War Crimes etc

You know how sometimes you hear or read about something completely random or that you had never thought about before, and then, the next day, you see this concept/word/thing somewhere else, and you wonder: “coincidence…? I think not…”

A few weeks ago, while in Ghana, C. and I asked what a plant was, and we were told it was “water greens”, which is a variant of the famous potato greens. Now, having spent about 4 months there over the last year, we ate potato greens over and over, but never even heard of water greens. That afternoon, we saw a woman with a large bowl on her head, filled with – what we thought was – potato greens. When she started calling “water greeeeeens! wateeeeeeeer greeeens!”, we had the “coincidence” moment…


The point is that I was reading a fascinating investigative piece by Philippe Sands in Vanity Fair, about the way in which “extreme interrogation techniques” became a tactic in the American strategy in the War on Terror, and that it seems that everywhere I look these days, I’m reading about this topic (recently in the New Yorker). This strikes me, since it doesn’t seem particularly topical – perhaps it’s one of those “coincidence” moments. Getting to the point now, I promise.

Sands’ piece is enlightening, and shows exactly how these measures were decided on at the highest level of the administration:

The fingerprints of the most senior lawyers in the administration were all over the design and implementation of the abusive interrogation policies. Addington, Bybee, Gonzales, Haynes, and Yoo became, in effect, a torture team of lawyers, freeing the administration from the constraints of all international rules prohibiting abuse.

We have all heard the “trickle up” version of the story – a few bad apples, which took it upon themselves to commit some pretty serious abuse on prisoners. Not so, my friends. Not so. It’s extremely unfortunate, and, more importantly, worrying, that the administration managed to completely circumvent the Geneva Conventions. One of my last assignments in grad school was a presentation discussing breaches in jus in bello (laws of war) using the case study of the continued American presence in Iraq. During my research, I learned — much to my dismay — that the American administration had essentially managed to ignore its legal obligations, while pretending to uphold the system on the whole.

Douglas Feith , former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, explains this quite well to Sands:

Douglas Feith had a long-standing intellectual interest in Geneva, and for many years had opposed legal protections for terrorists under international law. He referred me to an article he had written in 1985, in The National Interest, setting out his basic view. Geneva provided incentives to play by the rules; those who chose not to follow the rules, he argued, shouldn’t be allowed to rely on them, or else the whole Geneva structure would collapse. The only way to protect Geneva, in other words, was sometimes to limit its scope. To uphold Geneva’s protections, you might have to cast them aside[…]
How had the administration gone from a commitment to Geneva[…] to the president’s declaration that none of the detainees had any rights under Geneva? It all turns on what you mean by “promoting respect” for Geneva, Feith explained.
Geneva didn’t apply at all to al-Qaeda fighters, because they weren’t part of a state and therefore couldn’t claim rights under a treaty that was binding only on states. Geneva did apply to the Taliban, but by Geneva’s own terms Taliban fighters weren’t entitled to P.O.W. status, because they hadn’t worn uniforms or insignia. That would still leave the safety net provided by the rules reflected in Common Article 3— but detainees could not rely on this either, on the theory that its provisions applied only to “armed conflict not of an international character,” which the administration interpreted to mean civil war[…]

On February 7, 2002, President Bush signed a memorandum that turned Guantánamo into a Geneva-free zone. As a matter of policy, the detainees would be handled humanely, but only to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity. “The president said ‘humane treatment,’ ” Feith told me, inflecting the term sourly, “and I thought that was O.K. Perfectly fine phrase that needs to be fleshed out, but it’s a fine phrase—‘humane treatment.’ ” The Common Article 3 restrictions on torture or “outrages upon personal dignity” were gone.

“This year I was really a player,” Feith said, thinking back on 2002 and relishing the memory. I asked him whether, in the end, he was at all concerned that the Geneva decision might have diminished America’s moral authority. He was not. “The problem with moral authority,” he said, was “people who should know better, like yourself, siding with the assholes, to put it crudely.”

What really gets to me is the fact that a country such as the United States could entertain the thought that some people do not have rights (the Geneva Conventions are the one and only safeguard during a time of war – it is specifically meant to provide guidelines for the treatment of human beings in war, when human rights are ignored – that is the very nature of war) Contrarily to what I recently heard in a Ghanaian court of law – that rights “are not absolute” – I am absolutely convinced that every single individual is entitled to legal protection and due process, no matter what his crimes or background is. That is the very basis of equality and justice.

I find it so unfortunate that the United States, a nation that has (had?) the power to really positively influence the world, with progressive, enlightened and benevolent paradigms, has sunk to this level of disrespect for human rights.

Torture, which the Sands article is about, is a case in point. I just recently found out about Amnesty International’s Unsubscribe initiative:

Unsubscribe is a movement of people united against human rights abuses in the ‘war on terror’. Thousands of unsubscribers have now joined up. The threat of terrorism is real, but trampling over human rights and abandoning our values is not the answer. From Guantanamo Bay, Rendition, Torture and Waterboarding – we unsubscribe.

(warning – graphic images)

Someone recently pointed out that such behavior on the part of a government is inevitable in times of war – and they quickly reminded me about the French abuses during the war in Algeria in the 50-60s. But is it really inevitable? Besides the obvious moral and legal objections, in the long run, doesn’t this type of tactic weaken the overall strategy and the likelihood of a positive outcome?

Untying Food Aid

Canada just announced that it would move to “untie” its food aid – which means that it is removing restrictions on the origin of the food that is provided as aid. Previously, Canada’s food aid was linked to the provision that domestically grown food was to be used for international aid – which is recognized as detrimental to aid effectiveness:

It is widely acknowledged that tied aid—that is, aid that must be used to purchase goods or services from a particular donor country—undermines aid effectiveness. It has been clearly documented that tying aid raises the cost of many goods, services, and works by 15-30 percent40, and the cost of food by 40 percent […] But beyond these financial aspects, tied aid hinders developing country ownership of programmes and requires procurement procedures that often circumvent local procurement systems. This not only results in higher transaction costs, but also limits incentives and efforts to harmonise donor procedures and co-ordinate their activities.(p.41 of the report)

That leaves only the United States as a major donor country that still ties its food aid. The IRIN report notes that

Almost all food aid donated by the USA is tied to domestic requirements for procurement, processing and shipping. According to Barrett [Development Economics professor at Cornell University], it costs more than two dollars of US taxpayers’ money to deliver one dollar’s worth of food procured as in-kind food aid.

More here.

There has been a lot of media trumpetting over the $770 million food aid package that President Bush recently announced – which Bush coupled with a call to spend 25% of those funds on purchasing food locally. The Washington Post reminds us that historically, the United States has provided about half of all global food assistance and that the United States is the world’s largest provider of food aid, delivering more than $2.1 billion to 78 developing countries last year.

The US move to increase its food aid budget is laudable, and does indeed demonstrate leadership. There are caveats though – the funds requested will only be made available after October 1, when the federal fiscal year begins, which means, as Democratic congress men pointed out, “that [it] is far too late for the urgency of this problem. If you’re hungry and your government is collapsing, waiting until December 2008 or January 2009 for food to hit the ground is just too late”. Coupled with the fact that tied food aid is inefficient, and that other policy options are available that would have a more immediate impact, it seems that American food aid will fall short of helping resolve the global food crisis.

Perhaps this new series of Congress hearings on foreign assistance reform should give us hope.

Meanwhile, in somewhat related news, in Somalia, food riots kill 2 – and food aid to Palestinians in Gaza is threatened by fuel restrictions.


A really great piece by the editors of The Washington Monthly regarding the use of torture by the United States.

“It is in the hopes of keeping the attention of the public, and that of our elected officials, on this subject that the writers of this collection of essays have put pen to paper. They include a former president, the speaker of the House, two former White House chiefs of staff, current and former senators, generals, admirals, intelligence officials, interrogators, and religious leaders. Some are Republicans, others are Democrats, and still others are neither. What they all agree on, however, is this: It was a profound moral and strategic mistake for the United States to abandon long-standing policies of humane treatment of enemy captives. We should return to the rule of law and cease all forms of torture, with no exceptions for any agency.”

Well said.

Lifting the Taboo on Torture

“President Bush vetoed an intelligence bill Saturday, saying he objected to provisions in it that prohibited the CIA from using harsh interrogation techniques. The bill would limit the CIA to techniques approved by the Army field manual.”NPR – All Things Considered

Our national security strategy cannot rely on dehumanizing others – America cannot preserve its security by whatever means necessary. Even though President Bush uses euphemisms such as “harsh interrogation techniques” instead of “torture”, the result is the same – these techniques represent blatant violations of human rights. The fact that there is a movement towards making torture an acceptable practice is extremely dangerous – can we really afford to have this type of paradigmic shift on torture?

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which prohibits, and in fact seeks to abolish the use of torture in all its forms, was ratified by the United States in 1994. Moreover, there are certain norms in international law that fall under the jus cogens category, which means that they apply to all subjects of international law, regardless of the status of ratification of treaties or conventions. The prohibition of torture falls under that category. This type of peremptory norm exists in the case of torture, slavery and genocide. Indeed, the international community – including the United States – recognizes that torture, in all its forms, is perfectly indefensible, whether morally or legally.

While torture might be efficient in obtaining information, it is even more efficient in reinforcing hatred towards those who perpetrate it. Not only does this kind of position reinforce pre-existing hatred, but this is precisely the platform used by extremists to recruit. While I am not suggesting that prisoners should not be suggested to interrogation, I believe that this can be achieved without stooping to the same level of dehumanization and complete disregard for human rights at which terrorists and extremists operate.

If we don’t abide by a minimum standard of respect for human life, then we surely cannot expect others to do so. If the use of torture is appropriate for our national security strategy, than surely it is an appropriate strategy for others as well. The world is watching. If we do not uphold fundamental values – including respect for human rights and prisoner rights – then we are implicitly allowing that same attitude from others.

Dangerous times indeed.

A Call to Skepticism

George W. Bush is having fun in Africa. According to a recent Pew poll, he enjoys an overwhelming popularity on the continent, and, as the International Herald Tribune notes “with some [African nation] holding America in higher regard than America views itself.”

Look at all the great things the US has done for Africa:

“Yet since taking office, U.S. development aid to Africa has tripled, funding for HIV programs vaulted from under US$1 billion (€ 700,000) to over US$6 billion (€4 billion) per year and garment exports from Africa to America, helped by special trade deals, increased sevenfold, according to official U.S. statistics.

The Bush administration has, moreover, made Africa the centerpiece of its overall aid strategy. Twelve of the 15 focus countries receiving funding from the five-year, US$15 billion (€10 billion) President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief are in Africa, as are nine of the 16 countries drawing grants from Bush’s Millennium Challenge Corporation […] “

But also, note that:

“Today, a fifth of U.S. oil imports come from a single African nation — Nigeria. By the end of the decade, one in five new barrels of oil entering the global market are projected to come from Africa, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.” (Source: IHT)


But behind the ceremonies honoring George W. Bush and American involvement in African affairs, behind all the pomp and hype, shouldn’t we exercise caution when judging the actions of the US – and the West in general – in Africa?

At some point, Western leaders will have to shift the loci of “cooperation” with Africa (and with the developing world in general) away from hand outs. What countries need is not another major grant that will end up being mismanaged and have relatively little impact on people’s welfare – they need Western leaders to encourage investors to work in those countries, to highlight the business and development opportunities, and to build healthy commercial, financial and economic ties with the private sector of developing nations. The meager handouts by the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) represent yet another attempt to impose a certain social, political and economic vision on nations that are construed as malleable. It does not represent a significant departure from previous development models devised by Western countries or their representative Bretton Woods institutions.

Furthermore, there are some fundamental issues with the way the MCC functions, in that it selectively engages with countries deemed “respectable” enough – ie. countries who have produced a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) with the World Bank, who are committed to a market economy, committed to democracy… It would be very naive to think that countries whose governments are desperate for funding aren’t simply jumping through the hoops imposed on them by outsiders.

In addition, note that these stringent conditions are imposed only on a certain group of non-Western developing nations. There are many countries which receive untied aid – Egypt and Israel, two of the largest recipients of US aid received $1.7 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively, in 2006. These countries receive these large sums of money unconditionally, and only very recently, with the events at the Gaza/Egypt border, has the US Congress suggested to tie its aid to Egypt to certain conditions.

How about countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo – a country the size of Western Europe – whose stability is key to the overall stability of the region? It’s hard to imagine that the DRC will be able to meet the required standards for Western aid in the near future, even though the government relies almost exclusively on foreign aid. The DRC’s government established a 2007-2011 program for reconstruction, with a budget reaching $14 billion. Half of this budget is expected to be provided by donors – but considering the track record of Western donors in that country, it’s almost certain that this budget is little more than wishful thinking: in 2007, the World Bank promised $380 million, and the EU 161 million euros…. Keep in mind that these figures don’t reflect actual disbursements – in 2006, the DRC had only received a 1/3 of the funds promised in 2004 and 2005 ($1.1 and 1.2 billion, respectively)

So congratulations Mr. Bush! $700 million for Tanzania. Way to go. Oh, and that $306 million to Benin promised in 2006 through the MCC? Which should be disbursed over…. 9 years? What a gesture.

The hypocrisy which shrouds the supposed benevolence of the US in Africa is appalling. The fight against HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria is crucial, and American financial involvement in this entreprise is certainly worthwhile, and commends respect. However, this generosity shouldn’t be considered independently from other policies which fuel increasing global inequalities, such as the much criticized subsidy program to the cotton industry in the United States, or the backward, racist and unfair immigration policies pursued by most of the Western world.

“President George W. Bush’s coming African tour will emphasise the caring side of U.S. policy but it is widely seen as being more about military interests, oil supplies and combating Chinese influence.” (Source: Reuters Africa)