

When Kingsley Amis encountered the works of D. H. Lawrence, he was left unimpressed by yet another great denouncer and missionary the English send “themselves to tell them they are crass, gross, lost, dead, mad and addicted to unnatural vice.” With little charity, Amis suggested leaving the didactic novelist on “on his pinnacle, inspiring, unapproachable and unread.”

Leaving aside matters of inspiration, much the same can be said of Hillary Clinton, failed US presidential candidate, tenured alarmist grump, ever worried about inroads being made into establishment power by rogue elements keen to snatch the crown of power. One of them, in her mind, is the threat posed by cryptocurrency.

During a panel discussion at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore, she made the following comment worth quoting in full: “One more area I hope nation-states start paying greater attention to is the rise of cryptocurrency because what looks like a very interesting and somewhat exotic effort to literally mine new coins in order to trade with them has the potential for undermining currencies, for undermining the role of the dollar as the reserve currency, for destabilising nations, perhaps starting with small ones but going much larger.”

The remark has every threat imaginable in the Clinton universe: the potential dethronement of the almighty dollar, cornerstone and guarantee of US power; the attack on the nation state; the faux exoticism. For other figures of the establishment, cryptocurrencies pose a regulatory nightmare, able to be used for money laundering, people smuggling and drug trafficking. The fact that all this takes place very readily with standard currency transactions is another one of those inconvenient truths that does not disturb the narrative of dystopian terror.

Other political figures are also jittery at the inroads of crypto. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, steeped in his own brand of creepy paternalism, told a forum hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on November 18 that it was “important that all democratic nations work together on this and ensure that it does not end up in the wrong hands, which can spoil our youths.”

Such a mood has not been helped by India’s Supreme Court decision from March last year, effectively invalidating a 2018 central bank order prohibiting banks from dealing in cryptocurrencies. The ruling saw a hot-flushed boom in investment.

Undeterred, a Modi government official told Reuters in March that consideration was being given to a new bill that would ban cryptocurrencies and criminalise possession, issuance, mining, trading and transferring such assets. The target here is private crypto assets; the preference is for blockchain technology.

Despite the severity of this bill, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was also throwing a few crumbs of reassurance at worried investors. “I can only give you this clue that we are not closing our minds, we are looking at ways in which experiments can happen in the digital world and cryptocurrency.”

El Salvador has already carved out a space in the nation state jungle for crypto, making it legal tender in September. Through mid-November, the country hosted Bitcoin Week, and the Minister of Economy, María Luisa Hayem, was enthusiastic in telling the Adopting Bitcoin conference how her government “is committed to innovating” and expressed pride at adopting the digital currency. Rosily, she proclaims that the “currency has given, in a short time, access to payments and services that Salvadoreans didn’t previously have.”

The move had been more than frowned upon by those agents of poverty, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, with the latter warning of “macroeconomic, financial and legal issues that require very careful analysis” arising from adopting such currencies. But even central banks, threatened by this decentralising digital march, are coming around, though there is a worry that such deposits might exacerbate financial instability.

In Australia, the Commonwealth Bank has ventured into the crypto market in partnership with the digital currency trading platform Gemini and blockchain analysis firm Chainalysis, developing an app enabling customers “to buy, sell and hold crypto assets.” Ten crypto assets will feature, among them Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Litecoin and Ethereum.

The move is far from cavalier, and even slightly dull. The CBA wants a share of the crypto pie and thinks it can reassure customers it can do so in a regulated system. Having one dedicated exchange platform will mean that digital currencies from other exchanges will not be permitted to be brought in. Close monitoring is promised.

Clinton’s fears and warnings about unscrupulous digital barbarians running amok find themselves in cold isolation. The current cryptocurrency market is worth $2 trillion, a remarkable thing given that crypto only came into being in 2009. The market capitalisation of digital assets, according to figures from JP Morgan, has boomed from $200 million by 2019’s end to the current figure of $2.6 trillion.

True, such digital assets are becoming a threat, but this will come from the voracious appetite the minting and circulation of such currencies command. Bitcoin and Ethereum, together, consume as much electric energy per annum as Indonesia. It leaves a generous carbon footprint along with a growing electronic waste problem. Now that’s a worry.

 

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Electric Car Delusions

Fresh from attending COP26 in Glasgow, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was keen to impress the Australian public that he was willing to make good his word about the role technology would play in combating climate change. An important component of his limited strategy lies in the realm of electric cars, the very thing he warned Australians against in 2019. His then opposite number, Labor’s Bill Shorten, was accused by the prime minister during the election campaign of wishing to end the Australian weekend. “I’ll tell you what, it’s not going to tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat,” he warned.

Things, however, had changed. COP26, pressure from other countries, and potential electoral pressure within traditional Coalition seats, had made the prime minister shift his position. In a joint press release from the Prime Minister and Energy Minister Angus Taylor, the government promised, as part of the Future Fuels Fund investment, $250 million on vehicle charging and hydrogen fuelling infrastructure; heavy and long-distance vehicle technologies; commercial fleets and household smart charging.

In terms of numbers, 400 businesses, 50,000 households will be affected, and 1000 public charging stations created. With an eye towards private investment, the hope is that there will be over $500 million “of combined private and public co-investment directed into the update of future fuels in Australia and the creation of more than 2,600 new jobs.”

When asked why he had essentially adopted, if only in lite version, a variant of the condemned Labor opposition policy from 2019, Morrison gave a ducking answer. “I don’t have a problem with electric vehicles, I have a problem with governments telling people what to do and what vehicles they should drive and where they should drive them, which is what [the opposition’s] plan was.”

On the commercial breakfast show “Sunrise”, the Prime Minister found himself being corrected by host Natalie Barr like an errant school child. “The Labor Party were not forcing people. It was not a mandate at the last election that they were introducing, it was a non-binding target of 50 percent [of new EVs by 2030].” Morrison, balletically evading the point, insisted that Labor “were going to put up the price of fuel.”

The new EV policy did little to move Electric Vehicle Council chief executive Behyad Jafari. “We’ve been waiting some two years for this policy that’s already about a decade overdue,” he told Radio 6PR Breakfast. The policy was “the first five pages of a book, rather than the whole thing.”

Australia’s hostility to EVs has not gone unnoticed. In 2020, the rise in battery-powered vehicles in the European and the UK came in at 10%. In Australia, it was a barely nudging 0.7%. In terms of efforts to decarbonise road transport, Australia has been ranked in the lower tiers of the Group of 20, lagging behind Turkey and Indonesia.

Such figures have done little to impress carmakers such as Volkswagen AG, who stated earlier this year that its ID.3 and ID.4 electric vehicles were unlikely to appear in Australia before 2023. “Hardly a day goes by when we don’t get an inquiry from someone who would dearly love to buy a Volkswagen electric vehicle,” stated the company’s Australian chief, Michael Bartsch in March, “and we have to tell them we don’t know when we can introduce them.”

The office of the Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, officiously dismissed such remarks at the time, suggesting that Australia would not “be lectured about vehicles emissions by a car manufacturer that has a track record of deceiving motorist and violating clean-air laws.”

The modest attempt to redress this state of affairs does not compare with incentives that are being promoted at the state level. The New South Wales government has promised to contribute more to the entire program in the state than the Commonwealth will across the entire country. NSW Treasurer Matt Kean may well be from the same party as the Prime Minister, but on environmental policy, their song sheets are markedly different.

A day after Morrison’s announcement of a future fuels fund to build charging stations across the country, Kean revealed that $105 million in additional funding to encourage EVs in his state would be provided. This would complement the June commitment by the NSW government valued at $490 million, which involves waiving stamp duty on EV purchases, $3,000 rebates for up to 25,000 vehicles under $68,750, deferring road user charge until 2027 and expenditure on charging infrastructure. “This is a revolution which is coming whether [Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader] Barnaby Joyce likes it or not,” promised the Treasurer.

On the ABC’s 7.30 program, Kean also had a few words regarding Morrison’s own EV initiative: “the funding they’ve put on the table doesn’t even match the funding that we’ve put here just for the state of NSW.”

The NSW policy did much to stir Bartsch. The state had “shown its federal colleagues and its counterpart in Victoria the way to bring about mass ownership of affordable electric vehicles.” Kean could not be faulted for his “targets for private ownership and fleet take-up of EVs.” But the NSW Treasurer has gone further, announcing that his government will be signing the COP26 Declaration on the transition to zero-emission vehicles by 2040, thereby setting a target Morrison has been loathe to commit to.

The reluctance on the part of the Commonwealth to do more in terms of subsidies, rewarding EV manufacturers, and establishing enforceable CO2 emission standards will continue to make car vendors seek other markets in the green transition. Australia may well escape the potential fate of being a “third world dumping ground” for polluting car technology, but at this point, it is in no danger of moving into the first world of battery-powered efficiency.

 

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Britain’s Two Job Politicians

The role of the parliamentarian, historically, is one of service. The desire to hold two jobs, or more, suggests that such service is severely qualified. In the quotient of democracy and representation, the MP who is ready to tend to the affairs of others is unlikely to focus on the voter. I represent you, but I also represent my client who so happens to be parking his cash in offshore tax havens. I represent you, but I am moonlighting as an advisor for an armaments company.

This condition has become rather acute in the British political scene. While a backbencher earns £81,932 annually plus expenses, they may pursue consultancies in the private sector as long as they do not engage in lobbying – a ridiculous fine line. Astonishingly, there is no limit on the number of hours they may spend on these additional jobs. Accordingly, members of parliament have shown marked confusion on how to separate their various jobs. Every so often, business has tended to find its way into the member’s office.

A stunning feature of the British system is that there is no revolving door to speak of. Politicians can seamlessly undertake contracts and perform services, irrespective of their parliamentary position. The conditions and rules have a Gilbert and Sullivan absurdity to them.

One such figure exemplifies this. Between October 2016 and February 2020, Conservative MP Owen Paterson received remuneration for lobbying efforts on behalf of two companies: the medical diagnostics company Randox, and meat processing entity Lynn’s Country Foods. The report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, conveyed to the Parliamentary Committee on Standards, was a thorough and scathing effort on Paterson’s exploits.

In his dealings with Randox, the Commissioner found that Paterson “sought to promote Randox products, including their ‘superior technology’ and thereby sought to confer benefits on Randox.” He “sought assistance with accreditation for Randox’s technology” and sought to promote “other, unrelated, Randox technologies.” Then came the seedy connection: efforts to promote Randox testing by government agencies.

The smelly nature of Paterson’s advocacy for Lynn’s arose because of efforts made by the MP to approach the Food Standards Agency, at the request of the company, because of concerns dealing with the mislabelling of the food producer’s ham product and a product used by Lynn’s to cure bacon. The Commissioner also noted Paterson’s initiated contact with the Minister of State (DfID) on the subject of laboratory calibration in developing countries. All were held to be “in breach of the rules on paid advocacy.”

Paterson, for his part, has claimed that the investigation was uncalled for, unjust and pernicious, having allegedly caused his wife’s suicide in June 2020. The Standards Committee did take this into account as a mitigating factor on the penalty, and noted Paterson’s “passion for and expertise in food and farming matters.” For all that, the members found that the MP’s conduct had been “an egregious case of paid advocacy.” He had “repeatedly failed to perceive his conflict of interest and used his privileged position as a Member of Parliament to secure benefits for two companies for whom he was a paid consultant.” Bringing the House into disrepute, a penalty of suspension of 30 sitting days was warranted.

The response from the governing Tories was one abundant in viciousness. In trying to save Paterson from the 30-day suspension, Conservative MPs put forth an amendment in an effort to dismantle the very watchdog that had found Paterson out. A review of the investigation’s findings on Paterson’s conduct was also proposed. As committee chair Chris Bryant rued, “The definition of injustice is you change the rules in the midst of the process.”

It logically fell upon the investigator to face the chop. Stone was duly rounded on. Her office was deluged with abusive messages. The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, revealed after the vote that Stone had been called upon to consider her position. It was, claimed Kwarteng on breakfast radio, “difficult to see what the future of the commissioner was.” Within hours, she found out that her position would probably be safe, with Johnson’s government having executed yet another one of its famous U-turns of spectacular confusion.

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had a rather novel interpretation of the proceedings in approving an amendment that would essentially abolish the standards system – if one could even call it that. “The issue in this case, which involved a serious family tragedy, is whether the member of this House had a fair opportunity to make representations in this case and whether, as a matter of national justice, our procedures in this House allow for proper appeal.”

Despite Johnson’s efforts to save Paterson, the MP quit on November 4. And just to make matters worse, a raging fire had been lit, enveloping other members of the government. Former Attorney General, Sir Geoffrey Cox, was the next figure to find himself burning brightly. Cox had received some £6 million in addition to his MP salary for a retainer with the law firm Withers. This included an annual fee of £400,000, and an additional £156,916.08 for 140 hours of work undertaken between April and May 31, 2021.

To show the high regard he held for the voters of his electorate, Cox had also been in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) for a number of weeks, meaning that he was absent from his constituency while being an advisor on a corruption inquiry.

To the likes of Paterson and Cox can be added scores of Tory MPs, among them Johnson himself, who is estimated to have received £4 million from second job income over the course of 14 years.

With typical, and in this case cringing understatement, International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan has suggested that it would be “wise” to review the rules around second jobs. But she did not favour a total ban, suggesting that Parliament would somehow miss out if MPs could not perform such services as that of a doctor or nurse.

Such a view is also held by Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, who claimed it was vital that MPs “maintain connections to the world beyond so that we may draw the insight and expertise that this experience offers.”

In an effort to make some modification to the rules, Johnson has now proposed a measure that any outside role undertaken by parliamentarians, paid or otherwise, can be undertaken “within reasonable limits.” Trevelyan has suggested that “reasonable”, in this context, is 15 hours. Labour’s defeated proposal had been to place all second jobs, bar a select few, on the banned list.

The central question to this unfolding farce remains: If you are doing other jobs that are not directly connected to your function as a parliamentarian, are you really representing your constituency? The likes of Cox, more brazen than ever, square the circle in thinking you do.

 

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Manufactured Cruelties: Belarus, Poland and the Refugee Crisis

Refugee crises are often manufactured by governments. They can be done at the source: war, famine, rapacious institutions. They can also be manufactured by the refusal of governments to accept those seeking asylum, sanctuary and refuge.

The latter is very much in evidence in Europe: governments of the European Union are staring down desperate humans keen to travel into the EU; Belarus, engaging in its own form of mega-trafficking, has become a conduit for the movement of asylum seekers and migrants fleeing from Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Despite being granted Belarussian visas at considerable cost, many being initially housed in government hotels, their stay is only intended as temporary. After brief respite, they are pushed towards the country’s border with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. How they get there is not entirely clear. Some migrants are escorted by uniformed men; others pay additional fees to be transported. It has also been reported that Belarusian security forces have furnished instructions and tools – axes and wire cutters – to aid the crossing of the border. Attempts by Belarussian personnel to destroy border fences near Czeremcha, and disorientate Polish soldiers with stroboscopes and lasers, have also been noted.

Once at the border, the migrants are not allowed to approach any checkpoints to seek asylum. Nor are they allowed to return to Minsk, threatened by Belarusian border guards who insist on keeping them there.

Trapped in purgatorial fashion along the border, the migrants find themselves sleeping in rude conditions and left at the mercy of the elements. There have inadequate supplies, lack warm clothing and are starving. One estimate has put the death toll at nine.

All political sides are making hay from this suffering. Lukashenko can be accused of being an opportunistic trafficker of desperate folk and keen on jailing opponents in a desperate bit to stay in power, but Poland’s Law and Justice Party has happily stirred xenophobic hysteria. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Adrzej Duda are part of an administration that does not shy away from demonising arrivals they associate with terrorists with kinky characteristics. Doing so supplies an appropriate distraction from accusations of corruption, galloping inflation and a troubling rise in COVID-19 numbers.

In September, the Minister of the Interior, Mariusz Kamiński, and the National Defence Minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, appeared at a press conference to show a picture of a man copulating with a cow. The content had been allegedly found on a phone belonging to an Afghan migrant lurking in the woods. Spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior, Stanisław Żaryn, suggested that this was an act “associated with sexual disorders,” signalling a government campaign to link refugees with zoophilia and paedophilia.

In a gesture of such refined generosity, TVP Info, the main propaganda outlet of the ruling party, ran a video with a suitably prurient title: “He raped a cow and wanted to enter Poland?” There were two problems with the footage: the material, recorded on a VHS videotape, was drawn from bestiality porn from the 1970s; and the animal in question was a mare, not a cow.

Earlier this month, Duda signed a bill into law to construct what was described as “a high-tech barrier on the border with Belarus to guard against an influx of irregular migrants.” The barrier, valued at some €350 million, was “needed due to increased migratory pressure from Belarus.” The right to asylum had all but entirely vanished.

Liz Throssell, spokesperson from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), is adamant that, “The human rights of migrants and refugees have to come first.” Unfortunately, she was far from informative on what solutions might be pursued on the Belarus-EU border. “It is really important they must be respected under international human rights refugee law, but as for the political dimension to this, I would leave that to others to address”.

Along the Belarus-Polish border, refugees and migrants have been instrumentalised, their rights assiduously ignored. Lukashenko has been accused of using a form of “hybrid” warfare by throwing migrants at the border like willing assailants of rabid intent. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, makes the point. “It is a hybrid attack, a brutal attack, a violent attack and a shameful attack.” Such nasty terminology has turned those wishing to make their way to the EU into foot soldiers in a political cause they wish to play no part in. Wedged in between this vicious play of power, these unfortunates trapped on the border find themselves divested of their humanity, their desires, their wishes.

The EU is also playing its own vile game, falling back upon frontier states who have held themselves up to be saviours of European civilisation. “It is important that Lukashenko understands that [the regime’s] behaviour comes with a price,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned after talks with US President Joe Biden. Sanctions are being considered against the airlines that have been accused of facilitating human trafficking.

There is one final perversion in all this. In essentially condemning human trafficking, the EU and its counterparts are condemning the right to asylum, which such trafficking aids. With that sentiment, von der Leyen would regard Oskar Schindler and his more recent equivalent, Iraq’s Ali Al Jenabi, as traffickers worthy of punishment.

 

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Gasbagging in Glasgow: COP26 and Phasing Down Coal

Words can provide sharp traps, fettering language and caging definitions. They can also speak to freedom of action and permissiveness. At COP26, that permissiveness was all the more present in the haggling ahead of what would become the Glasgow Climate Pact.

COP26, or the UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021, had a mission of “Uniting the world to tackle climate change.” The tackling, however, fell rather short, though countries, in the main, were trying to sell the final understanding as a grand compromise of mature tidiness. COP26 president Alok Sharma called the outcome “a fragile win,” the outcome of “hard work” and “great cooperation” from the parties.

The Pact is a flurry of words, acknowledging, for instance “the importance of the best available science for effective climate action and policymaking.” Alarm and utmost concern is expressed by the parties at the fact “that human activities have caused around 1.1 °C of global warming to date and that impacts are already being felt in every region.” There is a stress on “the urgency of enhancing ambition and acting in relation to mitigation adaptation and finance in this critical decade to address gaps between current efforts and pathways in pursuit of the ultimate objective of the Convention and its long-term global goal.”

The pact had gone through a few iterations, stirring interest, sparking hope, even inducing, at points, a giddy optimism. The first draft had called upon the Parties “to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil-fuels.” Its appearance was considered by The New Scientist to be “remarkable” for explicitly mentioning fossil fuels, while Ed King of the European Climate Foundation suggested that it was “the first time fossil fuels have been called out in a draft UN climate decision text.”

But in the final statement, an exit for countries still keen to keep the heart of coal alive was carved. The parties might well ensure that technologies and policies would be adopted “to transition towards low-emission energy systems,” scale up the “deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures” but this would also entail “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” As this was undertaken, “targeted support” would be directed towards “the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.”

And there were those words slipped in with conspiratorial deftness: “phasing down.” Elastic, open, accommodating to the emitters and the vendors. A world left to the beholder. The change of language had been encouraged by India, with the support of other coal-dependent states. The Indian environment and climate minister, Bhupender Yadav, had been less than impressed with the singling out of coal, given the previous text’s deafening silence on natural gas and oil.

The reasons for such omissions were clear enough: countries such as the United States continue to nourish their interest in oil and gas investment. On November 17, the Biden administration will hold the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in US history, covering 80 million acres off the Gulf of Mexico. Again, President Joe Biden shows that anything his predecessor, Donald Trump, did, he can do several times better.

 

Image from huffpost.com (Photo by Associated Press)

 

After the conclusion of COP26, Yadav merrily declared the summit a success for India, as “we articulated and put across the concerns and ideas of the developing world quite succinctly and unequivocally.” His country had a lesson for the developed world, fattened by a certain lifestyle that required modification to cope with the climate crisis.

It was the hook upon which the Modi government could fasten a new, lecturing mantra: LIFE, or Lifestyle for Environment, one that valued “moderation over excess … Today,” stated Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the summit, “it’s needed that all of us come together and take forward LIFE as a movement.” Presumably a phasing down movement.

Indian voices in the climate action sector did not shy away from approving the dilution of the language on coal. Their targets were the misdeeds of the United States and the European Union, who had, according to Aarti Khosla of Climate Trends, failed “to deliver on the promised $100 billion in climate finance.” Kamal Narayan, CEO of the Integrated Health and Well Being Council, suggested that the use of “phasing down” coal instead of “phasing out” should not be a source of concern, given “the kind of commitment and leadership India has shown in building renewable energy infrastructure.”

While not quite music, the softening approach in the final text was melodious enough for former Australian resources minister Matt Canavan to claim that the coal industry had been victorious in Scotland. Proudly visible before him in an interview with the Today program was a screen with an unequivocal message: “Glasgow: A Huge Win for Coal.” An adventurous reading of the Glasgow text was in order. The agreement had provided “wiggle room” for countries. “Given the fact that the agreement did not say that coal needs to be phased down or taken out, it is a green light for us to build more coal mines.”

For a delightedly cynical Canavan, no country was really taking the agreement seriously, and the likes of India, China and those in South-East Asia were insatiably hungry for coal, with a “demand” that “almost has no limit.” On Twitter, he reiterated the theme with a call to rent the earth with urgent, patriotic enthusiasm. “Let’s get digging then and sell more of the best coal in the world to others, and bring millions more people out of poverty.”

 

 

Pacific Island states were resigned, disappointed and despairing. Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama could only entertain some frail optimism, praising the “heroic effort” of the Pacific negotiators at COP26. “The 1.5-degree target leaves Glasgow battered, bruised, but alive.”

Other states were angrily baffled by the subversion evident in the final text. Mexico’s envoy, Camila Isabel Zepeda Lizama, expressed anger at her country being “sidelined” in a “non-transparent and non-inclusive process … We all have remaining concerns but were told we could not reopen the text … while others can still ask to water down their promises.” A cabal of powers had done its trick.

For activists, there was no death knell to coal, as the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, confidently claimed. “This is no longer a climate conference,” lamented climate change activist Greta Thunberg, the tenured voice of climate change catastrophism. “This is now a global greenwashing festival.” And with greenwashing shall come the vanishing, but not before a few more, gasbagging efforts.

 

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Lying in Public Life: The Scott Morrison Formula

He has some gall. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a person who finds the truth a creature best beaten, shunned and ignored, is now moving into what looks like campaign mode. At COP26 in Glasgow, he sold the world a climate change model that kept company with countries where fumes linger stubbornly, and the fossil fuels burn bravely. He made sure to do it the “Australian Way”, ensuring that emission reduction targets would not so much be met as thoroughly “beaten” without the need for taxes. He spoke of technology unproven and made assumptions unfounded.

Prior to heading to Glasgow, Morrison, having done his bit of crossdressing on the climate change front, was coy. He refused to reveal the modelling that went into the fabulous predictions of net-neutral utopia. But on his return, and after any sense of jet lag had been overcome, he was happy to promote the scanty details of an enterprise verging on a hoax.

Such efforts have become the stock and trade of a man habitually committed to the advertising message. At best, it is simple dissimulation; at worse – and here, we find ourselves on difficult territory – it is mendacious. Little wonder, then, that critics have been coming out of late with a sort of adamant righteousness against the Australian prime minister’s relationship with lying.

French President Emmanuel Macron has led the pack, letting the world know that he did not think Morrison was a liar; he knew he was. Deceived about Australia’s intentions regarding the now rescinded AU$90 billion submarine contract between the Naval Group and Canberra, Macron singled out Morrison in an impromptu interview with Australian journalists at the G20 summit in Rome. The conduct of the Australian government had been “detrimental to the reputation of your country and your Prime Minister.”

Showing that this was not secret men’s business, former Australian Prime Minister and victim of a palace coup that saw Morrison come to power, suggested much the same thing. Australia’s incumbent, claimed Malcolm Turnbull, had a reputation for being habitually dishonest. His conduct regarding the submarine deal with France had enhanced “his reputation for being untrustworthy.”

Morrison’s response has been all shrugs. It’s politics, and in the political jungle, the thin skinned will not outlast those with thick hides. “People take sledges at me all the time.” This gave him ample opportunity to lie about ever having told a lie. “Have you ever told a lie in public life? inquired Melbourne radio host Neil Mitchell. “I don’t believe I have no, no,” came the reply.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, as is often the case, preferred to be honest about such instances of mendacity. “If you ask me a personal question about my life, I don’t have to give you a straight answer. If you ask me something that’s none of your business, I’m going to tell you what you want to hear to get out of my face.”

Fairness and due process for a figure such as Morrison demands an understanding about the role of lies in politics. The recent fixation about his less than fond association with the truth is a reminder of the effort by the Washington Post to count the fibs of US President Donald Trump. In January 2021, its “fact checker” unit found no less than 30,573 “false or misleading claims” over the course of four years. “On Nov. 2 alone, the day before the 2020 vote, Trump made 503 false or misleading claims as he barnstormed across the country in a desperate effort to win reelection.” Can the frail truth survive in a thriving economy of lies?

Devotees of the anti-lie cult have taken a near fundamentalist line on the issue. The great sixteenth century French essayist Michel de Montaigne regarded lying as “an accursed vice. We are men, and we have relations with one another only by speech.” Lying and obstinacy were those faults that needed correction in a child. “They grow with a child’s growth, and once the tongue has got the knack of lying, it is difficult to imagine how impossible it is to correct it.”

Lying in politics is much a statement of fact as rising obesity levels in industrialised states. As that keen student of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, pondered, factual truth is ever at the mercy of the lie made in the name of political power. “Facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories, which are produced by the human mind.” In his unsurpassed essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell also reminds us with severity that political language itself “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Such conduct is inherent between political leaders, so much so that international relations theorist John Mearsheimer found little literature in his field on it. His own contribution was to come up with seven different types of lying, including fear mongering, inter-state lies, nationalist myths and strategic cover-ups. Ever contrarian, Mearsheimer sees instances of lying – notably between the leaders of countries – as less frequent than commonly assumed. Leaders are more likely to lie to their constituents than their counterparts, which is hardly reassuring to fans of Montaigne.

The standard of politics and public life is low and finding distinguished figures who fail to deceive their electorates is a task doomed. Political endeavour remains the featherbed of mendacious undertakings. But to make such a fuss about being a liar in politics is exactly the sort of thing that is unlikely to affect Morrison. He is seemingly immune, his armour a prophylactic against veracity.

 

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FW de Klerk: A Negotiator Before Defeat

Rarely is the pragmatist admired. Be it in policy or politics, such a figure induces suspicion, a concern that principles will have to be subordinated to broader goals. True dreamers and visionaries, for all their glaring faults, can take the accolades; the pragmatists can be given lower pegging.

These differences have proven stark with the late FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid president. “De Klerk,” suggested Mac Maharaj, formerly official spokesperson for President Jacob Zuma, “was a man of the moment and [Nelson] Mandela was a man of history.” The late Colin Eglin went one better in his observation of the two men. “A relatively conservative Afrikaner leader decided to negotiate before he had lost, and an imprisoned leader of a liberation movement decided to negotiate before he had won.”

It was De Klerk who began to take the screws out of the edifice of apartheid and open the pathway to negotiations with other parties. Serving in the governing white National Party, which had introduced apartheid in 1948, De Klerk held ministerial positions till becoming party head in February 1989. Between 1984 and 1989, he served as education minister, overseeing the notorious Bantu education program. On replacing PW Botha, De Klerk downgraded the State Security Council, primarily staffed by military and police, and restored civilian rule by cabinet.

De Klerk’s famous announcement to parliament on February 2, 1990 was critical in setting things in train. But he had little by way of choice. By the late 1980s, Apartheid South Africa was already unravelling, its furious racial disturbances tearing away at a white supremacist structure increasingly teetering on the edge of oblivion.

He also had encouragement from various sources. Externally, the Cold War was coming to a close, with Western backers seeing less need to keep an anti-communist proxy in Africa. The loss of Soviet influence, marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, also meant a diminishing of support for such communist organisations as the African National Congress.

Then came three sets of talks and discussions between Mandela and Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee, between ANC figures and South Africa’s National Intelligence Service, and discussions between Afrikaner intellectuals and the ANC conducted in the UK. South Africa’s last apartheid leader had been inspired, in no small part, by the propitiatory Harare Declaration, adopted by the ANC as a promise to pursue a democratic transition to transform South Africa “into a non-racial democracy.” Such organisations as the ANC, Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and the South African Communist Party were unbanned. A moratorium on the death penalty was implemented. Within nine days, Mandela walked free.

Difficulties quickly manifested. The Convention for a Democratic South Africa, presided over by both De Klerk and Mandela, imploded before a background of police, militia and factional violence. There was mistrust between racial groups and within them. The Inkatha Freedom Party left early, claiming that Mangosuthu Buthelezi was not granted full scope to negotiate. ANC revolutionaries still giddy with insurrectionary fervour were not entirely content with the moderating calls of Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki. Mandela, for his part, had called De Klerk the “head of an illegitimate, discredited minority regime … incapable of upholding moral standards.”

The political visions were divergent in vastness. The ANC wished to pursue a single, centralised state based on one person, one vote; the National Party preferred a looser federal structure with devolved powers that would still preserve a measure of control over the potential excesses of black majoritarianism. Certain Afrikaners demanded a separate volkstaat. There was no agreement on what any interim government would comprise, nor what form the new constitution would take.

In April 1993 at Kempton Park, Mandela’s ANC and De Klerk’s ruling white National Party commenced what was called the Multi-Party Negotiation Process (MPNP). There were representatives from 24 other parties, all steaming with different agendas and suspicions. The 1994 electoral victory for the ANC did much to affirm their standing, leading to the eventual December 1996 constitution.

De Klerk was left to wrestle with his role, and that of apartheid, which he preferred to call “separate development.” He remained a creature of his racial and political background, an ideologue of apartheid who found it impossible to intellectually abandon with any degree of confidence. To have done so would have been to negate genealogy and a social experiment he had not regarded as a total failure. His uncle, JG Strijdom, was the country’s second apartheid prime minister; his father, Jan de Klerk, was in the cabinet of three apartheid prime ministers.

His memoirs were filled with exculpatory efforts pointing to himself and his fellow NP politicians as “products of our time and circumstances.” In administering the race classification rules, De Klerk claimed to have done so “in the most humane manner possible.”

De Klerk’s statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was testy, taking issue with the commission’s alleged bias while deeming efforts to brand apartheid a crime against humanity as “little more than a mobilisation exercise by the ANC and its totalitarian and Third World supporters in the UN General Assembly.” Victims of “crimes against humanity,” he dismissively asserted “do not generally achieve sustained population growth rates of more than 3% and their social and socio-economic statistics do not improve across the board.”

In 2020, it took irate remarks from the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation to remind De Klerk that the law had caught up, with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court declaring the racial policy to be such a crime. It had been, he stated, “unacceptable” to “quibble about the degrees of unacceptability of apartheid.” With such attitudes, it is unsurprising that figures such as the human rights lawyer Howard Varney had little time for this “apologist for apartheid.”

A posthumous video from De Klerk did little to elevate him. It is contrition in search of purpose and acceptance. “I, without qualification, apologise for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa,” he is found stating. As he exited the world of the living, he was worried about what was happening to his country. “I’m deeply concerned about the undermining of many aspects of the constitution, which we perceive almost day to day.”

In one fundamental way, his own navigation of apartheid’s train into oblivion was a regretful concession to defeat – that a racial minority could no longer hold on, however vicious, however determined it might be. By 1996, De Klerk was forced off the train, acknowledging, in part, that he was part of the very legacy he was trying to exorcise. On receiving the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, it was clear where he stood. He had aided in creating the conditions; it was Mandela who would have to make the world anew.

 

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