A World on its Knees

Conflict, genocide, and crimes against humanity

Los Angeles, 1992

On Wednesday, April 29, 1992, I was driven all the way home from school.  This was unusual; on most days, a friend’s parent or an older student drove me to Pacific Palisades and I took two Santa Monica Big Blue Buses home from there.  As the car got to the intersection where we turned right on Ocean near the Santa Monica Pier, KCRW news informed us that the four police officers who had beaten Rodney King on tape had been acquitted.  I was angry and stunned as only a child can be.  To a White child, the videotape evidence was shocking and clear.  In short, I had not encountered the realities that killed Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown,  or Sandra Bland.  I was indignant.

I was also a child, and I was home much earlier than usual.  I began my homework immediately, so my parents must have been home to enforce the homework-first rule, though I don’t remember why one or both of them was home so early.  After a while, I got stuck in Algebra and called a friend.  She unstuck me and then asked if I’d seen the man being beaten on television.  The beating of Reginald Denny was the first I heard of the trouble that was stirring all over the city.

The next day was a school day, and we were all somewhat distracted.  We heard about what was going on here and there: prayers at the beginning of Religion class, rumors floating around the student body.  We knew there was a curfew; older students were warned to take it seriously.  I went to school in the Valley but lived on the Westside, so my classmates were worried about me in large part due to their being unclear on the geography.  I was told that there was rioting all morning “in Venice,” our neighborhood, and had to tell friends that it was on Venice… Boulevard, which runs from the beach all the way downtown.  In other words, the rioting was not exactly nearby.

I was not allowed to take the bus home that day; my father arranged to have a friend’s mother drive me to their home in the Palisades so he could pick me up from there.  My friend and I stood in her living room, watching television.  The Emergency Broadcast System alarm went off, declaring that this was “not a test.”  She and I looked at each other in alarm.  Always, before, it had been a test.

That is the last of my chronological memories of the riots.  Somewhere in that period, school was cancelled.  I learned the term “martial law.”  We went to my ailing godfather’s apartment in Inglewood to bring him food and, like everyone else, he was watching TV coverage, clucking angrily at the screen.  His home health aid, William, a man who could say the longest and most flowery grace I’d ever heard to that point, told me how all Black men were mistreated by the police in Los Angeles.  He was my window, my introduction, to a more brutal world than the one I had known.  My parents’ anger at the verdicts, my godfather’s outrage at the destruction of young Black and Brown lives at the hands of the police, were not nearly as potent as the dispassionate narrative of a lived experience.

The National Guard and Marines were called out.  My parents left for a planned weekend getaway, and I stayed at their best friends’ home.  There were soldiers at the end of every block and tanks rumbling up the alley.  We kids decided to throw water balloons at tourists who had come specifically to see the soldiers in our beach community – riot tourism, which we children found disgusting, even as we sat indoors (we threw water balloons from upstairs windows and doors) in houses within sight of soldiers.  Eventually, we decided that they must be hot standing out there, and got permission to offer the soldiers cold drinks.  They accepted gratefully.  We, the children, liked them.

Further inland, Korean stores were being targeted for looting.  In fact, Koreatown as a whole was hit quite hard.  In part because of the killing of Latasha Harlins the year before, but also as a result of what the Black community saw as preferential treatment of Koreans and their businesses, tensions had been rising between the Korean and Black communities for some time.   Tensions between Latinx and White and Black and Asia communities contributed to violence for a long time to come.  Importantly, the rioters were not wholly, or even mainly, Black (quote in the article cited here: “This was clearly not a black riot.  It was a minority riot.”).  The many communities in the city that were marginalized and mistreated by the police were abandoned by them and left to fight amongst themselves.  Thousands of businesses were destroyed.  Fires raged.  Police protection was concentrated in Brentwood and Hollywood, underscoring the paranoia and contempt of rich neighborhoods when it comes to poorer parts of the city.

Over and over, you hear that violence does not accomplish anything.  It’s true that the city lost a lot, both in property and money, to the riots.  I regularly drive to the South Los Angeles neighborhood where it started to help out at my wife’s school, three blocks from where Reginald Denny was taken from his truck and beaten.  The neighborhood we live in had been starting to gentrify in 1992; only in the past two or three years has that process restarted.

Violence always accomplishes something, whether or not the effect is desirable.  25 years ago today, the city changed.  Neighborhoods were destroyed.  The Korean-American community experienced a political and social awakening after being left to protect their own homes and businesses.  Amnesty International and Warren Christopher investigated the state of policing in Los Angeles, and police reform went forward.  There are still many institutional problems with policing in the city, but some improvements were made.  Pressure increased to remove Police Chief Daryl Gates, who attended a fundraiser against civilian oversight of the police while the city burned.  He was forced out by the end of June.  A locally-owned grocery store was built a few blocks from the apartment I live in now in response to the growing public awareness that there were entire parts of the city that lacked access to supermarkets.  The economic effects continue to resonate.

Loud, public conversations on race and policing and jury selection began in Los Angeles in 1992.  These have taken place in churches, in public meetings, on the radio, and on television.  Video recording of police abuse has become more ubiquitous and video quality has improved.  Yet 25 years later, this country is still unready to face its racist and brutal policing policies and the effects they have on communities of color.  In that sense, the riots accomplished less than I, as a child, had thought they must.

Kingdoms Built on Sand

Vacation season is winding down for those of us tied to an academic schedule, and just starting for the luckier denizens of cold northern climates.  Vacation is complicated.  It presents a whole new series of morally questionable choices.  Most of us have reached a comfort level with the choices we make daily; we minimize harm to the extent we can, and we know that our choices are not going to be perfect.  But vacations present an unfamiliar range of choices.  (Notice here that I am speaking strictly of vacation; work-related travel is a different issue.)  Are hotel workers being treated well?  Do I need to look at how much water I’m using?  What about the source of my food?  There are hundreds of small choices that are complicated by being in an unfamiliar place.  So for the next few posts – this week, next week, and possibly the week after that – I am going to talk about how international travel can relate to crimes against humanity, and how to minimize harm when you travel.  Each post will focus on one destination.  Today’s destination:

The United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai)

The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven kingdoms  and a popular destination for travelers.  Of particular interest are Abu Dhabi, the capital, and Dubai, developed as a business and tourist hub for the Arabian Peninsula.

The United Arab Emirates pulled itself out of poverty and became a unified country on the strength of the petroleum economy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and now has the twelfth-highest GDP per capita in the world – ahead of Australia, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and the U.S.  It is a major player in global finance as well.  Dubai is known for its luxury hotels; it is a playground for tourists and business travelers alike, with neighborhoods of man-made islands in fanciful shapes, the tallest hotel in the world, and an indoor ski resort where the desert meets the sea.

Yet somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-85% of those who live in the U.A.E. are not included in the statistics or the prosperity; they are not Emirati.  Some come from Iran, some come from other Arabic-speaking countries such as Egypt, and many come from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines.  Many have their passports taken, are given minimal water, and are housed in shanty towns.  Thousands are forced into prostitution – a tourist service that the U.A.E. does not publicize.  Their condition can only be described as slavery.  They are lured by the promise of wages they never receive.

A further problem in the United Arab Emirates is the way that the Emirati population has been subsidized by the government.  As the global economy changes, those workers are seeing their benefits dry up, highlighting the vast difference between Emirati haves and have-nots.  This is a recipe for instability, especially as nearby countries such as Yemen and even Saudi Arabia suffer from unrest.  While the world plays in Dubai, the bottom may soon be falling out for the U.A.E.

Water resources are also problematic in the United Arab Emirates.  The tiny country is more than 80% desert.  Swimming pools, indoor ski slopes, and restaurants use a tremendous amount of water, yet fresh water is scarcer than ever.

For the international traveler, perhaps the most immediate danger of visiting the U.A.E. is its harsh justice system.  In the U.A.E., posting a rant on social media about your employer can result in imprisonment – even if you are not an Emirati and are in your home country when you post the rant.  In the U.A.E., reposting a GoFundMe page for charity can result in imprisonment and fines.  In the U.A.E., acquittal might not end your imprisonment.  In the U.A.E., you can be arrested as a tourist for a debt incurred abroad.  In the U.A.E., there is no right to a speedy trial, nor is there legal protection from torture.

If You Go to the U.A.E.

Be kind and take notice of the people around you.  Tip well and frequently.  Do not go on social media until you get home.  Do not criticize anyone at any time.  Cooperate with all authorities.  Use water carefully and responsibly (Californians are experts at this!).

Alternatives to a Vacation in Dubai or Abu Dhabi

Singapore!  Singapore has a similarly absolutist political system with similarly luxurious accommodations for foreigners (with the addition of some legal brothels) – but with better protections for foreign workers, fewer water problems, and a better record on torture (though caning is still common).  Please note that neither the U.A.E. nor Singapore is a safe travel destination for QUILTBAG vacationers.

If you are looking for more in the way of civil liberties, Monaco and Luxembourg are luxurious destinations in Europe.  Monaco is especially focused on the tourist economy.

In North America, Las Vegas and Palm Springs are well-equipped to accommodate visitors (both have water issues similar to those in the U.A.E.), while New York City and Toronto offer a cosmopolitan feel to accompany the luxury.

Guns for the World

When I was in graduate school, one of my friends and I decided to embark on a massive research project on the international gun trade.  We were warned off several times, often by the most unexpected people, and eventually the project died.  We learned a lot in the process, some of it surprising, some of it not so surprising.

The gun culture in the United States has been carefully cultivated.  U.S. gun culture is intimately connected with terrorism, conflict, and genocide.  Most Americans are entirely ignorant of the connection.  Then again, most humans believe that advertisement works on everyone except them.

Let’s start with some simple statistics.  The U.S. has the largest arms manufacturing business in the world.  Nearly a third of the weapons sold internationally come from the U.S.  Our closest rival, Russia, accounts for a quarter; no other country gets into the double digits.

How do these weapons end up in the hands of genocidal governments, warlords, and terrorists?  Often, it is through perfectly legal channels.  The U.S. provides assistance to foreign countries, which can include weapons or funds that can be used to buy weapons.  In countries where the government is on the take or has a corrupt bureaucracy, military corruption,  or very little control at all, legally-purchased arms can be turned into profit or misappropriated, both domestically and internationally, very quickly.  (The case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which receives U.S. military aid, complicates the picture even more.)  Once arms are out of the U.S., they are much easier to move to third parties.  Light controls over purchases within the U.S. and inconsistent laws also facilitate organized crime go-betweens who can make multiple purchases to smuggle out of the country.

Gun manufacturers profit off of international conflict.  They profit more off of international conflict than off of domestic sales.  Loose gun control laws in the U.S. are being used to subsidize genocide, war, and terror around the world.  We have been sold a bill of goods.

Nationalism

Some time ago, a friend of mine asked her Facebook page what the -ism of our time is. The premise was that fascism was the -ism of the 1920s-1940s, and communism (though of course it began its rise at the same time) was the -ism of the 1950s-1990s.  We, the friends, all agreed that today’s dangerous ideology ending in  -ism is nationalism.

Let’s start by defining the term.  Nationalism is the belief that one’s nation-state is the superior value.  It’s full of the one group of superior people and its needs are more important than those of other nation-states.  Nationalism is the religion of the nation-as-god, and there is no benign form of this.

Patriotism, the love of one’s country and the earnest hope for its improvement, is quite different from nationalism.  Nationalism does not allow for criticism; the nation is the superior value, and always right.  Patriotism allows people to work to make the country better.  Nationalism predicates itself on other nations’ being less-than.  Patriotism can easily assume that other countries are worthy of the love of their citizens (just as married people can see that other people can worthily love their spouses).

Nationalism has been rearing its ugly head a lot lately.  From the flagrant immigrant-bashing in the U.S. Presidential campaign to the Brexit vote (as much in concept as in outcome) to the exit of Russia from the Great and Holy Council in Crete, nationalism has been wreaking havoc economically, religiously, and culturally.

The U.S. does not have, and has never had, a single unifying culture.  Britain has not been culturally uniform for at least a thousand years.  Orthodox Christianity was created in a multicultural context.  The mixing of peoples is nothing new.

What is new (ish) is the wide acceptance of and belief in uniformity.  Russia gets to take Ukraine because Ukraine was always better off under Russian hegemony; Ukraine is needed for a Greater Russia.  Likewise, the Great and Holy Council had already had to change its venue and agenda – to please Russia, which pulled out at the last minute and did not take part.  Russia is intent on recreating its grand imperial past.  Russia’s good is everyone’s good.  Because that is what is going on within Russia, it’s important to understand all Russia’s movements on the international front in this light.  Russian action in Syria was about increasing Russia’s power, not about stopping ISIL or supporting the Syrian people.  Even in the Olympics, Russian superiority is unquestionable, and the State will work to see that it is on display.

White Nationalists (the term is not coincidental) like Matthew Heimbach and Matt Parrott are taking to the streets in Sacramento, asserting their “right” to live in a uniform, Whites-only society.  These are among Donald Trump’s loudest supporters, and they promise to provide “security” at the Republican National Convention.  Other Trump supporters aver, without much evidence, that immigrants speak Spanish and won’t learn English, and that they are stealing jobs.  Unsurprisingly, many of these people come from areas with very few immigrants; their feeling of threat is increased by inexperience.

Inexperience with immigrant populations was also a factor in the Brexit vote.  Areas that had seen the fewer immigrants were more likely to vote to separate from the European Union, and many used the threat posed to the English (mainly – remember, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted “stay”; I suppose Welsh could be thrown in as well, as they mainly voted “leave”) way of life by immigration as a reason.  Another reason, of course, was maintaining the ability of the UK to make decisions without reference to EU laws and standards.  Nevertheless, the UK needs to continue to trade with continental Europe.

The so-called Islamic State is a bunch of thugs trying to ride the wave of nationalism (and put themselves in charge).  They play on the idea that Islam is a nation, a superior nation, with a single leader (caliph).  This nation that they advertise is the ultimate good, and because nationalism is the rising global tide, many believe that this is what ISIL is really all about.  In fact, ISIL is another iteration of the warlord theme.  Disenfranchised young men seek to make themselves look powerful and manly by taking territory and making themselves the biggest bad in the area.  They are using a religious-nationalist framework, but on the inside, they are not idealists, or even ideologues.  Their ideology is power for themselves, and their ability to dress it up in nationalist garb makes them the more dangerous because it is harder to combat someone whose motives you misunderstand.

We live in an increasingly connected world, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the pace of change.  Asserting our own superiority may be of some temporary comfort, but it will not stop the change.  Anger, hatred, and violence do not need help.  Three-year-olds forced to represent themselves in a foreign language in immigration courts do (and you can help here).  Make your choice.

When Justice is not Just

Those of you who have been following this blog will know that I am no fan of impunity.  As I mentioned in a previous post, impunity persists partly because leaders understand that there are fundamental injustices in the criminal justice system, both domestically and internationally.

This brings me to the case of Florence Hartmann, a French journalist who was jailed this week by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague for reasons that are not altogether clear.  She was held in contempt by the tribunal in 2009 for revealing information that she obtained from Serbian sources about a deal that the judges made with the Serbian government to keep certain information about war crimes in Bosnia private from the International Court of Justice.  Ms. Hartmann is said to have obtained the information from Serbian sources, rather than from sources within the tribunal.  No documents were leaked to her.  She was arrested on Thursday while waiting for the verdict against Radovan Karadzic to be read.  Survivors of the Bosnian genocide surrounded her in an attempt to protect her from arrest, and Balkan human rights campaigners are asking the tribunal to free her.  She is now being held in close confinement with lights on 24 hours a day.

From my (admittedly American) perspective, jailing journalists for saying things you do not like is dangerous.  It is a clear violation of the freedom of the press, which exists to protect journalists from having their views silenced and their lives and freedom threatened because they are critical of authorities.  The Hague has not made clear what kind of violation Ms. Hartmann has committed beyond making them feel bad.    The hurt feelings of a few judges are not sufficient reason to keep a journalist in detention far harsher than that experienced by alleged war criminals.

Celebrating Slow Progress Against Impunity

Genocide, conflict, and crimes against humanity are not the most cheerful topics.  Today, though, we have a little good news.

Radovan Karadzic, a mastermind of the Bosnian genocide, former President of the troubled Republika Srpska, has been convicted on ten counts of war crimes during the 1991-1995 war, including a count of genocide.

He was acquitted on one count of genocide.

He spent 11 years on the run and eight years defending himself at the Hague.  It has been 21 years since the Srebrenica massacre, the most notorious crime in Europe since World War II.  Karadzic has long been lionized as a religious and cultural hero.

Karadzic has been sentenced to 40 years.  He will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Is it enough?  No.  Justice, in this case, was slow and incomplete.  There is no “enough,” because nothing will ever bring back those killed, or undo the pain and trauma of those who survive.  It is, however, progress – a step toward a more just world.  Coming so quickly on the heels of the seventh anniversary of Omar Al-Bashir’s indictment, coming just days after South African courts reaffirmed that their government’s release of Bashir was illegal, coming in the midst of the ongoing genocide crisis in Jebel Marra, the timing of this conviction could not be better.  Personally, I think that makes it worth celebrating.

The Trouble with Trump

A few days ago, a child in a Fairfax County (Virginia) school was threatened with deportation.  The threat was issued by another child.

Children on the playground often see it as their job to enforce the norms that their parents teach them.  This is not new.  What is new is the live character of this threat.  A major presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is threatening to end birthright citizenship (a Constitutional right in the U.S.) and deport more than eleven million people in the country illegally.

Eleven million.

And if you think that this will be limited to people who are not citizens or legal immigrants, you do not remember history.  This is a racially-motivated hunt.  No one is looking for illegal Czechs or Irish.

Mr. Trump has also made spurious accusations against American Muslims, and suggested that Muslims from other countries must be categorically denied entry to the U.S.  Many of his supporters also favor deporting American Muslims (to where?), creating a database of American Muslims, and barring LGBT people from entering the U.S.

We have been down this road before.  The threat posed by the Cherokee was used as an excuse for their removal west of the Mississippi (“they were savages; and… took a part with the British Crown in the war of the Revolution”) in 1838.  The threat posed by Japanese Americans led to their internment (“impelled by military necessity”) in 1942. The U.S. Government’s history with “relocation” and “deportation” is not pretty.

The Third Reich “deported” Jews with results that everyone should remember.

When it comes to American youth, racial attacks from Trump supporters have already started.

Isn’t That Over Already?

Back in 2004, when I was in graduate school, Washington, DC was peppered with signs reading, “Save Darfur.*”  The Secretary of State talked about it.  It was the Kony 2012 of 2004.

Well, the LRA is still operating around Central Africa, and Darfur remains unsaved.  It is far from over.  In fact, in recent days and weeks, mass atrocities have been gathering steam in Darfur (and the Nuba, and anywhere else Omar al-Bashir has decided to terrorize in “his” country).

Surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  International energy and attention has waned for Darfur in part because the international community refuses to address underlying problems that fuel crimes against humanity and genocide.  There are many, many reasons for this.  Here are just a few.

  • Those who benefit from impunity are those who are in power.

There is no impunity for ordinary people.  A man who goes on a shooting spree in Kalamazoo, Michigan is arrested almost immediately.  Black boys who play in parks and Black men who sell cigarettes are summarily executed, apparently for existing in public, and those who kill them are almost never imprisoned.  But world leaders are reluctant to put other world leaders in prison or take any other measures against them, in part from fear that such measures could be used against them as well and in part from a misguided concern for sovereignty.  Ultimately, world leaders know that criminal justice is not just (whatever they may say in public) and take measures to avoid any possibility of being called to account.

  • There is a lack of empathy for, and thus a lack of political will to help, people who differ visibly from oneself.

Should the US bar all Muslims from entering, as Donald Trump suggests?  The idea has certainly caught on, just like the idea of building (another) wall between the US and Mexico has.  Humans often look at people who differ from themselves as potential risks, rather than thinking of the real human suffering behind the movement of children out of Central America (the US Government is now giving the Mexican Government money to stop them before they reach American shores) or of large numbers of refugees out of Syria into Europe.  People feel insecure about their own lives and are happy not to have to deal with another person’s suffering.  It’s much easier not to.  It’s much easier to vilify political leaders when they show empathy than to sacrifice tax dollars or other resources to help.

That goes triple for a mainly Muslim Black African population.

  • Strategies to end mass atrocities can also destabilize regions.

Omar al-Bashir is everyone’s favourite kind of villain: an absolute dictator who has been in power for almost 30 years.  Because he has been in power so long, arresting him will necessarily cause a power vacuum in Sudan.  Sudan has had violent conflict more or less constantly from the time of its independence in 1956.  Dislodging al-Bashir would bring an escalation in the conflict and also further destabilize South Sudan, Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Central African Republic, and possibly Uganda.  It would disrupt trade and development in these areas at a bare minimum.  However, Chad is already dealing with Sudanese refugees.  South Sudan is in a state of civil war, and Egypt is not terribly far from it.  Ethiopia and Eritrea continue to struggle with each other and Ethiopia faces internal unrest.  The main effect is likely to be on the power elites within Sudan itself.  War is terrible and destructive, but is targeting civilian populations truly a lesser evil?  Something is wrong with a calculation that says that we must continue to tolerate systematic atrocities because what follows may be open war and political uncertainty.

 

Omar al-Bashir is an indicted criminal.  It is long past time for him to come to justice.  The US gives more than any other country to humanitarian aid toward Darfur.  It is not enough.  We must be willing to demand that Sudan be suspended from the WTO, the UN, and other intergovernmental organizations until al-Bashir is arrested.  He must not be allowed to travel internationally.

Most importantly, on a human level, we must work to foster empathy in ourselves and to fight the impulse to push others to the margins of humanity.

*Save Darfur website here.

 

In Which I Finally Talk About Israelis and Palestinians (Sort of)

I have avoided talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years.  I feel my reasons are good.  It’s such a highly politicized situation that it’s really impossible to speak.  Any words that suggest that Israelis are not demons are automatically called an apology for atrocities.  Any words that suggest that Palestinians are only human are automatically called anti-Semitic.  In the meantime, the pro-Palestinian politics of Europe and the pro-Israeli politics of the United States are both harmful and skewed.

Plus, I have no dog in this fight.  I like people.  I like Jewish people.  I like Palestinian people.  I’m a people person.

Here’s the thing, though.  I have to watch my friends who do talk about the situation get skewered.  Just in the past ten years, the situation has polarized.  I see people becoming increasingly defensive and racist.  I hear terrible suggestions.  I can’t hear that and not call it out, so I end up in the conversation anyway, however hard I try to avoid it.

Both sides are convinced that they are right… and both sides are right, in some ways.  Israelis need security.  Palestinians need opportunity and freedom of movement.  These are needs, not wants.  Israelis have been victimized.  Palestinians have been victimized.  Congratulations: both sides are right.

So what does being right get you?  It gets you an intractable conflict, everyone looking for an ideal rather than dealing with the facts as they stand.  It gets you anger and bitterness, ultimately, and pain, and danger.

What is the alternative?  What can Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Europeans, and everyone else do?

How about giving up on rightness and trying to be good?

Start small.  Start by greeting a neighbor and seeing what he or she needs.  Start by greeting the people in the shops you visit, being kind to staff, and slowly making a few fewer assumptions.

Don’t expect it to be easy.  That coworker who drives you insane needs something, too, and it’s not easy to overcome that dislike enough to help. Remember that easy things are rarely worth doing in the long run.

I can guarantee you that you will not be ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or genocide, or war in general.  At least, you won’t be ending it directly.  But you’ll be slowly building a world in which it can be ended.  That’s a world worth building.  Try it.  Meet the people who live next door.  Refuse to laugh at someone who is mentally ill.  Comfort a stranger crying on a subway.  Talk to someone who is very different from yourself – like a fellow human.  Build peace where you can, and count your victories small.  That way, you’ll have more of them.

 

Meanwhile, in Burundi

I fully intended to write a long blog post on Friday.  Then the terrorist strikes in Paris happened.

I have to be honest with you:  I love France, but I am basically indifferent to Paris.  Mostly, I think of it as that place the airplanes fly to where it’s always raining.  Except… people from all over the world go to Paris for work.  Four of them (two French and two Mauritanian) are people that I care about.  Only one has checked in so far.  So I’ve been a bit distracted.  This is going to be a relatively basic blog post, but I think an understanding – even a basic one – is important.

Today I am not going to talk about Islamism, terrorism, or Daesh.  Those topics are being fully covered by people who know what they are doing.  Instead, I’d like to draw our collective attention to a crisis in Burundi that has been unfolding since August – in fact, really since colonialism, and more proximally since about 1992.

Burundi is a tiny nation in Africa’s Great Lakes region, an area that also includes Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Its colonial history includes the Germans and the Belgians.  Ethnically and religiously, it is similar to Rwanda, which is to say, relatively lacking in diversity.  Most are Catholic, with significant Muslim and Protestant minorities; most speak a single language, Kirundi; and there is real disagreement as to whether there are more than two ethnic groups at all (those two being Tutsi/Hutu, essentially one group, and Twa, the other group).  So why have the Great Lakes been in such a long-lasting free-fall?

There are a few clear reasons for the instability in the region.  Belgian colonial policy was so appalling that even other European colonial powers sat up and took notice.  One of the legacies of this colonial history was to harden identities to accord with a European view of the world, including the idea that Tutsis are closer to White and therefore more civilized, intelligent, and worthy of power.  This is why no one is really sure if the Hutu-Tutsi distinction is one of caste, race, ethnicity, or something else.  There is no linguistic difference.  There are no sure physical markers, as one’s status follows that of one’s father, and intermarriage is common.  There is no one thing that can be pointed to, yet everyone knows where they stand.

Since 1972, there have been two periods of genocide and violence against civilians in Burundi.  The first began on a small scale as a land grab.  The second began with the assassination of a Hutu president.   In Burundi, the government has  generally been Tutsi, then generally Hutu, and now is fairly evenly divided.  Power struggles have led to several power sharing agreements, none of which have taken particularly well in part because concerns were never thoroughly addressed.  The Twa, a small minority considered “primitive” by colonial governments, are not considered, either as politically important or as culturally significant.  Burundi’s nods toward liberal democracy have been halfhearted and piecemeal.  At the root of Burundi’s problems today is a persistent struggle for ethnic and personal dominance expressed as political power.  The current president,  Pierre Nkrunziza, a Hutu, has been engaged in seizing the mechanisms of government to secure a third term for himself, which he claims is a second term as he was appointed to his first term rather than elected.  Unsurprisingly, many Burundians are not pleased.  Increasing violence has been reported in Bujumbura.  History and regional politics suggest that Burundi is teetering on the brink of widespread violence against the civilian population.

The Belgian government has asked all nonessential personnel to leave Burundi, and for good reason; if I were Burundian, Belgians would be very high on my list of targets.  But the international community often errs by seeing a narrative of “ancient hatreds” and by refusing to give a clear mandate for concrete action to protect civilians.  Evacuating nonessential personnel is smart.  Abandoning Burundi would not be smart.  Leaving a UN peacekeeping force and declaring one’s moral duty done is never smart.  Civilian populations are at risk.  In the short term, they can only be protected by the credible threat of force.  In the long term, Burundi needs a system that takes into account the interests of the people.  All the people, and not merely those in power.