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, 6/6/2014

Good afternoon! Today is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, and also the 5th Anniversary of me getting married, so I think we can all agree that it’s an important occasion. And what better way to celebrate than by expressing outrage at this week’s WTF Friday? NO BETTER WAY, I say.

This week’s entry comes once again from India, which is basically devoting itself full-time to trolling this blog now.

And I must congratulate them on their success, because in a week that brought us news of peacekeepers implicated in torture and forced disappearances in the Central African Republic, and Yet Another Honor Crime in Pakistan, the BJP still managed to scrape into first place at the last minute with this gem:

“Within days of being elected to parliament, new MPs of the Bharatiya Janata Party have announced a campaign to drive illegal Bangladeshi migrants out of Assam.

“The campaign will be initiated by the youth wing of the party within next 15 days,” Kamakhya Prasad Tasa of the Jorhat constituency announced on Sunday. “In the first phase of the campaign, we will appeal to illegal immigrants to leave our land voluntarily in next 15 days. We will also launch a house-to-house campaign urging people not to engage the immigrants in any kind of work.”

Sending the youth wing of a party already associated with sectarian pogroms “house to house” in search of “illegal immigrants” and those who harbor them? What could possibly go wrong?

(Oh, and about those “illegal Bengladeshi migrants”? They are, of course, neither illegal nor migrants. Talk amongst yourselves.)

WTF Friday, 5/30/2014

Today’s WTF Friday comes to us from India, which has had yet another high-profile rape and murder. (If this keeps up, we’re going to have to introduce an “India: Land of Rape and Elephants” tag for the blog.)

The event itself was horrific: Two young girls from the Dalit caste, sisters aged 14 and 15, were found hanging from mango trees in a forest after being raped near Badaun, Uttar Pradesh.  But the circumstances surrounding the crime are what elevate it to true WTF status.

Circumstance the first: Police Involvement. Allegedly, one police constable was directly involved in the crime, while others at the local police station refused to lodge a report or investigate, even though the girls’ father reported the attack shortly after the girls were taken.  NOT GREAT, guys.

Circumstance the second: Rape as Retribution. The Times of India reported that the girls’ rape and murder may have been intended as retribution against their community, for daring to protest previous rapes committed by the same higher-caste assailants. The newspaper compared the violence to “the medieval times when feudal lords committed gory crimes to reaffirm their hold over the commoners.”  Hard to disagree.

Circumstance the third: Ugh, Politicians. Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav, mocked journalists for daring to ask questions about the attack. “Aren’t you safe? You’re not facing any danger, are you?” he reportedly replied to journalists in Lucknow. “Then why are you worried? What’s it to you?”  Which makes sense, of course, because journalists usually only report on issues that are, at that moment, posing a direct danger to them personally.* Way to show sensitivity and leadership during a time of crisis, dude.

WTF?

*On the other hand, if reporters did follow that rule, there might be more material like this discussion of whether Osama Bin Laden posed a threat to reporter Jim Rutenberg’s dog, (“[i]t was unclear whether Bush was referring to a specific and credible threat to Little Bear or merely indicating there was increased “chatter in the system” about chow chows in general”), which remains my favorite thing ever published by the Washington Post. So that’s something to consider.

WTF Friday, 5/23/2014

Ah, Britain.

That clammy island nation has given me so much: my husband, my first deep-fried Mars Bar, an unexpected quantity of master’s degrees. (Even, for a time, a job scaring tourists into unconsciousness. Youth!) But even though the UK and I are besties, I can’t give it a pass on this week’s bit of WTF-ery.

You see, it has come to my attention that UKIP gained more than 150 council seats in the local UK elections this week. According to the BBC, polls project that they would have taken 17% in a national election, if it were held today. That seems quite excessive.

“Why,” you ask, “what is a UKIP“?

That would be the UK Independence party, whose political platform is composed largely of xenophobic fear-mongering about “migrants” coming to the UK. Some highlights from their recent political escapades:

  • That time when UKIP distributed a flyer claiming that the EU was going to allow “29 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK,” a surprising claim given that the most recent World Bank statistics peg those countries’ entire populations at 7.3 million and 20.08 million, respectively. (In case you’re wondering, Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to Britain has not, in fact, turned out to be more than the total combined citizenry of both nations.)
  • That time when their party leader, Nigel Farage, told the Guardian that British people should “be wary of Romanians moving into their streets,” because of the immigrants’ “culture of criminality.”
  • That time when the UKIP MP candidate for Leicester South explained that he thought Islam was “morally flawed and degenerate,” and that “the increase of Islam in the UK is going to be a problem for the welfare state.”
  • That time when the UKIP candidate for East Sussex claimed that “The Second World Wide War was engineered by the Zionist jews and financed by the bankers to make the general public all over the world to feel so guilty and outraged by the Holocaust that a treaty would be signed to create the State of Israel as we know it today.”

Oh, okay then.

Seriously, British local-elections voters, WTF?

Today in ARGH.

We are so over the “Ladies Aren’t As Confident As Men and It’s a Problem” conversation that has been happening lately.

Because you know what we’re not down with? Pretending that a self-reinforcing system of gender norms designed to keep women out of power and public life is, in fact, a character flaw that meek chicks need to get over. Structural inequality is not a personal problem, folks.

If it were, then advice like “maybe try NOT being subjugated” would be useful. But as it is, saying “sack up, ladies!” makes us worry that the next thing out of your mouth might be one of the following:

  • “Slaves: Just not entrepreneurial-minded enough.”
  • “Native Americans: Insufficiently committed to enforcing their property rights.”
  • “Jews of 1930s Europe: Lacking in courage and self-preservation instincts.”

(Oh wait, that last one’s actually a thing. Thanks, anti-semitism!)

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.

The Dark Art of Trial Observation

So, this is a thing that happened: “UN observer at Gaddafi trial held on suspicion of ‘black magic’.”

Ahmed Ghanem is one of three trial monitors sent by the UN to observe the prosecution of former Gaddafi regime officials. He was briefly detained by judicial police, who claimed that he was carrying documents “indicating possible ‘sorcery’ or improper communications”.

Personally, if I were a relatively new regime trying to convince the world that I could run a country and do normal government stuff like holding criminal trials and recognizing immunity, I would maybe not arrest UN officials on insane, made up charges. But that’s just me.

 

Mass Atrocity Monday, 5/12/2014

There are about a quarter of a million Hmong people living in the United States today. Most Americans - except the ones who’ve read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down – probably don’t know that they’re here. Even fewer know why.

In the 1950s-1970s, as the Vietnam War occupied international attention, a related conflict was occurring nearby: The Laotian Civil War. Like Vietnam, Laos became a proxy battlefield for the Cold War antagonists, with the communists ultimately emerging triumphant. But there was one important difference: The great powers’ role was covert.

The United States, heavily engaged in Laos’s civil war for the better part of two decades, referred to its operations there as “The Secret War“. The Hmong, fighting on the side of the Laotian government against the communist Pathet Lao insurgency, were crucial to the American agenda in the region. The CIA armed, recruited, and trained a secret army of Hmong fighters. By 1965, the US Air Force was providing direct air support to Hmong guerrilla forces fighting against both Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese.

800px-USA_-_HMONG_Memorial

U.S. forces left Laos in 1973, under the terms of the Paris Peace Accord. Two years later, the communists took power in Vientiane. This was a disaster for the Hmong, who became the targets of a genocidal campaign. The government announced that it would “wipe out” the entire group. Many were slaughtered, sent to brutal “reeducation camps”, or imprisoned and never seen again. In 1976, 1,000 Hmong fighters were evacuated to the U.S. and given asylum. Several years later, their families were allowed to join them. Many more fled into refugee camps in Thailand.

Others fled back into the hills, some determined to continue the fight. The government pursued them, assisted by its Vietnamese allies and had largely stamped out rebellion by the early 1980s. But the harassment of the Hmong continued. In 2007, Amnesty International reported that although the remnants of the Secret Army no longer posed a threat to the Lao government, they were “constantly pursued and attacked by the military”. Numerous reports allege the use of prohibited chemical weapons, although some of these claims are controversial.

Evidence of the fate of the Hmong is hard to come by. As Amnesty’s report made clear, these attacks are perpetrated against a population made extremely vulnerable by its lack of minimal contact with the outside world. But increasingly, information has begun to make its way out. The New York Times ran a front-page story in 2007 on a group of Hmong veterans still hiding in the jungle, who said that they had been attacked twice by the military within the last year. A 2008 documentary, “Hunted Like Animals“, combined refugee testimony with video evidence to tell a chilling story of a ruthless military assault on a beleaguered civilian population.

Estimates of the number of Hmong who have died at the hands of Lao security forces over the last 40 years range from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands. We may never know what the truth is.

 

*Photo is of the Hmong Memorial in Fresno, commemorating the fighters of the Secret War.

WTF Friday, 5/9/2014

Yemen’s government deported American journalist Adam Baron yesterday.

Baron, a freelancer who wrote for McClatchy, The Economist, and The Christian Science Monitor, was one of only two foreign journalists officially reporting from Yemen. The other is Iona Craig, who tweeted after Baron’s arrest: “Just waiting for the soldiers to come knocking.”

Soon afterwards, another freelancer, Tik Root, was turned around at the Sanaa airport and sent back to Istanbul.

A clear explanation for Baron’s deportation has not been forthcoming. According to the Yemen Post, officials said that because Baron “roamed Sanaa for reasons not related to work” they “were worried he could have been kidnapped”. Baron tweeted that he was simply told that he was “no longer welcome in Yemen”. According to Buzzfeed’s Gregory D. Johnson, a friend who assisted Baron throughout his ordeal at the immigration office and 10 hour detention was told: “Other journalists are next.”

Johnson links Baron’s expulsion to his dogged reporting on U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. Hannah Allam adds that Baron’s stories “often called into question official versions of events in Yemen”.

Whatever the reason, we are losing an important source of informed, courageous coverage of very difficult times in Yemen. And, as Iona Craig points out, if the Yemeni government is getting rid of observers, we should be wondering: “what are they trying to hide?” 

Ugh, Cambodia.

A leaked copy of Cambodia’s Draft Cybercrime Law suggests that the Hun Sen regime intends to crack down on online speech.

The drafts reveals that speech offenses like defamation committed online would be penalized more severely than their offline equivalents. Worse, it includes a provision (Article 28) that prohibits content that might “hinder the sovereignty and integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia”, “incite or instigate the general population”, or “generate insecurity”.

As Al Jazeera reports, Cambodian bloggers are understandably nervous about a future in which they could face up to three years of prison time for saying the wrong thing online.