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Lab Leaks

Alex deWaal, 2 December 2021

... Normal​ accident theory, developed by the sociologist Charles Perrow in the 1980s, predicts that sooner or later there will be a devastating accident with a nuclear weapon. The list of near misses is terrifying. In Command and Control (2013), Eric Schlosser compiled a minute by minute account of an accident involving a Titan II nuclear missile based at Damascus, Arkansas in September 1980 ...

Monuments to Famine

Alex deWaal, 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 fewer people today than there were 175 years ago ...

The Big Man

Alex deWaal: The Rwandan Genocide, 3 November 2016

From War to Genocide: Criminal Politics in Rwanda 1990-94 
by André Guichaoua, translated by Don Webster.
Wisconsin, 424 pp., £73.95, October 2015, 978 0 299 29820 3
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... 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 ideological project ...

The Unwritten Sociology of HIV

Alex deWaal: The War on Aids, 19 June 2003

Aids in the 21st Century: Disease and Globalisation 
by Tony Barnett and Alan Whiteside.
Palgrave, 416 pp., £52.50, June 2002, 1 4039 0005 1
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... 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, somehow ignored the findings when designing their assistance programmes ...

‘We do deserts, we don’t do mountains’

Alex deWaal: The United Nations, 11 November 1999

Soldiers of Diplomacy: The United Nations, Peacekeeping and the New World Order 
by Jocelyn Coulon.
Toronto, 231 pp., £26, October 1998, 0 8020 0899 2
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Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention 
edited by Jonathan Moore.
Rowman and Littlefield, 320 pp., £18.95, December 1998, 0 8476 9031 8
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New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in the Global Era 
by Mary Kaldor.
Polity, 200 pp., £13.99, December 1998, 0 7456 2067 1
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... 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 ...

Chasing Ghosts

Alex deWaal: The Failure of Jihad in Africa, 18 August 2005

... 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 international jihadism ...

Humanitarian Juggernaut

Alex deWaal, 22 June 1995

War and Law since 1945 
by Geoffrey Best.
Oxford, 434 pp., £25, October 1994, 0 19 821991 1
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Mercy under Fire: War and the Global Humanitarian Community 
by Larry Minear and Thomas Weiss.
Westview, 247 pp., £44.50, July 1995, 0 8133 2567 6
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... 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 ...

Remember Alem Bekagn

Alex deWaal: Addis Ababa, 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 prisons, but Alem Bekagn was the emblematic site ...

Steal, Burn, Rape, Kill

Alex deWaal: Famine in Tigray, 17 June 2021

... In Tigray​ in northern Ethiopia a famine is unfolding in the dark. Reporters and aid workers have been unable to access large parts of the region since war broke out in November. Satellite imagery and aerial photographs have shown that only a fraction of the land was ploughed in preparation for the summer rains. Children are dying of hunger. When villagers are spotted by Eritrean or Ethiopian soldiers they are told: ‘You won’t plough, you won’t harvest, you won’t get any aid ...

Dangers of Discretion

Alex deWaal: International law, 21 January 1999

Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross 
by Caroline Moorehead.
HarperCollins, 780 pp., £24.99, May 1998, 0 00 255141 1
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The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience 
by Michael Ignatieff.
Chatto, 207 pp., £10.99, February 1998, 0 7011 6324 0
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... Dream. A few courageous delegates managed to protect Jews, notably in Hungary, where Jean de Bavier and Friedrich Born set up safe houses and provided travel documents to thousands of threatened people – with little support and some outright opposition from Geneva. Moorehead describes delegates running alongside trains bound for the camps, pushing ...

The Moral Solipsism of Global Ethics Inc

Alex deWaal: Human rights, democracy and Amnesty International, 23 August 2001

Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International 
by Jonathan Power.
Allen Lane, 332 pp., £12.99, May 2001, 0 7139 9319 7
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Future Positive: International Co-operation in the 21st Century 
by Michael Edwards.
Earthscan, 292 pp., £12.99, September 2000, 1 85383 740 7
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East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia 
by Daniel Bell.
Princeton, 369 pp., £12.50, May 2000, 0 691 00508 7
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... 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 after the death of Tanzania’s former President, Julius Nyerere, in the city that once hosted the OAU Liberation Committee, advertising of this kind passes without comment ...

Counter-Insurgency on the Cheap

Alex deWaal: The Road to Darfur, 5 August 2004

... Darfur’s landscapes have a cruel beauty, and few are more unyielding than the nomadic encampment of Aamo. It is in a stony wasteland on a plain ringed by mountains formed from ancient volcanic cores. A distant sweep of pink sand marks the course of a seasonal river, Wadi Kutum. Many years ago, I stayed there as a guest of the nazir (‘paramount chief’) of a clan of Arab nomads known as the Jalul ...

Dollarised

Alex deWaal: How Not to Nation-Build, 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 these countries seem to become ...

The Nazis Used It, We Use It

Alex deWaal: Famine as a Weapon of War, 15 June 2017

... 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 ...

‘I will not sign’

Alex deWaal: At the Darfur Peace Talks, 30 November 2006

... fighting – the clear consensus is that Minawi was the aggressor – and resulted in a de facto split in the movement. Abdel Wahid promised to hold a convention, but never delivered. Minawi stepped into the breach and set up the Haskanita Conference in October 2005, on his own terms, in territory his forces controlled and with Libyan money, and had ...

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