Posts Tagged ‘Keith David Watenpaugh’

Some Thoughts on the Battle for Aleppo

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

“Corpse” – Semezdin Mehmedinović

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massacres in Aleppo will dwarf what has happened so far.

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

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

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

Why the targeting of children in Syria?

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandaean Refugee Boy in Jordan

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

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

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

See: HRW’s Iraq at the Crossroads

Human Rights Organizations in Iraq



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

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.

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

Turkey is a remarkable study in contrast and contradictions.  As an impoverished grad student I once lived in Istanbul’s “infamous” neighborhood Sormagır Sokak, (the name of which is a slightly off-color pun in Turkish) which was home to conservative peasant immigrants from the Black Sea and transvestite singers who often headlined the high-end nightclubs off of Istiklal Caddesi nearby.  Turkey has a long history of female impersonator singers, some of whom have reached great fame with vast numbers of fans among the country’s overwhelmingly conservative society.

In the mornings on the way to the archives, I’d watch the tired singers walk home after a night of working, their hair and makeup in stark contrast to the hints of a beard rising on their cheeks.  The immigrants would sit on the front stoops of the apartments eating seeds and chatting.  Relations between the two communities was usually live and let live, but tensions did exist that could lead to conflict.

Turkey was among the first states to decriminalize homosexuality.  But the Turkish military views it as a mental illness and proving one’s homosexuality is a way to escape mandatory military service. Still, over the last two-decades a growing movement for Gay Rights has emerged in Turkey, especially as the country’s civil society becomes more integrated with Europe’s. Yet as that movement has grown and gay men, in particular, become more open in their practice, human rights activists and groups, including Amnesty International Turkey have noted the occurrence of gay “honor killing.”

The case that continues to capture international attention is that of Ahmet Yıldız.  Yıldız was a 26-year-old physics grad student who had  represented Turkey at a Gay Rights gathering in San Francisco.  Gay rights activists believe he was the first Turk to have been targeted for “honor killing” because of his sexuality.  Leaving a café near the Bosphorous on a warm July evening in 2008 assailants attacked and shot and killed him.

The Turkish authorities finally issued an arrest warrant for his father, whom they believed killed his son, but only after the elder Yildiz had fled the country.  Honor killing is a reality in Turkey, as it is elsewhere, where the victims are usually women who have “dishonored” the family because of some imagined or real illicit sexual act or having been raped. Despite increasing punishments for this kind of killing and the Turkish justice system’s abandonment of family honor as mitigation in sentencing, it continues.  One horrifying consequence of the increasing legal sanction is that families will have one of their underaged children carry out the killing, knowing that they can only be imprisoned for a few years.

A remarkable and touching campaign in Yildiz’s memory is playing out on the walls of Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighborhood, where posters with his face and captioned by the phrase “Ahmet Yildiz is my family.”  It’s accompanied by a website where people can join his “family.”

In the case of the Turkish Armenian intellectual Hrant Dink (2007) it was a teenager tasked with carrying out the honor killing.  Dink was the most prominent Armenian intellectual in Turkey at the time of his murder.  He was singled out for death in part because of his stand on the recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the broader sense that his behavior had insulted Turkish national honor.  A famous picture of Dink’s murderer standing with smiling policemen after his arrest suggested that if not explicitly sanction by elements of the Turkish state, the killing was at least understood as a legitimate act of social discipline.  Thus, it was ok to kill the Armenian because he insulted Turkey and he’s only a gavur, just as its ok to kill the gay guy because he violates society’s social norms and the rape victim because she dishonored the family and was asking for it.

Is the killing of women and gay men for reasons of family honor “cultural” where the murder of Dink was “political?” My sense is that there is a critical correlation between them.  The tolerance of these acts by society and the elements of the state — granted Turkey has prosecuted in some cases, though often only following international pressure — creates a culture of social impunity, where non-state actors can violate the human rights of sexual and ethnic minorities and women and face lesser punishment, because of the perceived lesser humanity of the victims.

The case in Turkey points to how important it is to link the protection of the human rights of sexual minorities into broader protections and campaigns on behalf of other kinds of minorities and groups.  It also raises other questions about the way appeals to culture and tradition can come into conflict with human rights norms and even how pressure on behalf of gays and minorities in a place like Turkey can be perceived as alien and itself a form of cultural oppression.

A possible path was proposed this last week by British PM David Cameron who has pledged to cut foreign aid to those countries criminalizing homosexuality. The problem there is that this kind of outside pressure often works at cross-purposes in the local context, making life MORE difficult for local human rights activists.  The most effective and long-range solution lies with supporting civil society in a places like Turkey and remembering that we too in the West are in Ahmet’s and Hrant’s families.

Salon.com has longer article on this topic

also read Human Rights Watch’s remarkable report on the situation in Turkey.

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

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.

Voltaire, Troy Davis and the Death Penalty

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.

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

There was something missing, something just not right…

Spring Qtr. ’11. A student in my “Human Rights” introductory course was at my office hours to talk. In class we had discussed the human rights implications of the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden, something that had just happened that week, breaking off from the syllabus to think about terrorism as a crime against humanity and revisiting a discussion we had had earlier about how Islamism (like most religious ideologies) tends to deny the very existence of human rights in favor of a more divinely ordained code of ethics and behaviors.

The classroom conversation turned to the question of whether bin Laden’s human rights had been violated or what we had been told had happened was a justifiable and legitimate use of deadly force? I then asked my students to think about what could have been gained by putting him on trial? We had been studying the concept of crimes against humanity trials and I observed that Nazis, Rwandan Genocidaires, and Serbian ultra-nationalists who had done similar or even worse crimes than bin Laden (but not to Americans) had been successfully captured, tried and even some executed. Think “Judgment at Nuremberg.”

Nazi war criminals in the dock at Nuremberg, 1946

My student had come to talk more about that last question. She had lost someone in the Pentagon, and told me that ever since the killing of bin Laden “there was something missing, something just not right,” and when we talked about putting him on trial that that was it.

Human rights undergraduates tend to have this kind of thoughtful and reflective approach to history and the present, which is one of the more rewarding aspects of teaching in that field. But her response was particularly so and made me remember something from the very beginning of my career as a teacher.

I am suddenly the expert because I’m the only historian of the Modern Middle East for three Upstate New York counties. A colleague in my department has asked me to lecture at the Elderhostel. Sixty senior citizens sit at circular banquet tables. It’s three weeks since the Events and a few days after George W. Bush first used the phrase “war on terror” in a speech. It was a speech that also included the word “crusade.” I’m giving a talk on popular culture in the Arab world: Umm Kulthum, Rai music, Palestinian graffiti. That’s not what they want to talk about. They want to know about Them, the Muslims, the Arabs, the Enemy who wants to kill Us.

I try to tell them a different story, one about what a marginal figure bin Laden is and how radical Islamism is a cancer over there, too. Then I tell them that we’re not at war. Those who brought down the towers are criminals, mass murderers, who should face the full force of the American justice system. I ask them to remember Timothy McVeigh who was from another Upstate city and how he was caught, tried and convicted. Al-Qaeda is a criminal enterprise, it’s run and funded like one and it can be dismantled like one, it might take time. But just imagine what an elegant statement of what-makes-us-different it would be to perp-walk bin Laden and his crew into the Daniel Patrick Moynihan federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan and have him judged by a jury of 12 tough New Yorkers, convict them and then let them rot at the supermax in Florence, Colorado? Let the world see them for the pathetic, spineless, petty mobsters they are, let them descend into the hell of their own obscurity and be denied the martyrdom they crave, don’t even sentence them to die, just lock the door and throw away the goddamn key.

In 2001 this didn’t go over so well.

Moynihan Court House - site of successful criminal prosecutions of terrorists

I think I was asking too much of them at the time. That moment was infused with panic and fear, and inflamed by an administration that could invoke Pearl Harbor, the Old West and the Clash of Civilizations in a single breath. What I was asking them to consider seemed weak, effete, intellectual and ineffectual. It was us-or-them and some pointy-headed, tweedy moonlighting assistant professor wasn’t going to persuade them to entrust their desire for revenge to the CIA, FBI, lawyers and judges. That any reaction other than war was possible had been crowded out of public consciousness and it is important to recall today how harshly any dissent was dealt with at the time: it was labeled unpatriotic, it was heresy against the memory of the heroes of 9/11; are you one of them?

I don’t claim to have had any idea at the time what would unfold because of the former administration’s decision to invent the “war on terror.” But that choice to do so — and here I want to distinguish between the Events and the American (over)reaction to them — changed the field of Middle East History, my area of expertise, and altered the environment in which the teaching of and research on human rights takes place.

The extent of shared humanity

The starting point for my “Human Rights” course is a close examination of the framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the wake of World War II. The framers of the UDHR — including Eleanor Roosevelt, for whom this blog is named — insisted that the declaration was an expansion to all of humanity of the kinds of rights established in various national compacts and constitutions including the US Bill of Rights.

The reaction to 9/11 called into question how committed Americans are to the universal nature of human rights. This is of course the question raised by the elaboration of a separate legal system outside of US law for the men held at Guantanamo Bay. In the words of Navy lawyer Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, who argued the Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld case: “All men have rights, including the right to a trial — a regular trial! The abuse of prisoners indicates that we don’t think detainees are human.” How then to reconcile the preeminent role of American political thought on the universality of human rights with the application of those rights in practice only to US citizens on US soil? As in other historical fields is there an American human rights exceptionalism?

As I teach human rights, I’ve found that it’s easy to get students to support the human rights claims of a Nelson Mandela or a nameless middle-class college student facing a truncheon in Tahrir Square. The true test of our humanity is seeing that humanity in those monsters that live in our midst. In making war, we are asked to temporarily forget the humanity of the enemy; the overreaction to the Events that led us into wars of our own choosing made that forgetting simple and without cost.

Cultures of Impunity

In the Middle East of today or the South America of the late-20th century when those who abuse human rights under the color of authority routinely get away with it, it is said to have created a “culture of impunity.” As we examine how cultures of impunity are addressed and ended, my students can’t help but see clear echoes of that culture in post-9/11 euphemisms like “extreme rendition” and “enhanced interrogation.” As word comes that the CIA rendered suspects unto Libya and a former US vice-president fears arrest as a war criminal, connecting foreign cultures of impunity to a domestic one doesn’t evoke their outrage but reinforces a creeping cynicism. This cynicism is a pendulum swing away from the too credulous attitudes towards authority and the military solution of a half-generation ago among students who were older when 9/11 took place. This cynicism concerns me inasmuch as it doesn’t enjoin action, but rather its reverse and reinforces an even more dangerous sense of alienation from our political structures.

This last year, for the first time I found myself having to tell the history of 9/11 to my students in my giant freshman course, “Fundamentalism.” Before then, I had assumed that they “knew” what had happened. When I began teaching that class, my freshmen were 12 years old when 9/11 took place and many do remember it, or at least think they do and could tell stories about watching the towers collapse on televisions rolled into their junior high classrooms. This year’s freshmen were 8 years old when it happened and their memory of the events, if they have any at all, is mediated by what happened after: the Iraq War, the financial collapse, the election of Barack Obama.

Historians sometimes use (and abuse) the concept of historical interruption. The idea is that a society is evolving or moving a certain direction and some event or war or social or economic collapse sidetracks it onto a course (usually bad) it wouldn’t have taken otherwise. The United States and its relationship to human rights seemed to have been moving in a different historical direction before 9/11. The question we’ll need to answer and what I’ll pose to my students for the rest of my career is whether America and Americans are now back on that path?

Further Readings:

Human Rights Watch: United States: Investigate Bush, Other Top Officials for Torture

American Civil Liberties Union: A Call to Courage: Reclaiming our Liberties Ten Years after 9/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

And Aimee Genell’s review

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

The League of Nations and the Question of Human Rights

Now back in Davis.

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

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

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

Wilsonian Armenian

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

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

Read the paper

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

I argued:

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

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

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

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

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

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