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.

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: http://ow.ly/aInw.amusing – 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? 

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.