Talks with Iran: so far, so good! Thoughts from Trita Parsi

I just received some insightful comments from President and Founder of the National-Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi, on yesterday’s nuclear security talks between Iran and the West. He emphasises the value of making concessions on all sides.

“While the bar was deliberately set low, the Istanbul talks went as well as they could. Both side engaged sincerely, both agreed to a second meeting within five weeks, and both agreed on a framework for continued talks – the non-proliferation treaty with all its rights and obligations.

If the progress continues, all sides will credit their policies to this point – the US will credit its sanctions, Israel its threats and Iran its nuclear advancements. None will credit their concessions.

But the reality is that progress was made in Istanbul precisely because of mutual concessions – the Iranians engaged on the nuclear issue without preconditions and agreed to a process to curb their enrichment, and the West in essence accepted that limited enrichment will continue on Iranian soil, under strict inspections.

The real challenge will come in the ensuing rounds of talks, where these principles of engagement will have to translate into concrete steps. It is at that point that we will see if the two sides are ready to pay the domestic political cost of compromise. This applies to the West as well, whose ability to lift sanctions will be as instrumental for keeping diplomacy alive as Iran’s willingness to curb its enrichment activities above five percent.

As the talks continue, it is important to expand the agenda to go beyond just the nuclear issue. While the nuclear issue is viewed as the most pressing issue in the West, it is not the only issue of concern. The mistake of turning progress on the nuclear issue into a precondition for talks on other pressing matters should not be repeated. Regardless of the immediate results on the nuclear issue, the agenda should be expanded to include both regional security as well as the dire human rights situation in Iran.”

Wise words indeed!

The rise and fall of Kony 2012

 Cynics call it clicktivism; believers say they can change the world. Natasha Smith asks how much further the Kony 2012 campaign can really stretch before it reaches its glass ceiling.

“We will turn this digital revolution into something more”. The words of San Diego-based charity Invisible Children (IC) in its latest video on the Kony 2012 campaign, ‘Part II: Beyond Famous’.  The question is, what is that “something more”? With global support already dwindling, how much more can this digital movement really achieve?

Only one month ago, the internet was swarming with links and references to the Kony 2012 campaign video. It landed more than 100m views in less than one week, becoming the most viral video of all time. Yet according to YouTube the second video, released last week, has barely exceeded 1.5 million views – despite winning round former critics with its more balanced, in-depth portrayal of the situation in central Africa.

“Clearly even a viral success (in large part spurred by controversy) does not translate into sustained online engagement or offline action”, said Katrin Verclas, co-founder of internet activist group MobileActive.org. Controversies thwarting the campaign so far include the public mental breakdown of the former President of IC Jason Russell, and reports in the Huffington Post that the charity has accepted funding from anti-gay Christian groups.

So, in the face of widespread criticism and controversy, just how much has Kony 2012 managed to achieve? The overwhelming global response to the campaign indicates it has fulfilled its primary objective of raising awareness of Joseph Kony and his crimes. “I’m very impressed with this worldwide effort”, said Jason Farr, Councillor of Hamilton, in Canada. “I hope it achieves what it intends to achieve: to make Kony famous.”

Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony is wanted by the ICC for abducting and conscripting children into his ranks as leader of rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and selling young girls as sex slaves. According to the BBC, the LRA is accused of the rape, mutilation and murder of thousands of civilians across central Africa. The group was active in Uganda until forced out due to international pressure in 2006. It has since been carrying out attacks in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan, which Invisible Children hopes to stop once and for all through global advocacy and awareness.

Value of awareness

On April 20, IC invites the world to ‘Cover the Night’, decorating the streets with imagery promoting the campaign. However, many remain critical, suggesting that such events will bring minimal long-term results. “Clicks and views do not equal action, and particular actions, like their “Cover the Night” event, do not equal the desired change,” said Kate Otto, founder of Everyday Ambassador, a group promoting global citizenship. “These things in fact can be a distraction that pushes us away from understanding the roots of the problem.”

Jedidiah Jenkins, Head of Ideas Development at Invisible Children, defended the value of spreading awareness. “That’s the challenge: awakening people to global empathy and then providing thoughtful action, steps, and tangible results,” Jenkins told me via Twitter. Invisible Children’s team at the University of Southern Indiana explained that organising local events helps spread “awareness and compassion”. “The more both are spread, the more we can affect action”, a group member tweeted to me.

TMS Ruge, the co-founder of Project Diaspora, a scheme to engage and mobilise young Africans to social action, disagrees. “I wish we wouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking awareness fixes problems”, he explained. “It doesn’t. Action, by the right actors – civil society and local government – does.”

Since the Kony 2012 campaign began, the international community has responded with increased efforts to bring Kony to justice. The African Union, in conjunction with the UN, has now committed a 5000-strong military force to capture Kony. In the US, senators and congressmen and women have put forward bi-partisan legislation to catch him. Additionally, the ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has assured the public that Kony will be arrested in 2012, thanks to the global interest generated by the campaign.

The UK Foreign Office is supportive of these efforts. “Kony2012 has achieved its aim of raising awareness of Kony/LRA”, a spokesperson told me. “The AU, UN and US military effort is appropriate at present.”

But a whirlwind of scandals surrounding the campaign have also provoked widespread scepticism about Invisible Children’s ability to solve this problem. “They lack credibility among the press, NGO community, and African experts”, said Mary Joyce, founder of digital campaign group meta-activism.org. “If they retain credibility with their young American base that will allow them to mobilize in the US and to raise money, but it is unlikely to be enough to actually capture Kony.”

Kate Otto feels the charity should shift its efforts to target more achievable aims. “I wish that the IC team would leave conflict-resolution and development in Uganda to the professionals”, said Kate, “and instead form a socially-minded film company, applying their communication skills to issues like halting global warming or ending AIDS – issues that do require participation of the masses to achieve.”

Domino effect

Kony 2012 has fuelled media interest in another African war criminal:  Bosco Ntaganda. The Congolese army general and former rebel group leader was indicted by the ICC in 2006 for conscription of child soldiers and the rape, murder and mutilation of civilians allegedly carried out by his forces, but, according to Channel 4 News, has not yet been arrested due to fears of jeopardising a fragile peace agreement in the DRC. “Interestingly, the ICC is getting renewed attention, as well as other elusive war criminals under indictment – both by the public and lawmakers”, says Katrin. “So maybe the attention given to Kony 2012 is yielding something.”

However, with the Twitter hashtag #BoscoNtaganda2012 receiving far less attention than #Kony2012, the chance of copycat digital campaigns against other tyrants appears unlikely. “It was just a perfect storm of conditions that allowed the first video to go viral, and it would be hard to replicate”, said Matt Brown, Associate Director of Communications at the Enough Project – one organisation collaborating with IC on the campaign.

Digital activism has become increasingly powerful in its reach and potential to enact change. Recent examples include the online blackout held in protest against the SOPA/PIPA legislation in January, the online petition urging Florida police to arrest the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin – which has secured more than two million signatures – and the Arab uprisings of 2011. However, with Kony 2012, digital activism may be receiving a reality check.

The fall in the campaign’s popularity could signal its demise, and ‘Cover the Night’ may prove to be its swansong. As new footage of Invisible Children’s Jedidiah Jenkins joking about keeping $900,000 of a $1m grant sweeps the internet, IC appear to be dangerously close to isolating former supporters through a barrage of irresponsible mistakes. Internet activism through social media has yielded spectacular results, yet resolving an African conflict that spans a quarter of a century is perhaps beyond the capacity of a relatively immature charity struggling to handle such unprecedented publicity. Kony 2012 has been phenomenal, but with popularity sliding, it seems doubtful that it will be either sustained, repeated, or that Kony will be caught in 2012 at all.

The role of NGOs in diplomacy and international relations

Hoorah! Political radio package submitted as of 10:37am. Done and dusted.

The broad topic of the piece: the role of NGOs in reducing tensions between nations and helping maintain stable international relations. I’ve used the current nuclear tensions between Iran and America and the Arab Spring as platforms for discussion of what part NGOs can play in such situations.

Featuring in the piece is Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian-American Council; Casper Wuite, elections observer for the National Demcratic Institute; and Stan Bojnansky, President of the Model United Nations society at University College Falmouth.

Now for some reflection on the process.

Good points

  • Timing: as soon as I started editing my interviews and scripting my narration for the package (aka the voicer), I kept a close eye on timings to ensure everything would fit together in the 4’30” time frame. My consistent focus on timings meant that stitching the piece together was relatively easy, since all elements of the package were structured appropriately to fit into the 4’30” duration.
  • Interviews – I was pleased to secure my two international and one face-to-face (quality) interview comfortably in time for the deadline. This was quite an achievement given considerable bad luck with interviewees left, right, and centre pulling out and failing to respond. This highlights once again that journalism can hinge on two things: a little but of luck (in finding the right people, who are also willing to talk), and a lot of determination.

Bad points

  • Only once I began my face-to-face interview did I realise that the M-audio (recording device) was refusing to record, displaying the message: ‘media full’. At this point, I realised that it wasn’t my M-audio, but that of my trusty colleague – James Brydges. For some unknown reason, Mr Brydges has about 330 files on there, mostly of 5-8 seconds in duration. Needless to say, it was quite a nuisance having to interrupt my interviewee to scramble through the files and delete as many as possible. Fortunately my interviewee, Stan Bojnansky, was very patient.
  • I was stuck for ideas on how to get more “creative” with the package, in terms of bringing in music and wildtrack. It just didn’t seem appropriate given the topic, but perhaps I need to think outside the box a little more to incorporate a greater variety of sounds.
  • I went off on a tangent for the first couple of weeks, giving too much emphasis in my research to the Iranian-American relationship. This involved a certain degree of upheaval in realigning my focus to fit the role of NGOs, as outlined in the brief.
  • I would have liked to interview someone more directly relevant for the face-to-face interview. Unfortunately, without a car, money for transport, or anyone with connections to NGOs/Iran and the Arab world available to speak to me in Dorset or Cornwall, this wasn’t feasible. I was also hard-pressed to get this done, with many other assessments, work placements and a documentary to organise.

Lessons learned:

  • ALWAYS check, double-check, and triple-check recording equipment prior to interview! Despite charging it up and testing the levels, I wasn’t at all prepared for the ‘media full’ fiasco.
  • Read, re-read, and triple-read, the brief! Then refer back to it constantly – it is so easy to veer off from the initial instructions, as interviews and research often takes things in an unexpected direction. Yet it is still crucial not to waste time and effort venturing down different avenues that don’t adhere to the project brief.
  • For a longer radio package like this one, I think it may have been beneficial to bring in another interviewee. A variety of voices and points is important on such a broad topic.

Double standards: Kony vs the Terminator

I’m shaking my head in disbelief. After submitting an article on Joseph Kony for publication, I thought I’d developed quite a thorough insight into the position of major international organisations and world powers towards warlords accused of horrific atrocities. Then, earlier tonight, I turned my attention to Channel 4 News and felt like a damn fool. Who on earth, I ask myself, is Bosco Ntaganda, aka “The Terminator”? And why haven’t I even picked up on this notorious rogue leader until now? I blame myself for remaining ignorant; I could take the easy way out and blame “the media”, but I know that I could, and should, have done more to find out before now.

Bosco Ntaganda was indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in 2006, though his arrest warrant was only made public in April 2008.  The parallels between Ntaganda and Joseph Kony are uncanny: child soldiers were abducted to fill his ranks; civilians massacred, raped, and mutilated – all under his orders as chief of military operations for a militia group during internal conflict in the north-east Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet, in sharp contrast to Kony, he’s been hiding in plain sight ever since.

Ntaganda stands accused of “the enlistment, conscription and active use of children in 2002-3” in the northeastern district of Ituri, when he headed the military operations of an ethnic Hema militia group, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC). Note – he was a close associate of Thomas Lubunga, a fellow Congolese rebel leader who became the first recipient of a verdict from the ICC; he was found guilty of conscripting child soldiers into the UPC) in 2009 and is yet to be sentenced.

After leaving the UPC in 2006, Ntaganda assumed his current position as military chief of staff of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) in the Congo, led by Laurent Nkunda. According to Human Rights Watch:

The CNDP is considered responsible for serious abuses against civilians in the North Kivu province of eastern Congo. But on January 23, 2008, the Congolese government signed a peace agreement in Goma, North Kivu, with 22 armed groups, including the CNDP. Under its terms all parties agreed to an immediate ceasefire and committed to respecting international human rights law… 

… Ntaganda is the fourth Congolese rebel leader sought by the ICC for war crimes. Three other Congolese defendants – Thomas LubangaGermain Katanga, and Mathieu Ngudjolo – are already in ICC custody.

Special envoys from the African Union, the European Union, the United States, the United Nations, and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region played a vital role in brokering the Goma peace agreement. A number of these diplomats meet regularly with CNDP representatives as part of the peace process. Human Rights Watch urged them to use their influence to pressure CNDP officials to swiftly hand over Ntaganda to the ICC.

Unfortunately, efforts to arrest Ntaganda and put him on trial in the Hague have failed to bear fruit. As Channel 4’s Jonathon Miller explains:

…since the arrest of Lubanga in 2005, forces under the command of Bosco Ntaganda are accused of mass killings during a rebellion three years ago – according to a United Nations report.Yet today, General Bosco lives openly in the eastern city of Goma where he is in charge of 50,000 Congolese soldiers. The 17,000 UN peacekeepers stationed in the country are powerless to apprehend him. Their spokesman told us they cannot arrest him without an order from the president. As a signatory of the ICC, Congo is legally obliged to arrest a suspect indicted by the court.

But President Kabila has not done so… Witnesses and victims who have spoken to Channel 4 News accuse General Bosco of continuing to rape, torture, murder and recruit child soldiers – a reign of terror which, they say, carries on to this day. The ICC is aware of these allegations…

Under a peace deal which ended the 2008 rebellion, Bosco Ntaganda’s forces were reintegrated into the Congolese national army. He was promoted to the rank of general in January 2009 and was, say well-placed sources, instrumental is getting President Joseph Kabila re-elected at the end of last year, by securing votes in the east.

“Bosco Ntaganda is a man at the peak of his power at the moment,” said Anneke van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch

“He drives around Goma without a care in the world. He goes to the top restaurants. He plays tennis. He shows up at his office. He wines, he dines. This is a man who doesn’t think anyone is ever going to lift a finger to arrest him.”

Unbelievable. Perhaps I’m just incredibly naive, but it frustrates me beyond belief that this is the way the world works. The whole affair gives a very dark sheen to the concepts of bureaucracy and diplomacy, and casts a dark shadow on the whiter-than-white image of Western citizens promoted in the Kony 2012 campaign. This all feels, to me, like a long-overdue wake-up call.