Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sarkozy's Remarks in Chadian Children Kidnap Case Are Insensitive

Sarkozy’s remarks in children’s case insensitive

By Stephen T. Maimbodei
Zimbabwe Herald

Children’s rights are human rights! Is this true or is it just one of the many clichés used wily nilly? Are our children safe wherever they are? Whom should we trust in matters relating to their welfare? For, poverty, the HIV and Aids pandemic and Africa’s armed conflicts continue to expose children to various forms of abuse from adults they are supposed to look up to and trust.

Child sexual abuse is rampant, and in most cases people known and trusted by the children are the perpetrators. What is our take on issues of child trafficking, especially the trafficking of orphaned and other vulnerable children, most of whom do not have legal guardians?

In Zimbabwe, we have many children on our streets. Are they safe from perverts some of whom lure them with freebies, which they cannot turn down because they are hungry, or because they need shelter and clothes just like other children in normal homes?

It is more than a week now since authorities in Chad rescued 103 children who were going to be flown to France under unclear circumstances. A team of French aid workers committed the alleged abduction, and they are from a French charity organisation called Zoe’s Ark. Chadian authorities subsequently arrested seventeen French, Spanish and Chadian nationals in connection with the incident.

The aid organisation claimed that the children were orphaned and they also claimed that the scheme, ‘which would offer a better life to the children’, was purely humanitarian.

Was this true, and was this the first group of children to almost be smuggled out of a region that has been torn by civil strife for so many decades?

According to Reuters news agency, Zoe’s Ark, which was formed by a group of motoring enthusiasts in the wake of the tsunami that devastated parts of Asia on 2004, claimed that it intended to place the ‘orphaned’ children in foster care with French families. Its general secretary, Stephanie Lefebvre, told the Le Parisien last month that the organisation never aimed to have the children in its care adopted but simply wanted to save them from starvation.

It has however emerged that some French and Belgian 'host' families had paid Zoe's Ark about 2,000 Euro (£1,390) each, to foster the children.

Chadian authorities initially charged the seventeen with abduction and fraud. If convicted the aid workers would face sentences of between 5 and 20 years, forced labour.

It has also emerged that the children reported to be Darfurian are in actual fact Chadian. Contrary to claims by the aid workers that they were ‘orphaned’, some of the children said their parents were still alive, and that they were taken from their villages on the Chad-Sudan border, and not from Darfur: "My parents had gone to work in the fields. As we were playing some Chadians came and said here are some sweets, why don’t you follow us to Adre and then we’ll take you home.

"We were taken to the hospital in Adre," said a young boy who gave his name as Osman.

According to another report by The Guardian, some of the children’s parents said they had entrusted their children to Zoe’s Ark because they believed they would be educated at a project in Chad, and not flown out of the country.

The children’s claims were echoed by UN agencies and other international aid organisations who have since established that at least 91 of the 103 children were not orphans and that they came from the border region between Chad and Darfur.

Soon after the incident, Chadian president Idriss Déby and his French counterpart president Nicolas Sarkozy strongly condemned the act. Déby promised ‘severe punishment’ for what he described as a ‘kidnapping’ or ‘child-trafficking’ operation: "I can understand … the French families who wanted to save children. But I don’t understand why an association decided, alone, to bring them to Paris". President Déby also claimed that the Europeans wanted to ‘sell’ the Chadian children to ‘paedophile non-governmental organisations’ or kill them to sell their organs.

Sarkozy condemned the French aid workers and branded their actions as ‘illegal and unacceptable’.

Zoe’s Ark has also been roundly condemned by several international aid and development organisations based in Chad: "The action has not only placed these children under tremendous stress, it has also seriously violated their human rights…" the organisations said.

Meanwhile, on November 6, Juan Miguel Petit, the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography called upon both Chadian and French authorities ‘to fully investigate and shed light on circumstances surrounding the capture of the children.’

According to a report by Third Sector, Zoe’s Ark is now deemed a threat to Save the Children’s brand and the charity has formally written to Zoe’s Ark, asking it to stop using the name ‘Children Rescue’ in Chad because the name has the same Arabic translation as that of the global children’s charity.

This very disturbing case raises a number of ethical and moral issues regarding children’s rights. The question is, is this but a tip of the iceberg in a world now riddled with child abuse: trafficking, slavery, child soldiers, prostitution, paedophilia, perversion and other forms of abuse? With paedophiles lurking in cyberspace and the real world, how safe are our children?

The Chadian authorities must be congratulated for their vigilance and a job well done. Africa hopes that the truth behind this scam will be thoroughly investigated and made public, and that if anyone is found to have broken Chadian law, they will be justly punished under Chad’s criminal law. Despite the odds, it is also hoped that Chadian authorities will not be intimidated into capitulating.

When the story broke out, this writer had initially commended the French government for allowing the aid workers to be tried under Chadian law. At least it was not going to be another Black water incident where people who kill with impunity are granted immunity because Iraqi life does not seem to be as precious as American life.

Events took a nosedive when on November 4, Sarkozy made an unexpected visit to Chad and secured the release of three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants. The freed men and women flew to Paris on his presidential jet after Sarkozy had held talks with Déby. The plane also stopped over in Madrid, where Spanish Premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero personally met the four Spanish flight attendants.

The writing is on the wall. The European Union’s voice is loud and clear as the case has now assumed regional (European) implications, as it is now dealt at the highest level in government. Meanwhile, the African Union’s voice is conspicuous by its silence.

Ten Europeans including members of Zoe’s Ark remain in custody in Chad charged with extortion and child kidnapping.

Initially, Sarkozy had told a press conference in N’Djamena that he hoped the French people implicated in the affair would be ‘tried’ in France. He also told Déby to respect the right to presumption of innocence for those still in custody.

However, according to AFP (November 6, 2007), the French president has vowed to return to Chad to bring home the remaining detainees. "I will go and bring back those who stayed behind, regardless of what they have done…the role of the head of state is to take responsibility for all of the French people."

This is despite reports that the French government had on three occasions warned Zoe’s Ark about its activities in Chad where they were registered under another name, Children Rescue.

This is the same Sarkozy who last week also said that members of Zoe’s Ark ‘were wrong to do what they did’. He had assured journalists that together with Déby they would ‘try to find agreement so that no one in this affair loses face.

Who now has lost face, Monsieur Presidante? Zoe’s Ark, France, Déby or the Chadian children?

It had been hoped that the Chadian rule of law would be allowed to take its full course. It had also been hoped that the judgements passed (if any) would be duly respected by all parties, and that Africa’s poverty, democratic principles and human rights record would not be used against it in order to diminish its legal institutions, and the gravity of the case. It had also been anticipated that European heads of state and government would not use their political and economic muscle and the colonial master status to get their way out of the crimes committed by their citizenry.

It is however an open secret now that the French president’s intervention is likely to affect the outcome of the case. Although Sarkozy condemned Zoe’s Ark’s actions as deplorable he called for the aid workers to be returned to France to face legal action. In a BBC World Services report on November 5, it was reported that a French judge would soon be flying to Chad to resolve the issue, although Chad was insisting that the group would stand trial on Chadian soil.

The intervention and interference by the French president at a personal level can best be described as the ‘devil getting into the detail’.

Why Sarkozy decided to deal with the issue personally is part of the bigger picture in this fiasco. It is also part of the answer to the puzzle of why westerners that commit crimes on African soil are not supposed to stand trial in those countries, and if they do and are found guilty, they are not supposed to save their jail terms there.

Many times political pressure has been exerted on the Zimbabwe government when Europeans and Americans have been arrested and jailed in Zimbabwean prisons.

The McGowan case and the case of the mercenaries arrested en route to Equatorial Guinea are cases in point.

But, how many Africans are locked up in western jails for various crimes, and how many African leaders have intervened on behalf of their citizens, notwithstanding that they would have broken the laws of those western countries?

Sarkozy’s flying to Chad to discuss the issue with Déby — was it a face saving gesture, or was this the case of a French president giving marching orders to the Chadian leader in typical colonial master fashion?

The French president continues to be as ambiguous and controversial as ever. Why does he get personally involved in issues concerning African children including migrant children living in France? This involvement dates back to the time when he was interior minister in Chirac’s government. Where is the catch when he has diplomatic machinery at his disposal? Is he reshaping French’s foreign policy with its former colonies, or is it for the love of Africa’s children?

In 2006 there were violent clashes between African migrant youths and French police, and Sarkozy was minister for the interior then. Several experts have maintained that his provocative statements promising to ‘eradicate the ‘scum’ and ‘gangrene’ (reference to the migrant youths) were ill-considered and they provoked further violence. "Sarkozy’s choice of words makes me think of the rhetoric used by military police in racial dictatorships, and of regimes practising ethnic cleansing,"

Hugues Lagrange, social researcher at the independent Paris Observatory of Social Change told IPS.

Notwithstanding, African children’s interests have once again been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. According to The Times, Sarkozy is assumed by diplomats to have provided undertakings on further French assistance to Déby, who owes his political survival in recent years to the presence of 1 200 French peace keeping forces in his country.

France and Chad also have a judicial co-operation agreement that could make it possible for the French detainees to be tried in France. Thus it remains to be seen whether the Chadian government will rebuff Sarkozy as expressed by the justice minister who criticised Sarkozy’s public promise as ‘inopportune’. "[Sarkozy’s] statement will have no bearing on the handling of the case before the judge," he said.

The interior minister also said the Europeans should be tried and punished on Chadian soil. "It’s perfectly clear, the actions were committed in Chad, … "That is why these bandits must be tried and sentenced here", said the interior minister in an interview with Le Parisien on Tuesday.

The caveat is that while we applaud the tremendous efforts made by many aid organisations, it is cases like this that sometimes make people question the agenda behind some humanitarian activities.

Despite the noble intentions, the international aid business continues to be viewed with circumspect, especially in the developing world where most of their activities are concentrated. Recipients and analysts alike see bigger pictures and corrupted agendas behind the aid business. They also want to know whether the actions of some in the aid business come from empathetic hearts, or it is just business as usual with big bucks doing the rounds or flying away.

As we probe whether ‘children’s rights are human rights’, and how far adults respect them, we will examine some recent high profile cases involving children other than cases of child soldiers in some parts of Africa.

The world remembers full well the case of the 400 Libyan children who were in 1999 alleged to have been intentionally infected with HIV, the virus that causes the deadly Aids disease by five Bulgarian medical workers, and a Palestinian doctor.

The story assumed an international picture of immense magnitude, with the European Union and the United

States interfering diplomatically or otherwise.

The fate of the children was put on the back burner because it was Libya that was eventually put on trial. It was President Colonel Muammar Qaddafi who eventually yielded to western demands regarding the fate of the health workers, and not the fate of the Libyan children and their families.

In July 2007, Sarkozy’s ex-wife, Cécilia Sarkozy secured the release of the health workers from Libya after the French President agreed to provide weapons and nuclear technology to Libya as part of a deal for the release of the Bulgarian health workers.

According to press reports, ‘the release completed a rapprochement with Libya, which not long ago was largely shunned in the world community.

A turning point came when it publicly abandoned a program to develop weapons of mass destruction and made payments to the families of the people who died in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. That led to Washington restoring diplomatic ties.’

Then the Libyan children’s case became a non-issue.

Late in 2006, the world was intrigued by yet another a high profile case of a Malawian baby (David Banda) whose adoption by rock star Madonna is still debatable. Commenting on the issue, the media said David Banda was probably a very lucky boy, because by being adopted by Madonna, he was being ‘whisked into a life far more comfortable than he could ever have wished for’.

How lucky will he be 30 years down the line?

David’s 32-year-old biological father Yohane Banda had initially welcomed the idea of Madonna adopting his son and extricating him out of the poverty cycle.

However, being illiterate, he did not know what the legal ramifications of his actions would be on David, who is now called David Banda Ciccone Ritchie: "I was never told that adoption means that David will no longer be my son … If I was told this, I would not have allowed the adoption. I want more clarification on the adoption. I would prefer that David goes back to the orphanage where I can see him any time I want, rather than send him away for good."

Were the 103 Chadian children going to end up like David Banda? Do we have more children like David, and more parents like Yohane Banda? How about children who come from child-headed families? What do these three case analyses say about us as African parents and the welfare and security structures we prepare for our children?

What kind of generation are we preparing if we allow our children to be brutalised and traumatised by disease, poverty, war and other forms of abuse? Is Africa begetting children, only to abdicate its responsibility of raising them to be equal partners with others in this globalised village? Is Africa begetting children and then socialising them to look up to other people for their welfare and well being?

Is colonial bondage still an excuse when we fail to provide enabling environments for our children where they will grow up and realise their dreams and aspirations? If we let them ‘fly away’ to places which we believe are comfort zones, who will take care of Africa?

Who will build Africa so that it becomes suitably habitable by its entire people?

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