A new piece from me in the New Humanist
Thousands of lives are at risk in the troubled east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a new and brutal rebellion, with a leadership described by the United Nations as “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations… in the world”, has flared up in a region where millions have died since the 1990s.
The “March 23” insurgency began as a mutiny earlier this year by former rebels who had been integrated into the Congolese army after a previous peace deal in March 2009. The mutiny was ostensibly triggered by violations of that agreement. But there are mounting allegations by the UN and human rights groups that the rebels are being directed, trained and supported by the government of neighbouring Rwanda. On 30 November, the UK government became the latest international donor to suspend aid to Rwanda as a result.
M23’s leaders reportedly include the notorious Rwandan-born warlord Bosco Ntaganda, whose bloody track record in previous conflicts has earned him the nickname “The Terminator”. Despite being wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, Bosco was given a senior role in the Congolese army as part of the 2009 peace deal.
“Bosco Ntaganda is the most notorious but he’s by no means the only one”, says Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch, who talks of a strong sense of déjà vu around the current crisis. “Quite a few of his mates are and have been doing the same kinds of things for years… No one has ever done anything to arrest them so they just carry on, they become emboldened… the use of violence and those atrocities start being rewarded.”
Closing down Lewisham’s Accident & Emergency department – who’s holding the fuse on the PFI time-bomb?
The government has announced plans to close the Accident and Emergency Department at Lewisham Hospital, despite having refurbished it to the tune of £12 million earlier this year.
The move has been condemned by patient groups, and by doctors who warn that patient-safety and quality of care will be put at risk.
The rationale for the change is unclear. While the authorities claim to be acting for financial reasons, one possibility is that the move is part of the government’s longer-term plans for incremental privatisation of the National Health Service.
The proposed closure of Lewisham A & E has been presented as a package of measures linked to the collapse of the neighbouring South London Healthcare Trust.
The South London Healthcare Trust went into administration earlier this year due to the spiralling costs of crippling “Public Finance Initiative” (PFI) contracts, which had been awarded to private companies on highly-lucrative terms under the last Labour government.
But the identity of the companies or individuals benefiting from these expensive PFI contracts appears to be shrouded in mystery. Local campaigners say that they have tried without success to get answers from the authorities about who has been profiting.
Can you help to shed light on the PFI feeding frenzy that is now threatening healthcare provision in South London?
One of the more amusing libel threats I’ve had since starting this blog came in 2010, on behalf of Tony Baldry MP, who at the time was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Banbury (he is now Sir Tony Baldry, the Member for North Oxfordshire).
Mr Baldry had taken exception to a blog post I had written about his dealings with a notoriously-corrupt Nigerian politician, James Ibori. So concerned was the Honorable Member that he deployed the services of the media law firm Olswang to make his concerns known. Here’s the “Strictly Private and Confidential” letter they sent to WordPress, cc-ing me.
Since then, James Ibori has been convicted by the UK courts of money-laundering on an epic scale.
Following a Freedom of Information request to the UK Foreign Office, I recently obtained a copy of the letter that Tony Baldry had sent in 2009 to the then Foreign Secretary, in which he raised concerns about the “draconian” freezing of James Ibori’s assets by the UK courts.
Due to a failure of file-format savvy at my end, and a lamentable over-reliance on MS Paint, I had initially thought, wrongly, that the Foreign Office had only sent me the first page of the letter – and wrote a somewhat tetchy blogpost.
In fact, they had sent me the entire thing, barring a couple of redactions.
The letter paints an intriguing picture of Tony Baldry’s work on behalf of James Ibori. Sir Tony has been at pains to point out that he wrote it in his capacity as a barrister, not as an MP. He also insists that he was not “lobbying” on Ibori’s behalf, and that he acted entirely appropriately.
I’m publishing the letter in full here (PDF converted from TIF), so Mr Baldry’s constituents can decide for themselves what they think of their MP’s second-job activities.
Private Eye also have a copy of the letter, and have published their take on it in this week’s edition.
VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS OF THE GATUMBA MASSACRE OF BANYAMULENGE REFUGEES IN BURUNDI STILL CRY FOR JUSTICE
From the peacebuilding group Ubuntu:
VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS OF THE GATUMBA MASSACRE OF BANYAMULENGE REFUGEES IN BURUNDI STILL CRY FOR JUSTICE
Eight years have passed since 164 Congolese citizens were savagely killed, some burned alive, on 13 August 2004. The victims were slayed while under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi. Hundreds of others were injured. The overwhelming majority of victims – many of them women and children – belonged to the Banyamulenge community. They had sought refuge in Burundi to escape from political oppression in South Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. A report dated 18 October 2004 jointly produced by the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), the United Nations Operation in Burundi (ONUB) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded that the attack was clearly directed against the Banyamulenge refugees and apparently, ethnically and politically motivated. Various sources, including the above UN report as well as a report by Human Rights Watch, compiled credible evidence leaving little doubts over the responsibilities in the massacre. The evidence clearly indicated that the Burundian Forces Nationales de Libération (PALIPEHUTU-FNL), the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the Congolese army (FARDC) and Mayi Mayi militia were directly involved in the Gatumba massacre.
The UN report asserted that many of these foreign armed groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi border region harbour resentments against the targeted group and others such as FARDC and Mayi Mayi militia may have political motives for preventing the refugees from returning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. PALIPEHUTU-FNL, then a rebel movement led by Agathon Rwasa, openly confessed its responsibility in this massacre. The ideology underlying the commission of the genocide in Rwanda one decade earlier was evident in the perpetration of the Gatumba massacre in August 2004. The UN report documented the fact that the attackers chanted such slogans as “we will exterminate all the Tutsis in Central Africa”; “kill these dogs, these Tutsis”; “today, you Tutsis, whether you are Rwandese, Congolese or Burundian, you will be killed”.
The massacre was widely condemned by several countries from around the globe as well as by supranational institutions such as the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations. Many of them pledged to support endeavours aimed at bringing the perpetrators to justice. The United Nations urged countries in the sub-region to cooperate in investigating the massacre and bringing perpetrators to justice. Eight years after the event, no single step has been taken to deliver justice for the slain and surviving victims of the Gatumba massacre. The uproar that accompanied the commission of the crime has faded and victims face the sad prospect of never seeing justice done. The peculiar circumstances of a crime committed against Congolese citizens, on Burundian territory, by Congolese national army and armed groups reportedly originating from three different or neighbouring countries of the region complicate, if not annihilate any prospects of domestic prosecutions against perpetrators of the crime. Victims are nonetheless still crying for justice. The inaction of Burundian, Congolese and other sub-regional authorities imposes a duty on the international community to get actively involved in delivering on the promise of justice made to them in the aftermath of the crime.
This eighth remembrance of the victims of the Gatumba massacre occurs at a time of revived tensions in eastern Kivu, the homeland of the slayed victims. Sources of the continued tensions include the unresolved socio-political and legal issues including elusive promises of justice and redress. Crimes committed in the DRC over the last decades have claimed numerous victims from the various communities living in the country. All victims deserve justice. Owing to the particular circumstances of the massacre and to the involvement of numerous actors, domestic and international initiatives aimed at delivering justice to the victims generally ignore the victims of the Gatumba massacre. This is evidenced by the non-coverage of the Gatumba massacre in the 2010 UN Mapping Report.
On this eighth remembrance of victims of the Gatumba massacre, UBUNTU notes that since the crime was committed, no active steps have been taken to bring perpetrators to justice. UBUNTU therefore urges:
• The international community to deliver on the promise of justice made to survivors of the Gatumba atrocities in the immediate aftermath of the crime.
• The United Nations to use all appropriate means to bring Agathon Rwasa and other perpetrators of the massacre to justice.
• The Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other sub-regional countries to cooperate in rehabilitating the victims.
For Ubuntu: Dr Felix Ndahinda and Alex Mvuka Ntung
UBUNTU is an organisation created by individuals from eastern DRC for purposes of contributing to initiatives aimed at preventing violence and working towards sustainable peace and conflict resolution in their native land and the wider Great Lakes Region of Africa. UBUNTU membership includes individuals who survived the Gatumba massacre. UBUNTU is one of only few actors who have constantly tried to remind the international community of the unfulfilled promise of justice for victims of the Gatumba massacre. It is an international peace-building and non-profit organization based in Brussels.
UBUNTU – Initiative for Peace and Development
Rue Creuse 60, B-1030 Brussels, Belgium, Enterprise no: 891.545.509, Approved by the
Belgium Royal Decree of 26th.07.2007.
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.
As I walked in I could see Charlotte’s body through the long rectangular window at the far side. A white sheet covered all but her face. Her eyes were closed, her eyelids blackened, her lips slightly parted. She looked as if she was frozen in time, neither peaceful nor troubled. Just an incredible, terrible stillness. As though she had died mid-sentence, or mid-gasp. Her skin was mottled brown, black lines tracing the veins across her face, dark hair pulled back from her forehead.
“Her hair looks thin – do you think she was eating properly?”, my mother asked, and somewhere I could hear Charlotte laughing.
Charlotte had been shot seven times in the back with an Eastern-European weapon, from a distance of two to three feet. She’d either have been kneeling or lying down. She would have died quickly. The only possible verdict was murder.
A lot has changed in my life since I finished the book from which the extract above is taken. It’s long enough ago now that I find it quite shocking to read back some of the things I wrote in the years following my sister’s murder. But Charlotte’s death changed the course of my life, and for me, the arms trade will always be a deeply personal issue.
Charlotte was shot dead in a bus massacre by Hutu-extremists in Burundi at the end of 2000. But the bullets that killed her, and the gun that fired them, were manufactured thousands of miles away. And they didn’t end up in Burundi by accident. Someone, somewhere, made a deliberate decision to transport these weapons to one of the poorest countries in the world, and put them in the hands of serial killers.
The reason I support the #armstreaty campaign is because I think it’s a good idea to try to stop serial killers getting hold of bullets and guns. According to Oxfam and Amnesty International, there are more international regulations controlling the global trade in bananas than the trade in deadly weapons. As a result, over 1,500 people die through armed violence every day, the majority of them civilians. If the international rules were more robust, it would be harder for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.
Now one of the big problems here is that the term “international regulation” is inherently dry and dull. I suspect this is one of the main reasons that the Arms Trade Treaty campaign (let’s face it, another quite dull term) has had so little media coverage.
This is a shame because, dull and legalistic though these terms are, the fact that we don’t yet have a comprehensive global system for regulating the arms trade (yawn, I know) means that hundreds of thousands of people are dying each year who might have lived, if it wasn’t quite so easy for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.
Happily, the inherent dullness of the words we have to use to talk about this problem has not stopped the United Nations from drawing up a treaty that could, if all goes well, make it much, much harder for serial killers to get hold of bullets and guns in future.
Even more happily, Oxfam and Amnesty have hit on a great way to make this issue less dull. On Wednesday, they will be driving around London in a tank, seeking to ramp up the pressure on the governments whose support could help to swing the crucial vote taking place at the UN next month. A number of bloggers, me included, will be tweeting from inside the tank under the #armstreaty hashtag.
Despite being quite boring, international treaties can make a huge difference, even when not everyone signs up to them. The 1998 treaty banning the use of landmines reportedly helped cut deaths and injuries from 26,000 per year to less than 6,000 a decade later – even though a number of countries refused to join in, and continued producing land-mines.
This is a really boring issue. It’s also a really important one, with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives. If you’d like to find out more about the campaign and what you can do to support it, please visit this website.