Last night, the new documentary Stolen Seas had its Washington D.C. premier. The first feature-length film by director Thymaya Payne is an in-depth, and often surprisingly sympathetic, look at Somali piracy. The movie is notable for featuring interviews with actual pirates, former hostages, and shipowners, and footage from on board pirate-occupied vessels. The film's drama centers around the 2008 hijacking of a Danish-owned, Russian-crewed cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden, and features gripping audio recordings of negotiations between the owners in Copenhagen and pirates as well as larger explorations of Somalia's recent history.
The central character in the movie is the pirates' translator, Ishmael Ali, who returned to Somalia -- actually the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland -- after years of living in the United States and finds that his perfect English makes him a valuable asset for pirate crews who need to negotiate with foreign ship-owners. Ali, a single father looking to provide for his son, speaks candidly about his role in multiple hijackings and sees himself as more of an independent contractor than a pirate. After the film was completed, Ali - who speaks frequently to the media -- was arrested while trying to enter the United States to attend a conference on piracy.
I spoke by phone with Payne about the making of the film. The transcript has been edited for length:
Foreign Policy: What's the latest on Ishmael Ali's case. Are you still in touch with him?
Thymaya Payne: I haven’t been in touch with him since he was arrested just because I didn’t really think it was my place to get intertwined in that whole thing, and also because the FBI had called me at one point and wanted me to testify.So I just sent a note to his lawyer and asked about his son and wanted to make sure his son was being taken care of because he was a single dad.
My understanding is that his case was thrown out last summer but the prosecutors are currently appealing for a retrial.
FP: So it's pretty rare to see interviews with actual participants in piracy. Was it difficult to gain the trust of Ishmael Ali and the other pirates you talked to?
TP: Ishmael Ali, first of all, isn't really a pirate. I think the government says that he is, but he was just an in-between negotiator, so he was very easy to contact. I just emailed him. He wanted to talk all that he could about piracy because he sort of saw himself as a spokesperson for how to actually deal with piracy, which in many ways he was. So that was pretty easy actually.
In terms of getting in touch with actual pirates -- what I found out when I went to Somalia was that I was the biggest problem in that, when I would talk to people, a lot of times, if we did get to a pirate -- like, say we'd get to a pirate in jail, or we'd meet someone at a wedding or something, they kind of just -- the minute the camera was on, gave me the same spiel over and over again. It was like a press release had gone out about what to say to Western press.
So I started working with younger Somali reporters and stringers, who grew up with a lot of these guys. I started to realize that the best thing for me to do was actually just to give them a camera and get out of it - out of the way - and get my ego out of the way because the story wasn't so much about me going and getting on a pirate ship. So I actually trained this young Somali guy how to like shoot a documentary film in two days at a hotel in Somaliland and then said "okay, well keep in touch."
And it was funny, I was actually in a meeting in Beverly Hills of all places talking about the film, and I got this phone call, and it was from my stringer, and he was like, "I'm on a boat", and I was like "what?" He's like "I'm on a boat." And I was like "Okay."
He ended up getting some of the best footage of the Somali pirates, and then sometimes I'd be on the phone with him, or I would send him a text of what specifically I wanted him to ask the guys or get the conversation going about, and he would ask them that.
It's the candor of that footage that people are reacting to because they're like "Well how did you do that?" I'm like "well, you know, I outsourced it. I gave it to a young Somali guy because I wouldn't have gotten it." Even if I had gotten on the boat, I wouldn't have gotten that, and I knew that from my first trip, and so it was a pretty strategic decision to do that.
FP: How is the film you ended up with different from what you had in mind when you started?
TP: It was completely different than what I started out doing. I was very naïve. I thought I was going to jump on a plane to Kenya with my partner Andre, and we were just going to, I don't know, film ourselves being crazy in Somalia and go interview a pirate and that's it. I just thought that would be enough and that would be exciting. And there are some films out there like that.
What I realized was that when you meet these people, and they open themselves up to you, you have this responsibility to tell the real story and to tell --not just what the story you want to tell--but actually what the story wants to be. So one of the great challenges of making a film is learning patience and learning to listen and to sort of let the film become what it wants to be
When it started out, we wanted it to be this sort of snappy, cool movie about pirates, and then we realized probably about six months into it, it was really a movie about the world we live in today, and pirates are just sort of a metaphor. And I think, still to this day, when people ask me what the movie is about, I almost pause and say "you know it's not really about pirates."
FP: Right. I guess one sort of theme of the film was that both the Somali pirates and the shipping companies are operating outside a traditional nation-state framework.The pirates, because they operate in the midst of a failed state, and the companies, because they're flying under flags of convenience outside the authority of governments. Was that something you had in mind when you came into the project?
TP: No, not at all. It was funny because you get a bunch of really smart people together -- you know from left and right on the spectrum of political thought -- and you get really interesting -- a really interesting discussion. You have a sort of libertarian point of view of what the maritime industry should or shouldn't do, and then you have a more leftist idea of what the government should be doing. I showed the film in Palm Springs, which is a place where you have right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats living in the same place, and I found that both thought that I was taking their side.
What I was really just trying to do was start a discussion about whether or not the nation-state is relevant in terms of really dealing with piracy. I don't really know if it's true or not true, but I really like documentaries that just raise questions, without necessarily giving you tons of answers.
FP: So some of the experts you were talking to in the film seem very critical of the international naval efforts to combat piracy and question whether combating piracy with the military is useful or even possible. Yet recent statistics show that piracy has dramatically decreased off Somalia. Do you think that these international efforts are working or do you think it's just temporary and the problem will come back?
TP: I had someone else ask me this, and I go back to the film, and I don't really know if the film is actually critical of the naval response. I don't think we've ever stated that if the navy didn't want to it couldn't suppress [piracy]. In fact, I think we said the exact opposite.
I think the question we're really asking is, "Is this the most efficient usage of resources?" Of course the U.S. Navy and the CTF 151, if we wanted to, could suppress a bunch of guys in boats -- you know? The question at the time I was filming was, "do we have the will to do it?" Since then, we seem to have decided that we do, and have succeeded in suppressing it.
Then the next question is: how long will we have the will to do this? How long are we going to be policing the seas, spending billions of dollars policing the seas off the coast of Somalia? Is this interminable? We're just always going to have a presence there? And is that really dealing with the problem? And I think that's my larger message. Which is: Is punitive measures and flying pirates to trials abroad in America or in Italy or in Denmark and all these different places is that really solving -- not just the problems of piracy -- but really the underlying issues which piracy is just a symptom of?
If I was going to put a coda on the film, I'd say, "Okay, yeah the numbers are down, but you know what? Every single military person who gets quoted says ‘yeah, they're down right now, but the minute we let off they'll come back up.'"
FP: One of the more provocative suggestions in the film is that something positive may actual have come out of all of this since the pirates put Somalia back on the international agenda.
TP: Yeah, I mean how much press is there really on Dadaab verses the pirates? There's five hundred thousand people living in permanent refugee camps in Kenya, destabilizing that region of Kenya and basically having no way out for their entire lives, and that doesn't make such a great story, and I understand why, but it's not such a big part of my movie for the same reason. It just isn't as dynamic as the pirates, but I think --I don't know--I feel like there's a way for us to learn from the pirates, to then relook at-take another look at Somalia, and say, "Okay, this is what happens when we ignore it. Something like piracy occurs. And what I fear is that if we keep ignoring it, or it doesn't get the attention that it sort of needs something else will come out, and it will be worse than the pirates.
SodaStream, the increasingly popular home carbonation system, may seem like a politically innocuous product -- even a virtuous one, as it reduces the number soda bottles consumers have to buy. But an international controversy has erupted over where the SodaStream is manufactured -- the Mishor Adunim instustrial park at the Ma'ale Adunim Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
With SodaStream, currently more popular in Europe than the United States, planning to launch its first SuperBowl commercial this Sunday in a bid to expand its share of the American market, a coalition of anti-occupation groups have called for a boycott:
The land where the SodaStream factory is located was illegally confiscated by the Israeli military occupation authorities from Palestinian owners. Israeli settlements are an impediment to peace and violate international law.
Since 1968 the US government has called on Israel to stop building and expanding settlements in the West Bank.
Companies should not profit from products that are made on stolen property or that perpetuate the Israeli occupation of the West Bank
SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum, meanwhile, has defended his company on the grounds that it is providing jobs for Palestinians:
“We don’t strengthen or support the occupation,” he said. “What we’re doing is taking a facility in the occupied territory and giving Palestinians a career and economic benefits. I’ve got to laugh when they think we’re on the wrong side of this. We’re part of the solution. We build bridges, not walls.”
The activists counter that by saying the company is merely taking advantage of low-wage labor in the West Bank.
SodaStream has made social responsibility part of its marketing strategy, even sponsoring an environmental "rally" with fake, branded t-shirt wearing protesters in New York last year to draw attention to the overconsumption of plastic and glass bottles -- which one can combat by buying a SodaStream, naturally. So it's a bit ironic that it's now the target of a campaign by actual protesters.
Last Sunday's New York Times featured an op-ed by former Wired editor turned drone entrepreneur Chis Anderson under the headline, "Mexico: The New China". The piece made the case that Mexico's skilled workforce, low costs and proximity to the United States "might hold the long-sought answer for how American manufacturers can compete with those in China, India and the next generation of economic powerhouses."
It seems a little odd that Anderson thinks making stuff cheaply in Mexico is a revolutionary concept in American business - the real story here may be just how China-centric the American business press has been in recent years - but in light of the frequent comparisons between the two emerging economies, it's interesting to see some news his week on how they relate to each other.
McClatchy reports on the growing backlash to a planned Chinese expo center near Cancun:
The proposed complex would house 3,040 showrooms, divided among 14 industrial sectors and targeting wholesalers from across Latin America. Projections estimate that it would draw 1 million people a year to a resort that already is the most popular beach destination in the Western Hemisphere.
But just one month ahead of its expected groundbreaking, the $180 million Dragon Mart Cancun is drawing loud objections from an odd alliance of Mexican environmentalists, who worry about the predicted surge in visitors, and business interests, who fear competition from inexpensive Chinese imports.
"We categorically and overwhelmingly oppose the initiative to install a Dragon Mart on our national territory," the Confederation of Industrial Chambers of Mexico, the nation's largest industrial group, said in a statement last month.
Emilio Godoy puts the affair in the context of generally cooling relations between the two countries:
The experts consulted described the two countries' relations as "dysfunctional" and observed that the problem is more than economic.
In October 2012, the Felipe Calderón administration (2006-2012) filed a complaint against China with the World Trade Organisation (WTO), accusing it of granting subsidies prohibited by that body to textile and garment industries, a sector in which China and Mexico compete for the United States market.
In the first week of January, one of Peña Nieto's first measures as president was to postpone a 25-20 percent tariff reduction for Chinese garments and footwear until 2014, in response to a demand from local textile and shoe manufacturers.
The poor relations between these two nations have had numerous repercussions, including Mexico's failed bid for the International Monetary Fund's head position in 2011, as China turned its back on Mexican candidate Agustín Carstens.
Given that the rapid growth of both countries has depended largely on the U.S. consumer market, it makes sense that they would be competitors. As we've written before, Mexico's leaders sometimes seem to display an odd inferiority complex about Chinese growth despite the fact that Mexicans are by and large wealthier and enjoy a far higher quality of life.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GettyImages
The North Korean gulag, which popped up this week on Google Maps, has incited a smarty-pants insurgency. As Passport reported yesterday, the glib "user reviews" of locations in the isolated totalitarian state are rolling in. Consider what virtual tourists have written about the notorious Camp 14, whose image is now just a click away.
"Man, I loved this place! The public executions were amazing!" observed Patrick.
"Hands down best place I have ever visited! Definitely would recommend this place for anybody who wants to have the full North Korean experience," opined Bradley.
Satellite imagery, citizen cartography, and Google mapping technology have enabled everyone with an attitude and an Internet connection to rubberneck a human-rights catastrophe -- and leave behind an ironic apercu. I happen to have written a totally not ironic book about a boy who was born and bred in Camp 14. Guards chose his parents, ordered them to have sex and then raised Shin Dong-hyuk to be their disposable slave.
He was starved, tortured, and forced to witness the execution of his mother and his brother. He escaped in 2005, but he still struggles to understand what it means to be a human being. Western governments and human rights groups estimate there as many as 200,000 prisoners in five or six sprawling political labor camps in North Korea.
Shin finds nothing amusing about the gulag images now available on Google Maps (or in the far more detailed satellite photographs that Shin has annotated on Google Earth).
But he can put up with black humor. At least the easy and instantaneous availability of visual evidence on Google is helping to build momentum for an investigation into crimes committed in the camps over the past half a century. The images dovetail with the testimony of 60 former camp prisoners. Their stories -- and satellite photographs they have annotated -- have been published in a 200-page report called Hidden Gulag.
Policymakers seem to be paying more attention. Secretary of State John Kerry, in his confirmation hearing last week, said global leadership means "speaking out for the prisoners of gulags in North Korea."
More urgently, the chief human rights official at the United Nations, Navi Pillay, said in mid-January that the time has come for a full-fledged international inquiry.
"The highly developed system of international human rights protection that has had at least some positive impact in almost every country in the world seems to have bypassed [North Korea]," Pillay said. "I believe an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst -- but least understood and reported -- human rights situations is not only fully justified, but long overdue."
North Korea has for years flatly refused to cooperate with U.N. questions about the camps. It has refused to allow the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights to visit the country. In a recent statement, the official Korean Central News Agency described reports of concentration camps in the North as "fictions."
Pillay's demand for an investigation will soon go before the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council, which meets in Geneva in February and March. There is a good chance that it will actually go somewhere. China, Russia, and Cuba -- which have defended North Korea in the past -- will not be on the council this year. And Japan last week made clear that it would push for the inquiry.
An international investigation, of course, is unlikely to change the way North Korea does business. The country's young dictator, Kim Jong Un, seems in no mood to accept criticism. When the U.N. Security Council (with the support of China and Russia) approved new sanctions last week against Pyongyang for its launch of a long-range missile, Kim's government threatened to explode a third nuclear device.
But that should not matter. Anything that focuses public attention on the camps is worthwhile. Pillay noted that nuclear weapons and long-range missiles have for too long "overshadowed the deplorable human rights situation in [North Korea], which in one way or another affects almost the entire population and has no parallel anywhere else in the world."
Google Maps of the gulag have the potential to focus world attention on North Korea as never before -- even if some of that attention is snarky. Smart-aleck awareness is better than ignorance.
Blaine Harden, a former Washington Post reporter, is the author of Escape from Camp 14.
Throughout his first term, many of President Obama's disappointed supporters charged that his administration had never really followed through on efforts to implement his January 2009 executive order closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Whether due to congressional resistance or the difficulty of finding countries to take in detainees, the issue seemed to have faded as a priority. But in the last month of his presidential campaign, Obama surprised many by insisting to Jon Stewart that closing Gitmo was still on his agenda:
“I still want to close Guantanamo,” Obama said in an interview for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” according to a media pool report. “We haven’t been able to get that through Congress.”
“One of the things we have to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need Congressional help to do that,” Obama said, adding that “any President’s reined in in terms of some of the decisions we’re making.”
So what's happened since then?
On January 4, he put aside a threatened veto and signed a Defense Authorization bill putting severe restrictions on his ability to relocate detainees out of Guantanamo.
And yesterday, as the trial of alleged 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed resumes at Guantanamo, it was announced that Daniel Fried, the veteran diplomat who had been working on the thankless task of repatriating detainees, was reassigned by the State Department and is now being replaced.
The opening days of Obama's second term have brought developments on long dormant issues including gun control, women in the military, immigration reform, and at least a rhetorical nod to climate change. But there don't seem to be many indications so far that the administration is putting Gitmo back on the table.
Though economic conditions have improved in Zimbabwe since the days of 231 million percent inflation, this week brought some pretty disturbing news:
After paying public workers' salaries last week, the balance in cash-strapped Zimbabwe's government public account stood at just $217, Finance Minister Tendai Biti said Tuesday.
"Last week when we paid civil servants there was $217 (left) in government coffers," Biti told journalists in the capital Harare, claiming some of them had healthier bank balances than the state.
"The government finances are in paralysis state at the present moment. We are failing to meet our targets."
It's hard to think of a public servant than a less enviable job than Biti's, but despite this week's news, he deserves some credit for a pretty remarkable turnaround. The inflation that made the country world famous is now under control, thanks to his decision to abolish the country's currency. And there's been GDP growth every year since he came into office following a decade of contraction.
Nonetheless, the state's cash flow problem is made more dire by the international sanctions on Robert Mugabe's government -- Biti is allied with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change -- which may make it harder to borrow the funds need to keep the state operating. The constitutional referendum and elections scheduled for this year, which are estimated to cost at least $104 million, will also not help.
With President Barack Obama due to pitch his new immigration reform plan today -- a plan that is likely to include a number of new border security measures in addition to providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants -- the release of a new report from the South Texas border by the Washington Office on Latin America seems particularly well timed. The authors, Adam Isacson and Maureen Meyer, reach several conclusions that are rarely discussed in the U.S. media but are worth keeping in mind as the new debate over border security heats up:
1. The migrants crossing the border are increasingly non-Mexican. Overall, arrests along the border are down since the mid-2000s, suggesting that fewer people are attempting to cross. The exception is the area the authors examine -- the Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas bording Mexico's Tamaulipas state, where there was a 60-70 percent increase in apprehensions in 2011.
Virtually all of this growth consists of what local authorities call "OTMS" -- other than Mexican. This migrants are mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador and in addition to economic concerns, are often motivated by the skyrocketing crime rates in their home countries. For the first time, non-Mexicans now account for the majority of migrants apprehended in South Texas. The Tamaulipas-Texas section of the border is the closest geographically to these countries.
2. Deportations can be death sentences Though it continues to be painted as soft on illegal immigration by Republican opponents, the Obama administration has touted the record number of deporations it has carried out, more than 1.5 million so far, as evidence that it takes border enforcement seriously. But there's been less discussion of the often dangerous fate that awaits these immigrants when they arrive back in Mexico. Isacson and Meyer write:
Despite the region’s security crisis, the U.S. government continues to deport apprehended migrants to these Mexican border cities in large numbers. Mexican migration authorities have counted more than 58,000 deportees arriving in Matamoros alone in 2012. In this city, agents of the Grupo Beta—Mexico’s National Migration Institute’s search and rescue unit—told us that rather than rescuing migrants in distress, their main task is now protecting repatriated migrants. In addition to Mexicans detained in the interior of the United States and deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the relatively new U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP) deports some detained migrants “laterally” by sending them to Mexican border towns hundreds of miles from where they were captured in order to break the link between the migrant and his smuggler. Most migrants apprehended in south Texas who end up being deported through ATEP get sent on a near-daily flight 1,000 miles westward to Calexico, California, from which they are sent into the relatively low-crime city of Mexicali, Baja California. However, a smaller but very troubling number of ATEP migrants are still detained elsewhere and deported into Matamoros. As they arrive in this unfamiliar city, these deportees face a high probability of being preyed upon—or even recruited—by the criminals who control illegal activity. That U.S. authorities would be moving migrants from elsewhere along the border and deporting them into high-risk Matamoros is inexplicable.
In fact, a review of data from Mexican security and migration authorities reveals a troubling trend: as border zones become less secure, they receive more deportees. In every Mexican border state that saw an increase in homicides since 2009, deportations from the United States also increased. In Mexican states where homicides declined, deportations also declined.
The authors make clear that they're not suggesting U.S. immigration authorities are intentionally putting deported migrants in harm's way, but the data suggests their eventual safety is not a major concern.
3. Increased drug trafficking is not leading to "spillover" violence Increased security measures along the border does not appear to be slowing down drug smugglers, with seizures of heroin, marijuana, and increasingly popular liquid methamphetamine continuing to rise in South Texas. However, the authors find a wide concensus among local law enforcement agencies that the drug trade has not led to an increase in violent crime on the U.S. side of the border. In fact, 10 of the 13 largest U.S. cities along the border have seen their violent crime rates drop.
4. Weaker cartels may not necessarily be good for migrants The report finds that the Zetas cartel's traditional hold on this area of the border may be slipping due to internal divisions over control of the smuggling routes and a drawn-out war with the rival Sinaloa cartel. Analyzing the report, Elyssa Pachico at Insight Crime suggests that despite the fact that Zetas have frequently victimized migrants along the border, their diminished control may not necessarily make things safer:
As InSight Crime previously documented in a three-part report on the dangers facing migrants, the Zetas are not the only organization who pose a threat to those moving northwards from Central America. The Zetas typically contract street gangs to harass, rob, and even kidnap migrants as they move along their route. With the Zetas weakening, this could possibly empower street gangs to prey on migrants even more aggressively, in order to keep the money extorted from migrants for themselves. If the Zetas continue to lose power and influence along the US-Mexico border, it will likely make migrants' journey even more dangerous and unpredictable.
None of these issues are likely to be much discussed in the forthcoming debate on the border policy, but they're an important part of the bigger picture.
The trial of Russian lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky officially began yesterday, but has been postponed for several weeks. This was not, as one might expect, because Magnitsky died in prison more than three years ago, but because his defense team has chosen not to participate in the bizarre proceeding:
In Monday’s hearing, it was unclear who or what, exactly, went on trial. Mr. Magnitsky’s co-defendant, William F. Browder, the manager of the Hermitage Capital hedge fund, has been barred from entering Russia since 2005, so he did not appear in court.
The hearing was of a type in Russian practice that indicates that the police consider their work complete, and that the case can go to trial, Aleksandra V. Bereznina, a spokeswoman for Tverskoi Regional Court, said in an interview.
Judge Igor B. Alisov promptly postponed the trial because the defendants did not appear in the courtroom — as expected — but neither did lawyers representing their interests.[...]
The hearing took place in a closed courtroom. The defendants’ chairs were unoccupied, Ms. Bereznina said. Mr. Browder and relatives of Mr. Magnitsky have said they will boycott the proceedings.
Posthumous trials are nearly unheard of in modern law. The AP's Jim Heintz has attempted a listicle of other examples, but the most recent is Hitler's personal secretary Martin Borman, who was tried in absentia at Nuremberg but later turned out to have been dead at the time. The others are all macabre examples from centuries ago like the posthumous beheading of Oliver Cromwell and the infamous Cadaver Synod of 897.
Browder wrote about the case for FP last March.
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