Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: Bizarro Egypt (Part 2)

Supporters of the Morsi regime argue that the “deep state” (security forces, judiciary, business elites) conspired against his administration, resulting in ineffective rule. While this argument is open to debate (although I would say events over the past 7 months have at least partially vindicated this position), there is no question that the Egyptian judicial system is currently an extension of the military backed government:

Trials will be held in Minya province, south of Cairo, where a judge on Monday sentenced 529 defendants to death on charges of killing a police officer during an attack on a police station last summer.

Egyptian authorities are holding a series of mass trials in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other supporters of Morsi since the military removed him in July. Around 16,000 people have been arrested over the past months, including most of the Brotherhood’s leadership.

The new trials bring the total number of defendants in Minya along to 2,147 in four trials, including the trial in which the verdicts were issued on Monday.

In one of the new trials, 715 defendants, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohammed Badie, are charged with killing six people and the attempted murder of 51 others during attacks on state institutions on 14 August in the city of Sallamout. Only 160 defendants in this case are in detention. The prosecutor asked for the arrest of the remainder.

In the second trial, 204 defendants, also including Badie, face charges of inciting violence. Only three are in detention in this case, in which the charges include attacking state institutions and police in al-Adawa town, also in Minya.

A court will set a date for the trials.

A judicial official said the same judge who issued the death sentences on Monday will preside over the two new trials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press.

There is little reason to believe this same judge will not find all the defendants guilty and sentence them to death without due process, as he already did to 529 people this past Monday after only two days of deliberation.

This ruling juxtaposes an Egyptian government-appointed panel’s findings that no security forces are accountable for the August massacres which resulted in 1,300+ (officially recognized, and therefore likely under-estimated) protester deaths. Instead, the panel blames “extremists” who used civilians as “human shields”.

For those of you “keeping score” at home, that’s 529 sentenced to death for the murder of one police officer (and likely 2,000+ sentenced for a handful of deaths), 0 security forces sentenced for the deaths of 1,300+ protestors.   

This disproportionate justice delivers a message which should outrage even the strongest pro-government Egyptians. In Egypt not everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, security forces can kill with impunity, and the lives of security forces are much more valuable than the lives of civilians. These are not foundations upon which vibrant societies are built.

How many people will actually be executed in these trials is unknown, as the majority of the defendants are fugitives (can you blame them ?), but this is besides the point.

Making matters worse, alongside its crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian government has launched a blatant affront against a multitude of “good governance” concepts (soft power, human rights, accountability, judicial independence, pluralism, and democratic governance to name a few). The Egyptian government continues to use Western rhetoric to justify draconian practices. The supposed champions of these ideals (the U.N., U.S.A., E.U., etc) have responded mutedly–a terrible lesson for the people around the world with legitimate democratic aspirations.

For Sisi, who this past week officially announced his candidacy for President, this crackdown has been a calculated move. By driving peaceful Muslims to the extremism, he has created greater support for his strong-handed militaristic approach to governance. Sisi could probably win a fair, free and transparent election right now. But Sisi does not just want to win, he wants a such a lopsided victory that he can claim a popular mandate to continue the crackdown against dissenters.

At the UNDP, we had a philosophy that a society should be judged based on the well-being of it’s most vulnerable people. Egypt’s economy may well flourish under Sisi’s rule, but at what human cost? The only faction of society that can truly call Egypt’s version of “democracy” sustainable are the security forces.

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Conflict Watch: In Effort To Show How “Powerful” He Is, Erdogan Exudes Weakness

Demonstrators, members of the Turkish Youth Union, shout anti-government slogans during a protest against a Twitter ban, in Ankara March 21, 2014. REUTERS-Stringer

CREDIT: REUTERS/STRINGER

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan shut down Twitter, citing bias and vowing to show the world how “powerful” his administration is:

“It is difficult to comprehend Twitter’s indifference, and its biased and prejudiced stance. We believe that this attitude is damaging to the brand image of the company in question and creates an unfair and inaccurate impression of our country,” the statement from Erdogan’s office said.

“Twitter, mwitter!,” Erdogan told thousands of supporters at a rally ahead of March 30 local elections late on Thursday, in a phrase translating roughly as “Twitter, schmitter!”

“We will wipe out all of these,” said Erdogan, who has said the corruption scandal is part of a smear campaign by his political enemies.

“The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is,” Erdogan said.

The European Union Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes tweeted that the ban in Turkey “is groundless, pointless, cowardly.” She added that the “Turkish people and international community will see this as censorship. It is.”

It is laughable to call Twitter “biased”, as it is a social media platform for people to share what they think. If Twitter is “biased” against Erdogan’s administration, it is because it has lost the support of the Turkish people. If Twitter was creating fake accounts to post anti-Erdogan tweets, or censoring pro-Erdogan followers, that would indeed be biased; this is not the reality of the situation.

On one hand, Erdogan says “Twitter, schmitter”, as if he is indifferent to supposedly falsified accusations against him. On the other hand, he shows himself to be very concerned about what goes up on Twitter, enough so to shut the social media platform down. Erdogan is clearly afraid that Twitter will catalyze a revolution in Turkey, as it did in Egypt.

In an attempt to show his strength, Erdogan has instead shown just how concerned he is about his oppositions social media activities, lending credence to their claims. This action is likely to backfire, adding another grievance (alongside corruption, tightening control over the judicial branch, and firing hundreds of police officers and officials) to the opposition’s arsenal, while moving protest movements from social media back to the streets.

Michelle Obama, on a “non-political trip” to China, had a markedly political message for Chinese citizens; internet freedom is a human right:

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama told an audience of college students in the Chinese capital on Saturday that open access to information – especially online – is a universal right.

“My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens, and it’s not always easy,” she added. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Censorship in Chinese news media and online is widespread, and internet users in the country cannot access information about many controversial topics without special software to circumvent restrictions.

Turkey has modernized quickly over the past decades, and currently boasts a much stronger human rights record than China or Egypt. But sometimes taking away freedoms can cause a greater backlash than keeping them from people in the first place. When people have been empowered with certain rights and then see them taken away, it generally does not sit well.

It is not easy to take criticism, but as most people know, addressing a claim only makes it appear legitimate. In the age of social media, any position in the public eye requires “tough skin”.

While Erdogan has presided over a prosperous era in Turkish history, he now seems outdated and unfit to govern a country with “Western” aspirations (such as EU ascension). Erdogan sounds borderline crazy when he calls dissent a “conspiracy” or “bias” from an inherently neutral medium of expression.

In pluralistic democracy, political dissent is part of everyday life. It is up to the politician to make the call as to whether dissent is:

a) uninformed (in which case the government can inform the opposition as to why they should not be concerned), and/or;

b) comes from a vocal minority which can (but not necessarily should) be dismissed, or;

c) a legitimate grievance which must be addressed with policy changes.

When “c” is met with a dismissal (claims of conspiracy, bias, etc.) and tightening of power, it makes the situation worse. Erdogan still remains very popular in Turkey, but one has to question how many missteps his popularity can endure.

(Note: A government will almost always try “a” and claim “b” even if in reality the case is “c”. Furthermore, “b” can turn into “c” if not addressed. This list is supposing these alternatives are mutually exclusive and there is an objective truth, which is often not the case, at least until long after the fact.)


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Transparency Report: Of GM, and Women In Power

Those who follow trends in development have no doubt heard of the myriad benefits associated with empowering women. In theory, women tend to be more socially conscious / accountable, long-term thinkers than men. Many conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs in developing countries give cash exclusively to women, believing they will use the money in more constructive ways.

From the UNDP website:

Equality between men and women is more than a matter of social justice – it’s a fundamental human right. But gender equality also makes good economic sense. When women have equal access to education, and go on to participate fully in business and economic decision-making, they are a key driving force against poverty. Women with equal rights are better educated, healthier, and have greater access to land, jobs and financial resources. Their increased earning power in turn raises household incomes. By enhancing women’s control over decision-making in the household, gender equality also translates into better prospects and greater well-being of children, reducing poverty of future generations.

Some fast facts about women in power (for a more “macro” picture, check out the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index (GII), which weighs traditional Human Development Index (HDI) scores for gender equality, offering a side by side comparison):

Public Sector:

  • 20.9 per cent of national parliamentarians were female as of 1 July 2013, an increase from 11.6 per cent in 1995
  • As of June 2013, 8 women served as Head of State and 13 served as Head of Government.
  • Globally, there are 37 States in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, as of July 2013

“More women in politics does not correlate with lower levels of corruption, as is often assumed. Rather, democratic and transparent politics is correlated with low levels of corruption, and the two create an enabling environment for more women to participate”UN Women

Private Sector:

General Motor’s new CEO Marry Barra has handled GM’s recent safety issues / vehicle recall with the remorse and accountability we should demand from all people in power:

General Motors Co announced new recalls of 1.5 million vehicles on Monday and in a virtually unprecedented public admission by a GM chief executive, Mary Barra acknowledged the company fell short in catching faulty ignition switches linked to 12 deaths.

“Something went wrong with our process in this instance, and terrible things happened,” she told employees in a video message posted online. Barra said the company is changing how it handles defect investigations and recalls.

In the last two months, GM has recalled more than 3.1 million vehicles in the United States and other markets.

Barra previously apologized for GM’s failure to catch the faulty ignition switches sooner. In Monday’s video, she said GM is “conducting an intense review of our internal processes and will have more developments to announce as we move forward.”

GM said the new recalls resulted from Barra’s push for a comprehensive internal safety review following the ignition-switch recall.

“I asked our team to redouble our efforts on our pending product reviews, bring them forward and resolve them quickly,” Barra said in a statement on Monday.

On Friday, the automaker was hit with what appeared to be the first U.S. class action related to the ignition-switch recall, as customers claimed their vehicles lost value because of the ignition switch problems. The proposed class action was filed in a Texas federal court. Other plaintiffs’ lawyers say they are preparing to file similar cases in the coming days.

To be sure, Miss Barra’s admissions of wrongdoing do not come solely out of the kindness of her heart. There has been considerable negative publicity surrounding GM in recent weeks, most notably concerning the 12 people who died due to ignition related issues (another study found that 303 people died due to airbag malfunctions in GM vehicles, which the company has yet to address). In addition to class action lawsuits, GM is facing a criminal investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice.

There can be no denying that GM was negligent in its internal processes. I think most people expected the typical corporate response: an announcement of “regret”, a recall, and silence until the legal process played out.

However, Miss Barra has gone above and beyond what we have come to expect from people in power; a presentence admission of wrongdoing and pledge to change internal processes is a breath of fresh air. Such accountability requires courage and long-term thinking, but is ultimately much more beneficial for all parties involved.

The cynic could say that GM is simply in damage control mode, or that perhaps they brought in Miss Barra because they saw this oncoming shit-storm. Somehow, despite the issues I cover, I am not a cynic; perhaps I a fool or a Pollyanna. I believe that since the future is yet unwritten, there is a chance for people power and social justice to prevail over the forces of greed. In fact, I see trends in governance and technology making this an inevitable (if not slow moving) shift.

As the UN Women quote above highlights, having women as symbolic placeholders does not itself create change. While high ranking positions are the most visible and make the decisions with the greatest social impact, gender inequality must be addressed from the ground up, starting with the world’s most vulnerable women. Breaking power imbalances is relative; for some it is holding a top position in the public or private sector, for others it is enjoying basic human rights they currently do not enjoy.

The push for greater gender equality should also catalyze self-reflection of future male leaders; if men want to hold positions of power in the future, they would be wise to embrace more long-term, socially conscious / accountable outlooks.


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Transparency Report: In Opposition of Reduced Gun Penalties

Support for Various Proposals to Prevent Gun Violence, by Party ID, January 2013

Last Friday I went shooting at a gun range with some friends, the first time I had ever done so, and I had a blast. This experience reinforced what I have always known–there are legitimate reasons to own a firearm (recreational shooting, hunting and self-defense come to mind, although IMO “stand your ground” is not self-defense).

When considering the forces holding back common sense gun reform in America, those who argue there is never a legitimate reason for owning a firearm are as much to blame as those who argue there can never be any new regulations on guns. Instead of forging strong laws through compromise, the two sides talk past each other, and the silent majority is left without the laws they favor. The extremes dominate the debate, blocking the very deliberative process the legislative branch was built upon. Unfortunately this is nothing new and it is not confined to the debate over gun-related laws.

Still, every now and then Congress actually passes laws. One idea which has recently gained bipartisan support are sentence reductions for non-violent offenders (specifically for drug related offenses). There are a number of reasons such reform is popular: harsher penalties have been ineffective, it reverses the trend of mass incarceration, it breaks “poverty traps” (what I have coined “the Prisoner Paradox“), and it saves money. Prison reform is a rare instance where the ideologies of fiscal responsibility and socioeconomic justice intersect.

However, the line must be drawn somewhere on prison reform. Shorter sentences for non-violent drug offenders is a good idea; reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership (as advocated in a recent NYT Op-Ed), is not:

We are accustomed to hearing about exorbitant mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, but similar sentencing for gun possession is less frequently mentioned, though its effects are often just as devastating, especially for poor people and people of color. In fact, a black person is nearly twice as likely to face a mandatory minimum carrying charge than a white person who is prosecuted for the same conduct.

Mandatory minimum gun laws have historically been favored by gun control advocates and gun rights proponents alike. Supporters insist that mandatory minimums diminish violence via incapacitation (putting potential shooters in prison) and deterrence.

But there is no good evidence that mandatory minimum gun laws actually have this effect. A recent report issued by the Bluhm Legal Clinic of the Northwestern University Law School concluded that “decades of empirical evidence and evaluations of specific state experiences demonstrate that mandatory sentences will not reduce gun violence.” Studies of the impact of such laws in Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia and Michigan found no discernible effect on violent crime rates. In return for issuing these sentences, society reaps only the heavy burdens that come with lengthy incarceration, perhaps the least of which is higher costs to taxpayers.

Opposition to mandatory sentencing for drug-related offenses is steadily growing. Now we must widen our criticism to encompass mandatory minimums for firearms. These laws are not reducing violence. They’re simply fueling a different kind of violence: the banishment and isolation of large numbers of people, especially people of color and poor people, tearing apart their lives, families and communities.

There are two reasons why I cannot support reduced gun sentencing for illegal gun ownership:

1) The Non-Violent Aspect: While there is no denying that drugs can be very harmful, even deadly, there is a qualitative difference between gun related deaths and drug related deaths. Theelement of personal accountability that cannot be overlooked when it comes to drug use. Except for the instances when someone is “drugged”, people willfully taking a substance should know the risks.

This is simply not the case gun related crime; guns are inherently lethal. A person can be walking down the street minding there own business and be killed by a gun in cold-blood. There is no choice being made, no time to consider ones actions, no element of personal accountability. Drugs kill their users, guns can kill indiscriminatelyIllegal gun ownership is a “non-violent crime” only until it enables a violent crime. 

2) Undermining Legitimate Gun Ownership: Despite my enjoyable time at the gun range last week, I am far from the biggest gun advocate in the world. However, part of any meaningful compromise is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; there are people who love their guns and use them responsibly. These people overwhelming support common sense gun reform, because it can put to ease their concerns that “THE GOVERNMENT IS COMING FOR YOUR GUNS!!!!

Reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership would inadvertently undermine universal background checks and other common sense gun-registration related initiatives. By reducing the penalty for illegal gun ownership, you are conversely increasing the benefits of circumventing gun laws. American politicians should be trying to find the balance between respecting peoples rights to enjoy guns responsibly, while keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. Reducing penalties for people who violate gun laws would be counter-productive in achieving these goals.

Simply put, there is no legitimate reason to own an unregistered gun.

In today’s 24 hour news cycle, there is a lot of pressure to be ahead of the game. Perhaps the writer of the NYT Op-Ed, seizing on increased public support for reduced mandatory drug sentences, though she’d make a splash by proposing something radical.

I am not saying we couldn’t save money by having more lenient gun penalties–of course we could. I am saying we would be exposing law abiding citizens to greater risks, while simultaneously undermining common sense gun reforms that ultimately protect the right to bear arms. Thankfully, I cannot see this plan gaining any real popular support.

(Another way to look at this argument is that there should never be mandatory sentences for ANY crime. One could argue that context always matters, and given the high costs of incarceration judges should be given complete discretion in all sentencing. This is a much broader argument, and not what the NYT Op-Ed was arguing.)


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Conflict Watch: The Illusion of Self-Determination in Crimea

By now, you have undoubtedly heard about the occupation and possible secession of Crimea from the Ukraine. As an unabashed advocate for democratization and socioeconomic modernization, my readers probably expect me to favor the Western narrative on Crimea (the Russian invasion violated Ukrainian sovereignty, any secession not approved by the Ukrainian central government in Kiev would violate international law and will not be recognized).

However, there is a factor which underpins the democratic principles of human dignity and political rights which cannot be dismissed–self-determination:

“No state has been consistent in its application of this,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. During a trip he took to Moscow last week, Mr. Charap said, Kosovo was the precedent cited repeatedly by Russians defending the Crimea intervention. “It’s like, ‘You guys do the same thing. You’re no better. You’re no different.’ ”

“You can’t ignore the context that this is taking place days after the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. It’s not a permissive environment for people to make up their own minds.” [said Benjamin J. Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser]

“Self-determination has been a controversial doctrine since [Woodrow] Wilson, and hell to apply,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a former ambassador at large to the Soviet states and the author of a new book, “Maximalist,” on American foreign policy. “One consistent point: It can’t be used as a cudgel by big states to break up their neighbors. Russia’s own record here does not entitle it to the benefit of the doubt.”

Russia’s two ferocious wars in Chechnya since the 1990s were fought to prevent the very strain of separatism it now encourages in Crimea. In backing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in his civil war against rebels, Russia argues that state sovereignty should not be violated, an argument it has turned on its head in Ukraine.

As national security adviser Rhodes pointed out, the environment needed for a fair referendum does not exist in Crimea. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), after being initially turned away, has now rejected an invitation from Crimean authorities to oversee the election:

“For any referendum regarding the degree of autonomy or sovereignty of the Crimea to be legitimate, it would need to be based on the Ukrainian constitution and would have to be in line with international law,” OSCE said.

Both the context of the vote and the wording on the ballot are troubling:

The ballot paper offers no option to retain the status quo of autonomy within Ukraine.

Voters among the two million population must choose either direct union with Moscow or restoring an old constitution that made Crimea sovereign with ties to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the regional assembly passed a resolution that a sovereign Crimea would sever links to Kiev and join Russia anyway.

There seems little chance that Crimea’s new leaders, who emerged after Yanukovich’s overthrow as Russian-backed forces took control of the peninsula, will fail to get the result they want. A boycott by ethnic Tatars, 12 percent of the regional population and deeply wary after centuries of persecution by Moscow, will have little effect as there is no minimum turnout.

In Sevastopol, the Crimean home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Valery Medvedev, the chairman of the city’s electoral commission, made no pretence at concealing his own preference:

“We’re living through historic times. Sevastopol would love to fulfil its dream of joining Russia. I want to be part of Russia and I’m not embarrassed to say that,” he told reporters.

There is little sign of campaigning by those opposed to the government line. Billboards in Sevastopol urge people to vote and offer a choice of two images of Crimea – one in the colors of the Russian flag, the other emblazoned with a swastika.

No offense to Chairman Medvedev, but his preferences should be irrelevant in this matter (past the power his one vote grants him).

In the context of Russian occupation and propaganda against the Ukrainian government, the absence of outside observers, and a ballot rigged in Moscow’s favor, the referendum as it currently stands does not represent Crimean self-determination.  Any referendum / vote / election with a predetermined outcome is a farce.

Below are concessions from both sides that could lead to de-escalation and a referendum that truly represents Crimean self-determination:

  • In return, the government in Kiev validates the Crimean referendum for secession, which would enable;
  • The OSCE to observe the Crimean referendum (which would have to be delayed from this Sunday in order to make ballot changes, allow for public debates on the issues, etc.; this is a long term and for all intents-and-purposes irreversible decision, and therefore not one which should be rushed); the options on the ballot must be changed to include an alternative to remain part of the Ukrainian Republic.  

If we are to uphold the fundamental democratic pillar of self-determination, “the West” has to be prepared to accept the possibility that it is truly the will of the Crimean people to join Russia. Just as a predetermined referendum to join Russia is a farce, so too would be a referendum which decided for the Crimean people that they must stay part of the Ukraine.

The Ukraine just experienced a revolution; when, if not after a revolution, is a legitimate time for an autonomous region to hold a referendum on its future sovereign? Those who favor remaining part of the Ukraine would be wise to point out the irony of a referendum to join Russia; should such a vote passed, it would likely be the last truly meaningful vote any Crimean citizen would ever take part in.


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Conflict Watch: Is History Still “Written by the Victors”?

This famous phrase calls into question to objectiveness of history; can we really believe the accounts of those who exterminated their foes? Prior to World War II, the world was a much different place: there was very little economic interdependence, war was a profitable endeavor, and “soft power” (diplomacy, “spotlighting” abuses of power) played a negligible role in international affairs. From the beginnings of modern history through WWII, no one can really question that history was written by those who emerged from conflicts victorious (although, as the quote above argues, this does not necessarily mean it is false).

The tide began to shift towards more objective historic accounting in the decades following WWII. The proliferation of independent media outlets, combined with advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) (the internet, social media, etc.), have made it much more difficult for any one party to dictate history on their own terms, regardless of their ability to exercise “hard power” (I wrote a research paper on this shift for anybody interested in a more in-depth read).

As people around the world have become more educated / empowered (via civil / human rights), we have naturally learned to question conventional wisdom. Have we gotten to the point where this historic adage is no longer applicable? A report by an Egyptian government panel responsible for determining what happened during the August 2013 Cairo massacre seemingly refutes this claim:

A government-appointed panel said on Wednesday that the deaths of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at a protest camp in Cairo last August was mostly the fault of demonstrators who had provoked the security forces into opening fire.

The findings mainly echoed the military-backed government’s version of events. But in an unusual move, the panel also placed some responsibility for the bloodshed on the security forces and said they had used disproptionate force.

Panel member Nasser Amin accused the Mursi supporters of detaining and torturing civilians at the protest camps…contradicting past official accounts, Amin said security forces did not maintain proportional use of force when confronted with heavy gunfire from protesters.

He said some protesters also carried arms and shot at security forces, causing them to fire back.

But most of the protesters were peaceful and some had been used as human shields by the gunmen, he said.

The Interior Ministry has said that authorities did not use excessive force to scatter the camps and that Mursi’s supporters fired first.

It is particularly telling that a commission tasked with assessing blame for 1,200+ murders took up the issue of “detaining and torturing”. The commission found that deaths were not the fault of the Egyptian military, but rather Mursi supporters who used protesters as “human shields”, apparently quite effectively.

Admission of disproportionate use of force by Egyptian forces is a sign that the Egyptian government cannot simply whitewash over this past August’s bloodshed. Instead, it has to rely on distraction (don’t worry about the murders which undeniably took place, worry about alleged torture), and absurd scapegoating (it was not the fault of those who fired on protesters, but of terrorists using people as human shields).

The wounds of the Morsi ouster and crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood are still very fresh. Morsi currently stands accused of capital crimes, and the MB was just designated a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia, marking a larger regional crackdown against the group. Eventually, the truth will be recognized. Unfortunately for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no specific date when this will happen. It is, however, important to remember that history is not written in a matter of months.

Eventually, liberal politicians will wrestle power from the Egyptian military. In order to build up the broad based support needed to do so, liberal politicians will have to embrace some form of a “truth and reconciliation commission“, uniting all factions of Egyptian civil society under the banners of pluralistic democracy, economic populism, and human rights. To what extent the Egyptian military will be held legally accountable under such a commission is uncertain; military leaders will likely use immunity as condition for agreeing to hand over power in the first place. However, just having official recognition of grievances fosters unity, trust, and reconciliation–all important aspects of peaceful and prosperous societies.

We have come to a point in history where eventually the truth prevails, which is in itself a huge victory for social justice / deterrent against nefarious actors. It can certainly be argued that currently “crime still pays”, as accountability for social injustices is often incomplete, disproportionately lenient, and not timely in nature. However, as trends in governance and technology continue to empower people, we will one day reach an age of true social accountability.


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Transparency Report: Civil Society Activism, Social Accountability, and Sustainable Human Development

The UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay opened the high-level segment of the 25th session of the Human Rights Council with a “call to protect, support civil society activism“:

“Streets, airwaves, entire countries are buzzing with demands for economic, social and political justice,”

Setting out this agenda and acknowledging the hard work that lay ahead in ensuring that all people enjoyed equal rights, Ms. Pillay emphasized the important role of civil society in those efforts. “We need to work together to ensure that the space, voice and knowledge of civil society is nurtured in all our countries,” she stressed.

[General Assembly President John Ashe]  drawing attention to upcoming initiatives on human rights issues in the General Assembly, stressed the human rights relevance of his body’s work in setting the stage for a new international development agenda following the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals.

Overcoming the rise in inequality around the world and the increasing marginalization of people living in poverty is particularly important in that light, he said.

He too pointed to the importance of civil society in pursuing those goals, given “how much courage and fortitude is required by those who champion human rights, when it is so easy to look the other way or take a less courageous stand.”

In related news, the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) announced it will hold 50 new national level consultations as part of its efforts to build local support for the Post-2015 Development Agenda:

The consultations will take the form of public meetings and discussions where policy planners, civil society representatives, community and private sector leaders will discuss how to best deliver the next sustainable development agenda that will build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

“We are committed to changing the way multilateral development diplomacy works,” said Olav Kjorven, Special Advisor to the UNDP Administrator on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. “We will continue to expand the areas where people will be able to engage with the work of the United Nations.”

Sustainable human development begins and ends with people. The human rights based approach (HRBA) to development champions both the political and civil rights needed for people to be active participants in change, as well as the economic, social and cultural rights people need to live dignified lives. The HRBA recognizes that these rights are interrelated and interdependent; for example, political reform cannot be put off in the name of economic growth.

There are universal means to improving standard of living; education, food, rule of law, responsive governance, healthcare, sanitation, access to energy, employment to name a few. How these means can be best implemented is context-sensitive; thinking we know better than those at a local level is an exercise in hubris, not development.

Social Accountability (p 44-45) “is used to refer to a broad range of activities in which individuals and CSOs act directly or indirectly to mobilize demand for accountability…Social accountability has worked best when the rules and frameworks in place provide legal sanctions in the event of wrongdoing and permit civil society to monitor effectively and access essential information.”

Without avenues for redress, the transformative value of social accountability activities ultimately depends on the willingness of duty bearers to engage with them. For this reason, social accountability may be more effective when its objective is to complement and strengthen the horizontal accountability mechanisms discussed earlier. Social accountability activities might aim, for example, to reveal the inadequacies of these mechanisms, lobby for their reform or seek to improve their effectiveness through greater public participation. Such interventions can encourage the formation of new “diagonal” accountability mechanisms, such as citizen oversight committees or grievance redress mechanisms (with varying degrees of formality and legal authority).

While social accountability can be a powerful tool, it is most effective when complemented by governments committed to human rights accountability and willing to cede some control over the legal process to CSOs. Essentially, social accountability mechanisms can be made as (in)effective as a government is willing to make them. If governments are ultimately accountable to people, they should do everything in their power to empower their citizenry, enabling effective social accountability. 

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aside, the Post 2015 Development Agenda is a blueprint; a way to show governments how effective inclusive and consultative governance can be. It is not enough to remember the role of regular people in bringing about change while drafting development agendas, or during times of election or revolution. The roles of civil society activism and social accountability must be promoted and protected everyday.

Ultimately, progress is brought about by and for people; governments, institutions, declarations, and development agendas play an enabling/complementary role.


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Green News: In The Effort Value Africa’s Ecosystems, Remember Indigenous Peoples

Original Article:

The next wave of investment and innovation in Africa will be driven by the need for new energy resources, wealth generation and job creation, the head of the United Nations environment agency told regional leaders, making a case for the need to place value on natural resources.

As the continent undergoes such unprecedented development, wealth accounting and the valuation of ecosystem services are critical to Africa’s future growth,” Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, told the high-level African ministerial conference on green economy in Oran, Algeria.

Natural accounting and valuation in not a fringe activity, he stressed, but a cornerstone of wealth upon which sustainable, equitable and prosperous societies will be built.

Natural capital, which encompasses resources from trees to water to fish, is a critical asset in low-income countries where it makes up around 36 per cent of wealth, according to recent World Bank estimates.

“An inclusive green economy has the potential to improve human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities,” Mr. Steiner told the political leaders yesterday.

In a green economy, growth in income and employment is driven by public and private investment that reduces carbon emissions and pollution, enhances energy and resource efficiency, and prevents the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The focus of this article is not specifically the transparent and accountable management of natural resource revenues, which has been identified as an important aspect of sustainable development. Rather, it is in reference to “natural accounting”; putting a value on ecosystems and nature that have traditionally been a casualty of economic development.

It is indeed important to place a value on nature, otherwise corporations have the ability to negotiate their own price (often times with governments more concerned with embezzling funds than sustainable human development). In other words, “business as usual leads” to a gross under-valuation of natural resources.

To be an effective tool for sustainable human development, natural accounting must be conducted in an inclusive matter. Specifically, it must be done in consultation with the rural poor and indigenous groups. There are two primary reasons why these groups must be included:

1) Indigenous and rural peoples are historically underrepresented in political processes: This problem is even worse in countries that lack inclusive political institutions for society as a whole; people are underrepresented in general, the indigenous / rural poor are completely unrepresented.

2) Indigenous and rural poor communities rely much more heavily on nature for all aspects of their livelihood: Therefore, these people will likely place a much higher value on nature than other stakeholders: a) governments (who consider the value of marketable resources / other bids on land) b) corporations (who are trying to minimize the value to reduce costs) c) environmental groups (which tend to view indigenous lands more as carbon-sinks than living quarters).

The voices of these people must be heard; indigenous rights and land claims must be protected by governments. People whose lives will be uprooted in the name of “development” must be properly represented in negotiations devoid of power asymmetries (not a predetermined agreement), and properly compensated for any agreed upon losses.

Failure to do so sets the stage for irreversible environmental degradation, loss of culture / livelihood, and violent conflict. Not just wages are lost when ecosystems are destroyed, entire livelihoods are changed. Instead of creating “spoilers” by leaving the most heavily invested groups out of political dialogue, an inclusive approach to natural accounting can lead to an agreeable solution and avoid crossing culturally-sensitive “red-lines”.