Sunday, 25 March 2012

Mali– coup, rebels and famine

Coup in MaliThe many factors behind the unfolding military coup in Mali underscore just how complex and unstable the country’s political situation is.

The ousted leader, President Amadou Toumani Toure is himself a former military man, known to some as “the soldier of democracy” for his role in removing dictator Moussa TraorĂ© in 1991 and overseeing Mali’s transition to an electoral democratic system before stepping aside.

Re-entering politics at the start of the last decade, he successfully stood in the 2002 presidential election which, despite clear irregularities, was largely welcomed as legitimate. His re-election in 2007 followed a similar script, with controversy over fraud but a broad stamp of approval from international observers.  

Law dictates that this should be Toure’s last legal term and the president himself had confirmed that he would once again be bowing out at next month’s presidential election. However, escalating events rapidly threw these plans into turmoil resulting in his early removal.

At the heart of the unrest is a long-running rebellion by the traditionally nomadicMNLA Tuareg rebellion Tuareg people in Mali’s North. Having suffered decades of neglect and persecution at the hands the Malian government (and indeed other governments throughout the Sahel region), various Tuareg groups have fought militarily for an independent state of Azawad. Their struggles were given a fresh impetus following the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi, when swathes of Tuareg fighters and vast hauls of weaponry flooded across the Libyan border. Though many Tuareg had fought alongside Gadaffi and were fleeing repercussions, the overall picture is far less clear-cut; some are reported to have been active in the Libyan rebellion, whilst other factions appear to have some links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In spite of such complexities, and whilst a number of Tuareg fighters from Libya have integrated into the Malian army, many of the freshly armed and bolstered rebel groups have come together under the banner of the new National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and in recent months launched an unprecedented push against Malian government forces.

It is here that tensions emerged between Toure’s administration and the government troops on the front line, who claim they have been abandoned without sufficient food or weaponry for the fight. These issues were lumped in with existing military grievances over the government’s failure to tackle the influence of AQIM and serious drug traffickers in the region, spurring a coup to “restore security” under the command of Captain Amadou Sanogo.

Whilst initial violence and looting that followed the coup has now subsided the outlook remains incredibly uncertain. It is not clear how much of the army is under the command of Sanogo and how much remains loyal to Toure, nor whether the latter will be willing to fight in order to regain control.

And whilst the new military administration has offered to hold talks with the MNLA then step down once the country is “secure”, there is no guarantee that either of these will come to pass. Meanwhile the MNLA is actively exploiting the instability, pushing even harder in its bid to seize territory.

There could not come a worse time for such a crisis. With an impending famineSahel famine drought across the Sahel, Mali needs clear leadership, workable infrastructure and a safe environment for the delivery and distribution of any international relief that may be required. If Sanogo and his troops genuinely work to ensure security, then quickly  pass the reigns back to an elected leadership, full scale humanitarian disaster may yet be avoided. On the other hand, an increase in violence, refugees, internally displaced people and political instability could yet make an already bleak outlook significantly worse.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Dying to be free

Amina Filali had already suffered more than any young woman ever should: she was a rape victim at the age of just sixteen.  Yet as a Moroccan citizen her anguish did not end there. Outrageously the combination of an arcane law and pressure from court officials meant that instead of seeing her attacker put behind bars, she was forced to marry him. Trapped in this appalling union, Amina was subjected to frequent physical beatings until this week when she took the only route of escape left to her- by taking her own life.

Amina Filali protestThe tragedy has led to an outpouring of anger both online and on the streets of Morocco.  In particular protestors are calling for the repeal of Penal Code Article 475 which formally allows a rapist to escape jail by marrying his victim – on the caveat that both parties agree.  Clearly, even if a victim were to agree, the prospect of letting proven rapists walk free is still stomach-turning, yet even this ‘protection’ rarely comes into play. Many cases, including Amina’s, involve significant external pressure on the victim to accept a marriage, with little or no room for manoeuvre.

This leaves an ominously grim picture for women’s rights in Morocco, despite the measured reforms of King Mohammed IV which have in recent years included the abolishment of a women's “duty of obedience” to her husband, and an overhaul of divorce law so that property and custody is no longer automatically awarded to the husband. 

Welcome though these moves have been, they remain overshadowed by the abhorrent practice of Moroccan rape victims being forced to marry their attackers. 

It is long since time that the King, who escaped the turmoil of the Arab Spring, listened to his people and replaced the appalling present legislation with civilised and progressive changes to protect Moroccan women. If he fails in this, he may see much more dissent.  And Morocco will see many more Amina Filalis.

RIP Amina

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Sahel hungers

East Africa famineMore than a month after the UN officially declared that the famine in East Africa is over, the region is continuing to count the tragic cost.  Tens of thousands have died, millions are still in need of food or clean water, countless others remain displaced and the prospect of a further deterioration in conditions continuously looms.

Despite the phenomenal generosity of many ordinary people who dug deep to support relief efforts, it is painfully clear that the world was simply too slow in reacting to the most severe famine this century.  The governments of France, Italy and Denmark came it for particular criticism from aid agencies at the time for their poor response, but the failures go far deeper than that. 

A hard hitting report released by Oxfam and Save the Children earlier this year highlighted how international donors, aid agencies and the United Nations,as well as national governments, all failed to act upon early indications of the impending crisis and take the kind of preventative measures necessary to avert catastrophe.

The tragic lessons of this complacency must be quickly learned, for on the other side of the continent the threat of a new famine now hangs over some thirteen million people.  Drought and soaring food prices across the Sahel regionFamine in Sahel (encompassing Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania) have left over one-in-ten people malnourished, with the situation threatening to rapidly spiral out of control.

Ominous reports are already emerging of people in Chad digging up ant hills to gather whatever small  quantitates of grain they can.  Meanwhile the situation is being exacerbated by conflict between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels, which has displaced almost 1% of Mali’s population, many into neighbouring states already struggling with the food shortages.

If West Africa is to avoid a repeat of the on-going humanitarian tragedy in the East, now must be the hour for action.  By adapting existing programmes and putting in place the infrastructure for increased overseas support, all actors- domestic and foreign- can begin to implement preventative measures before the situation reaches a critical point.  We can all play our part as well by donating towards this work.

Too many times governments have failed to save their people from starvation and the world has failed to help them.  As hunger spreads across the Sahel, the men women and children of the region can only hope that- this time -it may be different. 

   West Africa famine

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

You can’t hide the truth forever

Genocide of Tamils“We have proof of war crimes- we demand justice”  - that was the message from thousands of Tamil protesters gathered outside the 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week.

Their grievance is totally understandable.  It has been three years since the Sri Lankan government carried out a straggering litany of atrocities costing tens of thousands of civilian lives, in their final push to defeat the reprehensible Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  Yet in spite of a damming report by UN in 2011, recommending the establishment of an independent international mechanism to conduct investigations into Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes, the wheels of justice have been painfully slow to turn.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, far from facing trial, remains at the helm of government.  Of those soldiers who shelled no fire zones, attacked UN and Red Cross operations, executed LTTE suspects and raped women, not one has faced charges.  Meanwhile the post-war crackdown on the Tamil population continues and, despite the objections of activists, scores of suspected LTTE members have been deported by states including the UK, to face arbitrary arrest and torture

The current session of the UN Human Rights Council, which runs until late March, provides a valuable opportunity to finally address the atrocities that took place and to establish the international mechanisms needed to bring those responsible to justice. 

Tamil execution war crimeAnd it is an opportunity that the world cannot afford to miss.  Mass graves, video footage, satellite photographs and extensive witness testimony provide an abundance of evidence; yet even in light of this, tracking down suspects and making charges stick will only become more difficult as the years roll on. 

This means that whilst Sri Lanka’s leaders are seeking to totally derail any possible investigation, they will also welcome significant delays.  Unfortunately, India’s opposition to ‘country specific resolutions’ and Chinese-Russian support for Sri Lanka may result in any substantial resolution in this session being kicked out, meaning that a further long delay is exactly what is on the cards.      

Still, Rajapaksa and his thugs should take note: in the coming weeks the Special Court for Sierra Leone will pass judgement on former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s support for Revolutionary United Front (RUF) abuses in Sierra Leone some two decades ago;  and just last month Kaing Guek Eav aka. Duch was sentenced for his part in Khmer Rouge atrocities during the 1970s.  Both trials were beset with problems, partly due to the sheer length of time that has elapsed – but both have demonstrated that such crimes will eventually catch up with their perpetrators.  Those responsible for the atrocities in Tamil Eelam can lie, they can deny and they can delay – but they cannot hide the truth forever.

Tamil protest 40 000 killed

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Eurovision and the terror behind the music

Eurovision 2012 human rights abuses AzerbaijanCheesy, fun, cringeworthy, entertaining, bizarre, exciting……all descriptions of the Eurovision Song Contest that carry some merit.  But for hundreds of citizens in the Azerbaijani city of Baku, where the competition will be held in May, it has meant fear, intimidation, brutality and destitution.

A shocking new report from Human Rights Watch outlines in detail, through over one-hundred pages of interviews and testimony, how scores of residents have been forced from their homes, as the authorities rush to develop the area surrounding the brand new 25 000 seater Baku Crystal Hall.

Desperate to present a sparkling and redeveloped city to the fifty-six countries tuning in for the competition, Azerbaijan’s authorities have resorted to evicting local residents at hours notice before bulldozing their homes and leaving them with just tokenistic financial compensation.  Many have even suffered night-time demolitions which took place without any warning whatsoever:

“I woke up because the building was shaking, and I heard something I thought was thunder. I took the kids and went outside. [I went up to] the official in charge and asked him to give us time to take our belongings out. He looked at me and said, ‘Ok,’ but then in the next moment said to the bulldozer driver, ‘Knock it down!’”

In a number of cases, families have been held in police custody as demolitions wereAzerbaijan Baku eviction Eurovision song contest carried out and in twenty-four cases Human Rights Watch documented buildings being torn apart despite the fact that people were still inside, with authorities showing “wilful disregard for [their] dignity, health, and safety.”

Of course, whilst brutal such behaviour by the government of President Ilham Aliev is far from unprecedented.  Even in the year since the Eurovision Song contest was awarded to Azerbaijan, his thugs have continued their record of imprisoning and abusing those showing signs of dissent, including journalists and social media users.  A recent anti-government rally ended with a third of participants in jail and Amnesty International has used the publicity around the Song Contest to highlight the plight of fifteen Azerbaijani prisoners of conscience.

Major international competitions such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and this year’s African Cup of Nations, held in Equatorial Guinea, have been used by abusive regimes to showcase themselves in positive light.  Invariably efforts to do so actively increase human rights violations, as the authorities seek to undertake rapid development and crush embarrassing dissent.  Whilst Aliev’s government may not be in the same league as Teodoro Obiang or the Chinese Communist Party when it comes to oppression, this pattern is clearly playing out in Azerbaijan ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest.  There will be terror behind the music.

Azerbaijan Baku protest Eurovision