Monday, April 21, 2014

International Law for Beginners

This somehow seems appropriate to post during final exams.

(Thanks to Amy Eckert and Thomas Doyle for digging this up and bringing it to my attention. The whole trove of Bart Simpson's "prison writings" is available at Bart's Blackboard, from whence this picture has come.)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Poisoning the Rice

The environmental news out of China would be bad under any circumstances--as always--but combined with what we're learning about rice, it seems especially worrisome.

China's government has released a study conducted from 2006 to 2013 that found that 19.4 percent of all arable land in the country is contaminated. Cadmium, nickel, and arsenic--products of emissions from Chinese industry--are the chief pollutants in the soil with the heaviest concentrations located in the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta, and the northeast corner of China.

Meanwhile, studies conducted in the U.S. have found that rice absorbs arsenic and cadmium from the soil all too efficiently. In traditional rice-growing, where a paddy is flooded with water, rice draws arsenic from the soil. But if the amount of water used is reduced in an effort to limit the absorption of arsenic, rice will absorb cadmium instead. Both elements are toxic.

In addition to a massive environmental cleanup, what China needs is not organic rice but a genetically modified form of the grain that is able to avoid rice's normal thirst for cadmium and arsenic. Until that's available, though, it might be best to go with the noodles.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Rwanda: Visions of Hell

It was twenty years ago today that a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down in what would prove to be the opening act of one of the most hellish episodes in human history. Bypassing the civil authorities who should have been in charge in the aftermath of President Habyarimana's assassination, so-called Hutu Power advocates in the Rwandan military and government unleashed a premeditated program of genocide against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu of Rwanda. It turned the country into a macabre spectacle of death and destruction that lasted until the rebel forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front managed to fight their way into Kigali in July. Over 800,000 were people killed in the genocide, most of them with machetes, hatchets, and hoes.

Most of the journalists, embassy officials, aid workers, and others who could have documented the Rwandan genocide fled the country in the first few days after the killing began. But some images have been preserved in photographs and in video, especially from the period immediately after the genocide ended when some journalists began to return. The incredible scope of the killing meant that evidence--in the form of bodies left unburied--was everywhere. There were visions of Hell at every turn.

What is Hell like? In Christendom from an early era, the ceilings and walls of cathedrals and monasteries commonly featured artistic depictions of Hell. For the church, an institution focused on salvation, it was important to spell out what the alternative to salvation might be. Thus, Luca Signorelli frescoed one of the walls of the Capella della Madonna di San Brizio in the Cathedral of Orvieto with the scene below.

Luca Signorelli, The Damned Taken to Hell and Received by Demons (1500-1503)
The triptych below by Hans Memling, now in the National Museum in Gdansk, Poland, offers another vision of Hell.

Hans Memling, The Last Judgment (1466-73)
These and many other representations of the damned being consigned to Hell aim to convey the human condition in its most grotesque, terrifying, and helpless form. But the imaginations of some of the world's greatest artists pale in comparison with the hellish scenes captured on film in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

The links that follow will take you to some of the photographs available online. The images are, in most instances, graphic and disturbing.

French photographer Gilles Peress traveled to Rwanda soon after the genocide. A selection of his photos, including some from the interior of the cathedral in Nyarubuye, where perhaps 10,000 Tutsi were killed over the course of three days beginning on April 15, can be viewed here. A photo essay by Jens Meierhenrich showing the Nyarubuye Parish as it appears today is posted here as part of a website focused on genocide memorials in Rwanda.

Australia-born Jack Picone has a portfolio of photographs from Rwanda, many of them very disturbing, here

Michael S. Williamson photographed scenes at the Benaco refugee camp during the genocide. Some of his images were published recently on the Washington Post's WorldView blog here.

Finally, there is a large trove of videos, photos, survivor testimonies, and more on the website of the Genocide Archive Rwanda.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Master of Confessions

Two months ago, the appeals process ended in the case of Kaing Guek Eav, the only person to have been convicted thus far in Cambodia's special genocide tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Comrade Duch, to use the defendant's more familiar nom de guerre, was the top Khmer Rouge official at S-21, the infamous makeshift prison in Phnom Penh, where, between 1975 and early 1979, over 12,000 people were held and tortured before being transported to their executions in the killing fields outside of the city. The sentence handed down by the mixed Cambodian/international tribunal in 2010 had been 30 years in prison; the appellate division changed the term to life imprisonment for the 69-year-old Duch.

Four others who bear even more responsibility for the slaughter in Cambodia, people much older and more feeble than Duch, have been indicted by the ECCC, but it is entirely possible that Duch will be the only person the court ever convicts. Of the four remaining indictees, one died on March 14, 2013, and another had her case dismissed in November 2011 when she was deemed unfit for trial due to the advance of Alzheimer's disease. The two remaining named defendants, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, are 87 and 82, respectively. (There are two additional cases under investigation involving a total of five possible defendants, but their identities remain confidential at this point.)

During his trial, Duch confessed and apologized to his victims' families, many of whom crowded the visitors' galleries when he testified. At one point Duch said, "I sincerely regret to giving in to others' ideas and concepts and to accepting the criminal tasks I was asked to do. When I think about it, I am first angry at the steering committee of the party, who used all sorts of tricks to lead the country to a total and absolute tragedy. I am also angry at myself for agreeing on others' conceptions and for blindly respecting their criminal orders." Duch later angered those to whom he had apologized by asking the court to release him on the grounds that his case did not fall within the competence of the ECCC. He was not, his lawyer argued, a "senior leader" of the Khmer Rouge nor was he one of those "most responsible" for the crimes committed by the regime. The court rejected the claim.

French journalist Thierry Cruvellier has just published a book--The Master of Confessions--about the Duch trial. Farah Stockman, who met Cruvellier while both were covering the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, writes about Cruvellier, his book, and genocide trials here. She notes that Cruvellier is "the world's most dedicated genocide trial junkie," having covered trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the ECCC. Everywhere, she says, Cruvellier asked these questions: "Who is this expensive international justice for? The peasant farmers who give their testimonies, only to return home to poverty and meals less delicious than what the killers eat in UN jails? Was it for the 'international community,' which needed absolution for its failure to stop the killings? Or for killers to get one last shot at forgiveness?"

Stockman concludes that, perhaps, the trials are for history--to help us understand how and why genocide occurs so we can prevent it in the future. Maybe. But trials are a slow and cumbersome way to build knowledge. I would venture to say that the trials are simply for the sake of justice. Certainly not perfect justice: too many killers--in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere--escape prosecution for us to speak of justice except in the highly qualified way that humans must always speak of justice. But, justice nonetheless--as an ideal, perhaps. So that even if Kaing Guek Eav is the only person ever convicted of crimes connected to the Cambodian genocide, we can still affirm that what happened was heinously offensive and that the victims deserve  recognition.

In what kind of world would we not at least attempt to do justice?

Update: George Packer of the New Yorker has a thoughtful review of Cruvellier's book here.