It's official now. The Sydney Peace Foundation is neck deep in the business of gambling and calculated risk. Last year, very courageously, it chose Dr Hanan Ashrawi of Palestine for the Sydney Peace Prize. And, as if that were not enough, this year - of all the people in the world - it goes and chooses me!
When the prize was announced, I was subjected to some pretty arch remarks from those who know me well: Why did they give it to the biggest troublemaker we know? Didn't anybody tell them that you don't have a peaceful bone in your body? And, memorably, Arundhati didi what's the Sydney Peace Prize? Was there a war in Sydney that you helped to stop?
Speaking for myself, I am utterly delighted. But I must accept it as a literary prize that honors a writer for her writing, because contrary to the many virtues that are falsely attributed to me, I'm not an activist, nor the leader of a mass movement, and I'm certainly not the "voice of the voiceless".
Today, not merely justice, but the idea of justice is under attack. The assault on fragile sections of society is at once so complete, so cruel and so clever - all encompassing and yet specifically targeted, brutal and yet insidious - that its audacity has eroded our definition of justice. It has forced us to lower our sights and expectations.
In an alarming shift, the reduced, fragile discourse of “human rights” is replacing the magnificent concept of justice. The difference is that notions of equality have been pried loose and eased out of the equation. It's a process of attrition. Almost unconsciously, we begin to think of justice for the rich and powerful, and human rights for the poor. Justice for the corporate world, human rights for its victims. Justice for the Indian upper castes, human rights for Dalits and Adivasis (if that). Justice for white Australians, human rights for Aboriginals and immigrants.
It is becoming clearer that violating human rights is an inherent and necessary part of implementing a coercive and unjust political and economic structure on the world. Without wholesale violation of human rights, the neo-liberal project would remain in the dreamy realm of policy. But increasingly human rights violations are being portrayed as the unfortunate, almost accidental, fallout of an otherwise acceptable political and economic system. This is why in areas of heightened conflict - in Kashmir and in Iraq for example - human rights professionals are regarded with suspicion.
It has been only a few weeks since Australians voted to re-elect Prime Minister John Howard who, among other things, led Australia to participate in the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. The invasion of Iraq will surely go down in history as one of the most cowardly wars ever fought. It was a war in which a band of rich nations, armed with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over, rounded on a poor nation, falsely accused it of having nuclear weapons, used the United Nations to force it to disarm, then invaded it, occupied it and are now in the process of selling it.
Iraq is a sign of things to come showing us the corporate-military cabal of “Empire” at work. As the battle to control the world's resources intensifies, economic colonialism through formal military aggression is staging a comeback.
In 1991 US President George Bush senior mounted Operation Desert Storm. Tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed in the war. Iraq's fields were bombed with more than 300 tonnes of depleted uranium, causing a fourfold increase in cancer among children. For more than 13 years, 24 million Iraqi people lived in a war zone and were denied food, medicine and clean water. In the frenzy around the US elections, let's remember that the levels of cruelty did not fluctuate whether the Democrats or the Republicans were in the White House. Half a million Iraqi children died because of economic sanctions in the run up to Operation Shock and Awe. Until recently, while there was a careful record of how many US soldiers had lost their lives, we had no idea of how many Iraqis had been killed. A new, detailed study, fast-tracked by the Lancet medical journal and extensively peer reviewed, estimates that 100,000 Iraqis have died since the invasion. And let's not forget Iraq's children. Technically the bloodbath is called precision bombing. In ordinary language, it's called butchery.
So the “civilized” “modern” world - built painstakingly on a legacy of genocide, slavery and colonialism - now controls most of the world's oil. And most of the world's weapons, most of the world's money, and most of the world's media. The embedded, corporate media in which the doctrine of "Free Speech" has been substituted by the doctrine of "Free If You Agree Speech".
The UN's Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix said he found no evidence of nuclear weapons in Iraq. Every scrap of evidence produced by the US and British Governments was found to be false. And yet, in the prelude to the war, day after day the most “respectable” newspapers and TV channels in the US, headlined the “evidence” of Iraq's arsenal of weapons of nuclear weapons. It now turns out that the source of the manufactured “evidence” of Iraq's arsenal of nuclear weapons was Ahmed Chalabi who - like General Suharto of Indonesia, General Pinochet of Chile, the Shah of Iran, the Taliban and of course, Saddam Hussein himself - was bankrolled with millions of dollars from the good old CIA.
And so, a country was bombed into oblivion. Visitors to Australia like myself, are expected to answer the following question when they fill in the visa form: Have you ever committed or been involved in the commission of war crimes or crimes against humanity or human rights? Would George Bush and Tony Blair get visas to Australia? Under the tenets of International Law they must surely qualify as war criminals.