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Posts Tagged ‘Human Rights

Michael Ignatieff: Assad as Partner of the West – the “alternative is more years of civil war, death and destruction.”

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Ignatieff: Assad as Lesser Evil.

Michael Ignatieff is known as a “humanitarian interventionist”.

On the Iraq War and the US-led invasion in 2003 he said this (Guardian 2003),

To support the war entails a commitment to rebuild that order on new foundations. To support the war entails other discomforts as well. It means remaining distinct from the company you keep, supporting a swift and decisive victory, while maintaining your distance from the hawks, the triumphalists, the bellowing commentators who mistake machismo for maturity.

Ignatieff’s academic and political career (as leader of the Canadian Liberal Party) is outlined here.

More recently, Der Spiegel reports, “working on behalf of the United Nations he was largely responsible for developing the concept of “Responsibility to Protect,” or “R2P,” which foresees mandatory international measures if a civilian population is threatened with genocide. As the head of the Liberal Party from 2008 to 2011, he served as the leader of Canada’s political opposition in Ottawa. Ignatieff, often cited as one of the most important thinkers of our time, is a professor of politics at Harvard University. He also serves as the chairman of the Richard C. Holbrook Forum for the Study of Diplomacy and Governance at the American Academy in Berlin.

Ignatieff presented an interesting account of human rights in Human rights as politics and idolatry (2001). This argues that human rights should be considered not in abstract ontological ways, but through what they do for people. Unfortunately, as was noted at the time, Ignatieff tended to adhere to a supplementary position which relied on the coercive strategies to enforce human rights without giving any clear institutional frameworks or limits for the use of force.

This lead him, as with many ‘humanitarian interventionists’ to see no boundaries for action to impose  rights. That is, the issue of democratic sovereignty in countries, positive consent, was elided. Yet without the democratic expression of people’s wills this would mean in effect a legal “amalgamation of states under one superior power”, a form of undemocratic “monarchy”  that Kant famously warned against.

Ignatieff has offered other ethical speculations on politics and war. One might argue that his present position is a development of the principle of the “lesser evil” – morally disreputable acts that are needed to prevent still worse outcomes – that he defended in The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (2003)

In Der Spiegel a few days ago this interview appeared, which does not seem to have picked up widely elsewhere.

It can be compared with the above comments.

Michael Ignatieff Interview: ‘Those Fighting Islamic State Are the Lesser Evil’

One should read the whole interview but these passages stick out,

Ignatieff: The destruction of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, covered by a UN resolution, was a success. But Western countries, facing the obstructive posture of Moscow and Beijing in the Security Council, failed to prevent the massive killings in the civil war. That’s a tragedy. If our goal is to protect the civilian population in Syria, and we apply the R2P doctrine, this can only mean that additional arms shipments to any forces will only worsen the situation.

SPIEGEL: Why are you so certain about that?

Ignatieff:  Everyone who is turning the Syrian civil war into a proxy war — Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Russia and Iran — must understand that no side, neither Assad nor the rebels, can win the conflict. That the continued fighting will only cost more and more human lives. A UN-brokered cease-fire could emerge from a recognition of the stalemate. Each side would adjust to the status quo. The outcome would be a divided Syria, with Assad in control in Damascus, but with a de-facto dominance in the north and east for the rebels of the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds — once the Islamic State has been destroyed. Some rather strange, indirect alliances will have been created. After all, both Assad and the West fear and are fighting the jihadists.

SPIEGEL: And he is now offering his services to the West as a partner. You wouldn’t have any objection to keeping the dictator in power — Assad as the lesser evil?

Ignatieff: I think it’s the only way to end the slaughter of the civilian population. Listen, I know that this is a deal with the devil. It’s hard to imagine an uglier tradeoff for peace and justice than this one. But continuing to demand Assad’s removal without having real leverage to force it to happen has become an empty threat — an even more hopeless strategy. The alternative is more years of civil war, death and destruction.

SPIEGEL: With all due respect, now you’re sounding more like a jaded political realist than a hopeful, humanitarian interventionist.

Ignatieff: Even if I continue to believe in the responsibility to protect and build on its importance, I can’t put this concept above everything else. I’ve spent my whole life trying to reconcile my human rights convictions with realistic geopolitics. Sometimes it’s an almost unbearable discrepancy.

Written by Andrew Coates

September 13, 2014 at 4:37 pm

Tunisia’s New Constitution: A Great Step Forward but Some Doubts Remain.

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Tunisian Women Protesting for Fundamental Rights in New Constitution.

This week, Tunisia passed a truly historic constitution widely heralded as a progressive and monumental document.

Here’s just some of what these brave elected representatives agreed upon in the face of strong pressure from the more extreme factions of their parties:

  • Guaranteed equality between men and women
  • A constitutional mandate for environmental protection, only the third country in the world to do so
  • A declaration that health care is a human right, with preventative care and treatment for every citizen
  • democracy with civil laws that respects freedom of religion
  • An established right to due process and protection from torture

In one stroke, Tunisia’s become more democratic than many Western countries have been for years. 

This is a revolution of democracy and a great victory for human rights — and the more we recognize that, the more Tunisia can shine as an example for the Western and the Arab world!

MESSAGE FOR TUNISIAN LEGISLATORS: We , the citizens of the world, applaud your bravery in making a strong commitment to universal human values in your constitution. People deprived of democracy around the world look to you to set the example of human rights and democratic principle — hold true to the promises made in this revolutionary document!

From Watchdog.

Last Friday, largely unnoticed in the Anglophone press, invited by Tunisia’s provisional President,Mohamed Moncef Marzouki,a whole range of Heads of State, from Africa, Arab countries, and Europe ( France’s President – the sole Western leader to attend) took part in  a ceremony in Tunis to celebrate this step forward.

The French Gauche anticapitaliste (part of the Front de gauche), has called the Constitution a “Phare” (a Beacon) of democratic social  principle,  though not necessarily a model that others can follow.

Some doubts about the new Constitution  remain,

On Human Rights Watch Amna Guellali (Director of the Human Rights Watch office for Tunisia and Algeria) observes,

Article 6 attempts the impossible task of reconciling two radically different visions of society. On the one hand, it caters to a hyper-religious audience that sees the government as a watchdog and protector of all things sacred. At the same time, the article describes a society that leaves each person the freedom of religious choice, without intrusion or interference. The two irreconcilable visions are forced together in a complicated and wordy fashion.

The article, as adopted, reads:

“The State is the guardian of religion. It guarantees liberty of conscience and of belief, the free exercise of religious worship and the neutrality of the mosques and of the places of worship from all partisan instrumentalisation.

The State commits itself to the dissemination of the values of moderation and tolerance and to the protection of the sacred and the prohibition of any offense thereto. It commits itself, equally, to the prohibition of, and the fight against, appeals to Takfir [charges of apostasy] and incitement to violence and hatred.”

These paragraphs, overloaded with meaning and references, are filled with contradictions. More disturbing, however, is how vague they are. The clauses allow for the most repressive of interpretations in the name of offence against the sacred. Citing the constitution, lawyers, judges and politicians could interpret Article 6 however they see fit. This ambivalence could hold grave consequences for the country.

This problem, the ” the criminalization of actions that could be considered “offence(s) to the sacred” remains a potential mine-field.

It is unlikely to disappear.

Written by Andrew Coates

February 13, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Chile 11th September 1973: Remembering the Coup.

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Sunday the 8th of  September 2013, thousands of Chilean march in Santiago for the defence of human rights (from here).

These are some interesting commentaries.

Allende’s Legacy Strong 40 Years After Chile Coup

LUIS ANDRES HENAO Associated Press

As bombs fell and rebelling troops closed in on the national palace, socialist President Salvador Allende avoided surrender by shooting himself with an assault rifle, ending Chile’s experiment in nonviolent revolution and beginning 17 years of dictatorship.

But as the nation marks Wednesday’s 40th anniversary of the coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Allende’s legacy is thriving. A socialist is poised to reclaim the presidency and a new generation, born after the return to democracy in 1990 has taken to the streets in vast numbers to demand the sort of social goals Allende promoted.

“Forty years after, he is mentioned more than ever by the young people who flood the streets asking for free, quality education,” said his daughter, Sen. Isabel Allende.

“Allende’s profile keeps on growing while Pinochet is discredited.”

Chileans have focused their anger on the costly university system installed under Pinochet, and on the vast gap between rich and poor that resulted from his free-market economic policies.

France’s exiled Chileans remember 1973 coup

France welcomed thousands of Chilean exiles in the wake of the 1973 military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende. Forty years on, FRANCE 24 asked some of them to share their memories from the tragic day and its aftermath.

Gonzalo Fuenzalida remembers September 11, 1973 – the day the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet – like it was yesterday. A 17-year-old student at the time, Fuenzalida left his high school when teachers said the military coup was imminent and was only 50 metres from La Moneda presidential palace when soldiers overran the capital of Santiago. “I never ran so fast in my life,” he recalled.

Fuenzalida is among the thousands of Chileans who were forced to flee their country in the wake of Allende’s overthrow and death, and who eventually settled in France. They are commemorating the 40th anniversary of the coup this year from their adopted home with a mixture of longing and sorrow.

“On the way home I saw soldiers hit women and shove children with a violence I was unfamiliar with. I could feel the fascist fear spreading across the city,” Fuenzalida recalled.  The horror eventually reached his own family: his father, an Allende supporter who lived in northern coastal town of Iquique, was arrested and summarily tried. He was executed on October 30, 1973. “That’s the date the dictatorship started for me,” Fuenzalida said. More here.


Chilean opposition leader Michelle Bachelet has called for a full investigation on the human rights abuses committed during Gen Pinochet’s rule.

She led a ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought the general to power.

She demanded an end to impunity and said Chileans had the right to find out what happened to the victims.

The opposition has boycotted an official ceremony to mark the coup.

At the ceremony, centre-right President Sebastian Pinera criticised the “violent coup that started a 17-year period of military rule”.

But he said it was “the predictable outcome” after “repeated violations of the rule of law” under the government of socialist President Salvador Allende.

La última foto de Allende, a las puertas de la Moneda / ORLANDO LAGOS

El Pais reports that both sides of the Chilean political scene, left and right,  held separate ceremonies to commemorate the Coup.

Those still nostalgic for Pinochet remain in evidence on the right including in the Unión Demócrata Independiente of billionaire  President Piñera.

The President was amongst those who  opposed the arrest  and detention of Augusto Pinochet, in London, initiated by Baltasar Garzón, arguing that it was an attack on the sovereignty and dignity of Chile.


 Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (Left) is leading in opinion polls as her country gears up for the November presidential election.

A survey released Thursday showed that 44 percent of the respondents want Bachelet, the candidate of the center-left New Majority coalition, to be the next president.

Her main rival, Evelyn Matthei of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union, trailed with 12 percent, according to the poll, conducted by polling firm Center for Public Studies.

Horror of North Korean Prisons.

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UN Investigation into North Korean Human Rights Abuses.

This has not received the attention it merits on the left.


North Korean prison camp survivors tell U.N. investigators of rights abuses

Washington Post,


SEOUL — One by one they came, taking seats next to a United Nations flag and stating their names for the record. Some kept calm. Some wept. One, as he spoke, used his left hand to clamp his trembling right hand to the table.They told stories about North Korea’s brutal network of criminal detention and political prison camps, and their evidence was physical: burns on their backs, scars on their heads, bodies ravaged by torture for acts that amount to crimes only in the North. They described forced abortions, public executions, constant hunger and ghoulish mind games played by prison guards, whose permission was needed even to catch and eat the camps’ many rats and mice.

 Reuters. Public executions and torture are daily occurrences in North Korea’s prisons, according to dramatic testimony from former inmates at a U.N. Commission of Inquiry that opened in South Korea’s capital on Tuesday.

This is the first time that the North’s human rights record has been examined by an expert panel, although the North, now ruled by a third generation of the founding Kim family, denies that it abuses human rights. It refuses to recognize the commission and has denied access to investigators.

Harrowing accounts from defectors now living in South Korea related how guards chopped off a man’s finger, forced inmates to eat frogs and a mother to kill her own baby.

“I had no idea at all … I thought my whole hand was going to be cut off at the wrist, so I felt thankful and grateful that only my finger was cut off,” said Shin Dong-hyuk, punished for dropping a sewing machine.

Born in a prison called Camp 14 and forced to watch the execution of his mother and brother whom he turned in for his own survival, Shin is North Korea’s best-known defector and camp survivor. He said he believed the U.N. panel was the only way to improve human rights in the isolated and impoverished state.

“Because the North Korean people cannot stand up with guns like Libya and Syria … I personally think this is the first and last hope left,” Shin said. “There is a lot for them to cover up, even though they don’t admit to anything.”

There are a 150,000-200,000 people in North Korean prison camps, according to independent estimates, and defectors say many inmates are malnourished or worked to death.

After more than a year and a half ruling North Korea, Kim Jong Un, 30, has shown few signs of changing the rigid rule of his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, state founder Kim Il Sung. Neither have there been signs of a thaw or loss of control inside the tightly controlled state.

Jee Heon-a, 34, told the Commission that from the first day of her incarceration in 1999, she discovered that salted frogs were one of the few things to eat.

“Everyone’s eyes were sunken. They all looked like animals. Frogs were hung from the buttons of their clothes, put in a plastic bag and their skins peeled off,” she said. “They ate salted frogs and so did I.”

Speaking softly, she took a deep breath when describing in detail how a mother was forced to kill her own baby.

“It was the first time I had seen a newborn baby and I felt happy. But suddenly there were footsteps and a security guard came in and told the mother to turn the baby upside down into a bowl of water,” she said.

“The mother begged the guard to spare her, but he kept beating her. So the mother, her hands shaking, put the baby face down in the water. The crying stopped and a bubble rose up as it died. A grandmother who had delivered the baby quietly took it out.”


Few experts expect the commission to have an immediate impact on the rights situation, although it will serve to publicize a campaign that has little visibility globally.

“The U.N. has tried various ways to pressure North Korea over the years in the field of human rights, and this is a way to raise the pressure a bit,” said Bill Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University in Britain.

“But it’s obvious that North Korea is a tough nut to crack and the U.N.’s means are limited. There would need to be profound political changes in North Korea to make headway in the field of human rights.”

But there appeared to be little interest in the issue in Seoul. Only a few dozen people, including journalists, attended the public hearing at a city center university.

Defectors are largely shunned or ignored in South Korea and eke out an existence in menial jobs, if they have them at all, according to official data.

Kim Jong Un stepped up the nuclear weapons and rocket programs launched by his father with a third nuclear test and two rocket launches and emphasizes the military in his speeches.

This year, he threatened the United States, South Korea and Japan with nuclear attack and although the country’s bellicose moves were dismissed as empty rhetoric, Kim succeeded in driving tension on the divided Korean peninsula sharply higher.

The hope of many activists would be for the Kim dynasty to fall and for leaders in Pyongyang to be put on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, although the U.N. commission says this is not possible for the moment.

On its website, the Commission said it was “not appropriate” to comment on any ICC jurisdiction over potential crimes against humanity as North Korea had not signed the statutes that would enable the court to prosecute.

Written by Andrew Coates

August 23, 2013 at 11:46 am

The Morning Star, Ramzy Baroud, and the “Arab Turmoil, Where do we Stand?”

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Left is pushing Tunisia into “abyss” says Morning Star Article. 

The Morning Star has published a curious article by Ramzy Baroud titled, ‘The Arab turmoil: where do we stand?

Baroud  has been published by  Counterpunch.

Writing after the Boston Bombings he noted on the 2nd of May, ” hating Islam’ is also a convenient pretence to achieve foreign policy objectives that are centred around imperial domination, thus natural resources.”

“It is an essential component of ensuring that a largely uninformed public is always on board whenever the US is ready for yet another military adventure involving Muslim countries.”

Why is this happening now?

Baroud enlightened us.

In the Middle East,

…a new war is brewing, one that is largely aimed at ensuring that the current chaos underway in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ countries will yield favourable results from the view points of Israel, America and the west. The new push for military intervention started with Israeli allegations that the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons against opposition forces, followed by British-French allegations, and finally, despite brief hesitation, concurred by U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel.”

This development has, shall we say, yet to come to pass.

In his latest piece Baround tries another tack.

He underlines that

The Islamic dimension of Arab rebellions – some of which turned into bloody civil and regional wars – should have been palpable from the very start to anyone interested in understanding political reality beyond its usefulness as a propaganda tool.

Islam has and will always be a component in shaping Arab nations.

Political Islam is a manifestation of a century-long struggle where Islam was a platform of political expression, governance and jurisprudence which resisted many imported and Western-styled trends. It has now moved to the heart of the ongoing strife.

Throughout the years there has not been one successful union between Islam and Arab ruling classes – successful in the sense that it contributed to progress, rights and prosperity for all.

Islamists were either co-opted or conflict reigned. The atrociousness of the results of these conflicts varied depending on how clever Arab rulers were in their management.

Political Islam is a “political expression” of a form of Islam that concentrated on law and the state that “resisted” Western trend. It can be co-opted, or conflicts will result.

Apparently this is eternal, and “always” be there.

It might have been useful to ask, and what is this kind of Islam an “expression” of?

Many on the left consider it an ideology that articulates the interests of the pious bourgeoisie, structured in some of the most organised political forms in the world (the ideal-type being the Muslim Brotherhood and  Khomeni’s Iran).

They have a history, in this “century”, in which the spectrum of political Islam has played its anti-Western culturalism, and bound it to a pro-market, capitalist, political agenda. They were, and are, the ferocious opponents of the left wing of  anti-colonial Arab nationalism.

Political Islam is a vehicle for  the views of sections of the national capitalist classes, disaffected functionaries, and the urban poor. Out of of power. Political Islam has constructed ‘micro-states’ or rather “micropowesr’ (as Foucault called them) where their moral rules are enforced by pressure up to the point of violence.

The “governance and jurisprudence” these political ‘expressions’ advocate are of a ‘total’ character, that treat the population like believing cattle under the rule of Islamic ‘legal’ specialists.

The dire consequences for religious – and often ethnic (Kablye, Kurdish) minorities, women, gays and non-believers are well known.

Today they are threatened by a new political wave in the Middle East, one that is made up of liberals, trade unionists, and a variety of left groupings, including the remnants of Arab ‘Nassarism’.

Clearly this worries Baduad, particularly the secularist forces who most resolutely oppose the forces of Islamism.

Baroud cites Algeria as an example of how not to treat Political Islam,

In Algeria, an attempt at harmonisation went terribly wrong. The 1991 Algerian civil war lasted for over a decade and resulted in the death of up to 200,000 people.

He locates the problem in the military cancellation of elections, which the Islamist FUS was tipped to win.

But the problem lay deeper.

The FIS had already begun constructing its ‘micro state’ attacking and killing it secularist opponents.

On Egypt Baroud states,

Egypt is now taking its first steps towards becoming another Algeria during the civil war. Do the coup leaders truly understand the repercussions of what they have done?

Without going into details on Egypt we note that the Muslim Brotherhood government had already begun building its religious state.

Since the end of last year Morsi was ruling by unfettered decree and there were plans to submit all legislation to the (unelected) decision-making power of the religious authorities.

On Tunisia Baroud opines,

A recent assassination, this time of nationalist politician Mohamed Brahmi, followed an earlier assassination of another high-profile politician Chokri Belaid.

Tunisia stands divided between those who want to topple the government and those who insist on its democratic right to govern.

Either way, there is no doubt that some suspect hands are trying to push Tunisia into an abyss that is being marketed as Islamists v secularists.

No mention is made of Brahmi and Belaid’s association with the left-wing Front Populaire.

The causal reader may be tempted to think that the protests held this week in Tunisia, by the  Front de salut national, backed by the Front Populaire, were led by those opposed to the Islamist led coalition’s “right to govern”. *

But Ennahda only rules as part of a coalition. 

Perhaps more significantly the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, in which it has the largest number of MPs,  is charged with drawing up a constitution on a broad, and if possible, consensual basis.

This is not taking place.

One of its coalition partners Ettakatol (with whom the Morning Star and the Communist Party of Britain have had debates) wants new elections.

They are concerned about allegations of cross-overs between  Ennahda and the violent Salafists, whom they accuse of carrying out these assassinations.

There are signs of attempts to impose the kind of Islamist moral order sketched above.**

Baroud’s answer to the question, Where do we Stand?” appears to be – at least some way on the same ground as the Islamists.

Beyond that he solemnly concludes, after noting that in Syria, “the war rapidly took on a dangerous sectarian conflict whose implications are felt near and far,” that,

“There will be more blood, but a return to the past is surely a thing of the past.”

Which is not much of a response to the weighty question posed.

** The provisional aims of the widely based Front de salut national are (Europe Solidaire),

Les organisations de la société civile et les partis politiques composant le Front de Salut National et qui participent à la manifestation du 6 août « Six mois après l’assassinat du martyr Chokri Belaïd sans que la vérité soit établie » :

• maintiennent leur position et renouvellent leur détermination à poursuivre la lutte sous toutes les formes citoyennes et pacifiques jusqu’à la dissolution de l’Assemblée Nationale Constituante et les les institutions qui en découlent.

• réaffirment au peuple tunisien et ses expressions politiques, sociales, civiles, culturelles et de jeunesse, que le Front de Salut est uni autour de ces exigences minimales qui constituent une ligne rouge. Ces exigences sont indispensables pour sortir le pays de la crise qu’il traverse. Le front de Salut est en train de préparer la mise en place des instances de Salut national et l’établissement d’une feuille de route pour la période à venir.

• déclarent que la pays ne peut plus rester plongé dans l’impasse et la crise actuelle, nous prendrons juste après l’Aïd l’ensemble des mesures et procédures qui s’imposent pour le salut.

Front de Salut National

Tunis, le 5 août 2013

**Al Jazeera: “Mouna Ben Halima, an activist and hotel owner, told Al Jazeera that the protests prompted an outcry among Ennahda’s opponents over a host of other social and economic issues, including the arrests under the Ennahda-led administration of a 19-year-old activist of women’s rights advocacy group Femen, Amina Sboui, and dissident rapper Weld el 15.

List of Front du salut national supporters (initial):

Abdelbasset Sammari : Courant réformiste d’Ettakatol;
Mahmoud Besrour: Prospective & Développement;
Kheireddine Souabni: Parti d’Avant-garde arabe démocratique/Front Populaire;
Jawher Ben Mbarek: Dostourouna;
Hazem Ksouri: l’Association de la Tunisie Libre;
Mohamed Bennour: Tamarrod;
Taoufik Laâbidi: secrétaire général du parti Tounes Baytouna;
Bechir Rajhi: Citoyenneté et Solidarité;
Emna Mnif: Kolna Tounes;
Nizar Amami: la Ligue de la gauche ouvrière/Front Populaire;
Houssem Hammi: Alternative Sociale et démocratique;
Hatem Fekih: Mouvement du militantisme national;
Souha Ben Othmane: Mon droit;
Fathia Saïdi: Centre de recherche pour la formation sur la citoyenneté;
Sana Ben Achour: Association Baïti;
Ali Faleh: Parti du Front national tunisien;
Taoufik Saïri: Association Adam pour l’égalité et le développement;
Jilani Hammami : Parti des ouvriers/Front Populaire;
Zied Lakhdhar : Parti des Patriotes démocrates Unifié/ Front Populaire;
Zied Rajhi: Union des diplômés chômeurs;
Lotfi Ben Issa : Pôle démocratique moderniste/Front Populaire;
Fayçal Tebbini: La Voix des agriculteurs;
Mahmoud Doggui: Organisation du martyr de la liberté Nabil Barakati;
Khedija Ben Hassine : Afturd;
Radhia Nasraoui: Organisation tunisienne de lutte contre la torture;
Mohamed Kilani: Parti Socialiste ;
Nabil Ben Azzouz : Initiative nationale pour un front de salut national;
Noureddine Ben Ticha: Nida Tounes;
Nasreddine Sehili : Khnagtouna.


From here.

Written by Andrew Coates

August 9, 2013 at 12:12 pm

The Act of Killing: Review, Genocide in Indonesia.

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In Prague, 1948, my mother knew an English woman who married an Indonesian Communist and went to live in the country.

As children Mavis told us of the 1965-6 mass killings in Indonesia and wondered what had happened to her friend.

I believe she survived.

This was one of the 20th century’s most unreported crimes.

An estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 people were secretly and systematically killed in 1965-1966 in a bloody purge of suspected communists throughout Indonesia. Others put the figure higher.

The Act of Killing is a documentary film by Joshua Oppenheimer that plunges into the darkness of that genocide.

It opens with shots of ethereal dancers swaying in verdant countryside.

The words of Voltaire, “All murderers are punished, unless they kill in large numbers, and to the sound of trumpets” appear on the screen.

The protagonists are Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry in Medan (North Sumatra) . During the Indonesian killings of 1965-6 they ran a death squad.  They tortured, slaughtered , and extorted those (usually ethnic Chinese) able to but their way out.  Anwar personally killed around 1,000 people, usually by strangling with wire, which he commends as less messy than other murder methods.

The film follows Anwar and his friends. They have been invited to re-enact the killings for the cameras. They are soon busy making their own movie,  depicting their memories of the period, happy as often as not.

It’s as if members of an Einsatzgruppe had become the Sealed Knot.

The production of the ‘film’ is interwoven with shards from their present-day life.

Anwar is a pillar of society, or what passes for it in Sumatra.

He has continued links with the Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary organisation closely tied to  present-day Indonesian political establishment. They revel in being ‘gangsters’ claiming it signifies ‘free men’ – an English phrase like many others that crops up in their conversation.

The genociders’  ‘film’ becomes more and more surreal. It’s a jumble of Fellini grotesques, Indonesian ghosts and demons, musicals, cowboy movies, and Nazi sado-porn.

Invited on a local television station to discuss the project Anwar defends his actions, “God hates Communists”.

There is not the remotest suggestion that they will ever be punished for their crimes. Human rights? says Adi. They are irrelevant.

If he is utterly without remorse, Anwar by contrast appears greatly troubled by all the dead he left behind.

Oppenheimer has called the film  “a documentary of the imagination.”

It would be more accurate to say that, ” we find ourselves looking long into an abyss in which unspeakable horror and utterly mundane madness are thrown together “ Mark Kermonde.

The Act of Killing does not cover other areas where the murders took place. Or other forces than gangsters who were involved.

Apart from the anti-Communist and anti-Chinese motivations of the killers there was a religious dimension.

Wikipedia notes, The Muslim group Muhammadiyah proclaimed in early November 1965 that the extermination of “Gestapu/PKI” constituted Holy War (“Gestapu” being the military’s name for the “30 September Movement”), a position that was supported by other Islamic groups in Java and Sumatra. For many youths, killing Communists became a religious duty. Where there had been Communist centres in Central and East Java, Muslim groups portraying themselves as victims of Communist aggression justified the killings by evoking the Madiun Affair of 1948. Roman Catholic students in the Yogyakarta region left their hostels at night to join in the execution of truckloads of arrested Communists.

This is an important and deeply unsettling film.

A number of times it’s repeated on the screen that if any of the victims wish to rise up again they will be crushed.

I cannot but think that it showed the worst side of the “most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.” – as the King of Brobdingnag put it.


Written by Andrew Coates

August 4, 2013 at 11:20 am

Wadjda and the Critique of Multiculturalism.

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Wadjda: Joyous and Free.

Wadjda is  pioneering film by Saudi Arabia’s first female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour. She  is also the first person to shoot a full-length feature in the country itself.

The picture is  wonderful. It also raises serious political and cultural issues.

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a 10-year-old. She is referred to in reviews as  “sparky” and “rebellious” and, somewhat patronisingly, a “sweet scamp”.

She reminded me of Marjane Satrap in Persepolis - someone  with the humour and wit to stand up for herself against the dead hand of religious pressure.

In that film Marji faced the power of Khomeni’s Iranian Islamists.

In Wadjda  the heroine has to live with the Saudi educational system and the male-dominated world of orthodox Islam.

The latter appears in the trap her mother is caught in: a life dependent on the good will of her husband, a daily commute provided by a Pakistani driver who speaks broken Arabic, and  her fears about him searching for another wife.

For her daughter we see  the continuous surveillance of her dress, and the sudden appearance of the religious police when Wadjda is seen playing around with a boy.

The scenario revolves around Wadja’s efforts to buy a bicycle.

Bikes are, naturally, not seen as suitable for modest women.

Listening to “satanic” rock music she plots to raise the cash. But selling football team colour bracelets does not get her far.

Her efforts also get ensnared by  her pious head mistress – whose constant enforcement  of the Islamic ‘modesty’ codes go against the fibre of the young rebel.

Wadjda hears that winning a  Qur’an  knowledge and recital competition could deliver her the money.

She suddenly becomes pious and sets out for victory.

As her project gets underway there are plenty of moments with a  political message.

With an admiring friend, a young boy, they pass a celebration of a suicide bomber’s death. He remarks that the martyr will  be enjoying 72 virgins in paradise.

Wadjda looks at him wryly and says,”Does that mean I’ll get 72 bicycles in heaven?”

It’s hard not to relate the film to recent discussion about multiculturalism.

It is the right thing to defend plural cultural identities, and, specifically, groups targeted by the Church and King mob of the English Defence League.

But do we want to defend those who wish to introduce a moral police like that of Saudi Arabia?

The curriculum followed by Wadjda is present in this country, in Saudi linked  schools – right up to their textbooks. It’s hard not to imagine that the religious policing that goes with it is not present.

Wadjda shows  how women can be joyous and free.

Like the Iranian film by Jafar Panahi Offside it expresses the universal hopes for human freedom.

And it does so beautifully.

Written by Andrew Coates

July 21, 2013 at 11:09 am