Friday, 24 November 2017

The Mladić verdict: better than nothing

Sometimes, the bad guys do get caught. And sometimes, the bad guys do get kicked out. Not often enough, admittedly, and usually, it's much too late, but still, I'd rather they were dealt with late than never.

General Ratko Mladić, former commander of the Serb forces in Bosnia, will spend the rest of his life in jail after being convicted of crimes that the judge at his trial in The Hague called 'among the most heinous known to humankind'.  Robert Mugabe, the brutal, corrupt autocrat who misruled Zimbabwe for much of the thirty-seven years he was in power has been unceremoniously forced to resign.

I'll return to ex-President Mugabe in a moment, but let's concentrate first on Ratko Mladić. The war in Bosnia has already faded into history, yet it was -- and remains -- a stain on Europe's post-1945 history that shames us all to this day.

Just look at the list of Mladić's crimes, as set out in the judgement of the war crimes tribunal.  Genocide; persecution (a crime against humanity); extermination (a crime against humanity); murder (a crime against humanity); murder (a violation of the laws or customs of war); deportation (a crime against humanity); the inhumane act of forcible transfer (a crime against humanity); terror (a violation of the laws or customs of war); unlawful attacks on civilians (a violation of the laws or customs of war); and the taking of hostages (a violation of the laws or customs of war0.

The dry legal terminology does little to reflect the sheer horror of the atrocities committed by fighters under Mladić's command. (And, it should be acknowledged, by others as well.) You can read the full judgement summary here if you have the stomach for it.

Mladić was a monster. But he was not unique. In Myanmar, there are generals engaging in their own version of ethnic cleansing against the Royingha. In Saudi Arabia, there are generals ordering air attacks and blockades on Yemen which are causing thousands of civilian deaths. And in Zimbabwe, irony of ironies, the man now being heralded as that benighted country's hope for a fresh start, Emmerson Mnangagwa, could -- had the cards fallen differently -- have equally have found himself accused of war crimes for his part in the massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s.

But partial justice is still a sort of justice. There may well be an argument for examining whether US and British generals -- as well as their political masters -- should be prosecuted for their actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. And what about President Putin, for his air force's bombing of civilians in Syria? The truth is that when the chips are down, international law can never overcome the dictates of political calculation. Even so, I don't believe the inadequacies of our system of international law invalidates the process that led to the conviction of Ratko Mladić.

As for Robert Mugabe, it seems he will be allowed to see out his days undisturbed by any threat of being held accountable for his decades of brutality. Perhaps it's the price that has to be paid for a peaceful, bloodless transition to a post-Mugabe era.

Mugabe has not ended up in a court of law, nor has he been toppled by a popular uprising. His rule was ended by what the Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai aptly characterised as a 'factional war of succession', in which the army backed Emmerson Mnangagwa over Mr Mugabe's wife Grace.

So peace is not the same as justice. As we know from northern Ireland, sometimes one comes at the expense of the other. And in South Africa, the post-apartheid settlement also accepted that: police officers, prison guards and others were spared prosecution in the interests of a peaceful transition from white minority rule.

As a result, a lot of bad guys got away with it, just as they did in northern Ireland. And many more -- in Myanmar, Russia, Syria, and Saudi Arabia -- will also get away with it. Not necessarily in the interests of peace, but in the interests of Big Power politics.

Ratko Mladić was prosecuted because he committed his crimes at a time when, briefly, the world's major powers were agreed that the most egregious of crimes had to be dealt with internationally, under the auspices of the United Nations.

But that moment has now passed. President Assad of Syria, the 'assertive' new crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and the generals who rule Myanmar in uneasy partnership with Aung San Suu Kyi, all have powerful Big Power patrons. They are all safe -- for now, at least.

But politics are fickle, as Ratko Mladić has learnt. The tide can turn -- and one day, today's war criminals may also find themselves facing justice.

As I wrote last February: 'Neither President Assad, nor anyone in his circle, can lie in their beds at night confident that they will never face justice. Their current protectors in Moscow and Tehran have their own interests to protect, and would quite happily throw Assad to the wolves if they considered it to be in their own national interests.'

I have to be honest, though -- I'm not holding my breath.






Monday, 20 November 2017

Secrets from the BBC newsroom

Only very rarely do we get a glimpse into the deepest recesses of the BBC newsroom. Who actually writes the news? How much power do the news readers have?

I may have been a BBC news presenter for more than twenty years, but during all that time, I never even came close to understanding the newsroom's arcane mysteries.

But today, I can offer you just a glimpse, to bring you an inside account of one of the newsroom's finest moments. The date is 14 September 2013. The Radio 4 newsreader is Neil Sleat -- this is him, by the way. 

Neil Sleat - at home on a tractor (I think)

And this is what he read, on that fateful day in history:

'The authorities in Hawaii are changing the format of the islands' ID cards because of complaints by a woman whose 35-letter surname wouldn't fit. Janice Keihanaikukauakahihuliheekahaunaele, whose traditional Hawaiian name comes from her late husband, said she would never consider using a shortened version because she loved the Polynesian culture. Ms Keihanaikukauakahihuliheekahaunaele also rejected suggestions that she could use her maiden name -- Worth.'

I suggest you try reading it yourself. Aloud. Then listen to how Neil did it by clicking here.

Impressive, huh?

But what I have always wanted to know was whose idea was it to run that story? Did Neil argue against it? Or did he regard it as the ultimate challenge to his professional skills, a challenge that no self-respecting newsreader could possibly duck?

I am now in a position to answer those questions, having finally had an opportunity to ask him directly. He tells me that when the newsroom suggested they should do it, his reaction was 'Great! Let me at it!' Not only that, but it was his idea to include the tongue-twister name twice rather than just once -- such is the reckless gambler nature of the Radio 4 newsreader. (I know, I know, you would never guess it when you hear them reading the Shipping Forecast. On the other hand, you should see them at the Newsroom Christmas party ...)

But how on earth did Neil know how to pronounce Janice's name? The people in the BBC's pronunciation unit are second to none in their encyclopedic knowledge -- but Polynesian?

Neil takes up the story: 'I was lucky enough to find a YouTube video of Janice herself pronouncing her name, so I set about rehearsing it.' (I have an image of him standing in a corner of the newsroom, muttering over and over again: 'Kei-han-ai-kuki- ..., no damn it, Kei-han-ai-kuko ...'

In the event, as you heard, it was faultless. Of course, it was. This, after all, was Radio 4.

At the end of the news, he walked out of the studio as a hero. His colleagues leapt to their feet and applauded loudly. Well, no, in fact, they didn't.

Neil describes what happened: 'After the broadcast, I returned to the newsroom, triumphant, arms held wide, palms upwards, like a goal scorer expecting the adulation of his team mates. But Matt [the editor] just looked at me, puzzled. "What?" he said.

'I said: "I DID IT!" Matt slapped his forehead. "Doh..." he said. "I missed it!" None of the rest of the radio news team had heard it either.'

Just another day at the office.





Friday, 17 November 2017

Zimbabwe: the day of the crocodile

The toppling of a tyrant is usually an occasion for celebration: fireworks, dancing in the streets, general merry-making. But not -- so far, at least -- in Zimbabwe.

First, no one is quite sure that Robert Mugabe has been truly toppled. He's been around for so long that it is still hard to comprehend that 93-year-old Comrade Bob may no longer be in charge. And second, the man most likely to succeed him, the former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, is not exactly a poster boy for the ideals of liberal democracy.

He has been known since his days as a fighter against white minority rule as 'the crocodile' because of his survival skills, cunning and cruelty. His followers are said to belong to the 'Lacoste' faction of the ruling party. Loveable, he ain't.

A US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks said of him: 'Mnangagwa, widely feared and despised throughout the country, could be an even more repressive leader if he turns out to be Mugabe's anointed one.'

Well, he isn't Mugabe's anointed one any more, but that doesn't mean he'll be any less feared. According to the Labour MP Kate Hoey: 'He is in many ways the one figure in Zimbabwe who inspires even greater terror than Mugabe.'

So why the fearsome reputation? Cast your mind back to the 1980s, not long after Mugabe came to power, when an estimated 20,000 people were massacred in Matabeleland, a centre of opposition to his rule. Mnangagwa, Mugabe's enforcer as head of the secret police, the Central Intelligence Organisation, was held responsible for those killings -- and for much brutality since then as well.

In the words of Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean: 'Over the years, like his master Mugabe, he has been accused of masterminding election violence, kidnappings, extortion, plundering national resources, and other crimes.'

But crucially, as a veteran of Zimbabwe's liberation struggle, he has retained the support of the country's military. That's why when the men in uniform insist that what has happened is not a coup, what they mean is that they do not want power for themselves; they want power for a 'legitimate' political leader, by the name of Emmerson Mnangagwa.

(By the way, if, like some of my former BBC colleagues, you can't quite get your tongue round his name, just think of it as four separate syllables: Mmm-nan-gag-wa.)

It is important for Zimbabwe that its post-Mugabe rulers are not regarded by their neighbours as having seized power illegally by force of arms. (These days, both the African Union and the regional grouping the Southern Africa Development Community take a dim view of military take-overs.) So the pro-Mnangagwa forces were careful to win the backing of both their most powerful neighbour, South Africa, and the country's biggest foreign investor, China, before they made their move.

According to the respected specialist newsletter Africa Confidential: 'Although the [military] action was triggered by the sacking of Mnangagwa on 6 November, it had been planned several weeks earlier, with senior officers consulting South African and Chinese officials.'

So was it a coup? It definitely looked like one, and it definitely sounded like one, complete with men in fatigues reading army statements on national TV -- so yes, I'd say it was a coup. The president is confined to his residence, but he does seem to be in some sort of negotiation with the generals. So let's call it a 'soft coup', which might end up as an agreed transfer of powers to -- oh, I don't know -- perhaps the former vice-president, a certain Emmerson Mnangagwa?

Which leaves the question of Mrs Mugabe, who had hoped to supplant Mr Mnangagwa as her husband's successor and who was the real target of the army's takeover.

Grace Mugabe is, if anything, even more reviled than her rival for the throne -- known variously as the First Shopper, or Gucci Grace, because of her well-developed taste for bling, she now faces the unwelcome prospect of spending the rest of her life in exile. (She is four decades younger than her husband, and it is impossible to imagine that she'd have much fun in a Zimbabwe run by Mr Mnangagwa.)

The sad truth is that the events of the past few days offer little hope that the country's future will be any better than its immediate past. One tyrant is gone; another looks set to take his place.


The people of Zimbabwe, worn down by economic collapse, political atrophy and a regime of relentless cruelty, surely deserve better.