The Obscurer

Month: September, 2004

But Nothing

The Russian government’s appalling record in Chechnya since 1994 has been well documented. Around 100,000 civilians are reported to have been killed in the first Chechen War between 1994 and 1996. Since Putin became Prime Minister in 1999 he has refused to recognize the democratically elected Chechen presidency of Aslan Maskhadov, has imposed a succession of Moscow puppets in his place and has intensified Russian military action in the region. Around 200,000 Chechens have been displaced during this time and human rights organizations report torture, mutilation and mass graves. Russian intelligence agents were implicated in the murder of former President Yandarbiyev in Qatar in February, and in August Alu Alkhanov became the latest Kremlin man to become Chechen president in a strongly disputed election, replacing the recently assassinated President Kadyrov.

And what does this have to do with the Beslan school siege?

Nothing. Or at least it should have nothing to do with it. The horror at Beslan is an evil which should stand alone, as all atrocities should. So why have I read and listened to people saying “the school siege is terrible, but…”.

Some people have been motivated by the fact that this is a foreign tragedy, and has nothing to do with us, although one cannot help but remember the news reports following the Dunblane tragedy, and how letters of sympathy came from all around the world.

Others have stated that, for example, little attention was given to the slaughter of 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees in Burundi in August, an action which is all too reminiscent of the Rwanda genocide. This is true, but hardly suggests we then shouldn’t cover a similar tragedy in Russia.

But most of the “but…” people have seized on the actions by the Russians, as if to suggest, in not so many words, that Russia has had it coming to them, that what can you expect if you carry out a policy of brutality in any region. Similar opinions were expressed after 9/11, and clearly they should be, and are, rejected by most people.

If there is one lesson of History it is that we should try and forget History. Russia’s actions in Chechnya do not legitimise to any degree the terror in North Ossetia, no more than the many appalling terrorist acts by the Chechen rebels justify the catalogue of Russian wrongdoing listed in my opening paragraph. The lessons from the Balkans, to the Gaza Strip, to Northern Ireland is surely that unless we forget the events of the past then the cycle of violence will never be broken. We should not be soft on terrorism; the guilty of Beslan should be brought to justice, but neither should fresh atrocities be be invoked in its name.

We will have to see what happens next. Feelings of revenge will run high, and Putin’s reputation suggests he will not fight these emotions. Whether he will throw away the international goodwill shown to Russia, as President Bush did after 9/11, remains to be seen, but I fear the worst. One thing is certain however. If the next few weeks see an upsurge in Russian brutality in Chechnya, then that too should be unequivocally denounced, with no reference to Beslan.

Whatever happens though, the chilling events at School Number 1 should be viewed as an attack upon humanity itself. Full stop. And there are no buts.

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Taking Liberty

Hot on the heels of the Tories taking a swipe at the Human Rights Act, comes the inevitable attack on Political Correctness. The reason for doing so is obvious, and absolutely in keeping with the populist bandwagon jumping of the party under Michael Howard. These are issues guaranteed to elicit the support of the Daily Mail and stereotypical Middle Englanders. But why are both these issues such obvious targets for the Tories?

The dislike of Political correctness is to an extent understandable. Even though its basic concept – that one does not use words which are likely to cause offence – seems to me to be about politeness and respect for others, there are enough stories, mainly anecdotal urban myths, which do seem ridiculous. Why these stories of “Baa-Baa Green Sheep” and the like inspire anger rather than laughter has always slightly confused me, but few people I think are likely to fight tooth and nail for the cause of political correctness itself. The very term itself means nothing; it is a useless phrase unless the individual places an objective value judgment upon it.

But Human Rights, and its sister phrase Civil Liberties. Why should these be a fruitful battleground for the Tories? What have people got against these issues?

The Tories state their only real target is the Human Rights Act itself, but well before it was incorporated into British Law (and of course it has always been accessible to British Citizens via the European Court) Conservative politicians and commentators would regularly roll their eyes metaphorically whenever the likes of Liberty commented on any issue related to civil liberties or human rights. Human Rights appeared to be the domain of lefties, wishy-washy do-gooders and, of course, the politically correct.

To an extent Liberty had themselves to blame. Even though I passionately believe in the work they do, I would often cringe when the previous director John Wadham appeared on Television. The issues he raised were correct and laudable, but there often seemed to be an absence of a wider understanding of peoples concerns. His arguments often had the feel of a lawyers argument, and I guess that is understandable as he originally joined Liberty as its Legal Officer.

What I am trying to say I suppose is that when your house has been burgled, the human rights of the burglar are pretty far from your mind. Of course our rights and civil liberties are vitally important; they are an absolute, and should apply to burglars as well as the rest of us. But while Wadham covered his brief of defending Civil Liberties well, there often appeared little concern for the issues of victims of crime. Now, I don’t for one minute believe that he is less concerned about victims than any reasonable person would be, but I feel it was an impression that was sometimes created; as such it played right into the hands of those who think that Liberty and their ilk are more concerned with the rights of criminals than the rights of victims.

When John Wadham left to head the new Independent Police Complaints Commission his place in the Media was taken by Mark Littlewood and Shami Chakrabarti. Without compromising Liberty’s firm line on Human Rights, what has been noticeable is that they both seem anxious to show their understanding of ordinary peoples real concerns and fears. In doing so they more effectively show how Civil Liberties are not an airy-fairy notion to be discussed at a swish Dinner Party, but important issues which impact directly on all our everyday lives, which defend the freedoms we so cherish and shape the sort of society we all live in.

I hope that this will continue; that Liberty are able to broaden their appeal so that the Tories tactics fall of deaf ears, and that people no longer see Human Rights and Civil Liberties as dirty words.