Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Christmas Truce

Ninety-eight years ago, at various points along the Western Front, a remarkable thing happened. On Christmas Eve, German and British troops put down their guns, sang Christmas carols--both responsively and together--and eventually crawled out of their trenches to meet in no-man's land to share cigarettes and drinks, to play soccer, to celebrate Christmas, and to bury their dead. The truce was spontaneous: no officers or political leaders authorized it and some, in fact, were incensed by it. And yet it happened, and was deeply meaningful to many of the 100,000 or so soldiers who participated in it. (Consider this sampling of recollections of the Christmas Truce drawn from diaries and memoirs.)

What exactly happened on Christmas in 1914? Was it a sign of the disconnect between raison d'etat and the beliefs of those who were forced to fight in the name of the state? Was it a brief breakthrough of humanity in a war that came to demonstrate the most extreme inhumanity? Was it an act of insubordination by common soldiers? And how could those soldiers so easily return to the fight the day after Christmas? How could men sing together "O Come, All Ye Faithful" one day and kill each other the next?

Saturday, December 08, 2012

"Likes" for Pakistani Taliban

The Los Angeles Times reports that Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP), the group that Pakistani authorities charge with the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, now has a Facebook page. The page, with 281 "likes" as of Friday evening, is used for recruiting. It follows a pattern in recent years of Islamic militant organizations using social media to recruit new members.

Progress on Landmines

This week in Geneva at the review conference of the Ottawa Convention (the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction), six states announced that they have completed demining operations within their borders and are now mine-free. One of the six was Denmark, which in July removed the last of the 1.4 million mines laid by Germany during World War II.

Poland announced that it is prepared to ratify the Ottawa Convention. When it does so, it will become the 161st state party and the last of the European Union's member states to ratify.

The United States, present at the review conference as an observer, stated that it will "soon" complete a review begun in 2009 that was intended to determine whether it should sign the agreement. The United States is the only NATO member state that has not ratified the Ottawa Convention.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Suppressing Dissent in Equatorial Guinea

Human Rights Watch has called for the regime of Teodoro Obiang Nguema to stop harassing members of the political opposition. At least four opposition leaders have been arrested in Equatorial Guinea since November 2011.

The most recent arrest came on Tuesday when Daniel Darío Martínez Ayécaba, leader of the Popular Union party was taken into custody as he was about to leave Malabo for a conference of opposition groups in Madrid. After being questioned in a Malabo jail known as "Guantánamo," Darío was released with orders to report to authorities daily. His passport was confiscated.

The arrests of Darío and, in October, human rights attorney and opposition leader Fabian Nsue Nguema, fit a pattern in Equatorial Guinea of politically motivated arrests in advance of national elections. Equatorial Guinea's legislative elections are expected to take place in January.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Why Did Thirty-Eight Senators Vote 'No'?

One might be tempted to believe--or at least fervently hope--that the 38 Republican senators who voted against ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on Monday had reasonable objections to the treaty. Even applying a rather generous definition of "reasonable," that was not the case. Thus it is with the opposition party's assault on reason.

As with the opposition to other international agreements, including unratified--at least by the U.S.--human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Republican concerns focus on how specific provisions of the agreements in question might be interpreted--and thus enforced--by U.S. courts if they were to become part of the "supreme law of the land" as Article VI specifies.

Gail Collins, writing in the New York Times, explains this as well as anyone I've seen so far:
Santorum was upset about a section on children with dis- abilities that said: "The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration."
"This is a direct assault on us and our family!" he said at a press conference in Washington.
The hard right has a thing about the United Nations. You may remember that the senator-elect from Texas, Ted Cruz, once railed that a 20-year-old nonbinding United Nations plan for sustainable development posed a clear and present threat to American golf courses.
The theory about the treaty on the disabled is that the bit about "best interests of the child" could be translated into laws prohibiting disabled children from being home-schooled. At his press conference, Santorum acknowledged that wasn’t in the cards. But he theorized that someone might use the treaty in a lawsuit "and through the court system begin to deny parents the right to raise their children in conformity with what they believe."
If I felt you were actually going to worry about this, I would tell you that the Senate committee that approved the treaty included language specifically forbidding its use in court suits. But, instead, I will tell you about own my fears. Every day I take the subway to work, and I use a fare card that says "subject to applicable tariffs and conditions of use." What if one of those conditions is slave labor? Maybe the possibility of me being grabbed at the turnstile and carted off to a salt mine isn’t in the specific law, but what if a bureaucrat somewhere in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to interpret it that way?
It can be difficult trying to explain to those in other countries how 38 percent of the members of one or our two legislative bodies--and the 38 percent with the most fevered imaginations at that--can derail important matters of international law and U.S. foreign poilcy. To say, "That's democracy!" is to give democracy a bad name.

The CRPD Vote

The vote on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on Monday was an embarrassment to the United States and to the Senate itself. Sixty-one senators voted for advice and consent to ratification, but, thanks to the Constitution's anachronistic requirement that treaties garner a two-thirds majority for consent to ratification, that majority was insufficient.

Here are the names of the 38 senators who voted against the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
Roy Blunt (R-MO)
John Boozman (R-AR)
Richard Burr (R-NC)
Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
Daniel Coats (R-IN)
Tom Coburn (R-OK)
Thad Cochran (R-MS)
Bob Corker (R-TN)
John Cornyn (R-TX)
Mike Crapo (R-IN)
Jim DeMint (R-SC)
Michael Enzi (R-WY)
Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Dean Heller (R-NV)
John Hoeven (R-ND)
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX)
James Inhofe (R-OK)
Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
Mike Johanns (R-NE)
Ron Johnson (R-WI)
John Kyl (R-AZ)
Mike Lee (R-UT)
Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Jerry Moran (R-KS)
Rand Paul (R-KY)
Rob Portman (R-OH)
James Risch (R-ID)
Pat Roberts (R-KS)
Marco Rubio (R-FL)
Jeff Sessions (R-AL)
Richard Shelby (R-AL)
John Thune (R-SD)
Patrick Toomey (R-PA)
David Vitter (R-LA)
Roger Wicker (R-MS)

Here are the states whose senators both voted against the treaty: Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

When Your Computer Threatens You

An article in today's New York Times notes the growing threat posed by "ransomware," the malicious software that disables a computer and demands payment of a "fine" to restore its functionality. (Payment will not fix the problem; never send money to an entity in cyberspace you don't know.)

The Times reports that a computer security expert based in France was able to track the operations of one criminal gang working with ransomware. It infected 18,941 computers in a single day, Owners of those computers paid over $400,000 in ransom payments.

That would explain the appeal of this form of malware to cyber-criminals.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The CRPD Fails

Not even the presence of Bob Dole on the Senate floor could persuade more than a handful of Republicans to support the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

A resolution to express the Senate's advice and consent to ratification failed today by five votes (61-38). As Senate majority leader Harry Reid said, "It is a sad day when we cannot pass a treaty that simply brings the world up to the American standard for protecting people with disabilities because the Republican Party is in thrall to extremists and ideologues." Moderate Republicans all supported ratification, but they were greatly outnumbered by those Republican senators who believe that the U.S. will somehow be harmed by agreeing to any international human rights treaty, even one that reflects the principles of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Dole, a former senator and Republican presidential nominee, has been disabled since 1945 when he was hit by German machine gun fire during combat in Italy. He was instrumental in the passage of the ADA and has been a strong supporter of CRPD ratification. Josh Rogin reported that his appearance on the Senate floor today was intended to force Republicans intent on voting against the treaty to walk past him to do so, but the vote occurred after Dole, in a wheelchair, left the floor.

Senator John Kerry's impassioned speech on behalf of ratification is worth watching:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"Acquisition Malpractice"

Problems with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are the subject of a front-page article in today's New York Times. The Times, drawing from a June Government Accountability Office study of the F-35 that focused on "affordability risks," reports that total program costs could reach $396 billion if the Pentagon purchases 2,443 of the planes by the late 2030s as is currently planned. That would make the program the costliest weapons program in history by close to a factor of four. The cost per plane has risen from $69 million in 2001 to $137 million today. Frank Kendall, who has directed the Pentagon's weapons-purchasing operations since May, describes the decision to begin production of the F-35 before flight testing had even started as "acquisition malpractice."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Terrestrial Locomotion

Quadrotors have hit the ground running.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Considering the CRPD

The United States Senate today voted to proceed to Executive Session in order to consider the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Debate on a resolution of advice and consent to ratification is scheduled to begin tomorrow.

The Convention, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 13, 2006, and opened for signature on March 30, 2007, is intended to ensure that states protect the human rights and guarantee the full legal equality of persons with disabilities. It entered into force on May 3, 2008, and currently has 126 parties. Another 28 states, including the United States, have signed but not ratified.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported the CRPD favorably on July 31, 2012, with three reservations, eight understandings, and two declarations. The three reservations pertain to federalism issues (preserving in some instances state laws that would provide less protection for the rights of the disabled than required by the Convention), private conduct (allowing federal law to retain some provisions that allow for discrimination against the disabled as a matter of private conduct), and torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment (duplicating existing U.S. reservations regarding torture to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment). The eight understandings are generally intended to ensure that the Convention's terms will be interpreted in a manner consistent with existing U.S. law.

The motion to proceed to Executive Session was passed today by a 61-36 vote. Sixty-seven votes will be necessary to adopt the resolution of advice and consent to ratification if all 100 members of the Senate are present and voting. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), who has a disabled daughter, and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), a Tea Party favorite, appeared together today to announce their opposition to the CRPD. It is unclear whether the Convention can gain the two-thirds majority required to give the Senate's consent to ratification during the current lame-duck session. In September, 36 Republicans--more than a third of the Senate's membership--signed a letter opposing any action on treaties in the session following the election.

Obstructing the majority while alienating whole sectors of the population continues to be the Republicans' strategy in Congress. If successful this time, it will deal another blow to the credibility of U.S. leadership on human rights.

Sovereignty and Atrocity

Human Rights Watch is reporting today that eleven children were killed over the weekend when a Syrian MiG-23 dropped cluster bombs on the town of Deir al-'Assafeer. An indiscriminate attack of any kind on noncombatants violates international humanitarian law, but the focus in HRW's account of what happened is on the use of cluster munitions, and for good reasons.

Cluster bombs, first, are used primarily as antipersonnel weapons. When noncombatants die in an attack employing conventional bombs or artillery shells, a plausible claim can sometimes be made that the deaths were unintended collateral damage incidental to an attack on a legitimate target. On the other hand, when civilians--and only civilians--are killed by cluster bombs, there is a strong case to be made that a war crime has been committed.

Second, cluster munitions tend to leave behind a deadly legacy of what are sometimes rather bureaucratically referred to as explosive remnants of war (ERW). Everywhere they have been employed, unexploded submunitions--bomblets--continue to pose a threat to civilians (poor farmers more often than not) long after the conflict ends. Disposing of unexploded submunitions is very hazardous, requiring both resources and political will that post-conflict societies often find to be in short supply. According to HRW, video footage of the attack on Deir al-'Assafeer and its aftermath shows at least fifty unexploded bomblets around the site.

Human Rights Watch maintains that cluster munitions "are subject to a ban under international law due to the harm they cause to civilians," in the words of Mary Wareham, the organization's arms division advocacy director. The ban to which Wareham refers is articulated in the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which entered into force on August 1, 2010. The Convention today has 111 signatories, 77 of which have ratified the agreement. Syria is not a party to the agreement, however, which means the ban does not apply to it in the absence of a determination that the ban is part of customary international law (a claim that has not, to my knowledge, been pressed by HRW).

There is no question that the use of cluster munitions to deliberately target noncombatants is illegal. The deaths of eleven children in the bombing of Deir al-'Assafeer should be added to the long list of crimes for which the Assad regime ultimately should be held accountable. But it is not clear--in fact, it is almost certainly wrong to say--that international law makes it illegal for Syria to use cluster munitions under any conditions. While I would prefer to side with Wareham and Human Rights Watch on this issue, the fact that Syria is not a party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions is significant. It has opted out of the obligations imposed on states parties by the Convention, as has the United States. The right to do so, however unfortunate in this particular case, is inherent in the notion of sovereignty. Sovereignty shields states--including bad ones like Syria--from the imposition of law, including laws banning cluster munitions, by outsiders. But only up to a point.

Wareham states that "all governments, including Syria’s allies, should condemn Syria’s continued use of cluster bombs," and there is good reason for this, even if Syria is not legally subject to the ban imposed by the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The condemnation of other governments can erode the protection that sovereignty provides for the use of cluster munitions by states that have not ratified the Convention. While sovereignty ensures that states bear primary responsibility for their own laws and their own actions (at least insofar as their actions are confined to their own territories), international law as a means of limiting the freedom of states pushes back against sovereignty where customary international law and, more importantly, peremptory norms (jus cogens) are involved. If cluster munitions are to be "subject to a ban under international law," it will come from universal ratification of the Convention on Cluster Munitions or, more likely, from a sufficiently widespread acceptance of the Convention and broad-based condemnation of holdouts that, in combination, generates a customary international law norm against possession or use of the weapons. Human Rights Watch may have jumped the gun in suggesting that a ban on cluster munitions currently exists, but it is hastening the day when that will be true by publicizing what the Syrian government is doing with these weapons.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Passwords and Cybercrime

This recent Wired article--"Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can't Protect Us Anymore by Mat Honan--should be required reading for anyone who owns--or even borrows--a computer or mobile device. The bottom line is that a strong password isn't enough to protect your data (including the data you have stored in online accounts) from hackers, some of whom are simply malicious teenagers eager to erase every digital photo you've ever taken just for fun. It's not clear whether kids hacking for the thrill of it are better or worse than the professionals who are in it for the money. According to Honan, "In 2011 Russian-speaking hackers alone took in roughly $4.5 billion from cybercrime."

The Campaign to Ban Autonomous Killer Robots

Last week, Human Rights Watch, joined by the Nobel Women's Initiative, launched a campaign to develop an international ban on autonomous killer robots. A 50-page report, Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots, published jointly by HRW and Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic, was released on Monday.

According to the report, the U.S. Department of Defense is spending roughly $6 billion per year on unmanned systems, a figure projected to grow quickly given the military's avowed interest in procuring more robotic weapons with expanding capabilities. A number of other countries are also investing in military robotics with increasing degrees of autonomy. The most newsworthy example in recent days has been Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. At present, the Iron Dome system puts a human operator in the loop, but it is clearly a system for which fully autonomous operations would be possible.

The report opposes the deployment of lethal autonomous robots on three grounds: (1) such robots would not conform to the rules of international humanitarian law as they relate to noncombatant immunity, proportionality, and military necessity; (2) they would not be subject to extra-legal protections for civilians such as those predicated on human compassion and empathy, thus making them suitable for use by repressive governments against their own populations; and (3) they would make it difficult to establish accountability for war crimes given the elimination of direct human agency. The report concludes with a recommendation that those involved in the development of robotic weapons generate a code of conduct governing work that might lead to the creation of fully autonomous systems.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


On Monday, the 18th Conference of Parties (COP18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 8th Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol will begin in Doha, Qatar. (The agenda is available here.) COP18 has a number of objectives, but the most important involves negotiations toward a climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. Under the Durban Platform agreed to at COP17 in Durban, South Africa last year, a new "legal outcome" is to be developed by 2015.

Nathan Hultman, a Brookings Institution fellow, provides an excellent summary of the road to Doha in this post. And, via Andrew C. Revkin's Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, there's this brief--but insightful--video on twenty years of climate change negotiations.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi Welcomes President Obama

Sometimes a pictures is worth a thousand words.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tanks, Rockets, Tweets, and Hacks

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalates with rocket attacks aimed at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on the one hand and air strikes on government offices in Gaza on the other, various cyber dimensions of the conflict are becoming increasingly noteworthy. On the Israeli side, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in an effort to control the conflict's narrative, are using Twitter and Facebook with a level of intensity last seen in the Obama campaign. But reviews of the IDF's social media offensive are mixed at best. Michael Koplow's article for Foreign Policy on the IDF Twitter campaign is titled "How Not to Wage War on the Internet." The ability of visitors to an IDF site to earn badges for viewing pages and sharing them on Facebook or other social media sites has prompted some to question whether Israel is "gamifying" war. (Allison Kaplan Sommer helpfully gathers some of the reaction to Israel's social media campaign in a blog post for Haaretz.)

On the other side (in support of, but not initiated by, Hamas), a campaign of cyber attacks against Israeli websites began on Thursday. The loosely organized Internet group Anonymous initiated its effort to deface or take down both government and private websites in Israel in response to the Israeli government's threat to cut off Internet and other telecommunications links between Gaza and the outside world. The Bank of Jerusalem was forced offline for a while and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website reportedly was compromised. At one point, Anonymous claimed to have taken down over six hundred websites in Israel.

It would be a mistake to try to press these two stories into the same analytical framework just because the Internet and cyberspace are central to both. They bear roughly the same relationship to one another that the use of radio addresses by Roosevelt and Churchill and the development of radar during World War II did. But we can see, nonetheless, that the two stories are important for their own, independent, reasons.

In the case of Israel's efforts to ensure that its narrative about the conflict with Hamas reaches as wide an audience as possible, we can see the application of what media analysts and political campaign strategists have been telling us for years about the movement from old media to new media. Older people--especially males--still sometimes watch network news on TV; if they miss the evening newscasts, they may read about what they missed in the next morning's newspaper (a print edition, of course). Younger people, however, are more likely to get news in small doses throughout the day (and night) via social media and online news outlets. A press conference with reporters and cameras may be the best way to reach the former group while a tweet or a Facebook post (provided it gets retweeted or reposted) will work better for the latter group. (Richard Parker examines some of these differences and breaks down the way the Obama campaign leveraged social media to its benefit here on the New York Times "Campaign Stops" blog.) Thus it seems that perhaps the so-called "CNN effect" was short-lived. Now we get war news (and revolution news and disaster news, etc., etc.) from the people who are involved--not through the lens of a television camera but through the lens of an iPhone or via tweets and Facebook updates. The army (or police force or government ministry) that wants to control the narrative today can't be content with limiting the access of reporters to a conflict zone or a protest site. It must either impose an Internet blackout--and face the wrath of those affected, other governments, and, apparently, a global community of hacktivists--or attempt to keep pace with citizen reporters by offering its own stream of compelling online information. But the information it provides cannot be too compelling. A video of grief-stricken mothers posted by those on the side of the victims looks very different from the same video posted by those who caused the grief in the first place.

Turning to the Anonymous attacks on Israeli websites, these suggest a future in which the strategic calculus involved in going to war (or suppressing protests) must include the possible responses of unseen third parties. After flexing its muscles--successfully, some might suggest--against Scientologists, opponents of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, and now Israel--Anonymous may find it increasingly attractive to weigh in on geopolitical matters. And, given the enormity of cyberspace, there are likely to be other groups developing in other chat rooms around other causes but with the same desire to influence big events in the world. In addition to the loose associations of hacktivists represented by Anonymous, transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) may find ways to use cyber attacks to profit from violent political conflicts while remaining in the shadows. And if states can use cyber attacks to influence the outcome of a rival state's conflict without revealing their involvement, they almost certainly will do so.

If it continues to be more and more difficult for states to control the narrative in conflict and if states continue to face more and more hidden adversaries when they go to war or move to suppress dissent, then the historical advantage that states--and especially the wealthiest and most powerfully armed states--have wielded in the use of force may be eroded to the point where the calculus that leads to armed conflict may be dramatically altered. And that might be a good thing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ransomware Rising

It's bad when your computer becomes sluggish because some botmaster in Moldova has installed malware on it that turns it into a zombie sending spam to everyone you've ever emailed. It's worse when your computer crashes because the hackers are more interested in the cyber equivalent of vandalism than in "borrowing" your unused computing capacity. The worst, though, may be having your computer lock up and display a message indicating that the hackers will unlock it after you send them money--in other words, online extortion using what is called "ransomware."

The computer security firm Symantec reports that ransomware is spreading and that cyber criminals are finding new and better ways to profit from it. What began about six years ago as a scam targeting computer users in Russia and Eastern Europe has become more sophisticated and has spread to Western Europe and North America.

The malware works like this: A computer user clicks on an infected site--perhaps an ad--that appears legitimate but actually redirects the browser to a hidden website that downloads malware to the user's computer. When the malicious file runs, it locks up the infected computer by preventing essential programs from executing. It then displays a message on the computer's screen demanding that the user pay a "fine," often by using a prepaid electronic payment system or calling a pay-per-call phone number. In some versions, the displayed message is superimposed on a pornographic image and indicates that the "fine" is for having browsed illegal websites. In other versions, the displayed message appears to be from the FBI or another law enforcement agency; it also includes a message alleging illegal activities.

Symantec estimates that up to 3 percent of victims have paid the "fines" of $200 or more, resulting in a haul for cyber criminals of at least $5 million. Payment, incidentally, does not unlock the computer as promised. It is still necessary to remove the malware by running anti-virus software.

For more on ransomware, see this story in ComputerWorld or this CNET story. (Or watch this three-minute video from Symantec.) And for more on protecting your computer, just make sure your anti-virus software is up to date.

Monday, November 12, 2012

McMahan on Just War Theory

Jeff McMahan examines just war theory today and tomorrow on the New York Times' Opinionator blog. Part I, published today, describes the theory, its origins, and contemporary challenges to it. Part II will consider the revisionist critique of just war theory.

Command and Control

One of the most important principles underlying American democracy is civilian control of the military. This principle has been undercut, however, by our society's growing tendency to defer uncritically to the judgment of military leaders and, worse, to regard any questioning of that judgment as unwise or even unpatriotic. This point is supported by U.S. Naval Academy professor Aaron B. O'Connell's op-ed that I noted last week. It is further bolstered by an op-ed  in today's New York Times by military writer Thomas E. Ricks.

Ricks notes that during "an unnecessary war in Iraq and an unnecessarily long one in Afghanistan," civilian leaders have been criticized but "our uniformed leaders have escaped almost any scrutiny from the public"--even though they "bear much of the blame for the mistakes in the wars." Congress fails to exercise oversight, for fear of being seen as "criticizing our troops," and the military itself seems uninterested in self-examination.

The failure of civilian leaders to subject the American military to serious scrutiny has not only allowed poor military decisions in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to go unpunished (a point that Ricks makes), it has also resulted in a bloated defense budget at a time when the nation can ill afford it. The fault, of course, lies not just with civilian leaders but with citizens--voters--who seem to believe the military can do no wrong. Perhaps General David Petraeus, as he leaves the CIA, can remind us that even the best and brightest of our military officers can, like the rest of us, suffer lapses of judgment.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Climate and Social Stress

In a report commissioned by the U.S. intelligence community, the National Research Council has concluded that the acceleration of climate change means "disruptive environmental events" will occur with increasing frequency and growing impact on national and global security. The study, titled Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis, was prepared by a team led by John Steinbruner, director of the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies.

The study's summary states:
     Anthropogenic climate change can reasonably be expected to increase the frequency and intensity of a variety of potentially disruptive environmental events--slowly at first, but then more quickly. Some of this change is already discern- ible. Many of these events will stress communities, societies, governments, and the globally integrated systems that support human well-being. Science is unlikely ever to be able to predict the timing, magnitude, and precise location of these events a decade in advance, but much is already known that can inform security analysis, including details about the character of events that are becoming more likely and about the general trajectory of increasing risk.
The New York Times summarizes the report and includes comments from Steinbruner in an article here.

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Fabian Nsue Nguema, the Equatorial Guinean human rights attorney who was incarcerated in Malabo's notorious Black Beach Prison on October 22 while visiting a client, has been released. Nsue told Agence France Presse that he was released on October 30 following nine days in solitary confinement without having been charged with a crime.

Monday, November 05, 2012

A New "Third Rail"

For those unfamiliar with the term, "third rail" is a phrase that entered the American political lexicon in the early 1980s to describe an issue--Social Security reform was the particular issue at that time--so politically charged that touching it means certain death at the polls. The term is, of course, derived from the rail of a subway line that carries high-voltage electrical current to run the trains. William Safire traces the metaphorical use of the term back to Kirk O'Donnell, an aide to Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill.

Over the years other issues, including Medicare reform, gun control, and criticism of Israel have been called the third rail of American politics. Health care is said to be the third rail of Canadian politics. Now, Aaron B. O'Connell, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, makes a strong case that criticism of the military has become a new third rail in the American political system.

O'Connell takes as his starting points President Dwight D. Eisenhower's well-known farewell address in which he warned against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." While O'Connell believes that the military-industrial complex has not influenced foreign policy or distorted the economy in the ways that Eisenhower feared, he argues that the American culture has been militarized by the permanent war preparations against which he warned. "Support the troops" has come to mean the military should never be questioned and its spending should never be cut. "Today," O'Connell writes, "there are just a select few in public life who are willing to question the military or its spending, and those who do--from the libertarian Ron Paul to the leftist Dennis J. Kucinich--are dismissed as unrealistic." 

The real problem, as O'Connell describes it, is this: "That which is left unexamined eventually becomes invisible, and as a result, few Americans today are giving sufficient consideration to the full range of violent activities the government undertakes in their names."

In the aftermath of the election, it would be good if the military-industrial complex--and the level of defense spending in a time of budgetary constraints--could be examined critically by members of both political parties. There is a way that they could do this without committing political suicide. After Democrats and Republicans in 1983 came together in support of the Greenspan Commission's recommendations on Social Security reform, Kirk O'Donnell told Tom Oliphant that the political third rail differs from the one in the subway in this respect: "If a Republican foot and a Democratic foot touch it simultaneously, nothing happens."

Friday, October 26, 2012

Malala's Recovery

There is good news about Malala Yousafzai from the hospital in Birmingham, England where she is recovering from gunshot wounds. She has been able to speak, hear, and see. And, with the help of a nurse, she has been able to walk. Her family is with her and her father says she is "recovering at an encouraging speed."

In remarks to reporters, Malala's father said, "When she fell, Pakistan stood. . . . This is a turning point."

Khrushchev's Message

On October 26, 1962, eleven days into the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nikita Khrushchev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, addressed a letter (described by Robert Kennedy as "very long and emotional") to President John F. Kennedy. For fifty years, the letter has prompted speculation regarding Khrushchev's state of mind. Robert McNamara told Errol Morris in The Fog of War that the letter indicated that Khrushchev was under enormous pressure. Perhaps. But, given the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation, what Khrushchev wrote seems today like a much more sober assessment of the situation than much of the belligerent rhetoric that passed for clear-eyed analysis at the time. Perhaps Khrushchev, having miscalculated in authorizing the transfer of missiles to Cuba, recovered and saved the world by offering a way to "untie the knot."

The entire text of the letter is available here, but I include a few key passages below.

After noting the dual character of weapons and refuting Kennedy's assertion that the Soviet missiles in Cuba were offensive, Khrushchev discusses "the logic of war." Once begun, war cannot be controlled:
We must not succumb to intoxication and petty passions, regardless of whether elections are impending in this or that country, or not impending. These are all transient things, but if indeed war should break out, then it would not be in our power to stop it, for such is the logic of war. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction.
But just as there is a logic of war, there is a logic of deterrence--of mutual assured destruction:
You can regard us with distrust, but, in any case, you can be calm in this regard, that we are of sound mind and understand perfectly well that if we attack you, you will respond the same way. But you too will receive the same that you hurl against us. And I think that you also understand this.
The discussion turns to peace, stability, and their foundations not on common ideologies ("We have proceeded and are proceeding from the fact that the peaceful co-existence of the two different social-political systems, now existing in the world, is necessary, that it is necessary to assure a stable peace.") but on the basis of a common respect for international law. And here Khrushchev seizes the moral high ground, calling the "quarantine"--the naval blockade--of Cuba "piratical" and noting that Kennedy himself had called the Bay of Pigs invasion a mistake. He offers a way to end the crisis, since "the preservation of world peace should be our joint concern." That way out requires a pledge by the United States to foreswear another attack on Cuba.

Returning to the naval quarantine, Khrushchev urges Kennedy not to force the issue by challenging Soviet ships on the high seas:
If you did this as the first step towards the unleashing of war, well then, it is evident that nothing else is left to us but to accept this challenge of yours. If, however, you have not lost your self-control and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose.

Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.
Kennedy, to his credit, demonstrated an ability to compromise, to untie the knot. Khrushchev, to his credit, had an ability to reverse course when necessary to avoid a war that neither side wanted.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Ai Weiwei Cover

He's hardly the first, but Ai Weiwei now has a cover of "Gangnam Style" on video. Pepperdine alumna and Ai assistant E-shyh Wong reports that China has blocked the video.

"Until Hell Freezes Over"

On this date in 1962, Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, uttered what may well be the most memorable line ever used in a Security Council debate. Before presenting the Security Council with photographic evidence of the Soviet missile buildup in Cuba, Stevenson asked, "Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R. has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no—don’t wait for the translation—yes or no?"

When Zorin failed to answer, Stevenson continued:

"You can answer yes or no. You have denied they exist. I want to know if I understood you correctly. I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that’s your decision. And I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room." (emphasis added)

Stevenson (standing next to the easel in the photo below) proceeded to display evidence from American U-2 flights over Cuba of Soviet missile sites.

A Missing Human Rights Attorney

The Associated Press, the BBC, L'Express, and many other sources are reporting that Fabian Nsue Nguema, a human rights attorney and opposition leader in Equatorial Guinea, is missing. Nsue went to Malabo's notorious Black Beach prison on Monday to meet with a client, Agustin Esono Nzogo Nsang, a schoolmaster detained there on what some allege are politically motivated embezzlement charges. Sometime around 5:00 p.m., Nsue's phone was cut off; friends and family members report that he never emerged from the prison. One family member who went in search of him reported seeing him in detention. Prison authorities confirmed to Nsue's wife that he is being detained there, but she has not been permitted to see him.

Human Rights Watch and EG Justice have called on the government of Equatorial Guinea to investigate the alleged enforced disappearance, a crime under Equatorial Guinean and international law, and account for Nsue. In 2002, Nsue was imprisoned for six months during which time he was tortured. His arrest then was related to some remarks he had made that were critical of President Obiang, Equatorial Guinea's dictator for life.

If you are so inclined, a call to Equatorial Guinea's embassy in Washington at (202) 518-5700 to express concern for Mr. Nsue's safety would be a good first step toward ensuring that the Obiang regime will not be able to harass human rights defenders with impunity. The embassy's fax number is (202) 518-5252. Written messages may also be sent to eg_africa@yahoo.com.

I am reminded of Aung San Suu Kyi's famous line in a commencement address at American University in 1997--an address delivered by her husband because she was under house arrest in Burma at the time: "Please use your liberty to promote ours."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Fifty Years Ago

Fifty years ago today, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy delivered the following message to the American people.

Elections and American Exceptionalism

New York Times reporter Scott Shane's excellent op-ed entitled "The Opiate of Exceptionalism" should be required reading for all Americans. Max Fisher, writing yesterday on the Washington Post blog "WorldViews," listed it among "six essential reads on foreign policy" in advance of tonight's foreign policy debate.

The United States spends far more on its military than any other country in the world (almost more than all other countries in the world, in fact), and also leads the world in rate of incarceration and in energy consumption per capita. Of eight major human rights covenants (on genocide, racial discrimination, civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, women's rights, torture, children's rights, and the rights of the disabled), the U.S. has ratified four. (The U.S. stands virtually alone--with Somalia--in having failed thus far to ratify the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.) And yet, as Shane points out, no candidate for the presidency can discuss these things openly. To do so is to question America's greatness and to risk the fate of Jimmy Carter, who spoke candidly of a "crisis of confidence" in the United States and then lost his bid for reelection to a candidate who proclaimed "morning in America."

We admire individuals who can honestly and openly face their own shortcomings. And when a talented team fails to make the playoffs or crumbles under playoff pressure, we want to hear coaches and players accept responsibility for their own failings and praise the efforts of the team that prevailed; continuing to proclaim one's superiority in defiance of the result posted on the scoreboard is one of the worst things an athlete--or a coach or a fan--can do. And yet that is exactly what politicians do because that is exactly what we the people demand. It's highly dysfunctional because, as Shane points out, it keeps political campaigns from addressing issues that desperately need to be addressed.

Shane recommends American studies professor Mark Rice's blog, "Ranking America," for a clear-eyed, objective look at the nation's standing in the world across a wide range of indicators (e.g., central government debt, child poverty, bullying). I recommend it, too.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Misreading History

We are exactly fifty years removed from the opening days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most extensively analyzed episodes in history. A brief bibliography published online by the Naval History and Heritage Command lists over fifty books on the events of those "thirteen days," to quote the title of Robert F. Kennedy's own book on the subject. Unfortunately, extensive analysis cannot guarantee that the right lessons will be learned.

Michael Dobbs makes this point in an essay in yesterday's New York Times. A single historical error, he argues, has contributed to the myth that John F. Kennedy's firm resolve--his willingness to face down both Khrushchev and the prospect of nuclear war--was decisive in an American victory in the Cold War. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it, "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."

But Rusk got it wrong, according to Dobbs, and leaders from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush and Benjamin Netanyahu have also gotten it wrong, believing that being tough like JFK yields victories like the one he supposedly won in the Cuban Missile Crisis. And thus we wind up in wars, somehow missing the point that Kennedy and Khrushchev were desperately trying to avoid a war.

Someday a candidate for the presidency of the United States will say, "I yield to my opponent in the area of firm resolve. I hope I will never be eyeball to eyeball with America's enemies, but if I am, I will blink--and swallow hard. I will do whatever it takes to avoid war." He--or she--will lose the election--unless, between now and then, we stop misreading history.

Monday, October 15, 2012


We know all too well that many of the world's religions--including Christianity--have oppressed women. They have perpetuated for centuries the myth of masculine superiority that supports patriarchy in its multiple manifestations. So yesterday when a woman--a Methodist minister--stood before the congregation where Sandy and I were worshiping and prayed for the recovery of Malala Yousafzai, my heart was warmed.

If you don't know Malala Yousafzai's story, here's the brief version:

Yousafzai was born and raised in Pakistan's Swat Valley, a region in the northwestern part of the country adjoining Afghanistan. Taliban fighters from Afghanistan have streamed into the region since the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. Control of the Swat Valley has passed back and forth between the Taliban and the Pakistani military. A large portion of the American "drone war" has been waged in the Swat Valley against Afghan Taliban leaders who have taken refuge there.

In 2009, when Yousafzai was eleven, the Taliban ordered the closing of schools offering education to girls, including Yousafzai's school, a private school operated by her father. She responded by blogging for the BBC about life under the Taliban. That same year, a New York Times documentary (available here) featured Yousafzai and her father. With resistance to Taliban control of the Swat Valley increasing, many girls (including Yousafzai) returned to school, although many female-only schools had already been destroyed.

Last week, on October 9, while Yousafzai was returning home from school, a Taliban gunman boarded her school bus, called her out by name, and shot her in the head and neck. She survived and was taken to a military hospital in Peshawar in critical condition. A Taliban spokesman has stated that if she lives, she will be targeted again. 

Today Yousafzai was flown to England for treatment at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, a hospital where many British soldiers wounded in Afghanistan have been treated.

Joining the millions of Pakistanis who are praying for Malala could be a good step toward exorcising the demons of patriarchy in both Islam and Christianity.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

MS-13, TCO

On Thursday, the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Department of the Treasury added  a Los Angeles-based street gang called MS-13 (aka Mara Salvatrucha) to its Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) List. MS-13 was designated a transnational criminal organization (TCO) by Treasury's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. This is the first time a street gang has been labeled a TCO and added to the SDN List. The designation allows the federal government to target MS-13's financial transactions and seize the millions of dollars it nets annually as a consequence of drug and sex trafficking.

MS-13 was established in Los Angeles in the early 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants who had fled El Salvador's civil war. (The war, which lasted from 1979 to 1992, resulted in the deaths of as many as 80,000 people--out of a population of under 5,000,000--and the disappearance of thousands more.) From Los Angeles, the gang spread to other U.S. cities with significant Salvadoran populations--notably Washington, D.C.--and to Central America. Today there are an estimated 30,000-50,000 gang members in over 40 U.S. states, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Canada.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Challenging Slavery

On Thursday, at an event hosted by Pepperdine University, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) rolled out a new project designed to engage university students everywhere in an effort to find solutions to the problem of human trafficking. Centered on a new website called ChallengeSlavery.org, the project seeks to crowd-source ideas designed to bring an end to modern slavery.

Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator of USAID, began by referencing President Obama's speech to the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting on September 25 in which the President spoke of human trafficking in the following terms:
It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name--modern slavery.

Now, I do not use that word, "slavery" lightly. It evokes obviously one of the most painful chapters in our nation’s history. But around the world, there’s no denying the awful reality. When a man, desperate for work, finds himself in a factory or on a fishing boat or in a field, working, toiling, for little or no pay, and beaten if he tries to escape--that is slavery. When a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving--that’s slavery.

When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed--that’s slavery. When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family--girls my daughters’ age--runs away from home, or is lured by the false promises of a better life, and then imprisoned in a brothel and tortured if she resists--that’s slavery.  It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world.
Dr. Shah went on to laud the good work on human trafficking being done at Pepperdine by the Global Justice Program, the campus chapters of International Justice Mission, and by individuals such as third-year law student Amy Massey and law alumnus Jonathan Derby. He then presented USAID's Challenge Slavery project and turned the discussion over to a panel moderated by Dr. Sarah Mendelson, assistant administrator of USAID, and including Massey, Jocelyn White of IJM, Sam Baker of Not for Sale, and Justin Kosslyn of Google Ideas. The discussion of the work that is already being done--and the work that is  being envisioned in the form of government-NGO partnerships--was, in a word, inspiring.

To participate in the conversation on this issue--and to contribute to the solution of the problem of modern slavery--go to ChallengeSlavery.org and sign up to join the online community. And to learn how you currently contribute to the problem of human trafficking--unwittingly, one hopes--go to SlaveryFootprint.org.

Friday, October 12, 2012

China's Nobel Laureates

Yesterday novelist Mo Yan became the third citizen of the People's Republic of China to win a Nobel prize. He joins Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, and Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. (Gao, technically, was a former citizen of the PRC when he won his prize, having been declared persona non grata by China before becoming a French citizen).

Unlike Liu, a human rights advocate who was imprisoned for subversion about a year before winning the Nobel Peace Prize (and whose award was condemned by the Chinese government), Mo has worked within the state's strict limits on political expression. In fact, social criticism in his novels is often shielded by the use of fantasy. Consequently, China's Communist leadership could celebrate his international recognition without worrying that it might have been intended as a slap at the regime.

In an important reversal, however, Mo called today for the release of Liu Xiaobo, a move "likely to infuriate China's leadership," according to the New York Times.

Chocolate and Nobel Laureates

Dr. Franz H. Messerli, in a note published in the New England Journal of Medicine, finds "a surprisingly powerful correlation between chocolate intake per capita and the number of Nobel laureates in various countries." Here is the results section of the note in its entirety (except for the accompanying figure):
There was a close, significant linear correlation (r=0.791, P less than 0.0001) between chocolate consumption per capita and the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million persons in a total of 23 countries. When recalculated with the exclusion of Sweden, the correlation coefficient increased to 0.862. Switzerland was the top performer in terms of both the number of Nobel laureates and chocolate consumption. The slope of the regression line allows us to estimate that it would take about 0.4 kg of chocolate per capita per year to increase the number of Nobel laureates in a given country by 1. For the United States, that would amount to 125 million kg per year. The effective chocolate dose seems to hover around 2 kg per year, and the dose–response curve reveals no apparent ceiling on the number of Nobel laureates at the highest chocolate- dose level of 11 kg per year.
Eat more chocolate, win more Nobel prizes? That works for me.

The European Union's Nobel Peace Prize

The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced today that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012 has been awarded to the European Union. The EU becomes the twenty-first organization to win the award, but the first regional intergovernmental organization. It was selected from among 231 nominees, 43 of which were organizations. In making the award, the Committee said, "The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe."

The announcement was immediately criticized by many of those who have faulted the way the EU has handled its ongoing financial crisis. Martin Callanan, a British politician and member of the European Parliament, called the choice "downright out of touch."

It is true that the EU is in the middle of what may be the greatest crisis in its history. The Nobel Committee seems to have concluded, however, that the crisis makes this a particularly opportune moment to remind Europeans and the world of the organization's considerable accomplishments. Thorbjoern Jagland, the chairman of the Nobel Committee, described those accomplishments in these terms: "The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a 70-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today, war between Germany and France is unthinkable. This shows how, through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners."

The little European Coal and Steel Community established in 1951 has come a long way.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Kiobel: Oral Arguments, Part 2

Adam Liptak describes the second round of oral arguments in Kiobel here in today's New York Times. The actual transcript of the reargument is available here.

And Jeffrey Rosen, writing for The New Republic, makes an important point about the way Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum ties into the problem of corporate influence in a democracy, especially since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision opened the floodgates of political contributions by corporations.

Christiane Amanpour Interviews Obiang

Since the opening of the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly last week, Equatorial Guinea's longtime dictator (33 years and counting) Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been making the rounds in the United States in an effort to burnish his image. Yesterday he sat for an interview with CNN's veteran reporter Christiane Amanpour. The video is available here.

Regarding the corruption charges in France and the United States against his son and vice president, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, President Obiang contended that these were the work of his country's enemies. (All dictators have enemies--sometimes unnamed, as in this case--who provide a rationale for repression and an excuse for external criticisms.) He said that his son's wealth was earned from businesses that he owned in Equatorial Guinea and Malaysia. In fact, according to the Justice Department's filing in its suit to recover proceeds of corruption from the younger Obiang, President Obiang granted his son a timber concession in Equatorial Guinea (involving public lands) that he then used to sell timber to a Malaysian lumber company. This arrangement continued even after the younger Obiang was appointed to the newly created position of Minister of Forestry and Environment (later designated Minister of Forestry and Agriculture), a position involving oversight of the timber industry in Equatorial Guinea.

Amanpour asked Obiang about the special referendum under which a limit of two seven-year presidential terms was added to Equatorial Guinea's constitution. Specifically, she wondered if Obiang was prepared to step down in 2016 as this new constitutional provision would seemingly require. Obiang, while noting that the law would not be retroactive (i.e., it would not apply to him), said that the people would decide. (Dictators generally promote the illusion--and sometimes come to believe themselves--that they are the embodiment of the will of the people.) Interestingly, at the United Nations Treaty Event last week, Obiang urged respect for the rule of law in his brief remarks. The government's press release about those remarks says that in Equatorial Guinea "respect for the rule of law is a firm principle and constant aspiration of the government. Upholding the law is the primary responsibility of a nation's political system."

Obiang has clearly become more comfortable addressing diplomatic gatherings and reporters, but the message, which is the same as it's always been, is the message of dictators everywhere: My people love me but everyone else is out to get me.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Arguing the ATS . . . Again

Today is the first Monday in October, which means the United States Supreme Court is beginning a new term. The Court leads off with a second round of oral arguments in a case--Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum--that was first argued in February. The continuation of the case to a new term and the scheduling of a second session for oral arguments is unusual, but hardly unprecedented.

Kiobel is a case brought by Nigerian nationals alleging the complicity of Royal Dutch Petroleum (aka Shell), an oil company operating in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, in serious human rights violations that included the unlawful executions of nine individuals who had protested local environmental damage caused by petroleum production. (For more on the background, see this post from last February.) The statutory authority for the suit brought by Esther Kiobel, the wife of one of those executed by the government, and others lies in a 1789 snippet of law called the Alien Tort Statute, which gives federal courts in the U.S. jurisdiction over cases involving violations of the law of nations regardless of the nationality of the plaintiff, the defendant, or the location of the alleged violation. Since 1980, when the ATS was first used to give victims of human rights violations abroad access to U.S. courts, the limits of the law have been regularly tested in federal court; Kiobel is the second ATS case to make it to the Supreme Court.

In February, the principal question before the Supreme Court was whether corporations can be held liable for human rights violations under the terms of the ATS. This is a very important question as many of the most important legal victories won by victims of human rights abuse in the last thirty years have involved settlements with or judgments against corporations for their misdeeds. Without corporate liability for human rights abuse under the ATS, an important means of securing justice will be foreclosed and corporations will be relieved of the responsibility to consider human rights in the way they conduct operations in states with weak or corrupt legal systems.

The question before the Supreme Court now is whether violations of the law of nations that occur outside the United States should be adjudicated in U.S. courts under the ATS. Critics of the ATS as currently interpreted (including the Justice Department, which filed a surprising amicus brief in June--one not signed by State Department lawyers) argue that cases involving human rights violations abroad may threaten the sovereignty of a foreign state in some circumstances. Supporters of the status quo argue that, if the scope of the ATS is restricted, "an important avenue for redress will be closed to foreign victims of human-rights abuses--and America's beacon as a leader in advancing such rights will shine less brightly," as the Christian Science Monitor puts it today.

Meanwhile, Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, writing in USA Today, states that "if the Supreme Court sides  with Shell, it would represent a terrible step backward for human rights." Arguments and analyses abound on the Internet. Kali Borkoski's excellent survey of the various stakeholders' views is available at SCOTUSblog. Click the "Alien Tort Statute" tag below for more of my own commentary on the law--and on the earlier arguments in Kiobel.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Those Clever Quadrotors

Back in March, I linked to a video of quadrotors--small robotic flying machines programmed to act autonomously--playing the James Bond theme. I'm not sure this is better, but it's still pretty impressive.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Not for Attribution

The story about Iran's Fars News Agency plagiarizing a story from The Onion is too good not to share. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Equatorial Guinea v. France

Equatorial Guinea has filed an application with the International Court of Justice seeking an order that would compel France to end its corruption investigation against the country's president and vice president. France, in an investigation known popularly as biens mal acquis or ill-gotten gains, has seized a Paris estate valued at approximately 150 million euros along with several million euros worth of art, wine, and automobiles owned by Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, Equatorial Guinea's second vice president and son of long-time president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. A similar forfeiture case involving property in the United States was filed last year by federal prosecutors and is now being litigated.

A press release issued by the ICJ today states,
Equatorial Guinea asserts that those procedural actions violate the principles of equality between States, non-intervention, sovereignty and respect for immunity from criminal jurisdiction. The Republic of Equatorial Guinea therefore asks the Court "to put an end to these breaches of international law" by ordering France, inter alia, to "bring a halt to [the] criminal proceedings" and to "take all measures necessary to nullify the effects of the arrest warrant issued against the Second Vice-President of Equatorial Guinea and of its circulation”. In its "request for provisional measures", Equatorial Guinea requests the Court, in particular, to "order  . . . the return . . . of the property and premises . . . belonging to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea" and seized by the French judges in the context of the investigation.
Equatorial Guinea has argued that the estate that was seized in Paris, along with its contents, is a diplomatic residence--and thus protected by diplomatic immunity--as a result of the fact that its principal resident Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue is, in addition to his other responsibilities, the Equatoguinean representative to UNESCO, which is headquartered in Paris. French authorities have taken the position that Obiang's diplomatic responsibilities were created in an effort to extend diplomatic immunity after the corruption investigation was well under way.

Before the ICJ can proceed with a case based on Equatorial Guinea's application, France must consent to the jurisdiction of the Court.

There has been no comment from the French government regarding Equatorial Guinea's application.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Emancipation Proclamation and the Lieber Code

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation--the instrument by which Abraham Lincoln transformed the Civil War from a struggle against Southern secession into a moral crusade to rid the nation of the blight of slavery. In a commentary published on the New York Times Opinionator blog, John Fabian Witt, a professor at Yale Law School and author of Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History, draws an interesting connection between the Proclamation and the formulation of the Lieber Code.

The Lieber Code, more formally known as Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field, is the forerunner of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which governs the conduct of U.S. military personnel while also codifying the law of armed conflict for them. In a broader sense, the Lieber Code is the forerunner of the international law of armed conflict--or international humanitarian law--as a whole. In the late nineteenth century, a number of European countries modeled their own codes of military conduct after the Lieber Code, thus contributing to the convergence of views on international humanitarian law that was manifested in the 1907 Hague Conventions and the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

Witt notes that the emancipation of slaves was contrary to the laws of war as they were understood at the time. The Confederacy's president, Jefferson Davis, reacted strongly against the Emancipation Proclamation and threatened to respond by enslaving or executing any captured black Union troops while also subjecting their white commanding officers to punishment as war criminals. The Union threatened retaliation for any such responses and the Civil War seemed to be on the verge of taking a decidedly uncivil turn.

In this context, a new code of conduct for the Union armies was created by Columbia University law professor Francis Lieber. Its provisions were drawn largely from customary international law, but it defended the emancipation of slaves by the Union as a humanitarian measure and promised a vigorous defense of the rights of black soldiers. Article 58 states, "The law of nations knows of no distinction of color, and if an enemy of the United States should enslave and sell any captured persons of their army, it would be a case for the severest retaliation, if not redressed upon complaint."

The Union hardly had a spotless record in its conduct of war. General William Tecumseh Sherman, in fact, regarded his own cruel tactics as an essential part of bringing the war to a successful conclusion. In his September 1864 letter to the city of Atlanta, he wrote, "You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out." In the end, however, the Lieber Code probably helped to deter some of the inhumane conduct that might have occurred in its absence. And, without a doubt, it contributed to the international effort to codify the law of armed conflict.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Joshua Casteel (1979 - 2012)

I learned this week of the death, back on August 25, of Joshua Casteel. Chances are that you've never heard of Joshua Casteel, but he left his mark on the world in a way that deserves to be pondered, discussed, and perhaps even emulated. If nothing else, the trajectory of his life and the "crystallization of conscience" that he experienced merit thoughtful consideration, especially in an age when it seems that, as Yeats put it, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

Casteel grew up in an evangelical Christian home in Iowa, steeped in patriotism and conservative views. At 17, he joined the Army Reserves, then went to the University of Iowa on an ROTC scholarship. On entering active duty, he was assigned to language school where he studied Arabic. In 2004, just weeks after the torture scandal became public knowledge, Casteel was assigned to Abu Ghraib as part of the Army's 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion. He was a translator and an interrogator in one of the world's most notorious prisons.

The "crystallization of conscience"--the moment when Casteel decided to apply for conscientious objector status--came in response to the comments of a Muslim prisoner (and self-proclaimed jihadist) he was interrogating:  "[He said] I wasn’t fulfilling the call to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemies. When posed with that kind of challenge, I had nothing I could say to him. I absolutely agreed with him. My position as a U.S. Army interrogator contradicted my calling simply as a Christian."

Casteel was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector in May 2005. He joined Iraq Veterans Against the War, published a book entitled Letters from Abu Ghraib, earned an MFA in writing at the University of Iowa, and wrote two plays about his experiences in Iraq. In 2010, be began studies at the University of Chicago's Divinity School. Soon after, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, which claimed his life on August 25, 2012.

Soldiers of Conscience, a documentary produced in 2007 and broadcast on PBS the following year, featured Casteel's story. An excerpt appears in the clip below.