Concerns for Civil War in Burundi

Recent events in Burundi are being watched by international experts, who fear that the country may tip into civil war, even genocide.

Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he was running for a third term as President, contrary to the constitution of Burundi.

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Burundi

A wave of violence spread through the country, as angry protestors took to the streets. At least 400 people have been killed and many more have fled the country, fearing for their lives.

The government has been accused of committing arbitrary arrests and killings. Opponents of the government have been targeted for speaking out against the leadership, often by the intelligence services.

A court in Burundi will soon hear the fate of the former Defence Minister and 27 others accused of being behind an aborted coup attempt.

Observers fear that the tensions may split down ethnic lines. This has been denounced by the President, who said “Burundi has neither political nor ethnic problems. It has rather insecurity problems”.

The ethnic majority Hutus – who make up 85% of the population – are accused of disproportionately targeting Tutsis in a crackdown. The genocide in Rwanda was split according to a similar ethnic divide.

Media outlets are being watched, with claims that words that incite hatred or violence are on the rise against ethnic groups, although this has been denied by the government.

Civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsi took place in the small, land-locked African country between 1993 and 2006.  Some observers believe that measures – such as more equal representation – taken since the war make another conflict divided along ethnic lines unlikely.

The government of Burundi has so far shrugged off offers of outside help. A 5000-strong peace-keeping mission by the African Union was labeled “an invasion” and sanctions have been rejected.

Regional talks in Tanzania involved opposition figures and were rejected by the government. The ongoing conflict in Burundi has forced more than 230,000 people to flee to neighbouring countries.

The United States Special Envoy for the Great Lakes of Africa, Thomas Perriello, will visit visit Burundi to support new efforts to negotiate in mid-January 2016. “The U.S. Government strongly supports the regionally-mediated Burundian dialogue relaunched on Dec. 28 2015 and is urging all stakeholders to remain committed to the process without preconditions,” a statement said.

Concerns have been raised that the United Nations is ill-prepared for such a conflict. A memo sent by United Nations peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said “A truly worst-case scenario will result in a scale of violence beyond the United Nations’ capacity to protect.”

Decisions to close the United Nations Office in Burundi (BNUB) in 2014 have drawn criticism from observers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Face for the United Nations Secretary-General

Questions have been raised about who will succeed United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon when he steps down at the end of 2017.

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Commentators have suggested United States President Barack Obama is campaigning for the world’s top job. Recent speeches by Obama have sounded more like a list of achievements in foreign policy, fueling speculation he is vying for global support.

It is no secret that the United States administration championed a fresh approach to multilateral institutions after the disastrous mistakes of the Bush administration.

Climate change talks, the end of intransigence on Iran and campaigning on an end to world poverty are some of the hallmark achievements of the President’s two terms in office.

Ongoing Civil War in Syria and the escalation of the conflict with the involvement of Russia may cause some bumps in his campaign. The United States has stood at an arm’s length from events in North Africa and the Middle East, leading to accusations of hypocrisy.

Human rights officials have criticized the Obama administration on grounds of selectivity, given the reluctance of the United States to challenge Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad over use of chemical weapons.

There have been reports of open opposition to Obama’s nomination. The Jerusalem Post stated that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek the support of moderate Arab governments to sabotage the plan, unhappy over the thawing of relations with Iran.

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American President

 

Other commentators have suggested more systemic change is overdue. A list of potential women has been put forward, challenging the “old-school” of a male dominated world government.

The President of both the General Assembly and the Security Council are committed to a more transparent and open process, with pledges to involve all 193 members of the United Nations.

Young Entrepreneur targets lions

I liked this story about a young, innovative Masai man who invented tools to protect livestock from marauding lions.

Richard Turere was 11 when he decided to do something about lions attacking his families’ cattle on their homestead. The boy – who is from Kitengela south of Nairobi, Kenya – said “I grew up hating lions very much. They used to come at night and feed on our cattle when we were sleeping”.

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Richard Turere

The lions – he found – were put off visiting the farm when someone walked around the perimeter flashing a torch. Using a series of flashing LED lights attached to poles, the lights flickered on and off during the night, distracting the lions who stayed away from the farm.

The boy designed the lights without any formal qualifications in engineering or design.

Kenya is home to about 2000 lions which frequently clash with the locals, who often kill the lion and their pride to protect their own animals.

The invention of “Lion Lights” – which will protect the heritage of the national parks of Kenya – has been used for around 75 farms around Kenya.

Turere is now studying at one of Kenya’s top schools and hopes to land a job as a pilot and a “airoplane engineer”.

 

 

 

Chernobyl a Nobel Peace “classic”

“Voices from Chernobyl – an Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” – a book by Svetlana Alexievich – is a powerful reminder of one of the biggest peacetime catastrophes in the twentieth century.

Penguin will soon release a new, classic translation of the novel – which won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 2015 – to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster on 26 April 1986. The book will be entitled Chernobyl Prayer.

On that date thirty years ago, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Soviet Union caused a nuclear reactor fire that burned for twelve days during a test by plant operators. The fire released deadly forms of iodium and cesium into the air as well as other radioactive materials which formed part of a travelling radioactive cloud.

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Contaminated Land

 

The fallout had an impact that was felt around Europe and the globe. Sheep in Great Britain ingested contaminated grass and were found not fit for human consumption. Countries such as Italy and Malaysia refused shipments of butter, powdered milk and cattle containing contaminants from other nations.

Chernobyl remains a continuing and significant threat to the world’s population and the environment. The “sarcophagus” put in place around the destroyed reactor is severely damaged and there is a significant danger of its collapsing, thereby causing a whole new release of radioactivity.

Nearby countries such as the Ukraine – for which the Economist has noted corruption is “public enemy number one” – have little appetite for tackling the health threat that Chernobyl continues to pose or for safeguarding their own nuclear industries.

The writer – Svetlana Alexievich – was born in Soviet Ukraine and grew up in Soviet Belarus but writes in Russian. Her father is Belarussian and her mother a Ukrainian (see her website for a brief biography) . She went on to report as a journalist on the Soviet war in Afghanistan and many other events based on the same techniques of thousands of interviews with witnesses.

Alexievich was made to leave Belarus in 2000 because of her views and was only allowed to return in 2011. Publication in Belarus has been difficult owing to her ongoing criticism of the authoritarian president, Aleksander Lukashenko.

The writer has collected a series of voices of about 500-700 different actors in the Chernobyl disaster over three to four years and distilled them into a novel – the residents, liquidators (the workers sent to clean up the nuclear zone who subsequently became sick), their families, government workers, journalists and others. When visiting Chernobyl to record the histories, Alexievich became physically sick from the poisoned atmosphere.

The impression received of the book is of a montage of people caught up in a social, economic and cultural web of disaster, all connected. There is real nostalgia for sanctity of village life at the same time as exploring how easily it was exploited. “I feel worst of all for the people in the villages – they were innocent, like children, and they suffered. Farmers didn’t invent Chernobyl, they had their own relations with nature, trusting relations not predatory ones, just like they had a hundred years ago, and a thousand years ago. And they couldn’t understand what had happened…”.

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Abandoned Buildings

 

The situation is described as like a war in peacetime – and Alexievich has worked in war zones. Some of the most poignant moments in the book are when children are interviewed, with the children of “refugee” families fleeing the crisis mocked and stigmatized by other kids in school classrooms.

Interviewees described watching their loved ones die painful deaths in front of them and raising children deformed in horrible ways. Around 100,000 liquidators sent in to contain the disaster and shoot pets and animals spreading radioactive material died in the following ten years after the catastrophe.

Chernobyl was a product of the bravado of the Soviet system at the same time as a disaster waiting to happen. The Chernobyl unit lacked the common protective containment found in most American and other reactors. Furthermore, there was widespread ignorance about the environmental impact of the nuclear reactors and the waste material.

The reaction of the Soviet authorities to the unfolding disaster exacerbated the situation. After the Chernobyl accident, the Soviet government immediately concealed the fact of the accident and its consequences for the population and the environment. Writers such as Alla Yaroshinskaia believe this was in part because they eventually realized they couldn’t move everyone affected by the disaster.

An instructor at Gomel State University remembered, “in the first days after the accident, all the books at the library about radiation, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even about X-rays, disappeared. Some people said it was an order from above, so that people wouldn’t panic.”

President Mikhail Gorbachev did not make a public statement regarding the disaster until eighteen days after it had occurred. Ellen Bober Moynagh and other academics argue that the cover-up of the authorities in Chernobyl contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Compensation for all the victims is still not a reality. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said in 2000 that “Chernobyl is a word that we would all like to erase from our memory. But more than 7 million of our fellow human beings do not have the luxury of forgetting. They are still suffering, everyday, as a result of what happened”.

Alexievich famously compared the process of compiling the book as writing the future, still unfolding. Her work has been described as like  “like conscience,  making you to think about hard issues which you would rather forget or ignore.”

Her book is a history of feelings and emotion, including mistrust, but also expressions of great heroism, dreams and hope. War is often the barometer by which we judge human tragedy but the human impact of a peace time event is not understood and is still unfolding. In this, she says that the disaster was much worse than the gulags and the Holocaust.

Other famous Russian-speaking authors who have won the Nobel Peace Prize include Pasternak and Bunin. The writer has said the prize money will “buy her freedom” to write further books.

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Svetlana Alexievich

Peter Greste wins 2015 human rights medal

Peter Greste, a journalist imprisoned for 400 days in a crowded Egyptian prison, has been awarded the nation’s top human rights prize in a ceremony on the 17th of December.

Since being released, Greste – who spent his time in jail studying International Relations with Griffith University – has been campaigning for greater press freedoms. The journalist has called for a Charter of Media Freedoms, which he says will help journalists to do their job in times of conflict.

Greste and his colleagues were working for Al Jazerra in Egypt when they were accused of spying for the Muslim Brotherhood and put in prison.

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Peter Greste in an Egyptian prison

Journalists are often regarded with suspicion given their need to communicate with both sides in a conflict. Michael Ware, a New York Times Correspondent in Afghanistan said that “every Westerner is a spy until proven otherwise”.

 

Greste will continue to work as a journalist but says that he wants a full pardon from his alleged crimes from Egypt.