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Research Ethics and Scenes of Justice

November 9, 2012

A version of this post originally appeared at the Africa Portal.

Toward the end of my Africa Initiative field research in Kenya, I visited a woman (I’ll call her Eunice) at her home in Kibera, a large informal community in Nairobi. I had met her a week earlier when she was a participant in a focus group that brought together victims of post-election violence to discuss their views on justice, assistance and the work of the International Criminal Court.

During the focus group, I was struck by Eunice’s straightforward answers and openness in discussing the day post-election rioters burned down her home. I couldn’t help but notice the mottled pink and white scar tissue on her hands and face, the only parts of her body not covered by clothes or a headscarf. Many Kenyans continue to suffer from post-election violence, but few have it written as plainly on their bodies.

My subsequent encounters with Eunice following the focus group highlight some of the ethical questions that confront those who research social justice issues. While ethics boards at academic institutions address some of these concerns — in particular the promotion of informed consent, and the avoidance of harm and conflicts of interest — these bodies do not determine all of the principles that orient researchers’ relationships with the people, organizations, or communities they study.

Ethical principles can inform many stages of research, from choice of topic to study design. But there is another set of issues: are ethical obligations limited to what you do as a researcher? Or, if you encounter people with problems that need to be addressed, and if you have the knowledge or authority or resources to help, should you do so? This question confronts anyone who witnesses suffering or injustice but whose job does not entail the direct delivery of assistance, from journalists to development experts to social science researchers. In my experience, people doing these jobs in countries with poor social safety nets often give aid to individuals they have encountered, from paying for someone’s medical treatment to funding a child’s school fees

Questions about ethical obligations beyond one’s research are more likely to come up when one encounters people suffering from illness, deprivation, or injustice. For that reason, it is not just what one studies, but also how that research is conducted. Methodology affects how a researcher understands and empathizes with the subjects of their study. It can also make one more aware of the need or opportunity for intercession.

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Another Page Turns in Burma

September 27, 2012

Thomas Fuller, the New York Times reporter who writes most of the paper’s stories on Burma, recently wrote an article about the end of  the government bureaucracy responsible for censoring media in the country. He also wrote a charming blog, A Reporter Meets His Censor, about his encounter with the unlikely and likable young woman tasked with censoring his own work. It’s yet another wonderful development in what seems to be s steady stream of positive steps in Burma. Political prisoners are being released. Government ministries are being reformed. The country’s president even praised Aung San Suu Kyi in his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly. With every such announcement I’m delighted, and a little baffled. It just isn’t the country I remember.

Back in 1999 I traveled to Burma for my first real experience of foreign correspondence and investigative journalism. I went there to explore a possible uprising against the military government, a set of country-wide demonstrations that might begin on Sept 9, 1999 (9-9-99) to mirror the massive anti-government uprising on August 8, 1988 (8-8-88). During my time in the country I spoke to people who were afraid to say Aung San Suu Kyi’s name in a restaurant or on the street, out of concern that a military intelligence officer might overhear and throw them in jail. I met with former political prisoners, who amazed me not only by the hardships they faced but their acceptance of the fact that they would likely end up in jail again in the future. These pro-democracy activists, writers, and monks would not abandon their support for human dignity, and that put them on a collision course with the government. Sooner or later they would choose principle over silence and be jailed for it.

No one I met in Burma made more of an impression on me than Ludu Daw Amar, one of the country’s best-known writers. We met in the building that doubled as both her home and publishing house, in the city of Mandalay. She sat behind a big wooden desk in a small room, cramped by piles of literary magazines. She, her youngest son, and her husband had all spent time in jail for their words and beliefs. She told me about writing under the regime of censorship that had existed for years. I remember one of her comments very distinctly:

When I write, I begin with a circle. But I know the censor won’t let it be published. So I turn it into a square. When the censor gets it he will still make changes, and he turns it into a triangle. The trick is to write in such a way that the reader will see that triangle and know the circle that I originally intended.

Interestingly, Daw Amar thought that the Burmese were therefore extraordinarily sensitive readers, alert to the allusions and indirect references that writers used to talk about issues that the government deemed controversial.

Another memory from that night. The window in her office had bars across it, and a wisp of curtain. At one point she gestured to the street corner outside. Several men loitered there. Those are government agents, she told me. They keep watch, and follow whatever we do.

The day after my meeting with Daw Amar I returned to my hotel in the afternoon and found that some of my notes, which I had hidden behind a pipe outside the window, were gone. Nothing else from the room  had been stolen. While it was never confirmed, I assume that I had been trailed from her publishing house, and that intelligence searched my room the following morning while I was away. I can’t imagine the fortitude it would take to live in such a regime, continually at risk, knowing that any day you could be jailed at the whim of  thugs or censors, and continue to write and publish for decade after decade.

Daw Amar was 84 when I met her. She lived to 93. I wish she had lived just a few years more, to learn that the censor bureau had closed, and that she could stop with squares and write circles again.

When the ICC Comes to Lukodi

August 4, 2012

Written July 12, first published at Africa Portal on Aug 1, 2012.

LUKODI, UGANDA — An important visitor is coming to Lukodi, a village in the north of Uganda. To prepare, a man with a limp and a withered hand sweeps the fallen leaves and red dust off the ground under several mango trees. He arranges five white plastic chairs and two wooden benches. Shortly after noon an elderly gentleman arrives pushing a bicycle with no pedals. He and I chat while other community members begin to arrive. I ask the man what he wants to hear from the coming visitor, an outreach officer for the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“I want him to say that he will arrest Kony and bring him to book,” says the man, speaking in Luo to my translator and me. “And he should tell us how to address the problems that victims continue to face.”

The visit from the ICC representative allows me to observe how the Court portrays itself to a conflict-affected community. The following day I will ask my focus groups what they think of the presentation.

I suspect that the ICC representative has chosen Lukodi for the same reason I have — it is a community known for the massacre it suffered in May 2004. The elderly man tells me of the day Lukodi was attacked by a detachment of Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army (LRA). He ran into the bush and escaped as the rebels abducted, burned and killed fellow residents. That night his wife searched for their daughter-in-law, who had a newborn child. The daughter-in-law was abducted by rebels, while the baby was left behind and trampled, and later died. Read more…

‘International’ justice and the distance between The Hague and Africa

July 13, 2012

First published at Africa Portal, July 1, 2012.


I am now in The Hague, a well-ordered and pleasant city near the coast of the North Sea. For over a century, the Dutch seat of government has also been a laboratory where diplomats and lawyers and activists have worked on the rules and institutions of international justice. A bike ride around the city takes you from the neo-gothic stone Peace Palace that hosts the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration, to the drab insurance company office that became the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and to the gleaming white towers of the International Criminal Court. I first came to The Hague seven years ago as a freelance journalist, to report on the trial of alleged perpetrators of genocidal acts in Srebrenica. My research on international criminal justice has taken me back several times since then, from reporting and research in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Uganda, and elsewhere. On each visit I am struck by the incredible gulf between this calm, orderly city, and the testimonies of chaos and terror and grief that fill the courtrooms of its international tribunals.

On the one hand, the remoteness of the International Criminal Court (the focus of my current research) from the violence it investigates is a virtue. The ICC was created to provide some justice for exceptional crimes – genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – when state governments are unable or unwilling to do so. A basic premise of the Court is that in certain circumstances, some forms of justice must come from outside a state. To make this ‘foreign’ justice legitimate, the ICC must operate according to impartial rules or accepted legal principles, and must follow the commitments made by those 121 states that have ratified the treaty that created the Court.

However, The Hague and its justice can also be too remote from victims and affected communities. To address that fear, the ICC was created with several victim-focused programs that didn’t exist for previous international tribunals, such as the post-WW2 Nuremberg tribunal or the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The ICC seeks to bring information about the Court to affected communities through outreach programs, it seeks to bring victims’ concerns and voices into the Court as legal participants, and it aims to bring some direct aid to victims through assistance and reparations. My project with Africa Initiative seeks to evaluate these programs, drawing on voices within the Court and voices from violence-affected communities in Uganda and Kenya.

My research is therefore an act of translation as well as one of evaluation. Without doubt the language of justice in The Hague – spoken in English and French, rooted in legal traditions familiar to me, conducted in office buildings and embassies and Dutch cafés – is an easier one for me to understand. The real challenge for me in the next two months will be to hear perspectives on violence, justice, and peacebuilding that come from extremely different experiences and social contexts. And it’s helpful to remember that the justice that the ICC attempts to bring to distant communities is not just ‘international’ but also very ‘local’ – headquartered in a particular city on the Dutch seaside.

On democracy and international criminal tribunals

May 10, 2012

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been editing the article series Peace vs. Justice: the International Criminal Court and Its Alternatives, along with my Trudeau Foundation colleagues Simon Collard-Wexler, Scott Naysmith, and Rosalind Raddatz. I quite like how it’s turned out. The first week is heavy on the ICC, and the second week focuses on ‘alternatives,’ from the hybrid tribunal in Sierra Leone to the community-based struggles for justice in Northern Uganda. I could go on about the series, but why not just take a look at it yourself, starting with this introductory post?

In the last couple weeks I’ve also read two interesting and very different takes on the relationship between democracy and international criminal tribunals–an issue that is central to my doctoral dissertation. Last year, Lara Nettelfield published Courting Democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Hague Tribunal’s Impact in a Postwar State (Cambridge UP). Lara, who I met while she was at Simon Fraser University’s School for International Studies, puts forward a nuanced case that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia advanced democratic developments in Bosnia. She bases this claim on an impressive battery of research methods, from opinion surveys among soldiers in the Bosnian army to extended participant observation with civil society groups–including a bus trip with the Mothers of the Enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa to demonstrate in The Hague.

Read more…

What’s not to like about Kony 2012?

March 13, 2012

The Kony 2012 campaign launched last week, brought worldwide attention to a 28-minute video starring Jason Russell, the director of a non-governmental organization called Invisible Children. The premise of the video is to make Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army, as famous as celebrities like George Clooney and Justin Bieber. There are countless great responses to this video, from Mark Kersten of Justice in Conflict, Erin Baines of UBC to Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University. All are very critical.

Much of the criticism is about the substance of claims about what has happened in Uganda and what needs to be done. Invisible Children (IC) downplayed the agency of Africans, up-sold American military intervention, ignored the role of the Ugandan government in violence and instability, and so on.

Reflecting on the issue, I think many would recognize that the Kony 2012 phenomenon raises warning bells for our democratic intuitions. This happens to be central to my dissertation, so I’m going to take a few minutes to think this through.

Let’s say that democracy means that people should govern themselves, by acting together as equals or — more common in our bureaucratized world — by contributing to debate in various public spheres (polling, stakeholder consultations, contributing to mass media, etc.) and by holding officials to account through elections and court challenges.

For these processes to work, we need decision-makers to be responsive and accountable to those people who are affected by their decisions. We therefore need to see appropriate relations of representation between affected persons, those demanding action, and those who take action.

Now let’s look at Kony 2012. What do we see?

As many have commented, the directly affected group — people in Northern Uganda and in other areas terrorized by the Lords Resistance Army — are in short supply in the video. We get very short phrases from two Ugandan politicians, and we get the story and a few quotes Jason Rusesll’s friend Jacob. Jacob’s story is heartbreaking — his brother was killed, and he was himself left impoverished and hopeless by LRA attacks. But we don’t have any sense what Jacob thinks about the situation is now, or what he thinks the solution should be. He is used to leverage credibility and emotion — which are important — but not to contribute to the discussion.

So, we have a situation where people are speaking for Northern Ugandans. Who are these representatives? Hundreds of cheering North Americans — few of whom I suspect know much about conflict in Uganda, the LRA, or peace building in Acholi culture. Senator Inhofe, possibly the most contemptible living American politician (he continues to argue that climate change is a hoax, because Genesis states otherwise). Gavin Kelly, the filmmakers’ toddler. And Jason Russell himself.

Obviously, Russell is doing the real work as the ‘representative’ here. He runs the organization that works in Northern Uganda. He has a long-term involvement in the region. And he is directly presenting what he takes to be the interests and perspectives of Northern Ugandans to decision-makers. However, the video gives us as many reasons to distrust as to trust Russell’s representative claim (which happens to be the title of a great book on this stuff by democratic theorist Michael Saward). He doesn’t give an accurate account of the status of the LRA today, nor does he mention the contribution of the Ugandan military to long-standing violence. He doesn’t mention any of the important local and national processes toward reconciliation and justice. And the style of his representative claim is incredibly self-centred, seemingly designed for hero worship.

Oh, one more important representative in the Kony 2012 advertisement is the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. The prosecutor will get in front of almost any camera to do PR work for the ICC and the Office of the Prosecutor. I don’t blame him for doing so, as the Court’s legitimacy and effectiveness depends on buy-in. And the Court actually has more robust processes of consultation with Northern Ugandans than some might suspect. That said, Moreno-Ocampo’s claim for what is best for the Northern Ugandans should have been balanced by other positions. That a prosecutor tells us that prosecutions are the solution may bring to mind an interview with a hammer telling us that the world is made of nails.

We therefore have reason to be skeptical of the representatives of Northern Ugandans in Kony 2012. As a result, and as I said in a discussion with a friend this week, we cannot say that Northern Ugandans are being given a voice in the video. The profile of (one of) their predicaments is being raised by people speaking about them.

But there’s another key democratic problem to the Kony 2012 phenomenon — who are the decision-makers? Not only are Russell and Moreno-Ocampo portrayed as the principle representatives of Northern Ugandans, they are asking the United States government to make the final decisions on the matter. Where is the call for appropriate action from the Ugandan government? More importantly, where is the request for assistance to the community leaders in Northern Uganda who have done incredible work in the past, and who need support and resources to continue to do so?

In sum, here is the situation from a democratic lens: a self-appointed representative of Northern Ugandans, whose credibility as a representative is undermined by the substance and style of his presentations, is asking fellow Americans to amplify his call for the  United States government to take action. Local voices, local leaders, and local processes are ignored or excluded.

Now, this might not be a big problem if Kony 2012 was one representation among many in the global public sphere. The problem is that it receives orders of magnitude more attention than other claims.

But that is also the main virtue of the Kony 2012 phenomenon. It has created the space for other representatives and other claims to be made. Again, I would highly recommend reading Erin Baines article for an example of how affected persons voices are actually being consulted, heard, and responded to. That is the payoff.

Data, conflict, disaster…and democracy?

March 5, 2012

This weekend I attended an extraordinary workshop, “Data-Driven Conflict,” featuring digerati from organizations like Ushahidi, Associated Press, Global Voices, Citizen Lab, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the SecDev Group, and others, as well as a smattering of faculty and graduate students from the UBC School of Journalism and the Liu Institute. We met in the Liu Institute “Caseroom”, whose circular, tiered levels give it the feel of miniature UN General Assembly crossed with mission control from Dr. Strangelove. There we explored the intersection of big data, real-time conflict and disaster analysis, new forms of information, and the interactions between disruptive technologies and ‘legacy’ institutions like the United Nations, foreign ministries, and mainstream journalism outlets. The workshop was kicked off on Friday by an intellectually-rich talk by Ron Deibert on big data, big consumer desire, big states, and big security, later followed by a dinner talk by former CBC and Al-Jazeera news head Tony Burman.

Today, my brain hurts from the mash of hopeful and dystopic visions of the future described. Not the future, exactly, because it’s happening now in various trials. As William Gibson famously put it, ‘The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.’

Compared to most academic conferences, the workshop was refreshingly action-oriented: How do we better link real-time digital maps of disasters with responder organizations? How do we amplify low-intensity signals of future crises – like disease epidemics or food shortages – so they pop out above background noise and enable earlier detection and action? How do we figure out how accurately voices in cyber-space represent people in “meat-space” (formerly known as ‘real life’), especially during dynamic and unstable situations like protests and conflicts? How do we get longstanding institutions to adopt new applications of big data and open communication, given the culture and skill sets of their employees. In short: How do we get stuff done?

While there was much talk of the uses and abuses of big data, there was little discussion of the normative implications.** As someone who studies democratic theory and global governance, it’s clear that the technologies and practices we discussed will have huge consequences for the future of democratic citizenship. I’m going to sketch out a couple ideas along those lines now, which I might further develop at a later date. I’ll organize these thoughts by referencing three issues or tensions for democratic citizenship: citizenship as institutional vs. agentive, citizenship as national vs. transnational, and citizens’ data as private vs. public.

Being citizens or practicing citizenship: democracy beyond institutions?

Crisis Map of Haiti

Patrick Meier of Ushahidi told us the powerful story of the crisis mapping response to the Haiti earthquake. With a hastily-assembled volunteer team in Boston, assisted by colleagues around the world, Patrick had a real-time, granular map of disaster-hit areas in Haiti up and running within hours. The map pinpointed with where people were and what assistance they needed, based on information coming from cell phone SMS, radio, email, the web, Facebook, and other feeds. Because much of the information was in creole, the project drew on members of the Haitian diaspora to help with translation. That map helped to save hundreds of lives. The director of FEMA in the US called the Crisis Map of Haiti the most comprehensive and up-to-date map available to the humanitarian community, better than those produced by agencies like the ICRC or the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Meier’s story spoke to dynamic technological and social solution to a problem, which allowed a flexible network of skilled individuals to do what large and highly-resources bureaucracies couldn’t. But it was also a story about civic action, or democracy in practice. Individuals acted out of solidarity rather than profit, pleasure, or institutional obligation. They didn’t vote or protest or litigate, asking others to make decisions on their own behalf. They worked together to get stuff done for the good of others. And the experience, from what I have heard, was incredibly positive. For those who have read Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, subject of a previous post, all of this will sound very familiar. She describes how disasters provoke individuals to work together in ways that are not only effective and life-saving but also profoundly positive—it is the kind of engaged, meaningful citizenship that many crave but rarely experience.

James Tully has called this civic citizenship, which he contrasts to the institutional- or status-based kinds of citizenship that have come to dominate our understanding of democracy. Civic citizenship is born from the practices we use to engage other people in the pursuit of civic goods. It is not limited to the rights of individuals to be free from government interference in our speech, property, consciences, etc., or the ability to elect our governors. Civic citizenship can be seen at work in co-ops, consumer boycotts, non-violent movements, and so on.

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