Saturday, July 7, 2012
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
So now Charles Taylor is going to spend the rest of his life in prison in the UK, barring an appeal (said to be forthcoming) and the overturning of his conviction. So imagine it, Charles Taylor suffering through beans and toast for breakfast and bangers and mash for dinner. Okay fine maybe that's not what they give you in prison in the UK. But it just doesn't seem fair. Mind you this is entirely speculative, but I imagine that the prisons in the UK are quite nice compared to those in Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor will probably get more square meals per day while imprisoned than the average citizen of either country. He will have electricity, occasional access to telephone and television, and I imagine he might even be segregated from the general population, sparing him some of the worst things that can happen to a person in prison.
So why, despite the fact that this is a landmark conviction, it is the first time a former head of state has been convicted by the ICC while still living, do I feel so dissatisfied? Charles Taylor has been imprisoned, his physical freedom has been taken away, but where does that leave us? True, it avoids the possibility that he will return to West Africa, run for president of Liberia (as was predicted) and return the nation and region to turmoil. But what else? Charles Taylor sitting in jail munching on marmite sandwiches doesn't help the people in Sierra Leone who lost limbs or parents or children or homes. It doesn't help the children forcibly associated with fighting forces, some of whom have recovered, many of whom continue to struggle, with few skills other than waging war and using drugs, they are a generation who were most powerful and successful during the war, which is dangerous. Unemployed, angry, psychologically scarred young men with access to former leaders of fighting forces, and potentially to arms, are one of the most volatile groups, with the capacity to return country to conflict when they get tired of driving moto-taxis and being looked down upon. Or how does Charles Taylor in jail help the people who were physically disabled during the war, who lost limbs or were blinded? How does it help the girls and women raped by fighting forced? What about those who got pregnant and now are young mothers with no one to support them and children who are products of war and terror.
Punishment is not the same thing as justice. Charles Taylor has been punished, but other than possibly sparing the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia the consequences of his return, there has been no justice. It is common knowledge in Liberia that all those responsible for crimes during the wars cannot face the judicial system, because there would be no one left in government to run the country. Sierra Leone has felt the satisfaction of the acknowledgement of Charles Taylor's role in the conflict, but this was accompanied by the fact that he wasn't in the country. The people who committed crimes against civilians on a day to day basis were not on trial at the ICC.
To quote a friend of mine, there needs to be restitution, not just punishment. How about we take some of Charles Taylor's millions and create scholarships for those affected by the war? What if he funds prostheses for victims of amputation? Money, even to good causes, doesn't fix what happened, but in addition to condoning and perpetuating violence, Charles Taylor stole millions. Since we're punishing him already, and what's he going to do with all that money while in prison anyway, let's redistribute it to some of the people he hurt. Personally, I'd rather he spent his days doing the work to help those people himself, but since that's not possible, I'll settle for his money.
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Don't you hate when you get scooped by NPR? http://www.npr.org/2012/04/28/151575556/in-his-own-country-charles-taylor-still-has-support
Granted I suppose I could have been live tweeting throughout the reading of the Charles Taylor verdict on Thursday, letting you all know exactly what the reactions were around me in Liberia. Maybe next time I'm in a country where the former president is on trial for crimes against humanity.
Charles Taylor was on trial for five years, at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The trial was held at the Hague rather than in Sierra Leone because there was a fear that the trial and verdict could cause instability, among other reasons. After hearing the verdict, a friend and I were discussing the case over lunch, imagining what it would be like if the trial had been held in Freetown, Sierra Leone. And we both decided it would have been chaos. Even with the trial a continent away, people in Monrovia were decorating the road from the airport and getting ready for Taylor's return. Someone I work with told me that that morning, before the verdict, someone was wearing a shirt proclaiming Taylor's guilt, and a crowd chases him until the police had to escort him away for his own safety.
I have been doing my own casual research here to get a sense of how people here felt about the coming verdict, before it was handed down. One person told me that there were lots of supporters still, which after being in Nimba county, which didn't surprise me. I asked him why, and he explained that some of the people are too young to really remember what happened during the war. They remember leaving their homes, they remember how chaotic things were, and they remember Taylor coming out victorious. They don't know or remember what he actually did, and still see him as a powerful leader who represents the best of Liberia. Another person told me that he hoped Taylor would come back, because there is no strong authority in Liberia today. He said that if Charles Taylor came back he could say "Everyone stop robbing cars on highways, and if you don't I will find you" and everyone would obey him. There is no one today who can control and lead the Liberian people.
From my personal perspective, I think that part of it also has to do with the pace of development, and what people expected versus what has materialized. Democracy is often promoted and pursued as though it is a solution, rather than a path. With democracy people have a voice, if they choose to use it, and are allowed to do so freely. However participatory government doesn't actually speed up the development process from what I can see. People in Monrovia may see roads being built, or Ma Ellen (Sirleaf Johnson) passing down Tubman Blvd on her way home from work, but tangible differences in the lives of most Liberians are small. The war is over, but food is more expensive, most people still don't have access to power, pump their water from wells if they're lucky, use hand dug latrines, and if they send their children to school, it's a gamble as to whether there will be enough books and their teachers will be present. So when looking back on the war, things were unstable, but someone was obviously in charge who was promising to make it better. Now someone says Liberians should work together, pay their taxes to contribute to growing Mama Liberia. No one is promising quick fixes, and if you believe that those exist, maybe Charles Taylor, who was apparently extraordinary charismatic, sounded like he promised a better future. When your leader only promises what the country can actually do or slightly more, the future does not seem quite so bright perhaps, and leaves you longing for the days of big hopes and grand gestures, when the government was changing and drastic improvements seemed like a possibility. Maybe when you've grown up in constant instability, calm seems too boring, and change seems too slow. Or maybe Charles Taylor (papay – what older men are called in Liberia), who won an election with the slogan "I killed your ma, I killed you pa, but you still love me," (or something to that effect), is simply a hero to many Liberians, and a kind of hero whose star doesn't dim simply because another country is try to use his as a scapegoat for the violence they perpetrated against themselves. Or so I've heard.
But I think most important is that Charles Taylor would have come back to Liberia if he hadn't been convicted. His ex-wife is a senator, and I highly doubt he would have been able to stay away from politics; he would have been elected. And from there who can say what would happen, whether he would have reached the presidency (whether the UN Mission In Liberia would have allowed him to). Whether the growing economy would have taken a hit, for fear that conflict would begin again; whether some NGOs would have left for the same reason. Whether old resentments would have felt more fresh with him in the country. It's impossible to know the potentially destabilizing effect his return could have cause. But this verdict matters because it means that even with money and power and the love of your people, another country can hold you accountable for your crimes. This verdict matters because it allows Liberia to stay the course, however slow it may appear to some, towards development. No one has ever been punished for the crimes committed during the war in Liberia, referred to locally as World War 1, World War 2, and World War 3. No one has been punished, because those in charge of punishment are also the ones who would be punished. But this verdict matters because, while the risk of future conflict has not disappeared, at least it will not occur at the hands of Charles Taylor, at least not any time soon.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Sunday, April 8, 2012
Friday, March 16, 2012
Here is a conversation I had the other day that just boggled my mind.
Researcher 1: I like the name of Rhino Camp [a small city/large town] in Uganda. It is easy for both Ugandas and foreigners to say.
Me: Very true, they would not say it wrongly. Are there rhinos in Rhino Camp?
Researcher 2: There used to be, it was a game preserve. But then Idi Amin's soldiers ate them all.
Me: What? They ate all the rhinos?
Researcher 2: Yes, the government was cutting off their food, so many of the soldiers ran there and they ate all the white rhinos, so there are none there.
Me: All like [researcher 3] said he likes to eat hippo? I wonder if rhino is delicious...
Researcher 2: I'm not sure, I've never tried.
Researcher 1: But they call it camp, because after they turned it into a refugee camp.
Researcher 2: yes, yes, for people from South Sudan
Researcher 1: And Congo [DRC] too.
Me: So it was a game preserve, but then the rhinos got eaten by soldiers, then they turned it into a refugee camp, but now it is just a town?
Researcher 2: Yes, now they love love to eat cassava there, they love to eat cassava too much [very much]!
Thursday, March 8, 2012
Until a couple of days ago (read Kony Is Not in Uganda (and other complicated things) before you get all #Kony2012 on me) when you googles Uganda, you were likely to come across articles about LBGT rights infringement, probably followed by articles on child sacrifice. It's a juicy topic, no wonder it's getting international attention. If you look at the comments below some of these articles you'll read things like "I thought this was a Christian country, how could this happen?!" or some disparaging comments about Africa that I don't care to reprint. To summarize: children have been identified as either kidnapped or sold, and then end up in the hands of 'witchdoctors', or practitioners of traditional religion here. Those children are then ritually sacrificed, most often in order for the person who pays for the sacrifice to gain wealth or prosperity, or to counteract some bad luck they have experienced.
The idea that this ever happens in this day and age is appalling, I agree, all children have the right to live in safety and child sacrifice flies in the face of every international convention guaranteeing that right. However, let's not jump to conclusions here. First we must consider that the practice of traditional religion was banned in Uganda, and so 'witchdoctors' make awfully convenient scapegoats, given they they are already associated with ideas about backwards traditions, despite what has been described to be as relatively wide practice and worship, often in conjunction with participation in major religions like Christianity or Islam.
So next let's think about what the proliferation of child sacrifice means. The question is whether we are just discovering how prevalent child sacrifice is, or whether its practice is on the rise. This is not a practice that one would expect to expand, given that it is connected to particular traditional religious practices, which don't spread easily, and are not uniform across Uganda. It is unlikely, although not impossible, that people would adopt child sacrifice easily and without giving it some thought. One explanation I've heard is that there are movies coming from Nigeria where child sacrifice is portrayed as a way to access wealth and power, and some people think that this may be influencing the practice. However, I'm disinclined to believe that people will start selling or sacrificing their children simply because they see it in a film, but the influence of films and tv is definitely a commonly expressed concern in it's relation to the 'destruction of culture', so both are viewed as powerful and capable of changing behavior.
So let's think outside the box for a minute, is there any other explanation for the bodies of children that have been found with evidence of traditional sacrifice? Maybe. Most of this information comes from a friend of mine here who used to work with an NGO, working to raise awareness about child sacrifice. However, as he started to work with 'witchdoctors' to gain their participation in the campaign, they told him that child sacrifice isn't part of their religious beliefs. That they do not practice it and that those who do are misinterpreting the religion. They additionally told him about all the times they've been blamed for things they weren't responsible for. So what is a plausible alternative explanation? Unfortunately, it's no less tragic or horrendous than child sacrifice; these children could have been kidnapped, and their organs trafficked to other places for transplant. Transplants for children are notoriously hard to find and draw and extremely high price, and some parents are willing to do anything to save the life of a child, simply paying an extraordinary price without considering (or caring) where the donor organ originates. So a child is kidnapped, his or her valuable organs are removed, and then the perpetrators disguise their involvement by the leaving the child with marks indicating child sacrifice, which seem to be relatively common knowledge among people I spoke to. This theory is supported by the fact that some children are found with organs missing, sometimes those not related to traditional sacrifice. The anti-human trafficking task force in the Uganda Government and the US State Department have also identified this link.
So now you've got parents piercing children's ears or making sure to circumcise boys, as the rumor is that those children are not pure, and therefore the 'witchdoctors' cannot use them for sacrifice. The government has a committee to address child sacrifice and many NGOs are working to address it. When I was up-country a girl was kidnapped and the driver was heading towards the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the girl made such a commotion that she was able to escape. When people heard this, they guessed that she was going to be taken for sacrifice. Or there are many different reasons that girls are kidnapped, especially on the border of the DRC, but, as I have seen in a number of places where abuse and exploitation of children abound, it is always easiest to point outside your community and look for a perpetrator who is different than you, a role that 'witchdoctors' fill easily. However, if this is, in fact, human trafficking rather than ritual sacrifice, traditional religion is again the subject of unwarranted persecution, and traffickers will continue to operate with impunity if the actual issue is not identified, acknowledged, and addressed.
Monday, February 27, 2012
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Please explore the new site, there are more updates to come as soon as I get back to the land of fast internet. For now here's another post!
Friday, February 17, 2012
Uganda has been in the news lately. Granted, if you don't follow East African news, perhaps it hasn't crossed your desk or screen yet. Uganda currently has a bill in Parliament which proscribes the death penalty for anyone convicted of 'aggravated homosexuality'. Alternatively, if one is convicted of 'the offense of homosexuality', you are merely sentenced to life in prison. So what falls under 'aggravated homosexuality' that merits the death penalty? To summarize: if: the person is HIV positive, is a parent or authority figure, administers intoxicating substances, or engages with a minor or someone with disabilities, or is a repeat offender of 'the offense of homosexuality'. But wait, there's more. Ugandans can be extradited back to the country for engaging in homosexual acts outside of the country, and the bill includes punishment for individuals, companies, media organizations or non-governmental organizations who know gay people, or support them.
The bill has, expectedly, drawn a lot of criticism from the West as well as from human and civil rights organizations. I won't begin to get into why killing people for their sexual preference or HIV status is wrong. Granted, you get 'merely' life in prison for your first offense. But punishing people for those qualities isn't in line with any sort of respect for people's rights either. So we're clear that I am not in support of this bill in anyway, and am hopeful that it either won't make it through Parliament, or will be amended before it does. However, the proposal on the table at the moment for amending it is to remove the death penalty, but leave the rest.
But. Let me show you a headline from BBC online: 'Uganda Man Jailed for Killing Gay Activist David Kato'. If you read the article you will find that a Ugandan newspaper published a list of homosexuals, with the headline, 'Hang Them' above it. Mr. Kato's name was on this list. You will also find that apparently the man defended himself in court by saying that Mr. Kato made sexual advances towards him, which made him outraged, and so be bludgeoned him to death with a hammer. The perpetrator received 30 years in prison for the murder, following what was called 'an usually speedy trial'. Seems like a hate crime from this story, no doubt.
But then, let's talk to someone Ugandan who lives in Kampala, where the crime took place. Now we hear a different story. We hear that while most of the above is true, some of it is not. Yes, Mr. Kato was gay, yes he was a gay teacher (which some people in Uganda take to mean he was 'recruiting' children' or abusing them). But apparently, the West took the story that Mr. Kato was a gay rights activist and ran with it. According to the man I talked to, Mr. Kato was gay, but so was his killer. They were long term partners. This was a case of domestic violence between two gay men. The man who was convicted simply used Mr. Kato's 'sexual advances' as a defense because he thought it would garner sympathy from the jury, and to avoid the consequences of being openly gay and serving time in prison. Additionally, the police issued a statement saying that Kato's death was in no way connected to his role as an LGBT advocate, and in fact called the murder a consequence of an attempted robbery.
Reading this summary of the summaries, I have an initial urge to believe one over the other, I am inclined to believe that Uganda wanted to cover up a hate crime. But why? Why would the state cover up a crime that they themselves are trying to essentially turn into law, that someone who is openly gay deserves to be killed. They might cover it up to avoid international criticism. Or alternatively, the Western media might hear that a gay rights activist had been murdered, and assume that it was a hate crime, because it demonstrates the intolerance of the country, that they have seen examples of in the past. This death occurred during the time when the bill to increase penalties for being convicted of homosexuality was already in Parliament, so perhaps we should ask ourselves, who could stand to benefit from Mr. Kato's death. It brought international attention to the harsh persecution of members of the LGBT community in the country, but alternatively justifies such killing, as the man who murdered Mr. Kato was convicted of second degree murder rather than first, as he had 'had no choice but to act in self defense' to protect himself from the advances of a gay man. Either way the LGBT rights movement in Uganda lost a vocal advocate. Whether he was targeted because of his activism, because of his sexual identity and forwardness, or was a victim of domestic violence cannot be known with absolute certainty. Unless of course evidence exists as to the motive or premeditation of the murder that has not yet come to light. For now we rely on the statement of the man who murdered Mr. Kato, and a legal system in a country where homosexuality is condemned.
What do you think? What was the real motivation behind the murder, the defense, and the sentencing? What should and will happen with the bill currently being reviewed in the Parliament?
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Friday, January 27, 2012
One of the goals of this blog, in addition to sharing personal experiences and keeping me from tearing my hair out, is to share the work I do, and to give people a better understanding of what the humanitarian sector is, and what it means to be a part of it. One of the questions I am often asked is how I choose where I will work. While I am not at a point in my career where I get to choose explicitly where I will work, I can turn down any assignment I like. It occurred to me the other day that the places I wouldn't consider working all have something in common, the humanitarian space in those countries (or some cross-border conflicts) is shrinking or practically non-existent, which in turn would make it difficult to accomplish whatever my task was, but it would also have the potentially to considerably increase the personal danger of the assignment.
Some argue that humanitarian work can be traced back to the Red Cross, workers could run onto battlefields, after the fighting was over, to aid those who were injured on either side of the fight. That is an excellent example of protected humanitarian space, you aren't associated with fighting forces on either side for offering medical and other aid. However the lines between fighting forces and humanitarian groups have continued to be blurred, especially over the past two decades, to the point where humanitarian workers may be in just as much danger as members of the military, except they don't get bullet proof vests or guns. You've heard about humanitarian workers being kidnapped or killed in conflicts where they were working, this is the ultimate violation of humanitarian space, where, for whatever reason, one armed group believes that a humanitarian group is aiding the other side, and is therefore classifiable as an enemy combatant.
There are overt and covert ways that humanitarian space can be compromised. The most recent overt example is where individuals identifying themselves as employees of USAID (the US Agency for International Development - intended to be a state run humanitarian organization) were later identified as spies in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. USAID is not only an organization that does work of its own, but also funds a litany of organizations all over the world. With the connection now confirmed between the CIA and USAID, the ability of USAID and anyone funded by them to claim neutrality in a conflict in which the US has an interest is diminished.
Above is an example of when partisan influences work their way into the humanitarian sphere, but another important way that humanitarian space is compromised is when members of fighting forces participate in humanitarian work. If the US military is in Afghanistan handing out food or blankets or stoves or what have you, they are are generally doing it to build goodwill and help gain the support of the local population. But then suppose I work for the Norwegian Refugee Council and the next day I'm giving out out blankets and stoves; there can be confusion in the minds of local people where the line between the military and the humanitarian spheres lies. What this can lead to is that humanitarian workers are assumed to be partisan, rather than the opposite.
Humanitarian organizations that expect to be granted humanitarian space in which to provide assistance are expected to abide by the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence. This means that they should provide assistance to both sides of the conflict, should not do anything to support or diminish the capabilities of either side, and should not be susceptible to outside influences. Many organizations do not take grants or donations from large organizations or governments as it could compromise their impartiality in the eyes of others, as well as their independence as they may be beholden to this funding their activities.
It is in places where humanitarian space has diminished the most: Somalia, Iraq, or Pakistan among others, where humanitarian workers are most at risk, and where you are most likely to hear of them being kidnapped or killed (in my experience, I do not have data on this, but this article addresses related research). One last element that has contributed to greater compromises in humanitarian space is the nature of war. Humanitarian space finds its jurisdiction in international law and the Geneva conventions. But today more wars are between non-state actors, or non-state actors and the state, and these groups are less likely to be held accountable for upholding the Geneva conventions, as they technically are not a party to them.
We all have our limits, and realizing that mine are based in reality, rather than simply in fear, is comforting to me. In most places I have worked humanitarian workers are viewed as a nuisance (another survey!) at worst, and with gratitude at best. I think humanitarian workers themselves absolutely have a role to play in maintaining their neutrality, but governments must also realize that they put hundreds of thousands of people at risk when they blur the lines by having the military engage in humanitarian work, or ask humanitarian workers to engage in non-neutral activities. There are conflicts where all outsiders are seen as the enemy, as is shown clearly in In the Land of Blood and Honey (please see my post of January 9, 2012 for my review of the film), where Serbian forces attack UN peacekeepers, associating them with outside forces attempting to end the conflict. It is only through ongoing respect of and persistent maintenance of humanitarian space that those employing that space can do their jobs safely.
However, an important question is that given that the nature of war is changing, and non-state actors often decline to abide by international law, how can this space be protected? The International Red Cross wrote an article addressing this question in Afghanistan. Also the Forced Migration Review dedicated an entire issue to non-state actors and displacement. I have much to learn about the subject, but for the time being will continue to avoid locations where being an American means being associated with the military. And as an aside, this is in no way a judgement of humanitarian workers living in working in places where humanitarian space is diminishing as we speak. You are brave; you are doing good work; and just because the military is active in a particular place does not mean people there are any less deserving or in need of support. Stay safe.
Monday, January 9, 2012
I can't tell you to go see this film. It's not that it wasn't good, but it portrays war and its accompanying atrocities in such a vivid way that I would recommend you think long and hard before you go see it. Neither my friend nor I got much sleep the night after seeing it, and she jokingly emailed me that she has a little PTSD with loud noises after the fact. But also note that I am particularly affected by films, I don't sit back and assess what is unrealistic about them, but rather believe it all and let myself by drawn in. So with that said, here's what I thought without many spoilers just in case some of you do choose to see the film after it's February 12 general release date.
In an effort to keep this short and sweet, here are three initial thoughts after seeing the film:
1. The setting and elements of the film outside of the main story are incredibly well done. The entire film is in Serbian and Bosnian with sub-titles. The film was shot on location. All the actors are of the ethnic backgrounds they represent. Additionally, scenes meant to convey what it feels like to live inside of a war zone do just that (from what I've heard and read). The constant, the arbitrary nature of punishment, and feeling of powerlessness. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to live in the middle of a war where a slew of war crimes are taking place, I think this film will give you an idea.
2. I'm glad this film wasn't set in Africa. Now hear me out. Angelina could just as well have chosen to document a different war where genocide occurred and rape was used as a weapon, this war was not unique in that. However, I think that the portrayal of Europeans committing such acts against one another, solely because of politics and religious differences makes the horrific nature of the crimes more difficult for some people to dismiss. I have heard many people say things about genocide or rape or war 'over in Africa'. There is a view that 'those things happen there'. But those things happen in many places, and I think that having perpetrators of crimes against humanity who look like me or many of you has a different impact. This doesn't lessen the importance or inhumanity of such acts in Africa, but I think that once people see how horrific such a conflict is in a culture to which they can relate, perhaps they are more likely to realize it is equally horrific among people with whom they have more difficulty identifying.
3. The main plot. I am a bit conflicted about how I feel about the main plot of the movie, essentially Danjiel, a Serb, and Ajla, a Muslim, go on a date before the war and hit it off. Then the war begins, but they end up meeting again. The main conflict in much of the movie is how they choose to and are forced to interact given that they are technically enemies, but in fact have romantic feelings for one another. I think the plot itself is a stretch, but I also feel like it provides a glimpse of humanity in the midst of atrocity. There is rarely purely good and purely evil during conflict, and many people are 'assigned' to a side which they may not wholly support. The plot is absolutely a stretch at times, I could imagine a skeptic watching it and finding it unbelievable. But finding a love story in the midst of tragedy is also difficult, and just watching one war crime after another would quickly go from engaging to nauseating without breaks where the humanity of people is shown. There is an adage in the humanitarian community that it is easier to make someone care about one child in danger than a country full of children in danger. So it goes with this film, seeing one person struggle with choices, engage in and be tortured, change due to the things they do and witness is easier to understand than watching populations go through the very same circumstances. While it may not be entirely believable, I think Angelina succeeded in making perpetrators and victims of war crimes personable, which is a quite a feat.
As a final note, I know far less about this conflict than others that were taking place around the same time, Rwanda for instance. I cannot attest to the accuracy of the portrayal of the actions of the various factions. However, I can say that the perspective was not entirely unbalanced and I think learning about a war, where ethnic cleansing was occurring, in which the US avoided intervening for years because they said 'we don't have a dog in that fight', is useful, whether through this film or other means.