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.
U.S. President Donald Trump is a serial liar who appears to exult, if not take pride, in every petty deceit, particularly if it casts him into the glare of publicity.
With Trump preparing to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore in a highly anticipated summit this week, it’s worth a reminder: Not unlike Kim, Trump lies to hide the brutality of his cruel policies. He lies to discredit reliable sources of information and to discredit those public institutions that educate a public to create informed citizens who are able to distinguish between the truth and falsehoods.
He will lie about the summit. He can’t help himself.
In Trump’s Orwellian world, the truth is dangerous, thinking is a liability, and the sanctity of free speech is treated with disdain, if not the threat of censorship.
Trump uses an endless stream of tweets in which the truth is distorted for ideological, political or commercial reasons. Under the Trump administration, lying and the spectacle of fakery have become an industry and tool of power.
All administrations and governments lie at times, but under Trump, lying has become normalized, a calling card for corruption and lawlessness that provides the foundation for authoritarianism.
As in any dictatorship, the Trump regime dismisses words, concepts and news sources that address crucial social problems such as climate change, police violence and corporate malfeasance.
In Trump’s dystopian world, words such as a “nation of immigrants,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “diversity,” “entitlement,” “climate change,” “democratic,” “peaceful,” “just” and “vulnerable” disappear into a “memory hole.” Under the Trump regime, language has become a political tool and operates in the service of violence, unchecked power and lawlessness.
For Trump, lying has become a toxic policy for legitimizing ignorance and civic illiteracy. Not only does he relish lying repeatedly, he has also attacked the critical media, claimed journalists are enemies of the American people and argued that the media is the opposition party. His rallying cry, “fake news,” is used to dismiss any critic or criticism of his policies, however misleading, wrong or dangerous they are.
Facts are erased
There is more at stake here than the threat of censorship, there is also an attack on traditional sources of information and the public spheres that produce them. Trump’s government has become a powerful disimagination and distraction machine in which the distinction between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy are erased.
Under Trump, language operates in the service of civic violence because it infantilizes and depoliticizes the wider public, creating what Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has called, in a different context, “the mask of nihilism.”
Trump’s attacks on any criticism of his policies and the truth go far beyond the public deploying of personal insults. In the case of his attack on the FBI and Department of Justice, his penchant for relentless lying constitutes both a possible obstruction of justice and an egregious attempt to discredit criticism and corrode democracy.
What happens when a government excludes language that addresses social problems, provides resources for the vulnerable and dismisses all information related to climate change?
Reminiscent of book-burning
Trump’s politics of erasure is more than a page out of the dystopian novels of George Orwell or Ray Bradbury, it also echoes an earlier historical period when censorship and book burning was the currency of fascist regimes. As American historian Karen J. Greenberg warns, the suppression of language opens the doorway to fascism.
The president’s fabricating Twitter machine is about more than lying, it is also about using all of the tools and resources to create a dystopia in which authoritarianism emerges through the raw power of ignorance, control and police-state repression.
Trump’s endless fabrications echo the propaganda machines made famous in the fascist regimes of the 1930s. He values loyalty over integrity, and he lies in part to test the loyalty of those who both follow him and align themselves with his power.
Trump’s lying must be understood within a broader attack on the fundamentals of education and democracy itself. This is especially important at a time when the U.S. is no longer a functioning democracy and is in the presence of what sociologists Leonidas Donskis and the late Zygmunt Bauman referred to as a form “of modern barbarity.”
Trump’s lying undermines the public’s grip on language, evidence, facts and informed judgement, and in doing so promotes a form of civic illiteracy in which words and meaning no longer matter. Depriving the public of the capacity for critical analysis and discerning the truth from lies does more than empty politics of any meaning, it also undermines democracy.
As ethics wither, people become prisoners of their own experiences, indifferent to an ignorance and brutishness in which they become complicit.
As the theatre of lies, insults, and childish petulance triumphs over measured arguments, a world emerges in which the only real choices are among competing fictions — a world in which nothing is true and everything begins to look like a lie.
If the spirit and promise of a sustainable democracy is to survive, it’s crucial to make truth-telling virtuous again. If we are going to fight for and with the powerless, we have to understand their needs, speak to and with them in a language that is mutually understandable as well as honest.
There is also a need to reinvent politics through alternative narratives in which the American public can both identify themselves and the conditions through which power and oppression bear down on their lives.
This is not an easy task, but nothing less than justice, democracy and the planet itself are at risk.
Authoritarianism creates a predatory class of unethical zombies who produce dead zones of the imagination that even Orwell could not have envisioned, while using an unchecked language of lying to wage a fierce fight against the possibilities of a democratic future.
The time has come for progressives and others to develop a political language in which civic values, social responsibility and the institutions that support them become central to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination.
There must be a renewed sense of social agency, and an impassioned international social movement with a vision, organization and set of strategies to challenge the dystopian nightmare engulfing the United States, and a growing number of illiberal democracies all over the globe.
Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, wrote after Franco destroyed the Spanish Republic: “I swear to defend until my death what has been murdered in Spain: The right to happiness.”
This tribute to justice, the public imagination, dignity and the right to be free from the curse of those who use their power to lie and malign the crucial institutions of democracy must once again be defended in the spirit of urgency and the “right to happiness” — not to mention the right to truth.
Moments after President Donald Trump shook North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s hand for the first time, Trump pronounced: “We will have a terrific relationship.”
Trump’s snap judgment fulfilled his prediction before the June 12 summit that he would be able to evaluate Kim’s intentions “within the first minute” of meeting him.
High-level politicians often think that they are experts at reading and influencing other leaders. They quickly come to believe that they are the world’s leading authority on any counterpart they meet in person. For example, President George W. Bush was so enamored with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that senior advisers launched a concerted campaign to curb his enthusiasm.
“You’re my man,” Bush would say to Maliki. When advisers told the president he was undercutting U.S. efforts to pressure Maliki, Bush responded with incredulity: “Are you saying I’m the problem?”
If Trump follows this pattern I’ve found when studying the personal side of foreign policy, he may believe that he now has special insight into Kim. And that means the dynamics of U.S. policymaking toward North Korea have changed. Having met Kim, the president will be even less likely to listen to experts in the intelligence and diplomatic communities.
From first impressions to agreement
Hours after Trump and Kim first met, the two leaders emerged from their talks to sign a joint document. The U.S. is prepared to guarantee the regime’s security, and North Korea is willing to “work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” according to the statement. Trump called it a “very comprehensive agreement.”
Critics are charging that the letter was closer to North Korea’s preferences than the “comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible de-nuclearization” sought by the United States.
Perhaps the document is underwhelming, repeating North Korean promises of the past without any clear road map to making them reality. But something significant changed in Singapore: President Trump has met Kim face to face.
On the eve of the summit, details emerged of a profile of Kim’s personality, provided to the president by allied intelligence agencies.
This is standard practice prior to meetings with foreign leaders. But once the leaders have met in person, intelligence analysis takes second place to first-hand impressions.
In the future, expert counsel on Kim’s intentions may clash with Trump’s positive perception of the North Korean leader. In the post-summit press conference Trump called Kim “very talented.” He told journalist Greta van Susteren that Kim has “a great personality, he’s a funny guy, he’s very smart. He loves his people.”
From now on, analyses from the diplomatic and intelligence communities that fit Trump’s view of Kim will be favored, those at odds with his view may be dismissed.
This dynamic is common in policymaking, and there are reasons to think it could be extremely consequential in this case.
Relying on ‘touch, feel’
First, Trump’s tendency to trust his instincts is already pronounced. Asked by a reporter before the summit how he would know if Kim was serious about de-nuclearization, Trump said he would rely upon “my touch, my feel. It’s what I do.”
Second, the intricate series of steps toward disarmament of a nuclear arsenal require expert verification. Ostensibly cooperative actions – like destroying nuclear test tunnels – might turn out to be empty gestures once analysts have pored over the surveillance footage. The North Korean regime has a history of making public agreements, then advancing their nuclear arsenal in secret.
This summit process began with a snap decision by Trump to accept an offer to meet with Kim. The most significant result may be Trump’s new confidence that he uniquely understands the North Korean leader. This will further reinforce the defining dynamic of Trump’s presidency so far: Ignore the experts, trust your gut.
Meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on June 12, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un committed to “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
I spent many years working on nuclear nonproliferation at the Department of Defense, the State Department and nongovernmental organizations. Between 2009 and 2010, I worked with the special representative for nonproliferation at the State Department.
As the world focuses on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, this seems like a good time to ask: Is the U.S. doing anything to limit the size of its own nuclear arsenal?
Commitment to disarming
The United States is one of five recognized nuclear weapons states – including Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom – under the 1970 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The treaty permits these states to possess nuclear weapons. Other countries signed on as non-nuclear weapons states, pledging not to pursue nuclear weapons in exchange for access to peaceful civilian nuclear technology like power reactors.
This was not meant to be permanent a state of affairs. An article of the treaty calls on all nuclear weapons states “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”
To this end, President Barack Obama pledged to decrease the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy, committing to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Obama was the first president to talk about steps to disarmament this way.
By contrast, in December 2016, President-elect Trump tweeted that the U.S. need to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
In 2018, the Department of Defense released a review of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy, known as the Nuclear Posture Review. It recommends the U.S. add to its arsenal a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile and a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.
The recommendation struck many observers as a pivot from the Obama administration’s policies toward an increased role for nuclear weapons. They view it as the beginning of a new arms race. Others see it as necessary to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent and consistent with past administrations’ nuclear policies.
The Obama administration had also come to the conclusion that even if disarmament was an ultimate if distant goal, many of the components U.S. nuclear arsenal still needed to be maintained and updated. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that modernizing current U.S. nuclear forces would cost US$1.2 trillion over the next 20 years.
US arsenal over time
The New START Treaty, signed between the U.S. and Russia in 2010, was another bilateral agreement to reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons and cap the number of deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550. That may sound like a lot, but at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. arsenal contained more than 30,000 nuclear weapons.
The New START Treaty only places a cap on deployed nuclear warheads, meaning weapons that are on delivery vehicles like ICBMs and ready to use, versus, say, warheads in storage. The stockpile, which is the total number of nuclear weapons both deployed and non-deployed, is much larger. The Obama administration first declassified the number in 2010. The number then was 5,113.
In 2017, the total number of weapons in the U.S. stockpile was reported as 3,822.
The New START Treaty also places limits on the number of vehicles used to deliver nuclear warheads that the United States and Russia can deploy. The United States maintains a so-called nuclear triad: nuclear weapons deployed on ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers like the B-2 aircraft. Since it would be difficult for an adversary to knock out all three methods of delivery, this strategy allows at least one leg of the triad to respond in the event of a devastating nuclear attack.
The U.S. nuclear arsenal today is the smallest it has been since the early days of the Cold War. Whether this makes the world safer is still a subject of intense debate.
Optimists see any reduction in the size of arsenals as a positive. Pessimists see the continued reliance on nuclear deterrence, whatever the size of states’ arsenals, as inherently dangerous. While most nuclear armed states agree that nuclear weapons are only for deterrence and thus likely never to be used in war, their devastating power will always provoke fierce debate on their utility.
At first glance, it is easy to call the meeting between US president, Donald Trump, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un, “historic” and “unprecedented”. It was the first meeting between sitting leaders of the two countries, which are still technically in a state of war.
You could also call it a success – preparations and schedules were respected, the media had ample opportunity to take shots of the two men shaking hands in front of the colourful display of 12 intermingled American and North Korean flags – and they were also privy to comments by the two leaders, including Kim in one of his very rare appearances in front of the foreign press.
The meeting was also a success from a security and optics points of view: smiles were exchanged, in-depth discussions took place between cabinet members, nobody went off script and there were no security breaches, thanks to ironclad preparations by their Singaporean hosts.
Now that both leaders are on their way back to their own countries, we are left with many photos of the bromance du jour, as well as a signed statement – and a plethora of questions. What should we take away from this historic moment? Here are three key points:
1. Ultimately it was North Korea’s day
Kim has managed to build upon the work of his father and grandfather and secured the highest form of recognition that there is – a bilateral meeting with the president of the most powerful country on the planet.
And North Korea did not have to pay a cent for it: China furnished a plane, Singapore footed the US$15m-plus bill for the summit, and the media distributed images of the North Korean leader parlaying on equal terms with the US president to the entire world. It’s a resounding success for Kim – and one that is likely to be exploited back home for political purpose.
2. What is written in the agreement
The joint document signed by both parties shows the craftiness and hardline approach the DPRK has taken to the summit. Though the agreement commits both parties to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula – removing all nuclear weapons from the region, including potential American weapons – the DPRK has only reiterated, in writing, its commitment to “work towards” this aim.
This is certainly not the pledge for the unilateral dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear programme that the US has always pushed for.
3. What is not written in the agreement
The agreement shows a clear miss from the United States, as there are no mentions of CVID (“complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement”) of North Korean nuclear capabilities – something that was talked about a great deal in the run up to the meeting.
Given that Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser, John Bolton, have signalled that they would accept nothing short of CVID, this is a giant omission. Essentially, this should be read as a refusal from the DPRK to state that they would denuclearise unilaterally.
4. Putting words into action
The agreement provides very vague concepts for a new US-DPRK relationship – one that will without a doubt also change the nature of balance and geopolitics in East Asia and relationships with other regional actors such as South Korea, Russia, China and Japan.
The first concrete action was for the American president to announce he intends to call a halt to the annual war game exercises organised between the US and South Korea (the most recent exercises nearly derailed the inter-Korea summit a few weeks ago). This is an important step toward confidence building for both sides of the summit and one that should be praised.
But it is important to note that Trump’s rationale was to scrap the war games, not because they offend and worry the DPRK – but, as he himself stated to the media, because they cost a lot of money. And money – especially the way Trump thinks the rest of the world takes advantage of the US – was a theme the US president returned to repeatedly in the post-summit press conference.
Trump also talked about real estate development opportunities in the DPRK. In essence, Trump’s money-focused transactional nature took only a few hours to surface after his handshake with Kim. But peace has a cost and, given the current US narrative that seeks to avoid foreign entanglement and is fed up with spending money on international commitments, it will require the United States to manage its shaky alliances if this is to be a realistic prospect.
And as reactions are starting to pour in from world leaders, it is important to remember that the summit has given the DPRK legitimacy on the world stage, while there was little talk of how this legitimacy was acquired: essentially by developing nuclear weapons.
Kim is a dictator who has purged a number of rivals while starving and oppressing his own population. Ultimately, Trump has just willingly sat down with a villain and not gained much in the way of concessions in return.