Alex de Waal

Alex de Waal is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation. New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and Its Alternatives is out now.

Monuments to Famine

Alex de Waal, 7 March 2019

Almost all​ the stone monuments across the hills of the west of Ireland, where a million people died between 1845 and 1851, were erected in the last 25 years: the Great Famine is now part of Ireland’s official record of British misrule. In purely demographic terms the famine was a calamity without modern parallel: Ireland is one of the small number of places on earth where there are...

In its primary use, the verb ‘to starve’ is transitive: it’s something people do to one another, like torture or murder. Mass starvation as a consequence of the weather has very nearly disappeared: today’s famines are all caused by political decisions, yet journalists still use the phrase ‘man-made famine’ as if such events were unusual. This year, it’s possible that four or five famines will occur simultaneously.

The Big Man: The Rwandan Genocide

Alex de Waal, 3 November 2016

Did​ the Rwanda genocide happen because a few army officers and politicians, squabbling over whom they should appoint as leader, casually used mass murder as a means of obtaining a temporary consensus? The idea that the largest mass murder of the last 25 years came about through banal politicking is perhaps even more disturbing than the notion that it was the enactment of a grand...

Remember Alem Bekagn: Addis Ababa

Alex de Waal, 26 January 2012

The new headquarters of the African Union have been built on the site of Addis Ababa’s former central prison, officially called Akaki, but known in Ethiopia as Alem Bekagn, or ‘farewell to the world’, and the site of detentions and massacres, from the Italian occupation of 1936 to the Red Terror of 1977-78. More people may have been tortured and executed in other Ethiopian...

Dollarised: How Not to Nation-Build

Alex de Waal, 24 June 2010

State-building isn’t working, and it isn’t for lack of trying. The European and American countries that go by the name ‘the international community’ have poured expertise, money and troops into Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, to name only the biggest and most challenging countries. But the more effort that is expended, the more troublesome...

Military intervention won’t stop the killing. Those who are clamouring for troops to fight their way into Darfur are suffering from a salvation delusion. It’s a simple reality that UN troops can’t stop an ongoing war, and their record at protecting civilians is far from perfect. Moreover, the idea of Bush and Blair acting as global moral arbiters doesn’t travel well. The crisis in Darfur is political. It’s a civil war, and like all wars it needs a political settlement. It’s not a distant hope: the political differences are small.

Three of the suspects in the attempted bombings in London on 21 July were born in the Horn of Africa. One, Yasin Hassan Omar, was born in Somalia; a second, Osman Hussein, in Ethiopia; and a third, Muktar Said Ibrahim, in Eritrea. Ten years ago, when Osama bin Laden lived in Khartoum, the Horn of Africa could plausibly have been described as both the headquarters and the front line of...

“The atrocities carried out by the Janjawiid are aimed at speakers of Fur, Tunjur, Masalit and Zaghawa. They are systematic and sustained; the effect, if not the aim, is grossly disproportionate to the military threat of the rebellion. The mass rape and branding of victims speaks of the destruction of a community. But this is not the genocidal campaign of a government at the height of its ideological hubris, as the 1992 jihad against the Nuba was . . . This is the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by years in power: it is genocide by force of habit.”

The first anecdotal evidence that Aids-related illness and death were contributing to a crisis in African farming came in the mid-1980s; the first consultants’ reports and academic studies were completed by about 1990. But even the international agencies that sponsored these studies, including the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Department for International Development,...

‘Uhuru has a new name’, an advertising billboard for mobile phones announces in Dar es Salaam. ‘Uhuru’ – Swahili for ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation’ – is a sacred word throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. It is an ideal for which Africans sacrificed much in their collective struggle against colonialism and racism. But almost two years...

From The Blog
18 April 2019

During his last years in office, Bashir used his formidable political talents simply to stay in power, and did nothing for the country. Anti-government protests erupted last December, first against the high prices of bread and fuel, and then against Bashir’s endless rule and the corruption that accompanied it. Despite weekly demonstrations in Khartoum and other cities, Bashir imagined he could outlast the protesters. He thought they lacked leadership and would be easily divided, bought off or demoralised. He was wrong. On 6 April the biggest ever crowds surrounded the Ministry of Defence and military HQ, and refused to disperse.

From The Blog
3 October 2013

A former prime minister of Somalia, Abdiweli Ali, tells a story that demonstrates the pervasive influence of al-Shabab, even in areas ostensibly controlled by the Somali Federal Government (SFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Al-Shabab collects taxes – reportedly as much as the government, and certainly more efficiently. This includes a payroll tax, described as a ‘contribution’, which salaried personnel – government staff among them – are obliged to pay. Abdiweli describes how a defector from al-Shabab who went to work for the government received a visit from a man who told him to pay his ‘contribution’. ‘How will I know whom to pay?’ he asked. ‘You will know,’ the messenger replied. At the end of the month, he went to collect his salary from the cashier at the bank. The cashier said: ‘Now let me receive your contribution.’

Ineptitude and confounded expectations lie at the heart of military affairs. Probably not one war in a hundred has conformed to the course plotted for it by those who launched it. Journalists have catalogued many of the errors and stupidities of recent wars, and there have been some scholarly assaults on the territory, most of which are concerned with the British Army in its Imperial heydey and aftermath. Perhaps when US power has waned somewhat, we may see Americans becoming comfortable with the subject too, and attempting academic analyses of some of the more remarkable feats of precision air attack, such as the strike on the al shiffa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum or the neat destruction of the house next door to General Aidid’s headquarters in Mogadishu. Meanwhile, the nature of incompetence is changing. As generals come under closer political control and elected leaders are able to monitor and direct the conduct of wars on an hour-by-hour basis, civilian politicians are committing an ever-bigger share of blunders. In an extended hierarchical command system, the opportunities for mistakes proliferate. A competent frontline commander’s chance of failure is proportional to the amount of time he must spend fighting his own bureaucracy.

Dangers of Discretion: international law

Alex de Waal, 21 January 1999

Over a century ago, Gustave Moynier, a stocky middle-aged Genevan lawyer, author and philanthropist, proposed an international court to enforce respect for the Geneva Convention. Moynier was the second president of the Red Cross, a man whose dedication turned the flamboyant Henri Dunant’s vision into an institutional reality. Dunant, a journalist and entrepreneur, documented the agonies of the wounded soldiers left to die in the fields and vineyards of Solferino after the battle of 24 June 1859, and went on to propose both a corps of volunteers to treat the casualties and a set of ‘international principles, conventional and sacred’, to enjoin armies to respect these volunteers. The ambitions of the two men were too large to fit within the confines of a single institution. Disgraced by bankruptcy, Dunant resigned from the Red Cross to live in seclusion, until he was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. This infuriated the self-righteous Moynier, who in the latter part of his 46-year stint as president, tried hard to expunge any mention of Dunant from the organisation’s records. Such contradictions are the stuff of the Red Cross, whose ‘International Committee’ was, until recently, drawn from a very small circle within the Protestant haute bourgeoisie of Geneva. Much of Caroline Moorehead’s immense chronicle is about the individuals – some extraordinarily courageous and eccentric, a few disastrously timid – who established ‘a movement which has no equal in size or commitment outside of organised religion’.’‘

Humanitarian Juggernaut

Alex de Waal, 22 June 1995

The ‘law of war’ is a paradox, an exercise by turns noble and futile. ‘A remedy must be found,’ Grotius wrote, ‘for those who believe that in war nothing is lawful, and for those for whom all things in war are lawful.’ Geoffrey Best, in his magnificent exposition of the modern pursuit of legal restraint on warfare, opens with another aphorism, from Hersch Lauterpacht: ‘If international law is, in some ways’ at the vanishing-point of law, the law of war is, perhaps even more conspicuously, at the vanishing-point of international law.’


Third time lucky?

11 November 1999

Michael Howard (Letters, 25 November 1999) asks how outlawing war ‘for a third time’ will make a difference. It is improbable that a new international treaty banning states from using force would fare any better than its predecessors in 1928 and 1945. But let us not confuse an international treaty with a true prohibition. Compare the example of anti-personnel landmines. Those who celebrated...

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in North Korea are succumbing to starvation, perishing ‘silently and painfully’ in the words of an aid agency official. Eighty-five...

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