Is this Egypt?

Here’s a link to my published article on the sexual harassment of women in Egypt.

Thank you so much to everyone who shared their stories with me. This really is only the beginning!

🙂

http://www.fairobserver.com/article/natasha-smith-is-this-egypt

Refugee Week

My latest Fair Observer article: an insight into the plight of victims of war as refugee week commences on June 18.

Background

The United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, [and] who lost their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” including both Arabs and Jews. Combined, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and Israel’s invasion and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 six-day-war prompted over 1 million Palestinian refugees to flee to neighbouring states.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) have since offered aid both to displaced Palestinians and their descendants. As of 2012, there are an estimated 5 million registered Palestinian refugees, many of whom struggle as second-class citizens in Arab states.

Following its liberation from a seven-month Iraqi occupation in March 1991, Kuwait expelled 450,000 Palestinian Arabs. The expulsion was in retaliation to the decision of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to align himself with Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait in August 1990. These refugees sought shelter in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and other Gulf states. The majority have not returned to Kuwait and have struggled to settle elsewhere.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq triggered widespread outbreaks of violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 4.7 million Iraqis have since been displaced or have fled to Jordan, Syria and other Middle Eastern states to escape continued bloodshed. The volatile security situation prevents millions of expatriates and those internally displaced from returning home.

The Rwandan Civil War of 1990-1993 reflected decades of ethnic tension between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. After government-backed militias carried out the genocide of the Tutsi population in 1994, Tutsi rebels fought back and defeated the Hutu regime. This drove around two million Hutu refugees to flee to neighbouring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Congo in what is commonly known as the Great Lakes Refugee Crisis.

The international community responded with one of the largest ever humanitarian relief efforts. However, when Hutu troops infiltrated and militarised the camps to attack the Tutsi-led Rwandan Popular Front government, many aid organisations withdrew their support.

The Rwandan government continues to push for a UN-backed programme to repatriate Rwandan refugees.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo became embroiled in the Tutsi-Hutu conflict after thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees escaped to Congo following the genocide, allied themselves with Mobutu’s government, and began attacking Congo’s Tutsi population. Rwandan-sponsored Tutsi rebels then instigated attacks against the Congolese government and the Hutu population in the east. Recent reports indicate that several thousand Congolese refugees have crossed over to Rwanda and Uganda in the past two months alone to escape sustained conflict.

Why is Refugee Week Relevant?

Refugee Week is an annual celebration of the continued cultural, academic, and artistic contributions of refugees to the United Kingdom. It was established in 1998 to counter increasing hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers in Britain. Though a national event, the integration and treatment of refugees is of international relevance.

The 2011 Libyan civil war drove approximately 750,000 thousand refugees to Chad, Egypt, Tunisia, and Mediterranean countries – often to a hostile reception. Many have since returned willingly to Libya, despite continuing violence.

The ongoing conflict in Syria, meanwhile, drives tens of thousands of civilians each month into refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The International Committee of the Red Cross warns that 1.5 million displaced Syrians are still in desperate need of extensive humanitarian aid as thousands more stream across the border.

The commonality of the hostile reception received by refugees in host countries highlights the global need for greater understanding of the mutual benefits – cultural and economic – that integrating refugees can have for host countries.

Lebanon: caught between a rock and a hard place since 1967

Here’s my latest article for Fair Observer: a context piece on the complexities of Lebanon’s modern history from independence to present day. From the Israel-Palestine conflict to Syria’s civil war, Lebanon has found itself embroiled in politico-religious tensions between other Middle Eastern nations for decades.

A background summary of Lebanese domestic and foreign affairs since the end of French colonial rule.

Background

Lebanon has been the battleground for some of the Middle East’s most bitter conflicts. Yet, it has also enjoyed periods of prosperity. Over the past four decades, animosity between the country’s Christian and Muslim populations and influxes of Palestinian refugees has embroiled the country in major internal and external clashes involving Israel, Palestine, and Syria.

Lebanon declared its independence in 1941 following 21 years under the French mandate. In 1943, an unwritten National Covenant laying out the structure of the state distributed parliamentary seats on a six-to-five ratio in favour of Christians. This distribution was based on a 1932 census, when the country had a Christian majority. No census has since been taken, prompting repeated calls from Lebanese Muslims for a new census to bring proportionate parliamentary representation for the increased Muslim population. In 1989, a Charter of National Reconciliation finally redressed the balance of Christians and Muslims in the National Assembly, abolishing the six-to-five ratio.

The 1967 six-day war marked the onset of major conflict in Lebanon. Although Lebanon played no active role in the war, it became entangled in the conflict after Palestinian fighters began using the country as a base for anti-Israeli attacks.

Violent exchanges between Lebanese Phalangist militia and Palestinian guerrillas in 1975, dragged Lebanon into a protracted civil war. Syrian troops invaded in 1976 to restore peace and curb Palestinian groups, resulting in the killing of thousands of Palestinians.

In response to Palestinian assaults, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1978, but withdrew under UN pressure. However, the assassination of Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to Britain, by a Palestinian splinter group provoked a full-scale invasion in June 1982. The same year saw the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian civilians by the Lebanese Phalangist militia under the watch of Ariel Sharon, Israeli defence minister at the time.

The civil war ended in 1990 after many years of death and destruction.

Why is Lebanon relevant?

Domestic politics appeared promising in 1990, as Omar Karami forged a government of national reconciliation. The Lebanese government has since become increasingly unstable, with consistent power wrangling between a small cluster of politicians, along with religiously and territorially motivated assassinations.

The National Assembly ordered the dissolution of all militias in 1991, although Hezbollah was permitted to remain active and the South Lebanon Army refused to disband.

Israel has remained determined to end the threat from Hezbollah. This has involved the bombing of Hezbollah bases in southern Lebanon and an attack on a UN base that killed over 100 displaced Lebanese civilians sheltering there.

Meanwhile, Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

In February 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a car bombing, provoking anti-Syrian protests and increased demands for the withdrawal of Syrian forces. The assassination led to a protracted trial, first by the UN and later at The Hague, which indicted four Hezbollah members in 2011; Hezbollah claims the trial was manipulated by Israel.

As a result of anti-Syrian sentiment, Syria initiated the withdrawal of soldiers from Lebanon in accordance with a UN resolution in 2005.

Furthermore, the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah led to the 2006 Lebanon war between the armed militant group and Israel. The war caused over 1,000 deaths, mostly civilians, and major infrastructural damage, displacing thousands. After 34 days of fighting, a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah was put in force on August 14.

Meanwhile, as Hezbollah and pro-government skirmishes in 2008 sparked fears of civil war, parliament elected army chief Michel Suleiman as president, ending protracted political deadlock. Politicians then set to work establishing a national unity government – a task successfully completed by newly elected PM Saad Hariri in 2009.

However, this unity was short-lived; the government collapsed in January 2011 after Hezbollah ministers and their allies resigned. A fresh government, led by PM Najib Mikati, awarded a majority of seats to Hezbollah and its allies.

More recently, the ongoing Syrian conflict spilled over into Lebanon earlier this year as several people have been killed in Tripoli in Sunni-Alawite clashes.

The rise and fall of Kony 2012

 Cynics call it clicktivism; believers say they can change the world. Natasha Smith asks how much further the Kony 2012 campaign can really stretch before it reaches its glass ceiling.

“We will turn this digital revolution into something more”. The words of San Diego-based charity Invisible Children (IC) in its latest video on the Kony 2012 campaign, ‘Part II: Beyond Famous’.  The question is, what is that “something more”? With global support already dwindling, how much more can this digital movement really achieve?

Only one month ago, the internet was swarming with links and references to the Kony 2012 campaign video. It landed more than 100m views in less than one week, becoming the most viral video of all time. Yet according to YouTube the second video, released last week, has barely exceeded 1.5 million views – despite winning round former critics with its more balanced, in-depth portrayal of the situation in central Africa.

“Clearly even a viral success (in large part spurred by controversy) does not translate into sustained online engagement or offline action”, said Katrin Verclas, co-founder of internet activist group MobileActive.org. Controversies thwarting the campaign so far include the public mental breakdown of the former President of IC Jason Russell, and reports in the Huffington Post that the charity has accepted funding from anti-gay Christian groups.

So, in the face of widespread criticism and controversy, just how much has Kony 2012 managed to achieve? The overwhelming global response to the campaign indicates it has fulfilled its primary objective of raising awareness of Joseph Kony and his crimes. “I’m very impressed with this worldwide effort”, said Jason Farr, Councillor of Hamilton, in Canada. “I hope it achieves what it intends to achieve: to make Kony famous.”

Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony is wanted by the ICC for abducting and conscripting children into his ranks as leader of rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and selling young girls as sex slaves. According to the BBC, the LRA is accused of the rape, mutilation and murder of thousands of civilians across central Africa. The group was active in Uganda until forced out due to international pressure in 2006. It has since been carrying out attacks in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan, which Invisible Children hopes to stop once and for all through global advocacy and awareness.

Value of awareness

On April 20, IC invites the world to ‘Cover the Night’, decorating the streets with imagery promoting the campaign. However, many remain critical, suggesting that such events will bring minimal long-term results. “Clicks and views do not equal action, and particular actions, like their “Cover the Night” event, do not equal the desired change,” said Kate Otto, founder of Everyday Ambassador, a group promoting global citizenship. “These things in fact can be a distraction that pushes us away from understanding the roots of the problem.”

Jedidiah Jenkins, Head of Ideas Development at Invisible Children, defended the value of spreading awareness. “That’s the challenge: awakening people to global empathy and then providing thoughtful action, steps, and tangible results,” Jenkins told me via Twitter. Invisible Children’s team at the University of Southern Indiana explained that organising local events helps spread “awareness and compassion”. “The more both are spread, the more we can affect action”, a group member tweeted to me.

TMS Ruge, the co-founder of Project Diaspora, a scheme to engage and mobilise young Africans to social action, disagrees. “I wish we wouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking awareness fixes problems”, he explained. “It doesn’t. Action, by the right actors – civil society and local government – does.”

Since the Kony 2012 campaign began, the international community has responded with increased efforts to bring Kony to justice. The African Union, in conjunction with the UN, has now committed a 5000-strong military force to capture Kony. In the US, senators and congressmen and women have put forward bi-partisan legislation to catch him. Additionally, the ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has assured the public that Kony will be arrested in 2012, thanks to the global interest generated by the campaign.

The UK Foreign Office is supportive of these efforts. “Kony2012 has achieved its aim of raising awareness of Kony/LRA”, a spokesperson told me. “The AU, UN and US military effort is appropriate at present.”

But a whirlwind of scandals surrounding the campaign have also provoked widespread scepticism about Invisible Children’s ability to solve this problem. “They lack credibility among the press, NGO community, and African experts”, said Mary Joyce, founder of digital campaign group meta-activism.org. “If they retain credibility with their young American base that will allow them to mobilize in the US and to raise money, but it is unlikely to be enough to actually capture Kony.”

Kate Otto feels the charity should shift its efforts to target more achievable aims. “I wish that the IC team would leave conflict-resolution and development in Uganda to the professionals”, said Kate, “and instead form a socially-minded film company, applying their communication skills to issues like halting global warming or ending AIDS – issues that do require participation of the masses to achieve.”

Domino effect

Kony 2012 has fuelled media interest in another African war criminal:  Bosco Ntaganda. The Congolese army general and former rebel group leader was indicted by the ICC in 2006 for conscription of child soldiers and the rape, murder and mutilation of civilians allegedly carried out by his forces, but, according to Channel 4 News, has not yet been arrested due to fears of jeopardising a fragile peace agreement in the DRC. “Interestingly, the ICC is getting renewed attention, as well as other elusive war criminals under indictment – both by the public and lawmakers”, says Katrin. “So maybe the attention given to Kony 2012 is yielding something.”

However, with the Twitter hashtag #BoscoNtaganda2012 receiving far less attention than #Kony2012, the chance of copycat digital campaigns against other tyrants appears unlikely. “It was just a perfect storm of conditions that allowed the first video to go viral, and it would be hard to replicate”, said Matt Brown, Associate Director of Communications at the Enough Project – one organisation collaborating with IC on the campaign.

Digital activism has become increasingly powerful in its reach and potential to enact change. Recent examples include the online blackout held in protest against the SOPA/PIPA legislation in January, the online petition urging Florida police to arrest the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin – which has secured more than two million signatures – and the Arab uprisings of 2011. However, with Kony 2012, digital activism may be receiving a reality check.

The fall in the campaign’s popularity could signal its demise, and ‘Cover the Night’ may prove to be its swansong. As new footage of Invisible Children’s Jedidiah Jenkins joking about keeping $900,000 of a $1m grant sweeps the internet, IC appear to be dangerously close to isolating former supporters through a barrage of irresponsible mistakes. Internet activism through social media has yielded spectacular results, yet resolving an African conflict that spans a quarter of a century is perhaps beyond the capacity of a relatively immature charity struggling to handle such unprecedented publicity. Kony 2012 has been phenomenal, but with popularity sliding, it seems doubtful that it will be either sustained, repeated, or that Kony will be caught in 2012 at all.