Archive for the ‘History of Human Rights’ Category

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

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

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

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

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.

Salon.com 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

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

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.

Humanities, Human Rights and the Rescue of Scholars at Risk

Every couple of weeks I receive an email from Scholars at Risk (SAR) like this one:

What SAR does is try to find temporary refuge for college professors, teachers and sometimes students who are in fear for their lives because of the role they play in their home countries.  At Davis we’ve hosted a Scholar at Risk and have also had scholars from the program visit us for lectures.  I hope that with the easing of the financial crisis we can return to this practice.

While threats to their lives may not be directly related to their area of research, these scholars are often targeted because of their position as educated and respected critics of the régimes under which they live, or just because they represent modernity and secularism, as in the case of the assassination of Iraqi intellectuals in the midst of the American occupation.

SAR is hosting its 10th Anniversary Conference:  Courage to Think Dialogues with Provocative Minds early next month.

As a program it is descended in a way from the various groups who helped Jewish and anti-Nazi intellectuals escape to the West during the World War II.  The best example of that effort is the work of Varian Fry (1907-1967), an American journalist who rescued thousands of refugees, but also assisted some of Europe’s premier painters, poets and authors to safety.  This included Marcel Duchamp, Siegfried Kracauer, Jean Arp, Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt and many others.

Varian Fry

Those looking for a link between “Human Rights and the Humanities” should look to the work of Fry then and SAR now as evidence of both how the exercise of freedom of expression matters as a key human right, and how critical human rights action is to the protection of the lives and livelihoods of intellectuals.

Why would governments target poets, painters, and writers?  What is that they do that is so distasteful to brutal and rights-abusing régimes?  In America where humanists and the humanities are (considered) so marginal to real life, to politics, to power itself, it is hard to understand  that in much of the world, ideas and those who think them (or paint them or sing them) can still be considered dangerous.

A Quiet American: The Secret War of Varian Fry, Andy Marino

Surrender on demand, by Varian Fry (originally published in 1945)

Reflections on the Teaching of Human Rights at Ten Years After 9/11

There was something missing, something just not right…

Spring Qtr. ’11. A student in my “Human Rights” introductory course was at my office hours to talk. In class we had discussed the human rights implications of the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden, something that had just happened that week, breaking off from the syllabus to think about terrorism as a crime against humanity and revisiting a discussion we had had earlier about how Islamism (like most religious ideologies) tends to deny the very existence of human rights in favor of a more divinely ordained code of ethics and behaviors.

The classroom conversation turned to the question of whether bin Laden’s human rights had been violated or what we had been told had happened was a justifiable and legitimate use of deadly force? I then asked my students to think about what could have been gained by putting him on trial? We had been studying the concept of crimes against humanity trials and I observed that Nazis, Rwandan Genocidaires, and Serbian ultra-nationalists who had done similar or even worse crimes than bin Laden (but not to Americans) had been successfully captured, tried and even some executed. Think “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Nazi war criminals in the dock at Nuremberg, 1946

My student had come to talk more about that last question. She had lost someone in the Pentagon, and told me that ever since the killing of bin Laden “there was something missing, something just not right,” and when we talked about putting him on trial that that was it.

Human rights undergraduates tend to have this kind of thoughtful and reflective approach to history and the present, which is one of the more rewarding aspects of teaching in that field. But her response was particularly so and made me remember something from the very beginning of my career as a teacher.

I am suddenly the expert because I’m the only historian of the Modern Middle East for three Upstate New York counties. A colleague in my department has asked me to lecture at the Elderhostel. Sixty senior citizens sit at circular banquet tables. It’s three weeks since the Events and a few days after George W. Bush first used the phrase “war on terror” in a speech. It was a speech that also included the word “crusade.” I’m giving a talk on popular culture in the Arab world: Umm Kulthum, Rai music, Palestinian graffiti. That’s not what they want to talk about. They want to know about Them, the Muslims, the Arabs, the Enemy who wants to kill Us.

I try to tell them a different story, one about what a marginal figure bin Laden is and how radical Islamism is a cancer over there, too. Then I tell them that we’re not at war. Those who brought down the towers are criminals, mass murderers, who should face the full force of the American justice system. I ask them to remember Timothy McVeigh who was from another Upstate city and how he was caught, tried and convicted. Al-Qaeda is a criminal enterprise, it’s run and funded like one and it can be dismantled like one, it might take time. But just imagine what an elegant statement of what-makes-us-different it would be to perp-walk bin Laden and his crew into the Daniel Patrick Moynihan federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan and have him judged by a jury of 12 tough New Yorkers, convict them and then let them rot at the supermax in Florence, Colorado? Let the world see them for the pathetic, spineless, petty mobsters they are, let them descend into the hell of their own obscurity and be denied the martyrdom they crave, don’t even sentence them to die, just lock the door and throw away the goddamn key.

In 2001 this didn’t go over so well.

Moynihan Court House - site of successful criminal prosecutions of terrorists

I think I was asking too much of them at the time. That moment was infused with panic and fear, and inflamed by an administration that could invoke Pearl Harbor, the Old West and the Clash of Civilizations in a single breath. What I was asking them to consider seemed weak, effete, intellectual and ineffectual. It was us-or-them and some pointy-headed, tweedy moonlighting assistant professor wasn’t going to persuade them to entrust their desire for revenge to the CIA, FBI, lawyers and judges. That any reaction other than war was possible had been crowded out of public consciousness and it is important to recall today how harshly any dissent was dealt with at the time: it was labeled unpatriotic, it was heresy against the memory of the heroes of 9/11; are you one of them?

I don’t claim to have had any idea at the time what would unfold because of the former administration’s decision to invent the “war on terror.” But that choice to do so — and here I want to distinguish between the Events and the American (over)reaction to them — changed the field of Middle East History, my area of expertise, and altered the environment in which the teaching of and research on human rights takes place.

The extent of shared humanity

The starting point for my “Human Rights” course is a close examination of the framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the wake of World War II. The framers of the UDHR — including Eleanor Roosevelt, for whom this blog is named — insisted that the declaration was an expansion to all of humanity of the kinds of rights established in various national compacts and constitutions including the US Bill of Rights.

The reaction to 9/11 called into question how committed Americans are to the universal nature of human rights. This is of course the question raised by the elaboration of a separate legal system outside of US law for the men held at Guantanamo Bay. In the words of Navy lawyer Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, who argued the Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld case: “All men have rights, including the right to a trial — a regular trial! The abuse of prisoners indicates that we don’t think detainees are human.” How then to reconcile the preeminent role of American political thought on the universality of human rights with the application of those rights in practice only to US citizens on US soil? As in other historical fields is there an American human rights exceptionalism?

As I teach human rights, I’ve found that it’s easy to get students to support the human rights claims of a Nelson Mandela or a nameless middle-class college student facing a truncheon in Tahrir Square. The true test of our humanity is seeing that humanity in those monsters that live in our midst. In making war, we are asked to temporarily forget the humanity of the enemy; the overreaction to the Events that led us into wars of our own choosing made that forgetting simple and without cost.

Cultures of Impunity

In the Middle East of today or the South America of the late-20th century when those who abuse human rights under the color of authority routinely get away with it, it is said to have created a “culture of impunity.” As we examine how cultures of impunity are addressed and ended, my students can’t help but see clear echoes of that culture in post-9/11 euphemisms like “extreme rendition” and “enhanced interrogation.” As word comes that the CIA rendered suspects unto Libya and a former US vice-president fears arrest as a war criminal, connecting foreign cultures of impunity to a domestic one doesn’t evoke their outrage but reinforces a creeping cynicism. This cynicism is a pendulum swing away from the too credulous attitudes towards authority and the military solution of a half-generation ago among students who were older when 9/11 took place. This cynicism concerns me inasmuch as it doesn’t enjoin action, but rather its reverse and reinforces an even more dangerous sense of alienation from our political structures.

This last year, for the first time I found myself having to tell the history of 9/11 to my students in my giant freshman course, “Fundamentalism.” Before then, I had assumed that they “knew” what had happened. When I began teaching that class, my freshmen were 12 years old when 9/11 took place and many do remember it, or at least think they do and could tell stories about watching the towers collapse on televisions rolled into their junior high classrooms. This year’s freshmen were 8 years old when it happened and their memory of the events, if they have any at all, is mediated by what happened after: the Iraq War, the financial collapse, the election of Barack Obama.

Historians sometimes use (and abuse) the concept of historical interruption. The idea is that a society is evolving or moving a certain direction and some event or war or social or economic collapse sidetracks it onto a course (usually bad) it wouldn’t have taken otherwise. The United States and its relationship to human rights seemed to have been moving in a different historical direction before 9/11. The question we’ll need to answer and what I’ll pose to my students for the rest of my career is whether America and Americans are now back on that path?

Further Readings:

Human Rights Watch: United States: Investigate Bush, Other Top Officials for Torture

American Civil Liberties Union: A Call to Courage: Reclaiming our Liberties Ten Years after 9/11

Turkey’s Minorities – Between Human and Group Rights – Vestiges of the League of Nations

In a footnote to the previous post on the role of human rights in the history of the League of Nations, over the last week the government of Turkey has agreed to return property seized during the last 80 years from Christian and Jewish foundations to head off losing in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).   Turkish human rights lawyers had brought suit against Turkey on behalf of various Christian and Jewish foundations that had had their property seized (orphanages, churches, hospitals, schools, &c.) by successive Turkish governments.  The lawyers argued that this was a violation of their minority rights as outlined in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which recognized the Republic of Turkey and ended the foreign occupation of Anatolia. The Turkish government had lost cases like this before and Prime Minister Erdogan is a cagey politician who understands that the multi-billion Euros this settlement (which only returns a fraction of the properties expropriated from non-Muslims) entails is a small price to pay for further integration of Turkey into Europe.

The Greek Orthodox Halki Theological School in Istanbul (closed in 1971).

For me what is interesting about this case is how 1920s-style “minority rights” have been transformed into “human rights.”  This constitutes a move from merely recognizing the specific and conditional rights of non-Muslims to own property through collective foundations to a general statement of their human rights.

“Minority rights” in this sense are group and not individual rights, something that contrasts with the fact that human rights are often understood as being borne by the individual.  There are vestiges of group-rights thought and practice in contemporary human rights thinking – the best example of the blending of group and individual rights is seen in the common understanding of the crime of genocide: the crime is a series of human rights violations (child transfer, rape, murder) that is cumulatively a crime against a people (genos) or even nation, in the old-fashioned sense.

What this case also highlights is how nation-states in the 1920s and 1930s could pick and choose what constituted a minority. According to the Treaty of Lausanne, minority for the new Republic of Turkey meant only non-Muslims and this has been Turkish government dogma since.  In the treaty no ethnonyms were employed to define who or what the minorities were.  This silence or even erasure is critical to understanding Turkish (anti)ethnic politics over the last century and how this ideology remains a serious challenge to the promotion of human rights in that country.

Certainly, years of discrimination and brutality against Turkey’s non-Muslims – 130,000 Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Assyro-Chaldeans, Catholics and Protestants and 25,000 Sephardic Jews — are a potent symbol of the problematic nature these politics.

But a much more important issue is the reality that Turkey’s Muslim population is ethnically diverse.  Of a population of nearly 70 million, non-Turks make up 20 million.  These are Kurds, Laz, Arabs, descendents of Muslim immigrants from the Balkans and the Caucasus; not counted are the perhaps 1,000,000 grand- and great-grand-children of Armenian women and girls enslaved during the Armenian Genocide who had children by Muslim men.

These minorities, who often represent, like the Kurds, majorities in parts of Turkey, have no official recognition and indeed, the Turkish state doesn’t produce any demographic data on ethnicity in Turkey. Enforcing the homogenization of  a country that diverse has been at the root of some of Turkey’s worst human rights abuses in the past – from press censorship to extra-judicial killing.

Further Reading:

Anneannem: Anlatı (Istanbul, 2004); English trans., My Grandmother (London, Verso: 2008).

Carole Fink. Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

And Aimee Genell’s review

Pablo de Azcárate, League of Nations and National Minorities: an Experiment (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1945)