Voltaire, Troy Davis and the Death Penalty

September 21st, 2011 by kdw

Rain, Bergen, Rain, Norway, Rain

I don’t know what Voltaire would have said about the execution of Troy Davis – whom many including William Sessions the former director of the FBI regarded as quite possibly innocent — by the people of the state of Georgia.

But the death penalty was something he and other Philosophes did think about in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I do know that in his commentary on Beccaria on Crimes and Punishment, Vol. 10

Voltaire did write:

It hath long since been observed, that a man after he is hanged is good for nothing, and that punishments invented for the good of society, ought to be useful to society.

 

Voltaire: pas de peine de mort!

On the other hand, J.S. Mill saw the death penalty as affirmation of the protection of life

When there has been brought home to any one, by conclusive evidence, the greatest crime known to the law; and when the attendant circumstances suggest no palliation of the guilt, no hope that the culprit may even yet not be unworthy to live among mankind, nothing to make it probable that the crime was an exception to his general character rather than a consequence of it, then I confess it appears to me that to deprive the criminal of the life of which he has proved himself to be unworthy–solemnly to blot him out from the fellowship of mankind and from the catalogue of the living–is the most appropriate as it is certainly the most impressive, mode in which society can attach to so great a crime the penal consequences which for the security of life it is indispensable to annex to it.

Rousseau and Kant, both champions of individual rights and the limitation of the powers of the state thought that the death penalty was a legitimate use of state power.

Diderot, Hume, Adam Smith and Thomas Paine did not.

All of these men are not equally theorists of human rights, but their work is part of the historical context for contemporary human rights thinking.  This points to the fact that even through there is a broad consensus in the human rights community – a nebulous category at best, which includes human rights lawyers, groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – that the death penalty is a violation of human rights, it is still possible to argue that after an individual has denied life to a fellow human being and faced due process that that individual could be put to death in the name of his or her fellow citizens.  What human rights groups would argue is that that due process part is a big “if” and that the death penalty is an absolute and irreversible ending to an imperfect process.  The perfection or imperfection of the system becomes less of a problem when the person is merely sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The debates that swirled around Troy Davis’ execution resemble all of the historical debates about the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty with the possible exception that the degree of doubt about his culpability would have given the philosophes pause. The circumstances of his case may not have met any of the supporters of the death penalty’s basic criteria.  Discussions of the death penalty in human rights classes, most notably in my genocide course, force students to confront some deep questions – should Eichmann have been hanged?

In Norway there is no death penalty, as it was abolished in 1902.  It was briefly revived in the post-World War II era to execute Nazi collaborators, most notably Vidkun Quisling.  So even when Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing terrorist who murdered 77 of his fellow Norwegians last July faces punishment, it can only be a life term – which in practice is not even his entire life.

Voltaire is on point here.  What is the use of killing someone to society if they are imprisoned and removed physically?  On the other hand not killing could be of more use to society; in foregoing the killing of this monster, the Norwegians are making a powerful statement as a people about being humane, and affirming life as the absolute and most basic human right.

I am persuaded by the Norwegians.

Humanities, Human Rights and the Rescue of Scholars at Risk

September 12th, 2011 by kdw

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

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

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

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

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

Varian Fry

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

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

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

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

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

September 7th, 2011 by kdw

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

When do terrorists become terrorists and do they still have human rights?

September 7th, 2011 by kdw

Flagg Miller

Le roi est mort; vive le roi! So might go one reading of a paper I am presenting at the upcoming conference “Ten Years Later: Insights on al-Qa`ida’s Past & Future through Captured Records” at the National Defense University at Washington D.C. To be held in the wake of 9/11’s tenth-year memorial events, the conference promises to be an intriguing one, especially since Bin Ladin is dead. My paper, entitled “Revisiting the Origins of al-Qa`ida through Usama Bin Ladin’s Former Audiocassette Collection,” explores the ways his influence as a leader and world-wide terrorist has been a subject of creative animation for some time, however, no more so than in Western narratives focusing on the organization widely thought to be his brainchild: al-Qa`ida itself.

Al-Qa`ida, I argue, transcends the man, as evident in much cited documents that I examine with fresh eyes. Standard accounts of al-Qa`ida’s formation, reported by scholars, journalists and others, are based principally on court documents related to the U.S. government’s prosecutions of bin Laden and one of his associates, Enaam Arnaout, in the early 2000s. Together, these documents indicate that bin Laden and others met in Afghanistan in August 1988 to form al-Qa`ida, or “the base,” that went on to plan and approve major terrorist operations. Other documents, said to corroborate this formation of al-Qa`ida, were released by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The West Point papers are thought to be founding charter papers obtained by U.S. military or intelligence personnel.

These documents all raise questions, however. Although court papers suggest that al-Qa`ida was a world-wide terrorist organization under bin Ladin’s leadership, a closer reading suggests that bin Ladin’s efforts were far more restricted and focused on working with more prominent leaders at the time to set up a specific training camp in Afghanistan. Charter documents reveal that despite his efforts, bin Ladin was quickly marginalized at the camp. Oaths to the “amir” were mentioned as being required of recruits, but I have found no correlation to the “amir” or leader as being bin Laden. Most curious is a stipulation that none of the amir’s security guards can be from Yemen, Saudi Arabia or any of the other Arab Gulf states, countries supplying bin Laden’s most vehement supporters. Some of the confusion may relate to problems with translating the meaning of “the base” (al-qa`ida). “Al-Qa`ida” can refer, of course, to Bin Ladin’s worldwide terrorist organization, but so too can it simply mean a “base” of operations, as was the case for a host of training camps from the 1980s-2000s in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond that had no significant connection to Bin Ladin or his ideology. So too can “al-qaida” be a general rule for legal reasoning, theological inference or speaking well. My analysis suggests the need to revisit arguments made by prosecutors [in the Arnaout trial] and conclusions drawn from them by wider audiences.

Do terrorists get human rights? By what rationale? The answer to these questions require a lengthier investigation into the ways individuals and social groups become identified with terrorism and, as a consequence, become exceptional targets for disciplinary action. At their best, such investigations produce messy questions about exactly when individuals become terrorists and how their status and power as terror-brokers emerges through competition between diverse communities as they compete for influence. Terrorists are not born lobbing bombs from the crib, of course; their eventual designation as terrorists by international legal institutions is perceived as no less self-evident. As a religious studies professor and anthropologist who has studied and lived in the Arab world for over twenty years, I like to think of myself as fairly open to the possibility that our views of the world reflect our backgrounds and that cross-cultural comparison can promote healthy and ethical engagement with others. The paper I am presenting in Washington D.C. is part of a larger book project that examines the figuration Bin Ladin’s leadership in a set of over 1500 audiotapes that were acquired from Bin Ladin’s former residence in Qandahar, Afghanistan. These tapes were acquired by the Cable News Network after the fall of the Taliban in December 2001 and are currently being digitalized for public research by Yale University. Organized chronologically, my book considers discrepencies between our own narratives of Bin Ladin’s identity and those employed by speakers of the tapes. The lessons of the book, much like my upcoming paper, emerge from recognizing the ways in which complex histories, including our own, are elided in the interest of oversimplified and ethnocentric narratives of Muslims violence and its perpetrators. The United States’ post-9/11 rationale for invading Iraq on the pretext that overthrowing Saddam would strike a blow against al-Qa`ida proves only the most egregious case; links between al-Qa`ida and Saddam proved as tenuous as Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Human rights discourses, including those advanced through American institutions of criminal law, special grand juries and military tribunals, are unfortunately not immune to distortions introduced by such narratives. Especially when Al-Qa`ida is involved.

Report from the Field: A FUNA in Santiago, Chile

September 6th, 2011 by kdw

Hay FUNA!

What is that? At least that was what my English inner monologue was asking myself as I heard the word multiple times in Julio’s Spanish. I was sitting in Londres 38, a once socialist party headquarters during the early 70’s in Santiago Chile, turned detention/torture center. Julio, a presenter speaking to our class was telling me something about a FUNA but Professor Lazzara had yet to translate exactly what it was. A FUNA is a form of social justice. A group, they work pretty anonymously, receives tips about people who could have been involved in any human rights violations during the dictatorship. Extensive research was done on the person and anything they discovered would be typed up and printed on pamphlets that would be later passed around the accused’s neighborhood or place of work. That way everyone would know the actions of the person living or working near them. A form of social justice that was intended to make the individual feel ostracised in their own elements.

Julio told us that the next evening, Friday, there would be a FUNA that he wanted to invite the class to. The next afternoon my roommate and I found ourselves wandering around the Los Hereos park looking for any sign of an organizing FUNA. We had just about given up when we saw a small group of people unrolling signs had gathered near a statue. as we walked over people passed us a pamphlet that told us about the man we were going to visit in his place of business. He was a business owner during the dictatorship and he turned over six men to the DINA, the secret police of Augusto Pinochet. To this day all six of them are still disappeared.

Very soon we started marching around the square and along the business areas near the man’s place of business. The next thing I saw were young, 13 or 14 year olds running along the group plastering the walls with pamphlet print outs with glue from 3 liter (that’s right, 3 liter cokes in Chile) Coke Cola bottles with the tops cut off. The crowd was singing and there was a sense of excitement in the air. And in the best broken Spanish I could, I found myself shouting out the words, though I’m not sure exactly what I was saying. I asked for some papers and joined the others in passing them out to those the group walked by.

Then we were at the man’s office and we shouted and sang loudly. The group littered the floors of the lobby with the remaining pamphlets. There was a silence and Julio read the actions of the man out loud over the mega phone. It was very peaceful, the traffic stopped and the police just drove by, they knew in advance what was going to happen. And then it was over. We marched back and the crow, as quickly as it gathered, dispersed.

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

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

September 2nd, 2011 by kdw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

And Aimee Genell’s review

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

The League of Nations and the Question of Human Rights

August 30th, 2011 by kdw

Now back in Davis.

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

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

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

Wilsonian Armenian

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

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

Read the paper

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

I argued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the cartoonist’s hands

August 25th, 2011 by kdw

Geneva, Switzerland

Just up the hill from me is the the European headquarters of the United Nations. While Manhattan is home to many of the UN’s political and bureaucratic functions, the UN campus here host several of the institution’s auxiliary entities including the Human Rights Council – a kind of super sub-committee of the General Assembly that investigates and passes resolutions on human rights abuses. Yesterday it passed a resolution calling on the government of Syria to stop killing civilian protestors. The Syrian uprising is in its sixth month and signs are emerging that the inhabitants of the country’s two biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, who have stood on the sidelines until now are growing restless. Were these cities to join the uprising it is unclear whether the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad has the resources to maintain the level of repression he has used so far.

Part of that question will be answered later this week when or if the European Union will make a decision on sanctions on the export of Syrian oil. Syria has very little oil, but it is the primary source of revenue for the state. Without that revenue, it will be much harder for al-Assad to keep in place the kinds of economic programs that have maintained a semblance of stability in the country and just pay his army and secret police. Still, British and French companies have invested heavily in the Syrian oil industry and stand to lose those assets with a lengthy period of sanctions, so some European governments may be reluctant to support the sanctions fully.

Despite the UN condemnations, the heightened sanctions and the persistency of the uprising, Syrian human rights observers have indicated that the repression has reached a new high (low) with assaults on Syrian intellectuals, writers and the most-respected political cartoonist in the Arab World, Ali Farzat. He was picked up on the street near the Umayyad Mosque in the Damascus’ old city by the Syrian secret police, held and left for dead. Pictures of him in the hospital show that he had been beaten badly and his hands, what he uses to practice his craft, are wrapped in bandages.

Ali Farzat

Arab political cartooning is distinct from American political cartooning in that it tends to focus on the general human condition rather than intersecting with specific policies or political personalities. Farzat’s cartoons often portray an Arab “everyman” facing daily humiliation at the hands of representatives of brutal police states. You are never quite sure which dictator or state his cartoons are about, so his audience is left to fill in the blank. Beyond what his arrest and beating tells us about regimes of repression in Syria at the moment, it also confirms the critical role art and artists have in calling attention to human rights abuse and giving voice to forms of political struggle. I’ve reproduced a couple of Farzat’s cartoons below. They are wordless, but speak volumes.

Seif al-Islam, the ICC – Human Rights Justice and the Arab Spring

August 22nd, 2011 by kdw

Last night came word from Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court that Seif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, the 39-year-old son of Muammar al-Qadhafi had been arrested and that the ICC had communicated its arrest warrant to the Libya Interim Governing Council.

Were Seif al-Islam to be turned over to the Hague, he would be the first of the Arab Spring’s fallen dictators and their families to face justice at the world court for crimes against humanity. Ben Ali in Tunisia fled with his family to Saudi Arabia, Mubarak, his sons Gamal and Alaa are in a cage in a military court in Cairo. Before them other dictators and their sons met more gruesome fates: Saddam was hanged after a trial that many international observers considered problematic at best and his two sons, Qusay and Uday were found and killed by US forces in their Mosul safe house. Uday was a psychopathic playboy, whose brutality even shocked his own father. Thanks to Dominic Cooper and the new film “The Devil’s Double,” his deeds are now the stuff of popular culture.

If Seif al-Islam does go, it would represent an important moment in the fuller integration of Arab societies into global human rights and international justice norms. Through the instrument of an ICC indictment, Qadhafi’s war – and Seif al-Islam’s part in it – on his own people was declared a crime against humanity, that is against our humanity. To close the circle, the Libyans should now transfer those indicted to the ICC. This reciprocity is crucial if the court is to have any authority as it unseals indictments against other kings and dictators who have turned on their own people.

I understand fully the desire to try him at home, of putting him on display like Mubarak and his spawn. No matter how guilty Seif al-Islam is held by the ICC, he won’t face more than a decade or so in a luxurious Northern European prison. It doesn’t seem like enough now. But the value of foregoing what amounts to revenge for participation in an international system of justice will have the benefit of drawing concrete distinctions between a new democratic and rights-recognizing Libya and the brutal police state of his father.

Of human rights in unlikely places (part one)

August 19th, 2011 by kdw

Sitting with my friend and colleague Dr. Andy Jones, UC Davis’ academic technology czar and a consummate “information age” man, the conversation turned to the remade “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  We both enjoyed the movie.  Andy, an English professor liked the Shakespearean vibe; I saw it, like Pierre Boulle’s original novel, La Planète des singes as a fable that used sci-fi and inter-species relations to explore core concepts of the study of human rights from dignity and racism to torture.  But for me the critical human-rights moment was when Caesar the altered chimpanzee utters “no” in the face of abuse and imprisonment.  As I told Andy, one of the key questions about human rights is where do they come from? Among possible explanations is that they exist because we claim them in what we do and what we say.  For some this is why chimps and great apes can’t have human rights: no chimp or gorilla has asked for them. This fact didn’t impede the Spanish Parliament from passing legislation, fostered by the Great Ape Project, from extending human rights protection to them in 2008.

What the movie also hints at is that science and technology will continue to move the human rights frontier in novel and unexpected ways.

The UC Davis HRI has set aside this blog as a place to broach the question of the role of the Humanities in the study, teaching and promotion of Human Rights.  Future blog post will give UC Davis scholars and students somewhere to “think out loud” about this (un)likely connection between humanistic study and human rights.

Keith David Watenpaugh, Director

UC Davis Human Rights Initiative