Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A little water

Not on a scale, admittedly, with the horrendous UK floods of 2007 but this was the result of just 30 minutes rain on our street on Sunday. Nonetheless, the lessons of proper drainage maintenance don't quite seem to have gotten home to local government.

Of course, in that time 11 mm fell: so it was absolutely torrential. Coelacanth got caught out in and was utterly soaked.

A conversation by the river 15 minutes earlier went something like this:

Coelacanth: Hey, come meet some people!

Doug: No, I think I'll get home before it rains.

Coelacanth: OK, see you later then!

Optimism: 0; curmudgeon: 1.

More amusingly, I didn't quite get our lounge room window closed in time and the back of the TV got a bit wet. When we settled in to watch the ever-surreal Mighty Boosh that night the red-spectrum was missing from our screen, leaving everything an under-the-sea washed out green. As the TV slowly dried out under its own power, the colours faded back in.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Airport luggage: the case of the carry-on chainsaw

From the New Zealand Herald (12 May 2008):

Never mind the nail scissors, what about the chainsaw?

A reader writes: "My brother-in-law went through security at Auckland domestic airport and witnessed a passenger having to fish out her nail scissors from her handbag and leave them behind. He went through security and then boarded his plane. After being seated he could smell petrol. He knew you shouldn't be able to smell petrol on a plane, because planes don't use petrol. The smell got worse and eventually he got the attention of one of the flight attendants. They started to look around to see where it was coming from. They found in the overhead compartment a chainsaw in a bag that was leaking petrol into the compartment. His plane was delayed as the owner was identified and the chainsaw removed and put with the main luggage. The owner of the chainsaw said security had stopped him but had let him through because it wasn't one of the things on their list to confiscate.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Most amusing sign-post yet

So, I took some time off revising my PhD for its publication as a book (an experience that's a blog in itself), for a morale-restoring bike ride around some neighbouring villages recently.

I decided to take a short-cut between Coton and another hamlet by cycling down a "bridle path".

Bridle paths seem designated for horses, but judging by the single, grass-bare groove in the soil are frequently used by bikes.

Mountain bikes, probably, the serious type, rather than my enfeebled second-hand incredibly low-slung town bike. Nonetheless, like a good Australian I didn't allow totally inappropriate tools to prevent me tackling a job.

Anyway, while bouncing along the remains of a corrugated track made, it seemed, by giant tractor treads I came across this gem of a warning sign (click for larger image):

Because, y'know, its not as if horses hadn't been traversing this area for a while already ...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

No peace without justice: but can justice precede peace?

Two interesting articles on international criminal law came out of the New York Times stable this weekend.

Jean-René Ruez was an international war crimes investigator in the former Yugoslavia. An account of his experiences is published in the IHT. Ruez's motto is clearly, and understandably, "No peace without justice." But what happens when those goals come into conflict?

"The Pursuit of Justice vs. the Pursuit of Peace" reports on the plan of the ICC Prosecutor to seek an arrest warrant for Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan’s president tomorrow.

The predictable responses have included fears that this will:

(1) jeopardise the safety of the joint UN/African Union peacekeepers - presently unable to defend even themselves properly - and other humanitarian workers in Darfur, already accused of being spies for the ICC;

(2) be an obstacle to any kind of peace settlement; and

(3) destabilise the region, as an already paranoid regime - armed by China - resorts to increasing violence.

The permanent International Criminal Court could well do more harm than good here. There is simply no realistic prospect of Omar Hassan al-Bashir being arrested in the short term. As I've outlined below, on the topic of Zimbabwe, criminal regimes simply cannot be prosecuted before there is stability in their country and a transition of power,which will likely require their cooperation.

The ICC prosecutor is an independent officer, who has a job to do - and he is doing it. The problem here is not him fulfilling his duty, it's that the Security Council approved referring Darfur to the Court as a substitute for taking any more effective action in the first place.

Perhaps in the long run, this will bring pressure to bear on the Sudan that will produce constructive results; but in the short term, it carries incredible risks for those on the ground in Darfur.

PS: for the more optimistic among us, Richard Goldstone has published possibly the best set of counter-arguments to my position. (Although the argument that "the indictments may delegitimize the government in the eyes of the Sudanese people, especially the elites in Khartoum" seems especially optimistic.)

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Mugabe and crimes against humanity

Any number of bloggers and mainstream journals have begun to accuse Robert Mugabe of crimes against humanity. The Economist has one of the more sensible pieces.

Could Mugabe be charged with international crimes? Simply put, crimes against humanity are acts such as murder, torture, rape and politically-motivated severe human rights violations “when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack” (see Article 7, Statute of the International Criminal Court). In addition, such an attack must be committed, at least under ICC law, “pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack” (see the ICC Elements of Crimes).

A widespread and systematic attack against opposition supporters, planned and orchestrated by Zanu-PF and the government of Zimbabwe certainly appears to have proceeded the second-round presidential elections.

There are two principal obstacles to an ICC indictment for Mugabe. The first is that, as Zimbabwe is not a party to the Court’s Statute, the Security Council would have to refer the situation to Zimbabwe. Given Russia and China’s stance on intervention in another State’s “internal affairs”, that seems unlikely.

The second obstacle, and I say this with some trepidation, is common sense. Counter-intuitive as this may sound, any effort – even a successful one – to remove Mugabe is likely to be an obstacle to a peaceful transition in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe is not necessarily the largest part of the problem. As Allan Little of the BBC puts it:

Robert Mugabe is now cocooned with a group of men who came through the liberation struggle with him. ...

When the opposition talk of allowing Mr Mugabe to retire with dignity, these men know that this magnanimity does not extend to them; that a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe will expect a holding to account.

Mugabe, in a sense, is their prisoner. They won't let him go quietly, leaving them exposed to revenge.

Fear is the means by which they stay in power - the people's fear of them. But they too live in fear, fear of the reckoning that the people will, themselves, one day, demand.

A transition to a peaceful and stable Zimbabwe will, in the short term, require that all these men be bought off – odious a prospect as that may be.

So what role international criminal law? Is Geoffrey Robertson right to claim that justice is a necessary precondition to peace? In my view, yes and no. There will be no lasting peace without justice, but attempting to make it a precondition in every case risks destabilising post-dictatorship transitional societies.

The best option, in many ways, is the Argentine solution: allow the outgoing government to cover themselves in amnesty laws as the price of securing a stable democracy; then allow campaigners, national parliaments and courts, and international attempts at prosecution to progressively repeal those amnesties and put the criminals on trial.

Some might ask, but what would you have the West do? I actually think the very painful answer may be: if there is no reasonable prospect that anything you could do would make things any better, the right thing is to do nothing at all. Indictment of Mugabe, the laughable prospect of sanctions (how do you impose sanctions on a ruined economy?), or outright military intervention will only drive this cabal and their supporters to further violence. Indeed, any such action just makes Mugabe’s cabal and their ridiculous western-conspiracy rhetoric look more credible.

There will come a time to indict these men, but it may have to follow – not precede – a new internal constitutional settlement in Zimbabwe. In that process, only the voices of neighbours are likely to have any influence at all.