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2015 Year-Ender

If historical ingratitude were a crime, most of the people writing year-end pieces this month would be in jail.

This year was not like 1919, when 3 percent of the world’s population died of influenza, or 1943, when the Second World War was killing a million people each month, or 1983, when we came very close to World War Three (though the public didn’t realise it at the time). For most people, in most places, 2015 has been a pretty good year.

Yes, of course, the war in Syria, and millions of refugees, and the downturn in China dragging the world economy down with it, and terrorism here, there and everywhere. And of course, climate change waiting around the corner to drag us all down. But if you are waiting for a year with nothing to worry about, you’ll be waiting a long time.

The war in Syria is four years old and still going strong. In late summer it looked for a time as if the Islamist rebels were going to destroy the Syrian army and take over the whole country, but the Russian intervention restored the stalemate. There is even talk of a ceasefire now, so that everybody else can concentrate on fighting Islamic State.

That may not happen, because Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both determined to destroy the Assad regime at any cost. The Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham (clones of Islamic State who make up the bulk of what American propaganda portrays as “the moderates”) may not agree to a ceasefire either. The war could go on for years yet. But unless Islamic State and the other jihadis actually win, the war will not spread beyond Syria’s borders

There are other wars in the Middle East too, in Iraq (where Islamic State also holds much territory), in Afghanistan (where the Taliban are winning), and in Yemen (where the conservative Arab states have mistaken a tribal quarrel for an Iranian plot and launched a bombing campaign to thwart it). Libya’s internal wars are getting worse, and there is even talk of renewed Western military intervention there.

Oh, and Turkey has relaunched its war against the Kurds. The Middle East is a full-spectrum mess, and the particular brand of Islamist extremism that has taken root there has expanded out of the region to produce terrorist attacks from India to Kenya to France, and even the United States. But the terrorism is not as big as it seems, and neither is the Middle East.

The Middle East only contains 10 percent of the world’s people, and the Arab world (where most of the bloodshed happens) is only half of the Middle East. Its only major export is oil, and its main import is food. What happens there is not as important as what happens in the other 90 percent of the world, which is by and large at peace and doing quite well.

There are no wars at all in Asia, which is home to half the human race, and no wars in the Americas either. There is one war in Europe, in eastern Ukraine with heavy Russian involvement, but a ceasefire has greatly reduced (but not entirely stopped) the shooting in the past four months.

The only real war in Africa this year was in South Sudan, now suspended at least temporarily, although there are half-a dozen other countries where there is a significant level of civil or terrorist violence (Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, etc.). Forty of the fifty African countries are entirely at peace, and most of them are at least partly democratic.

This is not a picture of world where violence is out of control. The violence is approaching catastrophic levels in parts of the Middle East, but the scattered incidents of Islamist terrorism against non-Muslims elsewhere are relatively small and few in number. Neverheless, they have encouraged the Western media (and several Western leaders) to talk about terrorism as an “existential threat”.

That is absurd, but Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican party’s nomination for US president, has proposed that the the United States should deal with this “threat” by stopping all Muslims from entering the country. The number of non-Middle Eastern people who actually died in terrorist attacks in 2015, including the two Paris attacks, the Los Angeles attack, and attacks on tourists in Muslim countries (mostly British in Tunisia and Russians in Egypt) was just over 400.

The total population of Russia, the United States, Britain and France is about 600 million, so the risk of being killed by an Islamist terrorist, if you are a citizen of one of those countries, is one in one-and-a-half million. It is not a crisis. It is just a problem, and fairly far down the list of problems these countries face.

The refugees coming out of the Middle East, mainly from Syria, are a much bigger issue, but the main burden of caring for them has fallen on neighbouring Muslim countries, principally Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. About one million refugees have reached Europe this year, sparking a political panic in the European Union (population 500 million), but the extraordinary generosity of Germany, which has taken in four-fifths of those refugees, more than compensates for the meaner behaviour of other Western countries.

Enough on the Middle East – except for the quote of the year, from Edward Luttwak, the celebrated freelance “defence intellectual” and self-styled “grand strategist” who sells his advice to presidents and generals. “You know, I never gave George W. Bush enough credit for what he’s done in the Middle East….He ignited a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis that will occupy the region for the next thousand years. It was a pure stroke of brilliance.” Unwitting brilliance, of course, and it won’t be a thousand years or even a hundred, but there is an element of truth in that.

In Asia, the Burmese election in November was probably the final step in ending half a century of military rule in that unfortunate country. The long-predicted drop in the Chinese economy’s growth rate seems to be arriving at last (though the regime still denies it), and the question of whether the Communist dictatorship can survive a prolonged period of slow growth is slowly working its way back onto the agenda.

The Indian economy continues to power ahead, although it remains far smaller than China’s. There were the usual typhoons and earthquakes, and a long-term confrontation may be building over China’s series of new military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, but on the whole Asia had a fairly good year.

So did Africa, despite renewed terrorist attacks in Mali, President Zuma’s boundless corruption in South Africa, and the tail-end of the ebola epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – and at least that epidemic spurred the high-speed development of a vaccine that will help to contain future outbreaks.

Nigeria, with a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, brought the Boko Haram insurgency more or less under control, and even Kenya, the main victim of Islamist terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, had some good news.

The year began badly for Kenya when Al-Shabaab terrorists from Somalia stormed Garissa University College in April and killed 148 people, mostly Christians who were separated from their Muslim fellow-students and shot or hacked to death in front of them.

But when another group of Islamist terrorists stopped a bus on a road in northern Kenya in December and ordered the Muslim passengers to identify the Christians amongst them, they refused: “We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily,” said Abdi Mohamud Abdi. Unwilling to murder Muslims, the terrorists left.

Europe has had a relatively quiet time, apart from the refugees. The British election returned the Conservatives to power with a wafer-thin majority, but the Spanish election destroyed the two-party system and left everything up in the air. Silvio Berlusconi finally withdrew from Italian politics, pursued by numerous legal proceedings and leaving the scene less exciting but considerably cleaner.

There was near-panic in the spring about Greece defaulting on its debts and leaving the euro. The anti-austerity, left-wing Syriza government won two elections and a referendum in the course of the year, but eventually submitted to the disciplines of the European Union rather than being cast into the outer darkness.

In Latin America, the high-profile event was the re-opening, after 54 years, of the US embassy in Havana, although ending the trade embargo against Cuba is still subject to a Congressional vote. Left-wing governments lost elections in Argentina and Venezuela (although President Nicolas Maduro still controls the executive branch in Caracas), and even President Dilma Rousseff is in trouble in Brazil, but this is just the usual ebb-and-flow of politics. Latin America is no longer a place apart; it is just part of the West.

And what are we to make of North America? Canada finally showed Stephen Harper the door after almost ten years and elected his Liberal antithesis, Justin Trudeau, to the vast relief of practically everybody beyond its borders and a majority within them. Yet in the same year the Jurassic candidate, Donald Trump, emerges as the Republican front-runner for next year’s presidential election in the United States.

However, there is a strong argument for saying that Trump’s main appeal to potential voters is that he is not boring. This could be a problem for Hillary Clinton, who for all her sterling virtues is deeply, deeply boring.

They have been holding a mock election at Western Illinois University one year before the national election ever since 1975. They have chosen the correct party and even the right candidate every time, including people who were still very dark horses at the time like Jimmy Carter (for the 1976 election) and Barack Obama (for the 2008 election).

They held their mock election for next year last month – and the Democrats won. But Hillary Clinton didn’t. The next president, according to the mock election, will be Bernie Sanders. At least he isn’t boring.
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To shorten to 1250 words, omit paras 5, 10, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23.(“That…borders”; “The only…democratic”; “Enough…that”; and “Nigeria…darkness”) You may shorten the article further as you wish by removing paragraphs of less interest to your particular audience.

The African Union and the ICC

14 October 2013

The African Union and the ICC

By Gwynne Dyer

Surprise of the week: the club of African presidents (aka the African Union) has held a special meeting and declared that African presidents should be immune from prosecution for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes while they are in office. They are taking this step, they say, because the International Criminal Court is unfairly targeting Africans: all eight cases currently under investigation are about crimes committed in African countries.

“We would love nothing more than to have an international forum for justice and accountability, but what choice do we have when we get only bias and race-hunting at the ICC?” said President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya (who by a strange coincidence is currently under indictment by the ICC). “The ICC…stopped being the home of justice the day it became the toy of declining imperial powers.”

The AU is not demanding perpetual immunity for its presidents. It only wants to reject the evil meddling of Western imperialists, and to keep African heads of state free from prosecution while they are still in office. What could be more reasonable than that?

So Uganda’s Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Sekou Toure of Guinea and other African mass murderers who actually died in office would have been liable for prosecution as soon as they retired, if they ever had retired and if the ICC had existed at that time. Their victims would have had justice at the last, if only posthumously.

If the AU gets its way now, the victims of current African leaders who commit crimes against humanity will only have to wait until they retire to see justice done. True, some African leaders stay in power for a long time – e.g. Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (32 years), Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola (32 years), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (31 years), and Paul Biya of Cameroon (29 years) – but Africans are patient people.

Except that they may not be that patient any more. Twenty years ago the accusation that the ICC is just an instrument of imperialist oppression and Western racism would still have played well in Africa, but the audience has got a lot more sophisticated. The AU’s modest proposal has been greeted with an outcry all over the continent, from Africans who know that their leaders can be just as cynical and self-serving as leaders anywhere else.

The most eloquent protest came from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 82-year-old hero of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. “Those leaders seeking to skirt the (ICC) are effectively looking for a license to kill, maim and oppress their own people without consequence,” he said. “They simply vilify the institution as racist and unjust, as Hermann Goering and his fellow Nazi defendants vilified the Nuremberg tribunals following World War II.”

So is the ICC really a racist organisation that unfairly targets African states? The fact that all eight cases currently being prosecuted involve African countries certainly sounds suspicious. So does the fact that three of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which has the right to refer cases to the ICC, have not accepted the court’s jurisdiction themselves. But things are more complicated than they seem.

One hundred and twenty-two countries have already ratified the Treaty of Rome that created the ICC in 1998, including two-thirds of the countries in Africa and all the countries in Latin America except Cuba and Nicaragua. The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC is an African (Fatou Bensouda of Gambia), as are five of its eighteen judges.

The anomaly of Security Council members that have not ratified the treaty themselves (China, Russia and the United States) voting to initiate prosecutions before the ICC is definitely a problem. But only two of the eight current cases, in Libya and Sudan, were started by a vote of the Security Council, where Western influence is relatively large.

Four of the eight cases now before the Court (Uganda, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Central African Republic) were referred to the International Criminal Court by the African countries themselves. Two were begun by the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor (Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire). And only two of the seven new cases now under consideration (Afghanistan, Georgia, Guinea, Colombia, Honduras, Korea and Nigeria) are in African countries.

This is not a conspiracy against Africa, nor is the AU defending African rights. It is an exclusive club of African presidents that is attempting to get its own members, the leaders of Sudan and Kenya,off the hook, and to protect the rest of the membership from any future legal proceedings.

As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, it would be a “badge of shame” for Africa if they get away with it, but they may not. They can easily dismiss the opinions of the “international community” (whatever that is), but they may find it harder to ignore the indignation they are arousing among their own citizens.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“So…posthumously”; and “The anomaly…large”)

 

Imperial Guilt

10 June 2013

Imperial Guilt

Gwynne Dyer

Sir Eric Griffith-Jones, the attorney-general in the British colony of Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau rebellion, was a sensitive soul who worried that the torture and murder of detainees in the prison camps where suspected Mau Mau supporters were being held was “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.” So he wrote the governor in 1957, warning him that “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.”

It stayed quiet for a long time – so quiet that many British people were able to believe that their empire had somehow been nicer than the others. But empires are tyrannies by definition, built by violence and maintained by fear, and the British empire in Africa was no exception. Half a century late, the British government has finally been forced to admit that.

The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in 1952-60 was suppressed with great brutality. The Kenya Human Rights Commission estimates that 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed in British prison camps during the “Emergency”, but nobody was ever punished for the horrors that happened there, and none of the victims ever got an apology. Until now.

By 2011, the Kenyan survivors of the camps were mostly in their 80s and dying off fast, and the few people in the British Foreign Office who even remembered that ugly episode probably assumed that the shameful details would be buried with them. But then five survivors of the camps lodged a claim against Britain for compensation, on behalf of some 6,000 victims who were still alive, and the whole can of worms was re-opened.

The British government used every legal trick in the book to avoid admitting liability. It even claimed that the victims should be seeking compensation from the Kenyan government, not from Britain, since that government inherited all of London’s legal responsibilities when Kenya got its independence in 1963. (Is there any limit to the cynicism and hypocrisy of governments bent on covering things up? Perhaps, but it has not yet been discovered.)

When that claim was rejected by the courts, the British government claimed that no fair trial was possible since it was all too long ago: there would be “irredeemable difficulties” in finding relevant witnesses and documents. We’d love to help you, but alas there are no records.

Then the lawyers for the claimants discovered that the government had been concealing the existence of an enormous secret archive, some 8,000 files from 37 former British colonies, which had been removed from the Public Records Office and stored elsewhere. It was hidden precisely because it documented the various crimes and atrocities that the British imperial authorities committed while trying to suppress various independence movements.

In the end, after a court battle so long that two of the five lead claimants died, the British government concluded that it didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Last week it announced an out-of-court settlement that gave some 5,228 Kenyan survivors of the camps compensation of about $5,700 each. It also agreed to pay the $9 million legal costs that the claimants had run up while the government lied, stalled and stonewalled.

Foreign Secretary William Hague even said that “the British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place” – but he stressed that the British government was not admitting any legal liability for the actions of the British colonial administration in Kenya. It just felt bad about what had happened to those poor old Kenyans long ago, and wanted to make them feel better by giving them some money.

Well, no, he didn’t actually say that last sentence, but why couldn’t he bring himself to say “it was our fault and we’re really sorry for what we did”? Because there are half a dozen other claims waiting to be submitted by the victims of other atrocities during Britain’s long retreat from empire.

There are the relatives of Malaysian villagers who were massacred by British troops in 1948. There are the Greek-Cypriots who fought against British rule in the 1950s and were imprisoned without trial; they claim that many were tortured and executed in the camps. There could even be claims from Yemen, where an Amnesty International report documented torture and genital mutilation of detainees during the revolt against British rule in Aden in the 1960s.

The British government’s strategy is the same in every case: deny, dissimulate, and delay. Hague’s refusal to admit liability, even as he pays off the Kenyan claimants, is part of that larger strategy. And the Foreign Office has already said that any future claims may be dealt with under the controversial secret court system established by the new Justice and Security Act, which comes into effect next month. If you don’t like the law, change it.

It’s that magic word “security” again. So will the Russian government ever offer compensation and apologies to all the people it has illegally detained and tortured in Chechnya over the past twenty years? Will the US government ever make restitution to all the people it has held without trial in places like Bagram and Guantanamo, or handed over to its allies for more imaginative torture than it can do in its own prisons? Don’t hold your breath.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 7. (“The British…movements”)

 

 

Kenya: Justice at Last

8 October 2012

Kenya: Justice at Last

By Gwynne Dyer

“I wish to make it clear before I cross-examine the three claimants that the (British government) does not dispute that each of the claimants suffered torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration (in Kenya),” said the British government’s defence lawyer, Guy Mansfield, QC. Damn right they did. One, Paulo Nzili, was beaten so hard he went deaf, and castrated in public with the same pliers used to geld cattle.

British colonial officers commanded the African troops who did that and worse to Nzili and thousands of others in the concentration camps that Britain set up to hold suspected supporters of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. Fifty years later, it has finally made it into the courts.

About 70,000 people spent years in the British camps in Kenya. Some were murdered, and almost all were beaten, sexually abused, and/or tortured. But it was a long time ago, and only about 5,000 former inmates of the camps were still alive when three of them, Paulo Nzili, Jane Muthoni Mara, and Wambuga wa Nyingi decided to sue the British government for compensation.

With financial support from Kenyan human rights organisations, they launched their case in the high court in London. The British government, while admitting the torture, claimed that the victims should sue the Kenyan government instead, since it had inherited the responsibilities of the former colonial administration at independence in 1963.

Lawyers really do use arguments like that. They don’t even blush when they do it. But in June of last year the high court rejected the British government’s defence – whereupon its lawyers shifted their ground and said that it was all far too long ago. The few surviving witnesses are too old, and there are no documents. Sorry, we’d love to help, but in the circumstances….

Last Friday the same high court judge dismissed that argument too. There are actually almost too many documents: the publicity surrounding the case led to the discovery that the British Foreign Office has been hiding 8,800 files about the Kenya abuses in a country house in Buckinghamshire for the past 50 years.

Those files contain enough evidence to prove the truth of what the claimants say. The British government will appeal the judge’s ruling, probably in the hope of dragging things out until the claimants die (two are in their mid-80s) or become too ill to testify. But it’s likely that the actual lawsuit will be heard next year, and will result in a victory for the claimants.

That would open the floodgates for thousands more claims for compensation from other Kenyan victims of British atrocities. It would also allow many thousands of aging victims of British violence and cruelty elsewhere during the last years of the empire, especially in Malaysia, in Cyprus, and in Aden (now Yemen), to seek compensation in the British courts for their suffering.

Good. Britain should offer generous compensation to them all, plus an abject apology for the great crimes committed in its name. It can afford to pay. In fairness, it should also track down the families of those victims who have already died and compensate them properly (even though that would be a legal and administrative nightmare).

So if these half-century-old injustices can be acknowledged by the courts and at least partly compensated, how about more recent ones? What are the chances that a British or American court will one day offer compensation to innocent Arabs, Afghans and other Muslims who were swept up in the so-called “war on terror” and spent years in confinement without charge or trial, often being beaten or tortured? Very small, unfortunately.

Under the pressure of events, even the governments of democratic countries readily abandon the rule of law, and they rarely apologise afterwards, let alone offer compensation. After fifty years the British courts can address the horrors of the colonial past more freely, but even now Britain will not bring the men who ordered the abuse of these old Kenyan men to trial. Yet their names are known, and some of them must still be alive too.

Most crimes go unpunished. It’s true in private life, and it’s even truer for great states. But gradually, at the edges, the courts are making inroads on this ancient and brutal reality. As in, for example, Kenya itself.

After the terrible post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, in which both the leading parties were deeply implicated, a Commission of Inquiry led by judge Philip Waki recommended that the Kenyan government set up a special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the worst crimes.

The National Assembly of Kenya, taking the British government as its model, refused. But the judge passed his evidence to the International Criminal Court, which opened a case against the senior officials of both parties held to be most responsible. The Kenya government did everything it could to stop the case, but it is going ahead in the Hague anyway – and a majority of ordinary Kenyans support the ICC process.

So there IS progress, if only slowly.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“Good…nightmare”; and “Under…too”)