Celebrity to Dictator: No Thanks

Credit: The Atlantic.com

Tyrannical regimes love to hire celebrities as entertainment and PR, writes The Atlantic’s Armin Rosen, but one African ruler’s effort might have backfired.

Actress and sometimes MTV host Amanda Seales says she knew “absolutely nothing” about Equatorial Guinea when she received an invitation to the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation’s biennial summit, held last week in the tiny African nation. The 31-year-old has acted in a Nickelodeon series, hosted on MTV, released music, poetry, and visual art, and earned a master’s in African American studies from Columbia University.

It’s easy to see why the Sullivan Foundation, an organization dedicated to continuing the work of social activist and religious leader Leon Sullivan, decided that Seales had something to add to what their promotional materials describe as “a gathering of the African Diaspora.”

And it’s just as easy to see why Seales, who has never visited Africa, might have jumped at the opportunity, especially after running an internet search for pictures of Equatorial Guinea, a coastal nation with a population of only 600,000. “There’s this beautiful island, and there’re white sand beaches,” she told me. “And I’m like what, that’s where we’re going? And I’m told we’re going with the government, so we’ll be taken care of.”

That last part ended up being a problem for Seales. Some time before the summit, an aunt alterted her to the Equatoguinean government’s record of human rights abuses. Seales, worried that attending might help legitimize an oppressive, autocratic government, cancelled.

Had Seales accepted, she would have joined a long and prominent list of celebrities who have appeared on behalf of dictatorial governments. In 2009, Sting performed for the daughter of the dictator of Uzbekistan, for which he was reportedly paid between two and three million dollars. (Two years later and perhaps chastened by the international backlash, he canceled a concert in Kazakhstan over its suppression of workers.) In 2011, Beyonce Knowles and Hilary Swank made paid appearances at a New Year’s celebration for one of the sons of Muamar Gaddafi and a birthday party for a Chechen warlord, respectively. As the Washington Post put it at the time, “A raft of Western entertainers and celebrities, including Mariah Carey, Usher, Beyoncé and Sharon Stone , have hired themselves out to some of the world’s most odious human rights abusers, their children or close associates.”

By attending the conference, Seales argued, she would be complicit in Obiang’s outreach efforts and, by extension, the country’s continued misery. “I can’t sit on a beach knowing there’s an entire country of people that have a complete lack of resources, etcetera,” she told me, “while we’re being treated like princes and princesses for the purpose of further mistreatment of the people.”

If the glitzy Sullivan Foundation event was intended to distract from Obiang’s dismal human rights and development record, then it was a failure for its hosts, according to Thor Halvorssen, who as director of the New York -based Human Rights Foundation had lobbied some invitees (including Seales) against attending. The summit, he says, only drew attention to Equatorial Guinea’s problems.

This is an extract from a longer article on the Atlantic.com. RTWT. Armin Rosen is an Atlantic Media fellow

A dissenting view of China-Germany ‘special relationship’

A leading dissident has satirized German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s failure to publicly raise human rights or meet activists during her current trip to China, while references to a burgeoning “special relationship” between Berlin and Beijing have prompted criticism from German media.

Among the 18 major business deals signed was a $3.5 billion agreement to sell 50 Airbus planes to China. Dissident artist Ai Weiwei (above) tweeted about the deal:

“Germany’s Merkel comes to China and visits the Forbidden City and takes the high-speed train”….. But Mr. Ai, whose company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development, has been hit with heavy tax bills that he says are trumped up, added: Don’t forget that my money helped pay for those aircraft.

“Airbus will sell China 100 planes for $9 billion,” he tweeted (the deal was originally expected to be bigger than it proved to be), “but does she know that a lot of Fake’s money, taken forcibly in framed charges, is among that money?”

“It was a classic move by Mr. Ai, a pointed message that China’s people work hard to create the country’s wealth but have little say in a tightly controlled one-party state,” the NYT’s Didi Kirsten Tatlow writes:

As usual, Mr. Ai, a satirist who was detained for nearly three months last year in what he says was retaliation for his public criticism of the government, used humor to get his message across. This photograph, of Mr. Ai socializing with four cardboard Merkels, comes with the caption, “It won’t rain, will it?”

Mr. Ai has close ties to Germany. He has a large German public, both for his art and for his political activism. In fact, Mr. Ai, dubbed “China’s State Enemy No. 1” by the mass-circulation Bild newspaper in an interview published the day before Ms. Merkel landed, cannot take up an academic post in Berlin because the government has seized his passport, he told Bild here (in German).

A former dissident in communist East Germany, Merkel has been criticized for not taking a public stance on human rights in China. But some observers believe her reticence also reflects a shift in the balance of power, with Europe reluctant to offend a state whose assistance it needs to resolve its economic crisis.

“The significance of this visit lies primarily in the bilateral economic relations,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing and an adviser to the State Council, or cabinet. “There has been a lot of discussion over China providing financial assistance to Europe. But Germany cannot solely represent Europe, and Europe as an integrated entity still has some concern over receiving Chinese assistance.”

Suggestions of a “special relationship” between democratic Germany and authoritarian China drew criticism from across the political spectrum.

‘China regards Germany as the leading power in Europe and is treated as such. That is flattering — and is also dangerous,” The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

No matter how dynamically the relation develops in terms of trade and investment, there can never be a ‘special relationship’ between the communist People’s Republic and Germany, a democratic country in the heart of the European Union, at least not in the sense of the Anglo-American connection. The two countries’ ideas about the state and society, and about the rule of law and human rights, are too far apart for that. We should not delude ourselves.

“Forget the days when Angela Merkel received the Dalai Lama at the Chancellery for ‘private talks’ and found herself attracting the wrath of the Chinese leadership as a result,” the left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

That was five years ago. The German chancellor now travels to China every year (…). Never have relations between Berlin and the authoritarian regime in Beijing been as excellent as they are at present.

But all the mutual economic interests should not allow the human rights dialogue with China to be forgotten.

Other voices called on Merkel to adopt a tougher stance on rights, the WSJ reports:

A group of German journalists in China wrote in a joint letter to the chancellor complaining of increased scrutiny from Chinese authorities….A group of eight German lawmakers have canceled their trip to China, scheduled to coincide with Ms. Merkel’s, after being denied permission to visit Xinjiang, a region that has seen clashes between Chinese authorities and the country’s Uighur minority.

“As German parliamentarians, we can’t accept that kind of restrictive treatment,” said Johannes Pflug, head of the German-Chinese parliamentary group.

“Merkel, a former East German, is known for having sought out visits with Chinese dissidents in the past, both in China and in Germany,” Tatlow writes:

On this trip, though, she was focusing her efforts on meeting with environmental activists, German sources said — a group widely acknowledged here as the least politically sensitive sector of China’s much-harassed civil society.

Viva democracy!

Democracy is at a watershed, writes Patrice de Beer, a former foreign correspondent for the French daily Le Monde. Too many voters in the established democracies take it for granted, while the concept and practice are being adulterated by authoritarian regimes that claim the democratic mantle in a desperate search for legitimacy.

Many have lost confidence in [democratic] institutions as last year’s Arab Spring has been followed by the electoral victory of religious fundamentalists in Egypt and Tunisia. Through the centuries, new generations have developed different visions of this concept to fit specific times, circumstances, and locations. In making these adjustments, governments have all too often corrupted the very concept of democracy. Yet most modern leaders, except for the basest of autocrats, continue to pay at least lip service to it. Even North Korea.

It should hardly seem strange that so many dictatorships have added to the official name of their countries the shining titles of “Democratic” or “Popular,” especially during the Communist era, from People’s Republics (like China or Hungary) to the German “Democratic” Republic (the Stasi-dominated police state of East Germany) or the infamous “Democratic” Kampuchea of the Khmer Rouge. …. The best—or the worst—example of this linguistic perversion is, of course, the Kim dynasty of North Korea, which is both a “Democratic” and “People’s” Republic. Finally, there is Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo (in contrast with its far smaller and no more democratic neighbor simply named Republic of Congo). The sad joke, of course, is that none of these “People’s” regimes are in the least democratic, and these “Democratic” republics are hardly run by the people.

PROTECT AND DEFEND

Yet, this has not stopped proud Western democracies with a glorious past of fighting to protect our freedoms from doing business with unsavory regimes…..We mute our criticism of Communist China’s perpetual violations of human rights—from Chinese dissidents to Tibetan or Uighur nationalists—to protect a vast market for our products and our primary supplier of industrial goods, which we cannot live, or play, without.

There have always been those—like France’s late China expert and President Charles de Gaulle’s information and justice minister, Alain Peyrefitte—who pretend that democracy does not fit with Chinese and Asian traditions. It is not in their genes. They prefer living under “benevolent” dictatorships. As if democratic and un-democratic genes differ from each other. As if countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are not living examples that democracy is as capable of flourishing in the East as it is in the West. Others pretend that economic development will nurture democracy. But on the Asian continent, or anywhere else, assembling computers under political supervision for foreign-owned factories is no shortcut to democracy.

My own experience as foreign correspondent for the French daily Le Monde has helped me understand the universal value of democracy. Based in Bangkok in the 1970s, I witnessed the final years of the Vietnam War and its sorry sideshows in Cambodia and Laos. As an unwilling guest of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, where I had overstayed my welcome following the evacuation of most Western media by American helicopters a few days before the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, I had the good fortune of surviving. A number of my colleagues did not. Based in Beijing in the 1980s, I witnessed China’s opening after the bloody years of the Cultural Revolution, then the first crackdown on the democratic awakening of China’s youth, followed by the Tiananmen Square massacre in the spring of 1989.

TAKEN FOR GRANTED

Finally, it’s vital to point out that democracy is still alive, if not always in good health. Its seeds grow, blossoming in many colors before being replaced by new flowers. They crossbreed and sometimes degenerate only to start a new life in more hospitable soil. They adapt to new environments. Sometimes new strains appear suddenly, while others disappear. Around fundamental principles—rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, equality and justice, free and fair elections—democracy can bloom differently, adjusting to local conditions.

But it cannot curtail freedoms for spurious reasons like the Chinese regime’s pathetic excuse that the Communist Party has a so-called historically paramount role. Neither is it acceptable for any aspiring democracy to assert that the first true freedoms are the right to eat and be sheltered, but at the cost of all liberty. That China and other countries with one party systems hold formal elections does not mean they are democratic. Far from it.

*****

This is an extract from the latest issue of World Policy. Patrice de Beer is a former foreign correspondent (Bangkok, Beijing, London, and Washington) and editorial writer for the French daily Le Monde.

Democracy ‘shaky’ in Bosnia (and Serbia too?)

Democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, once considered a rare transatlantic success story, is in danger of unraveling, writes a leading analyst. While economic crisis and the return to office of allies of former leader Slobodan Milosevic are also raising questions about the resilience of democracy in neighboring Serbia.   

The crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina arises from proposed revisions to the electoral law proposed by an alliance of the Social Democratic Party and HDZ, the largest Bosnian Croat party, which “reinforces Bosnia’s growing ethnic and religious tribalism,” writes Michael Haltzel, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Transatlantic Relations:

The draft electoral law, included in a complex set of constitutional amendments, would lock in representation of each of Bosnia’s three constituent peoples in areas where they compose a majority at the expense of the “others” — Roma, Jews, other ethnic minority citizens and the large number of Bosnians who choose not to identify with any single ethnic group. The Bosnian Croats living in areas governed by the HDZ would be most favored, receiving a virtual veto over national legislation. This division of spoils would be especially inequitable since Bosnia’s next census, in 2013, is expected to show that the country’s “others” group is as least as numerous as the Bosnian Croat community. The leader of the Serb entity, Republika Srpska, sees the law as furthering his own separatist ambitions.

The proposal is likely to cement ethnic-based political allegiances at a time when alternative political identities and formations are beginning to emerge.

Recent election successes by parties campaigning on civic values rather than ethnic identity suggest that “The Others” make up a “Fourth BiH” that is open to political mobilization, civil society activist Darko Brkan recently told the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (below).

Civil society organizations are mobilizing to defeat the legislation, slated for a vote in the coming weeks,” says Haltzel, former European policy adviser to then-Senator Joe Biden, noting that Bosnian NGOs sent an open letter to U.S. lawmakers, likening the legislation to the three-fifths formula for evaluating slaves that preceded the 14th Amendment.

The draft law would “introduce a highly discriminatory concept of ‘vote value’ [which] would assign greater value to votes of citizens belonging to a majority ethnic group within the country’s administrative units. The provision would, in essence, devalue the vote of citizens who are of Jewish, Roma, Polish, Slovak, Czech, German, Albanian, or other recognized minority background, to 40 percent of those who identify themselves as Croats, Serbs or Bosniaks,” said the letter from a coalition of BiH civil society groups:  

Before the XIV Amendment, the Constitution of the United States of America stated that “Representatives (…) shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, (…) and three fifths of all other Persons.” If the SDP-HDZ agreement is adopted in the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country’s constitution will de facto assign a lesser value to a whole group of its citizens, much like the U.S. Constitution did before the abolition of slavery.

Democracy is looking notably fragile in the Balkans, according to a recent report by Freedom House. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia all suffered declines in democratic governance over the past five years, driven in part by the overlap between business and political interests and the nagging problem of organized crime.

In Serbia, economic concerns allied to the election of Ivica Dacic, Milosevic’s wartime spokesman, as prime minister and the elevation to the presidency of Tomislav Nikolic, a deputy prime minister of the former Yugoslavia toward the end of Milosevic’s regime, are raising concerns about a “more nationalistic” threat to Serbia’s fragile democracy.

“One of the risks is that people turn to more nationalistic behavior if the economy is deteriorating,” said Svetlana Logar, research director at Ipsos Strategic Marketing in Belgrade, said in an interview in her office. “Democracy has always been very confusing for Serbians and they’re not aware that democracy is a way to a stronger economy and jobs.”

It is difficult to see how Bosnia’s proposed electoral law would enhance stability, Haltzel writes in the Washington Post:

Cementing the power of ethnic fiefdoms runs directly against the tide of 21st-century European history. Cutting large segments of the population out of meaningful political participation will exacerbate tensions, not foster a unifying attachment to the state.

The contrast with two of Bosnia’s neighbors could not be greater. NATO member Croatia will join the European Union next year. Montenegro, which has integrated large Albanian and Slavic Muslim minorities into its national life, reached the negotiating stage of its E.U. membership in June and is well on its way to joining NATO.

With Brussels apparently acquiescing to the proposed electoral law, civil society groups are looking to Washington to take a stance against the provisions.

“It is our fear that the European Union will fail to see the threat facing the human rights of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens, especially minorities,” says Zasto ne (Why Not), a Sarajevo-based nongovernmental organization that promotes civic activism, government accountability, and the use of digital media to deepen democracy in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 “Eager to see ‘progress’ at any cost, the EU appears likely to accept the proposed SDP-HDZ agreement,” it said.

In the run-up to Bosnia’s next census, the electoral law also threatens what Ivana Howard, the National Endowment for Democracy’s senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe, has called (below) a unique opportunity for civil society “to consolidate an alternative constituency, a ‘Fourth BiH’ that transcends the three main ethnicities.”

The failure of recent constitutional reform efforts only served to highlight and confirm the “dysfunctional and discriminatory” nature of the political system, she said. A new social compact should also incorporate a “redefinition of civil society,” that would help close the “great distance between NGOs and citizens,” the result of foreign-funded NGOs too often reflecting an international agenda that fails to address local needs and aspirations.