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

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, 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 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

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.