Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Abyei Factor

South Sudan’s transition to independence was never going to be easy.  The people’s overwhelming desire for secession from the North expressed in January’s referendum was only the start.  The following month, disgruntled militias opposed to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) autonomous government, set off a vicious spate of killings and reprisals which this week crossed the grim milestone of 1000 deaths.  The violence has included the murder World Food Programme staff, prompting the organisation to withdraw from large swathes of the state-to-be and leaving some 240 000 people without critical food rations.  Some commentators are now speculating that as violence and hunger spreads, the Republic of South Sudan could collapse as soon as it comes into being on July 9th.

AbyeiWorryingly, this may not even be the biggest threat that the international community’s newest member faces.  After initially declaring that he would formally recognise the imminent declaration of independence, the (North) Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is now rolling back on his commitment, due to disputes surrounding the oil-rich region of Abyei.  As part of the peace agreement that ended the two-decade-long Sudanese Civil War and led to the Southern referendum, Abyei was set to hold its own plebiscite.  However, neither the buoyed South nor the wounded North has been prepared to make any compromise in detailed talks and consequently the vote yet to take place.  Ominously, as fighting spreads across Abyei, Al-Bashir has openly stated that his dictatorial government will “never ever recognise” an independent South Sudanese state that includes it.

Already many analysts had suggested that the indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashirand his henchmen had a hand in the South’s current instability - well founded claims given their long and abhorrent record of destabilising neighbours through funding and arming various violent militias.  Refusing to recognise the new republic could however, mark a dramatic and dangerous shift from unofficial interference to re-inciting full scale warfare.  One way or another the South is seceding and if the North fails to accept this, a regional conflict dragging in not only the two states but close neighbours and the UN Peacekeeping force currently stationed in the middle, seems almost an inevitability.

Key players in the faltering peace deal are rapidly taking visible steps to ensure that this does not happen.  Today’s lifting of US sanctions on a bank responsible for much of al-Bashir’s financial backing, whilst not formally a response to the situation, was almost certainly designed to bring the tyrant ‘back on-side’.  There is certainly a strong chance that the move was accompanied by direct communication from the Obama administration, especially considering that the US is still holding out the prospect of removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror, should the South’s secession pass off smoothly. 

Still it remains to be seen whether such moves will be enough to avoid a fresh North-South conflict come July and the situation is further complicated by continuing state violence in the Western Region of Darfur.  Ignoring the calls of activists worldwide, international heavyweights have recently provided only vocal opposition to the genocide there, not wanting to jeopardise their position in negotiations over Southern Independence;  however this stance will become increasingly difficult to maintain as Darfurians seek to replicate events in Tunisia and Egypt by organising mass protests.  If the Sudanese government continues its massacres in Darfur, nations such as the USA and UK may be compelled to halt their lucrative economic overtures to Al-Bashir, thus reducing their influence on issues of territory and secession –including those concerning Abyei.

The birthday of the Republic of South Sudan is little over two months away – yet a peaceful transition still seems a long way off.  Whilst stability and aid for the South is crucial, Abyei is quickly emerging as the key issue.  The ten and a half thousand square kilometre territory  could yet be the cause of a catastrophic military conflict that would dramatically overshadow even the worse breakdown of order in the new state. With the clock ticking and a genocidal dictator sitting at the negotiating table, every party involved is going to have to pull out all the stops over the coming weeks. 

Abyei South Sudan

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

West Africa’s woes

Burkina Faso and Nigeria are both facing mounting death tolls as a result of political crises that could well get worse before they get better. But this is where the similarities between the situations in these West African nations end; for the violence sweeping the region this week stems from two very different sources.

Burkina Faso ProtestWhat is currently unfolding in Burkina Faso is dissent against a violent dictator -Blaise Compaore, who has held power since staging a brutal military coup over two decades ago. This wave of demonstrations began in February when a student named Justin Zongo died in police custody-apparently from meningitis but more likely the result of the ruthless treatment that authorities are known to regularly dish out. In response, students used social media sites to organise protests, which in a similar manner to those in Tunisia, quickly began to incorporate wider grievances against the dictatorship. Here too police brutality and the use of live ammunition against the demonstrators only increased dissent.

Elements of the army however, have added another dimension that makes the picture far murkier. Various mutinous groups of soldiers have cropped up across the country, with a some joining the protestors, others fizzling out as soon as practical issues over pay are resolved by their superiors and certain particularly sinister groups using their strength and arms to intimidate and exploit civilians. This is not a good sign, especially considering considering Compaore’s military background and the precedent for armed takeover. For now a semblance of calm has returned aided by concessions from Comparoes (including the appointment of new government officials), but the mutinies have highlighted unpredictability and insecurity as well as the potential for the current upheavel to end with the all-to-familiar story of one group of thugs replacing another, rather than any kind of democratic revolution.

Ironically in nearby Nigeria- it is precisely democracy that has provided the focus for the present turmoil. The recent election that returned incumbent Goodluck Jonathon to power, though by no means escaping violence or corruption, was regarded by international observers as generally free and fair. However, it also saw the end of the informal practice of ‘zoning’ – where the powerful People’s Democratic Party alternates its choice of presidential candidate between Muslim Northerners and Christian Southerners. Jonathon had already been something a anomaly in this process, a Christian replacing the Muslim Umaru Musa Yar’Adua –whose term in power should have lasted to 2015 but was cut short by his death from pericarditis in 2009. Many Northerners had hoped or expected that Jonathon would step aside this election to let the practice resume; and voted in their droves for his Muslim opponent, Muhammadu Buhari (of the rival Congress for Progressive Change), when the opposite transpired. Although the President stillnigeria_election624_sq came out with always twice as many votes he consequently has no real mandate in the North, leaving the country starkly divided (see map).

As soon as the results became clear, violent riots broke out across Northern states as well as the centre of the country where the population is largely mixed across faith lines. Over the following days the reports of fatalities began to rise, ominously resembling the appalling sectarian turmoil that killed hundreds in Jos last year.

Both Burkina Faso and Nigeria are therefore entering a tense and potentially explosive period. There is still cause for hope though: if Comparoe bows to the demonstrators and allows transition to an administration capable of truly reigning in the military, then Burkina Faso' then it could become the first non-Arab country transformed by this democratic wave. And if Jonathon is able to quell domestic unrest without resorting to violence, he has a valuable opportunity to build on his unprecedented democratic legitimacy (drawn from Nigeria’s most free election to date) and tackle the issues at the heart of the country’s inter-religious strife.

These are tall orders though, and there remains equal potential for a violent crackdown or descent into chaos in Burkina Faso and a widening of the sectarian divide in Nigeria. Other leaders in the region and the wider international community, as well domestic politicans, have a duty to help ensure that the events of the coming weeks set these nations on the right path. This is a historic time for West Africa- we can only hope that it’s eventually remembered for the right reasons.

Nigeria Violence

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Lukashenko, Belarus and the mystery bomb

Belarus BombThe only thing currently clear about Monday’s terrorist attack in Minsk is its savagery. At the height of rush hour in one of the Belarusian capital’s busiest stations, the bomb packed with nails and ball-bearings for maximum damage, killed twelve and wounded some two hundred more. Amongst the shocked and devastated mourners two questions are now ringing out: who did this – and why?

The confusion is underscored by the fact that Belarus, Europe’s lastBelarus Police dictatorship, faces barely any active terrorist threat. The mainstream democratic opposition movement is almost invariably on the receiving end of political violence,facing beatings, imprisonment and torture in response to their peaceful protests. Islamic extremism, unlike in neighbouring Russia, is hardly on the radar. And domestic neo-fascism, though potentially a rising force, has yet to spawn any group capable of this kind of attack, which would nevertheless be out-of-keeping with such ideology considering that the majority of victims were inevitably white Belarusian commuters.

Belarus has seen previous bomb attacks, in 2005 and 2008, apparently the work of a fringe group opposed to dictator Alexander Lukashenko, calling itself the Belarusian National Liberation Army. However, between these two incidents there was no sign of the organisation and its very existence remains questionable. The fact that both occasions were followed by crackdowns on the mainstream opposition, has long led to murmurings of ‘false flag' operations ordered by Lukashenko himself. It is easy to see how such suspicions come about; after all this latest attack is certainly working in the dictator’s favour. The combination of international sympathy, domestic anger and widespread confusion will only help him to counter the growing external pressure and active democracy movement as well as the images of of Arab revolutions being broadcast in from European TV stations.

Within 48 hours of the blast, the KGB (as the state secret police is still known) had detained two suspects who have now admitted to the attack, something that means little in a country were confessions are obtained through breaking bones and leaving detainees in sub-zero temperatures. They were also quickly blamed for the 2005 and 2008 bombs, whilst Lukashenko publicly announced that a full scale ‘mop-up’ of opposition would take place, instructing his thugs to "bring in everyone and interrogate them, pay no attention to democracy or the groans and howls of the foreign martyrs." He also used the bombing as grounds to attack the continuation of EU sanctions on Belarus, in place since he extended his rule through a rigged election last year.

Of course, political gain from an incident does not imply guilt, as is obvious from numerous examples such as the Chinese government’s use of the post 9/11 climate to launch crackdowns in East Turkestan. It is also wise to be cautious of the kind of conspiracy theories that follow almost every major terrorist attack. Yet still, the overwhelming lack of knowledge or evidence regarding the Belarusian National Liberation Army- even within a police state, combined with the absence of any other likely culprit and the vast, immediate nature of political capitalisation Putin and Lukashenkoby Lukashenko, naturally leads to questions over his involvement – or at least his prior knowledge of this barbaric act. His strong links to Putin – a master of using apparent Chechen terrorism for political gain should also not be overlooked. It is now widely presumed, if not generally accepted, that the Russian PM had a hand in the 1999 apartment bombings that help catapult him to power; a theory reinforced by the murder of dissidents articulating it - including former spy Alexander Litvinenko. That Lukashenko may have taken a leaf out of Putin’s book may not be such a far-fetched idea.

For a man known to imprison and starve those opposing him, who maintains the legal mechanisms to execute dissidents and who detained hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators at the close of 2010 – would adding state terrorism to his repertoire really be that implausible?

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Monday, 11 April 2011

Syria- when Friday comes

Some three weeks after open dissent first broke out on the streets of Syria, the outpouring of opposition to the four decade long rule of the Assad family and the Ba’ath party is continuing to gather pace. Demonstrations that begun in the South have now spread throughout the country, reaching suburbs of Damascus and long-oppressed Kurdish regions. As vast areas grind to a halt amid the unrest and the state apparatus channels its entire energy towards maintaining control – some commentators are beginning to question just how secure President Bashar al-Assad really is.

Certainly he is not about to go the way of Ben-Ali or Mubarak; not just yet at least. It should not be forgotton that the Assad family has faced-down equally if not more serious challenges to its rule before – such as an armed insurgency by Islamist rebels in the city of Hama during 1982, to which Bashar’s father Hafiz responded by massacring anywhere between ten thousand and eighty thousand people – mainly civilians. Shortly after taking power in 2000, Bashar himself crushed the Damascus Spring, a widespread peaceful push for democracy led by academics and dissident members of the Majlis al-Sha'ab (parliament), by locking up scores of the main protagonists. Mistreatment of these political prisoners including solitary confinement, torture, beatings and hard labour was widely reported- sending a clear signal to those who sought to undermine the regime and effectively snuffing out the vibrant web of debate and dissent that had begun to form.

Beyond this track-record, the high-stakes of Syrian ethnic and religious politics further underscore just how hard the challenge facing the opposition is. The Assad family are Alawite: a minority religious sect technically regarded as apostasy in Sunni Islam, the form to which the majority of Syrians subscribe. This has created something of a ‘siege mentality’ amongst the regime, involving substantive patronage for fellow Alawites and a willingness to take drastic measures in the retention of power. Senior troops and government officials will therefore be far less likely to defect and far more likely to continue the history of repression, than their Tunisian or Egyptian counterparts.

In spite of these factors though, the potential of this current wave of opposition should not be underestimated; not least because of its significant differences to previous incidents. Unlike the Hama Uprising these protests involve a broad mix of Syrian groups including democrats, young people and ethnic minorities as well as more Islamist-leaning citizens and are taking place on a national rather than a local level, giving them far more opportunity for growth and making them much harder to control. They are also more physical than the Dam
ascus Spring- which mainly centred around discussions, open letters and ‘salons’ where political issues were debated, rather than street protests and riots. Furthermore the success of democratic revolutionaries elsewhere in the Arab world will provide the kind of hope that those seeking reform have not experienced before – a psychological encouragement that must not be written off.

s has clearly been recognised by Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen, who in addition to dishing out their usual brand of thuggery – shooting demonstrators, denying medical aid and cutting off lines of communication; have unusually made widely publicised concessions to various groups involved in the protests. Overtures to Islamists have included closing down a controversial casino, reversing a ban on teachers wearing the Niqab and reinstating those fired for this; whilst in an unprecedented move members of the long-abused Kurdish population in the region of Hasaka have been granted citizenship, a basic right they were previously denied. On one level these are largely irrelevant – dismissed by many commentators as posturing of little real significance and rejected by many demonstrators for not going far enough. However, they are illustrative of a fear within the Assad-camp and potentially a realisation that physical force on its own will not be enough to quell the growing dissent.

Things can still develop in a number of ways and it would be unwise to speculate whether Syria will see a Bahraini-style restoration of order through deadly force or an Egyptian-style destabilisation of the ruling regime. For now Bashar al-Asad’s control –exercised through the military and police- remains firm; but cracks are beginning to show. Like other the Arab states touched by this wave of revolution, Friday has been the focus for mass protests in Syria and this week looks set to be no exception. For the government -and the protestors- the stakes this time aroundcould not be higher.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Thailand’s Unforgivable Crime

Two months on from the latest round fighting between Thailand and Cambodia over the 11th Century Preah Vihear Temple, Thai authorities have finally confessed what activists long suspected: they used cluster munitions during the conflict.

For those unaware of how these weapons work, the essence is as follows: a large shell releases dozens of smaller shrapnel-filled submunitions or ‘bomblets’ that scatter over a vast area, exploding and causing serious damage to anything in their vicinity.  The major problems with this are twofold: firstly those deploying the weapons have no control over their exact dispersal and secondlyCluster Bomb Submunitions many submunitions fail to explode on impact, yet remain live, effectively becoming landmines.  Thus whilst troops may utilise cluster munitions with no explicit intent of harming civilians, they cannot avoid ripping apart innocent people caught by stray bomblets or maiming farmers, children and other locals unfortunate enough to stumble across unexploded ones.

A sickening practical demonstration of the effects that cluster munitions produce long after fighting ends, is visible in Southern Lebanon where ‘bomblets’ dispersed by Israeli forces during their 2006 conflict with Hezbollah continue to claim the lives and limbs of Lebanese civilians, including youngsters who frequently mistake them for toys.  This tragic situation provided a key impetus for the Convention on Cluster Munitions – a treaty banning the weapons, which came into force last year after prolonged campaigning by groups such as the Cluster Munition Coalition.  Although this is only binding upon those states opting to ratify it, which currently number fifty-six and do not include either Thailand or Cambodia, it has nevertheless served to stigmatise the weapons and create a worldwide shift away from them.  Despite the protestations of states such as Israel and the USA, which respectively deem cluster munitions as “completely legal” and “legitimate”, Thailand’s deployment in February was the first and only since the Convention was originally opened to signatures in 2008.

Abhisit VejjajivaThis underscores the fast-and-loose attitude of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his administration towards human rights.  However, after deploying troops to murder protesters and allowing immigration authorities to cast refugees into the open sea, it is hardly surprising that they should add the inexcusable and unforgivable use of cluster munitions to their ever growing repertoire of abuse.  With an estimated 5000 Cambodians now at risk from the unexploded bomblets, the only way that the Thai government can begin to make amends for this specific act is to disclose all information concerning where the munitions were deployed and fund a clean-up operation…then sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions and destroy their remaining stockpile.  Nothing less is acceptable.

Monday, 4 April 2011

What now for Côte d'Ivoire?

UN Ivory CoastMore than four months after Laurent Gbagbo lost the Côte d'Ivoire Presidential election yet chose to hold onto power through violence, the UN peacekeeping force stationed in the country is finally taking physical steps to dislodge him.  Of course their strikes on military bases and Gbagbo’s own compound are formally a response to the massacres of civilians and the shooting of eleven peacekeepers by Gbagbo’s troops over the past week (regime change is not within the force’s mandate), but no one is in any doubt that they are intended to assist the troops of democratically elected and internationally recognised President Alassane Ouattara – who claim to be just hours away from taking the main city of Abidjan.

Sadly this is in many ways too little too late.  Back in November 2010, as soon as Gbagbo’s plans to extend his decade long rule through the barrel of a gun became clear, there were widespread calls for international intervention.  Yet the African Union – still relatively week and weighed down with fighting in Somalia, was nowhere to be seen.  The regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was left largely impotent by its most powerful member- Nigeria- being in the midst of its own election campaigns.  And the broader international community, still pre-occupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and later the Arab Revolutions, was reluctant to bolster the existing UN force or strengthen its mandate.

The result was a long stand-off peppered with death squads, shootings and an outflow of refugees that eventually hit crisis level.  Then, seemingly left without any other recourse, Ouattara’s troops began a rapid military advance to take control of the country once and for all.  The North-South civil war that the election was meant to mark a final break from virtually reignited; racial and religious divisions continued to meld with the politicaIvory Coast Massacre.jpgl ones; and on Saturday some one thousand people were slaughtered in the town of Duekoue.       

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in all of this is that Ouattara’s troops were undoubtedly involved in that massacre (probably as the main perpetrators) as well as numerous other such war crimes.  Thus, even if the UN succeeds in helping to remove Gbagbo – as in now almost inevitable – Ouattara will come to power not on the back of a democratic election, as could have been the case, but on the back of barbarity and murder.  Furthermore, the tensions that have been allowed to build up over the past four months, will almost certainly result in revenge attacks on those who stood by Gbagbo – a situation that, owning to the tribally and religiously tainted politics of Côte d'Ivoire, could rapidly spiral into ethnic cleansing.

It goes without saying that this was never going to be an easy transition and that even if the international community had helped to force Gbagbo out immediately after the election, tensions between the two sides would still have turned violent.  However, the human cost and the country’s future prospects have unarguably been cast far bleaker by the long power struggle that has taken place.

The big issue now is what happens next.  Neighbouring states, most likely swayed by the huge refugee influxes that they are facing, have begun to discuss intervention to aid stabilisation, whilst mass media coverage (and the chilling echoes of Rwanda) have strengthened support for broader international assistance.  However these developments could come in many forms and from many different angles.  It will be tempting to prioritise stability over justice but both will be needed in the long-run.  Individuals and ethnic groups aligned to Gbagbo– whatever their crimes, must not be allowed to become victims of extra-judicial purges; whilst Ouattara, though the democratically elected leader, must be held to account for any war crimes that his troops have committed.  The world must learn from the mistake of giving Paul Kagame a free hand to terrorize Rwanda after his troops liberated the country in 1994; but on the other hand, serving Ouattara with an ICC arrest warrant the day after his inauguration could simply cast Côte d'Ivoire back into further turmoil.

With the peace process clearly in tatters, the old dictator exiting in an orgy of violence and the new leader riding to victory on the back of crimes against humanity the only certainty is that Côte d'Ivoire’s toughest times are still to come.

Ivory Coast Fire

Friday, 1 April 2011

Justice for Gaza means justice IN Gaza

When Israeli commandos murdered nine activists trying to deliver supplies to Gaza just under a year ago, criticism from many quarters of the international community was unjustifiably slow and restrained.  Yet even compared to that response, the silence following the death sentence passed by Hamas against a Palestinian civilian this week has been deafening.  Notably, many of the individuals and organisations who quickly and admirably stand up for the rights of Palestinians when Israeli forces commit abuses, are now nowhere to be seen.   

The man due to be killed was accused of collaborating with Israel- one of three capital crimes in the Gaza strip (the others being drug trafficking and murder).  His co-defendant, also found guilty of collaboration was sentenced to fifteen years hard labour.  As if the practice of hanging people or effectively torturing them for over a decade was not repulsive enough – the broader legislative and political context of these judgements underscores the brutality to which Hamas is subjecting its own people.   

HamasSince the group took over the Gaza strip in 2007, it has tried civilians in military courts –drawing significant criticism from human rights organisations.  These authoritarian courts, where the odds are stacked against defendants and international fair trial standards are not even touched upon, have been passing death sentences with increasing frequency, last year moving Palestine from a position of carrying out no formal executions since 2006 to becoming the 12th largest user of capital punishment in the world.

There is also a distinct likelihood that these executions are aimed atPalestine Protest quashing domestic discord.  Over the past weeks Gaza has been rocked by numerous demonstrations calling for Palestinian unity and in some cases denouncing Hamas’ poor governing record.  Palestinian civilians taking part and journalists covering the events have received vicious beatings at the hands of the Hamas police force, illustrating their scale of concern over rising dissent.  Particularly worrying for the Hamas authorities, especially in light of the prominent role played by the internet in the Arab revolutions, is the continuing growth of the Gaza Youth Manifesto for Change support base– an online movement denouncing Hamas and Fatah as well as Israel.  When considering this overall growth in dissent both on the web and on the streets, the attraction of using executions to take-out key opponents or spread fear amongst the population is immediately apparent.

On this basis there is a strong likelihood that this week’s ‘collaborators’ and those convicted before them are actually innocent victims – punished for standing up in support of Palestinian rights rather than aiding Israeli aggression.  Of course, the closed and secretive military courts make this impossible to verify one way or another.

Such circumstances hugely undermine those who justify their lack of criticism directed towards Hamas on the basis that it is the ‘democratically elected ruling party of Gaza’.  Whilst debate will continue to rage indefinitely about the fairness of the 2006 elections, it is undeniable that equally, if not more important, than a party’s means of coming power, is its behaviour when it gets there.  Beating up protestors and using rigged legal systems to impose politically-driven death sentences is neither democratic nor in the interests of the Palestinian people.  It only adds to the well documented and utterly appalling approach of Hamas leaders to women and homosexuals in highlighting how the group brings further misery to Gaza.

Now more than ever therefore, those who claim to support the Palestinian people should firmly align themselves with those protesting on the streets of Gaza by condemning Hamas loudly and clearly.  Resolutely denouncing the Hamas administration is not at all incompatible with denouncing Israel’s abuses against the Palestinian people – in fact it is nothing short of essential, as there can never be justice FOR Gaza until there justice IN Gaza- and that currently seems a long way off.  Silence now is unacceptable. 

Hamas Police