The Screaming Pen

Providing Global Insight, Context, and Perspective

In Shallah

What to Make of Somalia

Until recently, Somalia had been relegated to the depressingly long list of squalid, penurious places so depraved that no one much hoped for any sunny result. The international community largely disregarded Somalia, because hadn’t they tried to help the country before? That forlorn hope ended gruesomely with Black Hawk Down and the messy withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers in 1993, which additionally helped dissuade foreign intervention elsewhere in Rwanda a year later at the cost of 1 million lives. Spurned and with no supreme interests at stake, the world gave up on Somalia.

In the meantime, Somalia’s capital Mogadishu continued to be one of the most violent and dangerous cities in the world. A prime example of a “failed state,” murderous warlords ruled the country and governmental institutions were non-existent; there was no central bank, foreign aid groups ran makeshift hospitals, and Islamists operated private schools. The international community’s half-hearted efforts to help out centered on propping up an interim government, led by Abdullah Yusuf, that is only nominally in charge of the country. When trying to return to Mogadishu last year he was shot at, and forced to flee in opprobrium. Moreover, as a former warlord many Somalis think Yusuf an Ethiopian stooge, which is hardly a favorable association in a country that’s long been at odds with its northern neighbor.

Looking for a New Career?

Frustrated by rapacious warlords, anomie, and political impotence, Somalis turned to the Islamic Courts Union. The Union began as a collection of local courts settling routine grievances and grew as militias turned out to enforce decisions, eventually coalescing to challenge and defeat the warlords.

So far the judgment is mixed. The ICU’s militias are imposing order and making the streets safe for the first time in memory. Optimistic stories abound of shops reopening and citizens venturing outside without bodyguard or arms. Yet others fear the introduction of Taliban-style theocracy and extreme rectitude. Indeed, there are already rumors of movie theater closings and beatings dealt out to young lovers for frolicking in public. Ultimately, there are more questions than answers at the moment.

Outsiders’ main concern is, unsurprisingly, with terrorism. Yusuf for one is claiming that the ICU is filled with foreign jihadists, although doing so also favors his own agenda; ICU gains are wresting control of territory from his grip. Long before recent interest in the country it was rumored that the CIA was channeling aid to the warlords so long as they kept al-Qaeda out. The ICU does appear to have a varied makeup, ranging from moderate to opportunistic and extreme.

The next concern centers on intervention. Such thoughts are premature, however, because despite recent media interest in the country there remains no legitimate party capable of effective governance that is therefore worthy of support. Unfortunately for Somalis, intervention may come from Ethiopia, which reports indicate has been moving contingents towards the town of Baidoa where Yusuf is holed up.

More promisingly, the ICU and the interim government recognized each other today and signed a cease-fire mediated by the Arab League. Surprisingly perhaps, Somalia’s kismet may not be entirely gloomy: breakaway regions of the country – Puntland and Somaliland – are already safe by comparison. Reassuringly, the concession with Yusuf wouldn’t have occured were al-Qaeda running the ICU. If moderation prevails Somalis may at last be able to affect how their country is governed.

Other peoples are itching for the day when this opportunity is afforded them. In Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the oil monarchies and beyond, volatility and years of conflict are likely to pass before extremism’s inability to build a healthy society is exposed. No matter others’ prior experience with this, oppressed peoples throughout the Islamic crescent can’t be told that currently oppressive regimes are better than an alternative they’ve never tried, especially when it claims to have all the answers and promises eternal salvation. Once given the chance extremism will be shown for the failure that it is, people will tire of listlessness, and they’ll search for a sensible alternative. Let’s hope Somalia has already reached that point.


 2006. All rights reserved.

June 23, 2006 Posted by | Africa, Country Profiles, Intervention, Politics, Somalia, The War on Terror | 2 Comments

Sin Padre, Thy Wither

How Venezuela, Iran, China, and Russia are Undermining Human Rights Everywhere

If you’re ever feeling overly happy and want to come down a bit, take a survey of the human condition around the world. Among a sea of rights violators in Africa, you’ll find the worst cases in Darfur, the D.R. Congo, Somalia, Eritrea, and Cote d’Ivoire. Robert Mugabe is systematically destroying Zimbabwe. The Middle East has long seen gross injustice and political repression in Syria, Iran, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Turkey has its Kurdish problem, which flares up from time to time when it feels Europe slipping away. To the north, Russia fights endlessly in the Caucuses and forces compulsory military service on its poor, dehumanizing a generation of young men with beatings and forced labor. Political opponents are jailed and attacked. Andijan and the “Stans” of Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, and North Korea. Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela, the favelas of Brazil and the poverty of Bolivia and Peru. The folks at Human Rights Watch are depressingly busy.

Depends on How You Look at It

Yet in spite of this dispiriting image and the gruesome confrontations between riot police and protesters caught on tape for everyone see, the news is not all disheartening. To be sure, most of these places were never free, open, or safe. It is only because of modern communication and the existence of vociferous groups like Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders that one can list the egregious examples above. And there are also examples of places where life has improved: autocratic dictators are out in Indonesia, the Philippines, Chile, South Korea, Spain, parts of eastern Europe, and the states of the former Yugoslavia. Something may finally be done about Darfur. And perhaps most importantly, great power war has been avoided for sixty years.

Sportily Taking in a Soccer Match

So between the good news and the bad, what the world needs is a state or organization exerting pressure on countries to uphold human rights. Near-inherent anti-Americanism means that most of the world no longer views the United States as this model, with consequences for both equality and U.S. objectives of every stripe. The United Nations is a misunderstood body that is limited here because it is merely a collection of self-interested states. Europe espouses many of the right ideals but is mostly focused on itself, often has an uncomplicated view of the world, and has its own internal conflicts to settle.

What the world does not need is a provider of money and material through which outcast regimes can sustain themselves in the face of international pressure. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was this source and when it broke apart Syria, Cuba, and other former dependents found it far harder to resist outside pressure. Desiccation of patronage led to the signing of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, largely because of a trickle down effect: without Soviet support Syria couldn’t continue to fund Palestinian resistance on par with American aid to Israel. Syria is weak now for this reason; without oil so too would be Iran and other former Soviet clients.

With Friends Like These

But today there is oil, and there are several antagonists capitalizing on anti-Americanism and spreading their largesse with debilitating effects for human rights. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is using oil profits to destroy institutions within his own country, promote populist movements (see the election of Evo Morales), and reportedly to fund resistance in Colombia. Fidel Castro has found renewed sustenance through friendship with Chavez. Iran – crucially demonstrating that the Iranian issue encompasses more than just the nuclear dispute – is channeling aid to Hamas in Palestine and trying to build ties from Indonesia to Venezuela. In an effort to isolate Taiwan, China is active in Africa (Zimbabwe, Sudan), Asia (North Korea, Burma), and to a lesser degree Latin America. In unison with Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China helps prop up Central Asian dictators.

Patronage from all of these states allows rights violators to defy international norms while finding support elsewhere and thus avoiding isolation. Minatory characters everywhere find it easy to become eloquent, usurp valid arguments, and draw more reasonable people to their side (see Ahmadinejad’s letter to George Bush). Without a paragon of virtue the debate becomes muddled, the message unconvincing, and gross human rights violations overshadowed.


 2006. All rights reserved.

May 30, 2006 Posted by | Africa, Author: DML, China, Darfur, Foreign Aid, Hamas, Human Rights, Iran, Israel, Korea, Middle East, Oil, Palestine, Politics, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United States, Venezuela | 1 Comment

When Words Matter

Darfur Genocide & Intervention

Until Raphael Lemkin invented the term, genocide was “a crime without a name.” A Jewish linguist from Poland who survived the Holocaust, Lemkin was determined to give name to this peerless atrocity in order to distinguish it from all other crimes; without classification its manifestations would be impossible to identify and prevent.

After years of tireless effort, Lemkin succeeded: in 1948 the United Nations passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention was the first of several developments that appeared to shift the debate from “the right to intervene” to “the responsibility to protect,” and thus transfer the balance of power from murderous regimes shielded by sovereignty to outside powers willing to rescue victims of mass slaughter.

The familiar mantra became “never again.” Never would Hitler’s rampage, which engulfed the entire European continent and led to 100 million deaths, be allowed to repeat itself. Yet hopes were dashed with unspeakable tragedy meted out to entire generations in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and (some argue) Biafra. For over 50 years the world averted its eyes and refused to use the word genocide, because doing so would under the Convention trigger “such action…as [U.N. members] consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.” Without significant “national interests” at stake, the entire world was unwilling to take tough measures, spinelessly betraying the intent if not the letter of the convention.

Don’t look Away

This Time Different?

When Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2004 that “genocide has been committed in Darfur,” it was clearly no mean statement. Powell’s calculated and deliberate statement intended to exert pressure on Sudan’s government. Many also saw it as progress in the world’s response to genocide. For the first time a government with power to act called the crime for it was, while it was going on, and one could be forgiven for thinking substantial action would follow.

Yet two years on, and more than three since the forced relocation, rape, and extermination of Darfuris – mainly black Africans – by Arab militias known as the janjaweed, much talk has been followed by only a small African Union force incapable of preventing the catastrophe. Somewhat promisingly though, May 5th saw the signing of a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the largest rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army. In this, Sudan agreed to admit a U.N. force, and hopes are that even if the agreement doesn’t hold up – due to obstruction from smaller Darfuri rebel groups or incorrigible janjaweed militias difficult to rein in – peacekeepers can be inserted anyway.

While this is clearly a cheerful development, it is far from a panacea. Past U.N. peacekeeping operations have shown that their presence hardly guarantees an end to the slaughter. U.N. soldiers literally watched and then withdrew after the loss of ten of their own, leaving a million (mostly) Tutsis to be exterminated through Hutu rage in Rwanda in 1994. To be fair, the U.N. force failed to act because of a weak mandate from pusillanimous member countries. U.N. action is nothing more than the sum of its members’ will; the organization cannot independently solve the world’s most intractable problems and thus shouldn’t bear any blame alone.

Nor should any country be expected to respond to humanitarian crises unilaterally, as unseen dangers often arise and such costs must be distributed among nations. Political cover must also be shared to prevent engendering animosity toward the occupying force, which naturally becomes a catchall for complaints. Instead, cooperation is needed from all: America, the European Union, China, Russia, the Arab League, and the African Union. A robust mandate should be given to a U.N. force, and if this proves inadequate a NATO contingent should take the lead. Only then can the world justly proclaim “never again.”


 2006. All rights reserved.

Note: For a thorough examination of genocide in the 20th century see Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” Information in the first half of this article was drawn from the book.

May 19, 2006 Posted by | Africa, Author: DML, Darfur, Human Rights, Intervention, Politics, Sudan, United States | 1 Comment