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

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia and the Hypocrisy Olympics

The breathless hypocrisy of Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia should leave us all reeling. The fact that the new president could make his first overseas journey to the very country he previously castigated, rightly, as the mother lode of 9/11 is bad enough. But the sycophancy he displayed to his hosts, especially King Salman, demonstrated just what a dangerous chameleon Trump is.   

What an irony that Trump’s speech in Riyadh to the leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries proclaimed that “we will make history again with the opening of a new Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology, located right here”.

Does this man know anything about history, including his own? Has he forgotten his 2011 observation about Saudi Arabia: “It’s the world's biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petrodollars … to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.”? Has he forgotten his 2015 comment: “The primary reason we are with Saudi Arabia is because we need the oil.”?

Even though he detested her, Trump might have learned from Hillary Clinton. A leaked 2014 email from Clinton said the US should use it diplomatic and traditional intelligence assets to pressure Qatar and Saudi Arabia, “which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region”. These countries, she argued, should be forced to balance their ongoing competition to dominate the Sunni world with the consequences of “serious U.S. pressure”. Another Clinton email from early 2016 included an excerpt from a closed-door speech in October 2013 in which she stated baldly: “the Saudis have exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years”.

Using its enormous oil revenues to fund this export, Saudi Arabia is in a league of its own. The sums involved are vast – estimated by intelligence agencies, scholars and others at upwards of US$100 billion. That buys a lot of “cultural advancement”.
The US State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities worldwide, Farah Pandit, wrote in 2015: “I travelled to 80 countries between 2009 and 2014 … In each place I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence; changing the local sense of identity, displacing historic, culturally vibrant forms of Islamic practice; and pulling along individuals who were either paid to follow their rules or who became on their own custodians of the Wahhabi world view. Funding all this was Saudi money, which paid for things like the textbooks, mosques, TV stations and the training of Imams.” 
In late 2015, the Algerian journalist, Kamel Douad, neatly described Saudi Arabia as “an ISIS that has made it”. It is the country which produced Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, sent more suicide bombers to Iraq than any other country after 2003, and has supplied more foreign fighters to the Islamic State than any country other than Tunisia.
Perhaps the Saudi royal family and religious establishment have seen the error of their ways. Perhaps King Salman, over whom Trump positively drooled, has turned a new leaf. Or perhaps Trump’s wilful amnesia, combined with his limitless vanity, make him an easy mark.
Salman certainly has form as an ardent promoter of jihadists. He was the royal family’s bagman for jihadis in Afghanistan during the 1980s and the Balkans in the 1990s. Shortly after ascending the throne, in early 2015 he presented the King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam to Zakir Naik, an Indian Muslim “televangelist”. One of Naik’s contribution to international harmony was to describe 9/11 as an inside job led by President George W. Bush.

For a fleeting moment in Riyadh, it seemed that Trump might call the Saudis out. No discussion of Islamic extremism, he declared, would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists “safe harbour, financial backing and the social standing needed for recruitment”. But he was speaking, “of course, of Iran”.

Iran is no model international citizen. But it has just conducted a free and democratic election to choose a new political leader. That’s more than can ever be said for Saudi Arabia or indeed for most Arab states. 
Trump termed the new approach he unveiled in Riyadh – which omitted any reference to democratic governance and basic civil and political rights – as “Principled Realism”. Tragically, this president wouldn’t know a principal even if it were illuminated in neon from atop one of his towers.

First published on 31.5.17 at Pearls and Irritations

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US: the conniving and the confused

 Saudi Arabia’s ultimatum to Qatar says much about the Kingdom’s dreams of regional hegemony, its proxy war with Iran, and its glaring double-standards over ‘interventionism’. It amounts to a demand for Qatar’s total surrender. Qatar faces meaningful pain from the Saudi-led economic boycott but the chances of it acceding to the ultimatum are zero. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration struggles to develop a coherent approach.

The 13 point ultimatum issued in late June makes crystal clear the goal of bringing Qatar to heel and of brooking no domestic or regional behaviour that challenges the authority of Saudi Arabia and its anti-Qatar squad, principally the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.

The ultimatum’s requirements range from the obvious to the ludicrous. The more predictable ones include: winding back Qatar’s relations with Iran and Turkey; the cutting of ties to individuals or non-state actors opposed to Saudi Arabia and its allies—under the guise of anti-terrorism measures; the closure of al-Jazeera and its affiliates—the contest here, despite the rhetoric from both sides, not being about freedom of expression but which Arab autocracy should rule the airwaves.

The last four demands in the ultimatum have a decidedly Monty Pythonesque flavour. They require Qatar to: pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other financial losses caused by its policies in recent years; consent to monthly audits for the first year, quarterly audits in the second and annual ones over the following 10 years; align itself with other Gulf and Arab countries ‘militarily, politically, socially and economically’ and, finally, to agree to all 13 demands within 10 days, after which the list becomes ‘invalid’.

Qatar is as practiced as any of its regional neighbours in dodgy behaviour but the ultimatum gives new meaning to the term ‘ambit’. We can only puzzle, for example, how willing the Saudis would be to allow a 10+ year audit of their financial or other support for ‘terrorists’, or to recompense those who have been victims of Saudi action or inaction. And exactly which ‘other Gulf and Arab states’ offer the model for Qatar to follow: Iraq, with its Shia majority; Bahrain (part of the Saudi-led bloc), with its Sunni rulers perched atop a not always quiescent Shia majority; perhaps Yemen, where the Saudis and the UAE are struggling to contain an Iranian backed insurrection?

The 10-day deadline will pass with the two sides locked in insult.

If the ultimatum seems a bit over the place it has a soulmate in US policy. In one of his infamous tweets, Trump took credit for the Saudi-led move against Qatar. Since then the beleagured State Department and Secretary of State Tillerson have tried to inject a measure of commonsense. (Tillerson, we might note, is on record as observing: ‘I’m not involved in how the president constructs his tweets, when he tweets, why he tweets, what he tweets’.) Before the ultimatum became public, Tillerson urged that any demands be ‘reasonable and actionable’. Boris Johnson following a similar script with ‘measured and realistic’.

Trying to steer a course through this mess, Tillerson has since headed for the half-way house, describing the ultimatum’s requirements both as ‘very difficult to meet’, yet offering ‘significant areas which provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to a resolution’. He would much rather keep his distance and let the ‘Arab family’ sort it out. But the US has a lot at stake with these family members.

With its ostracisation, Qatar now faces the financial burden of needing to fly in a much greater proportion of its food and other daily essentials. Given its ranking in world GDP (PPP), at US$139,100 second only to Liechtenstein, (Australia sits at 29, with US$48,800), Qatar has an enviable cushion. But foreign workers, including more than 200,000 Egyptians, make up nearly 90 per cent of Qatar’s population of about 2.6 million. Many of them will be vulnerable to any significant price rise for basic commodities. If the blockade were to be prolonged it could also prompt nail-biting globally over the construction schedule for soccer’s world cup in 2022. Flying in steel and cement is a rather different proposition to flying in meat and vegetables.

An immediate loser from the blockade is Qatar Airways, shut out of busy regional markets at a time when Doha and Dubai are competing to be the Middle East hub between Asia and Europe. One bit of ‘good’ news for Qatar Airways is that its world-record longest commercial flight, from Doha to Auckland, is now a little safer. The airline took the title in early 2017 with a flight distance of 14,529 kilometres, beating the previous record of 14,200 kilometres—set by Emirates. With Qatar Airways now having to avoid Saudi airspace, New Zealand is just that bit further away.

First published on 20.6.17 at Pearls and Irritations

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Competition (max 300 words) - my shortlisted entry: A Tongue Lashing

A Tongue Lashing

You’re not going to enjoy this but it’s time for some home truths. Our life together must change, which means you must change. Bluntly put, you’re extremely boring to live with.

You like lists, so here’s the story of our tedious existence under four headings: words; food; drink; sex.   

Yes, I do know your friends are impressed with your vocabulary; precipitation rather than rain, axiomatic rather than bloody obvious. But your sentences are also stuffed with phrases such as, oh really?, but surely!, is that so?, no kidding! They’re an insult to your, and my, abilities.  

Look at what we eat, even at restaurants. I know vegetarianism is all the go. But tell me this, just how many brown rice and nut meat casseroles with a side order of tofu chips are you planning to eat in your lifetime? I want variety, and a good rump steak once a week.

At least you’re not teetotal, even if you do hide the bottle in the bedroom, well away from your mother’s prying eyes. But Marsala?! There’s a lot of fine wine around. A good red might just help us bond.    

As for sex, you ponder why it happens so rarely. Simple answer, oral hygiene. Sucking your teeth is not the same as cleaning them. It makes me want to puke. 

Now you’re getting stroppy, I can feel your blood pressure rising. How dare I berate you, you demand to know. Well, as your tongue, I have a right to express my opinions. Change your lifestyle … or else. 

Here are the options we face: the odorous; the ulcerous; the cancerous. Perhaps all three at once. Not pretty, I know, but desperate times breed desperate measures.  You’ve been warned.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Israel and Palestine: Dr Sigmund Freud interviews Warren Mundine on his recent Australian Financial Review article

SF: A lot of people seem to think your article, deriding the idea of a Palestinian state and expressing unqualified support for Israel, was ignorant and unbalanced. You were a bit selective, weren’t you now?

WM: Of course, I bloody was. I’m not going to put in stuff that undermines the point of view I’m expressing on behalf of those who wish it expressed, am I?

SF: Mmm … very interesting, are you confirming that the article in fact was written by someone else?

WM: Look here, my name was on it, and it was spelt correctly. What more do you want?

SF: Perhaps we might explore some of the elements in your article. You wrote that in 1917 Britain declared support for a Jewish national home in Palestine. That was, of course, the famous Balfour Declaration.

WM: Never heard of it.

SF: I’m not surprised. The Declaration said, and I quote, “His Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object—”

WM (interrupting): Yeah, ripper!

SF: Let me continue, please! I quote again: “It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
What do you make of that last comment, Mr Mundine?

WM: Bloody Brits were simply pandering to a tiny minority of those with no ties to the land whatsoever.

SF: At that time, Mr Mundine, there were less than 60,000 Jews in Palestine and an Arab population of about 600,000. So could you clarify who the tiny minority was?

WM: No, I could not! There’ll be no gotcha moment when I’m being interviewed.

SF: Did you know that in 1891 a well-known Jewish writer observed, and I quote again: “If a time comes when our people in Palestine push out the native inhabitants”, note the use of the word native, Mr Mundine, “they will not give up their place easily”.

WM: Now look here doctor Freud, or whatever you are, I’ve never claimed to be a student of history, it’s the feel of these things, the vibe. Facts are useful, but only when they suit the purpose.

SF: Perhaps we should touch on more contemporary issues.

WM: Now you’re talking, I’m a very contemporary man.

SF: Your article, I’m tempted to put your in inverted commas but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, commented that since 1967 Israel has been surrounded by countries who want to drive it off the face of the earth. Which surrounding countries exactly did you have in mind?

WM: Aw, well, um, give me a mo, Iran, Uruguay, Albania, Ethiopia, Jordan, and that’s just for starters.

SF: When’s your birthday?

WM: What’s that got to do with it?

SF: I want to buy you an atlas. By the way, Jordan has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1994.

WM: No-one told me that!

SF: Did anyone tell you that in 1993 the Palestinian Liberation Organisation formally recognised the state of Israel in an exchange of letters between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin?

WM: Can’t remember, and I have no idea who you’re talking about. What I do remember is being told that everything that goes wrong is entirely the fault of the Palestinians.

SF: There are quite a few people, including Israelis, who strongly disagree with that.

WM: Well, they’re nothing more than, there’s a phrase for it, got it here somewhere (reaches into coat pocket and extracts a small, tatty piece of paper), yeah, that’s right, self-hating Jews. Good phrase that one. Come to think of it, doctor Freud, you probably one of them.   

Friday, 27 January 2017

North Korea Celebrates Trumpism with a new Ten-point Plan: Dr Sigmund Freud's exclusive interview with Kim Jong-un

SF:       If I may, Beloved, Supreme, Leader, begin with a profound apology for missing your recent birthday celebrations. I was delayed in leaving what you described in your recent autobiography—volume 26 I believe—as the Great Neo-Fascistic Capitalist Enterprise. So many Americans were departing it was impossible to book a flight.

BSL:      Relax Doctor, these things happen. And note I have just offered you a beatific smile. It doesn’t happen very often. But I feel particularly relaxed and comfortable even though I’ve never owned a cardigan. Good times are upon us, Doctor, as we, I that is, have just finalised our new Ten Point Plan. Here is your autographed copy. Let me summarise:

1.      Build wall to keep out South Koreans
2.      Test Nuclear Device
3.      Build islands in Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to increase living space for gallant North Korean people, to expand territorial waters and to promote cultural exchanges
4.      Test Nuclear Device
5.      Make triumphant State Visit to Great Neo-Fascistic Capitalist Enterprise
6.      Test Nuclear Device
7.      Execute a few uncles and hordes of other reprobates
8.      Test Nuclear Device
9.      Dye hair of Beloved, Supreme Leader a new colour to symbolise dynamism of new way forward
10.  Test Nuclear Device
11.  Update torture training manuals.

SF:       Excuse me for interrupting Beloved, Supreme, Leader but that’s eleven points.

BSL       (Silently reads the summary while counting on fingers. His brow furrows but, remarkably, he smiles.): What does it matter? We’ll be even more successful. And for future reference Doctor please note there is no comma between Supreme and Leader. I’ve overlooked it on this occasion because of my magnanimous frame of mind but others have learnt that it’s an unhealthful mistake to make.

SF:       It’s certainly an ambitious plan, Beloved, Supreme Leader, but some might question the priorities and surely the nation cannot afford it.

BSL       (Smiles again, setting a personal best for displays of good humour in a 24-hour period.): Ah that’s the genius of my plan, Dr Freud. I will admit we are not in the best of economic times. But from now on all those wishing to meet our desperate need for the essentials of life will have to pay a tariff on whatever they give us. We’ll collect millions, billions. (Claps hands in delight.) It’s genius, Dr Freud, pure genius. We can build walls and islands and nuclear devices and torture chambers and we won’t spend a cent of our own, even if we had one. I am most surprised no-one else has devised this economic model before.

SF:       I am sorry to dampen the occasion, Beloved, Supreme Leader, but I think they have.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Dr Sigmund Freud's gallant effort to analyse Donald Trump's inauguration

Among the spectators at Donald Trump’s inauguration was a well-dressed, bespectacled man, wearing a carefully trimmed beard and a severe look. He had been tasked by the International Association of Psychopathology to make sense of the occasion. 

SF: Excuse me madam, but I am enquiring as to the reasons people are in such an exuberant mood today. 

Woman (Looking warily at Freud): Because we all feel great again.

SF: May I ask the factors that have produced this sense of elation?

Woman (Shaking her head in disbelief): We feel great because with President Trump we know exactly where we stand. You could never tell with those horrible Democrats. With Mr Trump, there’s never a doubt. He’s put honesty back into lying, truly a new era for our nation and the world.

SF (Turning to a middle-aged man): And you sir, what brought you here today?

Man (In strong Southern drawl): I just loved The Apprentice. What a show! Couldn’t wait for those words, “You’re fired!” (Chuckles.) That’s exactly what Trump’ll do with world leaders. If they don’t play their part in makin’ America great again then, wait for it … “you’re fired!” Boy-oh-boy.

SF: I am not so sure it will quite work that way. (Speaks to elegantly dressed woman carrying a poodle wearing a Trump cap): And you madam, why are you here today?

Woman: Why that’s easy, I’m so worried about my husband’s hearing.

SF: Could you elaborate?

Woman: Oh my Chuck just loves to go shooting with his buddies—only wild animals of course, isn't that right darling. (She smooches the poodle.) They all come home their ears ringing, they can barely understand a word anyone says.

SF: I’m sorry, I am not quite following you.  

Woman: Oh, you must be a foreigner! But not from Mexico, thank God, your beard’s too neat. It’s just so hard these days for honest, hard-working Americans to buy silencers. It’s alright for Socialists to wear ear-muffs when they go shooting, but no red-blooded American wants to look like Elmer Fudd do they now? Never mind ISIS and Obamacare. It’s a fundamental right for all Americans to carry guns with silencers. And Trump will make that happen.

Freud, looking a little shaken by these encounters, now approaches a thickset man standing by himself, an expensive camera hanging from his neck.

SF: I hope I am not disturbing you, sir, but may I ask what brought you out today?

Man (Speaking in heavily accented English): It’s a wonderful day for our great people. Finally, we have our man in the Whitehouse.

SF: And which part of America are you from?

Man: I am not permitted to say anything more. Please contact my office if you need to discuss further with my superiors. (He hands Freud a name card.) Please note the opening hours of the Russian Embassy are 9am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday. Goodbye.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Australia’s campaign against the death penalty – real or phony?

On 10 October 2016, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, commemorated World Day Against the Death Penalty with a media release.
Her eyes fixed on Australia’s candidacy for the United Nations Human Rights Council – in which abolition of the death penalty is purportedly a national priority – Minister Bishop said the right things. The penalty constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment regardless of how it was carried out. Given the lack of any ‘credible evidence that it is an effective crime deterrent’ the penalty was senseless. It was ‘regularly associated with miscarriages of justice, the inadvertent execution of innocents, and the disproportionate execution of poor, ethnic and religious minorities’.
All true, and welcome comment for those of us who believe that the death penalty has no place in a world with pretences of civilisation.
Fast forward to 12 December 2016 when Ms Bishop delivered a ‘Human Rights Speech’ to the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. In forum after forum, the Minister declared, ‘whether in bilateral meetings or in multilateral settings like the United Nations, Australia has argued the case for abolition - with calm, with patience and with determination’.
And, regrettably it seems, with a distinct lack of success.
If 2015 figures are anything to go by, between Ms Bishop’s media release in October 2016 and her Lowy Institute speech two months later some 250 people were executed by governments world-wide. And that figure excludes China, the world’s leading official killer, which treats death penalty data as a state secret.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect a major diplomatic offensive every time someone is executed. But what levers, if any, is the Australian Government pulling to pressure the world’s top five executing states: China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States?
Less than a week before Ms Bishop’s Lowy Institute speech, William Sallie was killed by lethal injection in the US state of Georgia. He had been on death row for 25 years. What did the Australian Government say to US governments about Sallie’s execution, or the 18 other executions in the US that preceded it in 2016? Very little it seems, if material I received in response to an earlier FOI request is any guide.
A cable from the Australian Embassy in Washington dated 18 September 2015 advised the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra: ‘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.’
This email exchange hardly suggests an energised, determined effort. The 'bit at state level' in fact was 'in support of foreign nationals, at the request of their governments'. No independent initiative there. Yet six months earlier, in announcing Australia’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council, Minister Bishop asserted that Australia would be ‘a strong advocate for global abolition of the death penalty, one of Australia’s core human rights objectives.’
Ben Quilty, Archibald Prize winner and mentor and confidant of Myuran Sukumaran, is currently co-curating an exhibition of Sukumaran's art which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the hanging of Ronald Ryan, the last person executed in Australia. Quilty wrote recently that 2017 was a year for ‘all Australian to stand up … against the death penalty’. Internationally, he claimed, ‘in 2017 we will have the moral high ground, the soapbox, and it should be used’.
Yet if Australia is truly to occupy the moral high ground, if its campaign against the death penalty is to have meaning, its advocacy needs to be more open and consistent. It must be genuinely universal, not mostly reserved for the occasions when Australians are facing the hangman or the swordsman, the bullet or the needle. 

On that, we have a long way to go.