In a now famous Fox News interview with Donald Trump in February 2017, Bill O’Reilly asked the new US president if he respected his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The following discussion ensued:
Trump: Well, I respect a lot of people but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him.
O’Reilly: But he’s a killer though, Putin’s a killer.
Trump: There are a lot of killers, we’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?
Not a few viewers in countries on the wrong end of US foreign policy may have had to stop and catch their breath at Trump’s final sentence. A common thread of so many of their experiences of US foreign policy is not only the bombing from above. Many share a deep repugnance toward what they see as a well-manicured facade of American moral superiority, which helps to frame, water down or justify the violence and humiliations to which they are regularly subjected.
Just for that breathless moment, it seemed this sentence of moral relativism tore a hole in this façade and threatened the moral protection it provides to members of the American establishment.
It is these elected politicians from both major parties, military, state department and security officials, spies, advisers and lobbyists who have reacted most vociferously to Trump’s moral relativism in international affairs. This was perhaps most evident in his accommodating attitude to Putin in general, and especially in Helsinki last month.
In the blanket and largely uncritical Western news coverage of the establishment’s expressions of outrage, commentaries and interviews in response to the July meeting, Trump was depicted as a traitor to the US, Putin’s puppet and now even a greater threat to US national and, indeed, international security.
They may or may not be correct on some or all counts. But it is worth examining exactly what or whom Trump was betraying in Helsinki. So what did Trump do? He accepted uncritically (then later awkwardly back-tracked) Putin’s denial of election meddling and adopted much of his critique of US foreign policy over the last couple of decades.
As far as we know, Trump did not even interrogate Putin over his deadly meddling in Ukraine. He may not be particularly interested. In the lead-up to Helsinki, Trump trash-talked old US allies (including NATO).
Taken together, this conduct exacerbated the establishment fear that Trump was threatening to dismantle well-established Western political structures geared toward containing Russian influence carried over from the Cold War. These structures have been essential to cementing a broader post-Cold War US unipolarity. This has given the US political establishment a free hand to pursue its foreign policies without much restraint but with terrible consequences for those affected in, for example, the Middle East.
I doubt Trump is pursuing a grand strategy to unravel these structures, especially when his rhetoric displays a penchant, even a fetish, for the US unipolarity these strategies help foster.
Furthermore, his rhetoric has not really translated into significant foreign policy changes so far. Much of it is meaningless. But there is whole body of scholarship and commentary that would encourage Trump in any dismantling efforts, as it argues that the carrying over of Cold War structures of Soviet (Russian) containment such as NATO after 1991 have stood in the way of the development of more peaceable relations between Russia and the West. Indeed, structures like NATO fuel Russian anxieties and aggression, which NATO was founded to combat.
More traditional scholarship disputes these “revisionist” ideas, citing Russia’s aggression as evidence of the indispensability of containment to international security.
Scholars on both sides can find evidence to support their arguments in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. But these revisionist ideas, or even the debate with more traditional ones, were hardly mentioned in the blanket media outrage over Helsinki. Critically, then, an examination of the object of Trump’s supposed “treachery” was also lacking when it was most needed.
The focus on outrage may just be the reality of covering an outrageous president in politically sensitive times. In any case, an issue remains for us in Australia to re-examine our own approach to Russia.
This could mean advocating a “new” revisionist or “new” traditional approach toward Russia in response to its conduct, especially in Ukraine. But it would also mean at least trying to untangle the latter from the broader implications of supporting American unipolarity and, hopefully, avoiding its consequences.
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This larger project beyond Russia is worth pursuing, if not for the sake of those who suffer its consequences around the globe, then at least for our own. Mass population dislocations, food shortages, terrorism and economic disruption threaten more than ever to reverberate all the way from those far-flung borders straight to our doorstep.
Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea.
These are deeply concerning sentiments coming from (arguably) the most powerful men on Earth. They risk irrevocably skewing the conversation about space away from what it is, to something it should not be, thus distorting the reality of what space largely represents.
We need space
Of course space is strategic, and has always been so – but perhaps in different ways depending on one’s perspective.
Our dependency on space assets has been driven both by the growth of the commercialisation of outer space, but also its increasingly important security and military significance.
As regards the latter, space has in the past been characterised many times as “congested, contested, and competitive”. It’s a description put forward by analysts and (primarily) military commentators who then go on to postulate that war in space is inevitable.
No doubt there are concerns about the impacts of compromised satellite networks on terrestrial military and security activities. But after all that space gives us in terms of improving the lives of so many people, is that to be its defining feature – as a platform for military conduct?
I offer a different perception of the strategic implications of space – one that is equally plausible and much more in accordance with existing law and practice.
Considerations for space
While space is competitive, complex and challenging, it is also many other things. It is cooperative, collaborative, collective, and commercial. These are equally important strategic considerations for the whole of humanity, let alone for Australia.
Undoubtedly space is increasingly a dual-use area – where satellites at the same time offer commercial services to civil and military customers. This raises some interesting questions about the possible classification of certain satellites as legitimate targets of war.
But blithe assertions about the inevitability of war in space risk becoming self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophecies.
They represent an increasingly loud voice that threatens to drown out other, more rational ones. They ignore the uniqueness of the space domain and the peaceful purposes and common interest doctrines that underpin it.
A threat of an arms race in space
The fear is that rhetoric like that coming from those raising the inevitability of space war will fuel a race to the bottom, as all major (space) powers dedicate even more energy towards an arms race in space.
This also gives rise to the creeping colonisation of space around claims regarding resource exploitation and possible attempts by countries to establish systems to protect themselves against their vulnerabilities by denying access to space for others.
To ignore this and simply to try to argue that the legal framework supposedly supports war in space relies on an overly simplistic assertion that what is not expressly prohibited (by the treaties and international law) is permitted.
It is crucial that the underlying principles of space law and the practice of States in interpreting those principles continue to apply to preserve space for the “benefit and in the interests of all countries”. This is specified in the Outer Space Treaty, to which virtually all space-faring nations, including the major powers, are bound.
The international rules that govern space dictate responsible behaviour, freedom of access but not lawlessness, and an adherence to well-established international principles and norms of behaviour that serve us well.
Properly respected, these allow for and encourage inspiration and optimism, innovation and development, commerce and science, notwithstanding the pressures of increasing commercialisation.
A militaristic view of space threatens the existing legal regime and can thwart the opportunities for all of us.
The humanity of space
In the end, we must not lose sight of the humanity of space and the need to use it for peaceful purposes underpins our very future. The existing rules recognise and reinforce these imperatives.
Thinking of space as a place to conduct war, dangerously jolts the conversation about space and gives rise to consequences that are too terrifying to contemplate. Asserting the inevitability of war in space simply argues that we should move down that untenable path.
Every effort must be made by all sectors of society to recalibrate those conversations. The countervailing voices must be heard. There are so many positive aspects to how space should be viewed. This is supported by law and practice.
Trump Baby is President Donald Trump’s highest-profile troll. During his recent UK visit, the airborne infant protested alongside tens of thousands of marchers against current US policies. While Trump’s itinerary was carefully choreographed to avoid protesters, his nappy-clad inflatable caricature was embraced by crowds on the streets and watching from afar. Now there is speculation that the baby blimp will come to Australia for Trump’s expected visit here later this year.
Trump Baby critiques the president not from a political or moral standpoint, but at the level of ego. It is designed to embarrass and humiliate him. Baby’s makers believe such an insult has a better chance of hitting its target than political arguments, which Trump is seemingly impervious to. Indeed Trump complained that the balloon made him feel “unwelcome”. Bullseye!
Trump Baby quickly went viral, demonstrating that while art cannot necessarily change the world, it can harness to great effect the zeitgeist of cultural sentiment. Yet in these times of political uncertainty, creative people need to step up to the challenge of not simply mirroring the issues and concerns of the day, but of providing new ways of thinking about the world and its problems. This opportunity was largely missed with the Trump blimp.
Social change and uprisings have been marked by image-led protests throughout history. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) was made in response to the suffering and violence inflicted by the Spanish civil war, and 80 years later remains a universal symbol of anti-war protest.
Artists responded with murals and multiple-edition prints to the 1968 uprisings in Europe, the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire in 1989, and as part of the global Occupy movement from 2011 onward. In the last two years, the preponderance of Trump protest art has almost become a genre of its own.
The process of staging any interventionist art project is fraught with obstacles. These range from prohibitive public safety regulations and sceptical bureaucrats to cost blowouts and unpredictable weather. Yet in Britain last month the protest gods (and indeed, Mayor Sadiq Khan) were on the side of Trump Baby, eagerly rolling out the red carpet in a spirit of geniality that was not extended by the public to Trump the man.
In the Don’s home country, the state has assumed a more cautious, sometimes censorial approach. Last year, a proposal for another balloon artwork opposing Trump was scuttled by Chicago authorities. The plan was to fly four, nine-metre wide, pig-shaped helium balloons from a section of the Chicago River that fronts Trump Tower. The bloated, golden swine would obscure the giant letters that spell out the proprietor’s name.
Designed to protest falsehoods in the current political environment, the project invoked a range of cultural references. The pigs referred variously to the four central pig characters of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Trump’s controversial “Miss Piggy” comments about a former Miss Universe, and the garish gold interiors of the Trump penthouse. In a blow to the creators, Chicago authorities blamed the potential for river traffic congestion in ruling that, for now, the pigs can’t fly.
Trump Baby, like much Trump protest art, provides some much needed levity in the depressing news cycle of world politics. It was preceded in 2017 by Don the Chicken, an inflatable fowl that temporarily landed on the lawn behind the White House. Don’s grotesque features also mocked Trump’s inflated ego and narcissistic preoccupation with appearance.
The motivation behind these inflatables and other Trump protest art is mostly uniform and blatantly obvious. The UK designers of Baby Trump have stated on numerous occasions that the current US administration is not representative of the kind of politics that people in the UK believe in. The creators behind the Chicago proposal have similarly explained that they are not activists. Instead they are proud Americans creating visual commentary on the current political environment.
Speaking to the converted
The visual aspect of the commentary is key to the concept of Trump Baby, Don the Chicken and the (currently grounded) flying pigs. Historically, visual imagery in the public sphere was mainly found in places of worship. Renaissance scholar Leon Battista Alberti wrote in the 15th century that images were essential to help people understand the message being conveyed.
Inside the churches and cathedrals of Europe, artists’ murals, paintings and sculptures reinforced the word spoken from the pulpit. Like Baby Trump, in its day religious imagery was speaking to the converted. However unlike art of the Renaissance, the baby blimp eschews the possibility of subtle inference and nuanced interpretation in favour of delivering a bland message designed for mass appeal.
This is the crucial difference between art and caricature: Baby Trump is a towering gasbag that sucks up all the intellectual oxygen in the room.
Religious art of the Renaissance was also commissioned as eye candy with an essentially didactic purpose. However, that imagery is imbued with a narrative-based layering that continues to command interest and acclaim from historians and tourists of all faiths 500 years later. The baby blimp, in contrast, is the brainchild of graphic designers who excel in creating witty one-liners.
This is not to say that serious art cannot play a role in protest movements. However, because inflatables have been commandeered by advertising since the 19th century birth of the Michelin Man, artist-led balloon projects need to disassociate themselves from the visual vocabulary of the marketing industry.
Australian artists have proven this is possible: in Brook Andrew’s Jumping Castle War Memorial created for the 2010 Biennale of Sydney and Patricia Piccinini’s Skywhale commissioned for the 2013 centenary of Canberra, each artist drew on their own unique repositories of image and form to present unexpected and engagingly complex juxtapositions of politics, history and fun.
The crude rendering of Trump Baby, in contrast, reflects its simplistic concept: Trump is like a baby – immature, noisy and self-centred. In an image-driven 21st century threatened by divisive politics, this blimp exemplifies the brash and infantile folly that it purports to critique.
If Trump’s troll travels here later this year, it throws open a challenge for Australian artists to greet the man and his Baby with thoughtful, artistically sophisticated responses that provoke considered debate rather than superficially regurgitating popular opinion.
Trump had made it abundantly clear that European leaders can no longer rely on the US for its protection. He was not only harshly criticised by his own party for being too conciliatory with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their Helsinki summit, he also lashed out at US allies once more, going so far as to call the European Union a “foe”.
The US may have more than 60,000 troops stationed in Europe, but a recent report stating the Pentagon is assessing the impact of a possible reduction of troop numbers, coupled with Trump’s unpredictability, has made America’s traditional allies nervous.
Indeed, by initiating trade wars and continuously attacking his closest allies, Trump has weakened the entire West.
Another war in Europe remains possible
Despite his reassurances last week that the US still values NATO, Trump’s divisive visit to Europe may embolden Putin in his assessment that occupying more European land may not be met with much military resistance.
Poland is so concerned, it has recently offered to pay the US up to US$2bn to permanently deploy an armoured division on its soil.
The on-going conflict in Ukraine, coupled with Putin’s increased emphasis in recent years on Russia’s “right” and “obligation” to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian speakers beyond its borders, contribute further to the unease between Moscow in the West. This is particularly being felt in the Baltic states, two of which (Estonia and Latvia) have sizeable Russian minorities.
The focus of any possible Russian military incursion could be a thin stretch of land between Poland and Lithuania known as the Suwalki Gap (named after the nearby Polish town of Suwałki), which would allow Russia to reinforce its only access to the Baltic Sea through its Kaliningrad exclave and cut the Baltics off from the rest of Europe.
The Suwalki Gap also links Kaliningrad with Belarus, a staunch Russian ally. Moscow regularly organises joint strategic military exercises with Minsk, the most recent being the Zapad (meaning “West” in Russian) war games last September.
Kaliningrad is strategically important, as well, as the site of recently deployed nuclear-capable short-range missiles and an upgraded nuclear weapons storage site.
Reflecting their concerns about a possible invasion, NATO members held military exercises last June that focused for the first time on defending this 104km strip of land from a possible Russian attack. Then, last month, NATO held the Trojan Footprint 18 joint military exercise in Poland and the Baltics, which was one of its biggest-ever war games in the region.
These military build-ups on NATO’s eastern flank are reminiscent of the Cold War and feed both Russia’s “deep-seated sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the West” and Europe’s own feelings of insecurity.
Going it alone
But should Russia decide to invade the Suwalki Gap, would Europe go to war over it?
It may not be able to. European military options remain limited as NATO does not have the military means to go to war against Russia without the US. Acutely aware of this, European leaders launched a new regional defence fund last year to develop the continent’s military capabilities outside of NATO.
While a direct Russian invasion of a NATO member would be the worst-case scenario, it’s more likely that Putin would seek to further destabilise the bloc’s eastern flank through a hybrid war involving cyber-attacks, divisive propaganda campaigns and the use of armed proxies like the “little green men” that appeared during the Ukraine conflict.
Even here, though, it’s clear that Europe cannot provide a unified front to counter potential Russian actions. Some countries like Hungary and Italy seek a closer relationship with Russia, while others like the UK are already embroiled in diplomatic conflicts with it.
France and Germany have already announced plans to increase defence spending not because of commitments made to Trump during the latest NATO summit, but out of real concerns that another confrontation with Russia is becoming a real threat.
Trump has weakened the Western alliance at a time when Europe is not ready to step up and ensure its own security. He may have united Europeans around shared fears and their collective response, but he’s also made them more vulnerable.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un left his historic Singapore summit with US President Donald Trump last month with a massive political victory in hand, but questions remain how this will help his isolated country in pragmatic terms.
A Japanese newspaper reported Sunday that Kim has asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for his help in lifting the sanctions that have crippled the North Korean economy. But even if sanctions are lifted, will this be enough to improve the standard of living for North Korea’s impoverished citizens?
In recent years, Pyongyang has focused on twin policy objectives: achieving global political legitimacy, and embarking on a program of economic modernisation. The Singapore summit has arguably helped in reaching the first objective. North Korea will now be looking to achieve the second.
A possible high-speed future
Compared to neighbouring China and South Korea, North Korea’s infrastructure is crumbling and in dire need of expansion and modernisation. For decades, the government emphasised investment in heavy industry and weapons programs, allowing its roads, ports, rail lines and airports to fall into disrepair. North Korea’s energy, water and communications systems lag behind the rest of the world, as well.
When Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, Moon said he would like to travel through North Korea to climb Mt. Paektu – a site of great importance in Korean folklore. Kim responded with a revealing admission that he would be “embarrassed” by his country’s railways.
Kim also told Moon how the North Korean athletes who took part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang were impressed by the South’s high-speed rail network. This was seen by many as a likely signal that North Korea was motivated to bring its own rail network – and the rest of its infrastructure – into the 21st century.
And South Korea evidently wants to help. At the summit between the two leaders, Moon gave Kim a USB drive that laid out a vision for connecting the two Koreas through new infrastructure projects and special economic zones.
Moon’s proposal is shrewd. The rail lines would also connect North Korea to its northern neighbours, China and Russia, and ultimately serve as a vital link between the entire Korean peninsula and the rest of Asia and Europe.
These reserves consist of iron, gold, copper and graphite, as well as large amounts of rare earth deposits needed for production of smart phones and other high-tech gadgets made in the South. There are also unconfirmed reports of oil and gas deposits in North Korean waters.
However, modernising North Korea’s neglected infrastructure won’t come cheaply. The cost is estimated at several trillion dollars , similar to what West Germany spent to develop the East after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The technical know-how and capacities of North Korea’s labour forces will also pose huge challenges.
Already, Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo and other corporations provide training for the North Koreans they’ve employed in special economic zones along the border. These giants are well-placed to rebuild the North’s deteriorating infrastructure, but would need to invest much more time and money to train the local workforce.
Whether the North accepts the South’s help remains to be seen. This could prove to be a major stumbling block.
Of course, China could step in and play a major role. The country has built the world’s longest high-speed rail network, extending some 22,000kms, in a remarkably short span of time.
Before any progress can be made on grand plans like these, North and South Korea need to take an important first step and reopen the rail links and roads between the countries. The two neighbours agreed in June to work towards that goal, but any material progress will need to wait until international sanctions against North Korea are lifted.
The two Koreas agreed to start limited cross-border rail service to an industrial zone just over the North Korean border in 2007, but the fraught relationship between the two countries soon brought the initiative to a halt.
This time around, progress will depend on the cooperation of the North Korean leader, who has been reluctant to accept help in the past, but might be persuaded to do so now with his country’s future in the balance.
In contrast, he displays indifference – if not hostility – towards the liberal rules-based order that has served US interests since World War II. Issues like human rights, trade, climate change, and even America’s democratic allies have all been criticised or undermined by the president during his time in office.
But is the explanation that simple or is there something else at work? Is there a strategy that, President Trump and his allies believe, serves America’s geopolitical interests? If there is, it’s about China.
America’s ideological problem
Consider that there are a number of states throughout the Asia-Pacific and across Eurasia that may soon be “up for grabs” as US-China tensions escalate and states hedge their position. Clearly, Washington wants as many states as possible to maintain their strategic distance from Beijing and lean towards the US. This is a task that will become more difficult as China’s power continues to rise and America finds it harder to reassure its allies that it can maintain its dominance in the region.
A number of these states have authoritarian governance systems, forms of illiberal democracy or may be trending in this direction. They do not share America’s governing liberal ideology. This ideological difference could complicate America’s efforts to keep these states out of China’s orbit, which claims to have no interest in the domestic affairs of other states.
US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War cannot have reassured authoritarian and illiberal states that Washington’s ideological values play only a minor role in it. US foreign policy, at times, has looked like that of a revolutionary power intent on transforming the international system in its own image. After all, the Bush administration appeared to believe that the only way for the world to be safe was for liberalism and democracy to triumph everywhere, which could usher in a global democratic peace. This is an assumption with some empirical support.
Furthermore, the immense power of the US may have made it difficult for non-liberal states to feel assured that even if they complied with US demands to give up their weapons of mass destruction (which they perceive as a critical deterrent to US intervention), they might still face further requests and threats. As Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi found out in 2011, even a regime change can be a consequence.
Addressing a disadvantage
So how does all this tie back to America’s competition with China for the allegiance of states across the world? What could encourage authoritarian and illiberal states, in particular, to lean towards China in the years to come and accelerate the emergence of a bipolar US-China system?
Firstly, America’s power provides it with immense discretion to act and the capacity to undermine and enact regime change against illiberal states. Since 2003, we’ve seen this in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Secondly, it is US ideology, and their fears that US power will be used for ideological ends – that is, to militarily intervene against illiberal states to try replace their regimes with liberal ones. The first point can generate concern all on its own but it’s further magnified by the second point.
To illiberal states, US liberalism has compelled Washington in the past to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” – and they are the ideological “monsters”.
Therefore, a case can be made that if the US credibly communicates that it is not motivated by liberal impulses, it will reduce these ideational concerns. It will increase (by how much is debateable) incentives for states to lean towards the US. Thus, American liberalism, rather than being seen as a source of strength, could leave the US disadvantaged as China’s power rises.
Trump’s challenge to the liberal order
Trump’s recent behaviour towards the G7 is consistent with this. It further communicates the point to authoritarian and illiberal states that this administration does not care about a state’s ideological stripes. This approach even gives President Trump more room to manoeuvre to attempt his own “Nixon to China” initiatives towards Moscow (if he can overcome domestic opposition) and Pyongyang.
Rapprochement with North Korea could reunify the Korean peninsula in a way that benefits the US at China’s expense (as well as eliminating a nuclear threat). With respect to Russia, it could stop Moscow’s drift towards China, and eliminate the prospects of Eurasia coming under the effective domination of a China-Russia led de facto alliance. Removing liberal ideology from the picture removes one roadblock towards these geopolitical initiatives.
The Trump administration appears to believe there is little material costs to adopting this approach. America’s traditional liberal allies lack the will to pay for their own defence and thus cannot constitute a true challenge to US global power. They can issue rhetoric and voice their opposition to US foreign policy but President Trump, rightly or wrongly, does not view these as meaningful forms of influence.
Ultimately, to the US president, liberalism is an ideology with no clear foreign policy benefit. To him it is one that could, at worst, act to drive states towards China, accelerating the emergence of a bipolar world order. This is one consistent element of the president’s strategy. The faster we reconcile ourselves to this, the quicker we will be able to grapple with the implications his foreign policy has for the existent liberal international order.
US President Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their families at the Mexican border has sparked outrage in recent months, both in the US and abroad. It became so heated that he eventually ended the separation of families, though their fate remains unclear.
However, Trump is not the only leader to incarcerate children and use their suffering as a form of deterrence. The detention of asylum-seeker children has a long and brutal history in Australia. Trump’s policy invites us to reflect on our own policies regarding the detention of asylum seekers and the situation of children and families fleeing persecution.
Currently, over 200 children are in asylum-seeker detention, including on Nauru, in mainland detention centres and in community-based detention. Many have endured prison-like conditions, with no clear date for their release for months, if not years.
While most children remain with one of their parents, my research has found that separation of families is common. This includes the removal of young men on their 18th birthdays from their families with no warning or follow-up as to their whereabouts.
The mandatory incarceration of asylum-seeker children is an uncommon practice globally. It contravenes important human rights instruments to which Australia is a signatory, most notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This states:
No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily … (This) shall be used only as measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
The degree of despair felt by children and their families is well-documented and goes back many years.
In 2004, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) published A Last Resort? National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. This document outlined the privations of the lives of those held in detention centres in Australia, including the famous case of Shayan Badraie. He was detained for nearly two years, witnessing attempted suicide, self-harming and violence that resulted in several hospital admissions before the family was released.
The report also documents physical assault by guards, mental illness and lack of appropriate food, shelter and education.
A Last Resort not only documents terrible human rights abuses, but the ongoing effects on those who experienced them. But, far from ending the incarceration of children and their parents, the policy of detention as deterrence has continued. In this regard, Australia is unusual, being the only developed country that imposes mandatory detention on people arriving by boat.
In 2014, the HREOC conducted another investigation, The Forgotten Children. This report documents in detail ongoing breaches of human rights, unsafe living conditions, medical neglect and physical and sexual assault.
Dehumanisation occurs on every level. One 16-year-old boy stated:
People were called by boat ID. People had no value. No guards called me by name. They knew our name, but only called by boat ID.
Children are also constantly exposed to the trauma of other detainees. One father said:
The word of “suicide” is not an unknown word to our children anymore. They are growing up with these bitter words. Last week a lot of women took action to suicide in Construction Camp. All the kids were scared and crying. How do we remove these bad scenes from our kids’ memories?
The report documents other cases of despair. A 13 year-old-boy detained on Nauru expressed to the treating doctor “a complete loss of hope; despair”. The doctor described how “[h]e had no appetite and no will to eat. He lost over 10 kilograms, which would be about a quarter of his body weight.”
The Australian government has tried to hide the conditions experienced by those held in places like Nauru and Manus Island. In particular, the Border Force Act (2015-17) imposed criminal sanctions on workers who speak publicly about what they see.
However, there is overwhelming and easily accessible evidence that Australia’s policies cause both immediate and ongoing trauma to children, and indeed all those incarcerated in detention. We must recall that Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention and that seeking asylum is enshrined in this instrument.
So while we can express moral outrage about things that occur far from home, our own policies ensure human rights breaches that cause unnecessary suffering and trauma for long periods of time.
There is now substantial evidence of the poor treatment of asylum-seeker children. This has come from a plethora of reports from human rights organisations, healthcare providers and detainees like Behrouz Boochani, who document and publish the conditions of incarceration.
They remind us of what the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer said: “Do not be a victim; do not be a perpetrator; and above all, do not be a bystander.”
Overnight US President Donald Trump announced the establishment of a “Space Force” as a separate force of the US military.
Trump has indicated the reasoning behind the Space Force stems from national security concerns arising from the potential for renewed activities in space by China and Russia. Trump had previously referred to space as the “new warfighting domain.”
It’s not yet clear where this move sits in light of prohibitions laid out in the Outer Space Treaty, the document that has guided the the exploration and use of outer space by members of the United Nations since 1967.
When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space. So important.
It’s been coming
Departments in the US military currently include the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard.
The announcement of a Space Force is part of Trump’s increased interest in the space domain, having in 2017 revived the National Space Council, under the leadership of Mike Pence.
Trump had previously flagged the idea of a US Space Force with statements in March and May.
However, with this most recent announcement Trump officially directed the US Department of Defense and the Pentagon to establish the Space Force.
Much more will be needed to actually make this happen. The President cannot simply declare the existence of a new branch of the US armed forces – it would also require, at minimum, an Act of Congress and quite possibly something more. Each branch of the US military has its own unique origins and would require the restructure of the Air Force and other oversight mechanisms in the Pentagon.
Further, there is also the question regarding what such a force could do. Trump’s speech flagged some sort of peacekeeping role.
Rich guys like rockets
Whilst much of the reportage of Trump’s speech has focused on the military aspects of his announcement, Trump reminded the audience that the Space Force was not the only space activity planned by his administration. Rather there was a strong emphasis on commercial space industries, observing that “rich guys seem to like rockets”.
US laws relating to commercial space are to be updated to encourage commercial space industries, directing government and the private sector to work cooperatively. Trump said:
I am instructing my administration to embrace the budding commercial space industry. We are modernizing out-of-date space regulations. They’re way out of date. They haven’t been changed in many, many years. And today we’re taking one more step to unleash the power of American ingenuity. In a few moments, I will sign a new directive to federal departments and agencies. They will work together with American industry to implement a state-of-the-art framework for space traffic management.
Trump also celebrated the potential for benefit to US workers, along with a lot of rhetoric about conquering the unknown. He said “we are Americans and the future belongs totally to us”, we will be “leading humanity beyond the Earth” and “into the forbidden skies”.
Noting the interest of private entrepreneurs establishing long term settlements on Mars, Trump observed that whoever made it to Mars first was fine as long as it was a US citizen.
The Outer Space Treaty
Trump’s proposals – as with any other new outer space settlements – must operate within prohibitions laid out in the Outer Space Treaty. Established in 1967, this document is the framework multilateral treaty that establishes the principal rules regulating the exploration and use of outer space.
Article II of the Outer Space Treaty indicates that “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
That said, US law has been drafted to enable access to, including mining of, space resources, without any claim of sovereignty being made.
With respect to a Space Force, Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty expresses a principle of use of space for “peaceful purposes”. Members of the Outer Space Treaty are forbidden from placing nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the Earth, on celestial bodies or stationed in outer space. Military bases, installations and fortifications, weapons testing and conduct of military manouevers on celestial bodies are also forbidden.
Of course, none of this has prevented military personnel being involved in space activities and exploration since the dawn of the space age. Both the early US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts have been members of their respective countries armed forces. Nor has it prevented the transit of weapons of mass destruction through space. GPS is a development of the US Department of Defense and many satellites, including Australia’s own Optus C1 satellite is a dual use (military and civilian) satellite.
The question of the legality of the extent of military uses of outer space and what role may be performed by Trump’s Space Force is still open.
Generally, the practice of the space faring states to date indicates that the prohibitions contained in Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty have been interpreted as “peaceful”, but as referring to non-aggressive rather than non-military uses of space.
Of course, militaries worldwide are already very reliant upon space in terms of communication, position, navigation and timing, surveillance and reconnaissance. Militaries regularly hold exercises such as a Day without Space, which prepares users for the possible destruction of or serious interference with GPS, internet and satellites communications, upon which all modern militaries are heavily reliant.
Space assets such as satellites are quite fragile and valuable and hence issues will inevitably arise regarding capacity to protect space assets.
Trump’s Space Force may still be a highly speculative announcement but it is true that we live in an era where militaries and civilians worldwide are becoming far more reliant and invested in the space domain.
In doing so, they claimed the council was a roadblock to genuine global human rights protection. This move by the Trump administration has been anticipated for some time. In a sense, the elephant has left the room. But in doing so, the elephant has belled the cat on a number of serious issues regarding the HRC.
Is the United States’ decision sound in terms of international human rights protection? Is it one that Australia, an HRC member from 2018-2020, should follow?
What is the Human Rights Council?
The UN Human Rights Council was established in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, which ran from 1947 to 2006. By the time of its demise, the commission was criticised from all sides for being overly politicised.
The HRC’s 47 seats are divided between the five official UN regions in the following way: Africa (13); Asia (13); Latin America and the Caribbean (8); Western Europe and Other (7); Eastern Europe (6). The US (and Australia) is in the Western Europe and Other Group, known as WEOG.
One-third of the council is elected each year by the UN General Assembly, and members serve three-year terms. No member may serve more than two consecutive terms. A member can also be suspended from the council in a vote of two-thirds of the UN General Assembly: Libya was suspended in 2011 after Muammar Gaddafi’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters and armed dissidents. No other member has been suspended.
The HRC meets three times a year for a total of around ten weeks. Its 38th session has just begun. It also meets for one-day special sessions at the initiative of one-third of its members. It has so far held 28 special sessions.
The HRC also authorises independent investigations into particular human rights issues, either thematic (dealing with a human rights issue such as torture or LGBTI rights) or, more controversially, focused on a particular state. At the time of writing, there are 46 thematic mandates and 12 country mandates for these “special rapporteurs”.
It has one major new function compared to its predecessor, the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”), whereby the human rights record of every UN member is reviewed by the HRC (as well as all other “observer” nations) every five years.
The US’ grievances against the HRC arise with regard to the human rights records of its members, and its politicised character. Its key red line concern seems to be the HRC’s “unconscionable” and “chronic bias” against Israel (to quote from this morning’s press conference). These issues are examined in turn below.
Membership criteria as they stand are very soft: candidates commit to the highest standards of human rights, and states should take into account a nominee’s human rights record when voting. Both of these rules are basically unenforceable.
Human rights criteria were mooted as prerequisites for membership when the HRC was created. However, the UN’s nearly 200 members could not agree on substantive criteria, as they have very different views on human rights. The US, for example, wanted only “democratic nations” to be eligible. Such a criterion would have led to debates over the meaning of “democracy”, and would seem to prioritise civil and political rights over economic, social and cultural ones. A focus on the implementation of economic and social rights might have led to the exclusion from eligibility of the US itself.
In any case, the “measurement” and respective ranking of human rights records across states is contentious. While comparisons between two states may lead to easy conclusions over which one is better or worse, it is a fraught exercise across the entirety of the UN membership.
Procedural criteria, such as a nation’s record on ratification of human rights treaties, would be more objective. However, such criteria might have led to the exclusion of the two most powerful countries in the world – the US and China, which have both failed to ratify crucial treaties. Realpolitik indicates that such an outcome is very unlikely.
In the press conference, Haley and Pompeo decried the presence of human rights abusers on the council, including China, Cuba, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Consternation has also commonly been expressed over the common presence of Saudi Arabia and Russia on the HRC. Certainly, none of those states is remotely close to upholding the highest standards of human rights. Haley and Pompeo went further, claiming that these states manipulate the HRC to shield abusers and target blameless states in its resolutions.
So how bad is the HRC membership? Freedom House is a non-government organisation (NGO) that rates states as “free”, “partly free”, or “not free”, according to certain civil and political rights criteria, such as press freedom. While Freedom House’s methodology is assailable, I will use its rankings in assessing the current HRC, as the US itself historically uses them in making certain policy choices.
2018 is in fact one of the worst years in terms of the numbers of non-free HRC members. Nevertheless, free states always outnumber unfree states on the HRC, and can easily pass or block any resolution with the cooperation of just a few partly free states, if they vote together.
Any problem with “bad” resolutions on the HRC arises not from a preponderance of bad states, but from bloc voting within regions, like-minded groups and alliances.
The phenomenon of clean slates
Nevertheless, one can still fairly criticise the HRC for containing 14 non-free states. How do such states get elected?
A major problem for HRC elections is the issue of “clean slates”, whereby the number of candidates presented by a UN region correlates exactly to the number of seats it is scheduled to have elected at any particular time. For example, a region might put forward only two candidates for two seats. In such circumstances, the various candidates’ election seems to be a fait accompli. This phenomenon of clean slates was what Pompeo was referring to when he said that some states were elected by a rigged, collusive process.
Yet clean slates are a problem with all of the UN regions. The US itself was initially elected to the HRC on a clean slate in 2009. Australia was elected to the HRC on a WEOG clean slate in 2017, due to France’s belated withdrawal of its candidature.
Genuine elections do occur when open slates are presented by regions. This is how Russia was rejected in 2016, an unprecedented and humiliating blow that probably led to Russia’s failure to even stand for election in 2017. Other serious human rights abusers, such as Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka and Belarus, have failed to gain seats in similar circumstances.
Although states are elected on a regional basis, each member must still attain the majority of votes in the general assembly in order to be elected. There remains a possibility that an unacceptable candidate will simply not reach that threshold, even in the case of a clean slate.
That possibility has in the past led to the late replacement of controversial candidates, such as Syria’s replacement by Kuwait in 2011. This author eagerly awaits the day when the General Assembly finally flexes its muscle by refusing to elect an entire clean slate, thus depriving a region of a seat for a year. Such an outcome, in the absence of a relevant reform, is one way to dissuade future clean slates.
Finally, while states – particularly WEOG countries – might rail against the awful records of other members, those sentiments might not be reflected in their actual voting. After all, voting is by secret ballot. For example, given that Saudi Arabia is a key US geopolitical ally, it seems likely that the US (and even Australia) has voted for it on occasion. Certainly, the UK seems to have done so.
The US is correct that membership criteria should be revisited. Certain obstacles could be put in the way of the worst abusers, such as compulsory open slates, public voting (which might help prevent UK votes for Saudi Arabia), and a requirement that an eligible state must allow visits by all special rapporteurs.
Politicisation of the HRC
As the HRC’s members are representatives of their governments, the HRC is a highly politicised body, like its predecessor. State governments are political constructs, so any institution made up of government representatives is inevitably political too.
Unfortunately, states will generally vote in favour of their national interests rather than human rights interests if the two should clash. Pompeo inadvertently admitted that this morning, when he praised Haley by saying that she always put “American interests first”.
Politicisation inevitably leads to the manifestation of political biases. The most notorious HRC bias concerns Israel. It seems that the US’ biggest complaint over the HRC, and the “red line” that has led to its withdrawal, is the HRC’s treatment of Israel.
Its special rapporteur mandate stands until the occupation is over, so its renewal is automatic rather than the subject of periodic debate, as is the case with other mandates. The mandate-holder investigates its actions rather than those of the Palestinian authorities, whose abuses are largely ignored.
Israel has been the subject of more special sessions than any other state (more than a quarter of the 28 sessions). Having said that, it was the subject of the first three special sessions in 2006, and four of the first six, so the “hit rate” of 4 out of 22 is less stark since then.
Why is the HRC preoccupied with Israel? For a start, Israel has committed serious human rights abuses that are worthy of the HRC’s condemnation. It is absurd for Pompeo to have implicitly suggested that Israel has “committed no offence”. Any HRC bias does not mean that the substance of its criticisms is wrong. The recent killings of Palestinian protesters, targeted killings, illegal settlements, forced evictions, war crimes, the Gaza blockade and, most fundamentally, an ongoing occupation of Palestine that has lasted for more than 50 years, will cause critics to proliferate.
Nevertheless, that does not explain the HRC’s disproportionate attention to one country, given the scale of human rights abuses by other states that receive far less attention.
Ardent supporters of Israel often contend that the bias is driven by anti-Semitism. While such a motivation cannot be dismissed, there are other reasons that seem likely to be driving this phenomenon. The equation of “anti-Israel” with “anti-Semitic” is simplistic.
Israel has many enemies among UN states. Some have never accepted Israel’s right to exist, believing that it was established illegitimately on Arab (Palestinian) land. Indeed, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation was set up in 1969 to unite Muslim states after the 1967 war in which Israel seized the occupied territories, so opposition to Israel has been an article of faith since its inception. The OIC routinely brings as much diplomatic pressure to bear on Israel as possible. As OIC states straddle the two biggest UN groupings, Africa and Asia, they can rely on significant bloc solidarity for support in their initiatives.
The racial element, whereby the Jewish State of Israel illegally occupies lands populated by Arabs in the occupied territories, attracts the ire of developing states, which have historical grievances regarding racial oppression. Yet other instances of racial tension – such as the oppression of the Tibetans, the Kurds, the West Papuans, the Tamils or the Chechens – fail to attract the same HRC scrutiny.
One difference is that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories is not recognised as legitimate by any other state, unlike for example China’s sovereignty over Tibet or Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua.
Indeed, increasing numbers of states have diplomatically recognised the occupied territories as the State of Palestine, and the UN General Assembly voted in 2012 to recognise Palestine as a non-member state.
Occupation also allows states to feel safe in attacking Israel without being too hypocritical. While human rights abuses are sadly common, the status of “occupier” is rare. Indeed, Israel is sometimes seen as a remnant of colonialism, and its actions certainly breach the right of self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter.
However, Israel is not the only occupier. Morocco has long annexed the [Western Sahara], yet the global silence on that situation is deafening in comparison.
Israel is also seen as a surrogate for the West, particularly the US. Given that Israel is almost always defended within the UN by the US, and is often defended by much of WEOG, the question of “Israel-bashing” has become part of a greater North/South divide in the UN. Anti-American states such as Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Russia see Israel as a US surrogate in the Middle East, and exploit the issue accordingly.
Bias against Israel is matched by biased displays of support for Israel by its allies, such as the US and Australia. For example, the US instinctively presumed that the recent border killings were justified. Past bombings of Gaza (in 2009 and 2012) have been blithely dismissed by Australia as an exercise of Israel’s right to self-defence. But a legitimate case of self-defence can still result in an illegal use of excessive, indiscriminate or unnecessary force.
Regardless of its causes, the HRC’s perceived bias against Israel is counterproductive. It provides Israel with a ready-made argument to reject even legitimate condemnation, thus providing cover for human rights abuses. Indeed, claims of bias (within and outside the UN) have become a dominant part of the Middle East narrative on both sides, detracting from a focus on the actions of the actual protagonists. It has facilitated Israel’s progressive disillusionment with and disengagement from the UN, and now, the disengagement of the US. It reduces the HRC’s credibility and opens it up to charges of hypocrisy. None of these outcomes is useful for those who sincerely wish for improvements in human rights for all in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories.
Finally, the biggest problem with the focus on Israel is the corresponding lack of focus on other serious human rights situations. While it is impossible to demand or expect that a political body, or even an apolitical one, should achieve perfect balance in its human rights focuses, it is fair to expect that such focuses not be way out of balance.
The US and human rights
Haley and Pompeo reassured us that the US will continue to play a leadership role in human rights, despite its withdrawal from the HRC. And certainly, the US’ role on the HRC was in many ways positive. For example, it took the lead in addressing impunity in Sri Lanka. The WEOG group suffers from some dysfunctionality on the part of EU states, which generally seek a common position. Strong non-EU voices are important in this regard.
Yet the US is as political as other players on the HRC. Just as some states instinctively oppose Israel, the US instinctively supports it. Neither position is principled. The US has also protected other allies, such as Bahrain.
Outside the HRC, US President Donald Trump is not a credible leader on human rights. He seems to have an affinity with leaders with horrible records, such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Most recently, he responded to comments about North Korea’s human rights record, which is possibly the worst in the world, by praising the “talented” Kim Jong-un.
And of course, the US has long had its own serious human rights problems, which are too numerous to mention, but which include torture and the highest proportion of incarceration in the world. Its recent decision to separate migrant children from their parents and intern them reflects its status as the only country in the world that has failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Furthermore, it is nonsense for Pompeo to suggest that the HRC had sought to infringe on US sovereignty. This betrays a serious misunderstanding of the concept of sovereignty, indicating that it dictates immunity from criticism. It does not.
Is the council salvageable?
The US is correct to note there are major deficiencies in the current HRC. Is its response therefore the correct one? If so, that would seem to indicate that Australia should also quit the HRC. It is very unlikely that Australia will do so.
The HRC is the peak global intergovernmental human rights body, which may represent the world of today, warts and all. The battle for universal human rights observance will not be won by adopting an “us and them” mentality, which excludes significant numbers of countries in the world from “the human rights club”. Such a solution is more likely to lead to balkanised human rights discussions, and possible competing institutions inside and outside the UN.
The HRC must remain a forum where non-like-minded states, and civil society, can talk to each other, and occasionally cross divides to make important human rights decisions.
Furthermore, the HRC is meant to be a political body. Other parts of the UN human rights machinery are made up of independent human rights experts, and accordingly take a more impartial approach than the HRC. While their human rights findings are more credible, it also seems that states generally take their findings less seriously.
States tend to care more about what their peers think than what human rights experts might think. Hence, human rights would suffer in the absence of a relevant intergovernmental global body.
Despite its flaws, the HRC does make decisions that benefit human rights, even in the face of political lobbying by members with scurrilous motives. For example, a special rapporteur was appointed to investigate Iran (after the application of US pressure), and it remains in place, despite that influential country’s forceful efforts to dismantle the mandate. A special rapporteur on LGBTI rights was appointed in 2016, despite fierce opposition from the OIC and homophobic states, due to an alliance of developed and developing states, and civil society.
The HRC will continue to be an imperfect institution for as long as the UN is made up of states with imperfect human rights records. However, the council still can and must be improved.
But the worst way to achieve that goal is by just walking away.