30 May 2009

Resettling for Uncle Sam

The Australian Government has been requested by the Obama Administration to assist with the shutting down of the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay by resettling 17 Uighurs (Muslim minority people from Xinjiang in the Northwest of China) who are currently being held there. These unfortunates have been held at Guantánamo for seven years despite having been cleared of any links to terrorism.

According to Human Rights Watch (see report here):

Most of the 17 Uighurs who remain at Guantanamo were turned over from Pakistan to the United States for bounties in late 2001. The US government cleared nearly all of them for release in 2004, but they were not returned to China due to credible fears that they would be tortured upon return. For several years, the US government has tried to convince other countries to resettle the Uighurs. Albania took in five in 2006, but no other country has offered to take in the remaining 17, in part because the United States has failed to resettle any detainees itself.

Here we seem to have an example of a demand that creates its own supply; if you offer to pay substantial cash bounties for “terrorists” in a very poor country like Afghanistan or Pakistan, you will find a lot of terrorists. Far from being “the worst of the worst” as Alexander Downer never tired of telling us, many of these people were innocents who were sold for cash, one of the more despicable forms of people trafficking. “Enhanced interrogation” goes hand in hand with this sordid business; it is hard work making innocent people admit they are terrorists, and even harder to get them to come up with useful intelligence.

According to the ABC’s Radio Australia News, the Prime Minister’s office says that the Government will consider the request on a case-by-case basis. The Opposition Leader says we should reject the request, not something the Coalition was prepared to do when it was in office, as the following story shows.

This is not the first time an Australian Government has been asked to share the burden of a Cuba-related mess the United States has fashioned for itself. In about 1980 Malcolm Fraser received, and acceded to, a request for a bit of burden sharing in relation to what were known as the Mariel refugees from Cuba.

The background to this was that in the late 1970s the Carter Administration adopted a policy under which any Cuban arriving in the United States was immediately given refugee status and all of the rights that went with it. Such a policy was only sustainable, of course, in a strong regime of restricted departures from Cuba. In 1980, however, a downturn in the Cuban economy led the Cuban Government to announce that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could do so through the port of Mariel.

Between April and October 1980 about 125,000 Cubans made the journey to Florida on every kind of craft imaginable, at which point the outflow was terminated by mutual agreement between the two governments. Apart from the strain the sheer numbers put on the United States authorities, Castro took advantage of the opportunity to empty some of the jails and asylums for the criminally insane, and this was beaten up by the U.S. media. A 1991 Congressional report estimated that about 10 per cent of the arrivals were undesirables; 2% (2,746) of the Marielitos were classified as serious or violent criminals under U.S. law and denied citizenship on that basis.

At some stage the Carter Administration began to ask the friends of the United States to share the burden of absorbing the Marielitos and my information some time later was that we agreed to resettle 200 of them. I don’t know how transparent was the fact that some of the undesirables would be among them, but as the following tale will indicate, at least one of them was far from a model citizen.

Fast forward to 1991, when a change of duties within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade resulted in my becoming the Deputy Secretary in charge of the North and Southeast Asia Division and the International Organisations and Legal Division. I had been in that particular chair about five minutes when I had a request to receive a courtesy call from the Singapore High Commissioner. It was indeed a courteous call and the Singapore High Commissioner was a very nice man, but there was something on his mind far more important than making my acquaintance. He wanted to talk to me about a certain Cuban gentleman, a long term resident of Australia, who had been dumped at Singapore Airport by Australian immigration officials and had been held in the Singapore Airport “Not to Land” facility for the last ninety days. The Singapore Government would very much like to know what the Australian Government proposed to do about this fellow.

My subsequent enquiries revealed that this gent was one of the resettled Mariel refugees. He had been convicted of a violent crime against a woman in every year since his arrival, except the years when he had spent the whole of the year behind bars. There was some black comedy in this tale. As related to me, at some stage a good Christian woman had rescued him from the gutter in Kings Cross and taken him in. They were subsequently wed. She must have driven him nuts, because at some stage he had allegedly tried set fire to her, and on another he had tried to push her out of the car while she was driving. Definitely not a marriage made in heaven.

Upon completion of his last custodial sentence it was decided that the man in question should be deported. Nice thought, but incompletely thought through. In order to deport someone you have to have somewhere to deport him to, a real problem in this case because upon his departure from Cuba the Cuban government had stripped him of his Cuban citizenship and no longer recognised his existence.

This placed the Immigration Department in an impossible situation, albeit perhaps one of its own making. A deportation order was in force, so he couldn’t stay here, but there was no-one else who would agree to take him. The extraordinary decision was taken to try to return him to Cuba, without any agreement from the Cuban authorities that they would accept him. He was a foreigner as far as they were concerned; he didn’t have a Cuban passport and he didn’t have a visa.

So two Immigration wallopers set off handcuffed to this very bad man, on a voyage which had all the potential to become a Flying Dutchman saga in which they would all roam the world for all eternity because there was nowhere they could come to rest; they had no certain destination and under the law of the time a deportee from Australian could never return to Australia.

As it was described to me, they took him first to Rome, with a ticket to Havana, but when they tried to put him on a plane for Havana he was not allowed to board – no papers, no visa. They proceeded to Moscow and tried again – same story. They returned to Rome and flew to Caracas – same story again, as it would always be, because no matter which route was tried, the person was never going to be allowed to board the last leg of the journey, the one which ended in Cuba.

At this point they must have been given permission to give up – but not, of course, to return the gent to Australia. In an extraordinary act of irresponsibility, they took him to Singapore, presumably with a ticket through to Australia, but when the time came to board the aircraft in Singapore they boarded without him and he was subsequently found and detained within the Singapore airport facility, where he was reportedly an absolute nightmare.

I spoke to the Secretary of the Department of Immigration, and we jumped into a plane bound for Singapore where we had a very uncomfortable call upon Kishore Mahbubani, who was at that time with the Singapore Foreign Ministry. The meeting was very cordial but it was made very clear that this problem was an Australian problem, not a Singapore problem, and that it needed to be fixed before it became a problem between Australia and Singapore – something we knew before we left home. It was uncomfortable because we were dealing with a very capable individual who was important to Australia and we looked plain stupid; what could we say? At that stage we couldn’t even say what we could do to fix it, or how quickly; we left mumbling assurances that we would get right onto it.

In the event the solution was a sad and sinister one. The legislation was changed to give the Minister for Immigration the power, in respect of a person who had arrived in Australia, to deem that person not to have arrived, and to detain him or her indefinitely. Our Cuban was then returned to Australia, deemed not to have arrived (thereby preserving the sanctity of our deportation laws), and as I understand it, incarcerated in Long Bay, although he had completed all his custodial sentences. I lost sight of him after that, and have no idea what happened to him subsequently; he may be there to this day.

This episode seems to have been a first step along the sorry road to mandatory detention for asylum seekers. As I understand it, not long after this episode and the acquisition by the Minister of the “deeming provision”, a group of Cambodian asylum seekers arrived in north-western Australia, was promptly deemed not to have arrived, and was interned somewhere near Port Hedland. This was all too public for reliance on the deeming provision to work forever, and in 1992 the Keating Government, with enthusiastic bipartisan support, introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers.

The saga of this Marielito is a very different one from the one that now confronts the Rudd Government – the only common element is the request for a bail-out by Uncle Sam. I have no reason to believe these Uighurs will be a risk to Australian society; it will be interesting to see which way the Government will jump in the face of a request from the Obama Administration on the one hand, and a clear signal from the Opposition on the other that it will continue to seek political gain from stoking fears about immigrants from unfamiliar places.

29 May 2009

West Bank Settlements: full marks to Mrs Clinton

In some earlier posts I have raised doubts as to whether Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on the same page as President Obama on matters Middle Eastern, or whether she has some other agenda running.

I must acknowledge that she has given her President forceful and unambiguous support on the matter of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, which being on occupied territory are overwhelmingly (but not universally) regarded as illegal under international law. Although the settlements are generally recognised as an obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, successive U.S. Administrations have usually treated us to a display of hand-wringing whenever they have been expanded, or whenever the subject comes up.

Not on this occasion, however. When they met in Washington recently President Obama told Mr Netanyahu that the matter had to be addressed, and Mrs Clinton has just spelled out exactly what that means. To quote the Australian Financial Review’s Washington correspondent Tony Walker in his piece on 29 May:

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has employed the toughest language by a US official in years to urge Israel to halt all settlement activity in a significant escalation of pressure on the new Israeli Government.

Speaking at the State Department with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit at her side, Mrs Clinton said President Barack Obama had made it clear that a complete cessation of all settlement-building was a precondition for progress towards Middle East peace.

“He wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” Mrs Clinton said in a clear reference to arguments by Israeli leaders that existing settlements should be allowed to “thicken” to accommodate an expanding population.

“We think it is in the best interests [of the peace process] that settlement expansion cease,” she said. “That is our position. That is what we have communicated clearly. And we intend to press the point”.

Tony Walker noted that about half a million Jewish settlers live in the 121 settlements that have been established on the West Bank, and that the settler movement is an important element of Mr Netanyahu’s political base.

The US Administration is of course correct in regarding the settlements as an obstacle to a settlement with the Palestinians. They are meant to be. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was an enthusiastic patron of the settler movement, saw the creation of a network of Israeli settlements as “changing the facts on the ground”, apparently believing that once a settlement was established it would have to remain.

Perhaps he was right, and perhaps that is the way forward, but not in the way Mr Sharon and other members of Likud and the settler movement intended. Their intent was that the settlements, once established, would have to become/remain part of Israel.

But what if the world were to apply normal legal principles to the settlements? One does not normally acquire title to someone else’s land by constructing illegal buildings on it, so why should this case be any different? If the peace negotiations start from the position that British Mandate Palestine is to be divided into two sovereign states (the only reasonable proposition, unless the Israelis and Palestinians were prepared to consider one sovereign state which seems unlikely), why would anything other than the 1967 boundaries define the part of the West Bank that is to be included in sovereign Palestine? The settlers are on the West Bank now, let them stay and become citizens of Palestine if they wish, just as there are Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Of course, as citizens of Israel the settlers could return to Israel if they wish, but there is no need for them to do so as long as they are content to be law-abiding citizens of the Palestinian State. They have made a free choice to live in what we used to call the Occupied Territories. We could respect that choice, now that it has happened, but they cannot bring Israeli sovereignty with them, and they cannot be allowed to exercise a veto over the options for a just settlement for the Palestinians, which is the only possible basis for a sustainable peace settlement.

This might sound radical, but what are the alternatives – the ghastliness of a “transfer of populations”, or further reduction of the small proportion of Mandate Palestine that the Palestinians can aspire to? Who knows, it might even be a step along the road to the two peoples learning to live together.

And once it became clear that settlements and settlers were to remain a part of Palestine, there would be no point in rushing to “thicken” them.

28 May 2009

Andres Segovia: the American Decca recordings

Deutsche Grammophon has recently done a huge favour for fans of the great Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia, by re-releasing the first six of the albums that he recorded for American Decca in the 1940s and 1950s, when he was at the peak of his performing career.

Andrés Segovia was central to the revival of the guitar as a solo instrument for the performance of classical music, rather than simply an instrument for the accompaniment of the human voice. Born in Linares near Jaén in southern Spain, he moved as a teenager to Granada, home of the last of the Moorish kingdoms to be overthrown by Ferdinand and Isabela, and a city that everyone should try to see at least once in their lifetime.

There is debate about the most important influences in his tuition on the instrument. Segovia himself claimed in an autobiography to have been largely self-taught. The principal stylistic influences seem to have been Francisco Tárrega and Miguel Llobet. Llobet had begun the process of reviving the guitar, but in an age before recording, broadcasting and intercontinental travel made it possible for one person to have as great an effect as was possible later. Segovia inspired the composition by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos of his Twelve Études and several other works, and Joaquin Rodrigo’s 1954 Fantasia para un gentilhombre was composed for Segovia at his request. Mexican composer Manuel Ponce composed his lovely Concierto del sur for Segovia, who premiered it in 1941 with the composer conducting.

This first release contains six CDs in their original LP couplings, in mini-LP sleeves with the original artwork front and back. They are:

- Andrés Segovia Guitar Solos

- An Andrés Segovia Recital

- An Andrés Segovia Concert

- An Andrés Segovia Program

- An Evening with Andrés Segovia

- Andrés Segovia Plays ...

The set has been remastered from original tapes or tape copies of the original glass masters. They have been nicely cleaned up, but with a minimum of intervention, and the resultant sound quality really is very good. The playing is superb, and for anyone who is not familiar with the classical guitar as a solo instrument this set is a good place to start – one of the great musicians of the twentieth century playing works spanning the centuries from the sixteenth to the twentieth.

These days it is fashionable in some quarters to put Segovia down on the basis that he allegedly plays early and baroque music (from say 1530 to 1750) too much as though it were late nineteenth century or early twentieth century Spanish romantic or nationalistic music. My main response to that is that, as anyone who has ever read a referee’s report about someone they know is aware, every assessment is a statement about two people, the assessor and the assessed. I think this particular assessment is unfair; there was no settled view of historically accurate performance in Segovia’s heyday, there is still debate about what constitutes historically accurate performance, and in any event I would like to be convinced that early and baroque musicians all played in as academically “correct” a manner as modern purists would insist.

Certainly Segovia has a very personal and individual style of playing, but when you listen to Segovia you are not only hearing a master of his instrument but a part of the history of twentieth century music – he is the reason that a good proportion of the guitar music of the twentieth century was written, he transcribed many other works, popularised the compositions of others and produced an enormous volume of fingered editions.

To hear for yourself you can acquire this lovely set here – scroll down to the item headed Andres Segovia – The American Decca Recordings.

Happy listening.

Defence White Paper: the numbers do not add up

Today’s Australian Financial Review contains a significant news item sparked by the annual assessment of the defence budget by Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Mark Thomson. The report begins:

The leading defence think tank has slammed the government for being excessively secretive about the defence white paper and budget spending, but warned that even on the incomplete information available there would not be enough money to fund its ambitious 20-year weapons plan.

I have not yet completed my study of the defence budget papers, and have not yet had the opportunity to read Mark Thomson’s assessment at all. I have high regard, however, for Mr Thomson’s analytical skills and for his annual assessments of the defence budget, and accordingly would be inclined to take his headline conclusion at face value.

Mr Thomson’s conclusion bears out my comment at paragraph 12 of Defence White Paper: an appraisal, in which I said that the discussion of how all this capability was to be financed was unconvincing, a scepticism I went on to confirm, in the light of the program’s dependence upon savings, in Defence Savings: The Strategic Reform Program. I supported this view with an example of a previous savings program that went horribly wrong and ended up costing rather than saving money.

So, regrettably, the numbers don’t add up – and don’t forget you heard it first from me.

The Defence White Paper stands in danger of being an event (its launch) rather than a strategy.