26 November 2005

Slaughter in Paradise

By Rupert Read

The Pacific Island of New Guinea must have seemed a long way from home last Monday night as West Papuan tribal leader, Benny Wenda, made his way through the fog to UEA, to speak about his people's struggle for independence from Indonesia. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience of 60 or so people, that night. It was a moving experience.

Just two years ago Benny was a political prisoner in the hands of the brutal Indonesian military, held in solitary confinement for weeks in a prison toilet with his hands and feet shackled. (After the talk, in the bar, Benny showed me the deep scars on his legs and wrists, that he bears as a result.) Benny's 'crime' was that he is a leader of the peaceful campaign for West Papua's freedom. For that, Indonesia sentenced him to 25 years in jail.

Now, after escaping from prison and spending months trekking through the jungle to eventual safety in neighbouring Papua New Guinea, Benny is living in political exile in Oxford. "I am a long way from home" Benny said to me, "but my heart is still with my people. I am carrying the bones of all Papuans killed by Indonesia on my shoulders."

One of the things that really struck me about Benny's story, as having relevance to us all, is how, when he arrived at Heathrow, Benny was ... an asylum seeker. After coming face to face with an asylum seeker, and one who almost ended up being sent straight back to Indonesia, I cannot abide any more the frequent claims in the press here that we must stop the 'flood' of asylum seekers, of refugees, into this country. Those people who would 'send asylum seekers back' would have sent my new friend Benny to his death.

Having managed to find refuge in Oxford, Benny has gathered a team of activists around him and set up the Free West Papua Campaign. For the first time in his life he can speak openly about the terrible suffering the Papuan people have endured under Indonesian rule and about their yearning for independence.

Indonesia occupied West Papua 42 years ago when the Dutch pulled out. Under a 1962 Netherlands / Indonesia treaty, the Papuans were promised an act of self-determination involving "all adult" Papuans, to choose between independence or being part of Indonesia. Indeed, December 1st 1961 was supposed to have been Independence day for West Papua. Next Thursday is its 43rd anniversary. But the West Papuans are still not independent...

For what actually eventually happened, in 1969, cruelly called the "Act of Free Choice", was neither free nor a choice. Indonesia hand-picked 1,025 Papuans out of a population of 800,000 and forced them at gun-point to vote to become part of Indonesia.

Since the 1960s the Indonesian military has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Papuans, sometimes using British-made LandRovers and Hawk jets in the process. Most of Benny's family were killed when his village was bombed in 1977. "I saw the river flowing red with the blood of my people" said Benny, to the audience at UEA. "My mother held on to me as she ran for her life into the jungle. For the next four years we lived in the jungle to avoid being captured by Indonesian soldiers. I saw hundreds of my people die because we had no proper food and shelter. We didn't even have time to bury their bodies."

After seeing all this, Benny had no option but to become a peaceful campaigner for independence.

Benny explained to me later, in more detail, what exactly the story behind the Indonesian seizure of West Papua was: "Indonesia wants our gold, copper, oil and timber... but not us people", he said. "We are simply not respected as human beings. Even though Indonesia claims it is a democracy, hundreds of Papuans are imprisoned as political prisoners simply because they want freedom. Right now, thousands of my people are starving as refugees in the jungle ... simply because they are Papuans."

At the Monday night meeting organised by the UEA Greens' student group, Benny passed on some more bad news he has just heard from back home. Last Saturday (19th November) the Indonesian police baton-charged a peaceful pro-independence demonstration in the West Papuan capital Jayapura, leaving 21 students critically injured in hospital.

Indonesia is a key British ally in the so-called 'War on Terror'. But in places like West Papua, the 'War on Terror' is really a war of terror...

If you want to help stop the genocide in West Papua, then go to www.freewestpapua.org

Many thanks to Richard Samuelson, and of course to Benny Wenda, for vital help in researching this article.

19 November 2005

Three days in November

By Marguerite Finn

"Only connect - - Live in fragments no longer".

British novelist, E M Forster tells us to "only connect" and it is true that seemingly disparate events can sometimes be interconnected in surprising ways.

On 7th November, this paper ran a story about the discovery of early Christian mosaics in what may be the Holy Land's oldest church. The mosaics are part of the floor of a church in Megiddo, dating from the third century, before the Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity. Israeli officials are delighted, no doubt anticipating a booming trade in Christian tourists flocking from all over the world to witness the unique evidence of the developing Christian Church portrayed in these ancient stones.

On 8th November, I received an appeal for help from the Parish Priest of Aboud, a small Palestinian village near the recently uncovered mosaics. He was asking the international community to help stop the destruction of the community of Aboud. The Israeli government is building a separation wall through the village, despite the specific ruling of the International Court of Justice in 2004 that the wall was illegal.

10th November was the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. After decades of failed efforts to resolve the question of Palestine, this is no cause for celebration. Rather it is a call to civil society to redouble our efforts.

Aboud is a pretty village 30 kilometers north-west of Ramallah. Stone houses blend into rocky hills covered in age-old olive trees. The population of 2,500 is equally divided into Christians and Muslims, who have co-existed peacefully for centuries. The village has been on this site for three thousand years and is believed to have received the faith from Christ himself. Ruins of the ancient Messiah Church mark the location where Jesus is said to have preached. Close to the village is the Roman road the Holy Family would have used when travelling between the Galilee and Jerusalem.

There are remains of nine Byzantine churches in and around Aboud. Every 17 December the villagers venerate St. Barbara, an early Christian martyr and patron saint of the village. On a hillside facing the village are the remains of St. Barbara's Monastry, including a small sixth century church which was in use until 31st May 2002, when, without warning, it was blown up by the Israeli army.

Aboud is hemmed in by the Israeli settlements of Beit Arye and Ofarim - built on village land in defiance of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, plus a string of UN Resolutions, including Nos. 242, 338 and 465. On 2nd October 2005, an Israeli military officer issued further land confiscation orders, with maps showing the proposed route of the separation wall.

This wall would be a death sentence for Aboud - a village steeped in the history of Christianity, a village where in all probability, Christ himself walked.

It would separate villagers from over 35 percent of their agricultural land - a main source of income.

It would swallow up many ancient, religious sites that characterise the village - in particular, it would prevent access to the little shrine of St. Barbara, painstakingly rebuilt following its demolition by the army.

It would separate Aboud from villages to the north and west, with detrimental affect on the social, economic and educational aspects of village life.

It would place under Israeli control Aboud's underground water aquifers (currently supplying 20 percent of the West Bank's water).

On 7 October, Israeli settlers raided a farm in Aboud, uprooting 500 grape vines, part of a unique project in environmental farming supported by Birzeit University. In the last five years, 4000 olive trees have been similarly uprooted.

It is ironic that Israeli officials should celebrate the discovery of Christian mosaics at Megiddo while at the same time deliberately crushing the life out of a real life Christian community a few miles up the road. Why is the world more interested in the 'dead' stones of Megiddo than the 'living' stones of a Christian Palestinian community whose future is threatened?

This question concerns Norwich in several ways. Links were forged between Norwich, Israel and Palestine at the Conflict Resolution Conference at UEA this October and also between Muslim, Jewish and Christian groups here in Norwich. United Nations Association (Norwich) has received a request from the Israeli Embassy in London for their representative to come and speak to us about the relationship between Israel and the UN - a God-given opportunity to speak up for the endangered Palestinian Christians of Aboud. We must not fail to do so.

More information at: www.leics-holyland.gothere.uk.com or www.sacredheart-stives.org.

18 November 2005

November memories

By Rupert Read

So, the Remembrance services are over, and it's time to put away the poppies, for another year. I have taken off my red poppy (which I wear for the benefit of some of war's worst victims: the soldiers themselves), and my white poppy (which I wear so as to say: never again. No more war.).

The other historic event that we commemorate each November is the foiling of the attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Last week, I took the part of Guy Fawkes in an enjoyable and informative modern 're-trial' of Fawkes held at Norwich Magistrate's Court, under the auspices of 'Norwich Churches Together'.

Now, unlike Guy Fawkes, I am a committed believer in non-violent methods. I am a Quaker, and a member of the Norwich 'Peace Police'. (The 'Peace Police' are a group of friends who join together in non-violent 'direct-action' campaigning for peace. Our motto is 'Upholding and enforcing international law - through non-violent means'.).

I disagree very strongly indeed with the methods that Guy Fawkes chose; but I also disagree very strongly with what was done to him. I absolutely love fireworks and bonfires (as long as they aren't let off too anti-socially, late at night!); but I have always felt vaguely uncomfortable that on Guy Fawkes Night we celebrate the torture and burning and violent execution of this man. The event in the Magistrates' Court was a chance for me to explain that: to explain why it is always wrong to torture even those who might threaten us or our way of life. Why torture is incompatible with civilisation. This message is very important today. For our government is complicit (because of its intelligence service's involvement) with the torture of so many, including Britons, at places like Guantanamo Bay; and our government is, furthermore, complicit (because of the CIA being given free passage to transport victims through Heathrow Airport) in 'exporting' people for even more appalling tortures in various countries, as part of the CIA's 'extraordinary rendition' programme. (At least in the seventeenth century the government was honest about its (horrific) use of torture. Today, our government pretends to be innocent of torture which in effect it condones, in foreign countries.)

Much of the threat of violence that faced the British government in 1605 was due to its own violence: its insufficient tolerance of religious minorities, its lack of democratic accountability, its violent state and military apparatus. Many things have changed since then - but aren't there also some worrying similarities? What threat the British government - and, rather more so, we the British people (let us not forget the awful events of July, in London) - what threat we do face today from non-state terrorism exists largely as a result of the government's own actions.

What am I referring to? Well, for instance, the extraordinary decision unlawfully to attack Iraq, in 2003. (The attack on Iraq is agreed by most international lawyers to have been unlawful, because it was a 'pre-emptive strike', a war of aggression, which lacked good cause and lacked UN backing.) That attack has brought in its train events such as last November's lethal 'coalition' assault on Fallujah, in which chemicals including phosphor were used as weapons. (And this attack on Fallujah, which cost hundreds of civilians their lives, has unfortunately become another event which we should remember, each November.)

Guy Fawkes was acting violently against a state (his own) that was if anything even more violent, even more destructive. The same is true of fundamentalist terrorists today. Until our government stops its criminal activities, which have resulted in many tens of thousands of innocents dying in Iraq, and (this summer) in tens of innocents dying in London, it has itself to blame for the violent revenges that, tragically and appallingly, are wreaked upon it - or, rather, upon us.

For stating these truths, I could potentially be vulnerable to prosecution under the 'Glorification of Terrorism' act, very recently passed in the House of Commons. Not because I am glorifying terrorism: I would of course never dream of doing that. But because what I am saying might be twisted into sounding as if it is an apology for terrorism, a way of excusing terrorism. Whereas what I actually think is: terrorist methods are never right. Whether they are used by private individuals, or by governments.

As a passionate believer in the rule of law and in non-violence, I have the right to criticise those who would wreak revenge on Britain and its government, through violence. But what right does the (violent, criminal) British government itself have, to make similar criticisms?

After the fireworks and poppies have all been put away, this question remains.

12 November 2005

Remembering not to forget

By Andrew Boswell

This weekend the horrors of war are "remembered" in countrywide events honouring the deaths of countless young men in two world wars. I read with interest recently that members of the Movement for the Abolition of War had engaged with the Royal British Legion in a positive and fruitful correspondence. Traditionally, on opposing sides of an abstract battle for hearts and minds, these peace activists and these old soldiers had found some common ground and mutual respect - in the words of Ian Townsend, RBL General Secretary "war is a catastrophic event and there are no more ardent peacemakers than those who have experienced it".

Nowhere do we see this inevitable catastrophic nature of war being played out more clearly than in the on-going war in Iraq. This, we were told, was a War which would be fought and won decisively with precision missiles: technology would give us "a clean war" over in a few weeks. The "brilliant military thinking" of one Donald Rumsfeld would give us a 21st century war, designed and programmed for efficiency, quick execution and minimal pain. The now infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech from President Bush was part of the game plan - the finale to a luminously performed short, sharp war.

Of course, the reality is that an increasing insurgency plays out against the bizarre political machinations of elections and constitution writing which everybody knows is not quite the 'democracy' it is meant to be. It is clear to any observer that there has been no end to the War; the real peace building and nation building has yet to even start.

The war seems endless - most British people have switched off - somewhere over "there" horrid things are happening, but we only need worry about our next shopping trip to the latest mall, and what we are going to do for Christmas. In all honesty, we are in a state of forgetfulness, not remembrance.

Yet, this war is on-going and about to take the 100th British soldier's life, having already taken 2000 US military lives - before the huge toll in physical and psychological injury.

But, remember, modern wars kill many more civilians than combatants, and Iraq in no exception. Throughout Iraq, the civilian population suffers tragedy and disaster each and every day.

The greatest call of remembrance, today, is to embrace the suffering of those innocents caught up in Iraq. How many families, men, women and children, are there in that country trying to continue some semblance of normal life against the daily backdrop of violence, holding the grief of those they have lost?

All wars hit desperate points at which humanity's utter uselessness is revealed vividly. In Vietnam, it was when US commander in charge of the destruction of Ben Tre (actually a city of 300,000) said "We had to destroy the village in order to save the village."

Move on 40 years to another city, another country - Fallujah - also 300,000 - scene of the saddest, gruesome and least accurately reported, "salvation" of the Iraq war.

In April 2003, 13 civilians on an unarmed demonstration were killed by US gunfire; two more, two days later. So started the immense hatred and resistance to the occupation within the Sunni triangle.

The US assault of the city in April 2004 led to the deaths of 731 civilians according to the local hospital director. Then in November 2004, a year ago this week, following a siege in which the city's water, power and food supplies were cut off, and eight weeks of aerial bombardment, there was another massive US assault. The city's main hospital was selected as the first target - 36,000 of the city's 50,000 homes were destroyed, along with 60 schools and 65 mosques and shrines - a third of the population has not returned. 700 bodies were recovered from the rubble in 9 out of the city's 27 neighbourhoods: 550 were women and children.

Alleging that these assaults have broken international law: ie are war crimes, the Italian State broadcaster, RAI, screened this week a documentary "Fallujah: the Hidden Massacre". This charges that US warplanes illegally dropped white phosphorous incendiary bombs - an "outlawed" chemical weapon, similar to napalm - on civilian populations. A former American soldier who fought at Fallujah says "Phosphorus burns bodies, in fact, it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone. I saw the burned bodies of women and children." On Wednesday, the group Physicians for Social Responsibility called for an inquiry.

Recent assaults in other resistance towns - Tal-Afar, Haditha, Husaybah - have resulted in civilian devastation.

As we remember the catastrophic destruction of the past, we must not forget recent and on-going catastrophes.

5 November 2005

Taking our liberties back

By Jacqui McCarney

Today, there will be colourful street theatre on the steps of Norwich City Hall from Norfolk Humans Right Protection Group to highlight the Government's seeking new legislation and worrying new powers - detention without trial, curfews, restrictions on movement, further limitations on protest, the newly endorsed use of torture, psychological profiling of children, a national identity database, the removal of privacy, and ID cards.

All these powers represent striking reversals to the advance of human rights in our relatively wealthy privileged society. Are we heading towards a new security state and why?

Many feel that democracy is threatened when the political and economic leadership of this country is advancing an agenda at odds with what people actually want - this government feels a need to arm itself with the kind of powers that are employed by, well, undemocratic states.

Increasingly whether it is privatising health and education, housing determined by the market rather than people's needs, engaging in unjustified wars, increasing terror risk at home, too little action on climate change, wilfully ignoring commitments to disarmament treaties … and on many other topics, this government is directly opposed to what people want.

People really want good public services, and public control over those services - yet, hospitals, education, affordable housing, public transport, social security and reasonable retirement are all under attack. Our social services, whether directly or under the guise of private finance initiatives, are being transferred into the hands of the private sector in whose benefit they will operate.

The effects of uncontrolled privatisation can be seen no better than in the United States. It has the most expensive health care system in the world, and is also the rich-world leader in social poverty. Of rich countries, it has by far the greatest disparity between the very poor and very rich. This sustains levels of violence that can otherwise only be found in third world countries, and a prison population way above the average for the rich world.

It is quite incredible and alarming, that the American model has become the model on which our future services are being based. Study after study reveals that violence is directly related to inequality in wealth and income. Do we want our society to follow the American pattern?

Extended drinking hours and liberal gambling laws, largely in the interests of private business, look certain to worsen the problem too.

The government response is Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, curfews, proposed databases in the Children and National Identity Register Bills.

Increased powers to confine and monitor the population in secret, with low burdens of proof for wrongdoing, are a serious encroachment on the hard won right for innocence until proven guilty and basic rights of privacy.

What about terrorism and its prevention? Has the Government put its own priorities higher than reducing the terrorist threat? Given that they were advised by Intelligence agencies, diplomats, other governments and many commentators that invading Iraq would increase terrorism, here and in the Middle East, it would appear so.

In fact, our government backed the US invasion of Iraq in brazen disregard of the likely increase in terrorism. Further, it is increasingly clear that the UK and US governments went to war on false pretences. The charging, last week, of Lewis Libby, chief-of-staff to Dick Cheney, with perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements to a federal grand jury shows the level of deceit used to engineer the US people's consent for the invasion.

In embracing the War on Terror, our government followed the knee-jerk American response to 9/11, and has singularly failed to address the well known and well documented causes of terrorism. Now, the ordinary people suffer the prospect of arbitrary detention and arrest through the judiciously regressive anti-terrorism legislation, and, worse still, they face the possibility of suffering terrorist attack itself.

Once again, we see the solution consistently offered by states to the threat of violence - the resort to force and greater powers of confinement. Yet, the policies which have lead to this environment of insecurity have been pursued without a democratic mandate, and largely in opposition to what people actually want. The government has, in short, been taking liberties.

In today's street theatre called 'Innocent until proven Guilty', Giant scales, representing Scales of Justice will be brought out to weigh up the hard won rights of all individual citizens against the requirements of the 'war on terror'. Here in the streets of Norwich, we are showing the government that we want our liberties protected.

This article was written with help from Liam Carroll, a member of Norfolk Human Rights Protection Group.