Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Karadžić and Mladić

Today in a courtroom of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, two of the chief architects of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia during the 1990s came face to face. On trial for genocide and other crimes related to his role as the political leader of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadžić called upon Ratko Mladić, the Bosnian Serb military leader during the ethnic cleansing, to testify on his behalf. Mladić, whose trial for similar crimes is ongoing, denounced the court as "satanic" and refused to answer the substantive questions Karadžić presented, citing his health and his desire not to incriminate himself.

International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
Both Karadžić and Mladić are charged with genocide in connection with the fall of Srebrenica in 1995. Over 7500 Bosnian men were executed when the army of the Republika Srpska, commanded by Mladić, overran a poorly defended United Nations "safe area" that had been created in an effort to protect Bosnians fleeing fighting in surrounding communities.

Meanwhile, trials at the ICTY continue to raise questions regarding their length and cost. To address these questions, Stuart Ford offers a way to judge the complexity of cases in order to compare more accurately the efficiency of different courts. By the measures he employs, the ICTY fares well in comparison to courts handling similarly complex criminal cases.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Books for Understanding

How do you decide what to read when you need insight into Syria, Egypt, North Korea, climate change, refugee issues, or the United Nations? The online options alone seem endless, but often the best insights and most detailed information are only to be found between the covers of a book. That's where Books for Understanding, a website maintained by the American Association of University Presses (AAUP), comes in.

Since shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the AAUP has been producing bibliographies--highlighting academic book titles--on issues in the news. The books listed are not generally new releases that speak directly to the latest developments in a news story but backlisted titles that offer background information--precisely what we often need to form our own judgments.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Virtual Sunrise Revisited

Strange things happen in China. All the time. This is what the China hand whose views I respect the most (and whom I also happen to live with) tells me all the time. So, I didn't find it too hard to believe that residents of Beijing were getting their fill of sunrise each morning--in spite of the perpetual smog--via large video screens. The photo accompanying the story in the Daily Mail seemed to confirm the tale.

I should have paid more attention to the logo in the lower right corner of the video screen, a logo that seemed to indicate that the video was, in fact, an advertisement for tourism in Shandong Province. Mea culpa.

On the other hand, U.S. State Department air quality monitoring in Beijing currently indicates that the air quality in Beijing has been in the "Hazardous" range ("Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.") for the past twenty-four hours. Of course, that's not news. Virtual sunrises would be news.

Perhaps the Shandong Province tourism video would be most effective in luring Beijing-ren to the coast if it showed nothing but sunrises.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Welcome to Wyoming

Internet service for many in China ground to a halt for eight hours yesterday as a result of what may have been a mistake made by Chinese censors. Many of China's half a billion Internet users were unable to get to .com, .org, or .net addresses because Chinese Internet traffic was being routed to servers operated by a shadowy company based in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A cyberattack was initially suspected, but American experts, noting that the Wyoming servers are owned by a company that helps Internet users cover their tracks, surmised that Chinese authorities trying to block access to the servers may have inadvertently directed traffic to them instead.

Revising the Numbers

The French historian Antoine Prost has published an article (titled "The Dead") in the final volume of The Complete Cambridge History of World War I suggesting that the number of soldiers who died in the war has been underestimated by about a million. His examination of a century's worth of casualty figures produced by states that fought in the war led Prost to conclude that most undercounted their war dead. France, for example, failed to count about 70,000 veterans who died of war-related injuries or illnesses after leaving military service. Russia failed to count 200,000 soldiers who died in German prisoner-of-war camps. Germany ended formal counts of its war dead in July 1918, four months prior to the war's end. Omissions like these served the interests of most states with a desire to minimize the human costs of a war that seemed more and more pointless the longer it dragged on.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium
The United States, which entered the war only in 1917, offers a curious exception to the undercounting that occurred on almost all sides. According to Prost, American casualty figures were inflated through the inclusion of 35,000 soldiers who died of Spanish influenza before they had even started their journey to Europe's battlefields. Prost states that "the Americans were keen to maximise their losses in order to establish themselves as a major military power."

German cemetery at Langemarck, Belgium
In all, there were approximately ten million military casualties during World War I.

Prost is professor emeritus at Panthéon-Sorbonne University.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Human Rights at Home

Human Rights Watch has just released World Report 2014, its annual report on the state of human rights in the world. While the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria features prominently in the report, there are a number of issues in the United States that raise concerns, including some that have marred the American human rights record for years.

According to the report, the United States has "by far the highest rate of imprisonment" in the world with 2.2 million people behind bars in adult prisons and jails. That number reflects harsh sentencing guidelines at both state and federal levels, including the use of mandatory life sentences for some crimes and the use in many jurisdictions of "three strikes" laws. The bottom line is a large--and aging--prison population that still reflects racial injustices owing in large part to wide differences in the rates of drug arrests and prosecutions among racial groups. The report notes that "African Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though their rates of marijuana use are roughly equivalent."

The criminal justice system continues to be stacked against the poor, according to Human Rights Watch. Many criminal defendants in the United States are unable to raise bail and thus are forced to remain in jail pending trial. Court fees have been raised in many states as part of attempts to make up for budget deficits; the burden of these fees often falls most heavily on poor defendants. The report even notes an increase in laws that criminalize certain aspects of poverty. For example, being behind on the rent can now lead to criminal prosecution in Arkansas.

The report states that about 400,000 non-citizens per year are being held in immigration detention centers. Hundreds are kept at various times in solitary confinement, a practice that often violates international human rights standards. And, in yet another sign of the need for immigration reform in the United States, illegal reentry has become the most commonly prosecuted of all federal crimes.

Guantanamo continues to generate questions about the United States' commitment to international human rights. World Report 2014 states, "The indefinite detention without charge or trial of detainees at Guantanamo Bay entered its twelfth year, with 162 detainees remaining at the facility. Eighty-two of them have been cleared for transfer to home or third countries by an inter-agency task force since 2009."

Regarding Edward Snowden, the report notes that "US law does not provide adequate legal protections or defenses for whistleblowers who disclose national security or intelligence information to the public, even on matters of pressing public importance." The NSA surveillance sweeps revealed by Snowden's leaks are criticized in the report.

Human Rights Watch provides a candid view of the state of human rights observance in the world, one that is especially valuable because of its impartiality. Americans are not accustomed to seeing their country's human rights record presented objectively, without the distortions imposed by a belief in American Exceptionalism. For this reason, World Report 2014 is something that all Americans should read--perhaps with contrition and a commitment to changing those aspects of our collective life that fall short of our ideals. As the former Czech playwright and president Vaclav Havel said before a joint session of Congress in 1990, "As long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always be no more than an ideal; one may approach it as one would a horizon, in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. In this sense you [Americans] are also merely approaching democracy."

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Prophet Motive

What drives Joseph Kony to kidnap children and enslave them, to slaughter innocent people, and to spread fear across some of the most impoverished states in Africa? Peter Eichstaedt takes a crack at that question in a brief article--"Kony 20Never"--on the Foreign Affairs website.

Eichstaedt, who never found Kony in spite of pursuing him for years (like Ugandan and American military forces), did speak to some of Kony's former lieutenants. What emerges from those conversations is a portrait of a man who is convinced that he speaks for God and is offended when his own people, the Acholi, reject him (perhaps because his soldiers have burned their villages and stolen their children). Eichstaedt also says that Kony is a survivor (and survivalist) who fears being tried by the International Criminal Court (which indicted him in 2005) because he believes it would lead to his execution--in spite of the fact that the ICC is not empowered to impose the death penalty.

Those looking for a rational actor may need to check in on some other rebel leader.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Virtual Sunrise

Now that smog in Beijing is once again making it impossible to see the sun, residents are turning to video screens to see the sunrise as it appears along the coast in the somewhat less-polluted Shandong province. Seriously.

The Economic Costs of Climate Change

A draft report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the failure of states to limit carbon emissions is producing a situation in which efforts to keep the planet livable are likely to require mitigation efforts that will be enormously expensive. The choice the report presents is between accepting significant economic costs now to move away from fossil fuels or face staggering economic costs in the future to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store them underground. One point that argues strongly for changing energy policies now is this:  At present, the world is spending far more to subsidize fossil fuel use than to develop alternative energy sources.

For more, see the stories in the New York Times and the Guardian.