Friday, 27 August 2010

Peacekeeping, failure and hope

Undeniably international peacekeeping missions receive more attention when they go wrong. Though most people have heard of the UN's failings in states such as Rwanda and Bosnia where thousands were massacred as the blue helmets floundered (sometimes because of politicians, sometimes because of those on the ground), far fewer can recall the relatively successful missions in conflict zones such as Macedonia, Cyprus and post-occupation East Timor.

However, disproportionate coverage aside, it is clear that after hundreds of interventions around the world, the disappointment and sense of failure is, at least in part, justified. The horrifying mass-rape in Eastern Congo this week took place just miles from United Nations Peacekeepers. Hundreds of women and baby boys were brutalised by militias - yet armed the armed force whose sole purpose is to protect the Democratic Republic of Congo's population did nothing to intervene. An emergency meeting has been called and officials have produced heated rhetoric about bringing the perpetrators to justice; but this will mean little to those whose lives have been torn apart by the barbaric act and does nothing to rectify the fact that the peacekeepers did not help them in their hour of need.

Unfortunately this is just the latest is a long line of failings that have befallen the UN's Congo mission. A lack of resources and troops (exacerbated by the state's enormous size), impotence in the face of what reports are now suggesting amounts to genocide, and sexual abuse by peacekeepers against the very people they are meant to be protecting, have all left the force understandably unpopular with the local population and have raised questions over whether their presence has really improved the situation. Of course there have been successes - many militias have been disarmed, the armies of neighbouring states have largely departed and significant areas are now at relative peace. However, given the potential might of the UN and the force's presence in the DRC for over a decade, it is hard to view it as anything other than a failure.

In stark contrast, proposals over the last couple of weeks for an OSCE deployment to Kyrgyzstan, have raised hopes of a far more successful kind of peacekeeping operation. In response the horrendous ethnic clashes that killed over 2000 people in June, the OSCE intends to send 52 well trained police officers to assist fledging constabularies in specific regions. Small and tokenistic as this may sound, it could have a remarkable effect.

If they have a clear mandate (something that was never established for the Congo peacekeepers) the officers will be in a better position to draft in extra resources and exercise their powers in response to the situation on the ground. By working in an advisory/training capacity they are more likely to been seen as friends rather than enemies or occupiers by the local population. And by focusing on policing rather than military peacekeeping they can potentially prevent conflict in its early stages- rather than exacerbating it or attempting to placate it once it is already out of control.

Of course, it's hard to compare such a specifically targeted operation to the Congo mission, which involved entering a state the size of Western Europe engaged in full scale civil war with multiple domestic militias and foreign armies. But if the OSCE mission is a success it will demonstrate once again that, though we're still far from getting it right, international peacekeeping missions can and do work; and that as intergovernmental organisations explore and expand ways in which they can halt conflict and human rights abuses, be it through policing, training, monitoring or some other means - we can eventually prevent failures such as those in Rwanda, Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of Congo from ever happening again.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Stoking the fire

The growth of dissident republican paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland has been clear for some time now. And it’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.

An article in the Economist last Friday, charting all the paramilitary attacks during August, made chilling reading. And the month isn’t even over yet. A no-warning bomb blast in Lurgan set people’s minds back to the 1998 Omagh atrocity; an interview with Oglaigh na hEireann suggested that the group has been successful in recruiting former members of the Provisional IRA; and a striking a piece investigative journalism by the BBC uncovered support for the dissidents amongst people too young to even remember the Troubles.
These signs cannot be ignored; addressing nationalist grievances, opening channels of communication with the dissident groups and preventing further growth should be an absolute priority for the government if further loss of life is to be prevented (the dissidents already succeeded in killing two soldiers and a police officer last year).

However, comments this week by Tory MP Patrick Mercer, suggesting that groups such as the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann, are planning a strike on the forthcoming Conservative Party conference, were nothing short of ridiculous. Worse still – they were irresponsible and dangerous.

These groups, whilst beginning to give security services in Northern Ireland the run-around, have nowhere near the capacity to launch an attack in Britain. Even less so on what will be the most secure area of the country that week. By deliberately conjuring up memories 1984 when the Provisional IRA almost killed Margaret Thatcher in a bomb attack at the Tory’s Brighton conference, Mercer is playing up to emotions which remain understandably raw. He is ignoring the reality of the situation and stoking a fire which could easily lead to tribal paranoia; clouding a rational response to what is a remarkably delicate issue.

In truth, the dissidents’ tactics are far more nuanced than Mercer understands. By targeting Catholic police officers they are seeking to dissuade Catholics/Nationalists from joining the police force, with the eventual aim of Catholic/Nationalist communities rejecting British law enforcement agencies once again. By planting random devices timed to explode without warning they are looking to whip up a sense of unease and paranoia which they believe will naturally lead to people seeking paramilitary protection. By causing widespread disruption through hoaxes they are trying to instill the belief that Northern Ireland can never be a ‘normal’ society whilst it remains under British rule.

What they are almost certainly not about to do is attempt to kill Cameron and his cabinet when they arrive in Birmingham. To suggest they are risks drawing attention away from the real issues at best….and stirring up an already volatile situation at worst.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Talking East Turkestan

Yesterday’s bomb blast in Chinese-occupied East Turkestan killed seven people and injured fourteen more, yet passed largely under the journalistic radar around the world. A few small articles reported some sketchy details and quotes from Chinese officials about “separatism in Xinjiang” (the Chinese Communist Party’s name for East Turkestan) but little else.

That’s hardly surprising. Even the 2009 riots which killed over 200 people, and the subsequent mass-executions of Uighur demonstrators, were hugely under-reported compared to press attention that unrest in nations such Burma and Tibet (deservedly) received around the same period. The reasons for this are clear; the robust Chinese Communist Party’s security apparatus in East Turkestan means that genuine information is hard to come by (possibly even more so than in Tibet), whilst the their propaganda programme, misleadingly portraying the independence movement as Islamic fundamentalists in league with Al-Qaeda, has generated a reluctance to write sympathetically of their struggle. Because of these reasons, even coverage such as the BBC’s, which has sought to address the wider picture, is sporadic and sometimes inaccurate (not least by using the Communist Party’s terminology and referring “Xinjiang”).In truth East Turkestan is an occupied nation and the plight of its people, the Uighurs, has been ignored for too long.

Since China annexed the country in 1949 (it was independent until this point) an enormous litany of human rights abuses have been carried out against the Uighur people; including repression of religion, torture and execution of dissidents, coercive birth control policies and instituional police brutality. Uighur culture has been consistently attacked, discrimination in favour of Han migrants is rife and concepts such as fair and open trials are virtually unknown.

Of course bombings and terrorism can never be justified under any circumstances, but we cannot ignore the fact attacks such as yesterday’s come against a back-drop of horrendous oppression which the world has ignored for far too long. The plight of the Uighur people should be addressed and brought to the fore by politicians, activists and members of the international public – not by violence.

Fortunately there have been hugely positive developments in this area over recent years. Media coverage, though still sparse, is improving and initiatives such as Chinese, Tibetan and Uighur Solidarity UK have been effective in bringing this hugely important issue further into the public eye. There is still a long way to go and the world has not yet truly woken up to the Uighur’s struggle, but there is hope that, just like Tibet will one day be free, so too will East Turkestan.

Monday, 16 August 2010

When cuts can kill

You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers, but recent reports of a leaked memo, concerning huge proposed government cuts to aid spending, are a rightful cause for alarm. In the memo, which ministers have been incredibly (and some would argue conspicuously) silent about, DFID’s director of policy suggests that numerous programmes including those relating to polio eradication and primary education in the developing world should be canned. It goes on to outline strategies for dealing with challenges to such moves and suggests targeting those projects which were “unlikely to be noticed.”

If the leak alone wasn’t embarrassing enough for the government, it came just days before Ban Ki Moon called on the world to provide more aid to help those caught up in the apocalyptical humanitarian disaster unfolding in Pakistan.

The UN Secretary General is right of course; governments in the developed world should be doing much more to help deal with what is rapidly turning into one of the worst natural disasters in recent history, but so too should they be doing much more to help all those in poverty across the globe.

The moral case for this is undeniable. Whilst poverty obviously affects those in our own country (as the brilliant Disposed Appeal currently being run by the Evening Standard has so vividly highlighted) this is nowhere near as widespread nor as critical as the many, many states where clean water, basic foodstuffs and even the most rudimentary shelter are all sparse luxuries for literally billions of people.

In addition to this, there is also a strategic argument for increased aid spending. Providing food, medication and the like to people in places such as Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan reduces the appeal of extremist groups seeking to recruit their next batch of trainees. After all – why would you wish to harm states such as the UK or USA if they were the ones who provided lifesaving medical care for your HIV infected child or food for your starving wife? This is, of course, a broad simplification but the principle has been demonstrated both positively in cases where aid delivery has been quick and effective; as well as negatively, when militant groups have filled the relief void.

The coalition government’s apparent plans to slash aid spending are therefore politically ludicrous as well as morally bankrupt. They also threaten to rescind the promises in both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos, that aid spending would be increased to the UN-recommended level of 0.4% (a figure in itself inadequate).

If last week's reports are based on misinterpretations or skewed facts, the government must respond by immediately outlining their spending plans in this area and providing the electorate with guarantees that their promises during the election will be kept. If however, the reporting is accurate, then we must urgently and unequivocally call on our elected representatives to do everything in their power to prevent moves towards reducing aid projects.

Widespread cuts will be tough for everyone; but when it comes to the aid budget they can kill.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

It’s an election…but not as we know it

After months of speculation and waiting the date has finally been set: on November 7th, Burma will go to the polls for the first time in twenty years. Unfortunately for its sixty million people however, the election will be unlike anything that those of us lucky enough to live in democratic states would recognise.

The military dictators are desperate to prevent a re-run of 1990, when they held an election to try and alleviate the international pressure resulting from their massacre of thousands of demonstrators two years before. Back then, despite widespread ballot rigging, the presence of troops at polling stations, the murder of some democratic opposition candidates and the imprisonment of many more, the Burmese people defied dictatorial rule and voted overwhelmingly for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) –winning them 80% of parliamentary seats and allied ethnic parties several more.

Although the dictatorship ignored the results, refused to let parliament convene and imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, they were rocked by the result and suffered from worldwide recognition of their illegitimacy. That is why, this time, the restrictions will be even tighter. The NLD has been disbanded; Suu Kyi and many other activists remain in detention, barred from running; 25% of seats have been reserved for the military, and military-run proxy parties have been set up to occupy the remainder. The brutality of troops and the surveillance capacity of secret services have been stepped up; widespread famine and disease resulting from neglect, oppression and a rejection of aid following the 2008 cyclone has left many Burmese people understandably hopeless. And the country’s monks - so influential during the 2007 democratic uprising – have been formally excluded.

Even the most optimistic cannot help but admit that the outlook is bleak. A transfer from military dictatorship to proxy-military/civilian dictatorship is certain. The oppression, starvation and genocide will continue. Of course – the regulations have already been criticised by the UN and many democratic states – but the dictators will care little about this. Meanwhile those states such as India and China, so keen to court the generals for economic gain, are bound to welcome the election as a “democratic transition” and use it to justify their own deplorable positions.

If there are any glimmers of hope, they rest in the international awareness being raised about the situation inside Burma; the focal point for the exiled democracy movement and the fleeting outside chance that, over time, some of the parliamentarians may develop a degree of independence or resistance in the manner that small groups in Eritrea and Syria have.

None of this however, will bring much comfort to those who are languishing in torture chambers, watching their children starve or fleeing nationalistic genocide even as you read this.

That is why we should reject the dictatorship's sham, and rather do all we can to strengthen campaigns for democracy, pressure our governments over the 2000+ political prisoners, join the calls for the Generals to be brought before the International Criminal Court and never relent in shaming and boycotting those companies callously supporting the dictatorship for financial profit.

This election won’t save Burma- but together we can.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Judgement by the accused

In early 2009 thousands of Tamils – some second generation exiles, others refugees from their homeland – took to the streets of Westminster in protest. For weeks they blocked roads, organised sit-ins and held hunger strikes. As the protests dragged on some even threw themselves into the Thames.

They were trying to draw attention to events in Tamil Eelam that practically amounted to genocide. For in those weeks the Sri Lankan Army was carrying out its final assault against the Tamil Tigers – and was doing so with stunning brutality.

The Tigers, an ethnic rebel group seeking independence for Tamil Eelam (the region covering the North and East of the state of Sri Lanka), had held varying degrees of control over the territory for a quarter of a century. Regularly carrying out horrendous human rights abuses including ethnic cleansing and the recruitment of child soldiers, they were once one of the most powerful rebel forces/terrorist groups in the world. They even had a primitive air-force, and at their peak ran a pseudo-state complete with schools and a postal service. Their lasting legacy to the world has been the introduction of suicide-bombers; a tactic often wrongly attributed to Islamist groups, but that was actually devised in the Tiger’s war against the Sri Lankan state.

Little wonder then that the Sri Lankan government had wanted to finally end the gruelling civil war and destroy the Tigers forever. However, their means of doing so were utterly unjustifiable. Whilst the international community stood on the side lines, President Mahinda Rajapaksa oversaw a push that wrenched rebel territories from the Tigers’ control but concurrently cost the lives of
twenty thousand Tamil Civilians. Meanwhile images emerged of concentration camps and extrajudicial executions as the government sunk to (and some would argue, below) the level of their enemy.

The Tamil Tigers were an abhorrent force that needed to be defeated – but nothing can excuse the actions of the Sri Lankan leaders and military during those months.

It is against this background that calls for an independent international enquiry, examining Crimes Against Humanity by both sides, is being called for. However, the Sri Lankan government has consistently resisted this and yesterday
began its own enquiry, overseen by the very people who should be facing international tribunals. This shambolic farce will produce no other outcome except for exoneration of Sri Lankan forces and condemnation of the Tigers. It will do nothing for justice, for reconciliation or for unveiling the truth of what happened during that period.

The international community, which offered little more than vocal calls for restraint during 2009, now has a duty to pressure Sri Lanka into submitting to a genuine enquiry and to handing over senior officers and government officials who may face charges of War Crimes. This can be done through trade embargos, political force, individual indictments or even by beginning the enquiry without Sri Lankan cooperation. Whichever route is chosen, it needs to happen.

Such atrocities cannot be ignored.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Change the world from your living room

This is going to be a slightly different blog post. There are always loads of really important campaigns going on; but a few particularly stand out today as ways we can all make a significant impact from the comfort of our own living rooms.

So here we go….

Tell Canada to stand up for human rights in Burma

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the 8/8/88 massacre, when thousands of Burmese pro-democracy demonstrators were
brutally slaughtered on streets and campuses across the country. Since then things have only got worse for the people of Burma, with genocide, oppression and starvation all parts of daily life. The Burma Campaign UK are running an excellent campaign to bring the military dictatorship to trial for crimes against humanity. This has been backed by numerous states including the UK, Czech Republic and Australia – yet bizarrely Canada, a state with a long and rich history of contributing to peace keeping and humanitarian missions, has remained silent. By clicking here you can send an e-mail calling on the Canadian government to step up to the plate and back the campaign.

Help stop stoning forever

The international outcry surrounding the
proposed stoning of Iranian citizen Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani for her alleged adultery, led to its temporary postponement. However, she remains incarcerated and may still be hanged, or even stoned, within days. Avaaz is running an urgent campaign to pressure the leaders of Brazil and Turkey (two of Iran’s key allies) to do all they can to secure her release and stop stoning forever. By taking out high-profile newspaper advertisements in both countries they hope to make a real impact – and you can support it by donating here. If you can’t afford to spare the cash you can send an e-mail to the Iranian government through Amnesty International’s site.

Donate to the DEC Pakistan Appeal

Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella group of thirteen of the UK’s largest aid agencies, has been one of the most effective providers of urgent humanitarian aid following disasters from Burma, to Haiti, to the Congo. Their latest appeal is raising funds for relief in Pakistan, where over two million people have been affected by this week's devastating floods and now face challenges from food shortages to cholera. You can donate instantly by clicking here.

It only takes five minutes to change the world.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

When the Hague met the catwalk

It was a brief appearance that made headlines for days. Naomi Campbell giving evidence at the War Crimes Tribunal of Liberia's brutal formal dictator Charles Taylor had everyone talking. But what did the whole incident tell us?

Firstly, and probably least importantly, it highlighted Campbell’s utter self-obsession and complete detachment from the real world. Branding the Tribunal “a big inconvenience for me” showed her complete disregard for the tens of thousands of people whose lives were torn apart by Taylor and her frankly weak grasp of what the whole case actually means. Similarly, by stating that she was reluctant to testify because of fears over her safety, she showed her total lack of understanding about how such things work. Adept as he was at brutalising his own people and his neighbours whilst in power, it was highly unlikely that the ex-dictator would ever have a British supermodel harmed or that he would now even have the capacity to do so.

More significant than Campbell’s lack or morals or intelligence however, is the astronomical difference between the level of media coverage that the Tribunal has received over the last week, compared to the rest of the time since it began three years ago. The Tribunal is of absolutely fundamental importance not only because it can bring to justice the man responsible for one of Africa’s worst ever conflicts (and some of the most brutal human rights abuses committed in recent times), but because if Taylor is found guilty he will become the first ever former state leader convicted by an international court for crimes committed whilst in power. The Tribunal of Slobodan Milosevic –an equally barbaric war criminal – so nearly set this precedent, but he escaped justice by dying shortly before its conclusion. Should Taylor ‘go down’ for his part in Sierra Leone’s civil war, the political implications will be enormous. A message will go out to every abusive leader from Zimbabwe to China to Indonesia that, though they may enjoy immunity whilst in power, they can be held accountable for their atrocities at some point in the future. Never before has such a situation existed (the Nuremberg trials perhaps came closest to achieving this but were obviously absent of the main perpetrator); yet the British press gave appallingly little coverage to this historic Tribunal until a glamorous supermodel entered the scene.

This poor reflection on our media, and perhaps by implication our society, was compounded by a somewhat ludicrous amount of coverage on what Campbell was wearing. The Evening Standard even went as far as publishing the comments of a jewellery expert on her choice of necklace. The irony (considering that her testimony revolved around the receipt of conflict diamonds) seemed lost on the editors. Still, some small positive can of perhaps be drawn from the fact that people previously oblivious to events unfolding in the Hague are now aware of Taylor, Sierra Leone, Liberia and conflict diamonds- even if it is only because of Campbell’s involvement.

Finally, and most importantly, we should pay attention to what Campbell’s testimony actually meant in terms of the prosecution’s case –an issue that seems to have been overshadowed in the press by the very fact of her presence in court. Unfortunately this does not bode particularly well for the conviction of Taylor (or, consequently, for international justice).

The case rests on the basis that Taylor funded the Revolutionary United Front – a barbaric group of rebels who terrorised Sierra Leone throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s –in return for conflict diamonds [I would highly recommend the film Blood Diamond which, though dramatised, accurately portrays the RUF’s level of brutality]. However, proving that he ever received such diamonds in understandably difficult. A dictator has staff, soldiers, offshore bank accounts and vast intelligence agencies to handle his ill-gotten wealth. Unlike a common criminal he never needs to physically handle it.

In fact, only two accounts of Taylor personally possessing conflict diamonds exist –one of them being that relating to diamonds given to Campbell at the now infamous dinner party hosted by Nelson Mandela in 1997. However, whilst it was hoped that the model’s testimony would provide a solid link between the dictator and the diamonds, she instead spoke of unknown men handing her the stones without mentioning whose behalf they were acting upon. Although the diamonds almost undoubtedly came from Taylor there is, therefore, no actual proof, leading the defence lawyer to gleefully declare “The prosecution has scored an own goal.... Naomi Campbell has blown up spectacularly in their faces.”

Ultimately then, Campbell’s appearance emphasised her own idiocy, highlighted the relative journalistic bankruptcy of the British press and caused a degree of damage to this fundamentally important case.

All we can hope for now is that the prosecution can move on, utilise other key evidence of Taylor’s atrocities and put him were he belongs: behind bars for the rest of his life.