Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Arab Spring- inching not falling

It has certainly been one of the more disheartening weeks of the Arab Spring. 

Abdel Fatah YounesIn Libya the National Transitional Council (NTC), which had been growing in strength, was dealt a destabilising blow with the murder of Commander Abdel Fatah Younes.  Through this one act the rebels lost vast military expertise, moral was bolstered in the Gaddafi camp and those committed to decrying humanitarian intervention were given an opportunity to attack governments supporting the revolution.  Even more damaging than this will be the uncertainty and mistrust caused by the killing, something only likely to grow since the discovery of a Benghazi-based cell loyal to Gaddafi, operating from within the rebel ranks. 

Meanwhile, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad followed in his father’s footsteps by launching a brutal massacre in the city of Hama.  With the death toll there standing at over 130 (and nationwide at over 1500) the tanks are still rolling inReports of mass round-ups, arbitrary imprisonment and extra-judicial killings are coming from across the country, giving further indication of al-Assad’s decision to stop at nothing in holding onto power through force, no matter how many lives it costs.  It is painfully clear that the Ramadan period will marred by bombs and bullets –as well as the tyrant’s growing determination to divide and conquer through provoking sectarian tensions.

Perhaps one of the most ominous developments in the region however, has been the increasing turmoil in post-revolutionary Egypt.  Protests led by Islamist groups have been held across the country demanding a theocratic state ruled using Sharia law, a move that has shaken liberal secularists and stoked fears of further sectarian violence. Other demonstrations against the slow pace of reform have been violently broken up by soldiers and police loyal to the transitional military regime, raising questions of the new political elite’s true intentions and framing their rule as little different to Mubarak’s. 

Against this backdrop it would be easy to loose hope in the Arab Revolutions…but it would also be wrong.

For despite the recent setbacks, all three nations are nevertheless making incredible progress in throwing off the shackles of authoritarianism.  Gaddafi may be gloating and hoping for further divisions in the rebel camp- but his own position is far from secure; having gone from that of a seemingly invulnerable dictator entrenched by decades of power, to something resembling Hitler’s last days in the bunker, in just a matter of months.  Holed up in Tripoli, he is haemorrhaging funds and arms to the NTC and is under consistent military pressure from both the rebels and NATO, including serious blows to his propaganda infrastructure this week.  It is strikingly clear that the despot can now never feasibly return to his previous position.

Hama ProtestSimilarly there is a feeling that Syria may be approaching something of a watershed.  Despite the massacres, the people of Hama are remaining defiant; Damascus is no longer immune from upheaval and weekly rallies are becoming nightly in a sign that, if al-Assad is going to put everything on the line, so are the protestors. 

His crackdown may also be something of an own-goal; triggering mass defections and generating widespread international pressure including a UN Security Council debate and uncharacteristic criticism from the Russian government. Even in early March it looked as if the Arab Spring could pass Syria by; less than six months on the democracy movement has hit heights barely anyone thought to be possible.  And it is still growing.

The successes of the Egyptian revolution must not be written off either, despite the current state of affairs.  After nearly three decades of dictatorship, transition was never going to be easy.  The military has no previous experience of the transitional role it is currently expected to fulfil, the Islamists are naturally vocal after being supressed for so long and the turbulent nature of political pluralism’s first wave was something of an inevitability. 

Of course this does not justify the violence blighting the nation – nor does it bode well for the upcoming elections, especially considering the military’s decision to maintain the ban on international observers.  But the six months since Mubarak is simply not enough to determine the fate of Egypt’s future – and the many positive signs from continuing democracy rallies to inter-faith cooperation demonstrate the overwhelming determination of the Egyptian people to seize on their success in Tahrir and work towards genuine freedom.       

All nations touched by the Arab Spring – whether still in the grip of revolution or taking the first steps towards building a new democracy- still have far to go; and it is the duty of governments and citizenries around the world to support them.  Leaving party politics aside – and recognising a sensible statement when it is made- UK Foreign Secretary William Hague’s summary strikes exactly the right note:

“What has started this year will take a generation to work through.  We mustn’t expect each country to be neatly done in six months.  It’s not a computer game that comes to an end when you get bored.  It’s not a TV programme that finishes at 10pm.  We are going to be working at this for the rest of our lives.”

For those who have died during the revolutions and for the future of their nations – it’ll be worth it.

CAIRO, EGYPT -- THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2011 --  An Egyptian protestor holds up a peace sign as hopes were up that President Mubarak would resign during his anticipated speech.  ( Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times )

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Somalia–aid, famine and Islamists

Somalia Famine 2Five days on from the official declaration of famine in Somalia, the cataclysmic impact of the situation is strikingly clear. Millions of people are facing starvation and tens of thousands have fled the country in a desperate bid to survive. Walking miles on empty stomachs they face bandits and rapists before reaching refugee camps already at breaking point. Every day thousands enter Kenya and Ethiopia – countries themselves in the grip of the famine and with neither the space nor the supplies to cope. The early reports of children dying upon arrival are reoccurring with appalling frequency and stories of people taking their own lives to avoid watching their families starve to death are alarmingly common.

Yet the tremendous effort by aid groups, foreign governments and the UN to tackle this crisis is hampered at every turn by two factors. Firstly is the utterly unjustifiable failure of states such as France, Italy and Denmark to step up and meet their moral obligation to provide funds for relief. All three countries have come under fire from Oxfam for shirking their share of the burden in what is literally a minute-by-minute-DEC Bannerlife-or-death situation. There is categorically not enough aid coming in, creating the ominous likelihood that the already uncontrollable humanitarian disaster will spread even further.

Economic problems such as those currently gripping the EU pale into insignificance compared to this and no government can legitimately avoid the allocation of significant resources. It is up to the international community and domestic populations to pressure reluctant governments into genuinely joining the relief effort before it is too late.

The second major problem –posing a far more complex challenge, is Al-Shabab, the brutal Islamist militia that controls of much of Southern and Central Somalia including large parts of Mogadishu. Renowned for public beheadings, flogging women, stoning rape victims and even punishing people for watching football - all in accordance with its own warped interpretation of Islam, Al-Shabab has ruthlessly abused and oppressed the Somali people since it formed as an offshoot of the Union of Islamic Courts some five years ago. Perhaps the group's most damaging act so far has been to ban foreign aid agencies from operating in the areas it controls and murdering those aid workers who try to work there.

Al-ShababIn recent days, as the famine death toll gathered pace, Al-Shabab relented and began to let in select agencies including the Red Cross. Yet just as progress seemed to be possible, its leaders re-asserted the ban on other major organisations including the World Food Programme, forcefully preventing its workers from reaching some 2.2 million Somalis in desperate need of food and water. Rubbishing speculation that Al-Shabab is changing its overall opposition to relief efforts –its spokesmen ludicrously denied that there is a famine, a claim that would be laughable were it not likely to result in thousands if not millions of needless deaths. Additionally, the group is exacerbating the situation by threatening the security of refugee camps inside Somalia - leading to the current mass exodus into neighbouring countries, piling pressure on their own starving populations and overburdening the humanitarian support there. There are also frequent reports of Al-Shabab militants stealing what little livestock has been left alive, robbing many Somalis of their last hope.

Whilst there is a general consensus that the organisation is not as strong as it once was and is now breaking into smaller loosely linked pockets, the fact of the matter remains clear: the security situation in Somalia is not conducive to relief efforts. The patch-work nature of Al-Shabab affiliated groups, with some allowing limited aid in, some staunchly resisting it and others open to persuasion or bribes, may actually make the environment even more dangerous and uncertain, with aid agencies unsure where they can or cannot safely operate and desperate internally displaced people living in a constant fear.

In many ways this is a case of history repeating itself: the breakdown of order in Somalia during the early 1990s meant it was impossible to adequately address the famine that then gripped the country. Amid the killing of aid workers and the theft of food supplies by local warlords, the UN Security Council authorised Operation Restore Hope -a US led intervention to protect the relief effort. However, whilst the operation itself was largely a success, subsequent attempts to stabilise Somalia were disastrous: the brutal mob killing of eighteen American soldiers and the shootings hundreds of SomalisBlack Hawk Soldier during the infamous Black Hawk Down incident, following the torture and murder of civilians by Canadian soldiers in what was dubbed Canda's National Shame led not only to a permanent reluctance for the international community become involved in Somalia's affairs, but also disastrous anxieties about intervention elsewhere in Africa - including Rwanda where genocide broke out the following year.

In 2008 - as full scale civil war raged between the Somali transitional government and the Union of Islamic Courts, US forces went as far as undertaking limited airstrikes against Islamist held towns but left combat on the ground to government troops, African Union (AU) peacekeepers and the Ethiopian army- which had entered Somalia two years earlier in an attempt to crush the insurgency. The subsequent retreat by Ethiopian forces and fracturing of the Union of Islamic Courts has left the fight largely between Al-Shabab and the rapidly faltering AU force- stumbling along at the whim of the corrupt and self-serving Ugandan and Burundian governments, with the virtually impotent Somali administration providing what little support it can.

And with lingering memories of the 1990s disaster, an extensive operation to support the rebels in Libya, a protracted withdrawal from Afghanistan and on-going commitments in Iraq, the international community has precisely no impetus to step in militarily now- even to stabilise the situation for famine relief.

Yet whilst such intervention is currently incomprehensible, so is the prospect of doing nothing. It is painfully clSomalia Famine 3ear that aid alone is not enough: security for workers, supplies and refugees is absolutely essential if the already tragic death toll is to be contained or even slowed. And there are numerous ways of doing this without deploying more troops and guns: aid drops to citizens in Al-Shabab controlled areas, an effective framework to channel supplies from groups they’ve banned to groups they allow and a tactical redeployment of the AU forces to protect refugee routes and camps – supported by overhead reconnaissance flights to warn of impending militant attacks, should all be implemented with urgency. 

Even then however, the prospect of deploying more troops to Somalia, under the auspices of the AU or UN, with the specific mandate of protecting aid and refugees- as a very last resort- should not necessarily be ruled out.  There would undoubtedly be fears that the horrors of the 1990s intervention would be repeated; and there would undoubtedly be howls of protests from the anti-interventionist camp who’d cry imperialism and occupation.  But if all else fails would it not be the preferable option to letting Al-Shabab literally cause the starvation of millions?

There are many options to try before that stage and so much still to be done in terms of donations and distribution…but for the people of Somalia there is very little time left.

Click to donate  

Somalia 4

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Smashing separatism? Not without a fight

Xi JinpingXi Jinping is still some two years away from taking over as President of China- but already he is playing up his xenophobic, colonialist credentials by publically threatening to “smash” separatism in Tibet.  Of course, by separatism Hu Jintao’s heir apparent is referring to any vocal condemnation of the Chinese government or the occupation, as well as any attempt to preserve Tibetan culture or raise awareness of the systematic human rights abuses that have been committed consistently since the ironically named People’s Liberation Army entered in 1950.  Tellingly, Mr. Xi’s statement came against the backdrop of two Tibetan teenage girls being savagely beaten, detained and denied medical treatment by the Chinese authorities – an illustration of the brutal suppression that fellow members of the political elite will expect him to maintain.

However, recent events have at the same time demonstrated that attempts to subdue Tibet will be met with strong resistance.  Already one of the most inspiring, well known and long-lasting non-violent liberation movements in the world – the Tibetan struggle is continuing unrelentingly both inside Tibet and elsewhere in the world, often bearing hard-won results. 

A single self immolation incident by a monk at Kirti Monastery in March triggered months of instability in the surrounding area – with the subsequent Chinese military crackdown strongly condemned on the international stage.  Last week, despite a fierce outcry from the powers-that-be in Beijing, Barak Obama refused to bow to pressure, meeting with the Dalai Lama at the White House.  And on his recent tour of Europe, outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was constantly dogged by protesters, grabbing headlines and debunking his lies at almost every stop.  Of course few believe that the liberation of Tibet is imminent but events such as Wen Jiabao Tibet Protestthese have demonstrated that the Chinese government is not in control of the script and is failing in its attempts to portray Tibet as a harmonious part of China – a significant victory for the Tibet movement. 

And this is before even considering the added impetus of the Arab Spring, which has clearly boosted the confidence of activists and rattled the nerves of the authorities.  Perhaps the most important lesson from events in Tunisia and Egypt is that even the most entrenched and seemingly stable dictatorships can rapidly collapse – an optimistic note especially considering the internal and external resistance that Mr. Xi will inherit.

Inner Mongolia ProtestIt is also important to take account of developments in other occupied and neighbouring nations.  The protests that rocked Inner Mongolia during May and June were the largest for two decades and though now largely supressed, reflected the on-going ethos of resistance held by the Mongol people.  Like so many other demonstrations across the world, they were sparked by isolated incidents, but unleashed years of resentment and determination with astonishing speed.  This week’s violence in East Turkestan –spun by the Chinese propaganda machine as extremist terrorism but more likely a case of state brutality against unarmed (if riotous) protests, similarly illustrates Beijing’s somewhat fragile grasp of control.  Meanwhile across the border in Burma, despite funding and arming their client military junta, the Chinese government is witnessing a growth in the actions of ethnic minority and democratic forces – a nightmare scenario for them considering Burma’s shared border with Tibet and Aung San Suu Kyi’s links to the Tibetan struggle as well as broader movements for democracy and human rights.

Again, none of this means that the Chinese government is on the verge of loosing control, ceding independence to the occupied territories or being forced into some kind of reform agenda- far from it.  However, the continued unrest and resistanceHong Kong Protest illustrates the difficulties Mr. Xi is going to face- difficulties only exacerbated by an array of other issues including rising discontent in Hong Kong and ever more troublesome handling of China’s illegal Christian churches.

Ultimately those working to oppose the Chinese government’s colonialism and tyranny have cause to be proud and to be hopeful.  On the ground Beijing’s thugs are facing unyielding and ever changing pockets of resistance.  Out across the world they are facing a network that is becoming stronger, more influential and more co-ordinated by the day – as illustrated by the growing links between various causes and their success in shaming those responsible for occupation and oppression. 

Activists such as those gathering at the Students for a Free Tibet Action Camp in Germany this summer make up the newest generation to stand up for freedom and human rights in Tibet and across the region – and they have a huge momentum behind them.  Xi Jinping says he is going to crush separatism…..not without a fight.

SFT Protest

Monday, 18 July 2011

Why Cameron SHOULD be in Africa

Phone HackingWhilst speculation that the phone hacking saga could be on its way to bringing down David Cameron’s government is still largely premature, no one can deny the seriousness of the events unfolding.  In less than two weeks one of the UK’s largest newspapers has ceased trading, two of the most senior police officers have resigned, numerous high profile figures including the Prime Minister’s former spin doctor have been arrested and ever more damaging stories are breaking at a truly alarming rate. 

It is little wonder that the Parliamentary recess has been delayed to allow for an emergency debate.  And it is perhaps natural that both the opposition and backbenchers on his own side have loudly criticised the fact that Cameron is currently in Africa rather than fighting the political fire at home.  Labour leader Ed Miliband somewhat gleefully declared that “tomorrow we will have some of the most important select committee hearings in modern times and the Prime Minister has decided to leave the country”, whilst a Conservative source put the boot in by exclaiming to the Evening Standard “He is in the wrong place and the wrong time. It is an error of judgment.”

However, though expected, this criticism and Cameron’s consequent decision to scrap over half of his five day African visit, is deeply unsettling.

For Africa is a continent in turmoil.  On the Horn over ten million people are caughtSomalia Famine up in the worst famine for sixty years, with UNICEF today warning that half a million children are facing imminent death and desperate agencies taking the unprecedented step of supplying aid to Islamist controlled camps – breaking conventions on both sides.  Meanwhile, as South Sudan tries to find its feet, the possibility of a new Central African conflict remains ominously real, with suggestions today that war crimes were recently committed by the Northern government in the border region of South Kordofan. 

Elsewhere Ugandan tyrant Yoweri Museveni is cracking down against protests, out of fear that the Arab Spring will head South; tension in Zimbabwe is rising ahead of impending elections; fears of retribution against ousted dictator Laurent Gbagbo’s former supporters are still plaguing the Ivory Coast and the Kimberley Process- the most significant development in ending the trade of blood diamonds- is on the rocks.

Tunisia and Egypt are still facing protracted political upheaval and discontent despite their successful revolutions, whilst in Libya Gaddafi has dug in- apparently seeking to kill as many of his own countrymen as possible before his seemingly inevitable downfall.

Cameron in AfricaHow could it possibly be wrong therefore, for the leader of a G8 nation, that holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has significant developmental, military and economic involvement in Africa to spend a mere five days in this vast continent – especially whilst it faces so many challenges?  How can politicians in the UK possibly justify calling on Cameron to curtail his attention to the continent at such a pivotal time?

Of course- the itinerary of his visit was far from suitable when it comes to addressing any of the serious issues in any level of detail: the focus on trade and the time wasted on pointless publicity stunts such as a meet and greet with on-tour Tottenham Hotspur players, raise issues in themselves.  However, the Prime Minister was on the ground in Africa and valuable conversations about issues such as the uprising in Libya and the state of African economies were taking place.  Politicians of all sides should have been coming together to push for five days of real, productive outreach – addressing matters such as civil liberties, water rights and regional stability as well as economic issues, rather than seizing the opportunity for political point scoring and dragging Cameron back for the next stage of the sordid scandal at home. 

Unfortunately, like the 2009 furore over MPs expenses- phone hacking has dominated the political agenda, pushing everything else to the side-lines.  Whilst there are unarguably serious issues to tackle and whilst no one is in any doubt that deplorable acts have been committed, politicians and journalists must ensure that equally if not more important developments both in the UK and abroad, do not fall by the wayside.  If this is allowed to happen, the worst damage is yet to be done.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Rohingya–words but still no rights

The Rohingya are one of Burma’s most oppressed groups – an enormous statement when one considers the horrendous overall context. After all, amongst its many crimes the country’s dictatorial government holds some 1994 political prisoners, is pursuing a vast Chinese-backed military campaign against the Kachin people and routinely uses civilian captives to carry supplies across minefields.

Yet the persecution of the Rohingya has an additional and abhorrent element: it does not stop beyond Burma’s borders.

Most Rohingyas live in Arakan State- North West Burma. They are a predominantly Muslim people who share many language with traits with Bangladeshis – features which have provided the Burmese military junta in all its various guises (including the current “civilian” facade) with excuses to deny them citizenship. This leaves the way open for abhorrent and constant abuses by the authorities – including rape, torture and extrajudicial executions. Marginally less extreme, yet still unacceptable and often devastating practices include the denial of access to education, restrictions on marriage, land confiscations and the destruction of Mosques- all combining to make life unbearable and bringing the Rohingya community “to the brink of extermination.” Perhaps most ominously, the government has time and time again channelled copious resources into fostering ethnic tensions in a cynical attempt garner at least some public support for elements of what, in many quarters, is quite rightly deemed to be a genocide.

Rohingya Refugee BangledeshNaturally this appalling situation has led to a long outflow of Rohingya refugees- seeking to escape the horrors of their homeland or begin a better life for their families elsewhere. Yet shockingly, such aspirations have been met with years of resistance and equally vile abuses from foreign governments. Many of those who escaped to Bangladesh have been prevented from formally registering, leaving them without food provisions and consequently facing starvation; as well as having no legal recourse in the many cases of rape or extortion by local criminals. Others in Thailand, including children, are currently being held in dark, overcrowded cells – a disregard of human rights previously demonstrated by Thai authorities setting scores of bound Rohingyas adrift into the open sea. The government of Malaysia, another prominent destination for the refugees, has been outspoken about the need to “turn them back” – rather than meet international obligations of asylum. Rohingya Refugees Thailand

Over the years, many strong criticisms of this vicious and abusive climate have been forthcoming. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, itself responsible at many stages for deporting numerous Rohingya civilians back to Burma, has on occasion made positive moves – even raising the issue of persecution directly with the Burmese regime and working on a ‘handbook’ for the Thai authorities. Similarly, national governments including the UK’s, have expressed vocal concerns in various settings; and last week the Organisation of the Islamic Conference adopted a strongly worded and widely welcomed resolution.

Yet for all these words, for all the outcry when abuses take place, for all the solidarity expressed and for all the well-intentioned gestures – very little has changed for Rohingyas on the ground either in Burma or abroad. They are still treated like second class citizens in their own country and like animals abroad. They are still killed and oppressed at home, then caged, raped or murdered when they escape. Change must come.

Of course, things cannot be transformed overnight- but the Rohingya people have suffered for decades. And whilst changing circumstances on Burma is accepted to be a task of epic proportions, improving the rights of refugees in supposedly democratic states such as Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia should be far easier. Finance, diplomatic pressure and practical support programmes all have their part to play. For the whole world has a duty to stand with the Rohingyas – in and out of Burma – but whilst words are welcome, such a stand can ultimately only come about through actions…and a dramatic shift in how those fleeing persecution are received.

Rohingya Refugees

Saturday, 9 July 2011

An illegal execution in the land of the free

Execution ChamberThe fairness of the trial was in question and the convict had not been allowed access to the consular services of his home nation.  Pleas from the President to grant a temporary stay of execution were ignored by the Governor.  Phone calls from the convict’s embassy were ignored.  The United Nations intervened, stressing that international law was about to be violated.  But to no avail.  Thirty eight year old Leal Garcia was strapped to a table, put into a medically induced coma, then injected with chemicals to paralyse his organs and take his life. 

Welcome to Texas.

Thursday night’s execution was the state’s 470th since it reintroduced the death penalty thirty-seven years ago.  Ominously, almost half of these have taken place during the decade-long tenure of incumbent Governor Rick Perry – a man with his sights on the White House.

Of course, there is a strong likelihood that Garcia committed the horrendous murder for which he was put to death.  Unlike the markedly tenuous case of death-row inmate Regie Clemons, it is broadly accepted that Garcia was guilty: that he killed a sixteen year old girl with a block of asphalt back in 1994.  But, painful and emotive as the sickening crime may be, that should not detract from his right to a fair trial – including access to consular services.  For Garcia was a Mexican citizen, but was never informed or allowed his basic right of legal or linguistic support from the Mexican authorities.

Not only is this a clear violation of the Vienna Convention in and of itself, but it puts other prisoners abroad at risk, should the government’s of the states where they are detained choose to follow suite and similarly deny access.  It also undermines the authority of the US and states close to its government, when it comes to opposing executions elsewhere in the world.  Arguments against the judicial murder of people such as Iranian teenager Sina Paymard and mentally ill British citizen Akmal Shaikh rested largely on the legal irregularities and disregard of international obligations by the Iranian and Chinese governments in the respective sentencing.  The botched and unacceptable handling of Garcia’s trial flushes away any moral high ground when such situations arise.

And all of that before even considering the moral repugnancy of governments legislating people’s lives away or the shocking position of the USA in the top ten states for executions, above the likes of Burma, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe.  Combined with the nature of execution, the number of killings and the potential weakness of convictions as demonstrated by the Clemons case, the gaping legal holes in Garcia’s execution paint a shocking picture that those in US politics have an urgent duty to address.

Unfortunately this appears unlikely to happen anytime soon – indeed there isRick Perry speculation the Governor Perry’s decision to ignore concerns and refuse any delay in the execution was a politically motivated move to boost his chances for the Republican presidential nomination.  If this is the case, then the issues around the incident are multiplied significantly – for politics should never come into the judicial process of individual cases- particularly when lives are at stake.

Some level of comfort may be drawn from President Obama’s attempted intervention and by the worldwide attention.  But the events that led to Leal Garcia’s death reflect a problem remains vast, serious and with wide-reaching consequences affecting everyone from American prisoners abroad, to political dissidents in dictatorial states, to activists and politicians leading the campaign for worldwide abolishment of the vile and backward practice that is judicial execution.      

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Kimberley Process, Marange and the shadow of China

RUF Sierra LeoneSince coming into force in 2003 the Kimberley Process has made historic mileage in stemming the trade of blood diamonds.  Appalled by the kind of horrors that played out in Sierra Leone – where Charles Taylor’s Revolutionary United Front proxies led legions of drugged child soldiers to hack apart their fellow citizens in a quest to control lucrative diamond mines, the world reacted and put in place procedures aimed to prevent such atrocities from ever reoccurring. 

Seventy five states, the World Diamond Council and various civil society bodies committed to the universally recognised certification scheme- ensuring that traded stones were ‘conflict free’, thus removing the impetus for both violence over control of the mines and the use of forced labour or other abuses in them.  The Kimberley Process was welcomed and celebrated by those who set it up - and those whose lives were transformed by its implementation.

But now it is falling apart. 

Last month, under pressure from participating nations desperate to get their handsMugabe on Zimbabwean diamonds, the Kimberley Process’ Congolese Chairman Mathieu Yamba, declared that stones from the Marange Diamond Fields could now be certified.  The outcry that followed was predictable – after all, how can legitimising the purchase of diamonds that will fund Robert Mugabe’s regime possibly meet the Process’ aims of promoting “peace and stability” or “stabilising fragile countries”?  As if any of us need to be reminded, this is the tyrant who ran an election campaign involving at least 181 murders, denied the existence of a devastating cholera epidemic and provides his thugs with a dangerous level of impunity that threatens to generate further violence in the near future.  

Worse still, the Marange Fields themselves have consistently been the sight of heinous human rights abuses including forced labour of women and children, sexual assaults by the police units in charge and even a massacre of some eighty three Zimbabweans presumed to be ‘illegal miners’.  Whilst Mugabe and his backers including Jacob Zuma’s South African government, claim that things have improved on the ground, other states and human rights groups argue that abuses are still going on – and that, even if they were resolved, the bigger issue of diamond sales propping up Mugabe’s vile regime remains.

Debates are also continuing around whether Mr. Yamba’s seemingly unilateral decision to certify Marange Diamonds was even in keeping with Kimberley Process procedure – which has in the past worked on a basis of unanimity.  What is strikingly clear however, is that if the expected flow of diamonds out of Zimbabwe and finances into Mr. Mugabe’s accounts begins, then the agreements and procedures are no longer worth the paper that they are written on.  Dramatically, representatives of Global Witness – the inspirational human rights group at the forefront of bringing the Kimberley Process into being, walked out of the latest meeting and issued a public statement announcing their loss of confidence in it.

Marange MineThroughout all of this, a silent but literally deadly hand has been played by the Chinese government, which though by no means acting alone, has been at the very forefront of facilitating exploitation of diamonds at the Marange fields, assisting in human rights abuses there and ultimately undermining the Kimberley Process.  Their input has been no small matter- involving a the construction of a secret airstrip and the deployment of Chinese troops, allowing for a constant flow of guns in and diamonds out, even before the outrageous decision to certify the diamonds was taken.  This, it is argued, naturally undercut the effectiveness of the Kimberley Process in practical terms and helped wet the appetite of those who then joined China in piling the pressure on Mr. Yamba to ‘legitimise’ the whole operation.  Disturbingly, like so in many other states including Burma and Sudan, the people of Zimbabwe are now baring the brunt of China’s neo-imperialistic workings, where finance and influence comes before liberty or rights.

The entire incident has been a tragedy, which will inevitably generate disastrous repercussions throughout Africa for years to come, unless somehow the Kimberley Process is salvaged.  To lay the entire blame for this at the door of the Chinese government would be wrong, considering Mr. Yamba’s own weakness and the support he received from others states such as South Africa, Bahrain, India and Lebanon.  However, it would be wise for Presidents and Prime Ministers sitting down with Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and other Chinese leaders in the future, to reflect of their role in wrecking one of the most historic and positive advances that the world’s poorest continent had experienced this century.  

Jintao Mugabe

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The debate on international aid–why now is not the time

Aid FlightSomewhat strangely for a 21st century world, where people are more aware than ever of the suffering faced by their fellow human beings, criticisms of international aid are numerous, frequent and come from all sides of the political spectrum.

There are those who complain that public money should be spent “at home”, constantly questioning why developed states should be helping the developing world, when they themselves are facing fiscal belt-tightening and often hard hitting cutbacks.

Of course the people levelling such arguments conveniently disregard the fact that the UN Millennium Development Project asks rich states to dedicate just 0.7% of their GDP to fighting international poverty and that the actual average given is far lower. They also overlook cataclysmic gulf between the nature and scale of poverty in states that give aid and states that receive it. Of course domestic poverty should never be ignored or belittled, especially when it comes to critical issues such as rising home repossessions, cuts to disability allowances and malnutrition; but neither should these issues distract from the even more staggering facts that one in eight people do not have access to clean water, one billion do not have enough to eat and nearly nine million children do not live to their fifth birthday. The “charity begins at home” lobby’s perverse opposition to developed states spending even one hundredth of their GDP on such issues, risks bordering on inhumanity and racism.

Poverty in IndiaSomewhat more rational – though still often fallible arguments hinge on the premise that it is the current distribution of international aid which is wrong, particularly when it comes to states such as India with its rapidly increasing GDP, nuclear weapons and space programme. Again, those making such cases generally overlook the bigger picture: that in India and other states like it, millions still face crippling poverty and starvation. They should not be neglected by developed states because of their government’s misappropriation of funds to weapons or space research, any more than those in Burma, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka should be denied aid because of their governments squandering of national finance on internal oppression.

The increasingly vocal (though still distinctly minority) school of thought that aid does not work at all presents more nuanced arguments around the potential of assistance programmes to prevent market-based economic development, encourage corruption and create a culture of dependence. However, these too face severe criticism of being grounded in specific anecdotal cases rather than a thorough global overview, placing too much emphasis on the free market and running contrary to the expertise of the majority of those involved in the field.

Still- despite their flaws, all of these positions must be noted, addressed and discussed. Only through respecting and analysing all points of view can we dispel cynicism over international aid and improve the systems which, whilst essential, no one suggests are anywhere near perfect. Debate over the nature, effects and basis of international aid are certainly necessary.

But not now.

Because right now the Horn of Africa is facing its worst drought in six decades; theHorn of Africa Drought water sources have dried up, the refugee camps have filled up, the cattle have died, the crops have withered, eleven million people across four states are in need of urgent food and children arriving into the UN’s care are already so weak that they are dying within 24 hours. Many families are now choosing whether to eat or drink, many more have no choice, many others never will – ever again. Hundreds of thousands have crossed borders, political instability will certainly ensue- the only variable is how bad it will be and how much it will affect the aid effort.

This is not the time to debate international aid. This is the time to dig deep, donate to the charities and intergovernmental agencies on the ground and support the practical work they are doing in providing water, food and medicine to a people who are no longer on the brink of disaster – but in the midst of one.



Africa Drought

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Lukashenko under pressure

It has been almost three months since Belarusian dictator Alexander LukashenkoBelarus Police used a mysterious bomb attack as a pretext to crack down against mounting opposition to his autocratic rule.  Calling on his infamous secret police to "bring in everyone and interrogate them, pay no attention to democracy or the groans and howls of the foreign martyrs" –he pushed back against the country’s increasingly active democracy movement, hoping to dampen the protests that surrounded his rigged re-election before being strengthened by the inspirational uprisings of the Arab Spring.

He failed.

The protests have continued to grow, new tactics are being utilised by the opposition and criticism from the international community is getting louder.  Last month activists used social media sites to arrange a silent protest in Minsk – showing their opposition to Lukashenko without the kind of chants, slogans or banners that would normally result in arrest.  The trend rapidly caught on but subsequent gatherings have been violently broken up in front of international media.  Belarus silent protestThe embarrassed and embattled dictator –clearly shaken by the demonstrations – which have drawn as many as a thousand mainly young activists-swore to prevent a similar initiative designed to disrupt his Independence Day speech. 

Demonstrators had planned orchestrated applause to drown out Lukashenko as he began to address the crowds at todays proceedings, yet his authorities aimed to hamper this by blocking social media sites and detaining numerous democracy leaders including Stanislav Shushkevich – a prominent former government official.  Those who did applaud “too enthusiastically” were dragged away by police – quite possibly to face the kind of brutal torture for which Lukashenko’s regime is infamous. 

Such actions show just how afraid he has become and draw further international attention to the democracy movement.  Whilst he sought to use the April bombing to gain sympathy or even support for his rule, he has today undermined any semblance of a publicity coup by showing true colours once more: an unhinged despot leaning towards Chinese-style censorship of the internet and actively endorsing the detention of those who applaud him or stay silent.

Tonight the strain is already starting to show.  Though Russian troops took part in the Independence Day parade, illustrating the officially solidarity of Belarus’ powerful neighbour, Russian state TV which is available in Belarus and normally sympathetic to Lukashenko, showed democracy activists being roughed up by Belarusian police, spreading publicity and sympathy for the protests.  Shushkevich has also been unexpectedly released, potentially due to a combination internal and external pressure.

With the country facing its worst economic crisis in decades and popular demonstrations continuing against other violent regimes throughout the world, Belarus’ protest movement has even more impetus to enhance its growing momentum.  Now, support from elsewhere –particularly through pressure on Russia, an economic squeeze on the government’s assets and practical aid for the demonstrators in their use of new media is essential, and could genuinely help the brave men and women seeking to bring down Europe’s last dictatorship from within.

There is still a long way to go, but in these turbulent and exciting times, Lukashenko is looking shaken and afraid.  The six months since his sham re-election have been incredibly trying for the aging tyrant…the coming months will surely be even more so.

Lukashenko under pressure

Friday, 1 July 2011

South Sudan's stormy birthday

After a long, always troubled and often bloody journey, South Sudan's independence is just days away. For many it understandably seemed that this moment would never come. After all, January's decisive referendum to divide Africa's largest state, whilst one of the final pieces in the 2005 treaty that formally ended two decades of civil war, did nothing to halt the fighting.

Various warlords, most likely armed and sponsored by the North's despotic president Omar Al-Bashir, wrecked havoc throughout the state-to-be. By April over 1000 were dead, the World Food Programme had pulled out leaving 240 000 more facing starvation and Northern rhetoric over the disputed region of Abyei threatened further conflict.

Shortly after tension boiled over, with Al-Bashir's troops illegally moving into Abyei and later clashing with Southern forces. Fighting spread to South Kordofan, which falls North of the border line but has a high population of ethnic Nubans loyal to the South: they are still being targeted in what has already been described as ethnic cleansing. This latest round of conflict was compounded by clashes in Unity State and Blue Nile State, bringing the total number of displaced persons to over 100 000 before tenuous agreements were reached, committing all sides to pulling back and setting up committees to address territorial disputes. A treaty and unanimously adopted UN resolution also provides for the demilitarisation of Abyei and the deployment of a 4200 strong Ethiopian peacekeeping force to monitor Northern withdrawal and the human rights situation.

Whether the fragile peace will hold remains to be seen. But with unresolved questions over oil revenue, a fear amongst Al-Bashir and his henchmen that opposition to their rule will spread, and the ever-unpredictable factor of violent local militias such as the Lords Resistance Arm (LRA), nobody doubts that the worlds youngest state will face tremendous and violent challenges from the moment it comes into being.

The final sovereignty of Abyei must be resolved as a matter of urgency - and the peacekeeping force's mandate must be extended until this happens, lest the ongoing dispute deteriorates once again into violence. The international community must ensure the protection of groups loyal to the South but based in the North - firstly to prevent massacres and secondly to avoid Southern intervention across the border that could trigger a fresh conflict. And the North must be prevented from funding, arming and training militia seeking to destabilise the South; Al-Bashir's involvement with vile and ruthless groups including the LRA and the militia of George Athor- simply with the aim destabilising his neighbours and enemies, has gone of for far too long. Should South Sudan collapse internally that would ultimately not bode well for the people of any state in the region - including North Sudan.

Finally the South's rebel-force-turned-government, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, must be held to account. Whilst facing threats from an array of abhorrent forces including Al-Bashir and various rebel groups, it must meet the standards of human rights and democracy that its people deserve. Too many African governments have come to power as liberators, only to become oppressors themselves. Positive moves such as the demobilisation of child soldiers should be commended and supported; slides towards authoritarianism must be condemned.

July 9th will be a historic day for Sudan, for Africa and for the world. It will mark the end of a long, hard struggle. And the start of a new one.