Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: The West, The African Union, and International Community

This is the third part in a series of five posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here; the second here. The series considers the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. As before, responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.


The oblivion of commentators to these possible African objections has been less than helpful to understanding the actualized Western intervention itself; emergent African ideas on democracy and security; and the actual place of international morality in international affairs. Underlying the African apprehension to military intervention is a long-standing tension between international organizations that represent Africa, on one hand, and self-identified representatives of the West, on the other, over the meaning of international community as well as the source, nature, and proper means of implementation of the collective will. The dispute over the meaning of international community and the collective will has been particularly salient in Africa because, as a political space, Africa has been more subject to military interventions than any other geopolitical space in the modern era. These interventions have reflected contemporaneous relations of power, permissible morality, and objects of desire: from proselytism to fortune-seeking, trade, extraction of raw material, and the strategic pursuit of hegemony. Indeed, it is hard to remember a time since the onset of the slave trade when there was no open conflict between the majority of its states and the West over some dimensions of global governance that implicated the notion of the commons or international community.

The postcolonial era has not brought about any change to this situation. Since the end of World War II and the institution of the United Nations system, the plurality of African political entities have confronted self-appointed representatives of the West over the ethos of UN procedures (involving transparency and open access to the channels of decision-making) and the mechanisms of dispute mediation (including the determination of the principles and applicability of humanitarian interventions in a number of cases). One need only recall the political, legal, and military confrontations between African states and former Western colonial powers over Apartheid South Africa’s mandate over South West (which involved the legality and morality of colonial trusteeship); the French war on Algeria (which involved the legality and legitimacy of settler colonialism); the wars of decolonization in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique (which involved the principles of majority rule through open elections which communists might win); the unilateral declaration of independence by the white minority in Southern Rhodesia (which involved the principle of white-minority rule in postcolonial Africa); and the legality and morality of apartheid (which involved the principle of self-determination and majority rule). The underlying antagonisms contaminated deliberations throughout the UN system (particularly General Assembly proceedings) and involved all major issues from the Palestine Question to the Law of the Sea to other matters of trade and intellectual property. They reached a climax at the time of exit of the US and Great Britain from UNESCO, which was then directed by Ahmadou Mathar Mbow, a Senegalese diplomat and statesman.

These and other contests have shared a few singular features. One is a Western insistence on representing the essential core and therefore will of something called international community. In any case, the label of international community has often been reserved for Western entities in relations to others, who remain the object of intervention on behalf of the international community. This is to say that the term ‘international community’ has had political functionality in relations of power and domination in which Europe (and later The West) subordinated ‘Africa’. The relevant tradition can be traced back to the opening moments of the modern era, particularly during the ascension of The West to global hegemony. While it has undergone changes over time, the embedded imaginary of international community and its will have been built around artificially fixed identities and politically potent interests. Accordingly, the identity of the West, and therefore the international community, flows from a theology of predestination, formally enunciated as the Monroe doctrine in the US or the Mission Civilizatrice in France.

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Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: Common and Uncommon Grounds

This is the second part in a series of five posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here. The series will consider the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. Responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.


As I indicated in my last post, the decision by the African Union (or AU) to not endorse the current military campaign in Libya has been mistaken by many observers and commentators alternatively as a sign of African leaders’ antipathy to political freedom and civil liberties; a reflexive hostility to former colonial powers, particularly France and Great Britain; a suspicion of the motives of the United States; and more. The related speculations have led to the equally mistaken conclusion that the African Union is out of step with the spirit of freedom sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa (or MENA). The absurdity of the claim is that the only entity that imposed any outline of solution agreeable to Gaddafi has been the African Union and this is that Gaddafi himself would not be part of any future leadership of the country. But the AU has insisted on an inclusive negotiated settlement. The purpose of this series of essays is not therefore to examine the meaning and implications of the absence of ‘Africa’ on the battlefield of Libya, but to point to the larger geopolitical implications of the intervention for international order, global democratic governance, and the promotion of democratic ideals and political pluralism in the region undergoing revolution and beyond.

To begin, it is not just ‘Africa’, ‘African indecision’, and ‘African non-Normativity’ that are at stake in the characterization of African actions or inactions. Much of what is construed as ‘lack’ or ‘absence’ in Africa is also intended to give sustenance to the idea of the indispensability of the West – composed on this occasion by France, Great Britain, the United States, and tangentially Canada – to the realization of the central ends of the MENA Spring. The myth of the centrality of the West to the imaginary of freedom everywhere is inscribed in the name given to the events under description. In the US at least, the Arab Spring evokes many other ‘Springs’ all located in the West (including the 1968 Prague Spring or the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states). Likewise, ‘Jasmine’, the emblem of the Tunisian revolt has been advanced as evocative of the Ukrainian ‘Orange’ and other colour-coded European events. These allusions have justifications but they are seldom evoked comparatively to elucidate the originality and specificity of the MENA revolutions. In this latter regard, even the suggestion of an Arab Spring assumes that the majorities in the countries involved are Arab. This is not always the case in North Africa but Orientalism obliges!

The fact is that the ongoing revolutions in MENA are at once specific and universal in their own ways. Continue reading

Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: An African Perspective on the World Order after the Arab Revolt

The first of a series of posts by Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University (followed by a second, third, fourth and fifth installment). He is the author of Sovereigns, Quasi-Sovereigns and Africans: Race and Self-Determination in International Law and of Beyond Eurocentrism and Anarchy: Memories of International Orders and Institutions, as well as a number of articles on race, sovereignty, postcoloniality and human rights and what the history of slavery tells us about the contemporary discourse of international politics. Reposted from The Contemporary Condition. Images by Pablo.


There is much misunderstanding today about the decision of African Union (AU) to not endorse the military intervention in Libya undertaken by France, Great Britain, and the United States in conjunction with a few Arab States. Speculations abound as to whether the uniform decision coming out of Africa indicates that the African Union is out of step with the spirit of freedom sweeping across North Africa and the Arab World; or whether the absence of Africa in the battlefield of Libya merely suggest military ineptitude and political bankruptcy. In fact, it is not accurate that the African Union has been indifferent to the conflict in Libya. The AU opted for mediation and negotiated constitutional compact, with the aim of fostering a different kind of politics. The uniform refusal of the AU to endorse Western intervention has two main explanations. The first is the practice of consensus in decision-making which has long history within Africa. The other is profound unease on the continent about the form and foundation of the intervention itself.

I suggest that there is continent-wide scepticism in Africa about Western leadership in the eras of global governance, the rule of (international) law, the status of international morality, and the future of global democracy. This development is the result of continental experiences with the modes of enactment and execution interventions in Africa. The African position arises therefore from doubt that the coalition of Western powers leading the military effort in Libya today can be trusted to not abuse legitimate anti-Gaddafi sentiments; to not instrumentalize international law and morality; and to not subvert UN procedures and the mechanisms of global governance in order to advance hegemonic agendas and parochial ‘strategic’ interests. In short, underlying the African objection to military intervention is a long-standing tension between international organizations that represent Africa and the self-identified ‘West’ around the representations of the will of the international community, the resulting global democratic deficit in times of intervention, and their effects on international morality, including the principles of humanitarianism.

In relating this conflict, I do not wish to speak for a uniformly-defined ‘Africa’ and/or for all African entities. Continue reading

Riskless in Libya: The Ethical Peril of Zero-Casualty Warfare

…(drum kick)… Yet another new face and mind for The Disorder Of Things. A warm blogospheric welcome to Antoine Bousquet (that’s Dr Bousquet to you), Lecturer in International Politics at Birkbeck. Best known as the author of The Scientific Way Of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (due for review here shortly), Antoine has also published on complexity theory and the science/practice of war more generally.


As the military intervention in Libya enters its fourth month of operations, the tensions within the coalition of NATO countries and partners are perceptibly growing with the lack of any tangible progress towards a resolution of the crisis and the recent reporting of civilian casualties. Without prejudging of the final outcome, one cannot help but see in these developments a further echo between the present war – sorry, intervention – and the Kosovo conflict of 1999. Admittedly this time mandated by a UN Security Council resolution, the action in Libya (a.k.a. Operation Unified Protector) is indeed the latest practical exercise of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, now encapsulated within the wider principle of the responsibility to protect (R2P). Many of the issues and debates raised by that original intervention thus remain as relevant today as they did then.

Although much attention has been focused on the competing claims of universal human rights and inalienable state sovereignty, I want to suggest here that any intervention proposing to act in the name of the former cannot be assessed solely in terms of the inherent merit of such a venture but must just as importantly be examined in view of the means deployed to attain the stated ends. Indeed a marked feature of humanitarian interventions of which Libya is merely the latest instantiation has been the particular form typically taken by military operations, namely that of “riskless” or “zero-casualty” war.

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What We Talked About at ISA: Crisis Mapping and the Rise of Digital Humanitarianism (Part III)

This is the third of a three-part series on ‘what we talked about at ISA’. The first part on technology in International Relations can be found here. This second section on the decline of cognitive mapping is here. This final section covers the example of a particular technology being used to overcome deficiencies in cognitive mapping. (For the theoretical context, it’s well worth reading the second part of this series.) Much of the empirical research for this section stems from the work of Patrick Meier and others involved heavily in crisis mapping. Patrick’s website is a stellar resource for the changing digital nature of humanitarianism, and is highly recommended.


In the wake of the recent Haitian and Japanese earthquakes, the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and other major humanitarian disasters, increased global attention has been paid to the ways in which actors involved in humanitarianism can and should evolve to deal with these emergency situations. Media, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations have all reflected on the implications and path forward for managing crises, with a wealth of reports emerging in the wake of this decade’s crises.[1]

A similar set of complex crisis situations has become significant recently with the political events currently surging across the Arab world. While analytically distinguishable from humanitarian crises, these political crises share many common aspects and often blur at their boundaries. Political crises typically produce humanitarian crises, while humanitarian crises often stretch the capacities of political actors. The result, in either case, is a situation characterized by its complex and fast-moving nature. Moreover, in both instances there is often a dearth of reliable information. If effective political action is premised upon the conceptual representations of a situation, then rational action becomes nearly impossible in crisis situations. In this regard, the new technologies involved in ‘crisis mapping’ can be seen as a means for political actors to overcome this cognitive gap. Through this case study it can be demonstrated how political actors are in fact constructed not only socially, but also through material technology.

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‘Like A Machete’: Is Viagra A Weapon Of War Rape In Libya?

My friend and colleague Mark Kersten has been drawing my attention over the last weeks to a spate of stories about Libya in which it is claimed Gaddafi has been distributing Viagra as an inducement to sexual violence against ‘enemy’ civilian populations. Colum Lynch reported in late April that Ambassador Susan Rice had cited the use of Viagra and evidence of sexual violence during a meeting of the UN Security Council (although this itself is at least third hand – Lynch seems to have picked up the details from Reuters who were passed the information by a UN diplomat who was in the room). The story seems to have originated, or first surfaced, at The Daily Mail, which claimed “numerous reports” of Viagra use.

The testimony of Suleiman Refadi, an Ajdabiya surgeon, in this Al Jazeera piece is the closest thing to a direct claim that Viagra has been distributed to troops. But, as Lynch points out, Human Rights Watch followed up his allegations and say that Refadi had “no direct evidence”, which I assume means either that he himself hadn’t seen the Viagra and condoms, or that some had been found, but not in any pattern that would associate them with a strategy of war rape. Human Rights Watch have a number of reports and commentaries addressing rape in Libya, but do not seem to have found the Viagra claims credible enough to include. Now the International Criminal Court is investigating. Luis Moreno-Ocampo intimates that he has solid evidence for the claims and declares: “It’s like a machete…It’s new. Viagra is a tool of massive rape.”

That kind of blanket statement makes me suspicious. Reports are so far conflating (or not sufficiently distinguishing) two different claims: 1) that government forces are engaged in rape in Libya; and 2) that Viagra (and sometimes condoms) are handed out as an incentive or aid for that. Claim 1 is entirely plausible and there is already good evidence for it in the case of Libya. Elisabeth Jean Wood has done some important early work on the question of variation in wartime sexual violence and her early conclusions are that there are some contexts in which rape doesn’t occur in war. But the number of such cases is very small. Rape in war is overwhelmingly the norm. This should lead us to a number of questions about type, degree, form, causes and the exact sense in which we mean ‘tool’, ‘weapon’ and ‘strategy’. But reports of rape by soldiers are not in themselves at all surprising.

What is new is the second claim. Continue reading

The Qaddafi Controversy, Regurgitated

You might have thought that the realities of muscular interventionism in Libya had by now trumped the apologetics of constructive engagement. But Benjamin Barber has other ideas. His counter-attack to the nay-sayers deploys several connected themes, all of which appeal, once again, to the purported political realism of befriending Saif Gaddafi and the corresponding idealism and naivety of opposing such benevolent stewardship.

First, the attacks on the fortunate son have been “overwrought”, and have materially endangered the chances of peace by pissing him off. Second, Saif remains “a man divided, torn between years of work on behalf of genuine reform that at times put him at risk”, and thus still open to our charms. Third, he is even now working for civil society and democracy, pressuring his father to release journalists and in effect continuing the work of his foundation as a fifth column within the regime. Yes, Saif has been naughty (I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed), but his intentions are still at least partly good, and failure to achieve a better Libya through a rapprochement with him ultimately condemns we who would rather cling to the saddle of our high-horse than descend into the messy realities of progress.

The riposte is bold, and at least has the merit of maintaining the original analysis, no matter how much short-term developments may seem to degrade it. But the rationalisation, wrapped in what Anthony Barnett so aptly characterises as a ‘cult of sincerity’, falls somewhat short. The central meme, repeated by David Held, represents Saif Gaddafi as an enforcer-cum-reformer of near schizophrenic proportions. While it is (now) readily admitted that he is personally responsible for human wrongs, it also becomes necessary to insist on his internal, and magnificently cloaked, commitment to human rights. This may work for those who knew him personally and remain invested in his personal quirks and charms, but can hardly stand as a recommendation for his role as good faith mediator. As Barber himself argues (with a different intent and a suspect logic) if Saif is both revolution and reaction then he is also neither, and therefore a cipher for the projection of political fantasies.

These justifications repeat binaries of politics/morality and realism/idealism in dismissing critics (we were engaged in a calculated politics while you luxuriate in abstract ethics). Yet they also almost attempt, ham-fisted and inchoate, to escape them. After all, the defence is not that Saif is merely our bastard. Nor is it that he is a true rebel son, prepared to overthrow not only the personal dynamic of filial submission but also the political fatherhood of little green books, torture prisons and outré couture. He is said to be both, flickering and indistinct, as if this commends him. As if he can only change things because he is the natural heir of the old order. He moves between our worlds, you see. A Venn-diagrammed endorsement.

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