Author Archives: artypeeps

The Right to be Cold

Carl Soderbergh

I recently chaired a tribunal called “Humanity on Trial” in Stockholm, Sweden. The tribunal focussed on the human impact of climate change and was meant to be taking place in the middle of this century. It looked back on what the world knew as states gathered for the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark at the end of 2009. Supposing that the delegations were unable to agree on a binding agreement, the tribunal posed the question why so little was done. Indeed, the Swedish press were full of reports the day before that the Danish hosts had finally admitted that the prospects are now slim of achieving a binding successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, at least at Copenhagen.

The panel was composed of human rights and environmental experts from Sweden and other countries, and the eight witnesses were called from some of the most exposed populations of the planet, including Inuit in Norway, the indigenous peoples of Latin America and forest-dwellers in India. As a reminder of the urgency of the topic, groups of children came on to the stage and grabbed the microphones to ask the grown-ups, “You knew – why didn’t you do anything!?!” And to set the scene further, the sun rose as the tribunal progressed, ending up as a searing orb hanging above our heads.

A week or so after the tribunal, the stories of the witnesses remain with me. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, was the first witness and is justly renowned for having submitted the first complaint regarding climate change and human rights to an international body. The complaint was lodged by her and 62 other Inuit elders with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2005. Sadly, the Commission did not rule on the substance of the complaint, which identified the United States as the respondent. But it did hold a ground-breaking hearing on the matter.

Watt-Cloutier painted in stark terms what is (or rather was – if we follow the tribunal’s fictional timeframe of taking place mid-century) happening to the Inuit because of climate change. Coastal erosion is causing homes to fall into the sea. Deep fissures have opened up in the permafrost, dividing communities and making hunting grounds less accessible. Even more worrying is that the pack-ice is thinning out and coming later, making the traditional means of transport – dog-sledding – ever more precarious. Given that the ice and snow are so vital, Watt-Cloutier said that the issue of climate change had to do with their “right to be cold.”

Watt-Cloutier described how the Inuit suffer “a sense of loss of control over our lives.” Most particularly, the age-old ways of hunting allow each generation to transmit “the wisdom of the land” to their children. Now, the elders are finding it difficult to instil their children with the values and beliefs of their people. Inuit communities have seen rising alcoholism and an increase in the suicide rate as traditional roles are being undermined.

The petition to the Inter-American Commission was submitted because the Inuit did not “want to go down as a footnote in history.” Nor did they want to be perceived as “powerless victims.” When asked how states had responded, Watt-Cloutier replied that US representatives had made arguments based on economic efficiency: it costs too much to stop the damage.

For Watt-Cloutier, however, the responsibility is clear. The industrialised countries and urban populations in particular have lost their connection to the natural world, and we should be looking to minorities, indigenous peoples and other populations who retain the necessary knowledge in order to regain that balance. Indeed, Watt-Cloutier looked upon the petition as the Inuit peoples’ “gift”, intended to raise awareness of this need.

Shankar Gopalakrishnan, an Indian forest-dwellers’ rights activist, pointed out that the rainy season did not come in 2009. Forest-dwellers lead a particularly vulnerable existence, according to Gopalakrishnan, since their environment has already been affected by the depredations of private corporations which have been grabbing forested areas and using the timber to produce commodities. Thus, the forest communities of India face both a deprival of resources as well as a loss of control over their own lives. Gopalakrishnan urged that the forests of India and elsewhere be saved as a way to combat the effects of climate change.

During the break, a member of the audience approached me to comment on the proceedings. Wisely, he noted that perhaps the witnesses from affected populations should have been sitting on the panel and the members of the tribunal, who came from industrialised countries, should have been asked to testify.

Alivio Aruquipa Lazo lives in a village in the Bolivian Andes, where the indigenous population depends on the Mururata glacier for their water. He was elected by the village to come and speak at the tribunal. In 2009, the glacier is already providing too little water, and the village foresees that they will have to move in order to survive. Lazo described how their way of life focuses on the glacier – the village gives offerings to it. If they are displaced, the village’s beliefs and traditions and, indeed, their language risk disappearing.

Sultana Begum, a women’s rights activist in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh, described the particular gender aspect of the impact of natural disasters and climate change. Women are often not informed when floods occur and stay behind to care for their children, thus being at an ever-greater risk of being swept away. Moreover, women are not included when communities discuss flood prevention strategies. Her testimony echoed the information MRG had received from Dalit women in India, following the Tsunami of 2004.

After these and the other testimonies, the panel gathered to deliberate. What was our decision? While we certainly recognised the human rights dimension to climate change, we faced a dilemma as international law is weak when it comes to legal responsibility across borders. Moreover, we felt that all of us – most especially those of us who belong to majority communities in industrialised countries – stood accused. Ultimately, we had to leave it to the audience to decide.

For more details, please see http://humanityontrial.wordpress.com/

Part 2 of 2: Apparently all Africans originate from Ethiopia – new discovery at MRG media training

Read Part 1: Team blogging – part of the media training in sunny Kampala

Farah Mihlar_100px

Farah Mihlar

We are championing on. I am still typing away as the 18 participants attending MRG’s Kampala media training add their comments to a blog we are attempting to write jointly. All of the activists represented at this training work with minority communities in some of the harshest political and socio-economic climates. They are almost always excluded and often discriminated against.

‘The Batwa are the first people in the Congo but the last in getting resources from the government,’ says Tuteene, who works with Batwa ‘pygmies’ in north Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tuteene wears the most colourful suits (today he is in orange) and has helped brighten up each of our sessions. The activists working with Batwa, in DRC and Uganda, have explained through the course of the training, how this community is marginalized and discriminated against. They face high levels of poverty and illiteracy and are stigmatized in society because of their specific physical characteristics, Peninah, explains. Peninah like Timothy also works with Batwa in Uganda.

‘The drought is so alarming and exceptional, it is having adverse effects on the livelihood of people and is causing starvation,’ Albert says. Many of the pastoralist activists have referred to the manner in which these groups of cow herders are struggling because of the prolonged drought and also due to the effects of climate change.

Mitiku, who works with pastoralists in Ethiopia highlights some of the challenges the participants may face in advocating their problems. ‘Even though we got this technical knowledge, it will be very hard and challenging to do advocacy and lobbying on the issues affecting our community,’ he says.

Whilst the training was specifically on how to use the media to promote issues affecting different communities, the bringing together of various different people, from different communities, helped to sensitise all of us, allowing the group to understand problems faced by minorities all across Africa. Many of the participants, mainly through the cultural evening, made new discoveries.

Apparently all Africans originate from Ethiopia. ‘How come no one knew this?’ I ask. ‘Some of us learnt it for the first time,’ says Joanna. I must clarify: this did not transpire based on any proper research. It just became apparent, as each activist referred to their origins that almost all of the communities represented at the training had originated from Ethiopia.

‘I didn’t know that Iteso are sons of the Karamojong,’ says Timothy. This is in reference to Albert’s historical portrayal of how the people of Karamoja and Teso came into being. The Teso, according to Albert, are a break-away group of the same set of pastoralists who moved to Karamoja. Both communities are in conflict over land and other resources in the region. ‘I think we just became stubborn and went away with the cows and never went back,’ laughs Ben, who is from Teso.

Minority Rights Group Training in Uganda

Samuel presents at a mock press conference

Samuel, who works with a Ugandan pastoralist community, says he was surprised to learn the different types of pet-names Banyoro people give each other. Drake, who is from Uganda’s Banyoro tribe, revealed to us how each person in the community has a pet-name, in addition to their real name. He has kindly named me Amooti, meaning flower (I really am not one). All of us picked up a few different ways to greet each other, the most popular was how the Karamojong do it.

‘Maata Angaatuk’ (I greet you in the name of cows, goats and all livestock), shouts Albert.

‘Maata’ we reply, in unison.

The participants also learnt about their own and others hidden talents. Samuel, for instance, discovered he is an exceptional cameraman, while Drake can easily start a career as a narrator (we hope he doesn’t give up his work with pastoralists).

Michael, the newfound reporter who apparently works for MRG TV (we don’t really have one, it was just a part of the video activity), says, team-building was good in the way we tapped into people’s professional skills. All of us had different skills. Penninah was very confident in responding to questions in the interviews and Albert was good in creating captions.

One of the most unique aspects of this training was that, whilst the entire team worked intensely for long hours throughout the day, no one was short of energy to party through the night. As we shift our focus to how much fun the group had, Sandra is unanimously asked to comment. Sandra is a local and took on a leadership role in pointing the rest of the participants to the ‘must visit’ night venues in Kampala. ‘This was not enough fun for me,’ she says laughingly… ‘Especially when we went out to my favourite hangout and the guys slept,’ she adds. This did happen. On the second evening, when we went out to a fancy bar (Sandra’s favourite), the girls all ganged up and chatted and the men looked bored to death. Some did go off to sleep. ‘It is not a human rights violation to sleep,’ quips Tuteene (no giving away who fell asleep!).

According to Albert on most nights they had so much fun they had to take a vote to decide the time to leave. I have to confess that I didn’t have enough energy to keep up with the continuous partying so wasn’t a part of these exceptionally fun nights. Faith, our Zimbabwean participant, who has unlimited energy to party, says the training was always ‘happening,’ but she insists the term has to be pronounced with a Nigerian accent (hapnin) to give it added kick.

Despite the fun, the participants re-emphasise how important the training has been for them. Drake sums up for us, ‘We have been having a barrier on how we can get our issues through to the international community, we buried our head in trying to find an answer. But this training has helped us to get an idea of how we can do this.’

Contributors

  • Agnes Ingwu, Abanbeke Development Association, Obudu City – Nigeria.
  • Albert Lokoru, Karamoja Agro-Pastoral Development Programme (KADP), Karamoja – Uganda.
  • Drake Nyamugabwa, Masindi Pastoralist Group, Masindi – Uganda.
  • Faith Nzilani Musinga, Centre of Minority Rights and Development, Harare – Zimbabwe.
  • Mohamed Matovu, MRG Regional Information Officer, Kampala – Uganda.
  • Mohamed Mukhtar, Media and Rights Somaliland, Hargeisa – Somaliland.
  • Mitiku Tiksa, SOS Sahel Ethiopia, Addis Ababa – Ethiopia.
  • Mugabe Herbat Joram, Pastoralist Women to Break Cultural Chains, Kiboga District – Uganda.
  • Niwagaba Joan, Mbarara Development Agency, Mbarara – Uganda.
  • Omunga Benjamin, Katakwi Urafiki Foundation, Katakwi District – Uganda.
  • Peninah Zaninka, United Organisation for Batwa Development, Kampala – Uganda. Rahel Negussie, Pastoralist Forum Ethiopia, Addis Ababa – Ethiopia.
  • Sandra Nassali, UgaBYTES Initiatives, Kabalagala – Uganda. Samuel Kaweesi, Nakasongora Pastoralists Association, Nakasongora – Uganda.
  • Tuteene Kusimweray, Action pour la Promotion des Droits de Minorites Autochtones en Afrique Centrale, Bukavu – D.R.C. Thomas Kiptiony Chepsoi, Endorois Welfare Council, Nakuru Town – Kenya.
  • Mpalanyi Michael, Uganda Land Alliance, Kampala District – Uganda.

Part 1 of 2: Team blogging – part of the media training in sunny Kampala

Farah Mihlar_100px

Farah Mihlar

It didn’t take too long to warm up to Kampala. So much of the city felt familiar, reminding me of parts of my home country Sri Lanka. The tropical climate, dark greenery, papayas, mangoes and pineapples. The laidback, friendly, warm culture… sorry… I may be getting carried away here. I am at work, I must assert! (Just for the record and also as my bosses will read this.) I am in Uganda for a five-day media training for community activists, to help them to promote their stories in the international media. MRG has for many years worked with some of the poorest and marginalized communities in the world, who face constant issues of discrimination. They often share with us poignant and hard-hitting stories about the realities they face, but they have very limited means to get these stories across in the media. The training in Kampala is the first of nine trainings that we are conducting regionally, in Asia, Africa and Latin America – phew…. no pressure at all. ( I won’t say how stressed our Africa Regional Information Officer, Mohamed, looked on the first day.)

The activists were being trained to write press releases and news stories, film and edit video footage, edit audio and use the internet by creating their own websites and also using social networking sites to publicise their issues.

Five days on, as I write, I have to say the results have been exceptional. The motivation and interest from all of the team was always high – despite some of the sessions being very technical. Note the reference to a team – this is because, throughout the five days, all of the participants have both worked and played together (the latter I will explain later). Many of us have become friends. We have learned not just media skills but also about various different communities in Africa, and understood deep and challenging human rights issues affecting each group. Ten of the participants are from Uganda and eight from other African countries, including Ethiopia, Somaliland, Nigeria, the DRC, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Despite the diversity in origin, culture and nationality, the common characteristics of being from a minority community and having an interest in the media has connected everyone.

Minority Rights Group Training in Uganda

Group work on designing a webpage

Learning about blogging and how to write a blog was one of the final sessions in the training. As part of the whole learning experience, we thought we would try out an interesting experiment of blogging as a team. To avoid confusion let me explain a few basic points:

Technique – I am writing the blog. Participants comment and share views, all of which are typed out. The written content is projected onto a screen so everyone knows what is being written.

Structure – the blog appears in two parts.

Content – I will fill in the background and explain some comments where needed. The blog also includes some further commentary from me, which was added as we wrote together.

Contributors – See below the full names of all participants, the communities and organizations they represent. Anecdotal information on each of the participants has been added in, in the process of writing.

Let us begin… drum roll…

After five days of intense media training, the team first talk about what they gained from the training. Thomas, who works with a small pastoralist community called the Endorois in Kenya, is the first to respond:
‘The web,’ he says.
‘What about the web,’ I ask.
‘It is going to help me a lot in terms of creating our own website for the Enderois. The new editing software was useful to know.’
The Endorois have been evicted from their traditional homeland in Kenya’s Rift Valley to make room for a national park, which is visited by thousands of tourists from Europe every year. MRG has, for years, partly through its Trouble in Paradise campaign, advocated for the community to have access to their homeland and for a share of the tourism revenue.

Rahel, dubbed the Ethiopian beauty, says: ‘Writing a press release… it was very hard for me to do it earlier, I had to get two or three people to approve. Now, I am confident. I can write it on my own.’ Rahel works for an umbrella organization of pastoralist groups in Ethiopia.

Mukthar, who everyone sarcastically refers to as ‘shy guy’ (apparently he was for the first part of the training, until he transformed in the nights out) makes the following list:

  • How to write a good press release.
  • How to develop a blog.
  • Edit audio video.

On the last evening, we organized a cultural event. All participants were asked to bring something that represented their culture and they were asked to speak a little bit about it. Mukthar, turned up in an ‘I love Somaliland’ T-shirt. Some of complained that it did not look very original, but then he explained the T-shirt had a picture of a camel, which is an integral part of the culture of Somaliland. Since he couldn’t bring the camel along, he wore the T-shirt.

Minority Rights Group Training in Uganda

Team photo at cultural night

Joan, who works with cow-herding communities in Western Uganda, was referred to as the Queen of Banyankore last night (see picture). ‘We used to write press releases, but I understand that they were not up to standard. This will help me better it,’ she says, in reference to how the training will help her with her work. ‘I never thought I would one day have this opportunity to learn video/audio recording, interviewing techniques, being behind a camera – it took me to the next level and I gained confidence out of the whole experience,’ she adds.

Albert, always subtly humorous and very colourful last night (see picture) says, ‘I learnt how media can be used to advocate for the rights of minority groups. I also learnt how to use some equipment – like a video camera and to write a press release that can be used for advocacy.’ Albert works with the Karamojong community, in northern Uganda. Karamojong are pastoralists, who are rich in culture and tradition but suffer from inequality, discrimination and are also affected by a conflict that affects the region.

Timothy works with the Batwa ‘pygmy’ community in South Western Uganda. For our cultural evening, he showed us some impressive dance steps practiced by his tribe and based on rhythmic jumping. As he speaks, the team comments that they would have liked to see him jump higher. Ben, another Ugandan participant, says he curtailed himself out of respect for the roof, which may have otherwise blown off. For Timothy, the plus points of the training were how to reach the media through press releases and press conferences and website development. ‘We already have a website, which is in poor shape, so we learnt to make it more user-friendly and use it to promote the situation of Batwa.’

Minority Training in Uganda

Mitiku, Joan and Albert at the cultural evening

Agnes, our champion of women’s rights, who charmed all the men with her beautiful Nigerian attire, adds: ‘Everything about this workshop would put Bette women in the international scene. It makes me very excited that very soon a lot more people will hear about our community and women.’ Agnes works to strengthen women’s rights in the Bette community in Nigeria.

On that note I will end part one of this blog. I admit, it all does sound a little too positive. This is not because I was a trainer (even though I would love to believe that was the reason). It was just a cumulative positive experience for everyone– it is true!! As if not enough positivity, Mohamed adds: “This has been a great team to work with. There has been a super blend of team dynamics.”

I promise to highlight a few more of the contentious issues in the next part. See you then.

Read part 2 of this blog: Apparently all Africans originate from Ethiopia – new discovery at MRG media training

Contributors

  • Agnes Ingwu, Abanbeke Development Association, Obudu City – Nigeria.
  • Albert Lokoru, Karamoja Agro-Pastoral Development Programme (KADP), Karamoja – Uganda.
  • Drake Nyamugabwa, Masindi Pastoralist Group, Masindi – Uganda.
  • Faith Nzilani Musinga, Centre of Minority Rights and Development, Harare – Zimbabwe.
  • Mohamed Matovu, MRG Regional Information Officer, Kampala – Uganda.
  • Mohamed Mukhtar, Media and Rights Somaliland, Hargeisa – Somaliland.
  • Mitiku Tiksa, SOS Sahel Ethiopia, Addis Ababa – Ethiopia.
  • Mugabe Herbat Joram, Pastoralist Women to Break Cultural Chains, Kiboga District – Uganda.
  • Niwagaba Joan, Mbarara Development Agency, Mbarara – Uganda.
  • Omunga Benjamin, Katakwi Urafiki Foundation, Katakwi District – Uganda.
  • Peninah Zaninka, United Organisation for Batwa Development, Kampala – Uganda.
  • Rahel Negussie, Pastoralist Forum Ethiopia, Addis Ababa – Ethiopia.
  • Sandra Nassali, UgaBYTES Initiatives, Kabalagala – Uganda.
  • Samuel Kaweesi, Nakasongora Pastoralists Association, Nakasongora – Uganda.
  • Tuteene Kusimweray, Action pour la Promotion des Droits de Minorites Autochtones en Afrique Centrale, Bukavu – D.R.C.
  • Thomas Kiptiony Chepsoi, Endorois Welfare Council, Nakuru Town – Kenya.
  • Mpalanyi Michael, Uganda Land Alliance, Kampala District – Uganda.

Breaking Turkey’s Taboos

Ara_sq_100pxRising nationalist sentiments in certain circles in Turkey has put minorities in a vulnerable and compromising position. In Turkey ‘insulting the Turkish nation’ is a criminal offence, which someone can be arrested for. MRG’s Ara Iskanderian speaks to a young Turkish human rights campaigner working for DurDe, an initiative seeking to stop racism and nationalism within Turkey. Her name has been left out of the article for her protection.

After hearing about her work campaigning against racism at a recent conference in England, I managed to persuade a young Turkish activist to be interviewed.  After some convincing, she agreed to answer some questions while everyone else was at the closing party. She asked to remain anonymous: publicising one’s work on human rights doesn’t always go down well in her native Turkey.

I am Armenian: to break the ice we talk about shared favourite Turkish pop-songs and common dishes, translating the names into Turkish and Armenian. Gradually, I slip in some questions and begin interviewing the young, proud, twenty-something Istanbulite who passionately gesticulates as she speaks.

She begins talking about the Turkish penal code’s notorious Article 301, which criminalises any act seen as ‘insulting the Turkish nation’. The infamous article has led to charges being brought against over sixty Turkish intellectuals including Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk. Pushing out her arms and opening her palms skywards she calls Article 301 racist and an attack upon freedom of expression, all too often used to silence political opponents. ‘You cannot make a law that privileges your nation, which is what 301 is’ she says referring to how 301 seemingly favours the Turkish majority at the expense of minorities. She adds angrily, ‘it’s ridiculous.’

Maybe because the book’s still fresh in my mind, I’m momentarily distracted by her resemblance to Turkish author Elif Shafak, another victim of 301. Shafak was subjected to a Kafkaesque trial because of certain comments made by a fictitious Armenian character in her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul. The book’s anti-heroine is a young Turkish girl called Asya: a secular liberal alone in the crowded city as she navigates awkward relationships with friends and history. The parallels between Asya and my interviewee, who tells me how onlookers give her dirty looks when she eats on the bus during Ramadan and how much she loved Shafak’s book, are remarkable, so I’ll refer to her as Asya from here on.
Asya looks uncomfortable about her last answer and explains her misgivings – she says she feels unqualified to talk, and worried about having her words used against her. She asks that we don’t continue, obligingly I fold my notes away. I can’t help wondering if fear of 301 causes her to clam up. Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, tried and convicted under 301, talked of how the spectre of 301 made him feel ‘as scared as a dove.’ He was later killed by a Turkish nationalist.

A few weeks later and Asya sends me an email from Istanbul. Can we continue over the phone? Sure.

Following the murder and funeral of Dink in 2007, when crowds took to the streets declaring ‘we are all Armenian’ as an expression of solidarity with an ethnic minority, Asya and others like her took the initiative. They established an initiative that campaigns against racism and nationalism. ‘Nationalism is seen as a positive in Turkey, people are proud to be nationalists, but it’s often a negative in reality’ Asya says. She is quick to add that her organization is not ideologically motivated, saying that it reacts to incidents rather than pursuing an agenda.

In just two years, their support base is nearly 30,000 strong and includes young Turks and prominent intellectuals alike. Asya however, laments that this is not enough in a country of 75 million people, especially as their support base is almost exclusively within Istanbul and Ankara.

Asya tells me of an incident in January when in the Anatolian town of Eskishehir the director of a cultural foundation placed a sign up in his headquarters stating, ‘No Jews or Armenians allowed, dogs are free to enter.’ She describes such actions as ‘horrible’ and talks about the statement her organization released in response. ‘We work on hate speech and hate crime’ she says and identifies 301 as a major obstacle, saying that it must go.

The organization found a prominent ally in Baskin Oran, an academic who argued that the synonymy of ‘Turk’ and ‘citizen’ should be replaced with the term ‘citizen of Turkey’. Oran was also tried under 301. Asya tends to agree though, she says, ‘I’m from Istanbul or Turkey. I don’t say I’m Turkish or I’m a Turk, I go by geographical location’.

Given their activities it’s unsurprising that the organization added its weight to supporting the online petition (www.ozurdiliyoruz.com) ‘we apologise’. Asya helped organise a series of forums explaining why people apologised to the Armenians for the ‘Great Catastrophe’ of 1915.  The controversial petition led to suggestions of mass trials by certain nationalists. When I asked Asya why she added her real name to the petition, she makes it clear it was because she is a human being with a conscience. Asya doesn’t wish to be identified with either the modern day deniers or the historic perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide. She feels it’s important to make the distinction.

Asya’s dream is to see Greeks along the Aegean and Armenians in Istanbul, hear their languages spoken loudly, to have churches reopened and a multicultural Turkey accepting of its history and diversity. It’s a nice dream but Asya admits she’s a minority view before going silent again. Campaigners like Asya do important work and whilst some might consider their actions to be too little given the possible repercussions their bravery in breaking taboos is commendable and should be supported. Fear, though, shouldn’t be part of their doings and its fear of a backlash that has Asya reminding me again that she wishes to remain anonymous.

Courtroom hearing or courtroom drama?

Nurcan Kaya_100pxThe 10th hearing in the murder trial of the Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink took place on the 6th July, in Istanbul.  Dink was a popular minority rights activist in Turkey and was assassinated in January 2007.  Ogun Samast, a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist, has confessed to his murder. Nurcan Kaya, MRG’s Turkey Coordinator, was at the trial and reflects upon the theatrical display that overshadowed the trial.

It was as if everybody was play acting: the defendants’ lawyers were acting as if they had not been involved in the crime, the Dink family lawyers were acting as if they could do something to change the ongoing situation in the murder case, and even the judges were acting as if it was all just a simple criminal court case. The only people not acting were the Dink family members. They have been suffering for two and a half years now, and their pain has remained with them throughout the trial.

It was the first time that I’d attended the court case and was told that the defendants were behaving even worse in previous hearings. Ogün Samast grinned whilst the Dink family’s lawyers were talking and constantly turned round to talk to Yasin Hayal (who is charged with planning the murder and instructing Samast) and send signals to someone sitting in the audience.

Samast even threatened the Dink family at one point, saying, ‘wait for five years’.  The judge appeared not to have heard the threat. When lawyers insisted that they had heard him, Ogün responded that it was ‘because they are also Armenians,’ implying that anybody who is Armenian is a liar and could not be trusted. Only upon the lawyers’ insistence did the judge agree to record the threat and refer it to the public prosecutor in order to open an investigation against Ogün Samast.

Interestingly  I noted that when the Dink family’s lawyers took to the floor without the permission of the presiding judge, or when they insisted on Ogün Samast’s threat being recorded, the judge angrily  advised  them ,‘stop telling me how to do my job’. Contrarily, when the defendants took the floor without permission or threatened the Dink family, they were politely warned not to by the judge. It was impossible to find a good reason for such different treatment.

At one point a Dink family lawyer informed the judges that there were two plain clothes police officers attending the hearings and taking notes. She argued that they might be recording the statement given by Erhan Tuncel (who at the time of the murder was working as an intelligence agent for the Trabzon police and is alleged to have been involved in planning Dink’s assassination before he was fired), thereby  putting Tuncel under unnecessary pressure. Curiously, the two men left the court room at this juncture. Tuncel subsequently stated that he wanted to be released under a witness protection scheme as he was concerned about his safety.

Despite the theatrics there were some important developments in the trial. Firstly, it became evident that Ogün Samast was not acting alone.  One witness, attending the trial for the first time, stated that the murder took place in front of her eyes and that Ogün Samast was not alone at the crime scene.  She said that the second person she had seen resembled Yasin Hayal, but could not identify him for certain. Another witness statement that was read at the hearing strengthened this allegation. A few days before the murder, the witness had been in a patisserie with Hrant Dink and spotted Ogün Samast waiting outside and speaking to a second person.

Responding to the Dink family’s lawyers for the first time, Erhan Tuncel insisted that he had passed all intelligence regarding the murder plans to his superiors. When asked why he thought he had later been fired by his boss he said, ‘Maybe he did not like me… maybe he wanted to employ somebody else… or maybe he did not want to prevent the murder’.

Despite several applications lodged by lawyers representing the Dink family, and the report issued by the Prime Ministry Inspectoral Board, which highlights negligence in prevention of the murder, public officials who failed to take any steps towards preventing the murder have not been prosecuted yet. The explanation issued by AGOS (the Armenian-Turkish weekly newspaper edited by Dink) before the trial summarises the situation – protection of public officials.

The government of Turkey has a crucial role to play in this trial, which will also help improve its reputation with minority communities. Convicting the five young men arrested for the murder will achieve nothing for the rule of law in Turkey and will not satisfy the Dink family. The government of Turkey cannot tell prosecutors and judges what to decide, however it can tell public bodies to issue information required by the Dink family lawyers, which will help them to further their investigations.

The right to life is protected by law in Turkey, as well as international treaties ratified by the state. The right to life does not simply protect citizens when the state kills, it also requires states to take preventive measures when there is a serious threat against any person’s life, carry out an effective investigation in to the crime and charge the perpetrators.

Public officials in Turkey did not take any measure to prevent this murder. Dink did not need to apply to the authorities for protection. He was publicly threatened and intelligence on the murder plans were passed to the police. Eventually he was shot dead. Hrant Dink’s right to life was violated. And now, as the state fails to carry out an effective impartial investigation, his right to life is being violated for a second time. As AGOS says, ‘Our hearts do not stand for this situation anymore’.

“Taking the Ogiek out of the Mau is like taking a fish out of water”

Chris Chapman_100pxChris Chapman, MRG’s Head of Conflict Prevention meets with Kenya’s hunter-gatherer Ogiek community who, in the face of a possible eviction, are fighting to stay back on their traditional lands.

In the Mau Forest Complex, which is home to the Ogiek community, we met Rose, the headmistress of the primary school in Mboroti village. According to the government-determined pupil-teacher ratio, there should be 14 teachers – in fact there are 8. Only 5 are Ogiek. As a result, class sizes vary from 70 to over 90. The school is located in idyllic surroundings among the pine-covered hills, but Rose tells us about her constant struggle to keep classes going in the face of government neglect; the classrooms, with their blackboards covered in trigonometry, broken windows and dilapidated wooden benches, are a vivid testimony to that struggle. Last winter, after heavy rains, the toilets sunk into the ground; she applied to an emergency government fund to rebuild them but has heard nothing since then.

Loggers in the Mau Forest

Loggers in the Mau Forest

I had come to Mau to talk to the people about their future; they are under threat of eviction from the forest, their ancestral homeland. The Mau Forest is an important water catchment area and the government of Kenya is concerned that the residents of the forest are committing irreparable environmental damage and must be relocated. But the Ogiek are not the only current residents of Mau; in recent decades the forest complex has seen an influx of loggers, tea planters and other agricultural settlers.

The government accepts that the Ogiek are the rightful residents of the forest; however its latest proposal is to evict everyone from the forest, and then allow the Ogiek to return; this proposal, understandably, makes the Ogiek very nervous. They claim that they have lived in the forest for hundreds of years, in harmony with their surroundings. Their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which does not involve either farming or livestock grazing, has a very low impact on their environment. They also practice bee-keeping, which actually aids the propagation of wild flowers and trees.

At an elevation of around 2,000-2,500 feet, the climate in the forest is very different from the low-lying plains; the heat is less intense and the air pleasant and cool. “If we are evicted we may not survive. We do not know what the climate will be like wherever they resettle us. Removing the Ogiek from Mau is like taking fish out of water.” They talk of two previous displacements, one in 1989 and one during the 1930’s, during the British colonial period; the Ogiek who were displaced lost all of their animals; some died of diseases such as jiggers, and some returned, destitute. The Ogiek have a very strong attachment to their land, it is part of their identity. As a small community – they number about 20,000 – they fear for the loss of their culture, and assimilation by more numerous neighbouring ethnic groups; in fact, the 1930’s displacement was a result of the Carter Land Commission, which recommended that the Ogiek be absorbed by neighbouring communities because of its small size.

As I was talking to the villagers, I saw a large cloud of dust rising up in the distance. It was the third lorry, stacked up with logs, that I had seen that day. I quickly whipped out my camera and took a snap, it was a flat-bed affair with a second flat-bed hooked up behind, carrying what must have been 50-60 fully grown trunks, being shipped out of the forest by commercial loggers. As the NGO Survival International points out, the destruction of the Mau Forest has escalated in recent decades in direct correlation with the invasion by outsiders, whether loggers, tea planters or agricultural settlers, as demonstrated by satellite imagery.

The Kenyan government is using environmental arguments to support its push to clear out the residents of Mau. But when lorries are trundling out of the forest everyday loaded up with logs, in full view of everyone, it is possible to cast doubts on the seriousness of the government’s intentions. Community members confided to me that they suspect the government itself of selling franchises to the loggers. The Ogiek Peoples Development Programme (OPDP) a partner organisation of MRG, whose staff accompanied me to the Mau, is working to fight the eviction of the Ogiek; they say the loggers and other recent settlers should be evicted, but claim that they as original inhabitants and stewards of the forest, have the right to remain.

Small steps towards peace in Jonglei state

Chris Chapman_100pxChris Chapman, MRG’s Head of Conflict Prevention, is in South Sudan running a conflict resolution workshop with communities from the region.

It took us 7 hours to drive the 100 miles from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to Bor in Jonglei state. With Paul from our partner organisation, Pibor Development Access, I am due to run a workshop on resolving conflicts between different ethnic minorities over land and other natural resources.

The subject could not be more topical; during the previous week, the Murle and Lou Nuer ethnic groups had clashed, with a death toll of 185, mostly women and children. Earlier this year, 700 Murle were killed by Lou Nuer. The clashes centre around access to the toc, an area of marshland between Akobo, a Lou Nuer town, and Lekwangole, where the residents are Murle. The toc belongs to the Murle but, as Paul explains, the two communities share access; in the dry season it is needed by both communities for grazing their cattle. When drought strikes, one community will write to the other and ask for a meeting to come to a new agreement. However problems are caused by spoilers; young men with guns who do not respect the agreements and raid the other community’s cattle.

The workshop participants are mainly young civil society activists. Their attitude is a mix of enthusiasm, good humour and resigned fatalism. I am still trying to get to grips with the complexity of the conflicts these people are trying to deal with and the appalling logistical problems they face; the participants from Boma, in the East of Jonglei, have taken two days to get here, and had to come via Juba. However, and most importantly, the community organisations lack resources.

During the workshop our trainer, an experienced Kenyan who seems to speak most of the local languages of South Sudan, plus a couple of Ugandan ones, runs a mock mediation session. I am surprised that they choose the recent conflict over the toc; both Lou Nuer and Murle are represented. But it goes without incident; they even mix up the two communities, having them play at being in the opposing camp. They enjoy acting out mutual accusations; ‘I was abducted by you when I was 9 and grew up with you; that is my “father” sitting over there’, says one (he gets a laugh for his creativity). They reach a mock agreement to bring the fighting to an end, return abducted children, punish those responsible, and set up a committee to ensure the agreement is respected.

On day two, news comes in of further clashes between ethnic groups in Twic East, a county in the North of Jonglei. This was Paul’s fear – if clashes happened during the workshop participants would go home to try to deal with it; but luckily this time it did not involve the communities we had brought together.

The trip back to Juba takes an extra hour, because it has rained heavily in the meantime. The road alternates between dry compacted mud and rutted sludge, with the occasional military style metal bridge. At one point we drive at a crawl through what must have been 1000 head of cattle; beautiful white cows with long, curved horns typical of South Sudan. The bulls, or mabior, are revered and are ritually slaughtered to mark important peace agreements. My companions tell me the cattle probably belong to about 10 Dinka families. A number of men with AK 47s are guarding them; the Dinka around Bor are often at war with the neighbouring Mundari, and cattle rustling is a continual problem.

With land being such a focus for conflict in South Sudan, I am trying to understand how we can be passing through mile after mile of green, fertile land, seemingly unused. Surely there is enough to go around? The cattle rearing communities that dominate here are uninterested in farming, but it is clear that some of this overgrown jungle is not being used for grazing either. Paul assures me that it is not unclaimed land; it all belongs to communities. If another community moves in, conflict will quickly ensue. At one point we passed through an area of flat, fertile land, ideal for grazing; but my companions explained that it is a kind of no man’s land on the border between the Dinka and Mundari; neither dare venture into it.

Back in Juba, I smiled a little as I bought my mobile top up from a six foot by six foot corrugated iron shack advertising itself as Office Automation Technologies; photocopies were among other services offered. But I also had to stop to admire the optimism. After 30 years of civil war, the owner, like our Jonglei peacebuilders, was trying to build a better future through sheer force of will.

Powell vs Picasso

patrickbodenham_100pxPicasso’s Guernica was created to publicise an atrocity committed during the Spanish Civil War, so that the international community would never allow a similar incident to happen again. Yet in a speech given last month, MRG’s Executive Director Mark Lattimer discussed how the painting is even more relevant in today’s politics than it was at its last instalment in the same gallery 70 years ago. Patrick Bodenham, an intern with the media department of MRG, discusses.

In April, Picasso’s controversial Guernica returned once again to the Whitechapel Gallery in East London. This time however the piece is a tapestry copy of the genuine article, commissioned in 1955 by Rockefeller, and, since the 1980s, permanently displayed at the UN Security Council in New York.

Guernica at the Whitechapel Art Gallery

Guernica at the Whitechapel Art Gallery

A primal expression of sorrow, anguish and torment, the tapestry’s fragmented symbols are woven in dull tones of brown, cream and black – the colour of the rubble of the Basque city of Guernica, razed to the ground in history’s first example of the saturation bombing of a civilian population. It is a graphic depiction of the impact of war – specifically aerial bombardment – on innocent bystanders.

Goshka Macuga, the artist behind the exhibition, brings Guernica into its modern context by setting it alongside symbols of the UN’s failure to stand up to pressure from the USA and UK about the necessity to invade Iraq. The space is lined with the kind of corporate upholstery you find in UN boardrooms: a light blue carpet and a polished, round mahogany table in the centre of the room.

Bust of Colin Powell

Bust of Colin Powell

A bust of Colin Powell, based on a famous photo taken of him as he brandished a test tube while making his case for the invasion of Iraq, rises from a pile of rubble. Minutes after he made this speech, Guernica became the centre of another controversy as journalists discovered it had been covered up by a blue curtain during the subsequent press conference. The excuse officials made was that the weave of the tapestry would interfere with the cameras. I found looking Powell in the face in the presence of Guernica a powerful and unsettling experience.

A quick glance across Whitechapel High Street shows what was in store for the civilians of Europe – and indeed the world – in the years following Guernica’s last visit. Situated in the heart of the most heavily bombed district during the blitz, it is a surprising the gallery remains intact at all.

Since the UN was founded there has been a dearth of binding legislation relating to aerial bombardment. The Hague Convention of 1907 addressed the issue of bombardment, but there were no clauses specifically on aerial attack. Despite various diplomatic attempts in the lead up to WWII, there were no amendments to the convention. Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions – developed in 1977 – does address the issue, but the bombardment of targets which could endanger the lives of civilians becomes legal provided it complies with three ideas of ‘military necessity, distinction and proportionality’. These parameters however, can easily be manipulated by careful legal consultation. The United States, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq have not ratified Protocol I.

As armies become more professional aerial bombardment is increasingly endemic within modern warfare. In a political world highly influenced by public relations, decision-makers are less prepared to send out a force on the ground and risk the deaths of their own people, as this demoralises the army and incurs the wrath of the national media. Their main goal, therefore, becomes minimising their own casualties. Aerial bombardment allows one side to inflict maximum damage while remaining in an external and safe position.

Since the amendment of the Geneva Conventions in 1977, it appears lessons from history have not improved anything. Other than a few restrictions on cluster munitions, the only real factor that has prevented widespread use of the most lethal weaponry has been the threat of ‘mutual assured destruction’ under which the Cold War took place. Other than this, humans have killed one another as efficiently as the technology they developed allows. As time goes on and tactics change, the ratio between the number of civilians killed compared to the number of tonnes of bombs dropped becomes slowly less and less favourable to the innocent human being.

What is even worse is the poor judgement with which these countries justify aerial bombardment. In a table charting the most dangerous countries in the world for minorities, MRG’s recently published report Peoples Under Threat found Pakistan to be the fastest rising country on the list. As the campaign in Afghanistan spills over the border, U.S attacks by unmanned aircraft on Pakistani territory have intensified. According to the LA Times, at least 40 drone attacks have hit tribal areas since August.

The consequences of such attacks are not the ‘winning of the hearts and minds’ of the local population, instead, militants are portraying the attacks as an invasion of Pakistan.

However any impulse to assign blame to Powell or the Bush administration, I quickly realised, would have been a misreading of Macuga’s intentions. Her naming of the exhibition ‘The Nature of the Beast’ illustrates how political and ideological misrepresentations are a theme running through all wars. Encased in the circular table are various documents which tell us about the various mistaken readings of Guernica. Macuga discusses having discovered the piece was originally brought to Whitechapel to inspire a ‘Communist spirit’ in the East London community. Vandalised in a 1974 protest against the Vietnam War, the image has also appeared on murals in Belfast, and more recently been associated with the destruction of Fallujah in Operation Shock and Awe.

Aligning two sets of atrocities in this way – one committed by the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and the other by the US and UK more recently in Iraq – Macuga leaves you to make your own mind up about political legitimacy. The ‘Nature of the Beast’ to which she refers is the nature of the international system not to learn from the mistakes it has made in the past, but to repeat them. And I couldn’t help leave without wondering what lessons we will still have to learn next time Guernica returns.

Phrases and images concerning the Batwa

CarlSoderbergh_sq_100pxCarl Soderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications, reflects on a visit to a Batwa community in Uganda

As the plane circled over London, preparing to land, and I peered bleary-eyed over the web of streets below, my thoughts turned to the encounters and conversations of the past week. My MRG colleagues Eva, Kathryn, Paul and I had visited southern Uganda in order to conduct a gender training for members of Batwa communities in the Great Lakes region. What came back to me in my jet-lagged state were stray comments that reflected much of what the Batwa confront today.

We had spent a day visiting Rwamahano, a Batwa settlement lying at the end of a breath-taking drive along a narrow dirt track winding around wooded ridges followed by a hike straight up a hill-side. The village comprised approximately 60 families: Batwa who had been forcibly evicted when the Echuya forest reserve was established in 1991.  As a constant reminder of what the Batwa have lost, the forest begins just on the other side of the road we had been driving along, a seemingly impenetrable tangle of green. The settlement had been established on a strip of land purchased by a charity and MRG partner organization, AICM.

The visit was a real eye-opener for me. I recalled the thrill, as a keen teen-aged zoology buff, of watching films in the 1970’s about mountain gorillas. To me then it seemed self-evident that their fragile ecosystem had to be preserved. Now I could see and hear about the considerable human cost at which this has been attempted.

Batwa elder, Simako

Batwa elder, Simako

While other elders were gathering to sing and dance, I spoke with Simako, a Batwa elder. Simako explained that the eviction orders had already been passed in the 1960’s, but were only implemented in 1991. Ugandan security personnel arrived with no prior notice and used force to push Batwa out of the forest. The Batwa received no compensation, nor had any land been set aside for them. Ousted from the forest, the Batwa had no means of subsistence and were forced to beg, often being refused by members of other ethnic groups who would reply that, “We can’t eat from the same place.” Simako said that they were especially stigmatized because they had yet to wear anything other than the animal skins they had used in the forest.  Later, I heard another elder add, “We were not considered human.”

I asked Simako whether anyone had been injured or killed during the evictions. This did not appear to be the case. Simako said, however, that “colleagues” had been killed during another time: “There had been a war.” In those few words, he encapsulated what must surely have been a terrifying time.

Simako said that the segregation had lessened over the years. Now there are even cases of inter-marriage between Batwa and individuals of other ethnic groups. However, lack of land is still a problem. And as the community do not have a history in the area, they do not always know where exactly the boundaries of others’ property go. Thus, Batwa often end up in bitter land disputes, facing particular difficulties as they do not have the money to work the legal system or pay the necessary fees.

Later, Timothy, who heads the local AICM office, said something that I also recalled when I sat in the plane, watching London spiralling beneath me. In the gender workshop, he said that men of other ethnic groups had taken to raping Batwa women, as “this is considered a cure for back-ache.” I could not believe that he actually meant that, so I asked Timothy if this really was the case.  He assured me that it is. The phrase remains with me still, as a particularly horrible form of double discrimination.

We learned during the course of the workshop how the situation of the Batwa varies from country to country. One participant, a soft-spoken man whom I will call K, had come from South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He described how he had received a text message one day during the past spring: “Your house has been burned down. Your brother has been kidnapped.”

It was the Interahamwe who were behind this, and K’s own personal tragedy was only one of many instances where Batwa now being caught in the cross-fire between the Hutu extremists and the Congolese army. K had been in Bukavu at the time. He rushed home only to find that all this had indeed happened and then to try to secure his brother’s release. Thankfully, after about a month, the brother managed to use his knowledge of the forest to escape at night from his captors. But the two men remain internally displaced, living in the offices of K’s organization in Bukavu.

Singers and dancers whose music described what life had been like in the forest

Singers and dancers whose music described what life had been like in the forest

Timothy explained that the singers were describing what life had been like in the forest:  the greenery, the animals and the wild fruits which they used to gather. Their last song, Timothy said, was one about hope, because the families of Rwamahano still remain positive about the future. I was struck by the inward gaze of the singers and the dancers.  It became clear that the visitors were not the sole beneficiaries of this performance.  The music and the songs – including that message of hope – were of course also directed at themselves.

‘The media is part of the problem, not the solution!’

Ara_sq_100pxAra Iskanderian, a British-Armenian interning in MRG’s publications department, reflects on the media’s influence on racist attitudes

It’s a rare hot, sunny day in Sheffield, United Kingdom. Young delegates representing organizations from across the length and breadth of Europe are taking their seats ahead of the afternoon’s plenary session. This is the bi-annual United conference, an opportunity for European anti-racism activists to network and share strategies with which to combat the far right. This afternoon’s topic: “How does the media contribute to combating racist attitudes?”.

Everyone’s a little tired, but the first guest speaker immediately rouses us as he declares loudly, “The media is part of the problem, not the solution!” His passionate speech sits people up straight in their seats. Around the room people from countries ranging from France to Georgia start nodding in agreement.

The speaker, who preferred not to be identified, was fresh from campaigning against the far right British National Party (BNP) in the run up to the June 2009 European elections. Frustrated with what he termed “sloppy” reportage by mainstream media outlets he called for a return to forceful investigative journalism. Against which the far right’s assertions don’t hold up.

Take the recent BNP electoral pamphlet I recently had shoved through my letterbox. Photos of ‘genuine’ British workers complaining about job losses turned out to be American models posing as the real thing. Similarly, spitfire airplanes used in the same pamphlet to protest against immigrants coming from Eastern Europe in fact belonged to a Polish RAF squadron. These discrepancies were eventually picked up by the mainstream British media, but the actual research had been carried out by anti-racism activists like our speaker, and not by journalists.

I find myself joining the chorus of nodding heads. As an ethnic minority, a British-Armenian, I feel let down by the media in Britain. I often read pieces where journalists rather emptily use words such as ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ as stand alone terms, failing to elaborate what they mean by them. The result being that whilst multiculturalism is celebrated, not enough time is spent explaining as to why it should be.

When the speaker emphatically declares, “We need to realize that we are on the defensive against the far right”, I find my mind racing. Personally I would like to see journalists proactively challenging racist opinions with solid, well-researched articles that provide balanced images of minorities. This would certainly attach more weight to the concept of multiculturalism.

Merely reporting facts isn’t enough. However, time and space restraints often dictate this to be the case. In such instances issues become simplified. For example there is an inadequate separation of issues such as immigration and job security. When in 2003, following Poland’s entry to the EU, thousands of Poles migrated to the United Kingdom it was reported as threatening British jobs, more often than not though Poles were filling areas of labour shortages.

When these issues are linked with commentaries on “Britishness” it’s a little hard as an ethnic minority to not feel as though what’s occurring is really veiled criticism of minorities in general. Journalists argue that what’s occurring is in fact a legitimate debate about immigration to Britain. But how can it be described as a ‘debate’ when those journalists conducting it are not representative of the communities themselves? There is a distinct lack of ethnic minority journalists commenting in the British print media.

As an ethnic minority reader it’s easy to feel a little bit ignored and unrepresented. What’s worse however is the tenuous connection made in some papers between immigration, job security and ‘Britishness’ – and it’s not difficult for the far right to play upon these links to its political advantage.

The speaker finishes up and receives a standing ovation. He looks humbled by the response.

In the proceeding comments one delegate suggests establishing media monitoring agencies. I don’t think regulation is a solution, its too open to criticisms of restricting free speech. Part of the problem is that media outlets lack accountability, so monitoring their impact is difficult. It’s equally difficult to know whether the media creates or reflects an issue. Can journalistic styles change, though? Balanced reporting should be the goal.

Delegates in a workshop at the United conference

Delegates in a workshop at the United conference

We break for coffee. Conversations start amongst people from countries across Europe as they share their incredulity at the state of affairs in Britain. But it seems the British experience is far from unique.

A tap upon the microphone hurried us back to our seats. The next two speakers chart similar situations, but this time showing how sloppy reporting on ethnic minorities and their issues spiraled into violence in their countries. I sat there, in the stuffy warmth of a Sheffield conference hall, rather alarmed at the comparison I was able to draw between the initial stages of these last two speakers’ experiences of alienation and my own. But getting together to discuss these experiences and hear examples of what should and can be done to make a difference, left me hopeful and with plenty of food for thought.