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!

The Senate Should Confirm Nina Pillard Already

I wholeheartedly support Cornelia “Nina” Pillard’s nomination for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, because she is awesome. Professor Pillard taught two of my classes at Georgetown, so I can say from personal experience that she is a smart, diligent, judicious thinker. She is also a triathlete with practically-bionic strength. (That is less relevant to her judicial nomination, but still cool. Her exploits in the law school’s gym were legendary amongst my classmates.) The Senate should confirm her already.

I am not the only one who thinks that Pillard would be an asset to the federal bench. Here is Professor Viet Dinh, former deputy Attorney General under George W. Bush, and probably Georgetown’s most famously conservative faculty member, on Pillard’s qualifications:

“She is a fair-minded thinker with enormous respect for the law and for the limited, and essential, role of the federal appellate judge– qualities that make her well prepared to taken on the work of a D.C. Circuit judge. I am confident that she would approach the judicial task of applying law to facts in a fair and meticulous manner.”

And here is a statement from a group of 40 prominent attorneys who practice before the Supreme Court, including several who served in senior roles in the Reagan and Bush justice departments:

“We believe that Professor Pillard would bring to the D.C. Circuit unquestioned professional integrity and intellect, a breadth of experience, and dedication to fairness and the rule of law. We urge her confirmation.”

And yet, if you listen to the Republican members of the judiciary committee and the denizens of the National Review echo chamber, Pillard is some sort of crazed radical who probably shouldn’t be trusted with young minds, let alone federal cases. Never mind that she has assisted dozens of litigants, from all points on the political spectrum, pro bono as part of Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute. Never mind that she collaborated with Dinh and the Bush Administration to litigate (and win) Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs before the Supreme Court. No, apparently Pillard is “out of the mainstream,” and would be “the most left-wing judge in the history of the republic.”

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WTF Friday, 7/26/13

In Germany, controversy has erupted over the town of Schwaebisch Gmuend’s plan to pay African asylum seekers 1.05 euros per hour to work as porters in the local train station:

“Nine predominantly dark-skinned men in red service shirts and jolly sunhats ready to carry the cases of predominantly white clients. For €1.05 an hour. Blacks as luggage coolies for whites – and in our country. How can that be?” wrote Stern magazine.

“Having refugees as bag carriers is a shameless exploitation of the people’s situation,” far-left Linke lawmaker Ulla Jelpke said. Jelpke called the practice “colonial” behaviour.

The bigger WTF, though, goes to the German government’s asylum law, whose policy of forbidding employers to pay asylum seekers more than 1.05 euros per hour – about eight times less than Germany’s minimum wage for temporary workers – is apparently at the root of this program:

A spokesman for Schwaebisch Gmuend told Reuters the conservative mayor was disappointed at Deutsche Bahn’s decision and blamed misplaced political correctness.

“At a first glance, pictures of black people carrying white peoples’ suitcases don’t look good and conjure up images of neo-colonialism and racism, but this is not the case – the asylum seekers want to do this,” said the spokesman.

He added that the 1.05 euros was not a wage as such, as asylum seekers are not allowed to be employed, but is the maximum amount it is possible to give them under the asylum seekers law.

Pro tip: if your migration policy is such that the best case scenario for vulnerable people in your country is a job that makes your citizens scream “OMG, colonialism! Colonialism or perhaps actual slavery!”, something has gone very, very wrong.

“With a Smile on His Face”: New Account of Sexual Assault in Tahrir Square

Another day, another revolution in Egypt. And with that new revolution comes a new outbreak of mass sexual assaults against women in Tahrir Square.

This is not a new phenomenon. In February 2011, CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was in Tahrir Square to report on the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak, when a crowd of men overpowered her crew, stripped her, and subjected her to a prolonged and brutal sexual assault. In June 2012, documentarian Natasha Smith suffered a similar assault at the hands of a mob who stripped her and violated her with their hands as they dragged her, naked, through the square. There have been many more attacks against Egyptian women following the same pattern: a group of men isolate a woman, then surround her with what one activist has called “the circle of hell” – a ring of men who strip and assault the woman, surrounded by outer circles of accomplices who enable the attack by pretending to help the victim, and distracting the crowd from what is happening.

I recently spoke to Joost Schefferss, a 21 year old journalism student from the Netherlands who is currently studying Arabic in Cairo, about an attack that he and his friends suffered in Tahrir Square last Sunday. Thankfully, his group was rescued shortly after the assault began, narrowly avoiding a more serious fate.

Joost had gone to the square with two friends: another male student from the Netherlands, and a young Swedish woman. (His friends prefer not to be identified.) They were accompanied by two Egyptian journalists. Although Joost and his friends had no involvement in Egyptian politics, he felt an “intense strong feeling to go there to see what was going on.” He sensed that history was happening nearby, and thought it would be a shame to miss it.

They arrived at the square in the late afternoon, while the sun was still bright, and spent several hours there without incident. The atmosphere was happy, “like a festival, or something like that.” Helicopters flying Egyptian flags circled overhead, and the crowd cheered them, taking the choppers’ presence as a sign of support from the army. “It was a good atmosphere, great, really.” He took photographs, and tweeted about the excitement of the crowd.

As evening fell, and it began to get dark, however, Joost felt the mood of the crowd begin to change. “Be careful, be careful,” people in the crowd began to say to them, in English. His group linked together to walk single file, “like a train.” Each held onto a shoulder of the person in front of them, with the two Egyptian journalists bracketing the line in front and back, an engine and a caboose.

They began to make their way out of the square. Suddenly, “at a certain moment, the people were pushing, pushing, pushing. I didn’t have any idea what was going on.”

“It kept on going, and I felt a guy pushing me on my back, and again.” He briefly thought that it was merely the density of the moving crowd, but when he turned, he saw that there was plenty of space. Joost realized that the pushes were deliberate attacks meant to separate the group. Surprisingly, their attackers were teenagers. The person pushing Joost was “like a kid, of 17 or 18 years old.”

As he struggled to stay on his feet, Joost realized that his Swedish friend had lost hold of his shoulder. “I started to look, where she is, where she is, where she is? And I saw her, being pushed through the crowds by the Egyptian journalists, to get away from there.”

“She was pushed away, and the other guys were pushing me very hard, front and back.” He tried to follow, but the young woman was surrounded by a group of youths who were sexually assaulting her. “She got touched – hands were all over her whole body, grabbing her.” The two Egyptian journalists were trying to protect her, but they were unable to escape.

The Egyptian boys around Joost and his other friend continued to slam into them, trying to knock them to the ground as they tried to reach the young woman to help her. Joost felt certain that she was the main object of the attack. “That is the tactic of these groups. They push, and they push and they push, and at a certain moment the girl is gone.”

During the struggle, Joost made eye contact with one of the attackers. Horrifyingly, he looked like was having fun. “I looked the guy straight in his eyes… his face was really, really happy. He was enjoying it, definitely. There was a big smile on his face.”

Joost does not know how long the assault lasted, because he was just focused on keeping his feet, and getting to his friend. Suddenly, a group of broad-shouldered, muscular Egyptian men ran up to them and “smashed” away the youths committing the assault. With the Egyptian journalists, their rescuers joined hands to form a circle and made their way through the crowd, out of the square. Joost believes that things could have gotten much worse if they had not been rescued. “We were really lucky, after all.”

Once they were out of the square, most of their protectors disappeared – probably back into the square, to return to their patrol. However, “one of them walked with us to our car, just to make sure we arrived there, as safe as possible.” Joost would like to find the group, to thank them for their help, but has not been able to do so thus far. The rescuers never introduced themselves, so it is unclear whether they were volunteers with an official organization like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, or just concerned citizens.

“The guy who accompanied us to the car, he had a red t-shirt and a red key card with a red card on it, but I don’t know exactly what the red card was from. I also don’t know who he was, where he was from, or what else – I’ve got no clue at all.”

I asked Joost if he had any sense of what the attackers’ motivation might have been. He offered a few general theories, such as the mistrust created by Egyptian ad campaigns telling people not to trust foreigners, and the frustration felt by young men who are unable to get jobs or marry, but while those explanations might explain Egypt’s generally high rates of sexual harassment, they don’t explain the specific phenomenon of mob assaults on women in Tahrir Square. Joost has also heard that there is credible evidence that other sexual assaults were designed to drive women and journalists out of the square. “There were signals that those attacks were structured to get the journalists off Tahrir and make everyone afraid to come there and protest.”

That doesn’t seem to fit his own experience, though. “They could have been instructed by special forces to [attack us], but I really doubt it, because they were so young.” He imagines that if such attacks were planned, the organizers would send “a big group of strong men, to make sure that it happens. Not a bunch of kids.” (He hastened to add that this was just his own impression, however – he doesn’t have enough information to comment about the phenomenon of these assaults more generally.)

Whatever the motivation behind this particular assault, at this stage it seems clear that these attacks are taking place with horrifying frequency. Last Friday, a Dutch journalist was reportedly gang raped in Tahrir, and remains hospitalized for her injuries. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, a volunteer organization in Cairo that sends volunteer patrols into Tahrir Square to protect women from attack, received 46 reports of mob sexual assaults on women on Sunday, 17 Monday, and more than 20 yesterday. The victims of yesterday’s attacks reportedly included “grandmothers, mothers with their children,” and 7 year old girls.

Despite the ongoing assaults, however, women continue to participate in the Tahrir demonstrations, and to volunteer with the bodyguard groups patrolling to rescue women from sexual assaults. Three cheers for their bravery, which is an example to us all.

WTF Friday, 3/8/2013, Somalia-Yet-Again Edition

This week’s WTF Friday goes to Somalia (again), for its continued ability to take a ridiculous situation and make it so much more ridiculous.

Somali journalists protest the imprisonment of their colleague. Photo credit: Badri Media

For those just tuning in now, a recap: members of the Somali security forces allegedly raped a woman last August. She told her story to a journalist, Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim. When she reported the rape last February, the Somali government arrested her and subjected her to a two-day coercive interrogation without a lawyer, during which they allegedly forced her to give up the names of any journalists she had spoken to about the rape. The police then arrested Ibrahim, and brought criminal charges against both him and the alleged victim. Then, for good measure, they also threw in charges against the woman’s husband, and two acquaintances of hers who were accused of introducing her to journalists. A lower court convicted both the woman and Ibrahim of “insulting a government body,” and sentenced each of them to one year in prison.

How could this situation get any more ridiculous, you ask? Were costumes perhaps involved, or a salad featuring both mayonnaise and jell-o as ingredients? Take it away, Human Rights Watch:

“On March 3, 2013, the court of appeals upheld a lower court’s conviction of journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, but reduced his sentence from one year to six months. The judge stated that Abdiaziz Abdinur had not respected the laws of the country and the ethics of journalism by not reporting his interview with the alleged rape victim. It is unclear what laws specifically he is found to have violated.”

That’s right – while he was first convicted of “insulting a government body,” even though he never actually published his story, his conviction was upheld on the basis that he failed to report the story!  Attention all journalists in Somalia: if you are either reporting or not reporting a story, you are probably committing a crime.

(There is a small silver lining here: the conviction against the alleged rape victim herself was vacated on appeal.  I am very pleased that she is now free, but in light of the above, I will not be awarding any Lucky Charms to the appeals court.)

(Belated) WTF Friday, 10/1/2012, Public Breakdown Edition

Although we were not fans of the Kony 2012 video, Kate and I were both saddened by the news of Jason Russell’s very public breakdown. Mental illness is no joke, and we had nothing but sympathy for him and his family. We, like many of the other bloggers who were critical of the video’s substance, refrained from writing about Russell’s episode, because we consider the incident a private matter.

Invisible Children apparently disagrees, however: Russell plans to “break his silence” about that incident. In an interview with Oprah. On national TV. On October 7th. Which just happens to be the date on which Invisible Children will release its new video, “Move.”

Gross.

(H/T Jezebel.)

Point/Counterpoint on Samahope: Our Two Cents

As promised, here are our thoughts on Samahope’s use of patient profiles to raise money for fistula repair in Sierra Leone:

Although we’re kind of in love with the idea of a Kickstarter for poor women’s vaginas, we’re concerned about the fact that these women are presented primarily in terms of their injury. The key information provided for potential donors browsing through the photographs of possible recipients is “name, age, nature of fistula.” Some of the profiles list a few of the women’s hobbies or interests (“gardening” is a popular choice), but the bulk of the information is fistula-related.

We’re also troubled by the coercive dynamic implicit in the offer of assistance in exchange for public admission of a stigmatizing injury. Even in the best-case scenario, in which the women have no shame about their injuries and aren’t worried about stigma, Samahope is asking women to publicly reveal private information in exchange for help. Leila points out that she has personally spoken with fourteen of the women, and they were all willing to share their stories, but we suspect we’d also be “willing” to publicize our gynecological issues if it meant we would get otherwise unaffordable much-needed treatment. If ladies who aren’t willing to disclose their condition to the global public aren’t eligible for funded surgeries (as Leila’s comments suggest that they’re aren’t), this whole process starts to seem pretty coercive.

Here in the U.S., we don’t think it’s acceptable to force women to publicly describe their vaginas in exchange for vagina-related assistance: We’d never accept it if, say, Medicaid were to require women to post their names, photos, and description of their gynecological problems on a website in order to visit an OB/GYN.  That policy might find a fan in Rush Limbaugh, who famously said that he should be allowed to view the sex acts of young women who received government-subsidized birth control, but that’s hardly indicative of mainstream morality; his comments were (rightly) greeted with horror by the general public.

Both of these concerns (the reduction of a person to an injury, and the potentially coercive nature of the requirement to reveal private medical info) are heightened in the case of the underage girls on the site. We propose that when the question is: “hey, should i post this photo of a 14 year old girl, along with her name, and a description of her broken vagina?” the answer should always be “no.”

Finally, we worry that the setup of the appeal for help – presenting the women and girls almost as if they’re in competition for funding – sets up a disturbing decision process for the potential donor who must choose the most “worthy” (damaged? youngest? prettiest?) recipient for their funds. This mirrors a broader trend that disturbs us, in which NGOs compete for funding and attention by jostling to show the most pathetic victims possible. (Not just a starving woman, but a starving woman who has been raped.  Not just a starving woman who has been raped, but a starving child who has been raped. Not just a starving child who has been raped, but a starving child who has been trafficked into sexual slavery…)  This not only sets up a weird competition for who is “most deserving” or “most in need,” it also contributes to a culture in which no information is too private, and no depiction too demeaning, to demand of victims.

We are not cool with an NGO culture that focuses more on gratifying the egos of donors than on preserving the dignity of recipients. Campaigns like this one contribute to that culture, regardless of their intentions.

None of this is to say that we don’t think Samahope should raise money for fistula repair in Sierra Leone. We’re fully on board with soliciting wealthy Americans for money for poor African women’s vaginas. And actually, we think this has a lot of potential as the next great hipster cause. Think about it: hipsters LOVE to say the word “vagina.” (Look at us, for instance.) And West Africa Fistula Foundation, which performs the Samahope-funded surgeries, seems like a worthy beneficiary. Their focus on recruiting and training local staff is particularly encouraging.

We think there are some pretty easy fixes for the problems we’ve identified above. Nixing the photos of the underage girls would be a great start. We also challenge Samasource to consider whether they could raise money effectively for fistula repair without running photos of pre-operative patients at all. We understand the urge to present real people in need of immediate help – we’ve all seen the research showing that individuals are much more inclined to give when they have a particular person with whom to associate the need for donations. But we think creatively presented profiles (yes, and photos too) of post-op patients would be a more ethical way to establish this connection. Although it would definitely forego some of the urgency of the appeal, showing women who are able to live full, healthy lives as a result of fistula repair would be a moving testament to the value of Samahope’s work, and would clearly underscore the need to fund help for similarly situated women.

Stay tuned for Samahope founder Leila Janah’s response later on…

Migration Monday, Greece Edition

Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a new report, “Hate on the Streets: Xenophobic Violence in Greece.” From the press release:

“[The report] documents the failure of the police and the judiciary to prevent and punish rising attacks on migrants. Despite clear patterns to the violence and evidence that it is increasing, the police have failed to respond effectively to protect victims and hold perpetrators to account, Human Rights Watch found. Authorities have yet to develop a preventive policing strategy, while victims are discouraged from filing official complaints. No one has been convicted under Greece’s 2008 hate crime statute.”

We’re filing this under “terrible, but not terribly surprising.” (See, e.g., our previous coverage here and here).

Are South Sudan’s D.C. Cheerleaders Encouraging Bad Behavior?

Alan Boswell, writing in Foreign Policy, criticizes the SPLM’s powerful supporters in Washington for enabling bad behavior on the part of the world’s newest country:

The SPLM isn’t directly to blame for the dire conditions it inherited in South Sudan, but its dismal governance has stopped most progress before it even had a chance to begin. South Sudan has been run mostly autonomously — with its own budget revenue and standing military — since 2005, and the SPLM used that time to loot its way to personal riches, leaving development projects penniless. In May, South Sudan’s government acknowledged that South Sudanese officials had “stolen” $4 billion of missing funds that were supposed to go to developing the war-torn state — the equivalent of roughly two entire years of official revenue. Worse, this money was looted directly under the noses of the international community, which agreed to supervise the peace process and even provided consultants to do South Sudan’s own bookkeeping. [...]

Amid a sea of foreign-policy realism, Sudan has survived as a foreign-policy issue grounded not in national security interests, but moral idealism. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, Sudan became a rallying cry for religious activists and human rights proponents enraged by the Sudanese government’s atrocities. But the activists made a critical mistake: They seemed to think the SPLM rebels represented a virtuous mirror image of Khartoum’s evils. [...]

Two of President Bill Clinton’s Africa hands, John Prendergast and Gayle Smith, who co-founded the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress, have arguably been the most effective of the SPLM’s friends in Washington. By branding the organization as anti-genocide, the Enough Project often gets a free pass from the mainstream media, which frequently cites its version of events in Sudan as objective independent analysis. But the morally charged and culturally hip do-goodism helps disguise a clear political agenda: Even while it acknowledges South Sudan’s poor record on human rights and “transparency,” Enough’s policy papers are filled with calls for punitive measures toward Khartoum and greater engagement with Juba. Last year, Prendergast and Enough publicly advocated for arming South Sudan with air defense weapons. When Enough advertised for a job opening of “Sudan policy analyst” last year, they hired one of the SPLM’s legal advisors for the position.

For the rest, including a discussion of Clooney’s surveillance satellite system, and Gérard Prunier calling the GOSS “a government of idiots” that is “rotten to the core,” head on over to FP.

Leave the ICC Alooooone

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article by Lydia Polgreen, in which she claims that the uprisings of the Arab Spring, and the corresponding atrocities committed by the region’s autocrats as they clung to power, have revealed “crucial flaws” in the International Criminal Court’s setup: namely, that the ICC cannot try the leaders of Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and other non-member states, unless the U.N. Security Council first refers the matter to the court.

Before going further, I’d like to give credit where credit is due: Polgreen does correctly identify the mechanisms by which the court can obtain jurisdiction over the case, which is a distinct improvement over some of the NYT’s past coverage.

However, this story is an example of how the Court’s own supporters often set it up for failure, by expecting it to accomplish tasks that are beyond its competence.

The ICC is a court of limited jurisdiction. Adhering to those jurisdictional limits is not optional, or a sign of weakness. The court is not able to try cases from non-member states without a UNSC referral, but it’s also not able to invent the flying car, turn water into wine, or develop an un-chippable nail polish. Failing to achieve those things shouldn’t be a cause for disappointment, because there was never any reason to believe they would happen.

Seriously, guys: this is how the rule of law works. We set up institutions, give them limited power and a set of rules by which to wield it, and we don’t let them do more than that. If they try to do more, we smack them with a rolled-up newspaper and say “NO! BAD INSTITUTION! GO BACK TO YOUR JURISDICTION” until they learn. The ICC isn’t Dirty Harry, or the Machine Gun Preacher, or that new Tom Cruise character who apparently “doesn’t care about the law,” and “only cares about what’s right.” The ICC cares about what’s right. But like all functional courts, when push comes to shove, it has to say that “the law” beats “what’s right.” The court can’t go about arresting and prosecuting people outside its jurisdiction, no matter how appealing that might sound, because that would be an activity more commonly known as “kidnapping.”

We don’t call this a “disappointment,” we call it a “cornerstone of the rule of law.” People who want something else should hire Tom Cruise.