Regional Conference, Salisbury
Salisbury was the venue for the regional conference this year and in this blog, we provide a brief summary for those who missed it.
The first speaker was Dr Kenny Latunda Dada - no stranger to the Salisbury group - who spoke about the dreadful human rights situation in North Korea. On this site you will find a report of Kenny's earlier talk which describes the prison system in that country so that part of his talk will not be repeated here.
Kenny described how he became involved in human rights when, as a boy, he was taken to see the film Escape from Sobibor. This was about a boy who managed to escape from the camp but who was subsequently captured and taken back. He asked his uncle 'why are we watching such a sad film?' and his uncle replied that 'it was important for the younger generation to know of the crimes of the past.'
North Korea appears in the news from time to time but it tends to be concerning rocket testing, the development of a nuclear device or about the satellite. Seldom does the plight of the ordinary people and their suffering under this terrible regime get a mention. The problem of course is the near impossibility of getting into the country and the absence of footage of the camps or the people. The country has the misfortune to border China who's own indifference to human rights is well known and will often return escapees back to North Korea.
He said anyone who has had contact with the outside world is 'tainted' and is subject to the worst treatment. Women who may have become pregnant are forced to have abortions and the child is suffocated.
It is a crime to listen to South Korean radio.
Entire families are often rounded up for completely unknown reasons. If one member has committed a crime then all may be imprisoned without knowing who committed the crime or what the crime was, a situation beyond even the skills of Kafka or Orwell to describe.
Is there any good news? Kenny said the UN is very active and there is greater and greater pressure on the country. Leadership changes in both China and North Korea itself have yet to make themselves known but early signs are not promising it has to be said.
He was asked if Russia and China will support further UN action and a Commission of Enquiry. Kenny thought this might happen because the one thing China fears is instability. Someone asked if sanctions work and the answer was 'yes' sometimes as it forces North Korea to the conference table.
The local group will be active on the North Korean campaign and we have a sub-group working on it. Further details will appear here next week following the group meeting on 14th.
Jubilee Debt Campaign
The next speaker was Nick Deardon of the Jubilee Debt Campaign. Nick started by observing that there was an increasing mood of disenchantment with overseas aid led by some of the tabloid newspapers in particular. Corruption and waste meant that a lot of aid was misapplied and ineffective. Poverty is increasingly being seen as something 'other' and about which we could do little.
Nick gave a completely different perspective arguing that poverty was essentially about power. He gave a brief tour d'horizon of the history of debt and its results over the last half century or so. Many of his points will be familiar to those who have read Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine (Penquin, Allen Lane, 2007).
His essential point was that debt was a huge drag on the weaker nations of the world and acted to increase the poverty of its citizens. Since the '80s the method of granting loans has been governed by the World Bank and the IMF and in both cases, they insisted on neoliberal economic regimes which are now very familiar to us: free markets, privatisation, competition and generally little or no regard paid to the local economy.
He pointed out that the Democratic Republic of the Congo should be one of the richest countries in the world in view of its natural resources. It is not and one problem is that much of the wealth disappears from the country partly by the activities of the major corporations.
He also discussed the arms trade and the fact that arms sales are guaranteed by the government and ultimately us the taxpayers. When a country like Iraq, Egypt, Sudan or Indonesia for example defaults then it is the taxpayer who picks up the tab.
He spoke of the egregious example of Guatamala where a dam was funded by the IMF but where thousands of protesters were murdered by government forces. Attempts at reparations have been frustrated and further loans have been granted.
Tax dodging was also a major concern. There are glimmers of hope and debt is now on the agenda for the G8. People are waking up to the problems of debt and its effect on poverty and people's human rights. Alternative models were emerging especially in South America.
It was an interesting talk and clearly showed the harmful effects of several decades of mismanagement by the world community. How we manage the world economy and debt are crucial to the well being of millions of people around the world and governments have a crucial role to play.
Rona Keen and Peter Murray spoke in the afternoon on behalf of the AI Board. Many questions were put to them from the floor especially concerning the EGM which had been held a few weeks earlier. Others will be preparing a report on this part of the day so this is just a brief summary.
Some felt that the Board were not listening enough to its membership. There was a worry that membership would decline after recent events. There was a worry that there was insufficient follow through on campaigns. Members were encouraged to campaign but the results were never fed back to them.
The Directors present took on board the comments made but did also defend their position. It was important to distinguish between AIUK and the International Secretariat. They did value and listen to the membership.
Jane Rendel wound up the conference and thanked all those attending and also thanked members of the Salisbury group for providing an excellent lunch and a choice of soups.