Gordon Campbell on Sinai, where it suits us to waive international treaties

9665b53eb218bb4624bbFarmers are currently enjoying the highest prices and payouts in the history of this country. They will never be better placed to acknowledge that their wealth comes on the back of climate-changing emissions and causes serious amounts of water and soil pollution. Costs which everyone else is having to shoulder.

That being so, the gist of this week’s He Waka Eke Noa, report – a working group joint effort by the government, Federated Farmers and Dairy NZ – has been instructive. The glaciers may be melting, but the report envisages only a glacial pace of change for agriculture. By the end of the decade, the levy and incentive scheme that it proposes would reduce methane emissions by only 4-5.5 per cent and nitrous oxide emissions by only 2.9-3.2 per cent.

Individual farmers would be responsible for calculating their own emissions and paying a levy on those emissions. The calculations would be based on a “split-gas” model, which would take into account the differing heating impacts of long and short-lived gases, like methane and carbon dioxide. Farmers would also give an “incentive discount” for actions farmers take to reduce emissions. Farmers would also be able to factor in the efforts at carbon sequestration they make, like planting trees on their properties.

As yet the scheme is in the form of only a recommendation for the government to consider. If accepted and put into effect, farmers would begin to pay some of the price of their emissions by 2025. As yet, there is no indication of (a) how government would monitor the accuracy of the levy (b) measure the extent of actual compliance or (c) what a penalty scheme might look like for outright non-compliance by the Groundswell lunatic fringe, or for a mere fiddling of the emissions books. (Given a similar invitation to calculate how much income tax we should pay, most of us would probably tend to undershoot the amount we thought would be reasonable.)

“Too little too late” is the likely verdict on the report by the wider public. It isn’t rocket science. If farmers can’t (or won’t) find a way to cut their emissions or stop their degradation of the soil and water, then the size of their herds has to be cut. Ditto when it comes to the usage levels of the nitrogen fertilisers that are currently poisoning our drinking water. As Victoria University academic Mike Joy pointed out last Monday:

Dairy farming at current levels of intensity is clearly unsustainable. We know 85% of waterways in pasture catchments, which make up half the country’s waterways (measured by length), exceed nitrate-nitrogen guideline values for healthy ecosystems.

Evidence is also emerging of the direct human health effects (colon cancer and birth defects) of nitrate in drinking water. Extensive dairy farming in Canterbury is already leading to significant pollution of the region’s groundwater, much of which is used for drinking water.

In addition to the harms that intensive farming and horticulture are doing to our health and to the environment, there is the ongoing economic damage to the image of New Zealand as a global trader that’s sensitive to the climate changing effects of its production methods. As Joy says:

Current practices also threaten the market perception of the sustainability of New Zealand’s dairy industry and its products. The “grass-fed” marketing line overlooks the huge amounts of fossil-fuel-derived fertiliser used to make the extra grass that supports New Zealand’s very high animal stock rates.

Also overlooked is the palm kernel expeller (PKE) fed directly to cows. New Zealand is the biggest importer globally of this by-product of palm oil production.

Unfortunately, many farmers appear to believe their own ‘hard done by, hard working’ hype. Well, townies work hard too, many of them in multiple jobs – and they do it largely without destroying the environment that their children, and grandchildren, will inherit.

China Watch

At times, the alleged China threat in the Pacific can seem like we’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope. In a deal done with Cambodia, China will achieve access this week to its second military base in the Indo-Pacific, to go with the other naval base it already has… Away over there in Djibouti, on the eastern coast of Africa.

By contrast: at last count, the US had some 750 military bases in about 80 countries and territories. According to the US official definition, a“ base” is a military facility housing at least 200 troops, has to be at least 10 acres in size and cost over $10 million. (Some 60% of US troops stationed overseas are in “bases”, the rest are in smaller “lily pods.”)

With those figures in mind, consider the perceived potential threat posed to China by its near neighbours in the Indo-Pacific. In nearby Japan, some 53,000 US troops operate from 120 military bases. South Korea, another neighbour of China houses 73 US military bases with around 26,400 US soldiers and allied staff. And then there’s the huge base at Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean. Not to mention the two large US military bases in Guam etc.

Oh, but wouldn’t the deal between China and the Solomons someday potentially enable Chinese military assets to be stationed only 2100 kilometres from Brisbane? Hold on, though. It is only 1,855 kilometres to Beijing from the giant (and multiple) US military bases in Okinawa, which take up over 60% of the island. Also, it is only about 1,000 kilometres from those US bases in South Korea to Beijing. Again: who has more right to feel threatened by whom?

Moving right along… One of the major possible regional flashpoints has to do with China’s activities in the South China Sea. Over the past decade, China has expanded its territorial claims by building several small artificial islands and military bases on the features within the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.

The bases were outfitted with docks, gun emplacements, radars, and an assortment of intelligence-collection gear. On Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef, China also built airfields large enough for H-6 bombers and facilities for HQ-9 surface-to-air missile and YJ-12 anti-ship missile batteries. China’s new bases in and around the South China Sea have enabled Beijing to better maintain persistent surveillance and assert its sovereignty claims over the region.

Cause for alarm? In the wake of PM Jacinda Ardern’s recent visit to the White House, the US/NZ joint statement denounced China’s actions as contravening the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a document signed by some 150 nations.

We oppose unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea that run counter to the rules-based international order, particularly UNCLOS.

Right. Indeed a UNCLOS ruling in 2016 did find in favour of neighbouring nations to China, all of whom have competing claims to the islands, reefs, fishing and other resources, and therefore should enjoy uninhibited access to transit areas in the South China Sea. That said, having NZ and the US using UNCLOS to jointly chide China would have carried more weight if the US itself had ever ratified the Convention. Yet it hasn’t. (That doesn’t stop the US from telling other countries to abide by it. Ditto goes for the International Court of Justice.)

This column however, is not about China. It is about us. If a major problem in the South China Sea is that China is constructing irreversible military installations in a hotly contested area where such actions are forbidden by international treaties then…why on earth are our military forces in the Sinai standing by while Egypt builds irreversible miliary installations in a hotly contested area?

And why, with a nod and wink from us, are the armed forces of the treaty partners being allowed (a) in forbidden areas and (b) in excess of the numbers stipulated by the international treaty that governs our long standing participation in the Sinai multinational force?

Surely, we can’t just pick and choose which international treaties we will recognise in one part of the globe, while – in another part of the globe – we regard non-compliance as fighting talk, and as a threat to our national security?

The Sinai Deployment

Let’s back up a bit. Even though we have had troops stationed in the Sinai for the past 40 years, most New Zealanders know less about this expensive ongoing deployment than they do about every rock and cranny in Anzac Cove.

US troops comprise over half the circa 1,100 force that comprises the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai. We reportedly provided 28 troops, most of them Army, with four Navy and four Air Force members. Here by NZDF itself, is a recent backgrounder on the Sinai deployment.

The origins of the MFO lie in the 1979 Treaty of Peace between Egypt and Israel, which was brokered by US President Jimmy Carter during the preceding Camp David talks. The two Treaty parties, Egypt and Israel, undertook to request the United Nations to provide a force and observers to supervise the implementation of the Treaty, but when this was not possible, they negotiated a further protocol establishing the MFO “as an alternative” to the envisioned UN force. The protocol was signed in 1981, and the MFO was established on the 25 April, Anzac Day, 1982. Since then, New Zealand has contributed Defence Force personnel to the force continuously.

Like most such US-brokered efforts in the Middle East, the overall aim is to provide protection – by way of a demilitarized buffer zone – for the state of Israel. For decades, the wellbeing of the circa 550,000 Sinai inhabitants (mostly Bedouin) has never been a MFO priority. That’s been the case even though the main security threats in the Sinai have been generated by the dire poverty, anti-Bedouin racism and brutal repression of Egypt’s leaders and military. There’s a very useful Brookings Institute account here from 2017, of the legacy of the tactical failures in the Sinai.

Since then, Cairo has tried to switch to a somewhat more enlightened policy aimed at fostering local development. This change was also in response to several local insurgencies initiated by impoverished local youth, all of which eventually coalesced under the leadership of Islamic State. Over the past year or so though, the IS threat has been rolled back by a combination of Egyptian, Israeli and local efforts.

Rather than being a sign of IS strength, an incident in May in which eleven Egyptian troops were killed has been widely viewed as an isolated illustration of the relative weakness these days of the IS forces. The IS threat is now being estimated to comprise roughly 200 fighters, barely a quarter of what IS could put in the field during their hey-day in the Sinai, six years ago.

That’s the key point. All the main players – Egypt, Israel, the MFO – had agreed to turn a blind eye to the increased militarisation of the Sinai, even though – in nature, location and in numbers – it is in flagrant contravention of the terms of the MFO’s founding treaty. Formerly, this could be rationalised as being for the greater good of defeating Islamic State. Yet even though that threat is now but a shadow of its former self, there is absolutely no sign of the partners reverting to honouring the MFO conditions.

The Conditions

Here’s the MFO core document. It says:

Article II of Annex I to the Treaty of Peace establishes four security zones, three in the Sinai in Egypt and one in Israel along the international border. Limitations on military forces and equipment within each zone are stipulated in Annex I to the Treaty.

On a bi-weekly basis, the MFO patrols those various zones – each of which has put agreed limits on the armaments and soldiers allowed – and counts the armoured vehicle types and personnel, and tabulates them in monthly reports:

The annex divides the peninsula into three zones and stipulates, among other things, that Egypt can deploy only one mechanized infantry division with up to 22,000 troops, 230 tanks, and 480 armoured personnel vehicles in Zone A, the area closest to the Suez Canal. Only border guards and police are allowed in Zones B and C, respectively, which are closer to Israel.

But, as the authoritative US Foreign Policy magazine has recently reported… here’s the thing:

While the MFO’s list is not publicly available, the number of Egyptian soldiers in Zones B and C—from which the treaty prohibits them—is substantial. Four years ago, then-Egyptian Chief of Staff Mohammed Farid Hegazy reported that 24,630 soldiers were taking part in counterterrorism operations in northeast Sinai, in addition to around 20,000 stationed elsewhere in the peninsula. Some analysts’ estimates are significantly higher. Eli Dekel, a former Israeli intelligence officer, has drawn on commercially available satellite imagery to peg Egypt’s total Sinai deployment at three times the total permitted under the treaty. Nearly two-thirds of them are operating in Zones B and C.

To repeat: in Zones B and C, no armed troops are permitted.

Assuming these numbers are remotely credible, Egypt today has at least double the number of troops in Sinai originally permitted in the peace treaty, half of which are operating in prohibited areas. These soldiers are equipped with artillery and vehicles also not allowed by the treaty, including an estimated 200 additional tanks beyond the 230 allowed in Zone A, according to several current and former officials. All this is being done with Israel’s concurrence.

Right. So…. What status do we now afford to the treaty that supposedly governs our military presence if we – tossing a wink to Egypt and Israel, supposedly for the greater good – continue to routinely allow it to be violated? What is our position looking ahead, now that the threat that might have justified the temporary suspension of those terms and conditions has now been severely diminished ? Having let the military cat out of the bag in the Sinai, how do we propose – if at all – to put it back in the bag?

All it would take is a change of regime in Cairo – similar to what happened in 2013 – for the military presence and outposts already in place (with more being built) to become highly problematic, for regional peace.

All of this would be beside the realpolitik point if – elsewhere in the world – we were not demanding that China needs to abide by similar international treaty norms to the letter, and if we were not going into a tizzy of militant anxiety when China doesn’t appear to recognise our absolute hegemony in the Pacific.

New Zealand makes such a big deal about the need to abide by international norms, to observe UNCLOS rulings yada yada… Yet in the context of our long term military deployment in the Sinai, we seem to have been actively complicit for years in violating the founding terms of that deployment. For the greater good, of course. And even after the rationale for the waiving of its conditions has all but disappeared.

Likewise then – and also for the greater good – maybe we should desist from joining in with the self-righteous rhetoric that our allies in Washington and Canberra commonly direct these days, at China. They bend the rules too, when it suits.

Footnote: Clearly, the fine print matters. In the South China Sea, the macho willingness of both sides to press on up over the advantage line means that war could break out – by accident – at any misconstrued moment. Only a few days ago, a Chinese J-16 fighter intercepted a Australian P/8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft and released metallic pieces of “chaff” that got into the P-8’s engines, causing it to make a precautionary return to base.

Crucially, just where this encounter took place has not been revealed. As international law expert Donald Rothwell of the Australian National University has said:

“The P-8 could have been flying adjacent to a Chinese claimed artificial island over which Australia does not recognise any Chinese entitlement to a territorial sea and as such the freedom of overflight would apply. China would counter by saying this is an area where they can assert a legitimate territorial sea entitlement and Australian aircraft cannot enter. So the matter could be a simple issue of an Australian verses a Chinese interpretation of the relevant airspace.”

Exactly. Wars are commonly waged over competing versions of just where the relevant borders are, and on who has the right to be where, at any given moment.