Monday, 28 November 2011

Democracy and crisis

Tragically, many of the anxieties and fears leading up to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s second ever election appear to now be materialising.  Already branded ‘chaos’, today’s poll has been marred by scenes that bring the very concept of Congolese democracy into stark question. 

Congo Election ViolenceSecessionist gunmen in Lubumbashi attacked polling stations and official vehicles, taking lives and destroying electoral material.  Elsewhere a combination of poor weather and chaotic organisation led to polling stations opening late, reportedly prompting would-be-voters to burn down as many as three.  Meanwhile rival groups of supporters have clashed, police have fired tear gas and the day’s death toll, currently standing at four, looks set to rise as others lie injured in hospital.

This mayhem follows a weekend of violence in which leading opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi was blocked from attending his final campaign rally by police, as rival groups took part in fatal confrontations in the capital, Kinshasa.  Eventually Tshisekedi was escorted through the streets by supporters wielding guns and machetes, whilst across the city, President Joseph Kabila’s bodyguards are purported to have shot at bystanders.    

Yet despite the disorder and bloodshed, there are also optimistic signs.  In manyCongo election voting parts of the DRC – which covers the same landmass as Western Europe, suffers from chronic infrastructure problems and is plagued by more armed groups that perhaps any other African country- voting has been remarkably peaceful, if not particularly efficient.  Inspirationally, over thirty million voters are heading out with a mix of pride and bravery, hoping to shape the DRC’s future for the better and finally move away from the cycle of dictatorship and conflict that many have know for all of their lives.

This was never going to be an easy or straightforward election – but the mass participation and determination of the vast majority of citizens may still make it an historic one.

Nevertheless, there remains the risk that all of this could be undone by the behaviour of candidates once the result is announced.  After the 2006 election, then opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba (now being tried for War Crimes at the International Criminal Court), accused Joseph Kabila of stealing the vote, and dragged the country into weeks of bloody violence.  This time around there is already talk of ballot box stuffing; and no sign that either Tshisekedi or Kabila will give any ground in the case of a questionable or disputed result..

The imminent expiration of Kabila’s constitutionally-mandated presidential term adds a further layer of tension.  If a clear winner has not emerged by the first week of December the DRC will effectively be left with no official president, creating a dangerous political vacuum.

For these reasons it is essential that, after the papers are collected, all sides behave responsibly; allowing genuine scrutiny of the result, whilst drawing a clear line between highlighting discrepancies and encouraging street violence. It is also crucial for the international community to provide whatever active support is needed for the twenty-two-thousand-strong UN peacekeeping force that is gearing up to deal with post-election clashes.  These are no small asks, but without them the DRC may see much more chaos before it ever sees democracy.DRC Congo Election

Monday, 21 November 2011

Executing a people

The brutal execution of indigenous leader Nisio Gomes is the latest tragedy to befall the Guarani people – Brazil’s largest indigenous minority and one of the most abused and maligned groups in the world.

When forty masked gunmen entered Nisio’s camp, shot him in the limbs and head in front of his terrified companions, disabled his son with a rubber bullet, then stole his body, they were continuing a contemptible history of oppression that stretches back over centuries, to when Europeans first arrived on Guarani land.

Over that time, the Guarani way of life has been systematically destroyed.  As their forest homes are continually torn down to make way for sugar-cane plantations, biofuels and, most prominently of all, cattle ranches, the Guarani have been forced into ever more crowded spaces, robbed of their ability to hunt, fish or plant crops, and in many cases left in squalid encampments next to newly constructed highways.Camps de fortune des Guaranis, au bord de la route 

Some have starved to death, whilst many others have been mercilessly exploited by the businesses moving onto their territory- cutting sugar cane for menial pay, or in the cases of numerous women, turning to prostitution.  Alcoholism has became endemic and the suicide rate has grown to catastrophic levels amongst both adults and children.   

Those who turn to crime as a recourse often face racism from the authorities and are forced into a legal system utilising a language that they do not understand.  Hundreds have been left imprisoned without even access to interpreters.

It is little wonder therefore, that many Guaranis have resorted to retomadas or ‘re-takings’ – public acts of civil disobedience in which they peacefully return to the land stolen from them.  However, these have consistently been met with un-restrained violence by those profiting from the ethnic cleansing, especially the cattle ranchers and their hired thugs.  In the late 1990s Guarani leader Marcos Verón, led his landless and malnourished community in a brave attempt to assert their legal rights; and when they were knocked-back by the Brazilian courts, set off to the UK to whip-up international backing.  Returning to Brazil he led a peaceful retomadas in 2003, but was beaten to death and dumped next to a roadside by ranch workers.  He was seventy-five years old.

Last week’s murder of Nisio Gomes was eerily reminiscent of this sickening incident.  Before he died the fifty-nine year old leader is reported to have told his son:

“Don’t leave this place. Take care of this land with courage. This is our land. Nobody will drag you from it. Look after my granddaughters and all the children well. I leave this land in your hands.”

If the world does not heed this message, his execution will ultimately mean the execution of the Guarani people.

Survival International campaigns to protect the Guarani and other tribal people.  Click here to visit their website.


Saturday, 19 November 2011

Legalising bigotry

916621In a fresh attack on Russia’s LGBTI community, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party last week brought a backwards and authoritarian bill before St. Petersburg's city legislature, imposing a penalty of up to $1600 on anyone found guilty of “public actions aimed at propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgenderism among minors" in the city.

Human rights groups warn that the bill, which was unanimously passed on its first of three readings, will give the authorities cover for banning any public LGBTI activities, from Pride marches to campaigns against homophobia.  Meanwhile LGBTI travel services are already advising those visiting St. Petersburg to watch out, lest they inadvertently fall foul of the wide-reaching regulations.  Ominously LGBTI people will now face the same penalties as those ‘promoting’ paedophilia – a clear signal of how the United Russia Party view large sections of Russian society.   

Perhaps even more worrying than the content itself however, is the rhetoric that accompanied the new legislation.  The bill’s sponsor stated that St. Petersburg, birthplace of leading Russian LGBTI group Kryl’ya and home to the International Lesbian and Gay Association’s Russian branch, is facing “a wave popularizing sexual perversion.”  He was quickly joined by colleagues outrageously comparing consensual homosexual sex to child abuse.

Whilst horrific, such bigotry from Russia’s authorities is hardly surprising; for yearsRussia LGBTI  protest the LGBTI community has faced a series of official restraints, numerous arrests and appalling state-supported violence; often stirring memories of the Soviet regime, which punished homosexuality with imprisonment and hard labour.

Scapegoating and stirring up populist hatred has also long been a favourite tactic of Putin’s, frequently aimed at ethnic or religious minorities as well as the LGBTI community, in order to detract attention from economic difficulties or political corruption.  With just weeks to go before Russia’s parliamentary elections, it is hardly surprising that such underhanded behaviour is once again coming to the fore. 

That this is continuing, despite previous rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that the Russian authorities were guilty of discrimination and violations of freedom of assembly against gay citizens, is illustrative of their flagrant disregard of any external pressure when it comes to persecuting their own people.

Still, this should not deter governments and groups around the world from joining organisations such as Amnesty International in calling for the latest draconian bill to be halted and scrapped.  Whether in Uganda, Iran, Russia or anywhere else in the world, bigoted legislation targeting innocent people on the basis of their sexuality must always be vocally –and loudly - opposed.

Russia LGBTI rights

Burma: enter the NLD

Following months of confusion it is becoming ever clearer that the situation in Burma is gradually changing for the better.   

Suu Kyi entering political processAfter effectively barring Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) from partaking in last year’s sham election, the military regime’s pseudo-civilian government has now repealed laws requiring the expulsion of ex-political prisoners, and the recognition of the military-drafted constituion, by parties involved in the political process.  This historic move left the way open for the NLD to declare last Friday that it will field candidates, possibly including Suu Kyi herself, to stand in upcoming by-elections.

The prospect of NLD members finally sitting in Parliament was virtually unforeseeable to democracy activists even just a few months ago.  In all likelihood they will be re-joined by their comrades from the National Democratic Force (NDF) who split away in 2010 to contest the elections, providing a four seat boost to however many candidates they are able to get elected.

The feeling on the ground is changing too.  NLD meetings are held more openly, posters of Aung San Suu Kyi are sold on some streets, and the democracy icon, who spent over a decade locked away from the eyes of the world, is now able to give interviews to the BBC.  This follows the legalisation of trade unions and strikes as well as an easing of restrictions on the internet that has seen Burmese people able to access sites such as Youtube and this blog. 

An announcement from the US government that Hillary Clinton will visit Burma (theTHAILAND/ first Secretary of State to do so for more than fifty years) has raised further hopes, particularly around the prospect of fresh prisoner releases.  Indeed, the Obama administration must be commended for its on-going push for greater reform, which has included direct contact between the President and Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as a tough line on the issues that still need to be addressed.

And there are many of these; not least the continuing Burmese government attacks on Kachin freedom fighters, that have so far displaced some twenty-five thousand people and killed thousands more.  The humanitarian disaster now unfolding in the region is mirrored in the Shan and Karen states where similar brutality by Kachin protestsgovernment forces has left an untold number Burma’s maligned ethnic minority people without food or shelter.  Suu Kyi has pledged to stand by these groups and called for resolution of the conflicts to be a key priority.  Yet by meeting and negotiating with ‘reformist’ President Thein Sein, she risks loosing a degree of credibility amongst those whose families are being butchered by his soldiers.

It is also important for those working for freedom in Burma to remember that political engagement does not equal liberty.  For proof of this, one only needs to look at Zimbabwe, where the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) controls a majority of seats in Parliament, as well as the post of Prime Minister, and yet Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF regime continues to rule the country through violence.  A recent incident in which members of the Burmese government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), beat two NLD activists into unconsciousness with iron bars, was all to reminiscent of the faux-democratic Zimbabwe-style politics.

Experts from organisations such as Burma Campaign UK have also been vocal in stressing the limitations of changes so far.  They point out that despite the easing of restrictions on websites, only 0.3% of Burmese people actually have internet access at all; despite political prisoner releases, hundreds remain detained in appalling conditions; and all the while appalling human rights abuses including rape and sexual abuse by government forces continue unabated.

This leaves activists with a long way to go, despite the justifiable cause for optimism and the new opportunities open to the democracy movement.  NLD involvement in the political process can ultimately only be a good thing, but it is just the beginning of the road.  The obstacles – from state violence against ethnic minorities to the inbuilt bias in the political system towards the government- will need unity, determination and worldwide support to overcome.  Having achieved their goal of securing the 2014 chairmanship of ASEAN, it is also possible that the government will slow down the pace of reform.  The hard work starts here. 

 Free Burma


Sunday, 6 November 2011

Nigeria- the Boko Haram crisis

Boko Haram attacks NigeriaThis year’s Eid celebrations in Nigeria were overshadowed by the spate of gun and bombs attacks across the country’s North East last Friday, that left at least one hundred and fifty people dead, many more wounded and several buildings reduced to rubble.

The atrocities were perpetrated by Boko Haram, a radical Islamist organisation deplored by the vast majority of Nigeria’s Muslims, focussed on undermining electoral democracy and anything else that its leaders perceive to stem from ‘Western influence’.  Friday’s attacks were specifically targeted at the Christian community and police, but in the event resulted in the deaths of several Muslim civilians and the destruction of Mosques as well.

Boko Haram United Nations bomb NigeriaOminously, the scale of the carnage is the latest sign of the group’s growing strength: in August it bombed the United Nations Headquarters in Abuja, killing eighteen people, after reportedly making links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Shabab; militant organisations respectively based in Algeria and Somalia.  US intelligence services are now warning the Nigerian government that Boko Haram intends to target a number of luxury hotels as part of a wider campaign to generate civil conflict across the country.

Notably these events come more than two years after the authorities claimed to have largely defeated Boko Haram, following a crackdown in the summer of 2009 that cumulated in the extra-judicial killing of leader Mohammed Yusaf in police custody.  It is painfully clear today, that not only has the group survived, but it appears more organised, dangerous and ruthless than ever before.

This bodes ill for a country that has a painful history of inter-communal violence, illustrated not least by the tensions and violence that followed the re-election of President Goodluck Jonathan in April.  The divide between the largely Muslim North and largely Christian South has long led to political upheaval, whilst breakouts of inter-communal conflict such as those in the city of Jos have often led to years of cyclical retaliatory attacks.  It is imperative therefore, that the government does not allow Boko Haram to exploit existing issues and nurture its own fundamentalist and barbaric campaign into wider unrest.  

Of course this is no small task, and already many Nigerians are suggesting that Goodluck Jonathan Nigeria Presidenttheir government is failing to sufficiently tackle the problem.  Whilst the President has pledged to hunt down those responsible for the most recent attacks, some quarters of society have questioned whether continued attempts at achieving a military victory over the extremists should be side-lined in favour of addressing the socio-economic problems that provide them with a fertile recruiting ground in the first place.

Others, perhaps understandably given the extent of destruction so far, have called upon the authorities to go in precisely the other direction and employ stricter emergency powers in order to guarantee civilians’ protection.

This leaves a huge task for the President and his men; and one which will inevitably cost lives should they choose the wrong approach.  Right now Nigeria is approaching crisis point, and the cause – Boko Haram, is showing no signal of diminishing.  Ultimately the authorities are likely to require a fine balance of force, social change, external assistance and diplomacy if they are going to make genuine progress in what will inevitably be a long, hard fight.   

Boko Haram militants

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Syria’s unbridled resistance

Bashar al-Assad protestsSome eight months after the Arab Spring reached the streets of Syria, the pressure on beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad is beginning to show.  Whilst remaining defiant and continuing to deploy his troops against protestors, the tyrant may be on the verge of making his first diplomatic concessions- agreeing on Tuesday to an Arab League led deal intended to end the crackdown.  

Actual details of the deal remain sketchy, though appear to revolve around opening dialogue with the protestors, and pulling soldiers- who have so far killed some three thousand people – off the streets.  Of course, a dictator’s word is tenuous at best, but this may be the clearest evidence yet, to support assertions that Assad is otherwise running out of options

Indeed, his consistent reversion to brute force has categorically failed to quell the opposition’s brave and unrelenting street demonstrations. Since March the Syria protestor shotprotestors have faced the most abhorrent abuses, including death squads slaughtering civilians in hospitals and ambulances, yet their resolve remains unbroken.  In fact, if anything they are growing stronger, with defectors from Assad’s army becoming better organised in order to challenge those still loyal to the regime.

Notably Assad’s allies abroad have also begun to desert him.  Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially tip-toed around the massacres across the border, seeking to limit the flow of refugees and prevent any emboldening of Kurdish forces, without upsetting his friends in Damascus.  That has all now changed, with his government praising the protestors, preparing sanctions and actively discussing the prospect of setting up a buffer-zone on Syrian soil, to protect those fleeing the violence.

And whilst Assad recently praised Russia for standing by his side, China –which has longed supported his regime and joined Russia in vetoing even a condemnatory resolution at the UN, has shown signs of movement- urging Assad to “respect and respond to the aspirations and rightful demands of the Syrian people.”

Such developments could ultimately combine to fatally undermine the man who has ruled Syria with an iron fist since the death of his father eleven years ago.  As things stand, calls from the protestors for international military protection are almost certain to remain unanswered, not least because of Assad’s significant potential to sow regional instability, as he demonstrated this week by having four members of the opposition abducted from inside Lebanon and mines laid along the border.  Yet Syria protest Assad face burntif the protestors continue to hold out whilst more troops defect, external pressure grows and ‘soft options’ such as buffer zones are implemented, the kind of military intervention undertaken in Libya may not be needed at all.

It could be recognition of this fact that led Assad to accept the Arab League deal, after all, the images of Gaddafi’s gruesome end must have caused him to, at least briefly, reflect upon the possible consequences if the unbreakable nature of the uprising is sustained.

The Syrian people have demonstrated enormous courage and persistence in bringing a once invincible dictator to the brink.  The international community – from governments to citizens such as those rallying in London last weekend, must now continue to support them…then Syria’s unbridled resistance, may herald a new dawn.

Assad wake up your time is up