Archive for the 'Justice Not Platitudes' Category

A legacy of injustice in Zimbabwe

April 8, 2008

From “Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace – A report on the disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands”

Before the first election in Zimbabwe there was also a general amnesty granted under the peace agreement drawn up by Lord Soames, the British High Commissioner at this time. This amnesty meant that all those who had committed human rights violations could not face prosecution, whether they were Rhodesians or ex-freedom fighters. This meant people who had done terrible things during the 1970s were not punished.

Some of these Rhodesians who had tortured remained on in the Zimbabwean CIO and other units. A few used their position to act as South African agents to destabilise Zimbabwe. Others were recruited from ZANLA into 5 Brigade.

In 1988, after the Unity Accord had brought an end to violence, a second amnesty was announced in Zimbabwe. This time those who were being saved from prosecution for crimes committed against civilians were 5 Brigade, CIO, other army units and dissidents.

The very men who tortured people in the 1970s used the same methods to torture people again in the 1980s. Both times they got away with it and were never punished. Some of these men still hold senior positions in the Zimbabwean Government and armed forces.


Breakthrough in struggle against arms-trade impunity as top dealer arrested in Thailand

March 7, 2008

From the Guardian, March 7 2008

 If Viktor Bout did not exist, a thriller writer would have invented him. A former Russian lieutenant, he became one of the world’s biggest arms dealers, flying his ancient Soviet planes into battlefields from Liberia to Afghanistan. His clients have included the Taliban and the US government, African warlords and the UN.

He has as many aliases as an AK-47 has rounds, and has acquired the nicknames Merchant of Death and Lord of War. Pursued for years by the intelligence services of the world, and tracked for months by Thai detectives, yesterday the elusive 41-year-old was finally arrested in a five star hotel in Bangkok.

This time Bout is accused of attempting to buy arms and explosives for leftwing Farc rebels in Colombia but the charge sheet could have listed half a dozen countries where governments might like to interview him. Accused of flouting UN arms embargos and wanted by Interpol, he was eventually arrested on a warrant issued by a Thai court acting on information from the US Drug Enforcement Administration. It is understood that DEA agents posed as arms buyers acting on behalf of Farc.

“We will take legal action against him here, before deporting him to face trial in another country, [most] likely the US,” said Major General Pongpat Chayaphan, the commander of Thailand’s crime suppression division. “We have followed him for several months. He just came back to Thailand today.”

Bout’s story is a classic end-of-the-cold-war morality tale. As a smart and opportunistic 25-year-old, he took advantage of three converging factors after the collapse of the USSR: the sudden availability of cheap, clapped out Soviet airforce planes, a massive stockpile of weapons and spare parts guarded only by underpaid and disgruntled servicemen, and the burgeoning demand for arms from countless conflict areas around the world. Soon he was flying arms to any government or militia that wanted them and filling his Antonov cargo planes with less lethal wares, from gladioli to diamonds, for equally lucrative return trips.

Initially, he provided cheap freight routes to whomever would pay, whether the Angolan government or Unita rebels, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan or their Taliban opponents. After 2001, he worked for the US government and its civilian suppliers, shipping goods into Iraq on their behalf.

“In an age when the US president has divided the world into those who are with the United States and those who are against it, Bout is both,” wrote Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, authors of Merchant of Death, the investigation into Bout which they published last year.

He has also flown peacekeepers for the UN to Somalia and aid to Sri Lanka, after the 2004 tsunami, and been accused of supplying the Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor.

Yuri Orlov, the character played by Nicholas Cage in Lord of War, the 2005 film about the international arms trade, is said to be modelled on Bout. Amnesty International has commended the film for highlighting the baleful effects of the arms trade. Doubtless Bout will one day be the subject of a film himself, played perhaps by Russell Crowe in a bad moustache, dark glasses and baseball cap; Bout rarely allows himself to be photographed.

As far as he was concerned, he was purely a businessman, providing an international freight service stripped of any ideology. As far as some aid agencies were concerned, on occasion Bout was the swiftest supplier of relief to disaster zones. As far as the then Foreign Office minister Peter Hain was concerned, when he denounced him in the House of Commons in 2000, he was a “merchant of death”, cynically fuelling the civil wars in Africa.

Yesterday Hain welcomed news that Bout had been detained in Bangkok. “I am pleased he has been arrested,” he said. “At the time I exposed him, he was running arms to Angola, Sierra Leone and Congo and taking out blood diamonds. It was a lethal trade and some of those weapons were used against British troops in Sierra Leone. I tried with MI6 to dismantle his activities and we were partially successful but he still has a lot of friends in Moscow.”

Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International’s UK arms programme director, also hailed the arrest. “While we welcome the fact that Victor Bout has finally been arrested, why has it taken so long for this to happen?” he asked. “This is exactly why an international arms trade treaty is needed. Such a treaty would close loopholes that gun-runners like Viktor Bout so easily exploit for their own gain. Through their irresponsible arms transfers gun-runners like Bout have fuelled conflicts where dreadful human rights abuses have occurred.”

Like any good fictional character, Bout has managed to muddy the waters of his past. He was supposedly born in Tajikistan but he has also claimed that he is from near the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan. Others suggest he is Ukrainian. His many passports carry variations of his name, with his western nom de guerre being Victor Butt. He is married, with at least one daughter.

Having studied at Moscow’s military institute of foreign languages, he is multilingual, speaking everything from Uzbek to French, Portuguese to African dialects, but he denies that he was ever in the KGB.

“Bout would fly for anyone who paid,” an associate told the Centre for Public Integrity in the US, which has long tracked his activities. “He is good because he takes the chances.”

Although the US had made use of his services, the CIA targeted him and the US treasury froze his assets. Bout, with his companies registered in Liberia, fluttering countless flags of convenience, and with a lavish home in Moscow and powerful contacts around the world, continued undeterred. Until yesterday.

As to how he has survived untouched for so long, Farah and Braun quoted a South African associate of Bout: “You never shoot the postman.”

Guardian, December 28th 2007

December 28, 2007


December 28 is the seventh anniversary of the Titanic Express bus massacre, in which my sister Charlotte was killed, along with her fiance and 19 others, close to the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. Despite the restoration of democracy in 2005, the militia group Palipehutu-FNL, continues to recruit child soldiers, extort money from civilians, and kill those within its own ranks who favour peace. Amid an ongoing climate of near-total impunity, abuses by the Burundian security forces have also continued. Human rights groups argue that ending this impunity is essential if peace is to be achieved.

‘B’ is for ‘Bad journalism’… Homily from Sacramento on Burundi’s vicious war is a catalogue of error and omission

December 4, 2007

Open letter to the Public Editor of the Sacramento Bee

Dear Mr. Acuna,

I am writing to raise concerns about a recent article in the Sacramento Bee, “Lessons in how to escape perpetual retribution”, by Robert Krueger. The article was brought to my attention by a Burundian friend who has lost both friends and family in the vicious conflict to which the article refers. The piece was published on November 26th, and is reproduced on the internet here:

I am the brother of Charlotte Wilson, a British aid worker who was murdered (along with her Burundian fiancé and 19 others) in a massacre by Burundian Hutu-extremists in December 2000. I am also the author of the book “Titanic Express”, which details my family’s efforts to get to the truth about my sister’s death, and understand the wider context in which she was killed. For the past seven years, I have been in regular contact with survivors of this attack, with relatives of the other victims, and with the international human rights groups working to help end the cycle of violence.   

I am particularly concerned when I read articles which appear to distort the truth about the situation in Burundi – especially when it comes to the issue of justice, and the views of victims.

The essence of the author’s argument is that none of those Burundians responsible for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity should be prosecuted, because any such prosecution would undermine the prospects for reconciliation. 

In support of this view, he cites the example of South Africa, where he says that “reconciliation was achieved”, even though “no person was sent to trial”.

But this claim is at best an oversimplification. While South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” did grant amnesty to many of those deemed to have given a full and honest account of their misdeeds, there were also cases where prosecutions were successfully brought, and amnesty denied – for example, the case of Eugene de Kock:

More recently, there have been moves, supported by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former chair of the TRC, to bring prosecutions against a number of those implicated in Apartheid era abuses and not granted amnesty by the TRC, eg:

On the question of “reconciliation”, the picture is again far more complex than the author would have us believe. What he fails to mention is that in many cases – including that of the murdered anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko – victims’ families opposed amnesty, with many feeling that communal reconciliation was undermined, not advanced, by the lack of justice.

A detailed survey of several hundred victims by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation found that some victims felt that “false reconciliation” had been imposed upon them, and that “there remains a strong feeling amongst victims/survivors that justice should be done and that this is necessary if we are to create a new society”

From the CSVR’s work it is clear that many South Africans – especially those most closely involved with the TRC, do not believe that reconciliation has yet been achieved.

In an interview with a Burundian journalist, David Gakunzi, the CSVR’s Hugo van der Merwe commented that “In terms of exporting some of the these lessons to other societies, it is very difficult because people have made superficial judgments, heaping praise on the TRC and jumping to the conclusion that other countries need a similar process.”

Another concern over Mr. Krueger’s article is the issue of “selection bias”. While South Africa’s TRC – with all its flaws – is still widely viewed as the most successful of such experiments, what the author fails to mention is that (as detailed here by Human Rights Watch: similar exercises elsewhere in the world have been far less successful. In Sierra Leone, whose brutal conflict was far closer to the Burundian situation than the South African case, the 1999 amnesty granted to the RUF rebels is widely believed to have helped trigger an upsurge in violence.

One of Mr. Krueger’s most regrettable ommissions is the fact that Burundi has seen amnesties and de facto amnesties on a number of previous occasions. According to the Burundians I have spoken to, the horrific violence that broke out in the early 1990s was fuelled, in part, by anger over the fact that the perpetrators of a cycle of massacres during the late 1980s had been granted a blanket amnesty. Since 2003, members of all the major armed groups in Burundi have enjoyed immunity from prosecution – ostensibly in the name of “peace”:

Another regrettable ommission is the fact that, amid the resulting “culture of impunity”, Burundi’s abuses are still going on today. According to a report issued by Amnesty International in October, “Rape was endemic during the years of armed conflict but continues to this day despite the ending of hostilities”. Amnesty says that “the Burundian authorities have systematically failed to take concrete steps to prevent, investigate and punish these crimes. As a result, perpetrators regularly escape prosecution and punishment by the state and victims are left without protection”:

In this context, Mr. Krueger’s claim that “Burundi has already seen too much retributive justice without the UN adding more” seems very misleading. If, by “retributive justice”, he is referring to the cycle of vicious killings and massacres, such as the one in which my sister Charlotte died, then this is a deeply unfortunate misuse of language. To suppose that these were anything other than gross acts of injustice is an exercise in moral obfuscation, and an offence to the memories of the victims.

If, on the other hand Mr. Krueger is choosing to characterise as “retributive justice” the prosecution, under fair and impartial international standards, of those suspected of torture, murder and rape, then it simply isn’t true that Burundi has seen “too much” of it. As noted above, and as can be seen in the excellent reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the defining feature of Burundi’s conflict has been the wholesale denial of justice to all but a handful of victims. Both Amnesty and HRW argue compellingly that Burundi urgently needs more justice, not less of it, if peace is to be sustainable.

The phrase “retributive justice” is itself something of a loaded one, which clumsily conflates two wholly separate moral phenomena. There is a world of difference between the “retribution” that was dealt out to my sister on December 28th 2000, and the fair and impartial judicial remedy that victims are guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most victims I know want justice not out of some bloodthirsty lust for revenge, but rather as the surest way of deterring future atrocities and preventing others from suffering as they have. To characterise this as a desire for “retributive justice” seems grossly abusive and unfair.

The most regrettable ommission of all from Mr. Krueger’s article is the voices of the victims themselves. The author creates the misleading impression that the pressure for justice is being exerted on Burundi’s government primarily by the international community, through the United Nations. In reality, it is Burundi’s victims themselves who have been calling most vocally for justice – and, in fact, demanding that the UN takes a much more active role.

For example, in 2005, on the first anniversary of the August 2004 massacre of 156 Congolese Tutsis at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi, thousands gathered to remember the dead, and “demand that justice be done”. Binagana Anon, a representative of the families who lost loved ones in the attack, condemned the UN for its “silence” over the massacre.

Another such voice is that of Adrienne, the sister of my sister’s Burundian fiancé Richard Ndereyimana, who still lives in Burundi, and who made the following appeal to my family in an interview in 2005:

“The parents of all those who lost loved ones… are ready to go to court, but here we are nothing – this place is corrupt and there are killers everywhere. Tell those who are abroad, in Europe, to carry our voice – ask Charlotte’s family to tell the world of our distress. We want justice.”

It seems tragic that, just when the United Nations appears finally to be listening to the voices of Burundi’s victims, Mr. Krueger is using his to argue, in effect, that their concerns should be ignored. He is of course entitled to his views, but what cannot be right is the use of systematic distortion and ommission in order to make the argument fit.

A number of survivors from Burundi and the wider region have recently been resettled in the United States. Many have a harrowing story to tell about the realities of life amid a culture of impunity, and many have strong views about what needs to be done in order to ensure long-term peace and true reconciliation. If the Sacramento Bee is interested in hearing some of these voices, I would be very happy to put you in touch.


Richard Wilson