In the arcane language of diplomacy, a special section is reserved for navigating linguistic traps in negotiating peace agreements. One of many examples is the 1995 Oslo II interim agreement with Israel on the future of the West Bank and Gaza, which nearly broke down over the translation of one small Arabic word, ra’is. Was Yasser Arafat “president” or “chairman” of Palestine? The word can mean either, except in the respective minds of the two sides, with Israel rejecting the title of president — the Palestinian choice. The word had to be left untranslated in the final authoritative English text.
So here is the first of an occasional series of brief reports on useful, newly published surveys, collected data and expert essays that add context to current international news. This first report focuses on peace agreements; elections in three African nations; and police abuse in India.
• A novel database, Language of Peace, from which the Oslo II example is drawn, demonstrates how words can make or break peace agreements. Described as a research tool for mediators and negotiators, the database records more than a thousand peace pacts of the past, with hurdles that had to be overcome, sometimes with “constructive ambiguity.” The database was conceived by the Legal Tools for Peacemaking Project of the Lauterpacht Center for International Law at the University of Cambridge, with the assistance of the mediation-support unit of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs.
The database can be searched for key issues that are automatically cross-referenced and compiled by subject, according to the UN political department’s Politically Speaking newsletter. The ambitious venture provides access to 26 categories, with 250 subtopics, “ranging from ceasefire arrangements and power sharing to human rights and guarantee mechanisms.” The Cambridge data link to a UN base that contains full texts of the agreements.
• Africa’s mixed political transitions is the theme of a detailed and well backgrounded survey of three nations, written by Vera Songwe, a nonresident scholar at the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative. The countries she focuses on are Gabon, Gambia and Ghana, each with different stories to tell with data and analysis. Their experiences often echo evolving political situations across the continent.
In these and other African countries, “the struggle for change continues,” Songwe wrote. “While Africa is slowly moving towards more participatory political transitions, the fight has not completely won.” But Songwe noted “the growing importance and maturity of electoral commissions; citizens’ increasing awareness that their votes matter; the slow but certain move from tribal politics to issues politics; and now regional, rather than foreign, ownership around leadership transitions all contribute towards the deepening of democracy on the continent. Each of the countries—Gabon, the Gambia, and Ghana—have tackled these issues differently.”
Across the continent, while there have been successes, Songwe said — noting the democratic transitions in Ghana — in numerous other countries “the old has not given way to the new, and the evolution of democracy is still in motion with too-often deadly consequences for the citizens in Burundi, Gabon, and the Gambia to name a few. These examples demonstrate that the concept of leadership transition has not yet been fully adopted.”
Songwe details voting results and questions surrounding them in Gabon and Gambia, as post-election tensions continue in the latter. In Ghana, “glitches” arose, but the system held, although voting results were late in being announced, and opposing crowds were gathering in the street. The mechanics of the election process saved the day.
“This could have led to severe unrest,” Songwe wrote. “However, the communication of the election committee head asking the people for patience while all the votes were counted was an example of good election management. The people could only heed to this request because of the trust built by the commission and a legitimate sense of ownership of the commission. . . . [T]he first task of every election commission is to build trust with the people. As African countries prepare for more elections this should be an area that gets special attention.”
Brookings also maintains an African Leadership Transitions Tracker, covering every change of government leadership in Africa from independence to the present.
• In India, the United States State Department’s annual global human rights report has long been critical of the persistence of police abuses. In December 2016, Human Rights Watch detailed recent upward trends in custodial deaths in a report, “Bound by Brotherhood: India’s Failure to End Killings in Police Custody.”
According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, from 2010 to 2015, 591 people died in police custody, Human Rights Watch reported. “Police blame most of the deaths on suicide, illness, or natural causes,” the organization found. “For instance, of the 97 custody deaths reported by Indian authorities in 2015, police records list only 6 as due to physical assault by police; 34 are listed as suicides, 11 as deaths due to illness, 9 as natural deaths, and 12 as deaths during hospitalization or treatment. However, in many such cases, family members allege that the deaths were the result of torture.”
Human Rights Watch acknowledged that Indian courts, along with human-rights organizations, including the National Human Rights Commission, and civil society groups have been calling attention to the deaths. But while new programs are put in place, “Human Rights Watch is not aware of a single case in which a police official was convicted for a custodial death between 2010 and 2015,” the report said. Four policemen in Mumbai, however, were convicted in 2016 for a death in 2013.
The report includes detailed investigations of 17 custodial deaths that occurred from 2009 to 2015, using research by Indian organizations and from more than 70 Human Rights Watch interviews with victims’ family members, witnesses, justice experts and police officials.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.