Cruelty as policy in Australia and elsewhere: a short list of 2020s’ victims

Jan 22, 2021

Political cultures also foster sadism,  justifying such behaviour by an alleged need to protect national security. And once specific population groups have been dehumanised, they become targets for cruelties.

Denial, bolstered by the fair-go image of state leaders, ensures that cruelty as policy continues unabated.

A short list of victims

For advocating the rights of Saudi women to drive, Loujain al-Hathloul was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison. Her conviction, for spying for foreign parties and conspiring against the Kingdom, was handed down after Loujain had been in detention for three years.

In a Shanghai court, 37-year-old Zhang Zhang was sentenced to four years in prison for reporting on Chinese authorities’ responses to the Covid outbreak in Wuhan. Her conviction referred to ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’.

In Israel at the beginning of December 2020, Defence for Children International reported that in a protest against an Israeli settler outpost, an Israeli soldier shot and killed 15-year-old Palestinian Ali Abu Aliya. Ali is the most recent of 155 Palestinian children killed by Israeli forces in the previous five years.

Three months before Ali’s death, Palestinian Mydi Ikhtat slipped through an Israeli separation fence to resume his work building the city of Be’er Sheva. He was hunted by Israeli border police as a shabah, an illegal, albeit in his own country. Gideon Levy of Haaretz reports that the police beat him with clubs and brass knuckles and revoked his permit. Only Jewish settlers may move freely.

In the United States in June 2018, following President Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, US officials at the US Mexican border separated more than 2,300 children from their parents. Initially warehoused in cages, the children were sent to detention centres spread across 17 states. At the beginning of 2021, the parents of 545 children still cannot be found.

In May 2020 the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman, part of a pattern of 981 police killings that year. Fatal police shootings of Black Americans are twice that of white victims and much higher than for any other ethnic group.

In Indian-occupied Kashmir, internet services were banned, and the media muzzled, though independent reporters claim that during military operations, at least 229 Kashmiri citizens have been killed. Babar Qadri, a prominent lawyer who had defended Kashmir’s rights to self-determination, was assassinated in his home.

Amnesty International records that on October 20 and 21, in a peaceful protest in Lagos against police brutality, Nigerian soldiers shot and killed 12 protesters. At an official investigation, the army were said not to be present, then it was admitted they were there but only fired blank rounds into the air. Bullet casings found at the scene matched those used by the Nigerian army. Relatives of the victims have searched in vain for the bodies of their loved ones.

In the UK, refugees have been dying in Home Office accommodation, including in Glasgow where refugee rights campaigners report toxic conditions in hotels housing refugees. Clare Morley from Care4Calais says, ‘Many refugees have crossed the Sahara Desert and made it through the hell of Libya, facing unimaginable hardship to get this far. But the way we treat them in this country is cruel.’

In Melbourne, 60 refugees have been locked down for eight months, 23 hours a day. Unable to social distance and frightened of catching Covid, they must tolerate the cruelty of not knowing when they’ll be released. With the support of the parliamentary opposition’s Medevac legislation, the 60 young men had been brought to the mainland for medical treatment after years of offshore detention, but to gain revenge against their political opponents, the Morrison government must punish the refugees.

Explaining cruelty as policy

Inherent in cruelty as policy is a fascination with violence, as in leaders’ top-down abuse of power. Such practice may be direct, as in the indefinite containment of refugees, or indirect, as in neo-liberal economic policies that ensure millions of citizens go hungry or become homeless.

A banality of evil confounds any claim that only a few bad apples commit cruelty. In retrospect this looks like an evil of banality, so taken for granted are these shameful periods of history, so easily silenced are the populations in whose name these policies are pursued

In each state, large bureaucracies such as the US Department of Justice, Home Affairs in Australia, the UK’s Home Office and in Israel the Prison Service facilitate cruel policies even if staff might be reluctant to support them. Cruelty needs administrative records and processing.

Political cultures have fostered sadism, a pleasure in exercising control by hurting a person, an animal or the environment. Such conduct is justified by an alleged need to protect national security, and by pragmatism – do what you can get away with – in contexts that make cruelty toward the weak, such as asylum seekers, look like a mission.

President Trump hurries to execute federal prisoners. A British judge refuses bail for Julian Assange. The Israeli government provides Covid vaccines for hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers but not for Palestinians. In West Papua, Indigenous people face murder, rape and destruction by Indonesian forces. In Western Sahara, the Kingdom of Morocco maintains the systematic repression of Sahrawis fighting for rights of self-determination.

Not to be outdone in the cruelty stakes, the thuggish government of Russian President Putin imprisons the impressively brave Alexei Navalny.

Fostering humanitarian alternatives

After the Second World War, citizens’ expectations, leaders’ values and political cultures were encouraged to be different.

Standards for a humanitarian, rule-based order were set by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the UN’s Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. But in an age of amoral pragmatism, leaders’ violent policies and corresponding illiteracy about non-violence have made international law seem irrelevant.

When faced with life-threatening illnesses such as cancers, the sites of such disease must be identified before treatments can begin. In the same vein, cruelty as policy must be acknowledged before states and citizens can seek remedies, as in reviving respect for international law and conventions, and by demanding that politicians and diplomats speak truth to power.

Humanitarian alternatives to cruelty depend on a language of humanity, as in advocacy of non-violent, humane governance pursued by a non-destructive, life-enhancing politics. Such a redefinition of politics would include the responsibility to promote equality and preserve planet earth. Too much to ask?

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