Escalating violence in Burundi

Even when there are constitutionally mandated term limits, many leaders try to hold on to power. In Central Africa (where the small country of Burundi, with its population of 10 million, is located) there are several leaders that have tried, or are trying, to bend the rules to stay in office. The DR Congo, Burundi's giant neighbour, is currently the site of a democratic movement to try to uphold the Constitution and stop President Joseph Kabila from changing the rules to stay in office. Rwanda is sometimes called Burundi's 'twin': it has about the same land area. It has about the same population (slightly higher), which has the came ethnicities in the same proportions (Tutsi minority, Hutu majority, and Twa). It was once jointly ruled with Burundi by the colonial powers. In Rwanda, too, the president, Paul Kagame, has recently made all the necessary moves to stay in power beyond his term limits – a special exception to the Constitution, just for him.

The current round of political violence in Burundi began in April when its president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he intended to seek a third term in office. In May, a military coup was attempted against him, and failed. In July, Nkurinziza was re-elected with 69% of the vote, after months of heavy-handed tactics. The opposition did not recognize the legitimacy of the result. A major crackdown on the opposition by the government began in November – hundreds killed, hundreds of thousands displaced to neighbouring countries. Now, after the failed coup and the disputed election, Nkurunziza's government is facing an armed rebellion.

Rebels attacked military bases on December 11th with 87 deaths before the attacks were repulsed. The next morning the capital city, Bujumbura, woke up to find 34 murdered bodies in the streets, probably extrajudicial executions. The UN special advisor on the prevention of genocide, quoted in the journal Foreign Policy, raised a dire warning: “I am not saying that tomorrow there will be a genocide in Burundi, but there is a serious risk that if we do not stop the violence, this may end with a civil war, and following such a civil war, anything is possible”.

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For Venezuela's Bolivarians, victory even in defeat

What preceded this 17-year Bolivarian era? A corrupt power-sharing electoral machine (resulting from the Punto Fijo Pact, signed by the country’s main political parties and effectively keeping them in power) ruled Venezuela after a period of dictatorship ended in 1958. From 1958 to 1998, Punto Fijo administered poverty for the population, enforcing it through limiting press freedom, police violence, and even state-sponsored murder and disappearances. I went to a very moving event in Caracas in 2004 in which survivors of the “dirty war” of the 1960s and 1970s commemorated their lost loved ones.

The beginning of the end for Punto Fijo was the 1989 riots — known as Caracazo — that were sparked when people woke up to doubled bus fares. The army was called. Hundreds of people were killed. In 1992, a group of army officers, among them Hugo Chavez, tried to overthrow Punto Fijo. When the coup failed, Chavez went on television to call on the soldiers to stand down, took responsibility, and went to jail. When he got out, he advocated an electoral and constitutional path to change. Twenty successful elections later, the Bolivarians have lost the legislature.

Why did they lose? From 2008 on, and especially since the oil price drop in 2014, Venezuela's oil-dependent economy suffered, as did the Bolivarian social programs and the people that benefited from them. Macroeconomic mistakes by the government in an already difficult situation fed the black market in dollars and the smuggling economy (see analysis by Greg Wilpert), which led to major suffering, frustration and a loss of support for the government.

Continuing problems of corruption within the state, as well as crime, also hurt. Both of these problems preceded the Bolivarians, but the revolution was not successful enough in dealing with them. The opposition earned points campaigning on both.

The Bolivarians accomplished much since arriving on the scene. Massive barriers to health care and education were removed. Social services were built where there had been none. Before it became the target of smugglers, a program guaranteeing affordable prices for staple grocery and other items was very successful.

'The Butterfly Prison' reignites hope for a better, more just world

The Butterfly Prison
by Tamara Pearson
(Open Books, 2015; $20.65)

Tamara Pearson is an independent left journalist from Australia who writes about Latin America. Her novel, The Butterfly Prison, set in Sydney, weaves together three different threads. In the following spoiler-filled review, I discuss each thread.

In the main thread, a young working-class woman named Mella leaves an unhappy home as a teenager, finding herself in an exploitative relationship while working in an exploitative retail job. At the job, she meets a friend, an Iranian refugee named Rafi, who introduces her first to union politics, then to radical politics, before being summarily deported to Iran and never seen again.

Mella has already become a part of an activist network by the time of Rafi's deportation, so her growth continues without him. We read about Mella's political awakening, her political education, and her participation in an ultimately successful revolution.

In the second thread, we read the story of an Aboriginal man named Paz as he grows up in a childhood marked by constant police harassment and violence. As a youth, he sets up a house with some young friends in the poor suburb of Macquarie fields, where they support one another and try to get by.

Paz takes shifts at a 7/11, works as an office cleaner for a few months; his friends busk in the subway, gamble for money, and make repairs in the neighbourhood. None of this is enough, as the police constantly return to raid their house, injure them, destroy their property, plant bugs, and make their lives intolerable.

In a (slightly) fictionalized version of the incident that precipitated the actual Macquarie fields riots of 2005, Paz is driving a car from a party when the police begin a chase. Paz loses control of the car, which crashes, killing one of his best friends. Paz surrenders to police and is imprisoned, where he lives the rest of his life, partly in solitary confinement, which destroys his sensitive mind. A fire in the prison sees him escape, but he has no options or hope, and commits a very violent suicide.

In the third thread, the author presents vignettes of incidents from various corners of the world. Inspired by Eduardo Galeano, the author turns a sensitive eye to environmental destruction, wasted human potential, and war, shown as the outcomes of the inequality and violence of capitalism.

Elections Theater: Are fair elections too hard for the international community to manage?

For the past eleven years, since the coup and overthrow of the elected government in 2004, Haiti has been deemed so dysfunctional, so failed, a state, that the international community has decided to run it directly. UN troops patrol its streets. Nongovernmental organizations oversee most aspects of social provision. Donors provide the finances. The resources and reach of the government is limited. There were elections in 2010/11 and there will be a runoff presidential election at the end of December – both of these took place under this limited-government, maximum-international-community, regime (which could be called 'donor rule' and which I have called 'Haiti's New Dictatorship'). The 2010/11 elections were politicized and unfair. They banned the most popular party, Fanmi Lavalas, from running. The first round of the current elections have been characterized by massive fraud, and Haitians know it. They have no confidence in the elections. They are protesting, and their protests are met with tear gas from police – one of the few things that the government is allowed to do (though this important duty is often shared with the UN).

Some observers may throw up their hands and say, how could you expect credible elections, Haiti is a poor, dysfunctional country. But Haiti has had fair elections – they occurred in 1995 and in 2000, before the UN took over. The international community, which has been governing Haiti directly since 2004, is the body that is incapable of running a fair election. As in Haiti, so in Afghanistan, where the 2014 presidential elections were won by Ashraf Ghani, after which the international community imposed a power-sharing arrangement with the loser, Abdallah Abdallah. An extraordinary agreement was brokered as part of this, that the exact vote totals would not be made public.

The first-world version of what is happening in Haiti and Afghanistan is what Tariq Ali calls the Extreme Centre, in which political parties are indistinguishable from one another on most important issues, and alternate in power. Under such conditions, with major issues out of contention, fair elections are acceptable to elites.

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The end of universal jurisdiction

At the beginning of October, Spain's supreme court dismissed the case known to Rwanda watchers as the Merelles (2008) indictments. Judge Andreu Merelles had charged forty Rwandan military officials of crimes against humanity, war crimes, terrorism, and genocide, and issued warrants for their arrest. The indictment was launched because some Spanish citizens had been killed in the Rwandan civil war. But it expanded to include Rwandan and Congolese victims of the armed forces of Paul Kagame, the winner of the 1990 civil war and the man who may have just become Rwanda's President-for-life (more on that below).

The indictments had always excluded Kagame because of Kagame's presidential immunity. Kagame went about protecting himself in two ways, both of which eventually succeeded. First, Kagame may have reasoned, if the president is immune to prosecution, why not stay president forever, making whatever constitutional changes necessary to do so? Second, the indictments themselves were challenged and the doctrine underlying them, ultimately defeated.

The doctrine in question was called 'universal jurisdiction'. The idea was that a crimes like genocide and crimes against humanity were not crimes that stopped at national borders. As a result, any country could charge and try those accused of such crimes, even if they were from another country. Universal jurisdiction is a liberal doctrine, analogous to the selectively applied Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Universal jursidiction is not as prone to abuse as R2P mainly because it is not as asymmetric as R2P: any country with a judiciary can hold a trial and issue arrest warrants, but only two or three countries in the world have the military might to send military forces to other countries, whether on the pretense of protecting people or some other. For non-superpowers, for smaller countries, there was only the threat of the law.

Spain was just such a small country whose judges took up the law against human rights abusers in other countries. Under the universal jurisdiction doctrine it attempted to try Chile's dictator Augusto Pinochet, Guatemalan military officers, and Argentinian military officers. But the Spanish judges didn't just chase fallen dictators from smaller countries. They also pursued former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, US soldiers for crimes in Iraq, Chinese politicians for crimes in Tibet, and Israeli generals for massacres of Palestinians.

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Silent Compromises

Many vicious attacks have been reported.

On Friday, Oct. 23, a rabbi named Arik Ascherman was chased by a masked man trying to stab him near the Itamar Israeli settlement. On Oct.,22, a Jerusalem man named Simcha Hodedtov was shot and killed by police as a terrorist. On Oct. 18, a 29 year old named Haftom Zarhum was shot and then beaten to death by a mob in Beersheba. On Oct. 13, Uri Rezken was stabbed in the back while shopping. He screamed “I am a Jew, I am a Jew” to his attacker, but was stabbed four times anyway.

This list of incidents above is selective, though not exhaustive. It consists solely of attacks by Israelis against Israelis who were mistaken for (or in Ascherman’s case thought to be too close to) Palestinians. It does not include the vast majority of deaths and injuries in this latest round of violence, deaths and injuries of Palestinians attacked by Israeli security forces, accompanied by horror stories of children shot while seeking help; children imprisoned without trial; planted weapons after shootings. Nor does it include massive, organized attacks by mobs of settlers against Palestinian villages. It also does not include the deaths and injuries of Israelis killed by Palestinians in the knife attacks that are much more thoroughly covered in the Western media than the much larger numbers of Palestinians killed.

What started this round of violence? Israel’s armed settler movement is attempting to change the way that Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque is run. In fact, they want the mosque torn down, like the Babri Mosque was torn down in India in 1992. The Israeli government, which the settler movement has largely taken over, has a strategy that probably involves ultimately dividing the mosque site and banning Palestinians from it, as has been done in Hebron. As with the second intifada in 2000, Israel put pressure on the al-Aqsa site until Palestinians resisted. When Palestinians resisted, Israel escalated with lethal force, and now continues to escalate with no end in sight.

In the midst of this violence, Israel’s political leaders are attempting to suppress what a George W. Bush advisor called the “reality-based community” and replace it with a set of racist fantasies. The Israeli Justice Minister who last year brought you the genocidal comment that Palestinian children were “little snakes,” this month has said “there never will be a Palestinian state.”

Syria and Afghanistan: The Limits of Bombing

Just a few days before the 14th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, U.S. planes bombed a hospital run by the extremely credible, competent international organization, Medicins Sans Frontieres, in the country’s north, in the city of Kunduz. The bombing was, apparently, requested by the Afghan government, who had lost the city to the Taliban and whose initial counterattack had failed.

Fourteen years before, the U.S. invasion of 2001 had the explicit goal of regime change, of getting rid of the Taliban. Fourteen years and thousands of lives later, the Taliban are still here, and are still able to take a city well outside of their traditional zone of influence in the south. There are many causes for this failure. Ahmed Rashid wrote in his book “Descent into Chaos” about “Operation Evil Airlift,” in which the Taliban’s Pakistani patrons were allowed to escape to Pakistan in 2001. The people running the Taliban went back to Pakistan, while thousands of civilians perished under the bombs.

But more important than the fact that the Taliban dispersed to Pakistan to return and fight another day was the fact that when NATO ousted the Taliban, they installed their opponents: warlords who were as misogynist and violent as the Taliban were. That reality has only slowly and partially changed despite several elections since 2001: senior posts and elected offices are still populated by the warlords, and the occupation-created Afghan army apparently shares many of the problems of corruption with the Iraqi army created by the U.S. around the same time and in approximately the same way. It is an army more efficient at enriching commanders than defending the country’s sovereignty.

2001, the year the U.S. invaded, is a key year for Afghanistan, but it was not the beginning of the horrors Afghanistan had been living. The wars of the 1980s, as the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistan coalition poured ever more investment into groups of fighters who were fighting against a Russian-backed regime, were decisive. Once those fighters succeeded in regime change in 1992, they spent the next decade fighting one another and completing the destruction of the country. The Taliban had established a shaky control over most of the country when the U.S. invaded in 2001.

The Uses of the Islamic State Group

Who is really fighting ISIS? In Iraq and Syria, ISIS faces Kurdish forces, the Iraqi Army and the Western air forces supporting it, and the Syrian Army and its allies from Hizbollah, Iran, and Russia. The Kurds of Rojava have been fighting for survival, and while outgunned, they have both political and military preparation, and something to fight for. They have been successful in their battles with ISIS, even though they have suffered immensely in the process.

The Iraqi Army? ISIS's spectacular rise coincided with the Iraqi Army's collapse. To understand this, as with so much about ISIS, it is necessary to look back at the early days of the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, when the decision was taken to disband the Iraqi Army that had existed under Saddam Hussein and create a new one. The old army had training, organization, most of their weapons, and had just reached the point of having nothing to lose. Many of them joined the insurgency against the US. Among those who did, many were killed, many were tortured and killed, and many survived. Some of those survivors, now battle-hardened veterans, are now part of ISIS. One of those who made his way through the US prison system in Iraq is ISIS's leader. These veterans, joined by al-Qaeda fighters, with Saudi and Qatari funding, and Turkish help getting across the border, have become ISIS, the force that controls a big part of Iraq and dominates and absorbs all other opposition forces in Syria.

A breakthrough in Colombia's peace talks

On Sept. 23, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to sign an agreement with the FARC on transitional justice. "Peace is close," he told the press. An agreement on justice and reparations for victims was one of the most contentious areas of discussion, and one on which Santos and FARC had exchanged some harsh public words over recent months. The FARC announced their willingness to lay down their arms; the possibility of a truth commission has also been discussed. Coming at one of the most dangerous points in the talks, and on one of the most difficult areas of negotiation, this agreement is a breakthrough moment.

The 40th round of negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla organization ended on August 30th. Ten days before, the FARC had declared another unilateral ceasefire, one of many that have taken place during these multi-year negotiations. Colombia's second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, have also been in secret negotiations with the government and may begin an official negotiation soon, according to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo (Sept 7). There continue to be signs of significant investment in peace by the government and reasons for optimism about an accord. A package of constitutional reforms to facilitate a peace accord was scheduled to be debated in Colombia's Congress on Sept 11.

El Tiempo also reported an unusual step taken by the U.S. Ambassador, who on September 8 hosted Colombian government representatives as well as ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez to try to win Uribe over to the peace accord. Uribe has been the leader of the opposition to peace, running his own intelligence network, leaking information, and posting inflammatory tweets. While Uribe was in office, from 2002-2010, his policies aligned seamlessly with the U.S. of the War on Terror. If the U.S. Ambassador is, as El Tiempo reports, trying to coax him into acting less of a spoiler, that is a sign of strong support for an accord from the U.S.