Top Picks: Opportunistic op-ed, the council of elders, and a writer's regret

Welcome to IRIN's weekly top picks of must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises.

Five to read:

Writing Human Rights and Getting It Wrong

In reflective mode, human rights and humanitarian commentator Alex de Waal takes a second look at some of the crises he has been most closely involved with, and the role of the modern human rights industry. His career has gone from shouty human rights activist (not his words) to an unlikely advocate for less-than-squeaky-clean political solutions, especially in the case of Darfur. His Boston Review essay, an extended waltz with hindsight, considers the perils of righteous advocacy: were the people of Sudan's Nuba Mountains really "facing genocide", as his 1995 book title for African Rights had it? Does he regret his silence on the transition of Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front into a "dictatorship", having won the RPF’s trust during the darkest days of the genocide? And now, since the end of the Cold War, has a bullying, simplistic "Ethics, Inc" become counter-productive, eager to condemn but with few real-world solutions to offer? What would "emancipatory" human rights work look like? His essay is blunt on the dismal record of former South Sudan rebel leader John Garang, the unintended consequences of foreign advocacy campaigns, and the predictable disaster of US intervention in Somalia. He recalls in 1994 receiving reports from his then-colleague Rakiya Omaar, giving almost real-time transcripts from genocide survivors and witnesses in Rwanda. "Each morning I came in and found that our old roll-style fax machine had spewed a bloody trail across the floor."

Panel of the wise

We’re used to seeing peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions in Africa, but what rarely gets any attention are the more discreet conflict prevention efforts.

The African Union includes prevention in its toolkit of mediation efforts, and this briefing by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies provides a flavour. The Panel of the Wise is the AU’s highest profile structure for preventing conflict, conducting on-the-ground fact-finding, presenting policy options, and brokering agreements. It is composed of five “highly respected African personalities who employ their experience and moral persuasion to foster peace” and who represent each of Africa’s five regions.

Kenya’s post-election violence is probably the best-known intervention by the panel, which coordinated closely with an informal but influential group of retired leaders known as the Elders.

The AU is keen to strengthen its conflict prevention capacity, but until it can sort out its financing headches, it’s always going to be ad hoc.

How the Taliban capitalise on mineral wealth

The Taliban and other insurgent groups are making millions from two lapis lazuli mines in Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakshan Province, according to this report by Global Witness. A two-year investigation revealed links between the strongmen who control the mines and insurgents, as well as government officials. Lapis lazuli is a decorative blue stone and most of it is shipped to China. The two mines supplied about $20 million to armed groups in 2014 alone, but that’s a tiny fraction of the wealth being siphoned off, instead of being used to rebuild the country. Across Afghanistan, mining is estimated to be the second largest source of income for the Taliban, yet it contributed less than one percent of government income in 2013. Afghanistan is thought to have $1 trillion worth of mineral reserves, which could generate $2 billion in revenue per year. But, as Global Witness argues, competition for control of these vast resources could lead to further conflict rather than funding reconstruction – unless the government manages to reform the sector.

Crimes against humanity in Eritrea

In 2014 and 2015, Eritreans were the largest nationality group arriving by boat to Italy. The reasons so many Eritreans are fleeing their country are now fairly well know: asylum seekers arriving in Europe have brought with them tales of torture, forced and indefinite military conscription, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention. This week saw the release of a much-anticipated report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea confirming many of the findings of its first report 12 months ago and concluding that the actions of Eritrean officials amount to crimes against humanity. The report could open the way for the International Criminal Court to launch proceedings against the Eritrean government. It also comes at a time when the European Union is being criticised for its decision to include Eritrea among 16 priority countries it plans to partner with on migration.

Frenemies looking to avoid war crimes trials?

Rarely has such an opportunistic piece graced the opinion pages of the New York Times. “Building a nation is not an easy task,” began the op-ed apparently written by both South Sudan President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar. “We know this because it is our life’s work.” Lately, their work has been more akin to tearing the baby nation apart. Only two years after gaining independence from Sudan, South Sudan descended into a civil war marked by atrocities committed by opposing factions headed by Kiir and Machar.

After a painfully halting and duplicitous peace process, Kiir and Machar are frenemies once again. Now they say they just want to get along, and move along. The op-ed promoted a truth and reconciliation commission instead of the hybrid court included in the peace deal they both signed. “We know that it could mean that some South Sudanese guilty of crimes may be included in government, and that they may never face justice in a courtroom,” it said. A war crimes tribunal would only threaten to plunge the country back into war, the piece argued.

Regardless of the merit of that argument, they are not the ones who should be making it, pointed out Human Rights Watch. The farce then reached new heights when Voice of America contacted representatives of the vice president. Machar denied he had signed off on the op-ed, which was commissioned by Kiir’s office but not written by him (the authorship remains a mystery). The New York Times was left red-faced and forced to admit it “should have sought direct confirmation of the argument of the piece from both parties”. Perhaps, it shouldn’t have run it at all.

One to watch and read:

Recovering from Ebola

Just over two years since the first Ebola case was announced in Sierra Leone, New Internationalist magazine has a special issue on the country’s recovery from an epidemic that infected 14,000 people, left nearly 4,000 dead and traumatised an already fragile society. The long process of recovery has barely begun, writes Hazel Healey, but the outbreak has brought some positive changes to the country’s healthcare services and the role of civil society in holding the government to account. The New Internationalist has also co-produced an interactive documentary narrated by Sierra Leonean citizen journalists, who recount personal stories of love, loss and reconnection in the wake of the Ebola crisis.

One from IRIN:

A whistleblower resigns

In this exclusive report by IRIN Africa Editor Obi Anyadike, senior UN rights official Anders Kompass announces his resignation and accuses the world body of an “entrenched” lack of accountability. It’s hardly suprising. It’s been more than two years since the first interviews began to reveal a major scandal involving French and UN peacekeepers sexually abusing children as young as eight in Central African Republic. And how many of the 23 soldiers implicated have been prosecuted? Zero. Much time has been wasted: a lot of it, apparently, on hounding Mr. Kompass, the one person in a hurry to do something about it. His sin: to pass on an internal report on the alleged abuse to the French authorities, in July 2014. Instead of concentrating on the allegations themselves, the UN went after the whistleblower, condeming his “misconduct”, suspending him from his job, humiliatingly marching him out of his office, and demanding his resignation. An independent review panel exonerated Kompass in December 2015, insisting he had not acted outside his scope of authority. Instead, it found that three top UN officials had. One was eventually fired over another peacekeeping sex scandal; a second resigned in September 2015; but the third, Renner Onana, chief of the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR’s Human Rights and Justice Section, remains in his post. New revelations of peacekeeping abuse, in CAR and elsewhere, keep coming. Expect this one to run and run.

Coming up:

From Fortress Europe to Sanctuary Europe: Building a Social Movement for Inclusive Asylum

18-19 June, Oxford Department of International Development

In the run-up to World Refugee Day on 20 June, the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, together with the UK’s City of Sanctuary movement and the Red Cross, are hosting a two-day conference aimed at moving beyond the current challenges associated with Europe’s refugee crisis, and identifying good practices for fostering integration and social change. Sessions will cover access to higher education for refugees, countering social exclusion, and building a movement for inclusive asylum. IRIN Migration Editor Kristy Siegfried will be moderating a panel on counering stigma in the media. Register for an invite here.