Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Racist Policies and the Situation in Ferguson

Growing up in Apartheid South Africa, it feels second nature to see the direct link between policies and practices of the past and the enduring poverty and inequality in the country. Twenty years after our first democratic elections there are still massive discrepancies in education, housing, healthcare and social care.

Somehow we were lead to believe that matters were different in the United States, that anyone can make it if they try, but that all changed in August.

Link: How a century of racist policies made Ferguson into a pocket of concentrated despair [Raw Story, 28 October 2014]

In an interview with Richard Rothstein, author of a study "The Making of Ferguson", the article discusses how policies of the past created the situation in Ferguson and how unequal treatment of blacks and whites created an enduring cycle of despair that will take generations to overcome. The article mentions the myth of upward mobility in America and how this simply doesn't apply in the face of unscrupulous real estate practices, discriminatory housing policies and the creation of ghettos and slums.

"The federal government subsidized the construction of many, many subdivisions by requiring that bank loans for the builders be made on the condition that no homes be sold to blacks"

"So after a century of policies which denied African-Americans access to jobs that pay decent wages, the likelihood is that their children and their children’s children will still be paying the price for those policies that held their parents and grandparents behind for so long".

Photo credit: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Caption: Demonstrator Keisha Gray cries while protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014.


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

ISIS: An Unholy Terror


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

Skull and Belongings of Genocide Victims - Genocide Memorial Center - Kigali - Rwanda

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.

Image credit: “Skull and Belongings of Genocide Victims - Genocide Memorial Center - Kigali – Rwanda” by Adam Jones (source)


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

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

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