WTF Friday, 12/19/2014

Who’s ready for 2014 to be over?

This week:

But hey, the U.S. is finally rethinking its nutty Cuba policy, so maybe we can do better in 2015?

WTF Friday, 11/21/2014

So:

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh signed that appalling anti-gay law;

Armed bandits stole a cooler filled with Ebola-infected blood in Guinea;

The deaths of 13 Indian women following coercive sterilization surgery was traced to antibiotics contaminated with rat poison;

Bill Cosby turned out to be an even bigger rapist than we already knew;

News broke that the Indonesian National Police requires female applicants to submit to so-called “virginity tests”;

U.S. Ambassador Charles Twining’s car was shot up by a member of the South Sudanese presidential guard;

More than seven feet of snow fell in Buffalo, killing at least 13 people;

And my hipster business name is apparently “Weather & Blood”.

Anyone else ready for the weekend?

WTF Friday, 11/14/2014

2012-08-02 00.14.53OMG you guys, President Obama went to Burma and said “Rohingya” yesterday. And that’s just a day after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also said it, calling on the Burmese government to ensure humanitarian access to the beleagured minority.

More than a million Rohingya live in Burma. About 140,000 of them currently reside in squalid camps, displaced by attacks on Muslim Rohingyas by the majority Buddhists in Rakhine State in 2012. They lack adequate food and shelter and, since the ejection of Doctors Without Borders in February, their access to medical care is limited.

They are also stateless, denied citizenship by the Burmese government, which claims that they “have never had ethnic nationals called ‘Rohingya'”. In its 2014 official census, the government refused to count individuals self-identifying as Rohingya. Instead, it insists that they are “Bengalis”, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who should go home. (Population data for Rakhine State reveals no influx of Muslims from Bangladesh, or anywhere else.)

Recently, the regime has stepped up pressure on members of the international community not to employ the term “Rohingya”. In June, it demanded an apology after a UNICEF staffer used the word during a briefing. Many international actors have bowed to the government’s absurd demands, in order to continue working with a population desperately in need of help, or simply to avoid stirring up trouble.

But Obama and Ban’s strong statements suggest the tide may be turning. Yesterday, the Burmese ambassador to the UK conceded that the Rohingya are “people”. Maybe with a little more prodding, they’ll get around to admitting that they have rights.

 

*That’s a photo I took of festival observers at Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda in 2012.

WTF Friday, 10/24/2014

The following things happened this week:

  1. First lady Grace Mugabe indicated that she would like to succeed her husband Robert Mugabe, currently 3,713 years old and in his 846th year in office, as president. I feel like the Mugabes might’ve done enough for their country (if “enough” = the destruction of its economy, civil society, and performance on health indicators), how about you?
  2. Female activists in South Sudan took a page from Lysistrata and proposed a sex strike for peace. It’s a reasonable strategy; abstinence seems to be at least as effective as any other peace-building approach.
  3. Evidence emerged that ISIS is using prohibited chemical weapons against Iraqi government forces. This is, of course, in addition to their already horrifying record of violations of the laws of war such as the massacre of captured Iraqi soldiers, and the use of Yazidi women as sex slaves. Anyone got war crimes bingo? (There should be war crimes bingo, right?)

And then last night a doctor in New York tested positive for Ebola after treating victims of the epidemic in Guinea. Predictably, everyone has gone completely insane over this. Especially in my neighborhood, where Dr. Spencer hung out on Wednesday night before he began to experience symptoms.

Somehow, this has become additional fodder for the crazies (and their leader, Donald Trump) demanding that President Obama stop all flights from West Africa. Which just makes me wonder angrily: WHAT FLIGHTS ARE THEY EVEN TALKING ABOUT?

The next time I have to get to somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, I am contacting Mr. Trump to do my travel booking. I look forward to the route he will find me that will not involve 3 layovers in airports of decreasing cleanliness, and the inexplicable arrival of my baggage two days later, with one member of each pair of shoes missing.

WTF Friday, 9/12/2014

Here are some things that apparently happened this week while I was buried in research statements and cover letters. (The academic job market is super fun, you guys.*)

  • Supporters of Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election debuted a new campaign slogan: #BringBackGoodluck2015. Because nothing makes people more likely to vote for an incumbent than a reminder of his failure to take seriously the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls.
  • The Pentagon announced a plan to build a spiffy new field hospital in Liberia to treat healthcare workers responding to the ebola epidemic, then clarified that they only meant * foreign * healthcare workers. USAID has since tweeted that the hospital will in fact treat “health workers of all nationalities”. Here’s hoping everyone’s now on the same page about that.

*No it isn’t.

WTF Friday, 8/15/2014

While I was in DRC, Congolese president Joseph Kabila was here, attending the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. In a particularly stellar display of leadership, he brought along a bodyguard of thugs, who assaulted a protester outside of Kabila’s hotel.

Kabila’s entourage wasn’t the only one beating people up. Members of the Gambian diaspora protesting president Yahya Jammeh’s abuses were attacked by Jammeh’s security detail, some of whom were apparently sporting brass knuckles

If this becomes an annual event, maybe next time the White House could make clear that “assaulting peaceful protesters” is not on the list of approved recreation activities for delegates. Perhaps a nice trip to the Smithsonian instead?

*For more on these incidents, see Jeffrey Smith‘s Foreign Policy article.

 

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.

WTF Friday, 7/18/2014

Dear everyone who has said or written some version of “Israel has a right of self-defense, so isn’t committing war crimes” this week,

No. Just no. This is the logical equivalent of saying “I have red hair, so I’m good at math.” The two statements may or may not be true. But there is no causal relationship between them and you are asking that poor conjunction “so” to perform a task for which it is woefully unsuited.

The legality of why a war is being fought and the legality of how it is being fought are separate questions. In international law, the first is known as jus ad bellum and the second as jus in bello.

States are indeed allowed to use force to defend themselves under international law. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter is the clearest articulation of this right but it also exists (probably in a more expansive form) in customary international law, developed through the practice of states.

Whether or not the threat to Israel is the type of attack that triggers the right of self-defense is a live, and much debated, question. But regardless of whether Israel’s war is being prosecuted for just reasons, out of a legitimate right to self-defense, it is still perfectly possible that it is being conducted in an unlawful manner.

War crimes are war crimes, folks. If you use prohibited weapons, extrajudicially execute prisoners of war, or (and these are the important ones here) target civilian populations, or cause excessive harm to civilians through the indiscriminate, unnecessary, or disproportionate use of force, then it doesn’t matter how good of a reason you have for fighting.

And, just so we’re clear, it’s equally possible that a state could enter into a war for manifestly unjust reasons (say, the unlawful annexation of a neighboring state’s territory), and still conduct it with the utmost respect for human rights and humanitarian law.

As you were.