Saturday, April 25, 2009

LIBYA: ‘‘King of Kings’’ Gaddafi Tries to Flex Regional Muscles

LIBYA: ‘‘King of Kings’’ Gaddafi Tries to Flex Regional Muscles

By Michael Deibert

Inter Press Service

PARIS, Apr 24, 2009 (IPS) - Former pariah and now Europe’s cautious partner, Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi seems determined to flex new-found diplomatic muscles on issues ranging from trade to regional security, North Africa observers say.

Elected to a one-year term to lead the 53-nation African Union (AU) in February, Gaddafi has been acting energetically in that role and in his capacity as the guiding force behind the Communauté des Etats Sahélo-Sahariens (Community of Sahel-Saharan States, or CEN-SAD).

Promoting an idiosyncratic brand of pan-continental leadership, Gaddafi has been welcomed back into the European Union’s (EU) good books after Libya announced in 2003 that it was abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.

He has made his presence felt in recent months on a host of subject affecting relations between Europe and Africa.

Read the full article here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A note on violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University

In early 2007, while reporting on the conflict in India-controlled Kashmir, I sat at a small tea shop in Srinagar discussing the political trajectory of this troubled region with two friends, a Kashmiri attorney named Malik Aijaz Ahmad and a student named Idrees Kanth. I saw in Kashmir, as I have in other countries such as Haiti and Côte d'Ivoire, how the majority of the populace was caught in a vicious war of attraction between opposing sides with very little recourse or protection. It this experience witnessing the situation in Kashmir that led me to write my first long-form feature for the World Policy Journal, the flagship publication of the New York-based World Policy Institute, where I have recently been named a Senior Fellow.

During my time in India, I also became aware of the country’s complicated religious and ethnic dynamic, that on one hand saw frequent and repeated episodes of discrimination and violence against the country’s Muslim minority, but also that representatives of that community could often behave in ways that reeked of intolerance. A recent email from Idrees, studying at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, demonstrates vividly to me that this phenomenon has not abated and that, in fact, violence, even in a university setting, is a fact of life for some Indian students. I print Idrees Kanth’s email, with his permission and in its entirety, below. Note: The ABVP that he refers to stands for the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, an extremist Hindu youth group.



Dear All,

We want to bring it to your notice the constant physical and psychological violence that many of us Muslim students have been experiencing at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi over the last two years. Recently on On 17th March a Muslim student Masihullah Khan [ M.A. French] was brutally assaulted by a group of ABVP/RSS students inside Lohit hostel in full view of the Senior Waden and fellow residents. Despite that the administration did not deem it be a serious offence and let them off with very mild punishments, which were then revoked. All that was left of the punishment was hostel transfers, and even those were not carried out.

Exactly a month later on 17th April the same group of students assaulted me [Idrees Kanth] badly and further threatened me of dire consequences. Even after this, the administration on one ground or other ['humanitarian considerations' is what the administration said] has been protecting them making us feel not only very vulnerable but traumatised. Such an attitude of the administration has only emboldened these hooligans who are now openly targeting us.

It is a common knowledge among students in JNU that the administration is completely right wing. In the past if by any chance a Dalit or a Muslim student was involved even in a minor act of indiscipline, the student was severely punished and even rusticated.

We therefore, appeal to you all to build an opinion on such a stark and open communal policy of the JNU administration and the growing communal violence on the campus. We are being constantly threatened, intimidated, abused, physically beaten etc etc. We feel completely helpless !!!


Idrees Kanth

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Children Burned to Death by Rwandan Hutu Militia in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

The FDLR came and circled my house. When we tried to leave, they said, “You can’t leave or we’ll kill you.” I was able to move out a bit and get some distance from the house, but my three young boys were still inside, sleeping on a single bed. Then I saw the FDLR combatants light a fire directly on my house and my three boys burned to death.

-Father of three young boys (ages 3, 4, and 6) burned to death in their home:

According to Human Rights Watch, on the night of April 17, 2009, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu militia) attacked Luofu and Kasiki villages in the southern Lubero territory of North Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. As a result of the attack at least seven civilians, including five young children, were killed, the latter burned to death in their homes.

Though the FDLR had warned earlier that Luofu would be attacked, according the Human Rights Watch, neither the Mission de l'Organisation des Nations Unies en République démocratique du Congo (MONUC) nor the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) took any precautionary measures to protect civilians in case the threat was carried out.

Photos and first-hand accounts of the attack can be read here.

“Bring me my bow of burning gold...”

As Paris fully entered exuberant springtime the other day, the novia and I found ourselves strolling down the Champs-Élysées. Losing ourselves in the crowds of tourists, we walked following an hour spent perusing a retrospective of the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake at the Musée des Beaux-Arts of the Petit Palais that was most impressive indeed.

Blake has been among my favorite poets ever since my midteens, when I read two volumes of his poetry, Songs of Innocence and of Experience and the prophetic/mystic book-length poem Jerusalem, in a volume of his collected works. Subject to auditory and visual visions (some would say hallucinations) since his youth, Blake’s poetry was intensely mystical in its yearning for a melding of the corporeal and incorporeal worlds, perhaps somewhat akin to the poetry of the great Persian mystic bard Rumi in its search for the divine among the everyday. Though the work of John Milton, particularly given its context in the midst of England’s civil war, perhaps had a greater emotional impact on me over the years, the intensity of Blake’s religious/mystical vision has always stuck with me. Blake’s vision was powerful enough through the years to inspire the poet Allen Ginsberg, who had a 1948 auditory hallucination of Blake reading his poem "Ah, Sunflower" in a Harlem apartment, to a new dedication to his own writing.

Seeing for the first-time the exquisitely wrought illuminated manuscripts that Blake etched to illustrate his own books of poetry (which he could barely give away during his lifetime) was a powerful lesson in staying true to one’s vision, no matter how incongruous or unpopular it might seem to one’s contemporaries. Likewise, such Blake illustrations as that of a heroically put-upon Job and a series of extraordinary illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy make for a moving and more than a little disturbing experience in a Paris museum on a blazing spring day. But one well worth the time to meditate over its impact.

The Blake retrospective runs at the Petit Palais until June 28th.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Of pirates and protectors

Despite the understandable joy at the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from the clutches of a quartet of bandits who had seized his ship off the coast of Somalia, and the refrain of the "three shots/three kills" action of United States Navy snipers in rescuing him (killing three of his four captors), something seems to me to have been lost in all the euphoria.

Somalia has been without a functioning government since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. Under the auspices of United Nations Security Council Resolution 794, which created the Unified Task Force (UNITAF), a U.S.-led United Nations force operated in Somalia between December 1992 and March 1995, but failed to stem the tide of warlordism and famine which, along with a potent dose of Islamic fundamentalism, continues to underline much of the violence in the country today. The citizens of Somalia have been enduring unrelenting agony and conflict for 18 years, yet only now does the world media take notice, mentioning the piracy phenomenon without delving into the more complicated geopolitical reality of the region and possible prescriptive remedies. Violence in Africa is once again largely portrayed as if it just appeared out of nowhere, and as if the suffering of the Somalis should only serve as background for the economic angle of the piracy story.

In acknowledging this more complicated reality, in addition to pointing readers towards the work of the great Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, I would ask that they read the below essay by Mogadishu-born K'naan, a Somali-Canadian musician of whose work I am quite fond. Though I cannot attest to the veracity of every example that K'naan lays out in support of his case, I think that these words are nonetheless an important perspective on a troubled region that Europe and North America have only recently seemed to have taken notice of.



Why We Don't Condemn Our Pirates

by K'naan

(The original post can be read here)

Can anyone ever really be for piracy? Outside of sea bandits, and young girls fantasizing of Johnny Depp, would anyone with an honest regard for good human conduct really say that they are in support of Sea Robbery?

Well, in Somalia, the answer is: it's complicated.

The news media these days has been covering piracy in the Somali coast with such lop-sided journalism, that it's lucky they're not on a ship themselves. It's true that the constant hijacking of vessels in the Gulf of Aden is a major threat to the vibrant trade route between Asia and Europe. It is also true that for most of the pirates operating in this vast shoreline, money is the primary objective.

But according to so many Somalis, the disruption of Europe's darling of a trade route, is just Karma biting a perpetrator in the butt. And if you don't believe in Karma, maybe you believe in recent history. Here is why we Somalis find ourselves slightly shy of condemning our pirates.

Somalia has been without any form of a functioning government since 1991. And although its failures, like many other toddler governments in Africa, sprung from the wells of post-colonial independence, bad governance and development loan sharks, the specific problem of piracy was put in motion in 1992.

After the overthrow of Siyad Barre, our charmless dictator of twenty-some-odd years, two major forces of the Hawiye Clan came to power. At the time, Ali Mahdi, and General Mohamed Farah Aidid, the two leaders of the Hawiye rebels, were largely considered liberators. But the unity of the two men and their respective sub-clans was very short-lived. It's as if they were dumbstruck at the advent of ousting the dictator, or that they just forgot to discuss who will be the leader of the country once they defeated their common foe.

A disagreement of who will upgrade from militia leader to Mr. President broke up their honeymoon. It's because of this disagreement that we've seen one of the most decomposing wars in Somalia's history, leading to millions displaced and hundreds of thousands dead.

But war is expensive and militias need food for their families, and Jaad (an amphetamine-based stimulant) to stay awake for the fighting. Therefore, a good clan -based Warlord must look out for his own fighters. Aidid's men turned to robbing aid trucks carrying food to the starving masses, and re-selling it to continue their war. But Ali Mahdi had his sights set on a larger and more unexploited resource, namely: the Indian Ocean.

Already by this time, local fishermen in the coastline of Somalia have been complaining of illegal vessels coming to Somali waters and stealing all the fish. And since there was no government to report it to, and since the severity of the violence clumsily overshadowed every other problem, the fishermen went completely unheard.

But it was around this same time that a more sinister, a more patronizing practice was being put in motion. A Swiss firm called Achair Parterns, and an Italian waste company called Progresso, made a deal with Ali Mahdi, that they were to dump containers of waste material in Somali waters. These European companies were said to be paying Warlords about $3 a ton, whereas to properly dispose of waste in Europe costs about $1000 a ton.

In 2004, after a tsunami washed ashore several leaking containers, thousand of locals in the Puntland region of Somalia started to complain of severe and previously unreported ailments, such as abdominal bleeding, skin melting off and a lot of immediate cancer-like symptoms. Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the United Nations Environmental Program, says that the containers had many different kinds of waste, including "Uranium, radioactive waste, lead, Cadmium, Mercury and chemical waste."

But this wasn't just a passing evil from one or two groups taking advantage of our unprotected waters. The UN envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, says that the practice still continues to this day. It was months after those initial reports that local fishermen mobilized themselves, along with street militias, to go into the waters and deter the Westerners from having a free pass at completely destroying Somalia's aquatic life. Now years later, the deterring has become less noble, and the ex-fishermen with their militias have begun to develop a taste for ransom at sea. This form of piracy is now a major contributor to the Somali economy, especially in the very region that private toxic waste companies first began to burry our nation's death trap.

Now Somalia has upped the world's pirate attacks by over 21 percent in one year, and while NATO and the EU are both sending forces to the Somali coast to try and slow down the attacks, Blackwater and all kinds of private security firms are intent on cashing in. But while Europeans are well in their right to protect their trade interest in the region, our pirates were the only deterrent we had from an externally imposed environmental disaster. No one can say for sure that some of the ships they are now holding for ransom were not involved in illegal activity in our waters. The truth is, if you ask any Somali, if getting rid of the pirates only means the continuous rape of our coast by unmonitored Western Vessels, and the producing of a new cancerous generation, we would all fly our pirate flags high.

It is time that the world gave the Somali people some assurance that these Western illegal activities will end, if our pirates are to seize their operations. We do not want the EU and NATO serving as a shield for these nuclear waste-dumping hoodlums. It seems to me that this new modern crisis is truly a question of justice, but also a question of whose justice.

As is apparent these days, one man's pirate is another man's coast guard.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Michael Deibert named Senior Fellow World Policy Institute

In a good development all around, I have been named a Senior Fellow at New York's World Policy Institute, which develops and champions innovative policies that require a progressive and global point of view. Having previously written for the Institute's flagship publication, the World Policy Journal, from Indian-controlled Kashmir, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guatemala, it is my hope that, with the Institute's resources behind me, I will be able to continue to be of use, through reporting and speaking engagements, in the struggle of economically and socially disadvantaged people to lead more just and decent lives.

A nice start to 2009.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Brave New World

Every week seems to bring another herald of the impending demise of reporting as we know it. Last week, the New York Times Company threatened to shut the Boston Globe unless the newspaper's unions agreed to $20 million in concessions. And in my home town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Intelligencer Journal (founded in 1794, making it the 7th oldest newspaper in the United States) and the Lancaster New Era (first printed in 1796) have announced that they will begin publishing a single morning edition starting June 29.

Though the papers share a corporate owner and a newsroom, they have historically maintained relatively distinct editorial voices, with the Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster's morning paper) maintaining a relatively liberal line while the Lancaster New Era was often frothingly conservative. In addition to depriving readers of a diversity of viewpoints and thoroughgoing news coverage of Lancaster County, the move will also result in the layoffs of dozens of employees at both papers. Ironically, the Lancaster New Era was my first taste of newsroom journalism when I spent a day there when I was something in the neighborhood of 14 years old during a middle school career day.

The challenges such an ever-contracting news environment present to independent journalists such as myself, many of whom live hand-to-mouth on a razor thin profit margin that separates solvency from destitution (as I do), are substantial and ongoing. With the news business, particularly in the United States, on life-support, journalists need to be ever more dogged and creative in the means by which they are able to continue doing the kind of in-depth, on-the-ground reporting that someone blogging behind a desk is unable to do. But that process itself - applying for grants and looking towards non-traditional avenues of publication - is also often a stark reminder of the relative disposability and vulnerability of the position of reporters in this current environment.

A case study from my own experience.

During the process of applying for a grant with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for a project in Afghanistan, I received an email from Jon Sawyer, the Center's Director, telling me that the Pulitzer Center had recently struck an agreement with under which Pulitzer Center grantees agreed to write at least one short piece (600-800 words) suitable for use on the website. Sawyer went on to write that these stories would then be featured on GlobalPost - a for-profit venture founded by Philip Balboni and Charles Sennot - and afterwards made available for purchase/republication by Global Post subscribers. After Global Post used the article on their own website (for free), the “re-use” fee, if the articles were indeed re-sold, would net Pulitzer Center grantees the princely sum of $200 per use.

Asked if I would be amenable to filing a story/photo for GlobalPost, I responded that I would be more than happy to write for the website as long as they paid upon publication, as is the norm, not upon re-sale. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sawyer’s enthusiasm for the Afghanistan project, which he had previously spoke of in the most eager terms, cooled tremendously, and no grant was in the end dispersed.

Perhaps I should not read too much into the incident, but I found this episode troubling in what it suggested, which was a surreptitious compromising of the Pulitzer Center’s publicly-stated position of providing "travel grants to cover hard costs associated with upcoming travel for an international reporting project” in support of a for-profit enterprise. Writing to GlobalPost about this, I received a prompt though rather self-important response from Rick Byrne, GlobalPost’s Director of Communications & Marketing. It stated, in part:

GlobalPost didn’t need the work of Pulitzer Center journalists to fulfill its editorial budget, but we wanted to provide them an opportunity for additional compensation in addition to the exposure.

But of course, GlobalPost, which describes itself as “relying on the enduring values of great journalism: integrity, accuracy, independence and powerful storytelling,” is not exactly turning down the free labour of journalists to provide itself with content either, is it?

So, what are committed independent journalists to do? How does one feed oneself and care for one’s family in such an environment? I have never for a moment doubted the value of principled, investigative independent reporting that exposed often-ignored truths and challenged the powerful in their positions in privilege, whether it be in Haiti, Congo, Australia or Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Far from saving this kind of reporting, though, my fear is that entities such as GlobalPost, which seek to replace the actual jobs once offered by newspapers with networks of underpaid, overworked freelancers lacking in such perks as health insurance, may in fact help hasten its demise.

We as journalists are now piloting a fragile ship through stormy seas, and I hope that we can make it to the far shore. Do my fellows journos - or others - have any thoughts on the matter?

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Bienvenue à la ceinture rouge

Paris in the springtime, and it’s very sweet to be back, I must say.

Returning to the heart of Europe from four months in Australia, probably the most unpleasant country I have ever visited, France, with its glittering intellectual tradition, culinary excellence, potpourri of cultures and proximity to so many areas of the world that hold my interest, has proved a very easy transition.

Continuing my tradition of living in largely immigrant areas of the city (as befits my immigrant status), I have swapped my pied-à-terre in the 18eme’s Château-Rouge quarter for a charming and light-filled flat just across the périphérie along the frontier of two neighborhoods, Les Lilas and Bagnolet, in the neuf trois department of Seine-Saint-Denis. A historically working-class area that is now one of the most fertile grounds for French hip-hop, the area of northeastern Paris that I now call home has such a strong tradition of militant labour activism that it once gained the sobriquet la ceinture rouge (“the red belt”), a name that still holds largely true today. Far from the overpriced tourist destinations and grand boulevards of western Paris, the neuf trois is France’s immigrant experience at its most authentic and, as such, one of the most vibrant places to experience the real culture and development of the language that France has to offer.

Much has happened during my travels, including the declassification of documents that prove that the United States government knew that Guatemalan political actors it supported with arms and cash during that country’s 36-year civil war were behind the disappearance of thousands of people. The disclosure, largely due to the important work of the Nation Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington, DC, sheds fresh light on the development of a deeply corrupt political culture that continues to bedevil Guatemala today (as I found out during a recent trip there) and my own country’s role in it.

In terms of America’s current history, I can’t speak highly enough of the deep satisfaction I have felt to watch Barack Obama on his first visit to Europe as president. I can’t remember the last time I heard a US president rhapsodize about the sublime please of sipping wine in a European cafe as the sun goes down, all while giving an eloquent defense of public service, but I am glad that I was able to be alive at the time Obama was president. He makes one as inspired and hopeful about the possibilities of politics and America’s role in the world as the previous president made one hopeless and cynical.

I should have some much bigger news coming in the next few days. In the meantime, on y va.