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The New York Times ran a curious op-ed on the subject of Eritrea last week.

Titled “It’s Bad in Eritrea, but Not That Bad“, it suggests that the recent report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), finding evidence of crimes against humanity in Eritrea, is biased and inaccurate. The author, Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council, agrees that the situation is “frightful”, but calls the report “shoddy” and claims it “entrenches the skewed perspective long dominant in policy circles and the media in the West”.

Bruton has two main problems with the COI: First, that on the basis of incomplete information it over-interprets all human rights violations as evidence of systematic and top-down policy. And second, that its call to refer the alleged crimes to the International Criminal Court risks further isolating Eritrea and undermining prospects for reform.

While the latter point is laughably non-specific to the case of Eritrea (welcome to the peace vs. justice debate, round 73!), the former sounds like a reasonable concern. Indeed, distinguishing human rights abuses that are directed vs. tolerated can be challenging. And like many commissions investigating uncooperative regimes, this one made its findings on the basis of diaspora testimony, without doing any on the ground research.

But the role of a COI is not to make a legal determination of guilt. It’s simply to establish whether there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that serious violations of human rights have occurred. And the standard for crimes against humanity is whether the abuses are widespread OR systematic. The fact that the COI found evidence of widespread, serious human rights violations is, on its own, enough to justify its conclusion that there are reasonable grounds to believe crimes against humanity have been committed, and should be investigated.

Bruton makes another point in criticism of the COI, though, which gets to the heart of why the report is so controversial. Namely, that while Eritrea faces censure from the international community, neighboring Ethiopia escapes criticism for similar behavior. It’s clear from the online response to the report that pro-regime Eritreans feel this disparity keenly.

Human rights abuses in Ethiopia should undoubtedly receive more attention, but this is hardly an argument for giving Eritrea a pass. According to one estimate, between 2012 and 2015, 1 in 50 Eritreans fled their homeland for asylum in Europe. That’s a remarkably high proportion, indicating that perhaps things ARE #ThatBadInEritrea.

Sahar Gul Update: NYT Public Editor Responds, Agrees with Us

Today I got the following letter from Art “Truth Vigilante” Brisbane, the NYT’s public editor:

Thanks for your message about Graham Bowley’s coverage of Sahar Gul, the young Afghan girl. I am concerned about the girl’s privacy as well and have raised the question with the Foreign Desk. I do concur that news organizations should be careful to respect the privacy of crime victims. This is a case where, I believe, the benefits of doing a story were outweighed by the potential harm to the girl.
Art Brisbane
public editor

 So that’s nice.

Kibitzing the New York Times

Alert reader Sacha Guney sent in this New York Times article on the discovery, in an Iraqi junkyard, of 400 pages of records of the Marines’ internal investigation of the 2005 Haditha massacre.

As Sacha points out, the reporting’s a little… weird. For an article about the clear commission of an atrocity, there’s shockingly little reference to any concept of individual criminal responsibility. Instead, we get a story about the negative mental health consequences of combat. Specifically:

“Others became so desensitized and inured to the killing that they fired on Iraqi civilians deliberately while their fellow soldiers snapped pictures, and were court-martialed.”

I don’t doubt that war is hell, or that American soldiers in Iraq were indeed under “extraordinary strain”, but another way to write that sentence would have been: “Others were mass-murdering psychopaths.” But you know, you say “potato”…

So I’m ultimately unsure what to make of this piece. It’s clearly not intended as an apologia for the commission of mass atrocity, and it offers an illuminating exposition of the conditions that made “use force first and ask questions later” feel like the only possible approach to the civilian population.

But, imagine this story were about an African army, or really any other military in the world. Is there any way it doesn’t involve the phrase “war crimes”?

WTF Friday, 8/5/11

Some things never change. A Shinawatra is the prime minister of Thailand and apparently (at least in NYT-world) “plebeian” is still a word people use.

Robert Mugabe not exactly getting good publicity over the past week.

With a move to limit private television and radio, the Bolivian government will have just about “nothing left to take over,” according to political economist, Carlos Toranzo. You’d be surprised what they can nationalize nowadays…

Today in Things That Aren’t True

An article in today’s New York Times suggests that efforts to find an exit for Colonel Gaddafi are “complicated by the likelihood that he would be indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988, and atrocities inside Libya.”

This is pretty epically incorrect.

Gaddafi may well face charges at the ICC for his regime’s violent response to the protests that sparked the current civil war, but he will most certainly not be charged for the bombing of Pan Am 103.  The ICC has jurisdiction only over events that occurred after the entry into force of the treaty establishing the court (the Rome Statute), which took place on July 1, 2002.  The 1988 Lockerbie bombing is decidedly not subject to the court’s jurisdiction.

Any atrocities committed by Gaddafi in Libya between July 1, 2002 and the current crisis are also unlikely to be the subject of an ICC warrant.  Libya is not a signatory of the Rome Statute and has therefore not accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory.  Consequently, the only way for regime crimes to be tried at the ICC is if the Security Council refers them to the court. Security Council resolution 1970 did just that, but it explicitly limited the scope of the referral to “the situation in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya since 15 February 2011.”

So, five demerits for you, New York Times.

WTF Friday, 9/24/2010

This is the original version of an NYT article that they later tried to edit. Part conflict journalism, part travel guide: “Another witness, Fartun Abdi, reported recognizing the body of a civilian boy she knew as well as those of three government soldiers lying in alleys of Mogadishu’s Ceel Hindi neighborhood, famous for its cactus trees.”

Looks like a raucous time down at the Chavez rallies. Sounds like the crowd must have got super juiced when the Prez “started bouncing up and down while swinging his arms like a boxer and said: ‘We’re going to give them a beating.'” At least I know silly sports metaphors are not exclusive to American politics.

“Former Liberian warlord Prince Johnson has told the BBC there is no reason he cannot stand in the country’s presidential elections next year.” Really? No reason? Look I’m not pretending all politicians are saints, but when you film yourself cutting off a dude’s ear, haven’t you kind of made your bed? Then again, he is currently an elected senator…


The bomb blasts in Kampala the other night blew out one of the main cables that brings us our Webbernetz, so I’ve had very limited access the last day or two. (Thankfully, I am fine, and my friends are all fine. The city is tense.) But I did manage to load the NYTimes op-ed by Dave Eggers and John Prendergast on southern Sudan just now.

I certainly agree with the message that the U.S. should remain engaged in the referendum process there. A couple of things caught my eye though:

“In the clear, simple and eminently enforceable peace agreement, South Sudan was granted three crucial things…”

Clear and simple, eh? The Comprehensive Peace Agreement is over 250 pages long, contains a 6 page list of abbreviations for the actors and documents it references, and comprises 6 separate protocols.
As for “eminently enforceable,” well, the story of getting Khartoum to do things has been one of finding the right carrots, not applying threatening sticks. The “[w]e have no leverage” quote from Special Envoy Gration alludes to this fact. It’s possible the U.S. will find the right set of incentives to convince the regime that holding the referendum is in its interests, but if not, it’s not clear that any of the “threatened pressures” proposed by Eggers and Prendergast would be effective.

And then there’s this:

“The peace in Sudan is one the United States ‘owns.'”

No. Just no. This strikes me as indicative of a type of activism that, in an effort to spark and sustain American interest, overemphasizes U.S. relevance to the situation, and obscures the importance of local actors. (See, e.g., the recent LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act.) I’m not a fan.

Pissed Off By Kristof

Sorry about the light posting lately, folks. My day job is taking up a ton of mental energy these days, as are my attempts to arrange a new day job for when this one ends in September.

I think Nicholas Kristof definitely missed me, because two days ago he dangled this irresistible Amanda-bait on the NY Times Op-Ed page:

There’s an ugly secret of global poverty, one rarely acknowledged by aid groups or U.N. reports. It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous:

It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

In a pleasing turn of events, Mr. Kristof actually has a legitimate source to cite for this, in addition to his usual anecdotes and photos of Miserable African Children. Well, sort of:

Two M.I.T. economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, found that the world’s poor typically spend about 2 percent of their income educating their children, and often larger percentages on alcohol and tobacco: 4 percent in rural Papua New Guinea, 6 percent in Indonesia, 8 percent in Mexico. The indigent also spend significant sums on soft drinks, prostitution and extravagant festivals.

File this one under “things that make you go ‘hmmm.'” For one thing, Duflo & Banerjee say exactly nothing about spending on prostitution in their article, which makes the last line of that paragraph extremely misleading. (They don’t specifically discuss soft drinks, either, but do spend a while discussing sugar and other empty calories, so I suppose I can give him a pass on that.)

And while you’re at it, file it under “RYFSM,” too. (That would be “Read Your Fucking Source Material.”) Kristof seems to have done some awfully targeted reading of the article in question. While it is true that Duflo and Banerjee did find that the poor in many countries spent significant sums on alcohol and tobacco, this is in fact what they had to say about spending on education:

The extremely poor spend very little on education. The expenditure on education generally hovers around 2 percent of household budgets: higher in Pakistan (3 percent), Indonesia (6 percent), and Cote d’Ivoire (6 percent), but much lower in Guatemala (0.1 percent), and South Africa (0.8 percent). […] This low level of expenditure on education is not because the children are out of school. In 12 of the 13 countries in our sample, with the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, at least 50 percent of both boys and girls aged 7 to 12 in extremely poor households are in school. In about half the countries, the proportion enrolled is greater than 75 percent among girls, and more than 80 percent among boys.

The reason education spending is low is that children in poor households typically attend public schools or other schools that do not charge a fee. In countries where poor households spend more on education, it is typically because government schools have fees, as in Indonesia and Cote d’Ivoire. However, mounting evidence, reported below, suggests that public schools in these countries are often dysfunctional, which could explain why even very poor parents in Pakistan are pulling their children out of public schools and spending money to send them to private schools.

So, not so much the “ubiquitous problem” Kristof describes, then: most poor parents are sending their children to school, and the low education expenditure is at least partly a good sign, because it’s the result of free or heavily-subsidized primary education. Kristof is, presumably, in favor of that. Did he stop reading before he got to that paragraph, or what?

Moreover, as xpostfactoid notes, Duflo & Banerjee’s study didn’t include data from the Congo Republic, from whence Kristof draws this week’s Miserable African Child anecdotes. However, if one did want to draw an inference from the article’s findings, and if the schools there do all charge fees, as Kristof claims, then the more reasonable inference to draw would be that spending on primary education there is probably higher than the 2% average, and closer to the 6% observed in Cote D’Ivoire and Indonesia. (Not to mention that, if the schools were charging fees when they were supposed to be free, then they were either (a) corrupt, (b) critically under-resourced, or (c) all of the above. None of which are necessarily a good sign with regard to the quality of education on offer there.)

In fact, far from concluding that an exchange of spending on food for spending on education would “transform” children’s prospects, Duflo & Banerjee are hardly complimentary about the education available to poor children:

The low quality of teaching in public schools has clear effect on learning levels as well. In India, despite the fact that 93.4 percent of children ages 6–14 are enrolled in schools (75 percent of them in government schools), a recent nationwide survey found that 34.9 percent of the children age 7 to 14 cannot read a simple paragraph at second-grade level (Pratham, 2006). Moreover, 41.1 percent cannot do subtraction, and 65.5 percent cannot do division. Even among children in grades six to eight in government schools, 22 percent cannot read a second-grade text.

In countries where the public provision of education and health services is particularly low, private providers have stepped in. In the parts of India where public school teacher absenteeism is the highest, the fraction of rural children attending private schools is also the highest (Chaudhury, Hammer, Kremer, Muralidharan, and Rogers, 2005). However, these private schools are less than ideal: they have lower teacher absenteeism than the public schools in the same village, but their teachers are significantly less qualified in the sense of having a formal teaching degree.

And, in considering why the poor don’t seek out better education for their children:

One reason is that poor parents, who may often be illiterate themselves, may have a hard time recognizing that their children are not learning much. Poor parents in Eastern Uttar Pradesh in India have limited success in predicting whether their school-age children can read (Banerjee et al., 2006). Moreover, how can parents be confident that a private school would offer a better education, given that the teacher there is usually less qualified than the public school teachers? After all, researchers have only discovered this pattern in the last few years. As for putting pressure on the government, it is not clear that the average villager would know how to organize and do so.

Huh. I didn’t see anything in there about “maybe if they spent less on booze and hookers,” did you?

Kristof doesn’t spend much time imagining why people might want to spend money on things like alcohol or tobacco – or cell phone credit, which he mysteriously places in the same category. He clearly assumes that they are luxury items that ought to be cut from the budget. However, I’m not sure that’s reasonable. A cell phone might be a luxury here in New York, where residents have myriad other reliable communications systems to choose from. (USPS, land lines, FedEx, Interwebs…) But without knowing why the people he interviewed spend that much on credit each month, I can’t begin to speculate about whether it should be considered a luxury, a necessity, or somewhere in between. Likewise, while alcohol and tobacco are not the healthiest of products, how can Kristof be sure that a dollar spent on beer is buying the beer, and not some less-tangible good, like the social standing in the community that comes of buying your friends a drink? And that kind of social standing isn’t necessarily a luxury item. Also from the Duflo & Banerjee article:

In principle, social networks can provide informal insurance. For example, Udry (1990) shows that poor villagers in Nigeria experience a dense network of loan exchanges: Over the course of one year, 75 percent of the households had made loans, 65 percent had borrowed money, and 50 percent had been both borrowers and lenders. Almost all of these loans took place between neighbors and relatives. Both the repayment schedule and the amount repaid were affected by both the lender’s and the borrower’s current economic conditions, underlining the role of these informal loans in providing insurance. Munshi and Rosenzweig (2005) argue that the same process happens in India through the jati or subcaste networks.

Gosh, I wonder if access to that sort of informal social insurance is affected by one’s relationships with others in the community. Like, perhaps, how often one socializes with others, possibly in contexts that involve buying the occasional beer or cigarette? Or how fully one participates in important festivals, “extravagant” or otherwise? Yeah, you’re right. Probably not.

And, finally: how is it acceptable to insist that poor people sacrifice the few small pleasures within their reach in order to comply with a random American journalist’s view of what is Really Important? That kind of supercilious morality seems to me to be a particularly judgmental form of cruelty. Color me unimpressed. (Texasinafrica too, apparently.)

WTF Friday 4/16/10

  • Several English football (soccer) clubs are participating in a series of PSAs called “FC Afrika” which are meant to spread awareness about things such as mosquito nets and staying in school. The clubs then create goal celebrations around these themes. The strangest is this one by Portsmouth FC, where the players celebrate by pretending to get blood drawn for an HIV test. Really? I feel like maybe they should have found another way to spread that particular awareness. Also, as stated by 101 Great Goals, it’s a mystery who FC Afrika actually are. But hey, no word describes how the West perceives Africa better than “mysterious.”
  • A drug cartel in Reynosa, Mexico uses Twitter to announce that a gigantic shootout will happen “tomorrow or Sunday.” Seriously? You’re trying to terrify people by saying that the “largest scheduled shootout in the history of Reynosa” is going down, but you’re not gonna commit to a date? (via Mother Jones)
  • I’m not sure if I’m more baffled by the fact that Shabab has outlawed school bells in the southern town of Jowhar for being “reminiscent of churches,” or the fact that when I checked (around 3:00 pm ET), this was the ONLY story in the NYT’s “Africa” section for April 15th. I would love to know what got cut in favor of this sure-fire headliner.
  • So apparently Zimbabwe is looking for a new executioner and is putting out ads to find one. The only requirement is a high school education. Gotta wonder what skills taught in Zimbabwean high schools could possibly be applicable to this position.

Kristof Responds: Why It’s Not Okay to Publish Rape Victims’ Names, Except When He Does It

Wow, guys! It’s almost like kicking up a huge fuss on the internet really works or something!

Mere hours after all of you emailed and called the NY Times public editor about the publication of a child rape victim’s name and photo in Kristof’s column, the man himself has written a post on his blog, explaining why what he did is okay. I’m very glad that he responded to these concerns, and so quickly, too. However, I feel like the substance of his response leaves something to be desired in the actually-making-sense department.

First off, we get an answer to Kate’s question: It is, in fact, still the policy of the New York Times not to publish the names of rape victims, and making exceptions to that policy “requires consultation with a senior editor.” Except perhaps “requires” is too strong a word. Because apparently Kristof didn’t do that, and yet somehow there it is: this little girl’s name and photograph, in the newspaper and on the internet. Funny story: when Kate and I wrote a Letter to the Editor a couple of years ago, responding to a different Kristof piece, the paper fact-checked and edited the daylights out of it. They made us verify the statistic we referenced, fought with us about commas, and laid down the law about what we could mention or link to. (Not this blog, for one thing. And that rule, we can’t help but notice, Kristof did manage to follow.) Perhaps some of those editing resources could be redirected to focus on the source material, rather than readers’ responses to it?

Anyway, Kristof’s thinking is that the debate comes down to this:

“On the one hand, it’s impossible to get rape on the agenda when the victims are anonymous. Human beings just aren’t hard-wired to feel compassion for classes of victims, but for individuals. […] So one challenge is that if we leave out names and faces, then there’s no outrage, and the rapes go on and on. We’ve seen that in Darfur and elsewhere.

On the other hand, rape victims are already often pariahs, and putting a name or face in print or on the web could make the stigmatization eternal. Where’s the humanitarianism in trying to prevent future rapes if the method risks causing anguish, isolation and life-long stigma to particular rape survivors?”

So, in Kristof’s view, we’ve got two options: (1) rape is not “on the agenda,” but a nine year old child is not put at greater risk of eternal stigmatization causing “anguish, isolation, and life-long stigma”; and (2) rape is “on the agenda,” and the elementary-school-aged rape victim gets to take one for the team.

Apparently, to decide which option to choose in a given case, Kristof employs a what he refers to as a “balancing test”: he begins with “consent of the woman, (and a guardian if she is a minor),” and then tries “to include the kind of details that give granularity without getting the person in trouble.” So, in the case of the girl in Sunday’s column, he apparently gave only the name of the nearest town to her, not the village where she actually lived — in addition to her full name, age, family members’ names, and photograph.

There are obviously a lot of things to say about that. Here are some of them:

  1. Rape, in the DRC and elsewhere, is, in fact, “on the agenda.” See, for instance, this NY Times article about a speech by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Goma, in which she unveiled a $17 million aid package targeted at ending sexual violence in eastern Congo. Mainstream media coverage? Check. High-level attention from the U.S. government? Check. Public statements? Check. Actual plan of action, complete with large amounts of cash? Check.
  2. The real problem is that we can increase awareness all we want, but we just don’t have a good way of turning “awareness” into “an actual solution to the problem.” I wish that were not the case. In the age of the internet, awareness is easy. Putting an end to sexual violence in eastern Congo, unfortunately, remains difficult.
  3. Given that that’s the case, is it reasonable to weigh “raising awareness” against a concrete risk to an actual child, who is too young to consent? (No.)
  4. And, on the issue of consent, I am not at all soothed by Kristof’s breezy reference to getting informed consent from a guardian, when children are concerned. That is not the same thing as an adult making the decision for themselves. Allowing a guardian to consent on a child’s behalf is preferable to relying on the child’s judgment alone, particularly in situations where there is a necessary tradeoff between risk and benefit. But here, Kristof offered no benefit to the child herself, and created a risk, through his own actions. The fact that her guardian consented does not absolve him of responsibility for that.
  5. As to it being okay to identify her, because “nobody in the area ever sees any newspaper or the Internet,” does he really want to work on the assumption that things will stay that way indefinitely? The NY Times puts its archives online, they’re easily searchable, and the material will stay available for the foreseeable future. While it may be true that no one in this little girl’s life reads Kristof’s column now, it seems to me that he’s making a pretty astonishing bet that the internet won’t arrive in her part of the world before enlightened cultural views about rape victims do. Because many places in the world now have internet, but we’re pretty much all still waiting for the enlightenment part.

(Oh, and also he said something about how humanitarians care too much about individuals, but reporters are too quick to publish, and somehow this was typefied by the example of AIDS testing, because humanitarians opposed mandatory testing? I don’t really understand what he’s getting at there, except that it seems like maybe he’s saying that humanitarians opposed mandatory testing for everyone, and journalists wanted to publish the results of everyone’s HIV tests? And apparently the humanitarians won, and that meant thousands of people died. I’m clearly missing something here.)