Monday, 30 May 2011

Mladic's legacy

The arrest of Ratko Mladic last week - some sixteen years after the Bosnian War ended and ten years after he went into hiding following the detention of Slobodan Milosevic - was a truly historic event. Now, as he sits aged and defeated in a Belgrade jail cell awaiting deportation to the Hague we can truly realise the full legacy of his abhorrent actions and the responses to them....

For International Justice

Despite protestations that he is "too ill to travel" (sickeningly ironic coming from a man who arranged for thousands of young, old and ill refugees to be forcefully marched to their execution sites) Mladic will inevitably be transported to the International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at some point in the coming days.

The Tribunal has already yielded significant results: all those idicted, with the exception of Croation-Serb politician Goran Hadzic, have now been detained, sixty-four have been sentenced and another thirty-three are at some stage of trial. A successful conviction of Mladic will raise the standard higher still, demonstrating that even the most senior, well protected and elusive war criminals can be brought to justice.

Along with Randovan Karadzic, who was arrested in 2008, and Slobodan Milosevic, who died before his trial was completed, Mladic is the most high-profile and culpable suspect who will appear in the ICTY courtroom. Should the prosecutors manage to put him behind bars for the rest of his life (as appears likely considering the overwhelming evidence of his atrocities) the success of the Tribunal will be beyond doubt, marking a key milestone in the incredible recent development of international justice -on a par with the founding of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the ongoing trial of Charles Taylor at the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone.

For Humanitarian Intervention

Ten years after Mladic's forces systematically slaughtered 8000 Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recognised that whilst "the blame lies, first and foremost, with those who planned and carried out the massacre...we cannot evade our own share of responsibility." He was referring of course, to the failure of the international community to prevent genocide in Europe, just one year after it had failed to prevent genocide in Rwanda.

Srebrenica was a designated 'safe haven' protected by six-hundred-strong Dutch battalion of the UN Peacekeeping force, under the command of Colonel Thom Karremans. However a series of inexcusable errors allowed the worst war crimes in Europe since World War II to unfold as they looked on helplessly. UN Refusal to return confiscated weapons to Bosniak troops rendered them unable to defend their countrymen, whilst Karreman's request for NATO air-strikes on Mladic's advancing forces was rejected for being submitted on the wrong form. Fear for the lives of captured French and Dutch soldiers left the Colonel floundering in negotiations as Mladic entered Srebrenica - so he drank a toast with the Serb criminal and stepped aside as the massacres commenced.

Those events have haunted governments, individuals and the United Nations ever since, reviving the 'never again' mentality that followed the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide; and spurring successful humanitarian intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Today's intervention in Liyba - despite the muddled protestations of far left and anti-war groups - has its roots in Mladic's butchery, the world's failure to prevent it and determination that the same should not unfold on the streets of Misrata and Benghazi.

For Serbia

Failure to detain Mladic long presented Serbia's greatest obstacle to EU accession, to closer relations with neighbours and to breaking with the past. His arrest and imminent deportation will now open new doors, bring new opportunities and allow the country to truly move on from this darkest period of its history.

Protests against Mladic's arrest did attract some ten thousand in Belgrade and several thousand in other cities - demonstrating the ever present and un-ignorable factor of ultra-nationalists who still regard the criminal as a hero - yet these people are in the minority. The swift response of police to the protests and the determination of Boris Tadic's government to secure an extradition to the Hague reflect Serbia's progression away from the man who has so long blighted its image and name.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Welcome home Keymir

It has been days since Turkmen dissident Keymir Berdiev was deported back to his native land by Swedish authorities – and still no solid information regarding his whereabouts is known.  Human rights activists are worrying that their worst fears could be realised and that he, like so many others before, may have been ‘disappeared’ by the tyrannical government of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Swedish officials had been given plenty of warning that their decision could lead to disaster.  They knew of Keymir’s background: how his brother and father were involved in both the opposition movement and Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen service during the 1990s.  They knew how he was active himself in dissident Turkmen politics until 2002.  They knew how he had fled first to Russia and then Sweden to escape the regime of previous president Saparmurat Niyazov –commonly regarded and one of the most insane and cruel dictators that Central Asia has ever seen.

Worst of all- they knew how he absconded and lived homeless in Swedish park when his asylum request was rejected, then tried to take his own life after being arrested.  Yet rather than recognise his understandable fear and re-asses his case they threw him in a secure hospital then sent him back home with the pathetic and frankly irrational claim that “there is a different government and there is no danger in deporting you to Turkmenistan."

One only needs to pick up a copy of Amnesty International’s latest report for evidence that very little has changed since Berdymukhamedov took control.  Somewhat ironically, the entry on Turkmenistan opens by highlighting the threat posed to “journalists working with foreign media outlets known to publish criticism of the authorities” – the exact reason why the Berdiev family is known there.  It goes on to talk about forced disappearances and rigged trials.  Last month’s report from Human Rights Watch outlining the state’s “appalling record on torture and ill-treatment” further underscores the legitimacy of Keymir’s terror at his deportation- describing how “people profoundly fear talking about mistreatment they or their relatives have endured at the hands of the authorities out of fear of government retaliation”  and highlighting the cases of Amangelen Shapudakov and Sazak Durdymuradov - Radio Free Europe Reporters detained in violent psychiatric institutes as punishment for their work.  Ominously, though quite correctly, an entire section of the report is entitled: End of the Niyazov Era but No Transition.

As the somewhat criminal deportation has already been carried out, many advocates of freedom in Turkmenistan feel that all they can now do is watch and hope.  However, individuals and governments around the world should be taking firm action – to press the Berdymukhamedov regime for evidence of Keymir’s wellbeing, to continue pressure for the release of other prisoners and  to reform asylum law throughout the democratic states of Europe to ensure that no one- especially political activists- are ever again deported to face the terror they fled from.  Perhaps most importantly, governments must be held accountable for such deportations: whatever happens to Keymir Berdiev now, the Swedish authorities must be made to answer for it. 



Sunday, 22 May 2011

Burma–the land where nothing changes

Burma Prisoner ReleaseLast week’s prisoner amnesty in Burma was the latest in a series of superficial changes that have done nothing to move the country away from authoritarian military rule.  Branded a ‘sick joke’ by Human Rights Watch and widely rejected as a publicity stunt by other NGOs and governments throughout the world – it involved the release of some 14,600  detainees…only 34 of whom were political prisoners.  This leaves over 2100 members of the democracy movement still languishing in Burma’s notorious jail cells – subject to daily abuse and torture as a result of their part in the struggle for freedom and human rights.

Of course, the releases that have taken place should be welcomed, along with the decision to overturn several death sentences, however the almost purely aesthetic nature of these moves cannot be ignored.  The military junta has long shunned formal executions anyway (preferring the extra-judicial variety during crackdowns on protests or raids on ethnic villages) and inevitably  manipulates any political releases to ensure its continued control.  The high-profile release of Aung San Suu Kyi last November for example, was followed by calculated moves such as the forced closure of an HIV/AIDS hospital immediately after she visited, placing her in the almost impossible position of being unable to act without generating retribution against her own people.  The few activists who walked free last week alongside thousands of petty criminals, can expect the same sort of treatment –if not worse.

None of this should come as any surprise- after all despite the ‘changes’ of the past six months, the old guard is still well and truly in power.  A sham election characterised by ballot box stuffing, intimidation of voters and insurmountable restrictions on opposition groups put the junta’s militia-turned-proxy-party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), in control of both chambers of the new parliament – reinforced by directly appointed military members and a military veto on legislation.  The Thein Seinnew President Thein Sein, sworn in two months ago along with the parliamentarians, was previously the junta’s fourth in command and was heavily involved in crushing the 2007 Saffron Revolution.  His vice-presidents are Tin Aung Myint Oo –another military thug, and Sai Mauk Kham- a Shan member of the USDP whose appointment was widely seen as an attempt to distract the world from the junta’s persecution of ethnic minorities. 

This faux-democratic front for military rule was never going to produce anything other than further sham reforms to give the impression of change and democratisation, whilst allowing the powers-that-be in Naypyidaw to continue their ruthless pursuits.

Burnt Karen VillageRight now this is coming to fruition in Burma’s ethnic minority regions where crimes against humanity- if not acts of genocide- are gathering pace.  Since breaking its longstanding ceasefire with the Shan State Army rebel group in March, the junta has been deliberately targeting Shan civilians – shelling villages, gang-raping women and looting livestock, food and medicine.  Similarly, villagers in the Karen region have been attacked and driven across the Thai-border as government troops attempt to crush the recently-strengthened ethnic resistance there.  Kachin state is also facing a ‘four cuts’ campaign –designed to cut off rebel access to food, funds, information and recruitment by intense attacks against population centres.    

The one glimmer of hope in this horrendous situation, lies in the fact that none of the junta’s ruses or ploys – from their sham parliament to their hollow prisoner amnesty – have fooled the international community.  However, especially in light of the increased attacks on ethnic minorities, the criticism and rejection coming from across the world must now transform into action.  Continued sanctions, referrals to the International Criminal Court and pressure on the junta’s allies and apologists – particularly China and India, are essential for the protection of civilians and the weakening of one of the worlds most brutal and violent dictatorships.  For all the fake reforms nothing has changed in Burma – and without renewed support for the democracy movement from the rest of the world – nothing ever will.   

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Thursday, 12 May 2011

Egypt - so much for the afterglow

The scenes in Egypt over the past week could not have been further removed from the outpouring of euphoria the followed Hosni Mubarak's downfall back in February. The sectarian strife has been a grim throwback to his authoritarian era, when government-incited persecution of Coptic Christians was followed by meaningless judicial scapegoating of individuals in order to alleviate criticism from the international community. In an all too familiar pattern the recent events began with rumour and accusation -namely that a convert to Islam was being held against her will at a Christian Church. Extremist mobs rapidly attacked and set fire to the building, provoking riots which cost the lives of twelve people and injured over two hundred more. Ominously and counter-productively, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces- which rules the country as a transitional government, responded by promising an "iron fist" approach and rounding up one hundred and ninety people to bring before a military court. The post-revolutionary honeymoon period is clearly over.

In many ways this has not come as a surprise. The military is still full of Mubarak's appointees and has been quick to detain dissidents and utilise torture ever since taking command. We would have been naive to expect an overnight change from the old system of the state failing to prevent sectarian violence, then jack-booting in to bring people before rigged trials in the aftermath. This approach allows those in power to provide a kind of 'safety valve' to extremists, without allowing them enough space gather momentum or seize control; and having kept Mubarak in place for three decades, will surely seem an attractive option to his former comrades. It is also obvious that sectarian fanaticism has been rife since the collapse of the old system; the radical Salfist movement has committed numerous attacks on the Coptic and Sufi communities including maiming people and burning shrines. This combination of authoritarianism and extremism presents the 'new Egypt' with the same horrendous dilemmas - and destruction - that the old state faced.

Nevertheless, there are reasons for optimism, as whilst the worst trends in Egyp
tian society have continued so too have the best. The amazing inter-community solidarity that was obvious both before and during the revolution, has once again manifested itself in huge unity marches. Inspired by the success of peaceful protest in bringing down Mubarak, those involved in organising such initiatives and tackling the minority of extremist bigots have gone from strength to strength. Those days in Tahrir Square during early 2011 broke down many barriers between religions, classes and genders- the powerful message of one united Egypt has never been so loud. This is nothing short of esstential -both to swaying communities away from violence and to putting pressure on the authorties for protection, prevention and proportional counter-measures.

Just over one hundred days on from the triumph of the revolution, sectarianism is just one of the many problems Egypt faces - along with serious unemployment and massive political uncertainty. The time for celebrating has unarguably long-since passed and the time for hard work rebuilding the country will continue far into the future. The Egyptian people were capable of bringing down a thirty year dictatorship in eighteen days, the aftermath will be an even bigger challenge.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Indonesia, timber and human rights

Indonesia timberAlmost nobody disputes that the voluntary partnership agreement on tropical timber signed by the EU and Indonesia this week, is a positive step.  It means that independent auditors will examine all Indonesian timber sold to EU nations, striking a blow against the illegal logging industry that currently accounts for some 12% of such exports and threatens the extinction of many endangered species.

The irony is that whilst European leaders are backslapping the Indonesian government and congratulating them upon environmental advances, that same government is continuing to orchestrate the violent and barbaric oppression of minority groups, violating principles of human rights and democracy that are supposedly at the heart of the EU.

Whilst twelve men accused of participating in the brutal murderAhmadiyya Persecution of Ahmadyyia Muslims in February have now been brought to trial, the government-fostered culture of religious intolerance and flagrant state persecution of Ahmadis that inspired the killings in the first place, continues unabated.  President Yudhonoyo, whilst ludicrously insisting that there is no problem with extremism in Indonesia, continues to pander to the extremist bigots and has been ominously uncritical, if not tacitly supportive of recent official calls to ban Ahmadyyia altogetherEU appeals for the Yudhonoyo administration to respect religious freedom have clearly fallen on deaf ears, somewhat hollowing out the triumphant air of partnership and understanding that has surrounded the timber deal.

West Papua protestEven more paradoxical is the relative EU silence on the Indonesian occupation of West Papua, especially in light of recent demonstrations calling for a genuine independence referendum.  Whilst the EU has been openly critical of some of the worst abuses committed by Indonesia's troops, the body has yet to produce any tangible support for the Papuan people.  Clearly those congratulating themselves for effectively ending illegal timber sales to the EU have overlooked the devastating government-led deforestation of West Papua, carried out against the express will of the indigenous population and wholly unaffected by this week’s agreement.    

We are consequently presented with the bizarre situation in which European representatives - quite rightly - secure a degree of protection for Indonesian flora and fauna, yet simultaneously offer little more than lip service when it comes to the rights those living under Yudhoyono’s rule or even the vast areas of tropical forest that his own government sees fit to destroy.  This week’s deal should be congratulated but economic and ecological discussions should always be used as opportunities to raise human rights concerns.  Furthermore, the fundamental inter-relation between issues such as indigenous Papuan rights and conservation should also be put forward, offering a broader joined-up approach rather than simply targeting narrow matters in isolation.  Above all, as more deals are concluded with Indonesia and relationships continue to grow, the EU should never let congratulatory rhetoric cloud the fact that Yudhoyono’s regime is abusive, racist - and must be held to account      


Monday, 2 May 2011

The Syrian crisis…enter Erdoğan

Syria CrackdownAs the Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Assad continues to arrest and slaughter demonstrators on the streets of Syria, Tayyip Erdoğan – Prime Minister of neighbouring Turkey, is being further drawn into the complex politics of the ‘Arab Spring’. 

Already Erdoğan (an authoritarian leader, though by no means as tyrannical as the likes of al-Assad) had made cynical political moves in response to the Libyan uprising -  in order to win favour from the USA and Europe, as well as to divert attention from his administration's own domestic abuses, particularly recent attacks on press freedom.  Openly condemning the Gaddafi regime, even whilst opposing proposals for a no fly zone, was enough to endear the Turkish leader to key players in the international community without presenting him with any significant political risk.  Responding to the crisis in Syria however, is causing him a much bigger headache.

erdogan al-assadInitially the Turkish authorities remained painfully quiet about the violent crackdown on protests across the border, a stance undoubtedly shaped at least in part by ever-expanding economic ties with their neighbour and what appears to be an strong personal relationship between Erdoğan and al-Assad.  This presented a strange paradox whereby the same government that was one of the most vocal critics when Israeli forces murdered nine peace activists heading towards Gaza, became one of the most reluctant critics when Syrian troops massacred many times more civilians.

In the last few days however, Syrian state violence has forced hundreds of refugees across the Turkish border, turning foreign policy into domestic and prompting Erdoğan to formally call for an end to the crackdown.  As a caveat, his administration has drawn up plans for Turkish-run refugee camps on Syrian soil; something that is distinctly unlikely to be sanctioned, but which nevertheless illustrates the seriousness with which they view the potential of a mass influx of those fleeing the violence.

Kurdistan MapThe realpolitik trade-off between maintaining good relations with a valuable trading partner and avoiding the ‘burden’ of refugees, is however just one of the issues on Erdoğan’s self-serving political radar; his position is further complicated by the fact that  Kurdistan spans the Turkey-Syria border.  The Turkish government’s longstanding fear of the Kurds achieving autonomy or even independence from other states, thus jeopardizing Ankara’s control of Turkish-occupied regions, was reflected yesterday in Erdoğan’s warning to al-Assad against any course of action that could ‘divide Syria’. 

Whilst it is highly unlikely that thoughts of easing the grip on Syrian-occupied regions had even crossed al-Assad’s mind, the potential for concessions in this area could feasibly come into play were his position to become even more unstable.  Erdoğan’s sentiments suggest that in such circumstances, Turkey would fight tooth-and-nail to maintain the status quo; most likely supporting Syrian-state repression over any change in status to ‘Syrian Kurdistan’.

Overall Erdoğan’s response to the crisis in Syria, just like the one in Libya, has been inward-looking, calculated and shifting.  However, in this case it could also be hugely influential if not decisive.  As al-Assad is increasingly pressured by the international community he will turn to his friends, neighbours and key trading partners for support.  Turkey falls into all three of these categories and genuine pressure from the government could be incredibly significant in restraining the murderous crackdown that is currently unfolding.   It is time for Erdoğan to end his cynical political games, take a brave move and stand firmly beside the principles of human rights and democracy.  This will do more than any politicking to endear him to democrats at home, to other states around the world and, should al-Assad fall, to the new Syria.