Tuesday 22 December 2009

Somalia: No-win Military Scenario Leaves Engagement as Only Option

This piece was published in The National on 22 December 2009.


At the beginning of this year, Somalia was experiencing a rare moment of optimism. The desperate country looked as if it might just start to turn itself around. The disastrous Ethiopian invasion and two-year occupation were ending, and the new president of the transitional federal government, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, had broad Somali and international support. The hope was that he would be able to form coalitions with other moderate Islamists and isolate the extremist al Shabaab elements.

Now, at the end of the same year, all traces of optimism are gone. The civil war is increasingly brutal and destructive. Almost half of the population, 3.6 million people, are dependent on food aid, and half a million refugees are scattered across the Horn of Africa.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Never Again? What the Holocaust can't teach us about modern-day genocide

After a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I wrote this piece for Foreign Policy on 2 December 2009.


It was cold, misty, and miserably wet the day we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, but no one wished for better weather. My companions -- mostly mid-level diplomats from more than a dozen countries around the world -- all seemed to agree that sunshine would have been almost offensive. We had come to this corner of Poland as part of a weeklong seminar on preventing genocide, which included such outings so that the participants could learn more about the details of the Holocaust. And yet, I wondered if this field trip was having its desired effect.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Sex and War

This is a book review I originally wrote for my blog at Reuters AlertNet on 16 September 2009, which also appeared in much shorter form in the European Voice.


Biology is not destiny. But it sure explains a whole lot of human activity, as Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden describe in their book, Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World (Benbella Books, 2008), which I strongly feel is a must read for anyone dealing with conflict prevention and resolution today.

Chimpanzees, our closest cousins, share more than 98 per cent of our DNA, and many of our social, and antisocial, behaviours. Most disturbingly, we are perhaps the only two species that deliberately torture and kill their own kind. The evolutionary success of genes that enhance team aggression by small groups of males on others, both male and female, have bequeathed both species' descendants a dark side.

Monday 18 May 2009

Without Foreign Coverage, We Miss More Than News

This is a piece I originally wrote for my blog at Reuters AlertNet under the title, "Welcome to a World without Foreign Correspondents" on 21 April 2009. It was then republished in a slightly expanded form by the Christian Science Monitor on 18 May 2009.


For years now, those of us working in and around international media have grown used to hearing about slashed foreign news budgets - an overseas bureau cut here, yet another correspondent post dropped there.

The shrinking of news from the far reaches of the globe is a problem only partially addressed by a few financially constrained news agencies and a couple of hopeful media upstarts with untried business models or limited audiences.

We do not need to wait for something more to hit us over the head to understand the implications of these changes. Two recent situations show us exactly what the world will be like when there are no regular foreign correspondents left.

Monday 11 May 2009

Sri Lanka's 50,000 Hostages

This article appeared in the The Guardian on 11 May 2009.


The police have the building surrounded. Inside, a dangerous gunman holds five hostages. The authorities have to decide how to free the innocent safely when those lives are at the mercy of a desperate and violent criminal.

Multiply by about 10,000, and you have the situation in north-east Sri Lanka today.

For months, the Sri Lankan army has been tightening the noose around the remaining forces of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), pushing them into an ever smaller space. Some 250,000 civilians were initially in that same zone of operations.

But instead of playing the role of professional police trying to save the lives of those trapped in the building, the Sri Lankan authorities have let the LTTE draw them into a civilian slaughter that allows the rebels to act the martyr. Government troops have been shelling civilian areas and are even using air strikes in areas where the Tamil Tigers are holding their hostages, using equally lethal force when they have tried to escape.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Sri Lanka's Plight Highlighted at World Press Freedom Day

Attending the World Press Freedom Day conference in 2009, I was inspired by one speech in particular, and I was glad to get permission to be the first to publish it. The following appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 5 May 2009.


I just returned from the World Press Freedom Day conference in Doha, Qatar. It was a fairly typical affair as these sorts of conferences go -- until the final award ceremony, when murdered Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge was posthumously given the World Press Freedom Prize 2009.

His niece, Natalie Samarasinghe, read out a statement from his widow, Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, which was so forceful and so impressive, I feel it deserves a much wider audience than the few hundred people who gave it a standing ovation in the room on Sunday. With permission, I am publishing it in full below.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Sri Lanka: The Other "100 days"

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 28 April 2009.


It seems the media have been gearing up for the "100 days" milestone of Obama's presidency since election night -- not just in the US, but around the world. There's nothing like a long-predictable news peg for getting op-eds honed, reporters positioned and TV news graphics coordinated. Such extensive preparation creates a momentum of the mainstream news machine that is almost impossible to divert off course, even with a "we're all going to die" porcine pandemic story.

But there is another "100 days" story: on 20 January 2009, the same day as Obama's inauguration, the UN began tallying civilian casualty figures in the war in northeastern Sri Lanka. As government forces steadily constricted the rebel LTTE (Tamil Tigers) into a smaller and smaller zone, some 200,000 civilians were trapped, shelled by their own army and prevented from leaving with equally lethal force by the cult-like LTTE who claim to fight in their name.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Media: If You Are Not Covering Sri Lanka Right Now, Why Not?

I posted this on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 21 April 2009.


"A mass slaughter of civilians will take place Tuesday at noon. And everyone knows it." These are the words my colleague used to describe what is happening in Sri Lanka today in his new article for Foreign Policy's online magazine. It is not an exaggeration: what's happening in Sri Lanka is a massacre in progress.

Friday 17 April 2009

Somalia: The Key to Security at Sea Is Stability on Land

My Crisis Group colleague, Daniela Kroslak, and I wrote this short comment for The Independent, which ran it on 17 April 2009.


Living in the West, you could be forgiven for thinking that Somalia was little more than a dark and dangerous pirate theme park where American ship captains and US special forces go to gain their 15 minutes of fame. But piracy off the coast of the Horn of Africa is merely a symptom, not the disease. The underlying issue is that the world has left Somalia to fester as a failed state for 18 years.

That's nearly a generation that has produced civil war, anarchy, massive civilian casualities and displacements. The chaos has given birth to extremism and terrorism. True, optimism is not in huge supply when it comes to Somalia, but with the right international approach, there are a few green shoots of hope that might be nurtured into some sort of stability.

Friday 3 April 2009

An Overview of Media Development in Post-Conflict Transition

This piece formed the basis of a speech I delivered to a European Union workshop on "the Role of Media in Conflict Prevention" on 3 April 2009. It began as a set of notes I'd been making on the subject for years and is the kind of all-inclusive media development text I'd been wanting to write for some time. Sometimes it's good to have a conference or other event to force you to pull all your thoughts together.


If you look at media-related projects in post-conflict situations in recent decades -- though you can go back much further, of course, as this is not a new field -- there appear to be lots of practical lessons learned, but they often seem specific to one theatre and at best only partially transferable to others.

The good thing is that few can doubt the importance of media development in an overall post-conflict package these days. After the horrific role played by Radio Mille Collines in driving the Rwandan genocide through its hate propaganda, there is a widespread understanding that irresponsible media can help tear apart a fragile society. And after success stories like the UN-sponsored Radio Okapi, which has been helping to foster a feeling of national unity in the shattered Democratic Republic of the Congo, there is a growing awareness that responsible media can help repair and even strengthen a post-conflict society.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Fake Champagne and Life-saving Drugs

This originally ran on my Reuters AlterNet blog on 19 March 2009.


How is sparkling wine like a life-saving drug in developing world countries? They're both targeted for destruction by EU customs officials if they're found in European ports with the wrong label on them.

A number of aid agencies are currently worried that overzealous action by EU officials in ports like Rotterdam is going to have serious health effects for people in Africa and South America. Customs officers have been seizing generic drug shipments en route from India to Brazil, Nigeria and elsewhere because of alleged patent infringement. The drugs in question are generic in both the country of origin and the country of destination, but here in the EU, some drug company or other has the legal lock on their manufacture.

Today, in an open letter in the European Voice, a group of MEPs on the European Parliament's international trade committee have picked up the cause, protesting the slated destruction of three consignments of Indian-manufactured generic medicines in particular. These drugs -- clopidogrel, rivastigmine and olanzapine -- were on their way to developing countries to treat patients with serious and life-threatening conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and psychosis. Halting the shipment and planning its destruction is simply outrageous.

Note, these are not harmful or out-of-date meds. As the MEPs write:
It is vital to differentiate between illegal counterfeit medicines -- which the World Health Organization defines as medicines having a false representation of identity and/or source -- and legitimate generic medicines, which are, in most cases, simply unbranded versions of patented medicines.
And the wider implications of the authorities' actions compound the trouble. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) actually ships generic medicines from EU-based warehouses to developing countries. Are the customs police going to break up that perfidious racket, too?

The EU has, of course, been known to destroy large quantities of American sparkling wine improperly labeled "champagne" and caught in EU ports. I am all for safeguarding consumers through protected names, but I don't see the logic of rash action and wanton waste: why smash the bottles when the producer could just be required to relabel them instead before onward shipment? Or when they could be given to charity?

But while a bit of spilt booze is a sad loss, the senseless destruction of live-saving medicines that are perfectly safe and legal in their production and distribution countries is absolutely immoral. The European Commission ought to think again here.

Monday 16 March 2009

The Changing Face of Foreign News Coverage

This piece ran on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 16 March 2009.


While articles about the changing media landscape are these days as common as out-of-work journalists, we have been spoiled over the weekend with some excellent pieces about new media, foreign correspondents, and covering crisis zones.

Anand Giridhardas article in the New York Times, "These Days, No Reporting Behind a Nation's Back" is well worth a read. He starts off noting that, "Foreign correspondents no longer cover one place for the exclusive benefit of readers somewhere else. In the Internet age, we cover each place for the benefit of all places, and the reported-on are among the most avid consumers of what we report."

It's amazing that some people still don't get this.

Thursday 5 March 2009

International Media Response to Indictment of Bashir

This appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 5 March 2009.


If the answer is "six milliseconds", the question surely is, "how long did it take for the Arabic satellite TV channels to jump from coverage of the International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudanese President Bashir to cries about neo-colonialism, Palestine, and the Zionist-Western conspiracy to divide Sudan?"

My colleague, Nadim Hasbani, has a great piece in Al Hayat today, trying to counter this automated response of the Arab world by highlighting how Arab leaders have manipulated the case of Darfur and fallen in line behind Bashir. He delivers a message the Arab public debate desperately needs to incorporate:
If today the ICC has enough evidence to arrest an Arab leader for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, it is in large part because for the past six years, when those deaths where taking place in Darfur, the international community - including Arab countries - did little to stop him... The problem actually is that Arabs are leaving themselves out of the international justice system. We act as if we were targeted by justice instead of helping to bring about justice, for ourselves as well.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, Bashir's successful manipulation of Arab public opinion continued today, with the President of Sudan telling the cameras that the ICC was a tool of Israel and the US. Strange that apparently no one in the Arabic media has pointed out that neither country is a signatory to the ICC. In fact, rejection of the ICC is a policy that Israel, the US, and the entire Arab League (apart from Jordan) agree on. Ah, but to reveal that would break the narrative of a Western-Zionist conspiracy, and who in the Arabic media is willing to give up such a perennial favourite?

It wasn't always this way, mind you. Many in the West may be surprised to learn that Al Jazeera was the first international television broadcaster to break the Darfur story back in 2003 -- an explosive scoop that got the Qatari-based station booted from Sudan for a time. They got back in, and they currently have a correspondent in Darfur, but their coverage is now toned down and not victim-focused.

But Arabic channels were not the only ones who forgot the victims yesterday. Following the ICC press conference, BBC World TV incomprehensibly had as one of its first studio guests a Western mouthpiece for the Khartoum regime, moaning about how this was white-man's justice etc. What that particular white man failed to mention was that all of the 300,000 dead and millions displaced in Darfur because of the policies of Bashir's ruling National Congress Party are not white. His logic is that dark-skinned people ought to be left alone to kill other dark-skinned people, and the rest of the world ought to just shut up.

Now, some readers will doubtless think about leaving a comment on this blog saying that BBC World was just trying to offer a balance of views in the interests of journalistic fairness. But it's nonsense to take that approach in such extreme cases like this. Imagine: "Well, we've just heard from a woman who was gang raped, so let's crossover to our studio in London, where we can get a different perspective from our next guest, the director of the pro-rape lobby group..."

Sorry, that's not an acceptable approach, and it's insulting to BBC journalists who have reported from the ground in Darfur over the years and have helped to highlight the crimes committed there. Their work shouldn't be undermined by inviting in some ridiculous and offensive guest running PR for one of the world's most appalling regimes.

In general, however, the English-language media, including the BBC, have been reasonably good on the ICC indictment, with the announcement interrupting normal programming or the issue taking top billing with lots of print articles in the run-up to yesterday. Al Jazeera English ran with the press conference from The Hague for quite a long time, including into the journalists' question period, which was useful, I think, but even more so was their time chart on Darfur on the studio back wall, which gave a great overview of the long-running conflict. Most importantly, the Western media mostly put the victims first, which is what journalism should always keep front and centre in these matters. It was a stark contrast with the Arabic-language channels, which portrayed Bashir as the victim in all this.

Within hours, however, the ICC story started to drop down the priority ladder on some English-language satellite channels, with Gordon Brown's speech to the US Congress dominating in the UK and Clinton's Middle East trip grabbing the most attention in the US.

What happens in the international media next will be interesting. Bashir will no doubt keep calling people into the streets in his support as long as the world's TV cameras are willing to film it. The regime of course makes itself look ridiculous with these media stunts -- do any governments in the world apart from the most authoritarian ones ever organise public demonstrations to prove their popular support in the face of international outrage at their abuses? But the real test is whether the international media, particularly the Arabic-language channels, keep falling for his line or whether they instead keep focused on the real victims here.

Friday 20 February 2009

Real Security in Central Asia Is Not a "Great Game"

Sometimes, I just hate clichés like the plague. I wrote this for my Reuters AlterNet blog on 20 February 2009.


Even if you don’t follow Central Asia at all, you could hardly fail to notice the increased media attention the region has been receiving in recent weeks. Repeated Taliban attacks on NATO supply routes into Afghanistan from Pakistan have driven General David Petraeus, the top US commander in the area, to make a series of relatively high-profile visits to the former Soviet Stans to shore up a new logistics line from the north. Adding to the pressure and the press buzz that is so uncharacteristic for this largely forgotten corner of the world, Kyrgyzstan is kicking out the Americans from the airbase at Manas, used to support Afghan operations. Moscow’s offer of two billion dollars in loans to Bishkek a couple weeks ago is widely seen to be the decisive factor in the Kyrgyz decision -- or perhaps it is better to call it a Kyrgyz gambit to get Washington to make a counter-bid to keep the base.

In any case, the world’s media have jumped to define the story purely in terms of the US and Russia competing for the favours of the region’s rulers, and one of the oldest, most tired clichés of international relations is dusted off yet again: "The Great Game”. It’s hard to find a commentator who doesn’t use to this facile anachronism, referring to the 19th-century strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires in Central Asia. And you find it everywhere in Anglophonia: from the right in the US, to the left in the UK.

But blurting out "The Great Game” rather than offering real analysis of the region is not going to help anyone understand what’s really at stake here and how to deal with it.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Somalia’s Slim Hope

This article, by and my collegue Daniela Kroslak and me, was published in Reuters comment pages, "The Great Debate", on 10 February 2009.


Pirates, Islamists, refugees, anarchy, civil war — not much good news has come out of Somalia in the last couple of decades. With warlord replacing warlord over the years and transitional governments constantly hovering between extremely weak and non-existent on the ground, the temptation will be to view this week’s election of a new Somali president with an eye-rolling, “so what?”

Yet there is a chance, albeit a slim one, that this moment will mark the start of some small progress for the shattered country. That is, if the international community plays the next few months very carefully and does not let ideology trump pragmatism.

Thursday 5 February 2009

Stop Reporting Somalia?

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 5 February 2009.


As if anyone needed reminding how difficult it is to work as a reporter in Somalia, two fresh events deliver the message clear enough.

The first is the tragically commonplace murder of yet another journalist. This time, it was Said Tahlil Ahmed, director of the influential independent radio station HornAfrik, shot dead in Mogadishu's Bakara Market on 4 February. He was the fourth HornAfrik journalist -- and its second director -- killed since 2007. Tahlil was also the second Somali journalist killed already this year.

Monday 26 January 2009

BBC Should Overturn Its Refusal to Show Gaza Appeal

This originally ran on my Reuters Alertnet blog on 26 January 2009.


With foot clearly in the crosshairs, the BBC has decided not to broadcast the appeal of the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) for humanitarian relief in Gaza. Blocking the umbrella group of 13 aid agencies from the airwaves doesn't make a lot of sense, but it sure is making headlines.

Writing in the Times, Andrew Roberts defends the BBC's decision, because he believes many of the agencies are "anti-Israeli" and "deeply partisan". It's a pretty rough attack on the cream of the British aid community -- the DEC includes ActionAid, the British Red Cross, CAFOD, Care International, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children, among others. But worse, the author then goes on to reveal his own ideological bias without any attempt at balance whatsoever, undermining his argument immediately: not showing the appeal becomes just as partisan a move as showing it would be.

But has the BBC really got itself caught in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't controversy over the DEC's Gaza appeal? Maybe not. Perhaps they just need to put down the political lens and look at this through a different one.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Czech Art Shocks Brussels

As I walked into the European Council building in Brussels for a pair of meetings yesterday, my eyes were led upward by multiple fingers pointing amidst audible breaths being drawn in to an enormous new art installation. Entropa depicts the EU as a build-it-yourself set of plastic parts, with each country represented by a blunt stereotype.

Italy is a football pitch, Germany a spread of autobahns in which those with the intention to do so might see a swastika, Sweden is wrapped up in a flat-pack Ikea box, and the UK, perceived as more eurosceptic than most, is noted by its complete absence. The Netherlands is under water apart from a few minarets, and in Poland, a Catholic clergy raises the gay rainbow flag.

The group I was with mostly laughed, getting the joke right away: we Europeans have such simplistic prejudices about each other -- and among ourselves within individual countries -- and Europe will not be built until these mental barriers really start coming down.

But many of those gasping at it clearly found it offensive, and it has sparked controversy in the media. Admittedly, Bulgaria, which comes off as a squat toilet, might have a bit more to gripe about than others.

And the Czechs, who currently hold the six-month rotating presidency and commissioned the work, were somewhat embarrassed when it emerged that the artist, David Černý, had apparently scammed them, having initially told them the work was made by 27 EU artists when he created the whole thing himself. But, come on, Prague: you commissioned David Černý -- what did you expect but controversy?

Even still, to me, it's brilliant: great art, provoking some wonderful conversations and hopefully breaking people out of their day-to-day complacency. Once again, I am amazed people just don't get humourous political art.

Let's admit it, here in Brussels we all hear the same kinds of national stereotypes coming from some of those who actually work in the EU institutions. Many people seem to ask almost as a matter of course what member state a person in a particular position in the system comes from, and then they immediately make sweeping judgements about how that person will respond to a request or explanations of behaviour in the style of, "ah, well, he’s from X, so that explains it". Then, a wave of knowing nods around the table. We have yet to make Europeans even among those most likely to feel comfortable with that identity.

Ať žije David Černý!

Monday 12 January 2009

Does Media Commentary Change Minds?

This ran in my Reuters AlertNet blog in January 2009. I think the date was the 12th, but I'm not 100% sure. The original disappeared in early 2011 unfortunately.


I wonder: am I wasting my time? No, that's not the self-pitying observation of a middle-aged man fast approaching another birthday in a couple days time. I mean, professionally, am I putting too much effort into the wrong things?

In my job, I am supposed to be helping to move the public debate -- or at least elite opinion -- in the direction of policies that will assist in the peaceful resolution of conflicts. In trying to do this, I spend a lot of time writing, editing and placing op-eds and commentary articles in media outlets around the world. Now, I've just read an opinion piece that tells me it might not be worth it.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Gaza: If Not the EU, Who?

My Crisis Group colleague, Robert Blecher, and I penned this for the European Voice on 7 January 2009. It was reprinted in a number of national outlets across Europe.


The collapse of the weak ceasefire in December and the return to all-out conflict between Israel and Gaza under Hamas has tempted many to say, "here we go again", with comparisons to the summer 2006 Israel-Lebanon war flowing freely from the keyboards of commentators everywhere.

Indeed, there are some similarities: provoked once too often, Israel responded then as now with overwhelming military power against an Islamist force and the civilian infrastructure, resulting in enormous casualties for which both sides blame each other. The international community is split on how to act, as the US tacitly gives Israel a green light to carry on its attack and the Arab world shouts and cries with little effect. All the while, the horror and humiliation are stoking the next generation’s militancy.

The question this time, however, is whether anyone in the international community has learned the lessons of 2006.