Electoral Politics at Its Best

Former commander of the Sri Lankan Army Sarath Fonseka is on the campaign trail in Uva province, and he’s brought some unconventional props with him. Fonseka, who was badly wounded in a 2006 suicide bombing in Colombo, is traveling with the shrapnel-pierced Peugeot 406 he was riding in at the time, and a cardboard cutout of the woman who attacked him.

If this is successful in winning seats for his Democratic Party in the Uva provincial polls, I can’t wait to see what candidates decide to lug around in next year’s presidential election.

Screen shot 2014-09-16 at 9.56.41 AM

via The Republic Square, photo from the BBC Sinhala’s Facebook page.

WTF Friday, 8/22/2014

Hey, remember that time four years ago when the Southern Sudanese security forces decided they weren’t quite up to the task of protecting civilians from LRA attacks, and that everything would be so much easier if said civilians were armed and could protect themselves?

Well, Detroit police chief James Craig has apparently come to a similar conclusion. Late last year Craig recommended that if Detroit residents want to avoid being the victims of crime, they should go ahead and carry guns. And a few weeks ago he attributed a recent drop in crime in the city in part to the increase in armed citizens.

I’m just not sure he’s thinking big enough. Guns are great and all, but imagine how much more crime civilians could prevent if they had air power…

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, 5/16/2014: Caption Contest!

Time for a WTF contest, beloved readers!

Suggest a caption to accompany this, um, remarkable photograph. The winner gets to call upon us next time s/he needs an angry letter written. Bonne chance!

Screen shot 2014-05-16 at 12.46.04 PM

About the Photo
Q: WTF?

A: W magazine sent celebrity photographer Tim Walker and model Edie Campbell to Burma, to spend “10 days in a country that until recently was ruled by a repressive military junta and cut off from the rest of the world.”

Q: WTF?

A: “What they found was a land so visually and philosophically far-out—at least from their Western perspective—that it conjured the trippy heroine of this story: Prudence Farrow, Mia’s “rather uptight and impossibly perfect Buddhist sister” as Walker describes her, who got lost in deep meditation while in India, thus inspiring the Beatles song “Dear Prudence.”

Q: WTF?

A: “Many of the houses the team wanted to use as locations are owned by the military, which was reluctant to grant permission; and the concept of a fashion shoot is so foreign to the locals that enlisting their help was often an exercise in making lemonade.”

Q: WTF?

A: “Walker asked for six nuns in traditional pink robes; one monk in orange turned up. Still, Walker says, he felt very welcome. “Nothing was too sacred for us Westerners,” he says.”

 

(H/T: Jeff Stein.

WTF Friday, 1/24/2014

What do you get when you combine an uninformed TV actress on her first trip to Africa, a Christian relief organization whose PR department are all asleep on the job, and a reporter who apparently thinks foreign aid is for chumps?

The WTF Friday that keeps on giving.

We’ll have a more detailed piece out next week about Elizabeth McGovern’s magical trip to Sierra Leone as a “charity ambassador” for World Vision, but for now, the highlight reel:

Elizabeth McGovern didn’t know that World Vision was a Christian charity, but she did know that it paid her £28,000:

“I was stupid not to realise it … I think the people at World Vision assumed it would be obvious.” McGovern has not withdrawn from World Vision, as “on balance, it is an organisation that does a lot of good for many people.” In addition, World Vision has paid her band £28,000 to fund the recording of their latest album and a UK tour, in return for which they have agreed to promote the charity. Without this money, McGovern says, her band would “never survive”. She recently turned to a crowdfunding website for donations towards her next album, with a portion of the money going to World Vision.

Elizabeth McGovern sure seemed to have a lot of questions about how hard it would be to take her “sponsored” child, Jestina, home with her:

The conversation then turns to Jestina. “Is there a problem that some celebrities and rich people try to take one of the children home?” asks McGovern. “I imagine some big-time celebrities can be more of a hindrance than a help.”

“It’s not so easy to take a child across borders,” says Wilson. “And World Vision is very big on child protection.”

“Do Jestina’s parents live together?”

Elizabeth McGovern on Sex:

“I get the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home,” reflects McGovern. “You see certain cultures where there’s just endemic cruelty to women. I wonder if World Vision would take on the problem of women wearing the burka? And that clitoris thing is awful.”

World Vision, on being super good about not proselytizing:

I ask the driver, a Sierra Leonean who has worked for World Vision for more than 10 years, about the extent to which Christianity drives the charity’s actions. Does World Vision ever try to convert people?

“Christianity is our goal,” he says. “In some Muslim areas they are suspicious of us. So we put our effort into setting up clinics, permanent schools, and establish a society. Gradually they see we are good people. Then we pay professional pastors to preach to them. That is our final goal.”

“But you don’t try to convert non-Christians,” interrupts Wilson from the back. “World Vision never tries to proselytise.” The man laughs wryly and shrugs. McGovern says nothing.

World Vision, on aid efficiency:

“Before I do interviews, I need to know what distinguishes World Vision from its competitors,” McGovern says. “Is it less well-known because it spends less on promotion?”

“I don’t know about that,” says Wilson. “World Vision paid for this trip, and that’s not cheap.”

Elizabeth McGovern, on the lasting tragedy she experienced in Sierra Leone:

On the final morning, in a guesthouse in a very poor area, McGovern emerges from her room as white as a sheet.

“My iPhone,” she says. “I dropped it in the toilet.” Somebody cites the urban myth that the phone should be covered with rice. McGovern asks our hostess if that would be possible. She nods and brings a sack of rice out of her storeroom. McGovern places her iPhone in a plastic bag and pours a generous helping of rice on top of it. It stays like this all the way home, but the iPhone never recovers.

New Feature: Mass Atrocity Monday

Amanda seems to have a handle on the desserts and ridiculousness side of things, so I’m going to focus on injecting a little more atrocity into this atrocity humor blog.

As some of you know, I’m mid-way through writing a dissertation on criminal accountability for acts of mass atrocity. That means I spend a good whack of my time cataloguing and typologizing the horrors of the last half-century. (And you thought political scientists never have any fun.)

The project has yielded all sorts of fascinating trivia, which I’ve decided to share with / inflict on you. So, at the start of every other week in 2014, brace yourselves for Mass Atrocity Monday, because that’s happening.

Starting As I Mean to Go On: Resolutions for 2014

Hello, 2014, I’m so happy to see you!  

So, so happy. Happy … and a little surprised?

Not that I didn’t think you’d show up, but the highlights of my 2013 included “not getting blown up by that bomb that time,” and “all those great funerals,” so at times it felt like my luck was running out. Guess not, though!

To honor my unexpected success in making it out of 2013 with only some light singeing around my edges, I’ve made some resolutions. As I’m sure will surprise no one who knows me, I don’t believe in resolutions to do more things that I don’t want to do, but seem prudent. Rather, I only resolve to do more things that I do want to do, and might be tempted to deny myself in the name of prudence. And so:

The 2014 Resolutions of A. Taub:

1. Make and eat more desserts and other delicious foods. Self-explanatory. Delicious food is awesome, and shifting the balance between delicious food/just okay food towards the former seems like a clear win. In fact, because I am working from home today on account of Polar Vortex, I shall start right now, and make the Peanut-Butter Brown-Butter Rice Krispie Treats that are described in the recipe at the end of this post, after the jump. (If you have suggestions for the leftovers, you should email me.)

2. Watch more TV. I love TV, it is the best! And yet sometimes there is TV out there that I want to watch, and don’t, because I think I could use the time more productively by doing something else. That is clearly fear talking, and in 2014 I am going to face the fear and do it anyway. And by “do it,” I mean “watch television like a boss.” A boss of television watching.

3. Go to more of my favorite absurdly expensive exercise classes. I discovered Refine midway through 2013, and found that it offers exactly what I look for in a physical activity. Namely: a supervised, encouraging environment with good lighting in which to absolutely fucking destroy myself until all that remains is a damp little heap of Amanda-scraps bathed in endorphins.

I don’t care that it costs a gajillion dollars a class, I need more of that in my life. (That sentence was lies, in fact I do care, I wish they weren’t priced so decadently, but these resolutions are about finding a way to go anyway.)

4. Write more ridiculous blog posts.  From the beginning, this blog has been primarily a humorous site about atrocities, so we have never made any claims to seriousness, but I feel that perhaps I have not done a good enough job of plumbing the depths of my own un-seriousness in the last year. So, in 2014, whenever I have an idea to which my initial response is “I think that’s hilarious, but no one else would ever want to read my New Year’s resolutions/brief imagined memoirs of Kim Jong Un’s first ski instructor/travel skin-care advice for places with limited running water,” I resolve to write it and post it anyway, for the non-enjoyment of you, our long-suffering readers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(Obviously, with this post, I am starting as I mean to go on.)

Salted Peanut-Butter Brown-Butter Rice Krispie Treats

A perfect choice to brighten up those dreary winter days when you’re inside hiding from the Polar Vortex, South Sudan’s peace talks seem shaky, and Rwandan government officials are being astonishingly dickish – even for them – about a murdered opposition figure.

Continue reading

Egyptian Military Deploys Unstoppable Army of Nationalist Tots

The Egyptian military would like you to know that its primary activities these days consist of kissing adorable small children on the cheek, accepting bouquets of flowers, and dance-marching to a jaunty electro-folk beat.

The children, for their parts, have an absolutely adorable song for you about the prospect of martyrdom and their love for the army, particularly General al-Sisi (note the “I love you Sisi!” in English at the 2:30 mark).

I have to say, this is a big relief. Events of recent weeks, such as the arrest of prominent young activists Alaa and Mona Abd el Fattah and Ahmed Maher, the detention of four al-Jazeera journalists, the raid by security forces on the office of the Egyptian Center for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the sentencing of 21 schoolgirls to prison for demonstrating in support of deposed president Mohammed Morsi, had made me a bit concerned that the Egyptian military might be wielding its considerable strength to crush dissent and crack down on any potential challenges to its consolidation of political power.

I sure am grateful to the 4 year old girl in army fatigues for setting me straight.

(Hat tip for the video goes to The Arabist, whose posts and very useful Twitter feed were probably originally responsible for bringing many of the other linked stories to my attention as well.)

This Kerala Tourism Board Video is Going to Haunt My Nightmares

The Kerala Tourism Board has an important message for everyone, which is that Kerala is a good vacation destination because of the high prevalence of demonic possession, some of which occurs during spa treatments.

Another good activity to do in Kerala, apparently, is to get cloned, dress your clone in an outfit that matches yours, and sit in a daze in the middle of a lake as your doppelganger gets paddled around you in a canoe.

Or, if you would prefer, you can have a psychotic breakdown in the woods, during which a group of silent men and boys will dress you in burlap, tie your hands together, and watch silently as you writhe in agony. This will make your hair really, really messy.

(The elephant at the end clearly regrets his decision to appear in this ad. You can tell from his face that he is counting down the seconds until the shot is over so that he can call his agent and berate him for sending him out on this terrible job.

He is going to be all “Bernie! What the hell? I trained with the Paris Opera. I want to do La Bayadere, not La What-the-hell-is-this-lady-doing-to-my-trunk-adere.)

h/t The Daily Dish

Time for a Bechdel Test for African Characters? Some Thoughts on the Newsroom’s Very Special Africa Episode

The Newsroom went to Africa. It was not good.

In Sunday’s episode, “Unintended Consequences,” ACN sent a reporter named Maggie and a cameraman named Gary Cooper to Uganda to do a segment on the U.S. army building an orphanage there, because apparently that is news.

When she was done interviewing soldiers, Maggie relaxed with a visit to the orphanage’s classroom, in which children of all ages were having a “geography lesson” that consisted of reciting the names of continents when their teacher pointed to them on a map. Seems like geography to me! Then Gary Cooper came in with the camera and all the children screamed and hid under their desks, because they thought it was a gun. (could this be…FORESHADOWING?) See, cattle raiders were roaming them there hills, and the children were afeared.

A particularly adorable afeared child named Daniel – who, the show takes pains to tell us, has parents but has been sent to the orphanage temporarily to avoid cattle raider attacks, and so wasn’t even supposed to be there that day (IRONY) – bonded with Maggie by demanding that she read him him Lyle, Lyle Crocodile over and over again, and petting her hair. The teacher says that Daniel is fascinated by Maggie’s hair because he’s never seen a blonde person before, and that “blondes are trouble.” (OMG MORE FORESHADOWING.)

Through a series of mishaps that include Maggie not knowing where Djibouti is and not understanding that it is not light during nighttime, the ACN team was forced to spend the night at the orphanage. (Thanks again for those strong female characters, Aaron Sorkin.)

That night, obviously, cattle raiders attacked. At first everyone was like “hey, weird, this is an orphanage so we do not have any cattle.” But then it turned out that they were actually CAMERA raiders who wanted the ACN camera. Maggie didn’t know that because the raiders were yelling in a language that her fixer did not understand, and apparently none of the other people at the orphanage thought to bring it up. (Perhaps they were embarrassed to, because camera raiders are not a thing.)

So then everyone hustled to load the children onto what I assume was an AK-47-proof bus, but Daniel was missing! No one saw that coming at all. Daniel was hiding under a bed, with the Lyle book. OMG. Who will save him? The orphanage staff apparently hadn’t even noticed that they were short a Daniel, but never fear, American people are here! Maggie and Gary heroically tore the bed off the floor and dragged Daniel out from under it, then ran for the bus. Except that the raiders shot Daniel while Maggie was carrying him to the bus on her back, so he died from the bullet that was meant for her. MORE OF WHAT I ASSUME WAS INTENDED TO BE IRONY.

All of this is told through the framing device of a deposition, because, you see, the truly important thing about Daniel’s death was how it affected Maggie, and apparently in Sorkin world a deposition is a thing you use to evaluate someone’s emotional state after a traumatic event. We can tell that Maggie is totes messed up about what happened because she came home and gave herself a terrible haircut and tomato-red dye job. (Remember, blondes are trouble.) But she bravely soldiers on through the deposition with barely a wring of her hands because she is BRAVE (if rather bad at her job).

Africa has changed Maggie – changed her forever. You can tell by her hair.

Over at Slate, Willa Paskin suggests that we introduce the term “Lyle-ing” as an equivalent to “fridging” for storylines in which a black child’s death, instead of a woman’s, is used to instigate anguish and personal growth in a white main character. I think that’s a fine idea, but would suggest another addition: a Bechdel test for African characters.

The Bechdel test is a feminist movie evaluation tool introduced by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a movie must (1) have two or more female characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than a man. If a movie doesn’t pass the test, that’s a sign that it’s lacking in female characters, and/or just using them as emotional MacGuffins for the males around them. (Many, many movies do not pass this test.)

I think it’s about time for us to introduce an equivalent test for African characters: if a movie or TV show is set in Africa, then it should (1) have at least two African characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than poverty, disease, or violent conflict.

“But, Amanda!” you say, “how would that even work? Everyone knows that on TV, Africa exists so that white people can go there thinking they will change things, but end up having Africa change them more than they ever imagined it could. What would Africans even talk about with each other? And where will the white characters get their life-changing epiphanies if they’re no longer allowed to save helpless innocents from some sort of horror or tragedy?”

I agree that it’s a tough challenge. Western audiences, trained on years of Carter-goes-to-Congo storylines, may be surprised to discover that people in “Africa” have problems other than those that ride in with one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. And screenwriters, long trained to think of Africa as a continent-sized arena for the battle of White Person vs. White Person’s Inner Demons, may initially have difficulty finding other uses for it. So, to get everyone started, here are some storylines that are guaranteed entertainment gold:

  1. Any Wedding Reality Show Ever: Nigeria Edition. After seeing Glenna Gordon’s amazing photo essay on Nigerian weddings, I feel legitimately betrayed by the reality TV industry’s failure to bring me any wedding shows involving mommy lace, little brides, or cash “spray.” Seriously, someone has to get on this.
  2. Arrested Development in Addis Ababa. According to NPR, Ethiopia is currently undergoing a construction boom so powerful that women are leaving traditional work as maids and nannies to join construction crews. Perhaps it’s time for the Bluth family to partner with a development firm run by a family of quirky Ethiopians to blow the McMansion market there wide open.
  3. Scandal: The Kigali Initiative. Olivia Pope & Associates get new client: a Rwandan diplomat who has been in secret talks about joining the opposition, and is afraid that the Kagame regime is about to have him killed. The gladiators in suits get to work, but it turns out that the plot runs deeper than anyone could have imagined, so they have to join with a team of Rwandan fixers to get to the bottom of it before it’s too late.
  4. Untitled Liberian Surfing Project. A ragtag group of Liberian surfing entrepreneurs decide that it’s time for Robertsport to host a major international surfing competition. Hijinks ensue.

Come on, entertainment industry: make it happen!