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The North Korean Paper Trail

By Leslie Vinjamuri

A portrait of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. By Gabriel Britto.

A portrait of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. By Gabriel Britto.

Last Tuesday, a United Nations General Assembly committee condemned North Korea for its appalling human rights record and urged the Security Council to refer the situation in the country to the International Criminal Court.  The resolution, which passed 111 to 19 (with 55 abstentions), marks a high point in a campaign to name and shame North Korea.  This campaign took on new life last February when a UN Commission chaired by Michael Kirby released a scathing report.

But what exactly will this push achieve? Human rights experts say it already has made an impact in Pyongyang. Shortly after the UN released its findings, North Korea countered with its own report, which denied the existence of prison camps.  Economic hardships, it said, were not the product of government abuse, but a consequence of North Korea’s status as a “transition society”.  North Korea described its human rights system as “advantageous”. “That they have taken this step suggests to me that bad publicity is taking its toll on the regime and the international pressure is working,” argued Ken Kato, director of Human Rights in Asia.

North Korea has taken other steps as well.  It initiated a dialogue with the UN human rights expert on North Korea.  It invited the UN Special Rapporteur for North Korea to visit. The highlight came just before the recent APEC summit and in the run-up to last Tuesday’s vote in the General Assembly, when North Korea released American detainees Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller. On the bilateral level–and likely as a defensive move–North Korea accelerated efforts to court Russia, announcing it would send a high level envoy to Russia.

The UN vote has altered the relatively conciliatory mood. North Korea immediately threatened additional nuclear tests. “Our war deterrent will be strengthened infinitely in the face of the United States’ plot for armed interference and invasion,” an official statement promised.

A key question now is whether the United Nations can gain any additional leverage over North Korea by continuing to play the human rights card. The most recent outbursts suggest that despite its merits, this week’s General Assembly Resolution will not be cost free. The threat to push forward with a Security Council resolution may still be useful, but an actual vote could backfire. China and Russia would almost certainly veto any referral. That outcome would shame China and Russia for yet again opposing international accountability. The marginal utility of shaming China would be undermined if it discouraged further cooperation on nuclear talks. A Security Council vote is also unlikely to induce Pyongyang to reform its human rights practices in the short term. Even if a referral somehow emerged from the Council, it would likely push North Korea into an even more adversarial posture, with little benefit on the ground and some potentially important negative consequences for regional security.

The UN Commission’s report documented horrendous abuses and registered strong moral condemnation of the North Korean regime. The General Assembly resolution adds legitimacy and breadth to this condemnation, and it does this without locking anyone into a fixed position. Even if the campaign goes no further, it has done the valuable work of creating a paper trail to return to when the timing for dealing with human rights in North Korea is more propitious.

This post was originally posted at Points of Order.

Local Ceasefires in Syria: What Are the Prospects?

By Oliver Kaplan

Rebels in northern Syria. Via Syria Freedom.

Rebels in northern Syria. Via Syria Freedom.

What are the prospects for local efforts to reduce the killing in Syria? So far, the conflict has taken a terrible human toll. With the rise of ISIS and now additional U.S. intervention and military support to the “moderate” rebels, the fighting remains intense. The situation could get worse before it gets better.

A new UN Special Envoy has taken to the idea of brokering local truces to protect civilians, especially in Aleppo. Some previous attempts in Syria appear to have helped, at least for short periods of time. But there has still been little analysis of this approach. Based on my research on this issue and thinking about other cases, I offer several insights:

  1. Local peace actions are found around the world. Local peace actions and ceasefires are found in conflicts around the world, and not just the “easy” conflicts: from Tenancingo in El Salvador (as well as later gang truces), to Colombia, to the Philippines, to Afghanistan. Although these cases have had variable results, these cases suggest that the concept of local détente in Syria is not totally infeasible.
  1. Go for local-based and legitimate truces. Involving local civil society actors when calling for local truces can be helpful. Even though civil society actors can at times be challenged in dialoguing with armed belligerents, there have been successes. As I have found, local institutions have been helpful for providing transparency and credibility to help monitor and enforce local agreements. Nonviolent civil society movements still exist in Syria (e.g., the Local Coordination Committees), but they have also been greatly weakened as the conflict has endured.
  1. Dialogue beyond the central warring leaders. Do not just negotiate with the elite or central leaders of the different belligerent camps. Also dialogue with local commanders, and if possible, seek out any less hardline individuals that might exist among the various factions (a recently discussed example among the Nazis helps illustrate that such actors almost always exist). By nudging these individuals, a cascade of support for a more cooperative truce could emerge.
  1. Local truces may not be stable. Local truces are tricky because they require continued work and monitoring to be maintained. Given the current incentives and aggressive ideologies of the state and non-state armed actors now fighting in Syria, the conditions could be a difficult fit for these kinds of truces. Although the Assad regime is studying the newest proposed truce, it has been accused of double-dealing and reneging on previous truces. And, previous UN Envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi failed to make ceasefires for the central conflict stick even temporarily (e.g., around events such as Ramadan). For this reason, a U.S. State Department spokesperson is rightly skeptical—that local truces would just be a stalling tactic on the part of the regime. Despite their “extremism,” some of the rebel groups may have more support among the population on the ground and therefore may be more amenable to these truce options compared to the regime.

In sum, the odds are tough for local truces in Syria, but there are few alternatives to address the humanitarian crisis. Local peace efforts may not yield a larger solution to the conflict, but there is still the possibility that they could improve the livelihoods of embattled communities as they try to endure the worst of the fighting. One approach to make such peace actions more likely and more stable is to provide support for local civil society, in contrast to primarily aiding the armed rebels.

Stay tuned for further analysis on this pressing topic…

Distributing Our Research: The Youtube Option

By Will H. Moore

Paper is dead. By which I mean that for centuries the most efficient way to broadcast (share) ideas was to reproduce them on paper and physically distribute the bundled paper. Then came the telegraph, then the wireless (radio). And the telephone. And the television, satellites, the facsimile, cellular networks, the Internet, the World Wide Web…

The cost of producing and distributing ideas via any medium has collapsed during the past three decades, such that those of us working in universities in the West have effectively free access to technology that gives us remarkable choice when it comes to distributing our ideas. Writing article and book length manuscripts will stay with us for a long time, but those formats are not the only option for sharing ideas. Daniel Blocq (ABD in Sociology at Wisconsin) posted a video last week that executes an option I have been wanting to try, but since I have limited creative ability, I have not yet executed. Check it out:

You can view the video here.

I hope to get off my duffer and create a video or two before year’s end. I’ll post here if I get it done.


Weekly Links

By Danny Hirschel-Burns

Tojo Shotaro, “Mikasa,” 1906. Via wikimedia.

Tojo Shotaro, “Mikasa,” 1906. Via wikimedia.

Joining extremist groups, writes Sharon Morris, is a form of social mobility for ambitious young adults stymied by unequal societies. One of countries deeply affected by extremism is Iraq, where Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State are wreaking havoc and feeding into Sunni marginalization. The Washington Post has an article aggregating various visual attempts to portray the complex webs of alliances across the Middle East. Finally, Mike Giglio has an investigative article on how ISIS manages to smuggle oil across the Syria-Turkey border, which Ariel Ahram and Gabriel Mitchell wrote about on PVG a few weeks ago.

South Sudan’s government has failed to govern, and failed its people; James Copnall on the country’s dismal future.

The challenges presented by language and messaging for activists in authoritarian states. Brazil is not an authoritarian state, but in Goiânia, Brazil, there’s strong evidence to suggest police are murdering the homeless at an alarming rate.

Greg Weeks outlines a new paper on the US’ inertial drug policy in Latin America.

How violence provides a currency and reinforces social norms in American prisons. Relatedly, Heather Ann Thompson argues mass incarceration creates the conditions for high levels of inner-city violence.

Sten Hagberg is optimistic about the future of Burkina Faso despite the ongoing power struggle. Ken Opalo feels similarly.

In New York Magazine, Frank Rich looks back at newspapers from 1964 to highlight how we mis-remember history.

Weekly Links

By Danny Hirschel-Burns

Elizabeth Butler, “Remnants of an Army,” 1879. Via wikimedia.

Elizabeth Butler, “Remnants of an Army,” 1879. Via wikimedia.

In light of protests, and seemingly a coup in Burkina Faso, The Wall Street Journal offers some background. Links between Burkinabe protesters and their Senegalese counterparts have made the movement stronger. Finally, Ken Opalo analyzes similar circumstances in other African countries to attempt and predict what might be next.

Jay Ulfelder writes on political inertia and our faulty expectations of change.

Musa al-Gharbi argues the West’s preoccupation with ISIS is a product of Islamophobia, and that Mexican cartels are even more dangerous. At Warscapes, Michael K. Busch offers a rebuttal. Somewhat relatedly, Joshua Keating on the often fuzzy distinction between terrorists and rebels.

The mechanisms through which political patronage and tribal identity dominate Sudanese political life.

Marijke Verpoorten delivers a rebuttal to a recent, and controversial, BBC documentary on the Rwandan genocide.

Veteran reporter Patrick Cockburn has an essay touching on Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds and ISIS’ assault on Kobane. Yazidis who have fallen victim to the conflict are now living in squalid conditions. Finally, tracing the life of an ISIS leader from his small village in Georgia to the front lines in Syria.

Rutherford B. Hayes, forgotten in the United States, remains immensely popular in Paraguay for granting the country most of its territory.

Stalin was a rational actor writes Anne Applebaum.

Though the conflict in the Central African Republic has often been portrayed as a sectarian one, religion is not proving itself impervious to division as anti-balaka forces turn on fellow Christians.

The future of Middle East-focused political science and what it means for those hoping to become academics.

Research Under Fire: Researcher Trauma and Conflict Studies

Guest post by Cyanne Loyle and Alicia Simoni

Researchers conduct an interview at a refugee camp in the West Bank. By Benny Brunner.

Researchers conduct an interview at a refugee camp in the West Bank. By Benny Brunner.

Political scientists debate whether the world is getting more violent or less. Regardless of where you situate yourself in this discussion, it does seem that social scientists are putting themselves into more violent situations than ever before. Especially within the field of political violence and conflict studies, students and scholars travel to active conflict and post-conflict areas, interview and interact with people who experienced high levels of violence, witness violence and potentially experience violence targeted at them. In addition to direct experiences with violence, many of us spend hours, often alone in our offices, reading genocide perpetrator testimonies, personal stories of sexual violence, or State Department reports cataloging years of crime and abuse.

These are all experiences capable of producing psychological trauma, yet as a field we rarely engage with the implications of this trauma for our work or ourselves. Many of us have preconceived ideas about what trauma is and remain doggedly convinced that what we study isn’t that bad, that what we’ve experienced isn’t as distressing as what others have, or that what we are feeling is nothing really. Yet, the evidence suggests otherwise.

What is psychological trauma?

A person is considered to have experienced a traumatic event when they have been exposed to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence in one of the following ways:

  • direct exposure,
  • witnessing in person,
  • awareness that someone close to you was exposed,
  • repeated or extreme indirect exposure to averse details of the event(s).

The normal response to such traumatic events is psychological and physical distress.

Why don’t we talk about this?

It is rare for a social science department or working group to have a serious discussion about fieldwork/research-related trauma. It is even less common for researchers to debrief once they return from the field or complete a project. This leads to a number of faulty assumptions about trauma and what it would mean to acknowledge its impact on us and on our work.

True or False: Scientists are immune to trauma.

False. Social science researchers can and do experience trauma. Have you or someone you know returned from fieldwork in a conflict zone, completed a series of intense interviews, or emerged from weeks of reading brutal testimonies and experienced some or all of the following: feeling “revved up;” fatigue; irritability; hyper-vigilance; increased emotionality; problems sleeping; exaggerated startle response; change in appetite; feeling overwhelmed; impatience; withdrawing from family and friends? These are among the assorted responses that normal people, including scientists, have to traumatic situations.

True or False: You need to experience active combat or direct violence to be traumatized.

False. Most researchers believe that what they have experienced has little in common with what the victims or perpetrators of active combat or direct violence have experienced. While this is true to some degree, it does not mean that we cannot be similarly traumatized. What determines if an event is traumatic is not proximity or even severity; it is the sense of powerlessness and of being overwhelmed that accompanies experiencing, witnessing, or being indirectly exposed to violence, death, or brutality that makes a situation traumatic. You don’t have to work in a conflict zone to feel this way.

True or False: Experiencing trauma will negatively affect your research.

Maybe. Trauma influences the way that we perceive, consume and ultimately evaluate information. It can have an impact on how we conduct research and how we analyze it. Trauma can also have indirect impacts on our research such as our ability to concentrate and interact with others. This impact is present whether or not we acknowledge it.

True or False: Addressing your distress can benefit you and your research.

True. Most people are able to recover from the effects of a traumatic event. However, it is difficult to recover in isolation. The ability to accept support and help — from family, friends, colleagues, and/or professionals — is essential to resolving the impacts of trauma and, often times, to being able to effectively and efficiently continue your research.

Identifying the signs of trauma

Common signs of distress in response to a traumatic event include:

  • Intense or unpredictable feelingsPerhaps you feel noticeably anxious, nervous, or overwhelmed. You may also be more irritable or moody than usual.
  • Changes to thoughts and behavior patterns: You might have persistent, vivid memories of the event. Your sleep and eating patterns may be disrupted. It may also be difficult to concentrate or make decisions. You may procrastinate working on a project related to your traumatic experience.
  • Sensitivity to environmental factors: Loud noises, burning smells, or other environmental sensations may create heightened anxiety.
  • Strained interpersonal relationships: Perhaps you are experiencing increased conflict, such as more frequent disagreements with family members and coworkers. You might also become withdrawn, isolated or disengaged from your usual social activities.
  • Stress-related physical symptoms: Headaches, nausea and chest pain may occur. Preexisting medical conditions can also be affected by trauma-related stress.

What to do if you’re experiencing trauma


If you identify the above signs there are a number of steps that you can take:

  • Take a break from the material you are working on. Use this opportunity to either move onto a non-related project or to spend some time with friends and family to give your mind some distance.
  • Talk about your experiences with friends or colleagues who have worked in similar environments.
  • Exercise, eat well, and get outside.
  • Seek professional help. Particularly on university campuses you are likely to have members of the counseling team who specialize in research-related trauma. Seek them out or see if they have recommendations for other resources in your area.


Let’s start talking about this


It is our responsibility as teachers and colleagues to engage with the possibility of trauma for ourselves, our students, and our research teams. We would all benefit from pre- and post-research discussions about research related trauma being more commonplace. Each of us can make sure that our students and research assistants are aware of the signs of trauma and can give them guidance as to how to seek help if needed. As members of academic departments, let’s ensure that trauma and its impact are addressed within the curriculum and training that prepares future researchers for this work.

Cyanne E. Loyle is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at West Virginia University. She has worked with research teams in a number of conflict and post-conflict countries including Rwanda, Uganda, Northern Ireland, Turkey and Nepal. Alicia Simoni, MA, LMSW is a psychotherapist with a specialty in trauma. Prior to pursuing a career in psychotherapy, she worked in the field of international peace studies and spent time in several conflict and post-conflict settings, including Afghanistan, Northern Uganda, and Northern Ireland.

Predicting Government Violence to Improve Theory and Practice

By Daniel W. Hill Jr. and Zachary M. Jones

A man kneels before an Orthodox priest during the Euromaiden protests in Ukraine. By Jim Forest.

A man kneels before an Orthodox priest during the Euromaiden protests in Ukraine. By Jim Forest.

Why do some governments generally respect the fundamental human rights of their citizens while others frequently abuse them? Why do some governments arbitrarily imprison, torture, and murder their citizens while others do not? A rather large body of research in political science examines this question, usually by examining information taken from annual human rights reports issued by Amnesty International and the US State Department. Political scientists (and their more enterprising students) turn these reports into data that can be analyzed using statistical methods. These data contain information about the use of political imprisonment, torture, kidnapping (“disappearance”), and extralegal execution. Typically scholars look for evidence of a correlation[1] between human rights abuses and various factors they believe explain human rights abuses, such as features of a country’s government (e.g., democratic institutions), its economy (level of development), or international political factors like openness to trade and investment, international legal commitments, or criticism from human rights advocacy groups.

In an article recently published in the American Political Science Review, we approach this question in a different way. Instead of asking whether and how various things are correlated with human rights abuse, we decided to see to what degree these things improve our ability to predict how abusive different governments are, which we believed would be a more interesting exercise to academics and other potential audiences, and would provide more useful information for policymakers. We did this in two ways. First, we calculated the predictive accuracy of a statistical (regression) model that accounted only for a country’s level of development (as measured by GDP/capita) and population size, and compared this to models that also accounted for the various domestic and international factors that scholars think affect human rights abuses. The idea is that if these factors really matter, then accounting for them should improve the model’s ability to predict which governments are more abusive than others. Second, we used random forests, a machine learning method that allows us to make fewer assumptions about the nature of the relationship between state repression and the various factors we were examining.[2] For this analysis we assessed predictive power by calculating the decrease in prediction accuracy caused by permuting (i.e. randomly shuffling) each predictor, one at a time. The idea here is the same: if the predictor being permuted is important in predicting state repression, then this will decrease the model’s ability to accurately predict levels of state repression.

In many cases the things that scholars view as important causes of human rights abuse did not improve the model’s accuracy. But some things did very well at predicting abuse. First, democracy and civil war strongly predict the kind of egregious, violent abuses we examined, which is consistent with previous research. However, as we explain in the paper, these findings are not particularly useful for theory or policy. Democracies, by definition, cannot engage in too much politically-motivated violence (such as imprisoning or killing large numbers of political opponents), or they would not be considered democracies for very long. Second, scholars classify conflicts as “civil wars” when they have resulted in a certain number of casualties. Since civilians likely make up a large part of these casualties, and the human rights abuses being examined are precisely those that involve the violent targeting of civilians, civil war also bears some relationship to these abuses by definition. More interesting, we think, are other features of politics and society which predict abuse well, including judicial independence, constitutional provisions for a fair trial, a common law legal system, government revenue generated from natural resources, and demographic “youth bulges.” These predictors have only recently received attention in the literature, and we think that developing more fine-grained theories and collecting new data to determine exactly how each of these is related to government violence would be very useful. We also find that trade openness and the presence of INGOs predict abuse well, though in general features of domestic politics add more predictive power than international political factors. Additionally, disappearances and extralegal executions occur less than political imprisonment and torture, and so are harder to predict. Of course, after our analysis was complete, it occurred to us that we had omitted several factors that scholars have found to be correlated with rights abuse, for example economic sanctions and a domestic economy based on contractual exchange. We reanalyzed the data and included these and several other omitted factors, and the results of the new analysis can be found here. To preview the new results, measures of economic sanctions, contract-intensive economy, and an alternative measure of judicial independence perform very well in the analysis, and in some cases outperform all of the variables considered in the published manuscript. The impressive performance of economic sanctions in particular is notable because this stands out as an international political factor that outperforms many domestic factors. Since sanctions involve an explicit policy choice they can be changed much more easily than many of the other things considered in the analysis, and this result provides a straightforward policy implication.

The primary purpose of our exercise was to see which of the numerous theoretical explanations for government violence are strongly supported by the evidence available to us. The answer to this question can inform future work on the topic. For example, scholars of economics, comparative politics, and law have written much about how strong court systems and constitutions can prevent various kinds of government abuse, and our analysis indicates that research on political violence can benefit from these insights. Also, we think that the study of political violence generally will benefit from considering the predictive accuracy of the theories we create, which provides direct evidence about the usefulness of our theories. Examining predictive accuracy offers a better way to evaluate theoretical explanations than looking for a statistically significant correlation. The substantive interpretation of predictive accuracy is also far more intuitive than that for statistical significance, which will be readily appreciated by anyone who has been put in the unfortunate position of having to explain the latter concept in a social science methods course. But besides speaking to academics, we also wanted to help generate knowledge that will be useful for policymakers. There is increasing interest in using statistical models to forecast political violence and instability, and some of this work receives considerable funding from the U.S. government. Though our analysis cannot properly be called forecasting, it does evaluate predictive accuracy and so represents a step in that general direction. Given recent public discussions of the (ir)relevance of political science research to the policy world, we urge other researchers to take the additional step of assessing their predictions.[3] The ability to accurately predict political violence will make the policy relevance of our research obvious to those who are still skeptical of the practical value of political science.

[1]Controlling, of course, for potentially confounding variables.

[2]For example, this method can automatically detect nonlinear relationships as well as interactions among the different variables we were interested in.

[3]The statistical analyses that scholars of political violence conduct produce predictions, whether they are evaluated or not.

Daniel W. Hill Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia. Zachary M. Jones is a Ph.D student in Political Science at Pennsylvania State University. 

Ride on the Peace Bandwagon

By Allison Beth Hodgkins

An Israeli Combat Engineer works to clear mines along the Jordanian border. Via the Israel Defense Forces.

An Israeli Combat Engineer works to clear mines along the Jordanian border. Via the Israel Defense Forces.

There are no commemorative coins marking the twentieth anniversary of Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel. On the contrary, there is no single issue in Jordanian political life that can bring more people into the streets than an opportunity to vent their anger at Israel, demand their government toss out the Israeli ambassador, and heed their demands to abrogate the treaty. In fact, protesting the treaty is such a routine affair that Jordanian riot police leave the metal barricades used for crowd control lined up in a vacant lot close to where the Israeli mission is housed. Why bother take them back to the warehouse they say; the protestors will be back next week and most likely the week after.

When I discussed the treaty with Jordanian officials and intellectuals last year, I got an earful about “Israel’s bad behavior,” its “intransigence,” its refusal to compromise and general arrogance in their dealings with the Kingdom. They had a litany of complaints about their putative peace partner: from stepping on Jordan’s role as guardian of the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem, to the way Israel was seen as using security as a “black box to keep the Palestinian market captive and deny Jordan access.” And these complaints came from Jordanians who took part in its negotiation or implementation!

Even among the staunchest supporters of the treaty, there was little hope in continued negotiations for fulfilling the promise of a “new middle east” they believed was possible two decades hence. As one put it, “in the [current] Israeli political scene the Israelis are racing and competing with each other to say we are not going to have a Palestinian state!” The only hope, he said, was for the United Nations to impose a solution. Yet should Jordan back off the treaty or downgrade diplomatic relations? No, that would be “too risky.”

Surprisingly, the reason the treaty is seen as worth the domestic cost is not Jordan’s dependency on financial support from the United States. While they appreciate US aid and do draw a connection between the treaty and its ready availability, the rationale for the remarkable constancy in Jordanian-Israeli relations is Jordan’s need for protection. As they see it, Jordan is not only the weakest player in a rough neighborhood but wedged uncomfortably between rival gangs and habitually at risk for being caught in the cross fire. “The United States may be the global big brother,” they say, “But Israeli is the regional policeman.”

In the chaotic regional environment, the public nature of Jordan’s relations with Israel and the United States are seen as both a deterrent and a hedge against abandonment should the civil strife in neighboring states spill over the Kingdom’s borders. However, while the unrest in Syria and Iraq and the growing influence and power of “nihilistic groups with no ideology other than hatred and destruction,” are the most immediate dangers, it is the latent threats they see as emanating from Israel itself that is the number one reason they argue Jordan has no choice other than upholding the treaty.

For most of the world, the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has brought renewed fears of violent uprisings, terrorism and intense questioning over the future of Israeli democracy or the fading prospects for Palestinian self-determination. However in Jordan, the failure of the Oslo Accords has revived fears of the “watan badil;” the alternative homeland, or the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by making Jordan the de-facto or de-jure Palestinian state. As many policy makers and intellectuals see it, without the treaty, “we would become the bad guys; Israel would no longer protect us; the Palestinians would be pushed out and Jordan would disappear.”

While such fears are generally written off as “Arab conspiracy theories” or evidence of latent anti-Semitism on the part of Jordanian officials, there is a widely held belief in Jordan that Israel would not hesitate to settle their conflict with the Palestinians at their expense. There are few among Jordan’s elite who believe Israel is harboring a secret plot to empty the West Bank of its population or to topple the Hashemite regime. Rather, they are leery of the possibility that increasing violence in the territories could drag Jordan into an unwanted confrontation or simply leave it to cope with the consequences of Israeli unilateral actions in annexing territories or encouraging Palestinians to make use of Dayan’s “open bridges” policy.

From their perspective, keeping the treaty makes it difficult for Israel to argue they have no partners for peace, there are hostile states on their borders or, as the late Yitzhak Shamir was want to say -there is a Palestinian state across the river in all but name only. In other words, Jordanians describe the peace treaty as something akin to a protection racket – we keep your border safe, you respect our sovereignty. Or, an exercise in bandwagoning: an alliance with a powerful, proximate state who is both a valuable source of protection and potentially dangerous adversary. Thus, although many US think tanks fret about the fragility of the treaty and the likelihood it will be jettisoned without regular injections of cash, it is unlikely that the status quo in Jordanian-Israeli relations will change. The irony is that it is the absence of peace that makes keeping the peace an essential pillar of Jordan’s foreign policy.

Measuring, “Denying” & “Trivializing” Deaths in the Case of Rwanda

By Christian Davenport

Bones of victims at a memorial to the Rwandan genocide. By DFID.

Bones of victims at a memorial to the Rwandan genocide. By DFID.

Reading “The Reign of ‘Terror” by Tomis Kapitan in the New York Times on October 19th, I was struck by the following passage:

…the rhetoric of “terror” has had these effects:

1) It erases any incentive the public might have to understand the nature and origins of their grievances so that the possible legitimacy of their demands will not be raised.

2) It deflects attention away from one’s own policies that might have contributed to their grievances.

3) It repudiates any calls for negotiation.

4) It obliterates the distinction between national liberation movements and fringe fanatics (for example, during the 1990s, the “terrorist” label was applied to Nelson Mandela and Timothy McVeigh alike);

5) It paves the way for the use of force by making it easier for a government to exploit the fears of its citizens and ignore objections to the manner in which it responds to terrorist violence.

Now, this passage struck me because for a few years now I have been trying to deal with interesting labels that have the same effect on discussion of what took place during Rwanda in 1994 (e.g., “denier”, “denialism”, “trivialization” and “minimization”). As mentioned by Kapitan, the word terrorism ends conversation, it suspends thought, it prompts emotion, and then it facilitates all types of actions on the side of the accuser. The accused is kind of just caught there like a deer in the headlights and in the silence an audience builds up hostility that such a thing could happen. Similarly, using the phrase denier or denialism, and even more problematic (I will argue), trivializing and minimization, is generally not good for those of us that are interested in trying to systematically identify, evaluate and understand diverse phenomenon including – arrests, protests, torture, lynching, disappearances, conflict related rape, terrorism, targeted assassination, beating and mass killing. Indeed, individuals engaged in such efforts struggle a great deal to obtain information that is reliable, make evaluations that are decent and draw conclusions that logically follow from what we have seen. For example, such efforts and debates have informed discussions of casualty counts in Cambodia, Kosovo, Guatemala, recently Iraq and the Holocaust. Without a discussion of sources, biases, alternative estimation procedures, different interpretations, ranges of estimations and error, our understanding of these cases would have gone nowhere.

This creates something of a paradox. In a sense, what is most needed after some horrific event has taken place that one wishes to understand (be it Bloody Sunday, how many civilians are dying in Iraq or died at Wounded Knee) is academic freedom – openness, freedom to collect, to explore, to posit, reflect, revisit, interpret and repeat. Without this, the scientific enterprise cannot continue. Indeed, these are central to the process. Unfortunately, openness, freedom to collect, explore, posit, reflect, revisit and interpret do not frequently follow after horrific events. There is a window for such revelations and after the window is shut (discussed below), then the conversation is kind of over.

Now, science is not always used properly and this is something that demands mentioning. Once upon a time individuals in Europe, the United States and diverse parts of the world went all over the place measuring people’s heads in order to determine their level of intelligence. Once upon a time it was commonly believed (nay known) that the earth was flat. Science was used to back these beliefs and the discussions that accompanied them. Similarly, Israel Charny reminds us that science could be used in an effort to deny or trivialize diverse form of political violence like genocide. As he describes:

The position taken is seemingly an innocent one that we do not know enough to know what the facts of history were, and rather than condemning anyone we should await the ultimate decision of research. This is a manipulative misuse of the valued principle in science that facts must be proven before they are accepted in order to obfuscate facts that are indeed known, and to confuse the minds of fair-minded people who do not want to fall prey to myths and propaganda. The very purpose of science, which is to know, is invoked in order to justify a form of know-nothingness.

Is denial the same thing as trivialization however? I do not think so. Denial seems clearly more dichotomous. Something happened or it did not. Whereas trivialization is more nuanced. Here, there is a range or baseline that exists and if someone deviates from it (i.e., discusses a number outside of a range or below a baseline), then the user is accused of trivialization. This is an issue because these two labels and estimation strategies are frequently placed together. Lumping them together, however, is a major problem.

For example, if there is an established figure or range of figures, say of casualties, that has been provided by an exceptional research effort, then these labels make some sense and someone that is attempting to adjust the relevant figures is then denying, trivializing and revising that which has been put forward; in this context, trivializing is a form of denying. For example, in an exceptional research effort on Kosovo, it appears that every single death has been accounted for as the research behind this compilation has been uniformly viewed as the best that could possibly be conducted. If one does not believe it, then they can look at the database, the methodology as well as the background materials used to provide information. It’s all right there. To move from these numbers is not only to deny reality that was captured by this exquisite research effort but it is essentially to engage in a fantastic trip down to some other world where such evidence does not exist. What if this heretic emerges? I believe too much in freedom of speech to believe that these people should be censored, or worse yet put in prison, but I do believe that there should be some standard of evidence that these people should meet before anyone publishes their work or gives them a chance to speak. Unfortunately, this standard is not widely known and thus deniers and trivializers abound.

In contrast, however, if the figure or range of figures that is put forward is not based upon a solid foundation like within the example above, then this is a very different situation. In this context, the label of trivialization, or worse yet its associate denial/denialism, could actually prevent the creation of a good investigation, interpretation and understanding for once the labels are applied, we end up with a Kapitan: no discussion, no sharing of information, no re-analysis, no replication and even potentially hostility with some name calling and a threat or two. Indeed, when a study like the Kosovo research noted above has not been undertaken, then it makes sense that we will end up with a range of figures and estimates with a decent amount of error. With poor methods of collection, poor data and poor estimation procedures, we should not be surprised by the outcome: poor measurement with a decent amount of error within them. It is still possible here that people could agree that even with the poor measurement that something did occur – thus denial could be addressed. Trivialization would be harder to deal with though as there would be a contested/contestable range of estimations that would emerge.

Now, this discussion is relevant to Rwanda for there has been no study conducted of the subject that is at the quality of the Kosovo study noted above. To date, there have been several institutions and individual scholars that have put forward estimations but none of them approach the degree of rigor of the kind provided by the research noted above. Several do not even report the methodology that was applied; some exercise caution in telling readers how they should view the material placed before them; none have released the raw data that were used in the calculations themselves; and, only one report offers any sense of the error in their assessment (which is approximately double the lower estimation). I call these Semi-Rigorous, Type 1 estimations. The sources, total casualties as well as Tutsi and Hutu figures derived from these studies follow below:

Differing from Charny’s argument above, there have already been numerous attempts put forward to understand what took place on Rwanda – with varying degrees of rigor being used to justify the efforts as well as the conclusions. Knowledge production has thus not been halted. Indeed, it has been seemingly moving forward and for a while. The problem here is that the process has apparently stopped because the Rwandan government has claimed to have conducted the best analysis of the topic and through domestic law as well as a vocal community of scholars and institutions have foreclosed any more discussion.

However, the “definitive” study appears to be anything but. To date, there has been no public release of the government’s data used to make the claims regarding who did what to whom so that scholars from around the world can explore as well as validate what has already been undertaken invoking the best standards of replication and re-analysis that define the scientific method. There has been no access given to a neutral body like the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences or some equivalent scholarly research organization elsewhere in the world or all relevant institutions throughout the globe for the purpose of replication and re-analysis. In fact, all there has been is silence or two words: denial and trivialization, neither of which advances discussion or understanding. It gets worse. First, if one questions the methodology or conclusions being put forward, then it is possible that one is identified as either a collaborator with mass murderers or guilty of stoking the fires of continued violence through prompting “divisionism” – a punishable offense in Rwanda and something that some Rwandans are calling upon to be an international crime. Here, a call for reflection and the scholarly reexamination of research findings (a cornerstone of the scientific process) can be framed in a way that invites name-calling, censorship, intimidation and imprisonment. Second, the defense against denialism and trivialization is hindered by lack of an equally powerful label. What is the defense against denialism and trivialization? Contextualization? Too complex. Truth? Well, those who wield the labels denialism and trivialization lay claim to that. Science? Also a non-starter. Who would want to put up science against truth? Only a scientist. Everybody else would go with “truth.”

Interestingly, with this move to think about challenging trivialization in discussions of measurement error and alternative interpretations, Charny’s claim has been altered in important ways. In this case:

The position taken is seemingly an innocent one that we know enough to know what the facts of history were, and having the ultimate research available to us we condemn anyone that seeks to question it. This is a manipulative misuse of the valued principle in science that facts that are “proven” are beyond scrutiny and scrutinizing would only serve to confuse the minds of fair-minded people who do not want to fall prey to myths and propaganda. The very purpose of science, which is to know, is invoked in order to justify a form of know-everythingness.

Of course, not all efforts are equally flawed and non-transparent. There is some of what I call Rigorous, Type 2 estimations about Rwanda: One is undertaken by Prof. Allan Stam and myself (2004-2014); another is undertaken by Marijke Verpooten (2005; 2012). Differing from the work above, both of these studies report the methodology that was applied, caution in telling readers how they should view the material placed before them, make available all raw data that were used in the calculations themselves and provide some sense of the error in their assessment. These do not approach the quality of the Kosovo study but they do provide a greater degree of transparency, technical sophistication and awareness of limitations than those in Type 1 above.

Within this work, Davenport and Stam employed an analysis that was based on sources taken from the Rwandan government (e.g., the Census of 1991; Ministries of Education; Youth, Culture and Sport; and, the Ministry of Local Affairs) as well as diverse human rights organizations (e.g., African Rights; Ibuka; and, Human Rights Watch). The figures reported are from their median and higher level analysis described on their GenoDynamics webpage. In addition to this work, there were also dozens of interviews conducted with survivors as well as perpetrators, 10 focus groups and a survey of citizens in Butare about experiences during the period of conflict (i.e., the civil war, genocide and non-ethnic massacres). In her analysis, Verpooten employed an analysis based upon the Rwandan census of 1991 and an administrative population analysis in 1990 within Gikongoro, engaging in a very detailed comparison between the two as well as diverse simulations of what projections/estimations were most likely.

Now the difference between Types 1 and 2 are significant in a variety of ways but the biggest point is the question of what should be done about the variation in estimates that is found across the studies. I would contend that with the variation revealed above and the lack of release of data concerning most of the efforts noted, that the subject of casualty counts in Rwanda is very far from definitive. This said, the findings to suggest that all discussions about denial are completely unfounded. All studies identify ethnic targeting and if we agree that this includes some behavior that was directed toward the elimination of the Tutsi (in whole or in part), then we have genocide. As for trivialization, however, we have a different situation. As the figures regarding who was killed from each group are far from uniform and there is essentially no baseline against which one can compare figures, then it appears to be the case that more investigation is required and not less. While the dichotomous claim of genocide/no genocide has thus been resolved. The more nuanced evaluation of how many individuals from each group have been killed is still open for debate. And, this is where we now sit. Some attempt to have a discussion of who did what to whom and discuss the range of casualties, figuring out what happened and why maintaining that there is much that we do not yet understand. Others attempt to shut discussion down and eliminate further discussion of who, what, when, where and why arguing that there is nothing left to know.

Turkey, Syria, and the Dormant Dilemmas of Sovereignty

Guest post by Gabriel Mitchell and Ariel I. Ahram

Caber Kalesi, a tomb and Turkish exclave within Syria that has become a flashpoint in the conflict. Via wikimedia.

Caber Kalesi, a tomb and Turkish exclave within Syria that has become a flashpoint in the conflict. Via wikimedia.

Since Turkey’s decision to support Bashar al-Assad’s ouster in 2011, its 900-kilometer border with Syria has become increasingly volatile. Sporadic military altercations, a severe refugee crisis, and the emergence of new quasi-state actors like ISIS and the Kurdish PYD enclave have awakened long dormant territorial disputes. The roots of these problems lay in the treaties that demarcated the Turkish-Syrian border after the First World War and, in effect, created the countries of Turkey and Syria themselves.  Without a comprehensive effort to rectify and normalize these borders, Turkey will always be at the brink of slipping into Syria’s communal quagmire.

The Treaty of Lausanne is best known for establishing Turkey’s modern borders, but in fact it was the last of three accords that ultimately doomed the Ottoman Empire. Building off the secret Sykes-Picot agreement in which Britain and France divided the Near East between them, the 1920 Treaty of Sevres annulled Ottoman sovereignty over Greater Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and the Balkans. British, French, Greek, Italian, and Armenian armies invaded the Anatolia, threatening to divide the Turkish heartland itself.

However the Treaty of Sevres never got off the ground. Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, rallied the remnants of Ottoman forces and assembled a new Grand Turkish National Assembly in Ankara that rejected the treaty. Within a year he had accomplished the unthinkable, routing the Allied forces, and compelling a new round of negotiations over the nascent Turkish state’s borders.

The Treaty of Ankara, settled between France and the Grand Turkish National Assembly, delineated Turkey’s southern border. France turned over much of today’s southeastern Turkey, and in exchange Kemal acknowledged that the new republic held no further claims over former Ottoman territory. The detailed description of the boundary effectively follows the route of the still incomplete Berlin-Baghdad Railway between Aleppo and Mosul. Kobane – the latest town to which Kurdish refugees are besieged by ISIS forces – was little more than a station along this route. Its name is likely a corruption of the word “kompanie”, in honor of the German firms who funded and designed the audacious project a decade earlier. Split into two parts by the treaty, Kurdish and Armenian migrants turned the Syrian half into a prosperous border town.

The treaty also recognized Turkish sovereignty over Caber Kalesi, the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of Osman I, the eponymous founder of the Ottoman dynasty. Though Atatürk wanted to distinguish the secular republic from its Ottoman past, even he could not outrun such an illustrious legacy. Detailed in Article 9 of the treaty, the tomb and all its appurtenances remained “the property of Turkey, who may appoint guardians for it and may hoist the Turkish flag there”. Barely the size of two football fields and just 35 kilometers south of Kobane, Caber Kalesi became a portion of Turkey entirely surrounded by Syrian territory. The French, and later the Syrians, followed the terms of the treaty to the letter even under the most extreme circumstances. When Syria decided to build the Taqba Dam in 1973, Damascus agreed to relocated the tomb to a higher elevation in order to prevent its flooding. But rather than move the tomb to Turkey proper, Caber Kalesi remained a Turkish exclave, surrounded by the Euphrates River and the Syrian Desert.

Caber Kalesi seemed like a minor stipulation compared to the settlement over the ethnically and religiously diverse province of Alexandretta, known in Arabic as İskenderun and in Turkish as Hatay. Situated on the Mediterranean coast, Alexandretta was the location of the ancient port of Antioch and a prized strategic, economic, and agricultural center. Despite the fact that Turks comprised the largest ethnic population within the province, the French hoped to retain it within the Mandate as a semi-autonomous zone within a special administrative regime. Turkey begrudgingly accepted the scheme, provided that Turks would “enjoy every facility for their cultural development”. But Kemal continued to challenge the Franco-Syrian hold. He would forever call the province “Hatay,” drawing a historical link between the region’s Hittite origins and Turkey’s claims to the land.

Weighed down by their colonial commitment and fearful that Turkey was tilting toward Nazi Germany, France finally agreed to re-examine the case of Alexandretta in the mid-1930s. In 1937 the League of Nations granted the province autonomy with joint French and Turkish military supervision. Turkish troops began to infiltrate the area, pressuring Arab and Armenians in the area to accede to expanded Turkish control. Two years later the League supervised a controversial referendum in which the population voted to support union with Turkey. Alexandretta became Hatay. Though still not independent, Syrian leadership decried the loss of Alexandretta as a French conspiracy. Upon declaring independence in 1946, Syria campaigned for Hatay’s retrocession, claiming that the referendum was a violation of the French Mandate charter and the voting results had been fixed.

Hatay remained a sticking point in Turkish-Syrian relations. When the PKK launched its armed conflict against Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, Hafez Assad provided a base of operations from which the Kurdish terror organization could subvert Turkey’s empirical sovereignty in Hatay and the rest of the Turkish southeast. In the mid-2000s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Turkey’s Prime Minister, tried to develop trade relations with neighboring Syria, but Damascus never dropped its claims over the disputed region.

With the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, Turkey has sought out ties with various belligerent sides to ensure its continued hold over Hatay and its rights over the Caber Kalesi exclave. Some opposition groups, eager to court Ankara’s favor, have signaled their willingness to forgo the claim on Hatay and even gone so far as to remove it from maps of Syria. But the situation on the ground is tense. Hatay is both a haven for refugees and a gateway for rebels, including many foreign jihadists. On May 11, 2013, twin car bombings in the Hatay town of Reyhanli killed 52 and wounded over 150. It was the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s history. Erdoğan blamed the Syrian government, but some argue that jihadist rebels were responsible. To make matters worse, Erdoğan’s recent use of sectarian rhetoric has alienated the remnants of Hatay’s once sizeable Arab population.

The legacies of ambiguous, irregular, and disputed borders that emerged in the 1920s continue to define Turkey’s relationship with its southern neighbors. However, as both Syrian and Turkish sovereignty fray, new quasi-state actors like the Kurdish PYD and ISIS endanger that fragile balance. Turkey is wary of military solutions to this problem; violence could elicit a regional escalation that would embolden both the Islamic radicals and Kurdish separatists at Turkey’s doorstep. Accordingly, Ankara’s response has been largely defensive, if not tentative. Responding to ISIS advances on Caber Kalesi in late September (an immediate and direct threat to sovereign Turkish territory), Turkey dispatched Special Forces to serve as a deterrent and trip-wire. Still, Turkey has so far refused to cooperate with U.S. airstrikes or assist Kurdish forces that might hold irredentism claims on southern Turkey. But this “wait and see” policy has alienated friend and foe alike. For nearly a century Ankara has sought to define its southern border and its sovereignty by force. Now that strategy looks increasingly perilous. New approaches to borders and sovereignty will need to emerge if Turkey is to avoid becoming the latest victim of the spillover of the Syrian conflict.

Gabriel Mitchell (@GabiMitch) is a PhD candidate in Government & International Relations at Virginia Tech University and the Israel-Turkey Project Coordinator for Mitvim—The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign PoliciesAriel I. Ahram (@arielahram) is an assistant professor of government and international relations in the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias (Stanford, 2011).


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