WTF Friday, 6/20/14

Welcome to this week’s WTF Friday, “Let’s All Demonize Refugees and Abused Children” edition.

The day started out promisingly. This morning, in honor of World Refugee Day, Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement:

“It is a time to honor the strength and resilience of refugees around the world and renew our determination to support them as they rebuild their lives and communities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees now counts the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons at 51 million. That number is staggering by any measure. It represents children, women, and men from Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and now Iraq, who face death, destruction, and dislocation.”

But refugees don’t just come from “Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and now Iraq.” They also come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. And many of them come to the United States, including, recently, thousands of children.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have “renewed our determination” to support those refugees. Vice President Biden is at this very moment meeting with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to clear up “confusion” over U.S. immigration policy in order to stem the flow of migrants fleeing the brutal violence that plagues those countries.

The confusion he’s referring to, as best as I can tell, is the optimistic belief that we would actually follow our obligations under U.S. and international law. (Namely, that we would not return refugees to countries where they would face persecution or torture, and would not deport children to situations where they would face abuse, human trafficking, or worse.) Nah, bro, apparently the plan is to “step up detention and deportation.”

And then we have the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who has just announced a hearing next week on the ways that child refugees and migrants are “gaming” the system. By which he literally means “applying for immigration relief via the processes set forth in U.S. law, and obtaining such relief if the relevant legal standards are met.” To wit:

“Unaccompanied alien minors are not subject to expedited removal under current law, and many – if not a majority – of them are eligible for immigration relief under current law.”

Following current law? Apocalypse, basically.

Memo to the executive and legislative branches: there is no “unless it’s, like, a little inconvenient” exception to the Refugee Convention. Sometimes refugee flows are burdensome, and that’s just the situation. Jordan is currently hosting more than half a million Syrian refugees in a nation of only 6.4 million people. I am sure they would prefer not to have that responsibility! But they do. Life isn’t fair.

And speaking of which, the numbers here are not actually that big. An estimated 52,000 children have come to the United States since October, which is the mass-refugee-flow equivalent of a goddamned hangnail. That’s not even enough kids to sell out a One Direction show. The Met Life stadium can handle 90,000 screaming Harry Styles fans per night, but I’m expected to believe that the entire rest of this great nation can’t take 52,000 kids over a six-month period?

So yeah, happy World Refugee Day, everyone.

WTF?

U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic: Um Whut?

On Friday morning, the AP ran a story about a leaked report from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, which had concluded that it was “too early to speak of genocide or ethnic cleansing” in CAR, but that other crimes against humanity had taken place.

The first part of that conclusion surprised me. In February, Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, testified before the Security Council that his agency had “effectively witnessed a ‘cleansing’ of the majority of the Muslim population in western CAR.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both also reported that Muslims are being driven from the country en masse. What had the Commission uncovered that led it to decide otherwise?

I’ve now read the leaked report, and I still haven’t the foggiest idea.

The section analyzing the allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing is exceptionally brief – less than a page long, much of which is taken up with a bullet-pointed list of the names of different genocidal crimes. It then dismisses the allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing in a single paragraph, without citing any law or specific sources:

“As has been stated above, the origins of the present armed conflict in CAR is rooted in the struggle for political power. The actions of the parties to the dispute as of present demonstrate the fact that the conflict is still in reality a political conflict. SELEKA a mainly Muslim movement on the 8th of May declared a de facto partition of CAR, setting up a military Council and claiming the right to administer exclusively three regions of CAR. The main parties to the conflict remain SELEKA and anti-BALAKA. The fact that there is an anti-Muslim propaganda from certain non-Muslim quarters does not mean that genocide is being planned or that there is any conspiracy to commit genocide or even a specific intent to commit genocide. The displacement of Muslims affected by whatever party so far is a matter of protection and the preservation of human life not a matter of ethnic cleansing.”

Quoi?

Let’s break this down. First, it should go without saying that it is thoroughly possible for genocide and ethnic cleansing to take place within the context of a “struggle for political power,” or during a “political conflict.” Indeed, it would be unusual for them not to. And second, while “the fact that there is an anti-Muslim propaganda” is of course not in and of itself enough to prove genocide or genocide-adjacent crimes, it’s not particularly comforting, either. Those facts are not a basis on which to conclude that genocide is not taking place, they are reasons to investigate whether it is taking place. (If only there could be some sort of U.N. Commission of Inquiry tasked with finding out what’s really going on. Someone should really get on that.)

And has the Commission mistaken “ethnic cleansing” for some sort of laundry-related procedure? How else can we explain a line that dismisses claims of ethnic cleansing … by basically describing ethnic cleansing? Forcibly clearing a target population from an area by threatening the lives and safety of its members is pretty much the first chapter from the ethnic cleanser’s handbook.

This conclusion also seems to be contradicted by facts contained elsewhere in the report. For instance, in describing the difficulties faced by foreign peacekeeping forces in CAR, the Commission notes that “the MISCA and SANGARIS forces have been subject of attacks especially from the anti-Balaka militia, the majority of whom seem keen to carry out an ethnic cleansing in CAR by driving out the population or worse by killing them which would amount to genocide.” If the anti-Balaka fighters expressed their intent to commit ethnic cleansing by “driving out the population,” and then proceeded to do just that, what does the Commission need to see in order to conclude that ethnic cleansing is taking place? Engraved invitations? (“Your local anti-Balaka cordially invites you and your family to be ethnically cleansed on Saturday, June the twenty-first, two thousand fourteen. Plus-ones encouraged. RSVP.”)

Is it possible that the Commission, after a thorough investigation, determined that the anti-Balaka were all talk, and the civilians who have been displaced were merely caught up in generalized violence that was not targeted towards specific groups? Yes. But if that’s what happened, the Commission should have explained as much in the report, so that observers – and the Security Council – could weigh the credibility of the report’s conclusions. That didn’t happen.

And is now a good moment to point out that the Commission limited its investigation to Bangui, and is thus not really in a position to make pronouncements about ethnic cleansings and genocides that may or may not be going on in the rest of the country? I understand that the security situation made it difficult for the investigators to travel to other parts of CAR, but am quite confused as to why they did not at least interview refugees in neighboring countries.

In the interest of fairness, I should note here that the report has not officially been released yet, so it is possible that the version I saw was merely a partially-completed draft, and not yet in its final form. That would certainly explain why it is a mere 26 pages long, 13 of which are taken up with a history of the conflict and a description of the difficulties the Commission faced in conducting its investigation. (Turns out there’s a war on!) However, the fact that the document was accompanied by a letter from Ban Ki Moon submitting it to the Security Council on May 27th suggests that it was the final version.

If that is the case, then I am tremendously disappointed. The Commission had a mandate to:

“investigate reports of violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law and abuses of human rights in the Central African Republic, by all parties since 1 January 2013 and to compile information, to help identify the perpetrators of such violations and abuses, point to their possible criminal responsibility and to help ensure that those responsible are held accountable.”

And yet, after six months of work from a team of six full-time investigators, the Commission appears to have produced a report that details little in the way of investigation, identifies perpetrators only in generalities, contains almost no documentation of specific violations or abuses, and provides no useful analysis that would ensure future accountability.

Not good enough, Commission of Inquiry. Do better.

WTF Friday, 6/6/2014

Good afternoon! Today is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, and also the 5th Anniversary of me getting married, so I think we can all agree that it’s an important occasion. And what better way to celebrate than by expressing outrage at this week’s WTF Friday? NO BETTER WAY, I say.

This week’s entry comes once again from India, which is basically devoting itself full-time to trolling this blog now.

And I must congratulate them on their success, because in a week that brought us news of peacekeepers implicated in torture and forced disappearances in the Central African Republic, and Yet Another Honor Crime in Pakistan, the BJP still managed to scrape into first place at the last minute with this gem:

“Within days of being elected to parliament, new MPs of the Bharatiya Janata Party have announced a campaign to drive illegal Bangladeshi migrants out of Assam.

“The campaign will be initiated by the youth wing of the party within next 15 days,” Kamakhya Prasad Tasa of the Jorhat constituency announced on Sunday. “In the first phase of the campaign, we will appeal to illegal immigrants to leave our land voluntarily in next 15 days. We will also launch a house-to-house campaign urging people not to engage the immigrants in any kind of work.”

Sending the youth wing of a party already associated with sectarian pogroms “house to house” in search of “illegal immigrants” and those who harbor them? What could possibly go wrong?

(Oh, and about those “illegal Bengladeshi migrants”? They are, of course, neither illegal nor migrants. Talk amongst yourselves.)

WTF Friday, 5/30/2014

Today’s WTF Friday comes to us from India, which has had yet another high-profile rape and murder. (If this keeps up, we’re going to have to introduce an “India: Land of Rape and Elephants” tag for the blog.)

The event itself was horrific: Two young girls from the Dalit caste, sisters aged 14 and 15, were found hanging from mango trees in a forest after being raped near Badaun, Uttar Pradesh.  But the circumstances surrounding the crime are what elevate it to true WTF status.

Circumstance the first: Police Involvement. Allegedly, one police constable was directly involved in the crime, while others at the local police station refused to lodge a report or investigate, even though the girls’ father reported the attack shortly after the girls were taken.  NOT GREAT, guys.

Circumstance the second: Rape as Retribution. The Times of India reported that the girls’ rape and murder may have been intended as retribution against their community, for daring to protest previous rapes committed by the same higher-caste assailants. The newspaper compared the violence to “the medieval times when feudal lords committed gory crimes to reaffirm their hold over the commoners.”  Hard to disagree.

Circumstance the third: Ugh, Politicians. Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav, mocked journalists for daring to ask questions about the attack. “Aren’t you safe? You’re not facing any danger, are you?” he reportedly replied to journalists in Lucknow. “Then why are you worried? What’s it to you?”  Which makes sense, of course, because journalists usually only report on issues that are, at that moment, posing a direct danger to them personally.* Way to show sensitivity and leadership during a time of crisis, dude.

WTF?

*On the other hand, if reporters did follow that rule, there might be more material like this discussion of whether Osama Bin Laden posed a threat to reporter Jim Rutenberg’s dog, (“[i]t was unclear whether Bush was referring to a specific and credible threat to Little Bear or merely indicating there was increased “chatter in the system” about chow chows in general”), which remains my favorite thing ever published by the Washington Post. So that’s something to consider.

WTF Friday, 5/23/2014

Ah, Britain.

That clammy island nation has given me so much: my husband, my first deep-fried Mars Bar, an unexpected quantity of master’s degrees. (Even, for a time, a job scaring tourists into unconsciousness. Youth!) But even though the UK and I are besties, I can’t give it a pass on this week’s bit of WTF-ery.

You see, it has come to my attention that UKIP gained more than 150 council seats in the local UK elections this week. According to the BBC, polls project that they would have taken 17% in a national election, if it were held today. That seems quite excessive.

“Why,” you ask, “what is a UKIP“?

That would be the UK Independence party, whose political platform is composed largely of xenophobic fear-mongering about “migrants” coming to the UK. Some highlights from their recent political escapades:

  • That time when UKIP distributed a flyer claiming that the EU was going to allow “29 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK,” a surprising claim given that the most recent World Bank statistics peg those countries’ entire populations at 7.3 million and 20.08 million, respectively. (In case you’re wondering, Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to Britain has not, in fact, turned out to be more than the total combined citizenry of both nations.)
  • That time when their party leader, Nigel Farage, told the Guardian that British people should “be wary of Romanians moving into their streets,” because of the immigrants’ “culture of criminality.”
  • That time when the UKIP MP candidate for Leicester South explained that he thought Islam was “morally flawed and degenerate,” and that “the increase of Islam in the UK is going to be a problem for the welfare state.”
  • That time when the UKIP candidate for East Sussex claimed that “The Second World Wide War was engineered by the Zionist jews and financed by the bankers to make the general public all over the world to feel so guilty and outraged by the Holocaust that a treaty would be signed to create the State of Israel as we know it today.”

Oh, okay then.

Seriously, British local-elections voters, WTF?

WTF Friday, 2/14/14

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!  I was going to put up a WTF Friday about this batshit insane story, but I thought that might spoil the mood. So instead, you get this gem:

“There has been chaos in the lower house of India’s parliament after an MP used pepper spray to disrupt proceedings.

[...]

Mr Rajagopal smashed a glass and used pepper spray on his colleagues when Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde tried to table the bill to create Telangana, which will be carved out of Andhra Pradesh state.

Some unconfirmed reports said another MP pulled out a knife. Several other MPs were reportedly involved in clashes with their opponents.

Mr Rajagopal told Indian media he had acted in self-defence after being attacked.”

State monopoly on violence, ur doin it wrong.

Towards a Unified Theory of Celebrity Activism (With Bonus Advice For Scarlett Johansson)

In the course of thinking far too much about celebrity activism, I have come to the conclusion that the most successful celebrity-activism projects are those in which stars pick their causes the same way that they pick their scripts.

Think about it: George Clooney’s work with The Enough Project might as well be the humanitarian remake of Ocean’s 11, with Prendergast as Brad Pitt, Prendergast’s hair as Matt Damon, and Don Cheadle as Don Cheadle. UN Goodwill Ambassadorships are the charitable equivalent of Oscar bait, projecting gravitas and award-worthiness, so is it any wonder that Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, and Naomi Watts have signed on? And Ben Affleck is primarily interested in projects that he can direct and star in, so it’s fitting that he struck out on his own to found the Eastern Congo Initiative.

There’s nothing surprising about this. Stars pick their film projects because they suit their skills and personalities, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pick their charities the same way. Indeed, an actor’s star power will be most helpful if the cause ties comfortably into the narrative of the star’s films, red-carpet appearance, love life, and vacations. (Angelina Jolie is the undisputed master of this, having now come full circle to make a film drawing on her advocacy work, instead of the other way around.) Things go less well when a celeb chooses a cause that is out of step with her actual interests (think Madonna’s ill-fated adventures in Malawi) or is famous for something that just doesn’t translate comfortably into a humanitarian cause (it didn’t take long for the subtext of Downton-era British imperialism to become the text of Elizabeth McGovern’s disastrous trip to Sierra Leone with World Vision).

Perhaps that’s a silver lining for Scarlett Johansson, who has been sacked as an Oxfam Global Ambassador after accepting a gig as a paid spokesperson for the controversial SodaStream. Oxfam is the equivalent of a quirky British rom-com. If it were a film, it would be Love Actually, or perhaps The Girl In the Cafe (And by “would be,” I of course mean “literally was,” given that the former featured Alan Rickman working in an anti-poverty organization that might as well have been called Londfam, the latter was – honest to god – a love story set amongst attempts to convince the G8 to alleviate African poverty.) Scarlett Johansson, it goes without saying, would have no business being in either of those movies.

So – assuming that her embrace of Sodastream has not rendered her a permanent pariah, ScarJo should choose a new NGO partner whose work fits more closely with her other projects. Her sweet spot is the sophisticated indie drama, and her most career-making roles – from Girl with a Pearl Earring to Her – are muses, characters who inspire those around them, rather than the character the story is about. (I would argue that Lost in Translation fits that same theory, but with a more meta twist, as it is a movie about how Sophia Coppola’s own experiences inspired her to make Lost in Translation, with Johansson in the Coppola role – Johansson’s fictional past Coppola as muse to the present real Coppola.) If she follows the theory I set out above, then her next charitable collaboration should tap into that same narrative.

My suggestion is PEN International, which promotes freedom of expression around the world. Making the world safer for writers to tell their stories is a solidly Scarlett Johansson role, and it could lend further gravitas to her status as the thinking man’s manic pixie dream girl. She should wait for the Sodastream thing to die down (or, you know, just stop shilling for a product that takes advantage of an undemocratic and oppressive occupation), and then have her people call PEN’s people.

If Scarlett’s lucky, maybe some day Sophia Coppola will make a movie about how Scarlett’s selfless work saved a young Chinese dissident from prison, and then inspired him to write his Nobel-prize-winning novel about space robots who collect animals’ dreams and redistribute them to humans.

That movie would probably star Zoe Kazan, though.

Activism Wednesday: Pussy Riot, Part 2

While I don’t intend Activist Wednesday to be all Pussy Riot, all the time, I think we can all agree that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s performance on the Colbert Report last night deserves to be featured on this blog.

Highlights include their views on leadership (“We have different ideas about a bright future, and we don’t want a shirtless man on a horse leading us into that future”); their ability to control their narrative (when Colbert joked that he was going to edit out any critical comments about Putin, they replied, without missing a beat, that they were making their own tape of the interview – and good luck confiscating it, because “we have two years of experience hiding things from searches”), and their thoughts on their own release from prison (“we don’t think it was a very successful PR stunt. Maybe Putin made a mistake, and should just throw us back in jail”).

Watch for yourself. Part One:

Part Two:

Activist(s) of the Week: Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Today’s Activists of the Week are Maria (Masha) Alyokhina and Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova, the recently-freed members of Pussy Riot who now advocate for prison reform in Russia.

Nature of activism: Currently focused on prison reform and prisoners’ rights in Russia, previously various protests in support of freedom of expression and civil and political rights

Activism highlights:

Participated in the 2007 “fuck for the heir Puppy bear” public-sex protest at the State Biology Museum in Moscow, while heavily pregnant (Tolokonnikova). As part of Pussy Riot, staged guerilla performances of punk protest songs, including the “punk prayer” performance in February 2012 that led to her arrest and imprisonment. Since their release, has advocated for prison reform and prisoners’ rights in Russia.

Notable Sacrifices: Imprisonment in Russian labor camps, where the living was decidedly not easy:

“Their high profile afforded some protection in prison—Alyokhina was not forced to work the extremely long hours of other inmates—but it also drew much unwanted attention. Prison authorities tried to ensure they were both isolated and scared; they threatened other inmates with retribution for associating with the women, whom they perceived as potential troublemakers, and rewarded them for harassing the Pussy Riot convicts. Alyokhina was threatened with bodily harm within days of landing in her dorm at a penal colony in the Urals in December 2012; she asked to be placed in protective solitary confinement.

Protective solitary differs from punitive solitary in name only — it is the same place, so cold that no amount of warm clothing can remove the chill. The fight for warmth is one of many battles for a semblance of physical comfort and human dignity that inmates face on a daily basis. Tolokonnikova and her lawyers battled the authorities for several long winter months before she was allowed to wear a warm kerchief instead of a chintz one; she fought a similar battle to wear warm boots in winter and light shoes in summer instead of the prison-issue shapeless plastic footwear, in which feet either freeze or swelter. The privilege of wearing what are known as “civilian” shoes was regularly revoked as punishment, not only for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova themselves but for other inmates, with the clear purpose of pitting the larger prison population against the activists.”

Got a nomination for the Activist of the Week? Email me!