Book Review – Economic Gangsters

Economic Gangsters I am sure someone has already compared Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel‘s Economic Gangsters – Corruption, Violence, and The Poverty of Nations (website) to Freakanomics (the comparison is made more obvious with Steven Levitt’s blurb on the back cover). Economic Gangsters (EG) clearly belongs to the same class of books of economic vulgarization (in the French sense, that is, positive sense of making specialized knowledge and methods accessible to the general public). In this sense, I found the book extremely successful. It is a great and easy read. It uses fascinating examples. It is entertaining.

But what I found the most interesting aspect of the book was the social research part. The authors spend a lot of time detailing how to put a value on corrupt practices, how to measure corruption in the first place and all the different levels of corruption that may exist in different countries and how to figure out their quantitative and qualitative aspects. The topics covered in that fashion vary from the "value" of political connections under the Suharto regime in Indonesia (and the fluctuations of the stock market correlated with Suharto’s health reports), the diversity in smuggling practices in China and their economic impact, the oh-so-politically explosive topics of UN diplomats not paying their parking tickets in New York City, the connections between environmental pressures and war, and between war and post-war periods and poverty, to more general policy recommendations regarding poverty in developing countries. This diversity is part of the appeal of the book. If anything, it is not boring.

Throughout all these different topics, the authors make visible the connections between corruption, violence and poverty, defining corruption, following Transparency International, as "the illegal use of public office for private gain."

Where the book is frustrating is in its "economics explains (almost) everything" attitude, which is not surprising or presenting well-established connections as if for the first time. For instance, the connection between environmental pressure and social conflict has been widely studied to name one example, Michael Klare’s Resource Wars, among others. Similarly, the economic and environmental issues as partial factors in the genocide in Rwanda have been rather thoroughly illustrated by Richard Robbins and Jared Diamonds, each from its own perspective. And although the authors acknowledge that culture matter, they bypass other social factors to stick to a narrow focus, which would be fine, again without the "economics explains it all" stance. The case for good data and data interpretation is much strong in my view.

Similarly, especially when discussing the vast and question of global poverty, the authors write as if these problems were self-contained, as if there were no forms of neo-colonialism, as if the IMF and the World Bank had not been actors in some brutal economic disasters, and as if former colonial powers had no responsibilities in propping up puppet dictators in their former colonies, or as if the Asian Tigers had not been able to heavily restrict foreign trade and investments under the developmental state regime while African countries had structural adjustment policies forced upon them in addition to having to deal with the predatory state regime. And yes, predatory governance and poverty / violence are correlated and operate as a vicious cycle. Again, Manuel Castells has written quite extensively on these topics in his trilogy The Information Age.

As I mentioned already, it seems a convenient simplification to focus on only certain factors and then treat them as essential while not paying attention to others. That is my main issue with this book. But then, I would concede that vulgarization, by definition, requires some trade-off in terms of technical jargon and complexities but the overall tone of the book is not one of nuance but more of certainty that indeed, "economics explains it all."

Somalia: A Symbol of World (Dis)Order

It seems that Somalia now represents the nexus or ground zero of the world disorder. Two articles independently describe the situation there in pretty much the same terms.

And here as well:

It indeed seems that we have a lot of dynamics present there: weak to non-existent national governance, warlordism, religious fundamentalism, ambivalent exercise at global intervention and governance. The conflict in Somalia seems to indeed have all the characteristics of new wars: lengthy duration (not much has improved since the disaster of 1994 intervention), the presence of multiple warlords plundering the country, the massive victimization of the civilian population, and with religious fundamentalist groups who, not unlike the Taliban, look like the closest thing to law and order compared to what the warlords have wrought. Add to this the intervention of foreign forces that contribute to the problems and you have a pretty good picture of what is going on.

At the same time, efforts at exercises in global governance have not worked, either through UN Resolutions:

or through peacekeeping… and besides, what peace is there to keep in Somalia?

And the roots and sudden interests may have to do with this:

And it now looks like the Chinese have had enough of having their ships attacked and are sending their own forces in the Gulf Aden, for the first time since the 1420s… Plus ça change…

66 Countries Ask The UN General Assembly to Decriminalize Homosexuality

With Sarkozy and his thugs in control of the French government, there aren’t that many opportunities to be proud of France these days, except for this:

Or for the anglophone crowd:

So, who aren’t the enlightened nations who refused to join the list of 66 signatories (which includes the entire European Union, Brazil, Israel, and Japan)?  The United States, China and Russia, Arab nations,The Holy See (the Catholic lobby), the Organization of the Islamic Conference. What are their objections? Why, legalizing homosexuality will legitimize pedophilia (a bit rich coming from the Catholic Church, that great moral authority) and other "deplorable" acts (whatever the hell that means), of course.

Well, at least, there is now a document in place and that’s a big step.

Planet of Slums

I am shamelessly using the title of Mike Davis‘s book regarding the latest report from UN-HABITAT, State of World Cities 2008/2009 – Harmonious Cities whose main points are reported in Le Monde. This is the fourth such report whose publication usually precedes the World Urban Forum, currently held in Nanjing.

The report is a major compendium of world statistics on global urbanity. Since this year, half of the world’s population live in cities. 700 new cities have been created since the 1990 and they host over 250 million inhabitants. There are also mega-cities of over 20 million people: Tokyo, Mexico City soon to be joined by Mumbai, Dakha, Sao Paulo and Karachi. And so, for the UN, the 21st Century is the Urban Century. However, unsurprisingly, there are costs to this massive global urbanization in economic, environmental and social terms.

Cities are growing in the Global South and stagnating in the core countries

Developing countries account for 95% of world urban growth and absorb 5 million new urbanites every month, compared to 500,000 in developed countries. The urban population of developing countries should double by 2050 according to the UN. The earth will then sustain 5.3 billion people living in cities, 2/3 in Asia and 1/4 in Africa where the urban revolution has been the most brutal.

On the other hand, in developed countries, approximately half of the cities have had growth under 1% and 40% of cities are losing population, especially in Europe. This is related to slowing demographic growth and low birth rates in the North (in the reverse in the Global South). And whatever growth occurs in developed countries has a lot to do with immigration, which accounts for 1/3 of urban growth. And contrary to what is often stated, urban growth in Global South is largely due to fertility there rather than rural exodus.

Persistent social inequalities… unequally distributed

As the report states, the largest US cities have comparable levels of inequalities as those of Abidjan, Nairobi or Buenos Aires, according to data using the GINI coefficient (0 = perfect equality and 1 = maximum inequality). Many American cities, along with cities in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America are over 0.6 if not 0.7 (which is REALLY bad in terms of potential for social explosion): Bogota, Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, Cape Town. Half of the African urban population lives below the poverty line, 60% lives in slums (compared to the 30% – one billion people – average for developing countries).

In general, the most equal cities are in Western Europe (HA! Try living in Paris!) However, the gold medal of equality goes to Beijing, with a GINI coefficient of 0.22 (however, that coefficient goes up to 0.33 once migrating workers are factored in).

Climate Change and Risky Cities

380 million people live in  over 3,000 coastal cities with low altitudes (less than 10 meters). These cities, such as Dakha, have high risks of flooding (same for Alexandria or Lagos).

Regarding cities contributions to global warming, the report states that it is not so much the degree of urbanization of a country that has an impact on the quantity of greehouse gases produced, but the structure of the city, its living conditions and environmental policies: the mega-city of Sao Paulo produces about 1 tenth of emissions of San Diego, with 4 times as many people. As a result, the authors of the report are more in favor of concentrated cities with less dependency on cars.

Overall, as its title indicates, the report promotes innovative urban policies as paths toward harmonious urban development, as experimented in Bangkok or Bogota.

This is all well and good, but according to Amnesty International, world-cities are also places of human rights violations as illustrated by case studies:

Today’s world-cities: ground zero of the world risk society.

Power in the Global Age – A Non-Polar World

In light of the current economic meltdown of massive and global proportions, (Sir) Adam Roberts raises the question of who has power in the global age and sees no rising hegemon.

Oh yeah, good times. How quaint this seems now, after Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the other US-sponsored hellholes, spiraling deficits and debt and whatever else we haven’t discovered yet. That post-Cold War undue optimism is now gone (it might come again with the election of Barack Obama at as US president, with a Messianic touch and religious overtones). Actually, that speech in 1992 might actually have been the high point of US dominance.

So, if the not the US, who could be the next hegemon. Several contenders get mentioned in the media on a regular basis as the new "poles" of the global system. Roberts is skeptical.

Why do we have to have poles in the first place? Because poles create an ordering framework in which we can fit almost every country (except the few wayward non-aligned countries). Change the poles and the rest of the countries will be realigned according to the new poles or centers of power. A non-polar world, as Roberts contends, is a scary one.

"Today, a notably wide range of possible risks and challenges appear to confirm the fragility of world order. The events in Georgia have graphically substantiated the built-in danger of the much-vaunted new principle for the conduct of international relations in the 21st century, the "responsibility to protect." As events have shown, this principle can easily be distorted and abused as a cover for the extension of national power, and may actually exacerbate the problems of international relations. In addition, possible threats in the next 30 years include climate change, population pressures, resource competition, the emergence of major new powers, nuclear proliferation, transnational terrorism, and religious and ideological fundamentalism. All could contribute to the outbreak of armed conflicts. The threats that we face lie also in ourselves and in our own societies — for example in our own poor management of intelligence and poor understanding of foreign countries and cultures.

Several of the threats faced today expose inadequacies in the policies of major powers. Nuclear proliferation is the most obvious case in point. The policy of nuclear nonproliferation on which so many countries have placed emphasis requires a serious rationale for why some countries should have -nuclear weapons and others not. Such a rationale is not impossible to develop but has been positively hindered by simplistic interpretations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a deal imposed by the nuclear powers (ignoring the major impetus of nonnuclear states in the negotiations for the NPT), or as a deal in which the nuclear powers promised to get rid of their own nuclear weapons completely (ignoring the extremely careful language that embodies a more limited and prudent undertaking). Nuclear nonproliferation worked for a generation partly because the Cold War alliance systems provided powerful disincentives for the development of nuclear weapons. Building a serious rationale for nuclear nonproliferation is one of the most difficult challenges faced in the nonpolar world."

However, for Roberts, there are reasons for optimism. We are now at a very high point in global cooperation and regulations and international standards abound. Globalization is the real thing with its multiple and multi-layered flows (or scapes to use Appadurai’s term). Relatedly, countries line up to become part of their respective regional bodies.

In spite of a very real crisis of legitimacy (which, actually, is directed more at the national institutions than at global ones), more and more social actors and entities operate under the frame of global imaginaries. So, for Roberts, the international (I would say "global") order is robust and not on the verge of collapsing and global cooperation is still the best hope for tackling our many pressing issues.

And then, there are the UN which, for better and for worse, is still the best there is to offer in terms of global governance through its many agencies. Too often our thinking onthe UN is limited to the Security Council and the General Assembly.

"Any attempt to capture the essence of the contemporary international system needs to encompass a clear and realistic view of both the strengths and the weaknesses of the United Nations. Different understandings of the United Nations’ actual and potential roles formed a fateful background to the European–US divide over Iraq in 2003, and are not yet resolved. A degree of common understanding could be based on recognition of four key points. First, the United Nations has been, and remains, an important framework within which states can act collectively, including in the security sphere. Second, the United Nations does not at present constitute anything approaching a complete system of collective security. Indeed, to present it in that light may damage the United Nations by placing a greater weight of expectation on the organization than it can possibly bear. In particular, it cannot possibly play a central role in a crisis, such as that over Georgia, in which one of the five veto-wielding powers is directly involved. Third, the experience of the United Nations in the past six decades confirms that there remains a need for certain states to take the lead if the United Nations is to act effectively. This has especially been the case so far as the use of force has been concerned. And last, the United Nations exists, and will continue to exist, in parallel with the evolving system of sovereign states and with other dynamic developments in international society. It is one element in international order, but not the sole basis of that order.

In short, the emergence of a nonpolar order forces us to confront what has always been a central truth of international relations: in different regions and crises, different states and combinations of states take the lead. "Variable geometry" is the rule. Russia’s action in Georgia illustrates how open to abuse, and how dangerous, such a situation can be. Variable geometry, as distinct from simple polarity, may be as much a part of the problem of world order as it is of the solution, but it is likely to endure."

My emphasis. Maybe we need to think of the global system in "liquid" terms, to borrow the expression from Zygmunt Bauman. But what seems to come out loud and clear from Roberts analysis is that we should not expect the rise of a new hegemon anytime soon but rather the rise of temporary leadership depending on the circumstances and localizations of crises.

Kemal Dervis on The Financial Crisis

Kemal Dervis, the head of UN Development Program, gave an interview to Le Monde regarding the impact of the financial crisis on the poor (yeah, while we were busy writing checks to banks, we kinda forgot about them) and the gist, of course, is that the poor will be hit more harshly by all this than people in core countries.

Dervis states that developing countries know that, even though they are not at the origins of the crisis, they will have to suffer its consequences anyway, with less means to deal with them than rich countries. The speculative crisis of the core will hit hard the real economies of Global South. There is a decrease in demand and growth and lower access to credit. In other words, they will receive less foreign investment, less revenues, and will see a decline in their exports. The failings of the core financial sector will hit the hardest in these countries.

Not all countries will be similarly affected, though. China and the Asian tigers will retain their high growth because their development is partially independent from core countries’ economies… good thing too, otherwise, it would be a worse mess if we had to expect a Chinese collapse.

At the same time, the G24 has warned that they will not be able to deal with the crisis on their own. Global public aid is roughly $100 billion per year. Defense budgets represent $1,300 billion and the different bailouts that rich countries will implement to salvage the financial system will be even more. On the other hand, in 2005, in Glenneagles, rich countries committed to $25 billion more per year to halve poverty in Africa by 2015. This is a moral issue: will rich countries use the crisis to get out of their much much more limited commitment to Africa?

When it comes to solution to the crisis, Dervis, unsurprisingly, advocates for a new regulatory apparatus for the global financial system strong enough to anticipate and prevent the next crisis. If there is one benefit from the crisis, it is the realization that we are indeed in a globalized world, all in the same boat and there multilateral governance mechanisms are needed though global cooperation.

The question then becomes who decides on global governance? The G7, the G8, a new G14 so desired by World Bank President Robert Zoellick? The IMF (that is, if DSK can extirpate himself from his current troubles)? What of the countries of the Global South? This is a debate that needs to happen and Dervis thinks that America’s attitude toward such multilateral cooperation will be central in this process.

Dervis closes his interview with a plea for supranational organizations that correspond better to our integrated and interdependent world (someone has read David Held and his Global Covenant… damn, another book review I should really get around to writing) rather than nation-based regimes.

Global Justice – Jorge Castaneda and Taxi to The Dark Side

TttDS Alex Gibney’s latest film, Taxi to The Dark Side, is now out on DVD and airing on HBO. Gibney is also the director of some other great documentaries such as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and No End in Sight.

In many ways, Taxi to The Dark Side (TTTDS) is very comparable to Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). Where SOP focused on Abu Ghraib, TTTDS focuses on Bagram, in Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. The similarities are striking but not surprising: systematic torture, killing of prisoners (TTTDS focuses on the death of Dilawar, a taxi driver, guilty of nothing, who died at Bagram a few days after he had been sent there, after being beat up to death by his guards). TTTDS is a horrible story of the Kafkaian environment created by the US in Afghanistan where people are thrown into a nightmare with no end in sight, on the flimsiest of reasons, and where the interrogators themselves know they are guilty of nothing.

And considering the current state of the war in Afghanistan, one cannot even claim that the end justified the means. With the conflict overflowing into Pakistan, the strategy followed by the US and its NATO allies is not exactly a resounding success.

The story of Dilawar allows Gibney to retrace all the steps leading to this systematic use of torture, with "fascinating" developments on the behavioral research used against detainees. The film also makes a clear case that the buck stop definitely at the top (in particular with Cheney and Rumsfeld). And whereas the soldiers on the ground are clearly guilty of torture, they should not be the only one to receive punishment. And there are a few heroes in this story as well, especially Alberto Mora. The film leaves no doubt that more than a few high-ranking members of the Bush administration belong in the Hague, at the International Criminal Court.

The ICC is the subject of Jorge G. Castaneda‘s column in the Guardian.

The problem that Castaneda discusses here is the decision by the UN Security Council to possibly suspend the ICC’s proceedings after the prosecutor signaled his intention to prosecute Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for the Darfur genocide.

Indeed, indicting a head of state while in office, for such obvious crimes, would indeed send a clear message regarding impunity. However, there remains to be seen how the ICC operates in the face of war crimes committed by citizens of core countries. Again, there is ample documentation now that members of the Bush administration should be indicted for war crimes. Will it happen? Or will it have to be done by a country with universal jurisdiction, as in the case described by Castaneda?

It would be perfectly appropriate for these people to become pariahs of the global community and, like Kissinger, to have to check with their attorneys every time they want to travel abroad.

I’m not holding my breath.

This does not take away the fact that the very creation of the ICC was one of the most progressive developments in global governance.

Victims of New Wars

Since I just reviewed Dave Donelson’s Heart of Diamonds, it is an appropriate time to discuss three stories out of African countries that have experienced new wars and that share common traits: resource curse (diamonds or other), corrupt leaders, militia or private armies making use of child soldiers.

First, out of the Congo (DRC):

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Lord’s Resistance Army is one of the most barbaric armed organizations in the world and its leader, Joseph Kony, deserves to have his behind dragged to the International Criminal Court for his crimes, which are numerous, varied but always horrific, all in the name cleansing the Acholi people based on biblical references. The LRA has made a specialty of using children as easily disposable and easily replaced cannon fodder (that’s for boy… girls usually get sexual slavery).

The conflict in the DRC is actually a regional conflict that includes the lingering of the genocide in Rwanda, and obviously, an overflow of the Ugandan rebellion in addition to conflict internal to the DRC. The social consequences have been devastating with no end in sight.

But that’s not all for the DRC:

And in addition to rape, malnutrition is an enormous problem as well. The children are fed, well, whenever. Children eat if charity organizations or their family bring food to the prison. In a system ridden with corruption, parents do not dare appeal their children’s incarcerations and do not appear in court when their children are arraigned.

The news is not entirely bad though, sometimes, a bad guy seems to be getting his comeuppance:

I hope he gets it. Some more background on Charles Taylor here. My own writing on new wars here.

Social Injustice Lowers Life Expectancy

So says a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) titled Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health Equity through Action on the Social Determinants of Health. Actually, their language is even stronger: inequities are killing people on a grand scale. As the press release states,

"A child born in a Glasgow, Scotland suburb can expect a life 28 years shorter than another living only 13 kilometres away. A girl in Lesotho is likely to live 42 years less than another in Japan. In Sweden, the risk of a woman dying during pregnancy and childbirth is 1 in 17 400; in Afghanistan, the odds are 1 in 8. Biology does not explain any of this. Instead, the differences between – and within – countries result from the social environment where people are born, live, grow, work and age."

The report investigates precisely these social determinants of health, especially health inequities defined as "unfair, unjust and avoidable causes of ill health." The report not only examines health inequities between countries but also what it calls health gradients, that is, health inequities within countries:

  • Life expectancy for Indigenous Australian males is shorter by 17 years than all other Australian males.
  • Maternal mortality is 3–4 times higher among the poor compared to the rich in Indonesia. The difference in adult mortality between least and most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK is more than 2.5 times.
  • Child mortality in the slums of Nairobi is 2.5 times higher than in other parts of the city. A baby born to a Bolivian mother with no education has 10% chance of dying, while one born to a woman with at least secondary education has a 0.4% chance.
  • In the United States, 886 202 deaths would have been averted between 1991 and 2000 if mortality rates between white and African Americans were equalized. (This contrasts to 176 633 lives saved in the US by medical advances in the same period.)
  • In Uganda the death rate of children under 5 years in the richest fifth of households is 106 per 1000 live births but in the poorest fifth of households in Uganda it is even worse – 192 deaths per 1000 live births – that is nearly a fifth of all babies born alive to the poorest households destined to die before they reach their fifth birthday. Set this against an average death rate for under fives in high income countries of 7 deaths per 1000.

These health gradients are in turn related to social gradients: the poor are worse off than the less deprived, the less deprived are worse off than the average income earners, etc. These social gradients are found in all countries, from the poorest to the richest.

Another important point noted in the report is that wealth or economic growth are not the major factors in reducing health inequities. Mechanisms of redistribution work better:

"Economic growth is raising incomes in many countries but increasing national wealth alone does not necessarily increase national health. Without equitable distribution of benefits, national growth can even exacerbate inequities. (…)

Wealth alone does not have to determine the health of a nation’s population. Some low-income countries such as Cuba, Costa Rica, China, state of Kerala in India and Sri Lanka have achieved levels of good health despite relatively low national incomes. But, the Commission points out, wealth can be wisely used. Nordic countries, for example, have followed policies that encouraged equality of benefits and services, full employment, gender equity and low levels of social exclusion. This, said the Commission, is an outstanding example of what needs to be done everywhere."

In other words, and unsurprisingly, social democratic models tend to work best rather than leaving it more or less to market mechanisms.

The report also notes that solutions to many of these problems are social and not to be narrowly confined in the health sector:

"Much of the work to redress health inequities lies beyond the health sector. According to the Commission’s report, "Water-borne diseases are not caused by a lack of antibiotics but by dirty water, and by the political, social, and economic forces that fail to make clean water available to all; heart disease is caused not by a lack of coronary care units but by lives people lead, which are shaped by the environments in which they live; obesity is not caused by moral failure on the part of individuals but by the excess availability of high-fat and high-sugar foods." Consequently, the health sector – globally and nationally – needs to focus attention on addressing the root causes of inequities in health."

It is therefore the job of governments to provide the social conditions that promote health and healthy lifestyle rather than just medical interventions. This is a very activist stance and a very liberal one (not very surprising considering the presence of Amartya SenWikipedia page – on the committee). So what are the committee’s recommendations?

"Based on this compelling evidence, the Commission makes three overarching recommendations to tackle the "corrosive effects of inequality of life chances":

  • Improve daily living conditions, including the circumstances in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.
  • Tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources – the structural drivers of those conditions – globally, nationally and locally.

Note the Weberian reference to life chances and the thoroughly sociological perspective.

In addition to these three overarching recommendations, the committee has more specific ones, as noted by Rachel Stevenson in the Guardian:

  • Quality care for all mothers and children from the child’s birth.
  • Compulsory primary and secondary education for all children, regardless of ability to pay.
  • Improved living conditions, such as water, sanitation, paved roads and affordable housing for all.
  • Health equity at the centre of all urban planning, for example, using designs that promote physical activity.
  • Full and fair employment, with improved working conditions and wages that take into account the real cost of living.
  • Universal welfare programmes that ensure everyone has the level of income needed for healthy living.
  • Universal health care provision.
  • The highest level of government taking responsibility for action on health, and all government policies being assessed for their impact on health equity.
  • Increase public spending on tackling the social determinants of health.
  • Ensure rich countries honour their commitments to increase aid and debt relief to poorer countries.
  • Ensure international finance institutions use transparent terms and conditions for international borrowing and lending.
  • Reinforce the role of the state in providing basic services such as water/sanitation and regulating goods such as tobacco, alcohol, and food.
  • Address gender biases through anti-discrimination laws, providing equal opportunities and pay for men and women.
  • Establish national and global surveillance systems for routine monitoring of health inequity and the social determinants of health, such as the compulsory registering of all births, free of charge to the parents/carers.
  • Make health equity a global development goal, and strengthen multilateral action.
  • Measure and understand the problem and assess the impact of action.

Again, these involve a very specific and interventionist policy framework. The question, as usual, will be how much of this will be payed lip service to, while more or less ignored.

The Caucasus as New Cold War Theater?

Georgia It is pretty clear that Russia and Georgia are at war (see excellent background article here). It is not like there were no warning signs that Russia did not enjoy having its power challenged, as happened with the independence of Kosovo where the UN ignored Russia’s opposition and went ahead with support for the new republic over its objections. Then, a few weeks ago, I posted on the fact that it seemed that Russia was engaging in a new Cold War in an attempt to reclaim some global military leadership. The invasion of parts of Georgia in support of independent movements in Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia should be read in that context.

As usual, I find Michael Mann’s conceptualization of different forms of power useful to understand what is going on here. As Jonathan Steele puts it in the Guardian, this is not just an economic war, a "pipeline war", but a war of political influence. Political power, more than economic, might be at work here:

Continue reading

Navanethem Pillay – New UN High Commissioner on Human Rights

Pillay UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appointed a new UN High Commissioner on Human Rights to succeed outgoing Commissioner Louise Arbour: South African Judge Navanethem Pillay who currently serves at the International Criminal Court. She seems like the right person for the job, judging from her short bio on the ICC website:

"In 1967 Judge Pillay became the first woman to start a law practice in Natal Province, South Africa, and the first black woman to serve in the High Court in her country. She has presided over both criminal and civil cases. As a practitioner, Judge Pillay defended many opponents of apartheid. She was then elected by the United Nations General Assembly to be a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she served for eight years, including four years as president. During her term, Judge Pillay was credited with turning the Tribunal towards a more positive course. She has written on and practised in international criminal law, international humanitarian law and international human rights law, and more particularly on crimes of sexual violence in conflicts."

I like her already. And of course, I appreaciate seeing another great woman as Human Rights Commissioner. Sadly, the Office of UN High Commissioner on Human Rights ranks pretty low on the complex UN hierarchy but it is still an important office and, hopefully, Judge Pillay will be able to make her mark. She certainly has her work cut out for her.

This appointment still needs to be approved by the General Assembly.

Organized Criminal Networks as Global Powers

Organized crime has gone global. That is an accepted fact but it makes life for national anti-mafia services miserable. Going global has done for organized crime what it has done for transnational corporations: it has made these groups more powerful, more flexible; it has given them a greater reach into markets they did not yet have access to; it has allowed them to make connections with other "like-minded" groups whereas before, such contacts would have been limited by geographical distances and barriers.

Moreover, the liberalization of trade and capital as well as the removal of effective border controls within specific regional blocs, such as the European Union, has made circulation of illicit goods and services even easier and more lucrative. Criminality thrives in unregulated environments and failed / failing states. What’s not to love about globalization?

None of this has gone unnoticed, of course, and we are starting to see now real signs of concerns regarding the expanding activities of organized criminal networks, as illustrated by a flurry of articles all over the press across continents.

Continue reading

Louise Arbour Against Relativism as Erosion of Human Rights

Louise Arbour Louise Arbour, outgoing UN High Commissioner on Human Rights , give an interview to Le Monde as she takes stock of the current state of human rights around the world.

Every time human rights are mentioned in conversation or even academic meetings, the objection always comes up that human rights are a Western creation that the United States and European countries are ramming down people’s throats all over the world. It is nonsense, of course (to everyone who knows the history of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ), and it is reverse patronizing (as if only Western people could have come up with the idea of human rights).

But now, emerging countries, groups and powers such as China, Russia or the Muslim world claim a right to a different version of human rights (unsurprisingly, one that is much more restrictive, in terms of, well… rights). So how do we preserve the universality of these rights?

According to Louise Arbour, there are different lines of fracture in this debate. Developing countries, including China, tend to favor social and economic rights more than civil and political rights whereas the United States has done the opposite. This is a line of fracture inherited from the Cold War.

But the main line of fracture now has to do with the rise of religious groups, especially fundamentalist groups who declare these rights secular and therefore inapplicable to them. These groups claim that they should be adjusted.

For Arbour, this is truly an assault against the universality of human rights in the name of religious and cultural relativism. What is the solution for the High Commissioner then? Have a debate with the right parties: not the ambassadors from the European Union or the Organization of Islamic Conference , but rather Muslim women because they are at the heart of the debate as to how to reconcile religious beliefs and human rights.

There is also a juridical, as opposed to political, dimension to consider. For Arbour, it is a false dichotomy to oppose freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The only real question, for her, is "what are the reasonable limits to freedom of expression in a free and democratic society?" After all, even the most democratic societies impose some restrictions on such freedoms.

What has been the impact of the "war on terror" on human rights and their promotion? For Arbour, a lot of democrats (small "d") have contributed, or turned a blind eye, to the erosion of human rights. And therefore, this has opened the door to a lot of abuse (and certainly, the United States bears a great responsibility here, in my view).

Louise Arbour puts what happened after 9/11 in interesting terms. The attitude after the attacks has not been "how much freedom are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of security?" but rather "How much of other people’s freedom are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of security?" And of course, the answer to the latter question is a hell of a lot easier especially when the "other" has been properly stigmatized and dehumanized. And of course, of suspected terrorists very quickly get treated as established terrorists.

For Arbour, we, in democratic societies, have also become easily accustomed to the secrecy of our governments in the name of national security, again. Maybe, ten years from now, she says, we’ll discover the full extent of the abuses. However, the recent US Supreme Court decision granting Guantanamo detainees access to civil federal courts shows that the judiciary branch is starting to push back and regain the ground that legitimately belongs to it: the arena of fundamental civil liberties.

As bad as the abuses brought about by the war on terror have been (and continue to be), Arbour is optimistic regarding the advance of the cause of human rights, especially through the greater recognition of the International Criminal Court. Progress is slow, definitely, However, the greater acceptance of the doctrines of obligation to protect and right to intervene means that more and more countries accept the provision of human rights not as discretionary but as mandatory. Application varies greatly, to be sure, but the framework we use to discuss these issues is significant as well. The Overton Window is shifting in the right direction.

For instance, as bad as the situations are in Darfur and Zimbabwe, both cases are forcing African governments and the Organization of African Union to really consider human rights in the African context and the relevance of the right to intervene.

And then, there are the "new" front lines of human rights. One cannot possibly have witnessed the food riots and not consider access to food a basic human rights. These riots also highlighted the appalling state of social inequalities in world, something well documented but too often ignored. These riots also made relevant discussions on related topics, such as food production and trade, biofuels and agricultural subsidies, trade protectionism on the part of rich countries, financial speculation on food, etc. But too often, for Arbour, these debates have been strictly economic in framing.

For her, the right to food, the right to a decent standard of living are fundamental rights. Is there a right to development. Arbour asks, what is the difference between a government that kills part of its population through genocide and a neglectful and corrupt government that let its people starve or die as a result of sickness and disease? Why do powerful countries a duty to intervene in one case, and less so in another.

And then, there is the next front line: the right to water. And that’s another doozie.

I confess to always finding the High Commissioner on Human Rights fascinating  and intellectually powerful peoples, especially the women, I have always been a big fan of Mary Robinson. I was more ambivalent about the late Sergio Vieira de Mello. But, even though their office is not by any means the most powerful in the complex UN hierarchy, these Commissioners always speak the truth to power.

Finally, Rape Classified as “War Tactic” By UN Security Council

Via Le Monde, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1820 (full text in pdf) at the end of a debate on "women, peace and security" presided by US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Let me quote a few chosen excerpts from this important resolution. The resolution

"1. Stresses that sexual violence, when used or commissioned as a tactic of war in order to deliberately target civilians or as a part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilian populations, can significantly exacerbate situations of armed conflict and may impede the restoration of international peace and security. (…)

2. Demands the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians with immediate effect. (…)

3. Demands that all parties to armed conflict immediately take appropriate measures to protect civilians, including women and girls, from all forms of sexual violence. (…)

4. Notes that rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide, stresses the need for the exclusion of sexual violence crimes from amnesty provisions in the context of conflict resolution processes. (…)

7. Requests the Secretary-General to continue and strengthen efforts to implement the policy of zero tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse in United Nations peacekeeping operations. (…)

10. Requests the Secretary-General and relevant United Nations agencies, inter alia, through consultation with women and women-led organizations as appropriate, to develop effective mechanisms for providing protection from violence, including in particular sexual violence, to women and girls in and around UN managed refugee and internally displaced persons camps. (…)

12. Urges the Secretary-General and his Special Envoys to invite women to participate in discussions pertinent to the prevention and resolution of conflict, the maintenance of peace and security, and post-conflict peacebuilding."

This is very strong language. The resolution also includes the possibility of deferring suspects of sexual violence in war to the International Criminal Court.

This resolution is late but it is welcome and necessary. According to Dutch General Patrick Cammaert, who used to command UN missions in Ethiopia and Erythrea, it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in war situations. Systematic sexual violence as war strategy has been well established and documented in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Liberia, Darfur and the DRC. In this last country, a recent study showed that over 2000 women surveyed, 75% had been raped during the civil war.

According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, violence against women has reached "pandemic proportions" in some societies in transition from civil war to peace. The Secretary General is also tasked with preparing an action plan  to collect information regarding sexual violence in current conflicts and transmit that information to the Security Council.

So, why was there even a debate on this? According to the BBC,

"China, Russia, Indonesia and Vietnam had all expressed reservations during the negotiations, asking whether rape was really a matter for the security council."

As usual with the UN, the question will be whether the resolution will go beyond words and how it will be implemented. Indeed, the resolution imposes a lot of constraints on the states themselves to protect women and girls. But at least, there is recognition of the changing nature of armed conflicts where, according to the UN News Center,

"Council members said women and girls are consistently targeted during conflicts “as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.”

The effect is to also prolong or deepen conflicts and to exacerbate already dire security and humanitarian conditions, particularly when the perpetrators of violent crimes against women go unpunished for their actions."

Not surprisingly, human rights organization, such as Human Rights Watch, are very pleased with the resolution:

"The UN Security Council’s new resolution on sexual violence is a historic achievement for a body that has all too often ignored the plight of women and girls in conflict, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch applauds the council for setting out in the resolution a clear path to systematic information-gathering on sexual violence. Until now, the Security Council has asked for information on such violence only in selected cases."

It is a major accomplishment for women and girls in war zones. Hopefully, implementation will follow and whoever the next US Secretary of State is will not drop the ball on that one. After all, the United States was the sponsor for this resolution and there is no doubt that Secretary Rice deserves enormous credit for this. (First – and probably last – time I’ll ever praise something coming from the Bush administration!)