Friday, 29 October 2010

Many Causes -One Struggle

Last weekend I led a workshop at the Students for a Free Tibet UK Conference entitled Many Causes – One Struggle. It focussed on how the Tibet movement can –and should – strengthen and deepen its relationships with other groups opposing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorship.

The list of potential allies is huge. In addition to Tibet, the CCP occupies East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia –destroying their cultures and subjecting their populations to horrendous human rights abuses. They similarly tyrannise the Chinese population – particularly minority groups such as Falun Gong and campaigners on issues like HIV/AIDS. Elsewhere in South East Asia the CCP props up Burma’s brutal military dictatorship and Kim Jong-Il’s insane regime in North Korea. Looking further afield Robert Mugabe and Omar Al-Bashir rely on Chinese support for their respective rapes of Zimbabwe and Sudan. For the democracy movements in all these countries- opposing the CCP is therefore tantamount.

Broader campaigns such as those for free press and environmental protection have equally valid cases against Hu Jintao and his cronies owing to the environmental devastation wrecked by CCP policies (not least their deliberate sabotaging of global climate change deals) and the constant suppression of journalists in China and the occupied territories.

Given the vastness of opposition to China’s dictatorship it would therefore, be a wasted opportunity not to work together. This is especially vital considering the limited resources of many of the groups involved (in terms of numbers, finance, political contacts and host of other areas) as well as the natural boost that any movement gains from large-scale mutual solidarity and support.

Of course, to an extent this is already happening. Chinese, Uighur and Tibetan Solidarity UK – a coalition formed in the wake of the 2009 East Turkestan uprising, was an unprecedented advance in the UK. Similarly Students for a Free Tibet UK’s membership of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition represents an important recognition of the links between human rights issues and the environment. Yet there is so much more that can be done; contact between groups is still largely ad-hoc and many campaigns such as the North Korean movement barely feature in even the loosest coalition activities.

The situation is perhaps, a microcosm for the broader picture of activism in the UK: a good start but with much further to go. For example, relationships between environmental and developmental groups – in recognition of the devastating impact of climate change on the world’s poorest people –are well established; whilst groups such as Oxfam and Christian Aid have similarly begun to link up with campaigns opposing injustices like the arms trade and the occupation of Palestine, forming a united front against these root causes of poverty. At the same time, initiatives such as Put People First have brought together diverse arrays of groups in the quest for social justice. And yet a lot of activists still feel reluctant to stray from their “home” campaigns. The developmental-environmental link-ups received criticism from many in both camps (often preferring the respective focuses to be on building wells and saving whales) whilst fledging groups such as the Free West Papua Campaign are receiving relatively little support from more established yet similar movements such as those for Tibet or Sudan.

Ultimately all groups involved in activism, be it for human rights, democracy, the environment or any other of the numerous plethora of issues relating to progressive social change- have a vested interest in seeking common ground so that they can pool resources, share skills and bolster moral. It would be a natural next step for so many time-honoured campaigns and a vital boost to so many new ones. The old mantra of ‘united we stand-divided we fall’ is especially prevalent for activist groups in an age when –as a rule- grassroots support bases have shrunk, financial contributions have declined and reliance on specialist skills has risen.

Many Causes – One Struggle is more than a catchphrase: it’s an essential realisation for the UK’s activist community if we are to raise the challenge not only to the CCP but against those responsible for human rights abuses and environmental destruction the world over.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Brutality in paradise

The bound and naked man looks terrified and confused as the soldiers stamp on his face and chest. As they demand to know where “the weapons” are, they shove a plastic bag over his head and ram a gun in his neck. When he tells them he doesn’t know what they’re talking about they set fire to a stick......and burn his genitals. The camera pans to another younger man, also bound on the ground as soldiers slap him, hold a knife to his face and threaten to cut him.

This is the Indonesian occupation of West Papua in 2010.

The footage is one of the most disturbing things you’ll ever see. It should be shown – to highlight the Indonesian state’s brutality against the West Papuan people – but it should be viewed with discretion. Any right thinking person will be shaken and horrified by the sheer barbarity it contains.

Of course, the Indonesian government is no stranger to dishing out brutality. The occupation of East Timor from 1975-1999 killed over a quarter of million people through orchestrated massacres, enforced starvation and extrajudicial executions. The occupation West Papua – beginning back in 1961 is equally barbaric: the torture is merely the latest in a long line of abhorrent abuses in which Indonesian troops have regularly slaughtered civilians, forced Papuan men to rape Papuan women and destroyed entire villages.

Although initially denying the authenticity of the film –which was captured as a sick trophy on one of the soldiers’ phones – the Indonesian government, in response to international outcry, has now admitted that it is real (bizarrely branding it “unprofessional” rather than repulsive, inhumane or any number of far more fitting adjectives). Unsurprisingly though, nothing has been done to address to the torture- which is effectively official Indonesian government policy in West Papua.

The soldiers suspected that the men they were brutalising were members of the small armed resistance movement. This consists of a few Papuans who – with full justification – take up primitive arms (often no more than bows and arrows) against the mighty and genocidal Indonesian army, in an unwinnable attempt to protect their homes and countrymen. The men’s ultimate fate remains unknown, though like so many innocent Papuans before them – activists fear they may have been shot, beheaded or buried alive following their ordeal.

In this tropical paradise – the ultimate acts of inhumanity and brutality are reigning.

Unfortunately –just like the international community turned its back on East Timor for so long, so too are governments around the world leaving the people of West Papua to their unimaginable fate. The UK continues to recognise Indonesia’s so called “territorial integrity”, the US continues to fund and train Indonesian security forces and Australia –despite a sympathetic public- has carefully avoided condemning the occupation. Direct appeals –including those from political prisoners to David Cameron have so far fallen on death ears.

Yet the global movement for West Papua is growing, awareness is spreading and incidents such as the tortures last week are receiving an unprecedented level of attention. In light of this harrowing and graphic footage, Indonesia’s second genocide of the 21st Century may become much harder to ignore.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Catching Kony

Saturday’s announcement that the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Sudan will form a joint military force to combat the Lord’s Resistance Army was understandably widely welcomed. The LRA has wreaked havoc across the four states for twenty years, conscripting thousands of children and forcing them to commit horrendous massacres. Stemming from the ethnic Acholi group (a people from Northern Uganda abusively oppressed by successive dictators), its deranged founder Joesph Kony (who remains leader to this day), combines militant Acholi opposition to Uganda’s brutal leader Yoweri Museveni with a warped form of Christian fundamentalism. Ironically the LRA’s actions are both the antithesis of what most would regard as Christian and have caused as much, if not more suffering for the Acholi people than Museveni’s regime.

Despite being the avowed enemies of numerous governments and subject to arrest warrants issued by the ICC for Crimes Against Humanity, Kony and his cronies still run riot as free men -partly due to the porous borders of central Africa and the lack of cooperation between the states in which they operate. This latest initiative, involving intelligence sharing and a mobile multi-national force estimated to include some one thousand soldiers, is designed to solve the impasse and bring the LRA leaders to justice. Unfortunately, it may not be that simple.

Numerous other factors, beyond practical and logistical complications, have long facilitated Kony’s murderous campaign (which appears to have shifted from overthrowing Museveni to slaughtering as many people as possible in a bid to spread terror and gain influence throughout the region). Unless these are addressed any military initiative to defeat the LRA will be ultimately futile.

Firstly Museveni and the thugs who keep him in power actively benefit from the LRA’s existence; using it as an excuse to oppress the Acholi and more broadly to garner favour with the international community (much of which is so horrified by LRA massacres that it turns a blind eye to Museveni’s own atrocities). The financial and egotistical benefits that fighting the LRA has brought to many senior army officers similarly bolster the tyrannical president, by keeping them content and thus less likely to dissent. Although the relocation of the LRA some 600 miles to the North of the Central African Republic (combined with the positive reputation Museveni enjoys amongst the West for taking on Al-Shabab in Somalia) will neutralise this issue somewhat, any residual reluctance to categorically defeat Kony’s force will inevitably cause problems very fast.

Similarly, questions can be raised over Sudan’s commitment to the operation. It is hard to see how Omar Al-Bashir, himself indicted for Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes by the ICC, will go out of his way to put Kony in the exact same court that he has spent the last year denouncing; and with the prospect of civil war between North and South Sudan rising (mainly as a result of Al-Bashir’s attempts to hinder the Southern independence referendum due in January) it is doubtful that eliminating a decadent regional rebel group will be anywhere near the top of the agenda. Worse still, given that the LRA played a key role on the Northern side during the last civil war, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Khartoum may once again make active overtures to Kony (indeed some reports suggest that this may already be the case).

Finally, the political turbulence in the Democratic Republic of Congo – a state consistently on the periphery of what most political scientists would deem ‘failed’ – will undoubtedly hamper its government’s ability to play any meaningful role in the joint force. True, the LRA is in part responsible for the instability and there would be clear political gain for President Joseph Kabila in eliminating it – but it is just one part of a much wider problem including various Rwandan militias, warlords and an official army so out of control that its own troops are complicit in the mass rapes and killings that they are meant to prevent. Even if the LRA is the number one target – it shares the ‘honour’ with a plethora of others.

Overall therefore, whilst the new programme is welcome its prospects are weak. A tangled web of regional politics has allowed Kony to hold Central Africa hostage for twenty years and unfortunately looks set to give him similar scope for at least the foreseeable future. The joint force may be a sign of things to come – and if combined with stability in the respective states it could prove to be immensely beneficial – but until there is relative peace in the Congo, some form of resolution to the North/South Sudanese tensions and genuine commitment from Museveni to defeat the LRA once and for all, it could mean very little. Ultimately far wider political progress is needed in the region before the massacres can be stopped, the child soldiers can be rehabilitated and Kony can be put in the one place where he truly belongs- behind bars.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Miners, prizes and elections

Few failed to be moved by images of the Chilean miners emerging to meet their families yesterday, in one of the most successful rescue attempts ever. Well ahead of schedule (initial reports had suggested they would be trapped until Christmas) heroic rescuers winched the thirty-three men to the surface after sixty-nine days trapped underground. TV pictures beamed around the world showing crowds of relatives and supporters celebrating with champagne and confetti. Apart from some non-critical infections and lung problems all the miners are healthy and in what could be a positive long-term legacy of what originally began as a tragedy, President Sebastian Pinera announced an official review of mine safety.

It could be the feel-good story of the decade. But it wasn’t the only immensely positive news of the last fortnight; two other pieces have particularly stuck out for me as cause for celebration.

The first – sending cheers throughout human rights movements worldwide – was Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo wining the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Xiaobo, a key player in the Tiananmen Square protests, was recently handed a lengthy jail sentence for drafting Charter 08 – a document signed by numerous senior societal figures in China, that called for democratic reforms and respect for human rights. Despite China’s bullying of the Nobel Committee in the run-up to the announcement (CCP officials brazenly waded in with threats of damage to Norwegian-Chinese relations and bizarre allegations of Western imperialism) the judges stood firm.

Fortunately the converted prize hadn’t been devalued by the frankly ridiculous selection of Barak Obama as last year’s winner (despite having been in office for less than 12 months and having achieved- or sacrificed -very little) and prompted calls for Mr. Xiaobo’s release from around the world including Germany, France, the US and the UK (Japan said it would be "desirable" but shied away from any actual demand). Such prominent recognition for a Chinese human rights defender is a major success story and crucially the publicity generated will make it difficult for David Cameron to avoid discussing human rights issues when he lands in Beijing for talks with the CCP next month.

The second great piece of news came from Central Asia – regarding the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections. After a turbulent coup deposed the authoritarian government earlier this year, horrendous ethnic violence broke out in the South of the country, leaving Kyrgyzstan’s stability hanging in the balance. Yet the elections promised by the transitional government have taken place; more importantly still, they passed of peacefully and -according to independent observers- were both free and fair. This is a first for Central Asia and raises high hopes in a region so blighted by brutal dictators and Islamist extremists that any tangible form of democracy seemed a distant dream.

Of course Kyrgyzstan is not out the woods – not by a long way. “Human error” has led to a recount which, though agreed upon by all parties, leaves huge uncertainties. And the party currently out in front -Ata Zhurt – professes a Kyrgyz nationalist ideology which could potentially destabilize or ignite the fragile ethnic tensions.

Similarly things aren’t all rosy for Liu Xiaobo. Nobel Laureate he may be –but he remains imprisoned and- as the Burmese regime has so callously shown by keeping democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in detention- a Nobel Peace Prize is no guarantee of freedom.

Yet there is now hope where previously it was hard to find any. And it’s now at least conceivable that just as the Chilean miners emotionally returned to their families, so too could Liu Xiaobo soon return to his; and just as the people of Chile have taken to the streets to celebrate the rescue, one day soon the people of Kyrgyzstan may do the same to celebrate their freedom.

It’s been a fortnight for good news.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Courting the new Kim?

In dictatorial states a change of leader can occasionally signify an opportunity for reform; perhaps the most prominent historical examples being Mikel Gorbachev and Zhao Ziyang, who respectively sought to overhaul the old Soviet and Chinese Communist systems (the former ultimately more successful than the latter). However more often than not, new officials are carefully selected and groomed to maintain the status quo and thus ensure the continuity of the ruling regime. Kim Jung-Un, son of North Korean dictator King Jong-il and heir apparent to what is increasingly being described as the world's only communist monarchy, is no exception.

His recent promotions and high profile public appearance at Sunday's military parade appear to be the culmination of a selection process designed to ensure the ongoing dominance not only of the Korean Wokers Party but of the Kim Dynasty, over this most abusive and secretive of states. Given that other, older relatives were passed over for the leadership, there is little hope that he will set about pulling apart the horrendously oppressive system that his father and grandfather strived so hard to create.

Yet at the same time, the international community's relationship with the newcomer may represent the only glimmer of hope for North Koreans.

For, despite the ruling regime's abhorrent behaviour (including human experimentation, man-made famine and brutal summary executions), its maverick military actions (most recently the unprovoked sinking of a South Korean warship) and, of course, its possession of nuclear weapons; there is little opportunity or political will to depose it. Even during the most extreme years of the Bush administration, when North Korea was labelled part of the 'Axis of Evil', the US realised that its weapons programme and geographical position within China's sphere of influence made military intervention all but impossible. And the South Korean government, whilst vocally supporting a reunified democratic Korea is paradoxically terrified of the prospect. This is unsurprising as, were the North Korean dictatorship (and consequently the North Korean state) to collapse, the economic and social costs of reunification would cripple South Korea- even with the most generous of aid packages from international donors. Meanwhile, over six decades of clandestine repression have destroyed any kind of internal opposition movement, leaving no avenue for activists or governments to promote democratic reform. Similarly, the totalitarian economic controls and absence of foreign business ventures in the state means that sanctions will have little effect other than increasing the peoples' suffering.

It seems therefore, that the only option remaining is for the international community to build links with Kim Jong-Un upon his assent to power and slowly attempt to generate influence that may eventually alleviate the plight of North Koreans to some small extent. Repulsive though the concept of courting such a leader may be, the unique political scenario posed by North Korea (marking it out from states such as Burma, Sudan or Zimbabwe, all of which have democratic alternatives and could feasibly make transition away from dictatorship) apparently leaves no other choice. This is not to say that Kim Jong-Un should be welcomed, praised or endorsed; or that the prospect of ever achieving political freedom for the citizens of North Korea should be discarded. Rather, it is to say that democratic governments, our own included, should seek to use factors such as Kim Jong-Un's European education or North Korea's involvement in international football tournaments, as opportunities to build a rapport that could eventually lead him to be more receptive when it comes to issues such as human rights.

For the sake of twenty four million people it has to be worth a try.

Monday, 4 October 2010

China's lapdog, Tibet's tormentor

On Tuesday thousands of Tibet supporters across the world will take to the streets; however, in a break from the norm, they will be converging on Nepalese embassies rather than Chinese ones. Their reason -captured in shocking footage by Radio Free Asia -is the confiscation of numerous ballot boxes for the election of the new Tibetan Prime Minister and Parliament in Exile, by armed Nepalese riot police in Kathmandu.

The order for the raids undoubtedly originated from Beijing and reflects two major political trends. Firstly, is the Chinese Government’s determination to disrupt this election, something that was already widely anticipated. In endorsing and encouraging the ballot, the Dalai Lama has shown himself to be the exact opposite of the despotic tyrant that the CCP portray him to be, so it is only natural they would want to scupper it. Furthermore, a democratically elected PM and Parliament with the unified support of the Tibetan community in exile will provide a legitimate and viable rallying point for the movement when the Dalai Lama is no longer here to provide his leadership and guidance. This too is a prospect that terrifies Hu Jintao and his fellow thugs.

The second and perhaps the wider reaching issue highlighted, is the level of China’s influence across South East Asia. The theft of the ballot boxes is merely the latest action of Nepal’s government in its role as China’s lapdog; following the
suppression of Tibetan protests and the closure of the Dalai Lama’s Kathmandu office. Naturally, given that it is home to the second largest exile Tibetan population in the world, China has invested considerable resources in courting and coercing successive Nepalese leaderships both before and after the collapse of its dictatorial monarchy.

Yet such behaviour extends far wider. The Chinese government’s
support of the Burmese junta prevents democracy and human rights from taking root on their doorstep; whilst their propping up of the North Korean regime (though partly for the practical reason of preventing the inevitable refugee influx should it collapse) allows further projection of their military and political muscle. Similarly a considerable degree of influence is held over Cambodia, from where China was able to successfully demand the return of twenty political asylum seekers last year, not to mention the communist-led states of Laos and Vietnam (both virtual black holes for human rights and civil liberties).

Ultimately, from the slaughter of protestors on the streets of Rangoon in 2007 (the bullets coming from Chinese guns), to the raid of polling stations in Kathmandu on Sunday (the orders coming from Chinese officials) – Beijing has exported its terror, tyranny and control across a huge swathe of South East Asia region in what now resembles something of a quasi-empire; bolstered further by its direct occupation of countries such as Tibet and East Turkestan.

However, every empire falls and one day -through the resistance of those in the region and their supporters across the globe- so too will this one.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Tory and the War Criminal

Back in April I wrote an article discussing the kind of Foreign Policy a Conservative Government might adopt. At the time I highlighted William Hague’s strong stance on states such as Burma and Zimbabwe, as well as the hugely positive work of the Conservative Human Rights Commission; but expressed concern about the party’s overall position, not least due to their manifesto statement that “foreign policy is above all about the protection and promotion of our national interest, and will be crucial in charting Britain’s path out of recession” –a thinly veiled indication that trade would trump everything, including human rights.

Just under six months on, these fears have been confirmed. Last Wednesday, senior government officials and business leaders hosted a delegation of indicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir’s cronies, to discuss the facilitation of UK investment in Sudan. Ignoring the charges of genocide in Darfur levelled against Al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court, and his government’s continued hindrance of the referendum on Southern-Sudanese independence scheduled to take place early next year (the kind of hindrance that could feasibly trigger civil war); William Hague and his advisors have seen fit to economically get into bed with the tyrant.

Predictably they have trotted out the age-old line (or should that be “lie”?) that investing in authoritarian states gives you a degree of influence over their politics; and that consequently through deals such as this, the UK can help to stop the genocide (which has so far claimed between 300 000 and 400 000 lives) whilst ensuring a smooth referendum come January. In reality nothing can be further from the truth: dictators such as Al-Bashir are swayed by money and power, not the moral prophesising of their trade partners, so investing with them will only serve as tacit endorsement of their actions.

The potential of trade should be used as an incentive to reform, and only offered up once real, tangible improvements have been made. True, some will argue that Hague & Co’s investment programme will leave them with the option to withdraw if Al-Bashir continues to slaughter those under his control, but no one can seriously envisage this actually happening.

A further issue lies in the way that UK investment undermines attempts at coordinated strategies to deal with Sudan. Such complex human rights situations require the most globally-joined-up approach possible to make any real headway, rather than various states and international bodies each taking different, contrary approaches. Instead, the UK is striking trade deals whilst the US imposes sanctions; and Al-Bashir is subjected to an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, whilst his men are welcomed as honoured guests in London. This is utterly counter-productive.

Right now it seems that the Conservative Human Rights Commission has been shafted, the Lib Dems as junior coalition partners are silent, and Hague is pursuing a policy of financial gain rather than humanitarian values. It looks like the activists are going to have their work cut out.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Blood and oil

It was meant to be an occasion for celebration; but as bomb blasts ripped through Abuja on Saturday, killing at least eight people and wounding more, the events marking Nigeria’s 50th Anniversary of independence quickly turned to horror.

The bombings were cowardly, callous and inexcusable – but they weren’t unpredicted. An earlier e-mail purporting to be from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) warned that they would target the ceremonies on the basis that- in light of the poverty, environmental degradation and human rights abuses in the Delta region –there is nothing to celebrate.

They have a point. For decades successive Nigerian governments, both military and civilian, have allowed foreign and domestic oil companies to utterly devastate the Delta:
gas flares light up the sky of villages day and night, permanently damaging the health of those living there, combined oil spills the size of the BP slick in the Gulf of Mexico take place every year, ruining the lives of framers and fishermen, and deforestation causes huge floods whilst wrecking fragile ecosystems.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Shell’s own private army ran amok, killing those brave enough to stand up to the destruction; and in 1995 the company joined forces with the state’s military junta to have the Delta’s most prominent activist, Ken Saro Wiwa,
hanged along with eight of his colleagues [for an comprehensive account of the background and events I’d highly recommend reading Where Vultures Feast.] Despite worldwide condemnation, and the junta’s subsequent collapse, Shell is still there along with other companies such as Total and Chevron that similarly continue to discard environmental and humanitarian concerns in their pursuit of profit. And all still operate with relative impunity; whilst the government turns a blind eye in return for lucrative payments, none of which ever reach those living in the area.

The eventual emergence of a terrorist organisation in 2006 was therefore, of little surprise to anyone familiar with the region. Disillusioned with the failure of successive protest movements against consistent oppression, the loose grouping of militants that makes up MEND has bombed pipelines, kidnapped workers and brought an unprecedented amount of disruption to the oil industry. Saturday was however, their first venture into the Nigerian capital and potentially represents the start of a deadly new phrase in the campaign.

Abhorrent as these actions are, MEND’s motives must be understood and the Nigerian government must finally address them. To do so would not be giving into terrorism – it would be righting a decades-old wrong…and it is the only way to prevent attacks like those in Abuja from happening again, and again, and again.