Global Development and Peace

voices of the Bridgeport '13

Foreign Policy Update: China

It’s election time and we will be posting a series of articles on the foreign policy stances of the candidates. Sadly, we know little about Romney’s foreign policy except that Bain Capital, the company he was the sole President and CEO of and then sort of wasn’t just when they outsourced jobs to China. 

What then do we know about Obama’s China policy. Here in a New York Times article, we see how he evolved. 

As Mr. Obama runs for re-election, his tougher line toward Beijing is showing itself on several fronts. The White House has filed two major cases in the past three months against China at the World Trade Organization, both of which Mr. Obama promoted to autoworkers in the Rust Belt. On the same day as the latest trade action, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced plans in Tokyo to help Japan deploy a new missile-defense system, which has aroused suspicion in Beijing.

China is clearly an important issue with Romney accusing Obama of not being tough enough with China. Obama, in turn, has tried hard to shift his attention from Iraq and Afghanistan to Asia, declaring it as his top priority. 

But was it a change in Obama or in the Chinese administration? With the all important party meet and subsequent handing over the leadership in China, how will this all-important relationship be managed? And by whom?

Merchant of Death

Many a-times we’ve hear his name - in classes and in Hollywood. He’s been called the “Merchant of Death” and the “Lord of War” (starring Nicolas Cage). But he was also a polyglot - he knows at least ten languages (and can read fifteen). He was only 28 when he embarked on his career as the world’s foremost arms trafficker. Is Viktor Bout the problem or the world’s arms manufacturers? 

Dealing arms is not inherently illegal: last year, the United States exported forty-six billion dollars’ worth of weaponry. Legitimate transactions require a document called an “end-user certificate,” which identifies the buyer. The weapons trade enters the gray market when weapons are transferred from a legitimate buyer to countries or militant groups that have been placed under sanctions. Often, this involves forging end-user certificates.

The New Yorker did a recent detailed profile of Viktor Bout, which has now been removed from the paywall. He is now a convicted criminal for his role in supplying weapons to FARC rebels in Colombia. But the arms trade remains a big question. After all, it is the military-industrial complex that control this complex schema of things. 

Bout’s trade gave him an outsized role in matters of war and peace. He neither shied from the pressure nor took sides. He flew Belgian peacekeepers into Somalia, and after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, he says, he brought French troops into eastern Congo. Not long after, with the help of Mirchev and others, he was transporting arms from Russia, Bulgaria, and Iran into conflict zones.

There is a beautiful (and in my view perhaps one of the best ever made) documentary on the military-industry complex called “Why We Fight”. Watch the trailer here (along with a study guide if you want to explore the topic further) and watch the full movie here (totally legal). 
why we fight

Get Kony

Today, for some serendipitous reason that I cannot yet fathom, I watched a video called “Kony 2012” - a media blitz intended to “make Kony famous” as a way to increase interest about the LRA and thus pressurize the US into acting (which it already kinda sorta is) - and in class another documentary called “The Children’s War”. I have already posted in a previous post a long article from the Vanity fair about how Kony, for all his talk about the Ten Commandments, is actually the devil incarnate. 

With over 18 million views on youtube and vimeo, a lot of people must be getting confused about some of the facts behind Kony and the LRA. Thankfully, Foreign Policy is there to clarify. So read this article before you make up your mind about Uganda or about Invisible Children, the charity behind Kony 2012. Among other things, the movie which focuses so much on Kony’s atrocities in Uganda, it fails to mention that Kony is no longer there, while making it sound like Kony has actually expanded his operations. The number it uses - 30,000 child soldiers - is actually the number of child soldiers over its entire history of 30 years (30,000 is also the estimated number of killings committed by the LRA). And since the "Three Cups of Tea" controversy erupted, we have to question even the best intentions. 

This is not to say that children in Uganda are not in need. Perhaps the most pressing of these is what has been termed the “Nodding Disease”, something we all noticed while watching “The Children’s War”. 

If six years ago children in Uganda would have feared the hell of being part of the LRA, a well documented reality already, today the real invisible children are those suffering from "Nodding Disease". Over 4000 children are victims of this incurable debilitating condition. It’s a neurological disease that has baffled world scientists and attacks mainly children from the most war affected districts of Kitgum, Pader and Gulu. 

Human Rights Watch reports are an excellent source if you want to investigate this matter further.  

[This is just in: Invisible Children has answered some of the questions raised by the critics of the group. I wasn’t entirely convinced, but maybe you will. It is fairly comprehensive.]

Putin Wins despite protests

Even as activists and election monitors/observers are claiming fraud (or the more lighter term ‘skewed’), it is now certain that Vladimir Putin will return to the presidency. He served two-four year terms as president between 2000-2008, and has served as the prime minister since then. Now, much to the embarrassment of the current one-term president Medvedev, he is poised to return to the presidency for another four year term (and possibly another one after that).

Even though the elections may have been unfair, the main opposition candidate has called it legitimate. Putin was sure to win because there was no viable opposition. However, people are already questioning if this election victory is the "beginning of the end for Putin", as The Economist put it. 

Here are two interesting long reads on the topic. 

David Remnick of the New Yorker wrote in December about the protests against Putin that were “unprecedented”, of a size that had not been seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "The Civil Archipelago" looks at the history of dissent in Russia, with a particular focus on protests against Putin. The article tells the story of several brave dissidents (some of whom have been killed or imprisoned) who continue to fight against Putin. 

Perhaps the most prominent opponent of Putin is the billionaire businessman Khodorkovsky, currently serving time. Masha Gessen, author of the just published book "The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin", writes an article in the Vanity Fair which charts the rivalry between these two towering personalities in Russian everyday life. in "The Wrath of Putin", she writes admiringly about Khodorkovsy (even while accepting that the way he got rich might not be totally legit). Nevertheless, she admires his idealism. It is a story of pragmatism (and political expediency) pitted against idealism, and guess who loses - idealism. But perhaps victory is still at hand for idealism. 

The Syrian Implosion

It started when a few schoolchildren scribbled anti-government graffiti on the walls of their town. What followed was more than six thousand deaths (a conservative number) and now what can only be called a civil war. In recent weeks, many journalists have been killed or injured, including a noted war correspondent Mary Colvin. It is difficult to get a picture of what is really happening in Syria. Thus, it is welcome news that New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson provides this in-depth report on Syria (now released from the pay-wall).

Throughout the region, nations took sides based on religion; the Shiite-led governments in Iraq and Iran supported Assad, while Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey insisted that he leave office. It is, for many, a proxy conflict. Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunni minority, who a few years ago received Syrian assistance for an insurgency against the U.S. military, have raised funds for the rebels and sent them weapons. The Arab League, fearing an enormous conflict, suspended Syria from membership in November and later called on Assad to step down.

This March 15 will mark the first anniversary of the beginning of the protests against Bashar al-Assad, when in 2011 Syrian protesters took to the streets on the “Day of Dignity”, a part of the larger Arab Spring wave. 

This is not your simple machine-gun fire repression. As these satellite images show, Syria is preparing for an all-out war against its own citizens. 

On a parting note, listen to this powerful protests song. It was apparently written by a truck driver and sung by one of the most popular singers in Syria. The singer, Ibrahim Qashoush, was murdered - some say the day after this video was filmed. 

Women, War and Peace

We have by now seen two of the episodes of this remarkable documentary series in the International Human Rights class so I hardly need to state how well-made they are. And yet, how can one not share freebies!

I am sure many of us want to share these with other friends and people who are not taking this course this semester might also want to watch it. So I am posting links to all the five episodes of the PBS show here. They are available for free right now - but I have no idea for how long. In most cases, PBS stops free streaming after a week or two but in some exceptional cases (and I believe this may be one), they do let it stay free for a long time.

Regardless, if anyone donates to charities (it will help you taxes too!), do consider supporting PBS. It is one of the few (dare I say only) genuinely objective TV stations, it is for free, and it produces programs that others will never, given the profit incentives. Even though some love to scream about how government subsidizes PBS, government funding is the smallest source of its funds - it is mostly funded by donations from trusts, and as PBS will remind you in every of their program, “from generous viewers like you”. 

I quote verbatim from the PBS website for the short description of each of the five episodes. 

Ep.1 - I Came to Testify

The moving story of how a group of 16 women who had been imprisoned and raped by Serb-led forces in the Bosnian town of Foca broke history’s great silence – and stepped forward to take the witness stand in an international court of law.

Ep. 2 - Pray the Devil Back to Hell

The astonishing story of the Liberian women who took on the warlords and regime of dictator Charles Taylor in the midst of a brutal civil war.

Ep. 3 - Peace Unveiled

Three women in Afghanistan are risking their lives to make sure women’s rights don’t get traded away in peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Ep. 4 - The War We Are Living

In Cauca, a mountainous region in Colombia’s Pacific southwest, two extraordinary Afro-Colombian women are braving a violent struggle over their gold-rich lands.

Ep.5 - War Redefined

The capstone of Women, War & Peace challenges the conventional wisdom that war and peace are men’s domain through incisive interviews with leading thinkers, Secretaries of State and seasoned survivors of war and peace-making.

Enjoy and be inspired and encouraged by the shows. And spread the word!

Using Statistics for War Crimes

Haven’t been able to use your mathematics skills to fight for Human Rights? Fret not, a new field of using statistics to combat war crimes is picking pace. 

There was a big flaw in prosecuting war time criminals - it was based only on witness accounts. 

The choreography of a typical human rights investigation goes like this: Researchers interview victims and witnesses and write their report. The local media cover it — if they can. Then those accused dismiss it; you have nothing more than stories, it’s one word against another, the sources are biased, the evidence faked. And it goes away.

But in Milosevic’s trial at the Hague, an American statistician changed this. He confronted Milosevic not only with anecdotal evidence but numerical ones. He showed patters, tested hypotheses and concluded that there was a direct correlation between displacement and massacres with the advance of the Serbian military. 

Ball’s story is of a dedicated Human Rights defender who once picked coffee in El Salvadaor and began developing a statistical database of atrocities committed there. His method were again used in Argentina (“the first modern truth commission) and quickly became a standard practice in human rights circles. 

As the article makes clear:

possessing an ocean of testimony is not the same as knowing the truth. No matter how many cases we learn of, they might not be representative of the whole. A truth commission might be scorned by a particular linguistic or ethnic group, which means its members don’t come forward to speak. Fewer media reports of killings might actually mean fewer killings — or it could mean that journalists were intimidated into silence. Human rights groups might record a decline in violence because budget cuts forced them to fire half their outreach team. Rape might never be disclosed. Video collected by cell phones tells us only what was witnessed by people with cell phones.”

The inspiration for the method came from a method developed to count wildlife. 

It’s a great read, this one. It talks about the challenges and the opportunities of using statistical methods, and its shortcoming. It takes examples from some of the most celebrated to most contentious truth commission. And it ends on a very optimistic note - how crowd-sourcing and technology will change human rights monitoring, possibly even interventions in places where abuses are taking place.

So people with both mathematical skills and a passion for human rights, take heart. Your moment has arrived. You may soon be as important as the persecutors in human rights abuse trials. Read "The Body Counter" in the Foreign Policy magazine here. 

"Africa’s Dirty Wars"

How warfare has changed in Africa

Another wonderful long read, this article traces the evolution of African wars. The article argues that most of these wars are not wars at all, their leaders are not ideologically oriented, and the so called armies are no armies. 

This is the story of conflict in Africa these days. What we are seeing is the decline of the classic wars by freedom fighters and the proliferation of something else—something wilder, messier, more predatory, and harder to define. The style of warfare has shifted dramatically since the liberation wars of the 1960s and 1970s (Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau), the cold-war wars of the 1980s (Angola, Mozambique), and the large-scale killings of the 1990s (Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Liberia). Today the continent is plagued by countless nasty little wars, which in many ways aren’t really wars at all. There are no front lines, no battlefields, no clear conflict zones, and no distinctions between combatants and civilians, which is why the kind of massacre that happened near Niangara is sadly common.

And despite good intentions, the international community is not helping. In fact, in a perverse way, it is exacerbating the human rights situation. The articles sites this chilling example:

In July 2010, several dozen armed men swept into a village near Walikale and gang-raped more than three hundred women, some as old as eighty. It later emerged that their leader, a young upstart named Sheka, wanted public attention before talks with the government began. His logic may have gone something like this: mass rape was clearly something that would get international attention, so attacking a village and raping three hundred women was an effective way to make himself more menacing and increase his chances of getting a higher position in the government army. 

But recently McKinsey, The Economist and other publications have been trumpeting the slogan “Africa Rising”. With growing business interest comes growing international concern. So, things may yet turn out well for much of Africa, but expect in large chunks of Africa to be mired in these small-scale, unmanageable mess of civil wars.

Read the full article from the New York Review of Books.

There is also a wonderful profile of the “Machine Gun Preacher” (as dubbed by Hollywood recently) and his beef with Joseph Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Vanity Fair here, for those who want to know more about this madman. 

"The Xinjiang Procedure": Harvesting Organs from Executed Prisoners

China is not only the world’s most populous country, it is also the country with the world’s highest number of executions. But executions done so that organs can be harvested? 

One brave journalist interviews many even braver defectors from China - mostly doctors or prison guards - and tells this harrowing story.

Every Uighur witness I approached over the course of two years—police, medical, and security personnel scattered across two continents—related compartmentalized fragments of information to me, often through halting translation. They acknowledged the risk to their careers, their families, and, in several cases, their lives. Their testimony reveals not just a procedure evolving to meet the lucrative medical demand for living organs, but the genesis of a wider atrocity

Now that there are renewed reports of unrest in China, particularly the Xinjiang province, this is a good time to look into what actually goes into the arrest of political prisoners, how they are selected for their organs, and how the whole process of organ harvesting works.

Read the full article in the Weekly Standard, and get your blood roiling with anger against injustice.