On Luvungi, and the Problem of Evidence in Advocacy

Amanda and I spent the second half of last week at a World Peace Foundation seminar on “Western Advocacy in Conflict.” It was lots of fun. (If your idea of fun involves assorted cheese cubes and extremely detailed discussions of human rights crises. Mine certainly does.)

One of the themes that we hit on repeatedly was the relationship of advocacy to evidence. Because we were discussing Kony 2012 and conflict minerals activism on Congo, this came up primarily in terms of advocacy campaigns that seminar participants felt had distorted or paid insufficient attention to evidence. But it’s a much bigger issue, and one I have been thinking about for a while.

In contexts where the source of human rights abuses is complicated or unclear, advocates must use evidence to demonstrate that their analysis of the cause of the violations is correct, and thereby justify their proposed policy recommendations. As I note in the post linked above, that’s a very different task from the one advocates confront when the source of human rights abuses is clear. In those cases, they collect evidence to document that violations have occurred, and marshal it in support of demands that the violative behavior stop.

The challenge advocates face in situations where it’s not obvious who is responsible for human rights abuses or what would be necessary to halt them is exacerbated by the fact that these are often also situations in which it is difficult to collect information. This problem is highlighted by a controversy about the 2010 mass rape incident in Luvungi currently playing out in the (virtual) pages of Foreign Policy.

In her article “What Happened in Luvungi? On rape and truth in Congo”, reporter Laura Heaton delves into the events at “ground zero of Congo’s rape epidemic.” The August 2010 rebel assault on villages near Luvungi in North Kivu became front page news of the UN’s failure to protect Congolese civilians. The International Medical Corps (IMC) team that arrived on August 6 reported a shocking number of rape victims among the survivors. Ultimately, the UN concluded that 387 women and girls had been raped over the course of the 4 day attack.

In her trips to the area to follow up on the recovery process, however, Laura found reasons to doubt the official account. Speaking with survivors, she had the uncomfortable feeling that “a psychological element seemed to be missing” and thought perhaps the women had been coached. A local healthcare provider told her he had only treated 6 rape victims in the immediate aftermath of the rebel incursion. He said that most of the people seen at the local clinic at the time were treated for disease or for injuries incurred fleeing the rebels, but their records were altered after IMC arrived.

Laura was unable to reconcile what she was being told with what the UN and humanitarian aid workers had reported. She wondered if the numbers had been intentionally inflated, either to draw attention and funds to Luvungi, or, potentially, to protect the identities of the true rape victims.

Responding to Laura’s article, two aid workers who were part of IMC’s team in Luvungi in August 2010 vigorously contest the allegation that IMC misrepresented these events. I spoke with one of the authors, Will Cragin, who said that when he arrived in Luvungi, “there had essentially been no patients seen since the beginning of the attacks” because of the distance to the clinic and insecurity in the area. He added that once there, IMC neither retroactively revised past patient logs, nor classified incoming patients who did not report rape as sexual violence victims.

Will also thought it unlikely that the community colluded in deceiving the humanitarian workers and UN investigators in order to net media attention and aid money. He noted that ICRC and Heal Africa continue to provide psychosocial services in the community and that it’s “hard to believe that [these] women would carry on this story for so long.”

I am in no position to assess the truth of what happened in Luvungi, but the alternate narratives, each supported by eyewitness accounts, underscore what is so difficult about advocacy in complex conflict situations.

If we accept the evidence that the Luvungi numbers were inflated, we’re likely to classify this episode as emblematic of the negative effects of characterizing Congo as a place primarily defined by rape. I’ve written about this before, and share the concerns Laura identifies about the incentive structure created by a disproportionate focus on sexual violence.

But as Will and his coauthor, Micah Williams, point out, rape is a vastly underreported crime in Congo (as it is elsewhere), and “current funding remains woefully inadequate.” If we take the official Luvungi numbers at face value, we might think instead that this is one more piece of evidence that eastern Congo is in the throes of a rape epidemic in desperate need of increased international attention.

The policy prescriptions indicated by these competing interpretations of evidence are starkly different: less focus on sexual violence initiatives or more. Reason enough to be careful about what we think we know, and how we know it.

 

 

WTF Wednesday, 12/19/2012

I’m headed out of town for the holidays tomorrow, so here’s a supersize dose of absurdity to tide you over until 2013:

  • Apparently half of Africa fell for a spoof article reporting Mike Tyson’s sex change surgery and subsequent adoption of the name “Michelle.” Because excessive lactation totally seems like a plausible explanation for the 1996 loss to Holyfield… (h/t Ben in Lusaka)
  • The Teletubbies will begin airing in Burma in January. Call me crazy, but this does not seem like a great way to incentivize other authoritarian regimes to liberalize.
  • Current longest-serving-African-dictator Teodor Obiang is building a shiny new capital city deep in the jungles of Equatorial Guinea, where he won’t have to worry about sea invasions. (But he will have a 6-lane highway and a golf course.) The government plans to drag approximately 1/3 of EG’s 700,000 inhabitants along with it when it moves into Oyala in 2020.

Why the Ngudjolo Acquittal Is Not Necessarily Bad News for the ICC

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about yesterday’s acquittal of Congolese rebel leader Mathieu Ngudjolo.

OSJI’s Eric Witte describes the verdict as a “worrying signal about the quality of ICC prosecutions,” while human rights groups suggest that the court has failed to provide justice to Congolese victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

These reactions are undoubtedly valid, but there’s a silver lining.

Courts have to do two things to establish their legitimacy. They must show that they can enforce accountability for unlawful behavior, and they must demonstrate their allegiance to the legal process rather than politics. That second criterion is a particular challenge for the International Criminal Court, a relatively new legal institution operating in a highly politicized context.

Yesterday’s acquittal shows that, although the ICC faces tremendous pressure to deliver convictions, it will not operate merely as a stamp on public consensus about a defendant’s guilt. If the prosecution failed to prove the charges against Ngudjolo beyond a reasonable doubt, then it is an important and positive development for international justice that the Trial Chamber declined to convict him.

WTF Friday, 5/18/2012

This week’s winner: Belgian Congo Pale Ale, apparently an actual thing. The brewer describes it as “[a] blend of old world traditions.” Right, a “secret Belgian yeast strain” and delicious old world traditions like forced labor and mass amputations. Yum. (h/t: @texasinafrica)

And the runner-up: More than 50% of the police officers in Greece voted for the neo-Nazi party in the May 6th elections. Always a good sign when most of your security sector is fascists…

Whither Bosco?

Yesterday’s internets were full of the news that Congolese President Joseph Kabila has finally stated publicly that Bosco Ntaganda should be arrested and tried for war crimes.

Ntaganda’s continued freedom, and prominent position as a general in the Congolese national army (FARDC), has been a thorn in the side of international justice advocates who want him to face trial on a 2006 ICC warrant. -Particularly for ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who has repeatedly called on the Congolese government and/or MONUSCO to arrest Ntaganda and surrender him to the ICC. However, regional actors have been reluctant to act on these demands due to their belief that Ntaganda’s cooperation is crucial to ensuring (relative) stability in the Kivus.

A statement by Kabila that Ntaganda should stand trial is therefore big news. Events over the last couple of weeks have suggested that Ntaganda’s grip on power may be slipping. If regional powers (specifically, the Rwandan government) no longer think his cooperation is necessary for peace in the Kivus, then he may indeed be vulnerable to arrest. However, as Jason Stearns points out, it’s not clear what Kabila actually said. Although Western media are reporting it as a call for Ntaganda’s immediate capture, it may simply have been a statement that he “could be arrested by Congolese officials when the moment is right.”

Whether or not Ntaganda ends up in the dock, these developments have set off a new round of the perennial peace vs. justice debate. For advocates of justice, Ntaganda’s ability to live freely among the victims of CNDP atrocities is a clear case of unacceptable impunity. For those on the other side of the debate, his freedom is simply the price of preventing future atrocities.

A number of people, concerned about the risk of violence in the Kivus if Ntaganda gets nabbed, have asked what options the Prosecutor has for suspending the warrant. The answer is: none.

Unsurprisingly, the architecture of the international criminal law system skews heavily towards Team Justice in the peace vs. justice debate. Although the Rome Statue builds in some prosecutorial discretion regarding decisions about what cases to pursue – specifically, Article 53 allows the Prosecutor to decline to proceed with an investigation “there are substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve the interests of justice” – once a warrant is issued the Prosecutor has no ability to defer to political considerations. There are, however, two other legal mechanisms that can delay or prevent an ICC prosecution once a warrant has been issued. (And, of course, the political mechanism of everybody just looking the other way and not arresting the guy.)

The first is the Article 16 Security Council deferral procedure, which can delay an ICC prosecution for renewable 1 year periods. The implication of situating this mechanism within the Council’s Chapter VII powers is that it applies only when a prosecution represents a threat to the peace.

The second is the preemption of ICC prosecution by a domestic trial, which I’ve explained previously. (This one actually underscores how little power the Prosecutor has to defer to politics after the issuance of warrants. In the case of Saif al-Gaddafi, we’ve seen Moreno-Ocampo support Libya’s new government’s efforts to preempt the ICC prosecution, only to get slapped down by the Pre-Trial Chamber.)

Either of these mechanisms could potentially be utilized in the Ntaganda case, however, it’s not clear that they would actually help with the peace vs. justice conundrum.

The Security Council deferral mechanism only delays the process; it doesn’t lift the warrant, so whatever incentives a looming threat of prosecution creates to retain the ability to spoil peace would persist. And preempting ICC jurisdiction through a domestic proceeding would require the Congolese authorities to try Ntaganda under conditions that meet international fair trial standards (i.e. no indefinite detention, no secretive military tribunal). Such a process is therefore likely to be at least as disruptive to the peace as an ICC prosecution.

Given the other choices on the table, the selection (so far) of the “let him wander around Goma, profiting off of everything in sight” option starts to look a bit more understandable…

WTF Friday, 3/16/2012

This week in first world problems: “‘It’s not cheap like it used to be,’ laments Dale Weathington of Kolcraft, an American firm that uses contract manufacturers to make prams in southern China. Labour costs have surged by 20% a year for the past four years, he grumbles (emphasis mine).” This sounds like the curmudgeonest dude in history. Also I’m pretty sure he makes an imaginary product.

“Sixteen civilians [have] been killed in a shooting spree by a U.S. officer stationed in Afghanistan…The incident is the latest in a series of widely publicized self-inflicted setbacks for U.S. forces in recent months. In February, Qurans were mistakenly burned as garbage at a military base in Afghanistan, which led to deadly riots. In January, a video of U.S. forces urinating on Taliban corpses surfaced on the Internet.” Reaction from Newt Gingrich: “We’re not prepared to be ruthless enough.” Just so everybody has it straight, to Newt Gingrich, massacring civilians and pissing on corpses counts as not ruthless enough.

ICC celebrates its decennial with…a verdict!

WTF Friday, 12/16/11

As commenter “Tanuki Man” points out, this one is a little white man’s burden-y. I understand the frustration at the large amount of money spent by UN, EU, UK, etc. resulting in what seems to be a flawed election in DRC, but maybe that (as well as history) should tell you that democracy might take more than dough and trying hard. Advocating redirecting these funds toward health measures might make sense, but is that any less of a shrug?

Womp womp…

“A year after the self-immolation of a vegetable vendor in Tunisia sparked a political tidal wave across the Arab world, it’s hard to point to much positive change in the North African country. Unemployment remains high, Islamists won a plurality in elections, and women fight to wear the niqab in public.” Well, when you put it like that…

WTF Friday 12/9/11

“Columns of black smoke from burning tires rose over parts of this capital on Friday as Joseph Kabila, the incumbent president, was declared the official winner of Congo’s troubled election.” Apparently Charles Dickens weighed in over at the New York Times.

Forget all these bogus December holidays, this is my new favorite.

Twitter war between al-Shabab and the Kenyan military? Smh…

WTF Friday 12/2/11

Vladimir Putin appeals to voters and politicians to not “make politics a circus.” Yea, this guy.
I though this article was actually going to explain how Egyptian voters have figured a way to “boycott boycotts.” It did not. I even Googled “how to boycott a boycott.” Nada. Would it just be to vote? If anyone has a creative solution to this I’d love to hear it.

Not Live from the Great Lakes Policy Forum Conference on Congo Advocacy

Amanda and I were tragically absent from the second panel of the GLPF Congo Advocacy event, because we had Important Business to attend to elsewhere. Fortunately, Laura Seay and Daniel Solomon were both live-tweeting the proceedings, and some other members of the audience graciously shared their impressions with me as well.

Apparently, it was highly similar to yesterday’s panel along the dimensions of muffinlessness and derailment of the Q&A period by nonsensical rants. (Very disappointed to have missed what sounds like an epic intervention by a megalomaniacal anthropology student.) However, the heavy reliance on sausage-metaphors-of-questionable-taste was new, and, unlike yesterday, not all of this morning’s panelists were snappy dressers. -One may even have neglected to wash his hair.

While the themes of engagement with Kinshasa and paying more (any) attention to local voices carried through across both days, today’s panel got more directly into the “Conflict Mineral Advocacy: Friend or Foe” debate. Despite the presumably universal appeal of one panelist’s call for finding a way to improve transparency in the mining sector while limiting the costs to the affected population, a meeting of the minds did not occur. My sense is that this comes down to intractable disagreement on two points: (1) whether or not the violence in the Kivus has “economic roots”, and (2) whether the negative impacts of the de facto embargo can be attributed to Dodd-Franck (and therefore to conflict mineral advocacy).

So the conference probably didn’t move anyone off of their entrenched positions on the conflict mineral question. (I haven’t changed my mind, anyway.) However, important points got brought up that have been generally missing from the debate. For instance, yesterday’s money quote: “If it’s about U.S. consumers, please don’t call it a Congo strategy.” Additionally, several panelists raised the issue of how conflict framing by the international advocacy community can produce perverse incentives for local organizations and individuals. This is something I’ve wondered crankily about before, so it was useful to hear about the phenomenon from a more informed perspective.

And for my money, the most interesting point made over the two days was a comment by one of today’s panelists.  He observed that conflict mineral advocacy, by locating the causes of violence in private sector activity, limits itself to private-sector-focused solutions. Something to think about…