Something deeper at work: a couple of updates on the Shia Family Law

According to the IHT, Karzai says he’s going to review the law to make sure it does not contravene the Afghan Constitution, but added:

“The Western media have either mistranslated or taken incorrect information and then published it.”

Riiiight. It’s entirely the media’s fault, and the executive bears no responsibility for its silence until now regarding the law.

Karzai also said:

“If there is anything in contradiction with our Constitution or Shariah, or freedoms granted by the Constitution, we will take action in close consultation with the clerics of the country.”

No mention of consulting with female MPs, nevermind female Shia MPs, or human rights activists, or even just ordinary Shia citizens in general. Nope. None at all. And it’s not like these groups have nothing to add.

Ms. [Soraya Rahim] Sobhrang, who has been working on the issue for the last two years, said women’s groups and the human rights commissions had worked with Parliament to introduce amendments but then the law was suddenly pushed through with only three amendments. The bill as originally drawn up by Shiite clerics barred a woman from leaving the house without her husband’s permission, she said. The parliamentary judicial commission amended that provision to say that a woman could leave the house “for a legitimate purpose.”

Mr. Karzai cited that provision in a news conference on Saturday, pointing out that the final version of the law did not ban a woman from leaving her house. But Ms. Sobhrang said even as amended the law contravened the Constitution, which recognizes equal rights for men and women. The term “for a legitimate purpose” was open to interpretation, she added.


Human rights officials consider raising the marriage age a critical step toward ending the common practice of forced marriages and the marriage of young girls.

Another amendment gave women longer custody of young children in the case of divorce. In the original draft, women could have custody of a son until he was 2 years old, and a daughter until she was 7. The amended version raises the ages to 7 for boys and 9 for girls.

Ms. Sobhrang criticized both versions for not taking into account the interests and desires of the children.She said Mr. Karzai had supported women’s rights in the past but seemed to have given that up in recent months.

Some Western officials have speculated that he signed the law to win the support of conservative Shiite clerics in coming presidential elections.

Yes, because the Shia will blindly do as their clerics tell them, those lemming-like Shia. Seems to me like said Western officials either don’t care to scrutinize Karzai’s motives, or are totally clueless about Afghan Shia. Possibly both.

Hamesha adds the following, which is important to keep in mind as the story develops:

the timing of the release of this law to the public and the media, the way the media has lapped it all up and made quick work of a narrative that conveniently ties into the western world’s presence in afghanistan as defenders of women’s rights and democracy, the way the government has presented it, the fog that surrounds its actual contents -all these, and more, smack of something deeper at work. also the way it has been presented as a measure of last resort for a president who has his hands tied over the matter and is only appeasing the feared, oh so traditionalist, and oh SO united shia minority in advance of the next elections -right. as transitionland put it, these folks have bigger worries and in survey after survey of the people of afghanistan by the asia foundation, the attitudes of this particular constituency of the electorate towards democratic and even liberal values and women’s rights stand in stark contrast to what this convenient narrative purports.

that’s right -something deeply sinister at work.

Keep that in mind.


The Fallout

So, to begin with, it seems no one is 100% certain what the controversial Shia Family Law actually says. There’s a lot of speculation, some of it probably well-founded. It’s unclear whether UNAMA has the final text, and apparently no one in the press does. Or maybe they do by now. It’s not clear. The phrase “reportedly” is being thrown around in about half the news stories coming out on this issue.

In any case, Hillary Clinton and a host of other diplomats made it very clear at the Afghanistan summit in the Hague that they’re exceedingly displeased at Karzai’s support for the law.

Take this report from Canadian Press:

Outrage grows over Afghan rape law

OTTAWA — Canada isn’t sacrificing the lives of its soldiers and spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan so that men can rape their wives, say angry government and opposition MPs.

There’s growing outrage in Canada and abroad over controversial legislation in Afghanistan that would restrict the rights of minority Shia women, making it illegal for them to refuse sex to their husbands or even leave the house without permission.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said he will use this week’s NATO summit to put “direct” pressure on his Afghan counterparts to abandon the legislation.

“That’s unacceptable – period,” he said Wednesday. “We’re fighting for values that include equality and women’s rights. This sort of legislation won’t fly.”

The proposed Shia family law has cast a shadow over an international conference in Europe on Afghanistan’s future […]

Or this one from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Pressure on Karzai to drop sexist law

Julian Borger in The Hague

April 2, 2009


The President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has come under intense pressure to scrap a new law that the United Nations said legalised rape within marriage and severely limited the rights of women.

At a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague on Tuesday, Scandinavian foreign ministers challenged him to respond to questions raised over the law.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was reported to have confronted Mr Karzai on the issue in a private meeting.


“This is an area of absolute concern for the United States. My message is very clear. Women’s rights are a central part of the foreign policy of the Obama Administration,” she said […]

From the Globe and Mail:

“If these prove to be true, this will create serious problems for the government of Canada, for the people of Canada,” [ Trade Minister Stockwell Day] said. “The onus is upon the government of Afghanistan to live up to its human-rights responsibilities, absolutely including the rights of women. If there is any wavering on this point … this will create serious difficulties, serious problems for the government of Canada.

A few points:

1) It’s great that women’s rights are being raised as a sincere concern here, and not an afterthought or window-dressing for realpolitik. (I imagine this also has something to do with the many angry emails that have been landing in various foreign ministers’ inboxes over the past 24 hours.)

2) Why doesn’t anyone have the full, final text of this law yet? 24 hours in the news cycle is an eternity, and I can’t fathom why –even if leaking the law was not allowed– that it has (seemingly) not been leaked by someone yet. I mean, seriously, what is going on?

3) That, in the midst of this maelstrom of outrage, the Afghan Government has not released an official statement on this along with the text of the law, leads me to think it’s probably as bad as it’s being reported and there is frantic behind-the-scenes scrambling to do damage control. Government silence usually means either panic or apathy. I’ll wager the former in this case.

4) Via the Sydney Morning Herald:

Mr Karzai signed the law last month. Although the text has not been published, the UN, human rights activists and some Afghan MPs said it included clauses stipulating that women cannot refuse to have sex with their husbands and can only seek work, education or visit the doctor with their husbands’ permission.

That was written a few hours ago. Why wasn’t this brought up a month ago, when Karzai signed the law? Why was this story delayed until the day the summit began in the Hague?  Very weird. Very, very weird.

International aid officials say the law violates UN conventions and the Afghan constitution.

If the law stipulates what we’re being told it does, then yes, it absolutely violates both international human rights law and the Afghan Constitution.

5) What was Karzai THINKING? Did he not believe this would become the aid-endangering shitstorm it has?

6) Moreover, how was this supposed to win Karzai the Shia vote?  That doesn’t make political sense.

Maybe I’m way off base (I don’t think I am, but, then again, I’m not in Afghanistan), but family law is not remotely the biggest issue Shia care about. Given that Shia communities have so far not received an equitable share of reconstruction resources, I would think better infrastructure (say, in West Kabul, or the very poor Bamiyan or Daikundi provinces) and the promise of more say in state affairs would be the way to win over the Shia.

The way the news articles are being worded makes it seem like all it would take to send Shia voters flocking to the polls for Karzai would be some good, old-fashioned misogyny.

Color me skeptical. And confused.

  • **

In the comments on my previous post, Asiyah wrote:

I don’t know about the bill itself but generally, the Meshrano and Wolesi Jirgas have to approve it before it gets to the President. Also, the Ministry of Justice has to review and make sure the law is in line with the Constitution and international treaties signed.

Also, from what I understand, Islamic law comes into play when there is a gap in the national law. Also, the national laws should be in line with Islamic law (this phrase in the Constitution is still debated or ignored, depending on the person).

I plan to discuss the process of law-making in Afghanistan on my-so-far-inert blog

I’m looking forward to Asiyah’s new blog.

White House: Criminal Intent


I always expected this to happen. From the New York Times:

LONDON — A Spanish court has taken the first steps toward opening a criminal investigation into allegations that six former high-level Bush administration officials violated international law by providing the legal framework to justify the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an official close to the case said.

The case, against former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and others, was sent to the prosecutor’s office for review by Baltasar Garzón, the crusading investigative judge who ordered the arrest of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The official said that it was “highly probable” that the case would go forward and that it could lead to arrest warrants.

The move represents a step toward ascertaining the legal accountability of top Bush administration officials for allegations of torture and mistreatment of prisoners in the campaign against terrorism. But some American experts said that even if warrants were issued their significance could be more symbolic than practical, and that it was a near certainty that the warrants would not lead to arrests if the officials did not leave the United States.

Even if Gonzales et al. never decide to go on a group vacation to Spain, arrest warrants would still be be politically meaningful. If enough other countries seek prosecutions of members of the former administration, Congress and the Obama Administration may be compelled to push for domestic prosecutions.

More discussion of a truth commission

A few points:

1) It’s a very VERY welcome change from a few months ago that we’re now hearing more serious disagreement over what kinds of transitional justice mechanisms we’ll use to reckon with the crimes of the Bush era, rather than whether we should or can use any at all.

2) There is no single model for setting up a truth commission or commencing criminal prosecutions. We have many options.

3) The only option we don’t have –if we want to pay more than lip service to the principles of the rule of law and equal justice– is to do nothing.

4) Let’s leave reconciliation out of it. It’s a non-issue, and weakens the argument in favor of transitional justice in this case. As I wrote a few months back:

There are no parties to be reconciled, just the agents of a soon-to-be-out-of-power criminal regime and their numerous and varied victims. Moreover, the victims are of a dozen or more nationalities and spread out over six continents. Very few of the surviving victims and loved ones of deceased victims will ever have to share the same social or civic space –or the same space, period– with the perpetrators.

I think that the creation of an evidence-seeking Truth Commission that neither automatically precedes criminal trials nor offers any kind of immunity would be the best option for us in the years ahead.

The chorus grows louder

Via No Comment:

What is the best course for bringing a reckoning for the actions of the past eight years on everything from torture to illegal wiretapping? There are some who resist any effort to investigate the misdeeds of the recent past. Indeed, during the nomination hearing of Eric Holder some of my fellow senators on the other side of the aisle tried to extract a devil’s bargain from him in exchange for their votes; a commitment that he would not prosecute for anything that happened on President Bush’s watch. That is a pledge no prosecutor should give. And Eric Holder did not give it. But because he did not, it accounts for some of the votes against him. That is not the example we should give in a country that believes in the rule of law and believes no one is above the law.   –Senate Judiciairy Chairman Patrick Leahy

After the euphoria

I want to see the following headlines (among others, I’m just getting started here) in the next few weeks, or, optimally, the next few days.







Yesterday, my friend M, from Bosnia, left an irate message on my facebook wall:

I see no reactions to the slaughter in Gaza? Are you guys watching TV? I mean proper TV, not Fox news and the like?

Sigh. I responded:

M, I have been following it, mostly on relief sites and through the UN agencies. It’s awful, and I haven’t commented mostly because I don’t know what else I could add. There are no peace rallies or other events in my area (I live in an economically depressed place, where people care mostly about not having their electricity turned off, so it’s not the most politically active place.) As you know, Palestine is a very different issue here in the US than in Europe, so my ability to “act locally” on this is limited.

Honestly, I really don’t know what I could add to the discourse. I feel terrible about the civilian suffering, but I also understand US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is driven by political elites and the media. Jon Stewart did a bold thing with this segment.

It’s sad that a comic had to point that out that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the US news media is “the mobius strip of issues –there’s only one side!”

Dangerous poor people: Part II

Mischa has posted a very well-written and well-argued response to my post on Susan Rice. Mischa knows more about Rice’s background than I do, so it’s worth reading what he wrote about her.

The following is my response to Mischa:


Mainstreaming the human security doctrine is a massive pain in the ass, because we have an entire political discourse (and industrial base and contracting constituency) built around the traditional state-centric concept of security.  The article you linked reads like an attempt to convince advocates of traditional security models to treat human security seriously.  She has all these book blurbs and such with titles like “Poverty breeds insecurity,” and this really isn’t debatable, even if saying it out loud could have potential policy results.  Further, it’s crucial that it be said out loud.

Fair enough. I’ll admit I don’t know Susan Rice’s background that well, and your response has made me think again about her. However, I was responding to just that one piece she wrote for UN Dispatch, which I think you’ll agree was poorly worded, at the very least.

You say: “if development is approached as a way of reducing threats to U.S. national security, it’s going to involve military means.”  This would be news to the United Nations, the General Assembly of which has spent the last 8 years trying to reign in the cowboys even while publishing papers like this one.  Rice is trying to make American policymakers take human security seriously, in the way that Europeans and other non-U.S. governments do.

[…] Also, whether we like it or not, security forces and purely humanitarian NGOs exist on the same plane.  Whether in Afghanistan, Congo, or anywhere, you’ll find both Doctors Without Borders and Dudes with Machine Guns.  There’s an entire emerging literature on how to manage relations between NGOs and armed forces, coming as much out of good international institutions as out of the caverns of Foggy Bottom.

[…] Most human rights organizations are not now, and never have been, pacifist.  Not UNHCR, not ICRC, not MSF, certainly not the think-tanks like ICG.  The choice simply isn’t between militarized foreign policy and pure humanitarianism.  Wish is was, maybe, but there isn’t.

None of the above-mentioned are human rights organizations. One is the UN’s refugee agency, two are “first responder” type humanitarian aid organizations, and one is an advocacy think tank. Let’s keep human rights out of this for now, though, I should point out that Human Rights Watch, arguably the most influential human rights organization on the planet, makes its criteria for humanitarian intervention quite clear.

One doesn’t need to be a pacifist to believe that development and aid work should not be militarized. And while there may be a wealth of emerging literature about civil-military relations, there’s also a huge backlash going on within the aid and development communities, and plenty of literature reflecting that.

There has been a serious shift in the past decade or so from aid and development workers being seen as neutral humanitarians, to being seen as part of broader military projects — in some cases even some kind of unarmed cavalry whose presence signals “the troops will be here soon.”

This has resulted in decreased access in conflict and disaster zones, the loss of these professions’ historical neutrality, and substantially increased fatality rates among aid and development workers.

Afghanistan and Iraq have been epic failures in this sense, but so, too, have places like Sudan, Somalia, Burma, and Zimbabwe.

Brooks Keene at Humanitarian Relief eloquently makes this last point with a telling anecdote:

To illustrate how clashing objectives can lead to distrust on the ground that ultimately undermines even our security (much less good development), I’ll point to something an ethnically Somali aid worker living in eastern Kenya said that stopped me cold in my tracks.  Her own impressions of the US government  were decidedly mixed.  She pointed to the good work she sees the US government doing through USAID projects or in resettlement of Somali refugees into the United States.  On the other hand, the periodic bombings just over the Somali border and intelligence gathering in the area created a decidedly more negative impression.  She said that perhaps this is a case where “the hand that feeds you is the one that kills you.”  How much trust do you think she had in the U.S. troops digging wells nearby?


It’s a big reach to take Rice’s view of development and conclude that she finds poor people dangerous.  You’ve phrased it like it’s a personal attack on the poor.  All evidence on civil wars, contagion theory, and state failure suggests: Poverty is dangerous.  It’s dangerous to the people living it, and it’s dangerous to the people in the states next door and increasingly next-next door.  Characterizing this position as Susan Rice Hates the Poor isn’t fair.

Yes, poverty feeds a dangerous cycle, but that doesn’t mean people living in poverty should be viewed as threats. A threat calls for a very different response than an ethical or moral obligation, or a sense of solidarity.  And notice that Rice frames global poverty (and those who live in it) as a threat to the United States. Ideas tend to take on a life of their own, and Rice should be cautious in trying to win over the traditional “security” crowd.  Development is a long,  slow process, and our political system isn’t designed to take kindly to any policy that won’t show big results within a single presidential term.

On the ad hominem point, you’ve got me. It wasn’t fair.  However, I stand by my assertion that Rice’s piece was poorly-worded and implies some pretty scary things.

Think of it this way. Most of our foreign policy establishment sees international development as foolish, too costly, or too slow. So, if poverty feeds insecurity because poor people are inclined to start wars, launch revolutions or join terrorist groups, then the most expedient way to reduce the threat they pose to the United States is  not to help them out of poverty, it’s to support systems that contain them where they are. In other words, we give money, arms, and diplomatic support to the dictators that oppress their populations the most successfully. This has been our policy from Latin America to Central Asia, from Augusto Pinochet to Islam Karimov. And it’s been a humanitarian disaster. I don’t think Susan Rice is a terrible person, or that she’ll be a terrible ambassador, I just think she should be careful not to unintentionally provide support for more of the same, or worse.

Dangerous poor people

Susan Rice, Obama’s pick for ambassador to the United Nations (a cabinet-level post once more) recently wrote an appalling and, frankly, stupid as fuck poorly-worded (OK, I was in a really bad mood when I first wrote this -Ed) post about global poverty at UN Dispatch.

The following captures Rice’s point:

When Americans see televised images of bone-thin African or Asian kids with distended bellies, what do we think? We think of helping. For all the right reasons, our humanitarian instincts tend to take over. But when we look at UNICEF footage or a Save the Children solicitation, does it also occur to us that we are seeing a symptom of a threat that could destroy our way of life? Rarely. In fact, global poverty is far more than solely a humanitarian concern. In real ways, over the long term, it can threaten U.S. national security. Continue reading