Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An African Criminal Court?

The mention of an "African Criminal Court" is usually a sardonic reference to the fact that all seven of the International Criminal Court investigations currently open involve African states.  Yesterday, at the 18th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, outgoing chairperson Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo actually proposed the creation of an African Criminal Court.  Obiang's stated rationale is that the International Criminal Court has discriminated against African leaders.  It is an objection that is consistent with other positions Obiang has taken to try to insulate African dictators, himself included, from external scrutiny.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, addressing the summit on Sunday, defended the record of the ICC in Africa by noting that many of the investigations have been supported by Africans themselves.  He also noted that the newly elected chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda of Ghana, is an African.  Speaking to a Voice of America reporter, Ban argued that the ICC has handled its responsibilities well, using the situations in Cote d'Ivoire and Libya as examples.

In his speech to the AU, Ban urged the assembled leaders to "adopt a preventive approach to human rights."  The Arab Spring, he said, demonstrated that "police power is no match for people power seeking dignity and justice."  Ban also urged African leaders to "live up to the ideals of the Universal Declaration" by ending discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

The African Union Summit took place in a new headquarters building constructed at a cost of $200 million by the government of China.  The building, one of many examples of Chinese largesse in Africa, exemplifies the ongoing battle for hearts and minds--and resources--across the continent.  While the West views Africa (along with the Middle East) as one of the last bastions of political repression--a bastion breached by the Arab Spring--China appears to view the dictators of Africa as allies in the defense of sovereignty against the broad incursions made by the ideals of human rights and international justice.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Drones over Syria?

The United Nations Security Council is set to consider a resolution on Syria tomorrow.  Secretary of State Clinton, along with the foreign ministers of France and the United Kingdom, will be present for the debate to underscore Western support for removing Bashar al-Assad from power.  Russia has indicated that it will not support the resolution being put forth by Arab states calling for Assad's removal, nor will it support harsher economic sanctions.

Amid the diplomatic backdrop in New York and a much more violent backdrop on the ground in Syria, the two co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network are suggesting that drones be deployed over Syria to monitor human rights abuses against opponents of the regime.  Although the Syrian Air Force may be no match for Israel's, it would have little difficulty targeting drones operating in Syrian airspace.  NGOs cannot afford to replace drones that are shot down; states would generally perceive the use of drones to be military intervention, a policy option that thus far is not being seriously considered.

Even though the use of drones in Syria is unlikely, the pilotless planes, commonly called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are fast becoming the preferred solution to almost every conceivable problem.  The Department of Homeland Security uses drones in the United States, most prominently for patrolling the long U.S.-Mexico border.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acquired its ninth Predator B UAV in December for border patrol duties.  Although the U.S military has exited Iraq, the State Department is operating drones to help protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and consulates in other parts of the country.  In fact, Iraqis are said to be angry about the use of American drones there.

Earlier this month the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy and digital rights watchdog group, filed suit against the federal Department of Transportation, which oversees the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), asking for information regarding the use of drones in domestic surveillance.  The FAA, according to the plaintiffs, has failed to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests seeking the identities of those organizations that have been certified to operate drones in U.S. airspace.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Art and Human Rights

Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and dissident, has been barred from leaving China since his arrest last year for "economic crimes."  He was accused of tax evasion (to the tune of $2.4 million) and incarcerated in a case that outside observers view as state harassment in retaliation for criticism of the Chinese government.  Ai spent two and a half months in jail on the charge, which remains unresolved.

Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker, reports on a meeting with Ai at the artist's home in Beijing.  The home is under the constant gaze of security cameras and is visited by the police regularly.  Once a week,  Ai is taken to the police station--for education.

In 2010-2011, Ai's installation of porcelain sunflower seeds was exhibited at the Tate Modern in London.  (The artist discusses the creation of the exhibit, which includes millions of hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds, in a brief documentary on the exhibition website.)  In China, the sunflower seeds have become a symbol of freedom.  People have written to Ai asking for some of the porcelain seeds, and he has responded by giving them away.  In return, many people have sent money to Ai to help him challenge the tax evasion charge.  Osnos reports that people discuss the seeds in China's heavily censored online forums in a way that makes them a proxy for the artist.  Ai states:  “They talk about seeds and it moved like a wave. They couldn’t talk about me and they couldn’t talk about the government, but when they talked about seeds, nobody could do anything about it, because they aren’t talking about anything--just sunflower seeds!”

Ai's story is told in a documentary by Alison Klayman, Ai Weiwei:  Never Sorry, that has been featured at this year's Sundance Film Festival.  Ms. Klayman was interviewed about the documentary on The Colbert Report last May.

Art has the potential to prompt reflection, to raise questions, and to generate conversation--even about politics and structures of repression.  As Ai puts it in the Tate Modern's documentary, "I always think art is a tool to set up new questions."  For this reason, among others, the cultural rights that some Americans consider even less worthy of defense than economic rights, are important.  They are a part of what it means to have freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.  The suppression of art (and artists) stifles  society as surely as the suppression of political speech.

Friday, January 27, 2012

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Its observance falls on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army in the waning days of World War II.

Sixty-seven years--two-thirds of a century--have now passed since the Red Army, advancing across Poland, came upon the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps, a place where between 1.1 million and 1.6 million people were killed.  The few who survived are rapidly disappearing.  In fact, Kazimierz Smolen, an Auschwitz survivor who was director of the museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1955 to 1990, died today at the age of 91.

Henry Appel, another survivor, said, "There is only one thing worse than Auschwitz itself and that is if the world forgets there was such a place."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An Abysmal Anniversary

It was ten years ago today that the first prisoners in the so-called "War on Terror" arrived at Guantanamo Bay.  Today, there are 171 detainees there, at least 12 of whom arrived with the first group.

Guantanamo remains a legal black hole in most respects, even though some legal challenges have wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court.  This brief film by Amnesty International makes the very important point that the U.S. Government has consistently avoided all discussion of the applicability of international human rights where Guantanamo is concerned.  This, of course, contributes to Guantanamo's status as a place the law can't reach.

Lakhdar Boumediene, who was imprisoned at Guantanamo from January 20, 2002 to May 15, 2009 without being charged with the crime, told his story in the New York Times on Sunday.  It is well worth reading.

Thursday, January 05, 2012


This may well be the year that another 12 percent of the United States--California, to be specific--moves to abolish the death penalty.  An organization called SAFE (Savings, Accountability, Full Enforcement) California is working to put repeal of the state's capital punishment law on the November ballot.  Should the initiative succeed, California would join sixteen other states that have already abolished the death penalty.

The principal argument that SAFE California makes in favor of abolition is that the death penalty is costly and ineffective.  There is data to support the claim.  According to the Death Penalty Information Center, California had 721 inmates on death row on January 1, 2011.  But, since 1976, only thirteen people have been executed in the state.  (There have been no executions in California since 2006 when a federal court struck down the existing method of lethal injection.)  Some may argue that this simply means the state needs to streamline its use of the death penalty rather than abolishing it, but such an argument is, fundamentally, an argument that California ought to be more like Saudi Arabia or the People's Republic of China in circumventing such legal niceties as the rights of the accused and prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishments.  Furthermore, it is an argument that runs contrary to the fact that, since 1973, 139 people on death rows across the United States have been exonerated.

As Adam Cohen notes in a Time magazine essay, what is happening in California and elsewhere in the United States is abolition prompted by grassroots pressure in the states.  It is not what many death penalty opponents have been hoping for since the U.S. Supreme Court's reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, that is, outlawry (or at least suspension) in one fell swoop by Supreme Court fiat.  That is what had happened, temporarily, in Furman v. Georgia in 1972.  There are, Cohen notes, certain advantages to death penalty abolition state by state.  "What we are seeing," Cohen writes, "is not a small group of judges setting policy.  It is a large number of Americans gradually losing their enthusiasm for putting people to death."

Viewed from the standpoint of international relations, abolition of the death penalty is one of a number of issues on which the Untied States lags behind international human rights standards.  The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is premised on the belief "that abolition of the death penalty contributes to enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights" and thus mandates that "no one within the jurisdiction of a State Party to the present Protocol shall be executed."  The Protocol is, of course, optional, but it has been accepted by 73 states, including most of the democracies of Western Europe, Canada, and Mexico.  Those the United States would include among its closest allies have abolished the death penalty.  Those often condemned by the United States for their lack of respect for human rights--the People's Republic of China, North Korea, Iran, and Syria, for example--have not.

It's time to end the death penalty all over the United States, but if abolition has to be accomplished one state at a time, so be it.  California should be next.