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.

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.

The "Thinking Brains" of Foreign Policy

On my right, we have the military-industrial complex. If you haven’t (yet) watched “Why We Fight”, the excellent documentary by Jarecki, I recommend you do. Particularly during election time, it’s always good to be reminded about the threat to checks and balances in the government.

McCain is interviewed in this documentary – quite interesting position he lays out (I hope this arouses your curiosity – seriously – watch this documentary!)

On my left, “top foreign policy experts“. I love this graph:What this says is that “experts” completely changed their predictions within 11 months – does this suggest that asking for their opinion is probably rather useless, as it is bound to change with the ebb and flow of realities on the ground?

Is there any predictive value to this? I really doubt it: this poll, if it does anything at all, only re-affirms what everyone already knows. I hope we are not using these “expert opinions” to inform our foreign policy strategy (oh wait. we are.)

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?


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.