Sunday, 26 February 2012

Boko Haram lighting the fuse

Civilians have consistently born the brunt of Boko Haram’s war against the Nigerian state; the radical Salafist group's gun and bomb attacks have so far killed hundreds of worshippers (both Christian and Muslim), military relatives, UN staff and other innocent citizens, whilst its plans to attack major hotels only underscore the commitment to causing mass casualties.

Boko Haram Church bombThe weekend suicide bombing of a Church in Jos however, has highlighted an even greater danger that Boko Haram poses beyond the immediate carnage of its attacks.  Within hours of the explosion, which killed three and injured scores more, Christian youths had launched brutal reprisals, killing several Muslims and setting fire to their shops

Such a backlash is hardly surprising considering the critically strained relations between the city’s two religious communities, which in recent years have erupted in riots killing hundreds and displacing thousands more.  Yet whilst Boko Haram stated that the attack was in retaliation for the atrocities committed against Muslims during such incidents, this claim carries little weight.  After all, the majority of Nigeria’s Muslims deplore the organisation’s warped version of Islam, and its fighters have shown little concern for Muslim lives- deliberately targeting Mosques as recently as last week.

Undoubtedly, the aim of the attack was rather to stoke fresh sectarian violence, much of which will fall on innocent Muslims who are simply trying to get on with their day-to-day lives.  The Christian community’s anger at the bombing, which killed at least one young child, was compounded by fear following Boko Haram’s statement that:  “we attacked simply because it's a church and we can decide to 2010 Jos violenceattack any other church…we have just started."  After such provocation in one of Nigeria’s most volatile cities, a new outbreak of sectarian clashes was seemingly inevitable.

This is not the first time that Boko Haram attacks have raised the spectre of religious strife between ordinary civilians and it almost certainly will not be the last.  To their credit, Christian and Muslim leaders both locally and internationally have so far played a strong role in calming tensions.  From individual Imans working to ensure that youths do not fall under Boko Haram’s influences, to Vatican pleas for Christians not to partake in reprisals, they have used their influence to help keep a lid on full-scale and widespread violence. 

Sadly however, they look set to face many more challenges before the Nigerian government finally wins what is turning into a long, hard battle against the biggest threat to the state since independence. 

Boko Haram

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Srebrenica to Homs

Marie Colvin murdered by AssadHours before she was murdered by Bashar al-Assad’s troops, Marie Colvin compared the situation in Homs to Srebrenica in 1995 when over 8000 Bosniaks were slaughtered by the Bosnian Serb Army.

The parallels are clear: artillery pounding the city, children dying in makeshift clinics and swarms of troops pouring in on a terrified civilian population, who are desperately hiding behind a small group of lightly armed fighters.

Make no mistake: we are witnessing an historic crime against humanity unfolding less than a decade after the world looked at the atrocities carried out by Ratko Mladić and said “never again”.

It stands that Assad’s regime is still facing its endgame. Having been unable to crush the uprising which began last March, the tyrant has lost both moral and practical authority throughout Syria.  Yet propped up his allies in Russia, Iran and China he remains set on slaughtering as many of his countrymen as possible before his seemingly inevitable downfall.

And, whilst acknowledging the complexities around fragmented opposition groups, ethno-religious divides and Syria’s long term future, the fact remains that it is utterly unjustifiable for the international community to allow a full scale massacre of men women and children to unfold in Homs – or any other Syrian city.

Almost a year ago this blog published Srebrenica to Benghazi, defending NATO intervention in Libya as Gaddafi’s forces stood poised to butcher the civilian population at the heart of the resistance.  Despite the significant problems that Libya is facing today, it remains right that the world did not allow Benghazi to fall.

Wounded child in HomsOf course, the physical landscape, regional political dynamic and lack of UN authorisation make such military intervention impossible in Syria.  Yet there is still a significant amount that governments across the globe can do to support those currently trapped in Homs and waiting to die. 

Provisions of food and medicine will ease some of the immediate humanitarian issues, whilst body-armour and communications equipment will help the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters seeking to defend the city. 

Despite the complexity and risks inherent in providing arms to the rebels, it is now time to consider supplying ammunition, as well as limited and specific weaponry such as anti-tank equipment.  These decisions must not be taken lightly but should be given genuine consideration any weighed against the alternative of further slaughter by the advancing pro-Assad forces.   

More broadly the time may also have come for the creation of a buffer zone along the Turkish border, protected by foreign troops, where refugees can shelter and the FSA can prepare.  This again poses significant questions and challenges, not least as it would involve a technical violation of Syria’s territorial integrity.  Yet in such desperate times the potential should not be written off.

Finally international pressure must be turned up on those nations supporting Assad, particularly Russia, which has become by far his biggest supplier of weaponry and diplomatic cover.  A sustained multi-lateral focus on the Putin administration may yet bare fruit in breaking down this critical alliance.

But whatever happens it must happen fast.  It must happen now.  Time is running out for Homs…and for the Syrian people.

Homs is burning

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Burma’s hidden horrors

“Every day the soldiers were shooting at villagers, so I could not get out from under the bed to drink water or eat food. For two days, I had no food or water. I was pregnant at the time, so it was very difficult.”

Such horrendous testimony emerging from Kachin state in northern Burma is a farKachin civilian injured by Burma army mine cry from the scenes of celebration and hope surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign tour just a few hundred miles further south.  This is a grim reminder that whilst things are undoubtedly improving in Burma (including it would seem in some ethnic areas) the horrendous attacks against the Kachin people are dragging on.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s latest report, meticulously compiled through front line investigation and witness testimony, documents amputation, rape, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrest, with victims including women and young children.  These are reflective of the worst horrors perpetrated by Burma’s successive dictatorial governments over the past five decades – and they clearly have not gone away.

The current round of fighting in Kachin state began in June 2011, following the government’s termination of a seventeen year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – which contrary to its name, seeks autonomy and civil rights rather than political secession. Despite constant attempts by the KIA to strike a peace deal, and a limitation of its armed activities to defensive Kachin KIA soldier at graveactions, Burmese government troops have flooded the region and attacked the civilian population with impunity.

Ominously a ceasefire declaration by President Thein Sein late last year, was seemingly ignored as soldiers continued to rampage and kill – prompting speculation in some quarters that the leaders in Naypyidaw may not have full control of their troops on the ground.  Certainly witness testimony from Kachin prisoners underscores an acute picture of ill-discipline: “After 6pm the officers went from cell to cell torturing each of us. The soldiers were drunk the whole time and they beat us whenever they wanted.”

Recent official statements have further exacerbated confusion around the government’s position.  Thein Sein’s Union Day Speech was unprecedentedly positive about Burma’s minorities, including reference to the 1947 Panglong Agreement struck between Aung San Suu Kyi’s father and ethnic representatives.  Yet conversely, the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (established by Thein Sein last September) killed any hopes of governmental self-scrutiny, by confirming that the body would not be investigating any human rights abuses in Kachin state.

Not only do the on-going atrocities threaten to undermine progress made by the government, they also risk creating rifts between the various groups working for freedom and human rights.  Whilst Aung San Suu Kyi has been outspoken about the situation, some Kachin remain sceptical about her ability to ease their plight.  Her open letter to Thein Sein and ethnic leaders calling for an end to hostilities, was also criticised by those who felt it did not adequately acknowledge the government’s primacy in the abuses

As she steers the reform process forward, up to and beyond the April by-elections, the inspirational NLD leader must ensure that her commitment to the Kachin people is clear.  Without visible support it would be understandable for those facing the horrors unfolding in the region, to feel abandoned by the democracy movement.

Ultimately an end to the government’s attacks, withdrawal of troops and a genuine political settlement –ideally in the form of federalism, are essential steps to take if Burma is to genuinely progress.  In recent years governments from Sri Lanka to Indonesia have demonstrated that elections alone do not prevent the most brutal or even genocidal state actions.  As long as the Kachin continue to suffer – Burma can never be truly free.

 Kachin protest in USA


Saturday, 11 February 2012

Bigotry beckons

David Bahati Unganda LGBTUgandan MP David Bahati’s abhorrent Anti-Homosexuality Bill enraged activists and governments around the world when it was tabled in the country’s parliament last year

Despite never reaching debate, the bill, which sought to extend the length of prison sentences currently proscribed against homosexuals and introduce the death penalty for ‘serial offenders’, inflamed tensions in a society already wracked with homophobic persecution- including national media campaigns targeting prominent LGBTI figures and even the murder of an acclaimed equality activist.

Its reintroduction before parliament last week, therefore bodes ill for Uganda’s 500Uganda Rolling Stone LGBT persecution 000 strong LGBTI community.  The removal of the death penalty clause aside, Bahati’s draft legislation remains a clear attempt to legitimise bigotry by intensifying the punishment of people whose only ‘crime’ is their sexuality, as well as those who fail to report the ‘homosexual acts’ of others. 

The Ugandan government has been quick to distance itself from the bill and authoritarian president Yoweri Museveni is thought to be unhappy with its potentially negative effect on his foreign policy initiatives. 

Yet Bahati is no lone radical, he leads the parliamentary caucus of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), which holds 205 of 319 seats, and has support from many of his colleagues.  Despite the concerns of their own government, NRM MPs are reported to have cheered and chanted “our bill” as it was introduced. 

Unless Museveni and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi make active attempts to derail the bill, its failure is far from guaranteed. However this is unlikely to happen.  Though they may not like the international image it portrays, they have never sought to tackle it underlying sentiments, which tally perfectly with their own, mildly more subtle, homophobic practices. 

Exploitation of existing prejudices, arbitrary arrests of LGBTI citizens and tokenistic action against media outlets inciting hatred, have long been part and parcel of NRM politics.  Whilst Uganda’s leaders publicly distance themselves from Bahati therefore, the chances of his expulsion from the party or serious work by his superiors to counter his outrageous arguments remain slim.

This grim reality should not be disguised by the official rhetoric coming out of Kampala.  Until Museveni has his government genuinely step up to reign in Bahati- and roll back their own homophobic policies – they will be complicit in the consequences of of his repulsive bill. 

Stop the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda

Monday, 6 February 2012

Time to get behind the Free Syrian Army

Russia veto Syrians dieWith an attempted UN resolution recklessly de-railed by Russia and China, government shelling of Homs intensifying by the day and civilian casualties mounting at an alarming rate, it is clearer than ever the time for diplomacy in Syria has long since passed.

Uncomfortable as it may be to certain groups and individuals around the world, the fact remains that only force now providing any semblance of protection against Assad’s tanks and rockets, is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose members – a mix of armed civilians and military deserters- are laying their lives on the line in a fight that is as one-sided as it is brutal.

As sanctions, transition plans and even statements of condemnation are constantly blocked and watered down, whilst the slaughter continues, these are the men to whom states throughout the international community should now lend their support.

Of course, the prospect of backing the rebels will naturally cause concern for some, on all sides of the political spectrum, and understandably so.  The complex political and sectarian tensions in Syria mean that injecting weaponry into the country is a very unattractive long-term prospect.  And even now the FSA remains a “loose collection of opportunists” rather than a completely coherent force, meaning little if any guaranteed control over how such arms will be put to use.

However, supporting the FSA does not have to mean a ‘Charlie Wilson style’ surge of guns, bombs and ammunition.  The resistance Homs under attackfighters could similarly benefit from supplies including medical kits, body armour and communication equipment – all of which would assist in their struggle to halt the killing and bring down Assad, without exacerbating the potential for instability and abuse further down the line.  There is also the possibility of supplying vehicles and fuel through FSA-controlled border towns, such as Zabadani; as well as food, medicines and other humanitarian relief for distribution to the civilian populations who have been affected by government attacks.   

Some will rebuke even these ideas on the grounds that they may lead to similar international involvement from Assad’s allies, thus escalating the situation.  Yet this is both naive and fallacious: the Russian government was providing his regime with military equipment and diplomatic backing long before the FSA even existed.  Besides, nearby states including Qatar and Turkey are already arming and training the rebels; so for the likes of Europe or America to step in with practical and essential supplies would ultimately make little political difference, whilst having a potentially significant impact on the ground.

Ultimately there is no other feasible choice remaining, except for more empty words as the mass burials become a nightly occurrence and the rampant torture spirals further out of control.  In 1982 Hafez al-Assad had 20 000 butchered in the restive city of Hama; his son’s latest massacres are eerily reminiscent, and right now the Free Syrian Army is the only thing standing in his way. 

Support the Free Syrian Army

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Burma, budgets and by-elections

As Burma’s spring by-elections draw closer, thoughts are beginning to turn to issues of process, particularly the prospect of international monitors, raised by the USA. 

There is a clear necessity for the presence of such monitors when election day rolls around on April 1st. Burma’s 2010 election was riddled with irregularities and Suu Kyi campaigningintimidation; and whilst the National League for Democracy (NLD) has this year been able to campaign with seemingly unprecedented freedom, hints of restrictions by the authorities are beginning to creep in.  One of Aung San Suu Kyi’s planned rallies, for instance, was recently cancelled when the stadium in which it was set to be held was suddenly closed, for a previously unannounced government inspection.

International monitors may be able to dissuade the government from such underhanded tactics during the polling itself, particularly as they would offer a valuable opportunity for President Thein Sein to demonstrate just how far his reform programme has come.  A credible and positive report of official conduct could even lead to international sanctions being eased- a key priority for the President and his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).  It would be in their interests therefore, not only to let monitors in, but to present them with genuinely fair by-elections.   

Before the voting is even reached however, the focus will be on this year’s national budget; an issue highlighted by Burma Campaign UK as presently even more important.

The initial budget laid out by the Minister of Finance and Revenue is, like so much in Burma at the moment, a small but positive sign of progress.  The proportion of the state’s finances spent on the military has been reduced from 23.6% to 14.4% – a moderate decrease that may potentially be indicative of Thein Sein’s  independence from the senior generals lurking in the background.  Encouragingly, it could also suggest a forthcoming reduction in the on-going military offences against ethnic minority groups.

Meanwhile, the allocation of funds to health and education has increased from 5.4% Burma Parliamentto 7.5% –a tiny and ultimately inadequate step, but one in the right direction nevertheless.  Budget discussions in the Parliament over the coming weeks will give a clearer indication of whether the ruling USDP genuinely plans to seize what the International Monetary Fund has described as an “historic opportunity to redefine national spending” once and for all.

An open and productive budget debate, followed by an invitation for international monitors to observe the by-elections would reaffirm the government’s path towards further liberalisation.  For once- it may not be too much to hope for.