Veronique Mistiaen is a journalist writing about human rights, international development, social issues and the environment for leading publications in the Britain and internationally, including Newsweek, The Economist,The Guardian, Telegraph and Positive News, among others. She is also a media trainer and lecturer.


Veronique Mistiaen is a journalist writing about human rights, international development, social issues and the environment for leading publications in the Britain and internationally, including Newsweek, The Economist,The Guardian, Telegraph and Positive News, among others. She is also a media trainer and lecturer.

Gina Lopez fights Philippine mining

Gina Lopez
Gina Lopez. Photo courtesy of Gina Lopez

‘We have the most beautiful country: 7,000 islands with coral reefs, mountains, rivers and forests with rare medicinal plants. We have the highest biodiversity on the planet. But our people are not benefiting from it. It is being destroyed because someone wants gold or nickel,’ says Gina Lopez in one long gulp, on a Skype interview from the Philippines.

Lopez, the country’s former environment secretary, has made it her mission to protect the immense biodiversity of the Philippines while, at the same time, promoting social justice – a daunting task in a country where big business calls the shots.

Within days of taking office, the fiery and fearless minister challenged the powerful mining industry, which is polluting the islands’ vital watersheds.

‘Yes, mining creates a few jobs and perhaps a few schools, and a few people enrich themselves, but thousands suffer and water sources are polluted for generations afterward. Mining is just greed and selfishness.’

The maverick daughter of one of the country’s wealthiest and most prominent families, 64-year-old Lopez is both an environmentalist and a philanthropist. She fled the Philippines in 1972 to avoid political persecution under the Marcos regime, but returned in 1986 after being educated in the US, becoming a yoga master, and then working with disadvantaged communities in Africa. In 2017, she received the Seacology Prize, awarded to those showing exceptional achievement in preserving island environments and culture.

For more than 15 years, Lopez has championed social and environmental causes, spearheading the clean-up of the Pasig River, which was choked by trash and sewage, and campaigning to save La Mesa Watershed, which contains the last rainforest in Manila, as well as a reservoir used by 12 million people for drinking water.

In 2010, on a visit to the Edenic Palawan Island, she discovered the destructive nature of open-pit mining. ‘When the chopper took me there, I saw a huge hole in the ground. I was horrified. The farmers and fishermen were crying. They couldn’t fish, they couldn’t grow food. And there were some 100 new applications for open-pit mining, so I set up the Save Palawan movement to oppose them.’

In 2016, Lopez was appointed as acting secretary of the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) by the then newly elected, authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte. She established the first-ever forums for consultations between the DENR and indigenous groups, and shut down illegal fish pens in the country’s largest lake. But her strongest actions were directed at mining operations.

The DENR had a reputation for feeble oversight of the Philippines’ lucrative mining industry. But during her 10 months in office, Lopez banned open-pit mines and moved to shut down more than half of the operations of the country’s mining companies, after audits showed massive violations against the environment and the law.

‘What is needed is greater realization and awareness of the damage some economic activities (mining, logging and rampant quarrying) inflict not only on our economic potential, but on our wellbeing as a people. What is needed is a total economic valuation (monetizing the costs, the benefits) of these activities and then asking the very pertinent question: is it worth it?’

Taking on the country’s mining industry cost Lopez her job in May 2017, when the Congressional Committee refused to confirm her appointment. Some members of that committee have strong ties to mining companies.

Many of the islands are still suffering from the effects of mining, and mining permits are still being filed in core protected areas. However, Duterte has restated his broad support for the ban on open-pit mining.

But inside or outside the government, Lopez has vowed to keep fighting to end ‘mining poverty’ and protect the nation’s environment. She has already started I LOVE (Investments in Loving Organizations for Village Economies), to help lift Filipinos out of poverty by building green businesses at the grassroots level.

‘I believe that through care of the environment and adequate marketing, communities can get out of poverty in record time. The mainstream performance indicators are way more impressive than that of mining, which has been going for over a hundred years and has nothing to show for it, except the enrichment of a few and the destruction for generations to come.’

Veronique Mistiaen is an award-winning journalist, writing about global development, human rights and the environment. @VeroMistiaen

Making waves: Prafulla Samantara

‘We need to find the right balance between nature and development – one that doesn’t destroy habitats and people, and that preserves natural resources for future generations,’ says Prafulla Samantara. The Indian social justice activist has recently won the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia for his 12-year battle to stop a huge mining project on sacred tribal land and for securing indigenous communities’ rights to vote on such projects.

During his long campaign, Samantara has been threatened, kidnapped and jailed, but says he is not afraid and, at 65, not ready to retire. ‘I will keep on fighting until my last breath. I cannot betray the people, the cause.’

Samantara was born into a humble family of farmers in a small village where ‘nature was not only very important and beautiful, but also a source of livelihood’. Odisha, the eastern Indian state on the Bay of Bengal where he grew up, is known for its pristine forests, high mountain peaks and numerous rivers; but also for its vast reserve of minerals – almost a third of the state is under mining concessions.

From a young age, Samantara witnessed the impact of mining and industrial development on small farming communities and the growing inequalities between rich and poor. ‘I’ve seen working people and those at the bottom of society being exploited and suffering. Equality and justice became my guiding principles.’

While studying economics and law he became a student leader in a mass protest-movement to protect democracy and fundamental rights, and was imprisoned for a year in 1976. ‘After jail, I began my public life, first as a campaigner for justice and human rights, then as a defender of nature and the people who are its guardians.’

When, in 2004, Samantara saw an announcement in the newspaper about a public hearing to discuss bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha – the ancestral home of the Dongria Kondh tribe – he knew he needed to act.

The Odisha Mining Company had agreed a deal with London-based Vedanta Resources to gouge a $2 billion open-pit bauxite mine on the Dongria Kondh’s land without consulting them. ‘The Dongria Kondh don’t believe in religion, but in nature. The Niyamgiri Hills are their gods. They get everything from them: their entire livelihood and their social and cultural identity. They believe it’s their duty to protect them at all cost.’ The mine would not only have destroyed their homeland, but also polluted water for millions downstream as far as the Bay of Bengal, and destroyed large areas of protected forests which are home to rare wildlife including elephants and the Bengal tiger. In anticipation of receiving the mining licences, Vedanta illegally annexed 148 acres of forest and bulldozed 12 villages.

Over the following year, Samantara visited over a hundred villages by train, bicycle and on foot to alert the Dongria Kondh of what was being planned on their land and mobilize them. ‘They are brave, strong and determined people, and when they understood the threat, they became very powerful.’ Together, they organized peaceful marches and protests and Samantara filed a petition in India’s Supreme Court, citing the environmental, indigenous and human rights violations associated with the proposed mine. As the case gained attention, investors, such as the Norwegian Pension Fund and the Church of England, divested funds from Vedanta.

Almost a decade after Samantara’s initial filing, the Supreme Court passed a historical judgement in 2013, empowering local village councils to make the final decision about mining activities in their region. This was the first time that indigenous people had been given the right to decide on mining proposals on ancestral lands in Odisha state and it represents a test case for indigenous rights across India. The ruling has inspired other indigenous communities to oppose destructive mining projects.

In spite of the ruling, indigenous land remains under threat from mining, and Samantara continues to fight.

‘Development is necessary, but what type of development and for whom and by whom? In India, 60 million people have been displaced over the last 60 years because of big projects such as mining and dams. Indigenous people are not consulted. They are marginalized, even though they are the owners and guardians of natural resources.’

Making Waves is a series of profiles of activists whose fights are having a strong impact on the world around them. Find more profiles on this page.

Veronique Mistiaen is an award-winning journalist, writing about global development, human rights and the environment. @VeroMistiaen

This is Congo's top environmental defender: Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo


© Goldman Environmental Prize

‘When [the mining company] came and showed us the documents saying that they had authorization to drill for oil in the park, we were shocked,’ recalls Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, who was head ranger at Virunga National Park on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the time. ‘It was painful because it would surely be a catastrophe for the gorillas: they would disappear.’

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Virunga is the oldest national park in Africa, 768,000 hectares containing extraordinary biodiversity and beauty. It is home to a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas, as well as other endangered species, including chimpanzees, elephants and lions.

‘Since I was a boy, I wanted to be a public servant: I don’t like illegality and corruption. And I wanted to conserve Congo’s natural heritage,’ says Katembo. However, things could have turned out very differently: in his early teens, he was lured into the Congolese army with the promise of studies in Europe and served four years as a child soldier. But once he left, he returned to school, determined to make up for lost time. He studied ecology and natural resources management, and became a park ranger at Virunga in 2003. He quickly earned a reputation for integrity and exceptional leadership in this challenging environment.

Despite its importance, Virunga has been ground zero for the DRC’s military conflicts. The park is also under constant threat from illegal mining, armed rebels and wildlife poaching, making patrolling Virunga one of the most dangerous jobs in conservation. More than 160 of Katembo’s park ranger colleagues have been killed in the line of duty over the past 15 years.

At Virunga, Katembo quickly rose up the ranks and became warden of the park’s central sector – an area of interest to oil companies.

When vehicles from the British oil company Soco International drove into Virunga one morning in 2011, Katembo was alarmed. Soco staff flashed permits, which the Congolese government had sold them illegally, and offered him money to let them pass. But he refused and reported the incident to the park director, Emmanuel de Mérode. They agreed that it was vital to document carefully evidence of corruption.

Over the next four years, Katembo went undercover, pretending to accept bribes from Soco and recording these encounters. His investigation exposed corruption at the highest levels and forced Soco to abandon oil exploration in the park. The footage Katembo gathered featured in the documentary film Virunga (Netflix 2014). ‘Corruption stories like this happen all too often, but capturing people incriminating themselves on camera is incredibly rare,’ says Nathaniel Dyer, Global Witness Congo team leader. ‘Rodrigue showed great courage and nerve to provide incontrovertible evidence which was central to getting Soco out of Virunga.’ But Katembo paid an enormous price for his activism: he was taken at gunpoint by Congolese soldiers and detained illegally for 17 days during which time he was tortured and subjected to mock executions.

Following death threats and the failed assassination of de Mérode in 2014, Katembo was transferred to Upemba National Park in southern DRC, for his safety. As the new director, Katembo has been trying to reintroduce elephants and zebras, which had disappeared as a result of mining and poaching on a massive scale. Since starting work at Upemba, Katembo has fought off armed militia, faced death threats and refused to accept bribes from mining companies. He now lives apart from his wife and children for their safety.

‘I am not special,’ he says. ‘Yes, I was imprisoned and tortured, but many guards have died doing their job. If I have to die today, I am prepared for it. By protecting the park, I am protecting the livelihoods of local populations, Congo’s natural heritage and the world’s heritage because our dense forests help to fight climate change. This is my vocation.’

In recognition of his bravery exposing illegal oil exploration in Virunga National Park, Katembo was awarded the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa – a type of Nobel for environmental activists.

Veronique Mistiaen is an award-winning journalist, writing about global development, human rights and the environment. @VeroMistiaen;

Making Waves: Sakena Yacoobi


© courtesy of WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education)

‘When I first started working in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan, my vision was to see the Afghan people transformed through education, so that they could think for themselves, ask questions and solve their own problems. Now, more than 20 years later, my vision has not changed,’ says Sakena Yacoobi.

A small, unassuming woman, Yacoobi morphs into a fiery larger-than-life character when she talks about school and learning. She believes passionately that community-based education can transform societies, and that educating women is the best way to ensure peace and long-term development.

‘Education has transformed Afghanistan. It is unrecognizable from 20 years ago. Women have developed critical thinking, they are asking questions, they run for Parliament. They stand up for their rights – on land, property, marriage, domestic violence, education, citizenship,’ she says, all in one breath.

Yacoobi was born in Herat, Afghanistan, and was aware from a young age of the impact poverty had on her country: ‘There were no schools; no hospitals. People had no way to better their lives. I wanted to change that.’ She studied for a Master’s in Public Health in the US before moving to Pakistan, where she founded her first school in an Afghan refugee camp in 1991. ‘Women had lost everything. They had been through war, they didn’t trust us. So we needed to start from scratch. We asked what they needed and we built a learning centre based on these needs; then we asked the community to get involved.’ The underlying principle gained from that experience – that education should support what people want to do for themselves – still guides her work today.

Within two years of starting that first school, she had worked with 15,000 children. Soon, communities in Afghanistan were asking for her help and she moved back to her own country. She created the Afghanistan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995, to offer education, health and training to women and children. Under the Taliban, AIL ran 80 secret home-schools, educating some 3,000 girls.

Her organization now runs 44 learning centres for women and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as four clinics, a hospital, an orphanage, a programme for street children and a radio station that brings education to isolated regions. AIL has impacted the lives of more than 11 million Afghans and Yacoobi has received many awards for her work, including the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Prize for Education in 2015.

She hopes to expand her community-based education model all over Afghanistan, as well as to other countries. In order to do so, she wants to open a university to train teachers and develop a solid curriculum. She also wants to launch a TV station to promote women’s rights and education.

But there are huge challenges ahead. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Millions of children – especially girls – are still not going to school, and lack of security is a serious issue. Yacoobi worries that international attention and help are dwindling and that there won’t be enough funding to improve and expand schools and provide supplies and teachers.

‘Yes, Afghanistan is in bad shape, but after 40 years of war and conflict, what do you expect? We need to work collectively. It’s an issue for all of us, not just Afghanistan. Give us a chance. We need help; we need more funding and training.’

In spite of the grim situation in her country, Yacoobi is optimistic. ‘There will be setbacks and difficulties, but we are not sitting in a corner saying we cannot do anything about it. We are resilient. We are making a difference. We are changing and transforming our lives through education and we want the world to know that.’


Veronique Mistiaen is an award-winning journalist, writing about human rights, social issues, development and the environment. She tweets at @VeroMistiaen and blogs at

Media: purpose before profit?


Positive News Editor-in-Chief Sean Dagan Wood © ​Pedro Rudolphi

New Internationalist is proud to have run on reader support for over 40 years. We know these are challenging times for independent media and are very grateful for the extra support and donations our readers give us. It’s the reason we can continue to offer hard-hitting, independent global journalism, tell unreported stories from the Global South and together help shape a fairer world.

The question of purpose before profit is something that independent media have been exploring in various ways for some time.

Now, Positive News, the world’s longest-established publication dedicated to positive and solutions-focused journalism, is pioneering a new way to finance and run a media business: a crowdfunded media co-operative, owned by its journalists and readers.

While some local media and a small number of national publications have become co-operatives and raised capital through a community share offer, Positive News is believed to be the first to do so at a global level through online crowdfunding.

Positive News started on a kitchen table in a farm tucked away in rural Shropshire, some 22 years ago. It is a publication focusing on kindness, co-operation, creativity and innovation – for many, a breath of fresh air in a media saturated with problems, conflicts, disasters, wars, crimes and tragedies.

‘In addition to Who, What, Where, When and Why, we also ask: What now?’, says Danielle Batist, a journalist at Positive News and co-founder of the Constructive Journalism Project.

‘Rather than merely reporting on what has happened, we are also exploring what could happen. If we are investigating problems, we should also investigate solutions.’

The publication is now based at the Impact Hub in Islington, London, has a small print circulation (10,000), but a fast-growing online readership and 160,000 followers on social media. It is also attracting interest from other media.

The idea that news is something that is broken is slowly being questioned by media outlets all over the world. Mainstream media, like the New York Times, the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera and many others are experimenting with solution-focused sections and a more balanced news agenda.

When Positive News, which had been financially supported through a membership scheme and a few generous donors, struggled to survive after the death of their main benefactor last year, co-operative ownership seemed like the perfect way forward to raise investment while protecting their ethos.

‘Creating a co-operative and issuing community shares offers a way for us to raise capital while at the same time creating a robust, democratic ownership structure and an engaged community of support,’ says Positive News editor-in-chief Seán Dagan Wood.

‘This becomes the foundation for our business model: we’re financing our social purpose rather than just selling content.’

The organization must raise a minimum of £200,000 ($314,000) to help build their team, develop a new website, relaunch their print publication and build the audience and income streams they need to sustain them in the long-term.

In less than two weeks since the official launch of their #OwnTheMedia campaign in London, readers and journalists have nearly reached half the target – £96,5000 – showing the level of support for the type of journalism Positive News is producing and the business model they are offering.

Says Batist: ‘The people formerly known as the audience – as media critic Jay Rosen famously called them back in 2006 – have experienced a dramatic shift in power in the last decade. They became active participants of the journalistic process, with new platforms and tools at their disposal to air their views and make their voices heard.’

‘At Positive News, we are now going a step further. We are putting those people at the heart of our publication. Our readers, journalists and supporters all become owners. As a journalist, I think our model creates a unique way of working that will allow us to really be tuned in to the needs of the people we serve.’

Positive News’ shares have a nominal value of £1 ($1.57) each. With a minimum investment of £50 ($78) and a maximum of £100,000 ($150,000), every shareholder will have an equal vote on matters such as electing the board of directors.

The #OwnTheMedia campaign also represents a new phase for Crowdfunder, who selected Positive News to launch its Community Shares platform on in partnership with The Community Shares Company. Community shares enable communities to get together to buy shares in a project that has a strong community benefit.

#OwnTheMedia, Positive News community share campaign runs until 8 July 2015. See:

Veronique Mistiaen is a journalist writing about human rights, international development, social issues and the environment for leading publications in the Britain and internationally, including Newsweek, The Economist,The Guardian, Telegraph and Positive News, among others. She is also a media trainer and lecturer. @VeroMistiaen

Introducing... Kenya's dam buster

People call her the next Wangari Maathai*, but Ikal Angelei shies away from the comparison. ‘I’m just a young woman who saw a catastrophe about to happen and stood up to speak out and fight,’ she says. ‘Wangari really stood out. She was a symbol across the globe. I admired her because she was willing to do whatever was in her power to make a difference.’

Following in Maathai’s footsteps has placed Angelei at the forefront of one of the most polarizing environmental and economic battles in Africa: the fight to save Kenya’s Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, from Africa’s biggest dam project. For her work and courage, the 31 year old has been awarded the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize – a sort of Nobel Prize for grassroots environmental activists.

Courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

Ikal Angelei grew up on the sun-baked shores of Lake Turkana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in East Africa’s Rift Valley, which provides vital drinking water and food to 800,000 people near the Kenyan and Ethiopian border. It is a volatile region, where impoverished indigenous communities are constantly fighting over dwindling resources, especially water.

Construction on the Ethiopian-led Gibe III Dam began in 2006. When complete, it will nearly double electrical output to Ethiopia, and Kenya is expected to purchase a third of the power generated from it. The Ethiopian and Kenyan governments believe the energy is vital to fuel development. However, as Lake Turkana’s water dries up as a result of the dam and becomes too saline and acidic for human and animal consumption, increased bloodshed is certain, Angelei says. ‘The dam will cause further scarcity of resources and exacerbate conflicts in an already fragile region. Communities there are in need of water and food much more than electricity.’

Outraged that plans for the dam were moving forward without any consultation with local communities, Angelei founded the group Friends of Lake Turkana in 2008. She informed the region’s chiefs and elders about the implications of the project and brought together the deeply divided and marginalized communities to speak with a unified voice against the project. She and her team also approached academics, politicians and influential people across the world in person and through social media.

'I'm just a young woman who saw a catastrophe about to happen and stood up to speak out and fight'

Angelei has succeeded in stopping the dam in its tracks through effective campaigning of the Kenyan parliament and UNESCO. She has also managed to convince major investors, such as the World Bank, to withdraw their considerations for financing the project, leaving China as the last big investor involved. The Gibe III Dam is now 40 per cent completed and the Ethiopian government is struggling to secure additional funding.

While she recognizes the need for development, Angelei believes it cannot be achieved at any cost. ‘Progress cannot leave people or the Earth worse off. We are not against development: we can develop in a sustainable way, in a way that would not violate human rights and destroy the environment.’ She adds that both Kenya and Ethiopia have wind and geothermal energy resources.

Peter Bosshard, Policy Director at International Rivers, which is also campaigning against the dam, has praised her work: ‘Angelei is successfully challenging one of the biggest development projects in Africa and she is showing the world, and China in particular, which is keen to fund these kinds of projects in Africa, that they will not happen unless local people and the environment are taken into account.’

Ikal Angelei talked with Veronique Mistiaen

Veronique Mistiaen is a London-based journalist specialising in human rights, social issues, development and the environment.

* The Kenyan environmental and political activist who won the Nobel Prize in 2004.

My uncle, the tyrant

Women for Women International

Join Me On The Bridge Campaign

Photo by Brian Hillegas under a CC Licence

‘I haven’t shown these before,’ says Zainab Salbi, flicking through photographs on her iPhone during a recent trip to London. ‘This is me,’ – she points to a teenager with dark curly hair, standing with her parents near Saddam Hussein. Another photo shows the former Iraqi dictator with her father, who was his personal pilot. The pictures are eerie. Saddam looks so normal – even jovial and friendly. ‘I called him “Amo” [Uncle].’ explains Salbi, who from the age of 11 had spent her childhood weekends at a farmhouse on Saddam’s compound. Her memories of Saddam’s dancing, laughing, cooking, fishing and wearing funny hats are interwoven with sinister ones – talks of repression, public executions and rape. ‘The uncle coexisted with the tyrant – sometimes simultaneously. We would be sitting in the dining room and he would tell us how he had just killed his best friend the night before. Saddam was like a poisonous gas leaked slowly into our life, choking us.’

'Saddam was like a poisonous gas leaked slowly into our life, choking us'

Living in fear in a gilded prison was one of three major influences that moulded the young woman into the person she is today. ‘It gave me the desire to fight injustice and speak out,’ – something she couldn’t do under Saddam’s shadow. Salbi, 41, is the founder and CEO of Women for Women International, a grassroots humanitarian and development organization helping women survivors of wars rebuild their lives.

The second formative influence in Salbi's life was the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which sensitized her to the plight of women in war. ‘Growing up in Baghdad, I saw that men fought war, but women held families together and kept life going. It is true all over the world.’

Zainab Salbi

And the third force in her life was her mother, who hammered into her the need to be strong and independent. ‘She pushed me forward. All this energy I have comes from her. She talked about war and injustice and their impact on women. She built my consciousness. At the age of 15, I had already decided I was going to work for women.’

Yet, when she was 19, Salbi’s mother sent her to the US for an arranged marriage. ‘I was furious. I didn’t understand why she would do that to me. It is only much later that I understood she did this to protect me from Saddam as I was becoming a woman.’ The marriage lasted three months.

A few years later, in 1993, Salbi – who had gone back to college in the US to re-do her undergraduate studies, learned for the first time about the Holocaust. At the same time, newspapers were full of reports of rape and concentration camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina. ‘The pictures were similar to the Holocaust ones. People had said: “Never again”, and yet it was happening again.

‘Growing up in Baghdad, I saw that men fought war, but women held families together and kept life going. It is true all over the world’

‘In Iraq, I had seen injustice and couldn’t do anything about it, but here, in the US, I had no excuses. I had to act.’ She tried to find an organization to work with women in Bosnia, but couldn’t find any. So in June 1993, Salbi and her new husband went to Bosnia with their honeymoon savings and a small grant from the Unitarian Church, and launched an organization that created ‘sister-to-sister’ connections between sponsors in the United States and women survivors of war in Bosnia.

‘I still remember the first woman I met, Aisha. She had spent months in a rape camp and was eight months pregnant. She couldn’t find her husband and young child. She was sitting there, crying and saying: “Everyone wants me to testify, but no-one has ever asked me if I needed help.” It was a turning point in my life. I knew this was what I was going to do with my life.’

Salbi returned to the US with a mission and at the age of 23, created Women for Women International (WFWI) with a shoestring budget and a small team of volunteers. Since then, the organization has grown to support more than 250,000 women survivors of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. WFWI’s year-long programme covers economic and emotional aid, rights awareness, job skills training and small business development. ‘Women learn job skills and receive business training, so they can earn a living and move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency. They come to understand their rights and how to fight for those rights in their homes, their communities and their nations, and become leaders,’ Salbi explains.

Since 1993, the organization has distributed more than $80 million in direct aid and microcredit loans, and mobilized more than 125,000 women and men in 105 countries to reach out and support women survivors of war.

Salbi is also the author of two books: Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam and The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope. She is the recipient of the 2010 David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award and has received the Forbes Trailblazer Award and Time Magazine's Innovator of the Month Award.

Women for Women International
Join Me On The Bridge Campaign

Aux armes, citoyens!

‘We chanted slogans like: “Villepin , if you want to know where we’re going to put your CPE, it’s up your arse, up your arse; no hesitation! No, no, no to the rubbish CPE.’

Lou Pestel, a 17-year-old high school student from Rennes, is recalling nine-week-long protests against the First Contract Law (CPE) – a new law designed to make youth employment more ‘flexible’ that provoked mass demonstrations across France in this past spring..

‘When it poured with rain – which was often – we chanted less enthusiastically, but we all remained there under the rain for hours. At night, we walked through the streets, banging pots and pans. Some demonstrations were completely silent. It was very impressive: thousands of people marching without a word.’

In Rennes, between 2,000 and 50,000 people marched against the law, several times a week. Similar protests were staged in more than 180 cities and towns throughout the country. On days of national action, up to three million people spilled onto the streets. In Paris, thousands battled with the police for hours on the Left Bank to defend the occupied Sorbonne, a location steeped in memories of May 1968. The Eiffel Tower was closed for fear of violence. In Marseilles, the Alternative Libertaire’s red and black flag flew from the balcony of the City Hall in place of the French tricolour. Over the nine weeks of protest, two-thirds of the country’s 84 public universities were occupied or partially or totally shut down. Hundreds of high schools were taken over. All over the country, public places, workplaces, roads and railway stations were blockaded, and waves of strikes disrupted transportation, education and postal services.

Across France, a whole generation of young people erupted in spontaneous action against the conservative Government’s latest attempt to chip away workers’ rights. The young people’s unexpected revolt was part of a broader rebellion against US and British style liberalization of the French economy. Public rejection of such policies included the movement against pension reform in 2003, against public health reform in 2004, and the resounding ‘No’ to the EU Constitution – seen as an attack on the European welfare state – in 2005. The latest measure, the CPE, would have allowed businesses to sack young workers under the age of 26 without reason or compensation during the first two years of employment. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin bulldozed the controversial bill through Parliament in early March 2006 as an emergency measure to tackle youth unemployment – running at 23 per cent – a panicked response to the October 2005 riots by young immigrants from working-class suburbs. Critics argued the law would simply increase job insecurity and create a generation of disposable workers without solving unemployment. Replacing an actual ghetto with a ghetto of insecure ‘McJobs’ seemed a poor alternative to a well-resourced public employment policy.

‘This Government... was attacking a whole generation already exposed to unemployment and job insecurity – and the entire workforce, since the next step was the ‘generalization’ of this new flexible labour contract,’ according to Michel Husson, economist from the Scientific Council of the anti-globalization group Attac.

Students, with more free time, quickly mobilized – first against the CPE, which affected them directly and soon the whole labour legislation package called ‘Equality of Opportunities’. They were not only fighting for their future, but for that of all young people, indeed all workers. Some parents and grandparents, worried about their children’s future, backed them up. (A recent opinion poll revealed that 76 per cent of French people believe that it is harder for young people to make it than their parents.) They were soon joined by trade unions, casual workers, job-seekers, some teachers, retired people, left-wing activists and in some places, youth from poor suburbs who had rioted across the country last October. ‘Human beings are not Kleenex to be disposed of,’ said Roger Mayaud, 84, from Pau, echoing the views of the protesters. ‘Ultra-liberalism is a jungle. I believe in the spirit of Fraternity and Equality,’ added Emmanuel Hyvernat, a 35-year-old unemployed father of two from Bourg-en-Bresse, a small city between Lyon and Geneva.

‘It was a real spontaneous popular uprising, crossing generations and organizations,’ commented Husson. ‘We’ve seen parents supporting their children, unions supporting strike collectives, teachers participating in their students’ actions.’ Within weeks, de Villepin’s approval rating had plunged to 37 per cent.

While the protest movement gained momentum, part of the mainstream French and international press greeted it with scepticism. For them the protesters were anti-reformists stuck in the past, little Gauls in their villages who refuse to see that the world around them has changed. Economists repeated it was impossible for France to maintain its generous social benefits and strong labour protections while remaining competitive in a global market. For others it was just the French engaging once more in their national pastime – protest!

Ignacio Ramonet, managing director of the monthly _Le Monde Diplomatique_, rebutted the critics in an April 2006 editorial: ‘Accused by the Right of being “the sick man of Europe”, France, on the contrary, is a country which resists. One of the only ones in Europe where, with a tremendous vitality, a majority of the workforce refuses unbridled globalization... Social solidarity is a fundamental characteristic of the French identity. A solidarity that the CPE endeavours to eliminate.’

Many commentators predicted the movement would lose steam and that the Government would never give in. Sometimes the youngsters themselves got discouraged. Said Lou Pestel: ‘We felt the Government was ignoring us. There was no dialogue, just a lot of repression. The CRS (riot police) were on the streets day and night. Whenever we tried an action, we were dispersed with their teargas and batons. But going onto the street was our way to tell the Government: “You passed that law, but everyone is against it.”’

Ultra-liberalism is a jungle. I believe in the spirit of Fraternity and Equality...

And this so-called self-centred generation cut its political teeth on the anti-CPE protests. Mistrustful of traditional political parties or unions the young people created their own political organizations and networks. These proved very effective.

‘After the demonstrations, there was a General Assembly (GA) to discuss the progress of the movement,’ said Pestel. ‘It was an opportunity to debate with very different people: students, workers, unemployed, retired and even sometimes children.’ In front of the Rennes Regional Parliament protesting students built a ‘free, self-managed village’ with makeshift tents and scavenged furniture. ‘Everyone was welcome to spend a night there or just share a cup of coffee and discuss the CPE,’ Pestel added.

‘While the media showed trade unions negotiating with the Government, on the battlefield, in the GAs of the occupied universities, other alliances were forged between students, unemployed and casual workers,’ explained Sophie Gosselin, a philosopher, researcher and member of APO33 (an artistic, technological and research laboratory based in Nantes). These fragmented, autonomous cells disseminated their messages through blogs and websites, and wove new networks and alliances at regional and national levels, Gosselin continued. A similar type of resistance networking had already emerged during the campaign against the EU Constitution, Husson noted. ‘We had a mobilization of citizens, organised in several hundreds of collectives, which for the first time led to a kind of fusion between political parties, trade unions and various associations, such as the _altermondialists_.’

On 10 April 2006, French President Jacques Chirac finally caved in and scrapped the controversial law. Against all expectation, the young people and their supporters had won. ‘We had given the movement everything. We missed lots of school days, so close to the exams. It was long and tiring. Some schools and universities remained blocked for the whole time and we had to face parents who were not happy with this,’ Pestel said. While controversial measures included in the ‘Statute on Equality of Opportunities’ remained, Husson believes the protest movement achieved more than the withdrawal of the CPE. ‘It further discredited the neoliberal agenda and stopped the Government’s larger project of making labour laws more flexible. After this, they won’t be able to forge ahead with the next step of the project.’

‘It is also important to see that citizens who voice their opposition on the streets have had an impact on the Government’s conduct,’ added Marie Bardet, a 25-year-old philosophy student at the University of Paris. ‘It was a political training for a whole new generation. We have discussed politics like never before in family, among friends, in cafés. It was the first time I had seen this.’

*Veronique Mistiaen* is a London-based journalist specializing in social issues.

1000 PeaceWomen Across the Globe

The lives, strategies and visions of 1,000 women nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize have been recorded in this fat hardcover book, complete with photos and biographies of each nominee. They come from all walks of life – farmers to artists, lawyers to health workers – and from 150 countries. Exciting in its scope, range and diversity, and useful as a guide and networking tool, 1000 Peace Women is likely to appeal most to those involved in grassroots peace and women’s movements.

Forgotten massacre

Part of _Prison Memoir in Painting_ by Iranian artist Soudabeh Ardavan. She survived the 1988 massacre but spent eight years in Iranian prisons, painting by using her hair as a brush and toothpaste or tea as paint. She now lives in exile in Sweden.

Every Friday, families gather on a derelict plot next to the cemetery of religious minorities in the district of Khavaran, in south-east Tehran. They call it ‘the rose garden of Khavaran’ – for a rose, in a culture where it is often safer to use poetry, represents a fallen freedom fighter. The Iranian leadership calls it the ‘place of the damned’ or the ‘cemetery of the infidels’. There, in unmarked mass graves, lie thousands of political prisoners killed by the Islamic regime.

In February 1989, the world expressed outrage when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, sentencing the writer Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy. Yet a few months earlier, Khomeini had issued another fatwa ordering the killing of thousands of prisoners of conscience. Silence.

In July and August 1988, the Islamic regime had executed in secret thousands of political prisoners throughout the country – men, women and teenagers. They were intellectuals, students, leftists, members of opposition parties and ethnic and religious minorities. Many were jailed for no more than distributing leaflets, having a banned book or being accused by ‘a trusted friend of the regime’.

The slaughter was efficient and relentless. All day long, prisoners were loaded on forklift trucks and hanged from cranes and beams in groups of six at half-hourly intervals. Others were killed by firing squad. Those not executed were subjected to horrific torture. The killing was ‘an act of violence unprecedented in Iranian history, unprecedented in form, content and intensity,’ wrote the historian Ervand Abrahamian in his book on Iranian prisons _Tortured Confessions_.

‘When they took me to the death committee in (Tehran’s) Gohardasht prison, the lobby was piled high with sandals, glasses and blindfolds. That’s all that was left of our friends. They are all gone and I am alive. Iam alive to tell their story. That is my only goal,’ says Mehdi Aslani, 49, who survived the massacre and now lives in exile in Germany.

The regime has never acknowledged the massacre, revealed how many were executed, nor why. Amnesty International has recorded the names of 2,800 victims, but survivors believe it was probably between 5,000 and 10,000. The execution of such a large number of people within such a short time, without any due process, violates many international human rights treaties to which Iran is signatory; yet the world has remained largely silent. Most of the perpetrators are still in power today. ‘Nobody has been brought to justice’ says Drewery Dyke, Amnesty’s Iran researcher. ‘Impunity for such appalling crimes only leads to further human rights abuses.’

The husband and two brothers of Rakhshndeh Hosseinpoor, now 53, were killed by the Islamic regime. She now lives in Germany with her son. ‘They have ruined so many lives. I’ve lost three members of my family, but some families have lost six or seven. So many children are without fathers and mothers, so many young widows, so much pain that never goes away... We need justice.’

‘We need people to know about the massacre of 1988 because it isn’t just the problem of the survivors and their families,’ says Reza Moini, another survivor, who works as a human rights activist in Paris. ‘It was a political act, a social act, not a private one. We need the truth for tomorrow’s youth.’

Subscribe   Ethical Shop