Friday, August 24, 2012

Health Security and Bad Governance

Sometimes it helps to read the end of a news story first.

An article by Adam Nossiter published yesterday in the New York Times ("Cholera Epidemic Envelops Coastal Slums in West Africa") concludes with an observation from Jane Bevan, a sanitation specialist working with UNICEF in West Africa: "We know governments have the money for other things. I'm afraid sanitation is never given the priority it deserves."

The article describes a serious cholera outbreak centered in the slums of Freetown, Sierra Leone and Conakry, Guinea. Sierra Leone reports over 11,600 cases of cholera since January with 1,000 new cases each month. According to Doctors Without Borders, 250 to 300 people have died in Freetown and Conakry since February.

Cholera is a highly contagious disease caused primarily by exposure to the feces of an infected person. It causes vomiting and diarrhea leading to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances that, if not treated with rehydration therapy, may be fatal.

Heavy rains, which have caused flooding in shanty towns where sanitary toilets are rare, must be listed among the immediate causes of this outbreak. The existence of the shanty towns in Freeport and Conakry, however, owes much to a decade of civil war in Sierra Leone that drove many people from the countryside to the cities and to over fifty years of dictatorship in Guinea with similar effects on the distribution of population there. But if Jane Bevan is correct, these causes of the cholera outbreak could have been averted--or at least significantly mitigated--if the governments of Sierra Leone and Guinea had allocated resources in a way that took the health of their people into account. And this is something that Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights seems to require. (See also Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.)

The primary responsibility of government--anywhere--is to ensure the security of its citizens. This responsibility is commonly, but improperly, framed in terms of national security with a focus on external military threats. But the most serious threats affecting people all over the world--that is, the threats most likely to kill or threaten the well-being of people, even in a state like Sierra Leone that has recently emerged from conflict--are not generally military threats. Disease, poverty, environmental degradation, climate change, political repression, and a host of other "soft" threats are what people must face more often than the "hard" threat of war. It is important, consequently, for governments (even in the developed world) to shift their focus from national security to human security.

"Quite Spectacular"

Today's New York Times provides an overview of the French government's property seizures in the biens mal acquis case involving Equatorial Guinea. The money quote comes from William Bourdon, founder of Sherpa, which was one of the organizations that brought the original complaint in the biens mal acquis case:  "We didn't wish to target the Obiang clan particularly, but their looting of public funds is quite spectacular."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Modern Warfare

C. J. Stivers, a New York Times reporter covering the civil war in Syria, last week posted photos on his blog of a member of the anti-government al-Tawhid Brigade checking text messages while handling the machine gun in the back of a truck racing toward Aleppo at 80 miles per hour. The subject could have been catching up with members of his social network, but under the circumstances his texts more likely contained tactical information--"watch for government forces near the airport," or something like that.  Regardless, the suggestion the photos make is that all fighting forces--military and paramilitary alike--are networked these days.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Walking Wounded

Nicholas Kristof's piece in tomorrow's New York Times about Maj. Ben Richards is a must-read.  It is a reminder that the human costs of war are truly incalculable.  It is also a reminder that when we fail to pay the economic costs of war--by inadequately funding the care of veterans--we dishonor brave men and women.

Monday, August 06, 2012

From Torture Victim to President

As a young woman, Dilma Rousseff joined a guerrilla group opposed to the military junta ruling Brazil.  She was captured and spent three years in various prisons where she was repeatedly tortured.  Now, four decades later, she is Brazil's president.

Rousseff's story, the subject of a front-page article in yesterday's New York Times, is remarkable, but it is not unique.  So many of Latin America's politically active citizens were victims of state repression from the 1960s to the 1980s that we should not be terribly surprised to find that some of the ones who survived have now made it to the tops of their political systems.  In addition to Rousseff, there is former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet who was tortured by Chile's military dictatorship in the mid-1970s.  (Her father, a general loyal to President Salvador Allende, suffered a fatal heart attack while being tortured by the regime of General Augusto Pinochet, which ousted Allende.)  José Mujica, president of Uruguay, was also tortured by his government.

Perhaps the best-known torture victim to experience such a dramatic change of fortune was South Africa's president from 1994 to 1999, Nelson Mandela.  In Eastern Europe following the fall of communism, several former dissidents who had been imprisoned (but not tortured) for their anti-communist activities, including Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Lech Wałęsa in Poland, assumed the leadership of their states.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Teddy Bears for Human Rights

Two Swedish ad agency employees--Thomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey--flew a small plane from Lithuania into Belarus last month and dropped 879 teddy bears with parachutes and human rights messages over various cities, including Minsk, the capital. This week, in response, Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994 and is called Europe's last dictator, fired the country's generals in charge of border security and air defense.

Belarus represses all forms of dissent and regularly jails those suspected of opposing the regime. Dissidents in the country have posed teddy bears on the streets of Minsk in silent protests against the Lukashenko regime. This, in fact, was the inspiration for the air drop undertaken by Frey and Mazetti.

Frey said, "Hopefully, we've made people more aware in the world and that there will be more people supporting Belarusian people."

For more on the air drop, see the Associated Press story here or the Los Angeles Times story here.  Mazetti and Frey's video appears below.

France Gets Serious

According to multiple sources, on July 19 French authorities seized the Paris home of Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue.  Obiang is the subject of a French arrest warrant issued in connection with a corruption investigation.

The home, a six-story mansion near the Arc de Triomphe, is estimated to be worth between 100 and 150 million euros.  Last year, eleven luxury automobiles were seized as part of the same investigation.

The arrest warrant and most recent property seizure came after Obiang failed to appear in response to a summons for questioning.  According to his attorney, "Mr. Obiang has judicial immunity as he is the vice-president of Equatorial Guinea and therefore could not attend the summons."  His appointment as vice president in his father's government came in May.

For more on the property seizure, see BBC News, Reuters, or AFP.