Prisoners of Peace

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 are loathe to donate their own troops.

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.

Exceptionally American: The uncomfortable relationship with human rights

On Thursday, the Obama administration asserted the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights did not extend to military and intelligence officials working abroad. By repeating a script well-rehearsed by former presidents Bush and Clinton, Obama endorsed the very sentiment that has led to military abuses in the past.

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.

Broken Country (Ongoing)

Taken from inside a truck, driving at a high rate of speed through Port-au-Prince's Cité Soleil, this picture captures one of the most dangerous parts of town. The vendors pictured here often intercept, gather, and then sell the day's shipments from the Port-au-Prince seaport. (Photo: Adam McCauley)

See first cuts here: Haiti: Two Years Later

Technology Opens Fire: Looking at Conflict Differently

The LRA Tracker is a unique online aggregation system that allows viewers a first-hand look at conflict as it develops. The system processes and publishes information about LRA attacks, abductions and sightings gathered from a network of local reporters, non-profit and humanitarian organizations.

In Foreign Policy magazine’s latest edition, The Future is Now, contributors tackle issues of our technological future. The prodding questions – at the edges of technology and human achievement – provide fodder for debate, opinion  — and so turn the wheels of innovation.

However, what if technology could make us better, more engaged world citizens?

Enter the Lord’s Resistance Army Crisis Tracker.

Launched this week by Invisible Children and Resolve, two non-profit organizations who have dedicated the last eight and nine years respectively, to Great Lakes Region of Africa, the Crisis Tracker seeks to document – in near real-time – the damage caused by Joseph Kony and the LRA.

The LRA Tracker is a unique online aggregation system that allows viewers a first-hand look at conflict as it develops. The system processes and publishes information about LRA attacks, abductions and sightings gathered from a network of local reporters, non-profit and humanitarian organizations. This information is shared via radio stations created and supported by Invisible Children. The raw data is categorized and broadcast on a breaking newsfeed, digitized map and regular data-analysis reports and provides information faster, and to a wider audience, with the hope of inspiring immediate action.

“Not only is this a pioneering tool for activists and policymakers, but community-run protection organizations in Central Africa will directly benefit from regular reports analyzing LRA movement and attack patterns” says Michael Poffenberger, the executive director of Resolve, in this today’s press release. “The response time to LRA atrocities should be three hours, not three months.”

For the Great Lakes Region of Africa, late is better than never.

According to report published by Human Rights Watch this past June, the LRA are responsible for 2,400 civilian deaths and 3,400 abductions since 2008. Straddling the border of the Central African Republic and The Democratic Republic of the Congo, they have launched more than 107 attacks in 2011, the 25th year of LRA violence. alone. For activists and organizations, it is a depressing anniversary

Kony and his band of criminals are most reviled for the abduction and enslavement of young children, more than 30,000, since the group’s founding in the 1980s, according to the United Nations. The LRA has forced young boys and girls to take up arms against rival groups and innocent civilians, even their own communities. In most cases, the LRA uses small children as front-line “shock troops” as their size makes them difficult targets make difficult targets. For children fortunate enough to avoid the sharp edge of conflict, many are forced to provide sexual services to LRA leaders.

Yet, the international community has been impotent in combating the violence.

For one, the United Nations mission to the DR Congo, MONUSCO, has not focused attention on the LRA’s hot spots. Fewer than five percent of United Nations Peacekeepers are located in recognized LRA-trafficked regions, according to HRW. In many cases, the insufficient international support – despite MONUSCO being the largest United Nations mission – and inchoate international legal regulations (the International Criminal Court has charged Kony but has been unable to find and try him) means that engaged non-profit organizations and humanitarian groups become mere witnesses to the atrocities.

Today’s announcement of the LRA Crisis Tracker is, in part, a global voyeur project intend on retooling geo-location technology in an effort to increase awareness about this lingering humanitarian disaster. The Crisis Tracker confirms that groups like Invisible Children and Resolve recognize that any campaign to end abuse must begin by building awareness of the issue. For that, the description of the perpetrators and the emotive power of violence projected onto computer screens, might nurture the moral rectitude required for people to force governments to act and international criminals to cower.

“The Crisis Tracker is intended to put a scare into the bad guys from day one,” said Chuck Phillips, chief technology officer of Digitaria, an award-winning marketing and technology firm partnering on the project.

Let us hope that today’s technology provides a real chance to make good on yesterday’s promise of peace.

 How the LRA Crisis Tracker works:

Read the press release here