Uganda’s journey toward same-sex rights

Re-posting my latest writing for the Monkey Cage Blog, Washington Post.

See additional coverage at The Dish.

Who’s behind Uganda’s step forward on same-sex rights?

Published August 4, 2014

When Uganda’s Constitutional Court struck down the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act on Friday, eyes immediately turned to the country’s longtime president, Yoweri Museveni. Museveni has been under pressure from the donor community, several of whom enacted aid cuts in response to the passing of the law in February 2014. His trip this week to Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit seemed perfectly timed with the legal about-face that was sought by the Obama administration. Was the court’s decision yet another clever political manipulation by the man who has held power in Uganda for 28 years?

The executive branch may be powerful in Uganda, but to give the president all the credit for the Anti-Homosexuality Act’s demise is to ignore the vital role played by concerned citizens and the legal community in Uganda. Ten individuals and organizations — including a journalist, professor, doctor, activists and current and former legislators — petitioned the court to repeal the law on the grounds that it was passed illegally, having contravened parliamentary rules of procedure requiring quorum, and that it violated constitutional rights. Their efforts, combined with those of a robust legal team, were integral to the law’s repeal. Their victory demonstrates the power of domestic actors and the courts in promoting social and legal change.

This path to social change in Uganda – through the time, energy and sacrifice of key individuals and organizations, together with the power of the law – is no different than the path to social change in the United States. The protection of rights, especially minority rights, often comes on the back of legal rulings, sometimes even before the general public supports these rights. Recent research by Rebecca Kreitzer, Allison Hamilton and Caroline Tolbert has found that anti-discriminatory legislation can directly shift public opinion to be more supportive of same-sex rights.

Activists and scholars worry that despite recent progress on same-sex rights in places like the United States, countries elsewhere — most notably in Africa, but also Russia and India — are experiencing backsliding. In an article on the relationship between democracy and gay rights, Bard College professor Omar Encarnación writes, “Gay rights appear to be deepening more than spreading, intensifying in some regions while regressing in others.“ While there has been regression as measured by anti-homosexual legislation in a number of countries around the world, the overall trajectory of gay rights may not be as dismal as Encarnación’s article suggests.

Rather than thinking of gay rights as present or absent, a continuum may better represent the extent to which the rights of the LGBT community are being protected as well as the changing attitudes toward homosexuality within society. Expanding the protection and promotion of rights, including same-sex rights, is an iterative and not necessarily linear process. Advocacy and strategic litigation can result in key legal decisions that protect rights, and these rulings in turn can affect public opinion, followed by further public support of subsequent anti-discriminatory policy.

In the United States, landmark cases in the promotion of same-sex rightsinclude One Inc. v. Olesen, Romer v. Evans, United States v. Windsor andLawrence v. Texas. The latter ruled as late as 2003 that anti-sodomy laws — like the one that remains in Uganda’s penal code — are unconstitutional. Progress has not been without setbacks, in the United States or elsewhere, as the initial passage of Proposition 8 in California (subsequently struck down by the U.S. District Court and appeal dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court) demonstrated all too clearly. Today 12 U.S. states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books, the Supreme Court ruling notwithstanding.

While vocal American activists condemn anti-gay legislation around the world, the United States itself has not yet reached the point of full protection of same-sex rights, nor where the whole population accepts homosexuality. The most recent World Values Survey found in 2011 that nearly 1 in 4 American respondents (24 percent) say that homosexuality is “never justifiable.” This figure is much lower than that of Uganda, where close to 9 in 10 respondents completely opposed homosexuality, but still demonstrates considerable hostility towards the LGBTI community in the U.S.

If we look at attitudes toward homosexuality over time using opinion polls, we find that it can take decades for attitudes to shift. Further, negative attitudes toward homosexuality sometimes increase before they decrease. In South Korea, for example, one of the countries with the longest record of opinion polling on the topic, opposition to homosexuality, again, as measured by the percentage of respondents who say homosexuality is never justifiable, jumped from 60 percent in 1982 to 90 percent in 1990 before declining again. It’s worth noting that levels of anti-homosexuality sentiment in South Korea in 1990 are nearly the same as those in Uganda today. In South Africa too, anti-homosexual sentiment increased before declining. Meanwhile, in the U.S., opposition has fallen only gradually over time and has yet to dip below 20 percent.

Anti-homosexuality attitudes over time across four countries. Data not available for all countries in all waves. Data: World Values Survey; Figure: Melina Platas Izama
Anti-homosexuality attitudes over time across four countries. Data not available for all countries in all waves. Data: World Values Survey; Figure: Melina Platas Izama

Democratic institutions took centuries to develop in the United States but have been adopted in a matter of decades in a number of African countries. Likewise, same-sex rights ultimately may be adopted far more quickly in countries like Uganda than they were in the United States. The urgent question for minority rights activists around the world is, how can the pace of rights promotion and protection be increased.

It is not clear that sanctions on governments enacting anti-homosexuality legislation speed up the process of rights promotion, though they might. Journalist and petitioner in the recent Uganda case, Andrew Mwenda, argues that donor threats were actually the “trigger” that forced Museveni to sign the bill in the first place, despite his initial reluctance to pass anti-homosexual legislation. Rather than threats and sanctions, Mwenda advocates for diplomacy on the basis of mutual interests. Encarnación notes a similar concern, writing, “Attempts by the West to export gay rights, especially across Africa, also often play directly into the hands of local politicians eager to brand gay rights as ‘foreign values’ and to rationalize their anti-gay policies as a defense against ‘Western influences.’”

Perhaps, as in the United States, the mostly likely agents of change are domestic actors, be they civil society, legal professionals, the media or others, who employ a country’s own institutions and laws to protect same-sex rights. This course of action relies heavily on the judiciary branch, but as the case of Uganda has shown, such a strategy can be effective even in countries where the executive branch wields considerable power. Civil society actors and activists can also work in tandem with more progressive members of parliament and the executive to quietly support policy and legal reform. These partners in government can play a critical role in reducing the likelihood that government appeals the court ruling or that a new law is brought to parliament.

The Ugandan lawyer leading the case against the Anti-Homosexuality Act, Nicholas Opiyo, says continued debate and discussion on the issue of homosexuality will work toward putting a “human face” to same-sex rights. So too will the growing number of LGBT individuals who openly identify as such, increasing the number of Ugandans who have friends, family and acquaintances whom they know are gay or lesbian.

It is through the efforts of individuals like Opiyo and the other petitioners, at no small cost either personally or professionally, that countries like Uganda will continue to move along the continuum of the protection and promotion of civil liberties and rights for all.

 

 

Enforcing Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act

Kim Yi Dionne and I wrote a piece for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog analyzing US-Uganda relations in the wake of Uganda’s newly passed Anti-Homosexuality Act, and in particular, following the raid of the Makerere University Walter Reed Project. The post is copied below.

Kim is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She tweets at @dadakim.

U.S. foreign policy and Ugandan domestic politics collide

By Melina Platas Izama and Kim Yi Dionne

Just weeks after the United States announced additional American troops and aircraft would be deployed to Uganda to hunt rebel leader Joseph Kony, Ugandan officialsstormed a U.S. military-affiliated research institution, the Makerere University Walter Reed Project, in the country’s capital, Kampala. The Walter Reed Project raid highlights challenges to U.S.-Uganda relations, strained both by the fractured nature of U.S. foreign policy toward security allies like Uganda and the lack of coordination across Uganda’s numerous security agencies.

Why was the Walter Reed Project raided? And by whom?
The Walter Reed Project was raided on Thursday, April 3, by plainclothes state agents without a search warrant, reportedly on account of the Walter Reed Project’s work with the LGBTI community. Uganda’s recently enacted Anti-Homosexuality Actprohibits both the practice of homosexuality as well as “aiding and abetting” and “promoting” homosexuality. The law is vague on what constitutes the promotion of homosexuality, leaving interpretation to Ugandan law enforcement. Walter Reed Project staff members were whisked away in an unmarked car and interrogated at a police station. American embassy officials subsequently contacted the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura, who was unaware of the incident. Kayihura then instructed the police station to release on bail the Walter Reed Project staffer who had been placed under arrest.

Screenshot of New Vision article taken from <a href="http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/654211-panic-at-makerere-as-quack-cop-arrests-staff.html">Google Cache</a> on April 7, 2014 (Melina Platas Izama and Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage)

The next day, the government-owned daily newspaper New Vision reported that the raid was conducted by a “quack cop,” with one police spokesperson, Patrick Onyango, denying responsibility. The same day, government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said in a tweet that the Walter Reed Project was raided for “training youths in homosexuality.” He also accused a top diplomat of being involved. Another police spokesperson confirmed the arrest in a segment by Ugandan media house NTV.

tweet1

tweet2
By Monday, April 7, the New Vision story had been pulled from the newspaper’s Web site and both of the tweets above (screenshots) were taken down.

Public opinion toward same-sex practicing people is generally negative, with 97% of Ugandan respondents in the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project agreeing with the statement, “Homosexuality is a way of life that should not be accepted by society.” In the days before the raid, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was the chief guest of a “Thanksgiving service” to celebrate the passing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Hundreds of people swarmed Kololo airstrip in the center of the capital, many bearing signs with direct messages to President Obama. All heads of religious institutions, including the Catholic and Anglican churches, and the head mufti of the Muslim community, not to mention the evangelical bodies who played a key role in the bill’s success, were in attendance.

(Data: Pew Global Attitudes Project 2007; Figure: Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage)

U.S. response to anti-gay legislation
Obama released a statement condemning Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill before it was signed into law, and initiated a review of American aid to Uganda immediately following the bill’s passage. At the same time the aid review was taking place, however, the United States announced a significant increase in military aid to Uganda. As activists and observers have noted, the announcement was poorly timed if Washington wanted to send a clear message to the Ugandan government. Instead, the State Department’s actions look like a slap on the wrist quickly followed by the extension of an olive branch by the U.S. military establishment.

If mixed messages are an ineffective means of impacting policy, however, so too may be the economic sanctions and bullish diplomacy the State Department has attempted to employ thus far. American foreign policy must consider the constraints faced by those who publicly and privately oppose the anti-homosexuality law, including politicians. American policy must find ways to assist those who support rights for sexual minorities without creating a stand-off with either the Ugandan government or public. Such a stand-off can alienate Ugandan rights activists and also whip up nationalist sentiments, bolstering the anti-homosexuality movement.

How is Uganda’s domestic security structured and why does that matter?
The Walter Reed Project raid and initial response by the police and government spokespersons suggest an additional complication — the lack of coordination across branches of the Ugandan security establishment. As noted above, the Inspector General of Police was unaware of the raid until after it had taken place and in the day following the raid, government officials were both claiming and refuting that the Ugandan police had been involved.

An investigative report by The Independent in 2009 found no fewer than 30 separate security agencies operate in Uganda, both constitutional and unconstitutional. The proliferation of security agencies, like the proliferation of districtscabinet portfolios, and members of parliament, serves to bolster a patronage system and ensure that no one institution or individual is strong enough to challenge the executive. However, such fractionalization comes with considerable financial costs, and is both inefficient and unpredictable, as the raid on the Walter Reed Project demonstrates.

Another potential by-product of the proliferation of security agencies is the bungling of international relations. It is entirely possible that, rather than an overarching government strategy to target organizations who serve LGBTI clients, a particular branch or branches of the security sector have taken matters into their own hands. The raid comes at a critical point in Washington’s review of programing in Uganda. Amulti-agency team of Americans was in Kampala last week for the explicit purpose of reviewing U.S. commitments in the wake of the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Meanwhile, Uganda’s Ministry of Health has been at pains to assure international partners that the law will not affect Ugandans’ access to health services. Thus, last week’s events suggest an internal struggle in government, between those playing to populist sentiments and those trying desperately not to irrevocably sever relations with donors.

The details of the raid suggest that at least some components of the state, much to the chagrin of the United States, have every intention of enforcing the anti-homosexuality law. Some hoped that the law would remain on the books but largely out of everyday activities of law enforcement. The plainclothes officers involved in the raid were in possession of personal information about Walter Reed Project staff, including where they live, suggesting substantial efforts have gone into gathering intelligence not only on members of the LGBTI community but also individuals who work with the community. Sources inside the police say that they have video recordings showing that the Walter Reed Project is a “gay training and recruiting center.” Some of the videos apparently feature American nationals.

The raid of a U.S. military-affiliated facility is a bitter slap in the face to Uganda’s longtime ally, but perhaps serves well to highlight the failure of U.S. policy on human rights in the region, particularly the protection and promotion of gay rights. Uganda’s political landscape and that of the region is complex. The United States has yet to demonstrate that it has a strong grasp on the stakes or dynamics at play. In the case of the anti-homosexuality law, U.S. sanctions, whether verbal or economic, may be ineffective at best and harmful at worst, as journalist Andrew Mwenda has argued. As noted in an earlier Monkey Cage post, the vast majority of Ugandans support anti-homosexuality legislation, some with fanatic zeal. This is true not only in Uganda but across Africa. U.S. policy must consider the public pressure and incentives the president and other politicians face. Attempting to strong-arm a president or others into overwhelmingly unpopular positions domestically, such as the protection of sexual minority rights, may backfire.

 

 

Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Law

Below is a copy of the text from a piece published in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog:

The rise of morality politics in Africa: Talk is cheap and dangerous, but wins votes

Melina Platas Izama

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni today signed into law his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The passage of this bill is part of an emerging trend of morality politics in Africa and beyond, including but not limited to the criminalization of homosexuality. Legislating morality, unlike improving social services like health and education, is nearly costless for politicians. It is also extremely popular. Legislators in Africa struggle to hold onto political power, and the majority of their constituents view them as corrupt, according to Afrobarometer surveys. Electoral pressures, combined with politicians’ poor record of service delivery, make legislating morality an increasingly attractive option. In addition to winning votes, however, laws such as the criminalization of homosexuality can also be used opportunistically against both the public and political opposition.

Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, which has been under discussion since 2009, criminalizes homosexuality and provides a punishment of life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality.” The law delineates particular same-sex acts as “aggravated homosexuality,” including  sex with a minor or with a person with a disability, or if the offender is an HIV-positive person or a “serial offender,” defined as “a person who has previous convictions of the offence of homosexuality or related offences” (the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014: Sections 1 and 3). In the original bill proposed in 2009, “aggravated homosexuality” was punishable by death, and failure to disclose an offense committed by another person was punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. Both of these provisions were removed in the final version of the bill. However, in a news conference held immediately prior to signing the bill today, Museveni seemed unsure of the bill’s contents, asking his aides in the audience whether citizens were required to report on one another.

The anti-homosexuality bill reflects popular sentiment in Uganda, where 90 percent of respondents said that homosexuality was “never justified,” according to the World Values Survey, and 96 percent of respondents said that society should not be accepting of homosexuality, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Uganda is no outlier on the continent. Kim Yi Dionne and Boniface Dulani, using all publicly available data on attitudes toward homosexuality in Africa, found that although higher levels of education, living in urban areas, and lower levels of religiosity were associated with greater support for same-sex rights, the vast majority of Africans oppose homosexuality. Dionne and Dulani point out, however, that the limited data collected on attitudes toward homosexuality in Africa fails to capture the salience of same-sex issues among ordinary Africans.

Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill reflects trends across the continent in criminalizing (or re-criminalizing, since more than half of remaining “sodomy” laws worldwide are colonial relics) homosexuality. The reasons for the recent spike in anti-gay legislation (not limited to Africa, by the way) are still being debated. Guy Grossman suggests therise in evangelical Christianity and heightened political competition explain the political saliency of LGBT-issues. These bills are undoubtedly politically popular, and thus useful tools for garnering electoral support.

David Bahati, sponsor of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill, was one of a handful of parliamentarians to run unopposed in Uganda’s most recent elections in 2011, in a country where competition over parliamentary seats is rising with every election. An average of more than five candidates contested for constituency parliamentary seats in the most recent election, up from less than four in 2006. Around half of the incumbents who ran for reelection were voted out of parliament in 2011. Bahati was subsequently elected vice chairman of the caucus of the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM).

At the presidential level, backlash and condemnation from Western countries, including the United States, where President Obama issued a statement warning Museveni that signing the bill would “complicate” the United States’ relationship with Uganda, have produced a rally-around-the-flag effect, where even Museveni’s most staunch opponents and a usually critical media have applauded his decision. Some have argued that he is calling Obama’s bluff, leveraging Uganda’s military role in the region. In any case, his signature, appended just weeks after members of his partypassed a resolution in support of his bid for a fifth term in 2016, must be seen in the context of a presidential campaign season that has, for all intents and purposes, already begun.

Recent “moral” legislation extends beyond homosexuality, however, and focusing on the salience of LGBT issues may obscure other arenas in which moral dictates are being employed for political purposes. The signing of the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda comes just weeks after the signing of the Anti-Pornography Bill, widely reported by local and international media as the “mini-skirt ban,” despite no mention of skirts in the bill itself. Legislating morality may seem odd in a country where more than three quarters of survey respondents believe “some of” or “most of” parliamentarians are corrupt, according to Afrobarometer data, but perhaps it is precisely because of their credibility deficit that politicians are employing moral dictates as a nearly costless alternative to delivering the goods and services that are so badly needed.

In addition to serving as quick and cheap political wins, these laws can also be easily converted into tools for political witch hunts. Ashley Currier demonstrates how leaders of the ruling party in post-colonial Namibia have used political homophobia to stifle dissent. Uganda’s political opposition seems all too quick to forget that opposition leader and former presidential candidate Kizza Besigye was jailed andtaken to court on rape charges (in addition to treason and terrorism) in advance of the 2006 presidential election. The charges against Besigye were eventually dropped, but with Uganda’s new laws come a new arsenal of offenses; offenses that can mark if not jail a political candidate for life.

Apart from the intended consequences of these laws, unintended, if not unforeseeable, consequences are already becoming apparent. In countries where mob justice is a common replacement for weak or non-existent law enforcement, these laws give way to everyday opportunism. Immediately after the passing of the Anti-Pornography Bill, women wearing short skirts in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, were reportedly attacked, disrobed and robbed. The Uganda Police Force had to issue an immediate warning against perpetrators of these attacks. Although it is too soon to tell whether citizens will also take the new anti-homosexuality law into their own hands, recent events in Nigeria suggest that mob justice against suspected or accused homosexuals may be swift, and potentially deadly.

When to intervene?

Published online April 24, 2012.

In our interconnected global community how does identity influence one’s actions?

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me– and there was no one left to speak for me.”

This famous quotation comes from public lectures given by protestant pastor Martin Niemöller, a critic of Adolf Hitler who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for seven years. Like many others, he expressed lifelong regret at having failed to act sooner as the Nazis murdered millions. His faith differed from most of those who were persecuted, but the painful lesson he learned was that one’s identity should not dictate one’s actions, or the lack thereof. Unfortunately, this lesson remains relevant today.

Still, questions remain. When do you have a responsibility to help someone? When are other people’s problems also your problems? In the face of obvious wrongdoing or a natural disaster, is it always better to do something than nothing? The answers to these questions are not obvious, even if Niemöller’s words ring true. Injustices, atrocities and accidents occur daily, but as an increasingly interconnected global community, we have not figured out when and how we are supposed to act, either as individuals, organizations, or governments. Many argue that national boundaries should dictate who and what we are responsible for, but upon closer examination, this argument falls apart.

Nationality is one of the most common social categories we use to define our identity, and for good reason. Our nationality, our citizenship, plays a large role in determining where and how we live. We look toward nation-states to dictate the behavior of individuals and governments, and physical boundaries are also those used to assign rights, privileges and obligations. Furthermore, nationalism is not just a facet of our identity, but is deeply embedded in the international system. The norms and rules of sovereignty have for long prevented one country from wandering willy-nilly into the affairs of another (which is not to say that this happens infrequently).

For this reason, human rights advocates, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations like the International Criminal Court, often viewed as proxies for “western” governments, not to mention governments themselves, are often lambasted for meddling in the affairs of countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Governments of countries on the receiving end of intervention complain loudly about the imposition on their sovereignty. Citizens too are repulsed by the idea and actions of foreigners who behave as if they know and understand a place or problem better than the people who live there.

But it is not clear why national boundaries alone should dictate our rights and responsibilities. Physical boundaries are becoming increasingly porous, and arguably, irrelevant. What happens halfway around the world is not only visible, but also something in which individuals far and wide can have a stake. Following the tsunami in Indonesia or the earthquake in Haiti, individuals raised hundreds of millions of dollars, channeled not through governments but rather through non-governmental and international organizations.

It is clear that individuals can make a difference, but the question is when should they? It would be silly to suggest that we should only care about things that happen in countries where we hold citizenship. Why? At least in part because the selection of nationalism as the key factor for determining whether or not to act is arbitrary. If we should only care about “people like us” or stay out of “other people’s” affairs, an argument that begins with one’s citizenship as the relevant identity may quickly reduce down to a sub-national identity, or worse, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or class.

It is surely not the case that we should only care about or attempt to redress injustices if the offended party shares our race, ethnicity, hometown or income level. An argument that lists nationality as the key determinant of whether or not we have a right or responsibility to act is no different and no better than one listing any of our other identities as the deciding factor. Each one of us has many different, and largely socially constructed, identities. For example, I am an American, born in the state of California, in a town called Palo Alto, to a Mexican father and an American mother. I was baptized and confirmed in a Lutheran church. I have light skin. I am a woman. Should any of these categories, any of these identities, limit who or what I care about? Under what conditions should any of these identities dictate how I act?

If identity (of any variety) should not be the determinant that dictates our rights and responsibilities to act, what should be? We do not have an answer to this question. What we do have is the creation of social categories around which it is easy to mobilize but also easy to persecute, the creation of “us” and “them”, “foreigners” and “locals”. Such a framing is neither productive nor sustainable.

Perhaps information, knowledge, or understanding should be a prerequisite for action. Much of the critique about “meddling” in other people’s affairs stems from the fact that the meddling is often poorly informed. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the adage goes. First do no harm, says another popular mantra. Unfortunately, the simplicity of these axioms is misleading. We often do not know whether our actions will, on balance, be more helpful or harmful – it is often impossible to measure one’s impact, even years after the fact.

Yet if we fail to act, we are in danger of becoming bystanders to massive atrocities. Many who looked on as the Rwandan genocide unfolded became exactly that – bystanders whose crimes were those of omission. So too were those who looked away as the Nazis summarily wiped out over six million people. More recently, we have faced crises in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and beyond, as regimes have clobbered and battered their populations into submission. Rebel groups like the LRA continue to terrorize with abandon. The fundamental questions remain. Should we act? When? How?

The UNSC: Performance and Perceptions

Published online February 16, 2012.

The actions (or inactions) of the United Nations elicit varied reactions. Supporters hold the institution in high esteem, and believe it has the power to promote peace, human rights, justice, and social progress, as the preamble of its charter suggests. Even the most ardent enthusiast will admit that the UN is not a perfect institution, but argue instead that it is as close to a functioning world government as we can hope for in this period of our history.

To others, the UN is a bumbling, impotent and ineffectual player in the realm of international relations. It is an expensive bureaucracy that both overreaches and underperforms. Critics cite inaction during crimes against humanity on the one hand, and intrusion of state sovereignty on the other. They argue that decisions are dictated not by the community of nations but the community of a few superpowers.

On either side of this chasm, and everywhere in between, are people who do not understand how the organization works. What most people see, if they see anything at all of the UN, are its loud condemnations, the roaring silence of its passivity, or its troops scattered across the world’s “troubled” spots.

The future of the organization depends not only on its performance, but also on global public opinion. The recent failure of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to back the Arab League-sponsored resolution on Syria brings to light afresh the challenges the organization faces. The halting process of decision-making at a time when hundreds of Syrian civilians are being slaughtered by the Assad regime is reminiscent of past faltering by the Council. Inability to gather consensus on resolution wording, much less action, has hampered the UNSC on many occasions.

UN intervention during the Rwandan genocide is only the most vivid example of a lumbering bureaucracy with at least as many interests as members stumbling at the feet of those who clamor for its attention, resources, and even salvation. An excruciating recollection of the events of the UN’s behavior in 1994 calls our attention to the power of a few words. What is said and not said, done or not done, leaves a mark on history, on leaders, and on ordinary citizens that cannot be removed.

It is not at all surprising, therefore, that according to the World Values Survey, only 8% of Rwandan respondents thought that policies regarding international peacekeeping should be handled by the United Nations. The remaining 92% thought peacekeeping should be handled by national governments or regional organizations. This response varied drastically from almost all other countries surveyed. On average, nearly 50% of people in nearly 50 countries around the world thought the UN, and not regional organizations or national governments, is best placed to handle international peacekeeping. Rwanda’s experience with peacekeeping operations has clearly damaged trust in the UN in this arena.

On the other hand, a greater percentage of respondents in Rwanda than in any other country think the UN is best placed to handle refugees. Only 10% of Rwandans thought national governments should handle policies related to refugees, while the vast majority, 73%, thought the UN should handle refugees. Meanwhile, 32% of respondents from all other countries thought national governments should handle refugees while only 48% thought the UN was best. A more thorough investigation could uncover the extent to which first-hand experience with the UN intervention, in all of it various forms, shapes public opinion regarding what the organization can and should do.

In the meantime, the most recent failure of the UNSC to come down firmly on its position towards a regime that is clearly brutalizing its population raises questions about the limits of an international institution whose explicit and primary goal is world peace. It is precisely the collapse of these talks that chips away at people’s faith that the UN, or any organization for that matter, can promote peace in any way beyond that which is lip service.

Students in a class I am helping teach this term learned this lesson the “hard” way in a UNSC simulation last weekend. For two days the fifteen delegations, made up of at least some students who are destined to be diplomats and policymakers themselves one day, met to draft and pass a resolution on the international community’s response to Iran’s nuclear program. They took turns making statements to the council, drafting the resolution, and debating each word and paragraph. It soon became apparent that delegations were not all equal. The permanent five (P5) had the unique power to make or break a deal. After nearly twenty hours of debate, the council came to the final vote.

In a bizarrely parallel universe to the actual meeting and vote of the UNSC taking place the same day, the students’ resolution was vetoed by China, a member of the P5. A collective “boo!!” filled the room. But it was over. After days of work, side deals, compromises, and urgent pleas, the resolution had failed. Meanwhile, in New York, the real Chinese and Russian delegations killed the Syrian resolution. The palpable disappointment of the students was only a whisper of the hundreds of disappointments, much larger and all too real, of both UN action and inaction.

Those who have been burned before, in ways small or large, have no choice but to alter their behavior domestically and make do with the politics in New York. The UN has proven time and again that it is not an organization that leaders or publics can rely on when times get tough. Whether or not a resolution can be reached depends not only, not primarily, on the gravity of the situation at hand, on the peril at which lives are placed, or on the number of lives in danger. Instead, alliances, precedents, and power creep into the corners of debates between great and small countries, and the diplomats that represent them.

Burundi is rebel-free

But the challenges are far from over.

African Union troops are physically disarming 21,000 fighters from Burundi’s last active rebel group, the Forces for National Liberation (FNL).

It follows a weekend ceremony where FNL leader Agathon Rwasa symbolically surrendered his own weapons to the AU.

A grenade attack killed six people but the BBC’s Prime Ndikumagenge says it was not linked to the rebels.

But he says it shows how many weapons are circulating in Burundi following more than 10 years of ethnic conflict.

According to the AFP news agency, estimates put the number of weapons owned illegally at between 100,000 and 300,000.

Reports the BBC.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has issued a call to find the killers of Burundian anti-corruption activist, Ernest Manirumva, who was murdered earlier this month:

(Bujumbura) – The Burundian authorities should ensure a speedy, independent, and thorough investigation into the killing on April 9 of prominent anti-corruption activist Ernest Manirumva, Human Rights Watch said today. The investigation should lead to the prosecution of those suspected of responsibility for the murder.

In the early hours of April 9, 2009, unidentified assailants raided Manirumva’s home and stabbed him to death. Police and colleagues told Human Rights Watch that files were strewn around his room, and that it appeared documents had been taken from his house. Manirumva was vice president of the Burundian civil society group Anti-corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory (Observatoire de Lutte contre la Corruption et les Malversations Économiques [OLUCOME]). Since January, Manirumva, a highly respected economist, had also been vice president of an official body that regulates public procurement.

“Manirumva’s work threatened the interests of corrupt officials and businesspeople who prey on Burundian society,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Those responsible for his death should face justice. That would send a clear message that silencing critics is totally unacceptable in Burundi.”

Manirumva’s death sent shockwaves through Burundian civil society. Neighbors found his body just outside his home early last Thursday morning and notified police. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a bloodstained folder lay empty on his bed, suggesting that documents inside had been removed….


Debating Rwanda

Starting a conversation about Rwanda is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Observers of the small East African nation are often polarized in their views of the country’s governance — either President Paul Kagame is an inspirational genius getting things done in a country that was hacking itself to death just 15 years ago, or he is a brutal dictator, quashing the opposition, press and anyone else who threatens his power or so much as mentions the words “Hutu” or “Tutsi”. Whichever side you take, it is nearly impossible to talk about Rwanda without talking about Kagame. Because for many, Kagame = Rwanda (which is not to suggest that this is the way he would want to be perceived).

During the 15 year commemoration/remembrance of the 1994 Rwanda genocide last week, there were a flurry of articles and blog posts written on the subject, some applauding and others criticizing Rwanda’s current government. You could almost wonder if you were reading about the same country while reading two articles like VOA’s “Rwanda Gacaca Criticized as Unfair for Genocide Trials“, and then “Rwanda 15 Years On” by Josh Ruxin, director of Rwanda Works and Columbia University public health expert.

Meanwhile, human rights organizations have also been hard at work to publicize their own assessments. Human Rights Watched published a news story last week titled, “The Power of Horror in Rwanda” in the Los Angeles Times and lists many more country reports here. In their 2008 Annual Report on Rwanda, Reporters Without Borders wrote: “Appalling relations persisted between the government and a section of the independent press, especially the more highly critical publications…”

If you talk to journalists and some members of the diplomatic community in Uganda, you will hear stories of journalists being deported from Rwanda, picked up at their offices and driven to the airport without time to even collect their belongings, you will hear of the arrest of those who speak critically of the government, you will hear of those who have fled the country to escape imprisonment…you will even hear of those who have been disappeared. I cannot speak the truth or accuracy of any of this. What I have heard are second, third or fourth hand accounts.

What I have experienced first-hand is Rwanda (and specifically Kigali) today. I have visited government officials in their brand new office buildings, I have driven (been driven) on smooth roads, I have run on clean sidewalks and walked alone at night without fear, I have seen how patients are treated with care (and medicine…and new machines) in Kigali’s main referral hospital, I have met with investors and seen plans and blueprints for beautiful hotels and resorts around Rwanda. And I was impressed by it all.

This is not to say that everything in Rwanda is hunky dory everywhere all the time. Rwanda is a very poor country, with fewer resources and human capacity than Uganda, Kenya or Tanzania (in fact the country is soaking up talent from all over the world in its hospitals, universities, etc). Many people are concerned about what will happen in the next 5 or 10 years. They wonder whether Kagame will step down, or if he will become like so many African leaders before him, refusing to relinquish power. Being the optimistic person that I am, I of course am leaning towards the former. But these are critical years for Rwanda. These are the years in which systems, institutions, and capacity must be built if peace and development are to continue in an era post-Kagame or even post-RPF.

What I can say is that it is almost impossible (if not entirely impossible) to put oneself in Kagame’s shoes. He has and will make mistakes, as any leader will do. But I think as outside observers to Rwanda’s development we should ensure that in being critical, we are not unwittingly being hypocritical instead.

"Commotion" prevents rape in Sierra Leone

This has been circulating around a bit, but I found it so outrageous/hilarious/absurd that I had to share here as well. Wronging Rights stumbled across a recent press release from Weyone, a “a public information outlet for the ruling All Peoples Congress political party” in Sierra Leone, in which the APC refutes allegations that women were raped by security forces last month at the headquarters of the opposition, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).

The press release, titled, “We Meant No Harm to Womanhood and Reaffirm That Alleged Rape Is a Mere Fabrication” asserts, among other things, that the rape could not have occurred as it is alleged because:

“Under normal circumstance nature prevents the male penis from erecting when the individual is under threat or acting in a commotion. Even during war time incidents of rape occur when all is calm and quite and not when the battle in raging.
Thus, considering the circumstantial evidence, it is again very doubtful that the alleged victims indeed suffered from rape at a time when bottles and stones were being hurled from different directions…”

I’m sure this will be news to the hundreds of thousands of women who have been raped in wartime across the world.

For a far wittier evaluation of this incredible defense, see the original post on Wronging Rights, “In Which We Learn Something New About Penises.”