Sunday, 26 December 2010

There comes a time for intervention

Ivory CoastIf there was ever a clear-cut case for military intervention it is the crisis unfolding in the Ivory Coast right now.

Since loosing the presidential election on 28th incumbent Laurent Gbago has held onto control of the West African nation through force; despatching death squads to murder opponents and troops to surround the hotel where Alassane Ouattara - the rightful winner –is residing. As of today 11 000 refugees have fled across the Liberian border to escape the violence. Thousands more expected to follow them over the coming days. What is presently a political and humanitarian crisis looks set to imminently develop into civil war.

The United Nations Peacekeeping force overseeing the state’s peace process (which was set to cumulate with this election) has been ordered by Ggbago to leave, but has rightly refused. As recognised by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and most member states – Mr. Ouattara is now the only one who can legitimately call for its withdrawal. Fearing for his peoples’ lives as well as his own- he understandably wants the force to remain. Given the circumstances, upon his request it could legally be bolstered by African Union or extra UN troops, including national forces under the formal command of either organisation.

This would be a morally justifiable act as well. The inevitable comparisons with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that will be drawn by some the minute that the word ‘intervention’ is mentioned, immediately fall flat. This would be a mandated mission under the auspices of a regional or international grouping to enforce the result of a democratic election at the request of its victor; not the ill thought out, quasi-unilateral removal of entrenched regimes with no viable alternatives. The age-old mantra of ‘pushing our will on other nations’ is also terminally fallacious when the majority of that nation’s public have formally exercised their democratic rights –under national laws, no less- to elect a leader who requests military assistance from the international community.

This leaves only the ancient and somewhat racist objection so often trotted out by those on the right that ‘we shouldn’t waste our resources and troops’ lives in the business of other states.’ However, such sentiment falters (even when laying aside the its bigoted rejection of international society and universal human rights) given the magnitude of what the situation in the Ivory Coast means for Africa – and consequently the entire world.

In 2007 the will of the Kenyan people was rejected by incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, who lost yet held onto the reigns of power by sending armed troops and thugs with machetes onto the streets. The following year Robert Mugabe, heading for electoral defeat, orchestrated a campaign of murder and intimidation against the Movement for Democratic Change, entrenching his rule once more. In 2011 Africa will see more elections than in any single year since decolonisation. Unless the succession of defeated leaders writing-off election results at the barrel of a gun is brought to an end, the message will go out that the international community will sit idly by should this happen again and consequently -in all likelihood -very little will change. Then, without democracy or good governance, millions of people across the continent will continue to face political violence, poverty, food shortages, water shortages and uncontrollable pandemics.

So to those who’d argue against military intervention sanctioned by Ouattara, on the basis that it is somehow ‘imperialist’ I say this: there is nothing wrong with militarily supporting a democratically elected leader when he asks for assistance in upholding peace and human rights. And for those whose objections would rest upon the misplaced conception that the Ivory Coast’s crisis is the Ivory Coast’s problem I offer this consideration: the political ramifications of Ggbago holding power could condemn a continent to poverty for decades to come…poverty that will require aid from the international community, that will close off trade options for the international community, that will spread diseases which have no respect for borders and that will provide fertile breeding grounds for terrorists seeking to spread their destruction across the globe. And that is everyone’s problem.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Activist 2010 Book Review (part 2)

Time for the second part of my 2010 book review…

The Lost Revolution: the Story of the Official IRA and the Workers Party –Brian Hanley and Scot Millar

Lost Rebolution Hanley and Millar's book is another great piece of Irish Political History to appear over the past year and is without a doubt one of the best works I have ever read.

Whilst there is a huge array of literature focussing on the Provisional IRA, very little addresses the socialist grouping from which it splintered back in 1969. This has left the Official IRA one of the least understood players in Irish Politics…until now.

The Lost Revolution gives a gripping account of the organisation and its related political branches- from their position following the Irish Civil War to their involvement as a partisan left-wing force in modern Ireland. It draws on comprehensive research, unprecedented interviews and previously unseen documents to create a story that is as enthralling as it is informative. The authors take the reader on a journey through the movement’s quest to create a communist state in Ireland- including their dealings with Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, almost unbelievable involvement with loyalist paramilitaries and of course their bloody feud with the provos. In depth pictures of individual players blend seamlessly with an objective yet detailed timeline of a force that was crucial for decades in Irish politics and that has left a lasting legacy today.

Whilst the level of analysis is slightly weighted in favour of earlier chapters in the movement’s history this only because there is more to tell about about the exploits of OIRA gunmen on the streets of Belfast compared to the ultimately futile attempts of the Democratic Left in electoral politics year later.

Overall this stands as the authoritative history of Ireland’s socialist/communist forces and unless significant new documents are uncovered or previously silent individuals come forward – looks set to remain so long into the future.

Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant- Benedict Rogers

Than ShweBurmese ruler Than Shwe is undeniably one of the world’s most brutal dictators – not only in recent time but throughout modern history. Over the last 20 years his attempted genocide of ethnic groups, suppression of democratic movements and criminally negligent trashing of the economy has brought a once prosperous nation to its knees. Prominent activist Benedict Rogers takes on the challenge of analysing his life and ‘leadership’ in this superb work.

Its no easy task. The secretive and patently absurd nature of Burma’s successive juntas mean little information about the Senior General is freely available – one of the reasons why he has escaped the kind of spotlight and critique that the likes of Mugabe, Suharto and Amin have been subjected to. However, Rogers has done an excellent job of unearthing facts and testimonies that chart Than Shwe’s rise from a lowly post office clarke to leader of a murderous regime. Interviews with various diplomats, former political prisoners and those who have encountered Than Shwe allow for a surprisingly in depth picture of him – both personally and professionally.

Like Roger’s previous book – a Land Without Evil (which focussed on the junta’s genocide in the Karen region), Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant does a great job of contextualising its subject matter – effectively conveying the modern history of Burma that is necessary for the reader to fully understand Than Shwe’s rise and rule. The concise yet informative way in which he does this gives the book a unique quality; the broad rich historical background means it can work as an introduction to Burmese politics for those unfamiliar with the subject matter whilst the detailed and unprecedented focus on Than Shwe makes it a must-read for those with an existing interest.

As such – I would recommend this book to anyone keen to establish or expand their knowledge of Burma and would urge everyone to look out for Roger’s new book Burma: Captive Nation which is due out next year. If A Land without Evil and Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant are anything to go on, it will be another outstanding work by the UK's leading Burma commentator.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

A turbulent night in Europe’s last dictatorship

Belarus has many claims to fame, like the Belavezhskaya Pushcha- Europe’s final vast ancient forest; or the Mir Castle Complex- a stunning UNESCO world heritage site. However, it more often than not stands out because of the fact that – almost eleven years after it gained independence from the Soviet Union, Belarus’ 9.5 million people still languish under a dictatorship……the last in Europe.

With this goes a host of other unique yet grossly undesirable titles – like the only European state to retain the death penalty and the lowest ranked European state in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report. The ruling regime has also come under frequent criticism from an array of international organisations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and Forum 18 as well as numerous foreign governments.

The criticism is well-merited. Dictator Alexander Lukashenko has held power since 1994 through a series of rigged elections interspersed with the imprisonment and torture of opponents, suppression of civil society and politicisation of the security services. From their violent treatments of detainees to their Soviet-style control of the media Lukashenko and his thugs have consistently shown the abhorrent measures they will take to ensure the continuation of authoritarianism in this corner of an otherwise democratic continent.

However, brave Belarusians continue to stand up to the regime and tonight are taking to the streets of Minsk to oppose the results of Lukashenko’s latest sham election; which returned him to power with a ‘70% share of the vote’ after widespread voter intimidation, media manipulation (and if the events of his past elections are anything to go by – mass ballot rigging.)

Reports coming out of the country over the last few hours indicate that even after riot police violently broke up a protest denouncing the outcome, ten of thousands of demonstrators re-grouped with some attempting to storm the government headquarters. The latest news is that they have been pushed back and hundreds have been detained……but despite enduring one of its coldest winters, Belarus is witnessing public political upheaval on a scale not seen since the first few years of Lukashenko’s dictatorship.

The next few days will undoubtedly be crucial ones for the future of this nation that has suffered for so long. For the Belarusian people this may turn out to be an historic turning point. For Lukashenko – he may be about to realise that rigging the election was the easy part…


Saturday, 18 December 2010

Another Empty Chair

Guillermo FarinasLast Wednesday- less than a week after imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo was represented by an empty chair at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, almost identical scenes unfolded at the presentation of the EU's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. This time the chair represented Cuban human rights activist Guillermo Farinas who, though now ‘free’ after over eleven years in Fidel and Raul Castro’s dungeons, was denied an exit-visa to leave his own country and receive his award.

It’s little wonder that Cuba’s dictatorship didn’t want to see Dr. Farinas honoured on the world stage; his hunger strike earlier this year –following the death of a fellow activist, provided the impetus for mass international pressure (led by the Catholic Church) that resulted in the release of 52 political prisoners. His previous brave stand against internet censorship had also earned him the prestigious Reporters Without Borders Cyber-Freedom Prize –causing inordinate embarrassment to the regime (particularly as Reporters Without Borders has consistently called for the US Trade Embargo on Cuba to be lifted, undermining any attempts to portray the organisation as an ‘American puppet’ or ‘imperialist apologist’).

However, allowing Dr. Farinas to travel and receive his award would have caused far less damage to the image of Raul Castro and his cronies, than denying him permission to leave ultimately did. Rather than demonstrate themselves to be receptive of criticism, the authorities enforced the perception of Cuba as a giant prison where the population are held against their will and abused should they dissent. No one denies that the Castro dynasty has moved on from the days when homosexuals were sent to concentration camps and political opponents were executed en masse but last week’s events illustrate that there is still a long, long way to go.

We must therefore, continue to rally behind Guillermo Farinas and the many prisoners of conscience still languishing in Cuban jails, so that one day he can proudly travel from his homeland………as a representative of a free Cuba.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Activist 2010 Book Review (part 1)

Out of the books I’ve read this year – a few of them were new for 2010. As it draws to a close I thought I’d give my low-down on them.....

Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland – Ed Moloney

This book caused quite a stir when it was released back in March. It is drawn from lengthy interviews with Brendan Hughes and David Ivrine (respectively key players in the Republican and Loyalist movements during the Troubles) which both men agreed could only be published after their deaths. It looked set to include damning testimonies that would be hugely incriminating for several senior Irish politicians today.

In the event, the expected ‘shock revelations’ were merely reinforcements of already widely accepted theories about some of Northern Ireland’s darkest days; however, this does not detract from the truly fascinating experience of reading Hughes’ and Irvines’ accounts in their own words. Their first-hand tales of street battles, political wrangling and paramilitary activities give a unique level of insight into the Troubles that accounts by historians often struggle to achieve.

If there is a downside, it is that Maloney’s own commentary, whilst often useful for setting the context of the two men's stories, sometimes simply paraphrases what they say- leaving an air of repetition. Attempts to draw parallels and links between Hughes and Irvine are also tenuous at best; the two men fought at different times, in different ways and for different reasons so any portrayal of them as two side of the same coin or reflecting a microcosm of the Troubles, is inevitably flawed.

Still – this an excellent addition to literature on Northern Ireland and I’d highly recommend it. Obviously, being based on first hand accounts, the book is not intended to be balanced nor comprehensive, meaning that it may not be suitable for newcomers to the subject; however, anyone with a background understanding of Northern Irish politics will find this a brilliant compliment to their knowledge.

My Friend the Mercenary - James Barbrazon

my friendSix years after the abortive attempt by a group of mercenaries to depose the dictatorial government of Equatorial Guinea, the Forsyth-style drama still sets imaginations racing. Enter war correspondent James Barbrazon with an exciting and frankly impossible-to-put-down account of his friendship with Nick du Toit (one of the coup’s key plotters who spent the subsequent years facing daily torture in the notorious Black Beach Prison).

However, Brabazon’s book is about far more than the ill-fated adventures of du Toit and co – in fact the entire first part is dedicated to his multiple treks through Liberia with his mercenary chum and a group of LURD rebels as they seek to depose Charles Taylor. This is rich not only in action but also in fascinating discussion about Liberian politics, wartime morality and the role of journalists in conflict zones. In fact, this part of the book is so good that by the time Barbarzon’s focus switches to in-depth analysis of the Equatorial Guinea mission (a venture he was not personally involved in and that has already been covered by numerous books such as the Wonga Coup) it ends up feeling a bit of a let-down.

His decision to include this may have stemmed from a belief that it would ‘hook’ potential readers- or it may come from a genuine desire to tell his friend’s story from his point of view. Whatever the reason, Barbrazon would have been better off dedicating the entire book to a longer account of his time in Liberia and the related issues it threw up. Nevertheless, even if its only for the first part – this is a great read combining an alluring mix of adventure, politics and moral dilemmas.

Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East -David Hirst

bewardHirst’s political history of Lebanon has all the right ingredients for this kind of book: he consummately balances analysis with anecdotes, detail with pace and depth with breadth to create an informative, readable and well-rounded work. Given Lebanon’s vivid, turbulent and complex history, this was a brave venture yet the result is a book that genuinely helps to make sense of the country and indeed the wider Middle East today.

I should stress that prior to reading I was only familiar with the basics of Lebanese politics and it may of course be less valuable to those more versed in the various issues; however I feel the level of research apparent throughout would surely be of at least some benefit to all those interested in Lebanon, whatever their level of expertise.

Perhaps inevitably – given Hirst’s well documented and passionate views concerning Middle Eastern politics, Beware of Small States is clearly written from a particular political perspective – with distinct criticism of Israel’s role in Lebanon’s troubles obvious throughout. However, as he never makes any secret of these views there is no hidden agenda and the academic value of the book stands firm even though the reader may disagree with some of his perspectives. He has also obviously taken great pains to ensure a measure of objectivity (most other players also come in for strong criticism at various points) and to back assertions up with fact.

I am keen to compare this to Barry Rubin’s earlier text, which undoubtedly takes a vastly differing stance; however I am confident in concluding Hirst does an excellent job of providing a strong analysis that clearly stands out as one of the contemporary authoritative works on the topic.


Saturday, 11 December 2010

The sun never sets….

Fifty years since it won independence from the United Kingdom, Nigeria continues to languish under a new form of colonial rule; occupied not by far off states, but by ‘Western’ companies.

Of this isn’t news. Numerous large businesses were already setting themselves up for a leading role in independent Nigeria even before the UK withdrew – most prominent amongst them being Royal Dutch Shell, which began establishing a vast network of infrastructure, armed troops and political heavyweights throughout the country back in 1958. Over the following decades Shell’s environmental devastation of the fragile Niger Delta region and suppression of resistance- not least through complicity in the murder of prominent activists such as Ken Saro Wiwa - was well documented.

However, recent Wikileaks revelations have drilled home just how much influence the company continues to exercise in Nigeria, even so long after the military junta (its strongest ally) fell and its brutal behaviour was exposed to the world. Secret correspondence from the US embassy includes testimony of Shell’s highest-ranking executive in the country, boasting that the company had infiltrated every layer the Nigerian government and knows everything that occurs in the various departments. There are strong indications that Shell has been able to manipulate Nigerian law and engineer concessions allowing it to continue its exploitation of Nigeria’s people and environment; a situation only compounded by the country’s rampant corruption and the astronomical political clout that Shell’s multi-billion dollar turnover carries.

Further cables highlight Shell’s fears concerning escalating violence by militant groups fighting against the exploitation of the Delta region; including discussions on what new weaponry they may posses. Yet paradoxically, the evidence of Shell’s influence over the Nigerian government contained in the documents, will only serve to strengthen this fledging resistance movement, generating a level of public anger and support that will prove far more beneficial than any practical addition to its military arsenal. This highlights Shell’s on-going failure to recognise that attacks on its facilities and on the Nigerian government, whilst largely unjustifiable are not generated not by few extremists but by a region that has suffered decades of death,destruction and degradation and both parties' hands.

Of course, it must be noted that Shell is far from alone in its crimes against the Nigerian people. A plethora of other companies including Total and Exxon have long exercised considerable influence over successive Nigerian governments and repeated the kind of abusive practices they’ve respectively demonstrated in other parts of the world such as Burma and Indonesia. However, this weeks revelations firmly confirm the fact that Shell is the runaway leader in the manipulation of this vulnerable state for its own financial gain.

Ironically it is a UK-registered company that- over half a decade since the Union Flag was lowered in Nigeria – continues to dominate and exploit the country through financial force, military prowess and the utilisation of numerous corrupt ‘puppet’ local officials and departments. Unfortunately for those in the Niger Delta – the sun has not yet set on the British Empire.

nigeria shell

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Exploiting the Crescent

Wikileaks is still undoubtedly the word of the week in international politics- with the the vast array of US correspondence published causing diplomatic headaches from Italy to North Korea. Whilst debate ranges over whether the site’s director Julian Assage should be commended or hunted down - most politicians, commentators and members of the public are all broadly agreeing on one thing: some serious issues have been thrown up by the documents.

Of course, many are trivial or even amusing (think Colonel Gaddafi’s blonde Ukrainian nurse) but others could have serious ramifications. Not least amongst these – though surprisingly under reported- are suggestions that the Iranian Government made use of the formally neutral Iranian Red Crescent Society, during conflicts in various states including Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain as well as the Balkans. Perhaps the most damning allegation is that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard used Red Crescent convoys to enter Lebanon –in possession of weapons and ammunition supplies – during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. That conflict cost the lives of almost 2000 Lebanese Civilians, over 40 Israeli civilians and over 50 others including foreigners and UN personal; it also left Lebanon in ruins, military losses on both sides and –perhaps most significantly – a bitter political aftermath that has resulted in tensions on the Lebanese boarder and threats of further clashes ever since. As well as potentially indicating a grave violation of the Geneva Contentions, the memos therefore have the additional effect of piling further grievances and antagonism onto an immensely damaging legacy.

Furthermore, the situation looks set to significantly hinder the actual humanitarian activities that Red Crescent societies carry out. Israeli authorities have long presented deliberate hindrances to these – particular those of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society whose ambulances have been delayed, denied access and even fired upon. Whether such actions stem from a genuine paranoia that the Red Crescent provides cover for militants, a malicious programme of oppression using this as an excuse, or a combination of both – is the subject of intense debate. What is clear however, is that regardless of the motive – supposed evidence that Iran used a Red Crescent Society to aid attacks on Israel –will only increase the official Israeli disruption of genuine Red Crescent humanitarian and relief work.

For this reason a prompt, thorough and transparent enquiry by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies –possibly in association with the UN or OIC- would greatly assist the various national societies, in addition to reigning-in some of the growing political tensions. Conclusive proof that the Iranian Red Crescent Society was not used for military action – or a comprehensive response including international prosecutions of those responsible if it transpires that it was – would primarily protect the integrity of Red Crescent Societies and resultantly leave the Israeli authorities with no veneer justification for impairing their work (potentially leaving anyone who does so liable for prosecution themselves).

In a region where humanitarian crises are regularly exacerbated by political manoeuvres – it would be a disaster for prominent, neutral and effective humanitarian organisations to be dragged into the fray (either in practice or in accusations) and further prevented from their vital duties. Immediate action is essential.