Bhopal 26 years later

by Saffi Ullah Ahmad

Editor’s Note: For backround on the Bhopal disaster click here.

Friday marks the 26th anniversary of the world’s worst industrial catastrophe, the Bhopal Gas Disaster, which brought to light in the most horrific of ways the darker side of economic globalisation. The disaster saw the lives of hundreds of thousands of impoverished Indians destroyed as negligence on the part of a US multinational led to the escape of over 40 tons of ultra-hazardous toxic gasses from a poorly built pesticide factory, laying waste on an entire city.

Although estimates vary, the current death toll is thought to be 25,000, and those seriously injured number well over 100,000. These numbers are still rising due to the thousands of tons of abandoned chemicals continuously polluting the Bhopali environment (with increasing concentrations in the soil and drinking water), and gas-affected survivors giving birth to children with serious genetic malformations.

To date, justice has evaded Bhopal victims and their families, who continue to suffer with a vast range of crippling disabilities as well as psychological trauma. The multinational behind all this — Union Carbide Corporation, now owned by the Dow Chemical Company — continues to exploit the inadequate framework of the Indian legal system and has been aided by indifference and at times probable collusion by the central government which dubiously insists it has always acted in the best interest of the victims.

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On Songs of Blood and Sword

by Saffi Ullah Ahmad

In her latest book, Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir, journalist Fatima Bhutto — better known as the niece of the late Benazir Bhutto — takes us through the dark history of one of the world’s best known political dynasties.

Fatima’s grandfather, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Zuliqar Ali Bhutto, was sent to the gallows (1979) following a military coup orchestrated by General Zia Ul-Haq based on what were concocted charges, despite appeals for mercy from across the diplomatic world. As Henry Kissinger had ominously threatened some years earlier, a ‘horrible example’ was made of Mr. Bhutto. As the book’s cover informs us, in the years since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s execution, all but one of his children have died; in circumstances mired in mystery, Shahnawaz Bhutto was poisoned in his flat in France (1985), Mir Murtaza Bhutto – Fatima’s father – was gunned down outside his home in Karachi (1996) and Benazir Bhutto was killed following a suicide attack in the garrison city, Rawalpindi (2007).

Above all, Songs of Blood and Sword is the tale of a grieving daughter’s frantic six year search for the truth surrounding her father’s life and death. Fatima describes a kind spirited and idealistic Murtaza, a man of the people, who had idolised Che Guevara in his youth, fittingly having adorned his bedroom walls with posters of the Cuban revolutionary. After completing studies at Harvard and an unsuccessful diplomatic battle to save his father’s life, Murtaza’s formation of a leftist guerrilla outfit bent on ousting General Zia earned him the title of a terrorist. Following the General’s own mysterious death (1988) and Benazir’s rise to power, Murtaza grew increasingly critical of his sister, who he felt had betrayed the socialist ideals upon which the PPP was founded. He eventually returned to Pakistan with political aspirations – having won a seat in a provincial assembly – only to face an uphill struggle against a hostile PPP government.

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The People’s Lawyer: In Conversation with Colin Gonsalves

by Saffi Ullah Ahmad

Colin Gonsalves (Photo: Saffi Ullah Ahmad)

Colin Gonsalves is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court of India and a pioneer of public interest and human rights law. He has won over 200 mostly precedent setting cases against the Indian government and powerful corporations in favour of poor and marginalized groups. Gonsalves has been described as a champion of the exploited.

In 1989 Colin founded the human rights law network (HRLN), known today as a network of hundreds of lawyers and social activists whose aim has been to further the struggle for human rights and equality through making justice accessible to disadvantaged members of Indian society. Funded mainly through grants from various organisations, his growing army of lawyers regularly litigates on issues of women’s and minority rights, environmental damage, child labour, disability law, land confiscation, sexual harassment, prisoner abuse, human trafficking and the right to nutrition. Giants taken on by the HRLN include the likes of Enron. The HRLN now has a presence in over 20 Indian states where its centres provide pro bono legal services, undertake public interest litigation and run campaigns to spread awareness of human rights.  In addition to this organization Gonsalves also heads the Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights (IPT).

In 2001 Gonsalves began work on a case which in the face of ever increasing privitisation and withdrawal of food subsidies, aimed to force the central government to implement several food security schemes across the country. He argued that the Indian constitution’s reference to a ‘right to life’ encompasses the right to food, work and fair wages. Also highlighting that as a result of rampant malnutrition 3-5,000 Indians die every year of starvation, Gonsalves and his team of pro-bono lawyers were able to bring relief to over 300 million people following a series of court orders in their favour. The case won him and the HRLN acclaim from former Irish President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, among others.

Gonsalves has received honorary degrees and awards for his services from a plethora of educational institutions as well as legal and charitable organizations including the American Bar Association’s International Human Rights Award for his ‘extraordinary contribution to the causes of Human Rights rule of law and promotion of Access to Justice’ in 2004.

Gonsalves was recently in London to receive an honorary doctorate in Law from Middlesex University where I interviewed him.

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Losing Britain’s Greatest Modern Day Jurist

by Saffi Ullah Ahmad

Human rights activists and lawyers are mourning Lord Thomas Bingham of Cornhill who died on Saturday, 11 September, aged 76, following a struggle with cancer. A towering figure, many consider him to have been the foremost British jurist of the modern era.

Thomas Bingham

The son of two doctors, Thomas Bingham read modern history at Balliol College, Oxford and went on to pursue a career at the bar. Recognised as a formidable opponent in the courtroom (he was recently described by a senior barrister as having an ‘alpha-plus’ mind, and by other members of the judiciary as ‘frighteningly clever’), he quickly rose to prominence in the legal world, going on to hold the three top legal posts in the country; Master of the Rolls (1992-96), Lord Chief Justice (1996-2000) and senior Law Lord (2000-2008).

Known for being a staunch advocate of judicial independence and human rights, with a fiercely independent legal mind, he was never one to shy away from challenging the government. In the aftermath of 9/11, and throughout the ‘war on terror,’ his was a prominent voice amongst Law Lords standing against the excesses of the executive. Rejecting the British Government’s arguments relating to anti-terror legislation on numerous occasions, he stood firmly against the indefinite detainment of foreign nationals without charge and the use of evidence obtained by torture in what were highly influential and lengthy judgments that resonated around the world.

As a senior judge, Lord Bingham was instrumental in the introduction of the Human Rights Act (1996), which saw the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) in to British domestic law. He was of the opinion that human rights were non-negotiable and regularly hit back at affronts to the system of due process.

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The Bhopal Disaster: an ongoing tragedy

by Saffi Ullah Ahmad

Recent talk surrounding BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico due to corporate negligence has drawn light on the Exxon Valdez disaster and one which devastated one of India’s poorest regions with its effects still very much raw and constantly ignored by the US media. Obama’s anti-BP rhetoric has spurred many of those affected by this disaster to point out Western double standards.

The old plant (Photo: Christian Saltas)

Twenty five years after the world’s biggest industrial disaster, Union Carbide’s old pesticide factory remains untouched, haunting the crowded city of Bhopal, a constant reminder of the region’s darkest night.

On the night of 3 December 1984 the lethal gas methyl isocyanate (MIC) alongside other noxious fumes, engulfed the city of Bhopal and killed thousands. It is thought that the disaster has claimed 25,000 lives thus far, and adversely affected over 500,00. Gross negligence by Union Carbide is widely viewed as the cause of the tragedy.

Earlier last week, after a quarter century of waiting and sloppy, almost reluctant court action, lamentable sentences were passed down to seven Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) officials. Sentences of two years were administered to some of those presiding over the corporation when the tragedy occurred; a small group of incredibly wealthy Indian men, all in their 70’s, one of whom is a billionaire, and none of whom are expected to serve their sentences. In addition to the sentencing, each of the seven men were fined a paltry £1400, an amount which would barely pays for the yearly healthcare of one of the victims, let alone serves as meaningful punishment for this appalling crime.

These convictions are so far the only to have materialised in a case that was opened the day after the tragedy in 1984. Those ultimately responsible for the tragedy, namely the corporation’s CEO and equally negligent Western officials, remain unpunished.

Survivors and campaigners have been outraged, calling last week’s decision an ‘insult’. However, as we are about to see, this is only the most recent of a long history of insults.

Continue reading “The Bhopal Disaster: an ongoing tragedy”

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