Recruiting youth and child soldiers – from Africa to Manchester

In the previous article, we looked at the use, and simplistic portrayal of, child soldiers in conflicts around the world. In this article, we examine the historical issues, and look at the contemporary problems of child soldiering.


In an incisive essay for Aeon magazine, Malcolm Harris wrote precisely on this issue of child soldiers. Entitled ‘Is the Child Soldier anything more than a tragic victim?’, Harris explores the shifting and simplistic definitions of child soldiers. Indeed, he points out that throughout the history of the West (at least, those societies that we historically link with the West), militarised youth were considered to be an acceptable part of any conflict. Harris cites examples of child soldiers that we hold up as virtuous heroes until today – Alexander the Great began his career of conquest as a 16-year old leader of Macedon; Clausewitz, the Prussian military author and general, joined the army at 12.

Joan of Arc was a fighting adolescent, and is today revered in France for her courageous military role in the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years War. Joan of Arc was canonised as a Roman Catholic saint; Lord Nelson, the British general and hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, began his career as a child soldier in the Navy.

If we are to adapt a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, then we would have to conclude that King David, revered as an ancestor of the future messiah, was himself a boy of fifteen when he fought Goliath – today, he would be classified as a child soldier. You would be hard put to find one conflict throughout history where the use of militarised youth – at least adolescents -was not a normal and acceptable feature. Harris summarises the findings of Professor Mark Drumbl, who wrote a book in 2012 called Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy. Drumbl examines the historical role of child soldiering, and looks at the fact that the presence of children fighting in a military capacity was regarded as a sign that their cause was just, positive and blessed by God.

Drumbl explains the findings of his research in this video presentation. He makes observations that Western audiences would find surprising – most the world’s child soldiers are adolescents, usually between the ages of 15 and 17. The majority of the world’s child soldiers are not forcibly conscripted or abducted – about two-thirds of militarised youths volunteer to fight for one side or another. Volunteering can come about in various ways – familial ties to a group, social pressures to defend your community against hostile forces, signing up to join political movements to achieve specific political goals such as in conflicts in Latin America and today among the Syrian Kurds of Rojava.

Indeed, during the 2011 uprising in Libya, when anti-Gaddafi militias rose up in rebellion, the youth in that country – and Libyan exiles outside – joined in military activities to oust the Gaddafi regime. Salman Abedi, the Manchester suicide bomber, began his military activities as one of many British Libyans sent with the approval of the British authorities to join that conflict in 2011. Abedi would have been only 15 or 16 at the time – an officially sanctioned child soldier.

He fought, along with thousands of other youths, in a campaign officially supported by the imperialist states, such as Britain and France. The NATO bombing of Libya did materially assist, among others, the youthful anti-Gaddafi child soldiers fighting as part of a wider campaign against the regime. No qualms about child soldiering here.

The use of child soldiers was not always regarded as an act of criminality, immediately condemning the practitioners with international disgrace. It is interesting to note that during the Cold War, Hollywood made a film called Red Dawn (1984), an account of a fictional Soviet invasion of the United States. In that film, the heroic protagonists are a group of courageous American adolescents, who take up an underground guerrilla war against the foreign invaders – in other words, child soldiers.

The Wolverines, named after their school mascot, had no moral dilemmas or anxieties about taking up arms against a foreign occupying force. The writers and producers of that movie may not have realised it, but they did predict the future – but not in the way they intended.

In 2003, in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, the occupying US forces did face stubborn resistance by, among other groups, the Fedayeen Saddam, the paramilitary and youth wing of the former Ba’athist Iraqi regime. These child soldiers – formerly known as Saddam’s Lion Cubs – were the Iraqi equivalent of the Wolverines in the fictional story. These child soldiers, all grown-up today and facing the marginalisation of Sunni Iraqis from the current post-2003 sectarian political setup, are ironically lending their skills and expertise to the ISIS militia.


If boy soldiering is portrayed as the province of the drug-induced demon-bandit, girl child soldiers are represented as vulnerable to the threats of sexual violence. There is great truth in this depiction – young girls are exploited for sexual purposes around the globe, and it is a serious problem. There are guerrilla groups and state-military forces who recruit on the basis of threatening sexual harm to young girls. For instance, the former guerrilla outfit and current political party in Mozambique, Renamo, did forcibly abduct and recruit child soldiers. An anti-communist movement, it was started and financed by the former white Rhodesian intelligence service, and became a proxy army for Rhodesia, and later apartheid South Africa.

We will also find that girls join guerrilla groups and become child soldiers precisely to escape sexual violence – usually the sexual assaults committed by state-militaries. Yvonne Keairns, a researcher at the Quaker UN office, found that girls from different conflicts – the Philippines, Colombia, Sri Lanka – volunteered to become soldiers for a variety of reasons – to find protection from an abusive military; to escape the socially conservative mores of the traditional family; to find a sense of purpose and belonging.

In 2003, she wrote a book on The Voices of Girl Child Soldiers. Keairns encourages the readers to listen to the girls, and understand their reasons for becoming soldiers. There are strict procedures and protocols to be followed for any interaction between boys and girls among the guerrilla groups – Keairns research is summarised by Harris in his article for Aeon magazine:

One Sri Lankan militant describes escaping her home on the eve of an unwanted marriage. The statements of the Filipina militants are especially striking: the girls report taking part in a culture of mutual criticism, where they had plenty of time to study, and the group listened to their voices. Training included a lecture on strict sexual harassment policies. ‘In the seminar, it was made clear that it was absolutely prohibited to take advantage of women,’ one interviewee said. ‘I felt very safe; I had no fear.’

And, contrary to Western ideas about the agency of female child soldiers, a majority of those interviewed had made a calculated choice to become militants.

In Harper’s magazine in 2005, Keairns relates the experience of a Colombian girl, once a child soldier and now participating in a reintegration programme. The young woman states that she was the victim of violent abuse by members of her family; she joined the a leftwing Colombian guerrilla group. She explained that:

Among the guerrillas, no man has the right to be disrespectful toward a woman, nor do you have the right to insult someone there. If you insult someone you get punished. Nobody hit me, nobody insulted me. I mean, after that the guerrillas were like my family. I settled in. I never got bored or fed up with the guerrillas, but I had a good time, because the commanders helped you a lot, and it’s very different when nobody is telling you off or hitting you all the time, and I really changed a lot. But then later, I don’t know, that changed, and I ran away from there.

She explained that among the guerrillas she received an education, learned new skills, was taught how to fight, found a sense of belonging and safety, and overcame her fears. As a guerrilla, she helped poor people, there was a culture of mutual criticism, and were advised to resolve their internal problems through dialogue and conciliation. She did have fears though:

I wasn’t afraid of dying but of being taken alive by the army. One of the girls was taken alive; she was about sixteen years old. They captured her and they all raped her, all the soldiers, more than a hundred, and then at the end when they were tired of that, they stuck their rifle barrels into her vagina and fired and then they poured sulfuric acid on her. They buried her, and then afterward we went there and dug her up, and we gave her military honors, and we bathed her, and then we looked at her, and then we dressed her, and then we took her to be buried in another cemetery. We were very angry, and so we went and fought the army for two days running.

The Marxist-feminist guerrillas of the Syrian Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPG) are the latest example of young girls and women taking up arms against a misogynist opponent – in their case, to fight the ISIS militants. They became a kind of cause celebre in the Western media; taking the battle to ISIS and fighting the good fight. Among their ranks there are under-18s, inducing the editors of one major magazine to announce that they do not condone the use of child soldiers.

Ironically, while ISIS is routinely (and rightly) denounced for their recruitment and use of child soldiers, the US-organised and led coalition of Iraqi militias fighting to retake Mosul has been recruiting, among others, under-18s to join their Popular Mobilisation Units, thus creating a new generation of child soldiers.


In order to understand child soldiering, let us move beyond the sound-bite messages and simplistic stereotypes that abound in the major media. Understanding something is not an exercise in justification. This is not an endorsement of child-soldiering – all recruitment for under-18s should be banned in all countries and situations. However, let us abandon our hypocrisies surrounding the use of child soldiers; and let us fully understand why it is that adolescents volunteer to become child soldiers. Militarised youth are not always a criminalised entity – retributive sanctions against the practitioners, while warranted, must also be combined with restorative justice.

The use of child soldiers is nothing new in Western societies

While we condemn militias in non-Western societies for recruiting child soldiers, the deployment of child soldiers is nothing new in the West.


The Manchester terrorist bombing has, quite rightly, attracted condemnation from all quarters of the political and ethnic spectrum. It is with a heavy heart that one reads about the details of this cowardly, terrorist attack. Sadness at the loss of life is tempered by the heartening displays of solidarity and compassion demonstrated by thousands in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity. The Morning Star newspaper carried an article on May 25 stating that solidarity and courage are required to defeat terrorism, and that the psychopathic murderer (or murderers) responsible for this latest outrage will not triumph over our common humanity.

There will be more commentary about the Manchester bombing in the coming weeks and months. Without going into a detailed analysis of this atrocity here, it is worth noting that one of the most distressing aspects of this cowardly attack are the child victims. The latter arouse in us a particular empathy for the families of the deceased, and a stronger revulsion for those responsible for their deaths. Children’s lives cut down by a horrible attack evoke in us an understandable and necessary response – the ‘something must be done’ rejoinder. This aspect led me to consider the general subject of children caught up in war, and specifically about the subject of child soldiers.

A typical example of how we view child soldiers – particularly from African, Asian and other non-white nationalities – is provided by the Sudanese Australian and 2016 Australian of the Year Deng Adut. Adut, a refugee from the South Sudanese conflict and currently a lawyer, described his journey from forcible child soldiering in his home country to refugee advocate in Australia.

Abducted and forcibly recruited by a militia group, he gave details about the harrowing experiences of a child soldier. A witness to, and sometimes participant in, horrifying violence, he has demonstrated tremendous personal courage in not only escaping the terrible circumstances of his youth, but also in turning his life around and becoming a successful person. Adut still has nightmares about his time as a youthful recruit, forced to perform and view terrifying and disturbing acts of violence. His resilience in the face of such tremendous difficulties and personal trauma is commendable. His story is inspirational, to be sure. His journey, like that of many former child soldiers, is full of pathos – the tragic victims of violent circumstances that were beyond their control.

Please do not misconstrue my motivations – I am happy that he is alive and well, successful in his chosen profession. I am glad that he is able to live a peaceful life, and give of himself to others. His story, and the stories of other celebrity-child soldiers – such as Ishmael Beah – have come to represent indomitable human courage in the face of terrible adversity.

This stereotype of the child soldier – a passive victim, forced into combat by cult-like brainwashing, or loyalty to a maniacal, power-hungry dictator – is only one part of a multi-faceted story. Western audiences understand child soldiers to be African, Asian or non-white in origin – popularised by blockbuster movies such as Blood Diamond. That stereotype lends itself quite easily to the next logical step in the drama – Western intervention ‘to do something’. The non-white child soldier is seen an irrational, drug-induced budding psychopath, very impressionable and ready to kill. This leaves us with several unanswered and serious questions.

The British Army – one of the main pillars of the British nation-state – is still recruiting child soldiers. Back in December 2015, Mark Bostridge writing in the Guardian newspaper pointed out that Britain is the only country in Europe, and only one of a handful worldwide, that still recruits 16-year olds into its ranks as soldiers. Minors are targeted by recruitment campaigns approved and promoted by the Ministry of Defence. Army recruiters disproportionately target schools in economically disadvantaged areas, and readily recruits youths from low-income backgrounds.

These child soldiers – integrated into the army – are at higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. Chris Atkins, writing in The Guardian back in 2013, highlighted the stories of those British child soldiers who serve in the infantry, the latter is the branch of the army where under-18s are over-represented. Atkins explains that:

David Buck joined the army at 17, saw active duty in Kosovo when he was just 19, and witnessed mass graves and burning bodies. On returning to civilian life at 26 he was diagnosed with PTSD, which he attributes to seeing such horrific images at such a young age. He also experienced bouts of severe alcoholism when he returned from fighting in Iraq. “I was trying to get away from the mental torture of PTSD,” he told the Guardian.

Buck says he was swayed by the brochures he read at the recruitment office. “It’s just deception. It doesn’t show someone with their head blown off.” He recalls images that glamorised army life, with recruits abseiling and skiing. “Being so young I was easily manipulated with the stuff they shovel down your neck in the careers office,” he said.

The army presents itself as a way out of deprived circumstances, an avenue of upward social mobility out of a deindustrialised and marginalised community. In a way, the military cashes in on the lack of educational and social opportunities. Communities devastated by neoliberal austerity, job and service cutbacks and unemployment, provide a fertile ground (no pun intended) for the production of children that are vulnerable – and impressionable; ready for recruitment into the ranks of the military.


The recruitment of child soldiers is not a recent development – armies and popular insurgencies have been deploying child soldiers for years. This point is worth remembering, because the use of child soldiers is portrayed to Western audiences as evidence of the ethical depravity and moral bankruptcy of the groups and militias that use such tactics. There is truth in this – the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone, the mercenary outfit of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda are abhorrent institutions, known to forcibly recruit children, and compel them to perform terrifying acts of drug-induced brutality. These groups, and anything that they have bequeathed, must be strongly condemned and have lost all legitimacy. These groups are guilty of heinous crimes against young people, and deserve our revulsion.

Bear that in mind when considering the following – during the American war of independence (1775-1783) the Continental Army used, among other recruits – child soldiers. Boys as young as 15 or 16 were to be found in the ranks of the patriotic army fighting a revolutionary insurrection against British rule in the former colonies. That continental army was the military wing of the American political campaign for independence.

The insurrectionary and American patriot-force, which later evolved to become the American military, had no legal minimum age of service. That army, which needed new recruits, viewed children as evidence that their cause was just, and even blessed by God. As long as a draftee could carry a musket, supply the army with its needs, and fulfil the duties of a revolutionary soldier, then that draftee was inducted into the Continental Army.

Examples of the enthusiasm with which thousands of minors took up the Continental cause abound in the relevant literature. Are we to conclude that the political institutions buttressed by the emergent American army are now illegitimate because of the use of child soldiers?

The current article is getting long enough, but the subject has by no means been exhausted. So let us conclude this contribution – part one – on the following note. Child soldiers have played a crucial role on the battlefield for centuries. To be clear, this is not an endorsement of child-soldiering – for the record, I think all recruitment for under-18s should be banned in all countries and situations. However, let us abandon our hypocrisies surrounding the use of child soldiers – we in the West, the proverbial good guys – find it easy to condemn guerrilla groups and non-state actors for the deployment of child soldiers as a unique moral outrage – but we have engaged in that practice since time immemorial.

In the next part, we will examine the historical issues of child soldiers, and the issue of recruitment today.

60 years after the Suez crisis, Britain still needs to learn the lessons from that conflict

The Suez crisis marked the end of an empire, but the lessons of that historic episode remain to be understood.


When you are born in Australia from a non-English- speaking background, the inevitable inquiry you face is ‘where do you come from?’ That is not necessarily asked in a hostile way, but is usually motivated by curiosity. The short answer to that question is ‘from Egypt’. That much is true – though to be specific, I am Egyptian-Armenian; both my parents were born in Egypt of Armenian ancestry. The specificity of this ethnic background is sometimes too complicated, or a case of information-overload, for Australians of Anglo-Celtic extraction (no offence), so I normally stick to the short version.

When asked this question in a social setting, or at the workplace, I know what is coming after I answer it. Having said that my background is Egyptian, I now must prepare myself – because I have just become the unwitting and unofficial ambassador for Egypt and for everything Egyptian. I am now the portable Google to answer questions about that country. Once again, none of this is motivated by hostility, but by well-meaning and earnest curiosity. The people around me now have an accessible guide with whom to share their Hollywood-inspired notions and questions about Egypt.

I have, unintentionally, assumed the totemic identity of everything Egyptian. Usually, the topics that people ask me about involve the following list:

The pyramids, Tutankhamun, mummies, riding camels, and kebabs. Egypt is a land of mysterious curse-afflicted archaeological structures, exotic Middle Eastern foods and freaky, fanatical Muslims.

Do not misconstrue my argument – ancient Egypt and its archaeology is an endlessly fascinating subject. The tensions between politics and religion are always playing out in various ways and in different public arenas in Egypt – while that nation is officially secular, there are groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who wish to base the entire structure of public and political life on a strictly religious basis. Actually, the state has come to dominate the main religious institutions in the nation, so religion is a major source of legislation.

Be that as it may, there are lessons to learn from the history and politics of Egypt. There are major implications for our political and economic system today – implications that remain ignored by our political and financial elites. I have been remiss in my job as unofficial ambassador for Egypt – but I hope to make amends today. October 2016 marked 60 years since the start of the Suez crisis – an episode that remains little understood. This operation, known as the Tripartite Aggression in Egypt, was the military response of the imperialist states (namely Britain and France, along with their ally Israel) to the nationalisation of the Suez canal undertaken by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The British authorities are never shy about commemorating their foreign wars – the Falklands, the D-Day landings, Waterloo, Trafalgar, the current deployment to Iraq – each has their own commemorative activities, statues, services of remembrance, unveiled plaques, parades, recitals of the British military divisions that served, and so on. However, Suez remains the forgotten war, its details and lessons consigned to oblivion. Perhaps this is because the Suez war was the end of imperial empire; the unmistakable evidence that while Britannia may have ruled the waves, its maritime supremacy came crashing down at the Suez canal.


The Suez Canal itself, built in 1869 and financed by Britain and France, had always been of strategic interest to the imperialist powers. In 1956, the nationalist government of President Nasser nationalised the company that controlled the Suez canal’s maritime traffic. This move, enacted in July 1956, was a direct blow to the interests of the former colonial power in Egypt, Britain. The latter had looked with apprehension at the rise of the nationalist (and anti-Communist) regime of the Free Officers led by Nasser.

Not only did Nasser challenge the British empire, but was also posing a threat to the imperialist system. Britain in the immediate post-World War Two era was an empire in decline. A wave of decolonisation had swept over Britain’s former colonies. Nasser’s move to nationalise the Suez Canal was a major impetus for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in other African and Asian countries.

The prime minister of Britain at the time, Anthony Eden, became obsessed with getting rid of Nasser, going so far as to demand the latter’s assassination. Britain, along with its partner France, began a criminal conspiracy to reverse the Suez canal nationalisation and achieve regime change in Egypt. That meant an intensive military operation to overthrow the fledgling Egyptian regime.

Eden presented his conflict with Nasser in existential terms – denouncing Nasser as the ‘new Hitler’. Eden portrayed the Egyptian regime as having the power of blackmail over the British empire – after all, the Suez canal was a ‘chokehold’ point for maritime traffic. The British government, disguising its imperialist imperatives in humanitarian garb, tried to present military intervention as a peacekeeping operation. Invoking the Hitler analogy so soon after the conclusion of the Second World War, Eden was setting a template for ‘humanitarian intervention’; a template of propagandistic deception for imperialist economic and military interests. Eden deliberately misled the public and the international community regarding the extent of collusion with France and Israel to grab the Suez Canal.

Israel invaded first, in order to seize the Sinai peninsula. France, facing an Arab nationalist revolt in its colony of Algeria, intended to send a message to its Algerian opponents that no challenge by Arab nationalism would be tolerated. French collaboration in this war was obvious – French warplanes flew from Israeli airfields to attack Egyptian territory. Britain, always circumspect, invaded the Suez region in early November 1956, and added to its already blood-soaked history of empire-building.

The Egyptians resisted fiercely; the move to nationalise the Canal had popular support. Nasser had stated, when pursuing the nationalisation, that: “Everything which was stolen from us by that imperialist company, that state within a state, when we were dying of hunger, we are going to take back. In the name of the nation, the president of the republic declares the International Suez Canal Company an Egyptian limited company.”

Former US President Dwight Eisenhower, already worried by the apparent drift of Arab countries into the Soviet orbit, ordered that all British, French and Israeli troops withdraw from the Canal zone and the Sinai. Eisenhower, anxious to disassociate America from traditional European colonialism, sought a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Publicly censuring his wartime allies, as well as Israel, the Tripartite aggression was militarily a success, but politically a failure. The Eden government, forced to withdraw its troops, backed down in a humiliating retreat. Eden resigned in early 1957. Ironically, Eisenhower threatened to cut off Britain’s oil supplies if London did not agree to this resolution – the American president and ally of Britain exercised the ‘stranglehold’ on oil which Eden accused Nasser of wielding.

The sun had finally set on the British empire.

What has all this got to do with today’s events?

Sixty years after Suez, Whitehall needs to learn the lessons of that conflict. Reviving the empire, Mark 2.0, is not a vision for the future. The question of Brexit – a question that hangs over British politics until today – has been conducted as an exercise in imperial nostalgia. When English politicians, such as current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, speak of the British empire in glowing terms, they are failing to face up to the toxic legacy of that empire, embodied by the defeat in Suez. Not only does Tory Brexit ignore a brutal history, as Kenhinde Andrews suggests in an article for The Guardian. Colonial nostalgia and whitewashing the empire’s crimes are no foundations for a renewed future. Post-Brexit Britain cannot build a new society based on a myth of empire – a mythologised past that dangerously obscures the criminal nature of imperialist empire-building.

David Olusoga, writing in his article “Empire 2.0 is dangerous nostalgia for something that never existed” writes that today’s British government of Theresa May cannot rectify Britain’s problems by gambling on an Anglophone vision of reviving the Commonwealth as a trading and military bloc. He writes that:

The empire, even at its height, never came close to absorbing the majority of our exports or providing the bulk of our imports, and neither will the Commonwealth, no matter how good a trade deal we win. Empire 2.0 is a fanciful vision of the future based on a distorted misremembering of the past. It’s a delusion and, like all delusions, has the potential to lure us into a false sense of security and lead us to make bad decisions.

The song ‘Rule Britannia’ contains the lyrics “Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves. Britons never will be slaves.” That is true, because Britain spent decades enslaving and colonising others, and attempted to present that conquest as an exercise in humanitarian intervention. The Suez crisis, not only demonstrated that empire-building had come to an end, but that hankering for a mythical imperial past is a dangerous delusion upon which to build a future. London should stop regarding its former empire as an exercise in humane nation-building and democracy promotion.

Since 1956, the British political establishment has accepted a role as junior partner of American imperialism – just like Australia’s obsequious deference to the United States. It is high time for the white sisters to rethink their slavish and cynically-calculated affiliations.

Section 18C is no threat to freedom of speech

As Australians, we should be thankful for the government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The PM, in cooperation with other ultra-right politicians, anti-immigrant xenophobes and the NewsCorp media empire, have highlighted the reason why all of us are groaning under the weight of a tyrannical dictatorship curbing our freedom of speech.

The other, trivial issues – such as housing affordability, climate change, increasing homelessness, widening economic inequality, the deterioration of public services – all pale into insignificance in contrast to the most damning piece of legislation on the books today. This law, derived straight from the Kremlin-Bolshevik playbook, and one that requires immediate governmental attention is – Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Jacqueline Maley, writing in that media mouthpiece of loony, left-wing Bolshevik-Leninism – the Sydney Morning Herald – states that with the repeal of Section 18C, we will be able to racially taunt and vilify any ethnic group that we wish. If any ethnic minority is offended, well, they are just being snowflakes and will have to suck it up. Free speech is free speech, is it not? As Maley stated in her article:

My opinions as a white, non-Muslim woman who has never read the Koran, and who already has a platform in a mainstream media organisation, will finally be let loose. Unfettered and free.

We might require a better idea of the kinds of freedom of speech that are necessary in a world unhindered by those suffering under the tyrannical imposition of Section 18C. Richard Ackland, writing in the Guardian newspaper, wrote about the experiences of Maxine Beneba Clarke, an African Australian writer currently residing in Melbourne. She wrote in her book that one fine day, while walking her five-month old baby in a pram, one gentleman pulled up in his ute, wound down the window, and offered the following sterling gem of free speech:

Go on, fuck off. You make me sick, you fucken black slut. Go drown your kid. You should go drown your fucken kid. Fuck off will you.

We can also research the experiences of the Lebanese Muslim Association, a mainstream Muslim organisation based in western Sydney. During the debate about Section 18C, community groups were asked to make submissions to a parliamentary enquiry on the subject. The LMA, as part of their contribution, constructed an amalgam of the comments they receive everyday through social media platforms, as part of the free exercise of free speech by Australian citizens. You may find the collage of commentary on their Facebook page.

The LMA submitted their contribution for this parliamentary enquiry. Let us review a small portion of the comments they receive in the course of one day. One commenter, upon seeing a group of Muslims praying, commented that ‘the things u c when you don’t have a chain gun’. One person, using their impressive detective skills, opined that ‘Wonder how many terrorists or child molesters there is. This is our country if you don’t like our way go back to where you came from.’ Another person helpfully suggested a technique for dispersing the prayer group – ‘Water balloons full of pig piss.’

One of the main proponents of repealing Section 18C is ultra-right wing free-market fundamentalist Senator David Leyonhjelm. The latter has used his position of parliamentary privilege to loudly denounce this provision of the Racial Discrimination Act as a restriction on free speech. He defended, for instance, the Wicked Campers business to drive around with slogans on their vehicles such as: ‘A wife: an attachment you screw on the bed to get the housework done.’ He declared that free speech is free speech; and those who were offended just had to suck it up.

Well that is interesting, because the comedic team The Chaser, drove up outside the Senator’s house with a slogan on their vehicle: “The best thing about oral sex from David Leyonhjelm – 5 minutes of silence.” Perhaps the good senator did not see the funny side, or perhaps he did not understand the joke. He came out of his house, told The Chaser team to ‘fuck off’ and threatened to call the police. Maybe Senator Leyonhjelm does not understand the concept of unrestricted free speech, because, after all, he is a descendant of non-English speaking migrants, and these emigrants require schooling in Australian values.

Section 18C – but also consider Section 18D

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is only brief, and it states that it is unlawful for a person to perform an act that is reasonably likely, in all circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group of people on the basis of race or ethnic origin. You may read the entire section here. This section was introduced in 1995, twenty years after the original Racial Discrimination Act. Why? Australia was aligning itself with important international treaties; the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Since this section was introduced, it has been subjected to a sustained, sometimes intensified, sometimes moderated but always persistent, campaign to repeal it. This campaign, part of the culture wars of the conservative Right Wing in Australia, has been deceitfully framed as a defence of free speech. The concerns evinced about the impact on free speech are perverse and disingenuous. Disguising a sordid campaign to remove racial discrimination provisions in a noble wrapping is part and parcel of the Murdoch media empire, NewsCorp, and its political partisans in Australia. Changing the racial discriminations provisions will only result in making bigotry ‘great again’.

In 2011, the repeal campaign intensified when Andrew Bolt, one of the most outspoken literary mercenaries of the white Right, lost a racial vilification case brought under Section 18C. Alan Austin, writer for Independent Australia, covered the case. Bolt claimed that fairer-skinned Australians who claim Indigenous ancestry were only doing so for financial gain and career advancement. Bolt was found guilty of racially vilifying a group of Indigenous Australians in his columns, and was forced to pay damages. However, this finding did not significantly impact his media career, mind you.

Be that as it may, the conservative Right, assisted by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, current Attorney General George ‘everyone has the right to be a bigot’ Brandis, Senator Leyonhjelm, and an assorted collection of ultra-rightist lampreys who all jumped onto the anti-Section 18C bandwagon. Perhaps they should all take a crash course in Section 18C, provided by Professors Gelber and McNamara here.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has absolutely no powers to sue anyone or take anyone to court – an impression left on audiences by the anti-Section 18C crowd. The main purpose of the Australian Human Rights Commission, when it receives a complaint, is to conciliate and find a mutually satisfactory solution. Legal action is always the last resort, and is only undertaken when attempts at conciliation fail.

The majority of complaints brought under Section 18C are resolved through conciliation and arbitration – only a minority make it into the court system. Of those that end up in court, the majority of those complaints are dismissed as trivial or vexatious, or lacking in substance.

The critics of Section 18C should read Section 18D – that portion of the Racial Discrimination Act which spells out exceptions to Section 18C. Numerous exemptions are provided by Section 18D, and that strikes a balance between free speech and racial vilification, according to Tim Soutphommasane, the current Race Discrimination Commissioner. Relaxing the racial discrimination laws would only increase the risk of condoning racism. Soutphommasane stated that:

Much of the criticism of the RDA has been misplaced or misguided. Many critics have ignored how section 18C is accompanied by section 18D, which protects any fair comment or reporting on a matter of public interest, and any sentiment expressed ‘in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose’. Provided something is done reasonably and in good faith, any fair comment or public discussion will be exempt from being in breach of section 18C.

The latest permutation

In November 2016, Prime Minister Turnbull, casting around for a cause around which to unite his fractious party, latched onto the repeal of Section 18C, and resuscitated that campaign. Taking another step in the conservative culture war, Turnbull announced a parliamentary enquiry into Section 18C. The immediate catalyst for this decision was the dismissal of a case brought by an indigenous woman against three university students. The complaint, undertaken within the scope of Section 18C, was dismissed by the judge.

Rather than taking this as evidence that the law is working, Turnbull and his ultra-right associates launched a stinging attack on the Human Rights Commission, and revived the hopes of right wing figures in their effort to repeal Section 18C. The parliamentary enquiry submitted its findings in March this year. The enquiry recommended changes to the process and procedures for submitting complaints, but crucially left the wording of Section 18C alone.

Turnbull, frustrated in his attempts to acquire success in this campaign, went on to behave like a spoiled brat – he ignored the parliamentary enquiry’s recommendations, and submitted a bill to parliament to make changes to Section 18C. His bill was defeated in the Senate. His government is now back to square one on that front.

Posturing as defenders of free speech cannot disguise the underlying motives of the on-again off-again campaign to repeal Section 18C. As John Passant stated in an article for Independent Australia, abolishing Section 18C will only provide freedom of speech for the few – for the ultra-wealthy elite that dominates media ownership and political discourse in Australia. Racial discrimination provisions do not provide a universal panacea against racism. Nor do they mean that racism can be defeated by legislation alone. It does mean that Australians have rejected the phony ‘right to be bigots’, as articulated by Brandis and company.

Section 18C is no threat to freedom of speech, and is an important part of any civilised society. Let’s keep it that way.