Category Archives: Human rights

A follow up letter to Neil Carmichael MP on the detention of Shaker Aamer

This is a copy of a follow up letter sent to my local Conservative MP, Neil Carmichael, in response to his response to my original inquiry:

Dear Neil,

Thank you for your prompt reply to my letter regarding the ongoing detention without charge or trial of British resident Shaker Aamer.

It is heartening to note from your reply the seriousness with which both yourself and purportedly the British government takes this issue. However I note that your otherwise positive response failed to take note of, or respond to, my request for you to take two actions to help secure Shaker’s release or trial.

I write to you now therefore to reiterate those requests to:

  • To make urgent representations for a full debate in the House of Commons for the release and return of British resident Shaker Aamer to the UK in accordance with the e-petition process (1).
  • To write to the Foreign Secretary outlining that your constituents will not settle for anything short of an agreed and fixed timeline for either the trial or release of Shaker Aamer.

Without actions your supportive words are left as nothing more than well intentioned words.

I understand that ultimately Shaker’s future rests in the hands of the American government but I urge you to do what you can, at this time, to ensure that he doesn’t have to endure one more day in this inhumane legal limbo.

I once again look forward to a timely response by email.

Steve Hynd

  1. The Government e-petition requesting “new initiatives to achieve the immediate transfer of Shaker Aamer to the UK from continuing detention in Guantanamo Bay” has so far obtained at least 117,442 signatures. An adjournment debate was held in Westminster Hall on 24th April but this did not lead to immediate action for Shaker’s return.

You can read my original letter to Neil here and you can read a copy of Neil’s response to my original letter below:

Thank you for contacting me about the detention of Shaker Aamer.

I share your concern about Mr Aamer’s continued detention in Guantanamo Bay. I believe it is vital that he is released as soon as possible and returned to the UK so he can be reunited with his family.

The Prime Minister personally raised Mr Aamer’s case with President Obama at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland and later wrote to the President reaffirming the importance the UK places on the request for Mr Aamer’s release. The Former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, also raised the case with the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in June this year.

Securing Mr Aamer’s release is a high priority for the Government and I understand that it has been using all diplomatic channels available to communicate this.  Foreign Office Ministers have often reiterated that the British Government’s policy is unchanged – that it will support efforts in the United States to close Guantanamo Bay and to seek the return of UK residents and nationals.

While any decision about Mr Aamer’s release ultimately remains in the hands of the United States Government, please rest assured that I will support the UK Government’s efforts as it does all in its power to seek his return.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

Neil Carmichael

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A letter to Neil Carmichael MP on the detention of Shaker Aamer

This is a copy of a letter sent to my local Conservative MP, Neil Carmichael:

Dear Neil,

I am writing to you once again about the case of the British resident still held in Guantanamo Bay, Shaker Aamer. I am writing again because there have been no significant movements towards either his release or trial since our last correspondence.

Days, weeks, months and even years have slipped by for both of us since our last correspondence on this issue but I am sure you appreciate the same sense of time sliding by will not be shared by Shaker who remains being held in the most awful of conditions within Guantanamo Bay.

At this point I ask for your empathy to spur action – imagine that this was your own father or brother being held without reason in such barbaric conditions and then remember that you have the power to bring about change on this issue!

The status quo will remain so only for as long as we collectively remain silent. I am asking you to speak out, loudly and with passion.

Why now?

In August of this year yet more troubling evidence (1) has emerged that Shaker has faced further beatings at the hands of those who hold him without charge or trial.

Years have passed for Shaker inside Guantanamo but I ask you to do what you can to ensure that not another single day goes past in the same way.

As such, as a matter of urgency, I am writing to you to ask you to undertake the following actions:

  • To make urgent representations for a full debate in the House of Commons for the release and return of British resident Shaker Aamer to the UK in accordance with the e-petition process (2).
  • To write to the Foreign Secretary outlining that your constituents will not settle for anything short of an agreed and fixed timeline for either the trial or release of Shaker Aamer.

I look forward to your response on this issue. Please respond by email rather than through HoC paper.

With optimism,

Steve Hynd

Sources:

  • (1) http://www.reprieve.org.uk/press/2014_08_27_PUB_Shaker_Aamer_beaten_Guantanamo/
  • (2) The Government e-petition requesting “new initiatives to achieve the immediate transfer of Shaker Aamer to the UK from continuing detention in Guantanamo Bay” has so far obtained at least 117,442 signatures. An adjournment debate was held in Westminster Hall on 24th April but this did not lead to immediate action for Shaker’s return.

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Breaking: British Senior Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Officer resigns over government policy on Gaza

warsi
Baroness Warsi the [former] Senior Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Communities at the Department for Communities and Local Government has resigned over her government’s policy regarding Gaza.

Baroness Warsi was appointed Senior Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Minister for Faith and Communities at the Department for Communities and Local Government in September 2012. She was previously Chairman of the Conservative Party and Minister without Portfolio.

Although a relatively minor figure to resign from the cabinet, this will further highlight the diametric opposite positions of the government and the official opposition on the Israel/Gaza conflict. Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, has been vocal in his attacks on the Prime Minister highlighting his ‘inexplicable silence‘.

For more follow The Guardian’s live coverage.

UPDATE:

Seconds after publishing this, top Labour figures have started tweeting their support for Warsi and pushing the ‘inexplicable silence’ line…

UPDATE 2:

Here is a copy of Warsi’s resignation letter:

Warsi letter

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7 points on International Humanitarian Law and the Gaza/Israel conflict

ICRC logo
Before reading these 7 points on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) please remember that IHL is not ‘best practice’ in a war zone, nor a reflection of my aspirations. It is merely a set of legal minimum standards that warring parties must abide by, nothing more, nothing less. 

1. Hamas’ rockets attacks are often, by their very nature, violations of IHL.

The rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups such as the military wing of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad are often Russian-designed “Grad” rockets. These are widely considered to be so inaccurate that they are incapable of being targeted enough to distinguish between military and civilians. Combine this with the fact that they often launched toward highly populated areas means that they are often, by their very nature, violations of IHL.

2. Neither Israel nor Hamas are prohibited by IHL in fighting in Gaza but the density of the civilian population and infrastructure does impose extra responsibilities on them.

IHL demands that all parties in the conflict “take all feasible precautions” of loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects (houses, hospitals, mosques etc – I will come onto this more later). Fighting in such an area undeniably makes it harder for the warring factions to distinguish between civilian and military targets but it does nothing to reduce the obligation of the parties to make these checks. Where there is doubt, the assumption has to be that it is civilian and thus protected.

In the Gaza/Israel example, Hamas has a responsibility to ensure that it avoids locating potential military targets in close vicinity to civilians. It also prohibits the use of human shields – something which has been seen in previous conflicts but so far there has been no confirmed evidence that this has happened in the latest fighting.

However, even if Hamas is keeping weapons within civilian areas or buildings, this does not remove any of the obligations imposed on Israel under IHL to take into account the risk to civilians when seeking out these otherwise legitimate military targets.

3. Although Israel normally sends warnings while Hamas doesn’t, this doesn’t impact on their responsibilities to civilian populations.

Israel has widely publicised in this latest round of fighting that it sends ‘knock on the roof’ explosions as warnings that larger attacks are soon to be happening while Hamas rarely if ever sends warning of rocket fire.

IHL requires that warring parties give “effective advance warning” of attacks that may effect civilian populations. Because of the density of the civilian population in Gaza this means in practice that virtually all attacks should have such warnings. The idea is that the warnings would allow for civilians populations to leave the area.

However, if the civilian population refuses to leave, they are still protected persons under IHL. In short, even after delivering an effective warning, Israel must still take all measures to ensure civilian life is protected.

4. It is not just people who are protected but also civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and yes, even the homes of Hamas officials.

Israel has openly stated that in this latest round of fighting they have targeted the homes of Hamas officials. While IHL allows for the targeting of military leaders who are ‘in action’ it does not allow for the targeting of leaders at any time. Attacking the home of a Hamas official who was not present at the time would be an unlawful attack on a civilian object that if carried out intentionally would constitute a war crime.

Something similar applies for schools or religious buildings such as Mosques. However, if any of the above are being used for military purposes, such as a military headquarters or an arms store, then they become legitimate military targets.

The exception to this simple ‘it’s civilian unless you show it is being used for a military purpose’ rule are medical facilities that hold a special place status under IHL.

Like all the above they are considered civilian targets unless they are used for a military purpose. However, Israel then has a further obligation of showing that they were being used to cause them actual harm before they can become a legitimate target.

5. Collective punishment is a war crime

Undertaking actions that aim to punish a population as a whole for things that they have not personally done is a war crime.

6. Why the is no Israeli or Palestinian being dragged to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for these violations of IHL?

The ICC has a mandate to investigate, charge, and try people suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed after July 1, 2002.

Quite a few Israelis and Palestinians fit this description. However, the court can only exercise jurisdiction over these crimes if: The crimes occurred in the territory of a state that is a party to the ICC treaty; The person accused of the crimes is a citizen of a state that is a party to the ICC treaty; A country that is not a state to the ICC treaty accepts the court’s authority for the crimes in question by submitting a formal declaration to the court; or The UN Security Council refers the situation to the ICC prosecutor.

At the time of writing neither Israel nor Palestine are a party to the Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the ICC. Israel has signed the statute but not ratified it. Palestine submitted a declaration in 2009 to accept the courts mandate but this was rejected at the time over the ambiguous nature of whether or not it was/is a state. Since then, Palestine has been voted in to the UN has a non-voting member state (confirming in the eyes of the international community that it is a state). However, since that has happened Palestine has not sought the court’s jurisdiction or signed and ratified the Rome Statute.

Thus, in short, the court’s jurisdiction does not cover Israel/Gaza.

7. There are lots of people and organisations who have written, researched and published on this issue that are a lot better sources than me. 

And I suggest you read them. For more on IHL, human rights and the Gaza/Israel conflict:

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Only the USA voted against launching UN investigation into alleged war crimes in Gaza

US No vote

Only the United States of America voted against launching an investigation into alleged war crimes in Gaza at the United Nations Human Rights Council yesterday. 

Twenty-nine of the council’s 47 members voted for a resolution calling for the creation of a commission of inquiry to look at “all violations” of international law.

17 members, including large parts of the EU (including the UK) abstained on the motion. 

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights had commented that, “there seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes,”

Read more in the New York TimesGuardian, and Haaretz

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Lib Dem MP says he would fire rockets at Israel if he lived in Gaza Strip

David Ward
Somewhere in Westminster the Head of Communications for the Liberal Democrats head has just hit his desk. “Why oh why” he will be asking anyone who will listen, “does David Ward MP keep tweeting?”

This is his latest contribution:

Wow. Put another way, he is saying that he would undertake committing a war crime. Why? Because these rockets fired by Hamas and other armed militant groups in Gaza do not have capability to distinguish between civilian and military targets.

Or, put another way, this is a MP saying that he would perpetuate a climate of fear in Israel that is, at least in part, responsible for the on-going conflict. This would be a badly thought out comment from an average Joe on the internet, but coming from a MP…just wow!

Of course, David Ward has a history with his twitter account and the Israel/Palestine conflict. Back in January 2013 Hynd’s Blog reported on his comments on “the Jews” and how they “should learn from the holocaust”.

Just like in 2013, the Liberal Democrats have had to distance themselves from him and his comments. A spokesperson for the party was quoted by the BBC as saying:

We utterly condemn David Ward’s comments, they are not representative of the Liberal Democrats. “The party takes this matter very seriously and will treat it as a disciplinary issue.”

Quite right as well.

Apart from the fact that comments like these distract from the atrocities being committed in the Gaza Strip at the moment, it also highlights a minority of the public who sympathise with such badly thought out views (although it is also noteworthy that most responses on and off twitter are condemning his comments). That said, his comments clearly struck a chord with some people:

Finally, it is also worth remembering that Ward is not the first elected politician to express such sentiment. Remember one Ehud Barak saying, “If I were a Palestinian I would have joined a terrorist organisation.”?

UPDATE:

From The Guardian:

This morning Ward told Radio 5 Live that he was not condoning the Hamas missile attacks on Israel; he was trying to understand why they happen.

The comment was about understanding why people are firing rockets. I am not condoning that. In fact, yesterday in the House of Commons I condemned it. I’m saying I understand why people are so desperate that they are doing it ….

Why are they firing the rockets? When the rockets are fired, they’re done by people who know what is going to happen, the repercussions of that, this horrendous military force that Israel have will result in further Palestinian [casualties]. Why are they doing that? The answer is they are so desperate to retaliate for what is happening to them …

This is supposedly about the security of Israel. Why is it insecure? Why is it under threat? It’s because of the occupation. So what do we do? We have a ceasefire, a so-called ceasefire, where there isn’t rockets being fired out of Gaza, and then what? We go back to a situation where there’s a brutal oppression of the Palestinians and we call that peace.

I have always maintained that the occupation and associated human rights abuses act as a partial explanation to crimes committed by Palestinians but cannot act as a justification. Equally, I reiterate that it can only act as a partial explanation otherwise you patronizingly remove all agency from Palestinian actors who chose to take to arms as well as those who don’t!

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Gaza: a week of conflict and violations of International Humanitarian Law

Gaza*Photo: The Guardian.

The on-going Israeli military operation in Gaza is now over a week old. In this week, 172 people have been killed according to Palestinian officials. The UN estimates that 77% of those killed are civilians. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have sought refuge in UN facilities within the Gaza strip.

In the same time period nearly 1,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza according to Israeli sources.

It is civilians who are dying in the Gaza strip. It is also civilians who are living in near constant fear of rocket attacks across the south and west of Israel. These attacks that the last week has seen once again constitute a clear violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) from both ‘sides’.

At the heart of IHL is the principle of distinction:

“The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.”

This principle of distinction not only applies to people but also property.

Throughout the last week we have seen multiple examples of the IDF openly saying that it targets the houses of activists involved in armed Palestinian groups. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem highlighted the case Kaware’a family home which was bombed on the 8th July. The bombing saw the roof collapse killing eight people, six of them children. Another 28 people were injured.

This house was owned by Ahmad Kaware’a and his sons. The oldest of which is active in the military wing of Hamas. Even if no harm came of civilians in this attack, it is still unlawful as the house does not constitute a military target.

The UN have been very clear on the subject saying:

“The targeting of civilian homes is a violation of international humanitarian law unless the homes are being used for military purposes. In case of doubt, buildings ordinarily used for civilian purposes, such as homes, are presumed not to be legitimate military targets”

The last week has also seen an increase in the number of rockets fired from within Gaza towards the south and west of Israel. Armed groups within Gaza including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have continued to fire rockets either indiscriminately or with the specific aim of targeting civilians. Although no deaths have been reported from over 1000 rockets launched, by definition these rocket attacks are a violation of the principle of the distinction.

While some violations of IHL are new, many are much older than the recent media attention. For example, Israel’s policy of blockading Gaza is one that the ICRC has described as collective punishment which is in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under IHL.

Because Gaza is considered as occupied territory under IHL, Israel has a legal obligation to ensure the basic needs of Gazans are met. The blockade does the opposite impacting on food security, health provision, education and almost every other aspect of life.

In the last couple of days Oxfam has sent out another emergency appeal as the already bleak humanitarian situation deteriorates further. As an occupying power, Israel has a clear responsibility to the citizens of Gaza that it is too often neglecting.

Once again violence in this troubled region is leaving civilians on the front line of the conflict. IHL has at its heart the intention to protect civilians at times of conflict. For this to happen, both Israel and armed Palestinian groups need to respect these very basic standards.

 

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As Gaza is bombed why do I keep looking for the odd good news story?

Gaza

Palestinians in Gaza City survey the rubble of a house targeted in an Israeli air strike

Reports have cumulated overnight suggesting that at least 25 Palestinians have been killed and 70 injured as Israel launched at least 160 strikes on the Gaza strip.

The death toll – primarily made up of civilians – has continued to rise as Israel amasses troops on the border readying for a potential ground invasion. Militants within Gaza continue to fire rockets into Israel with at least 140 launched on Tuesday alone but thankfully, so far, with no casualties.

This violence in the south and west of Israel and in the occupied Gaza strip has also resulted in an upsurge of violence in the Occupied West Bank with reports coming in of clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli Defence Force.

Amidst this escalating violence many, myself included, look on with a growing desperation for any positive development to hold onto. It is perhaps because of this that I have seen this photo, and the accompanying story, posted on my social media feeds almost as much as the photos of the devastation occurring in the Gaza strip.

The uncle of the slain Israeli teenager Naftali Fraenkel offers his condolences to Hussein Abu Khdeir, whose 16-year-old son Mohammed was murdered last week by Jewish extremists.

The uncle of the slain Israeli teenager Naftali Fraenkel offers his condolences to Hussein Abu Khdeir, whose 16-year-old son Mohammed was murdered last week by Jewish extremists.

This story of mutual loss and grief holds resonance with so many because not only does it deal with death – something which connects us all – but also because it shows the shared humanity in a conflict that too often removes any sense of such commonality.

It is an important story that I hope more people read**.

This said, it also made me reflect how people (once again, myself included) use the Israel/Palestine conflict to project their own values. I want Israelis and Palestinians to focus on their shared humanity more than everything that divides them. I want this so much that perhaps at times I convince myself that this view is shared amongst Israelis and Palestinians more than it perhaps is.

How often do you hear commentators use a variation of the phrase ‘the vast majority just want peace’ with nothing to back this claim up?

Obviously in the broad sense of the word ‘peace’, I am sure this is true, but how many people want a realistic collection of the characteristics that are needed to establish peace? I am not sure to be honest. Probably not as many as I would like.

To counter this I grasp onto the minority who conform to my pre-existing perspective in hope that it validates my own views and my own vision for potential peace in the region. I suspect this is one compelling reason why the above photo has gone viral with many left-wing friends – it supports a world view that validates their own.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that I face then is the task of facing up to the fact that lots of people in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories don’t think like I do. Lots of Palestinians don’t want to accept a neighbouring state of Israel, a lot of Israelis don’t want to share Jerusalem with a future Palestinian state etc etc…*

While I am entitled to my views, as you are yours, I also have to accept the fact that we probably won’t be the ones who ultimately bring about peace. This has to come from within Israeli and Palestinian society (although I think we outsiders can help lay the foundations).

I was acutely aware of this during my time in the West Bank and Israel in 2012 and tried as much as possible to report the words of the people I met and to only offer a human rights framework for their words to help readers contextualise what they were saying. Inevitably though I at times failed and led interviews into the direction I wanted them to go rather than really listening 100% to what they wanted to say.

Equally I noticed on a number of occasions that some Palestinians I was interviewing would self-conform, either out of a sub-conscious desire to please or through strategy, and use peace/human rights language that sat comfortably in my articles but did not necessarily reflect the militaristic rhetoric that I heard in the coffee shops and in the fields when I wasn’t conducting formal interviews.

Since moving away from both Israel and the occupied territories it has become harder for me to put the emphasis on listening to what Palestinians and Israelis have to say on the subject rather than just projecting my own thoughts purely because I am not having daily interactions with them. This is one of the reasons I have been writing much less on the conflict in the last year or so.

All of this said I still think it is important that the international community (that includes you and me) keeps highlighting what is happening and calling for justice and accountability. I also believe that we have a role to play. The most powerful things I think we can do is to highlight the grass-roots efforts to bring about a non-violent end to the occupation. This in my mind includes the powerful story of the Fraenkel and Khdeir mourning families coming together to offer each other support.

The challenge though is how we do this without losing sight of the reality of normal people’s opinions that might sit less comfortably with our own (my own) liberal human rights dominated perspective whilst we cherry pick the few good news stories that make ourselves feel better?

 

*I am not saying these are the characteristics needed for peace, but they are examples of characteristics many feel are needed for peace and that many people in Israel/Palestine oppose. 

** UPDATE Since publishing this article it has emerged that the photo and the recent story I linked to on Huffington Post are not the same. The photo is from 2013. More here. The story however in the Huffington Post, to the best of my knowledge, is true though.

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Why today I’m reflecting on the deplorable killing of 3 Israeli teenagers

Israel
On hearing the news that 3 bodies have been found in the West Bank that are suspected to be the three abducted Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach,  that went missing almost three weeks ago I posted the following facebook status:

facebook

I was referring to the fact that some armed groups have claimed responsibility for the killings (inc an ISIS affiliated group, and Sarayat al-Quds, the military wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad). If it is shown that one of these groups, or Hamas as the Israeli government keeps claiming, is responsible, then the killings would constitute a war crime.

Almost immediately comments began to follow that status update with comments on context and the atrocious backlash that the Palestinian population has suffered after the abductions in recent weeks. Comments came thick and fast about what we have already witnessed: Israeli forces’ arresting hundreds of Palestinians, raids and damage of property, enforced restrictions on freedom of movement, the continued widespread use of administrative detention and of course a series of killings.

From these comments I assume that people felt one of two things. Either that they thought that by condemning one act of violence I was somehow tacitly condoning another. And/or that some context was needed to the killings of the teenagers for those who read my facebook status updates to understand ‘the other side of the story’.

Whilst I strongly reject the first (for hopefully obvious reasons) the latter needs a bit more exploration.

I strongly agree with the assertion that context is important in understanding violence and human rights abuses. It is essential. I would be fascinated to hear anyone argue anything different. Equally, as a human rights activist the principle of impartiality is important – so I would be equally as passionate about condemning killing of civilian x as I would of civilian y.

The perpetrator is not important, but the context is.

With this said, why then would my facebook status not include the ‘other side of the story’ that so quickly emerged in the comments below?

Firstly, like so many, that status came as a result of reading about and then empathizing with all those affected by the killing of the three boys. It was a knee jerk reaction to a deplorable act. The words that came to hand was that of emotion and human rights, “deplorable act” “war crime” etc.

This facebook status wasn’t an essay, an analysis or trying to make any wider point. It was simply a comment on a deplorable act to illustrate that International Humanitarian Law condemns such behaviour.

Secondly though there is also an issue around comparing and/or contrasting people’s suffering. Not only do I find this morally uneasy but also at times pragmatically unhelpful. I am not convinced that trying to compare levels of suffering is helpful to anyone. In contrast, I can see others use the language of others suffering to perpetrate further atrocities. For me, the death of anyone’s loved one deserves a mark of respect, not a reduction of that life into a statistic to be used and abused for political ends.

With that said, a balance at this point then has to be struck. Clearly those in power are not following this line of thought and are already using these tragic deaths to justify furthering a pattern of events that have been occurring for much longer than the last three weeks.

Netanyahu has openly blamed Hamas for the killings and has promised revenge for what he described as a murder “in cold blood by human animals”. As a result we have already seen a sharp increase in the bombing of the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli housing minister, Uri Ariel, has called for the extrajudicial executions of leaders of Hamas and for Israel to “start a wave of construction in the settlements in response to the murder of the abductees.” – something which in itself would be the cause of forced displacement, a myriad of human rights violations and is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law (IHL).

So simply ignoring the context isn’t sufficient either. Mourning the loss of innocent civilians whilst watching on at the on-going violations of others is as equally morally and pragmatically undesirable.

The challenge for myself, and others then looking to comment on these killings and the atrocious backlash being experienced across the Occupied Palestinian Territory, is how we speak out in an equal and fair way without reducing people’s suffering to just statistics or worse, campaigns fodder.

This is something that I am still struggling with and thinking about. For now, I use human rights language. Hence my response as I tried to keep it simple when responding to one friend who asked about the killings of Palestinian children:

facebook 2

 

While some might think of human rights language as cold and legalistic, I think of it as a powerful liberal tool that encapsulates the importance of the individual. It is not always perfect but it does allow space for people to expand on individual violations when they want.

This morning I chose expand on the deplorable killings of three Israeli teenagers. This has no bearing on my thoughts on the other violations occurring in the region.

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Journalism is not a crime #FreeAJStaff

NYT FreeAJ

This protest from the New York Times was a powerful reminder of the importance of press freedoms and the potential impact that the trial of the Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt could have.

NGOs and governments alike have spent the last 24 horus urging the Egyptian government to free the Al Jazeera staff who have been on trial for charges including belonging to and aiding a terrorist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, and of “manipulating” images to suggest “there is a civil war that threatens to bring down the [Egyptian] state”.

The charges have long been rejected by Al Jazeera and have been condemned as a clamp down on free press by human rights groups.

It is with great sadness then that I read that the journalists have been jailed for 7-10 years.

Responding to the news, Amnesty International described the verdict as “an absolute affront to justice“.  The Guardian quickly published an article that condemned the verdict as:

a shocking blow to the principle of free speech

Perhaps the strongest condemnation was reserved for Al Jazeera English’s managing director Al Anstey who said the verdicts defied “logic, sense, and any semblance of justice”.

As a passionate defender of freedom of speech, Hynd’s Blog stands in solidarity with all those calling for the release of the Al Jazeera staff. This verdict is not just an affront on these journalists but to the principle of good journalism and freedom of speech. It is a tacit acknowledgement that anyone could be arrested for simply doing their job and reporting the news!

More information: 

hashtag_freeajstaff_451608304

 

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Palestinian human rights activist on BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’

Raja
Raja Shehadeh, the human rights lawyer and writer who founded the human rights organization Al-Haq, yesterday appeared on BBC radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs’.

Just before he tells Kirsty Young his final choice of disc (about 38 minutes in) he makes an important point about the importance of humanizing the conflict and generating empathy between different people. A point that should be axiomatic but is so often ignored and/or forgotten.

As with all things Israel/Palestine related I need to cover myself and say that I don’t know enough about Raja to make any sweeping generalizations about him. On the occasions though that I have read his work or heard him speak he has always come across as passionate, articulate and most importantly willing to build rather than burn bridges.

This for me as a human rights activist is incredibly important. As an aspiring writer though I have also been taken aback by the beauty in which he forms his words.

A friend sent me this quote from his book ‘Palestinian Walks: Notes on a vanishing landscape‘:

To my left at the perfectly still waters of the [Dead] Sea, transformed by the sun into a luminous platinum sheet, and to my right at the formidable wall of incandescent rock along which we were travelling, towering steeply, challengingly, seemingly an impenetrable line of defence, a mighty gateway into another world. 

This imagery resonates powerfully with my own memories of walking in the West Bank.

This book, Palestinian Walks, is itself a combination of his human rights activism and his commitment to personalize the conflict that is intertwined in some truly beautiful adjectives.  It is a deeply personal reflection of walking, or not being able to walk, in the West Bank.

I think this is why I was drawn to the Desert Island Discs programme, because it is once again a deeply personal reflection on the conflict and the human rights abuses that occur there.

 

 

 

 

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Stop the war coalition supports the war (against Israel’s legitimacy)

stwc_logo_transparent
The ‘Stop the war coalition’ ran a blog a coupe of days ago entitled:

Time to go to war with Israel as the only path to peace in the Middle East

I have left this headline in bold because I figure if people misinterpret what the actual article says from this ridiculous headline then so be it – it is there fault for putting such a stupid headline up in the first place.

You see, by going ‘to war with Israel’ what they actually meant was (and again I quote) ‘a legitimacy war’ with Israel. Crystal clear? No not exactly.

By legitimacy war (you find out deep into the quite long article) what they actually meant was a grass-roots movement involving the BDS campaign against interaction with Israeli settlements (that are illegal under IHL).

It takes quite a dedicated reader though to get to the last few paragraphs of this article where it finally explains what it means by ‘war’ and then ‘legitimacy war’. Most people will come away from this article thinking one of two things:

1) Stop the war now backs a one off war against Israel

2) Stop the war now wants a ‘peaceful war’ against Israel’s legitimacy (right to exist).

To put this into a little context, the biggest gripe that most people who are broadly pro-Israel has with the BDS movement is that they feel it sometimes calls into question Israel’s legitimacy. It’s right to exist. This fear is based on a real danger. There are those who would gladly see the state of Israel disappear of maps altogether.

It is curious then that this article decides to refer to BDS as a ‘legitimacy war’.

Is this sloppy language or purposeful provocation?

Even for those who bothered to skip down to the conclusion would have been met with the phrase:

It is important that world public opinion reject as meaningless the diplomatic charade of peace talks while the fate of a people continues to be daily sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics.”

They must be able to see how this would be interpreted can’t they? It sounds like a justification for walking away from peaceful negotiations and to resort to other means.

As I say, I reading the article I couldn’t decide if the language was just sloppy or a purposeful provocation.

That was until I got to the very bottom and saw the author.

Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, was, from 2008 to 2014, United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.”

I can’t believe that he would have been unaware of the context I have described or the consequences of his words. Which, worryingly, leads me to the only conclusion I can see available – it was a form of purposeful provocation.

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The smokescreen of science. Homosexuality in Uganda.

Rainbow_flag_and_blue_skies
President Museveni of Uganda has agreed to sign the now notorious ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ which could impose a lifetime jail sentence on anyone who commits homosexual acts.

What is curious about this latest crackdown though is the justification that the President has adopted to justify the signing of the bill.

A State House statement released last Sunday quoted Museveni as saying that ‘there is no scientific proof yet that people are homosexuals by genetics’

It goes onto to quote Museveni further saying that ‘It is on the strength of that I am going to sign the bill. I know we are going to have a big battle with the outside groups about this, but I will tell them what our scientists have to say.’

For a lack of a better word, curious…

The scientific committee, which included respected health professionals and scientists, set up to advise the President on this, concluded with 6 points:

The following are summaries of their observations;

  1. There is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality.
  2. Homosexuality is not a disease but merely an abnormal behavior which may be learned through experiences in life.
  3. In every society, there is a small number of people with homosexuality tendencies.
  4. Homosexuality can be influenced by environmental factors e.g. culture, religion and peer pressure among others.
  5. The practice needs regulation like any other human behavior especially to protect the vulnerable.
  6. There is need for further studies to address sexuality in the African context.

The Executive Director of the Uganda Media Centre and Spokesperson for the Government of Uganda, Ofwono Opondo, summarised the report findings saying:

https://twitter.com/OfwonoOpondo/status/434374029030719489

These conclusions represent some spurious claims intermixed with a sprinkling of loose language and half-truths that allow for differing interpretations to emerge from this ‘science’.

Take point one for example, ‘There is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality’. A negative statement that may well be true. But in this context it has been used by the government to justify the positive opposite ‘that homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle choice’ – a statement which flies in the face of the majority of available scientific studies on the matter.

The BBC for example yesterday published an article looking at how a genetic tendency to homosexuality sits with Darwinian concepts of evolution. In this article it starts by asserting that the idea homosexuality has biological origins has become the ‘scientific orthodoxy’. The article goes onto say that whilst there is no ‘definitive gene’ that determines sexuality, it is thought that there are alleles – or groups of genes – that sometimes codes for homosexual orientation.

The same BBC article quotes Qazi Rahman who offers a reasonable summary saying, ‘it’s the media that oversimplifies genetic theories of sexuality, with their reports of the discovery of “the gay gene”. Genetically speaking, Rahman believes that sexuality involves tens or perhaps hundreds of alleles that will probably take decades to uncover.’

Although the exact nature of the biological determinants of sexuality remain unknown, it is widely accepted that sexual orientation is determined, at least in part, by your pre-existing biology. Something that the report fails to mention.

The same pattern can be drawn from the other five conclusions. Loose language and scientific half-truths being interpreted for ideological and political purposes. Point 2 for example – if you take the word abnormal without moral judgement (scientifically) to literally mean, differing from the norm, then of course homosexuality can be considered abnormal (in the same way fishing could be considered an ‘abnormal activity’). But, in the context of this debate it is understood, and intentionally conflated with, other ‘abnormal’ practices that hold near universal condemnation such as rape and paedophilia ensuring that it is interpreted with a pre-existing moral framework (very unscientific).

Indeed, it should be noted that whilst Museveni’s interest in the science behind homosexuality is quite new, his eagerness to condemn and discriminate against homosexuals though is far from it. To give just one example, it was clear he needed no science to back up his popular, if insulting and simply wrong, statement that ‘women become lesbians because of “sexual starvation” when they failed to marry’.

In short, though the science behind sexuality in Uganda is simply being used as a smokescreen here to further a populist political and ideological agenda.

Indeed, it seems hard to disagree with Edwin Sesange’s summary: ‘The strange thing about the scientists’ report from Uganda’s Ministry of Health about the origin of homosexuality, is that much of it was right. But what was left out, the way the words were twisted, the flaws in the scientists’ conclusions, make it false…In fact, the report…is little more than science providing political cover for Museveni. It allows him to sign the bill, gain political popularity at home, dismiss criticism from the international community and blame it all on the scientists if his decision is wrong’.

Of course, there is one way for this scientific report to hold credibility. Publish it!

If it were to be published in a scientific journal and face a peer-review process then it might hold some weight. Until that happens we can assume that the science remains a smokescreen for a wider political and ideological move against the LGBT community in Uganda.

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The third intifada and the role of boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS)

israelpalestine-flags
For a while now activists have used the phrase ‘third intifada’ to describe the growth of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel’s involvement in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

The term intifada describes the ‘up-risings’ against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. It derives from the Arabic ‘intifāda’, literally, the act of shaking off.

What is curious though about this ‘third intifada’ is that it so many have chosen to use the word ‘intifada’ at all.

Consider that both the first and second intifada were marked by barbaric levels of violence. Consider also that the second intifada saw the wide-spread use of suicide bombings and is widely held up as a key reason many in the international community lost interest in the ‘Palestinian cause’. One wonders why so many activists are so keen to refer to this non-violent form of resistance as an intifada at all?

One theory, that certainly holds a degree of weight, is that this third intifada of non-violent resistance is much more active outside of Palestine than in. Just recently we have heard of Dutch and Danish banks removing funds from Israel because of activities occurring in the settlements.

The world’s media in recent weeks has been focused around Hollywood actress Scarlet Johansson’s drawn out decision to break away from the International NGO Oxfam because of their disagreement about boycotting business in the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Although of course the BDS movement stems from calls within the West Bank, it largely operates in an international global environment. It is feasible that this disconnect is felt by activists campaigning for BDS and by labelling it an ‘intifada’ it roots the campaign back to the Palestinian population it aims to help.

Many that chose to use BDS though do not limit their campaign to organisations or individuals who operate in the occupied Palestinian territories but focus on Israel as a whole reasoning that it is the state of Israel that has the power to change their policy of on-going occupation.

Increasingly however I am coming to think that the chances of the BDS movement succeeding (that is, contributing to a lasting peace) rests heavily on just focusing on the trade and interaction with illegal settlements with a goal of bringing about the end of the occupation – not targeting Israel as a whole.

The reasoning for this is my belief in the importance in moving the silent majority inside Israel to feel both strategically secure and supported but also outraged at the immorality of the occupation. At the moment a large number of Israelis feel insecure and do their best to get on with life without thinking about the immorality of the occupation.

Forms of resistance in the past that have failed to acknowledge this have also led to a failure to bring about peace.

Writing recently in the New York Times Thomas Friedman makes what I feel to be an astute observation saying:

“You cannot move the Israeli silent majority when you make them feel strategically insecure and morally secure, which is what Hamas did with its lunatic shelling of Israel after it withdrew from Gaza; few Israelis were bothered by pummeling them back.”

 In contrast Friedman goes onto argue:

“the Third Intifada is based on a strategy of making Israelis feel strategically secure but morally insecure”.

Regarding his latter point I would argue that this latest form of resistance has the potential to do this, but could also slip into a diplomatic equivalent of an all-out attack on Israel. Its success rests on its ability to ensure the majority of Israelis feel strategically secure. At the moment I feel that the BDS movement is failing to do that.

The BDS movement has the potential to shine a light on those profiting from the occupation without putting an ounce of doubt around the future of Israel as an independent state. When the price of occupation becomes too high (both economically and politically) the chances of a lasting settlement between two states becomes more possible.

In contrast however, when aimed at Israel as whole, the BDS movement (however well intentioned) can be seen as being simply anti-Israel – or worse, anti-Semitic. This perception is fuelled by the critics of any BDS campaign that look to label it as anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and ultimately anti-peace.

This accusation remains a slur on many involved in the campaign but holds a worrying degree of weight for others. Israel always has had opponents that literally wish it to be wiped off the map. Those who hold those views now see the BDS campaign as the latest way to attack the state.

Equally, there are those who do hold genuine anti-Semitic views who see the BDS movement as a way of targeting Israel (note that this doesn’t mean that all attacks on Israel are anti-Semitic).

In my mind then, following on from Friedman’s analysis, the success of a non-violent ‘third intifada’ rests on three points that the BDS movement must act upon:

  • Ensuring that a zero tolerance approach to violence is taken and applied across the board to avoid any association with the atrocities of the first and second intifada.
  • Focusing the campaign on the occupation with the end goal being the end of the occupation. This will hopefully ensure that Israelis feel secure and able to join in the movement but that the immorality of the on-going occupation is raised in day-to-day life.
  • Distance itself from the slightest whiff of anti-Semitism.

There are many people that I respect who advocate for a full boycott of Israel and also many that would oppose any boycott. For me, this approach seems a sensible pragmatic middle-ground.

I would be interested in your thoughts though.

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Uprooted by conflict – stories from West Nile

This is a guest post by Anya Whiteside. Anya works for the Forum for Education NGO’s in Uganda and is also my fiance. 

Refugees at Dzaipi reception centre. Image Daily Monitor. Photo by Martin Okudi

Refugees at Dzaipi reception centre. Image Daily Monitor. Photo by Martin Okudi

‘I was a business woman in Bor and then when the trouble started I just had to pick up my children and run’.

I am standing in Ajumani in West Nile region, in the North West of Uganda which borders both the DRC and South Sudan. The woman I am speaking to is heavily pregnant and her three young children cluster round her. One of her daughters is about four and spends the next half hour sidling up to me to stroke my white skin all cheeky grin and dirty t-shirt. ‘My husband was in Kenya getting treatment for an illness when the fighting started’ she continues. Now she is sleeping on the floor of a school in Uganda hoping that he will come and find her.

I am in West Nile as part of an inter-agency assessment of the schools in the areas of Uganda where South Sudanese refugees have flooded in the recent weeks. My colleagues are from various NGOs, the UN and the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports. Well over two thousand people cross the border every day into this remote, hot and dusty part of Uganda. Add to that recent new arrivals from the DRC, as well as many generations of refugees who fled here in the past and you have a patchwork of stories.

The schools are due to open in the first week in February and are likely to receive large numbers of refugee children enrolling to join the classes. Our role is to assess what additional support they are likely to need. ‘I have one thousand children in my school’ one head teacher tells me, ‘but I expect an additional four hundred refugees to enrol this term’. Even before the recent crisis the schools in this area are full beyond capacity. It is not unusual to see a teacher teaching 90 children with four or five children squeezed onto each desk.

Over and over again as we interview head teachers in the area they tell us they will enrol the extra children and they are happy to welcome them into the school, but that they need support to be able to cope. They need additional teachers to help teach and translate what they are teaching, textbooks, latrines, desks and classrooms. All resources they look unlikely to get, certainly in the numbers they need them.

I am amazed by the way the schools in West Nile are so welcoming to the new influx and wonder how primary schools back home would react if in a matter of weeks you asked them to enrol 50% extra pupils many who speak a different language.

One of the reasons may be that the area is so used to hosting refugees. For many years refugees have fled across the border from DRC or Sudan seeking safety from fighting. Some go back and some stay. Some of the new refugees have fled back to areas where they were refugees before, or gone to stay with family still in Uganda. Outside the reception centre it can be hard to tell who is a refugee and who is not, as people start to build mud huts in land allocated to them by the Ugandan government.

One man who has been in Uganda for many years and is elected in the refugee settlement as a local leader tells me how his father was a politician under Mobuto’s regime in DRC. ‘When Mobuto was overthrown they chased him and cut him up into pieces’ he tells me, ‘and then they came for me’. He tells me how he drove away in a car full of people, but it was stopped before they could leave the country. All the women in the car were raped and then everyone was shot. After being shot he was thrown in the river. He was injured, but not killed, so was dragged out further downstream and rescued. He then escaped to Uganda he explains to me matter-of-factly while we are walking to visit a local school.

Some Ugandans understand more than most the trauma of being uprooted from your home. ‘I hate seeing people here’ says my colleague as we drive into a refugee reception centre where newly arrived refugees clutch bags and look for shade. I have known my colleague for a while as a vivacious, hilariously funny and very competent member of the NGO community who went to University in Europe and now works as an education specialist. ‘Seeing it just reminds me of running away and all that time spent as a refugee in the jungle’, she explains.

My colleague is from West Nile, the area where Idi Amin came from, and after he was overthrown the area was targeted for reprisal killings. Her house was set on fire and her and her family fled into the jungle in DRC. I wonder as she talks how many other people I know have terrible stories which I know nothing about. I also wonder how a country can heal from these stories when they are buried so deep and rarely talked about.

Experiences of displacement in Northern Uganda are also more recent still. In 2005 the war between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) saw 1.8 million internally displaced people in camps across Northern Uganda.

After a week of talking to head teachers and local District official, hours and hours of bumping along dusty dirt road, visiting some of the refugee reception centres and hearing some of the refugees’ stories I am left with twin emotions. On the one hand I am sickened by conflict and the horrendous things it does to people. And on the other hand I am amazed by the human resilience and ability to cope.

I return to Kampala thinking of all the refugees in the world and just how horrific it must be to flee your home. I am welcomed by the sickening news that of the 2.5 million  Syrian refugees, my own country, the UK, has agreed to host a mere 500 Syrian refugees over a year. I am aghast and wonder how a country like the UK can choose to refuse safety to so many, when countries with so little resources such as Uganda receive thousands of refugees a day, or a tiny country like Lebanon can hosts over a million.

As I rant and rave at the selfishness of my own nation I think back to the drive out of a refugee reception centres on our way back to Kampala. As I looked out the window I saw a group of scruffy children playing football. In the last month their whole lives have been uprooted and many have lost everything. They shout and skid through the dust imitating the moves of famous footballers.

I wonder what will become of these children and hope against hope that they will experience peace and better times ahead.

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My journey in tackling anti-Semitism

My views on anti-Semitism, until maybe just a few years ago, reflected those of many others in modern Britain. In short I saw it as an incredibly black and white issue. I would have of course condemned any anti-Semitism but I would also have assumed that it was only perpetrated by crackpots in far-right groups.

I would never have connected it with my own very normal friends, family and community.

Growing up in the UK I was surrounded by the idea that being anti-Semitic was a thing of the past, an ultimate evil that dogged the 20th century but played little role in modern Britain. This caricature of anti-Semitism made my young mind think of it as something comparable to that of Nazism…abhorrent but something of times past that only a handful of lunatics still believed.

Perversely, this perception of it being an ‘ultimate evil’ enabled me to develop a slightly flippant attitude about it – to write it off as something which was only found in niche far-right circles. This was perpetuated by my own blinkered experience that failed to spot it in my own life.

It was, for a long time, beyond my comprehension that it might be embedded in the culture that I was growing up in. Only now, looking back, can I see how wrong I was.

Growing up I attended a very reasonable comprehensive school. Thinking back to my school days I can remember all too clearly the flippant use of the word Jew as a playground insult for someone acting in a selfish way. “Come on, don’t be such a Jew, lend me some money”.

In retrospect these sorts of sentences are completely outrageous, but at the time, they were just a turn of phrase.

Thinking back to my childhood, I am not sure I knew anyone who was open about their Jewish identity at school or in the local community.

Now, this might well have been because there are not many Jews living in Gloucester…equally though it could be because of a phenomena a recent poll of 6,000 Jews across 8 European countries found, which was that many Jews feared being open about their identity for fear of discrimination and prejudice.

Have I known someone who was a Jew who just refrained from being open about it for fear of reprisals – very possibly! A fact that in itself is deeply sad and troubling.

The same poll also found that 46% said they worried about being verbally assaulted or harassed in public because they were Jewish.

At this stage I cannot help but to draw comparisons between gay friends who kept their sexuality a secret for fear of discrimination and abuse whilst also having to endure the daily use of the word gay being used as a playground insult.

The very small part that I played, in using such terminology and perpetuating this climate of fear, is something that as an adult I deeply regret.

And this leads to the crux of what I am saying. Anti-Semitism is not an abstract issue distant to my own community, but an important issue which must be tackled along-side all other forms of prejudice and discrimination. By dismissing it as something abstract and distant to your own life, your own community, you become lazy in tackling it in your every day life. This allows for the climate of fear that many Jews so evidently feel.

It is not just about the inappropriate use of language either. Thinking back to the last 5 years of my life I can draw out a handful of illustrations where I witnessed overt anti-Semitism.

To give one, and perhaps the most shocking,  example: I was visiting White Hart Lane to watch some football and I stood there in disbelief as fans chanted things like ”You’re not in the gas chambers now” and “You’r two nil up but your six million down” to the Spurs fans sat opposite. What shocked me most here was that no-one else seemed shocked!

Equally, upon returning from the West Bank and doing talks on the human rights situation in the West Bank I have heard repeated anti-Semitic slurs. Something which I tried to write about here. I will never forget one activist friend who has done some amazing work on Palestine telling me I needed to keep things in perspective and stop worrying about anti-Semitism.

These are just two examples of draw-dropping anti-Semitism and inappropriate responses from ordinary people. But it is worth remembering hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents occur across the UK every year.

And of course we are not separate to the (by most accounts) much worse anti-Semitism which is occurring across the channel at the moment. These recent videos coming out from Paris over the last couple of days shows a dangerous populism behind these overt forms of anti-Semitism.

I write this blog now as a reflection of the journey that I have taken over the last 5 years.

5 or 6 years ago I was a well intentioned but essentially ignorant, activist. My failure to spot the severity of anti-Semitism damaged my ability to tackle prejudice and discrimination in general.

Now, more than ever, I feel anti-Semitism needs to be tackled along-side all other forms of bigotry, hatred and discrimination. To do this though, we have to remove it from its 20th century caricature and understand how it moves and looks in modern Britain.  

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As Germany commits to taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees can you guess how many the UK has agreed to take?

Zaatari refugee camp

Zaatari refugee camp

 

Dear the British political establishment (you know who you are),

You have today been arguing over whether or not Britain should take in 500 Syrian refugees. Do you have any idea how contemptible, abhorrent and just completely ridiculous this makes you look?

You see there are currently just under two and half million Syrian refugees – that is about one in ten of the country’s population.

In response to this almost unheard level of severity, the UNHCR approached you and other European leaders to ask if Europe could take just 30,000 of these refugees. Leaving mainly much poorer neighbouring countries to take the disproportionate burden.

Germany stepped up in response to this modest request and committed to taking in 10,000.

In contrast, after a week of trying to avoid your moral – if not legal – obligation to take in any additional refugees, you have now compromised and agreed to take in 500 spread out over the coming year.

You must be able to see that this makes you, at best uncaring and at worst, a collection of abhorrent human beings?

In one ear I know you could hear the whisperings of middle-England, ‘We are just a tiny Island and we cannot take in more people’ and I know this influenced your decision. But it is this small Island mentality that you’re now perpetuating that looks, not just ridiculous, but, in the light of this crisis contemptible.

In contrast – a much smaller nation, Lebanon who has a population of just over four million, is currently hosting over a million Syrians. 85% of whom are registered as refugees with the UNHCR.

Please, just step back and just look at what you’re actually saying. After weeks of trying to say ‘none of our business’ you have finally agreed to take 500 refugees but are turning your back on the thousands that UNHCR has asked you to help and millions who are still languishing in temporary camps.

These people have had their lives ripped to shreds by war and you know you could be doing far far more than just sending money!

The parameters in which you have framed this debate have sickened and embarrassed me.

I hope, in the coming days you will grow the fuck up, take stock of just how appalling your position has been, and start fully cooperating with UNHCR’s plan.

In hope,

Steve Hynd

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On Ariel Sharon’s death and my own hypocrisy

Yesterday, Ariel Sharon was buried. While the world responded to the death of ‘a courageous war hero/a vile war criminal’ with a war of words, I have been fighting my own battle with my own thoughts. Let me explain…

Ariel Sharon
After Sharon’s death an inevitable war of words broke out.

The Jerusalem Post quoted Netanyahu as describing Sharon as a ‘courageous warrior,’ who played a ‘central role in the struggle for the security of Israel’.

The Guardian in contrast ran an article by the Oxford academic Avi Shalim which concluded, “His enduring legacy has been to empower and embolden some of the most racist, xenophobic, expansionist, and intransigent elements in Israel’s dysfunctional political system.”

No mention of war crimes, but equally not exactly the praise lavished on him by some.

Meanwhile activists and human rights organisations have used this moment to highlight his role in massacres such as that in Sabra and Shatila in 1982 which saw hundreds and perhaps thousands slaughtered.

For myself I opted for silence while I struggled with my own thoughts.

In the aftermath of Thatcher’s death I wrote and spoke, to the dismay of most on the left, about the need to show respect and to not celebrate a death.

I still stand by those comments.

But a personal experience keeps reoccurring in my mind which makes it difficult for me to not pick up my metaphorical pen.

When I started to learn Arabic before heading to the West Bank in 2012 I was taught by a Londoner who had fled Sabra and Shatila in the early 80s to make a new life for herself in the UK.

She spoke with a brittle absolutism about the past that reflected a personal experience that outweighed all the history and politics that she had so obviously read. In my own mind I foolishly criticised her for this while pompously praising myself for my ability to stand back and reflect on things objectively.

One time we were sat in a café repeating lists of Arabic words when we, as too often happened, got side-tracked into conversations about politics and religion. I can still remember clearly the London sun coming in through the window catching her downcast eyes as she told me of some of her very earliest memories. She told me about one night when an explosion went off in the middle of the night and in panic she ran outside in her pyjamas and just kept running through fear before finally breaking down and crying.

In that moment my books seemed obsolete and useless. In the pain of that story what seemed like crass historical absolutism seemed, for a short time, completely justified.

I write this now because whenever I read an article about Sharon I think, not of my Arabic teacher, but of a young girl crying in the middle of the night.

Sharon, although never mentioned by name, was a central figure in her story. He was the Israeli Defence Minister of the time.

He was the Defence Minister who an internal Israeli commission into the massacre of Sabra and Shatila in 1982 found ‘personally responsible’. He was the Defence Minister who had decided that Phalangist militias ‘should be sent in’ to the camps despite the risk that they would massacre the civilian population there. And as a result, he is the Defence Minister who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds or maybe thousands, for the children, pregnant women, and the elderly, some of whom were found to have been brutally mutilated.

Sharon has gone to his grave without ever facing justice for his role in this war crime and others he oversaw.

These thoughts have been weighing on me in the last few days. I am fully aware that writing these words won’t help bring justice for any of his victims or their families. Nor will it help people who experienced the harsh repercussions of his policies.  It certainly won’t help those who see Sharon as a hero and who are mourning him as I write.

In fact I am not sure this blog will help anyone – especially not me. I am still not sure why I am writing it. I know the ever quick to judge bloggersphere will jump at the chance to accuse me of hypocrisy, inconsistency and double standards.

All I know is that it felt important to write it. Somehow if I didn’t write it I would feel like I wasn’t being honest with myself.

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Protest 12 years of Guantanamo Bay

2pm. This Saturday. 11th January 2014. Meet in Trafalgar Square. Help send a message to the Obama administration that says close Guantanamo Bay.

Gitmo

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“We have been unspeakably cruel to our prisoners in the post war period and that includes Iraq and Afghanistan”

These are the words of Reverend Mercer. They were sent to Shaker Aamer, the last remaining Brit in Guantanamo Bay. As soon as Shaker read them he wrote back to his lawyer saying:

“I want to make sure that my brothers and sisters see that the struggles we face here in Guantánamo are universal and not just about Muslims. Guantánamo is an issue of justice for human beings and nothing shows that more than Rev. Mercer’s sermon.”

So, in respect of Shaker and his on-going struggle in Guantanamo I urge you to spend 5 minutes reading the Reverend Mercer’s words:

Salisbury Cathedral 17th October 2013 – Amnesty International ServiceThe Reverend Lieutenant Colonel N J Mercer

Two weeks ago in our Benefice we had a week of fasting for “Stand Fast For Justice”. Stand Fast for Justice is a campaign which is currently being sponsored by the Charity Reprieve. In this week of Benefice Fasting, parishioners – aged 12 to 90 – fasted in sympathy with the prisoners at Guantanamo who are currently on hunger strike and being force fed. In particular we remembered Shaker Aamer. Shaker Aamer is British and has been cleared twice by the Guantanamo authorities for release. Once by George Bush and once by Barack Obama.

Yet he remains in custody.

It appears that he is nothing more than an innocent bystander, caught up in the fog of war for which he has lost eleven years of his life. Most alarming – is his claim that he was tortured at Bagram Airbase and at Guantanamo – and that MI5 have been complicit in his torture.

The reason for his delay, some allege, is that if he is released he will reveal details of his treatment. The authorities want him sent back to Saudi Arabia even though he is British Resident. His family live in South London and he has a son whom he has never seen.

The service this evening is the Amnesty International Service which remembers, in particular, prisoners of conscience. These are individuals who are held in prison for their conscientiously held beliefs and lose their liberty for no other reason than holding the wrong beliefs or opinions. They are wholly innocent of any crime and this category of wholly innocent prisoner is my own nexus for me being asked to preach this evening, for there is another category of wholly innocent prisoner, and that is the prisoner of war.

As their title suggests, these individuals are imprisoned for no other reason that they were on the opposing side in armed conflict. As the Geneva Conventions state, they become prisoners of war when they fall “into the power of the enemy” and for no other reason (Art 5 1949 GCIII).

Some of you may know my background, but I was the senior legal adviser in Theatre for the Iraq War in 2003. I had legal responsibility for all operations in the field and this included the difficult issue of prisoners of war. I became embroiled with this issue arose quite by chance whilst visiting the Prisoner of War camp in Um Qsar in March 2003. I went down to visit the camp – on a totally unrelated matter – and, as I entered the facility, I glanced down a hessian corridor at the entrance.

Unknowingly I was looking at the Joint Force Interrogation Unit and to my horror, I saw about thirty – forty Iraqi prisoners, hooded and in stress positions, kneeling in the sand in 40 degree heat with a generator running outside the interrogation tent.

As a soldier, I knew exactly what was going on. The interrogators were trying to intimidate the prisoners. I intervened and demanded to know what was going on. The Officer Commanding replied that he didn’t take his orders from me but “direct from London”. I was told that such practises were “in accordance with UK doctrine”.

Needless to say, I was unable to change the situation there and then – but I reported matter to the British Commander that evening. It led to an unseemly row between lawyers/interrogators/higher Headquarters. It was only the intervention of the Red Cross which turned the tide in my favour. There was, as many have remarked, a general indifference to prisoners.

Six months later however, a prisoner called Baha Mousa was beaten to death during tactical questioning. The whole episode was examined first at Court Martial and then in the Public Inquiry that followed. It was revealed that not only were prisoners hooded and in stress positions, but were also being deprived of food and sleep and were probably being subjected to what is termed “white noise”. Indeed, one prisoner had been chained to a generator whilst it was running and belching out carbon monoxide.

These so-called Five Techniques were banned in 1978 after the United Kingdom was taken to the European Court of Human Rights (Ireland v UK) – yet somehow they had remained. This episode was to have a profound effect on my life. Like so many pivotal moments in our lives, it set me on a journey that I neither expected nor desired.

I left the Army in 2011. Not long afterwards however a book called “Cruel Britannia” dropped through my letter box. The publishers (Portobello Books) asked me to review the book and I felt flattered as I had never been asked to review a book before – but the book horrified me.

It revealed a catalogue of torture by the British from the end of the Second World War and throughout the colonial campaigns of Malaya, Kenya, Cyrpus, Aden and then onto Northern Ireland and Iraq and the episodes which I have just described.

There was one particular quote I want to share with you about the treatment of Mau Mau prisoners in Kenya:

“Men were whipped, clubbed, subjected to electric shocks, mauled by dogs and chained to vehicles before being dragged around. Some were castrated. The same instruments used to crush testicles were used to remove fingers. It was far from un-common for men to be beaten to death”.

The assistant chief of police in Kenya at that time (Duncan MacPherson) said that: “The conditions I found existing in some camps were worse, far worse, than anything I experienced in my four and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese”.

The British narrative is that we are a people who pride themselves on decency and fair play, except it is a myth. We have been unspeakably cruel to our prisoners in the post war period and that includes Iraq and Afghanistan.

I recently spoke at a dinner hosted by the Tablet where I met a young SAS Trooper called Ben Griffin. You may or may not have heard of him, but he was first in the Parachute Regiment and then the SAS and a thoroughly decent soldier. However, he was so appalled by the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan that he refused to soldier on. He said that Coalition Forces were treating prisoners as “sub-humans” and that we were “accepting illegality as the norm”. Rather than Court Martial him – he was discharged – honourably – from the SAS. His Commanding Officer described him as a”balanced and honest soldier who possesses the strength and character to genuinely have the courage of his convictions”.

He now lives under a High Court injunction; Reveal what he knows about prisoners – and he goes to jail. But he is not the only one whose silence has been wrought.

Those former prisoners, like Shaker Aamer, who seek to bring a claim against the British Authorities now have to do so in a secret court where they can neither have their own lawyer, see the evidence against them, or challenge the witness/judgement against them, thanks to the “Justice and Security Act” which was skilfully managed through Parliament this year.

I recently preached on the Roman Persecutions in the Early Church where the historian Tertullian – a lawyer and a priest – wrote in his Apology (197) how the Roman Authorities similarly rigged the trials of the early Christians. Now we rig the trials of prisoners and silence those who seek to speak out on their behalf. As an Army Officer, I expected the State to behave honourably.

What I stumbled upon was what one commentator described as “Britain’s dirty little secret”,what the Telegraph journalist Peter Oborne recently described as a “ghastly cloud” which overshadows this country.

We have as a nation kidnapped innocent men and women. We have been complicit in their torture. We have covered it up. Wholly innocent prisoners – be they prisoners of war or prisoners of conscience -it amounts to the same thing.

In this service,in this beautiful Cathedral,in this rural idyll of Salisbury,most are oblivious to our own sordid history. The psalmist tells us that God “hears the groans of the prisoners” (Psalm 102:20). The United Kingdom still actively supresses those groans on threat of imprisonment or injunction. This, of course, happens all over the world, but if it can happen so easily in one of the world’s oldest democracies on our watch, just think how easily it can flourish elsewhere?

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