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On media hate campaigns – from Titanic Express

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My first book, Titanic Express, focusses on the death of my sister Charlotte in a massacre in Burundi in December 2000. To give some background on my involvement in the recently launched “Stop Funding Hate” campaign, I wanted to share this excerpt (p42).

There was a knock on the door around three that afternoon. The tactful and sympathetic man on the doorstep was from the Daily Mail, and he was asking to speak to Mrs. Wilson. He told my mother how sorry he was to intrude at such a difficult time, but he had a letter that he would like to give her. Would she be prepared to look at the letter, have a think about what it said and then give him her answer in around an hour? My mother agreed.

The letter from the man from the Mail offered his condolences, and asked if my mother would be willing to give an interview to his newspaper about Charlotte’s life. When he returned an hour later, my mother invited him in, sat him down, and calmly explained why she simply couldn’t do it.

She told him that she was an English teacher, and for the last ten years she had been working with people who’d fled from some of the world’s most troubled countries. Iranians and Iraqis, Congolese, Somalis, Bosnians and Kosovans, Turkish Kurds, Eritreans and Ethiopians – even a couple of Burundians had made it into her classroom. All had lost some members of their family – some had lost everyone.

Several were still receiving treatment for the torture they had suffered. Those who were allowed to work at all had grinding, menial jobs. Large numbers faced the prospect of being forcibly returned to the warzones they had fled, amid government protestations that these countries were “safe”.

She had lost count of the number of times a student had mentioned in class that another loved one back home had been killed. And she had lost count of the number of newspaper articles she had seen portraying refugees as liars, cheats, frauds, “bogus” people.

When the stories had first begun, in the mid 1990s, my mother had dismissed them. But then they’d continued, year after year, painting a picture that she just could not recognise of the desperate, traumatised people that she worked with every day. She and her colleagues had begun to wonder if there was something more complicated going on. It hadn’t escaped their attention that so many of these stories were emanating from the Daily Mail, and its sister paper the Evening Standard. My mother had seen the effect of these stories on government policy, and she’d seen the effect of those increasingly harsh policies on her students. She would feel she was betraying them now if she had anything to do with the Daily Mail.

The man from the Mail took this so well that I felt quite sorry for him. More than anything, though, I felt proud of my mother. I knew something of the horrors she had heard from her students over the years, and the effect she herself had suffered from being so close to such suffering. I knew how angry she had been about the distortion and duplicity of newspapers like the Daily Mail. And yet, just three days after suffering one of the worst blows of her life, faced with a representative of an organisation that she and most of her colleagues regarded as something close to “hate media”, she’d shown a calmness and dignity that I found quite extraordinary.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 22, 2016 at 7:00 am

UN warns of renewed genocide in Burundi – 12 years on from Gatumba

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Choir at the UK commemoration of the August 13th 2004 Gatumba massacre

On the 12th anniversary of the Gatumba massacre, the UN has warned that Burundi is again facing the prospect of genocide – amid “systematic torture directed towards certain political and ethnic groups”.

The UN has also spoken out against the worrying escalation in “genocidal rhetoric”.

There’s a more detailed briefing from Amnesty International here on the deteriorating situation.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 14, 2016 at 9:13 am

“Stand up if you’re England!” – why I’m voting #Remain

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On a warm summer’s day in Amsterdam, many years ago, I had a small moment of revelation about what it means to be English.

It was England vs Denmark – our fourth game of the 2002 World Cup. We’d beaten Argentina in the group stages, avenging the defeat that sent us crashing out in 1998. And despite the six more years of hurt that had passed since “Football’s Coming Home” became England’s unofficial national anthem, I still believed we could go all the way.

I was in a bar, watching the game with my girlfriend. Being Belgian, Heleen shared neither my enthusiasm nor optimism about the match, but gamely indulged me. We’d been together less than a year, still in the phase of happily tolerating each other’s foibles.

It felt like a good time to be English. If the 90s notion of “Cool Britannia” had lost some of its charm, I still had the sense of a nation that was far more hopeful, outward-looking and at ease with itself than during my childhood – an era punctuated by strikes, riots, and IRA bomb attacks.

And it was a glorious game – England were 1-0 up within five minutes, when Sorensen fumbled a header from Rio Ferdinand. Michael Owen made it 2-0 soon afterwards. Heskey scored a third just before half time.

The match finished 3-0. As we emerged into the sunshine, we found ourselves in a beautiful Amsterdam square filled with crowds of cheering, white-clad, England fans.

“Ingalund, Inglalund, Ingalund!” sang the English, raising their beer glasses in the summer air.

“Ingalund, Ingalund, Inga-laa-und!”

“Ingalund, Ingaland, Ingalund!”

“Ingalund, ING-GA-LUND!”

We smiled and nodded.

Then they turned their attention to the increasingly-uncomfortable non-English audience passing through the square.

If it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts!”, sang my compatriots, referencing – arguably somewhat simplistically – the role played by England during World War II.

If it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts!

“If it wasn’t for the English, wasn’t for the English, wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts!”.

By this point, my Belgian girlfriend was pretty uncomfortable too.

“Stand UP… if you’re Ingalund!”, they shouted

“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”

“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”

“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”

As they looked around the square, trying to make eye contact and gesturing for us to stand with them, I knew I had far more of an affinity – far more of a sense of solidarity and kinship – with the awkward Dutch passers-by, and the beautiful Belgian I was with, than with my drunk English compatriots.

The June 23rd referendum on Britain’s EU membership looks likely to be very tight. For sensible, pragmatic reasons, much of the debate has centred around the argument that Britain – and England – will be safer and more prosperous within the European Union than outside it.

But I know that in practice – as with last year’s referendum on Scottish independence – for many English people this vote will partly be about how we see ourselves as a nation.

There is an idea of England, and Englishness, that emphasises our separateness – that will always define itself in opposition to the rest of Europe, distrusting the French and the Germans, and patronising the Belgians, Scots, Welsh, Irish, and Dutch. An idea of England defined, perhaps above all else, by the defeat of Germany in “two World Wars and one World Cup”.

This version of our national identity is expressed so loudly, brashly, and frequently, that it can start to seem like the only way. Either you “stand up” and join the white-clad drunks hurling chauvinistic abuse at random passers-by, or you vacate the square.

But there is another way of thinking about English identity – one that can be outward-looking, not insular, despite our island status. An idea of Englishness that, rather than augmenting differences, emphasises our closeness to – and solidarity with – our European neighbours.

Amid the jingoistic focus on vanquished Germans, it’s worth remembering that the starting point for British engagement in World War I was the commitment to support our allies in Belgium – while our role in World War II began with a decision to defend the Poles.

In myriad ways, Britain, and England, have been actively engaged with the rest of Europe for centuries. It seems to me that our EU membership can be seen as the natural – and happily now far more peaceful – continuation of this.

So on June 23rd I will “stand up”. But I’ll be standing up for a very different kind of England than that represented by my brash, beer-swilling compatriots, long ago in that square in Amsterdam.

In voting Remain, I’ll be standing up for an England at ease with its identity as a European nation – and for an idea of Englishness based on co-operation and respect, not division and chauvinism.

I’ll also be standing up for the beautiful Belgian who is now my wife – and for our two young children, who are as at home on the continent as they are here in London.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 18, 2016 at 12:10 pm

Deadly crisis in Burundi – will the European Union act to prevent more deaths?

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Eyewitness: “I’m afraid that today a lot of people could be killed in Burundi”

Yesterday I ran the London marathon with my sister Catherine. We were doing this in memory of our older sister Charlotte, who was killed in a vicious massacre in Burundi in December 2000. As I ran I was acutely conscious that, fifteen years on, many more lives are now at risk in Burundi today.

National elections are due in the next few months, and the ruling party CNDD-FDD seems determined to suppress dissent, and prevent its rivals from contesting the election effectively. In the run-up to the elections, CNDD-FDD has been brutally attacking opposition parties, and harassing human rights activists and the independent media.

In recent weeks, thousands have fled to neighbouring Rwanda, reporting violence and threats from the ruling party’s armed youth militia, the Imbonerakure. Yesterday a number of deaths were reported at anti-government protests in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. Today it has been reported that Burundi’s iconic human rights campaigner Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa has been arrested (following a long spell in detention last year), and arrest warrants issued for other leading activists.

The European Union – and a number of EU member states, in particular the Netherlands – are deeply implicated in the crisis now facing Burundi. The CNDD-FDD-led government is heavily bankrolled by the Netherlands and the European Commission aid programme, to the extent that the government would struggle to cling to power if this support was withdrawn.

In theory, European Commission aid money is conditional on recipient governments respecting the “Cotonou Agreement” – which commits signatories to tackling corruption, respecting human rights, and upholding the rule of law.

In practice, the European Commission has continued to fund the Burundian government despite mounting evidence of torture, extrajudicial killings, attacks on the media, and endemic corruption.

As ever, the lack of global attention on Burundi is an exacerbating factor. The country receives little media coverage at the best of times – but with so many other crises taking place right now there is a danger that Burundi will slip even lower down the international agenda.

CNDD-FDD appears to be counting on the fact that – as has happened in Burundi so many times before – it can commit acts of violence and repression without any great international outcry.

The European Commission, too, seems unlikely to change course unless it is forced to do so by the weight of public opinion.

But pressure has started to increase. Last year, Members of the European Parliament issued a strongly-worded statement denouncing the Burundian government’s abuses, and calling for “a clear and principled EU policy vis a vis Burundi that addresses the on-going serious human rights violations”. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, condemned the EU’s “weak” stance on Burundi.

Both the US and UK governments have made strong and positive statements urging an end to the violence – but given the scale of the EU aid budget its voice is especially critical.

Burundians in Europe have been contacting their MEPs urging them to press the European Commission to use its influence to help end the Burundian government’s repression. If you have a moment to support this call, please write to your MEPs via www.theyworkforyou.com.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 27, 2015 at 11:55 am

Agathon Rwasa summoned to court to face justice over the Gatumba massacre

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Messy, chaotic – but a breakthrough nonetheless: Ten years after his troops massacred over 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees at a UNHCR camp in Burundi, ex-FNL leader Agathon Rwasa this week received a court summons to answer questions over the attack.

This follows a long and determined campaign by survivors and relatives of the dead, which included the submission, in August last year, of a criminal complaint against Agathon Rwasa and his former spokesman, Pasteur Habimana.  That in itself was a momentous achievement amid Burundi’s volatile and corrupt political landscape – where impunity is the norm and not one political leader has yet faced justice over the many massacres that took place during Burundi’s ten-year civil war. Over the past year, the Gatumba case has been stopped and restarted by the Burundian authorities, with the campaigners facing down pressure for them to drop the charges. The government’s shambolic handling of the case has continued this week, with Rwasa arriving at court to be told that the hearing had been postponed without explanation. Yet this is still the closest that the former FNL leader has yet come to facing justice over the mass-killings he has committed – and Pasteur Habimana has already appeared at the court four times.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a very personal interest in this issue – four years before the Gatumba massacre – in December 2000 – FNL troops under the command of Agathon Rwasa ambushed a bus close to the Burundian capital and killed 21 of the passengers – including my sister Charlotte and her fiancé Richard Ndereyimana. Like Gatumba, the attack was genocidal in character – Hutu passengers were released unharmed, with a message for the authorities: “We’re going to kill them all and there’s nothing you can do”.

Yet the Gatumba campaigners have shown that there is something you can do when a crime like this is committed – even in Burundi.

Agathon Rwasa’s supporters and sympathisers have sought to portray the case as a politically-motivated conspiracy by the Burundian ruling party to undermine their leader’s electoral ambitions.

This conveniently paints out of the picture the huge efforts that the Gatumba survivors have made – the pressures they have faced and the obstacles they have surmounted – in getting this case to court. It also ignores, again, the central fact of this case – the 160 living, breathing human beings – half of them children – whose lives were extinguished by Agathon Rwasa’s men on August 13th 2004. They are the reason that Rwasa is now, at last, facing some measure of justice.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 17, 2014 at 6:57 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Child survivor of Gatumba speaks at the UN, calls for Rwasa’s prosecution

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Sandra Uwiringiyimana, who at the age of 10 narrowly survived the Gatumba massacre in August 2004, has given a moving testimony to the UN Security (video here), concluding with this eloquent plea for justice:

“That is my story. I will tell it to anyone who will listen. Not because it is easy. Every time I tell it I am back in Gatumba, a ten-year-old in a burning tent.

But as long as the criminal who admitted to leading that massacre continues to walk freely in the streets of Burundi, I have no choice. I must keep telling it. Until the international community proves my words are not only worthy of empathy, but also of accountability. Until leaders like you and the countries you represent show me that my family and all the others are not disposable.

The only way to do that is by bringing people like Agathon Rwasa to justice. Only then will war criminals know that their crimes are wrong, and will not go unpunished. Only then will millions of survivors like me hear loud and clear that our lives have value.”

Written by Richard Wilson

September 18, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Posted in Human rights

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Gatumba massacre campaign round-up + Agathon Rwasa’s attempt to un-claim responsibility

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In August 2004 over 150 Congolese Tutsi refugees were massacred at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi. Over half of those killed were children, shot, hacked and burned to death in what survivors believe amounted to an act of genocide.

The Burundian Hutu-extremist group Palipehutu-FNL claimed responsibility shortly afterwards, with eyewitness evidence suggesting that other extremist groups were also involved, including Rwanda’s FDLR and the Congolese Mai-Mai militia. Yet ten years on nothing has been done to prosecute those responsible, despite strong international condemnation and a UN Resolution calling for justice.

Survivors marked this year’s 10th anniversary by renewing their call for the former FNL leader Agathon Rwasa and spokesman Pasteur Habimana to face trial over the attack. Campaigners held commemoration events across the world – from Burundi, Congo and Kenya to Canada, the UK, the Netherlands and the United States. 

My personal connection to this issue is that Rwasa’s FNL is also believed to have been behind the December 2000 Titanic Express massacre in which my sister Charlotte was killed. I was present at both the UK and Netherlands-based commemoration events.

In the US, survivors Sandra Uwiringiyimanya and Adele Kibasumba, gave a powerful TV interview about their experiences.

“The biggest thing is that someone who committed this crime is out there, and nobody cares enough to say – ‘hey this is not right’. And it’s like their lives were lost in vain…” Sandra told WXXI News.

“It’s that much more heartbreaking knowing that you didn’t only lose loved ones, but to top it off the person that committed the crime is living like a king”.

“The United Nations, and the international community… for us, the survivors it has been nothing but silence, and I think that they have ignored the massacre”, Adele added. “We want justice. Knowing that they know who did it and they’re not acting – it’s silence and ignorance to me.”

The survivors’ call for justice was backed by a strong statement from the respected global watchdog Human Rights Watch, who had investigated the attack in detail in 2004.

“The Gatumba massacre was a direct and deliberate attack on unarmed civilians,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The killings have been well-documented, yet 10 years later, no one has been prosecuted.”

The Burundian government should mark the anniversary by demonstrating its commitment to ending impunity for the killings at Gatumba and other grave crimes against unarmed civilians, Human Rights Watch said…

The 10-year anniversary of the massacre comes just three months after Burundi adopted a law establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed between 1962 and 2008. Tens of thousands of people were killed in Burundi during this period, many in ethnically targeted attacks. While there were numerous large-scale killings during the war, which began in 1993, the Gatumba massacre stands out as one of the largest attacks in more recent years.

The 2014 law does not provide for the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the most serious crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

“The absence of provisions for a special tribunal in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission law was a missed opportunity for ending impunity and bringing closure to decades of suffering,” Bekele said. “But the lack of a special tribunal doesn’t exonerate the government from its responsibility to deliver justice to survivors and victims’ families through the court system.”

The anniversary was covered by a range of media, including Radio France International, the Huffington Post, Radio Okapi, Afrik.com and South Africa’s Times Live, along with a post that I wrote for Amnesty UK’s blogs platform.

In the Huffington Post, Obadias Ndaba suggests that a misguided notion of “political stability” may be behind the failure to hold to account Agathon Rwasa and others suspected of involvement in Gatumba.

Mr. Rwasa, whose organization has long been labelled a terrorist group by African leaders, recently announced that he will be running for President of Burundi in 2015. This will be his second attempt at the position, as he ran in 2010 and lost. In 2008, Mr. Rwasa transformed his militia into a political party, but by 2011 he was still carrying out armed attacks against civilians. Yes, there are countries where mass murderers can run for the highest office of the land…

The fact that someone like Agathon Rwasa is free and able to run for public office twice is beyond a mere sign of dysfunction and lawlessness in central African nations — notably Burundi and Congo — it is a failure of the international community, too. The international community, with its outsized influence in the region, has lost much of its credibility by standing idly by and letting monsters roam in the name of “regional stability.”

For Iwacu Burundi, radio journalist Abbas Mbazumutima recalls taking the call from FNL spokesman Pasteur Habimana, claiming responsibility, and witnessing the horrific aftermath of the attack:

Seeing the charred bodies, blackened by smoke, women survivors begin to scream in despair, crying bitterly. A young man who had managed to escape by tearing the tent cries in front of the remains of his mother. The lifeless body of his little sister was unrecognizable: it was all black, burns were deep, the bones of the fingers and part of the tibia were visible, her face half burnt.

A few brave men were eager to cover all the burned or mutilated bodies. Most had apparently been killed with a machete: the cuts were deep, gaping injuries. The circling flies, like vultures at the sight of prey, had already appeared over these dead bodies.

Cries of pain are amplified by the discovery of others killed horribly. We begged ‘Nyagasani’ God in Kinyarwanda. Among these people there who had their skulls crushed, others had been stabbed, very few had been shot. Shredded bodies gave the impression that the killers had used grenades before setting fire to the tents housing the Banyamulenge.

Even those who thought they were tough did not hold back their tears at the sight of a mother and two babies, twins, all hacked to death, lying in a pool of blood.

Among the horrific images of the carnage of unprecedented brutality, there is also this young mother killed at close range with a bullet in the back while trying perhaps to protect her baby, using her body as shield.

Her arms remain wide, frozen in a gesture of supplication or invocation. Not a chance her baby will be killed by a bullet in the head: a big hole in a tiny skull.

A cameraman for Reuters, Jean Pierre Harerimana, finds me sobbing in a corner. I could not imagine how man could be capable of such animosity: to kill, you must first kill something in yourself, your own humanity. The poor cameraman told me that he had not been able to take any pictures. He looked incessantly at the side of his lens to see what was wrong. “Everything is in order, it may be that your lens is broken,” I replied to calm him. Big tears dripped from his eyes. He quickly wiped them away. Not far from us, a photographer from another foreign agency was crying. Further away, anguished cries from an Isanganiro radio journalist, Chantal Gatore. “Even the great reporters are whining and sobbing face of such scenes,” says another journalist.

Rwasa attempts to un-claim responsibility for Gatumba

Following the renewed focus on Gatumba, Agathon Rwasa has given an interview to Radio France Internationale in which he now tries to disclaim responsibility for the massacre. Rwasa says that his then-spokesman Pasteur Habimana “did not consult me” when he claimed responsibility for Gatumba on behalf of the FNL, and that in doing so Habimana (who fell out with Rwasa in 2009) was speaking on his own account alone.

Rwasa does not, however, explain why, in the weeks and months after the Gatumba massacre, he and other FNL leaders did nothing to contradict Habimana’s claim that the FNL was responsible. If it was not true that the FNL had been involved in Gatumba, then for Habimana to claim that they were would seem like quite a serious error for a spokesman to make – effectively implicating his own organisation in an act of genocide. Yet it seems that Rwasa not only chose not to contradict Habimana, he allowed him to remain as the FNL spokesman for a further 5 years, only finally pushing him out in 2009 after allegations that Habimana was embezzling the group’s funds.

International pressure for justice over Gatumba and an end to Burundi’s wider culture of impunity

As Human Rights Watch observe in their statement marking the 10th anniversary of the Gatumba massacre, the Burundian government has taken no action to establish a long-promised special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

This is despite the fact that such a tribunal was agreed by all parties nearly a decade ago – and backed by a UN Resolution – as part of the accord which ended Burundi’s most recent civil war, amid widespread concerns that further atrocities are likely in future unless action is taken to hold to account those responsible for crimes such as Gatumba.

The European Commission is one of the largest international aid donors to the government of Burundi. Yet it is unclear what, if anything, it is doing to use its considerable influence, and pressure Burundi’s government to end the toxic “culture of impunity” by delivering justice over Gatumba and the many other crimes that have been committed.

The European Commission is itself notoriously lacking in transparency, but it is accountable in principle to the European Parliament. In the UK, you can find out who your Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are, and write to them, via www.writetothem.com.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 24, 2014 at 11:57 pm

Posted in Titanic Express

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“They know who did it and they’re not acting” – the Gatumba massacre 10 years on

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From Amnesty UK / Blogs

On Saturday I listened while survivors of the Gatumba massacre recounted the horrors they witnessed on the night of August 13th 2004, when more than 160 Congolese Banyamulenge Tutsis were hunted down and killed at a refugee camp in Burundi. The most heart-wrenching stories were those of the little children, too scared to hide and too small to run away, who were shot, macheted or burned to death simply because they were Tutsi.

The refugee camp had supposedly been under United Nations protection, but neither they nor the Burundian army did anything to stop the slaughter. Ten years on, neither have done anything to prosecute the killers.

The day after the Gatumba attack, a Burundian Hutu-extremist group Palipehutu-FNL admitted responsibility, citing other unpunished massacres in justification – as if the moral abhorrence of one atrocity could somehow be cancelled out by another.

In 2005, the FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa, was given immunity from prosecution. He is now living comfortably in the Burundian capital Bujumbura, and is tipped to run as a candidate in next year’s Presidential elections.

As Amnesty reported last month, while the authorities in Burundi have been vigorously harassing and jailing their critics, impunity for those committing serious human rights abuses has been near-universal.

Survivors of Gatumba are bewildered – and angry – that the international community has done so little to bring the murderers to book, despite strong calls at the time by the African Union and UN Security Council for justice “without delay”. A promise by the Burundian government to refer Gatumba to the International Criminal Court has never been fulfilled.

[Read more]

Written by Richard Wilson

August 17, 2014 at 4:10 pm

#Gatumba anniversary – statement from Ubuntu

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PRESS RELEASE 13/08/2013

THE GATUMBA MASSACRE TEN YEARS ON: VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS STILL CRY FOR JUSTICE

Ten 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. Ten 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, reportedly 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 tenth remembrance of the victims of the Gatumba massacre occurs at a time when the Kivu provinces of the DRC are still characterised by instability and social tensions. 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 tenth 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: Kinyoni John Mutebutsi

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. E-mail: ubuntukwetu@gmail.com
http://www.ubuntukwetu.org/

Written by Richard Wilson

August 13, 2014 at 9:08 pm

From “France, 1917” by T P Cameron Wilson

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From “France, 1917”, by TP Cameron Wilson

The guns were there in the green and wounded wild,
Hurling death as a boy may throw a stone.
And the man who served them, with unquickened breath,
Dealt, like a grocer, with their pounds of death.
Thunderous over the fields their iron was thrown,
And beyond the horizon men who could laugh and feel
Lay in the wet dust, red from brow to heel.

The bodies of men lay down in the dark of the earth :
Young flesh, through which life shines a friendly flame,
Was crumbled green in the fingers of decay. . . .
Among the last year’s oats and thistles lay
A forgotten boy, who hid as though in shame
A face that the rats had eaten. . . . Thistle seeds
Danced daintily above the rebel weeds.

Old wire crept through the grass there like a snake,
Orange-red in the sunlight, cruel as lust.
And a dead hand groped up blindly from the mould. . .
A dandelion flamed through ribs — like a heart of gold,

And a stink of rotten flesh came up from the dust . . .
With a twinkle of little wings against the sun
A lark praised God for all that he had done…

Written by Richard Wilson

August 4, 2014 at 9:51 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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UK-based Burundians mobilise to protest worsening repression in Burundi

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Written by Richard Wilson

April 28, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Meet the new Bosco, same as the old Bosco…

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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.”

Read more

Written by Richard Wilson

February 4, 2013 at 9:10 am

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VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS OF THE GATUMBA MASSACRE OF BANYAMULENGE REFUGEES IN BURUNDI STILL CRY FOR JUSTICE

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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.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 13, 2012 at 11:22 am

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

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Why I’m supporting the #armstreaty campaign

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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.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 27, 2012 at 12:17 am

“Breaking Their Will” – book review in the New Humanist

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My latest book review is in this month’s New Humanist magazine, looking at a harrowing account of religiously-motivated child abuse and neglect: “Breaking Their Will”, by Janet Heimlich. This month’s edition also features the excellent Alom Shaha and Martin Robbins.

The New Humanist magazine is published by a registered charity, the Rationalist Association. It’s a great example of the growing trend for non-profit organisations to fill the gap left by the decline of the mainstream news media, covering niche and public interest issues that are covered superficially or ignored by commercial newspapers. If you want to support this project, you can subscribe here.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 22, 2012 at 10:51 am

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Gove’s Folly? The mystery of Durand and Saint Cuthman’s

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Mystery surrounds a multi-million pound government grant to the charity behind one of Michael Gove’s flagship Academy schools.

Last year, the Durand Education Trust was awarded £17.3 million to build what the Telegraph heralded as the “first fully free state-run boarding school” .

Durand Primary School in Stockwell, South London, had earlier, said the Daily Mail, “used proceeds from a leisure and student accommodation business it runs” to buy St Cuthman’s, the site of a former special needs centre in Midhurst, West Sussex.

The school’s plan was to  give its pupils an alternative to poorly-performing local secondary schools when they completed their time at Durand. The new secondary school would be based in the countryside to keep the children far away from “stabbings and the constant threat of trouble”.

“Teenagers will be transported from London on Monday mornings to spend five days and four nights in the country, returning on Friday evenings, all free of charge”, reported the Mail .

To those tempted to ask whether public money would be better spent improving the local secondary schools rather than building an entirely new one, 50 miles away, and then shipping hundreds of children there and back every week, the school had a good answer:

“It wouldn’t cost [the government] a penny”, Durand’s Executive Head told the Spectator. While the secondary school’s core expenditure would be funded by the state in the normal way, “we’d cover the costs of boarding from the profits of our health club”.

According to the Economist, “Nothing quite like it has been tried before”.

According to the Daily Express, “Parents… are delighted their youngsters will get the chance to enjoy a Harry Potter-style education away from the area’s notorious gang culture.”

“Unlike other state boarding schools, it will not charge for accommodation”, explained the Guardian. “Instead, its running costs will come out of private income the school generates from a swimming pool, gym and block of flats.”

Media coverage has been so positive, in fact, that the PR and lobbying company employed by Durand to promote the St Cuthman’s project, secure government funding, and “make Durand Academy synonymous with educational excellence” last year won an advertising industry award for the £200,000 campaign.

It may also have helped that the school has repeatedly deployed libel lawyers Carter Ruck against critics of the school’s management, and is currently suing Lambeth Council over three emails in which its chief auditor raised concerns about its financial affairs.

Yet amid all the glowing news reports, two big problems seem to have been overlooked.

1. Notwithstanding claims that Durand purchased the St Cuthman’s site “using its own funds”, and  “using income from a gym and flats on its London site”, Companies House records  appear to show that the Durand Education Trust actually took on a debt of £1.9 million to buy the property – over half of its reported £3.4 million sale price:

2. The reported profits from Durand’s business activities cover only a fraction of the school’s boarding costs. It appears that the project will therefore need millions of pounds in additional funding in order to become financially viable – at a time when other schools are having to cut back.

State boarding school lodging costs reportedly range from £7,500 to £12,000 per year for each child. Even at the lower end of that scale, Durand would need more than £4.3 million per year to board the 625 secondary pupils it hopes to take in. In the last three years, the school’s business arm, London Horizons, has generated £304,964 (2009), £255,157 (2010) and £350,120 (2011) for Durand Primary School and the Durand Education Trust – an average of just over £300,000 – less than 10% of the money the school looks to require.

According to “Spears Wealth Management Survey”, Durand has recently launched a public fundraising campaign urging wealthy individuals to sponsor children at the new school, costing this at £3,800 per child, per year. But even at that level, this would still require around £2,375,000 per year for 625 children. This is a sum that many long-standing charities would struggle to raise in a good year, let alone a start-up fundraising programme focussing on a single state school in the midst of a global recession.

When I asked for a copy of the budget and costings for the boarding school project, the Department for Education refused to reveal it, claiming that “Disclosure of certain information would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the Department, the proposers or both by adversely affecting bargaining positions and resulting in less effective use of public money”.

So I made a Freedom of Information request to Durand Academy asking for:

“Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site”, “The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase” and “The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is
to be repaid”.

I got the following reply:

1.    Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site in Sussex.

ZERO (DAT did not purchase the site)

2.    Details of how Durand financed the above purchase.

NOT HELD.  See above

3.    The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase.

ZERO

4.    The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is to be repaid.

See above

When I queried this, pointing out that a video on Durand Academy’s own website states that “Durand used its savings to purchase a site in the countryside”, I got no response.

But the school appears to be working on the basis – at least when it comes to Freedom of Information – that the Durand Education Trust is legally a separate entity from Durand Academy, and that FOI requests to the latter do not cover the former.

I subsequently told Durand that I’d seen information suggesting they were in debt, and that this seemed to raise questions about the viability of the St Cuthman’s project and the government’s decision to award it so much money at a time of “extreme national austerity”.

They issued a strong denial, stating that:

“Your assertions and source are factually incorrect on this matter. Durand Academy is not in debt, nor has liability for the land purchase and it would be wrong to suggest either.

“On the issue of value for money, we must object. More than any other school we are aware of, Durand has worked tirelessly and independently over the last twenty years to add significant value and opportunities for local tax payers, without impacting the public purse. Without additional central government support Durand has: improved the condition and value of the school estate substantially; absorbed a run-down failing primary school; completely refurbished that school to a high specification as a specialist early years site; expanded the number of places available to the local community; built state-of the art leisure facilities that children enjoy free use of and the wider community benefit from; reduced class sizes; subsidised healthy meals and; invested in a secondary school project that will provide choice and opportunity for local parents.

“We appreciate very much the ‘extreme national austerity’ that you refer, and that is why we believe that the Government has chosen to support a project and a project team that has never asked for hand-outs and are self-sufficient, has always made maximum efficient use of resources and have a strong record of delivery, not only in education, but in delivering projects on time and to budget.

“The £17.34 million pledged by the Government is some £8m to £15m less than has typically been spent on establishing a new secondary school to serve inner London in recent years. This money will help to deliver a secondary state boarding school from scratch, providing life changing opportunities for thousands of children. This project is innovative and ambitious, but we can assure you it is viable and we are committed to its delivery.”

Confused, I asked whether this applied to Durand as a whole – ie. not just Durand Academy but also the Durand Education Trust (for whom my usual correspondent at the school is listed as the main contact).

I was told: “As stated below this is from Durand Academy. Durand Education Trust is a separate entity. I am an administrator at Durand Academy and field correspondence for Durand Education Trust.”

So I asked my correspondent to refer my previous query about the financial situation to the Durand Education Trust. At the time of publication, a follow-up request for clarification had been acknowledged, but not replied to.

Given that the Durand Education Trust is legally constituted as an “independent charitable trust”, rather than a government body, it is not clear whether the Freedom of Information Act can be applied to it.

It may be that I’ve missed something obvious here (in which case, please do email me or leave a comment below). Or it may be that Durand has a substantial, and previously-undisclosed, source of additional income that can plug the financial gap.

But at the moment it is difficult to see how the Department for Education will be able to avoid committing many more millions each year to this experimental project – leaving millions less available for other, less favoured schools within the education system.

Update: I have now had some comments from the Durand Education Trust. Here’s what they say:

“1. Some of your estimates are so over the top as to be risible. For instance, though there will be costs associated with providing boarding (principally the extra costs associated with keeping duty staff on site overnight for safeguarding) the idea that these would amount to almost £30,000 per night, which is what is consistent with the lower figure in the range you cite, is frankly absurd.

2. DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site. Any information you have to the contrary is false.

3. The figures you quote for London Horizons revenues were figures supplied to you in respect of sums historically paid over to Durand Primary School and Durand Academy. They do not reflect the level of income accruing to DET now or in the future.”

The Durand Education Trust also complain that “Whilst we are prepared to be as transparent as commercial sensitivities allow, we note that almost everything you have written about Durand in the past… has been unfair or inaccurate, and sometimes both. It is hard to resist the conclusion that your reporting is actuated by malice and/or a political agenda…”

So it looks like the mystery will continue for a while yet. I’d welcome any comments from readers that could help to clear things up.

On the financial question, the figure of £7,500 to £12,000 per year per child for state school boarding costs comes from a broadly positive Telegraph article, in which Durand got a prominent mention (“More cash needed for state boarding schools, warns head“, November 28th 2011). Over a 39-week school year where 625 children were boarded for 4 nights per week, the lower end of this scale would indeed amount to approximately £30,000 per day, which certainly is a lot of money.

It’s worth noting, however, that the cost-per-child cited by Durand in their new fundraising campaign – £3,800, would, under the same analysis, equate to around £15,000 per day for 625 children – or £24 per child. While this is significantly less, it is still a substantial sum, and with a total yearly cost (£2,375,000) that would still be much higher than the reported annual income generated, to date, by London Horizons (£350,120 in 2011).

It is not yet clear how the costs of transporting 625 children on the 50 mile trip to and from West Sussex each week would fit into the above analysis, or where the money for this would come from.

I have asked the Durand Education Trust for more details of the things I’ve written that they feel have been unfair or inaccurate, and invited them to produce a “right to reply” piece for publication on this blog, putting their side of the story. I will update this post if and when I receive a reply.

In literal terms, The Durand Education Trust appear to be correct in stating that “DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site”. Records from Companies House show that the company which lent them £1.9 million was not a bank or a building society, but a firm called Alderley Land. More on that in due course…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Trevor Kavanagh learns a hard lesson about human rights and due process

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“The overwhelming odds are that these guys were put inside for good reason — whatever sob stories their human rights lawyers are peddling on their behalf.” – Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun, 2007

“It is important that we do not jump to conclusions. Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted“, Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun, 2012

Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper has long been hostile to the idea that people suspected of wrongdoing should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, that no-one should be locked up for extended periods without a fair trial and due process, and that even if someone is tried and convicted of a criminal offence, they are still entitled to basic human rights.

When, in 2005, 47 Labour MPs joined opposition ranks to throw out the Blair government’s attempt to award itself the right to detain for 3 months, without charge or trial, anyone it claimed was a “terrorist”, the Sun’s political editor Trevor Kavanagh branded them “traitor MPs” who had “betrayed the British people”.

When, in 2007, Gordon Brown’s government requested the release of five UK residents who had been held for years without charge or trial in Guantanamo Bay, the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh declared that “The overwhelming odds are that these guys were put inside for good reason — whatever sob stories their human rights lawyers are peddling on their behalf.”

“It’s just about possible the five… are totally innocent… But not very likely”, he suggested.

Yet despite these “overwhelming odds”, four of the five men – Binyam Mohamed, Omar Deghayes, Jamil El Banna and Sameur Abdenour – were subsequently freed after the US government failed to produce any evidence that could convict them of a crime. The fifth, Shaker Aamer, has still not been charged or tried, ten years after he was first detained.

Mohamed, Deghayes and El Banna were subsequently awarded millions of pounds in compensation after a court heard evidence (or as the Sun might describe it, a “sob story”) detailing the UK government’s complicity in their “rendition” and subsequent torture.

This weekend, another five men were arrested on suspicion of a criminal offence. Unlike Binyam Mohamed, Omar Deghayes, Jamil El Banna, Sameur Abdenour and Shaker Aamer, these five men were given prompt access to a lawyer, questioned, and then freed on bail.  Unlike Binyam Mohamed, they were not bundled into a plane, flown to Morocco and tortured with a scalpel, forced into stress positions or subjected to deliberate and prolonged sleep deprivation. They were not – as would have been the case for anyone accused of terrorist offences under the 2005 Bill championed by Trevor Kavanagh and the Sun – held without charge for 90 days while the Police scraped around for evidence.

Has British Justice Gone Soft? Given Trevor Kavanagh’s previous comments on human rights and due process, we might have expected him to be outraged that these five criminal suspects have been treated so leniently. But here he is discussing the case in today’s Sun:

“It is important that we do not jump to conclusions. Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted.”

Here he is on Radio 5: “the evidence that’s been suggested to those who have been arrested so far, is pretty flimsy stuff… people are wondering what on earth is happening… I feel very sorry for them and I know it’s causing them and their families a great deal of anguish”.

What could possibly explain this change in tone? Perhaps the fact that *these* five criminal suspects were Sun journalists, suspected of making corrupt payments to police and other public officials.

The problem with attacking basic democratic principles like human rights and due process is that you never know when you – or someone you care about – might be in need of them. Trevor Kavanagh’s Damascine conversion to the cause is surely to be welcomed. His friends at the Sun do, of course, have a right to a fair trial and to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. It will be interesting to see if they will now extend that same courtesy to the rest of us.

See also: Thaksin Shinawatra: “They don’t care about the rule of law, facts or internationally recognised due process!”

Written by Richard Wilson

February 14, 2012 at 12:41 am

Burden of proof: Should evidence determine policy?

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My latest piece for the New Humanist

A growing number of activists are calling for science to play a larger role in policy. But will it work? Richard Wilson asks the experts

In the latter days of the last Labour government, then Home Office minister Vernon Coaker introduced a law designed to enable the prosecution of those who paid for sexual services. The government had published a lengthy report, “Tackling Demand for Prostitution”, arguing that evidence showed such a change could reduce the violence and exploitation suffered by commercial sex workers.

In the House, Liberal Democrat science spokesman Dr Evan Harris raised concerns that the evidence in the report had not yet been published – and could therefore not be properly scrutinised. Harris cited the fact that the Royal College of Nursing had expressed concern that further criminalisation could actually be counterproductive, driving victims of sexual exploitation further underground, and away from where they might seek help. There was, Harris argued, a need to examine more thoroughly the evidence on which the proposed legislation was based. “We are looking at publishing the evidence,” replied the Minister, but “in the end, you pick the evidence which backs your argument.”

To those familiar with the scientific method this cherry-picking of data to support a preconceived hypothesis is a hallmark of quackery. Watching the debate, “mouth agape”, was Harris’s Parliamentary researcher, and biology graduate, Imran Khan. Khan was astonished that a government minister could think about, or talk about, scientific evidence in this way. He is now Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), a lobby group for science and technology education, and cites this tale as a textbook example of “policy-based evidence-making” – when evidence is chosen only to support or defend an already decided policy. Khan is one of a growing cadre of scientifically literate activists who see it as their job to root out this kind of back-to-front thinking, and to promote instead “evidence-based policy-making”, where rigorous, reputable and, crucially, publicly available evidence plays more than merely a fig leaf role in public policy. These include prominent public figures like Khan’s old boss Harris, who writes the Political Science blog for the Guardian, science writer and scourge of the chiropractors Simon Singh, and the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist Dr Ben Goldacre.

Read more at the New Humanist

 

Written by Richard Wilson

January 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Slaying the super-injunction dragon and dismantling the secret courts

with 3 comments

Today I was one of four bloggers giving evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Privacy and injunctions. Also on the panel were David Allen Green (Jack of Kent / New Statesman), Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) and Jamie East (Holy Moly).

Trafigura

My main focus in the discussion was the notorious Trafigura super-injunction which I helped to unravel back in 2009, by posting a “banned” Parliamentary Question on Twitter.

A super-injunction is a gagging order that both prohibits the publication of a specific piece of information, and forbids any mention of the gagging order’s existence.

Trafigura’s super-injunction banned any reference in the UK media to a leaked company memo known as the “Minton Report”. When,  in October 2009, the MP Paul Farrelly raised the issue in Parliament, Trafigura’s controversial lawyers, Carter Ruck, tried to prevent the press from reporting Farrelly’s question.

This had come at the end of a year that also saw a draconian libel ruling against the science writer Simon Singh.  The year before, Ben Goldacre and the Guardian had successfully defended a vexatious libel case by the AIDS-denialist quack Matthias Rath – yet the newspaper nonetheless lost hundreds of thousands of pounds in unrecovered costs. I myself had spent time fighting off an unfounded libel claim over Don’t Get Fooled Again, and had seen up close the chilling effect that such threats could have.

To me and many others who took action the same evening, Trafigura’s super-injunction felt like the last straw after a series of attacks on freedom of speech. The bid by Carter Ruck to ban the reporting of Parliament seemed like imperial over-reach by a “reputation management” company far too used to getting its way from pliant High Court judges. It seemed extraordinary that a judge sitting in an English court – on a handsome salary funded by ordinary taxpayers – might allow such an effort.

The situation also seemed absurd. The “banned” Parliamentary Question had been published by Parliament on its own website. The Minton report itself had been available on Wikileaks for over a month. Yet anyone who repeated the same information themselves could face prosecution for Contempt of Court.

Secret courts and freedom of speech

But the fundamental problem was the very idea of a secret court hearing to ban the free exchange of information. When a court case is heard in secret, the public has no way of checking whether the judgements made in their name are decent, honest, and fair. Because we don’t even know that the case is going on, we have no way of holding the court to account if – as is inevitable from time to time, given human nature – a judge makes a decision through corruption, cronyism or incompetence rather than through the fair application of the law. Public scrutiny is an essential safety valve in any democracy, and it seems extraordinary that our political class would seek to dispense with it so lightly. This is not a new idea.

Likewise, any constraint on freedom of expression risks being abused by those seeking to cover up evidence of corruption or incompetence, as we have seen time and again with UK libel law.

We might nonetheless accept this risk in certain narrow circumstances. We might agree that some categories of information should in principle, in all or most cases, be kept confidential. Some examples might be:

– Children’s medical records

– The name and address of a person under a witness protection programme

– Information likely to be prejudicial to a criminal trial

We might accept that the courts have a role in enforcing this.  But even in these cases, court decisions have to be open and public if we are to minimise the risk of abuse. And for a government official to extend such restrictions to information which merely has the potential to embarrass a large and powerful corporation seems, frankly, reckless.

“How does undermining the rule of law aid the public interest?”

Two years after Trafigura it feels as if progress has been made. There seems to be a general acceptance (other than from Carter Ruck and Trafigura, obviously) that Carter Ruck’s attempt to gag the reporting of Parliament was misguided. There is also a recognition that the current system of privacy and “confidence” injunctions is in a mess, and needs reform.

But it looks as if there’s a way to go yet. Prior to today’s meeting, the panelists were sent a list of somewhat loaded questions, including:

“Most of you have blogged about injunctions; some of you appeared to know or think you were breaching injunctions whilst you were blogging. What were your motivations for doing this? What made you think you wouldn’t be prosecuted?”

“Do you think that you are able to judge the appropriateness of an injunction when you haven’t heard the full case (compared with a judge who has)?”

“What is your definition of the public interest? How does undermining the rule of law aid the public interest?”

In one form or another, all of these questions came up during the session. I clarified to the Committee that when I chose to publish the Trafigura question I was by no means sure that I wouldn’t be prosecuted. I took the risk because I felt so strongly about the issue, and believe that many of the others who did the same thing were making a similar calculation.

The second question may seem reasonable at first glance. But the implication seems to be that when a judge passes a free speech restriction that appears completely unjust, or absurd, we simply have to nod deferentially and trust that they must have had lots of good reasons that we just don’t know about. This again, seems like a prescription for corruption and incompetence.

The last question was particularly interesting. While the Committee wanted to challenge us on our understanding of the “public interest”, it seemed to me that their definition of the “rule of law” was just as much open to question.

The United Nations defines the rule of law as:

a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities… are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced… and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law… avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.

The International Bar Association, meanwhile, sees the rule of law as establishing “a transparent process accessible and equal to all”. The IBA spells out that “Confidence in the system of governance in any society cannot be maintained unless the process is open and transparent.

On this basis, it would seem that High Court judges who pass secret edicts restricting freedom of expression – and the Parliamentarians who allow them to continue – are doing far more to undermine the rule of law than the bloggers who circumvent them.

Rich man’s justice

Lord Gold and Gisela Stewart MP seemed concerned – if somewhat bemused – by my suggestion that I would quickly go bankrupt if I was ever dragged into a libel court over something that I’d written. Surely this was incredibly unfair to any potential litigants who might end up losing money by taking me to court? His Lordship noted, disdainfully, that it wasn’t worth anyone’s while suing me, was it?

It was difficult to know what to make of this point, so I thought I’d expand on it here: A typical UK libel case can end up costing upwards of £100,000 to defend. This is a figure far beyond the means of most ordinary people, including most bloggers, and that is why, for most of us, being sued for libel would entail bankruptcy.

The main reason that such cases are so expensive in this country – reportedly around 140 times the European average – is that the “reputation management” firms that bring them are willing and able to charge more for an hour’s work than many of us earn in a week.

This is, in other words, a situation that the legal profession, aided by a Parliament unprepared, so far, to reign in the activities of such firms, has actively created. So it seems odd for Parliamentarians – many of whom, like David Gold, are also lawyers themselves – to wring their hands when confronted with the consequences.

I’ve no idea what the Committee will have made of our testimony. It is, at least, encouraging that these issues are starting to be debated properly. But it is nonetheless disturbing to see such a blithe acceptance among our elected officials of this fundamentally undemocratic system. It’s difficult to see how the current mess will be sorted out, and public confidence restored, until we dismantle these secret courts.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 15, 2011 at 2:13 am