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July 25, 2014

How Ireland can help to bring peace to the Israeli and Palestinian people

By Éamonn Meehan, Trócaire Executive Director
 
It is not enough to express horror at so many innocent lives having been lost in the latest round of violence in Gaza and Israel, we must instead ask how we can break the cycle that leads to this slaughter.
 
The region is trapped in a cycle of violence. Rockets are fired into Israel, followed by cyclical large-scale military invasions of Gaza. We utterly condemn the risks to civilians by both the rocket fire and the military invasions.
 
However, until we begin the tackle the underlying causes behind this conflict, this cycle will continue.
 
Through the European Union, Ireland can play a positive role in tackling these under-lying causes.
 
Regrettably, however, Ireland’s position on Israel and Palestine is contradictory and self-defeating.
 
Officially, the Irish Government condemns the military occupation of the West Bank, the continued expansion of illegal settlements and the blockade on Gaza.
 
Earlier this month, the Government issued advice to Irish businesses and citizens, warning against conducting business with illegal Israeli settlements. The government noted, “Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible…[the settlements] are built on occupied land and are not recognised as a legitimate part of Israel’s territory.”
 
Yet, despite recognising continued illegal settlement expansion as a key driver of the conflict, the Irish Government and the EU continues to make these settlements financially viable through trade.
 
Trade between the EU and the settlements is conservatively estimated to be at least €96 million a year. The actual figure may be as high as €160m, which stands in contrast to the total amount of Palestinian exports to the EU, which amounts to approximately €12m annually. This trade incentivises Israel to continue to expand the settlements by confiscating land and demolishing homes of Palestinians.  
 
It is utterly self-defeating to condemn illegal settlements while at the same time ensuring their financial viability and incentivising Israel to continue to confiscate land from Palestinian families.
 
We must remove contradictions from Irish Government policy. We must stop condemning with one hand and supporting with the other. We must stop making the occupation financially viable while at the same time funding the humanitarian crisis it creates.
 
Until we do this, we are incentivising the continuation of this conflict.
 
It is a fallacy to believe that cyclical military invasions of Gaza, which result in large numbers of civilian deaths, will bring peace to Israeli and Palestinian civilians.
 
The only way this peace will happen is through a long-term political solution.
 
Ireland can and should do what it can to make this a reality.
 
You can take action here: www.trocaire.org/gaza
 

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July 17, 2014

Israel's military operations in Gaza strike me as ultimately self-defeating for their own security

"Making meaningful efforts towards ending violence and building peace will do far more to ensure security and safety for Israel’s citizens,” says Éamonn Meehan, Executive Director at Trócaire.
 
Trócaire began working in Israel and in the Palestinian territories in 2002.  We work with both Israeli and Palestinian partners to further the cause of peace and understanding in the region. 
 
When I visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory in January of this year, I witnessed firsthand the devastation that prolonged occupation is having on Palestinian communities. In Gaza, I witnessed the effects of ongoing cycles of violence and the economic impoverishment of the people by the economic blockade imposed by Israel. 
 
Israel's current military operations in Gaza strike me as ultimately self-defeating for their own security. Israel should recognise that collectively punishing and impoverishing the people of Gaza, including conducting extensive and disproportionate airstrikes in dense urban areas which inevitably result in large numbers of civilian casualties, will only create anger and hopelessness among the ordinary people of Gaza. Such resentment regrettably results in further violence. 
 
The actions of both Hamas and Israel contravene international law.  Both sides are acting recklessly and without regard for the safety of either Palestinian or Israeli civilians.
 
Ultimately, the sort of cyclical violence that we have seen over recent days, will only lead to a continuation of the situation whereby millions of Palestinians are impoverished and live without hope and Israeli citizens live in daily fear of rocket attacks. 
 
Making meaningful efforts towards ending violence and building peace will do far more to ensure security and safety for Israel’s citizens. As His Holiness Pope Francis stated on his recent visit to the Holy Land, there is a need to create, “a stable peace based on justice, the recognition of the rights of every individual, and on mutual security.” 
 
For further reading, see a comment piece in today’s Irish Independent (Thursday 17 July) by a representative of our partner organisation Breaking the Silence: 'Our politicians don't even pretend to promise hope', written by Avner Gvaryahu, who was Sergeant in the Israeli Defence Forces (2004-2007).
 
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July 15, 2014

A testimony of survival and dignity in the face of genocide

 
A CIDSE delegation of European bishops and priests has travelled to Guatemala to show their solidarity with survivors of genocide, Aisling Walsh reports. 
 
“It takes effort to reach heaven” said Don Tiburcio, with a big smile as we puffed and panted our way up the short but steep path leading to his house. When we reached the top we were rewarded with what was certainly a heavenly view: a 360 degree panorama of the lush green hills of Quiche, Guatemala, glowing in the morning sunshine.  
 
Don Tiburcio welcomed us warmly into his home in the village of Xix, an hour’s drive along a dirt road from Nebaj, Quiche. Of course it was not the first time that he had been visited by Trócaire. 
 
Don Tiburcio, of Maya Ixil origin, was one of the protagonists of Trócaire’s 2003 Lenten campaign that aimed at raising awareness about land rights issues in Guatemala and advocating for justice for those that had lost their lives, their loved ones and their land in Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict. 
 
Over 22,000 Irish people wrote letters to the Guatemalan government demanding justice for victims and survivors of the conflict and ten years later, in 2013, Don Tiburcio finally had the opportunity to give his testimony to the Guatemalan Supreme Court as a survivor of and witness to genocide. 
 
The former head of state, General Efrain Ríos Montt was found guilty for genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Ixil indigenous community and sentenced to 80 years in prison. 
 
A year has passed since the sentence was handed down and unfortunately there has been a series of actions taken by powerful sectors of Guatemalan society to annul the judgment, deny that genocide ever took place in Guatemala and to attack many of the key figures and local and international organizations that were involved in taking the case to court. 
 
Monsignor Hugh Connolly meets Don Tiburcio Utuy
Monsignor Hugh Connolly meets Don Tiburcio Utuy, survivor of genocide, at his home in the village of Xix, Quiche. Photo: Delmi Arriaza
 
In light of the increasingly hostile environment for human rights defenders and social justice advocates in Guatemala, CIDSE (the international alliance of Catholic organizations working together for global justice) organized a delegation of European bishops to visit Guatemala and demonstrate their solidarity with the Guatemalan people and their struggle for justice and equality. 
 
The director of CIDSE, Bernd Nilles, Father Peter Hughes of the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM) and Monsignor Hugh Connolly, Director of the Seminary in Maynooth, accompanied staff from Trócaire and our partners CALDH (the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights) and AJR (the Association for Justice and Reconciliation) who were the plaintiffs for the genocide trial. 
 
Monsignors Juan Antonio Aznarez Cobo from Spain, Aloys Jousten from Belgium, and Felix Gmür from Switzerland visited partner organisations based in the region of Alta Verapaz were Trócaire has been advocating for the rights of 769 families forcefully evicted from their lands in 2011. 
 
Bishop Antonio Aznarez Cobo guatemala
Bishop Antonio Aznarez Cobo of Spain celebrates Mass at protest camp against La Puya mine, Guatemala. Photo: Courtest of CIDSE
 
It is the second tour of this kind that united high representatives of the international Catholic organisations in their will to fight against the deterioration of the human rights situation, conflict around access to land and against poverty, and in favour of peace and reconciliation in Guatemala. 
 
Don Tiburcio, a catechist and the director of Catholic Action for the village of Xix, was gratified by the opportunity to share his testimony and his reflections on the trial with the members of the delegation. 
Over the course of nearly three hours he recounted with incredible detail the story of the persecution of him and his community. 
 
“When the conflict began in the early 1980’s my family and I were just salespeople. We travelled between the different towns around Nebaj to sell our products in the markets.  Once the army entered Nebaj they began to harass us and confiscate our products. They accused us of helping the guerrillas. We were considered the enemy just for being Ixil, for speaking Quiche. They treated us like animals.” 
 
The first massacres in the Ixil communities surrounding Nebaj began in 1981. In February 1982 while on watch with other community leaders Tiburcio raised the alarm that the army was coming and the whole village fled to the mountains. There he lost his first wife and children who died from malnutrition. 
 
Tiburcio was captured by the army in 1983, accused of being a guerilla and was kept prisoner for three years. 
 
During this time he was subjected to repeated torture, interrogation, starvation and incomprehensible levels of cruelty at the hands of the Guatemalan military. 
 
Tiburcio described how he came so close to death three times that he thought he had actually died: “I prayed to God to take me if it was my time. I thought I would die, but by the grace of God I managed to survive.”
 
An estimated 200,000 people were murdered or disappeared during the conflict, 83% of whom were indigenous people. The genocide of the Ixil community was the most extreme expression of an ideology of racism that has festered at the core of the state; they were deemed an ‘internal enemy’ that must be ‘annihilated.’ 
 
candle for disappeared guatemala
Lighting a candle in memory of the victims of the internal conflict. Till this day families are still searching for the location of their relatives and continue to look for justice. Photo: Delmi Arriaza
 
When the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, Tiburcio returned to Xix and immediately reassumed his role as the community catechist, providing spiritual support to his traumatized community. Tiburcio also found love again and started another family with his wife Catarina.
 
 In 2013 Tiburcio was one of the key eye witnesses at the trial of Ríos Montt: “The trial was an important achievement for all our Ixil brothers and sisters. We were able to speak to the nation about our pain and suffering, all that we lived through and all that we felt. The sentence is an important moment of change for our country; it means that our children will never have to experience what we did. But it never would have been possible without international support, especially Trócaire.” 
 
As our meeting concluded Father Peter Hughes thanked Don Tiburcio for his honesty, sincerity and his trust in sharing his testimony, “All that is left for us to say is that we are now witnesses to your testimony, we will carry your words in our hearts, and we will share your story with the world, so that the crimes that were committed here in the past will never be repeated.”
 
 
July 15, 2014

Let the women speak

Carol Ballantine, Policy Officer, reports from a recent symposium on women’s participation in advocacy and political life in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
 
Earlier this month, Annie Matundu Mbambi was in the Dáil café, meeting parliamentarians with an interest in Africa to talk about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Annie is the president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the DRC, a partner organisation to Trócaire. 
 
One prominent female politician, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in the developing world, asked Annie with concern: “how are things for women right now?” 
 
Inevitably, she was expecting to hear grotesque responses about rape and violence – definitely the defining issue for Congolese women, especially in the East of the country. But Annie surprised us all. She spoke about a change that’s happening in the DRC right now: the advocacy work that she and other local organisations are carrying out – many with the support of Trócaire – to demand the equal participation of women in the Congolese parliament. 
 
The truth is, the exploitation and abuse of women will only end when women demand power in decision-making. That’s what we’re witnessing now. 
 
 
With Mary Robinson observing and participating, we discussed things that we all knew (without women, there is no prospect of a sustainable peace), and things that surprised and challenged us. 
 
How UN ‘coordination’ has squeezed out space for locally-owned, locally-managed responses to sexual violence in Eastern DRC. 
 
How international organisations established projects for ‘raped women’ which immediately stigmatised the very people they were intended to serve.  
 
Sometimes academic conferences can feel like a luxury, a go-nowhere exercise, useful for producing more research, but not for changing the world. This one was different. 
 
In addition to researchers and analysts, there were policy makers: ones of global and regional stature (Mary Robinson, Bineta Diop and Melanne Verveer), and Irish ones too (then Tánaiste Eamonn Gilmore opened the conference, which was attended by officials from DFAT). Members of the Congolese diaspora living in Ireland came with African-Irish group Akidwa; while NGOs came to see what we could learn and where we could connect. 
 
Salomé Ntububa, Annie Matundu Mbambi, Mary Robinson
Salomé Ntububa, Christian Aid, Mary Robinson, patron of the Irish Consortium on GBV and until this week, the UN special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa and Annie Matundu Mbambi, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the DRC. Photo: Carol Ballantine
 
 
Through the Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence (ICGGBV), we did draw connections in one important way. Since the beginning of this month, the Conflict Resolution Unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has begun a consultation and planning process for Ireland’s next National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.
 
At the Symposium, the ICGBV hosted a Round Table, chaired by Mary Robinson, to explore the lessons from the DRC for Ireland’s National Action Plan
 
Bringing people together from different backgrounds and perspectives: this is the essence of peace-building. Thanks to that Round Table, we generated a number of issues that Ireland can concretely take forward. Issues like the need to reconcile Ireland’s economic growth strategy with its obligation to respect human rights in fragile states like the DRC. Or the value of focusing Ireland’s support on specific locations rather than keeping it completely broad based.
 
The ways that we can foster and support local civil society – rather than crushing it. 
 
The truth is, Annie Matundu Mbambi and the other activists who attended the Symposium know what needs to happen, and they’re working hard to make it happen. We need to listen to them – and to work just as hard as they do. 
 
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July 11, 2014

After 28,000 kilometres, Billy's Big Cycle reaches its destination

He has been held-up at gunpoint, trapped in the middle of riots and dodged bears, but Dubliner Billy Lavelle (37) has completed his 28,000 kilometre cycle from Alaska to Argentina.

Almost precisely two years after setting off from Prudhoe Bay, the most northern point accessible by road in North America, Billy, from Blackrock in Co. Dublin, has safely arrived in the Argentinian city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. His cycle, which has raised almost €14,000 to support Trócaire’s work in Latin America, has seen him pass through 15 countries.

Billy Lavelle's Big Cycle for TrócaireCaptions: (left) In July 2012, Billy started his cycle in Northern Alaska. (right) In July 2014, Billy reached Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.

“There were some very challenging moments,” says Billy. “The worst was getting held-up at gunpoint by three masked men on an isolated dirt track in Guatemala. They stole most of my valuables.

“I arrived into Colombia during a nationwide strike and I had to attempt to get through road blocks. The first road block that I encountered was the most intimidating. There were hundreds of masked men with sticks blocking the road. They had taken two policemen hostage and run the rest of the police out of the town. Nobody was allowed to pass for seven hours until the UN brokered the release of the two policemen."

“In Alaska I had to cycle by a large bear, who stood up on his hind legs for a better view. Thankfully a car happened to be passing and the driver kindly waited until I was safely past the curious bear before continuing on their journey.”


The cycle took Billy through varied landscapes and conditions. “I got stuck in a vast salt flat while crossing a very isolated and baron stretch in south west Bolivia,” he says. “I was progressing about 10 metres a minute into a gale, pushing my heavily loaded bike through the salt and muck, cursing and laughing at how comically difficult it was. “During my first ten days on the Dalton Highway in Alaska I was eaten alive by swarms of large mosquitos. I was so desperate to get away from the mosquitos by the 10th day that I cycled through the night. I fell asleep cycling and had a small crash!”


Despite being on the road for two years, Billy says that a part of him is sad to have finally reached his destination. “I have mixed emotions about finally reaching the finish line,” he says. “Part of me does not want the trip to end, but with the weather getting colder and more severe by the week I was happy to finally reach Ushuaia. I am completely skint at this late stage but my family gave me some money and I plan on using that to treat myself to a good Argentinian steak. I have been dreaming about Argentinian steak ever since Alaska!”

Billy Lavelle's Big Cycle for TrócaireCaption: Billy Lavelle cycling through Mexico in March 2013


Billy undertook his cycle to raise funds for Trócaire’s work in Latin America. Trócaire works in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Haiti, working with local communities to develop livelihoods, strengthen human rights and protect against humanitarian disasters. Along the way, our teams were delighted to show Billy some of the work he is helping to raise money for.


“Seeing first hand where the money for the fundraising is directly going and knowing that my charity cycle is genuinely helping people a lot less fortunate than me was something that I will never forget,” he says. “I have a renewed sense of the good in people - regardless of what country or background we are from, the vast majority of us are good people willing to help. I have been helped out by literally hundreds of people from all walks of life, so if I don't help strangers, especially touring cyclists, when I return then it would be seriously bad karma!”


It’s not too late to support Billy’s fundraising efforts and support Trócaire’s work in Latin America.

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