Monthly Archives: November 2012

The politics of mapping — India, China and google maps 40 years after the Sino-Indian war


Last February I posted a blog on the sensitivity of the India-China border and today a friend made me aware of google map’s “diplomatic” way of representing the border. The border google maps draws depends on where you are, inside China or outside China:

This is a screenshot from (the German google)


and this is a screenshot from (Hong Kong version as does not exist anymore):


yup, borders are still important …


Who killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the cold war and white supremacy in Africa, by Susan Williams, New York: Columbia U.P., 2011.


Dag Hammarskjöld is undisputably a modern hero for many, including the author of this book. Without his vigorous stewardship, the United Nations would most certainly not be in charge of 17 peace missions nowadays, employing more than 121,000 people and costing billions. Yet, in the cold war and the painful decolonization process of Africa, his actions and personnality were not liked by all. Consequently, his death in a plane crash while on mission in the Congo has since always been a huge inspiration for conspiration theorists. Three inquiries into the causes of the crash have been undertaken: one immediately after the crash by the Rhodesian government concluding a pilot’s error; another one by the the UN in 1962 which already expressed doubt over the pilot error’s hypothesis; finally, a parliamentary investigation in Sweden in 1993 more clearly said that the hypotheses of a criminal cause could not be excluded. In July this year the UN set up a new inquiry commission in order to investigate the hypothesis of Susan William’s book that Hammarskjöld’s plane was either shot at or sabotaged by white mercenaries.

Indeed, the empirical material carried together by Susan Williams is impressive and first of all shows how incomplete and neglectant former inquiries had been. She not only retraces numerous inconsistencies in the way witness testimonies and essential data were recorded; she also unearthes interesting materials about the activities of white supremacist mercenary groups in Africa between 1960 and the 1990s. She retraces in detail how these mercenary groups had important government contacts in Rhodesia and South Africa. She makes a plausible case that Hammarskjöld was sufficiently loathed by white settlers in Katanga, Rhodesia and South Africa to make them, at least, not regret his death. Yet, although impressive, this material does not allow beyond doubt imputing the plane crash to these groups and Williams carefully refrains from drawing any absolute conclusions. She makes very honestly clear that she cannot prove the authenticity of the documents she is discussing and she is also very sceptical about the veracity of the accounts former mercenaries have given her and other informants.

And even if a safe prove could be produced that mercenaries attacked Hammarskjöld’s plane or had placed a bomb in it, this would still be more than unsatisfactory. Mercenaries wouldn’t be commercial soldiers but political terrorists if they had acted on their own and become political at that point. They would have needed broad, powerful and rich support from political actors in order to attack directly the Secretary General of the UN. Williams is quite right when she notes that the logic consequence of this thought is to assume the involvment of right-wing groups in the former colonial powers, notably the UK, and white supremacists in Africa, notably in the Rhodesian and South African governments. Yet, chances are nil that evidence of that kind will ever come into the public domain. Neither the UK nor France, Belgium, the Netherlands or Portugal have in the past shown in any way that they are mature democracies enough to fully confront their colonial past. Admitting having participated actively in a plot against the Secretary General of the United Nations (assuming that they did, of course), the very institution these governments like to invoke today to justify their bombing of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places? No way.

Williams insistence to steer through this white supremacy-colonialism mud puddle is admirable. She does sometimes, however, muddle up dates and presents curious narratives which undermines partly the credibility of her account. She presents Hammarskjöld as supportive of Lumumba which was certainly not the case (see John Kent and Ludo de Witte on this relationship); she also argues that Hammarskjöld from the outset wanted to end Katanga’s secession which is also not the case; she furthermore asserts that some of the mercenaries in Katanga were former Organisation Armée Secrète soldiers (a group of French army colonels in Algeria, mostly paras, who fought to keep Algeria French) and therefore close to the French government which is simply nonsense as the OAS was explicitly set up to overthrow the government of Charles de Gaulle (and although certainly attached to French grandeur, de Gaulle’s absolutely outstanding quality was to have understood, admittedly late, how futile Europe’s grip to power in Africa and Asia was: “If you want independence, then take it!”). These are not minor factual errors but important misconceptions of main narratives of the events of the time. A second edition of the book (which will most hopefully come as paperback to make it more widely accessible) should correct these.



Where are the histories of the colonial mining companies?


At the moment I am working on a paper on the United Nations Mission in the first Congo Crisis, 1960-1964. In this context I’m reading left and right about the decolonization of the Congo whose chaotic and disastrous nature predestined much of the country’s later wars and violence. However, that is not what strikes me at the moment. Rather I’m surprised to find very little historical research on the such ominous organisations as the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, the Belgian mining cartel that financed Katanga’s secession in July 1960 and was probably also responsible for large parts of the violence in this conflict. I had noticed this lack of historical research already in my research on Sierra Leone where there is also very little about the Sierra Leone Selection Trust, the mining company that had been exclusively licenced by the British in the 1930’s to mine diamonds and which had already employed private mercenaries to keep Africans away from the diamond fields. There is also not very much research and literature on the role of contemporary mining companies in Africa’s politics in general and its wars in particular. The reference to the use of private military companies for instance in the Sierra Leonean war (Sandline International, Executive Outcomes) is frequent yet not much is known about their concrete dealings and doings. With the focus on “greed” of much of the civil wars literature this omission of Western “greed” is quite striking. In his article “Natural resources, Conflict, and Conflict Resolution: Uncovering the Mechanisms” Macarthan Humphreys mentions what he calls the “greedy outsiders mechanism” in impacting on civil war dynamics but just as one potential hypothetical causal mechanism amongst others (he mentions six mechanisms about the outbreak of war and seven on the war dynamics). Certainly, this is not another sign of eurocentric blindness where greed and violence is only the feature of the black man?????

The lack of interest is certainly an interesting point to note for itself. It is also probably one reason why these companies can hand over their archives to public institutions all the while making sure that they keep control over what will be known and what not. The Union Minière du Haut Katanga has passed their archives to the State Archives in Belgium but the inventary warns “Ces archives avaient été triées à plusieurs reprises dans les années 1980, la société n’ayant conservé que les dossiers qu’elle estimait les plus intéressants” (these archives have been sorted (meaning weeded) several times in the 1980s; the company only kept those files they thought would be the most interesting). I guess the company did not think that anyhing on their contacts to mercenaries, the Force Publique or even the assassination of cumbersome politicians like Patrice Lumumba is “le plus intéressant” for the wider public…


War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone, by Krijn Peters


With his book “War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone”, Krijn Peters presents an analysis that is exceptional by the materials it presents, intelligent by the way it uses the material and full of marvelous insights about the motivations and reasons why young people would not only take up arms but also commit horrendous atrocities as RUF fighters and others did in the Sierra Leonean war. For this reason alone, Peters’ book is precious and rare in the literature on civil wars, a diamond one would be tempted to say if this book would not make so brutally clear what a curse diamonds and its economy have been for Sierre Leone.

The book is a major contribution to research on armed conflict and most particularly on child soldiering as Peters manages to carve out the motivations of the combatants for joining and staying with the RUF. He reconstructs the internal organisation of this movement which has remained rather obscure and been subject to quite some phantasms, and he has found sensible explanations for the atrocities committed by RUF rebels, mainly in the second half of the 1990s. With this work that builds on former publications (some with Paul Richards) Peters successfully debunks the myth of a disemparaged youth run wild. He replaces it with a differentiated, fine grained and sensitive portrait of the mainly rural underclass of Sierra Leonean society that was surely out to take its revenge for the injustice and (violent) exploitation it had experienced before but which also pursued a project of a better society as any respectable revolutionary movement. Such a perceptive analysis is rare in war studies and particularly when it comes to organisations like the RUF which have made headlines for their brutal violence. Peters painstakingly pieces together interviews on a large range of topics.

The analysts of wars in Africa who actually go and talk to those who fought the war are few. There are a number of reasons for this: ongoing wars are particularly unpleasant fields of research, not only for the dangers they represent but also for the logistic and communicative difficulties of these environments: people engaged in armed combat are likely to have other things on their mind than talking to academics; the discussions one can have in war will most probably be fully subjected to the emotional and intellectual exceptionality of wars and might therefore not give further insights into the larger picture.

Krijn Peters is well aware of all these difficulties and the materials he collected as well as his presentation reflect the tremendous care he has taken to deal with the fallacies of doing research in these situations. Just like Mats Utas argues in his marvelous “Sweet Battlefields“, he contends that standard interviews or polls will not lead very far with these young people (Mats Utas admits that his method was “deep hanging out” with the ex-fighters and that this was a much better, complete and honest information source than the over 100 hours of formal interviews he did with youngsters in a demobilisation programme). The former combattants are far too experienced in delivering standard narratives to curious folks whether from NGOs, state agencies, media or academia. They also might have personal, psychological and reputational interests in not presenting their own story but what they assume others want to hear; Peters and Utas make this point particularly clear for the question of abduction. Although abducted, many young people might have, or actually, have chosen to stay with the armed groups they fell prey to. Whether this is the effect of brainwashing, of the Stockholm syndrome or the not unlikely discovery that, in the end, the abductees found something genuine positive in their new roles is something only careful interviewing over a long period of time can tell. Representativity of the the interview sample is, in this case, less important than getting into deep with the former combattants and just like Utas, Peters chose to follow “his” informants over a longer period of time in order to peel off the upper superficial layers of standard narratives and discourses. He nevertheless keeps his critical distance, true to his initial statement that “empathy does not mean sympathy”.

The care he has taken to choose his interview partners, to follow them over a longer period and especially to come back in well paced intervalls shows in the wealth of insights he produces from these sources. He is thus able to correct a number of received ideas about rebels and child soldiers in general and the fighters of the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in particular. With respect to recruitment, he makes a plausible case that the RUF mainly recruited from rural poor, and here from the lowest social stratum, namely young men (mainly) who lacked patronage networks to protect them from exploitation in villages or mining areas: orphans, “foreigners”, descendants from former house slaves and similar social groups. He explains internal cohesion of the movement partly with this common origin and the replacement of a hierarchical, class-based and gerontocratic social structure of the Sierra Leonean countryside by a meritocratic one in the rebel movement. In the RUF recruits could gain position and respect through their fighting; even if not spellt out in sophisticated and intellectual-theoretical terms such a “base socialism” provided important ideological ferment for the RUF. Ideology also translated into praxis with the creation of communal farms and the communal organisation of mining. Peters thus amasses evidence against a common thesis that movements like the RUF was void of political vision, just as he makes plainly clear that material incentives played overall a minor role in the motivation of the fighters, in the origins of the rebellion and in its internal organisation. For those used to the standard narrative of a “lumpen youth” (as Abdullah calls them) run wild, Peters conclusion will come as a surprise that “the movement had a set of rules and regulations and a guiding ideology which it sought to instil in its fighters during their training period”.

In the fifth chapter Peters actually provides a deep analysis of the causes for the atrocious violence deployed by, and this is an important qualification of his study, some RUF fighters and some points in time during the 12-year war and in some places. In previous chapters, Peters had explained at length the decentralized “cell” character of the movement which made consistent organisational training, monitoring and control extremely difficult, particularly during the “bush” years. This may account for the lack of discipline within the RUF but does not yet explain the actrocities committed (note that any war is brutal, the particularity here being the “specialisation” in certain types of violence like the amputation for which the RUF had gained its image as new barbarians in the onwatching world). Peters advances two sets of reasons and causes for the violence of the RUF: external influences and internal organisational dysfunctions. Among the external influences he notes that many of the atrocities committed in the early stage of war were so by Liberian fighters. This early stage settled the reputation of the RUF and the brutal repression of the rebellion by the army  (although ineffective) seem to have distanced the RUF from its natural constituency, hence, making violent antagonism between the RUF and villages escalate. Peters argues that this led to a strong paranoia among the RUF which was carried on into later phases of war and became particularly virulent in the phase after 1997 when the RUF took the bushes again. Internally, two organisational features supported the development of such paranoia and reinforced the key role particularly violent individuals could play. The RUF was organised in cells with flat hierarchies; in the beginnings, there were ony two military ranks and platoons were small. In this jungle guerilla warfare, paranoic suspicion towards civilians was actually an assett as it contributed to the group’s safety. With the rise and success of self-defense militias which would hunt down the RUF in the jungle, this paranoia became reinforced and was not mediated by a larger command or organisational movement. The second effect of this guerrilla organisation was that particularly “wicked”, i.e. violent individuals were not only difficult to control and punish for their behaviour, their aggressiveness might even be useful for the protection of the individual RUF platoons and therefore go unpunished despite the movement having a set of rules that prohibit unnecessary violence, rape and looting.

It is a pity that Peters does not engage with any of the theories of violence currently en vogue. Weinstein’s binomic and path-dependent distinction between low resource movements, who would engage in ideological training rather than loot and indiscriminate violence, from high resource organisations which will maintain adherence of fighters through lucrative material booty, does not fit at all to Peters’ descriptions. Kalyvas’ argument that indiscriminate violence will increase if territorial control, information and the loyalty of the population are contested fits Peters’ account much better. Yet, just as Elliott’s study of the Vietcong/Vietminh shows neither the material nor strategic or ideological position of these groups can fully explain how and which form of violence they employed. It appears from these two studies rather that the dynamics of violence in civil wars is also strongly determined by inner-organisational developments. For further research this is probably the most important conclusion from Peters book.

With respect to child or young soldiers, Peters book introduces also an important observation that is all too often missing from other accounts on child soldiering, namely that child soldiering is more frequent and more likely to happen if the youth that is recruited into the rebel movement had been already widely marginalised before; and that these young men take mature and responsible decisions despite their age. The latter leads us to having to rethink our understanding of childhood and youth as times of irresponsibility and immaturity. Rather, these young people have to be considered and their actions have to be analyzed within the social tissue of which they are part.



An excellent tool of reference: The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace


The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace, edited by Colgate Professor Nigel Young is simply excellent. Its over 900 entries cover about anything you can think of when it comes to research on peace, conflict, war, violence and all what has to do with it. From Gandhi’s influence on the peace movement, to short biographies of key figures of war and peace to various subquestions of social science research on peace and war (such as democracy and war or aid and peace), it contains all in short, well written and yet well balanced articles with a select and sufficient number of further recommended readings and cross-references. It’s a wonderful tool for teaching but also as quick reference for research if some detailed information is needed on a concept, event, person, institution or direction of former reseach. Highly recommendable!