Tuesday, April 25, 2006

On trial for planting trees

I received this from a friend and thought it worth posting. It is a letter from a peace activist who is going on trial for planting trees at the Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston.

Dear friends,

I would like to share some thoughts with you. I am in Oxford, England and tomorrow the Vine and fig tree planters, eight of us, are going to trial for planting some trees at Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston. This weekend we have been preparing for both the trial and prison, doing role-plays and preparation. We have many supporters who have come from near (Oxford etc.) and far (Israel and Sweden).

Already in Sweden we have been assisted by very helpful police and lawyers to prepare for the trial. In January I received a dvd with video footage and camera pictures from the planting we did in August (see the beautiful pictures). It was all done by the police except some pictures that we planters took. We also got very detailed witness statements from police. When I read them I re-lived the planting through the eyes of the police which I found interesting. I would like you to have a taste of it, if you are interested. So I have taken bits and pieces of their statements, see below.

The whole trial process is new for me so I am a bit nervous about this. Though I am lucky to have very experienced people in the group who have been to many trials before. I can ask them about anything. At least I have done my best to try to prepare for the trial. They have told me that you could be allowed to have a final speech about your action. Tonight I have written down my ideas if you would be interested to look at it, below.


For more information click here.

Final speech, Newbury Magistrates Court, the xth of February, 2005 (Draft)

Your worship, friends, supports, thanks for letting me explain my actions in this courtroom today.

The tree planting at AWE Aldermaston on the 5th of August 2005 at AWE Aldermaston is not a spur of the moment thing for me. I have been working full time with peace issues for almost five years. I have been thinking, literally, thousands and thousands of hours on how to create peace in the world. For me the trial is not about a broken fence, it is about the world we want to create tomorrow.

What makes humans truly unique is our ability to imagine. It is our ability to see another future and to have visions of something better. With my planting of vine and fig trees at Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment I wanted to create a small part of my vision for the planet. We, humanity, have the power to make peace happen. If we truly can se a peaceful future where no one has to be afraid, then we can feel secure enough to disarm.

When I was interviewed at Newbury Police Station the 5th of August 2005 I was asked by Detective Inspector Stackhouse if there wasn?t any easier and more legal means to draw attention to our cause. I answered that yes, there are certainly many ways to work for peace, both more easy and more legal. During my five years of work for peace I have used only legal means. I think this work is of great importance and value. But sometimes when you want to live your vision; lines are crossed and boundaries broken. That is what happened on the 5th of August 2005 at AWE Aldermaston. Our vision of a world of peace collided with the lack of vision and trust that some political leaders have. That is way we are in this courtroom today.

I could have stayed at home in Sweden and not have gone to this trial. I could have escaped my punishment. But I chose to answer your invitation to be a part of this exchange of thoughts in this trial. I am willing to take the consequences of my actions on the 5th of August 2005. If you want to send me to prison for my action of peace you are entitled to do so. I still face very little punishment compared to all human rights activists sitting in prison today. But you don?t have to send us to prison or to give us a fine. If you also, your worship, share the vision of peace, you can by declaring us not guilty be a part of making this vision of peace a reality. It would not be the first time a similar thing would happen in a courtroom.

So why did I decide to be a part of creating a garden in a research facility for nuclear weapons? The answer for me is that it is not enough to have a vision, it is not enough to think and speak beautiful words. Neither is it enough to do actions without thinking, to work without goals. If we truly want to change the world into something better, then vision and work has to be one.

That is what we tried to embody by planting a garden at the most deadly place we could find. I believe that a world without weapons is possible and although I am anxious about prison I am ready to accept to go there, because I want to be true to my calling. Thank you for listening.

Martin Smedjeback

Friday, April 21, 2006

ICTJ Fellowships

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), invite applications for the Transitional Justice Fellowship Program, a funded, three-month residential fellowship program in Cape Town, South Africa, for approximately 12 professionals from select countries. Applications are invited from eligible individuals in any field, including (but not limited to) human rights advocacy, law, journalism, research, etc. Deadline for Applications: June 1, 2006. Dates for 2006 program: August 15-November 15, 2006
For more information and application forms, click here.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Exporting reconciliation or reality TV

For South Africans, tuning into the BBC recently was like turning on a time machine as viewers across the UK were exposed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu facilitating dialogue between victims and those that harmed them. This time, however, the focus was on the Northern Ireland conflict, and not South Africa, and it made for riveting television as victims came face to face with those that had killed. The series, entitled Facing the Truth, has received mixed reactions. The meetings were a bold move and they may have been helpful for individual victims. They provide some hope for the future. But we have to ask what other messages the programmes convey.

The programmes are not a truth commission but a dialogue, although the central idea leans heavily on the South African experience. It draws on the idea of publicly airing grievances as a way of addressing the past as championed by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). There are differences, however. The South African TRC’s primary focus was on outlining the causes, nature and extent of the conflict. It was not about victims meeting perpetrators, although this happened on occasion. Such meetings and the TRC were part of a more extensive political process. This has left me wondering: Is Northern Ireland trying to walk before it can crawl, or are high-profile encounters needed to move the process forward? Currently, the peace process in Northern Ireland is stalled. Given this context, the programmes might get people talking and re-engaged with resolving the conflict. The courage shown by participants in the programme can demonstrate what is possible, despite the dense fog of political dilly-dallying.

However, focusing on the victims can also inadvertently suggest that it is the responsibility of victims to reconcile, rather than wider society, as the first step to change, thus burdening victims with another liability. Some victims could feel pressured to forgive or perpetrators feel coerced into expressing remorse they don’t really feel. Airing the programmes in a political vacuum has other problems. The programmes’ focus is the stories of those directly affected or acting in the conflict. There is no context provided or debate about the causes of the conflict. Emotive television of this type also invariably draws one to the plight of the victims. This is important, but conflict resolution is not only about feeling the hurt of victims and sympathising with them. It demands that everyone across society recognise their own capacity for wrongdoing at the same time. Some in South Africa and Northern Ireland still feel self-righteous because they never acted violently. But political conflict is caused not merely by gunmen, but by political contexts that foster this behaviour. This does not exonerate indivi-dual responsibility or mean that all are equally responsible, but it demands that we ask how we supported the situation including tacit acceptance of violence, turning a blind eye to the pain of the other or through continuing to vote along ethnic, religious or racial lines. No one is uninvolved or neutral in protracted political conflict. Resolving conflict requires a public debate on levels of complicity and guilt, not only recognition of the hurt caused or confessions from direct actors. In South Africa we are still grappling with this.The media can foster this complicated debate, but this demands something more subtle than eerie music and darkly lit forums where victims and perpetrators meet. Let’s hope these programmes are a first step in this direction, or has Tutu’s noble desire to bring out the humanity of even hardened perpetrators intersected with TV producers’ ideas for lurid television leaving the international audience with a one-dimensional view of South Africa. The limited reconciliation achieved in South Africa was not a miracle nor was it only the cumulative product of important individual gestures. It was mainly the result of hard work and political compromise – a less attractive but important lesson worth exporting.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 March 2006.

Monday, April 3, 2006

How to be a politically-correct slacker

If there is one thing I hate, it is chain emails, or chain letters, as they used to be known before the advent of computers. Most of you are familiar with them. You receive an unsolicited email or letter promising to make a wish come true, or prevent you from suffering some nasty fate, such as the sky falling on your head, if you forward the said correspondence to 50 people within six minutes. There are many reasons to despise such letters; notably, they are a waste of time and a sure way to lose friends, if you forward them. But more than anything, it is the emotional manipulation at the core of them that is sometimes steeped in political correctness that bothers me most. Take, for example, one such email I received recently. It went something like this: a poor boy is starving in Africa – he has no family, livestock or limbs, and each time you forward this email, Bill Gates will personally give the boy $1 and good luck will shine on you all your days. If you do not forward this letter, you will be struck down with some horrible disease, just like Joe, from Kansas, who was diagnosed with bubonic plague only hours after refusing to send this letter on. Worse still, the limbless boy, who has no chickens to call his own and is a victim of capitalism, will surely die.

Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but the message is clear. The harbingers of this rubbish play on people’s goodwill and guilt, presumably for no other reason than to see how long the letter takes to get back to them. But such letters also suck you in and I too have succumbed to the odd email promising the end to world hunger at the press of a button. So why do they work? One answer is that they promote ‘slacktivism’, a term derived from merging the words ‘slacker’ and ‘activism. Slacktivism, according to Barbara Mikkelson, cofounder of Snopes.com, a website that debunks urban legends, “is the search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society’s rescue without actually getting one’s hands dirty, volunteering any of one’s time, or opening one’s wallet”. In other words, getting a big return on a small investment. Consequently, these goodwill emails (laden with threats) keep trundling on for the same reason as pyramid schemes: we want something for nothing and to have the added benefit of feeling good about getting it.

There are, however, different levels of slacktivism. There are those who are serial slacktivists, that is, they sign and forward any old petition blissfully unaware that most governments or corporations will just ignore unverified correspondence. The only beneficiary is the sender, who is left with a warm glow for his or her self-righteous, yet minimal, efforts. Then there are also those who use the Internet and chain emails to drum up support for their cause, which is translated into genuine lobbying in the halls of government. A constant barrage of information, which is factual rather than threatening and based on genuine case studies, could arguably swing public opinion. But to achieve this, the garbage that is circulated on the Internet should be filtered, and this starts with you and me. I am all for a little slacktivism, but it should move beyond simply forwarding heart-wrenching emails. Let’s think before forwarding every email and use the time we spend worrying that bad luck will befall us if we don’t, as well as the time wasted congratulating ourselves on the five seconds we donated to a good cause while pressing the forward button, being a lot more selective and a little more action-oriented. And, if any of you needs lessons on just how to do this, just drop me an email and we can go for a cappuccino and discuss it.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 3 March 2006.