World Refugee Day

In 2000, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) decided that the 20th June each year would be celebrated as World Refugee Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees worldwide.

The first time I looked into the UNHCR and the plight of refugees was when I’d watched a programme called Equator on the BBC back in 2006. Do you remember it? Simon Reeve followed the equator around the world to visit some of the most troubled countries on earth such as Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia.

Simon Reeve in DRC © Shoot and Scribble

On his journey he visited a refugee camp on the Kenya/Somalia border where he met with a young woman called Fatima who’d lived in the refugee camp for most of her life.

Fatima fled from her home in Somalia to the camp for safety and what really struck me was that she’d never travelled more than 4km from the camp. The Kenyan authorities wouldn’t let her go any further into Kenya and she couldn’t go back to Somalia so therefore had been trapped with thousands of other refugees in the camp for the last 17 years. In the programme, Simon Reeve talked about having a British passport and how he could go anywhere he wanted in the world yet the refugees are confined to almost a prison.

After visiting the camp Reeve said: “Thanks to an accident of birth, I was lucky enough to be able to leave to continue my journey around the world”.

Last year 800,000 people were forced to flee across borders. Worldwide, 42.5 million people ended 2011 either as refugees (15.2 million), internally displaced (26.4 million) or in the process of seeking asylum (895,000).

Darfur survivors’ Refugee Camp in Chad © Mark Knobil http://bit.ly/M6umfh

The UNHCR has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives. Established in 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly their role is to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems around the world.

http://www.unhcr.org.uk/

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Aung San Suu Kyi accepts her Nobel Peace Prize… 21 years later

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader, was in Oslo yesterday to accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. She was unable to accept the award at the time due to being under house arrest by Burma’s military junta. Ms Suu Kyi has been campaigning for democracy in Burma since 1988 and was awarded the prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”. She was released from house arrest in November 2010 having spent most of the past 21 years imprisoned at her family home on the banks of Inya lake in Rangoon.

Aung San and family (Khin Kyi, Aung San Oo, Aung San Suu Kyi (bottom), Aung San Lin)

Aung San Suu Kyi was born in 1945 to Khin Kyi and Major General Aung San, a man who was considered something of a hero in Burma. During the Second World War General Aung San helped the allies defeat their Japanese occupiers and in January of 1947 he negotiated Burma’s independence from Great Britain. Six months later though, Aung San, his brother and seven other people including five of his cabinet ministers, were assassinated in the council chamber in Rangoon while the executive council was in session. The killing was ordered by former Prime Minister U Saw who was executed for his role in the assassination the following year.

Ms Suu Kyi spent her early life growing up in India and then moved to Oxford to complete her studies. At college she met Michael Aris, a leading western author of Tibetan and Bhutanese culture and in 1972 they were married. They spent the next year living in Bhutan for Aris’ job, before they finally settled back in Oxford where they raised their two sons Alexander and Kim.

Aung San Suu Kyi and Michael Aris © pbase.com

Despite being away from Burma it was never far from her thoughts and in 1988, when she received a call to say her mother had had a stroke, she returned to Rangoon to nurse her. Thinking she would be there for only a few weeks she couldn’t have known that she would never again return to the UK. The woman who had lived for the past 16 years as a housewife and mother was about to lead the uprising of a brutal regime.

She arrived in Burma at a time when the country’s long time military leader General Ne Win had just stepped down from power. He had been in charge for the last 26 years, impoverishing the country due to his poor management of the economy. His departure signalled a chance for democratic reform and news of the arrival of General Aung San’s daughter soon spread around the capital.

When a delegation of academics asked her to head a pro democracy campaign, she agreed to do it temporarily, thinking that once the elections had been held she would be able to return to her family.

Inspired by the non-violent campaigns of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi she organised rallies and travelled around the country, calling for peaceful democratic reform. During one demonstration, Suu Kyi gave a speech in Rangoon where she said “I could not as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on”. The demonstrations though, were brutally suppressed by the army and they seized power in a coup on 18 September 1988 and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. When word of this got back to her husband he took extended leave from his job so that he could fight for his wife’s cause behind the scenes, raising her profile in the world so that she would never be harmed by the junta.

When the military called national elections in 1990, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won 59% of the votes which gave them 80% of parliamentary seats however the junta refused to hand over power and Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest.

Suu Kyi was granted freedom in 1995 and fearing that she would never be allowed back into Burma if she left, Michael and their children flew out to see her. It was the last time she would ever see her husband. Three years later he broke the news that he had terminal cancer. He applied for a visa so that they could say goodbye but the application was rejected. The military told Suu Kyi she could leave the country to visit him but, again, she knew she would never be allowed back and everything they had fought for would be lost. Michael told her she was not to consider it and Suu Kyi made the painful decision to stay. He died in 1999.

A year later Suu Kyi was again put under house arrest but was finally released on 13th November 2010. Since then the military have handed over power to retired General Thein Sein, who is the leader of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. He was sworn in as president in March 2011.

Suu Kyi’s NLD party have since re-registered as a political party and in the 2012 national by-elections, held in April, the party won 43 of the 45 seats contested. A few weeks later Suu Kyi took the oath and became leader of the opposition.

Aung San Suu Kyi on the day of her release, 13th November 2010 © AP Photo

Last month, for the first time in 24 years, she travelled outside of Burma to visit Switzerland and Norway. This tour of Europe will also include a visit to Ireland and England in the next few days. It is thought that Burma’s current leaders will allow her to return to the country as they try to improve their image abroad and lift current western sanctions.

Yesterday Aung San Suu Kyi was finally able to deliver her Nobel acceptance speech at Oslo’s City Hall.  Some of the money she received as part of the award helps fund London-based charity Prospect Burma, which gives young Burmese people access to education.

“It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” – Suu Kyi in Freedom from Fear (1991).

The full transcript of Aung San Suu Kyi’s acceptance speech can be found on the Nobel Prize website at http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1991/kyi-lecture_en.html

For more information about Prospect Burma please see – http://www.prospectburma.org/

Justice for the victims of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war

Charles Taylor listens to his sentencing Photo: REUTERS/United Photos

Many years ago a BBC reporter suggested to the then Liberian president Charles Taylor that some people thought him little better than a murderer. Taylor responded: “Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time”.

The now ex-president of Liberia was last week sentenced to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting the civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone during the 1990s. He was found guilty of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, rape, sexual slavery and conscription of child soldiers.

While Taylor never set foot in Sierra Leone, he sponsored the RUF rebels in order to destabilise the country and reap the benefits of the diamond mining industry.

The Revolutionary United Front were a rebel group who started a guerrilla campaign against the Sierra Leonean government in the early nineties due to corruption and mismanagement of the diamond sector but when the military successfully attempted a coup d’état it triggered a decade long civil war. During the trial of Charles Taylor the prosecution claimed that he saw a chance to profit from the war and exchanged guns for ‘blood’ diamonds which he could then sell on to finance his own campaigns. These guns and other ammunition further fueled the war and the RUF’s grip on the diamond mines.

During the latter half of the nineties the RUF started their most gruesome atrocities against the population of Sierra Leone. They committed widespread rape and murder and used machetes and axes to hack off the hands, arms and legs of men, women and children to drive fear into their opponents during elections. Thousands of boys and girls were abducted and forced to serve as soldiers or as prostitutes, were kept on drugs and often forced to murder their own parents.

AP Photo/Adam Butler

But the RUF didn’t stop there.

The Guardian reported that amongst the atrocities, victims were beheaded and their ‘heads were often displayed at checkpoints. On one occasion a man was killed, publicly disembowelled and his intestines stretched across a road to form another checkpoint. “The purpose,” Judge Richard Lussick said, “was to instill terror”.’

RUF soldiers were known to have cut open pregnant women to settle bets over the sex of their unborn children. During Taylor’s trial Judge Richard Lussick read a statement from a prosecution witnesses. “Witness TF1064 was forced to carry a bag containing human heads,” Lussick said. “On the way, the rebels ordered her to laugh as she carried the bags dripping with blood. The bag was emptied, and she saw the heads of her children.”

The war in Sierra Leone, depicted in the 2006 film Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio, lasted for over ten years and left 50,000 people dead and over half of the country’s 4,500,000 population displaced.

Charles Taylor in 1990
© 2012 Guardian News

There were growing fears that holding Taylor’s trial in Sierra Leone could cause more instability in the country and therefore the UN-backed court in The Hague, The Netherlands, agreed to host the trial as long as he was imprisoned in another country if convicted.

The Bristish government stepped forward and offered to house Taylor in a British jail if he was found guilty and therefore Taylor will serve out his sentence in one of the UK’s high security prisons.

Taylor is the first former head of state to be convicted by an international war crimes court since Admiral Karl Donitz, Hitler’s successor, was jailed at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War.

So many former heads of state have escaped accountability for their roles in genocide and crimes against humanity. Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge party who were responsible for the deaths of over a quarter of the population of Cambodia, died before he came to trial. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, who left a legacy of over 200,000 dead and half of the 4,000,000 population homeless during the Bosnian War, died of a heart attack in his cell while standing trial at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

“It is really significant that Taylor’s status as a former head of state was taken as an aggravating factor as far as his sentence was concerned,” said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch. “That is a very important precedent and I hope that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir take note.”

Judge Lussik said; “As president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Liberia, Mr Taylor used his unique position to aid and abet the commission of crimes in Sierra Leone, rather than using his power to promote peace and stability.”

Today Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world but there are several charities making a difference. Liverpool and Wales footballer Craig Bellamy started The Craig Bellamy Foundation after visiting the country in 2007.

Bellamy in Sierra Leone © http://bit.ly/NdzUpL

He invested £1.2m of his own money to help build a not-for-profit football academy in the Kono region of the country. Bellamy and Unicef have also built a national league in a country where the existing top-flight league has been suspended due to lack of funds. He hopes football will inspire positive change amongst the children.

Another charity working in Sierra Leone is Street Child of Sierra Leone. It was founded in 2008 by Tom Dannatt to reduce the number of children living on the streets by putting them in long-term education and reuniting them with their families or placing them in alternative loving environments. Some charities have been criticised in the past for wasting of money on running costs, but Street Child ensures that 90% of all donations go directly to the charity’s work in Sierra Leone.

If you’d like to donate or look at the charities’ work further please visit http://www.street-child.co.uk/ and http://www.craigbellamyfoundation.org/.

Thanks

Fran