"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.

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.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Audiobook review: The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

The War That Ended Peace UK cover

I believe that each generation thinks of the First and Second World Wars in a different way, depending on whether our peers, parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents fought in them. In my case, my great-grandfathers fought in the First World War and my grandfather in the Second. I have a living memory of my grandfather living with injuries sustained in the Second World War and I recall the stories he told me about his time in all of the major theatres of the war.

Yet somehow I have never quite been able to fathom how total war was possible. I saw the glory days of Europe at the turn of the century, with its world fairs and expositions, followed by the roaring twenties and the Great Depression. I knew about the First World War, of course I did, but I struggled to connect the culture of innovation, harmony and discovery with total war and absolute devastation.

This perception was not helped by the way in which the outbreak of the war was explained to us in school. Countless articles and books began with statements along the lines of, “when Gavrilo Princip assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo in 1914, he had no idea of what he was setting in motion”.

This never made sense to me. We were taught that the First World War was an inevitable consequence of this one act of assassination but I could never accept that, and rightly so.

The War That Ended Peace UK coverWith the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War taking place next year, I thought what better choice than Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace, narrated by Richard Burnip and released on audiobook format by Audible.

The War That Ended Peace begins with a description of The Exposition Universelle of 1900. This world fair was held in Paris to showcase the great achievements of the world in terms of innovation, technology and advancement. The proceedings were imbued with a general feeling of well-being and confidence, even in the presence of a healthy atmosphere of competition between the participating nations.

How then did the world descend into chaos? MacMillan warns in the very first chapter that Europeans were complacent, that they should have paid more attention to the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian Wars.

What follows is an extremely well-researched and in-depth look at the personalities behind the war. Each chapter looks at the motivations, insecurities and observations of the key political players in the context of rising distrust and rivalry between the nations. Meanwhile, alliances form in the most unexpected of places while old alliances fail. The detailed biographies focus not just on Britain’s King George V, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and Russia’s Czar Nicholas II but include Lord Salisbury, Admiral Jackie Fisher and Alfred von Tirpitz amongst others.

Ultimately, The War That Ended Peace appears to leave more questions than it provides answers. We’re provided with an important insight into the key payers but are we to believe that war was inevitable because of a simple comedy of errors, a clash of egos or a series of unfortunate diplomatic mistakes? Perhaps looking at the wars of the first decades of the 21st century, that is precisely what it was. MacMillan draws parallels between modern day terrorist organisations and the anarchists and activists of the previous century and concludes ominously that there are always choices.

The audiobook version of The War That Ended Peace is narrated by Richard Burnip, an actor and historian who previously narrated Frank Wynne’s I Was Veneer. After listening to several fictional works on audiobook, I decided to experiment and listen to a work of non-fiction in this format. I do like to read non-fiction works but progress can often be slow, especially with historical or political works which can tend to be a bit dry and heavy.

I won’t lie, The War That Ended Peace is long. The print version of the book is 784 pages long and progress through an audiobook is rather defined by the pace of the narration. While superbly enunciated and clearly understandable, Burnip’s narration was extremely slow and I increased the narration speed to 1.25x and even 1.5x to quicken the pace. Nevertheless, Burnip used just the right amount of solemnity and levity in his narration and made it much easier to progress through this lengthy tome than I fear I would have experienced had I tried to read the book. Despite this, it still took almost a month to work my way to the end of the audiobook.

The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan is available to purchase in audiobook format from Audible.co.uk, in paperback from Amazon.co.uk and in hardcover and Kindle format from Amazon.com.

Article first published as Audiobook Review: ‘The War That Ended Peace’ by Margaret MacMillan on Blogcritics.

A copy of this audiobook was provided to me for the purposes of this review and all opinions contain herein are my own.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Film Review: Utopia (A Film by John Pilger)

A camera pans across a dwelling, revealing a scene of unimaginable poverty. A single, bare mattress lies on a floor and the person in front of the camera examines how up to six children will sleep here head to toe. The crew moves into a bathroom with no basin or mirror and a rank, blocked toilet. Almost a third of this population will die by the time they are 45 and children are plagued by treatable ear and eye infections.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a scene in a third word country; perhaps it is South Africa or Brazil, countries which have the highest Gini coefficient of inequality in the world. It is in fact Australia, the world’s twelfth largest economy. This is Utopia, a region 200 miles north-east of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and the poorest region in Australia.

Utopia A Film by John Pilger poster

Utopia is a documentary by John Pilger. Two years in the making, journalist and film-maker Pilger returns to the country of his birth to investigate the conditions that the Aboriginal Australians are living under. He weaves into the narrative the concentration camp at Rottnest Island up to 1931 and the Stolen Generations travesty of the first half of the 20th century but it is the events of recent years that are most disturbing.

We see footage of young Aboriginal men who have been abused and later died in police custody and learn that the incarceration rate for young Aboriginal men in Western Australia is 8 times higher than that of black men in the last 10 years in apartheid South Africa.

The documentary features the obligatory privileged white Australians blaming Aboriginal Australians for their own poverty and lack of inclusion. Incidentally, footage in Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum shows white South Africans expressing these same sentiments about black South Africans in the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, journalist Chris Graham observes that all of this happens while governments continue to fail to invest in Aboriginal communities.

John-Pilger-Utopia-AustraliaAs recently as 2006, the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended to launch the Howard government's plan of intervention, a scheme to send the army into indigenous communities to remove their children under fabricated charges of paedophilia. Communities were then subjected to a denial of basic services unless they agreed to hand over the leases to their land.

Utopia is certainly worth watching and indeed, it might be worth watching more than once. My own interest in viewing the documentary stemmed from basic awareness of the massacres of Aboriginal peoples and the Stolen Generation but I was quite unprepared for what I saw.

I was appalled by the level of indifference and even cynicism that politicians continue to display towards the Aboriginal Australians and the continuing lack of support, investment and basic healthcare given to the population. Decade after decade, administration after administration, these people are repeatedly let down and betrayed.

John Pilger Utopia

Utopia is the fourth film that John Pilger has made about Australia and includes many of the people that he met during the making of The Secret Country in 1985. At one point in the documentary, he compares scenes filmed in the 1980s to present day conditions and the results are chilling: very little has changed.

Utopia will be released in the UK at the Curzon Soho on 15 November 2013. A special viewing plus Q&A session with John Pilger will take place at the Picturehouse Soho on 18 November and will be broadcast simultaneously to 30 Picturehouse Cinemas across the country. It will be released on DVD on 16 December and broadcast on ITV on 17 December.

The documentary is scheduled for worldwide release in 2014 and will be launched in Australia at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney  Screenings will take place on 21-23 January 2014 with a special Australia Day screening on 26 January.

Article first published as Movie Review: ‘Utopia’ (A Film by John Pilger) on Blogcritics.

An advance copy of this film was provided to me for the purposes of this review and all opinions contain herein are my own.


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