Tag Archives: Conflict

The Ugly Marriage of Moral Responsibility and National Security

Brouhaha.  The evil of trading “schools for soldiers”.  That was Oxfam’s Max Lawson, firing  a bow shot in what became a full day barrage of Downing Street and DFID.  World Vision chirped in, as did Christian Aid and Save (though hard to tell which side they were on) and even small fish NGOs who usually keep their mouths shut.  Seems that NGOs in the UK have found their bite now that Andrew Mitchell is no longer reminding them of whose hand does the feeding.

The cause.  David Cameron’s statement that he would be “very open” to using some of DFID’s aid budget to fund Ministry of Defence projects.

The problem. Once again, and in a loud public voice the UK’s highest authority (OK, realistically DC is probably closer to sixth in terms of influence, after the Queen, Kate Middleton, Boris, Becks and Cara Delevingne, who is poised to change the shape of the British eyebrow) okayed the idea of development money sliding from DFID to fund MOD stabilization projects that deliver on the UK’s national security interests.  Loud and clear for the Taleban and al Shabab:  aid is for national security. Loud and clear for the communities where we work, planting that unhelpful chestnut of distrust as to NGO motivations.

What he didn’t say.  He didn’t say he wanted to buy weapons with aid money, or anything close to it (transcript here).  The level of hyperbole in Lawson’s “hospitals and not helicopter gunships” quip makes for great radio.  It also makes for a big fat lob pass to all those ready critics of aid, defenders of Tory policy, and friends of Dave (not to mention again aid agencies apparently trying to curry favour by defending the government).  Dismiss the point by making the lot of us look like self-serving nags or wrong on our facts.  Even MSF over-reacted, publishing a rather straightforward statement under the screechy tag of the aid budget being “hijacked”.

What NGOs didn’t say.  Our disclaimer: As a member of the aid community I hereby pledge that we aid agencies are motivated solely by the desire to defend the principle of independent aid.  We stamp our collective feet and in a piercing falsetto reject any accusation of there being even a soupçon of self-interest in this sudden vocality. It is pure coincidence that this involves funding for our future programs going to our good friends at MOD.

What nobody said.  Aid agencies are dead right to be critical of this public marriage of aid and national security interests / defence.  We need to complain about this more forcefully.  But in the real world  — Why wouldn’t governments prioritize political interests and military objectives (e.g., winning hearts and minds in hostile territory) over the moral pursuit of foreign aid and development?  NGOs, on the other hand, might be expected to conduct themselves differently.  And yet the much-decried “blurring of the lines” (between aid and military) is not simply the work of governments/armies.

NGOs have accepted funding from governments to work in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, where those very governments have been a belligerent party in the war.  Like a Pakistani NGO taking money from al Qaeda to run a clinic in Sussex.  Doesn’t look good.  Afghanistan also provides a textbook example of NGOs, even while not accepting funds directly from warring parties, simply and without sufficient questioning setting up their aid programs on only one side of war, delivering aid to areas within Western military or Afghan government control.  This lopsided aid effort effectively supports the NATO/US/Karzai plan.  It aims to build the legitimacy of the Afghan government and popular gratitude to the Western invaders.  Bottom line:  it doesn’t look like aid to the guys with the guns on the other side of the fence.

What I previously said. Can you imagine the Daily Mail headlines if it were reporting on this same story elsewhere?  What if Robert Mugabe decided to use its own HIV and education budget to fund Ministry of Defence projects?  What if President Goodluck Jonathan decided to reassign a DFID grant to Nigeria’s military peacekeeping activities in Mali?  Whether or not there is a perfectly acceptable legality to the UK government’s manoeuvring, corruption is the word we’d use if the Tories were African.

What I think. Aid and defence mix well in a political analysis, poorly in a humanitarian one.  And we can probably conclude that the hard-boiled world of political opportunism seems like a right stench compared to the perfumed corridors of aid.  Then again, so does the whiff of NGO opportunism.

Apocalypse Now (and Again)

The world did not end yesterday.  At least, not for you.  Not for me.  Yet in places like Syria, Pakistan, and South Africa, individual worlds = came to an end.  The culprits?  Not the dreaded riders of the Apocalypse, but well familiar stalwarts like hatred, greed and violence.

Earlier this week the United Nations launched its largest appeal ever, for nearly £1 billion, to address the crisis caused by the war in Syria. The months of fighting have provoked supply shortages, mass migrations and huge numbers of wounded against a background of intensifying cold, grief and devastation. And what will the UN do with that money?  The multi-billion dollar international humanitarian industry is virtually locked out of Syria.  It simply does possess the skills and capacity to work effectively in what can only be described as a very modern humanitarian crisis:  security risks, lack of authorisation from the government, and an insufficient ability to negotiate and maintain access in such circumstances.

Even MSF has struggled enormously to open hospitals inside Syria, vitally important to those reached and yet insignificant compared to the larger needs. Put simply, in the midst of such epic crisis, and despite Herculean efforts of Syrian doctors and nurses, ordinary Syrians have preciously poor access to drugs or medical care.

It’s not the obvious cases of civilians in war – old people, women, children, and even babies –wounded in bombings and shrapnel injuries. Or the psychological trauma.  It’s the slow fade that shocks me, the banality of chronic conditions: diabetics who run out of medication, children with asthma, and women who need caesareans.  Where would I get my resupply of statins in a place like that?  I’d have to give up sausages.

Earlier this week in Pakistan, polio immunisation campaigners were assassinated in a series of targeted attacks. No medical work can be carried out effectively in the atmosphere of mistrust caused by years of deliberate misinformation, rumours, or such a blatant abuse of the medical act as having spies pose as doctors (see my earlier blog on the good doctor Afridi or humanitarians as spies).

Humanitarians can’t shoot their way into town.  If you headed an NGO, would you be able to ask people to go out and vaccinate?  Where a nurse “armed” with nothing more than a syringe might end up between the crosshairs of a weapon? The pursuit of political and military objectives erodes trust in healthcare itself, and children fall ill and die of diseases – diseases for which prevention is simple in theory, but dangerous in practice.

And far from the week’s headlines, in places like Uzbekistan, Swaziland and South Africa, highly virulent strains of tuberculosis (TB) spread. Increasingly resistant to treatment, TB causes people pain, suffering and debilitation until death liberates them. Those who are “lucky” enough to access treatment are administered a highly toxic drug regimen that lags on for years – and given an only per cent chance of cure.

Syria, Pakistan and South Africa lie far apart on the map.  The common denominator of much suffering in these nations, as in so many others, is the space between people who need care and people who can provide it.  This lack of access – and the deaths that result – is as preventable as polio; it is not the doing of cosmic forces beyond human control.  No, I’m afraid the world does not end in one big bang – it blinks out in the bits and pieces of human lives.

[I drafted the original version of this blog as a letter to the editor but it didn’t get picked up.  P and S from the office contributed a great deal to the editing.  Thanks]

Weapons of Mass Erection II

The story is back!  [See my blog below, dated 2 May].  More charges that Col. Gaddafi is distributing Viagra to soldiers in order to encourage mass rape.  This time, we have the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, making the claim.  He asserted that Gaddafi is buying containers of the drug to enhance the possibility of mass rape.   “[Viagra is] like a machete,” Ocampo said. “It’s new. Viagra is a tool of massive rape.”

At this stage, it is rather impossible to judge the veracity of the charges.  Pfizer wasn’t too pleased.  They addressed the issue back in May, and have trotted out the same line again.  

That highlights the simple fact that these sorts of allegations have consequences.  A major pharmaceutical worries about its pocketbook and the ICC wades into new territory, where a drug that helps men produce and maintain an erection (but, notably, does not increase sexual drive) is likened to the instruments of Rwandan genocide.  I’m not so concerned about Pfizer or Ocampo. I’m concerned about people, and what if means to them to live in fear.  And I’m concerned for the deterrent power of treating rape in war as a crime.

Rape being used as a weapon of war is probably as old as dirt.  It destroys the enemy community from within; a most visceral communication of dominance.  Rape being officially recognized as a weapon of war, though, is in its relative infancy.   Really, only in the late Nineties, for example with the 1998 decision in the Akayesu case before the Int’l Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, finding that mass rape constituted a form of genocide, or its codification as a crime against humanity in the statutes defining the ICC (becoming law in 2002). 

Legalities being what they are, many people still see rape as inevitable in war, like muddy boots or trampled fields.  After all, soldiers are men, and men deprived of female companionship fall prey to their own pent up desires.   Even more shocking is when women themselves feel this way, that rape is a bad but without the conviction that it is wrong.  Rapists akin to locusts rather than criminals.

My concern today is with the future course of the transformation of rape in war from collateral damage to crime.  If charges of mass rape become part of conflict’s landscape, if the propaganda machines of the two sides routinely cry systematic rape, for how much longer will the charge retain its force?  How long before falsified charges of rape give credence to future denials?   To brutal dictators shrugging rape off as the self-serving bleats of politicians like Ocampo and Rice?  So while hoping that nobody has been raped at all, I also have to hope that Ocampo’s charges are based on actual evidence, because victims of rape will be the big losers if the ICC has been chasing a ghost of WMD.

Weapons of Mass Erection

If you managed to snatch some news on Friday not involving the “Kate loves Willy” theme, you might have come across this item:  wartime propaganda took a 21st Century turn when Susan Rice told a room full of UN diplomats that Colonel Gadaffi was supplying his troops with wonderdrug Viagra in order to encourage rape.  In what appears to be an example of the truth catching a break, most of the reporting includes opinions of doubt by experts.  And aside from the well-publicized charges by Iman al-Obaidi, I haven’t seen analysis suggesting that rape by government soldiers is prevalent in the Libyan conflict.

I suppose one could dismiss Rice’s claim as only the most recent example of such fanciful propaganda.  Remember those stories of Iraqi soldiers tossing Kuwaiti babies out of their incubators?  Or the bizarre detail that Uday Houssein’s briefcase contained stacks of money, underwear, a single condom and a vial full of Viagra (not, to my knowledge, a hoax, but still curious for the details released).  The difference is that those stories possessed little potential to cause much harm in and of themselves (even if they indirectly fuelled the war effort). 

Mass rape as a strategy of war is neither fanciful nor joke-worthy, so I apologize for the catchy title of this post.  The Sudanese government’s reaction to MSF’s 2005 report of rapes in Darfur highlights the power of the charge of rape to humiliate and to polarize, even where charges of mass killings do not.  Governments have little trouble explaining major war crimes to their friends – “we bombed base camps of rebels, not villages of people” or “we are fighting a war, so it is inevitable that civilians will be killed accidentally” or “it’s not torture”.  But rape in war is impervious to justification.  It is never accidental and always a violation at the level of religious, community and personal mores.  In short, better to be accused of other war crimes than of rape.

We can only hope that Rice’s comments prove baseless and, almost as importantly, find as little traction among the men and women of Libya as they did among UN diplomats.  As any humanitarian worker in the midst of victims of conflict can explain, the weight of constant, pervasive fear can be as damaging as bombs and bullets.  This then is the true nature of terrorism – to propagate dread and fright far outstripping actual threat of harm. 

Rape is a crime, singular and unparalleled.  Falsely instilling fear of rape is not.  The deliberate manufacture of terror, though, should be.  What is both strange and sad is that this form of terror usually comes from the likes of thug militia groups such as the RUF or the LRA, using fear as a weapon against a population and against their enemies.  In Susan Rice’s accusation we have an example of a politician causing terror on her own side as a sort of collateral damage in the effort to win the battle for public support.   Thankfully, it has caused little stir on the worldwide stage.  I can only hope it has had as little effect in the minds of the people of Libya.