2011 - %3, September

Fear and Loathing in Congo

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

The feature on war criminals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that I reported this spring is out. In honor of its publication, I'd like to share a scene that was in my notes but that didn't end up in the final product. Like the outtake from the time I was on camera for PBS and ripped a five-inch hole in the crotch of my pants. Except this one's less funny because it's about murder. Also Hall & Oates.

The story: My translator Joey and I are interviewing a slew of witnesses and sources who are running for their lives because, they say, International Criminal Court-indicted warlord Bosco Ntaganda is threatening to kill them. I'm so paranoid that when one of Ntaganda's colonels says something possibly innocuous to me, I think maybe he's actually telling me he's been following me, and Joey's having paranoid nightmares that the colonels will come after us in our hotel, and one of my Congolese drivers nearly throws me off a motorbike while whipping around to see if he's being tailed.

That's all in the feature. Not included, however, is one of my sources warning me not to write anything about Ntaganda until I've left the country. Don't worry, I tell him; we'll delay running any stories until at least my arrival in Uganda. He shakes his head. Uganda is right next door, and the bad guys have alliances there. "They could easily kill you in Uganda," he says, not because he is being dramatic, but because he's been chased farther across the continent than that. Then one morning, some suspected assassination-plotters we've met call my cell: "Hey! Just want to say hello! See what you're up to!" That's the deleted lead-up to this deleted scene.

I go upstairs to my hotel room and put my iPod on shuffle, and it picks "Private Eyes." They're watching you. They see your evvvvveryyy moooove. I stop dead in my tracks on my way into the bathroom, toothbrush in hand. Oh I see you, oh I see you, private, private, private eyes, girl. I look out the wide window for something awry in the empty lot next door, turn toward the door and watch it hard, trying to intuit what might be on the other side in the dark hallway where the lights never, ever work, just for a second, before laughing and congratulating myself for not believing in signs and letting the paranoia paralyze me. Though that's easy for me to say. I'm leaving tomorrow.

Anyway, there's a lot of extremely brave Congolese trying to live their lives and tell their stories despite imminent danger. Read the whole story here. (And while you're at it, check out this related photo essay about the war on Congo's women.)

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Ohio Could Become Most Anti-Choice State Yet

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 2:20 PM EDT

Yesterday, hundreds of people rallied at the Columbus, Ohio, statehouse in support of the so-called "Heartbeat Bill," the pending legislation that could crown Ohio as home of the strictest abortion law in the country. The law would, except in cases of extreme medical emergency, make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, i.e., as early as six weeks after conception (i.e., probably before you've realized you're pregnant). It's so strict that even Ohio Right to Life isn't supporting it, saying there's no way it's going to hold up in court, because it's totally unconstitutional.

But the bill has already passed the House; now it's up to the Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats more than 2-to-1. During the House hearing, proponents brought in two young pregnant women and gave them live ultrasounds in front of the committee. One fetus's heartbeats rang out loud and clear for the benefit of the audience. The other's was hard to make out. When I interviewed Democratic State Rep. Kathleen Clyde in June, she quipped, "I guess that fetus couldn't testify that day."

It's been a rough couple months for choice in Ohio. As we reported in June, the new budget, which passed this summer, contained a provision to keep "unincorporated (read: mostly rural) counties from covering abortion in their employee insurance plans" except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the woman's life. "Another bans publicly funded hospitals from performing the procedure." According to Ohio NARAL's Kellie Copeland, that affected "pretty much all the public hospitals in the state." Republican lawmakers said the measures keep taxpayer dollars from going toward abortions. Copeland says they didn't, since taxpayer dollars were already banned from going toward abortions in Ohio; procedures at public hospitals already had to be paid with private funds.

So also in attendance at the Columbus rally was Ohio NARAL, which showed up to rain on the anti-choice parade. "In a state like Ohio where the unemployment rate has continued to grow over the past three months to 9.1 percent, politicians who ran on ideas to improve the economy have shifted their focus to creating a divisive agenda that attacks a woman's right to choose," NARAL's Copeland said in a statement. NARAL says its supporters will stand outside the statehouse for a few hours every day the Senate is in session for the rest of the legislative year. If you live in Ohio and agree with them and are, like lots of people, unemployed, there's a fun afternoon activity for you!

The Real Price of Amazon's Free Shipping

| Tue Sep. 20, 2011 6:01 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago, my best friend sent me an email. She just got this new expensive makeup she'd ordered on the internet. It had arrived! But then she remembered that story I wrote about a warehouse in Ohio that ships products from online retailers and how miserable everyone who works there is and how shitty they're treated by their employers, and then she felt really sad. So, hey, she said, thanks a lot.

I'm not going to tell her, but now, via the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call, there's more confirmation that products are often shipped from the internets to your house by very demoralized workers operating in very depressing conditions because they have no other job options. Specifically, at the Amazon warehouse in the story, an employee got in touch with OSHA when the heat inside hit 102 degrees. Fifteen workers collapsed, and those that went home to beat the heat got negative marks put on their records.

The Ohio warehouse I visited in June was the same kind of benefitless sweat-box. (It also sounds a lot like the sweltering warehouse described to my colleague Josh Harkinson here.) The Pennsylvania warehouse mentioned in the Morning Call article was not actually run by Amazon, just like the warehouse I was in wasn't run by the retailers whose product they shipped; both are staffed by temporary workers from a contract agency. Amazon responded by saying, "The safety and well-being of our associates is our number one priority." Hmm, no statement yet on whether they're going to make their contractors treat their employees like human beings. In the meantime, every one of Amazon's millions of customers should write them a really angry letter demanding change. Except we won't. Because then our shipping wouldn't be free.

Putting the Pope on Trial

| Mon Sep. 19, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Like most people who went to Catholic school, I have a long list of offenses I feel the church inflicted on me, which is probably partly why I sort of love the idea of an international police force arresting the pope. That's what a group of victims'-rights advocates is hoping for; last week, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court against Pope Benedict XVI and three senior Vatican officials.

It sounds like a publicity stunt to charge the pope with crimes against humanity. But the lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights who are handling the case sure sound like they mean business: "The Vatican officials charged in this case are responsible for rape and other sexual violence and for the physical and psychological torture of victims around the world both through command responsibility and through direct cover-up of crimes. They should be brought to trial like any other officials guilty of crimes against humanity."

Fair enough. But as explained in this primer, the ICC is a somewhat tricky institution. It can't just go after whomever it wants. Widespread rape totally qualifies as a crime against humanity, and has been a charge in several ICC cases. The real issues behind the court's potential involvement in this case are jurisdiction and responsibility.

First, jurisdiction. The court can only prosecute abuses that occur in a country that's a signatory to the ICC—or abuses that are perpetrated by a national of one of those signatories. Afghanistan, for example, is a signatory to the ICC; the United States is not. But the ICC would have jurisdiction over a crime against humanity committed by, say, an American soldier on Afghan soil. Which is precisely why the United States tried to block the creation of the ICC in the first place. The Vatican is not an ICC signatory, but theoretically, that's not a deal-breaker. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is an ICC signatory, and one of the cases cited in the Vatican filing took place there. Another case involves a priest from Belgium, which is also a signatory.

On the question of responsibility, it's not like the pope or Vatican officials wanted priests to unleash a wave of sexual abuse on innocent underage church-goers. Certainly, no one is alleging that Vatican officials actually ordered priests to rape kids. Look at the language ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo used when explaining why the court indicted Muammar Qaddafi: "The evidence shows that Muammar Qaddafi personally ordered attacks on unarmed Libyan civilians." (My italics.) So far, the ICC has only mostly* gone after people who do bad things on purpose. It's not clear if it has the ability (or interest) to go after those who neglect to stop bad things from happening or try to cover them up.

Commenting on the Vatican complaint, the ICC has said only that it will examine the evidence and the jurisdictional issues. Which is the sort of empty and official-sounding thing it would say about any complaint. Moreno-Ocampo, whom I spent a decent amount of time with when reporting a story for our current issue and covering his requests for the Libyan warrants, wouldn't comment when I reached him.

My hunch is that it's extremely unlikely this complaint, one of many thousands the ICC has received, is going anywhere. But it is an important step in raising the issue of accountability. Though the ICC is a long, long, long shot for these victims of sex abuse, it is probably more likely than the Vatican to hold the responsible parties accountable. Even priests who abused hundreds of disabled children weren't punished by the church. And though headlines have been screaming about the priest-rape scandal since I was in grade school, it took the church years to clearly order its bishops to prioritize fighting sexual abuse in their dioceses. As in, it finally issued the directive this May.

*Thanks to Wronging Rights' briliant and actually-trained-and-qualified-to-pontificate-on-legal-issues Kate Cronin-Furman for hollering with the correction. The charges in the case against Jean-Pierre Bemba—some of whose trial I caught in April—she wrote me, "are not that Bemba ordered his guys to commit atrocities in [the Central African Republic], but that he could have prevented them from doing so, and failed to. This is known as command or superior responsibility doctrine. It's how you convict military commanders for actions taken by their subordinates that they should have prevented." Not that that, and the fact that the pope is at the top of the church's hierarchy, should necessarily give these rape victims hope that the ICC will act. It is a "neat idea," Cronin-Furman says, but concurs that it's "a stretch."

Today in Deepwater Horizon Updates

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 4:42 PM EDT

A report by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, says that everyone—BP, Halliburton, Transocean—is to blame for the April 2010 explosion that caused the second-largest oil spill ever and ruined a lot of lives along the Gulf Coast. The findings aren't particularly surprising; a presidential commission reached the same conclusion earlier this year.

Also, miles of tar balls and tar mats have appeared on Louisiana beaches after a tropical storm churned them up. This is also not particularly surprising, since BP was doing such a totally awesome job of cleaning the oil up when it first spilled. Workers are being dispatched to take care of the new mess posthaste.

But this is news: A refreshing dose of honesty from BP, which last year was insisting, along with a weirdly and tragically complicit media, that the oil was all gone. Said BP spokesman Curtis Thomas, explaining why they already had so much manpower ready to deploy for cleanup: "We knew this was coming."

Ohio's Employment Picture: Bleak and Bleaker

| Mon Sep. 12, 2011 8:22 PM EDT

I know, Labor Day was last week, but in case you missed it, there's a dismal new report out from the think tank Policy Matters Ohio about the state of my home state. According to it, wages have declined in 10 states in the last 10 years. Leading the pack? Ohio, which I've been blathering about since I spent a month there reporting on its abysmal employment prospects and its abysmal actual jobs. Its median wage decline—of 86 cents an hour—over the past decade has been steeper than that of Michigan, which is more famous for its decrepitude, and also the only place I ever came across a dead body on a sidewalk.

More fun facts about the Buckeye State: For the first time in 20 years, not even half of 16- to 24-year-olds are employed. Only about half of African-Americans are employed. Just a little more than half of women are.

But not all of the 26 pages in the report are bad news. Just 23 of them are. The last few include the ways the Ohio legislature could turn the trend around and save the day. Like by not cutting local government budgets by 50 percent and by not slashing school funding. Aw, wait. That's the exact opposite of what the legislature is starting to do right now.

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A New Human Rights Logo, Brought to You By Qaddafi's PR Firm

| Fri Sep. 9, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
A Logo for Human Rights

Maybe the idea of universal human rights would catch on if it had a memorable emblem. That's the idea behind the Logo For Human Rights project, which is currently holding a competition to crowdsource a logo that it hopes, as the promotional email that landed in my inbox yesterday explains, "will become as iconic as the peace sign and serve to advance the global spread and implementation of human rights."

Since the logo campaign kicked off in May, more than 15,000 designs from more than 190 countries have been submitted. You can still vote for your favorites among the 10 finalists on its website through September 17. The contest has picked up endorsements from human rights "celebrities" including Chinese dissident Ai Wei Wei and Nobel Peace Prize winners Aung San Suu Kyi, Shirin Ebadi, Muhammad Yunus, Jimmy Carter, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Among the campaign's partners are Google and Cinema for Peace, a German foundation whose awards galas have been attended by Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, and George Clooney. The winning logo will be unveiled at a bash in New York on September 23. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales will be there—no word yet on other celebs.

Which all sounds great, except that the PR firm that contacted me to publicize the event is Brown Lloyd James, which is also in the business of rebranding governments that couldn't care less about that shiny new logo.

According to records filed with the Department of Justice, in November 2010 the strategic communications agency landed a $5,000-a-month contract in which it "liased" between Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad and Vogue. The resulting glowing profile (since yanked from the Vogue website) described her as "glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies…a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement." Syria, it claimed, was "the safest country in the Middle East."

In 2008, Brown Lloyd James signed a contract with a Libyan oil-drilling magnate to help Colonel Muammar Qaddafi clean up his international image. To that end, the firm assisted with an op-ed in his name and "reached out to newspaper editors to discuss placement and proposed edits." It also helped set up speeches for him at the United Nations and Georgetown University. (However, BLJ noted in its federal filings that it "did not advise on the content or delivery of these speeches." Highlights of his rambling UN speech included sticking up for the Taliban and suggesting that swine flu was man-made.) The firm reported that the Libyan Mission to the UN reimbursed it more than $1.2 million for "logistical support." In England, BLJ promoted Qaddafi as "a fascinating contemporary world figure" and arranged for him to give a video address at the London School of Economics.

The agency was one of a handful of PR shops that represented Qaddafi and his family, as Mother Jones has reported. Defending his firm's choice of clients, BLJ partner Sir Nicholas Lloyd told PR Week UK, "At the time, Libya was recognised by British and American governments. They all did business with Gaddafi."

When I inquired how Brown Lloyd James squares its current work for the human rights logo campaign with its previous work for the Assad and Qaddafi regimes, the company sent me this statement:

Working to advance the rights of all is a positive moral value and business practice. It is something we have done for years on behalf of a host of groups and individuals. Whether it was encouraging a better understanding of the groundbreaking role of Al Jazeera in the Arab world, establishing United Nations-recognized days in support of autism and the plight of widows, or supporting the first ever visit of Human Rights Watch to Libya, advancing social progress is at the core of our work. This is why we proudly support the first ever Human Rights Logo, which will create a common language for people around the world to communicate on this important global issue..

Unfortunately, BLJ's message of social progress didn't get through to Damascus and Tripoli. Maybe the winning human rights logo will be more successful.

Update: A few hours after this post was published, the Human Rights Logo Initiative tweeted, "@MotherJones thanks for pointing this out! BLJ helped announce NY event,they're not part of the initiative. There'll be no further cooperation."