The right thing: Protection for Syrians, Libyans and Yemenis in the US

Imagine for a moment that you are a 25 year old Syrian.

You’ve just earned your Master’s degree in the United States. After two years, it’s time for you to go home. But the home you left isn’t the one you’ll be returning to. Everything has changed. Instead of happiness at your impending departure from the US, you feel fear, because you will be returning to a country in turmoil and a regime that will stop short of nothing –not even torturing and killing children– to put down a popular, pro-democracy uprising. Will the things you wrote about Syrian politics while living in America be held against you by the government? Will the mere fact that you studied in America mark you as a potential dissident and earn you harassment by the security forces? If you keep quiet and stay away from the protests, will you be caught in the crossfire anyway?

Please take a moment to add your voice to the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants‘ appeal for temporary protected status (TPS) for Libyans, Syrians and Yemenis in the United States. TPS isn’t the same thing as asylum. People with TPS can’t stay indefinitely, but they are protected until it’s safe for them to return to their countries of origin.

So far, more than 450 letters were sent urging President Barack Obama and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Libyans, Syrians, and Yemenis who are presently in the United States.

The more letters we send, the more likely our voices will be heard.  If you haven’t already, please ask our President and the Secretary of Homeland Security to protect the nationals of these countries in turmoil by allowing eligible individuals to remain in the United States legally until the violence and conflict in their home countries have subsided.  Click here to take action now >> 

TPS allows those who qualify to live, work, and study in the United States during the period of designation.  This temporary immigration status does not lead to permanent residency.  TPS may be granted in situations where there are extraordinary and temporary conditions, such as war or natural disaster, in the home country that prevent nationals from returning safely.

Please take action on behalf of Libyan, Syrian, and Yemeni nationals today >> 

Urge our policy makers to do the humane thing and grant TPS to Libyans, Yemenis, and Syrians.

Someone please high-five Charli Carpenter

For tackling torture proponent Marc Thiessen’s central argument in Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack on utilitarian grounds as well as liberal ones.

What if we were to accept that the CIA has made America a wee bit safer by torturing KSM?

Liberals actually need an answer to this question, I would argue, because so many of their fellow Americans will buy Thiessen’s empirical case. So the most important part of his argument to refute is actually not the causal argument. The most important part of his argument is his moral argument.

In fact, the most fascinating chapter of his book is the one in which he poses the question: why should torture be considered an absolute prohibition, when killing is not? He explores just war theory and makes an interesting argument that non-lethal forms of torture – the kinds that are scary more than physically injurious – are a lesser evil if innocent civilian lives can be saved as a result.

But this argument as it turns out can be answered by liberals on Marc Thiessen’s own terms as well, because if you read closely it is clear that Thiessen’s overriding goal is not to promote a torture culture per se, but something much nobler: to protect innocent civilian life. The problem with his analysis is that he simply doesn’t have a clear empirical understanding of the factors that most threaten innocent civilian life.

As a matter of fact, terrorism falls pretty far down that list, but state repression is a rather important risk. Think-tanks that track terror fatalities measure the number of dead from terrorism since 1970 in the tens of thousands. Compare this to the hundreds of thousands killed by their own governments over the same period, a number that rises, RJ Rummel tells us, to a staggering 169,198,000 between 1900-1987. International terrorism may be scary, but in relative terms it’s pretty small beer.

It stands to reason that if the goal is to protect civilians the means used to be consistent with the wider protection of civilians. So although liberals are fond of making the absolutist moral argument and the constitutive argument against torture, it turns out that you can also argue against torture on purely utilitarian grounds. And the argument is not that it’s ineffective. The argument is that even if it’s sometimes effective and even if it’s necessary to protect civilians, civilians stand to benefit far more from preserving a rule of law political culture than they do from avoiding every single risk that comes with living in an era of techno-globalization in which the gap between the haves and have nots is widening.

So, my friends, that’s the argument you use when your crazy uncle starts banging on about how liberals aren’t willing to do what it takes to protect their way of life.

The perils of mapping Afghanistan’s conflict

Afghan soldiers stand near the site of a mass grave outside Kabul. May 2010.

I have a new piece up at UN Dispatch about why the leaked and recently resurfaced UN conflict mapping report on Afghanistan matters.

Five years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) produced a conflict mapping report of crimes committed by all armed factions in Afghanistan between April 27, 1978 and December 22, 2001.

The report is not available on any UN website.

Some members of the international community claim it was briefly available on the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) website, but was taken down following diplomatic alarm and immediate complaints that naming former commanders now serving in the Afghan government in  connection with serious international crimes would hurt the UN’s political mission. Others say it was never intended to be publicly released. Whatever the case, the report has been passed around on flash drives among a select group of Afghan and international activists and lurked unread and virtually hidden in out-of-the-way corners of the web for years.

It will reach a wider audience now that Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kuovo of the Afghanistan Analysts Network have linked to a leaked pdf version of it in their recent blog post about the good that the Nobel Committee could have achieved had it awarded this year’s Peace Prize to Afghan human rights pioneer Dr. Sima Samar.

The executive summary of the mapping report states:

No document can fully describe what the Afghans have lived through. Every Afghan has a story to tell, or many stories, of suffering and loss, and also of those responsible: the armies, militias, commanders, and gunmen—some Afghan, some foreign—who fought each other for ideals, political power, money, and revenge. Some victims became perpetrators, and some perpetrators became victims in a cycle of violence that has slowed but not yet ended.

Seven things you should know about the leaked report:

Read the rest at UN Dispatch.

Investigation into Linda Norgrove’s death launched

From the New York Times:

Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday that a British aid worker killed in an American rescue raid in Afghanistan last week may have been killed by a grenade detonated by a United States special forces unit — not by her Taliban captors, as the American command in Afghanistan originally announced.

A grim-faced Mr. Cameron appeared at a news conference at 10 Downing Street to say he had learned of “this deeply distressing development” when the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David H. Petraeus, contacted his office early Monday. “General Petraeus has since told me,” the prime minister said, that an American-led review of the raid to rescue Linda Norgrove, 36, “has revealed evidence to indicate that Linda may not have died at the hands of her captors as originally believed.”

He added: “That evidence and subsequent interviews with the personnel involved” — believed to have included a Navy Seals unit specializing in hostage rescues that that has participated in numerous special forces raids in Afghanistan — “suggest that Linda could have died as a result of a grenade detonated by the task force during the assault. However, this is not certain and a full U.S./U.K. investigation will now be launched.”

As I wrote before, ultimate responsibility for Norgrove’s death rests with the men who kidnapped her. But emerging evidence that American soldiers might have accidentally killed the woman they were trying to rescue just lends more credibility to the argument that armed rescues in Afghanistan are likely to end in tragedy.

Kidnappings are an evil. They foist wrenching choices onto those who care about the victim, even when armed rescue isn’t a possibility.

The realtors who helped me find my current house were kidnapped by the Taliban in Ghazni and tortured for two months. The abuse inflicted on them was obvious even months later. One realtor limped from having his feet smashed, and both were partially deaf from beatings and missing most of their teeth. They were freed when their families paid a staggering, ruinous sum to the kidnappers. The payment of that ransom saved two lives, but undoubtedly encouraged subsequent kidnappings in the same area, many of which have ended with bodies dumped in ditches.

The taste of ashes

“Somehow, it’s always the fixer who dies,” writes George Packer in a piece on the death of Afghan journalist Sultan Munadi and the power imbalance between foreign correspondents and the local fixers without whose help they couldn’t report from dangerous places.

Just days before he died, Munadi wrote a post for the At War blog about the stubborn love and hope he had for his country:

I have passed the very darkest times of my country, when there was war and insecurity. I was maybe four or five years old when we went from my village into the mountains and the caves to hide, because the Soviets were bombing. I have passed those times, and the time of the Taliban when I could not even go to Kabul, inside my country. It was like being in a prison.

Those times are past now. Now I am hopeful of a better situation. And if I leave this country, if other people like me leave this country, who will come to Afghanistan?

Munadi was killed yesterday during an attempt by British Special Forces to free his New York Times colleague, Stephen Farrell, from Taliban captivity.

Mr. Munadi was killed as he tried to lead Mr. Farrell to safety.

Walking in front of Mr. Farrell as they tried to reach British forces, Mr. Munadi stepped out from behind a wall, raised his hands and identified himself as a journalist. A hail of bullets immediately felled him.

“He was trying to protect me up to the last minute,” Mr. Farrell said.

Munadi’s colleagues remember him as a person of intelligence, courage, and kindness.

Sultan had the most erect posture of anyone I’ve ever met. It was regal, and it was revealing: he himself was so straight, quite literally upstanding. In his motives, his agenda, he had the clarity of water – there was nothing hidden. He was an entirely selfless man: he would do anything for us; for his family; for his country. He named his first son “Parsaa,” a Dari/Persian word that means, he wrote me, “one who avoids or refuses to commit any sin,” words that could apply to the father as well.

Here’s hoping the Times has a scholarship fund set up for Parsaa and and his brother.

UPDATE: The Times has set up a fund for Munadi’s family. Scroll to the end of this post.

***

ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo is conducting preliminary inquiries into allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan, Georgia, Gaza, and Colombia. Ocampo has previously expressed his intention to open four more cases, at least one outside Africa, before the end of his tenure.

One thing is for sure: by turning his attention to conflicts involving three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Israel, Ocampo is about to open a serious can of diplomatic worms.

Tantrums from the United States, Russia and Israel in 5…4…3…2…

***

And now for some absurdity: Harry Rud weighs in on clip art for night letters. In the comments, Alanna astutely observes that the choice clip art for the letter pictured is, almost certainly, candy corn.

Candy corn!?

Candy corn.

Miscellanea

Some perspective, via Penelopeinparis on Twitter.

***

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.

***

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.

***

The Refugee Recertification Network is up and running on Ning.

***

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.

This temporary flesh and bone

This is crushingly depressing in that special way something that seems totally unstoppable is.

Via Human Rights Watch, the latest threat against human rights advocates in Chechnya:

Akhmed Gisayev, a Memorial employee who had been working with Natalia Estemirova to investigate a sensitive human rights case in the days before her murder on July 15, 2009, has experienced a series of menacing events in the past days and weeks.

In the evening of August 13, a group of three or four armed men stopped Gisayev and his wife near their apartment in Grozny. The men pointed their weapons at Gisayev and demanded his documents. They refused to identify themselves or explain the reasons for the search. When Gisayev said that he worked at Memorial and showed his Memorial ID card, one of the men said: “And it’s your colleagues who are getting killed? And do you know why they’re getting killed?” They then returned Gisayev’s passport and left. The next morning, on August 14, Russian military and local security personnel conducted a passport check-and-search operation on Gisayev’s street. Such operations used to occur regularly, but have not occurred in Gisayev’s region for a long time. Some of the men who had threatened him the previous evening were among those who searched his apartment.

Prior to these events, Gisayev had observed a car parked next to his house on several occasions. The car had dark windows, a radio transmitter, and a license plate with a number not used for civilian vehicles, leading him to suspect that it belonged to the security services. Gisayev reported these incidents to the prosecutor’s office in Chechnya, but the authorities did not undertake any concrete measures to investigate them or to ensure Gisayev’s protection.

[...]

In the days before Estemirova was killed, Gisayev and Estemirova had been researching the case of a man who had been abducted and tortured by local law enforcement officials. When the man’s relatives began to work with Gisayev and Estemirova to take action on his case, the man was taken into incommunicado detention by local law enforcement from the hospital where he had been receiving treatment for his torture injuries. Memorial staff and the man’s relatives appealed to the local prosecutor’s office in the first week of July. Soon after, Gisayev began to notice the suspicious-looking vehicles outside his home.

Gisayev is an applicant in a case pending before the European Court of Human Rights, relating to his own illegal detention and torture by Russian servicemen in 2003.

The human rights movement does not need any more martyrs. If  Akhmed Gisayev was my friend or co-worker, I would be doing my utmost to convince him to leave Chechnya, to leave Russia and seek asylum somewhere in Western Europe.

And yet, if every human rights advocate in a dangerous place took that advice, there would be no one to track down disappeared prisoners, uncover unmarked graves, and amplify voices of living victims. In the North Caucasus, this is lonely and, for many, eventually lethal work. Allies and colleagues in Brussels, Washington, London, New York and even Moscow can do little more than wait in dread by their phones and keep their computer screens open to email.

The condemnation of an activist’s murder in the Russian Federation now has its own form letter; all one needs to add is the who, where, and how. Everyone knows the why.

What more can one even say?

Stay safe? Good luck? Solidarity?

“On Tuesday, they came for Natasha”

Anna Nemtsova’s Foreign Policy article on Natalia Estemirova’s murder is one of those pieces I read with a swelling lump in my throat.

Many times after that, I would call her to see how things were in Russia’s forgotten war zone. Natasha, as we called her, would always quickly reply: “They abduct people by the dozens, they burn their houses, they torture guerrillas’ relatives, kick people out of their apartments — something has to be done, something has to be done to help them.” Who are they? I would ask her. “Come over, I will tell you.”

Well, on Tuesday, they came for Natasha. At 8:30 that morning, as she walked out of her house, she was dragged into an unmarked white Lada, screaming vainly for help.

Just like one of the stories she so doggedly pursued. And of course, we know how this one ends:

Because it always ends the same way.

They found her body later that day, in nearby Ingushetia, riddled with bullets. This, unfortunately, was the Chechnya that she knew all too well, the place of thuggery, violence, and corruption that most of the rest of the world has been content to forget. Just recently Moscow declared that the war there is over. Well, it may not be war, but it remains as lawless as a war zone. Abductions and killings by them are rising.

Nemtsova adds something I didn’t know about Estemirova:

Until this week, Natasha had a simple rule: She never gave up her investigations until she knew for certain that nothing else could be done. That became her practice from an early age, when she was a reporter. Before the wars started, she had been a history teacher. Back in the 1990s, when the violence began, she reported 13 documentary stories for local television stations. “That was when I became a human rights activist at heart. When my husband died in war, my heart hardened,” she said. That was all she told me about her personal life; there was none. She never liked talking about what happened to her husband.

So that is how she became involved in human rights work. It makes a lot of sense, actually. What a remarkable woman. What a god-awful loss.  Words fail.