Thursday, 18 July 2019

Moon landing - finally, a challenger for Neil Armstrong
First budgies on the moon
The 20th of July nears and I still hate you
Neil Armstrong
For walking on the moon that day in 1969
Sullying it for billions around the globe
Ruining life for those of us who want to make our mark.
Sickening too, your false modesty
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!”
Oh really?
I know exactly what you meant
“Hey, suckers, beat this!”
Well bad news, Neil, I’ve worked it out
Crowdfunding won’t fuel the rocket but
Donald Trump told me he was interested
At least until he tweeted, “I’d rather go to Mars”.
I only wish he would.
I messaged Vlad Putin, hero of the underdog
Whose aides told me he’ll be in touch, once various
Political and geographic realignments
Are all sorted, which they promised
Won’t take long.
Start worrying Neil
You of the namby-pamby inner- and outer-boot
Nothing human or intimate when you touched the moon.
For me it will be different
Budgie smugglers and bare feet.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Morrison and Jerusalem - a special sort of dunce

We have to hand it to Scott Morrison. He has been at the heart of two major shifts in Australian political life. One made him Prime Minister, the other overturned a sensible long-standing approach on Jerusalem. Yet the new PM struggles to offer a coherent explanation how either development benefits Australia. His approach on Jerusalem exhibits a rare talent to combine the stupid with the pointless.  

Once he’d dropped Jerusalem into the Wentworth by-election last year, Scott Morrison needed a face-saving formula. Two models were available, one from Putin’s Russia, the other from Trump’s America.
The Russian model came in the form of a 2017 Foreign Ministry statement. This reaffirmed Russia’s commitment “to the UN-approved principles for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, which include the status of East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state.” It went to announce that Russia now viewed “West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
The Russian move no doubt reflected a range of regional and international considerations, including a desire to put down a marker on Jerusalem ahead of Donald Trump. In a foretaste of things to come for Australia, the Russian action puzzled rather than pleased the Israelis. The Jerusalem Post noted that as Israel had annexed all of Jerusalem in 1980 and deemed “the entire city – not just the western half – its capital” it would be wary of Russia’s “surprise announcement”.
Never one to worry about complexity or nuance, in December 2017 President Trump declared it was “time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”. America was “not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem”. There were no geographic qualifiers in the Trump announcement and Israel responded enthusiastically.
Caught in a dilemma of his own making, Morrison opted for a combination of the two models: recognition confined to West Jerusalem; the Australian embassy remaining in Tel Aviv; work starting to identify a “suitable site” for an Australian embassy in West Jerusalem; an Australian “Trade and Defence Office” opening in West Jerusalem; and time-worn references to the need for the parties to negotiate outstanding issues.
This approach is devoid of substance and offers no identifiable benefit to Australia. Its only achievement seems to be that of confusing and antagonising friends and foe alike.
The Israeli embassy in Canberra politely described the move as “a very positive first step”. Towards what, was left unanswered. But we know only too well from Israel’s actions of the past four decades—the formal annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980 and settling hundreds of thousands of Israelis on Palestinian territory in the West Bank—what the Israeli end point is. It is Israel in unquestioned control of all of Jerusalem, the antithesis of the scenario in the PM’s 15 December statement of a Jerusalem eventually divided between Israelis and Palestinians. Only romantics or the seriously deluded could envisage that Israel will negotiate a redivision of Jerusalem for the “prize” of Australian and other embassies in West Jerusalem.
Senior Israeli representatives, including the speaker of the Knesset, mock the very notion of “West” Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Post editorialised that there was “something absurd” about Australian (and Russian) recognition of “the heretofore unknown entity of west Jerusalem”. Canberra should reconsider “its unilateral division of Jerusalem, a united city for the past 51 years” (since Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967).
The PM’s December statement went on: “Pious assertions about a commitment to a two-state solution strain credibility if we are not prepared to question the conventional wisdom about how we believe this goal can be achieved”. Yet the statement itself is little more than pious assertion. There is nothing in it that offers a game-plan to break what Morrison described as the “rancid stalemate” of the peace process. What strategies, for example, does he have in mind to persuade Israel to rescind its 1980 Basic Law, which declared undivided Jerusalem its capital?
Morrison’s statement accepted that Australia was subject to UN Security Council resolutions on Jerusalem. This includes Resolution 478, passed in 1980 in response to Israel’s Basic Law, and which requires “States that have established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions from the Holy City”. In this context it would be helpful to have more detail about the planned Trade and Defence Office in Jerusalem. What exactly will the office do, especially given that Tel Aviv is Israel’s trade and technology capital as well as the headquarters of the Israeli defence establishment? What will it do that the embassy in Tel Aviv does not? Who will staff the office; what status will they have to represent Australia.?
This whole sorry episode grew out of the perceived need for advantage in a by-election. The prominent Palestinian politician, Hanan Ashrawi, described Morrison as “using Palestinian rights to bribe the Zionist lobby to gain its support in the election”. The bribe didn’t work, the subsequent rationalisation is negligee thin and there’s nothing underneath. Perhaps over the Christmas break the PM will get around to articulating the political, trade, economic, security, humanitarian, reputational benefits of his policy shift on Jerusalem. One thing is certain – this won’t take up much of anyone’s holiday time.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Morrison and Jerusalem – what a way to run a foreign policy!

On 15 November, The Sydney Morning Herald reported the Morrison government as telling Indonesian ministers there was “less than 5 per cent” chance that Australia would pursue the idea of relocating the Australian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Yet the article also noted the PM was “prepared to move the embassy if it is in Australia’s interest”.
A month earlier, a joint statement by Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the Government would carefully examine the merits of moving the embassy.  Any decision would be subject “to a rigorous assessment of the potential impact of such a move on our broader national interests”.
It hardly requires a rigorous assessment to conclude that the negatives of any move easily outweigh the positives. It is impossible to see how Australia’s trade, political or security interests could be helped meaningfully by relocating the embassy. The disadvantages are so obvious that even an ideologically-blind government should be able to see them. The “by the end of 2018” time-frame for a decision merely adds a pretence of measured consideration.
True, three countries would be very happy: Israel, the United States and, wait for it, Guatemala. The latter followed the US in relocating its embassy to Jerusalem earlier this year. So too did Paraguay which then had a change of President and heart and moved back to Tel Aviv, so infuriating Israel it shut its embassy in AsunciĆ³n.
Bhutan officially measures Gross National Happiness but the idea has hardly permeated the policy-making processes of other states. Countries cooperate and support each other mostly because of “rational” self-interest. It’s delusional to imagine that Australia’s trade or security links with either Israel or the US, let alone Guatemala, need the stimulant of neighbourly togetherness in Jerusalem.
So what does the argument for relocation boil down to? Amazingly, it’s the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”.
The Morrison-Payne joint statement noted the arguments put forward by a former Australian Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, that Australia “consider recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel … while acknowledging East Jerusalem as the expected capital of future Palestinian state”.
Proponents of embassy relocation cast it as Trumpian-style shock-therapy for the peace process. Declaring Australia’s continued commitment to a two-state solution, Morrison declared “Frankly, it hasn’t been going that well. Not a lot of progress has been made, and you don’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results.”
Pro-Israeli supporters outside the government echoed the argument that moving the Australian embassy could help unlock the stalled peace process. They asserted it would not pre-empt a “future Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem” with its very own Australian embassy.
This line of argument is a fraud. It suggests that Israel might be amenable to sharing Jerusalem as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians. Yet it is Israel that controls Jerusalem. It is Israel which annexed the eastern half of the city in 1980. It is Israel which has long spun the mantra of Jerusalem as its “eternal and undivided capital”, repeated yet again by Prime Minister Netanyahu at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem last May.
If the idea of embassy relocation as a “spark” for the peace process had any merit, it would include a strategy for persuading Israel to relinquish East Jerusalem. That it doesn’t is a measure of the cant and hypocrisy afoot. Can we really look to Trump or to Morrison or to President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala to take the lead in persuading Israel that it has to let go of East Jerusalem?
The Australian Government, quite rightly, expresses concern about the lack of progress towards a two-state solution and the continuing level of violence on the ground. But there is a dog whistle in some of this concern, hinting that embassy relocation would somehow revive the peace progress and reduce the level of violence. It’s fatuous. On the very day the American Embassy opened in Jerusalem last May, Israeli security forces killed 58 Palestinians and wounded 1200 others protesting the action.
Scott Morrison dropped the idea of embassy relocation into the Wentworth be-election for domestic political advantage. He got a well-deserved comeuppance. With his fondness for slogans it’s now high-time for him to Stop the Stupidity.
First published by Pearls and Irritations, 17 November 2018

Postcard from Doha: blockaders, bovines and billions

I stopped over in Qatar recently, coinciding with the first anniversary of the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, intended to punish Qatar for flouting Saudi ambitions.  A year on, the blockade shows no signs of ending. The Saudis continue to make mischief, hinting they might turn Qatar into an island by digging a wide canal between the two countries, or suggesting that Qatar could lose the 2022 soccer world cup because it (out?)bribed other contenders.

For the blockaders, though, the reality is they’ve helped both Qatar’s economic diversification and an improvement in its woeful human rights record. If Qataris are troubled by what amounts to a family spat between very rich relatives it doesn’t show.

Doha’s English-language newspapers evinced a spirit of Churchillian doggedness. The Twitterati, according to the Qatar Tribune, hailed Qatar’s resilience in seeing off a conspiracy aimed at usurping its wealth, compromising its sovereignty and denying it the right to host the 2022 World Cup. The Gulf Times, published by a former deputy prime minister and head of the royal court, commented that the blockaders had tried every trick in the book, “threats, abuse, vitriol, bullying, fake news, unfounded charges, propaganda …even black magic [and] failed miserably in their actions”.  
Not surprisingly in a highly authoritarian state, Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, gets most of the credit for all this. His dashing Omar Sharif-like image accompanied by the slogan, Tamim the Glorious, appears everywhere—on cars, trucks and buses, on buildings, constructions sites, shops, restaurant, T-shirts and posters.

Being in charge of the world’s richest country has been a big help. Qatar’s abundance of natural gas and oil generates an average annual per capita income of around $170,000. That figure masks the great disparity between mega-rich Qataris, who make up only 15 per cent of a male-heavy population of 2.6 million, and the rest—mainly Indians, Nepalese, other Arabs, Filipinos, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, working in hotels, restaurants, transportation, tourism, construction and as domestic staff. Tens of thousands labour on projects driven by the 2022 World Cup.
In the first months of the blockade, Qatar burned through some $50 billion to ensure supplies of basic commodities which arrived by air rather than the traditional land and sea routes from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. According to the International Monetary Fund, economic activity was affected but this was “mostly transitory and new trade routes were quickly established”, with the financial system remaining sound. The World Bank forecasts economic growth this year close to three per cent, compared to two per cent in 2017. 
Ironically, the blockade prompted Qatar to become self-sufficient in milk products, essential for many of its foreign workers. A farm outside Doha, established in 2013 to rear sheep, has been transformed into a major dairy. By the end of 2018 it may have as many as 20,000 cows, landed by air and sea from around the globe, including Australia. As well as daily necessities the cows provide fun for headline writers, witness “Milk Sheikhs” or “Land of Milk and Money” though I’m still waiting for “Blockade an Udder Failure”.
FIFA’s 2011 selection of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, for which Australia competed and managed just one vote, remains stained by accusations of serious bribery and, at least until recently, the degrading and dangerous conditions for foreign workers on the eight massive stadiums in or near Doha and a state-of-the-art road and rail network which will link them.
In 2013, the former ACTU President and current General Secretary of the International Confederation of Trade Unions, Sharan Burrow, described the workers as “basically slaves”, adding that if two years on from the awarding of the cup the Qatari Government had not done the fundamentals it had “no commitment to human rights”. Such criticism, and the risk of losing the cup, finally stung Qatari officials into action. In late 2017 the Qatari government guaranteed these workers a minimum annual wage of about $3,200.

Ms Burrow said earlier this year she had no doubt that Qatar was now committed to reform and was on its way to becoming a model for other Gulf States. The end of the “kafala” system, which gives sponsors great power, would she said, “free two million migrant workers” and promote “a mature industrial relations structure”.  In late April, the International Labor Organisation opened an office in Doha to oversee the changes.  
Qatar was hardly a household name in soccer circles until its controversial selection, though Qatar Sports Investment’s 2011 purchase of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) made that club the richest in the world. PSG demonstrated the benefit of a wealthy Gulf connection in 2017 when it bought the services of Brazilian super-star, Neymar, for a mere $340 million.

If money talks, the amount Qatar is spending on the World Cup positively screams. Currently it’s about $660 million a week, with the final tally expected at more than $260 billion. That should buy a fair degree of comfort for the anticipated 1 million plus fans who’ll make the journey, though those expecting to rub shoulders with Qataris may be disappointed. The only ones they’re certain to encounter are immigration and customs officials, the latter courteously relieving them of any alcohol they’re carrying. (I speak from personal experience!)
Islamic Qatar is seriously dry, with a strict ban on public consumption of alcohol and a very dim view of public drunkenness. This does not seem a natural fit with soccer fans. With Budweiser a World Cup sponsor it’s no surprise that senior FIFA officials declared that alcoholic drinks are part of the cup and “we're going to have them”. Falling into line, as Brazil was forced to do for the 2014 cup, Qatar will temporarily allow soccer fans to buy and drink beer at the stadiums. (Some of which will be dismantled after the cup and shipped to poor soccer-playing countries.)   

Still, fans shouldn’t relax too much. Homosexuality remains illegal, and punishable by death if the offenders happen to be Muslim men (though Qatar has not executed anyone since 2003). Disgraced former FIFA President Sepp Blatter advised homosexual soccer fans to visit Qatar in 2022 “only for the football”. Understandably, that comment didn’t go over well with gay right activists, but he may have had a point.

First published by Pearls and Irritations, 28 June 2018

Israel-Palestine: vale the two-state solution, where to now?

As millions around the globe contemplated New Year resolutions on 31 December 2017, Israel’s ruling Likud party came up with one of its own. Its Central Committee overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution seeking to extend Israel’s legal jurisdiction to its settlements in the West Bank, home to some 400,000 Israelis. Noting the 50th anniversary of the “liberation” of the West Bank, the resolution called on Likud’s elected officials “to allow free construction and to apply the laws of Israel and its sovereignty to all liberated areas of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria”.

Like New Year resolutions elsewhere, Likud’s was non-binding. This, and its timing, possibly explains why it attracted little media attention. But it may prove an important marker in the burial of the two-state solution. Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations commented that the resolution had “significant consequences” as “a prelude to annexation”.  

In the government halls that matter most in Israeli and Palestinian affairs—Jerusalem and Washington—the resolution captured the spirit of the time. Prime Minister Netanyahu is at his most credible when he denies any possibility of a Palestinian state. His Education Minister Naftali Bennett, one of two Jewish Home party representatives in the current Knesset, lauded Trump’s 2016 electoral victory as a tremendous opportunity for Israel, signalling “the era of the Palestinian state is over”. The two-state solution, he told a gathering of Jewish students in New York in March 2018, was a terrible idea which “we’re done with.” Citing the example of Israel’s annexation in 1981 of the Golan Heights, Bennett spoke of the benefits of international amnesia. “It’s never pleasant two weeks after, but after two months it fades away, and 20 years later and 40 years later it’s still ours.” 
Early in his presidency, President Trump gestured towards an open mind, commenting, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like”. The idea that “both” parties could possibly agree on what they like was fanciful. In any event, Trump’s subsequent actions made clear that the US was not interested in using its clout to help the parties find a way through the maze of claim, counter claim and mutual acrimony. Trump and those around him have made the US a partisan player as never before. His former adviser on Israeli affairs, now ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an unabashed supporter of “Israeli annexation of the West Bank, has been President of a fund-raising organisation for the West Bank settlement of Beit El, and reportedly backed Netanyahu’s ludicrous claim that opposition to settlements amounts to “ethnic cleansing”.

Writing in The Atlantic in May 2018, the Israeli author, Yossi Klein Halevi, described Israelis and Palestinians as caught in a cycle of denial. “The Palestinian national movement denies Israel’s legitimacy, and Israel in turn denies the Palestinians’ national sovereignty.” The latter “sovereignty” is greatly weakened by the schism between the feeble Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas in Gaza. For Israel, it is the gift that keeps on giving. 

Of the parties most closely entwined in the conflict, the PA has the strongest interest in a two-state solution and the least capacity to do anything about it. It governs fully in less than a quarter of the West Bank which, under the Oslo Agreements of the early 1990s, remains divided into Areas A, B and C. The PA has full control of Area A, about 18 per cent of the whole territory. Israel has full control of C, about 60 per cent. B, the remainder, is divided between Palestinian civil control and shared security control.   

The terminal problem for two-staters is what to build the state with. Israeli settlement has so sliced and diced the West Bank it’s hard to imagine how the geographic shards might meaningfully be gathered together. US Ambassador Friedman has argued that settlements occupy only two per cent of the West Bank. If true, that would make settlements easier to remove but it completely overlooks their administrative reach. A report by the Israeli  Human Rights Organisation  B’Tselem in late 2017 calculated that the settlements and their governing “regional councils” directly controlled 63 per cent of Area C and 40 per cent of the West Bank overall.
Besides the West Bank’s geographic fragmentation, there’s the open sore of the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas. In its revised charter Hamas hinted for the first time in 2017 that it might accept “a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, along the lines of the 4th of June 1967”. This amounts to a two-state solution, if not one Israel would accept. The charter also described armed resistance as the “strategic choice for protecting the principles and the rights of the Palestinian people”. This points backwards. Israel has long declared it will not negotiate if under fire; Palestinians retort that Israel will not negotiate unless it’s under fire.
A week after the Likud Central Committee’s New Year resolution, Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, now at Princeton University, wrote that Israelis and Palestinians were careening towards a one state reality,  which “carries extremely dangerous risks”.
These risks hark back to Israel’s decades-old “trilemma“ of deciding what it wants to be: Jewish; an occupier; a democracy. It can’t be all three. The two-state solution was premised on the idea of ending the occupation, thereby preserving both Israel’s Jewish identity and its democratic ways. Former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, warned in mid-2017 that if Israel kept control of the area from the Mediterranean to the river Jordan "it would become inevitably – that's the key word, inevitably – either non-Jewish or non-democratic". If Palestinians in an annexed West Bank were given full rights Israel would quickly become “a binational state with an Arab majority and civil war”. Israel's current path he described as a “slippery slope toward apartheid”.
Demography has long been a pressure point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat once claimed the “the womb of the Arab woman” as his “strongest weapon”. But population figures—totals and growth rates—are sharply contested (see, for example, Israel’s Impending Demographic Reality and Demographics and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict ). According to the CIA’s World Fact Book, in 2017 there were 8.3 million people in Israel, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, of which 74.7 per cent were Jewish. The West Bank’s population was 2.75 million, which included 391,000 Israeli settlers. Gaza’s population was 1.8 million. Rounded, this produces a total Jewish population of 6.59 million and a non-Jewish, primarily Muslim Palestinian, population of 6.25 million, a 51:49 per cent split. Take Gaza out and the split firms in Israel’s favour 60:40. While Israel has always had a significant non-Jewish minority, the larger this minority the weaker the country’s sense of identity and the more complicated its internal politics.  

One “solution” to the demographic dilemma involves the claim that “Jordan is Palestine”, given its high proportion of citizens of Palestinian descent. “Relocate” Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan, so the argument runs, and they’ll have their state and Israel will have demographic and identity comfort. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also from the Jewish Home party, last February outlined her plan for Israeli law to apply in Area C of the West Bank while Areas A and B would “be part of a confederation, with Jordan and Gaza”. She rightly acknowledged this might seem “a bizarre option to the international community, but … in three years from now the international community will understand this is the right solution”.

To many of us, the “right” solution has long been two states for two peoples, reached through their own negotiations, supported and encouraged by others. That has not happened, and there’s no reason to believe it will. Sputtering efforts at negotiations over the past 20 years or so kept the “peace process” on life support. They also made it increasingly clear that the two-state solution is dead, overwhelmed by the weight of the past, myopia, ignorance, inhumanity, indifference, deceit, fanaticism, miscalculation; it’s a long charge sheet. The solution will not be rescued by a change of political leadership in Jerusalem or Washington, though we might see more subtle funeral directors.

Despite the recent flareups on the Israeli-Gaza border a new Palestinian uprising does not seem imminent. A new round of stalemate does. This may well blur the issues that governments around the globe, including the 140 or so who officially recognise a non-existent “State of Palestine”, will eventually be forced to consider. These comprise (at least): the prospect of Israeli annexations and forced relocations; a Palestinian statelet in the West Bank; an Islamist de facto state in Gaza which offers its citizens little more than rhetoric. That may sound not much different to present-day reality. But governments to date have been able to chant the two-state mantra to avoid having to think anew. To continue in that vein will peddle false hope at best and, at worst, amount to calculated deceit.
First published by The Strategist (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), 16 June 2018

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Australia and capital punishment – rhetoric and reality

In pursuing Australia’s ultimately successful bid for election to the UN Human Rights Council, Foreign Minister Bishop declared that Australia would be ‘unrelenting’ in its efforts to abolish capital punishment globally. But Australia’s track record of selective outrage gives little hope for an energetic, universalist approach that goes beyond the rhetorical.
The images are grainy and the filming unsteady, the voices of the officials smudged by the insistent, terrified chant of the black-robed women stretched before them: ‘I did not kill, I did not kill, I did not kill’.
Laila bint Abdul Muttalib Basim is about to be beheaded.
The executioner, a tall, burly man dressed in a traditional white gown and red and white checked head-scarf speaks impatiently to her. His left hand yanks at her shrouded head. The curved sword in his right hand glints in the early morning sun. The surrounding police seem to urge Laila to cooperate. Her awful plea beats on. Finally, unable to pull her upright, the executioner slashes at her throat. She screams at the first cut, the second one silences her. With a third sweep of the sword the executioner severs her head. Then, almost with a feminine grace, he lifts his gown with his left hand to avoid the blood splatter and steps away, carefully wiping his sword with a white cloth. A van comes into view and officials wearing surgical gloves hover over the body. One of them picks up Laila’s head and places it on her corpse, which is then wrapped and bundled into the van.
The date is 12 January 2015. This horrific scene, in the words of the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, has helped to restore security, realise justice, implement God’s rulings and warn others. It has also been captured on a cell-phone by one of the policemen on duty. His video appears briefly on You Tube and other social media sites. Those who see it cannot pronounce on Burmese-born Laila’s guilt or innocence, the alleged sexual abuse and death of her seven-year old stepdaughter. But they can judge whether such state-sanctioned killing (often in more clinical conditions) has a place in the modern world.
In pursuing Australia’s bid for a three-year term on the 47-member UN Human Rights Council, Julie Bishop termed the death penalty cruel, inhuman and degrading, no matter how it was carried out. She noted the lack of any credible evidence that it was an effective deterrent and that it was ‘regularly associated with miscarriages of justice … and the disproportionate execution of poor, ethnic and religious minorities’.
All true, and welcome comment to those of us who believe that the death penalty has no place in a world that pretends to be civilised. There is no evidence that the penalty deters crime in any meaningful way. Countries that have abolished the death penalty, or at least paused its use, have regularly experienced an actual decline in the murder rate. There is incontrovertible evidence that capital punishment continues to kill the innocent. An American National Academy of Sciences article in 2014, for example, estimated that if all those on death row in the US remained under sentence of death indefinitely at least four per cent would be exonerated. There are also clear indications that nations such as China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea use capital punishment as a means of political and social control.
According to Amnesty International, at least 1,032 people were executed in 2016 in 23 countries worldwide, down from 1,634 in 2015. That figure excludes China, the world’s leading executioner but which withholds the data as a ‘state secret’. After China, the top executing nations were Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and the US. While the number of executing countries globally is declining (104 in 1995, 60 in 2016) , the range of non-violent capital offences in some of them remains broad, including economic crimes and ‘deviant’ sexual or religious behaviour. These go well beyond the UN requirement that the death penalty be imposed only for ‘intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences’.
‘Extremely grave’ of course is open to wide interpretation. After the fall of President Mubarak in 2011, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces included hooliganism and thuggery in the list of capital offences. Brunei has moved to make blasphemy and apostasy as well as sodomy and adultery by Muslims punishable by stoning to death. Papua New Guinea, a de facto abolitionist state which last saw an execution in 1954, has amended its Criminal Code to include robbery and sorcery-related murder as capital offences.
Australia’s strategy of urging retentionist states to reduce the number of capital offences, to introduce or maintain a moratorium on executions, and to work towards total abolition makes sense and we can hardly expect a major diplomatic outcry every time someone is executed. Yet if it is wrong to execute Australians it is equally wrong to execute Chinese, Americans, Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Saudis, Japanese and so on. Selective outrage gives executioner states the easy argument that it is essentially about nationality not principle.
If material I received in response to an FOI request about the US is any guide, Australia’s past advocacy can only be described as languid. A cable to DFAT from the Australian Embassy in Washington dated 18 September 2015 advised: ‘Since January 2014 we have not made any representations to the US federal government on the death penalty’. An email from DFAT to the embassy on 10 March 2016 asked: ‘We are responding to a piece of mincor [ministerial correspondence] on the death penalty … just wondering whether there are bilateral representations we could refer to?’ The reply: ‘Nothing at the federal level but a bit at the state level’. The latter in fact was ‘in support of foreign nationals, at the request of their governments’.
Yet between January 2014 and March 2016 there were more than 70 executions in the US including, in January 2016, a prisoner who had spent 36 years on death row.
The government’s response in March 2017 to a parliamentary committee report Australia’s Advocacy for the Abolition of the Death Penalty is instructive. The government ‘noted’, ‘accepted’ or ‘accepted in principle’ 12 of the report’s 13 recommendations mainly couched in the language of reviewing, revisiting, developing and amending. Recommendation 3 was different. It noted the UN position that drug offences do not constitute the ‘most serious crimes’  for which the death penalty may be applied under international law and recommended that the AFP ‘obtain guarantees that prosecutors in partner countries will not seek to apply the death penalty before providing information’ in such cases.
The government rejected this recommendation, seemingly on the grounds that it might be difficult to implement and could impede intelligence cooperation with states that retain the death penalty. Yet in late 2015 the former Attorney General Philip Ruddock had in fact suggested that such cooperation should be governed by laws rather than procedural guidelines. Ironically, in 2017 Ruddock was roaming the world as Australia’s special envoy on human rights, spruiking its UN HRC candidacy.
Any meaningful campaign to rid the world of capital punishment will pose risks to Australian interests and its international relationships. A genuinely ‘unrelenting’ campaign needs more than rhetoric about the evil of capital punishment and a dribble of financial support for civil society organisations campaigning against it. Unless there are meaningful costs for executioner states there is very little incentive for them to change their ways. Such costs, for example, could involve travel bans on selected individuals from law enforcement or judicial agencies, withholding support for candidacies in international organisations (the UN Human Rights Council perhaps) or downgrading intelligence or strategic information sharing. If Australia continues its current selective, inconsistent ways it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

First published on 20.10.17 at Pearls and Irritations

Friday, 30 June 2017

Trump’s sugar hit in Israel mugged by reality

Arriving in Israel on 22 May, Donald Trump told the Israeli President that he’d ‘just got back from the Middle East’. Not the most geographically informed start to the visit but from then on it was all schmooze, to the obvious delight of Trump’s hosts. Remarkably, Trump gave his twitter fingers a well-deserved rest and stayed on script. This might have been welcome except for the script itself. It appeared to include nothing of consequence – so even Trump’s critics acknowledged that as he had nothing to say he said it well. As Trump settled back into the White House, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – both important to US strategic interests in the Middle East – resumed their spiteful relationship.

For a President who has spoken of Israeli-Palestinian peace as the ‘ultimate deal’ to finish the ‘war that never ends’ what was truly remarkable about Trump’s two-day sojourn in Israel was the public absence of any pointer as to how his administration plans to put that deal together. Nothing about Palestinian statehood – or the alternatives, nothing about Israeli settlements, nothing about borders and capitals, nothing about mutual security, nothing about Palestinian refugees. These issues are critical to any deal yet there was not the faintest hint of how the Trump administration might approach them. In the words of one Israeli commentator, Trump offered Israelis a diet consisting almost entirely of sugar and sweets. 

Some of the saccharine quickly rubbed off when, on 1 June, Trump broke an election promise and signed a presidential waiver delaying the move of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Reaction from Israeli and Palestinian leaders was predictable, one Zionist Union MP describing Trump as a ‘false Messiah’. But US Presidents have signed the waiver every six month since 1998 and the fact that Trump broke a pre-election undertaking surprised no-one. The White House said the waiver was a ‘decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians’. It’s a card to be dealt much later in any negotiating process.

Media reports have suggested the US is mulling over a ‘Principles Paper to restart negotiations. We might ask what new principles are left to be discovered? The elements of a resolution go back to the much maligned (sometimes unfairly) 1993 Declaration of Principles.  In late 2016, then US Secretary of State’s, John Kerry, unveiled the six principles which he said had to underlie a renewed search for peace based on a two-state solution. 

Perhaps these familiar principles are now old hat. During Netanyahu’s visit to Washington last February, Trump declared that the US ‘will encourage peace and really a great peace deal … But it is the parties themselves who must directly negotiate such an agreement. To be honest, if Bibi [Netanyahu] and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy – I’m happy with the one they like the best.’
Trump’s happiness is irrelevant. It is delusional to think that the Palestinians will give up on a state of their own, or that Israelis will accept a one-state solution in which, over time, Jews might become a minority.

Barely had Trump settled back into the White House than Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar. There is a long history of antagonism between the Saudis and Qataris, based on Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, its funding of Al-Jazeera and its less than openly hostile relationship with Iran. The ostensible reason for the break was Qatar’s support for ‘terrorism’, quite ironic given Saudi Arabia’s record of support for extremist Islamic thinking.

But with his tweeting fingers back on normal duty Trump wrote with usual modesty and understatement:

During my recent trip to the Middle East [during which he met with the Emir of Qatar] I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology … Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!

So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off … They said they would take a hard line on funding … Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!

We’ve yet to see Trump’s analysis of the possible effect on the operation of al-Udeid air base in Qatar, home to the US military’s Central Command and about 10,000 American troops. Vladimir Putin will be watching with interest.

First published on 8.7.17 at Pearls and Irritations