Monday, July 12, 2010

The international community's responsibility to Haiti

The international community's responsibility to Haiti

By Michael Deibert

The Guardian

12 July 2010

(Please read the original article here)

It is a gloomy anniversary: the six-month mark since the earthquake that levelled vast swaths of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, and surrounding towns, killing well over 200,000 people.

Though the earthquake was promiscuously destructive, killing the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, those who still remain encamped in sprawling tent cities lashed by tropical rains in and around the capital now represent the lowest and most disempowered strata of Haitian society. They are the Haitians who, for generations, have fled the poverty of the countryside to its largest city in search of jobs that were not there and where only further struggle awaited them.

At a time when only 2% of a promised $5.3bn (£3.5bn) in reconstruction aid has materialised and an equally small amount of rubble has been removed, it is worth pausing to remember how economic policy in a very real way helped drive Haitians off their land and into the labyrinthine slums of Port-au-Prince, where so many of them died.

From the 1940s, when the United States sponsored a half-baked attempt to cultivate rubber in Haiti, to the early 1980s, when 1.2m creole pigs were destroyed in a US-Canadian funded programme to prevent the spread of swine fever, the results were largely the same. Life for Haiti's rural poor got worse.

In 1995, an economic adjustment plan mandated by the International Monetary Fund implemented by the government of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide cut tariffs on rice imports to Haiti from 35% to 3%. Haiti, which for many years had produced low-cost, inexpensive rice for domestic consumption, effectively lost the ability to do so.

And so the heirs of patriotic leaders such as Toussaint L'Ouverture and Charlemagne Péralte ("Les enfants du héros", as the Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot called them) continued to flood into Port-au-Prince. And six months ago, on a Tuesday afternoon, more of them died there than the mind can really grasp.

Almost surreally, with an estimated 1.5 million Haitians still homeless, presidential and legislative elections are set to be held on 28 November. They will be presided over by an electoral council faced with conducting a legitimate ballot in a country where hundreds of thousands of voters have either been killed or displaced, and during which its own headquarters were destroyed.

Before the earthquake, Haiti had seen a steady, if gradual, improvement in its fortunes. Attracting modest levels of foreign investment and maintaining robust diplomatic relations with neighbours as divergent as the United States, Cuba and Venezuela, the county also enjoyed a more or less extended period of political calm, reinforced by a 10,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission (a mission that also suffered grievously that January day).

The wantonly murderous security services and armed civilian bands of regimes past dissipated as, whatever his other faults, President René Préval marked a change in at least this aspect from the litany of rancid despots who have actively victimised the Haitian populace without cease since colonial times.

With no clear successor to Préval, and a series of badly factionalised micro-parties with little popular support, Haitians now face yawning uncertainty. While elections are a favoured means of the international community to point to progress in countries as wracked by poverty and political unrest as Haiti, most Haitians will tell a visitor that such exercises will count for little if not matched by a commitment to changing the destructive dynamic of rural disintegration and urban migration that has taken hold in recent years.

After the earthquake, the Haitian government produced a preliminary damage and needs assessment that envisioned a decentralisation of the Haitian state. To this date, little has come of this promise. A body set up to manage reconstruction funds chaired by Préval's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, and former US president Bill Clinton – a man with a sometimes worrisomely shaky grasp of Haiti's history – has succeeded in drawing pledges of aid but little in concrete results.

It is important on this date, with so many of Haiti's citizens to mourn and so many still waiting for assistance in conditions that can only be characterised as an affront to humanity, that we in the international community not forget our past follies in Haiti.

Before another six months pass, foreign governments, international agencies and non-governmental organisations must quickly and decisively work with Haitians, both urban and rural, on issues such as resettlement, reforestation and agrarian reform, to help them build a decent country out of the rubble of the broken state that came before.

Among all the Haitians I've met in my travels around Haiti, since my first visit there in 1997, a decent country is all most have ever asked for.

Michael Deibert is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. His blog can be read at

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Srebrenica, 15 years on

On the 15th anniversary of the massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, I thought it an apt time to repost this piece I wrote in 2006, which focuses in part on such ill-famed individuals as Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and Arundhati Roy and their denial of the war crimes that took place during the Balkan wars. Good rebuttals from actual journalists such as Ed Vulliamy and survivors such as Kemal Pervanic included within.


9 October 2006

Freedom speech and its perils

(Read the original article published here)

Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist with Novaya Gazeta who had probably done more than any other single person to expose the horror of the war in Chechnya and the involvement of Russian officials in some of its most ghastly aspects, was murdered on Saturday at her Moscow apartment. Her book, A Small Corner of Hell, was one of the definitive portraits of the agony inflicted on the Chechens, and how actors on both sides of the conflict cynically profited from it. When she died, she had been working on an article regarding the use of torture in the regime of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow premier Ramzan A. Kadyrov, which, she told The New York Times in April, would likely include evidence of torture by Kadyrov’s police and paramilitaries, and perhaps even testimony from at least one witness who had been tortured by Mr. Kadyrov himself.

Whoever ordered the contract killing, for which at this point no suspects have been apprehended, the intent seems fairly clear: To silence one of Russia’s most powerful voices for human rights, democracy and government accountability. Someone was so threatened by what Politkovskaya would say or write that they decided, in the cold calculations of the brutal, that killing her was an appropriate price to pay to ensure her silence.

It is sadly ironic that this silencing of a dissenting voice should come just days after, for the second time in recent weeks, Columbia University, one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the United States and a fixture on the educational landscape here in my own city of New York, appeared to bow to the voices of intolerance in allowing a scheduled speaker to be silenced by those who differed from their views.

This time the speaker, invited by a campus Republican group, was Jim Gilchrist, the head of the Minuteman Project, which assembled hundreds of volunteers last year, some armed, to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border for illegal immigrants. As Mr. Gilchrist spoke, several dozen protestors stormed the stage, unfurled banners and began shouting him down and, by some accounts, attempted to push him off the stage. You can watch film of the disruption here. As the fracas erupted mere weeks after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited, then disinvited, to the campus in the midst of popular outcry, one can fairly ask whether the level of debate at one of our nation‘s most prestigious (and expensive) universities has sunk to the level of sloganeering and fear of allowing the other side be heard. Though I personally have no respect at all for the virulently anti-immigrant and xenophobic position of Mr. Gilchrist and his group, much as I have no respect for the frothingly anti-Semitic rantings of Mr. Ahmadinejad, either our campuses here in the United States are places of free inquiry, where the airing of the views of the minority are given equal protection as the views of the majority, or they are not. On his weekly radio program, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took the right approach, by stating that “I think it’s an outrage that somebody that was invited to speak didn’t get a chance to speak…There are too many incidents at the same school where people get censored.”

It seems that this current of intolerance is more and more a facet of public discourse in North America. I have experienced it first-hand. At about this time one year ago, I published my first book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press), my chronicle of my experiences in that Caribbean country since 1997. Despite some historical sidetracks, the book is chiefly a chronicle of the years between the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government to Haiti by a U.S.-lead multinational force in 1994 to his overthrow and exile amidst massive street protests against his rule and an armed rebellion a decade later.

Having been involved with Haiti for many years and having seen what Mr. Aristide, his government and his Fanmi Lavalas political party had brutalized and cynically exploited the poor majority of Haitians, I was conscious writing the book that, in order to portray accurately the roles of some in Haiti’s fractured and often violent political landscape, some holy cows would have to be slaughtered. I would have to speak honestly about the massive payouts made by the Aristide government to lobbyists and political actors in the United States, several of whom, including former U.S. Representative Ron Dellums, still wield considerable power with my country’s elected representatives. I would have to speak of the break I had with the analysis of some of those who, in progressive circles in North America, had been allowed to speak virtually unchallenged as authorities on Haiti for many years. The statements of individuals such as the American doctor Paul Farmer, whose public health work among Haiti’s poor I had always admired but whose continued vocal support of the Aristide government - a government that was victimizing that very same strata of Haitian society - I couldn’t condone, and Noam Chomsky, whose critiques of Haiti’s political travails were delivered via his tenured professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, needed to be addressed by someone who had lived and moved among the Haitian people, spoke their language, and saw their struggles if there was ever to be an honest discourse of how to best help the country among progressives in the United States. As I regarded Mr. Chomsky’s work on Haiti in particular as fairly marginal to the larger discussion of the fate of Haiti’s poor, though, I restricted my commentary on him to only two (rather unflattering) paragraphs in the book’s 454 pages.

As the book was published, however, admitting that they themselves had not even read it in its entirety, Mr. Chomsky and his literary agent, the author Anthony Arnove, who, like Mr. Chomsky, has made a comfortable living for himself adopting a “radical” position while making sure to steer well clear of the line of fire, launched a campaign against the book by berating my publisher Seven Stories (which also publish several Chomsky titles) on its contents and attempting, so it seemed, to scuttle its publication, or at least the press' support of it. Phone calls were made, emails were sent. Seven Stories, to its credit, stuck to its guns and published the book as written. Why, one might ask, would two such established authors be so threatened by a book penned on a poor Caribbean country by a working-class journalist and writer whom they had never met and whose work they admitted they had barely read? I must say that I was surprised, with all that is going on in the world, that my little book would warrant such attention from two individuals who like to portray themselves as champions of free speech.

These attempts to squelch the book ran roughly concurrently with the campaign against the talented young British journalist Emma Brockes, whose October 2005 interview with Mr. Chomsky in The Guardian caused a great deal of controversy, asking, as it did, tough questions about Chomsky’s relationship with what The Times (UK) columnist Oliver Kamm quite accurately described as “some rather unsavoury elements who wrote about the Balkan wars in the 1990s.”

The furor at the time centered around Ms. Brockes confronting Chomky with the fact that he had lent his name to a letter praising the “outstanding” (Chomsky’s own words) work of a journalist called Diana Johnstone. Johnstone’s 2002 book Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Pluto Press), argues that the July 1995 killing of at least 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica was, in essence (directly quoting from her book), not a “part of a plan of genocide” and that “there is no evidence whatsoever” for such a charge. This despite the November 1995 indictment of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for “genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war” stemming from that very episode and the later conviction by the same tribunal of a Bosnian Serb general of aiding and abetting genocide in Srebrenica. Johnstone also states that no evidence exists that much more than 199 men and boys were killed there and that Srebrenica and other unfortunately misnamed 'safe areas' had in fact “served as Muslim military bases under UN protection.” In 2003, the Swedish magazine Ordfront published an interview with Johnstone where she reiterated these views. Chomsky was also among those who supported a campaign defending the right of a fringe magazine called Living Marxism to publish claims that footage the British television station ITN took in August 1992 at the Serb-run Trnopolje concentration camp in Bosnia was faked. ITN sued the magazine for libel and won, putting the magazine out of business, as Living Marxism could not produce a single witness who had seen the camps at first hand, whereas others who had - such as the journalist Ed Vulliamy - testified as to their horror.

In fact, as recently as April 25, 2006, in an interview with Radio Television of Serbia (a station formerly aligned with the murderous and now-deceased Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic), Chomsky stated, of the iconic, emaciated image of a Bosnian Muslim man named Fikret Alic, the following:

Chomsky: [I]f you look at the coverage [i.e. media coverage of earlier phases of the Balkan wars], for example there was one famous incident which has completely reshaped the Western opinion and that was the photograph of the thin man behind the barb-wire.

Interviewer: A fraudulent photograph, as it turned out.

Chomsky: You remember. The thin men behind the barb-wire so that was Auschwitz and 'we can't have Auschwitz again.'

In taking this position, Chomsky seemingly attempts to discredit the on-the-ground reporting of not only Mr. Vulliamy - whose reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994 - but of other journalists such as Penny Marshall, Ian Williams and Roy Gutman. In fact, Vulliamy , who filed the first reports on the horrors of the Trnopolje camp and was there that day the ITN footage was filmed, wrote as follows in The Guardian in March 2000:

Living Marxism's attempts to re-write the history of the camps was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps and sympathized with their cause and wished to see it triumph. That was the central and - in the final hour, the only - issue. Shame, then, on those fools, supporters of the pogrom, cynics and dilettantes who supported them, gave them credence and endorsed their vile enterprise.

In his interview with Brockes, Chomsky stated that "Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true."

In a November 2005 column, Marko Attila Hoare, a Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Kingston (London), wrote thusly:

An open letter to Ordfront, signed by Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and others, stated: 'We regard Johnstone's Fools' Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.' In his personal letter to Ordfront in defence of Johnstone, Chomsky wrote: 'I have known her for many years, have read the book, and feel that it is quite serious and important.' Chomsky makes no criticism here of Johnstone's massacre denial, or indeed anywhere else - except in the Brockes interview, which he has repudiated. Indeed, he endorses her revisionism: in response to Mikael van Reis's claim that 'She [Johnstone] insists that Serb atrocities - ethnic cleansing, torture camps, mass executions - are western propaganda', Chomsky replies that 'Johnstone argues - and, in fact, clearly demonstrates - that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication.'

Pretty astounding stuff, huh? But, faced with a relentless campaign by Mr. Chomsky and his supporters The Guardian, to its eternal shame, pulled Brockes’ interview from its website and issued what can only be described as a groveling apology that did a great disservice not only to Ms Brockes herself, but also to former Guardian correspondent Vulliamy and all those journalists who actually risked their lives covering the Bosnian conflict, to say nothing of the victims of the conflict themselves.

The caving-in focused on three points, the chief of which appeared to be the headline used on the interview, which read: “Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough.”

Though this was a paraphrase rather than a literal quotation, the fact of the matter was that it did seem to accurately sum up the state of affairs: Chomsky had actively supported Johnstone, who in turn had claimed that the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated and not part of a campaign of genocide. The Guardian brouhaha prompted, Kemal Pervanic, author of The Killing Days: My Journey Through the Bosnia War, and a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp, to write that “If Srebrenica has been a lie, then all the other Bosnian-Serb nationalists' crimes in the three years before Srebrenica must be false too. Mr Chomsky has the audacity to claim that Living Marxism was "probably right" to claim the pictures ITN took on that fateful August afternoon in 1992 - a visit which has made it possible for me to be writing this letter 13 years later - were false. This is an insult not only to those who saved my life, but to survivors like myself.”

Chomsky complained about that, too, forcing The Guardian to write in its apology that, ignoring the fact that it was Chomsky’s characterization of the Serb-run camps that seemed to outrage Pervanic the most, “Prof Chomsky believes that publication (of Pervanic’s letter) was designed to undermine his position, and addressed a part of the interview which was false…With hindsight it is acknowledged that the juxtaposition has exacerbated Prof Chomsky's complaint and that is regretted.”

So Emma Brockes (whom I have never met), in this instance, at least, was silenced. There but for the grace of God (and a few gutsy editors) go I and many other journalists who have challenged the powerful.

Retracting our steps slightly, the actions of Chomsky and Arnove were by no means the only efforts to silence the voices of chronicled in my book or that of its author. The others - vituperative and false attacks by a violent and erratic Aristide crony named Patrick Elie, the eruption of Mr. Aristide’s attorney Ira Kurzban and a red-face, apparently unstable man named Jack Lieberman into a shouting, semi-hysterical tirade during a reading of mine in Miami resulting in the summoning (by whom I don’t know) of security personnel, photos of corpses emailed to me last November by a seemingly unbalanced graduate student from California named Jen Sprague, a December 2005 email from Miami celebrating the July 2005 murder of Haitian journalist (and friend) Jacques Roche - continued after the book’s publication and could make an entertaining if disturbing article in themselves. However, at the moment they would serve as a distraction from the issue at hand. Having lost so many friends to Haiti’s political violence over the last decade, I felt that the threats, whether they be professional or personal, that would be visited upon me because of the book were a small price to pay to get the truth of what happened to Haiti out.

This triumvirate of episodes as I have been mulling over them - the murder of Politkovskaya, the shutting down of free discouse at Columbia University and the campaign of a small privileged, insular and delusional elite to prevent the publication of views they deem objectionable by various methods - reminds me of nothing so much as the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” as relevant today as when it was penned in 1939:

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

As long as those in positions of power, wherever they may be, are unchallenged authority figures assured of uncritical press coverage and an adoring public, no real dialogue will ever take place. From our prevaricating, duplicitous president here in the United States on down, they must be challenged. The fact is, some people can only react to criticism and dissent by trying to silence those individuals who are dissenting, quite often journalists. Free and open discourse? As human beings, perhaps, I think we still have a long way to go. But we as journalists cannot back down, cannot be intimidated into silence by those who would want to keep us from reporting unpopular and uncomfortable truths. There is too much at stake for us to take even a step back in defending our rights to report honestly on the struggles of the poor, the disenfranchised and the powerless. Journalists like Anna Politkovskaya paid the ultimate price so that struggle could go on, and we owe their memories at least that much.