Friday 15 October 2010

15 October 2010

You probably thought I was going to write about the rescue of the Chilean miners this week – and I admit I was tempted.

Like millions of people around the world, I was deeply moved by the scenes of jubilation at the San José mine as all 33 of the trapped miners were winched to the surface after their two-month ordeal.

But I think everything that there is to be said has already been said – so instead I want to alert you to a looming story which could be making headlines very soon.

It’s Sudan. A referendum is due to be held there in January, to allow the people of the south of the country to decide whether they want to remain part of Sudan, ruled from Khartoum, or split away to form a separate, independent nation of their own.

If the referendum goes ahead (and for reasons which will become clear, I hope, that is a very big “if”), the general expectation is that the South will vote Yes to independence, and a new nation will be born, the first in Africa since Eritrea emerged from Ethiopia as an independent state in its own right in 1993.

But there are problems. Big problems. Sudan is rich in oil reserves, and much of its oil is to be found -- most inconveniently -- right on the border between north and south. As a result, drawing the line between the two parts of the country becomes a hugely significant exercise, with immense economic implications for both sides.

Remember, Sudan has been riven by civil war for decades. The mainly Arab and Muslim north is deeply distrusted by the Christian and animist south. Only in 2005 did they sign a comprehensive peace agreement as part of which January’s referendum is to be held.

In fact, the plan is to hold not just one referendum, but two. One will be for the south to decide if it wants to secede; the second will be for the people of a small region called Abyei, to allow them to decide whether they want to be considered part of the north, or the south.

And yes, as you’ll have guessed, Abyei is awash in oil fields worth millions of dollars.

Earlier this week, talks aimed at resolving a dispute over the Abyei poll broke up with no agreement. Yesterday, the north said the scheduled referendum can’t now go ahead because there’s no agreement over who can vote.

Does it matter? Fraid so. No less a figure than film star George Clooney has just been there, and on his return immediately dropped in at the White House to exchange notes with President Obama. That’s how much it matters.

Sudan is now increasingly a nation of major strategic and economic importance. China has invested heavily, and the US is deeply involved diplomatically. And if war does resume between north and south, you can be sure that it will also resume in Darfur, to the west.

That’s why a high-powered UN security council mission has just been in Sudan. The US ambassador at the UN, Susan Rice, told security council members yesterday that the president of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, had warned her that the north is already preparing for war and may have started moving troops southward.

The talk now is of perhaps boosting the UN military presence along the dividing line between north and south, in the hope of deterring fresh violence. But who would provide the troops – and who would pay for them – remains unclear, and it’s by no means certain that the government in Khartoum would go along with the idea anyway.

Did I mention that the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court? He’s the first serving head of state to face such grave charges (they relate to the war in Darfur), and he is probably not too likely to heed calls for restraint from an international community that he regards as deeply biased against him.

But if you want to know what’s keeping the lights burning late at UN headquarters in New York, the answer is Sudan. There are more talks scheduled for later this month – but time is running out and rhetorical temperatures are rising dangerously.

I’m going to be taking a break now for a couple of weeks, so the next newsletter will be on 5 November.

Friday 8 October 2010

8 October 2010

MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA -- If you were listening to the programme last night, you’ll know that I’m in Colombia to report on the country’s continuing war against insurgents and drugs traffickers.

(My piece last night is still available via Listen Again, of course, and there’ll be another report on air tonight. Plus some fabulous pictures by our producer Beth McLeod which you can see via links from the website or from my Facebook page.)

Colombia has been a country at war for several decades. What began as a left-wing guerrilla movement slowly transformed into a drugs-fuelled insurgency, during which right-wing para-military groups and the army both contributed to a death toll over the past 20 years alone of more than 70,000.

Colombia is still one of the world’s largest producers of cocaine. Just this week, the police announced that they had seized 29 million US dollars and 17 million euros in banknotes from a house in the capital, Bogota. The money is thought to have been paid by Mexican drugs cartels for cocaine from Colombia to be shipped on to the US and Europe – it gives you some idea of the scale of the trade.

The authorities here say they are now winning the war. A decade ago, people would have said I was mad to come to Medellin, former stronghold of the notorious drugs king Pablo Escobar, and reputed at that time to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Today, it’s very different. You can stroll along the streets perfectly safely, although there are still some poorer neighbourhoods where you’re advised not to venture – and last year, the murder rate here did rise rapidly again.

So, what changed? First came Plan Colombia, a US initiative that pumped billions of dollars into strengthening the Colombian army and police and tried – mostly in vain – to eradicate the coca plantations.

Then, in 1993, Pablo Escobar was shot dead by police, and slowly, the authorities regained control in areas where for years they had been absent.

When I met Brigadier General Alberto José Mejía Ferrero, commander of the 4th Brigade of the Colombian army, he told me security is paramount in any counter-insurgency strategy.

Without security, he says, nothing makes sense. Without security, you can’t deal with poverty, or build roads or schools, or do any of the other things that make a State worth living in. It’s a lesson that he says governments elsewhere would do well to learn – in countries like Mexico, spiralling ever deeper into Colombia-style drugs-related violence, and even in Afghanistan, where classic counter-insurgency strategy bears a close resemblance to what has been tried here in Colombia.

So much so that Afghan army officers are now being trained in Colombia so that they can learn from this country’s experience. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said on a recent visit: “There’s a great deal to be learned from the success that has been seen here in Colombia.”

But there is a darker picture too. The cultivation of coca, which is used as the basis for cocaine, has barely diminished at all. New, smaller trafficking networks have been established to take the place of the once powerful cartels.

As for the army’s “successes”, well, Gloria Arboleda has a very different story to tell. Her husband disappeared one day in 2007 after going out to work as a day-labourer with a friend. He never returned, and eventually Gloria learned that he had been shot by the army as an alleged “guerrilla”. Her eyes filled with tears as she told me: “They took away the father of my children. I think of what happened every single day.”

There are more than 1,300 cases of so-called “extra-judicial killings” being investigated in Colombia, and human rights groups complain that little action is ever taken against military abuses. General Mejía of the 4th Brigade says on the contrary – there are hundreds of cases of army personnel serving jail terms after being convicted of unjustified killings.

But of course there’s more to winning a war against drugs cartels, guerrillas and para-militaries than just sending in the army. A former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, took me to Santo Domingo, one of Medellin’s poorest neighbourhoods – it used to be regarded as one of the most dangerous parts of the city – to show me what he did to start rebuilding a functioning community.

He showed me a modernistic school he built for local children – and an architectural award-winning library and cultural centre to be used by local people.

“It’s no good just killing the men with the guns if they are immediately replaced with others,” he says. “You have to ask yourself why young people choose to go through a door that leads only to violence and death – and you have to provide them with another door, one that leads to education and opportunity. It’s the only way to weaken the gangs and strengthen the State.”

Security, a strengthened State, and a rebuilt civil infrastructure. A useful lesson for Mexico – or Afghanistan? Colombian officials say Yes, without a doubt. But others are not so sure. The critics say there is still a culture of impunity in which too many crimes go unpunished; there is still widespread corruption; and coca is still being grown in huge quantities.

Colombia today is certainly a much better place than it was a decade ago. But its war has not yet been won.

Friday 1 October 2010

1 October 2010

I’m beginning to ask myself if perhaps Ed Miliband isn’t a very nice man.

I confess he’s always been perfectly charming when I’ve interviewed him – and he does have a reputation among his colleagues of being a lot easier to get on with than his brother David. (“A real human being” is what some of them call him.)

But, m’lud, the prosecution case is as follows:

Political fratricide: he stood for the party leadership knowing that if he won, he would destroy his older brother’s political ambitions. (Declaration of interest: I am an older brother.)

Ruthlessness: he disavowed large chunks of his colleagues’ work in government, including that of Gordon Brown, the man in whose orbit he circled for so many years. (Naïve about the markets? Wrong to claim he could end boom and bust? Over-influenced by focus groups? Ouch, and ouch again.)

More ruthlessness: he was rude about the Blair/Mandelson love of wealthy men (Silvio Berlusconi, Cliff Richard, Oleg Deripaska) – I quote from his speech on Tuesday: “We came to look like a new establishment in the company we kept …” Oh yes, and he has already summarily sacked the Labour chief whip, Nick Brown.

The case for the defence, m’lud, is this:

Ed Miliband knows that to most voters, he was, until last weekend, almost completely unknown. He also knows that to many of his own party members, he’s the wrong Miliband.

So he needs to demonstrate who he is, what he believes, and that he has the political courage to be a party leader.

Anyway, all this stuff about “fratricide”: would David have faced the same charge if he’d won? If not, why not? What law of politics says older brothers always have to have what they want? Does primogeniture feature in the Labour party constitution?

And members of the jury, I ask you to look at the findings of the latest YouGov opinion poll for The Sun: after less than a week since he was elected, half of the people asked said they already thought Ed Miliband would do well as Labour leader.

Seventy-one per cent said he was right to say that Labour had made mistakes in government; 56 per cent agreed with him on Iraq; 65 per cent agreed with what he said about not supporting “irresponsible strikes”; and clear majorities backed him on a higher bank levy, higher taxes for the well-off, and a higher minimum wage.

But Mr Miliband has already made himself plenty of enemies at the top of his own party. Many of his former ministerial colleagues must have been inwardly seething as he ripped in to their legacy. What did Alan Johnson or Jack Straw think, for example, when he spoke of how Labour had sometimes “seemed casual” about civil liberties?

And what did Gordon Brown think when he claimed to lead a new generation “not bound by the fear or the ghosts of the past”? (Unlike whom, do you think? The Blairs and the Browns, maybe, who entered parliament in the 1980s and lived through a decade of opposition?)

I’ve been to a great many Labour party conferences over the years – and this week’s was definitely one of the strangest. It took a while for me to realise why: for the first time in more than 15 years, it wasn’t dominated by the TB/GBs. (TB = Tony Blair; GB = Gordon Brown)

That war is over. And David Miliband’s withdrawal from the front line means it won’t be continued by proxy. But Ed Miliband will now have to persuade his party that he can win elections (watch out for the local polls next May), and then the country that he has what it takes to be prime minister.

I’m going to be taking a break from domestic politics next week – Ritula will be in Birmingham with the Conservatives, while I’ll be overseas to report on … well, tune in next week to find out.