Posts Tagged ‘human rights’

Chavez and the Racism of Low Expectations

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, International

If, as a local councillor, I was to spend my time consorting with street gangs who exercised authority without consent and packed the Council with political cronies selected on nepotism not merit, I would not expect to be celebrated by the Left. But Hugo Chavez was. No matter that he actively explored cooperation with the planet’s vilest dictators. He developed a “strategic partnership” with murderer Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. Not as an accident of regional geopolitics – but an active embrace of tyranny. And in return, the government of Belarus has announced 3 days of mourning to mark his death.

It wasn’t just Lukashenko, he joked with President Ahmadinejad about building a “big atomic bomb”. He hailed Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin and was staunch in his support for blood-drenched tyrants staunch Col Gaddafi and Syrian President Bashar.

His celebrated domestic record was patchy. A welcome attempt to alleviate poverty and establish healthcare was shackled by Tammany Hall politics that drove up prices, packed public services with inept political cronies and left the shelves of supermarkets empty for the poor.

The contrast with Brazil, a social democracy whose leadership has served it well, is stark. Brazilians are 3 times less likely to be murdered in the streets, the press is still free and civil society strong.

The finest piece on this social failure is “Slumlord” by Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker. The Tower of David, in the centre of Caracus, is totemic of this failure:

Guillermo Barrios, the dean of architecture at the Universidad Central, says: “Every regime has its architectural imprimatur, its icon, and I have no doubt that the architectural icon of this regime is the Tower of David. It embodies the urban policy of this regime, which can be defined by confiscation, expropriation, governmental incapacity, and the use of violence.”

This isn’t a fringe issue. Labour MPs have praised Chavez’s handling of the last elections (I’ve heard silence on the last Brazilian elections), unions pay their members to go on fact-finding missions and Labour’s last Mayor of London built another “strategic partnership” with Chavez (how many did he need?). It is hard not to conclude that the Left suffers from the racism of low expectations.

Libel reform comes around less often than Halley’s comet. Let’s get it right

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Free expression

“Laws are like sausages – it is best not to see them being made”; a phrase commonly attributed to Otto von Bismarck seems apt for attempts to reform our archaic libel laws. The last wholesale attempt to get libel law right was in 1843, making Robert Peel our last “libel reforming” prime minister. Depressingly, the sausage cliché is younger than much of the parliamentary law that dictates what we can and can’t say. It’s hard to overstate how chilling to free speech the current law is.

Libel tourism

In 2010, President Obama signed into law the US Speech Act protecting Americans from libel judgements made in the high court here. John Whittingdale MP, the chair of the culture, media and sport select committee described this as a “national humiliation”. Our publication rule laughably predates the light bulb, originating in a case won by the notoriously litigious Duke of Brunswick in 1849. Thanks to this case, if you unknowingly copy a libellous statement and publish it on your blog, you could receive a threatening legal letter.

Thankfully, the government will be taking action on “libel tourism” and updating the publication rule for the internet age with the defamation bill that is currently passing through parliament. However, in some ways, the bill is a missed opportunity, with no new public interest defence and no action taken to stop corporations suing individuals.

Getting libel reform right means giving citizens a new public interest defence. Such a defence would have protected libel victims such as Dr Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst – all of whom were dragged through the courts after writing on important matters of science. A strong public interest defence will protect NGOs and academics from libel actions when they speak out on the dumping of toxic waste by multinational corporations or rampant tax evasion by banks. This defence is crucial – it’s near-impossible for scientists to prove the absolute truth of their research in particular where there are constant breakthroughs in our knowledge.

It’s chilling to think that Wilmshurst was sued for pointing out possible problems with heart devices. In the four years he fought his case, patients continued to have these devices implanted in their hearts. Some then needed extensive surgery to have them removed because of the fault. If his concerns hadn’t been silenced by his four year libel case, doctors may not have recommended this treatment.

Public interest defence

A new public interest defence will also protect NGOs and citizen journalists who have got a minor fact wrong, but are willing to correct or clarify it. As it stands, with no new protections, the bill would not have helped many of the cases that spurred 60,000 people to sign the Libel Reform Campaign petition. It was the intention of the government to get this right. Justice minister Lord McNally told Singh at a packed Libel Reform Campaign meeting that he’d be reforming the law so that scientists couldn’t be dragged through the courts again. His hard work on this issue is being undermined by the lack of this defence.

The defamation bill will do little to stop corporations suing individuals. This may be for ideological reasons, but in a globalised world where big corporations increasingly dominate the public space, letting them sue individuals is manifestly unfair. Across parliament, Conservative MPs such as Peter Bottomley and David Davis, Liberal Democrats Tom Brake and Julian Huppert and Labour’s Rob Flello and Paul Farrelly have questioned whether large companies really do need to resort to suing citizens.

With PR teams and laws to stop anti-competitive practices, firms do have alternatives. The law of libel was never originally intended to cover non-natural persons. The law is there to compensate damage to an individual’s reputation and the psychological impact this has. But companies don’t have psychological integrity, ie feelings. Should they get damages for defamation?

A huge effort has gone into the Libel Reform Campaign so far. 60,000 supporters have lobbied their MPs in person, held pub meetings, events in parliament, roundtable discussions with lawyers and international human rights groups, a huge comedy gig in central London with help from 60 civil society organisations. On Wednesday comedians and friends of science Dara O’ Briain, Dave Gorman and Brian Cox will join us in parliament to lobby MPs. It’s not too late for the government to strengthen its defamation bill.

In the meantime, Guardian readers can email their MP to ask them to put pressure on ministers. Wholesale libel reform only comes around every 170 years – anyone who cares about free speech cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

I originally wrote this article for Guardian Law on Wednesday 27 June 2012.

Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas stop selling Belarusian government bonds

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, International


Two more foreign banks halt cooperation with Belarus after German Chancellor Angela Merkel tells Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now that she would intervene to stop Deutsche Bank from selling government bonds to Europe’s last dictatorship.

Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now welcome the decision of banks BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank to stop selling the government bonds of Belarus, a country known as Europe’s last dictatorship. Deutsche Bank’s decision came after the launch of our international petition signed by the families of the political prisoners and NGOs as well as a series of protests. The campaign’s success is testimony to the success of the organisations in encouraging the high-level involvement of European politicians such as British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in condemning Belarus’s human rights violations.

Irina Bogdanova, sister of jailed Belarusian presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov raised Deutsche Bank’s involvement in two bonds sales directly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel told Bogdanova that she would call Deutsche Bank and raise the issue with them directly. Bogdanova said:

“It’s outrageous that a bank used by German families has sold the government bonds of the dictatorship that has imprisoned my brother for no other crime than standing in an election. Chancellor Merkel promised me she would speak to Deutsche Bank. I’m delighted that Deutsche Bank will no longer work for Europe’s last dictatorship after our campaign.”

Deutsche Bank were involved in a syndicate alongside British bank Royal Bank of Scotland, Russian bank Sberbank and French bank BNP Paribas that sold $1bn Belarusian government bonds at 8.75 per cent (due August 2015) in August 2010, followed by a further issue of $850m of bonds in January 2011 (due January 2016) at a higher rate of 8.95 per cent.

Experts calculated these interest rates were twice the rate that would have been levied by the IMF, but the IMF would have required structural reforms. Governments including the British government have opposed IMF involvement until the country releases political prisoners jailed after the last presidential election.

Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now were particularly concerned that even after the oppressive post-election crackdown in which seven of the nine presidential candidates were arrested and 43 political prisoners were held, the bond sale by Deutsche Bank continued.

Mike Harris, head of advocacy at Index on Censorship, said:

“Belarus’s financial crisis is so severe last week the Central Bank was forced to auction government property including TVs and cardboard boxes. Deutsche Bank and RBS who sold Belarusian government bonds in January were propping up a dictatorship. We’re delighted they have both pulled out leaving Lukashenko with few options other than to release his political prisoners.”

He added: “Only Sberbank is left from the original consortium of four banks. We will keep campaigning until they commit to not doing business with Lukashenko.”

Index on Censorship was the first NGO to report allegations of torture in Belarus on 20 December last year. The campaign by Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now is continuing to place pressure on Sberbank, the last remaining bank involved in the bond sale.

For more information please contact Mike Harris at Index on Censorship mikeindexoncensorshiporg or +44 207 324 2534 / +44 7974 838 468

The Politicization of Chernobyl in Belarus

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, International


Originally published by anti-totalitarian journal Dissent Magazine on 31 May 2011

WHEN THE reactor at Unit 4 of the V. I. Lenin Atomic Power Station, Chernobyl, exploded twenty-five years ago, the people of Belarus were sacrificed by a secretive political system. Pilots such as Major Aleksei Grushin were sent into the air above Belarus to seed clouds with silver iodine so they would rain down what had spewed from the inner core of the reactor onto the fields below. That political decision kept Muscovites safe—but as a result, 60 percent of the disaster’s radiation fell on the hapless people of Belarus.

It was a national catastrophe. As author Svetlana Alexievich points out in her masterful Voices from Chernobyl, the Nazis took three years to destroy 619 Belarusian villages during the Second World War; Chernobyl made 485 villages uninhabitable in hours. Today, 2,000,000 Belarussians, including 800,000 children, live in contaminated areas. To give an idea as to how contaminated this land is, 100,000 people live on land with a radiation level 1,480 times greater than the level typically found on a nuclear bomb test site. Between 1990 and 2000, the incidence of thyroid cancer in adolescents in the region increased by 1,600 percent.

To begin with, the Soviet Union said almost nothing to its people about the catastrophe. But after the contamination spread across the Iron Curtain to Sweden, setting off radiation level alarms, there was an admission of an accident. Even so, stories in Pravda Ukrainy and Sovetskaya Belorussia parroted the official party line that Western propaganda was making the accident out to be worse than the “contained” incident it supposedly was. The long-term effects were said to be a few hundred additional cancer deaths over a generation. Farmers were told that afflicted land could soon be returned to productive use (a statement backed by the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] in Vienna, a certain Hans Blix).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, little changed in Belarus: one authoritarian regime was replaced by another. The country’s dictator since 1996, Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective-farm boss, is keen to get people back onto the land. He has personally intervened to support studies that show this land is safe to bring back into agricultural use. In 2004 he declared that it was time to build new homes and villages in the contaminated regions, stating triumphantly, “land should work for the country.”

Many international organizations, including the IAEA, backed Lukashenko’s aspirations. But Belarus isn’t a place to question the wisdom of the authorities. It is one of the least free places on earth, ranked below Zimbabwe and Iran for press freedom. And so the Soviet silencing of dissent continues.

A scientific expert on the effects of Chernobyl, Yuri Bandazhevsky, openly criticized the policy of bringing contaminated land into use a decade ago, suggesting that the government was knowingly exporting radioactive food. For this he was jailed on anti-terror charges. In 2001, he was sentenced to eight years in prison on “corruption charges.” He was released in 2005 and now lives in exile in France, unable to research the disaster’s effects on the people remaining in the evacuation zone.

Lukashenko is unfazed by such criticism. Since his reelection in December (deemed “unfair” by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s election observers) he has ruthlessly clamped down on any opposition to his rule. Over 600 arrests were made in the days that followed the election result. Seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates were jailed, five of whom have now been sentenced to multi-year prison terms. The bombing of the Minsk metro on April 11, in which twelve civilians died, has been blamed by Lukashenko on his rule being overly liberal. He told his crony Parliament, “There was so much democracy, it was just nauseating.” As in Soviet times, fear stalks the country: mysterious terrorist acts, the near-total jailing of the opposition, KGB arrests in the dead of night, and allegations of torture abound.

In the absence of open politics, the remembrance of Chernobyl’s victims has become an intensely political act. Protests demanding justice for the victims until recently have been led by the opposition. In 2006, 5,000 protesters shouted anti-government chants declaring a cover-up on the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe. Alexander Milinkevich, the main opposition leader, led the crowds.

For those living in the affected areas, political fear is compounded by a vacuum of information about the disaster. Detailed maps of the land contaminated in the Ukraine are readily available; not so in Belarus. The vacuum is filled with hysteria and fear. According to Richard Wilson, professor of physics at Harvard University, “The truth is that the fear of Chernobyl has done much more damage than Chernobyl itself.” To this day this fear infects daily life. A fear of deformities means there are more abortions than live child births in Belarus. One psychiatrist, Dr. Havenaar, studied the people of Gomel, one of the worst-affected areas. He found that local people said they were five times as sick as people in similar towns not affected by Chernobyl’s radiation. But after physical examinations, the level of illness among those towns was broadly similar. It was the psychological distress in Gomel that was far, far greater. Fear is literally making people sick.

Political decisions in Moscow made Belarus the dumping ground for over 100 times the radiation released by the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Now the aftermath of Chernobyl itself is intensely political. Prior to its post-election suppression, the opposition demanded answers from a secretive regime about the health effects of the disaster. Now Lukashenko is committed to building a new nuclear power plant bordering Lithuania (to the horror of Lithuanians)—on one of the country’s tiny patches of uncontaminated land—and to opening up the contaminated land for human inhabitation. Last month, Lukashenko visited the village of Dernovichi in the evacuation zone and delivered a speech on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. His intentions for the area were quite clear:

In Narovlya district milk is produced which is used for the production of children’s food. The re-specialization of agriculture gives farmers work again. In the Gomel Region—there are 34,000 hectares from which it is possible to receive clean products. Besides, tourists are ready to come to this zone.
As for Major Aleksei Grushin, he was awarded a medal by Vladimir Putin at a state ceremony. This is a state secret in Belarus. In countries where dissenters are silenced, disasters like Chernobyl are magnified. The tragedy is twenty-five years on, and Belarusians are no more free.