Mathias Antonsson

Random subjective observations of what's on my mind


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New Noise

As some of you noted I left Kenya briefly in the summer to work from Sida HQ in Stockholm as I was awaiting my new posting. Stockholm did show itself from its sunny side, and learning about the work, processes and strategies at HQ was certainly a good experience. Even better, it was fun to meet up with friends without the usual time pressure I normally experience once I’m back home.

Anyway, the (European) summer has passed and I have – finally – gotten my new posting. As of about a month ago I joined Ushahidi. “Ushahidi”, which means “testimony” in Swahili, mapped reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. This platform is now used in 150+ countries worldwide for all sorts of issues mapping. It’s a non-profit tech company that specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. Ushahidi builds tools for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories.

For those unaware, quite a few readers here I’d guess, Ushahidi is very well known in the ICT4D space worldwide. The people behind it also started the famous iHub and are Ted speakers.

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I joined to work on Making All Voices Count. Funded by, amongst others, Sida. The aim of Making All Voices Count is a substantial push towards effective democratic governance through increased transparency and accountability. Twelve countries across Africa and Asia will be the “playground”. Our Ushahidi team will head the innovation part, focusing mostly on mobile or web solutions. We will award grants to organisations or individuals, place “fellows” within the governments, have mentors to increase the effectiveness of the initiative and so on.

Suffice to say it will be much hard work, but it’s fast looking as the most exciting project I have worked with.

With USAID as another donor the call for proposals was officially launched yesterday by President Obama. So here we go!

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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.


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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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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.”