WTF Friday, 10/14/2016

So this election’s October Surprise turns out to be that the Republican candidate for president is a sloppily-drawn allegorical embodiment of rape culture. In other misogyny news from around the internet:

Iran will execute a child bride (now 22 years old) for the murder of her husband in 2012. She was convicted after a trial that Amnesty International calls “grossly unfair“, and alleges that she was beaten by the police and coerced into confessing to the crime. Oh, and having just given birth to a stillborn baby in prison, she’s being denied postnatal care prior to her execution.

After rejecting all seven of the qualified female candidates for Secretary General, the UN has chosen Wonder Woman as an honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. Because the UN is the literal worst.

And since I started writing this blog post, two more women have come forward to accuse of Trump of assault.

What a week.

#NotThatBadInEritrea?

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 12.00.31 PM

The New York Times ran a curious op-ed on the subject of Eritrea last week.

Titled “It’s Bad in Eritrea, but Not That Bad“, it suggests that the recent report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), finding evidence of crimes against humanity in Eritrea, is biased and inaccurate. The author, Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council, agrees that the situation is “frightful”, but calls the report “shoddy” and claims it “entrenches the skewed perspective long dominant in policy circles and the media in the West”.

Bruton has two main problems with the COI: First, that on the basis of incomplete information it over-interprets all human rights violations as evidence of systematic and top-down policy. And second, that its call to refer the alleged crimes to the International Criminal Court risks further isolating Eritrea and undermining prospects for reform.

While the latter point is laughably non-specific to the case of Eritrea (welcome to the peace vs. justice debate, round 73!), the former sounds like a reasonable concern. Indeed, distinguishing human rights abuses that are directed vs. tolerated can be challenging. And like many commissions investigating uncooperative regimes, this one made its findings on the basis of diaspora testimony, without doing any on the ground research.

But the role of a COI is not to make a legal determination of guilt. It’s simply to establish whether there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that serious violations of human rights have occurred. And the standard for crimes against humanity is whether the abuses are widespread OR systematic. The fact that the COI found evidence of widespread, serious human rights violations is, on its own, enough to justify its conclusion that there are reasonable grounds to believe crimes against humanity have been committed, and should be investigated.

Bruton makes another point in criticism of the COI, though, which gets to the heart of why the report is so controversial. Namely, that while Eritrea faces censure from the international community, neighboring Ethiopia escapes criticism for similar behavior. It’s clear from the online response to the report that pro-regime Eritreans feel this disparity keenly.

Human rights abuses in Ethiopia should undoubtedly receive more attention, but this is hardly an argument for giving Eritrea a pass. According to one estimate, between 2012 and 2015, 1 in 50 Eritreans fled their homeland for asylum in Europe. That’s a remarkably high proportion, indicating that perhaps things ARE #ThatBadInEritrea.

WTF Friday, 7/25/2014

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted on Wednesday to establish an international commission of inquiry into possible war crimes committed by Israel during its current Gaza offensive. Of the 47 Council members, 29 voted in favor, 1 (the U.S.) against, and 17 abstained.

Gaza vote

UNHRC Gaza votes

Four months ago, I was in the Council chamber as another probe into possible war crimes was debated. Here is the outcome of voting on that resolution, which established an international investigation into alleged abuses at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009:

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

Notice anything?

With the exception of a handful of Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries, almost everyone has flipped their position.

This is interesting (or depressing, depending on how you look at it) because when countries explain their votes, they almost always speak in absolutes. In March, I heard numerous Western countries stress the legal obligation to provide justice for international crimes and the duty of the Council to stand with the victims of human rights abuses. I heard non-Western countries object categorically to “country-specific” resolutions (i.e. initiatives that single out a country for censure or investigation without its consent) and emphasize that the Council must respect sovereign governments and avoid an interventionist approach.

This week, it appeared that none of these positions were particularly deeply held.

*Photos of the vote board are courtesy of the United Nations office at Geneva.

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, 1/31/2014

I remember going to a Model United Nations conference for the first time and thinking it was a shame people didn’t take it more seriously and act like REAL delegates. (Yup, that’s the kind of super-fun 16 year old I was.)

Then I went to work at the actual United Nations.

I was sitting in the General Assembly one Friday morning when a junior Tunisian diplomat surreptitiously passed me a note inviting me to a kegger at the Egyptian third secretary’s apartment, and I thought to myself, “huh, I guess Model UN was more accurate than I gave it credit for”.

Further evidence in Model UN’s defense arose yesterday after the Security Council session, when Rwanda’s ambassador accused the Congolese delegation of “crying like small babies”. I can only assume that the Congolese fired back that Rwanda are a bunch of asshats who can suck it, and then stomped off to do their math homework.

Clearing Up Some Confusion on UN Immunity and the Haitian Cholera Claims

A number of news outlets are reporting that the UN has “invoked immunity” in response to claims for compensation from Haitian victims of a cholera epidemic that was probably introduced by Nepalese members of the MINUSTAH peacekeeping mission.

That’s not quite what happened.

The UN didn’t invoke its immunity, because it didn’t have to. The claims for compensation were not an effort to file suit in the courts of Haiti, or any other nation from whose jurisdiction the UN is immune. Rather, they were an attempt by NGOs representing Haitian victims, recognizing the UN’s immunity to lawsuits, to file a claim with the UN itself.

Let’s start from the top:

The UN has immunity from legal process under the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. This means that UN officials and “experts on mission for the United Nations” (which is how peacekeepers are classified) are protected from any legal claims or charges arising out of actions performed in their official capacity.**

However, Article 29 of that Convention provides an avenue for the resolution of some disputes that courts cannot reach because of the UN’s immunity. It states that: “The United Nations shall make provisions for appropriate modes of settlement of disputes arising out of contracts or other disputes of a private law character to which the United Nations is a party.”

In keeping with this obligation, MINUSTAH’s Status of Forces agreement with the Haitian government provided for the establishment of a three person “standing claims commission” to hear civil claims arising out of actions of MINUSTAH, or its members, outside of the Haitian courts’ jurisdiction. This never happened. (And in fact, it appears that the creation of such a commission has never happened anywhere.)

Due to the nonexistence of the standing claims commission, the victims submitted their petition to MINUSTAH’s claims unit and directly to UN HQ. The UN Office of Legal Affairs took fifteen months to review it, and responded by letter yesterday. Its position is that the cholera claims are not the sort of “dispute[] of a private law character” envisioned by Art. 29 of the Convention, but rather involve questions of public law and policy. Well worth the wait, huh?

As Kristen Boon points out over at Opinio Juris: “The upshot of this communication is that the claimants have no venue to pursue their case.” There is no right of appeal for the UN’s denial of compensation, and any attempt to bring a case in Haitian courts (which victims representatives have signaled they will pursue) will be met with an immediate invocation of immunity. -In which case, we can all look forward to some recycled headlines.

 

**This isn’t relevant for the cholera claims, but the Status of Forces agreements that the UN signs with countries where peacekeeping operations deploy include additional language stating that military personnel “shall be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of their respective participating States in respect of any criminal offences.” This means that even when peacekeepers commit crimes in no way related to their official duties (like, for instance, raping Congolese children), they can’t be prosecuted by the host country.

 

WTF Friday, 8/24/2012

It’s still Thursday for another 12 hours in my current time zone, but I’m calling it for this week:

An elected judge in Lubbock County, Texas has announced that the United States risks descending into civil war if President Obama is reelected. An armed insurrection will become necessary, Judge Head believes, in order to battle the UN troops that will pour into US territory when Obama surrenders sovereignty of the country to the United Nations. Because the UN would DEFINITELY want to take that on.

I don’t think there’s anything I can add to make this funnier than it already is, so I’ll just echo Lubbock County Commissioner Gilbert Flores’s advice to Judge Head: “I think you better plan to go fishing pretty soon.”

Recommended Reading on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Stéphanie Giry has an interesting post about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal up at the NY Review of Books blog. I’m in Phnom Penh at the moment, spending my time watching the Tribunal’s proceedings and harassing the people who work there, so I’ll have plenty to add on the subject soon, but if you’re looking for a good sum-up of the situation, go read Giry’s piece.

In outlining the political challenges (both domestic and international) to the effective delivery of justice for Khmer Rouge crimes, Giry raises a number of troubling issues that apply to international justice efforts more widely. The existence of “few degrees of separation between the crimes of yesterday and the leaders of today” describes any number of post-atrocity societies, constraining prosecutorial choices and incentivizing political interference. Similarly, in the presence of incentives to interfere, corruption issues around an accountability process are always a possibility.

However, it is Giry’s description of the role of the UN and donor governments that I find most disturbing in its potential broad applicability. She characterizes the international actors participating in the Tribunal’s work as “eager to present themselves as guardians of international justice for as small a political price as possible.” Unfortunately, this sentiment echoes a number of conversations I’ve had with people here over the last two and a half weeks.

The hybrid tribunal model (in which a domestic government and international actors work together to create and staff a court) is intended to supplement the capacity of local judicial institutions to a degree sufficient to produce justice that meets international standards. But if the international partners can’t be bothered to object when these standards are violated, what’s the point?

 

Today in Headlines We Thought We Misread: Zimbabwe Sends Peacekeepers To Syria

I learned today (h/t Peter Dörrie) that Zimbabwe is deploying military personnel to the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS).

Know what country’s soldiers you’re definitely not picturing when you hear the term “UN peacekeepers”? That’s right, Zimbabwe.

I would think this was just another item to be filed under “Confusing Choices Made by the International Community in Handling the Syria Crisis” (see, e.g., sending an accused war criminal to head the Arab League observer mission), but Zimbabwe currently has military personnel in the UN missions to Darfur (UNAMID), Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), and Liberia (UNMIL), and police in South Sudan (UNMISS), Timor-Leste (UNMIT), and Liberia.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (a major opposition force in Zimbabwe politics) has called on the United Nations to stop using Zimbabwe’s armed forces in its peacekeeping missions on the grounds that their human rights record renders them unfit for service. The army has most recently been accused of abuses against miners in the Marange diamond fields, while the police are alleged to have beaten and tortured civil society activists who viewed a video of the Arab Spring protests in 2011.

So this should definitely help the Department of Peacekeeping Operations with that whole catastrophic image problem thing…