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Dear Trump supporter

January 20, 2017

He’s no Obama. But it was a good speech. I’ll give you that.  Or maybe I should say, it was the speech that you needed to hear.

I can see the hope in your faces. The hope that in Donald Trump, you’ve finally found a Fixer-in-Chief. That he will be able to bring back American jobs. That he will restore America’s standing in the world. That he will make America feared and loved, and Great, once more.


Jan 20, 2017. Photo credit Daily Mail.

I get why you’ve put your faith in him. I see what he inspires. There is some truth mixed in with the drivel. On corruption. On political correctness. On losing your status in society. I feel your rage because the system feels unfair and unjust to me too. I know that slow-burning anger that has been building up over decades. Because, let’s face it, you have been betrayed by your political leaders, on the left and the right. Your Congress and your politics is so broken that you’re desperate to try anything. I get it.

Trump feels like your last chance- your best hope at turning back time to an era when there was certainty that if you did what you were supposed to do, you’d be able to buy your own house, live in a safe neighborhood, and send your kids to a decent school. That promise of the American dream is dying.

It used to be that if you were smart and worked hard, you could slowly climb your way to the top. These days, the chances of that happening are unlikely. Kids who were born in the poorest 20% of US households have a 7.5% chance of making it into the richest 20%. In Canada, if you are born in the bottom 20%, you have a 13% chance of moving into the richest 20%. The American myth that anyone can make it…. well, it just doesn’t apply anymore. That part of the social contract has been broken.

Those who have been in charge of your government- including Democrats, especially Democrats- should be kicking themselves today. Because it was our politicians who let this happen. But they didn’t do it by themselves. We, the voters, also let this happen.

But I want to tell you something else. Something that politicians of all stripes are too scared to tell you.

The truth is that those jobs aren’t coming back to the US, the UK, or any rich OECD country. And it’s not all because of China either. Globalization, automation, and now artificial intelligence– these factors are as much to blame as China’s WTO ascension and their economic espionage.

The forces that created that cheap and powerful iPhone in our pockets are the same ones that are vastly increasing inequality within the US. You can’t have your iPhone and eat it too. But that’s what Donald Trump is promising you.

I hope we can at least agree that Donald Trump discriminates against women and minorities. Maybe you recognized this, and voted for him anyway.

But what you may not realize is that his divide-and-conquer strategy will harm the foundations of American democracy. Because the thing that makes America truly great- its openness and embrace of newcomers from all over the world- is slowly being replaced by fear and paranoia about those who are different in any way.

For the past 6 months, I’ve been watching President Trump destroy his opposition piece-by-piece using this strategy.

So far, he has co-opted his strongest opponents by pretending to placate them- witness one Mitt Romney who was wined and dined by candlelight at Trump Tower. And every single one of his opponents has fallen for it. Masterful.

Inside the Democratic Party, he has created rancor and division without doing a thing- What to do? Resist, fight back, co-operate where possible? He is also destroying the credibility of all opposition in the mainstream media- which has done itself no favors by idiotically hanging on his every tweet. CNN now has #fakenews as part of its byline thanks to President Trump.

Maybe you think that they, all of them, deserved it. But trust me- this isn’t what you want. Because one day, he will break his promises and turn on you too, and there will be no one left to speak up for you and your family.


Colombia: Use the Truth Commission to Open up the Peace Process

August 22, 2016

By Christine Cheng and Charlie de Rivaz

Published in La Semana (a major Colombian magazine) on July 8, 2016. En español aquí.

Summary: With the Colombian government and the FARC on the brink of signing a final peace agreement, it is time to open up what has so far been a closed process. A step in the right direction would be to place the principles of public consultation and community outreach at the center of the process for selecting Commissioners for Colombia’s Truth Commission.   

Handshakes all around.

Handshakes all around.

Last week, the Colombian government and the FARC reached a deal on a bilateral ceasefire, paving the way for a final peace agreement to be signed.  Despite the fact that all of the concluded peace agreements are publicly available, Colombian citizens have had very little say in the negotiations. The peace process has largely been conducted behind closed doors in Havana. While the need for secrecy was understandable when the peace talks first began, the government now needs to win the support the support of the public. The process must be opened up or else the government will lose public support for whatever deal is reached, along with the proposed referendum on that deal.

It has taken almost four years to reach this point. With the promise of a referendum on the final peace agreement, the government must begin to address the public’s concerns. How can society ensure that those responsible for past abuses are held accountable? How will Colombians enforce justice while aspiring for reconciliation after suffering through half a century of violence? Colombians remain deeply divided on how they believe justice and reconciliation would best be achieved.

But the one thing that Colombians do agree on is the need for truth. Without truth, there can be no justice and reconciliation. Victims of human rights abuses and serious violations of international humanitarian law deserve to know what happened to them, who did it, and why they did it.

Colombia’s Truth Commissioners will be chosen by a nine-person Selection Committee, which will seek nominations from around the country and abroad, and then spend three months vetting the candidates and making its final selection. Unfortunately, the agreement offers precious little detail about how the selection process will work in practice. We have written a report – published this week – that offers ideas for choosing Truth Commissioners at each stage of the selection process. Our report draws from the range of experiences of truth commissions in other countries, and builds on the legacy of Colombia’s National Center of Historical Memory.

The process for selecting Colombia’s Truth Commissioners provides an important opportunity for President Santos and Sergio Jaramillo, the High Commissioner for Peace, to open up a peace process that many have felt was closed off from public scrutiny. To do this successfully, public consultation and community outreach are key. The selection process must not be dominated by the elite. Rather, the process must reach all parts of Colombia, especially the areas that suffered the most violence.

Truth commissions in other countries demonstrate the importance of public engagement in choosing commissioners. In Kenya, the selection committee did not seek feedback from the public before it made its final selection. Had it done so, it would have become clear that the proposed chair of the truth commission, Bethuel Kiplagat, was unsuitable for the job because of his alleged complicity in gross human rights violations. The controversy prompted the resignation of the truth commission’s vice-chair, Betty Murungi, and irrevocably undermined the legitimacy of the commission. A lack of consultation with the public similarly damaged the 2003 truth commission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Of course, genuine public consultation takes time, and there is a danger that the public may lose patience with the selection process if it takes too long. As such, a balance must be struck between leaving sufficient time for consultation and maintaining the momentum of the peace process. But opening up the process is key. First, it will empower and educate ordinary Colombians. By giving the public the chance to nominate candidates for Commissioner or allowing them to follow the interview process, the public will become more vested in the peace itself. At the same time, public conversations about the candidates will bring about a greater sense of public ownership of the Truth Commission and, by extension, the peace process itself.

In Sierra Leone, after the initial selection process stalled, publicly re-advertising the truth commissioners’ positions educated the public about the role and importance of the commission and the qualities needed to become a commissioner. In Timor-Leste (2002) and South Africa (1994), the interview process for the shortlisted candidates took on the form of public hearings, which gave the public a greater sense of ownership over the process.

An open selection process would provide yet another entry point into the national conversation about the peace process – further opening up a space for civil society to question, to debate, to criticize – and to set the tone for the post-conflict transition. Undoubtedly, powerful factions will express their anger and frustration with the peace process, but allowing these protests to be aired is important. While the political ruptures this conversation provokes may be destabilizing in the short run, Colombia’s peace will ultimately be more robust in the long run.

Of course, there is the danger that the selection process and the Truth Commission itself will be seen as political instruments rather than instruments of societal healing. If these are viewed as a way of doing the president’s bidding, and the Commissioners are not viewed as independent from the government, people will not come forward to testify and the process will lead to political disaffection.

The truth process is an important mechanism for restoring balance to society. It will give victims a voice, let perpetrators apologize, and bring closure to families who have long wondered what happened to their loved ones. Colombia’s truth commission will write the story of a war that began over five decades ago. Choosing the right people to lead the process of truth-telling will determine whether or not this will be an honest process. The Truth Commissioners will set the tone for the kind of peace Colombians want to enjoy, and the kind of society that Colombians want to live in. Here is a clear opportunity for the president and the FARC to define a path of integrity for the new Truth Commission, and for the country. They must seize it with both hands.

*          *          *

For a full discussion, please read our CSDRG Policy Brief, Colombia- SelectingTruthCommissioners. En español aquí Colombia-SeleccionDeComisionados.

Charlie de Rivaz is Editorial Assistant at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and a graduate of the Conflict, Security, and Development program at King’s College London.

Special thanks to Sofia Liemann and Paola Ferrero Moya for translation assistance.

Why we teach

March 10, 2016

If you’ve ever taught, you know how rewarding it can be. The transformation can seem almost magical sometimes as you watch students stretch themselves intellectually, week after week, term by term. You can feel the progress and its accompanying struggle, as students eke out their gains, reading by reading, one problem set at a time. You listen as they experiment with different viewpoints, trying each one on for size. And you fight the urge to jump for joy when you see them nail it- a presentation, an essay, a moment of insight. This is undoubtedly one of the most gratifying parts of my job as an academic. It feels good when you know that you’ve taught them well- even when they can’t yet appreciate it for themselves.


Then there’s the icing on the cake: every once in a while, you receive an out-of-the-blue heartfelt thank you. An unexpected visit from a student you haven’t seen for years; gifts in your mailbox (like my favourite polkadot teapot); or a thank you note that comes months or years after the final lecture, long after the diplomas have been awarded. Recently, I received one of these thank yous and it brought me a lot of joy. After some thought, I asked my student if I could share her words.

Dear Christine,
I hope this finds you well.
I never got around to emailing you after the dissertation frenzy, but they say it’s better late than never.
First of all, I wanted to thank you for the dissertation support. I learned a lot and was pleased to notice that both you and Dr Patel mentioned my evident enthusiasm for the topic and that you appreciated my effort to critique the dominant Anglosaxon perspective- I found that feedback perhaps more important than the grade itself.
I also wanted to thank you for your class on state failure, and for the CSD [Conflict, Security, and Development] lectures. You always brought a ‘fresh’ perspective and attitude to class, and amongst the other lecturers, the fact that you had had extensive experience working in the field was evident and brought much appreciated pragmatism to our discussions.
Shortly after handing in my dissertation last summer I began interning at WFP [World Food Programme] HQ in Rome, where I have been since. Coincidentally, I applied at a time when they were setting up various civil-military projects. The fact that I had written a dissertation on this topic meant that I had background knowledge in a subject that both humanitarians and militaries generally prefer to avoid!
So far I have been loving my job at WFP- I’ve been working in the Emergency Response division and I have learned so much. I have so much respect for the work that is done and the hardworking people that have committed their lives to making our imperfect humanitarian system a little less imperfect.
There are days where, inevitably, I have flashbacks to the CSD/SF [state failure] discussions and moral dilemmas- to your class, to the dominant conclusion to many of our questions: ‘Well, it depends’. I also think a lot about our discussions and what many of you, as teachers, as well as us students were very aware of: that the reality on the ground is so different from what we read about in books. This is clear in my work  at WFP headquarters. As much as we try to design the best options for field conditions, the reality is that those who have to implement these plans will encounter obstacles that we, from the ivory tower perspective, will not be able to take into account.
Anyways, I think I’ve gone on for too long! I really do hope this finds you well and I just wanted to thank you for your class and your teaching. Oh, and you were right about sharing food in class- it really does bring people together.

I teach- we all teach- for moments like this. It’s a reminder to all of us teachers that our words and ideas continue to resonate in students’ minds months and years later…. long after they’ve left our classrooms.

War Studies is hiring *7* permanent/tenure-track faculty, 18 posts in King’s politics

February 18, 2016

Yes, that’s correct. The Dept of War Studies at King’s College London is hiring 7 permanent lecturers + 2 fixed-term lecturers. In addition, Defence Studies (Shrivenham campus) is hiring 8 permanent lecturers, and there are 3 more permanent posts in International Development.

For those who are not from the UK, these are tenure-track positions equivalent to assistant professor. WS is a huge interdisciplinary department (70? tenure-line academics + 50? research associates, teaching fellows). We welcome scholars in history, politics & IR, psychology, geography, area studies, anthropology, sociology, economics, computer science, law.

For more on why you should apply, see here for my sales pitch on working in War Studies at King’s College London. The post is a few years old and the department has grown, but it’s worth a read if you’re thinking about applying. (Our department is awesome- ask anyone.)

Deadline: 20 March 2016. Interviews in April.

Lecturer in War Studies (International History)

Lecturer in International Relations (Diplomacy and Foreign Policy)

Lecturer in War Studies (Social Psychology and Security Studies)
Lecturer in War Studies (East Asian Security and International Relations)
Lecturer in International Relations (Global Governance and Security)
Lecturer in International Relations (Gender and International Relations)
Lecturer in War Studies (Intelligence and Cyber Security)
Lecturer in War Studies (Japan) (1 year)
Lecturer in War Studies (History and Grand Strategy) (2 years)
Lecturer or Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies (8 Posts, yes 8!)
Defence Studies Department, King’s College London (Shrivenham campus, 1 hr outside London)
Note: I only created this post to link all seven posts. Please forward your questions about these positions to the appropriate academic lead at the bottom of each posting (not to me).
3 Bonus posts (also permanent tenured/tenure-track) in the International Development Institute:

Senior Lecturer in International Development (East Asia and Southeast Asia)

2 Lecturers in International Development (East Asia & Southeast Asia)


Unmask the Reviewer- My Response to #AddMaleAuthorGate

May 11, 2015

2015-05 AddmaleauthorgateLast week, there was a big scandal at PLoS One (a major science journal) for some very sexist comments that were made as part of the peer review process. Retraction Watch wrote a nice summary on this. (For twitter commentary, see #addmaleauthorgate.)

Personally, I was floored by how openly sexist the comments were. Usually, sexism is much more subtle- it’s more about things that don’t happen: third author, not first; section chair, not keynote speech; secretary, not president.

John Gill, the Editor of Times Higher Education invited me to respond to this scandal through a Letter to the Editor. I’ve posted it below.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender inequality in higher education- A few examples that come to mind immediately: clear biases in Citation Practices (in international relations, in sciences), Teaching Evaluations, Letters of Recommendation, and Lower Starting Salaries. For a statistical snapshot of the problem in the UK, see Anna Notaro’s piece. More controversially, I would argue that the darker problems of rape culture in the US and Canada, and laddism and harassment in the UK, are related manifestations of how society and its institutions deal with gender inequality.

Male Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Male Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Female Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Female Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

But clearly, the problem of gender inequality is not limited to universities and colleges. It persists globally, in just about every field, and pervades more aspects of our lives than we’d care to admit. Some will read this scandal as an isolated incident, but I assure you, it is not. There is now a fair amount of  hard evidence demonstrating that sexism is systemic. Whether it is conscious or subconscious is debatable- but it is definitely systemic.

#AddMaleAuthorGate only scratches the surface of an inequality that runs very very deep- even then, you will only see it if you choose to look for it. And therein lies the problem- most of us don’t want to see it. Including me.

For the first two decades of my life, I genuinely believed that gender inequality was a dying problem. When I was 18, I laughed at my mom when she told me that I would eventually hit a glass ceiling in my career. I was convinced that by the time I was old enough to enter the workforce, discrimination against women in Canada would be in its twilight years- extinct, like the dinosaurs.

Since that conversation with my mom so long ago, I’ve come to realize that culture and norms are powerful things. Gender inequality is structural, sociological, biological, political, geographical, cultural. It is embedded into the social fabric of our societies, and it will take generations for big changes to take root. In the meantime, here’s my small contribution:

Inexcusable sexism calls for action

7 May 2015

The sexist nature of the peer review comments (suggesting that a paper written by two female researchers ought to include at least one male author to make sure that the data are interpreted correctly and saying that only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science) that were offered in response to Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head’s Plos One journal submission on gender inequality in the life sciences has been met with a roar of public outrage (“‘Sexist’ peer review causes storm online”, 30 April).

As a female academic, I personally found some of the sexist comments (such as only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science) so outlandish that it was difficult to take them seriously. Surely no credible scientist could honestly believe that it is physical stamina that explains men’s publication advantage? That the journal editor(s) accepted such a review without challenge was equally galling.

If these comments were indeed meant to be taken literally, let me ask, rather provocatively: is this a case where the reviewing scientist is so patently sexist that s/he should be unmasked in this particular instance – as a public service to the scientific community? Anonymity plays a very specific function in the research process; when it undermines trust in the system of how work is judged, as demonstrated in this case, should it be withdrawn?

I do not ask this question lightly, but rather because we (myself included) often stand by and tolerate quiet sexism within the walls of academia. If this person is evidently biased, then why are we, as an academic community, protecting such clearly sexist behaviour? If key gatekeepers (such as peer reviewers at major journals) are permitted to express their damaging personal biases without any personal cost to their reputations, then it undermines the trust of female scientists in the fairness of the overall “meritocratic” system. This sense of fairness, by the way, has already been systematically undermined in more ways than a letter allows me to express.

Christine Cheng
Lecturer in war studies
King’s College London

This piece was first published in Times Higher Education on 7 May 2015.

The Art of Academic Writing (for Policy Makers & Everyone Else)

April 21, 2015

Many of my students in the MA in Conflict, Security, and Development at King’s College London have come directly from the policy world. They are diplomats, military commanders, NGO workers, social activists. They bring with them diverse knowledge and skill sets to the classroom, but they also bring with them particular ways of communicating that are very different from what is required of them in academia. Key to this is academic writing.

For people who worked as practitioners, it is hard to understand what could possibly be more important than deriving policy recommendations from a piece of writing. What is the point of writing about something if you can’t decide what to do about it? This is a common complaint of academic writing.

The first thing practitioners should appreciate is that deciding what to do is not the goal of an academic essay or article. The goal usually has to do with understanding the nature of the problem. With a proper diagnosis/analysis/explanation of the phenomenon, policy recommendations will follow.

So, how can practitioners-turned-students learn to write academically? The key point that needs to be appreciated is that what matters is not the impact of the argument on the real world, but rather, how this argument impacts upon the existing literature. The foundation upon which an academic essay is constructed is the literature.

First you need to build comprehension. Start your academic writing journey by reading deeply and understanding how the literature fits together. How are the debates constructed? On what ideas do they build? Where are the agreements and disagreements? How are leading thinkers grouped? What are the big ideas? You need to synthesize these ideas for yourself to figure out what fits where and who is arguing against whom.

Once you fully grasp the importance of the literature, the next task is to mimic the form. The goal here is to learn to write academically (tone, style, word choice, format, methods, presentation style, terminology, citation practices). This is like learning the grammatical rules of a new language. The goal is to look and sound like others in the discipline. If you are writing a sociology paper, you want your work to mimic the way that other sociologists write.

Once you’ve mastered the form, then you need to be able to meaningfully ‘engage with the literature‘. What does that mean? Well, you have to be able to play with it, to dance with it, to critique it, to comment on elements where you agree and disagree. When you’re able to do that, then you’ve found your ‘voice’ and you should put your own ideas into this form.

Once you’ve mastered the form and learned how to engage, you can subvert academic form- if you want. This is the fun part. Now, you can disregard the rules- up to a point. Having developed the confidence to express your ideas in your own style, you can start to improvise, and decide whether you’d like to continue using existing formats, or whether you’d like to create hybrid forms, or whether you’d like to create your own forms of academic expression.

Think about Picasso. He first had to learn classical drawing techniques. He began by copying traditional forms. Then he had to master them, and find his own style within a classical tradition. Finally, he was able to question existing forms, and discard them in order to create new styles and modes of expression.

To recap:

1. Build comprehension.

2. Mimic the academic form of your discipline.

3. Engage with the literature and find your academic voice.

4. (Optional) Experiment with new forms of expressing your ideas.

Buhari’s win- A watershed moment in Nigerian politics

March 31, 2015

Today’s election win for Muhammadu Buhari is a watershed moment in Nigerian politics. The results deserve comment because Nigeria was at a crossroads- and it seems like the citizens made a decision that is going to benefit not just Nigeria itself, but African politics as a whole.

Nigeria's president-elect: General Muhammadu Buhari

Nigeria’s president-elect: General Muhammadu Buhari

Since Goodluck Jonathan officially took power in 2010, he has run Nigeria into the ground. For a taste of these problems, there has been the firing of central banker Sanusi, the mishandling of the Chibok kidnappings, the government’s incompetence in dealing with Boko Haram, and the staggering corruption problems within the Jonathan administration, including $20 billion that went “missing from the account of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.”

I never thought I would say this, but I’m actually happy that a former dictator has won this contest fair and square (thanks to new biometric voter’s cards). Here’s why it’s good for Nigeria, and good for African politics:

1. Nigeria now has a viable opposition party. This will hopefully mean a more inclusive, and more stable political system.

“This is the first time an opposition party with a diverse national support base has taken on an incumbent party: it is the end of a long period of elite pacts in national politics,” said Africa Confidential. This is extremely significant because there has long been a power-sharing pact in place within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP)- this saw the Christian south and the Muslim north alternate the presidency every four years. This was an informal elite pact and voters in each region stuck to the rules of the game- for a period. Then in 2010, when Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner, died part way through his first term and Goodluck Jonathan formally assumed the presidency.

The election of Buhari has ended this pact and proven the viability of an opposition that can harness widespread geographical, ethnic, and religious support. In this way, it becomes an important step for consolidating  democracy.

2. Jonathan’s willingness to give up power signifies that he is not above the rule of the people, and that he respects the election results, even when these rules don’t work out in his favour.

It will be the FIRST time in Nigeria that an incumbent president will have lost to an opposition candidate. This is a rare moment on the continent- we have just witnessed a relatively peaceful election, followed by a graceful admission of defeat from an incumbent. Watching Jonathan concede is critical to democratic consolidation not just in Nigeria, but across Africa.

To get a feel for how truly momentous this was, read Yetty Williams’ Huffington Post piece:

Up until now, the average Nigerian was not sure whether his or her vote really counts, wondered whether votes can actually make a difference or cause a change. Till this most recent elections majority of the nation had only heard about the idea of free, fair and violence-free elections….There are people still in shock that change happened! We were able to vote out the sitting president and guess what? The sky is still intact. Life is going on! And to top it off our outgoing president called the president elect to concede prior to official announcement of the results…We are suddenly in a new era, an era where the old are hopeful that things can actually change in their lifetime — free and fair elections… Can I repeat, it was largely violence-free, free and fair — we do not take this for granted.

3. If anyone has a chance of changing Nigeria’s culture of corruption, it is Buhari.

Several years, I attended the UN Convention Against Corruption conference. I met a civil society leader there who told me about General Buhari’s rule in 1984-85. At the time, what I found fascinating was that he seemed to imply that there was a brief ordering of society. He told me that people started queuing up for buses, and that petty corruption seemed to have briefly plummeted. Until Buhari left office. Then it went back to business as usual. This civil society leader recognized that there were a lot of problems with Buhari’s rule (see his human rights record), but corruption was not one of them.

Fast forward several years to a recent Wilton Park conference on African peacekeeping: What was interesting was listening to the Nigerians express their appreciation for Buhari’s clean record when it came to corruption. My sense is that a good part of Buhari’s election win was due in part due to this contrast between a Jonathan government that has been perceived to be extremely flashy and corrupt, and the relatively modest lifestyle that Buhari has consistently lived (and has promised to maintain). Buhari, hardliner though he is, has been pretty honest about who he is, and what he has accumulated. That is rare in a country of political leaders who are renowned for corruption.

And if you believe Sarah Chayes’ thesis on how corruption contributes to the conditions that drive religious extremism, then Buhari may be also be good for dealing with Boko Haram- but not in the way that the West thinks. In searching for purity and consistency, Boko Haram has argued that the West is a corrupt and contaminating influence- if Buhari shows that he will not live the flashy life of previous leaders, then Boko Haram loses an important narrative for driving recruitment.

The right leader can have a transformative effect for a country (Mandela), a cause (Martin Luther King), or even a religion (Pope Francis). Without wanting to set expectations too high, it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve felt this hopeful about Nigeria’s political prospects. It’s been less than 24 hours since the election, but I’m already hoping against hope that Buhari doesn’t disappoint.

Women in Frontline Combat Roles

December 23, 2014

On Friday 19 Dec 2014, I talked to the BBC about allowing women women to take on frontline combat roles in the UK military. The Ministry of Defence has been reviewing its policy on this matter, and the BBC asked me for some thoughts on this issue. For a whole variety of reasons, I think women should be allowed to take on combat roles.

I have a lot more to say about this topic- hopefully I’ll be able to expand on some of the points from the clip when things are less busy. But to begin this conversation, I’ve posted the BBC interview clip below.

Some of my ideas are also summarized here in this Independent article.

Remembering December 6th and the Montreal Massacre

December 6, 2013

I wrote this email when I was 23 years old, in my final year of my systems engineering program at the University of Waterloo. Even though the Montreal Massacre happened so long ago that many of you may not have even heard of it, I hope that we can still take the time to remember the women who were killed, simply because they were women. Let those fourteen young women never be forgotten.

From The Daily Bulletin, circa December 4th, 1998:

After our conversation last week, I sat back and thought long and hard about what we’re trying to do with this event, because like it or not, it has become an “event”. The members of the organizing committee are trying to de-politicize it by making it personal, but we can’t deny that it is a public event for a reason.

1989 seems so long ago . . . that was the end of Communism and the height of the real estate boom. Nine years later, here we are: so much has changed and yet, nothing has changed. You said to me that it seemed like just yesterday that the killings took place, but nine years is a long, long time. Especially when you’re only 23, like me. I was 14 years old and in grade nine on December 6, 1989. I did not completely understand the killings and why they had happened. I had no idea I would end up, five years later, studying to be an engineer. And for those of us in first year at UW, these students would only have been 9 years old, and in the middle of grade 5 — how can you relate to this experience at this age?

I understood at the time that the gunman was a sociopathic killer, but I had no explanation as to how this could have possibly happened in the world that I had grown up in. His irrational behaviour didn’t fit into my model of how things worked and I had no reason to think of him as anything other than an extremist, someone who would not and could not listen to reason. My solution was to exclude him from my world, to cast him out. I guess this also meant that, to some extent, I ignored the impact of what he had done and the hatred that he represented. There was nothing in my social conditioning that allowed me to understand his deep-seated despisal of women, and in particular, of feminists.

Now, nine years later, I have a slightly better sense of the methodically rational side of his actions. After all, it was not in a rage of passionate fury that he committed these murders. A virtual hit list was found on his body consisting of fifteen high-profile women: these included the first woman firefighter in Québec, the first woman police captain in Québec, a sportscaster, a bank manager and a president of a teachers’ union.

Society recognizes that he was a psychopath — but to what extent was he a product of social influences, and how much of it was sheer and utter isolated madness? The two of us talked about the continuum and where this event would sit on this continuum. I don’t have an answer for this. What I do know is that it was and still is, to a greater or lesser extent, a reflection of society’s attitudes towards women.

So we must ask ourselves: How do these attitudes filter down through the rest of society? When a male classmate jokingly says to me that I won my scholarship because I am female, how am I supposed to interpret that? How does that relate to the fact that the killer felt that these women got into engineering because they were female? He certainly felt that they were taking up his “rightful” place in the program. Am I taking up the “rightful” place of another disgruntled male in systems design engineering?

He committed an extreme act, but society is at a crossroads right now — we value women’s equality, but the lingering effects of centuries of discrimination is not going to disappear overnight and we have to recognize that together. We are valued in the eyes of the law. But in practice, systematic discrimination still goes on, even if it isn’t as obvious as it used to be. Women are not equal. If we were, everyone would understand that December 6, 1989, was just an aberration, a blip in the stats. But obviously, the need for an event like Fourteen Not Forgotten implicitly underscores the fact that there are many of us who still harbour a milder version of the killer’s views. How else to explain the fact that women are more likely to be killed by their spouses than by an outsider?

Also, we have to remember that fourteen women were killed, but hundreds, maybe thousands of people were affected, men and women. What could my male classmates have possibly done if I was being shot at? Not too much. And how can we accept this conclusion: that we are helpless in the face of irrational evil? That is why we remember December 6. Hopefully, by speaking out against these attitudes and these acts of violence, we are helping society address these issues to make sure that it never happens again. Men and women who survived the massacre still have to bear the burden of the death of their classmates. These people will live in fear all their lives. How do we collectively deal with that? What about when these fears are conveyed to their children and grandchildren? All it takes is one gunman to spread his hatred, and the effects are felt far and wide. This memorial is, in many ways, a show of solidarity against everything that killer stood for. That is why we mourn, and why we must continue to remember.

Charles Taylor and the logic of relative justice

September 27, 2013

A version of this article was first posted on Al Jazeera on 26 September 2013.

Yesterday, the Special Court of Sierra Leone upheld Charles Taylor’s conviction for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone’s civil war. The Appeals Chamber also rejected his request for a reduction in his 50 year sentence, pointing out that he had not shown ‘real and sincere remorse’ for his actions. On the face of it, this decision appears to be another victory for transitional justice: the international community succeeded in locking up another brutal dictator, and now, it has also thrown away the key.


For those who follow international war crimes tribunals and the workings of the International Criminal Court, the Special Court’s decision would not have come as a surprise. On the one hand, it was certainly theoretically possible that the Appeals Chamber could have set Taylor free by adhering to the precedent in the Momčilo Perišić case. Yet this outcome seems fantastical in light of the political context in which this seven-year trial has taken place. The conclusion was foregone before the ink was even dry on the appeal documents. The reason is simple and has nothing to do with the merits of the case: A free Charles Taylor would have entailed too many risks to the region.

After many years of civil wars and border skirmishes, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire are finally stable. For the moment. As the driving force behind the region’s conflicts through the 1990s and early 2000s, setting Taylor free could have upset the fragile balance in West Africa. Even though Liberia’s civil war ended over a decade ago in August 2003, Charles Taylor remains a powerful force in the country- despite not having set foot on Liberian soil since 2006. The Special Court could not afford to let him go free, not without the possibility of risking Liberia’s security and undermining the integrity of the tribunal itself.

Still, it would be unfair to say that the Appeals Chamber is not impartial. There is no evidence that this is the case. The justices appear to be qualified and of international repute. Nevertheless, as independent as the judges themselves may be, they are appointed by political bodies with political interests. Valerie Oosterveld shows how deeply political considerations affected many critical aspects of the Special Court, from the drafting of the SCSL’s statute to its judgments to its decision to physically close the court. It would be naive to think that any shortlisting process of the Appeals Chamber justices would not have been shaped by these political dynamics, or that the justices themselves would be unaware and unaffected by the desires of those who appointed them.

In fact, we already know from the work of Ruth Mackenzie, Kate Malleson, and Philippe Sands that selecting judges to international tribunals is a fraught process. Ultimately, Sands has asserted that ‘the horse-trading and politicking is endemic.’ He also claims that ‘vote-trading, campaigning, and regional politicking invariably play a great part in candidates’ chance of being elected than considerations of individual merit’. While their study was conducted on the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, there is no reason to think that the same political dynamics would not hold true of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Bear in mind too that the Special Court received most of its funding from the West (US, UK, Netherlands, and Canada), and Western countries have contributed billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and reconstruction to the region. In addition, the UK has offered Sierra Leone an ‘over-the-horizon’ security guarantee. Effectively, this means that the UK is committed to responding to a national security incident within 72 hours. Given these considerations of national interest, it is hard to imagine how the desires of the UK and the US would not have influenced the environment of the court. Keeping larger political influences and geopolitical considerations at bay in a case like this would have been near impossible.

Westerners might wonder how any of these factors could affect the final decision of the justices. After all, justice should be blind. And yet, we can see that it is not. None of these revelations would surprise Sierra Leoneans and Liberians. In Africa certainly, war crimes tribunals are widely acknowledged to be deeply politicised institutions. In fact, the African Union has recently called a special summit to discuss a mass withdrawal from the ICC in October because international justice is seen as baldly biased against Africans.

I have argued elsewhere that the ICC is perceived by many as a tool of Western powers. Other UN-backed tribunals also suffer from this problem, including the Special Court of Sierra Leone. Others have made similar arguments. Guardian columnist Seumas Milne has asked why Western leaders have not been indicted for aiding and abetting war crimes when they too supplied arms and assistance to Libyan militias in the fight against Gaddafi— just like Charles Taylor did for Sierra Leone’s rebels. International legal scholar Richard Falk has questioned why American leaders have not been charged for the systematic abuses that have been widely documented at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The facts are clear: justice is applied selectively depending on what country you are from and whether you are in favour with the West. By nudging, suggesting, and sometimes coercing international courts to serve political interests, Western powers manage to achieve desired political outcomes. But these tactics are putting delicate norms of transitional justice at risk.

If international war crimes trials are ever to achieve genuine global justice— for the weak as well as the powerful— there must be some acknowledgement that these tribunals are currently being used as political instruments of the powerful. Only when this premise is accepted by the West can the ICC evolve into an institution with real international legitimacy.

King’s College London- 3YR Lectureship in Conflict, Security, Development

June 12, 2013

War Studies is hiring a Lecturer in Conflict, Security, and Development for a fixed-term of 3 years.

Deadline 20 June 2013

This is basically an assistant professorship without tenure (US translation)/fixed-term lectureship. The practical details are still being ironed out though. Please forward the link to anyone who might be interested.

I can say wholeheartedly that as a junior faculty member, my King’s experience has been fantastic so far.  Here is the CSD group: Mats Berdal, Oisin Tansey, Domitilla Sagramoso, Kieran Mitton, and me. You couldn’t get a nicer bunch of people, and this group is pretty dynamic in terms of research.

While there is a bonanza of politics lectureships this year, I suspect that there will be a drought for a year or two in the aftermath of the REF. The hidden bonus of this position is that this job will take you out past that lean period.

For more on why you should apply, see here for my sales pitch on working in War Studies at King’s College London. Note that this is a 3-year lectureship, not a permanent lectureship.

Ok, it doesn’t always look this spectacular.

Full job description and application information HERE.

The Department is looking for a distinguished scholar who already has an outstanding profile in the field of International Relations with a general focus on Conflict, Security and Development. It seeks applicants who have a publication list that includes both monographs and peer-reviewed articles in leading scientific journals. The successful candidate will be expected to strengthen the War Studies Department’s teaching and research capacity in relation to one or more of the following crosscutting themes.

• The Political Economy of Civil War and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding
• Post-Conflict Democracy Promotion
• Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Aid
• State Failure and Fragility
• Politics, Conflict and War in Africa
• The UN and its specialised agencies, programmes and funds
• Regional organisations with a special focus on Africa
• Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration of combatants (DDR) and Security Sector Reform (SSR)
• Natural Resources, Scarcity and conflict
• Development and Aid during and after Violent Conflict
• The Bretton Woods institutions and Post-conflict reconstruction
• Donor Politics
• NGOs and Private Sector Involvement in Reconstruction

The successful candidate will be expected to complement the work undertaken by one or more of the following research groups within the Department: Africa Research Group and/or, The Conflict Security and Development Research Programme.

The successful candidate will be expected to make a major contribution to teaching on the MA in Conflict, Security and Development. He/she will also be expected to make a contribution to teaching on BA War Studies and on the Department’s MA programmes. Finally, the person sought must have a proven ability to initiate and lead research projects, together with a commitment to launching new ones. The person appointed will be expected to carry his/her share of administrative duties within the Department.

The post will be based at the Strand campus.

The appointment will be made, dependent on relevant qualifications, within the Grade 6 scale, currently £33,654 to £39,705 per annum pro rata, inclusive of London Allowance.

[Note that you will only be paid 80% of this!]

Sept 2013 to June 2016
Interviews on 2 July.

Nostaglic for Jean Chrétien

April 15, 2013

This week, I stopped in Toronto briefly on my way home from a conference, and as I often do, I invited my friend John English out for a coffee. It just so happened that he had co-organized a major conference at the University of Toronto on the legacy of former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. He invited me along.

With Jean Chretien

I swear I’m not normally a political suck-up

The program was packed with prominent Liberal leaders, past and present (Bob Rae, Allan Gotlieb, John Turner, Lorna Marsden). [John happens to also be one of the most famous Canadian historians around and a former MP which makes it easy for him to do this kind of thing.]

I arrived at the end of the day’s program, just as former PM Jean Chrétien was about to take the stage with former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bill Graham. Chrétien had decided to do a Q&A session with the audience rather than a more formal interview with Graham. At that moment, I knew that this was going to be fun- our former PM had just changed the format to encourage audience interaction. Whereas politicians in office inevitably give scripted speeches with no surprises, ex-politicians are usually pretty frank about their experiences. And Chrétien was no exception. [Get them over dinner after a few glasses of wine, and the stories get even more interesting.]

Here are a few things that he talked about that I thought were worth sharing:

[Please note that I’ve paraphrased and changed the order in which he made his comments.]

On politics and Canadian values:

Don’t be too strategic. Do what is right. The votes will follow. Do what you feel good about. The debate is about values.

We [Canada] were extremely respected. Generosity, respect for minority. These were values that everyone wanted to copy. We were always ahead of many countries on many issues.

On not going to war with Iraq, and breaking with our closest allies on foreign policy:

I knew that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11.

[Chrétien to Bush] The policy is not to be with you if you don’t have the support of the UN.

Bush offered to brief Chrétien. Chrétien said that this wouldn’t be necessary- he had been briefed by his own people. He told Bush: For the UN, you need better proof of WMD. I’m not convinced.

After many years as PM, Chrétien was treated as an elder statesman on the UN Security Council. Other countries and leaders were consulting him. Bush was particularly unhappy with Chrétien because Mexico and Chile had decided to follow Canada’s lead.

[Chrétien to Blair] Saddam and Mugabe are not the same. If you have the UN, I might be able to go. You need to convince George to go to the UN.

Blair had urged him to go to Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Bush was talking about WMD. Chrétien said to him: “I don’t want to be in the business of replacing people that we don’t like.”

On the social community of parliament:

Chrétien also spoke of how the social dynamics of parliament had changed. He described how politicians used to make their home in Ottawa and that there was much less travel back to MPs’ ridings. There were many consequences of this practice, but one was that politicians from all parties formed a community. Their children went to school together; they ate together; and they socialized together. [They probably also drank brandy and smoked cigars together while their wives put the kids to bed- but that’s another story altogether.] Political fights didn’t get personal.

On the role of TV:

He talked about how allowing television cameras in the House of Commons wrecked the collegiality of parliament. He lamented how relationships with colleagues changed as soon as the TV cameras were switched on.

Old school politics:

One last thing that I hadn’t quite appreciated was how parliament had become less spontanenous over the years. (Chrétien was first elected to parliament 50 years ago.) Politicians used to be expected to speak off-the-cuff. They would make just a few notes for a speech in the House. Reading your speech would have broken a social norm, never mind hiring a speechwriter to write your speech for you. Chrétien said that it was simply “not allowed”. On a more practical level, two MPs used to share a personal assistant between them, and the resources just didn’t exist for anything fancier.

* * * * *

All of this made me nostalgic for the days of Jean Chrétien- when Canada was doing both great and good things in foreign policy and at home; when our economy was in order; when my government was projecting values that I was proud of. And then, just as I was bathing in the afterglow of Canadian goodness, my political conscience spoke up and I remembered the sponsorship scandal. And yet…. I couldn’t help but long for the Chrétien days.

How to square that circle- especially since I spend a fair amount of time railing against corruption? Well, after many years of following politics in the news, meeting politicians, and studying politics, here is what I’ve realized: dig deep enough into any seasoned politician’s past and you will find skeletons. (Or at the very least, severe compromises in her principles.)

The longer her time in politics, the more skeletons there are likely to be. Those who have no skeletons are the ones who are the most principled and the least likely to make compromises and do deals. They are also the ones who are least likely to be re-elected. Think Mulroney on Airbus, Obama on Guantanomo and soft money, or in this case, Chrétien on AdScam. I could go on.

Call it the principle of political Darwinism- only the compromised will survive. Without wanting to seem fatalistic about politics in general (in case my students mistake me for a cynic), I’ve just decided to accept the bad with the good, and enjoy what is left of that golden era of Canadian politics.

Defending Romney’s “Binders Full of Women”

October 22, 2012

This piece was first posted on Al Jazeera on Monday 22 October 2012.

Politicians say stupid things all the time. The comment that has caught American attention for the past few days was Mitt Romney’s reference to “binders full of women” during the second presidential debate.

To put the remark in context, Romney was answering a question about equal pay for women (which he skirted) when he began talking about the early days of his administration as governor of Massachusetts and his efforts to incorporate more women into his cabinet.

He said: “….I went to my staff, and I said, how come all the people for these jobs are — are all men? They said, well, these are the people that have the qualifications. And I said…can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified? And — and so we — we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And I brought us whole binders full of — of women.”

Although his choice of words was slightly cringeworthy, it was clear what Romney was trying to say: I don’t just preach inclusion, I practise it too. But his comment sounded off-key and just a bit desperate. It sounded like the only place he would have been able to find any qualified women was in these binders. To draw a crude analogy, he seemed to be shopping for a female cabinet minister the way some men might shop for a mail order bride.

Normal people were left wondering why a corporate titan like Romney would have to resort to a binder to find qualified women. As David Bernstein points out, shouldn’t he have been surrounded by smart and ambitious women through his years in the business world and from his political campaign? It led me to wonder: why were these women so difficult to find in Romney’s world?

On the surface, this appears to be the reason why his comment was so gaffe-worthy. But those who support gender equality ridicule his comments at their own peril. (Mea culpa, I include myself here.) Despite the unfortunate language, the intentions underlying Romney’s comment about binders full of women should be applauded, not derided.

Although it turns out that Romney did not ask for the binder of qualified women but was instead given it by MassGap, a bipartisan coalition of women’s groups, the fact remains that he used that binder it exactly as MassGap intended it to be used. He referred to it in appointing outstanding female candidates to senior leadership positions. This was affirmative action as it was meant to be practised.

Romney even boasted in the next breath that “after I staffed my cabinet and my senior staff… the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.”

Romney should be praised, not chided, for doing with that binder precisely what women’s organizations wanted him to do. He could have tossed that binder straight into the garbage can. The fact that he was proud of having so many women in his cabinet has not gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves.

Having had a few chuckles at Romney’s expense over the past few days, let’s recognize that MassGap’s Binder Full of Women was actually an effective way for him to search for qualified female candidates. After all, we don’t mock organisations like Women In International Security when it assembles its portfolio of renowned female security experts. Nor do we laugh when the BBC works with findaTVexpert to add more women to its roster of television experts. Nor are we tripping over ourselves to make fun of MassGap itself.

These databases of women exist because officials need to make hiring decisions quickly and efficiently. I would be surprised and disappointed if Obama did not have his own binders full of women. Instead, if we want to have a critical conversation about the MassGap binder, let’s find out who was in that binder and what policies they championed on behalf of women.

Sure, Romney could have and should have done more to promote women at Bain and during his governorship. Sure, it was somewhat embarrassing that he did not know enough talented women to fill his cabinet without consulting the MassGap binder.

But mocking Republicans for their efforts to include more women in senior government positions sends entirely the wrong message to those in positions of political and corporate power: We will lambaste you if you fail to include women in your senior ranks, but if you need to look outside your own circles for smart and talented women, we will create internet memes of you that will keep TV talk show hosts feeding on your remains for the foreseeable future.

Is this really what progressive America wants?

If Americans want to roast Romney and the Republicans for their attitudes towards women, then they should do so for the right reasons. There is no need to turn to “binders full of women” to see why the GOP has a problem with female voters.

First, Romney has pledged to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Then there was his promise to appoint an anti-Roe justice to the Supreme Court if given the chance. Let us also not forget Representative Todd Akin’s laughably ignorant assertion that a “legitimate rape” doesn’t lead to pregnancy because “the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.” And of course, Romney would have refused to sign the Lily Ledbetter Act.

These were the real reasons why the binders full of women comment struck a chord with Americans. In this Romney-Republican world, things happened to women— others made decisions for them, about them. When Romney and the Republicans realize that women can make decisions for themselves and about themselves, then maybe, just maybe, American women will start respecting the Grand Old Party once more.

After Chris Stevens: The Importance of Insider Criticisms from the Arab-Muslim World

September 27, 2012

After the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens, Libyans in Benghazi express concern. Photo credit: Mohammad Hannon/AP from The Guardian (

In his latest column for the NY Times, Thomas Friedman highlights how moderate pundits from the Muslim world have written some very harsh, self-critical op-eds in key Middle Eastern media outlets following the assassination of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans. These types of critical pieces are probably more prevalent than Westerners are led to believe and Friedman does us all a favour when he uses his NY Times platform to shine a spotlight on the range of views that exist across the Arab world.

To be clear, official condemnation of the Stevens murder has been universal:

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its officials, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the Egyptian prime minister, officials in Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, and even Salafi elements all called to avoid violence and harming embassies and diplomats, claiming that it is contrary to Islam; some even issued fatwas forbidding it.The violence was also condemned by the head of the International Union of Muslims Scholars (IUMS), Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, as well as by the leaders of the Gulf states and the Mufti of Saudi Arabia.

But there is more. The murders and the offending YouTube video that spurred the attacks has led to some provocative pieces being published. Translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), some of these passages are worth quoting at length:

Al-Hayat columnist Hassan Haidar: The most dangerous thing is that the extremists, exploiting the Arab spring revolutions, are trying to impose themselves as the force that shapes the new regimes in their countries. They are prepared to take up arms and [act] violently to strengthen their position, while threatening not only ‘infidel foreigners,’ but also moderate Muslim citizens and Christian minorities. The fear is that their extremism and rejection of the other will cause a majority of the people [in their countries] to regret the change they supported.

Throughout the past decade, Muslims have made tremendous efforts to cleanse Islam of the terrorist image that some tried to pin on it after Al-Qaeda’s crimes in 2001. It is the responsibility of the new regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia to change the terrifying image [of Muslims] created by the behavior of extremists; to stop those trying to spread acts of extremism and intimidation before they get worse; and to prove that they belong to the tolerant middle way of Islam.”

And the harshest words of all come from Imad Al-Din Hussein in Al-Shurouq in a prominent Cairo daily:

We curse the West day and night, and criticize its [moral] disintegration and shamelessness, while relying on it for everything – from sewing needles to rockets. It is both funny and sad that we call to boycott Western goods, as though we could punish it while still relying on it. We import, mostly from the West, cars, trains, planes… refrigerators, and washing machines… We import most of what we eat… as well as all kinds of technology and weapons… Even our curricula are partially imported. And we steal ideas [from Western] movies and [artistic] works. We are a nation that contributes nothing to human civilization in the current era. We import the culture of the West, which we call infidel and curse from morning until night. We have become a burden on [other] nations…

The world will respect us when we return to be people who take part in human civilization, instead of [being] parasites who are spread out over the map of the advanced world, feeding off its production and later attacking it from morning until night. Only when we eat what we sow [ourselves], drive [vehicles] that we produce, and consume what we make – [only] then will we be [independent] of the world… When we become civilized and obey true Islam, then everyone will respect us…

The West is not an oasis of idealism. It also contains exploitation in many areas. But at least it is not sunk in delusions [and preoccupied with] trivialities and external appearances, as we are… Therefore, supporting Islam and the prophet of the Muslims should be done through work, production, values, and culture, not by storming embassies and murdering diplomats…”

As a Westerner, what is interesting about these criticisms is that these are Muslim voices. Imagine for a second that the piece written by Imad Al-Din Hussein (at the very end) had been written by Canadian or a Brit or a German. Unthinkable, right? It’s impossible to imagine because these types of criticisms could never ever be uttered in public by a Westerner without being branded a racist bigot. Some criticisms (valid or not) can only be legitimately put forward by members of that community. This insider effect is critical to how any piece of criticism is absorbed. It’s not just what is said, but who says it.

This observation is rooted in the social psychology literature which shows that the most influential political voices are actually “turncoats”- those who switched over from the other side. Former critics are best poised to convince those from the “other” side. For example, think back to Greg Smith’s scathing critique of Goldman Sachs in his public letter of resignation. Or consider Bill Cosby’s rant about the breakdown of African-American society. It’s not just the message, but the messenger, that matters.

Cass Suntein discusses these ideas in greater depth here, relating them to the polarization between Republicans and Democrats in US politics.

In short, insider criticisms can’t be dismissed as easily because:

People are most likely to find a source credible if they closely identify with it or begin in essential agreement with it. In such cases, their reaction is not, “how predictable and uninformative that someone like that would think something so evil and foolish,” but instead, “if someone like that disagrees with me, maybe I had better rethink.”

There is an important policy implication here for thinking about the relationship between the West and the Arab-Muslim world. Friedman is right: The West should be pushing for greater freedom of expression. Clearly, there is value in this freedom for its own sake. But the West also needs to create a public space that will allow more critical insiders to speak up from the Muslim world itself. Without these moderate voices, we should expect to see US-Muslim relations become more and more polarized.

The End of Men and Equality for Men

September 17, 2012

A little more this…

A little less that…

An interesting commentary from The Globe’s Margaret Wente on how women are better able to adapt to the changes in global economy than men are. Wente is summarizing the argument from Hanna Rosin’s new book The End of Men (reviewed by Jennifer Homans for The New York Times). There are problems with the argument, but the broad trend about middle- and working-class demographics in the US seems persuasive. In short:

Today, the things that women excel at – human contact, interpersonal skills, verbal skills, creativity – are more valuable than brawn and muscle. These skills can’t easily be outsourced. Women are good at interpreting feelings and ideas. They’re smart, diligent and reliable, and they mostly stay out of trouble. On top of that, they’re extraordinarily adaptable. Women have taken on new roles and colonized male realms (pharmacy, veterinary medicine) with astonishing speed, and held on to their old roles and realms as well.

But the men are stuck. It’s much harder for them to adapt, and a lot don’t even want to try. Few men of any age are willing to go back to school, especially if they have to clean toilets for the privilege. Even fewer are interested in “women’s” roles, even though those fields are where most of the employment growth will be. Of the 30 professions projected to add the most jobs over the next decade, women dominate 20. Many of these jobs (home care, child care, food preparation) replace things women used to do at home for free.

What happens when women start entering a male trade? That job becomes devalued (at least in men’s eyes), and men flee – a phenomenon that Harvard economist Claudia Goldin calls “pollution.”

While women’s career opportunities and earning power have clearly improved in recent decades (see Liza Mundy’s book The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, And Family), men have ceded more economic territory to women than they needed to by refusing to work in certain industries. On the one hand, women have fought for the right to work as firefighters, as construction workers, and as soldiers. On the other hand, men have shied away from industries as they became more feminized. Somehow, our culture has signalled to men that it is not okay for men to become primary school teachers, nurses, and pharmacists.

This attitude of “pollution” permeates the US, Canada, and the UK at many levels, even for kids. Girls can dress as tomboys, but we become deeply uncomfortable if a boy puts on a dress. A young girl who cries in the playground is consoled by her dad. A young boy who cries in the playground is told to stop being such a sissy. Girls are encouraged to play with trucks, but when boys start dressing up Barbie dolls, parents get worried. We can see a lot of these concerns play out in the controversy around a Toronto couple who are raising their children to be genderless.

As women begin to colonize new service sector opportunites and make significant gains at the higher end of the economic spectrum, these types of attitudes on “pollution” will pose more and more of a social problem. Men will feel particularly squeezed because industries like manufacturing have collapsed. Through a few snide comments and some snickers about wanting to see that guy in a nurse’s uniform, we signal all sort of things about what is and is not acceptable for a teenage boy to aspire to.

That needs to change.

Here is the core of the problem: Women’s opportunities have expanded and become more flexible in the workplace and at home, and women have fought hard to gain societal acceptance for these changes. Culturally, we have made it acceptable, even desirable for women to have a choice of roles in the workplace and in their family life. In sharp contrast, the range of socially acceptable choices for men at home and in the workplace is tightly bound (though evolving). Stray outside of these boundaries and you risk ostracization.

Over the years, we’ve managed to destroy a lot of gender stereotypes about women. Now, we need to do the same for men.

* * *

Hanna Rosin’s article, The End of Men, in The Atlantic, 2010.

Humane Authority in China and the Three Houses Proposal

July 11, 2012

An interesting proposal comes from Jiang Qing and Daniel Bell on how to implement the concept of Humane Authority in China in a way that would shift the country towards democracy. This would include a tricameral legislature made up of “a House of Exemplary Persons that represents sacred legitimacy; a House of the Nation that represents historical and cultural legitimacy; and a House of the People that represents popular legitimacy.”

The leader of the House of Exemplary Persons should be a great scholar. Candidates for membership should be nominated by scholars and examined on their knowledge of the Confucian classics and then assessed through trial periods of progressively greater administrative responsibilities — similar to the examination and recommendation systems used to select scholar-officials in the imperial past. The leader of the House of the Nation should be a direct descendant of Confucius; other members would be selected from descendants of great sages and rulers, along with representatives of China’s major religions. Finally, members of the House of the People should be elected either by popular vote or as heads of occupational groups.

This system would have checks and balances. Each house would deliberate in its own way and not interfere in the affairs of the others. To avoid political gridlock arising from conflicts among the three houses, a bill would be required to pass at least two houses to become law. To protect the primacy of sacred legitimacy in Confucian tradition the House of Exemplary Persons would have a final, exclusive veto, but its power would be constrained by that of the other two houses: for example, if they propose a bill restricting religious freedom, the People and the Nation could oppose it, stopping it from becoming law.

A few thoughts:

1) For those who are thinking that this is not democratic enough, just bear in mind that the UK House of Lords and the Canadian Senate serve not dissimilar functions to the House of Exemplary Persons, and royal families (like the British monarchy) essentially serve the House of the Nation role. The real question will be over how these power dynamics actually play out between these institutions and whether power will shift more towards the people, as the system evolves over time.

2) A suggested amendment: Give the veto to the House of the People rather than House of Exemplary Persons.

3) A tricameral system sounds like a recipe for political gridlock. With all due respect to the historical legacy of the three houses, the conceptualization of the House of the Nation seems like a step backwards rather than forwards. Why not cut out the House of the Nation altogether?

Charles Taylor trial highlights ICC concerns

April 26, 2012

An earlier version of this piece was first posted on Al Jazeera on April 26, 2012.

After a long and expensive trial, the Special Court for Sierra Leone finally pronounced that former Liberian president Charles Taylor is guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes.

While there has been little doubt that Taylor commanded militias that were responsible for some horrific acts of violence in his home country in Liberia, this judgment considered the extent to which he should be held responsible for ordering and condoning various war crimes (including murder, sexual violence, and enslavement) which were committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone. He was acquitted of ordering these crimes, but was found guilty of  aiding and abetting atrocities.

Amongst Western governments and their publics, there is widespread agreement that prosecuting Taylor has been the right and proper thing to do. The West considers the Special Court for Sierra Leone as upholding human rights and bringing justice to bear on a brutal dictator. Yet even though these claims undoubtedly have merit, it would be naïve to think that international justice is being pursued purely for its own sake.

It seems particularly important to acknowledge that justice, especially international justice in the context of war crimes, can never be completely isolated from its broader social and political context—no matter how hard we try to separate the two. The prosecution of Charles Taylor is no exception.

Those who are cynical about prosecuting war crimes at the international level will first point out that the Special Court for Sierra Leone has been backed and financed by the West (primarily the US, UK, Netherlands, and Canada). For Westerners who are accustomed to impartial judicial systems, this is an irrelevant fact: justice is justice no matter who is paying for it.

To the rest of the world though, there is much greater variation in judicial norms and the fact that the trial has been funded by Western powers is significant. It will also not escape unnoticed that this trial conveniently helped the US and the UK achieve an important geopolitical goal: the removal of Charles Taylor from West African soil at a fragile moment in Liberia’s post-conflict recovery in 2006.

In 2003, when the indictment was first announced, Charles Taylor was a major destabilizing force in West Africa. Aside from instigating civil war in Liberia and financing the war in neighbouring Sierra Leone, Taylor had also managed to draw Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire into border wars. Removing him from Liberia was the first of many steps towards restoring peace in the country and establishing peaceful relations with neighbouring countries. For the West, it was clear that Taylor had to go and he should not be allowed to return.

Indeed, Taylor’s lawyers have pointed to a 2009 US diplomatic cable from former US Ambassador to Liberia Linda Thomas-Greenfield which stated that if the Special Court were to acquit Charles Taylor or even to hand him a light sentence, he would be in a position to jeopardize Liberia’s stability.

Thomas-Greenfield states: “the best we can do for Liberia is to see to it that Taylor is put away for a long time”. She goes on to argue that the US should not wait for the Special Court’s verdict and that “All legal options should be studied to ensure that Taylor cannot return to destabilize Liberia.” In all likelihood then, even if Taylor were to be acquitted, it seems likely that the US will be set to charge him with financial crimes.

Clearly, the US wants to see Taylor locked up for as long as possible. But the wording of the cable is equally clear that the Special Court’s verdict remains uncertain. While the outcome is far from pre-ordained, it does lead one to worry about how this strength of sentiment from the court’s most important financial backer might indirectly affect the case.

Fundamentally though, the core concern is not with judges’ independence. The intensity of public scrutiny combined with the reputational risks to those who compromise their integrity provide strong incentives for judges to guard their independence. No, the greater worry concerns the choice of cases that international prosecutors decide to pursue in the first place.

Turning to the International Criminal Court, a brief look at those who have been indicted reveals that to date, the vast majority have been from sub-Saharan Africa, and the remaining few are from Libya, also on the African continent. While armed conflict has been more prevalent in Africa than in other parts of the world over the past decade, African leaders certainly do not hold a monopoly on the commission of war crimes.

Courts build their legitimacy partly based on the cases that they choose to hear. By focusing predominantly on Africans, there is a real worry that the ICC will be perceived by non-Western countries as providing a cloak of legitimacy for the US and other Western nations to achieve their political aims— despite the fact that the ICC’s chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo has explicitly stated that the ICC is not a court “just for the Third World.”

What the international community needs to guard against is allowing the ICC to become a tool that Western liberal democracies can impose on developing country leaders who have fallen out of political favour. For the ICC to remain viable, neither can it be perceived as the backdoor by which Western powers target their political enemies.

All of this takes us back to Charles Taylor. Make no mistake: few will be sorry to see him locked up. But Taylor’s case does highlight concerns about the political expediency factor and the degree to which it can be exploited. For countries like the US, China, and India who worry about the politicization of the Office of the Prosecutor, and by extension the politicization of the ICC, this case will only confirm that their misgivings were justified.

For the rest of us though, the conclusion of the Taylor’s trial represents a major milestone in the pursuit of international justice.

* * *

For more commentary on Liberia, I wrote a piece last year on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf receiving the Nobel Prize.

And here is my review of The Vice Guide to Liberia mixed in with some more personal reflections from my field work experiences.

For those who want references on Charles Taylor and the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, here are some book recommendations:

On Charles Taylor, Liberia and Sierra Leone up to 1999: Will Reno’s Warlord Politics and African States.

On Charles Taylor: Colin Waugh’s Charles Taylor and Liberia.

On Liberia’s civil war up to 1999: Stephen Ellis’ The Mask of Anarchy. Up to and including 2003: JP Pham’s Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State.

On Sierra Leone’s civil war: Paul Richards’ Fighting for the Rainforest and David Keen’s Conflict and Collusion.

Ellen John Sirleaf: A Controversial Laureate?

October 11, 2011

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Photo credit: Alex Majoli / Magnum for Newsweek

*This piece was first published on Real Clear World on Tuesday October 11th, 2011 in the Morning Update and then published again on Al Jazeera Opinion on Wednesday October 12th.

**For those who have already seen this piece, here is an older post reflecting on my field work experiences in Liberia and The Vice Guide’s show about the country.  And while I’m at it, here are two posts on some fascinating studies on gender inequality. The first one is about work done by Duflo et al. and India’s reservation policy. The second post is on the research of Noordewier et al. and the economic effects of using married vs. maiden names. Enjoy!

*   *   *   *   *

Widely admired and celebrated abroad, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has an international profile that is the envy of many a public figure. Awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize has only cemented her celebrity status on the political circuit. Yet unlike her fellow co-winners Leymah Gbowee (also of Liberia) and Tawakkul Karman (Yemen), “Ma Ellen” has a past linking her to a violent rebel movement, and since 2006 she has led an administration plagued by corruption. Even though she has been received with adulation overseas since she was first elected, she has always gotten a much tougher reception at home. These contrasts will be brought into sharp relief on Tuesday as Liberians return to the polls for national elections and Sirleaf fights for her political life.

In Liberia, people on the street used to call Sirleaf a “warlord,” citing her association with Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia who is now on trial at The Hague for war crimes in Sierra Leone. This was because Sirleaf was once the International Coordinator for the rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), raising money to oust former strongman Samuel Doe from power. During the civil war, NPFL fighters perpetrated horrific atrocities and staged violent spectacles, the aftershocks of which are still felt today.

For her part, Sirleaf has admitted in her memoirs and in testimony to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that she supported Taylor through the 1980s but claimed not to have known his true intentions. She said that she had been “fooled” by him and had publicly asked the NPFL to end the civil war. And while she did eventually break her ties with Taylor, most Liberians still believe that she played a more active role in the NPFL than she has so far admitted to.

This is important because the Nobel Committee’s citation specifically mentioned “non-violent struggle” and “peace-building work.” Even though this commendation was referring to her support of women’s rights during her tenure as president, her past links to Charles Taylor and the violence perpetrated by the NPFL should not be glossed over in the post-Nobel period.

Sirleaf’s administration has also been consumed by one corruption scandal after another during her six years in office. Twenty-one members of her government have had to resign for corrupt behavior, and still others have been accused but kept their jobs. Problems with corruption are not in themselves surprising, as corruption runs deep in Liberia’s political system. It permeates the police force, the courts, the business community and even the education system.

As president, Sirleaf has very publicly made the fight against corruption a top priority, but in doing so, she has had to work against the grain of her society’s institutions. Although it may be difficult for a Western audience to appreciate this, the fact that she has not been rocked by a corruption scandal herself is remarkable in itself. This is a marked change from every single one of her presidential predecessors. In the context of Liberian politics, remaining corruption- and scandal-free is itself a significant achievement.

Just as important is the fact that Sirleaf has allowed a culture of open political discussion to emerge. It is now possible to publicly criticize the president and her administration without fear of reprisal. She has even passed a law to protect whistleblowers. These are remarkable changes, shifting the post-war dynamic of the country away from violence and toward dialogue (rancorous though it may be).

This is not to say that Sirleaf’s record on transparency and accountability is spotless. She has parted company with Auditor-General John Morlu, the strongest and most competent anti-corruption advocate that Liberia has ever seen. And she has appointed four members of her own family into executive positions and broken her own promise to remain a one-term president. These decisions do not bode well for her next presidential term, should she be re-elected in Tuesday’s election.

Still, none of these experiences take away from her advocacy efforts on behalf of Liberian women. Her focus on women’s rights began on day one of her presidency when she discussed the taboo issue of rape in her inauguration speech. Although a significant proportion of women had been sexually assaulted during the civil war, rape was still seen as a private matter. Confronting this problem so frankly and starkly on such an important occasion placed women at the center of her presidency.

Sirleaf subsequently set up special courts to prosecute sexual assault cases, hoping to encourage victims to press charges against rapists in a country where $2 is often enough to buy a woman’s silence. Not surprisingly, these courts have not been successful in prosecuting rape cases. But Sirleaf still deserves credit for laying the foundation for a change in attitudes towards women. The fact that the president herself has admitted to being a victim of attempted rape and a survivor of domestic abuse has opened up a space for dialogue where none existed before.

So despite her complicated past and the significant problems of her administration, Ellen, as she is referred to in Liberia, has still had an extraordinary first term as president. When she was elected in 2005, she inherited a broken and violent society, a crushing debt burden and a devastated infrastructure. Since 2005, society’s wounds have slowly been healing, the debt has been virtually eliminated and the country has been gradually rebuilding from the ground up. Substantial challenges still remain, especially with extreme poverty and a youth unemployment rate of 70-80 percent.

Is she a saint? No. Did she deserve the Nobel Prize? Absolutely.

In the words of fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, “She’s brought stability to a place that was going to hell.”

*   *   *   *   *

I was interviewed on BBC News Channel about Liberia’s Nobel Prize winners on Friday, October 7th, 2011.

I was also interviewed by Radio France Interationale about the inclusion of Winton Tubman in Ellen’s cabinet on Tuesday, January 17th.  The discussion begins at 8.30.

Bob Dechert and Shi Rong: Affairs of the Heart or Affairs of the State?

September 13, 2011

“You are so beautiful. I really like that picture of you by the water with your cheeks puffed. That look is so cute. I love it when you do that. Now, I miss you even more.”

“I will smile at you. I miss you. Love, Bob.”

“I enjoyed the drive by thinking of you.”

“I miss you. Love, Bob,”

“I love you too. See you soon.”

"I love you too. See you Soon." Credit Glen McGregor.

The Backstory

A few days ago, a cache of personal emails were sent to a large number of media organizations and politicians. They alleged an affair between Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Bob Dechert and Shi Rong, a reporter for China’s state news agency, Xinhua.

She says that they were sent by her husband as part of a domestic dispute. Dechert claims that the relationship was “innocent”.

Here are a few thoughts on the Bob Dechert – Shi Rong affair:

1) Love or friendship?

In his statement to the press, Bob Dechert says: “These e-mails are flirtatious, but the friendship remained innocent and simply that – a friendship. I apologize for any harm caused to anyone by this situation.”

Despite Dechert’s protestations, the emails speak for themselves. We’re not idiots.

But even if they had an affair, who cares? Some might think that this is a personal matter between him, his wife and Shi Rong. In most cases, I’d say that an affair between consenting adults, even if there are politicians involved, is not public business. This case is an exception for several reasons.

2) Should this be treated as a private affair?

No. Dechert is the Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Rong works for Xinhua, a news agency that Western counterintelligence agencies liken to an intelligence agency. In other words, there is a good chance that she is a Chinese spy.

It is not the fact that Dechert was (or is) having an affair outside of his marriage. It is who he has chosen to have this relationship with that makes this a matter of Canadian national security.

Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence official with CSIS, has this to say about Xinhua:

“Basically, it’s a cover,” said Michel Juneau-Katsuya, who now heads a private corporate security company.

“We’re not talking about just people collaborating with the intelligence services. We’re talking about people trained as intelligence officers to operate in foreign countries.”

Put another way by The Globe:

Xinhua, experts say, exists somewhere on a continuum between a legitimate Chinese journalistic organization and an arms-length extension of Beijing’s security apparatus. There is no doubt that the agency provides valuable insights into the world as China sees it. There is also no doubt that Beijing closely picks the brains of Xinhua reporters who’ve been sent abroad to find out what they know.

We already know that the Chinese are spying heavily on Canada because Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told the CBC last year that “several municipal politicians in British Columbia and in at least two provinces there are ministers of the Crown who we think are under at least the general influence of a foreign government.”

We also know that the Chinese have mastered the art of cyber-spying, “having infected more than 1,295 computers in 103 countries.” The attacks had targets in 72 countries and includedgovernments companies, and organizations in Canada, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Switzerland and Britain

And remember that Haiyan Zhang, a former “a rising star in Ottawa’s civil service” was fired from the Privy Council Office because she used to work for Xinhua and because she continued to maintain personal contacts with her former colleagues. Now, if she was fired for maintaining friendships, then the intimate nature of Dechert’s relationship with Rong leaves little room for anything but his resignation from cabinet.

3) What if Shi Rong isn’t a spy?

For argument’s sake, let’s just say that a full investigation by CSIS concludes that Shi Rong is not a spy and has never been a spy, and that any information gleaned from their “affair” did not get passed back to the Chinese government. The nature of a private conversation posted by Glen McGregor and translated by @I_Am_Chinadian that Shi Rong had with a reporter friend, Qu Jing suggests that this is a possibility.

This is probably the best case scenario that the Canadian public can hope for. If so, then maybe the damage to our actual security has been limited.

Yet even if this is a purely an affair of the heart and not an affair of the state, it is impossible to prove that Shi Rong is not a spy. How will we ever know that he didn’t give away state secrets, or that she didn’t read his emails over his shoulder, or that she didn’t have access to his classifed briefing notes?

Irrespective of Shi Rong’s spy status, the biggest problem here is that Dechert has shown such a lack of judgment  that he now suffers from a deficit of credibility. Even if Rong didn’t pass on state secrets (assuming that these secrets that the Chinese don’t already have), the point is that she easily could have and he should have known better.

For the government and CSIS, it’s even more embarassing given that the Maxime Bernier affair from a few years back led to the institution of regular security checks that seemed to have failed to catch the Dechert-Rong relationship. This whole incident is a real shame because every indication suggests that Dechert was competent in his duties and that he took a genuine interest in improving Canada’s relationships with China.

For all we know, Dechert, in his relationship with Rong, may have done more good than bad for Canadians by learning about Chinese politics and the Chinese economy from an insider like Rong. Maybe his relationship with Rong helped him to do his job better, leading to recently improved relations between China and Canada.  Maybe, just maybe, Dechert was a better “spy” than Rong was.

Who knows what the real story is? If we learn anything from this incident, it is that we need to take these types of security threats more seriously. At the same time, we shouldn’t let paranoia overshadow the great potential offered by closer relations with the world’s other great superpower.

How we got it wrong: coverage of the Oslo and Utoya attacks

July 24, 2011

Last night, as I was following the Oslo and Utoya coverage on Twitter, I tried to make sense of why it was happening in Norway. Almost every news site, blog, and expert said it was al Qaeda. If, like me, you turn to the media when you’re looking for breaking news, it would have been hard to reach any other conclusion. The tone of a lot of the coverage left little room for doubt- at least, this was true in the pieces that I read. And few attempts were made to qualify the claims that were circulating. What I found on Twitter largely reinforced this.

And so I fell prey to the spell: Was it authorized by al Qaeda leaders or was it al Qaeda-inspired,  like the Fort Hood shooting was? What, exactly, was the motivation? Were the terrorists “homegrown”? Well, it turns out that the terrorist was homegrown all right: a lone white male, Norwegian, right-wing Christian.

Today, I’m wondering how I jumped so easily to the al Qaeda conclusion. A couple of thoughts:

1) I rely heavily on the media for accurate information and I read from many different credible sources to make sure that the facts of a story are consistent. In this case, they were. The problem was that speculation was mixed in with fact without any effort to distinguish between them.  The claims, especially by the media, about al Qaeda were rarely qualified, and they should have been. To provide a contrast, I remember early coverage of the Madrid train bombings: at the time, there was also good reason to believe that it was al Qaeda, but it could also have been ETA. The press was more cautious with its conclusions and the story developed in a much more restrained way. This was not the case with the Oslo and Utoya attacks.

2) I rely on a host of experts to vet and filter information for me. I trust that the information that they share or post or write about has passed a host of independent “sniff tests”. In this case, the problem was that everyone, myself included, seemed to suffer from the effects of GroupThink, Stereotyping, Recency Bias, and Confirmation Bias.

Groupthink: The fact that there was widespread agreement in the media and amongst experts that it was al Qaeda raised the bar for public disagreement.

Stereotyping: in the past decade, successful large-scale attacks (especially bombings) that have targeted the West or Westerners that were not al Qaeda-approved or -inspired have been rare. Given these past experiences, the mental shortcut that most of us take when we hear of a terrorist attack against a Western target is, not surprisingly, to make al Qaeda the default perpetrator.

Recency Bias: This is when recent events play a much stronger in influencing our judgment. We regularly hear about al Qaeda-inspired attacks regularly, as well as those of linked Islamic extremists. For example, another suicide bomb attack in Aden, Yemen on July 24. This NY Times story suggests that a whole spate of bombings were perpetrated by a group linked to al Qaeda (but leaves open the possibility that the government might be responsible). These sorts of stories have bombarded media outlets for a decade.

Confirmation Bias: In this case, we sought information to confirm our existing beliefs. For example, when I looked for reasons as to why Norway was targeted, I found a few that seemed to make sense. Evidence that didn’t fit- for example, why it happened on the Friday of a holiday weekend with no one in the office- was discarded.

It was only when I found out that he was white that I realized that it was possible that everyone, including the experts that I trusted, had gotten it wrong.

I bring up all of this because I think there is a lot to be learned from the way in which this story first broke and developed. And it is important to reflect on how most of us (but not all) got it so wrong.

Twitter, I believe, played an especially important role. Of late, Twitter has turned into an important source of information for journalists and experts. But as a Twitter newbie, I’ve also noticed that journalists and experts don’t typically qualify their information when it’s sketchy or unconfirmed. Ironically, Will Mc Cants was actually one of the ones who did qualify his comments. (“Could just be forum user blowing hot air. forum members also confused abt who this guy is”). Because I’m used to getting accurate information these sources under normal circumstances, I assumed that what was being tweeted last night was of similar quality. Poor assumption.

The point is that while events are still in progress, we need to clearly distinguish between fact and speculation. Twitter fuels both. When a story is still breaking, those of us who tweet need to remember that the quality of information is much more variable and to retweet accordingly. Rushing to judgment can lead to mistakes that are not only embarrassing (like the cover of the Sun), but that alter the course of history (See Controversial Issues).  Brett Blake (papacinek) makes a similar argument.  And as Isobel J pointed out in responding to my earlier post,

One of the results of the inevitable assumption that it was al Qaeda was mosques being targeted for hate crimes in retribution. Although individuals could have assumed al Qaeda to be responsible, the number of news reports and journalistic opinions encouraging that view probably did not help…

While I haven’t seen evidence of such a backlash as yet in this case, this is certainly possible and perhaps likely.  Clearly, the Norwegian government recognized the possibility or retaliatory attacks.  PM Jens Stoltenberg and the Norwegian police were very cautious in their tone. There is fallout from speculating, especially when it turns out to be wrong. Speculators are not the ones who suffer the consequences of opinions formed in haste. In The Huffington Post, Hina P. Ansari notes that:

Labour Party member and Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store who visited the youth camp just the day before, expressed that mistakes need not be repeated in this tragic instance: “We’ve seen in Europe in recent years that politicians have been jumping to conclusions about suspects before investigations have been conducted, and we will not commit that error.”

The development of this story is a lesson for all of us. And Norway, as usual, has something to teach the rest of us.

Update: A commentary from Martijn de Koning on violence and ideology, arguing that Breivik, may have been a lone gunman, but that his ideas are grounded in a political movement. (I made a similar argument about Jared Loughner after the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords in January 2011.) A discussion of Breivik’s manifesto by Blake Hounshell on Foreign Policy reveals him to be a right-wing extremist, but a relatively rational one.

Oslo and Utoya attacks: Why we all thought it was al Qaeda

July 23, 2011

Morten Holm, AP via The Washington Post

I originally wrote this post late last night [Friday] as the story was breaking based on the assumption that the Oslo/Utoya attacks were linked to al Qaeda. But then I took it down as more information came out and it became clear that the gunman-bomber was Anders Behring Breivik, a white conservative Christian Norwegian. His Facebook profile is here. And info on his manifesto here. The information was no longer relevant and even seemed irresponsible.

But upon reading today’s [Saturday’s] take on the Oslo/Utoya media coverage, I’ve decided to re-post it for two reasons: 1) It provides a not unreasonable rationale for why people jumped to the conclusion that it was an al Qaeda attack, and 2) I think Will McCants has been treated unfairly for the role that he played. More here. Many of those who were, I would argue, more responsible, have already melted away into the background.

[Added on Monday July 25] For some thoughts on jumping to conclusions, I wrote a subsequent post that contextualizes this one. The two of them should be read together, but I think it is the other post, not this one, that is more important.

I had a suspicion that when I put this up that I would be opening myself up to criticism (though I didn’t realize how much). But I also think that it’s important that we learn from our mistakes and to think carefully about why we think the way we do. There should be some room for a constructive dialogue about the media coverage without being publicly attacked. If we can’t admit to being wrong once in a while and reflecting back on it, then how do we learn?

For a taste of the Norway coverage from Western media outlets and a sharp commentary on who is and is not a terrorist, see Glen Greenwald’s article in Salon as well as Maz Hussain’s blog post. In my case, I don’t think it was racism or Islamophobia that drove me to these conclusions, but al Qaeda was my default perpetrator. It was also the default perpetrator for for Al Jazeera (English) which was on my twitter feed on Friday night- jihadists were also their prime suspects as well- with no mention of other possibilities in the early coverage. You can check out their live coverage of the story. Go right right back to the very beginning, and in particular, watch the news clips and pay attention to the language.

This clip by security analyst Justin Crump was also shown on al Jazeera as the story was breaking. If al Jazeera was reporting that it’s a jihadist plot, it suggests to me that the reason why the story developed as it did could not be due purely to Islamophobia in the media. (I’m leaving that issue aside entirely.)

If there is one thing that I should be accused of, it’s “terrorist profiling”. Based on a pattern of similar events in the past and limited knowledge on Saturday evning/night (GMT), I drew certain conclusions. What I failed to consider is that every terrorist event should be treated as unique until proven otherwise.

Consider racial profiling. Based on certain superficial similarities and limited knowledge about an individual, we draw certain assumptions based on our existing ideas and frameworks- these are mental heuristics. This is normal. But when these heuristics are used in law enforcement, then we get racial profiling. Whether or not racial profiling leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy is another interesting question.  In the US, racial profiling helps explain why someone like Amadou Diallo was shot by the New York Police Department. In the UK, this kind of stereotyping  explains why someone yelled “Chee-chee chong-chong”  at me on the street yesterday.

In this instance, I jumped to a conclusion about al Qaeda doing something that it did not do. Without sarcasm, I offer my apologies to al Qaeda. They may have done many horrible atrocious things around the world, but they were not responsible for this one.

Sat 23 July. [BEFORE knowing anything about the suspect.]

Why would al Qaeda attack Norway? Current commentary (Robert Zeliger in Foreign Policy, James Dorsey in al Arabiya, Thomas Hegghammer and Dominic Tierney in The Atlantic last year, David Crawford’s piece in the Wall Street Journal) suggests the most likely reasons are: 1) anger for re-publishing the Danish cartoons 2) participation in the conflict in Afghanistan and Libya 3) Iraqi Kurdish Islamist Mulla Krekar 4) Norway is a soft target relative to US, UK.

The cartoon thesis and the Afghanistan thesis seemed to get some early support from an early statement issued by the terrorist organization, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami (Helpers of the Global Jihad), which originally claimed responsibility for the attack. But later, they retracted this claim and said that the world needs to wait for the official claim. For those who read Arabic, this claim was re-posted by Will McCants, an expert on terrorism at CNA.

These attacks led me to wonder about my own country, Canada, and whether we would be the next successful target. I remembered that Canada had been named as one of al Qaeda’s of target countries. And many of the news articles referred to the fact that Norway “was one of several countries named by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, as potential targets for attack.” I had a vague memory of hearing about this list when it came out in 2006, but I had to search pretty hard for it. For those who are looking for it, Free Republic provides a summary of a purported (but not verified) al Zawahiri interview:

AQ / OBL 03/04/06 A recording believed to be Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader has urged Muslims to attack the West over the cartoon row. Ayman al-Zawahri called for strikes similar to attacks in recent years on New York, Washington, Madrid and London, according to an audio tape posted on the Internet. The speaker on a the tape, who sounded like Zawahri also urged Muslims to boycott Denmark, Norway, France and Germany over cartoons deemed offensive to Prophet Muhammad, referring to cartoons first published in a Danish newspaper. – snip – The tape said: “(Muslims have to) inflict losses on the crusader West, especially to its economic infrastructure with strikes that would make it bleed for years. “We have to prevent the crusader West from stealing the Muslims’ oil which is being drained in the biggest robbery in history,” he added.

It turns out that Ayman al-Zawahiri also conducted a public Q & A that was helpfully translated and reposted here by the Nine Eleven Finding Answers Foundation (NEFA) [Emphasis added]:

Q.) “In 2004, you threatened Norway and other countries because of their aid to America in her war against you, and because of their forces being present in Afghanistan and fighting against you. Don’t you think that these kinds of threats against Norway and Europe will only increase the pressure on Muslims living here, most of who came seeking a peaceful life and to flee the autocracy of the majority of regimes in the Middle East? Furthermore, why are the Scandinavian countries, such as Norway and Denmark, considered as targets by Al-Qaida Organization?

A.) “We have threatened Norway and every other country that participated in the war against the Muslims as part of the defense of our ideology, nation, ourselves, and our sacred rites. Denmark has done her utmost to demonstrate her hostility towards the Muslims by repeatedly dishonoring our Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him salvation. I admonish and incite every Muslim who is able to do so to cause damage to Denmark in order to show your support for our Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him salvation, and to defend his esteemed honor. We prefer to live underground [i.e. dead] rather than accepting the limited response of boycotting Danish dairy products and goods. Denmark keeps on dishonoring the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him salvation, even though these criminals are unable to attack the Jews or raise any doubts about the Nazi Holocaust, even though it was the result of a Christian war… As for Muslims living in the West, they are forbidden to live permanently under the laws of the infidels unless it is a necessity. They ought to participate in the individual duty [of jihad] in order to defend the lands of Islam against those who are assaulting them.”

Bear in mind that in 2008, a couple of years after al Zawahri was interviewed, the Danish Embassy in Islamabad was hit by a suicide bomber. And Jyllands-Posten, the Danish paper that first published the cartoons, was targeted in a failed plot, and the cartoonists themselves have also been targeted.

While I was glad to see that Canada wasn’t mentioned here, I subsequently found a 2006 piece entitled Canadian Targets On al-Qaeda Hit List on National Terror Alert. And it reminded me that, oh yes, we were on the al Qaeda hit list too and that the question was likely When, not If:

Canadian targets — either at home or abroad — are particularly attractive because the country has not been hit yet by a terrorist attack, Mr. McDonell [then-head of the RCMP’s national-security branch] told CTV’s Question Period. “I believe that the fact we have not been hit makes the attack upon Canada a symbolic attack” that would be a highly prized achievement for al-Qaeda terrorists, he said.

Mr. McDonell noted that Canada alone of the five countries cited as enemies by the al-Qaeda leadership has not yet been attacked by the terrorist group. The other four countries mentioned by al-Qaeda were the United States, Britain, Spain and Australia.

We live in dangerous times.

Canada’s lack of corporate giants and why we need to dream big

July 1, 2011

Happy Canada Day!

Last week, Eric Reguly wrote an interesting article for The Globe and Mail on why Canada has so few of the world’s top companies. Out of Canada’s Top 1000 companies, more than 30 of them had profits of $1 billion+ in 2010- this sounds pretty impressive given the state of the global economy last year.

But Reguly’s lament centred around the fact that so few of our top 100 were global leaders. Reguly listed as his criteria:

a) Able to “compete in the international big leagues”;

b) Brand recognition outside Canada; and

c) In the news.

He came up with three definites and a few maybes:

They are: Research In Motion, Thomson Reuters, Bombardier and perhaps Royal Bank or Barrick Gold. A few years ago, I would have put Manulife among that group, but its image has waned in the post-Dominic D’Alessandro years.

And he argued that much smaller countries have just as many global giants as we do:

Australia: BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Macquarie Group

Switzerland: Nestlé, Syngenta, Glencore, UBS, Novartis, Xstrata

Netherlands: Shell, ING, Philips

Sweden: Volvo, Ericsson, Ikea

You could quibble with his list and add TD, SunLife, and BNS. But the argument stands: we really should have more world-beaters. Reguly argues that the reason for this is not that our taxes are too high, or that our labour force isn’t up to snuff, or that there is too much regulation (or not enough). He says it’s because of “epic Canadian investor greed”.

From 1997 to 2007, I felt all I did was chronicle the eradication of corporate Canada as investors, and CEOs who encouraged them, hit the sell button. Here are just a few of the companies I no longer write about: Inco, Falconbridge, Dofasco, Stelco, Algoma Steel, MacMillan-Bloedel, Molson, Alcan, Ipsco, Gulf Canada, Newbridge Networks, Poco Petroleums and Masonite. The sellout continues…Last year, Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan almost became another hollowing-out victim.

Reguly calls this greed. And greed may well be part of the problem- especially “if you consider that senior management of the target firms often stand to make a lot of money through unexercised options and a very lucrative severance package,” says Canadian business leader Stephen Gross. Clearly, there is a conflict of interest in recommending a deal to shareholders.

And yet seen from another angle, this example of “greed” is simply prudent investing.

When someone offers you a substantial premium over the share price, common sense tells you to take the money and run. You can use that money and then invest elsewhere and hope to repeat the process.  As Richard Ruback and Michael Jensen pointed out in their 1983 paper on corporate takeovers, it is the shareholders in a target firm that benefit most. In the words of Scott Sharabura, fellow ex-pat and strategy consultant at Booz & Company, “most acquisitions are way overpriced by the buyers”. Smart investors know this and act accordingly. A more charitable view of Reguly’s experiences would simply conclude that Canadian investors are more conservative in their strategies.

But Reguly goes on to offer a real nugget of insight:

Canadian investors would rather take even a meagre payout today than stick with a company for years to create a world-beater… When Ralph Robins was CEO of Rolls-Royce in the 1990s, he earned no love from British investors and analysts by investing fortunes in jet-engine technology that wouldn’t pay off for years, if at all. But Sir Ralph refused to cave in to the gimme-returns-now mob. Today Rolls is one of the world’s top manufacturers and tech innovators.

This is much closer to the real problem. If there aren’t enough Cdn investors who are brave enough to risk it big (instead of locking in their gains), then in the aggregate, this means that we will have fewer world-class firms than we should given all of our other economic and geographical advantages.

Individually, our sell-out companies probably did right by their investors, but as a group, a few of them probably would have become global giants and substantially strengthened the Canadian economy. You can’t win if you don’t play.

Consider the technology sector. If you follow the prudent logic of the Canadian investor, then Mark Zuckerberg should have sold Facebook ages ago, Jim Balsillie and Mike Laziridis should have sold Research in Motion (RIM) before it ever went public, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin should have taken one of the many lucrative offers that they must have received for Google when they were still operating out of a rented garage. Take the millions and run!

But they had bigger (some would have said delusional) dreams for their companies and their products. I don’t even think they were necessarily holding out for more money. Their investors and shareholders must have also shared their vision or else there would have been huge pressure to take one of the many buyouts that surely came their way.

Yet to be the kind of person who will hold out for something bigger, you need to have massive ambitions- and also be ready for failure. In poker terms, you’ve got to be willing to go “all-in”. You have to see more potential in your firm than any rational investor ever would. You have to dream big.

And that is where Canadian companies fall down.

In Canada, we regularly complain about our southern neighbours. But when it comes to dreaming big, we really should be ripping a page out of their playbook. There is something in the American cultural DNA that encourages their leaders to go for broke. They always want to be the best, not just in America, but in the world. This kind of vision and hunger does exist in Canada at companies like RIM and Thomson Reuters, but fundamentally, we just don’t have enough of it.

Our problem is not that we are greedy (or prudent investors), but that we lack the kind of grand ambition that pushes us to be the best in the world.

I can see that more of this type of ambition would require a shift in our national character. I’ll leave the tricky bit of how that can be achieved for someone else, but I also want to argue that this willingness to dream big is a change that Canada must make if it doesn’t want to drown in the global economy.

Businessman Stephen Gross put it like this:

There is a big cost to Canada with these sellouts. The issue relates to head offices, because it is the head office where real value is created: R&D is centred there, this is where decisions are made regarding the location of new investments and jobs, high-paying and creative jobs are there, and there is the energy that goes with a head office. This is not just a question of trading one dollar for another.

Agreed, Stephen, agreed.

* This piece came out of a Facebook discussion after I posted Eric Reguly’s article on my wall. Thanks to Chris Mak, Scott Sharabura, and Stephen Gross for inspiration.

Kofi Annan and a Tale of Two Africas

June 30, 2011

Kofi Annan speaking at Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre (Photo credit: The Kofi Annan Foundation)

This February, I had the chance to meet Kofi Annan during his visit to Oxford. He had been invited to help celebrate my college’s 700th anniversity. As one of the two politics fellows at Exeter, I had the pleasure of dining with him. (Twice!)

To mark his visit, I was asked to write an article about the talk that he gave at the Sheldonian Theatre for Exon, Exeter College’s alumni magazine.

* * *

When most Westerners think of Africa, the images most likely to spring to mind are those of child soldiers, malnourished children, blood diamonds, pirates, and dictators who have been unwilling to give up power. From colonialism to the Rwandan genocide to the spread of AIDS to the exploitation of the continent’s vast mineral resources, the story of Africa that has been told in the West has usually been one of victimization and despair.

This is a narrative that Kofi Annan, a native of Ghana, has long been familiar with. In his speech at Oxford’s Sheldonian theatre, Annan presented a different Africa: one of economic success and optimism. He made a convincing case that Africa should be seen as “a continent of opportunity— the last emerging investment frontier”.

As an African, you might think that Annan is predisposed to seeing his continent favourably, but here is some compelling evidence (taken directly from his speech) to buttress his case:

  • Real GDP [in Africa] grew by nearly 5% annually between 2000 and 2008 – twice the level of the previous two decades;
  • According to the African Development Bank, 6 African countries are forecast to enjoy growth this year above seven per cent; 15 countries above five per cent; and 27 countries above three per cent;
  • Direct foreign investment has soared from $9 billion in 2000 to $52 billion in 2011;
  • The IMF [predicts] the continent will have as many as seven of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world over the next decade.

These statistics suggest fantastic levels of economic growth spread across the continent.

Annan is not the only one who believes that Africa offers enormous substantial investment opportunities. Stephen Jennings, the CEO of Renaissance Capital, recently gave an insightful talk at Oxford where he pointed out that: “Detailed analysis by the World Bank, IMF, global investment banks and, most recently, McKinsey and Company, means that there is now little debate on the speed, breadth and other key dimensions of Africa’s economic renaissance thus far.”

Yet even as Annan was giving his speech on African’s future of prosperity, the headlines from the continent at the time focused on then-president Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire and his refusal to cede power to his rival Alassane Outtara. That country was subsequently plunged back into a brief, but very bloody civil war. For the citizens of Côte d’Ivoire, Annan’s optimism would have looked wildly misplaced.

And yet these two Africas clearly co-exist. How can the narrative of the optimistic and soon-to-be prosperous Africa be reconciled with that of the dangerous and dysfunctional Africa? Let me offer two possibilities.

The first one comes directly from Annan’s speech: there is enormous variation across Africa’s 53 (soon to be 54) nations. Botswana, with its stable democracy and four decades of impressive economic growth rates receives scant media attention as compared to the Democratic Republic of Congo with its stories of mass rape, coltan looting, and recurring civil war. One problem is that stereotypical news stories about “problems in one country infect opinions of the continent as a whole. Curiously, the reverse is rarely true.” The fact that good news does not make the headlines contributes to our skewed perspective of what Africa is like and how dramatically it has changed, even in the past decade.

But there is also a second explanation that may prove to be more useful for understanding this supposed dichotomy— corruption. Even as the continent has benefited from huge gains in GDP, the distribution of that wealth has accrued disproportionately to African political elites. In many (but not all) cases, these elites abused their political power and made themselves and their family members very rich.

It is these kinds of abuses of power that sow the seeds of future discontent among the young men (and some women) who might consider taking up arms against the government. The utter failure of the state to care for its citizens even while others have grown obscenely wealthy has only perpetuated political instability and insecurity in some cases.

Nigeria is a case in point. It has experienced sustained real GDP growth for at least a decade, but those gains have not been equitably distributed across society. Indeed, a recent New York Times article has suggested that about $22 billion of government oil revenues has vanished into thin air. In the meantime, this fight for resources has led to persistent low-level conflict between well-armed local militia groups and the government in the Niger Delta region.

With new investment coming from China and other high-growth economies, a worldwide commodities boom, and increased political stability, there is ample opportunity for all Africans to benefit from this newfound prosperity. However, the question of whether Africa will ultimately fulfill its potential is best summed up by Annan:

Wherever people live, they want their voice to be heard, their rights respected, and to have a say in how they are governed. They yearn for decent jobs, opportunity and a secure future for their children. They believe that the rule of law must apply to everyone, no matter how powerful… It is this generation – their dynamism, their determination and ambitions – which is, I believe, the major reason for confidence in Africa.

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What Osama bin Laden taught me

May 5, 2011

It has been a week of reflection for me. The academic in me has many things to say about the death of Osama bin Laden and its implications for international relations. But I am going to resist that impulse and instead share with you an email that I sent to my dear friend Veronica back in 2003 on the day that the US declared that it would invade Iraq.

I’m posting this email as a legacy of how Osama bin Laden affected my life as a New Yorker (ok, as a quasi-New Yorker who lived across the river in New Jersey).

—–Original Message—–
Sent: Wednesday, March 19, 2003 5:24 PM
To: Veronica

It’s the eve of war and the weather is sunshining-blue skies beautiful. I can’t help but be reminded that it was just as beautiful on Sept 11, 2001.

Last time, I had no idea what was about to happen. This time, I am assured of it, and I am terrified.

Here in New York, we have been told we should expect a terrorist attack of some kind. The only question is how successful it will be.

The person that I love works for a financial corporation that symbolizes American power. He reassures me that cement-filled vehicles have been stationed outside his building to prevent truck bombs from blowing up the trading floor.

I work for the World Bank, another symbol of American dominance and Western hegemony. Every day, I open my email and check the World Bank Intranet. Every day, there is another notice on security threats, or an email on evacuation plans. Most of the time, I try not to think about my colleagues being terrorist targets. Up to now, this has not been too difficult in the unsettling, but quiet peace of post-9/11 life.

Normally, I work from home, in the protected suburb of West New York, across the river from NYC. Next week however, I will be in the World Bank buildings, and I will struggle for normalcy in my day-to-day tasks. On Monday and Tuesday, I will be attending a seminar on post-conflict situations. The irony is not lost on me.

You are probably wondering why I don’t leave this godforsaken city. And I don’t have an answer. All I know is that it is hard to just pick up and go. I didn’t really understand this sense of inertia before, but now that I am experiencing it, it just seems to be so very human. We like our jobs. We love this city. And we just keep hoping that nothing will happen tomorrow. No dirty bombs. No anthrax. No subway attacks. No poisoning of the water system.

But is it worth it?

I keep asking myself this over and over.


In the years since 9/11, New Yorkers have regained their sense of safety, but I think it is important to remember what the after effects of terrorism look and feel like. I remember showing up at Ground Zero on Sept 13 2001 and speaking to the firefighters and watching 7 World Trade Center continue to burn. I remember the thin coat of ash that covered everything in the financial district. I remember the acrid smell. I remember walking into Grey Dog cafe on Carmine St and finding its normally lively atmosphere completely somber. Strangers shared coffee and stories with me. We cried. The city was in mourning.

A year or two later, I started making my then-boyfriend-now-husband carry a bar of soap and a towel to work everyday (as suggested by some government pamphlet) just in case there was a biological weapons attack. It sounds silly now (especially since the soap would probably have been utterly useless), but the fear was very real. It was all over the news that one of his firm’s buildings had been scoped out for an attack.

Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the attack of 9/11 made me realize how precious life is. And how it can all change in an instant.

Justice and Gaddafi’s Fight to the Death

April 7, 2011

This is a longer version of a piece that was first published in the Wall Street Journal on April 6th, 2011.

* * *

The violence in the Ivory Coast that has left more than 1,300 dead since last November’s presidential election may soon be coming to an end. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to cede power after losing in the polls to Alassane Ouattara, is reportedly negotiating the terms of his surrender after a week-long offensive by pro-Ouattara forces. What is puzzling about this conflict is why Gbagbo did not leave sooner, especially after African Union leaders had offered him immunity several times as long as he agreed to go into exile in South Africa.

Yet what looks at first glance like an irrational response was probably a carefully considered decision. Indeed, reflecting on Gbagbo’s decision to fight to the end could help us better understand the current military impasse in Libya and the mindset of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

President Gbagbo has always been judged a savvy, if wily, leader with acute political senses. With eighty per cent of Ivorian territory taken by pro-Ouattara forces in just five days and mass defections from the army and police, he is certain to have known that his regime was on its last legs. Yet patriotic though he might be, Gbagbo’s decision not to leave for South Africa probably had more to do with the fact that the option of exile currently has a credibility problem amongst Africa’s leaders—especially those who have committed atrocities against their own citizens.

In the past, Africa’s deposed heads of state could always take up a comfortable exile in a friendly country. With a handshake deal and a quick departure, despotic leaders could be secure in the knowledge that they had immunity from prosecution.

But once the Rome Statute came into effect in 2002, those rulers who had committed war crimes or gross human rights violations found that their exile options had dramatically shrunk. Consequently, for both Gbagbo and Gaddafi, the question of how secure they would be from prosecution by the International Criminal Court must have been a critical part of the exile discussion.

In cases like Côte d’Ivoire and Libya, where war crimes have already been committed but violence is certain to continue, exiling a leader may be the least worst option. The problem is that exile has been somewhat discredited by former Nigerian President Obasanjo’s controversial handling of Charles Taylor’s exile.

After Nigeria offered the former Liberian president de facto protection from prosecution in 2003 to help bring a speedy end to the Liberian civil war, Obasanjo later went back on his word and repatriated a surprised Charles Taylor back to Liberia in 2006. Taylor was then put into the custody of the Special Court of Sierra Leone where he has been on trial for the past three and a half years.

Taylor’s experience set an important precedent. It suggested that promises of immunity from prosecution would be subjected to extreme pressure. Further, Western powers in particular could selectively bring their influence to bear on those countries hosting individuals on the ICC’s most-wanted list. The end result is that guarantees of protection from international prosecution now look unreliable.

Consequently, Gbagbo and Gaddafi are probably wondering: if Nigeria was unable to keep its promise to Charles Taylor, how can I be sure that they will keep their promise to me?

Without the option of exile, as soon as the first war crime is committed, a ruler has no exit options. Once this threshold is crossed, committing further war crimes will still lead to the same long and humiliating trial which will almost certainly be followed by life in jail. Gbagbo and Gaddafi both know this. As they see it, the thousands of people who will die as a consequence of their decision to fight to the end is regrettable but necessary.

Part of the rationale in establishing the ICC was to deter those in power from committing atrocities. The threat of prosecution was expected to make rulers think twice before massacring innocent civilians. But as Gbagbo, Gaddafi, and other leaders have shown, ICC prosecution has not always been enough of a threat when the survival of a regime is at stake.

Ultimately, eliminating the exile option for those who commit war crimes is a progressive step forward. In the long run, standards of behaviour for all leaders will align with the standards set by the ICC. But this evolution will take time.

In the meantime, as long as heads of state keep killing their civilian populations, an exit option is still needed. One possibility is to offer exile in conjunction with a fixed period of ironclad immunity: freedom years.

Depending on the severity of the atrocities already committed and the health of the ruler, a head of state could negotiate a number of freedom years before facing ICC prosecution. The number of freedom years would need to strike a balance between satisfying a population’s thirst for justice and providing enough incentive to entice a violent leader into thinking that a few years of freedom is worth the certainty of being humilitated and prosecuted in the future. Once the freedom years are up, the host state would be responsible for handing over the individual to the ICC. Over time, as the norms of the ICC gradually take root, the period of negotiated immunity will decline, shrinking to months and days.

Based on what has been reported in the media about the sorts of war crimes that Gaddafi and Gbagbo may have committed, the international community might offer them two to five freedom years. If endorsed and guaranteed by the ICC, the UN Security Council, or other powerful states, this form of temporary exile could provide a credible exit option for leaders like Gbago and Gaddafi who already have blood on their hands. Such an alternative has its limitations, but it may be the only way left to prevent further mass casualties.

* * *

I’m also interviewed about this issue on BBC World Service’s World Update on April 8, 2011. Most of the interview starts at about minute 28. It will be available online until April 15.

Here is a related op-ed that I wrote on power-sharing in Libya on March 30th, 2011.

The Pitfalls of Power-sharing in Libya

March 30, 2011

This was first posted as Power-Sharing Not the Answer for Libya on Real Clear World on their Afternoon Update for Wednesday March 30, 2011.

President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. Photo: Open Parachute

Colonel Gaddafi. Photo: Juda Ngwenya, Reuters.













For weeks, the African Union (AU) has quietly been working behind the scenes to bring a diplomatic end to the violence in Libya. Last Friday, the first glimmer of a potential political settlement appeared as Colonel Gaddafi’s representatives met with African and international leaders for negotiations at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

This meeting is the start of what will almost certainly be a long process of talks to determine Libya’s post-war political landscape. No matter which side emerges victorious on the battlefield, negotiations are inevitable. The real question is what a political settlement will look like.

Knowing that negotiations will be part of the political endgame, it seems surprising that rebel representatives did not show up for the first round of talks. Their pre-condition for attending was that Gaddafi relinquish power and leave the country. On the surface, such a threshold for attending might seem unreasonable. But on closer inspection, the rebels have little practical choice but to hold out for Gaddafi’s exile.

Given the current military impasse, and the AU’s past record of intervention, African leaders will likely try to broker a power-sharing deal between Gaddafi and rebel leaders. The problem is that even if the AU eventually succeeds in putting together a settlement, any power-sharing agreement that emerges will still be laden with considerable pitfalls.

In theory, power-sharing looks like a win-win-win solution to the current impasse: rebels receive cabinet positions and the promise of reforms to the political system; Gaddafi gets the chance to regroup his forces and lick his wounds, and the international community gets to claim credit for bringing an end to the killing of civilians.

Unfortunately, the reality of power-sharing is not so straightforward. The recent experience of Zimbabwe, where a deal was brokered by the African Union, illustrates why.

After the violent 2008 elections, Zimbabwe saw a power-sharing arrangement negotiated between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. In spite of the celebrations that followed, Mugabe resumed his campaign of intimidation against journalists and activists once international pressure had subsided. Even though the position of prime minister was expressly created for Tsvangirai, Mugabe still clung to control over the military and the police.

In Libya, any power-sharing deal will likely see Gaddafi’s supporters retain de facto control over the military and the police, while rebel leaders will be given cabinet positions with little actual influence over how the country is governed.

Zimbabwe’s experience suggests that if a leader is so desperate to cling to power that he is willing to use lethal force on opposition members, then power-sharing is unlikely to lead to true democratic reforms.

Indeed, the failure of power-sharing in Zimbabwe should not be surprising. Having led the country for 28 years, Mugabe clearly had the upper hand. Gaddafi, having ruled for nearly 42 years, wields just as much influence, if not more. Consequently, the rebels know that as soon as the international spotlight shifts away from Libya, Gaddafi will quietly re-cement control over security forces and gradually eliminate key political opponents.

In the end, even if the AU succeeds in having its demands met (a ceasefire, humanitarian assistance, protection for civilians, political change) over the negotiating table, implementation will depend on the threat of force – if Gaddafi remains in the country. Further, any attempt by the international community to monitor power-sharing outcomes will run into substantial difficulty. Not only is there little political will on behalf of Western powers to become involved in Libya’s domestic politics, but Western intervention will only reinforce Gaddafi’s anti-imperialist rhetoric.

Finally, the wider consequences of having the African Union reward violence by awarding power-sharing deals should not be overlooked. In recent years, AU leaders have consistently advocated power-sharing when influential incumbent leaders refused to leave office. This has happened time and again wherever there has been political strife on the continent, not just in Zimbabwe, but also in Liberia, the Democratic of Congo, Kenya and most recently in the post-election standoff between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire.

What was once an ad hoc approach to dealing with intransigent heads of state has now become a norm. One unfortunate consequence of this norm is that it has emboldened leaders with authoritarian tendencies to use violence against the opposition with the hope of achieving a power-sharing “compromise” – facilitated and legitimated by the AU.

In the end, the kind of power-sharing deal that the African Union will push for is unlikely to achieve the desired outcome: easing out a leader who is largely viewed as illegitimate by his own people and by the international community. Gaddafi knows that if he leaves office, his next stop is likely to be the International Criminal Court. As a result, he sees no alternative except to fight on.

For their part, the rebels know that if Gaddafi remains in Libya, they will eventually suffer the consequences of standing up to his regime. So they too feel that they have no choice but to fight on.

This leaves two possibilities for minimizing bloodshed. The first is to have a friendly third country like Angola or Mauritania make a credible offer of exile to Gaddafi that will include keeping him safe from the ICC. The problem with this option is that it has been discredited because Nigeria allowed Charles Taylor to be handed over to the ICC after promising him exile.

The remaining possibility is much more controversial: allow Gaddafi to stay in office through a power-sharing deal while sending in an AU or UN peacekeeping mission to robustly monitor the agreement and to ensure that violence does not escalate. Neither of these options is particularly attractive to the international community, but then again, neither is the alternative of a drawn-out civil war.

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The Fourteen Not Forgotten and Sexist Posters at Waterloo

March 8, 2011

Photo source: Canadian University Press

This post is in honour of International Women’s Day (March 8th).

Recent events at my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, have left a bad taste in my mouth. In mid-February, in the middle of student government elections, someone covered up the posters of female candidates with an image of Marie Curie, a nuclear explosion and the following slogan “The brightest woman this Earth ever created was Marie Curie, The mother of the nuclear bomb. You tell me if the plan of women leading men is still a good idea!” A poster with the same image was also put up with similarly alarming text: Kill 250 000 innocent Japanese in WW2 and is given 2 Nobel Prizes. Expose the defective Moral Intelligence of Womankind and it is called Sexism. It had the caption: “Marie Curie = evil”.

Later on, this person sent out a fake email purporting to be Feridun Hamdullahpur, the University of Waterloo’s President. In this mass email, the message railed against “against women in leadership and women attending university“.

Read more…

The Giffords Shooting, the Making of Jared Loughner, and the Danger of Political Rhetoric

January 9, 2011

Rep Gabrielle Giffords at a Congress On Your Corner event, much like the one where she was shot

Two seemingly unrelated events from last night: the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and Derren Brown’s The Heist was on TV in the UK. Let me tie them together.

First, for those who aren’t familiar with Derren Brown, he is a brilliant magician, illusionist, hypnotist, and “mind reader”. If you watch his shows, you’ll see that he is a master of psychological techniques. On The Heist, the show that I watched last night, he did something quite extraordinary: he got three middle-class professionals to commit armed robbery– voluntarily. Well, a simulation of an armed robbery anyway. If you haven’t seen Derren Brown, you’re probably thinking that he used actors or accomplices. I don’t think that this was the case. They were mid-level consultants and managerial types. No criminal records. Decent folk. They were probably most unusual in that they were more suggestible than the average person and were quite deferential to authority. All in all, not armed robbery kind of people. Pretty ordinary, in fact.

What was extraordinary was what Derren Brown did with them. In a word, he brainwashed them.

Over the course of just two weeks, he implanted a series of signals and messages to program these people into doing something they never would have imagined. The whole thing started off disguised as a motivational seminar for a large group of carefully chosen individuals. During the seminar, he planted certain triggers in their heads that would subconsciously prime them for the big event; he subtly linked together colours, music, words, and symbols with different emotional states. He eventually whittled down the group to four people to do the experiment and continued to work with them to develop something within them to overcome several important social norms: you don’t shoot people and you don’t steal. In the end , three of the four committed armed robbery.

Right after I finished watching the show, I read about the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords. I couldn’t help but think that the way in which Derren Brown had “programmed” his subjects into committing armed robbery was not dissimilar from the inflamed political atmosphere that seems to have overtaken American politics these days. Colours, moods, code words, symbols (like Sarah Palin’s infamous crosshairs map)– all were employed to turn the “other” political party into an enemy. Us vs. Them. Leaders of ethnic parties in new democracies do it all the time to consolidate their support- sometimes, the result is civil war.

In simple terms, Republicans have “programmed” their supporters into thinking that the Democrats are evil. And Democrats have done the same, though perhaps not quite as fervently, or as successfully. Matt Bai gives us some of these examples in his NY Times article:

Consider the comments of Sharron Angle, the Tea Party favorite who unsuccessfully ran against Harry Reid for the Senate in Nevada last year. She talked about “domestic enemies” in the Congress and said, “I hope we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies.” Then there’s Rick Barber, a Republican who lost his primary in a Congressional race in Alabama, but not before airing an ad in which someone dressed as George Washington listened to an attack on the Obama agenda and gravely proclaimed, “Gather your armies.”

Here is a political ad from Rep Giffords’ opponent in the last election, Jesse Kelly. I do *not* think that he intended anything violent by it, but it says a lot about how uncivil American politics has become.

Sheriff Charles Dupnik of Pima County, Arizona (where the shooting took place) had this to say:

I think it’s time as a country we need to do a little soul searching because I think that the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from the people in the radio business, and some people in the T.V. business, and what we see on T.V. and how are youngsters are being raised.  It may be free speech but it does not come without consequences.  Arizona has become the Mecca of prejudice and bigotry.

He then goes on to name Sharron Angle and Sarah Palin for contributing to the “political vitriol”.

In an interview with MSNBC in March 2010, Representative Gabrielle Giffords reacts to having the front window of her constituency office smashed or shot out. She sounds calm, measured, and resilient. She responds exactly how I would have hoped for her to respond: with levity, appealing for dialogue, and by pointing out that violence is not the answer.

With hindsight, she sounds prophetic:

We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.

Some will try and chalk this up as isolated incident, the work of one teenager with serious mental health problems. I would argue that the this shooting has been a decade in the making. The utter polarization of American political life has gone on now for a good ten years, ever since the Bush-Gore election. In the two years since Obama has been in power, the situation has definitely gotten worse. But you can’t create these kinds of explosive political conditions and then act surprised when someone who is mentally unbalanced seizes your message and totally goes off the rails. How many other mentally ill people are there out there who are willing to act out their delusional fantasies and are being primed to do so? Politicians and powerful media personalities just don’t seem to realize that what they say can have a powerful effect- especially in the aggregate.

Remember that one of the most powerful things that the Interhamwe did in the lead-up to the Rwandan genocide was to use propaganda (for example, via the Milles Collines  radio station) to insult them, degrade them, accuse them of crimes they had not committed, and generally, to blame everything on them and dehumanize them in the process. This message of hate tapped into real historical grievances and had been cultivated by the Hutu elite for years, with a particular intensity in the months leading up to the genocide. When the time came to begin killing, many Hutus picked up their machetes willingly and hacked their neighbours to death. Not all of them, but enough of them to kill 800,000 fellow citizens.

The lesson here is this: political rhetoric is a powerful thing.

And it has become even more so in the age of 24-7 news, Facebook, Twitter, and instant communications. Individuals no longer have to confront the truths of the other side because it is possible to live in a bubble where everyone around you sees the world in exactly the same way as you do. Even the hyper-radical can look online for affirmation of their views of the world. And perhaps that is how Jared Loughner chose to live. Given that he has invokedhis Fifth Amendment rights, it’s hard to say right now. What we know about Jared Loughner suggests that he was mentally unbalanced, that he used to be a left-wing radical,that his current beliefs are consistent with a strand of Tea Party thinking, and that he was paranoid about the government. At this moment, it looks like he chose to act on his political beliefs. Maybe he even thought that he was doing his country a favour.

But what I learned from watching Derren Brown is that Jared Loughner might be less of an exception than we all would like to think. If three of four upstanding British citizens can be brainwashed into voluntarily committing armed robbery in two weeks of “motivational therapy” sessions, then what has been the impact of years and years of escalating invective on the American political sphere? Given that people have been primed to think the worst about those on the other side of the political spectrum, it is no wonder that there is Congressional deadlock. But is there the potential for further extreme political violence? Absolutely.

There is only one way out of this mess: Republicans and Democrats need to show each other some respect.

They do not need to agree with other, but they need to learn how to respectfully disagree with each other. They can no longer afford to demonize each other in the name of political expdiency. If they forget, they need to remind themselves of what Gabrielle Giffords herself said:

Our democracy is a light, a beacon, around the world because we affect change at the ballot box and not because of these… outbursts of violence in certain cases.

There is a fine line between peaceful protest and freedom of expression. All of us missed the warning signs that American political rhetoric had begun to spiral out of control. Now that line has clearly been crossed. The time has come for a new politics.

Update Jan 11: Ailes Tells Fox Anchors to ‘Tone it Down’;
Also, see David Brooks’ commentary, as well as this retort by George Jackson, a reader.

Update Jan 15 2011: This column by Frank Rich in the NY Times is similar to this post in its conclusions.

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Losing Out to China: The Decline of Superjobs and a New Economic Paradigm?

December 10, 2010

While the secrets and lies unleashed by WikiLeaks have kept me enthralled over the past couple of week, another story with game-changing potential has also broken: China, in its international debut on the educational testing stage, has trounced all other countries in reading, math and science. According to an internationally respected (and rigorously administered) test, students from Shanghai outperformed students from the rest of the world by a substantial margin.

From the PISA press release: “More than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3%.”

I have cut and paste the results so that you can see for yourselves how Shanghai students dominated in each of the three major categories. While their reading scores were respectably higher than those of South Korea, their test scores in math and science left their next closest competitors (Hong Kong, Finland, Singapore) eating dust. The full table is available here.

For those who are shaking their heads with incredulity, you should know that you are in good company. The officials at the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were also taken aback by the results. Apparently, the methodology of the test could not be faulted, and further, “international testing experts have investigated them to vouch for their accuracy, expecting that they would produce astonishment in many Western countries.

This test has always been a big deal, especially amongst developed nations. But this year’s results have been received fretfully by the West because they have underscored a gradual, but undeniable shift in global power and influence eastwards. If China is besting us at the secondary school level today, does that mean that in a few decades we will be working for them? (Remember the rise of Japanese economic power back in the 1980s?)

While it will still be a while (at least 30-40 years?) before China can even hope to overtake the US as the most important and powerful country in the world, recent events have revealed chinks in the American armor— the meltdown of the American financial system and all of the Western economies that were linked to it (except for Canada!), the shift from the G8 to the G20, the audacity of the Chinese in suggesting a move away from using the US dollar as the global reserve currency… and now this.

It’s true that the results were drawn only from Shanghai— a city that attracts the most entrepreneurial and hard-working citizens in the country— so the results are likely to be stronger than that of China as a whole. The students were also told that doing well on the test was important to China’s international prestige, so they were all motivated to do their very best. But these are minor quibbles. The fact of the matter is, they excelled at these tests, not only in the ways that they might have been expected to (“rote” learning), but also in ways that were unexpected (creative problem-solving).

As hinted at earlier, what is genuinely worrying about these results is that Western countries seem to be losing whatever was left of any competitive edge we might have felt secure in. The last of that illusion was just crushed by this study. Let me explain what I mean.

When the manufacturing jobs moved to China in the 1980s and 1990s, I remember the general economic discourse went something like this: Let them have the blue collar jobs. We can create a service economy. Let’s keep all of the “superjobs” (finance, high tech, R&D, entertainment) for ourselves— those that require an educated population. They can have the rest (call centres, low-wage manufacturing). And for a while there, that model seemed to make sense. The textile manufacturers moved to China, and then to Vietnam and Cambodia, and the call centres moved to Mumbai. But the West also got to celebrate as Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Canary Wharf exploded in global importance. The problem was that it soon became clear the West could not monopolize those lucrative service jobs— everyone, including the Chinese, wanted them and wanted them badly. And gradually, we have seen a trickle of these superjobs move eastward.

Still, the superjobs have largely remained tethered to Western economies. As long as there remained a viable model for how Western economies could triumph over Eastern ones, then it was possible for us to ignore all of the other warning signs of our decline. We could still pretend that our “knowledge economy” would continue to dominate over their low-skilled manufacturing economy.

But the PISA results shatter that illusion. They demonstrate that the Chinese are more than capable of beating us at our own game. (The irony of my comment and being Chinese-Canadian has not slipped past me. Suffice it to say that I consider myself on the Western side of this divide.)  If their 15-year-olds are trouncing the West academically, then any hope of us monopolizing information and services in the future seems to be a moot point. That dream of monopoly is now firmly dead. Forget domination, we will be lucky if the West does not decline into oblivion in these sectors.

For example, I was sitting next to an eminent scientist at Exeter’s Christmas dinner and I was told quite matter-of-factly that this decline was inevitable. “Christine,” he said, “I have been watching the British empire decline for as long as I can remember. I have seen it reflected in my own discipline as the number of British scientists giving keynotes at international meetings has fallen. Mostly, it was Americans who took our place. And now, increasingly, we are seeing more and more faces from Asia. I am now in my eighties and let me tell you, there is no fighting it.”

He then went on to remind me that the best advantage that we had is that smart people like to be around other smart people. A reputation for attracting brilliant minds is the best method for actually attracting brilliant minds. It’s true— I have seen that principle at work time and again. He suggested that this was the one thing that would allow a place like Oxford (or any other world-class university in the West) to cling on to any remaining competitive edge we might have over China for just a little while longer. But I know this won’t be enough. And it worries me— because that means there is no clear model for the West’s or Canada’s continued success.

So here is the take home message from this post: We are getting creamed. If we don’t work harder and smarter, we will no longer be competitive. It’s as simple as that.

Update Jan 15 2011: Nicholas Kristof at the NY Times draws broadly the same conclusion as I do in this column.