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Our Hypocrisy on War Crimes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 05/05/2022 - 11:00pm in

Khalid Salman by the graves of his sister and her children, who were among the twenty-four Iraqi civilians killed by US Marines in the 2005 Haditha massacreTown council leader and lawyer Khalid Salman by the graves of his sister and her children, who were among the twenty-four Iraqi civilians killed by US Marines in the 2005 Haditha massacre, Haditha, Iraq, 2011

There is the war, and then there is the war about the war. Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine is being fought in fields and cities, in the air and at sea. It is also, however, being contested through language. Is it a war or a “special military operation”? Is it an unprovoked invasion or a human rights intervention to prevent the genocide of Russian speakers by Ukrainian Nazis? Putin’s great weakness in this linguistic struggle is the unsubtle absurdity of his claims—if he wanted his lies to be believed, he should have established some baseline of credibility. But the weakness of the West, and especially of the United States, lies in what ought to be the biggest strength of its case against Putin: the idea of war crimes. It is this concept that gives legal and moral shape to instinctive revulsion. For the sake both of basic justice and of mobilizing world opinion, it has to be sustained with absolute moral clarity.

The appalling evidence of extrajudicial executions, torture, and indiscriminate shelling of homes, apartment buildings, hospitals, and shelters that has emerged from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha and from the outskirts of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Sumy gives weight and urgency to the accusation that Putin is a war criminal.* By late April, the UN human rights office had received reports of more than three hundred executions of civilians. There have also been credible reports of sexual violence by Russian troops and of abductions and deportations of civilians. According to Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, by April 21 Russia had committed more than 7,600 recorded war crimes.

Yet the US has been, for far too long, fatally ambivalent about war crimes. Its own history of moral evasiveness threatens to make the accusation that Putin and his forces have committed them systematically in Ukraine seem more like a useful weapon against an enemy than an assertion of universal principle. It also undermines the very institution that might eventually bring Putin and his subordinates to justice: the International Criminal Court (ICC).

There have long been two ways of thinking about the prosecution of war crimes. One is that it is a universal duty. Since human beings have equal rights, violations of those rights must be prosecuted regardless of the nationality or political persuasion of the perpetrators. The other is that the right to identify individuals as war criminals and punish them for their deeds is really just one of the spoils of victory. It is the winner’s prerogative—a political choice rather than a moral imperative.

Even during World War II, and in the midst of a learned discussion about what to do with the Nazi leadership after the war, the American Society of International Law heard from Charles Warren, a former US assistant attorney general and a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian of the Supreme Court, that “the right to punish [war criminals] is not a right conferred upon victorious belligerents by international law, but it flows from the fact of victory.” Warren quoted with approval another eminent American authority, James Wilford Garner, who had written that “it is simply a question of policy and expediency, to be exercised by the victorious belligerent or not.” “In other words,” Warren added, “the question is purely political and military; it should not be treated as a judicial one or as arising from international law.” As the Polish lawyer Manfred Lachs, whose Jewish family had been murdered by the Nazis, wrote in 1945, this idea that the prosecution of war crimes is “a matter of political expediency” would make international law “the servant of politics” and “a flexible instrument in the hands of politicians.”

It is hard to overstate how important it is that the war crimes that have undoubtedly been committed already in Ukraine—and the ones that are grimly certain to be inflicted on innocent people in the coming weeks and months—not be understood as “a flexible instrument in the hands of politicians.” They must not be either shaped around or held hostage by “policy and expediency.” This is a question of justice. Those who have been murdered, tortured, and raped matter as individuals, not as mere exemplars of Putin’s barbarity. The desire to prosecute their killers and abusers stems from the imperative to honor that individuality, to restore insofar as is possible the dignity that was stolen by violence.

But it is also, as it happens, a question of effectiveness. If accusations of Russian war crimes are seen to be instrumental rather than principled, they will dissolve into “whataboutism”: Yes, Putin is terrible, but what about… Instead of seeing a clean distinction between the Western democracies and Russia, much of the world will take refuge in a comfortable relativism. If war crimes are not universal violations, they are merely fingers that can point only in one direction—at whomever we happen to be in conflict with right now. And never, of course, at ourselves.

Even before Putin launched his invasion on February 24, the Biden administration seems to have had a plan to use Russian atrocities as a rallying cry for the democratic world. That day, The New York Times reported that “administration officials are considering how to continue the information war with Russia, highlight potential war crimes and push back on Moscow’s propaganda.” This was not necessarily cynical—Putin’s appalling record of violence against civilians in Chechnya and Syria and plain contempt for international law made it all too likely that his forces would commit such crimes in Ukraine.

But this anticipation of atrocities, and deliberation about how to make use of them, underlines the administration’s perception of the accusation of war crimes as a promising front in the ideological counterattack against Putin. As early as March 10, well before the uncovering of the atrocities at Bucha, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told the BBC that Russian actions in Ukraine “constitute war crimes; there are attacks on civilians that cannot be justified…in any way whatsoever.”

A week later, and still a fortnight before the first reports from Bucha, Biden was calling Putin, in unscripted remarks, a “war criminal.” At that point, he in fact seemed a little unsure about the wisdom of making the charge—initially, when asked if he would use the term, he replied “no,” before asking reporters to repeat the question and then replying in the affirmative. Significantly, Biden was responding not to ground-level assaults by Russian troops on civilians but to the shelling of Ukrainian cities. This may perhaps explain his hesitancy: civilian casualties from aerial assaults by drones, rockets, and bombs are a sore subject in recent US military history.

Having crossed the line and made this charge directly, Biden had little choice but to raise the stakes when the terrible images from Bucha were circulated. First, on April 4 he went beyond deeming Putin a criminal by calling specifically for him to face a “war crime trial.” Then on April 12 he pressed the nuclear button of atrocity accusations: genocide. “We’ll let the lawyers decide, internationally, whether or not it qualifies [as genocide], but it sure seems that way to me.” He also referred to an unfolding “genocide half a world away,” clearly meaning in Ukraine.

Biden did so even though his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, had told a press briefing on April 4:

Based on what we have seen so far, we have seen atrocities, we have seen war crimes. We have not yet seen a level of systematic deprivation of life of the Ukrainian people to rise to the level of genocide.

Sullivan stressed that the determination that genocide had been committed required a long process of evidence-gathering. He cited the recently announced ruling by the State Department that assaults on the Rohingyas by the military in Myanmar/Burma constituted genocide. That conclusion was reached in March 2022; the atrocities were committed in 2016 and 2017. The State Department emphasized in its announcement that it followed “a rigorous factual and legal analysis.”

It is obvious that no such analysis preceded Biden’s decision to accuse Putin of genocide. When asked about genocide on April 22, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “No, we have not documented patterns that could amount to that.” Biden’s careless use of the term is all the more damaging because, however inadvertently, it echoes Putin’s grotesque claim that Ukraine has been committing genocide against Russian speakers in Donbas.

The problem with all of this is not that Biden is wrong but that it distracts from the ways in which he is right. This overstatement makes it far too easy for those who wish to ignore or justify what the Russians are doing to dismiss the mounting evidence of terrible crimes in Ukraine as exaggerated or as just another battleground in the information war. In appearing overanxious to inject “war criminal” into the international discourse about Putin and making it seem like a predetermined narrative, the US risked undermining the very stark evidence for that conclusion. By inflating that charge into genocide, it substituted rhetoric for rigor and effectively made it impossible for the US to endorse any negotiated settlement for Ukraine that leaves Putin in power: How can you make peace with a perpetrator of genocide? Paradoxically, it also risked the minimization of the actual atrocities: If they do not rise to the level of the ultimate evil, are they “merely” war crimes?

What makes these mistakes by Biden truly detrimental, however, is that the moral standing of the US on war crimes is already so profoundly compromised. The test for anyone insisting on the application of a set of rules is whether they apply those rules to themselves. It matters deeply to the struggle against Putin that the US face its record of having consistently failed to do this.

On November 19, 2005, in the Iraqi town of Haditha, members of the First Division of the US Marines massacred twenty-four Iraqi civilians, including women, children, and elderly people. After a roadside bomb killed one US soldier and badly injured two others, marines took five men from a taxi and executed them in the street. One marine sergeant, Sanick Dela Cruz, later testified that he urinated on one of the bodies. The marines then entered nearby houses and killed the occupants—nine men, three women, and seven children. Most of the victims were murdered by well-aimed shots fired at close range.

The official US press release then falsely claimed that fifteen of the civilians had been killed by the roadside bomb and that the marines and their Iraqi allies had also shot eight “insurgents” who opened fire on them. These claims were shown to be lies four months later, when Tim McGirk published an investigation in Time magazine. When McGirk initially put the evidence—both video and eyewitness testimony—to the marines, he was told, “Well, we think this is all al-Qaeda propaganda.”

This was consistent with what seems to have been a coordinated cover-up. No one in the marines’ chain of command subsequently testified that there was any reason to suspect that a war crime had occurred. Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani, the battalion commander, was later charged with dereliction of duty for failing to properly report and investigate the incident. Those charges were dismissed. Charges against six other marines were dropped, and a seventh was acquitted. Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, who led the squad that perpetrated the killings, was demoted in rank to private and lost pay, but served no time in prison.

In his memoir Call Sign Chaos (2019) the former general James Mattis, who took over as commander of the First Marine Division shortly after this massacre and later served as Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, calls what happened at Haditha a “tragic incident.” It’s clear that Mattis believed that at least some of the marines had run amok:

In the chaos, they developed mental tunnel vision, and some were unable to distinguish genuine threats amid the chaos of the fight…. In the moments they had to react, several Marines had failed, or had tried but were unable, to distinguish who was a threat and who was an innocent. I concluded that several had made tragic mistakes, but others had lost their discipline…. The lack of discipline extended to higher ranks. Specifically, it was a gross oversight not to notice and critically examine a tragic event so far out of the norm. I recommended letters of censure for the division commander—a major general—and two senior colonels.

Mattis nowhere uses phrases or words like “war crime,” “massacre,” “atrocity,” or “cover-up.” He was determined, too, to exonerate the lower-ranking soldiers who participated in the violence at Haditha that day. “You did your best,” he reassured them, “to live up to the standards followed by US fighting men throughout our many wars.”

How does the “tragic incident” at Haditha differ from the murders of civilians by Russian forces in Ukraine? There are some important distinctions. Unlike in Russia now, the US had media organizations sufficiently free and independent to be able to challenge the military’s account of what happened. It had elected politicians who were willing to condemn the atrocity—in 2006, for example, Joe Biden suggested that then defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld should resign because of Haditha. Senior military commanders, including Mattis, were obviously repelled by the atrocity. Putin ostentatiously decorated the Sixty-Fourth Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade for its “mass heroism and courage” after that unit had been accused by Ukraine of committing war crimes in Bucha. There was no such official endorsement of the First Marine Division. These differences matter—false equivalence must be avoided.

Yet uncomfortable truths remain. One of the most prestigious arms of the US military carried out an atrocity in a country invaded by the US in a war of choice. No one in a position of authority did anything about it until Time reported on it. No one at any level of the chain of command, from senior leaders down to the soldiers who did the killings, was held accountable. And such minor punishments as were imposed seem to have had no deterrent effect. In March 2007 marines killed nineteen unarmed civilians and wounded fifty near Jalalabad, in Afghanistan, in an incident that, as The New York Times reported at the time, “bore some striking similarities to the Haditha killings.” Again, none of the marines involved or their commanders received any serious punishment.


American army staffers organizing stacks of German documents to be used as evidence in prosecuting war crimes at the Nuremberg Trial

Charles Alexander/US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C./NARA

American army staffers organizing stacks of German documents to be used as evidence in prosecuting war crimes at the Nuremberg Trial, Nuremberg, Germany, 1945–1946

Perhaps most importantly, nothing that happened in these or other atrocities in Iraq or Afghanistan changed the way that deliberate acts of violence against foreign civilians are presented in official American discourse. The enemy commits war crimes and lies about them. We have “tragic incidents,” “tragic mistakes,” and, at the very worst, a loss of discipline. When bad things are done by American armed forces, they are entirely untypical and momentary responses to the terrible stresses of war. The conditioning that helps make them possible, the deep-seated instinct to cover them up, and the repeated failure to bring perpetrators to justice are not to be understood as systemic problems. Nowhere is American exceptionalism more evident or more troubling than in this compartmentalizing of military atrocities.

The only way to end this kind of double standard is to have a single, supranational criminal court to bring to justice those who violate the laws of war—whoever they are and whatever their alleged motives. This idea has been around since 1872, when it was proposed by Gustave Moynier, one of the founders of the International Committee of the Red Cross. It seemed finally to be taking shape in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, when a statute for an international criminal court was drafted by a committee of the General Assembly of the UN. This effort was, however, stymied by the USSR and its allies. In the 1990s the combination of the end of the cold war and the hideous atrocities committed during the breakup of Yugoslavia and in Rwanda gave the proposal a renewed impetus. This led to the conference in Rome in June and July 1998, attended by 160 states and dozens of nongovernmental organizations, that finally adopted the charter for the ICC. This statute entered into force in July 2002, and the ICC began to function the following year.

Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, one (China) opposed the adoption of the ICC’s statute. Two (the United Kingdom and France) supported it and fully accepted its jurisdiction. That leaves two countries that ended up in precisely the same contradictory position: Russia and the US. Both signed the Rome statute—Russia in September 2000, the US three months later. And both then failed to ratify it. Putin, presumably because of international condemnation of war crimes being committed under his leadership in Chechnya, declined to submit it to the Duma in Moscow. George W. Bush effectively withdrew from the ICC in May 2002, following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and his declaration that “our war against terror is only beginning.”

The US then began what Yves Beigbeder, an international lawyer who had served at the Nuremberg Trial in 1946, called “a virulent, worldwide campaign aimed at destroying the legitimacy of the Court, on the grounds of protecting US sovereignty and US nationals.” Against the backdrop of the “war on terror,” Congress approved the American Service-Members’ Protection Act (ASPA) of 2002, designed to insulate US military personnel (including private contractors) from ICC jurisdiction. The ASPA placed numerous restrictions on US interaction with the ICC, including the prohibition of military assistance to countries cooperating with the court. Also in 2002, the US sought (unsuccessfully) a UN Security Council resolution to permanently insulate all US troops and officials involved in UN missions from ICC jurisdiction. In late 2004 Congress approved the Nethercutt Amendment, prohibiting assistance funds, with limited exceptions, to any country that is a party to the Rome statute.

These attacks on the ICC culminated on September 2, 2020, when the Trump administration imposed sweeping sanctions on Fatou Bensouda, a former minister of justice in Gambia, who was then the ICC’s chief prosecutor, and Phakiso Mochochoko, a lawyer and diplomat from Lesotho, who heads a division of the court. The US acted under an executive order that declared their activities a “national emergency.” The emergency was “the ICC’s efforts to investigate US personnel.” Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, denounced the ICC as “a thoroughly broken and corrupted institution.”

A year ago, the Biden administration lifted these sanctions against Bensouda and Mochochoko, saying they were “inappropriate and ineffective.” But the US did not soften its underlying stance, which is that, as Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, put it,

we continue to disagree strongly with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations. We maintain our longstanding objection to the Court’s efforts to assert jurisdiction over personnel of non-States Parties such as the United States and Israel.

In principle, this hostility to the ICC is rooted in the objection that the court is engaged in an intolerable effort to bind the US to a treaty it has not ratified—in effect, to subject the US to laws to which it has not consented. If this were true, it would indeed be an unacceptable and arbitrary state of affairs. But this alleged concern is groundless. The ICC does not claim any jurisdiction over states—it seeks to prosecute individuals.

This distinction was vital to the Nuremberg Tribunal, which stressed that “crimes against international law are committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced.” Moreover, the US is already a party to the treaties that define the crimes the ICC is empowered to prosecute. The ICC follows the precedents and practices of international criminal tribunals that the US enthusiastically supported and participated in: the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II, and the courts established in the 1990s to prosecute those responsible for atrocities in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. If the ICC is illegitimate, so were those courts.

The brutal truth is that the US abandoned its commitment to the ICC not for reasons of legal principle but from the same motive that animated Putin. It was engaged in aggressive wars and did not want to risk the possibility that any of its military or political leaders would be prosecuted for crimes that might be committed in the course of fighting them. That expediency rather than principle was guiding US attitudes became completely clear in 2005. The US decided not to block a Security Council resolution referring atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan to the ICC prosecutor. (It abstained on the motion.) It subsequently supported the prosecution at the ICC of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and the use by the Special Court of Sierra Leone of the ICC facilities in The Hague to try former Liberian president Charles Taylor for crimes committed in Sierra Leone.

This American support was welcome, but it has been almost as damaging to the ICC as the outright hostility of the US had been. It suggested that in the eyes of the US, the only real war crimes were those committed by Africans. To date, the thirty or so cases taken before the ICC all involve individuals from Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Libya, Mali, or Uganda. This selectivity led the African Union to label the ICC a “neo-colonial court” and urged its members to withdraw their cooperation from its prosecutions. However false the charge, it is easy to see how credible it might seem when the US has alternately endorsed the legitimacy of the ICC in prosecuting Africans and called the same court corrupt and out of control when it explores the possibility of investigating war crimes committed by Americans.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than forty member states of the ICC, most of them European but also including Japan, Chile, Colombia, and Costa Rica, formally asked the court “to investigate any acts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide alleged to have occurred on the territory of Ukraine from 21 November 2013 onwards.” The ICC prosecutor Karim Khan has begun to do this. Crucially, though Ukraine is not itself a party to the ICC, it had already accepted the court’s jurisdiction in relation to war crimes on its territory, first in 2014 and again in 2015, the second time “for an indefinite duration.”

It is Ukraine’s choice that the ICC be the body that investigates and prosecutes Russian atrocities against its people. This means that if there is to be any prospect of bringing Putin and his accomplices to justice for murder, rape, and torture, it must lie with the ICC. The “war crime trial” that Biden called for on April 4, if it were ever to be possible, could be conducted only at The Hague.

The Biden administration knows this very well. On April 11 Charlie Savage reported in The New York Times that officials are “vigorously debating how much the United States can or should assist an investigation into Russian atrocities in Ukraine by the International Criminal Court.” But the administration is simultaneously spreading a fog of vagueness over this very question. In his April 4 press briefing Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said, “Obviously, the ICC is one venue where war crimes have been tried in the past, but there have been other examples in other conflicts of other mechanisms being set up.” He promised that “the appropriate venue for accountability” would be decided “in consultation with allies and with partners around the world.” Yet all of those significant allies are members of the ICC, and the most important of them, Ukraine, has specifically given the court the job of trying to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Why continue to avoid this obvious truth? A yawning gap has opened between Biden’s grandiloquent rhetoric about Putin’s criminality on the one side and the deep reluctance of the US to lend its weight to the institution created by the international community to prosecute such transgressions of moral and legal order. It is a chasm in which all kinds of relativism and equivocation can lodge and grow. The longer the US practices evasion and prevarication, the easier it is for Putin to dismiss Western outrage as theatrical and hypocritical, and the more inclined other countries will be to cynicism.

It has been said repeatedly since February 24 that if the democracies are to defeat Putin, they must be prepared to sacrifice some of their comforts. Germany, for example, has to give up Russian natural gas. What the US must give up is the comfort of its exceptionalism on the question of war crimes. It cannot differentiate itself sufficiently from Putin’s tyranny until it accepts without reservation that the standards it applies to him also apply to itself. The way to do that is to join the ICC.

—April 28, 2022

The post Our Hypocrisy on War Crimes appeared first on The New York Review of Books.

As Ramadan Ends, Israeli Provocations Seem Aimed at a Religious War

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 03/05/2022 - 2:40am in

OCCUPIED EAST JERUSALEM, PALESTINE — On the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, at least 42 Palestinians were injured when Israeli police raided al-Aqsa Mosque Compound in occupied East Jerusalem, the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) said. With nearly 300 Palestininians injured in the last two weeks at al-Aqsa compound, this year’s Ramadan in Palestine has been marked by bloodshed once again. 

Since the start of Ramadan on April 2, human rights organizations have monitored a significant increase in violence against Palestinians. Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq has documented a worrying trend “in killings, excessive use of force, settler colonial violence, attacks on holy sites and worshippers, and collective punishment measures against Palestinians, including widespread raids, arbitrary arrests, and movement restrictions.” 

According to Al-Haq’s information, the Israeli army has killed 17 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in April. Since Al-Haq’s publication, Israeli forces fatally shot 18-year-old Ahmad Fathi Masad in the head during a raid on the Jenin refugee camp this week. 

 

Uptick in religious violations

Israeli police raids on al-Aqsa compound have become routine this month, with the PRCS noting the majority of injuries were to the upper areas of the body. Israeli forces have used rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and stun grenades against Palestinian worshippers at al-Aqsa

In recent weeks, Israeli forces have also broken the iconic stained-glass windows of al-Qibli Mosque, the main mosque in the compound, and have attacked Palestinian journalists, children, women and the elderly at the holy site.

Palestinian Authority (PA) Minister for Religious Endowments Sheikh Hatem al-Bakri told MintPress News that Israel’s actions at al-Aqsa compound are in violation of international regulations, UNESCO resolutions and religious traditions. 

In 2016, UNESCO, the UN’s world heritage organization, adopted a resolution decrying Israeli violations at al-Aqsa including restricting access to Muslim worship and storming of the compound by Israeli forces and extremists. 

“Israel is not respecting religious treaties at all, instead using their privilege of power to enact these policies,” al-Bakri said, emphasizing how the Jordanian Ministry of Waqf has full jurisdiction over the holy site. “And because of our weaknesses, we cannot run any military confrontation with Israel. We have to just witness what’s happening.”

Israeli police are not the only ones violating the sanctity of al-Aqsa. This month, the Jewish festival of Passover coincided with Ramadan. Jewish extremists used the holiday season to storm the compound and pray at the site more frequently. On April 17, Israeli forces shut Ibrahimi Mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron to Muslim worshippers for two days. That following Tuesday, hundreds of Jewish settlers stormed the mosque to perform Talmudic rituals in celebration of Passover. The Israeli army also erected military barricades surrounding the area of the mosque to facilitate the settlers’ movement. The director of the mosque, Ghassan Al-Rajabi, said the closure was a continuation of “Zionist authorities’ attempts to dominate and occupy the mosque.”

In 1994, Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers at Ibrahimi Mosque during Ramadan. Following the massacre, Israel divided the holy site into Muslim and Jewish sections, with Muslim access cut to 40%.

Last year, Israel authorities initiated excavation works at the mosque in order to install an elevator there. A Palestinian petition against the settler project was rejected by Israel’s Supreme Court on the grounds the elevator’s purpose is to ensure greater disability access. However, Palestinans stress the plan isn’t humanitarian in its purpose, instead giving cover for an attempt to confiscate land and further Judaize the mosque. 

Sheikh al-Bakri, who is also a preacher at Ibrahimi Mosque, said Israel’s tightened security measures around the religious site suggest a more sinister intention. “Israel has been trying to control that site through converting it from a place for worshipers to a military zone,” al-Bakri said. “All of the events that have been happening around that site make us believe that Israel is trying to turn the Muslim praying side into a synagogue.”

April saw an escalation against Palestinian Muslim and Christian worship as well. According to documentation from the Jerusalem Governorate, on April 23 Israeli forces prevented hundreds of Palestinian Christians from reaching the Church of Holy Sepulcher to celebrate the “Holy Fire” ceremony on the eve of Orthodox Easter.

Minister al-Bakri said Israeli violations against some mosques in Jerusalem have occurred this Ramadan, but emphasized the main offenses against Islam have been at the al-Aqsa and Ibrahimi mosques. 

“If Israel is violating these two big sites, then they can violate every site in the country,” al-Bakri said. “And we keep saying that if Israel is violating al-Aqsa, it’s violating every single Palestinian.”

 

Israel seeking a religious war 

As the end of Ramadan nears, Israeli police have banned non-Muslims from entering al-Aqsa compound for the last ten days of Ramadan. According to Jerusalem Governorate statistics, about 3,670 Jewish settlers invaded al-Aqsa Compound during the Passover holiday.

Amid the spike in Jews praying at the site, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid asserted Israel is committed to maintaining the status quo at al-Aqsa Compound. 

“Muslims pray on the Temple Mount [what Israel calls al-Aqsa Compound], non-Muslims only visit. There is no change, there will be no change,” Lapid said during a press conference

Yet Jordan, which has custodianship over the site, disagreed. The Jordanian Foreign Ministry warned in a statement that Israel is taking “targeted steps to change the historical and legal situation in the blessed al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” specifically condemning Israeli forces for raiding the area and allowing Jews to pray at al-Aqsa Compound. 

Jewish extremists often argue that denying Jewish prayer at al-Aqsa Compound is an obstruction of freedom of worship, given the area is deemed the holiest site in Judaism.  

“Al-Aqsa is only for Muslims,” PA Deputy Governor of Jerusalem Abdullah Siam told MintPress News, in response to accusations of religious discrimination. He suggested the current status quo has pushed Israel to take the site through force. 

Al-Bakri also agreed that al-Aqsa is strictly for Muslim worship. 

But Jewish extremists who spout claims of religious discrimination ignore the stark political element at play, Israeli journalist and activist Haggai Matar said. “[T]here are no equals in Israel-Palestine,” Matar wrote in +972 Magazine. “[I]t is Israel that has created a system of apartheid wherein … Jewish supremacy over Palestinians is guaranteed, maintained, and entrenched by law and by force.”

Just before the start of Ramadan, Israeli parliament member and leader of the far-right Jewish Power Party Itamar Ben-Gvir toured al-Aqsa Compound, escorted by police. This wasn’t his first incursion, and Minister al-Bakri said such provocative, politically-charged tours are how the Israeli government attempts to stabilize its fragile coalition. “Through these practices, [the government is] trying to get political acquisitions,” al-Bakri said. “The government of [Prime Minister] Naftali Bennett is weak, and in order for them to keep going, they have to encourage settlers to do more raids so as to win from that situation.”

Yet ultimately, Israel’s ongoing violations against Muslim worship, al-Bakri said, are “leading the area to a religious war between Islam and Judaism.” “We always say that our main problem is not with Judaism as a religion, but with the occupation,” al-Bakri said. “Although Israel has been using Judaism to shape its occupation.”

 

Ramadan violence on repeat

As they were last year, tensions in Palestine have been at a maximum high during Ramadan. 

In May 2021, violence erupted into a war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic faction governing Gaza. Israel’s 10-day assault on the besieged Gaza Strip left 256 Palestinians dead, including 66 children. Media pundits and experts have feared this Ramadan may reach last year’s deadly levels. 

For Minister al-Bakri, the atmosphere in Palestine is always volatile during Ramadan because Israel encourages a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. “Three months ago, Israel started talking in the media about a potential escalation, while the Palestinians hoped for a quiet month,” al-Bakri said, highlighting the number of Palestinians killed recently as meeting Israeli predictions. “Israel has been preparing the area for a potential problem by repeating these crisis slogans.”

Younes Arar, director of international and public relations and media for the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Colonization and Wall Resistance Commission, suggested the large number of Palestinians flocking to Jerusalem during Ramadan is part of why the holy month is a tense time — emphasizing how the restrictions on freedom of movement add to the provocations. “Israel uses this month to humiliate Palestinians, as much as they can,” Arar said. “Especially at the doors of al-Aqsa Mosque, knowing how much this situation is sensitive for Palestinians.”

Feature photo |

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.

The post As Ramadan Ends, Israeli Provocations Seem Aimed at a Religious War appeared first on MintPress News.

The West prepared to let Ukraine horror drag on

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 29/04/2022 - 2:35pm in

Millions around the world are watching events unfold in Ukraine with horror. Thousands dead, millions displaced, cities razed.

Russia should halt its invasion and withdraw its troops. But Western leaders are showing no interest in stopping the war.

Earlier, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky proposed that Ukraine would not join the NATO military alliance, which could have provided the basis for a ceasefire.

But instead of leaping at the opportunity, our leaders made it clear that they want the war to go on.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan put it bluntly, telling a US television host: “Our policy is unequivocal that we will do whatever we can to help Ukraine succeed …

“What we want to see is a free and independent Ukraine, a weakened and isolated Russia, and a stronger, more unified, more determined West,” he added. “We believe that all three of those objectives are in sight.”

It’s a reminder that this is a proxy conflict pitting the US and its allies against Russia, with the Ukrainian people as victims of the rivalry between the two imperialist power blocks.

The US wants to exhaust Russia, whose economy is already modest: fractionally bigger than Australia’s but with six times the population.

This would allow the US to reassert its dominance over Europe and send a message to its main global rival, China, that it can still call the shots—a point Scott Morrison has also been keen to make.

The likelihood that previously neutral Sweden and Finland will join the NATO military alliance is a boost for this strategy.

Specific

Following Russia’s withdrawal from around the capital Kyiv, Zelensky is now arguing that, with Western arms, Ukraine can win. He has withdrawn the idea of Ukraine staying out of NATO.

Hours before meeting US secretary of state Antony Blinken and US defence secretary Lloyd Austin in Kyiv during Orthodox Easter, Zelensky declared: “We are expecting not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons.”

For its part, Russia now plans to annex the eastern and southern provinces of Ukraine, creating a land corridor to the Russian minority territory of Transnistria in Moldova.

The West’s verbal aggression has been backed by a massive flow of armaments.

In Kyiv, Blinken and Austin announced almost $1 billion in military financing for Ukraine and 15 allies.

This is on top of eight instalments of military aid provided by the US since Russia invaded two months ago at a cost of $4.7 billion.

Initially, the US provided items such as anti-tank missiles, rifles and ammunition, worried about provoking Russia by arming Ukraine too heavily.

Ian Brzezinski, a former head of NATO policy at the Pentagon, told the Financial Times that the US was now providing heavy weapons. “It is a very clear and profound shift.”

Recent US support includes 72 howitzers, 72 armoured vehicles to tow them, 144,000 rounds of ammunition and more than 120 drones.

Britain has already sent 4800 anti-tank missiles and plans to send another 6000.

And Australia has been quick to add to this, most recently sending 20 Bushmaster armoured vehicles—organised in days while flood victims in NSW and Queensland were left without support.

Resistance

The US and its allies want to avoid direct conflict with Russia, which is why they have refused to implement a no-fly zone or send forces to Ukraine (although Britain now has military trainers on the ground).

But the West will continue to arm Ukraine even as the war drags on for potentially months or years.

If our rulers have no interest in stopping the war, it makes resistance to the warmongers by workers even more important.

Airport workers in Italy refused to load a cargo plane when they discovered that “humanitarian aid” for Ukraine consisted of weapons, ammunition and explosives.

As their union put it: “We strongly denounce this real fraud, which cynically uses the ‘humanitarian’ cover to continue to fuel the war in Ukraine.”

In Belarus, which neighbours Ukraine and whose dictator is a Russian ally, rail workers sabotaged signalling equipment to prevent the transport of military supplies.

In Greece, rail workers refused to transport US tanks destined for Ukraine from the northern port of Alexandroupoli.

Their union declared: “No participation of our country in military conflicts in Ukraine, which are committed in the interests of the few at the expense of the peoples.”

The likes of Biden and Morrison accept death and destruction as the necessary cost of maintaining military and economic power.

To stop the war, we need to build a movement that rejects the Russian invasion but is also completely opposed to the NATO war machine and its Australian ally that are fuelling it.

By David Glanz

The post The West prepared to let Ukraine horror drag on appeared first on Solidarity Online.

Fascists gain ground in French election despite Macron victory

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 29/04/2022 - 2:31pm in

Emmanuel Macron has beaten the fascist Marine Le Pen to take the French presidency. But Le Pen’s vote of 41.5 per cent was a significant increase on her total in the last run-off election.

As president for the past five years, Macron has provided no protection against the far right. Instead his policies have helped them grow.

His racist “separatism” law in 2021 forced dozens of mosques to close and shut down the Collective Against Islamophobia as well as several Muslim charities.

Macron’s attacks on pensions and workers’ living standards, his repression of the Yellow Vest movement and his backing for killer cops all helped Le Pen.

The fascist vote in elections has continually increased due to the failures of the mainstream parties.

From 15 per cent in the first round in 1995, it reached 18 per cent in 2012, 21 per cent in 2017 and 23 per cent this time. Combined with the vote of the even more virulently Islamophobic Eric Zemmour, the far right vote was 32 per cent.

The election result shows the deep and ongoing political crisis in France. What were until recently the two major parties on the right and the left have both collapsed.

The Republicans on the right received less than 5 per cent of the vote, while the Socialist Party, the equivalent of the Labor Party here, less than 2 per cent.

Left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon received 22 per cent of the vote, coming third overall and topping the poll in many major cities including Paris.

Racism and far right ideas have become shockingly mainstream.

Le Pen supported a complete ban on Muslims wearing the hijab in public, wanted to erode abortion rights, block criminal prosecutions against killer cops by giving them a “presumption of self-defence” and try to break trade union power.

She would also have unleashed her thug supporters, who have already attacked student occupations, to impose her authoritarian fascist project.

Le Pen claimed to be on the side of workers facing a cost of living crisis, winning support by opposing some of Macron’s attacks such as raising the retirement age from 62 to 65.

But Le Pen blamed immigrants for the crisis and wanted to deny them healthcare and housing subsidies, and remove citizenship rights. Her main slogan was “Give the French their country back”.

There has been a consistent failure to recognise the threat that Le Pen’s fascist party poses, and that it is not just another right-wing party.

The mainstream parties have continually sought to win over Le Pen’s voters through embracing her racist policies. This has served only to legitimise her.

Falling behind Macron

Many on the left called for a vote for Macron in the second round, as they did at the 2017 election, in a mistaken effort to stop Le Pen.

This only plays into the fascists’ hands, allowing them to pose as outsiders. It makes it easier for Le Pen to pose as standing up for workers’ living standards when the left is supporting Macron, who is widely seen as ruling for the rich.

In practice the call for a vote for Macron is a political alternative to building a movement on the streets. It demobilises the movement against both Le Pen and Macron.

It is a repeat of the Popular Front strategy of the 1930s that saw the left unite electorally with “moderate” right forces and fail to stop the fascists in Spain.

The past five years have seen powerful strikes and big protests for Black Lives Matter and against police brutality in France.

Students recently organised a surge of university occupations to express their fury at the right-wing presidential election run off.

Anti-racists have protested meetings of Le Pen’s supporters and, on 16 April, nearly 40,000 took part in anti-racist protests in Paris and 150,000 across the country.

Special police units set up by Macron fired tear gas at the anti-racist protesters.

Speaking from the Sorbonne university in Paris, history student Marie told the UK’s Socialist Worker, “We know Le Pen is a fascist. We do not want her as president. But Macron opened the road to her and has assaulted our Muslim sisters and brothers.

“It is a really rotten choice. Democracy is more than the twisted system we are offered. We say neither Macon nor Le Pen and we will protest for our futures.”

Le Pen and her fascist street thugs have had a setback at the ballot box but that won’t stop their bid for power. Building an anti-racist and anti-fascist movement in the streets and workplaces is an urgent task.

By Chris Breen

The post Fascists gain ground in French election despite Macron victory appeared first on Solidarity Online.

Will Biden’s New COVID Czar Protect The World Or Big Pharma?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 27/04/2022 - 8:31pm in

Will Biden’s New COVID Czar Protect The World Or Big Pharma?

Earlier this month, Dr. Ashish Jha started his job as the White House’s new COVID-19 Response Coordinator, the crucial point person who coordinates all federal health agencies and brings finalized pandemic-related proposals to the president’s desk.

A longtime physician, public health researcher, and skilled public communicator, Jha could use his nascent power to meet the moment and push for greater global vaccine equity. Only two-thirds of the global population have received at least one COVID vaccine dose, and many of those doses aren’t the powerful mRNA vaccines needed to combat novel variants. But Jha has a questionable history when it comes to picking fights for the sake of the public good, particularly on subjects like waiving intellectual property rights and holding Big Pharma accountable.

In his gig as a global health consultant at a powerful D.C. business strategy firm that has financial ties to one of the two major COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers, Jha has kept his client roster under wraps despite publicly promising to release a client list.

And during an interview last fall, Jha indicated he might be willing to let drugmakers off the hook when it comes to taking responsibility for preventable deaths caused by their reluctance to share the profitable secrets and technology behind their mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Such factors don’t bode well for those who hope that Jha might be willing to accomplish what his predecessor refused to do: pressure Big Pharma to help beat COVID-19 once and for all.

In his first few weeks on the job, Jha hasn’t helped matters by adopting a sanguine attitude toward the ongoing pandemic.

“I think we’ve got to be careful, but I don’t think this is a moment where we have to be excessively concerned,” Jha said during a Today Show appearance on his first day. That lax sentiment was largely echoed by Jha throughout his media blitz, as he conveyed that the pandemic is under control, and there need not be “substantial changes in what we should be doing.” Notably, Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Chris Murphy and Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive just a few weeks later, grinding key Senate activities, like confirming Biden’s Federal Reserve nominees, to a halt.

Between his history of playing nice with pharmaceutical interests and his laissez-faire response to the pandemic, experts are concerned that Jha could be unwilling to take the necessary steps to see the country — and the world — to the other side of COVID.

“It is unlikely that the Biden administration will adopt a more protective public health response at this point — all of their recent policies have pushed to normalize high levels of coronavirus spread and the high mortality rates that follow,” Justin Feldman, an epidemiologist and Health and Human Rights Fellow at Harvard University, told The Lever. “Nothing about Jha suggests that he will try to push the White House hard on policy questions or advocate for stronger public health measures. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that Jha will use his influence to advocate for minor improvements.”

Jha did not respond to multiple interview requests sent to the White House press office.

Jha’s Journey To D.C.

Jha’s penchant for translating wonky health data into broadly accessible information has made him a regular on cable news during the pandemic. Unlike his predecessor — the more camera-shy Jeffrey Zients, a management consultant and private equity investor who left the job several months after botching the administration’s response to COVID’s Omicron variant — Jha’s public communications focus is likely one of the main reasons he nabbed the COVID-19 czar gig in the first place.

But schmoozing on English-speaking cable news shows might not help Jha reach the people who actually need information about the virus. “I would be focusing on low-income populations and populations that speak other languages,” said Julia Raifman, an assistant professor of health law, policy, and management at Boston University’s School of Public Health, who noted that the Biden administration has so far failed to keep its promise to launch a multilingual vaccine information campaign.

Experts also hope Jha will address looming policy deadlines that could leave millions of Americans at risk of medical and financial disaster.

Feldman said if he were in Jha’s shoes, he would focus on “extending the Public Health Emergency, which may expire as soon as July 15. Among other things, allowing the emergency period to expire would push millions of Americans off of Medicaid, leaving many uninsured.”

But Jha’s track record suggests he might be unwilling to make such decisions or other moves without the White House’s full consent, since he tends to operate in lockstep with the Biden team. During the Omicron surge, he called it “terrific” and “consistent with the evidence” for the administration to support isolating COVID-positive people for only five days.

Later, the White House gave him early access to a February 2022 policy modification that shifted the government’s main COVID success metric from total case numbers to strain on hospital capacities, a change that coincided with the administration aiming for “living with the virus,” in the words of Dr. Anthony Fauci, rather than total prevention. That access allowed Jha to write a gushing review of the shift for the New York Times the day the policy was released — a move that prompted some back-patting from White House officials on Twitter.

A Missing Client List

But while Jha seems to be relishing his time in the limelight, much about his business links remains in the shadows — including his potential connections to Pfizer, the company that developed one of the world’s two mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.

For the last two years, Jha has been a consultant for Albright Stonebridge Group’s “Global Health Solutions” practice, which according to its website works on “pandemic-related recovery, transition, and long-term planning and resiliency efforts.” The website also says the practice advises on broader health care topics, like “digitally distributed care, workforce deployment, medical education, public health collaborations, medical research ecosystems, [and] regulatory reform.” Pfizer is a client of Albright Stonebridge, though not necessarily of the Global Health Solutions practice where Jha worked. Mark Elliott, a senior vice president at Albright Stonebridge, was Pfizer’s global head of lobbying before joining the consultancy.

While Jha claims he hasn’t received a penny of compensation from Albright, he hasn’t clarified what work he has undertaken for the firm. He promised on social media last year to release a client list, but has not yet done so. Brown’s School of Public Health, which employs Jha, also doesn’t disclose any of its corporate donors. Brown’s biology department has a program for Pfizer employees, but that department isn’t affiliated with the public health school led by Jha.

It's unclear just how long Jha will remain in the White House, and the Biden administration might try to dismiss concerns about potential conflicts of interest if his stint is short-term. Brown University’s press release about his appointment says Jha is taking “a short-term leave from the School of Public Health for the temporary special assignment.” This may indicate that the White House is winding down aspects of its COVID response team, in keeping with an overall policy shift toward pushing COVID into the background of American life.

If Jha’s stay in the West Wing is temporary, he might be considered a “Special Government Employee,” which could exempt him from having to file financial disclosure reports that might shed light on his pharmaceutical links. Zients, who worked at the White House for over a year, did file financial disclosures.

Soft On Big Pharma

As a public health expert, Jha should be keenly aware that only 66 percent of the global population has received at least one dose of any COVID-19 vaccine. African nations are particularly undervaccinated: Less than 17 percent of Africans have received even one dose. One estimate from the global public health advocacy group ONE finds that only 12.4 percent of people living in countries that the World Bank classifies as “low income” have been fully vaccinated.

Moreover, not all of the doses that have been administered are mRNA vaccines, which appear to offer the best protection against the virus, particularly against the variants that have emerged since 2019. Studies suggest that booster doses from mRNA vaccines are the best prevention against variants, meaning it is crucial for countries to administer multiple doses to unvaccinated populations as soon as possible.

Currently, however, only two of the 29 COVID-19 vaccines in circulation worldwide use mRNA technology — and those vaccines, developed by drug makers Pfizer and Moderna, have been overwhelmingly sold to the United States and other wealthy nations that can afford the high prices demanded by the pharmaceutical giants.

“​​[mRNA] vaccines provide the best protection against Omicron and are relatively easy to update for future variants,” said Feldman. “I would focus on ensuring the Global South has access to mRNA vaccines, which involves waiving intellectual property protections and helping transfer technical knowledge so that countries like Brazil and South Africa could manufacture them.”

This heightens the stakes of whether policymakers will move to waive international trade rules and force drug companies to share their mRNA COVID-19 vaccines and treatment recipes with the world. Notably, many of the scientific advancements which led to mRNA vaccine technology were funded by the federal government over the course of decades. The federal government also spent billions supporting clinical trials, ensuring domestic manufacturing capacity, and pre-purchasing doses to encourage companies to produce large numbers of vaccines immediately.

India and South Africa have proposed waiving the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for COVID-19 treatments. This would allow any capable manufacturer to produce the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and mandate technology transfers to poorer countries that request them.

While the Biden administration won plaudits last year for announcing it would support waiving trade rules to facilitate global vaccination efforts, so far Biden officials have refused to endorse the specific proposed TRIPS waiver under consideration at the World Trade Organization — and wealthy European countries have actively opposed the proposal. As Biden has hemmed and hawed on the issue, at least 4 million people died of COVID-19 worldwide throughout 2021, according to data from Lancet.

A new COVID-19 Response Coordinator could be instrumental in moving forward on the issue — but Jha hasn’t given much indication that he is willing to diverge from the status quo.

“The one sort of simple, simplistic thing that people often say, [is] ‘Oh, this is all about intellectual property and we should just take these patents and make them public,’” Jha told The New York Times’ Ezra Klein in a March 2021 interview. “It’s not about that. There aren’t that many companies that can make these things. They’re actually complicated to make.” But in fact, sites worldwide could be converted to produce mRNA vaccines relatively quickly, if Pfizer and Moderna initiated technology transfer.

This isn’t the only example of Jha refusing to take a strong stand on waiving intellectual property protections to aid global vaccination efforts. Last October, Jha interviewed Noubar Afeyan as part of a series run by Brown University. Afeyan is co-founder and the board chairman of Moderna, the company behind the other revolutionary mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, from which it made $11.3 billion in 2021 alone. Afeyan is also the CEO of Flagship Pioneering, a venture capital firm that boasts Moderna as its most famous portfolio company.

Jha’s interview with Afeyan mostly involved flattering the CEO. But prompted by an audience question, Jha asked Afeyan about whether the need to save lives outweighed the company’s perceived right to profit. In other words, he was putting forward the question he should now be asking as the federal government’s chief COVID official — but he did so with a very light touch.

“I do not have to tell you that there has been frustration — and I want to talk about whether rightly or wrongly — with the companies that have built these incredible, life-saving vaccines,” said Jha, adding that he felt “incredibly blessed” to have personally received the Moderna vaccine. “As an entrepreneur and as a person who looks at billions of dollars in private investment and think[s] ‘you have to recoup it,’ and ‘you have to have the private markets work,’ how do you deal with the fact that we’ve got to do a better job in general improving access to lifesaving medicines?”

Jha received a defensive response from Afeyan.

“Before we had a vaccine that was authorized, we, Moderna, unilaterally announced that we would not enforce our intellectual property during the pandemic for anyone who uses our intellectual property to fight the pandemic,” said Afeyan. “We own a vast amount of intellectual property in the use of mRNA for vaccines. Predates everyone by many years. And we took that step unilaterally.”

But Moderna only proposed waiving enforcement of its patents to allow other developers to develop their own vaccines, not to allow manufacturers to copy Moderna’s specific COVID-19 vaccine for free. “Beyond Moderna’s vaccine, there are other COVID-19 vaccines in development that may use Moderna-patented technologies [...] while the pandemic continues, Moderna will not enforce our COVID-19 related patents against those making vaccines intended to combat the pandemic,” Moderna said. Allowing other companies to try to develop their own vaccines is not the same as allowing anyone to build Moderna’s proven COVID-19 vaccine.

Moreover, five months after Afeyan’s conversation with Jha, Moderna announced a partial reversal of that open-door intellectual property policy, saying that outside of Africa, “vaccine supply is no longer a barrier to access. In these countries, the Company expects those using Moderna-patented technologies will respect the Company's intellectual property.” The original version of the “unilateral announcement” that Afeyan trumpeted is no longer on the Moderna website.

More importantly, providing access to intellectual property does little good without also providing access to the technology needed to apply it. A doctor might be able to learn the formula for Moderna’s vaccine, but unless Moderna shares how it built the relevant machinery and used it to construct its serum, more vaccines won’t be created in the next year or two.

In his interview with Jha, Afeyan stayed on message, implying that there’s no need to transfer technology if Pfizer and Moderna eventually can provide enough doses. Even accepting the risky assumption that there are enough vaccines for the world, there remains the problem of distribution. Neither Pfizer nor Moderna have donated the number of doses they promised to in 2020, and an October 2021 report from the People’s Vaccine coalition found wealthy nations’ governments had donated just 14 percent of the doses they originally promised.

As a longtime public health expert, Jha is vastly more qualified than the White House’s last COVID czar. But he must recognize that there is a fight underway between Pharma’s thirst for profit and the imperative to end the pandemic and save lives at home and abroad. With the full power of the entire federal health apparatus behind him, he will have to pick a side — and millions of lives depend on his decision.

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Amazon union win shows how workers can beat the billionaires

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/04/2022 - 2:02pm in

“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space, because while he was up there we were organising a union,” the president of the newly formed Amazon Labor Union (ALU), Chris Smalls, told reporters after their spectacular victory in Staten Island, New York.

Workers at the JFK8 Amazon warehouse have become the first Amazon workplace in the US to unionise, in another example of workers in the US fighting back following the pandemic.

The historic win was a true David vs Goliath battle, with the ALU—a newly formed union run by current and former Amazon workers—taking on the country’s second largest employer and the second richest man on the planet.

But the win was no fluke. It was the result of hard organising work that is ripe with lessons for workers everywhere on how we can build union power from the bottom up.

The union push began when Smalls was fired for organising a walkout at the warehouse over COVID safety in 2020. He continued organising with workers there from the outside.

The bus stop outside the facility soon became the hub of ALU organising, with a core team of mostly young workers intercepting workers on their way home. Here they provided food and spent endless hours talking union, distributing material and building relationships with their co-workers.

What is remarkable is that the campaign was run entirely by rank-and-file workers. They used Gofundme to cover costs and found a pro bono lawyer through Twitter. Smalls remarked, “All I had was 20 core committee members and a workers’ committee of over 100 people. We started with about four.”

Smalls’ apartment was the site of an extraordinary phone contacting operation, where hundreds of workers were called every day in the lead up to the vote, with the help of volunteers from various unions and left groups.

Break rooms at the warehouse also became key bases for union activity. Activists would spend up to 12 hours a day in the break rooms handing out leaflets, giving out food and talking to workers. It took incredible dedication.

One of the organisers, Angelika Maldonado, explained, “Those of us on the committee were in the building seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Even on our off days we were in the building—after I picked up my son from school and it was my off day, I always headed straight to the building.”

Working conditions at Amazon are notoriously brutal, with workers on wages that they can barely live on and regular shifts of ten or 12 hours. The company imposes restrictive controls on workers, refusing to allow them to sit down all shift, limiting breaks and monitoring the time workers take to go to the bathroom.

Union busting

The union victory is all the more impressive considering Amazon’s colossal union-busting operation. The company covered the warehouses in anti-union posters. This was coupled with a website and social media campaign, as well as “captive audience” meetings workers were forced to attend with presentations on the dangers of joining a union. Millionaire “consultants” paid thousands of dollars a day were flown in to lobby individual workers.

The ALU took this head on. They stood firm against threats of retribution in captive audience meetings to insist they be allowed to argue their side. They gathered information on the consultants, compiling dossiers that allowed them to argue these were “rich people convincing poor people to stay poor”, as Smalls put it.

They exposed the consultants on social media, followed them around to catch every worker they talked to, and took them to court over intimidation and threats. Amazon was forced to sign a national agreement not to retaliate against workers trying to organise.

Amazon tried to tell workers the union was a harmful “outside influence” and would take their money through union dues. The democratic, worker-led nature of the ALU demolished those claims.

Amazon used racist propaganda to depict the predominantly black unionists as “thugs” and drug-dealing criminals and tried to divide the workforce. But the ALU drew in organisers from among all the diverse ethnic and migrant backgrounds of workers at the facility, circulating material in a range of languages and holding street kitchens with different national cuisines as part of the organising effort.

Since the win, workers at more than 50 Amazon sites across the US have contacted the ALU for help. Another warehouse at the same complex on Staten Island will vote on joining the union on 25 April.

And the effects will be felt much further than Amazon. The ALU members at JFK8 have shown workers everywhere that it’s possible to defeat the mightiest of enemies. They’ve shown that if we organise ourselves, we can win.

By Cooper Forsyth

The post Amazon union win shows how workers can beat the billionaires appeared first on Solidarity Online.

The Defense Industry’s Ukraine Pundits

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 12/04/2022 - 8:31pm in

The Defense Industry’s Ukraine Pundits

Last week, CNN brought on former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for his fourth recent appearance to talk, once again, about Russian President Vladimir Putin's deadly invasion of Ukraine.

“I think we need to understand that there is only one thing that Putin understands, and that's force,” said Panetta on Newsroom.

The former CIA director added: “I think the United States has to provide whatever weapons are necessary to the Ukrainians, so that they can hit back, and hit back now.”

At no time did Panetta nor CNN mention that he’s a senior counselor at Beacon Global Strategies, a defense industry consulting firm that has reportedly represented weapons manufacturer Raytheon. The firm doesn’t disclose its clients, but Raytheon and the defense industry generally stand to benefit from the conflict in Ukraine.

The episode is part of a broader pattern and practice: Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, cable news networks have routinely called on defense officials-turned-consultants to offer analysis and help the American public make sense of the crisis. Often, these analysts have used their TV time to call for greater U.S. involvement and bolder moves that could ratchet up tensions between two nuclear-armed superpowers.

The networks have consistently failed to disclose these analysts’ day jobs, describing them instead by only their former high-ranking military or government roles — leaving viewers in the dark about the analysts’ financial ties to defense contractors that stand to profit from increased or prolonged conflict.

During its Ukraine coverage, MSNBC even failed to include disclosures when the network invited on former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who serves on the board of directors at Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest defense contractor.

When asked about this matter, Johnson told The Lever, “I have no comment.”

Corporate media’s lack of transparency about these consultants is deeply troubling, said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.

“This type of revolving-door behavior should be prohibited for military officials to serve in a private capacity representing military contractors,” Holman told The Lever. “If not prohibited, it should be disclosed to everyone so when they’re going on television trying to affect Biden's policy on whatever war they have in mind, they ought to be straightforward.”

The phenomenon is not new. In an analysis of three weeks of news coverage following last year’s U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) found that 20 of the 22 featured guests from the U.S. on the networks’ Sunday shows had ties to the military-industrial-complex. At that point, too, the TV networks regularly neglected to disclose their guests’ ties to the defense industry. But the stakes are now much higher: Military conflict between the U.S. and Russia could make for a world-ending disaster, which is why the Biden administration has been reluctant to take major actions that could be perceived as escalatory.

But the Ukraine crisis and the potential for greater conflict have been a goldmine for defense contractors, sending stocks skyrocketing and prompting sharp increases in defense spending.

“The people who have the most interest in influencing the direction of the coverage are weapons makers,” Jim Naureckas, editor at FAIR, told The Lever. “They have the most direct financial stake in the way we cover issues of war and peace. Unfortunately, they are interested in more war and less peace.”

Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, U.S. defense stocks in leading companies like Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin have surged, and they are expected to continue rising in the coming months. And in the wake of Russia’s invasion, President Biden signed into law a spending package that directs a record-breaking $782 billion towards defense — almost $30 billion above his initial request.

According to The Hill, “The additional Ukraine aid comes on top of more than $1 billion the U.S. has already spent in the past year to arm Ukrainian soldiers with modern weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, manufactured by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies, and Raytheon’s anti-aircraft Stinger missiles.”

Cashing In On Military Experience

With stories about Russia’s invasion dominating the news, networks have had tons of pundit slots to fill. Those spots have largely gone to high-ranking ex-military officials, who often find lucrative careers in the influence industry working on behalf of defense contractors — and who tend to spout hawkish rhetoric that aligns with how corporate media generally covers conflict. Most of the time, however, the networks have failed to divulge how such martial bombast could aid these former officials’ private-sector employers.

For instance, Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff at the Pentagon and the CIA under President Barack Obama, has been a recurring guest on MSNBC and NBC during their coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.

Bash, who was named a national security analyst for NBC and MSNBC in 2017, is also a founder and managing director at Beacon Global Strategies, which describes itself as “a strategic advisory firm specializing in international policy, defense, cyber, intelligence, and homeland security.” While Beacon Global Strategies does not disclose its clients, the firm has worked for defense giant Raytheon, according to the New York Times.

Days after Putin first launched the invasion of Ukraine, Bash went on NBC’s Meet the Press, eager to weigh in on the whole affair — presenting it as “an opportunity for the United States and the west to actually deliver a very fatal blow to Russia's ambitions on the global stage.”

“I think swallowing Ukraine, a country the size of Texas, with 40 million people, is unprecedented since World War II,” he said. “And if the United States can train and equip the Ukrainians and, I think, engage in a second Charlie Wilson's War, basically the sequel to the movie and the book, which is arming and training a determined force that will shoot Russian aircraft out of the sky, open up those tanks with can-openers, like the Javelins, and kill Russians, which is what our equipment is doing, I think this is a huge opportunity to hit Putin very hard.”

Javelin anti-tank missiles are manufactured jointly by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. At no point did anyone involved in the broadcast mention that Bash’s consulting firm has worked for Raytheon.

Admiral James Stavridis, an advisory board member at Beacon Global Strategies, has also made frequent recent appearances on MSNBC. Stavridis is also the vice chair of global affairs and managing director at private equity giant Carlyle Group, which has a history of investing in the defense and national security markets.

Stavridis pushed a war-hungry stance on MSNBC’s The Beat with Ari Melber shortly after the Russian invasion began. “In NATO, where I was supreme allied commander, you flood the zone in Eastern Europe,” said Stavridis. “You bring in troops, tanks, missile systems, warships, all the above, in order to send a signal to Vladimir Putin.”

On Meet The Press a couple weeks later, Stavridis recommended that the U.S. send more anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine to allow the country to create its own no-fly zone: “What we ought to do is give the Ukrainians the ability to create a no-fly zone,” he said. “More Stingers, more missiles that can go higher than Stingers.”

Stinger missiles are manufactured by Raytheon, Beacon Global Strategies’ reported client. Again, MSNBC failed to disclose information about Stavridis’ firm or its work for Raytheon.

Stavridis also called on the United States to approve an arms transfer proposed by Poland, which offered to send Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine — via an American air force base in Germany, with the expectation that the U.S. would then supply Poland with replacement planes. “Get those MiG-29s in their hands,” said Stavridis.

The Biden administration shot down that plan on the basis that it could significantly escalate tensions between the U.S. and Russia. A Pentagon spokesperson said that “we do not believe Poland's proposal is a tenable one.”

Beacon Global Strategies did not respond to a request for comment.

“I'd Love To See NATO Move In There”

Bash and Stavridis aren’t the only high-ranking national security officials-turned-pundits working as consultants who have lately been beating the drums of war.

Retired U.S. combat general Barry McCaffrey, for example, has been a mainstay on MSNBC. During an appearance on The Beat with Ari Melber, he lauded NATO and the European Union’s early decision to bring more than 7,000 U.S. troops and armored vehicles from Fort Stewart, Georgia, into Germany.

McCaffrey — who made the controversial Gulf War decision for his infantry division to fire on Iraqi soldiers, civilians, and children after a ceasefire was already underway — runs a consulting firm called BR McCaffrey Associates LLC. According to the business’ website, McCaffrey’s firm promises to help clients “build linkages between government and private sector clients; design public relations, media, advertising and legislative strategies; and provide client specific analysis of U.S. and international political and economic issues.”

In the years following 9/11, McCaffrey pushed for an endless Iraq War, including on NBC, without disclosing his financial interests: McCaffrey’s consulting firm was working behind the scenes to help at least one defense company secure a contract supplying Iraq with armored vehicles.

Former CIA Director and retired army general David Petraeus, meanwhile, has made multiple appearances on CNN recently, during which he talked about the need to get MiGs “into Ukrainian skies.” Petraeus is a partner at private equity giant KKR, a firm with significant defense business. He also serves on the board of directors at Optiv, which provides cybersecurity technology and services across the U.S. government, including the Department of Defense.

Retired army general Wesley Clark has also made a handful of appearances on CNN, voicing his opinion that this “battle is a long way from over, provided we can continue to provide replenishment to the weapons to the Ukrainians.”

Clark has long enjoyed a lucrative career working with defense companies. He runs a strategic consulting firm, Wesley K. Clark & Associates, which says it “uses his expertise, relationships, and extensive international reputation and experience in the fields of energy, alternative energy, corporate and national security, logistics, aerospace and defense, and investment banking.”

Last week on CNN, Clark was asked about the idea of sending a NATO task force to patrol waters off the coast of the Ukrainian city of Odessa.

“I'd love to see NATO move in there with a task force,” he said. “I don't think it's going to happen in the near term because of NATO's reluctance to come into direct conflict with Russian forces… But I do think it's important.”

“You Can't Give Away The Game”

Michèle Flournoy, a former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense under Obama, has appeared on CNN at least twice in recent weeks to advocate for greater direct military support to Ukraine. Flournoy is now co-founder and managing partner at WestExec Advisors, whose clients include aerospace and defense companies like Boeing. She also serves on the board of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

Flournoy didn’t disclose any of that when she went on State of the Union in early March to push for increasing military aid to Ukraine. “We need to be supplying Ukrainians with as much as we possibly can, munitions like anti-tank Javelin missiles, anti-air Stinger missiles,” she said. “And I think we should also be trying to get them some more of the planes that they know how to fly, MiGs from Eastern Europe, that could enable them to be much more effective in protecting the skies.”

On Amanpour a few days later, Flournoy doubled down on the idea of providing more weapons to Ukraine. “I think we need to bend over backwards to help the Ukrainians as much as possible,” she said. “This is not going to be over anytime soon.”

Flournoy’s appearance on Amanpour was one of the rare instances where CNN actually disclosed her work at WestExec Advisors — but the network didn’t mention the firm’s defense-industry clients. Naureckas, of FAIR, doesn’t simply blame pro-war talking heads for failing to disclose their defense-industry ties. He says it’s also up to the journalists running these cable news shows to help the public understand that these “military experts” have a stake in pushing for war.

“Everyone involved is aware of the transaction that is going on,” said Naureckas. “Journalists know this as well, but you can’t admit it because that would spoil the grift if you said, ‘Here’s a person who’s funded by the weapons industry to tell you about this crisis.’ It should be the reporter's instinct to explain the agenda of the people they are quoting, but because this is such an integral part of what is done in the journalism system, you can't give away the game.”

CNN and NBC did not respond to requests for comment.

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Russian Oligarchs Find Ally In America’s Small Business Lobby

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 15/03/2022 - 9:31pm in

Russian Oligarchs Find Ally In America’s Small Business Lobby

As the U.S. government attempts to enforce sweeping sanctions against Russian oligarchs, corporate lobbying groups — including one that purports to represent small businesses — are working to water down an anti-money laundering law that will require corporations to disclose their owners to financial regulators.

U.S.-based shell companies, or companies that only exist on paper, have become some of the money laundering and tax evasion vehicles of choice for oligarchs around the globe. Right now, criminals and sanctioned individuals attempting to launder money in the United States can do so fairly easily by forming an anonymous company and using it to open a bank account or store assets, because ownership information is secret. More than 80 percent of money laundering cases in the U.S. between 2015 and 2020 involved the use of a shell company.

The Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), passed in 2020, is designed to put a stop to this.

The law will require U.S.-based limited liability corporations (LLCs), shell companies, and firms with fewer than 20 employees to disclose their owners to the government, so that criminals or people subject to sanctions cannot hide their money in U.S. bank accounts. The database will not be made public; it will only be accessible to federal enforcement agencies and financial institutions. Because the information will be available to the IRS, it could also be used to crack down on individual and corporate tax evasion.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a lobbying group that calls itself “the voice of small business,” fought the legislation before it passed in 2020, asserting that it raised privacy concerns and could require businesses to spend roughly two and a half more hours on paperwork each year. The group has since pushed to repeal the law, and is now attempting to strip down the measure in the rulemaking process before the Biden administration implements it.

Congress already exempted certain types of corporations from the law, including banks, public companies, large companies, private equity firms and hedge funds, and a number of other entities which are more subject to regulatory scrutiny. As the Treasury Department works to finalize the details about what constitutes a company owner, the NFIB and other corporate lobbying groups are trying to use that process to further gut the law and carve out additional exemptions for their members.

Experts say the inconveniences of the CTA would be a small price to pay for implementing a law that experts say could play a key role in enforcing sanctions against Russian oligarchs who have historically used shell corporations to launder money in the United States.

A few days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the FACT Coalition, a financial transparency watchdog, declared in a press release that the Treasury Department should “move forward expeditiously with implementing the Corporate Transparency Act,” noting: “There is ample evidence of how Russian oligarchs have exploited U.S. entities to advance their own economic and political ends.”

“The Only Substantial Reason For Opposing This Is If You Have Something To Hide”

The NFIB, which rakes in nearly $100 million annually, claims to represent “several hundred thousand small and independent businesses in all fifty states,” although its membership list is not public. (The vast majority of U.S. businesses, including LLCs are “small businesses” based on the government’s definition.)

The organization has emerged as one of the primary opponents of the CTA, which passed with bipartisan support in 2020 as part of the annual defense spending bill.

The NFIB maintained that it opposed the CTA for two main reasons: the “paperwork burdens” it would place on its members, and the privacy risks of maintaining an ownership database (even though it would not be public). In 2019, the NFIB released a study claiming that the annual cost of compliance with the law would be “equivalent to an annual average of $573 million in monetized regulatory costs,” but did not provide a methodology for the study.

Finance experts don’t buy the idea that the law would generate an onerous amount of paperwork.

“All you have to do is provide four pieces of very simple information,” explained Lakshmi Kumar, policy director for Global Financial Integrity, a think tank which studies illicit finance. “This is very easy, not at all complex, especially for a small business that has only one or two owners. On top of that, there is no penalty for inadvertently making a mistake.”

Kumar pointed out that the United States is an outlier in not maintaining a beneficial ownership database — something that all European Union countries already do. “Our allies in the EU and the UK have already passed legislation, and the one thing that has not happened is it has not undermined the economy or productivity.”

The UK parliament is currently working on legislation to close loopholes in its own beneficial ownership registry to buttress the government’s ability to enforce sanctions.

“Requiring companies to name their beneficial owners is about as burdensome as asking your kid to put his name on his school lunchbox,” said Matt Gardner, an expert at the tax watchdog Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, adding that that “the only substantial reason for opposing this is if you have something to hide.”

The NFIB did not respond to requests for comment.

The group has also complained about potential “privacy issues surrounding the highly personal and sensitive data collected by the federal government, stored in a database maintained by [the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network], and made accessible, under certain circumstances, to law enforcement agencies, federal agencies, and financial institutions.”

As the NFIB wrote in a recent comment letter to the Treasury Department, “This FinCEN dragnet collection of intelligence on small businesses in America imposes growth-stunting costs on the American economy and tramples the liberty and privacy of Americans.”

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, is the bureau within the Treasury Department that enforces anti-money laundering laws and would maintain the CTA registry.

FinCEN has disputed the NFIB’s privacy arguments. According to the agency’s notice of proposed rulemaking on the CTA, “The privacy impact of reporting [beneficial ownership information] to FinCEN is relatively light, because, unlike beneficial ownership registries in many other countries, FinCEN's database will not be public and will be subject to stringent access protocols.”

The agency cited a report in its notice by Global Financial Integrity that found that more information is required to open a library card in all 50 states than to set up an anonymous shell company.

Meanwhile, experts say the government needs access to this basic information for anti-money laundering and tax enforcement purposes. “The purpose of the CTA is to give a fiscally challenged agency the breadcrumbs it needs to enforce the law in a cost-effective way,” said Gardner.

Corporate Carve-Outs

The Treasury Department missed a key rulemaking deadline this winter, so the CTA will not be implemented until 2023 at the earliest. Part of the delay may be due to the perpetual underfunding of FinCEN, which has hamstrung efforts to enforce other anti-money laundering laws and could make it challenging to fully enforce this one. But the agency has also seen a flood of input from corporate lobbying groups asking the Treasury Department to water down the law and exempt more corporations from its requirements.

A Treasury spokesperson told The Financial Times about the delays, “The insights and views of stakeholders — including federal agencies, states, tribes and the private sector — provided in response to [a request to comment] are invaluable to the rulemaking process, and help inform both the [proposed rule] and the final rule.”

The NFIB, for its part, asked Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to submit a law to Congress to repeal the law. But “pending repeal,” NFIB called upon the Treasury Department to extend the comment period and the time period  companies have to report relevant information, weaken the law’s accuracy verification requirements, and limit the kinds of “beneficial owners” companies have to disclose.

Other corporate lobbying groups have weighed in with similar demands.

The National Association of Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, two major corporate lobbying groups representing tens of thousands of corporations, both submitted comments asking for more exemptions than provided in the proposed rule and a narrower definition of what constitutes a beneficial owner.

The Chamber had supported the CTA in 2020, after initially opposing it, helping pave the way for its passage.

Meanwhile, the private investment industry, which includes private equity firms and hedge funds and has already successfully lobbied to exempt itself from this and other signature anti-money laundering laws, is also calling on the Treasury Department to exempt all pooled investment vehicles from the law.

Pooled investment vehicles are portfolios set up by private investment advisers and split into shares for multiple investors to buy, such as hedge funds, real estate trusts, or exchange-traded funds.

Exposing The Tax Cheats

While the CTA might not create real paperwork burdens or privacy concerns, the law could cause another problem that corporate lobbying groups may be less eager to acknowledge: It could enable federal authorities to crack down on the growing trend of individual and corporate tax evasion.

​​“Tracking international tax cheats is an important goal of our beneficial ownership legislation,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), one of the bill’s sponsors, told The Daily Poster. “American shell companies shouldn’t facilitate tax evasion — or any illegal behavior.”

Corporations increasingly use domestic and offshore shell companies to shield income and assets from high tax rates. The registry of owners of shell companies created by the CTA would be accessible by the IRS. Mounting research and troves of leaked documents have shown that not only are shell companies a key site of money laundering, but they are also increasingly a tool of individual and corporate tax avoidance.

“For pass-through entities, the government is seeking to tax the people who own the entities, not the entities themselves,” Susan Morse, a tax policy expert at the University of Texas Law School, told The Daily Poster. “When an entity moves money around, or a bank account that's not clearly associated with an actual beneficial owner moves money around, then it’s easier to hide both from tax authorities and other government authorities such as those who might be interested in locating the proceeds of criminal activity.”

Morse submitted a comment letter urging the Treasury Department to design the final regulations in a way that makes the information useful to tax authorities in addition to anti-money laundering authorities. “Understanding who owns what is essential to tax enforcement,” she said.

The IRS doesn’t currently know the extent to which companies are using anonymous shell companies to avoid taxes. A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, published by tax experts including IRS economists, found that IRS audits “do not capture most tax evasion through offshore accounts and pass-through businesses, both of which are quantitatively important at the top.”

Pass-through businesses, or entities which are not taxed themselves but instead whose owners are taxed — comprise about 40 percent of the tax gap between how much taxpayers owe and how much is actually collected, according to the Brookings Institution.

Public corporations are required to report their LLC subsidiaries to the IRS, but perpetually underreport. According to a 2017 report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, where Gardner works, large corporations were reporting different subsidiary data to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Reserve, both of which have reporting requirements.

“An ITEP analysis of 25 Fortune 500 companies that disclose subsidiary data to both the [SEC] and the Federal Reserve revealed that weak SEC disclosure rules allowed these companies to omit 91 percent of their subsidiaries on average compared to Federal Reserve data,” the report found.

The CTA, Gardner said, provides an essential antidote to this problem. “Until this legislation is fully implemented, the IRS doesn’t have the tools to ask these questions about the thousands of offshore subsidiaries corporations have established.”

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Sanctions on Russia will punish ordinary people, not Putin

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 14/03/2022 - 3:15pm in

Western powers have imposed crippling economic sanctions against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.

With Scott Morrison screeching his condemnation of Putin for the TV cameras, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australia was determined to impose a “high price” on “those responsible for, and complicit in, Russia’s war on Ukraine”.

They make it sound as if Putin and his inner circle are their targets but most of the pain will be borne by ordinary Russians, who had no say in the invasion and who suffer from the censorship and brutality of the Putin regime.

The West claims the sanctions will encourage ordinary Russians to rise up against Putin. But they are just as likely to strengthen nationalism and support for his regime.

Putin will blame the West for the suffering inflicted on the Russian people and present his government as the only force able to stand up to it.

Sanctions imposed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, for instance, strengthened Saddam Hussein’s control of the country and hatred of the West. US and Western sanctions have been imposed on many other countries including Iran, North Korea and Cuba but have never toppled these regimes.

The main sanctions imposed by the European Union, Britain, the US and Canada, supported by Australia, are:

•  The removal of the most important Russian banks from SWIFT, the financial information service that underpins the movement of money around the world

•  Preventing the Russian Central Bank from using the money it has deposited in western banks and financial assets to stabilise the Russian economy

•  Bans on the selling of goods that have a potential military or paramilitary use. That could include almost anything: clothing, vehicles, construction materials.

The attack on the Russian financial system is aimed at wrecking the entire Russian economy. A recent White House press briefing explained the strategy: “The rouble is in freefall, and soon you’ll see inflation spike and economic activity contract.”

As the rouble, the Russian currency, fell sharply in value, Russians lined up at ATMs to withdraw foreign currency until it ran out. The Central Bank doubled the interest rate to 20 per cent.

Smash

The attack on the Russian financial system means that the country and many of its major corporations will not be able to pay interest on its foreign currency loans, nor raise new loans. It will make every international transaction harder, if not impossible.

The US Government’s plan to deliberately smash the living standards of ordinary Russians was made clear at a briefing in the White House in January, which pointed out that in 2014: “When we imposed sanctions that are far less severe than we’re contemplating now… Inflation spiked to the mid-teens. Interest rates were hiked on an emergency basis to the mid-teens. That collapsed real purchasing power. That collapsed real consumption and investment. And Russia ended up with a meaningful recession.”

The sanctions have to be seen for what they are—a declaration of economic war on an imperial rival; not an attempt to stop the invasion of Ukraine. As the White House officials said, they aim to “undercut Putin’s aspirations to exert influence on the world stage”. This is NATO’s real agenda; the Ukrainian people are the meat in the sandwich, brutally squeezed by both great powers.

After the announcement of the financial system sanctions, there was an immediate impact on global commodity markets. The price of food, globally, had already risen around 80 per cent during 2020-2021 due to the pandemic. Russia and Ukraine produce about a quarter of the world’s wheat. Now the price is spiralling upwards again.

It will be the world’s poor who pay for this as wheat and bread become unaffordable for tens of millions of people.

Pathway to war

But even greater horrors face us if NATO is able to keep these sanctions in force.

Sanctions have frequently led to actual, shooting wars. The sanctions put on Iraq by the US and its allies crippled the Iraqi economy and caused mass starvation. Medicines were cut off after the refrigeration and transport they required were sanctioned. Around half a million children died in a decade.

And the end result? America fabricated a charge that Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction, and used that as the excuse to invade in 2003.

Even more significantly, sanctions were the trigger for the Pacific War between the Japanese empire and the American empire, which started in December 1941.

The two empires were competing for control in China. The US government tried to force Japan to pull back from seizing territory that the Americans wanted to dominate. When they refused, the US blocked the export of aviation fuel to Japan, leaving them with the choice of surrender or war. Pearl Harbour was the result.

The appalling sanctions imposed by the US and NATO, backed by Morrison, could easily drive Putin to escalate or start a wider war as the only way to avoid economic and political collapse. Putin’s first response was to put his nuclear weapons on high alert.

Such a wider war could be the ultimate catastrophe for humanity, and all life on planet earth.

By Phil Griffiths

The post Sanctions on Russia will punish ordinary people, not Putin appeared first on Solidarity Online.

The Last of Her Kind

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 13/03/2022 - 12:03am in

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin with his dog Konni at Putin’s house in Sochi, RussiaGerman chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian president Vladimir Putin meeting with journalists at Putin’s house in Sochi, Russia, January 2007. Putin summoned his dog Konni into the room since Merkel was known to be afraid of dogs.

In 1989, as the Berlin Wall was breached and the political order of Europe was upended, two obscure people in their mid-thirties watched it happen from inside an imploding Communist state, the German Democratic Republic. In Dresden, Vladimir Putin, an agent of the KGB, burned secret files in a furnace at the intelligence agency’s headquarters. He most probably observed the chancellor of the other Germany, Helmut Kohl, sweep into Dresden and address an enthusiastic crowd about the unity of the German nation. Putin knew the end was nigh.

Just 120 miles away in East Berlin, Angela Merkel, a disillusioned and rather bored quantum chemist, joined a good-natured crowd of her fellow easterners surging across the Bornholmer Bridge into West Berlin. She looked around for a while and met some of the native westerners. But she did not overdo the celebrations. “I had to get up early the next morning,” she later explained. “And this much foreign company was enough for the time being.” While Putin saw these events as cataclysmic, Merkel already seemed to have the strangely phlegmatic attitude toward grand ideas of history that would characterize her sixteen-year reign as chancellor of the united Germany.

In the dissolution of the GDR, both Putin and Merkel lost a kind of home. Putin’s wife, Lyudmilla, recalled, “We had the horrible feeling that the country that had almost become our home would soon cease to exist.” Except for the first weeks of her life in her birthplace, Hamburg, Merkel had spent all of her thirty-five years in the GDR. Both, too, experienced the overthrow of a presiding pantheon: the gods of Marxism-Leninism.

In Putin’s case, the violent aftereffects of that psychological shock remain all too obvious. It is striking, though, that Merkel told her friend the film director Volker Schlöndorff that he and other westerners would never quite understand those like her who had grown up behind the wall: “We can learn to be like you. But you can never figure us out. Because our master”—she used the German word Lehrmeister, which also connotes a teacher or instructor—“is dead.” The dead master, the disappearing homeland, the need to start again in a new polity (post-Soviet Russia for Putin, the new united Germany for Merkel)—the leaders had a great deal in common. (They could speak to each other freely, because she spoke Russian and he German.)

Both, too, gained from these shared experiences a sense of the fragility of states, the existential vulnerability that lies beneath their claims to permanence. Putin has used this knowledge for dark purposes, deploying all the tools he possesses—from disinformation and subversion to crude military force—to destabilize or destroy those countries he sees as apostates or enemies. Merkel, however, came to embody the opposite impulse. Her astonishing rise from awkward outsider who saw even other Germans as “foreign company” to national and global leadership suggested that a radical disturbance in the established order of things might lead not just to dissolution but to the creation of hitherto unimaginable democratic possibilities.

Even as that hope now recedes rapidly into the past, there is something magical in the way a young woman who had never had a meaningful vote, who had no political experience and no rhetorical skills, could, scarcely more than a year after the fall of the wall, be a full member of the federal cabinet governing the European Union’s most powerful state. Her ascent to long-term power was no less improbable than Putin’s, but it seemed, at least for a while, to give a much more optimistic meaning to the events that allowed one of them to dominate Europe in the East, the other in the West. While he emerged from the collapse of the old Eastern bloc with a Hobbesian vision of disorder as a state of decline held in check only by the strong hand of a ruthless leader, she was by far the most spectacular example of the way the collapse of an old regime might create a much more benign sense of opportunity.

In 2019 Merkel told graduating students in a commencement address at Harvard, “Anything that seems to be set in stone or inalterable can indeed change.” This, for her, was a wonderful thing. For Putin, it most certainly was not. His assault on Ukraine is in the name of an imaginary fixed and unchanging Russianness: in his view, what seems to have changed can, by the exercise of unilateral power, be restored to what it used to be.

These very different ways of understanding the experiences that shaped them both may be why Putin always seemed to be more anxious about Merkel than any other world leader. He plays childish power games with visiting presidents and prime ministers—most recently seating French president Emmanuel Macron and then Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, at the far end of an absurdly long table. But with Merkel, the games were more serious and more personal. In 2007, at a meeting between them in Sochi, he made sure that his big black Labrador was free to approach and sniff at Merkel, who was known to be frightened of dogs. She was indeed visibly scared.

Yet she surely also realized that this stunt was a backhanded compliment. Putin had taken the trouble to think about her as a person, deploying his KGB training to imagine what might make her vulnerable to coercion. The trick did not work, because Merkel had a remarkable gift for not taking things personally, and also a woman’s skepticism about male display. “I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man,” she told a group of reporters. “He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”

It does not seem too much of a stretch, then, to see Putin’s ratcheting up of his long war on Ukraine as another backhanded compliment to Merkel. She announced in October 2018 that she would not seek another term in office, setting in train a long farewell that surely loomed large in Putin’s mind. The buildup to his invasion of Ukraine began in November 2021, just as her chancellorship was winding down. The timing was probably not accidental. What better moment to test the nerve of Western Europe, and of the wider NATO alliance, than that at which it was losing its Lehrmeisterin, the quiet authority figure who had come to seem, in a world of demagogues and dictators trying to prove their manhood, an increasingly indispensible marker of reassurance and stability? Putin decided to send a sharp probe into the highly uncertain territory of post-Merkel Europe. In this, at least, his instinct seems right: Western Europe really is a different place without Merkel, and no one is yet quite certain what it looks like. More than those of any other individual, her strengths and weaknesses, her achievements and failures, have made it what it is.

The Chancellor, Kati Marton’s elegant, concise, and accessible biography of Merkel, is a portrait not just of a person but of a kind of centrist and consensual politics that once seemed drab but now has the fascination of an almost extinct species. Merkel made a kind of decency that could be viewed as dull feel almost exotic. Once, it might have seemed in postwar Europe that careful, patient, managerial politicians who wanted nothing more or less than to make things work as well as possible without threatening existing structures were a dime a dozen. Now the fear that hangs over Western and Central Europe is that Merkel was the last of that tribe. She has departed in a cloud not of glory but of anxiety. Putin made sure that Merkel’s era would recede into the past with dizzying rapidity.

In a valedictory interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung published at the end of October, Merkel expressed her own dread that something big might be coming to an end. She did so, typically, without talking about herself. Her thoughts were framed more abstractly, but she did suggest that Europe might be at a dangerous moment precisely because of a generational shift in leadership and what it implies for the workings of collective memory:

We have to take care now not to enter a historical phase in which important lessons from history fade away. We have to remind ourselves that the multilateral world order was created as a lesson from the Second World War. There will be ever fewer people left who have lived through that period. In history there is a recurring pattern where people begin to deal recklessly with [political] structures when the generations that created those structures are no longer alive.

What Merkel remembers is not World War II but its long epilogue in the cold war. Her father, Horst Kasner, a stern and idealistic Lutheran pastor, moved his family to the East just after she was born, settling in the small town of Templin, fifty miles north of Berlin, in 1954. It seems important, though, that Merkel’s memories included a pre–Berlin Wall Germany. She was seven when the GDR sealed its borders—her parents had taken it for granted that they could travel freely to and from the West. One of the political “structures” she would therefore never take for granted was the freedom of movement created by the EU. This was why, for example, she immediately understood (and was repelled by) the implications of the possible reimposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit. The British found it hard to grasp why she took this question so seriously, but, she explained, “For 34 years I lived behind the Iron Curtain so I know only too well what it means once borders vanish, once walls fall.”

No doubt this memory also played into Merkel’s boldest and most radical decision: the opening in 2015 of Germany’s borders to a million refugees from the Syrian war. She knew that the policy was highly controversial and that it left Germany more divided than at any time since the wall fell. But she pointedly reminded her compatriots that she herself was one of those who had been excluded from the freedoms and opportunities of Western Europe: “I was part of the group that wanted to be let in.”

Merkel is surely the last-ever de facto leader of the EU to have looked from the outside, and with longing, at liberal democracy. Fair elections, freedom of expression, independent courts, individual rights—for her these were never mundane realities. She also had to discover for herself, in her thirties, the basic facts of recent European history, which in her youth had been shaped by the GDR’s official narratives of heroic antifascist resistance, playing down, most notably, the centrality of the Shoah in Nazism.

These absences were not, moreover, just external influences on her. Merkel’s entire personality is that of a survivor (rather than a dissident) in a totalitarian state: careful, nonconfrontational, watchful. Her gift for political compromise was that of a girl who learned how to function simultaneously as a loyal believer in her father’s Lutheran Church (an awkward presence in an atheist state) and as a member of the official Communist youth movement. Living in a country with perhaps the most thorough system of official surveillance ever created in Europe, she learned to have an inner life, a secret self that she almost never betrayed, even when she had one of the most public jobs in the world.

Marton recalls Merkel’s press conference after her first swearing-in as chancellor. Judy Dempsey of the International Herald Tribune asked her a very American question: “Madam Chancellor, how do you feel?” It was the last question Merkel would ever answer publicly. She mumbled, “Well, yes, well, under the circumstances…” and trailed off. How Merkel feels has always been her own business. Marton quotes her saying, “I have tried to maintain spaces where I can be happy or sad without explanation to the public.” In that commencement address at Harvard in 2019, she touched on the relationship between political repression and the rich interior life that would make her, as a politician, so enigmatic and so resilient:

However, there was one thing which [the Berlin Wall] couldn’t do during all of those years: it couldn’t impose limits on my own inner thoughts. My personality, my imagination, my dreams and desires—prohibitions or coercion couldn’t limit any of that.

It is deliciously contrary that she avoided becoming an informer for the Stasi by posing as a silly blabbermouth. She recalled, “My parents always told me to tell Stasi officers that I was a chatterbox and simply couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I also told the agents I couldn’t keep being an informant secret from my husband.” In fact, Merkel’s great skill as a political operator was her extraordinary ability to keep her mouth shut. Her practice, as she told the Harvard graduates, was not to always “act on our first impulses, even when there is pressure to make a snap decision, but instead take a moment to stop, be still, think, pause.” Her characteristic mode in high-level meetings and in wider debates about policy was strategic taciturnity. She would wait for others—usually voluble men with very high levels of self-esteem—to talk themselves out before swooping in with her own conclusion. As Marton puts it, her “power move” was “letting an alpha male keep talking and waiting patiently as he self-destructs.”

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus speaks of “the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” These were Merkel’s weapons too. She kept quiet while others expatiated. She entered the Western world as an immigrant among “foreign company,” with all the alertness and self-control of the émigré. And she deployed the cold cunning of the supreme political opportunist. This was learned, no doubt, in the GDR, where she developed the habit of steely calculation in order to avoid the dangers of being either an informer or a dissident.

Certainly by the time she entered public life, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the wall, Merkel had a knack for cool political patricide. Lothar de Maizière, the first and last democratically elected prime minister of the GDR, brought her into high-level politics by making her deputy spokesperson for his government. It was he who recommended Merkel to Kohl, who was then looking for an East German woman to fill the “soft” position of minister for women and youth in the federal government of the newly united state. These were, as de Maizière wryly noted, “two subjects Angela really did not care about at all,” but the position nonetheless made her, at thirty-six, the youngest minister in German history. Yet when de Maizière was falsely accused of having been a Stasi informant, Merkel did nothing to help her mentor. And in 1998, when Kohl was caught up in a scandal concerning illegal donations to his campaigns, it was Merkel who acted as his political assassin. Kohl had patronizingly referred to his protégée as his Mädchen—girl. He learned the hard way that she was a girl with a razor up her sleeve.

The mastery of these weapons made Merkel the most formidable democratic politician in Europe and allowed her to accumulate the authority with which she held the EU together. She also, however, had a weakness that threatened to pull it apart. Merkel always saw herself as a scientist. She remarked once that she chose to study physics “because even East Germany wasn’t capable of suspending basic arithmetic and the rules of nature.” Breaking problems down into their basic arithmetic was her habitual way of doing politics. Insofar as there was anything that might be called Merkelism, it was a revival of Benthamite utilitarianism. The quintessential claim she would make about any policy option she chose was that “the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.”

But this self-image as a hardheaded pragmatist, concerned only with the pursuit of the best available outcomes, obscured the importance of her heritage as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. At one of the crucial moments of contemporary European history, she behaved essentially as a religious moralist. Part of the problem was that she never seemed to understand this about herself.

It is, in retrospect, deeply ironic that Merkel was at her most narrowly pragmatic in dealing with Putin and at her most punitive in her approach toward fellow citizens of EU democracies. With Russia, even after its annexation of Crimea in 2014, she was all business, to the extent of believing that depending on Putin for Germany’s supplies of natural gas was just a commonsense calculation of mutual economic interests. Yet in the crisis of the eurozone following the great banking crash of 2008, Merkel treated an economic and political problem as if it were a test of moral righteousness. She threw her weight behind a division of the EU into good creditors (Germany and the other Northern European nations) and bad debtors (the so-called PIIGS: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). Marton usefully reminds us that in German, the word for debt—Schuld—is the same as that for guilt. Those countries whose banks had borrowed recklessly were guilty; those (like, of course, Germany) whose banks had lent recklessly were innocent. And the sinners must be punished—ordinary citizens of the debtor nations should be made to suffer so they would learn a lesson they would never forget.

This way of defining the crisis suited Germany, but it had nasty consequences for Merkel’s larger ambition to unify Europe. The imposition of drastic austerity measures prolonged and deepened the economic recession. Merkel, meanwhile, did very little to counter the impression that Germany was taking charge and dictating terms. Irish fans at the 2012 European soccer championship carried a flag that said, “Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work.” In Greece, rather less good-natured protesters displayed caricatures of her as Hitler—a grotesque travesty, but one that arose from Germany’s insistence that everything would be OK in the eurozone if only everyone could learn to be more German.

By lending her authority to the idea that the debtors must be made to purge their guilt and mend their ways, Merkel fueled two contradictory passions. On the one side, she created deep resentment in the debtor countries by dressing up the defense of narrow German fiscal interests as a moral cause. The self-righteousness that was served as an accompaniment to the bitter dish of economic austerity made it even more difficult to swallow. The treatment of Greece in particular could be cited by those who were always opposed to the EU as evidence that it was, in the end, nothing more than a front for German hegemony. (This distortion of reality was a significant theme for Brexiteers.)

Yet on the other side, the moralization of the debt crisis could also feed, in Germany itself, a self-pitying narrative in which the frugal, responsible Germans were being taken for a ride by the feckless Southern Europeans. This was the founding mentality of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which emerged to challenge Merkel in 2013, and it subsequently fused with anti-immigrant sentiment to create a more virulent form of grievance that propelled the far right into the Bundestag for the first time since the fall of the Nazis.

Hence the larger paradox of the Merkel era: the leadership of a centrist Christian Democrat as the undisputed first among equals in the EU coincided with the loss of Christian Democracy’s dominance of the right-of-center space in European politics. The rise of far-right parties like the AfD, the League in Italy, Poland’s Law and Justice, the National Rally in France, Spain’s Vox, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary has created a profound identity crisis in what used to be the dominant conservative parties, leaving them unsure whether they should fight against what Orbán calls “illiberal democracy” or shore up their own support by embracing it. In a short essay on Merkel’s departure, Orbán claimed that while Kohl had been “a dear, old friend, a Christian brother,” Merkel had created a “rupture” on the European right by supporting the “migratory invasion” of 2015.

The temptation to heal that breach by adopting the rhetoric of the far right is, for the old centrist conservatives, very strong. In France, for example, Valérie Pécresse—the presidential candidate of the Republicans, the mainstream center-right party, whose former leader Nicolas Sarkozy was once Merkel’s closest European ally—has now legitimized the white supremacist trope of the “great replacement” of white Christians by people of color and Muslims. It is increasingly hard to see, among Europe’s established conservative parties, Merkelism surviving without Merkel.

The wider question Merkel has left unanswered is whether it is possible, in the new wartime that Putin has inaugurated, for a leader of the democratic world to combine ambition and vision on the one hand with modesty and decency on the other. She mattered so deeply because she had no interest in what has animated Putin and so many of his fellow nationalist authoritarians: the pursuit of greatness. The promise to make Russia (or America or Britain or China) great again has been at the core of reactionary politics over the past decade.

Merkel always knew that Germany, above all, must not be great. She visibly winced in 2011 when, during the eurozone debt crisis, the leader of her party’s parliamentary bloc, Volker Kauder, boasted, “Now, all of a sudden, Europe is speaking German.” Merkel’s desire was to make Germany not great, but ordinary. Her relentless personal modesty—she continued as chancellor to live in an unpretentious flat in a pre-war building in east Berlin and to push her shopping cart around the local supermarket—was her intimate and miniature version of how she thought her country should be. No contemporary leader had less truck with national exceptionalism. “I don’t think,” she once said, “Germans are particularly bad, or outstandingly wonderful…. I grew up here. I like living here. I have confidence in this country, I am part of its history, with all its pain and all the good things.” That understated sanity became, over the course of her chancellorship, paradoxically remarkable. Being unflashy made Merkel, however reluctantly, a shining beacon.

Must, however, the eschewal of greatness involve the loss of any sense of large-scale and long-term purpose? Merkel once described herself as being “as focused and as concentrated as a tightrope walker, only thinking about the next step.” No one walked the high wire as sure-footedly as she did—and even after sixteen years she had not fallen off but chose to dismount gracefully. But that exclusive focus on thinking about the next step also meant that she had little sense of what might await at the end of the rope.

Nowhere was this more true than in her relations with Putin. In the crisis that followed his annexation of Crimea in 2014, Merkel became the West’s Putin whisperer. She spoke to him, according to Marton, thirty-eight times during that crisis and did more than anyone else to create the Minsk accords, which established the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty as a mutually recognized goal. They were a great testament to her skill, tenacity, and selfless care for the lives of those who would be threatened by a wider war. But they barely outlasted her chancellorship.

It has not taken long for Europe to pay Merkel the tribute of becoming painfully aware of both what she achieved and what she left unresolved, of what she meant to the defense of democracy and the fragile condition in which she left it. In The Life of Galileo, her compatriot Bertolt Brecht has the young Andrea sigh, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!” and Galileo reply, “No. Unhappy the land that needs heroes.” For much of her remarkable career, Merkel was the marvelous exemplar of happily unheroic leadership. Now Western Europe finds itself very unhappily in need not of a swaggering hero, but of someone who can, in a suddenly altered world, fill her silences with urgency and purpose.

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