Friday, 25 March 2011

Museveni’s Gestapo

Ugandan despot Yoweri Museveni has long convinced the international community to overlook his human right violations by combining foreign diplomacy –including military action against Islamist insurgents in Somalia, with domestic distractions -by widely publicising (and some would argue indirectly maintaining) the abhorrent LRA rebellion that originated in Uganda’s Northern Acholi region.

Yet despite winning a new term in office through a little-criticised though flagrantly rigged election last month, Museveni’s slippery political manoeuvres are seemingly beginning to come unstuck.  On Monday he joined with the likes of Robert Mugabe to openly condemn military intervention in Libya – a move sure to agonise his tacit backers in Europe and the USA.  To make things worse, the tyrant’s rambling article, published in the Ugandan press, included a number of frankly ludicrous assertions, including a homage to Gaddafi’s road-building programme:

“When I was last there, I could see good roads even from the air.
From the TV pictures, you can even see the rebels zooming up and down in pick-up vehicles on very good roads accompanied by Western journalists. Who built these good roads?”

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Opposing the well-supported and UN mandated intervention that stopped a massacre in Benghazi –especially on account of tarmac quality- will do little to endear Museveni to the powerful ‘Western’ backers he relies upon, even as he continues win their favour by leading military commitment in Somalia.

And any fall from favour can only be exacerbated by the damning Human Rights Watch report released on Wednesday, detailing a litany of abuses by his Rapid Response Unit (RRU) – a specialist section of the Ugandan police force.  The RRU originated as Operation Wembley-a unit set up by Museveni in 2002 (officially to combat armed crime) that quickly gained an infamous reputation for genital mutilation and murder of those it detained.  Although it subsequently underwent two names changes, becoming the Violent Crime Crack Unit (VCCU) before the RRU, the evidence meticulously presented by Human Rights Watch shows that its barbaric practices have remained.

In a style eerily reminiscent of the Gestapo, the elite polite unit lifts people from the street without charge or trial, then takes them to isolated buildings where they subjected to various tortures including vicious beatings and the removal of fingernails.  Frequently, the victims are then summarily executed – with the number of judicial killings running into double figures during the past year alone.  Tellingly it is not just those accused of crime who are abducted by the RRU; journalists critical of Museveni and witnesses of police abuses have similarly been ‘disappeared’.  RRU thugs are also despatched to oversee elections, intimidating voters with both their reputation and physical violence.

This brutal circumvention of due legal process, free speech, accountability and democracy will be difficult to ignore, even for those who find Museveni a useful ‘asset’ in Central Africa.  RRU actions do not only directly contravene the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention Against Torture and  African Charter on Human and People’s Rights but at least seven other treaties to which Uganda is a signatory including those concerning fair trials, treatment of prisoners and use of force.  Perhaps more significantly still, the unit’s practices routinely violate the Ugandan constitution. 

Museveni- once lauded as a new kind of African leader, has spent  his leadership criticising former Ugandan dictators such as Idi Amin and Milton Obote, whilst becoming ever more abusive himself.  For too long the world has turned a blind eye to his true colours, but his public denouncement of humanitarian intervention combined with a timely report on his domestic oppression may potentially change this course. For the sake of the Ugandan people we can only hope that it does. 

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Srebrenica to Benghazi

Somewhat predictably, from the very first mention of military intervention in Libya, the usual suspects were trotting the same old opposition lines.  The Stop the War Coalition hastily organised a rally, the Socialist Workers Party printed out leaflets and George Galloway popped up on Sky News.  However, whilst many of the anti-interventionist concerns are at least partly understandable and in many cases compassion for the Libyan people appears genuine, none of the arguments currently levelled against action really stand up to any scrutiny.

‘The West is just in it for oil’ is perhaps the most fequent  and nonsensical claim, churned out by those who ignore the fact that the most prominent states in the coalition import relatively little of their oil from Libya, with the overall supply of Libyan crude making up just 2% of the world’s total.  Of course contracts in Libya are still worth billions of dollars to many ‘Western’ companies and certain states including Italy are more reliant on these than others, but this is hardly a motive for intervention– after all, he was already providing the oil, working with companies such as BP and showed no signs of cutting it off.  If anything, Libyan oil would have been an incentive to keep Gaddafi in place, just as tacit or active support has been given to other despots in return for their energy supplies.

Which leads us nicely to the anti-interventionists’ next point – ‘hypocrisy!’  They point out that although Zimbabwe, Burma and Tibet all languish under barbaric regimes we haven’t seen any intervention in these cases.  And right now state violence against demonstrators is rapidly increasing in the Ivory Coast, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia but there is no talk of airstrikes or no fly zones over these states.  In fact, in several of these situations ‘Western’ governments and state-supported arms dealers are continuing to prop up the tyrants in power.  These are of course perfectly valid points, that should be loudly articulated by members of the public in democratic states …but they do not explain why intervention shouldn’t take place in Libya.  Just because our governments have left the people of other states to be ruthlessly slaughtered, why should we then try to stop them when they finally do decide to take action? 

A similar rebuff can be raised against the cries of ‘look at what happened in Iraq/Afghanistan.’  Whilst almost no one denies that these ventures – for whatever reason – have proved largely disastrous, they should not invalidate any future intervention.  And by going through the UN Security Council, explicitly rejecting occupation and taking significant precautions in the execution of air attacks, the coalition forces are demonstrating that lessons have been learnt from past mistakes.

So the argument turns to claims that ‘we have enough problems at home and not enough money to spend on intervention’ or in the words of Galloway – the situation in Libya is not tantamount to ‘our justifiable interests.’  Such sentiments are easy to express when you’re sitting in the UK and your biggest worry is the local library closing – they are far harder to reconcile when you’re in Libya with your family facing the full onslaught of Gaddafi’s troops.

And thus we are left with objections based on the risk of civilian casualties and the practical effectiveness of intervention, perhaps the strongest foundation of the anti-interventionist case.  Yet whilst these fears are most certainly justified, the predictions of numerous innocent causalities have so far been unfounded.  As would be expected, Gaddafi has made claims of mass civilian deaths resulting from airstrikes, but despite controlling state television and access to hundreds of journalists his regime has yet to show any evidence of this.  In the East it has been confirmed that a handful of civilians were injured as US troops sought to rescue their downed airmen, yet several of the wounded have openly expressed support for the intervention – stressing that their injuries are a small price to pay for coalition forces halting Gaddafi’s advance.

And it is precisely the halting of Gaddafi’s advance that stands above all arguments in justifying international military action.  In 1995 the fall of Srebrenica, as the world stood by, resulted in the summary execution of over eight thousand Bosniaks (left).  There is no doubt the had coalition forces not intervened in Libya when they did, Benghazi would have fallen in the same way.  Given the live burials, burnings, mutilations and executions (right) that have befallen those resisting Gaddafi so far, his ominous pledge to show no mercy when his forces reached the rebel capital would have inevitably been realised with unrestrained barbarism.  To a great extent this fact alone justifies intervention regardless of the wider context and concerns addressed here.

Of course criticism is important to asses, free speech is a fundamental right even when we disagree with it and the wider questions of long-term strategy, norms of intervention and the situation in other states must be addressed.  But tonight Benghazi is still on the map, its residents are still alive and Gadaffi has been prevented from carrying out the slaughter that he was so desperate for  -and came so near to achieving.  No ill-founded arguments about oil, past-form or domestic supremacy should detract from that.


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Blasphemy and death in Pakistan

Nearly three weeks on from the callous murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, minority communities in Pakistan are still mourning the loss of their most prominent and determined advocate. For over two decades Bhatti had fought relentlessly to overturn oppressive blasphemy laws, end religious apartheid and create a pluralistic, tolerant state. His All Pakistan Minorities Alliance combined patriotism with respect for the traditions, beliefs and cultures of all Pakistani groups and his appointment as Minister for Minorities Affairs in 2008 led to genuine advances – including a quota for minorities in government jobs and reserved seats for minorities in the Senate, despite opposition from the rest of the government and numerous extremist groups.

Ultimately though, he knew that these successes would cost him his life and on March 2nd the worst fears of Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Shiites, Zikiris and other Pakistani minorities came to pass. Since then the violence has only continued, with the mysterious death of a Christian held in custody on charges of blasphemy and the unprovoked murder of an Ahmadiyya in Sindh Province being amongst the more high-profile sectarian incidents in the past week alone.

Of course religious persecution is nothing new in Pakistan. The vile blasphemy legislation still being used to pass death sentences against those accused of insulting Islam originated under colonial rule before being strengthened in the 1980s by dictator Zia Al-Huq. Similarly, the designation of Ahmadis as non-Muslims that is at the root of so much violence today, stems from the 1970s rule of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – the man widely regarded as the father of Pakistani democracy.

Ironically, the discrimination so efficiently executed by Bhutto, Al-Huq and subsequent Pakistani administrations including Zardari’s, has been a response to hardliners and fanatics – intended to placate them in the name of state stability- yet in practice it has had precisely the opposite effect. Beyond directly violating the human rights of minorities, the repressive laws, just as in Indonesia, have created an environment in which extremist groups actually flourish; allowing them to destroy religious buildings and carry out brutal massacres. Ali Eteraz succinctly and accurately describes how “the blasphemy law now provides convenient protection to anyone who ever wants to kill, murder, maim, beat up, mug, abduct, or punish any religious minority. All you really have to do is carry out your brutality and then point at the victim and say that he was blasphemous.” This situation is exacerbated by the complicity of government officials and police in sectarian violence- cumulating in a desperate state of affairs where most political commentators accept that though the authorities almost certainly did not pull the trigger on Bhatti, they undoubtedly contributed to his death through demonising advocates of religious equality and encouraging inter-communal violence.

Tragically Bhatti’s murder was just one of manyimage signs that the persecution is worsening. Statistics demonstrate that 2009 was the worst year of oppression for Pakistani Ahmadis, until ninety-four were butchered in a single massacre during 2010. The exodus of Hindus into India is also growing and violent attacks against Christian communities appeared to be stepping up even before the nation’s only Christian Minister was killed. As the USA continues drone strikes against Taliban elements in Western Pakistan, Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien has called for conditions of religious freedom to be incorporated into UK-to-Pakistan aid; yet for all this international pressure, real progress can only come from a genuine shift in the Pakistani government’s mind-set. When Zardari and his administration finally accept that religious persecution increases extremism and turmoil rather than reducing it, then maybe –for the sake of stability if nothing else – official and legislative moves towards religious plurality may finally take place. Prior amongst these must be the repeal of blasphemy laws, recognition of Ahmadis as Muslims and a thorough restructuring of the police force. However, the bigoted school of thought that has dominated Pakistani politics for over half a century remains strong, making such moves currently unforeseeable. In post-Bhatti Pakistan, the outlook for minority groups is bleaker than ever.

Pakistan Blasphemy

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Turkey’s Libyan diplomatic coup

ErdoganDavid Cameron’s zealous outpouring of support for Turkish accession to the EU last July illustrated the extent to which the administration of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, through clever political and economic manoeuvring, has effectively been able to win friends and turn international attention away from it’s appalling human rights record. Lucrative trade deals, logistical support for the war in Iraq and the perception of Turkey as a ‘moderate ally in the region’ have long appealed to states such as the UK and encouraged their governments to ignore the Turkish authorities’ multitude of abuses including ill-treatment of Kurds, suppression of free speech and systematic failure to defend women’s rights.

Turkey2It come as little surprise therefore, that Erdogan and his cronies are now cynically utilising the turmoil unfolding in Libya to further strengthen relations with European states and deflect international attention from their latest ruthless crackdown on domestic critics. Turkish military support in evacuating European citizens from Libya has drawn vocal praise from the EU, whilst the Turkish administration’s willingness to formally represent the UK in the wake of the latter’s withdrawal from Tripoli has significantly tightened the Erdogan-Cameron bond. In return European states have been relatively muted following the arrest and sentencing of Turkish journalists Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener as part of a wider crackdown on dissent that in the last month alone has seen the imprisonment of several other journalists and a police raid on the offices of an internet-tv channel. Ahmet and Nedim were most likely singled out for their recent exposés of police complicity in state terror, including the murder of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink four years ago.

Though the USA and EU have expressed tokenistic concern, no genuine and firm criticism of the sentences has been forthcoming, much less so concerning the wider state restrictions on freedom of expression, especially in occupied Kurdistan. Right now European and American leaders are far keener on maintaining what they view as valuable strategic ties – lauding Turkey as an ‘important partner’ rather than risk falling out over the fate of those inside the country who dare to question their government. In some ways this mind-set may have been shored up by Gaddafi’s criticism of Turkish state oppression in Kurdistan during one who his increasingly insane rants; after all no individual or state wants to be publicly viewed as agreeing on any point with the genocidal maniac they are trying to topple.

Ironically, for all the friendships that Erdogan has built through his government’s response to the situation in Libya, Turkey’s actual position has been far from constructive – vehemently hindering proposals for sanctions and a no-fly zone intended to cripple Gaddafi’s regime whilst continuing to supply various despots around North Africa and the Middle East with military hardware. Of course, in this the Erdogan administration is most certainly not alone; many politicians and academics have raised concerns about the effectiveness of a no-fly zone and numerous states including the USA and the UK regularly channel weapons to ruthless dictatorships, most prominently in Saudi Arabia. However, the double standards panning out here underscore the calculated diplomacy at play; with Erdogan & Co brazenly canvassing for support from influential states even where their foreign policy objectives do not align- a stance undoubtedly deriving at least in part from a desire to protect internal abuses from scrutiny or criticism.

This should not be tolerated by those with whom Turkey is attempting to build links. That is not to say that states and regional groupings should not work with the Turkish authorities at all, but that no matter how important the international situations or trade deals in question are, Turkey’s human rights issues should be addressed both firmly and promptly. Erdogan is far from the tyrant that Gadaffi is, but oppressive policies towards minority groups, the crushing of free press and the maintenance of articles in the penal code that conflict with international human rights law on freedom of expression- are all dangerous signs that Turkey is not a liberal democratic state in any meaningful sense. Working alongside Erdogan and his government is one thing – but for the sake of Ahmet Sik, Nedim Seder and thousands of others like them –silence is not acceptable.


Turkey: Journalists vs Police

Monday, 7 March 2011

Museveni, Gbagbo and the fate of Africa in 2011

It is beyond doubt that we are living through historic times; yet whilst North Africa is being rapidly transformed through democratic revolution, nations throughout the remainder of the continent are continuing to experience the same tyranny and misery that they have suffered for decades – with little sign of any impending change.

MuseveniLast month, shortly after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubabrak were deposed by popular demonstrations, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni secured an extension to his twenty five year rule, through an election won on the back of corruption and violence. Museveni, once lauded as a democrat and a reformer, has long shown his true colours through torturing opponents, supressing free speech, conscripting child soldiers and encouraging the orchestration of rampant, violent homophobia . His longstanding use of the barbaric Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency as an pretext to strengthen his grip on power and oppress the Acholi people in Northern Uganda, further underscores the president’s callousness – with many commentators even suggesting that he has deliberately held back on defeating the rebels for these very reasons. Ensuring electoral victory by rigging ballots, harassing other candidates, imprisoning opposition activists and channelling public funds into his campaign was therefore, a simple matter of course.

Sadly yet predictably, international criticism of these antics has been markedly muted; undoubtedly stemming at least in part from Museveni’s willingness to help combat the Islamist insurgency in Somalia, a threat that greatly worries the likes of the USA, but one which they are reluctant to tackle directly, owing largely to previous ill-fated ventures into the chaotic territory. As long as Uganda continues to send troops to Somalia and bear the brunt of reprisal attacks, the relative silence surrounding Museveni’s domestic tyranny is unlikely to be broken.

In a somewhat similar vein, Ivorian dictator Laureent Gbagbo has been able to extend his long and tyrannical rule, despite loosing a presidential election to opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara in November last year. Although he has not quite escaped scrutiny from the international community in the same manner as Museveni, Gbagbo has been able to hold onto power through sheer thuggery, despatching his militia and troops to prevent Ouattara from taking up office by attacking his cabinet members and murdering his supporters. Reports of mass graves, people being butchered by soldiers and death squads attacking houses in the middle of the night are now routine and on the back of this brute force, Gbagbo has for four months evaded the domestic protests, economic Ivory Coast Killingmeasures and international isolation intended to topple him. Like Mwai Kibaki and Robert Mugabe before, he has categorically lost a popular ballot (despite launching a vicious campaign of intimidation against voters) but has nonetheless clung onto the reigns of control.

This does not bode well for the continent of Africa in what will be a crucial political year. Cameroon, Gambia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Zambia are just a few of the many African states set to hold elections (legislative, presidential or both) over the next twelve months and whilst the fates of Ben Ali, Mubarak (and hopefully soon Gaddafi) have demonstrated the fragility of dictatorships, the survival of Museveni and Gbago illustrate that a combination of rigged electioneering, careful diplomacy and outright violence can still allow even the most vile and worn-out tyrants to retain power. Whilst the uprisings in the North must be supported and celebrated therefore, it is crucial that tyranny further South is not accepted or ignored simply because dictators go through the motions of an election.

What remains to be seen is whether, in the wake of the Northern revolutions, populations throughout Africa will reject future rigged results and take to streets in greater numbers. Far lower levels of literacy, internet access and phone ownership make this less likely, but as we have all learned over the last few months, nothing can be taken for granted. Similarly, a renewed public focus around the world may make it harder for governments in Europe and North America to remain silent on-or tacitly support- African dictatorships. It’s just possible therefore, that the combination of numerous elections and a vibe of reform from the North could threaten the vile authoritarian trends that the likes of Museveni and Gbagbo have so far continued. An already historic year could yet become even more significant.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Indonesia and echoes of the Nazis

Ahmadiyah funeralIt is less that one month since an extremist mob barbarically murdered three members of the Ahmadiyah sect in the Banten district of Indonesia. Back then I wrote an article blaming Yudhoyono, his administration and their security apparatus for creating an environment in which such brutality was encouraged and excused…yesterday they proved this point with stunning audacity.

Firstly Commander General Ito Sumardi, the National Police Chief Detective, outrageously and baselessly claimed that the Ahmadis themselves were partly responsible, suggesting that they somehow invited the vicious beatings and stonings that cost them their lives. Such sentiments, though despicable, are hardly surprising coming from the representative of a police force that has this week been implicated in the rape and torture of an underage girl and the murder of a journalist, both in the Indonesian-occupied nation of West Papua where, like the Ahmadis, the Papuan people are treated as second class citizens.

Even more disturbing than Sumardi’s comments however, was the concurrent move by authorities in West Java to strictly curtail Ahmadiyah activities. The region’s Ahmadiyah community (the biggest in Indonesia) is now legally banned from any public visibility- including signposting its mosques and schools; whilst all followers have been formally urged to ‘re-educate’ themselves and convert to ‘mainstream’ Islam. Police officers have already begun enforcing the move by tearing down signs and patrolling outside Ahmadiyah Mosques, actions which have received vocal backing from the Attorney General, Interior Minister and Minister for Religion. Strikingly, the latter has long pushed for a stronger, complete and national ban on Ahmadiyah per se.

ahmadiyahThe stage is set therefore, for further intimidation, persecution and - in all likelihood- killings. Hardliners representing a minority of the Indonesian population marched on Tuesday demanding a strict clampdown on Ahmadiya – and they appear to have got their way. Of course many of these bigots will not stop until the religion is outlawed (or judging on the lynchings they have conducted- until more Ahmadis are slaughtered) but with the current government and security forces on side they appear to be making significant process in their sickening campaign of hatred.

Amidst such murderous and oppressive state sponsored religious discrimination it can fairly be asserted that echoes of Nazi Germany, Habyarimana’s Rwanda or Milosevic's Yugoslavia are currently resounding throughout Indonesia. Some will find such a description of the situation provocative or even offensive but it is not meant to be; this is not a comparison to the scale of the crimes carried out by these regimes– they eclipse anything that Yudhoyono’s administration has undertaken thus far – but the underlying principle is the same. Just like the Jews, Kosovars and Tutsis were at junctures in history; Ahmadis and Papuans today are being systematically dehumanised by an oppressive regime – their murders go unpunished, their identities are actively and pragmatically destroyed, they are brutalised by security forces and senior governmental figures openly seek their eradication as religious and racial groups.

As the persecution continues, the myth of Indonesian democracy is fading before our eyes.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

China’s Uighur execution gamble

Whilst the eyes of the world have focussed upon protests sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East – the Chinese government has sought to solidify its control in the occupied territory of East Turkestan (or ‘Xinjiang’ as they like to call it).  Towards the end of last month four Uighur activists, accused of orchestrating a string deadly bomb and gun attacks in 2010, were sentenced to death; sending a clear and ominous signal to all those opposing China ExecutionChinese rule.  Now upheld by the highest judicial bodies, the executions could take place at any time. 

Even leaving debate about the death penalty aside, this move is utterly unjustifiable.  For one thing fair trials do not exist in East Turkestan – a fact grimly underscored by the the arbitrary detention of over one thousand Uighur civilians since anti-government riots broke out in 2009; and the harsh sentences meted out to individuals such as Nurmuhemmet Yasin, who after a closed trial was handed ten years in prison for writing a children’s book interpreted by Chinese authorities as critical of the occupation.  Furthermore, since September 11th 2001 the spectre of Islamic terrorism has consistently been used as a political tool by the Chinese government; with baseless claims of Al-Qaeda involvement cited to demonize any group seeking independence for East Turkestan. 

The‘guilty’ verdict handed to the four men currently facing execution is therefore terminally fallacious; almost certainly driven by a desire to sustain Chinese control rather than a pursuit of justice and quite possibly targeting innocent scapegoats rather than the actual perpetrators.  It is further weakened by the fact that –though inexcusable – the attacks came against a backdrop of over six decades of ruthless persecution including forced abortions, the demolition of mosques and mass executions; which when combined with a suppression of dissent and denial of political representation, naturally leaves a small minority of Uighurs with the view that violence is their only recourse.

However, cynical and ruthless as it may be, the decision to execute political opponents in East Turkestan could well come back to haunt the Chinese government with tremendous consequences.  Recent attempts by democratic forces to start a Jasmine Revolution in China itself fell at the first hurdle, but these illustrate a determination by young activists –inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya- to build a mass movement against the ruling elite.  Any unrest could easily spread to East Turkestan, where the majority-Muslim population may be even quicker to identify with demonstrators in North Africa the Middle East. 

China ProtestFurthermore this is a tense time of year for the neighbouring and also occupied nation of Tibet, with the anniversary of the 1959 Uprising just over a week away.  Two years ago anniversary commemorations quickly turned into mass demonstrations that subsequently influenced Uighur opposition to Chinese rule – something that is not off the cards from happening again.  Given such a volatile situation throughout China and the occupied nations, the action of putting prominent Uighur independence activists before a firing squad could well provide the spark necessary to ignite new demonstrations across East Turkestan – undermining rather than solidifying Chinese control.        

Of course, the occupiers have recently taken significant measures to consolidate their grip; not least purchasing a 1000km stretch of the neighbouring Pamir Mountains from Tajikistan.  Meanwhile Other moves such as ending death sentences for several economic crimes will give them positive signs to point to in response to international criticism when political opponents are executed.  Yet despite such precautions – the Chinese government will still be taking a huge gamble should it go ahead with the scheduled killings.  The region and the world is changing; people are standing up to governments like never before; and the international community is beginning to offer unprecedented support.  China has occupied East Turkestan for sixty two years and whilst it would be naive to expect change overnight- this may be a gamble that the powers-that-be in Beijing come to regret.