The same old canard

From the comments section of Aid Watch, emphasis mine:

Lure D. Lou:

Transitionland says that immediately tackling corruption could go far to reversing this. What I would say is that one man’s corruption is another man’s way of life…as long as you have great disparities in wealth, a non-democratic power allocation, and fortunes to be made from drugs and weapons you will get nowhere in tackling corruption. Corruption is endemic to even the most advanced societies…just look at New Jersey politics…what you need are alternative structures that aren’t corrupt that will hopefully draw enough people away and give them enough incentives to stay on the straight and narrow. This is not going to happen any time soon in Afghanistan, Nigeria, or even New Jersey. The focus on corruption is a waste of time…better to use the corrupt system than to try to change it…but goodie-two shoes Americans are unlikely to want to go there…we want to save souls while allowing our contractors to rake in the dough and our NGO legions to pad their ‘conflict zone’ resumes…the Great Game of neo-colonialism continues.

Good governance NGOs in places like Afghanistan make me laugh.

A few things:

1) When I mentioned corruption, I was referring to corruption by aid agencies and their contractors. If corruption in the aid world is, as Lure D. Lou argues, a “way of life,” it is not one I want any part of.  We condemn and punish corruption in the for-profit sector (or should); there’s no reason we should apply a different set of principles to non-profits, including aid agencies.

2) New Jersey is corrupt. Comically so. But its corruption is, for the most part, the non-lethal variety, and it is mitigated (though not always successfully) by strong rule of law. Comparing Afghanistan to New Jersey is absurd. Afghanistan won’t reach New Jersey’s level of governance development for a very, very long time (I’m pretty confident I will be long dead by the time it does), but that doesn’t mean Afghanistan can’t do better, or shouldn’t. Corruption in poor societies steals food from the mouths of the poor, deprives people of basic necessities of life, walks hand in hand with human rights abuse, kills. If you don’t have an ethical problem with that, you’re an asshole.

3) It’s “better to use a corrupt system than try to change it”? Use it for what exactly?

Lou’s muddled argument seems to be that corruption is hardwired into human nature, but some humans (read: people from the developing world) are slightly more prone to corrupt behavior than others.  Lovely.


Another prize-winning comment:

Justin Kraus:


I for one wish there were more people like Lure D. Lou in development work, at least he is thinking outside the box a little bit. Your own approach, and that of most development agencies, strikes me as arrogant and patronizing. Talking about how the “international community,” which if it exists at all in any meaningful sense, is surely the most hypocritical entity on this planet, should “hold the Afghan government to its commitments” as if they were somehow freely made in the first place (how many troops do “we” have in that country?), and as if it were completely unproblematic for “us” to be telling them how to run their country. What we call vetting, they call western imperialist encroachment. Why not “allow” them to choose their leaders as they see fit? We don’t go waltzing into Japan which, even with the recent election, doesn’t have a “true” democracy in any western sense of the word?

And then you take this patroninizing protective posture over the Afghan people by stating that Mr. Lure is “dangerous” to the people that you are (supposedly) “helping.” Who is the best judge of what is and what is not help? From the looks of it most Afghanis are rejecting Western “help.”

Perhaps we should be humble enough to take a step back and stop trying to impose our “help” on a people who clearly prefer to manage themselves in ways very different from “our” own.

1) Putting international community in snark quotes is lame. Everyone knows what it means, or should anyway. It’s a convenient shorthand for a collection of governments and IOs working together. In Bosnia, it’s the OSCE, EU, UN, and United States. In Afghanistan, UNAMA, ISAF, donor agencies, NGOs, and foreign governments. No one is going to write all that out. You find international community an obnoxious phrase? Too bad. Get over it already.

2) Holding the Afghan Government to its own constitution and to international law is not disrespectful, but the opposite would be. “You must do better” implies “and we know you can.”

3) As for “telling them how to run their country” — well, this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Are we shoving an unsuitable form of government and set of ideals down the throats of unwilling Afghans?

We are, if you count only those  who gain personal benefit from anarchy, corruption, and misgovernment. These are the people who, in every transitional society, are first to invoke “cultural differences” when the existence of said differences would oh-so-conveniently allow them to gain or retain power.

Afghan public opinion on many things  –that is, what ordinary women and men think– matches closely the more principled goals of the international community in Afghanistan. If anything, Afghans have actually expressed stronger desire for good governance, rule of law, and transitional justice than many expats.

4) “What we call vetting, they call imperialist encroachment.” Um, no. That’s just factually untrue.

From page 28 of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission report, A Call for Justice:

Many people who participated in our study forcefully made the point that human rights violations continue in Afghanistan today and that abusers remain in power. The vast majority of respondents who participated in the survey wished to see those who committed human rights abuses removed from their posts. Ninety percent of respondents indicated a desire to see the removal of perpetrators from their posts. The results of the survey were reflected in the sentiments expressed in the focus groups. Most participants wished to see the exclusion of human rights abusers from public office in order to prevent the reoccurrence of injustice. In particular they wanted to prevent perpetrators from gaining political power in the future.

Some “Western encroachment” that is.

5) “Why not ‘allow’ them to choose their leaders as they see fit?” That’s a great idea. Only, slightly difficult in practice at the moment for two reasons: some of those in power will do almost anything, including defraud, intimidate and kill, to hang on to it. And the international community is not doing enough to protect the right of ordinary Afghans to freely and fairly choose their own leaders.

6) Afghans (Afghani is a unit of currency, like dollar or Euro) aren’t “rejecting Western ‘help'” –they are rejecting our hypocrisy, laziness, corruption, insufficient respect for Afghan lives on the military side of things, and unwillingness to listen to Afghans who actually want the best for their country. That’s a different animal entirely.

Election day in Kandahar

What I’m reading right now.

The young woman from Kandahar sat with me in the office of an independent monitoring group two days before Afghanistan’s August 20th presidential election. Halima had defied her family and threats from neighbors in the tumultuous southern region to work as an election observer and to vote. “It’s in our destiny to take our rights,” she said. “We should not be scared of anything.”

There was, unfortunately, a lot to be scared of on election day in Afghanistan’s south, as the rest of this HRW article details.


Not much I can add. Follow @TehranBureau on Twitter for real-time updates. And check out these stunning photos from The Big Picture.


A supporter of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi shouts slogans during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. Hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared winner by a landslide in Iran's hotly-disputed presidential vote, triggering riots by opposition supporters and furious complaints of cheating from his defeated rivals. (OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images)

An injured backer of Mir Hossein Mousavi covers his bloodied face during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. (OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images) #

An injured backer of Mir Hossein Mousavi covers his bloodied face during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. (OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images) #

Ballots, bullets and choices

Carlotta Gall reports:

April 12, 2009

Allies Ponder How to Plan Elections in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Inside the office of the Afghan interior minister is a map showing that nearly half the country is a danger zone. Ten of Afghanistan’s 364 districts are colored black, meaning they are under Taliban control, and 156 are colored to indicate high risk.

The map raises a difficult question: How, in such an environment, can Afghanistan hold countrywide presidential elections in less than five months?

This is difficult, not just politically, but ethically, because we’re talking about holding an election that will absolutely get some people –election workers, voters, likely both– killed. If the Taliban have their way, this could be an especially bloody election. That some people will die is a given, but how much blood is too much?  And how can a calculation to this effect even be made?

During the 2005 parliamentary elections, the joint disarmament and electoral commissions had to OK candidate disqualifications, and the former chose to allow a lot of people usually referred to with some combination of the words “war,” “lord” and “criminal”  stand for election. The idea was to let  these individuals run so they wouldn’t retaliate during or after the elections, to bring in potential spoilers and tie their futures to that of the legislature.

Only thirty-four potential candidates were disqualified based on ties to illegal armed groups. Violent reactions from even these thirty-four were anticipated but never materialised, suggesting that the disarmament commission might have been too cautious and squandered an opportunity to keep some real bad guys out of the new legislature. Then again, what if the commission had gone in the opposite direction and there had been widespread violence and chaos?

This time around will be no easier, given that this will in every respect be a wartime election, and a not a post-conflict one.

On the political front, poorly-timed elections can be disastrous and drain legitimacy from new and weak institutions. If a huge swath of the Afghan citizenry is disenfranchised, the winner of the election will have a weak democratic mandate, representing not the the choice of the country at large, but rather only those areas where ballots could be cast. Afghanistan is already cut in two (at least) and an election in which the south can barely take part could make that division even starker and more of  an obstacle to future peace.

As things stand now, the elections will go ahead. And I’m sympathetic to the argument that violating the constitution and delaying the election would play into the hands of both a deeply flawed and increasingly embattled executive and an anti-democratic insurgency, but I also wonder if the potential worst case scenario for not delaying wouldn’t be even more disastrous.

Any thoughts? I’m an outsider looking in, with no answers.

Joe Arpaio: From human rights abuser to reality TV sensation

PHOENIX— In Arizona, seeing Joe Arpaio on TV is nothing new. But the self-described “America’s toughest sheriff” now has a national platform to pursue lawbreakers that stretches beyond the 5 o’clock news.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the state’s most populous county, has a starring role in “Smile … You’re Under Arrest!,” a new reality show debuting Saturday on Fox Reality Channel.

Smile…You’re Under Arrest!

Unaware criminal suspects with outstanding warrants are lured out of hiding in this high-energy prank show. Original, inventive, unique and funny, Smile…You’re Under Arrest! creates elaborate comical stings to bring real runaway fugitives to justice.

Armed with a troupe of improvisational actors, comedy writers and of course, the police, the show masterminds some of the most hysterical and outrageous stings ever caught on tape.

Actual wanted criminals are lured in using various scenarios such as a job as an extra on a movie set with the promise of good pay; or a fake fashion shoot where the subject thinks he is about to become a supermodel. In the end all the participants are revealed as officers of the law, and the criminal is apprehended. It’s a prank show that takes the entire genre to a whole new level – who knew comedy could be this dangerous?

Here’s something the cheerful news blurbs and network promotions won’t tell you: Joe Arpaio has been slapped with over two thousand lawsuits by the relatives of inmates in his prisons.  Why so much litigation? The answer is as sordid as it is simple: Joe Arpaio is a brutal, career human rights abuser.

His brutality has made him a legendary figure to  the “lock ’em up, rough ’em up” and anti-immigrant constituencies, and a notorious one to human rights and humanitarian groups. Joe Arpaio is a someone who believes a law enforcement badge entitles –no, commands— its possessor to do whatever he or she chooses, and that people convicted or even simply accused of crimes forfeit their human rights and become mere subjects of a system.

In one jail, Arpaio forces male inmates to wear pink underwear and pink handcuffs, and use pink towels, as a form of humiliation, playing on inmate’s powerlessness and fears of emasculation. He’s also re-introduced chain gangs, a form of punishment that most American prisons have abandoned as cruel and archaic. Arpaio’s female and juvenile prisoner chain gangs have attracted great media fascination, and he boasts of them often.

“I use it for deterrence to fight crime. I put them right on the street where everyone can see them. If a kid asks his mother, she can tell them this is what happens to people who break the law,” he said.

Journalists paint a very different picture of Apraio’s chain gangs.

[…] Next morning at 6 a.m., 15 women assembled for chain gang duty. They were padlocked together by the ankle, five to each chain, and marched military style out to a van that transported them to their work site — a county cemetery half an hour out of the city in the desert.

The women had to bury the bodies of indigents who had died in the streets or in the hospital without family and without the money to pay for a proper funeral. Father Bill Wack, a young Catholic priest, and Sister Mary Ruth Dittman, were waiting for them. The first body was that of a baby, in a tiny white casket, who did not even have a name. Wack said a prayer for the baby and Dittman recited the 23rd Psalm while some of the women silently wept. Then, they filled in the grave and moved on to the next body. Altogether, the women laid to rest six people, including two babies. Jets from a nearby military base continuously blasted overhead, interrupting the brief prayers.

Thousands of Apraio’s prisoners are forced to live in tents outside, even in the heat of the Arizona summer, when the temperatures inside the tents soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Others are crammed into overcrowded cells. They are made to work seven days a week and are fed only twice a day, on nutritionally-deficient and sometimes spoiled food. Inmates’ meals cost just thirty cents each, which, brags Arpaio, is less than it costs to feed prison dogs.

Arpaio does nothing to hide the narcissistic authoritarianism and cult-of-personality aspects of his cruelty. In fact, he flaunts them for all to see.

They have to pay $10 every time they need to see a nurse. If they want to write to their families, they have to use special postcards with the sheriff’s picture on them. If their loved ones visit, they see them through thick plate glass or over a video link.

[…] “I think about my son, Chaz. He is 3. I miss him immensely, ” said Defonda McInelly, serving eight months for check forgery.  “I don’t have him come and visit me in here. He knows that mommy is in jail and I don’t want him to see mommy for half an hour through a glass window and then be dragged away.”

When a local newspaper dared to investigate what was going on in Maricopa’s jails, Arpaio tried to silence the newspaper. If he’d been born elsewhere (say, Central Asia, or Central Africa), Joe Arpaio would be a warlord-president (think: Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov), or military dictator of some unfortunate country, or the head of a secret police force, or a militia commander terrorizing civilians. Fuck, he’s close enough to that last characterization anyway. In 2006, he created a local law enforcement “posse” in Maricopa county to hunt down and capture undocumented immigrants, work normally done only by federal immigration authorities. The governor of Arizona put a stop to that, calling it dangerous.

That is already flagrantly clear in Arizona’s most populous county, Maricopa, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has built the biggest 287(g) posse in the country — 160 officers — and deployed it in Hispanic neighborhoods, pulling people over for broken taillights and other traffic infractions and checking papers.

Joe Arpaio has blood on his hands. Lots of it. In just one example among several explained in terrible detail here, Arpaio’s guards beat a mentally disabled man to death.

When Charles Agster arrives at Madison Street Jail, he is confused, as is typical of his condition. He tries to wriggle underneath a bench, and although he is still hogtied, three or more officers and a sheriff’s deputy jump on him, punch him, and knee him in the side. One officer grips his face, pressing upward toward his chin. Although he is now unresponsive, the officers drag him, face down, into the Intake area and strap him into a restraint chair. They place a spit-hood over his head, encasing him in darkness. Minutes later, he stops breathing. The original autopsy lists “positional asphyxia due to restraint” as his cause of death. Videotape of the incident shows guards trying to resuscitate Agster, but he’s already brain dead. A 2002 Amnesty International report expresses concern “that the degree of force used against Agster was grossly disproportionate to any threat posed by him.”

In another case, Ambrett Spencer, an inmate in the ninth month of pregnancy, was denied desperately-needed medical care, resulting in the loss of her baby and very nearly her own life as well.

When EMT Jarrid Ortiz arrived, Spencer, who is African-American, had lost so much color it was clear to him that it was an emergency. “If you are turning that color, you’re not getting enough blood to your organs and skin,” Ortiz later told a sheriff’s detective.

By the time the ambulance arrived at the Maricopa County Hospital, Spencer had been in severe pain and without a doctor for almost four hours. Doctors delivered Ambria Renee Spencer, a 9-pound baby girl with a quarter-inch of thick hair on her head.

Ambria was dead. Spencer’s pain had been caused by internal bleeding — a malady known as placental abruption. Babies often survive the condition, if their mothers go immediately to a hospital. The treatment is simple: immediate delivery. Otherwise, the baby dies from blood loss.

Inmates in Arpaio’s jails aren’t usually allowed to see their babies after birth. Despite protests from the jail guard, hospital employees brought baby Ambria to Spencer, so she could see her daughter before the funeral.

Spencer described the moment for attorneys in her deposition.

“I kept praying that she would just open her eyes because she looked like she was alive.”

A partial list of inmates killed by abuse and neglect can be found here. Because of the cruel system he operates, Joe Arpaio is the most sued sheriff in the United States. Both the ACLU and Amnesty International have criticized the conditions in Arpaio’s jails. Courts in Ireland and Iceland have ruled that persons wanted for crimes in Maricopa county, Arizona  cannot be extradited to the United States because Maricopa correctional facilities do not meet minimum humanitarian standards.

And not only is Joe Arpaio still a free man in spite of all this, he’s now getting his own television show.

In my Visual Culture class, I once joked that reality TV ought to be considered a human rights violation in its own right. I’m not joking now. For all the vapidity and petty sadism of so-called reality television, I really didn’t expect someone like Joe Arpaio to to end up on my TV screen. To market an impunity-drunk human rights abuser as an entertainment personality takes real maleficence.

…I’ll return to this again. I’m not done.

Living vicariously through Mischa

Mischa was on Washington DC’s U Street on election night.  He wrote a funny, vivid post about it.  Here’s the first part:

[…] I hope you’ll forgive my reducing history to one man’s personal narrative of 12 hours of chaos. At best, this will fade into the millions of personal sketches that comprise the people’s history hiding behind any newspaper headline.

Two fucking years of this stuff boiled down to one day worth of drinking, voting, waiting, waiting, drinking, waiting, and drinking again. We kicked off at Busboys and Poets, Andy Shallal’s Washington leftist landmark. (I met Shallal when he guest-lectured on business and peacebuilding; he’s fantastic.) Busboys is a good place to spot Dennis Kucinich and his amazon wife. Unfortunately, the place was packed like sardines in a Chongqing bus, (line around the block,) and eventually we left for more breathable climes.

Second option was a dead little Ethiopian restaurant. There must’ve been four people in the place when our group showed up and promptly piled bottle after bottle of honey wine on top of the prior stuff. By the time they called Ohio for Hopey, everyone was shitfaced. At this point I started texting WIN! to 18 people at a time, even while it was still technically too early to call the election.

Once Virginia came around, the entirety of DC hit the street. Here’s photographic evidence, and the videotape. (Sadly, we lack footage of Mireille shrieking “I LIVE IN BLUE VIRGINIA!” for the next four hours.) Open bottle laws went the way of the permenant Republican majority, and people were passing champagne bottles (and what I believe was heroin) along the street. I don’t think I’ve ever hugged so many strangers.

A few thousand people marched in the rain to the White House, a sort of traveling Woodstock complete with SDS signs. Chants of “Yes we can!” and “U-S-A!” rang out in Lafayette Park as a revelers welcomed their new patriotic hero with the funny name. Amidst the crowd I see a familiar-looking woman, and amidst the vodka I approach her. “Excuse me, but you look exactly like Joan Baez.“ The woman puts her hands on her face, smiles, and replies: “I wonder why?” And then, piss-drunk at 3 AM on election night at the White House, Joan Baez hugs me.

How fucking awesome is that!? Go read the rest. It gets even better –and wackier!

An overseas friend’s reaction

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, I emailed a good friend from Bosnia (after texting him PRESIDENT ELECT OBAMA!) and he emailed me back:

Dear [My Name],

when I saw in the new this morning OBAMA THE NEW PRESIDENT my eyes filled with tears. It might sound unbelievable but the campaign has touch me so and although I said that I would cry if he loses the same thing obviously happened when I saw the news. Unexplainable. Congratulations to the American people – CONGRATULATIONS TO YOU TOO [MY NAME].

P.S. Warm regards from Vienna Airport

This was one of numerous messages I got from friends all over the world who, though not Americans themselves and thus unable to take part in the elections, celebrated the results with a genuine outpouring of emotion that was touching and energizing –a reminder of how interconnected our struggles for progress are.

President Elect Barack Obama and Transition

It’s beginning to sink in. Obama won. The long, shameful Bush years will soon be over forever. After eight years of being angry, tired, and perpetually having to explain why the U.S. Government had done the things it had done and why the American people would not rise up to drive their regime from power like so many others had done under truly dire conditions, I know I will hold my head a little higher next time I am abroad.*

The lessons of the last eight years have been painful ones, but some have also been helpful. With news stories that placed “Bush Administration” and “war crimes” and “torture” in the same headlines running seemingly every day, I saw a lot of American expats (myself included) become more humble. I heard less talk about how [insert nationality] was uniquely, perhaps even genetically prone to fits of aggression, easily swayed to violent nationalism, and inclined to play fast and loose with the human rights of Others in times of crisis –with the unspoken implication that Americans were simply not like that at all, heavens no! Yes, there was a lot less of that kind of talk, thanks to the horrors of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Bagram Collection Point, the mercenary-perpetrated crimes in Iraq, the enforced disappearances, and the vulgar, blatant militarism and nationalism on display at every White House press conference and every talking heads show on television.

The process that began on November 4th initiated the closest thing we will have had to a transition –a real transition transition– in a very long time, arguably since the end of the American Civil War, though the more recent transitions in Latin America and Eastern Europe are better, if still far from wholly applicable, comparisons for what faces us. Like all transitional governments, the Obama Administration will be faced with questions of prior regime legacy, if and when and how to deal with human rights violators from the previous regime, rule of law restoration, and (they must not forget) distributive justice.

I’m only now beginning to feel a tingle of excitement. I am sure the Obama Administration will fall far short of the lofty expectations harbored by the Americans who voted it into office and the hundreds of millions around the world that look to it as the best hope for a more just American foreign policy. Yet, cynical as I have become, I cannot help but think, in terms of governance, it can only get better from here, if only slowly, unevenly, and imperfectly.

After all, progress is always uneven and imperfect (see the outcome of Proposition 8 in California), and it is often maddeningly, tragically slow. For too many, it comes too late. Yet, progress is real and achievable.

I will always remember what my mother first said to me when she called me after Obama’s victory was certain: “This could not have happened when I was your age.”

I hope I live to see many days like November 4th, 2008 in the United States of America, and get to tell my own future children and grandchildren the very same thing many times over.

Now, we get to work.

*Metaphorically, of course. If I do find myself in Afghanistan in a few months, I will literally keep my head as low as possible, for obvious reasons.