Saturday, August 22, 2009

Another Torture Report

A 2004 report by the CIA's inspector general detailing interrogation methods used against suspected terrorists will be released next week under a court order. Newsweek has been briefed by two sources familiar with its contents and reports that one individual, Adb al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was threatened with a gun and a power drill and was exposed to a mock execution in the room next to where he was being interrogated. (The Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 prohibits threatening any person under U.S. custody, whether in the U.S. or abroad, with death.)

CIA director Porter Goss and Gen. Michael Hayden reportedly argued against the release of the report on the grounds that doing so would damage the reputation of the United States abroad. Yes . . . well. That is precisely why Adm. Stansfield Turner, who directed the CIA during the Carter administration, argued that the question of whether a particular covert operation ought to be undertaken should include consideration of the consequences of its revelation to the public.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

First and Third

We tend to do a lot of aggregating in international relations. While this is largely unavoidable, it's worth reminding ourselves from time to time that ascribing particular characteristics to the entities we study may cause us to overlook significant variations within them. States, which are still the entities we study most intensively, are commonly labeled "free" or "unfree," "democratic" or "authoritarian," "developed" or "developing," and so on. But a "free" state may have pockets of oppression (think of the period of racial segregation in the United States) and a "democratic" state may have subunits that fail to respect democratic norms (think of machine politics in Chicago or in South Texas a generation ago). Likewise, a "developing" state may have elites who control enormous wealth (think Equatorial Guinea) and a "developed" state may have pockets of poverty that mirror conditions in the developing world.

This point has been brought home by the visit of the Remote Area Medical Foundation to Los Angeles. For one week--August 11-18--an organization that began in 1985 with the objective of bringing medical care to distant parts of the developing world is offering free services to people in Los Angeles who, because they are uninsured or underinsured, have no way to pay for the care they need. Thousands of people have lined up each day at the Forum, the former home of the Lakers, to wait for tooth extractions, eye exams, diagnoses of illnesses, and treatments for chronic conditions.

Los Angeles Times columnist (and author of The Soloist) Steve Lopez has been spending some time at the Forum. In a column today, he reports that a number of the doctors who are volunteering at the Forum have noted parallels between their volunteer experiences in the Third World and what they are seeing at the Forum. One of them, Dr. Greg Pearl, when asked to note the differences between what he has seen in the developing world and what he is seeing at the Forum said, "Here, the patients speak English."

The United States is among the "rich fat few" rather than the "skinny poor many" (to use expressions I recall from a lecture by Inis Claude), but it has its pockets of Third World conditions. One of these pockets is populated by close to 50 million people without access to routine health care. Lopez's column--which is well worth reading--is aptly titled: "At free clinic, scenes from the Third World."

Monday, August 03, 2009

Thirty Years of Misrule

It was thirty years ago today that Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo overthrew his uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, and took control of the government of Equatorial Guinea. Macías, Equatorial Guinea's first ruler after independence, was a brutal dictator responsible for the death or exile of roughly one-third of the country's population and the complete ruin of its economy. (Those who paid any attention at all to Equatorial Guinea at the time referred to Macías as "Africa's Caligula.") His fall from power seemed to offer a better future, particularly given his successor's promises to institute democracy, but for most Equatoguineans little has changed.

In spite of the adoption of a new constitution drafted in 1982 with the assistance of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and presidential elections held in 1989, 1996, and 2002, Obiang has never relinquished power. The elections of 1996 and 2002, which were widely criticized by opposition parties and international observers, produced 97 and 98 percent majorities for Obiang. (Another election is scheduled for December of this year. Obiang has announced his intention to seek yet another seven-year term.)

The discovery of oil in Equatoguinean territorial waters in the 1990s, together with major investments by foreign oil and gas companies, have produced dramatic economic growth (an increase in real GDP averaging 14.9 percent annually from 2003 to 2008), but little of the wealth has benefited the general population. Instead, Equatorial Guinea has become one of the world's worst kleptocracies. Transparency International's most recent Corruption Perceptions Index (for 2008) ranks Equatorial Guinea among the most corrupt countries in the world (171st of 180 states ranked). Furthermore, the most recent (2009) survey of freedom in the world by Freedom House puts Equatorial Guinea among the "worst of the worst," the eight countries deemed to have the world's worst human rights conditions. Furthermore, a special report released by Human Rights Watch last month concludes that the government of Equatorial Guinea "is setting new low standards of political and economic malfeasance."

In spite of President Obiang's poor health (he reportedly has prostate cancer), prospects for change in Equatorial Guinea appear poor. Obiang's profligate oldest son is poised to assume power (as the late Omar Bongo's son, Ali-Ben Bongo, seems certain to do in the Gabonese presidential election scheduled for August 30). The country's importance as an oil and gas producer--with a production rate of roughly 400,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day--deters most governments from exerting pressure on Obiang. And if the United States and the European Union were to decide to try to punish the Equatoguinean government for its crimes, the People's Republic of China would be eager to step in with no scruples.

For what might be the worst country in the world, there is no obvious path to democracy and development.