Friday, November 26, 2004

Time to stop permissible lies about the past

Last week I took part in a television talk show filmed in the Crumlin Road Jail. The Victorian jail, built in 1846, is dank, cold and crumbling to the ground. It is one of the bleakest places in Belfast.

In the last few decades it served as a holding centre for prisoners who were to be tried in the courthouse across the street. All political prisoners in Northern Ireland would have passed through there at some point. But on the night of the television broadcast the prison provided a dramatic and historic backdrop to a discussion on how Northern Ireland should deal with its troubled past.

The lead in to the programme focused on South Africa. Much was said of our attempts to deal with the past as images of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission flashed on the screen. I was asked to follow this by reflecting on whether the South African model was appropriate for Northern Ireland.

In a world of sound bites for television I could add little. My obvious starting point was to say that every context is different and a unique solution for Northern Ireland is needed. No matter what approach is taken, society will have to deal with the delicate question of the truth about past atrocities.

Some moves are afoot in this regard. The British Secretary of State visited South Africa recently to draw lessons. He has also announced a consultation process. Various grassroots projects are also exploring the issue. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster is also looking into it. It is fascinating to consider how South Africa is used in these discussions. The country has become symbolic of attempts to deal with the past. Irrespective of the successes and failures of the South African TRC, the country has become a metaphor for attempts to come clean about past violations.

By drawing on the South African experience you immediately signal the importance you are putting on acknowledging past political violations. The South African context has become a “surrogate” for discussion. That is to say people discuss the South African case, all the while making points about their own situation, which they are struggling to address directly.

But are such “surrogate” discussions helpful? Do they help address local issues or divert attention from them?

It is questionable at times whether some of those looking at the South African case are interested in detailed lesson-drawing or merely registering some sort of nominal interest for other purposes.

For example, the South African case has been used as a justification for similar truth commissions when little genuine commitment to dealing with the past is present. Nigeria had a truth commission and publicised widely that they were going the South African route. The government received some international kudos and legitimacy for this, but in the end the government buried the final report and this has meant little political change.

At the same time, the South African experience has been used positively. The Peruvians studied the South African case closely and used it to learn solid lessons for their truth commission. They drew “negative” lessons' taking careful note of the lack of follow-up to reparations in South Africa. They chose to use models from Chile and Argentina on reparations as they were more successful and they put steps in place not to repeat South Africa's mistakes.

Dealing with a legacy of political violence requires more than making the right noises concerning lesson-drawing. It is long-term commitment and an ongoing endeavour.

This year in Chile, those initially protected from justice, by a 1978 amnesty decree, are being prosecuted. The courts no longer apply the amnesty to forced disappearance cases. A new political will to enforce justice is now seemingly evident thirty years after the military coup that overthrew the Allende government in 1973.

In Chile, the previous amnesty laws have effectively been rubbished. Although the 1990 Chilean truth commission might have helped some victims tell their story and uncover some truth, many still want justice decades later. Society is finally obliging.

A truth commission does not draw a line in the sand. It can merely help shape future debate, hopefully more constructively.

Michael Ignatieff feels truth commissions do not find the complete truth but narrow the opportunity for permissible lies about the past. He is of the opinion that truth commissions can provide a frame for public discourse and memory. They create a new public space for an ongoing debate.

Addressing a legacy of political violence is a lengthy task. It is not just about a few minutes of good television. The South African approach of televised victim testimonies has, to some extent, contributed to an almost surreal take on how to deal with past violence. But mass violence is not theatre.

In Northern Ireland, it is time to move away from the stylised view of the past the Crumlin Road Jail television talk show embodied. We need to enquire into the shadowy and bitter reality such a setting actually represents.

The genuine lessons from other contexts must be explored in all their complexity. For South Africans this means we need to tell our story of the transition, warts and all. We all know the election of 1994 was no miracle. It was created through tough negotiation, consensus building and compromise. For Northern Ireland, it is time to get down to the business of genuinely addressing the past. The hard work is just about to begin.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 26 November 2004 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Directory of Open Access Journals

The Directory of Open Access Journals service covers free, full text, quality controlled scientific and scholarly journals. They aim to cover all subjects and languages. There are now 1366 journals in the directory. Currently 334 journals are searchable on article level. As of today 61433 articles are included in the DOAJ service. Visit the site at:

Chaos in Ivory Coast: Roots and Consequences

Dan Chirot sent me through a piece he recently wrote on the Ivory Coast. Thought I would post it; it is interesting and an area that seems to get little attention. It begins: "Back in the fall of 2002, an attempted military coup had failed in Ivory Coast. But — instead of really giving up — the mostly northern army officers retreated and took control of the northern half of the country, while the government held on to the south. The south has most of the country’s wealth, including its lucrative cocoa and coffee plantations, as well as the port of Abidjan which — far beyond Ivory Coast — serves much of French-speaking West Africa. The French, with about 5,000 soldiers there, managed to stop the renewed government offensive in November 2004, which actually had no chance of succeeding. Unexpectedly, though, the Ivorian government ordered the French military base in Bouake — the rebel capital — to be bombed."

Friday, November 19, 2004

Forget the war on terror, it's morals that count

It was a strange time to be in Boston in the midst of the US election. The tension was palpable and the support for Kerry-a native son of the city-pervasive. Right up until counting started the mood was optimistic. Early exit polls suggested a Kerry victory. But very soon it all started to turn for the Democrats. By 5:30am on election day, as I sat glued to the television abandoning my plans to observe the downtown Kerry “victory” rally, it was all but over. Bush was going to win.

The following day the usually lively city seemed melancholic. Over breakfast, hotel patrons spoke openly about their disappointment. Some told me they were embarrassed to be an American. They felt isolated and that they were living in another universe to their Bush-supporting compatriots. That evening in a shop I greeted an attendant “Hi. How you doing?”

His response: “I'm looking for a new country to live in,” his words indicative of the deep ruptures that now exist within the US.

Sometime on Wednesday, President Thabo Mbeki officially congratulated George Bush. He wished him well and “fervently” hoped for “greater world stability and peace under his leadership”. No one noticed. The US is a country that is wrapped up in itself these days despite its military exploits abroad. Those of a liberal persuasion-or at least a sizeable proportion of the 56 million people or 48% of the electorate who voted for Kerry-are struggling to figure out what went wrong and what is going on. Much soul searching is being done.

When asked what issues mattered most in choosing a president, survey data in the New York Times revealed that “moral values” ranked top with economy and jobs, followed by terrorism and the Iraq war. Seemingly issues such as tax, education and health care were seen as less important. A swathe of Americans feel that the moral world is crumbling about them. A strong, principled leader that can oppose abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage is what they feel is needed. Just over half of voting Americans feel that Bush is such a person. To the remainder, Bush as a moral icon is laughable, given his warmongering overseas.

Meanwhile, Mbeki, in his message to Bush, appealed for “renewed support for, and interest in Africa and the developing world, reform of world institutions and an era of multilateralism marked by a concerted drive to deal decisively with the challenge of poverty and underdevelopment”. It is hard to imagine that this is even on the map for the US right now. A conservative revolution is on the march.

It is easy for those from a liberal perspective to write this off or treat Bush supporters as if they are misguided bible-bashers. But the problem is more complex than that. It is time to face the fact that the right-wing in the US is organised. They moved door-to-door securing their position. The Bush campaign utilised 1,2 million volunteers with four times as many workers in Ohio than 2000. They sold “Faith, Family and Flag” and the majority of the electorate bought it.

This suggests that many fear some sort of global moral vacuum that they think the Republicans can fill. Such views litter internet chat rooms across the US. As one Bush supporter put it: “I'm sorry but I don't lose sleep over Iraq. What I do lose sleep over is my children's future in the immoral cess pit that this country is becoming”.

We all want a safe and decent world; one that embodies good values. This is why Bush attracted the vote of some moderates as well as his traditional neo-conservative and Christian fundamentalist supporters. But their votes have endorsed, whether knowingly or not, an approach whereby the language of moral values will continue to be used to hide a value-free political and economic agenda.

The politics of morality is a new global battleground. The results can be disastrous. Estimates put the death toll in Iraq as anywhere between 20 000 and 100 000 civilians. These people were killed in the name of freedom, democracy and to allegedly make the world a safer place.

But who has really benefited from this “moral” campaign? Mostly those who sell weapons, reconstruction contractors and private security firms, many close to the Bush regime. The Bush administration has, in Iraq's most vulnerable moment, tendered it off to the lowest bidder with no discernible benefit to its indigenous economy. Defence contracts worth 76 billion dollars, for example, have been connected to nine out of thirty members of the US Defense Policy Group.

In South Africa we cannot ignore these developments. The influence of the Bush administration is going to be felt more than before in the coming years. Negotiating investment may soon not only be about crude economic negotiations alone. Is it possible that South African constitutional approaches to issues such as gay marriage could be on the table in future trade talks? As South Africans we must not simply beg for investment or bend over backwards to get it no matter the cost. We need to unmask what is going on and ask what the “real” price of investment might be.

This is particularly important given that the language of morality may also find resonance in conservative parts of Africa. Think of the views of some African churches on homosexuality. Will these confluences of interest be used to open more economic doors into Africa for Republican-aligned companies that give little back to local economies? We cannot simply dismiss the right-wing any more or get away with taunts of imperialism. Poking fun at Bush's gaffs on the podium is not enough. A serious analysis of the politics of morality and conservatism and its implications for the developing world is desperately needed. Supporting moral values sounds benign but we must ensure that the debate on morality is detached political projects.

It is time for a renewed interest in the US. We need to reach out to those who do not want morality used negatively. It is time for new alliances with liberals and progressives in the US, many of whom feel besieged in their own country right now. After all, there are only about 1 400 days to the next US election.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 19 November 2004 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Chile Issues Report on Pinochet Torture

Chile took a key step Wednesday toward confronting the grim legacy of abuses under the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, completing a lengthy report on torture and political imprisonment with testimonies from some 35,000 victims. For more information, click here.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Mugabe compared to Adolf Hitler

Article in the Business Day today starts "The South African Communist Party (SACP) has backed the Congress of South African Trade Unions' (Cosatu's) stand against Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's human rights violations. "It would be wrong for the South African government to act like a trade union, but it is equally wrong to expect Cosatu to act like government," SACP secretary-general Blade Nzimande said. The SACP's stance may widen the gap between the African National Congress (ANC) and its tripartite alliance partners, the SACP and Cosatu, on how to deal with Zimbabwe. It signals an attempt by the alliance partners to assert each group's right to comment on and approach sensitive issues according to the directive of their constituencies, instead of towing the line of the ruling party. Zimbabwe last month deported 13 unionists aligned to Cosatu who were on a fact-finding mission after a call for help by their counterparts and civil society structures in that country. This prompted the union to launch a blistering attack on Mugabe, comparing his tactics to those of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in wartime Germany.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Monday, November 8, 2004

Lesotho Blog

Really like Rethabile Masilo's On Lesotho Blog. Nice to see something published about the country.

Thursday, November 4, 2004

OK, I was wrong...Bush wins

OK, I was wrong in some of my earlier postings...Kerry is not going to be the new US President. All the initial exit poles were wrong. My optimism was misplaced. I am still in Boston and the city is in mourning. Last night I was in a shop and simply greeted a shop attendant saying "Hi. How you doing?". His response, "I'm looking for a new country to live in!". Says a lot, and it is important to realise at this time that 49% of North Americans are deeply distressed by this result (not to mention most of the rest of the world!)...that said, it is small comfort for what is to happen over the next four someone else said to me this morning, "You ain't seen nothing yet...".

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

Where is the South African TRC Report?

This is a quick response to a question I was recently asked: is the South African TRC Report is freely available. As far as I know, it is not. The publishers own it and a hard copy will cost you a good whack! This is RIDICULOUS considering that one of the TRC recommendations is that the report should be freely available. Bits are available on the web. But it is not, for example, on the TRC website, unless I just can't find it. (Not to mention that fact that the TRC website must be one of the most rubbish looking websites in the world). How crazy is all this! If it is there, hope someone can find it...either way, there is clearly not an easily accessible web link or dedicated site for this report as there should be. Aside from this, there are some people who have full electronic (illegal) copies of the report. These are freely available if such people are emailed...say no I am still in Boston and feeling good for a Kerry victory...hope I am not misguided.

Update 2012: The TRC report is now available in full on Official Website of the TRC.