Thursday, 28 June 2012

Follow up: Cultural Sensitivity and fiddly bits.

Well, I had an interesting chat with some of my colleagues who took the time to read my blog. One person noted that it would be easy for a Kenyan, or probably any African, to find my comments on education insensitive or even offensive. On reading my post again, I can see why - saying that (a) there hasn't been significant institutions of higher learning in Africa until recently, and (b) that higher education is a mainstay for 'developed' countries is an indirect way of commenting on the 'primitiveness' of Africa. That is a very negative perception of African nations and African peoples. And it is not a perception I intend to feed into.

In fact, it is important to note that the idea of 'institutions of higher learning' are completely western conceptions as well - it takes certain subjects and professions as the 'yardstick' of societal progress. It does not, however, place any relevance or recognize the benefits of aspects of African culture that ARE well-developed and rich. And it does not recognize the kinds of institutions that are already present in the myriad cultures on this continent. It is the idea that, because a community/society does not have a 'courtroom', 'judges', or 'juries', that a legal system is not present. That would be historically false.

There has been positive developments on this issue. For example, the use of gacaca courts in Rwanda as a method of dealing with the huge number of cases surrounding the 1994 genocide was an example of using traditional dispute resolution mechanisms to obtain justice. But there will still be a disconnect, so long as people categorize institutions like gacaca courts as 'informal justice systems', which implies that they are on a lower tier of 'justice' that British or European systems. In Kenya, it is interesting to note that there are formal Khadi's Courts, which deal specifically with issues under Islamic Law (often to do with Marriage, Divorce, and succession issues). There is Constitutional recognition that Islamic Law is a separate legal system, and it makes room for that. This simultaneously creates an alternative legal stream for a class of people (muslims), as well as provides acknowledgement and recognition that Islamic Law is a 'legitimate' justice system.

I think that example applies to what I was saying about higher education in Africa - we can all agree that providing access to high quality education in Medicine, Engineering, and disciplines like that will benefit a society. What I didn't say, and should have said, is that we also need to recognize that providing higher education within a particular cultural framework is not only important, but necessary. There are no 'silver bullets' that will automatically fit for all African states. That's what I meant when I said that the 'solution' to the 'problem' of Africa will come from African people.

Give a woman a fish, and she'll eat for a day; teach her how to fish, and she'll eat for a lifetime; but if she goes ahead and builds a solar-powered organic free range chicken farm, don't force her to keep fishing.


In other news - the whole idea of 'primitiveness' had some interesting press in Kenya recently. Apparently, Korean Air created an advertisement for tourism in Kenya. They mentioned the safaris, the splendour, and they also said: "enjoy the...indigineous people full of primitive energy". Oops.

Well, Kenya has one of the fastest growing online cultures, and a favourite pastime of a lot of my friends and colleagues is using Twitter. #KenyansonTwitter, or #KOT is a highly active hashtag, full of banter, political discussions, and general Kenyan miscellanea.  Well, when they heard about this ad, they brought down the Big Stick of Twitter on Korean Air. If you search #primitiveenergy on Twitter, you will see thousands of comments and satires about this Korean Air gaffe. Some of them are hilarious. The avalanche of negative comments prompted Korean Air to pull the ad. In one day. Go Internet Solidarity!


Foreign Policy, in partnership with the Fund for Peace, have published the 2011 Failed States Index. I somewhat encourage you to check it out. But with a huge caveat - I think that it is absolute rubbish. Worse, it dramatizes some of the difficulties and crises around the world in an unforgivable way. See, for example, their 'Postcards from Hell' - yes, there are some areas of the world that are in dire straights, and yes, in some situations, people are enduring immense suffering. A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but it is irresponsible and mentally incompetent to think that a picture represents an entire country and its population. I can think of a few 'postcards from hell' from Canada that would portray Canadian life a little differently.

Maybe I need to read more deeply into the methodology, the factors and the overall impact of the study. Maybe the title 'failed state index' is just a bit of journalistic melodrama. Maybe. But the fact that Kenya ranks 16th on the list of the 60 'most failed' states, above places like Ethiopia (which just passed a law giving people a maximum 15 year prison sentence for using Skype, and jailed a reporter under its new anti-terrorism law), North Korea, Syria, and Israel/West Bank, makes me very dubious about the 'objectiveness' of this report. Under some of the factors contributing to its ranking, Kenya received an 8.9/10 (the higher the worse) under the heading 'Delegitimization of the State'. This being a year after passing a new Constitution, ongoing institutional reforms, and peace and stability since the 2008 post-election violence. Very interesting.

A failed state is a massive catastrophe - Somalia, #1 on the list, definitely exhibits many of the warning signs: unsupported centralized government, poverty, violence, mass movement of refugees, human-made catastrophes (famine), instability, poor economic development and major dependence on external interventions. Suggesting that Kenya is approaching a failed state status is a mystery to me. Areas of Kenya suffer from poverty and food insecurity. There is unrest in the areas near the Somalia border. There is corruption at many levels. But Kenya is the ICT leader in the region. It has a huge tourism industry. The new Constitution has led to many positive political and social developments. There is a long way to go, but I have to wonder: how did they get it so wrong?

Update: check out - Apparently the 2012 Index is out. Kenya is still 16th, which means that it scored WORSE, since South Sudan is now on the scene...

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Perspectives: Education and Soccer

I was able to take a little break and go visit my sister in Germany with my fiancée this past week. It was a great trip, full of soccer, wine, trains, rich food, chocolate, and Germans (culture shock!). The internet was 'high speed', for real. It was also sad - my fiancée is heading back to Canada to start medical school. Well, that part isn't sad, I am super excited for her and her new career. I'm just not looking forward to being without my #1 sidekick/partner/fan.

Taking a break from Nairobi was also a good opportunity to take stock of what's going on, from a slightly removed perspective, in International Human Rights. With the Kenyan media in full swing and reporting on scandals, political manoeuvring, and the shockingly poor performance of the Kenyan National Soccer team, I was definitely getting some tunnel vision and a bit discouraged (and maybe even a bit cynical). In every lead up to elections in Kenya's recent history, there are certain things that seem to repeat themselves - tribal-based political activity, major scandals, and non-stop media dramatization. Well, this time, politicians have engaged organizations like GEMA and KAMATUSA to start the tribal discourse, the major scandal this time around centred on the National Health Insurance Fund, and the embezzlement of millions of dollars.

Some things don't need much dressing up, as the death of the Minister of Security, George Saitoti, and his assistant and aides was a major occurence. Saitoti was a presidential aspirant and a major political player since the Moi era. He died in a helicopter crash, the details of which are currently being investigated. Three days of mourning were declared, and there were constant memorials and photodiaries of his life and times. All the major political players eulogized his good deeds. No one seemed to mention the fact that he was a central figure in one of the largest scandals of grand corruption in Kenyan history - the Goldenberg Scandal, which to this day is unresolved. He seemed to get more tributes and mentions than Wangari Maathai, who passed away early last year, and who I consider to be a real (nobel-prize winning) hero.

So, I have been a bit sensitive to some of the negative occurrences leading up to the elections in Kenya.

But, being in Germany, with the associated culture shock and ultra-efficient city transportation, I was struck by a few things:

1. The first German University was established in 1386 (the University of Heidelberg). That's over 600 years old. That's 6 centuries of access to higher education for (some) German people.

After doing some extensive background research (i.e. Wikipedia), I found that the oldest university on the African continent is in Tunisia - the University of El-Zitouna, established in 737 CE*. The university teaches exclusively (so Wikipedia says) in areas of Theology, Islamic civilization, and Islamic law. As far as I could see, the next earliest universities popped up around the mid to late 1800s, and were almost exclusively through the efforts of colonialists. Significant African attendance at these universities didn't seem to occur until the post-world war II era (I think that the University of Makarere in Uganda is an exception).

What that means is that there are only one or two generations of indigenous peoples in Africa that have had any meaningful access to higher learning and education.

This is interesting. The influence of the 'developed world' on African Nations has been massive, for better or (usually) worse. I think, increasingly, that if there is going to be a 'solution' to the 'problem' of Africa, it is going to come through the practical and intellectual work of African peoples. Generally, all types of intellectual progress (science, philosophy, law, medicine, engineering, some of the arts, business, etc.) have their genesis in institutions of higher learning. And if the continent has only had meaningful access to this higher education for around 60 years, then I think large doses of empathy and patience are required, rather than the pity and pretentiousness that western culture takes towards African development. Of course, the concept of Universities and higher education is also a legacy of colonialism, but I think it is one that can have a positive impact.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I think it's a fascinating situation. It makes you wonder - if Africans are given the luxury of access higher education for 600 years, what kinds of things will develop out of that? It should also be noted that the types of developments through higher learning are also context dependent. For example, the reason that Kenya is a leading country in Africa in terms of Information and Communication Technology, is because it is an ICT hub, thanks to a direct cable running from India that provides Internet coverage. The reason that African nations like Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and South Africa have such expertise in International Criminal Justice (even though it is often unrecognised by developed states), is simply because of the amount of International Criminal Justice work coming out of African nations.

Similarly, the human rights abuses coming out of Africa (and everywhere else in the world), are at least partly due to the fact that human rights are such a new concept. England, France, and the USA have some of the oldest precursors to Human Rights documents, but our modern conception of human rights arose in 1948. Canada enacted the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in 1982 (it's the same age as I am). Kenya promulgated its new Constitution (with a Bill of Rights included) in 2010. It takes time to build a culture of human rights. Give Kenya 10 years, 100 years, and see how things develop under this new dispensation. The USA has had 200 years, and it is still doing a pretty poor job of protecting human rights.

2. I love soccer. Watching Euro 2012 games has been fantastic, and especially watching Germany play while in Germany was a nice touch.

I think that my appreciation for the game has progressed beyond individual skill, fancy plays, and goals, though. These days, I tend to watch soccer games as a sort of psychological exercise. I notice the fact that Spain still exhibit confidence with their 'tiki-taka' style, but that the weight of expectations has drained their precision and directness - they collectively seem to be more concerned about not making mistakes than destroying their opponents. The Portuguese have changed dramatically over the course of the tournament, and their last game shows that they are finally comfortable playing with each other - Cristiano Ronaldo's impact is a direct result of the team cohesion. The Germans are so coached up and cohesive that they have attained an almost zen-like emotional detachment from their game - they don't get rattled, they make extraordinary plays seem 'normal', and when Mario Gomez scores, they take it as an inevitability, rather than a celebration. I have no comment on the Italians, since I haven't figured them out - some of the players honestly look like they'd rather be somewhere else.

By far my favourite moment of the tournament came during the Spain-Ireland game. Ireland was out-gunned, out-classed, and, ultimately, outscored. But, the Irish never gave up, and played their hearts out right until the final whistle - you could see in the post-match interviews that the Irish players were discouraged and disappointed, but you wouldn't have known that while the game was on. That's the way that the game is supposed to be played. That's why it seemed like there were 50,000 Irish fans in the stadium, as they sang non-stop for the last 15 minutes of the game, with their team down 4-0. That's a lesson in what it means to be a 'supporter'. I wish more professional sports were played with that kind of attitude and in that kind of atmosphere.

Somewhere down the line, I will work on how soccer relates to Human Rights, and how it can save the world.
* I also found out that 'CE' is the new politically correct way to referring to dates - it is the 'Common Era', formerly known as 'AD' - so as to not upset non-Christians who also want to meaningfully talk about the past. Guess I'm behind the times on that.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Why Human Rights? And Where? Part II

After Lagos, from May 21-25 I was in Kigali, Rwanda. We were hosting a civil society workshop on the International Criminal Court, as well as organizing a judicial colloquium for the East African Magistrates and Judges Association. Arriving in Kigali was a complete culture shock. From Lagos, population of nearly 20 million people (Wikipedia says that the population is just under 8 million, but that is from 2006, and Lagos is the seventh fastest growing city in the world), to Kigali, population of less than 1 million.

Kigali is a beautiful city, nestled amongst the hilly terrain of Rwanda (the land of a thousand hills). Cars drive on the right-hand side of the road, at an acceptable speed, and even stop at traffic lights! That was pure bliss, after the chaos that is Lagos and Nairobi traffic. It's also an incredibly clean and well-kept city, with monthly 'clean up' days where people get together and clean up the entire city. Plus, plastic grocery bags are outlawed, which keeps a lot of litter to a minimum. I found it to be a pleasant and relaxing place.

In the background, though, one can understand why things are so orderly. There are armed guards and army officers every few hundred meters. We asked our cab driver to take 5 of us to our hotel, in his 4-seater car. He agreed, but was so nervous and anxious that he was literally praying the entire trip, in the hopes that the police or the army did not notice him breaking the law. There is a very real sense of militaristic order in Kigali, and while the Rwandan people that I met were all very soft-spoken and polite, there seemed to be an underlying sense of fear, as well.

This all makes sense in the context of Rwanda's history. You may have seen Hotel Rwanda, which was a good movie, but I had to opportunity to visit the Rwandan Genocide Memorial. In 100 days, from April-July 1994, nearly 1 million Rwandans were murdered. That was about 20% of the total population of Rwanda. There are better places to find out all of the facts of the Genocide (such as here), than my blog. The horrors of the genocide are still fresh, and although Rwanda has made significant strides in development since then, there is a real sense that making sure of 'never again' will take direct initiative by the government. Hence the presence of armed guards, and hence the presence of a very robust criminal law against genocide denial.

There are two things I wanted to mention about my experience at the memorial:

1. The scope and scale of the genocide is difficult to fathom. Killing that many people in that short a time frame is not easy to reconcile. I am a perennial optimist, and I believe the in kindness of strangers, but stories of neighbours, friends, and family turning against each other definitely shakes that belief. In fact, some of the stories, especially those of the murdered children, were saddening to some - one of the judges we went with was reduced to sobbing - but, for me, it was also infuriating. Dehumanizing someone to the point of murdering a defenceless child, let alone the rest of the men and women, is a psychological state that I cannot, on ANY level, understand. Thanks to the memorial, I now have a better understanding of what happened, and why certain events unfolded the way that they did, but I'm still left with the question: How could anyone do this?

2. The broader context of the genocide was a reminder about why I do the things I do. Colonial (Belgium especially) and Religious (Catholic) imperialism in Rwanda left an indelible mark on Rwandan society, culture and psychology. Then, after severely altering the make up of Rwandan society, they left the country to its own devices. After ethnic tensions started mounting, the United Nations started monitoring the situation. Then, when ethnic tension turned into ethnic cleansing, the United Nations pulled out its peacekeepers and the foreign (and local) dignitaries. The history of the Rwandan genocide, from an outsiders perspective, is a history of failure - a failure to understand a vibrant and rich culture, a failure to pay attention to conflict, a failure to effectively protect basic principles of human rights and democratic governance, a failure to mediate an ongoing dispute, and a failure to intervene in a massive scale violent crisis. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian Lieutenant-General in charge of the UN Peacekeeping force in Rwanda estimated that a contingent of 5,000 UN troops could have controlled and stopped the violence. Instead, they used 5,000 troops to evacuate ex-pats, while the UN General Assembly issued a resolution 'strongly condemning' the violence in Rwanda.

Eventually, the RPF came, without major assistance from the international community, and ended the genocide and the civil war. And Paul Kagame remains in power to this day.

My recollection and understanding of the Rwandan genocide is limited. With ongoing trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, new facts and more detail have been shed on the situation. Even though there is much more to this story than I know, the history of the genocide is still incomplete. I am sure that there are more complexities and horrors that will come to light, and if I am being perfectly honest, I'm not sure I want to learn more about it. Kofi Annan said that the UN's failure with Rwanda leaves everyone with "a feeling of bitter regret". I would think that the feeling hits a little deeper than that.

However, I'm left with lingering thoughts from both the Kigali experience, and what happened in Lagos:

Human rights don't spur violence. Human rights don't promote ignorance, or hatred, or dogmatism. But what do human rights do? By all accounts, they've generally been concise lines of text on documents that haven't really been of much use in the world's history. But Human Rights, as we know them - as universal, morally correct, and profoundly beneficial - are young. The UN Declaration on Human Rights was conceived after the second world war, and is going on 64 years old. No major global ideology or system of belief has managed to capture the hearts and mind of a massive amount of the global community within the lifespan of one human being.

I believe in human rights. I believe in the principles they espouse. I believe that they apply everywhere, at all times, to all people. I believe that they will lead to a peaceful, healthy, vibrant human community on Earth. I also believe that human rights have no use if they are not promoted, protected, and accepted in the everyday psyche of individuals. That requires work - intellectual work, political advocacy, and on-the-ground everyday work. I believe I can do that work. I think I've started, and I'll keep it up, tomorrow, the next day, and we'll see how far that belief can go. So far, it's taken me to Kenya, Nigeria, and Rwanda. It's looking like it will also take me to Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And judging from the news, I'm wondering if it will take me back home to Canada, too.

For me, Human Rights are a journey.