Is FIFA a Mass Killer?

8 Apr
Photo courtesy of RT

Photo courtesy of RT

Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has all the makings of a great underdog story.  A small country from a region that has has traditionally been a soccer backwater throws together an ambitious plan to build nine new stadiums.  Despite its inhospitable climate, it proposes a space-age cooling system that will allow players and spectators alike the ability to enjoy the game in comfort.  Its national team languishes in the middle of FIFA’s rankings, but has bigger aspirations.  Through an exhaustive bidding process, little Qatar beats out international powerhouses South Korea, Japan, Australia, and even the United States.

The real story of the the Qatari bid for the World Cup, however, is one of bribery, half-truths, and corruption.  In sum, Qatar used its oil wealth to buy votes and FIFA executives looked past the flaws in the voting process, a non-existent plan to air condition stadiums, and Qatar’s record of human rights violations in favor of a gravy train.  One example demonstrates the particularly ludicrous nature of Qatar’s bid: the city that will host the stadium that will host the World Cup final doesn’t even exist yet.  They plan to build it from scratch (they clearly haven’t read James Scott).

Predictably, the massive infrastructure needed for the World Cup is being built on the back of migrant workers, with lethal consequences.  A report by the International Trade Union Confederation states that at least 1,200 workers have already died, and the number is likely to reach 4,000 by 2022 (the wording is a bit unclear as to whether 4,000 more workers will die or if 4,000 will be the final total).  Even this estimate, though, is conservative because it’s working off deaths reported by the Indian and Nepalese embassies.  Some smaller worker populations hail from other countries and many deaths likely go unreported.  The mix of “subhuman” working conditions, long hours in the heat, and a lack of access to medical care has proved disastrous.  As a comparison, the most deadly sporting event in the last decade and a half was the Sochi Olympics, which caused the deaths of sixty workers.

Scholars have a range of definitions for what constitutes a mass killing, with most falling in the 500-1000 intentional deaths per year range.  Is FIFA then a mass killer?  That question in turn prompts two more, the first of which is: from a definitional standpoint, what kinds of deaths count as killing?  This is definitely a difficult question to answer.  In his thesis, Sean Langberg defines killing narrowly.  For him, it’s only deaths caused by physical violence that count toward the threshold of 1,000.  Alternatively, in my own thesis, I see mass killing as including a wider range of death experiences.  Starvation or death through disease may be just as central to perpetrators’ strategies as physical killing itself.  In this case, I think it’s fair to say that the actions of construction directors (hired by Qatar/FIFA) can be included in the tallying of potential mass killing deaths because they are creating conditions in which they can reasonably expect workers (aka civilians) to be killed.

If you follow my initial line of inquiry, I think the second issue you run across is differentiating structural violence (which should be noted can actually be lethal) from the physical violence of mass killing.  Some may see the two as one in the same, but I think this viewpoint stems from an attempt to use mass killing as a moral rather than an analytic categorization.  For example, the ebola outbreak in West Africa may claim more than a thousand lives because of poor sanitary conditions and a dearth of medical facilities.  This surely classifies as structural violence if we follow Galtung’s framework, but it shares few characteristics with the dynamics of mass violence against civilians.  I think including poverty or other instances of structural violence in categorizations of mass killing is unproductive because it obfuscates more than it clarifies.  Poverty kills for a variety of reasons and far more civilians die each year worldwide because of unorganized criminal violence than political violence, but neither qualify as a mass killing because it’s hard to locate a specific perpetrator or intentionality.  Neither is lacking in Qatar.

So is FIFA a mass killer?  I have to say I’m torn.  On the one hand the deaths are a result of a uniquely deliberate strategy led by a powerful institution to accomplish a specific goal, mirroring the dynamics, and particularly the instrumentality, of mass killing.  But on the other, it is inescapable that the dynamics of mass killing, as we imagine them, always involve an armed group.  In my thesis, I write that for a mass killing to qualify as such, not only must the death threshold be met, but that 20% of civilians must experience violent deaths.  It’s an inescapably arbitrary number, but just like the 1,000 death overall threshold, it is needed to distinguish mass killing as a distinct concept from related phenomena.  However, I think it’s possible to make a strong case for the existence of “corporate mass killing”, of which Qatar would be an example.  Parsing out the differences in the dynamics between this hypothetical category and existing ones is a very worthy topic for further investigation.

As I’ve already implied, I think calling FIFA a mass killer is probably technically incorrect.  First off, the death toll will probably fall short of the 1,000 a year mark, but more importantly, workers are not being killed in the context of violent conflict.  Morally though, I think there is a case to be made that what’s happening in Qatar is even more egregious than killing of civilians in war on the same scale.  There is no ideology that makes them migrant workers seemingly legitimate targets, no rampant fear that causes combatants to lash out.  The fog of war, and thus plausible deniability, doesn’t exist.  FIFA and the Qatari government have decided that the prestige of holding a World Cup and the potential for cheap labor outweighs the massive human consequences.  Shame on them.

Complexity and Proaction: A sincere hope for the (perhaps distant) future

27 Mar

What do civilians do to survive conflict?  This sounds like a fairly straightforward question, but it’s not.  Until very recently, scholars of violence and practitioners of  violence prevention saw civilians as entirely reactive parties that did little to shape the course of conflict.  While there have been some major steps in recent years in understanding what decisions civilians make to survive and their role in influencing the course of conflicts, the field is still taking its first steps (if you’re interested in further reading let me know).  The burgeoning consensus is that civilians are major players in shaping conflict, though academics and practitioners are only beginning to imagine the limits of civilian agency.  If there is indeed significant work to be done, what might the future of civilian self-protection look like?

To be blunt, we’re pretty clueless about civilian self-protection.  Few empirical accounts exist, and no work that I’ve come across directly ties empirical findings to broader theories of how civilians survive multiple types of conflict.  Because of this major theoretical gap, Casey Barrs, the most prolific author on the idea of civilian self-protection, argues for a limited survival-approach that ignores the rights-based programs that characterize many NGOs’ work.  For Barrs, whatever works, be it bribing combatants or fleeing at the first hint of conflict, should be encouraged and aided.  Civilians are more likely to understand this and therefore react to conflict better.  NGO’s should allow them to become ‘owners’ of their own survival.  In sum, we don’t know enough to prescribe strategies to civilians facing the prospect of mass atrocities.  Trying for anything more than bare survival is not only presumptuous on our part, but also dangerous.

Lamentably, Barrs is right for the moment.  If analysts do not really understand how civilians influence conflict, let alone how their actions during conflict determines both their lives and the condition of society post-conflict,  average civilians are unlikely to think about these issues.  Civilians are not expected to act with the broader conflict in mind, but there’s some potential that scholarship could permeate aid practices, which could perhaps diffuse a norm that sees civilian agency in conflict as extending beyond individual survival.

Could this imagined future become a reality?  It is possible that we’ll reach a point where we have a strong understanding of conflict dynamics, have strong norms of civilian protection, and have institutions in place able to react quickly and decisively to conflict that it will be possible to imagine a wider conception of civilian self-protection?  Could future civilian self-protection strategies be not only proactive but even emancipatory? And for me, perhaps the most exciting question is could civilian protection strategies be designed not only to save the civilians enacting them but to positively mitigate violence in the broader conflict system?

For now, these questions sound like overly ambitious and hard to even conceptualize.  For example, will civilians ever really feel secure enough to think beyond their immediate survival to their role in the broader conflict?  There are some reasons to be hopeful.  Complexity theory for one offers a medium through which we may be able to understand how conflict functions, and more specifically, civilians’ roles in it.  Complexity theory imagines conflict as a complex system in which agents interact with many other agents in multiple ways, which are ultimately too complex for humans to understand.  Randomness is inherent in the system.  So complexity theory helps explain why conflicts develop in surprising ways, often beyond the comprehension of analysts.  To read complexity theory as a accepting defeat in our attempt to understand conflict would be a mistake, however.  Rather, while creating a framework for dealing with complexity, it also accepts that some developments in conflict are indeed beyond our ability to predict or explain.  Some analysts are beginning to see conflict through a complexity-inspired lens.

Early warning technology is another reason to be optimistic.  While the idea of early warning has existed for a long time, practitioners and scholars are starting to imagine how these systems can serve local communities rather than analysts far removed from the conflict.  At the same time, many regional governmental organizations are in the process of implementing conflict early warning systems.  This marriage of theory and institutionalization could one day provide many civilians with the ability to learn of conflict before it physically confronts them, and develop more proactive strategies.

I would like to be hopeful that this is all possible, but there are also some harsh realities that can’t be ignored.  While I am very hopeful that complexity theory will offer a new and improved method for imagining the complexity of conflict, we can’t forget that complexity theory was designed to help us understand why we can’t understand certain systems.  Yes, complexity theory is probably a step up, but there’s a limit to our analytic ability.

Another problem is how civilians will actually understand their role in determining conflict, and in turn, be able to make constructive changes to their behavior.  It’s possible, but by no means for sure, that academic knowledge on how civilians act during conflict will imbue at-risk communities.  However, civilians would then have to not only accept that validity of this theory, but also be in a place in which they could enact it.  While it is simply difficult to imagine the confluence of developments in early warning technology, norms of civilian agency, and the dynamics of mass atrocities in the future, but it is also difficult to imagine with all these mitigating factors, civilians will act considerably differently in the future than they do now.  This speaks to broader questions to how civilians have reacted to conflict over the course of history, but to my knowledge, civilians dealt with the Peloponnesian War in a similar way as Syrians do today.  My vision puts significant stock in the power of globalized humanitarian discourse.

The last problem is that by the time techniques that expand upon current civilian protection practices are developed and implemented, it may be too late.  As Jay Ulfelder writes, it looks as if global patterns of unrest will cause a short-term spike in mass atrocities, even if broader trends point to a slow reduction in the amount of worldwide conflict.  If he’s right, then civilian protection infrastructure will likely appear only after the period in which it is most needed.

Predicting mass atrocities is hard enough, and so I realize that predicting civilian response in the distant future, which we in fact barely understand at the present, is pretty much impossible.  However, the prospect for an expanded view of civilian self-protection can at least function as something to strive for.  I do think there’s hope because just in the last few years we’ve seen changes in how NGO’s think about with self-protection.  Both Casey Barrs and L2GP have written about the need for NGO’s to help civilians protect livelihoods (thus shaping the post-conflict environment), and in the relatively small prevention practitioner community, their words will soon have an impact.  From where I stand, the future is exciting.

Irregular Conflict and Cartel Dynamics in The Wire

5 Mar

The Wire, praised as the best TV series of all time, has inspired its fair share of academic analysis.  Multiple universities have devoted entire classes to exploring themes such as poverty and drug policy through the medium of David Simon’s creation.  The journal darkmatter even published an entire issue devoted to analysis of The Wire.  Recently, Joseph Young rightly nominated The Wire as one of the three best TV series in its portrayal of political violence.  However, I have not come across any blog posts or articles that analyze the show’s depiction of the dynamics of violence.  The show is chalk-full of useful examples, but because a complete study of violence in the Wire would require an entire book, I’ll limit myself to four examples that speak to broader themes of irregular conflict and cartel dynamics.

The first example comes from Season 3.  Stringer Bell, the archetypal illicit businessman, realizes that competition for corners among various gangs is driving down drug quality and decreasing overall income.  He proposes a drug co-op, with the goal of providing access to the best quality drugs for multiple gangs.[1]  Income levels are then high enough that gangs no longer need to fight over corners, and disputes are encouraged to be aired before the groups, lest violence ruin the money-making enterprise.  Mexican drug cartels often  pursue a similar strategy.  Especially when it’s unclear who would win a violent encounter, it makes perfect business sense to work together.  The need to resolve disputes peacefully and internally occurs in other contexts.  For civilians living through insurgencies, if they are to escape large-scale violence, they must prevent internal disputes from leading to a divided community siding with different armed actors.  For Kaplan, dispute resolution leads to civilian protection.  For Stringer, it’s all about business.

The problem for Stringer is that the motives of others, and mostly importantly his boss Avon Barksdale, do not correspond simply to business.[2]  In a revealing exchange, Avon says to Stringer, “I ain’t no suit-man business-man like you.  You know I’m just a gangster, I suppose.  And I want my corners.”  Barksdale is less driven by a desire to simply make money than a personal code that dictates how the leader of a drug organization should act.  A co-op might make economic sense, but for Barksdale, it’s uncharted territory he doesn’t fully understand.  Cartels often face this dilemma.  While they are ostensibly business entities, they recruit individuals for their violent ability.  These individuals often choose to pursue violence for its own sake rather than using violence to achieve specific economic objectives.  Secondly, the co-op causes its own problem.  Stringer does his best to create a veneer of legitimacy through money laundering, real estate development, and political connections, but this forces him into conflict with a whole new set of characters.  When corrupt State Senator Clay Davis fails to come through for Stringer, Stringer orders Slim Charles to kill him.  Slim Charles and Avon Barksdale successfully object because of the chaos killing a senator would cause, leading to serious friction within the gang.  Bell describes himself as a businessman, but he fails to recognize the potential consequences of his actions when his ambitions are stymied.

One of the series’ most terrifying characters is Snoop, a young hitwoman for the Stanfield organization (which largely replaces the Barksdale organization as the dominant drug-dealing force at the end of the third season).  Her proclivity for violence is sometimes as asset for Stanfield’s crew, but it also occasionally gets her into trouble.[3]  Following the demise of the Barksdale organization, some drug dealers from New York move down the coast and take up residence in Baltimore.  Snoop, and her partner in crime Chris, are directed to violently eliminate the New York dealers, partly out of an economic logic and partly because of a “tribal” desire to keep outsiders from making money in Baltimore.  However, because Snoop and Chris do not personally know every street-level dealer they devise a strategy to tell Baltimore and New York corner boys apart.  Chris proposes they ask unknown dealers questions about Baltimore-specific music to figure out their origin.  They first time they try this tactic, the dealer in question answers Snoop’s query about a particular DJ, but doesn’t give the answer Chris had earlier stated.  Snoop quickly puts the gun to his head and is about to pull the trigger when Chris stops her.  The named DJ is another Baltimore DJ that Snoop herself had never heard of.

While Chris’ and Snoop’s tactic is certainly fraught with problems, it also demonstrates the identification problem perfectly, the central dilemma for insurgents and counterinsurgents.  Soldiers fighting irregular wars face a chronic lack of information, and are therefore usually unable to figure out with certainty who is collaborating with whom.  Combatants rarely even have the ability to tell if the denunciations they receive are truthful.  Kalyvas writes that the majority of collaborators during civil wars escape denunciation, while the majority of those punished for collaboration are innocent.  Even though Snoop and Chris are able to tell drug-dealers (combatants) and non-drug-dealers (noncombatants) apart, they are nonetheless unable to correctly evaluate intelligence (see footnoote three) or differentiate between allies and enemies.

In “Unconfirmed Reports”, the second episode of the fifth season, Snoop and the young hitman Michael have one of the most interesting exchanges in the series.  They are on a mission to kill June Bug, who has been spreading rumors about Marlo Stanfield being a homosexual.[4]  Michael, who has a gentle side, questions Snoop over why the killing is necessary if Marlo is not in fact gay.  Snoop replies that it’s not about whether Stanfield is actually gay, but whether people think he’s gay.  On one hand, Snoop grasps that need for reputational violence.  If Marlo Stanfield is perceived as weak, then rivals are more likely to cooperate to target him.  On the other hand, Snoop’s comment demonstrates the extremely violent and paranoid nature of the Stanfield organization.  Any backtalk or perceived disloyalty is lethally punished.  Stringer, for example, was more willing to tolerate small deviations from the Barksdale line if it didn’t result in a loss of revenue.  For the Stanfield organization, loyalty is a black and white issue, but ultimately this harms its business interests.  Some of its best dealers, like Bodie, are killed for (incorrectly) perceived collaboration with the police, while the co-op starts to fall apart because of Marlo’s inability to share power.

Eventually, the Stanfield organization falls apart as a direct consequence of its extremely violent nature.  Unlike Mexico’s Los Zetas, which have the ability to publicly demonstrate their brutality, the Stanfield organization is unable to successfully execute the same tactic.  Los Zetas’ tactical superiority over the Mexican armed forces and their extensive corruption network provide them protection not afforded to Marlo Stanfield.  Ultimately, brutal violence attracts the attention of law enforcement, and they don’t have the ability to fend off the police.

The last episode of the series centers around the demise of the Stanfield organization.  Marlo’s fall, however, opens up opportunities for personal promotion through violence.  We see Michael, now freed from his organizational shackles, violently rob another drug dealer, while Slim Charles murders Cheese Wagstaff as Baltimore’s drug dealers try to re-institute the co-op.  This is no accident.  Cartel fragmentation is a major cause of drug violence in Mexico, and the writers of The Wire get the dynamics of gang breakup spot-on.  Every viewer of the series was rooting for Detectives McNulty and Freamon in their seemingly impossible battle against the Stanfield organization, but ultimately, as the series unflinchingly shows, their efforts are entirely in vain.  Other dealers and organizations pop up to take their place, and significant violence occurs during the transition.  McNulty and Freamon, despite their heroic qualities, are agents of a counterproductive drug policy.  The irony of this is certainly not lost on David Simon.

The genius of the Wire is that it is able to compellingly demonstrate the corrosive organizational effects of violence and the many drivers of human behaviors.  No individual is completely free from cultural, normative, and institutional effects or is singularly good or evil.  The result is a cast of complex characters grappling with their often incredibly challenging circumstances.  Its portrayal of violence is an extension of its nuanced characters, and few TV shows or movies can plausibly claim to come close to its excellence.[5]  The dynamics of violence for the drug gangs is fascinating, but it would certainly take at least another 1700-word blog post to sufficiently examine the dynamics and politics of police action in the series.  For example, the portrayal of Colvin’s attempt to end the War on Drugs is brutally crushed by city politics which is unable to tolerate a sensible drug policy.[6]  Wish I had time to write that piece as well.


[1] It’s fascinating that the co-op always meets in a fancy hotel’s conference room.  Though Stringer Bell angrily tears up meeting minutes taken by a younger drug dealer, they never seem to have serious security concerns.  In fact, they are probably more secure meeting outside of the neighborhoods they deal in because rivals will be less comfortable attacking them there (think Omar robbing Marlo Stanfield at a back-room poker game) and police can less feasibly arrest them on dubious charges.

[2] Much later in the series, a new incarnation of the co-op is imperiled when Slim Charles murders Cheese Wagstaff.   Again, a co-op makes economic sense, but a desire for revenge supersedes greed.

[3] It also gets her killed.  She and Chris assume that it must be Michael snitching on them, even though in reality information was obtained through a semi-legal wiretap.  Perhaps it was a reasonable assumption with imperfect information, but it also fits into a general pattern in which Snoop shot first and asked questions later.

[4] The politics of gender here are also really interesting, because while calling Marlo gay is a slur, Snoop is a lesbian.

[5] Personally, I’m undecided on whether The Wire or Friday Night Lights is better.

[6] Ellis Carver says of the War on Drugs, “You can’t even call this shit a war.  Wars end.”

What Will the Future of Atrocity Prevention and Response Hold?

13 Feb

*I started writing my thesis last week.  Because that’s taking up a lot of time, I just wanted to post the lightly-edited last section of the first draft of my first chapter.  If you have any thoughts on what I could do better, please feel free to share them.

The next twenty years will be an exciting time for the concept of early warning.  I believe the same applies to atrocity prevention and mitigation.  The idea of early warning, and certainly quantitative early warning, is in its infancy.  There is a good chance that the next two decades will see the institutionalization of early warning systems (EWS) within IGO’s, regional organizations, and national governments.  On the prevention and mitigation front, R2P is less than a decade old.  Unlike any norm before it, it provides a moral, legal, and operational backing for the prevention and mitigation of mass atrocities, which in turn deters potential perpetrators.

There are plenty of other reasons to find hope in efforts to close the response gap.  First, EWS’s are improving.  They are becoming more accurate, they are reaching out to include previously untouched constituencies, and their proliferation across Africa demonstrates that they are now accepted as a necessary component for any effective anti-atrocity policy.  Another positive sign is an emergent vein of scholarship that looks at how to direct early warnings to civilians on the ground rather than policymakers operating in metaphorical ivory towers.  Along these lines, there are signs that the UN and regional organizations are improving their early warning capacities.

While evaluation of the effects of early warning is difficult and practically nonexistent, it does seem that the international community is getting better at it.  Kenya offers a good case study.  In 2008, post-election violence killed thousands of people.  Accordingly, prior to the 2013 elections, many analysts predicted a similar outcome.  Fortunately, the elections went off with very little violence.  Why?  Well, combining analysis before and after the elections provides a picture of a thorough and multifaceted prevention effort.  Writing in 2012, Babaud and Ndung’u argue that while there were serious flaws, Kenya is one of the few places where locally-led conflict prevention and early warning have happened.  They also note the importance of the emergence of crowd-sourced prevention initiatives like Ushahidi, which provide quickly-available and accurate information on conflict dynamics.  Unlike many early warning systems, Kenya’s had a clear and systematic flow of information, represented by this diagram:

Writing after the elections, Jay Ulfelder surveys a number of experts on Kenya and concludes that there were four main preventive efforts that had an effect: (1) a conscious effort by the Kenyan media to limit inflammatory reporting spurred by a combination of international pressure and memories of 2008, (2) a government SMS service that blocked hate speech, (3) investment in Kenyan infrastructure between 2008 and 2013, and (4) the restraining of major political actors through their links to Western money.  He notes that these findings may not be generalizable to all prevention efforts primarily because the violence in Kenya would have been election-related.  Regardless, it shows that not only can the international community work together to promote prevention, but that an array of fairly simple programs can have a real impact on the reduction of violence.

In 1999, then-UNSG Kofi Annan wrote, “Today no one disputes that prevention is better, and cheaper, than reacting to crises after the fact.  Yet out political and organizational cultures and practices remain oriented far more towards reaction than prevention.”  Seven years later, in a report to the UNGA, he wrote, “In its resolution 57/337, annex, paragraph 35, the General Assembly recognized the need to strengthen the capacity of the United Nations for early warning, collection of information and analysis. I regret to report that no significant progress has been made in this area. In fact, unlike some regional organizations, the United Nations still lacks the capability to analyse [sic] and integrate data from different parts of the system into comprehensive early warning reports and strategies on conflict prevention.”

Unfortunately, at the beginning of 2014, little more progress has been made.  Despite early warning’s long history within the UN, it is still barely an institutionalized concept.  If there are some reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for closing the response gap, there are just as many or more to be pessimistic.  As it stands, the existence of any system that combines an intelligence gathering mechanism, an early warning component, and results in capable prevention or mitigation strategies is a fiction and will be continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  The same institutional and psychological barriers that prevent successful atrocity early warning, prevention, and response will persevere.  Ominously, a recent spike in both state collapses and global social unrest has likely contributed to a recent increase in mass killings, and this trend does not show an obvious sign of abating.

One estimate is that less than ten percent of civilians that survive natural disasters do so because of outside aid.  This figure is likely even higher for civilian victims of violent conflict and mass atrocities considering the more advanced nature of disaster EWS’s and the relative lack of political complications caused by disaster aid.  Even if there is major progress in closing the atrocity response gap in the next twenty years, the vast majority of civilians will have to survive on their own.  Therefore, when we talk about outside prevention and intervention, we must remember that the efforts of the international community are ultimately peripheral to the conflict experiences of most individuals.  Intervention is not, and will never be, a sustainable solution for preventing and mitigating mass atrocities around the world.  Survival is almost always the burden of the persecuted.

The Problem with Following Mass Atrocities: Motivations and their implications

21 Jan

I’m probably biased, but when I think about the worst suffering humans can endure, it’s hard to think any farther than mass atrocities.  Not only does it connote terrible hardship on the part of the victims, it also demonstrates a capacity for human brutality we really wish did not exist.  This extreme quality of mass atrocities makes the act of learning about the topic a potentially emotionally traumatic experience.  However many people, myself included, do choose to think about mass atrocities regularly.  The vast majority of individuals in the atrocity prevention community are neither devoid of emotion or driven solely by moral revulsion.  What motivations remain are too rarely discussed.  It is true that some carry uncomfortable connotations, but because I firmly believe the study of mass atrocities and other terrible phenomena are worthwhile endeavors, laying the driving motivations out for participating in the atrocity prevention community can help us better critically evaluate the way in which we conduct our advocacy and analysis.

I, like many others, initially became involved in mass atrocity issues because of outrage that blossomed as part of my adolescent maturation.  I had heard stories of my family’s suffering at the hands of the Nazis since I was about five, but when I became aware that seemingly similar instances of oppression and violence occurred around the world, I felt like I should be doing something about it.  Outrage can be a powerful tool, but as @Robtheidealist notes, the discourse of outrage can also fall short:

“In this context of shareability and hair-trigger publishing, outrage is one of the most reliable ways to draw attention to a story. In social justice circles, like many other places on the web, the outrage machine often operates at a fever pitch…Though cultural representation certainly matters, I can’t escape the feeling that we’re simply posturing, moving from outrage to outrage without ever building any committed practices to intervene and dismantle the systems that we claim to oppose…Outrage isn’t bad. Outrage is a weapon. When I went to Occupy Wall Street in September 2011, I was plenty outraged. For years, social justice organizers mobilized our outrage and channeled it into political movements. Yet, it seems that many social justice circles have traded mass movements for massive traffic.  Media outlets are manipulating our good intentions in order to boost their web traffic, and the aimless outrage has many social justice circles spinning their wheels and going nowhere. We can’t build transformative change that way.”

While there’s certainly an argument to be made that outrage is more powerful than he suggests, in my mind, the author is unequivocally right that outrage is not enough alone to create long-term, large-scale structural change for near-intractable problems.

Outrage is the default discourse of human rights advocacy, and accordingly, when we realize outrage’s limitations and move beyond moral impulses, we get into murky territory.  Not too long ago, I was at a conference with a friend who was similarly interested in mass atrocities.  We were in between sessions, so he flipped through his phone reading the news before commenting, “Man, it’s a slow news day.  I just want a coup, [or] something!”  Of course he wasn’t really wishing for a coup because he understood its destructive impact, but ‘wanting a coup’ is a good example of how interest in a subject is synonymous with obtaining some pleasure.  For mass atrocities, instances of political instability and/or violence are the data points that those interested in mass atrocities derive enjoyment from.  There is a certain perversity here, but it is neither possible to eliminate or uncommon in other circumstances.

First off, pure outrage does not produce measured analysis.  Value judgments do not have to be completely suspended, but stressing the moral failings of mass atrocities and ignoring their dynamics does not tell us much.  Second, when attempting to understand mass atrocities, it is not possible to comprehend each individual tragedy that comprises the whole.  Humans have inherent limited to capacity to understand what a hundred deaths each mean, let alone hundreds of thousands.  Attempting to do so impedes analysis.  Third, thinking of mass atrocities as a “horrific” topic that deserves our moral attention rather than our intellectual interest more than others places mass atrocities out of context when it comes to human suffering.  Doctors, for example, are not criticized for the their cold analysis of what causes disease.  We accept that even if their works leave out the structural facilitators of disease, many of which are worthy of condemnation, there is value in understanding the way in which diseases function.  

Enjoyment, or even humor, is not unique to mass atrocities. Like intellectual interest, humor provides an opportunity for engagement with the topic while dealing with the emotional consequences.  To illustrate, I’ll use the experience of another friend who worked briefly in a coroner’s office.  As a college student, he was disturbed by the callousness of some of the medical examiners towards the individuals they autopsied.  However, they explained to him that it can be difficult to see so many corpses with tragic stories, and humor becomes a coping mechanism.  While the personal trauma I endure from studying mass atrocities at a distance is significantly less than coroners, the theme remains the same.  Difficult topics require an amount of distancing, which humor can provide.  Though troublesome and often over-the-top, “gallows humor” does serve a purpose.

When I came up with the idea for this blog post, I mentioned it to my mom.  She is a public interest lawyer and deals with elderly clients, nursing homes, and elder abuse cases.  While she understood my own method of engagement with mass atrocities, what keeps her going is her personal relationships with her clients.  She said that while she enjoys the policy side of the issue, it’s not enough.  My mom is totally right that personal relationships are the second way to make interest in a traumatic topic sustainable.  Relationships allow for that initial outrage to be focused and personalized.  And for my mom’s type of work, personal relationships make a lot more sense.  The issue is physically close to home and real, immediate change can be made on individual cases.  For mass atrocities, the events tend to be physically distant, access to individual victims is limited, and immediate change is frustratingly rare.  Though my engagement in atrocity prevention via personal relationships is limited, my interest in the field, like many others, did initially blossom because of a personal influence.  Stories of my grandfather’s experience as a Holocaust survivor prompted me to become interested in human rights, even if this history alone was not enough to keep me involved.

Neither approach, enjoyment derived through interest or personal relationships, is perfect.  A purely analytic approach can veer away from thinking about the experiences of real people and become overly callous, while only engaging through personal relationships or personal accounts can obscure the deep, structural causes of mass atrocities and other horrors.  In essence, the best approach probably tries to see both the trees and the forest.  The balance can differ depending on the issue, but both are important and can contribute something.  Finally, understanding that the struggles of outside observers on tough issues are real, even if they don’t come close to the trauma of victims, is important to facilitate future work on the issues.

What Worked for MAS That Didn’t Work for the SPLM?: Party structure and its effect on conflict

6 Jan

In their Foreign Affairs essay, Alex de Waal and Abdul Mohammed outline the reasons for South Sudan’s collapse into bloodshed.  As one of the primary reasons, they note the SPLM never functioned as a real political party.  At first it was an army, and post-independence, it was merely an imaginary organization of assorted political figures.   Reading this, my mind wandered back to the research I did in Bolivia on the political structure of MAS, the country’s governing party.  Like the SPLM, MAS never had aa institutionalized structure.  MAS was founded in the 90′s during a crisis of confidence in Bolivia’s electoral democracy.  The indigenous founders of MAS were wary of traditional politics; not only were they failing Bolivia then, but they had always failed the indigenous  majority.  However, indigenous leaders felt they needed to contend for power in the political arena, and MAS was founded as the coalition’s “political instrument”.  The idea of what a “political instrument” constituted was always vague, but its lack of structure effectively allowed current President Evo Morales to gradually concentrate power around himself and a few allies.

In South Sudan, the partial result of a lack of party structure has been civil war, but in Bolivia, its been largely responsible for creating one of Bolivia’s strongest ever governments.  Why?  I think there are three central advantages that Bolivia has had over South Sudan that explain this divergence: a lack of a history of violent conflict, a more favorable dispersion of political power, and government capacity to provide services.

South Sudan has been one of the world’s most consistently war-ravaged places for the past fifty years.   Not only has the South suffered from catastrophic conflict with the north, but much of the fighting during Sudan’s civil wars occurred between southern groups.  This, along with John Garang’s refusal to develop a permanent, professional SPLA, partially caused South Sudan to become a fractured, militia-ized country.  In South Sudan, there are also just more guns in the hands of more people than there are in Bolivia, meaning it is much easier to escalate a political disagreement to a violent conflict.  Unlike South Sudan, Bolivia has only a minor history of violence between indigenous peoples (who form MAS’ social base) and the white urban elite, and essentially no history of intra-indigenous violent conflict.

Probably the most crucial element in explaining Bolivia and South Sudan’s varying fates is the distribution of political power in each country.  Despite an indigenous majority, Bolivia’s white right had long been a potent political force in the country.  That is, until 2009.  That year, the right spectacularly imploded following a failed secession attempt in the wealthy and conservative Santa Cruz department.  This allowed Evo Morales to dispose of allies he had little in common with but were needed to maintain a majority over right-wing parties.  MAS was always quite centralized, it has never been more so than it is today.  It’s unlikely Evo could have been so successful in eating up power within MAS had it had formal institutions that checked his power.  And though Evo has marginalized large parts of his original coalition, he does have a trump card.  Any opposition indigenous bloc would be unable to seize power itself and would present an opportunity for the right to reemerge.  The right failed indigenous Bolivians so badly for so long that Evo has become the only game in town.  Though Evo’s hegemony is not necessarily positive for every indigenous group, it has created a stable political system.

Unlike in Bolivia, there is no single faction strong enough to unilaterally control the government.  The north has also faded as an adversary to unite against.  Perversely, oil revenue accounts for most of the country’s economy and is controlled entirely by the state.  When combined, the lack of a hegemonic power and the oil revenues form a strong incentive to seize the state.

The final advantage I think Bolivia has had over South Sudan is its capacity to deliver resources to its population and subsequently form a national identity.  Though MAS has not been as successful in transforming the lives of Bolivians as it claims to be, it has done a fairly good job.  Its economic policies have also stoked an economy that avoided the 2009 financial crisis and saw large growth rates.  Therefore, it has been able to deliver real benefits to large, previously neglected swaths of the country.  These successes have helped legitimate its use of indigenous-ness as a unifying national identity.  South Sudan hasn’t been so lucky.  South Sudan’s economy stops and starts as relations with the north vacillate, while Kiir has had to use more than half the national budget to pay off militias.  Even with billions in international assistance, Juba’s ability to actually provide services to its population (like paved roads) has been quite limited.  It’s easy to see then why ethnic patronage networks have proved more powerful in obtaining allegiance than the national government.

In both cases, the lack of a fixed party structure has allowed an opportunity to seize power.  In Bolivia, Evo took that chance and created a sort of hegemonic stability.  In South Sudan, however, the lack of political institutionalization provided numerous incentives for conflict and Machar capitalized.

I’m Not That Great a Forecaster: Looking back on my past predictions and learning how to improve

2 Jan

In early January of 2013, I wrote two posts that outlined six conflicts to watch for civilian protection advocates in the coming year.  Without any concrete methodology, I picked out Sudan, Afghanistan, Mali, Kenya, Syria (specifically violence in a post-Assad Syria), and Central Asia.  Arguably, I was wrong in five of the six cases if the criteria is that the violence had to get significantly worse from 2012 to 2013 in the manner that I predicted  (it gets even worse when you think about all 2013 conflicts I omitted; Nigeria, Egypt, CAR, and Iraq all experienced episodes of mass killing that have intensified since 2012).  I’ll briefly outline how I did country by country, address what I did wrong, and because it’s that time of year again, propose predictions for 2014.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, feel free to skip to the bulleted predictions.

Sudan had a turbulent year, but it’s nothing really out of the ordinary for the troubled country.  #SudanRevolts returned in September and October and prompted a fairly superficial cabinet reshuffle, but not much else.  Violence continued to rage in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile.  Although violence increased in Darfur and perhaps South Kordofan, it was not a radical departure for 2012.  In my last sentence of my Sudan section, I briefly mentioned South Sudan.  While the violence in Jonglei between the Lou Nuer and Murle ebbed slightly in 2013, any progress made in the country was obliterated by the crisis that began on December 15th and has enveloped the country.  It’s unclear how many people have died, but it probably constitutes a mass killing. Mali has certainly experienced some violence in 2013, but there is no way that it was worse than 2012.  The French-African intervention was fairly successful at expelling the jihadist-Tuareg alliance from Northern Mali.  Fairly successful elections went ahead and the leader of the initial coup, Amadou Haya Sanogo, has been arrested and will be put on trial.

Afghanistan is probably the only case I got right.  Civilian casualties increased in the first half (and possibly the second) of 2013, marking a reversal in 2012′s trend.  For every success there’s a failure, and Kenya is that failure.  The March elections went off smoothly, and so I was really wrong.  I was right to predict that 2013 would be worse than 2012 for Syrians, but it didn’t happen in the way I thought.  At the time, it seemed very likely Assad would fall, initiating a mass killing of Alawites in and around Latakia.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, massive violence continued against civilian populations throughout Syria mostly with the exception of Latakia.  Finally, like Kenya, I really got Central Asia wrong.  There was not significant violence in any Central Asian country (excluding Afghanistan) this calendar year.  Regime change could have potentially caused conflict, but those pesky autocratic regimes just won’t go away.

So how can I improve?  First, it would have helped if I had had a concrete measurement for what constituted conflict.  Second, it would have made sense to have had a constant metric for assessing why I thought conflict would occur in certain places.  Figuring out what my predicted conflict zones had in common and why they were different from other potential conflict zones would have improved my methodology, even if creating a model from a hunch isn’t the best social science (if someone wants to pay me to blog I promise my methodology will be more robust).  My analysis also would have improved if I had laid out specifically what changes I was looking for and how they fit into a larger historical narrative.  For example, while there was both a history of and a potential for political instability in Central Asia, my only data points were the 2005 massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan and the 2010 violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

So moving into my predictions for 2014, rather than creating a complete methodology of my own, I’m going to borrow two of Jay Ulfelder’s crowd-sourced forecasting projects as points of reference.  The first is the Center for Genocide Prevention’s online opinion pool (password needed).  The opinion pool aggregates the opinions of currently fifty individuals interested in atrocity prevention to create averaged probabilities about the likelihood of a particular event.  The questions are generally phrased like this, “Before X date, will an episode of state-led mass killing occur in Y country.”  The second is a wiki survey also originating from the Center for Genocide Prevention.  The results demonstrate how much more likely any particular country is to experience an episode of state-led mass killing than other countries during 2014.

In order and with percentages, these are the countries that I think are most likely to experience a mass killing (defined as more than 1,000 civilian deaths) in 2014:

  • Syria (95%)
  • South Sudan (85%)
  • Iraq (85%)
  • CAR (75%)
  • Sudan (60%)
  • Afghanistan (50%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Mexico (35%)
  • Nigeria (30%)
  • Burma (20%)
  • DRC (20%)
  • Egypt (10%)
  • Mali (5%)
  • Venezuela (5%)

My predictions are largely based on the crowd-sourced forecasts from Jay’s two projects, aren’t identical.  I’ll explain why, country by country, below.

Obviously, the chances that a mass killing will happen in Syria are very, very high (the wiki survey is definitely wrong in placing Syria 6th).  However, the opinion pool’s average probability that there will be a mass killing of Alawite civilians in Latakia province stands at 43%.  I think this is too high, and the real probability stands nearer 15%.  For a mass killing of Alawites to happen, the Assad regime would have to collapse or severely weaken.  Demonstrated by my false prediction of his doom in early 2013, Assad has proven surprisingly durable.  Civil wars tend to last a long time, so especially with the increasing fragmentation of the opposition, it’s doubtful Assad will be defeated anytime soon.

South Sudan, Iraq, and CAR all have ongoing conflict that will almost certainly include a case of mass killing, committed either by government or rebel forces, in 2014.  Iraq and CAR definitely experienced a mass killing episode in 2013, and South Sudan probably did, but the concrete numbers to confirm it don’t exist.  I pegged the chances of a future mass killing as slightly lower in CAR only because of the combination of the peacekeeping force and the higher potential for resolution than in South Sudan.

Jay Ulfelder, in his review of mass killing in 2013, wrote of Sudan, “…where the uncertainty is not whether the regime is engaging in mass killing but in how many parts of the country at once and targeting how many different groups.”  He’s right, and unfortunately civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile will likely continue to suffer in 2014.  In the opinion pool, a question asks the probability that Sudan will carry out a mass killing of anti-government activists will occur in 2015, and places the average at 31%.  I think this is far, far too high.  Despite significant anti-government protests, the body count has always remained low.  The Sudanese regime is intelligent in this respect, instead opting for mass arrests of protest leaders.  The scarcity of bloody street confrontations decreases the potential of igniting the paradox of repression.  It is also telling that the bloodiest anti-government protest this year happened in Nyala, South Darfur.  Khartoum is happy to take the fight to enemies in the periphery, but remains wary of the threat from the center.  If the government were to significantly weaken, there’s an increased chance it would unleash lethal violence against anti-government activists.  However, despite increasing organization from the political opposition and calls that the regime was about to fall, the NCP remains in power.

Afghanistan probably experienced a mass killing with the Tailban as the perpetrators in 2013, and there aren’t a lot of positive signs for the future.  In North Korea, it’s basically impossible to tell how many people are dying each year in giant concentration camps.  50% is simply a wild guess.

Drug violence in Mexico is out of control, but I’m hesitant to peg a high probability of a mass killing because it’s unclear what share of civilians vs. cartel members are killed in drug violence (in a tweet, Jay confirmed that cartel members count as combatants).  Bottom line: a lot of people will die in Mexico in 2014, but it may or may not constitute a mass killing.

Nigeria experienced a classic case of a counterinsurgent mass atrocity last year, and despite some international attention on the issue, there is still a decent chance it happens again.  Nigeria is 14th on the wiki survey for the chances of state-led killing (too low in my opinion) for 2014 but doesn’t appear as a question in the opinion pool.

Burma is a country that is very much in the news for people interested in atrocity prevention, but I’m more optimistic than other analysts about the prospects for 2014.  Burma’s counterinsurgencies against ethnic-minority armies are long-running, but have recently had quite low body counts.  I see no reason for that trend to stop.  The opinion pool predicts there is a 35% chance of a mass killing of Rohingya in 2014.  No single rioting incident has yet escalated to widespread killing (the Meiktila incident killed dozens, not hundreds).  Despite the massive persecution the Rohingya face, the levels of lethal violence have remained relatively low.  Without an obvious trigger, I think more slow-motion ethnic cleaning is far more likely than a full-blown mass killing in 2014.

DRC placed fourth in the wiki survey.  Perhaps this is a bit excessive, but not completely unwarranted.  The combination of a country in transition from autocracy to democracy, the prevalence of armed groups in the Kivus, and intrusive neighbors means the risk of a mass killing in the DRC remains relatively high.

Egypt also suffers from an unfortunate history.  Last year, the government undertook a mass killing in response to pro-Morsi demonstrations.  A similar scenario could repeat itself, violence in the Sinai could rapidly increase, or even less likely, a civil war that involves mass killing could erupt.  All of this is plausible, if not incredibly likely (Egypt is 15th in the wiki survey).

The situation is not absolutely analogous to the DRC’s, but Mali also suffers from a somewhat unstable post-major conflict environment.  The opinion pool average for a state-led mass killing rests at 13%.  I think this is too high (probably suffering from the bias that comes from forecasting rare events) because of the progress Mali has made since 2012, but not terribly so.  In the wiki survey, Mali is 3rd, which strikes me as overly pessimistic.

Finally, Venezuela is a bit of a stretch, but I decided to include it anyways.  Few atrocity prevention advocates are paying attention despite the high political instability and absolutist rhetoric coming out of the Maduro administration.  Though Venezuela appears 82nd on the wiki survey and isn’t in a region of the world that has been prone to mass killing recently, I think a political crisis resulting in a government mass killing is plausible if still very unlikely.

Correction: Jay Ulfelder wrote this in a comment, “One point of clarification about Syria and some of the other cases you discuss: in both the statistical modeling and the wiki survey, we’re looking at the risk that a *new episode* of mass killing will start, not the risk that the one(s) we’re seeing now will continue. So Syria could hypothetically get a very low predicted probability or rank if the models or crowd deemed it unlikely that the state would begin deliberately killing large numbers of civilians from a discrete group it isn’t already targeting now. Hence the question in the Syrian case about Alawites but not one about the groups the regime is killing in large numbers now.”  I didn’t realize that when I wrote the post.


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