Who are Syria’s White Helmets, and why are they so controversial?

Article by Scott Lucas, Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham.

Reprinted from The Conversation.

A young man, wearing a white helmet and a distinctive yellow-and-blue badge on his arm, digs for four hours in the rubble of a building destroyed by a Russian-regime airstrike in Idlib Province in northwest Syria.

Finally, he sees what he’s looking for: an infant, only weeks old. He gently lifts her, still breathing, from the wreckage and takes her to an ambulance. Crying uncontrollably, he cradles her as she is treated, wounded but alert. He says, “I feel like she is my own daughter.”

Warned that Russian warplanes are overhead, volunteers in a civil defence centre get out of their beds and dress, preparing to help victims at the next bombed site. As they arrive, the warplanes target them in a “double tap” attack, dropping one bomb and then another minutes later. One rescuer is seriously wounded. His colleagues wait anxiously, and suddenly he revives, insisting on lighting a cigarette. A sigh of relief as the pack is taken from him: “No smoking for you now.

These all-too-numerous episodes often don’t end so well. Generally it’s bodies rather than survivors that get pulled out of the rubble, and the volunteers are vulnerable: 141 have been killed and many more wounded.

As Syria’s nearly six-year conflict rumbles on with no end in sight, the country’s so-called “White Helmets” continue to offer a desperately needed humanitarian response. More than 62,000 people have been rescued since the volunteer humanitarian force was formed in 2013.

So who are the White Helmets, and how did they come into being?

Pick up a stretcher

By 2013, the Assad regime was well embarked on its strategy of targeting civilian sites with intense aerial bombardment. The city of Homs had been decimated by months of attacks in early 2012, ensuring that the overstretched Syrian Army could occupy almost all of the area, and the approach was being rolled out across the country.

Those who died in opposition areas often lay unburied, while the injured were left to perish. Ad hoc groups of residents tried to cope after the attacks, but they were usually untrained and not organised.

James Le Mesurier, a former British Army officer already working as an adviser on Syria civil defence at the UAE-based consultancy Analysis, Research, and Knowledge (ARK), decided to go further and seek the finance and infrastructure for a full-time service. With initial training and courses from ARK and the Turkish NGO AKUT, the first volunteers – starting with a team of 20 people – were soon in the field. Further support came from governments and NGOs in countries such as the US, Britain, and the Netherlands, and the White Helmets were formally organised as Syrian Civil Defense in October 2014.

The White Helmets’ origins were certainly international, but by membership, the group is very much Syrian. Its men and women are from Syrian communities: decorators, taxi drivers, bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists, shopkeepers, painters, carpenters, students, housewives. As Le Mesurier said in an August 2015 interview:

They are all a very diverse and disparate group of individuals, all of whom made individual choices … They all had the choice whether or not they want to pick up gun, to become a refugee – but they’ve all made a choice to instead pick up a stretcher.

First on the scene. EPA/Zouhir al Shimale

Even if they are unarmed, the volunteers are a threat to the Assad regime. Damascus’s strategy – now shared by Russia – is not to just to fight rebels on the battlefield, but also to destroy any semblance of organised services and infrastructure in opposition-controlled areas. If water, electricity, schools, and markets can be blown up and cut off, then civilians can be forced to surrender, or at least reduced to powerless, besieged bystanders.

The decimation of medical services is central to the strategy, holding a Damocles’ sword of no emergency treatment and everyday care over residents. In defiance of the Geneva conventions, hospitals, clinics, drug warehouses, and blood banks have been systematically targeted, with scores put out of service.

White Helmets centres have been regularly attacked over the past year. In April 2016, one set of missile strikes destroyed a centre west of Aleppo city, killing five volunteers and destroying equipment and vehicles. The “double tap” attacks, hoping to kill and maim the rescuers, are now routine.

Defying propaganda

The joint Russian-Assad regime campaign against the the White Helmets is not just fought with bombs and missiles. Russian and Syrian state outlets are circulating “information” meant to tarnish the volunteers as allies of terrorism, dedicated only to the assistance of jihadists. As President Assad told the Associated Press in September 2016: “They use different humanitarian masks and umbrellas just to implement certain agendas.”

The theme has been eagerly taken up by those who view the Syrian conflict as a conspiracy of American “imperialism”.

That the White Helmets receive assistance from the US government’s Agency for International Development – something they have not denied – apparently means they’re American puppets, even though they draw a range of support from around the world. The fundraising support they get from a PR firm somehow proof that they are the vanguard of a proxy war fought by a US military-industrial complex.

Blogger Vanessa Beeley has switched her focus from Israel and Gaza to wage a vitriolic campaign against the White Helmets as “first responders for the US and NATO al-Nusra/al-Qaeda forces”. Never mind that the White Helmets explicitly stand against violence and extremism; ignore the absurdity of the idea that the US – which is bombing the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and which has been in a misconceived “War on Terror” against al-Qaeda for a decade and a half – is suddenly allied with those groups. The sight of volunteers celebrating with rebels in the city of Idlib is apparently evidence that the White Helmets are “al-Qaeda”.

Max Blumenthal, another writer who has challenged Israeli policies in Palestine, frames the White Helmets as “driven by a pro-interventionist agenda conceived by the Western governments and public relations groups that back them”. Never mind that the White Helmets’ “crime” is to call for zones protecting civilians; ignore their firm declaration that they don’t affiliate with any government or NGO. To Blumenthal, they are a Trojan horse for “70,000 American servicemen” to invade Syria.

Having started the cycle of disinformation, Russian state outlets can complete it by citing “investigative journalists” such as Beeley and Blumenthal to deride the White Helmets as a “controversial quasi-humanitarian organisation” and – invoking the magnate George Soros as conspiracy master – a “Soros-sponsored” operation “cooking up lies”.

These claims are the product of disinformation and spurious inference – but all this politics and propaganda, however menacing, is irrelevant to the people on the ground, whose focus is on the next mission.

As one volunteer summarised it:

We have to have faith that this country is our country. We shouldn’t leave it. If I don’t stand by my country and by my people and those who are oppressed, who will?

If I leave and we all leave, there will be no one left.

Or as British MP Jo Cox wrote when she nominated the White Helmetsfor a Nobel Peace Prize, shortly before she was killed by an attacker in June 2016:

When the bombs rain down, the Syrian Civil Defense rush in. In the most dangerous place on earth these unarmed volunteers risk their lives to help anyone in need regardless of religion or politics.

They were ultimately overlooked for this year’s prize, and the propaganda against them keeps coming. But as the offensive in Aleppo ramps up, the White Helmets’ work goes on.

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One Nation legitimises fascist ideas – The time to stop Hansonism is now!

racist-hanson

This article by Debbie Brennan was originally published by the Freedom Socialist Party (Australia).

Debbie represents Radical Women in CARF and is a community member of the National Union of Workers.

Contact Freedom Socialist Party of Aotearoa at freedom.socialist.aotearoa@gmail.com or Freedom Socialist Party of Australia at freedom.socialist.party@ozemail.com.au.

“I’m back — but not alone.” Pauline Hanson, leader of the extreme-right One Nation party, made a parliamentary comeback in Australia’s federal election this past July. These taunting words are from her “maiden” speech to Parliament on September 15.

In 1996 Hanson was elected to the House of Representatives, but lost her seat two years later. Back then, she said Asians were taking over the country. Twenty years later, she warns, “Now we are in danger of being swamped by Muslims”—who, she claims, will commit terror and impose sharia law.

It gets worse. As Hanson says, she’s not alone. She’s one of four newly elected One Nation Senators: two, including herself, from Queensland and the others from New South Wales and Western Australia.

Pauline Hanson and the One Nation party she formed in 1997 are notorious for their racism. In her first 1996 parliamentary speech, Hanson went on the attack against First Nations people, who, she stated, are privileged over whites. Asians were not only “swamping” Australia, they weren’t assimilating. She praised Labor Party leader, Arthur Calwell, who said in 1955: “Japan, India, Burma, Ceylon and every new African nation are fiercely anti-white and anti one another. Do we want or need any of these people here? I am one red-blooded Australian who says no and who speaks for 90 percent of Australians.”

Fast forward to 2016: Asians are replaced with Muslims. In 1996, Hanson called for a “radical review” of immigration and the abolition of multiculturalism. Today, she demands that Muslim immigration be stopped and the burqa banned.

More than racist. The notion of race was invented in early capitalism to justify slavery and plunder. In times of class conflict—like now—racism has been indispensable to capitalists as a weapon to split the working class and destabilise resistance. Islamophobia is that weapon now. But sexism, nationalism and anti-unionism are also instruments of control, and Hanson’s oratory is full of it.

Hanson’s close connection with men’s rights groups is reflected in One Nation’s policies. Since 1996, she has called for the scrapping of the Family Court—claiming a bias toward women who “make frivolous claims and believe they have the sole right to children.” She further blames the court for pushing non-custodial fathers into poverty and causing many to suicide. One Nation would force women to stay in miserable, often violent, relationships. Hanson instructs women to “put your differences aside, make your peace and come to agreements outside of the law courts.” If not, any woman going to court for custody better be ready to pay all costs if she loses.

She slams people on welfare, especially single mothers for “having more children just to maintain their welfare payments.” One Nation would deny payment increases to women after the first child. In Hanson’s words: “Get a job and start taking responsibility for your own actions.”

Hanson calls for an Australian identity card to access welfare, healthcare, education or any other tax-funded service, and she defies “do-gooders” to “complain about people’s privacy.”

In September, Hanson gave a thinly veiled attack on unionism when she accused “overpaid public servants” of bludging off the budget. Throughout the country, public sector workers have been in a tough three-year battle against the federal government over wages, which remain frozen, and the shredding of hard-won conditions. Community and Public Sector Union members in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection are planning another week of industrial action (See: Trans-Tasman Union Beat, page 9). The potential power that public workers hold in their collective hands is massive. This fight is historic: these unionists are taking on the State, and the government wants to crush them. No wonder the rabidly anti-union Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash hugged Hanson at the conclusion of her speech.

A former fish and chip shop owner, Hanson typifies small capitalists’ contempt for workers’ rights and hatred toward militant unionism. In a recent media interview, she said, “we need to protect the small end of town, the small contractors and subbies so that they have a chance to get jobs and not be bullied by unions.”

The nationalist fantasy. Hanson’s style may not be Donald Trump’s, but, like him, she appeals to prejudices to answer why life for most people has become so insecure and hard. As the global economy disintegrates and the capitalist class foists the burden onto workers and the oppressed, these far-right demagogues offer up scapegoats—served with a big dollop of nationalism.

Hanson paints Australia as expanses of farmland and infrastructure, Australian owned; a land of families, nuclear, Christian, Australian born and assimilated. The school day starts with raising the Australian flag and singing the national anthem. TVs in homes and pubs across the country show Australian athletes competing for their country and saluting the flag from the victory podium.

She condemns “foreign” capital, especially Chinese, which she says is buying up Australia’s farms, real estate and resources. These investors, she claims, put housing prices beyond Australians’ reach. She denounces big business for being behind Australia’s intake of immigrants.

The illusion she constructs is of a hardworking nation exploited by foreign capital. This idea isn’t new—fascists used it in post-World War I Germany and Italy to deflect attention from local industrialists who backed the unleashing of jackboots on a working class that was in revolt. Today, Hanson directs the attention of those attracted to her vile ideas away from the source of their problems: the global capitalist system itself.

Understanding the threat. Hanson’s September parliamentary speech had the eerie ring of fascism. Her inflammatory calls to strip women on welfare of their rights to independence and reproductive choice, her anti-union comments and demonisation of Muslims and immigrants are classic far-right speak. But is this fascism?

Fascism is more than a vicious ideology. It’s is a movement, built to destroy the capacity of the working class to organise and revolt. Fascism’s social base is the middle class—small business people like Hanson—which, caught between the two powerful classes of capital and labour, will flip to whichever side looks likely to win over the other.

In her speech, Hanson was appealing to the middle class as well as less conscious working class folks looking for scapegoats to blame. In so doing, she legitimises fascist ideas, creating fertile ground in which a jackbooted fascist movement can take root and grow. One Nation is well positioned to coalesce the far right, inside and outside of Parliament, including neo-Nazis forces, which until now have been fragmented.

Hanson is well connected with this milieu. She has spoken at Reclaim Australia rallies. Leading members of the neo-Nazi United Patriots Front campaigned for her in the federal election. UPF even offered to be her bodyguards. Hanson is also friendly with the fascist Party for Freedom. These are the known connections.

If this leads to the cohering of a mass movement aimed at crushing the ability of the working class to organise, we’re dealing with fascism. While such a movement has not yet emerged, the danger is all too real. And Hanson is a contributor, encouraging more assaults on Muslims, immigrants, women and unionists—legislatively and physically. The need to countermobilise in our streets and communities—as we’ve done from Melbourne to Bendigo—remains urgent, because the threat could escalate.

Build the united front. Since Reclaim Australia first attempted to rally at Melbourne’s Federation Square in April 2015, Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) has countered these ultra-right and fascist groups whenever and wherever they’ve gathered. This united front of unionists, feminists, socialists, anarchists and Aboriginal justice activists has successfully prevented them from growing into a movement.

As the global economy continues to sink and the need to resist intensifies, a fascist movement could materialise—unless there’s a strong working class-led movement to stop it. The time to build this anti-fascist movement is right now. The CARF united front needs to grow into a force of today’s and tomorrow’s scapegoats—Muslims, women, First Nations, LGBTIQ, refugees and immigrants, unions, radicals, welfare recipients, the homeless and unemployed.

 

Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War – A clear perspective shining through the muck

card-Razan-Ghazzawi-FreeSyria

artwork from denisebeaudet.com

Book title: Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and Civil War
Authors: Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila Al-Shami
Publisher: Pluto Press

Released: 2016
Review by: Ani White

To myself and others in ‘the West’, Syria’s internal crisis has often appeared a confusing mess with no sides worth taking. Competing bombs (Assad bombs, US bombs, Russian bombs) and competing sects (Alawi, Sunni, now ISIS) appear to have displaced the democratic hopes of the Arab Spring. While this despair isn’t entirely unfounded, it also risks turning into dismissal. The most significant refugee crisis in a generation perhaps shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘too complicated’. History may not look on us kindly for turning away.

In the context of this confusion, promoted as much by ‘Russia Today’ as Western networks, certain slogans have struck me as important clarifications. When progressive network Democracy Now hosted another in a series of disconnected white men on the Syrian situation, a change.org petition successfully demanded “Tell Democracy Now to have Syrians on to talk about Syria.”

This is the clarity offered by Burning Country. Written by partisans of the Syrian revolution Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, on the basis of extensive interviews with Syrians, the book offers a clear perspective shining through the muck of sectarianism, propaganda and conspiracy theory.

Burning Country‘s exposition of the 2011 (and ongoing) revolution emphasises its non-sectarian nature, in keeping with the broader uprisings of the region. Demonstrators chanted ‘Sunnis and Alawis are one’, defying what has since become the central sectarian divide within Syrian society; between Assad’s Alawi minority community, and the 60% Sunni majority.

While the book briefly goes into Syria’s ancient history, this account bucks the trend of rooting sectarian conflict in ancient history. Rather, the authors emphasise the long-standing diversity and cosmopolitanism of the region, with both Damascus and Aleppo claiming the title of ‘oldest continuously inhabited city on earth.’ Site of the first agricultural revolution, the first alphabet, and a long-standing trading zone, Syrian society has the potential (like any society) to be a progressive hub.

The early days of the revolution expressed these progressive possibilities. Democratic slogans were translated into action through the formation of the Local Coordination Committees, revolutionary networks transcending sect boundaries, described as an ‘underground parliament’. Extensive accounts of the cultural transformation – beginning in 2011 and continuing, though besieged, in the liberated zones – cannot be satisfactorily recounted here. The book is worth a read for anyone curious about the meaning of the word ‘revolution’.

The authors conversely emphasise the sectarianism of Bashaar-al Assad’s supposedly ‘secular’ regime. At the formal level, atheism is forbidden, and the president must be Muslim. More crucially for this account however, the regime deliberately stokes sectarian tensions to legitimate Assad’s rule. In crushing the 2011 revolution, Assad’s forces (and regime-militias or shabeeha) deliberately targeted Sunni areas, and bolstered the Alawi minority which tends to support Assad’s Baathist party. The release of around 1,500 salafist (militant Sunni) prisoners was another calculated move designed to stoke sectarian tensions.

In contrast to misleading accounts of sectarianism as ‘ancient rivalry’, this account emphasises how powerful forces play groups against each other for political gain. As right-wing populism grows internationally (see Trump in the US, and UKIP in England), this sophisticated account can help us think through the splintering of publics for political ends elsewhere. Rather than innate racial rivalries, let alone legitimate expressions of discontent, these formations reflect manipulation of popular anxieties by elite players.

While the early days of the revolution avoided sectarianism in favour of broad democratic demands, the hardening and militarisation of the revolution allowed Assad’s seeds of sectarianism to grow. The authors underline the contradictory nature of religion, as both a balm in oppressive situations, and a tool of the powerful. In the midst of Assad’s brutal counter-revolution, they note:

Tormented, bereaved, and dispossessed, the Syrian people turned more intensely to religion… [yet] most still expressed the desire for a civil rather than Islamic state.”

Although local Islamist forces grew with the militarisation of the revolution, these were initially not the cruel militants of ISIS; surveys found that 60% of Syrian Islamic fighters thought that ‘democracy is preferable to any other form of governance’. They fought not for an Islamic state, but the end of Assad’s tyranny. ISIS appeared as an opportunistic foreign intervention, originating in Iraq and taking advantage of Syria’s strife.

Although some Syrians have joined ISIS, and others quietly accept its capacity to offer relative ‘stability’, Daesh (as ISIS is called by detractors, with a similar sound to the Arabic for ‘donkey’) overwhelmingly does not enjoy the support of the Syrian people. Revolutionary intellectual  Yassin al-Haj Saleh influentially termed their rise a transition from ‘neck-tie fascism’ to ‘long-beard fascism’. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) fights both Assad’s forces and Daesh, and where civilians have an opportunity to resist, they generally join the FSA in beating Daesh back. 

Probably the most prominent example of resistance to Daesh is the widely promoted Kurdish struggle, dominated by the formerly Leninist PYD/PKK and centred in Kobani. Conversely, the authors underline the ‘ruthless pragmatism’ of the PYD, which has collaborated with the regime. Locals reportedly express bemusement that the small town of Kobani receives such international attention, while the liberated zone of major city Aleppo remains beseiged and isolated.

As in Libya, the call for US intervention in support of the Syrian revolution is controversial. Burning Country co-author Leila Al-Shami has clarified in an interview that she is against US intervention:

I’m not calling for anything from America. I don’t think America should be involved.”

Conversely, the books’ sympathetic account helps to explain why so many Syrians called for intervention. Between Assad’s brutality and the rise of ISIS, the forces of the revolution have limited resources and few friends. Many Syrians were shocked when Obama’s supposed ‘red line’ of no chemical attacks was ignored, after hundreds were killed in the deadliest chemical attack since the Iran-Iraq War.

Although many leftists oppose any US intervention, this risks devolving into a crudely one-sided ‘campism‘, where the biggest bully is perceived as the only bully. Syrians who have survived Assad’s massacres do not see the world this way. In light of international complacency, Assad has continuously bombed his citizens and subjected them to a ‘surrender or starve’ policy. Calls for a no-fly zone were ignored. Eventual US intervention in 2014 focused only on ISIS, implicitly supporting Assad and (perhaps unsurprisingly) offering no support to the revolution. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran back the regime for an opportunistic mix of military, economic and political reasons, centrally their own hegemony in the region – any attempt to depict this as ‘anti-imperialism’ makes a mockery of the term. Turkey and the Arab Gulf states have offered some support, the authors note, “not so much [as] allies of the popular revolution as opponents of Assad.”

So what can we do, assuming here a progressive ‘Western’ audience? Most immediately, the refugee crisis demands a humanitarian response, as many realised with the spectre of drowned children washing up on beaches. By July 2015, half of Syria’s population were not living at home – including international refugees and internally displaced. A majority of international refugees live in surrounding countries’ refugee camps, while a growing minority attempt escape to ‘Fortress Europe’. Standing with the refugee and migrant worker movements, we must demand open borders, full rights for migrants and refugees.

Beyond the humanitarian level, Syria’s crisis is political, as political as our own interconnected crises. Explaining the non-sectarian nature of the Syrian revolution, and boosting voices of the revolution, can counter the myth of innate Arab-Islamic sectarianism. As the authors of Burning Country underline, “The start of solidarity is to correct the narrative.”

The authors encourage readers to learn from Syrian experiences. We must build our own solidarity networks, our own revolutionary strength, if we are to stand with the Syrian revolution. Internationally, Syrian expatriates have formed solidarity groups, largely ignored by an ‘anti-imperialist’ left focusing on the Manichean evil of US intervention. However it may manifest in the specific, these groups demand our support. The old Third Camp slogan can be appropriately reworked: Neither Assad nor ISIS but Free Syria.

Teresia Teaiwa on refugee rights in the Pacific: “Mana whenua leads to mana tangata”

Teresia Teaiwa is a poet and Pacific Studies academic in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Fightback previously interviewed Teresia here.

Ian Anderson interviews Teresia on recent media coverage of Australia’s offshore detention centres.

You have said that Australian refugee centres in Manus and Nauru are exploiting the desperation of those communities, alongside the widely-reported abuse of refugees. Who benefits from exploitation and abuse in Manus and Nauru?
Well, no one truly benefits from exploitation and abuse ever. Oppressors lose their humanity in the process of dehumanizing others.

But the primary beneficiaries of Australia’s policy of detaining asylum seekers, refugees, and other so-called undesirables offshore are corporations like Transfield Services and Serco. The operation of detention centres in Manus and on Nauru is part of a wider industrial network that links the privatisation of prisons with defence and mining. Companies that have received contracts from the Australian state to manage the detention centres have made millions of dollars in profit—by providing minimal and sub-standard living conditions.

Of course, theoretically, the people of Manus and Nauru are supposed to benefit from the detention centres as well. I remember in the early 2000s that the huge attraction of the detention centre for Nauruans was the promise of a regular fresh water and electricity supply. In both the Manus and Nauru cases, jobs and income are considered direct benefits of the detention centres for locals.

But this is my concern: the detention centres are part of a perverse pattern of negative development. Nauru has already been environmentally decimated by phosphate mining, and to go from an extractive industry to a detention centre is nothing more than a downward spiral. No one can be uplifted by the detention—indeed, the inhumane imprisonment—of others.

In an interview with E-Tangata, you recently warned of the danger of painting a people with just one brush stroke. Is this also the warning you are offering about portrayals of Nauru in recent media coverage?
My problem with the media coverage of Manus and Nauru, especially by the New Zealand and Australian media, is that the interest has been solely driven by the detention centres. Prior to the establishment of Australia’s offshore detention centres in 2001, there was little media interest in Manus or Nauru. Of course, the media industry needs crisis in order to invest resources in investigating and reporting stories. But if we continue to use the brush stroke metaphor, what we’ve got is Manus and Nauru being painted by the media solely as detention centres, and we get very little sense of these places having a life beyond this as a reason for being.

Unfortunately, the well-meaning activism that has emerged in response to the horrific abuses of detainees has also fallen into the trap of painting Manus and Nauru as simply sites. You get placards and slogans that say “Close Nauru” or “Shut Down Manus”—as if that’s all they are—sites that can be maintained or closed down at will. Then there are the slogans that go “Hell exists and it’s on Nauru,” and the constant pairing of “hell” with the images of Manus and Nauru.

Frankly, it’s disturbing to me that human rights activists’ concerns seem to extend only to the detainees and do not seek a larger analysis of the kind of underdevelopment or negative development that makes it necessary for the communities of Manus and Nauru to accept detention centres as a solution to their development challenges.

What would policy/news/activism look like if the well-being of the people of Manus and Nauru was always kept at the centre of considerations? I feel certain that if the welfare of Manusians and Nauruans was put first, there would either be no detention centres, or the detainees would actually be well cared for.

How does your own whakapapa interact with your take on this story?
I whakapapa to Banaba or Ocean Island, which is Nauru’s twin phosphate island. The Nauruans have an oral tradition that Banaba was formed as the result of a traumatic event on Nauru.

I have had relatives and friends who have lived, worked, and married on Nauru, and I was able to visit there twice in the 1990s. I developed a great affection for the island and people from those two visits—I fell in love with the geography, especially the pinnacle formations along the coast, and the Buada Lagoon inland. But what made me realise that Nauru had so much more to offer the world than phosphate was the experience I had of running a family history workshop through the University of the South Pacific’s Nauru Centre in 1997. The Nauruan participants came from a range of ages and experiences, but what they had in common was an incredible wealth of both indigenous and worldly knowledge, a wicked sense of humour, and serious story-telling talent. I’m not sure if any of the writing from that workshop ever got published, but if outsiders could read those stories, they might be able to see how Nauru is more than just a site for Australia’s human refuse.

I have not been to Manus, but I remember when I was on my way to Madang last year, that one of the ground staff at Brisbane airport assumed that I was going to Manus when I presented my paperwork at the check-in desk. I was a bit alarmed by that—just wondering, how much traffic is there from Australia to Manus? I have a friend who has Manus whakapapa, and she was telling me that her father’s people are well-known among Papua New Guineans as peaceful and welcoming. So when the riot broke out at the detention centre there early last year and a local employee and PNG police were implicated in the events and the death of Reza Barati, she felt strongly that the detention centre was a deeply corrosive influence in the community.

As a Pacific person and as a Pacific Studies scholar living and working in Aotearoa New Zealand, I recognise that Papua New Guinea and Nauru are quite peripheral to our very Polynesian-centric sense of the Pacific. But ultimately, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific all do share the same ancestry. And the question becomes whether we care about these fellow human beings who are distant relatives of ours or not?

As you’ve noted about Britain, even imperialist nations can’t be painted with one brush stroke. Australia certainly has its own refugee rights movement, alongside a strong racist current even among the working majority. How much hope do you hold for anti-imperialist movements in countries like Australia and New Zealand?
I’d like to see more connections made between the refugee rights movement, anti-imperialist movements and indigenous rights movements in Australia and New Zealand. As I’ve said, I find it disturbing that movements concerned about refugee rights can be so disinterested in the welfare of Manusians and Nauruans, let alone Aboriginal Australians or Māori.

Unfortunately, human rights discourse these days often falls short of critiquing imperialism. And some of our socialist comrades are pretty quick to buy into one-dimensional representations of Papua New Guineans and Nauruans as primitivist brutes, without trying to nuance their analyses—not trying to understand, for example, what complex social tensions might be at play in the indigenous societies of Manus and Nauru under the circumstances.

It’s important to note, too, that the refugees and asylum seekers have quite fixed ideas about the Pacific Islands in which they find themselves detained. You can’t blame them when they are seeing the islands through the bars and fences of detention centres.

Some are very clear about the kind of life that they are after: they did not risk their lives leaving one “third world” country in order to end up in another “third world” country. But most would much rather not have had to leave their homes in the first place.

Our problem is that we have such gross inequalities across the globe, and too many of the citizens of rich countries just don’t understand how their affluence is actually a result of the impoverishment and endangerment of so many people in other countries.

In the last few days, we’ve seen riots at Australia’s Christmas Island detention centre, and our own Prime Minister John Key describe detainees as “rapists and murderers.” Do you have any comments on this unfolding situation?
From what I understand the Prime Minister was actually incorrect in his categorization of the New Zealanders being detained on Christmas Island. It’s unacceptable for a Prime Minister to be so misinformed and to spread such misinformation.

It’s also supremely ironic that someone who risked his life in military service for New Zealand and received decorations for his efforts and also at one time provided security for the Prime Minister, would find himself detained at Christmas Island as well, once he was no longer deemed a desirable immigrant in Australia.

I hope that those New Zealanders who have only begun to get interested in Australia’s detention policy because they are concerned about the welfare of their fellow citizens are able to then connect the dots to see how the logic behind the detention of asylum seekers and refugees might very easily be used against them one day.

Some of the larger questions here are about who gets to have freedom of movement across national borders, and who gets to have human rights?

Christmas Island also interests me as it is an island that attracted phosphate mining in the twentieth century like Banaba and Nauru. For me, the relentless extraction of our planet’s resources is part of the very phenomenon that produces the refugee and immigration crises we are witnessing today.

Quite simply, if people were able to look after their ancestral lands, and make fully informed choices about the kind of lives they wanted to lead, there’s a good chance we would not be in this situation.

Do you have any comments on New Zealand’s refugee policy?
There’s currently a huge debate in Hawai‘i about whether the state can accommodate refugees from Syria when Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiians make up a significant proportion of the state’s homeless population, and Micronesian migrants who are already there are facing animosity from state residents and exclusion from state services.

New Zealand has one of the lowest intakes of refugees per capita among OECD nations. And just like Hawai‘i, questions can be raised about whether New Zealand has any business increasing its refugee quota when its own people aren’t being looked after—for example, the almost 1 in 4 children living in poverty in this country. But whether we’re thinking about 260,000 New Zealand children living in poverty, or whether to raise the quota from 700 to 1200 for refugees desperately looking for safe shelter, what demands our careful attention is how the wealth and resources of this country are distributed.

But as I said earlier in relation to Manus and Nauru, we have to challenge ourselves to think about what policy/news/activism could look like if Māori were at the centre of our consideration. It won’t make things easier, by any means. But it would be a radical improvement on the way decisions are made and actions are being taken or not taken now.

What sort of coalitions are necessary, in your opinion, to undermine Australia’s regime?
If you’re talking about the regime of Australia’s detention centres, there need to be some strategic coalitions around shaping public opinion both in Australia and internationally. One important area of focus should be Australia’s bid to chair the UN Human Rights Council. Australia does not deserve to chair that council, and if human rights NGOs, indigenous rights and anti-imperialist movements can mobilize to get their bid defeated through lobbying among the G77 countries, especially, then I think we will empower Australians to hold their country more accountable for the appalling human rights abuses in the detention centres. If Australia wins their bid, there will be no incentive for the government to make any changes, because becoming chair of the UN Human Rights Council will essentially vindicate the current policy.

What can readers of this article do to challenge Australia’s abuses?
It is truly sad to me that in their first encounter with each other, Somalians and Nauruans, Iranians and Manusians, for example, are not given the chance to truly recognise each other’s dignity. This is because their encounters are being mediated by the Australian state and its contracted proxies.

Readers of this article need to demonstrate their solidarity with and concern for BOTH the refugees and the people of Nauru and Manus. The readers of this article need to put pressure on their governments and elected officials to demand accountability—and more importantly, CHANGE—from the Australian government in relation to the abuses in its offshore detention centres.

Some of the media point out that Nauru has an authoritarian government that is curbing international media access and also tampering with the judiciary and perverting the rule of law. The government of Papua New Guinea is also facing accusations of corruption and poor governance.

I hope that readers of this article will think critically about a) how Australia’s detention centre policy is exploiting the weaknesses of the governments in Nauru and PNG; b) how successive Australian governments are continuing to foster the negative development of these countries—replicating Australia’s colonial history in both countries; and c) how some New Zealanders are actually in the same detention centres as refugees; d) how Aboriginal Australians and Māori might have or make common cause with the people of Nauru and Manus, and e) how those of us who are not indigenous to Australia and New Zealand would benefit by putting indigenous people’s interests before what we believe might be our own. If we take time to think about these things, I believe that right action will flow.

Any last thoughts?
You sent me these questions before the Paris attacks, so that has been heavy on my mind as I’ve been reflecting on the situation in Australia’s detention centres in the Pacific…Australia’s “Pacific Solution.”

If the Pacific is to be a solution, it will not be in the way that Australian policy is currently positioning it.

One thing that is very clear is that Paris and Beirut and Nauru and Manus and Syria and Somalia and Afghanistan and Iran and Iraq and Pakistan and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and New Zealand are all connected. But we are being connected in ways that are not of our own making. We need to reclaim our own sovereignty over these connections.

My Banaban community was relocated to Fiji by the British between 1945 and 1947—ostensibly with our leaders’ consent, but I wouldn’t say it was full and informed consent. Once we got to Fiji, and after we got over our disorientation, we realised that we could not depend on the British to safeguard our future—after all, they were gleefully mining our homeland. So we found out whose indigenous lands we had been moved to, and we paid tribute to them, acknowledging their customary stewardship. As Banabans, we never forget that we’re living in someone else’s land. That’s a lesson that has informed my understanding of what it means to be a migrant myself, and I think it’s an important paradigm shift to make.

We cannot assume that the government that welcomes or rejects or detains refugees is representative of the indigenous people of the land. Europe has lost much of its sense of indigeneity and because of World War II keeps conflating indigeneity with ethno-nationalism. But Pacific people should not surrender our ethics of hosting to either our own governments or the governments of other countries. Māori are good at asserting mana whenua. I guess that’s what I’m talking about: mana whenua leads to mana tangata; without the former, you can’t get the latter.

Against campism: What makes some leftists support Putin?

obama-putin

By Daphne Lawless, Fightback Tāmaki Makarau

At the time of writing, Russian forces are intervening in the civil wars in Ukraine and Syria; supporting the rebellions in the eastern provinces in the first case, and dropping bombs in support of the government of Bashar al-Assad in the second.

While he may have been a general in the old KGB, Vladimir Putin is no socialist. While Russia is formally ‘democratic’, political rights are very limited for anyone not aligned with Putin’s United Russia party. Notoriously, queer communities are persecuted by means of a law against “homosexual propaganda”, and Putin has fought a bloody civil war to quell the independence struggle in the republic of Chechenya. Neo-liberal economics has been used to cut living standards every bit as fiercely as it has in the West.

So why would anyone on the Left support Russia intervening in Ukraine or Syria, any more than they support the United States in Iraq or Afghanistan? Because they do. Leftist magazines like Counterpunch support Russian bombs falling in Syria. Several leftists in Aotearoa/NZ are members of a Facebook group called “Vladimir Putin Fan Club NZ. Putin it right !!” (sic)

Multipolar disorder

Several arguments have been used by such people. Perhaps the most serious is that in favour of a “multipolar world”. The argument is that the current world neoliberal system hinges on the unchallenged hegemony of the “Western” bloc, under the military leadership of the biggest imperial power of the planet, the United States. Therefore, a “multipolar” world would mean more freedom for popular forces to move against the global neoliberal order.

The late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was a great promoter of this idea. Many Western leftists who supported his government’s struggle for the working people and poor at home were left scratching their heads as he toured the world shaking hands and doing deals with the authoritarian leaderships of Russia or China, or Libya’s Qadhafi. He even supported the Zimbabwean government of Robert Mugabe, which imprisons and tortures socialists, and counted as an ally the Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko, who boasts of “wringing the necks” of the political opposition.

As an isolated leader of a socialist government in a capitalist state, Chávez can’t be blamed for trying to get any help he could. But for those of us without the responsibilities of state power, making a virtue out of necessity is not the basis for a political strategy.

This kind of politics is often called “campism” – in the metaphor that the world is divided into several military “camps”, with the largest being the Western camp led by the United States. Therefore, any government which disagrees with American foreign policy – no matter how oppressive to its own people, or however wedded to neoliberal market economics – can be supported. These governments are even called “anti-imperialist” – as if there were only one imperialism, that of the Western bloc. Those who’ve been watching China’s moves to extend its military reach across East Asia, or its economic power in Africa, have good reason to question that.

When two camps go to war…

The best argument which has been made to explain this thought process is that it’s a left-over from the Cold War, when the world was (at first) divided between the Western/USA bloc under the slogan of “freedom”, and the Eastern/Soviet bloc under the slogan of “peace”. Later, China emerged as the leader of a third bloc under a slogan of “national independence”.

At the time, many Western leftists saw the Soviet Union or China as “workers’ states”, which were a better alternative to capitalism. This led to many twists and turns as local parties and movements jumped around to justify the foreign policy of their preferred foreign “socialist” country. It was an article of faith for such groups that since their preferred country was “socialist”, it could not be imperialist, based on Vladimir Lenin’s analysis that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism. Therefore, even when the Soviet Union ransacked eastern Germany’s industrial base after the Second World War, or invaded Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan to support its puppet regimes, this could not be “imperialist” by definition.

In contrast, other socialists refused to take sides. They described themselves as supporters of a “Third Camp” – opposing both the Western/US camp, and the camp of the bureaucratic states claiming to be socialist, with the “camp” of independent working-class action. The Socialist Workers Party in Britain led with the famous slogan of “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism”. During the workers’ uprising in Poland in the 1980s, while other socialists were trying to justify a Russian-backed military crackdown on the Solidarity independent union, the SWP’s newspaper headline read: “Russian tanks, Western banks, hands off Solidarity.”

Old slogans

One way to see the love-fest for Putin or other “anti-imperialist” dictatorships is simply a leftover from the days of the Soviet Union. Of course neither Russia nor Syria claim to be any sort of socialist country. But when you’ve spent a long time in the habit of thinking that the real problem in the world is American military hegemony – rather than the global capitalist system which that hegemony really serves – then you can justify any oppressive regime which is anti-American.

The “campists” even still use the old Soviet sloganeering – for example, when they claim that the Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine are fighting “fascists” in the Ukrainian government. While there certainly are some vile fascist mobs backing the Kiev regime, the mobs who rule the “Novorossiya” zones are only different in the symbols they use. Like the USA uses “anti-terrorism” as an excuse for conquest today, so did the old Soviet Union use “anti-fascism”; the official name of the Berlin Wall was the “Anti-fascist Protection Barrier”.

One sure sign of a campist mindset is that vile behaviour which is condemned on the other side is condoned on one’s own side, or outright denied. Campists are rightly outraged at the beheadings, sex slavery and other barbaric practices of the Islamist extremist group Da’esh (also known as ISIS). But they keep their mouths shut about the Syrian government’s use of “barrel bombs” and poison gas against opposition forces – even arguing that their chemical attack on Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus was a “false flag” operation.

We are all pawns

The use of the term “false flag” brings up the close alliance of “campism” with conspiracy theory. Campism, which sees the world as something like a “game board” where various governments move their pieces, can’t accept the concept of independent action by oppressed peoples or the working masses. So, every uprising against an “anti-imperialist” government is rejected as a CIA-backed “colour revolution”. It’s no coincidence that RT, the Russian government-backed news channel, promotes American conspiracy theorists who are considered a joke in their own media.

And of course the United States have an interest in overthrowing such governments and replacing them with reliable toadies. But to believe that that nullifies the existence of real grassroots movements within such uprisings is to reject the idea that socialist revolution is possible at all, that everything is secretly manipulated by some government or secret service or other such conspiracy. As one British socialist put it: “If you can’t fight for yourself, either because you are too weak or too isolated the temptation is to look for other forces who can do it for you.”

The kind of mindset which could defend Zimbabwe or North Korea as “anti-imperialist” could end up actually supporting Da’esh, on the basis that the democratic Syrian opposition forces have accepted guns from the West – and this is indeed what at least one group calling itself “communist” has declared. It is the logic that “stability” under a dictatorship is better than a chaotic situation of uprisings – a point of view which should be associated with conservative “realists”, not revolutionary socialists.

The enemy at home?

Other times, you hear the argument that“the main enemy is at home”, and therefore we have to oppose our own governments, not foreign governments. “The main enemy is at home” is a slogan that the German socialist Karl Leibknecht used to oppose the Social Democrats’ sell-out to support the First World War, which was justified with the argument that the Tsar of Russia was a much worse tyrant than the Kaiser of Germany.

But the people using that slogan to support the Syrian or Russian governments on this issue ignore that Liebknecht was opposed to all the imperialist governments fighting in the war. He certainly didn’t support the Russian government of the time any more than he cheered on his own. And of course he supported the Russian Revolution which brought down the Tsar from below – not the German armies on the Eastern Front.

We certainly want to oppose our own government. So we have to oppose New Zealand military intervention in Syria, Ukraine or any other civil conflict, and deny any support for the United States military or any Western-backed coalition – just as we oppose the barbarism of the Russian or Syrian governments or Da’esh. But we can’t let ourselves become useful idiots for any other oppressive regime. To bring up the World War 1 example again, Lenin accepted a train ride from the German regime to get back into Russia; but he certainly never supported the Kaiser as a “lesser evil” to the Tsar.

Neither Labour nor National…

We can find campism not only in foreign politics, but domestic politics. You see this in America with the demands that the socialist Left fall in behind the Democratic candidate – even if that’s the thoroughly imperialist and pro-capitalist Hilary Clinton – because apparently a Republican victory would be worse than a zombie apocalypse.

Similarly in Aotearoa/New Zealand, we see the division of electoral politics into two “camps” – a National-led camp, and “the Left”, being defined as Labour, Greens and New Zealand First. The first two parties are enthusiastically in favour of neoliberal capitalism, and the third support traditional “national” forms of capitalism. None of them has anything to offer the struggle for tino rangatiratanga, real action against climate change or independent workers’ organization – and yet, we are confronted with aggressive demands that we support “the Left” electorally, as if a government of Andrew Little, Winston Peters and James Shaw would be a significant improvement on the John Key regime.

In fact, the over-the-top denunciation of Key – a rather bland merchant banker, interested in entrenching neoliberalism rather than extending it – paradoxically reveals that there is no real difference between the two “camps”. Because that’s the real secret of campism – someone who aggressively demands that you take a side between two evils has an interest in concealing that the two camps are really not that different. Campism is born of weakness and lack of faith in the ability of real popular forces to build their own alternative to Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Damascus, Wellington and all the others. But that is precisely what socialism is supposed to be about.

Special thanks to Sam Charles Hamad and John Game for ideas and research pointers on this topic.

A few helpful links:

Germany: Fighting Europe’s biggest hole

Photo from indymedia

Photo from indymedia

Guest article by Jojo (Fightback correspondent based in Germany).

For upcoming magazine issue on the Climate Crisis.

When the Conference of Parties (COP15) took place in Copenhagen in 2009, the mobilisation of the climate movement focused mainly on appealing to the governments meeting there to stop climate change. Since these governments were obviously not questioning capitalism and economic growth and were all putting their own interests first, this strategy had to fail. And it will fail again in Paris this December, when some NGOs will try to lobby the participants of this COP to find a solution to climate change. However, the more radical majority of the climate movement changed its strategy after Copenhagen and decided to fight climate change directly at its roots; for example, in the lignite field in the Rhineland between Cologne and Aachen in Germany.

This area is the biggest producer of CO2 in Europe. It has three open cast mines, one of them the size of the city centre of Cologne, as well as its own railways and several power plants. Besides producing massive amounts of greenhouse gas, it also pollutes the region with dust that is partly radio-active due to uranium in the ground. The mines destroy fertile soil, whole villages whose inhabitants are forced to move away and unique ecosystems. The mines and power plants are operated by RWE, one of the monopolists that control the German energy market.

There has always been resistance by local initiatives, but the climate movement discovered it in 2010 when the first climate camp took place there. Ever since then there has been an annual camp in the region, combining discussion and workshops with direct actions. In 2011, activists bought a house and established the Workshop for Actions and Alternatives (WAA) as a permanent space. In 2012, the Hambach forest which is home to some endangered species was occupied. This forest was once 6000 hectares large; the remaining 500 hectares are supposed to be cut down in the next few years. The activists built treehouses and a three story house out of wood between the trees. Some months later, the squat was evicted; this took three days, as one activist locked himself in a tunnel under the ground. After the eviction, they set up a camp on a meadow on the edge of the forest that is owned by a supporter. This camp still exists today and, in addition, several places in the forest are squatted with tree houses.

In the meadow, activists live in tents, caravans and self-built clay huts. They have solar panels for energy supply and collect left-overs from vegetable farmers and bakeries for food. “With our struggle in the Hambach forest we are not only fighting an absurd kind of energy production but also this capitalist system”, says Yogur, one of the squatters.

The occupation is a method of passive resistance but also a platform to start further actions. The clear cutting works, which RWE can only do in autumn and winter because of bird conservation regislations, are being blockaded and the infrastructure is sabotaged. There have also been blockades of the railway that brings the coal from the mine to the power plant. This year, activists also started going into the mine to occupy (and thus stop) the giant coal diggers that are around 200m long and almost up to 100m high, and to blockade the conveyor belts. One digger was occupied during the G7 summit and, since many police including their climbing teams were in Bavaria to stop protesters there, the activists couldn’t be evicted and the occupation lasted for more than 50 hours.

As these actions are a danger for RWE which is already almost bankrupt, repression is rising. RWE employs private security companies whose workers have beaten up activists on more than a few ocasions. Police are working closely together with the security companies and with RWE. Since autumn last year, police have begun taking activists into custody for several weeks. Just some days ago at the time of writing, another activist has been imprisoned.

Nevertheless, the movement is getting bigger. AusgeCO2hlt, the group that organises the annual climate camps has formed an alliance with other organisations like the Interventionist Left and NGOs like 350.org to organise a mass action of civil disobedience called “Ende Gelände” (“Here and no further”) in August this year during the climate camp. 1500 demonstrators went to enter one of the mines and to stop its operations successfully. The media couldn’t ignore this and the vast majority of media coverage was positive – no wonder, as even journalists were attacked by securities and police during the action.

The question however is if co-operation with NGOs might also mark a deradicalisation of the movement that, until now, has had an anti-capitalist (and mostly anti-state) perpective. Some NGOs are distancing themselves from the more militant actions happening around the Hambach Forest. It is clear that it is important for the rather small movement to grow, but at the same time activists should still stress that climate change can’t be stopped within a growth-based capitalist system.

Another important question will be how to gain support or at least understanding of RWE’s workers. When the German government planned a very moderate climate fee that owners of power plants with huge pollution should pay, their union, the IG-BCE, started a huge campaign as they saw their jobs under threat – and successfully stopped the climate fee. It will be hard to fight for a coal exit against the resistance of the workers. So it will be important to fight for conversion into environmental friendly jobs and also for better working conditions in the renewable sector.

When the COP meet in Paris this December, the climate movement will also mobilise there. Most of it will protest on 12 December, at the end of the conference, not to say “please save us from climate change” but to say “we’re not satisfied with your decisions”. The motto is “we are the ones we have been waiting for”. Until then (and after it as well) we will have to continue fighting climate change at its roots. This year’s clear cutting season in the Hambach Forest has just started and at the time of writing, activists are gathering here for a camp to share skills for actions. On the 17 October, they plan to blockade the coal railway once more.

The Hambach forest and Ende Gelände both also have English-language websites:

hambachforest.blogsport.de

https://ende-gelände.org/en/

Iran: We will turn Shahrokh Zamani’s death into the banner of workers’ solidarity and unity

Political-prisoners-in-Gohardasht-Prison

translation from: revolutionary-socialism.com, revised by Daphne Lawless

Shahrokh Zamani, a brave and tireless fighter for the Iranian workers’ movement, has died in Gohar Dasht prison. The news was received with total disbelief and utter shock by all. In our view, whatever reasons the authorities may offer, the responsibility for his death lies completely with those who have imposed conditions of slavery on the workers of Iran and have taken away their rights to organise and struggle for a better life; and with those who throw honourable and valiant human beings such as Shahrokh Zamani into dungeons.

The shocking news of his death in jail, without any prior history of illness, is not the first news of such a loss of life of a prisoner, and given the current conditions in the country’s jails, will not be the last. This untimely death will naturally appear suspicious to any unbiased person. But even without any such suspicions, the conditions in prisons, especially for worker activists and political prisoners, are already murderous enough for a thousand and one reasons – from microwave torture to unsuitable food, from inadequate sanitation to absence of medical care, from unhealthy living quarters to every kind of mental and psychological pressure.

Shahrokh Zamani had committed no crime other than defending the rights of his fellow workers. He had no official position, he had not defrauded any one, he had not harmed anybody and he was not a partner to any thieves or highway robbers. He was a building worker and a member of the Committee for the Establishment of Independent Trade Unions, a member of the co-ordinating committee for re-starting the Paint Workers’ Syndicate and an honorary member of the Paint Workers’ Syndicate of Alborz and the Central Province, and its founding mentor.

He was thrown into jail in 2011 for defending workers rights, but for a brave fighter such as Shahrokh, prison did not mean an end to struggle. In his almost 5 years of imprisonment, from his two-man cell at Gohardasht prison, he never stopped struggling and fighting for just causes until his last breath. Jails, courts, repression, and pressure from the security forces and jailers could not silence Shahrokh. With his unrivalled braveness and steadfastness, and without an iota of self promotion, he was the real symbol of Iranian workers’ resistance and struggle for liberation from oppression and exploitation.

The death of Shahrokh is an irreplaceable loss for his family and friends and for the workers’ movement as a whole. We are sincerely sorry for this great loss and declare our sympathies with his family, friends, his fellow prisoners and workers all over the country. But despite this unbearable pain, we will not retreat into our sorrow and we will turn his death into the banner of workers’ solidarity and unity.

Long live workers’ unity and solidarity!

We salute you, Shahrokh Zamani!

The list of signatories in alphabetic order:

Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane Workers’ Syndicate;

Paint Workers’ syndicate of Alborz Province;

The Centre for the Defence of Workers Rights;

The Committee for the Establishment of Independent Trade Unions;

The Co-ordinating Committee for Establishing Independent Workers Organisations;

The Co-ordinating Committee for Restarting Tehran Paint Workers Syndicate;

The Free Trade Union of Workers in Iran.

I am not Charlie, and I’m just as sad as you are

By BC, @sinaute

translated by Daphne Lawless, translation originally published here.

“I didn’t go down into the crowd.” One @sinaute expresses, in the comments section of Daniel Schneidermann’s latest article, his unease with respect to the discourse of “national unity” after the murderous attacks against Charlie Hebdo. Under discussion, the “Islamophobic drift” of the magazine and of the “Michel Onfray/Charlie Hebdo/Caroline Fourest secularist” left.

Great unease. I didn’t go down into the crowd. I am not Charlie. And believe me, I am as sad as you are.

But this emotional unanimity, almost compulsory for those who listen to public-service radio and read the mainstream media, I get the feeling that they’ve already tried to shove me into it, twice. French society is completely alienated, but it keeps telling itself its stories. First story: France winning the FIFA World Cup in 1998. Unanimity: Lilian Thuram for President, Black-White-Arab [United], etc. Then, I was in the crowd. A few years later: Player walkouts at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, [commentator Alain] Finkelkraut and his “Black-Black-Black” [comments on the racial composition of the French team – trans.], an outburst of hate against those millionaire ghetto punks, a systematic distrust of illiterate sportspeople emerging from the post-colonial lumpen-proletariat. Wonderful, this “national unity”.

L’Observateur cover on anti-National Front demonstrations in 2002

L’Observateur cover on anti-National Front demonstrations in 2002

Second story: between the first and second rounds of the Presidential election in 2002 [where conservative Jacques Chirac faced off against fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen – trans.] Unanimity: the National Front would not pass, “clothespegs [on the nose to vote for Chirac]”, “survival of the Republic”, a “multicoloured” crowd and Moroccan flags on the night of the second round in front of “super-liar” Chirac, the unexpected “saviour” of the Republic, and [his wife] Bernadette sulking, great national relief. I was in the crowd on the demonstrations between the two rounds.

A few years later: the National Front surging to new heights, the invention of “anti-white racism”, the creation of a secular-Leftist coalition including Charlie Hebdo and a hard-Right defending “national identity” against radical Islam in France, people talking about “washing the scum off the streets with a power-hose”, hijab derangement syndrome, prayers in the street, mosques, riots in the suburbs, shots fired at police, curfew, hijacking of secularism by the extreme Right, [anti-immigration journalist] Zemmour, [anti-Semitic commentators] Dieudonné and Soral… Wonderful, this “national unity”. Third story: national survival after the inexcusable massacre at Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. Unanimity: national mourning, “we are all Charlie”, massive demonstrations to defend freedom of expression all over the country. Charlie? No-one read it any more. For people on the left who thought about it a bit, their Islamophobic drift under cover of “secularism” and “the right to mock everything” was too obvious. For people on the right: they detested this kind of post-1968 culture, but it was always nice to take the piss out of those Middle Eastern mediaevals. For the extreme right: not read, its writers and cartoonists detested culturally and politically, but very useful, its cartoons reprinted in “Secular Response” [an extreme-right Islamophobic website – author’s note]. For a lot of Muslims: a weekly insult, but you keep your mouth shut, that’s “French culture”.

Charlie Hebdo cover mocking National Front leaders Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen

Charlie Hebdo cover mocking National Front leaders Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen

Result: hundreds of thousands of Muslims summoned to prove their bona fides, scarcely a few years after the official purge around national identity. Year after year with the same insistent message: damn you, when are you going to integrate? And you, “moderate” Muslims, why don’t we hear from you more? Starting from today, “you are either for us or against us”. Cabu [one of the murdered cartoonists – trans.] didn’t say any different: “They have to accept caricature, it’s part of French culture”. Wonderful, this “national unity”.

Angry reactions from kids in the neighbourhoods heard on the radio: “it’s not possible, it’s too gross, it must be a false flag”. [Anti-Semitic commentators] Dieudonné, Soral and the conspiracy theorists went that way: obviously some don’t believe in January 7th any more than they believe in September 11th. The reality is that we already lost these people a long time ago, and we’re not going to get them back with public candlelit vigils, nor with calls to “resistance” – what are you “resisting”, really? Are you going to subscribe to Charlie Hebdo? What will that change?

Collective reassurance is a healthy and understandable impulse, faced with such a traumatic massacre. But its flip-side is collective denial, resulting in forgetfulness of the real and profound causes of alienation. The majority will feel better, it will do them good, like it did them good in 1998 and 2002, and that’s precious. But the split in society is complete. And ideological confusion is at its height. No-one asks how we got here, how young Paris kids ended up massacring journalists and artists with a Kalashnikov after a stint in Syria, with no idea about the life or the ideas of the people they killed: they were just on the hit-list of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. No-one can see that French society, behind a façade of unity faced with a horrific event, is really more than ever completely alienated, that it’s desperately pitting the most deprived against each other, and that in just over a decade it has produced its own internal enemies.

No-one wants to see that the biggest producer of Al Qaeda soldiers on our territory is PRISON. No-one understands that France didn’t break down in 2015, but ten years earlier, during the riots. No-one wants to see that we are still suffering the long-term consequences of the immense colonial and post-colonial humiliation, and that because of this, your lectures about “civilisation” and “freedom of expression” fall on deaf ears for some of those who suffered this humiliation, and STILL suffer it.

Libération newspaper front page: “Prison, just a stop on the road of jihad”

Libération newspaper front page: “Prison, just a stop on the road of jihad”

And they continue to tell themselves their stories, after the World Cup fiction of 1998, after the “Republican Front” myth of 2002, this time repeating “freedom of expression” over and over like a hiccup, the last resort of a society which can no longer find any reason for existence than the fundamental right to take the piss out of “others”, like a deus ex machina which will miraculously repair this “national unity” which has been ripped to shreds.

You will not be able to rebuild a “national community” on this principle alone, even if it’s essential. I tell you, you won’t be able to. Because THAT is not our problem. Our problem is to make it so that there is no longer anyone in France who has so little to hope for and expect from the land of their birth, that they are reduced to having no more reason to live than to kill people en masse, either here or elsewhere. Because we can’t do anything against those who give them their list of targets, once they are conditioned. So we have to put EVERYTHING into action before they get that far: it’s not easy, but it’s the only thing that counts, if we don’t want to go on slipping into the gulf of civil war, which is the final consequence of alienation. After that, it’s too late. And it’s already too late…

“One ocean, one people” – Interview with Teresia Teaiwa on self-determination struggles in the Pacific

Teresia Teaiwa speaks at Capitalism: Not Our Future (photograph by Bronwen Beechey).

Teresia Teaiwa speaks at Capitalism: Not Our Future (photograph by Bronwen Beechey).

Teresia Teaiwa is a poet and founding academic of Pacific Studies in Aotearoa/NZ, who spoke on the gender panel at Fightback’s 2014 public conference Capitalism: Not Our Future. Teresia recently attended an international workshop on self-determination in Papua New Guinea. Ian Anderson interviewed her for Fightback.

You recently attended a workshop in Papua New Guinea. What was this all about?
The Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), Social Empowerment Education Program (Fiji) and the Bismarck Ramu Group (Papua New Guinea) collaborated to organize this event called the “Madang Wansolwara Dance 2014” [Wansolwara means “one ocean, one people”]. The gathering brought community-based organisations, activists, artists, academics and theologians together in order to re-ignite a movement of solidarity across the Pacific. Close to 200 participants from Hawai’i, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Fiji, Vanuatu, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (PNG) explored issues of grassroots sustainability and national self-determination in the face of the relentless assaults of extractive industries, militarization, consumerism and colonialism. A crucial dimension of the gathering was a commitment to putting artistic and creative practice at the centre of our activism—the genres of art we focused on were visual art, poetry, music, and dance. The gathering was described as a dance rather than as a conference, because its structure and philosophy was not at all that of a conventional conference. Three of us went from Wellington: myself, my son Mānoa who is studying dance at Whitireia, and one of our Pacific Studies Honours graduates, Tekura Moeka‘a, who is a Cook Islands dancer and choreographer. A contingent of slam poets came from Hawai’i; visual artists came from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji; there were musicians from the University of Goroka in PNG; yam farmers from PNG and Vanuatu; forestry workers from PNG; social workers from FSM and West Papua; landowners from Fiji and Aotearoa and tribal chiefs from PNG and Vanuatu; theologians from West Papua, Australia, Fiji and Te Ao Ma‘ohi (French Polynesia)—it was quite an amazing gathering of people, perspectives and skills!

What are some of the ongoing struggles in Papua New Guinea?
It’s important to remember that PNG occupies roughly one half of the second largest island in the world. PNG is also the Pacific Island region’s most populous country at 7 million; it is the most linguistically diverse with over 1000 distinct languages at a recent count, and it is also the most rich in natural resources. The “Madang Wansolwara Dance 2014” was held in a province of PNG (Madang) that harbors mining industry, logging, tuna fisheries and a cannery. Over the six days we were there, we learned that ongoing struggles include a) preventing the rampant exploitation of the country’s vast resources; b) ensuring the equitable re-distribution of wealth generated from both foreign investment and local industry; c) developing strong governance systems that allow for robust civic participation and state and corporate accountability. It’s hard for us in this part of the Pacific to imagine how much wealth is being extracted out of PNG, I mean they’ve just delivered on an 18+billion dollar liquefied national gas project with BP! So it should have one of the highest per capita incomes in our region, it should be able to sustain a high quality infrastructure and provide decent medical services and education to all its citizens, but it can’t because the wealth that isn’t going off-shore is held in the hands of politicians and other local elites, and that ‘wealth’ is based on the destruction of the environment. One of the newspaper headlines that greeted us when we landed in Port Moresby was that the Fly River, the second longest river in the country, was dead. This was a consequence of untreated waste from the Ok Tedi open pit copper and gold mines being discharged into the Fly and Ok Tedi rivers.

What was the main message you took away from the discussion of struggles in Papua New Guinea?
Before going to Madang, it was easy to be influenced by the foreign media’s preoccupation with violence and security issues in the country. The main message that I took away from our gathering was that things are a lot more complex there, and while it seems logical to work to eliminate things like inter-tribal warfare, raskol attacks and gender-based violence from everyday life in PNG, we need to be vigilant about the way that ‘security’, ‘peace’ and even women’s rights can effectively be coopted into the agendas of government and large corporations—that aren’t really about security or peace or women’s rights, but about making it easier to extract natural resources. It’s heart-breaking to think that the cost of what is perceived to be ‘peace’ might have to be national, cultural, political, economic and environmental sovereignty.

What’s the connection between the movement in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in the Pacific, particularly Aotearoa/NZ?
The main connection is that we are facing similar types of economic logics, and the same type of corporate and state collusions around extractive industries. Our demographics are rather different, though. PNG’s population of 7 million has an indigenous majority. Aotearoa New Zealand does not have an indigenous majority—Māori are 15% of the population at the latest census. While Māori understand their need to be actively involved in decisions around mining, Pasifika people as a migrant group constituting 7% of the population and largely urban-based, may not be as alert to the implications of extractive industries for them. Also, with mining being a mainly terrestrial activity in the Pacific in the last century, the centre of gravity was mainly in Melanesia, so Melanesians have a longer history and familiarity with these industries, while the Polynesians who have been migrating to New Zealand haven’t really had to think too much about it. In the 21st century, however, with the advent of deep sea mining technology, countries with small land areas but huge marine territories granted to them under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention are now being encouraged to exploit their sea beds. The Cook Islands is one of those countries. With over 61,000 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand and less than 15,000 back in the islands, this means that Cook Islanders in New Zealand will need to educate themselves pretty quickly about the costs and benefits of proposed sea bed mining in their homeland. Hopefully, they’ll be able to learn some valuable lessons from their cousins in Aotearoa New Zealand as well as in Melanesia.

You brought copies of the Fightback magazine as a gift. How were these recieved?
Yes, I did. I took copies of the Fightback magazine as well as copies of Kassie Hartendorp’s booklet on Women, Class and Revolution over to Madang as gifts. Some I presented to individuals who I thought would especially appreciate them, and others I left on a gift table, and they all got snapped up! One PNG participant used the Fightback magazine as a kind of memento book that he asked everyone to sign and write notes of encouragement or their email addresses on. That was really cool!

What opportunities can you see for deepening the connection between self-determination movements in this region?
I think this Wansolwara [“one ocean, one people”] movement is very promising, and really fills a gap that was left when the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement fell into inertia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Our next meeting is in Vanuatu in 2016, and there is a Youngsolwara (youth) meeting planned for Suva in 2015. Right now, I think it’s really important that the movement grows strong roots and branches in the Pacific Islands. As far as the Wansolwara movement in Wellington is concerned, when Mānoa, Tekura and I returned from Madang, we organized an evening session where we invited friends from the university and wider community to hear about our experiences and join the movement. Our focus in Wellington since we returned from Madang has been on building awareness about West Papua’s struggle for independence. We’ve been promoting the #WeBleedBlackandRed campaign that was started by PCC and PANG in Fiji to build regional awareness about West Papua, and we’ve also done a few actions around media freedom in West Papua. We’re also slowly building up a second stream around seabed mining, and Tekura and I made a joint written submission to Vanuatu’s first national consultation on deep sea mining earlier this month (October). We’re keen to work in solidarity with groups like Peace Movement Aotearoa and the Green Party, who have been the most consistent in reminding New Zealanders of their obligations to West Papua. I think we have a lot to learn from the dialogues and debates and formulations of a socialist position that go on in Fightback Aotearoa, too. But it’s crucial for us to develop our own ideological standpoint and a solid and autonomous constituency amongst Pasifika students and youth in this country.

Scotland’s radical independence movement

<> on September 15, 2014 in UNSPECIFIED, Scotland.

by DAPHNE LAWLESS (Fightback, Auckland)

A “Pyrrhic victory” is where one side wins a battle at such a cost that it goes on to lose the war. It looks like the victory of the “No” side in the referendum on Scottish independence on September 20 may go down as a clear historical example of these.

The referendum on “Should Scotland become an independent country?” was a primary historical demand of the Scottish National Party (SNP), who have formed a government in the Scottish Parliament since 2011. As it stands, Scotland’s Parliament is responsible for health, education and other local matters, but has no power over foreign policy or defence and only limited rights to raise its own taxes.

The SNP led the Yes campaign, with the support of the Scottish Greens and some socialist forces such as the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). On the other side at the referendum were all three traditional UK major parties – the governing coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and the opposition Labour Party.

The “No” campaign, under the name “Better Together”, was widely criticised for its patronising and fear-mongering approach, telling scare stories of massive job losses and Scotland being excluded from both the British pound and the euro. This almost backfired altogether, when in the last weeks of the campaign, polls showed “Yes” ahead by a tiny margin. This was an amazing return, when “No” was leading 65-35% back in 2012.

As it turned out, the “No” vote rallied to win by a margin of 55-45%. On the face of it, this looks reasonably comfortable. But most significant was the fact that, of all Scotland’s local councils, the only places where “Yes” won a majority were Glasgow and Dundee – the two councils with the highest levels of poverty and the longest history of working-class activism.

Triumphalist “pro-British” far-right groups went on the rampage in Edinburgh after the “No” vote were announced. But the joy of the right wing was short lived. In the month since the vote, the membership of the SNP has tripled, to 75,000 members. The SNP are also riding high in the polls for both London and Scottish parliaments, with – crucially – the Labour Party vote having crashed. The government parties had to promise massively increased powers for Scotland’s Parliament (short of independence) to win back wavering voters in the last week of the campaign. Now they face a revolt against their promises from English backbenchers who oppose any concessions to nationalism.

The British Labour Party seems to be the biggest victim of the referendum. The Conservatives were almost wiped out in Scotland after the Thatcher years, and Scotland’s 59 MPs in the London parliament have since then gone overwhelmingly to Labour. One big fear among the Labour “No” campaign was that an independent Scotland would mean long-term Conservative dominance over a rump state of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But the referendum results and its aftermath clearly show that Labour made a possibly fatal error to team up with the parties of David Cameron’s “austerity” government. The massive shift of support to “Yes” in the last few months of the campaign was not a surge in Scottish nationalism in itself. It was primary a movement against the cuts agenda of the London government, and against the ability of English Tories to enforce a neoliberal agenda north of the border, which has repeatedly voted against it for 40 years.

Like their equivalents in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the British Labour Party has long ago given up offering a social democratic alternative, and simply strives to put a kinder face on neoliberalism and cuts. Standing with the Tories and LibDems under “Better Together” showed that clearly to the Scottish electorate. On the other hand, the SNP’s outgoing leader Alex Salmond steered them from traditional nationalism towards a social-democratic (though still business-friendly) position. Salmond’s rhetoric on the campaign trail was of an independent Scotland developing a high-tech, high-wage, socially secure mixed economy like Sweden or Norway.

For the Scottish working class, the nationalists are increasingly speaking their language, which Labour seems to have forgotten. It is of course doubtful whether an SNP-led independent government in Edinburgh would have been prepared to make any serious break with globalized neoliberalism. For example, the SNP was careful to call for an independent Kingdom of Scotland under the British monarchy, rather than a republic.

But the results of the votes in Glasgow and Dundee make it clear that generations of massive majorities for Labour are on the verge of tipping towards the nationalists, who now speak the language of reformism. On current polls, the SNP might win a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster in the next election, wiping out Labour and being able to demand many more powers for Scotland, or even the beginning of a new independence process.

Meanwhile, the Radical Independence Campaign has decided to stick together in the aftermath of the referendum, building a clear socialist case for Scotland to decide its own future. They will be holding a conference. The split in the Scottish Socialist Party in 2006 between supporters and opponents of former leader Tommy Sheridan dashed what was the brightest hope for the revolutionary left in English-speaking countries. This might indicate a new beginning.