Monthly Archives: April 2009

Sri Lankan Humanitarian Crisis Deserves Attention

The most recent issue of the Progressive (here) and today’s Guardian UK (here) have compelling articles about the growing cause for alarm in Sri Lanka.  The MSM has widely reported about the number of civilians trapped in the shrinking area held by the remainder of the LTTE, but has done little to explain the complex nature of the conflict.

As Amitabh Pal quoted in his article “Today, most reasonable people in Sri Lanka would agree that the Tigers and the war with them arose as a consequence of a long-unresolved ethnic conflict,” writes activist and intellectual Jehan Perera (original article here).  “As such, the Tigers are clearly but a symptom of a deeper problem. … Eliminating the Tigers will not terminate the ethnic conflict.”

Perhaps this is one of the saddest aspects of the recent spike in media coverage, that it has tended to oversimplify the current state of affairs on the island by constantly reiterating that the civil war is on the verge of ending through a decisive military victory.  Much like other long standing ethnic or racial conflicts, events in Sir Lanka are bound to linger and will most likely prove to be impossible to solve through the use of force alone.  An analysis about this can be found in an article that compares the Sinhalese/Tamil conflict to the Arab/Isreali conflict in Palestine at Global Post (here).

Whatever the case, the conflict in Sri Lanka is on the verge of getting even bloodier, even if it is no closer to actually being over.

New Evidence of Torture Prison in Poland

As pressure mounts on Obama to launch an investigative commission to research who breached the Covenent Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory, new details are starting to come out about other countries that will potentially be implicated as aiding and abetting the US in committing such crimes.   Der Spiegel has an article online today (here) that discusses the newly revealed evidence about the black site used in Poland by the CIA to use harsh interrogation techniques against the mastermind of 9/11 Khalid Sheikh Mohammed when he was en route to Guantanamo.

The article states that – “Journalist Mariusz Kowalewski at Rzeczpospolita and two colleagues have been searching for months now for proof of the existence of a secret CIA base in Poland. The journalists have discovered flight record books from Szymany that had been declared lost, and based on refueling receipts and currency exchange rates, they have reconstructed flights and routes, and spoken with informants. Over the past few weeks, their newspaper and the television network TVP Info have revealed new details on an almost daily basis.

Kowalewski has collected a wide range of documents on his white Apple laptop. He is convinced, though, that he only knows “a fraction of what actually happened.” He is certain that there was a CIA base in the Masuria region, where high-ranking al-Qaida prisoners were brought. All that is missing is the final piece of evidence. There are rumors circulating that one of the most important interrogators of Sheikh Mohammed, an American named Deuce Martinez — the man who didn’t torture him, but rather had the task of gently coaxing information out of him — was in Poland at the time.”

With the discovery of such evidence pieces are starting to fall into place.  Now comes the more complex legal questions about who will be held accountable.  It is clear that over time the actions of CIA officials, non-US intelligence agents, contracted groups (such as Jeppesen Dataplan or Aero Contractors), and a whole raft of others.  As Chinua Achebe said in Things Fall Apart “if oil finds one finger it soils the others,” which is a very real way to think about how many individuals and country stand to be potentially tainted by the revealing of the US’s actions during the war on terror.

If Everyone Knew, Who’s to Blame?

Mark Danner had a great piece in the Sunday Washington Post (here) that discusses one of the central paradoxes of the current furor over the torture memos – that it was first reported over 5 years ago in 2004.  So if the information was public knowledge for the entire second term of the Bush Administration, why did nothing happen?

As Danner states – “Unlike Watergate or Iran-contra, today’s scandal emerges not from a shocking revelation of wrongdoing but from a long process of disclosure during which Americans have stared at blatant lawbreaking with apparent equanimity. This means Democrats as well as Republicans, including those in Congress who were willing to approve, as late as September 2006, a law, the Military Commissions Act, that purported to shield those who had applied these “enhanced interrogation techniques” from prosecution under the War Crimes Act.”

He also discusses the calculated nature of the memos and how they were written exactly for the current moment – to make persecution nearly impossible without dragging a broad spectrum of the American government into the public spotlight in a way that few high level politicians would ever want.

It is worth reading and reminds us how difficult it is going to be for Obama to successfully navigate this issue without getting his image potentially tarnished.

Reclaiming America’s Soul

Krugman hit the nail on the head today in today’s NY Times opinion page, even if I have a natural aversion to an analysis that have as an underlying basis American exceptionalism.  Krugman’s wonderfully simple breakdown of all the reasons why Obama should establish a truth commission to investigate instances of torture and human rights abuses during the Bush administration’s war on terror.  Therefore, I have decided to reprint the overwhelming majority of it below –

“In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. “This government does not torture people,” declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay: laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient. But is there any real reason to believe that the nation would pay a high price for accountability?

For example, would investigating the crimes of the Bush era really divert time and energy needed elsewhere? Let’s be concrete: whose time and energy are we talking about?

Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.

I don’t know about you, but I think America is capable of uncovering the truth and enforcing the law even while it goes about its other business.

Still, you might argue — and many do — that revisiting the abuses of the Bush years would undermine the political consensus the president needs to pursue his agenda.

But the answer to that is, what political consensus? There are still, alas, a significant number of people in our political life who stand on the side of the torturers. But these are the same people who have been relentless in their efforts to block President Obama’s attempt to deal with our economic crisis and will be equally relentless in their opposition when he endeavors to deal with health care and climate change. The president cannot lose their good will, because they never offered any.

That said, there are a lot of people in Washington who weren’t allied with the torturers but would nonetheless rather not revisit what happened in the Bush years.

Some of them probably just don’t want an ugly scene; my guess is that the president, who clearly prefers visions of uplift to confrontation, is in that group. But the ugliness is already there, and pretending it isn’t won’t make it go away.

Others, I suspect, would rather not revisit those years because they don’t want to be reminded of their own sins of omission.

For the fact is that officials in the Bush administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract “confessions” that would justify that war. And during the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.

It’s hard, then, not to be cynical when some of the people who should have spoken out against what was happening, but didn’t, now declare that we should forget the whole era — for the sake of the country, of course.

Sorry, but what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions — not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws.

We need to do this for the sake of our future. For this isn’t about looking backward, it’s about looking forward — because it’s about reclaiming America’s soul.”

The president is having trouble straightening out his position on torture

Over the last week there have been a downpour of analysis about the potential political implications and impact of Obama releasing four memos (here) that explicitly discussed the use of torture in the fight against terrorism during the Bush administration.  Those on the left feel Obama didn’t go far enough – in that he has stated that he will not seek criminal charges against the CIA agents and their proxies – and those on the right, like Cheney, feel that he went too far – in that it exposes America’s dirty laundry for the world to judge and doesn’t discuss the (alleged) valuable intelligence that these tactics produced.  In many ways none of this need be so complicated – crimes against humanity were committed by those who engaged in terrorism and those who tortured the suspected terrorists in Guantanamo, Bagram Airbase, Abu Ghraib and any number of CIA black sites.  So why has Obama struggled so much with his handling of this?

I found John Dickerson’s piece at Slate (here) particularly useful, in that Obama has done this several times since assuming the presidency.  In particular, the problems that emerged after the AIG bonus scandal became a populist phenom overnight and sent people crawling through the Connecticut suburbs looking for vengeance.   In both instances, what becomes clear is that Obama wants to try and put the messes of the Bush administration behind him without having to fully explain himself, at least not initially.

One the one hand, I can understand why Obama doesn’t want to have his first term consumed with something like a Truth Commission, since the Republicans and Fox would turn it into a media spectacle that would make the OJ trial look like an afterschool mini-series.  But, on the other hand, these issues are not going to disappear and the truth must come out if America is to regain its moral standing – whether it deserved it in the first place is also debatable.  So here is my humble opinion on what should happen –

1) Debar the individuals from the Office of Legal Council that provided the legal cover for torture to occur, namely, Jay Bybee (who would need to be impeached from his Federal Court seat and summarily disbarred), John Yoo, and Steven Bradbury.

2) Establish a Truth Commission with subeona power and call Dick Cheney, David Addington, Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzalez, along with any other high level officials to testify about everything they knew, approved of and requested.

3) Reveal the companies that were contracted out by the CIA to conduct this work and conduct a thorough investigation about who approved these acts and make them pay damages in some form that can be used to either prevent acts of torture from happening again, compensates victims of torture in general, and strip them of their licenses for doing any future work with the US government.

Naturally, this simplifies matters, but it is what I believe needs to happen.   As impressed as I was that Obama released these memos (see Marc Ambinder article here), he really does seem to have lost the threat on being able to follow through on the implications of releasing such information.  I still in my heart of heart am convinced that Obama wants to do the right thing on this issue, but I just wish that he would do it then, rather than continually trying to hedge his bets.  As vocal as the Republicans and ex-VP Cheney have been about Obama’s betrayal of the nation and its security, he knows that they have no chance of regaining power through such antics alone.  Time will tell.

The Schizophrenia of Capital Cities

Global Post has an interesting piece on the deep division between rich and poor in Brussels (here), which made me think about why this seems to be the case with most political capitals.

Having recently been to Brussels for the first time, I can attest to the fact that the city does seem deeply divided in many ways.  There is an entire quarter dedicated to the offices of the European Union that seems strangely out of sync with the remainder of the city, but that clearly must support the massive restaurant and bar culture that I saw everywhere in Brussels.  I know that Belgian beer is incredibly good, but only a highly paid flock of 30,000+ bureaucrats could support such a broad array of places where one could grab a pint.

All of this made me think of other world capitals I have been in where this seems to be the case, like DC (see here), London, Mexico City, Paris, etc. etc.  Now on the one hand, I can certainly understand why capital cities attract so many immigrants – work options, diversity, better known, etc.  What is also interesting to me is how this seems to be one thing that the developed and developing world share in common.

The piece definitely sheds light on the schizophrenia that exists in Brussels and elsewhere.  It points out that Brussels currently has almost 17% unemployment, in comparison to the 8% average in the European Union.  Even Spain, which has been a magnet for immigration to the European Union for many of the same reasons, has only 15% unemployment.

Just a quick article that caught my attention…

Coming Home to Rwanda

Michael Abromowitz’s has an article (here) that follows up earlier stories that started surfacing in February (here) about Hutu irregulars returning from the Congo to Rwanda.  Considering how bad things have been over the last decade, it is long overdue.

According to Abromowitz “In recent months, however, things have begun to take a curious—and potentially positive—turn. Congo and Rwanda, which for years have been on opposite sides of the war, are now apparently working together. In January, in an about-face, Rwanda arrested Laurant Nkunda, a man believed to be one of Rwanda’s leading proxy commanders. Shortly afterwards, Congo joined Rwanda in joint operations taking aim at the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – the violent guerrilla army organized by Hutus exiled from Rwanda, who still harbor dreams of retaking power. Congo and Rwanda’s collaborative efforts have succeeded in flushing out hundreds of these Hutu guerrillas, sending them to this “demobilization” camp near the Congo/Rwanda border (where they are re-educated to coexist with their former enemies) for peaceful repatriation to their country of birth.”

There are other factors that aren’t mentioned in the article, such as the potential that Joseph Kabila’s victory in the DRC’s first democratic election in the summer of 2006  might play in this or the successes of the Rwandan gacaca courts in convincing people that they won’t be killed if they return.   Now neither of these processes were perfect, they both represented a form of progress and a strengthening of civil society in both countries.

Hopefully, this is the start of something bigger.  Rwanda was one of the richest countries in Africa prior to the genocide in 1994 and the DRC continues to have an embarrassment of mineral riches even after over a century of being largely exploited by other countries.