Category Archives: Human Rights

Mayhem in Mali

“There is no alternative. For some of these more radical groups, it’s going to take military force… We shouldn’t be optimistic that this is going to be a one- or two-week surgical strike, and then we go home.” – Jack Christofides, UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations

The president has had his hands full these days. Problems at home and abroad are pressing from all sides, and even though he no longer needs to worry about his re-election bid, Barack Obama has plenty of other worries to keep him up at night: A quickly-approaching fiscal cliff, yet more fallout from September’s Benghazi attacks, the appointment of the next Secretary of State, uncertain outcomes from the latest conflicts between Israel and Hamas, continuing violence in Syria, and a still-unresolved nuclear bone to pick with Iran, just to name a few. But one story that hasn’t gotten much attention, from president or press, is the ongoing violence and chaos that has gripped Mali for the past eight months.

A satellite image of Mali. Radical Islamists have taken over the northern desert region (known as the Azawad), an area roughly the size of France. (public domain)

Perhaps a bit of history is in order. Back in March, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état, seizing the presidential palace and dissolving the government. In the aftermath of the coup, a group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA, in the French acronym) unilaterally declared that northern Mali, an area known as Azawad, was to be a free and independent state. The rebels backed their words with deeds, taking the northern Malian cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal in a matter of days. After these gains, the MNLA was joined and eventually sidelined (or fought) by militant Islamist groups, a number of them with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

These Islamists are now the effective rulers of northern Mali (and have dropped the MNLA’s calls for secession), enforcing a brutally repressive regime on its inhabitants. The groups, rather than hoping to split northern Mali off from the rest of the state, are instead looking to enforce their radical view of Shari’a law on the entire nation, putting the still-unstable south at risk as well. Reports coming out of northern Malian cities like Gao and Timbuktu tell of public beatings, stonings, and amputations, forced marriages, and threats of grisly violence toward those regarded as “unholy,” such as unmarried pregnant women. Death tolls are uncertain, but with the region gripped by conflicts between and within rebel groups and radical mob “justice” occurring on what seems like a daily basis, the anarchic north may have seen hundreds killed so far.

Mali’s is more than a humanitarian and moral crisis, though it is both of those things. It could also quickly become a strategic crisis for the region, the Mediterranean, and even the US. Without forgetting the real human suffering happening daily in this desert, the West should recognize that, if left unaddressed, northern Mali could easily become “Africa’s Afghanistan,” a safe haven for radical Islamists and terrorists. We know already that a number of groups in the Azawad have affiliations with Al Qaeda, whose heart in Central Asia may have been destroyed but whose arms could still have far-reaching and deadly power. The Malian government is certainly ill-equipped (and not particularly willing) to evict the radicals from the north. So who should do it?

The United Nations Security Council has already given the go-ahead for foreign military intervention, but not many powers have stepped up to the plate. There is a lack of willingness on the part of the West, particularly the United States and France, to become very involved militarily in Mali. Both countries have significant interests at stake in the region, and so would benefit from driving out extremists. France has had a number of its citizens kidnapped by the radicals, and the United States certainly won’t be better off for allowing a pocket of Al Qaeda influence to fester and grow, especially in light of September’s Benghazi attacks.

But neither country seems willing to acknowledge that the chaos and violence incited by the Islamist regime will not be limited by borders, especially in the sweeping deserts and largely un-policed region of West Africa. Mali shares huge borders with Mauritania and Algeria, both of which could be vulnerable to attack and both of which could certainly suffer from refugee overflows and uncontained extremism and violence. If nothing is done to remove or reduce Islamist influence in northern Mali, it could become a launch pad for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to wreak havoc across the region and even into Western Europe. Hillary Clinton herself said that northern Mali has become “a larger safe haven” that could allow terrorists “to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”

This seems like a very contradictory approach. Even as the US says that terrorist factions based in northern Mali could become a grave threat if allowed to remain in power unchallenged, it refuses to commit militarily, and is reluctant even to commit to using attack drones in the future, a tactic problematic in our supposed ally Pakistan but likely to be much more straightforward and successful in the flat desert of northern Mali (see map).

This hesitation could be ascribed to a noble refusal to expand the so-called War on Terror into yet another country, but such praise would be misplaced. Unlike past actions in Iraq, Pakistan, or Yemen, military action has the go-ahead in Mali, not only from the national government of the country itself, but from the UNSC and the region more broadly. The US wouldn’t be haphazardly dropping missiles on a dubious international mandate, but rather would be cooperating with an overwhelmed and desperate government.

I’m not saying that the West needs to send 10,000 of its own soldiers (the rough UN estimate of the number of troops needed) into the fray, or even that it needs to send a fraction of those. Regional powers like Algeria, Nigeria, or Mauritania (not to mention Mali itself), perhaps along with the African Union, could take the lead, and the UN could contribute peacekeeping forces to make peace stick once it’s achieved. But the United States and France, both with a significant interest in excising the Islamists, can’t sit back and wait for others to solve the problem.

There isn’t just a moral incentive to dismantle this regime; there are strategic motives as well. The US should step up and use its technology and military power to help the international force that may soon take shape. We don’t need to have “boots on the ground,” but drones in the sky might not be a bad place to start. We can’t afford to wait for Mali to become another Afghanistan. North Africa seems only to be growing in significance, and American leadership would be wise to recognize this.

But this problem will require more than military might. If there’s anything that the West should have learned from our military excursions of the past decade, it’s that regional divisions and local grievances can’t be sorted out with airstrikes and Predator drones. Armed force will be needed to cripple the radical regime in the north, but ultimately Mali needs reconciliation to solve this problem. Foreign intervention should weaken the Islamists to the point that they have no choice but to join in real dialogue, and should protect the fragile interim government until it can get back on its feet and give the Azawad the attention it needs.

For that matter, the international community should give Mali the attention it needs as well. We’ll all be better off for it.

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Filed under Human Rights, International Focus, Military & Might, War & Peace

Another Victory for Equality

A map of the US depicting the laws regarding same-sex marriage in states across the country. See post for details! (File taken from Wikimedia Commons)

On June 24th, the state of New York legalized same-sex marriage, becoming the sixth state in the US to do so.

Notes on the map accompanying this post: Dark blue indicates states in which same-sex marriage is completely legal. The slightly lighter blue indicates states in which couples may be in a union that gives rights similar to marriage. The lightest, cyan blue indicates states in which legislation grants limited rights to same-sex couples. Dark gray indicates that the state recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Light gray indicates that the state neither specifically prohibits nor recognizes same-sex marriages. Salmon indicates that the state has statutes banning same-sex marriage. Bright red states have constitutional provisions banning same-sex marriages. Dark red indicates that the state’s constitution prohibits same-sex marriages and some or all kinds of same-sex unions. Big surprise that the 6 “Tornado Alley” states have this. Sorry for the long-winded explanation! All this information and more can be found here.

This is another big step forward in the fight for marriage equality in the US for same-sex couples. 6 states have fully legalized same-sex marriage: Iowa, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, and now New York. This trend began around the year 2009, in which four states, all in New England, legalized same-sex marriage. The first fully legal gay marriage to take place in America occurred in 2004 in Massachusetts, and was a huge victory in the fight for LGBT rights.

Since then, things seem only to be speeding up for gay rights. After a lot of vacillating on the issue, President Obama has begun to take a stand over the last half-year or so, first pressing for the successful repeal of DADT in December of last year, the military policy barring gays from military service (which will finally go into effect on September 20), and later announcing that his administration will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

These events, along with the most recent news of New York’s wonderful decision, is a powerful sign that the public is moving inexorably toward a positive attitude toward marriage equality and homosexuality in general. Though there are still many staunch opponents of gay rights, and will be for years to come, the real momentum seems to be on the right side in this debate, and that’s not going to change.

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Blending the Line Between Business and Charity

The original (and very basic) $300 house design, showing the necessities that must be included in a valid entry into the competition. (Source: theglobeandmail.com)

I was recently listening to the Economist’s All Audio podcast (which, by the way, I would highly recommend), a fantastic source for news and analysis. In a (fairly) recent report, published on April 28, I heard about a wonderfully simple yet novel idea: A $300 house for the poor.

Living quarters are often given secondary importance in the fight against poverty by many. Things like the provision of food and medicine usually take the front seat, leaving living space as a kind of secondary concern when stacked up against what may seem like more important goals. But when one stops to think about it, living space has a direct effect on nearly every other aspect of life.

What’s safer, a mansion or a broken-down shack? Which has more reliable clean water? Which offers more protection from bug-born and other diseases? The places we live in are integral to our health. But an alarmingly large part of the world’s population isn’t afforded these “luxuries” by the places in which they live. A decent house, apartment, or other living space can act as a stepping stone to a better life for individuals and families in devastating poverty. But, according to a 2010 report by the UN, there were about 827 million people living in slums around the world in this year.

Here’s where the $300 house comes into play. A professor of international business at Dartmouth named Vijay Govindarajan issued a challenge of sorts to the business minds of the world: Turn your talents to housing the poor. Who better to find an economical solution to a global problem? Govindarajan and a consultant started an online competition to create a house that is sturdy and secure, and also provides basic necessities for its inhabitants, such as electricity and clean water. The winning design will then be discussed and improved, and ideally, will be invested in by global companies. In this way, the world’s poor can be aided without draining other parts of the world economy; businesses can reach a new kind of customer, and those customers can receive the support and shelter they need for day-to-day life at a price they can afford. As Govindarajan’s consultant, Christian Sarkar, put it, “We’re trying to encourage companies to look at the bottom of the pyramid, at the poor, as customers. What you’ve got to do is make it a business and make it to scale.”

Normally, I tend to draw a line in the sand between business and philanthropy. It’s an easy dichotomy to make: We think of business as the pursuit of personal gain, and philanthropy as the pursuit of others’ wellbeing. I have to admit that I tend to separate the two as well; in fact, I always used to tell myself that I could never go into business, because it would be too self-serving. But this idea, among many others, has proven me utterly wrong about this.

It’s true that in many cases, businesses do tend to be self-serving. The purpose of a business is to make money, so it can be very easy for those in the business world to become so focused on money-making that they lose sight of the great potential the business world has for helping the poor in a cost-effective way, something many charities couldn’t say. The $300 house idea is a great one, not only for its provision of safe and secure housing for the poor, but for its fusion of care for the poor and economic thinking. Many great ideas to help the poor have been held back by monetary shortcomings and lack of funding. But if the business world can continue to get involved in this kind of low-cost business to and for the poor, for everything from water filters to houses, then perhaps cost-effective charity could be much easier than we think.

I used two major information sources for this post: The Economist audio story I mentioned above, and a great article I found here, on The Globe and Mail.

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Global Community, Global Responsibility (Part 3)

Each and every member of the international community must be responsible and consistent, both within its own borders and in its handling of international and foreign problems. (Source: miyabbi.student.umm.ac.id)

This post is a continuation of my previous two posts of the same title. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here, respectively.

But perhaps more importantly than international interventionary action is a right international mindset toward atrocities and states that have gone bad. Many of the greatest crimes against humanity have been committed by leaders who pushed the limits and received no reprimand. The most frightening example is of course, that of Hitler. After coming to power by completely legal means, Hitler pushed the political and social boundaries in his own country, and no one stopped him from taking complete control of Germany. The fuhrer swiftly expanded his power across Europe, as the Allies flailed in diplomatic inefficacy. This policy of appeasement allowed Hitler’s Germany to grow into a colossally dangerous and destructive force.

Admittedly, there are few people alive in the world today who have as much blood on their hands as Adolf Hitler did. But after the hard lessons learned from allowing Hitler to have his way with the countries around him (at least until he looked to Poland), international leaders can no longer stand back and allow atrocities to happen, whether these are crimes committed against foreign persons or against one’s own people.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the road to international responsibility starts in a country’s attitude toward leaders who perpetrate injustice. If the international community simply sits back and allows a state to commit atrocities, either against others or its own people, the damage is twofold. First, the leader(s) responsible for such acts will see that these can be successfully perpetrated with no repercussion or retribution, at least not from any organization or institution with real power. And second, the rest of the international community risks looking toothless and tame. While the international community shouldn’t come across as hyper-aggressive, it must be not be seen as a powerless objector to atrocities, but rather as a powerful dissuadent from atrocity.

This requires both consistency and enforcement on the part of the international community. Leaders who are considering committing atrocities must be shown that any violent acts they commit will not pay off. If a dictatorial leader (Qaddafi or Mubarak would be examples) believes that he can commit mass violence (whether it is toward a political purpose or any other) without being stopped, then he will. Strong countries and international organizations must show these leaders that any violence they commit will be severely dealt with, no matter what.

This issue is particularly pressing in light of the Arab Spring sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. As leaders like Moammar Qaddafi cling to power by violently suppressing their people, the international community’s response must be swift and decisive. A lot has already been done in Libya, but it may not be enough (I’m planning to write more on this subject soon!). And after a violent weekend in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, one wonders how long Assad’s schizophrenic alternation between reform and crackdown can go on before it reaches the same breaking point that was reached in Libya.

Without the right mindset and determination behind its actions and sanctions, the international community will never be able to act as a serious roadblock to state-sanctioned atrocities. And this determination and consistency will take some sacrifice, of course. But to be a responsible member of any community, especially one as large and all-encompassing as the international community, one must learn to give up some of their own goals and desires for the good of all.

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Global Community, Global Responsibility (Part 2)

The international community has a responsibility to end state-condoned atrocities in other countries. (Source: Middle-East-Info.org)

This is part 2 of a multi-part post on international responsibility. Part 1 can be found here.

The answer to this question is an unfortunately simple one: Because no one stopped it.

The international community is understandably hesitant to become involved in foreign conflicts and complications. Becoming tangled in another country’s conflict can be costly and often pointless, as the United States has seen in recent years in Afghanistan and, to a certain extent, Iraq. Sorting out other countries’ issues is difficult work.

But other nations must sometimes become involved in a country’s private affairs, even if it’s not very advantageous for the intervening country. I would consider these “private affairs” to be any act of atrocity that is committed, condoned, or simply overlooked by the ruling government. US Vice President Joe Biden had this to say about the actions of Moammar Qaddafi in Libya: “When a State engages in atrocity, it forfeits its sovereignty.”

Sovereignty is a very important concept in international relations. Simply put, it’s the quality of having supreme authority over an area of land and its inhabitants. But a state must earn this authority by being a responsible caretaker and lawmaker for its people. And when a state does not perform this duty, other nations may have to step in to force the issue.

Let me rephrase that: The international community may have to step in (yes, I know I’ve said the words “international community” far too many times!). Just as it is crucial for a country to be personally responsible to have a part on the international stage, it’s important that all countries are collectively responsible for keeping the world a safe place. I ought to say though, that I’m not endorsing a kind of world police, at least not one run by any one country (least not the United States). But perhaps we do need a world interventionary force, to prevent atrocities from being committed.

This force would be multilateral and international, so as not to skew power in any country’s direction too far. It would need to be much quicker to act than organizations like NATO or the UN though, and would probably work best when independent of these organizations. Unfortunately, the United Nations simply represents too many conflicting interests, and takes far too long to come to decisions; it took nearly a million deaths before the UN did anything in Rwanda, and by then it was too late. So perhaps willing and able parties of the international community should form a more fast-acting organization, to quickly strike against state-committed or -sponsored violence.

In fact, NATO did a fairly good job of this recently, in its response to the violence of Qaddafi against his own people in Libya. Even then though, it took far too long for the UN and NATO to step in, and there’s still more that should be done, such as the placement of peacekeeping troops or delivery of additional medical supplies.

If there were to be an independent, international coalition specifically set up to counteract state atrocities, mass violence could be stopped much sooner and more effectively. Assuming that specific guidelines were set in place, and all participating nations agreed on which actions constitute atrocity, this peacekeeping force might have the power to stop many humanitarian crises. The key to this would be fast, decisive action against state atrocities; dictators tend to commit these violences on their own people after the international community does nothing to stop earlier offenses.

Looks like this post is going on to a third part! Check back soon for part 3!

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Global Community, Global Responsibility (Part 1)

The international community is continually becoming more tightly-knit, but that comes with a great deal of responsibility. (Source: icicp.blogspot.com/www.icicp.org)

Our world is growing increasingly global and interconnected. Countless alliances, agreements, treaties, and organizations bind together countries and peoples all around the planet. Many companies are turning abroad to emerging markets to expand their business. It’s now almost commonplace for a student to spend months or even years studying abroad.

The degree to which the many diverse groups of people around the world are connected is astounding. We’ve managed to cross many lingual, social, religious, and cultural barriers as the world continues to become more globalized, or as Thomas Friedman might say, flat.

Globalization brings with it a plethora of advantages and advances that not only offer more opportunity to those in emerging countries but give us a chance to understand each other more. Perhaps more importantly, it has allowed many countries around the world to move past dangerous nationalism and allowed international cooperation where it hasn’t existed before.

I’m majoring in International Studies at my university, so I believe that an examination of these changes is critical, not only for gaining a better understanding of the politics and economics of the world, but for understanding the people of it. And though I’m nowhere near graduation or a full knowledge of international relations, I feel that I’m beginning to realize something about our trend towards the global.

As nations continue to draw more connections to one another, they become beholden to an increasingly high standard of responsibility and accountability. As a nation moves outside of itself and reaches out or is reached out to by other parts of the world, its standards must be carefully examined. The more involved a country is on the international stage, the higher its national credibility must be. Once a nation becomes globally active, it can no longer make decisions based entirely on its own needs and desires, nor can it expect to avoid all international scrutiny.

Yet many members of the international community are not living up to the standards that they should be expected to adhere to if they want to receive recognition from other countries. In a way, these governments – such as those of North Korea, Rwanda and Serbia in the 1990s, Sudan, and Libya, as well as countless others – want to have their cake and eat it too, so to speak. They want or wanted to have a presence on the international level (and have that), but are or were unwilling to live up to the standards that such nations must hold.

The nations I listed above have had in the past or currently have grievous human rights violations staining their records. But in each of these circumstances, the international community either spent weeks, months, or years deliberating about what to do, or is still doing nothing. Why is this? Why were 800,000 Tutsi people killed in Rwanda before anyone put a stop to the violence? Why was Slobodan Milošević allowed to stay in power in Serbia after massacres of Bosnian Muslims, when 3 weeks of NATO bombing stopped him later? Why are people still being killed in Darfur?

I’ve decided to split this post into multiple parts, as it seems likely to become rather lengthy, and I haven’t published in some time. Check back soon for part 2!

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The Unparalleled Power of Patriotism (Part 2)

Perhaps this is truer than people are willing to recognize?

This post is a continuation of an earlier one, “The Unparalleled Power of Patriotism (Part 1).” Read it first!

Looking at patriotism in this way, it’s easy to see how things can get carried away. The sense that the loss of an American life is more devastating than the loss of an Iraqi’s or any other person’s life instills Americans with a dangerous sense of superiority, of an almost racist nature.

Not only can this give Americans too much of a “proud to be an American” sense, it inherently devalues any who aren’t American!

Nationalism can take many forms, but I would say that any amount of patriotic zealotry is too much. I recently saw some of this on a blog I had the misfortune of coming across, called “Patriotic Mom.” The mom, whose name is Pamela Reece, gushes in a post about her patriotism, and how central it is to “being American.” One of the comments on the post, by one Josh Ondich, reads as follows: “Patriotism can be used as good like the National Anthem or the pledge, but has been used by dictators like Adolf Hitler and Joesph Stalin to invade countries and impose mass genocide against millions of people. using patriotism for war is using it for terror. -Peace”

Now, I thought this was a perfectly valid and fairly unbiased point. The guy was simply pointing out an observation he had made. This was Pamela’s response:

Josh,
Using patriotism for war? Perhaps you have forgotten about 9/11!! Remember? When war was declared on the U.S.? We are defending America and fighting the global war on terror. Patriotism is standing by America…recite the words of the National Anthem and remember 9/11. Do this and you will understand.

United we stand!

Now, maybe I’m just blind or stupid, but it seems like this response is exactly what Josh Ondich is warning of. Besides that, Pamela Reece’s “comeback” argument illustrates perfectly the kind of fanatical, almost mindless patriotism that many Americans use to justify all kinds of evil. The line, “Patriotism is standing by America… recite the words of the National Anthem and remember 9/11. Do this and you will understand,” is particularly appalling. To me, the advice to recite our National Anthem and remember 9/11 is reminiscent of Soviet-style nationalism or the advice some Christians give: “Just pray to Jesus and you’ll understand the truth!” It shows a terrifying immaturity of thought and a dangerous unwillingness to listen to any kind of disagreement, insisting that a “good American” doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t need answers.

Perhaps more infuriating though, is a “tribute” on the left side of the page, a slideshow with images of 9/11 and the bombing of the USS Cole, which then transitions to the words “Never Forget Who Did It,” which is followed by pictures of Middle Eastern men. This victim mentality was used by George Bush to embroil the US in two devastating wars, and is still the opinion of many conservatives (particularly evangelical Christians) in the United States.

As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” I can think of few things that are more blinding than such an insistence on national superiority. Patriotism is good when it’s used to express valid pride in country and culture. But it, perhaps more than any other sentiment, can become poisonous extremely quickly. As soon as patriotism is turned into a justification or reasoning for war, torture, or other such crimes against humanity, it can become nationalist, McCarthyistic fervor, which is no better than the religious fanaticism American patriotism is so often turned against.

 

 

 

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