On Remembrance


Today is Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. Each year, it falls at a time when we’re also reminded of a litany of other horrors. Dates scattered throughout April and May mark the anniversaries of atrocities against Rwandans, Cambodians, Armenians, Ethiopians, and Sri Lankan Tamils.

For many, remembering the dead on these anniversaries is a ritual observance. Sometimes, it is public and state-sanctioned. News outlets around the world reported the striking images of Rwanda’s official reenactment of the genocide on the 20th anniversary in 2014. Elsewhere, commemoration is secretive and illicit. In the seven years since Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war ended, Tamils in the north have been forced to remember their dead quietly, in private, or risk arrest.

The very different circumstances surrounding remembrance in Rwanda and Sri Lanka are a reminder of the political stakes of commemorating past violence, particularly in deeply divided societies. Memorialization can signal a break with the past, legitimize a new regime, and provide comfort to the victims. But it can also reinscribe trauma, obscure history’s complexity, and polarize communities.

Over at the International Center for Transitional Justice’s website, some heavy hitters are debating this very issue. ICTJ asks: “Does collective remembrance of a troubled past impede reconciliation?

Repping Team “Yup, It Totally Does” is superstar writer and questioner-of-stuff-we-just-sort-of-assumed-was-good David Rieff. And for Team “No, Burying the Past Is Not an Option”, human rights lawyer and actual-for-reals UN Special Rapporteur on truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff.

In his opening argument, Rieff, who has a new book out called “In Praise of Forgetting“, suggests that commemoration’s “destructive potential” outweighs its usefulness. He sees more evidence that historical memory is cynically deployed to fuel violence, or simply ignored, than that it helps societies avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. (He also argues very convincingly in a recent Foreign Policy essay that memorialization can operate as a kind of kitsch, a stand-in for genuinely grappling with the horrors of history.)

De Greiff responds with a nuanced defense of transitional justice orthodoxy. Memory, he points out, isn’t optional. For the survivors of human rights abuses, the past is always present. And failing to acknowledge it “is an invitation to instrumentalize the past or leave us at the mercy of the fear”. He argues that the question should not be whether to remember, but how to ensure a full and fair accounting that will be resistant to exploitation. The challenge of course, is that the sort of capital “T” Truth that de Greiff envisages is often elusive in post-conflict societies, where everything is contested.

For my money, remembrance is necessary, but never wholly benign. And both of these arguments underscore the political work that historical memory performs in societies emerging from violence. Stay tuned for the rest of the debate…

Some International Justice Reading Material

It’s been a big couple of weeks for international criminal justice. Karadzic was convicted. Bemba was convicted. Ongwen’s case will proceed to trial. And most importantly, the ICC is FINALLY getting a new website. (This is huge news, because the current one looks like it was designed in 1994 before anyone quite knew what the internet was, which cannot be true because the ICC did not exist in 1994. But I digress.)

The actual worst website ever.

The actual worst website ever.

But what of it, you say. Are the billions (yes, billions) of dollars spent on these institutions and their websites yielding dividends for international peace and security?

The short answer is: We don’t really know. For the longer answer, here’s:

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.

Debating Global Human Rights

In case you missed it: openDemocracy is running is running a year-long forum on global rights, edited by James Ron and Leslie Vinjamuri.

The current topic under debate is “Emerging Powers and Human Rights.” Contributions so far address the role of China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey. Check it out, or submit your own thoughts to openglobalrights@opendemocracy.net.

While I Was Out…

While I was off making my semi-annual offering to the gods of poorly-attended-panel-presentations, the political science blogosphere got interested in the ICC.

Over at the Monkey Cage, IR O.G. Jim Fearon asks “How is the ICC supposed to work?

Taking on the ecstatic reaction to Bosco Ntaganda’s unexpected surrender last month, Fearon wonders whether this is truly a “victory for justice.” He identifies two possible reasons we might actually see perverse effects whereby the operation of the ICC could actually lead to increased human rights violations. The first is the classic argument espoused by Team Peace in the Peace vs. Justice debate: If you’re an atrocity committing potential ICC indictee, the possibility of facing accountability provides a profound disincentive against laying down your arms.

The second is what Fearon refers to as a liability limiting mechanism. He suggests that, all else equal, your ICC-indicted atrocity committer is in a better position than your unindicted atrocity committer, because if things start to go south, the former always has the option of an all expenses paid trip to The Hague.

This is an interesting argument, and one whose implications are worth teasing out. There are a couple of ways that The-Hague-as-escape-route could result in an increase in violations. We can think of them as mirror images to “general” and “specific” deterrence claims. (Note: This is the distinction between deterring potential future offenders vs. deterring future offenses by the individual being punished.)

First, in an exact reversal of arguments about the ICC’s possible “general deterrent” effect, the existence of the ICC might encourage potential perpetrators who wouldn’t otherwise commit atrocities to do so. In order for this to follow, some class of potential perpetrator would have to be interested in committing atrocities, but deterred by the risk of being killed in retaliation. These potential perpetrators would also have to be aware of the ICC and reasonably able to predict what will attract its attention, such that they could commit atrocities in a manner well-targeted to producing protective ICC warrants. This may be logically plausible for some marginal cases, but it seems practically improbable for many of the same reasons that a strong general deterrent effect is unlikely: ICC intervention is never certain, and is heavily constrained by both resource and political considerations.

The more likely scenario, and the one that I think Fearon likely has in mind, is something I’ve worried about for a while. For those specific perpetrators who have already attracted the attention of the ICC, the issuance of a warrant may operate as a license to kill. Once you know that you have the escape route to The Hague in place, whatever restraint was provided by the risk of suffering politically (including, but not limited to, retaliatory killing) for your actions will vanish. This raises the possibility that rather than producing specific deterrence, the ICC could in fact be producing the opposite (specific anti-deterrence?).

I agree with Fearon that the prospects for the ICC to directly deter the commission of mass atrocities are dim. However, this does not mean that the ICC cannot contribute to reducing the occurrence of these crimes through other mechanisms. For more on this, check out two other responses to Fearon’s post: Erik Voeten’s, suggesting that the ICC may encourage domestic level enforcement that will ultimately have the capacity to deter, especially in “countries where ‘mid-level’ human rights abuses occur,” and Heger, Aloyo, & Dutton’s, discussing their findings that ICC membership is correlated with significantly less torture.

How Not to Write About African Elections

From superstar journalist Jina Moore, a crib sheet for covering African elections:

“These days, nowhere are crises more predictable than in __________ (poor/recently violent country). And yet, when they unfold as anticipated, Western policymakers and diplomats always seem caught off guard — raising questions about the competence, willingness, and commitment of the ________(captial city)-based diplomatic corps and the United Nations mission to discharge their responsibilities.” 

“….Nothing underscores the apathy and inconsistency that characterize Western diplomacy in _____ more than the current impasse…The legitimacy crisis threatens to trigger another round of civil war in a country that has already __________ (short-phrase recap of how many people died there in recent memory, thereby justifying interest).” 

“The ____________[major INGO] cited serious irregularities, including the loss of _____ (electoral documents) in _______ (city/town/village), a _____ stronghold….. Meanwhile, according to ________ (INGO) multiple locations in _______ (another city/town/village), a bastion of __________ (current ruler) supporters, reported impossibly high rates of 99 to [over] 100 percent voter turnout, with all or nearly all votes going to the incumbent.” (Note: Some wisely fix this slightly lower than 99 percent; adjust as needed.) 

“….As grievances and disputes over electoral law arose, the CENI [independent electoral commission] failed to provide an adequate forum for dialogue with the opposition.” (Sorry, players, that one goes verbatim in every election post-game.) 

“…..The independence of these commissioners has been called into question as _____ has regularly shown bias against ______” 

“…..These same international actors remained silent about the allegations of fraud and irregularities, even as _________ (local/national orgs) denounced violence and abuses. Their silence has helped spawned (sic) a crisis that could have easily been averted.” 

“…. ________ (incumbent) waited nearly ___________ days(/hours) to hold a news conference and react to… _____________ (oppostion’s) rejection of the results.

Fill in the blanks and prepare to meet your filing deadline.

In Which CBlatts Accuses Us of Not Being Bloggers Anymore

Last week our favorite mommy blogger, Chris Blattman, took a break from posting the latest in baby gifts and engagement shoots to designate us a successor.

To which we reply (one week later, because, you know, people have sh*t to do):  Just because sometimes people maybe don’t post as often as they’d like to doesn’t mean they’re not still serious about blogging.

But while we’re on the subject…

Personally, we’ve been enjoying Chris’s regular updates about nannies, travel with infants, and how to get a baby to stop crying by bouncing on a yoga ball with her.  However, for those of you who miss the days before he curtailed his aid blogging to focus on such worldly pursuits as fatherhood, we’ve found a successor!  A little-known New York Times columnist named Nicholas Kristof has been filing some really fascinating dispatches from the developing world.

So, next time you’re jonesing for some real AidBlatting, but a post about little Amara’s first regression just isn’t doing the trick, head on over to On the Ground. (Gee, we wonder what a mention there can do for an economist’s career?)

"It Makes Sense, but Not Science"

That’s a quote from my mother (hi mom!), describing the phenomenon of causal explanations that seem intuitively correct, but upon scientific investigation, turn out to be wrong.

I’m bringing it up because Laura Seay at Texas in Africa has an excellent series of posts up on how social scientists think about evidence, causation, and uncertainty:

  1. how social scientists think: anecdotes aren’t evidence
  2. how social scientists think: what your driver says isn’t evidence
  3. how social scientists think: correlation is not causation
  4. how social scientists think: we’re not completely sure about much

She’s writing in an attempt to explain why social scientists and activists seem to produce such divergent assessments of the causes of conflict in places like the DRC and such contradictory prescriptions of what should be done to help. She argues that while academics are trained to think “in systematic ways that explain causal relationships between phenomena,” advocates “are trained to stir emotions and to draw personal connections between international events and Western students, consumers, and families.”

I don’t disagree that advocacy’s focus on awareness raising contributes to over-simplification of analysis (see Amanda and me not disagreeing here and here), however, I don’t think that’s what’s at the root of the difference in approach.

The kind of advocacy that Laura is talking about, even when not performed by human rights groups, is an outgrowth of the human rights movement. Yes, there are other philosophical sources for this type of activism, but the approach is heavily dependent on the methodology developed by human rights lawyers over the last half century. This methodology is characterized by meticulous documentation of violations of human rights laws, naming and shaming of perpetrators, and advocacy for (1) compliance with the laws, and (2) punishment of non-compliers.

Which is to say: lawyers don’t argue from evidence the way social scientists do. As Laura explains, social scientists are primarily concerned with using evidence to explain why certain events occurred and to predict future events. Lawyers use evidence to prove that certain events occurred and sometimes to prescribe or proscribe future action.

Consequently, lawyers (and those who employ their methodology) and social scientists are interested in patterns in evidence for very different reasons. When human rights researchers collect evidence, they are trying to provide enough support to legitimize a claim that serious violations are occurring. The goal is therefore quantity and reliability.

When social scientists collect evidence, they are trying to establish a causal story. As Laura explains, it is incredibly difficult to get from showing that two things happened to proving that one thing caused another thing. This means that they have to think about connections between pieces of evidence, and control for other potential explanations of the evidence they observe, that aren’t relevant for the lawyers’ approach.

Neither of these approaches is better than the other. The evidence-gathering methods of the human rights movement are extremely well suited to the strategy they were designed to support: advocacy for the cessation of violations of human rights laws.

The problem is that the strategies of some advocacy groups have outpaced their methodology. What Laura is highlighting is a move towards making recommendations that rely on causal claims that their evidence-gathering methods are not able to support.

(Stay tuned for my next mom-quote inspired post: “Not All Fruit Is Perfect, Just Eat It and Shut Up”)

Some More About Why We Don’t Think Mineral Regulation Is a Solution to the Conflict in the Eastern DRC

The vital question of our times “conflict minerals legislation: hot or not?” continues to divide the blogosphere.

Enough alleges that mean bloggers are misrepresenting their positions. TexasinAfrica responds, highlighting quotes from Enough’s reports and press documents that suggest that the aforementioned meanie-faces aren’t so much “misrepresenting” their positions as “reporting them accurately.”

TexasinAfrica also seconds Chris Blattman’s point about the need to consider unintended consequences: “What if victory on a high-profile, sexy, but ultimately limited issue keeps Congress from acting on the important things? If the price of victory is complacency, it is a price too dear.”

They both get a “yeah, what s/he said” (and a Lucky Charms red balloon to Blattman for his “This is Enough, after all, not Good Enough” quip) but our objections to this policy go further:

First, we’re just not sure that regulating Congolese “conflict minerals” passes the Love Actually Test. We find the evidence that minerals are driving the conflict unconvincing. Worse, we have not seen any good explanation of how this policy could be expected to have a negative impact on armed groups without having a much worse impact on the individual Congolese miners who are already struggling to survive amidst poverty, instability, and violence.

And second, we disagree that a campaign centered around conflict minerals is a good idea simply because it “resonates” with advocates and concerned consumers in the United States who “do not want their purchases to fund armed groups in Congo.”

Campaigns centered around telling the public that their yuppie-consumer-goods are full of rape and murder are, fundamentally, about disengagement, not engagement. This kind of advocacy tells consumers that the problem is their connection to the conflict via the minerals in their phones and iPods, and that the solution is to break that connection.

That’s not a recipe for ongoing engagement, it’s an invitation to withdraw further from an already-remote problem.