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Is it ever OK not to forgive?

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The print edition of this month’s Prospect Magazine has an article from me on forgiveness. It’s a huge subject, but the particular focus of my piece is the pressure faced by victims of extreme violence publicly to declare forgiveness towards those responsible, even when the perpetrators have shown no remorse or willingness to change their ways.

Together with my own family’s case I was privileged to be able to include an interview with Julie Nicholson, whose extraordinary book, A Song For Jenny, recounts her experiences and reflections following the murder of her daughter Jenny in the July 7th 2005 London Bombings. Julie Nicholson’s story made international headlines in 2006 when she stepped down from her post as a Church of England vicar, and told the media that she would not forgive her daughter’s killer.

Forgiveness is one of those strange areas of human life where a small semantic nuance can have profound political consequences. In some of the most brutalised societies in the world, it has sometimes been taken as read that a) victims of violence  are morally obliged to forgive their abuser for the perceived “greater good” and b) “forgiveness” necessarily entails granting immunity from prosecution to mass-murderers.

When these ideas are taken to extremes, as they have been in Northern Uganda with the treatment of victims of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, the results can be both dangerous and deeply unpleasant.

Alongside these individual cases, I was keen to highlight the excellent work that has been done in recent years by philosophers and psychologists seeking to challenge some of the common assumptions about forgiveness and clarify a very muddled area of moral thought.

In preparing the article it was enormously useful to have the chance to speak to Professor Charles Griswold of Boston University, whose outstanding book “Forgiveness – A Philosophical Exploration”   has been a huge help in un-muddling my own thinking on this issue over the last few years. Charles Griswold pointed me towards two further books that I would also strongly recommend to anyone seriously looking into this issue.

“Ancient Forgiveness” is co-edited by Charles Griswold and David Konstan (Professor of Classics at New York University), with essays from both, and was published in the UK just at the end of last year. This book seeks to unravel the mishmash of traditions that have given rise to the many modern (and at times contradictory) definitions of the word.

The second book that Charles Griswold highlighted, and which I also found very helpful in writing the piece, was “Resentment’s Virtue”, by the Danish Philosopher Thomas Brudholm. This takes a refreshingly sceptical view of the absolutist discourse of “forgiveness and reconciliation” that dominates so much of the literature. In careful, forensic detail, Brudholm shows how, well-intentioned though such ideas are, they can often have the effect of re-victimising victims of horrific crimes, and even demonising those who make a free and informed choice not to forgive.

The last book I would recommend is “Forgiveness is a Choice”, by the University of Wisconsin psychology professor Robert Enright, who was also kind enough to speak to me at length about his work in this area. Enright is a strong advocate of the psychological benefits of forgiveness, and has won praise for his work treating victims of serious abuses who choose to go down this path. Enright offers a clear definition of forgiveness that is respectful towards victims, and robustly delineates this very personal process from the political issues with which it is so often conflated.

What’s interesting, however, in comparing Robert Enright’s writing with that of Charles Griswold, is the extent to which their respective definitions of forgiveness – and therefore a number of their conclusions – differ so widely. Even among the experts there appears to be no single definition of the word that is universally accepted, and some of the most fundamental principles around the issue are still being worked out.

This makes for an interesting discussion, but also further highlights the predicament that victims being pressured to “forgive” find themselves in.

Prospect Magazine is available from all good news outlets and on subscription – I’d be interested to know what people make of the piece, and hope to return to this issue in more depth later in the year.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 1, 2012 at 11:22 am

Posted in Titanic Express

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A Place At The Table, 2nd – 19th November 2011

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My good friend Paul Burgess has lined up this new run of the theatre piece he produced last year with a little bit of input from me. Here’s the blurb:

A Place at the Table - Daedalus Theatre Company

In this powerful theatrical response to the on-going troubles in Burundi, Rwanda and the African Great Lakes Region, Daedalus Theatre Company invites you to take a place at the table alongside the performers in this intimate, immersive production that creates a uniquely personal experience exploring the subtle and dangerous relationship between history, identity and violence.

“A brilliant visual platform… a powerful testament to the act of bearing witness… a vital dialogue that Burundi’s many dead were denied in life.”    – Time Out

2 – 19 November 2011       Tuesday – Thursday 7pm, Friday – Saturday 7pm & 9pm

Devised by the company.
Cast: Adelaide Obeng, Grace Nyandoro, Jennifer Muteteli and Naomi Grossett
Core creative team: Cecile Feza Bushidi (choreographer), Katharine Williams (lighting designer), Matthew Lee Knowles (composer) and Paul Burgess (designer/director)
Produced by Jethro Compton Ltd

Camden People’s Theatre, 58-60 Hampstead Road, London NW1 2PYNearest Tube: Warren Street, Euston Square, Euston
Tickets: £12 (£8 concessions)               Box Office: 08444 77 1000 / www.cptheatre.co.uk
See website for details of postshow talks and other events: www.apatt.co.uk

Written by Richard Wilson

October 22, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Marking time – December 28th 2010

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Video piece about Charlotte’s murder – “Rights Universal”, Channel 4, 2008

*UPDATE* – Amnesty International have issued an “Urgent Action” calling for Jean-Claude Kavumbagu’s release. The Committee to Protect Journalists have visited him in prison, where Jean-Claude told them that “international pressure” would be vital to secure his freedom.

It’s just short of a decade since my sister Charlotte was murdered. She was 27 – two years older than me. We had a close, if sometimes stormy, relationship, and for a long time the world felt a lot colder and less colourful than it had done before. While my life has changed a great deal since then, the nature of this sort of experience, I think, is that one never quite sees things in the same light again.

Charlotte’s death set my life on a new trajectory, of which this blog is a small part. I left my job, did a lot of campaigning, went abroad for a while, and ended up writing a book about my sister’s life and death, which in turn led to other writing opportunities. My second book, “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, covers a very different subject area, but Charlotte’s influence is there. My sister had been taking time out to teach science in a rural Rwanda school, after finishing a PhD in microbiology. She was haunted by the effect of AIDS on the community in which she was living, and planned to pursue a career in HIV research on her return to the UK. Her passion for this issue, and in particular her belief in the need to challenge the many myths around the disease – was one of the things that prompted me to look in depth at AIDS denialism when I came to write “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.

Charlotte was killed not in Rwanda, but in neighbouring Burundi. She had recently got engaged to a Burundian teacher, Richard Ndereyimana. They were travelling to meet his family when their bus was ambushed by a Hutu-extremist militia group, the “Forces Nationales de Libération” (FNL), high in the hills above the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. Hutu passengers were released unharmed. Those presumed to be Tutsi – including Richard Ndereyimana – were lined up and shot. Charlotte was killed with them. In all, 21 people died. The attack became known as the “Titanic Express” massacre, after the bizarre and ill-fated name of the bus in which they were travelling.

The 10th anniversary of the massacre falls on December 28th this year. I’ve decided to mark it with a 24-hour “Twitter marathon”. I’ll be knocking back a lot of coffee and posting a message every 15 minutes from 1.30pm on the 28th, the time that the attack began, to 1.30pm on December 29th.

There’s a rich array of material online about Burundi’s complex, albeit often-ignored, recent history. I’ll be aiming to profile the best of it over the course of the 24 hours – from eye-opening video footage and witness testimonies to niche blogs, bizarre quotes from Richard Nixon, and painstakingly-detailed human rights reports.

Alongside this, there are two particular issues that I’ll be seeking to highlight.

Firstly, despite compelling evidence, no serious effort has been made to prosecute those who carried out the massacre in which Charlotte died, amid a climate of near-total impunity for the elites on both sides. Despite being given numerous cash payments, offers of government jobs, and “provisional” immunity from prosecution, the FNL have continued to pose a threat, and are now reported to be mobilising for a new “holy war” in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Secondly, while the war criminals remain free, Burundi’s independent media has taken a massive hammering. Journalists are routinely harassed, attacked, threatened and jailed. One of those now languishing in prison is Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, who over the years has helped enormously with the campaign for justice over the Titanic Express massacre, and whose support was indispensable when I was researching my first book.

Jean-Claude was arrested in July this year and charged with “treason” after making critical comments about Burundi’s armed forces. The Burundian government has previously been responsive to international pressure in cases like these. Given all that Jean-Claude has done over the years it seems somehow appropriate that I mark the 10th anniversary of Charlotte’s death by doing what I can to highlight his case.

I’ll be available on the day to speak to any journalists who might want to cover the story, and can also be contacted beforehand via richardcameronwilson AT yahoo DOT co DOT uk, or 07969 802 830. See here, here and here for some previous media things I’ve done on this.

The Twitter stint will begin at 1.30pm UK time (3.30pm in Burundi) on December 28th – www.twitter.com/dontgetfooled

Written by Richard Wilson

November 30, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Self-censorship

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I thought it was about time I published this. Readers should know that I dispute several of the assertions made by Breco in the message below, and am very doubtful about many others. You should also be aware that since the email was sent to me, this happened, and this happened.

But aside from the content of the letter, the point is that the intimidation worked, at least for a while. I have not written anything of substance about Bredenkamp since I got this email, or done any further investigation. The reason for this is simply and solely that Bredenkamp is a multi-millionaire and I’m not. Due to the astronomical costs built into the UK libel system, and the massive advantage this gives to super-rich litigants, should someone like Bredenkamp decide to sue me, I would not be able to afford adequate legal representation. This would essentially guarantee that I would not receive a fair trial.

From:  “******@breco.info”  Friday, 29 June, 2007 9:11:53

To: richardcameronwilson@yahoo.co.uk

Dear Mr Wilson

I refer to your article Titanic Express as published on http://www.ukwatch.net (“The Article”). The circumstances of your sister’s death are truly appalling and tragic. By all accounts, she was a remarkably courageous and altruistic person and your desire to honour her memory by writing her story is laudable.

However, it is very disappointing to see that in the Article you make a number of incorrect and damaging statements about Mr John Bredenkamp.

1. You write in the Article: “Successive UN reports have implicated dozens of western companies in illegal profiteering from the DRC war, which is intimately connected to the Burundi conflict. Those named include the UK-based Zimbabwean arms dealer John Bredenkamp and Andrew Smith, the British owner of the “air cargo firm” Avient”.


• The UN Reports you mention refer to the UN Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources of the DRC. Mr Bredenkamp was indeed wrongly named in one interim report and subsequently proved to the UN that the unsubstantiated allegations made about him were misconceived and false. In their Final Report of 25 November 2003 –nearly four years ago – he was totally exonerated by the UN of any wrong doing or unlawful activity.

• Mr Bredenkamp is not based in the UK neither is he ‘an arms dealer’. If you visit his web site, you will see that his involvment in the defence sector is as a passive shareholder in Aviation Consultancy Services (“ACS”) , a company which has agencies in Southern Africa for a number of reputable international aircraft manufacturers.

2. You go on to write in the Article: “To date the UK has proved reluctant to follow up the UN’s allegations, but Bredenkamp’s offices were raided by the Serious Fraud Office last year as part of the BAE corruption inquiry. One more reason to hope that CAAT succeeds in getting the inquiry reopened is that it may help shed some much-needed light on Bredenkamp’s business dealings.”

The fact is that there are no outstanding UN allegations in respect of
Mr Bredenkamp or his companies for the UK to follow up. He himself suggested to the Panel that his DRC joint venture should be monitored by the OECD, a process that was duly put in place. Furthermore, at the time of their Final Report, you should know that the UN urged him to remain invested in the DRC.

In respect of the SFO’s inquiries into media allegations about BAE Systems, let me make two points:

o there is no connection whatsoever with the UN Report in this enquiry.

o Mr Bredenkamp voluntarily flew to the UK late last year to offer his assistance to the SFO after they had visited his UK office and London house.

As regards his business dealings, please do visit the Breco web site http://www.breco.info to get an idea of what he really does rather that what the media or CAAT would have you believe.

I note that in your book Titanic Express (“The Book”), on page 142 you write in the Book: “And John Bredenkamp, a British-based Zimbabwean businessman with, according to the UN, ‘a history of clandestine military procurement,’ was accused of breaching European Sanctions by supplying British Aerospace equipment to the Zimbabwean forces fighting in the Congo.”

As previously stated, Mr Bredenkamp is not British-based.

The source of the accusation you refer to was an article in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper which was totally erroneous. ACS comprehensively complied with EU sanctions on behalf of their principals and this was fully demonstrated to the UN Panel, who accepted that there had been no breaches whatsoever.

If, in the future, you decide to write about Mr Bredenkamp or any of his companies, I would greatly appreciate it if you would be courteous enough to contact the group’s online press office – press_office@breco.info – with a view to checking that your facts are correct.

Bearing in mind the background to your book, Mr Bredenkamp has decided not to take any legal action against you, but please understand that he is deeply wounded by all of your erroneous statements.

Sincerely

***** ******
Press Office
Breco Group

Written by Richard Wilson

October 19, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Posted in Censorship, Titanic Express

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Cat-and-mouse game continues: Alexis Sinduhije re-released

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For more background on this, see yesterday’s post

From Agence France Press

BUJUMBURA — Burundian police on Tuesday freed an opposition leader they had confined to a relative’s house since the weekend for allegedly holding an illegal meeting.

Alexis Sinduhije, a former journalist, had been surrounded by police at a relative’s house in the eastern Ruyigi town since late Sunday, letting no one in or out of the house.

“I do not know why I was detained. I was not questioned and early this morning the police chief called just to say I was free to go and said nothing more,” Sinduhije told AFP by phone.

“The government does what it can to intimidate me because it is afraid of what I stand for. It is scared of losing the 2010 elections,” he added.

Sinduhije, 42, had previously been arrested in November 2008 for contempt against the head of state and freed in March after pressure by the international community.

His Movement for Solidarity and Development was registered as a political party only last month.

He launched the party at the end of 2007 when he stepped down from his job as the director of Radio Publique Africaine, one of the country’s most popular radio stations.

Presidential, national assembly and senate elections are due in Burundi next year. Opposition parties have accused President Pierre Nkurunziza of curbing basic freedoms in recent months in order to secure re-election.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 4, 2009 at 8:23 pm

Alexis Sinduhije detained (again) – reportedly on the orders of Burundi’s “born again” President, Pierre Nkurunziza (again)

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Alexis’s release earlier this year. He was detained again this week.

Alexis Sinduhije is a former Burundian journalist who I’ve been in contact with over my sister’s case for a number of years, and who featured in my first book, Titanic Express. Alexis recently launched a multi-ethnic opposition party, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD), and has already spent several months in prison for his troubles, prior to his release earlier this year, following massive international pressure.

This arrived by email this morning via the MSD Facebook group:

The commissioner of police in Ruyigi says that Alexis has not been arrested – he is just in for questions……..

Yesterday Alexis went to Ruyigi and in the evening was in the house of the family of a cousin when the house was surrounded by police. He was then removed and taken to the chef lieu where he has been for questioning – a team has gone to join him in Ruyigi and as we get more details we will tell you. The Governor and the Procurer [public prosecutor] are not answering their phones. When Human Rights Watch called the Police Commissioner he said ” that he was not arrested – but just being asked questions”.

It appears that Nkurunziza and co will keep harassing Alexis – one story on the ground is that it was Peter himself that send the instructions for Alexis to be arrested. They do not want him to be with his supporters in the collines! when will freedom of opinion be tolerated?

Click here for more background on the original arrest from Amnesty International.

Click here for some suddenly-relevant-again hip-hop tunes.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 3, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Posted in Titanic Express

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A Place At the Table – Camden People’s Theatre April 16th – May 2nd

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From Indie London

DAEDALUS Theatre is presenting A Place at the Table at Camden People’s Theatre – from April 15 to May 2, 2009…

A Place at the Table draws on Burundian traditions and mythology and varying accounts of the recent history of the Great Lakes region of Africa in what is described as a bold new work of visual and verbatim theatre.

The international company includes artists from Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, and campaigner Richard Wilson, who has spoken on and written about Burundi extensively since his sister, Charlotte Wilson, was killed in the country in the year 2000, is an advisor.

Performers include Naomi Grosset, Lelo Majozi-Motlogeloa, Jennifer Muteteli, Anna-Maria Nabirya, Susan Worsfold and Grace Nyandoro (singer).

Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected president of Burundi, was assassinated in October 1993, just three months after his election. His assassination was one of the root causes of the subsequent ten year civil war in Burundi, and is closely tied to the causes and effects of several other conflicts in Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly those related to Hutu and Tutsi ethnicity.

A Place at the Table is directed, designed and produced by Paul Burgess, who has recently designed Cradle Me (Finborough Theatre), Our Country’s Good (Watermill Theatre), On the Rocks (Hampstead Theatre), Triptych (Southwark Playhouse), The Only Girl in the World (Arcola Theatre) and Jonah and Otto (Manchester Royal Exchange).

Written by Richard Wilson

April 15, 2009 at 8:02 pm

African Union sends man who oversaw 300,000 deaths in South Africa to investigate reports of 300,000 deaths in Darfur – assisted by the man who oversaw 300,000 deaths in Burundi

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Hot on the heels of its anguished denunciation of the international indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bashir over war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, the African Union has further cemented its global credibility by appointing ex-South African President Thabo Mbeki to look into the charges.

Mbeki is certainly an interesting choice for a mission whose ostensible aim is to establish the truth about a life-or-death humanitarian issue.

As President of South Africa, Mbeki famously bought into the claims of internet conspiracy theorists who say that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that the illness is actually caused by the medications used to treat the disease. A Harvard study recently concluded that the Mbeki government’s steadfast refusal to make AIDS medicines available to those with HIV may have led to over 330,000 preventable deaths.

To add further gravitas, Mbeki will be assisted, according to Voice of America (who give a slightly different account of the purpose of the mission), by the former President of Burundi, Major General Pierre Buyoya.

Buyoya is widely suspected of orchestrating the 1993 assassination of the man who had defeated him at the ballot box earlier that year, the country’s first democratically-elected Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye.  The killing triggered a brutal, decade-long ethnic war in which more than 300,000 people, mostly civilians, are believed to have died.

For most of this period, Buyoya was in charge, having seized the Presidency in a coup in 1996. During Buyoya’s reign, forces under his command carried out a series of brutal massacres against the Hutu civilian population – but as the International Criminal Court can only investigate crimes committed after 2003 – the year Buyoya’s rule ended, it’s unlikely that he will face justice any time soon. A long promised UN-aided “special court” for Burundi has yet to materialise.

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu freed

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Last year I wrote about the arrest of the Burundian journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, who was charged with “defamation” after his news agency wrote about President Nkurunziza’s personal expenditure at the Beijing Olympics. Jean-Claude was a huge help while I was researching and writing my first book, “Titanic Express”.

Following pressure from Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and – crucially – a number of donor governments, Jean-Claude has now been acquitted and freed. His release comes a week after the freeing of the celebrated former journalist and opposition leader Alexis Sinduhije, who was also featured in “Titanic Express”.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 21, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Reported assassination attempt against Alexis Sinduhije

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A few days ago I wrote about the release of Burundi opposition leader (and former journalist) Alexis Sinduhije, who I describe meeting in my book “Titanic Express”, and who has been very supportive over the case. I had been following Alexis’s fate since his arrest on trumped-up charges last November.

Now Alexis’s party, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (renamed recently from “Movement for Security and Democracy” after the authorities ruled it illegal for a party to include the word “Security” in its name) has reported that the bolts on the wheels of Alexis’s car have been tampered with, apparently with the intention of causing an accident. Although the damage was spotted and repaired before any harm could result, Alexis and his colleagues were then followed by the police, arrested, and held for several hours. 

Although Alexis has since been released (again), the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that a number of those arrested with him are still being held.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 19, 2009 at 9:50 am

Burundians celebrate the release of Alexis Sinduhije

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Written by Richard Wilson

March 14, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Alexis Sinduhije thanks European nations for pressure to secure his release

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From Reuters

BUJUMBURA (Reuters) – A political activist jailed in Burundi four months ago for insulting President Pierre Nkurunziza was freed on Thursday and thanked Western nations which had pushed for his release.

Alexis Sinduhije, a prominent former journalist who founded a political party in 2007, was named in Time magazine’s 2008 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, under the category “Heroes & Pioneers”.

Hundreds of supporters, some diplomats and several human rights activists gathered from early morning outside the main prison in the capital Bujumbura. Some waved placards bearing his picture alongside U.S. President Barack Obama.

“I would like to thank particularly European countries like Britain, France, Germany and Belgium,” Sinduhije told reporters after his release. “I have got back my freedom because those countries put a lot of pressure on the Burundian authorities.”

Burundi was seen as an African success story after a long U.N.-backed peace process led to the election in 2005 of former rebel leader Nkurunziza. But the central African nation is often criticised for the way it deals with dissent, and Sinduhije had been especially harsh about its record on human rights.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 12, 2009 at 9:00 pm

“A victory for truth and justice” – Burundi opposition leader Alexis Sinduhije acquitted following major international pressure

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See also: Alexis Sinduhije jailed for “insulting the President”

Alexis Sinduhije speaks about his activism in an interview last year

-Update - the MSD say that Alexis is now free following his acquittal: “Bonne nouvelle – maintenant c’est vrai – il quitte la prison central. Tout le monde fête sa liberté – la ville de Bujumbura est devenue une grande célébration – les véhicules ne circulent pas… Merci pour le soutien”

Alexis Sinduhije, the Burundian former journalist (and now an opposition activist) who has been supportive of the Titanic Express case, and who I wrote about in my book of the same name, was arrested last November and charged with contempt for the President.

The CNDD-FDD ruling party, an ex-militia group led by  a warlord-turned “born again Christian”, Pierre Nkurunziza, took particular exception to Alexis having launched his own political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy (now renamed the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, after the government announced that it was illegal for any political party to include the word “security” in its name).

Having risen to prominence as founder and director of “Radio Publique Africaine”, a radio station promoting reconciliation between the Hutu and Tutsi communities, Alexis is a popular figure in Burundi. Amid growing discontent over its corruption and brutality, CNDD-FDD fears that it may lose the 2010 elections and has been doing all it can to suppress any serious political opposition.

But the problem for a corrupt ex-militia group bent on preserving its own power in a small poverty-stricken nation heavily dependent on foreign aid, is that there comes a point at which European aid donors’ embarrassment at the way their money is being used starts to overcome their traditional reticence about human rights abuses by “client states” such as Burundi.

From Agence France Presse

BUJUMBURA (AFP) — A Burundi court acquitted leading opposition leader and former journalist Alexis Sinduhije Wednesday who had been charged with contempt for the president, his lawyer and judicial sources said.

“This is a victory for justice and truth that we owe to a great extent to pressures exercised on this country’s authorities,” Sinduhije’s lawyer Prosper Niyoyankana told AFP.

Several European ministers had urged Bujumbura to release Sinduhije, who was detained in November with 37 other founding members of his Movement of Security and Democracy party. The others were released shortly after.

Prosecutors in February demanded a two-and-a-half year sentence against Sinduhije for allegedly blaming purported corruption and murder scandals of the ruling CNDD-FDD party on “the man who spends all his time in prayer service.”

President Pierre Nkurunziza is said to be a born-again Christian who frequently organises large religious services.

Sinduhije, 42, founded the popular Radio Publique Africaine (African Public Radio) in 2001 in a bid to foster reconciliation between Tutsi and Hutu communities.

He then launched his party in December 2007 and vowed to run for the presidency in 2010.

He was picked by Time magazine last April in its annual selection of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 11, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Aid donors press Burundi to free Jean-Claude and Alexis

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alexis1

As I reported last year, two of the Burundians whose work informed my first book “Titanic Express” are now Amnesty International “Prisoners of Conscience”.

The journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu was arrested last September and charged with “defaming” the head of state after daring to write an article about the Burundian President’s expenditure at the Beijing Olympics.

The opposition leader and former journalist Alexis Sinduhije was arrested in November during a political crackdown on his party, the Movement for Security and Democracy.

free-alexis-sinduhuje

Supporters of Amnesty, and of the Movement for Security and Democracy, have been lobbying both Burundi’s government and its (mostly European) aid donors over the case. The MSD has raised pointed questions about the wisdom of aid donors continuing to give money to a regime in which corruption is endemic, and that prefers to spend its resources consolidating its own power than helping its people.

The UK government and others say that they are lobbying on this issue behind the scenes. Now the Belgian Development Minister Charles Michel, in a speech on aid, has called explicitly for Alexis and Jean-Claude to be released, along with another political prisoner, union leader Juvenal Rududira.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 26, 2009 at 9:50 am

Alison Des Forges

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Earlier this week I had an invitation to a public meeting in London at which the renowned Human Rights Watch investigator Alison Des Forges would be speaking. Alison had taken a close interest in the December 2000 massacre which claimed 21 lives in Burundi, including that of my sister Charlotte. She had been enormously encouraging of our efforts to secure justice, and gave warm and generous feedback when “Titanic Express” was published in 2006. We’d been in touch a number of times over the years but I’d never met her in person.

In the months after Charlotte’s death, when I was desperately trying to understand the background to the brutal regional conflict which had claimed her life – and in the years that followed-  I also learned a huge amount from the wealth of material that Alison Des Forges has written, such as the extraordinary book (the full text of which is available online at the HRW website) “Leave None to Tell the Story”.

I wanted to go to Wednesday’s meeting but wasn’t able to make it. One always assumes there will be another opportunity. This morning I was devastated to read that, on her return from Europe, Alison Des Forges had been killed in the plane crash in New York State on Thursday evening. The news was announced by Human Rights Watch yesterday:

“Alison’s loss is a devastating blow not only to Human Rights Watch but also to the people of Rwanda and the Great Lakes region,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “She was truly wonderful, the epitome of the human rights activist – principled, dispassionate, committed to the truth and to using that truth to protect ordinary people. She was among the first to highlight the ethnic tensions that led to the genocide, and when it happened and the world stood by and watched, Alison did everything humanly possible to save people. Then she wrote the definitive account. There was no one who knew more and did more to document the genocide and to help bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Des Forges, born in Schenectady, New York, in 1942, began working on Rwanda as a student and dedicated her life and work to understanding the country, to exposing the serial abuses suffered by its people and helping to bring about change. She was best known for her award-winning account of the genocide, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” and won a MacArthur Award (the “Genius Grant”) in 1999. She appeared as an expert witness in 11 trials for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, three trials in Belgium, and at trials in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada. She also provided documents and other assistance in judicial proceedings involving genocide in four other national jurisdictions, including the United States.

Clear-eyed and even-handed, Des Forges made herself unpopular in Rwanda by insisting that the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front forces, which defeated the genocidal regime, should also be held to account for their crimes, including the murder of  30,000 people during and just after the genocide. The Rwandan government banned her from the country in 2008 after Human Rights Watch published an extensive analysis of judicial reform there, drawing attention to problems of inappropriate prosecution and external influence on the judiciary that resulted in trials and verdicts that in several cases failed to conform to facts of the cases.

“She never forgot about the crimes committed by the Rwandan government’s forces, and that was unpopular, especially in the United States and in Britain,” said Roth. “She was really a thorn in everyone’s side, and that’s a testament to her integrity and sense of principle and commitment to the truth.”

Des Forges was not only admired but loved by her colleagues, for her extraordinary commitment to human rights principles and her tremendous generosity as a mentor and friend.

“Alison was the rock within the Africa team, a fount of knowledge, but also a tremendous source of guidance and support to all of us,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “She was almost a mother to us all, unfailingly wise and reasonable, absolutely honest yet diplomatic. She never seemed to get stressed out, in spite of the extreme violence and horror she had to deal with daily. Alison felt the best way to make things better was to be relentlessly professional and scrupulously fair. She didn’t sensationalize; her style was to let the victims speak for themselves.”

Corinne Dufka, another colleague who worked closely with Des Forges, wrote: “She always found the time to listen and helped me see outside the box. Alison inspired me to be a better researcher, a better colleague, a more giving mentor and a more balanced human being. She was also funny – her sardonic sense of humor, usually accompanied with that sparkle in her eye, lightened our burden.”

An historian by training, Des Forges wrote her PhD thesis on Rwanda and spent most of her adult life working on the Great Lakes region, despite an early stint in China with her husband, Roger, a professor of history and China expert at the University of Buffalo.

Des Forges graduated from Radcliffe College in 1964 and received her PhD from Yale in 1972. She began as a volunteer at Human Rights Watch, but was soon working full-time on Rwanda, trying to draw attention to the genocide she feared was looming. Eventually, Roth had to insist she take a salary. She co-chaired an international commission looking at the rise of ethnic violence in the region and published a report on the findings several months before the genocide. Once the violence began, Des Forges managed to convince diplomats in Kigali to move several Rwandans to safety, including the leading human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya.

As senior adviser to the Africa division at Human Rights Watch since the early 1990s, Des Forges oversaw all research work on the Great Lakes region, but also provided counsel to colleagues across the region and beyond. She also worked very closely with the International Justice Program because of all her involvement with the Rwanda tribunal.

“The office of the prosecutor relied on Alison as an expert witness to bring context and background and detailed knowledge of the genocide,” Roth said. “Her expertise was sought again and again and again by national authorities on cases unfolding in their courts of individuals facing deportation, or on trial for alleged involvement in the genocide.”

Most recently, Des Forges was working on a Human Rights Watch report about killings in eastern Congo.

Update – I was looking again just now at the online version of “Leave None To Tell The Story”. Since I first read it, back in 2001, Alison wrote an updated foreword, which gives one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of the links between what took place in Rwanda, and the lesser-known conflicts in Burundi and the DRC:

In mid-1994 officials of the former [Rwandan] government, soldiers, and militia fled to the Congo, leading more than a million Rwandans into exile. They carried with them their ideology of Hutu supremacy and many of their weapons. They sought the support of local Congolese people as well as of the government, hoping to broaden their base for continued resistance against the RPF. They insisted that Rwandan Hutu and different Congolese groups were a single “Bantu” people because they spoke similar languages and shared some cultural traits. They said Tutsi were “Nilotic” invaders who, together with the related Hima people of Uganda, intended to subjugate the “Bantu” inhabitants. This “Bantu” ideology – and the RPF determination to counter it – informed the framework for much of the military conflict in the region for the next ten years.

In 1996 Rwanda and Uganda, led by President Yoweri Museveni, invaded the Congo. Rwanda wanted to eliminate any possible threat from the former Rwandan army and militia who were re-organizing and re-arming in refugee camps in eastern Congo. Uganda sought greater political influence and control over resources in the region. Together with their Congolese allies, the Rwandan and Ugandan troops moved rapidly westward, at first hunting down the remnants of the Rwandan Hutu from the refugee camps – combatants and civilians alike – but then setting another objective, that of overturning Mobuto and his government. They succeeded, but in 1998 the new Congolese government, led by Laurent Desire Kabila, turned against its former supporters. Kabila told the Rwandan and Ugandan troops to go home, thus provoking a new war. This second Congo war at one point involved seven African nations and a host of rebel movements and other local armed groups, all fighting to control the territory and vast wealth of the Congo. Casualties among civilians were enormous, from lack of food, medical care, and clean water as well as from direct attack by the various forces.

The real nature of this war, like that of the first, was for a long time disguised by the references to the genocide. In demanding a return to national sovereignty Congolese officials spoke in anti-Tutsi language and crowds in Kinshasa killed Tutsi on the streets. Rwanda sought to justify making war by claiming the need to eliminate perpetrators of the genocide who were operating in eastern Congo with the support of the Congolese government. Rwandan authorities continued to stress this supposed security threat from the other side of the border long after the numbers and resources of the former Rwandan army and militia had diminished and their members were widely scattered.

In 1997 and 1998, in the hiatus between the two Congo wars, soldiers and militia of the genocidal government, supported by thousands of new recruits, crossed from the Congo and led an insurrection in northwestern Rwanda. The RPF forces suppressed the rebellion at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, many of them civilians who happened to live in the area. A substantial number of the rebel combatants had not taken part in the genocide and seemed more focused on overturning the government than on hunting down Tutsi civilians, but others continued to harbor genocidal intentions and singled out Tutsi to be attacked and killed.

Events in Burundi, a virtual twin to Rwanda in demographic terms, first influenced and then were influenced by the Rwandan genocide. Burundi was already immersed in its own crisis with widespread ethnic slaughter in late 1993. These killings, as well as international indifference to them, spurred genocidal planning in Rwanda. After April 1994 Burundians viewed with horror the massacres of others of their own ethnic group in Rwanda, Tutsi identifying with victims of the genocide and Hutu identifying with those killed by RPF forces. Burundian Tutsi and Hutu feared and distrusted each other more because of the slaughter in Rwanda and each group vowed that its members would not be the next victims. Former Rwandan soldiers and militia at times joined Burundian Hutu rebel forces, bringing them military expertise and reinforcing their anti-Tutsi ideas. RPF soldiers on occasion came south to help the Burundian army prevent a victory by Hutu rebels.

Within Rwanda the RPF used the pretext of preventing a recurrence of genocide to suppress the political opposition, refusing to allow dissidents to organize new political parties and eliminating an existing party that could potentially have challenged the RPF in national elections. Authorities jailed dissidents and drove others into exile on charges of “divisionism,” equated to an incipient form of genocidal thinking even when opponents sought to construct parties that included Tutsi as well as Hutu. During 2003, under RPF leadership, Rwandans adopted a new constitution that enshrined a vague prohibition of “divisionism” and made liberties of speech, press, and association subject to regulation – and possible limitation – by ordinary law. In presidential and legislative elections, the RPF came close to asserting that a vote for others was a vote for genocide – past or future. With such a campaign theme and with a combination of intimidation and fraud, the RPF re-affirmed its dominance of political life.

In the years just after the end of the genocide, many international leaders supported the RPF as if hoping thus to compensate for their failure to protect Tutsi during the genocide. Even when confronted with evidence of widespread and systematic killing of civilians by RPF soldiers in Rwanda and in the Congo, most hesitated to criticize these abuses. Not only did they see the RPF as the force that had ended the genocide but they also saw all opponents of the RPF as likely to be perpetrators of genocide, an assessment that was not accurate either in 1994 or later. So long as the parties were defined this way, international leaders acquiesced inÑor even actively supportedÑthe RPF activities in the Congo. Similarly international actors frequently tolerated RPF limits on civil and political freedom inside Rwanda, readily conceding the RPF argument that the post-genocidal context justified restrictions on the usual liberties.

As the ten years after the genocide drew to a close, the international community moderated its support of the current Rwandan government and exerted considerable pressure to obtain withdrawal of its troops from the Congo. Some international leaders began to question the tight RPF control within Rwanda; diplomats and election observers from the European Union and the United States noted abuses of human rights that marred the 2003 elections. Despite these signs of growing international concern, the RPF-led government appeared firmly seated for the near future. Whether it will be able to assure long-term stability and genuine reconciliation may depend on its ability to distinguish between legitimate dissent and the warning signs of another genocide.

Human Rights Watch reissues this book – substantially the same as the original printing – to ensure that a detailed history of the genocide remains available to readers. Since its first publication in English and French, the book has appeared in German and will shortly be published in Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda. The horrors recorded here must remain alive in our heads and hearts; only in that way can we hope to resist the next wave of evil.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 14, 2009 at 11:11 am

Posted in Titanic Express

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New blog dedicated to securing the release of Alexis Sinduhije

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Earlier this week, members of the Burundian diaspora and their supporters demonstrated in Brussels, calling on the European Union – a major aid donor to Burundi’s government - to help secure the release of Alexis Sinduhije.

Alexis, who as an award-winning journalist helped a great deal over the years with efforts to secure justice over the massacre in which my sister was killed, was arrested on November 3rd and charged with “contempt for the President” after seeking to establish a new, multi-ethnic political party.

Amnesty International is supporting the calls for his release, and a new website has recently been launched to increase the pressure on Burundi’s ruling party, CNDD-FDD, to allow Alexis to go free.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 22, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Titanic Express case to feature in Channel Four short tomorrow evening

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At 7.55pm on Monday evening I’ll be on Channel Four,  in the first of a series of short films for the week of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I’ll be talking about the massacre that formed the subject of my first book, Titanic Express - in relation to article eight of the UDHR, the right to justice. The film was made by Native Voice films, in collaboration with Amnesty International, and will be showing on Channel Four’s “3 minute wonder” slot. To give some sense of the detail that can go into a TV production, this 3 minute short took the best part of two days to film, with many hours more for editing. It was a fascinating process to be involved with, and from the edits I’ve seen so far I think they’ve done an excellent job.

There’s more background here about the Titanic Express ongoing campaign, and more here on the history of the case.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 7, 2008 at 6:35 pm

UN mediators fooled again by LRA leader Joseph Kony

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From the Institute of War and Peace Reporting

After announcing that he would sign a peace deal with the Ugandan government on Saturday, November 29, Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony again drew a crowd to the jungle camp of Nabanga on the border between South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

As Kony has done in the past, he balked, leaving a host of his Acholi tribal and cultural leaders waiting and wanting, along with the United Nations special envoy Joachim Chissano, the talk’s chief mediatory, South Sudan vice- president Riek Machar and a flock of international observers.

While the signing of the agreement would certainly have been a milestone in the history of Uganda, it remains a meaningless document despite the vast amount of time and money spent by international community on the talks, including the provision of food and other supplies to the rebels, over the past couple of years…

Kony has been able to manipulate the international community with his repeated peace overtures. He has devised the perfect ploy: talk peace, and do the opposite.

What’s clear is that Kony will be around for a long time, doing what he wants, when he wants, in part due to the painful indulgence of the international community.

Sadly, the innocent and the defenceless suffer. Maybe now, finally, the international community will wake up.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 1, 2008 at 11:59 pm

Human Rights Watch on the deadly consequences of UN wishful thinking in Congo

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William Swing

UN Congo chief William Swing withheld
evidence of DRC government atrocities

From Human Rights Watch

The United Nations and a number of bilateral donors invested significant financial and political capital in the [2006] Congolese elections, one of the largest electoral support programs in the UN’s history. But with the polls finished, they have failed to invest comparable resources and attention in assuring that the new government implements its international human rights obligations. For donor governments, concern about winning a favored position with the new government took priority over halting abuses and assuring accountability…

Donor governments said they would devote considerable financial and technical resources to security sector reform programs, but have yet to insist that such programs include adequate vetting to rid the military and law enforcement services of individuals in senior positions who have been implicated in serious human rights violations…

Following the killings in Bas Congo in February 2007, MONUC [the UN peacekeeping force in Congo] sent a multi-disciplinary team to investigate. Its report was not published for five months as it was deemed “too sensitive.” UN officials did not want to criticize the new government before securing its agreement on the role of MONUC in the post-electoral period. Similarly MONUC delayed publication of its report on the March 2007 events for fear of upsetting relations with Kabila.

Both reports were blocked by the head of MONUC, Ambassador William Swing, who deflected repeated requests from the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York and from the then UN high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, for the reports to be made public.

If the reports had been promptly published, they could have contributed to wider awareness of the serious violations committed and might have led to additional diplomatic pressure on the Congolese government to halt the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable. The March 2007 investigation report was eventually published in French on January 4, 2008, after a copy was leaked to the press; no English version has been made public.

Burundi’s “forgiving” government criminalises homosexuality

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Burundi’s Christian evangelical President, Pierre Nkurunziza, may be having difficulty living up to the New Testament exhortation to forgive those he sees as his enemies, but he’s following the Old Testament strictures on homosexuality rather more rigidly. The Burundian Parliament has just rushed through legislation which will, for the first time in the country’s history, criminalise gay relationships, and President Nkurunziza is expected to endorse it shortly.

Burundi now appears to be following what we might call the “Ugandan model” of church-led jurisprudence, where those responsible for torture, mass-killings, and rape (so long as the victims are women, obviously) get pardoned by the state, leaving it free to expend its resources persecuting and publicly vilifying men who sleep with other men.

At moments like this it’s traditional for western media types to shrug their shoulders and say things like “Well, it’s their culture, isn’t it? Surely we have to respect their ways”.

So I thought it might be useful to post some thoughts from the veteran Burundian commentator and former statesman Gratien Rukindiza, who describes the new law as “retrograde, reactionary and fundamentalist”, and suggests that Burundi’s leaders “believe they are closest to God when they hurt the Burundian people”.

“The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, is openly gay“, Rukindikiza points out. “He runs a city more populous than the whole of Burundi. The city is wealthier than Burundi. He is a respectable, honest man who will probably one day be President. Does the mayor of Bujumbura dare visit the mayor of Paris knowing that in Burundi, the law would send his host to jail?”

Written by Richard Wilson

November 25, 2008 at 1:32 am