Archive for the ‘Humanitarianism’ 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.

As America leaves Iraq, Human Rights questions remain – women, religious minorities at high risk

The Iraq War ended yesterday.  At least it did for the US military.  American diplomatic and intelligence personnel and support military contractors are still there in Iraq, and number in the thousands.  But America’s war in Iraq has stopped and taking its place is a clumsy and confusing set of policies and programs to try to conserve American interests and influence there after the loss of so many lives and so much money.

As we leave Iraq, we should not forget that it was the site of terrible rights abuses committed by US personnel (Haditha, Abu Ghuraib, FOB Tiger).  Iraqis didn’t have to learn how to torture from Americans, they had plenty instruction in that during the rule of Saddam Hussein and his predecessors.  But as the torture and rape of Iraqi prisoners in Iraqi detention facilities and black sites has now become routine one wonders how much less bad it could be now had the US been more committed to human rights in the first years of the occupation?

But other question about Iraq’s human rights situation remain – especially as much of the early ex-post facto justification for the war turned on the liberation of the Iraqi people from a truly heinous and barbaric régime, that of Saddam Hussein and the ruling Baath Party.  It’s the height of historical revisionism to argue that the war was a human rights intervention, but the US occupation did create space for the emergence of Iraqi civil society, a vibrant and independent media and even governmental structures charged with the protection and promotion of human rights.  That said, in the period since 2006 and the Iraqi civil war, the human rights environment in Iraq has deteriorated sharply.

Human rights failures have been the most pronounced in Iraq, as one might expect, in the protection of the country’s most vulnerable: children, widows, as well as marginalized ethnic and religious minorities. And while these groups are often the victims of abuse in other times and places, the central truth of the Iraq War and its aftermath is how it has produced such vast numbers of vulnerable people: 1.3 million refugees, 2 million internally displaced peoples and 500,000 new poor, living in shanty towns without water or proper sanitation.  The Red Cross has estimated, for example, that between 1 and 3 million Iraqi households are headed by women, and the numbers of parentless children is similarly large.

But a more systemic problem faces women in Iraq, in that the kind of Iraqi state that has emerged after the war is one that is deeply committed to imposing a religious orthodoxy on society, and in fact wants to reverse any sort of secular gains by women and minorities that occurred in the pre-war period.  This has meant not just increasing restrictions of women’s participation in public life, education and commerce.  But it has also contributed to violence against women, in particular “honor killing,” a broader social acceptance of domestic abuse and abandonment of prohibitions of child marriage.  For Iraqi women the last 8 years have seen their rights in society and even their right to live diminish exponentially.

But perhaps the greatest human rights failure in Iraq is the collapse of state protection for religious minorities.  This is both a “security” problem, but also a problem of state will.  The case of the Sabian Mandaeans is perhaps the worst.  The Mandaeans are an Aramaic-speaking community of monotheists who predate Christianity and Islam in Iraq and live(d) in the major cities, but in particular near Basra in the south.  In 2003 there were between 50,000 and 60,000 Mandaeans living in Iraq, now there are perhaps 4,000.  Mandaeans have face systematic persecution by religious extremists and have had to flee Iraq.  Similar attacks have taken place against Iraq’s Christians and heterodox groups like the Shabaak and Yezidis.  Within a generation, most non-Muslims in Iraq will have emigrated, and with them a link to Iraq’s diverse and multi-ethnic past.

Mandaean Refugee Boy in Jordan

A photo from the remarkable work of Jiro Ose “Living in the Shadows: Iraqi Refugees”

As Iraqi politics begins to resemble less democracy and more a rehabilitated Arab authoritarianism, as press freedom evaporates and conservative Shiite political Islam dictates social and cultural norms, the nascent human rights régime in Iraq will be strangled.

Perhaps the only thing we have left to give the Iraqi people is integrating clearly concerns about Human Rights into the new bilateral “partnership” between the US and Iraq.

See: HRW’s Iraq at the Crossroads

Human Rights Organizations in Iraq



Some thoughts on the humanitarian challenges of the coming civil war in Syria

Sitting with Gilbert Achcar and several of my UC Davis Jewish Studies and Middle East Studies colleagues in a local café after a talk on his book The Arabs and the Holocaust, the conversation turned to Syria.

Achcar’s conclusion, which I share (as does the UN) is that Syria is on the road to civil war.  Indeed, I would argue that parts of Syria, in particular the cities of Homs, Hama and Idlib and their hinterlands are already in a state of civil war.  Those cities have been placed under siege, death squads roam them in broad daylight rounding up and “disappearing” civilians and uniformed security forces fight running gun battles with bands of defectors who are often just defending their neighborhoods.

Still protestors take to the streets each Friday like they have since last March and each Friday dozens are killed. Over 3000 so far, including some 190 children.   This persistent courage in the face of unrestrained brutality inspires not just heart rendering awe, but also confirms how resilient the Syria opposition is.  This resiliency will force the Syrian régime to increase its use of organized violence and at some point the largely peaceful resistance will itself become violent, perhaps in a battle for the city of Homs.

The longer the conflict continues the more “international” it will also become.  This isn’t in the sense of Libya, where Western forces sided with the Libyan TNC.  There appears to be none of the international will to intervene in Syria that there was in Libya and various sanctions régimes have been blunted at the UN by Russian and Chinese opposition.  Instead the international component of the civil war in Syria will be regional, with Iran extending support to the régime with help from Iraq and Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Saudi Arabia and Turkey providing assistance to the opposition, which is not coincidently dominated by Sunni Muslims, as well as help from Iraqi Kurdistan for Syria’s vast Kurdish population. Arms, money and military and cyberwar expertise are flowing into Syria from all sides.

With the coming of civil war in Syria, it is important to begin to anticipate what kinds of humanitarian challenges will arise and how the international community could mobilize to meet them.  The Syria Civil War will resemble that of Iraq between 2006-2008 and Lebanon 1975-1990.  It makes sense to draw some lessons from the humanitarian experience of those conflicts.  What follows are some very preliminary thoughts and observations.

1)   Like Iraq and Lebanon, very little distinction will be made between combatants and non-combatants.

This fact will have critical implications for refugee flows, the creation of IDPs, the safety of civilians in situ, and refugees in transit across international borders.  The Iraqi experience shows how quickly large numbers of IDPs can result from civil conflict, especially if this civil conflict is accompanied by forms of ethnic cleansing.  The kind of ethnic cleansing that accompanied the civil war in Iraq, in particular in Baghdad, is unlikely in Syria.

Still minor refugee flows out of Syria over the last few months give some indication of where major flows will go: from northwestern Syria into the Turkish province of Hatay and from central Syria into northern Lebanon.  In both of these cases people moving probably have relatives on the other side of the border.  Currently the UNHCR is providing assistance to about 3200 Syrians who have fled to Wadi Khalid, which is just across the border from Homs.  I’m also certain that three to four times this number of Syrians has already crossed into Lebanon, but those refugees have not registered with the UN.  Recent cross border raids by Syrian forces into Lebanon to seize deserters and opposition figures confirms that Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not safe.  Lebanon is in no position to oppose these incursions even if there were political will in Beirut to do so.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, October 2011

Attacks on Kurds in Syria’s Mesopotamia will force Kurds into Iraqi Kurdistan where the problem will be less political will to assist, but rather logistical support.  Indeed Iraqi Kurdistan could provide a very useful staging ground for refugee assistance.

The Turkish border is more militarized and the Turkish military more able to provided needed protection.  A possible option looking forward is the creation of a humanitarian corridor into Turkey through the Orontes River Valley, which would allow safe passage out of Homs, Hama and Idlib.  There are a host of other political problems with direct Turkish intervention in Syria, not the least of which are fears of Ankara’s Neo-Ottomanist designs on the Levant.   Nevertheless, any meaningful international commitment to the safety of Syrian refugees will require humanitarian intervention in Syria.

2) Like Iraq and Lebanon, violence will have political and sectarian dimensions.

Rightly or wrongly the régime of Bashar al-Assad is associated with the entirety of the Alawite minority in Syria.  The security apparatus and military elite in Syria is dominated by Alawites.  There will be ethnic reprisals in the civil war.  The most vulnerable populations, however, as was the case in Iraq, are the urban and rural Christian minorities.  A possible example of the shape of things to come came last week when a bomb exploded in the Armenian Orthodox Church in the Damascus’s old city.  It is unlikely that this bomb was set by régime opponents.  What is probably the case is that it was planted by state security forces as a message to the city’s Armenians that were they to support the opposition that they would face further attacks and/or that they would no longer be protected by the state from extremist violence.  Christians are disproportionately represented in Iraq’s refugee diaspora and it is likely that this would reoccur in Syria.  What this speaks to though is that where mass violence is probable,  genocide is  possible.

The West ignores the possibility of genocide in Syria at the peril of any humanitarian credibility it has achieved with successes in Libya.

Along the same lines, Syria remains one of the primary locations for refugees from Iraq – some 1.3 million with several thousand active asylum seekers.  Stepped up efforts to resettle and return these refugees would help reduce the possibility that this extremely vulnerable group would become victims of another conflict.

Syria’s problems and years of misery are just beginning.

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.”

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)

The League of Nations and the Question of Human Rights

Now back in Davis.

I have just returned from the first major international conference on the League of Nations in over 30 years.  Held at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, the conference, entitled, “Towards a New History of the League of Nations,” brought together scholars from around the world to deliver papers on various aspects of the history of the League. Unlike the previous conference – and reflecting a broader generational change in how historians approach transnational institutions and movements – the papers did more than look at how the League failed to prevent World War II and instead examined topics including its work in public health programs, economic agreements, the trafficking of women and children, and its humanitarian projects around the world.

I was part of a panel on humanitarianism and I presented some of my research on the League’s humanitarian work on behalf of the post-Genocide Armenian community in the Middle East.   This work is drawn from a book I am writing, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, which will be published by the University of California Press.

The Armenians had faced genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during the war, and had been promised a state in the series of treaties at its end, the borders of which were determined by Woodrow Wilson.  These promises were abandoned in the face of the rise of the modern Republic of Turkey and the Soviet Union and Armenians were left stateless and scattered in refugee camps, orphanages and shantytowns throughout the Middle East.

Wilsonian Armenian

I placed this statelessness and dispossession in the context of the League’s ongoing commitment to the Armenian Nation — a nation without a state — and what it did to help that nation survive.

The paper was also part of a larger discussion going on at the conference and throughout the field on the history of human rights in the 20th Century spurred, in part, by Samuel Moyn’s recent book The Last Utopia. Moyn, emphasizes that human rights as a full-blown ideology in which the rights of individuals exist in a space beyond the state instead of within its legal and moral interstices is of recent origins, the late 1970s in particular and has since the end of the Cold War moved from a political struggle to an ideal and even utopian project considered as beyond politics. Moyn is not without his detractors.

Read the paper

Where then to place the League’s various humanitarian projects, its concern for the “rights of minorities” and its commitment to women and children all of which seem to embody a human rights-based or at least informed reaction to prevailing and historic incidents of inhumanity?  This is especially so as in retrospect, these projects appear to have laid the groundwork for contemporary elements of modern human rights law and action, especially for refugees.

I argued:

Where it is correct to conclude that modern humanitarianism and human rights share conceptions of humanity, it may be too much to assert that they are branches of the same tree. Interwar modern humanitarianism sought to addressed the root causes of human suffering; as defined in the moment, human suffering was not necessarily conceptualized as a rights violation, but rather was constituted more often on other bases. And while contemporary human rights theory includes the possibility that the violation of human rights is a form of suffering, the interwar understanding of why certain categories of people should or should not receive international humanitarian assistance often had very little to do with their human rights per se, and instead usually had more to do with their ethnicity, religion, citizenship and utility to states and ideologies. This conclusion does not exclude the fact that individuals and groups within the working environment of the field of humanitarianism were engaged in forms of struggle, political and otherwise on behalf of universalizing individual rights and limiting the sovereignty of states; and, that these thinkers and activists have discernible roles in the content of the debate that carried over in the post-WWII era and contributed to the broader formal iteration of human rights idealism.  Indeed, it is critical to understand how both individual thinkers and elements of the institution —frustrated with the scope of interwar humanitarianism and the multifaceted failures of a haphazard system of group rights that emphasized membership in national communities —shaped later human rights discourse.  Yet most importantly, any history of interwar League of Nations’ humanitarianism cannot lose sight of the fact that in theory and practice, it neither challenged nationalism nor colonialism, but rather was articulated with both and often worked to extend the reach of each.

But my view contrasts with the observations made during the conference by the British scholar of International Relations, Barbara Metzger, who has looked at many of the same archives and sources I have and has concluded something slightly different: Namely that the humanitarian work of the League was framed by human rights in practice.  I think what is important in her work and what needs to be explored further by human rights historians is how international organizations like the League in working on behalf of refugees, displaced people, trafficked women and children were implementing the practical foundations of the work of human rights. A too narrow focus on the ideological underpinnings of that work ultimately misses the point that after WWI, the international community had, in a very meaningful way, adopted practices (imperfectly and incompletely implemented) that insisted upon the universality of a core of human entitlements-cum-rights that among other things, people not suffer during war, arbitrarily lose their citizenship or be sold across borders.

These kinds of debates and discussions help make human rights history an interesting and important new field.

For some more contrasting views on human rights and the League see:

Jan Herman Burgers, “The Road to San Francisco: The Revival of the Human Rights Idea in the Twentieth Century,” Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Nov., 1992), 447-477, 451-454.

Mark Mazower “The The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Jun., 2004), pp. 379-398