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.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Sri Lanka's Killing Fields (Channel 4)

Last night, Channel 4 in the UK aired a chilling program on the final days of Sri Lanka’s long civil war, and thankfully, they have made it available for viewing worldwide for the next few days.

"Sri Lanka's Killing Fields" is disturbing. It is revolting. It is horrific. It is also without question one of the best pieces of television journalism on conflict I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a fair bit over the years.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Friends, Followers and Policy Makers

Social Media and High-Level Advocacy in International Affairs

Facebook and Twitter are impacting even the last bastion of the traditional power establishment, the world of international affairs and diplomacy. This is not simply the wishful thinking of some new media guru a few years ahead of the curve. I'm not dreaming about the future; I'm looking at real numbers today. And no, I don't mean the counts of those who have signed up to ambassador X or Y's stream of fairly dull Tweets. "Followers" is vanity, web stats are sanity.

The specific example I'll use to prove my case comes from the International Crisis Group's recent work on Libya, but really I could use just about anything current, as we've had identical lessons from other cases, ever more so as time goes on. The following represents a trend we've seen building over the last two years.

Monday 17 January 2011

Congratulations, Mr Karimov!

I wrote this piece for the European Voice on 17 January 2011, just before the visit of Uzbek President Islam Karimov to Brussels. It deals with a serious subject, of course, but I have to admit I greatly enjoyed writing it in this sardonic tone. The article got a lot of attention (for a piece about Uzbekistan), and I was particularly happy to receive emails from inside the country from people who had heard it translated and broadcast via shortwave.


On the eve of your first official visit to Brussels in years, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, you deserve high praise. You have played the long game expertly and outmanoeuvred European foreign-policy makers so deftly that you have become a model of how to shrug off international pariah status.

Any old authoritarian ruler can dismiss UN reports of “systematic” torture in police custody and human-rights groups' long lists of political prisoners. But you managed to overcome so much more and win yourself a welcoming reception by José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, which is far more than the average tin-pot dictator from, say, Africa or Belarus ever gets.