Beware of the Teddy Bear!

Who’s the cuddliest/the scariest?

With the Northern summer came the Olympics and… Belarus. Indeed, the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’ made international headlines several times. While Nadzeya Ostapchuk’s gold medal and her subsequent disqualification on doping grounds probably helped most New Zealanders put the ‘last European dictatorship’ on a map, with Ms Ostapchuk’s downfall pointing to a national performance-enhancing system that recalls Cold War practices, Belarus was and still is in the news following the ‘teddyrist’ attacks that the country suffered on the 4th of July.

Since the terrible ‘teddy bear bombings’(as the event was dubbed by international media), the Belarusian regime expelled all Swedish diplomats from Minsk and removed its own from Stockholm. Organised by a Swedish public relations firm, the stunt, which consisted in the air-dropping of 879 pro-democratic teddies (freedom fighters?) by a small airplane that flew via Lithuania, escalated into a diplomatic row between Belarus, Sweden, and Lithuania, and damaged already strained relations between Minsk and the European Union (the EU has long criticized Lukashenko’s policies and has imposed travel bans and asset freezes on him and other senior officials). An emergency meeting of the EU Political and Security Committee was held on the 10th of August, but the European Union shied away from a mooted mass diplomatic withdrawal. It did say however that it would send a ‘very clear message’ to Minsk.

As with every bombings there were casualties: The ‘last dictator of Europe’ Alexander Lukashenko fired the nation’s air defence chief, the head of the Border Guards service, and lately his foreign minister. Belarusian authorities also arrested a journalism student who posted pictures of the teddy paratroopers on his website and a real-estate agent who offered accommodation to the Swedes behind the stunt. They are both accused of assisting border violators and face up to seven years in prison if convicted (Amnesty International is already on the case).

Beyond the ridicule of the situation and the questionable effectiveness of the European response to the event (are ‘clear messages’ ever effective in the international realm?), to me, the most interesting aspect of the teddy-bear gate was the role played by Per Cromwell, the owner of Swedish PR company Studio Total, who with the help of his co-workers Thomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey, started the whole row in the first place. ‘What we have managed is that public awareness of the state of affairs in Belarus has skyrocketed. Hundreds, thousands, of news articles have emerged,’ he said. The owner of the PR company admitted, however, that he did not know what the Swedish Foreign Ministry thought of the operation (probably not much, if you ask me).

Interestingly the stunt, which cost 150,000 EUR (232,000 NZD), was financed through the company: ‘Studio Total is a Swedish advertising agency specializing in generating buzz for brands such as Canal+, Clarion Hotels or Corona (to mention the ones  beginning with the letter C). The money we make from this we use for issues we believe in.’ Although some have dismissed the whole operation as a marketing stunt, this might be a new business model for activism, which merges the interests of a company (profitability) and an ethical commitment to values and norms, thus bypassing the funding conundrum. In the same vein, after meeting the director of Médecins sans frontières, the CEO of Lexcelera, a private translation company, set up Traducteurs sans frontières to provide free translations to the NGO sector.

Are these new forms of activism? Or is this only a feel-good strategy to enhance a company’s image and attract more clients? Either way, does it matter?

Per Cromwell’s goal was to ridicule the Belarus regime and support Belarusian human rights advocates. It certainly managed the former; I’m not so sure about the latter, especially if you consider the reactions of humiliated Lukashenko. The stunt also put the European (lack of effective?) policy towards Belarus into the spotlight. A review of the EU strategy to Lukashenko’s regime is due in October. Let’s see what happens then.


AFP, ‘Affaire des ours en peluche : trois Suédois convoqués par le KGB au Bélarus’, http://www.lexpress.fr/actualites/1/monde/affaire-des-ours-en-peluche-trois-suedois-convoques-par-le-kgb-du-belarus_1148677.html (accessed 27/08/12).

Andrej Dynko, ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship’, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/17/opinion/belarus-europes-last-dictatorship.html (accessed 27/08/12).

Catherine Ashton, ‘Statement following the meeting of Political and Security Committee on Belarus’, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/132159.pdf (accessed 27/08/12).

European Union External Action, section about Belarus, http://www.eeas.europa.eu/belarus/index_en.htm (accessed 27/08/12).

Stacey Kirk and Paloma Migone, ‘Ostapchuk tries to smear Valerie Adams’, http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/olympics/7480504/Ostapchuk-tries-to-smear-Valerie-Adams (accessed 27/08/12).

Studio Total, http://www.studiototal.se/teddybears/pics—vids.html (accessed 28/08/12).

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BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA

The ferocity and scale of this week’s demonstrations in China, instigated by the activities of Chinese and Japanese activists on disputed territories within the South China Sea, are strong a reminder of the importance of the region for International Relations.

This week’s skirmishes are the latest in a series of power plays being played out in the region as regional and global powers attempt to assert dominance.  These ongoing disputes threaten to destabilise the region and risk an escalation in aggressive behaviour and conflict.   Recent behavior from Beijing seems to indicate a moderated approach – the signing of a Declaration on Conduct between China and the ten ASEAN countries; the agreement to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes” in the region; and China’s discussions with Indonesian naval counterparts to enter into defence co-operation in the region.

However, China’s peace-building rhetoric does not follow China’s more aggressive actions of late, including deliberate incursions into territories disputed by the Philippines and other neighbours and the announcement that China intends to establish a military post to oversea the disputed Paracel Islands.  These actions indicate a more adversarial attitude than China wishes to promote, and one which China’s neighbours, if they continue to acquiesce to or rely merely on ASEAN and diplomatic channels for security, will surely give Beijing the ability and audacity to continue its pursuit of regional dominance.  There is no doubt that China will aggressively pursue its claim to the region;  described as “the new Persian Gulf”, undisputed control of the region would ensure access to trade routes and oil and mineral resources worth trillions of dollars.  Already the world’s largest consumer of oil, China’s ability to establish sovereignty over the region would be a determining factor in its future economic and military growth and position of regional hegemony.

This conflict is set to escalate in the coming decade as China and the US focus their military and diplomatic resources on the region.  Obama has announced an increased US military presence in the region and plans for half of the US fleet to be stationed in the Pacific by 2020.  Combined with a major expansion of US missile defenses in Asia, this strategy is intended to curtail China’s “string of pearls” and diminish its strategic expansion into the region.  China’s behavior is in direct response to this US military focus on the region.  What will be outcome?  At best, a new cold war; at worst, global conflict.  The US cannot risk open warfare with such a powerful adversary, but this may be the inevitable result of Obama’s current actions.  China’s President Hu Jintao has (supposedly) claimed that “war is imminent with the United States, Vietnam and the Philippines”, which is far from idle rhetoric – a war against the US would overshadow China’s economic and political problems and refocus domestic discontent on an external enemy.  The resulting wave of Chinese territorial nationalism, economic boom (as a result of the military industrial complex) and the legitimization of the Communist Party’s stance against foreign opposition to Chinese power and sovereignty are surely justification enough for China to pursue a confrontation over the South China Sea rather than acquiesce to calls for resource sharing within the region.

The US is preparing itself to face this confrontation, and consequently the world is progressing inexorably towards a conflict of which will determine global power structures and will be the defining feature of the 21st century.  A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies assessment on the situation declares that “the underlying US geostrategic objective in the Asia-Pacific region has been to prevent ‘the rise of any hegemonic state from within the region that could threaten US interests by seeking to obstruct American access or dominate the maritime domain. From that perspective, the most significant problem for the United States in Asia today is China’s rising power, influence, and expectations of regional pre-eminence’.” While a conflict between China and the US is “unthinkable” (in both economic and military terms), the “U.S. force posture must demonstrate a readiness and capacity to fight and win, even under more challenging circumstances associated with A2AD [anti-access/area denial] and other threats to U.S. military operations in the Western Pacific”.  So, both sides are preparing for a war that neither can win alone, and both are seeking to strengthen diplomatic and military ties within the region (Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, NZ etc).   These actions risk the heightening of tensions and the creation of a new arms race, with the South China Sea being as likely a flash-point as any for such a conflict to occur.

Uncle Che and the commodification of protest

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Today’s pop culture is rich in symbolisms of protest, such as Che Guevara, poster child of the global revolution and its capitalist reincarnation, whose image can be found on anything from T-Shirts to baseball caps, from coffee mugs to key rings, suggesting anything from Radical Left anti-capitalist critique to the revolutionary struggle of the cherries as they were squashed between two layers of chocolate. The latest addition to the range of protest merchandise are Occupy’s Guy Fawkes masks,  “a symbol of festive citizenship” according to The Guardian, and possibly Pussy Riot style ski masks that might soon be adopted as symbols of solidarity by advocates for freedom of speech around the world, before they run risk of trailing the Commandante’s fate. These symbols are in a long tradition of revolutionary branding that also services the shallow level of analysis dedicated to dynamics of social and political change around the world as we colour-code the good, the bad and the ugly. As suggested by Keck & Sikkink, “activists interpret facts and testimony, usually framing issues simply, in terms of right and wrong”.[1]

Symbols of protest are an omnipresent phenomenon on the streets of New York, London, New Delhi and Tokyo. What is the effect this has on the perception of underlying issues as they are embedded in middle class notions of a global civil society. Does the commodification of these symbols add meaning to the issues they stand for, eliciting support and nurturing solidarity with distant concerns, or does it drain their underlying political message by bringing them into the commercial realm? By wearing a Che-Shirt, are we automatically part of the protest culture with all its associated political undercurrents, or do we just follow a trend in global pop culture? Does it anaesthetise our conscience by suggesting that a piece of garment fabricated in a Third World sweatshop for minimal costs and sold on Cuba Street with a substantial profit margin and a cup of fair trade soy latte that suggests happy farmers with smiling children is as much of a contribution to protesting the havoc wrought by global capitalism as we need to indulge in on any given day?

As we know, few causes make it on the global civil society agenda for a number of reasons – the greatest benefit of raising the profile of Russian punk bands and Australian whistle blowers is the magnification of a single cause that can help draw attention to similar or related issues elsewhere, hoping for a spill-over effect to trigger sympathy for causes a handful of activists might have advocated for a long time without any notice being taken. The question remains, is there any revolutionary subtext left in Uncle Che’s image or has he been completely absorbed by the system he chose to fight?


[1] Keck, M. E., & Sikkink, K. (1998). Activists beyond borders: advocacy networks in international politics. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

Transnational civil society and punk rock: The case of Pussy Riot

While many issues get attention and support, only certain issues get empathy Western individuals. I argue that this empathy is important for issues to receive meaningful support. That may be because while some issues are indeed tragic and terrible, there is a disconnect, when issues are too complex, such as hunger and poverty, we tend to find it hard to put ourselves in their shoes and to understand what it is like, how the issue arises, and more so, what we can do to solve it.

This may be why the Russian punk band Pussy Riot is getting so much attention, and a lot of vocal support. Obscure until a few months ago, they have grabbed the attention of not just President Vladimir Putin, but the rest of the world. Pussy Riot is an all-girl punk band who wear colourful balaclavas and tights and jump around singing and screaming about the injustices of living in Putin’s Russia. They are getting our attention and support because we can perhaps see ourselves in their position, and the unjustness of it (they have been sentenced to two years in a prison colony for protesting against their political leader, or, in the courts words; guilty of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’). That is because we feel that what has been done is a violation of certain norms we have taken for granted, the norms of freedom of speech, the right to protest, the right to a fair trial, and more generally where issues of justice becomes involved. The idea that we, living in a liberal democracy, can voice our concerns in forms of taking to the streets, or making music, makes it more ridiculous and unfair in our eyes in regards to what Putin is doing to the members of this band.

Punk bands have always been around, and they are not going away. Punk rock has always been more than just a musical movement, but is essentially a political one. While some bands focus their attentions on local issues – Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen,’ immediately comes to mind equating the Queen with a “fascist regime,” – some bands have also dealt with global issues, such as The Clash’s ‘Washington Bullets.’

What Pussy Riot has done, is protest against a local issue, but has appealed to a global audience willing to advocate on their behalf. Amnesty International, for example, has categorized them as ‘prisoners of conscience.’ There have always been criticism of the Russian regime, but not all have caught on to get as much attention as this case. But the real success in what Pussy Riot has done and their potential is that their method of protest relies on anonymity, the wearing of statement colourful balaclavas, whereby it allows for the possibility of their protest and message to carry across globally and across international borders, how anyone can be a member of Pussy Riot. And even if Putin can arrest and jail individual members of the band, there is no way he can stop the potential for new members to don the balaclava and continue to spread their message while rocking out, and to stop that from spreading beyond Russia. (After having written this piece, I have found the same thought echoed here). Importantly, this practice is a further extension of an age old practice of anonymity in political subversion. However, this practice could well be emerging as a new norm in global political protest – think of the ‘Anonymous’ hacker group – reflecting the increased capacities of states at surveillance and detention (which, as an aside, is another argument against the diminishing of state capacity). Two reasons for the importance of this potential new norm is, on the one hand, its utilisation by groups against both democratic and non-democratic regimes, as well as corporations and powerful groups more generally, and, on the other, the increasing asymmetries emerging between groups in contemporary politics, which increasingly necessitates the practice.

WikiLeaks and the Boy who cried Wolf

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Let’s consider for a moment the events now occurring in London and the media coverage of Julian Assange’s exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

The Union of South American Nations has come out in support of Ecuador’s stance on Assange, which has been harbouring the WikiLeaks founder in their London embassy since June.  The British Government’s threats to storm the embassy and snatch Assange is classic British bullying and could well create problems for Britain in its foreign relations with countries beyond Ecuador.  Under the terms of the 1961 United Nations Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, embassies remain under the jurisdiction of the nation they represent, meaning that British police have no authority within Ecuador’s embassy. The Convention is the cornerstone of international relations, and has been signed by more than 200 countries.

UK Foreign Minister William Hague’s recent statement that “the United Kingdom does not recognise the principle of diplomatic asylum” and threat to use the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act to remove the diplomatic status of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, thereby allowing the police to enter the building and extract Mr Assange has the potential to open a whole can of worms.  Britain, as with most countries in the world, does not accept the principal of diplomatic immunity if it goes against international law – in this case, if a wanted criminal were to claim asylum in the nearest embassy. Conversely, Ecuador and a number of its South American neighbours, do recognise the right to diplomatic immunity, putting it at odds with much of the Western world.

The British behaviour is best explained by their current status as pandering to their US counterparts.  What we are seeing is the first truly high profile challenge to the steady erosion of international norms and human rights that has been accelerating since 9/11 and the war on (drugs/terror/the economy/the environment) was begun at the turn of the century.  Established norms of the right to free speech and press are under attack as well as the diplomatic sovereignty of states.

The interesting aspect for me is the parallels which this situation has with that of the blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who took refuge in a US embassy in Beijing in May this year.  Although Chen left the Embassy just 6 days later, the US’ actions in granting Chen asylum was seen as an affront to Chinese sovereignty on their own soil, for which Beijing demanded an apology.   These cases raise questions about the relevance of territorial boundaries and state sovereignty and are vital issues in terms of the way states observe international law and international relations.

Perhaps Assange and Ecuador will try to have his case heard by the International Court of Justice to get the status of diplomatic asylum universally recognised and established as a basic international law norm.  Despite what Ecuador, the UK, Sweden and the US decide to do, the decisions will reverberate throughout international law and norms and this case sets to test the strength of international norms and could set an unwelcome precedent which would invite a political and perhaps even violent response from other nations.  The UK has painted itself into a corner as it can now either raid the embassy and risk international retribution, or lose face by letting Assange leave the embassy and the country.  Personally, I feel that if Assange doesn’t capitulate and face his accusers in Sweden, the best thing the UK could currently do is let Assange slip out of the country under the cover of darkness and live out his days in a dark Ecuadorian bar in Quito while the rest of the world focuses on the Paralympics. Mojitos anyone?

Women, Gender and Universal Human Rights?

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When we were talking about development and aid in the last lectures, we always ended up also discussing and questioned the existence of something called “universal human rights”.

Does a “catalogue” of human rights exist, that would be overall acceptable and valid for all human beings? Are those rights, especially those written down by the UN universal? Or is it a simply a new way of Western dominance over the periphery, a new way colonialism, where the west tells the developing countries “what is the right thing to do and what is not”?

A lot of criticism of the concept of universal human rights is valid and understandable. Representatives from developing economies especially criticize the narrow definition of human rights and the focus on western ideals such as individualism (Skegg 2005: 668). Those concepts are often contrary to the set-up of non-western cultures and societies. Furthermore it is argued that the proposed universal human rights are not meeting many countries needs and taking into account their “real” situation, especially when looking at boarder rights such as adequate income, access to education and health care (ibid.).

However, I also see another reason, why many states and societies reject the existence of universal human rights. I argue that rejection of the existence of universal human rights especially occurs in countries with highly patriarchal society structures. In those societies, violence against women is used to subordinate them, to keep the traditional patriarchal society structure intact and to secure the dominant role of men.  Accepting that there is something such as universal human rights that include gender equality and strengthen women’s rights would question the role of men in those societies. It would threaten the dominant position of men – and now speaking from a realist perspective: who likes to give up power?

However, interestingly enough the right to life and physical integrity can be found in more or less all religions and cultures – even in non-western cultures and those, who actively treat women as second class citizens.

Therefore even if a universal catalogue of human rights can be questioned and controversially discussed, I argue that at least one norm can be taken as widely accepted: the right to life and physical integrity.  And based on this right is not acceptable that violence against women still exists, is justified and made invisible (Bovarnick 2007). Therefore, before overall rejection that universal human rights exist, we should look beyond the criticism for the motivation behind the rejection and question, whether it is because those norms are western norms and not universal or whether they might be a threat to those who are currently in power…

Bovarnick, Silvie 2007):  Universal human rights and non Western normative systems: a comparative analysis of violence against women in Mexico and Pakistan. Review of International Studies,33, pp. 59-74.

Skegg, Anne-Marie (2005): Brief Note: Human rights and social work : A western imposition or empowerment to the people? International Social Work 2005, 48 (5), pp. 667-672.

The celanthropist’s dilemma

I recently came across a Guardian Op Ed by the British actor Colin Firth (Mr Darcy/King George) in which he argues that while celebrities attached to ‘causes’ (celanthropists?) are pretty much sanctimonious pains in the ass, he also wants to point out that famous people find themselves in a rather unique position, being the automatic recipients of both a “public voice” and a “new relationship with those who don’t have one”.

Firth says that when given this gift of a public voice (with its attendant instant access to public and media attention), anyone with a social conscience would find it weird not to put it to use.  Maybe he has a point. I can see how this could become a dilemma for a celebrity;  if you’re landed with a loud voice, perhaps you’re obliged to use it? And if you don’t use it, will you be perceived as solipsistic and uncaring?

Why do celebrity ‘causes’ grate on us so much? Is it because they are so prevalent that we perceive them as clichés, or is it that we suspect celebrities are mostly under-qualified to comment on their pet cause?  Are we also a bit jealous that celebrity voices are so often and easily heard above the voices of so many other philanthropists whose efforts in the aid and development space go largely ignored?

Admittedly celebrity-backed causes can sometimes be proved to be shallow, misguided and even quite unhelpful to the cause itself. In their blog on the Aidwatch website, Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte touches on the problems at the root of Bono’s Product RED (tis also partly a plug for their book Brand Aid), while pop star Madonna’s failing charity Raising Malawi hit the headlines in the New York Times last year. I’m sure there are many other examples of failed ventures along these lines.

Yet another very good Guardian article on celebrity and aid says that development experts mostly acknowledge that veteran celebrity activists Bono and Bob Geldof are actually really well informed about the causes they back. Certainly they have the politicians’ ears!

It’s easy to criticise celanthropists, but perhaps we should judge them on their individual merits and on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind celebrities are also people with interests and concerns and emotions like everyone else. Their voices may be a bit too loud sometimes but I don’t think they should denied the opportunity to speak out just because they happen to be actors or singers or successful at sport in their day jobs. They live in the world like anyone else.  As Firth says, “We are not in a position to choose whether or not we have a relationship with our own society or with the world’s poorest people. We can choose the nature of those relationships, but either way they’re there.”