Thursday, May 31, 2012


On Monday, the Russian computer security firm Kaspersky Lab identified what it said "might be the most sophisticated cyber weapon yet unleashed," a malware product dubbed "Flame."  The malware is known to steal data of all types, including voice and video communications, from infected computers.  It has been found on hundreds of computers in the Middle East with Iran leading the target list.

Kapersky's researchers believe Flame was developed by the same organization that created the Duqu and Stuxnet malware, which also attacked computers in Iran.  (Stuxnet is reported to have caused roughly one-fifth of the centrifuges then being used in Iran's nuclear enrichment program to malfunction.)  Its massive size (20 megabytes) has made it difficult for computer security experts to decipher all of its capabilities.

Symantec researcher Vikram Thakur said, "This is the third such virus we’ve seen in the past three years.  It’s larger than all of them. The question we should be asking now is:  How many more such campaigns are going on that we don’t know about?"

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Taylor's Sentence

The Special Court for Sierra Leone has imposed a sentence of fifty years in prison for former Liberian president Charles Taylor.  Judge Richard Lussick, who delivered the sentence, said the crimes Taylor had committed were of the "utmost gravity in terms of scale and brutality."

For more on the sentence--and the trial as a whole--see the Open Society Justice Initiative's special website here.

The BBC or the Onion News Network?

In a segment last week on "News at One" about Amnesty International's criticism of the UN Security Council over its failure to take decisive action in the face of atrocities in Syria, the BBC displayed two logos:  the familiar candle encircled by barbed wire of Amnesty International and the bird atop a globe with a banner reading "UNSC" that represents the United Nations Space Command.  If you didn't know there was a United Nations Space Command, you probably haven't played Halo, a science fiction video game series owned by Microsoft.  There is no logo for the UN Security Council, which would normally be represented by the UN logo, a blue globe flanked by laurel branches.

Here's the offending segment:

For more, go here.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Presidential Power

A number of observers have lamented the extraordinary power over national security matters vested in the president of the United States since the rise of the national security state following World War II.  Garry Wills, in Bomb Power:  The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, puts too much emphasis on the nuclear dimension but nonetheless effectively traces many of the steps that have produced  the problem.  Andrew Bacevich, in Washington Rules:  America's Path to Permanent War, places the issue in the context of a consensus regarding the indispensability of American military might for world order.  The late Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in War and the American Presidency, critiqued the way the Bush administration expanded presidential power while noting that the tendency was not unique to George W. Bush.  There are many other scholars who ask why power, once taken up by an American president to meet the immediate demands of a national security crisis, cannot be relinquished in the manner of Cincinnatus in ancient Rome.

Those who want to contemplate the problem as it relates to the Obama administration would do well to read the long article in today's New York Times about the ongoing hunt for suspected terrorists.

Free to Travel . . . and Return

Nobel laureate and opposition political leader Aung San Suu Kyi left Myanmar yesterday for the first time since 1988.  She arrived in Bangkok intending to visit Burmese refugees in Thailand but apparently neglected to inform Thai officials of her plans.

Before her departure from Yangon, Suu Kyi met with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh to discuss Myanmar's ongoing political transition.  Singh delivered an invitation for Suu Kyi to deliver the next Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture.  The Times of India noted that the meeting represented a "course correction" for India's government, which had previously opted to deal with the military regime in Myanmar that had repeatedly confined Suu Kyi to house arrest while suppressing the country's pro-democracy movement.

Suu Kyi plans to travel to the U.K., Norway, Switzerland, and Ireland next month.  She will  address Parliament in the U.K., receive her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in Norway, address the International Labor Organization in Switzerland, and meet with Bono in Ireland.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Reporting on Rights

On Wednesday, Amnesty International released Amnesty International Report 2012:  The State of the World's Human Rights.  Yesterday, the State Department released its 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.  Both are valuable reports, but there are a few differences worth noting.

First, the State Department's report is more comprehensive, both with respect to the number of countries and the range of issues covered.  (Country Reports on Human Rights Practices covers "almost 200 countries" while Amnesty's State of the World's Human Rights covers 155.)  Topically, the State Department reviews state practices under seven broad categories:  (1) respect for the integrity of the person, (2) respect for civil liberties, (3) respect for political rights, (4) official corruption and government transparency, (5) government attitude regarding international and nongovernmental investigation of alleged violations of human rights, (6) discrimination, societal abuses, and trafficking in persons, and (7) workers' rights.  Amnesty's report focuses more on the civil and political rights that are central to its mission (including use of the death penalty), but individual country reports are not as formulaic as those in the State Department report.

There is one significant difference in the two reports that Americans should note.  The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices contains no assessment of the human rights record of the United States; Amnesty's report does.  It is instructive reading for those with illusions of righteousness.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

LOST Returns

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee began hearings on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (sometimes called the Law of the Sea Treaty, or LOST) yesterday with testimony from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.  Secretary Clinton noted in her testimony that Republican and Democratic presidents, the military establishment, and American business interests have all supported ratification.  Moderate Republicans in the Senate favor ratification, but 26 conservative Republicans, led by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, have signed a letter vowing to oppose the treaty if it comes to the floor for a vote.  Chair of the SFRC, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has indicated that the treaty will not be brought up for a vote before the November elections.

For more, see the Boston Globe coverage here, the New York Times story here, Secretary Clinton's statement here, and Secretary Panetta's statement here.

Preparing for the Transition

Reuters on Tuesday reported that Teodoro Nguema Obiang--Teodorín--has been appointed by his father to be "First Vice President in charge of National Defense and State Security."  The move is the clearest indication yet that the elder Obiang, who turns 70 on June 5, has chosen his oldest son to be his successor in spite of the legal problems he faces in France and the United States.

Teodorín's appointment was one of five made by presidential decree on Monday.  A government news release with information about each of the appointees is available here.

Friday, May 18, 2012


Today's Sovereign Monarchs lunch at Windsor Castle seems the very definition of "anachronism."

If only all in the group were figureheads, as is their host, Queen Elizabeth II.

Human Rights in Africa: Will South Africa Lead?

Last week, a South African court ruled that South Africa, under its International Criminal Court Act, has a legal obligation to investigate crimes against humanity and that, consequently, it must investigate officials from neighboring Zimbabwe who are suspected of having tortured opposition figures in 2007.  A group of Zimbabweans who fled to South Africa in the wake of election-related violence in 2007-2008 were among those who brought the case.

Peter Godwin, president of the PEN American Center, wrote in the New York Times earlier this week that the ruling "could cement South Africa's commitment to protecting human rights and broaden the application of universal jurisdiction."  He also notes, however, that South African authorities are reportedly planning to appeal the ruling in an effort to side-step the diplomatic problems that would accompany police investigations of Zimbabwean officials who travel to South Africa frequently for both official and personal reasons.

The court's ruling, as it ought to be, is based on principles of justice and the rule of law.  President Zuma's concern with the ruling, on the other hand, is for its possible political impact.  Zuma is currently acting as a mediator between political factions in Zimbabwe to try to ensure that the next national election will be free and fair.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

False Start in the Mladić Case

The trial of Ratko Mladić, which began yesterday in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, was suspended today due to errors in the prosecution's handling of evidence.  Both sides have conceded that the errors were clerical in nature, but the defense must be given time to review documents that have not previously been made available.  The judge in the case, Alphons Orie, has not indicated when the trial will resume.  Defense attorneys are asking for a delay of six months.

Mladić was the commander of Bosnian Serb (Republika Srpska) forces in the Bosnian War of 1992-1995.  He is accused of ordering two of the worst atrocities of that conflict, the 44-month-long Siege of Sarajevo, in which over 10,000 residents of the city were killed by random shelling from the surrounding hills, and the Srebrenica Massacre, the largest mass murder in Europe since the end of World War II.  He was indicted by the ICTY on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in 1995, but remained at large in Serbia until his capture on May 26, 2011.

In the first day and a half of the trial, before the suspension, prosecutors presented an overview of the atrocities committed in the war, previewing what will be their efforts in the trial to establish Mladić's responsibility as the commander of Bosnian Serb forces for those crimes listed in the indictment.  Videos of Mladić, including one from Srebrenica, were shown to supplement radio intercepts and narrative descriptions of evidence linking Mladić to the crimes.  In one clip he speaks directly to the camera saying, "We give this town to the Serb people as a gift.  Finally, after the rebellion against the Dahis, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks in this region."  (The "rebellion against the Dahis" refers to the Serbs' 1804 revolt against Ottoman rule.)

Although Mladić is 70 and frail, the critical role he played in the Bosnian War has made his prosecution especially important to those seeking justice for what happened in that conflict.  Prosecutors and victims alike must hope that the trial of Mladić does not play out like that of Slobodan Milošević, who died in prison without a verdict after having been on trial for five years.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Two-Liter Light Bulb

I had not heard of this low-cost, low-tech solution to a problem affecting the roughly 1.5 billion people in the world living without electricity until Sandy showed me her upcoming presentation for the class she's taking on innovation.  (This video is part of that presentation.)

For more on this idea (and its application in Africa), see this report from VOA News.

(And, yes, some homes where these lights have been installed do have electricity, but it's not free, unlike these light bulbs.)

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Indigenous Peoples: An Addendum

When I posted yesterday about the UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples' rights and his assessment of the state of Native Americans, I hadn't seen Nicholas Kristof's column on the Oglala Sioux lawsuit against Anheuser Busch.  Kristof writes of the Sioux reservation, "Pine Ridge encompasses one of the poorest counties in the entire United States—Shannon County, S.D.—and life expectancy is about the same as in Afghanistan. As many as two-thirds of adults there may be alcoholics, and one-quarter of children are born suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders." 

Alcohol is banned on the Pine Ridge reservation, where tribal sovereignty makes such a ban possible, but Whiteclay, Nebraska, a town of ten people just outside the reservation, has become a major distribution point for alcoholic beverages that are carried onto the reservation in violation of the ban.  Attorneys for Anheuser Busch and others have argued that the focus should be on individual responsibility, but this overlooks the fact that alcoholism is a disease and that tribal leaders on the Pine Ridge reservation are trying to deal with a public health disaster.

For more on the situation, see this recent article in the Washington Post.

Niebuhr--with Hair

I have to admit, Reinhold Bieber made me laugh.

(Thanks, Lora Walsh.)

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Americans generally view human rights abuses as problems that happen elsewhere.  The drama surrounding Chen Guangcheng's escape from house arrest and flight to the American Embassy in Beijing this past week--complete with front-page coverage in American newspapers--underscores the standard narrative that, when it comes to human rights, the United States is a beacon of hope in a dark world.  As a New York Times editorial put it yesterday, "We have little doubt of the Americans' commitment to Mr. Chen's safety and his cause."  And as if that weren't enough, the Times reminded its readers that "this episode is first and foremost an embarrassment for China and a glaring reminder of its abysmal mistreatment of its own citizens."

The Times' editorial board probably got it right about Chen and the American commitment to the cause of human rights in China, even if that commitment does sometimes give way before other considerations in the Sino-American relationship.  From what I can tell, however, the New York Times has not reported anywhere in its pages the conclusions of James Anaya regarding the failures of the United States to respect the rights articulated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Anaya is the special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.  His mandate, renewed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2007, is primarily to "gather information on alleged violations of the rights of indigenous peoples" and forward recommendations to the UN on means of remedying those violations.  At the conclusion of a twelve-day fact-finding trip in the United States, Anaya stated that "it is evident that more robust measures are needed to address the serious issues affecting Native American, Alaska Native and Hawaiian peoples in the United States, issues that are rooted in a dark and complex history whose legacies are not easy to overcome."

Although his formal recommendations have not yet been drafted, Anaya suggested that lands taken from Native Americans should, in some cases, be restored.  The Black Hills of South Dakota, the ancestral home of the Oglala Sioux, were specifically mentioned.  "I'm talking," he said, "about restoring to indigenous peoples what obviously they're entitled to and they have a legitimate claim to in a way that is not divisive but restorative."

Official policies toward Native Americans were shameful in the nineteenth century (as when the U.S. Congress in 1877 passed a law unilaterally reversing concessions made to the Oglala Sioux in an 1868 treaty), but they haven't been much better in the twenty-first century.  Many Native American communities suffer from poverty, unemployment, suicide, and alcoholism rates that far outpace national averages.  The reasons are not hard to see.  From the perspective of those outside the United States, the fundamental problem is a long history of human rights abuse.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

World Press Freedom Day

In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly designated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day to underscore the importance of a free press as a foundation for freedom of expression and other human rights.  The date marks the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, the work of the participants in the UN/UNESCO Seminar on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press in 1991.  As the Declaration proclaimed, "the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development."

 On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a special report on the "10 Most Censored Countries," the first such report since 2006.  Topping the list are Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria.  Eritrea was cited for its extensive and oppressive government-imposed controls on all media in the country.  North Korea, which was ranked first in 2006, also imposes strong centralized control over all news coverage, but the CPJ notes that the Associated Press has been permitted to open a bureau in Pyongyang this year.  Syria jumped from ninth to third on the list due to its efforts to impose a news blackout on the country as the government of Bashir al-Assad attempts to suppress widespread opposition to his rule.

Here's the complete list:
  1. Eritrea
  2. North Korea
  3. Syria
  4. Iran
  5. Equatorial Guinea
  6. Uzbekistan
  7. Burma
  8. Saudi Arabia
  9. Cuba
  10. Belarus
The CPJ report says this about the ten countries on the list:
The 10 most restricted countries employ a wide range of censorship techniques, from the sophisticated blocking of websites and satellite broadcasts by Iran to the oppressive regulatory systems of Saudi Arabia and Belarus; from the dominance of state media in North Korea and Cuba to the crude tactics of imprisonment and violence in Eritrea, Uzbekistan, and Syria.

One trait they have in common is some form of authoritarian rule. Their leaders are in power by dint of monarchy, family dynasty, coup d'état, rigged election, or some combination thereof. . . .
Lagging economic development is another notable trend among heavily censored nations. Of the 10 most censored countries, all but two have per capita income around half, or well below half, of global per capita income, according to World Bank figures for 2010, the most recent available. The two exceptions are Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea, where oil revenues lead to much higher per capita income than the global level.  But both of those countries are beset by vast economic inequities between leaders and citizens.
UPDATE:  Amnesty International offers a way to take action on behalf of some of the many journalists who have been imprisoned for independent reporting in states with heavy press censorship.  Go here and take a few minutes to help the cause of press freedom.

Split or Steal

From a British game show called Golden Balls, here's a great illustration of the prisoners' dilemma:

(Via NPR's Planet Money.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Private Empire

Private Empire:  ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll is being released today.  Coll is the author of Ghost Wars:  The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, which won a Pulitzer Prize.  Private Empire promises a look inside what may be the most powerful corporation on the planet.

Coll will be discussing the book in Los Angeles at the Petersen Automotive Museum (6060 Wilshire Boulevard) at 7:30 p.m. on May 10, thanks to Zócalo.  (The talk is free, but reservations are requested.)

For a sense of what to expect (from the book and the talk), here's part of the Zócalo description:
Put aside that the annual revenues of ExxonMobil exceed the GDP of Norway.  It only overstates the power of Norway.  In fact, in many oil-rich nations, ExxonMobil exercises more sway over day-to-day policy and economics than the United States government.  It also spends more on lobbying in Washington than almost any other company.  In short, ExxonMobil has a huge influence on the United States and the world.  And yet we know almost nothing about it.  What goes on inside the black box?
Dwight Garner reviewed Private Empire in the New York Times last Thursday.