Taylor Defense Team in the House

As you may have heard from someone who is more diligent about their blogging than I am, Charles Taylor’s defense opened in The Hague yesterday. (For a refresher on the trial check out Human Rights USA’s handy backgrounder, and for up-to-the-minute news on what’s happening in the courtroom OSJI’s got it covered.)

In his opening statement, lead lawyer Courtenay Griffiths compared Taylor’s extradition to the Netherlands to the slave trade’s forced movement of Africans to Europe. (Because sometimes the race card just isn’t enough and you’ve got to play the whole deck.)

Things only got awesomer when Taylor took off his sunglasses and took the stand himself today, calling the prosecution malicious and pointing to his 14 children as evidence of his “love for humanity.” Ahem.

Former Taylor defense intern / Wronging-Rights-intrepid-girl-special-correspondent Jessica Feinstein notes that although the defense’s move to portray the prosecution as “extending the legacy of colonialism” may seem bizarre to Westerners, it is likely to play well to its target audience. She explains:

“Will some of the things Courtenay said alienate Americans and other Westerners? Very probably. Is that the audience he is trying to reach? No. The things he said ring true to a lot of West Africans, and that is the constituency which this court purportedly seeks to influence.”

So it looks like we can expect a whole bunch more showboating in the days ahead. Yay! If you want to join in the fun, check out the live feed of the trial here.

*Photo of Taylor from the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s website

Postscripts to Recent Stories…

Two quick updates:

  • As do most things in life, the Kenyan women’s sex strike has now devolved into litigation. The Daily Nation reports that one James Kimondo (husband of confirmed Kenyan woman Teressia Wanjiku) has sued the activists behind the boycott for compensation, alleging that as a direct result of their actions he “lost sleep and could not concentrate at work” and suffered a backache and “a foul mood.” Well then. Meanwhile, an op-ed in the Standard criticizes the organizers for failing to give enough advance notice of the strike for women to “start rationing before serving the total blackout.”
  • And in other news, Mia Farrow has been instructed by her doctors to break her hunger strike. After 12 days of refusing food in solidarity with the people of Darfur, Farrow has delegated fast duties to famous British person Richard Branson. Response from Darfur: “Sh*t, we can do that? I’ma get a sandwich. Eritrea, you’re up!”

Worst Idea Ever?

Via Chris Blattman, we learned that Invisible Children (brief background of the organization: 3 kids go to Africa, make movie about child soldiers, show it to every college student on the planet) has launched a new film and campaign: “Abduct Yourself to Free the Abducted.” Um.

Chris posts a letter he wrote to Invisible Children’s Mission Director explaining his discomfort with the project. He makes the point that their work is (a) kind of obsessed with glorifying the filmmakers, (b) based on a creepy, White Man’s Burden-y savior complex, and (c) taking up resources that could be occupied by “intelligent advocacy.”

We completely agree and offer this photo of the three founders of Invisible Children in support of the “who is this about anyway?” critique:

We also have a couple of related concerns:

First, organizations like Invisible Children not only take up resources that could be used to fund more intelligent advocacy, they take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more intelligent advocacy. And yeah, this may seem like an absurdly academic point to raise when talking about a problem that is clearly crying out for pragmatic solutions, but, uh, the way we define problems is important. Really, really important. Choosing to simplistically define Congolese women as “The Raped” and Ugandan children as “The Abducted” constrains our ability to think creatively about the problems they face, and work with them to combat these problems.

Second, treating their problems as one-dimensional issues that can be solved by a handful of plucky college students armed only with the strength of their convictions and a video camera doesn’t help anyone. These get back to something very simple and very smart that Alanna Shaikh wrote a few months ago:

“Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before.”

By the same token, any old awareness advocacy you dream up doesn’t necessarily constitute “helping.” And while we’re on the subject of what does and doesn’t help, maybe don’t get photographed fondling big (former) rebel guns. Just saying.

*Photo taken by photographer and total rockstar Glenna Gordon on the Sudan-Congo border in April 2008. Team not-so-invisible-children poses with the SPLA… and their weapons.

Hats and Hard Questions

Perhaps you’ve missed the recent aid-blog brawl over the value of Save Darfur, but man, it’s been intense. Gauntlets have been thrown down, then picked up, then thrown down again, and some gloves have even been slapped across some faces. We’re not really the sort to resist any affair that involves that many accessories, so it’s time for us to throw our hat in the ring. (And yes, the two of us share a hat.)

Last month, U.N. Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes gave an interview with Newsweek in which he was asked the sort of burning question that keeps us, but probably nobody else, up at night: Whether atrocity awareness activism (say that ten times fast!) groups like Save Darfur do “more harm than good.” Holmes responded:

“I do agree with that. When I moved to New York I remember seeing a poster in the subway which read: ‘Save Darfur—tens of thousands are dying each month’. That’s just not true. They are a bit misplaced but they do create a political context and that can be helpful.”

Change.org’s Humanitarian Relief blogger, the excellently middle-named Michael Bear Kleinman, picked up Holmes’s statement and ran with it, arguing that this type of activism has two key shortcomings: (1) that “saving” Darfur is not actually within the capability of the U.S. or Europe; and (2) that activists’ push for aggressive military, diplomatic, or judicial action often disregards the danger such interventions pose to civilians and aid workers.

Change.org’s neither-middle-nor-last-named Stop Genocide blogger Michelle responded in impassioned defense of this sort of advocacy organization, arguing that “the political will to end genocide and mass atrocity is not organic -it must be demanded.” She characterized the “crux of Holmes’ frustration” thusly:

“Khartoum tends not to react nicely to the demands for change levied by international advocates, and humanitarian workers and the people they serve often bear the brunt of the regime’s frustration. However, to blame advocates for this is misguided. The Save Darfur movement cannot be blamed for the fact that humanitarian aid has become another pawn in Khartoum’s genocidal game.”

The back-and-forth continues. The Enough Project‘s David Sullivan has joined in on Michelle’s side of the argument while Steve Bloomfield (notably, the journalist whose interview with Holmes got this whole hootenanny started) has posted in support of Kleinman on Things Seen and Heard.

There is an obvious conflict between providing humanitarian relief and putting political pressure on the actors responsible for humanitarian disasters. The latter can often have a disastrous effect on the former, as pointed out by Kleinman and acknowledged by Michelle. But it is all too rare that advocacy organizations like the Enough Project and Save Darfur will admit that.

It is, in fact, morally defensible to argue that it is worthwhile to sacrifice civilian lives in the short term to achieve a lasting peace that will save more people in the long term, but it’s a rare advocacy organization that is willing to engage in that kind of messy calculus. They can’t. College students are just never going to march on Washington to demand that thousands of innocent people be abandoned to their grisly fates in the interest of a lasting peace.

Seriously, can you imagine the protest signs and chants? “What do we want? A reasonable balancing of human security with progress towards respect for human rights and democracy! When do we want it? As soon as feasibly possible given the political realities of the situation!” Not bloody likely.

And this calculus is very messy: How many lives are we willing to sacrifice now for the uncertain prospect of peace later? Are all lives worth the same amount? Should we focus more on protecting aid workers than civilians, because if too many aid workers are killed, their organizations will pull out entirely?

And it only gets worse from there. In cases of ethnic cleansing, for instance, the fastest path to a “durable solution” may be programs that speed peacefully towards that terrible goal. Once the conflict area has been “cleansed” by safely transporting civilians to refugee camps located across borders or IDP camps in different parts of the country, hostilities will die down. (Mary Kaldor makes a pretty convincing argument that something along those lines happened in the former Yugoslavia.) Morally questionable? Of course. But worse than letting the cleansing happen through slaughter and mass rape? Tough call.

We would all like to believe that those choices don’t have to be made. We put our trust in talismans of advocacy -bans of diamond imports, a no-fly zone over Darfur, more peacekeeping troops- and in the belief that if only people knew, if only they were aware, then the atrocities would stop. If only enough righteous anger could be summoned, enough people clapping their hands and exclaiming “I DO believe in genocide!” then everything would be okay.

That advocacy story, however, fails to acknowledge that behind nearly every mass atrocity is a power struggle that won’t go away just because the international community is giving it mean looks. And it certainly fails to acknowledge that the easiest way to resolve power struggles is to let the stronger party win, even if they’re war crime committing jerks; and come to think of it, the weaker party probably isn’t such great guys either.

And unfortunately they’re also hell-bent on looking the other way and humming loudly when pragmatists point out that if meanest-takes-all isn’t an acceptable solution then we’re left with no workable alternatives. Because it turns out that rich countries aren’t good at counter-insurgency and U.N. peacekeepers aren’t good at much of anything.

So, uh, sorry Congolese rape victims, Ugandan child soldiers, Darfuri IDPs, but it looks like you’re on your own.

Or can any of our slightly less pessimistic colleagues give us a hand out of this one?

* Save Darfur logo via Save Darfur, of course.

For Serious, Prendergast?

Today’s edition of the Christian Science Monitor contains a piece by John “Befriending Celebrities Is Just PART of My Work” Prendergast advocating… wait for it… military intervention by Zimbabwe’s neighboring states to oust Mugabe from power.

He suggests that these countries have an incentive to intervene because “refugees, crime, and disease flow across their borders from Zimbabwe.” (That’s certainly how we’ve always thought of refugees: criminal, disease-ridden, and most of all, viscous.)

He also backs up his proposal with some precedent, citing, among other things, the fact that: “When Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko’s divide-and-conquer approach to government began creating security problems for neighbors, they supported rebel groups to overthrow him in 1997.”

Yes, that’s right, Prendergast just invoked the First Congo War as an example of successful interventionism. Because that ended so well for everyone

This Looks Like a Job for Mr. Pointy

In a continuation of Congo Week here at Wronging Rights, we bring you the shocking news that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is, in fact, on a hellmouth.

The news that Congo’s torment can be traced to vampiric activity was broken by no less an august reporting team than Academy Award winner Javier Bardem and Professional Doer-of-Good-Alongside-Celebrities-on-the-Dark-Continent John Prendergast. (Anyone else wonder if they have the same hair stylist?) They write:

“Because there is no rule of law in the Congolese war zone and no ethical code impacting the international supply and demand for these minerals, the result is that anything goes. In Congo, this means the vampires are in charge. Vampires take many forms in Congo. They are the militia leaders who control the mines, and who use mass rape as a means of intimidating local populations and driving people away from areas they want to control. Vampires also include some of the middlemen based in neighboring countries who arrange for the purchase and resale of Congo’s resources to international business interests, run by people who are often accomplices.”

Wow, everything makes so much more sense now that we know that it’s vampires at the root of all this trouble. Bardem and Prendergast advise that: “If there was a peace agreement involving the main armed groups, the use of sexual violence as a tool of war would end. If there was a cost for committing the kinds of atrocities that have become common in Congo, they would end.”

We have a better solution: Buffy the Motherf*cking Vampire Slayer. Word.

Hey Guys, Let’s Clean Out the Old Barn and Put On a Show About Brutal Rape!!

As we all know, the Congo is a terrible place, filled with rape and adverbs. When last we wrote on this topic, we reported that Congo Rape™ had finally reached the kind of success not even Mad Men can manage: it was given an HBO special of its very own. Complete with an “HBO Does Congo Rape™!” party guide to hosting one’s own Congo Rape™ themed soiree!

We hoped that, having achieved that kind of success, Congo Rape™ would take a break to focus on its Academy Awards campaign. Sadly, that has not come to pass. Congo Rape™ seems to be gunning for a sequel. It’s as if Congo Rape™ doesn’t even understand the kind of legitimacy that an Oscar could bring to its next project!

So now into the breach has stepped Eve “If my vagina could talk, it would criticize other vaginas for not spending enough time on third-world vanity press junkets” Ensler.

Apparently, Ms. Ensler has “spent the past ten years of [her] life in the rape mines of the world.” (Refining raw sexual assault ore into precious criminally culpable rape, one assumes.) She was inspired to come to the Congo because she had “never seen anything” like the rapes there. Ms. Ensler was especially impressed by the rapists’ sense of nuance, telling the Times that “the details are the scariest part.” Personally, we were more impressed by the rapes’ overall plot arc, but we suppose a professional like Ms. Ensler really appreciates the polish that “details” like the use of broken bottles and tree limbs can add to the overall tone of a rape. Off-Broadway rapes may be able to skate by on roofies and death threats, but a truly top-level rape production obviously needs that extra je ne sais quoi.

So, Ms. Ensler is doing what she does best: using uncomfortable performance art and cutesy t-shirts to Teach Lessons About Vaginas. The New York Times reports that she has founded a special program to teach women self defense and leadership skills. The women are turning their rapes into performance art, speaking out about what happened to them in graphic detail and awkward metaphors (“I was dinner.”) Audience members wear t-shirts emblazoned with the message, “I refuse to be raped.”

The Times fails to report whether the backs of the t-shirts say “Unlike that lazy slut, who was totally asking for it.”

Ensler plans to put together an “army” of rape survivors, who will “push with an urgency — that has so far been absent — for a solution to end Congo’s ceaseless wars.”

Finally, some urgency! There’s nothing more annoying than a country that has no gumption when it comes to protecting itself from years of the most brutal ground warfare the world has ever seen. Those Congolese people are just so darned complacent about their bodies and livelihoods being brutally attacked at regular intervals! They lack get-up-and-go, that’s their problem! Good thing the nice white lady has arrived to show ’em how it’s done.

And when they’re finished, just think what the army of rape survivors might be able to accomplish in other conflict situations! We picture an army of rape victims sweeping across Darfur arm in arm, scattering the Janjaweed before them like so many frightened pigeons.

Republicans Reap Benefits of Innovative Plan to Employ Incompetent Lawyers by Electing Them to Congress

We are shockingly tardy in bringing you this important newsflash, but here it is:

Representative Louis Gohmert (R-TX) of “least-endowed member of Congress” and “inadvisably stealing shit from much larger members of Congress” fame has introduced the ‘Giving Inmate Terrorists More Opportunities (GITMO) Act of 2008.’

The bill purports to be a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene, which it describes as “an obvious effort on the part of the Supreme Court to micromanage the detainment and disposition of detainees in the War on Terror who are dedicated to destroying innocent people and the American way of life.” It directs the Secretary of Defense to transfer the Guantanamo detainees to D.C. and, with the help of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, to “provide shelter for the detainees outside the United States Supreme Court building, but on the building grounds.”

The GITMO Act also specifies that “[i]f any of the nine Supreme Court justices desire at any time to stand guard over the prisoners, or to provide the prisoners with their meals or water, or both, then the justices shall be permitted to perform these functions whenever they want.” Oh, and the detainees get to use the Supreme Court restrooms.

We haven’t got much to say about this other than: “Gee, it sure is nice that our congressmen get to use our nation’s resources to fulfill their thwarted comedic ambitions.” That and, “wow, this is hellza unconstitutional!” Like, old school unconstitutional (1792, baby!). We guess Rep. Gohmert wasn’t paying attention the day his Con Law class covered the fact that Congressional delegation of non-judicial functions to the courts is a violation of separation of powers?

The Penguin on Your Television Will Now Explode

This weekend the New York Times ran an article in the Fashion & Style section about the U.S. Campaign for Burma’s efforts to get Burma “into the orbit of A-list activist causes.” It’s all about the process of “branding” the human rights crisis. This hurt my soul (just play along) for a number of reasons. Let’s list them, kay?

  1. Ugh, do we really have so little capacity to care that our causes have to jockey for position on the Who’s Who in Atrocity Hierarchy?
  2. No one appreciates a meta-narrative as much as I do, but really, when the whole problem is a lack of public awareness of a crisis, wouldn’t everybody be better served if the paper of record reported on the crisis, rather than on the efforts to draw attention to the crisis? I’m just saying.
  3. Is it me, or does the article seem to suggest that our nation’s precious celebrities are out to convince us that Hitler has been reincarnated in the person of General Than Shwe? I’m pretty sure that’s not even temporally possible…

So then I looked at the U.S. Campaign for Burma’s website. It turns out, it’s kind of genius. (Where “balls out shamelessness” = genius.) As promised by the Times article, they’ve got tons of celebrities in reasonably clever and informative, high production quality, 30 second spots advocating for their cause. And their slogan is, no joke, “Millions Rallied to Free Nelson Mandela and South Africa. Now it’s Burma’s Turn.”

I mean, seriously guys? It’s Burma’s turn??? Is that really the direction you want to go in? Can’t you kind of hear the objections? North Korea: “We haven’t had lunch in 60 years… isn’t it our turn yet?” Zimbabwe: “I swear we were next – lunatic dictator, insane economic policies, political oppression, remember?” Congo: “We have the GREATEST RAPE IN THE WORLD; are we at least near the top of the list?”