Archive for the ‘History of Human Rights’ Category

Between the Sea and the (Historian’s) Problem of Humanity

Friday, January 8th, 2016

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post on the movement of refugees and others across the waters of the Mediterranean on unseaworthy vessels and why, when they take on water or begin to sink, fishermen and captains of great seafaring container ships risk their own lives and livelihoods in an effort to save those who had gone overboard.


I argued that it had less to do with largely-unenforceable international maritime law, which requires rescues at sea, than with the humanity of the sailors themselves. These are men (mostly) who had grown up on the sea and knew not only its immense beauty and generosity, but also its fearful and deadly power. They also knew that they possess the unique ability to effect rescue, by dint of training and location.

The Mediterranean took a terrible toll this year, over a million crossed it and about 4,000 are missing or drowned, a number that would have been much higher had it not been for private and military assistance pulling so many to safety. Yet the horror and inherently unnecessary nature of that crossing was brought home by news reports that many of the most recently drowned had do soon because the had been sold PFDs (life jackets) that didn’t float.

The financial & emotional cost to those rescuing is immense: A burly Greek fisherman Costas Pinteris, who owns a small inshore trawler he sails from the tiny Levos port city of Skala Sykamias told PBS Newshour’s Malcolm Brabant

…when I see someone in urgent need when I’m out fishing, I drop everything and go to help, because my work is not as important as saving human lives. The worst thing is the drowned people, drowned mothers, drowned children… The pictures I saw during those incidents which I was seeing almost on a daily basis would come back to me while I was trying to sleep in bed at night. I kept seeing repeated pictures of the same incidents as nightmares. I couldn’t sleep at all.”

I’ve had that experience, but it wasn’t after pulling someone from the sea.

I had been working on collection from the Aleppo Rescue Home of intake surveys of trafficked Armenian Genocide survivors stored in the League of Nations archive in Geneva. The forms, which is all they really were, were used to collect data on young people who had been rescued or rescued themselves from the households into which they had been sold during the genocide and after most of their family had been murdered. In the upper right corner there is a photograph of the young person appearing just as they would coming in off the dessert, often before they were processed, given a haircut and Western-style clothes. The bulk of the document includes a narrative told in the third person about what he or she had gone through from the time they were separated from their family until they entered the Rescue Home.  Below is Zabel from Arapgır’s story:

In the beginning of the deportation, Zabel’s father was separated from her family and was sent in an unknown direction. Zabel was exiled with her mother, 5 sisters and a younger brother. The caravan which consisted of men, women, boys, girls and infants, was formed to go on foot 3 months, wandering upon the mountains, passing through the villages, crossing the rivers and marching across the deserts . . . The gendarmes had received the order to kill the unfortunate people by every means in their power. Near Veranshehir, they collected all the beautiful girls, and distributed them among the Turks and the Kurds. The rest of the caravan had to go further on in the deserts to die. Zabel had been the share of a Kurd, who married her. She lived there 11 years, unwillingly, until an Armenian chauffeur informed her   that many of her relatives still were living in Aleppo. Having made her escape in safety, she reached Ras al-Ain, from where by our agent she was sent to us.

Image from Zabel's Rescue Home intake survey ca 1926

Image from Zabel’s Rescue Home intake survey ca 1926


Over a couple hot, sweaty days in the UN’s Geneva compound, I read about 2000 of these entries. Most weren’t as detailed as that of Zabel’s. But they all told of the horror of forced migration, the murder of families, serial rape, involuntary motherhood and brutal servitude. These young people look like people I know; the Rescue Home is in Aleppo, Syria where I had live for much of the 1990s and returned to often until the Syrian war began. The young people telling me the stories across a century were knowable and familiar.

I left the UN compound in a haze at the end of the week — the stories battering me in a jumble of images. That night I slept fitfully and awoke screaming from a dream I can’t remember. Thankfully.

What does it mean to be a historians who works on mass violence, especially against children, rape, torture and enslavement in the recent past, a past in which he can catch glimpses of himself? I caught that glimpse when looking at photographs of rescued Armenian young people and it left a deep scar I can still feel.

Still, that research led to an AHA article and forms the basis of a chapter in my book, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism. But it forced me to think about the role of what I call the empathetic imagination as a tool of historiography. This way of imagining is central to what makes our discipline humane and helps the historian retain the humanity of his work (and himself) when confronted with so much hate, violence, and inhumanity. It can bring history and the historian into broader conversations about justice, acknowledgement, and reconciliation, which is one of the promises of human rights history.

A Human Rights Review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Monday, December 28th, 2015

As Yoda might say: “Human Rights about Star Wars not”

Sci Fi films and fiction are often a good place to find the kinds of moral conundrums and ethical challenges, which lend themselves to thinking and teaching about Human Rights. But the Lucas/Disney/Abrams Star Wars franchise isn’t. As Yoda might say: “Human Rights about Star Wars not” – nor for that matter is it about democracy, emancipation, ambiguity, science or egalitarianism.

The universe imagined by Lucas, who saw Star Wars as the “hero’s journey,” gives us little in the way of awareness of the human condition, indeed it eschews any celebration of shared humanity and instead embraces the mass killing of combatants, non-combatants and seemingly sentient human-like androids with little sense of loss or accountability.

Intellectually unchallenging, the films lack any sense of moral ambiguity (Light Side, Dark Side) – which has appealed ever-since to men like Dick Cheney, who once remarked “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will,” as a defense of torture, which occurred at “dark sites” around the world following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Moreover, whatever politics there are seem to be dominated by a quasi-hereditary unelected Senate, whose rebellion seems motivated as far as I can tell by concerns over trade routes and the political autonomy of peripheral planets where the grossest of human rights violations are routinely practiced and without comment from that Senate: slavery, human trafficking, genocide and the destruction of indigenous cultures — and that’s just on Tatooine; I hate to think what’s happening on Endor.

Dr. Watenpaugh debates the finer points of Trek vs. Star Wars with his son, Aram, while his daughter looks on in appropriate bemusement

Dr. Watenpaugh debates the finer points of Trek vs. Star Wars with his son, Aram, while his daughter, Arda, looks on in appropriate bemusement

Presiding over it all is a zealous Gnostic sect, the leadership of which bases its religious practices on the idolization of the tools of extreme violence (light sabers), the ability to violate the privacy rights of others and enter their minds without permission (Jedi mind tricks) and who view the world through absolutes while claiming only their opponents do so (“Only Sith deals in absolutes.”)

Like in Lord of the Rings, technology is bad and the foot soldiers of the enemy are merely a one-dimensional Other (Orcs and Stormtroopers), whose origins in torture and rights-violations are obscured and whose easy and mass deaths are played for laughs. We learn in the most recent “Star Wars” that Stormtroopers aren’t just clones anymore, but are child soldiers stolen from their families in the vein of Joseph Kony and his ilk.

But isn’t it just a movie? Sure, but “Star Wars” is also a cultural phenomenon that is both a reflection of our zeitgeist and a shaper of it. J.J. Abrams is smart enough to know that and rather than just pandering to aging Fan Boys with call backs to “A New Hope” and bringing us yet another Disney Princess in the form of Daisy Ridley’s Mary Sue Rey, he had a chance to use the films in the best tradition of SciFi to pose some decent questions.

But then again, he made the last two Star Trek films, which didn’t do much of that either.

Still, I enjoy and admire Star Trek for many of the same reasons I find Star Wars so problematic. The anthology science fiction series that came from the imagination of Gene Roddenberry has been around for 50 years and shouldn’t be judged only by the last two movies – which weren’t that bad and even asked decent questions about ethics and rights. Kirk and Spock take seriously the idea of exploration, the role of Starfleet in humanitarian efforts and seek to arrest their enemies for the crime of genocide (the destruction of Vulcan) before joyfully blowing them up.

In fact, for years I’ve led a freshman honors’ seminar on the Human Rights of Star Trek. I even use in my 80+ student Human Rights course the brutal interrogation of Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean Luc Picard by a Cardassian Gul played by David Warner in the episode “Chain of Command” (“There are four lights!”) to illustrate how little torture is about information and more about power and fear.

Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) who was the first African-American women to play an officer of any kind on a t.v. show always remembered how Roddenberry told her that Trek was about “something.” Sci Fi was a safe space from which to explore the tough issues of the ‘60s, including the Vietnam War — “Private little war” — and race — “Let that be your last battlefield.” In the 90s it covered homosexuality; in the Aughts, anthropogenic climate change.

The fact that Trek was about something has given its actors the kind of post-t.v. platform from which to support the arts and respect for rights and dignity we’ve never seen those of the Star Wars universe even attempt. Being Sulu has given George Takei the credibility and trust of legions of fans that made him not just a gay rights icon, but also a moral leader in the remembrance of Japanese Internment and most recently anti-Muslim and Arab hysteria.

The movies we love and stand in line for tell us a great deal about who and where we are as a people on the critical issues of the moment. I’m not sure that “Star Wars” is where we should be.

Syria’s Lost Generation: A Human Rights Challenge to American Higher Education – Dec 4 3:00-4:30 PM Alumni Center

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

UC Davis Global Affairs and UC Davis Human Rights Studies

Syria’s Lost Generation: A Human Rights Challenge to American Higher Education
Friday, December 4, 2015 Founder’s Library, Alumni Center — 3:00– 4:30

Human RIghts@UCDavis Director Keith David Watenpaugh and Syrian-Kurdish Refugee Students Beirut, March 2014

Human RIghts@UCDavis Director Keith David Watenpaugh and Syrian-Kurdish Refugee Students Beirut, March 2014

Keynote: The Imperative to Protect the Human Right to Higher Education
Keith David Watenpaugh, Director Human Rights Studies, UC Davis

Specialized Educational Training During Conflict
Adrienne Fricke, Syria Advisor to Physicians for Human Rights

Jusoor: An Endeavor to Help Syria through Education
Maya al-Kateb, Director Jusoor

Emergency Support to Syrian Students and Professors: IIE’s Syria Consortium
Higher Education in Crisis
Daniel Obst, Deputy Vice President, International Partnerships in Higher Education, IIE

Syrians Students for a Better Future Program
Megan Mozina, Director of the International Initiatives and Strategic Alignment, Illinois Institute of Technology

This public program is part of the UC Davis initiative to develop principles and best practices for the protection and support for refugee university students globally.

A joint project of Human Rights @UCDavis: The Interdepartmental Program in Human Rights Studies and UC Davis Global Affairs

UC Davis Human Rights Journal – Making the Case 1:2 2012

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

Our undergraduates have produced the second number of the 2012 volume of Making the Case.

It is a tremendous effort and represents the work of some of our best and brightest. Several of the authors are Human Rights Minors. Some are going on the Human Rights graduate programs elsewhere. It was edited by Rachel Pevsner, who did a great job.

It’s a mix of historical works, interviews, art and music. I was impressed with all of the work, but especially essays by three of my students:

Geneva Brooks: Barriers to Resistance in
Rwanda and the Holocaust

Phoebe Bierly: Genocide Denial and the
Stolen Generations

Michael Hoye: Examining the Success of the
International Criminal Court

Link to the journal

Prague-Cairo-Damascus – Remembering Havel and his “Power of the Powerless”

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Vaclav Havel was buried today.   His state funeral in Prague’s main cathedral was attended by the great and mighty.  He would have been uncomfortable with the ritual, but have understood the drama of the moment all the same.  Outside thousands of Czechs gathered and their faces showed signs of real grief and sadness at the passing of a playwright who fell into the role of president.  He wasn’t the architect of 1989 and the collapse of Soviet power in his homeland, and by most accounts he wasn’t a very good president, as his rigid belief structure wasn’t well matched to the quotidian demands of modern politics.

Mourners in the streets of Prague

But what Havel will be most remembered for is how he created an intellectual framework for understanding both the specific content of dissent and the role of the dissident in Eastern Europe as well as a way to see beyond prevailing ideologies of the Soviet Bloc and the West to something different, something better.  His was a rejection of older revolutionary ideologies and models; it was a new understanding through his own lived experience of the transcendent value of dissent and how it is both a product of the dehumanizing nature of modernization and the last best hope for modern society to resist the forces that would finish robbing it of its last shreds of humanity.

His essay, The Power of the Powerless” (1978) remains the clearest statement of the role of the dissident, his relationship to power, the arts and humanity.  Written as a working paper for a meeting of East Bloc human rights defenders that never took place, the essay has the added virtue of telling us something about what is happening today on the streets of Cairo, where tens of thousands occupied Tahrir Square in protest of the violent crackdown on dissent (and in particular on women protestors), demanding the immediate transition to civil rule.  It is also a warning about the moral cost of subordinating human life to ideology and “the cause” – a bloody reminder of which we saw today in an upscale Damascene suburb.

At the center of Havel’s essay is the idea that in a totalitarian-bureaucratic state like his 1970s Czechoslovakia or 2010s Egypt and Syria, truth is a product of power: “The principle involved here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.” Thus for the “powerless” their power exists in absenting themselves from the truth produced by the state and, in Havel’s words, “living outside the lie.”  He uses a “greengrocer” as an everyman around which to explain the process.

Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.

Those of us who have lived in bureaucratic-totalitarian states like Egypt, Syria and pre-war Iraq know this greengrocer and when his brother and sister Cairenes and Homsis took the streets earlier this year, we saw echoes of Havel’s ideas in what they were doing.  It was about breaking the power of fear, but also disconnecting truth from the state in ways Havel, whose own ability to share his ideas was limited by the rules of Samizdat, could have only dreamed of.   But he understood the cumulative power of that act.

It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division. This power does not participate in any direct struggle for power; rather, it makes its influence felt in the obscure arena of being itself. The hidden movements it gives rise to there, however, can issue forth (when, where, under what circumstances, and to what extent are difficult to predict) in something visible: a real political act or event, a social movement, a sudden explosion of civil unrest, a sharp conflict inside an apparently monolithic power structure, or simply an irrepressible transformation in the social and intellectual climate. And since all genuine problems and matters of critical importance are hidden beneath a thick crust of lies, it is never quite clear when the proverbial last straw will fall, or what that straw will be. This, too, is why the regime prosecutes, almost as a reflex action preventively, even the most modest attempts to live within the truth.

Even as Havel was describing the power of dissent he was looking beyond it to how making the active choice to live outside of the lie and inside of the truth would form a new basis for society.

Above all, any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the “human order,” which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, a newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community-these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go.

Havel located this “moral reconstitution” in the promise of human rights, taking the existence of rights as a serious starting point for morality in a post-revolutionary system. This is the hard (utopian) part of Havel’s thought.  He went from being a dissident to being a politician and every dissident loses some of their charm when this happens.  It was not an easy transition for him and suggests how difficult such transitions are.  But human rights are not at the center of the moral conversation in Cairo.  Havel couldn’t have anticipated how Islamist visions for state and society would come to dominate the aspirational idealism of the post-revolutionary environment there, where another kind of truth, dogma is ascendant.  For Havel, “life, in its essence, moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, and self-organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom,” the politics of the moment in Cairo suggest the opposite system and one which in Havel’s words,   “demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline” instead.

Yet the bombing in Damascus this morning reminds me that Havel’s theory of the dissident makes it clear that law is at the “innermost structure of the ‘dissident’ attitude. This attitude is and must be fundamentally hostile toward the notion of violent change-simply because it places its faith in violence.”  While he does accede to the possibility of violence as a “necessary evil in extreme situations,” he also notes how the dissident is skeptical about any system based on “faith” in change in government or ideological system.  What happened in Syria was part of the internationalization of the civil war there and the marginalization of peaceful dissent that advocated for an existential revolution – not just the replacement of one tyranny with another.  My thinking is that for Syria, any hope for a peaceful transition is gone.

In the end, the passing of Havel gives us an opportunity to also reflect on the role he believed that art, scholarship and music, especially the raw, malformed rock of the Plastic People of the Universe have, in remaking society.

They may be writers who write as they wish without regard for censorship or official demands and who issue their work-when official publishers refuse to print it-as samizdat. They may be philosophers, historians, sociologists, and all those who practice independent scholarship and, if it is impossible through official or semi-official channels, who also circulate their work in samizdat or who organize private discussions, lectures, and seminars. They may be teachers who privately teach young people things that are kept from them in the state schools; clergymen who either in office or, if they are deprived of their charges, outside it, try to carry on a free religious life; painters, musicians, and singers who practice their work regardless of how it is looked upon by official institutions; everyone who shares this independent culture and helps to spread it; people who, using the means available to them, try to express and defend the actual social interests of workers, to put real meaning back into trade unions or to form independent ones; people who are not afraid to call the attention of officials to cases of injustice and who strive to see that the laws are observed; and the different groups of young people who try to extricate themselves from manipulation and live in their own way, in the spirit of their own hierarchy of values. The list could go on. Very few would think of calling all these people “dissidents.” And yet are not the well-known “dissidents” simply people like them? Are not all these activities in fact what “dissidents” do as well? Do they not produce scholarly work and publish it in samizdat? Do they not write plays and novels and poems? Do they not lecture to students in private “universities”? Do they not struggle against various forms of injustice and attempt to ascertain and express the genuine social interests of various sectors of the population?

Two 11/17s – UC Davis, Athens’ Polytechneion and violence against student protestors

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Two 11/17s

UC Davis Quad, 11/17-11/18/2011

Late yesterday afternoon, UC Davis police, most dressed in riot gear and helmets, bearing truncheons and tear-gas grenade guns descended upon a group of UC Davis undergraduate and graduate students who had set-up an Occupy encampment in the large grassy “quad” at the center of our campus.

I had visited the campers earlier in the day and brought them donuts.  Donuts?  Yes, I know how much my own kids like donuts when we’re camping, plus this being Davis, I figured that most of the other donated food would be “healthy.”

The tents had been set up on both sides of Centennial Walk.  Again, this being Davis they had rolled in multiple trash, recycling and compost cans.  It had rained, but their spirits were good.  The demonstration was peaceful; and the main political statement was the simple and sublime message that this is their campus, their university and their future – and that there is something dreadfully wrong with the way things are.

Later that afternoon the police came and forced the students to remove their tents. The students mounted some resistance but in the end complied.  About a dozen more decided to remain at the site in protest, sitting and locking arms.  For reasons that are still unclear, a member of the UC Davis police then began to spray the students with pepper-spray.  His demeanor was almost nonchalant, with no visible signs of recognition that he was inflicting pain on a group of young people posing no apparent threat to him, the other police officers or “public safety.”

Take a look at the videos.

In the end the police left to sounds of the hundreds of students who had gathered nearby shouting “shame.”  When you can catch a glimpse of the eyes of the police behind their riot gear, there is a kind of embarrassed and slightly humiliated look. In that moment, one sees how the abuse of human rights, how brutality – even in this limited and casual way — diminishes the humanity of not just those beaten or “peppered,” but also of those committing the act under orders.

The images from Davis will become iconic in the Occupy Movement.

11/17/1973  The Polytechneion, Athens

For the student protester who had gathered on the campus of the Greek equivalent of MIT, the stakes were very high.  Since 1967 Greece had been ruled by a brutal military junta, the so-called Regime of Colonels, which had suspended most civil rights and engaged in torture.

Part of the junta’s style of rule was banning student government and protests and rounding up student activists.  One of the junta’s favorite techniques was forcibly drafting students into the military, where they could be subjected to further human rights’ abuse or just “disappear” altogether.

In February of 1973 students at the Athens law school set up barricades and “occupied” their campus in protest of the drafting of 88 of their colleagues.  The junta’s puppet prime minister ordered the police to retake the campus, which they did and with a great deal of brutality.

The brutal nature of the police response further radicalized Athens’ students.  On November 14, 1973 the students of the Polytechneion declared a strike and more importantly, set up a radio station – think pre-Facebook old school media.  The radio station began broadcasting speeches, songs, and poems.  Spurred by the broadcasts, Athenians came to the campus in support.

Fearing a general uprising the puppet government ordered the military to retake the campus.  At 3:00 am on 11/17/1973 a tank crashed through the campus’ front gate and shortly thereafter the radio went silent. 24 civilians would be killed in the violence that ensued.

Tanks at the Polytechneion

But the uprising and its suppression played a critical role in helping bring an end to military rule in Greece and initiating Greece’s reengagement with democracy, a tumultuous and very difficult historical process called the Metapolitefisi.  Greece is having all sorts of problems at the moment, but democracy isn’t one of them and Greece and Greeks are fully integrated into European political structures that protect and extend human rights.

Our chancellor went to the Polytechneion, and I’m sure she remembers the bravery of the Greek students in the face of tanks and guns from her childhood.  It is precisely because of this history and memory that I think she understands better than most in our administration the power of student anger and resilience; she also knows how critical it is to find a way forward that engages students and faculty in a serious and authentic way.

“Legal Violence” against Turkish journalists, writers and academics: the arrest of Ragıp Zarakolu and Büşra Ersanlı

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

There’s no good news and then there’s slightly better news.

Bad news: It’s not been a good week for Human Rights activists and journalists in Turkey, especially those who find themselves on the wrong side of the government’s official position on the rights of Kurds and other minorities.

Over the last week, Ragıp Zarakolu, a Turkish Human Rights activist. publisher and PEN International’s local “Writers in Prison” committee chair and Büşra Ersanlı, a noted Political Scientist at Marmara University and leader of the a liberal Turkish political party were rounded up with nearly 70 other politicians, journalists, students, trade unionists and community organizers.   Indeed, earlier this month Ragıb’s son Deniz, a Ph. D. student at Biligi University had been arrested after giving a lecture. Most, like Ersanlı are associated with various Turkish progressive NGOs including the Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi (Peace and Democracy Party) The Turkish government alleges that they are linked to a terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) through its civilian wing, the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK).  7748 people have been arrested as a consequence of the government’s campaign over the last three years – most in the last 30 months. The arrests and prosecutions have been criticized by both Turkish and international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch.  Among those arrested under nebulous terrorism laws were mayors, delegates to regional assemblies and parliamentary candidates primarily from cities and towns in Turkey’s Kurdish dominated southeast.

Ragıb Zarakolu

The BDP is a legal Turkish political party.  Any link to the PKK is nebulous at best – this isn’t Sinn Féin and the IRA.  What’s happening is just a witch hunt and another moment where the [ab]use of terrorism legislation to destroy a peaceful political opposition is taking place.  In the old days, repressive governments accused their opponents of being tools of Western imperialism, Leftists, Zionists, (or in the case of the remarkable Argentine newspaper editor, Jacopo Timerman, “Leftist Zionist.” BTW my Human Rights students read his Preso sin nombre, celda sin número and it has been a very successful prompt for in class discussion).

The Turkish government’s efforts should be understood as a brutal attempt to reverse the actual and possible electoral gains of a progressive, pro-Kurdish rights political movement through trumped up political and thought-crime prosecutions.  It’s probably also related to heightened tensions in Turkey as it renews its attacks against the PKK across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan.  Nevertheless, these mass arrests, which have a kind of retro feel to them, represent a giant step backwards for human rights and a pluralist political future for a European Union applicant state.  It is also a reminder, if one really needed one, that despite immense gains in Turkish civil society for the promotion of human rights, the recognition of the cultural rights of minorities and a coming to terms with the violent and genocidal history of Anatolia, that a ultranationalist vision of Turkey still prevails, even under Islamist governments like that which currently rules the country, and that the state will use all the coercive means in its power to protect that vision.

In a minor victory against that vision, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recently ruled in favor of Taner Akçam, who holds the Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide History at Clark University.  Akçam had brought suit against the Turkish government at the court for violations of his human rights, in particular Article 10 (Freedom of Expression) of the European Convention of Human Rights.

According to the decision:

The Court found that there had been an “interference” with Mr Taner Akçam’s right to freedom of expression. The criminal investigation launched against him and the Turkish criminal courts’ standpoint on the Armenian issue in their application of Article 301 of the Criminal Code (any criticism of the official line on the issue in effect being sanctioned), as well as the public campaign against him, confirmed that there was a considerable risk of prosecution faced by persons who expressed “unfavourable” opinions on the subject and indicated that the threat hanging over Mr Taner Akçam was real. The measures adopted to provide safeguards against arbitrary or unjustified prosecutions under Article 301 had not been sufficient.

Turkey’s Article 301 criminalizes anything (speech, writing, art) that insults the Turkish Nation or the Republic of Turkey and is generally used to suppress the public discussion of issues like the Armenian Genocide.  Akçam’s victory underscores how threats of “legal violence”against dissidents, academics, journalists and students authorized by Article 301 has a powerful chilling effect and ultimately violates their basic human rights.

During the last several years, Turkish American organizations have used similar tactics, including the threat of lawsuits and indeed actual lawsuits against scholars, school districts and at least one university with whose scholarship on genocide and the promotion of its denial they disagree.  This includes a case brought by the Turkish Coalition of America against the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.  The case was dismissed but not before it used up resources and time and generally made miserable the brave interim director of the center, Professor Bruno Chaouat. The University of Minnesota understood that it was worth it to fight for Chaouat’s academic freedom, but also to protect all of us against the spread of the kinds of human rights violations that are too commonplace in contemporary Turkey.

Violence against Turkey’s LGBT community and the costs of social impunity

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Turkey is a remarkable study in contrast and contradictions.  As an impoverished grad student I once lived in Istanbul’s “infamous” neighborhood Sormagır Sokak, (the name of which is a slightly off-color pun in Turkish) which was home to conservative peasant immigrants from the Black Sea and transvestite singers who often headlined the high-end nightclubs off of Istiklal Caddesi nearby.  Turkey has a long history of female impersonator singers, some of whom have reached great fame with vast numbers of fans among the country’s overwhelmingly conservative society.

In the mornings on the way to the archives, I’d watch the tired singers walk home after a night of working, their hair and makeup in stark contrast to the hints of a beard rising on their cheeks.  The immigrants would sit on the front stoops of the apartments eating seeds and chatting.  Relations between the two communities was usually live and let live, but tensions did exist that could lead to conflict.

Turkey was among the first states to decriminalize homosexuality.  But the Turkish military views it as a mental illness and proving one’s homosexuality is a way to escape mandatory military service. Still, over the last two-decades a growing movement for Gay Rights has emerged in Turkey, especially as the country’s civil society becomes more integrated with Europe’s. Yet as that movement has grown and gay men, in particular, become more open in their practice, human rights activists and groups, including Amnesty International Turkey have noted the occurrence of gay “honor killing.”

The case that continues to capture international attention is that of Ahmet Yıldız.  Yıldız was a 26-year-old physics grad student who had  represented Turkey at a Gay Rights gathering in San Francisco.  Gay rights activists believe he was the first Turk to have been targeted for “honor killing” because of his sexuality.  Leaving a café near the Bosphorous on a warm July evening in 2008 assailants attacked and shot and killed him.

The Turkish authorities finally issued an arrest warrant for his father, whom they believed killed his son, but only after the elder Yildiz had fled the country.  Honor killing is a reality in Turkey, as it is elsewhere, where the victims are usually women who have “dishonored” the family because of some imagined or real illicit sexual act or having been raped. Despite increasing punishments for this kind of killing and the Turkish justice system’s abandonment of family honor as mitigation in sentencing, it continues.  One horrifying consequence of the increasing legal sanction is that families will have one of their underaged children carry out the killing, knowing that they can only be imprisoned for a few years.

A remarkable and touching campaign in Yildiz’s memory is playing out on the walls of Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighborhood, where posters with his face and captioned by the phrase “Ahmet Yildiz is my family.”  It’s accompanied by a website where people can join his “family.”

In the case of the Turkish Armenian intellectual Hrant Dink (2007) it was a teenager tasked with carrying out the honor killing.  Dink was the most prominent Armenian intellectual in Turkey at the time of his murder.  He was singled out for death in part because of his stand on the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the broader sense that his behavior had insulted Turkish national honor.  A famous picture of Dink’s murderer standing with smiling policemen after his arrest suggested that if not explicitly sanction by elements of the Turkish state, the killing was at least understood as a legitimate act of social discipline.  Thus, it was ok to kill the Armenian because he insulted Turkey and he’s only a gavur, just as its ok to kill the gay guy because he violates society’s social norms and the rape victim because she dishonored the family and was asking for it.

Is the killing of women and gay men for reasons of family honor “cultural” where the murder of Dink was “political?” My sense is that there is a critical correlation between them.  The tolerance of these acts by society and the elements of the state — granted Turkey has prosecuted in some cases, though often only following international pressure — creates a culture of social impunity, where non-state actors can violate the human rights of sexual and ethnic minorities and women and face lesser punishment, because of the perceived lesser humanity of the victims.

The case in Turkey points to how important it is to link the protection of the human rights of sexual minorities into broader protections and campaigns on behalf of other kinds of minorities and groups.  It also raises other questions about the way appeals to culture and tradition can come into conflict with human rights norms and even how pressure on behalf of gays and minorities in a place like Turkey can be perceived as alien and itself a form of cultural oppression.

A possible path was proposed this last week by British PM David Cameron who has pledged to cut foreign aid to those countries criminalizing homosexuality. The problem there is that this kind of outside pressure often works at cross-purposes in the local context, making life MORE difficult for local human rights activists.  The most effective and long-range solution lies with supporting civil society in a places like Turkey and remembering that we too in the West are in Ahmet’s and Hrant’s families. has longer article on this topic

also read Human Rights Watch’s remarkable report on the situation in Turkey.

Nansen at 150 and the origins of the Modern Refugee Régime

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Thanks to my colleague Inger Marie Okenhaug, I was reminded that Monday was the 150th  anniversary of the birth of the leading interwar professional humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930).

Fridtjof Nansen

She told me that the Norwegians are commemorating Nansen by focusing primarily on his exploits as a Polar explorer.  But Nansen also played a critical role in the creation of the interwar refugee régime.

At the end of World War One Nansen been charged by the League of Nations to oversee the repatriation of prisoners of war, primarily in Eastern Europe.  While in the East, he was among the first Western humanitarians to grasp the full extent of the emerging Russian refugee crisis.  War, revolution and food shortages had displaced 1.5 million subjects of the former Russian Empire – Russians, Poles, Lats, Ukrainians, Muslims, Jews and Caucasian Armenians, as well as so-called white émigrés.  With war’s end and the redrawing of boundaries, the Soviet Government passed legislation denaturalizing large portions of that displaced population, producing, thereby a large and heterogeneous mass in various forms of statelessness.  In particular it was the case of some 120,000 Russian refugees in Istanbul that first indicated to Nansen the gravity of the situation.

Armenians had also been displaced by genocide and Turkish policies denying them the right of return to their homeland or denaturalizing those living outside the borders of the newly constituted state. Not counting those Armenians who had immigrated to the United States or who were living in the Soviet Republic of Armenia, the numbers of Armenians in this situation was approximately 340,000, as estimated by the League, with roughly half, living in refuges camps, orphanages or shantytowns near the big cities of the Levant.

For Nansen this refugee crisis was not just about feeding and protecting refugees, it was also a problem of international law and legal standing.  These refugees had no state to protect their interests or rights.

The international management of the refugee issue was the impetus behind the establishment of the Office of the High Commissioner, which eventually became the Nansen International Office for Refugees, among whose earliest acts was the creation of a League-administered travel document called the Nansen Passport, first for displaced subjects of the Russian Empire in July 1922 and then Ottoman Armenians in May 1924. 54 States agreed to recognize those travel documents issued to Russians, and 38 would later also acknowledged those held by Armenians. Within months of beginning the process, League officials encountered eligibility issues and questions and further moved to define the “refugee.”

In a larger sense, this meant that in a narrow widow of activity, the League had accepted responsibility to act as a virtual state for refugee Armenians.  In retrospect, that act provided a modicum of dignity in the sense suggested by Nansen in his Nobel lecture, but also a way for Armenians to participate effectively in economic (though not political) structures with relative ease.  It allowed them to regain some control over their own lives, letting them connect to the “market” with some social and legal guarantees. Onnig Isbenjian’s story, as told by his Nansen Passport and its visa stamps shows, Armenians from the Ottoman Empire could make a successful transition to Western Europe, France, in particular which faced labor shortages after the war, or in his case to the United States, where his descendants still live.

Interior of Onnig Isbendjian’s Nansen Passport issued in Belgium in 1928 and used for travel via Great Britain to the United States. Note the Nansen Stamp in the lower left quadrant. Source: Zohrab Center Digital collection.

And while it remains unclear if Nansen and others understood the passport as a human rights instrument, he clearly linked it to the core human rights concept of “dignity.”

As he noted in his 1922 Nobel Laureate lecture, The Suffering People of Europe, “This [humanitarianism] is not the struggle for power, but a single and terrible accusation against those who still do not want to see, a single great prayer for a drop of mercy to give men a chance to live.”

Voltaire, Troy Davis and the Death Penalty

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Rain, Bergen, Rain, Norway, Rain

I don’t know what Voltaire would have said about the execution of Troy Davis – whom many including William Sessions the former director of the FBI regarded as quite possibly innocent — by the people of the state of Georgia.

But the death penalty was something he and other Philosophes did think about in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I do know that in his commentary on Beccaria on Crimes and Punishment, Vol. 10

Voltaire did write:

It hath long since been observed, that a man after he is hanged is good for nothing, and that punishments invented for the good of society, ought to be useful to society.

Voltaire: pas de peine de mort!

On the other hand, J.S. Mill saw the death penalty as affirmation of the protection of life

When there has been brought home to any one, by conclusive evidence, the greatest crime known to the law; and when the attendant circumstances suggest no palliation of the guilt, no hope that the culprit may even yet not be unworthy to live among mankind, nothing to make it probable that the crime was an exception to his general character rather than a consequence of it, then I confess it appears to me that to deprive the criminal of the life of which he has proved himself to be unworthy–solemnly to blot him out from the fellowship of mankind and from the catalogue of the living–is the most appropriate as it is certainly the most impressive, mode in which society can attach to so great a crime the penal consequences which for the security of life it is indispensable to annex to it.

Rousseau and Kant, both champions of individual rights and the limitation of the powers of the state thought that the death penalty was a legitimate use of state power.

Diderot, Hume, Adam Smith and Thomas Paine did not.

All of these men are not equally theorists of human rights, but their work is part of the historical context for contemporary human rights thinking.  This points to the fact that even through there is a broad consensus in the human rights community – a nebulous category at best, which includes human rights lawyers, groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – that the death penalty is a violation of human rights, it is still possible to argue that after an individual has denied life to a fellow human being and faced due process that that individual could be put to death in the name of his or her fellow citizens.  What human rights groups would argue is that that due process part is a big “if” and that the death penalty is an absolute and irreversible ending to an imperfect process.  The perfection or imperfection of the system becomes less of a problem when the person is merely sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The debates that swirled around Troy Davis’ execution resemble all of the historical debates about the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty with the possible exception that the degree of doubt about his culpability would have given the philosophes pause. The circumstances of his case may not have met any of the supporters of the death penalty’s basic criteria.  Discussions of the death penalty in human rights classes, most notably in my genocide course, force students to confront some deep questions – should Eichmann have been hanged?

In Norway there is no death penalty, as it was abolished in 1902.  It was briefly revived in the post-World War II era to execute Nazi collaborators, most notably Vidkun Quisling.  So even when Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing terrorist who murdered 77 of his fellow Norwegians last July faces punishment, it can only be a life term – which in practice is not even his entire life.

Voltaire is on point here.  What is the use of killing someone to society if they are imprisoned and removed physically?  On the other hand not killing could be of more use to society; in foregoing the killing of this monster, the Norwegians are making a powerful statement as a people about being humane, and affirming life as the absolute and most basic human right.

I am persuaded by the Norwegians.