Sunday, December 11, 2011

Going Latin American

Latin America has long had a reputation for inequality.  It has been a place where, in the popular imagination (and all too often in reality), large landowners have lorded it over the far more numerous peasants or government ministers, grown rich from corruption, have ruled with disdain over the masses.  Inequality has fueled revolutions from time to time--in Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, and El Salvador (among others)--but has more often resulted in authoritarian regimes committed to defending the status quo against "communism," a catchall term that was commonly applied to any movement that was critical of the prevailing inequality.

Today, Jorge G. Castañeda, former foreign minister of Mexico and current professor at NYU, suggests in an essay in the New York Times that the United States might have something to learn from Latin America's experience with inequality.  He writes:

The United States--that epitome of the middle-class society, of the egalitarian dream that pulled millions of immigrants away from Latin America--has begun to go Latin American. It is in a process of structural middle-class shrinkage and inequality expansion that has perhaps never occurred anywhere else.
The frightening thing is that Latin America's historical experience indicates that it is very difficult to rebuild a middle class once inequality has reached a certain point.  Worse yet, the level of inequality toward which the United States is rapidly moving is simply incompatible with the kind of democratic governance that many Americans believe to be safe from all challenges here in the United States (as if money were not already compromising democracy).

For almost two centuries, the United States sought to strengthen democracy by promoting equality.  Slavery was abolished, educational opportunities were expanded, women were enfranchised, Jim Crow laws were dismantled, and a modest safety net was created.  Now, however, only those in the Occupy movement seem to understand why inequality might constitute a political problem.  The rest of the country needs to get a clue, unless Latin America circa 1980 is what we hope to become.

Presidents in Prison

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is being flown from Paris to Panama today, leaving a French prison for a twenty-year prison sentence back home.  For the last twenty-two years, since his capture by the U.S. military forces that invaded Panama in what was called Operation Just Cause, Noriega has been imprisoned--first in the United States where he was convicted on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering, and racketeering, then in France where he was convicted for money laundering.  In Panama, Noriega has been convicted on various human rights charges stemming from murders of political opponents committed during the six years he ruled Panama.

Noriega is not the only former leader in prison.  Former Liberian president Charles Taylor has been incarcerated at The Hague since 2006 when he was surrendered to the Special Court for Sierra Leone by the Liberian government headed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female leader in Africa.  (Sirleaf was one of three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday in Stockholm.)  Taylor is awaiting the Court's verdict in his trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by forces under his control in Sierra Leone's civil war.

Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo was turned over to the International Criminal Court by the new government of Ivory Coast two weeks ago.  He is now awaiting trial in The Hague.

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president ousted by protesters earlier this year, is on trial on a variety of charges including corruption and ordering the killing of protesters.  Due to health problems, including stomach cancer, the 83-year-old Mubarak has been detained in a military hospital in Cairo.  His trial, currently on hold, is scheduled to resume on December 28.

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the former president of Tunisia who was ousted in the first wave of the Arab Spring protests, has thus far avoided prison.  However, he has been convicted in absentia of corruption and drug possession.  He and his wife escaped during Tunisia's revolution to Saudi Arabia where they remain in spite of a Tunisian extradition request.

On Wednesday of last week, former Israeli president Moshe Katsav entered prison to begin serving a seven-year sentence for rape.  (The presidency in Israel, it should be noted, is a largely ceremonial office.)  Although Katsav maintains his innocence, his conviction was affirmed by a three-judge panel of Israel's Supreme Court.

Current president of Sudan Omar al-Bashir is currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court. for crimes related to the Darfur genocide.  He, however, remains in office.

Of course, the imprisonment of former leaders is not always a good thing.  In October, former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison on a charge of abuse of office.  Ms. Tymoshenko denounced the verdict, which observers outside Ukraine have widely criticized as having been politically motivated.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Human Rights Day

Sixty-three years ago today, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, the concept of human rights has come to permeate every aspect of international relations, including the internal behavior of most states and the business practices of many multinational corporations.  International human rights law has grown slowly but steadily and is now being enforced not only in the courts of many states but in international or mixed courts from The Hague to Arusha, Tanzania and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  Corrupt and brutal dictators have been overthrown--and in some cases put on trial--in the name of human rights.

While many wrongs in the world remain to be righted, the concept of human rights gives us more hope for improving the human condition than we have ever had reason to feel before.  There are many rights-abusing regimes still to be eliminated, but they can no longer count on the support of international law or, by and large, other governments.  And when the United States departs from the standards established in international human rights law--when it departs, that is, from its own highest ideals--there are others beyond our borders who can, and will, offer correction.  That, too, is a good thing

Friday, December 09, 2011

New Lows for Africa's Longest-Ruling Dictator

President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea continues to act as if the fact that his country's people are among the poorest in Africa is of absolutely no concern to him. Colum Lynch reports that Obiang has approved a contract with a South Korean firm to build a $77 million "presidential guesthouse."

While the regime touts the benefits to Equatoguineans of its "zinc roofs campaign," which is replacing roofs made of palm fronds with corrugated tin roofs, President Obiang is building a guesthouse that will be an architectural showpiece.  Its construction cost alone makes it more expensive than all but three homes listed in the United States, according to a story on last August.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Gbagbo at the ICC

Laurent Gbagbo, former president of Cote d'Ivoire, appeared before the International Criminal Court today.  Although former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic was tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and former Liberian president Charles Taylor was tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (both in The Hague), Gbagbo is the first former president to face trial at the ICC.

Gbagbo became president of the former French colony in 2000.  He was defeated by Alassane Outtara in the 2010 presidential election, but challenged the results and refused to cede power.  Violence ensued and supporters of both Gbagbo and Ouattara are alleged to have committed serious human rights violations in the struggle for power that followed the election.  Ultimately, Ouattara's supporters, with help from French and UN military forces, succeeded in ousting Gbagbo from power.  Gbagbo was placed under house arrest until his rendition to the ICC by the Ouattara government.

The ICC investigation into post-election violence in Cote d'Ivoire was initiated by President Ouattara in December 2010.  Gbagbo has been indicted on four counts of crimes against humanity, most related to incitement of his supporters to violence.

(The website of the Boston Globe,, has a great photo essay here on the election and part of its aftermath.)

Saturday, December 03, 2011


Not every bomb dropped or shell fired in a war explodes.  Those that don't are called UXO, or unexploded ordnance.  UXO can kill long after the war comes to an end.

Nearly half the population of Koblenz, Germany has been evacuated following the discovery of a 3,000-pound bomb dropped by the Royal Air Force into the Rhine during World War II.  The evacuees include the residents of seven nursing homes, two hospitals, and a prison.  German authorities will attempt to defuse the bomb tomorrow after draining the water from an area of the river surrounding the bomb.

In June 2010, three German explosives technicians were killed in Gottingen when the World War II bomb they were trying to defuse exploded.

UPDATE:  The bomb in Koblenz has been successfully defused, along with a smaller one found in the same place.  German authorities have also defused a small bomb in Nuremberg after evacuating 200 people there.

Moreno-Ocampo's Successor

Deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda will soon succeed Luis Moreno-Ocampo as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal CourtMs. Bensouda, 50, is from Gambia and has served the ICC since 2004.  Prior to that, she served as a prosecutor on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Ms. Bensouda must be elected by the Assembly of States Parties to the ICC at its meeting on December 12, but diplomats have indicated that she will be the only candidate for election to the post of chief prosecutor.

At present, all of the cases before the ICC involve conflicts in Africa.

Obiang Fights Back

Reuters reports that lawyers for Teodorin Obiang are fighting the Justice Department's recent complaint for forfeiture in rem.  This will likely result in prolonged legal proceedings (and an attendant delay in the seizure of Obiang's $30 million Malibu home) as well as some interesting disclosures.  If the Justice Department is pressed to defend its allegations that Obiang's mansion, Learjet, Ferrari, and Michael Jackson memorabilia collection were purchased with the proceeds of corruption, it will likely bring to light information about how the Nguema clan operates that has not previously been made public.

Bring it on!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

War School

This short film has been out a while, but I just learned about it recently.  Warning:  It's pretty intense.  (It's also pretty effective.)

Canine PTSD

Today's New York Times has an interesting story about canine post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Five percent of the roughly 650 dogs deployed to combat areas by the U.S. military are thought to be affected by canine PTSD.

A year ago, a story about Gina, a four-year-old German shepherd with canine PTSD, was posted on a U.S. Air Force website. According to the story, Gina's behavior changed dramatically after she came close to an IED explosion while deployed in Southwest Asia. Back at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Gina was being retrained with no plans for redeployment to a combat zone for at least two years.

In the aftermath of the raid that killed Osama bin Ladin, there was widespread speculation regarding the dog that accompanied Seal Team 6 into Abbottabad. While the dog's breed and precise function is still not known, experts speculate that the dog was present in order to sniff out explosives or persons hiding in the compound. The New York Times reported that dogs used by Special Forces may be decked out in high-tech gear:
Last year, the Seals bought four waterproof tactical vests for their dogs that featured infrared and night-vision cameras so that handlers--holding a three-inch monitor from as far as 1,000 yards away--could immediately see what the dogs were seeing. The vests, which come in coyote tan and camouflage, let handlers communicate with the dogs with a speaker, and the four together cost more than $86,000. Navy Seal teams have trained to parachute from great heights and deploy out of helicopters with dogs.

Military working dogs (MWDs), however, are not fitted with titanium teeth.

In July 2010, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would "recruit" 600 dogs a year for five years for use in sniffing out bombs, drugs, cash, and people, primarily at border crossings. The bid solicitation stated that DHS was looking for dogs that are "alert, active, outgoing, confident" and "extremely tolerant of people."

Friday, November 18, 2011

Equatorial Guinea on the Big Screen?

Various sources are reporting that Ridley Scott is planning a film based on Simon Mann's 2004 effort to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea, a plot that Adam Roberts described in a book called The Wonga Coup.  Gerard Butler will play Mann in the film.

Much remains unclear about the coup attempt that ended with Mann's arrest--without a fight that Scott would be able to embellish with spectacular pyrotechnics--in Zimbabwe.  The drama for those who know about the episode (all four of us?) will lie in seeing (1) how far Scott takes dramatic license to turn a failed coup attempt into something worthy of his directing talents and (2) who Scott (and his screenwriter, Robert Edwards) decide to blame for it.  Was it simply a big money-making proposition--with Margaret Thatcher's son, Mark Thatcher, as the primary investor?  Were American and British intelligence services involved?  The word is that Simon Mann's forthcoming book, Cry Havoc, will not provide the answers to these questions.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Is America Over?

This is the question that dominates the cover of the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs.

Foreign Affairs is an Establishment publication.  It is, in fact, the flagship publication of the Council on Foreign Relations, an Establishment establishment.  It doesn't engage in demagoguery.  And, in the November/December issue, it doesn't offer much reassurance in response to the big question on the cover.

The key article related to the big question is George Packer's essay entitled "The Broken Contract:  Inequality and American Decline."  It is not, strictly speaking, about foreign policy, although the implications of its thesis for foreign policy are very clear.  That it appears in Foreign Affairs should be reason enough to take notice of the argument.

Packer argues that the the unwritten social contract that for decades ensured Americans would work together in common cause to solve the great collective problems of society has been broken by the rise of "organized money" in the nation's political system.  This, in part, was an unintended consequence of reforms implemented in the 1970s that were designed to bring greater transparency and equality into the system.  But the rise of political action committees, independent expenditures in political campaigns, a form of lobbying that is tantamount to legalized bribery, and more is only part of the story.  Ultimately, Packer states, "inequality is the ill that underlies all the others."

For those who doubt that inequality is a problem in the United States, Packer cites these indicators:
Between 1979 and 2006, middle-class Americans saw their annual incomes after taxes increase by 21 percent (adjusted for inflation). The poorest Americans saw their incomes rise by only 11 percent. The top one percent, meanwhile, saw their incomes increase by 256 percent. This almost tripled their share of the national income, up to 23 percent,the highest level since 1928.
The entire article deserves to be read and discussed widely.  Here, however, we skip to Packer's conclusion and another big question:  What difference does inequality make?  Packer answers eloquently:
Inequality divides us from one another in schools, in neighborhoods, at work, on airplanes, in hospitals, in what we eat, in the condition of our bodies, in what we think, in our children’s futures, in how we die. Inequality makes it harder to imagine the lives of others—which is one reason why the fate of over 14 million more or less permanently unemployed Americans leaves so little impression in the country’s political and media capitals. Inequality corrodes trust among fellow citizens, making it seem as if the game is rigged. Inequality provokes a generalized anger that finds targets where it can—immigrants, foreign countries, American elites, government in all forms—and it rewards demagogues while discrediting reformers. Inequality saps the will to conceive of ambitious solutions to large collective problems, because those problems no longer seem very collective. Inequality undermines democracy.

Equatorial Guinea's Constitutional Referendum

The government of Equatorial Guinea is claiming that 99 percent of the electorate approved a package of constitutional reforms in a national referendum yesterday.  Opposition groups claim the vote was a sham.

The referendum will establish a two-term presidential limit, create the office of vice president, and remove the constitutional limit barring a president from serving beyond 75 years of age.  The current president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has been in office since overthrowing Francisco Macias in a coup in 1979.  He is 69 and in the second year of a presidential term set to expire in 2016.  It is unclear whether the new term limit would prevent him from serving one or more terms beyond the current seven-year term.

Those who observe political developments in Equatorial Guinea generally believe the constitutional changes effected by this referendum are designed to make it easier for Obiang to ensure that his oldest son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, will be able to succeed him as president.  The younger Obiang is expected to be named vice president soon.  This expectation has been bolstered by the fact that he has, in recent months, been named vice president of the ruling party, chair of the constitutional reform campaign, and ambassador to UNESCO.  He has also been hit with legal proceedings in France and the United States aimed at seizing assets that are the products of bribery and extortion, but such embarrassments seem to have little effect on politics inside Equatorial Guinea.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Oil and Water

A piece by Mark Landler in today's New York Times titled "A New Era of Gunboat Diplomacy" is well worth reading for those interested in the connection between oil and national security.  One-third of global oil production now occurs offshore and some of the hotspots for oil and natural gas exploration are in maritime regions where overlapping claims to jurisdiction have the potential to create problems:  the South China Sea, the Arctic Ocean, and the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Offshore production presents a number of serious environmental risks--one only has to recall the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico--but there can be security benefits from confining production to offshore platforms.  Oil production in the Gulf of Guinea, for example, avoids the serious political and military threats that plague production onshore in Nigeria and Angola.  If, however, the regime governing maritime jurisdiction established by the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention is contested or there are serious sovereignty disputes involving islands (as in the South China Sea), then offshore oil exploration and production may generate new security concerns.  If there are resource wars in our future, they may begin at sea.

Viktor Bout: Friend or Foe?

On Wednesday, November 2, the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout was convicted in a federal court in Manhattan on four counts of conspiracy in connection with the sale of weapons to Colombian rebels.  Bout, who once advised the Soviet military in Africa, bought weapons and a fleet of cargo planes from the former Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War and began trafficking arms to both governments and rebel forces in various conflicts around the world.  A British government report published in 2000 referred to him as "the Merchant of Death."  The movie Lord of War, which starred Nicholas Cage, was based on his exploits.

Here is the description of Bout in the second edition of Seeking Security in an Insecure World:
Bout is alleged to have sold over seven hundred surface-to-air missiles, military helicopters and airplanes, and thousands of guns to FARC, the Colombian paramilitary organization.  He has also sold weapons in Afghanistan and in various war zones in Africa.  At a Bangkok hotel in March 2008, Bout offered undercover agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency posing as FARC representatives a wide range of weapons, including land mines, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and C-4 explosives.  He was arrested at the conclusion of the meeting, which was taped, and, in August 2010, a Thai court ordered his extradition to stand trial in the United States.
In an op-ed published in the New York Times on Friday, Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World:  Inside the Global Arms Trade (reviewed here by John Tirman), writes that in 2003 and 2004, Irbis Air--a company owned by Bout--flew supplies into Baghdad under contract to the U.S. Defense Department and KBR, a private contractor that was itself working for the U.S. Government.  Feinstein points out that "governments protect corrupt and dangerous arms dealers as long as they need them and then throw them behind bars when they are no longer useful."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Putting Kleptocrats on Notice

[The following was written for Opinio Juris and posted there yesterday.  I am cross-posting here with a few updated references and links.]

The other shoe has dropped in the U.S. Government’s corruption case against Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue. On October 25, a civil forfeiture complaint was unsealed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California as a second complaint was filed in the District of Columbia. The complaints, tantalizingly foreshadowed by the lis pendens filing on October 13 that Roger noted in a previous post, seek the forfeiture of over $70 million in assets owned by the profligate son and heir-apparent of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

These actions are part of the Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative that was announced by Attorney General Holder at the African Union Summit on July 25, 2010. (In a move that angered human rights groups, the African Union selected President Obiang Nguema to chair the organization six months later.) Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer directs the group within the Criminal Division that is implementing the Initiative. The first complaint filed by Breuer’s group sought the seizure of over $1 million in assets (including a $600,000 home in Maryland) owned by Diepreye Solomon Peter Alamieyeseigha, former governor of the oil-rich Bayelsa State in Nigeria. DSP, as he was known to investigators, was impeached in 2005, but by that time he had laundered millions of dollars gained through oil-related corruption in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

The assets to be seized in the Equatoguinean case are also the products of oil-related corruption. Like Nigeria, its neighbor to the north, Equatorial Guinea sits over the large oil reserves of the Gulf of Guinea. Unlike Nigeria and the other oil giant of sub-Saharan Africa, Angola, Equatorial Guinea is an oasis of political stability, although its stability is a product of severe repression. Since 2004, Equatoguinean oil production has averaged over 300,000 barrels per day, the vast majority of it produced by ExxonMobil, Hess, and Marathon, three U.S. corporations. As a result of extortion, misappropriation of public funds, and other forms of corruption, President Obiang Nguema, his family, and others in the inner circle have become fabulously wealthy while the nation at large remains among the most impoverished in Africa.

Teodorín, as the president’s oldest son is known, has been especially reckless in flaunting his portion of Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth. Roger listed some of the property against which the U.S. Government has filed complaints for forfeiture in rem, but there are other countries around the world that could put together similar lists of homes, cars, and collectables. In fact, last month France seized eleven luxury cars belonging to Teodorín from the family’s residence on Avenue Foch near the Arc de Triomphe, while Spain is reportedly preparing to move against properties in Madrid and Las Palmas.

The beauty of what now appears to be a coordinated action by prosecutors in the U.S., France, and Spain against one of the most corrupt governments in the world is that it severely limits the possibilities for retaliation using the oil weapon. Because Equatorial Guinea’s oil is produced offshore in deepwater wells, few companies, whether state-owned or private, can provide the necessary production technology. In fact, China’s principal oil production company, CNOOC, completed its first deepwater production rig—destined for use in the South China Sea—in May of this year. Although China is the destination of 12 percent of Equatorial Guinea’s oil exports, it will not be in a position to displace Western oil companies for years to come.

The seizure of Teodorín’s assets in the United States is unlikely to speed the departure of the man who, since Gaddafi’s demise, is the longest-surviving dictator in Africa, nor is it likely to spur dramatic progress toward democracy and respect for human rights in Equatorial Guinea. It will be, however, a small victory for anti-corruption advocates and, perhaps more importantly, a strong signal to the world’s remaining kleptocrats.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A "Kill Team" Conviction

Staff sergeant Calvin Gibbs was convicted on three counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison for a series of sport killings in Afghanistan between January and May 2010.  Gibbs was one of five members of the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, charged with murder for deliberately killing civilians.  Three have entered guilty pleas.  In all, twelve members of the brigade have been charged with crimes related to activities of the so-called "kill team."  Ten of those have pleaded guilty or been convicted to date.

According to an Army investigation into the killings that was leaked to the Washington Post last year, a member of Gibbs' unit claimed that he hoped to make a necklace from fingers that he cut from the hands of those he killed.  Gibbs also had a tattoo on his calf that he used to keep track of his kills.  Red skulls represented kills in Iraq while blue skulls indicated kills in Afghanistan.

There are many atrocities in war that go unpunished.  Indeed, war itself may be the greatest atrocity.  But what happened today in a U.S. court martial is a reminder that not everything is permissible in war.  And sometimes activities that cross the line--even in war--are actually punished.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Steps Toward Statehood

The General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has voted to admit Palestine as a member.  The vote was 107 in favor and 14 against, with 52 abstentions.  Because Palestine is not a member of the United Nations, the vote to admit it to UNESCO required a two-thirds majority of those voting. (Abstentions are not counted as votes.)

The push for membership by Palestine is part of move to gain international recognition of Palestinian statehood, a move opposed by Israel and the United States.  Because only states may be members of UNESCO (as with other UN bodies), admission indicates the support of a majority of the world's states for Palestinian statehood.  Palestine is expected to press for membership to the UN itself in the coming weeks, but because both the UN Security Council and the General Assembly must approve such an application and the U.S. Government has indicated that it will veto the Palestinian application in the Security Council, there is no possibility for clearing this particular hurdle.

U.S. law currently mandates the elimination of funding for any UN body that admits Palestine as a member.  In the case of UNESCO, this will mean the loss of one-fifth of the operating budget.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Autonomous Warbots

Yesterday the Washington Post published a story on the next generation of warbots:  robots (including drones) capable of autonomous decision-making and action.  The story begins by recounting a recent test at Fort Benning, Georgia in which two drones were able to locate a multicolored tarp on the ground after the pattern had been loaded into their onboard computers.  Acquisition of the target occurred with no human direction after takeoff.  Of course, target acquisition based on pattern recognition can easily be linked to the use of weapons.  But, for the time being, the U.S. military is determined not to take humans out of the loop where lethal operations are concerned.

South Korea deployed two sentry robots last year along its heavily militarized border with North Korea.  (For a video demonstration of the sentry robots' capabilities, go here.)   Thus far, an order from a human operator is required before the SGR-A1 robots can fire on suspected intruders.  It is clear, however, that the robots (built by Samsung Techwin) could be configured to respond autonomously to an intrusion.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Langner Explains Stuxnet

Ralph Langner, the German security consultant who deciphered the Stuxnet worm that was designed to cripple the Iranian nuclear program, explains in this video both how the mystery was unraveled and how Stuxnet was designed to work.