Friday, April 28, 2006

Are you calling me chicken?

A dead swan was recently found about a mile from our house in a nearby lake. The poor creature had the misfortune, first, of dying and, second, of dying at the same time as another swan in Fife, in Scotland, several hundred miles away. The swan in Fife died of bird flu. So, suddenly, the swan down the road from our house found itself the posthumous centre of attention as tests ensued. The situation, however, proved an anticlimax when the swan was found to have died of natural causes. This was cold comfort to the swan and, no doubt, bad news for media people, who were getting excited about the furore. Needless to say, it was a relief for people across the island of Ireland.

But what was interesting about this incident was its ability to conjure up fear in an instant. If I am honest, I was also alarmed at my own rather selfish and out-of-proportion reaction. Firstly, I had concerns about whether our child would be safe if we went for a walk down by the river. Secondly, I envisaged another foot-and-mouth-style slaughter of all local birds and felt for the poor creatures, which would, surely, meet their end if bird flu was confirmed. And, finally, I found some space to spare a thought for the poultry farmers and the potential impact on their livelihood. Sadly, I think my reaction is not too dissimilar to many. It seems as if each new global fear is immediately internalised and individualised. In short, can I get it? Am I and my family safe? Immediately after the discovery of the dead swan in Fife, I heard people saying that they would no longer eat poultry, despite the media making it unequivocally clear that you cannot get bird flu this way, not to mention the fact that swan is hardly a staple food. This points to a paradox. There is increasing information from the media about issues such as bird flu, yet, at the same time, individuals continue to have unfounded fears. Why is this the case? One way to look at this is from the perspective of the information that is imparted. To be fair to the media in the UK and Ireland, both have attempted to run with the ‘don’t panic’ story about bird flu. Tony Blair and various scientists have been liberally quoted as saying the disease is not a threat to humans. Yet, at the same time, the media cannot resist highlighting the 100 human fatalities across the globe with as much of sensationalism as possible. They also take any opportunity to show photos of crowded chicken coops in Asian and African markets. Such images shown in a largely Western society invariably evoke stereotypical perceptions of foreigners as somehow dirty and primitive, feeding fears of ‘the other’ as the source of infectious disease. Another way to look at unrealistic fears like contracting bird flu in leafy suburbia, which you are as unlikely as getting as winning the lottery twice in one weekend, is that such fears are the luxury of those who are comfortable and do not have that much to worry about. Clearly, the starving villagers from Jos, in Nigeria, who were recently arrested for exhuming flu-infected and culled birds to eat had a very different hierarchy of concern.

In the final instance, the whole bird-flu issue probably teaches us more about ourselves than about risk. We cannot resist seeing the world from our own tiny vantage point. Those who are safest in the world continue to thrive on myths of external threats, such as criminals, foreigners, terrorists, strangers and disease, while the poor rifle through a pile of dead poultry looking for food, infected or not. So, why did the chicken cross the road? Hopefully, to help us open our eyes.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 28 April 2006 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

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.

Friday, April 14, 2006

You are either for him or against him

There is nothing worse than seeing your own country denigrated in the foreign press. Sadly, this is what the blinkered supporters of Jacob Zuma, the former Deputy President of South Africa fired for alleged corruption and on trial for rape, are doing. Stories of his supporters protesting outside the court have been splashed all over the foreign media. It has been shocking to see supporters burning pictures of the woman who accuses Zuma and carrying placards reading ‘Zuma is being raped’. Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, claims she even heard teenage girls outside the court saying: “We are waiting for Zuma to rape us too – we want to be Zuma’s women.” Given that some 50 000 rapes are reported each year in South Africa, this must leave outsiders, and I hope the majority in the country too, wonder- ing just what is going on.

Of course, people have a right to support whoever they want, especially someone they see as having a significant role in liberating their country. I do not take issue with this. However, what is startling is how unequivocal and ferocious this support is. It seems like his supporters, to twist George Bush’s famous mantra, are saying: “You are either for him or against him.” If you do not support him, you are a political enemy and will be subjected to abuse. The fact that their aggressive protests will deter future rape survivors from bringing charges before the court in a country where one in nine cases of rape are reported seems of little consequence to them. The protestors’ actions highlight that there is still something deeply wrong within parts of South African society. The old apartheid mindset, which taught that the world was literally a black-and-white place, either all good or all bad, is alive and well. Further, if Zuma’s supporters have such unwavering conviction of his innocence, something neither they nor I have a clue about, then why not let the law run its course? The response, I imagine, most would give is that the charges are a political conspiracy to oust him as the next president. Do they seriously believe the entire legal system will conspire to deliver the exact verdict his enemies want? Sounds like paranoia to me, which is the flip side of the ‘You are either with us or against us’ mentality. Of course, Zuma’s supporters are not alone in this didactic thinking. Remember how Hansie Cronje was one day a hero and the next the pariah against all Afrikaners for fixing cricket matches. The inability of African leaders to condemn Robert Mugabe’s recent actions because of his past accomplishments as a liberation leader is another case in point, not to mention the way many whites use someone like Mugabe to make blanket assumptions about the draconian tendencies of all black politicians.

The ability to treat a situation with any subtlety seems to have died somewhere in our violent past. Is it not possible that someone can support a person politically or value his or her past actions, but, equally, be concerned about his or her current behaviour? It is time to shake off the past and grow up as a democracy. It might have been functional during apartheid times to see all those on your side as heroes and beyond reproach or all your enemies as evil, but the real world is just not like that. Surely, one can respect what Zuma has done as a politician but, at the same time, deplore the way he has let his supporters run wild in recent weeks, especially considering he is a former chairperson of the Moral Regeneration Campaign. Likewise, if he is found guilty, it will not erase his earlier contribution to helping the new South Africa on its way but, equally, his past achievements should not deter the law from taking its course.

This article was published on Polity prior to the conclusion of the case. Jacob Zuma was found not guilty.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 14 April 2006 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.