Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Australian politics and the English language

It was Julia Gillard who began the retrogression in Australian politics on the question of Israeli breaches of international law. Only under pressure from her cabinet did Prime Minister Gillard in 2012 reconsider her intention to oppose a UN resolution to upgrade Palestine’s status in the General Assembly. Gillard’s preferred position would have seen Australia marginalised within a US-led, stridently pro-Tel Aviv minority of the international community. (Gillard apparently had no qualms about the Vatican’s holding of the same ‘non-member observer status’ that Palestine were seeking, and eventually won. Perhaps she needed reminding that the ‘non-observer status’ was created specially for the Vatican – a single-religion enclave that was unilaterally dreamed into existence by fascist Italy in 1929 and undoubtedly has far less of a claim to increased UN recognition than Palestine.)

There is no need to rehearse here Bob Carr’s condemnation of the influence Melbourne’s ‘pro-Israel lobby’ allegedly had on Gillard while she was PM. She was a politician of strong, if often seemingly contradictory, personal convictions; an atheist in an unconventional relationship who did not support gay marriage, a woman vocally proud of her British heritage but at the same time a fierce supporter of the Australia-US alliance. It is, I suspect, the latter that had the most to do with Gillard’s favoured position on the Palestinian vote than any undue (and unproven) influence of Jewish-Australian lobbyists.

Which brings us to the present government, led by the even more determined and altogether more paradoxically US-enamoured anglophile Tony Abbott. Last week, the Abbott government quietly announced it would no longer be using the word ‘occupied’ when referring to Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. George Brandis told a Senate estimates hearing that to characterise the settlements in this way was ‘judgmental’, ‘pejorative’ and ‘unhelpful’. Why is this shift in language significant? Because, as George Orwell knew almost 70 years ago, it is, like all political language, designed to ‘make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’.

The UN, the International Court of Justice and the International Committee of the Red Cross are all in agreement: the establishment of settlements in territories that have been occupied – what other word is there for it? – by Israel since the Six-Day War is illegal under international law. It is no more pejorative or judgmental to say this than it is to say that Ronnie Biggs was a thief. On the other hand, we know that the Coalition has form in the area of pointedly dissembling language. It has routinely used incorrect and prejudicial language to paint asylum seekers as criminals. This is a government that understands all too well Orwell’s belief in the power of language to shape our perceptions of reality. Our leaders insist upon these tiny revolutions in the language when they suddenly glimpse a reality that holds no further political mileage for them.

The pure wind that blew through the Senate hearing last Thursday had the goal of making murder respectable. The military occupation of the Palestinian territories has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. The notorious saturation bombing of Gaza that began in December 2008 claimed the lives of over a thousand civilians alone. Daily, the occupation guarantees the humiliation, oppression and bullying of countless Palestinian men, women and children. Israel’s night-time terror raids go on, as does the detention of children who may, or may not, have thrown stones at heavily armed and armoured Israeli soldiers. Not only does Brandis’ announcement fly in the face of reality – it flies in the face humanity.

Moreover, it should not be seen as an aberration, only an isolated case of overzealous pro-Americanism, but rather as part of the Abbott Government’s wider project to soft-peddle gross human rights violations when it is politically expedient to do so. The combined commentary of Abbott and Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop on the Sri Lankan civil war and its aftermath has been consistently mendacious. In November last year at Colombo’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (which was boycotted by countries including India and Canada), Abbott dismissed Sri Lanka’s complicity in war crimes with a Rumsfeldian ‘sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen’. Bishop, meanwhile, wanted us to see the Sri Lankan situation ‘in context’, and to forget that the country’s sitting president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is accused of the massacres of Tamil civilians and captured Tamil Tiger militants. None of this, of course, has anything to do with the necessity of having Rajapaksa on side in order for the Abbott Government’s refugee policy to remain intact.

The UN has already rebuked us over our breaches of refugee convention. We are now, I think, at serious risk of becoming an international pariah, not only far out of step with global political consensuses on any number of critical human rights issues, but with reality itself. Is there anything we won’t deny, downplay or rechristen in the name of a short-term political fix? 

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