In the wake of COVID-19 vaccine mandates (in which governments require citizens to be vaccinated regardless of their preferences), moral issues need to take centre stage. This is because we human beings are not simply matter, but also rational consciousness – we think and feel, and so it matters how we treat other people, and also how they treat us. Morality is the judging of human action in terms of rightness and wrongness, and human traits of character in terms of virtue (desirable quality) and vice (undesirable quality). While in everyday usage “morality” and “ethics” are considered to mean one and the same thing, we also use the term “ethics” to refer to philosophical reflections on morality, and this latter sense is my focus here.
Countries usually have various public health authorities that issue directives that should ideally enhance the overall well-being of their citizens. In Kenya, for example, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB), and the Ministry of Health are among such bodies. Thus, the various COVID-19 protocols from the Ministry of Health are public health measures rather than medical care ones. At the global level, public health measures are currently mostly formulated and implemented under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
As Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech explain in the edited volume Ethics in Public Health and Health Policy, central to both medical care (for ill individuals in health facilities) and public health measures (instituted by governmental authorities for the overall welfare of society) is the notion of the right to healthcare, which encompasses multiple dimensions, and ranges from concern for individual access to healthcare to the provision of a social structure conducive to healthy living. Yet the ultimate aim of public health measures is the overall well-being of the individuals who necessarily constitute the public — there can never be a public without the individuals who constitute it. Besides, both medical care policies and public health measures ought to be formulated and implemented with a deep commitment to respecting the dictates of morality, giving rise to medical ethics and public health ethics.
The ethical implications of COVID-19 vaccine mandates
As Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech explain, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, efforts aimed at improving and sustaining public health were primarily directed towards combating the spread of infectious diseases and plagues. However, as they further explain, the number of those falling ill and/or dying from infectious diseases was already on the decline before the discovery of the responsible pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, etc.), and the development of effective treatments and/or vaccines. Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech further observe that this marked improvement in the quality of health can be explained by improvements in socioeconomic, environmental and living conditions, greater awareness of personal hygiene, and better nutrition. They point out that the nineteenth century thus saw the emergence of the sub-discipline of social medicine that focused on the effect that conditions such as poverty and relative social status had on the public’s health. Scholars of social medicine advocated for the establishment of a healthcare system that would not only attend to those who were already sick, but also promote health for the population.
Thus, public health policies are usually designed to address prevention and health promotion. Regarding this Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech write:
[P]ublic health measures can either target behaviour and lifestyle choices of the individual, or society more generally. The former applies to Public Health programmes such as the promotion of healthy diets, abstinence from tobacco or alcohol, and participation in medical screening programmes. Examples of the latter include immunisation programmes that achieve herd immunity and projects to eradicate certain pathogens regionally, nationally, or globally, e.g. by defining targets for lowering incidence of measles or polio.
Among the many ethical issues that arise from public health measures with regard to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, I highlight five below.
Individual liberty and well-being versus the public good
There are measures that might promote the well-being of a few individuals but hurt the public, and vice versa. While, in the name of public health, many would quickly resort to the principle that the majority ought to have their way, that principle disregards the dignity (infinite intrinsic worth), agency (capacity to act) and human rights (entitlements) of the minority by treating them as though they were of relatively little significance by virtue of their numbers.
In his On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, one of the greatest champions of liberal democracy, observed that the individual ought to be protected against the tyranny of the majority in the same way as he or she ought to be protected against political despotism. In fact, while many now think democracy is rule by the majority, in Considerations on Representative Government, Mill distinguished between true democracy in which all are represented, and false democracy in which only the majority is represented. Thus, COVID-19 vaccination ought not to be a requirement on the basis of the preferences or benefit of the majority, but ought rather to be made available to all those members of the public who choose to have it without the fear of losing their jobs or their access to public spaces and services.
Freedom to accept or decline a medical procedure
The notions of human dignity (infinite intrinsic worth), human agency (capacity to act) and human rights (entitlements) have usually been acknowledged in medical care through the principle of informed consent — that the doctor is morally obligated to explain in detail the implications of any medical procedure, and to let the patient decide whether or not to receive it. Anything less than this is paternalism, that is, the treating of adults as though they were children. Since public health measures, by promoting the health of a population ought to ultimately promote the overall well-being of the individuals that constitute that population, the principle of informed consent ought not to be violated in the name of public health.
In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker argues that there is a type of injustice in which someone is wronged specifically in his or her capacity as a knower (“epistemic injustice”). She distinguishes two forms of epistemic injustice — testimonial injustice (the injustice that a speaker suffers in receiving deflated credibility from the hearer owing to identity prejudice on the hearer’s part), and hermeneutical injustice (suffered by people who participate unequally in the practices through which social meanings are generated). In the era of COVID-19, humanity is suffering both types of epistemic injustice, as the principle of informed consent is blatantly violated through manipulative social and traditional media, and through intimidation by public authorities issuing vaccine mandates. Indeed, populations are now regularly treated as though they are devoid of knowledge, and must therefore rely solely on instructions from political authorities purportedly to control the spread of the virus and to take care of those who fall ill from it. This approach challenges our belief in human dignity, human agency and human rights, as it reduces us to helpless, ignorant beings who must wait for government to tell us what to do, not only about our conduct in public, but also what to expose our bodies to (read “vaccine mandates”).
The individual ought to be protected against the tyranny of the majority in the same way as he or she ought to be protected against political despotism.
Currently, the narrative in social and traditional media is that the vaccine is a must, and any information about its adverse effects is quickly suppressed or explained away. This manipulative approach is evident in the talk about “vaccine hesitancy”, as though all who have so far refrained from taking the “vaccine” will eventually “come round”. A more honest discourse would have acknowledged vaccine enthusiasm, vaccine hesitancy, and vaccine rejection. Besides, the individual’s freedom is often infringed on the grounds that members of the public are not adequately equipped to make informed decisions about their own health. This amounts to treating adults as though they were children (“paternalism”). The Ottawa Charter, which focuses on patient empowerment and the strengthening of health literacy, is relevant in this regard, as is health communication, encompassing multiple levels, from the formulation of written information on specific diseases to educational campaigns aimed at the general public.
Inadequate public health communication was evident when a Kenyan citizen filed a Constitutional Petition against the vaccine mandate issued by the Kenyan government on 21st November 2021. Mutahi Kagwe, Cabinet Secretary for Health, announced that there was no vaccine mandate, and that therefore no one needed to have gone to court. At the same time, he reiterated that the unvaccinated would be denied in-person access to government services from 21st December 2021. The import of that announcement was that “There is a vaccine mandate and there is no vaccine mandate”. Furthermore, on 22nd December 2021, Health Chief Administrative Secretary Mercy Mwangangi announced that one would have to show proof of vaccination to enter public spaces such as buses, grocery stores, restaurants and game reserves. This set of statements must surely be categorised as bad public health communication.
Besides, Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe had sought to justify the vaccine mandate on the basis of the Public Health Act. However, Section 36 (d) of the Act addresses situations in which Kenya appears to be existentially threatened by any formidable epidemic, endemic or infectious disease. Yet the public health data shows that COVID-19 is not leading to massive deaths that would warrant invoking these provisions. The Public Health Act is also subordinate to the Constitution of Kenya in which the Bill of Rights is enshrined. As such, it cannot legitimately serve as a basis for COVID-19 vaccine mandates, but only for vaccine programmes. Furthermore, the dominant COVID-19 narrative emphasizes that the vaccines do not rule out one getting infected, but rather reduce the chances of hospitalization and death. Thus, vaccine-free shoppers or travellers in public transport risk their own lives, not those of fellow shoppers or fellow travellers. As such, forcing them to be vaccinated is a violation of their personal freedoms entrenched in the Constitution of Kenya 2010.
In sum, public health authorities are violating the ethical principle of informed consent by compelling members of the public to take COVID-19 vaccines. Furthermore, by making online databases accessible to a large number of people to verify the vaccination status of individuals, health authorities are also violating the principle of patient confidentiality.
Responsibility for adverse effects of vaccines
It is common knowledge that each and every vaccine has adverse effects. As such, the individual has a right to accept or decline a vaccine because it is he or she who bears any adverse effects that it may produce. Yet by enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, health authorities are blatantly disregarding this important consideration. As David Ngira and John Harrington explain, a system of quality control before the deployment and use of medicines in Kenya is set out in the Pharmacy and Poisons Act, the Standards Act, the Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act, and the Consumer Protection Act. They however point out that none of these Acts provides for comprehensive compensation after deployment and use of vaccines. Yet any monetary disbursements that citizens might receive for adverse effects of vaccines cannot possibly restore them to their previous state of health, and must therefore be viewed more as tokens than as adequate compensation.
A more honest discourse would have acknowledged vaccine enthusiasm, vaccine hesitancy, and vaccine rejection.
What is more, observe Ngira and Harrington, to minimise liability and incentivise research and development, pharmaceutical companies require states to undertake to meet any costs arising from successful suits against the pharmaceuticals for any harm caused by vaccines. Put simply, the victims would be awarded for damages through their own taxes rather than through the profits of the vaccine manufacturers. Besides, as Ngira and Harrington also explain, in Kenya’s legal environment, victims of adverse effects from vaccines would have to demonstrate that the vaccine maker or distributor fell below widely accepted best practice, and yet acquiring the evidence to prove this and finding experts in the sector willing to testify against the manufacturer can be very difficult.
Ngira and Harrington further note that while the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) have undertaken to honour a one-year compensation (“indemnity”) for adverse effects of AstraZeneca vaccines distributed in Kenya which allows victims to be compensated without litigation up to a maximum of US$40,000 (approx. KSh4 million), COVAX has indicated that the scheme will end once the allocated resources have been exhausted. This is a matter of concern, because there is no evidence that side effects of the vaccine fully manifest within a year. Besides, one wonders how the allocated resources for compensation were arrived at, bearing in mind that no one would have had information on how much resources would actually be needed for this purpose. Furthermore, according to Ngira and Harrington, beneficiaries of the COVAX compensation scheme are barred from pursuing compensation claims in court. COVAX also requires that before governments receive its vaccines, they undertake to pay any damages awarded to victims of adverse vaccine effects against manufacturers in any lawsuits.
The foregoing considerations lead to the conclusion that the individual, as the one who bears the full brunt of any adverse effects from COVID-19 vaccines, ought to be free to accept or decline them.
Debatable use of some primary prevention programmes
According to Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech, there is the question of the use of some primary preventive programmes such as vaccination campaigns, cancer screening, and assessment of psychological malfunctions. They further observe that problems that arise in this context include, but are not limited to, unnecessary treatment, financial interests of actors, and the role of pharmaceutical companies. For example, in Deadly Medicines and Organized Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare, Peter Gotzsche shows that drugs are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, and illustrates how pharmaceutical companies have developed toxic drugs that have caused untold suffering to many, and how law courts have awarded damages to the injured. Similarly, Neil Z. Miller discusses 400 scientific papers that show how vaccines have caused injuries, and how policy-makers ignore this information.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the public was told that once the vaccines are developed and procured, those who receive them would be safe from the virus; then more recently it has been announced that those who are fully vaccinated will need a “booster shot” after six months. The question arises as to whether the “booster shots” are really necessary, or simply the innovation of the big pharmaceutical companies to make more profits, which would be a case of conflict of interest. Besides, it is not clear if humanity will ever be free from the vaccines if people will be required to take boosters every time a new variant emerges. What is more, while there is wide consensus among virologists on the effectiveness of natural immunity, very little is being said about this, giving the false impression that humanity’s hope only lies in the vaccines, as though humanity has not weathered numerous viruses without vaccines for millennia.
Monitoring and evaluation of public health measures
According to Hirschberg, Littmann and Strech, public health measures ought to be analysed within a framework that takes into consideration how decisions to implement the measures were reached, and how the expected impact can be evaluated and regulated effectively. As such, write Hirschberg and her colleagues, all phases of planning, implementation and evaluation of a public health measure should take into account the available scientific evidence.
In the edited volume Ethics in Public Health and Health Policy, Marckmann and his colleagues address the question of what strategies are ethically appropriate to achieve sufficiently high rates of influenza vaccination among healthcare personnel in long-term care facilities for the protection of the elderly care home residents under their charge. They contend that mandatory influenza vaccination for healthcare personnel can only be justified if the available empirical evidence on the effectiveness of the vaccine is more conclusive, and if all other less restrictive measures have failed to achieve a sufficiently high vaccination rate.
Beneficiaries of the COVAX compensation scheme are barred from pursuing compensation claims in court.
In view of the foregoing considerations, monitoring and evaluation of COVID-19 vaccine mandates ought to address the following four questions: To what extent were decisions to implement COVID-19 vaccine mandates transparent and participatory? How effective have the COVID-19 vaccines been in limiting the spread of the virus? In the light of a holistic conception of health as entailing physical, social and mental well-being, are vaccine mandates the most effective way to deal with the spread and impact of COVID-19? What is the impact of COVID-19 vaccine mandates on the overall physical, social and mental well-being of citizens?
Which way forward?
In view of the foregoing considerations, it is high time we insisted on respect for the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of Kenya 2010 that upholds the autonomy of the person and proscribes discrimination. It is high time we upheld the national principle of public participation in the formulation of public health policies. It is high time we insisted on the right to information, which implies the right to uncensored information, including free access to all shades of opinion regarding the safety or danger of taking the COVID-19 vaccines, and personal testimonies of those who have taken them, as well as reasons advanced by those who have refrained from taking them. In the end, what we are dealing with here is not simply the right to accept or decline the COVID-19 vaccines, but rather the whole range of individual freedoms, which implies the limits of state action. In sum, it is squarely within the mandate of the state to institute vaccine programmes, in which it makes vaccines available and seeks to convince citizens to receive them. However, vaccine mandates are instances of state overreach, as they violate human dignity, human agency and human rights, thereby eroding the very foundation of democratic society. If government can determine what goes into my body, what remains of my personal liberty?
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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa
An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.
The quest for an independent and prosperous Africa spans several generations, continents, and themes. Notably, from the eighteenth century, people of African descent in Europe, America, the West Indies, and on the continent have been engaged in different variations of the liberation struggle to uphold their humanity, independence, and right to self-determination. After the triumph of the abolitionist movements over the menace of institutionalized slavery, Africa was again saddled with the task of dislodging an imperialist regime that wanted to perpetuate itself on the continent by every means available.
In most of Africa, colonialism produced various forms and levels of exploitation, deprivation, and shame—segregation. This prevalent atmosphere of injustice was to inform the establishment of resistance movements manifested in Pan-African coalitions and nationalist organizations focused on uniting Africans in a movement against the shackles of European imperialism. However, due to the varied nature of the colonial establishment around the continent, the successes of these liberation movements were also not to be attained uniformly. With the collapse of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 representing a close in the chapter of colonial oppression in Africa, the struggle for independence was drawn out in colonies like South Africa, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which had substantial settler populations.
After liberation came the task of nation-building. The process of post-independence nation-building has been arduous for most of Africa, a situation emphasized by the frequent occurrence of violent conflicts on the continent. Many of the challenges—such as international sabotage, corruption, marginalization, unemployment, conflict and diseases—identified as impeding growth and development on the continent can be tied to the problem of national cohesion around Africa’s “nation-states”. In the absence of a powerful overriding national sentiment, an array of competing ethnic/sub-national interests within Africa’s national boundaries—a by-product of Africa’s colonial past—has made it difficult for African states to present a united front against threats to their (individual and collective) socio-political and economic wellbeing. Hence, territorialism, ethnicity, racialism, corruption, and nepotism thrive and continue to undermine African efforts at political and economic independence and prosperity.
Former South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been an avid campaigner for an independent, united, and prosperous Africa for over half a century. Born in South Africa to activist parents, Thabo Mbeki was inclined to join the struggle against the oppressive white minority government in 1955 at the young age of 13. With a passion uncommon among youths of his era (during colonialism), young Thabo became an active member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading organization protesting the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. During his activism years in the ANC, Thabo’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the organization’s objectives gained him some recognition and provided an opportunity for him to serve in very important capacities.
In December 1994, after South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage, Thabo Mbeki was elected unopposed as the ANC’s deputy president, a position that saw him serving under the nation’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. As a long-standing member of the ANC who served with and succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki’s role in South Africa’s emergence as a continental model transcends the era of nationalist struggle to include the critical years of reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. Even after his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has maintained his commitment to the unity and development of Africa, for which he has continued to serve in different diplomatic capacities. Hence, an interview with Thambo Mbeki presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to ask questions and raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid (liberation). Leading with the questions was a select panel that included the duo of Prof. Paul Zeleza, the former Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University Africa, Kenya, and Naledi Moleo, a media practitioner.
While discussing the lessons the ANC learned from the liberation struggle and the challenges encountered in building a post-apartheid nation, Mbeki conceded that creating a new nation, especially after coming out of colonial oppression, was indeed an important challenge. According to him, the first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy. This decision was particularly critical owing to a substantial settler population in South Africa and the high expectations held by an erstwhile oppressed majority. On its part, the government approached the task with two notable convictions. One, that there were no set ways to build a democracy. Two, that there were not going to be any quick fixes. Hence, in attending to the business of nation-building, the leadership made the informed decision to engage the people by communicating its policy decisions with them regularly and honestly so that they do not become disillusioned by the pace of development and withdraw their support.
The first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy.
On the question of his proudest achievement at the age of 80, Mbeki spoke about the sense of fulfilment that came with being part of a successful liberation struggle against colonial oppression. He also explained that the South African struggle provided Africans, home and abroad, with a reason to unite under the belief that a free South Africa would further stimulate development processes on the continent. Mbeki added that South Africa has, within its capacity, made some contributions to Africa’s development challenge. However, he lamented that Africa had lost the respect it had from the rest of the world, which resulted from the agreement between Africa and the G8 countries in which the latter agreed to meet Africa’s development needs at its recommendation.
Reacting to the popular question of youth participation in leadership, and specifically whether there was any plan within the ANC to hand over the reins to a younger generation, Mbeki recalled his progressive rise within the party from a place of relative insignificance to subsequent positions of responsibility and authority. According to Mbeki, his emergence within the party was not the result of a “handing over” but a natural progression in rank. As young party members, their continued commitment to the struggle ensured they became the ideal candidates to fill vacancies when they arose. Thus, he advised that young people should develop strong youth organizations to address the challenges of poverty and unemployment in their communities. This way, they gain the necessary leadership experience and from their role as youth leaders gradually rise to become national leaders.
Mbeki spoke of the pressure of meeting the high expectations of people within and outside the country concerning the key challenges encountered while in office. Another source of anxiety for the new post-apartheid government, he said, was the fear of possible counter-revolutionary action by disgruntled elements within South Africa’s large settler population who did not believe in a new South Africa. The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies that could manifest either in the assassination of key ANC leaders or as attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, for political and economic expedience, they decided on a measured approach in implementing political and economic reconstruction programmes as symbolized by the party’s famed reconciliatory post-apartheid political stance, the systematic introduction of a wealth tax, and the gradual extension of social welfare packages like the child grants to otherwise excluded Black populations.
Speaking on the impact of the reform programmes implemented by the Mandela administration during which he served as vice-president, Mbeki drew attention to the challenges the government inherited from the old apartheid government, particularly the huge debts incurred in a final attempt to buy dissenting voices. Given this financial deficit, the government decided to implement policies to bring the population to a level of development sufficient to generate wealth for the country. Towards that end, the budget structure was changed to cut down on foreign debt while directing the bulk of the generated revenues towards human development programmes instead of debt servicing. Mbeki alluded that these changes induced some economic expansion based on an expanded workforce that generated the wealth required to maintain a certain level of spending on social benefits. The resulting economic growth recorded was maintained for some period until the disruption brought about by the 2007/2008 financial crisis which was caused by the collapse of US banks and from which the economy never fully recovered.
The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies.
Addressing the matter of the constitutional issues faced while in office, particularly what Naledi Moleo described as a sharp decrease in the popularity of the constitution, Mbeki pointed out that this was mostly a result of the disappointment that followed the government’s decision to follow the path of reconciliation instead of the expected retaliation for centuries of alien oppression. He went further to explain that the ANC government’s decision to adopt a constitution that provided for the rights of everyone living in South Africa (Black or white) was more than an immediate reaction to political exigencies—a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence had always been part of the party’s ideology. Moreover, this decision was thought to be best for the state’s progress and to prove wrong those detractors who doubted the (Black) government’s capacity to operate a non-racial and non-sexist system while addressing the imbalances of the past; Mbeki said these people believed South Africans were incapable of that level of sophistication. He also discussed ideas of pride in an African identity and African self-esteem, which had come under severe attack from colonial oppression, and of the systematic alterations made to the African person (identity), beginning with his name and progressing to other aspects of his being (culture), all in an attempt to create a subservient subject/population. Mbeki said these were factored into the liberation agenda, informing important elements within the drafted constitution aimed at rejecting the colonial legacy and recovering the people’s self-esteem.
Concerning the socio-political challenges encountered while in office, Mbeki explained that, with regards to HIV/AIDS, the government opted to come at the challenge from the angle of correcting the South African population’s immune deficiency to boost resistance to the virus. As for COVID-19, the biggest challenge was overcrowding, which made respecting safety guidelines difficult, and the inability of Africa to produce its own vaccines. Hence, while acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa to counter such crises in the future.
Coming around to the subject of xenophobic attacks, Mbeki explained that South Africa’s Black population was very accommodating and that these attacks were orchestrated by the enemies of the state who wanted to see it fail. He insisted that the organizers of these attacks played on the economic insecurities of the average South African to achieve particular political goals, including attempts to destabilize the country and to influence election outcomes in Zimbabwe by terrorizing its migrant population in South Africa. He emphasized that these saboteurs must be identified and stopped as a matter of political urgency because they continue to threaten stability in South Africa. According to Mbeki, these people want South Africa to fail because it communicates a particular political message.
While acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa.
Lastly, on the question of conflicts and the challenge of political instability on the continent, which also formed a bulk of the questions from the audience, Mbeki related this to a sharp decline in the sense of Pan-Africanism among Africans. In his view, this dwindling commitment to a pan-African ideal has also negatively impacted the capacity of the African Union (AU) to carry out the duties for which it was established. As it is, the AU boasts of mechanisms for early detection of conflicts, but how effective have these been in conflict prevention? How well has the continental body fared in its conflict resolution attempts? For these reasons, Mbeki called for a greater commitment to the pan-African ideal, hence the need for an African renaissance. For this renaissance movement to achieve the goals of development (modernization) and prosperity in Africa, it must have the backing of a committed and well-organized youth with the passion to see such a vision come to fruition.
Book Review: Lords of Impunity by Rasna Warah
Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of the UN that shatters any notions that the organization is the moral conscience of the world, instead revealing an internal culture of fraud, corruption, mismanagement, racism and sexism, driven by an instinct of craven institutional self-preservation.
Living in Nairobi, one of my guilty pleasures is looking through expat guides and tour books on Kenya. I am definitely not the target audience, but I pick up Xpat Magazine whenever I’m in the Karen area, where it seems to be plentiful and free, its outdated font and clunky layout notwithstanding. There’s the famous Nairobi Expat Marketplace on Facebook, which has somehow lost its lustre in recent years since being infiltrated (this is conjecture) by commercial sellers, but which in its heyday was the place to get all kinds of high-quality second-hand household items from expatriates disposing of their possessions in readiness for moving back to their home countries. Most of the posts would read “QUICK SALE”—taken by most Kenyans not as an indication to actually buy the item quickly, but rather to be a signal that it was “game on” to bargain as hard as possible.
Then there are the many expat guides online, which offer advice on everything from finding schools to hiring domestic help. Here’s one: “Employing domestic staff is the norm here, and they can be a great asset to an expat household. This may not be something that new arrivals are used to, but likely something they will soon embrace.” (!) There is a part of me that is triggered when I read the casual racism and superiority in some of these posts, but to be honest, my main motivation in deliberately falling into these strange rabbit holes is the same as watching trashy reality TV—to roll my eyes and scoff with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity.
Of course, in the Nairobi context, the main hub serving as the attraction and engine for this fairly large expatriate community (relative to many other African cities), is the United Nations office in Nairobi that serves as the UN headquarters in Africa and one of the four UN main duty stations, the only one in the global south, as many an article breathlessly, and needlessly, emphasizes. The Nairobi office is the global headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) as well as 23 country offices and several regional hubs.
Working for the UN is an ambition for many, not just because of its perceived high pay and job security—a friend of mine was recently hired by the UN office in Nairobi and upon hearing the news, another friend told him, “Ah, wewe umeomoka!” (Sheng for dude, you’ve made it!). On a broader level, the public image of the UN is that of an institution where people are driven by a strong sense of purpose, working together in the pursuit of world peace and a better future for us all, a place of “high protocol and elegant diplomatic manners.”
But Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world. Warah, a writer, journalist and author of five books, worked for the organization for twelve years, having joined with the same wide-eyed innocence and determination to Make A Difference. What she found instead is a rigidly hierarchical, self-protecting system that tolerates fraud, abets corruption, excuses mismanagement, encourages abuse of authority, persecutes whistle-blowers, actively and tacitly devalues black lives, and puts women and children in the way of sexual predators.
Warah’s book touches on her own experiences of being harassed and forced out of the organization when she accidentally discovered US$300,000 in donor funds being possibly misused, and the emotional and verbal bullying that ensued. She had also been compelled by her supervisor to use unscientific and inaccurate data in The State of the World’s Cities report, of which she was editor. Instead of addressing this gross irregularity, Warah writes, she was “humiliated in office meetings and called a liar”. All her efforts to get internal redress were ignored, “buried in a heap of bureaucratic indifference” including by the UN Ethics Office, and by several subsequent directors of UN-Habitat, only going public by writing this book as a last resort.
Rasna Warah’s new book, Lords of Impunity, shatters any notions that the UN is a pristine place oriented towards lofty ideals, the moral conscience of the world.
The bulk of the book however, unearths harrowing stories from UN failures worldwide, opening in the first chapter with a striking quote from a 1994 New York Times op-ed that describes the UN headquarters in New York as “one of the most dangerous territories for women”, where female UN staff faced a hostile work environment of rampant sexual harassment, but had nowhere to turn because no national laws, not even those of the United States, can govern how it operates. This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.
The book goes on to chronicle serious offences covered up by a UN that, in her telling, is a place concerned, above all, with its own reputation and continued existence. Some of these offences are well known, such as the UN’s failure to intervene in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, even though it had the intel to do so. (Remarkably, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, escaped blame for the genocide, going on to head the UN as Secretary-General and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.) In addition, the UN failed to take responsibility for a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed 10,000 people; the outbreak originated in the sewage of the UN peacekeeping mission there. Others feature less in the public consciousness but are no less appalling, such as the organization’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by UN Peacekeepers in Mozambique, Liberia, Cambodia, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo—the perpetrators were simply sent home.
This article predates the #MeToo movement by a quarter century, and even now, it seems that “many male UN employees believe they are entitled to sexual favours at their workplace”.
There is also the internal work culture at the organization that abets irregularities and outright fraud, such as fiddling with statistics to show a higher slum population or more people facing food emergencies, so that more funds can be raised for a particular cause. Or, in an even broader sense, the outright colonial idea that white people are invariably better than non-white people at the organization, with white supremacy animating much of the hierarchy at the UN. Lack of career advancement is a sore point for African staff at the organization, and in one episode in the book that I found particularly striking, denial of a promotion is ostensibly carried out “to ‘protect’ the employee from racism—a very convoluted way of thinking that victimizes African employees twice”. Instead of white colleagues being reprimanded for being unwilling to be supervised by an African, the African’s career advancement was blocked. Any typical Nairobian can attest to the fact that white expatriates enjoy privileges—such as domestic staff, which expat publications are always quick to laud—that they might not get in Europe and North America, and so, white people typically throw their weight around and commit infarctions that they would not dare attempt back home.
Deeply researched and convincingly told, Warah’s book is a damning indictment of an organization that, all said, she still believes can do much good in the world, but only with real and systematic restructuring—such as redefining the immunity clauses of the UN charter so that staff implicated in crime or unethical behaviour are not exempted from being indicted in their home country as is the case currently, and replacing the UN Ethics Office with an independent external arbitration tribunal.
The book’s major weakness is that in some places, its scope becomes too sprawling and one can become lost in the intricacies of the internal workings of the UN; it could have been edited more tightly for a general audience. I am also not sure how different this book is from Warah’s 2016 book UNSilenced, which uncovers similar webs of lies, cover-ups, corruption and impunity within a UN that has allowed wrongdoing to continue unabated, but this may be because have not yet had the opportunity to read that earlier book.
Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.
In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.
Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.
Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.
But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.
When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.
Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.
For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”
The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.
Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.
In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.
Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.
The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.
Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.
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