2015, not such a great year (part 2: death, crime, marriage, war)

Death, crime and marriage

Richie Benaud died. 501 Sydneysiders dressed up as Richie a few weeks ago in a weird tribute at the SCG test. Lee Kwan Yew and Malcolm Fraser died too. So did Bart Cummings, Harry Butler, and Alan Bond. So did a singer I liked a lot, Victor Démé from the country known as Upper Volta when I was a stamp collector, Burkina Faso, a country of which I have fond memories: lovely people. He penned Djôn’maya, which is a bit Nick Drake, a bit 1960s Angola. He died of malaria, the country’s foremost killer even as great advances are made against the scourge, aged 54.

Journalist Peter Greste was released from jail, righting the miscarriage of justice in one of the most absurd show trials affecting a Westerner in a long while. But none of the higher courts of Indonesia, its new President ‘Jokowi’, or the powers of persuasion of the Victorian Bar saved the only two drug traffickers over whom the tabloids have ever fawned quite so gushingly, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Not even Mr Abbott’s reminder to Indonesia of the billion dollars worth of aid we allegedly provided to Indonesia after the tsunami did the trick. Something must have got lost in translation because the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s response was ‘No one responds well to threats.’ Australia recalled its ambassador.

The literally last-minutes reprieve given to Mary Jane Veloso, the Filipino maid, made the denouement of this inexorable but exquisitely slow Chan and Sukumaran frenzy all the more poignant. A Darwin barrister, Felicity Gerry, was involved in the maid’s Hollywood-worthy reprieve. As far as I can understand it, which is not very well, she is to give evidence in the trial of men who allegedly sold her a lie and made her the subject of human trafficking to the Philippines. Jokowi subsequently said that further executions are ‘not a priority’ in Indonesia. The maid lives on, she is not off death row, but there seems tacitly to have been a reprieve. Complicated.

The other big judicial decision of the year was the Supreme Court of the United States’s decision in Obergefell v Hodges: the proposition that the Constitution of America had always required recognition of gay marriage certainly came out of left field for me, but I probably just had not been paying attention. Last year, gay men and women could marry each other in England, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, and America, but not Australia, which must wait until after the 2016 election. Even Italy is champing at the bit to marry off their gays. When those bastions of moral adventure Ireland and Italy are all for it, it probably means it’s time.


Many more people have been dying in wars in recent years than previously.  According to London’s Institute for Strategic Studies, despite the trend to fewer active armed conflicts, war deaths in 2014 (no figures for 2015) were thrice what they were in 2008. Those books you might have heard of claiming that we live in the most peaceful era ever, were published in 2011: The Better Angels of Our Nature and Winning the War on War.

According to Wikipedia, last year there were more than 158,259 violent deaths directly as a result of combat or the deliberate targeting of civilians. That is more than the total for 2014 used by the Institute for Strategic Studies. The Institute for Economics and Peace believes that the amount of ‘peace’ (according to its definition) has been in decline since 2007, reversing the long-term trend til then.

One in eight babies born in 2015 were born into war zones, sixteen million of them.  1,295 civilians were killed in air strikes in Iraq: nasty way to die. 16,115 civilians were killed there more generally, not too far off the number of civilians in London killed in the whole of the Blitz. 8,347 people were simply executed in Iraq, mostly by ISIS: also a harsh end to life. See the website Iraq Body Count, which estimates that there have been nearly a quarter of a million violent deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

David Kilcullen, an Australian advisor to the Coalition of the Willing’s General Petraeus, and one of our leading Middle East military strategists, in his Quarterly Essay and an interview with Robert Manne last year that Australia’s invasion of Iraq was one of the greatest military errors of last century, and that it is widely acknowledged as such at the top of the US civil and military administration. Melbourner Jeff Sparrow calculated that the US may end up spending US$6 trillion on that war. That is not inconsistent with this study. That’s a lot, even when you offset the profit on the US’s foreign arms sales in fiscal 2015: a record US$47 billion.

There was too much burning alive (and it continues today, with Boko Haram incinerating lots of little kids). Seven Tibetans set themselves on fire, separately, bringing the self-immolations since the first in 2009 to 143. The grossness of Chinese occupation of Tibet, one of the saddest places on earth as I can vouch for by personal inspection, is nicely summarised in the NY Review of Books by Tsering Woeser. The International Commission of Jurists, a conservative body of judges dedicated to the promotion of the rule of law, long ago concluded that the purported annexation of Tibet by China through the by-then-no-longer-recognised doctrine of military conquest had no legitimacy in international law.

The American arm of the military coalition in which Australia participated bombed a great many civilians in Afghanistan, including an Australian woman, some of whom were also burned alive: see below.

The Sudanese military allegedly gang raped women, sometimes in front of their children, and then burned their houses down with the victims in them. ISIS is widely reported to have burned a Jordanian pilot alive, though it is not hard to find convincing sounding opinion that the burning alive bit was faked by digital trickery. There are other videos readily found on the internet purporting to document burnings alive by ISIS, but they do not seem to be reported on by reliable media outlets, and I assume they are fake. The vile comments left on the sites hosting them suggest that others do not make the same assumption.

There were at least 50,500 documented fatalities in the Syrian war, with an estimated further 90,000 undocumented in 2015.  That is, on average, between 350 and 400 people died in that war each day if the estimates are correct, or about three times as many every day as died in the latest Paris slaughter.  The Syrian regime really is particularly mean and this is a particularly horrible war.  By way of random example germane to this blog, Mr Assad is thought to have murdered 648 doctors, having passed a law making it illegal to provide medical treatment to anyone but his forces.  No wonder half the country’s doctors have fled from the nation which used to have one of the best medical systems in the Arab world.

In fact, 2015 was a year of hospitals being blown up by protagonists of war.  As we will see, there is a theory that the Beirut suicide bombings referred to in a post yet to come was originally to have involved the blowing up of a whole hospital by five suicide bombers.

America bombed a building in Kunduz, Afghanistan which it knew was a hospital full of international and local staff of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Medecins Sans Frontieres (doctors without borders).  It was a full-scale screw-up by America’s own admission but there has been no international independent investigation.  If it was gross negligence (or worse), it might have amounted to (or probably did amount to) a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.  I am a massive fan of MSF’s work (lawyers have no real equivalent, though the completely unaffiliated Lawyers Without Borders and Avocats Sans Frontieres do exist, headquartered in the US and in Belgium respectively). That is only partly because I fell in with some of them in Lhasa and they extended great kindness in giving me a lift through the inhospitable mountains of Tibet to Kathmandu when I was pretty crook.

The Kunduz atrocity was not a stray bomb.  It was a targeted demolition of a single building which had MSF flags on its roof in repeated sorties over at least half an hour, all the surrounding buildings unscathed.  The GPS coordinates of the hospital had been given by MSF to the Americans (and all other protagonists) just days before.  There had in fact subsequently been conversations between the Americans and MSF about how many Taliban fighters might be under MSF’s care (MSF works to save the lives and ameliorate the suffering of all who come to it, very likely the only way for an NGO to operate in theatres of war).  There was no fighting in or about the hospital at or prior to the attack.  The poor poor schmuks who followed orders to bomb the place to bits are reported by ‘Pentagon sources’ to have questioned the legality of the mission while they were carrying it out.  Eighteen minutes into the atrocity, someone from MSF rang the Americans and asked them to stop bombing doctors and patients in a hospital operating with their blessing.  But the fighter bomber’s email was on the blink (I am not making this up: this is the US military’s own version) and there was a delay in getting the message through to the people conducting the slaughter, so they kept going.

A patient died on the operating table.  Someone was decapitated.  As the 32 year old Australian woman amongst those the Americans bombed put it:

‘Our colleagues didn’t die peacefully like in the movies. They died painfully, slowly, some of them screaming out for help that never came, many alone and terrified knowing the extent of their own injuries and aware of their impending death.  Trapped, fully conscious patients were engulfed in flames and burned to death in their beds. Those that didn’t die sustained major injuries which will render them severely disabled for the rest of their lives. Kunduz city has lost its only functional health care facility, leaving wounded civilians with nowhere to get medical treatment.  Immobile patients were burned alive, in their beds.’

More than 40 people died, including several highly trained doctors: their obituaries are here.  More than 30 were injured.  But the attack no doubt made MSF’s (and other NGOs’) life immeasurably harder for a long time into the future.  And hundreds of thousands of people stuck in the middle of a war lost access to emergency medicine.  Mr Obama apologised, and the military said they would never intentionally target a hospital (except that they did, in Cambodia).  MSF declined to accept US (or any other) government funding for the rebuilding of the hospital.  Its own report into the catastrophe is here.

Weeks later, another MSF-supported hospital in Yemen was taken out. Again, the roof had MSF’s logo, and its coordinates had been supplied to all parties.  In fact, according to the UN, this was the 39th health centre bombed in the as yet short civil war in Yemen. Luckily on this occasion, the first strike was on a disused part of the hospital and the remainder was able to be evacuated before the second, so there were no casualties.  The Saudi-led coalition just denied that they did it which does make the American tendency to report on its own failings, eventually, look good by comparison. The detail which allows me to paint a picture of what we must assume for the moment to be the error of war in Afghanistan is the result of the fact that there were international casualties, and of the reports completed by MSF and the US military. No doubt IS engaged in other atrocities which went comparatively undocumented (not that the MSF slaughter was very big news down here at the bottom of the world, so far as I noticed).

What truth telling there was about the MSF slaughters was no doubt thanks in part to the vigour of journalists, as to which, see the solid 2015 film Truth starring Cate Blanchet in what many are calling a career-best role playing opposite Robert Redford.

It seems like other lawyers in Australia also value MSF’s work. Following a UK employment law silk’s initiative which raised £202,870, two Melbourne barristers set up a crowd funding page to raise support for MSF’s work for refugees generally (though the campaign focused on events in Syrians, in response to the drowning of little Alan Kurdi) and raised over $75,000 in the period just before the Kunduz bombing.

Poor, poor Yemen.  Not much news from there reached me this year (probably because of the absence of journalists), but by a couple of months ago, according to the UN, 5,878 people had been killed in a war between the second-last government backed by Saudi Arabia and persons who are described as ‘rebels’ despite being backed by the President of the third-last government and by Iran. At least 500 kids were killed. 27,867 Yemenites were wounded.  Twenty-one million people were deprived of life-sustaining commodities and basic services and 1.3 million children are acutely malnourished because of a naval embargo on a nation which used to import 90% of its food.

I am glad I’m not in Yemen, I can tell you that, because if all that were not bad enough, the Saudis’ commitment to not bombing civilians has been under investigation since prior to the Yemeni hospital’s obliteration.  In September someone bombed a wedding killing 70 or 80 guests, apparently an error.

According to The Guardian:

Oxfam claimed an airstrike had hit one of its warehouses in northern Yemen, describing the incident as “an absolute outrage”. Another NGO, International Medical Corps, said a coalition airstrike on Monday injured six staff members working in their office in Sana’a and damaged humanitarian supply warehouses containing medical and other relief supplies.

And offshoots of Al Qaeda and ISIS are trying to eclipse each other, adding chaos to the already complicated war.  And then there were Mr Obama’s drones, which killed at least 40 civilians in fiscal 2015 according to the UN. I’m sure that to be bombed to bits by a drone you know is being remote controlled by some dude sucking on a Coke in an office in rural America is most harsh, if you have time to think about it.

Yemen is a good example of the proposition that not all refugees seek to flee to the West.  Vice, which is a great publication which I drew from last year as well, documented the plight of some elegant Yemeni refugees in Djibouti here.  All they want to do is get back to Aden, and un-pause their lives.

A grotty new detail emerged from the cauldron of vice that bubbles away in the Central African Republic, formerly the fiefdom of Jean-Bedel Bokassa (see Mads Brugger’s The Ambassador which I got a hold of for the first time in 2015): French soldiers engaged in a fellatio for food programme involving victims as young as twelve, and the UN did not want to know about it (admittedly, I don’t think they were actually under UN command).  Jorge Bergoglio aka Pope Francis popped in to say ‘To all those who make unjust use of the weapons of this world, I make this appeal: lay down these instruments of death!’ The country has essentially been partitioned as a result of good old fashioned Christian-Muslim war.

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