Thursday 24 November 2022

The Real Problem with Twitter

One of the great advantages of social media is the way it has democratised communication.

Not that everyone has an equal voice, but at least these tools are available for everyone to try to get their message across. Unfortunately, we’ve been watching that ideal crumble at Twitter. 

Read the full article at Thompson Reuters Foundation's Context.

Monday 12 April 2021

Dictators and Dissidents

I've recently written two articles on authoritarianism for Persuasion

One was an examination of some overlooked autocrats around the world. In "The Other Tyrants", I discuss dictators in five different countries. Each has their own unique characteristics and history, but all are crushing individual freedoms and wrecking of countless lives. I argue that they should be a warning of what may be in store elsewhere. 

The other article was a look at some leading dissidents around the world. In "The Other Navalnys", I highlight four lesser-known heroes who deserve our attention. I try to examine how they find the courage to fight systems that are so weighted against them. 

Wednesday 2 October 2019

Ghost City

Former cathedral on former Kneiphof island in former Königsberg 

Everywhere you go in Central Europe, you’re travelling to a place that no longer exists. And no place more so than Königsberg.

The centre of the city, now Kaliningrad in the Russian exclave wedged between Lithuania and Poland, simply isn’t there. Where once were bustling streets and shops and trams and carts and markets... it’s now a tree-lined park, flanked by a couple of highways. The old city is gone.

Many European city centres were devastated by massive Allied bombing and fierce ground combat in WW2, but unlike almost everywhere else, in Königsberg, no one rebuilt what people remembered – mostly because the people who might have remembered were deported en masse after the war: men, women and children. Centuries of the old city’s Prussian history came to an end. There was no one left who could have any sense of nostalgia for what was lost, and so no one was yearning to recreate what once was.

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.

Sunday 3 September 2017

The Wasp Effect

You, my dear and learned friends, are no doubt already very well aquatinted with the "Butterfly Effect", the notion that the gentle flutter of a lepidopteran wing sets off a causal series of unlikely, yet inevitable, interactions that ultimately bring down a long-ruling empire. I would like to put forward to you, my esteemed associates, a similar concept, the "Wasp Effect", the idea that a hymenopteran suddenly flying between your eyeglass lens and your eyeball can set off an existential panic that, in a radically short span of time, will up-end the bicycle beneath you and somersault your entire overweight organism on to the asphalt.

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.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

In Nigeria, a Troubling Impulse to Vigilantism

As details emerge of yesterday’s bombings in the Nigerian city of Jos, it seems the horrific death toll – now 118 and counting, as rescue teams pull victims from the debris – was augmented by frustrated residents taking the law into their own hands.

Nigeria’s Channels TV news and others have reported that, after the first bomb exploded at a busy market, a crowd approached a man acting suspiciously just prior to the explosion. According to this report they chased him to his car, beat him, and set his car on fire, sparking explosions that killed some people in the nearby crowd.

Nigeria’s government has been unable to stop the militant Islamist group Boko Haram’s killing spree, and has arguably fed the insurgency with the abusive response by security forces. Outraged and frightened residents now seem to be prepared to take matters into their own hands.

The media here is full of stories about concerned communities attempting to settle matters on their own, whether it’s groups of hunters declaring they will find and bring back the nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last month, or smaller groups attacking individuals they suspect of being Boko Haram members.

In addition, a “Civilian Joint Task Force,” formed by private citizens but supported by the Borno state government, is cobbling together young men and boys in villages and towns to help them defend their communities with whatever weapons might be at hand.

One huge problem with all of this vigilante activity is that these citizens, though justifiably outraged by events, are untrained and undisciplined. Without the necessary skills, experience, and supervision, they risk inviting dangers they cannot overcome. And, the justice they aim to provide is not really justice at all. As the Jos tragedy demonstrates, vigilante actions make the problem worse.

What Nigeria needs are military and police forces that are professional and able to address the insurgency in a way that respects rights and wins public confidence. Unfortunately, what Nigerians have now are abusive security services that lead to people seeking revenge, in place of seeking justice. 

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.