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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alison Des Forges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Richard Wilson

February 14, 2009 at 11:11 am

Posted in Titanic Express

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Titanic Express case to feature in Channel Four short tomorrow evening

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

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

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

Written by Richard Wilson

December 7, 2008 at 6:35 pm

UN mediators fooled again by LRA leader Joseph Kony

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From the Institute of War and Peace Reporting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Richard Wilson

December 1, 2008 at 11:59 pm

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

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William Swing

UN Congo chief William Swing withheld
evidence of DRC government atrocities

From Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

Burundi’s “forgiving” government criminalises homosexuality

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Richard Wilson

November 25, 2008 at 1:32 am

Amnesty International adopts Alexis Sinduhije as a “Prisoner of Conscience”

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Amnesty International has added its voice to those highlighting the worsening human rights situation in Burundi – and in particular the arbitrary arrest of the journalist-turned-opposition activist Alexis Sinduhije. I met Alexis in person back in 2002, and he helped me enormously when I was researching Titanic Express. I’ve been following events closely since he was arrested earlier this month.

From Amnesty International:

UA 318/08 Arbitrary arrest/ prisoner of conscience

BURUNDI Alexis Sinduhije (m)

Alexis Sinduhije, the President of the Movement for Security and Democracy (Mouvement pour la Sécurité et la Démocratie, MSD), a political opposition group, was arrested on 3 November during a MSD party meeting. Thirty-six others were also arrested, but have since been released. Alexis Sinduhije is currently detained in Mpimba Central Prison in the capital, Bujumbura. He is a prisoner of conscience, held solely for expressing his political views.

The ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy, (Conseil national de défense et de la démocratie-Forces de défense et de la démocratie – CNDD-FDD), has recently denied opposition parties the right to peaceful assembly by preventing them from holding meetings without government authorization. Human rights monitors initially thought the arrests were made because the meeting had been held without authorization. The MSD had also had problems registering as a political party.

On 11 November, Alexis Sinduhije was brought before the deputy prosecutor at the Prosecutor’s office in Bujumbura. He was subsequently charged for showing “contempt for the Head of State” (“outrage au chef de l’etat”). The charges were based on documents seized during the arrests which were apparently critical of the President’s development policies. His file should go before the advisory chamber (chambre de conseil) within several days when the acting Judge will decide whether or not to grant him provisional release.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The arrest of Alexis Sinduhije has raised considerable concern amongst members of civil society and the international community about the protection of civil and political rights in Burundi. The United States, the European Union and the UK strongly condemned Alexis Sinduhije’s arrest. The CNDD-FDD has shown increasing intolerance towards political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders perceived as being critical towards them.

RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send appeals to arrive as quickly as possible, in French, English or your own language:

– expressing grave concern that Alexis Sinduhije has been detained on a charge of“contempt for the Head of State”, simply for being critical of the President’s development policies;

– urging the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression;

– reminding the authorities that Burundi is a state party to both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

APPEALS TO:

President

Pierre Nkurunziza

Président de la République

Présidence de la République

Boulevard de l’Uprona

Rohero I

BP 1870

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 22 74 90

Salutation: Monsieur le Président/Excellence

Minister of Justice and Keeper of Seals

Monsieur Jean-Bosco Ndikumana

Ministre de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux

Ministère de la Justice et Garde des Sceaux

BP 1880

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 21 86 10

Salutation: Monsieur le Ministre

First Vice-president

Monsieur Yves Sahinguvu

Premier Vice-président

Présidence de la République

BP 1870

Bujumbura, Burundi

Fax: +257 22 22 74 90

Salutation: Monsieur le Premier Vice-président/Excellence

The Prosecutor of the Republic

Monsieur Elyse Ndaye

Procureur Générale de la République
Parquet Général
BP 105

Bujumbura, Burundi
Fax : +257 22 25 88 44

Salutation: Monsieur le Procureur / Dear Procureur

COPIES TO: diplomatic representatives of Burundi accredited to your country.

PLEASE SEND APPEALS IMMEDIATELY. Check with the International Secretariat, or your section office, if sending appeals after 31 December 2008.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 20, 2008 at 9:13 pm