Monday, 31 May 2010

Israel, Rwanda and the politics of permissiveness

Just like the use of chemical weapons on Palestinian civilians last year, the killing of at least nine activists by Israeli commandoes has sent shockwaves around the world. But, just as in 2009, much of the criticism has been in muted tones.

An emergency meeting of the UN Security Council has been called, and no one is denying that the matter is being taken incredibly seriously, but it's hard not to feel that were this any other state- say Iran, Lebanon or Zimbabwe, the response of ‘the West’ may have been much stronger. So far William Hague has merely called for Israel “to act with restraint and in line with international obligations”, whilst a White House spokesman has stated that the US "deeply regrets the loss of life" and is "currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy". It's hardly a robust reaction to the state-sanctioned killing of civilians transporting aid.

There are obvious reasons for this. Facts are still emerging about exactly what transpired– and there is no doubt that physical resistance was put up by the activists (though it’s difficult to see how this could merit the fatal shooting of nine people or, indeed, why Israel felt it necessary to storm the boats with armed commandoes in the first place.) Then of course there’s the fact that Israel is a key 'Western' ally in the Middle East and thus a rather mild opposition to its actions is to be expected.

But there’s another factor that always means 'Western' criticism of Israel is often somewhat toned-down; namely its tragic history and vulnerable political situation. The regional hostility that Israel has faced since its creation, the horrendous terrorist attacks that it has been subjected to (both on its own soil and abroad in incidents such as the Munich massacre) and, of course, the fact that it was formed as a safe haven for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust- all combine to foster a widespread reluctance among 'Western' states when subjecting it to scrutiny.

It reminds me of something that an aid worker told me at a conference last year concerning the
human rights abuses in today’s Rwanda. She pointed out that, despite suppression of political dissent, gross misconduct in the justice system and restrictions on media freedom, the international community is very hesitant to criticise President Paul Kagame and his party-the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) because these are the very people who stepped in and stopped the nation's genocide while the rest of the world stood idly by. This claim is upheld by Richard Dowden, the Director of the Royal African Institute, who goes as far as saying that Rwanda is given “free reign” because of what he terms “Rwandan guilt.”

It is, perhaps, a natural stance to take. World leaders feel sympathy and regret for what a nation has been through – and attempt to make up for this by dampening down any criticism. But this is a very dangerous path to go down. After all – Robert Mugabe and the Iranian Islamist regime both overthrew oppressive governments who had subjected their people to terrible abuses – but this shouldn’t (and doesn't) stop us from criticising them.

Simiarly, we should celebrate Kagame’s victory over the perpetrators of genocide but still be free to harshly criticise his regime when Rwandan journalists are thrown into jail without trial. We should support Israel’s right to exist – and sympathise with the hardships it has faced- but still be free to strongly condemn it when aid activists are shot dead or civilian areas are bombarded with white phosphorous. Whilst recognising that the wider political context is always important, human rights must be viewed as basic, universal and fundamental.

And that means unrestrainedly criticising abuses wherever they occur, whoever they are committed by.

Friday, 28 May 2010

The knock-out blow?

When it comes to whaling Japan is like a boxer who knows that he is beaten but refuses to go down...taking blow after blow but stumbling on until he physically can't continue.

The anti-whaling movement launched in the late 1970s and scored its first big victory in 1986 when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) passed a global moratorium against commercial whaling. Japan carried on under the utterly nonsensical pretence that its whaling was ‘scientific research’ – but the charade fooled no one.

Throughout the 1990s Greenpeace activists photographed and filmed graphic footage of the ongoing slaughter – whales being dragged bleeding onto the decks of Japanese ships then cut apart whilst they writhed around in pain. This was played by news outlets around the world on a yearly basis, wrecking Japan’s public image on the international stage. But still the state sponsored whaling operations limped on.

Then in 2005 Sea Shepherd (a radical anti whaling organisation that had split from Greenpeace in 1977 and gone on to sink numerous Spanish, Norwegian and independent whaling ships) entered the fray. Each year the Sea Shepherd team dispatched vessels to the Southern Ocean to do battle with Japan’s whalers- blocking their harpoons, hindering their refuelling, damaging their engines and stink bombing their boats. Sea Shepherd’s actions have consistently prevented the whaling fleet from meeting their kill quota (recently cutting it by half), causing massive financial losses to the industry. One of their greatest victories came in February when Captain Pete Bethune boarded a whaling ship; he was detained and immediately taken back to Japan…removing the vessel from the fleet for the remainder of the season at a cost estimated to run into the millions.

Still the Japanese government continues to prop up the whalers by providing them with massive subsidies to compensate for their losses and with expensive armed troops to ‘defend themselves’ against Sea Shepherd. So Japanese whaling goes on. However, the knock-out blow might be about to come. Today – little under a month away from the next IWC meeting – Australia has launched a
legal challenge against Japan at the International Court of Justice, citing its violation of the 1986 moratorium. Japan’s current (and highly immoral) policy of giving aid to landlocked African countries in return for votes at the IWC can only stretch so far……and it certainly won’t be sufficient enough to protect their activities in the face of an ICJ ruling.

Ultimately whaling is fundamentally wrong on three main grounds. Firstly whales are incredibly intelligent creatures –
research in the last few years has shown their brains to include the kind of neurones previously thought to only exist in humans, primates and dolphins. Secondly they’re endangered- the intensive and relentless slaughter that Japanese whalers carry out each year could see several species permanently extinct within a decade. And finally- there is no humane way to kill a whale. Some animal rights activists would argue that killing is intrinsically inhumane – and there is a case for that. But it is generally accepted that humane farming practices which prevent unnecessary suffering are possible. Blasting a grenade-tipped harpoon into a creature then dragging it onto the deck of a ship where it bleeds to death over a matter of hours certainly does not fall within this category.

Because of these reasons Japan’s whaling has to be stopped. An international moratorium, worldwide criticism and huge financial losses haven’t quite managed this, but a legal ruling on top of these might finally tip the balance. Japan will undoubtedly put up a huge fight but a result at the ICJ may top off over 30 years of activism and provide that knock-out blow.

It won’t be a moment too soon.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

An unlikely hero

It’s a striking picture – there’s no doubt about that. Six female tribespeople in traditional dress, surrounded by Papuan rainforest, hold up a large picture of David Cameron with his thumb in the air.

But there is a tragic background to it. The women are indigenous West Papuans – and they are facing genocide.

Weeks after gaining independence from the Netherlands in 1961, West Papua was invaded by Indonesia. Intervention from the US and pressure from the UN led to an independence referendum -but it was to be overseen by………Indonesia. Declaring the West Papuans ‘too primitive’ to understand democracy the Indonesian government hand-picked 1026 from the 1 000 000 population to take part – threatening to kill them and their families if they voted in favour of independence. Unsurprisingly the result was unanimously in favour of Indonesian rule.

All the while the world stood by and did nothing. The referendum was formerly titled the Act of Free Choice. Today West Papuans call it the Act of No Choice. You can see why.

Since that time the Indonesian government has enforced its rule of the province with an iron fist. Much like in East Timor it has overseen systematic slaughter, rape and torture. Those resisting occupation are often thrown into jail without food or water and are left to die. Timbil Silaen – who was chief of Indonesian police in East Timor; and Eurico Guterres – who was leader of the pro Indonesian militia there, are both in positions of authority – despite facing accusations of war crimes during the 1990s.

So where does Cameron come into all this? Well he met West Papuan independence leader Benny Wanda when he first claimed asylum in the UK in 2002. And now the West Papuan people hope that, as Prime Minister of the UK, he’ll be brave enough to take a stand against the Indonesian occupation in a way that none of his predecessors –or any others world leader for that matter- has done.

He certainly has the influence. As well as leading a state with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, he leads a state whose biggest cooperation happens to be one of the largest investors in West Papua. One reason for the oppression is that the Indonesian government fears the breakup of their fading Javanese empire. The other is that – under the Papuan soil –lies 14 trillion cubic meters of gas. This is extracted by a BP refinery which generates billions of dollars each year.

Were Cameron to make a serious noise about the occupation – including pressure on BP – progress can be made. It would be na├»ve to expect West Papuan independence overnight but international pressure could lead to at least some letup in the horrendous human rights abuses. And anyway – it used to be difficult to believe East Timor would ever be free.

So what can we do? Join the Free West Papua Campaign, contact Tony Baldry- chairman of the Conservative Human Rights Commission and contact David Cameron himself. If we- the UK public – speak out loudly enough he has to listen.

We owe it to the West Papuan people; not least Buchtar Tabuni and Victor Yiemo – two political prisoners – who in a far darker photo lean out between the bars of their cage with a simple message for Cameron: “We need you.”

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Blood on the streets of Bangkok

Last night, as the West slept, protestors on the streets of Bangkok prepared themselves for a military crackdown. As of this morning four of them, along with an Italian journalist, are dead.

No one knows what will happen in the coming days or even the coming hours. The protest leaders have called for a surrender to avoid further bloodshed, but pockets of resistance remain and sporadic demonstrations have broken out it other Thai cities.

The Red Shirt movement leading the protests (formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship or UDD) is by no means perfect. A loose left grouping, it is closely aligned to ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra whose time in office was marred by corruption, embezzlement and a less than spotless human rights record.

But their grievances are legitimate. In 2006 Thaksin was forced from power by a military coup. In the first post-coup election, his allies won – but that government was then brought down by the Yellow Shirt Movement (an anti-Thaksin royalist grouping formally known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy). A court ruling banned Thaksin’s allies from government and some of them subsequently defected – allowing the current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to come to power without any elections.

It is easy to sympathise with the Red Shirt view that an unelected government, held in place by a highly politicised military, is hardly democratic.

Furthermore, the government set the scene for the bloodshed of last night and this morning. By refusing to negotiate with the Red Shirts until they disbanded their protest camp, military action was always going to be the only result. The government effectively said “throw away your one bargaining chip – then we’ll talk.” It was an offer that the Red Shirt leaders could never accept and they knew that.

Ultimately -coming to the table would not have made the government look weak, as they feared. It would have made them look democratic. Far more democratic than ploughing armoured vehicles through the protest camp and ordering an all-too-eager army to fire on their own people.

Abhisit and his allies have a lot to answer for.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Death on the bridge

Today I looked through the Amnesty International USA report on Reggie Clemons – it’s one of the most disturbing things I’ve read in a while. If you have the time to take a look at it- I can guarantee it will shock you.

Regie is currently on death row in Missouri – as an accomplice in the murder of two young women who were pushed of a bridge into the Mississippi in 1991. One of his friends has already been executed for the crime; another had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

He may have committed the crime. But he may not have. For a start there is no physical evidence...understandable as one of the murdered women was not pulled from the water until three days after she went in and the other was never found. But more concerning still is the mile-long list of irregularities and accusations that mar Reggie’s conviction.

Like the allegations of torture by police officers (made all the more suspicious by unexplained injuries to Regie as he sat in court and a large out-of-court payment to another suspect who alleged abuse). Like the cousin of the murdered girls who changed his story several times (even admitting to the murder himself) before finally pointing the finger at Regie and his friends. Like the misconduct of the prosecution lawyer that nearly resulted in the case being thrown out. Like the irregular jury selection process in which potential jurors were chosen on the basis of their skin colour and their support for the death penalty – even in cases where the law would not normally impose it. These are problems that have not only been noted by human rights groups – but by one of the judges before his calls for a review were overturned at a higher level.

I’m not saying this makes Regie innocent – but I challenge anyone to read the 14 page report then say that he doesn’t deserve at least a retrial.

In an age of DNA testing and CCTV the “what if we got the wrong person?” argument is often brushed aside in debates about the death penalty. People point to cases such as the Soham Killings to demonstrate that the culprit can be beyond doubt, then move on to (equally important) matters such as the relative morality of state-sanctioned-killing or the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ philosophy.

But in Regie Clemons’ case we have an example of a young man – in a liberal democratic state with a supposedly fair legal system – facing execution at some point in the coming weeks, months or years – for a crime that no one can say for sure he committed.

What if the jury did get it wrong?

Monday, 3 May 2010

Will democracy die on May 6th?

On Thursday - while we're voting in our next government - one of the world's most resiliant and inspiring democracy movements will be struck a crippling blow. Because of its refusual to accept the military junta's corrupt election laws, Burma's National League for Democracy (NLD) will be forcibily shut down and formally cease to exist.

It's not as if the NLD has had an easy ride up until now. Formed in the aftermath of the 1988 uprising when students, monks and tens of thousands of others flocked to the streets in defiance of military rule, the NLD was subject to opression from day one. Members were imprisoned, beaten, tortured and killed. Offices and homes were raided. The party's famous fighting peacock flag could not be flown without facing the wrath of state violence.

But it lived on. And in 1990 - when under international pressure the military dictatorship held elections - it swept to a tremendous victory, winning 80% of parliamentary seats compared to the military's 10%. Yet the parliament never sat. The military junta ignored the result, threw inspirational leader Aung San Suu Kyi into jail and stepped up the repression.

Fast foward 17 years to 2007 and once again the Burmese people were back on the streets. Since 1990 the country had been increasingly racked by genocide, poverty, HIV/AIDS, cholera, and famine. Much liked Mugabe has done for Zimbabwe, General Then Shwe and his military thugs had continued to turn a once prosperous nation into a living hell for its 60 million people. But in a chilling replay of the 1988 uprising, troops crushed the protests, killing thousands.

Once again, under international pressure, elections were called - for some time later this year - no one yet knows precisely when. The junta set tight elction laws- reserving seats for the military, barring Aung San Suu Kyi from running, creating a military veto and restraining opposition parties (especially from ethnic groups) to such an extent that they would barely be able to operate. Any party that does not agree to the laws by May 6th will be banned. And in refusual to legitimise military authority the NLD has done just that.

So in the ultimate injustice the party that should rightfully be in power, will technically not even exist. These are dark times for Burma.

If that's not bad enough a bloody civil war is looming. Many ethnic rebel groups have been on ceasefire for years but in the run-up to the election the junta has tried to go further and incorporate them into the military as a semi-autonomous Border Guard Force. To say that the idea is unpopular would be an understatement as many of these groups as now taking up arms to once again meet the junta head on.

Is there any hope in this sorry state of affairs? Well there is the chance that the junta has gone to far. In the past it has concentrated individual genocidal campaigns against one or two ethnic groups at a time. Now, faced with armed rebellion in several quaters it may find that it has bitten off more than it can chew.

And as for the NLD, vice-chairman Tin OO who was recently released from a long incarciration in the notorious Insein Jail has been quick to reassure the Burmese people, stating that: "In the past, we managed to work without an office and flag when our headquarters was raided and shut down for a few months. Also, some people in the office were given lengthy sentences and thrown into jail. Nevertheless, those who remained outside continued to work for the people and the NLD still existed."

Burma is about to become bloodier and more repressive than ever before - there can be no doubt about that. But defiance from ethnic groups and the NLD will continue. And as anyone who has ever stood shoulder to shoulder with Burmese refugees outside the junta's embassy will know - the defiance of the Burmese people is a force to be reckoned with.

The democracy movement will never die.

Burma Forum

Burma Campaign UK

The Irrawaddy

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The real 'bigot' scandal

Three days on from Gordon Brown’s ill-fated adventure into Rochdale, the fading Prime Minister’s remarks are still making the news. When people look back on the 2010 elections ‘Bigotgate’ is going to be one of the key highlights. But in all the media furore most folk seem to have missed the irony.

Just under two weeks before his faux par Gordo had this to say at the first leader’s debate:

I talked to a chef the other day who was training. I said in future, when we do it, there'll be no chefs allowed in from outside the European Union. Then I talked to some care assistants - no care assistants come in from outside the European Union.”

Think about what he’s saying here: “if you’re British and you want to be a chef- fine, if you’re from India and want to be a chef- sod off you’re not wanted”. The care assistant point is even more worrying. Talk to anyone who has a relative requiring care – be it because they’re elderly, disabled or suffering from mental health difficulties, and they’ll tell you the same thing – care assistants are too few and far between- and whilst dedicated to their profession most are overstretched and overworked. How ludicrous is it then to deny someone the right to work as a care assistant because of where they were born?

This isn’t about people coming and “sponging off our society” – this is about people who are qualified in professions like catering and care work, who want to contribute to British society but are being denied the ability to do so because of their race. That is bigotry.

Of course Gordon and chums will claim that it’s about providing jobs for British people. But how can this be the case when there are not enough care workers to go round? It’s certainly not like there are queues of care workers up and down the country who can’t get jobs because they’ve all been taken by people from outside the EU.

And with the EU point we hit another stunning flaw in Brown’s facade. If you are a skilled worker from Bulgaria you can come and work here- but if you have the same qualifications, and the same desire to work, but happen to be born two miles over the Bulgarian-Moldovan border you can’t. Labour loyalists will blame this situation on EU rules but can’t hide from the fact that racial arbitrariness is at its heart.

In the interests of balance it should be pointed out that the other big parties aren’t behaving much better. The Tory cap system is equally nonsensical and the Lib Dems –who actually have some very good immigration policies like the amnesty for illegal immigrants already here- are sadly trying to portray a similarly ‘tough line’ so that they don’t lose votes from a public that is bizarrely sceptical about immigration.

Why do I say ‘bizarrely’? Because Britain was built on immigration. Immigration from Ireland, Italy, the West Indies, China and Africa. Immigration that created buildings, transport infrastructure and business. Immigration that supports the economy, keeps the health service running and provides immeasurable benefit to people up and down this country every single day. Without immigration Britain would be nothing – but now it’s being treated like something negative.

Sometimes it seems that people–including politicians- are too quick to forget.