Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Settlements or peace

Three weeks along- the latest round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are in crisis. At midnight on Sunday, a 10 month moratorium on the construction of new Israeli Settlements in the West Bank came to an end. Within hours bulldozers and cement mixers moved in as construction resumed and cheerful settlers flocked around news cameras to express their delight at the further encroachment into what, under international law, is Palestinian territory.

Debate over the history of Israel's formation and where its borders legitimately lie fills hundreds of books and articles with little consensus; but its hard to see how the specific issue of West Bank Settlements can be justified. The land was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and categorically falls outside the 55% of the British Palestinian Mandate allocated to Israel under the UN Partition Plan (or indeed the 78% that Israeli forces actually took control of when the state came into being). Since then, Israel has settled some 430 000 of its citizens there- in direct violation of international legal prohibitions on settling occupied territory (as the West Bank and Gaza Strip are recognised to be).

The network of checkpoints and 'settler-only' roads that come as part of the package wreck havoc on the lives of Palestinians, frequently cutting them off from their farms, schools and medical facilities - forcing them to add miles to their daily journeys and subjecting them to the humiliation and harassment of searches and long waits whilst trying to go about their lives. Meanwhile acts of violence by Settlers against Palestinians (of which there were 429 in 2008 alone including beatings, shootings and destruction of crops) regularly go unchecked by the Israeli security forces.

It is little wonder then, that there are now fears of the Palestinians withdrawing from the talks. Israeli President Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whilst calling on the settlers to show restraint (with little tangible effect) is, at the same time, peddling the tenuously weak line that an extension of the moratorium was never a precondition for talks and that therefore Palestinain Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should stay at the table. He may be factually correct but he cannot honestly believe that talks can continue in good faith at the same time as Israel physically and brazenly furthers its violation of international law and increases its unjustifiable restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank. "Settlements or peace" is a phrase that no one wanted to hear, but it is fast becoming a reality.

Of course this is not the only or even the greatest obstacle to the talks that Obama, perhaps naively, suggested could lead to a Palestinian state peacefully coexisting alongside Israel within one year. Even if the talks were to succeed, the next enormous challenge will relate to Hamas- the abhorent radical Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, does not recognise Israel's right to exist and us not even indirectly involved in the current negotiations.

However, the Settlements issue is the immediate danger that threatens to derail any hope of an agreement. If it is properly addressed by an Israeli administration willing to make sacrifices for peace, then it could in fact be early triumph for the talks and result in a working relationship that could ultimately facilitate overall agreements. If this happens, and is supported by ordinary Palestinians, then even the likes of Hamas will struggle to retain their current uncompromising position. On the other hand, if the construction is allowed to continue and thus scupper dialogue, the talks could go down nothing more than the latest in a long line of failed attempts to bring peace to this troubled region.

Soon every side will have to compromise- but right now the ball is in Israel's court.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Discourse in the ranks

There is little cause for optimism in the Burma movement these days. For those of us involved during the 2007 demonstrations, the sense of impending victory during those weeks is a distant memory. Back then it felt like, after four decades of struggle, the military dictatorship could be on the brink of collapse. Now even the most confident activists struggle to see that happening anytime soon. The sham election scheduled for November 7th will do nothing more than see Than Shwe and his military thugs swap uniforms for suits, whilst giving their backers (such as India, China and Total Oil) flimsy evidence of ‘reform’ to justify their continued commercial and political love-ins when scrutinised by the international community. Concurrently the junta is enacting its plans to crush the remnants of ethnic-minority resistance in what has been termed, without a trace of exaggeration, their ‘final solution’.

Yet in the midst of this hopelessness, a recent BBC report gives the faintest glimmer of light; interviews with Burmese soldiers suggest that there is growing discourse in the ranks over withheld pay and cuts in rations. It seems that the generals’ chronic economic incompetence, which has turned one of the richest states in South East Asia into one of the poorest on the planet, is now cutting into their own forces. Of course, military dissent in Burma is not new and in the past several soldiers have either disobeyed their superiors (usually only to be thrown into jail and tortured) or deserted altogether. But mass mutiny – the kind of which could genuinely endanger the dictatorship in a way that street protests couldn’t – has yet to materialise. There were high hopes that such widespread dissent might come about when the Generals ordered soldiers to fire on monks in 2007, but ultimately the fear of prison, torture or execution kept them largely in line. Now that the troops’ livelihoods and their capacity to feed their families are at risk – compliance may not be so assured.

Furthermore, the overwhelming reliance on conscription and child soldiers means that any mutiny has the potential to spread quickly and lead to complete breakdown of the dictatorships’ control mechanisms. True, many of the soldiers- particularly those responsible for the war crimes frequently committed in ethnic regions – genuinely harbour a depraved sense of nationalism and megalomania that causes them to rape, kill and loot without hesitation. But the core of the army is unwilling men kept in line by a fear that would become irrelevant as soon as discourse reaches a critical mass.

As the Generals begin to shift focus towards their post-election civilian dictatorship, neglect of the rank-and-file troops who have kept them in power for the last forty years may well continue – heightening the chances of open dissent. And if a mutiny were to coincide with the kind of large scale demonstrations seen in 2007, or with the predicted increase in conflict with ethnic rebel groups, the collapse that the regime averted three years ago may well become a reality.

It’s far from a certainty and the BBC report may not reflect anything more than a few disgruntled individuals – but the dictatorship has responded by issuing a formal denial; a sure sign that it is shaken and now has genuine concerns about the loyalty of its men. Perhaps the outlook may not be so bleak after all.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Tajikistan- between a rock and a hard place

Tajikistan has never had it easy. As soon as it gained independence from the USSR in 1991 it was plunged into a bitter five year civil war between a Russian-backed ‘old guard’ and an Iranian-backed Islamist-led opposition movement. Fifty thousand people died, one in ten fled the country and the economy sustained damage that –to this day- has left it the poorest state in Central Asia.

The killing of twenty three soldiers by Islamist rebels yesterday, just one month after twenty five escaped from a high security jail, will therefore do little to shock a nation plagued by decades of brutal conflict. But it does underline just what a dire state Tajikistan, and much of Central Asia, is in.

The Islamists, backed by fighters from neighbouring Afghanistan as well as Chechnya and Pakistan, are generally thought to be linked to the radical Hizb Ut Tahrir and in all likelihood harbour desires for a dictatorial Islamic Republic of Tajikistan that would be at odds with the desires, and the rights, of its (majority-Muslim) population. Unfortunately the government they are taking on is not much better: President Emomali Rakhmon's People’s Democratic Party has held power for the last two decades through rigged elections, suppression of civil society and what has been described by Human Rights Watch as “rampant torture.”

This devastating stand-off between a brutal dictator and radical Islamist rebels is replicated across most of the region; not least in Uzbekistan where President Islam Karimov used the state's Islamist insurgency as a pretext to massacre thousands of democratic protestors at Adijan in 2005; and to portray himself as an ally in the ‘War on Terror’, thus averting Western criticism of his brutal rule.

Notably, as pressure on Islamist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan continues, their increasing relocation to join those in Central Asia (especially in areas of Tajikistan such as the Rash Valley, with remote terrain and a sympathetic population) is certainly possible if not probable. The indication is, therefore, that insurgencies, and consequently the violence and repression of dictatorships such as Rakhmon’s and Krimov’s, may well grow.

In an arena where tyrannical rebels are vying for power against tyrannical rulers, support for fledging democratic opposition, combined with pressure for reform and religious freedom should be the priority of any external government’s foreign policy. Anything less and Tajikistan can look forward to another twenty years of pain.

The test of a generation

Yesterday world leaders came together in New York to discuss the Millennium Development Goals; a set of targets adopted in 2001 that UN member states agreed to achieve by 2015.

The goals fall under eight broad headings (Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, Achieve universal primary education, Promote gender equality and empower women, Reduce child mortality, Improve maternal health, Combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases, Ensure environmental sustainability and Develop a Global Partnership for Development) which each include a number of achievable, quantifiable targets like halving the proportion of people living on less than $1 per day and providing universal access to HIV/AIDS care.

It’s a bold initiative and unarguably the most measurable, well conceived anti-poverty programme ever adopted. However, with just five years to go the world is failing.

Whilst living standards have risen in developing parts of Asia (mainly due to economic growth in India and China) other targets remain far from achievement; the number of women who die in childbirth, for example, remains unacceptably high and world hunger has actually risen since the goals were set.

There are numerous explanations for this. Speeches by the likes of Robert Mugabe today, demonstrated the tendency of many leaders in the developing world to put political point scoring above the welfare of their own people; a situation hammered home by the fact that some of the poorest states – such as Zimbabwe and Burma – were incredibly wealthy before their economies were wrecked by tyrannical dictators. Whilst such people are still in power, any international efforts towards development will be inherently hampered.

But this does not excuse the lack of effort on the part of developed states. The UK – one of the highest donors – still dedicates just 0.51% of its GDP to aid, whilst others such as Italy come in as low as 0.15%. The US, with the world's largest economy, donates just 0.2%. And as the international community still reels from economic crisis, numerous states (including the UK) have talked of cutting their aid budget. Though leaders such as Sarkozy have pointed out that we have no right to hide behind our own financial problems in our failure to provide aid, and have spearheaded calls for initiatives such as a global tax on financial transactions to help reach the Millennium Development Goals, it remains hard to see how -with so much reluctance to commit- they can now be reached.

On Monday UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon expressed his belief that they remain achievable. The truth is that, somehow, they must be achieved. A decade into the 21st century billions of people still die of basic curable diseases, of hungerm of thirst, in childbirth and through lack of shelter. It’s a disgrace to our governments, our states and our global community.

Meeting the Millennium Development Goals in five years, with so far to go, will be an enormous challenge; it will be the test of a generation and if we fail it will be a bitter legacy for an entire era. The question is – are we up to it?

Saturday, 4 September 2010

First they came for the Roma...

Yesterday almost 100 000 people took to the streets of France, and hundreds more gathered outside French embassies across Europe, to protest again the French government’s ongoing mass-deportation of Roma.

Last month 1000 Roma men, women and children were ‘sent back’ to Bulgaria and Romania, brining the total number of the last year to somewhere near 11 000. It’s a staggering figure raises serious questions about why such targeting of one ethnic group has taken so long to generate serious outrage from citizens, governments and the EU.

Part of the reason is that the government has carefully exploited legal loopholes in EU regulations; utilising a clause that allows expulsion of immigrants who have been in the country for at least three months without a job or are deemed a social burden, and those who have been in the country less than three months but are regarded as a threat to public security. This broad wording, subject to various interpretations by governments, has so far empowered French authorities to dismantle Roma camps and deport their occupants en-masse; a situation that may well change following the coming week’s European Parliament debate on the matter (the UN has already criticised the deportation programme).

The government has also tried to sugar-coat the whole issue by paying a small amount of compensation to each family who leaves; thus portraying the repatriations as somewhat voluntary. However, more significant still in explaining the relatively low level of opposition up until now, is the shocking fact that –if polls are to be believed –over 65% of French citizens back the deportations. Indeed, few observers doubt that the scheme is, at least in part, a cynical politically-calculated effort by Sarkozy to court the robust if not resurgent French far-right before the 2012 presidential elections.

The deportations must, of course, be resisted not only on the basis of the trauma and suffering that they are causing to individuals and families, but also because of the broader and utterly poisonous affects that they have. Whilst the French government is partly correct in pointing out that a significant amount of crime (not least relating to prostitution and people trafficking) is based in Roma camps, to link a particular ethnic group to the concept of criminality and flaunt deportations as an answer effectively bolsters every far-right fanatic who propagates the ridiculous myth that “immigrants are criminals”.

Whilst fanning the flames of xenophobia in such a manner, the deportations concurrently do nothing to address the real issues surrounding immigration and co-existence. Many Roma have sworn to return from Bulgaria and Romania (where they often face persecution) thus indicating a potentially infinite cycle of deportations that will deny Roma communities the chance to develop positive links with French society, deny Roma men and women the chance to find work and contribute to the French economy and deny French police the chance to work progressively with community leaders to stamp out crime in a just manner.

It is right therefore to support those demonstrating today and to join the growing tide of voices, now including the Vatican and members of Sarkozy’s own cabinet, in demanding that the deportations are ended once and for all. If the protests are ignored injustice will prevail, inter-community tensions will grow and, ultimately, France may well come to rue its decision.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Ain't gonna study war no more

This week, there was some positive news in the long-running struggle to stop the use of child soldiers: the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) announced that it will demobilise the estimated 900 children in its ranks and establish a child protection unit to ensure that no more are recruited.

The SPLA is a rebel group, which fought for South Sudan's independence from the politically dominant North during a long running civil war, ending with a peace deal and a compromise on autonomy in 2005. Over the years it has seen over 20 000 children pass through its ranks - some forced to work as porters and cooks, others forced to kill. During some of the worst parts of the civil war (when the conflict became embroiled with skirmishes between Sudan neighbouring Uganda) the Sudanese government enlisted the help of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) against the SPLA. The LRA is a Ugandan rebel group based upon a warped version of Christianity combined with ethnic Acholi nationalism and relying heavily on the use of child soldiers (I highly recommend Matthew Green's excellent book The Wizard of the Nile for a comprehensive insight into the group and its insane leader Joseph Koney). With the support of Omar Al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum, the LRA (renowned for abducting children, forcing them to kill peers who try to flee, and using young girls as sex slaves for generals), despatched terrified and indoctrinated youngsters to attack those equally frightened and abused children of the SPLA.

To make things even worse, Uganda's government – led by Yoweri Museveni (who remains president), concurrently funded the SPLA and forcibly recruited many children into its own army...whilst ironically condemning the use of child soldiers on the international stage.

During these dark years, leaders from all sides effectively sent children as young as 4 to fight and kill each other- an appalling crime that stole the youth of thousands and led to Koney's indictment at the International Criminal Court.

This week's announcement and the SPLA's favourable move away from such a tragic situation is undoubtedly political. In January, the people of South Sudan will vote in a referendum on independence - and will almost certainly choose to secede from the North; when this happens, the SPLA will become the official army of the world's newest state and many of its leaders will become the official politicians. In the bid for recognition, allies and trade that will follow, the new government will certainly not want an issue like child soldiers (and with it the criticism of the international community and dedicated rights groups like the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers) hanging over them.

Nevertheless it is a huge step forward and one that should be unrestrainedly welcomed. The SPLA operate in a region which for decades has seen children conscripted, abused and sent to fight wars in which they want no part. The departure from this is a historic shift and a positive sign for the impending South Sudanese state. However, the problem is far from over: whilst the Lords Resistance Army and other such groups continue to operate, and national armies such as Uganda’s continue to prey upon their countries' young, those working to free children from conscription (and those undertaking the arduous process of rehabilitating ex child soldiers) still have much work to do.

Ultimately the SPLA's move is a glimmer of light in a situation far darker than any of us could ever truly comprehend.