Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Weekly Commentary - Haiti: Surviving the Saviors

Photo: A UN tank looms behind an obviously dangerous Haitian woman, Thony Belizaire/AFP © Getty

Since becoming the world's first independent black republic in 1804, born from history's only successful national slave rebellion, Haiti has suffered more than two centuries of abuse at the hands of Western powers. From France's initial crippling of the Haitian economy, to decades of U.S. military occupation, and subsequent support for the brutal Duvalier dictatorships, Haiti has long been a focal point for Western imperialism. Given this past, and the country's status as "the victim of [the] most US intervention[s] in the 20th century by a long shot," it is unsurprising that Haiti is the Western hemisphere's poorest nation.

It is a long-running storyline that continues largely unabated to the present.

In 1990, the Haitian poor majority experienced a brief period of actual hope, having voted into office Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest and proponent of liberation theology who had become well-known for his devotion to the Haitian masses. Turning to the present, some 17 years later, Aristide finds himself in forced exile in South Africa, the country's social ills continue unaddressed, and an unpopular UN force continues its military occupation of the country.

The question of how the Haitian people have gone in these past 17 years from joy to despair (and there and back again, several times over) is an instructive one, revealing at every turn Washington's continued insistence on crushing moves towards meaningful independence for the country.

From the moment of Aristide's 1990 election - Haiti's first ever popularly elected president - the U.S. "did what it could to undermine him and to funnel support to the Haitian military," an institution almost universally reviled in Haiti for its brutality and servile role to U.S. interests. In 1991, the military overthrew Aristide, triggering public denunciations from Washington that were difficult to take seriously given longstanding U.S. ties to the coup plotters. However, as the governing military regime plunged Haiti further into chaos, threatening the investment climate and swelling the number of Haitian refugees fleeing to the U.S. to escape the carnage, Washington threatened to invade the country in 1994 in order to reinstall Aristide.

Despite misgivings about U.S. motives, most Haitians were glad to see the U.S. take action, and heaped praise on the U.S. soldiers who oversaw the transition back to civilian government. As noted in The Progressive, the majority of Haitians wanted the U.S. "to come in and obliterate the Haitian army."

Whatever the initial feelings of euphoria, it was also clear that the U.S. exacted a heavy price from Aristide in return for his being permitted to reassume the Haitian presidency. As reported in the same piece, Washington pressured the Aristide government to:
...put its name to a "structural adjustment plan" of the sort usually advanced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—namely, the cutting of gov­ernment bureaucracies and public programs, the privati­sation of publicly-owned utilities, the promotion of exports, and an "open-investment policy" that would slash tariffs and eliminate any import restrictions that might trammel investors, especially those of the foreign variety. Haitian-American scholar Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, speaking of the Paris agreements, complained that "the Haitian delegation to the World Bank signed away the economic independence of the country."
After serving out his presidency, and sitting out for a term as required by the Haitian constitution, Aristide was nevertheless again elected in 2000, buoyed by the new Lavalas political party, which he had founded to combat privatization and the role of international financial institutions.

In confronting the same powerful groups and nations as before, Aristide was again overthrown in 2004. In what he describes as his "modern kidnapping" by the U.S. military, Aristide was taken - without his consent or knowledge - to the Central African Republic; he remains in exile in South Africa, still unable to serve the remainder of his second term as president.

Shortly after Aristide's overthrow, a UN force (MINUSTAH) deployed in Haiti, initiating an indefinite occupation. Though a supposed example of "humanitarian intervention" aiming to bring stability to Haiti, MINUSTAH has demonstrated a servile attention to the U.S. (as well as Canadian and French) agenda by supporting the political and economic status quo in Haiti and failing to call for the return of the president-in-exile.

MINUSTAH's supposed role in halting violence in Haiti is also far from laudatory, indeed it often does quite the opposite, perpetuating carnage instead. According to a Harvard law report, "MINUSTAH has been the midwife" of the Haitian police in their serious human rights abuses, providing them with "the very implements of repression."

It is quite clear that the UN mission in Haiti is intended to pacify a restive population; indeed, the UN “peacekeeping” force’s behavior is hard to distinguish from that of an occupying army. On two separate occasions, July 6, 2005 and December 22, 2006, the UN troops entered the Port-au-Prince slum of Cité-Soleil in force and killed scores of bystanders. MINUSTAH appears to have intentionally targeted civilians with lethal shots to the head.

There is some evidence to indicate that the UN fired into civilian residential areas from helicopters during the July 6, 2005 attack. In the December 22, 2006 attack, UN forces denied the Haitian Red Cross entry to the area they were attacking and refused to permit the Red Cross to treat injured children.

Given the current buzz surrounding a potential "humanitarian intervention" in Darfur, the poor human rights record of the Haitian incarnation, as well as its servility to Western power, should not soon be forgotten.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Weekly Commentary - The U.S. and Ethiopia: Undermining Stability in Somalia

For the last decade and a half, Somalia has existed without a central government. The 1991 fall from power of the dictator and U.S. ally, Siad Barre, left the country with a power vacuum that would be filled by rival militias. For many Somalis, life for most of this post-1991 period has been defined by chaos and violence.

Stepping into the void, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) began in May 2006 to expand and consolidate its influence, capturing the capital Mogadishu, and establishing a governing authority that would displace the ineffectual transitional government - a body that is widely seen as the creation of foreign powers designed to serve international constituencies instead of the Somali people.

As noted by the International Crisis Group, the UIC, for all its faults, brought "a degree of peace and security unknown to the south for more than fifteen years. Mogadishu was reunited, weapons removed from the streets and the port and airport reopened." Mogadishu residents commented that the UIC liberated the city from the militias and numerous “roadblocks that had functioned like a hundred Berlin Walls.” Such were the restrictions on movement "that some residents had not seen friends and relatives in years, and children living only minutes from the crashing Indian Ocean had never laid eyes on the turquoise water.”

Following the U.S.-Ethiopian ouster of the UIC Islamists in December 2006, Somalia again began to slide into chaos.

What is especially noteworthy in this saga is how the U.S. role has been decisive in squashing these moves towards stability.

Leading up to the invasion, U.S. private military firms operated in Somalia in support of the transitional government, violating a UN arms embargo with the knowledge of the CIA. In the spring of 2006, Washington itself was “bankrolling an alliance of warlords, the same people whose armed gangs are keeping Somalia ungovernable,” in a futile attempt to prevent the UIC from gaining power.

More direct has been Washington's critical support for Ethiopia in its invasion of Somalia.

The U.S.-Ethiopia alliance itself is not new, and nor is Ethiopia's pitiful human rights record. Yet the shared goal of taking out the UIC further strengthened the ties between the two countries.

Demonstrating the closeness of the U.S.-Ethiopian collaboration, in preparation for the invasion Washington sent General John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, to meet with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Veteran journalist Nicola Nasser noted that the U.S. violated its own UN Security Council Resolution (1725) by “providing training, intelligence and consultation to at least 8,000 Ethiopian troops” that entered Somalia in advance of the full invasion, and, as reported, by "mounting air raids on militia targets and stationing a U.S. Navy carrier battle group off the Somali coast."

Somalis were “opposed to foreign intervention” and displayed an “outpouring of popular support” for the UIC and in defense of the country’s sovereignty, though the U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces were able to unseat the UIC in short order.

Initial reports estimated the invasion may have killed about 1,000 people outright, with some 400,000 displaced. In the midst of the invasion, the African Union, UN Secretary-General, and European Union all demanded (to no avail) that Ethiopia withdrawal.

The results of the invasion have been clear. With the warlords returned to power, Mogadishu has seen "a steady breakdown of law and order," while the World Food Program reported that the invasion forced the organization to halt deliveries of food aid serving as many as a half million Somalis suffering from food shortages as a result of flooding.

Though it has managed to evade the careful eyes of Western media, a report from the Secretary-General of the UN estimates that over one third of those killed and injured in 2006 during the fighting were children, and that the transitional government has recruited and used child soldiers.

Nevertheless, in a disgraceful display of fealty to the world superpower, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his first formal press conference, refused to call the U.S.-Ethiopian aggression towards Somalia illegal under international law (though it clearly was).

However, the Security Council itself is “complicit” in the attack upon Somalia, as pointed out by former UN spokesperson Salim Lone. Aside from its silence regarding Ethiopian aggression, the Council passed in November a resolution supporting the very weak transitional government, a body devoid of popular support. As noted, the resolution came at a time when Somalia was experiencing more peace and security, thanks to the UIC, than it had seen in many years. Qatar, supported by the Arab League, sponsored a non-binding Security Council resolution demanding that “all foreign forces immediately withdraw from the territories of Somalia and cease their military operations inside Somalia.” The resolution was killed as a result of opposition by the U.S. and others to the phrase.

Yet if the invasion was bad, its aftermath has been catastrophic.

In a particularly bloody period starting in March, some 1,300 people were killed, representing the worst violence that Mogadishu had seen in 16 years. In May 2007, John Holmes, the UN humanitarian chief, said the crisis of displaced persons and refugees in Somalia had become a worse than that of Darfur, and accused the warring parties of violating international law. Since February, 340,000 people were displaced - in addition to the 400,000 who fled following the invasion, though some may indeed have been forced to abandon their homes more than once.

Further, as acknowledged by the German ambassador to Sudan, the foreign-backed Somali government is also guilty of “indiscriminate use of air strikes and heavy artillery in Mogadishu's densely populated areas, the raping of women, the deliberate blocking of urgently needed food and humanitarian supplies, and the bombing of hospitals. This is a relentless drive to terrify and intimidate civilians belonging to clans” opposed to the occupation.

Such is the "complicated legacy" of the U.S. in Somalia, in the delicate phrasing of the New York Times. Less complicated has been the both initial and ongoing U.S. support for the destabilization of Somalia at the hands of its Ethiopian allies.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Weekly Commentary - Divesting for Darfur

Evoking memories of global activism against apartheid in South Africa, the Save Darfur movement is actively pushing a campaign for divestment from certain companies operating in Sudan.

Though we have elsewhere criticized other stances taken (or not taken) by the Save Darfur movement, this particular focus on divestment is not necessarily objectionable; however, it is important to understand the limitations and potential pitfalls of such advocacy, as well as the more global issue of why divestment from Sudan has progressed in ways that divestment from other human rights abusers has not.

As explained by the academic Eric Reeves, who has written extensively on Darfur,
The divestment campaign targets those companies that list on the New York Stock Exchange and other U.S. exchanges which provide key commercial and capital investments in the economy of Sudan, supporting the National Islamic Front, National Congress Party regime in Khartoum, and insulating them from the consequences of their massive external debt and their profligate expenditures on military weapons and the prosecution of genocidal war in Darfur.
Note that this is divestment from companies "that list on...U.S. exchanges" - it is not divestment from U.S. companies operating in Sudan, because they are already prohibited from doing so by U.S. sanctions. The "real culprits," according to Reeves, are Asian firms, most prominently the Chinese oil company PetroChina.

While urging individual and corporate investors in the U.S. to divest from Chinese companies because of what they are doing in Sudan is acceptable and even laudable in principle, it is also, at the very least, convoluted. Even if the campaign is successful in forcing total U.S. divestment from Chinese oil companies that operate in Sudan, it is not clear how much pressure these firms (some of which, like PetroChina, are state-backed) would actually feel to pull out of the country. There is, to be sure, no shortage of businesses or governments who are willing to invest in oil companies without any consideration for human rights.

Just as fundamentally, this divestment strategy fails to take into account that the Save Darfur movement has far greater leverage vis-a-vis the U.S. government, for whose actions U.S. activists bear direct moral responsibility, and can more easily do something to change. Significant moves - such as pushing the U.S. to fund the African Union forces on the ground in Darfur - have not been made in this more substantive direction, perhaps linked to the curious official posture of the Save Darfur movement, which holds that Washington is doing "good work" in resolving the crisis - evidence for which has not been forthcoming, as it does not exist.

In no small part because it largely frees us of moral culpability by focusing on China's role - which is significant, though again, less subject to pressure from U.S. activists than Washington's own cynical policies - this divestment movement has gained significant ground in a relatively short period of time.

Across the U.S., many states, major cities, presidential candidates, and dozens of universities (aside: note that this sympathetic article in the Los Angeles Times, mimicking the "totalitarian streak" behind the usage of the term "anti-American," bizarrely refers to divestment as "anti-Sudan" in character) have moved to discuss and/or implement varying levels of divestment from Sudan; the campaign is also going after U.S.-based firms such as Berkshire Hathaway (which is headed by Warren Buffet), and Fidelity Investments.

Yet if divestment is a valid tactic for effecting change in countries that seriously violate human rights - that is, if divestment is supported by the victims of the abuses, or can be "targeted" in such a way that it does not have adverse affects for the general population - then where is the rush to divest from Israel's "war crimes"?

The contradiction is explicit in the case of Harvard University. In 2002, in response to a petition to divest the university from the Israeli Occupation, then Harvard President Lawrence Summers condemned the campaign as "anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent."

Yet in April 2005, Harvard became "the first major victory in a national campaign for divestment from Sudan" as it divested from PetroChina. As Summers commented,
Divestment is not a step that Harvard takes lightly, but I believe there is a compelling case for action in these special circumstances, in light of the terrible situation still unfolding in Darfur and the leading role played by PetroChina's parent company in the Sudanese oil industry, which is so important to the Sudanese regime.
Employing his own perverse logic, why is this campaign not anti-Chinese, or anti-Arab, anti-African, or anti-Muslim?

As the Harvard law professor and opponent of academic freedom Alan Dershowitz asks about those advocating divestment from the Israeli Occupation,
''Why don't they say anything about Cuba's chilling of dissent or China's occupation of Tibet? Why don't they feel a personal stake in getting Jordan, Egypt, and the Philippines to stop torturing people?'...The only reason they feel so strongly about Israel is because it is the Jewish nation.''
Speaking from our own past experiences as students working for divestment from the Israeli Occupation at the University of Pittsburgh, we literally could not even get the student newspaper - hardly big media - to cover the well attended kick-off event, which featured the legendary anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus. Meanwhile, there is constant coverage of Darfur activism in the press, and it would be unimaginable for a figure even as crass as Dershowitz to openly condemn Darfur activists for bigotry and failing to "say anything about Cuba."

Accordingly, the campaign of targeted divestment from Sudan owes much, if not all of its success to the fact that it coalesces with official U.S. rhetoric on Darfur; alternatively, divesting from Israel's human rights abuses, substantial as they are, does not, and thus the campaign to do so - though longer running - has failed to resonate in the tender hearts of city legislators, state government officials, or the Lawrence Summers of the world (evidently, no small category).

That the campaign to divest from the Israeli Occupation has failed to gain Darfur-like traction, while we bear a much more direct moral responsibility for Israel's actions - which we could likely halt almost immediately - makes the reasons for the relative success of the Sudan divestment campaign clear enough, a campaign which has unfortunately largely failed to make overtures to activists working to end the Israeli Occupation, or other human rights abuses.

That the Save Darfur movement is, in the eyes of its leaders, the "biggest such activism" since Vietnam - instead of the movement to end the war in Iraq, which, again, we could do quite easily - is perhaps an even clearer indication of the failures in our intellectual culture.