Miscellanea

Some perspective, via Penelopeinparis on Twitter.

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Last week, the blogosphere and Twitterverse couldn’t stop debating the new MSF UK ad titled ‘The Boy.’ While exploring the ads of MSF UK through the years on YouTube, I stumbled across more ads by British humanitarian and human rights NGOs. It didn’t take me long to realize how much more provocative –and creative–  these were than ads produced by similar or even sister organizations in the United States. Take the following Amnesty UK ads, neither of which I can imagine ever running on television in the United States, as but two examples.

Amnesty UK anti-torture ad.

Amnesty UK anti-extremism, pro-human rights ad.

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I have recently been thinking of the 2006 Economist editorial in which the publication took a shockingly bold stance against torture, and with a twist. Instead of arguing against torture based on torture’s ineffectiveness  as an intelligence-gathering tool –the line of argument adopted by many torture opponents in the American media– the Economist assumed torture to be very effective, and argued against it anyway. Maintaining a society in which people are free from state repression comes at a price, it stated, and in our era that price may well be thousands of innocent lives lost to terrorism.

When liberals put the case for civil liberties, they sometimes claim that obnoxious measures do not help the fight against terrorism anyway. The Economist is liberal but disagrees. We accept that letting secret policemen spy on citizens, detain them without trial and use torture to extract information makes it easier to foil terrorist plots.

[...]

To eschew such tools is to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. But that –- with one hand tied behind their back –- is precisely how democracies ought to fight terrorism.

[...]

Human rights are part of what it means to be civilized. Locking up suspected terrorists –- and why not potential murderers, rapists and paedophiles, too? –- before they commit crimes would probably make society safer. Dozens of plots may have been foiled and thousands of lives saved as a result of some of the unsavoury practices now being employed in the name of fighting terrorism. Dropping such practices in order to preserve freedom may cost many lives. So be it.

This is the liberal meaning of “freedom isn’t free.”

So be it.

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The Refugee Recertification Network is up and running on Ning.

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Safrang on the Afghanistan mission at a critical juncture.

The debate and the buzz is likely to continue and to build to a feverish pitch as the US administration considers its options in Afghanistan. With Iraq largely off many radars, the loud noise, mud-slinging, and endless debate that we saw occupy TV screens, opinion pages and most political conversations between 2003 and 2008 is now focused on Afghanistan. The real side of all of this debate, however, plays out in Afghanistan and not in the American op-ed wars of the left, the right and the middle. Any policy preferences bear life and death consequences for the people of Afghanistan.

Some stuff

First the good news.

Via Spencer Ackerman: the AP is reporting that the concrete barriers in Baghdad are coming down. It’s about time.

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Before catching my return bus last weekend, I used my sister’s Netflix account to re-watch the first half of The Edge of Heaven and was again reminded why Fatih Akin is the best thing in European cinema right now.

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Now, plunging into the crappy stuff.

Jill has a great post up about how the larger culture of misogyny and dehumanization of women enables men like George Sodini by legitimizing their view that women are things they are entitled to possess.

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“In Florida and Pennsylvania children as young as 7 can receive a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of parole.”

America’s justice system: made of FAIL.

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Hamesha writes from Kabul:

[...]one fears we have bitten off more than we can chew. we have dived headlong into constitutional liberal democracy, with the attendant outcome that we have none of the above: neither rule of law, nor true democracy, nor liberalism. and in the process the masses have come to abhor all of it, because it has not come at their pace, their comfort zone.

Some will say, well duh, this is a tired point, holding parliamentary elections in 2005 was sheer insanity. But if it is such a tired point, why do we always seem to screw up the sequencing of these things?

With no way to rewind history, the task ahead is that of filling Afghanistan’s hollow democratic order with something approximating the real thing. It will be slow-going and, I worry, increasingly dangerous in the near term.

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A few weeks ago I received an email from the refugee resettlement office, inviting me to watch Turtles Can Fly,  Iranian Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’s critically-acclaimed 2005 film about orphans in Iraqi Kurdistan during the weeks leading up to the US invasion.

As much as I enjoy activist get-togethers, I passed on this one. Back in early college, I picked Turtles Can Fly out, pretty much randomly, from the foreign films rack at the video rental store near my sophomore residence hall. Without exaggeration, it was the single most upsetting film I have ever seen (followed closely by Lilja 4 Ever and Osama). Days afterward, I found myself breaking down in the shower.

American films, even pitch dark indie ones, generally shy away from portraying the world as a relentlessly violent and callous place to children.  If a child protagonist suffers it is never so much or so viscerally that the viewer feels the need to look away. Turtles Can Fly dispenses with all the sentimentality that surrounds children’s experiences in American cinema and goes well beyond where, say, Spanish cinema goes in this direction.

The film’s main protagonist, Satellite, is the shrewd thirteen year old leader of a tribe of orphans in an IDP camp near the Iraq-Turkey border. The children earn enough money to survive by clearing minefields and selling the unexploded mines. Satellite supplements their income by installing satellite dishes and translating English television news to villagers eager for information about the impending American invasion.

Ghobadi’s film overflows with imagery of bodily and social devastation; the deformed bodies of child victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks, a toddler’s chubby fingers grasping a razor wire fence, a  soldier shooting at the heels of Kurdish children from a sniper tower across the border. Even the sky is merciless. Day after day, it rains on the orphans’ meager existence, muddying their feet and dirtying their leaky tents.

Turtles Can Fly isn’t about underdogs making it against all odds (the title refers to the release of death). Instead, it’s about how even brave, smart, resourceful people get ground into the dust by historical events and material circumstances beyond their control. Ghobadi rejects the (largely American) idea that the human capacity to bounce back from tragedy and trauma is limitless. By subjecting the viewer to the fates of Satellite and the other children, he says don’t be so naive.

The take-away message of Turtles Can Fly is that respecting people like the film’s child protagonists requires a more sober understanding of where agency begins and ends.

It’s an important film, but once was enough for me.

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John le Carré is being put out of business by real life.

A former Blackwater employee and an ex-US Marine who has worked as a security operative for the company have made a series of explosive allegations in sworn statements filed on August 3 in federal court in Virginia. The two men claim that the company’s owner, Erik Prince, may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company. The former employee also alleges that Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” and that Prince’s companies “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.”

This is one of those stories for which “fucked the hell up” doesn’t even come close.

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Take a look at this.

You can’t take from people who have nothing, right?

Last December, Alanna began a post with this:

Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before. Even if it’s your old clothes, technology they can’t use, or a school building with no teacher.

But poor people don’t have nothing. They have families, friends – social ties. They have responsibilities. They have possessions, however meager. They have lives, no matter what those lives look like to Westerners.

I was reminded of that post when I read the following on the Roma Rights blog, even though it isn’t about the kind of development Alanna was referring to:

Three months before the opening of the Universiade, Belgrade’s City Secretariat for Inspections decided to destroy the Roma slum settlement located right next to the athlete’s village “Belleville”. On April the 3rd 2009 all of a sudden a couple of bulldozers showed up at the settlement and demolished 40 houses. As the demolition was carried out without any prior notice to the residents, the people did not even have time to save their belongings from being buried under the ruins. A few of them were practically rescued from their houses in the very moment when the bulldozers were demolishing them.

It’s the assumption that underlies virtually everything governments in Eastern Europe do in regard to Roma housing: Roma lives are so bad, so intolerable, so filthy and hopeless that anything, even homelessness –or, as is the case for untold thousands of Roma in the former Yugoslavia, statelessness– is better than life in informal settlements like the one demolished in Belgrade. Thus, there is really no need to work with Roma communities to create housing alternatives. No, that demands too much effort on the part of busy, mid-level municipal officials, and requires actually sitting down with Roma as peers.  Forget it. Just send in the bulldozers and scatter the Gypsies. After all, you can’t take from people who have nothing, right?

A different view on BiH and the EU’s visa free regime

Florian Bieber:

The EU has to insist on countries fulfilling the requirements it sets. It has been weak for some (which were arguably bad conditions), but if it relents just to be ‘nice’ to a country or to not leave anybody behind, why would any politician pass any necessary law anymore? Lowering conditions and requirements would hurt citizens across the region, not least in BiH–not in regard to visa free travel, but in regard to other reforms. Not including all countries at the same time does not mean leaving them behind. If Slovakia had not been lagging behind in the 1990s, there would have been no pressure to get rid of Vladimir Meciar and to begin serious reforms. Had been Slovakia given an easy ride early on, it probably would have been left behind at the end.

One argument put forth in the debate has been that it is mostly Bosniaks who would be left out from visa free travel and Croats already have Croatian passports and Serbs can or have Serbian passports. This is, however, as demagogic argument. First, Croatian passport holders are uneffected, so there is no change there. Second, there is little evidence that Bosnian Serbs have easy access to Serbian passports. According to a report in Danas, only 2,557 Bosnian citizens also have a Serbian passport. While this might be underestimating the real number of double citizens, there is little evidence to suggest that Bosnian Serbs have easy access to Serbian passports. Finally, if Serbia were to provide easy access to Bosnian Serbs, the EC could easily impose similar limitations to Serbian passport holders from Bosnia as there will be for Serbian passport holders from Kosovo.

In a heated facebook debate started by one of my Bosnian friends in response to Bieber’s article (this friend agreed with Bieber), another Bosnian wrote:

This article states: “Lowering conditions and requirements would hurt citizens across the region, not least in BiH–not in regard to visa free travel, but in regard to other reforms” Are we talking about the same principle of conditions and requirements Turkey cannot fulfill for decades, but do not apply for Bulgaria and Romania. Second argument I find at least disturbing here is “First, Croatian passport holders are unaffected, so there is no change there.” Excuse me? That’s like saying there is no discrimination because we gave special privileges to a certain group long time ago.

What disturbs me the most is the claim that “there is little evidence that Bosnian Serbs have easy access to Serbian passports.” Does this person know that the Consulate of the Republic of Serbia was recently opened in Banja Luka with much publicity and the first person to receive the passport was the Prime Minister of the Republika Srpska. You do not have to be a PR expert to see that this was an open call for the citizens of Republika Srpska to stop by and get their passports. The only requirement was to declare Serbia as your homeland.

Would dropping the entry requirements for Bosnia be the least worst course of action — a way to ameliorate the feeling of injustice felt by the half of BiH’s population unable to obtain other passports, and pave the way for better relations between states in the region? Or would it put another dent in the EU’s already damaged ability to enforce  conditions evenly on states seeking accession? The latter could actually end up hurting the chances of Balkan states joining the union in the future, even if it led to short term gains, like inclusion in the visa free regime.

I’m not sure where I stand on this anymore.

Attacks against Roma going up in Europe

Much of the work I did as an intern in Bosnia was on issues concerning the Roma community. Across Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, Roma are treated abysmally. The deprivation and persecution and vicious racism they face are shocking at first to an outsider, as these things fly in the face of everything the bright, liberal, human rights-advancing European project is supposed to stand for.

According to this IHT article, violent attacks against Hungarian Roma are increasing, with racists being egged on by far-right political parties.

Same awful, old story in Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy. Elsewhere, in places like Bosnia and Serbia, Roma are treated as though they don’t exist, as the European Roma Rights Centre once aptly put it, “non-constituents” –dis-empowered politically, kept landless and undocumented, and generally ignored by the state and by their fellow citizens unless they are linked to crime, in which case law enforcement responses are frequently out of all proportion and serve only to further alienate Roma from non-Roma communities.

Things are changing. There are Roma MEPs now, and there has been a tremendous growth in Roma civil society since the 90’s. (I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with some really tremendous Roma community advocates.) And the European Court of Human Rights has handed down some important rulings on major Roma human rights issues, such as racial segregation of schools in the Czech Republic. Progress is made every day, in tiny, grueling increments, but there is still a long and uneven road ahead.

Don’t wear costumes to a protest if you want to be taken seriously

Sigh.

During the seemingly interminable Bush years, I did a little protesting, though I was always a very boring, austere, kind of nerdy protester, and my signs had long slogans on them about upholding the rule of law and stuff like that.

But being a boring, austere protester is a good thing, I think. The demonstration shouldn’t be the cause, and the individual demonstrators shouldn’t overshadow the context and symbolism of the event. Protest should not be street theatre. Puppets and costumes should not be involved.

Alas, that is exactly what is happening in London right now, at the protests around the G20 Summit.

Check out this gallery at the IHT if you want to see; a guy dressed as Jesus dressed as a British police officer (huh?), zombie Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader’s dandy cousin, a giant dead canary (being cremated?), clown Che, and a man carrying a beer can and dressed as a horse with a flower sticking out of its nose.

Oh, and some shots at the end of a grieving crowd dressed in black in front of the Bank of England, mourning the death of a protester killed yesterday. Take note, theatrical protesters, THAT is how you demonstrate with dignity.

As my best friend says, “For. The. Love. Of. Sanity!”

“What does a country do when compelling evidence shows its leaders have authorised international crimes?”

This is the question Phillipe Sands asks in his latest Op-Ed piece in the Guardian.

Sands argues that the next administration will have to deal with the legacy of human rights abuses left by the Bush Administration, or risk leaving torture and other international crimes open as options for future administrations, poisoning American politics for years to come. Furthermore, Sands argues that if the US doesn’t investigate and prosecute those responsible for crimes like torture, other countries will. The Pinochet treatment will await Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez, and their co-conspirators.

Sands sees some progress stateside:

Over recent months, Congress has been looking into the role of senior officials involved in the development of interrogation rules. These have attracted relatively scant attention; little by little, however, senators and congressmen have uncovered the outlines of a potentially far-reaching criminal conspiracy.

The first hearings were convened before the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives, at the instance of its chairman, Congressman John Conyers, apparently off the back of my book Torture Team. Parallel hearings have been held before the Senate armed services committee.

The evidence that has emerged is potentially devastating. It confirms, for instance, that the search for new interrogation techniques for use at Guantánamo began not with the local military but in the offices of Donald Rumsfeld and his chief lawyer, Jim Haynes.

But he’s not hopeful that anyone will be prosecuted in the end of the day. His piece in the Guardian, as well as his Vanity Fair articles and his book, The Torture Team, all reiterate Sands’ argument that, when it comes down to it, Bush Administration will be tried in European courts, in countries with universal jurisdiction laws, if they are ever tried at all.

The American commenters at Comment is Free did not like this conclusion.

Quiet a few brought up the ICC, apparently after not reading Sands very carefully or not understanding that the ICC has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this, but most simply argued against “foreign interference.” The comments were, by and large, a good illustration of the profoundly different and presently irreconcilable American and European views on international justice. Here’s a sampling of the (mostly negative) responses to Sands.

“It is interesting to see the rebirth of European colonialism in a new Human Rights-friendly guise so obvious on CiF. But somehow I’d start with someone smaller. Stepping in to get America’s house is order is a little bit beyond the Europeans and their pet ICC.”

“No American is accountable to you. Ever. You Europeans may buy into the whole collective responsibility thing. We Americans do not. We never have, and we never will. If we did, we would have bought into the ICC, rather than got a nearly global exemption from it. The fact of the matter is, the Constitution is the supreme law for all Americans. Its people are accountable to its tenants. Everything else… every Geneva convention, UN resolution or international treaty… they’re just nice pieces of paper and sentiments. They do not apply to me, or any other American. And I will not be held accountable by anyone except my peers, my brothers, my countrymen. So good luck picking that fight. You want to come after American citizens over the War on Terror? You’re welcome to try. You will find nothing so quickly rallies and unifies Americans than foreigners intruding where they don’t belong. To put it bluntly, keep that crap on your side of the pond. We want nothing to do with it, and we will not be bounded by it.”

“Just to add one last thing, good foreign friends: don’t get in our way while we deal with this. This is our affair; trust it will be dealt with in a satisfactory manner, and don’t bug us. There are many emotions that any American feels when others meddle in affairs that are not theirs to meddle in before we have been proven incapable of dealing with our own business. We are not Germany, we are not defeated, if you want to hold a court to judge us, please defeat us first, and then get the court. Look, dear friends, but don’t touch. If foreigners involve themselves in this matter, then this matter will never be successfully resolved, because America takes care of American business, not the business of foreigners, even that of our dear foreign friends.”

They’ll try. They can’t help themselves. For centuries they’ve speculated and been perplexed why Americans are nothing like them, and moreover want to be nothing like them. They’ve never understood why we don’t aspire to be like them, and why their ideas and ours are often at odds. That we actively try to insulate ourselves from much of what they aspire for the world only frustrates them. They’ve never understood it, and they never will. So they’ll try. They’ll step over that red line, and it will blow up in their face.

And on and on they go, in this fashion, for dozens more comments.

I suspect Sands’ predictions will come true. I expect at least one or two former Bush Administration officials to go to Oktoberfest, or decide they’ve always wanted to see the Louvre, or attend a real Spanish bullfight, and end up in handcuffs shortly after leaving the airport, thanks to some principled prosecutor.