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August 10, 2014

Looking Inside the UN

BOOK REVIEW—An Insider’s Guide to the UN, 2nd Edition by Linda Fasulo

Submitted by John M.B. Balouziyeh
“An excellent introduction to the UN, but not without flaws”

Overall, Linda Fasulo’s An Insider’s Guide to the UN is a well-executed introduction to the inner workings of the United Nations. In terms of depth of treatment, it is about as comprehensive as the UN’s own Basic Facts about the United Nations, but the numerous interviews, firsthand accounts, and stories make Fasulo’s volume more engaging.

Vivid Descriptions of Action in International Crises

The greatest strength in Ms. Fasulo’s book emerges from her vivid descriptions of how the United Nations operates and how it tackles international crises. Ms. Fasulo manages to hold the reader’s attention by illustrating otherwise dry facts and figures with a plethora of historic accounts and real-life examples. In Chapter 6, the author describes peace operations by giving a detailed account of how the UN Security Council, through wielding its powers with respect to threats to peace under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, addresses a 1998 border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The account begins with the annexation of Eritrea by Ethiopia in the 1980s and continues with the Eritrean war for independence and Eritrea’s subsequent occupation of disputed territory in 1998. Fasulo describes how the UN Security Council intervened and applied pressure for the parties to accept an African Union (AU) plan to resolve the dispute in light of a “looming humanitarian crisis as drought and unrest threatened massive starvation” (p. 56). Finally, after several outbreaks of violence and an Ethiopian invasion into the heart of Eritrea in 2000, the parties agreed to a ceasefire, and the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) was formed to monitor the border. The final accord, signed between the parties in Algiers in December 2000, might not have been possible had the UN not intervened diplomatically.

Putting a Face on UN Bureaucracy

Other examples abound. Chapter 17, entitled Making a Career at the UN, contains the firsthand account of UN Undersecretary General Shashi Tharoor’s early years as a staff member in the UN Refugee Agency, which is also referred to as the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He describes his assignment in Singapore (1981-84) to “help organize efforts to aid the thousands of Vietnamese fleeing their homeland in the aftermath of the collapse of the Saigon government” (pp. 148-152).  Fasulo thus succeeds in putting a face on the large UN bureaucracy.

Extensive Resources

The book contains a comprehensive account of UN advocates, donors, and friends in Chapter 15, and recommendations for how readers can get involved with the UN, including through the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNAUSA) and the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS), an organization created to “encourage education, writing, and research that contribute to the understanding of international issues” and that hosts a “summer workshop for younger scholars and practitioners hosted in cooperation with the American Society of International Law (ASIL)” (pp. 143-144).

Subtle Bias Undermines Complete Accuracy

Its merits aside, the author’s objectivity may be questioned by readers who get a sense of her bias toward portraying the UN in an almost exclusively positive light. One result of a lack of complete objectivity is that certain inaccuracies are allowed to stand or are not caught before publication. Hopefully, the inaccuracies discussed in this review will be addressed in future editions.

Subtle bias is found in chapter titles like UN to the Rescue (Chapter 23), as well as in how phrases are spun, e.g., “the big problems the UN can address in a year” (p. xi), and the way major challenges plaguing the UN itself are overlooked in the text. One does not read of the significant budget problems that confront the UN. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), for example, is constantly in the midst of a budget crisis and deficits. The accusations of corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiency that have been levied at the UN by its critics are not covered in depth. The book does discuss some of these criticisms (see the discussion of reforming the UN Security Council on page 47), but overall, the author focuses on the UN’s achievements without addressing its weaknesses or those of its affiliated institutions.

Can the ICC Execute Arrest Warrants?

An inaccuracy emerges in the discussion about the International Criminal Court (ICC). The book states on page 102 that “…most perpetrators of atrocities have been able to act with impunity, as long as they remain in power or can find exile or asylum in a friendly country.  If there had existed a single, international body with acknowledged jurisdiction to try cases involving human rights abuses, it is possible Pinochet would have actually been brought to justice. The ICC remedies this deficiency.”  However, the book omits the fact that the ICC has no executive authority to execute arrest warrants, and it is still up to sovereign nations to arrest and extradite accused war criminals. This inherent weakness is exemplified by the fact that more than five years ago, on 4 March 2009, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but to date, the government of Sudan has failed to execute the warrant or extradite Al-Bashir to The Hague for prosecution.

The author seems to advocate the ICC as an instrument to bring criminals accused of the worst crimes to justice, but the case she makes for the ICC is not entirely accurate. The book states that “…until recently there were no international courts for trying persons accused of committing atrocities, except for special tribunals such as the one at Nuremberg after World War II” (p. 102). The reality is, however, that in addition to the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal and other ad hoc tribunals, hybrid institutions such as the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in Dili District Court (East Timor) have been created to address international crimes. Moreover, States could address the most egregious crimes, such as genocide, by invoking universal jurisdiction, which allows the courts of any nation to try nationals of any other nation without the consent of the latter nation. Thus, even if the ICC did not exist, the international community would be able to address many international crimes by appealing to universal jurisdiction, ad hoc courts, and hybrid institutions.

Too Broad a Brush?

At times, An Insider’s Guide to the UN brushes over facts without employing necessary qualifications to clarify exceptions, thus leading to inaccuracies. For example, Chapter 10’s focus on the International Criminal Court (ICC) opens with a discussion of the crimes over which the ICC has jurisdiction, listing  “genocide, war crimes, and other crimes against humanity” (p. 100). This implies that genocide and war crimes are crimes against humanity, but under the Rome Statute of the ICC (SICC), this is not necessarily so. A crime must be “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population” in order to qualify as a crime against humanity (Art. 7.1 SICC), but a single act can be deemed a war crime without constituting a “widespread or systematic attack” necessary for it to qualify as a crime against humanity.

The Guide states that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) “…hears only those cases involving states, not individuals…” (p. 100-101). While it is true that the jurisdiction of the ICJ is limited to hearing only those cases in which all of the parties are States (Art. 34.1 Statute of the ICJ), many of these cases involve individuals. For example, the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Belgium (14 February 2002) dealt with the perpetration of international crimes and whether an arrest warrant for an individual(s) was valid.

Is the ICC All Powerful?

In discussing a point of contention regarding the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Guide states that the ICC “…has the authority to bring individuals to trial without needing permission from any individual or government” (p. 101). However, the ICC only has jurisdiction over an individual in the following cases: (i) the crime was committed in the territory of an ICC member State or on board a vessel or aircraft registered with a member State (Art. 12.2(a) SICC); (ii) the accused is a national of a State party to the SICC (Art. 12.2(b) SICC); or (iii) the State in question agrees to jurisdiction (Art. 12.3 SICC).

Therefore, in ratifying or refusing to ratify the SICC, a State exercises control over whether its citizens may be subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC. The only situation in which a citizen may be subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC without his or her State’s consent is if he or she committed a crime within the territory of an ICC member State or on board a vessel or aircraft registered with a member State, but even in these cases the ICC member State may guarantee to the citizen’s State that it will not pursue criminal prosecution at the ICC, as Mali did with respect to US soldiers earlier this year.

While it is also true that cases may be referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council without a State’s consent (e.g., as has been done with respect to the Sudan), such cases do not pose a threat to the US and other veto-wielding members of the Security Council.

On page 102, the author states that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is based in Kigali, Rwanda. However, the ICTR is actually located in Arusha, northern Tanzania, with an office in Kigali and an office in The Hague.

The book states that a special court for Sierra Leone was set up in 2000, but 2000 marked only the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1315 to start negotiations with the Sierra Leonean government to create a Special Court, which was set up two years later in 2002.


Overall, An Insider’s Guide to the UN is an excellent introduction to the United Nations, but it could be strengthened in future editions.

June 3, 2014

The Shift – Envisioning a a More Socially Just and Peaceful Society

THE SHIFT Movie is a powerful new film being produced and directed by Rochelle Marmorstein that draws from luminaries, leading edge thinkers, evolutionary futurists, scientists and ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  THE SHIFT is the first feature film to reveal the proactive role we are now playing in the evolutionary shift of our collective consciousness. As it chronicles the faces, the stories, and the leaders assisting in this social transformation, the film reveals the phenomenon’s emergence and profound meaning.

The team creating the film aims to showcase those individuals who are already making a difference with passion and a commitment to positive change.  Through compelling interviews and stories, the movie illustrates how technology and innovation breakthroughs are rapidly advancing the capability of individuals  to make a bigger impact on the billions who  inhabit the planet.

After creating two critically acclaimed documentaries, Rochelle Marmorstein has now assembled a world class team of professional documentary artists, leading edge thinkers, scientists, culture innovators, social entrepreneurs, and digital artists to create THE SHIFT Movie.  The film has been 10 years in the making and is being funded by thousands of contribution.

January 5, 2014

Neighbors Healing Neighbors – Community-based Mental Health Strategies

A Community Approach to Mental Health

Building Back Better, a recent report by the the World Health Organization (WHO), outlines a new, community oriented approach to providing mental health care in developing countries that have experienced devastating emergencies.  The report describes how, in the aftermath of wars and natural disasters, ambitious mental health reforms have been instituted and are starting to make a difference.  One of the most striking characteristics of these reforms is their focus on creating mental health care systems that put trained nonprofessionals on the front line of treatment.  According to Mark van Ommeren, a psychiatric epidemiologist at WHO in Geneva, talk therapies adapted to specific cultures show promise in easing these problems.

Eleven countries and territories contributed to the report including Afghanistan, Burundi, Indonesia (Aceh Province), Iraq, Jordan, Kosovo, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, and West Bank and Gaza Strip.  These participants described their major achievements and most difficult challenges and shared how those challenges were overcome, in part by using community-based strategies.

For example, in Goa, India, an investigation called MANAS (an acronym meaning  “Project to Promote Mental Health” in India’s Konkani language) documented the effectiveness of group therapy led by non-medical people local to the area.  In the study, which encompassed 2,800 individuals being treated for common mental health problems, interpersonal psychotherapy and other interventions delivered by health counselors substantially relieved patients’ depression and improved their work and home lives well after treatment ended.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, another study conducted by Johns Hopkins University provided evidence for the healing power of group therapy administered by trained nonprofessionals.  The project involved the treatment of 405 women from 15 villages, many of whom were suffering symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), the emotional aftereffect of rape and other conflict-related ordeals in the war-torn country.  They were divided into groups of six to eight women and received up to 12 sessions of cognitive processing therapy administered by lay counselors supervised by a Congolese social worker trained in the therapy.  The number of women suffering from PTSD was reduced from 60% to 9% after 12 sessions.

The Limits of “Medication Only” Mental Health Strategies

The key to any of these approaches is that they are sustainable.  The treatments highlighted in the WHO report not only meet the primary need to relieve the patient’s anguish and inability to live a depression-free life, but do so at a much lower cost.  The results achieved also indicate that it is a false economy to medicate without talk therapy support, either individually or in a group setting, because patients may experience no effect or a slew of very bad effects, from unmonitored medication for mental health issues.  To date, studies done on “medication only” versus “talk therapy” (alone or with some medication) show that roughly two-thirds of patients prefer talk therapy, seeing better long-term results.

Policymakers around the world now have over a decade of data on what works well and what works less well in the design of mental health programs in developing countries.  And what they have learned points to the need to review the current state of mental health care both in developing and developed countries, particularly with regard to including various forms of talk therapy in their programs.

Ironically, in the U.S., the birthplace of interpersonal psychotherapy, this type of therapy is on the decline.  Patients seeking help for depression in the U.S. are consistently shown in surveys to prefer psychotherapy to drug therapy.  The power of the pharmaceutical industry is generally pointed to as the reason why “talk therapy” practitioners are harder and harder to find.  U.S. health providers and insurers realize immediate savings from having a patient’s Primary Care Physician (not a therapist) write a prescription for an antidepressant and promote this as the preferred treatment for a patient’s depression.  This seemingly cheaper treatment outweighs the strength of studies showing that longer term “talk therapy” with or without medication results in patients being able to sustain progress made in treatment.  But there are long term, hidden costs to the medication-only approach.

After years of medication-only treatment with no measurable improvement, patients remain saddled with ongoing depression that can make them less productive.  It can also results in the inappropriate use of medical resources.  For example, seeing physicians who are not mental health care specialists for health complaints that, in actuality, arise from untreated depression.  The cost of tests and other diagnostic efforts in pursuit of a diagnosis by physicians who are not mental health care specialists can be substantial.

Neighbors Healing Neighbors

Building Back Better is a hopeful window on how people who live in some of the most conflict-ridden areas of the world are getting effective mental health care from the members of their community to heal the deep wounds they bear after generations of war and poverty.  But it offers a lesson for policymakers of all nations to consider talk therapy, guided by trained community-based nonprofessionals, to tackle their mental health challenges.

September 26, 2013

Children Saving Children

Free The Children is proof positive that kids can make a difference in the world.  The organization is an international charity and educational partner that believes in a world where all children are free to achieve their fullest potential as agents of change. It works domestically through its We Day and We Act programs to educate, engage and empower youth to become active local and global citizens. Through its sustainable development model—Adopt a Village—Free the Children  strives to remove barriers to education and help communities break the cycle of poverty.

Craig KielburgerThe organization was founded by Craig Kielburger in 1995 when he gathered 11 school friends to begin fighting child labor. He was 12 years old.  He was motivated by a story that appeared in the Toronto Star about a boy his age named Iqbal. Iqbal Masih was born in South Asia and sold into slavery at the age of four. He had spent six years chained to a carpet-weaving loom. Iqbal captured the world’s attention by speaking out for children’s rights.  But he was killed at the age of 12 by those who had enslaved him and which to silence him.

Craig gathered together a small group of classmates from his school in Ontario and Free The Children was born.  Its mission is simple.  Free the children from poverty. Free the children from exploitation. Free the children from the notion that they are powerless to effect change.

Today, Free the Children has over 5,300 volunteers working on projects that are about evenly split between domestic and international.  The organization has been a model of efficiency, lining up partners from KPMG to Air Canada to provide in-kind services that allow it to operate on a lean administrative overhead of less than ten percent.  Since 2009, it has raised over $5 million in donations, over a third of which come from kids.  The projects it funds range from education, to providing clean water, and helping women and children become self sufficient by selling products through its Artisans program.

But perhaps the most important work that Free the Children does, is to empower kids to get involved and make a difference in their communities and around the world.  Through its Me to We programs, Free the Children is teaching children to become social activists and realize they can change their world for the better.

Free the Children – featured on CBS 60 Minutes

August 22, 2013

Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War

cover mighty be our powersAugust 18th marked the 10-year anniversary of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which officially concluded more than a decade of civil war in Liberia. The Mass Action, a Liberian women’s peace movement, was roundly praised for pressuring Charles Taylor’s government and rebel factions to reach a settlement during these 2003 negotiations. For her role in spearheading this campaign, Leymah Gbowee was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. In Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, Gbowee offers a stirring account of her personal struggles during the conflict and how Liberian women mobilized to help end the war.

The birth of war and the death of innocence

Months before Taylor’s offensive into Nimba County ignited the war, Gbowee had gathered with family and friends to celebrate her high school graduation. Gbowee’s pre-war anecdotes give the impression that she was content with her life, but like most young people yearned for a more prosperous future.

Gbowee reflects on pre-war Liberia through the lens of a young woman with great promise and ambitions, but who was ultimately oblivious to the tensions brewing from her country’s history of political repression and economic inequalities. Gbowee’s life was in full bloom when war descended upon Liberia on Christmas Eve, 1989.

With the interior under their control, rebel forces made a final push into Monrovia during the summer of 1990. When the fighting reached Gbowee’s home area, her family was forced to move to a Lutheran compound in Sinkor, a section of Monrovia. By July 1990, fighting in Monrovia intensified: Atrocities mounted on both sides, electricity and water were cut, buildings looted, roads demolished, and people began to starve. Suddenly, rice became known as “gold dust” and cooked flour served as porridge.

Gbowee would also witness the aftermath of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church massacre, in which hundreds of internally displaced people were slaughtered by government troops. Gbowee remembers seeing dead bodies lining the main boulevard, in particular a father’s still holding onto his dead child in one hand and clutching a baby bottle in the other. Reflecting on these scenes of horror and at such a young age, Gbowee writes: “When you move so quickly from innocence to a world of fear, pain and loss, it’s as if the flesh of your heart and mind gets cut away, piece by piece, like slices taken off a ham. Finally, there is nothing left but bone.”

An uprooted nation

Shortly after the St. Peter’s Church massacre, Gbowee and several of her family members managed to secure entry to Buduburam, a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana. The war had uprooted an entire nation, gradually dismantling the extended family network so integral to Liberian culture. Gbowee’s family was no exception, those who had survived were now scattered throughout different countries.

Life in Buduburam was bleak. There were no bullets flying, but people still went hungry, there were little opportunities for employment, and disease was rife due to unsanitary living conditions. Within a year, Gbowee would return to Liberia alone. With little family supervision, Gbowee was reduced to fending for herself in a country where everything had been destroyed and was still volatile.

It wal  gbowee aug 2013s at this juncture in her life that Gbowee began a courtship with Daniel, the future father of her children. While Gbowee describes in painful detail the years of abuse, humiliation, and neglect she suffered with Daniel, she does not regret having met him. The four children she bore to Daniel, at least two of whom were forcibly conceived after Daniel had beaten her, made the pain and suffering somehow more bearable.

For the next several years, Gbowee would spend her life between Ghana and Liberia, fleeing from continued fighting in Monrovia, attempting to provide for her children, and being battered by her husband in the process.

The dream that ended the nightmare

With time, Gbowee mustered the courage to leave her abusive husband. Together with her children, Gbowee returned to her parent’s home outside Monrovia where she began volunteering as a social worker for traumatized populations and re initiated her university education.

Gbowee found her calling working at the grassroots level with Liberian women who, just like her, were exhausted from years of war. After being tapped to be the Liberian coordinator for the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), Gbowee began establishing herself as a prominent figure in an evolving women’s peace movement.

Charles-TaylorIn 1997, Liberians voted overwhelmingly for Taylor as president. Many hoped that appeasing Taylor’s insatiable thirst for power might finally bring peace to Liberia. By 1999, however, Liberia had slipped back into civil war.

It was during this stage of the conflict that Gbowee had a dream compelling her to organize Liberian women to pray for peace. Her dream culminated into the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative (CWI). What began as a group of Christian women meeting every week to pray for peace snowballed into a mass movement encompassing thousands of women from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Dressed all in white, these women would organize demonstrations, sit-ins, and audiences with warring factions to lobby for a peaceful resolution to the war. Gbowee and her cadre of women peace activists were the subject of the award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

Women as agents of peace?

Gbowee’s memoir provides a rare window into the harsh realities that ordinary Liberians experienced throughout the war. It is a testament to the human spirit’s indelible will to survive; it is both raw and inspirational. However, it also endorses the false assumption that women are inherently more “peaceful” than men. Through the work of women, Gbowee believes that “in the end, tyranny will never succeed, and goodness will always vanquish evil.”

This romanticized vision of women could not be further from the truth, particularly in Liberia where many women in positions of power have been implicated in some of the same corrupt policies and practices that helped plunge the country into war in the first place. Instead of working for peace, many Liberian women in authority are working to enrich themselves and maintain their patronage systems, not unlike the male warlords that preceded them in power.

Ellen Johnson SirleafPresident Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a case in point. Gbowee ends her book by heaping praise on the Liberian President for becoming Africa’s first female head-of-state and entertains a future political career herself. This honeymoon period of goodwill between two of Liberia’s most iconic female peace crusaders was short-lived, however.

Recently, Gbowee made headlines for her abrupt resignation from the National Peace and Reconciliation Initiative, to which she had been appointed by Johson Sirleaf in 2011. Gbowee cited the President’s unconvincing campaign against corruption and engagement in nepotism as reasons for her departure.

The strength of Gbowee’s memoir lies not in her particular political views and the arguably lopsided credit she gives to the women’s peace movement for ending the war, but the lessons that can be drawn from her personal history. It is this personal narrative that makes this book required reading for any student of Liberian political history.

July 11, 2013

Probing the Biological Roots of Violence

anatomy of violence book coverIn his new book, The Anatomy of Violence, Adrian Raine introduces us to neurocriminology, a new field within the neurosciences that focuses on the biological origins of violent behavior.  He explains that, “The dominant model for understanding criminal behavior has been, for most of the twentieth century, one built almost exclusively on social and sociological models.  My main argument is that sole reliance on these social perspectives is fundamentally flawed.  Biology is also critically important in understanding violence, and probing through its anatomical underpinnings will be vital for treating the epidemic of violence and crime afflicting our societies.”

adrian raine - authorRaine writes about his 35 years of research to uncover and validate the connection between a range of violent behaviors and areas of the brain known to control feelings of fear and guilt, as well as the process of making “good” decisions.  The theory that the brain could drive antisocial behavior was soundly rejected, along with the work of scientists like Raine, by the field of Criminology during most of those years, but now, in the 21st Century, great strides in molecular and behavioral genetics coupled with “…revolutionary advances in brain imaging…” provide the platform for accepting and understanding the biology of violence.

The link between violence and anatomy  – CNN

This book is written for a general audience, and perhaps for the first time, many readers will actually understand what is shown on a brain scan. The author uses examples of antisocial behavior from various criminal cases—some highly publicized—including serial murder to domestic violence, to demonstrate his work on identifying the commonality of both biological and social impairments among perpetrators.  On the biological side, brain injuries occurring in utero and at birth as well as low heart rates emerge as important in Raine’s studies.  On the social side, maternal rejection in the first year of life appears to be a key factor in understanding violence. This biosocial model, then, embraces both biological and social risk factors as causes for antisocial behaviors.

Raine takes us from a personal perspective as a victim of criminal violence himself to considering violence as a matter of Public Health worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls violence “a global public health problem.”  Some experts estimate that, in the U.S. alone, the total cost of dealing with violence is half a trillion dollars a year. This adds urgency to the work that Raine and his colleagues are doing. With a new understanding of violence grounded in science, and guided by neuroethics, biological and social interventions for prevention and treatment can turn the tide of unchecked violence worldwide.