The Commonwealth Update

An authoritative, nation-by-nation review of events across the Commonwealth, with an update now published six times a year in an issue of The Round Table.

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From 2008, the review is being written by Oren Gruenbaum, the Commonwealth Update editor, and currently Senior Sub-Editor at The Guardian in the UK

In 2007, the review was written by Judith Soal, a journalist who has worked extensively in South Africa and is currently deputy night editor at The Guardian in the UK.

Until 2007 the review was written by Derek Ingram, who was the Founding Editor of Gemini News Service until 1993, and is the author of a number of books about the Commonwealth and is active in the CJA, CPU, CHRI and the RCS, as well as a member of the Moot.

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Commonwealth Update - Issue 437, April 2015

Oren Gruenbaum


Disaster and risk

The country is facing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe after the remote Pacific archipelago was hit by the worst cyclone in its history, with the entire population of 267,000 people affected to some extent on all 65 inhabited islands, hundreds feared killed in the storm, and thousands left without shelter or water. Reuters reported witnesses describing storm surges of eight metres washing away roads and bridges. All communications were lost with outlying islands. A Red Cross spokesman called the situation 'apocalyptic'.

Cyclone Pam, a category-five storm, had left the country 'flattened', according to rescue workers flying over the volcanic islands, with winds of up to 270km (160 miles) an hour, and gusts up to 340km an hour seriously damaging 90% of homes in Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, Oxfam Australia reported. 'This is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific,' said Colin Collett van Rooyen, Oxfam's Vanuatu director.
Thousands more were affected in nine countries across the region, according to the New Zealand Red Cross. In Solomon Islands and Fiji, emergency response teams were activated and initial relief supplies put in place. Assessments were also being carried out in Tuvalu and Kiribati, where huge sea swells caused significant damage, and the situation was being monitored in the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau and Papua New Guinea. Extraordinary satellite pictures of four cyclones sweeping through the south Pacific give some idea of the forces of nature that had battered the small island nations. Aid officials said the storm was comparable in strength to Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013 and killed more than 6,000 people, Reuters reported.

The prime minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, said nearly half of the population had been displaced by Cyclone Pam, Radio New Zealand International reported, and Unicef warned that at least 54,000 children had been affected in Vanuatu. 'We have no power or running water and are still not able to move around freely,' Collett van Rooyen said. 'The scale of this disaster is unprecedented in this country.'

The situation was particularly dire in the outlying islands of Tanna and Erromango. The Guardian reported that a pilot who flew to Tanna, an island of 30,000 people, said there was no drinking water, all of the corrugated iron structures were destroyed, concrete buildings had no roofs and 'all the trees had been ripped out', according to Aurelia Balpe, head of the Red Cross's Pacific operations.

After two days, the airport at Port Vila had been reopened and aid began to arrive in the country on military transport planes from New Zealand and Australia. The French sent a relief team and supplies from New Caledonia. Further afield, the Vanuatuan president, Baldwin Lonsdale, appealed for help as he spoke at a UN conference in Japan (in a bitter coincidence, the summit was on disaster-risk reduction). Fighting back tears, Lonsdale said: 'I speak to you today with a heart that is so heavy... I do not know at this time what impact the cyclone has had on Vanuatu. I stand to ask you to give a lending hand to responding to this calamity that has struck us.'

Yet this was not an unforeseen disaster: Vanuatu is ranked highest in the World Risk Index. The study estimated the country's risk of falling victim to a disaster resulting from an extreme natural event at 36.5% - far higher than the second-ranked country, the Philippines, where the risk was put at 28.25%. It has topped this list since 2011.

As far back as 1999, Vanuatu's submission to the UN climate change conference, which oversees the Framework Convention on Climate Change, noted that: 'There has also been a significant increase in the frequency of tropical cyclones in the country as a whole over the record period', although it acknowledged that this trend could have been because of improved monitoring through satellite-tracking technology. In a graph it showed there had been a 500% increase in severe storms over the decades between 1939 and 1998.

It warned that while climate change was likely to decrease annual rainfall, a greater proportion of that rain would fall during storms. 'Higher intensity rainfall associated with increased cyclone incidence also creates conditions that foster the spread of communicable and water-borne diseases, and may create a need for additional (and expensive) treatment of household water supplies.

'The infrastructure and fixed assets of both centres are vulnerable to cyclone damage and associated storm surges,' it noted, calling for planning initiatives to require that infrastructure, such as bridges, roads, wharves and communications, be engineered so as to withstand cyclone, high floodwater flows and very heavy rainfall.

In April 2014 Vanuatu's climate youth ambassador, Mala Silas, told Radio Australia that climate change was bringing about increasingly erratic weather patterns that were hitting remote island communities hard. Speaking after Cyclone Lusi had swept through Vanuatu, killing 10 people, she said residents on the remote Futuna island were concerned about the impact on agriculture and were urgently seeking better communication systems, as the radio network was inadequate and the mobile network barely existed, and more effective early warning systems to allow locals to prepare shelter and store food before the storms hit.

'Ben Murphy, of Oxfam Australia, urged the UN conference in Sendai 'to have Lonsdale's words ringing in their ears' as they negotiated a new international framework on disaster-risk reduction. It should be one, he said, that 'adequately prepares vulnerable nations and communities for the disasters they're likely to face tomorrow, rather than simply rolling over existing practices which are already visibly falling behind the rising tide of disasters.'

'He warned: 'Already, the negotiations in Sendai are calling into question the world's resolve to take on disaster risk, as sections of the draft text such as strong, measurable targets, linkages to climate change and adaptation efforts, and commitments by developed countries to help finance the global effort are slowly being watered down.'

'Disasters such as these are likely to become ever more frequent as the effects of climate change take hold, threatening to engulf these small island nations. The Commonwealth should be at the forefront of efforts to avert this grim scenario.


Assassination of a blogger

Secularism is a battleground of contested visions of Bangladesh - the Islamic state, part of the Ummah, versus the modern nation-state - and it claimed another victim on 26 February. Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-born American bioengineer, secular activist and blogger, was hacked to death while walking with his wife after leaving the Ekushey book fair in Dhaka. He had long been receiving hate mail over his atheism, campaigning against fundamentalists through his website Mukto-Mona - what he called the first South Asian humanist and rationalist forum on the internet. Many supporters see his assassination as the fulfilment of years of Islamist threats. His wife was also attacked, losing a finger and sustaining head injuries.

Strange as it may seem now, secularism lies at the very heart of Bangladeshi politics. It was one of four guiding principles of the Bangladeshi constitution in 1972 (PDF), which stated: 'The principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination of Communalism in all forms; the granting by the state of political status in favour of any religion; the abuse of religion for political purposes; any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion.' In 1977 Ziaur Rahman, the military ruler and president of Bangladesh, (and husband of current opposition leader Khaleda Zia) rewrote the constitution to enshrine the primacy of Islam. There followed a slow but steady process of Islamisation in the country with Bangladeshi nationalism redefined through the prism of Muslim identity, a process probably fuelled by the country's stalled economic development. But in 2010 the supreme court reinstated the principle of secularism to the constitution.

The ascendancy of militant Islamism has continued unabated, however, despite 2013's protests by 500,000 progressive Bangladeshis in Dhaka's Shahbag Square. As described in Commonwealth Update, the demonstrations were partly an enthusiastic response to the war crimes tribunal trying collaborators with Pakistan's forces in the 1971 war of independence. Only one of the 11 on trial was not a member of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's largest Islamist party. The writer Nick Cohen called Shahbag: 'A grassroots uprising for the most essential and neglected values of our age: secularism, the protection of minorities from persecution and the removal of theocratic thugs from the private lives and public arguments of 21st-century citizens.'

The Islamists' protests have partly come in the form of bombs and assassinations such as Roy's. Bdnews24 noted that the attack 'bore a striking similarity' to one on the writer Humayun Azad in February 2004. Azad had also been leaving the Ekushey book fair when he was attacked with machetes by Islamist militants. He later died in Germany. Militants also hacked the blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider to death in a similar ambush near his home in Dhaka in February 2013.

Prof Ajay Roy, Avijit's father, expressed his suspicions over some incidents in the lead-up to the brutal murder, especially over an informal meeting organised around his son at the book fair. He thinks his son might have been followed from the fair or others were tipped off about his route.

Raising suspicions that elements in the security forces were sympathetic to militant Islamism, his father accused the police of allowing the attackers to escape and said he was 'not satisfied' with the investigation, the Los Angeles Times reported. An adviser to the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, also weighed in, criticising the police response and called on the police chief to 'identify the black sheep' within the force whose loyalties were with the Islamists and bring them to justice. 'It is unacceptable that the murder of Avijit took place right in front of the nose of police,' said HT Imam.

The fact that Bangladesh has been under military rule for about 15 of the past 44 years since independence is significant. A paper written for the US Congress (PDF) in 2007 argued that the military's desire for legitimacy had led them to 'wrap themselves in the mantle of Islam', creating new political space for Islamists. According to Sumit Ganguly, this 'not only altered the terms of political discourse in Bangladesh but also helped fashion a new political culture that could accommodate a shift toward a more pristine, austere and parochial vision of Islam.'

That the Bangladeshi security forces to some extent accommodated militant Islamism is supported by the apparent impunity with which they carried out attacks on secular intellectuals.

The Daily Star reported in 2006 that a commander of the banned Islamist group Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh had reportedly confessed to attacking Azad outside the book fair in 2004 with a cleaver and killing another writer, Monir Hossain Sagar, in 2000, as well as attacks on four cinemas. Azad's family called, to little avail, for an investigation into his death in 2009. The Daily Star wrote in 2004: 'Although Azad came back apparently fully recovered and showing clear signs of rejuvenation, the last three months of his life was like living under the shadow of death. Anonymous callers kept threatening him and his family. Even an abduction attempt on his son was made.'

To list just some of the similar attacks, a Maasranga TV news editor, Sagar Sarwar, and his wife, ATN Bangla reporter Mehrun Nahar Runi, were found dead at their home in 2012. He had been stabbed 28 times. Asif Mohiuddin, another activist, was stabbed outside his house by a suspected Islamist militant in 2013. Shortly afterwards Ahmed Rajib Haider, a Dhaka-based blogger, was murdered in another similar attack. Most of these attacks remain unsolved.

The violence is very far from being one-sided and there have certainly been scores of other unexplained deaths. The human rights organisation Odhikar has detailed the heightened levels of political violence, extrajudicial killings, lynchings and disappearances. Meanwhile, writing on Open Democracy, Mahin Khan criticised the western focus on Roy's murder, characterising it as 'championing illiberal liberals'. She said: 'I am now forced to question whether the liberal western press is capable of equally championing human lives when they don't fit a liberal, secular, western narrative. 143 souls have been brutally lost in Bangladesh's unrest since January. How many had the dignity of international coverage?'

However, unlike the militant Islamists who openly called for his murder (such as Farabi Shafiur Rahman, who wrote on Facebook: 'Avijit Roy lives in America and so it is not possible to kill him right now. He will be murdered when he comes back.'), it is unlikely that Roy would have his Islamist blogger counterparts slaughtered. Ahsan Akbar, a British-Bangladeshi writer, described Roy in the Guardian as a 'gentle guy who wanted to promote science... Roy was sensitive to people's beliefs and thought offending people was the wrong approach.'

Describing the founding mission of Mukto-Mona in a 2007 interview, Roy said: 'Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science.' It is a laudable principle - and one that he should not have had to die for.


New man, old ideas

Hopes that Sri Lanka's new president, Maithripala Sirisena, would represent a clean break with the controversial regime of his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, have been dented after the BBC reported that Sirisena has refused to allow United Nations human rights investigators into the country to examine allegations of atrocities committed in May 2009 during the final stages of the 26-year civil war.

The military is widely believed to have killed some 40,000 Tamil civilians in shelling an area the army had previously declared as a safe 'no-fire zone', the Washington Post reported. Thousands more have been 'disappeared' - as long ago as 1999 the number of people missing after being detained by the security forces was estimated at 12,000 by a UN study.
Sirisena told BBC Sinhala that an investigative committee would work 'efficiently, in a balanced, legal and impartial manner'. When asked if UN investigators would be involved, he said: 'We are ready to get advice and their opinions for the inquiry, but I don't think we need any outsiders because we have all the sources for this.'

The president appeared to all but announce the outcome of the yet-to-be-formed inquiry when he told the BBC that he 'doesn't believe' war crimes allegations expounded in brutal detail by last year's documentary No Fire Zone, which was first shown on the UK's Channel 4. According to a translation of the interview by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, the president said: 'I think we have to reject those things. I don't believe such things.' Despite admitting that he had not actually seen it, Sirisena claimed that the film set out to 'mislead the international community about the situation'.

The news will come as a humiliating disappointment to the UN Human Rights Council. In March 2014, the 47-member council ordered a comprehensive investigation into alleged human rights abuses by both sides during the last years of the war in Sri Lanka. Giving Sirisena the benefit of the doubt, the Geneva-based body decided in February to delay consideration of the long-awaited report. The UN commissioner, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, said he had received 'clear commitments from the new government of Sri Lanka indicating it was prepared to co-operate on a whole range of important human rights issues - which the previous government had absolutely refused to do - and I need to engage with them to ensure those commitments translate into reality.'

Asked by the London-based Tamil Guardian website about the new president's refusal to allow the UN team into Sri Lanka, and his dismissal of the evidence of mass atrocities in No Fire Zone, Hussein said: 'I haven't seen these reports yet and will have to look into the alleged reports. The Sri Lankan government has given me its commitment to accountability and working with the UN. In the past the new president has also said he will not deny what happened in 2009.'

When Sirisena, the 63-year-old general secretary of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party and health minister in Rajapaksa's government, had split from his former ally to stand for election against him, he had pledged to curb the executive power-grab of the Rajapaksa clan by reinforcing Sri Lanka's judiciary and parliament, fighting corruption and investigating the war crime allegations after the country had attracted increasing criticism internationally by stonewalling on demands for an independent inquiry.

Rajapaksa had consistently and angrily rejected criticism of his government's record during the war, pointing to the number of casualties on the majority Sinhalese side to deflect scrutiny of the last days of the war. Before the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Colombo in November 2013, the British prime minister, David Cameron, had responded to criticism of him for attending the controversial summit (India and Canada boycotted the conference) by letting it be known that he expected a meeting with Rajapaksa at which he would demand answers to the abuse allegations. Sri Lanka's communications minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, retorted: 'We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka?'

An attempt to put the controversy to rest fooled few people. The army chief, Lt Gen Jagath Jayasuriya, who was in charge of the no-fire zone, said the allegations were fabrications aimed at discrediting his troops. The Hindu reported that the inquiry set up by Jayasuriya, and led by Maj Gen Chrishantha de Silva, unsurprisingly found no wrongdoing on the army's party. It concluded: 'The instances of shellings referred to in the LLRC [Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission] report were not caused by the Sri Lanka Army and civilian casualties might have occurred due to unlawful acts by LTTE [the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam].'

'Evidence revealed that at all stages of the Humanitarian Operation, the Sri Lanka Army behaved as a well-disciplined military force observing the IHL [international humanitarian law] and the law of war and they took all the precautions to avoid civilian casualties and all those who came under the control of the Sri Lanka Army, including surrendered/captured LTTE cadres, were treated humanely observing the IHL to the letter.'

Agence France-Presse reported that the privately owned but pro-government Island newspaper claimed the Channel 4 documentary was aimed at bolstering the claims of defeated Tamil Tiger rebels and reviving their separatist demands. 'What is called for is not a probe into the unsubstantiated allegations of war crimes against Sri Lanka but a thorough investigation into the Channel 4 videos whose authenticity is in question.'

As covered in Commonwealth Update 429, the film No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka presented prima facie evidence of human rights abuses and slaughter on an epic scale. By the time the rump of the LTTE forces had been defeated, UN estimates of the number of civilians killed ranged from 40,000 to 70,000. Peter McKay, one of the last UN workers to leave the north, said he had witnessed 'very serious potential war crimes'. The Sri Lankan army appeared to be 'actively targeting' civilians, he said. A secret US embassy cable to Washington quoted in the film estimated that 78% of civilian deaths occurred in the supposedly safe haven.

The director of No Fire Zone, Callum Macrae, who has just released a Sinhala-language version of his film, said in response to Sirisena's remarks: 'These comments by President Sirisena are both surprising and disappointing and represent a step backwards in the search for justice.

'How does he expect witnesses and survivors of these awful crimes to come forward and testify at a domestic investigation set up by someone who has effectively said in advance that he "doesn't believe" the events they will describe. How can such a process be described as "impartial"?

'When the UN Human Rights Council set up its international inquiry (OISL) in March last year it was because it had reached the conclusion that for all his promises of a domestic enquiry, President Rajapaksa had demonstrated that he was neither willing, nor capable of providing a genuinely credible and impartial one.

'When the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights postponed the publication of the OISL [OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka] report to September he said it was to allow the new government 'to show its willingness to cooperate' and because it could lead to a 'stronger and more comprehensive report'.
'But now President Sirisena, like President Rajapaksa before him, has refused to let the OISL investigators in to Sri Lanka. So we are back to square one and when the OISL report is presented in September the UN Human Rights Council will have to act on that report and move to set up some form of international judicial mechanism which can ensure that justice is done for all the communities of Sri Lanka. No one has anything to fear from the truth except the guilty.'

How much can the world rely on Sri Lanka's media to uncover the truth? Not a lot, sadly: despite the fearless efforts of countless journalists, it has been rated in the bottom 10% of Reporters Without Borders' latest survey of press freedom, coming 165th out of 180 countries. The country's security services are notorious for the sinister white vans into which they bundle their victims. Between 2004 (when the United People's Freedom Alliance came to power and Rajapaksa became prime minister) and 2010, at least 43 journalists and media workers were either killed or 'disappeared', according to Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. 'No investigation pursued - no perpetrator brought to justice.'

'In 2013 Amnesty International reported that more than 80 journalists had gone into exile since 2005. It is such a dismal record that Sri Lanka ranks even lower for press freedom than Saudi Arabia, which is currently going through the literally tortuous process of flogging a blogger, Rail Badawi, 1,000 times (he has to be given medical attention to keep him alive long enough to survive all his whippings and the 10-year sentence to follow).


What price protest?

Tensions were raised in Guyana ahead of elections on 11 May following the murder of an anti-government protester. The political activist, Courtney Crum-Ewing, had been holding quixotic but peaceful solo demonstrations outside the office of the attorney-general for 80 days.

The Stabroek News reported that 'shortly before he was killed [he was] urging voters to not stay at home come May 11 but to take to the polls to oust the incumbent PPP [People's Progressive Party] government.'

The Guyanese president and PPP general secretary, Donald Ramotar, condemned the killing of Crum-Ewing and urged the police to find those responsible. However, many people have assumed that government forces were responsible and that it was unequivocally an assassination. 'People are out to kill anti-dictatorship activists in this country,' was the response of Frederick Kissoon, another activist and Kaieteur News columnist, who said that Crum-Ewing's death was 'a message to the Guyanese people... I think the PPP feels that never before in their history have they been so vulnerable to losing power.'

Crum-Ewing, 40, was gunned down by a group of men in a car as he walked through a housing scheme near where he lived in East Bank Demerara, urging people to turn out to vote. Fears that it had been an extrajudicial killing were not eased by his autopsy, which found that he had been shot five times - three shots to the head and another at point-blank range from behind his neck, Stabroek News reported.

His family appealed for calm but were convinced that his death was because of his political activism and urged people to express their anger by voting. 'Courtney would have wanted Guyana to vote for a change. Everybody on the list should come out. It is time that Guyana vote for change. Everybody who is on the list have [sic] to come out and vote,' said his mother, Donna. She also voiced fears of a police cover-up to protect two government ministers she alleged were implicated in her son's murder.
Kaieteur News said: 'His activism drew criticisms and some subtle attempts to shut him up. A few months ago, he parked his [mini]bus at his home and it was broken into and the computer box stolen. He was convinced that it was deliberately done.'

Mike McCormack, of the Guyana Human Rights Association, said: 'The man was expressing himself freely and if freedom of expression is coming at this price, then everybody needs to be concerned about it. Courtney Crum-Ewing was threatening no one. But the message seems to have been threatening enough to assassinate him.'

Another activist, Mark Benschop, criticised the international community for 'treating the Guyana government with very soft gloves... this government has been associated with death squads.'

The party has been in power since 1992 but in the 2011 elections, when Ramotar first became president, the PPP's share of the vote slipped and it became a minority government for the first time in 19 years. This was down to the strong showing of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU - a coalition of the People's National Congress, the Guyana Action Party and the Working People's Alliance), which won 26 seats on 40.8% of the vote to the PPP's 32 (48.6%). The Alliance for Change (AFC) won seven seats in 2011 on 10.3% of the vote.

The stakes for the PPP have risen: the electoral arithmetic is looking good for the opposition and in January the APNU and the AFC began negotiating a single list of candidates. Four years ago there was a heavy army presence during the elections to prevent a repeat of the unrest between Guyana's ethnic groups that persisted for weeks after the 2001 polls. The Commonwealth must do all it can to ensure that if the PPP's time in government is finally up, there is an orderly transfer of power.

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