Monday, 7 October 2013

“When the police want something, they just come and rob us”

This article on police corruption in the street markets of Monrovia, Liberia, originally appeared in The Independent (UK) under the title ‘The guns may be silent now, but Liberia is going nowhere’: After a decade of peace, country is still suffering under a corrupt police force on 7 October 2013.


“When the police want something, they just come and rob us,” says Patrick Davis, as his fellow street vendors in central Monrovia nod in agreement and push forward to tell their stories.

Davis sells jeans and trousers on the pavements of the Liberian capital, and the police are regular customers – only they don’t pay; they simply take what they like, says Davis, who then sees the same officers wearing his clothes the following day.

“You can’t believe it, but that’s what they do.”

From the soft-drink sellers to the shoe salesmen to the motorcycle taxi drivers to the smallest kids who get what they can for sticks of chewing gum, the experience is the same: the uniformed officers of the Liberia National Police are widely seen as predators, not protectors.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

When J.Lo Sang for the Dictator

My Human Rights Watch colleague, Rachel Denber, and I wrote this for The Wall Street Journal, where it appeared on 2 July 2013.


Many Turkmen citizens are forbidden from doing what the pop star did after her concert: leave the country.

Celebrity and dictatorship have jumped into bed together once more, with American pop singer Jennifer Lopez singing "Happy Birthday" to Turkmenistan's authoritarian ruler this past weekend.

Outside of Central Asia, J.Lo is vastly better-known than President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. World-wide Ms. Lopez has four times as many followers on Twitter as Turkmenistan has citizens.

Yet the attention in this incident's wake should be just as much about Mr. Berdymukhamedov as it is about Ms. Lopez. We're happy, of course, to see the media quoting Human Rights Watch's evaluation of Turkmenistan as "one of the world's most repressive countries." We are as surprised as anyone that J.Lo and her entourage could declare their ignorance of Turkmenistan's appalling human-rights record.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Tweets Can't Hide Uzbekistan's Woeful Record

I wrote this with Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, and CNN published it on 25 January 2013.


Recent Twitter conversations between the wannabe-jet-set daughter of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian ruler and critics of the country’s atrocious human rights record may have been unusual and amusing. They may have even brought a rare blip of international media attention to a reclusive regime the world normally seems happy to ignore.

What the tweets have not done, however, is improve anyone’s life in the miserably abusive state of Uzbekistan itself, where, among other things, torture in police custody is systematic, and over a million children and adults are subjected to forced labor in the cotton fields every year.

The fresh attention on Gulnara Karimova’s 140-character exchanges – in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Le Monde, Le Temps, PRI, and many others – is understandable. A tweet from the daughter of such an authoritarian ruler is indeed out of the ordinary, and that alone makes it newsworthy. But this is hardly the only “unusual” thing about her.

She is, in fact, a bit of a “weird news” magnet.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Letter to Gulnara Karimova

Dear Gulnara,

Following our Twitter conversation last week, I am sending below the details of some human rights issues in Uzbekistan which can and should be addressed. All these matters fall under your purview as Uzbekistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva.

Given the nature and scale of the problem, it is difficult to know where to begin with this, but what I’ve tried to do below is highlight some general issues, provide lists of some individuals and then go into greater detail for a few of their cases. I hope you will look into these matters and the specific cases mentioned and respond appropriately as you promised to do.

Of course, these are just a few examples of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan that are all too common and that that deserve to be addressed. If we start with these and make some progress, perhaps you would look in to other cases as well.

In preparing this text, I have relied on detailed reporting from United Nations bodies, government reports on human rights practices, and the reports of leading human rights groups. I have quoted from them extensively and linked to the original materials.

I hope this conversation and dialogue leads to some concrete improvements for the individual victims below.



(emailed to Gulnara Karimova on 12 December 2012. Other readers can find out more about the Twitter conversation between Gulnara Karimova and me in this RFE/RL article and this New Europe interview.)

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Earlier email to Gulnara

This was sent on 6 December. I never received a reply. Gulnara tweeted a photo of this email on 21 December, but since some may prefer it in proper form, I produce it here.

You'll see it is no different to what I've said in public, for example in this interview, so I'm not sure why she thinks it's important.

Perhaps she is trying to deflect attention from this Letter to Gulnara.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

How FOX News helped Romney lose

FOX News -- and the conservative commentariat more generally -- helped lose the election for Romney.

Others who assisted his defeat have already been identified (rightly) as "hardliners in the party" or more specifically "misogynist Republicans".

However, we should not forget the likes of FOX News and over-mediatized loony-right personalities who were on TV screens far more than anyone could have ever asked for during the last four years. In classic conflict media fashion, they took it on themselves to whip up the Republican base (in the process confusing it with the Tea Party) and keep them rabidly energized until polling day.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Do social media help make international intervention less likely?

The question may seem a bit counter-intuitive at first. The common, if not yet quite conventional, wisdom is that, the more social media buzz there is around an issue, the more people get engaged in it, and the more popular pressure can be brought to bear on decision makers to take action.

Indeed, that probably works with many topics, including national and international crises. If there’s been a flood or an earthquake, for example, social media can help get the word out, transmitting messages in all formats -- text, audio, stills, video -- through those networks of personal trust that make tools like Facebook and Twitter so effective.

If an aid organisation plays it right, it can no doubt link up with the inevitable outpouring of international sympathy via social media and bring in new individual donations to apply to its work helping the victims. Perhaps it can even corral public pressure and direct it toward governments to get them to announce fresh aid packages in response. That seems reasonably straightforward.

In a conflict, however, things are very different.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

On the trail of Boko Haram

I wrote this piece from Zaria in Kaduna State in northern Nigeria. It appeared in The Independent on 12 March 2012.


“You could say Boko Haram is everywhere, or you could say it’s nowhere: both would be correct.”

This apparently confusing observation about the Nigerian militant Islamist group from one local expert is actually more helpful than it seems.

Responsible for a string of violent attacks in Nigeria that have killed some one thousand people over the last two years, Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden”, has been bewildering and surprising to security specialists here. Ask some, and you will hear that the organisation is a threat to the very unity of Nigeria. Ask others, and you will hear that it is not an organisation at all.

And, yes, they are both right.

"Peace provocateurs" defusing religious tensions in Indonesia

This piece originally appeared in The Independent on 12 March 2012.


A Christian girl has her arm hacked off in a Muslim neighbourhood, and everyone in this tropical island city expects more trouble to follow.

Text messages multiply the news and calls for revenge exponentially in segregated Ambon, Indonesia, steamy with suspicion between the two communities ever since inter-communal violence in 1999-2002 left thousands dead and many more displaced, torched out of their homes.

But within an hour, a second round of texts spreads, along with Tweets and Facebook posts, bursting the expanding bubble of anger. It didn’t happen. The girl is fine and at home with family. Look, here’s a fresh photo of her. And here’s a video with her made a few minutes ago.

The klarifikasi message is signed, “Provakator Perdamaian”, or “Peace Provocateurs”.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Update on social media and public advocacy

About a year ago, I blogged a case study detailing how social media were impacting public advocacy in international affairs. Following a few conversations I’ve had in recent weeks and a few more deep-water dives into the sea of data, it’s time for a brief update and a few additional notes.

To start with, the trend noted in April 2011 continues: people are increasingly finding the International Crisis Group’s online reports and other materials via Facebook and Twitter, and more importantly, they are coming from the very government institutions and international agencies we aim to reach as an advocacy organisation.

Moreover, this is not an isolated phenomenon. I hear from other NGOs and advocacy groups that they see the exact same development: a greater percentage of their target audiences are also accessing their material via social media as opposed to email or media outlets. Disintermediation is very real, yet no sane person would suggest ditching their mass email lists, ignoring Google News or forgetting fundamental media relations.

There are some extra observations, however.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Wanted: A PR Transparency Project

Activists and NGOs facing authoritarian regimes are the ultimate underdogs. With very limited resources and access to power, they confront authorities who not only act against them with impunity but also a juggernaut of media that puts their cause at an extreme disadvantage. Repressive governments dominate or outright control national newspapers and broadcast outlets, and they hire big public relations and reputation management firms abroad to help get their messages across in international media, where local activists can rarely be heard.

A vast ecosystem of independent organisations has evolved to address many of these issues and to some extent even up the sides in the endless battle between oppressors and oppressed. National and international human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch not only highlight general conditions populations suffer but also support individual human rights defenders and other activists when their work gets them into trouble with the authorities. Groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders concentrate on press freedoms and notable abuses and outrages against individual journalists and outlets in these countries, providing perhaps some relief within national media environments.

However, for the most part, no group systematically addresses that third aspect of the problem as a core issue: the role of international public relations firms in providing support for authoritarian regimes abroad. Sure, some international NGOs may criticise them on a specific campaign from time to time -- such as a UK protest by several groups earlier this year as part of a Belarus campaign -- but exposing the role of PR agencies is rarely if ever the central purpose, and even when it is, it is often only after a serendipitous revelation of information about their work for a regime rather than the result of dedicated research they have purposefully engaged in. Fair enough, of course, as these groups have all got more than plenty to do with their core missions as it is.

Still, it is a tremendous shame that the issue is not addressed more systematically. When you understand the time and effort international activists and NGOs put in to publicise their worthwhile cases and causes, it is more than troubling to see those campaigns undermined by Western PR firms, fuelled by regime money and often masked by secret deals. It is time to shed more light on this area.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Cheering for Oswiecim

I suppose it’s really much like any other town in southern Poland when the local ice hockey team is locked in a last-ditch effort for a spot in the regional play-offs. The stadium is electric with the expectation of a great game. People cheer when the team scores. They curse when the referee makes a bad call. They chant in unison to intimidate the visiting team, shaking the arena and its thousand or so chilly yet dedicated fans and inspiring their players to greater glory.

It’s all good-natured, exciting and fun -- everything you’d expect from a rink-side evening of sporting entertainment in a central European town on a dark November evening. Fans dress in the team colours (blue and white), naturally, and some wave banners with the team’s logo, proudly displaying that the history of the squad dates back to 1946: a year after the most infamous Nazi death camp was liberated just across town from the stadium.

Oświęcim is, of course, better known internationally by its German name, Auschwitz, home of the Auschwitz-Birkenau set of concentration and extermination camps.

At first it almost seems like sacrilege attending -- worse, enjoying -- an ice hockey game here. This kind of thrill is surely indecent so close to the former mass murder factory.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Why Uzbekistan Matters

The following article originally appear on CNN's Global Public Square on 18 October 2011.


As Washington’s relations with Pakistan seem to hit a new low every week, the U.S. has been trying to compensate by improving ties with Uzbekistan to the north to shore up international efforts in Afghanistan. It is an understandable repositioning, but it is not one that will improve security prospects in the region.

Step by step, the U.S. has been increasing its reliance on Tashkent. Already the “Northern Distribution Network”, which relies in large part on overland links through Uzbekistan, delivers over 50% of NATO’s non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan, a number set to rise to 75% by he close of 2011. At the end of last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee helped deepen commitments by approving an Administration-backed measure to remove seven years of human rights-related restrictions barring military aid to Uzbekistan. And to just keep things running smoothly, President Obama personally phoned President Islam Karimov last week to congratulate him on his country’s 20th anniversary of independence.

Of course, no one is under any illusions about what kind of regime is fast becoming central to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The State Department’s most recent Human Rights Report on Uzbekistan in April made it clear enough. It described the country as an “authoritarian state”, where torture is “routine”, freedom of speech and association are non-existent, independent political activity is impossible, and state-imposed “forced child labor in the cotton sector was widespread”.

The odious character of Karimov’s regime is clear, but, the reasoning goes, sometimes you have to hold your nose and deal with nasty dictatorships to achieve foreign policy objectives. NATO needs a supply route, and the fact that Uzbekistan literally boils its critics alive does not change geography.

Unfortunately, holding your nose in this case also seems to mean shutting your eyes - not just to the extreme abuses of the Uzbek regime but to what the security implications will be for U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the wider region.

Monday, 5 September 2011

A New American Reality

This piece originally appeared in openDemocracy on 5 September 2011.


In September 2006, I wrote an article that sought to gauge the atmosphere in the United States five years after 9/11. At the time, I was struck by the way that a dark and destructive conflict mentality - something I had become accustomed to in places like Serbia and Kosovo during fourteen years’ away from the country of my birth - seemed to have become entrenched in American society.

“This is what wars do”, I wrote then. “(They) push people into mental corners, where us-and-them thinking works in two pernicious ways: it makes people unwilling to accept other points of view, and utterly blinkers them to facts that do not fit the prevailing group-think. The result is that the very ability to reason gets squeezed, sometimes until it disappears entirely.”

Five years on, it is clear that things have changed enormously in the second half of the post-9/11 decade. Life may not exactly be back to the way it was on 10 September 2001, but the all-consuming public dread of the next terrorist attack and the collective mindset of tribal defence, as well as the hugely counterproductive policy-making that went with that, have mostly dissipated. Put simply, the country has moved on.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Lessons from a Decade of Conflict

Looking back at the last ten years, it is tempting to wonder if the world has not learned anything at all about conflict and conflict resolution in that time.

Afghanistan may have been a war of necessity after 9/11, but the international community continues to under-value the need for functioning government institutions to deliver services and justice free from corruption, and consequently the insurgency is now stronger than ever. Pakistan, where millions of people have been displaced by militancy and counter-terrorism activities, enjoys no more stability than ten years ago. Iraq, a thoroughly avoidable war justified through a political abuse of the memory of 9/11, took the lives of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians and more than 4,400 US military, far more Americans than were killed on that fateful day in September 2001.

In monetary terms, these wars alone have cost trillions of US dollars and played no small part in the crippling government debt crisis in America today.

Equally worryingly, universal values took a serious hit over the past decade. We witnessed extrajudicial renditions and imprisonment at the hands of Western governments supposedly dedicated to universal human rights. Even worse, torture became an issue of public debate rather than a moral red line.