Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Threat to Human Rights

Human rights are constantly being threatened. In Kim’s North Korea, the news is heavily censored, dissent is punished harshly, and the basic needs of citizens are denied so that the state can maintain a grotesquely outsized military. In Putin’s Russia, human rights NGOs are closed down and investigative journalists are murdered. In Museveni’s Uganda, opposition candidates are arrested and detained while their supporters face police intimidation. In every corner of the world, there are governments that threaten human rights, often as a matter of policy, sometimes as a matter of expediency. Threats to particular rights, however tragic and outrageous, are in some sense normal; without such quotidian threats, there would be no need for human rights treaties, NGOs, UN monitoring bodies, or international tribunals.

The threat to human rights, however, has recently assumed a different character as the global consensus regarding the very concept of human rights has come under challenge. That the challenge is real--and profound--is apparent in the fact that it is being voiced by more and more voters in western democracies. The very societies that have well-established constitutions guaranteeing a range of individual rights have become battlegrounds where illiberal ideologies contend against the concept of human rights. In at least half a dozen democracies including the United States, election results have called into question the commitment to human rights of a substantial percentage of the electorate. Looming elections may widen the zones of concern.

Human rights are foundational commitments. They supersede--or at least ought to supersede--other policy concerns. A government like Rodrigo Duterte’s in the Philippines that seeks to address a serious drug problem by summarily executing suspected drug dealers is violating human rights, regardless of the supposed benefits to society from such a draconian approach to the enforcement of the state’s drug laws. A government like Xi Jinping’s in China that censors the news and impedes citizens’ access to information is violating human rights, regardless of the state’s legitimate interest in promoting harmony within a large and diverse population. A government like George W. Bush’s in the United States that waterboards prisoners in an effort to get information concerning potential terrorist plots is violating human rights, regardless of any security benefits that torture might provide. Put simply, human rights are what they are meant to be only if they establish limits on the authority of the state in the pursuit of its other policy goals.

But perhaps more to the point of the present threat to human rights is this: What makes certain rights human rights is their universality. One cannot, in assigning rights or making policy, draw distinctions between different groups of people on the basis of gender, race, nationality, religion, or other ascriptive characteristics without violating human rights. Policies that discriminate against Muslims, African Americans, Mexicans, or other religious, ethnic, or national groups violate human rights. Those who advocate such policies, whatever their justification, have parted company with those who defend human rights.

The threat to human rights in the United States lies not only in the fact that many racists, including the Ku Klux Klan itself, supported Donald Trump. The threat also lies in the fact that many who do not think of themselves as racists (and some who, in fact, are not) believed Trump’s overt appeals to racism were not a sufficient reason to reject him. It is true that voters in a democracy rarely have the luxury of supporting a candidate who represents their views perfectly. As a consequence, it is always necessary to weigh a candidate’s views on trade or welfare policy, for example, against his or her views on national security or environmental policy. But because human rights are foundational--because they define what government policies are out of bounds--the balancing act that voters normally engage in when selecting a candidate is inappropriate when certain policy preferences are being weighed against respect for human rights. That some Americans, acting out of racism, misogyny, homophobia, or xenophobia, rejected human rights completely while others decided that Donald Trump’s disrespect for humanity was not a deal-breaker indicates that there is a very real threat to human rights in the United States.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Raising Barriers

The Washington Post has begun a three-part online series on border walls titled "Raising Barriers." The first part, published yesterday, is available here.

According to the Post, there are currently 63 borders where states are separated by walls or other man-made barriers. Most of the world's barriers have been erected since 9/11. In Europe, the refugee crisis has triggered a new round of wall-building. In spite of this situation, the Schengen Area in Europe remains one of the world's most remarkable experiments in open borders.

The Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative

Morning Edition, the morning news program heard nationwide on National Public Radio, today featured a story on the U.S. Justice Department's Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative. The story, reported by Jackie Northam, noted the Justice Department's case against property--including an estate in Malibu, expensive cars, and a collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia--that Teodoro Nguema Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea's dictator, purchased in the United States.

The biggest case brought thus far by the Justice Department under this program was announced in July. It involves the misappropriation of $3.5 billion from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), an $8 billion government fund intended to promote economic development in Malaysia. The U.S. Government alleges that $1 billion from the fund was spent in the United States on yachts, hotels, and art works. Some of the money even went toward the financing of The Wolf of Wall Street, a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio that was released in 2013.

The FBI website describes the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative in these terms:
The Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative was established in 2010 to curb high-level public corruption around the world. Led by a team of Department of Justice prosecutors working in tandem with the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies, its mission is to forfeit the proceeds of corruption by foreign officials and, where appropriate, to use recovered assets to benefit the people who were harmed.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Case in France

On Thursday, the French corruption case against Teodoro Nguema Obiang--second vice president of Equatorial Guinea and heir apparent to his father, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo--cleared a procedural hurdle as prosecutors signaled their willingness to move forward. A 36-page indictment has been filed and may now be reviewed by both the defense and the prosecution before a panel of judges determines (in about a month) whether to allow the case to proceed to trial.

The French investigation into the financial affairs of the ruling families of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Cameroon--known informally as les biens mal acquis (the ill-gotten gains) case--began in December 2010. In February 2012, cars, art works, wine, and other goods were seized from Obiang's Paris home. Five months later a warrant for Obiang's arrest was issued.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Patricia Derian (1929-2016)

Much of our history has been created by women whose names most people don't remember or never even knew. One of those women, Patricia Derian, died late last week.

Derian was Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs under President Jimmy Carter. She was the second person to hold that office, but the first to make it matter. Derian was noted for her willingness to speak truth to power, both in confronting dictators abroad and in addressing her colleagues within the U.S. government who were skeptical of the need for, or the wisdom of, a human rights policy. She once walked out of a dinner being hosted in her honor by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos to go to the prison where Benigno Aquino, a Filipino democracy advocate, was being held. It is no exaggeration to say that thousands of people around the world owe their lives to Derian's insistence, sometimes over the opposition of more cautious officials in the State Department or the White House, on naming and shaming the leaders of repressive regimes.

On two recent research trips to the Carter Library, I have seen ample evidence of Ms. Derian's impact on U.S. foreign policy--and on world events. I have also seen evidence of the obstacles that she had to overcome in order to ensure that the United States was on the side of the oppressed rather than their oppressors. Patt Derian deserves to be remembered.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Daniel Berrigan (1921-2016)

Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest best known for his opposition to the Vietnam War, has passed away in New York City just days short of his 95th birthday. He is regarded as one of the most influential American Jesuits of his time both for his protests against war and nuclear weapons and for his writings, which included a body of poetry as well as works on theology, spirituality, and social protest.

In 1967, Berrigan, his brother Philip, and two others--"the Baltimore Four"--were arrested for pouring blood on draft records in protest against the war in Vietnam. In 1968, he joined a tax protest against the war. Then, on May 17 of that same year, he participated--with "the Catonsville Nine"--in the destruction of draft records using homemade napalm outside the offices of the Catonsville, Maryland draft board. He was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison but escaped and spent four months as a fugitive--in order to draw more attention to his protests against the war--before being captured at the home of theologian and activist William Stringfellow. Berrigan was released from prison in 1972.

In 1980, Berrigan turned to anti-nuclear protests at a General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Berrigan, his brother Philip, and six others--"the Plowshares Eight"--hammered the nosecone of a nuclear missile (symbolically beating swords into plowshares) and poured blood on files. The group was charged with a wide range of crimes, but after ten years of trials and appeals, all were sentenced to time served. The 1980 protest was the beginning of the Plowshares Movement, with which Berrigan was active throughout the remainder of his life.

Even after he had turned 80, Berrigan continued to protest war and injustice. He protested the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the U.S. prison at Guantanamo. He also participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hearing from the Candidates (UN Version)

For the first time in its seventy-year history, the United Nations is engaged in an open and transparent process to select a secretary-general. Ban Ki-moon's term ends on December 31, 2016. The UN is widely expected to select a woman as its next leader and, in fact, four of the nine announced candidates are women.

The selection process has historically involved much behind-the-scenes negotiating as aspirants have worked quietly to secure the support of Security Council member states, who must nominate a secretary-general candidate, and General Assembly member states, who must actually elect the secretary-general. According to the UN's informal system of geographical rotation, the next secretary-general should come from Eastern Europe. Seven candidates are from Eastern Europe, but former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and Portuguese diplomat Antonio Guterres are defying the convention with their candidacies.

This year, secretary-general candidates are engaging in informal dialogues with permanent representatives. The sessions, lasting two hours each, are being conducted today through Thursday in the Trusteeship Council chamber and are being televised live on UN Web TV.

To hear Antonio Guterres, the Portuguese candidate, present his opening statement--primarily in English but moving smoothly into French and Spanish as well--go here. Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, the current director-general of UNESCO and a candidate for secretary-general of the UN, can be seen interacting with the press here.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Lethal Autonomous Weapons and the CCW

Today in Geneva the CCW (Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems got underway. The primary purpose of the meeting is to develop recommendations regarding potential controls on lethal autonomous weapons system (LAWS) to be considered by the Fifth Review Conference, a regularly scheduled meeting of parties to the CCW that will occur in December 2016.

Lethal autonomous weapons systems are, in effect, robots programmed to kill without direct human guidance. Just as self-driving cars have advanced to the point where no human interaction is required beyond the point of identifying a destination, weapons systems are now at the point where a mission, including the use of weapons, can be programmed by humans and then executed by the machine without further human interaction. Clearly there are many technological, political, legal, and ethical questions to be considered in the face of such an important development.

There is no shortage of scholars, NGOs, IGOs, and governments interested in weighing in on lethal autonomous weapons and their implications. A range of papers and presentations prepared for this week's Meeting of Experts is available on the UNOG (United Nations Office at Geneva) website here. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a key contributor to international humanitarian law, has weighed in with an argument for preserving human responsibility in decisions to kill. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a project that brings together a number of NGOs including Human Rights Watch and the Pugwash Conferences on Science & World Affairs, has articulated a similar position.

There are many reasons to hope that the Fifth Review Conference in December will be able to make progress toward a ban on fully autonomous lethal weapons systems.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

North Korea's "Ghost Ships"

Strange--and tragic--stories out of North Korea are not unusual: the regime's brutality at times overwhelms its secrecy so that credible accounts of starvation, torture, arbitrary execution, and other crimes make their way beyond its tightly sealed borders. But this latest story, even by North Korean standards, is macabre.

The Los Angeles Times reports today that since last November at least fourteen North Korean boats carrying over thirty partially decomposed bodies have floated ashore along Japan's west coast. Initial speculation centered on the possibility that the "ghost ships" were carrying defectors who had tried to escape North Korea on boats instead of attempting the overland crossing into China. But when a Japanese scholar, North Korea expert Satoru Miyamoto, examined photos of the boats, he realized that they had belonged to the military's commercial section. The dead, he believes, were members of the military pressed into service as fishermen in an effort to alleviate North Korea's dire shortage of food. Miyamoto's theory suggests that those found on the boats perished as a consequence of their own inexperience as fishermen--and, no doubt, the pressure of unreasonable demands being made on them.

Last summer, the North Korean government spoke openly about the impact of drought on the country's rice production. UN assistance to North Korea has declined over the course of the last decade as a consequence of the international community's efforts to punish the regime for its nuclear activities.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Remembering Bonhoeffer

On this date in 1945, less than a month before Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp. One of Germany's most famous theologians and best loved pastors, Bonhoeffer had been arrested two years earlier for plotting to assassinate Hitler.

Bonhoeffer said and wrote many things worth remembering, not only for Christians but for all people. Here are a few of his comments on our responsibility to work for justice:
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.
We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.
If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.
The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Karadžić at the ICTY

Late last week in the presence of victims, journalists, diplomats, and representatives of civil society groups, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) delivered guilty verdicts in Radovan Karadžić's trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. From 1992 to 1996, Karadžić was president of the Republika Srpska, or Bosnian Serb Republic. His leadership of the breakaway group spanned the four-year-long siege of Sarajevo and included the massacre at Srebrenica in which 8,000 Bosnian men were killed in the worst crime of its kind in Europe since World War II. Bringing to an end legal proceedings that had first begun with an appearance before the court on July 31, 2008, the ICTY sentenced Karadžić to forty years in prison.

Beginning in April 1992, first the Yugoslav People's Army and later the irregular forces of the Republika Srpska took up positions outside Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Over a period of 1,425 days--a full year longer than the Germans' siege of Leningrad in World War II--Serbian forces lobbed mortar shells into the city from nearby mountains and killed both citizens and soldiers with sniper fire on the streets. Roughly 14,000 people died during the siege (including over 5,000 civilians) and tens of thousands more fled the city. On the night of August 25, 1992, the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina was destroyed along with most of the two million manuscripts it housed. The library had been targeted by the Serbs for weeks. (For a brief UNESCO video on the National Library's destruction, go here.)

In the period before the massacre at Srebrenica, one of the most dramatic crimes committed under Karadžić's leadership was the shelling of the market in Sarajevo on February 5, 1994. A mortar fired from one of the hills surrounding Sarajevo exploded in a crowded outdoor market killing 68 people. Karadžić responded to the international outcry following the market bombing by claiming that the Bosnians had staged the scene to mislead the media. The bodies, Karadžić alleged, had been taken from the morgue and posed to look like victims of a mortar attack. Only the most ardent supporters of the Bosnian Serbs were fooled by these lies.

Although Sarajevo had been under attack at that point for almost two years, the manner and magnitude of the killing in the market shocked the international community and led to NATO intervention. NATO airstrikes targeted Serb positions surrounding the city and allowed Bosnian military forces to launch an offensive against the forces of the Republika Srpska. Following a ceasefire negotiated in October, the parties agreed to the Dayton Accords, an agreement brokered by the United States, on December 14, 1995. On February 29, 1996, the Bosnians declared the end of the siege as the last Bosnian Serb fighters withdrew.

Before his arrest in 2008, Karadžić managed to hide in plain sight in Serbia's capital, Belgrade. He grew a long white beard, tied his hair in a knot at the top of his head, and assumed the name "Dr. Dragan Dabic." As Dr. Dabic, Karadžić promoted alternative health care, lecturing publicly and even going on television. The government of Serbia for years showed little interest in arresting Karadžić, but pressure from the European Union (no cooperation with the ICTY, no membership in the EU was its message) eventually resulted in both Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia, and Karadžić being arrested and delivered into the custody of the ICTY.