Sunday, 27 January 2013

Taking Timbuktu

Little more than two weeks after French troops began to assist the Malian army in a counter-offensive against Islamist rebels, they have entered Goa and Timbuktu leaving just one major town left under the control of jihadists.

French troops welcomed in MaliTo many this will come as a great relief. The scenes of devastation that troops are witnessing as they move through Timbuktu's historic streets bear testament to the wanton destruction that the Islamists brought to Northern Mali: thousands of beautiful ancient shrines, mosques, relics and churches have been smashed and burnt in an iconoclastic spree that reached every corner of the World Heritage Site.

The human cost is even higher: many of the city’s residents have fallen victim to fundamentalist purges and summary justice including amputations, beatings, floggings and public executions. ‘Crimes’ ranging from smoking or playing music, to pre-marital sex or wearing the wrong kind of clothing, have all been cause for brutal treatment; though as in any system without due process even many of those who toed the line were rounded up and punished.

Whilst the French have been welcomed as liberators however, the Malian troops they are clearing the way for may bring little relief to civilians in the North. Over the past week reports have remerged of significant human rights abuses by government forces including extrajudicial executions and rape, raising fears of bloody reprisals against the region’s Tuareg population.

The grievances of the Tuareg have never been properly addressed by the central government and decades of armed rebellion have left a legacy of bitterness on both sides. It was a temporary alliance between secular Tuareg rebels and militant Islamists that first drove the army out of Northern Mali last year, leaving many troops now spoiling for revenge as they push back with French support.

There is also a track record abuse within the army’s ranks and desertions are frequent boding ill for discipline particularly if, as expected, the jihadists begin a protracted guerrilla campaign rather than simply meting away. Furthermore, the continued military interference in government since overthrowing the democratically elected President and handing power to a weak transitional administration, has given officers a certain degree of impunity.

This leaves a dilemma for the French government, which will be keen to withdraw troops as quickly as possible once the bulk of the fighting is over but will be reluctant to leave a vengeful and ill-disciplined government force running amok against the Tuareg civilian population. Already the Pentagon has moved to distance itself from the support that America provided to the Malian army…for Fran├žois Hollande and the French troops who facilitated the liberation of Timbuktu that will not be so easy.

French troops in Mali

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Algeria: after the dust has settled

Following the barbaric murder of civilian oil workers in Algeria by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s jihadist militia, David Cameron has called for the world to come together in order to confront the growing threat from violent Islamist groups across North Africa.

Algeria hostagesThese sentiments, which have been echoed by leaders all over the world are perfectly understandable; recent years have seen an ominous resurgence in armed Islamist outfits throughout the Sahel and surrounding regions, including a large number falling under the banner of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Nonetheless, any practical steps flowing from such statements must be part of a coherent response that takes account of all nuances and local circumstances, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the brutality that unfolded at the In Amenas gas field.

Talk of a “robust security response” to “hunt down” terrorists could easily backfire, as recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown only too well. That is not to say the UK and other international powers should completely refrain from efforts to defeat fanatics like Belmokhtar, but this must never be allowed to happen in a manner that alienates the people of North Africa or ultimately acts as a recruiting tool for extremists as so many ‘Western’ interventions have before.

France’s decision to put troops on the ground in Mali, ostensibly one of the reasons for Belmokhtar’s offensive, was seemingly necessary due to the speed Ansar Dine’s advance on the capital and delays in deployment of troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). However, a number of questions now hang over the next step, not least concerning the broader political instability in Mali and the role of secular armed Tuareg groups who have alternately supported and fought against the multitude of Islamist militias at various points over the past year. Whilst French deployment has brought welcome immediate relief therefore, it could yet turn disastrous if the wrong decisions are made on these issues.

Similarly, in Algeria the situation is far from a clear-cut case of helping thePeople missing from Algerian Civil War government to defeat violent jihadists. Algerian politics is still heavily influenced by the 1990s civil war that began with a military coup following the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), and subsequently developed into a multi-faceted conflict between the army and various Islamist militias at the cost of more than 150 000 lives. Endless questions remain about responsibility for many of the worst atrocities committed during the war, with the only certainty being that no side fought without recourse to massacres and torture.

This raises another issue around Cameron’s pledge to “thicken ties” with governments in affected nations: in many cases their responses to terrorism are simply unjustifiable. One only needs to look to Nigeria, where the abhorrent and bloody insurgency by jihadist militia Boko Haram has been met with callous state actions including torture, secret detention and extrajudicial killings. ‘Local solutions to local problems’ is a worthy aspiration, but when those local solutions involve severe human rights abuses, it is rarely advisable or productive to throw support behind them.

Perhaps one of the most critical factors at risk of being eclipsed amidst the focus on tackling the African jihadist threat, is the dire humanitarian situation still affecting millions of people across the Sahel. A combination of drought and food prices has resulted in rapidly escalating food insecurity, malnutrition and disease over recent years; and whilst stabilising regional conflict zones is important to tackling this, it should never be forgotten that poverty and desperation themselves create fertile ground for extremism. Aid and development initiatives to address the crisis should not be side-lined in the rush to take military action against extremists in the region.

The threat to North Africa is clear and the involvement of the international community is important; but rushed, unwelcome or ill -conceived support will be no help at all.

Ansar Dine fighters

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Mali–intervention, then what?

International intervention against the alliance of Islamist groups in control of Northern Mali has been inevitable for some time, yet the acceleration of action by the country’s former colonial ruler has taken many by surprise.

French intervention against rebels in Northern MaliIt was a sudden push South towards the capital by Ansar Dine, one of largest rebel militias, that spurred France with logistical UK backing to rapidly deploy troops and launch bombing raids this week, before the main African-led intervention had even begun.

That decision it would seem, was a necessary evil. If Ansar Dine and its associated groups had seized control of more territory they would naturally become harder to displace. That would not be in anyone’s interest, least of all those forced to endure the arbitrary round-ups of anyone deemed to have violated the militias’ warped version of Islam, and the public executions that often follow.

Of course the primary concern for the French and other European governments is not necessarily those horrendous human rights abuses, but rather the spectre of an Islamist stronghold in North Africa that could threaten their national interests or ultimately their own citizens. The French force it appears, has seen off any chance of rebel advances South in the immediate future, apparently buying time for the main intervention force led by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to find its feet.

Still, necessary as it may have been, the speed and scale of France’s involvement could yet generate painful side-affects. The presence of European forces at the forefront of the intervention will be an easy recruiting factor for the kind of foreign Jihadists who have been pouring into the North since last year, whilst the heavy use of airpower increases the risk of civilian causalities. 

And despite Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’ throwaway remark “stopping the terrorists, that's done", the French government would do well to heed the law of un-intended consequences; after all it was the removal of Colonel Gaddafi, following extensive international intervention, that fuelled Mali’s rebellion in the first place.

Most importantly, all of the states committing to this intervention must be prepared to play the long-game; for as the situation is Somalia has shown time and time again, such forays are never simple and require political and well as military will to produce any lasting solution.

For one thing, the plight of the Tuareg people must be addressed if peace is to be found. Whilst the current international focus is understandably on Ansar Dine and their ilk, it was secular Tuareg rebels angry at the Malian government’s treatment of their people , who allied with the Islamists last year thus providing a spring-board to their position today. Such groups retain considerable arms and followers, giving them a key stake in what happens next.

Similarly, the role of the army in Malian politics must be curtailed. A military coup last year was intended to remedy shortcomings against the Northern insurgency but had precisely the opposite effect by creating widespread instability and allowing the rebels to advance. Despite a formal handover to an interim civilian President, coup-leader Amadou Sanogo continues to interfere in the running of the country, casting continuing doubt on stability post-intervention.

Foreign Jihadists in Northern MaliAnd as always, the wider regional picture must also be taken into account. Jihadists from countries including Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Senegal and the Ivory Coast are all reported to have arrived in rebel-held towns; many via the network of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). Members of Nigeria’s brutal Boko Haram have also been sighted. Whilst French bombing raids may remove the immediate threat from rebel strongholds, only an on-going regional security effort can have any hope of preventing small foreign insurgent groups from de-railing Mali’s future.

Overall, international intervention stands to liberate thousands of people suffering under the brutality of Islamist control in Northern Mali and to bring some degree of stability to a nation in unprecedented turmoil…but it is only the start.

French intervention in Mali

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Justice in Delhi

The eyes of the world will be on Delhi tomorrow, as six men go on trial for the barbaric rape and murder that has shaken India to its core.

Unprecedented public anger at the evil act has manifested itself in street protests across the country; those India Gang Rapemarching are directing their rage not only at the accused but at the cultural, political and law enforcement systems that have consistently failed to protect women from abuse.

It now appears inevitable that the protestors’ efforts will change India for better, at least to some extent. Chauvinistic media portrayal of women, shortcomings in the way that police handle rape cases, silence over domestic abuse and a host of other horrendous norms have been thrust into the spotlight, with politicians vowing to take action.

However, recent developments threaten a more ominous outcome when it comes to India’s justice system. There is now a growing demand for the accused to face the death penalty, a rarely-used last resort in Indian law .Prior to the only surviving perpetrator of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks being hanged amidst scenes of celebration last year, no one had been put to death in India since 2004. As Ananth Guruswamy, head of Amnesty International India pointed out in a brave article this week, executing these six men will detract attention from the underlying problems of sexual violence in Indian society whilst squandering a vital chance for the country to confine the death penalty to its history.

Furthermore, and perhaps even more worrying than the sentence itself, is the context in which the trial will be taking place. Senior parliamentarians have publicly called for hangings, a fast-track court has been set up despite the poor track record of such ventures, and lawyers following the urging of top judges have decided en-masse to refuse their services to the defence.

It is a key principle of democracy that no matter how heinous a crime, even one as barbaric as this, politicians must not interfere with the judicial process; corners must not be cut in establishing a verdict; and those standing trial must be entitled to adequate representation. Chief Justice Altamas Kabir has been amongst a minority warning that “a swift trial should not be at the cost of a fair trial”, yet such voices are being drowned out amid widespread (and understandable) public demands for retribution at the gallows.

It will be a disaster if India’s politicians and judiciary undermine the justice system in order to quell anger on the streets, not least because the precedent of doing so could ultimately lead to miscarriages of justice in the future. Giving a fair trial to people who have brutally ended a young woman’s life will be painfully uncomfortable- but it is essential.

India gange rape execution

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Burma’s airstrike on democracy

The Burmese government airstrikes on Kachin State over the past week are the latest escalation in a one-sided conflict that drags the country’s reform process further into disrepute and raises fresh questions about how the international community should deal with President Thein Sein.

Airstrike on Kachin StateIt was mid-2011 when government troops broke their 17 year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA); a defensive rebel group which despite its name seeks autonomy and human rights for Kachin State rather than secession from Burma. The precise motivations behind the initial ceasefire violation remain murky, but are widely regarded as stemming from the government’s business interests in exploiting natural resources from Kachin State, and the KIA’s refusal to disarm without a political solution to end the decades-long marginalisation of the Kachin people.

Regardless of the driving force, over the following eighteen months well resourced Burmese troops have relentlessly pounded the ill equipped KIA and their allies in the All Burma Student’s Democratic Front (ABSDF). They have also brutalised Kachin civilians, more than 50 000 of whom have fled to squalid IDP camps to escape the rapes, torture and extrajudicial killings. Reports from human rights groups on the ground reflect the very worst days of Burma’s various military dictatorships, with troops hacking the limbs of suspected rebels, drunkenly abusing women and destroying entire villages seemingly at random. Kachin civilian injured by Burma army shelling

The attacks by military aircraft and helicopter gunships over the past week added a horrendous new element to the violence, with shocking video footage from the Free Burma Rangers sparking strong international condemnation. However, the offensive has not eased and fears abound that a ‘final assault’ on the KIA headquarters at Laiza may be imminent.

This perhaps provides the biggest blow yet to the reformist credentials of Thein Sein’s administration, which had already been sullied by the army’s apparent role in stoking sectarian violence against Rohingya Muslims, and the violent dispersal of protestors at Letpadaung copper mine. The International Crisis Group - due to present the President with its Pursuit of Peace Award in New York, and the UK President Thein Sein Burmagovernment – set to welcome him on an historic state visit, will both now be considering whether such moves were overly premature. After all, heaping such respect upon any other leader so closely associated with pogroms, crackdowns and all-out warfare against ethnic minority groups would be almost unthinkable.

Yet there is another possibility regarding the situation in Kachin State which raises a whole new set of concerns; namely that the President is not actually in control of the situation at all. Whilst his government has now acknowledged the airstrikes, initial reports were met with confusion and denial based upon conflicting messages from the front line. It is all too reminiscent of earlier stages in the conflict when the army seemingly ignored orders from Thein Sein to cease its offensive. An army acting out of government control –one key indicator of a failed state, may present an even larger problem for Burma than a President with a dubious commitment to reform. Whilst international and political pressure can be brought to bear on a head of state, it is far harder to influence faceless military officers who may hold the real power. 

Finally as is so often the case in South East Asia, the influence of the Chinese dictatorship must also be taken into account. It is widely recognised that the offensive against Kachin State could not have taken place without approval from Beijing. Burmese ground troops and aircrafts have launched attacks from the Chinese side of the Kachin-China border, whilst the Chinese government has remained uncharacteristically quiet about shells straying into its territory.

This is of course to be expected: the vast majority of natural resources stripped from Kachin State are either directly extracted by Chinese firms or sold to China by Burmese government proxies.The Chinese government would therefore like nothing better than to see the Kachin resistance destroyed; yet it remains unclear whether Beijing is encouraging Thein Sein to crush the KIA, supporting his own ambitions to subdue Kachin State, or undermining his authority by dealing directly with officers in the Burmese army.

When asked last year where Burma’s democratic transition was on a scale of one to ten, Aung San Suu Kyi replied “we’re approaching one”…it is becoming ever more apparent just how right she was. 

Kachin child protesting