Mathias Antonsson

Random subjective observations of what's on my mind

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Settle For Nothing

Banks have clearly gone from ”too big to fail” to ”too big to jail”. HSBC was complicit in laundering money for drug cartels and for harboring terrorist money transfers, but didn’t get indicted. These BBC, Al Jazeera and The Economist pieces will give you some context if you’re unfamiliar with the topic. I often speak about incentives, and the incentives for banks couldn’t be clearer; screw up the world economy with schemes and outright fraud, no worries, you won’t go to jail and the taxpayer will bail you out. In fact support drug cartels and terrorists and you’ll be fined, but walk. Even walk with partial bonus payouts. What?

Well, there is another example, namely Iceland. They argued that the banks are private companies and as such the taxpayers are not liable for their mistakes and held their banks accountable for their extravagancies, letting them go BANKrupt (yes, pun intended).  What happened? Iceland recovered fast, other sectors spurred by the human capital and competence previously locked up in their banks. Proof of concept for the argument that the banking sector produces very little actual output compared to other sectors. Well, something more happened too, the UK declared them a terrorist state. Iceland a terrorist state, laughable! Hopefully the worst misuse of the vague terrorism definitions and laws that will ever be committed. Read their President’s excellent views on the topic here.

This impunity development is so obviously horrific I won’t even bother going into details as you simply don’t need details to understand why it’s awful in its entirety. Therefore I will leave you with a link to a brilliant and short video on the HSBC verdict and instead focus on an interesting development in Kenya.

Kenya and other African countries are not seldom ahead of the rigid Western countries when it comes to new innovative ideas. One of the best examples is M-Pesa. A mobile phone based money transfer system that is a branchless banking service. You simply open your account and load money into it and transfer to other people’s phones. Perhaps this superstar ICT product, which is so simple it is SMS based, will be the solution to the impunity currently enjoyed by the banking system.

This brilliant Kenyan idea could be to the banking system what file sharing was to the movie and music industry. However if you think the movie and music industry lobby was bad, resulting in laws that turned almost entire populations into criminals, then what do you think the banking lobby will do seeing as they already can get away with laundering money for drug cartels, supporting terrorism and getting the whole country of Iceland labeled as a terrorist state? Then again, if the Mayans were right, it’ll be sorted on Friday.


Mouthful of Love

Leaving a meeting yesterday I got into a conversation with a security guard. Or rather he got me into it as he walked up asking me:

–          Are you French?
–          No, erhm, why?
–          Are you married?
–          What? Well, no.
–          You should marry a nice Kenyan girl. She will love your money.
–          OK, well, call me crazy but I want my future wife to love me for whom I am.
–          Why? You will have a great family and she can take care of everything for you.
–          Not really what I am looking for…
–          You’re crazy! It would be so easy for you, all you would have to do is pay for it.

At this point I assumed he was going to “recommend“ someone, but instead he went into a five minute monologue about his life up until now. Unexpected on so many levels.

I mentioned this conversation to a Kenyan friend and his response was also unexpected.

–          Forget the Kenyan or African women, they will suck you dry.
–          Hmm…
–          Then, once you’re dry, she will leave you for someone else.
–          That’s a bit harsh isn’t it?
–          No. Find a mzungu (Swahili word for white person).
–          Yeah…?
–          Yes. Sucked dry!

And so goes another day…


I’ve been informed this text is racially insensitive, and yes it is. I wrote this post for that very reason, to highlight the existing discourse. In fact I’ve been told similar things several times before. I thought it implicit by the way I presented the text, but let me clarify to make things absolutely clear; the views expressed above are NOT mine, nor are they shared by me.

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A Twisted State

Hand on heart, when was the last time you screwed up at work? How bad was it? Did it make the newspapers? That’s the reality quite a few people I know operate in. Here’s an example from a few days ago:

UN 1-state

A typo. Sometimes that’s enough to make CNN and Al Jazeera. Look up the definition of “an honest mistake” in the dictionary and this photo could be next to it. The keen of you will have noticed that it’s the @UN account. The very same Twitter account me and my then boss started in 2009 (novelty fact: then called @UNIC). I truly feel for my successor who had this misfortune, as I know better than most how difficult the job is and how meticulous one has to be.

Back when I used to manage it we didn’t have a team, and since news doesn’t take the weekend off it was rather stressful at times. I remember many mornings, especially on Saturdays or Sundays, going through the news from home and reading one tweet 20-30 times before posting it just to make sure it was correct. The Gaza flotilla story in 2010 is a terrific example of how difficult it could be. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had released a press statement with the headline:

“UN human rights chief condemns violent interception of Gaza aid flotilla”

It’s unusually outspoken to be the UN, condemnations aren’t common. Since this was before my morning coffee I must have gone over the tweet and our guidelines in my head at least 50 times before I posted. All of this under time pressure to make sure we carried the story. The combination of a UN official for once actually expressing a point of view and the fact that we posted it early on meant it went banana bonkers. Viral doesn’t begin to cover it. I think we got over 10,000 new followers that day, and this was at a time when we perhaps only had a 100,000 or so followers. It turned out to be a catalyst for the account. After that single tweet we would gain around 5,000-10,000 new followers per week no matter what stories we reported on. It was the catapult to our mature account that live coverage of events was to it in its wee beginnings.

Social Media is an unforgiving business. Can you imagine making a mistake and then instantly showcasing it to over a million people? Yet, you have to be creative and push the envelope to attract attention and spread your word. It is therefore exceptionally important that the business environment you are in is aware of the fact that mistakes will happen. And that it is forgiving when it inevitably does. Operating under the assumption that the guillotine is behind every typo is a sure way to stifle any creativeness and innovative spirit. This is universal no matter what business you are in. But with Social Media I would argue that being conservative is to the detriment of the business as the account in all likelihood will be counterproductively boring. Bad to good accounts do information, great accounts do infotainment. It carries that twist that makes you want to know more.

I’m sure my successor will emerge stronger from this. She will go over the routine, surely add some new cool tools to her bag of tricks and come back with ignited passion. She can always find solace in that she’s not alone. UN Radio knows how to deliver that aforementioned twist with the best of them:

UN Radio Tweet

Twisted twist

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All Along the Watchtower

The focus of this post will be on the post 9/11 conflict between censorship and transparency. Censorship in the name of security versus the ability to exercise your democratic right to vote and hold your government accountable. The Basics.

Post 9/11. You’ve heard the term. In it’s wake much has changed. Not least in the US with Guantanamo, torture, the Patriot Actextrajudicial killings without due process based on the now famous kill list. Speaking of lists, it goes on. It’s not just the US either, Swedish readers might remember how the previous government allowed a CIA rendition flight to deliver two Egyptian asylum seekers back to the Mubarak regime and how they subsequently got tortured.

In 1776 Sweden got its first Principle of Publicity, or as Swedes know it; Offentlighetsprincipen. Try that foreigners! In 1809 it was written into the constitution. Since its early beginnings it has been a simply astounding source of information for the citizenry. In short it means that you can access any information that is not classified. Furthermore, request and you will receive for free. This is however withering away, as the current government has made no less than 69 amendments since 2009. Embarrassingly this DN article reveals they have also been caught classifying non-classified information, deleting an email to save the Defense Minister (didn’t work) or how Annie Lööf doctored her documentation before releasing it.

We can thus safely say this is happening in Sweden too, remarkable since the country has always been a champion of keeping information open and available to the citizenry. Then there’s the relatively new policies, that has already almost been forgotten, about FRA and their digital reconnaissance.

I keep getting back to this issue, why do the laws we take for granted offline not apply online?

To read someone’s snail mail is a grave crime in every country taking civil liberties seriously, yet our emails gets scanned every time they move between country borders (read always due to the global server structure). For the first half of 2012, Google alone, received more than 20,000 government requests for user data. In the wake of the Petraeus affair, Google stated that “Government surveillance is on the rise“. Google responds by sharing user data in approximately 90% of the cases. No wonder the Pirate Party, seemingly lone champions of online data privacy, has won seats in the EU Parliament.

Speaking of the European Union, since its inauguration it has been rather non-democratic. Sure you can vote for the EU Parliament, which an astounding 43% did in 2009, the lowest of an ever decreasing EU voter turnout. We can always hope that the Lisbon Treaty from 2009, which made the EU Parliament more than just a tremendously expensive discussion club, will reverse the trend. Then again the ones with any real power in the EU isn’t the Parliament but a select few ministers and the commissioners. Ironically as the EU is going through a massive crisis this topic is hardly discussed.

So let’s get to the core argument often made; If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

For the moment let’s ignore the complete disregard this entails for our civil liberties. Let’s instead play with this statement. If true, it should apply both ways no? I mean if you have nothing to hide, why do so many governments hide behind the undefined, yet all-encompassing, “national security” shield as they so often do whenever prompted with questions. Who monitors the accuracy of their accusations? Who monitors what data they compile and how it is used? If I have no information about these things as a citizen, how can I use my right to vote properly?

This is basics people. We all know that information is power, and when the information mostly travels one-way, so does the power amass is one place. For anyone supporting democracy and civil liberties this is dangerous territory.

One or two of you might say that the truth will always come out, well perhaps it will, but in time for us to exercise our right to vote based on correct information or many years after the fact? It makes a difference.

Some of you may play the terrorism card, arguing it justifies a carte blanche. The US recently approved legislation that enables them to hold terrorist suspects indefinitely in a process that doesn’t have to undergo public scrutiny as this information is sensitive to national security. See what they did there? The catch 22? Well, do you also see how this is synonymous with the behaviour of authoritarian states? It’s fine says the supporter, you can trust our leader, he/she is good (well touched on here). Well, you couldn’t get further away from the democratic idea, and then there’s the whole “absolute power corrupts absolutely” issue…

It’s fairly simple: If you remove or infringe on the civil liberties we’re supposedly “fighting” for, then how do you expect to win? Where’s the logic?

Others might remind us of the fourth power, our journalists. To those doing that, let me ask you three simple questions in return:

  1. When was the last time you bought a newspaper?
  2. What do you think of the work done by journalists today?
  3. Who do you think pays for it?

You know the answers, and they are troubling. However the second one is more an effect of the first and third than anything else. The internet, and ironically the assumption of free access to information, has resulted in killing the business model. (Not that is was working that well before the internet either.) As such their expense model has been modified. Columnists and “experts” are stalking the pages, while the researching journalists are about to go extinct. Most forced to (or worse, willingly) adjust the story to whatever interest pays the bill. Have you seen MSNBC and FOX News report on the same story? Their different angles and twisting is astounding. More irony, Public Service Broadcasters are often the best around. But this trend is troublesome almost beyond belief.

Any somewhat educated hack can rehash available information. To uncover it however often takes weeks or months of hard work to find reliable sources, document the process, ask people in power to comment and so on. You don’t make any friends in that business, in fact you’re more likely to go to jail. This work is time consuming, thus it is expensive, thus it is going extinct. Once it does, there won’t be anything left for the “somewhat educated hack” to stalk the pages about. What then?

If the trend continues, soon all we will have left are the whistleblowers. As I’ve written before the Obama regime is coming after them with all they’ve got. The same can be seen in many other countries.

It is indeed dire times for freedom of information and transparency. Politics works as a pendulum, it swings back and forth as different competing and mutually exclusive, interests become trendy. Our emerging post 9/11 security societies is sending our democratic values and civil liberties to the emergency room for patching-up time and time again. The only way to bring the pendulum back towards the democracy side of the scales is to highlight the obvious, many governments is currently waging a battle against transparency and buffing up on censorship, this in a time when we produce data and are more easily monitored than any time before in history.

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I woke up coughing with a sore throat on Saturday. Naturally something was off. However not quite sure what else was masked behind the aftermath of the modest Friday drinks, my mind started playing tricks. It often does.

I’m not a hypochondriac by any means. Well, not in the sense that I think I’m going to die, but rather in terms of flashes of worst case scenarios. Once I get a diagnosis, then I’m rather enjoying it. My inner slacker is delighted and my conscious grants me full slacker immunity.

To get a diagnosis you need to see a doctor though. I’ve been known to tell my dad he’s an idiot for always putting of seeing the doctor until the end is near nigh. Thing is, I’ve recently come to realize I’m my father’s son in this context. That not only makes me an idiot too, but also a hypocrite. Add mild hypochondria and there you have it, the trifecta. You’re in awe, aren’t you!?

Anyway, first my hypochondriac self went to diagnose Hepatitis B. I cursed myself for not taking the second hepatitis B vaccine shot for a brief while, I mean, obviously that had to be it. Then my rational self intervened scoring the equalizer in remembering how it’s spread. Phew! In the ensuing battle, hypochondria came back strong with the left upper-cut that is malaria, leading to me sighing a bit of an understatement: “great there goes the weekend”. 2-1. Rationality responded with a quick counter attack though; can’t be malaria without a fever. This proceeded until the two combatants lost count, leaving me none the wiser.

Being honest to my traditions of idiocy and hypocrisy I labeled it a good old cold and instead invested in nasal spray. In retrospect it was correct. But more interestingly it led to the most unexpected of outcomes.

Next to the office we have an alley, one that with pride can argue to be as filthy as they come. Today, through my clear happy nasal sprayed nose, I got to experience it in its full glory. It was, well, I’m gonna go with otherworldly.

Woodvale Grove

Woodvale Grove, not quite living up to its rather fancy name

This shot does not do this street justice. Sure you can enjoy the washed away asphalt, but you can’t see the glass shreds lining the entire right hand side. Nor can you see the road kill rats. In fact they’re hard to spot even up close. Flattened beyond recognition it took me a few weeks to spot my first one. Which, incidentally, wasn’t as great as it sounds. You can however see the burn marks on the wall on the left hand side past the juice shops green and white awning. There sacrifices of unknown origin are being burnt daily. I think it might be the source. Or it’s the rats. Or both. The jury it not only out, they died trying this case.

Will say one thing though, it woke me up from my Monday morning coma. It really did.

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The End Has No End

As a former UN employee with a passion for peace and a deep rooted political interest I have followed and read much on the issue of UN Peacekeeping. Despite this I have never grasped the topic.

It has nothing to do with the paradox of ensuring peace by sending soldiers, I get that. No, rather it’s the fact that the UN Peacekeepers seems to be leaving or waving the white flag when they are needed the most. Few have covered this better than Roméo Dallaire, who served as Force Commander of UNAMIR, the peacekeeping force stationed in Rwanda during the genocide. He wrote about it in Shake Hands with the Devil, a book you really should(n’t) read.

Blue Helmet

UN Peacekeepers are often referred to as Blue Helmets

Jumping back in time a few decades, as the Suez Crisis ceasefire was declared in 1957, a Canadian diplomat (later Prime Minister) named Pearson suggested the UN station a peacekeeping contingency to ensure the ceasefire was honoured. Pearson later won the Nobel Peace Prize for this, and he is by many considered the father of modern peacekeeping. In 1988 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to UN peacekeeping forces.

(The Norwegians have quite the history of seeming confused when awarding this one haven’t they?)

Taking a short cut on a topic that could easily have an entire library dedicated to it without covering anything but the tip of the proverbial iceberg I’m moving to the 1990’s. Two of the most notable UN failures happened in this decade; the aforementioned Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. This led to some well needed self-examination that ten years later would generate the R2P initiative, which was invoked to enter Qaddafi’s Libya. (Perhaps the first and last time the R2P will be invoked following that outcome?). In 1996, the UNICEF study “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” was released. On page 24 it states:

“In 6 out of 12 country studies on sexual exploitation of children in situations of armed conflict prepared for the present report, the arrival of peacekeeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.”

Sexual abuse came to be associated with the UN Peacekeeping forces. An unfortunate fact I experienced firsthand covering the “International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers” in 2010 as our reporting had to be sensitive to this criticism. A Guardian story from 2005 mentions abuses in DRC, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor and Haiti. Wikipedia even has a list of human rights abuses. Speaking of the recently mentioned Haiti, there’s also much to support that the cholera epidemic, which has resulted in 600.000 Haitians getting ill and 7.600 deaths, have been caused by UN Peacekeepers. This is however denied by the UN.

Enough with the non-encompassing and highly selective history lesson already, what’s new you ask? Goma is new. I’ve followed it closely for the past couple of days. I must admit mostly for the reason that I have a friend there and was a bit worried. He’s fine – thank you Facebook.

Goma has been overrun by the M23. The UN has 22,000 peacekeepers in the DRC, out of which 1,500 are in Goma. Today I read this BBC article that I hoped would give some clarity, but instead confused me even further as to the role of the UN peacekeepers. It states that:

“… there was no resistance from the nearly 1,500 UN peacekeepers in the city…”

Why not? What’s the point of having them stationed there then?

“A UN spokesman said its peacekeepers had held their fire as rebels took the city to avoid triggering a battle, putting civilians at risk.”

That’s reasonable, fighting could have proven disastrous for the civilians.

“But the UN has said it has received reports that the rebels have abducted women and children from Goma. Killings and looting have also been reported.”

What? This is contradictory. The UN Security Council voted in favour of a resolution classifying rape as a weapon of war back in 2008 and the Security Council has also condemned the recruitment of child soldiers. They are as such aware of the consequences of doing nothing. The story continues:

“Do you open fire and put civilians at risk or do you hold your fire, continue your patrols, observe what is happening and remind the M23 that they are subject to international humanitarian and human rights law?”

My first reaction is, why are you asking this question now, shouldn’t you have thought about that a wee bit earlier? That’s snarky of me I know, I realize it’s just a pedagogical approach to explain a very complex situation. But I do wonder, what is the point of monitoring abuses, aren’t you supposed to stop them?

“In the resolution, proposed by France, the members of the Security Council strongly condemned the seizure of Goma”

Alright, the Security Council is on top of this one. No conflicting interests this time, but an actual resolution. Now we can intervene?

“French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has described as “absurd” the UN’s failure to intervene in Goma, calling for a change in its mandate.”

So to intervene wasn’t part of the resolution? I am confused again. Also it can’t be classified as a failure unless the mandate called for the UN troops to stop the M23 from overrunning Goma. And if the mandate called for an intervention then why does it need changing?

So what does this mandate actually say? The MONUSCO mandate emphasizes amongst other things “that the protection of civilians must be given priority…” and that: “The Mission would also support Government efforts to fight impunity and ensure the protection of civilians from violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including all forms of sexual and gender-based violence.”

The mandate clearly states that they should protect civilians. The 1,500 strong force found it best to do nothing. None of us can say which action protected the civilian population best. But surely it justifies the question of why they’re there at all if they don’t intervene? It can’t merely be to observe as mentioned above? That does not seem cost-efficient.

I continue digging, but find that the latest MONUSCO press release is from the end of August, their page for press briefings doesn’t contain a single one for 2012. So I turn to the official UN News Centre for enlightenment. There the official UN Spokesperson states:

“Reports indicate that the M23 has wounded civilians, continued abductions of children and women, destroyed and looted property, and intimidated journalists and those who have attempted to resist their control.”

He also notes that MONUSCO is closely monitoring the situation, conducting patrols and that:

“MONUSCO troops will remain actively present in Goma and will continue all efforts within their capabilities to protect civilians from imminent threat.”

Honestly, I am only trying to understand this. Why are the peacekeepers there? What are they allowed to do? If this doesn’t call for an intervention, what does? Is a peacekeeper, a soldier, carrying weapons “actively present” when observing and conducting patrols? Is this the best way “to protect civilians from imminent threats”? And what does “continue all efforts within their capabilities” entail?

I’m a reasonably smart individual with experience of these types of questions and media, and I am not at all interested in appointing blame, but I cannot for the life of me understand anything of this.

This is exactly why the issue of UN Peacekeeping never has made sense to me. If it does to you, please inform me! What are they allowed to do? When? What level of force are they allowed to use to protect civilians? How do you measure the pros and cons of an intervention? If I’m a civilian in Goma how do I know if the peacekeepers will protect me when push comes to shove? How do I make an informed decision for myself, or my family, to wait or to flee? If we can’t answer these basic questions and with the track record of issues surrounding stationed UN Peacekeepers in mind, is it worth it? It’s a simple enough question. To what end?

The UN News Centre piece ends reassuringly though:

“The Secretary-General underlines that those who commit violations will be held responsible for their actions.”

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Crosstown Traffic

When you talk about a developing country I believe infrastructure is one of the first issues that spring to mind for many. Or rather, the lack of it. Well, it’s for a good reason, isn’t it? It is however an almost universal issue. In New York, when not using the subway, I’d walk, as I often found it quicker, but more importantly less frustrating than being stuck in a cab (despite my craving for and deep love with Indian music). I’ve also had the pleasure to sniff in the lovely fresh polluted Athens air, and laugh almost uncontrollably as me and a friend learned to cross the roads in Ho Chi Minh City (former Saigon), whilst surrounded by a river of motorbikes not seldom carrying whole families. None of this prepared me for Nairobi traffic however. Not even remotely. It’s been… interesting… traveling around Nairobi making its acquaintance.

Nairobi Traffic

Safety first…

It’s not the reckless anarchy of the mini-buses which surely all must be driven by direct ascendants to Evil Knievel. It’s not the black clouds that spurt out of vehicles that probably can’t even be shopped for parts. It’s not the leisurely, obviously suicidal, highway crossing pedestrians that surely must assume that all cars in Nairobi are fitted with Formula 1 brake systems. It’s not about the unfortunate genetic defect of colour-blindness which seem to plague most drivers and thus makes them happily expect every light to be green. It’s not the washed away pavements or the potholes. It’s not the staggering amount of accidents. It is the congestion. The jams. The queues.

Nairobi Traffic

Please note that this is NOT a one-way street…

Nairobi Traffic

I said it was interesting, remember…?

I might have spent more time stuck in traffic in my first ten days in Nairobi than in my entire lifetime previous. (Fine, that’s probably untrue, but I’m frustrated, OK!?) For every meeting I’ve spent an average of about 2½ hours stuck in traffic. (See, why I’m frustrated now?)

Nairobi Traffic

On the upside you get a chance to check out the surroundings…

Now let’s extrapolate. Nairobi has a documented population from 2009 of just over 3.1 million (how one measures the slums here I have no idea). Let’s assume 1.5 million of them are adventurous enough to challenge the traffic gods on any given day (estimation made by a reliable and good taxi driver). Let’s also assume that everybody is stuck in traffic for 1½ hour on that given day. Yes, I’m intentionally keeping that number low.

1.5 hours * 1.5 million people = 2.25 million hours = 93.750 days = 256.9 years

For a country with a life expectancy of 54.1 years, this equates to 4.8 lives lost each day. Or 1733 lives per year. To put this in perspective, the amount of people who died in traffic accidents in Sweden, with a 9+ million population, in 2010 were 266. Trivialities such as the value of human lives aside, what do you think this has for an effect on productivity? Efficiency? How many business deals do you think fall through because people simply don’t show up in time? Or for the reader with a bleeding heart, how many do you think gets stood up every night?

Nairobi Traffic

Signs of things to come…

There can be many arguments made about China, but they’ve understood this. So as we are stuck in traffic granted 256.9 years to study the Chinese signs covering many road works, I’m instilled with hope. One might even say it has a multiplier effect on my hope for the future.