"To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth" - Voltaire

Never Forget

Genocide, ethnic cleansing, terror. The super-rich - Donald Trump, Bill Gates. Megalomaniacal world leadership - Blair, Bush. This is the gift we give our children. I think I preferred my gift of Never Forget.

I read the news today, oh boy

This is why I do it. It is because I need to know and I need to tell others and we need to stop it happening.

On Rwanda: my passion and the need to know

Just imagine. Your highly educated, sophisticated neighbour decides overnight that you are the enemy and that you and your kin need to be wiped off the face of the Earth. It happened and it can happen again.

Genocides from 1915 to 2006

With the possible exception of the Holocaust, the definition and application of the term ‘genocide’ has been fraught with controversy.

Right and Wrong

Since the Genocide Convention was created in 1948 at the end of World War II, there have been only two events that have been deemed to have constituted genocide. Those events are Srebrenica and Rwanda. Srebrenica was the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

ISIS: An Unholy Terror

Flag_of_the_Islamic_State_in_Iraq_and_the_Levant.svg

At some point in nearly every opinion piece on the Islamic State (often referred to in the press as ISIS or ISIL), it seems inevitable that commentators will mention how little the international community seems to be alarmed by the crisis, especially in light of the situations unfolding in Gaza and Ukraine. I'm alarmed by the situation, but speaking as a human being I just find it difficult to comprehend the sheer scale, organisation and maleficence of the Caliphate.

Since 29 June 2014 when they declared their Caliphate, the Islamic State have captured a quarter of the land in Iraq. They have become a major player in the conflict in Syria and have captured a third of the land in that country. Perhaps most alarming in terms of sustaining their activity is that they are now in control of the majority of Syria’s oil and gas fields.

But what does that mean?

Link: ISIS Consolidates [London Review of Books]

In his article "ISIS Consolidates", Patrick Cockburn notes that ISIS controls an area greater in size than Great Britain. With a population of more than 6 million people, he notes that it is more people than live in Ireland, Norway or Denmark.

"The birth of the new state is the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War" (ISIS Consolidates)

Perhaps the message that is not reaching consumers of mass media is that ISIS is particularly malevolent. Cockburn continues to say that the West chronically underestimates the Islamic State and they are also at fault in their estimation that the state will simply crash and burn. He notes that those in Baghdad are in an acute state of denial with one individual questioning whether ISIS even exists (as opposed, we presume, to being used to attain a certain political outcome providing political power-sharing to Sunni Muslims).

At the time of writing his article, Cockburn predicted, "Isis may well advance on Aleppo in preference to Baghdad: it’s a softer target and one less likely to provoke international intervention". It has been reported today that Islamic State fighters have seized Aleppo towns.

The expansion of the territory of the Islamic State is not purely political. There are very real concerns that specific groups of people are being targeted and destroyed.

Link: Genocide watch: the Iraqi communities most endangered by the rise of ISIL [Quartz, 6 August 2014]

In his article on the communities most endangered by ISIS, Bobby Ghosh notes that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, self-appointed Caliph of ISIS "hates pretty much everyone who doesn’t agree with his particular, perverted interpretation of Islam" and that this includes Sunni Muslims who do not agree with him as well as Shi’ites, whom ISIS regard as apostates.

Ghosh notes that of particular concern are certain vulnerable groups who appear to have been marked for special persecution by ISIS:

  • the Yazidis whose faith features a fallen angel narrative and who have thus long been referred to as 'devil worshipers' by Iraqi Muslims.
  • the Shabak whose faith covers aspects of Christianity, Islam and Yazidi but who often identify as Shi'ite thus making them even more at risk from ISIS.
  • the Shi’ite Turkmen, an ethically Turkish group who have fallen foul of ISIS.

As early as 19 July 2014, Human Right Watch reported that ISIS were kidnapping, killing, expelling and extorting minorities. The Guardian reported on Monday about Yazidi women being sold as sex slaves:

“Some Yazidi men say they had phoned their daughter or wife's phone number only to be told tersely by strange male voices not to call again” [Guardian, 11 August 2014]

Numerous sources have reported executions, beheadings, rapes and sex slavery in the streets of Mosul and across the region with Christian websites posting particularly graphic videos and photographs which I am not going to link to here.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Rwanda, 20 Years On: Healing the Scars of Genocide

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda and while it is ever important to remember the genocide in order to learn from it and prevent such an event from happening again, it is also important that we focus on how we move forward after such an event. Last night I attended Peace Talks, an event hosted by International Alert at The Geological Society in London. The topic for discussion was Rwanda, 20 Years On: Healing the Scars of Genocide.

The event was chaired by Dan Smith, Secretary General of International Alert. You might remember that he chaired the event War, Peace and Faith: The Ambiguous Role of Religion in 21st Century Conflict that I attended last year. Dan began by saying that while much has rightly been said about the genocide in Rwanda, the focus of the evening was on healing the scars of the genocide, to focus on what we can do to move forward.

The Way Things Appeared 20 Years Ago

Dan began asking His Excellency Williams Nkurunziza, High Commissioner of Rwanda to the UK, about what he saw 20 years ago as the road that lay ahead. He replied that by the end of the genocide, out of 8 million Rwandans, up to 1 million were dead, 3 million displaced and out of the country and the remaining 4 million were traumatised.

The emphasis of the Rwandan government had to be in reversing the forces that made genocide possible in the first place. The Rwandan constitution now stresses that Rwanda belongs to all Rwandese, and the focus is on reconciliation and belonging.

Nkurunziza notes that attitudes take time to change but that Rwandans have shown a readiness to learn from mistakes, a willingness to forgive and an ability to move on.

The same question was posed of Gloriosa Bazigaga, Rwanda Country Manager for International Alert. While Nkurunziza had touched on the Gacaca courts, Bazigaga continued saying that the courts were the start: they highlighted the events of the past but healing was slow to begin because people feared speaking out in fear of punishment.

Starting in 2007, International Alert began their work in healing psychological wounds and helping economic recovery through micro finance and the teaching of skills. Specifically, the organisation works with former prisoners and combatants, survivors and young people and they provide dialogue groups, trauma counselling and micro-finance to corporations of five people consisting of both survivors and perpetrators.

The Issues Involved in Recovery

Dan then asked Dr Ian Palmer, professor of military psychiatry to discuss the issues involved in healing from the scars of genocide. Dr Palmer began by saying that he believes psychiatry (that is the treatment of psychiatric conditions primarily through the use of medication) has only a small role to play and that the focus must be on healing individuals. Healing cannot begin until individuals feel safe, both from death and from the elements. Dr Palmer stressed social support in terms of safety, schooling, structure and food.

On forgiveness and reconciliation, Dr Palmer said that Rwandans (along with other post-conflict societies) had shown incredible resilience but that reconciliation is a choice. If we do not forgive, we cannot move on and while punishment is important, justice is more important. He finished by saying that we cannot have justice without resilience, forgiveness and reconciliation.

I found Dr Palmer's thoughts especially interesting given that I did my post-grad in Psychology.

Burundi and the DRC: The Political Context of Rwanda

Next up, the Rt Hon Lord Jack McConnell of Glenscorrodale PC spoke in his capacity as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the African Great Lakes Region. He began by saying that it is remarkable that Rwanda has achieved what they did but there remain two different but continuing issues.

The first is that the exodus of Rwandans had an undeniable effect on the DRC and contributed to the inability of the DRC to move forward. The difficulty is that the government of the DRC relies too heavily on this explanation for their all of progress and they do move forward or take action.

The second issue is the impact of the genocide on the international community. 1994 was a disgrace: the international community knew it was going to happen, knew when it was happening and even exacerbated the events. Changes have been made to the way the international community responds to crises but a consistent international response is difficult given the continuing difficulties in the region. The DRC, Burundi and Central African Republic remain volatile.

The Road Ahead: New Avenues or More of the Same?

This is an interesting issue and the crux of this question was whether we continue in the current path of reconciliation, construction and coming together or whether our focus needs to be slightly different in the future.

HE Nkurunziza began by saying the Rwandan government are pleased with the progress made so far and are optimistic about the future. Reconciliation has been a deliberate decision and it is possible because the leadership is driving it. We must ensure that people do no succumb to the temptation to exact revenge, he said and without committed leadership, we cannot heal a fractured society.

When pressed, HE Nkurunziza went on to say that the process is driven by the politics of coexistence and systems and institutions to ensure that all Rwandese are views equally under the eyes of the law. Rwanda chose a path of restorative justice applied by the people themselves.

Specifically, programmes are underway to put all orphans into family homes rather than group homes; equal opportunities legislation provide equal access to jobs and education; there is universal primary education with 98% of primary school children in school; equal access to healthcare; and work to elevate people above the poverty line.

Gloriosa Bazigaga responded to the same question by stating that in the past, the focus has been on the legacy of genocide and reconciliation is still needed because people heal progressively but not at the same pace.

Bazigaga raised the issues of youth unemployment and land issues and Nkurunziza confirmed that the focus of the government is on the growth of the SME sector instead of a reliance on agriculture. According to the goals of the Rwandan government's Vision 2020 [PDF] policies, due to limited land capacity, the country aims to switch to a knowledge based economy by 2020.

Dan then asked Dr Ian Palmer, based on his experience of being in Rwanda and Bosnia, whether he could compare the two countries and comment on the timescale of healing (given that Bosnia is volatile again). Dr Palmer remarked that we take a lot for granted in the UK in terms of the structures needed for healing. He stated that if you don't have that structure, you can't do the rest and he commented again on the need for whole system change. He stated that mental illness is a combination of predisposition, a person's upbringing, trauma and the current environment. If you don't heal society, you're waiting for unscrupulous people who will pick on vulnerable people and start the whole process over again. Safety, structure, systems and the environment are most important.

In Closing

Finally, Dan asked Jack McConnell to comment on a type of leadership that would be conducive to supporting Rwanda and other post-conflict societies. McConnell observed that we have a generation of political leaders with little history or passion and that there is a lack of strong leadership in the EU as a whole (with the possible exception of Germany). The difference between Bosnia and Rwanda, he said, was in the leadership but it is not really correct to draw comparisons between Rwanda and Bosnia (given what had previously been discussed on different paces and rates of change). It was perhaps most accurate to look at post-war Germany and the steps that were taken to suppress right-wing ideologies.

In closing, McConnell warned that we should not forget the facts and we should not let people minimise the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. We require education and witness participation so that change can be made but also to prevent it happening elsewhere. Dr Palmer closed by saying there is no perfect fix. We must be ever vigilant and aware of the risks and the cost of not getting it right. He stressed that we must not forget.

Gloriosa Bazigaga closed by saying that the work of International Alert in the communities should be a lesson for other institutions. The Catholic Church, for example, has not reflecting on the role of their priests in the genocide. Finally, HE Nkurunziza stated that we must get involved, that it is important to be an ambassador in the global campaign against genocide.

The debate was followed by a lively discussion on Apartheid and the possible application of the TRC model to Rwanda instead of the Gacaca courts and a comment on whether people should forgive and forget (as opposed to remembering what happened). The event was then following by drinks and canapés and an exhibition of the work of photojournalist Carole Allen Storey.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

This Day in History: 6 April 1994

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide. On this day in history on 6 April 1994, the plane carrying presidents Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi was shot down just outside Kigali airport in the Rwandan capital.

It was the catalyst that started the Rwandan genocide and over the next 100 days between April and July 1994, between 800,000 and 1.2 million Rwandans of Tutsi and moderate Hutu origin were murdered.

The assassination of the president might have triggered the genocide but in truth, this was a carefully planned, organised and systematic attempt to wipe out the Tutsi race.

As early as December 1990, 3 years before the start of the genocide, a racist manifesto known as the The Hutu Ten Commandments appeared in the anti-Tutsi newspaper Kangura in which Hutus were reminded of their inherent superiority to Tutsis and their responsibility to maintain racial purity.

Over the years, hostilities escalated as Tutsi were scapegoated, targeted and increasingly dehumanised. It was a disturbingly familiar turn of events that Dr Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch now refers to as the Ten Stages of Genocide.

In the months leading up to the genocide, it became ever more clear that something was amiss. In what has become notorious as the Genocide Fax, on 11 January 1994 Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire of the UN sent a facsimile to his superiors explicitly warning of the major stockpiling of weapons and the mobilisation of forces to exterminate the Tutsis. His concerns and those of other key individuals were ignored.

Once it began, the genocide continued unabated until Paul Kagame's RPF forces gained control of the country in mid-July 1994.

The world did not respond during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and today, despite being discussed by the UN Security Council on more than one occasion, we've not responded in Syria. This is the reason why, on the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, it is more important than ever to understand, educate and discuss genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and mass murder in order to prevent them from happening in the future.

Click to read more about Rwanda or Genocide on this blog.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Film Review: Fire in the Blood

Fire in the Blood DVD packshot

In the summer of 1991, at the end of my first year in university, I went on a course on HIV / AIDS so that I could learn to educate young children about the disease. We talked about prevention, transmission and the lack of a cure. It never fails to confound me that 20 years later we were still preaching the same lessons when ARVs were found to be successful in the treatment of the disease in 1996.

Narrated by Academy Award-winner William Hurt and an official selection in the 2013 Sundance Festival, documentary Fire in the Blood is the story of how Western pharmaceutical companies and governments aggressively blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs and generics across the developing world at a cost of an estimated ten million deaths.

Shot on four continents and featuring archived footage, Fire in the Blood exposes the fight for people in developing countries to access HIV / AIDS treatment which cost $15,000 a year or an average of $40 per dose. As a point of perspective, the average weekly wage in South Africa, the richest country on the African continent, is $68.

The film covers the patents which prevent the sale, production or import of generic drugs; the pressure on governments to uphold such patents at the threat of trade sanctions; and the propaganda machine that cultivated fear of counterfeit drugs, viral mutations and non-conformity to treatment should drugs be made available in the developing world.

Fire in the Blood still

All of this is discussed against the backdrop of the profiteering of pharmaceutical companies and the actual cost of the active ingredients in anti-retroviral drugs and the cost of producing them.

The film discusses the eventual victory that resulted in the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR/Emergency Plan) and the resulting backlash and extension of the TRIPS agreement which will make it very difficult for such victories in the future.

Pharmaceutical companies might have lost the battle with respect to the treatment of HIV and AIDS but Fire in the Blood concludes that everyday people might lose the war. With more and more Americans reporting an inability to afford medications, will we be able to sweep drug company monopolies under the carpet like we did when it was just third-worlders?

Fire in the Blood DVD packshotFire in the Blood is directed by Dylan Mohan Gray and is feature-length at 84 minutes. The pace is fast and the narrative features contributions from Zackie Achmat, co-founder of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, Joseph Stiglitz and Yusuf Hamied, chairman of Cipla, an Indian socially conscious generic pharmaceuticals company. The film includes powerful scenes showing the improvements in the lives of individuals in Uganda, India and South Africa once access to anti-retroviral drugs was improved.

Fire in the Blood is a powerful, important film that will be released on DVD in the UK on 24 March 2014. I highly recommend the film and give it five out of five stars. The film has only seen a limited release in the USA despite being prominent in film festivals in 2013.

You can purchase Fire in the Blood from Amazon.co.uk.


Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Fire in the Blood’ on Blogcritics. This review contains affiliate links.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Film Review: When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun

When The Dragon Swallowed the SunIt always interests me when people share quotations attributed, often falsely, to the Dalai Lama. While it is clear that he is an international symbol of peace and unity, I wonder how many people know that the Dalai Lama is an exile and has been living outside of his home country since his escape in 1959.

The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 ushered in a period of increasing religious and political persecution. The 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation was crushed with devastating consequences for the leadership of the country. The Tibetan government was declared illegal and the leadership forced into exile, while the 14th Dalai Lama himself escaped over the Himalaya mountains into India. The Chinese government declared 28 March 1959 to be Serf Emancipation Day and insists that it represents the liberation of Tibetans from a system of feudalism and theocracy.

Tibet - Dragon Swallowed the Sun

The modern history of Tibet is one of great tragedy; human rights abuses and atrocities have been regularly documented. Like many others under Chinese rule, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans perished in Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1960 to 1962. Thousands of Tibetan monasteries were destroyed in this period and yet more were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.

The Chinese government has met protests in the 1980s and during the 2008 Olympics with brute force and lethal crackdowns. Reports from Tibet speak of arbitrary arrests, excessive punishments, disappearances and torture. While Chinese citizens are lead to believe that Tibetans are exempt from the one-child policy, Tibetans are in fact subjected to involuntary sterilizations, forced abortions and even infanticide.

Despite these well-documented events and a fairly strong worldwide movement to Free Tibet, why is it that Tibet hasn’t been freed?

Dirk Simon is the director of When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun, a feature length documentary on the movement to free Tibet from Chinese occupation. Seven years in the making, the film features interviews with and footage of the 14th Dalai Lama, the exiled prime minister of Tibet as well as the exiled king Lhagyari Trichen Namgyal Wangchuk, the 18th descendant of the Great Religious Kings of Tibet.

Tibet - When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun

The film explores the key split in the movement, between those who have resigned themselves to Tibetan autonomy within China and those who continue to strive for freedom and independence from China. As the young king is crowned, he must struggle to balance his education and youth with the incredible burden and responsibility placed on his shoulders. With the western world far more interested in wooing the Chinese and securing their place in China’s great economic future, the Chinese government steps up their attempt to re-educate Tibetans and eradicate Tibetan culture and religion once and for all.

When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun paints a bleak picture of a movement in tatters but does it work as a documentary? The answer is not quite. With such a provocative title, dramatic cinematic trailer and the promise of the involvement of celebrity figures such as Richard Gere and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, this is a documentary that promises much more than it delivers. Most people picking up this documentary will want to learn more about the history of modern day in Tibet and the reality of life for Tibetans both in the country and those in exile but that isn’t provided.

Interviews with key figures seem out of place, unrelated to the scenes preceding or following them, and they don’t appear to follow any greater direction or narrative. The footage of both historical and current events occurs in its raw form without narration, context or description and the viewer is left to try and decipher the direction that the documentary is taking. With so many disconnected scenes, little insight is provided into the situation.

When The Dragon Swallowed the Sun pack shotUltimately, When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun is disappointing. It is quite beautiful with impressive cinematography, but this is to be expected of a film about one of the most beautiful and remote regions on earth. The film would have benefitted with more focus on historical events and a more nuanced exploration of the difficulties that Tibetan people face under Chinese occupation. It is a pity because this film could have been a great opportunity to spread word about the situation in Tibet.

When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun was released in the UK on DVD 9 December 2013 and can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk.

Share

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More