Sexual violence a ‘normal thing’ in many countries at war

alexAlexandra Veloy, MRG’s Fundraising Intern, shares her experiences from the first Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

Two weeks ago, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict took place at the ExCel Centre in London. A summit that offered many options to learn about sexual violence issues around the globe: exhibitions, theatre and dancing performances, films screening, mock trials, and fringe events, with speakers from the leading NGOs, survivors of sexual violence and judges of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, amongst others. Overall, a great environment for dialogue, ideas, comments, sharing of best practice, awareness-raising for the general public and for decision-makers to include sexual violence in their agendas.

Aline and Lilliane came a long way from Democratic Republic of the Congo to attend the Summit. They were invited by MRG to share their experiences as Batwa women working for NGOs dedicated to women’s empowerment in North-Kivu. Batwa women have been a particularly vulnerable group in the many conflicts that have affected their country, where rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used as methods of war. Furthermore, on many occasions Batwa women have been abducted and forced to become sexual slaves for long periods of time.

Whilst accompanying Aline and Lilliane during the Summit events I realised how different our perspectives were. I was continually shocked by what I was hearing and outraged by the levels of sexual violence around the world (I was unaware of the extent this happens on a daily basis in so many countries), especially when Aline and Lilliane kept confirming all the information and adding details and numbers, as if it was a ‘normal thing’. Not that they accepted it, on the contrary; but they have to deal with it every day. Wandering around the exhibitions, they ran into many people from the DRC and other African countries who work in the same field, and discussed the necessity to raise awareness at a global level in order to solve the problem.

The Summit is a first step to putting this tricky issue on the world stage (even if only for a few days), aided of course by the presence of the UNHCR Special Envoy and celebrity Angelina Jolie, and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. But it has also brought together others such as US Secretary of State John Kerry, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda or Dr Denis Mukwege, all of them committed to putting an end to sexual violence in conflict.

Regardless of the people ‘starring’ in the event, it provided an opportunity for the international community to talk about the problems linked to sexual violence in conflict, such as ending impunity for the perpetrators, providing support for victims in order to remove the stigma brought by the abuse, and how to come up with effective solutions with the collaboration and commitment of the international community.

For this Summit, legal experts presented the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The Protocol is a tool aimed mainly at NGOs, lawyers and other people working with survivors of sexual violence. It seems like a good start, and is definitely a useful tool to fight impunity, but the problem of sexual abuse remains an all too common practice.

The catchphrase of the Summit was ‘Time to Act’. And it is indeed time to act; time for the international community to react and this Protocol is a start. In the words of Lilliane, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon with which we can fight this war against sexual violence.’


Breaking the silence in Somalia


Isabelle Younane, our Communications Intern, finds out how identity fuels discrimination in Somalia at an MRG storytelling event 

As visitors pressed themselves into the cramped back rows of the MRG tent in the ExCel centre, waiting for our Somali panelists to begin, I quickly realised that my role of kick-starting the question time had been made redundant. While I passed the microphone from straining hand to straining hand, trying to wrestle my sleeve from the grasps of eager Somali guests who insisted in not-so-hushed tones that it was their turn to speak next, I felt increasingly saddened. Here, in this side-event at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, perched on the edges of London and thousands of miles away from Somalia, was, for many, their chance to express how it feels to be treated as a second-class citizen in their own country. Why had no one listened to them sooner?

Hon. Bibi Khalif Mohamed, one of the few female MPs in Somalia and member of the Constitution Review Committee, told us the story of Habiba, a child from a minority clan in Somalia who found herself caught up in a civil war that raged across Somalia in the 1990s. Habiba’s father and brother were murdered, while her mother and aunt were raped by insurgents from the majority clan under the gaze of three-year-old Habiba as she hid beneath a mango tree. As their home was destroyed, Habiba and the remains of her family were admitted into an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp where they hoped to find relief from the surge of sectarian violence between majority and minority clans that had been fuelled by conflict. But as our storyteller revealed, they found no such refuge.

Hon. Bibi Khalif Mohamed tells the story of Habiba

Hon. Bibi Khalif Mohamed tells the story of Habiba

The audience members were required to wave a coloured card when they saw what they perceived to be discrimination – a seemingly straightforward task. A flurry of cards shot into the air when Habiba’s mother was raped and her father was killed. This was discrimination as we know it – sexual violence, murder and hate speech. But there was less certainty when Habiba reached the IDP camp and discrimination took a more insidious form. Being forced to the back of the food queue, receiving smaller portions than everyone else – was this discrimination too? As we learned from Habiba’s story, the act of doing nothing, too often practiced by the guards of IDP camps whose knowledge of Somali clans is insufficient, can also serve to facilitate discriminatory action in an environment that should offer protection.

‘But this is just the way it is,’ was the general consensus in the room. It is not that our Somali guests had accepted their fate of persecution, but rather they had despaired of any tenable solution. The civil unrest in Somalia stems from deep tribal divisions between Somali clans, notably Isaaq of the north, Ogadeni of the south and Hawiye of central Somalia – divisions that span generations. It became increasingly apparent that in Somalia, your tribe is considered inextricable from your identity, which means the victims envisage little hope of escape from threats of violence, sexual assault and even death.


As one audience member pointed out, the tribal tensions are perpetuated by Somali diaspora, and parents who teach their children to treat minority clans with hostility. So inevitably, just as Habiba and her family suffered persecution in the IDP camp, Somali families who have fled Somalia in search of new lives abroad find that they cannot leave discrimination behind them. ‘If you meet another Somali,’ said one guest, ‘the first thing they ask you is “which clan do you belong to?” If you give the wrong answer, they insult you, threaten you, or simply walk away from you.’ But when victims of persecution living in London turn to the police for help, another guest explained, the authorities dismiss it as ‘an argument within our community’ – a Somali problem.

But hopefully the Global Summit went some way to dissolving this Western attitude that persecution of minority cultures is not our problem. As the representative from the Somali Women’s Development Organisation (IIDA) reminded us, this attitude is particularly damaging to Somali women, who are protected in Somalia neither by the militant groups and warlords whose loyalties are with majority clans, nor by Somali police who fail to provide effective justice or social support for victims of sexual assault. Our audience members and panellists emphasised that there is a black hole of responsibility for discrimination against minority groups, both in and out of Somalia. The international community can make a first step in countering this discrimination by ensuring that such violations of human rights are not met with impunity in our own country, and by empowering members of minority groups through education programmes and advocacy, both national and international. IIDA, the largest grassroots movement in Somalia,  has driven this empowerment at a local level in developing women-led support programmes, enabling female members of minority clans to help themselves. But they require the help of the international community to implement lasting change, particularly in the Diaspora.

As I learned from this event – and from the Global Summit in general – the effects of globalisation and immigration mean that the West can no longer sit back and allow the suffering of ethnic groups, particularly as some of their members now walk the streets of our egalitarian nation. Hopefully, this modest event was a first step in creating a dialogue between Somali victims and the international community about the reality of life as a minority in Somalia, and what we can do to help.



A world of extremes – the paradox that is Luanda

MRG’s Head of Law, Lucy Claridge, takes in the sights, sounds and perplexing contrasts of the capital of Angola

“Is anyone here for the African Union event?” calls out a smartly-dressed, official-looking woman.  I breathe a sigh of relief.  I’ve just landed at Luanda airport, and am stuck at the end of a long immigration queue, despite having jumped through many hoops to obtain my visa in advance, and the hour-long wait isn’t really appealing after little sleep on an overnight flight.  “Come with me,” she says, and ushers me straight to the front of the line, where my passport is promptly stamped, and I’m in!  Perhaps VIP treatment is sometimes available for us mere charity workers, I think.

But the illusion ends abruptly, as I’m faced with nearly an hour wait for my suitcase, and I start to wonder if in fact it may still be in Addis.  And there starts the recurring theme of my trip.  Angola is a paradox.  It has oil, and so (some of) its inhabitants have money: Luanda has been voted the most expensive city in the world for several years now and the government seems really keen to impress foreign visitors.  But, unsurprisingly, that wealth is concentrated in an elite few – and so it lacks the basic infrastructure (transport, decent roads, basic customer service) which most cities of this size require – and which you’d expect of a city where a simple dinner of chicken and rice costs 20 US dollars.


Credit: Erik Cleves Kristensen

My suitcase arrives and I bargain hard for my lift into town.  Driving into the hot, dirty, heavily-congested city, I’m instantly struck by the visible signs of extreme poverty (shanty towns, open sewers) juxtaposed with signs of extreme wealth.  In contrast to many other African cities I’ve visited, most of the cars are new, and I’ve never seen so many SUVs!  ‘Is this what Texas is like?’ I wonder.

I am in Angola for the 55th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.  Based in Banjul, African Commission sessions usually take place in The Gambia, but are occasionally hosted (and therefore funded) by other African states.  At the same time, this provides host states with a chance to impress upon all attendees their commitment to human rights.  However, the expense of Luanda, coupled with the difficulties of obtaining visas (usually, a mention of human rights work on an Angolan visa application would result in instant denial; in this case, the Government has made special dispensation for those who wish to attend the Commission session, but the process still wasn’t easy), has discouraged many people from attending.

The following morning, a minibus arrives to transport us to the conference centre where the Commission session is taking place.  The VIP treatment continues, and we’re even treated to a police escort.  As the sirens on the police mopeds sound in front of us, I’m both relieved (the Angolan paradox means that taxis are unreliable, expensive and incredibly difficult to come by in Luanda) and embarrassed.  And sorry Angola, I know you won’t like this, VIP treatment doesn’t mean I won’t be questioning your human rights record.


Storm clouds gather
Credit: MRG

During the course of the Commission session, for example, it becomes apparent that an Angolan NGO that has been granted observer status, and therefore has the right to take the floor and deliver a statement, has been prevented from doing so.  And a few days later, I learn from an Angolan human rights activist that at the very same time that the Angolan government is spending considerable funds on hosting this high profile session to monitor the human rights situation in Africa, state authorities have detained, intimidated and assaulted a small group of journalist activists who were peacefully celebrating Press Freedom Day.  So how does that fit with your commitment to human rights, Angola?

On my last day, a friend and I meet with Rafael Marques de Marais, an Angolan journalist and human rights activist who has received several international awards for his reporting on conflict diamonds and government corruption.  Unsurprisingly, in the past Rafael has also been detained without charge and subjected to inhuman treatment by his Government for this work, continues to be regularly intimidated by state authorities, and has successfully challenged such treatment before the UN Human Rights Committee.  Rafael shows us around town.

We see the huge Mausoleum of Angola’s first President, erected by the Soviets (as you can see from the photo it looks like a space shuttle), the vast expanse of the Presidential palace, and the impressive and recently built (at huge expense, naturally) National Assembly buildings, which apparently aren’t used regularly because of issues with the air conditioning.  And yet again, literally metres away from these signs of extreme wealth and power, are open sewers and shanty towns, some of which are in the midst of being destroyed (apparently, they were spoiling the President’s view from his palace).  I’m also told the inhabitants were evicted in the middle of the night and had nowhere to go, and as a result, the few possessions they owned were destroyed.  But that’s ok, because if they head to the local shopping mall, they can easily pick up a new Sony TV and some Moschino heels….

Rafael takes us for dinner at a modern, relaxed restaurant on the coast.  We sit by the sea, huge storm clouds gathering on the horizon.  I decide to have fish.  This causes some difficulties because the grill where the fish is cooked is on the other side of the restaurant, and I’m not sitting at the right table.  I don’t speak Portuguese, but I can see this is frustrating Rafael as he repeatedly requests a simple solution: to bring the fish to our table from the other side of the restaurant.  Eventually, he speaks with the chef, and the matter is sorted.  Then another waiter butts in and explains the problem with the fish being at the other side of the restaurant.  Rafael patiently smoothes things over.  And finally, success! My fish arrives.

As we eat (extremely tasty fish) and the rain lashes down, I mull over the country’s many dysfunctions. Everyone seems to want their slice of power in Angola.


Back to naivety. Confessions of a journalist after visiting Uganda

paulinaPaulina Pacula is journalist from Poland. She recently travelled with MRG to Uganda under the Minority Realities Programme. Here she recounts how meeting Batwa was a life changing experience which made her understand the basics of her profession again, and adopt naivety as a way of thinking.

I feel a little bit ashamed to admit what I’m about to say. Maybe I should speak only for myself, but at the same time I tend to think that I’m not the only one beating their breast about how in our everyday work, with all the hurry and routine, we journalists forget to ask ourselves the most important questions.

Which questions? I’ll come to that….

Journalism is about the mission, but you know how it really is. In planning the story we have to think, ’Will people be interested in this subject so they click, buy or stay on our TV channel? Is this story exclusive enough to impress the audience or make other media quote us and make our brand stronger?’

Clicking, buying and watching are the most important activities of the audience from an economics point of view. They all mean money – the more people click, buy, watch, the more advertisements we get and business can go on. Because it’s all about business, isn’t it?

But it’s difficult to admit that out loud. Why? Because we journalists are ambitious people. We don’t like to do things the easy way and of course we don’t do our job for the media owners to earn money. No! We have a mission. Only sometimes the reality makes us forget this.

However I am lucky. I was reminded about it during a recent trip with MRG to Uganda. We visited two Batwa communities – indigenous people of Central and East Africa, who for the last five thousand years have lived in the rainforest along with colobus monkeys, chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Unfortunately in the 1990s they were evicted by the Ugandan government to make way for a national park.

What happens to them today? Those who were lucky enough to get a piece of land as a form of compensation from the government or from an NGO live outside the forest. That makes them totally unable to continue with traditions as all of their religious, social and health practices were connected with their natural habitat. They are traumatized, vulnerable and they have no voice. But at least they are not starving as they can grow some food.

Those who haven’t got any land live in slums around bigger towns. Deprived of everything, they live in shacks made from garbage and burn old tires to warm up and cook food. Most of them die before reaching forty, not to mention that almost every woman has an experience of losing a child as the level of child mortality is so high.


Batwa man in a slum on the outskirts of the town on Kisoro
Credit: Paulina Pacula

Seeing all of this made me feel overwhelmed. I was no longer thinking as I had at the beginning of this trip, ’Oh, this is so great, I’m going to bring all these amazing, exotic, exclusive stories back to Europe.’

Instead of that I had this word jumping in to my head: responsibility. What is my responsibility towards these people? What can I do to help them? Had I lost my faith in journalism? Could my stories change anything?

And the person who enlightened me was Lee Kanyare-Kaguongo, the director of the Ugandan Media Academy, and our lecturer during the MRG training workshop on ethical reporting in Kampala. When we came back from the visit to the Batwa communities and the next day we were sitting and discussing our stories, he kept asking this question to all of us, ‘What will be the impact of your story?’

The impact of my story. What a brilliant question!

I was lost, because I didn’t feel sense in my work. And suddenly I got it. What do you want to be the outcome of your story? What do you want to achieve with it? That basically means, what do you write it for?


Batwa girl. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Reserve can be seen in the background
Credit: Paulina Pacula

I was never satisfied with the idea that I write ‘to have it published’, ’to earn money’ or ’to have my name under the big headline on front page.’ But finally I realized that this was because I always felt my responsibility to the people who give me their story goes far beyond that.

Listening to Lee I understood that I can be far more successful in making impact with my stories by being conscious about this impact. Thinking deeper than making it clickable.

The question about impact is also a question about whether I reinforce stereotypes in my story or challenge them. Can my story make someone vulnerable and how can I prevent that? Will I open people up to reflection and discussion, or rather give them easy answers which do not make them understand others better? What actions do I want to see after the story is published? Who do I want to put pressure on? The government? Public institutions? Business people?

Only by doing that can we fulfill the role of the media as a watchdog. And with this comes another issue – the follow up stories and if there is a need to keep the pressure up. Journalism is not about writing and forgetting! And I see this pattern in the media too often.

As Lee brilliantly pointed out, media plays a significant role in our society as an agent of change. They can facilitate dialogue, debate and discussion at both the national and international level.

Brilliant. I believe in journalism again!

Some may call this approach naïve – I’m fine with that. As Javier Goma Lanzon, the Spanish philosopher pointed out recently, ‘Naivety is a method for traversing the dense cloud created by skepticism, relativism and particularism. It’s a way to deal with our culture dominated by the philosophy of suspicion, destruction, deconstruction, as well as proclamations such as the death of God, the death of Man, the end of History, and other such funereal declarations.’

Yeah, I can be naïve!

Respect for minorities still doubtful under Nepal’s new Constituent Assembly

team_KazNepal’s Constituent Assembly has been seated more than two months after elections, and the country’s minorities are still processing the significance of the results. Kaz Obuka, MRG’s South Asia Programmes Intern, presents the following analysis.

Nepal’s constituent elections last November were a technical success, with an estimated turnout of over 70 per cent, relatively little violence, and observers generally satisfied with the conduct of election officials. After accusations of conspiracy from electoral losers, eight political parties signed an agreement on 24 December 2013 that, if implemented, is expected to kick-start the formation of a new government.

These are significant accomplishments; however it remains unclear whether political stability, a constitution, and increased inclusion of Nepal’s most marginalized minorities will emerge from the process. The infighting over who should call the first session of the Constitutional Assembly bespeaks an interest in power plays rather than the long-term needs of the country. It doesn’t augur well.

Nepal, a small landlocked state wedged between India and China, and ruled by a Hindu monarchy for over 200 years, was thrown into turmoil in 1996 by a Maoist-led insurgency. The insurgency, which killed and displaced many thousands, ended in 2006 after the Maoists agreed to a peace process. Two years later the Maoists swept to power in elections, abolished the monarchy, and declared Nepal a secular state.

The current uncertainty is rooted in conflicts over the anatomy of the state, and the structure of its government. These were the two main issues that prevented Nepal’s first Constitutional Assembly, elected in April 2008, from fulfilling its mandate to create a new constitution – the Assembly was dissolved by the supreme court in May 2012 leaving Nepal with neither a legislature nor a constitution-drafting body.

The then incumbent Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) favoured an executive presidency similar to that of the United States, while the Nepali Congress Party, the main opposition, argued for a Westminster-style parliamentary government. The position of the United Marxist-Leninist Party (UML), the second largest opposition party, was that Nepal should adopt a combination of the two, similar to the French system of governance.

Regarding the former; the Maoists, with the backing of several small political parties representing the Madhesi ethnic group – traditionally discriminated against in Nepal – supported the creation of 10-14 new provinces based on the ethnic identity of the majority of residents. However, opponents of the measure, including the UML and the Nepali Congress, raised concerns that the move would lead to tensions between different castes, and claimed that the Maoists were deliberately sabotaging talks in order to prolong their grip on power.

Structural inequalities are deeply entrenched in Nepal, with economic power closely correlated to caste and ethnicity. High-castes dominate the political leadership, bureaucracy, and military, as well as media and business spheres. Ethnic federalism is seen by proponents as the best way to escape the grip of dominant groups. To activists like Stella Tamang, who sat on the Commission for State Restructuring, resistance to ethnic federalism came across as attempts to preserve the status quo. “It seems they don’t want to have any change”, she told me.

The Maoists openly backed the aspirations of Nepal’s minorities, however their resounding defeat in the polls means that the UML and Nepali Congress, parties that had neither minority inclusion nor ethnic federalism in their electoral mandates, will take the lead in developing Nepal’s political future.

An equally troubling concern, Ms. Tamang said, is the fact that identity-based federalism is a major interest for many of the most marginalised groups. In frustration with a perceived lack of commitment from the Maoists and indifference from other major parties, minority politicians left to form their own. These new parties failed to win a single seat.

Indeed, as Mukesh Khanal points out, many leaders who were vocal about ethnic federalism over the past five or six years did not win the votes of their core constituencies. This is a surprising development; as when, just prior to the dissolution of the last Constituent Assembly, a group of party leaders attempted to push through a privately negotiated constitution – sans ethnic federalism – street protests and uproar in the Assembly laid them low.

In an interview with The Diplomat Prof. Kapil Shrestha, a political scientist at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, expressed his doubts that identity-based federalism will be a roadblock to constitution drafting. “The politics of identity and ethnicity are no longer as powerful as they once were,” he said. “All parties, even the Maoists, are no longer interested in raking up this issue. Voters are more pre-occupied with socio-economic issues and having a progressive looking democratic constitution.”

He has a point. The Maoists were rewarded with an overwhelming victory in the 2008 elections for leading the resistance against an avaricious elite and incompetent monarchy. It should come as no surprise then, that they have also been blamed for Nepal’s economic decline and political instability.

A peanut vendor interviewed by The Washington Post in Kathmandu summed up this disillusionment. “They led a revolution to fight for the peasants, so I thought they would really uplift our lives,” said Dhital, 24. “But when they came to power, they were just like everyone else. Why should I vote for them again?”

In punishing the Maoists for failing to deliver on their prior electoral mandate, and rejecting identity-based parties Nepalese voters appear to have pushed ethnic issues to the margins of the new political agenda. There are real risks with disappointing aspirations. “Right now, minorities are in a state of shock”, Stella told me. If the parties drag their feet on federalism a backlash is quite likely. Previous failures to satisfy minority aspirations led to a series of agitations in early 2007 that destabilised the country.

Rakesh Karna, an activist with the NGO SUPPORT Nepal, sees dark clouds on the horizon. “The gap between these [Congress and UML] and more progressive parties [on the issue of ethnic federalism and minority inclusion] is huge. It is unlikely they will reach a settlement.”

Dalit woman, Nepal

Dalit woman, Nepal. Credit: CIMMYT

He told me the election results were grave developments because fewer representatives will be in the Assembly from Dalit and other minority groups; donor spending shifted away from directly supporting minority interests in the election process; and the most marginalized ethnicities are under-represented in international agencies. This means that it will be hard going to get their concerns serious attention. “English-speaking educated [minorities], who can fight, will do OK. But those who cannot will lose out.”

Dalits, estimated to comprise around 13-20 per cent of the Nepalese population, made up only around 8 per cent of the last Assembly with 50 members. The new Assembly will have only 40.

Mr. Karna also told me that the emergence of the RPP-N [a royalist, Hindu fundamentalist political party] as the fourth largest political force in Nepal, and their strong showing in the Kathmandu valley – home to many of Nepal’s well-educated elites – is an indicator that the Congress and UML will appeal to Hindu sentiments to consolidate their political power.

“I doubt there will be any respect for minorities,” Mr. Karna said.

Sochi Olympic Games cold comfort to minorities

Darya Alekseeva, MRG’s Russian Federation Programme Coordinator, argues that the government should be investing more of its time and financial resources on long-term programmes to address the challenges faced by the country’s minorities, rather than splashing out huge sums of money on one-off prestige events.

7 February 2014, the day when the Winter Olympic Games started in Sochi, was a day long awaited in the Russian Federation and beyond. However, this day had been clouded long before by a torrent of statements from the international community and local civil society groups, about the country’s human rights record.

Circassian protest London

Circassian people protest in London, UK, against the Sochi Games. Credit: pshegubj

As a Minority Rights Group Europe staff member I would like to seize this opportunity and pose some long-repeated questions: what measures are the government planning to undertake in order to address the marginalization minorities and indigenous peoples are facing in the Russian Federation? What does the state plan to do to safeguard the right to political participation for instance, or the right to receive education in one’s mother tongue? Can the Sochi Olympics change the fact that numerous minority issues remain unresolved?

The Sochi Games have already won the accolade of being the most expensive Olympics in history, with a cost of 50 billion USD. In comparison the budget allocated to the 2014-2020 Programme of Ethno Cultural Development is just 6766.35 million RUR (approximately 19, 324 USD).

The Olympic Games are undoubtedly a very important event, and can be a good investment. However, given the situation for the country’s minorities, is it not more pragmatic to spend less for a one-off event and more for addressing deep-rooted social issues? Ethnic tensions or discriminatory attitudes towards sexual minorities, if left to fester, will be really difficult to resolve solely by way of a change in the law. One just needs to recall events in the Moscow district of Birulevo last year in order to come to the painful conclusion that minority problems in Russia are far from being resolved.

Spending tons of money on the Olympic Games is not in itself a dreadful sin. Many host countries in the past have done the same. But in the case of the Russian Federation, the need to spend money on far more obvious things, including effective mechanisms for minority integration, could support an image of a democratic Government taking care of its citizens, in a way that would make not only Russians themselves, but also the international community, realize that the Government is not spouting hot air, but is actually doing something to address the problems.

Tuvinian people Russia

Tuvinian people, Russia. Credit: onesecbeforethedub

Groups representing sexual and ethnic minorities have been protesting the treatment of their vulnerable communities. They have been vociferous long before Sochi, and no doubt will continue their struggles long after the games have finished. The disturbing thing, however, is that the Russian Federation, proclaiming itself a democratic society which abides by the rule of law and the principles of equality and sovereignty, is continuously slipping in the opposite direction, and seems to openly disregard the public outcry about human rights violations and the curtailing of basic freedoms.

The Russian Government would be well-advised to reconsider its policy towards civil society, and especially towards the country’s most vulnerable groups. A genuinely democratic state should spend its money on programmes and services that benefit all, providing everyone with an adequate standard of living, and access to all of the basic rights and freedoms, without unreasonable limitations and restrictions.

“Freedom”, “Reconciliation”, “Viva!”, “Comrade”, “Robben Island”…

CarlSoderbergh_sq_100pxCarl Soderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications, who was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela passed away last week, reflects on the tremendous changes in the country under the inspirational leader, and the challenges the nation continues to face in order to achieve equality for all.

On Friday morning, Guess, one of the participants at a workshop in Pretoria, asked the others to say words or phrases which they associated with Nelson Mandela. An hour or so before, we heard that Mandela had passed away. Many of us joined staff at the hotel where we were staying, as they gathered in front of the television sets scattered around the dining room and lobby.

The workshop was on strategies to increase the inclusion of marginalised groups. It had been arranged by International IDEA, the Stockholm-based democracy and electoral assistance organisation. Participants had come from the various southern African countries. Guess was meant to sum up the preceding day’s activities, and Amanda, our facilitator, had asked him to begin by allowing some time for the participants to absorb the day’s news.

The workshop had ranged widely, covering topics such as UN advocacy, drama, photography and film. As always, informal conversations were as thought-provoking and meaningful as the structured sessions. The seriousness of the situation facing the participants was brought home to me when I sat with a lesbian activist in the garden during one of the coffee breaks, and she described how she had been a victim of so-called “corrective rape” when she had been a teen-ager.  The conversation stayed with me, as I reflected on the participant’s courage as she had gone on to dedicate her life to campaigning for LGBT rights.

IMG-20131206-00011After the workshop ended on Friday afternoon, I decided to walk down to the Union Buildings, seat of the South African parliament. I did not know what I would find there, but I was hoping that I could pay my respects and mark Mandela’s passing in some way. The last time I had visited the Union Buildings had been under very different circumstances in 1986, when the country was under a state of emergency. I was in South Africa on a grant from my law school and working with Navi Pillay at her law firm in Durban. Navi has of course since gone on to become the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As I walked, a jumble of memories from that time came back to me. The political geography of apartheid dominated my recollections. Visiting African townships to follow up child detention cases involved negotiating often rude and aggressive white security personnel. One sensed that behind those police barricades, violent police crack-downs were taking place with little outside monitoring and no accountability. And in Cape Town that summer, tens of thousands were left homeless in and around Crossroads squatters’ camp, as the notorious witdoeke gangs attacked residents. The witdoeke were actively supported by the police and got their name from the strips of white cloth worn around their arms and necks.

As I approached the Union Buildings, a man passed me, draped in the South African flag. He said how proud he felt today to be South African. Meanwhile, another memory came back to me. I recalled how every day, while staying with Navi and her family, I experienced the pettiness of segregation. Coming back after work, there were separate bus stops for Africans, Asians and whites. Since my hosts lived in an area designated for those of South Asian descent, I would wait at the Asian bus stop; this attracted suspicious stares from whites at theirs and puzzled glances from the people around me. Invariably, the buses for the whites were more comfortable and came regularly, whereas those designated for African and Asian passengers were shabbier, overcrowded and came less often. For me, as a visiting Swedish national, it was all just a temporary inconvenience. But for those who had to wait daily for their transport home, it was one further aspect of the humiliating system of inequalities put into place by the Group Areas Act and the other building blocks of apartheid.

All this feels so very long ago. It was unimagineable that Mandela would be released less than four years later. At the time apartheid felt like an immoveable weight pressing down on the country. But change, when it came, happened very quickly.

By now, I had walked through a park, climbed several flights of stairs and arrived at the entrance to the Union Buildings. A small crowd had gathered. People were leaving flowers and lighting candles; some children were pasting drawings of Mandela on the walls. Condolence books had been laid open on tables, and a queue had formed. I joined the line, noting the mixture of ages and ethnic backgrounds. The man in front of me was draped in the black, green and yellow African National Congress colours.  Another standing behind me wore a Robben Island souvenir T-shirt.

IMG-20131206-00014The atmosphere was subdued rather than sad. Some children danced in a ring while they waited for their parents to sign the condolence book. Teenagers sat on the steps, chatting, taking photos and texting with their smart phones. I reflected on the fact that this scene, one of black and white South Africans coming together on the steps of the Union Buildings, would have been unthinkable when I had stood on the same spot 27 years ago. And for them to gather in order to pay their respects to the memory of Mandela would have been equally unimaginable.

During these past days, while international media have rightly recorded Mandela’s remarkable achievements, commentators have pointed out that much remains to be done in South Africa, not least in order to address profound economic and social inequalities. And the participants at the workshop I attended would add that the discrimination of marginalised groups, including LGBT persons, remains severe. But the simple fact that black children can dance on the steps of the Parliament shows how far the country has come in a very short space of time, very much due to the messages of forgiveness and reconciliation that Mandela conveyed after he was released from prison and during his presidency.

After having signed the condolence book myself and as I headed out to the airport, the image of the children dancing in a circle stayed with me, supplanting those memories from 1986.