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."