Archives for October 2010

Rising tensions in Sudan

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Robin Lustig | 10:11 UK time, Friday, 15 October 2010

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It's time 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.

Ed Balls and immigration

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Robin Lustig | 15:20 UK time, Saturday, 9 October 2010

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Just a quick thought on the Shadow Cabinet line-up: Ed Balls, now shadow Home Secretary, took a pretty tough line on immigration during the leadership campaign. So much so, in fact, that Education Secretary Michael Gove compared his position to that of Enoch Powell.

Now Ed Miliband has put him in charge of the immigration portfolio. Could be interesting ...

Colombia in words and pictures

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Robin Lustig | 17:09 UK time, Thursday, 7 October 2010

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My article for BBC News online is here -- and some fabulous photographs taken by producer Beth McLeod are here.

Do take a look.

On the road in Colombia - Day 4

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Robin Lustig | 04:25 UK time, Thursday, 7 October 2010

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No pictures today - the people I met this morning didn't like the idea of having their photos taken.

One was a 37-year-old former fighter in Colombia's right-wing para-military groups: he's already had to move home because his former comrades have been threatening to kill him.

The other was a young woman, a former member of one of the leftist guerrilla groups allied to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC.

Guillermo and Claudia are just two of the more than 50,000 former fighters who have handed in their weapons and come in from the jungle. Both say they are determined to make a new life for themselves - I met them at a school especially set up for demobilised para-militaries and guerrillas where they learn skills which they hope will enable them to earn a living without a gun in their hand.

Will it work? Is it something that other countries should copy? My first report from Colombia will be on air tonight - and I've also written a piece for BBC News Online. I'll link to it as soon as it's published.

On the road in Colombia - Day 3

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Robin Lustig | 01:10 UK time, Wednesday, 6 October 2010

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I think perhaps I should rename these daily jottings - not so much "on the road" as "in the air".


Yesterday, it was a helicopter ride out into the countryside; today it was a cable car ride up in to the mountains, high over the rooftops of central Medellin and up into one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.

It's a spectacular ride, and all the more remarkable for being part of Medellin's regular metro system. After all, what better way to re-integrate life in what used to be one of the most violent barrios than by providing a cheap, rapid way for its residents to get into the centre of town?

When I was in a favela (shanty-town) in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year, I saw them building something very similar, so it looks as if the idea might be catching on.

But I haven't only been flying through the air on this trip. I've also been hearing some heart-rending stories from people whose relatives have been killed by the army, just a handful of those who have suffered during the terrible years of Colombia's violence.

And this afternoon, I met one of the most articulate and passionate Generals I have ever encountered - he answered the allegations of human rights abuses head on, and described how the Colombian army is now helping to train the Afghan National Army in how to deal with an insurgency.

Lots of fascinating material, so do listen out for it on Thursday.

On the road in Colombia - Day 2

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Robin Lustig | 04:21 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010

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Flying towards San Carlos

From Medellin to the picturesque little town of San Carlos is barely 30 minutes by helicopter, swooping over verdant tree-covered mountains and glistening lakes.

The town itself is a picture of tranquillity - yet less than a decade ago it was almost a ghost town, deserted by more than half of its 20,000 inhabitants, terrified by the brutal war between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing para-militaries.

Today, the provincial governor has lent us his helicopter so that we can see for ourselves what he regards as a shining example of what Colombia's counter-insurgency strategy has achieved.

The tree-shaded town square is bustling with shoppers, but in the middle of the square is a stark reminder of San Carlos's recent past. It's a simple wall, with a row of 30 glass discs nailed into the stones. Each disc contains a name, the word "asesinado" (murdered) or "desaparecido" (disappeared), and a date.


Pastora Mira Garcia at the San Carlos memorial wall


Pastora Mira Garcia points to two of the glass discs. "That name there is my son," she says. "And that one is my daughter." Both were killed during the years of violence, and now Pastora runs an organisation devoted to fostering reconciliation between former fighters and their victims.

It's run from the building that the para-militaries used to use as their headquarters, where they kept their victims prisoner, tortured them, killed them, and buried them in the yard at the back.


San Carlos mayor Francisco Alvaro Sanchez


The mayor of San Carlos, Francisco Alvaro Sanchez, says his town is a model for what can be achieved. First, the army moved in to clear out the armed gangs. Then the police and civil authorities came to re-establish an official State presence.

Now, with thousands of people at last returning to their homes, they need economic and social programmes to help them rebuild their lives. And when I ask local community leaders what would happen if the army pulled out, they say No, it will never happen.

"I never used to trust the army," says one man. "Now, I love them. They have given us back our town."

On the road in Colombia - Day 1

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Robin Lustig | 22:35 UK time, Sunday, 3 October 2010

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I've arrived in Colombia to look at whether its success in reducing drugs-related and para-military violence from the terrifying levels of 20 years ago holds any lessons for Mexico and/or Afghanistan.


Former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo Valderrama

This morning I was shown around the city of Medellin by former mayor Sergio Fajardo Valderrama, a man who is proud of how what was once described as the most violent city in the world is now - relatively - peaceful.

According to government statistics, the country as a whole has seen a 50 per cent drop in the murder rate over the past decade, and a 90 per cent drop in the number of kidnaps.

How did they do it? Sergio Fajardo took me to see a strikingly modernistic school and a cultural centre in one of Medellin's poorest neighbourhoods, high in the hills above the city centre.


School overlooking Medellin


"This is the secret," he said. "You have to ask why young men choose to go through the door that's opened for them by the drugs cartels and the para-militaries -- a door that leads only to violence and death - and you have to offer them another door, a door to education and opportunity."

Medellin cultural centre

It's all very well killing or capturing the drugs lords, he says, but it won't do any good if they can immediately be replaced.

Not that Colombia's problems are over. The murder rate here in Medellin is climbing again; unemployment levels are as high as they were a decade ago, and income inequality is still greater than almost anywhere else in Latin America.

The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said recently that Mexico is looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago. Sergio Fajardo is a regular visitor to Mexico, where he tells them not to copy Colombia's example but to learn from it.

My reports from here will be on air later in the week - I hope you'll be able to tune in, either on air or online.

Thoughts on Ed Miliband

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Robin Lustig | 11:19 UK time, Friday, 1 October 2010

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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.

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