Sunday, 29 April 2012

Charles Taylor–a taste of justice

TAylor verdictThe conviction of Charles Taylor last week prompted mixed scenes of celebration and outrage across Liberia – the country he ruled with an iron first, and Sierra Leone – the country he brutalised by facilitating the murderous Revolutionary United Front (RUF) insurgency from 1991 to 2002.

His role in the conflict was never in any real doubt; it has long been known that Taylor channelled blood diamonds for the RUF, provided them with arms and allowed them onto Liberian territory even when the extent of their brutality against Sierra Leone’s population was clear. Yet seeing him found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for Sierra Leone (ICTSR) will bring at least some closure to the tens of thousands of civilians who had to endure the RUF’s murders, amputations, child-abductions and torture.

It also marks an historic moment for international justice.

For this is the first time that any individual has been convicted by an international tribunal for crimes committed as a serving head of state. It has been a long time coming: the milestone was almost reached six years ago when Slobodan Milosevic came before The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), but the Serbian tyrant escaped justice when he was found dead shortly before a verdict was passed. Taylor met no such mortal reprieve and faces imminent transfer to a British jail cell.

The verdict sends a powerful message that no one is above the law and that even years after their abuses, leaders can still be held accountable for their crimes. It builds upon other significant developments this year including International Duch imprisoned for lifeCriminal Court’s (ICC) first ever verdict –against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, and senior Khmer Rouge leader Duch’s life imprisonment by a UN-backed war crimes tribunal in Cambodia.

Of course despite such notable advance, international justice is still in its infancy, patchily applied and unlikely to deter murderous tyrants such as Bashar al-Assad or King Hamad, at least not in the immediate future. Those who want to go even further and see leaders such as George Bush arrested under international law have still less chance.

Nevertheless, indicted individuals such as Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir may be sleeping somewhat less easily in the wake of Taylor’s conviction. International justice is beginning to show some teeth and likely to continue along this path as the trials of criminals such as Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic progress.

The prospect of life behind bars may be far more appealing than the grisly end met by Taylor’s old comrade Colonel Gaddafi… but it poses a further threat to the world’s dictators in a period that is looking ever more unfriendly to them. 

Charles Taylor found guilty

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Burma- a constitutional crisis?

Burma’s fragile democratisation process may be about to hit its next major stumbling block: a single word in the parliamentary oath.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which dominated recent by-elections, has announced that its newly-elected MPs will not be swearing in at Parliament’s opening session on Monday due to the on-going controversy over the oath requiring them to “abide by and protect the Constitution”.

Burmese troops during referendum 2008Their objection is wholly understandable. The 2008 constitution was drawn up by the military in a rigged process that involved imprisoning outspoken critics and was adopted through a sham referendum marred by violence, intimidation and fraud (including throughout the Irrawaddy Delta region just weeks after it had been devastated by Cyclone Nargis).

The document itself serves to enshrine military rule by reserving a quarter of parliamentary seats and a number of key posts- including the Ministers and Deputy Ministers of defence, security, home affairs and border affairs- for military personal. It also places the military beyond the control of the executive and the cabinet, gives it broad powers in the selection of the president and two vice-presidents, and creates a wide range of exceptions to citizens’ fundamental rights.

In its pursuit of a democratic Burma the NLD has no other option than to challenge the constitution, or at least aspects of it, yet under the current parliamentary oath elected representatives would automatically be violating their commitments were they to do so.

Obliging MPs to ’protect’ the constitution would also significantly hinder their abilityKachin protest in USA to effectively engage with Burma’s ethnic minority groups. The Kachin Independence Organisation for instance, has explicitly refused to engage in any negotiations based on the constitution, a perfectly reasonable stance given the failure the incorporate any aspects of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, the document’s explicit prohibition of “any act which is to the detriment of national solidarity”, and the evidential dangers posed by an army effectively free from government control. Were NLD representatives to commit to protecting the constitution they would, officially at least, be prevented from pushing for changes that could allow resolution of the conflicts in Kachin State and elsewhere.

In a show of the party’s determination to negotiate, the NLD has proposed changing the word ‘protect’ to ‘respect’, so that representatives can take the oath, then debate the constitution whilst still acting within it. However, the government has refused the alteration, stating that the request came to late for this session.

What remains to be seen is whether this is genuinely an bureaucratic glitch that will be imminently resolved or the first sign of the government hitting the breaks on the reform process. For now Suu Kyi is publicly distancing the party from talk of ‘boycotting’ the Parliament, whilst incoming NLD MP Ohn Kyaing has expressed his belief that the issue will be ironed out quickly. Given the military’s previous form however, others may be far less confident…. 

Burma Parliament

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Cameron’s Asian confusion

Are you for democracy or dictatorshipThe cover of the first ever Conservative Human Rights Commission report, produced whilst David Cameron was leader of the opposition, bore a striking picture. It showed a banner hanging in a Burmese Internally Displaced Persons camp, bearing the words “ARE YOU FOR DEMOCRACY OR DICATORSHIP???”

Last week the Prime Minister may have been asking himself exactly the same question.

As the first British Premier to set foot Burma for over sixty years, he built on the marked success of his Foreign Secretary William Hague and other international visitors, not least Hilary Clinton, in helping to keep Thein Sein’s government on its reformist path.

The tactical suspension of sanctions, warmly welcomed by Aung San Suu Kyi as she stood alongside Cameron, simultaneously rewards the President for his progress whilst maintaining the threat of renewed economic isolation should hardliners seek to impede further liberalisation.

David Cameron Aung San Suu KyiThe Prime Minister also made a thoroughly welcome move by inviting Suu Kyi to London in June, for what would be her first trip out of Burma since she returned from England in 1988. Until now the iconic democracy leader has been unable to leave, at risk of not being allowed to re-enter her country. However, in the current climate Cameron’s offer could provide a long overdue opportunity for Suu Kyi to take her inspirational politics abroad; and if all goes smoothly, her free movement could increase the growing trust between the opposition and government.

Yet immediately before this brave democratic politicking in Burma, Cameron was in Indonesia playing an altogether different game. His shocking call for the renewal of arms sales to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s despotic government drew headlines from around the world, in light of the well documented human rights abuses in occupied West Papua and Indonesia itself. Perhaps even more outrageous however, were the flagrant misrepresentations and downright lies that the Prime Minister sought the sell the world in a desperate bid to justify his push for British commercial contracts.

Audaciously Cameron claimed that Indonesia is a society which ”neither Ahmadyyia murder in Indonesiacompromises people's security nor their ability to practise their religion" ignoring the fact that Ahmadiyah Muslims are prohibited from publicly worshipping and viciously beaten to death by mobs who subsequently walk free with impunity.

As if to rub salt in the wounds, he went on to hold the state up as an inspiration for others to aspire towards, casually overlooking the army’s taste for burning and executing dissidents. If nothing else, such nonsensical attestations marked a tragic end to the optimism with which the Papuan people greeted his election two years ago, hoping that unlike previous British leaders he would take a stand against the occupation of their land and slaughter of their countrymen.

Overall the paradoxical diplomacy presented by these two trips may not be surprising. No one doubts that Cameron’s government admires Suu Kyi, supports the NLD and wishes to see reform in Burma, but at the same time it is consistently clear that any underlying universal democratic tendencies are in strict competition with British business interests; even when that means currying favour in Indonesia by publicly defending what is clearly one of Asia’s most intolerant and authoritarian societies. So is Cameron for democracy or dictatorship? That depends on the price.

Prisoners in West Papua

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Sanogo’s folly

Amadou SanogoWhen Captain Amadou Sanogo led a military coup to seize power in Mali last month he sought to justify it on the basis that President Amadou Toumani Toure’s government was not doing enough to support the army in their fight against Tuareg rebels in the North of the country, and claimed that a spell of military rule was required to restore security.

This dubious raison d'ĂȘtre of his junta has however rapidly faded, with the rebels successfully exploiting circumstances and advancing at an even faster rate, this week completing what they regard as the liberation of the Azawad by taking the towns of Gao and Timbuktu.

And there is more conflict to come. The complex patchwork of Tuareg militias divides broadly into two groups: the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which seeks to consolidate and defend all territorial gains; and the Islamist-leaning Ansar Dine, which is aligned to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and openly seeks to impose Sharia law throughout Mali. Whether it is an offensive struggle to retain control of Northern regions or a defensive battle against Islamist Tuareg rebels advanceincursions, the Malian government has a fight on its hands, completely undermining Sanogo’s stated aim of peace and security.

Worse still, the undemocratic and unacceptable nature of the coup has led to the impositions of sanctions by both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU). These have led to panic buying and cash withdrawals, destabilising the country further still.

Yet amidst the civil war, growing unrest and ever present fears around food security, Sanogo and his cronies are only seeking to entrench their own position in power. Envoys have been making overtures to the Nigerian government in a desperate bid for allies, whilst a concerted smear campaign has begun against the ousted and widely respected President Amadou Toumani Toure, including threats of his imminent arrest.

Sango’s military takeover, outrageous to begin with, is looking even more like a self-interested power grab every day. And at a time when Mali should have been celebrating peaceful elections, it is facing its most severe challenges since independence. With continuing armed conflict, growing isolation and a floundering megalomaniac at the helm, things look set to get worse before they get better.

 Mali conflict

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Burma’s fragile progress

Historic barely begins to describe the events taking place in Burma today. Less than two years on from a sham general election designed to entrench the rule of the military and its proxies, unprecedentedly free polling in forty-five by-elections looks set to return a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Its a small step on a long road and just like during the campaigns, a number of irregularities in the polling highlighted the continuing obstacles that the NLD faces.  Yet the positives far outweigh the negatives: phenomenal victories for Aung San Suu Kyi and HIV/AIDS activist Phyu Phyu Tin; NLD success in the military-dominated capital of Naypyidaw and celebrations on the streets of Rangoon that just a couple of years ago would have been broken up by riot police and the participants thrown in jail.

The by-elections, in short, are undoubtedly a significant milestone on what activists hope to be a continual road towards democracy. This progress however is fragile and no one is in any doubt that, whilst democratic momentum is building, all the changes so far are reversible. The future depends heavily on a number of factors:

The power of parliament and the pluralism of the USPD 

Burmese ParliamentWhen Burma’s new parliament was formed in 2010 it was written off by many as nothing more than a rubber stamp. Of course this assertion has some basis; with 25% of seats reserved for the military and the majority of the remainder stocked by its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the bicameral legislature was never going to seriously undermine the status quo.

However, its dynamism and assertiveness has come as a welcome surprise: the legalisation of microfinance, labour unions and peaceful protests, as well as changes to election law allowing the NLD to re-register, all came through the parliament. The government has suffered some small defeats and after an initial black-out journalists are now allowed in to report on proceedings.

In amongst this, the USDP deputies have proved more diverse and open to debate than was expected. Whilst the party clearly remains a puppet of the military, a number of individual representatives seem prepared to consider some amount of derision from the official line.

If the parliament and the USDP continue along these lines, the influx of NLD deputies will help create even greater pluralism and allow some of the fledging democratic developments to become entrenched.

Conversely if the government were to claw-back powers from the legislature and tighten discipline in the USDP, there is a real danger that NLD by-election victories could be rendered largely impotent.

The health of Suu Kyi and Thein Sein

The fundamental importance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to the democratisationAung San Suu Kyi by-election process is undisputed. Despite some fractures in the democracy movement, she is a unifying figure commanding incredible respect across the board, including amongst many of Burma’s ethnic groups. Her political knowledge, charisma and experience is nothing short of essential and with no obvious successor her health and security are paramount. Yet whilst the energy that Suu Kyi has brought to the by-election campaign is phenomenal for any sixty-six year old, the pressures have taken a clear physical toll on her.

On the other side of the table, President Thein Sein, widely considered to be personally responsible for the reformist direction of the government, is himself in poor health and dependent upon a permanent pacemaker. It would be naive to presume that the military old-guard, favouring destruction of the democracy movement and ethnic cleansing of the country have disappeared; and it is likely some are waiting in the wings to make their move should Thein Sein withdraw from politics. Little wonder that some Burmese are for the first time in fifty years praying that the President lives rather than dies.

It would be am oversimplification to say that the future of Burma’s political progress rests wholly upon the personal health of two individuals, but a medical setback to either would have a drastic and damaging effect.

The crisis in Kachin State

Whilst the world watches the by-elections with excitement and optimism, the continuing conflict and human rights abuses in Kachin State reflect a throwback to the very worst of military rule. Despite various talks and intermittent ceasefires with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Burmese government troops continue to rape civilians, destroy villages and launch attacks against defensive KIA battalions.

Burma Internally Displace PeopleThe conflict has created a humanitarian catastrophe with over 50 000 Internally Displaced People; voting was suspended in some Kachin constituencies; and government pre-conditions for a peace agreement consistently ignore legitimate Kachin claims for autonomy and freedom of religion.

None of this presents a stable foundation on which to build a new democracy, raising the possibility of conflict in Kachin State and neighbouring Shan State undermining the positive advances of previous years.

Perhaps most worrying are signs that the central government does not have full control of troops on the ground, raising serious questions about internal power struggles. Whilst there are no immediate signs of hardliners exploiting the situation, there is significant precedent in Burma for such moves; not least General Ne Win’s 1962 coup which took place in the context of ethnic strife and rebellion.

The reaction of the international community   

Members of the international community not least the UK and USA have thus far encouraged the reform process along with with marked success; skilfully balancing support for the democracy movement and gradual concessions to Thein Sein’s government.

The promise of sanctions being eased further following the by-elections is likely to provide further encouragement to the reformist president, as are rumours of Obama visiting Burma should he win a second term.

Yet ever present is the danger of too many concessions being given far too fast. Germany, Italy and many major multinationals are pushing for an incredibly rapid removal of sanctions, focussing on the business and investment case above the political clout that they could carry. If they are allowed to sacrifice influence in pursuit of profit, the international work that has been so important in facilitating progress so far may end up derailed.

Ultimately tonight is a time for celebration in Burma, throughout the diaspora and amongst all who have worked so hard over the years for freedom and democracy. Yet it is more importantly a time for renewal of commitment to a process that is unprecedented, positive but overwhelmingly fragile. 

Burma by-election celebrations