Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A time for hope

Several times over the past few years I've found myself making reference to the situation in Northern Ireland as a hopeful example, an example of a seemingly intractable conflict turned towards the possibility of peace. For much of the past twelve years the rival parties have been actively engaged in talks and real progress has been made towards a lasting accord. Past histories of mutual grievance have been neither denied or exploited as an excuse to abandon the challenge of forging a durable peace. Past sins, while not forgotten, have been moved beyond, as yesterday's militants have worked to become today's mediators.

This past week saw something of a shadow pass over that hope. A group referring to itself "The Real I.R.A." attacked and murdered two British soldiers and later a policeman and laid claim to the crimes as acts of a renewed war and defiance. This splinter group and others like it had formed in the years since the The Good Friday accords —in reaction to the dreaded possibility of peace. Till now these "bold rebels" had mostly some property damage and a few failed efforts at murder to their credit. These three accomplished murders, for them, count as progress.

But Northern Ireland might still be a better example. And one worth contemplating. The reaction to these murders, that of the political leadership and, more importantly, the people of both supposed sides, has been one of unified disgust. Church leaders both Protestant and Catholic, British MP's and Sinn Fein leaders have all called the crimes out for what they were... crimes. And thousands of every political stripe imaginable have shown up in the streets of Belfast to say the same thing.

That there's something of the distance we've come, and the way we have —that the work won't be undone, that we won't go back, that's the hope.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Far too long

The International Criminal Court, or ICC passed down an indictment this past week; and for the first time ever it did so against a sitting head of state. President Bashir of Sudan is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity and there is now a standing warrant for his arrest. The court considered but opted not to charge Bashir with the crime of Genocide, “not at this time” was the official circumspection.

The UN estimates that some 300,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million displaced over the past five years of conflict between Bashir’s government and rival rebel factions. Bashir has argued that these estimates are gross exaggerations and that the actions of his regime, and the mercenaries in its hire, were unavoidable consequences of civil strife within a sovereign state —perhaps an arguable supposition —up until his own actions bely the point.

Bashir’s immediate response to the indictment was to announce the eviction of more than a dozen global aid organizations serving the abused populace of the Darfur Region —the most desperately needy citizens of his “sovereign” state. It’s estimated that as many as 4.7 million in the area depend on these groups for survival. Closing down their efforts “could be absolutely disastrous,” said UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville. “They do life-saving work in terms of providing food, clean water, healthcare. Thousands of people could die as a result of the decision.”

President Bashir is well aware of that fact. His sense of priority is on obvious display.

The situation is reminiscent of that scene in the old Bible story, that woman laying false claim to her right as a mother and willing to watch a child cut in half with a sword. Sadly, in Sudan that child has been balanced on the edge of a blade for far too long. His suffering has come to be a point of dialogue only —and only when it wouldn’t interfere with supposedly more immediate concerns.

Far too long.

President Bashir's actions demonstrate that he would sooner see the citizens under his "sovereignty" perish than answer to the ICC’s charges. Just as in that old story from Solomon's court, Bashir has shown the emptiness of his oft used claim, this supposed sovereignty of his. For just like parenthood, the term sovereignty is supposed to connote more of a responsibility to protect than the privilege to possess.

Some will complain that it is the ICC’s actions that have compelled this crisis. And if the world community fails to move with humane consensus against this despot and the privilege he has assumed to hostage the suffering of his own people, the crisis could indeed become a catastrophe. But looking back on that old story of Solomon’s, how many of us find fault with the judge?