Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Saving face and letting blood in Darfur

In an excellent editorial by, I'm assuming, Sebastian Mallaby in this morning's Washington Post, the obstacles facing the much debated and awaited UN re-hatting of AU peacekeepers in Darfur are laid bare. People unfamiliar with the internal politics and divergent loyalties of Security Council Member states tend to blame the Darfur tragedy on 'Western inaction' or 'Khartoum intransigency'. Both are true, but amount to blaming today's weather on 'the weather' -- a finer tautology could not be found.

The resulting absence of a common front of decisive action on problems like Darfur or Rwanda is not justifiably glossed as 'the failure of the UN', as many would have it. It is simply the working reality of multilateral bodies where state interests dominate the agenda exactly as they do in the world of bilateral interaction between sovereign states. States act the same way alone as when they are in a team huddle; that is, they protect themselves and their friends of the moment. If we want UNSC member states to act differently, i.e., with greater common concern for problems like Darfur, someone needs to invent an entirely new basis on which states interact. Can the sheer force of human will stop dogs from randomly humping one another at the park? I think not; it is their nature.

UNSC Member states often have competing agendas, particularly when their interests converge with those of the offending government who is the subject of a pending Resolution, in this case Khartoum. China's oil interests in Sudan of course affect its position in deference to Sudan's wishes, as do the votes of other Arab countries, generally loathe to oppose publicly the actions, however murderous, of fellow Arab governments. Mallaby lays all this out clearly and definitively in his editorial. Sub-saharan African governments are often equally guilty of protecting their own, making the work of the AU all the more complex in any context, not just Darfur.

But he reserves his most lucid vituperation for President Bashir of Sudan, and the consistently arbitrary logic deployed to oppose international action on Darfur. UN peacekeepers are numerous across south Sudan to monitor the North-South peace agreement, but Bashir and other Arab nations oppose a UN intervention in Darfur, preferring an AU force that is far too weak and underfunded for the task. This is just face saving that facilitates the blood letting, and deserves all the scorn the world can muster. A full-on military intervention, in my opinion, would probably unleash another Somalia and perhaps an Iraq--a country with a far clearer record of Al-Quaeda connections than Iraq.

"Mr. Bashir has already accepted a 12,000-member U.N. force in Sudan's south, so he can't claim a principled objection to the presence of U.N. peacekeepers in his country. But he retains an unprincipled determination to keep the United Nations out of Darfur, even though the need for a peacekeeping force is clearer than ever.

The world needs to be clear what Mr. Bashir's position amounts to. As a result of his government's systematic destruction of African villages in Darfur, more than 2 million displaced people there depend on humanitarian relief, but mounting violence that claimed the lives of eight aid workers last month makes the delivery of relief extremely difficult. In these circumstances, barring the entry of peacekeepers is to condemn thousands of displaced civilians to starvation. It is to continue the policy of genocide that has marked this crisis from the outset."

African Union forces will be definitively broke by end September, and no nation is stepping forward to bankroll them further, as has happened at previous junctures of economic crisis for the few troops spread across Darfur.

Whether the pending UNSC Resolution is passed, and what it will stipulate (20,000 UN peacekeepers are the main menu item), will testify to the existence of a unified front on Sudan. Should it land flat and go nowhere, civilian survivors in Darfur can begin digging their own graves.

Child Soldiers in Burundi

Burundi is one of the countries specifically targeted by UN Security Council Resolution 1612 banning the recruitment and use of child soldiers. The country's long history of internal conflict saw at one point as many as 19 different factions, most of them armed and militarily engaged. It has significantly pacified since national elections in 2005 even though one rebel group refuses to disarm/disband (FNL). Shelling onto Bujumbura, the capital, remains periodic and UN peacekeepers are deployed across the country.

As all armed factions used child soldiers throughout the war, including government forces with their infamous Tutsi paramilitary youth groups, the Gardiens de la Paix, these minors are now 'without a cause' and most definitely without gainful employment, education, etc. Armed criminality is widespread, making Kalashnikov-brandishing the most popular 'income generating activity' among poor kids with previous military experience.

I am heading to Burundi today to gather evidence about the new government's progress on implementing Resolution 1612. The country has ratified all major child protection treaties of the last twenty years, but has been among the least effective in implementing them.

More to follow once I'm in country.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Chad-Sudan detente as attacks on aid workers and refugees escalate

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir made a surprise visit to N'Djamena, the Chadian capital yesterday, to celebrate Chadian President Idriss Deby's inauguration into a third presidential term. Al-Bashir and Deby have accused each other of supporting rebel movements in their countries.
Chad broke diplomatic relations with Sudan on April 15 after anti-government rebels allegedly based in Sudan and Central African Republic launched a deadly attack on the Chadian capital N'djamena. Sudan has denied Chad's claims that it supports the rebels in its territory and said Chad is sponsoring rebel groups aligned with Deby's ethnic group, the Zaghawa, which have been fighting the Sudanese army. On July 26 Chad and Sudan signed an agreement in N'djamena aimed at normalising relations, in a reunion orchestrated by Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi (see his website).

Chad and Sudan, locked in mutual acrimony in recent months, on Tuesday decided to "put a definitive end to their differences" and immediately normalise relations, broken off in April. Deby and al-Bashir promised a "solemn commitment to put a definitive end to their differences by immediately normalising diplomatic and economic relations", according to a statement from the Chadian government after a mini-summit between the two leaders.

The meeting took place in N'Djamena as Deby, 54, was reinstated in his consecutive presidential mandate after being reelected on May 3. The men met in Kadhafi's tent after Deby's swearing-in ceremony. The elections that were dismissed by the opposition as rigged.

[Deby celebrates victory]

The detente comes as the Darfur crisis on both sides of the Chad-Sudan border continues to deteriorate. On the Sudan side, eight Sudanese aid workers were killed in July as Khartoum signed a peace agreement with the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA). In eastern Chad, where over 213,000 Darfuri refugees are camped, attacks continue by Janjawid militants against refugees and aid workers. The instability makes the continued provision of aid extremely precarious for foreign aid workers, whose presence ensures a degree of protection for the refugees, who are the primary target. UNHCR and other aid agencies have denounced these attacks, but Deby's national army has no control over this part of the country.

[Bleak life in eastern Chad]

Friday, August 04, 2006

Arms Across Central Africa

A July report by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey (SAS) on the understudied Central African Republic (CAR) reiterates the fragile volatility of this land-locked, often overlooked nation. Despite having hosted four international peacekeeping missions in the last ten years, the civil wars and humanitarian disasters in neighboring countries (Chad, Sudan, Niger, DR Congo) routinely make headlines while CAR remains an unknown quantity to the outside world. My personal theory, not entirely facetious, is that the country needs a more memorable name, one that sounds less like an airport parking lot.

The July SAS report summarizes four years of research indicating failure by the central government to regulate weapons among civilians, and how this has led to a massive influx of arms into large parts of the country. The resulting inability of government security forces to maintain law and order is increasingly evident across the country, with large population displacement as civilians (women and children predominantly) flee waves of armed criminality by roving gangs. Populations of CAR refugees in the DRC, Sudan and southern Chad have grown into the tens of thousands over the last couple of years.

Besides addressing the usual causes and effects of uncontrolled arms proliferation, the spread of arms-related violence and its impact on social development and economic indicators, the report examines the ways in which international neglect of one African context (CAR, in this case) can fuel or trigger conflict in the wider region: Chad, Sudan and DR Congo all have experienced a domino effect from CAR's simmering instability. The government's assertion that 50,000 small arms are circulating beyond its control, for example, is shown to be grossly underestimated; its capacity to regulate weapons among civilians non-existent. Past disarmament efforts have been ineffective, as SAS argues in a chapter in its 2005 yearbook.

In November 2005 I visited the southern Chadian town of Gore where over 30,000 refugees had fled the violence in northern CAR. The UN refugee body (UNHCR) had set up makeshift camps and was draining tight resources from its activities in Eastern Chad for the 200,000+ Darfuri refugees settled there. Few aid agencies apart from UNHCR could spare the resources to respond to the refugee influx, a shortfall aggravated by the lack of media interest in the story.

Ass, grass or goats, nobody rides for free: bus en route for Bangui
(Photographer: Paul Dymond)

Small Arms Survey publishes periodic reports, such as this one, but its main mission is the massive yearbook, microscopically researched and often amazingly well-written. These annual reviews are on a par with similar annual tomes documenting, for instance, the state of global human rights (Human Rights Watch), or the state of landmine pollution and/or destruction (Landmine Monitor).

I've long held SAS in high regard, well before they published my report on the impact of armed violence on women's livelihoods and sexual health in Burundi. The indispensibility of the group lies in its capacity to generate, year after year, evidence documenting the countless ways that small arms proliferation impedes social and economic development in poor countries. The obvious irony that these weapons often originate in the same industrialized countries whose development aid budgets ostensibly save lives in places like CAR, is borne out through careful documentation.

No other think tank establishes with similar objectivity the causal link between arms transfers and underdevelopment in countries with notoriously dysunctional governance--a causality that needs to be shouted from the rooftops. The absurd logic of simultaneous arms transfers and foreign aid to poor nations by rich ones is so fundamentally wrong-headed it defies comprehension. Perhaps, in a daydream world, some invisible hand is guiding these inputs, and good will result. <Audience laughter cue here.>

Like most Africans I meet in my work, I believe that western donors, particularly the US, have no coherent strategy to deal with Africa, hence the competing forms of intervention and their tendency to mutually undermine one another. No one in the donor governments is willing to break some eggs, bust a few egos, and forcefully weave the various tentacles of our schizoid African policy into a coherent strategy. Why? Because at some reptilian level of the psyche, we are afraid of Africa ever becoming, God forbid, functional.

Contrary to many Africans and Americans, however, I do believe that the UN, bless its battered soul, does have Africa's interests at heart. Unfortunately, its meagre resources and capacity cannot stem the tides of (1) a venal political class in many of Africa's poorest countries and (2) the aid agendas of donor nations wiltering before the iron fist of their economic/power interests, which rarely match those of the UN.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

No shame for the shameless

As most of you know, I've been working with child soldiers in the DR Congo most of this year. My focus has been on evaluating programs run by the usual aid agencies: UNICEF, Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, the Red Cross network, and a host of smaller Congolese groups. These actors are funded by tax revenues and private donations from people in developed countries, so directly or indirectly, you and I are paying for them. Such evaluations provide accountability to donors that they're getting what they paid for. Anyone who says international aid is unaccountable is simply uninformed.

In previous postings I've explored some of the problems posed by the child soldier phenomenon, but I tend to take for granted the big picture dilemma that this sad group of victims cum perpetrators poses to our world. It's worth mentioning here: What to do when previously accepted morals and norms prohibiting certain forms of behavior (universally shared taboos, if you like) cease to enforce the limits of barbarism? Capturing and re-programming underage youth to slaughter enemy combatants and innocents is one such taboo that no longer exists in 37 of 55 recently ended or ongoing conflicts.

Efforts to halt child soldiering are gaining little ground. Are limits in wartime entirely obsolete; is everything now permitted? More pointedly, why are contemporary forms of shaming (i.e., activists agitating over genocide in Darfur; publicity campaigns to stop the use of child soldiers) so limited in their impact, and yet a whiff of 'yellowcake' in Niger is enough to trigger a trillion dollar invasion of a ghetto autocrat with no link to Al-Quaeda?

The question strikes deep at the heart of political possibility and its underbelly: that the human condition is essentially immutable. For what it's worth, there is a definite dialectic of moral outrage and political action at work in our world today. Activists shout, politicians and companies react, things appear to change. Elimination of child labor use by Nike and company comes to mind.

But what if you live in a neighborhood where people with conscience fear to tread? Well, I work in those places for a living, and I see what happens to activists. Local ones get imprisoned or 'disappeared' and foreign ones get ignored by politicians who are beyond influence and above the law. So why is nothing done about these miscreants, who have far more blood on their hands than Saddam ever did? I still experience mind-numbing stupefaction every time I recall that a delusional dingdong like Saddam got a visit from Uncle Sam and his heavies, while scores of real warlords who've wrecked countless lives and entire countries continue to dance, sing and run for political office, as in Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc. Where are our priorities?

PW Singer, author of the book pictured above (Children at War), raises this question in his course of discussion and analysis of the so-called 'child soldier doctrine'. Singer offers a convincing account of the use and limits of advocacy groups and UN Security Council Resolutions prohibiting the use of child soldiers, but anyone as frustrated as I am with the state of the world already knows these failings in painful detail. Obviously, a warlord controlling thousands of child soldiers is operating in no known moral universe, so the indignation of his compatriots or the threat of a war crimes indictment, for instance, have no impact. The explosion of child soldiers boils down to economic interests and the instantaneous force multiplication provided by hundreds of armed pre-teens. In other words, child soldiers have made getting rich quick in an already lawless environment easier than ever before. In countries like the DRC where anarchy is enormously lucrative, nothing appears capable of stopping this trend.

I most appreciated Singer's historical account of how the child soldier doctrine came about in the first place. He also relates the malignancy of metastasized statelessness where groups using child soldiers become havens for global terrorism. A case in point is Charles Taylor's Liberia exchanging its gold and diamonds with Al Qaeda operatives who needed to 'go light' and drop millions in cash.

Child soldiering. Definitely the world's most unrecognized form of child abuse.

"I feel so bad about the things that I did. It disturbs me so much that I inflicted death on other people. When I go home I must do some traditional rites because I have killed. I must perform these rites and cleanse myself. I still dream about the boy from my village that I killed. I see him in my dreams, and he is talking to me, saying I killed him for nothing, and I am crying." A 16-year-old girl after demobilization from an armed group (Source: U.S. State Dept. TIP Report 2005).

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

DRC: The Wolf Cries 'Wolf'

If Congo's tenuous order does unravel into widespread violence in the wake of national elections last Sunday, the resulting strife will no doubt be due to the uncivil rumblings of presidential candidates incapable of accepting 'the voice of the people'.

Azarias Ruberwa, leader of RCD-Goma and one of four vice-presidents within Congo's transitional government, was the first to cry foul after voting booths closed on Monday. A lawyer and evangelical preacher with significant financial support from southern US churches, Ruberwa has never impressed me as a man of political vision or moral clarity.

So for a wolf such as Ruberwa to cry 'wolf' is an obvious attempt to re-assert his political relevance at the moment when history may sweep him off the stage. Normally the irresponsibility of such accusations without evidence would implicate no one but himself, but with Congolese voters being as frustrated as they are, it could set off waves of post-election violence. Meanwhile, Kabila and Bemba are each declaring victory while voters themselves wait impatiently for official results to be made public.

Indeed, Ruberwa's accusations are the last gasp of a politician facing his imminent obsolescence. Representing a complicated political agenda given RCD-G's connections to Rwanda, Congo's most recent armed invader, Ruberwa belongs to an unloved and targeted ethnic minority in the eastern provinces, the Congolese Tutsis. And victim though he may be, Ruberwa failed to bring peace and security to the East during his tenure as vice president in transitional government. This failure has been a thorn in his side, and a source of continued frustration for his supporters, His party is extremely unpopular throughout the country as a result of its alliance with Rwanda during the war.

RCD-G led a brutal regime throughout the war (1998-2003) in which civilians were regularly targeted as suspected collaborators with 'the enemy'. War crimes in the form of civilian massacres directed by its core military leaders have been documented by Human Rights Watch, yet these men walk free. Their reign of terror and fear crippled the local economy by paralyzing movement within their territory, which constituted more than a third of the country at the time. I spent hours, sometimes days, in front of RCD officials and soldiers at borders, airports and road checkpoints, waiting out their demands for bribes and accusations of espionage. I never landed in jail, but always came away from RCD encounters a few pounds lighter, once they'd 'relieved' me of any bags, documents or communications equipment I was traveling with. Ruberwa and his gang of knuckle-dragging thugs hold a special place in my heart.

Congo also happens to be the country with one of the highest numbers of child soldiers in the recent history of global armed conflict, with estimates exceeding 30,000 (Myanmar and Sudan are higher). And although all three primary contenders for the presidency (Kabila, Ruberwa and Bemba) once led armies whose core combatants were children, RCD-G under Ruberwa were perhaps the most insidious in their practice of abducting and forcing children to the frontlines as cannon-fodder. On two separate occasions (2001 and 2003), formal agreements were signed with UNICEF and other child protection actors stipulating that up to 6000 child soldiers would be immediately released. In neither instance were these engagements respected.

In the end, how the candidates react to the election results is more important than the results themselves. What matters most, of course, is what changes it brings for the average citizen. As one analyst notes, 'The election will be a success if it gives a woman farmer the strength to refuse to give half her daily produce to a man with a gun,' (The Guardian, "Warlords in the Wings.")

Crying wolf now, when Congo needs a show of national unity and fortitude, is just another manifestation of the divisive cowardice of the country's political class.