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Pulitzer Center Update July 26, 2009

Jon Sawyer's speech at the Southeastern World Affairs Institute


Executive Director Jon Sawyer recently gave the closing remarks at the Southeastern World Affairs Institute's conference in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

David Smith, deputy director of the United Nations Information Center the past five years and before that a veteran British foreign correspondent, began his talk Friday with a reminder of the drastically changed world in which we live. He talked about stopping on the drive down in Richmond, to see the monuments to Confederate heroes—and at the end of the row the statue of Arthur Ashe. He talked about stopping in Chapel Hill, seeing the vibrant diversity of that town today—and recalling his last visit there, 38 years ago, when a friend had shown him a diner where, on the night that Martin Luther King was killed, people had cheered. And he talked about two visits to the White House with UN secretaries general—the first five years ago, when George Bush's focus was all Iraq, Afghanistan and other flashpoints of the day; and the second last winter, with a new American president suddenly seized of the big global issues—climate change, pandemics, food insecurity—that in the past few years had been ignored or dismissed.

I don't doubt the significance of the changes we have seen, from the election of our first African-American president to the social transformations we have witnessed in communities across America. Yet as I reflect on the talks we've heard this weekend I'm struck by the continuity of the challenges we face. The United States is trying to lead on climate change but international consensus looks as elusive as ever. Across Africa, the Middle East and south Asia, military assistance and armed combat too often remain the principal instruments of U.S. engagement. On food security issues we've barely begun to recognize that our own agricultural-industrial complex may be less of a solution to world hunger than a contributor to a growing crisis. The Law of the Sea Treaty is on the agenda again, surely a plus, but success on that front is no more certain than when Sam and Miriam Levering made it their cause some four decades ago.

What's encouraging is that for the moment there is less talk of unilateralism and more of what David called the common global agenda, less talk of the rights of American exceptionalism and more of the necessity of global institutions. His survey of UN activities around the world was a bracing reminder of how essential it is, in ways that even a Dick Cheney would acknowledge—from aiding Iraqi refugees to monitoring Iran's nuclear program to maintaining the peace in southern Lebanon, from civilian reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan to schools and hospitals in Gaza to organizing 52,000 polling places for the first free elections ever held in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Is the UN perfect? Far from it. How could it be otherwise for an institution whose powers are limited to those its constituent members are willing to cede? David cited the organization's founding flaw—a Security Council that doesn't include a permanent seat for India, the world's largest democracy; for Germany, the powerhouse of Europe; for Brazil, or for that matter any country at all from South America or Africa; or for Japan, for decades second only to the United States in its donations to the UN. David also cited the gap between UN rhetoric and UN reality—the 3,000 additional troops committed to the UN's Congo peacekeeping force last November that so far has resulted in exactly zero additional UN troops.

But overall there is clearly a trend toward reliance on UN initiatives, a trend that continued even during the relatively unsympathetic Bush administration. The Security Council's endorsement of military action against Afghanistan marked an historic shift from the stale stasis of the Cold War, David noted, and since then we have seen a nearly fourfold increase in expenditures on the UN's peacekeeping operations, from $1.8 billion five years ago to over $7 billion today. Even more important, perhaps, is a growing insistence by players large and small for an international response to abusive government acts.

"We've reached a passage in all our lives," David said, "where we no longer accept being witnesses to hell. It's not that we believe we can take our planet to heaven. But we have the wherewithal, the means, at least to grapple with the needs of people for whom life is hell."

* * * *

A commitment to grapple with hellish situations is no guarantee that such situations have easy solutions, as we saw in the comprehensive survey of U.S. policy toward sub-Saharan Africa by Karl Wycoff, the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for central and east Africa.

Karl began with President Obama's visit earlier this month to Accra, Ghana, and his address to the parliament of one of Africa's few governments that are relatively functional democracies. His equation of development with good governance was a powerful message, especially from this son of Kenya, and one that has resonated since across the continent. An important element was Obama's assertion that we will work to isolate those countries that go the other way—as, to cite two prominent examples, Niger, whose president is moving to change his country's constitution to solidify his own hold on office, and Eritrea, which is defying what Karl called a consensus international policy supporting the fragile transitional government of Somalia.

He also cited the emphasis of Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on advancing desired goals through "smart power," using all the elements of national power—military and civilian and diplomatic and business—to advance the interests of both America and the people of Africa. In part this means continuing proven policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations—the Millennium Challenge Grant and PEPFAR HIV/AIDS initiatives of President Bush and the AGOA trade initiative of President Clinton. In part its means embracing regional or multilateral initiatives, among them the UN-led efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the decision by the DRC, Uganda, and Sudan to mount a joint military manhunt of Joseph Kony, leader of the rogue Lord's Resistance Army that has terrorized northern Uganda for two decades and is now operating out of bases in Congo and the Central African Republic.

The U.S. position is that this was a decision made by the three governments, not the United States, and that the U.S. had provided only limited advisory assistance, all of it non-lethal, in the run-up to the military incursion across the border into northeastern Congo last December. Karl noted that the military action had resulted in a "significant impact" on the LRA, including the defection of some LRA cadres, but he also acknowledged what he called the "horrific" price in human terms—the hundreds of Congolese villagers killed and abducted in reprisal raids across the region. Karl said LRA had been attacking villages in this area before the December incursion, and that this was part of an apparent LRA exercise in growing its force in preparation for further military action. But it should be said that critics have noted that this military intervention was not without cost: It associated the United States with an action that resulted in the loss of many lives, that brought the armies of neighboring countries back on Congolese soil, and that as of today has still not resulted in the capture or neutralization of Joseph Kony.

As I say, no guarantees as to outcomes.

Another case in point is Somalia, a failed state in the Horn of Africa for nearly two decades. The media in recent months has focused on Somali piracy, the attacks on merchant shipping along Africa's longest coastline and the spectacular rescue earlier this year of an American skipper who had been abducted by pirates. Karl urged us to focus more on the underlying issues behind the piracy, itself merely a symptom of governance and security issues in Somalia itself. "The solution to piracy is on land," he said; "it is fixing Somalia that will fix piracy."

The challenge is how to "fix" Somalia without enmeshing ourselves in regional conflicts or spawning anti-American blowback. On this score I think the record is more mixed. Karl cited the suicide attack in Somalia last October by a Somali-American from Minneapolis, a member of a group that has become radicalized in recent years and has joined the al Shabab rebel groups in Somalia that are affiliated with al Qaida. He said the Somali Americans were likely driven by the desire to fight the Ethiopians, given long tensions between the country and especially over the Muslim Ogaden region of Ethiopia that borders Somalia. In my view he passed too lightly over another factor—Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in December 2006, in what was reported at the time as a U.S.-supervised effort to drive the Islamist Courts from power in Mogadishu. This put us in close partnership with a Christian autocratic government in Ethiopia, one facing Muslim and other incipient rebellions at home, as it went to war with the Muslim people of Somalia. It also associated us, because of our air and logistical support of the Ethiopian incursion, with civilian casualties that further inflamed attitudes on the ground—both toward the Ethiopians and toward the Americans seen as complicit in the attacks. Three years later we're seeing some of the unintended consequences, in unexpected places—not least, the radicalized communities of Somali-Americans in places like Minneapolis, Minnesota.

This juncture of individuals and policy, of big and small, was the theme of this morning's talk by Sarah Combs, the first director of health care services at the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center. The Center is one of about 30 in the United States that offer treatment to immigrants who have been victims of torture. Sarah didn't dwell on images of torture, or graphic descriptions; what she captured was perhaps more important, the lingering effects of torture, physically and emotionally and mentally, and what it requires to bring victims of such treatment back to whole and productive lives.

The center's experience in Denver is a useful window on the ubiquity of torture and the range of persons affected. Immigrants from some 51 countries have passed through the center, most of them initially from the wars of the former Yugoslavia but more recently a large influx from African countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cameroon and Togo. Half the torture victims are well educated—teachers and professors, nurses and physicians—proof, as Sarah put it, that "bad guys pick on good." She said that in drawing these people out she learned that asking specific questions as to family history often resulted in painful silences. Better were open-ended questions—"How can I help?"—and even better was a cup of tea, sympathetic conversation, the gift of a cosmetic or a small bottle of perfume. As a group the patients suffered from headaches, eye strain, difficulty sleeping, a general ennui. She quoted a wonderful Emily Dickinson poem, that
pain has an element of blank
It cannot recollect when it began,
or if there was day when it was not.

She gave us a clinician's view of torture's status in the world—very widespread, with documented instances in at least 106 countries since 2006 alone, according to Amnesty International—and its definition and standing, according to international convention. The infliction of pain intentionally, with a purpose, whether physical or mental. Its purpose not to kill—there are far quicker, easier methods—but to extinguish a person's individuality, and the larger society in which that person lives. Absolutely illegal, with no exceptions whatever—not war, not public emergency, not national security. A practice inherently wrong, proscribed in conventions that the U.S. has signed and long championed. A practice, moreover, that specialists have long dismissed as ineffective—one that leads victims to say not what is true, but that which will satisfy their abusers.

She made the connection between these small centers dotted across the country, struggling for the funds to continue, and a big U.S. policy that over the past decade has condoned treatment in Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo that to most of us would meet these definitions of torture. She told us about the two CIA contractors, charged with instructing our agents in the techniques of abusive interrogation, who billed as much for their advice as it takes to run the Rocky Mountain clinic for a year. She asked us to consider the idea of fractals, those self-reflecting geometrical shapes hidden within themselves—and how our big actions reflect the values of our small.

* * * *

Greg Pillar, professor of environmental science and chemistry at Queens University of Charlotte, gave us an eye-opening tour of another kind of unintended consequence—the industrialized system of food production we have created over the past century and how it contributes to a rapidly escalating global crisis.

A crisis it is, with the number of under-nourished people surging to over 1 billion, up an estimated 200 million over just the past three years. The food price hikes that began with spikes in energy costs two years ago have hit hard, especially for the global majority that lives on the margin, with 12 percent of the world's people living on less than $1 a day, 40 percent on less than $2 a day, and 80 percent on less than $10 a day. By August of last year the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization had identified 33 countries in food crisis and another 17 at high risk; 20 of the 33 were in sub-Saharan Africa.

The price of rice increased fivefold between 2006 and 2008 and that of wheat and corn tripled, leading to riots in places as diverse as Cairo and Mexico and Port-au-Prince, where poor Haitians were reduced to making mud cookies. In our country there was barely a ripple, and no wonder. Most of the food we consume is highly processed, meaning that cost of the actual food commodity makes up only a small percentage of the price we pay at the supermarket. Greg cited estimates that a doubling in the price of corn resulted in only a 1 percent increase in the price of corn flakes for example, and a 2 percent jump in the cost of soda. Food as a whole makes up only 10 percent of consumer spending in rich countries, Greg added, whereas in the developing world it runs between 60 and 90 percent. So for what for us is a blip at the cash register is for them a catastrophic event.

Longer term the challenges look more daunting still. Climate change, an agricultural system hooked on monoculture and high-input beef, and rapid increases in world population have all contributed to land degradation and increasing conflict as resources diminish. We bought some time with the Green Revolution, the combination of hybrid seeds, fertilizer and pesticides of the 1960s and 1970s that increased crop yields—but not for long. Greg noted that for the past quarter century the increase in global supplies has not matched demand, and by the height of the food crisis last summer global grain reserves had sunk to as low as 60 days' consumption. Countries like Japan began hoarding rice; those that are land short, like China and Saudi Arabia, have begun buying up land in Africa and Latin America with the intention of growing their food there and shipping it back home. Greg cited the especially anomalous situation of Ethiopia, where the Saudis have spent $100 million on cropland for their own use—the same amount, ironically, that the World Food Program is spending on food for malnourished Ethiopians.

Do policies like that make sense, or can they be justified? In an inequitable world where shortages may become the norm there are similar tough questions on other aspects of our food system. Beef and other meat is an extraordinarily expensive source of protein, for example, and yet 70 percent of the world's agricultural land is devoted to meat production. Our farm sector and the big commodities firms have successfully made ethanol and other biofuels a bastion of our energy policy—and yet this so-called "renewable" resource requires more energy to produce than the energy it creates.

Is another Green Revolution the answer? That's a hope, of course, and the focus of billions of dollars in government research and investment by groups like the Gates Foundation. In theory the yields in Africa can be increased dramatically, partly through the introduction of new genetically modified organisms and partly through the use of western-style intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides. Greg put himself on the side of the skeptics, both as to the potential for GMOs and the price in land degradation of introducing high-intensity crop monoculture to Africa. The limits of our current course are already apparent, in any case. Only 17 percent of subSaharan Africa is currently under cultivation, Greg said, and only 14 percent of central South America. But in China nearly 75 percent of the arable land is already in use. The limits are in sight, in other words, and sooner or later—preferably sooner—we need to think hard about production and consumption patterns that too many of us have taken for granted.

Food insecurity has been a major focus this year of my organization, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. We've been working with public television's NewsHour and many other print and broadcast outlets to cover food issues across the globe, from Nigeria to Vietnam and Guatemala to India. You can see all of this work on our website, at, where we've also created opportunities for users to interact directly with journalists and with each other, both through posted comments and a video "share your stories" feature that we hope will spawn a global conversation. This fall we're taking some of the journalists involved in these reporting projects out to universities that are members of our Campus Consortium, among them UNC-Chapel Hill (thanks to Carol Burke!). We're also making our food material available to Mercy Corps, a nonprofit that's doing terrific work around the world in this area and that wants to make our reporting a resource for visitors to Action Centers it has created in New York City and Portland, Oregon. Greg has said we can incorporate his presentation as part of the Food Insecurity portal—it's a wonderful overview of the entire issue—and with any luck we'll have that up and running in the next few weeks. I hope you'll take a look, and that you'll also let us know if you're interested in working with us to bring this issue to a college campus near you.

* * * *

Saturday night we heard from the winner of this year's essay contest, Kelly Parsons of West Forsyth High School. That's close to home for me—I had the opportunity last spring to speak at West Forsyth about the Pulitzer Center, and especially the reporting work we've done on another big topic, water and sanitation around the world. We're hoping that this will be the start of an active presence for the Pulitzer Center's Global Gateway high school educational outreach program, in Forsyth County as well as across North Carolina. The Global Gateway is the high school version of our educational outreach, exposing students to journalists and global issues in person and on line. It's a really exciting program, we think, and freely available to any school that wants to participate. I also think it's a great potential match for the American Freedom Association here in North Carolina, a way to bring more schools in to the AFA's essay contest while engaging them in the global issues we all hope to address. If you have schools or teachers in your communities you think would be interested I hope you'll direct them to our website, at, or put them in touch with us.

And while I'm on the subject of the Pulitzer Center let me make one other pitch, for the performance of Wisteria & HOPE that we're producing next week, Aug. 6 and 7, at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem. The production stems from one of our biggest projects, an examination of the human face of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. We commissioned Kwame Dawes, a poet from Jamaica who is now a professor of English at the University of South Carolina, to make five trips home to Jamaica to interview dozens of people touched by HIV/AIDS – doctors, educators, clinic staff and individuals living with the disease. I made the first trip with him and subsequently we sent videographers, a photographer and a web designer, all to capture an experience that was both local to Jamaica and universal in its scope. Kwame wrote essays for the Virginia Quarterly Review and for The Washington Post and we produced two pieces for public television. The website we created,, is built around some 20 poems Kwame wrote about the people he interviewed, many of them also represented via short video clips in the Vital Voices section of the site. We also commissioned original music to accompany the poems. This was an unconventional approach to journalism but it created a lot of journalism interest – including a feature last fall on public television's NewsHour, a one-hour radio documentary that has aired across the country, recognition with a Knight-Batten Award for innovations in journalism and, most recently, an Emmy nomination for new approaches in news and documentary production. At the National Black Theatre Festival we're producing HOPE in combination with Wisteria, another work that features the poetry of Kwame Dawes and the music of Kevin Simmonds, this one based on African-American women in Sumter, South Carolina, recalling what it was like to live under Jim Crow segregation. There's a full musical ensemble on stage with Kwame and Kevin and big screen projection of the images and video associated with each of the projects. It's a really exciting project, right at the heart of what the Pulitzer Center is about, and I hope you'll join us in Winston-Salem. You can order tickets via the National Black Theatre Festival, at We're hosting fund-raising receptions before each of the performances, on Thursday Aug 6 and Friday Aug. 7, and of course we'd love to see you there as well. There's a flyer on the performance in your folders and lots more information on the home page of our website, at I hope you'll take a look!

Kelly Parsons' paper addressed the UN's responsibility to take leadership in addressing the illicit trade in arms, sex and drugs. She did a great job setting the contextual background, from international conferences of the 19th Century through the origin and development of the United Nations, and then offered a sobering litany of statistics on the scope of this illicit trade: expenditures of $1 trillion a year on the military and weapons, $5 billion to $9 billion a year in revenue for a human trafficking industry mostly centered on sexual abuse, and some $400 billion a year in revenues from illicit drug trading worldwide.

Kelly gave us a very coherent prescription for how each of the UN constituent elements should respond to this challenge, from the Security Council to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime and the International Court of Justice. I like the way she concluded her essay, by saying that "the UN will have to be on top of things. The responsibility of responding to unfavorable world events and practices never promised to be easy, the its necessity is everlasting."

* * * *

John Norton Moore, the director of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the University of Virginia Law School, gave us hope that on one issue very close to this organization it's possible that real change is actually at hand.

I'm talking about the Law of the Sea Convention, the international treaty that has been ratified by 156 nations but not by the United States. The late Jesse Helms made ratification impossible during his years as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and it remains the bugaboo of opponents. But with Barack Obama behind ratification and also John Kerry, current chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, a successful conclusion of this long struggle suddenly looks a realistic possibility.

For someone like John who has been there from the start, serving as chair of the National Security Council Interagency Task Force on the Law of the Sea, later as U.S. ambassador to the negotiations themselves, and then as head of a Republican National Committee oceans policy committee that was instrumental in working with Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to successfully renegotiate elements of the convention considered unsatisfactory to the United States, the long sidelining of the United States on this issue has been a baffling exercise in shooting ourselves in the collective foot.

John calls the Law of the Sea one of the most important international agreements ever, up there with the United Nations Charter, in part because the oceans themselves are so critical to life on earth. "Seventy-two percent of the planet earth is covered in water," he notes. "We should have been called Oceanus, not Earth."

Ideological opponents of the convention have sown such confusion over its terms and effects as to make it appear sometimes as if this is an argument from some kind of alternate-reality show.

They talk of loss of sovereignty, for example, in a convention that creates a 200-nautical-mile coastal zone of economic jurisdiction that in the case of the United States is equal to more land than our 50 states combined. "Think of it," John said. "Here is the country that led the negotiations, and that ended up with the single largest economic jurisdiction zone—and yet it's the only member of the UN Security Council that hasn't ratified it. There's something wrong."

The opponents say that the U.S. commercial interests would suffer if we sign the convention—and yet the oil and gas industry is unanimous in calling for ratification, as are nearly all business groups as well as the National Governors Association and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. The opponents say the convention somehow puts the United States at military risk—and yet the U.S. Navy has been at the forefront of treaty adherents from the outset, as is every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff past and present. They say the convention will put fisheries under more global control—and yet the convention's deep seabed authority regulates mineral resources only, and that for the simple reason that some structure of property rights must be created where none now exist. The convention in fact included U.S. control of four deep-sea zones each the size of Rhode Island and rich in manganese nodules – with mineral values in excess of $1 trillion, according to a Lockheed estimate – access of extraordinary commercial value that we risk losing due to our failure to ratify the convention.

The case for ratification might appear overwhelming, in other words, except for the fact that it remains a very close call. Senators like Richard Burr of North Carolina have come out in opposition—a testament, John said, to the power of an ideologically motivated minority to manipulate public opinion and intimidate Congress. "I believe this debate is really about the heart and soul of American foreign policy," John said. "Are we going to be controlled by a small, ideologically controlled group of isolationists, to let them block something so clearly in America's interest? This is really a threat to the United States as a whole, to the effectiveness of our foreign policy, and we should not underestimate it. We're going to win, I believe, but this is a very serious struggle."

If the convention goes through it will be because individuals like us make our voices known, to senators like Richard Burr. And in the longer view, it will be because we're standing on the shoulders of giants, individuals like Sam and Miriam Levering who saw the importance of Law of the Sea decades ago and devoted years of their lives to making it succeed. How fitting that John could be with us this year, with the convention finally on the cusp of success, speaking to this organization that has been so influenced by Sam and Miriam, to pay tribute to all that these two individuals did for Law of the Seas.

John told us that Sam and Miriam were the most effective of all the representatives of non-governmental organizations engaged in the Law of the Sea negotiations, and that along the way they pioneered an approach that has since become the norm. "They sought one thing—consensus," he said. "They didn't want a vote where one third of the delegates went away unhappy and so they developed a process that has become the UN model for building consensus." It was Sam and Miriam who organized the Neptune, the newsletter that kept delegates informed, and Sam and Miriam who organized over 50 events to educate all the many constituent groups with an interest in ocean policy.

Of course as many of you know the Law of the Seas was only one of the causes that occupied Sam and Miriam. I came to know them through their work with the North Carolina Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and long before that they were guiding lights of the World Federalist Movement and so many other initiatives aimed at helping us live peacefully together. John put it well when he said that if everyone could spend even 2 percent of the time Miriam and Sam spent, what a difference it would make in the world.

Or as he also said, quoting Margaret Mead—and let me close with this: "Never doubt that individuals can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has."

Thanks so much for being here –and come back next year!

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