beyond witness

At an unknown moment, to an unknown place, the witnesses began to disappear. For four years, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the patchwork global justice body, gathered a robust docket of anonymous eyewitnesses, each planning to testify against Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s sitting president, and his fellow architects of violence. Kenyatta’s colleagues, in the days following Mwai Kibaki’s probably-stolen 2007 election, stoked the mass killing of hundreds of people. Some were civilians, and some not; others, somewhere uncomfortably in between. These were Kenyatta’s crimes, the witnesses would say.

Except now, they will not. Its political future secure–Kenyatta’s party out-performed its opposition in a 2013 contest both fairer and less violent than its prequel–Kenya’s current national government has waged clandestine sabotage against the witnesses and their testimony. The ICC witnesses are identified, harassed, intimidated; disappeared, in that ominous passive voice. Once, a witness testimony was the only feature of their unspoken name; now, absent audience–stripped of key evidence, the Office of the Prosecutor recently requested a procedural delay–the act of witness is fully anonymous.

During the last several months, Kenyan poets have adopted the many mantles of the court’s silenced witnesses. The ICC Witness Project, as the poetry collection is titled, is a testimony never voiced. The collection tells a story, of the resilient violence of Kenya’s politics, but it never becomes one; there are neither characters to admire or despise nor arcs to follow. Despite this, as Aaron Bady writes, the poets’ stanzas are a narrative of sorts, hastily compiled from the anonymous trauma of Kenya’s violence. From Witness 130, of 144:

“After the killing blow

comes the
next one
And the one after”

Post-facto memory is the subject of Kenya’s witness-poetry; what comes before violence is of little concern. Even so, the anticipation of violence–policymakers refer to this as “early warning”–occupies a similar mode. Like the poets’ memory-fragments, the events that precede violence–“indicators”–are fractal objects. If indicators imply eventual violence, their conclusion is haphazard and undetermined. Rwanda’s present is a useful example. As Jay Ulfelder notes, following a summary of multiple expert opinions, future mass civilian violence by government-sponsored forces is likely. When precisely this event will occur is unknown.

That we can know better is a frequent assertion among mass atrocity analysts, who now use various tools–quantitative, qualitative, geospatial–to anticipate mass violence. Each early warning system differs in its research design, its algorithmic model, and its criteria for “success”–that is, whether its indicators correctly predicted new mass violence. In several cases, these systems are buttressed by new technologies, which collect, manage, and process new types of atrocity information. A recent OpenCanada post by Robert Muggah, a researcher and advocate, applauded the “breathtaking potential” of these digital systems:

“A first generation of early-warning systems designed to protect civilians from extreme violence emerged after the failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Many early innovations were taken up by inter-governmental, multilateral and bilateral agencies. A second generation of crisis mapping and prevention tools was spawned a decade later owing to widespread improvements in digital connectivity, cloud computing, and the proliferation of ICTs. The most prominent of these are Ushahidi, Frontline SMS, and other crisis mapping platforms. Both grassroots organizations and individuals are deploying these new tools in conflicts and humanitarian crises around the world. There is also a third generation of emerging digital systems that are providing 24/7 surveillance in the world’s hotspots through a combination of earlier methods together with Big Data analysis and drone surveillance.” [Emphasis in original.]

The use of these technologies is not monolithic, and these systems often work in tandem. Indeed, beyond their common humanitarian concern, it makes little sense to discuss the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s public early warning system, which uses large data-processing software, among other sources, to develop event forecasts, alongside the efforts of the Humanitarian UAV Network, which gathers humanitarian information through remotely-controlled aerial vehicles (“drones,” as it were).

Whatever their different approaches, each early warning system shares a single feature: a common theory of change, that better public knowledge–and foreknowledge–can reshape the future of mass atrocities. Almost every project at the small intersection of technology and mass atrocity prevention aligns with a recent wave of enthusiasm for the open-source. At its best, the project design is transparent, and its output, accessible. This makes sense: if you intend to improve public action against mass atrocities, the public should be able to access your tools.

Early warning advocates rightly champion Kenyan organizations who, in the face of escalating violence in early 2008, transmitted atrocity reports from the field. Organizations like Ushahidi recorded violence where communication technology allowed access to SMS-based platforms. In support of domestic security forces–those protecting civilians, at least–and international organizations, volunteers used digital means to record new local outbreaks. In the end, it was the digital “public”–in Kenya and abroad–that bore witness; where the appropriate technology was inaccessible, or where civilians remained too vulnerable to transmit reports, that “public” was a partial fiction. The same lyric testimonies, transcribed by the ICC Witness Project, that expanded this public in the aftermath of Kenya’s violence revealed its initial limits.

As both Sean Langberg and Danny Hirschel-Burns observe, the distribution of atrocity information to vulnerable populations is the next great challenge of mass atrocity response. Over the past three decades, witness-bearing has amply advanced both the general human condition and its guiding norms. But as civilian violence continues, it may be time to look beyond its moral virtues. The global flow of information is never a neutral arbiter; during some atrocity events, the same public knowledge that seeks to protect vulnerable populations may only deepen their insecurity. In those circumstances, witness, in the globally public sense, causes little impact at best, and significant harm, at worst. Meanwhile, atrocity information gathered by actors beyond the conflict zone–from the field, or through various surveillance technologies–rarely returns to the civilians who need it most. As presently designed, public digital witness will not restore that flow of information, nor warn civilians of emerging threats vulnerabilities. The reconstruction of either lies first in the renewed strength of civilians’ analog public–the social bonds that distribute information, and those that restrict it–and only then in the novelty of their digital technology.

The need beyond witness is a strategic question: how humanitarian organizations think about their role in civilian protection, and how they identify the purpose of the information they gather. Its operational counterpart is trickier. In this vein, humanitarian groups may learn a thing or two from the task of intelligence, albeit with wildly divergent objectives. For intelligence organizations, the security of information–in many cases, dangerous information–is paramount. Atrocity information should be no different. If global public knowledge of impending violence can make civilians vulnerable, the information returned to its potential beneficiaries should be secure.

information as institution

Last month, rumors emerged of an Ebola outbreak in Guinea; by March 26, Guinean health officials reported 63 deaths as a result of hemorrhagic fever, a key symptom of the virus. When interviewed, Guinean citizens, humanitarian workers, and health officials have referenced the social corrosion of Ebola’s viral spread. “Rumors are rife among communities,” said one Guinean aid worker. If the response of Guinea’s health ministry and its regional partners has improved, all but containing Ebola’s spread, disinformation remains rampant. Earlier this week, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has provided emergency medical services in Guinea since 2001, surged its in-country staff, in part to more broadly deliver public health information to Ebola-prone communities.

Remote Guinean communities are globally opaque; located abroad, humanitarian groups may arrive with limited information about access points, infrastructure, quarantine spots, and potential sites of Ebola outbreak. As during recent separate crises, humanitarian crisis-mappers have attempted to fill these gaps. Since early this week, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOTOSM), a volunteer-based coalition of geographers, imagery analysts, and data scientists, has mapped three key towns to which MSF may deploy. HOTOSM’s “open” platform refers to the group’s crowd-sourced operations rather than its output, which exists on a restricted-access site. Other OpenStreetMap efforts, such as the group’s flagship map, are fully public. To confront MSF’s Guinea operations, HOTOSM has adapted its parent-group’s design to manage and produce sensitive data.

In past writing, I have described information as a resource: it is scarce or abundant, or somewhere in between, and various groups may control its distribution. Indeed, the scarcity of information is among the motivating factors behind MSF’s response to the Guinean Ebola outbreak. Here, information also mimics–albeit imperfectly–a discrete institution. Institutions have rules that restrict their members, and structures that govern relationships in their internal society. Public health services determine who lives, who is treated, who is infected, and, too often, who dies. As an institution, information is similarly fickle. Rumors generate violence; disinformation may further endanger a vulnerable civilian; and, true, accurate information may enable that same person’s survival. Power and privilege, which govern institutions the world over, also determine a civilian’s unequal access to the institution of information, and to knowledge of their health, safety, and security.

The right to information, as a moral notion, is a product of a global democratic norm that promotes transparent governance as its keystone. In the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) sense, the right to information presumes capacity–that is, that the institution from which public information is acquired is able to collect, protect, restrict, and distribute its knowledge. Recently, humanitarian groups, such as the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Signal Program, have invoked a humanitarian right to information, to enable various state and non-state groups to better use information communication technologies (ICTs) to assist civilians in disaster-affected areas. The humanitarian right to information applies to the context in which civilians use information, and not the institution that supplies it.

Both norms–the transparency of information and its humanitarian right–view information as a resource, to be given by some and removed by others. This frame is sensible but limiting. If information is primarily a resource, and ICTs its vessel, those civilians who lack the latter must logically also lack the former. This is rarely the case. Guinean residents have had information amid the Ebola crisis; however, that information, especially prior to MSF’s arrival, was often inaccurate or delayed. Likewise, civilians during conflict have information, but it is often poor and insecure.

If information exists throughout, and is neither simply scarce nor abundant, “institution” may be our most effective metaphor for its social function. Weak institutions provide an inadequate basis for social cohesion, while strong ones unite and secure human livelihoods. In securing the right to information during crises, especially conflict, international actors should seek to strengthen crippled institutions, rather than to provide a lacking resource. Only then can humanitarians expect a brighter future for civilian protection.

Update: Kate Chapman, the director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, has provided the following comment below, reposted here: “Which restricted access site are you referring? All the data being digitized goes directly into OpenStreetMap and is available publicly.” For those users interested in the mechanics of HOTOSM’s crowd-mapping exercise, this clarification is helpful. Thanks, Kate.

on ukraine’s mass violence

Each viewer observes the photography of the ongoing street battles in Ukraine’s capital through a different violent analogue. “Shit, Kiev” may refer to a clustered unit of riot police; a rolling, ashen cumulus; a ramshackle barricade; or, an injured protester wandering amid the city’s flaming carcass. These scenes are Civilization V, Zack Snyder’s latest superheroic melee, an imagined siege of Stalingrad–at once, or each alone, depending on your vantage. The impression of the carnage, of that protester overwhelmed by his crumbling environs, dehumanizes as it empowers.

If Kiev is the current center-stage, Ukrainian politics, especially since the country’s national elections in 2012, is a tragedy of continuous errors. Triggered by the current government’s side-step towards the authoritarian patronage of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the EuroMaidan movement trumpets its cosmopolitan virtue. As elsewhere, however, Ukraine’s European future is merely the movement’s vanguard. The EuroMaidan–literally, the “European square”–is a rendezvous between grievances local and global. While the movement’s core contests the pro-Russia stance of President Viktor Yanukovych, others raise the country’s oligarchic turn, or the repression of civil society, or of media, or of political opposition. Ukraine’s democratic promise, a voguish topic during the Cold War’s aftermath, is now a tattered work of historical fiction.

Kiev is the EuroMaidan’s icon, as Tahrir or Taksim were Egypt’s or Turkey’s, respectively. The gradual fracture of the Ukrainian polity also extends far beyond the rubbled borders of Independence Square. To Lviv, where, at time of writing, opposition protesters seize control of local municipal buildings. To Crimea, that historically autonomous thruway along the Eurasian Black Sea, where pro-Russian MPs now gains an ever-stronger foothold. Ukraine’s internal disorder, so momentous, betrays the false rhythm of its capital city’s repressive barrage.

Kiev’s violence, like any violence, is no bold romance. The Square’s apocalypse–the billowing smoke-monsters, and what they represent–absorbs the half-life of Ukraine’s civil society, which struggles against the subtle violence of the Yanukovych regime. The glacial decay of the Ukrainian public sphere, as a political thing, is a years-long, intentional affair. In the decade since the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine’s governing patrons have engaged an aggressive campaign of civic subterfuge. Hired hands extract, scalpel-like, the popular grist of Ukrainian social movements. By authoritarian design, the organizations that comprise the EuroMaidan have become the weak, vulnerable pillars of now-shrinking public.

This, too, is an image of mass violence, albeit one quite unlike its contemporary counterparts in Syria and the Central African Republic. An event’s massiveness refers to a measurement far greater than its basic body count, which, in Ukraine, is infinitesimal, however tragic. Kiev’s apocalyptic photographs display the imminent destruction of Ukraine’s public sphere, a human innovation: fallen buildings and scorched storefronts, darkened thresholds, uncobbled avenues. The terror-stricken bystander, a lone civilian, masked in her own blood.

why have mass atrocities declined in east asia?

The politics of East Asia have many problems, but mass violence ain’t one. So says Alex Bellamy, who compiles the relevant event data to describe the recent historical decline of mass atrocities in the region:

There are now fewer cases of genocide and mass atrocities in East Asia today than at any point in history for which we have reliable records. This article demonstrates and then tries to account for the dramatic decline of mass atrocities in East Asia. It argues that the decline was enabled by a combination of three major structural changes: reduction in the selection of mass atrocities as a weapon of war, increase in incomes, and progress towards democratization combined with the emergence of new ideas about sovereignty and their accommodation with existing principles of non-interference. Together, these structural and ideational changes created a changed regional context of increased costs and reduced payoffs for the commission of mass atrocities.

The imminent decline of mass atrocities contrasts against another recent, more tragic trend in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia: the region’s widespread occurrence of mass violence. As the current humanitarian crisis of Burma‘s Rohingya population suggests, the regional outlook is a patch-quilt of violent politics with inconsistent spots of non-conflict, and not the reverse. To his credit, Bellamy acknowledges the fragility of his first trend, which may yet conclude in a more dismal future for East Asia’s civilians. Even so, the post-Cold War data indisputably imply these civilians’ relative, if temporary security.

But why? In an earlier draft, Bellamy places the strategic use of mass violence, income growth, and regional democratization alongside shifting norms of human security; in this edition, the first three variables are separate, but interact with their latter counterpart. While human security norms–human rights, collective security, and the “responsibility to protect,” among others–proliferated amid East Asia’s era of mass violence, the political, economic, and social trends that Bellamy describes elevated the norms’ institutional importance. This explanation projects a liberal future for regional human security: the more peaceful, the more prosperous, and the more democratic East Asia becomes, the fewer civilians will die.

The liberal theory of mass atrocities’ decline feels good. Its empirical value, however, is foggier. Two gaps stick out: the political consequences of East Asia, as an aggregated regional unit, for human security are marginal; and, the “post-sovereignty” norms of East Asia’s “new” consensus are less new than Bellamy describes.

Breaking down “East Asia”: In some contexts, it makes sense to describe “regional trends.” A “region” like East Asia is many things–a geographic unit, a series of political bodies, an economic zone. If a river spans across multiple states, provinces, or local government areas, its riparian politics are accurately described as a “regional” event. Perhaps as a consequence of the region’s geography, the impact of East Asia’s human security crises is often more diffuse. In the 17 East Asian mass atrocity events Bellamy lists in a 2012 report, few beyond the (several) events linked to the 19-year Vietnam war–repression, mass killing, and civil conflict in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia–are regional phenomena. The events are not isolated, per se; in several, like Indonesia or North Korea, the geopolitics of U.S.-Soviet proxy violence or China’s regional sphere of influence, respectively, prompt their occurrence. In contrast to Central Africa, where regional security crises like the Rwandan genocide spawned subsequent mass suffering, or West Africa, where Liberia’s civil war spawned the same, East Asian mass atrocity events appear either significantly interdependent (Vietnam, et al.), or scarcely so (Indonesia, the Philippines, North Korea, and China).

East Asia’s norm “consensus”: Bellamy describes the “responsibility to protect” norm as an emerging consensus among East Asian states and security institutions. As Bellamy writes elsewhere, prominent security documents, treaty commitments, public statements, and diplomatic priorities suggest that, where possible, East Asian foreign policy agendas adopt human security priorities. That “where possible,” however, is key. Public statements of regional groups like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations demonstrate the partial success of human security norms; on the other hand, China’s inconsistent posture towards Burmese military abuses suggest these norms are less active than Bellamy asserts.

we’re getting better at thinking about mass atrocities

Every year, the U.S. government’s director of national intelligence, the Grand Poobah of the U.S. intelligence community, releases a public, unclassified “worldwide threat assessment.” Most years, the threat assessment is a tedious, bureaucratic document: it signals, to Congress, foreign policy priorities that are obvious to the average U.S. news-reader. Strictly speaking, it is not an analytic document, but a political one. It conveys–to Congress, to the general public, to the internal U.S. government bureaucracy–what policymakers want other political officials to find important, to fund, and to authorize. It does not capture, vacuum-like, the full scope of global threats to the national security, safety, and livelihood of the United States and its citizens.

In that sense, the document is useful because it describes the things that policymakers care about, and, more importantly, how policymakers themselves describe those things. Since 2010, the worldwide threat assessment has included a brief section about mass killing, genocide, or mass atrocities. The section, as John Allen Gay observes, is “always about one box-checking paragraph long.” Mass atrocity prevention is, and will remain, a marginal priority for the U.S. government, and five years of annual threat assessments reflect its unimpressive stature.

Still, this year’s threat assessment is remarkable–not because it conveys a new focus on mass atrocities, but because it frames the old focus in a better way:

“The overall risk of mass atrocities worldwide will probably increase in 2014 and beyond. Trends driving this increase include more social mobilization, violent conflict, including communal violence, and other forms of instability that spill over borders and exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions; diminished or stagnant quality of governance; and widespread impunity for past abuses. Many countries at risk of mass atrocities will likely be open to influence to prevent or mitigate them. This is because they are dependent on Western assistance or multilateral missions in their countries, have the political will to prevent mass atrocities, or would be responsive to international scrutiny. Overall international will and capability to prevent or mitigate mass atrocities will likely diminish in 2014 and beyond, although support for human rights norms to prevent atrocities will almost certainly deepen among some non-government organizations. Much of the world will almost certainly turn to the United States for leadership to prevent and respond to mass atrocities.”

As Jay Ulfelder observes, the contents of this paragraph are debatable: twelve years after the establishment of the International Criminal Court, it’s not clear that international criminal justice–the popular salve for grave impunity–contributes much to the onset of mass atrocities; additionally, “international will” is a clichéd, unhelpful bellwether of mass atrocity response. Even so, the paragraph suggests that the U.S. government, or at least the U.S. intelligence community, now views mass atrocities as a systemic trend, rather than a haphazard assortment of violent conflicts. For example, compare the 2014 threat assessment to the 2012 edition, the first published after the release of President Obama’s landmark directive on mass atrocity prevention:

“Unfortunately, mass atrocities have been a recurring feature of the global landscape. Since the turn of century, hundreds of thousands of civilians have lost their lives during conflicts in the Darfur region of Sudan and in the eastern Congo (Kinshasa). Recently, atrocities in Libya and Syria have occurred against the backdrop of major political upheavals. Mass atrocities usually occur in the context of other instability events and often result from calculated strategies by new or threatened ruling elites to assert or retain control, regardless of the cost. Violence against civilians also emerges in places where poorly institutionalized governments discriminate against minorities, socioeconomic conditions are poor, or local powerbrokers operate with impunity, as in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. In addition, terrorists and insurgents may exploit similar conditions to conduct attacks against civilians, as in Boko Haram’s recent attacks on churches in Nigeria.”

The past four years of mass atrocity-related assessments are similar. Each approaches “mass atrocity prevention” as a game of policymaking Whac-a-Mole; the “global landscape” that Clapper describes in the 2012 report is in fact the sum of six conflicts, in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, and Nigeria. In this line of thinking, whether an event is a “mass atrocity” depends on the U.S. government’s classification of it as such, and nothing else.

In the 2014 edition, a “mass atrocity” is a global phenomenon, one which interacts with trends in regime transition, political repression, and disorder. This shift isn’t merely an intellectual exercise; it has real consequences for how we engage the task of mass atrocity prevention. The more we view mass atrocities as a global event, the easier it is to understand the potential preventive role of political actors, old and new, beyond the United States: regional mediation bodies, the United Nations, and civil society groups, among others. We’re still a long way from that event, but if the 2014 threat assessment is any indication, we’re getting there.