Tag: human rights reporting

Conflict prevention and early warnings: closing the gap through communications?

The catastrophes of Rwanda and Bosnia led to a debate in the 1990s about the warning-response gap. Conflict prevention and early warning systems did not seem up to scratch. Third parties intervened too late, if at all. Spending was skewed towards mitigating the effects of conflicts, not on stopping them happen in the first place. The spread of satellite television brought conflicts into more immediate public vision. It was feared this created a CNN effect whereby policymakers were forced into military intervention for humanitarian causes to satisfy a more globally-aware public opinion. But this meant only those conflicts caught on camera would be responded to. The overall picture was a mess, it was argued. International relations lacked an effective system of warning-response.

A new study has cast doubt on these assumptions. This opens a space for a more analytical approach to how media, NGOs and intelligence agencies provide warnings and how states and international organisations can decide to respond. The Foresight project has spent three years analysing under what circumstances warnings are noticed, prioritised, and acted upon.  The team, led by Christoph Meyer, has looked at a series of case studies offering various degrees of warning and response, including Estonia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Macedonia, Darfur, and Georgia. They have interviewed responders from the UK, US, Germany, the UN, EU and OSCE and analysed media and NGO reporting around these conflicts. In short, they’ve done a lot of the empirical work that was missing from the 1990s debate. What have they found?

First, Rwanda could not have been prevented. Valid warnings only emerged when conflict was escalating, not pre-escalation. Those who suggest a lack of political will or ignorance on the part of decision-makers have misinterpreted the warning data available at the time. Second, those providing warnings anticipate what responders want to hear, and provide them with that. Decision-makers hate surprising warnings which don’t fit their mental models of how the world works. They are overloaded with situations they’re already dealing with and favour responding to emerging conflicts that look like ones they’ve dealt with before. Third, decision-makers are as likely to respond to warnings from preferred journalists or NGOs rather than intelligence from their own state agencies. They trust lone, grizzled hacks or aid agencies they might be funding. Fourth and finally, for all the usual factors of resource-availability, credibility of warning sources and so on, military and aid responses are often a matter of context and chance, neither of which social scientists handle particularly well. 
At a discussion of the findings yesterday, Piers Robinson, author of The CNN Effect, made the point that journalists cannot be relied on to provide early warnings in the future. The study indicates it is too dangerous, insurance is too expensive, and they are driven by news cycles in which what is happening trumps what might happen. Robinson also suggested that the Foresight project misses the systematic relation media and NGOs have to political power. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all point to the fact that journalists only question a war when leading politicians have already expressed dissent. Journalists don’t lead, they follow. While the former BBC journalist Martin Bell might argue for a ‘journalism of attachment’ that ‘cares as well as knows’, mainstream media organisations do not employ journalists to undertake moral crusades to warn states that if they don’t act in Rwanda, Georgia or wherever, there’ll be trouble.
Will citizen journalism and data mining of social media conversations around the world lead to improved warnings? This is the question decision-makers have been asking recently.  They want to know how to integrate warning data from journalists, social media, NGOs and intelligence channels. In theory, the warning-response gap should shrink to zero.  The time between an event and the state knowing about it promises to disappear with the right technology and tools to mine Big Data. But decision-makers are often of an age or disposition not even to understand Facebook and Twitter: there is a generational anxiety they are missing out on something and the kids have all the answers, and a cultural faith that free information will lead to the best outcomes. No discussion can develop until someone has mentioned ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘if only we had known’. But anyone who has done social media monitoring knows it requires a lot of qualitative know-how and interpretive work to get any sensible findings.

And as the Foresight study shows, decision-makers will still pick up the New York Times or turn on the BBC and trust their favourite reporter, even though those reporters might no longer be able to go to the countries they’re reporting on. Hence, for all the promise of communication technology, foreign policy is still about the human factor and cognitive biases.  Understanding the warning-response gap in the next decade will involve some careful unpicking of the interplay over time of stressed, confused people in media, humanitarian and government agencies.

[Cross-posted from https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/


Smart Bombing War Criminals While Avoiding Civilians

Despite what is sometimes argued, fighting wars is not a crime. But it is against the law for weapons-bearers to target large areas indiscriminately without regard for potential collateral damage. Instead, they are required to carefully choose only legitimate military targets.

In my view, the same standard could be applied to whistle-blowing advocacy groups: organizations like Wikileaks should engage in precision targeting of legitimate military foul-ups, rather than indiscriminate bombshells aimed at the entire military-industrial complex; and most importantly, they should aim to minimize collateral damage.

At Foreign Policy, I argue if Wikileaks were to follow such standards in disseminating future information, it could go far to regain its credibility as a champion of rather than threat to human security:

Criticisms aside, WikiLeaks adds real value to the international regime governing the behavior of soldiers in wartime by promoting precisely the sort of accountability that the Geneva Conventions require but military culture tends to discourage.

Imagine if WikiLeaks specialized only in receiving and publicizing reports of specific war crimes submitted by troops in the field. Instead of dumping 90,000 documents into the public domain and letting the chips fall where they may, the organization would serve as a conduit through which to reveal specific events that militaries might otherwise be tempted to cover up. Such a mechanism would ensure that specific war crimes allegations were made public and properly investigated without undue risk to whistle-blowers. That access point of information would encourage governments to take a stronger lead in investigating and punishing transgressions in the first place — a requirement under treaty law — potentially deterring future atrocities.

In short, the value of whistle-blowing should not be discounted – as Marc Thiessen has done – simply because it can do harm when done irresponsibly. Indeed a more targeted whistle-blowing architecture of the type Wikileaks has pioneered could be an indispensable element of 21st century security sector reform.

Read the entire thing here.

[cross-posted at Current Intelligence]


I Am Shocked, Shocked To Learn That Human Rights Reporting is Political

James Ron and Howard Ramos have a piece in Foreign Policy on how Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International select countries to criticize. Especially, they talk about how media coverage drives human rights reporting:

Human rights groups are partly true to their mission, since they report more on countries with more human rights problems…Amnesty and Human Rights Watch also seek visibility and impact, however… Like any advocacy organization concerned with real-world effects, the watchdogs feel compelled to respond to media interest. Supply rises with demand; the more journalists who ask about a country, the more information watchdogs will supply.

…This, for better or for worse, is the way the news game is played. The media report on issues or countries it thinks readers care about, and advocacy groups of all stripes respond in kind, creating the virtuous (or vicious) cycles that drive public attention.

Hmmm… well, the actual study they are describing in their article is a bit more nuanced. In the scholarly version, media coverage is only one of several factors explaining reporting patterns, including whether an organization has previously reported on the same topic; or how powerful the target of influence is. But then again, Ron and Ramos are writing for a beltway journal now, so nuance be damned they can be forgiven for a little simplifying.

Still, the media-watchdog relationship may be over-determined in this account. Surely it goes both ways: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty do not just follow the news, they create it with their reports. Consider Darfur, a festering civil war which suddenly became politically interesting early in 2004. The first media report on Darfur occurred directly as a result of the pioneer journalist having read an Amnesty International report on Darfur published six months earlier.

Third, it will be interesting to see if this model, to the extent it is valid, holds true for thematic human rights issues rather than country-reporting. I don’t have statistical tests to show you (not yet anyway), but I can think of lots of counter-examples to the argument that media attention drives watchdog attention on thematic issues. (Journalists loves “robot menace” stories, but so far these organizations have not gone there.)

Regarding the alleged viscious/virtuous circle, Ron and Ramos go on:

Whether this is this a good or a bad thing depends on your ethic of moral engagement. If you believe in Quixotic struggles and think watchdogs should swim valiantly against the tide, you’ll castigate Human Rights Watch and Amnesty for investing more resources, time, and energy on countries already in the news. ‘What about Niger?’ you’ll ask. And if you’re young and rebellious, you might even mutter something nasty about corporate sellouts under your breath.

But if you believe an advocacy group’s highest purpose is to make a difference, you’ll support the strategy of focusing on targets of opportunity. You’ll also think that investing scarce activist resources in low-interest struggles should be done sparingly, lest the few watchdogs we have go bankrupt in pursuit of lost causes.

Nicely articulated. Then again:

1) Most of the mudslinging about Amnesty comes from the young and rebellious? Really? To me it seemed more like the old, cranky and conservative.

2)Amnesty and HRW aren’t “the few watchdogs” we have; they are simply the most visible and well-networked – see this paper by Amanda Murdie and her collaborators.

3) I worry about the reification of “low-interest struggles” in this piece. Low interest to whom? Not those in Niger. And not inevitably. Darfur too was once an ignored crisis.

So a really interesting question is what role human rights organizations can and do play in generating “interest” – in advancing the human rights agenda – in the absence of media attention; and why they choose to play that role sometimes and not others.


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