Category Archives: Current events

No New Zealanders allowed

So if you aren’t in New Zealand or Hawaii you probably haven’t heard that 2 naval frigates from New Zealand have been forced to moor at a commercial dock in Hawaii rather than at the military  facility at Pearl Harbour. The reason is that a law New Zealand passed in 1987 banned nuclear power and weapons from our fair shores. Because the US Navy would neither confirm or deny that individual vessels had nuclear weapons or nuclear material onboard, it effectively banned US naval ships from New Zealand, ending the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) alliance. In retaliation New Zealand vessels aren’t allowed to moor with other countries’ vessels at Pearl Harbour during the world’s largest naval exercise, RimPac. I don’t think anyone in New Zealand cares that we have to park our 2 little ships away from the big boys. We certainly aren’t going to give up our nuclear free stance over it.

I also don’t think that many people anywhere else would care that New Zealand is not moored with other navies, and I think plenty would support our nuclear free stance anyway, especially in the wake of the Fukushima incident. The US’s actions in this case miss the point of the whole situation, like that movie:

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War crimes and show trials redux: the ICTY, Karadzic, and Kissinger

A while back I wrote this post about how war crimes trials often ending up seeming like show trials imposing the victor’s justice on their defeated foes. I also asked if any high profile defendants at war crimes trials had been acquitted, and today one has been. Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic has been acquitted of one charge of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), although he still faces ten more charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war. Here’s what the ICTY said about the acquittal:

Count 1 of the Indictment charges genocide in relation to the crimes alleged to have been committed between 31 March and 31 December 1992 against the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats in some municipalities in BiH. Having reviewed the totality of the evidence with respect to the killing of, serious bodily or mental harm to, the forcible displacement of, and conditions of life inflicted on Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities, the Chamber found that the evidence even if taken at its highest, does not reach the level from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer that genocide occurred in the Municipalities.

The Chamber noted that genocidal intent can be inferred from a number of factors and circumstances, including the general context of the case, the means available to the perpetrator, the surrounding circumstances, the perpetration of other culpable acts systematically directed against the same group, the numerical scale of atrocities committed, the repetition of destructive and discriminatory acts, the derogatory language targeting the protected group, or the existence of a plan or policy to commit the underlying offence.  The Chamber noted that although it has heard evidence of culpable acts systematically directed against Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities, and of the repetition of discriminatory acts and derogatory language, the nature, scale, and context of these culpable acts do not reach the level from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer that they were committed with genocidal intent.

The Chamber found that whilst the evidence it had heard indicates that the circumstances in which the Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities were forcibly transferred or displaced from their homes were attended by conditions of great hardship and suffering, and that some of those displaced may have suffered serious bodily or mental harm during this process, this evidence does not rise to the level which could sustain a conclusion that the serious bodily or mental harm suffered by those forcibly transferred in the Municipalities was attended by such circumstances as to lead to the death of the whole or part of the displaced population for the purposes of the actus reus for genocide.

If that gave you a TL;DR moment that’s understandable. Damn legal mumbo jumbo! Basically they have said that Karadzic’s actions in relation to this specific charge haven’t crossed the threshold for genocide. I think this is a good sign. I don’t know details of the case but the fact that the court is willing to acquit on this charge shows that defendants are not effectively being convicted before they have been tried. It seems likely that he will be convicted on at least some of the other counts, especially those relating to the Srebenica, but for now the fact that a high profile case can feature an acquittal adds credibility to the international justice system. After all this was a man dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia” by some in the Western media – not exactly a moniker which implies innocence.

However, until alleged Western war criminals also face charges in a meaningful court the charge that these trials only exist to punish the defeated cannot be ignored. How about we start with Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger? As Christopher Hitchens famously pointed out, the case against him is pretty solid. The recent conviction of Charles Taylor for aiding and abetting crimes in Sierra Leone only strengthens the case against Kissinger by establishing a precedent which could see him convicted for even more crimes against humanity. I use Kissinger as an example simply because he’s an easy one, but there are plenty more Western leaders with similar pasts out there. Lets bring them up on war crimes charges!

I don’t think that this will ever happen but if proponents of international justice want to ensure that they are respected then they should fight for justice for all. Seems like a pretty basic principle to me. If Western governments genuinely believe these trials are fair and balanced, and that their own leaders and political figures are innocent of war crimes then why shield them from facing charges? If protecting sovereignty is the issue (a hypocritical excuse that) then they can bring the charges in their own courts. Maybe the defendant can turn up on the back of a flying pig…


Sudan’s problems are bigger than Omar al-Bashir

While Syria’s civil war rolls on with another (presumably doomed) Annan peace planSudan has been rocked by a series of violent protests against the government which president Omar al-Bashir says are nothing like the Arab Spring. Western journalists say otherwise. Well, not all. Anyway as I see it the argument over whether it is or isn’t an extension of the Arab Spring is more a matter of trying to get website views than anything else. I think a more pertinent question is what hope is there for lasting change in Sudan?  Make no mistake, Bashir is not a nice fellow – there’s a reason he’s been indicted for crimes against humanity – but ousting him and establishing democratic structures won’t solve the problems which are plaguing Sudan.

The simplest narrative to explain the state of Sudan today is this: there was a civil war which led to the country losing its oil-rich southern region (now the imaginatively named South Sudan) and now it’s poor. Although the immediate threat of war between Sudan and South Sudan seems to have passed, neither state appears very stable or strong at the moment. Aside from this issue though, there is the problem that Sudan is a large multi-ethnic state dominated by one ethnic group and uneven distribution of wealth and power across different regions has fuelled ethnic tensions. The conflict in what is now South Sudan was one example of this, while another is the crisis in Darfur which is now in state of uneasy peace. Granted, a true democracy in Sudan might alleviate some of these issues but not all. Wealth will still be unevenly distributed because of the uneven distribution of resources. These resources include arable land, and as desertification spreads in the north of the country the people who had lived and farmed there have sought other places to go, and this in fact was one of the key causes of the Darfur conflict.

Although the new state of South Sudan controls most of the oilfields now, the refineries and port where this oil can be put on tankers are in Sudan and thus co-operation is needed to ensure the oil still flows. However, South Sudan plans to build a pipeline through neighbouring Kenya, meaning that Sudan could be shutout of a share of the oil revenue. So to maintain the standard of living that many Sudanese have become accustomed to another source of income may have to be found. Again, the removal of Bashir and the establishment of a democracy in Sudan might make it a more appealing place for foreign investors and aid. However, as global economic woes continue the amount of aid money available will be reduced, and foreign investment relies on something to invest in. In an economy facing regional climate change in the form of desertification, an economy which is 80% agricultural looks like a bit of a problem.

If Omar al-Bashir can be removed it will be a victory for human rights and international justice, and if Sudan can develop stable democratic structures then the country will better placed than it now is to deal with its myriad issues. Nonetheless the examples of Egypt and Libya have shown that the transition from dictatorship to democracy is never easy, and Sudan’s challenges are if anything bigger than either of those. Optimism is a good thing but its easy to get carried away. Of course, the Sudanese people have to actually get rid of Bashir first, and I doubt that there will be any appetite in the West for a Libya-style intervention in this case. And then if Bashir is ousted, what is to stop conflict flaring up again between groups looking to take over from him?

Sudan’s future looks bleak, and so does that of South Sudan. Ironically, people in both countries may have been better off in the long-term if they had stayed as one state. All hail the law of unintended consequences!


Syria’s civil war: time to call it what it is

I constantly see headlines which say something along the lines of “fears of Syria civil war” or “Clashes in Syria amid civil war warnings” which I have to say confuse me a bit. A quick search for definitions of the term “civil war” seems to suggest that it is “a war between political factions or regions within the same country.” Wikipedia states that the parties must be organised, but the general theme is the same – war between groups within a country. Surely then Syria is already in a civil war, so why won’t anyone admit that?

My guess would be that Western powers don’t want to say it because they would rather frame the conflict as the Syrian government cracking down on protesters, and that calling it a civil war could be seen to be legitimating government violence against its citizens. Russia doesn’t want to say it because then they would be admitting that the Syrian government is not as strong as they would like it to be. The news media in general reports what officials are saying, so they won’t call it a civil war until someone in power does. Obviously Al-Assad and co aren’t gonna say it – in their view the opposition are terrorists and criminals.

Calling the crisis a civil war won’t actually change anything the ground but it will allow for a more robust dialogue on how this situation can be resolved. However for now it seems as if the emperor has no clothes. Everyone can see that Syria is in the grip of a violent and nasty civil war yet no one will admit it…


Show trials and war crimes

I admit to having some reservations about the trial of Ratko Mladic and others like it… and that’s a hard thing to say because from the evidence I am aware of there does seem to be a very strong case against him. War crimes and crimes against humanity are obviously a big deal and should be punished but the very nature of them as political, high-profile events makes the trials of accused perpetrators very tricky affairs. For a start, the accused can use them as a place to bandstand and promote more hate in a semi-legitamised context. Then there are, as always, the questions about the fairness of such trials in the first place. The delay in the Mladic case as the result of errors in the handling of prosecution evidence was unfortunate but at least shows the tribunal is not overtly biased towards the prosecution. However, has any defendant ever been found not guilty in a modern high-profile war crimes trial? Not as far as I’m aware, and that is slightly worrying for me (if anyone knows of an example, please let me know).  I’m willing to bet that Mladic will be found guilty too, which does make you wonder about the extent to which war crimes trials are really show trials, enforcing the victor’s justice. Of course there is nothing new about this. After all, no Allied airmen or leaders were ever held accountable for the crime of carpet bombing Germany and Japan (not to mention twice nuking Japan) in WWII despite such actions clearly being in violation of the principle of proportionality as laid out in International Humanitarian Law.

The best way to dismiss these worries would be to bring some of the West’s alleged war criminals up for trial at the ICC (that’s the International Criminal Court, not the International Cricket Council) – but that particular body seems more concerned with Africans, and the US and others are not party to it anyway.

All of which raises an interesting question for me: is it better to have a system which selectively tries war crimes in a seemingly biased fashion, or to have no system at all? If the only war criminals who get caught and convicted are those from marginalised or weak states it clearly is not fair, but not convicting anyone at all is even less fair. So we end up with the current situation, as imperfect as it is. Mladic will be found guilty, his supporters will claim it was never a fair trial, and people in powerful states who are responsible for violations of the war of law will go unpunished. Such is the nature of the international political landscape – liberal institutions only operate in as far as it’s in powerful states interest for the to do so. At least some war crimes are punished, and that fact alone should be applauded. It’s just a shame that moving beyond this point seems so unlikely at the moment.


The future of the EU… and the world

I’ve been thinking about the European Union and Europe a bit recently – partly because of the obvious reasons, such as the media saturation of the Hollande/Merkel showdown and the Greek crisis, and partly because I’ve applied for a job working with the EU delegation here in New Zealand. This has led to ponder on the future of the EU and what that means for the world in general. With the Eurozone on shaky ground, little has been written about what any sort of rush for the exits will do for the wider EU as a whole (at least that I’ve seen) but to me this raises some very serious questions.

The EU can be viewed as an experiment in liberal international relations theory and the results of this experiment could influence global politics for years to come. Should the EU manage to evolve and strengthen through dealing with the current crisis then other regional unions such as ASEAN might see it as a reason to pursue closer economic and political cooperation. However if the Eurozone crisis damages the EU’s credibility and weakens its institutions then the future of regional unions as important units in international relations will presumably be less rosy. On top of this, there is the simple fact that Europe is still a major player in global affairs even in the post-colonial era. The EU is home to half a billion people and represents 20% of global GDP. Although some experts think its influence is in decline these numbers alone show that it is still a big player, while the impact of its history on the way the rest of the globe works today is undeniable.

So where does theat leave the EU today? Even if we assume that Greece exits the Eurozone in the near future and triggers the other troubled countries (Ireland, Spain etc) to do the same, would that necessarily be bad for the EU? Some say it would, some say it wouldn’t.

I would personally answer this question with a definitive “maybe”. Sure, that’s a cop-out but with no real precedent to compare to that I’m aware of this is all dangerous new territory. The EU is already considered by some to be undemocratic, and there is at least some popular support for its dissolution, but whether this would reach critical mass following a Eurozone collapse is hard to say. I think the safest thing to predict is that the EU would continue to exist but its powers would be limited to what they are today (excluding the Eurozone bit of course) and it would take a very long time for Europe to move towards closer integration again, if it ever could. While Russia at least would probably welcome this move, from a broad historical perspective it would be a rather tame and sad end to one of the first real attempts to develop a post-nation-state way of approaching global politics. On the other hand, if the EU deals with the Eurozone crisis well it could signal a way forward for states to surrender sovereignty to a higher power in order for economic and political security – which is after all the whole point of the EU anyway.

In some ways the EU’s current problem with the Eurozone shows that it is stuck in the  middle of the pull of nation-states and state sovereignty on one side, and the push to closer integration and a possible federation of Europe on the other, and the halfway point has not been a compromise that has worked. At a deeper level though I think this reflects a constant in European history – the diverging sides of the European experience as it were. There’s the Europe of the enlightenment and humanism, and the Europe of bloody conquest and rampant nationalism. Not that I’m equating nation-states with evil deeds, or saying that a post-nation-state way of governing peoples would be superior, but simply that it is mistake to think of Europe purely in one sense or the other. Although Europe has historically been progressive, it has also historically been reactionary. Another example of this duality is the fact that Europe itself was the birthplace of the modern nation-state yet it still retains some pre-nation-state entities, such as the city-state of Monaco, or San Marino, or even the Vatican.

Even if the EU comes out of the Eurozone crisis stronger, there are still a number of challenges facing it. Foremost among these is where to stop expanding – check out the GIF on this Wikipedia page to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Will Turkey become a member? Georgia? Armenia? How far can the European Union expand and still be European? As it expands eastwards it also run up against the Russia’s sphere of influence and this could be a very difficult relationship to manage, especially considering the partnership between the EU with NATO. If the EU stops admitting new member states will Europe fall back into a division like that between communist and capitalist, or Orthodox and Catholic? As well as these concerns, there is the question of the way forward for the EU – how should it develop its institutions to be more democratic? How much sovereignty are its members willing to cede, and what can be offered in return?

The rest of the world will learn lessons from how the EU handles this crucial point in its history. This isn’t Eurocentrism but simply a reflection of the fact that the EU is sailing into uncharted waters. How it navigates them will ultimately decide if anybody wants to follow in its wake.


Greece is now a failing state (in my opinion)

The most common definition of a state one is likely to encounter in the social sciences is Max Weber’s one which say that a state is an entity which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders. An interesting take on this which reframes it in a more day-to-day metaphor is Charles Tilly’s description of the state as a protection racket – effectively saying that citizens pay tax to be protected from external (and internal) aggressors, and if citizens fail to pay the state then the state uses its force against them in the form of criminal prosecution.  If we accept these broad definitions then a failed state is one which can no longer exercise a monopoly on violence, or to use Tilly’s idea, can no longer maintain its protection racket. A failing state is one heading towards this position.

I like both these definitions for their simplicity and for capturing the essence of the nature of states. They also tie in nicely to the idea of the social contract, which is a prominent part of political science theory discourse. I think that Tilly’s protection racket concept could be widened to encompass the idea that the violence the state protects its citizens from is not just physical but economic. Economic violence could be the effects of poor fiscal and monetary policy, or external forces such as being out-competed by other states, but the idea is that if the state cannot protect its citizens from prolonged economic hardship then it is not living up to its end of the protection racket bargain. In social contract terms, the state has broken the contract to provide for its citizens.

Watching coverage of the Greek elections today, I was struck by the shambolic state of affairs this rather important country has found itself in. It seems to me with my limited understanding of economics that the adoption of a single currency by  group of sovereign states could never work in the long-term… but I digress. I think its time to stop kidding ourselves and admit that the Greek state is failing. One obvious example of this is the rampant tax evasion in Greece, which by some estimates has cost the government a third of its potential revenue. The Greek state has not been able to enforce its protection racket by collecting its dues, and now it can’t protect the people from the economic violence being wrought on them. This is not just the specific government in power’s problem, but the actual state artifice itself. It doesn’t matter who is elected in if the underlying structure is not being honoured by everyone. Those people who are avoiding tax are not going to start paying because someone new is in charge. Other taxpayers stopping paying because of the failures of their state is also a potential problem. Of course, tax collectors could be hired or new methods of enforcement could be tried but until these measures actually start to make headway the Greek state will continue to be “failing” at least in my eyes.

How far Greece can go before total state collapse is an open and very scary question. I think it will most likely avoid that path, but it is still definitely a possibility. European leaders should quietly be making plans for this outcome because if it does happen a whole world of sh*t will follow.