Friday, November 14, 2008

Prop 8- Blame the Black Folks ?

A black heterosexual's musings...

So much for that racial harmony everyone was going on about in the wake of the Obama election. On Nov. 4th, while Obama won handily, several initiatives were passed throughout the nation that discriminate against the gay community. Key among them, in California Prop 8 won by a narrow margin of 52% to 48%--banning gay marriage in the state. The reaction from much of the gay community--specifically the white gay community--has been an eye opener for those of us of color on the progressive left.

It seems, according to an exit poll conducted by McClatchy newspapers, that a whopping 70% of black voters in California voted for Prop 8. And armed with those numbers, some have gone on the offensive. The mostly white-faced LGBT community accused blacks of "betrayal." Who even knew we had a treaty? Blacks were declared "bigots," en masse. Because what happens in California speaks for black people everywhere it seems. The news media pushed the narrative: an oppressed group after gaining power (allegedly through one man) had turned into the oppressor. Even the normally sensible types like John Stewart, Bill Mahrer, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann didn't deviate far from the storyline, though some cautioned about playing the blame-game. Once racially harmonious liberal blogs turned vicious, as white gays bitterly complained they had just done blacks a "favor" by electing Obama. Seems the gay white community wasn't choosing the right guy for the job, or someone that better suited their own interests, but just being charitable to ungrateful black folks. Black people, the black community, black puppies and anything generally black were dissected for their blind religiously based homophobia. Log-cabin-Republicans (that' a political identity problem for another post) who had crossed over to Obama like Andrew Sullivan, brazenly attacked black America and was cheered on by white gays in an almost lynch mob type atmosphere. Things became so out-of-control that a white gay blogger proudly claimed he had informed his father he was no longer a "nigger lover."

It seems that some have decided that though they don't like people scapegoating gays in California--it is okay to scapegoat an entire race of people when things don't go your way. And in the midst of all the finger-pointing, very little sensible discussion has taken place. What follows below are a few thoughts I have been pondering on...

Exit Polls are Always Right?

Funny. Just before the elections, the word on a lot of liberal blogsites was, "don't trust exit polls." What, after the infamous 2004 "Kerry wins by exit polls but loses the election" fiasco, it was decided this method of data collecting was extremely faulty. After all, no one records their race when they vote. The Diebold machines are faulty, but, so far, they aren't seeking your ethnic/racial identity. When you hear how any demographic group votes, you're relying on an exit poll--where questions are asked of a sample of exiting voters and then extrapolated. So when McClatchy released their exit polls, one would think there would have been someone cautioning these polls accuracy just as they had done the day previously right? Uhh... wrong. It seems that in this case exit polls are divine in their accuracy. No one needs question them. Not a single of those pointing fingers bothered to even ask how a similar anti-gay measure passed in Arkansas, but only garnered 50+% of the black vote. It seems black voters in Bible-thumping religious Arkansas are much more liberally minded about homosexuality than blacks in California. And everyone seems fine with that. Do I know for certain the exit polls were wrong? No, of course not. Could the exit polls be right? Certainly. But in light of all the doubt heaped upoon those same polls only one day prior, it's amazing that that same polling methodology is now adopted without hesitation. It seems that when it comes to black folks, as is usually the case, we aren't afforded the benefit of the doubt.

The Black Population in California Must be Massive!"

Given the way so many were willing to toss the carcass of gay-marriage in California at the feet of black people, one would expect blacks must make up a majority of the state., again. Blacks make up just close to 7% of California's overall population; and a magnificent 10% of all California voters. So that means Prop 8 could not possibly be passed by black people alone--but was propelled by the votes of millions of whites, Latinos and Asians. But the finger-pointers demand, what about those holy exit polls? 70% they scream! 70%! Well if you believe in those things.... 49% of Asians voted for Prop 8; Asians account for almost 13% of California's population, and 12% of the state's eligible votgers. 53% of Hispanic voters helped pass Prop 8; Hispanics account for over 36% of California's population, and 14% of voters overall. And for the really big number, just under 50% of white voters helped pass Prop 8--a group that makes up 43% of all Californians, and accounts for a staggering 63% of all voters. So this means, even if all black people in California had voted against Prop 8, it would have *still* passed. The numbers just aren't in our favor--even if the blame seems to fall there.

Race Tells Us Everything!

I realize we are a race-obsessed culture--all pretenses of "transcending" race and living in a "post-racial" society aside. But why did everyone find it necessary to break down this entire vote by race? Why not regions people live in? Why not by people who attend certain churches or belong to certain religious denominations? How about strictly by gender? Heck, why not by bald men vs. men with long hair? The break down could have gone any way. But the media and many in the white community decided that race was the way to go. And as is typical with white America (gay or straight it seems) when a black scapegoat is found close to the crime, the case is closed. Just get a rope. The fact that race was the chosen factor to be highlighted, and that so many seized on it so eagerly says quite alot.

The White Gay Community and Black Community are Friends...Right?

Yeah? Tell me who exactly decided that? White gays lamented about being betrayed by black people. When exactly was the last time white gay leaders came into the black community and did outreach? Is there some long history of Civil Rights struggle by an LBGT community often led by white faces and the black community? When did that happen? Which arrogant white gay guy woke up and assumed that black people were just "on the side" of the gay community, without any attempt to build bridges between us. In the case of the activism against Prop 8, even the outreach to the black community was lackluster. Gays of color had to warn and plead with a mostly white led LBGT activist community to pour monies into advertising in black, Latino and Asian communities. And when it came, it was too little too late--unable to compete with the right wing Mormons who had slickly couched gay marriage in sensitive issues of family for many minority communities where families are decimated by societal neglect. A mostly white led LBGT community can't just come along and appropriate the black struggle, and claim it as their own, without first making inroads with the black community. That won't be done by putting a few black faces in token roles, or hiding behind blacks to hurl vitrol. It will mean black led LBGT organizations will have to take the lead, and white gays will have to take the back seat, and follow.

The Gay Community is One Happy Colorblind Bunch...Right?

Racism permeates our society--at every level. Yet white gays, especially white gay males, have succeeded in deluding themselves into thinking they their community is free from racism. Enough members of the black LBGT community have written, protested and talked openly about the hostitlity, neglect and racism they experience from their white peers. And there have been clashes before between white and black communities over matters like gentrification as seen in the documentary Flag Wars. The fact remains that white gay males, despite what discrimination they face, are still very much white. As such, they benefit from and utilize their whiteness in this society as much as the next whit person. That is not erased by which gender they chose to be emotionally, contractually and/or physically intimate with. Witness the incident of the n-word being hurled at a Say No on Prop rally in California. What needs to be made perfectly clear is that when white males start pointing fingers at black people and hurling racial slurs, the black community doesn't see a white gay male--they just see a *white male.* And white gays can't just come along and appropriate the black struggle, and claim it as their own, without first making inroads with the black community. That won't be done by putting a few black faces in token roles. It will mean black led LBGT organizations will have to take the lead, and white gays will have to take the back seat, and follow.

The Black Community is Homophobic...Period!

I won't lie and say there's no homophobia in the black community. Homophobia like other forms of discrimination certainly exists in the black community as it does everywhere else. And even we heteros who may consider ourselves "enlightened," to struggle against it within ourselves--as every male does with sexism, or all of us do with racism. We are products of our socialization. It is a bit simplistic to insinuate these forms of bias are all exactly the same; but it is a bit disingenous to ignore shared commonalities. Yet black homophobia is complex and has to be understood in the circumstances of the black community. There are indeed black people who are anti-gay because of religion. For some, homosexuality is another attack on their notion of the black family--part of a long line of attacks that produces too many single mothers, absentee fathers and general mayhem. Gays marrying to them isn't a mere religious or cultural threat, but another blow to a black family already reeling from issues that range from poverty to purposeful societal neglect. There are black people who are anti-gay and are distinctly secular. Their homophobia might be based on a belief that being gay is part of white cultural colonialism, and relate it to other aspects of white hegemony. Others, striving towards masculinity in a white patriarchal dominated world, may view homosexuality (and any perceived aspects of deemed "effeminancy") as a part of white society's wish to stifle black masculinity and manhood. Still others are homophobic because they see a rampant HIV/AIDS presence in the community, and in fear lash out and blame closeted black males (the so-called "down-low" phenom), for what they see as men engaging in high-risk sexual behavior that endangers the lives of black women. Now, it just so happens, that nearly every one of these reasons on the face of it is ludicrous. Defining black masculinity by white definitions is a zero-sum game. The black family has always been complex in its dynamics. Homosexuality existed in black culture long before white cultural colonialism. And the down-low phenom is more urban legend than reality. Yet, how people feel, especially people who see themselves under constant attack, or suffer from neglect, by a white hegemonic system, must be taken into account. And it will take black leadership and members of the LBGT to state that things like gay marriage matter to them too, and discriminating against gays is also discriminating against one's family, friends and people in the black community.

But, enough of my ranting. In the wake of the dust storm kicked up by Prop 8, many others have addressed this better than I have. Some of their articles are posted below. Will update periodically.

Blogger Shannika single-handedly deconstructs the polling figures on Prop 8, and took the full (often racist) fury of white gays bent on the "black-blame-game."

Facts Belie the Scapegoating of Black People for Proposition 8

Writer and gay activist Jasmyne A. Cannick speaks on the divergent views and inerests of the black and white gay communities,.

No-on-8's white bias

A black hetero male who voted against Prop 8 speaks out:

Stop Blaming California's Black Voters for Prop 8

Jack and Jill Politics blog debunks the heavily racist talking points of the white gay right --Andrew Sullivan and sex columnist Dan Savage.

Stop Scapegoating Black Folk on Proposition 8

Rod McCullom at the Daily Voice documents the many articles by the black community--gay and straight--who were vocally outraged at the white gay community's scapegoating and blatant acts of racism.

Not one black LGBT couple in "No on Prop 8" Ads. Why?

Update from Nov. 25th

Political analyst David Binder has compiled yet-to-be-released statistics on the vote for Proposition 8 based on ethnicity and found that the percentage of black voters who approved the amendment is smaller than originally thought, Minter said. A CNN exit poll indicated that about 69 percent of black California voters marked “yes” on Proposition 8, but the new data indicates that about 57 percent of black voters approved the amendment, he said. The revised statistic would be similar to what exit polls showed for voting patterns for other ethnicities, such as white and Latino voters.



Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Georgia's Blunder

Georgian missile batteries firing on South Ossetia

Lost in all of the Obama glory last week was a major news story from the Nov. 6 New York Times. Turns out that the war in Georgia--which erupted this summer and set off a "new Cold War" between the US and Russia--may not have started precisely as we've all been told. The official story from Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili was of an unprovoked Russian attack on his small country. Russia however charged that it was the Georgians who attacked the separatist region of Ossetia, killed Russian troops and hundreds of civilians--to which they reacted (or perhaps overreacted). Now, months later, turns out that the truth of the entire sordid affair is coming to light. And Saakashvili is looking less than David facing off Goliath, and more like the boy who cried "wolf."

According to the New York Times:

Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the longstanding Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression. Instead, the accounts suggest that Georgia’s inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.

While not conclusive in this game of "he said, she said," the Times article does call into question Georgia's motives and the painting of themselves as a defenseless innocent against a bullying Russia. Whatever the larger designs of Russia's increasingly autocratic Putin, it is looking more and more that it was Georgia who kicked off this crisis. And given the current state of Russian-Western relations, this has embarrassing implications for Georgia's biggest financial and military backer--the US. For certain, this is a full scale bi-partisan blunder, which had leading American figures like George Bush, John McCain, Joe Biden and (yes) Barack Obama, all rushing to the defense of Georgia, and proclaiming Mikheil Saakashvili the "George Washington of the Caucus."

The question now is, how will this all play out in an Obama presidency, which has (sadly) already cozied up to Saakashvili. Joe Biden has a "special relationship" with Georgia second probably only to John McCain. Georgian diplomats were "special guests" at the Democratic National Convention. What's more, some of those surrounding the president-elect are best described as old Cold War Hawks who are still obsessed with the "Russian threat." And Obama, in a serious lack of good judgment, has previously made statements about Georgia joining NATO. Yet allowing Georgia into such a military alignment would do little more than intensify Russian anger with the West's broken promises regarding NATO expansion, and turn the small country into a flashpoint of conflict--a literal "Kashmir of the Caucus."

About the only promising statement out of the Obama camp regarding Georgia, was his call for "restraint" on both sides during the conflict (which was derided by his detractors) and his preventive assertions long before, that international peacekeepers needed to replace the Russian troops in South Ossetia. Let's hope that kind of good sense prevails in the months and years to come, because (unless you're talking Outkast), contrary to Sen. McCain, we are NOT all Georgians. And the risks of antagonizing an already disgruntled and nuclear armed Russia over Saakashvili (a reckless leader with, at best, pretensions of democracy) is not in this nation's best interest--or anyone else's.


Monday, November 10, 2008

The War the World Forgot

In a country the size of Western Europe, a war rages that has lasted eight years and cost four million lives. Rival militias inflict appalling suffering on the civilian population, and what passes for political leadership is powerless to stop it. This is Congo, and the reason for the conflict - control of minerals essential to the electronic gadgetry on which the developed world depends - is what makes our blindness to the horror doubly shaming. This is the story of the deadliest war since Adolf Hitler's armies marched across Europe - a war that has not ended. But is also the story of a trail of blood that leads directly to you: to your remote control, to your mobile phone, to your laptop and to your diamond necklace.

So reads the intro to a 2006 article in The Independent, which provides an informative look at this crisis.

The conflict in the East of Congo has flared up--again. Rebels backed by Rwanda are killing indiscriminately and executing civilians. Refugees are fleeing the fighting, only to end up in camps ravaged by disease. UN peacekeepers stand by, uncertain of what to do. In a sea of what has become both dismal and tragically routine, the only glimmer of hope is that this time it is actually making the news. It is war that has left millions dead, and claims 45,000 lives a month--yet, until quite recently, this horror has gone all but unnoticed on the world stage. The question is, will it remain so? Will it mean the world is finally ready to act?

In a rare bit of hope, the President-elect has actually been attuned to the Congo. In 2006, Barack Obama sponsored a bill to provide relief and promote democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was signed into law in December 2006. In October of 2007, he wrote Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice personally, "expressing his concerns about the growing number of systematic sexual assaults against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)." Of course, it will take more than hope to fix the Congo. And it will take more than a President Obama. But perhaps it's a start.

And there's no better time than NOW, for us to try and do something, and get this out as one of the top foreign policy issues of a new administration.

Tell the new Obama administration, the Congo should be a top priority at

The Independent article below the fold.

See also, Friends of the Congo.

Congo's tragedy: the war the world forgot

In a country the size of Western Europe, a war rages that has lasted eight years and cost four million lives. Rival militias inflict appalling suffering on the civilian population, and what passes for political leadership is powerless to stop it. This is Congo, and the reason for the conflict - control of minerals essential to the electronic gadgetry on which the developed world depends - is what makes our blindness to the horror doubly shaming. Johann Hari reports from the killing fields of central Africa

Friday, 5 May 2006

This is the story of the deadliest war since Adolf Hitler's armies marched across Europe - a war that has not ended. But is also the story of a trail of blood that leads directly to you: to your remote control, to your mobile phone, to your laptop and to your diamond necklace. In the TV series Lost, a group of plane crash survivors believe they are stranded alone on a desert island, until one day they discover a dense metal cable leading out into the ocean and the world beyond. The Democratic Republic of Congo is full of those cables, mysterious connections that show how a seemingly isolated tribal war is in reality something very different.

This war has been dismissed as an internal African implosion. In reality it is a battle for coltan, diamonds, cassiterite and gold, destined for sale in London, New York and Paris. It is a battle for the metals that make our technological society vibrate and ring and bling, and it has already claimed four million lives in five years and broken a population the size of Britain's. No, this is not only a story about them. This - the tale of a short journey into the long Congolese war we in the West have fostered, fuelled and funded - is a story about you.

I Rapes Within Rapes

It starts with a ward full of women who have been gang-raped and then shot in the vagina. I am standing in a makeshift ward in the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, the only hospital that is trying to deal with the bushfire of sexual violence in eastern Congo. Most have wrapped themselves deep in their blankets so I can only see their eyes staring blankly at me. Dr Denis Mukwege is speaking. "Around 10 per cent of the gang-rape victims have had this happen to them," he says softly, his big hands tucked into his white coat. "We are trying to reconstruct their vaginas, their anuses, their intestines. It is a long process."

We walk out into the courtyard and he begins to explain - in the national language, French - the secret history of this hospital. "We started with a catastrophe we just couldn't understand," he says softly. One day early in the war, the Unicef medical van he was using was looted. Coincidentally, a few days later, a woman was carried here on her grandmother's back after an eight-hour trek. "I had never seen anything like it. She had been gang-raped and then her legs had been shot to pieces. I operated on her on a table with no equipment, no medicine."

She was only the first. "We suddenly had so many women coming in with post-rape lesions and injuries I could never have imagined. Our minds just couldn't take in what these women had suffered." The competing armies had discovered that rape was an efficient weapon in this war. Even in this small province, South Kivu, the UN estimates that 45,000 women were raped last year alone. "It destroys the morale of the men to rape their women. Crippling their women cripples their society," he explains, shaking his head gently. There were so many militias around that Dr Mukwege had to keep his treatments secret - the women were terrified of being kidnapped again and killed. He became an Oskar Schindler of the Congolese mass rapes.

As we walk down to watch 200 rape victims being taught to sew under a large, dark bridge, he tells me what they can expect now. "When the rapes begin, the husbands and fathers often just scarper and never come back. The women never hear anything from them again. Other times, the men blame the women and shun them. It's very hard for us to persuade the women to leave the hospital, because where are they going to go?"

He introduces me to Aileen, who is 18 but looks much younger. She holds her hands tightly in her lap. Her story is stark, the details sparse. Her village was raided by a militia on 10 October, and "they beheaded people in the central square". Her voice is high-pitched; she is almost squeaking. She was seized and taken back out into the forest by the militia where they kept her for six months. "I was raped every night. The first night my body really ached and hurt because I was a virgin," she says. She would be passed on from one man to the next. It is only as she speaks that I notice the large protruding bump sagging into her lap. The baby is going to be born next month. She says she has spoken to her family, but Dr Mukwege tells me later this is a fantasy. "What," she asks me with wide eyes as we leave, "do you think I should do? Where can I go?"

It is coldly appropriate to start here. The rape of Aileen and the rape of the thousands of women who stagger into the Panzi hospital are, I soon discover, merely part of a larger rape - the rape of Congo.

II The Last of the Belgian Colonialists

Bukavu is a cratered, shattered shack-city in eastern Congo that lies on the edge of Lake Kivu. In the street markets, people trade scraps of food for Congolese notes worth a few pence. In the houses, they stagger along without water or electricity. Wandering through this cacophony, I find a lone white woman, a lingering remnant of the origins of this war. She can reveal how all this began.

As we sit over lunch, Tina Van Malderen says, skimming the menu: "I don't drink water - only wine." Her hair is greying but her smile is warm. "I came to Bukavu as a little girl in 1951 when my father came to work for the Belgian administration," she explains. "It was paradise. There were only Europeans then. No Africans. Black people lived in the surrounding areas. It wasn't like South Africa, they weren't forced. They didn't want to live with us. They came into the town to work. They had their own market." She speaks of the days of the Belgian empire with a soft-focus sepia longing. "I have four sisters, and we would swim in the lake all day. It was like a non-stop holiday."

Her family owned a chain of shops, and the only castle in Congo. She is incredulous when I ask if there was any cruelty towards black people back then. "Absolutely not. We loved our blacks. When they had children, we gave them gifts." Perhaps sensing my scepticism, she adds: "Maybe on the plantations they were a little bit rude to them." The Belgians unified Congo in the first great holocaust of the 20th century, a programme of slavery and tyranny that killed 13 million people. King Leopold II - bragging about his humanitarian goals, of course - seized Congo and turned it into a slave colony geared to extracting rubber, the coltan and cassiterite of its day. The "natives" who failed to gather enough rubber would have their hands chopped off, with the Belgian administrators receiving and carefully counting hundreds of baskets of hands a day.

This system of forced cultivation continued until the Belgians withdrew in 1960, when Patrice Lumumba became the first and only elected leader of Congo. "He was a stupid man," Tina says swiftly. "On the first day of independence, he said we had beaten and humiliated the blacks. He signed his death warrant by doing that."

She's right - he did. Lumumba claimed to be a democratic socialist who wanted to overcome Congo's ethnic divisions. We will never know if he could have fulfilled this dream, because the CIA decided he was a "mad dog" who had to be put down. Before long, one of its agents was driving around Kinshasa with the elected leader's tortured corpse in the boot, and the CIA's man - Mobutu Sese Seko - was in power and in the money. Tina's family sold their castle to the dictator as he renamed the country Zaire. "People always ask if he paid. Of course he paid!" she laughs. Mobutu became another Leopold, using the state to rob and murder the Congolese people.

Tina's family started to worry in the 1970s when he announced a programme of "Zaireanisation" - a Mugabe-style transfer of the resources of foreigners to his cronies. "My mother arrived at work one day and there was a black man come to take possession of everything, including her car. She had to walk home," Tina says, glugging red wine.

"Everything began to fail after that. The food became disgusting. Even our dog didn't want to eat it." This is Tina's first visit home - she still calls it that - since they fled. "I saw the house we lived in. From outside it still looked nice but when I went inside..." she shakes her head. "The black people cannot live properly. If I had to compare Congo, I must say it hasn't changed at all. They are not naked any more, but they are still savages." Tina's countrymen established the nation-state in the Congo, and they designed it to be a vampire-state. The only change over the decades has been the resource snatched for Western consumption - rubber under the Belgians, diamonds under Mobutu, coltan and cassiterite today. "Cheers," Tina says, downing her wine.

III The War for Games Consoles

If you want to glimpse what all this death has been for, you have cross Lake Kivu and drive for four hours, on pocked and broken roller-coaster roads, until you reach a place called Kalehe. Scarring the lush green hills are what seem to be large red scabs that glisten in the sun. The term for these open wounds in the earth is "artisinal mines", but this dry terminology conjures up images of technical digs with machines and lights and helmets. In reality, they are immense holes in the ground, in which men, women and children - lots of children - pick desperately with makeshift hammers or their bare hands at the red earth, hoping to find some coltan or cassiterite to set on the long conveyor belt to your house, or mine. Coltan is a metal that conducts heat unusually brilliantly. It is contained in your mobile, your lap-top, your son's PlayStation - and 80 per cent of the world's supplies sit beneath the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As I crawl down into the mine - its cool, damp darkness is a strange contrast to the raging Congolese sun - the miners laugh. The idea of a muzungu - a white man - in their mine seems to them impossibly comic. But they soon get back to picking away at a roof that looks like it could collapse at any moment. Ingo Mbale, 51, explains how the West's hunger for coltan is fed. "We were enslaved three years ago," he says. "An RCD captain [from one of the militias] arrived and forced us to mine for them at gunpoint. They gave us no money, it was slave labour. There is nothing left in many of these shafts now, they exhausted them. They killed many people. Our gold and coltan and cassiterite went out to the world via Rwanda."

Watching these men, the shape of Congo's recent history becomes clear. There is an official story about the war in Congo, and then there is the reality, uncovered by a trilogy of bomb-blast reports from the UN Panel of Experts on the DRC. The official story is convoluted and hard to follow, because it does not ultimately make sense. But its first chapter is true enough, and goes something like this. In 1996, a Maoist with an eye for money called Laurent-Désiré Kabila grew tired of simply running his little fiefdom in eastern Zaire, where he peddled ivory and gold with a nice sideline in kidnapping Westerners. Kabila decided to depose Mobutu, the omnipresent and omni-incompetent tyrant, and seize power for himself. He cobbled together a ragtag army of child soldiers known as the Kadogo and, with the support of neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, the edifice of Mobutuism collapsed even before their tinny, tiny advance. Kabila installed himself as another Leopold-alike, banning political parties and bathing in corruption.

But then in 1998 Kabila asked the Rwandans and Ugandans to withdraw their troops from Congo - so long, and thanks for the armies - and the official story begins to drift away from reality. The Rwandans pulled back for a fortnight, but then mounted a massive invasion of Congo, seizing a third of the country. The public reason for this assault sounds reasonable. After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda - a slaughter that made even Auschwitz look slow-paced - tens of thousands of the Hutu Power machete-wielders fled across the border to Congo and set up long-term bases. How could any country rest with its murderers armed and crazed on its borders? "We must prevent the génocidaires from regrouping," said Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, with the supportive Ugandan military following in tow.

From his palace in Kinshasa, Kabila appealed to his friends for help resisting this Rwandan-Ugandan attack. Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola obligingly sent armies marching into Congo to fight back, and Africa's First World War began. The armies and militias marauding across Congo then became rebels without a cause, fighting each other because they were there and because pulling out would be a humiliating concession of defeat. In this version, the war in Congo is a mess, started with the best of intentions - the Rwandans' desire to track down génocidaires - only to spiral out of control. It presents the mass slaughter as a giant cock-up, a cosmic mistake. This is strangely reassuring. It is also a lie.

Once the Congo was drenched in death, the UN commissioned a panel of international statesmen to travel the country and uncover the reasons behind the war. They found that the Rwandan government's story hid a much darker truth. The Rwandans had a clear intention, right from the beginning: to seize Congo's massive mineral wealth, to grab the coltan mine I am standing in now and thousands like it, and to sell it on to us, the waiting world, as we quickly flicked the channel away from the news of this war with our coltan-filled remote control. The other countries came in not because they believed in repelling aggression, but because they wanted a piece of the Congolese cake. The country was ravaged by "armies of business", commanded by men who "carefully planned the redrawing of the regional map to redistribute wealth," the UN declared.

The UN experts knew this because the Rwandan troops did not head for the areas where the génocidaires were hiding out. They headed straight for the mines like this one in Kalehe, and they swiftly enslaved the populations to dig for them. They did not clear out the génocidaires - they teamed up with them to rape Congo. Jean-Pierre Ondekane, the chief of the Rwandan forces in Goma, urged his units to maintain good relations "with our Interhamwe [génocidaires] brothers." They set up a Congo Desk that whisked billions out of the country and into Rwandan bank accounts - and they fought to stay and pillage some more. The UN found that a Who's Who of British, American and Belgian companies were involved in the illegal exploitation of Congolese resources. The ones they recommended for further investigation included Anglo-American PLC, Barclays Bank, Standard Chartered Bank and De Beers. The British Government - while boasting of its humanitarian goals in Africa - barely followed up the report, publicly acquitting a few corporations like Anglo-American whose subisidary AngloGold Ashanti has been shown by Human Rights Watch to have developed links with a murderous armed group in the region, and leaving others like De Beers in an "unresolved" category.

Oh, and the reason why this invasion was so profitable? Global demand for coltan was soaring throughout the war because of the massive popularity of coltan-filled Sony PlayStations. While Sony itself does not use Congolese coltan, its sudden need for vast amounts of the metal drove up the price - which intensified the war. As Oona King, one of the few British politicians to notice Congo, explains as we travel together for a few days: "Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms."

As I climb back out into the hard sunshine, the miners turn to me. "Could you send us a hammer? We really need one. The militias took all our equipment."

IV The Tyrant's Jeer

On the long journey in an armoured UN vehicle, the questions seem so obvious, so trite. How could a government led by genocide victims suddenly commit its own epic crime against humanity, for nothing more than money? The answer lies across the border, through the rainforest, towards Kigali. I meet Charles Muligande, the Rwandan foreign minister, on the top floor of the Hotel Des Milles Collines, the real Hotel Rwanda. This is where hundreds of Tutsis hid out the holocaust while their brothers and sons were hacked to pieces on the streets outside.

Muligande has a strange combination of a youthful, unlined face and graying hair (with matching moustache), and he carries with him the unimpeachable moral stature of the victim. The sadness around the eyes, the haltingly recounted story of being driven across the border to Burundi as a child refugee, the relatives slaughtered in the genocide - they are all cruelly present. How can I challenge him? He speaks softly about the trauma counselling that is happening in Rwanda, and the fragile attempts at reconciliation. And then it comes - the chuckle.

I ask him about Congo's future, and he lets out a strange, hard-to-place laugh. "The DRC is a country that for the last 45 years has had pockets outside the control of central government," he says. "Even on the eve of the election, there will by places that are beyond the control of central government. This shouldn't be a cause for concern." And again with the chuckle.

What about the people who pay the price of the instability he waves away so casually? How does he sleep at night, knowing Rwanda has inflicted on its neighbours suffering akin to the horrors he and his family endured? He chuckles harder now, almost coughing. "This is rubbish. If we do a balance sheet, we incurred a lot of losses in fighting that war."

He says it with such airy conviction I have to grope in my mind for the right response. Why then does the UN's report say that Rwanda's pillage was "systematic" and "deliberate"? "That is an invention," he snaps. By the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch? "Yes. It doesn't become true just because it is repeated. If you have such a blind faith in Amnesty International," - he spits the words - "and the UN and Human Rights Watch, there is nothing I can tell you. It is like you are asking me to believe Jesus Christ is not my saviour come to change my soul. It is a faith-based position." No amount of probing will shift him. When he talks about the genocide, he is compassionate, honest, brave. When he talks about his own country's crimes against Congo, he sneers. Their trauma, it seems, is worth nothing. As he speaks, I wonder - does he believe this, or does he, in midnight sweats, think about the children driven from their homes just like a baby Muligande was all those years ago?

The more I probe, the more his face contorts into the tyrant's jeer. I have seen this before, in Iraq and in Israel/Palestine - the furrowed brow and the rote claim that the evil UN and Amnesty have it in for us. Blood? What blood?

V Thomas Hobbes was Right

The victims of the war - of that laugh - are scattered everywhere in eastern Congo. By the roadside the next morning, I find the living remnants of Ramba village, a home to 15,000. They make up a clump of 400 starving people building a makeshift camp by the roadside. Maneno Mutagemba Justin, their chief - a young man with sore, reddish eyes - explains what happened. "The Interahamwe came into our village. They killed and they raped our women. Now they have stolen our houses and told us never to come back." People fled in all directions, losing their husbands or children. Nobody is quite sure how many relatives they have lost forever. "We have no food here, and we left everything behind. We have no pots, no pans, no water." These people live a long drawn-out postscript to Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century philosopher who warned that in the absence of a state, life will be: "Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Yet the most piercing image of pain I see in Congo is not in places like this. It is not in the pygmy village where children with sweet distended bellies sleep with their families in the tea-bushes because they are terrified of being beheaded by the militias. It is not even in the eyes of the man Oona King and I see being casually beaten to death by a mob on the road one moody afternoon, another unrecorded Congolese write-off that we swiftly speed away from. No, it is the women carrying more than their own bodyweight in wood or coal or sand, all day, every day. By every Congolese roadside, there are women with ropes tearing into their foreheads as they bind a massive load on to their backs. With so few horses, so few cars and so few roads, starving women are used here as pack-horses, transporting anything that needs to be moved on their backs for 50p a day. They are given the quaint title of "porters".

Francine Chacopawa is 30 but she looks much older, her faced lined and cratered in a complex topography of pain. Her spine is curved, her skin is rough and broken, her hands calloused. When she laboriously puts down the wood she is carrying, she has a red canyon in her forehead where the rope was, rimmed with sores that weep from the rubbing. "This is the rope that keeps my household alive," she says. It is the war that has reduced her to this state. "Since the war started, you can't farm in peace, and the children are starving, so I prefer to die in this work... My husband cannot get a job, so this is what I have to do. I leave at five o'clock in the morning and get back at seven o'clock at night. I am worried my children are running away to look for food, because we only get to eat once a day. When I get home, my husband gets angry and asks why I have been away so long. We have suffered so much. The children we bring into the world are forced to be porters as well. We are the most unhappy people in the world."

She tells me the pack she is carrying weighs 200lb, and I write this off as understandable hyperbole. Then my translator and the UN driver load her pack on to my back (with great difficulty). I immediately fall to my knees. I stagger up and manage to stumble a few feet before falling over again. I am almost crying in pain; my back aches for weeks. This is Francine's life. She does not even stop on Sundays. "How can I? We must eat," she says. Portering has made her miscarry twice, and Francine says she has seen women die by the side of the road, buckled under their loads. I ask her when she will stop portering. She shrugs, and says nothing. Her eyes say: "When I die." The wood is heaved back on to her back, and she staggers away, the rope rubbing against her sores.

VI The Head of State Without a State

Joseph Kabila is surrounded by crocodiles. We are standing by the back wall of the White House, the slimline presidential palace in Kinshasa, and the rippling, reptile-infested Congo river rings around us. His house looks like a well-kept municipal library in an American town, a world away from the psycho-kitsch of the Mobutu era. The President's eyes have narrowed. "How long have you been here, to think you can write about Congo?" he asks, unsmiling. I say I have been here a fortnight. He nods slightly. "Then that's OK."

Kabila does not like talking to journalists. Indeed, he does not like talking to anyone - he has conspicuously failed to turn up at his own election rallies over the past few months. I have been smuggled in at the end of his meeting with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region, a collection of decent British politicians who have come to try to erode the worst humanitarian crisis in the world by inches. "I want to see some quick wins [for the Congolese people] from the presidential election," he says, assuming he will win the looming polls - the first in Congo since 1960. He then rattles off a list of improvements he hopes to implement to prove that democracy works - better water supplies, better schooling.

He offers up these platitudes in absent English, his handsome face covered with a light sprinkling of stubble that seems to be greying in the sun. He became President at the age of 29 when his father was pinned down and executed in a failed coup in 2001. At that moment the reluctant son of the Big Man was thrust from a life of army drills and watching martial arts movies to being in a charge of the world's biggest war zone. Neckless and nervous, he says his two minutes' worth of stump speech now and then closes up. He signals to his Versace-suited security guards that it is time for him to leave. My five minutes of questions - more than any other journalist gets - have been greeted with a polite stonewall of banality.

The White House has a feel of unreality. It is a hologram of power, the simulacrum of a functioning country. Kabila is in the surreal position of being head of state without a state, President of the Democratic Vacuum of Congo. He has no levers of power to pull. As I discovered later in my journey, he has no army worthy of the name, he has no police force, he cannot guard his own borders or build his own schools. From the sealed calm of the palace, I look over a wall and see the real Congo walking past - people slumped against walls or busy doing nothing or frantically fending off hunger any way they can. The fantasy of a functioning country dies outside his own brickwork.

Since his father died, Kabila has been trying to glue together a nation from the shattered fragments. In 2002, he negotiated the Lusaka Accords, in which the invading countries promised to remove their armies. The global price of coltan had collapsed, so Rwanda's interest was waning. Besides, the withdrawing countries realised they could suck the mineral marrow from Congo without the costly business of occupation, simply by setting up Congolese militias as their proxies on their way out the door. Kabila tried to out-bribe powerful militia leaders by offering them a place at the heart of government. That's why, of his four vice presidents, three have their own private armies. To watch over this "peace process", the UN sent in 17,000 peacekeepers for a country the size of Western Europe.

At the core of Kabila's project to make Congo into one nation with one government is brassage - the integration of the militias. At squalid camps across the country, the militiamen who have been raping and murdering are invited to hand in their weapons and join the new national army. I head for Camp Saio, a camp outside Bukavu where men with Samuel L Jackson sunglasses and cheekbones that could cut butter are milling and mulling as they wait for "reintegration". Places like this are the key to Congo's future. The country's success stands or falls on whether the militiamen can be coaxed to come here and slowly build a state. Dr Adolphe Tumba, the head of the camp, takes me trudging through the mud on a tour.

In the first room I see, there are nine stinking beds. Men are sitting, rotting plaster covering their wounds. In the corner is a soldier shivering in his bed, his face covered with the lesions that come with the final stages of Aids. He opens his eyes - they recoil, wounded by the light. They close again as he curls wearily into a tight ball. I ask the men what life was like on the front line. "We ate. We had food there," they snap back. I ask again, assuming they misunderstood. "We had food at the front line. It was better. Why did you come here without something for us to eat?" They last ate two days ago. They have not received their $5-a-month wages for 40 days. They are starving.

A UN source warned me: "The people in that camp are going out and rampaging into the nearby villages. They do it for survival. They steal to get by. Yesterday they killed a man, the day before they killed a woman and some kids. It's all done by men in uniform coming out of that camp." Joseph, a 22-year-old, tells me he joined up when he was a teenager because his village was attacked by the Rwandans. "They killed my father, my grandfather and my little sister. So I decided to join Mai-Mai [a Congolese militia]. I can't count how many people I killed. I did it for six years."

His friends gather round, and some of them are more eager to brag about their kill rates. They remind me of kids on some estates I have visited, bragging about their Asbos. Are they telling the truth, or is this teenage display? As they become more and more animated describing their killing sprees, as their eyes become wider and their stories more vivid, our UN escort begins to panic and tells us we must leave. "Quickly!" he calls.

As we drive away, I realise it is not enough that our greed for resources started this war - it is vandalising any chance of bringing it to an end. While these state-building camps can offer only starvation and a sometimes-never $5 wage, Unicef says the militias are offering the same men $60 a month to carry on seizing and raping and killing. They can afford it because they still control most of the coltan, gold and diamond mines, and Western and Chinese companies are still snapping up the sparklers they offer. So long as the militias can continue to use our money to outbid the national government, there will never be a unified state in Congo, and life will continue to be a live-action replay of Thomas Hobbes' bleakest descriptions.

And yet, even the best case scenario - effective brassage, a unified army, a coherent state - carries with it blood-drenched risks. What if once Kabila gets control of the country, he morphs into a Mobutu or a Mugabe? Then all this nation-building will turn out to have been an exercise in capacity-building for a murderer. Who is this man with a neckless, nervous gaze? A rogue source at the British Embassy who has high-level dealings with the regime ponders over dinner: "There are essential two theories about Kabila," he says. "The first is that he is a good man surrounded by shits. The second is that he is one of the shits. Let's assume the first is true - what difference does it make? He is surrounded by Rumsfelds and Cheneys, friends of the father who would kill him if he stepped out of line. There is a large group around him whose finances and even their impunity from charges in the Hague depend on him staying in power. Would they allow him to lose power, or even to share it too much? Really?"

At times, it seems Congo is lost in a fog of moral ambiguity. Everybody agrees the state needs to be unified, and there seems to be only one state on offer - Kabila's - given the near-certainty he will win the election. An aid agency head says: "In this country, all you can ask about a politician is - is this person corrupt and self-seeking and doesn't give a damn about Congo, or is this person corrupt and self-seeking but wants what's best for Congo too? Of course Kabila's circle is corrupt. To have power in this country you must be corrupt. It's a corrupt system." The best hope, it seems, is to drag Congo up from being a broken stateless war zone where millions die to a bog-standard corrupt state. To the starving soldiers of Camp Saio, watching open-mouthed and hungry as we drive away, even this sunken ambition seems optimistic.

VII Spiritual Warfare

The coven of witches is dancing and cackling in the water. They have a hose-pipe and they are spraying each other's naked bodies, squealing and laughing. One of them comes up to me, wearing a worn-out Barney the dinosaur T-shirt, and splashes some water at my face. I am in a children's home, Chez Mama Coco, an hour's drive from Kinshasa, and the place is filled with starved witch-children who have been thrown out by their parents for displaying signs of being under the influence of Satan. Some have been burned and slashed, and some mutilated. One of the workers introduces me to a child - they do not know his name because he has not spoken since he arrived, but they call him Fidel - and tugs down his trousers. Where his penis once was, there is nothing but an angry red scab. "His mother cut it off during the exorcism," he says.

This is another consequence of our war. Herve Cheuzeville, the outgoing Head of Mission for Warchild, explains: "The idea of withcraft has always existed in Congo, but it is new to accuse children of it. It never happened before. It is a result of the terrible traumas of the past six years."

The Combat Spirituel church in Bukavu consists of an immense veranda filled with benches, with a neat white building attached. These churches have been pioneers of Congo's 21st-century witch-hunts, and when I arrive at their Sunday service, they greet me with whoops and hallelujahs. The evangelical preacher at the podium has a kind of Christian Pan's People dancing behind him, and he exclaims: "We salute God by dancing!" The congregation contains over 1,000 people, and they look more like the crowd at a football match than at a dreary Church of England ceremony. They blow whistles, jump up and down, and dance wildly. A man with a miraculous story about how he was cured of Aids through the power of prayer takes to the platform. I am told that if I want to talk witchcraft, however, I need to return late on Thursday, when the purgings and exorcisms happen.

I come back, and Papa Enoch Boonga - the "spiritual co-ordinator" - is waiting for me with a 14-year-old witch. I am led into the little house. The lights are switched off, and Papa Enoch produces a lantern that lights his face and casts a long shadow. In his slow, rhythmic French, he begins to tell me how: "Satan is waging war on the Congolese people. He comes to kill and hate. The answer to Satan's campaign against us is spiritual combat." That is his cue to drag out Clarice. She is a small girl wrapped in a big woollen cardigan. In a low, blank rote, her eyes cast down, she says: "I was taught sorcery when I was 12. My grandmother turned me into a witch by giving me a doughnut to eat."

Enoch looks at me triumphantly. "This is how it works! They give evil food!" He takes over from Clarice's halting speech. "Then the grandmother came at night in spiritual form and said, 'I gave you the doughnut to eat, now you must give me your little sister to eat.' She was so frightened she said, 'OK, OK,' and the next day her little sister fell ill and died. Then her grandmother demanded she break the leg of her mother, so when he mother was out gathering wood, she fell and broke her leg. Now the girl started to feel the power of sorcery and began to transform herself into a dog or a cat."

I keep looking at Clarice in disbelief, but then I realise she thinks I am glaring in condemnation and I look away. As Enoch speaks, the chanting behind us from the main service is getting louder and louder - "Out Satan, out!" hundreds of people cry, clawing at invisible demons in the air. He continues, "Her father is an artisinal miner and he stopped being able to find anything because of her sorcery. They fell into poverty."

I have to interrupt. I ask Clarice, softly: "Do you really think it is your fault your little sister died?" "Yes," she says. Her eyes remain fixed on the floor. "It was actually her parents who realised she was a witch," Enoch says. "They were very worried about their lives going bad, and they went to church and prayed and God told them what the problem was." He says they conducted an exorcism of Clarice, and, yes, it was tough. "When you cast Satan out, you almost destroy the person, but they come back with Jesus Christ in their heart."

As I look into Clarice's downcast eyes, I realise it is not only the physical landscape of Congo that lies in ruins. The psychological landscape has been trashed. The war has left girls like her in a society littered with superstition landmines that will not be cleared away for decades. She limps away, back to a life soaked in self-hate.

VIII - Packing Out the Albert Hall

The last time there was a holocaust in Congo, British and American people reacted with a great national revulsion. Books like Arthur Conan Doyle's The Crime of the Congo topped the bestseller lists, millions petitioned parliament to act, and the Royal Albert Hall was packed out with mass meetings detailing the Congo's long nightmare. A century on, the words and analyses of that great campaign still ring true. Joseph Conrad called it "the vilest scramble for loot that has ever disfigured the human conscience" - words that would make a perfect introduction to the reports of the UN Panel of Experts now.

But today, these four million people have died in the dark, unnoticed and unmourned. The generations living in the West today have said nothing while the country has been reduced to near-Leopoldian levels of desperation by the scramble for loot, conducted on our behalf and for our benefit. The average life-expectancy in Congo is 43 and falling. I did not see any elderly people on my journey; they do not exist. In a country where the war is laughably referred to as "winding down", a World Trade Center-full of people is butchered every two days, and in the lost rural areas I could not reach, bubonic plague has made a triumphant come-back. A health minister says in despair: "I have been told by the UN to prepare a plan for avian flu. I had to write back and say I am powerless to deal with the plague, so what am I supposed to do about chickens?"

This war was launched by nations that sensed - rightly - that our desire for coltan and diamonds and gold far outweighed our concern for the lives of black people. They knew that we would keep on buying, long after the UN had told us time and again that people were dying to provide our mobiles and games consoles and a girl's best friend. Today, we still buy, and the British Government - along with the rest of the democratic world - obstructs any attempt to introduce legally enforceable regulations to stop corporations trading in Congolese blood. They ignore the UN's warnings that: "Without the wealth generated by the illegal exploitation of natural resources arms cannot be bought, hence the conflict cannot be perpetuated," and insist that voluntary regulations - asking corporations to be nice to Africans - is "the most effective route".

In Bukavu, a 29-year-old human rights campaigner called Bertrand Bisimwa summarised his country's situation for me with cruel concision. "Since the 19th century, when the world looks at Congo it sees a pile of riches with some black people inconveniently sitting on top of them. They eradicate the Congolese people so they can possess the mines and resources. They destroy us because we are an inconvenience." As he speaks, I picture the raped women with bullets burying through their intestines and try to weigh them against the piles of blood-soaked electronic goods sitting beneath my Christmas tree with their little chunks of Congolese metal whirring inside. Bertrand smiles and says, "Tell me - who are the savages? Us, or you?"


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Obama Day One

What most needs repairing

Before my innate cynicism kicks in (as I'm sure it will), still going to bask in the glow of the good things about having a Democrat--and most specifically this Democrat--in the White House. Today, the Washington Post pointed to a series of things that even the most jaded progressive has to admit are steps in the right direction:

Transition advisers to President-elect Barack Obama have compiled a list of about 200 Bush administration actions and executive orders that could be swiftly undone to reverse White House policies on climate change, stem cell research, reproductive rights and other issues, according to congressional Democrats, campaign aides and experts working with the transition team.

Now that's some hope I can believe in.

The entire article here.

More snippets below the fold.

From the Nov. 9, 2008 edition of the Washington Post:

Obama himself has signaled, for example, that he intends to reverse Bush's controversial limit on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, a decision that scientists say has restrained research into some of the most promising avenues for defeating a wide array of diseases, such as Parkinson's.

The new president is also expected to lift a so-called global gag rule barring international family planning groups that receive U.S. aid from counseling women about the availability of abortion, even in countries where the procedure is legal, said Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he rescinded the Reagan-era regulation, known as the Mexico City policy, but Bush reimposed it.

The president-elect has said, for example, that he intends to quickly reverse the Bush administration's decision last December to deny California the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles. "Effectively tackling global warming demands bold and innovative solutions, and given the failure of this administration to act, California should be allowed to pioneer," Obama said in January.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Three Important Reasons to Be Thankful

Glenn Greenwald over at pointed out three immensely important things to be thankful for about the outcome of this presidential election. And even a cynic like me, who will no doubt be critical of an Obama presidency as much as anyone else's, has to admit that Greenwald is spot on.

Want to see the three immensely important things?

Check beneath the fold.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Simple and Important Victories

In all the celebrating and the shock… I'd forgotten about the many simple but crucially important victories this election would mean. And then I went to The Nation, and read this peice by Barbara Crosette:

In the Senate, Obama and Joe Biden have been supportive of programs for women--Biden co-authored the Violence Against Women legislation--and the ban on UNFPA is expected to be lifted early, along with what is known as the "global gag rule" introduced at a population conference in Mexico City in the Reagan administration that prevents US aid to any organization worldwide that condones abortion.

Just this past April, I wrote a blog about the Global Gag Rule, how it is leading to maiming and death, and what a change away from right wing reactionary politics in the White House could mean to millions of poor women worldwide. Nope, Obama ain't perfect. And there'll be a lot of pushing to get him on the progressive track, but the repealing of the GGR is a definite victory.

And for that alone, we can be thankful.

Below the fold, Barabra Crossette takes a look at a few more.

UN: Hope that America Rejoins the World

The World Reacts

By Barbara Crossette
November 5, 2008

Jubilation should be the order of the day at the United Nations when an American who is also a son of Kenya and a child of Indonesia is elected president of the most powerful country in a world in need of healing. But while there is quiet joy and relief at the victory of Barack Obama, there is also a strong undercurrent of caution. Is the end of an unfriendly Republican era enough in itself to bring the United States back? Or have the Democrats, the heirs of the UN's founders, drifted too far from internationalism?

Much has been written in recent years about America "rejoining the world." Nowhere more than at the UN have Washington's bullying tactics and stunted, provincial vision of global challenges cast such a pall over international cooperation. Here, the United States is close-up and personal. After the naming in Washington of a new secretary of state, the appointment most eagerly awaited at the UN is that of the next American ambassador.

Peter Maurer, Switzerland's ambassador to the UN, says that what he hears among his diplomatic colleagues is a plea for trust to be restored between the US and the UN. There are the wounds of the Iraq war, and there is skepticism about the motives of Washington when politicians talk about UN reform. "The new administration will find a kind of window of opportunity because there is enormous goodwill around the UN to see and to hear some new voices" Maurer said. But the UN as well as the US will have to work on closing the rift, he added.

The world of the United Nations is divided into two distinct camps. The people of the headquarters Secretariat and the various agencies are recruited or appointed international civil servants who are expected to leave their nationalities behind and work for a global constituency. Many of them fail to meet that test, but that's another story. Separate from them are the diplomats who represent the 192 member nations. Their missions are in essence embassies to the UN and their views, at least formally, would reflect those of their governments.

To the foreign diplomats based in New York, perhaps surprisingly, the ambassadors sent to the UN by the Bush administration have generally been respected and liked, from John Negroponte and John Danforth to Zalmay Khalilzad, the first Muslim to represent the US in New York. John Bolton was the exception, but his period as ambassador was relatively brief and he was regarded as competent even by some who found him undiplomatically abrasive and driven blindly by his distrust of internationalism and rigid defense of American sovereignty.

Samir Sanbar, a former UN under secretary general for communications who now publishes a gossipy newsletter,, describes the mood in the Secretariat this week as "caught between hope and apprehension." He says that the organization remembers the Clinton years, when the White House backed away from some important international commitments and crudely dumped a secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, out of what appeared to be domestic political skittishness.

Middle Easterners (Sanbar is from Lebanon) also see no real possibility of change in regional policy in the Mideast, he said. Not long ago, before the election, a Brazilian diplomat remarked that there is concern about the Democrats' aversion to free trade. A lot of Indians liked the Republicans because they gave New Delhi a nuclear supply deal that may have killed the nonproliferation treaty.

Maurer, an expert in international law, said that a hoped-for thaw in US-UN relations would need to translate into action. "We all know what some of the concrete issues are, where many delegations would hope that a new administration would eventually set some priorities," he said. "This goes from climate change to engagement on a balanced nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, policy. It goes to a new engagement for multilateral human rights, approaches which we certainly missed. New ideas, new approaches might be extremely welcome."

A list of international agreements rebuffed by the US awaits the Obama-Biden administration, beginning with the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty against nuclear weapons development, which the Clinton Administration shrank from sending to a hostile Congress. Also under Clinton, the US signed but never ratified the 1998 treaty creating the International Criminal Court, the first permanent tribunal designed to deal with perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2001, the Bush administration rescinded even the US signature and set out to undermine the court. Now, without standing in the court, Washington is in the awkward position of wanting the president of Sudan to be tried there for the horrors of Darfur.

The United States also opted out of joining the Human Rights Council, created in 2006 to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission. An early decision will have to be made on whether to vie for a seat in the new year.

On climate change, the US has not joined the Kyoto Protocol, which sets binding targets for reducing greenhouse gases in industrialized countries. The agreement, due to expire in 2012, is scheduled to be renegotiated next year at a global conference in Copenhagen. Strong leadership and active American participation will be needed to draw in major developing nations that have so far refused to be bound by internationally agreed limits.

The UN seems to have been a bone thrown by Washington to the ideological right. After the Security Council refused to endorse the American invasion of Iraq, Republicans excoriated the UN and Secretary General Kofi Annan for his opposition to the war and on whom, with more than a hint of revenge, they tried to pin responsibility for corruption in the Iraqi "oil for food" program a few years later. That the secretary general had no authority over the Security Council and that almost all the corruption turned out to have been found in corporations operating outside the formal system, whose rules Council members failed to enforce, were conveniently overlooked.

Sanbar says that the current secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, whom the US (and particularly Bolton) propelled into office in 2007, may be wondering what will happen when and if he seeks a second five-year term. He will have to open channels to the Democrats.

The UN Population Fund may have the most to gain in the short term from the Democratic victory. Since 2002, the Bush administration has barred American contributions to the fund, known as UNFPA, on specious claims that it was involved in programs in China that included forced abortions--claims the State Department argued were not true. The cumulative loss to UNFPA neared $300 million this year, at a time when maternal mortality remains high and family planning programs, in great demand in poor nations, are falling well behind funding campaigns for fighting HIV-AIDS.
In the Senate, Obama and Joe Biden have been supportive of programs for women--Biden co-authored the Violence Against Women legislation--and the ban on UNFPA is expected to be lifted early, along with what is known as the "global gag rule" introduced at a population conference in Mexico City in the Reagan administration that prevents US aid to any organization worldwide that condones abortion.

With the new administration, the broader American opposition to social programs in the UN system may end or be greatly diminished. The US has been in league with the Vatican and conservative Islamic countries on women's reproductive rights. It has failed to ratify the 1979 Convention on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (along with nations such as North Korea and Iran) and is only one of two countries (Somalia is the other) not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Maurer said diplomats who watched the presidential debates this year with great interest noticed that the UN did not figure in the candidates' foreign policy messages. Ignoring the UN has become bipartisan. Reluctance to make commitments "went far beyond the President Bush administration," he said. "There has to be something in the American political fabric which produces these opinions."

Advances in universal human rights, international criminal law and accountability in the UN system all depend on American involvement, Maurer said. "There is no doubt that if you want to have functioning multilateralism you have to have the United States engaged and on board. If this is not happening, you are immediately in the vicious circle because then the results of negotiations will always be weaker if the US is not pushing within the institution, at the table."


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Global Newspapers Cheer on Obama

The Courier-Mail Brisbane, Australia

One for the ages...

More newspaper headlines below the fold.

Kleine Zetung Graz, Austria

De Standaard Brussels, Belgium

O Povo Fortaleza, Brazil

EXTRA Rio de Janiero, Brazil

Dnevnik Daily Sofia, Bulgaria

Corriere Canadese Toronto, Canada

The Beijing News Beijing, China

Lidove Noviny Prague, Czech Republic

Die Tageszeitung Berlin, Germany

Hajdu Bihari Naplo Debrecen, Hungary

Morgunbladid Reykjavik, Iceland

Anandabazar Patrika Calcutta, India

Indonesia celebrates

Jam-e-Jam Tehran,Iran

Irish Examiner Cork, Ireland

Yedioth, Ahronoth Tel Aviv, Israel

La Repubblica Rome, Italy

An-Nahar Beirut, Lebanon

Liechtensteiner Volksblatt Schaan, Liechtenstein

Verslo Zinios Vilnius, Lithuania

Star Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The Namibian Windhoek, Namibia

AD Amsterdam, Netherlands

The New Zealand Herald Auckland, New Zealand

Dziennik Polski Krakow, Poland

Publico- Lisbon Edition Lisbon, Portugal

Jurnal Bihorean Oradea, Romania

Al-Riyadh Riyadh, Saudia Arabia

Politka Belgrade, Serbia

SME Bratislava, Slovakia

The Times Johannesburg, South Africa

The Dong-a Ilbo Seoul, South Korea

El Periódico de Catalunya Barcelona, Spain

Dagens Nyheter Stockholm, Sweden

Basler Zeitung Basel, Switzerland

Apple Daily Taipei, Taiwan

Olay Bursa, Turkey

The Guardian London, UK

Gulf News Dubai, United Arab Emirates

El Universal Caracas, Venezuela