In a recent interview Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked a simple yet profound question: Why this cruelty? Are Russian war crimes in Ukraine simply a further illustration of the inevitable barbarism of warfare? Only what might be expected from past experience of Russian army brutality? Yet there was something pathetic in the sight of a downcast young Russian soldier on trial last week, the first no doubt of many, pleading guilty to murdering a Ukrainian civilian. Even the mother of the victim felt sorry for the young man though said she could never forgive him.
We have become accustomed to hearing Zelensky’s voice from war-torn Ukraine, the consistency of his appeals for help and his defiant courage. So listening to him in translation when he was beamed into Chatham House, the international affairs think-tank, seemed nothing unusual. Though Zelensky’ reflections on the reason for the war crimes committed by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians were unexpected.
Zelensky’s believes that Putin’s flood of propaganda during the eight years since the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk region has had a profound effect. Russian war crimes were both “a victory” and a “collective witness” for the success of Russian propaganda and psyops. Many of the soldiers committing the atrocities would have been 10-12 year old in 2014 and since then exposed to unremitting lies and hate speech. The problem was getting hateful ideas out of soldiers’ minds, ‘cleansing this propaganda’ once it was implanted. “Goebbels is a child compared to the adults in the Kremlin machine hunting a whole nation”, was his well-chosen comparison. That Zelensky is Jewish himself made his reflections all the more powerful.
Zelensky’s sense of the power of propaganda can be applied to other mass crimes in other countries. The vicious anti-Tutsi propaganda in the months leading up to the by Radio Libre des Mille Collines controlled by Hutu extremists contributed significantly to the Rwandan genocide. The Tutsi were dehumanised, called inyenzi, cockroaches, as, of course, were Jews during the build up to the Holocaust. Unlike, for example, in many Latin American countries, the Catholic Church in Rwanda did not have a radio station able to combat the poisonous ethnic propaganda.
The active promotion of hate-speech and falsehood by governments, authoritarian or racist, is one thing. That by non-state actors is another. In liberal democratic States, the State has the apparatus to counter extremist hate-speech whether white supremacist or tending towards jihadism. Whether or not it is used effectively, and dog-whistle ‘othering’ of minority ethnic groups or migrants for political purposes outlawed, is another matter. And Zelensky’s reflections raise the question of how a political culture of lies can be combatted, the role of journalists and social media, at what point cracks appear and the public realise they have been taken for fools?
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a client State, suggests some answers. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it claimed that it was defending the 1978 April Afghan revolution to bring ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’ [sic] to the Afghan people who needed the support of ‘warrior-internationalist’ Soviet troops and air-power. Thanks to the CIA’s Operation Cyclone providing the Afghan mujahideen via Pakistan with increasingly sophisticated weaponry (from September 1986 onwards the US delivered 2,300 Stinger surface to air missiles - shades of the future Ukraine) the war dragged on until the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. While the probable number of Afghan deaths was between 600,000 and 1.5 million, crucially some 15,000 Soviet troops had died. Within four years of the invasion public opinion was turning against the war. Pre-Putin Russia was getting uncensored reports from bereaved mothers and news media, domestic and international.
In his book Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former ambassador, estimates that Soviet Russia made 6,412 criminal charges against its own troops, including 714 of murdering civilians and the rest related to drugs and weapons sales. (There was also much cover-up). The common excuse for these war crimes was retaliation for the mujahideen’s own use of torture and their violation of the rules of war. Captured Soviet troops sometimes killed themselves rather than fall into mujahideen hands. “Even senior officers could be punished for allowing their troops to commit excesses”, Braithwaite claims. For example, the commander of the 191st. Independent Motor-rifle Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Kravchenko, was court-marshalled and sentenced to ten years after Afghan prisoners were shot.
Orchestrated hate requires a conductor of the orchestra. Enter President Vladimir Putin. Prime Minister 1999, President 2000-2008, Prime Minister again from 2008-2012, and then again President, Putin’s influence soon became apparent. During the war in Chechnya 1999-2009, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the European Court of Human Rights all found that no official had ever been tried for the enforced disappearance of from between 3,000 and 5,000 Chechens, or charged with any of the 60,000 Chechens deaths. Grozny, Chechnya’s main city, had been flattened like Aleppo and Mariupol. There are no signs that Putin will be submitting troops who have committed war crimes to court-martial or punishment in Ukraine. On the contrary the Russian Parliament is talking about trying Ukrainian troops surrendering from Mariupol for war crimes labelling them as Nazis. Putin and his coterie deny and condone Russian military atrocities.
“They hate life”, Zelensky told Chatham House. And hate, history tells us, is easier to conjure up than love. Soldiers sometimes talk of an overwhelming blood-lust after comrades-in-arms have been killed or tortured (there were notable US examples in Vietnam). Add the ruthless brutality of a leader whose sensibilities have been honed in the old KGB. Add years of conditioning Russian society for hate, shutting down all uncensored sources of news, and you have mass graves again. With perhaps worse to follow.
See TheArticle 23/05/2022
Priti Patel’s announcement that Rwanda was to be given £120 million for accepting deported migrants - and refugees - has not gone down well. But undeterred the Prime Minister has said he will get it done. For a moment let’s take at face value the Government’s response to the widespread outcry.
Patel’s defense of her money-for-migrants scheme contains at least three claims. The first is that Britain has a problem: an unacceptable number of migrants and asylum seekers are crossing the channel to Britain in small boats. The second is that criminal gangs of people smugglers make a great deal of money out of organizing these crossings and that deportation to Rwanda of young male ‘illegal migrants’ who adopt this way of entering Britain is the only means of destroying the smugglers’ business model and so to prevent drownings. The third is that the passengers on these unsafe dinghies are mostly economic migrants not genuine refugees. Each of these claims sounds plausible, the second even a form of ‘tough love’. Transnational organized crime and the suffering and tragic deaths it entails are obviously a serious problem. But each claim is based on false assumptions, misinformation or simply ignores what is known from research on migration.
Compared with other European countries, Britain does not have a severe migrant problem. Some two-thirds of those making the Channel crossing turn out to be genuine asylum seekers rather than economic migrants though war, persecution and poverty do go together. If you take the number of asylum claims per 100,000 of population as a measure, Britain ranks 14th in Europe with Germany, Spain, France, Belgium and Switzerland receiving applications at double the rate of Britain’s. Between 2015 and 2016, Angela Merkel’s Germany admitted 1.25 million Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees. By 2018, according to the US Center for Global Development, 72% had gained permission to work. From 1% on arrival 44% had learnt German. By 2021 some 50% had jobs, were in training or had internships. Britain with a similarly ageing population and labour shortage might profitably study how a country can successfully turn migrants into an asset. The real problem is dog-whistling by the political Right and its supportive Press creating fear of ‘swamping’.
People smuggling, sometimes overlapping with sexual trafficking, is now firmly established as large scale transnational crime. The global estimate for 2016 was that c. 2.5 million people paid smugglers between $5.5 and $7 billion to get them across borders. The big transnational criminal gangs and smaller networks operate on the dark web in encrypted sites. Payment often is made through the traditional hawala system (in Arab countries and South Asia, money is paid to an agent who instructs a trusted associate in the relevant country or area to pay the final recipient). Like other profits from international crime, the money can then be laundered through banks. Laundering is an obvious target if the government’s aim is to undermine the business model.
The France to UK sea-crossing lies at the end of a very long and dangerous journey which involves negotiations with ruthless gangs and their collaborators often working on commission within transnational networks from hubs such as Agadez in Niger. In such poor countries the gangs provide employment for a penumbra of independent guides, drivers, recruiters and middle-men, forgers of travel documents, providers of boats and accommodation.
The smuggler’s ‘business model’ is simple: lowest risk with highest profits. The total cost per traveler with the UK as a destination is now 6,000 Euros. The more difficult it gets the higher the price. But demand is not necessarily flattened. Because they have become accustomed to taking life-threatening risks on their journey, and because the Eurotunnel route is now more or less successfully blocked along with lorry traffic being more diligently checked, on the final leg of their journey asylum seekers and migrants are prepared to risk drowning. In good weather, dinghies trucked into France from Germany, and now larger boats, set off together and, given the current maximum available deployment of 800 French police and border control staff on the long French beaches, a percentage will make it across. A year ago, the French were making some 1,500 arrests of people involved in organizing the Channel crossings - but they are soon replaced.
The young men who are most at risk from the Patel plan also have a business model. They are often ‘crowdfunded’ by their village or by relatives, becoming a cross between a human lottery ticket and a living investment made in the expectation of returns through regular remittances home. Many are burdened by the moral responsibility to reach the UK and pay back their investors. They are the product of the corruption and incompetence of their own governments, inadequate debt relief and cuts in development aid. Deportation to Rwanda addresses none of this.
Government talks in terms of supply and demand. But limiting demand for the services of smugglers, if that is the true aim, could be achieved by measures directly under our control such as increasing and broadening the channels for regular migration, simpler checking procedures, making it easier to obtain legitimate travel documents. Opportunities for authorised migration need to increase and be made more accessible in countries of origin as well as from refugee camps. The Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme for Syrian refugees which ended in March 2021 should be continued with increased annual target numbers. Better staffed migration and asylum bureaux in Europe are also necessary. The shambles of the Ukrainian humanitarian visas application system is an example of how to create an incentive to pay people smugglers and risk the Channel crossing. Ratchet up government investment in authorised routes and fewer people would want to pay smugglers.
Finally, if government policy is indeed intended to interdict people smugglers, the £120 million going to Rwanda, plus other attendant transportation and accommodation costs, would be better spent on increasing the staffing of the UK’s National Crime Agency INVIGOR programme which deals with criminally organized immigration. Better liaison and cooperation with France’s OCRIEST, (L’Office central pour la répression de l’immigration irrégulière et de l’emploi d’étrangers sans titre), the French immigration and border police, and with Interpol’s Integrated Border Management Task Force (IBMTF) would also help.
With the Home Office prediction of only 300 deportations to Rwanda annually and with forthcoming legal challenges, Priti Patel’s money-for-migrants partnership seems unlikely to be implemented. The judges and ‘left-wing lawyers’ will be blamed when it is stopped. And Government headline-grabbing will continue, irresponsible, deceptive and shameless.
See TheArticle 09/05/2022
Why did Priti Patel, claiming her aim is to destroy the cross-channel traffickers’ “business model”, choose Rwanda for her recent £120 million Migration and Economic Development Partnership? And from what budget does the funding come? Asylum seekers and migrants seeking a safe or better life in the UK are to be treated like toxic waste to be dumped in foreign lands, a striking illustration of the Johnson Cabinet’s moral bankruptcy. But quite likely here is a Minister playing to the Tory gallery unconcerned that their announcement can’t be implemented. Legal challenges are already being prepared. If this were just another half-baked initiative that will never happen, a Johnson specialty, there wouldn’t be much more to say. But why Rwanda and what’s in it for the Home Secretary?
The announcement provoked widespread and powerful reactions. “We pray that those who seek solutions do so with compassion, and with regard for the dignity which is innate to every human being. This week's policy announcement simply lacks these qualities” Cardinal Vincent Nichols responded. The Archbishop of Canterbury described this “subcontracting” of responsibilities as “the opposite of the nature of God” – more theological but less clear - while the civil servants union called it ‘inhumane’. Matthew Rycroft CBE, Permanent Secretary in the Home Office with a distinguished diplomatic career behind him, wrote to Priti Patel that he was not in a position to conclude there was "a deterrent effect significant enough to make the policy value for money” and therefore needing a Ministerial directive to proceed. In short, the deal was immoral, unworkable, probably illegal, and would likely cost a fortune.
Protest was strong but the choice of Rwanda and its geopolitical implications have aroused negligible in-depth comment. They should have. There is much to be learnt from Rwanda’s tragic history. My Church and Revolution in Rwanda (Manchester University Press 1977) examines the roots of the bitter political and ethnic conflict already happening 45 years ago. Following the 1994 genocide, I wrote about the failure of the international community, the complicity of the French, and the aftermath of the take-over by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Rwanda is much more than the ‘Switzerland of Africa’.
Rwanda today is economically a remarkable success story for which its President Paul Kagame is justly credited. A former military commander, in his mid-60s, trained at Fort Leavenworth, USA, he directed the RPF take-over after the genocide and today leads a tiny, poor, mountainous, densely populated country not much bigger than Wales whose population is 3.17 million. According to the World Bank, 60% of the 13 million Rwandans still survive in extreme poverty on $1.25 a day, but many of the usual poverty indicators are moving in the right direction.
The Kagame government has achieved impressive economic and social progress. 30% of Rwanda’s budget is spent on health and education. There is almost universal primary education along with innovative health measures, though malaria remains prevalent. Life expectancy increased from 49 years to 67 between 2001-2017. Significant efforts have been made to overcome the ethnic divides that lay behind the genocide. In 2008 a law against gender based violence was passed and some 62% of parliamentarians are now women. Inequality in Rwanda as measured by the Gini coefficient (Sweden 0.3, South Africa 0.63) is 0.44. According to Transparency International, Rwanda is the least corrupt country on the African continent. An extraordinary example of national regeneration after the genocide.
Foreign aid accounts for from 30-40% of Rwanda’s annual budget but, poor though the country remains, the government hopes to leap-frog into the cyber-age and make the country a regional ICT hub; 4,000 kilometres of fibre optics have been rolled out and 600,000 laptops distributed. The national university has a course on Artificial Intelligence. Rwanda – formerly Francophone now in the Commonwealth with an English language policy - has become a darling of British Development Aid. What’s not to admire?
The maggot in the apple is Kagame’s violation of individual human rights. Years ago, I was threatened by the head of Rwanda’s official human rights organization for taking too much interest in human rights violations. Opposing Kagame is dangerous. Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum (the German equivalent of the BBC World Service) reports ‘enforced disappearances’ (the official legal name used in a 2006 human rights UN International Convention) of journalists and opponents of the Rwandan government as well as mysterious deaths in South Africa and Mozambique of Rwandan exiles.
You have to be a very courageous to criticize the government. The country is ranked 155 out of 180 for Press Freedom and, placed between Angola at 122 and Zimbabwe at 133, is 128th out of 167 on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index. In the 2017 elections, after 22 years in power as President, Paul Kagame allegedly received 99% of the votes achieving a constitutional change that would allow him to stay in power until 2034. Rwanda is now amongst the world’s authoritarian one-party States.
Western governments making decisions about relations with Rwanda face a dilemma. Its work for social and economic rights inspires support and engagement. Its violations of individual rights, rights by which the West officially sets such store, call in question the fundamental opposition the West asserts between democratic governments and the growing number of authoritarian States around the world. The contemporary China-Russia alliance has made the West’s defense of democracy an overriding geopolitical priority. The Cold War between Communist States and Western democracies is resumed with once again the (false) choice between the personal freedoms of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights and the economic and social benefits of the 1966 UN International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. Does achieving the social and economic rights laid out in the 1966 UN International Covenant really depend on suppression of political opposition? Hardly. It’s a counter-factual argument but a democratic Rwanda could have done just as well.
The West sees itself championing democracy and a culture of democracy underpinned by respect for human rights, especially those violated by authoritarian regimes. So what is the UK doing planning to deport asylum seekers for ‘processing’, many of whom will be fleeing one authoritarian regime only to end up in another? This is no-one’s idea of ‘constructive engagement’. Priti Patel in her choice of Rwanda is de facto prioritizing economic rights over individual rights, reversing the West’s longstanding geopolitical position. Perhaps she simply doesn’t notice that there might be a wider problem here in the message she is giving to the world in her migrants for money partnership.