Do good, do nothing?

In a recent article in The New Republic entitled “We Can’t Just Do Nothing“, Richard Just criticizes Mahmood Mamdani’s attacks on what he calls “human rights fundamentalists” in his book “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror.” Just writes:

For Mamdani, the Save Darfur movement is more or less indistinguishable from the great imperialist enterprise of our time, which is the war on terror. “The harsh truth,” he argues, “is that the War on Terror has provided the coordinates, the language, the images, and the sentiment for interpreting Darfur.”

In his piece, Just contrasts Mamdani’s perspective with contending views, as  expressed by Gareth Evans in his recent book, “The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All.” Essentially, it comes down to whether preventing, reacting and punishing gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity in a given country are not just the responsibility of that nation and its citizens, but also a common, shared responsibility for all.

This debate is not – by any means – new. Since the end of colonial times, thinkers, practitioners, politicians have brandished the moral and ethical argument on both sides of the debate. It is one of the most potent battle of ideas: is it more or less moral to intervene (broadly speaking)  in another sovereign country’s affairs? Some argue that national sovereignty is essentially sacred, and when it is breached, we are not only weakening the entire international system, but also creating space for misguided, neo-imperalist  interventions and intrusions. Others (like Just and Evans) believe that we have a shared, common responsibility to intervene, especially when sovereign regimes are committing crimes against their own population.

It have yet to fully figure out my own beliefs when it comes to this debate, because in some sense, I can see how “interventionists” can be labeled neoimperialists (although I think that term is contentious – at best). There is a part of me that understands how people like Mamdani construe “Western” (or other) intervention in the affairs of another country as neoimperialist, and the parallels drawn between the justifications for the war in Iraq and those for an intervention in Sudan are thought provoking.  Amanda, over at the excellent blog Wronging Rights, asks the tough questions about when or how foreign intervention is appropriate. Alex de Waal, a pre-eminent specialist on Sudan, recently wrote:

[I]f there is to be a solution, it will come from inside Sudan, and must be political, addressed at the structural political challenges of Sudan. A campaign focused on a genocide that isn’t happening, for the U.S. to step up its pressure to stop killing that has already ended, is just making Save Darfur look poorly-informed, and America look silly. Intermittently, “Save Darfur” has tried to rebrand itself as a peace movement—but its origins as an intervention campaign make it virtually impossible to make the transformation. Peace cannot be forced or dictated. If “Save Darfur” is interested in peace, the best it can do in the cause of peace is to fall silent.



While I agree that “misguided, though still well-intentioned” activism (celebrity or otherwise) is not the solution to ensuring a peaceful future for Sudan and its people, I worry that this type of argument is being used to justify inaction. And, in my mind, inaction – not just when it comes to Sudan, but also for a whole host of issues – is not acceptable.

We still live in a world where national sovereignty is elevated above individual rights – and in a very real way, this contributes to the peace and stability of the international system, as the violation of a country’s borders and sovereign prerogatives are still considered the ultimate act of aggression. But I get really frustrated when this line of argument is used to justify South Africa’s inability to take a real stand on Zimbabwe, or the support of clearly corrupt, ineffective and frankly plain crappy governments in places like Chad or Gabon.

When attempts at finding solutions or courses of action for the “international community” (you beautiful, ethereal term that signifies everything from advocacy NGOs to national armies) are devised, they are often fraught with political conflict (eg. the Security Council’s paralysis and ineffectiveness at being the guarantors of peace and security – ha!). As a result, we see many international “interventions” (again, in the broad sense of the term) that are underfunded and half-assed. Of course, the best (and worst) example of this is the disaster of the international response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

The end of apartheid in South Africa was the result of massive, long term, committed efforts from South African political activists. While Nelson Mandela and others fought for decades to bring justice to their country, at some point, the “international community” did step in, in the form of divestments and boycotts. And while these were not necessarily watershed moments or key turning points, these efforts did in part contribute to bringing down the regime in South Africa (a white regime oppressing a black majority – uncomfortable for a lot of Western nations).

While human rights activists’ efforts are not always effective, I don’t think we (or the causes they represent) would be better off without them. Pressuring governments, international bodies, corporations and other “heavy weight” stakeholders to deal with matters of crimes against humanity and serious, chronic human rights violations is a good thing – what’s the alternative? If easy answers or solutions were available to dealing with violence and injustice in places like Sudan, the DRC or Burma, surely someone would have thought of them by now. Critics of “human rights fundamentalists” and who see the “responsibility to protect” as a neo-imperalist concept also come from the same well-intentioned place as those they decry – I find it interesting that some of the harshest critics of “intervention” are people who have spent their lives working in the aid or development, or as diplomats posted in foreign, war-torn nations. At the very least, they share an ethic of responsibility with those they criticize.

This ‘n’ that

Amazing conversation/fight between Bill Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs going on right now over at Huffington Post – the “Cliffs Notes” of it are available here. I’m pretty amused by all of this – it seems so very modern for two of the world’s most renowned development economists to duke it out via their blogs and columns. And Easterly just joined Twitter: 

penelopeinparis@bill_easterly vs. J. Sachs: – although I wonder if this is sorta lowering the standards of educated debate.
bill_easterly@penelopeinparis @saundras_s u mean that educated debate that includes Bono&Angelina?
penelopeinparis@bill_easterly – touche. Still, 2 bad muck raking takes over the constructive discussion,& thats what ppl will focus on,instd of real issues

I’m so very entertained by modern media and information exchange. 

In other news, I just finished reading Tears of the Desert, the memoirs of Dr. Halima Bashir, a woman doctor in Darfur. In spite of the fact that I spent most of the second half of the book swallowing my tears, I really enjoyed her story. The horror… Goodness. We have all seen, read or heard accounts of rape as a weapon of war (in Liberia, in the DRC, in Sudan….), but the personal nature of her account made it even harder to bear. It almost makes me in favor of celebrity advocacy – how could you not want to be outspoken if you knew you could draw media (and potentially, political) attention? 

Point of View – Rony Brauman

My new life has so far not afforded me quality time for thinking/blogging – I need to refocus my energy! I’ve been reading a lot though, and feel constantly inspired to share thoughts with all (2 or 3) of you – after blogging about the ICC and Bashir’s indictment last week, I read this great piece written by Rony Brauman, who was the head of Doctors Without Borders (as you might know, one of my all time favorite NGOs).

He also happens to be a former professor of mine, whose analysis and vision of the world had a profound impact on me. He is one of those disheveled guys that you would probably not think much of at first glance – but he is an amazing thinker (dare I say philosopher??), and is held in the highest regard by field practicioners who have worked with him.

This piece definitely characterizes his controversial take on most issues – his views are almost always counter-intuitive, but he is extremely convincing. His views on genocide are absolutely worth reading about – if this piece piques your interest, I strongly encourage you to look further into his work (drop me an email if you’d like some recommendations)

Apart from the judicial inflation to which it gives rise, the major problem with this perception of armed conflicts as “genocides” (the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, and undoubtedly more to come) is that it removes them from history and politics, in order to subject them instead to a purely moral judgment. To qualify a war as genocidal is to leave the terrain of politics, of its relations of force, of its compromises and contingencies, in order to situate oneself in some metaphysical beyond in which the only conflict is between Good and Evil: fanatics versus moderates, blood-thirsty hordes versus innocent civilians….

Read the full piece here.

Meanwhile, African Union soldiers are wearing blue plastic bags on their helmets to indicate they now operate under the UN… Boy, do we care about the situation in Darfur or what?? Very unsatisfactory state of affairs – as much as I am a huge supporter of strengthening international law, I am even more a believer in putting your $$ where your mouth is… Which, quite unfortunately, most countries, most leaders fail to do, time and time again.

The ICC and its Responsibility

Lots of talk this week about the indictement of Sudan’s President, Omar Al Bashir. Journalists, analysts and bloggers are taking positions on this issue, and the terms of the debate seem to boil down to justice vs. peace. Indicting Bashir, it again signals the “end of impunity”, also diminishes the possibility of negotiated political settlement in which the “”””international community”””(many quotation marks intended) would play a significant role.

I am firm believer in the role of international law in guaranteeing respect for human rights and moving us towards something closer to global justice – in the long run. In the short run, however, it seems that political considerations (might I say imperatives?) need to be weighed appropriately when making highly charged legal decisions, such as indicting Bashir. Politically, the move hasn’t garnered the high level support it needs to succeed. Beyond this, it also is a critical move for the ICC – if the indictment is challenged by the judges, the consequences for the Office of the Prosecutor should be interesting…

There are hundreds of opinion pieces on this topic – this one, from the LA Times, takes the position that the indictment probably delays the possibility of peace in Darfur (and in Sudan at large). I thought this quote really captured the essence of the debate, and I’ll leave you with it:

“A harsh question: Is this [the indictment] about helping bring peace to Darfur or is it about furthering a political vision of the world, one based on human rights as the categorical political and, above all, moral imperative no matter what the real-world consequences?”(emphasis added)

Oh, the traps of idealism….

Sorry, Steven, but I won’t praise you

Perhaps you live on another planet, and haven’t heard that Steven Spielberg is boycotting the Beijing Olympics because of China’s responsibility in the Darfur crisis.

Everyone including rebel groups in Darfur seems to be praising this courageous act – apparently, some people think that this will make a difference for the people suffering in that forlorn region of the world. Well, in my (very) humble opinion, not only is this act only superficially meaningful, but it’s also hypocritical.

Sorry, Mr. Spielberg, but I think this is BS.

I’m curious to see how Mr. Spielberg’s decision to withdraw as artistic advisor will impact the situation in Darfur. Will China decide to forgo its massive politico-economic investment in Sudan? Will China modify its foreign policy? Will China – one of the strongest, fastest growing economies in the world – seriously take into consideration Mr. Spielberg’s indignation when deciding to pursue whatever policy options they choose? Highly doubtful.

Will Mr. Spielberg’s decision make a concrete difference for the victims of this conflict? Well, perhaps if his stance actually motivates governments and meaningful entities to really deal with the situation…. But this is shifting the blame for primary responsibility from Sudan, President Bashir and his henchmen (the real culprits) to the Chinese.

This isn’t to say that China plays no role in this – they do have leverage over Sudan. And they should be considered “complicit” in what is going on in Sudan. Furthermore, I think that the inevitable politicization of the Olympic games (of such great importance to China) is at the very least going to change China’s perception of itself, and perhaps it will lead to internal reform. But that it is entirely up to the Chinese themselves.

But I also think that the criticism of China should focus on its internal problems, rather than its foreign policy, which is the real issue. Perhaps if China was ruled differently would it project its power on the world stage in more benevolent ways. In fact, Human Rights Watch issued a press release following Mr. Spielberg’s statement, which shifts the loci of the accusation from Darfur to a wider range of issues:

“Human Rights Watch has urged that sponsors not only press China’s government to end its support of governments such as Sudan and Burma that commit massive abuses but also that they encourage Beijing to improve deplorable human rights conditions in China itself.”

Also, I’m curious to know how much money Mr. Spielberg and Spielberg owned companies make on the Chinese market…. Is Mr. Spielberg still buying clothing “Made in China”? Does this now mean that Mr. Spielberg is no longer “supporting the Darfur genocide” and is now a peace activist? Gee! It’s easy these days to switch sides.

Here is an interview of someone who somewhat agrees with me, or at least expresses a healthy doubt as to the real effectiveness of Mr. Spielberg’s stand