Friday, 15 March 2019

Beyond Samarkand

I wrote this piece with Steve Swerdlow for Los Angeles Review of Books.


Yesterday, it rained forever; today, the mud is deep and treacherous. We’re in Uzbekistan, two years after the death of the dictator.

It took us about a half hour to drive to this small village from Qarshi, a district capital in the south of Uzbekistan, a small city with a big reputation as a military and security services stronghold. That’s after a three-hour drive from Samarkand and two-hour train journey from Tashkent. This place is not exactly the end of the world, but it is pretty remote – the next-to-last exit on the road to Afghanistan.

We’re getting a bit lost in the warren of sloppy dirt roads in the village, our phones have no signal, and in the low mist and gloom of a freezing November morning, it’s impossible not to think back to where we were just 36 hours before.

Friday, 10 March 2017

A Radical Idea for Europe

The European Union’s 60th anniversary this month comes at a time when some political leaders are attracting significant popular support for policies that directly call into question the value of the union. It’s not just the EU under attack, but NATO, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and its human rights court, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – all the institutions and ideals that emerged in the post-war, post-Holocaust spirit of “never again” that bolster respect for human rights and rule of law are facing fresh attacks in western democracies and beyond.

There is, of course, much to criticise about the functioning of the EU and other post-war institutions – bureaucracy, lack of transparency, economic policies, or simply when their actions do not live up to their values. But today’s criticism goes beyond the inefficiencies and inadequacies; the very existence of these bodies and even of the post-war order itself are being questioned.

It seems puzzling on the face of it. Nothing so earth-shattering has happened to justify a sweeping rethink of the reasons and need for core institutions that have helped ensure peace and stability in Europe for decades – no great depression, no dramatically rising crime, no sharp rise in unemployment. Some would cite the 2008 economic crisis as a cause or maybe the stresses of enlargement or the introduction of the euro, but if these are key factors, there’s been a curious delay between those events and today’s populist responses.

There has been a spate of terrorist attacks, but there have been far more protracted campaigns in the past that arguably led to far less questioning of political fundamentals. The everyone-for-himself response to chaotic arrivals of asylum seekers in 2015 probably didn’t help. Even so, there’s no clear cause one can point to to explain the seeming drift toward radical solutions that undermine human rights protection.

Even the globalisation and identity arguments often put forward to explain the rise of rejectionist populism don’t really make sense. Why, in 2017, when globalisation has been steadily marching on for decades, and populations mixing for decades, is it suddenly at a tipping point? There’s no obvious cause for the radical shift in general political direction, although the willingness of mainstream politicians to embrace the dangerous mantle of populism certainly hasn’t helped.

Some argue that people have forgotten history, but that doesn’t ring true. Europeans know about World War II and understand the horrors of the Holocaust. Denial is still very fringe.

But perhaps the problem is historical knowledge ends there for too many people. We are less familiar with how key institutions emerged after the war to ensure peace and security through political and economic integration, based on respect for fundamental human rights. Maybe people understand the philosophy of “never again” but too often don’t realise that, 60 years on, that is exactly what the European project based on strong human rights values has been about and has helped deliver.

These post-war hopes and institutions backing democracy and human rights were the radical ideas of their time in response to dire circumstances. We don’t need a new radicalism; we need to bolster the one we have. And we need political leaders to stop denigrating European institutions. Nothing less than the peace and security of Europe depends on it.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The trial of "Our Sonofabitch" in Africa

This originally appeared in POLITICO Europe.


DAKAR, Senegal — They’re working on the hotel pool, which only reminds me of the mass atrocities we’re all here for.

The trial of former Chadian president Hissène Habré on charges of crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes started Monday. Or, more accurately, “restarted,” because at the formal beginning of the trial in July, the accused caused a commotion, and his lawyers failed to appear, forcing the judges to appoint him lawyers, who were then given 45 days to study the case.

The extra six-and-a-half weeks was but a blip in the 25 years the victims of abuses in Habre’s Chad have been waiting for justice — those who survived his rule (1982-90), anyway. It’s alleged that perhaps as many as 40,000 did not, having succumbed to torture, inhuman conditions of imprisonment and summary executions.

Some of those survivors are here at the steamy seaside hotel, along with activists, lawyers, experts and journalists all somehow involved in or covering the high-profile case. The air is sticky and humid; the atmosphere is a strange combination of relief and expectation.

It’s a mix because, after two and a half decades of countless contortions in various legal jurisdictions and deliberate diversions due to west African politics, the victims will finally face their tormentor in a court of law. Being tried at the ad hoc Extraordinary African Chambers, part of the Senegalese legal system but supported financially and diplomatically by a number of countries, Habré will have to answer for some of the most appalling criminal acts imaginable.

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.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Uzbekistan and the American Myth of “Strategic Patience”

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


When it comes to authoritarian Uzbekistan’s dismal human rights record, the Obama administration says “strategic patience” should characterize its relationship with Tashkent. But the premise of strategic patience in Uzbekistan’s case is flawed because Tashkent plays by a different set of rules.

Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive states on earth. It also happens to be a northern neighbor of Afghanistan, so for most of the 21st century, Tashkent has been as a key cog in the US-led struggle to contain Islamic militants. These days, geopolitical circumstances are changing, yet US policy seems to be lagging behind the times.

Nisha Biswal, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, summarized the administration’s position on Uzbekistan in a recent interview. US policy should be “the right balance of pressure, partnership, and a certain amount of strategic patience in how change can take place,” Biswal said, without mentioning Washington’s recent gift of hundreds of military vehicles to the Uzbek government.

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.