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Pulitzer Center Update May 1, 2008

Round Two: Winning Essays

Global Maternal Health Essay Contest, Sponsored by The Pulitzer Center and Helium

The Pulitzer Center is partnering with Helium to get your voice heard on important global issues...

In May 2008, the Pulitzer Center partnered with Helium to continue its second round of the Global Issues/Citizen Voices Writing Contest. Contestants crafted persuasive essays from multiple questions relating to different Pulitzer Center reporting projects, and four winners were selected. Find their winning essays below.

In a closed society like the military dictatorship of Burma, how can journalists find the truth?
Read winning essay by Danny Hosein

Why has international intervention to stop the fighting in Darfur failed, and what policy alternative might succeed?
Read winning essay by Robin Finesmith

Should a U.S. company be legally liable in American courts for the environmental consequences of its operations abroad?
Read winning essay by Adam Simpson

How should Lebanon address its "Palestinian issue" and what can the international community do to help?
Read winning essay by Russell Smith

In a closed society like the military dictatorship of Burma, how can journalists find the truth?
Read winning essay by Danny Hosein

Learn more about this issue

The assumption that the purpose of journalism is solely to find truth is incorrect. In repressive and closed societies, journalists must not only discover truth, but as investigative reporter Amy Goodman says, they must give "a voice to those who have been forgotten, forsaken, and beaten down by the powerful."[1] This more engaged mission for journalists avoids the problem of seeking truth: there is no singular truth to be discovered. The perceptions of outside observers of any society are shaped by the underlying assumptions and stories portrayed by the media. When journalists construct stories primarily from sources of power without including the voices of the marginalized, readers may not question the authority or the trustworthiness of those sources. The practice of using government officials as primary sources is common, even in open societies such as the United States. The challenge for journalists covering closed societies is to bring light to the darkness of repression by exploring the multiple truths and assumptions at play in those places. The journalist must construct a narrative that not only explains that repression and dissent are occurring, but explain the numerous manifestations of and interactions between the two.

An important part of understanding and constructing a narrative of the effects of repression in closed societies is the exploration of both rational and irrational truths. Burma is a prime example due to the government's paranoia and irrational decision-making. For instance, the military junta's decision to move Burma's capital of from Rangoon to Naypyidaw is widely rumored to be the result of the tellings of a soothsayer. Many in Burma scoffed, but the majority of people in Burma believe to some degree in fortunetelling.[2] A useful example to explain the importance of understanding superstition in society comes from Tracy Kidder's account of Dr. Paul Farmer's trials and tribulations treating tuberculosis in Haiti. Farmer realized he needed to understand the virtually universal belief in voodoo by Haitians to treat his patients adequately. If he did not, patients would never learn to trust him or modern medicine because neither fit the patients' superstitious frame of reference.[3] For a journalist to find truths in a place like Burma, he or she must grasp the fundamental untruths that drive both the people and the powerful. Understanding these beliefs, as well as other widely held cultural and religious beliefs, opens the door for journalists to analyze more than just the statements of individuals when writing a story.

Extreme repression often forces people to find nontraditional ways of expressing dissent. In Burma, for instance, people have grown "more docile" as a result of crackdowns against monks and other civilians.[4] Dissenters in Burma used Web 2.0 strategies to disseminate information about the repressive regime. The violent crackdown in September 2007 was first reported with images from cell phone cameras. Bloggers posted photographs while their internet connections were alive. Once those connections were lost, the people of Burma had to rely on other forms of expression to spread their message. Dissent can appear in literature, music, art, and even humor. A journalist must have a firm grasp on language and cultural nuances to catch and report these subtleties. Hidden messages criticizing the government have appeared in Burmese literature and advertising. The most high profile instance involved the arrest of a poet who printed a love poem with a hidden message about the head of Burma's military junta, Than Shwe, decipherable by reading the first letter of each line. Burmese artists face censorship and monitoring of everything they do, yet they still produce work "just subtle enough to escape censorship."[6]

Above all, journalists must discover the truths that compose the narrative of repression and dissent with old-fashioned investigation. Journalists risk life and limb all over the world to cover violent events that reach beyond normal human comprehension. They are attacked or jailed, yet the profession continues because these selfless individuals seek to explain phenomena much larger than themselves. In closed societies, sources too sensitive to disclose are better than either secondhand sources or no sources at all. Insiders understand the situation on the ground and can give insight on small scale events that may not draw international attention. Studying society holistically and including the perspectives of NGOs, individual dissenters, and the government will provide a narrative that will serve not only as a consumable truth for outsider observers, but also a megaphone for the voices of the marginalized.

[3] Kidder, Tracy, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Random House: 2004, p. 26


[5] tthewweaver


Why has international intervention to stop the fighting in Darfur failed, and what policy alternative might succeed?
Read winning essay by Robin Finesmith

Learn more about this issue

The question itself, sadly, is part of the problem. "The fighting" in Darfur amounts to genocide. We have to get the words right. Else, we hamstring our conscience, and bind our own hands.

There are three well-documented issues that have crippled international intervention and deeper, uglier reasons, too. A chief unspoken truth is this: world leaders fear that any meaningful involvement in Darfur *could become* policy.

And so these obstacles, though admittedly complex, remain not only reasons for failure, but excuses for inaction.


*Initial refusal to allow UN peacekeepers into Darfur; (2*)

*Rejecting troops from certain countries;

*Delaying allocation of land bases for headquarters and operational peacekeeping;

*Imposing curfews on the United Nations-African Union hybrid forces (UNAMID);

*Requiring advance notice of all movements of troops and equipment. 
(*Interesting to note here: did we seek Hitler's permission for the Allied invasion? 
Did we negotiate with the Nazis about where and when D-Day would begin? )


*Military: U.S.-imposed no-fly zone over Darfur.(4)

Arms embargoes on weapons, ammunition, or spare parts. Naval blockade 
of Port Sudan. 
*Travel restrictions and visa bans against targeted Sudanese government officials; freezing of personal and family assets; 
blocking access to banking systems. (5)

Restrictions on income activities such as oil, diamonds, logging, and drugs. (6) 
*Incentives: U.S. support for Sudan membership in the World Trade Organization; partial cancellation of Sudan's foreign debts.


*Providing Chinese-made AK-47's, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and helicopters. 
*Assisting in construction of arms factories; supervision of weapons assembly by Chinese engineers. (8)

*U.N. Security Council veto of sanctions against Sudan; protection of Al-Bashir regime at UN.


*Divest from financial institutions with holdings in oil companies such as PetroChina.

(9) Lobby U.S. leaders to 
effectively implement The Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act. (10) 
*Use the spotlight of the Beijing Olympics to work with corporate American sponsors, influencing China to suspend arms 
transfers until Khartoum seeks peace in Darfur. (11) 
*Call for permanent Security Council members to withhold use of their veto in the case of dire humanitarian need. (12)
*Absence of active and credible world leadership. (13) 
*The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide provides standards for intervention but the 
U.S. took 40 years to ratify the measure, and only then after rendering it effectively meaningless. (14) 
*Failure of the UN to fully fund and provide resources to fulfill its own mandates. Troops still lack essential 
equipment, including badly needed helicopters. Some have even bought their own paint to turn their green helmets United 
Nations blue.
*Encourage France's influential president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to continue his efforts to provide a regional stabilizing force. 
*Create a standing multinational force of UN peacekeepers to respond quickly to genocide emergencies. 
*The U.S. must pay its financial dues to the UN and fully participate in the International Criminal Court.
And we come at last to the heart of it.
To paraphrase Forrest Gump: policy is as policy does. We have already drawn up the plans, considered the alternatives, and have still more policies on the table awaiting approval. Yet each initiative becomes pitted against the next in a shell game of inaction.
We can no longer make promises with our fingers crossed. To intervene is to promise more intervention where and when it is needed. No one individual or country or organization can respond adequately every time, or on its own. We'll probably never know if we've done the "right" thing, and that's as it should be. Right action demands uncertainty most of the time.
This is the only policy alternative that can succeed: when we commit to commitment; when words seep into our hands; when it is our policy to enforce our own policies; world without end. Time is ticking away.

1. Nicholas D. Kristof, "A Genocide Foretold," The New York Times, Feb. 28, 2008. 
2. "UNAMID Deployment on the Brink: The Road to Security in Darfur 
Blocked by Government Obstructions," Joint NGO Report | Dec. 2007. 
3. Lydia Polgreen, "Peacekeeping in Darfur Hits More Obstacles," The New York Times, Mar. 24, 2008. 
4. Nicholas D. Kristof, "Memo to Bush on Darfur," The New York Times, Mar. 10, 2008. 
5. Lotte Leicht, European Union Advocacy Director, "Sanctions on Sudan 
now:," New Statesman Online, Apr. 02, 2008. 
6. Lee Feinstein, "Darfur and Beyond: What Is Needed to Prevent Mass 
Atrocities," Council on Foreign Relations, CSR No. 22, Jan. 2007. 
7. Peter S. Goodman, "China Invests Heavily In Sudan's Oil Industry" 
Washington Post Foreign Service, Dec. 23, 2004. 
8. Nicholas D. Kristof, "China and Sudan, Blood and Oil," Coalition for 
Darfur, Apr. 23, 2006. 
9. "Congressional Action: Next Steps on Darfur," A project of the 
Genocide Intervention Network. 
10. Ibid. 
11. Ilan Greenberg, "Changing the Rules of the Games," The New York Times Magazine, Mar. 30, 2008. 
12. Feinstein, ibid. 
13. George Packer, "International Inaction," The New Yorker, Oct. 9, 2006. 
14. Samantha Power, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of 
Genocide." New York: HarperCollins, 2002. 
15. Simon Wiesenthal Center 2008 U.S. Presidential Questionnaire,
(U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama have all commented on U.S. policy towards Darfur, as part of the question #7:

"Tragically, the threat of genocide remains a fact of life in 2008. As President of the United States, would you ever consider sending American troops to Darfur or other areas suffering humanitarian crises?"
Their answers can be viewed at

Should a U.S. company be legally liable in American courts for the environmental consequences of its operations abroad?
Read winning essay by Adam Simpson

Learn more about this issue

"Clean up your own mess," a command that most of us learned as children, was long ago forgotten by many U.S. corporations, at facilities both in the States and abroad. Only as a result of the sweeping federal U.S. environmental legislation beginning in the 1970s, on the heels of the Love Canal disaster and the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, were U.S. companies mandated to take responsibility for years of unregulated practices and the environmental contamination that resulted. As a result of the increased costs of doing business in a regulated environment, many U.S. companies moved "next door" to make their mess, free to do so in nations without an environmental regulatory regime in place. Not surprisingly, most of these nations were developing ones, lacking the means or infrastructure to regulate these environmentally-detrimental practices and operations.

The solution may seem simple enough at first glance – regulate all activities carried out abroad by U.S. corporations based on the controlling law of their headquarters, applying the federal U.S. environmental laws extraterritorially against U.S. corporations. In other words, Congress should mandate, and the U.S. Courts should enforce, federal U.S. environmental laws requiring U.S. corporations to comply in their operations abroad. However, in reality, such a regulatory scheme would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to police and to enforce and would be cost-prohibitive. Even ignoring a general presumption by the U.S. Courts that, unless Congress explicitly dictates otherwise, general U.S. laws do not apply extraterritorially, a myriad of legal, political, and social differences among nations makes daunting the task of commanding U.S. standards to be practiced abroad by U.S. corporations.

The best solution may be a surprising one – a regulation of the U.S. corporations not through Congress or the U.S. Courts, but rather by the very companies themselves. As noted by environmental and regulatory scholar Michael Vandenbergh of Vanderbilt University Law School, many U.S. corporations are voluntarily choosing to comply, and even to exceed compliance, with U.S. environmental standards in their operations abroad. For instance, in an example of what Vandenbergh terms "The New Wal-Mart Effect," many U.S. corporations, through the voluntary adoption of standards more stringent than current U.S. laws and through private contracting with foreign corporations, are creating a private global governance regime which regulates environmental practices abroad. While Vandenbergh primarily describes such an effect as occurring between importing U.S. corporations and exporting foreign corporations abroad, the incentives behind such a private regulatory framework could equally apply to a U.S. corporation with facilities abroad. For instance, through the voluntary adoption of strict non-governmental environmental standards, U.S. corporations could strive to comply, or even to over-comply, with U.S. environmental standards in their operations abroad.

Why would a U.S. corporation ever self-impose environmental standards, standards sometimes stricter than federal U.S. standards, on itself for its operations abroad? As Vandenbergh has noted, the reasons are diverse, including public perception of the company as being a responsible environmental steward, "green" personal values of company management, and "green" investor expectations. The realization by corporate management that conservation of natural resources is imperative for the survival of the corporation's own operations can also serve as the proverbial carrot to incentivize changes in firm behavior, even if the same corporate management has not accepted the less egocentric notion that conservation is necessary for the survival of the planet.

While such a private regulatory framework is more likely to influence future operations, the same framework could provide useful in helping to redress past practices and contaminations abroad. For instance, U.S. retailers could refuse to sell, and U.S. consumers could refuse to purchase, products manufactured by a U.S. corporation with outstanding environmental liabilities abroad. Such pressure could make U.S. corporations strive to voluntarily clean up their foreign facilities without waiting for the authority figure of the U.S. Courts to command them to do so. In light of the rejuvenated "green" movement and the recognition by the masses of the need to promote environmental responsibility and sustainability, U.S. Courts may not need to be the voice of authority to hold U.S. corporations liable for the environmental consequences of their actions abroad. Rather, as argued by Vandenbergh, private forces may provide the orders from which U.S. corporations march to clean up the mess they made in their neighbor's backyard.

Vandenbergh, Michael P., "The New Wal-Mart Effect: The Role of Private Contracting in Global Governance," UCLA Law Review, Vol. 54, p. 913, 2007, available at

How should Lebanon address its "Palestinian issue" and what can the international community do to help?
Read winning essay by Russell Smith

Learn more about this issue

It was the northern summer of 1998 — just as France celebrated its 3-0 trouncing of the much favored Brazil in the FIFA World Cup Final — that I undertook the first of many sojourns to the former French-mandated Lebanon. Few countries are so riddled with contradictions, so bathed in paradox — that a morning's dip in the emerald tinged Mediterranean can easily be followed by lunch riding a ski-lift at the Cedars Snow Resort. However, this idyllic picture masks a generational tragedy, the great pathos of Lebanon's contingent of the Palestinian Diaspora of 1948 — and an inhospitable host nation with endemic societal problems.

As one of the most challenging moral imperatives faced by the international community, Lebanon's "Palestinian issue" has exercised histories best minds, bedeviling presidents, Popes and peacemakers alike. So intractable an issue that its very guardians would relinquish the core tenet of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194: "[H]e has changed the charter of the PLO, and has given up the right of return of about three million Palestinian refugees and it was all done in secret, cried Chafiq al-Hout, PLO ambassador to Lebanon", (Fisk 490) writes Robert Fisk in "The Great War for Civilization," Resigning in protest, al-Hout accused PLO chairman Yasser Arafat of infamy most grand.

As old-Beirut morphed into new-Beirut — rising like a phoenix from the rubble of a 15-year civil war — showing all the signs and vitality of 1950s-1970s coined "Golden Period," surreptitiously hiding the squalor and dispiriting predicament of Palestinian refugees secreted in the Burj el-Barajneh camp situated near Beirut International Airport. And as tri-storey mansions peppered the hills of Jounieh — many still in skeletal form — promising the possibility of an economic resurgence on the back of bricks and mortar, compared with the stench and dilapidation of the Dbayeh camp 12 km East of Jounieh, of abject poverty and Third World.

Lebanon remains a house divided; a national psyche caught between East & West, multi-confessional with seventeen officially recognized sects — comprising Muslim, Christian and Druze. Each holding deep-seated mistrust for the other with grudges ancient in the making. Even today as the country languishes without a head of state, a polarized "Le Parlement" enters its sixth month of squabbling about the legitimacy of the presidency.

In the absence of a Palestinian Mandela, Lebanese De Klerk or statesman in the mold of Fuad Shihab and Yitzhak Rabin, Lebanon possesses neither the will, courage nor the plenipotentiary institutions to resolve its "Palestinian issue" without a lead role taken by the international community.

Yet there are no sure-fire guarantees. To be sure, the scorecard of the UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, can be marked as follows; "[T]he Palestinians living there are not "refugees" in the common understanding of the term, but rather successive generations of Lebanese residents who have lived in that country their entire lives." (Richman) While in its 59-year history UNRWA has become a bloated 28,000 strong-staffed body. In contrast, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, established in 1950 to serve all other refugees in the world, has a staff of 6,300 that currently serves, by its count, 32.9 million refugees in 111 countries.

But a "win-win" solution does exist and has existed for some 8-years. In the dying days of the Camp David Summit in 2000 — President Bill Clinton and his interlocutors tried to keep alive a deliquescing Middle East peace process. The president evoked what was coined the "Clinton Plan." It was not a new idea but it did cut to the chase and had broad support. The Palestinian refugees would be granted five absorption options with priority given to Lebanon's refugees. Clinton's point 4: "settlement in various third states that were willing to absorb them." Yossi Belilin in "The Path to Geneva - 1996-2004" a sweeping balanced insiders account recalls Clinton's opening remarks; "[W]ith regard to the refugees, Israel would acknowledge the mental and material suffering of the Palestinian refugees resulting from the 1948 war, and recognize the need to assist the international community in dealing with the problem." (Beilin 222)

The president's point was sound and only required extrapolation. Herein lays my thesis: The international community under the auspices of the U.N. would undertake an International Migration Initiative for Lebanon's Palestinian refugees; not a forced migration but a focused sponsored humanitarian campaign, emphasizing economic prosperity, equal opportunity, education and security. International host nations would be chosen reflecting "Palestinian sensibilities" and UNRWA's $306 million annual budget would be redistributed to sponsor the program. An appropriate international tribunal would deem just reparations from the State of Israel — funneling annual dues of support — in the spirit of the "Clinton Plan."

A World Bank report of 2003 estimated that over 180 million individuals reside outside the country of their birth — despite the physical, cultural and economic obstacles. Surely the international community has the wherewithal to redress the generational tragedy of the 380,000 "nonnationals" in Lebanon, surely this would be "cutting the Gordian knot."
Works Cited: 
Beilin, Yossi. The Path to Geneva. New York: RDV Books/Akashic Books, 2004. 
Fisk, Robert. The Great War for Civilisation - The Conquest of the Middle East. London: Harper Perennial, 2005. 
Richman, Rick. Israel News. 6 December 2007.

Works Cited: 
Beilin, Yossi. The Path to Geneva. New York: RDV Books/Akashic Books, 2004. 
Fisk, Robert. The Great War for Civilisation - The Conquest of the Middle East. London: Harper Perennial, 2005. 
Richman, Rick. Israel News. 6 December 2007.


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