Saturday, the 6th of July

Talking points

Lights, camera, smoke and mirrors. PHOTO: Bloomberg
  1. U.S. President Donald Trump went on an excursion to North Korea
  2. Japan's commercial whaling fleet returned to the seas after 30 years
  3. Pride marches in Istanbul and NY told a tale of two movements
  4. A fire aboard a Russian nuclear submarine killed 14 sailors
  5. 15 West African nations moved toward forming a shared currency
  6. Torrential downpours wrought havoc in India and Japan
  7. Hong Kong police arrested dozens who occupied legislature
  8. American automobile titan Lee Iacocca died age 94  
  9. Wimbledon saw its fair share of excellence and brattiness 
  10. Scientists found a climate-change solution: plant billions of trees

Deep Dive

The dark logic of deterrence. PHOTO: Office of Inspector General / DHS

Many 20th century artefacts have found a new lease on life in the 21st: super-hero movies, open displays of fascism, vinyl. One of the most surprising has been the reemergence of the concentration camp. This week we'll look at how this British invention is being used for deterrence, mass reeducation and collective punishment in the modern day.

Deterrence and definitions 

An exponential increase in the number of people crossing America's southern border has pushed US Border Patrol and immigration facilities to the point of collapse. Nearly half a million people made the journey and were apprehended in the first five months of the year alone – there are no processes in place to manage them. In a belated response, military bases have been repurposed as vast (often open-air) prisons to deter South and Central American migrants from crossing the border. Deterrence-through-cruelty is the name of the game, at least according to Trump, who tweeted:

If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!

The conditions are indeed squalid: water and food are scarce, diseases are rampant and in one case migrants were instructed by their guards to drink from the toilet bowl when the taps ran dry. Thousands of children in cramped facilities have been denied access to washing facilities, which one expert described as, "tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease". One Guatemalan toddler who died in May was found to have multiple respiratory and infectious diseases. The Department of Homeland Security's own watchdog described a situation in which hundreds of single adults migrants were kept in standing-room-only conditions for over a month.

There has been a furious (and typically disingenuous) debate in America over whether or not to describe these facilities as concentration camps after fiery leftist Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did so. The U.S. Holocaust Museum chided her, as did supporters of the Trump administration, for drawing a spurious comparison to the Nazi extermination camps of the Holocaust. But their criticism falls over at the very first hurdle: the literal definition of a concentration camp. Here is how the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it:

A place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard —used especially in reference to camps created by the Nazis in World War II for the internment and persecution of Jews and other prisoners

Thousands of Jewish Americans who've protested at the gates of these camps (to the chilling refrain of "never again") and 400 Holocaust and genocide scholars have also agreed that the term concentration camp is indeed applicable. Hopefully this means the debate over America's concentration camps can move on from semantics and on to solutions.

The reality is that the demand for population migration will only grow as the divide between rich and poor countries is widened by food and water insecurity, wealth disparity, extreme weather events, and international conflict. Treating these unfortunate people in a vile manner for the sake of deterrence is not only a cruel approach but also ultimately unlikely to be an effective one. 

Assimilation and collective punishment    

In the restive (read: not populated with ethnic Han Chinese) province of Xinjiang, a vast network of  concentration camps is jam-packed with Uighurs; an ethnically-Turkic minority that practises Islam. At least one million (and possibly up to three million) of them are interned behind high walls topped with concertina wire. In the last decade Beijing has ramped up its security operation in the Western provinces: marginalisation, surveillance, oppression and now total control. Beijing prefers names like 'training', 'boarding' or 're-education' camp – deploying anodyne titles with the same flippancy that officials did in the worst years of the Soviet purges. But while the scale might recall Stalin's gulags, these are not death camps. No, these concentration camps have a very different purpose, one that finds a helpful analogue in colonial Australia: forced assimilation.

The government in Xinjiang is happy to show off the classrooms where detained Uighurs learn Mandarin and new job skills. It's a noxious lie that belies the fact that assimilation requires the total destruction of a distinct culture and religion. Uighurs are pressured to relinquish or betray their cultural practices, like being forced to eat pork during Ramadan – a shocking slight to observant muslims. Policy-makers in Beijing are well aware that destroying ethnic identities is a generational project (see: Tibet), so it has begun the practice of separating young Uighur children from their families. Denying children their cultural identity is a low-cost way to wipe out an ethnic group. Indigenous Australians will recognise this for what it is, a modern day 'Stolen Generation'. 

There is one final category into which concentration camps fall in 2019: collective punishment. The government in Myanmar has not fully succeeded in its campaign of ethnic cleansing over the last three years. Despite all the murders, rapes and burning villages that precipitated the exodus; nearly half a million Rohingya muslims still remain in the country. It is worth quoting Christopher Sidoti, a member of the United Nations fact-finding mission in Rakhine state, at length here:

There are concentration camps – let’s call it what it is – with 128,000 internally displaced people in central Rakhine, outside Sittwe. In Sittwe, there are three areas where Rohingya people live, and they have become urban ghettos like the ones Jews lived in under Nazi-occupied Europe... Villagers are still isolated, and their movement restricted; fishermen can’t go to fish and kids can’t go to school. They need written permission from the authorities to travel any distance, and permission to marry and have children. You might need six different written approvals, from six different authorities, to go to hospital. The whole thing has been calculated to watch them fade away.

Without an easy way to expel the remaining rump of Rohingya from Myanmar, the state has deployed every non-military apparatus it can to destroy their lives. The restriction of movement and livelihood is a direct parallel of Israel's permit system in the Occupied Territories. So what purpose does it serve? Punishment for simply being. All the ingredients are there for far greater crimes: an ethnic and religious 'other', completely legal systemised cruelty, and a largely ignorant global community. 

Never again indeed.


Alex Morgan ascends. PHOTO: Reuters

Glory awaits 

We're down to the final pair, the culmination of an extraordinary FIFA Women's World Cup. On Sunday evening the U.S. and Netherlands will face off on Parc Olympique Lyonnais. The best team in the world plays the team ranked 12th.

Needless to say the Americans are well-placed to hoist their fourth trophy in as many tournaments. Even without swashbuckling talisman Megan Rapinoe, the Americans put in a commanding performance in their semi against a determined English outfit. The Lionesses let two through early on, only to force themselves back into the game emphatically in the second half. A penalty could've tied things up on the eve of extra time, but a lunging save from Alyssa Naeher sent England tumbling out of contention. But we'd caution against writing off the Dutch, who put a quality Swedish team to the sword in the 99th minute of their game (better late than never). There's a touch of Ajax about these underdogs.

Quickly, while we're on the topic of international sporting events, let's check in on the Olympics. There's been plenty of news about Japan ramping up preparations for the 2020 Games. It's all coming along smoothy – but wait, what's that? Is it yet another scandal dogging the International Olympic Committee? Yes, dear reader, it's been revealed that Sergio Cabral, the disgraced former governor of Rio di Janeiro, paid a $2m bribe to the IOC to ensure that Rio would get the 2016 Games. What an organisation.
Ursula von der Leyen gets a significant promotion. PHOTO: The Independent

The compromise(d) candidate

Pending a confirmatory vote in the European Parliament, the European Union has its new leaders. In a surprising turn of affairs, two of the most important roles have gone to women. Replacing Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission is Germany's Ursula von der Leyen, and the eminent Christine Lagarde will depart the International Monetary Fund to take up the reins at the European Central Bank. Von der Leyen is an ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel who has of late seen her reputation degrade. There has been a great deal of angst within Germany over her elevation as she is widely considered to be one of the worst ministers in government. It wouldn't be the European Union if everyone agreed, would it? The new leaders, who also include Belgium's Charles Michel as European Council President and Spain's Josep Borrell as Foreign Policy chief, will have their hands full in the coming term (cough, Brexit, cough).

Already we are beginning to see the collapse of the old order within the EU, which can either be viewed as populist disruption or the redistribution of power (from Germany, to everyone else). The 'Spitzenkandidaten' process – a German invention – was an unwritten rule that guided the process of selecting new EU chiefs. In brief, it posited that the largest voting bloc in the European Parliament would put forth their own candidate for the job, and in response the heads of EU countries would provide a rubber-stamp. Funnily enough, Germany controls the largest voting bloc and has such spent decades projecting its often-sensible but always-paternalistic power throughout the union. This year, in a sign of the times, the heads of state passed straight by the spitzenkandidat (another Merkel lieutenant, Max Weber) and opted for horse trading. Hence the lacklustre compromise candidate.

The Best of Times

Recovering Afghanistan's Buddhist history. PHOTO: Kiana Hayeri / WaPo

Shattered icons

The Taliban insurgency rages across Afghanistan – it's showing no sign of easing even as negotiators make tentative progress in peace talks – and regularly visits catastrophic violence upon the capital. Amid it all, in a cluttered office at the national museum, a team of Afghanis and Italians are working to piece together the country's rich Buddhist history. Thousands of small Buddhist idols and statues (not to mention the towering 6th century statues at Bamiyan) were smashed during the five years of Taliban rule – but museum staff and local residents did all they could at the time to preserve the shattered remnants. Now conservators are putting them back together, piece by piece.

Roaring lions 

While the deft fingers and loving patience of a conservator can recreate a stone Buddha, they cannot give a lion back its roar. In 2014 ISIS swept across Iraq, seizing city after city in a lightning advance. The speed of the assault – not to mention the speed at which Iraq's army collapsed – left museum officials little time to relocate priceless Mesopotamian artefacts. Several collections of priceless pre-Islamic religious shrines were dynamited. One extraordinary piece lost was the colossal lion statue from the Temple of Ishtar in Nimrud; it was completely destroyed after the fall of Mosul. But a Google team has painstakingly created a digital model of it – based entirely on crowd-sourced tourist photos – and used a 3D printer to recreate a small replica. Today the 3,000-year-old artefact roars again, albeit a little quieter, at Britain's Imperial War Museum.

The Worst of Times

The 'Boy King' Tutankhamun. PHOTO: AFP

Plunderers, keepers

This week the famed auction house Christie's hawked a 3,000-year-old quartzite head of the fabled Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. The bust is in near perfect condition and portrays an equanimous 'Boy King' in ceremonial headdress. An unknown buyer forked out just over £4,745,000 for it, but its ownership is far from settled. The Egyptian government has railed against the sale, arguing that the antiquity was stolen from Karnak in the 1970s. If true, that would invalidate the sale under British law. Unfortunately for the Egyptians, Christie's has deflected any disputation of their origin story, and so the head will likely end up adorning a New York penthouse or a mega-yacht moored in Dubai.

Stark stupid

We're now officially out of artefact stories for the week. Rather, let's talk about public swimming pools. They are, one would assume, a place of refuge for all people during a heatwave. Well, when the heatwave melted Europe last week (and at the start of this one), it not only smashed June temperature records, but also provided a novel occasion for France's ongoing culture war. As the mercury climbed into the 40s, muslim women defied the country's burka ban and attended a local pool in Grenoble wearing burkinis. The story was pounced upon by the right-wing press, and in some quarters there were calls for a naked swim to counter-protest the women bathing in modest swimwear. Ridiculous. Everyone just needs to have a dip and keep their cool. 

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"[Nicki Minaj will] shake her ass and all her songs are indecent and about sex and shaking ass. And then you tell me to wear the abaya. What the hell?"

– A Saudi woman points out the obvious dissonance of American pop-rap icon Nicki Minaj being invited to play a show in the Kingdom. For anyone unfamiliar with her oeuvre, watch the videoclip of 'Anaconda' on YouTube and try to square that with what you know about Saudi Arabia's draconian stance towards women. If there are children around or if you are at work: maybe just read the lyrics.

 Headline of the week

Prosecutor drops manslaughter charges against woman who miscarried after being shot
Washington Post (What on Earth, America?)

Special mention

The enterprising young Arctic fox that walked 3,506k from Norway to Canada in just 76 days. We didn't even know you could walk from Norway to Canada.

Some choice long-reads

EDITOR'S NOTE: Talk to your neighbour. 

Tom Wharton