Mass Atrocity Monday, 2/17/2014

800px-Hargeysa_plane_monumentIn Somaliland’s capital city of Hargeisa this month, forensic experts are opening 38 boxes of human remains. The men inside died in the late 1980s, victims of a brutal counterinsurgency campaign launched against the separatist Somali National Movement by Somalia’s Siad Barre.

Somaliland ultimately declared its independence from Somalia in May 1991, after Barre was overthrown and the victorious alliance of rebel groups fell apart. Since then, the Somalilanders have pushed unsuccessfully for recognition as a sovereign state. For nearly 23 years, they have self-governed, printing currency and issuing passports, providing social services and security. While Somalia descended into anarchy, Somiland transitioned to a peaceful multi-party democracy. But the 3.5 million Somilanders are still nominally citizens of Somalia.

Hargeisa continues to lobby for international recognition. If they get it, one of their priorities will be to pursue accountability for the atrocities committed by the Barre regime.

Siad Barre seized power in a military coup in 1969, nine years after the Somali Republic was formed through the merger of the newly independent Italian and British Somalilands. Barre renamed the country the Somali Democratic Republic, and set about implementing scientific socialism and eradicating tribalism. Things began to go south for Barre in 1977, when an ill-conceived effort to reclaim the Ogaden region from Ethiopia led to the loss of Soviet military support.

Following the disastrous Ogaden war, dissatisfied military officers from the Majeerteen clan launched a coup attempt. Barre responded with a vicious crackdown, deploying his presidential guard, the Red Berets, along with the Victory Pioneer militia. Together, these forces were responsible for terrible abuses in Majeerteen territory, including mass rape of clan women.

A brutal repressive apparatus was thus firmly in place when members of the Isaaq clan formed the Somali National Movement and began attacking government installations from bases in Ethiopia in the early 1980s. A state of emergency was instituted, and a policy of “Isaaq extermination” announced. A mobile military court known locally as “Guilty or Innocent, You Will Be Found Guilty” (!) was set up to try suspected dissidents, while a newly created secret police force, the HANGASH, terrorized the population. Arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, rape, and extrajudicial killing were widespread. Mass graves uncovered by heavy rains in 1997 provide evidence of the systematic execution of civilians suspected of supporting the SNM.

Despite the heavy toll exacted on the Isaaq civilian population, the Barre regime was unsuccessful in undermining the insurgency. However, in 1988, the Somali and Ethiopian governments resumed diplomatic relations, issuing a joint communique in which they agreed to stop committing “acts of destabilization against each other”. The SNM read the writing on the wall and exited Ethiopia, moving to seize Burao and Hargeisa. The government’s response was swift and merciless, beginning an indiscriminate aerial bombardment campaign that killed thousands of civilians in Hargeisa alone.

Africa Watch (now Human Rights Watch) estimated in 1990 that 50,000 to 60,000 unarmed civilians were killed by the state security forces between May 1988 and March 1989. Somaliland’s War Crimes Investigation Commission now claims that approximately 200,000 civilians were murdered by the Somali government during the 1980s. Although more conservative estimates put the total in the tens, rather than hundreds, of thousands, no one disputes the occurrence of mass death, or the deliberate targeting of civilians.

In 2012, a U.S. federal court awarded $21 million in damages to Isaaq victims of the Somali regime in a lawsuit against former Minister of Defense / Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Samantar. The case, which was brought by the Center for Justice and Accountability under the Alien Tort Claims Act (a U.S. statute that allows aliens to sue in U.S. courts for human rights violations committed abroad), is the first time that anyone has been held accountable for the abuses of the Barre regime. Unless and until Somaliland’s statehood is recognized by the international community, it may be the only time.

*Photo of Hargeisa’s memorial to the victims of the 1988 bombings from Wikimedia Commons.

WTF Friday, 2/14/14

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!  I was going to put up a WTF Friday about this batshit insane story, but I thought that might spoil the mood. So instead, you get this gem:

“There has been chaos in the lower house of India’s parliament after an MP used pepper spray to disrupt proceedings.


Mr Rajagopal smashed a glass and used pepper spray on his colleagues when Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde tried to table the bill to create Telangana, which will be carved out of Andhra Pradesh state.

Some unconfirmed reports said another MP pulled out a knife. Several other MPs were reportedly involved in clashes with their opponents.

Mr Rajagopal told Indian media he had acted in self-defence after being attacked.”

State monopoly on violence, ur doin it wrong.

International Justice Roundup

Tired of talking about Syria? Over the Olympics? Out of opinions as to whether Hillary will be too old, too female, or too awesome to run in 2016?

Never fear, there’s a whole subgenre of current events news that you’ve been neglecting to chitchat about. Below are three important recent developments in international justice with which to break up the Obamacaregate monotony:

  • Spain puts a(nother) leash on its judges:

On Tuesday, the Spanish Parliament voted to restrict Spain’s universal jurisdiction law to apply only to cases in which the alleged perpetrator is a Spanish national, a foreign resident of Spain, or a foreigner in Spain whom the Spanish government has refused to extradite. Spanish judges (especially El SuperJuez, Baltasar Garzón) have been famous in international legal circles for their aggressive pursuit of foreign human rights abusers for violations committed abroad. They have done this by utilizing Spain’s universal jurisdiction statute, which allowed the prosecution of certain egregious crimes (such as genocide and piracy) no matter where they occurred.

If you’re thinking to yourself that the new version doesn’t sound so “universal”, you would be right. In fact, Spain had already restricted the reach of the courts in 2009 with an amendment limiting the law’s extraterritorial reach to cases with Spanish victims. With the latest change, the courts will now be limited to hearing cases in which both perpetrator and victim are Spanish nationals or residents. Which is pretty much what the Spanish courts would be doing anyway.

  • Ntaganda confirmation of charges hearing opens:

Congolese militia leader Bosco Ntaganda, a.k.a. “The Terminator” (no, really) appeared in court at the ICC this week. Ntaganda faces war crimes and crimes against humanity charges for his role in atrocities committed by the UPC rebel group in Eastern DRC during 2002-2003. He does not, as far as we know, face charges for his role in atrocities committed by the CNDP or M23 rebel groups in Eastern DRC during 2006 – 2013.

At the end of this week’s hearings, the Pre-Trial Chamber will decide whether or not to confirm the charges and allow the case to proceed to trial. Meanwhile, his defense attorneys have the unenviable task of attempting to portray Ntaganda as anything other than a warlord and criminal. So far, they’ve tried “peacemaker” on for size; I assume we can look forward to “humanitarian” tomorrow.

  • ICC Prosecutor launches new investigation:

Last Friday, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that she would open a new investigation into atrocities in the Central African Republic. (No, not those CAR atrocities, these CAR atrocities.) The security situation in CAR has gotten steadily worse since a March 2013 coup that brought a coalition of armed groups known as the Seleka to power. Although the Seleka was officially disbanded in September 2013, clashes between the predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka elements and the Christian militias formed to oppose them, known as anti-balaka, have continued and intensified.

Bensouda’s statement specifically noted that many of the victims of possible international crimes “appear to have been deliberately targeted on religious grounds”. In a statement yesterday, Human Rights Watch reported that the anti-balaka militias “are increasingly organized and using language that suggests their intent is to eliminate Muslim residents from the Central African Republic”. Together with yesterday’s discovery of a mass grave, these claims lend weight to warnings of large-scale ethnic cleansing or even impending genocide, and suggest that the ICC will have plenty to investigate.

WTF Friday, 2/7/2014

How did I miss the fact that the Austrian government has appointed a 27 year old as Foreign Minister?

At an age when a quarter of Americans are apparently still living with their parents, this dude is a Cabinet-level official. And I bet he has his own apartment, too.

By way of comparison, my proudest accomplishments at 27 were the following:

  1. Finally getting in the habit of flossing regularly;
  2. Leaning how to work my voicemail;
  3. Drinking whisky without making a squinchy face;
  4. Writing this blog.

You’ll note that nowhere on this list does “designing and executing the foreign policy of an entire nation” appear. Admittedly, it’s only Austria, but it still overshadows even the most exemplary dental hygiene.

Towards a Unified Theory of Celebrity Activism (With Bonus Advice For Scarlett Johansson)

In the course of thinking far too much about celebrity activism, I have come to the conclusion that the most successful celebrity-activism projects are those in which stars pick their causes the same way that they pick their scripts.

Think about it: George Clooney’s work with The Enough Project might as well be the humanitarian remake of Ocean’s 11, with Prendergast as Brad Pitt, Prendergast’s hair as Matt Damon, and Don Cheadle as Don Cheadle. UN Goodwill Ambassadorships are the charitable equivalent of Oscar bait, projecting gravitas and award-worthiness, so is it any wonder that Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, and Naomi Watts have signed on? And Ben Affleck is primarily interested in projects that he can direct and star in, so it’s fitting that he struck out on his own to found the Eastern Congo Initiative.

There’s nothing surprising about this. Stars pick their film projects because they suit their skills and personalities, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pick their charities the same way. Indeed, an actor’s star power will be most helpful if the cause ties comfortably into the narrative of the star’s films, red-carpet appearance, love life, and vacations. (Angelina Jolie is the undisputed master of this, having now come full circle to make a film drawing on her advocacy work, instead of the other way around.) Things go less well when a celeb chooses a cause that is out of step with her actual interests (think Madonna’s ill-fated adventures in Malawi) or is famous for something that just doesn’t translate comfortably into a humanitarian cause (it didn’t take long for the subtext of Downton-era British imperialism to become the text of Elizabeth McGovern’s disastrous trip to Sierra Leone with World Vision).

Perhaps that’s a silver lining for Scarlett Johansson, who has been sacked as an Oxfam Global Ambassador after accepting a gig as a paid spokesperson for the controversial SodaStream. Oxfam is the equivalent of a quirky British rom-com. If it were a film, it would be Love Actually, or perhaps The Girl In the Cafe (And by “would be,” I of course mean “literally was,” given that the former featured Alan Rickman working in an anti-poverty organization that might as well have been called Londfam, the latter was – honest to god – a love story set amongst attempts to convince the G8 to alleviate African poverty.) Scarlett Johansson, it goes without saying, would have no business being in either of those movies.

So – assuming that her embrace of Sodastream has not rendered her a permanent pariah, ScarJo should choose a new NGO partner whose work fits more closely with her other projects. Her sweet spot is the sophisticated indie drama, and her most career-making roles – from Girl with a Pearl Earring to Her – are muses, characters who inspire those around them, rather than the character the story is about. (I would argue that Lost in Translation fits that same theory, but with a more meta twist, as it is a movie about how Sophia Coppola’s own experiences inspired her to make Lost in Translation, with Johansson in the Coppola role – Johansson’s fictional past Coppola as muse to the present real Coppola.) If she follows the theory I set out above, then her next charitable collaboration should tap into that same narrative.

My suggestion is PEN International, which promotes freedom of expression around the world. Making the world safer for writers to tell their stories is a solidly Scarlett Johansson role, and it could lend further gravitas to her status as the thinking man’s manic pixie dream girl. She should wait for the Sodastream thing to die down (or, you know, just stop shilling for a product that takes advantage of an undemocratic and oppressive occupation), and then have her people call PEN’s people.

If Scarlett’s lucky, maybe some day Sophia Coppola will make a movie about how Scarlett’s selfless work saved a young Chinese dissident from prison, and then inspired him to write his Nobel-prize-winning novel about space robots who collect animals’ dreams and redistribute them to humans.

That movie would probably star Zoe Kazan, though.

Activism Wednesday: Pussy Riot, Part 2

While I don’t intend Activist Wednesday to be all Pussy Riot, all the time, I think we can all agree that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s performance on the Colbert Report last night deserves to be featured on this blog.

Highlights include their views on leadership (“We have different ideas about a bright future, and we don’t want a shirtless man on a horse leading us into that future”); their ability to control their narrative (when Colbert joked that he was going to edit out any critical comments about Putin, they replied, without missing a beat, that they were making their own tape of the interview – and good luck confiscating it, because “we have two years of experience hiding things from searches”), and their thoughts on their own release from prison (“we don’t think it was a very successful PR stunt. Maybe Putin made a mistake, and should just throw us back in jail”).

Watch for yourself. Part One:

Part Two:

Mass Atrocity Monday, 2/3/2014

Did you know that when the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua in 1979 they prosecuted thousands of members of the overthrown Somoza regime for war crimes?

I didn’t either.

When we talk about transitional justice, we usually start from Argentina’s 1983 Trial of the Juntas, or if we’re being fancy, from Greece’s trial of coup leaders in 1975. I’d never heard any mention of trials in Nicaragua, though, and was surprised to learn that between November 1979 and February 1981 the revolutionary government conducted over 6,000 trials of former regime officials.

Screen shot 2014-02-03 at 4.37.37 PMThe Somoza family had ruled Nicaragua for over four decades when the Sandinista insurgency erupted into full-scale civil war in 1978. They had maintained their hold on power through control of the National Guard, a military entity created and trained by the United States during its occupation in the early 20th century. As the violence escalated, the regime’s counterrevolutionary tactics encompassed increasing brutality from the Guard, including aerial bombardment of civilian centers, extrajudicial killings, and widespread torture.

7,500 Guardsmen were taken prisoner by the victorious Sandinistas on July 19, 1979. Victims of their abuses called for their heads. The new regime decided against mass murder, but was left with a dilemma. The country’s infrastructure was in tatters as a result of the war, and the devastating 1972 earthquake that had destroyed the capital city, Managua. Judicial capacity was limited and in no way up to the challenge of conducting thousands of trials of former regime officials on top of the normal business of the courts.

By decree No. 185, the revolutionary government created nine Special Tribunals to handle these cases outside of the regular judiciary. During their 15 months of operation, these courts sentenced 4,431 former members of the Somoza regime to prison time, acquitted 229, and released a further 1,760 prisoners following dismissals or pardons.

The trials were not flawless. Although defendants were afforded the right to counsel, in many cases they were subjected to prolonged detention, convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence, and judged by lay Tribunal members rather than legal professionals. Nevertheless, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded that the revolutionary government was “sincere” in its efforts to conduct fair trials.

If it weren’t enough of a surprise that these guys were given trials at all, here’s the extra-crazy part: Many of them were charged with international crimes. The Nicaraguan Penal Code included a provision on “Crimes of an International Nature”, which read:

Article 551:  Any person who during an international or civil war commits serious acts that violate the international conventions on the use of weapons, treatment of prisoners and other laws on war commits a crime against the international order and shall be punished by 10 to 20 years imprisonment.

Why is that crazy? Well, 1979-1981 is smack in the middle of what’s generally thought of as international criminal law’s dormant phase. Things looked pretty good for a little while after the trials of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, with the 1948 drafting of the Genocide Convention and the 1950 codification of the Nuremberg Principles, but then the Cold War set in. Progress on the development of international criminal law stalled for nearly 50 years.

To the extent that international criminal law retained any relevance in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it was almost exclusively with regard to escaped Nazi war criminals. The 1961 Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann, Bolivia’s 1983 extradition of Klaus Barbie to France, and the United States’s 1986 extradition of John Demjanjuk to Israel are prominent among the small handful of cases in which international criminal law was invoked during this period. It was almost never applied, even rhetorically, to ongoing atrocities. (In fact, I ran a search of English language newspapers on ProQuest, and found exactly 30 hits for the phrase “international criminal law” between 1950 and 1989. Only three of them referred to contemporaneous abuses.)

Although the trajectories of international criminal law and transitional justice eventually became tied together, the early examples of successor regimes prosecuting the abuses of the past were all profoundly domestic enterprises. The Trial of the Juntas, for example, tried regime officials on charges of torture, kidnapping, and murder under the Argentine criminal code.

As more and more Latin American countries transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the abuses of past regimes continued to be treated as violations of domestic criminal law and of states’ obligations under human rights treaties. This did not change until the mid-1990s, when the UN Security Council’s creation of the ad hoc international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda breathed new life into the international justice project.

All of which is to say: It’s a bit of a puzzle that, in 1979, a days-old Nicaraguan regime chose to prosecute the losers of a civil war for war crimes. And what’s more, they directly cited international legal precedent, calling it “Nuremberg without the gallows“.

I think there’s probably some archival research on this case in my future, but in the meantime, if anyone knows more about these trials, please get in touch.


*Photo from Shirley Christian, “Nicaragua Cleans Up: 7,000 Face ‘Nuremberg Without the Gallows’”, The Montreal Gazette, p. 25, Dec. 8, 1979

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.