Why the targeting of children in Syria?

April 4th, 2012 by kdw

I’ve been away from the Eleanor Blog for some time as I had both a heavy human rights teaching load (Human Rights; Genocide) as well as organizing the Human Rights and the Humanities Week. Which also included a remarkable lecture by the Mideast Director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson. The week was a great success and the study and teaching of human rights has really begun to blossom at UC Davis, like our redbud and ceanothus plants.

I am coming back to the blog, in part because of real sense of resignation over the turn of events in Syria and in particular the attacks on children. The depravity encompassed by the assault on Syria’s children is a shocking new low, even for the régime in Damascus. 384 have been killed – around 10% of the total casualties and thousands have been rounded up and tortured.

A child protester in Beirut

Broadly, it strikes me that this round has to go to House of Assad. The last two weeks’ attack on Hama and Idlib had the feel of “mopping up” operations and weren’t characterized by the slower escalation that took place in Homs. The Syrian régime senses that it can act with impunity and as long as it doesn’t escalate beyond light artillery and tanks, can pretty much do what it wants.

Even though the EC placed additional sanctions on the Syrian super-elite, including Asma, Bashar’s wife, the US has toned-down its rhetoric to delink humanitarian assistance from régime change. This is being done for Russia’s benefit and may lead to some form of real humanitarian help. On the other hand, this public change in rhetoric (the Annan Plan) has given the régime additional space to maneuver.

Human Rights Watch’s reporting on the rebel Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) war crimes, that of the Vatican on ethnic cleansing in Homs and other sources are undermining international support for the FSA and other Syrian rebel forces. Without a reliable non-Assad partner, régime change seems less attractive than “régime reform.” I think that what this also means is that the urban middle-class coalition supporting Assad will continue to do so even though the sanctions will begin to really hurt. For Arab Christians, Armenians and the urban middle-class elite this is an existential problem.

The recent meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People in Istanbul where aid was pledged to the rebels notwithstanding, I don’t see the régime being dislodged anytime soon and rather repression will continue and mount.

However, the international human rights community has begun to call attention to the fact that children are targeted for torture and abuse by the régime to an unprecedented degree. I think it’s worth exploring why the Syrian secret police has adopted this tactic.

First some facts: Human Rights Watch and the UN have both documented widespread detention, torture, and killing of Syrian children.

Human Rights Watch quotes one Hossam, age 13 who was held for three days in a military detention facility in Tel Kalkh:

Every so often they would open our cell door and yell at us and beat us. They said, “You pigs, you want freedom?” They interrogated me by myself. They asked, “Who is your god?” And I said, “Allah.” Then they electrocuted me on my stomach, with a prod. I fell unconscious. When they interrogated me the second time, they beat me and electrocuted me again. The third time they had some pliers, and they pulled out my toenail. They said, “Remember this saying, always keep it in mind: We take both kids and adults, and we kill them both.” I started to cry, and they returned me to the cell.

HRW tells us that Hossam and his family are now refugees in Lebanon.

But what these reports tell us is that the attacks on children are systematic. There is a rhyme and reason to this horror.

This has in large part to do with the role of children in Syrian and Middle Eastern society more generally, as well as the specific position of youth in the Arab uprisings.

We forget this in the West, but children are not just offspring you take care of for 18 years and then they’re out the door. They are your future, especially among the urban lower-middle class and rural people of Syria. They are an investment – a biological 401k. There is little or no safety net and your children will care for and comfort you in your old age.

Children are targeted because of their inherent value to adults. Protecting your children is also a point of honor; taking and torturing them undermines the very stability and integrity of the home.

Reports also indicate that children are being subjected to rape. This is calculated to demoralize and discipline the régime’s opponents, and to suppress the participation in demonstrations and activism by girls, in particular.

Young people – 13, 14, 15 year olds have been at the forefront of the revolutions in the Middle East. Youth has been the vanguard of these movements, in part because of their ability to master social media, and also they know that they have the most to gain from change. I think the Syrian régime also knows that it is involved in a generational struggle for control of the region.

Breaking young people now is a key element of that struggle for the future.

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

December 23rd, 2011 by kdw

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 a system in Havel’s words,  that “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?

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

December 16th, 2011 by kdw

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

December 13th, 2011 by kdw

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/

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

November 19th, 2011 by kdw

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

October 30th, 2011 by kdw

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

October 23rd, 2011 by kdw

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.

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

October 16th, 2011 by kdw

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

October 12th, 2011 by kdw

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: ) delivered by that year’s Nobel laureate lecture.  Entitled, “The Suffering People of Europe,” the lecture encapsulates the Polar explorer-turned-humanitarian’s naked disgust with how the wake of the Great War had produced unprecedented levels of suffering.  In the speech he issued a humanitarian challenge which was also a précis for the programs in which he was involved: “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.”

Failing Syria at the UN, Killing Children and the Punishing of Dissidents

October 7th, 2011 by kdw

It was a moment of déjà vu in the UN Security Council this week when China and Russia voted against sanctions on Syria.  Their votes were out of line with a global consensus that the Syrian régime’s war on its people violates human rights and is a threat to regional peace and security.  What those two states did was dismissed on the streets of Syria’s smaller cities, where people carried banners that read “Russia and China do not [favor] freedom or dignity,” but is also reminiscent of the Cold War when the progress of human rights was held hostage by the Soviet Bloc and the US and its allies.

Some historians have argued that the Cold War merely interrupted the history of human rights; I tend to think the politicization of human rights by states in this fashion is the norm and that consensus building in the UN around human rights action is the unique, rare and now fleeting exception.

Still, the EU, Turkey and the US are continuing to build a sanctions régime against Syria.  And reports from inside the country show no let up in demonstrations, a trickle of military defections and the gradual organization in exile of an alternative government.  Still Aleppo and Damascus are quiet and their inhabitants, though fully aware of what is happening in the rest of the country have yet to rise in solidarity.

All this means for now is continuing misery in Syria: the UN has just announced that 187 children have been killed since demonstrations began last Spring and word comes of additional harassment of Syrian dissidents living abroad.

Syrian children hold a vigil for 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, who activists say was tortured and killed by Syrian security forces. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Along those same lines, I call your attention to the case of Yassin Ziadeh.  Yassin’s brother, Radwan, is an important Syrian dissident who fled Syria several years ago. Radwan has even visited Davis as a Scholar at Risk and was a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace a year before I was.  He has been at the forefront of identifying human rights abuse in Syria.  Now his family back home, in particular his brother, are being targeted by the régime.  According to Scholars at Risk, Yassin is being held incommunicado and without charge.  Presumabley this is being done to pressure his brother and frighten others in the Syrian diaspora;  if they support the opposition their families back in Syria are in danger.  If you have a chance please use the model below to write to the Syrian ambassador on behalf of Yassin.

I’ll blog more about Syria over the weekend.