WTF Friday, 5/27/2016

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Angelina Jolie and William Hague at the 2014 Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. (Photo from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.)

My internets exploded this week over the news that famous actress-and-attractive-person Angelina Jolie will be joining the London School of Economics as a visiting professor at the Center for Women, Peace & Security. Reactions in my inbox ranged from “OMG WTF LSE” to “Is a blockbuster movie career now a prerequisite for a decent university teaching gig?” to “Do we really have to talk about this?”

The answers to the last two questions are, respectively, “let’s hope not” and “yes.” For help with the first, I reached out to Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan, an actual expert on women, peace, and security. Nimmi directs the Politics of Sexual Violence Research Initiative at the City College of New York. She has a PhD in political science and works on women’s participation in, and experience of, violent conflict. (And she and I coauthored a report on the situation of Tamil women in post-war Sri Lanka last year.) Here’s a transcript of our email conversation, edited a bit for clarity:

KCF: Is this appointment as nutballs as the internet seems to think? Is Angelina Jolie an expert on women in war?

NG: Angelina Jolie has certainly spent the kind of devoted time listening to women affected by war that ‘experts’ often do not. However, [this appointment] reveals a disturbing trend in celebrity activism — where a combination of star power and good intentions combine to erect a powerful platform, elevating the actor above the activist. In recent years, the role played by early celebrity ambassadors has slowly transformed. From symbolic place-holders, public relations practicalities for ineffective UN agencies, to coveted positions of power. Positions as political actors representing the realities of a people, and a politics, that they have not researched, inserting their voices over lines that they have not rehearsed.

KCF: What do you make of her work with former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague on the issue of sexual violence during conflict?

NG: The partnership between Hague and Jolie is representative of the naively de-politicized engagement of celebrities in humanitarian work. And when the issue at hand is the victimization of women, the de-politicization is further entrenched. William Hague is a key member of a nation whose record on accepting asylum cases of women who were ‘only’ raped in conflict zones is  dismal, at best. Countries hand-selected by the initiative to showcase on sexual violence violations (Afghanistan, for example) re-inforce political agendas that justify the use of feminist imperialism to justify entrenched militarization. Those that don’t make their initial list, Sri Lanka for example, have little strategic value, or threaten to reveal a complicity of the UK in crimes committed. With one hand, the initiative partners with qualified and thoughtful individuals and institutions to develop protocols for documentation of crimes for legal prosecution, but with the other, they use their celebrity glow to beckon war criminals to the table who have stacked domestic courts to guarantee their impunity, for generations to come.

KCF: I know you attended their Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict two years ago. Did that feel like a positive use of celebrity to improve women’s lives?

NG: From the floor of the Hall to Expose violence against women, my critique captured the constant cognitive dissonance, a dream-like dedication to a staged activism — where Angelina Jolie made an occasional cameo. The scourge of sexual violence across the globe is offered a secure place in the lives of women by the strictures of repressive societies, violent states, and humanitarian interventions that fail to see the survivor behind the sewing machine. For the scholars and activists who are resigned to the small audiences that gather around complex political solutions to deeply entrenched problems, there is no envy of the attention celebrity attracts. The most effective critique they offer, is to temper overly-ambitious, purposely de-politicized, large scale acronymed programs with caution.

KCF: So fair to say that while her commitment to this issue is genuine, the effects of her engagement has been mixed?

NG: If we are to consider Jolie a true humanitarian, and a practicing one, then the interventions created by her, or in her image, must (at the very least) be held up to the first commandment in the humanitarian gospel — to do no harm. It remains to be seen whether the attention and agenda-driven approach to sexual violence will, in fact, shift the reality of marginalized women to provide them with a power similar to actors offered a platform, because they pretend.

KCF: Notwithstanding these very real concerns about impact, do you feel like Jolie’s history of involvement means she has something useful to offer to LSE students?

NG: While masters programs often, effectively, rely on Professors of Practice, the ‘practical’ element of Angelina Jolie’s engagement in critical issues remains an exceptional experience that students cannot, and should not, expect to mimic. In humanitarian crises, the secure nature of her travel and access to pre-selected sample sizes, rivals that of a Vatican visit. In her advocacy and activism, she is handed a microphone and captive audience of policymakers. Those that have lived to tell the tale of violence, spend lifetimes navigating apathy and checkpoints, hoping to be the background noise that doesn’t get drowned out of critical conversations. Her practice of celebrity activism may be more thoughtful than most, but the next generation of scholars and analysts should formulate new critiques from an understanding of the hard realities of the development sector, not the plushly carpeted pathways to power.

News

I passed Ph.D. school, everyone!

As of October 1st, I am a postdoctoral fellow in Law & International Security at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. The main consequence of this change is that now, instead of saying “I’m working on my dissertation”, I can say “I’m working on my book”. (It is, of course, exactly the same project.) And I now own a car and have Opinions About Cargo Space.

I also have a bit more free time to do things like brush my hair and write this blog, which I’ve just given its first makeover in several years.

And in other news, if you’re not already following Amanda in her new(ish) role as Vox’s Senior Sadness Correspondent, get on that.

Blast from the Past

This morning I went looking for evidence of a really awesome idea for a reality TV show that I had once, and discovered that our first two weeks of posts never made the transition from Blogspot to WordPress. I also discovered that back in 2008 we used to post multiple times per day. Crazy.

So I’m in the process of bringing them over manually, and have got the first ten up. Please enjoy these deep cuts from the Wronging Rights archive:

  1. Welcome to Our Blog
  2. Your Correspondents
  3. “Dictator House”
  4. MSM on Africa – Round 1: Evolution of a Story
  5. Hard Choice Feminism
  6. Human Rights Don’ts
  7. UPDATE: MSM on Africa – Round 1: Evolution of a Story
  8. Fun with Footnotes
  9. Paying for Justice
  10. Equality of Arms

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.

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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!

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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.

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