Friday, 27 February 2015

Detaining the President’s Daughter

I wrote this with my Human Rights Watch colleague Steve Swerdlow for openDemocracy.


A year ago, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president disappeared from public life. Arrested under corruption allegations in February 2014 and apparently detained at her Tashkent home ever since, Gulnara Karimova – former ambassador, singer, fashion guru, social media star, and business tycoon – remains in a kind of sealed limbo, apparently unable to communicate directly with the outside world.

Karimova’s treatment over the last 12 months is far superior to that of thousands of other people in Uzbekistan suffering severe human rights abuses. Yet her high-profile case provides a telling insight into the dire state of human rights in Uzbekistan today.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

What #BringBackOurGirls Looks Like From Nigeria’s Capital

There’s nothing to see at first: a widening of the median between two busy lanes of Abuja traffic. A few people sit under scattered trees finding limited peace a few meters away from the horns honking on either side.

Then a few cars start turning off the road and onto the grass. The new arrivals lay out mats on the ground, unstack plastic chairs, distribute water bottles, and pass around an agenda, and within minutes a hundred people or so are in an intense outdoor meeting.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Keeping Up with the Karimovs: No Matter Who Wins in Uzbekistan, Everyone Loses

I wrote this piece with my HRW colleague Steve Swerdlow for Foreign Policy, which published it on 14 November 2013.


After 25 years under one notoriously brutal ruler, Uzbekistan is experiencing politics.

To be sure, this isn't politics as one might usually think of it: There are still no opposition parties allowed in the country, the media are still not free to report independently, and anyone who steps out of line is still likely to end up imprisoned, in exile, or dead.

The general thuggery of the regime isn't changing, but a certain kind of politics has nevertheless emerged in the form of an open competition for power between two leading regime figures: Rustam Inoyatov, the head of the dreaded secret police, the National Security Service of Uzbekistan (SNB), and Gulnara Karimova, international jet-setter, aspiring fashion designer and pop star, business magnate, and eldest daughter of President Islam Karimov. Two others -- Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov and Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev -- are also in the mix of possible contenders.

Karimova has recently been the center of the show, with numerous allegations thrown at her. Abroad, she had already lost her ambassadorial role in Geneva a few months ago, and she's been the subject of fraud and corruption allegations in France, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Back home, however, her world is now imploding.

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 (pictured), 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.