“Informal justice”

Back in November, I had a long, frustrating conversation with another expat about the merits of Afghanistan’s “informal justice system,” which isn’t really a system but rather a huge collection of widely varying local dispute resolution practices. The other expat romanticized these practices, peppering her speech with  jirgas and shuras and tribal elders. I asked her if she had talked to many Afghans about their experiences with “informal justice.” She said she had not, because her employer did not allow her to move beyond the most heavily garrisoned areas of Kabul.

I sighed, thinking how ridiculous it was that this woman was being paid as a researcher and expert in the rule of law, and snarkily recounted the absurd/scary experiences of several Afghan friends who had to deal with “informal justice.”  I didn’t mince words. The researcher grimaced.

But holy sh*t, folks, those stories of beatings, extortion and discrimination pale in comparison to this kernel of horror from TIME:

Abdul Wahid Zhian, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan, a nonprofit that provides free legal assistance, had to leave his native Ghazni province a year ago after taking on two controversial runaway cases that resulted in his receiving death threats. The first case involved a father who had raped and impregnated his daughter but was acquitted of charges. In the second, two girls were raped by their father and brother. Yet the men were pardoned, in the interest of resolving an interfamily dispute, by a tribal jirga that ultimately decided that matters could be made right by executing the lawyer and the girls. (They are now in hiding.) “We have a cultural problem here that undermines the law,” says Zhian, who is now seeking asylum abroad. He remains adamant that “running away is a right, not a crime.”

I…I…I’m at a loss here.

Someone please high-five Charli Carpenter

For tackling torture proponent Marc Thiessen’s central argument in Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack on utilitarian grounds as well as liberal ones.

What if we were to accept that the CIA has made America a wee bit safer by torturing KSM?

Liberals actually need an answer to this question, I would argue, because so many of their fellow Americans will buy Thiessen’s empirical case. So the most important part of his argument to refute is actually not the causal argument. The most important part of his argument is his moral argument.

In fact, the most fascinating chapter of his book is the one in which he poses the question: why should torture be considered an absolute prohibition, when killing is not? He explores just war theory and makes an interesting argument that non-lethal forms of torture – the kinds that are scary more than physically injurious – are a lesser evil if innocent civilian lives can be saved as a result.

But this argument as it turns out can be answered by liberals on Marc Thiessen’s own terms as well, because if you read closely it is clear that Thiessen’s overriding goal is not to promote a torture culture per se, but something much nobler: to protect innocent civilian life. The problem with his analysis is that he simply doesn’t have a clear empirical understanding of the factors that most threaten innocent civilian life.

As a matter of fact, terrorism falls pretty far down that list, but state repression is a rather important risk. Think-tanks that track terror fatalities measure the number of dead from terrorism since 1970 in the tens of thousands. Compare this to the hundreds of thousands killed by their own governments over the same period, a number that rises, RJ Rummel tells us, to a staggering 169,198,000 between 1900-1987. International terrorism may be scary, but in relative terms it’s pretty small beer.

It stands to reason that if the goal is to protect civilians the means used to be consistent with the wider protection of civilians. So although liberals are fond of making the absolutist moral argument and the constitutive argument against torture, it turns out that you can also argue against torture on purely utilitarian grounds. And the argument is not that it’s ineffective. The argument is that even if it’s sometimes effective and even if it’s necessary to protect civilians, civilians stand to benefit far more from preserving a rule of law political culture than they do from avoiding every single risk that comes with living in an era of techno-globalization in which the gap between the haves and have nots is widening.

So, my friends, that’s the argument you use when your crazy uncle starts banging on about how liberals aren’t willing to do what it takes to protect their way of life.

Will the International Community Prevent “Eye-Watering” Violence in Afghanistan as Troops Depart?

My latest:

Afghanistan could experience “eye-watering” levels of violence during and after the departure of foreign troops, NATO civilian Special Representative Mark Sedwill told reporters Wednesday, just two days before the 2010 NATO Summit commenced in Lisbon. Human rights groups meanwhile urged NATO member states to take humanitarian and human rights concerns seriously as plans are made for the phased withdrawal of foreign forces beginning early next year.

“As NATO begins to discuss its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it’s crucial to explain to the Afghan people exactly how the international community will follow through on its promise to protect and promote their human rights,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Programme Director.

Twenty-nine leading Afghan and international NGOs, led by Oxfam, called on NATO to improve oversight of Afghanistan’s police and army during the security transition between 2011 and 2014 and end programs that train and arm often abusive local militias to fight the Taliban.

Human Rights Watch, which echoed the call to end militia programs, rebuked the United States and NATO for working closely with known human rights abusers and ignoring Afghans’ desire for justice and an effective, non-predatory government.

“The US and NATO impatience for quick results is reducing their resolve to press for governance reform,” said Rachel Reid, HRW’s Afghanistan researcher. ”The tougher – but longer-term solution – is to stop doing deals with abusive or corrupt people, and instead, prosecute them and strengthen the institutions capable of delivering that justice.”

Sedwill’s candid admission that mass violence could follow the security transition poses urgent questions. Will the international community prevent major crimes against civilians in Afghanistan during and after the withdrawal of foreign forces?

Read the rest at UN Dispatch.

A story from the other side of the world

A Twitter link led me to Blog-a-stan, the blog of an American Ph.D student doing her dissertation research in Kazan, Russia. Immediately, I was hooked by the author’s dark humor and storytelling. And when I came to the half-way point in a post titled Sud’ba (“Fate”) I stopped, and shivered, because I knew the story already.

Read, and then I’ll explain.

Tanya was sitting wrapped in a goat fur blanket rocking herself back and forth. It was only 8pm but they seemed to have already finished off a bottle of vodka and Valeria was now opening the second. “Leslie, come, sit, eat with us” she said. “Oh I just ate” I said but sat down for conversation. Tanya was moaning and crying and Valeria began to explain that her only daughter had just died. “It was a stomach illness. They did an operation but 100 days later, two days ago, she died. She was 37 years old.” Tanya sobbed and shook. I said how sorry I was to her, my eyes wide, slowly becoming conscious of the fact that I was rocking back and forth on my own chair empathetically. “Sud’ba” Tanya shook her head, “Sud’ba,” she sobbed as she tightened the goat hair blanket around her. I tried to remember the word, which I knew I knew but couldn’t find in my head at the time, only to look it up in the dictionary later and remember it: “Fate.” Valeria explained that Tanya’s husband had died five years ago of cancer so now she was all alone in her house. And she continued, hesitantly, touching my arm as she explained, “Tanya can’t sleep at her place any more. It’s just too sad for her there. Would you mind if she stayed here with us for awhile?” For a moment, and I know this is awful, but for a moment the thought crossed my mind that the dead daughter was an elaborate ruse and that they were together and felt they needed to come up with an excuse for Tanya sleeping over all the time. “Of course I don’t mind,” I said with the utmost sincerity, whichever story was true I was happy to have Tanya stay. From then on I became accustomed to walking in to find Tanya with Valeria at the table, a bottle of vodka by her side that they would stay up late drinking rocking back and forth and talking about “Sud’ba.” Valeria too is a victim of Sud’ba at the moment as her ex-husband is currently insisting she sell the dacha she uses on the weekends and there’s nothing she can do about it. Both situations strike me as things we would deal with not just emotionally but practically through lawyers in the States to regain our control over the situation. We would find a pretense for suing the hospital for the botched operation, take the husband to court to insist on our right to half the property, maybe even the whole thing. And while this wouldn’t take the pain away, particularly in the first case, it would at least give us a feeling of some agency over this damn Sud’ba.

Yes, I know this story, with some slight differences. My version has loose leaf tea instead of vodka, an old comforter from Bagram Airbase instead of a goat hair blanket, and a young Afghan man in the place of a middle aged Russian Tatar woman.

But the grief-stricken rocking, and the wide-eyed American, and the very real, physically wrenching absence of justice, the rule of law and human agency are the same. So is the sud’ba.

Omar Khadr apologized at his Guantanamo trial

The Torygraph:

Omar Khadr told Tabitha Speer, the widow of Sgt Chris Speer, that he wished he could “do something that would take that pain away”. In a court hearing at the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Khadr said: “I am really, really sorry for the pain I have caused you and your family.”

In her own testimony, however, Mrs Speer made clear he was not forgiven. “You will always be a murderer in my eyes,” she said.

She also read a message from the late soldier’s 8-year-old son, Tanner, which said: “I think Omar Khadr should go to jail because of the open hole he made in my family.”

Khadr, who is now 24, confessed earlier this week to Sgt Speer’s murder and to having plotted attacks against Americans.

He has been held at Guantánamo Bay since being captured in 2002.

At age 15. After a brutal battle in which he was shot twice and lost the use of one eye.

This entire story makes my chest tighten.

The perils of mapping Afghanistan’s conflict

Afghan soldiers stand near the site of a mass grave outside Kabul. May 2010.

I have a new piece up at UN Dispatch about why the leaked and recently resurfaced UN conflict mapping report on Afghanistan matters.

Five years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) produced a conflict mapping report of crimes committed by all armed factions in Afghanistan between April 27, 1978 and December 22, 2001.

The report is not available on any UN website.

Some members of the international community claim it was briefly available on the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) website, but was taken down following diplomatic alarm and immediate complaints that naming former commanders now serving in the Afghan government in  connection with serious international crimes would hurt the UN’s political mission. Others say it was never intended to be publicly released. Whatever the case, the report has been passed around on flash drives among a select group of Afghan and international activists and lurked unread and virtually hidden in out-of-the-way corners of the web for years.

It will reach a wider audience now that Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kuovo of the Afghanistan Analysts Network have linked to a leaked pdf version of it in their recent blog post about the good that the Nobel Committee could have achieved had it awarded this year’s Peace Prize to Afghan human rights pioneer Dr. Sima Samar.

The executive summary of the mapping report states:

No document can fully describe what the Afghans have lived through. Every Afghan has a story to tell, or many stories, of suffering and loss, and also of those responsible: the armies, militias, commanders, and gunmen—some Afghan, some foreign—who fought each other for ideals, political power, money, and revenge. Some victims became perpetrators, and some perpetrators became victims in a cycle of violence that has slowed but not yet ended.

Seven things you should know about the leaked report:

Read the rest at UN Dispatch.


Herat Citadel. September 2010. A bombing in Herat killed 3 civilians today.

My worldview, if one can call it that, hews to the famous M.L.K  quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I am trying –hard– not to lose sight of that.

Being here continuously (read: no R&R) since the beginning of the year has been physically and emotionally grueling. It has been one of the hardest and at times most painful experiences of my life, and also one of the most formative. Thrown into situations I don’t know how to even begin describing, and for which nothing in my previous life prepared me, I’ve shed many old beliefs and sharpened others to points fine enough to pierce steel.

The war in Afghanistan is worsening in ways that are tangible. Places that were safe when I arrived last winter, places I traveled with no fear, have since slipped into violence and become “no-go” zones. Taliban control is expanding in the north of the country.  The parliamentary campaign season was bloody and frightening. Every few days now, I hear of another kidnapping or another assassination. In the south, suicide bombings have become as ordinary as car accidents. And now the air war is back.

Over dinner a few nights ago, a friend asked me where I think all this is going. I answered honestly: I don’t know. I wish I did, but I have no idea what Kabul city, let alone Afghanistan, will look or feel like two months from now, six months from now, a year from now. Karzai is calling the talks with insurgent groups a “peace process.” Yet, we, politically informed expats and Afghans, still have very little idea what’s actually on the negotiating table or how any sort of political deal might work.

Meanwhile, it is obvious that most of the international community has given up on values: anti-corruption, human rights,  justice, democratization –those have been discarded. All the internationals seem to be working and hoping for at this late hour is some vague concept of stability, the aversion of all-out disaster just long enough to allow their soldiers a dignified exit.

Afghanistan is sliding, and no one knows how to put the brakes on.

None of this is revelatory, but I felt the need to write it anyway, to get it out of myself so I can get back to work.

“That is why you are here”

AREU just released a new report on the Shia Personal Status Law (previously known in the Western press as the Shia Family Law), and it is one hell of a report –fifty one pages long and illustrative of how the international community interacts with the Afghan government and Afghan civil society. I’m making my way through it now. When I’m done, I hope I’ll have time to post something on it. Until then, here’s a telling snippet:

The Afghan organisations interviewed reported being consistently told that this was an internal issue of the Afghan state and it was outside of the role of international institutions to interfere. UNAMA was singled out for particular criticism for their inaction. Civil society had higher expectations of UNAMA’s role in speaking out on human rights, gender and political development issues. One MP remarked on UNAMA’s cumbersome bureaucracy, slow reactions and the institution perceiving itself as always having its hands tied.

Representatives from UN agencies as well as western embassies were also reportedly present in the parliamentary gallery when the bill was being discussed and did not raise the issue as a concern with their own governments at that time, to the consternation of MPs alarmed at the bill’s contents and the lack of debate. During a meeting hosted by a UN agency between Afghan women activists, MPs, UNAMA and several embassies, one Afghan woman stated, “We understand if the embassies have to work behind the scenes. But they should be working, you know? And it is UNAMA’s job to be interfering, to speak up on human rights issues. That is why you are here.”

State-building: ur doin it wrong

I facepalmed when I read a recent Foreign Policy interview with  Mohammad Farid Hamidi, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission’s representative at the Working Group on Conflict-Related Detention.

Why did I facepalm? This:

Though he wasn’t consulted for either the Stone Review or Gen. McChrystal’s assessment, Mohammad Farid Hamidi, the Commission’s representative at the Working Group on Conflict-Related Detentions in Afghanistan, had some additional insights that U.S. reviews should have included.

Seriously? Really? The AIHRC was not consulted?

If we’re not going to listen to Afghans like Hamidi at this late hour…I just don’t know.