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.

WTF Friday, 6/20/14

Welcome to this week’s WTF Friday, “Let’s All Demonize Refugees and Abused Children” edition.

The day started out promisingly. This morning, in honor of World Refugee Day, Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement:

“It is a time to honor the strength and resilience of refugees around the world and renew our determination to support them as they rebuild their lives and communities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees now counts the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons at 51 million. That number is staggering by any measure. It represents children, women, and men from Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and now Iraq, who face death, destruction, and dislocation.”

But refugees don’t just come from “Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and now Iraq.” They also come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. And many of them come to the United States, including, recently, thousands of children.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have “renewed our determination” to support those refugees. Vice President Biden is at this very moment meeting with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to clear up “confusion” over U.S. immigration policy in order to stem the flow of migrants fleeing the brutal violence that plagues those countries.

The confusion he’s referring to, as best as I can tell, is the optimistic belief that we would actually follow our obligations under U.S. and international law. (Namely, that we would not return refugees to countries where they would face persecution or torture, and would not deport children to situations where they would face abuse, human trafficking, or worse.) Nah, bro, apparently the plan is to “step up detention and deportation.”

And then we have the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who has just announced a hearing next week on the ways that child refugees and migrants are “gaming” the system. By which he literally means “applying for immigration relief via the processes set forth in U.S. law, and obtaining such relief if the relevant legal standards are met.” To wit:

“Unaccompanied alien minors are not subject to expedited removal under current law, and many – if not a majority – of them are eligible for immigration relief under current law.”

Following current law? Apocalypse, basically.

Memo to the executive and legislative branches: there is no “unless it’s, like, a little inconvenient” exception to the Refugee Convention. Sometimes refugee flows are burdensome, and that’s just the situation. Jordan is currently hosting more than half a million Syrian refugees in a nation of only 6.4 million people. I am sure they would prefer not to have that responsibility! But they do. Life isn’t fair.

And speaking of which, the numbers here are not actually that big. An estimated 52,000 children have come to the United States since October, which is the mass-refugee-flow equivalent of a goddamned hangnail. That’s not even enough kids to sell out a One Direction show. The Met Life stadium can handle 90,000 screaming Harry Styles fans per night, but I’m expected to believe that the entire rest of this great nation can’t take 52,000 kids over a six-month period?

So yeah, happy World Refugee Day, everyone.

WTF?

U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic: Um Whut?

On Friday morning, the AP ran a story about a leaked report from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, which had concluded that it was “too early to speak of genocide or ethnic cleansing” in CAR, but that other crimes against humanity had taken place.

The first part of that conclusion surprised me. In February, Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, testified before the Security Council that his agency had “effectively witnessed a ‘cleansing’ of the majority of the Muslim population in western CAR.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both also reported that Muslims are being driven from the country en masse. What had the Commission uncovered that led it to decide otherwise?

I’ve now read the leaked report, and I still haven’t the foggiest idea.

The section analyzing the allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing is exceptionally brief – less than a page long, much of which is taken up with a bullet-pointed list of the names of different genocidal crimes. It then dismisses the allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing in a single paragraph, without citing any law or specific sources:

“As has been stated above, the origins of the present armed conflict in CAR is rooted in the struggle for political power. The actions of the parties to the dispute as of present demonstrate the fact that the conflict is still in reality a political conflict. SELEKA a mainly Muslim movement on the 8th of May declared a de facto partition of CAR, setting up a military Council and claiming the right to administer exclusively three regions of CAR. The main parties to the conflict remain SELEKA and anti-BALAKA. The fact that there is an anti-Muslim propaganda from certain non-Muslim quarters does not mean that genocide is being planned or that there is any conspiracy to commit genocide or even a specific intent to commit genocide. The displacement of Muslims affected by whatever party so far is a matter of protection and the preservation of human life not a matter of ethnic cleansing.”

Quoi?

Let’s break this down. First, it should go without saying that it is thoroughly possible for genocide and ethnic cleansing to take place within the context of a “struggle for political power,” or during a “political conflict.” Indeed, it would be unusual for them not to. And second, while “the fact that there is an anti-Muslim propaganda” is of course not in and of itself enough to prove genocide or genocide-adjacent crimes, it’s not particularly comforting, either. Those facts are not a basis on which to conclude that genocide is not taking place, they are reasons to investigate whether it is taking place. (If only there could be some sort of U.N. Commission of Inquiry tasked with finding out what’s really going on. Someone should really get on that.)

And has the Commission mistaken “ethnic cleansing” for some sort of laundry-related procedure? How else can we explain a line that dismisses claims of ethnic cleansing … by basically describing ethnic cleansing? Forcibly clearing a target population from an area by threatening the lives and safety of its members is pretty much the first chapter from the ethnic cleanser’s handbook.

This conclusion also seems to be contradicted by facts contained elsewhere in the report. For instance, in describing the difficulties faced by foreign peacekeeping forces in CAR, the Commission notes that “the MISCA and SANGARIS forces have been subject of attacks especially from the anti-Balaka militia, the majority of whom seem keen to carry out an ethnic cleansing in CAR by driving out the population or worse by killing them which would amount to genocide.” If the anti-Balaka fighters expressed their intent to commit ethnic cleansing by “driving out the population,” and then proceeded to do just that, what does the Commission need to see in order to conclude that ethnic cleansing is taking place? Engraved invitations? (“Your local anti-Balaka cordially invites you and your family to be ethnically cleansed on Saturday, June the twenty-first, two thousand fourteen. Plus-ones encouraged. RSVP.”)

Is it possible that the Commission, after a thorough investigation, determined that the anti-Balaka were all talk, and the civilians who have been displaced were merely caught up in generalized violence that was not targeted towards specific groups? Yes. But if that’s what happened, the Commission should have explained as much in the report, so that observers – and the Security Council – could weigh the credibility of the report’s conclusions. That didn’t happen.

And is now a good moment to point out that the Commission limited its investigation to Bangui, and is thus not really in a position to make pronouncements about ethnic cleansings and genocides that may or may not be going on in the rest of the country? I understand that the security situation made it difficult for the investigators to travel to other parts of CAR, but am quite confused as to why they did not at least interview refugees in neighboring countries.

In the interest of fairness, I should note here that the report has not officially been released yet, so it is possible that the version I saw was merely a partially-completed draft, and not yet in its final form. That would certainly explain why it is a mere 26 pages long, 13 of which are taken up with a history of the conflict and a description of the difficulties the Commission faced in conducting its investigation. (Turns out there’s a war on!) However, the fact that the document was accompanied by a letter from Ban Ki Moon submitting it to the Security Council on May 27th suggests that it was the final version.

If that is the case, then I am tremendously disappointed. The Commission had a mandate to:

“investigate reports of violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law and abuses of human rights in the Central African Republic, by all parties since 1 January 2013 and to compile information, to help identify the perpetrators of such violations and abuses, point to their possible criminal responsibility and to help ensure that those responsible are held accountable.”

And yet, after six months of work from a team of six full-time investigators, the Commission appears to have produced a report that details little in the way of investigation, identifies perpetrators only in generalities, contains almost no documentation of specific violations or abuses, and provides no useful analysis that would ensure future accountability.

Not good enough, Commission of Inquiry. Do better.

WTF Friday, 5/23/2014

Ah, Britain.

That clammy island nation has given me so much: my husband, my first deep-fried Mars Bar, an unexpected quantity of master’s degrees. (Even, for a time, a job scaring tourists into unconsciousness. Youth!) But even though the UK and I are besties, I can’t give it a pass on this week’s bit of WTF-ery.

You see, it has come to my attention that UKIP gained more than 150 council seats in the local UK elections this week. According to the BBC, polls project that they would have taken 17% in a national election, if it were held today. That seems quite excessive.

“Why,” you ask, “what is a UKIP“?

That would be the UK Independence party, whose political platform is composed largely of xenophobic fear-mongering about “migrants” coming to the UK. Some highlights from their recent political escapades:

  • That time when UKIP distributed a flyer claiming that the EU was going to allow “29 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK,” a surprising claim given that the most recent World Bank statistics peg those countries’ entire populations at 7.3 million and 20.08 million, respectively. (In case you’re wondering, Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to Britain has not, in fact, turned out to be more than the total combined citizenry of both nations.)
  • That time when their party leader, Nigel Farage, told the Guardian that British people should “be wary of Romanians moving into their streets,” because of the immigrants’ “culture of criminality.”
  • That time when the UKIP MP candidate for Leicester South explained that he thought Islam was “morally flawed and degenerate,” and that “the increase of Islam in the UK is going to be a problem for the welfare state.”
  • That time when the UKIP candidate for East Sussex claimed that “The Second World Wide War was engineered by the Zionist jews and financed by the bankers to make the general public all over the world to feel so guilty and outraged by the Holocaust that a treaty would be signed to create the State of Israel as we know it today.”

Oh, okay then.

Seriously, British local-elections voters, WTF?

Today in ARGH.

We are so over the “Ladies Aren’t As Confident As Men and It’s a Problem” conversation that has been happening lately.

Because you know what we’re not down with? Pretending that a self-reinforcing system of gender norms designed to keep women out of power and public life is, in fact, a character flaw that meek chicks need to get over. Structural inequality is not a personal problem, folks.

If it were, then advice like “maybe try NOT being subjugated” would be useful. But as it is, saying “sack up, ladies!” makes us worry that the next thing out of your mouth might be one of the following:

  • “Slaves: Just not entrepreneurial-minded enough.”
  • “Native Americans: Insufficiently committed to enforcing their property rights.”
  • “Jews of 1930s Europe: Lacking in courage and self-preservation instincts.”

(Oh wait, that last one’s actually a thing. Thanks, anti-semitism!)

Ugh, Cambodia.

A leaked copy of Cambodia’s Draft Cybercrime Law suggests that the Hun Sen regime intends to crack down on online speech.

The drafts reveals that speech offenses like defamation committed online would be penalized more severely than their offline equivalents. Worse, it includes a provision (Article 28) that prohibits content that might “hinder the sovereignty and integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia”, “incite or instigate the general population”, or “generate insecurity”.

As Al Jazeera reports, Cambodian bloggers are understandably nervous about a future in which they could face up to three years of prison time for saying the wrong thing online.

WTF Friday, 4/4/2014

From the (apparently not a prank) April Fools Day edition of The Washington Times: “‘The problem from hell’ is only solved when God-fearing men with steel backbones and muscular arms stand between the evildoers and their victims.

I can’t believe how much time and money has been wasted studying the root causes and dynamics of mass atrocity, when all along the answer was biceps!

WTF Friday, 3/21/2014

Today is full of mind-blowing news:

  • In Kenya, female MPs staged a walk-out in Parliament today as a bill passed allowing Kenyan men to marry additional wives without checking with their existing spouse first. Explained a (male) MP: “When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way and a third wife… this is Africa.”
  • And finally, Robert Kaplan has once again succeeded in trolling the entire internet, this time with a piece up at The Atlantic extolling the virtues of empire. Choice quote: “imperialism and enlightenment (albeit self-interested) have often been inextricable”. There’s also an approving shout-out to Rudyard Kipling’s pro-colonialist classic “The White Man’s Burden”. (Ultimately he gets to the point which is, apparently, that America needs to rediscover grand strategy, which: sure.) Obviously, Twitter is going insane over this.

WTF Friday, 3/7/2014

This week’s WTF comes to you from Sri Lanka, where I’ve been for the last couple of weeks.

The Daily Mirror reports that late on Wednesday night, police in a Colombo suburb picked up two high school girls who were (gasp) waiting at a bus stop and wearing t-shirts. According to the cops, the decision was made to bring the girls into the police station to “protect them from rapists who were in the vicinity”.

That’s some fine police work, sirs. We can only hope that law enforcement in all of our communities would respond to the news of rapists on the loose by rounding up any unattended young women with such alacrity.

(And for readers who lack the ability to detect absurdity and/or sexism, Groundviews helpfully gives us the story rewritten as if the kids were boys.)