Saturday, July 28, 2007

UN Makeover

The United Nations Headquarters in New York City is about to undergo a major renovation, its first since the complex was begun in 1949. The project will include asbestos removal, extensive structural repairs, and implementation of energy-efficient design features. In all, the project is expected to cost approximately $1 billion.

For a virtual tour of the UN Headquarters, go here. Its history is described in this fact sheet.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Pogge on Obiang

Who Blinked?

Why did Russia's foreign minister pull an article accepted for publication in the September/October 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs? We have, on the one hand, an explanation from Russia's Foreign Ministry and, on the other hand, a statement from the editors of Foreign Affairs.

Curiously, the article as edited by Foreign Affairs, not as submitted by Foreign Minister Lavrov, has been posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website.

Hе понимаю.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

War Isn't Real

A brief commentary, well worth reading: George Packer, making the point that "war isn’t real until it’s happening to you," describes George Orwell's reaction to an inconsequential play performed in London in 1940 and compares it to an American soldier's feelings of disgust at Disneyland after his return from Iraq. Packer writes, "There's something infuriating, though probably unavoidable, about the fact that life goes on in all its waste and indifference while Americans eight thousand miles away are being killed on our behalf."

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Cambodia's Deadly Legacy

Cambodia, considered by some Americans at the time to be a sideshow of the Vietnam War, experienced almost uninterrupted warfare for over three decades beginning in the late 1960s. As a consequence, Cambodia today has one of the highest concentrations of explosive remnants of war (ERW)--land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO)--of any country in the world.

In spite of the Cambodian government's desire to hide the problem in order to avoid negatively affecting tourism, the consequences of the ERW problem are visible everywhere. At roughly 1 in 250, Cambodia is believed to have more amputees per capita than any country in the world. According to the 2006 Landmine Monitor Report published by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, in 2005 there were 875 casualties (resulting in 168 deaths and 173 amputations) from landmines and UXO in Cambodia. Among those killed were 22 people involved in demining operations.

Musicians--all victims of landmines--near Angkor Wat (June 28, 2007).

In spite of persistent efforts by a variety of NGOs, there are believed to be 4 to 6 million landmines and other explosive remnants of war still to be cleared in Cambodia, most in areas near the Thai border. Tourists are safe in Cambodia, but many impoverished Cambodians, who must farm what little land they have available to them or starve, are not.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Marking a Milestone

Yesterday's post--Town and Country in Vietnam--appears to have been the 1,000th post on Swords Into Plowshares.

Please stop what you're doing and celebrate. (But make sure you celebrate responsibly.)

Entrance Exams

On July 2, in the Thai Hoc Courtyard of the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu) in Hanoi, I witnessed an interesting ritual. A small but persistent stream of Vietnamese teenagers filed past the 82 tablets mounted on the backs of carved tortoises. Most touched each tortoise on the head; some left small offerings of money. The stone tablets (or steles) honor scholars who earned doctorates between the 15th and 18th centuries at Vietnam's oldest university, which was established by the emperor Ly Nhan Tong in 1076. Today's students were there to seek inspiration--or at least good luck--from the students of earlier generations in advance of Vietnam's highly competitive university entrance exams. Looking for an additional edge, many students (and some of their parents as well) moved from the tortoise stelae to the nearby Temple of Confucius to offer prayers for good exam results.

This year, 1.8 million Vietnamese students sat for the exams that determine who will get the 300,000 spots in the entering classes of Vietnam's 300 universities. In Hanoi, commercial traffic was restricted on roads near the examination sites in order to relieve the congestion created by students appearing for their exams.

According to a recent story in Time, Vietnam's impressive economic growth is already being imperiled by a shortage of skilled workers. There is, quite simply, not enough educational opportunity to meet the demands of the many young people who are eager to improve their ability to compete in the global economy. Nor is the system of higher education in Vietnam adequate to meet the demands of the nation's rapidly developing economy.

One foreign university--the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology--has established a presence in Vietnam. If Vietnamese authorities can be convinced that such arrangements do not unduly threaten the communist orthodoxy that prevails in their universities, there may be room for many more foreign universities to help Vietnam bridge the gap between higher education needs and opportunities. And unless something is done to increase Vietnamese teenagers' odds of getting into a university, the venerable tortoises in Hanoi's Temple of Literature will be in danger of being rubbed into dust.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Town and Country in Vietnam

Most of my brief stay in Vietnam was spent in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), although one day included a trip by car about 90 kilometers beyond Ho Chi Minh City. In both cities, I was impressed by the level of development and the amount of foreign investment.

Gross domestic product continues to grow at an impressive rate (8.6 percent in 2006), fed in part by Vietnam's membership in the ASEAN Free Trade Area and, since January 2007, the World Trade Organization. While Asian trading partners including Singapore, South Korea, China, Japan, Malaysia, and Taiwan provide most of the the direct foreign investment, American businesses are moving in as well. Some of the high-rise hotels that have sprouted up in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City bear familiar names. Today the term "Hanoi Hilton" can refer either to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum or to an actual Hilton hotel located near the Opera House. And KFC, complete with the smiling figure of Colonel Sanders (who, as Adrian Cronauer--played by Robin Williams--noted in Good Morning, Vietnam, looks a lot like Ho Chi Minh), now has several locations in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Even more exciting to at least one American I know who lives in Vietnam is the recent arrival of Pizza Hut.

As with most other countries that have experienced rapid economic development, costs and benefits are not being evenly distributed. The traditional mainstay of the Vietnamese economy, the agricultural sector, is rapidly declining in importance. Farmers are being squeezed economically; in fact, signs of Vietnam's modernization largely disappear once one leaves the cities behind. To make the situation even worse for those in the agricultural sector, corrupt officials in provincial governments have reportedly conspired with developers to force farmers to sell land at a fraction of its value.

Over the course of the past month, peaceful protests by farmers upset by land seizures and government corruption in the provinces have been taking place in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Last Wednesday, police in Ho Chi Minh City reportedly moved in to break up the protest involving 800 to 1,000 people there. Human Rights Watch weighed in with a statement on Friday.

Vietnamese authorities are aware that violations of international human rights are not good for business. The initial impulse is to hide human rights violations by keeping reporters at bay when protests occur, but if that fails perhaps the next impulse will be to correct the human rights violations themselves. At least we can hope so.

Friday, July 20, 2007

President Cheney

All it takes is a little Twenty-fifth Amendment action.

[Via Talking Points Memo.]

Bush and Torture: "Trust Us"

President Bush today signed a long-awaited Executive Order that seeks to clarify which methods of interrogation are banned by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Here is the key section of the new guidance:

I hereby determine that a program of detention and interrogation approved by the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency fully complies with the obligations of the United States under Common Article 3 [of the Geneva Conventions], provided that:

(i) the conditions of confinement and interrogation practices of the program do not include:

(A) torture, as defined in section 2340 of title 18, United States Code;

(B) any of the acts prohibited by section 2441(d) of title 18, United States Code, including murder, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, mutilation or maiming, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, rape, sexual assault or abuse, taking of hostages, or performing of biological experiments;

(C) other acts of violence serious enough to be considered comparable to murder, torture, mutilation, and cruel or inhuman treatment, as defined in section 2441(d) of title 18, United States Code;

(D) any other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment prohibited by the Military Commissions Act (subsection 6(c) of Public Law 109 §366) and the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (section 1003 of Public Law 109 §148 and section 1403 of Public Law 109 §163);

(E) willful and outrageous acts of personal abuse done for the purpose of humiliating or degrading the individual in a manner so serious that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances, would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency, such as sexual or sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation, forcing the individual to perform sexual acts or to pose sexually, threatening the individual with sexual mutilation, or using the individual as a human shield; or

(F) acts intended to denigrate the religion, religious practices, or religious objects of the individual.

While the prohibitions listed are important, especially in light of the fact that many of them have not been observed in the past, it is worth noting that the Executive Order defines the exclusions of Common Article 3 in terms of other legal guidance that also has not been observed in the past by the Bush Administration. President Bush is, in other words, continuing to kickthe can down the road.

So what is now off-limits? Practices banned by the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the statute implementing the Convention (Section 2340 of Title 18) are banned by this Executive Order. So are practices that were banned by the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. And practices that were prohibited by the Military Commissions Act. And so on. But we knew this already. And we also knew already that America's torture problem was the way the Bush Administration was interpreting--or simply ignoring--these rules.

After all the bureaucratic warfare that allegedly occurred over this Executive Order, the only significant guidance that has emerged from it is this: "The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency shall issue written policies to govern the program" of interrogation.

Those written policies will, of course, be secret.

The Devil Came on Horseback

Beginning in January 2004, Brian Steidle served as a military observer monitoring the ceasefire in Darfur on behalf of the African Union. He left that post in September 2004 and returned to the United States to try to raise awareness about what was happening in the Sudan. Through public lectures and displays of his photographs, Steidle has provided eyewitness testimony to the genocide. In March, his book entitled The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur, was released by PublicAffairs Books.

Now, a documentary based on Steidle's experience in Darfur (and bearing the same title as his book) is coming out. The film will be in limited release beginning on July 25. For more information, including the trailer and a list of scheduled screenings, go here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Developments in the ECCC

The Co-Prosecutors for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) have recommended the indictment of five Khmer Rouge leaders for their role in the Cambodian genocide between April 17, 1975, and January 6, 1979. This recommendation (called the "Introductory Submission"), together with over 1,000 documents (including 350 witness statements) supporting the charges, will now be considered by the Co-Investigating Judges in the mixed United Nations-Cambodian court established by an agreement reached between the UN and Cambodia in June 2003.

While the Co-Prosecutors are prohibited from releasing the names of those against whom indictments are being sought or the details of the charges, the statement released in Phnom Penh yesterday [.pdf] indicates the nature of the crimes being alleged:

Pursuant to their preliminary investigations, the Co-Prosecutors have identified and submitted for investigation twenty-five distinct factual situations of murder, torture, forcible transfer, unlawful detention, forced labor and religious, political and ethnic persecution as evidence of the crimes committed in the execution of this common criminal plan.

The factual allegations in this Introductory Submission constitute crimes against humanity, genocide, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, homicide, torture and religious persecution. The Co-Prosecutors, therefore, have requested the Co-Investigating Judges to charge those responsible for these crimes.

The top leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, died in 1998 having never been indicted or imprisoned for his role in the genocide that is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of approximately two million people. The military leader of the Khmer Rouge, Ta Mok, died last year, also without ever having faced charges.

Khieu Samphan, who served as head of state for Democratic Kampuchea and was one of the leading intellectuals in the Khmer Rouge (he earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Paris in 1959), is among those expected to be indicted. Khieu is 76 years old.

Nuon Chea, known has "Brother Number Two" during the brief reign of the Khmer Rouge, has stated that he expects to be indicted, but he also has maintained his innocence. Nuon Chea is now 82 and living in northwest Cambodia, the region to which many members of the Khmer Rouge retreated after being driven out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese military in January 1979.

Ieng Sary, another Khmer Rouge leader facing a possible indictment, served as foreign minister in the government of Democratic Kampuchea. He was related by marriage to Pol Pot and was third in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy when the government of Democratic Kampuchea was established. Ieng Sary is in his late seventies and was reportedly hospitalized in Bangkok for heart problmems late last year.

The only person among those expected to be indicted who has admitted responsibility for his actions in the Khmer Rouge regime is the former commandant of S-21 (the infamous Tuol Sleng prison) Khang Khek Ieu (better known as Brother Duch). Duch is also the only major suspect who is currently in custody, although not as a consequence of charges brought by the ECCC.

Of approximately 14,000 prisoners who passed through Tuol Sleng between 1975 and 1979, only twelve are known to have survived. Most were tortured and later executed at the most notorious of Cambodia's "killing fields," Choeung Ek.

Like other Khmer Rouge leaders, Duch disappeared into the countryside after the Vietnamese invasion in 1975-1976. In 1998, journalist Nic Dunlop discovered Duch working in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. Duch had been converted to Christianity in 1996 by a Khmer-American missionary and had begun doing humanitarian work along the border. After his identity was discovered, Duch turned himself in to authorities and has been imprisoned awaiting trial in a Cambodian national court in Phnom Penh ever since.

Unlike Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, and Ieng Sary, who were granted pardons in the late 1990s by the government of Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen (himself a former member of the Khmer Rouge), Duch was never pardoned. (Although the ECCC may have to consider arguments related to the pardons if Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, or Ieng Sary is indicted, it is expected that pardons granted by Cambodia's government will not be considered binding on the ECCC given its emphasis on internationally defined crimes.)

Who might the fifth person named in the Introductory Submission be? Some speculation has focused on Meas Muth, son-in-law of the late Ta Mok and himself a military commander in the Khmer Rouge. Meas Muth, however, joined the Cambodian military after his defection from the Khmer Rouge, which means his prosecution might present significant political problems.

For more on this story, see Seth Mydans' report in the New York Times or Ker Munthit's report for the Associated Press.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Law of the Sea Convention

Admiral Vern Clark, a former chief of naval operations, and Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, a former U.N. representative, weigh in today in the New York Times in favor of U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. "Our nation will be in a much stronger position to advance its military and economic interests if we ratify the treaty," Clark and Pickering write. "We can guide and influence the interpretation of rules, protecting our interests and deflecting inconsistent interpretations. The agreement is being interpreted, applied and developed right now and we need to be part of it to protect our vital interests in the area of security and beyond."

It might be a good time for the United States to be a part of the International Seabed Authority, which the Convention created, now that Russia is beginning to advance an ownership claim to thousands of square miles of oil- and gas-rich seabed near the North Pole.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Vietnam and Cambodia

I have been back from a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia for almost a week now. Jet lag is no longer a reasonable excuse for not blogging; now I have to face up to the fact that it has simply been difficult to know exactly where to dive into the effort to describe and interpret what I saw.

Perhaps the best place to begin would be simply to note that the trip took me and a friend--I traveled with the Vietnam country director for the English Language Institute, a non-profit that provides English teachers for schools and universities throughout Asia--to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Hanoi, in that order. While in Ho Chi Minh City, we spent a day with a car and driver going to the Cu Chi tunnels and the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh. We had an opportunity to see some of the Cambodian countryside on the five-hour drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and on excursions from Siem Reap to the ancient temples of Angkor and to Lake Tonle Sap.

Before commenting on what we observed on the trip, I want to begin by showing some of what we saw. Below is a brief slide show (Flash required) depicting Choeung Ek, one of Cambodia's "killing fields."

Please check back for additional slide shows and, when the muse finally permits, some comments on Vietnam and Cambodia.

Choeung Ek