Monday, July 31, 2006

DRC Elections

60 million people
8 years since the onset of war
3.8 million dead
46 years since the last election
25.6 million voters
32 presidential candidates
9,709 parliamentary candidates
50,000 polling stations
1000+ still dying daily

Yesterday was (finally) election day in DR Congo. No results just yet, but that isn’t keeping anyone from talking about it. Despite some unrest, looks like things actually went off pretty well. I've got nowhere near the expertise to comment, but here are some links:

And here's some commentary, etc:

  • Why the war was ignored by the west
  • DRC army kills civilians while supported by UN troops
  • A generally pessimistic assessment of the post-election environment
  • New York Times bit on children in DRC

Any one in need of background can flip through the Wikipedia articles on the country or the war.

Lastly, for anyone who’s French is up to it, here’s coverage from a daily in BrusselsBelgium being the former colonial power.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Some Handy Links

I’m not a religious guy, but here’s a reason to think organized religion aint so bad.

I found the results of a recent Zogby poll of Iranians interesting. Iranian politics are about as complicated as any, and public opinion seems to reflect this.

Here are some links for blogs connected to Uzbek dissidents, and others in Central Asia and the FSU: Sunshine Uzbekistan, Registan.net, Blogging Central Asia and the Caucasus. These folks deserve more attention.

Lastly, some bits and pieces about the Israeli peace movement; one of the main organizations. It’s easy to forget these folks even exist, and it’s important that they do.

And yes, I'm still playing with the site format a little. It should settle down soon enough.

PS: Here's some good news for progressive Canadians.

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Canada and Lebanon

The Toronto Star has handly assembled the views of 10 of 11 candidates for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada concerning the conflict in Lebanon and the Harper government's handling of it. The 11th candidate, inconveniently enough, is frontrunner Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff could not be reached for comment because he was (quite reasonably) attending a family funeral in Europe. That said, mightn't he have commented at some point in the previous two weeks of the conflict? Most of the other candidates have either rejected Harper's objections to an immediate ceasefire, rejected his undiluted support for Israel, called for greater Canadian diplomatic involvement, or all of the above.

It's a bit tempting to infer from his silence that Ignatieff actually backs Harper on this. He looks less liberal by the day.

A wiki guide to the race, with info on candidates.
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Census Time

Quick—what do France, Nigeria, and Lebanon have in common?

None collect ethnic or religious affiliation data about their own citizens. And in all three cases, there’s a political (and politically problematic) reason for this.

In France, the rioting six or seven months ago in suburbs of Paris and elsewhere was generally attributed to a failure to integrate immigrant youth into French culture and the economy. A few commentators disputed this, claiming that the rioters weren’t predominantly immigrant, but the truth is it’s hard to know for sure. France doesn’t collect date on the religious affiliation or ethnicity of its population, on the pretext that to do so would damage the unity of French the nation. Consequently, we don’t properly know who rioted, because we don’t know who lives in the suburbs.

In Nigeria, the census a few months ago assiduously avoided ethnicity and, perhaps more importantly, religious questions. The result is that we won’t know just how much bigger the conservative Muslim north is than the more liberal Christian south. We also won’t know just how big the tribes of the Niger Delta are, and thus won’t know how many people remain poor while others benefit from an oil boom there. All this information might be the basis for conflict, or so goes the argument. So no one much wants to know.

In Lebanon, the post civil war government has been structured after the last census, conducted in 1932. The each major religious group is allotted a fixed number of seats in parliament based on the population proportions determined back then. Of course, the numbers are probably inaccurate now, but no one knows this for sure. Here are some rough numbers though, to take three of the largest sectarian groups. The post-1989 parliament is fixed to include 34 Maronite Christians, 27 Sunnis and 27 Shiites, of a total 128 seats. Recent population estimates suggest the following balance in the country: 20% Maronite, 25% Sunni, and 30-40% Shiite (numbers from Wikipedia). So the parliament, though elected, necessarily undervalues Shiite votes and overvalues those of Maronites. Throw in that the Shia have traditionally been the poorest part of the population, and this apparent disenfranchisement might help explain why they’d support an organization like Hezbollah.

Of course, it’s difficult to know what the consequences of all this missing information would be if we had it. In Nigeria, ignorance may have helped to hold back civic conflict of one kind or another. In Lebanon it has been the basis of the post civil war settlement (which now stands rather in doubt). In France it probably does little good at all. Still, it’s hard to imagine a permanent, stable political arrangement in Lebanon that doesn’t take into account the size of the Shiite population. This kind of ignorance may help to breed a limited stability (nothing changes if we don’t know why it should) but it isn’t likely the basis for a lasting peace.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Coalition of the Trapped

So it’s finally time to stay the course in Iraq. No, really.

Asked six months ago, I’d probably have favored a quick unilateral withdrawal. Removing American soldiers would have meant taking one more destabilizing element out of the country. Today it actually looks like leaving would make things worse.

American GIs have gone from belligerents in a war of occupation to bystanders in an undeclared civil conflict. Their presence probably still feeds the conflict, but it may have gotten bad enough for any outside presence to be better than nothing. For a sense of how many Iraqis versus how many coalition troops are dying month by month, view the second and third tables here.

It’s probably a moot point—the Bush administration seems to have concluded recently that it’s stuck anyway. And it certainly isn’t a solution—too few under-trained foreign troops will not build a peaceful Iraqi state. They simply shouldn’t have gone in the first place. But being there now may be less about providing a source of instability and more about standing between ethnic and religious civil combatants. Several Sunni leaders have taken to this view. It’s nothing to do with liking the occupation—many of them apparently support the insurgency. It’s about not wanting to die in rising sectarian violence.

The UN has identified more than 14 000 violent deaths in Iraq so far this year. Full report here.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Canadians in Afghanistan

A few years back, in the last days of the run-up to the Iraq War, the local food bank in my hometown sported a rare political message on one of those movable-type electric roadside signs in front of its offices. Passers by were greeted with a quiet but pointed message: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

The food bank director (a respected member of the community, who was granted an honorary degree by my university the year I graduated) no doubt understood that she took a risk in doing this—not just in alienating a few potential donors but in politicizing a relatively apolitical charity.

I’ve had this in mind recently as Canadians in Afghanistan (civilians as well as soldiers) have begun to die in greater numbers. I wonder—I’ve wondered for a while—if we as Canadians have for too long been morally high minded about war in general, as we either decline to participate in them or do so in the ethically easy guise of peacekeeping.

My worry isn’t exactly that we’ve allowed ourselves to get dragged into bad wars (although we may yet prove to have in this instance). And it sure as hell isn’t that that we’ve ‘failed to support our allies’ (one in particular) by rightly staying more or less out of Iraq.

My worry is that we’ve begun to see war in general as someone else’s problem. Equipped with a nonexistent military and a reduced international standing, we’ve simply decided that war belongs at arm’s length on the evening news, and that our hands are best kept clean. Staying out of Iraq was the right thing to do, but was maybe not much more than a political necessity for the liberal government of the day. My real worry is that we are too content having a warm and fuzzy international reputation to try seriously to help anyone else solve their problems. We’ve proven unable to provide peacekeepers in a number of other contexts recently when the UN has asked us. Despite his ringing endorsement of recent Israeli actions, Stephen Harper has been cool to the idea of providing Canadians to replace the IDF troops preparing to occupy southern Lebanon. Surely an international force, while imperfect, would be preferable to Israelis or Hezbollah. And yet, we seem to think that foreign wars are just that—someone else’s problem.

I don’t know what the way to peace in Afghanistan is. In any event the Canadian body count, tragic though it may be, is a fraction of the country’s rising violence. But if Afghanistan becomes more like Iraq (as seems to be the trend) than Canada will finally find itself where it really REALLY didn’t want to be—it the middle of a war it can’t see the end of. Peacekeeping shouldn’t be a favor you do the neighbors when they’re in a tight spot internationally, and it shouldn’t be a nice idea we came up with but can’t practice. It should be a real and serious effort to help prevent the spread of war, and provide others with the security necessary for decent quality of life.

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Evacuating Lebanon

Several days ago, while discussing the current madness in Lebanon, I found myself referring a friend of mine to the botched Canadian evacuation from the country. (Not only has my government taken to supporting violations of international law, it can’t seem to get its own people out of harm’s way.) She cut me off short—rightly in my view—to object to the evacuation in general.

Her point was simple enough. What sort of international standard do we set by removing tens of thousands of westerners from a war zone while we do relatively little for the local population? The evacuation, at least in appearance, has alarming overtones of racial and religious bias.

I objected that many of the Canadian citizens in question (of whom there seem to be more than any other foreigners in Lebanon) are dual nationals, carrying both Canadian and Lebanese passports. As such, many are Arab Muslims—at least the imbalance wasn’t entirely along racial or religious lines. But this, of course, just means that families were divided according to who did or did not hold a second nationality. Bias or no, the effect was bad.

Worse, the absence of foreigners from the country may give the Israeli air force a free hand to bomb with even less discrimination than they have displayed to date. They might well want to avoid repeating the recent deaths of several Canadian citizens, or the bombing of several UN observers—this sort of thing hardly helps them internationally. However, if they can bomb a country devoid of western citizens, they are all that much less likely to damage their international standing by killing foreign nationals.

Of course, killing any civilians is wrong. The mass evacuations currently underway—the UK has called their’s the largest since WWII—suggest that one’s right to life in conflict is determined not by one’s status as a combatant but by one’s passport. However pragmatically necessary they may be at the moment—western governments (my view) can hardly stand by and permit the bombing of their own people—they send a rather poor message.

In the last several days, the Canadian government seems to have gotten their evacuation in order. For better or worse, Lebanon is being emptied of most foreigners. It’s interesting to note, though, that all the evacuations implicitly say much the same thing as endorsements of Israeli bombing. Governments that have criticized Israel but evacuated their citizens have sent Lebanese civilians the same unfortunate message with their actions that the US and Canada have sent by their policy: you’re on your own.

Update:
Here are a couple of handy graphic representations of the conflict:
Deaths to date.
International support for a ceasefire (from the Guardian).
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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Roundup

Just short stuff today folks.

First off, does it strike anyone else as odd that a UN member state would target the facilities of a UN mission intended, among other things, to protect its security? I’m beginning to wonder if the IDF has simply lost the plot. No flies on ‘em for PR skills, though—see the Israeli UN Ambassador’s comments, straight from the Bush playbook.

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a memorial to Japan’s war dead (including a number of war criminals) can’t seem to stay out of the news. Turns out the wartime emperor stopped visiting after the 14 war criminals were enshrined there. Current Prime Minister Jonichiro Koizumi still goes, but the Japanese apparently don’t want him to.

A bunch of Wal-Mart employees in Saskatchewan are slowing beginning to defy the laws of physics—they’re unionizing. Better yet, the retailer's attempt to block provincial labour board jurisdiction on the issue has just been stopped short in the courts.

Finally, this is for anyone still mistaking Hugo Chavez for any kind of democrat. See also his lovely free speech record, here and here.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Tightrope

The two remaining breakaway regions in northern Georgia, for those interested, are fascinating accidents of history. Ethnic tensions aside, there’s no especially good reason for their de facto independence—it makes little economic sense, and no one recognizes their sovereignty, excepting one another.

The situation in South Ossetia is one of those precarious balances that never quite slips. Three recent bombings in the region (two in the capital, one in an outlying village) sound like the sort of thing that ought to destabilize the region. Georgian and South Ossetian authorities have dutifully accused one another of instigating the violence. Nonetheless, things continue to plod along as they are—sporadic violence is the norm.

Meanwhile, the new Georgian minister for conflict resolution has announced that Tbilisi will continue its current policy of peaceful conflict resolution. This might ring truer, South Ossetian officials contend, had the outgoing minister not been sacked for opposing the use of force. (Tbilisi has not in fact provided reasons publicly for his dismissal.)

The international consensus on Georgia’s breakaway regions has been in favor of Georgian unity from the outset (probably rightly, in my view). Likely, Georgia has not enforced this militarily for a few reasons. For one, they lost wars in both breakaway regions to begin with, and would need a significant show of strength to do better a second time around. Two, the regions are backed by Russia. Three, a military assault on the regions would strain (to say the least) the goodwill Georgia has enjoyed with the west since the Rose Revolution a few years ago. Authorities in Tskhinvali and Sukhumi, of course, know all this—their precarious independence is balanced on it.

Tbilisi, seems to me, is willing to sit tight meanwhile, so long as they believe the international community will continue to insist on reunification. The regions will sit tight so long as they have a large patron to the north and so long as they have, as they do, little other choice. The international community continues to pick at one or another peace process, but its hard to see progress happening. The status quo holds because no one knows how to improve it.

Links on the subject:

BBC profiles of Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.
NYTimes article on tourism in the former breakaway region of Ajaria.
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Monday, July 24, 2006

No New is Good News

The latest out of Nepal is a bus accident. 23 people are reported dead, after a long distance bus tumbled from the road in the Himalaya, landing in a river some distance below. Several wounded were reported to have been evacuated safely.

Behind this little Himalayan catastrophe lies a shadow of political significance. The real news implicit here is that the accident has nothing especially to do with the Nepali civil war. The accident is, of course, tragic, but is all too typical of a poor but peaceful developing country—poor road maintenance and aging vehicles make high rates of traffic fatalities all too common in the developing world. What is striking is that the international press would turn to Nepal, if it does so at all, for a story that belongs entirely to peacetime.

The other news just out of Nepal is the impending visit of a UN team to check on the status of the recent peace process that has tentatively ended a 10 year civil war between the government and Maoist rebels. Over the last few years, Nepal has lurched from bad to worse. Several years ago, the crown prince killed most of the royal family (himself included) in a family dispute. This left the king’s adventurist brother on the throne. When King Gyanendra suspended parliament in 2004, he drove the elected parties into an eventual alliance with the Maoists. The sudden loss of an already weak democracy was coupled with the unfortunate appearance that the Maoists, maybe, just might be winning the war. In any event, their repeated blockades of the capital did little to ease the fears of a weary population and a nervous international community.

However, a few months ago, things began to change rather rapidly. The king reinstated parliament in April, following days of street protests. After 13 000 dead, an alliance of former parliamentarians and Maoist rebels have successfully sidelined the monarchy, relegating it to apparent figurehead status (and perhaps to even less in an eventual permanent settlement), laying the groundwork for a stable political arrangement. The reinstated parliament has reached managed to sustain a ceasefire with the Maoists for months, and arrangements are in place for a ceasefire. The civil war, once thought intractable, appears to be hurtling toward a remarkably happy ending.

What is most remarkable about the time since the interim settlement is what has not happened. The king has not tried to seize power again. The Maoists have not resumed fighting. The alliance of mainstream political parties—the returned parliamentarians—has not dissolved into petty bickering. What has happened is a fairly stable status quo, intended to give way to an elected constituent assembly and, eventually, a fairly stable democracy.

None of this is to say the king might not renege, or the Maoists take up arms again (they have been less than eager to disarm), but it’s hard to find a dark cloud of any size beyond this silver lining. Things look pretty good.

This is why the unremarkable tragedy of a bus crash has become the news of the day. As a laundry list of civil conflicts limp in and out of peace settlements globally, it’s nice to know that these things do occasionally come to a reasonably tidy close. Admittedly, the confluence of interests that allowed this to happen, combined with the small miracle of the king’s capitulation, might not easily be duplicated elsewhere. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, there will likely be a long, tough slog ahead, with or without the elections scheduled to occur at the end of the month. Still, it’s worth recognizing that the conditions for peace do occasionally exist.

With a few less gunmen in the hills, they might even get to fix those roads.

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Welcome

Welcome to ‘in this space’, a blog about international affairs by a Canadian student of international law and international relations, currently living and studying in Belgium. This'll be a venue for my (probably irregular) comments on both over and under discussed international issues, along with occasional domestic politics (American, Canadian, whatever else), and hopefully some useful information.

Comment (rant, harass, etc) as you see fit. Enjoy.
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