No compromise?

Ever since the dreadful events of September 28 in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, where at 157 people were killed and dozens of women raped in broad daylight during a pro-democracy political rally, the country’s social and political climate has been increasingly tense. Amid the resignation of three cabinet ministers and a communications advisor, Captain Moussa “Dadis” Camara, the head of the military junta who took power in a bloodless coup in December 2008, has been under growing pressure to step down, install a transitional government, and prepare for the free elections he promised the people of Guinea in January 2010.

Yesterday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), imposed an arms embargo on Guinea: “In view of the atrocities that have been committed … the authority decides to impose an arms embargo on Guinea under the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons.” The ECOWAS decision comes a week after the International Contact Group on Guinea (ICG-G), composed of ECOWAS, the African Union, the EU, the UN and the 5 UN Security Council members [note: China has never attended an ICG-G meeting], issued a position statement setting out the list of measures to be taken to allow Guinea to resume her transition process. These measures incorporate many of the recommendations made by the Guinean opposition coalition, the Forces Vives de Guinee, composed of various political parties, unions and civil society groups.

Meanwhile, the African Union today extended an October 17 deadline for Dadis to declare in writing that he would not run in the elections. Dadis did not respect the deadline, and instead asked for the question to be “assigned to the mediation of Burkina Faso.” The African Union is delaying its decision to impose targeted sanctions on Dadis and senior figures of the military regime in order to consult with ECOWAS-appointed mediator Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso.

In spite of all the diplomatic hullabaloo around Guinea, it seems that the international community is choosing not to match action with rhetoric. Admittedly, I’m not in a position to know what would be better than an arms embargo and a travel ban on senior regime officials. Yet, I feel that this is somewhat of a tepid response, particularly given the strong reaction the events in Guinea elicited among foreign governments, international organizations and human rights groups.

Over the course of the last few weeks, Guinea’s military junta has been the object of severe condemnations from various members of the amorphous “international community”. The International Criminal Court is launching a preliminary investigation to determine whether crimes falling under the Court’s jurisdiction were perpetrated. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also just announced an international inquiry, headed by the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Haile Menkerios, into the events of September 28 “with a view to determining the accountability of those involved.”

Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, and State Deparment officials – including Hillary Clinton – have repeatedly called for Dadis to step down, and have adopted a very firm stance…at least rhetorically: Kouchner said this weekend:

“The international community’s message is simple: murderers and rapists must be identified, judged and punished, just like the ones who ordered these acts.”

The U.S. even sent a high-ranking State Department official for direct talks with Dadis. As noted above, regional mediation efforts are also underway – Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso, was dispatched to Conakry in early October to begin a dialogue with Dadis and the opposition.

Recent events in Guinea are clearly showing that the country’s stability is at stake, and, as Nigerian president and chair of ECOWAS Umaru Yar’Adua noted “the instability in Guinea poses a real threat to the peace, security and stability of the region.”

Dadis, who was once hailed as “Obama Junior“, has apparently lost support within the ranks of the junta, as several ministers have resigned over the course of the last week, citing moral concerns as the main reason for their decision to leave the government. To complete this chaotic picture, foreign as well as local journalists have been threatened and rumors of ethnic manipulations have emerged.

Meanwhile, Guinea allegedly signed a mining deal worth $7 billion with a Chinese private company, the Hong Kong based Chinese Investment Fund, which also involves Sonangol, the Angolan oil company. This, of course, happened in the middle of this unfolding crisis, leading analysts to call out China on poor timing and a ruthless appetite for natural resources [note: Guinea is the leading supplier of bauxite and is thought to have at least a third of the world’s known reserves of the mineral, which is used to make aluminium]

Guinea’s future remains uncertain. The breakdown of law and constitutional order does not bode well for the organization of free and fair elections, and I worry that the international community will once again fail to prevent an illegitimate government from taking root. In some sense, particularly with regards to ECOWAS, it feels  a bit like a case of the blind leading the blind. Let’s take a cursory glance at the governance situation in West African countries. President Yar’Adua of Nigeria, who is currently at the head of ECOWAS, is not exactly a model of democratic leadership.

Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso, took power in 1987 through a coup during which his predecessor Thomas Sankara was assassinated. He stood (unopposed) for election in 1991 – and was reelected twice since. He will run again for election next year. Beautiful example of democracy, isn’t it? And while Compaore has garnered the support of the international community, I have doubts whether he’s in any position to advocate for a democratic transition in Guinea, as well as in Cote d’Ivoire, where he is also playing a mediation role.

The arms embargo imposed this past Saturday is, I hope, only the beginning of actual pressure on Dadis. The potential mining deal with the Chinese firm may allow Dadis to isolate himself and his country further – revenues from natural resource extraction have allowed dictators to remain in power in Guinea for the last 5 decades. I find worrying that the African Union let the Oct.17 deadline slip by, and even though Dadis is said to be cooperating with the UN investigation, he is obviously not ready to step down. The fact that he’s even still considering running in the election makes clear that he is not heeding calls from the international community, preferring, instead to string the whole of them along.

Through blogs and news sites, Guineans  have expressed a lot of concern over the current situation in their country, and, in my opinion, the supposed “intense” international pressure is not sufficient. I understand that the principle of sovereignty and non-intervention in a state’s affairs prevails, but really, is an arms embargo – the effectiveness of which depends on the political will to enforce it thoroughly – the most appropriate response at this stage? Are endless strings of UN and ICC investigations that lead nowhere really going to help the situation?

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the current chair of ECOWAS, used unusually strong language to condemn the “arbitrary and irresponsible” use of power by Guinea’s military junta.

At this stage, diplomatic efforts seem formulaic at best and useless at worse.  Dadis clearly is unfit to be leading Guinea, and the international community should be much firmer about having him step down. This is the man who once received a journalist barefoot, in the middle of the night, and then proceeded to harass her, asking her to marry him and saying things like “Dadis loves you! Dadis wants you! You make me crazy, come be with me and I will give you everything.”

UN Sexual Misconduct Allegations Won’t Go Away

I haven’t had the time or energy to blog lately, in spite of my repeated “notes to self” to do so… But this caught my eye – I remember discussing this back in 2005 in a graduate seminar, so clearly things are not moving very quickly on this front. 

If UN missions are to successfully achieve their goal of stabilizing a country and bringing peace to it, then this type of behavior needs to be eradicated. Again, enough of the lip service paid to a zero tolerance policy…
Full story below, and here is the link. (HT: The Road to the Horizon)
Soldiers implicated in abuses have been sent back to India, but locals say prostitution remains rife at peacekeeping base.

By Taylor Toeka Kakala in Goma and Lisa Clifford in The Hague (AR No. 186, 12-Sep-08)

Although a group of Indian peacekeeping soldiers accused of sexual abuse in eastern Congo have returned home, allegations of misconduct continue to surround the battalion.

The United Nations confirmed last month that an internal investigation had uncovered credible evidence that members of an Indian unit stationed in North Kivu province “may have engaged in sexual exploitation and abuse”.

A UN source said around 100 peacekeepers from India allegedly used children both to work for them and to hire Congolese girls for sex. The source said the children were used as domestic servants and to pimp for prostitutes, some as young as 12 or 13 years old.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said he was “deeply troubled” by the findings, and the Indian government promised a swift and thorough investigation. 

Under the regular six-monthly troop rotation, the soldiers concerned left the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known by its French acronym MONUC, in January but local women say their replacements are continuing to break UN rules.

Peacekeepers are strictly forbidden to socialise with local people, but Mapendo Polepole, a 28-year-old prostitute from Goma, who heads an organisation of women living with AIDS, told IWPR that Indian soldiers from the camp in central Goma are regular customers.

“They have sexual intercourse with us, without condoms, in their jeeps, during a patrol and in their camps,” she said, adding that the soldiers pay 20 US dollars for her services rather than the going rate of two dollars. 

Peacekeepers are not allowed to seek entertainment outside the barracks or leave the camp after 6 pm. The UN says all personnel are made aware of the mission’s code of conduct and “no-go areas” before signing on – and their battalion commander is responsible for their actions while they are on a peacekeeping mission.

A UN official in New York admitted the regulations were sometimes hard to enforce. “No matter how many rules we have in place, there is always a way to go around them. It is so hard to monitor,” said the official.

Polepole says peacekeepers in Goma have continued to flout the regulations since the 100 peacekeepers left. Her allegations that prostitution was continuing on and around the Indian base were repeated by other sex workers in Goma.

Mado Kahindo, 24, says Indian peacekeepers still come to her home for sex. “They stop their patrolling jeep in front of my hut after midnight,” she said, adding they refuse to enter the house as they do not want to be faced with a prostitute’s children. “I have to come outside for sexual intercourse in their jeep.”

Feza Ramazani, 30, said she is among the many prostitutes who wait beside the road for the Indian soldiers as they pass by on their patrols. She says the sexual encounters can sometimes be rough. “Very often we get bruises on our breasts because of the way they touch them,” she said.

Polepole recalled an incident back in April when a sexual encounter with an Indian soldier turned violent.

“After the trick, he gave me 30 dollars before handing me over to his fellow soldiers who raped me in a chain,” said Polepole, who was injured after she protested that none of the men were using a condom. 

An NGO worker told IWPR that sex without condoms is common practice for local prostitutes and their UN clients. 

“Prostitutes tell us that the blue helmets insist on having sex without condoms,” said Zawadi Binti Sharif. She said that out of economic necessity, the women have little choice but to comply, “Poverty is a threat in our fight against AIDS.”

Nick Birnback, chief of the peacekeeping force’s public affairs section in New York, told IWPR that a “zero tolerance” policy was in place and any peacekeeper who broke the rules would be sent home.

“There is simply no excuse,” he said, adding that MONUC has recently increased foot and vehicle patrols to ensure soldiers are respecting the curfew.

In light of the problems, Birnback said the MONUC official responsible for military conduct and investigations is to be relocated from the capital Kinshasa to Goma. “Over 90 per cent of MONUC forces are in the east and so it would make sense for him to be much closer to the troops who are the source of disciplinary concern,” said Binback.

For those who want to complain, MONUC has set up a hotline where locals can report any wrongdoing by peacekeepers. Safe areas have also been established where Congolese can meet confidentially with UN officials.

However, Birnback admitted that these measures might not always be effective. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that people are aware of it – or they may be afraid to use it,” he said.

Polepole said she would not report the attack on her, as prior experience suggested there was no point. She said Congolese police believed women like her deserved this kind of treatment, and reporting incidents of sexual violence to the police was most likely to end in the arrest of the woman herself.

The Congo peacekeeping force has been beset with bad publicity in recent years, with 140 cases implicating soldiers in prostitution or sexual abuse recorded in 2004-06.

News that the Indian contingent was accused of abusing young girls came to light last month after an investigation by the UN’s Office of the Internal Oversight Services. 

With no power to prosecute, the UN has handed details of the allegations to the Indian authorities, who are responsible for the troops they contribute to the peacekeeping mission, and will decide whether to pursue the case further. 

UN troops from India and Pakistan have also been accused of smuggling gold and trading weapons with Congolese rebels.

Birnback says bad publicity of this kind is tremendously damaging to MONUC, the world’s largest peacekeeping force, with 18,500 troops deployed in Congo.

“Anyone who takes peacekeeping seriously is deeply disturbed when they hear about things like this,” he said, “UN peacekeepers have played a central role in the stabilisation of the DRC over the past several years. When the hard work and sacrifice of so many is overshadowed by the unacceptable actions of a few, it’s bad for the UN and bad for the people of the Congo.”

The Congolese wars have claimed millions of lives and have been marked by sexual violence on a massive scale. 

A recent report from the Human Rights Centre at the University of California, Berkeley, the Payson Center at Tulane University and the International Centre for Transitional Justice found that almost 16 per cent of those surveyed in three eastern provinces – North and South Kivu and Ituri – had been sexually violated. Nearly 12 per cent of those were the victims of multiple assaults, the survey found.

The Hague-based International Criminal Court, ICC, has three Ituri rebel leaders in custody and an arrest warrant outstanding for a fourth man. Sexual violence charges feature in all but one of the cases – that of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who is accused of recruiting children to fight in the Ituri conflict.

Reports that the soldiers sent to Congo to protect civilians from the violence are themselves accused of sex crimes against children has angered many in the region. 

Christine Musaidizi from the NGO Children’s Voice says extreme poverty makes minors particularly vulnerable to exploitation. 

“The striking poverty of parents and the abdication of [responsibility] of the Congolese state is happening at the cost of children’s lives,” she said.

On Justice

This article discusses the “snail’s pace” of Ghana’s judicial system, noting in particular that thousands of cases of domestic violence and rape have remained unpunished, leading to “mob justice”.

My only run-in with the judicial system of Ghana, earlier this month, when the case of undocumented refugees was brought to a High Court, actually lead me to believe that the country had a relatively well-functioning system (the word “relatively” is key in this sentence.) While I didn’t agree with the verdict and suspect that the judge was pressured from above, the trial seemed fair, and it took place in a speedy yet thorough fashion. Anyway, obviously, this one case does not provide perfect illustration for the judicial system of Ghana – I am merely trying to highlight the positive.

Billboard in Monrovia

Nonetheless, I’m not surprised that cases of gender-based violence aren’t dealt with appropriately in the Ghanaian courts. Besides the obvious structural problems (lack of capacity, funding, etc.), there is also a huge social taboo attached to rape and domestic abuse. Recently, we had to deal with our own case of rape within our organization… One of the members of the cooking team for the School Feeding Program, the assistant, G., raped a student from the elementary school. A 14 year old girl, in 1st grade. We were told about this only after the school principal asked him to resign – instead of firing him.
The girl lived with her grandmother, and was “moved” to Accra following the incident. The grandmother did not want to press charges against G. – and, in fact, the school discouraged her to do so. Which, to my Western sensibility, seemed quite ridiculous (for lack of a better word). But the principal explained to me that if the incident went “public”, then the school would acquire a bad reputation for harboring child rapists – I trust him on this, since he obviously knows how the community will react better than I ever will.

The point is, this reaction shows that the taboo on gender-based violence is misplaced, and that too often, perpetrators go unpunished. In fact, because G. resigned, he asked the school to pay him for the 2 weeks of work he had done that month – even though, mind you, he admitted to raping a child, the man actually had the guts to come and demand his salary. The school director and the principal disagreed on whether we should pay him – the director agreed with me that he essentially gave up his rights to ask for a salary when he raped the student… but the principal said that we owed him this money, and that if we didn’t pay him, then he may cause problems for the school. Which, again, I understand – but wow.

Is it possible that this child rapist can still make demands and basically blackmail the school? Yes it is! Because – as the aforementioned article illustrates – too often, cases of gender-based violence and rape go unpunished. How discouraging it must be for the families who do press charges, even though it will probably make their daughter/wife/sister exposed to social stigma, to not even obtain justice…

In Liberia, violence against women is still a huge problem – even UN peacekeepers have been found guilty of engaging in sex-for-food/security practices, which is incredibly worrying, even if it occurs on a small scale. The signals that it sends to the civilian population aren’t good – it makes it seem like a negligible offense.(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that these incidents involving UN staff have been investigated and are being taken very seriously by the leadership.)

There are also all the instances of domestic violence where the woman feels pressured not to report to the authorities – this is not specific to West Africa, obviously, it’s a problem that affects women in every country and social class. But in places suffering from chronic poverty, this type of situation is particularly debilitating, and, in my mind, acts as a brake on development – if you consider justice to be a fundamental element of development, which I believe it is. I’ve linked to this article before, but I find it really compelling.

Of course, fast tracking such cases in court and increasing punishment for perpetrators is but one dimension of dealing with this issue – above all, it’s about a socio-psychological shift in perception. If a school employee rapes a child, it shouldn’t reflect badly on the school, but on the person who committed the crime. In war affected societies where rape and violence against women was used as a weapon, this is of particular importance – to move forward, these societies have to take these crimes extremely seriously. The responsibility for this does not solely fall on governments and court systems – civil society has an essential role to play in reversing this trend.


Trusty MS has provided the following interesting links on the topic:

Random Thoughts

Riots in Senegal over food prices turn ugly – and in Cote d’Ivoire as well.

I just wrote about the potential unrest soaring food prices could cause… Funny how it works. I have to say, I think IRIN is particularly fond of this particular topic, and reports on it quite often. Nonetheless, I really do believe that food insecurity can cause tremendous damage – not just because of its obvious consequence (food is less affordable, particularly for the poorest), but also because, as we see in above examples, the tensions it can create between the authorities and civil society can be damaging. I’m curious to see how this issue will be addressed in months and years to come…. Anyway….

I’m leaving for Ghana tomorrow, and I’m really looking forward to being there. With all that’s being going on, I’m eager to see our friends and the people we work with, and get a better sense of the reality of the situation. I’m also looking forward to meeting all the new people I have been corresponding/working with over the past few weeks, and seeing what kind of long term strategy for engagement with the refugee community we can come up with.

I’ll write some posts from Buduburam – hopefully I will have not just bad or sad news to report. Meanwhile, please feel free to leave comments or write me an email with comments, feedback, ideas…. We’re going to be shooting a promo video for Niapele with my friend Val, who has just started her own organization, Ayoka Productions. We’ll try and get some footage that we can use for advocacy purposes as well – in light of recent events, it seems clear that we have a role to play in offering this community a voice, a channel to express themselves.

On this note, I’ll leave you with my favorite passage from the latest Secretary General’s Report on the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL), which was made public on March 19th:

54. Although the humanitarian situation in Liberia has continued to improve, the
country still faces serious challenges, particularly in the health, education, food, and
water and sanitation sectors. So far only 62 per cent of the $110 million needed to address the high priority humanitarian needs outlined in the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, including the delivery of basic social services, the provision of productive livelihoods for returnee communities and the strengthening of civil society and local authorities, has been received. During the reporting period, UNMIL organized a number of medical outreach activities, which provided medical treatment for some 24,000 patients.
55. During the period under review, UNHCR conducted a post-voluntary repatriation verification exercise, which revealed that 75,509 registered Liberian refugees are still residing in various countries in the subregion. There are also 10,327 refugees from Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and other countries residing in Liberia. The United Nations, in collaboration with the Economic Community of West African States and the Government of Liberia, is trying to find durable solutions for the integration of Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia. The successful reintegration of returnees into communities continues to be a major challenge.

Sunset near the ARCH house, at the edge of Buduburam – August 2007