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Tuesday, 24 May 2011

FEATURE: A paradise lost

Between 1968 and 1973 the inhabitants of a British Overseas Territory known as Chagos Archipelago were forcibly removed from their homeland. In a very controversial decision, the Government of the UK decided to allow the installation of a US military base in the biggest of the islands of the Archipelago, Diego García.

The removal of the islanders was slow but carefully planned. Months before the complete removal of the inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago, their pets were poisoned and their families were threatened .

Then the evicted Chagossians were confined in small communities in the neighbouring Mauritius and in London. They were also stripped of their British nationality, as the government retired their UK passports. In a matter of weeks the Chagossians were forcibly removed from their land and lost their British nationality, becoming a nation with no land and an invisible community spread all over the world.

The roots of the conflict go back to 1965, when the UK dettached the territory from the colony of Mauritius and Diego García was ceded to the US for, at least, the next 50 years. The island would be used for military purposes only, and the inhabitants had to be removed from Chagos. In exchange, the UK received $14 million and closed an important deal to purchase American nuclear submarines .

Given the insistence of the Chagossians, the UK approved an Immigration Ordinance in 1971, whereby any person wasn't allowed to even enter the whole territory. The situation of the islanders was therefore made unlawful. Secret conversations in the British administration lead to the resolution that the UK had to find the way to remove the islanders at any cost, "providing legal power to deport people who will not leave voluntarily, preventing people from entering, and maintaining the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population" .

During the 80s the UK Government tried to settle down the dispute by giving economic compensations which reached £4m to the surviving islanders, and the case was closed and forgotten.

However, in 1998 some of the chagossians who lived in Mauritius took the case to the British High Court, claiming that their removal was made by illegal means. In November 2000, a historical resolution gave the illois their right to return home, as the Court found that their removal was unlawful. It was then seen as the end of the conflict, but the UK Government was not going to give up the islands so easily.

An article on the Chicago Tribune in October 2001 showed the ongoing conflict and the importance of preserving the US military base in Chagos at any cost. As an expert quoted at the article put it, "the US would be seriously affected if we had to leave the island. It is extraordinarily important to us; it allows us to keep a lot of ammunition and ground equipment near the Persian Gulf".

The decision of the High Court evidenced that the UK administration back in the 70s had acted in an illegal way. But, what is the current situation of the conflict? Are the Chagossians in a better situation than ten years ago?

The situation of the Chagossians hasn't improved much in the last decade, and the conflict has reached a stalemate difficult to break. After the Court ruled in favour of the Chagossians, allowing them to return home after more than 30 years, the UK government decided to act quickly in order to prevent the islanders to go back to Diego García, something that could threaten the military base and would put at risk the good relationship between the UK and the US administrations.

In 2004 the UK Government enacted the so-called Constitution and Immigration Orders, whereby the islanders were again refused their resettlement because it would be too expensive and environmentally unsustainable. But again, the High Court ruled in favour of the illois, stating that the 2004 Orders were unlawful. However, the UK Government appealed in 2007 before the Court of Appeal. As John Howell, QC for the Foreign Secretary stated, "this appeal raises issues of constitutional law of great importance. If the approach of the High Court was correct, it represented a revolutionary change in the constitutional law involved, which will affect all British Overseas Territories".

On May 23rd the High Court ruled in favour of the islanders for the third time, dismissing the UK Government's claims. However, the Court also ruled that the UK Government could appeal to the House of Lords directly. Only one month later, the UK administration appealed to the Law Lords and after one year of deliberation they ruled in Goverment's favour by a margin of only three to two votes.

In a public speech, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary at that time, expressed his satisfaction after knowing the ruling. "Our appeal to the House of Lords was not about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. It was about decisions taken in the international context of 2004. This required us to take into account issues of defence and security of the archipelago and the fact that an independent study had come down heavily against the feasibility of lasting resettlement of the outer islands of BIOT", stated.

The ruling of the Law Lords proved controversial when one of the experts that had been commissioned to carry out an environmental study about the feasibility of the resettlement of the illois was forced to remove his opinion, which was favourable to the return of the Chagossians, from the document .

After the ruling of the Law Lords the Chagossians, throughout the Chagos Refugee Group, took the case to the last instance, the European Court of Human Rights, which is still deliberating.

In April 2010, the UK Government, in a maneouvre apparently not related to the case, decided to set up a marine reserve in the British Indian Ocean Territory. The Government claimed that this decision showed the commitment of the UK with the environment. Several conservation groups backed the decision. "The MPA will cover some quarter of a million square miles and its establishment will double the global coverage of the world's oceans under protection. Its creation is a major step forward for protecting the oceans, not just around BIOT itself, but also throughout the world. This measure is a further demonstration of how the UK takes its international environmental responsibilities seriously", said Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

The decision was criticised by the Chagossians, who argued that the decision of setting up a Marine Protected Area in the Archipelago was taken to avoid the resettlement of the islanders, if the European Court of Human Rights finally ruled in favour of them.

The suspicions of the Chagossians were later confirmed by whistle-blower website Wikileaks, which leaked 500,000 top secret documents from US diplomatic outposts all around the world to four big newspapers in the UK, Spain, Germany and the US. In one of the embassy cables published by Wikileaks, the Director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that "establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents" .

"We do not regret the removal of the population, since removal was necessary for the BIOT to fulfill its strategic purpose", reads the leaked document .

The decision of setting up a marine reserve also aroused ignited discussions in the neighbouring Mauritius, which has been claiming sovereignty over Chagos Archipelago since 1965, and is currently holding a dispute with the UK administration .

With the creation of the marine reserve, the last hope for the Chagossians is almost gone. The Marine Protected Area forbids any human settlement in the whole Archipelago. Even if the European Court of Human Rights rules in favour of the islanders, it is unlikely that they will be allowed to return to their homeland.

On May 19, 2011, different Chagossians' support groups held a conference in London on the future of the Archipelago. The new situation forced the islanders to change strategy. The support groups presented a new project, based on the settlement of small eco-villages in the outer islands of the Archipelago, where some of the Chagossians who are still willing to return would be allowed to live in short-term periods.

Currently there are only around 4,000 Chagossians still alive. Some of them have given up any hope. Some others don't want to fight anymore. As for the rest, those who want to return, time is running against them. They have been fighting for over 40 years and now, in their eighties, they still hope that one day, before they die, they will be allowed to recover their lost paradise.

By CDR with No comments

Thursday, 12 May 2011

FEATURE: Beyond the Libyan spring

Rebels on top of a captured tank. Source: AP

On March 2004, Tony Blair, then the British Prime Minister, visited Libya and received a warm welcome from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. It was the first British politician to visit the country on a diplomatic trip after UN and US sanctions were lifted in 1999 and 2006 respectively. Blair then praised the booming economy of the country and the government's commitment in the fight against Al-Qaeda. As he put it, "I have been struck by how Colonel Gaddafi wants to make common cause with us against extremists and terrorism. The signs are better than they have been for many years. And the future prize in terms of security not just of this region but the wider world, indeed our own country, is great".

Exactly seven years later, on March 2011, UN's Security Council approved resolution 1973, imposing a no-fly zone over the country and authorising "all necessary measures" to protect the civilians against the Libyan army, boosting the rebels' aspirations. Only a few days before, France had become the first country to recognise the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya. But who are the rebels?

First time the world heard about the Libyan rebels was last February, after demonstrations held in the main cities of the country against Gaddafi's tough regime were firmly repressed by the use of military force. A few weeks later, the demonstrators organised themselves and occupied Benghazi, Libya's second biggest city, making it their stronghold. Further combats drew Gaddafi's forces back, while the rebels advanced towards the capital Tripoli.

According to Imad El-Anis, Libya specialist and lecturer in International Relations at Nottingham Trent University, "the ‘rebels’ are a diverse range of people: some are soldiers who in effect defected, some are people who are still closely linked to one tribe or another, but basically they are a patchwork of ordinary Libyans from all walks of life who have the same cause: reform of their government. The military response that the regime took against the pro-reform movement in its early stage also pushed ordinary civilians into the ‘rebellion’ in order to defend themselves."

On the other hand John Pike, director of defense think tank points out that the conflict between the rebels and the Libyan government is the result of clashes between different tribes in the country. He argues that when Libya was created it forced different existing ethnias and tribes to form part of the same political territory, sharing an artificial governance in an artificial country.

"Libya is a divided country, and one underlying dynamic in play here is the conflict between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Although both territories had been united into Libya at independence in 1951, for the previous three thousand years these two territories had persisted as separate and distinct entities. Decades of Libya had not overcome the differences of millennia, and a territorially based civil war was the natural product of these distinctions. In Cyrenaica, the tribe was the chief focus of social identification. In Tripolitania, by contrast, loyalty that in a social context was reserved largely to the family and kinship group could be transferred more easily to a political party and its leader. The separateness of the regions is much more than simply geographical and political, for they have evolved largely as different socioeconomic entities, each with a culture, social structure, and values different from the others. Cyrenaica became Arabized at a somewhat earlier date than Tripolitania, and beduin tribes dominated it", explains Pike.

Children play on a tank in Benghazi. Source: EPA

Libya's rebels have become an armed group that fights a guerrilla-like warfare against government forces in the country. The emergence of this insurgent group is linked with the events that took place in Egypt and Tunisia early this year.

Tunisia and Egypt undertook a relatively peaceful revolution, removing the historical leaders of both countries from power, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. They had ruled their countries firmly for decades, but massive pacific protests and social pressure made the two leaders step down from power, putting an end to these tough regimes without a shot being fired.

Libya's situation, however, was different. Here Gaddafi reacted with violence to the first protests, ordering the army to open fire to the demonstrators. Whereas in Tunisia and Egypt the army decided not to intervene, in Libya it was tightly controlled by Gaddafi. The violence by which government forces reacted to the protests led to a military uprising in the East of the country, carried out by a force later known simply as "the rebels".

According to Dr. Eugene Rogan, Director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford University, "the uprising has led to civil war in Libya because the army has split, so there were armed elements in Benghazi siding with the opposition, and loyalist military units in Tripoli to support Gaddafi. It could be simply that those furthest from the capital were able to rise up against the regime with less risk than those closest to Tripoli".

Dr. El-Anis, on the other hand, argues that the difference between Libya, on one hand, and Egypt and Tunisia, on the other, underlies in the social and military structure of these countries.

"The military response that we saw in the early stages of the movement in Libya is the key difference. In Tunisia and Egypt the military was not used against the civilian movement. In both cases the military refused and instead basically sided with the masses. The military structure in Libya is quite different and is very closely controlled and connected to the regime and the ruling family in particular. Furthermore, the military response that the Gaddafi regime insisted on in the early stages was quite disproportionate and did not leave room for any kind of negotiated process of reform like we have seen in Morocco, Jordan and Oman", explains El-Anis.

The rebels, an heterogeneous group of armed militia, soldiers and civilians, didn't seek for Western military support from the very first moment. In the first weeks they carried out a blitzkrieg-style offensive that took them almost as far as 20km away from the capital, Tripoli. But a counter-offensive by the government forces, through their 22,000-man strong air force, pushed the rebels back to Benghazi. The rebels' strategy changed then, seeking for support from Western countries.

The Libyan conflict and the pipelines. Source: Stratsis Incite

On March 18, only 24 hours after Resolution 1973 was approved by UN's Security Council, French planes bombed, for the first time, positions held by Gaddafi. It was seen as a victory for the rebels, which conceived the Western intervention and the setting up of a no-fly zone as a definitive boost to their interests. But the Western support proved insufficient as Gaddafi forces resisted the strikes and advanced farther towards the rebels' stronghold of Benghazi.

The Western intervention also aroused ignited discussions among the allied countries. The initial discourse was based on the premises of protecting the civilians through a series of air strikes that would hit Gaddafi's military forces. The irruption of land forces was rejected since the very beginning. Only now, after months of a stalemate in the battle and the continuous claims of the rebels for Western support, UK, France and Italy discuss the possibility of sending "advisors" to the rebels .

"I do not think the Western powers will commit land forces to Libya. They seem to regret getting so deeply involved already, and the recent strike on the Gaddafi family residence suggests they are trying to hasten an end by killing Gaddafi himself. While the Afghan war continues, neither the US nor the UK will be willing to enter any new Afghanistans", says Dr. Rogan.

Dr. El-Anis also points out that the situation has reached a critical point. "We can be sure that on the ground and behind closed doors in decision making circles there is still a lot of activity. I think NATO forces understand that the situation will not be eased for quite a few weeks and months. There is very little chance of NATO or any other soldiers on the ground in Libya any time soon", explains.

The situation has reached a point in which none of the combating forces seems a clear winner. According to a research carried out by IHS Global Insight, an American think tank, "NATO allies will be stuck between a rock and a hard place for the foreseeable future, fearing being dragged into a prolonged conflict for which they might be forced to take responsibility. The more active allies, UK, France and US might therefore seek fresh means of engagement, through non-lethal military aid, such as the package declared by the US on 20 April, and logistical and training support. However, without a strategic military shift that swings the power balance decisively in the hands of the rebels, the stalemate is set to drag on ".

The UN has also warned that more funds would be needed to support "relief operations" in Libya. "Unless funds are swiftly committed by donor countries, this shortfall will likely impact vital humanitarian assistance for tens of thousands of people displaced by the recent fighting", said UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic .

The shortage of Western military and economic support would be a hard blow to the rebels' aspirations.

A Libyan rebel guards a checkpoint in Brega. Source: Stratsis Incite

The current situation seems far from being resolved. Experts have already warned that the conflict in Libya could evolve into a permanent civil war with the presence of NATO forces, transforming the country into a new Afghanistan. Former Libyan Foreign Ministry, Moussa Koussa, which fled the country in early April, told the BBC that "taking Libya into civil war would lead to so much blood and Libya would be a new Somalia".

A rebel victory in the conflict seems unrealistic right now, and it will certainly never happen without Western support. In that unlikely situation, Libya could end up being ruled by an unknown leader under the close surveillance of the UN and the Western powers. This would appease all the factions involved in the conflict, as happened in Afghanistan with Mohammed Karzai. Western leaders have asked Gaddafi to step down from power and go into exile in several occasions. Still, even if the rebels win with Western support, there is a high risk of confrontation between different factions, given their heterogeneous nature.

"The future in Libya no doubt will involve regime change. The US, UK and France have all pledged not to stop until Gaddafi goes, so they have made that much clear. In the absence of sound state institutions, the scope for collapse and further conflict is a present danger. A UN trusteeship cannot be ruled out to help the Libyans secure their country post-Gaddafi while shaping new institutions of government", says Dr. Rogan.

Middle East experts at Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank, argue that the Western powers should indeed back the creation of a national anti-Gaddafi coalition. "Such a broad national coalition could become the basis for a transitional government that could guide Libya towards achieving a just, representative and democratic government. The creation of a broad-based, respected and widely-accepted transition government with a large military component will be necessary to create a suitable environment in which Libya’s first free and fair post-Gaddafi elections could be organised", explain.

Dr. El-Anis, on the other hand, warns that the conflict will be long, and the possible future scenarios are not very clear. "The rebels don’t have much chance of success if international pressure on Gaddafi eases off. Financially speaking the regime is running out of funds and this is probably going to be the key. Ultimately though I don’t think the rebels are likely to be able to overthrow the regime militarily and likewise Gaddafi’s forces are not likely to be able to militarily re-assert their control over much of Libya as long as NATO is involved. Eventually I think we will see some kind of progressive political process alongside the military one and the removal of the Gaddafi regime is still what I think will happen", argues.

Saif Al-Islam, heir to Gaddafi's regime. Source: AFP

Another situation could see Gaddafi fleeing the country and his second son, Saif Al-Islam, ruling it but undertaking several reforms which will try to appease the Western powers. Mr. Al-Islam, who studied at the London School of Economics and owned a mansion in London, still enjoys a close relation with prominent figures in the UK. He also told in an interview published in The Spectator, back in 2002, that once in power his policy would be focused on transforming Libya into a Western-like democracy .

Whatever happens, the prospects of a rapid and clear victory of the rebels seem highly unlikely.

By CDR with No comments

Friday, 6 May 2011

COMMENT: A stagnant economy?

Source: Treasury

The announced cuts and the increase of the taxes are trying to boost the British economy, which now face the hard task of overcoming the hangover left by the deep financial crisis that hit the whole world in 2008. However, Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, also was forced to announce that despite the reforms and the cuts the 2011 growth forecast for the British economy will be downgraded from 2.1% to 1.7%. Similarly, the forecast for the following year, 2012, will decrease from 2.6% to 2.5%. Finally, the economic forecasts point out that inflation will remain between 4% and 5% in 2011, and will fall to 2.5% in the following year.

The aggressive cuts announced by the British Government will affect various key sectors. The good news is that concerning fuel, the duty is being cut by 1p per litre, and the planned inflation rise in fuel duty, scheduled for last April, was delayed until 2012. These measures will be covered by an extra £2 billion tax applied to the main oil firms present in the North Sea. However, the VAT on fuel will not be reduced. Concerning other key products, the Government won’t reform the planned rises in alcohol and tobacco tax, of 4p on a pint of beer and 15p on a bottle of wine.

Regarding the borrowing, the forecast is £146 billion for this year, £2.5 billion lower than expected. Osborne forecasted that the borrowing will fall to £122 billion in 2012 and £29 billion by 2015-2016. The national debt forecast for this year will reach the 60% of national income, rise to 71% in 2012 and finally fall to 69% by 2015.

Source: Treasury

Is the British economy facing a real threat of stagnation?

All these measures aim at reforming the badly-hit British economy but, will they be enough? Most business groups hailed the Budget, and agreed that would create new jobs, but there are fears among the oil and gas producers, who argue that the £2 billion tax in oil companies will damage a key sector in the UK. On the other hand, the Institute of Fiscal Studies calculated a loss of £200 per household on average after the announced measures were finally applied, last April.

The new measures are regarded as little adjustments that won’t fix the whole problem in the British economy. They are seen as a plan that hopes for growth, rather than an actual plan designed to boost economic growth.

Source: Treasury

Wales, the poorest region in the UK

Wales eyes the Budget with hopes and fears. The planned extra £65 million over the next five years is good for the Welsh economy, yet it fails to balance the negative impact of the announced cuts in the region. Wales is currently the smallest economy of the whole United Kingdom, with an average GDP of less than half as that of London.

Wales also faces the problem of big unemployment rates, the highest of the whole country, peaking at 9%, some 126,000. It is obviously becoming a very worrying problem, and the cuts announced in the previous Budget won’t do any good to it.

The words of Plaid Cymru’s MP, Jonathan Edward, make it clear: “The truth is that the UK Government has no plan B for Wales, and worryingly there is a very real threat of a decade of economic stagnation”.

Yet an extra £65 million over the next five years, including up to £34 million in 2012 is a gift that Wales has to embrace. Yes, it fails to relieve the Welsh economy, but still, it is equivalent to a 0.1% increase in the Assembly Government’s resources. And we see it as the stepping Stone for the recovery of the Welsh economy.

By CDR with No comments

Sunday, 1 May 2011

INTERVIEW: Chasing lights and shadows

DAVID HURN (England, 1934) is one of these persons that can be described as self-made men. He self-taught and became an assistant at the Reflex Agency at only 21. Decades later he set up the renowned School of Documentary Photography in Newport. His photographs have registered everything from political demonstrations to the everyday life in Wales. He has already been 55 years on the business, and at 76 he is still an active photographer. His photographs showed the best and the worst, the prettiest and the dullest things, the most glamourouse and the most vulgar scenes; and for several decades he worked with the best and for the best. The Navigator chats with him about his career and the profession of photographer.

What is your latest work about?

Well, now I am focusing on the idea of perspective. Landscapes. I want to imitate those cityscapes and countryside views that the dutch painters depicted on the 17th Century. One of the things I have learned about landscape is that it is a completely different thing, it has nothing to do with what I have been doing in my life.

When did you feel attracted by photography?

In 1954. I was a kid and discovered that there was a Camera Club in my city. I was very shy, and taking pictures behind a camera was a good way to start, I didn't need to be exposed. I went to the club and asked them whether I could join, and they said that I needed a camera to join them, so i bought one. The I started taking photographs. I wanted to be a photographer and I showed photographs of what I knew: weddings, parties, local celebrations...

How were your beginnings?

I took my first photographs in 1955. The first equipment I had at this time was a small Kodak, and I used to sell photographs of weekend celebrations and weddings in Harrods. Now I still keep selling some of these prints. Then I bought another camera, a second-hand Leica, and used it all my life. Just recently I switched to digital. I do still take pictures with film cameras, I think Leica is the best camera ever made and has the best lenses.

Source: Magnum

How did you get to master photography?

I self taught, I learned from how the pros worked. When I started there were no schools, you just learned from making mistakes. It is very important to understand that you need a perfect technique, you cant do anything without having a perfect technique, and the way to learn is practising and practising. I once talked to a pianist, Baremboim, and i asked him what does make a great pianist. And he said "playing the piano a lot". It is the same with photography, you have to shoot and shoot in order to improve. I learned from experience, and especially from other people's experience.

You were one of the first Western photographers to document the Hungarian uprisings in 1956. How did you feel?

In 1956 me and a friend decided to go to Hungary to document the uprisings. We hitchhiked to Austria and then we discovered that some ambulances departed from there and entered Hungary. We asked one of the drivers and he took us. When I went to Hungary I didn't know hot it would be. You learn that things don´t take place when you expect they will, so that´s why I decided to follow journalists. Life had only a photographer there and then they saw me, so they said: "why don´t you work for us?", and once you are there you just have to take pictures on focus, because everything is happening around you.

How did you join Magnum and what did it mean for you?

One of the most difficult things as a photographer is getting access. I didn't know anything about Magnum, they didn't have an office in London, but I met some guys from Magnum, they saw my pictures and they asked me to join Magnum. For me it meant working with people that were better than you are, and you can learn a lot out of it because you watch and you learn. It was a clever thing to do.

Source: Magnum

You also photographed posters for Hollywood movies, especially those about James Bond...

Yes. One of the problems with the photography I do is that they pay low. I discovered that working on movies was a way to make money. I had a friend who worked with Sean Connery and told me that they were planning to do a low budget film called "James Bond". They didn't have a poster for the film, so I did it for them. When we were about to shoot it they told me that Sean Connery didn't have a gun. At that time I collected air pistols, so we made the photograph with my air-pistol. Years later we put the gun on auction and it sold for 300 pounds. I read that two months ago this same pistol was sold for 220,000 pounds.

Tom Carlyle, who did the James Bond movies, did also Barbarella. He rang me once and told me that they had problems with Jane Fonda and asked me to come over. I stayed with her for nine months, photographing her for the movie.

Later on you worked on three books about Wales. What was your purpose?

I have always photographed people doing things. I have curiosity and I try to participate in others' lives, in what you see around you. But you get older, and when I came back to Wales I wanted to show what was culture. What did mean being Welsh? I decided to do three books: how we live in Wales, people who live in Wales and a third book on the landscape of Wales. I left it the last because is more leisure. I´m 76 and wanted to try myself to slow down, that is why I decided to do landscape. What does the landscape, how is it done, the human use of landscape...

What is, in your opinion, the best advantage of being a photographer?

Living as a photographer you meet people and you do those things you want to do. I do take pictures for a purpose. I can´t just wander around and take a picture of something I like. I only record what interests me, but I have to make clear which kind of photograph I am looking for before going out and shoot. I think the world is a wonderful place, it never stops evolving, and I find interest on trying to record what I see. That is such a privilege.

By CDR with No comments
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