The myth of ICT’s protective effect in mass atrocity response

Written by

Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) are now being employed as a standard part of mass atrocity response, evidence collection, and research by non-governmental organizations, governments, and the private sector. Deployment of these tools and techniques occur for a variety of stated reasons, most notably the ostensible goal of “protecting” vulnerable populations. In a new article published with Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal , we  argue that there is little evidence of the existence of what can be referred to as a causal “Protective or Preventative Effect” (PPE) from the use of ICTs in mass atrocity producing environments.

Historically, the international community’s response, or lack thereof, to mass atrocities, has been shaped by the absence of timely and accurate information. Over the past two decades, the use of ICTs has metamorphosed from a series of prototype use cases of these tools and techniques to a now commonplace component of the human rights and humanitarian sector’s response to mass atrocity and human security crisis scenarios. Accompanying this mainstreaming is a set of generalized and, to date, largely unvalidated claims that ICT changes the nature and effectiveness of mass atrocity response.

The specific applications of new technologies and platforms are diverse and constantly evolving, but can be generally divided into two broad categories of prevention/response and justice/accountability: 1) Uses that seek to create unique situational awareness for population protective purposes and informing response activities, and 2) use cases aimed at detecting and/or documenting evidence of alleged crimes for judicial and/or advocacy purposes.  Additionally, the adoption of these technologies appears to be spurred, in large part, by two major factors: 1) Their comparatively low cost in comparison to other, analog interventions and 2) their ability to be remotely deployed in highly lethal, non-permissive environments that preclude traditional, ground-based approaches.

Thus, ICTs are now effectively treated as indispensable “force multipliers” that may either supplement or, in some cases, supplant mass atrocity responses that rely on humans physically making contact with other humans in the places where mass atrocity events are occurring.

We argue that the adoption of an ever more technology-reliant and increasingly “remote” posture has encoded within it an implicit aspiration to literally predict, prevent and deter these crimes as a direct causal result of deploying these modalities. We propose that this increasingly publicly expressed vision that technology itself can fundamentally alter the calculus of whether and how mass atrocities occur demonstrates that civil society actors have done more than simply adopt tools and techniques: They have adopted a theory of change –which we here label PPE—based on technological utopianism as well, a theory that posits technological change is inevitable, problem-free and progressive.

The core of this theory consist in the encoding of assumptions and aspirations into ICTs having an inherently “ambient protective effect” (APE) – i.e. casually transforming the threat matrix of a particular atrocity producing environment in a way that improves the human security status of targeted populations. The APE is based on the assumption that increased volumes of unique otherwise unobtainable data over large scale geographic areas and/or non-permissive environments may cause one, some, or all of the following four outcomes to occur:

  1. Deterrent APE: Perpetrators are less likely to act because of threat of have action documented.
  2. Public Outcry APE: Citizens in nations that have capability to interdict become more activated to push for interventions / protective actions because of immediacy / undeniability / uniqueness of ICT derived / transmitted evidence.
  3. Actionable Intelligence APE: Governments are given new intelligence that they otherwise do not have due to focus of NGOs on poorly monitored / lower politically valued locations that cause them to act.
  4. Early Warning APE: Targeted communities have early warning that enables them to make better, quicker, more informed decisions that are potentially lifesaving.

More research is needed into each of these four points and how they relate to the more general problem with the PPE, which is that it impacts the awareness and acknowledgement of the possible direct and indirect negative effects of ICT. A growing body of scholarship indicates that the attempt to project a PPE through technology may be, in some cases, both exposing affected civilian populations to new, rapidly evolving risks to their human security and negatively mutating the behavior of alleged mass atrocity perpetrators. Technology can have unpredictable or unpredicted knock-on effects: For example, crowd-sourced data is neutral in the sense that it can also be used to forment violence, for example by creating a riot, instead of preventing it.

The human security community broadly speaking–particularly mass atrocity responders, such as humanitarians, human rights advocates and peace builders–must come to terms with the fact that there is a difference between knowing about alleged atrocities and doing something about them; monitoring a mass atrocity crime is different and distinct from preventing it or protecting against its effects. There is a need for members of this broad and diverse community to begin to take seriously the fact that ICT use can cause real harm to civilians.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik (S.J.D Harvard Law School 2008) is a Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies, PRIO and a Professor of Sociology of Law, Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, University of Oslo.

Nathaniel A. Raymond is director of the Signal Program on human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).

Note: this post was also published on the INTLAWGRRLS blog.

Response to Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

Written by

This post is part of a series of reflections on “Refuge”, by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier.

One of the most pressing challenges of our time is the fact that there are over 65 million persons around the world who are forced to migrate.  Tragically, the international community’s response is marked by the maintenance of refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps in the South which hold refugees in limbo for decades.  Alexander Betts and Paul Collier rightly denounce the inhumanity of states which refuse to resettle refuges.  They go on to propose safe havens in developing countries where private corporations and investors could provide work to refugees and citizens of host countries alike. Of concern, the authors pay insufficient attention to the need for strengthened legal perspectives to identify protection concerns raised by their model.

Betts and Collier suggest that refugees should be allowed to seek resettlement after five to ten years if no other solution (return or local integration) is possible.  However, they do not address the fact that denying a person freedom of movement is a violation in itself, and their model would risk violating this, as well as a span of other human rights. With increased focus on private actors playing a greater role in the “safe havens”, there is also concern about the accountability of corporations, UNHCR/IOM, host states, and NGOs.[1]  The authors do not address this fully, nor do they explain how to guarantee transparency when so many non-state actors are involved. On the contrary, they seem to indicate that international organizations (IOs), media, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) pressure should be sufficient to prevent exploitation. It may be suggested that since IOs themselves have been criticized for insufficient accountability in camps, there is no guarantee that they would be able to guarantee the accountability of other non-state actors. Certainly this is evident in the cases of private companies which run detention/reception centers in the West, with little oversight by UNHCR or civil society.

Betts and Collier state that UNHCR excels in humanitarian aid in camps and legal advice to governments, but state that these are no longer the primary skills needed to ensure refugee protection in the twenty-first century (p.58).  It is undeniable that the maintenance of protracted camps are not adequate solutions,  but there remains a strong need for UNHCR to give legal advice to governments in light of the epidemic of immigration reforms resulting in the adoption of accelerated and fast-track procedures to process asylum claims and diminishment of legal aid, right of appeal, and suspension of deportation.[2]  While much of the media focuses on the construction of walls and increase of border patrols to keep out asylum seekers, the most effective measures for increasing deportations have been the construction of restrictive interpretations of the criteria for accessing territory to seek asylum and the conditions for receiving protection.  The proper response to this trend requires the serious engagement of human rights lawyers.

The transformation of a broken refugee system requires a holistic approach, one that seeks to include legal perspectives, instead of excluding them.

[1] See Maja Janmyr, Protecting Civilians in Refugee Camps: Unable and Unwilling States, UNHCR and International Responsibility (Brill 2014).

[2] ECRE, Accelerated, prioritized and Fast-Track Asylum Procedures: Legal Frameworks and Practice in Europe (May 2017)

Cecilia M. Bailliet is Professor, Director of the Masters Program in Public International Law at the University of Oslo. Bailliet researches transnational and cross-disciplinary issues within international law including general public international law, human rights, refugee law, counter-terrorism, and peace. Bailliet’s books include The Legitimacy of International Criminal Tribunals (co-edited with N. Hayashi, CUP 2017), Promoting Peace Through International Law (co-edited with K.M. Larsen, OUP 2015), Non-State Actors, Soft Law, and Protective Regimes (CUP 2012), Cosmopolitan Justice and its Discontents (co-edited with K. Franko, Routledge 2011), and Security: A Multidisciplinary Normative Approach (Brill 2009).

For too many refugees, life passes while waiting for return

Written by

This post is part of a series of reflections on “Refuge”, by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier.

Restoring focus to the autonomy and dignity of refugees today is an important challenge, which ‘Refuge: Transforming a broken refugee system’ by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier sets out to address. Arguably, this is something which is central to any aim of better policies for refugee protection globally. By upholding an individual’s autonomy, even in desperate circumstances, and by recognizing their skills and capacities, it is possible to move away from narratives of victimhood.

Much attention has been granted to the book’s proposed economic solutions for refugee livelihoods in neighboring regions, for good reasons, as refugee livelihoods are of course a critical issue for any plausible resolution to problems of displacement. There are, however, salient questions which intersect with the proposed economic solutions, which merit further discussion.

It is timely in this context to revisit Barbara Harrell-Bond, the founder of the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Center, seminal book from 1986, Imposing aid. Those were different times – geopolitically – still during the Cold War. The famine in the Horn of Africa was an important backdrop, as were multiple violent conflicts, resulting in flows of people in search for safety. In her ‘Imposing aid: Emergency assistance to Refugees’, Harrell-Bond studies the effects of imposing aid on refugees, honing in on emergency assistance to refugees in Southern Sudan.

Three points seem highly relevant for today’s context of a global crisis of refugee protection: i) short term rescue is not a solution, but three decades on the challenge of refugees in limbo persists; ii) imposing aid continues to produce victimhood and vulnerability among refugees, but the failure of providing any aid at all to many results in even greater vulnerabilities; and iii) there are complicated geopolitics underlying here. Back in the 80s Harrell-Bond referred to “the colonial approach to refugees as a Third World problem. The geopolitics of both refugee protection – and not least of international migration management – appears equally relevant today.

So, restoring autonomy and dignity by recognizing skills and capacities, notably with regard to securing ones owns livelihood, remain key elements for any policy that would hope to better protect refugees. Agreeing fully with this premise which is also put forward in ‘Refuge’, I have three concerns. These concerns touch on issues discussed in ‘Refuge’ which I would argue are counterproductive, or at best problematic, in as much as the book seeks to offer solutions. These are in part solutions for refugees in protracted situations, in part solutions considering the need for equity in development and assistance offered within local communities where refugees live, but also solutions to European states’ desires to curb irregular movement into Europe from neighboring regions. Not surprisingly, interests do not always align.

  1. Migration is human movement

In ‘Refuge’ Betts and Collier explicitly state: “But refugees are not migrants” (p. 30). This is part of an argument built in support of a clear-cut dichotomy between on the one hand migrants, and on the other hand refugees. It is followed up with pairs referring to what drives migrants and refugees: “Hopes vs. fears” – “Aspirations vs. despair”, reflected in where migrants and refugees go: “Honeypot countries vs. local havens” (see e.g. p. 30-3).

The distinction between refugees and migrants as total and categorical needs to be unpacked. Whether an international migrant is labeled forced or voluntary defines access to protection and often to migration itself. Clearly, it matters how we describe migrants, as refugees, or not. But looking at empirical examples of migration from contexts which are more or less conflict-affected and more or less desperate with regards to living conditions, some people are in need of protection, yet all are in search of a future in which life may be lived.

The distinction between not having a choice about fleeing (‘mass violence’, in Betts and Colliers terms), and really seeing no alternatives which are acceptable in terms of putting food on the table tomorrow and therefore migrating, is not always so clear-cut in reality. Hope and fear, aspiration and desire, more often than not work in conjunction with one another.

This proves especially true when options for the future are considered. This is also why the term ‘mixed migration flows’ is often questioned. For unless it is possible to acknowledge that a person can in fact be a mixed migrant, in the sense of being driven by both hope and fear, by aspiration and despair, the term mixed migration suggests it is possible to distinguish clearly. Reality doesn’t map perfectly onto legal categories, such as the ones where international law regulates the protection of refugees.

The crucial point is thus one which Betts and Collier also raise, albeit give little prominence. In ‘Refuge’ they acknowledge that “alternative migratory channels should be available” (p. 206), that “onward movement should be managed” (p. 206) and that there should be “routes out of limbo” (p. 205). All of these, arguably, underscore the fact that finding solutions for displaced populations is not possible if keeping it a matter entirely isolated from broader questions of international migration. Such broader questions of international migration, however, are unfortunately not dealt with seriously in relation to the proposed solutions in ‘Refuge’.

  1. Return and the limbo problem

The three durable solutions which UNCHR operates with, local integration, resettlement, and return, are essentially all spatial responses to displacement. Either people can remain where they first arrive as refugees, or they can get resettled elsewhere, or eventually they can go back. In ‘Refuge’ all three solutions are considered, and as would be the case among many refugees themselves, ‘return’ is – at least in the abstract – seen as the most desirable solution.

The untenable status quo of lives in limbo in refugee camps, but also among urban refugees, too often living in destitution, are a driving force in the book. For, as Betts and Collier argue, there is the “duty to rescue the displaced from disruption to normal life generated by their flight from home” (p. 188-9), delivering on “the hope that normal life will be restored” (p. 182), and acknowledging that following initial emergency assistance people must be “offered a pathway towards reintegration into normal life” (p. 156). In ‘Refuge’ a time limit of 5 years, or possibly 10 years, is suggested, by which time a solution for an individual should be found.

The approach to the challenge of lives in limbo in ‘Refuge’ is closely associated with the idea that return can and must be possible, if not for all, than certainly for most. Yet for many displaced people today, onward movement is often the way out of limbo. This involves acting autonomously to look for economic opportunities and work, in order to use capacities, provide for loved ones, and search for a livable future for children.

And so one might ask: When return is not possible, and we know that remains a challenge in a number of protracted refugee situations, what are the incentives for governments around the world to agree to local integration or to resettlement?

Also, whether or not return is possible or not is certainly not always straightforward to assess, take for instance Hazaras returning to Afghanistan, or cases of other minorities. But leaving that aside, whilst return is usually the goal at the outset, whether for refugees or other migrants, life happens.

The implications of the 5, or maybe 10, year period waiting for a durable solution – even if within a frame where autonomy is granted and capacities are recognized – is not really discussed in ‘Refuge’. For an 8 year old who left Afghanistan with his parents 10 years ago, and who is 18 years old today, it’s not so clear perhaps where return should be to. For, we are talking about individuals, many of them young boys and girls born outside of their parents’ country of birth.

Unfortunately, the taken for granted assumption, that return will happen for most, lingers in ‘Refuge’, despite acknowledgment of protracted refugee situations globally. It remains unclear how exactly governments which are now local havens or those further afield would be incentivized to provide local integration and resettlement opportunities at the necessary scale and pace, to allow for a “5 years in limbo” line to be drawn. Rather ‘Refuge’ conveys a pervasive logic of keeping people where they are, before being able to put them back where they belong. This does not resonate too well with the book’s overarching ideas of autonomy and recognition of capacities, one of which surely is that of adaptation.

  1. International solidarity and troubled diversity

Lastly, international solidarity and state’s sharing responsibilities for people and costs are central to the argument in ‘Refuge’. Yet, as is acknowledged, international solidarity, in relation to refugees or otherwise, is limited. Whilst some regional governance solutions are suggested, the necessity of international solidarity is not coupled with a conviction of such being forthcoming.

Instead, there are several instances throughout ‘Refuge’ where there is a sense of troubled diversity. More specifically a sense of migration-related diversity per se posing a problem, and a problem in Europe. Challenges to local integration of refugees in countries neighboring those refugees originate from, countries that may not be willing to offer pathways to full integration and citizenship, are largely seen as economic. Meanwhile, in the European context, it is acknowledged that states wish to avoid people arriving irregularly. It is also argued that it is unlikely refugees might contribute economically, given the structure of the labor markets in countries such as Germany or Sweden. When the integration of Syrians in Germany is discussed, this includes some sections which tend toward the speculative, suggesting the existence somehow of insurmountable cultural incompatibilities. In turn, necessary integration policies, which might enable entrance to the labor market, are seen (probably with some validity) as contributing to hinder a future permanent return, when peace one day returns to Syria. Altogether this promotes the idea that refugees (or migrants in general, perhaps) – from the European perspective at least – are far better kept away.

On the one hand, this again reveals a lacking sensitivity to the fact that life happens, time passes, and if ways to normal life are to be offered, that does mean leaving a limbo of uncertainty behind at some point, and being able to know where your future is. For instance, in Germany. On the other hand, there is this sense of troubled diversity, notably in Europe, where it remains unclear whether this reflects the authors take on questions of societal diversity, or rather whether it sits with their approach to regional and local solutions close to the conflict areas producing refugees. Even if opting for the latter, the sense that seeing diversity as trouble is somehow a well-evidenced claim, remains. This is concerning, given the fact that, by contrast, it is well-evidenced that what outcomes societal diversity produces depends on the governance of diversity, not its presence or not in the first place.

Given the current political climate in Europe, which is very much the backdrop for ‘Refuge’, some reflections on the implications and dangers of careless group difference generalizations, about e.g. refugees – or Syrians – in Europe, are called for. Here, unfortunately, perspectives foregrounding migration as an anomaly or a threat, for states to keep in check, prevail. This comes at a loss to the ideas of autonomy and dignity of individuals, which other parts of the book – placed elsewhere geographically – hone in on. It also fails to acknowledge the fact that perceiving diversity to be a threat to societal cohesion is not a European prerogative. Perceptions, however, are not realities, also when it comes to the implications of immigration.

For too many refugees, life passes while waiting for return. Betts and Collier’s new book is a welcome contribution to dusting off serious debates about the international refugee regime and humanitarian obligations of protection. Protection of those displaced by violent conflict, as well as by persecution, must remain an international humanitarian duty, where international legal instruments, arguably, remain very much needed. The solutions offered, foregrounding individuals’ autonomy and dignity, and the crucial need for sustainable livelihoods, build on solid foundations in refugee studies over the past three decades. It is, however, hard to see how resolving the problem of lives kept in limbo can be achievable, if central questions about international migration, which are closely related to those of refugee protection, remain un-addressed.


Introductory Post: A series of reflections on Refuge

Written by

Oxford professors Alexander Betts and Paul Collier have just published a much-awaited book entitled Refuge. Transforming a Broken Refugee System. The book seeks to offer “a workable system that can sustainably offer sanctuary to the world’s refugees.” This system focuses on ‘safe havens’ in countries that neighbor conflict and crisis, where refugees can be accommodated in a cost-effective way while awaiting return to their country of origin. These safe havens must provide opportunities for employment, so that refugees can then help themselves while contributing to local economies. The system requires greater contributions from donors as well as private-sector partnerships.

The book has received mixed reactions since it was published. Have Betts and Collier properly understood the problem and its causes? Are their ideas really new? And would their system help refugees, or make them more vulnerable? Or perhaps such questions are just distractions from an admirable attempt to be constructive?

These questions guided a breakfast seminar hosted by the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS) and the Migration Research Group at PRIO on 2 May (audio below). This series of blog posts is an attempt to continue that conversation, debating whether Refuge holds the key to better policies for refugee protection.

Marta Bivand Erdal (PRIO), taking care to note findings from refugee studies, questions how resolving the problem of lives kept in limbo can be resolved if foundational questions about migration, refugee protection, and international solidarity remain unaddressed. Erdal’s post is available here.

Cecilia M. Bailliet (UiO) notes that a holistic approach is necessary to transform the refugee system, finding that Betts and Collier pay insufficient attention to the need for legal perspectives to identify potential protection concerns in their proposed model. Bailliet’s post is available here.

Note: this page will be updated as new posts are published.


A double message about safety and security for field research: “Protection is crucial” and “Don’t overdo it”

Written by

In January 2016, Giulio Regeni, PhD candidate of Cambridge University studying labour movement in Egypt went missing in Cairo where he did his fieldwork. His body was found a week later in a ditch near the city showing signs of torture and a slow death. His killers have not been found. His death has sent a ripple through academia, adding to growing concern among researchers and administrators about safety and security.

When conducting field-based research or fieldwork, researchers often operate within complex and dynamic social and political contexts, and derive their data from that environment. Until recently, there was little or no attention to issues of safety during fieldwork in hazardous, remote or complex environments. Cases like Giulio Regeni are extreme and rare, but researchers can also encounter risks that are much more prevalent, including traffic accidents or sexual harassment. This is the case for researchers working in their home country as well as foreigners.

There are many services for safety and security for employers of NGOs or international companies, but few for researchers. There are different reasons why field research stands out. Field research is often done individually and crucially depends on close interaction and often long-time immersion in the field. While this may result in particular risks, researchers are keen to establish relationships of trust and these can work as a protective shield against other risks. There is also a strong interaction between security considerations and the quality of research. For example, researchers avoiding fieldwork may miss out on important data, and researchers that fail to invest in trust relations may not solicit trustworthy responses. Finally, there is a connection with the ethics of research. Security incidents also influence the security of the respondents, local assistants and interpreters, the home and host organizations, and research sponsors. Field research thus always carries a degree of risk that may jeopardize security and affect the quality of the research. This places responsibilities on researchers with regard to the methodological and ethical choices they make.

For these reasons, a special manual with security guidelines for field researchers in complex, remote and hazardous places has recently been published. The manual will soon be available in French and Spanish as well. It outlines particular security considerations posed by field-based research, suggests a set of ethical guidelines for field-based research, and details how to conduct context analysis and risk assessment as well as how to plan and stay healthy during the course of field research. The manual importantly emphasizes that it is meant for researchers operating both in volatile environments and in areas not considered particularly hazardous. Many hazards that are obvious in conflict situations also apply in apparently stable areas that may locally be very violent, or suddenly become so. No one can know all the risks present in all circumstances – and this makes proper preparation and risk management planning all the more critical to the success of field-based research programme.

Security is not only the concern of the individual researcher. Universities and other institutes that employ researchers or commission research have a duty of care. They have the legal – and moral – obligation of reasonable care while performing any acts (like sending out students) that could foreseeably harm others. Now that security of research is increasingly in the news, university administrators may get into action and develop security policies. When these policies are designed by people unfamiliar with fieldwork and with the sole objectives of minimizing risks, they can become inappropriate.

In one British university, for example, there was a proposal to prohibit all research in Africa when Ebola broke out in the East of that vast continent. Some universities in the Netherlands proposed to prohibit research in all areas marked red by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Travel advice of a Ministry, however, is a rough guideline. It is unspecific for the types of risks and their geographical distribution. Moreover, it does not distinguish, for example, between travels of lone backpackers and well-embedded and well-prepared researchers. While negative travel advices are important to consider, they should not be taken as an absolute.

It is important for researchers to demand that their universities take the duty of care seriously. At the same time, researchers should be careful not to trigger these kinds of ungainly policies that will inhibit important research in areas of interest.

Universities and other research institutes should have a security and safety framework, with four elements:

  • A policy on research approval.

Such a policy could stipulate that research in ‘red zones’ requires permission of an authority one level higher than would normally be required and is only given on the basis of a sound security plan.

  • Insurance.

Many researchers are not aware that when an insurance out-clauses geographical risk areas, this means that every risk is out-claused, not just the war-related risks. Even mundane risks like a car accident, or a medical transport because of a dangerous malaria attack, are not covered. Molest insurance is, therefore, a must.

  • A safety and security system.

This system details protocols and responsibilities within the organization with regards to security preparation, training, and acting in case something goes wrong. This also concerns post-fieldwork follow-up, including debriefing and mental health care if required.

  • Training.

Without training, a set of guidelines are pretty useless. Every field researcher should have a basic training on security. Depending on the risk profile of the area where research is being planned, additional modules can be added on more extreme risks, such as kidnapping or forced evacuation.

Security training for researchers should also pay attention in data collection in different scenarios, including precautionary measures to protect research participants and data.

It is important for researchers to engage in the discussions in their institutes, and not to leave these to the administrators or human resource departments. Double messaging is always complicated, and we need to be sharp to make sure that our institutions take the duty of care seriously, without, however, overdoing it with zero risk tolerance, singular policies.

Finally, a focus on security and safety is meant to prepare researchers for risks. Well-prepared research pays off in terms of safety and research quality. A focus on security should not scare researchers off, and most researchers will never encounter the risks they prepare for. Preparing for risks is a must for all researchers, but it is good to remember that fieldwork is often a wonderful, rich and safe experience, one that is to be enjoyed!

Dorothea (Thea) Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid & Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam, and part-time at Wageningen University. In 2016 she was appointed a PRIO Global Fellow.

Reform of the rape law in Sudan: Lip service to the International Criminal Court

Written by

Sudan recently changed its rape law after allegations that the law stands in the way of legal protection to rape victims. This has been celebrated as a victory and a signal of political will to protect women and children against sexual violence. But the reform has major weaknesses.

Women’s rights activists have been accused of cooperating with the International Criminal Court (ICC) that has indicted President Omar al-Bashir for the systematic use of rape in the Darfur conflict. Groups that have fought for changes in the rape law have been shut down, censored and harassed.

Rape victims regarded as criminals

In the Sharia-based Criminal Code from 1991, rape is defined as sexual intercourse taking place without consent outside of a marriage contract. Sexual intercourse outside a marriage contract is punishable and may be punished with 100 lashes for those who are unmarried, and stoning to death for those who are married. Stoning for adultery has never been enforced in Sudan, but people are regularly whipped for fornication.

Confusion between rape, adultery and fornication has serious consequences for rape victims. To prove infidelity requires confession or four male witnesses. For fornication, pregnancy is sufficient evidence. When the same burden of proof is placed on the rape victims, the perpetrator goes free if he does not confess or four male witnesses endorse the rape victim’s story.

At the same time, the rape victim, if she has reviewed the crime and thus confesses that she has had sexual intercourse, runs the risk of being punished for adultery or fornication if she cannot prove she tried to resist. Even if she does not report rape and is so unlucky that she becomes pregnant, unmarried women risk 100 lashes. In an interview with the author, a Sudanese woman activist describes the problem in the law, “if you cannot prove rape, you are a perpetrator.”

Distinguishing between rape and adultery

Sudanese women activists have worked hard for a reform of the law. It was put on the agenda in connection with the armed conflict in Darfur where the ICC has put forward evidence that women have been systematically subjected to sexual abuse.

In February 2015, the female activists were heard. The Sudanese parliament approved a reform of the Criminal Code that clearly separates rape and adultery. It came as a surprise to many observers, because on many occasions President Omar al-Bashir has denied that sexual violence is a problem in Sudan.

Female activists oppressed

But even if the reform on the surface is a success story, it has a dark side. While rape reform was adopted, the women’s group Salmmah Women’s Resource Center was closed. This was the group that had spearheaded the so-called 149-campaign. 149 refers to the article of the Criminal Code where rape is defined. Salmmah’s leader is now in exile.

The campaign was launched in 2009. The leader said in an interview with the author that legal safeguards for rape victims in the Darfur conflict was the background for the campaign. She said: “Sexual violence has never before been on the women activist’s agenda. Darfur changed this.” UN Resolution 1325 opened up a political space to talk about the use of sexual violence in the Darfur war, she claimed.

That same year, Sudan’s sitting president was indicted by the International Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The regime responded by later expelling several humanitarian organizations from Darfur. Several Sudanese organizations were closed and accused of spying on behalf of the ICC.

Lip service to the ICC

Work on sexual violence was particularly politicized, and organizations that worked in this area were particularly vulnerable.

A woman activist the author met in Darfur said: “The arrest warrant against Bashir has affected our work in Darfur. The word protection of civilians has become very sensitive. If we used that word, we are accused by the regime of working to document and report rapes to the International Criminal Court.”

Another said: “My organization was accused of spying on behalf of the International Criminal Court.”

On paper, the rape reform is a step in the right direction. The problem is that the reform is not genuine. Or rather, it is lip service to the ICC. By introducing legal reform attempts, Omar al-Bashir can show that Sudan takes sexual violence seriously. But in reality, he is not. There is no political will, according to activists.

The campaign has subsided

Following the reform, the regime targeted and suppressed groups working with violence against women. After Salmmah was closed, other organizations and women’s groups have closed and their work has been censored by the authorities and activists have been harassed. A woman activist from Darfur says: “(…) There is an absence of organizations dealing with violence against women in Darfur now.”

Even international organizations shun working with sexual violence. A representative of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) says that “the international organizations that remain in Darfur do not work with sexual violence, because it is too sensitive. They are afraid that the regime will expel them.”

Despite the fact that the reform has obvious shortcomings, the campaign has subsided. The reform may well be a step in the right direction, but the battle is far from won. In the law governing evidence, rape and adultery are still mixed together. Therefore, women’s rights activists believe that the rape reform will not result in better legal protection for rape victims. In addition, rape within marriage is not yet criminalized. Meanwhile, rape victims suffer the consequences.

Note: A version of this text originally appeared, in Norwegian, in a piece titled Reform av voldtektsloven i Sudan – et spill for galleriet in Bistandaktuelt. Translation to English by Amanda Cellini. The text is based on research conducted as part of the project Protection of Civilians: From Principle to Practice and the recently published article “Enemies of the State: Curbing Women Activists Advocating Rape Reform in Sudan”, available here.

An Incomplete Picture of the Humanitarian Crisis in the Lake Chad Region

Written by

The broader context of the humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad region, particularly in Borno State in the northeast of Nigeria, remains largely unknown to a Western audience, and in the media coverage it is mostly the stories about Boko Haram’s atrocities that are being told.

This was also the focus at the donor conference held in Oslo on February 24. Everybody condemned the jihadist group Boko Haram. But the decision-makers gathered in the cold Norwegian winter, worlds away from the heat of the Sahel’s dry season, made no mention of the share of responsibility of the anti-terrorism coalition formed by the armed forces of Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon.

The troops on the ground, however, do perpetuate the humanitarian crisis and even hamper people’s resilience. Firstly, military operations have caused enormous damage among civilians. Most of the crisis-affected area is in north-eastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram’s insurgency started following police killings in June 2009. Of the 33,000 deaths recorded in ten years of conflict by the NigeriaWatch database at the University of Ibadan, half were caused by jihadists while the other half were caused by security forces and government-sponsored militias, partly due to ill-treatments in prison.

According to Borno State officials, who understandably wish to remain anonymous, the army may have even killed two-thirds of the victims; because it is difficult to find out exactly what goes on in rural areas, their number is underestimated.

Indeed, the firepower of Nigerian troops is disproportionate compared to that of the insurgents, and their performance has not improved despite the election in March 2015 of a former military man as head of state. This was illustrated recently by an “incident” that took place in Rann on January 17, during which the air force “mistakenly” bombed an IDP camp on the border of Cameroon and killed about one hundred people, about twenty of whom worked for the Red Cross. Although this seems rather unlikely, the international community could also call for an investigation into the massacres perpetrated by troops of the antiterrorist coalition in Baga on April 22, 2013 or in Kerawa and Njimini on February 11, 2016.

Aid Diversion

Another factor perpetuating the humanitarian crisis is the fact that military authorities have established economic sanctions in order to dry up the sources of funding of Boko Haram fighters, who live off of plunder and predation because they are not subsidized by Daesh or al-Qaeda.

Consequently, farmers are no longer allowed to cultivate in the Diffa region in Niger, fishermen are banned from lake Chad, cattle breeders can no longer sell their livestock on the markets that have been closed in Nigeria, and traders are no longer allowed to cross borders, which have been turned into buffer zones and evacuated by their residents. Combined with the restrictions affecting the transportation and delivery of aid, these conditions prevent people from earning a livelihood.

A third mechanism perpetuates the humanitarian crisis: aid diversion. Nigeria often ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world. Therefore, it seems only logical that aid would be diverted in much higher proportions than what has been revealed by ongoing investigations in Borno State and Abuja. Witnesses interviewed on the ground say that three out of four truckloads are sold on the black market. Notwithstanding the usual denial of some aid agencies, this problem explains why some victims still suffer from high rates of malnutrition. The diversion of food also explains why only an estimated 10% of displaced Nigerians have sought refuge in camps. African solidarity is often lauded, yet the reality is more prosaic: farmers would rather starve in their villages than go into the camps of urban slums that do not have enough food anyway.

At the donor conference in Oslo in February, international financial institutions, aid agencies, and humanitarian NGOs should have pushed further their analysis of the situation. The risks intrinsic to any intervention in armed conflicts are well-known. The Lake Chad Region is no exception. By prioritizing the fight against terrorism (and trans-Saharan migration), there is a chance that the international community aligns its humanitarian commitments with military requirements rather than with the needs of the population. This confines foreign aid to the function of a social auxiliary in order to win the hearts and minds of civilians. In the context of corrupt regimes (and very authoritarian governments in the case of Cameroon and Chad), there is also the risk of reinforcing social inequalities and perpetuating conflicts by stigmatizing the poor, especially students of Qur’anic schools, or by providing help to victims of terrorism only, but not to victims of security forces.

Finally, donors might encourage military immunity. To win the Nigerian elections in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari emphasized his capacity to fight Boko Haram. Today, his government claims to have crushed the group and calls for the international community to help reconstructing the region. The Governor of Borno State has even announced the closure of camps for displaced people by May 2017.

Assuming that Boko Haram is on the brink of extinction in the swamps of Lake Chad, why then does the population continue to suffer from malnutrition? Is this not precisely because of reasons that were not mentioned in Oslo?

Note: The author, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, is a PRIO Global Fellow and Research Director at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD, Paris).

This text was originally published in the French newspaper Libération (9 March 2017): ‘Une vision tronquée de la crise humanitaire autour du lac Tchad‘. It was translated from French by Julien Roland. It also appeared, in English, on the PRIO blog.

UiO: Nordic conference: The Nordic model of global humanitarianism: contestations and contextualisations

Written by

Humanitarianism is many things to many people. Humanitarianism is “an ethos, a cluster of sentiments, a set of laws, a moral imperative to intervene, and a form of government”. Contemporary public discussions tend to center on the functionality and integrity of the humanitarian system (protection and service delivery) or the tensions between “politics” and the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and humanity.

However, humanitarianism has historically signified a wide variety of meanings outside what we today understand as a professionalized humanitarian sector’s area of operations in the “global emergency field”:  for example as a specific sensibility regarding human suffering and criminal and public health law; as a call to action for social movements (anti-slavery, labor unions); or as a domestic political program for the improvement or repression of certain categories of citizens.

This latter notion of humanitarianism as a domestic political project was the focus for discussions between experts from Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden who met in Oslo 20-21 March 2017 for the UiO:Nordic conference. This conference track was hosted by the new cross-faculty UiO Nordic Branding project, led by Malcolm Langford. Langford also opened the track by reflecting on how we understand the ways in which the ideology and practice of a “Nordic humanitarianism” has become both an identity marker and a global brand. How can we as critical scholars make sense of the rise of Nordic humanitarianism as a branding exercise, as a politics of status-seeking or as norm entrepreneurship?

During our three sessions, we focused on unpacking the attributes of humanitarianism in the Nordic political context, and the importance of tracing how the “the dark sides” of Nordic welfare ideology has been an integral element in this development. Across sessions, attention was given to the multiple ways in which the humanitarian frame shaped the politics of citizenship, with respect to inclusion/selection, exclusion, and “normalcy”. Attention was also given to how ideas about cost and benefit equations have shifted over time, and how principles of cost-effectiveness and efficiency have been incorporated into notions of the Nordic “humanitarian good”: a sensibility both above and steeped in national politics.

One cluster focused on the relationship between care and control in a pre-welfare state period (interwar years) and a “post-welfare state period” (2015-).  The presenters reflected on how Nordic approaches to citizenship have been constituted through repressive public health measures (widespread sterilization practices) and criminal law in the past and the present. At the same time, in the midst of widespread political support for repressive measures, there has been dissenting voices.  As noted by Ainur Elmgren in her paper “People’s Health versus Individual Rights: Finnish Critiques of Legal Sterilization”, these dissenting voices made their case by presenting sterilization as a repressive public health measure and linking it strategically to the more general climate of repression of civil and political rights in interwar Finland. Moving to contemporary attempts by the Swedish government to deal with emerging “high-risk” urban areas, Mikael Bernardini, in his paper “Fragments to a New Nordic Model of Social Stratification? To Create Spaces of Economic Poverty and Manage them with Police Enforcement” suggests that we are currently witnessing new ways of combining criminal law and social welfare measures. These new combinations produce new forms of stratification, elsewhere labelled “penal humanitarianism”.

Another cluster considered the micro-politics of human rights ratifications and in particular changing ideas about tradeoffs between legal protection of vulnerable groups and political costs.  Taking as their joint point of departure the slowing rate of Nordic human rights ratifications, Johan Karlsson Schaffer (“Between Activism and Ambivalence: The Nordic States and Human Rights”) Hanne Hagtvedt Vik and Skage Alexander Østberg (“Why Virtuous? Explaining Swift Norwegian Ratifications of Human Rights Treaties in the 1980s: The Making and circulation of Nordic Models”) offered reflections on a range of sometimes surprising interconnections between foreign and domestic policy, not only in terms of the fact that governments have become less interested in ratification in fear of domestic implications, but also with respect to how cost-benefit considerations have shifted over time. For example for a given period, in order to satisfy domestic “left-wing” opinions, it was easy to be progressive in this field when and where the costs were low, rather than doing left wing politics at home.  As noted by Schaffer, the requirement for forced sterilization as a precondition for gender reassignment was removed by Sweden in 2012 and in Norway only in 2016. The discussion of these papers also suggested that not only “the dark side of Nordic welfare state” but also “the dark side of the Nordic juridification of politics” is a topic ripe for exploration.

Related to this discussion were two papers focusing on the export and import of ideas in the Nordic “good project”.  As part of her ongoing exploration of the rise of gender in Danish foreign policy, Kristine Kjærsgaard presented her paper “From International Agreement to National Implementation: The Impact of UN Women’s Conferences 1975-1995 on Equality for Women in Denmark”. This paper is a highly useful “prequel” and a reminder of the internationalist origins of many of the ideas about progress and gender equality we today assume are Nordic cultural products. In her paper “The ‘Nordic Model’ in International Development Aid: Explanation, Experience and Export”, Sunniva Engh traced the aspirations of the Norwegian development regime and its packaging as a project in its own right. The Nordic countries’ post-war foreign policies have been marked by strong international commitment, vocal support for an ordered international political system with the UN as a cornerstone, securing peace and furthering development. Engh presented a three pronged typology of the ‘Nordic Model’ in international engagement, namely as explanation, experience, and export, noting the highly mixed results with respect to the latter.

Finally, three interesting presentations by early career scholars focused on Nordic resettlement programs and the specific and often contradictory ideas about human suffering and citizenship underpinning these programs.   Linn Marie Reklev presented her paper “Humanitarian Ideals, National Interests and Resettlement: Norwegian Discourses on Burden-Sharing Following the Syrian Refugee Crisis” (for an earlier discussion see here).  Katrine Syppli Kohl  analyzed the Danish context in her paper “Governing Resettlement: Selecting refugees based on their potential for integration in Denmark” (see here for an earlier discussion). Reflecting on the salience of the “humanitarian discourse”, the “nation-state discourse” and the “cost and capacity” discourse for the Danish context, Kohl observed that the emphasis on genuine suffering went hand in hand with a desire to deselect individuals that were “too disturbed”. In parallel, while the official emphasis is on orderly resettlement, in practice the bureaucratic process appeared haphazard and random when looked at up close. She also noted that from 2016, Denmark no longer has a resettlement program. In the final paper in this cluster, Amanda Cellini  discussed historical Nordic resettlement practices in her paper “Settling Resettlement: A Normative Study of Norway, Sweden and the Resettlement of Hungarians in 1956/57” (see here for an overview on Nordic resettlement), and the similarities and differences between post-war and contemporary Nordic resettlement practices. In particular, Cellini highlighted the difference in speed. A widespread assumption in the study of contemporary humanitarianism is the assumption of acceleration; that both emergencies and responses happen at a faster pace. While contemporary resettlement candidates usually languish in camps for months and years, Cellini described how Hungarians were resettled within days and weeks.

Johan Strang is a University Lecturer at the Centre for Nordic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is interested in Scandinavian politics and 20th century intellectual history.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik is Professor at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law (UiO) and Research Professor in Humanitarian Studies (PRIO). She is also the project leader for Aid in Crisis? Rights-Based Approaches and Humanitarian Outcomes (funded by the Research Council of Norway and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), which examines Norwegian humanitarian policy.

A review of humanitarian issues in 2016

Written by

The post below is the introductory letter from the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS)’s Director, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (PRIO), introducing the NCHS 2016 Annual Review which you can read more about here.

As we sum up the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies’ (NCHS) activities from the past year, it is also time to take stock of major trends in the humanitarian field from the past year. 2016 did not bring many positive developments in humanitarian terms, quite the contrary: several events shook the core foundations of what we understand humanitarian aid to be and what it should stand for. 2016 was also the year of the first World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The “One Humanity” theme of the UNSG’s report to the WHS resonates as a call for protecting the most fundamental values, at a time where these cannot be taken for granted.

World Humanitarian Summit

The Summit led to more than 3000 commitments to action, and more than a dozen new partnerships to translate the principles of the new Agenda for Humanity launched by Ban Ki-Moon. One issue is how these commitments will be followed up. Another is whether the main ambitions outlined in the agenda are compatible with the core principles of humanitarianism, and if they are fit to face current challenges. This is most notably seen in suggestions at the Summit to bring humanitarianism, development, and peace-building efforts together. Such a development would risk the further blurring of the contours of what constitutes neutral and independent humanitarian action and subsequently raises new questions.

Increased attacks on humanitarian aid workers

The question of neutral and independent humanitarian aid has also been challenged most visibly in Syria, but additionally in conflicts from Afghanistan to Yemen. The deliberate attacks on aid convoys will remain a particularly tragic feature of the war in Syria, but also illustrates a broader trend: as Morten Rostrup, former MSF President, said at a seminar organized by NCHS, from the moment “the doctor of my enemy is my enemy” became a valid, or at least practiced distinction in conflicts, humanitarian aid workers immediately lost their implicit and explicit protection and became potential targets.

These attacks may not be a fundamentally new issue, but the trend has become more explicit over the recent years. The post-9/11 environment and the politics of the “global war on terror” reshaped the operating environment and augmented the risks for individual aid workers and agencies. The high number of aerial or shelling attacks that have struck health facilities in war zones in 2016 indicate that a new form of threat to aid workers and convoys has emerged in the form of deliberate attacks.

Further, these attacks also raise questions about what kind of civil society responses can emerge and can be expected to defend these fundamental principles. The Human Rights field, by the very nature of its causes, has emerged and gained its impact notably through the mobilization of transnational networks, civil society, and human rights organizations. The Humanitarian field, however, has not engaged citizens and had public mobilization in the same way, quite possibly due to the fact that the main institutional defenders, the humanitarian organizations, are weary to engage in any way that can be seen as political mobilization. Humanitarian organizations frequently organize campaigns to attract attention to forgotten crises; however, the deliberate attacks on aid convoys and health facilities has now sparked a new form of mobilization by these organizations, notably MSF and ICRC, with the #StopBombingHospitals and #NotATarget campaign.

Another concern that has emerged in recent years is the use of schools and universities for military purposes in times of conflict and instability. As highlighted through the work of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), it is a concern both in terms of how wars are fought and boundaries crossed, but also for the longer term consequences of these wars.

“Crises” in Europe

Further, the theme of this year’s WHD, “One Humanity”, also resonates as an appeal in the wake of a year where states, notably in Europe, have built new fences and walls to try and seal off borders to prevent people from seeking international protection from entering their territories. European responses to the refugee crisis also shows a reorientation of humanitarian aid – both in concrete budgetary terms, reallocating from humanitarian and development aid budgets to support the reception of refugees and migrants in Europe, as well as to counter and contain migration outside of Europe, but also in terms of what “humanitarian” means: the solidarity and aid towards populations in distress, as a virtue in itself, or something seen with suspicion in a context where migration at the European borders – and at the borders of other rich and stable parts of the world – are increasingly defined as security threats. The space for solidarity appears to be shrinking, and is perhaps the real crisis, as surveillance and control increases.

Looking forward towards 2017

2016 ended on a more hopeful note, with the signing of a peace agreement in Colombia after decades of civil war. The efforts of President Jose Manuel Santos were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, granted as also “a tribute to the Colombian people”, and 2017 marks the beginning of the implementation of this agreement. The year also began with a full agenda of humanitarian crises to watch elsewhere, notably Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. The effects of recent political outcomes – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the new President of the United States – and those yet to occur, including several important national elections in Europe, will extend to spending and engagement on many humanitarian issues, and also will influence the potential for success within international bodies. NCHS will follow these issues closely, and will continue to invite to critical discussions and call for a knowledge-based policy formulation in the humanitarian field.

With Orwell to the West Bank

Written by

In early February hundreds of Israeli police officers battled on the West Bank with hundreds of determined young protesters armed with stones. Sixteen police officers were injured in clashes with the demonstrators, who had come to prevent the police and army from completing their task: the evacuation of Amona, a so-called “outpost” on the Palestinian West Bank.

An “outpost” is an Israeli settlement built without authorization from the Israeli authorities. The demolition of Amona was ordered initially by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1997, but the battle between the legal system and the religious nationalist settlers – and the politicians who protect them – has lasted much longer.

It was back in 1978 that the settler movement first encountered opposition in the Israeli Supreme Court. Together with the then minister of agriculture, Ariel Sharon, settlers from the Gush Emumin(Block of the Faithful) – a group that believed the 1967 Six Day War was a “miracle” and the first step on the road to eternal salvation – found a plot of land on the West Bank on which to build a new settlement, called Elon Moreh. The plot they had decided on was in the midst of a densely populated Palestinian area and was partly owned by Palestinians living in the village of Rujeb. But such minor details could not be allowed stand in the way of God’s earthly servants.

The Palestinian landowners, however, took their case to the Israeli Supreme Court. There they challenged the state’s right to expropriate their privately-owned land for the purposes of building civilian settlements. And this time round the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Palestinian plaintiffs. In its judgment, the court stated that although the land had been promised to the people of Israel by God, this did not give the state the right to expropriate private land. In his book The Settlers, Gadi Taub writes that the Elon Morheh judgment was a signal from the Court that the secular law superseded religion in the Jewish state. State sovereignty trumped eternal salvation. The court ordered the immediate evacuation of the settlement.

Fast-forward nearly 30 years, until the evacuation of Amona this February. Like Elon Moreh, Amona was also built on privately-owned Palestinian land. In the Amona case, the Supreme Court’s order to evacuate has been postponed several times, triggering a political drama in Israel. Right-wing politicians, most of them government ministers, vie for the settlers’ support. Education minister Naftali Bennett speaks in caps lock, making that case for the Amona settlers to be compensated and relocated (at the government’s expense) to another area on the West Bank, which he wants Israel to annex sooner or later in any event. It is worth emphasizing that what Bennett is advocating is the payment of compensation to people who for many years have flagrantly breached Israeli law. In other words, the United States under President Trump is not the only place where the rule of law is currently being put to the test.

Amona has now been evacuated, but not without physical battles between radical settlers and the Israeli police. At the same time, Israeli politicians have recently passed legislation – the so-called “regulation law” – that would permit the building of settlements even on privately-owned Palestinian land. According to the Israeli organization Peace Now, this would result in as many as 55 illegal outposts being redefined as government-authorized “legal” settlements. But talking about “legal” settlements is rather like booking a trip to the West Bank with George Orwell Tours: according to international law, all civilian settlements in Palestinian territory are illegal.

The new law is an attempt to overturn the Elon Moreh judgment of 1978. The passing of the law is seen as a significant victory for the settlers. At home, the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu will want a piece of the credit for this. At the moment Netanyahu is under significant political pressure, among other things because of the ongoing criminal investigation of alleged corruption.

Netanyahu knows very well that the voters whom Bennett is courting with his talk about annexation are the very same voters that Netanyahu needs in order to hold onto power in Israel. For the same reason, Netanyahu has announced his own initiative to establish a completely new settlement on the West Bank for the Amona evacuees. Over the years, several Israeli outposts have gained retrospective recognition as settlements by the authorities, but if Netanyahu keeps his promise to the settlers, this will be the first new Israeli settlement to be established for more than 20 years.

Netanyahu’s promise provoked reactions worldwide. Even the Trump administration asked Israel to exercise restraint on the issue of settlements. In the breathless 24/7 news cycle, this was interpreted rapidly as a “harder” line from Trump on Israel. Allowing a little breather and actually reading the entire White House statement, however, quickly reveals that what the administration was actually saying, was that it doesn’t see settlements as an impediment to peace (unlike the rest of the world): it simply believes that settlements “may not be helpful” in achieving that goal. You need to have travelled far into Orwell’s world to conclude that this signals a harder line. The only possible reason why Israeli right-wingers are not shouting with jubilation at this statement must be that their expectations of support from Trump were already sky-high. The year is 2017. Now the only thing we lack must be a “Minister of Peace”, responsible for the building of settlements.

Then Netanyahu travelled to Washington D.C., for the first consultations with the new Trump-administration. For those who thought Trump’s policy has been somewhat challenging to decipher, the Netanyahu-Trump press conference did nothing to make things clearer. One state, two states – whatever, was Trump’s input, clearly revealing once again that he has practically no knowledge about this issue.

In my opinion, though, the biggest story of the Netanyahu-Trump press conference was not what was said about the two state solution or the settlements, but rather Trump’s reply to a question on the spike in anti-Semitism in the US, after his election win. That Trump went into a rather absurd comment on the scale of his electoral win, seems to be within the parameters of what we have to expect from this new president. But for Netanyahu, the leader of the only Jewish nation in the world, not to follow up and clearly express worry about the administration’s weak handling of this issue, is more of a mind boggle. Indeed, one could make the case that by doing so little to address the issue, Netanyahu signals a willingness to play with very high stakes, in fact with the safety of the American Jewry, in order to secure a good standing with Trump and his team. In the long run, this would be harmful not only to US-Israeli relations, but to Israel’s relationship with the Jewish diaspora – and not least, to the safety of the American Jewish community. But that’s another story, and one where Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is a better literary companion than Orwell’s 1984.

This post was first published in Norwegian in Dagsavisen on 7 February 2017 as Med Orwell til Vestbredden“ and has been since updated. Translation from Norwegian was done by Fidotext. This post also appeared on the PRIO blog.