Posts Tagged ‘Minority Rights’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandaean Refugee Boy in Jordan

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

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

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

See: HRW’s Iraq at the Crossroads

Human Rights Organizations in Iraq



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

Negationism, Freedom of Speech and Genocide Ideology Laws in Rwanda

Andrea Dooley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information:

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

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

Full text of Law N°18/2008:

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

Kagame CNN interview:

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

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

Rwanda’s Response to the UN DRC report:

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

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

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

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

UN Secretary Ban’s trip to Rwanda:

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

ITCR verdict:

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

“Legal Violence” against Turkish journalists, writers and academics: the arrest of Ragıp Zarakolu and Büşra Ersanlı

There’s no good news and then there’s slightly better news.

Bad news: It’s not been a good week for Human Rights activists and journalists in Turkey, especially those who find themselves on the wrong side of the government’s official position on the rights of Kurds and other minorities.

Over the last week, Ragıp Zarakolu, a Turkish Human Rights activist. publisher and PEN International’s local “Writers in Prison” committee chair and Büşra Ersanlı, a noted Political Scientist at Marmara University and leader of the a liberal Turkish political party were rounded up with nearly 70 other politicians, journalists, students, trade unionists and community organizers.   Indeed, earlier this month Ragıb’s son Deniz, a Ph. D. student at Biligi University had been arrested after giving a lecture. Most, like Ersanlı are associated with various Turkish progressive NGOs including the Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi (Peace and Democracy Party) The Turkish government alleges that they are linked to a terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) through its civilian wing, the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK).  7748 people have been arrested as a consequence of the government’s campaign over the last three years – most in the last 30 months. The arrests and prosecutions have been criticized by both Turkish and international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch.  Among those arrested under nebulous terrorism laws were mayors, delegates to regional assemblies and parliamentary candidates primarily from cities and towns in Turkey’s Kurdish dominated southeast.

Ragıb Zarakolu

The BDP is a legal Turkish political party.  Any link to the PKK is nebulous at best – this isn’t Sinn Féin and the IRA.  What’s happening is just a witch hunt and another moment where the [ab]use of terrorism legislation to destroy a peaceful political opposition is taking place.  In the old days, repressive governments accused their opponents of being tools of Western imperialism, Leftists, Zionists, (or in the case of the remarkable Argentine newspaper editor, Jacopo Timerman, “Leftist Zionist.” BTW my Human Rights students read his Preso sin nombre, celda sin número and it has been a very successful prompt for in class discussion).

The Turkish government’s efforts should be understood as a brutal attempt to reverse the actual and possible electoral gains of a progressive, pro-Kurdish rights political movement through trumped up political and thought-crime prosecutions.  It’s probably also related to heightened tensions in Turkey as it renews its attacks against the PKK across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan.  Nevertheless, these mass arrests, which have a kind of retro feel to them, represent a giant step backwards for human rights and a pluralist political future for a European Union applicant state.  It is also a reminder, if one really needed one, that despite immense gains in Turkish civil society for the promotion of human rights, the recognition of the cultural rights of minorities and a coming to terms with the violent and genocidal history of Anatolia, that a ultranationalist vision of Turkey still prevails, even under Islamist governments like that which currently rules the country, and that the state will use all the coercive means in its power to protect that vision.

In a minor victory against that vision, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recently ruled in favor of Taner Akçam, who holds the Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide History at Clark University.  Akçam had brought suit against the Turkish government at the court for violations of his human rights, in particular Article 10 (Freedom of Expression) of the European Convention of Human Rights.

According to the decision:

The Court found that there had been an “interference” with Mr Taner Akçam’s right to freedom of expression. The criminal investigation launched against him and the Turkish criminal courts’ standpoint on the Armenian issue in their application of Article 301 of the Criminal Code (any criticism of the official line on the issue in effect being sanctioned), as well as the public campaign against him, confirmed that there was a considerable risk of prosecution faced by persons who expressed “unfavourable” opinions on the subject and indicated that the threat hanging over Mr Taner Akçam was real. The measures adopted to provide safeguards against arbitrary or unjustified prosecutions under Article 301 had not been sufficient.

Turkey’s Article 301 criminalizes anything (speech, writing, art) that insults the Turkish Nation or the Republic of Turkey and is generally used to suppress the public discussion of issues like the Armenian Genocide.  Akçam’s victory underscores how threats of “legal violence”against dissidents, academics, journalists and students authorized by Article 301 has a powerful chilling effect and ultimately violates their basic human rights.

During the last several years, Turkish American organizations have used similar tactics, including the threat of lawsuits and indeed actual lawsuits against scholars, school districts and at least one university with whose scholarship on genocide and the promotion of its denial they disagree.  This includes a case brought by the Turkish Coalition of America against the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.  The case was dismissed but not before it used up resources and time and generally made miserable the brave interim director of the center, Professor Bruno Chaouat. The University of Minnesota understood that it was worth it to fight for Chaouat’s academic freedom, but also to protect all of us against the spread of the kinds of human rights violations that are too commonplace in contemporary Turkey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, October 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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)