Between Beirut and a Hard Place
Why Was Vietnam Elected to the UN Human Rights Council?
Last week, the UN elected serial human rights repressor Vietnam to its 47-seat Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Despite operating a single party communist regime—under which freedom of speech, right to protest, and many other liberties are routinely denied—Vietnam received the most votes from UN members out of the 14 newly elected countries (184 out of 192). Which is kind of ironic when you consider that voting is a practice not many of the country’s 90 million citizens are too familiar with.
The result is just as hypocritical as it is confusing; in the past, Vietnam’s Hanoi regime has stubbornly refused permission for the UNHRC to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. Over 50 dissidents have been imprisoned already this year for exercising their right to free speech, while others are routinely beaten, harassed, and intimidated. Uprisings from minorities and religious groups aren’t tolerated either, and are often crushed with completely unnecessary force. For example, a small group of Catholic protesters in Nghe An Province were recently met bya reported 3,000 police and soldiers wielding guns, batons, and grenades.
ON THE ROAD WITH LIBYA’S LIONS OF THE DESERT
The smoke from Taha’s massive cone joint flowed through the cabin of our silver Hummer. The A/C was on high and blew long fingers of smoke to the back seat. We were all mellow. Taha’s aviator sunglasses hid his tiny black eyes as he cranked the volume on the Arabic Reggae beat until it became painful. Then he floored it.
Jesus Christ, he’s PTSDing again, I thought as the speedometer cranked past 100 mph.
“He has to drive fast here,” Hamid said in flat Arabic-accented Canadian English. “This is where the snipers were, and if we didn’t do this we were dead.”
The Hummer slalomed as we sped towards the sea west of Misrata. The dark asphalt was covered with sand on the edges, and I prayed Taha could keep the car from sliding out of control as it swung side to side on the twisting road. I kept thinking about what my father had taught me about a tire’s contact patch and how small it is; his father had been a champion racecar driver in Havana in 1920. I’ll never get to see Havana I thought sadly, convinced Taha was about to roll the car.
A white Mazda pickup appeared over a rise, coming straight at us. Taha expertly pulled right and slid the Hummer around him, lining us up on the sea road. We sat there for a second, staring at two T-55 tanks, burnt hulks that sat guard on the road like ghosts. Taha sat crouched in the driver’s seat, his sunglasses barely over the steering wheel as sweat covered his brow.
Hamid dialed back the music as Taha leaned back and we continued to Misrata.
“See, I told you he has to drive fast here.”
“Hashish no problem. Whiskey no problem. Music problem.” Taha said. His English was meager and talking to him was like conversing with George “The Animal” Steel. I looked at Lucian my cameraman.
“You get that?” I asked.
“Got it,” he said, sitting up next to me, taking the camera down from his face, rubbing it against his perfectly trimmed beard. At first I thought he was lying down next to me fearing for his life until I realized he was angling for a shot of Taha, the joint, and the speedometer.
I was back in the US after two trips to Libya in three months when I pitched Dan Rather with the idea of doing a documentary on Muammar Qaddafi’s death. I used to be one of the UN’s war crimes investigators in Libya after the war. I primarily looked at NATO’s bombing. But we were short staffed, and so I was also given the lead on investigating Qaddafi’s death. The UN wanted to know if he was “EJE’d” or Extra-judicially Executed as they say in international legal circles. It was an odd request I thought. Who gives a shit if he was EJE’d I asked? Should we give the guy a medal? If someone popped Bashar al-Assad earlier in Syria wouldn’t we all just be better off? Maybe so, but this was serious stuff so I went about it seriously doing two trips to Libya—November 2011 and January 2012—along with a team of about a dozen war crimes investigators.
Working for the UN is funny. Everyone thinks we have some great karmic authority. It is as if people say, oh, it’s the UN, how can we help? The reality is sometimes you show up at a site and an old bespectacled Libyan in fatigues and a beret tells you, “Take your fucking paper and shove it up your ass,” in perfect English. We drive around in huge white Land Rovers that scream “HERE I AM, SHOOT ME” and we are often confined to base for security reasons while our colleagues and friends in human rights organizations and the press call us from shisha bars on the beach in Tripoli telling us “It’s safe. Get your ass out here.”
We flew to Libya via Rome in November, shortly after Qaddafi was killed. There were 12 investigators, a chief of security, and a close protection guy that had the guns. The chief of security was a massive dark-skinned Brazilian and the close protection guy was a dashingly handsome Tunisian who never stopped smiling. We flew to Rome from Geneva when the Italian police showed up. It was a buffet of heavily accented English.
“What do you mean no guns?” the chief of security asked.
“Prego, we are sorry but there is a UN arms embargo on Libya. You must send your weapons back.”
“But we ARE the UN.”
A PERPLEXING SURVEY OF THE CONGO’S MYRIAD RESISTANCE GROUPS
On my first day embedded with the UN stabilization force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I visited a camp in the city of Goma set up to house rebel combatants who had recently surrendered. The facility was split along ethnic and administrative lines, with only a chain-link fence separating Hutu and Tutsi fighters who, out in the bush, have been spilling each other’s blood by the bucket for decades.
Alongside the scarred and lean young fighters at the camp were dozens of women—“bush wives,” we were told—and their children, all born in the jungle. Most of these women had been taken as sex slaves, who pull double duty as domestic servants forced to cook, mend, and serve as porters for their captors. Already warned by my UN minders that they were concerned about the extent of my coverage, I asked the camp’s public information officer, Sam, how close I could get when snapping photos. “Get your pictures,” he replied. “Just, please, avoid the children.”
Goma is the capital city of the North Kivu province of the DRC and is situated in one of the world’s worst geopolitical neighborhoods. To the southeast, there’s the Rwandan border, which largely consists of mountain jungles through which scores of Hutu militants passed in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, fleeing punishment for their role in the massacre of Tutsis there. Over the course of the next decade, this armed migration directly contributed to the escalation of ethnic and factional tensions in the First and Second Congo Wars, in which an estimated 5 million people were murdered. Meanwhile, to the northeast of Goma, the West Nile region of Uganda has served as a transportation corridor for heavily armed Acholi-speaking fanatics like Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—who were made infamous by Invisible Children’s viral KONY 2012 documentary—to cross the border and drive deep into the DRC, where they’ve engaged in all sorts of ruthless behavior, like herding villagers into churches before burning them down to the ground.
FDLR ex-combatants, bush wives, and their children are processed for intake at a UN transit camp in Goma, North Kivu.
While KONY 2012 got a lot of flack for focusing on a rebel faction that had largely dissipated by the time of its release, ethnic conflicts are still erupting throughout the DRC, albeit of different varieties. These ethnic tensions are in turn exacerbating an already raging fight between local groups to control the illicit mining of cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, and other minerals essential to the manufacturing of everything from smartphones to air bags to jet engines. As a result of these tensions, a slew of foreign and native Hutu and Tutsi militias have renewed hostilities against each other.
There’s a lot of rhetoric thrown around at the UN. And I mean A LOT. (It is a meeting of many of the world’s most influential politicians after all!) So, instead of writing a column attempting to analyze all that rhetoric, I have created a series of word clouds for nine of the most important, hyped, and just plain interesting speeches that have occurred so far during the General Assembly. Enjoy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel)
President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad (Iran)