Saturday, 29 October 2011

DRC- the ultimate test

Campaigning has officially begun for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) November 28th election, with eleven presidential candidates and over eighteen thousand parliamentary candidates vying for some thirty-two million votes.

Joseph Kabila 2011 ElectionThe election, dubbed the DRC’s “ultimate test” by the International Crisis Group, will be the state’s second since the formal end of its brutal civil war in 2003.  The first, in 2006, sustained the presidency of Joseph Kabila, who took the reigns of power un-elected when his father, President Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated five years earlier.  The 2006 election, cited at the time as the most important in on the continent since Mandela won the South African Presidency, was marred by fatal clashes between rival groups of supporters, and claims that Kabila had won through corruption and intimidation.

This time around the stakes are even higher.

For if it passes off relatively smoothly and peacefully, this could be a historic milestone in the DRC’s long, hard road away from its violent past.  On the other hand, ethnic and political violence or disputed results could pull the state further back into crisis, undoing the small, though tangible, steps towards stability made during recent years.

Ominously, the latter course is looking increasingly possible.  A recent survey reveals huge discrepancies in voter registration, favouring Kabila; while human rights groups have expressed their concerns about hate speech from all candidates, exacerbating ethnic tensions.  Many NGOs have called for a UN rapid reactionUN Peacekeepers in DRC force to deal with potential flashpoints, in light of clashes between supporters of Kabila and his main rival, former Prime Minister Étienne Tshisekedi, which have already cost several lives.

With a vast number of militias continuing to operate, particularly in the East of the DRC, on-going abuses by the official army, the unprecedented murder of five aid workers at the beginning of October and Kambila long-suggesting that he would like to see UN peacekeepers leave, the election may potentially provide the spark that reignites wider conflict.

Still, foreign officials have warned against creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; arguing that writing off the election before people even start to vote would be a dangerous move.  They are right of course, but this should not undermine the importance and urgency of the situation. 

The UN peacekeeping force (MONUC) would be wise to head the calls for a rapid reaction force.  They should also channel resources into ensuring that women can safely reach the polling stations; mass rape has become an abhorrent fixture in the DRC’s conflicts, leaving many understandably terrified of casting their votes in such a volatile climate.

There must also be clear political pressure from those states supporting the DRC economically, emphasising the need for presidential candidates in particular to abide be the electoral framework and tell their supporters in no uncertain terms that any violence or intimidation is unacceptable. 

Beyond this the electoral authorities must be supported, by all sides as well as by the international community, in the huge logistical challenges that they face.  Organising an election in a state the size of Western Europe, with some of the worst infrastructure in the world, will inevitably run into problems.  It is critical that these are not allowed not boil over into accusations of foul play.

The people of the DRC have faced some of the worst and most prolonged suffering seen by any state in Africa.  Next month might be a chance to move on.  It will be the ultimate test for politicians domestically and around the world, to prevent it from becoming something even worse. 

Democratic Republic of Congo Election Violence DRC

Monday, 24 October 2011

Kurdistan’s double disaster

Van EarthquakeThe tragic earthquake in Van (a Turkish-controlled part of Kurdistan) has gripped headlines around the world this week, unsurprisingly considering that as of Monday night the death-toll stands at almost three hundred and the city has been brought to its knees in structural terms.

Yet whilst the international community is quite rightly according significant attention to the natural disaster and offering to support Turkish government’s genuinely admirable relief effort, little talk or action has been forthcoming with regards to the other (man-made) disaster in Kurdistan, currently being created by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration.

Through steadily ratcheting up the arbitrary detention of activists, shelling of towns and marginalisation of Kurds from the political arena, the Turkish Prime Minister had already brutally crushed hopes of a Kurdish Spring, further supressing those under his control, whilst pushing Kurdish communities across the Iraqi border towards humanitarian crisis.  Then, last Wednesday, things took a further turn for the worse, Turkish troops entering Kurdish Iraqfollowing the abhorrent killing of twenty-six Turkish soldiers by Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) rebels – the worst such attack in several years.

In true retaliatory style, some ten thousand more Turkish troops, along with copious air support, were sent across the Iraqi border, killing forty-nine “suspected rebels” in their bases and further driving a further rift between ordinary Turks and Kurds.

The subsequent killing of another three Turkish soldiers is likely to continue this cyclical violence, fuelled further by large nationalistic rallies and provocative rhetoric by the authorities about forcing the PKK to “extinction”.  Perhaps the most worrying development however, has been a new pact with the Iranian government to “totally eliminate” what they perceive to be a “common threat”.  By politically aligning himself with a regime that is continuing to execute Kurds on trumped-up charges and confessions obtained through torture, Erdoğan has laid the clearest marker yet of his approach to the Kurdish people.

Of course, his authorities have every right to retaliate against the PKK violence, which though perhaps understandable to some is clearly unacceptable.  However, Erdoğan and the powers-that-be in Ankara, are consistently discarding any sense of reason, choosing to shun inclusivity, dialogue and genuine overtures to the Kurds, in favour of isolation, extensive military force and alliances with a truly vile, abusive and anti-Kurdish neighbouring government.  This simply increases resentment against the Turkish state, prolongs blood-shed and risks undermining the kind of credibility and conciliation that could have resulted from the excellent work of Turkish emergency services, military personnel and government departments in tackling the Van disaster.

Right now Kurds across the region are taking extraordinary and brave actions - such as joining the revolution against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and supporting Iraq’s beleaguered Christian community.  Yet governments such as Iran’s, Turkey’s and Iraq’s continue to push them down- sustaining a racial injustice that has lasted for far too long.

Now is the time for Turkey to lead the way by changing course, breaking from the futile search for a military solution and tackling the route causes of Kurdish grievances.  It won’t be an easy process, but it is the only way to stop the bloodshed once and for all.

Pro and anti PKK rallies

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Death of a tyrant

Libyans celebrate Gaddafi DeathThe celebrations of Libyans from Tripoli to London are likely to continue for days.  Colonel Gaddafi, after forty-two years of tyrannical rule, is finally dead and gone.

Of course his eventual end did not play out as smoothly as it should have; in an ideal world the dictator (ironically caught hiding in a sewer pipe after months of describing the democratic opposition as “rats”), would have been taken alive and brought before the International Criminal Court to face his indictment.  Observing international law and giving him the kind of fair trial he denied to so many thousands during his rule, would have been a truly optimistic start for the new Libya.  Yet in reality things were always going to be different. 

No one will ever be sure how exactly Gaddafi’s life was ended; for sure he was aliveGaddafi killed when he first fell into the hands of the new government’s forces, but whether he was killed in an on-going exchange of fire with his loyalists, or was summarily executed by his captors, is likely to remain in dispute. 

The latter, whilst obviously unacceptable, would be somewhat understandable.  Given the horrors that he perpetrated, from the notorious Abu Salim Massacre in 1996 to the live burials of dissidents as his regime began to crumble this year, it was almost too much to expect that at least a handful of revolutionary fighters would not seek instantaneous revenge.  This is not to belittle the issue of summary-justice and retaliation, indeed addressing the treatment of detained pro-Gaddafi forces and mercenaries, must be a matter of priority for the National Transitional Council (NTC), yet right now the circumstances of Gaddafi’s demise are far less significant that the fact that he is no more.

For, with the threat of a violent counter-insurgency lifted and the democratic forces in control of almost the entire country, the re-building of Libya can begin.  On Saturday, the NTC will declare national liberation – put on hold from August’s victory in Tripoli until the last Gaddafi supporter at stop the war demonstrationbastions of Gaddafi’s loyalists were defeated.  And despite the venal rants of groups such as the UK’s Stop the War Coalition (which incidentally allowed green-flag-waving Gaddafi supporters to join their demonstrations against humanitarian intervention) it will be rebuilt not for Europe or for the USA but for Libyans.

For, it was Libyans who first rose up in February, formed their own leadership a month later and most importantly of all, gave their lives in the battle to free their country.  NATO support prevented retributive massacres by Gaddafi and ultimately facilitated the rebels’ victory- something which the nations involved can be truly proud of, but this has always been a Libyan revolution.

That is not to say things will be easy, nor that the road towards promised elections next year will be smooth –no one expects that.  But tonight, one of the worlds longest standing dictators is gone forever, and more than six million more people have the chance to choose their own future.

Libyans celebrate

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The message from Indonesia–“no democracy here”

They came from across their nation: tens of thousands of West Papuans gathering for the Third Papuan People’s Congress this week; an historic exercise in democracy, defiance and unequivocal bravery.  After fifty years of occupation by Indonesia, facing the most appalling systematic brutality, they would be excused for giving up on peaceful means of resolving their plight, or indeed for giving up the struggle completely.  But they have not.

Indonesia Army West PapuaInstead, they came together peacefully, under the watchful eye of armed Indonesian security forces; they re-affirmed their goal, not of damaging or undermining Indonesia, but of realising their basic rights; they welcomed representatives of more than two hundred tribes and various religions from across West Papua; they celebrated their cultural identity and raised their banned national flag; and with truly impressive transparency and professionalism they elected those who would speak on behalf of their independence movement for the coming years.

It was all to much for the Indonesian authorities.  Within half an hour of the Congress concluding on Wednesday, troops moved in, firing tear gas and lashing out with their rifle butts.  Quickly live ammunition was fired, reportedly killing a number of Papuans including those trying to help their wounded.  Forkorus Yoboisembut and Edison Waromi, respectively elected as West Papuan Prime Minister and President by the Congress, were singled out and abducted, along with a number of others, who are now likely to face charges for treason.

Of course this is hardly surprising behaviour from the government of SusiloYudhoyono Bambang Yudhoyono, which has consistently relegated the Papuans, along with other marginalised groups such as Ahmadyyia Muslims, to the status of second class citizens -or worse.  Barely two months have passed since cronies in the farcical legal system brought the Indonesian state’s utter bigotry to new lows; handing puerile prison sentences of just months to soldiers who tortured and murdered an elderly Papuan priest; as well as to members of a mob who beat to death three Ahmadyyia Muslims, then rubbing salt in the wounds by handing a similar sentence to a survivor of the mob attack, for daring to defend himself. 

Add these moves to the grim catalogue of rapes, extrajudicial executions and restrictions on religious practice, all against the backdrop of continuous hate-based propaganda from the state, and it is easy to understand why the prospect of free speech, cultural pride and free elections terrifies Yudhoyono and his thugs so much.  Wednesday’s murders and arrests have simply reinforced the government line: that there is no room for democracy in Indonesia or in occupied West-Papua.

Nevertheless, though expected, these events remain truly sickening, and once again highlight the need for Indonesia’s neighbours, and indeed the wider international community, to urgently bring its leaders to task.  The violations and crackdowns now are more flagrant than ever; the brutality is clearly increasing; and the fact can no longer be ignored that Yudhoyono is leading a protracted state pogrom against numerous groups not fitting with his narrow and frankly racist vision of the 21st Century Javanese Empire.

Those who lost their lives in West Papua this week did so whilst calling for human rights and for freedom.  Those dreams are still alive – but right now they seem a long way off.   

Arrests at Papuan Peoples Congrees

Saturday, 15 October 2011


Lords Resistance Army2011 may prove to be a key year in the struggle against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the brutal group led by convicted War Criminal Joseph Kony, that has waged a twenty-four-year campaign of terror throughout Central Africa. 

Intermittently professing the intention of overthrowing Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni and setting up a state based on the Ten Commandments (though briefly flirting with Islam), Kony’s rag-tag band of devotees and press-ganged child soldiers has long shed any vaguely coherent objective; simply rampaging through Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, carrying out a horrifying string of human rights abuses, including looting, rape, mutilation and thousands of murders.  Three factors however, may soon bring this terror to a close.  

Firstly, the secession of South Sudan in July, has given the Sudan Peoples’ iberation Movement (SPLM) – a long avowed enemy of the LRA, the strength and status of an official government, as well as potentially reinforcing Kony’s physical detachment from his backers in Khartoum, who as late as 2010 were allegedly using the LRA as proxies to attack opposition in Darfur.

Secondly, an advanced crisis-mapping project has now been launched, compiling information on the LRA’s scattered activities across Central Africa’s porous borders, raising international awareness and providing unprecedentedly detailed data for the governments and NGOs seeking to track and ultimately halt the brutality.

Barak Obama and SoldiersPerhaps, most importantly of all however, Barak Obama this week announced the deployment of one hundred US troops to train and support the four national governments combating the LRA. 

Though only mandated to engage in combat for the purpose of self defence, this force will be working with units actively pursuing Kony, marking the most significant external involvement to date and a distinct strengthening of international efforts to crush the LRA once and for all.  Possibly the key effect of this will be ingraining a level of professionalism and commitment that has been lacking from previous regional efforts due to a range of incompetencies and hidden agendas.

Resolve, the key human rights group working to end LRA atrocities has welcomed the move, highlighting the likelihood of quicker responses, better intelligence and more focussed US assistance.  Still, that hasn’t stopped certain other quarters from criticising the deployment, drawing parallel's with the tragic 1990s US mission to Somalia, pointing out that the LRA is already at its weakest point to date and questioning whether the conflict is even relevant to US national interests.

To a great extent, these objections are fallacious.  Unlike Somalia, this is to be a limited non-combat mission, which inevitably poses risks, but to nowhere near the level of the circumstances that led to Black Hawk Down.  In terms of the LRA’s perceived weakness, whilst the group is seemingly now fragmented and boasts nowhere near the thousands of troops that it once did, it is still capable of carrying out appalling massacres as demonstrated just last February.  It is also worth noting that LRA weakness has been highlighted for years, yet still it lumbers on. 

As for ‘national interest’, one only needs to highlight that halting the systematic rape of young girls, conscription of young boys and murder of whole villages is – or least should be – in every state’s interest, no matter where in the world it is taking place.

Still, there are are some serious questions to be answered: such as those around the dangers of training Ugandan forces known to contain political death squads, Democratic Republic of Congo forces known to have committed mass rape and Central African Republic forces guilty of torture and enforced disappearances.  Could the US involvement ultimately end up improving the capacity of these armies to terrorise their own populations?

There is also the long-term issue to consider: other militias operating in Central Africa, particularly in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo, are just as dangerous as abhorrent as the LRA.  What action, if any, will subsequently be taken to disarm them?

The USA must tread carefully, but Obama is taking a risk in order to draw a line under one of the most barbaric chapters of African history and for this he must be commended.  Some are already questioning US motives, particularly whether this is a return favour for Uganda’s work against Al-Shabab in Somalia or part of an ongoing trend based around targeting particularly dangerous or loathed individualsThough, whilst these questions must be asked, they will ultimately be of little relevance to those who have lived in fear of the LRA for two decades, if and once Kony and his men are finally stopped.

Joseph Kony

Tibet–time to step up

Enough is Enough TibetThe tragic news broke this morning that an eighth Tibetan had self-immolated in protest against the repressive policies of the occupying Chinese authorities. Such acts, previously unprecedented in Tibet, underscore not only the desperation and hopelessness that Tibetans are now feeling, but also the extent to which they have been consistently failed by governments around the world.

Unlike dealings with South Africa under apartheid, Zimbabwe under Mugabe or Burma under the military junta, issues of human rights abuses, supressed freedoms and violent crackdowns have never been anywhere near central to other states’ dialogue with China.  Of course they have been raised; as recently as this year UK Foreign Secretary William Hague was praised for speaking out during his visit to China, whilst US President Barak Obama refused to bow to Beijing’s pressure and met with the Dalai Lama.  Yet such gestures remain dangerously close to tokenism and almost invariably futile when they only ever take place on the periphery, or as window dressing for the real focus of trade and economics.

Unarguably, it would be futile to expect governments to focus on Tibet first and trade second when dealing with the state so often dubbed “the worlds next superpower” – that would run completely against the realpolitikal grain of international relations.  But still, the fact that China occupies a nation the size of Western Europe, regularly subjecting its people to disappearances, massacres and a litany of other abuses, should merit far greater attention than tick-box statements and meaningless expressions of concern. 

The consistent lack of any serious diplomatic pressure on the Chinese government thus far, has given it an almost free hand in tyrannising the Tibetan people.  Notably, had the current succession of self-immolations not occurred, the Tibet movement would almost certainly have been focussing on the second anniversary of the execution of two Tibetan protestors, the first in more than half a decade, following rigged and politically charged trials.  That these came just eleven months after the UK’s Labour government recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, in order to win Beijing’s favour, was a telling sign.  Then Foreign Secretary David Miliband had claimed that the move would strengthen external influence over the Chinese government on issues of human rights; in reality it did exactly the opposite by sending a clear signal that the UK, like its allies in Europe and North America, was willing to side-line and sell-out the Tibetan people, in order to progress its own economic goals.

Ngaba CrackdownIt is hardly surprising then, that with peaceful protest routinely supressed through the barrel of a gun and appeals to foreign governments consistently falling on deaf ears, some Tibetans have eventually begun to see no option left open to them other than expressing defiance by sacrificing their own lives. 

Now – with eight young men dead in the Ngaba region, a harsh security crackdown there exacerbating tensions further by the day, and the nation on the brink of crisis, it is time for foreign governments to step up and make Tibet one of the central issues in their dealings with China.

Activist groups around the world are rapidly coordinating global action calling for urgent diplomatic intervention to save Tibetan lives.  Their countries’ leaders must listen if the current tragic situation is not to spiral further out of control.  A strong global call, through unilateral channels or at the upcoming G20 meeting in France, for the Chinese government to cease its crackdown in Ngaba, account for the whereabouts and wellbeing of those thought to have survived their self-immolation protests, and release all monks arrested in response to the incidents, is nothing short of essential if the international community is the avoid failing Tibet once more.

Time and time again Tibetans have suffered and died because of global political inaction.  This time around must be different.


Save Tibetan Lives

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Eritrea- the hidden tragedy

While the world struggles to confront what can only be described as a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Somalia, the people of neighbouring Eritrea are faring little better.

Refugee CampContrary to the claims of dictator Isaias Afewerki that this year’s harvest has yielded at bumper crop; satellite imagery and thousands of malnourished refugees crossing into Ethiopia every month suggest that Eritrea has been hit just as hard, if not worse, as the rest of the Horn of Africa.  Ominously, some reports from the Ethiopian government have gone as far as suggesting that up to half of the Eritrean population may be now be starving.

Of course it is difficult to verify anything coming out of Eritrea.  Lingering at the bottom of the Press Freedom Index (below the likes of Equatorial Guinea, Iran and North Korea), this is one of the most closed-off societies in the world.  This year’s Amnesty International Report, gives a taste of the level of authoritarianism, highlighting how Afewerki’s thugs hold control through throwing dissidents into underground cells and metal shipping containers where they are routinely beaten and left without food or water.  Thousands of ordinary citizens haveEritrea Prisoners been detained for taking part in un-authorised religious services and eleven of the G-15, a group of parliamentarians who spoke out against the regime back in 2001, have spent the last decade locked away with no public confirmation of whether they are even alive.

Foreign ambassadors find it hard to move around Eritrea and UN peacekeepers (monitoring the fragile peace with Ethiopia) have been kicked out along with the majority of aid agencies, compounding the difficulties in confirming the precise situation when it comes to food security and famine.  With the burden of proof resting on Afewerki, the tyrant has given nothing other than empty rhetoric to back up his claim that Eritrea has somehow been insulated from the regional disaster.

Such denials, along with the prohibition on aid agencies, are undoubtedly exacerbating starvation across the country and underscore the political nature of this famine.  Climate change, soil conditions and wider poverty issues have all played a part, but it is the actions of tyrants such as Afewerki, along with the Islamist militia Al-Shabab and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) across the border in Somalia, that are costing the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.  An interesting UN Dispatch article recently suggested that exacerbating the famine through hindering the relief effort could be considered a crime against humanity, citing the precedent of the Herero Genocide, where Imperial German troops deliberately starved thousands of Herero people in what was then Southwest Africa.

Al-Shabab backed by ErtreaIn this case, Afewerki stands out as particularly culpable.  As well as preventing any relief effort (or even serious assessment of conditions) in Eritrea itself, his government has long stood accused of providing financial and logistical support to Al-Shabab, and even of sending troops to support it’s insurgency.  It is highly likely therefore, that Eritrean authorities are at least indirectly responsible for much of the open hostility against civilians and aid workers currently taking place in Somalia, and rendering relief so ineffective there.   

Eritrea is already subject to sanctions and regular vocal criticism, but if the lives of Eritrean citizens and those throughout the region are to be saved, pressure must be seriously stepped up.  Failure to reign in Afewerki is just one more sign of the world’s ineffective response to the crisis in the Horn of Africa…and a death toll that is growing by the day. 

Afewerki famine Eritrea Somali

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The ANC: a problem deeper than China’s influence

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), the movement-turned-party that brought down apartheid, has been the somewhat unlikely focus of the global Tibet movement this week, following the outrageous decision to deny the Dalai Lama an entry visa to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s eightieth birthday celebrations.

At a critical time for Tibet, with the fifth self-immolation protest since January, and an on-going military crackdown in response, the snub was seen as an appallingTutu criticises ANC lack of support for the Tibetan people- not least by Tutu himself, who launched an unprecedented attack on the ANC, declaring it “worse than apartheid”, whilst comparing the rule of President Jacob Zuma to that of Hosnai Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi.

Yet whilst activists around the world have rightly responded with anger and lobbying, pointing to the utter hypocrisy of a party founded in its own struggle against oppression, the narrative of an inspirational movement being corrupted by China’s economic and political influence fails to tell the full story.

Of course, no one disputes that the Chinese government pressured South Africa to deny the visa, just as it has done with every state that he has attempted to visit from the USA, to Ireland, to Russia.  However this is far from a solitary blemish in the ANC’s record on foreign affairs; rather it is simply the latest indication of a problem that runs far deeper.

Burma protestTake for example, the decision to vote against a resolution condemning the Burmese junta’s suppression of opposition and massacres of ethnic minorities, when South Africa first took a seat on the UN Security Council in 2007.  On Tuesday, Aung San Suu Kyi, often referred to as “Burma’s Nelson Mandela”, cited the ANC’s poor record in supporting her people , pointing out that it has regularly fallen far short of the backing given by individuals such as Mandela and Tutu.

Yet the following day, South African representatives at the UN once again failed to support a people struggling for freedom, this time in Syria.  Abstaining on a resolution that had already been watered down in the (ultimately futile) hope of avoiding Chinese and Russian vetoes, the ANC categorically balked at the opportunity to stand behind those putting their lives on the line to take on Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime.

Closer to home, the ANC has long been criticised for its appalling track-record in addressing the abuses committed by Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe.  Whilst Jacob Zuma has been marginally more critical than his predecessor Theo Mbeki, who stood idly by as his old friend had opposition supporters beaten and killed during the 2008 election, he still panders up to the tyrant and has no qualms aboutJacob Zuma and Robet Mugabe deporting thousands of Zimbabwean refugees back to face the horrors that await them.  The ANC position on Darfur has been arguably worse still, with officials not only vetoing a resolution condemning President Omar Al-Bashir’s genocide, but actively courting the war criminal and welcoming him to Cape Town, whilst vocally condemning those seeking to bring about his downfall.

Given this background, along with the previous denial of a visa for the Dalai Lama two years ago, the recent turn of events should come as no surprise.  China’s profoundly negative influence in Africa, including South Africa, must unequivocally be addressed and opposed; but so too must the fact that the ANC itself is rotten, abusive and utterly disregarding of human rights. 

Like the Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front or Mugabe’s ZANU, it once fought a just cause…but today its dominant contribution to international affairs is to deny others the very same freedoms it first set out to achieve.