This article was originally published by World Affairs in June 2017.
“It’s easy predicting the future,” an old Soviet joke went. “What’s difficult is predicting the past.”
There is a war going on over the interpretation of history. A search for a “correct” version of the past has been launched in a number of countries, often by embittered nationalist forces, as in Poland. But the most aggressive assault is being orchestrated by dictators like Vladimir Putin, and China’s Communist Party leadership.
There is much at stake in this revisionist enterprise. The most alarming goal is to reappraise leaders like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, to whitewash their atrocities and ensure that, at least for a domestic audience, they are presented as heroic figures whose crimes were miniscule in comparison with their achievements. Another objective is to depict the country in question as both the ultimate victim and the ultimate winner.
Courtesy Alex Proimos/Flickr
This article was originally published by openDemocracy on 30 October 2016.
The news that three African states—Burundi, South Africa and now The Gambia—will quit the International Criminal Court marks a setback in the long struggle against impunity for grave crimes. Although the politics are specific to each country, the common thread underlying each of the three departures is cynical self-interest.
A number of Burundi’s current leaders no doubt fear that the Court, currently conducting a preliminary inquiry, may charge them with crimes against humanity for political violence which has taken the lives of hundreds of civilians and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Indeed, Burundi’s notice of ICC withdrawal immediately followed its suspension of the activities of the UN human rights office to protest a UN report implicating the country’s security forces in massive rights violations.
The Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, who came to power 22 years ago in a military coup and once infamously threatened human rights defenders with death, has been spouting further incendiary rhetoric in the run-up to elections this December. His Minister of Information’s characterization of the ICC as “an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color, especially Africans”, seems designed to employ anti-ICC rhetoric to hide the facts of the regime’s ugly record.
Laurent Koudou Gbagbo in Courtroom I of the International Criminal Court, The Hague, Netherlands, Monday 5 December 2011. © ICC-CPI/AP Photo/Peter Dejong
I wonder how Laurent Gbagbo, sitting in his cell in the International Criminal Court’s (ICC’s) prison in Scheveningen, has reacted to the announcement of the result of Ivory Coast’s legislative elections on 15 December. Alassane Ouattara’s ruling coalition won an overwhelming majority in the national assembly – nearly 220 out of a total of 254 seats. These elections followed a period of violent upheaval in response to the disputed presidential elections of October 2010. They were, however, marked by low voter turnout (36.6%) and a boycott by the opposition.
But while Gbagbo may be satisfied with the effectiveness of the electoral boycott, he nevertheless ceases to have any direct influence within the political system of Ivory Coast. Instead, he can call himself the first former head of state to stand trial at the ICC. Gbagbo’s arrest warrant lists four charges of crimes against humanity, alleged to have occurred between 16 December 2010 and 12 April 2011.
The new chief prosecutor confirmed that the ICC became active in this case upon the request of the Ouattara government. Prior to the legislative elections Gbagbo was moved from house
arrest in the Ivory Coast to The Hague. The move reflects Gbagbo’s convictions that as long as he was still in the country, Ouattara would not be able to govern. Thus, said one of his defense lawyers in an interview, Gbagbo considered the indictment as politically motivated. » More
The ex-President’s death remains a mystery, Photo: Oscar Ordenes/flickr
When it comes to natural disasters, Chile has a troubled past. As the plume of ash from volcanoes at Puehue and Cordón Caulle continues to blanket the skies and force people from their homes, rebuilding efforts following last year’s earthquake have only just begun. Fifty years ago Chile was also the site of the most powerful earthquake ever recorded – the gran terremoto, at Valdivia – and initial indications following this latest event suggest that the geological situation may get worse in the future.
But if its history of geological instability were not enough, Chile is also struggling with its political past. On 23 May, in compliance with a court order, the body of former President Salvador Allende was exhumed in order to begin a formal investigation into the disputed circumstances of his violent 1973 demise.
There are many versions of the events. The official story – and the one accepted by Allende’s family – is that the President shot himself (with an AK-47 given to him by none other than Fidel Castro) shortly before rebel forces stormed his office. Another version has it, instead, that he was gunned down in a defiant last stand; yet another, that he was executed by a subordinate after a botched suicide attempt. But the man ultimately responsible (if probably not personally) for Allende’s death is General Augusto Pinochet himself, whose successful coup d’etat then saw him installed first as the head of the governing junta and then as president. » More