Archive for May 2008
The former Bush administration official John Bolton narrowly escaped a citizen’s arrest last night at the Hay book festival, when a crack team featuring writer George Monbiot and comedian Marcus Brigstocke tried to apprehend him on war crimes charges. Bolton reportedly fled the festival tent behind a cordon of security guards, with Brigstocke in hot pursuit, as Monbiot was bundled from the scene, and 20 placard-waving protestors denounced Bush’s former arms control under-secretary as a “war criminal”.
“I’ve made what I believe is the first attempt ever to arrest one of the perpetrators of the Iraq War”, Monbiot later told the BBC. ”I believe that is a precedent and I would like to see that precedent followed up”.
The Telegraph has published Monbiot’s charge sheet against Bolton here.
This latest development brings to two the number of Comment is Free contributors who have attempted citizen’s arrests on high-profile political figures in recent years…
Ever wanted to make a name for yourself trying to convince everyone that World War II never happened, that vitamin C can cure AIDS, or that white asbestos poses “no measurable risk to health”? If so, then the Hoofnagle brothers, over at the Denialism blog, have a handy step-by-step guide that will tell you everything you need to know about how to get started!
Leopold’s ghost looms large as Belgian EU Commissioner Louis Michel is mobbed by Congolese protestors at the LSE
The history of Belgian involvement in the Congo – as documented in Adam Hochschild’s excellent book “King Leopold’s Ghost”, is not a happy one. Of the three colonies run by Belgium until the mid part of the 20th Century – Congo, Rwanda and Burundi – it is perhaps the Congo that came off worst of all. Hochschild and others have estimated that upwards of 10 million people died as a result of the Belgian occupation. Millions more were enslaved, and tasked with delivering their country’s fabulous mineral wealth into the hands of their colonial overlords.
The Congolese finally gained independence in 1960, and elected the charismatic anti-colonial leader Patrice Lumumba as their country’s first President, with a mandate to nationalise Congo’s mining companies and ensure that the wealth was used to develop the nation. But within months Lumumba had been assassinated – 40 years later Belgium admitted involvement.
From the 1960s to the early 1990s, successive Belgian governments helped prop up Lumumba’s famously kleptocratic successor, Mobuto Sese Seko. Mobutu curried favour with western countries by allowing them to maintain lucrative mineral concessions – while his country sank progressively deeper into poverty. After independence, as before, much of Congo’s wealth continued to be syphoned off to Belgium.
When, in the late 1990s, a brutal conflict began in the mineral-rich East of the country, drawing in armies from as far afield as Zimbabwe and Namibia - and fuelled, as ever, by competition over access to the country’s mineral wealth (gold, diamonds and particularly “coltan”) – a UN report found that many of the international companies engaged in illegal racketeering – largely with impunity – were Belgian.
Given this history, it might seem surprising that the UN should see fit to award the job of overseeing the 2006 Congolese elections – the country’s first democratic contest since Lumumba’s victory in the early 1960s – to a man who was, until recently, Belgium’s foreign minister. Among the Congolese, Louis Michel certainly seems to have been a controversial choice, amid accusations of apparent favouritism towards the encumbent candidate, the western-leaning Joseph Kabila, who went on to take the Presidency.
An intriguing rumour circulating among Congolese critics of the former Belgian foreign minister is that he is the great-grandson of the original Congo kleptocrat, the infamous King Leopold II himself. While wholly untrue, it surely says something about the way that many Congolese perceive the nature of international involvement in their country, and goes some way to explaining the shouts of “Louis Michel, voleur!” at the LSE a few months ago.
Two things seem particularly striking in the video above – the first is that those overseeing the meeting appear to make no attempt to engage with the protestors. The second is the somewhat surreal juxtaposition between the chaotic scenes in the auditorium, and the grandiose message being projected onto the wall – “Europe-Africa: the indispensible partnership”.
“There are over 1000 car parking spaces in Diss”, according to Diss Online, all of which “are free on Sundays and Bank Holidays, except the Railway Station”.
But one of the most striking things I found while writing the book was the extent to which conspiracy theories are often being disseminated not by lone “nuts” but by established governments.
The Chinese authorities have been at it recently, with a series of increasingly colourful claims about the nefarious global activities of the “Dalai clique” - but the prize of the month has to go to the ruling party in Zimbabwe, who have published several documents, including a letter ostensibly signed by Gordon Brown, detailing a conspiracy involving the British government, the German Central Bank and the Zimbabwean political opposition to invade the country, oust Robert Mugabe, and restore the old white-supremacist state of Rhodesia. Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa reportedly insisted he would stand by the allegations even if the documents were shown to be fake, because “even if Brown hadn’t put it in writing, everyone knows that is what the British are plotting”.
I’ve just had a text message from a Burundian friend, telling me that Alexis Sinduhije has been named by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world. Alexis is nominated among the list’s “Heroes and Pioneers” by Christiane Amanpower, CNN’s chief international correspondent, and is placed at number 36, just ahead of Aung San Suu Kyi.
It’s great that such a major news outlet is giving this recognition. I know of no other journalist in the world with such a track record of fearlessness in the face of brutality. Whether by speaking out against the abuses of Palipehutu-FNL, highlighting the involvement of the elitist Tutsi government of Pierre Buyoya in the murder of the WHO official Kassi Manlan, or blowing the lid on CNDD-FDD’s attempt in 2006 to jail the entire political opposition on the basis of a bogus conspiracy theory, Alexis has been tireless in speaking up for the truth, and opposing injustice.
Equally, outside of the African media, and the reports produced by Amnesty, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontieres, his work – and the life-and-death issues involved, have been a fairly well kept secret.
Alexis Sinduhije’s account of the aftermath of the 1993 assassination of President Ndadaye is still one of the most moving that I’ve ever read. I quoted from it in the final chapter of Titanic Express, and I thought I might include an extract from it here. The full version can be read by following this link.
For me as a journalist, the cycle began all in one moment on the night of October 21, 1993 at two o’clock in the morning. The army, dominated by a Tutsi majority, attacked the palace of President Melchior Ndadaye. Ndadaye was Burundi’s first Hutu president and had been democratically elected, in sharp contrast with his Tutsi predecessors, who had seized power through military coups. At around two o’clock that morning, mortar shelling and automatic weapons fire woke the entire city of Bujumbura. I got out of bed and began making phone calls.
Nobody knew what was happening. I was working as a reporter for the state radio station, Radio Burundi, and had just begun to work as well as news editor for an independent weekly called La Semaine. I made a few more calls, but still got no reply.
I said to my wife, Diana, that I thought it was either a military coup or an attack by members of Palipehutu, the radical Hutu party that had been banned from the recent elections. When I turned on the radio, there was no sound. I knew then that it was a military coup. With great difficulty, I convinced my wife that I had to go cover the story… As I left my house, I saw that our Hutu neighbors were also awake, and tense with anger. Many looked at me full of hate. I understood that the situation was going to degenerate into violence, but I didn’t know how bad it was going to be…
One of my childhood friends, a Hutu named Gashira, saw me and asked, “You Tutsis, why are you so arrogant? We elected our president and your soldiers killed him.” The question troubled me. It is true that I had brothers in the army, but I wasn’t responsible for their actions. I was surprised and afraid at how ready he was to include me among those who were responsible.
Over the next few days, everywhere emotion took hold of reason. In the eyes of the Hutus, the Tutsis were guilty. I hadn’t really answered Gashira’s question. Although we were of different ethnicity, we both lived in the same neighborhood, one of the poorest in the capital, so I couldn’t see why he spoke of arrogance… I headed toward the palace. It wasn’t easy because the army had blocked all traffic and the Presidential Palace was more than 6 kilometers from Kamenge. I decided to walk.
After more than an hour, I reached a hotel called the Source of the Nile where foreigners stayed and which was adjacent to the Presidential Palace. Troops were everywhere. Thanks to a soldier I knew, I got access into the palace courtyard, where I found a group of soldiers pillaging the house. They had already emptied the presidential refrigerator, and were drinking and celebrating. They asked me if I wanted some champagne. I replied that I never drank before sundown and it wasn’t yet midday. One of them told me that I was missing a unique opportunity to taste champagne. We all burst into laughter. Champagne is the drink of the rich in Burundi, and then only the extremely rich… They had raided the president’s residence to drink it.
The palace roof was riddled with holes, windows were shattered, and the southern walls surrounding the palace were destroyed. “That was from a shell fired from a tank,” the soldiers explained to me, laughing. I asked if there were any dead among the president’s bodyguards, and they burst out laughing again. They replied that the bodyguard was comprised of soldiers, and that they wouldn’t fire upon their colleagues… They confirmed that… the president had died at 10 A.M. in a military camp in Musaga, 6 kilometers south of Bujumbura.
I knew that the president’s death would have grave consequences. I remembered what Gashira had said to me, but now I pretended to support the soldiers’ act. In reality, deep down inside, I hated them because I thought of the thousands of Tutsis who would end up paying for it. I was convinced that the Hutu officials in the countryside would pit the Hutu peasants against the Tutsis. Then soon after, I learned from military sources that the situation was, in fact, turning catastrophic.