Stuff to Check Out

(1) The return of Mass Atrocity Mondays, now live at Justice in Conflict. This month’s atrocity is the 2005 Andijan Massacre, and I’m taking requests for future posts.

(2) Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski is giving a talk here at Stanford on Wednesday (details below). Word on the street(s of Palo Alto) is that this will be a major human rights policy speech. If you’re in the Bay Area, come join the excitement.

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PSA: The Return of Mass Atrocity Monday

Big(ish) news: I’ve joined Justice in Conflict as a regular contributor and I’m bringing Mass Atrocity Monday back. (The 2014 run is compiled here.) So stay tuned for brand new lesser-known atrocities the first Monday of every month.

If you can’t wait until next week for your fix, check out this Nature article reporting on archaeological evidence of a (technically pre-)historical atrocity near Lake Turkana in Kenya. The findings suggest that humans were already massacring each other 10,000 years ago, and critically, that warfare may predate the transition to settled agriculture.

Mass Atrocity Monday, 9/22/2014

Earlier this year, a commission of inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council issued a devastating report on human rights in North Korea. In addition to estimating that between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are currently being held in prison camps, the commission found credible evidence of a host of abuses, including:

“extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

It concluded that these violations of human rights in North Korea were so grave, widespread, and systematic that they amounted to crimes against humanity. This is important for two reasons. First, it confirms what most of us suspected: North Koreans are living a nightmare of surveillance, starvation, and brutal repression. And second, the violations of their rights constitute international crimes that can be prosecuted.

Unsurprisingly, the North Korean government views things a little differently. In a lengthy report released last week on the Korean Central News Agency’s website, the “DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies” laid out its views on “the Government’s efforts for protecting and promoting human rights, realities, obstacles to its efforts in ensuring human rights, and status of implementation of its international obligations”.

Both the report and the KCNA site are nearly impenetrable, but I’ve taken one for the team and waded through them so you don’t have to. Here’s what I learned:

  • “Korea has four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter.”
  • “[I]ts area should be measured by cubic meters, not square meters.” (?)
  • “[T]he DPRK maintains that human rights is state sovereignty.”
  • “The law and decision on abolishing the taxation system turned DPRK into a tax-free country for the first time in history and firmly guaranteed the realization of the historic cause of completely freeing the Korean people from tax burdens.”
  • “As far as the annual ‘Report on Human Rights’ by the U.S. State Department is concerned, it is a document of vicious political provocation, aimed at slandering and insulting the sovereign states with the ‘human rights standards’ based on the American value.”
  • “Members of the ‘COI’ are despicable human rights abusers bribed by the U.S. and its allies to distort the facts and deliberately tarnish the image of a sovereign state.”

There’s quite a bit more on how horrible the Japanese, South Koreans, and Americans all are, including some impressively shameless attacks on the U.S.’s incarceration rates and wire-tapping policies. I really don’t recommend reading it. But I do recommend reflecting on what it means that the North Koreans bothered to write it in the first place.

Because amidst the vitriol and over-use of scare quotes, there’s a careful catalogue of the human rights ostensibly guaranteed by North Korean law, and the institutions established to provide and enforce them. There’s also repeated reference to the requirements of international human rights law, and the importance of upholding them. We could dismiss this as lip service. After all, it’s clearly disingenuous and doesn’t correspond to improvement in human rights conditions on the ground. But the North Koreans know that a resolution on their human rights situation will likely come before the UN General Assembly this fall and have already made an unprecedented statement that they will consider the recent recommendations of the Human Rights Council. This report, despite its absurdity, is another baby step towards engagement.

Mass Atrocity Monday, 7/28/2014

No new content today, because I am en route to Congo, but if you want to catch up on any mass atrocities you might have missed:

Reading them all at once is not recommended.

Mass Atrocity Monday, 7/14/2014

Pop quiz time. To what internationally unlawful act did the phrase “crime of crimes” originally refer? Hint: It’s not genocide.

Did you guess genocide anyway?

That’s understandable. In mainstream media, human rights advocacy, and even some legal scholarship, genocide is generally treated as the absolute worst thing that humans can do to each other. But in fact, there is no hierarchy of international crimes and the term “genocide” implies nothing about the scale of a crime. To recap: genocide is the killing or (certain other types of) mistreatment of members of a national, ethnic, religious, or racial group with the intent of destroying that group, in whole or in part. So really, you could be convicted of genocide for forcibly sterilizing one Wiccan lady, if you intended to do likewise to the other members of her coven later on.

The mistaken impression that genocide is worse than other egregious violations of international law leads to a lot of unnecessary scrambling to get all atrocities designated as genocide. (This is exacerbated by another mistaken impression: that the obligation to “prevent and punish” contained in the 1948 Genocide Convention will compel the international community, deaf to the pleas of victims of mere crimes against humanity, to spring into action. So far, it hasn’t.) And the impulse to employ the term to describe truly massive mass killing events means that we’re frequently using it wrong.

The “Cambodian Genocide”, for instance, was probably not a genocide. Over a million Cambodians were killed by the lunatic Khmer Rouge regime’s program of forced relocation, torture, mass execution, and enslavement, but they weren’t killed with the intent of wiping out a national, racial, ethnic, or religious group. The Khmer Rouge may still have committed genocide, though, through their brutal treatment of the Cham and ethnic Vietnamese minorities. There is evidence that members of both of these groups were specifically targeted for slaughter, on the basis of their ethnic identity.

Admitting that the non-Cham, non-ethnic Vietnamese Cambodians weren’t the victims of genocide doesn’t make what happened to them any less horrific. And it doesn’t make those responsible for their deaths any less criminally culpable. In fact, the definition of the crime they were actually subjected to, crimes against humanity, implies exactly the sort of scale with which genocide is erroneously associated.

Crimes against humanity are “widespread” and/or “systematic” abuses of civilian populations. In other words: mass atrocities. But they still don’t earn the label “crime of crimes”. The original use of the term (in Justice Jackson’s opening statement at the Nuremberg Tribunal) was in reference to crimes against the peace, a.k.a. “aggression”, a.k.a. starting a war, a.k.a. that thing governments do all the time.


Mass Atrocity Monday, 6/30/2014

In an excellent Foreign Policy article on Western Sahara (seriously, go read it), David Conrad reports that Dallas-based Kosmos Energy has a Moroccan license to begin drilling for oil off of the disputed territory’s coast. A Kosmos senior VP told Conrad that the company believes “we are doing the right thing in partnering with Morocco”.

The Sahrawis (as the inhabitants of Western Sahara are known) have been fighting for their independence for more than 40 years, first against colonial power Spain, then against neighbors Morocco and Mauritania. Despite a 1975 opinion of the International Court of Justice finding that Western Sahara had no preexisting legal ties with either Morocco or Mauritania that would impede its right of self-determination, both countries’ forces entered the territory in 1976. Their arrival was heralded by a massive attack on the Sahrawi population.

With foreign troops advancing across their homeland, much of the civilian population of Western Sahara had fled to refugee camps in the desert. In January and February of 1976, the Moroccan Air Force targeted these camps, dropping napalm and white phosphorus bombs (both of which were subsequently banned for use against civilian targets in 1980). Thousands of refugees died in the bombings.

The Sahrawi military organization, the Polisario Front, responded with guerrilla attacks against Moroccan and Mauritanian targets. Mauritania withdrew from the conflict following a 1978 coup and ultimately extended formal recognition to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. But Morocco fought on through the 1980s, defending its claimed territory by constructing a series of walls (with a total length of over 2700 kilometers) to keep the Polisario out.


In 1991, an internationally brokered ceasefire put an end to active hostilities. The agreement provided for a UN peacekeeping mission and a referendum on Sahrawi independence. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) deployed in April 1991, but the referendum never happened. The initial plan to hold it in 1992 derailed over a dispute about who was eligible to vote. Five years later, a subsequent effort broke down when Morocco refused to accept the results of a census. UN special envoy James Baker finally resigned in frustration in 2004 following the failure of the parties to agree to a succession of “Baker Plans”. His successors in the position have not had better luck.

38 years after the departure of Spain, the population of Western Sahara still has not been given the chance to vote for independence. Morocco spends millions pre-empting international pressure to meet its international legal obligations. This money has paid off, with support from the U.S., the U.K., and France, the kingdom has repeatedly defeated efforts by the UN to add human rights monitoring to MINURSO’s mandate. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Sahrawis remain displaced in refugee camps and those who live in Moroccan-controlled territory face ongoing violations of their rights.


*Map of the Moroccan walls is from Wikipedia. (And yes, I realize it’s technically Wednesday, but I started this post two days ago, and Mass Atrocity Monday’s really more of a state of mind than an actual day, right?)

Mass Atrocity Monday, 6/16/2014

Sorry for the unannounced hiatus on these, everyone. A chapter of the aforementioned dissertation had to get written, but now we’ll be back on the usual, biweekly schedule.

I was all set to reach into the vault for another obscure instance of mass slaughter, but The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) saved me the trouble. The unexpected fall of Mosul to ISIS forces last week took the world by surprise. But as American pundits of dubious provenance blathered on about the potential risks and benefits of cooperation with Iran (which is not about to let Baghdad fall to Sunni militants without a fight), ISIS threw the news cycle a curveball.


Over the weekend the group posted graphic images on Twitter that appear to show the execution of large groups of unarmed men. ISIS claims to have killed 1,700 captured Iraqi soldiers. The photos were accompanied by jeering captions highlighting the Shiite identity of the victims.

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay pointed out in her statement today, the extrajudicial killing of noncombatants (including surrendered or captured soldiers) is a war crime. If the images and the claims are genuine, they indicate serious violations of international law.

But ISIS is clearly a-okay with generating a massive pile of prosecutable evidence. As J.M. Berger explains over at The Atlantic, the release of the photographs is part of a sophisticated social media and branding strategy.

Extensive social science research (I discuss a bunch of it here) shows that even the most brutal atrocities are not committed senselessly. Military organizations engage in war crimes to conquer territory, to undermine opposing forces, or to terrorize civilian populations. Disturbingly, ISIS’s publicization of these photographs suggests that they may also do it to drum up support and improve recruitment efforts.


(*That’s the ISIS flag up there. I’m not reposting the photos, because ugh.)

Mass Atrocity Monday, 5/12/2014

There are about a quarter of a million Hmong people living in the United States today. Most Americans – except the ones who’ve read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down – probably don’t know that they’re here. Even fewer know why.

In the 1950s-1970s, as the Vietnam War occupied international attention, a related conflict was occurring nearby: The Laotian Civil War. Like Vietnam, Laos became a proxy battlefield for the Cold War antagonists, with the communists ultimately emerging triumphant. But there was one important difference: The great powers’ role was covert.

The United States, heavily engaged in Laos’s civil war for the better part of two decades, referred to its operations there as “The Secret War“. The Hmong, fighting on the side of the Laotian government against the communist Pathet Lao insurgency, were crucial to the American agenda in the region. The CIA armed, recruited, and trained a secret army of Hmong fighters. By 1965, the US Air Force was providing direct air support to Hmong guerrilla forces fighting against both Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese.


U.S. forces left Laos in 1973, under the terms of the Paris Peace Accord. Two years later, the communists took power in Vientiane. This was a disaster for the Hmong, who became the targets of a genocidal campaign. The government announced that it would “wipe out” the entire group. Many were slaughtered, sent to brutal “reeducation camps”, or imprisoned and never seen again. In 1976, 1,000 Hmong fighters were evacuated to the U.S. and given asylum. Several years later, their families were allowed to join them. Many more fled into refugee camps in Thailand.

Others fled back into the hills, some determined to continue the fight. The government pursued them, assisted by its Vietnamese allies and had largely stamped out rebellion by the early 1980s. But the harassment of the Hmong continued. In 2007, Amnesty International reported that although the remnants of the Secret Army no longer posed a threat to the Lao government, they were “constantly pursued and attacked by the military”. Numerous reports allege the use of prohibited chemical weapons, although some of these claims are controversial.

Evidence of the fate of the Hmong is hard to come by. As Amnesty’s report made clear, these attacks are perpetrated against a population made extremely vulnerable by its lack of minimal contact with the outside world. But increasingly, information has begun to make its way out. The New York Times ran a front-page story in 2007 on a group of Hmong veterans still hiding in the jungle, who said that they had been attacked twice by the military within the last year. A 2008 documentary, “Hunted Like Animals“, combined refugee testimony with video evidence to tell a chilling story of a ruthless military assault on a beleaguered civilian population.

Estimates of the number of Hmong who have died at the hands of Lao security forces over the last 40 years range from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands. We may never know what the truth is.


*Photo is of the Hmong Memorial in Fresno, commemorating the fighters of the Secret War.

Mass Atrocity Monday, 4/28/2014

On April 17, prisoners held in Ward 350 of Tehran’s Evin Prison were brutally attacked by their guards. According to human rights organization FIDH, dozens were injured and more than 30 prisoners were sent to solitary confinement, where they were further abused.

Ward 350 holds political prisoners, and many of its residents were incarcerated for their participation in the 2009 Green Revolution. Families of the prisoners say that the attack was carried out by members of the Prison Special Guard accompanied by plainclothes thugs sent by the Intelligence Ministry. Officials claim that there was no violence, simply a “routine crackdown on illegal possession of cellphones“.


For 42 years, successive Iranian regimes have used Evin Prison to hold alleged enemies of the state. It is notorious in Iran, a byword for torture, rape, and forced confessions. But the persistent abuses, and even this month’s mass violence, pale beside what happened inside Evin and other Iranian prisons a quarter-century ago.

In late July 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning all imprisoned enemies of the revolution to death. He set up special commissions to carry out these executions, and instructed them to begin work immediately. As Geoffrey Robertson relates:

“[P]risons in Iran crammed with government opponents suddenly went into lockdown. All family visits were cancelled, televisions and radios switched off and newspapers discontinued; prisoners were kept in their cells, disallowed exercise or trips to the infirmary. The only permitted visitation was from a delegation, turbaned and bearded, which came in black government BMWs or by helicopter to outlying jails: a religious judge, a public prosecutor, and an intelligence chief.”

Over the next 5 months, at least 4,000 and possibly as many as 30,000 political prisoners were slaughtered on the say-so of these “death commissions”.

The first victims of the purge were members of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (alternately: the MEK, the PMOI, or the MKO), a leftist revolutionary organization that had split from the regime in 1981. Shortly before the killings, MEK forces had invaded western Iran from Iraq. Many in Iran felt that the prison massacres were retaliation for the unsuccessful attack, but evidence suggests that the regime had planned the executions the year before, when officials began “re-questioning and separating all political prisoners according to party affiliation and length of sentence”.

MEK prisoners were taken before the death commissions and asked a single question: “What is your political affiliation?” Anyone who answered “Mojahedin” was taken away and executed. Prisoners who gave the correct answer of “Monafeqin” (“hypocrites”, the regime’s term for the MEK) were asked a series of follow-up questions about their loyalty, including whether they would be willing to walk over land-mined fields. A wrong answer to any of these also led to execution and burial in an unmarked, mass grave.

Once the Mojahedin had been exterminated, the death commissions turned their attention to members of other left-wing groups. These prisoners faced a more involved interrogation, aimed at uncovering their religious beliefs. Those who were found to be apostates from Muslim families were executed. Others, including female leftists, were tortured until they agreed to pray. By November 1988, “the country’s political prisoners had either been executed or else flogged into submission by a regime which would think it safe to release them over the next few years“.

It was months before the families of the executed heard any news of them. When they were finally notified, they were not told where the bodies were buried, and were required to sign away their right to hold a funeral or memorial service. Officially, these deaths simply did not occur.

The 1988 prison massacre is remarkable not only for its scale, but for the success with which the Iranian regime managed to keep it hidden from the international community. One researcher, chronicling these events twenty years after the fact, noted that he had “found no more than ten or fifteen English-language news reports of the massacre and only a handful of book chapters addressing the topic”.

In 2007, victims’ groups founded the Iran Tribunal, to provide symbolic justice for the mass slaughter. In its final judgment last year, this people’s tribunal concluded that the execution of thousands of political prisoners constituted crimes against humanity for which (contra international legal precedent) the State of Iran could be held responsible. But despite the headlines generated by these proceedings, and the fact that human rights groups have continued to report on the massacre, Iran faces little resistance from the international community to its official policy of denial. And as long as the regime refuses to acknowledge this atrocity, thousands of families are left wondering where their loved ones are buried.

*photo of Evin Prison from Wikipedia.

Mass Atrocity Monday, 4/14/2014

Over the next four weeks, more than 800 million voters will go to the polls in India. It’s a landmark event in the world’s largest democracy, but global news coverage of the elections has focused almost entirely on the controversial candidacy of Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since 2001, Modi has served as the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. He had been in power for only five months when terrible ethnic violence broke out.

On February 27, 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims and activists stopped at Godhra in Gujarat. They were returning from Ayodhya, where construction of a Hindu temple was about to commence on the disputed site where a mob had destroyed the Babri Mosque 10 years previously. Their train pulled into the Godhra railway station at 7:43am. Less than an hour later, the train was on fire and 59 people were dead. Over the next three days, a deadly ethnic pogrom was unleashed against Muslims, who were believed to be responsible for the fire.

These are the facts everyone agrees on. Everything else is contested.

The train burning was immediately denounced by Modi and other Hindu leaders as a premeditated attack by a Muslim mob. Gujarati police alleged that members of the mob arrived armed with rags pre-soaked in oil. But journalists investigating at the time revealed a more complicated chain of events. As the Washington Post reported on March 6, 2002, Hindu activists on the train “carried on like hooligans” throughout the journey, harassing the other passengers and shouting anti-Muslim slogans. On arrival at Godhra, they refused to pay the Muslim tea and snack vendors. But the vendors were ready for them, and some boarded the train and pulled the emergency brake. Stalled in a Muslim neighborhood, the train drew a crowd that quickly turned violent, trading insults and hurled stones with those on board.

The source of the flames that took 59 lives remains a mystery. In the immediate aftermath, railway officials reported that members of the mob set fire to the train, but that the attack was “not preplanned”. An inquiry conducted by retired Supreme Court Judge Umesh Chandra Banerjee concluded in 2006 that the fire was the result of an accident. But a Gujarati commission empaneled in 2008 stuck to the initial story, finding that the burning of the train was the result of a “conspiracy”. In 2011, a local court sentenced eleven of the alleged conspirators to death.

Whatever the cause of the fire, its effects were clear. Hindu mobs rampaged in a frenzy of unchecked violence, egged on by government officials’ and local press’s scapegoating of the Muslim community. According to official estimates, 790 Muslims were killed in the following three days. Other sources suggest that the deaths numbered in the thousands. Horrific sexual attacks were systematically perpetrated against Muslim women, and businesses and homes were destroyed, and infants and children were burned alive.

As the violence unfolded, state security forces failed to intervene. One intelligence official described this as “a calculated decision by the state’s Hindu nationalist government”. As Human Rights Watch documented, calls to police, firemen, and even emergency medical services were met with the chilling response: “We have no orders to save you”. Other human rights groups reported that the security sector not only stood by as Muslim civilians were raped and murdered, but actively participated in the attacks.

Modi has escaped criminal charges for his role in the violence. But cases related the events of 2002 are still winding their way through the Indian courts, and the question of Modi’s complicity remains live. For the victims of the 2002 atrocities, the prospect of Narendra Modi as India’s next Prime Minister is surely a sick joke. And yet for many Indians, his success in promoting rapid economic development during his tenure in Gujarat outweighs the blood on his hands.


*For more info on the Gujarat violence, and Modi’s role, check out these extremely disturbing interviews with the perpetrators: