Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Yudhoyono- the tyrant who came to tea

Buckingham Palace has played host to some pretty unscrupulous characters over the years including Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao and even Robert Mugabe. This week the odorous list is extended to include Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is not only staying as a guest of Her Majesty but is being personally presented with a prestigious British Knighthood.

Prisoners in West PapuaSuch a warm welcome for the tyrant will be a bitter blow to those languishing under his rule, not least the people of occupied West Papua who harboured such high hopes of British support when David Cameron entered Downing Street in 2010. Having previously met with their inspirational independence leader Benny Wenda, many Papuans hoped that Cameron would take a stand against the Indonesian occupation of their country. Instead the Prime Minister remained silent as Yudhoyono’s troops continued to brutally torture their countrymen and open fire on demonstrations with live ammunition.

Whilst Yudhoyono resides and dines in luxury at Buckingham Palace, one of the most prominent figures in the West Papuan struggle Filep Karma,will remain locked in a squalid cell, serving a sentence for nothing more that raising the banned West Papuan flag. Filep has been frequently denied medical treatment and has been recognised around the world as a prisoner of conscience, yet Yudhoyono sees fit to keep him and others incarcerated for daring to peacefully challenge Indonesia’s colonialist whims.

Back in Indonesia itself, hundreds of thousands more suffer under repulsive state discrimination. Ahmadi Muslims and Christians frequently face brutal mob attacks, spurred on by government hate-speech and met with ludicrously weak sentences for Indonesia anti Ahmadi mobthe perpetrators. Recently, in the first case of its kind, a 30 year old citizen named Alex Aan was imprisoned for professing his atheism on facebook. Indonesia-watchers point to such developments as evidence of increasing government hostility against freedom of belief and an on-going erosion of human rights.

This trend appeared lost on David Cameron in April this year, when during a trade visit to Indonesia he somewhat baffling claimed that Yudhoyono’s clique ”neither compromises people's security nor their ability to practise their religion". Unfortunately such sycophancy is likely to be repeated this week when the two leaders meet again, in between royal engagements.  

It is time for the UK and the rest of the international community to get tough on Yudhoyono – tea at the palace and a knighthood is not the way to do it.

Yudhoyono and Cameron

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Mali–intervention beckons

In crisis-hit Northern Mali it almost certain the international military intervention is just around the corner – and for many of its citizens this cannot come soon enough.

It has been some ten months since a counter-productive military coup destabilised the country and allowed a loose alliance of nationalist Tuareg and Islamist rebels to take control of territory equivalent in size to France. Since then the military has handed over to a shaky civilian administration, whilst the rebels’ marriage of convenience has broken down, with the Islamist groups coming out on top.

The consequences for ordinary Northerners have been catastrophic, following theSharia law in Mali imposition of a brutally harsh interpretation of Sharia Law across the region. Those accused of robbery have had their limbs hacked off, couples found having sex outside of wedlock have been stoned to death and other ‘offenders’ are regularly flogged, all publicly before terrified crowds.

Yet things are set to get far worse: already the rebels are making lists of unmarried mothers, raising fears of mass-executions. And all the while they are regularly   destroying beautiful ancient shrines, on the basis that they do not fit with their own warped version of Islam. As for the on-going food crisis, rebel activity is both hampering relief in Mali itself and exacerbating shortages in neighbouring states by driving huge flows of refugees over the borders.

These abuses have played a part in the increasingly urgent international response, which in recent weeks has seen a UN resolution laying the groundwork for intervention and the Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS) begin to draw up a military strategy.

Islamist militia in MaliBeyond human rights, an even more pressing concern for many states is the continental or even global implications of a new base of power for radical Islamist groups, especially given that vast numbers of foreign Jihadists have flocked to the area bolstering al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the local incarnation of the international network. With al-Shabab on the back-foot in Somalia and moderate successes against Boko Haram in Nigeria, any consolidation of power by the rebels would present a major set-back to the struggle against violent Islamism in Africa, which is seen as a key battleground in the broader global picture. For this reason states across the world are keen to line-up behind the imminent ECOWAS intervention, with France in particular already promising practical logistical support.

However whilst it brings wider support for intervention, the international-jihadist context of the crisis also threatens to make this long and bloody affair. Furthermore, whilst the Tuareg nationalist militias have no love for the Islamists and may even play some role in deposing them, they will be disinclined to allow the Malian state to reassert its authority in the territory they regard as Azawad. On top of all this, friction remains between Mali’s weak government and assertive military, with the possibility of a future coup still lingering. ECOWAS troops may then ultimately find themselves caught between a jihad, a secessionist conflict and a national power struggle.

Right now- for the sake of those suffering under the rebels and for the wider region, ECOWAS intervention seems the only viable option…but it won’t be an easy one.

Mali Islamists

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Security Council’s African crisis

On 1 January 2013 South Africa will relinquish control of the African seat on the UN Security Council. For human rights activists around the world it’s presence won’t be missed.

UN-SYRIA/Perhaps prior to the collapse of Apartheid, the prospect of an ANC man sitting at the table and influencing international response to conflict and humanitarian situations across the globe, would have been the ultimate dream. The reality however has been both sordid and abusive.

For South Africa has consistently used its position to back oppressors; from blocking condemnation of ethnic cleansing in Burma, to undermining pressure on Bashar al-Assad as he butchers his own people. Closer to home, successive ANC administrations have supported Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and the indicted War Criminal Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. And when it comes to China and its occupied territories, the decision to deny the Dalai Lama a visa on two separate occasions aptly spelt out the South African government’s unfortunate stance.

It is little wonder therefore that leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have openly criticised the state’s leaders for facilitating and protecting the kind of tyranny they once suffered themselves. Unfortunately, South Africa’s replacement on the council – Rwanda, is unlikely to improve matters.

Paul Kagame’s RPF regime is widely accorded international sympathy, stemming from its role in halting the 1994 genocide, and Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo has suggested that the slaughter will allow Rwanda to bring a “unique perspective” on conflict to the council However, the RPF’s appalling record on human rights and perhaps more significantly on backing brutal rebel groups in the neighbouring DRC, is already raising serious concerns about how Rwandan influence will be used in practice.

Most pressing is a report leaked just twenty-four hours before Rwanda was electedM23 Rebels supported by Rwanda to the seat, confirming that not only equipment and support but direct orders are being given by Kagame’s officials to Bosco Ntaganda’s notorious M23 Rebels. This group is currently destabilising swathes of the DRC through an orgy of massacres, rapes and child soldier recruitment. Now Human Rights Watch has voiced fears that Rwanda’s new position will simply allow the RPF to prevent any sanctions that it may have faced as a result of.its involvement.

The end of South Africa’s poor showing at the council is no bad thing…but the new set up is unlikely to be any better at all.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Sexuality, deportation and persecution

Back in 2010 David Cameron promised to end the UK’s shameful practice under Labour, of deporting gay asylum seekers to states where they had “well-founded fear of persecution” on the basis of their sexuality. Sadly that did not happen – not in practice anyway; and this week a 28 year-old  Nigerian nursing student by the name of Ola Ayelokun became the latest victim of an asylum system that has dramatically fallen behind domestic LGBT rights legislation.

Despite a huge public outcry and intervention from within the Conservative party, Ola was put on a plane back to Nigeria, where the penalty for homosexual activity is fourteen years imprisonment and the government has been consistently criticised for failing to prevent widespread homophobic attacks. Ola’s summary of the situation was atLGBT rights Nigeria once simple and heart-breaking: “I am very afraid they are going to kill me in Nigeria." 

The crux of the problem that has led us to this point is not necessarily a dismissive attitude towards LGBT rights on the government’s part; after all, Cameron’s administration is actively trying to build on Labour’s advances in equality legislation and has threatened to cut aid to those countries persecuting their gay citizens. Nor is there any top-level policy failing when it comes to protecting LGBT asylum seekers; they are formally entitled to remain here on the basis of homophobic persecution in their home state. Rather the failing is a procedural one that neither Labour nor the coalition have ever tackled head-on.

In short there are currently no guidelines for courts dealing with these kind of cases, which effectively leaves the outcome resting on the judge’s interpretation of somebody’s sexuality. As a result we are faced with numerous situation’s like Ola’s, where lack of understanding, adherence to stereotypes, or simple prejudice has caused a judge to determine that the asylum seeker is actually not gay at all and can therefore be sent home without danger.

This of course not only leaves the judge in charge of a decision that they may be utterly unqualified to make, but also puts the emphasis of the determination in completely the wrong place as Ola’s lawyer pointed out: "with respect to the…judges here, it is not what they believe to be his sexuality that is important. It is what is believed by those people who persecute and prosecute people in Nigeria for being gay that counts."

The solution it appears, would be relatively straightforward; a number of other European countries have already put in place guidelines for judges in order to prevent travesties such as Ola’s deportation, and LGBT rights groups are now calling on the UK government to do the same. That is not only a sensible course of action, but an essential one if we are to stop any more innocent people being sent home to face persecution – or worse.

Ola Ayelokun

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The devaluation of Nobel Peace Prize?

Two hundred and thirty-one people and organisations were nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, widely heralded as one of the most prestigious honours in global politics.

Svetlana Gannushkina Nobel Peace PrizeAmong them was Svetlana Gannushkina, a veteran Russian human rights activist whose tireless work for displaced people including many thousands of Chechens, has made her an enemy of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime.

Across the Belarusian border Ales Belyatsky, laureate of the 2012 Lech Walesa Award, was in the running for his work supporting political prisoners under the Lukashenko dictatorship. Belyatsky is currently serving a four and a half year sentence himself, following a show-trial condemned around the world.

Among the Arab Spring activists nominated was Lina Ben Mhenni, whose blog during the Tunisian revolution was in many situations the only source of information being relayed to the outside world. This of course came at great risk to her own life.

Everyone will have their own view on who the Prize should have gone too. Perhaps Malala Yousafzai, the fourteen year old girl who took a stand against the Pakistani Taliban by demanding education for women and was barbarically shot in the head as a result. Or maybe it should have been awarded en-masse to the young Somali reporters working in one of the world’s most dangerous territories to shine a spotlight on its strife.

Another option for a collective award would have been those involved in Burma’s historic and seismic reform process; including Aung San Suu Kyi, President Thein Sein, and significant foreign players such as Hilary Clinton and William Hague.

Yet the five-person committee responsible for selecting this year’s laureate did not regard any of these as worthy candidates. Rather they selected a regional body better known for its economic crisis than its contribution to world peace: the European Union.

The rationale: that there has not been a major European conflict since the early forerunners of the EU were formed in the wake of World War II, holds some weight. But whether this is actually because of the EU’s existence is very questionable. Furthermore, the body did little to prevent or halt ethnic cleansing in Bosnia andSrebrenica European Union Nobel Peace Prize Kosovo as the East of Europe disintegrated into conflict during the 1990s. Rather it was the UN, NATO and individual states who stepped into the breach as the Brussels bureaucrats floundered helplessly at the side-lines.

Yet such a bizarre and unjustified choice is not without recent precedent. In 2009 Barak Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, his nomination coming after just twelve days in office. Shambolically his award came at the expense of Morgan Tsvangirai, the Zimbabwean Prime Minister who has done more than almost any other to advance human rights and democracy in his country; and Hu Jia, the then political-prisoner who selflessly stood up for rule of law in China.

There is a genuine danger that if such inane choices of laureate continue, the Nobel Peace Prize will be increasingly devalued. Whilst the vast majority of recipients are those who have made a genuine difference, usually at great personal sacrifice, it would be a tragic day when the shabby figures of Obama and the EU characterise the award above the inspirational forms of Suu Kyi and Ramos-Horta. 

Is the Nobel Peace Prize being devalued