Archive for the ‘Human Rights and Social Justice’ Category

Some Thoughts on the Battle for Aleppo

I listened to the snow bursting under the tires/ like teeth crunching an apple/ and I felt a wild desire to laugh/ at you/ because you call this place hell/ and you flee from here convinced/ that death beyond Sarajevo does not exist

“Corpse” – Semezdin Mehmedinović

Amnesty International, in cooperation with Science for Human Rights has published a series of satellite images of the city of Aleppo. The images show evidence of the use of heavy weapons and artillery in residential neighborhoods. We knew this, but the independent confirmation is important.

Military Activity in Aleppo, July 23 - August 1, 2012

I used to live in Aleppo. The streets and neighborhoods now listed in battle dispatches are places where my friends live, where I shopped for books and went for walks in the evening.

What those satellite images can’t show is the human misery that has befallen the city of some 4 million people. Refugees are moving from one neighborhood of the city to another in advance of government forces and my contacts in the city tell of schools and churches filling with displaced people and shortages of everything. Electricity, water, sewage have failed; food has disappeared from store shelves and state bread bakeries – which feed the city subsidized flat pita – have run out of flour. The specter of kidnapping for profit, which was a hallmark of the civil war in Iraq, is rampant, and the fear of reprisals against Christians and Armenians whose leadership have been among the régime’s supporters grips those communities.

Despite my earlier thought that the Battle for Aleppo would be short, it appears that the Free Syrian Army rebels have dug in. The ferocity of the régime’s response also tells me that for it, recovering the city and dealing a decisive blow to the rebels have become absolute necessities. If it loses Aleppo, it loses northern Syria – from the Turkish border to Iraqi Kurdistan. The rebels would then be able to resupply at will and establish in the city an alternative government. Aleppo would be the new capital of a “Free Syria” – complete with an international airport and the physical infrastructure of a government.

The rebels have fought running battles throughout Aleppo, and have now moved into the city’s ancient walled old city. The old city is a collection of narrow streets, winding alleys and cul-de-sacs. The walls of the houses are made of thick cut stone. The rebels could hold out here for weeks. My fear – beyond the human cost – is that the Syrian army will, as it hunts down its enemies, harm the mosques, churches and caravansaries that led UNESCO to designate the city a “World Heritage Center.”

What the satellite images also confirm is that nothing — international opprobrium, the Geneva Accords, nothing restrains the Syrian army. What I think is happening is that the Syrian Army is beginning to encircle pro-rebel neighborhoods: Salah al-Din, Hannanu, Sakhur, and Ashrafiyya. These are among Aleppo’s newest neighborhoods and are inhabited by immigrants from the countryside. IDPs fleeing fighting near the Turkish border have also fled to these places, often because they have relatives there.

These neighborhoods will then become free-fire zones, where anyone is a target – whether rebel or civilian. This is what the régime did in Homs earlier this year. I’m not sure that this will have any real military value, but act to terrorize the surviving population, and reassure the elite of Aleppo and Damascus that the régime is prepared to do everything it can to stay in power.

Massacres in Aleppo will dwarf what has happened so far.

Aleppo, unlike nearby cities of Beirut, Damascus, or Jerusalem hasn’t been the scene of a battle since the time of Tamerlane some 600 years ago. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed hands. Conquerors from the Mamluks, to the Ottomans and the French all preferred to negotiate the city’s surrender to trying to breach its walls and capture its imposing citadel.

I worry that Aleppo will now join Sarajevo in our collective imagination as a once vibrant cosmopolitan city reduced by the fires of hatred to a monument to inhumanity.

I will write more as I am able to resume contact with friends in the city.

Joint UC Berkeley Law, Election Administration Research Center —UC Davis Human Rights Initiative Preliminary Observation Report- Nagorno Karabakh Presidential Election, July 19, 2012

Joint UC Berkeley Law, Election Administration Research Center —UC Davis Human Rights Initiative Preliminary Observation Report- Nagorno Karabakh Presidential Election, July 19, 2012

Date of Report: July 22, 2012

Group Composition and Method

The group arrived in Stepanakert, the capital city of the Nagorno Karabakh (NK) on Monday, July 18 and remained in NK throughout the election on July 19, and departed the NK on July 21.

Prior to the election, the group held a series of meetings with NK electoral commission officials, each of the three candidates for office, members of their staff, local human rights advocates, journalists and engaged in random discussions with citizens and likely voters.

On the day of the election, the group used a systematic research methodology based on a comprehensive survey questionnaire designed at the Election Administration Research Center, of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, completing the survey form based on observing the election at 7 sites, including a pre-election visit to a voting center, and a return visit to one site. These observations included a range of voting centers in the capital, small villages and regional centers. Observations were made in three provinces: Stepanakert, Askeran, and Martuni,.

The observer team was present at a voting center at opening, returning to that same center for closing to observe the ballot counting and reporting procedures.

The team then followed ballots and reporting materials to the Stepanakert regional election center and observed final handling and recording of results and materials. We were the only observer team in NK that followed the entire process.

The day after the election members of the group conducted follow-up interviews with two members of the Central Election Commission (CEC), local human rights advocates, journalists, election observer members from other countries, and representatives of the second place candidate.

Group members:

Karin Mac Donald, Director, The Election Administration Research Center, University of California, Berkeley Law (Election and Monitoring Specialist) Professor Keith David Watenpaugh, Director, Human Rights Initiative, University of California Davis (Cultural Expert, non-native Armenian speaker) Professor Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh, Affiliate Scholar, Human Rights Initiative, University of California, Davis (Cultural Expert, Armenian native-speaker)

Preliminary Observations

The group was very impressed with the professionalism, demeanor, dedication and seriousness of purpose at all levels of election administration, in particular that of local election boards.

We observed large numbers of women voters and that a considerable majority of women served as presidents and members of local election boards.

The teams noted with approval the uniformity of training and availability of reference materials that were widely used on the local level.

We also observed a great deal of uniformity in the implementation of the election process throughout the zone of monitoring.

The team was accompanied, at most times, by representatives of the NK government, who served as translators and facilitators, we appreciated the spirit of openness, access and collaboration before, during and after the election.

We also were satisfied with the manner in which spoiled ballots and ballots that were mismarked were handled according to established procedures as outlined in reference material provided by the CEC. This process was done effectively, transparently and efficiently.

As far as we could observe, the election procedures followed the NK election code.

The group observed that the training and preparation of candidate proxies (“Trusted People”) was inconsistent and seemed generally poor, preventing proxies from being able to fully advocate for the interests of their candidates within the bounds of established procedure.

Despite the presence of voters with physical disabilities, including the use of canes and wheelchairs, there was little if no formal provision made for independent access by people with physical disabilities to voting.

The group observed two occasions of what could constitute attempted voter intimidation. In addition, the team received first-hand reports of subtle and not-so-subtle forms of voter intimidation. The team observed one incident of inappropriate passive electioneering in a polling place.

The leading opposition candidate’s campaign alleged prior to the election in the Armenian press (15 June 2021) that government resources and personnel were being used by the incumbent’s campaign. Subsequent to the election in the candidate’s concession statement (20 July 2012) similar allegations were raised again, as well as in interviews with campaign staff.

We note that interaction between international monitor groups was not facilitated before and after the elections, creating a lost opportunity for collaboration and exchange of expertise. There was no formal mechanism for collecting the observations of international teams.

Preliminary Conclusion

We congratulate the people and election officials of the NK on an election that generally adhered to international standards.

We look forward to analyzing the enormous amount of qualitative and quantitative data we have collected and plan to issue a follow-up report with more specific recommendations. We believe that this election signals the probability that future elections in the NK will be more competitive. This may necessitate a reexamination of ballot security measures.

The degree of voter engagement, high voter turnout, the sophistication and acumen of the electorate, and the civic spirit of the voters suggests that the NK is creating a vibrant and vital democratic society.

One very important dimension of this election that we observed is that even the major losing candidate and his campaign, despite their concerns about fairness and irregularities, viewed this election as a critical step in the evolution of a fully democratic society. This same empowering sense of what the election meant was shared by a broad spectrum of NK society.

We look forward to working with the people of the NK to further strengthen their democratic institutions and provide any assistance that we can as they continue their journey in support of a vibrant, transparent, and free democracy.

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.

Report from the Field: A FUNA in Santiago, Chile

Hay FUNA!

What is that? At least that was what my English inner monologue was asking myself as I heard the word multiple times in Julio’s Spanish. I was sitting in Londres 38, a once socialist party headquarters during the early 70′s in Santiago Chile, turned detention/torture center. Julio, a presenter speaking to our class was telling me something about a FUNA but Professor Lazzara had yet to translate exactly what it was. A FUNA is a form of social justice. A group, they work pretty anonymously, receives tips about people who could have been involved in any human rights violations during the dictatorship. Extensive research was done on the person and anything they discovered would be typed up and printed on pamphlets that would be later passed around the accused’s neighborhood or place of work. That way everyone would know the actions of the person living or working near them. A form of social justice that was intended to make the individual feel ostracised in their own elements. Julio told us that the next evening, Friday, there would be a FUNA that he wanted to invite the class to. The next afternoon my roommate and I found ourselves wandering around the Los Hereos park looking for any sign of an organizing FUNA. We had just about given up when we saw a small group of people unrolling signs had gathered near a statue. as we walked over people passed us a pamphlet that told us about the man we were going to visit in his place of business. He was a business owner during the dictatorship and he turned over six men to the DINA, the secret police of Augusto Pinochet. To this day all six of them are still disappeared.

Very soon we started marching around the square and along the business areas near the man’s place of business. The next thing I saw were young, 13 or 14 year olds running along the group plastering the walls with pamphlet print outs with glue from 3 liter (that’s right, 3 liter cokes in Chile) Coke Cola bottles with the tops cut off. The crowd was singing and there was a sense of excitement in the air. And in the best broken Spanish I could, I found myself shouting out the words, though I’m not sure exactly what I was saying. I asked for some papers and joined the others in passing them out to those the group walked by. Then we were at the man’s office and we shouted and sang loudly. The group littered the floors of the lobby with the remaining pamphlets. There was a silence and Julio read the actions of the man out loud over the mega phone. It was very peaceful, the traffic stopped and the police just drove by, they knew in advance what was going to happen. And then it was over. We marched back and the crow, as quickly as it gathered, dispersed.

Victoria Martin is a graduating senior in RST and is among the first to earn a minor in Human Rights. She is planning to take some time off from school to teach English in another country before returning to graduate school. She hopes to go to UC Santa Barbara to earn her masters in International Relations with an emphasis in Human Rights. She is also excited to take the time off to continue her own research on genocide.