Friday, September 02, 2011

Inside the WikiLeaks Cables

Yesterday I posted about the unredacted U.S. government diplomatic cables that had found their way onto the Internet. I suggested that humanitarian organizations doing international work should review the content to see if they are mentioned. There hadn't been much NGO-related material mentioned in the cables officially released by WikiLeaks, but I suspected there might be in the unreleased cables (Update - as of today, WikiLeaks has released all of the cables).

My hunch was correct. In skimming through the cables there is a large volume of communications about international NGOs and the UN. Some of it mundane (program reports), some of it controversial (country director opinions of host governments and leaders), some of it concerning security incidents (a few that I'd heard about through the community grapevine and others I hadn't). For example, here's an extract from a 2006 cable about the security situation in Darfur:

NGOs Operating Under Increasingly Harsh Conditions
3. (C) A variety of occurrences over the past three months underscores the tenuous security environment faced by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Darfur.
The nature of the events and their severity are increasing; the potential for further deterioration during the holiday season put NGOs at increased risk. This is particularly true in the Gereida area of South Darfur, a town along the strategic Nyala ) Buram road that has seen ongoing conflict for more than two years between tribal militias, rebel groups, Sudan Armed Forces, Popular Defense Forces (PDF), and Janjaweed.

4. (C) Several recent events reflect this trend (Refs A and
-- The rape, apparently designed to send a brutal warning to international humanitarian workers, of an Action Contre la Faim (ACF) expatriate worker;
-- The rising pace of vehicles car-jackings ) with 20 vehicles being stolen during the past month;
-- The selective theft of communications equipment and computers (Ref A), which impedes the ability of NGOs to conduct their normal activities, report on conditions, and communicate with outsiders;
-- The interrogation of CARE International workers, including regarding their private e-mail messages (Ref B);
-- The withdrawal of NGOs from Darfur and relocation of 400 humanitarian assistance workers so far in the month of December alone (Ref C); and
-- The decreased overall ability of the international community to deliver essential services and commodities for internally displaced persons (IDPS) in Darfur.

MFA: NGOs are Politically Manipulated, Need Courage
5. (C) During a December 21 meeting with State Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Ali Karti, Charge Hume underscored the gravity of recent security events in Darfur, particularly in the Gereida area. The theft of a dozen vehicles, withdrawal of Oxfam and ACF, and sexual assault of a humanitarian worker jeopardized essential services and goods for 100,000 IDPs. Karti accused NGO workers of over-reacting, and not having the courage to remain in environments they knew to involve risk. Irritated, he stated they knew of Darfur\'s problems and were paid to do their work despite poor security. There is no perfume or roses in Darfur, he added, and NGO workers should refrain from reporting every wrong they encounter. The Sudanese Government cannot help them; they should return when there is stability. Finally, he accused NGO workers of \"trying to play politics,\" and being manipulated to send a \"political message.\"
Material such as this is interesting from a historical perspective, but my primary concern is about information that could increase risk to an organization and its staff. Unfortunately, this is also present. One organization I work with had the names of a few local staff members listed in a cable; discussing security conditions and their opinions of anti-government factions. Another cable mentioned how programming activities might be beneficial to military information operations. While this organization works hard to maintain its neutrality (including no military involvement) and uses an acceptance strategy, erroneous perception can be damning. The organization's headquarters and country management team are now reviewing selected cables, determining possible impacts and appropriate responses.

Considering some of the things I've read in the cables relating to the humanitarian community, I now feel even stronger about the need for international organizations to check if they are mentioned and in what context - especially since the full set of cables is now easily searchable at CableGateSearch. It's a worthwhile exercise to play "what-if" the media, host governments, or anti-government actors are also reading these cables. Certainly nothing may come of it, but it's always better to be prepared in case it does.

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