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.

Ouch.

Idiots?
Idiots?

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.

The high stakes of the Taylor trial

A fascinating new phase in the trial of Charles Taylor, Liberian warlord and President of his country from 1997 to 2003, is underway. Following 18 months of proceedings, the defense case for Taylor – charged by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) with 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other violations of international humanitarian law, to which he pleaded non guilty – began on July 13.  This has been getting some international media attention. As noted by contributors to the Trial of Charles Taylor blog, a project of the Open Society Institute:

“[Taylor] is the first sitting African head of state to be indicted and prosecuted for his alleged responsibility for some of the worst crimes known to humanity, the laser beam of international attention will zero in as he tells his side of the story.” 

International attention, however, has been more like a faint gleam than a “laser beam”, and I have yet to find commentary that focuses on what, as far as I’m concerned, seems to be the most significant aspect of these historic proceedings – the fact that, if Taylor is found guilty, this trial will set a critical precedent in international law. Indeed, while there have been past indictments – and even convictions – for war crimes and crimes against humanity, no head of state has yet to be found personally responsible for atrocities committed during his or her tenure.

In this post, I won’t be discussing the history and specifics of what led to Taylor and a dozen other war criminals to be indicted by the SCSL – suffice it to say that there is ample evidence (in spite of Taylor’s pleading not guilty and his vehement denial of charges during his opening statement) that these individuals committed unbelievable atrocities in the context of the Sierra Leone conflict. (A key prosecution witness, Joseph Marzah, described how Taylor allegedly encouraged – even ordered – the killing of women and children or the eating of human flesh). 

Above all else, I believe it is crucial to highlight the importance of Taylor’s trial not only for Sierra Leone, and more generally the West African region, but also the implications for international law and the international criminal justice system specifically.

In the case of Charles Taylor, the fact that the charges against him are explicitely linked to his involvement in the conflict in Sierra Leone – and not Liberia, the country he presided over for 7 years – complicates the picture. Stephen Rapp, the prosecutor of the SCSL, has to prove Taylor’s personal, criminal responsibility in the events that unfolded in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002, when the civil war came to an end. Including Taylor’s, the court has brought 13 indictments against individuals who “bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996.” 

So far, three guilty verdicts have been pronounced against former rebel leaders, with sentences ranging from 15 to 52 years – out of the three judgments, one may still be appealed. It should also be noted that four of the 13 indicted have either died or are presumed dead, leaving nine individuals in the custody of the SCSL. 

One might wonder, then, what purpose might the conviction of Charles Taylor and a dozen others serve? Particularly as so few of those who perpetrated atrocities in Sierra Leone are being tried, will all these lengthy, costly legal procedures provide any solace for the victims of the conflict? Will justice be served? What, if anything, would the sentencing of war criminals achieve for Sierra Leone? for West Africa? for international justice? 

The Special Court for Sierra Leone prides itself on contributing to the re-establishment of the rule in law in the country – in addition to court proceedings, the SCSL also facilitates capacity-building for judges, legal experts and lawyers. And, indeed, the judicial institutions of Sierra Leone are being strengthened thanks to the SCSL. Beyond this, of course, the main objective of the SCSL is to bring justice to the people of Sierra Leone. Already, legal proceedings have yielded a number of firsts and have established important precedents. The Special Court:

  • Was the first to rule that national amnesty does not apply to the prosecution of international crimes, and was the first court to adjudicate the limitations of immunity by a head of state before an international criminal court.   
  • Was the first to enter convictions for the forcible recruitment and use of child soldiers for acts of terrorism in a non-international armed conflict and for the crime of attacks on UN peacekeepers.   
  • Also pronounced the first-ever convictions on the charge of sexual slavery and forced marriage as crimes against humanity. 

However, despite this important jurisprudence and the benefits to the local judicial system, many argue that the SCSL – as well as other international criminal courts – can make the process of reconciliation much more difficult and that, ultimately, convicting and sentencing war criminals achieves little for the victims. 

I, on the contrary, believe that the sentencing of war criminals and perpetrators of crimes against humanity is fundamentally important. In addition to the signifcant advances for Sierra Leone’s judicial system listed above, should Taylor be found guilty, it would set the standard for accountability and send a clear signal to current and former heads of state that a culture of impunity will not be tolerated by the international community. As prosecutor Stephen Rapp notes, “this is an enormous test for international justice.”

With Taylor’s trial, the stakes are high – the former president still has a strong following in West Africa, and no clear popular consensus has emerged around the man who (in)famously ran for president in 1996 with the slogan “He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him.” A conviction would at least contribute to the delegitimization of movements supporting him – which, in a still fragile Liberia, will be critical to the country’s long term political stabilization. 

Particularly as heads of state like Bashir in Sudan, Mugabe in Zimbabwe or even the military junta in Burma, continue to oppress and victimize their populations, the ever growing jurisprudence reinforcing the international justice system would receive an adrenaline shot should Taylor be sentenced. 

As with the prosecution by the ICC of Thomas Lubanga for his crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, many claim that the international media and public attention detract from the validity of the proceedings. As Catherine Mabille, Lubanga’s head defense lawyer notes: “In the press he is already convicted, convicted before being tried. And in the eyes of a vast majority, as soon as there is an arrest warrant and as soon as the charges are confirmed and the matter is committed to trial, the presumption of innocence disappears.”  

However, all those indicted by international criminal courts, including Taylor, are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and given a chance to present their side of the story. For all intents and purposes, they are guaranteed a fair trial. This is especially true, given that, as mentioned previously, the media and public opinion are not nearly as mobilized as they could be – frankly, even searching for material to compose this blog post, I was surprised by how little analysis and commentary Taylor’s trial has generated (leading me to conclude that Lubanga’s defense lawyer may be slightly delusional.)

Considering how many times throughout history leaders have abused, oppressed, manipulated and murdered their own populations, the need to establish a standard for accountability is of paramount importance. For now, even as the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest, he remains free to roam around the African continent (having already made several trips abroad since the warrant was issued), as the African Union decided not to honor the warrant for his arrest… 

(In an interesting twist of fate, it’s worth noting that Taylor’s son, Chucky Taylor, was convicted of torture last year, in the first prosecution under the United States’ Extraterritorial Torture Statute.)

Of course, the evolution of institutions – such as the international justice system – is always complex, and for every achievement, there are set-backs. But there is no doubt in my mind that if Taylor is convicted and sentenced for his crimes, entrepreneurs of violence, warlords and other small or big tyrants the world over will hear the message loud and clear: the culture of impunity is coming to an end.

Obama and Africa

Following a G8 meeting where leaders announced a $20 billion commitment to help alleviate hunger and improve food security in the developing world, and a short stop-over in the Vatican to exchange pleasantries with the Pope, Barack Obama traveled to Ghana for his first presidential trip to the African continent.

Obama’s visit generated a wave of enthusiasm across the region, and he was welcomed in Ghana by a huge government delegation, as well as throngs of electrified Ghanaians. Needless to say, the president’s choice of Ghana elicited feelings of national pride for its people and its government – as noted by Cadman Atta Mills, the Ghanaian president’s brother and chairman of the National Economic Advisory board, “Ghanaians have extremely high expectations for this visit. A lot of it is sentimental and personal.” Knowing Accra, I’m sure the vibe there must have been incredible.

In spite of the historical nature of the visit, the speech delivered by Obama didn’t represent any dramatic shifts in the American position toward Africa. Some critics were disappointed that it didn’t represent more of a “shakeup of U.S.-Africa policy”; others lamented that it did not address the tougher issues such as the protection of human rights or how to deal with the continuing tragedies in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Still, l believe that Obama’s speech sent the crucial message-in no uncertain terms-that good governance is key to solving the continent’s chronic underdevelopment issues.

While this position does not represent a departure from previous administrations, who also touted democracy and good governance as fundamental elements of peace and prosperity, I think it’s important to take note of the concrete implications of Obama’s speech and visit.

Obama sends a powerful message by choosing Ghana over Kenya (his father’s homeland), Namibia, Botswana (both stable, democratic countries), South Africa (arguably the continent’s most successful nation), or, most significantly, Nigeria, Ghana’s resource-rich neighbor and the world’s fourth largest nation (and, by the way, also America’s biggest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa; the U.S. imports about 20 percent of its oil from Nigeria…)

Obama explained that he chose Ghana, a nation of 23 million that has had two peaceful democratic transitions, to “highlight” its adherence to democratic principles and institutions, ensuring the kind of stability that brings prosperity. Nigeria, in contrast, is notorious for its entrenched corruption and chronic lack of effective governance – indeed, in spite of tremendous oil wealth, poverty rates are still alarmingly high (70% of the population fell under the poverty line in 2007.)

His words were quite stern:

“This isn’t just some abstract notion that we’re trying to impose on Africa […] The African continent is a place of extraordinary promise as well as challenges. We’re not going to be able to fulfill those promises unless we see better governance”

“No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers […] No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.”

By “snubbing” Nigeria and pointing to Ghana as an example of good governance in the region, Obama is probably also hoping to signal to the Ghanaian government that he is expecting them not to mismanage the profits from the country’s new-found offshore oil. A well-timed message, as large oil deposits were recently discovered off the coast of Ghana, with production slated to come online in the next couple of years – and along with it, a steep increase in government revenues. There is reason to hope that the country will be stepping up to its responsibilities. Ghana’s energy minister,Joe Oteng-Adjei, recently declared: “We are committed to doing the right thing for investors and for the country … our concern is that we bring in a third party to deliver the synergies that we expect.”

Human Rights Watch recently released a grim report on Equatorial Guinea, reminding us that the “resource curse” is still very much a reality to contend with in Africa:

“Since oil was discovered there in the early 1990s, Equatorial Guinea’s GDP has increased more than 5,000 percent, and the country has become the fourth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, living standards for the country’s 500,000 people have not substantially improved. Here is a country where people should have the per capita wealth of Spain or Italy, but instead they live in poverty worse than in Afghanistan or Chad.”

Additionally, many countries in Africa face a common challenge of having to address the creation or strengthening of institutions that guarantee the rule of law and enforce respect for the constitutional rights of citizens. Ghana has done well on that front, especially relative to most other countries in the region, and it’s clear to all of Ghana’s neighbors (particularly Nigeria) that to win the favor of the U.S. and its charismatic president, a proactive stance on good governance is necessary.

In spite of Obama’s strong and meaningful message, I don’t think this is a watershed moment in the U.S.-Africa relationship. First off, for all the verbal commitments to being “a friend and a partner every step of the way,” let’s get real about what the current recession implies: a bit of turning inwards for rich countries who will again not deliver the necessary policy changes to really make a difference; the lowering of tariffs for African products; a complete overhaul of agricultural subsidies – these are among some of the critical areas for policy intervention. In this climate of fiscal constraint and tightening credit across the globe, access to finance is also a key issue for African development. Despite their significance for the continent, Obama failed to speak about the aforementioned issues.

Probably because he knows that in one brief (albeit historical) visit, and one speech, one can only deliver so much.

Bono’s assessment is that “presidential attention would be a shot in the arm for these [anti-corruption, rule of law improvement] efforts — an infusion of moral and political amino acids that, by the way, will make aid dollars go further.”

I’d like to believe that a one-day visit to West Africa and a speech before the Ghanaian parliament could truly galvanize country-level efforts in promoting effective democracy. But, at the risk of stretching Bill Easterly’s Man in Charge argument, I think we need to have a humbler understanding of what this speech means for America’s relationship with Africa. Efficiently dealing with issues as varied as corruption, nonexistent infrastructure, protracted conflicts or subpar education, will require significant – if not dramatic – shifts in policy and attitudes. While Bono seems to believe that Obama’s words inevitably produce change, African commentators are (surprisingly?) far more sober in their assessments. An editorial in the South African Daily News notes that “even the most devoted Obama fans are aware of the fact that the first black American president – whom they love to call a ‘son of Africa’ – cannot solve the continent’s many problems.”

I agree with David Rothkopf, who discusses the natural limitations of presidential influence and power: “It’s time recognize that it really does take a big team of empowered leaders to make the complex foreign policy of the U.S. work and evolve in the right directions. It’s time to recognize that it does not reflect badly on the president if we all agree he cannot transform the world single handedly, that however different he may be from his predecessors, that alone is not enough.”

No fire without smoke

From Nextbillion.net, a piece entitled “The Dark Side of Remittance Economies” asks:

In Development and Base of the Pyramid circles, we often discuss remittance economies and innovative ways to send remittances home; what we don’t always think or talk about is what forces people to leave their home countries in the first place and what they experience when they go abroad. In the case of Nepal, as I’ve written about before, migrant laborers most often
 travel to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, often having their passports taken away from them upon arrival and not getting paid for months at a time. So would systems that facilitate sending remittances home actually encourage and facilitate such an unjust ecosystem? 

First off, having your passport taken away and not getting paid for months at a time constitutes slavery (Article 1 of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery). Incredibly, slavery remains a major issue today, as more than 27 million peoplelive their every day in slavery or slavery-like conditions.” And while not all enslaved persons are migrant laborers (and of course, vice versa), it is true that many economic migrants end up in terrifying situations. As noted by the UN Special Rapporteur, “Some of the most traditional forms of slavery such as debt bondage [have] evolved and now manifests [themselves] in the plight of some migrant domestic workers.”

Remittances from migrant workers, however, are one of the most stable, largest sources of capital for many developing countries, more so than official development aid (ODA) or foreign investments. Moreover, remittances are actually more reliable and tend to be counter-cyclical. While remittances are going to decline this year, along with ODA and private investments, they will decline less. According to the Migration and Remittances Group at the World Bank, “despite the prospect of a sharper decline in remittance inflows than anticipated earlier, these flows will remain more resilient compared to many other types of resource flows such as private debt and equity flows and foreign direct investment, which are expected to decline or, in the case of portfolio flows, perhaps become negative in 2009 as foreign investors pull out of emerging markets.”

To be clear: the most sustainable form of capital flows to the developing world is not only in decline, but in its current form, relies – at least in part – on modern forms of slavery and forced labor. Indeed, for these flows to remain stable, millions of people have to endure harrowing trips across, and sometimes between, continents. There are more than a few stories about boat loads of migrants that capsize, end up shipwrecked, with their occupants arrested, and often deported

It’s an incredible shame that there aren’t better systems in place to promote a much healthier form of migrant labor – in Spain, for example, the government used to run a program to recruit foreign workers in Morocco and Latin American countries, based on the labor needs expressed by industry groups. These people were given temporary work authorizations and were subject to quite strict verifications – nonetheless, their conditions of employment were far, far better than what most can expect when immigrating on their own. 

Mustafa, 26, Somalia: « The travel took me one year through the desert and Five days of sea. The sea was unstable, twenty-five people where on the boat at the beginning, but only fifteen people arrived in Malta. » Février 2008. © Pierre Le Tulzo

Great Leap Forward

Barack Obama yesterday ordered the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and CIA secret prisons, closing the book on the Bush administration’s controversial “war on terror” policies. (Financial Times)

Thank you for restoring dignity to the United States, President Obama.

He is striking the right notes in my book – banning torture, closing Guantanamo Bay, capping the salaries of White House staff to $100K (unlike a certain disappointing someone when he was elected in 2007)

A great leap forward, or a just return to order? Either way, fabulous news. Cheers to GOOD news, for once.