Archive for August, 2011

Legitimising Intervention: The Responsibility to Protect in Libya and the DRC

Published on Think Africa Press

In 2004 Kofi Annan declared of the Rwandan genocide, “The international community is guilty of sins of omission”. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the NATO intervention in Libya, the international community certainly can’t be accused of committing a sin of omission this time around. Ever since the horrific events in Rwanda, the UN has been seeking a way to effectively protect civilians and prevent genocide. The recent action in Libya is the first UN-sanctioned intervention where the main goal of the mission, from the outset, has been the protection of civilians. It is true that the development of the mandate of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC, now MONUSCO) also placed great priority on the protection of civilians. However, in the case of Libya, the result was a mandate for military intervention against the government whereas in the DRC, UN forces have been expected to support the government, even though in both Libya and the DRC, government forces are guilty of atrocities against their own people. Thus two questions need to be answered. Firstly, how did the protection of civilians (PoC) become the main priority in UN peacekeeping? Secondly, why is the application of the principle so inconsistent when comparing Libya with the DRC? The answers to both these questions hinge on the rise of the norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Protection of Civilians as a central UN priority

Despite the harrowing experience of failure during the Rwandan genocide, the emergence of PoC as the overriding consideration in UN sanctioned interventions was far from inevitable…

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To be understood, as to understand

It’s 2006, and Andy Dufresne is in the dock for killing his wife. The class isn’t paying attention, and my substitute English teacher is falling ever more out of love with her profession. Having struggled to retain the class’s interest in Pinter, she shows us The Shawshank Redemption, in a bid to teach us something about institutionalisation. It’s the opening exchanges, and the DA is mounting his case against poor Andy, who really doesn’t look like much of a killer. It’s more exciting than anything in “The Caretaker” (who thought a class of 14-15 year olds were ever going to get to grips with that, seriously?) so, as paper planes fly through my classroom, I try to pay a little attention. “I submit to you this was not a hot-blooded crime of passion! That could at least be understood, if not condoned. No, this was revenge of a much more brutal and cold-blooded nature.”

For a film I’ve only seen twice, that passage has really stuck with me, as it makes sense of the difference between “understood” and “condoned”. Now, I understood this difference as a 14 year old, who was multitasking watching the film with dodging various debris flying across his classroom. So it’d be nice if some politicians or members of the media did so too.

Take this young man from North London, who is trying to point out that rioting has various causes, is not random like nuclear decay, and London doesn’t have thousands of “evil people” that it didn’t have a month ago. However, that he hasn’t written off his peers as “thugs” means that he presumably has been “been brainwashed by aliens”.

Not content with citing the extraterrestrial, this blogger continues with an inventive reinterpretation of the English language. “Even the sensible people (and there have been a few) refuse to denounce ALL of the violence. Brixton, Croydon, Birmingham are bad, but Tottenham somehow was ‘understandable’. Come again? You mean sometimes looting and violence are acceptable?”

No, actually, for I’m sure that if they meant “acceptable” they wouldn’t have gone to the bother of using a word which in fact means something different, although perhaps Wittgenstein would appreciate your thoughtful contribution to the philosophy of language.

Why can’t we have a grown up debate without resorting to this ridiculous ad hominem? It’s totally fine if you believe that you believe crime takes place in a vacuum, that you think jail will heal our “sick” country (Cameron proving his streetworthiness once more), but if you’re confident in your argument’s validity, please demonstrate it in a fair debate, rather than unartfully distorting your opponent’s view. In the meantime, read this excellent excellent article.

The difference between riot and wrong

Published on

Picture this. It’s 30 years in the future, and your child/grandchild (for the sake of argument lets call her Geraldine) is sitting an A-level in Historical Studies. The module is ‘The Shit That Went Down In 2011’. She never got to grips with the Murdoch saga, passes on the Greece question, doesn’t like the question on the US debt deal and has literally no idea who Usama bin Laden is. But you can see the relief in little Geraldine’s eyes when she sees one question in particular. “What caused the England Riots of August 2011?”

She could argue that it was the shooting of Mark Duggan that caused rioting in areas as diverse as Walthamstow, Clapham, Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol, but she’d be marked down for showing only a superficial knowledge of the issues. She could argue that there are socio-economic reasons for the riots, and that the cuts and a feeling of disenchantment have fuelled discontent.

But the riots lack a political message, so this can’t be it. Only one phrase will guarantee our Geraldine the A*+ she so needs to get into her PHEF (private higher education facility) of choice. For the examiners see “out and out criminality” as holding the key to explaining the devastating and shocking violence of the last few nights. Throw in a paragraph on the role of Twitter in organising the rioters, as if the Met could have seen #maraudingimbeciles trending and seen where was to be targeted next, and she’d be well on the way to full marks.

Or maybe, maybe, that’s not how it works…

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the past and the pending

welcome to my new blog. i’ve collected some of my better articles from the last few years to create something of an archive in (roughly) chronological order, and will write new blogs soon (probably). in the meantime, feel free to sift through my previous posts and judge for yourself how badly they have aged.

Norway: Ideology has a role to play

Published on, 3rd August 2011

First things first: I agree with a lot of Hugh Burns’ article. I agree with his condemnation of the farcically sub-par journalism which accused al-Qaeda of the recent atrocious attacks in Norway. I agree with him that news shouldn’t been reduced to easily digestible narratives that undermine the complexity of the issues at stake. But ultimately it fails to tackle a fundamental problem at the heart of much of the media coverage: the absolute double standard between the coverage of Islamic “terrorists” and Western “gunmen”.

The most powerful example of this is the tendency of certain elements of the global media – notably among our friends across the pond – to continue emphasising the problem of Islamic terrorism in relation to the shocking events in Norway even after al-Qaeda was shown to have played no role in the attack. While Burns was right to castigate The Sun for their terrible front-page, at least they had the good sense to drop all mention of al-Qaeda in their subsequent online coverage. After such a humiliating mistake, who wouldn’t? Enter the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin. Having erroneously cited the tragedy as “a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists,” she sparked fierce rebukes calling for her apology. Did she aplogise? No. Did she drop the item altogether? Nuh-uh. Did she write the following…

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Beaten by the better team, but graceless in defeat

16th June 2011

The Canucks found it in themselves to show Boston some respect. It’s a shame that the people of Vancouver couldn’t do the same for their own city.

There’s an old North American joke: last night I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out. This morning the city of Vancouver is reeling from the hockey game where a fight broke out. Although ice hockey is known for its bench-clearing brawls, this time the fight was on the streets, and not the ice.

During the first period of Hockey Night in Canada’s coverage, there was a shot of the 100,000 strong crowd in CBC plaza. “You usually only see crowds of this size in European protests in which they’re trying to get the government to resign,” mused the commentator, with an air of self-righteousness, “Fortunately,  things have gone as they did during the Olympics 16 months ago – smoothly.” Seven seconds later, Patrice Bergeron jammed a shot off Roberto Luongo’s right post, and the Boston Bruins had scored the first goal. You see, the difference during the Olympics was that Canada won.

A better analogy for what eventually transpired last night in Vancouver is the last time the Canucks lost a Game 7 Stanley Cup final, in 1994 against the New York Rangers, which was also followed by rioting in downtown Vancouver. Back then, the Canucks were the complete underdogs, starring Russian phenom Pavel Bure but seeded 7th in the Western Conference, compared to the New York Rangers, who, led by the legendary Mark Messier, clinched the top seed in the East, and were heavy favourites.

Compare to this season, where Vancouver had been the presumed Stanley Cup Champions since last September. They won the President’s trophy for the best team in the whole NHL, as they garnered an enormous 117 points, scored the most goals and conceded the fewest goals of any hockey franchise. Daniel Sedin won the Art Ross trophy for the most individual points (goals and assists combined) with 104, following in the footsteps of his teammate and brother Henrik, who won it last year. Led by the Sedin twins at the front, Olympic champion Luongo in goal and the deepest defensive corps in the NHL, they were the frontrunners throughout the playoffs, and when they beat defending champions and recent playoff rivals Chicago in seven games in the first round, it was assumed that they had laid their demons to rest, and were set to challenge for their first ever Stanley Cup, to go along with their historic season.

So given that riots happened in 1994, in hugely different circumstances, you may have expected the Vancouver fans to have been displeased by the events of last night. The series was tied at three games apiece, with each game going the way of the home team. The Canucks had been poor in Boston, but with the decider back in Vancouver (thanks to that stellar regular season), and the Rogers Arena hosting it’s 363rd sellout (a streak going back to 2002), expectations were through the roof. Instead, the fans saw a largely tepid display from their star-studded team, a perfect road performance from Boston, and another game where luck was not on Vancouver’s side.

Despite this, fans inside the arena were surprisingly graceful in defeat. With 30 seconds to go and their team 4-0, they stood up and rapturously applauded, perhaps in acknowledgement to a better Boston side, or perhaps in tribute to the run that Vancouver had been on. It is NHL tradition for every member of the winning team to have their skate around with the Cup, and while the boo-birds came out for certain Boston super-pests and the NHL commissioner (and all-around baddie) Gary Bettman, they were generous in their support for many of Boston’s stars, including Mark Recchi, whose incredible career ended last night with the 43 year old winning his third Stanley Cup ring (20 years after his first), Milan Lucic, a Vancouver native, and Tim Thomas. The story of Tim Thomas is truly remarkable. He didn’t make the NHL until his thirties, and has now won a Stanley Cup having set a new record for save percentage during the regular season, set records for saves in a Stanley Cup final and playoff run, and won the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. It is impossible to begrudge him any of this success, and the fans inside the Rogers arena seemingly appreciated the magnitude of what he, and his team, had achieved.

Having said this, this was a series played with plenty of bad blood. Game 3 saw the most penalty minutes in a Stanley Cup final since 1990, and the whole series was characterised by unsavoury moments, be it Alex Burrows alleged “biting” an opponent, serious injuries suffered by Bruins forward Nathan Horton and Canuck winger Mason Raymond, or Luongo provocatively claiming that the goal Thomas conceded in Game 5 (which was the only goal and won the game for Vancouver) was one that he would have stopped.

However, (partly due to some lenient refereeing), Game 7 saw only 3 penalties, and the traditional handshake line saw some meaningful exchanges between opposing players – and not of fists. Even Thomas and Luongo made their peace – although as Thomas pointed out after the game, “I respect the players from the Vancouver Canucks and I respect Roberto Luongo… I had nothing to do with… anything.” This prompted a strange exchange with broadcaster Ron McLean where the latter tried to apologise on behalf of the entirety of North American sports media for making a story out of the dispute, while the former entrenched his reputation as the most gracious and most deserving winner in hockey.

Such talk of grace, and lack thereof, brings us on to the riots, and accentuates the ridiculousness of what transpired. The fans inside the stadium could respect the Bruins. The players could respect each other. Thomas could respect Luongo, and vice versa. Yet the fans in downtown Vancouver couldn’t even respect their own city. Of course, as with any riot, the old arguments have come out – it’s a “minority”, they use it as an “excuse” for violence – but what was the excuse? The parallels with the protests in Europe, and indeed in Britain with the rise in tuition fees, are interesting. If you believe that over any political issue, peaceful protest is the only legitimate form of protest in democracies, then violence can never be justified. However, saying that the opportunity for protest was used as an “excuse” for violence makes sense. If there is an issue, of government cuts or tuition fee rises, which is worthy of protest, this can be exploited and taken too far. Yet the Canucks’ fans had no moral cause, and no issue to exploit.

And if you want to argue that violence against property can be justified, it can only be justified when there is an appropriate political issue to get steamed up about. At the TUC protest in March, HSBC was targeted by “anarchists” because of their record on tax avoidance. Last night, banks were trashed for simply being there. During the student protests we saw police vans being attacked. Last night, cars were overturned and set on fire… again, just for being there. When things in downtown Vancouver were going “smoothly”, it was easy to be snide about European idealism and revolutionary impulses. But when you lack such impulses and just trash your city for kicks, idiocy and alcohol, it’s simply embarrassing. As a user named “Steve” commented on the Globe and Mail, “I wish the TV would stop calling them protesters. It is giving protesters a bad name.”

The rioters last night had no excuse. There was no unjust refereeing, there was no sense in which Vancouver deserved to win on the night, and no way that the expectation of success should lead to such an inordinate sense of entitlement. Moreover, the triumphalist photos of fans cheering in front of burning cars suggest that it wasn’t sadness or even anger which prompted these riots, and perhaps, the emotional high of a victory would’ve resulted in a similar result. We’ll never know. But when the extent of your violent behaviour is unacceptable even to the ice hockey world, you know you’ve overstepped the mark.

UN Women: Kathy Peach Interview

Published on, 29th June 2011

In a small room towards the back of Jesus’ second quad, Kathy Peach, Head of External Affairs at the international development charity VSO, is giving a talk on the UN’s newest agency UN Women. She pauses. She apologises. “Sorry,” she says, “I keep on saying ‘basically’, and I’m not sure why.”

Perhaps because what she is talking about is very basic. Or at least, it ought to be. Women make up 49.5% of the world’s population, and one may reasonably hope that this equality is reflected in statistics in other fields. Well, women make up 18.4% of parliamentarians globally. Women signing peace treaties stack up at a measly 2.4%. Luckily this disparity is rectified by other figures, such as women making up 70% of the world’s poor, or doing 66% of the world’s work while earning 10% of its income. Swings and roundabouts, maybe gender inequality isn’t such a problem after all…

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