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2014, not such a great year (beheadings, ebola, deforestation)

January 30th, 2015 · No Comments

Russia Back, after that long excursion (structure is for advices; meandering is for holiday blog posts), to aviation. In the middle of the year, 414 people died in plane crashes within a week when a Malaysian Airlines and an Air Algerie aircraft crashed in Ukraine (killing 27 Australians) and Mali respectively. The former was shot down and the question is to what extent Russia was directly involved.

In related news, the belicose muppet at Russia’s helm, much in need of a shirtfront, had annexed a bit of another European nation, a turn up for the international world order of rich white states.  Masked green-clothed troops without insignia but with guns just marched in to the regional parliament of Crimea, part of Ukraine, and installed a new one, more reminiscent of China’s invasion, rape, pillage and annexation of Tibet from 1949 (except without the rape and pillage) than anything a self-respecting civilised nation would do in the post-United Nations era.  (Well, ok, Australia did invade Iraq without UN approval in 2003, causing with some help from its friends like Poland the deaths of 655,000 Iraqis in the first three years alone (according to a peer-reviewed study in the pre-eminent medical journal The Lancet). But you know what I mean.)

Then there was a referendum and it turns out all the people of the Crimea actually wanted to be part of Russia again, and that a 1994 treaty Russia signed guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty was past its use-by date, or a non-core promise, or something.  Listening to all this crap about violation of bilateral treaties, you could be excused for wondering whether the illegality of the acquisition of sovereignty by conquest which is supposedly the hallmark of the world since the Great Wars really was fundamental to the new world order. Because by the time of the referendum, the Crimea was under the control of the Russian military who had been invited in by the new President, although Russia pretended for a long time that the little green men were indigenous self-defence brigades, preposterous propaganda which one wishes one could say, again, was more reminiscent of past eras. I dig what David Cameron bluntly said, by reference to the main issue: “No amount of sham and perverse democratic process or skewed historical references can make up for the fact that this is an incursion into a sovereign state and a land grab of part of its territory with no respect for the law of that country or for international law.”

Russia got kicked out of what became the G7, and according to Wikipedia, Google Maps, wishful not to offend, showed the territory as Ukraine’s for Ukrainian visitors and as Russian for Russian visitors.  There seems to be a trend towards sycophantic cartography: consider the Harper Collins world atlas produced for the Middle East which omitted reference to Israel.

There were some sanctions aimed at Russia’s elite, led by the US.  Deterioration of the US’s relationship with Russia should always make one  jittery, given that, according to the ANU, the two states jointly hold 94% of the world’s stockpile of 18,000 nuclear weapons.  And the number of nuclear weapons deployed by the two nations increased in 2014. Bet you didn’t know that.

Ebola, Liberia, Parsimony A plague broke out.  20,000 West Africans contracted ebola, more than 8,000 died from it, mainly in neighbours Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The WHO says that is likely an underestimate, and UNICEF say there may be up to 10,000 ebola orphans like Sweetie Sweetie, the subject of this difficult New York Times piece.

Apparently, the hemorrhaging is very painful; it’s a horrible death and people were suffering it lying in gutters after they were turned away from full clinics.  Shaking hands disappeared from social intercourse.  To enter buildings, pedestrians had to submit to having their temperature taken. Those who got into the over-stretched clinics vomited blood, or lost control of their bowels and relied on scared people in space suits to clean their fatal faeces up. The bad news was that there are no drugs to treat the disease.  The potentially good news was that early provision of intravenous saline is effective.  Without treatment, 90% of those who contract the disease will die from it.  By contrast, Medecins Sans Frontieres achieved survival rates of 75%.

Now, Liberia is one truly screwed up place. If you don’t believe me, and you have a very strong disposition, watch this good but terrible documentary made by the iconoclastic Canadian zine Vice (their 2014 wrap is here, and they distinguished themselves by managing to embed themselves with ISIS fighters for two weeks).  A former American quasi-colony whose capital is named after an American president, it was populated by freed slaves.  Charles Taylor, who had an American economics degree and who had been trained by Gaddafi (to whom Berlusconi paid €5billion to fix Italy’s aforementioned refugee ‘problem’, incidentally), busted out of a US jail and deposed Samuel Doe, a Liberian born democratically elected president, and things got really ugly.  I trust you, readers, to realise that this was a while ago now, not 2014.

When Taylor reached the Executive Mansion in which Doe had holed up, the former tortured the latter, killed him, videoed it, and may or may not have eaten parts of him.  In the video, Taylor sips on a Budweiser while watching Doe’s ear getting sliced off.  Then he dumped Doe in the street, naked, with various bits missing.  Whether or not he gobbled Doe or any part of him, he and his henchmen certainly ate, raped, and killed a lot of folk.  One of the henchmen, who has turned to Jesus, features quite prominently in the ‘Vice’ documentary.

Almost uniquely for a head of state, Taylor actually got convicted by a UN special tribunal in 2012 of appalling war crimes committed in Sierra Leone.  Hacking unborn children from their mothers’ wombs, mass — and I mean mass — rape, the keeping of sex slaves hobbled by severing the tendons in their feet, were allegations levelled against him in relation to conduct in Liberia.

Getting back to ebola, there was in Liberia a terrible need for simple logistics and basic medical treatments: 95% of her health facilities were wiped out during the civil wars of Taylor’s reign.  There is endemic corruption.  The country has one of the highest rates of sexual violence of any nation. The wars and the rapes have generated extraordinary rates of major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but there was for a long time only one psychiatrist and for all I know that may still be true.  Malaria, unemployment, and substance abuse are rife. Very many are malnourished from childhood leaving them less mentally able than they would otherwise be, exacerbating the massive unemployment.

Twelve Australian doctors were on the ground with MSF in September when the organisation declined to accept a $2.5 million donation from the Australian government, instead administering an  excoriation of the donor’s parsimonious pussy-footing and an exhortation to get some Australian boots on the ground.  The government, prepared to send special forces into Iraq to fight the scourge of Isis, which it must be said is an enterprise associated with certain dangers, was not prepared for a long long time to send specialists (or even boots to do the hard logistical slog of controlling an epidemic) to fight the scourge of ebola, because of the risk that an Australian might catch the disease and have difficulty getting home.  Meanwhile, the US sent 3,000 troops and stumped up AU$850 million, the Brits coughed AU$185 million, and MSF’s Paul McPhunn bluntly told the government that MSF had successfully evacuated a Frenchman with ebola to France and that there were options for first class treatment in West Africa. Cuba sent 461 doctors, part of its estimated force of 50,000 doctors ministering to the world’s poor in 66 countries (netting the dictatorship about US$8 billion per year).

This was consistent with the Australian government’s 2013 election promise of parsimony with international aid ($4.5 billion to be slashed), on which bishops have different views.  Julie Bishop said the traditional aid budget was ‘unsustainable’, (unlike coal, as Tony Abbott said over and over in 2014) while a conference of Catholic bishops disagreed. Tim Costello pointed out that the single greatest saving in Joe Hockey’s mean and unpopular budget came from foreign aid cuts, even though foreign aid accounted for only about 1% of budgeted expenditure.

While on the subject of Julie Bishop: it was a sign of the state of our polity that Julie is regarded by Tony Abbott as such a bolshevik these days that a true conservative was sent to chaperone her to an international climate conference in Lima where she managed busily to campaign against UNESCO listing the Great Barrier Reef as endangered, a conversation prompted by the government’s one-time plan to dump five million tonnes of dredged sludge in the World Heritage area.

And while on the subject of Africa, the good burghers of Ougadougou, whom I met hung out with for a few days once before alighting the Ouagadougou-Bobo Dioulasso express, rallied against Blaise Compaore amending the Constitution of what used to be called Upper Volta to extend his 27 year rule of Burkina Faso.  With the assistance of the French, he scuttled to Cote d’Ivoire and various factions of the military declared themselves to be the appointed nurturers of democracy.

Environment, Indonesia It was a bad year for forests and animals.  Deforestation declined in Brazil, allowing Indonesia to assume the mantle of greatest forest destroyer of 2014, but it increased in the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazon, so we probably lost about another 13 million hectares or so of forests. Despite the fact that half of the world’s tropical forests have already been chopped down and the smart thinking on reversing climate change is to plant a lot of trees (who knew?).

But a former furniture salesman and apparently uncorrupt man from Solo, Joko Widowo, was elected President of Indonesia and has promised to crack down on the palm oil plantations which account for much of the destruction of Indonesian forests, 80% of which is thought to have been illegal in recent times.

Speaking of Jokowi, I was in Jogjakarta and Solo at the time of the elections and found it exceedingly difficult to understand two things: (1) why my children who were in prep and kinder respectively had such little interest in World Heritage listed 9th century monumental religious architecture and (2) why the nation was having such difficulty choosing between Jokowi and Probowo.  Probowo is a US-educated hard-core old-school military, a former army general who commanded a Kopassus unit in East Timor in 1975, when some pretty heavy stuff went down.  He was married to Suharto’s daughter during his reign.  Their kid now lives in Paris.  Probowo was reported during the campaign as having said (in 2001) that Indonesia needed ‘a benign authoritarian regime’ because the country was ‘not ready for democracy.’  That was actually quite an important revelation in the campaign.

Mind you, many Indonesians told me that the choice was not as black and white as it appeared. I figured they knew more about it than I did but couldn’t really see it.  But it was revealed in 2014 that a top adviser to Jokowi, in line for the job of intelligence chief, had admitted ‘command responsibility’ for the assassination of Indonesia’s brilliant human rights activist, Munir Said Thalib, which, at the least, means that it was a military intelligence operation overseen by a CIA asset.  The arsenic was put into Munir’s orange juice in 2004 by a former Garuda pilot and he died a messy vomitous death in the air en route to Utrecht to study international law, having campaigned tirelessly on military attrocities in East Timor and similar places.

The WWF and Zoological Society of London suggested last year that the number of wild animals has halved in the last 40 years because of forest loss, pollution, and the growth of farming and fishing.  It was the hottest year since records began.  Fourteen of the 15 hottest years have now occurred this century.  CO2 in the atmosphere continued to rise.  The world put 3.2% more CO2 into the atmosphere than in 2013.  Always remember when you hear about vaguely reassuring promises to cut emissions that during the 20 years in which the promises have been being made, the rate of emissions has only been getting worse, year on year.

The Islamic world It was a bad year for education and moderate Muslims.  Boko Haram (a purportedly Islamic group whose name means, somewhat improbably, ‘Western education is forbidden’) kidnapped hundreds of mainly Christian schoolgirls doing a physics exam, and sold them into marriage with militants, forcing them to convert to Islam.  Two were found raped and tied to a tree.  Others were murdered. The leader said, rather unhelpfully to the Muslim world at large, ‘Slavery is allowed in my religion, and I shall capture people and make them slaves.’ He said the girls should not have been in school and instead should have been married since they were all more than 9 years old. The Nigerian military had four hours’ notice of the attack but couldn’t quite scramble to prevent it.  Her president, with the equally improbable name of Goodluck Jonathan, appeared to do two fifths of bugger all in response, not mentioning the attrocity publicly for three weeks, though he did spend US$1.2 million on a Washington based public relations firm to massage ‘the international and local media narrative’.  What happened to most of the girls remains unclear but the subjugation of the locals by sexual violence in armed conflict was probably quite successful.

Then a 17 year old Pakistani blogger won the Nobel peace prize for speaking out against the Taliban and in favour of the education of girls, the result of which was that she was shot in the head.  The awarding of the prize appears to have pissed off the Taliban who then set to a  mass murder of 132 schoolchildren as young as 8, as well as of 13 adults, and over 130 others injured.  The executions were carried out in a particularly nasty manner by the 7 tools (a Chechen, two Afghans, a Moroccan, an Egyptian and another) who perpetrated the attrocity.  Apparently they grinned a lot.  They burnt the headmistress to death in front of pupils.  They said 8 children in an English grammar class would be released and called for volunteers; eight of those who put their hands up were the first to be shot to death by multiple AK47s.

There were beheadings, even a family photo taken by a proud uncle of his seven year old nephew holding one of the heads by the hair.  If you were not especially attentive, you may have come away with the notion that a Briton enmeshed with ISIS had beheaded a couple of white western journalists and aid workers. In fact there were many beheadings, even multiple crucifixions, in Raqqa, a large city in Syria which is the capital of a purported caliphate which controls 6 million people and which I bet you had not heard of or even imagined before last year.  And I bet you didn’t pick up on many of the 87 public beheadings the Saudis carried out last year.  These were very gruesome but I wonder whether anything like a Charles Taylor beheading occurred in 2014.  He was alleged to have beheaded enemies, disembowelled them, strung their entrails across roads as road blocks, and mounted their skulls on posts where people would see them constantly as ongoing harbingers of terror. Mind you, he did not post the footage to Youtube.

A madman instilled terror in the name of Islam into a siege of the Lindt cafe, executed one after consuming a slice of chocolate cake.  He and one of his other hostages, a Sydney barrister, were shot dead in its storming which ended the siege.  The whole response was quite mature, except, predictably, for Rupert Murdoch’s.  A grassroots campaign (#Illridewithyou) showed that Sydney understood the embarrassment and despair moderate Muslims must have felt as the lunatic in the cafe did his thing in the name of their religion.

The Syrian war ground into its 4th year.  Two hundred thousand people have died, 75,000 in 2014 alone.  55,000 photos of executed prisoners were smuggled out by a defector.  Some horrifying photos of emaciated, ulcerated, tortured, executed prisoners may be seen in this 2014 report which judged the defector’s account to be true.  The careful documentation of these 11,000 or so executions and the bureaucratic procedures for ascribing the deaths to heart attacks in hospitals and the like are chilling. The country has regressed from a second world country to a third world one.  Two women were stoned for adultery.  They were stood in a hole in the earth with their heads sticking out a bit and rocks were hurled at them until they were dead.  Foreigners reportedly did the deed, because no Syrians in the crowd were willing.  There is a ghastly video of what purports to be such a stoning on the web, the alleged adulteress’s father denouncing her as her head was slowly bloodied by the impact of rocks.   ISIS itself claims to have executed 1,700 Shias.  A grotesque account of one massacre of 600 Shias and Christians after a march into the desert is here.

It was the deadliest year in Iraq for 6 years.  It is thought that 35,000 civilians were killed or injured in 2014.

More war Israel invaded Palestine and killed 2,100 people, suffering 71 casualties herself.  Now the International Criminal Court is investigating possible war crimes and an Israeli human rights group has questioned the legality of bombing homes. 93 kids under the age of 5 died in those attacks.

The Central African Republic remained a hell on earth, far away from international consciousness, full of rape and violence (e.g. machetes in labour wards) between Christians and Muslims and an almost complete breakdown of the rule of law, despite an absence of any history of sectarian violence.  There is a suggestion that cannibalism was amongst its woes.

The youngest nation, South Sudan, descended into a version of bedlam without much attention being paid to it.  As AFP put it:

‘without any apparent fear of the consequences, armed groups have shot and gang raped patients in their hospital beds, massacred civilians in churches, machine-gunned fleeing civilians in swamps — leaving their bodies to rot, be carried away by the Nile River, or be consumed by crocodiles.’

The International Crisis Group estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people have been killed in the year or so from December 2013. That’s a lot of people: 27 deaths per hour, 10 hours a day, for a year if the upper estimate is correct. Reminiscent of Rwanda in mid-1994, Nuer originally hunted down Dinka, going door to door and executing those they came across.  Then it was an eye for an eye and on for young (tragically) and old.  In fact, in what must be some of the most disturbing news I came across in the grim research for this blog post, on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide (in which some now say that 2 million people were hacked to death and which was inflamed by hate speech broadcast by Hutu radio stations calling for the extermination of Tutsi ‘cockroaches’), Nuer radio stations bayed for Dinka blood. But despite the presence of 14,000 UN peace-keepers, no one is counting the dead, a disturbingly miserable fact.  Almost 2 million people were displaced, and nearly 4 million people were in need of aid.

Religions Nelson Mandela narrowly did not make it to 2014.  In another turn up for the books, the Argentine Pope Francis started speaking out for the poor, took over from Mandela (with the perennial Dalai Lama) as poster-boy for peace and became the most prominent critic of capitalist excess.  He even solved the stand-off between America and the Castro dynasty, or so the two leaders say.

I dare say the Pope and many of his countrymen prayed for Argentina in the 20th World Cup, but perhaps the previous Pope prayed more successfully and Germany prevailed for the fourth time inflicting misery on the Brazilian hosts.

Speaking of South Africa and the Dalai Lama, the World Congress of Nobel Laureates was boycotted by the laureates because the host caved to China’s insidious demands that the Tibetan not be granted a visa.

Law and Order The US gave lethal injections to 33 individuals, 10 of them in Texas. Anaesthetic or sedative, then a paralytic agent and then potassium bromide to stop the heart.  That wasn’t very nice, but it did represent the fewest in 20 years.  A 14 year old black boy executed for the murder of two white girls was posthumously exonerated.  The trial lasted three hours, defence counsel was incompetent and raised almost no defence, including his sister’s alibi, and did not appeal.  The jury was all white, though the part of South Carolina where the trial occurred was 72% black.  Meanwhile, 7 folk who had been executed or sentenced to death but happily not yet executed were exonerated by Uncle Sam.

Ah, but if all that sounds quite cheering along with the news that there are only 132 ‘worst of the worst’ who turn out to have been innocent peasants sold to the Yanks by the Northern Alliance who are now too screwed up to be released left in Guantanamo, consider the other executions America has been quietly conducting under a shroud of secrecy and no comment: President Obama’s (not very) clinical drone strikes.  According to Reprieve, the organisation founded by British lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, and which campaigned against the incarceration without trial of non-terrorists in Guantanamo, ‘As we began freeing Guantánamo Bay prisoners, George Bush’s Attorney General told us “if you don’t let us imprison and interrogate these guys, we will just kill them”.’ And so they did: 4,700 men, women and children in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia all without trial let alone an interview or a chance to confront allegations, many of them innocent peasants: according to what the Washington Post considers to be a conservative source, at least 350 non-targets who were civilians have died.  Of course, this is all dressed up as war, in which non-judicial killing is de rigeur. (In 2014, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper was released by Hollywood, lionising the Navy seal who was dubbed ‘the legend’ for sniping 255 people dead in Iraq.  And that followed on from 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty in which there is an extended opening sequence in which waterboarding yields useful intelligence from a truly awful terrorist propaganda debunked by the US Senate’s intelligence committee’s report released last year on the Americans and various then-friendly dictators’ secret torture regime about which, by their own admission, they lied through their teeth to the rest of the world.  When Obama uttered his horrendously-too-hokey quip about not being too sanctimonious about the leaders of the free world torturing ‘folk’ it was presumably an attempt at plain talking after a decade of odious euphemism. As I expect you know, America is not at war with Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia.)

It is hard to process information about torture when presented in the abstract. It is necessary to read things like the intelligence committee’s report with other texts. I recommend Robin de Crespigny’s stunning The People Smuggler (2013), the story of an Iraqi whose father was tortured until he was made a lunatic, and who witnessed his little brother’s fingers’ being amputated by torturers who had nailed his hand to the table.  David Hicks’s autobiography contains accounts of torture prior to and at Guantanamo which rang true when I read them but which are given greater credence by the Senate Committee report.

Australia’s role in America and various dictators’ torture regime is no clearer as a result of the US Senate committee report; all the perpetrators’ national facilitators’ names are redacted.  But as the Sir Anthony Mason Professor of Law at the University of NSW observed, the allegations that David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib were tortured have never been the subject of a public inquiry, which is scandalous.  At least the Americans have frankly admitted, after a change of government, the absolute deficiency of their and their dictator associates’ torture policy, even if its timing is such that it will not be able to overcome the mind-picture painted by Zero Dark Thirty.

In better news, the International Court of Justice declared that Japan’s scientific whaling project — the only nation’s to venture out of its  own territory — was not scientific and stopped it.  Melbourne boy Mark Dreyfus QC appeared for the plaintiff (Australia), noting that it was the first time an environmental treaty had been litigated in the International Court of Justice.

Khieu Samphan and another were convicted of crimes against humanity in Cambodia.

Have to end somewhere I could go on: Narendra Modi was elected President of India and made the first visit of an Indian head of state to Australia in 28 years.  15,000 people turned up to see him in Sydney and treated him like a rock star.

Europe landed a spaceship on an asteroid.

But soon it will be February, and I really do need to do some work.  So, until next year …

See also:

Tags: Human rights and international law · Rule of law