Human Rights are Never Domestic

By Henning Melber, ICWS Senior Fellow

ONCE upon a time, anti-colonial movements were fighting for human rights against oppression and injustice. Representatives of these agencies claimed a moral high ground.

As the “Wretched of the Earth” they expected and demanded international support for their legitimate goals and appealed to a global consciousness, which translated into international solidarity.

Many of the transitions toward self-determination were supported by such acts of solidarity. Considered as a “trust betrayed”, Namibia was a special case.

swapo

SWAPO

The United Nations General Assembly declared Swapo the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people”. Numerous campaigns exercised practical support, collected money, offered humanitarian assistance, took care of needs. Namibian independence was a triumph of collective responsibility based on moral principles.

International solidarity in our and many other cases was based on intervention. How else was apartheid declared a crime against humanity and those fighting the system supported it [through many forms], including sanctions?

Some forms of such solidarity have survived. The position of the Namibian government as regards the people of the Western Sahara and Palestine are prominent cases in point. Morocco and Israel surely consider this as an undue intervention into what they claim to be domestic affairs.

They are, of course, wrong. It is indeed a matter of international solidarity, siding with the oppressed, advocating their rights and thereby also promoting fundamental human rights universally.

673px-International_Criminal_Court_logo_svg

ICC- International Criminal Court

So how about the announcement that Namibia withdraws from the International Criminal Court (ICC) because it has become, according to President Geingob, an “abomination”? Namibia was – like more than 30 other African states – a signatory to the Rome Treaty and ratified early this century the ICC with its jurisdiction. Unfortunately (though not surprisingly), the most powerful countries did not do so.

The ICC subsequently implemented its mandate (with numerous Africans holding crucial positions as prosecutors and judges) with regard to investigating cases of mass violence, war crimes and crimes against humanity bordering on genocide. These cases were mainly (but not exclusively) in Africa, where most states had actively supported and signed the international treaties.

Most interventions of the ICC were initiated upon direct request from African states. In two cases (Kenya and Sudan), however, sitting presidents were implicated in acts of mass violence, which required ICC investigations.

Let us recall what we can more or less safely establish as facts in both cases: in Sudan at least an estimated 300 000 people died as a direct result of what can be qualified as state terror and war against minorities. In Kenya, investigations wanted to establish who was responsible and accountable for the deaths of several thousand people as part of election campaigns turning abhorrently violent. Notably, this was an initiative confined to a hearing.

If there is anything abominable, that is surely what happened in both countries, [against weak and most vulnerable fellow Africans]. And if there is something like international solidarity, then one could assume it demands from others not to be bystanders, which amounts to tolerating and thus endorsing state terror.

Is this what Namibia identifies with? Are we proud of abandoning an obligation to jealously guard human rights? And our only defence is that these were not committed by “imperialists” but “friends” or that powerful countries have not signed up to support the ICC?

Indeed, the ICC has no mandate to prosecute citizens of countries that have not signed up to or ratified the treaty (for example the United States, China, Russia, North Korea, India and Iran). But would that not be reason to embark on a worldwide campaign to name and shame and increase the pressure on these states? Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are so-called all-weather friends of Namibia. What about our principled respect for international human rights standards?

We should take a stance in favour of international solidarity with the oppressed, with the tortured and the maimed as others did in our own case. It would indeed share the understanding that “an injury to one is an injury to all”.

It would give practical meaning to what the Legal Assistance Centre rightly so responded in a press release to the allegation that the ICC would interfere into domestic affairs: “Human rights abuses are never a domestic affair. The words say it all – human rights belong to all humans – whatever their nationality and geographical location.”

We claimed that much, that apartheid could not be reduced to a domestic affair. It was a matter of international law and solidarity. Similarly, we should fight for anyone subjected to state terror and violence everywhere, instead of abandoning the moral high ground because a few friends have no moral compass. One cannot protect injustices by protecting and promoting other injustices. Two wrongs do not make a right.

A true abomination is being in the cosy company of rogue states and leaders, who have all reason to avoid being taken to task for atrocities they commit.

-Henning Melber joined Swapo in 1974.

Originally published by The Namibian

 

Censorship and the SABC

by Martin Plaut, ICWS Senior Research Fellow

SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Picture: Christa Eybers/Eyewitness News

SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Picture: Christa Eybers/Eyewitness News

On Friday 27th of May this year South Africa’s state owned broadcaster – the SABC – announced that it would will no longer broadcast footage of people destroying public property during protests.

The SABC’s Chief Operating Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, said that the destruction of public property was disrupting the lives of many, and that as a responsible public institution the SABC would not “assist these individuals to push their agenda that seeks media attention. As a public service broadcaster we have a mandate to educate the citizens, and we therefore have taken this bold decision to show that violent protests are not necessary,” he announced. The SABC argued that continuing to broadcast this material could “encourage other communities to do the same”.

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LGBTI vote at the UN shows battle for human rights is far from won

by Professor Henning Melber, ICWS Senior Research Fellow and Extraordinary Professor, University of Pretoria

image: Reuters

image: Reuters

The world has edged closer to placing the same value on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people as it does on human rights. Sadly, not all states, including many African countries, are on the same page.

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Observing Uganda’s 2016 Presidential Election

 By Dr Eva Namusoke, Postdoctoral Research Officer, ICWS

 The 18th February saw long-anticipated elections in Uganda, where the incumbent President Yoweri Museveni of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) faced his stiffest opposition in his 30 years in office. With a reported 60.8% of the votes, Museveni was declared winner and will continue as president until 2021. The election drew extensive coverage in Uganda and abroad with the campaign process being marked by frequent arrests of the opposition leader, sometimes clashes between the Ugandan police and opposition supporters, constraints on the media, and the recruitment of controversial Crime Preventers. In this election in Uganda, as on previous occasions, international election observers were invited into the country to witness and asses the democratic process. Election observers included teams from the EU, the East African Community, the AU and the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth in particular has one of the oldest traditions of election monitoring, having observed more than 130 elections in 36 countries since 1980. While the various observer groups present written reports about the process, the interviews in the Commonwealth Oral History Project (COHP) offer a look behind the scenes, moving beyond the measured words of the official reports and photo ops.

Olusegun Obasanjo, Chair, leads members of the Commonwealth Observer Group Commonwealth Observer Group - 2016 Uganda Elections

Olusegun Obasanjo, Chair, leads members of the Commonwealth Observer Group
Commonwealth Observer Group – 2016 Uganda Elections

 

Election monitoring in the Commonwealth began in 1980 under the leadership of General Secretary Sir Shridath “Sonny” Ramphal. In 1980, the Commonwealth sent a group to monitor the first elections in independent Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), the culmination of long-term involvement in the transition to majority rule. Neville Linton worked at the Commonwealth Secretariat from 1983-1995 and was involved in observing numerous elections. Along with his discussion of elections in Namibia, Kenya and Bangladesh, he also explained the beginning of the activities in 1980:

‘You see, these were crisis situations: Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, and the phase after Idi Amin. But they had been one-offs. What happened in the meeting in Malaysia was that it was accepted that this would now be part of the routine practices of the Commonwealth.’

The process of Commonwealth election monitoring was formalised following the 1989 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malaysia and as Linton recalled, Malaysia volunteered to be the first country to allow Commonwealth observers at its 1990 general election. As noted above, Uganda’s post-Amin 1980 election was one of the earliest observer missions for the Commonwealth. Hugh Craft, an Australian diplomat and member of the 1980 Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) described the turbulence of this particular election:

‘Violent? Yes, in the extreme. I vividly remember guerrilla leader Museveni surrounded by his AK47-bearing bodyguards, straight out of the jungle, coming into the Speke [Hotel] to see the COG.’

Raja Gomez, a Sri Lankan civil servant, was part of the same group as Craft and similarly remembers the events:

‘That was one in which we had soldiers firing in to our hotel. And we have a tape of the shots being fired and various people talking and saying silly things to each other – shall we get under tables and that type of thing you say to each other in situations that you would have never met before.’

Martin Aliker, a Ugandan diplomat, ran in the 1980 elections and discussed the results, arguing that while the voting was free and fair, the election was stolen by the electoral commissioner deliberately reporting the wrong winners.

Amitav Banerji, who joined the Commonwealth in 1990 was also actively involved in election monitoring and commented on what made the Commonwealth process unique:

‘Election observation by the Commonwealth was very different from other observer groups because they were led at much higher level, usually a former head of state or a former head of government.’

The inclusion of a former head of state remains an important part of the Commonwealth process and there appears to be an effort to ensure the individual is from the same continent. Most recently, the October 2015 Commonwealth Observer Group to Tanzania was led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, while the group in Uganda was led by another former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo. The 13-member group representing a range of professional and national backgrounds arrived in Uganda on the 11th February, a week ahead of the election, and spent their time meeting with various civil society groups. Reflecting on his experience in Namibia in 1994, Linton made an important point:

‘What we would do would be to go in before the election, in the run-up to the election because in any case that is when elections are fixed.’

His words were echoed with examples by another veteran of the Commonwealth monitoring process: Sandra Pepera who stated in reference to the 1992 Ghana elections:

‘Well, I think we understood intimately – straight off – that it was just too late to come in two weeks before polling and, clearly, certainly, in Ghana’s case… Yeah, two weeks before the election… This thing was a done deal long before COG arrived.’

As mentioned above, the campaign process for Uganda’s 2016 election has been a somewhat turbulent time for the opposition, suggesting the necessity to view the events of the 18th February within a longer timeline.

In Uganda’s 2016 election, unlike in previous years, the proliferation of social media added another level to monitoring. Despite the government’s surprise decision early on the 18th to block social media including Facebook, Twitter, and (in a move that unduly affected businesses) mobile money, the hashtag #UgandaDecides trended on Twitter. Through the creative use of VPNs to bypass the blockage, Ugandan news sources, opposition leaders and individuals alike shared stories of missing ballot papers, late openings and tense, hours long queues at polling stations. As a result the frustrations of Election Day in Uganda were instantly transmitted around the world, allowing the international community to follow events live.

The Commonwealth Observer Group’s preliminary report on Uganda’s 2016 election, published on the 20th February, echoes other international monitoring groups in its criticism of the process. With a long list of issues noted including a lack of transparency in campaign financing, restrictions placed on the media and incompetency in the work of the Electoral Commission, Obasanjo concluded that, as in previous Ugandan elections, ‘once again these elections fell short of meeting key democratic benchmarks’. Interestingly, African observer groups were notably less critical of the process.

Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who became Commonwealth General Secretary in 1990 right at the beginning of the huge scaling up of Commonwealth election monitoring described its significance:

‘Commonwealth observance of elections legitimises the election and makes it easier for the parties who have lost to accept the result if the election is judged to be free and fair by Commonwealth observers. And this works both for the governing and the opposition parties.’

In the case of Uganda’s most recent election, it appears the process was somewhat lacking in both freedom and fairness. In the wake of the announcement that Museveni had won, his closest opponent, Dr Kizza Besigye, who had received 35.37% of votes, disputed the result and was considering challenging the results in court. At the time of writing and despite protests from the likes of the US government, Besigye had been taken into police custody following three days of house arrest, and the office of his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party had been stormed by police. Police have also been deployed around major intersections in Kampala and Obasanjo has meanwhile urged security forces and political party supporters to ‘exercise restraint and avoid unnecessary confrontations’.

With Commonwealth observers present at presidential elections from 1980 and regularly alongside a slew of other observer groups in the years since, Uganda has perhaps one of the longest histories of international monitoring of its electoral process. However, it appears that while the levels of violence have reduced markedly since that first monitored 1980 election, there remains some way to go before the country can claim truly democratic elections.

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Commonwealth observers at polling stations, as Ugandan people cast their votes. Commonwealth Observer Group – 2016 Uganda Elections

 

Thatcher’s top secret plan to destabilise the Ethiopian government

by Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow, ICWS

Newly-released documents show that in 1985, the PM wrote to the Foreign Office seeking action on the Marxist and pro-Soviet regime in Ethiopia. Towards the end of 1985, at the height of the worst famine in modern Ethiopian history, Margaret Thatcher contemplated helping to topple the Ethiopian government. The documents – marked Top Secret and Personal – have now been placed in the National Archive.

Margaret_Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

The British prime minister had long made no bones about how much she disliked the military regime led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The British government was among the most generous donors to the Ethiopian famine appeal, but the regime itself – Marxist and pro-Soviet – was exactly the kind of authority Thatcher loathed.

By late 1985 the prime minister’s patience was wearing thin. Charles Powell, her private secretary, wrote to the Foreign Office asking what steps might be taken. The FCO, taking is normal, cautious approach wrote back on 27 November saying that: “Barring an assassin’s bullet, Mengistu looks secure, and the opposition movements inside and outside Ethiopia remain deeply divided. The choice is between seeking to influence the present regime, and a policy of containment.”

This did not satisfy Thatcher at all.

“The Prime Minister continues to believe that it is not enough just to jog along in our relations with the distasteful regime in Ethiopia,” came the reply from her private office, just two days later. “If the conclusion is that our present relations offer no serious scope for exercising beneficial and positive influence, she would like serious thought given to ways in which we could make life harder for the Ethiopian regime. These might, as examples, include:”

The letter then lists four options – the first two of which were explosive.

“i) support for the rebels in Eritrea and Tigray;

ii) a more active effort in conjunction with the Americans to identify and perhaps encourage opponents of Mengistu within Ethiopia”

The other two options were more conventional: asking other western powers to criticise the Ethiopian government and taking a “more robust line” when examples emerge of the abuse of aid.

The Foreign Office – and Geoffrey Howe as foreign secretary – must have found these suggestions very hard to digest. Certainly it took some more than a month for a suitable response to be drafted. “The Foreign Secretary agrees that jogging along with the Ethiopian regime would not be right,” came the reply on 10 January 1986.

But, noting that some progress was being made, the Foreign Office urged caution. Backing the rebels would – Sir Geoffrey believed – not work, driving Mengistu further into the arms of the Soviets and (a killer argument with Mrs T) it was also noted that the Eritrean and Tigrayan rebel leaders were “…as extreme in their broadly Marxist political attitudes as the Derg [the Ethiopian government].”

The letter concludes: “We do not believe that support for the rebels would work to our advantage.”

What is interesting to note is that the British government was – if this correspondence is to be believed – unaware that aid that international charities were providing through the Sudan based rebel movements was already being diverted to purchase weapons. A programme I produced for the BBC in 2010  detailed this evidence.

Bob Geldof objected – saying that none of Band Aid’s money had gone astray (a suggestion the programme never made). The BBC Trust apologised to Geldof for the apparent mistake.

I was subsequently contacted by the head of a major British aid agency who substantiated the claims that aid had gone astray, without commenting on which agency’s resources had been used to buy arms and ammunition.

Originally published by the New Statesman 

International migration and asylum – an opportunity for the Commonwealth to show leadership

by Richard Bourne, ICWS Senior Research Fellowship 

The meeting of Commonwealth Heads in Malta is likely to be dominated by three issues – the election of a Secretary-General to run the Secretariat from 2016, positions for the Commonwealth to take at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris (COP21), and how to handle the strains caused by international migration. The third issue is the most intractable. Malta itself is a destination for migrants and asylum seekers, crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats from Libya. Commonwealth states have radically different national strategies – from the culture of welcome in an immigrant country like Canada, to the caution of the UK, the worries about Bangladeshis in India (where India has erected a concrete and barbed wire wall), and fences separating Botswana and Zimbabwe, and South Africa from Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Australia, of course, has been running an offshore processing centre for asylum seekers in the tiny Commonwealth state of Nauru.

Border fence between South Africa and Mozambique. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Border fence between South Africa and Mozambique. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The most comprehensive study of migration trends in the Commonwealth was conducted by the Ramphal Institute in 2009-2011. Conducted by a commission chaired by P J Patterson, former prime minister of Jamaica, it was assisted by high level academics from Oxford, the University of the West Indies, and Adelaide.

Alan Gamlen, the New Zealander who drafted the first of the commission’s three reports, which took Singapore, South Africa, New Zealand and Bangladesh as case studies, urged the Commonwealth to reconnect with the issue. He argued for the building of capacity to manage migration, streamlined policies to encourage brain circulation and mitigate brain drain, encouragement for migrants to share their success with both origin and destination states, and stronger international cooperation.

Recent events have shown the weakness of international cooperation, especially at a European level, and spotlighted the impact of war, insecurity and human rights abuse in stimulating refugee flows. Humanitarian conventions and the right to asylum have been put aside by some of the richer states, worried that economic migrants who might not gain entry, under the kind of points-based system developed in Australia, pretend to be refugees seeking asylum. There have been hints in the London press that the UK prime minister, David Cameron, may approach Commonwealth African leaders to fund overseas processing centres which might cope with, for example, those fleeing Eritrea; he may also speak to President Buhari of Nigeria about the Nigerians who have been attempting to get to Europe after crossing the Sahara, escaping the mayhem of Boko Haram.

"Malta-halfar-tents-nov2009" by Myriam ThyesLicensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A refugee camp in Malta. “Malta-halfar-tents-nov2009” by Myriam Thyes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Following the Ramphal Institute report, acknowledged in the Perth summit communique, the Commonwealth Secretariat held a meeting in Jamaica to review the extent to which small states suffering brain drain could facilitate investment from and return by their migrating citizens. It also asked the Institute to investigate how visa rules, affecting movement between Commonwealth states, could be simplified. This was a question that had also been raised by the Eminent Persons Group, which was worried that the Commonwealth seemed so remote from and of little help to its two billion plus citizens.
Partly because of security worries and the diverse national perspectives, this Ramphal exercise – which involved a tour of 15 capitals by Farooq Sobhan, Michael Frendo and James Jonah – did not result in immediate acceptance of the recommendations to the summit at Colombo in 2015. The inquiry had proposed easing travel for legitimate tourists, and a business card similar to the APEC business card, heavily used by Australian and Chinese business people. The Ramphal Institute indicated that, with a number of regional bodies like CARICOM committed to free movement, it would in theory be possible for different regional blocs to exchange visa reduction. But Colombo did have one positive result. A working party on visas, formed of High Commission reps in London and chaired by Gary Dunn from the Secretariat, has been meeting in 2014-5. It is expected to recommend to the Valletta summit that all states should commit to a “Commonwealth advantage” in revising their visa policies, so that for example Commonwealth citizens in transit through London, Johannesburg or Sydney, would not be charged.

The Queen will attend CHOGM this year. By Joel Rouse/ Ministry of Defence [OGL 3], via Wikimedia Commons

The Queen will attend CHOGM this year. By Joel Rouse/ Ministry of Defence [OGL 3], via Wikimedia Commons

What else might the Commonwealth leaders do in Malta? Many journalists, in the developed and developing world, love to attack the body as “a club”, “a talk-fest”, and “a colonial hangover” but it is likely that the decline in attendance by heads will reverse in Valletta, partly because of the S-G election and partly because the Queen, in her capacity as Head of the Commonwealth, has said she will come. The leaders must take this chance to make a real contribution, which can be noted by media and publics.

Two specifics: first, a declaration to assist the international community, and the countries from which countries are coming; this would bundle together a commitment to development and better life chances, democracy and rights and better security for citizens. Peacemaking in Syria would help. This would need to be followed up by Joseph Muscat, Malta’s energetic prime minister who will shortly chair the European Council, in talks with Brussels and specially affected Commonwealth countries like South Africa, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Australia.

The second would be to arrange a meeting of police chiefs from states particularly affected by people smuggling – such as Malta, Cyprus, South Africa, UK and Australia – to coordinate a crackdown on the smugglers.

Migration and asylum do not need to be no-win topics for the Commonwealth. The association, benefiting from its diversity, can show leadership here.

A historic trial and justice denied

by Henning Melber, ICWS Senior Research Fellow

The principle in dubio pro reo (“in doubt for the accused”) is that one is innocent until proven guilty are fundamental principles of justice.

But another motto suggests that justice delayed is justice denied. The long-awaited conclusion of the Caprivi high treason trial is a painful reminder of this.

Let us remember: over 140 people were arrested after the failed secessionist attempt on 2 August 1999 in and around Katima Mulilo. The murderous attack on the territorial integrity of the Republic of Namibia killed eight innocent people. Those arrested were accused and detained for up to 278 charges related to the act.

Map of the Caprivi Strip, via Wikipedia

Map of the Caprivi Strip, via Wikipedia

In the course of identifying suspects, the security organs of the state violated laws too. When a lawyer of the Legal Assistance Centre disclosed the torture of prisoners to enforce confessions, these human rights violations were defended.

In early September 1999 Prime Minister Hage Geingob complained in the National Assembly that the brute force against suspects became the main issue.

He argued: “Because of provocation by the separatists, some unfortunate excesses had resulted in the effort of our security forces to zealously protect their motherland.” And he claimed: “We value upholding our Constitution.”

President Hage Geinob via Wikimedia Commons

President Hage Geingob via Wikimedia Commons

Article 12 (“Fair Trial”) of this Constitution stipulates under section 1(b) that a trial “shall take place within a reasonable time, failing which the accused shall be released.” And 1(d) confirms that all accused “shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law.” Articles 24 (“Derogation”) and 25 (“Enforcement of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms”) offer additional food for thought. They illustrate the disparities between the codified rule of law and the failures to live up to its defined minimum standards.

In early August 2003, Amnesty International (AI) – erstwhile respected as a relevant and credible supporter of the liberation struggle through publicly condemning the human rights violations under apartheid, the illegal South African occupation of the country and the treatment of political prisoners – published a critical report.

AI expressed deep concern about the violation of pre-trial rights of the accused, which might undermine their right to a fair hearing based on international standards as defined in the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). It criticised the failure of the authorities to investigate and prosecute allegations of torture.

AI also cast doubt over the official versions concerning the deaths of 12 defendants in detention and suggested that unsanitary prison conditions and medical neglect were contributing factors.

shutterstock_322563224

In a press release AI finally called on the Namibian authorities “to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience and ensure that the remaining defendants are tried in a fair manner.”

This resulted in accusations that AI is unduly interfering in domestic affairs. Since then, the number of those who died in custody without being found guilty exceeded more than 20. How many among these would have now been released as innocent?

In February 2013 the first 43 of the accused were released for lack of evidence. Now, with Judge Elton Hoff presenting his final judgement, another 35 of the accused were found not guilty during the last few days. From the more than 140 initially arrested, only 30 have been found guilty.

While Judge Hoff’s findings underline once again the relative autonomy of the judiciary, the justice system in general has failed. Despite numerous appeals by concerned members of civil society and human rights advocates, the authorities maintained an iron fist resembling features of the inhuman apartheid system, which also locked away and tortured people for political reasons.

A constitutional democracy or state under the rule of law (in German aptly called Rechtsstaat) should act differently. Policy makers, including the head of state, who delivered his maiden speech at the United Nations General Assembly in late September, have no reason to be proud.

Namibia has, not for the first time, failed its national and international obligations. The so-called ex-detainees, as much as those who mourn the loss of Frieda Ndatipo, should find it not difficult to relate to the plight of those detained innocently for 16 years and the harm also done to their families.

Injustice cannot be reversed. But an apology and related signs of regret and remorse might be a humble way to document insights into failures. Such abandonment of self-righteousness would underline the claim that the much-used metaphor of the Namibian house is indeed to be understood as a house, which is built for all.

Henning Melber joined Swapo in 1974. He is director emeritus of The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala/Sweden, Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies/University of London. His book Understanding Namibia. The trials of Independence was published 2014 with Jacana.

A version of this article was originally published in The Namibian.

Sri Lanka’s Embattled Media

by William Crawley and David Page, ICWS Senior Research Fellows

The articles in our edited volume Embattled Media were written before the Presidential election in Sri Lanka in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated and removed from office. For some of our authors and readers, instead dating the book, this has transformed its interest and potential influence. Our contributors write about aspects of the Sri Lankan media environment which have caused major difficulties in the past but now – in today’s changed political circumstances – are prompting creative and constructive thinking. The reality with Sri Lanka is that more than forty years of conflict and insurgency and civil war have given rise to a generation which has lost any experience of normality in the legal system, and the environment in which Sri Lanka’s long established and sophisticated media operate. The challenge today is to restore that normality.

One of the first issues to be tackled by the new government is discussed by several of the authors in Embattled Media – a Bill to ensure a Right to Information. The legal limitations of Sri Lanka’s constitutional protection of a freedom of speech are analysed in in some detail by Jayantha de Almeida Guneratne. The Supreme Court had ruled that media freedoms could be superseded by Emergency regulations which had been in force for much of the past forty years. He argues that a Right to Information Act is therefore an urgent necessity. But it has not been easy to press forward. A draft Right to information Act was presented by the government to parliament but stalled under parliamentary pressure. The new parliament elected in August has another opportunity to address the issue. The external factor of the presentation last month to the UN Human Rights Council of the report on wartime excesses has added to internal pressures at home for new initiatives.

At the seminar on 20 October Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, co-editor of Embattled Media, was in a position to analyse how attitudes and possibilities for Media Reform have changed in the 10 months since the Rajapaksa government was ousted. But Sri Lanka’s long tradition of judicial and constitutional independence, shorn of its Emergency accretions, is very much part of an inheritance shared by India and other countries of south Asia. For the Commonwealth and the wider international community, media freedoms have come to be seen as an important part of the human rights agenda. Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbour India has been treated with wariness as a ‘big brother’ whose past intervention in the Sri Lankan conflict ended disastrously for its own long term influence. Yet Indian legal practice and judicial decisions have provided some welcome examples and support for a Sri Lankan civil society seeking to conserve and rebuild its democratic foundations. Lawrence Liang of the Alternative Law Forum based in Bangalore, another speaker at the seminar on 20 October, is a critic of many aspects of the Indian judiciary. He will surely give an interesting view of some of the parallel dilemmas that both India and Sri Lanka have faced in the regulation of the media. The focus on Sri Lanka and south Asia, with which Embattled Media is mainly concerned, is the starting point for the seminar and will form the topic of the first session.

But it is the wider global relevance of issues of media regulation, freedom and reform that other speakers will focus on. The Commonwealth as an international institution drew up the Latimer House Principles in 1998 as guidelines for the relations between parliament, the executive and the judiciary in Commonwealth countries, and the three distinguished speakers in the seminar’s second session will reflect on Media Policy and Governance in these countries. Victoria Holdsworth, Head of Media at the Commonwealth Secretariat will speak on the need for an integrated approach to media development. Lawrence McNamara of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, based in London University, will speak on the relevance of the Latimer House principles to media freedom and the accountability of the Executive in Commonwealth countries. Mark Stephens, past present of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association – the body which played a key role in drawing up the Latimer House principles 27 years ago – will also speak.

The protection of journalists has become an increasingly urgent issue as the number of journalists killed and injured in the exercise of their profession has steadily increased, especially in areas of conflict. Sri Lanka became a prime example of this as journalists of all ethnic groups were exposed to violence and targeted assassinations from both state and non-state actors in the prolonged civil war. As Amal Jayasinghe writes in his contribution to Embattled Media, his employers Agence France Presse at a critical stage in the Sri Lanka conflict sent him – for his own safety – to Afghanistan! The third session will focus on the urgent and vital question of how to make safeguards for journalists more effective, with contributions from Oliver Spencer of Article19, the Indian journalist and documentary film maker Nupur Basu, Judith Townend of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and William Horsley, Director of the Centre for the Freedom of the Media in Sheffield University.

We asked contributors to Embattled Media to look at the state of media education in Sri Lanka. One of the purposes of the book has been to provide documentation and study material for a more informed academic study of the media in Sri Lankan universities. For the seminar’s final session our speakers include Daya Thussu, Professor of Communications and Director of the Indian Media Centre at Westminster University, Nicole Stremlau of the Oxford Programme on Comparative Media Law and Policy, Tessa MacArthur of the Department of International Development – speaking on DFID policy on governance and the media – and James Deane, Director of Policy and Research at BBC Media Action. This discussion to be chaired by Professor James Manor promises to be lively and illuminating not only for students of south Asia but for those involved with assessing the impact of rapidly changing media technologies. It will also look at priorities for those engaged in supporting and delivering programmes to strengthen the role of the media as a key element of the governance process in democratic countries.

Hidden archives of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO): conspiracy, incompetence or loss of institutional memory?

By Mandy Banton, Senior Research Fellow, ICWS; formerly of the UK National Archives

archives

Despite rumours and half-truths long in existence, the official line that no locally created records of former colonial governments were transferred to London at independence was generally accepted, although few would have been so naïve as to believe another claim – that none had been destroyed.  Continue reading

The Commonwealth in troubling times

by Sir Ronald Sanders KCMG AM

In this Inaugural Lecture marking the 100th Anniversary of the Charter of the Bristol  Commonwealth Society, Sir Ronald Sanders [1] argues that the inter-governmental Commonwealth is a diverse group that is now plagued by mistrust and loss of confidence.  If the Summit in Sri Lanka is to be meaningful, Heads of Government must set up machinery to address this issue urgently and credibly.   It will call for careful diplomatic stage-managing by the Secretary-General, and transparent and open chairmanship by the Sri Lankan President.  Whether this can be achieved is left to be seen.  But, if this matter is not tackled with urgency and credibility, the Commonwealth may well go over the cliff to disintegration on which it is now dangerously perched.  Continue reading