Archive for the ‘War’ Category

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



Andrea Dooley on the 3rd Annual International Genocide Conference at Sac State

Negationism, Freedom of Speech and Genocide Ideology Laws in Rwanda

Andrea Dooley

The recent 3rd Annual International Genocide Conference held at Sacramento State University took as its theme “Negationism, Revisionism, Survivor’s Testimonies, Eyewitness Accounts, Justice and Memory” and included a broad and ambitious conference agenda with a plenary session on November 3 that was focused on the good governance and reconciliation efforts of post genocide Rwanda. The session titled “Rwanda Governance and Socio-economic Development” included members of an economic, reconciliation and justice delegation from Rwanda and a broadcast of a keynote address to be delivered via Skype by Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

The plenary speakers presented economic indicators, statistics and other data models demonstrating Rwandans economic growth and move toward democratic governance that, they argued was evidence of a positive atmosphere of reconciliation, unity and justice in Rwanda spearheaded by the strong leadership of President Kagame. In almost every case, speakers argued that what they presented were facts not ideology and those who would criticize or challenge these facts were “deniers.” (Denier is the specific term used by several of the panel speakers.) Indeed, one speaker was adamant that those who would challenge the facts as presented by the panel were in fact supporting an ideology that was aimed at destabilizing the current Kagame government and had roots in the genocide ideologies of the past.  In the end Kagame did not speak live or take questions. Rather he spoke via a pre recorded YouTube video; the substance of which urged academics to base their judgments of Rwanda on facts and not on ideology and to combat those who would criticize or deny the strides Rwanda has made since the genocide.

It became clear once the panel session came to an end why each speaker was so concerned with positioning their presentations as facts while those who were questioning those facts were motivated by ideology. Outside in the hall a small group of protestors had gathered passing out leaflets that raised objections about the Rwandan delegation’s visit to the campus and the Kagame administration’s claims to good governance and social unity.  The leaflets produced by a coalition of organizations including INGA Association, the Congolese Community of Northern California and the African Great Lakes Coalition who are calling for a thorough review of the actions of the Kagame government with respect to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The leaflet highlighted a leaked 2010 UN report that accuses the administration of human rights violations in Eastern Congo. When the report surfaced the Kagame administration argued that the report was politically motivated, malicious, irresponsible and the charges were patently false. In response, the Kagame administration threatened to withdraw the Rwanda contingent from UN Peacekeeping forces in the Sudan region of Darfur. (In fact in UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon flew to Rwanda to meet with President Kagame to urge him to allow Rwandan troops to remain a part of the larger UN peacekeeping forces.) The final UN report took a more cautious tone and the Rwandan government was allowed to include a detailed response to the allegations in the report—allegations that they categorically reject.

But I was struck by the use of the word deniers to describe the activities of the protestors outside the conference venue. Understanding how that word has crept into discussions of economic growth, programs to foster good governance and industrial expansion in the post conflict Rwanda has as much to do with how post-conflict nations and its leaders go about creating a stable, economically viable and unified country as it does with genocide ideology laws enacted by the Kagame administration said to be necessary in order to prevent future violence.

Law N°18/2008 passed into law in Rwanda on October 2008 is deceptively brief. One sentence describes its aim as “ preventing and punishing the crime of genocide ideology.”  And article 2 of the law defines genocide ideology as “an aggregate of thoughts characterized by conduct, speeches, documents and other acts aiming at exterminating or inciting others to exterminate people…” Proponents argue that this is a straightforward genocide prevention law deemed necessary in the wake of the violence of the 1994.  The law includes penalties with steep fines and prison terms ranging from 10 years to life for crimes that are described as follows:

“…any behavior manifested by facts aimed at dehumanizing a person or a group of persons with the same characteristics in the following manner:

1° threatening, intimidating, degrading through defamatory speeches, documents or actions which aim at propounding wickedness or inciting hatred;

2° marginalizing, laughing at one’s misfortune, defaming, mocking, boasting, despising, degrading, creating confusion aiming at negating the genocide which occurred, stirring up ill feelings, taking revenge, altering testimony or evidence for the genocide which occurred;

3° killing, planning to kill or attempting to kill someone for purposes of furthering genocide ideology.

Critics of the law including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have argued that the law is far too vague and can be interpreted and applied in uneven ways including silencing opposition to the current administration and curtailing free speech in the country. Many are concerned that phrases like “actions which aim at propounding of wickedness” and “laughing at one’s misfortune,” could be used by one or another party in a dispute that has little or nothing to do with hate speech and incitement to genocide. More troubling though is the charge that the Kagame administration has used Law N° 18/2008 to squash opposition parties and criticism of administration policies. In fact a report by Amnesty International titled “Unsafe to Speak: Restrictions on Freedom of Speech in Rwanda” is concerned that the vagueness of the laws allows for all kinds of interpretations that could be used to close newspapers and other media outlets and provide a legal avenue for the detention of journalists and other administration critics.

In the case of media outlets and the incitement to genocide, a precedent had been set by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 2003. In December of that year, an indictment by the ICTR was handed down for 3 individuals, Ferdinand Nahimana, Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, Hassan Ngeze, each man accused of, among other things, crimes against humanity and incitement to genocide. Each defendant was either the head of a media outlet (newspaper or radio) and/or a journalist who were accused of having direct influence on the violent events in the spring and summer of 1994. Programs, articles and editorials called for the elimination of the Tutsi facilitated through a well organized and community coordinated mass killing. That the trial of journalist was taking place at all had, at the time, drawn great attention to issues of the media’s role in state sponsored violence and would redraw the ethical boundaries of journalism in the international arena. Those ethical boundaries were tested when, after the passing of Law N°8/2008, several Rwandan news papers where closed and some opposition leaders were arrested.

To be sure, concerns over the provocative nature of hate speech and the role of the media in the Rwandan genocide is a real issue. And the Kagame administration has argued for tougher laws to combat hate speech and other tactics used to incite violence and destabilize the country. By many of the United Nations standards and other markers of success as presented by the plenary speakers at the Sacramento State Conference, Rwanda has achieved a more stable national economy, doubled the household income, provided universal healthcare and seen a rise in primary and secondary education completion. The speakers argue this is all made possible by a push toward good democratic governance, strategies for unity and reconciliation and appropriately applied justice. Kagame has maintained that those who have been detained or incarcerated under the statues of the Law N° 18/2008 are using similar language and tactics to those who perpetrated the genocide of 1994 and must be silenced in order to protect against further violence and foster a stable and unified Rwanda. When accused of over-stepping his bounds and incarcerating opposition leaders and using the genocide ideology laws to silence critics, Kagame, in an interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour, maintained that the accusations were false, malicious and an “insult to history” raising the stakes even higher by making national unity and “history” itself the focus of debate rather than freedom of speech, opposition to Kagame’s policies or the uneven enforcement of the genocide ideology law.

But whether you believe that the actions of the Kagame government are justified by a greater need for stability and move toward economic independence or have stretched the interpretation of Law N° 18/2008 to the further their own agenda or something in between; the debate over the freedom of speech in the aftermath of this kind of conflict continues. The final speaker of the plenary session at the Sacramento State Conference, Dr John Stanfield, Director of the Intercultural Philanthropic Studies Program at Indiana University, contended that there are crucial actions for any country seeking reconciliation and justice after violent conflict namely: maintaining respect for civil society, implementing checks and balances on social relationships with government, understanding the role of critical journalism including fostering a strong academic presence (the Rwandan constitution requires that two members of the academy be members of parliament) and open avenues for freedom of speech. But the questions remain: What is the nature of free speech in the aftermath of this kind of violence? What is the line between active and productive criticism and hate speech? How does a post-conflict society foster a civil society and account for difference? And, How do nations provide both security and transparency and maintain order without violating the international human rights of their citizens and the sovereignty of their global neighbors?

For more information:

Full List of panels and sessions of the Sacramento State Genocide Conference 2011

http://www.csus.edu/ethn/Genocide%20Conference%202011/GenoConf.stm

Full text of Law N°18/2008:

http://www.amategeko.net/display_rubrique.php?ActDo=ShowArt&Information_ID=2396&Parent_ID=30701065&type=public&Langue_ID=An&rubID=30701071#30701071

Kagame CNN interview:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WED8dYiBvcE

UN Mapping Report about the DRC: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/RDCProjetMapping.aspx

Rwanda’s Response to the UN DRC report:

http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/ZR/DRC_Report_Comments_Rwanda.pdf

http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE69002U20101001

http://www.rnw.nl/africa/article/rwanda-un-congo-report-insult-history

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129635622

UN Secretary Ban’s trip to Rwanda:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-11229201

ITCR verdict:

http://web.idrc.ca/openebooks/338-0/

“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.

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.

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