The Russian incursion into Crimea was entirely predictable.
Ukraine is a rich market for Russian exports, particularly oil and gas owned by the state, and the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea is vital to Russian military power. The Kremlin has done much to prevent a reorientation of its former satellite to the EU and the West, imposing trade sanctions and offering reduced prices on energy imports in recent months. Russian elites may not be able to prevent the loss of their markets in Ukraine, but there was little chance of them accepting the loss of Crimea. Ukraine, in the language of Kremlin geopolitics, falls into a particularly strategic category. As a former USSR state it is ‘near abroad’, meaning that it remains within Moscow’s sphere of influence and is expected to tow a line favourable to the Russian Federation – chiefly, to the interests of Russian trade and military power, which are closely related.
Western governments have similar geostrategic classifications. The United States has long considered its traditional zone of influence, Latin America, as its ‘backyard.’ Only last year, USAID was expelled from Bolivia after John Kerry referred to the country as part of America’s backyard. In the words of a Reuters reporter, the term ‘evokes strong emotions in the region, which experienced several U.S.-backed coups during the Cold War’. It is understandable that the phrase would evoke emotions in Bolivia, where Amnesty International reported three to eight thousand people were murdered by CIA-backed paramilitaries between 1966 and 1968.
Obama has been fiercely critical of the Russian annexation of Crimea, but it is instructive to look at how Washington behaves when its own foreign military bases are threatened. In 2009, when the democratically-elected government of Honduras threatened to close the Palmerola Air Base (the last remaining American base in Central America), it found itself quickly and conveniently removed in a military coup. Obama has since done everything to legitimise the new military regime, despite condemnations of it as illegitimate by the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and regional governments across the board. What’s more, the coup government is recognised to be illegitimate by Obama’s own diplomats. Wikileaks released cables from the US Embassy in Honduras stating ‘there is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup’, and there is ‘equally no doubt from our perspective that Roberto Micheletti’s assumption of power was illegitimate.’ None of this is of concern to planners in Washington, who could restore democracy in Honduras as easily as suspending the foreign aid that continues to flow to the country (despite it being suspended to Mauritania the day after a 2008 military coup there and to Madagascar three days after its 2009 coup).
United States intervention in Central America has a long and tragic legacy. Throughout the 1980s, Ronald Reagan ran a series of ‘dirty wars’ in the region, in which hundreds of thousands died. The CIA organised right-wing escuadrones da la muerte (‘death squads’) in El Salvador, who subsequently murdered tens of thousands of leftist anti-government fighters and their sympathisers, including their families, supporters in the press, priests, and so forth. Military dictatorships were sponsored in Guatemala, and the Guatemalan people are only now attempting to bring America’s genocidal puppet dictators to justice. In Nicaragua, Reagan organised right-wing contra (‘counterrevolutionary’) forces behind the back of the American Congress to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government. The CIA trained these forces from the Palmerola Air Base, which is to the present day resented among Hondurans as a haunting reminder of the dirty wars and a violation of their national sovereignty.
John Kerry, now American Secretary of State, has made much of his efforts to expose the contra scandal when he was a Senator in the 80s, but he voted for an American invasion of Panama in 1989, which was overwhelmingly condemned by the UN General Assembly and had no Security Council sanction. The Organisation of American States (OAS) voted twenty to one to bitterly condemn the invasion of Panama. In similar rhetoric to that directed at Putin by the West, the OAS called for ‘the right of the Panamanian people to self-determination without outside interference.’ John Kerry was unperturbed by the will of the international community back then, perhaps just as he was by reports that thousands of Panamanian civilians were killed by American forces. The enormous violence unleashed on tiny Panama has never been forgotten by Panamanians, and in December they commemorated their annual Day of Mourning to remember the American invasion.
For large powers, notions of democracy and national sovereignty are secondary to broader geostrategic considerations. In the early 70s, as nascent steps were taken towards East Timorese independence from Portugal, the Australian government concluded that the vast oil and gas reserves off the Timor coast could best be accessed by Australian companies if Indonesia took control of East Timor. Richard Woolcott, Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, cabled Canberra to suggest that the Department of Minerals and Energy would ‘have an interest in closing the present gap in the agreed sea border, and this could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia than with Portugal, or with independent Portugese Timor.’ He acknowledged that he was ‘recommending a pragmatic rather than a principled stand, but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about.’ The Whitlam government subsequently looked the other way while Indonesia invaded and annexed East Timor, and carried out one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century.
Tony Abbott feigns horror over the Russian incursion into Crimea, but he has done nothing to address historical Australian complicity in the annexation of a helpless archipelago closer to home. As stated in The Age, rather than ‘indict those responsible for crimes that would have made Slobodan Milosovic and Saddam Hussein blush, governments from Whitlam to Howard ignored regular reports of atrocities that the Catholic Church believes constituted the greatest slaughter relative to a population since the Holocaust.’ The reasons why are patently clear: when ‘oil and gas reserves and ‘good relations’ with Jakarta were (mistakenly) thought to be at stake, the state terrorism of the Indonesian military was uncomfortable for Canberra but acceptable, providing most of it could be concealed from the Australian public.’ The crimes of the Australian government continue to be concealed from the public, with Abbott’s help. In January, his attorney-general moved to block the release of secret archives that would reveal the Australian government’s complicity in Indonesian war crimes in East Timor.
These facts make John Howard’s ‘good neighbourliness’ policy with the Pacific, used to justify military intervention in the Solomon Islands in 2003, a little hard to swallow. Howard, declaring the Solomons a failed state in Australia’s ‘patch’, deployed a force of two and half thousand soldiers and police, bringing total political and economic domination of the country by Australian interests. Last year the Liberal government applauded the ‘deepening of business links between Australia and Solomon Islands,’ pointing to ‘strong growth in Australian imports of Solomon Islands gold’ and Australian companies ‘active in the banking, insurance, aviation and telecommunications sectors.’ The Gold Ridge mine, which constitutes a full twenty percent of GDP, had to be abandoned by its Australian operator in 2000 due to the civil unrest in the country, only to be reopened after the deployment of Australian troops three years later and recently acquired by the Australian-based St Barbara mining company. Most Solomon Islanders continue to languish in poverty. Shockingly, local villagers taking gold from the Gold Ridge mine are considered ‘illegal miners’ with whom the more than a hundred security personnel employed by St Barbara have ‘avoided confrontation.’
Howard’s decisive action in the Solomons earned him the title of ‘Deputy Sheriff of the South Pacific’ from George W Bush. Though he quickly denied the appellation, he was quicker to pull his six shooter on the people of Tonga three years later when pro-democracy riots threatened the power of the Tongan monarchy, which has close ties to governments and business leaders in Australia and New Zealand. The intervention was slammed by Tongan pro-democracy groups, and Australian and New Zealand soldiers who assisted Tongan security forces with mass arrests were condemned for facilitating ‘systematic torture and abuse of prisoners by the government of Tonga’. A leading Pacific affairs analyst was driven to conclude that, for small island nations such as Tonga, ‘interventionist proclivities of neighbouring big powers means that nothing faintly resembling Europe’s mid-19th-century ‘springtime for democracy’ seems possible.’ This remains to be true in Tonga, where the people continue to live under feudal autocracy.
The hypocrisy of the Australian establishment reaches new levels when attention is turned to foreign policy further abroad. Most members of Abbott’s international affairs apparatus enthusiastically endorsed the illegal invasion of Iraq, which was a textbook act of aggression and, to use the rhetoric deployed against Putin, a flagrant violation of national sovereignty. A million people died as a result of that invasion; Iraq continues its descent into chaos and sectarian violence. Though now enamoured with role of the UN in world affairs, Abbott was quite happy to ignore it entirely over Iraq, stating in a 2008 letter to Robert Manne (see Manne’s book Making Trouble) that ‘it is not UN sanction that determines an armed intervention’s moral quality.’ International law begs to differ.
Abbott is equally willing to ignore the United Nations in Pakistan, where the CIA is using Australian intelligence to wage a drone war against local insurgents. Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, announced last year that CIA Predator drone strikes involve ‘the use of force on the territory of another State without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.’ Pakistani government officials bitterly condemn the drone strikes. Many consider the campaign ‘to be counter-productive and to be radicalising a whole new generation, and thereby perpetuating the problem of terrorism in the region.’ The destabilisation of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state, would be catastrophic.
Australian intelligence officers at the Pine Gap facility, crucial to the drone campaign in Pakistan, boast about Al Qaeda operatives whose locations they furnish to the CIA. But drone strikes have killed unknown numbers of innocent people, perhaps thousands; the United States does not count and it is impossible to know exact numbers. Reports by independent agencies piece together a rough picture of the nature of the strikes. Amnesty International reports the targeting of a 68-year-old woman ‘gathering vegetables in her family fields’ who was ‘blown to pieces’ in front of her grandchildren, and the targeting of eighteen labourers, many of whom were killed in a second strike as they helped the wounded after an initial strike. The CIA will disclose no information and respond to no criminal allegations. Little wonder that Amnesty is ‘seriously concerned’ that CIA drone strikes ‘may constitute extrajudicial killings or war crimes.’ If Abbott were truly concerned with territorial integrity and human rights, as he has claimed, his actions need be as simple as ending the active support his government provides to the violation of both in Pakistan.
Hypocrisy is just as rife elsewhere in the Abbott government. Julie Bishop made clear her ‘unequivocal support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine’ and condemned ‘the use of force – or the threat of the use of force’ as ‘contrary to the United Nations Charter.’ If Bishop is so familiar with the content of the United Nations Charter, it is curious that only weeks ago she challenged the illegality of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, demanding to see ‘which international law declares them illegal.’ Israel’s settlements programme is illegal under the principles of the United Nations Charter, as well as Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Article 43 of the Hague Regulations. Of course, none of that matters to Julie Bishop. Israel is a close ally of Canberra and indispensable to the ability of Australia and its allies to project power into the Middle East. Its cooperation was vital to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan: in point, General Haig described Israel as America’s largest aircraft carrier, requiring no American personnel to run it.
Israel’s freedom to flagrantly violate international law may not last. A global BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement is gaining credibility, with the European Union recently imposing sanctions on Israeli commercial entities within Palestine. But for Julie Bishop, even calling Israeli settlements illegal is ‘unlikely to engender a negotiated solution’. More strange behavior – given her eagerness to declare Russia’s occupation of Crimea illegal in the hopes of a negotiated solution. Only days ago, while Bishop and Abbott were at the UN trumpeting the inviolability of the inalienable rights of national sovereignty, a Palestinian judge and a 21-year-old construction worker were shot dead by Israeli occupation forces who are illegally in their country, with Australian approval.
Now, none of this justifies Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. But the Australian government and its allies commit similar crimes in service of the economic institutions they represent. There is little that the people of the West can do for Ukraine, but much can be done to hold our own governments to account. The global BDS movement against Israel, for example, has popular foundations, and will depend largely on the participation of ordinary people for its success. Likewise, anti-war movements like those against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq do have an impact. Since popular opposition to the war in Vietnam rocked the foundations of state power in the sixties, governments have been aware that their freedom to commit hideous crimes abroad is limited by what their own populations are willing to tolerate. There is little doubt that people who are truly concerned with peace will be called upon to act in the future.
Note: Any discussion of sovereignty and national self-determination in an Australian context cannot overlook the struggle of its aboriginal inhabitants. This article has focused on the concepts in international affairs, but it goes without saying that Australia’s aboriginal people never ceded sovereignty to the Australian state, and that their struggle continues.