In Belgian town, monuments expose a troubled colonial legacy

In this Wednesday, June 10, 2020 file photo, a statue of Belgium's King Leopold II is smeared with red paint and graffiti in Brussels. Five mixed-race women born in Congo when the country was under Belgian rule who were taken away from their Black mothers have filed a lawsuit for crimes against humanity targeting the Belgian state. (AP)
Updated 27 June 2020

In Belgian town, monuments expose a troubled colonial legacy

  • Protests sweeping the world that followed the death of George Floyd are focusing attention on Europe’s colonial past and racism of the present

HALLE, Belgium: For a long time, few people in the small Belgian town of Halle paid much attention to the monuments. They were just fixtures in a local park, tributes to great men of the past.
But these are very different times, and yesterday’s heroes can be today’s racist villains.
And so it was that three weeks ago, a bust of Leopold II, the Belgian king who has been held responsible for the deaths of millions of Congolese, was spattered in red paint, labeled “Murderer,” and later knocked off its pedestal.
Nearby, a pale sandstone statue formally known as the “Monument to the Colonial Pioneers” has stood for 93 years. It depicts a naked Congolese boy offering a bowl of fruit in gratitude to Lt. Gen. Baron Alphonse Jacques de Dixmude, a Belgian soldier accused of atrocities in Africa.
These monuments, and others across Europe, are coming under scrutiny as never before, no longer a collective blind spot on the moral conscience of the public. Protests sweeping the world that followed the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed last month by Minneapolis police, are focusing attention on Europe’s colonial past and racism of the present.
Eric Baranyanka, a 60-year-old musician who came to Halle as a refugee from Belgium’s African colony of Burundi when was 3, said he has always found the statue of Jacques “humiliating.”
“I had this pride being who I was. It was in complete contradiction with that statue,” he said.
But Halle Mayor Marc Snoeck appears to be more representative of his citizenry. He said he “never really noticed” the monuments until an anti-colonial group raised awareness of them a dozen years ago in the town of 40,000 people about 15 kilometers (10 miles) south of Brussels.
“I’m part of an older generation and I heard precious little during my studies about colonialism, the Congo Free State and the Belgian Congo,” said the 66-year-old Snoeck, noting he was taught about how Europeans brought civilization, not exploitation and death, to the heart of Africa.
Statues of Leopold, who reigned from 1865 to 1909, have been defaced in a half-dozen cities, including Antwerp, where one was burned and had to be removed for repairs. It’s unclear if it will ever come back.
But Leopold is hardly the only focus. Snoeck found it remarkable that protesters have not targeted the statue of Jacques, which he called “possibly even worse.”
The mayor said the statue is known locally as “The White Negro,” because of the hue of the sandstone depicting the Congolese youth offering the fruit to the colonial-era Belgian who condoned or was responsible for murders, rapes and maiming workers in the Congo Free State.
Baranyanka was lovingly raised by a white foster family in Halle and said he never experienced prejudice until after he had been in Belgium for about a decade.
His 98-year-old foster mother Emma Monsaert recalls others in town asking her if she was really going to take in a Black youth in the 1960s: “I said, ‘Why not, it is a child after all.’”
But at school, Baranyanka found out how others felt about race.
One teacher poured salt on his head, he recalled, saying it would make it whiter. When he wanted a part in a school play of the 17th century fairy tale “Puss in Boots,” he was denied a role, with a teacher telling him: “Mr. Baranyanka, in those days there were no Blacks in Europe.”
He counts himself lucky to have had a close circle of friends that survives to this day. As a teenager, he often talked to them about the monuments, his African roots and Leopold’s legacy.
“They understood, and they were grateful I explained it,” he said.
On Tuesday, Congo celebrates 60 years of independence from Belgium. The city of Ghent will remove a statue of Leopold to mark the anniversary and perhaps take a healing step forward.
Eunice Yahuma, a local leader of a group called Belgian Youth Against Racism and the youth division of the Christian Democrats, knows about Belgium’s troubled history.
“Many people don’t know the story, because it is not being told. Somehow they know, ‘Let’s not discuss this, because it is grim history,’” said Yahuma, who has Congolese roots. “It is only now that we have this debate that people start looking into this.”
The spirit of the times is different, she said.
“Black people used to be less vocal. They felt the pain, but they didn’t discuss it. Now, youth is very outspoken and we give our opinion,” Yahuma added.
History teachers like 24-year-old Andries Devogel are trying to infuse their lessons with the context of colonialism.
“Within the next decade, they will be expecting us to stress the impact of colonialism on current-day society, that colonialism and racism are inextricably linked,” Devogel said. “Is contemporary racism not the consequence of a colonial vision? How can you exploit a people if you are not convinced of their second-class status?”
The colonial era brought riches to Belgium, and the city of Halle benefited, building a rail yard that brought jobs. Native son Franz Colruyt started a business that grew into the supermarket giant Colruyt Group with 30,000 employees — one of them Baranyanka’s foster father.
Halle has escaped the violence seen in other cities from the protests, and officials would rather focus attention on its Gothic church, the Basilica of St. Martin, as well as its famous fields of bluebells and Geuze beer.
Baranyanka, who will soon stage a musical show of his life called “De Zwette,” — ”The Black One,” returned recently to the park and the monuments.
Despite the hostility and humiliation he felt as a youngster, he didn’t consider their destruction as the way to go.
“Vandalism produces nothing, perhaps only the opposite effect. And you see that suddenly such racism surges again,” he said. “It breeds polarization again. This thing of ‘us against them.’”
Devogel, the teacher, says it is the task of education “to let kids get in touch with history.”
“Otherwise, it will remain a copper bust without meaning,” he said of the Leopold II monument. “And you will never realize why, for all these people, it is so deeply insulting.”


Putin says Russia could adopt US preemptive strike concept

Updated 09 December 2022

Putin says Russia could adopt US preemptive strike concept

  • "We are just thinking about it. They weren’t shy to openly talk about it during the past years,” Putin said
  • For years, the Kremlin has expressed concern about US efforts to develop the so-called Conventional Prompt Global Strike capability

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Moscow could adopt what he described as a US concept of using preemptive military strikes, noting it has the weapons to do the job, in a blunt statement amid rising Russia-NATO tensions over Ukraine.
“We are just thinking about it. They weren’t shy to openly talk about it during the past years,” Putin said, referring to the US policy, as he attended a summit in Kyrgyzstan of a Moscow-dominated economic alliance of ex-Soviet nations.
For years, the Kremlin has expressed concern about US efforts to develop the so-called Conventional Prompt Global Strike capability that envisions hitting an adversary’s strategic targets with precision-guided conventional weapons anywhere in the world within one hour.
“Speaking about a disarming strike, maybe it’s worth thinking about adopting the ideas developed by our US counterparts, their ideas of ensuring their security,” Putin said with a thin smile, noting that such a preemptive strike was intended to knock out command facilities.
He claimed that Russia already has commissioned hypersonic weapons capable of carrying out such a strike, while the US hasn’t yet deployed them. He also claimed that Russia now has cruise missiles that surpass their US equivalents.
While Putin appeared to refer to conventional precision-guided weapons when he talked about possibly mimicking the US strategy, he specifically noted that the US hasn’t ruled out the first use of nuclear weapons.
“If the potential adversary believes that it can use the theory of a preemptive strike and we don’t, it makes us think about the threats posed by such ideas in other countries’ defensive posture,” he said.
In Washington, advisers to President Joe Biden viewed Putin’s comments as “saber-rattling” and another veiled warning that he could deploy a tactical nuclear weapon, according to a US official who was not authorized to comment and spoke on the condition of the anonymity.
The official noted that Russian military doctrine has long stated that Moscow reserves the right to first use of a nuclear weapon in response to large scale military aggression.
John Erath, senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, also viewed Putin’s statement as yet another attempt to raise the nuclear threat.
“He doesn’t quite say we’re going to launch nuclear weapons, but he wants the dialogue in the US and Europe to be, ‘The longer this war goes on, the greater the threat of nuclear weapons might be used,’” Erath said.
Putin was asked Wednesday at a Kremlin conference whether Russia could commit to forswearing a first strike and responded that such an obligation might prevent Russia from tapping its nuclear arsenal even if it came under a nuclear attack.
“If it doesn’t use it first under any circumstances, it means that it won’t be the second to use it either, because the possibility of using it in case of a nuclear strike on our territory will be sharply limited,” he responded.
He elaborated on that answer Friday, saying Russia’s nuclear doctrine is based on the “launch on warning” concept, which envisions nuclear weapons’ use in the face of an imminent nuclear attack spotted by its early warning systems.
“When the early warning system receives a signal about a missile attack, we launch hundreds of missiles that are impossible to stop,” he said, smiling. “Enemy missile warheads would inevitably reach the territory of the Russian Federation. But nothing would be left of the enemy too, because it’s impossible to intercept hundreds of missiles. And this, of course, is a factor of deterrence.”
Russia’s nuclear doctrine states the country can use nuclear weapons if it comes under a nuclear strike or if it faces an attack with conventional weapons that threatens “the very existence” of the Russian state.
Since sending Russian troops into Ukraine in February, Putin has repeatedly said that Moscow was ready to use “all available means” to protect its territory and has rejected Western criticism of nuclear saber-rattling.
“I understand that ever since nuclear weapons, the weapons of mass destruction have appeared, all people — the entirety of humankind — have been worried what will happen to the planet and all of us,” he said.
At a ceremony Friday at US Strategic Command, which has responsibility for the nation’s nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Putin’s repeated threats were irresponsible.
“As the Kremlin continues its cruel and unprovoked war of choice against Ukraine, the whole world has seen Putin engage and deeply irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling So make no mistake, nuclear powers have a profound responsibility to avoid provocative behavior and to lower the risk of proliferation and to prevent escalation and nuclear war.”


UN carves out sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid

Updated 09 December 2022

UN carves out sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid

  • The resolution applies to UN agencies as well as humanitarian organizations participating in UN humanitarian work
  • The text gained 14 votes in favor in the Council, with only India abstaining

UNITED NATIONS, United States: The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution on Friday to allow humanitarian aid to continue unhindered into countries targeted by UN sanctions, particularly frozen assets.
The text states that “payments of funds,” “economic resources” or “the provision of goods and services necessary to ensure the timely delivery of humanitarian assistance... are permitted and are not a violation of the asset freezes imposed by this Council.”
The resolution applies to UN agencies as well as humanitarian organizations participating in UN humanitarian work.
The humanitarian community has been calling for the Council to ensure that “unintentional, second-order impacts don’t impede their work,” said US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She said they wanted was a “clear, standard carve-out” for all UN sanctions regimes.
“And that is exactly what we are voting on today,” she said, adding that the resolution would “save lives.”
The text — which was also supported by several dozen states even outside the Security Council — gained 14 votes in favor in the Council, with only India abstaining.
“Our concerns emanate from proven instances of terrorist groups taking full advantage of such humanitarian carve-outs and making a mockery of sanctions regimes,” in particular those against the so-called Daesh group and Al-Qaeda, said India’s ambassador Ruchira Kamboj, who is heading the Council this month.
The resolution specifies that the exemption is only valid for two years for Al-Qaeda and IS.
“There have also been several cases of terrorist groups in our neighborhood, including those listed by this council, reincarnating themselves as humanitarian organizations and civil society groups precisely to evade the sanctions,” the Indian ambassador said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross hailed the vote as “an important day in the history of humanitarian action,” expressing hope that the new rule would mean “better services for communities, such as medical care, drilling of wells for clean drinking water, or visits to people detained in conflict.”
There are currently more than a dozen UN Security Council sanctions regimes involving North Korea, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Taliban.
Last year, after the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Security Council implemented an exception for humanitarian aid to the war-torn country.


Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap

Updated 09 December 2022

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap

  • Russia's invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further
  • The deal that saw Griner exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden

SAN ANTONIO, United States: Brittney Griner returned to the United States early Friday, nearly 10 months after the basketball star’s detention in Russia made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad and set off a political firestorm.
Griner’s status and prominence in women’s basketball and her imprisonment heightened concerns for her and brought tremendous attention to the case. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further.
The deal that saw Griner exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden. But the US failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.
Asked if more such swaps could happen, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that “everything is possible,” noting that “compromises have been found” to clear the way for Thursday’s exchange.
Biden’s authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, was seen getting off a plane that landed Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.
“So happy to have Brittney back on US soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
The WNBA star, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. The US State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
Griner pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case. She was sentenced to nine years.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and accidentally packed them. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday’s swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and Bout had been flown home.
Biden spoke by phone with Griner. US officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling.
In releasing Bout, the US freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the US in 2010.
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that USofficials said were to be used against Americans.


India's BJP sweeps Gujrat in poll seen as litmus test for 2024 general elections

Updated 09 December 2022

India's BJP sweeps Gujrat in poll seen as litmus test for 2024 general elections

  • Narendra Modi’s party won 156 seats in Gujarat’s 182-seat legislature on Thursday
  • National elections are due in 2024 when Modi is widely expected to run for a third term

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in his home state Gujarat has shown a strong performance, but experts said on Friday that the win was not necessarily a trendsetter for the national vote that is less than two years away.  

In its best-ever performance in the western state of around 60 million people, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party on Thursday won 156 seats in Gujarat’s 182-seat legislature, up from 99.  

The party has been ruling Gujarat since 1995, and Modi served as its chief minister for 12 years before becoming prime minister in 2014. He was ruling the state in 2002, when 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in the worst outbreaks of sectarian violence since the country’s independence.  

After Thursday’s win, he took to Twitter to thank his voters, saying that he was “overcome with a lot of emotion” by the results. Indian media have been projecting the victory as a litmus test for the 2024 general elections, when Modi is expected to seek the premiership for a third time.  

The state election result was all the more remarkable, given his electorate has been frustrated by rising prices and unemployment.  

“It’s a baffling victory in Gujarat given the government’s failure and poor human development index,” Prof. Ajay Gudavarthy of the Center of Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi told Arab News.  

But the unexpected landslide win is no guarantee of victory in 2024, and the opposition still has time to mobilize.  

“There is no cakewalk, and 2024 is still an open game,” Gudavarthy said. “If the opposition brings a robust agenda, you can see the mood of the nation change very fast. India is still an open society.” 

Earlier this year, the BJP won big in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which sends the most members to parliament. But the ruling party lost power to the opposition Congress in Himachal Pradesh, and to the Aam Aadmi Party in New Delhi, despite ruling the capital region for the past 15 years.  

“There is a lot of discontent among people over the way the Modi government has been ruling the country. There is a problem with governance, unemployment is high and a large section of the population is suffering. In this situation, you cannot expect Modi to come back so easily,” Shashi Shekhar Singh, political science professor at Delhi University, told Arab News.  

“The Unify India campaign of the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi is connecting with the masses, and I am sure it will impact the elections in 2024.”  

But the opposition’s own fragmentation is what dealt a blow to its mobilization. 

Television anchor and senior political commentator Urmilesh saw not only a “lack of unity” but also of a clear agenda among opposition parties.  

It is to Modi’s advantage, he said, “if the opposition does not get their act together and channelize their energy to tap the prevalent discontent.” 


Russian oligarch wins access to second impounded yacht on French Riviera

Updated 09 December 2022

Russian oligarch wins access to second impounded yacht on French Riviera

  • Customs agents seized the 17-metre "La Petite Ourse II" on March 21
  • The Rouen appeals court ruled that customs officers had not followed correct procedures when they boarded the vessel yacht

PARIS: A French court on Friday ordered the customs agency to release a second impounded yacht owned by a Russian billionaire hit by European sanctions, citing procedural errors made during its seizure.
Customs agents seized the 17-meter “La Petite Ourse II” on March 21 after its owner, Alexey Kuzmichev, one of the main shareholders of Russia’s Alfa Bank, was sanctioned by the EU for his ties to President Vladimir Putin.
The Rouen appeals court ruled that customs officers had not followed correct procedures when they boarded the vessel, which was moored at Cannes on the Cote d’Azur.
His other yacht, La Petite Ourse, which is moored in nearby Antibes and was also seized in March, was released in October after a similar ruling by the Paris appeals court.
Customs agents in both cases had cited fraud investigations when they presented themselves to shipyard authorities, which under French law permits customs to search a vessel but did not apply in this context.
According to his lawyer, Philippe Blanchetier, Kuzmichev has not used La Petite Ourse since the first ruling in October and wanted to sue the French authorities to win back access to both boats in order to make a point, not to go out to sea.
“We want the respect of the law. We cannot take measures against countries, saying rights are not respected, and then not respect the law (ourselves),” he said.
The ruling underlines the challenges faced by European nations in freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs.
The customs agency did not reply to requests for comment immediately.