To My Great Surprise, I Kind of Love This Charity Ad

When a tipster sent me this ad for the charity Water is Life, I had every expectation that I would hate it.

The gimmick sounded kind of gross: because 1 in 5 Kenyan children don’t reach their 5th birthdays, the ad takes a 4-year-old boy named Nkaitole and helps him complete his “bucket list.” I was prepared for lots of pathos and heartstring-tugging victimhood, but instead what I got was this:

After some reflection, I think that there are a few good things about this video that are worth highlighting.

  1. It focuses on potential, not victimhood. “Save a child” charity ads usually to try to prompt action by provoking the viewer to feel grief for dying children, and guilt for not saving them. By contrast, Nkaitole’s bucket list (which he refers to as “an adventure”), turns out to be a lovely illustration of the way that the whole world loses out when a child dies young. Nkaitole dreams of beating Kenya’s fastest man in a race, and of playing soccer in the national stadium, which subtly reminds the viewer that preventable child deaths might also prevent historic athletic achievements, or the emergence of beloved sports stars.
  2. The items on Nkaitole’s bucket list show that he is sophisticated and aware of the outside world, even though he’s never left his village before. In addition to his dreams of success at soccer and running, Nkaitole wants to ride a speedboat, fly a plane, drive a go-cart and a front-end loader, see the ocean, go ice skating, and ride a hot-air balloon. That’s not a westerner’s idea of what a remote, exoticized “African” would want to do. Rather, those are the dreams of any child, anywhere in the world. (If you add “become a ballerina with magical powers,” that’s pretty much my bucket list from age 4, especially the front-end loader part.)
  3. It makes Kenya look like an awesome place worth living for, not a sad place where children die. By showing that all that is waiting for Nkaitole when he leaves his village, it also tells the viewer that Kenya is a place full of exciting opportunities that are worth surviving for. Again, this goes back to potential, rather than victimhood. (Also, it really does seem great. I half-expected this video to be sponsored by the Kenyan tourist board. “Kenya: come for the beaches, stay for the ice rinks!”)
  4. No “whites in shining armor.” Did you notice that there are no NGO workers in this video? Seriously, none: no Water is Life volunteers pouring clean water for grateful children. No villagers doing a traditional dance of gratitude for their white saviors. No Water is Life SUV driving down a bumpy dirt road. Not even, it should be noted, any sign of Water is Life staff paying for or accompanying Nkaitole on his “adventure,” even though I presume that was the case. Once again, that puts the emphasis on how awesome Nkaitole is, not how awesome the viewer is for deigning to help him, which I appreciated.

I have no idea whether Water is Life is actually doing effective work or not. (They appear to be focused on distributing filtration straws at the moment, which is the kind of development trinket that tends to arouse my skepticism, but they claim to be working on longer-term solutions as well.) However, their ad’s respectful attitude towards the people they’re trying to help suggests that they’re doing something right.

Melinda’s Book is Out Today! Kirkus Says It’s “A Perfect Blend of the Intimate and the Epic.”

We interrupt our normally scheduled atrocity coverage to bring you the message that my sister, the talented Melinda Taub, has a novel out today!

It’s called “Still Star Crossed,” it’s a sequel to Romeo and Juliet, it’s available on Amazon and in book stores near you, it’s awesome, and you should buy it.

I’m obviously biased, but there’s no need to take my word for this. Here’s what Kirkus said in its (ahem, starred) review:

Love and violence intertwine in this spectacular sequel to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.


Taub splits her focus between the personal and the political, sending the narrative shuttling among Rosaline, Benvolio, Rosaline’s spirited sister, Livia, and desperate Prince Escalus without losing the thread. Rosaline and Benvolio’s tale is equal parts historical fiction, detective story and high adventure, relayed in accurate but not overwhelming period language, informed by Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare’s other works but offering an expanded and original perspective.

A perfect blend of the intimate and the epic, the story both honors its origin and works in its own right. (Historical fiction. 12 & up)

Now excuse me while I go wander the city, bragging about my little sister, the novelist.

A Good Day For Equality

It’s late, and it has been a long day, but I don’t want to let it end without a post to mark the amazing thing that happened this morning: the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and California’s Prop 8.*

My feelings on the subject are pretty much summed up by this quote, from Goodridge v. Massachusetts Dept. of Health, the opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2003:

“Marriage bestows enormous private and social advantages on those who choose to marry. Marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”

This country is a better place now that more people are able to undertake that “momentous act of self-definition.” May it bring them the happiness that marriage has brought me. (Which is a lot! Hooray marriage!)

And, most importantly, now Kristen Bell and Dax Shepherd can get married. Which I’m sure is the thing that pushed Justice Kennedy over to the side of the angels in the first place.

* Well, technically, it relied on a standing issue to allow the CA district court’s decision, (which struck down Prop 8 on the grounds that was unconstitutional), to stand. But you know what? I’ll take it.

[Footnote edited to correct an error - I originally said that the CA Supreme Court's decision was upheld, but in fact it is the district court decision that stands, because SCOTUS found that the petitioners had no standing to appeal its decision. The CA Supreme had the standing issue on certification, but that's not what got upheld here.]

Data! Beautiful Data!

Jumping on the international justice blogger bandwagon, I concur with Mark and KJH that you should all go read Daniel McLaughlin’s new report for the Leitner Center: “International Criminal Tribunals: A Visual Overview.”

If you’ve ever wondered “how much money in reparations has been paid out to atrocity victims worldwide” or “how many ICTR indictees are still at large” or “can the Special Tribunal for Lebanon conduct trials in absentia,” then this is the resource for you.

It’s also the resource for me, combining my love of brightly colored charts and international criminal law. For instance:

Seriously, go check it out.

Today in “Totally Nailing It”

Via Africa Is a Country, an appeal for Africans to send their spare radiators to warm freezing children in Norway:

A project of the The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund, Radi-Aid asks us all to “[i]magine if every person in Africa saw the “Africa for Norway” video and this was the only information they ever got about Norway.”

Way to show, not tell, guys!

Book Review: All the Missing Souls

I recently read David Scheffer’s All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals. It’s a fascinating memoir of life as the U.S.’s first ever Ambassador for War Crimes Issues. I highly recommend it if you’re into either detailed negotiating histories of international institutions or snarky observations about UN bureaucrats and French people.

Scheffer’s discussion of the Rwandan genocide and the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is particularly eye-opening, especially when compared to other former policymakers’ accounts of the same events. (Looking at you, Madeleine “it was complicated” Albright.) I suspect most readers will be drawn to the story of how the US and the UN bogged down in endless discussions of the meaning of the word “genocide” rather than reacting to the mass slaughter, but, being me, I found the blow-by-blow of the bargaining process between the new Rwandan regime and the international community over issues like the temporal jurisdiction of the ICTR and the possibility of the death penalty equally interesting. Not just because I love me some jurisdictional issues, but because when we talk about the impact of the tribunals, we’re generally comparing to the counterfactual of no accountability mechanism. Scheffer’s accounts of setting up the ad hoc tribunals, the hybrids, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) let us think about the courts we might have had instead.

Descending further into law-nerdery, in the section on the ICC, Scheffer advances a surprising interpretation of the applicability of the Rome Statute to nationals of non-party states. This is an issue Amanda and I touched on a couple of months ago with regard to the potential for an ICC investigation into recent attacks on civilians in Sudan, a non-party state. Scheffer suggests that Art. 11(2) and Art. 24 of the statute together preclude the jurisdiction over nationals of non-parties (except in the case of a Security Council referral) entirely.

For those who aren’t following along at home with a well-thumbed copy of the Rome Statute: Art. 11(2) says that if states join the court after the entry into force of the Rome Statute (on July 1, 2002), the court’s jurisdiction only reaches back to the date the state joined, and Art. 24 says that no person can be held responsible for crimes committed before the Statute’s entry into force. Reading these in combination, Scheffer argues that a blanket extension of the court’s jurisdiction to non-party nationals would pre-empt the effect of possible future ratifications. He explains that:

“[A] nonparty country … would have to accept the proposition that a future ratification of the Rome Statute would be meaningless because their nationals have been covered by the statute since July 1, 2002.”

Because this result would be absurd (although I actually think the more likely absurd result would be that a non-party state that commits an atrocity in 2012 would self-protectively ratify in 2013), Scheffer concludes that non-party state nationals must only be covered by the statute in cases where the state consents (under the Art. 12(3) special declaration procedure) or the Security Council refers the situation to the ICC.

I’m not sold on this interpretation. As Scheffer acknowledges, Art. 12 is clear that the court has jurisdiction over crimes when either the national state of the alleged perpetrators or the state where the alleged crimes occurred is a party to the Rome Statute. Scheffer’s reading would knock out the ability of a state party to request the ICC’s involvement in a case where a non-party state’s nationals commit atrocities on the state party’s territory, against their civilians. So, if Freedonia (a non-party state) sends raiding parties into neighboring Sylvania (a state party), and while there, Freedonia’s nationals commit mass rape against Sylvanian villagers, Sylvania couldn’t refer the case to the ICC. While I agree that this would make the court less controversial, especially for those non-party states that have widely deployed military forces (ahem, U.S.), it seems to me to be clearly against the intent of the statute, of which Art. 12 is an unambiguous expression.

Climbing back out of the law-nerdery pit, there’s also quite an interesting domestic politics angle here. The bits on the negotiation of the Rome Statute underscore both what a difficult job war crimes ambassadoring is, and how complicated the development of foreign policy can be in a democracy. Scheffer’s negotiating position at the talks was developed through coordination between the Departments of State, Justice, and Defense, each of which had different interests and concerns relating to the creation of an international court. Set against the backdrop of the Lewinsky scandal, with Jesse Helms in Congress vowing to torpedo the whole thing, the process of representing the Clinton administration’s position at Rome reads as a colossally discouraging experience.

On the every-cloud-has-a-silver-lining side of things, after several years in one of the world’s most frustrating jobs, minor irritations like this review by John Yoo probably barely register. But for those of us who make a career out of being annoyed, the scare quotes around “impunity” and “atrocity crimes,” coming from the man who gave us “Torture Memos” as a defined term, are not to be missed…

Welcome to the New Regime

New Year, New Blog… New World?  Check us out, we’ve gotten so fancy!

(And by “fancy,” we mean “we have a WordPress blog hosted on a real URL, like normal people.”)

Feeds should have transferred automatically, but please update your links elsewhere.  We think we’ve ironed out most of the kinks in the transition, but appreciate your patience as we address the problems that we’ve almost certainly overlooked.

Happy New Year!


Rape and Numbers

Amber Peterman, Dara Kay Cohen, Tia Palermo, and Amelia Hoover Green have an excellent piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs on the difficulties associated with getting an accurate picture of wartime sexual violence and the prevalence of “false facts” about rape during violent conflict. They raise two issues that I found particularly worth repeating.

First, that while rape is generally underreported, the underreporting isn’t evenly distributed through the population. In other words, it’s not the case that a random 1 out of every 10 victims turns up to a hospital to report an assault. As Peterman et al. point out, the sample is likely to be biased in favor of those who can most easily get to a medical facility and those whose injuries place them most in need of medical care. Consequently, conflict researchers relying on hospital data may draw inaccurate conclusions about both the geographic distribution of the phenomenon, and its character.  (In case you don’t spend as much time thinking about wartime rape as I do, and this is therefore not obvious, the logic regarding the type of the violence is that severe injuries are more likely to be produced by gang rape or other particularly brutal assaults.  If the data only includes women who have suffered horrific injury, we may conclude that a conflict’s sexual violence component is characterized by atrocious conduct and group attacks, and thus miss a significant spike in rates of less violent single perpetrator rape.)

Second, that sometimes rape isn’t underreported. In fact, in contexts where the status of rape survivor can confer benefits, it may be overreported. Peterman et al. note research by Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern in the DRC (which I discussed last year) and by Mats Utas in Liberia suggesting that women know that identifying themselves as rape victims is “an efficient way to procure material assistance from aid agencies.” This incentive to misrepresent further obscures efforts to accurately capture the scope and scale of sexual violence.

The article is short, smart, and interesting, so I encourage you to read it in full.

The Internet Is Full of Amazing People, Jina Edition

In my last post, I asked my journalist readers what should be done about obtaining meaningful consent in situations where there is a language barrier between the reporter and the trauma victim/subject:

Finally, a question for my journalist friends: what do you make of the fact that Mac apparently asked her NGO intermediary for consent from the victim and her mother, and he assured her that they had consented?  Mac doesn’t speak Haitian Creole, and the other women don’t speak English, so it sounds like an intermediary was necessary.  I don’t like the idea that consent rules should be loosened for sources who don’t speak the same language as the reporters who write about them.  But if you must rely on third parties, how can you be sure that consent has been given, and given meaningfully?  

Ask and ye shall receive: Jina Moore has written an incredibly informative and thoughtful response.  I strongly, strongly, strongly urge you to go read the entire, detailed version here, but here is a summary of her rules, from her companion post on the topic:

  • Meaningful consent comes from the survivor. Not a driver, a husband, a social worker, a doctor, a lawyer…
  • Meaningful consent is given for specific use. The story, the audience, and the medium are explained, understood, and agreed to by both parties.
  • Meaningful consent is given at an appropriate time. That time is very rarely in moments of or immediately after crisis.
  • Meaningful consent repeats itself. Long-form or feature journalism has time to go back to survivors and talk through how the story will appear. It also has that obligation.
  • Trauma journalism has different standards. Trauma journalism inverst our usual relationships with sources and makes us the most powerful people in the room. Our professional rules aren’t built for that, so we must adapt them.

 I think that last point is especially important.  I hadn’t ever thought about it before, but I think that issue is at the heart of so many of the stories that I have had a problem with over the years.  As Jina explains:

The rules of traditional journalism are written for a game in which the journalist is the disempowered party. Those rules are designed to get as much information as possible from people who, for reasons of self-interest, probably don’t want to give it to us. That’s why we have things like “on the record” – it’s public, no going back. Or “on background” – you can use the information, but you can’t name the source. Or even, “on deep background,” which is “for your edification only, and you can’t print/broadcast any of this.”

These are rules powerful people know. If you interview a State Department official, the first thing they will do is say, ‘This OTR” or “This is on background” or “How will this be used?” And you negotiate the rules. They know how the game works. Indeed, they know that it’s a game.

So we have to rewrite the rules. Trauma journalism requires that journalists acknowledge a major power shift – one that favors the journalists. We have to rewrite our playbook. The premise is still the same – protect the vulnerable – but now, we’re not the vulnerable. Our sources are.

Like I said, go read the whole thing.

Some Great Comments, Deserving Of Their Own Post

Man, you guys are awesome – my Lara Logan post from last week got some really excellent comments.

I recommend you go check out the whole debate for yourself if you haven’t already, but here are some highlights that were particularly deserving of recognition:

From Jina Moore, in response to an anonymous comment about the dangers of “a mob of Muslim people”:

“[...] When you say “If you have a mob of Muslim people — and I use that term literally, because that throng of people was whipped into a political and ideological frenzy” you make it clear that you think the word “Muslim” signifies a political ideology. I’ve been lax on the Twitter lately, but isn’t what we’re seeing across the Arab region a demonstration of precisely the opposite? There’s a lot of Muslims out there in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain… and they seem to have very different politics and ideologies from each other. A fact which we should have known, of course, but which has been made rather abundantly clear, no?

Putting to rest the problems in the sloppy language of that comment — this makes me wonder what’s happening to other women we haven’t heard about. I saw some action on Twitter, in the late days of January, to share albums of photos of women in the Cairo protests, and clicking through them made it abundantly clear to me how missing their images were from my news sources (note: I don’t have access to TV, which I know has been the lead on this).

If we don’t see images of women claiming agency at a remarkable moment, what else are we missing?”


From Melinda, who I think really nails the heart of the issue:

“What I find crazy about all this (besides all the stuff you’ve mentioned) is everyone seems to see Logan’s courage as a bad thing. Yes, she knew she was going into a dangerous situation, and yes, she paid a price for it. That’s called being brave. When soldiers do it, they get medals. Why is it that a girl who did it (to do a job that I consider as necessary as the military’s) gets scolded?”

Word. As she pointed out to me later, if a fireman rescues a child from a burning building and gets hurt in the process, we don’t yell at him for being so temptingly flammable, we thank him for saving the kid. When we yell at Lara Logan for not being more careful, we’re implicitly also saying that her work wasn’t valuable enough to be worth it. Not cool.

And from Vivyenne, responding to the idea that Logan should have covered up with a headscarf because she was in a Muslim country:

“Having lived in Egypt, as a foreign (though not blonde) woman, I would offer a few remarks:

I would agree that some measure of sexual harassment is endemic in the society; I’ve heard it described as “Egypt’s cancer”, as in, a particular social problem in that country, and the various bits of north Africa and the Middle East I’ve been through so far have shown it to be more pronounced in Egypt than elsewhere; it’s supposedly linked to the larger social problem that men are unable to marry until they have ‘established’ themselves (hard to do in a poor country). There are no excuses for it, and Egypt is going to need to deal with this sooner rather than later.

But regarding covering up – yes, wearing a headscarf makes you blend into the crowd, at least until they see your face and/or hear your accent, so it is unlikely a woman (in a headscarf or not) speaking into a television camera for a foreign station in English would go unnoticed. Wearing a hijab is not a question of (respecting a) culture, it’s a question of religion (any time I was wearing a hijab and not in a mosque I was repeatedly asked why), though covering up otherwise is expected. And finally – my colleagues and friends told me that women in niqabs (the burqa-like covering with a little window for the eyes, or sometimes with mesh over the eyes) were often harrassed more “because the men were convinced they were missing something”. Headscarves do not make it go away.

That said, mob violence isn’t a reflection of culture. It has absolutely nothing to do with Egyptian, or Muslim, or anything else – genocide can be committed in Germany or Cambodia, massacres happen in Algeria, Congo, and East Timor, torture happens in Argentina and China and all kinds of other places, and a vast majority of the more “heinous” atrocities is related to mobs and mob dynamics. The fact that it was expressed as a sexual assault is probably because she’s female, but men have been raped in these kinds of attacks as well. I can refer you to extensive literature on this subject if you’re curious. [...]“

You guys make me feel very smug about how cool our readers are.