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All-female mine clearers

When I read David Axe's blog post about an exclusively female de-mining team in South Sudan, my feminist inclinations were mixed. In the model of the celebrated all-female batch of peacekeepers in Liberia, surely this was a positive step for gender equality. But what if, I darkly wondered, these women were put to de-mining work because they were female? I was keyed onto this suspicion, or some variant of it, by the de-mining program director's statement that women were effective because with them, there were no "problems of fighting or drinking."

My worries were misplaced, it turns out, though. From the perspective of the female de-miners themselves:

"Some say it is dangerous for a woman, but they are jealous because we are doing the same job as the men," said Ms Besta, with a laugh.

"What is dangerous is leaving mines hidden in the ground."

That's certainly true, though why someone would be jealous of what seems like hard and dangerous work is beyond me.  This is the country, though, that has sentenced a woman to forty lashes for the crime of wearing pants trousers, so I suppose I should not be surprised by its illogical sexist attitudes.

(image from flickr user World Bank Photo Collection under a Creative Commons license)

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Bill Clinton chooses diplomacy over nuclear self-destruction

On Bill Clinton's successful diplomatic trip morally repugnant capitulation to North Korea, Spencer Ackerman's satirical take is all you really need to consult:

In an unforeseen turn of events, Bill Clinton strapped himself with nuclear weapons and detonated during a meeting with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. The former president's inability to free imprisoned American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling ended in carnage, the only diplomatic language the North Koreans understand. Clinton, recognizing that diplomacy was useless, bit his lip sorrowfully and expressed regret that so many had to die in the name of American prestige, according to a suicide note obtained by this blog.


Back in the United States, conservatives expressed relief that Clinton chose an honorable end to his life. "Diplomacy with the North would be the worst of all possible options," said Rep. Guy "Whitey" Corngood (R-Ark.), a longtime Clinton critic. "Bringing those two Americans back without incident would have represented an unacceptable humiliation for this country." Attempts to reach John Bolton, a former undersecretary of state and U.N. ambassador in the Bush administration, were unsuccessful, but associates said Bolton credited Clinton for posthumously vindicating his worldview and that the former diplomat was considering a courtesy call to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to express condolences.

What makes this morbid telling (Bill Clinton did not actually blow himself up, and did successfully negotiate the release of the American journalists) even funnier is that John Bolton could be reached, and, predictably enough, still thought that Clinton's visit did nothing but "reward[] bad behavior" and "legitimize the [North Korean] regime." That, and, well, accomplish the only goal that he had in going over there.

I'm consistently struck by how ironically similar the likes of John Bolton are to Kim Jong Il and North Korea's power-obsessed cadre of leaders. The only ones who think that an insignificant sop to the latter's silly sense of pride amounts to a serious concession by the United States are the North Korean leaders themselves and, well, Boltonites. Only these two groups of dolts take what Bolton calls "gesture politics" as a matter more serious than actual politics and policy -- which, once again, resulted in North Korea releasing two wrongly imprisoned journalists and the United States giving up nothing more than a day of face time with Bubba.

(image from flickr user Creative+ Timothy K Hamilton under a Creative Commons license)

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How much shame can child murderers really have?

Don't get me wrong, I am wholly supportive of this step, mostly because of the consensus required to enact it:

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to name and shame countries and insurgents groups engaged in conflicts that lead to children being killed, maimed and raped.

The council resolution will expand a U.N. list that in March identified more than 60 governments and armed groups that recruit child soldiers.

But, first, it's already pretty clear which countries or groups are responsible for the deaths and rapes of children, isn't it? Second, naming and shaming alone obviously won't suffice. Anyone who can kill innocent children is likely lacking in the moral compunction department, so "shame" would seem to be out of their range of emotional responses to this crime.

That said, this is an impressive and positive step for the Security Council to take unanimously. The tougher part, of course, will be following the naming and shaming with concrete and effective action.

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They may not be Nobel Prizes…

...but the UNESCO Literacy Prizes have certainly gone to deserving winners, which were this year awarded on the theme of "Literacy and Empowerment."  To wit:

The second award of the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize goes to the NGO Nirantar’s project "Khabar Lahariya" - "news waves" - in Uttar Pradesh, northern India. It has created a rural fortnightly newspaper entirely produced and marketed by “low caste” women, distributed to more than 20,000 newly literate readers. Its well-structured method of training newly literate women as journalists and democratizing information production provides an easily replicated model of transformative education.

Without making a vulgar comparison, this kind of effort reminds me of Washington, D.C.'s own Street Sense, which has always struck me as an innovative and productive way to take on poverty and homelessness.  That such an initiative is thriving with "low caste" women in India is incredibly heartening.

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How many lightbulbs does it take to change global warming?

Well, many. But, according to the S-G, it can make a big difference:

Recently, I visited an ambitious project to promote energy-saving lighting in China. By phasing out old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs and introducing a new generation of lighting, China expects to cut national energy consumption by 8 per cent.

This can have a profound global impact. Consider this: lighting accounts for 19 per cent of world energy consumption. Scientists say we can reduce that by a third or more merely by changing lightbulbs.

Sure, it's one thing to use the nifty-looking CFL bulbs in your own house, but one house times...China...makes for a lot of energy saved.

(image from flickr user TheRogue under a Creative Commons license)

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With North Korea, two can’t work without six

I've been on vacation for the past week-plus, so I missed the (admittedly not very "new") news that North Korea wants to join "a specific and reserved form of dialogue" -- in other words, the bilateral talks with the United States that Pyongyang has long sought.

Is this business as usual with North Korean diplomacy, is it the strategic counterweight to its past couple months of brazen missile launches, or is it, as FP's Brian Fung suggested, "a unique opportunity" for making progress?

I respect Brian's points -- that the six-party talks haven't been too successful, that the resulting stalemate may have benefitted North Korea's cause, and that the specific aims of the other five parties have been frustratingly divergent -- but I'm not as open to his conclusion. Not that I support the misguided notion that meeting with the leaders of nefarious countries should be held out as some kind of "reward;" that's nonsense, as I've blogged previously. But one should be a bit suspicious before acceding to exactly what North Korea wants -- particularly when, as in this case, the issue is actually one of excluding other parties, not whether or not to conduct diplomacy.

Going at the North Korean nuclear issue through the six-party talks is the only acceptable option here for precisely the reason that the relevant actors -- China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Russia -- are "working at cross-purposes" on seemingly everything else. In other words, North Korea's nuclear program is the only thing they do agree on -- namely, that Pyongyang should not be in possession of nuclear weapons. North Korea, of course, feels differently, but backing out of the six-party talks would be as short-sighted as has been the U.S. policy of insisting on North Korean disarmament before any concessions are made. Bilateral negotiations aren't a concession, but the only way I see them working is as part of a communicative regional strategy.

(Maybe North Korea's real purpose in seeking bilateral talks with the United States is to gain the know-how to upgrade its fastfood offerings from "minced beef and bread" to a verifiable hamburger.)

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No night of the long anti-R2P knives

As Emily reported yesterday, the President of the General Assembly convened a panel discussion yesterday that wasn't exactly friendly toward the Responsibility to Protect. This was, as I explained earlier, part of an unfortunate PGA power play (no, that's not a mixed sports metaphor) to back off from R2P. But to hear The Economist tell it, it was practically an anti-R2P putsch.

Contrary to The Economist's salacious wording, I don't think it's worth affording this week's discussions the gravity of a "campaign to sabotage R2P." Nor did it occur "in defiance of Ban Ki-moon," who gave his remarks a couple days before the actual debate, making the savvy argument to not replace the "substance" of R2P with the "rancor" of politically fraught debate.

There are critics of R2P, to be sure, some legitimate, but many brandishing misconstructions of the doctrine as a sort of handy fig leaf for neocolonialism. What they are brandishing, however, are the sharpened "knives" with with The Economist claims certain governments are attempting to "unravel" R2P. The responsibility to protect is not going to collapse because of this week's discussion, past Security Council resolutions are not going to "un-invoke" R2P, and, hopefully, the debate will progress to the level of how best to prevent mass atrocities and protect civilian populations.

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How to stop desertification?

Build a giant wall.  6,000 kilometers long.  Made out of sand.  Stuck together with bacteria.  No, seriously.

"The threat is desertification. My response is a sandstone wall made from solidified sand," said Mr Larsson, who describes himself as a dune architect.

The sand would be stabilised by flooding it with bacteria that can set it like concrete in a matter of hours.

Take his word for it; he's a dune architect.  And desertification is not something to mess around with.  It's poised to affect over 2 billion people in 140 countries if left unchecked.  But with a gigantic, bacteria-reinforced dune wall, buttressing a "Great Green Belt" of trees, unchecked it will not be.  As long as we can figure out minor details like politics, funding, and where to obtain "giant bacteria-filled balloons."

If this seems similar to ad hoc geo-engineering schemes of righting the climate, well, it does to me, too.  Except that I'm more comfortable building walls to stop desertification than, say, attaching tubes to giant zeppelins that pump the air full of sulfur dioxide to block the sun and cool the planet.

(image from flickr user John Spooner under a Creative Commons license)

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Max Boot’s UN mercenaries

Max Boot takes issue with Gideon Rachman's assumption that conservatives are reflexively opposed to the very idea of the "UN army" that Rachman raised in his FT column the other day. Boot avers that he -- unlike, he admits, most conservatives -- is not in fact is not opposed to the concept, only Rachman's specific proposal.

Rachman suggested that troop contributing countries "give the UN first call" on some of their military personnel. Boot objects to this model, but before doing so he laments that UN peacekeepers "have a disturbing propensity to commit sex crimes and other offenses for which they are currently not punished." He even says "that's why" he doesn't agree with Rachman.

First of all, the insistence that blue helmets are more likely to commit sex crimes than other military personnel is greatly exaggerated. Abuse by UN peacekeepers is reprehensible, but, since it has been built up into a meme by conservative hysteria, it shadows the equally reprehensible abuse committed by men in militaries all over the world -- including, yes, the United States' own.

But Boot's real gripe with Rachman's plan is that his UN army would still be composed of troops from countries like "Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.," which Boot calls "the bottom of the barrel." It's hard not to read into the juxtaposition of his words an assumption that soldiers from these developing countries are more likely to commit sexual abuse than those from Western countries.

Even giving Boot the benefit of the doubt -- that his argument bespeaks not ethnic prejudices, but a somewhat legitimate comment on differing accountability standards among more and less well-trained militaries -- his counter-proposal makes little sense. He fails to acknowledge that the reason that UN peacekeepers are drawn from "the bottom of the barrel" is because top military nations like the United States do not offer troops to UN missions.

Boot would fix the problem by adopting a Blackwater-esque (gulp, no issues of war crimes there...) approach, suggesting that the UN hire veterans from Western militaries. But beyond the issue of legitimacy (how would this differ from a Western intervention?), Boot again does not consider that of cost. Who is to pay for these UN mercenaries? To attract talent willing to go to the most dangerous places on Earth, you need to have a source of funding, and unless he's in favor of providing more money for the UN, which I feel safe in assuming that conservatives generally oppose, then he'll have to come up with a more realistic alternative.

(image from UN Photo)