Elections Theater: Are fair elections too hard for the international community to manage?

For the past eleven years, since the coup and overthrow of the elected government in 2004, Haiti has been deemed so dysfunctional, so failed, a state, that the international community has decided to run it directly. UN troops patrol its streets. Nongovernmental organizations oversee most aspects of social provision. Donors provide the finances. The resources and reach of the government is limited. There were elections in 2010/11 and there will be a runoff presidential election at the end of December – both of these took place under this limited-government, maximum-international-community, regime (which could be called 'donor rule' and which I have called 'Haiti's New Dictatorship'). The 2010/11 elections were politicized and unfair. They banned the most popular party, Fanmi Lavalas, from running. The first round of the current elections have been characterized by massive fraud, and Haitians know it. They have no confidence in the elections. They are protesting, and their protests are met with tear gas from police – one of the few things that the government is allowed to do (though this important duty is often shared with the UN).

Some observers may throw up their hands and say, how could you expect credible elections, Haiti is a poor, dysfunctional country. But Haiti has had fair elections – they occurred in 1995 and in 2000, before the UN took over. The international community, which has been governing Haiti directly since 2004, is the body that is incapable of running a fair election. As in Haiti, so in Afghanistan, where the 2014 presidential elections were won by Ashraf Ghani, after which the international community imposed a power-sharing arrangement with the loser, Abdallah Abdallah. An extraordinary agreement was brokered as part of this, that the exact vote totals would not be made public.

The first-world version of what is happening in Haiti and Afghanistan is what Tariq Ali calls the Extreme Centre, in which political parties are indistinguishable from one another on most important issues, and alternate in power. Under such conditions, with major issues out of contention, fair elections are acceptable to elites.

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The end of universal jurisdiction

At the beginning of October, Spain's supreme court dismissed the case known to Rwanda watchers as the Merelles (2008) indictments. Judge Andreu Merelles had charged forty Rwandan military officials of crimes against humanity, war crimes, terrorism, and genocide, and issued warrants for their arrest. The indictment was launched because some Spanish citizens had been killed in the Rwandan civil war. But it expanded to include Rwandan and Congolese victims of the armed forces of Paul Kagame, the winner of the 1990 civil war and the man who may have just become Rwanda's President-for-life (more on that below).

The indictments had always excluded Kagame because of Kagame's presidential immunity. Kagame went about protecting himself in two ways, both of which eventually succeeded. First, Kagame may have reasoned, if the president is immune to prosecution, why not stay president forever, making whatever constitutional changes necessary to do so? Second, the indictments themselves were challenged and the doctrine underlying them, ultimately defeated.

The doctrine in question was called 'universal jurisdiction'. The idea was that a crimes like genocide and crimes against humanity were not crimes that stopped at national borders. As a result, any country could charge and try those accused of such crimes, even if they were from another country. Universal jurisdiction is a liberal doctrine, analogous to the selectively applied Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Universal jursidiction is not as prone to abuse as R2P mainly because it is not as asymmetric as R2P: any country with a judiciary can hold a trial and issue arrest warrants, but only two or three countries in the world have the military might to send military forces to other countries, whether on the pretense of protecting people or some other. For non-superpowers, for smaller countries, there was only the threat of the law.

Spain was just such a small country whose judges took up the law against human rights abusers in other countries. Under the universal jurisdiction doctrine it attempted to try Chile's dictator Augusto Pinochet, Guatemalan military officers, and Argentinian military officers. But the Spanish judges didn't just chase fallen dictators from smaller countries. They also pursued former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, US soldiers for crimes in Iraq, Chinese politicians for crimes in Tibet, and Israeli generals for massacres of Palestinians.

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Silent Compromises

Many vicious attacks have been reported.

On Friday, Oct. 23, a rabbi named Arik Ascherman was chased by a masked man trying to stab him near the Itamar Israeli settlement. On Oct.,22, a Jerusalem man named Simcha Hodedtov was shot and killed by police as a terrorist. On Oct. 18, a 29 year old named Haftom Zarhum was shot and then beaten to death by a mob in Beersheba. On Oct. 13, Uri Rezken was stabbed in the back while shopping. He screamed “I am a Jew, I am a Jew” to his attacker, but was stabbed four times anyway.

This list of incidents above is selective, though not exhaustive. It consists solely of attacks by Israelis against Israelis who were mistaken for (or in Ascherman’s case thought to be too close to) Palestinians. It does not include the vast majority of deaths and injuries in this latest round of violence, deaths and injuries of Palestinians attacked by Israeli security forces, accompanied by horror stories of children shot while seeking help; children imprisoned without trial; planted weapons after shootings. Nor does it include massive, organized attacks by mobs of settlers against Palestinian villages. It also does not include the deaths and injuries of Israelis killed by Palestinians in the knife attacks that are much more thoroughly covered in the Western media than the much larger numbers of Palestinians killed.

What started this round of violence? Israel’s armed settler movement is attempting to change the way that Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque is run. In fact, they want the mosque torn down, like the Babri Mosque was torn down in India in 1992. The Israeli government, which the settler movement has largely taken over, has a strategy that probably involves ultimately dividing the mosque site and banning Palestinians from it, as has been done in Hebron. As with the second intifada in 2000, Israel put pressure on the al-Aqsa site until Palestinians resisted. When Palestinians resisted, Israel escalated with lethal force, and now continues to escalate with no end in sight.

In the midst of this violence, Israel’s political leaders are attempting to suppress what a George W. Bush advisor called the “reality-based community” and replace it with a set of racist fantasies. The Israeli Justice Minister who last year brought you the genocidal comment that Palestinian children were “little snakes,” this month has said “there never will be a Palestinian state.”

Syria and Afghanistan: The Limits of Bombing

Just a few days before the 14th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, U.S. planes bombed a hospital run by the extremely credible, competent international organization, Medicins Sans Frontieres, in the country’s north, in the city of Kunduz. The bombing was, apparently, requested by the Afghan government, who had lost the city to the Taliban and whose initial counterattack had failed.

Fourteen years before, the U.S. invasion of 2001 had the explicit goal of regime change, of getting rid of the Taliban. Fourteen years and thousands of lives later, the Taliban are still here, and are still able to take a city well outside of their traditional zone of influence in the south. There are many causes for this failure. Ahmed Rashid wrote in his book “Descent into Chaos” about “Operation Evil Airlift,” in which the Taliban’s Pakistani patrons were allowed to escape to Pakistan in 2001. The people running the Taliban went back to Pakistan, while thousands of civilians perished under the bombs.

But more important than the fact that the Taliban dispersed to Pakistan to return and fight another day was the fact that when NATO ousted the Taliban, they installed their opponents: warlords who were as misogynist and violent as the Taliban were. That reality has only slowly and partially changed despite several elections since 2001: senior posts and elected offices are still populated by the warlords, and the occupation-created Afghan army apparently shares many of the problems of corruption with the Iraqi army created by the U.S. around the same time and in approximately the same way. It is an army more efficient at enriching commanders than defending the country’s sovereignty.

2001, the year the U.S. invaded, is a key year for Afghanistan, but it was not the beginning of the horrors Afghanistan had been living. The wars of the 1980s, as the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistan coalition poured ever more investment into groups of fighters who were fighting against a Russian-backed regime, were decisive. Once those fighters succeeded in regime change in 1992, they spent the next decade fighting one another and completing the destruction of the country. The Taliban had established a shaky control over most of the country when the U.S. invaded in 2001.

The Uses of the Islamic State Group

Who is really fighting ISIS? In Iraq and Syria, ISIS faces Kurdish forces, the Iraqi Army and the Western air forces supporting it, and the Syrian Army and its allies from Hizbollah, Iran, and Russia. The Kurds of Rojava have been fighting for survival, and while outgunned, they have both political and military preparation, and something to fight for. They have been successful in their battles with ISIS, even though they have suffered immensely in the process.

The Iraqi Army? ISIS's spectacular rise coincided with the Iraqi Army's collapse. To understand this, as with so much about ISIS, it is necessary to look back at the early days of the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, when the decision was taken to disband the Iraqi Army that had existed under Saddam Hussein and create a new one. The old army had training, organization, most of their weapons, and had just reached the point of having nothing to lose. Many of them joined the insurgency against the US. Among those who did, many were killed, many were tortured and killed, and many survived. Some of those survivors, now battle-hardened veterans, are now part of ISIS. One of those who made his way through the US prison system in Iraq is ISIS's leader. These veterans, joined by al-Qaeda fighters, with Saudi and Qatari funding, and Turkish help getting across the border, have become ISIS, the force that controls a big part of Iraq and dominates and absorbs all other opposition forces in Syria.

A breakthrough in Colombia's peace talks

On Sept. 23, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to sign an agreement with the FARC on transitional justice. "Peace is close," he told the press. An agreement on justice and reparations for victims was one of the most contentious areas of discussion, and one on which Santos and FARC had exchanged some harsh public words over recent months. The FARC announced their willingness to lay down their arms; the possibility of a truth commission has also been discussed. Coming at one of the most dangerous points in the talks, and on one of the most difficult areas of negotiation, this agreement is a breakthrough moment.

The 40th round of negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla organization ended on August 30th. Ten days before, the FARC had declared another unilateral ceasefire, one of many that have taken place during these multi-year negotiations. Colombia's second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, have also been in secret negotiations with the government and may begin an official negotiation soon, according to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo (Sept 7). There continue to be signs of significant investment in peace by the government and reasons for optimism about an accord. A package of constitutional reforms to facilitate a peace accord was scheduled to be debated in Colombia's Congress on Sept 11.

El Tiempo also reported an unusual step taken by the U.S. Ambassador, who on September 8 hosted Colombian government representatives as well as ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez to try to win Uribe over to the peace accord. Uribe has been the leader of the opposition to peace, running his own intelligence network, leaking information, and posting inflammatory tweets. While Uribe was in office, from 2002-2010, his policies aligned seamlessly with the U.S. of the War on Terror. If the U.S. Ambassador is, as El Tiempo reports, trying to coax him into acting less of a spoiler, that is a sign of strong support for an accord from the U.S.

Many dangers for India ahead despite Modi's decline

Since Narendra Modi began campaigning to be Prime Minister of India in 2013, he and his party, the BJP, gave the impression of an unstoppable march, culminating in a massive electoral victory in 2014. The BJP's story went like this: Anti-incumbency was strong, and the people were sick of Congress corruption. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi had administered the Gujarat miracle, reaching developmental heights unheard of elsewhere in India. Given the chance, he could do the same for the entire country. If there were accusations that he had also been Chief Minister during an organized massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, well, was there any proof? Hadn't the courts given him a clean chit? And anyway, with so many terrorist threats facing India, maybe a tougher hand like Modi's was needed: to keep Kashmir in line, to fight the Maoist rebels in central India, and, of course, to stand up to Pakistan.

None of the elements of the story were actually true. Economist Jean Dreze showed that Gujarat's economic achievements were middling. They also "largely predate(d) Narendra Modi, and have as much to do with public action as with economic growth". Nirmalangshu Mukherji showed that there was, in fact, no clean chit and there was plenty of evidence of Modi's involvement in the massacres of 2002 in Gujarat. The Indian state under Congress had shown plenty of "toughness", if "toughness" includes the willingness to violate human rights, in Kashmir, in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere in the counterinsurgency war against the Maoists. As for Pakistan, even the "toughest" leaders on either side need to be careful, given the possibility of mutual nuclear annihilation.

A caravan for Genaro, part 2

A guest blog by Sheila Gruner

The caravan arrived in Tumaco last night and today the streets filled up for 3-4 hrs with Afrodescendents, Indigenous people, campesinos along with students, urban activists and a host of other allies. Chants of companero Genaro Garcia - Presente! Presente! Presente! rang through the ally ways, entered windows of schools, shops and offices and resonated against graffitied walls with messages for peace and the urgent need for dialogue to end the conflict.

There was an entirely cohesive voice as this mass of people, many of whom had only recently met, and perhaps never did get a chance to speak directly, moved through the streets in an act of solidarity and outrage and celebration of a possible new society. It was the voice of those who have suffered such loss themselves and understand the urgency to denounce and to be present in a way that still celebrates life and what has been achieved so far, in the defense of collective well being and the deep ties to land that were referred to throughout the days of the caravan.

Without the unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC the march may not have been possible. The police presence was limited, although did trail the caravan and coordinate with the organizers. The some 200-250 people were marshalled by the Guardia Cimarrona and organizers from the Congreso de los Pueblos who left a sense of complete dedication to the task, many being disciplined and dedicated young people who lead and flanked the crowd until it reached its destination in the public space where the culminating political and cultural event took place.

The march itself started at Tumaco's City Hall and moved through many neighbourhoods, sending a clear message of support for the family and community affected by the loss of Genaro and to make a statement that the invisibility and violent and longstanding silencing of Afrocolombian communities of the Pacific and elsewhere, the attempted erasure of their historical vindications and attacks on social organizations, is deeply unacceptable and can not be tolerated.

The Caravan for Peace to Tumaco - a guest blog

Sheila Gruner is in Colombia marching with the Caravan for Peace "Genaro Garcia". The following is a guest blog about the march.

A Caravan for Genaro - guest blog by Sheila Gruner

The Caravan for Peace to Tumaco "Genaro Garcia" is currently underway, starting in La Maria Piendamo, to Popayan, Pasto and on to Tumaco, engaged in diverse actions and expressions of solidarity with the family, community and Afrodescendent movement of slain activist and leader Garcia.

Genaro Garcia was a tireless human rights defender, working on behalf of displaced people and the Black communities of the South Pacific coast in Colombia. The legal representative of the AfroColombian community council "Alto Mira and Fronteras", Genaro defended the territorial and political rights of his community, including the rights to autonomy and self determination and to live free from the impositions of external armed groups vying for control of his region. He was highly recognized at the national level as well as by international organizations (link to IAHRC article).

I met Genaro at an encounter organized by the Black Communities process (PCN) and the Indigenous Authorities Gobierno Mayor in December 2014, a meeting aimed at developing a collective inter-ethnic position regarding the effects of the peace process and how to ensure the rights and well being of Afrodescendent and Indigenous people are not undermined in the process - but rather maintained and strengthened.