Absorbing, mysterious; of infinite richness, this life - Virginia Woolf

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

‘Never again’ means ensuring accountability for the genocide in Rwanda

See below an opinion piece we published in Pambazuka, marking the 19th anniversary this week of the beginning of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. 

Tara O'Leary and David Russell

2013-04-10, Issue 625


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Rwanda has made significant steps in the pursuit of justice for victims of the genocide 19 years ago. But many suspected perpetrators living abroad have not been brought to justice and the government does not seem keen to fulfil its pledges to compensate survivors.

The recent high profile visit of British Foreign Secretary William Hague and actress Angelina Jolie to Gisozi genocide memorial briefly drew the attention of the international media back to Rwanda and to the 19th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide on 7 April. The photographs of the visitors in the memorial's beautiful garden in Kigali provided a striking image as both figures paid tribute not only to those who were lost in 1994 but also to the victims and survivors. 

The abiding slogan ‘never again’ is often repeated at events such as these, but part of the commitment to ensuring that such events are never repeated is guaranteeing accountability for the atrocities of the past. To what extent do these words merely comprise useful phrases for formal occasions?

Efforts to address impunity for atrocities committed during the genocide have been multifaceted. In addition to the work of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Rwanda has made efforts towards justice in recent years, particularly in addressing fair trial concerns and legislating for the transfer of suspects back from the ICTR and extradition of suspects residing abroad. It is currently holding a number of genocide trials, including that of Jean Bosco Uwinkindi, and has pursued a policy of issuing extradition requests, which have recently begun to bear fruit with the transfer of Charles Bandora from Norway last month.

Genocide suspects living abroad too are increasingly unable to rely on their adopted countries acting as a safe haven. Quietly, prosecutors across Europe and North America have spent recent years notching up cases against suspected Rwandan perpetrators. These prosecutions are often based on the principles of universal jurisdiction, which provide for the prosecution of the most serious crimes such as genocide and war crimes irrespective of where these crimes were committed and irrespective of the nationality of the perpetrator or the victim. To date, suspects have been successfully prosecuted in Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands. Others have been arrested in the UK, France, Denmark, Germany and Sweden, while in the United States suspected perpetrators have been prosecuted for visa and immigration fraud in relation to their role in the genocide. 

However, impunity for genocide suspects residing abroad is still the norm, a fact only too clearly demonstrated by the low number of prosecutions. In 2009, for example, four suspects were released in the UK as their extradition was denied based on human rights concerns. Four years later all four men remain free despite the amendment of criminal legal rules in 2010 which would allow them to be tried in the UK. Similarly, complaints have been filed against at least 24 suspects living in France, some as long as 18 years ago, yet France has yet to bring a single accused to trial. Suspects reportedly living in other European countries, including Italy and Switzerland, have yet to be investigated by domestic authorities. 

These countries have the means and the necessary legal framework to prosecute known suspects who are living freely in their communities. What is needed however is the political will to make use of the existing system of international criminal justice and see these prosecutions through to the end. 

Victims also remain frustrated in their attempts to participate in justice processes, despite their right in international law to see perpetrators brought to justice, to participate in criminal justice proceedings and to access reparation to remedy the losses they have suffered.

Very few countries have allowed victims to join universal jurisdiction cases as interested parties, and only a handful of victims - in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands - have been able to read statements about their experiences to the court or participate other than as witnesses. 

Attempts by survivors to obtain reparation have been similarly frustrated. Since the end of the genocide in 1994, the vast majority of survivors and indeed victims of international crimes generally in Rwanda, have yet to receive adequate reparation. This has been the case in Rwanda, where repeated promises from the government to establish reparation programmes have never been implemented, and at the ICTR, the statute of which did not include a mandate to make reparation awards. Universal jurisdiction cases have also generally failed to provide access to reparation for persons participating as victims. 

The theme for the commemoration of the Rwandan genocide this year is kwigira, which means self-reliance. Survivors and their communities demonstrate daily tremendous self-reliance, initiative and dignity in their efforts to rebuild their lives. As we reflect on efforts made to end impunity in Rwanda and elsewhere since 1994, all actors concerned should consider how justice efforts can best underpin the dignity and independence of survivors. Implementing longstanding promises to deliver reparation would go a long way to demonstrate the government's commitment to ensuring kwigira for survivors of genocide and other victims of international crimes committed in Rwanda in 1994. 

* Tara O'Leary is Universal Jurisdiction Coordinator of REDRESS and David Russell is the Director of Survivors Fund

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Day of the Disappeared

Today is International Day of the Disappeared. On 30 August every year, families and loved ones remember those who have disappeared and for one reason or another, never came home. 

These are not simply cases of a person running away or falling off the map: these are cases where a person is taken away by a state agent or a person acting with the approval of the state. There is a refusal to acknowledge their arrest, their detention or their treatment. They are placed outside the protection of the law. This silence and this secrecy means they can be subject to a range of abuses without public knowledge or legal consequences: arbitrary or indefinite detention, interrogation, torture, extrajudicial execution. Meanwhile their families wait. The initial crime of the disappearance has not ended: it continues each day that a family waits for news and wonders and worries. 

Right now this is happening in Syria. It happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the well-remembered conflicts and dictatorships in Timor Leste, Chechnya, Argentina and elsewhere. It also happened in many other places less well remembered: Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mauritania, and elsewhere.

I took these pictures in Pristina in June, the week that I left Kosovo. My camera is not faulty: the photos are faded from years of sun, rain, snow, and inaction. They have been hanging outside government buildings for 13 years, with no information forthcoming about the fate or whereabouts of the faces which fade slowly into the shadows, year on year.

Amnesty International reported today that at least 40,000 people had disappeared across Yugoslavia during the conflicts of the 1990s. The fate and whereabouts of over 14,000 are still unknown today, 10,500 of whom were in Bosnia. Up to 20 years later, family members may have accepted at this point that their loved ones will not come back home. Nonetheless, they have not been able to receive their remains for burial, they do not have a grave to visit, they may be denied access to pensions and other benefits for victims, and  perhaps more emotionally, they may never learn the truth about what happened. 

An estimated 1,797 persons - both Albanian and Serb - remain missing following the 1999 Kosovo conflict. Theirs are the faces which fade in the sun in these pictures. 

#DemandJustice with Amnesty International for victims of enforced disappearance and their families: http://demandjusticenow.org/enforced-disappearances/

Sunday, April 22, 2012

UN Special Rapporteurs call for the release of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja

I have just seen today that four United Nations Special Rapporteurs issued a statement last week calling for Abdulhadi's release. Amongst them was Margaret Sekaggya, who I worked for during my days in Uganda. The other signatories are the Special Rapporteurs on torture, on the rights to freedom of assembly and association, and on the independence of judges and lawyers. 

The main call is that “in view of the urgency of the matter", the experts "strongly call on the Government to seriously reconsider the offer by Denmark to transfer Al-Khawaja, a dual citizen of Denmark and Bahrain, on humanitarian grounds, for medical treatment to Denmark.”

GENEVA (13 April 2012) – Four United Nations human rights experts on Friday urged the Government of Bahrain to immediately release human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja who is serving a life sentence handed down by a military court on terrorism-related charges. The call comes amid serious concerns about the lack of due process and fair trial guarantees.

The National Safety Court, a military court, sentenced Al-Khawaja to life imprisonment on 22 June 2011, after his trial alongside a group of more than 20 human rights defenders. An appeal was rejected by the National Safety Court of Appeal on 28 September 2011. Al-Khawaja’s case is now being reviewed by the Court of Cassation which is due to deliver its verdict on 23 April.

“I am seriously concerned that Mr. Al-Khawaja’s trial and sentence are linked to his legitimate work to promote human rights in Bahrain,” said Margaret Sekaggya, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. “This case is sadly emblematic of the overall treatment of human rights defenders in Bahrain.”

Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and association expressed similar concerns about Mr. Al-Khawaja’s detention being directly linked to his human rights activities in the context of the on-going protests in Bahrain.

“Any restriction to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly must be proportional and must be closely reviewed with respect to its necessity and reasonableness,” Mr. Kiai.

“Restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly on the grounds of national security should not be used to suppress the legitimate activities of human rights defenders and activists.”

Gabriela Knaul, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, expressed grave concern about the trial of Al-Khawaja and other human rights defenders who were collectively tried before a military court despite being civilians. It is alleged that the group was held for a significant period of time in incommunicado detention before being allowed to seek legal counsel. Allegations that the defendants made confessions under duress have reportedly not been investigated and evidence obtained under torture was reportedly not excluded from the trial – in contravention of international law.

“The lack of due process which was alleged during the trials must be addressed by the court where his case is currently under review,” Ms. Knaul stated.

The Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez, added that: “The Government of Bahrain has failed to take necessary measures to ensure the physical and mental integrity of Mr. Al-Khawaja in accordance with the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.”

Mr. Al-Khawaja has been on hunger strike since 8 February 2012. Despite assurances expressed by Bahraini authorities, reports and photos documenting his poor state of health continue to emerge.

“In view of the urgency of the matter, we strongly call on the Government to seriously reconsider the offer by Denmark to transfer Al-Khawaja, a dual citizen of Denmark and Bahrain, on humanitarian grounds, for medical treatment to Denmark,” the experts urged. 


For media requests please contact Amanda Flores (            +41 22 917 91 86 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            +41 22 917 91 86      end_of_the_skype_highlighting       / aflores@ohchr.org) or write to defenders@ohchr.org

OHCHR Country Page – Bahrain :

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Abdulhadi - Petition

After I had posted my last entry, I saw that Broadsheet.ie had posted an item about the Anonymous hacking of the official Formula 1 website in the run-up to this weekend's race. Broadsheet is one of my favourite Irish websites; it posts quite random items, links and commentary with a distinctively satirical and irreverent take on current events which can veer from the hilariously profane to the sublime. But when the moment is right, Broadsheet can be bitingly accurate and it makes tremendous use of its freedom as a social media platform. I have huge respect for its integrity. 

So after reading the item on Bahrain this evening, I took the opportunity to contact them and write a little about Abdulhadi's connections to Ireland. I didn't expect them to post my email verbatim, but am sincerely delighted to be featured on their illustrious pages while much more importantly, gaining any further attention for Abdulhadi and Bahrain on this critical weekend. 

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja And Ireland

Tara O’Leary writes:
Your link to the Anonymous attack on the F1 website this evening indicates you might have heard of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. He was mentioned by name in the Anonymous attack, which included a link to the website of Front Line Defenders.What you might not know is that Abdulhadi has a long connection with Ireland and until last year worked in Front Line, a truly fantastic human rights organisation that do sterling work from their office in Blackrock, Co Dublin.
In early 2011 he began to concentrate on the emerging pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. He spent his time monitoring and documenting human rights violations, publicising them in an effort to encourage the authorities to stop, advocating peacefully for democratic reforms and training others in Bahrain to do the same. He is not a member of a political party and encouraged other protesters to stop using violence, but for his activities he was arrested on April 2011, brutally tortured and sentenced to life in prison for what the government called terrorism.
Abdulhadi has now been on hunger strike for 71 days, in protest at his detention and the detention of another estimated 600 political prisoners in Bahrain. To put this in perspective, Bobby Sands died after 66 days on hunger strike.
Everyone from Amnesty International to Catherine Ashton to Ban Ki Moon have called for his release or for a humanitarian solution to his situation. But as of this evening, as the Formula 1 weekend kicks off in Manama, Abdulhadi is near death and the authorities have refused to consider any compromise.
A commenter on your F1 post this evening already mentioned seeing posters about Abdulhadi around Dublin. He is someone who has spent a lot of time in Ireland over the years and has many friends here, who are frantically worried about him as reports indicate that in the coming days he may die for his beliefs. Many of your readers seeing the news on Bahrain this weekend probably don’t know about this Irish connection, nor can they connect this story to the picture of the man on the posters, most prominently on a building in Stephen’s Green, Dublin.
The truth is that you don’t have to know much about the politics in Bahrain, the protests and violence continuing there this weekend, or the bigger issues arising from the Arab Spring to understand this story. Sometimes issues really are as black and white as this one. Abdulhadi is a gentle soul who inspired many of us who met him here, and who has suffered great personal cost because of trying to help others around him.
You at Broadsheet might perhaps be interested in this situation and his Dublin connection. If you’d like to help in any way, you can post a link to Amnesty International’s petition on behalf of Abdulhadi and other prisoners of conscience.
Every signature counts.
Petition here.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Formula 1 - Bahrain Grand Prix 2012

Click to enlarge the picture

About an hour ago the internet hacking group Anonymous disrupted the official Formula 1 website ahead of this Sunday's scheduled F1 race in Manama. Calling down shame on officials and organisers of the race, who have decided to proceed with the event despite widespread protestsescalating unrest, alleged violent dispersal of protesters and police abuses, and reports that journalists who do not belong to sports news crews have been prevented from entering the country, the message also calls for the release of Abdulhadi and other political prisoners. Most satisfyingly for me personally, the message linked to Front Line's website for further information about Abdulhadi's situation. 

I presume that the interruption to the website and Anonymous' message won't last long online, so I wanted to preserve it here while I had the chance. I haven't paid much attention to Anonymous before (without knowing much about their activities I've questioned their radical politics while nonetheless enjoying what I've seen as the healthy sense of irreverence behind their pranks) but I can't help but enjoy this stunt. 

Firstly, it should catch some headlines and attention for the bigger issue of the overall situation in Bahrain (news of the attack was proliferating across my Facebook news feed and presumably spreading across Twitter within minutes of the start of the disruption). But more importantly, it may hopefully show up amongst the primary search result for F1 fans looking for listings of this week's race, many of whom are more likely to be ordinary sports punters than observers of international politics, and thus may learn a thing or two. In addition, F1 are - or should be - worried about their relationship with corporate sponsors who have been pressured about their support for the event by petitions and critical international news coverage. I am perfectly happy to see the temporary disappearance of a website promoting those sponsors as a legitimate form of civil disobedience. 

The question of the relationship between Bahrain's financial and public interests and Formula 1 is an interesting one. General belief has it that the authorities are keen to utilise the race as a means of signalling that Bahrain is back to normal and open for business as usual. Thanks to a reported $40 million hosting fee, the authorities stand to make very little if any financial profit from the event; the real profit lies in the investment value of promoting tiny Bahrain as an exotic, safe and cosmopolitan destination for both tourism and financial investment. Some excellent commentary by Jane Kinninmont in Foreign Policy yesterday questions the success of this policy, but provides consideration of the positions of a wide spectrum of Bahraini actors towards the race in a way which is far more useful and grey-scaled than much of the news coverage suggests (for instance Al-Wefaq, the main opposition party, support the event). 

The real surprise has been this unexpectedly insightful article written by veteran British F1 driver Damon Hill. Two weeks ago Hill was a lone dissenting voice amongst F1 insiders in calling for the race to be cancelled. I found the article ultimately disappointing, given Hill's eventual acquiescence to the idea of the event going ahead. His invocation of the power of sport to "to inspire the young to take up a challenge from which they will learn about themselves and the world" left me somewhat cold - multi-million dollar F1 isn't exactly bringing football to the ghetto, after all. But Hill drew on a wide range of opinion and viewpoints, showed surprising insight into the various issues involved, and did make very clear his particular misgivings about how the decision to go ahead and the criticism of the event has been handled by F1 as an institution. Tellingly, he mentions Bernie Ecclestone (who this afternoon stood beside Bahrain's Crown Prince on the track dismissing claims about violence as a media fabrication) as a man "who few dare to publicly disagree with. Perhaps we should, instead of just muttering under our breath, scared of losing our passes." Well, indeed. 

But the most salient point of both Hill and Kinninmont's articles is that ultimately, the race gives both the government, the political opposition, pro-democracy activists and disaffected youth an unprecedented opportunity to raise publicity of their respective positions. In other words, without the race, news coverage and public debate would not have returned to Bahrain (from Syria, from Libya, from fiscal rescue packages, from whatever else is happening in the world right now). Hill noted of "extreme" protesters, that "without F1, perhaps their cause would have had less of a hearing." Its a valid point, but ultimately in my view, used incorrectly in this context to assuage the guilty conscience of a genuinely well-intentioned objector returning to the fold. 

As for Abdulhadi? Today is Day 71 of his hunger strike. The best way to put this in context is to remember that Bobby Sands, the most well-known of the IRA hunger strikers, died after 66 days of fasting. 

After a serious scare for his health two weeks ago, he had been somewhat stable while receiving glucose and water via IV. However, on 9 April the Bahrain Supreme Judicial Council refused to transfer Abdulhadi to Denmark (he also holds Danish citizenship) despite concerted diplomatic efforts on his behalf. Reuters had a good article yesterday outlining the various pressures and interests that compel both sides in this mexican stand off, in which a life hangs in the balance: simply put, neither side is willing to back down and lose face at this point. I can see Abdulhadi's viewpoint being simply that this has provided him with the first and only opportunity to take any form of control over his body and his circumstances since his arrest one year ago, since the torture and the sexual assault, since the trial before a military court on baseless charges of terrorism. 

This afternoon, his daughters Maryam and Zainab reported on Twitter that during a brief phone call with his family, he announced his intention today to stop taking water and to refuse further IV treatment. He also requested a meeting with his lawyer in order to draw up his will, which was denied. Finally, he stressed that protesters should continue to protest peacefully if he should die. "...I don't want anyone to be hurt in my name". 

I don't know what this means or what his intentions are. I don't know what may be going on behind closed doors. I am very frightened for him. I can't imagine what his family are going through. And I have no idea what on earth his death could achieve. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Day 58 - Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

I haven't written here at all recently, the main reason being simply that many other things have arisen and sometimes taken priority in the past few months. I have felt bad about this for many reasons, but mostly because I should have been sharing information and highlighting things happening in one of the only ways I can.  

To get to the point: Abdulhadi al-Khawaja began a hunger strike on 8 February, vowing not to end until he was released from detention. Today is his 58th day without food, and things are looking particularly bleak. He has lost approximately 25% of his body weight, and I've seen a picture which quite upset me. He has been moved to hospital and it is feared that he might die over the weekend. 

At the start of last week, courts in Bahrain deferred a scheduled review of his detention until 23 April. My personal interpretation of these events is that the Bahraini authorities may deliberately want to delay a hearing until it is too late. 

His daughter Zainab, who I have written about previously, was arrested this morning while protesting outside the clinic where he is being treated. She is reportedly still in detention. 

I've written about Abdulhadi's case before, here, here and here. We used to work together at Front Line. He is a kind and gentle soul. More importantly for his country, where unrest continues despite a year of violent oppression, Abdulhadi is described as "the godfather" of human rights in Bahrain. His life and detention, his health and hunger, have become symbols of oppression, defiance and hope. 

Please click here to sign a petition for his release and here for other simple steps you can take to help. 

An editorial piece written by Front Line's Deputy Director, Andrew Anderson, is here.

Today's press release is below. 

PRESS RELEASE: Human Rights Defender and former colleague, Abdulhadi AlKhawaja close to death on 58th day of hunger strike in Bahrain

Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, former colleague and dear friend of Front Line Defenders, is on the 58th day of his hunger strike in Bahrain.
Abdulhadi started his hunger strike on the night of 8th/9th February. He was also part of a group hunger strike for 7 days from January 29th, so he has been on hunger strike for 65 of the last 68 days. His condition has deteriorated and he has been transferred to the BDF hospital.
According to medical experts, he now has an 80% chance of dying and is at risk of organ failure at any time. "We call on the Bahrain government to exercise mercy and immediately allow Abdulhadi to travel to Denmark for medical treatment as requested by the Danish Foreign Minister - Abdulhadi has dual citizenship with Denmark" said Mary Lawlor, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders, "We further call on the UN, the EU, the US and UK to issue public statements to this effect".
Abdulhadi is an internationally renowned human rights defender. He was arrested one year ago, brutally tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment after a grossly unfair trial before a military court on fabricated charges. Abdulhadi has worked non-violently for the human rights of others for many years and went on hunger strike for " Freedom or Death". His daughter Zainab attempted to see him yesterday, on his 51st birthday, and was arrested. She is currently being detained at Alhoora police Station.
If Abdulhadi AlKhawaja dies in the run up to the Grand Prix due to take place in Bahrain on 22nd April, it will increase the instability and unrest. "The Bahraini authorities clearly want to present an image of business as usual but their seeming indifference to the plight of Abdulhadi, risks tragic consequences for Bahrain" said Mary Lawlor "Those involved in Formula 1 must consult with independent journalists, community leaders, human rights groups, to get a good sense of what is going on - to see for themselves the situation in the gulf kingdom. From observing protests last week in Bahrain, it is clear that Bahrain is not safe for Bahrainis".
In a letter to his family a few days ago in the shape of a heart on the inside of a box of tea bags Abdulhadi wrote:
"My dear & beloved family, from behind prison bars, I send to you my love & yearning. From a free man, to a free family. These prison walls don't separate me from you, they bring us closer together. Our connection & determination is stronger than ever. We take our strength, from beautiful memories. Remembering every trip, every meal we ate together, all the conversations, remembering every smile, all the jokes & the laughter. The distance between us disappears, through our love & faith.
It's true: I am in here, & you are out there. But, you are in here with me, and I am out there with you. Our pain is made more bearable when we remember we chose this difficult path & took an oath to remain on it. We must not only remain patient through our suffering, we must never allow the pain to conquer our souls. Let our hearts be filled with joy, and an acceptance of the responsibility we have been given for in the end, this life is about finding a path of truth towards God".