WTF Friday, 7/10/2015

I’m headed out the door on a 2 week vacation, but before I go, here’s what’s up:

Russia predictably vetoed a Security Council resolution recognizing as genocide the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces. It did so as a favor to its Serb allies, who felt that the resolution might make them look bad.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia has lost its fourth international investigating judge in five years. It’s almost like it’s hard to prosecute international crimes in the face of persistent obstruction by the national government.

The media is trying to make “Grexit” happen. Ugh.

On Being the Absolute Worst

Imagine you are the government of a large developed country. You are a member of a variety of international conventions protecting the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. But you hate them. You hate them SO much. You want to put them in a sack and toss the sack in a river and hurl the river into space.

And yet, for some reason, asylum seekers keep trying to come to your country.Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 1.55.31 PM

You put up jerky billboards in their home communities telling them that they are absolutely, positively, definitely not welcome. You send your navy out to intercept the boats of desperate people making their way toward your shores. The ones you catch, you promptly (and illegally) hand over to the abusive governments they were fleeing. You give equipment and money to those same abusive governments to help them make sure no one escapes.

But still they come.

You lock them up in a network of grim camps, insisting that your citizens’ security depends on proper “screening” of these new arrivals. You keep them there indefinitely. Some of them die.

Reports begin to trickle out of horrors – disease and malnutrition, a blind eye turned toward sexual violence and torture among the inmates, a climbing suicide rate. And worse: children separated from their parents and raped by the guards.

Human rights groups have run out of adjectives with which to deplore your treatment of these vulnerable people. Your international reputation is suffering. So you do the only thing you can: You make it a crime for detention center staff to talk about the conditions there, with a penalty of two years in prison.

Because obviously, you’d rather prosecute doctors and humanitarian workers who speak out about abuses than crack down on child rapists or meet your obligations under international law. Let alone reflecting for one goddamn minute about how bad things must be back home for someone to abandon everyone and everything they’ve ever known for the uncertain chance of surviving the perilous ocean voyage, evading the patrol boats you gave to their abusers, and landing in your grotesque excuse for a detention facility.

WTF Friday, 5/29/2015

I tried so hard to ignore this “North Sudan” nonsense, you guys.

Last year when the media first started reporting Jeremiah Heaton’s quest to find somewhere to make his daughter princess of, I resolutely closed my browser window and binge-watched season 3 of Parks & Rec.

Then, in November, when word spread that Heaton’s heartwarming tale of neocolonialism would be turned into a Disney movie called “The Princess of North Sudan”, I remained steadfast, determined not to blog about it.

But now he’s back and I just can’t anymore. So here it is:

Heaton’s argument that he can unilaterally assert a state in the Bir Tawil triangle because it is unclaimed territory (terra nullius) is ludicrous. We’ve long since passed the point where states come into being on the word of one white dude with a flag.

On paper, international law (covered here) says that a state must have (1) a permanent population; (2) a defined territory; (3) a government; and (4) the capacity to enter into relations with the other states. (The handful of embassies and consulates Heaton has set up may be an attempt to satisfy requirement #4.) But in practice, statehood also requires recognition by other states. Which explains why Somaliland, despite embassies, passports, and decades of democratic governance of a stable population, is still part of Somalia.

So far, the nations of the world don’t seem to be lining up to extend recognition to “North Sudan”. And I’m kind of thinking that (1) a white foreigner proclaiming himself king of territory in northern Africa may have some unpleasant resonances for members of the African Union, and (2) the government of Sudan: Original Flavor may object to Heaton’s country name of choice.

And seriously, Disney finally makes a movie about an African princess (lions don’t count) and it’s a Caucasian American from Virginia??

 

WTF Friday, 5/8/2015

Last week the news broke that French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic sexually abused homeless children begging for food at a Bangui refugee camp.

We know about this because a UN staffer passed an internal report on the allegations to French authorities, who launched their own inquiry. The staffer was suspended for leaking confidential information, but temporarily reinstated on Wednesday by the United Nations Dispute Tribunal pending a full review of the case.

That’s already chock full of WTF-ery, but on top of that, the media has apparently decided to designate this a “sex for food scandal” (see Exhibit A, below).Screen shot 2015-05-08 at 7.50.51 AMIt strikes me as just a touch… something (sanitizing? anodyne? dishonest?) to refer to it this way. Surely forcing children to perform sex acts for food (or for any reason) is in fact a “child rape scandal”.

But further investigation reveals that this is the standard practice for discussing sexual abuse of indigent children by peacekeepers, apparently because the wordplay on “oil for food” is just tooooo tempting. See Exhibits B-E: former “sex for food” scandals in 2002 (West Africa), 2004 (DRC), 2006 (Liberia), and 2011 (Côte d’Ivoire).

It really says it all that we have enough datapoints on this to infer a pattern, doesn’t it?

 

WTF Friday, 4/17/2015

Australia’s track record with refugees is not great. Highlights include locking them up on a rape-y island and handing them back to oppressive regimes from which they were trying to escape.

But now Australia has a new plan to get rid of pesky refugees attempting to assert their legal right to asylum: ship them off to Cambodia. The arrangement, which Human Rights Watch said in September would “undermine refugee protection in the region”, cost Australia 35 million USD.

A letter recently distributed by immigration officials to refugees detained on Nauru explains:

The opportunity to settle in Cambodia is now available to you. The first flight from Nauru to Cambodia for refugees will be as soon as 20 April 2015. Moving to Cambodia provides an opportunity for you and your family to start a new life in a safe country, free from persecution and violence, and build your future.

It elaborates:

“Cambodia is a safe country, where police maintain law and order. It does not have problems with violent crime or stray dogs.”

Look, this whole thing is ridiculous (not least because Cambodia is an impoverished dictatorship with catastrophic human rights issues of its own), but that last bit is a straight-up fabrication. Cambodia has SO MANY stray dogs. They’re so thick on the ground that multiple times during the months I lived there I looked down and discovered that my hand was actually inside of a dog’s mouth.

Let’s try to keep the lies within reason, Australia.

WTF Friday, 2/27/2015

I’m not sure why I’m bothering, given that the entire internet is occupied with dress-related content today, BUT: Someone is wrong on the internet about the International Criminal Court, and I simply cannot let that pass.

The individual in question is Stephen Rademaker, a former Bush (both H.W. and W.) administration official who drafted the legislation creating the Frankenstein’s Monster known as the Department of Homeland Security. And the substance of his wrongness is contained in his recommendation that:

Congress should make it a federal criminal offense for an official of the ICC, or a foreign government acting under authority of the ICC, to indict, prosecute, detain, or imprison American military personnel or government officials for alleged war crimes.

He is literally suggesting that we make a federal case out of the vanishingly slim possibility of ICC prosecutions of Americans.

Over at Justice in Conflict, Mark Kersten highlights a number of problems with this “breathtakingly absurd” proposal. It’s silly, it’s hypocritical, and it would sabotage the U.S.’s reasonably functional, if uneasy, relationship with the Court.

Personally, I think it’s kind of cute that paranoid Republicans still think of the ICC as some kind of all-powerful, avenging justice monster, despite all the evidence to the contrary. (Remember that time it took 10 years and 600 plus pages of judicial opinionating to sentence one guy for one war crime?)

But what strikes me as truly insane about Rademaker’s proposal is his blithe disregard for immunities. Because you know what you can’t do under U.S. law? Prosecute foreign officials, or representatives of international organizations, for conduct undertaken in the course of their official duties. (This is called “functional” or “act” immunity.) And I really can’t think of anything much more official than fulfilling the obligations contained in a treaty that over 120 countries have ratified. So unless Rademaker is suggesting that ICC prosecutions are jus cogens violations (there appears to be an emerging exception to immunity for universally-agreed-to-be-serious crimes like genocide, torture, and slavery), this makes no sense.

And frankly, if ANYONE should be in favor of robust, no-exceptions-allowed, functional immunity, shouldn’t it be former Bush administration officials?

WTF Friday, 9/26/2014

What a week.

ISIS killed Iraqi lawyer and human rights activist Sameera Salih Ali al-Nuaimy for criticizing their destruction of cultural and religious sites. According to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, Ms. al-Nuaimy was convicted of apostasy by a Shari’a court and tortured in an effort to force her to repent before her “execution”. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemning the murder, noted that amidst ISIS’s generalized brutality, “[e]ducated, professional women seem to be particularly at risk.”

In other WTF lady news, Fox News commentators referred to Emirati fighter pilot Maryam Al Mansouri’s participation in airstrikes against ISIS this week as “boobs on the ground“. (Which kind of makes me think that in addition to being dicks, they don’t really understand what airplanes are. Because not being on the ground is pretty much key.)

And then there was that thing with the donkeys.

 

Ugh, Gambia

Remember the days before the phrase “aggravated homosexuality” entered our lexicon? Those were simpler times.

And if you thought we’d be able to forget it now that Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill has been overturned, think again. Gambia’s parliament just passed a law imposing life sentences for acts of aggravated homosexuality. This includes, apparently, repeated homosexual intercourse. (Lest you think the National Assembly is letting Gambians off the hook for one-time same sex debauchery, don’t forget that “one crazy night in college” or “I swear this is the only time I’ve ever done anything like this” still gets you the 14 year penalty for garden variety gayness.)

The law will only come into force if President Yahyeh Jammeh signs it, but this is a guy who has repeatedly threatened to kill all Gambian homosexuals (and thinks he can cure AIDS with his own special blend of 11 presidential herbs and spices), so we probably shouldn’t expect sweet reason to prevail.

WTF Friday, 7/18/2014

Dear everyone who has said or written some version of “Israel has a right of self-defense, so isn’t committing war crimes” this week,

No. Just no. This is the logical equivalent of saying “I have red hair, so I’m good at math.” The two statements may or may not be true. But there is no causal relationship between them and you are asking that poor conjunction “so” to perform a task for which it is woefully unsuited.

The legality of why a war is being fought and the legality of how it is being fought are separate questions. In international law, the first is known as jus ad bellum and the second as jus in bello.

States are indeed allowed to use force to defend themselves under international law. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter is the clearest articulation of this right but it also exists (probably in a more expansive form) in customary international law, developed through the practice of states.

Whether or not the threat to Israel is the type of attack that triggers the right of self-defense is a live, and much debated, question. But regardless of whether Israel’s war is being prosecuted for just reasons, out of a legitimate right to self-defense, it is still perfectly possible that it is being conducted in an unlawful manner.

War crimes are war crimes, folks. If you use prohibited weapons, extrajudicially execute prisoners of war, or (and these are the important ones here) target civilian populations, or cause excessive harm to civilians through the indiscriminate, unnecessary, or disproportionate use of force, then it doesn’t matter how good of a reason you have for fighting.

And, just so we’re clear, it’s equally possible that a state could enter into a war for manifestly unjust reasons (say, the unlawful annexation of a neighboring state’s territory), and still conduct it with the utmost respect for human rights and humanitarian law.

As you were.

Enough Already with “If It Bleeds, It Leads”

You know what pisses me off? When every mainstream, new, or yet-to-be-classified media outlet blithely reposts pictures of victims in the process of suffering horrific violations of their human rights.

(Although if you answered “everything”, you are technically correct, but that’s not what this post is about.)

I’m referring to the photographs that ISIS released last week, showing the apparent extrajudicial execution of captured Iraqi soldiers. The images (which I discuss in greater detail here) were republished by virtually every Western media outlet that covered the massacre.

Disturbingly, both the Washington Post and the New York Times ran photos in which the victims’ faces are shown. Other outlets (BBCThe GuardianSlate, and Al Jazeera) selected images in which the faces of those about to be murdered are obscured, but other identifying information such as clothing, haircut, and body type are clearly visible.

Let me pause here to point out that Iraqis have the internet. A few of them may even have forked over the cash to read more than 10 articles per month. It is therefore entirely possible that some of the parents, siblings, or children of the murdered men learned of their loved ones’ brutal deaths through a photograph posted on a newspaper website.

Even if the chances of emotional injury to the family members were nonexistent, this is still a terrible violation of the dignity and privacy of the massacre victims themselves. But identifying the victims of violence and human rights abuse is standard operating procedure for Western news organizations. The Washington Post once ran a series of photographs of a Kurdish child being subjected to female genital mutilation. And the New York Times is, of course, the venue in which Nicholas Kristof published the name and picture of a nine year old (nine!!!) victim of rape.

Kristof’s offense was particularly egregious. It is the stated policy of the New York Times not to name rape victims. And, as Jina Moore pointed out at the time, the rules are even stricter when it comes to child victims. Nevertheless, he pushed back. In a blog post responding his critics, Kristof argued that images and identifying information are necessary to inspire readers’ compassion for faraway people in need of help.

This is the logic that motivates the inclusion of photos, videos, and personal anecdotes in human rights advocacy and appeals for humanitarian aid. (And Amanda and I are on record with our concerns about this approach, which too often seems to permit assessments by advocates or journalists that the “cause” and “awareness” are more important than the individual victims.) However, this line of reasoning doesn’t fully apply to straight news coverage. There isn’t really an argument to be made that running graphic images of their suffering in a wire story helps victims.

Instead, many reporters seem to be unthinkingly following the “if it bleeds, it leads” directive. The images of hundreds of Iraqi men waiting to be shot in the head, like the pictures of partially undressed bodies of Tamil prisoners of war or sex trafficked Cambodian children are attention-grabbing and compelling. But if “shining a light on atrocities” or “raising money for the victims” aren’t good enough reasons to disregard basic human decency, than increasing web traffic and selling newspapers isn’t either.