Prisoners of Peace

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.49.34 PMToday, I published a short op-ed on last month’s kidnapping of 45 Fijian peacekeepers in the Golan Heights by the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Thankfully, the Fijian peacekeepers were released yesterday, but their two week ordeal illustrates a worrying symptom of a broken system: today, peacekeepers are more apt to serve in regions where there is “no peace to keep”; where the potential belligerents are non-state actors (rebels, extremist groups, etc…) to whom the rules of international law —and the logic of deterrence— matter little; and where Western (or developed countries) loathe to donate their own troops.

As a result, these blue helmets in the world’s most vulnerable conditions are primarily culled from the developing world.

While you can read the full article here, I’ve included the compiled UN data below.

One additional note, of course, is China’s increased contribution to the UN ranks, particularly during the last decade. The UN missions in Mali and South Sudan, for instance, have seen the Chinese don blue helmets with increasing frequency. For some, this willingness to deploy troops signals a growing “militarization” of their role in Africa. For others, however, their contributions note a shift in political rhetoric: once a strict proponent of state sovereignty with an acute allergy towards principles of foreign intervention, China has become more dependent on their international connections. Measures to ensure stability, then, are in line with their own political interests. But we’ll leave that debate for another day.

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Soldiers From Developing Countries Have Become the World’s Peacekeepers

In the fight to preserve stability, who shoulders the burden? My latest @TIME

TIME

On Aug. 27, rebels from the al-Qaeda-allied al-Nusra Front stormed the Golan Heights border crossing between Syria and Israel, home to one of the oldest U.N. peacekeeping operations. While two contingents of Philippine peacekeepers managed to flee the rebel attack, 45 Fijian troops were captured and taken away by the rebels to parts unknown.

The Fijians were finally released on Sept. 11, but the two-week crisis crystallized a persistent yet under-reported fact: while the U.N. calls upon the international community to act in times of crises, it is often soldiers from developing nations who shoulder the stiffest burden.

In 1994, on the heels of the Rwandan genocide, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (China, Russia, France, the U.K. and the U.S.) provided 20% of all U.N. peacekeeping personnel.

But by 2004, Security Council nations contributed only 5% of U.N. personnel. This July, amid a tumultuous summer of violent…

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Whose History?

Image via: The New York Times

In an important op-ed on teaching history in America, James R. Grossman —Executive Director of the American History Association— discusses how curricula in the United States has, and will continue, to change over time. Grossman writes:

This fall, whites will constitute a minority of public-school students in the United States. “Our” past is now more diverse than we once thought, whether we like it or not.

This stat might shock some, but Grossman’s intention is to widen the perspective of the American public. He asserts that “history” as we know it today is irreducible to the simple scripts of American exceptionalism or the “American Dream”, and that the teaching of history ought not be attacked as it tackles the nuance of accumulated “facts” over time.

…Fewer and fewer college professors are teaching the United States history our grandparents learned — memorizing a litany of names, dates and facts — and this upsets some people. “College-level work” now requires attention to context, and change over time; includes greater use of primary sources; and reassesses traditional narratives. This is work that requires and builds empathy, an essential aspect of historical thinking.

This, too, is an established and evolving perspective, but one that armchair critics of the College Board’s new curriculum framework —to whom the op-ed is targeted— seem to have forgotten. In 1960, E.H. Carr delivered a series of lectures titled, “What Is History?” and tackled the tricky (and trying) relationship between historians and their facts.

It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and it what order or context.

This does not condemn history as listless, so much as it demands a historian’s carefully justification for the conclusions he or she might assert. More to the point, Grossman proposes that the field of history is necessarily revisionist —not for the purpose of politics or privilege, but those of posterity and practice. Meaningful scholarship breeds careful, sensitive scholars —and the world is far too complex to give American students an easy pass.

A new museum stirs tensions in Hong Kong

Supporters of the June 4 Museum clash with police and members of the opposition at the opening of the June 4 Museum in Hong Kong on April 26, 2014. (Photo: Adam McCauley)
Supporters of the June 4 Museum clash with police and members of the opposition at the opening of the June 4 Museum in Hong Kong on April 26, 2014. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

Last Saturday, the June 4 Memorial Museum opened in Hong Kong. In the fifth floor of an unassuming office building, the 800-square foot museum documents the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, and commemorates the hundreds of lives lost (and the thousands injured) after the Chinese government’s crackdown.

[Read my full article on Al Jazeera]

As one of my sources told me: “In a debate where Beijing is charged (rightly) with lying about the past, getting the details right can really matter.” These details, such as who was hurt or killed (not merely student protestors, but also civilians and citizens sympathetic to the protest’s message) and where those abuses were committed (the military drove people into the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square). These little details, if missed, provide some parties with ammunition to deny the “history” of an event; it gives semantic weight to assertions by the Communist Party of China that, no, there were no actual deaths in Tiananmen Square, even if there were many near Tiananmen Square.

Whether marveling at the power of belief and the unwillingness of museum supporters (not to mention the Hong Kong Alliance who created the museum) to stand behind their message, I was struck most by Saturday’s comment by Johnny Lau, a journeyman journalist who reported from Tiananmen in 1989.

When I asked about the pro-Communist protestors who had amassed outside the museum’s entrance, he said. “Regardless of their message, at least they have the right to protest here.”

Exceptionally American: The uncomfortable relationship with human rights

When he was found by officers of the Canadian military, Shidane Abukar Arone —a Somali citizen— said he was searching for a lost child. It was 1993 and Arone’s country was broken by famine and conflict —circumstances that would lead, seven months later, to a botched U.S. military operation and the deaths of 18 Delta Force rangers.

Detained on suspicion of trespassing, Arone was taken into custody on the evening of March 16, 1993. Sometime that evening, allegedly uttering the words “Canada, Canada, Canada,” Arone succumbed to grievous injuries sustained at the hands of the Canadian military. In the hours prior to Arone’s death, members of a highly-trained commando team subjected him to senseless beatings and, while restrained, sexual abuse. One of the team members, Master Cpl. Giasson, found the badly-beaten detainee semi-conscious and bleeding. “In Canada we cannot do this,” he told a fellow officer. “But here…”

“The Somali Affair” was one of Canada’s most embarrassing and deplorable cases of detainee abuse. From My Lai to Abu Ghraib, however, these stories are disturbingly (historically) common. With such a somber backdrop, yesterday’s US declaration on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is even more damning.

The treaty was designed to extend human rights responsibilities (and protections) to a country’s military and intelligence forces stationed overseas. Previously, both the Clinton and Bush administrations rejected the UN’s interpretation of the treaty’s scope, claiming the covenant only applied to US territories under formal jurisdiction. Yesterday in Geneva, the Obama administration agreed.

Intended to ban arbitrary killings, torture, unfair trials and imprisonments without judicial review, the treaty  —ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992— continues to create tension between legal advisors who say ignoring global implications of the treaty is  “not legally tenable” and military officers who say the treaty will complicate future U.S. military operations.

The military argument, now, is party line: The United States has too many responsibilities abroad to be subject to such restrictions. Full stop. For others, the treaty is simply unnecessary as American moral fiber remains superior to any document canonized by the United Nations. (This is, I’m afraid, the legacy of American Exceptionalism in a post-9/11 world). But proposing that a military’s expansive scope should be met with the shrinking of its responsibility seems inexcusable. And presuming protection will be guaranteed by enlightened leadership is a most dangerous game.

These positions ignore what we —the public— already know about the military at war and under stress: Traumatic environments alter one’s views of what is right, wrong, and the grey area between. The acts captured in Abu Ghraib’s debasing pictures —taken by men and women who willingly degraded the value of human life— were imagined by Americans committed to their country’s cause. The “War on Terror” carved lines into Middle Eastern sand that eventually obscured the boundaries drawn by law. Sure, there was a failure in leadership, and individual decisions are never a reflection of one’s environment alone, but the soldier’s willingness to take part in abuse is born out of the very fraternity needed to stay alive far from home.

In the end, social psychology might be a blunt tool to explain, exactly, why one Canadian soldier burned Mr. Arone’s genitals with lighted cigarettes. But research does explain why people, who would otherwise object to such treatment, or intervene against such acts, decided —in these cases— not to. That’s why yesterday’s decision by US officials serves as the highest order abdication of responsibility  —it echoes the twisted logic of permissibility: “not at home, but here…” And that, of course, is particularly exceptional.

Spooking the herd

“A mighty force slumbers in the heat, mighty and —should it explode anywhere near us— deadly. It is the force of a mountain avalanche, only inflamed, frenzied, driven by foaming blood,” wrote Ryszard Kapuściński, the famed Polish journalist, stopped by a herd of buffalo while traveling overland by car between Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and the soon-to-be independent Uganda.

Worried about spooking the large beasts, Kapuściński remembered a discussion with a biologist who noticed that even the sound of their research helicopter failed to stir buffalo grazing alone. But when it flew over a large herd, “it sufficed for there to be among them a single overly sensitive one, a hysteric, a hothouse flower, who at the sound of the engine would start to thrash around waiting to flee. The entire herd would immediately panic and, in terror, begin to move.”

With Kapuściński’s sensitivity for narrative tension, his passage captured not just the potential for danger, but might rightly have rendered the aim of foreign reporters: To be agitated and aware and to move the masses. For Kapuściński, this message would have resonated personally.

In the months after his trip Uganda, Kapuściński suffered with a bout of cerebral malaria which so depressed his immune system he then contracted tuberculosis. As the diagnosis threatened his stay in the region, he told his doctor that “Poland had never before had a permanent correspondent in sub-Saharan Africa.” Kapuściński believed his illness, if ever shared with his editors, would force him back home, “and that thing that had been a lifelong dream… to work in Africa—will vanish forever.”

Taking the buffalo as metaphor, Kapuściński would certainly have been the loner — the “hysteric” — who sought to move his herd (the readers and the reticent) with news from far-off places. And for years, he did just that —drawing out stories that textured a continent, that explored the unknown and that laid the foundation for a generation of journalists.

This is where Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil comes in.

The project will report, unsurprisingly, on the practice that once threatened those buffalo: poaching. But the goal is also to draw connections between issues well known to residents of Nigeria and Cameroon, and poorly covered from afar. From Faro National Park in Cameroon to that country’s expansive fields of palm, and even to Nigeria’s coast and the boys who could be pirates, Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil seeks to provoke, through sheer force of reporting, a stir from the masses.

With less than a week left before deadline, though, I need your help. For as little as five dollars, you can pledge your support and join me on the front lines. With updates from the field, original photographs, and behind-the-scenes video, you’ll be closer to the action than ever before.

As Kapuściński knew, “the [African] continent … is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos.” With your help, Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil will provide just a few of its stories. The stoic and stubborn be damned.

**Author’s note: In recent years, the veracity of Kapuściński’s reporting has been questioned. In his 2012 biography of Poland’s most celebrated journalist, author Artur Domoslawski asserts that much of Kapuściński’s nonfiction/reportage was —damningly— imagined. While this post draws on his work (and perhaps even more on his lyricism and knack for literary construction), it is not to be taken as endorsement of practice. There is no substitute for accurate and balanced reporting.** 

Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil

As many of you might know, I recently launched a new editorial project with the help of Beacon. “Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil” is an investigative project that will take me to Nigeria and Cameroon this spring reporting on three issues I believe are both critical and importantly inter-related in the region.

The support I’ve received over the last six days has been incredible —not to mention humbling. In my project pitch I stressed that these types of projects cannot be completed alone, and that (freelance) international reporting is perhaps the hardest gig in the journalism world right now. The many kind donations and messages of support demonstrate that there is still an interested readership for some of today’s most complicated and compelling stories.

Unlike Kickstarter, which fixes a numerical goal for crowdsourced projects, Beacon focuses on the number of “Backers”. For a project to secure funding, 50 “Backers” have to pledge their support before the project deadline. To date, I’ve been honored to accept pledges from 20 different sources, but remain eager to add to this tally with just 13 days remaining.

For those who haven’t visited the project page, please do so here. For the cost of two coffees (in NYC, of course) you can add your name to the list. For those who might know friends and family members interested in these topics, feel free to pass the information along. And finally, check back here for updates as the project progresses.