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.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

A Milestone for Transparency

For over a decade, a global campaign to promote government accountability in resource-rich states--some of which are dictatorships and, more to the point, kleptocracies (like Equatorial Guinea)--has been underway. The name of the campaign, as well as its premise, is simple: Publish What You Pay (PWYP). The idea is that if oil and mining companies reveal what they pay to governments for the right to extract natural resources, the veil of secrecy that often facilitates corruption will be lifted. The people of the state--and the governments of other states--will be in a better position to compare government expenditures on education, health, and other social goods to the income the government derives from the sale of natural resources that are also national resources.

As I have often noted here, Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea has spent thirty-three years in power amassing a fortune for himself and his family while the country as a whole remains mired in poverty as bad as any in Africa. Obiang's son--less discreet in his spending than his father, whom he is being groomed to succeed--is under investigation in the United States, France, and Spain for corruption. In the U.S., a $30 million mansion in Malibu, a $38 million jet, and a $2 million collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia are at stake in a Justice Department lawsuit. In France, a $180 million estate has been seized by authorities. The staggering dimensions of Equatorial Guinea's corruption are, in large measure, a product of its petroleum wealth, which, in the 1990s, launched the Obiang family into the ranks of the super-rich (and super-corrupt). The American oil companies that have operated in Equatorial Guinea for the past twenty years have not been required to reveal what they pay in royalties to the Obiang family (also known as the Equatoguinean government)--until now.

Two weeks ago, on August 22, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) issued rules required by the Cardin-Lugar Amendment to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. The Amendment, cosponsored by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), is also called the Extractive Industries Disclosure Provision. (For the text of the amendment as enacted, go here.) Under the SEC's new rules (available here), all companies involved in resource extraction (oil production and mining) that are required to file reports with the SEC--all publicly traded companies involved in extractive industries, in other words--must "include in an annual report information relating to any payment made by the issuer [the company], a subsidiary of the issuer, or an entity under the control of the issuer, to a foreign government or the Federal Government for the purpose of the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals." The data provided must be broken down by payee, project, and type of payment and must be presented in a format that facilitates automated search functions.

Intense lobbying by oil companies delayed the rules for sixteen months beyond the deadline mandated by Congress. The companies claimed that disclosure was not permitted in some of the countries where they operate and that the cost of data collection and reporting would be prohibitive. These arguments were undercut by the fact that some companies--including Newmont Mining, an American company, and Norway's Statoil--voluntarily disclose the information being required by the SEC rules with no apparent effect on either operations or profits. (James North, writing in The Nation, has more on industry opposition to the rules.)

Rather than putting American corporations subject to the reporting requirements at a competitive disadvantage, there are indications that the SEC's PWYP rules will establish an international standard that will be adopted by other resource-importing countries. In May 2011, the G8 Summit in Deauville, France expressed support for mandatory reporting rules for extractive industries. In October 2011, the European Commission proposed legislation for the European Union similar to the Cardin-Lugar Amendment. There are proposals for similar rules in Canada and Australia. In this respect, American leadership in the promotion of transparency in the resource sector may mirror the experience with the adoption of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, which led to a global movement to ban the payment of bribes. In any event, the decision to put the weight of the United States government behind the international effort to promote transparency in extractive industries is a welcome addition to the global campaign against corruption.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Militarization of the Ivory Trade

The world is currently experiencing "what is likely to be the greatest percentage loss of elephants in history," according to Richard G. Ruggiero of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A very compelling story in today's New York Times describes the problem and its causes, which include the sale of ivory to finance the operations of both rebel forces, among them the Lord's Resistance Army led by fugitive war crimes suspect Joseph Kony, and state-based military forces, such as the Ugandan army that has been pursuing Kony with American support. Underlying the calculus that turns elephant poaching into weapons is a thriving black market driven by demand in China where ivory now sells for as much as $1000 per pound. Like oil in Nigeria, coltan in Angola, and diamonds in Sierra Leone a few years ago, ivory is now fueling conflict, enriching transnational criminal organizations, and testing the limits of international cooperation.

The dimensions of the problem are visible in the fact that 38.8 tons of ivory--representing over 4,000 dead elephants--were seized by customs officials worldwide last year. In Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, park rangers use military-style tactics  while wielding machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to battle poachers. They are commonly outnumbered and outgunned.

Read the story. It provides an outstanding case study of the way that global demand for scarce natural resources can drive armed conflict.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

"In a Consistent World"

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, the 1986 Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, and the 2005 Gandhi Peace Prize (among many others), suggested yesterday that, "in a consistent world," George W. Bush and Tony Blair should be facing prosecution by the International Criminal Court for their roles in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Tutu's comments, published as an opinion piece in The Observer in which he explained his reasons for backing out of a conference in which Blair was scheduled to speak, were reported by the Associated Press as a call for the prosecution of Bush and Blair.

Here are Tutu's actual words, which seem to fall somewhat short of actually calling for prosecution but are quite damning nonetheless:
The cost of the decision to rid Iraq of its by-all-accounts despotic and murderous leader has been staggering, beginning in Iraq itself. Last year, an average of 6.5 people died there each day in suicide attacks and vehicle bombs, according to the Iraqi Body Count project. More than 110,000 Iraqis have died in the conflict since 2003 and millions have been displaced. By the end of last year, nearly 4,500 American soldiers had been killed and more than 32,000 wounded.

On these grounds alone, in a consistent world, those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in the Hague.
While it is highly unlikely that Bush or Blair will ever face prosecution for their roles in the invasion of Iraq, both men left office with a tarnished image in large part due to the Iraq War. Bush, in fact, had a 22 percent approval rating at the end of his second term (the lowest approval rating for a departing president in the history of Gallup's approval poll) and is the only living ex-president with an approval rating below 50 percent. He was given no role--and was scarcely mentioned--during the recently concluded Republican National Convention. For his part, Blair also left office (in 2007) with an approval rating under 30 percent.