Archive for Middle East

Israel’s Two Minutes Hate: Netanyahu Reneges on Refugee Deal

by Ido Dembin, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

During the climax of 1984’s “Two Minutes Hate,” the image of the despised enemy of the state, the cowardly traitor (and probably the entirely made-up) Emmanuel Goldstein, is replaced with that of the supreme leader— the beloved, worshipped, unparalleled Big Brother.

This infamous scene from George Orwell’s dystopian society is grotesque, violent and extremely emotionally charged. Yet it is this same scene currently flashing across the Israeli social network in reality. The role of Goldstein is being played by an NGO called the “New Israel Fund” (NIF), and the part of Big Brother is, appropriately, occupied by another “BB”— Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister.

The book 1984 has experienced quite a rejuvenation of late. Perhaps it is in preparation for the 70th anniversary of its publication, or maybe it is the never-ending war, the terribly partisan political sphere or just a few certain “alternative facts”— but regardless, it is once again relevant for Israeli, as well as American, British and French, politics.

Last week, Israelis awoke to news of the country signing an agreement with the European Union that pertains to illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The main decisions reached included Israeli recognition of some 16,000 immigrants as either refugees or legal residents, the deportation of roughly the same amount to Western countries through the UNHCR, and new investments in infrastructure in south Tel Aviv, which has become home to some 35,000 immigrants since 2010.

A good overall agreement for all sides, the deal was perceived as a political victory for the Israeli left (which objects, mostly, to deportations of illegal immigrants, especially from Eritrea and South Sudan) and a loss to Netanyahu’s base– the right, which objects to accommodating any immigrants or refugees. Almost immediately, the left began celebrating the new agreement– and the right, which has stood by Netanyahu even when potential corruption charges surfaced against him, turned on him. He was bashed by pundits, politicians and commenters for giving in to the left and reneging on his promises. Even his most devoted allies left him hanging alone. And surely enough, this worked: less than 24 hours later, Netanyahu retracted the agreement, stating that he had “heard the people’s cry.”

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. // REUTERS

Soon thereafter, faced with having to explain this astonishingly acrobatic flip from yes to no, Netanyahu resorted to what he does best: divide and conquer.

He uploaded to Facebook a short statement suggesting the reason for the agreement’s falling apart was in fact an NGO called the New Israel Fund. He alleged that the NGO had caused foreign states to retract their decision to accept deportees from Israel, and called it unpatriotic and anti-Israeli, specifically for its being largely foreign-funded. An NGO worth 300 million, NIS was to blame, he said, for his government’s diplomatic conundrums.

The internet roared. The left mourned. The right, which had attacked Netanyahu, immediately quieted down and began cheering him on again– and then, began aiming its arrows at left-wing activists, calling them traitors, backsliders and foreign agents. The far-right NGO “Im Tirtzu” uploaded– in remarkable proximity to Netanyahu’s statement, by the way– a propaganda video depicting the NIF and its president, Talia Sasson, as foreign agents who operate as a fifth column in Israeli society. Death threats soon ensued.

Netanyahu had done it again: with just two minutes (or so) of pure hate, the tides changed. He was soon adored again as the one and only Big Brother, the “protector of Israel” (as he once professed he wished to be remembered). The masses rallied behind his leadership once more, turning their attention to the made-up demon that is the NIF and the Israeli left in general.

The furious public found in the telescreen an image of Talia Sasson and a logo of the NIF on which to spill its rage, which had climaxed mere seconds before Israel’s own BB reappeared in the form of Netanyahu’s calm and reassuring image.

War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and only Bibi can lead us.


Ido Dembin is pursuing his master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. He is focusing on the right to free speech in margins of society and the silencing of critical speech and conduct toward governmental policies in contemporary Israel. He is a Tel-Aviv University-educated lawyer (L.L.B.) with background in International Relations. Ido is a blog writer for RightsViews. 

Does the Israeli High Court Uphold Palestinian Rights?

By Olivia Heffernan, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.P.A. candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs 

Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer representing Palestinian victims of civil rights violations, has encountered numerous ethical dilemmas in his work. In his newly published book, “The Wall and the Gate: Israel Palestine and the Legal Battle for Human Rights,” Sfard offers “a radically new perspective on a much-covered conflict and a subtle, painful reckoning with the moral ambiguities inherent in the pursuit of justice.” Speaking at Columbia Law School in February, Sfard opened his lecture by posing to the audience the ethical dilemma that was the impetus for his book: “By working in the Israeli courts, am I a naïve and involuntary collaborator to the scam that Palestinians have recourse to justice?”

In Israel, Palestinians seeking redress for abuse are often reliant on the Israeli High Court of Justice— which, according to Sfard, is adjudicated by judges often unsympathetic toward the plight of Palestinians. Despite these sentiments about the legal system, he fights tooth and nail to provide fair and equal representation to Palestinians.

But, the divide between Israel and Palestine is not only as explicit as physical walls and fences, it is also evident in the rights each population is granted, Sfard says: Israelis are granted civil and political rights, while Palestinians are frequently denied these and more.

Denial of equality and fair hearings, for example, is in direct violation with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 10 states, “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” Reports from the region indicate that the basic human rights of Palestinian prisoners— many of whom are youths— are routinely denied, with prisoners being illegally detained and subjected to abusive treatment. One youth, Fawzi al-Junaidi, a 16-year-old Palestinian, reports he was beaten and denied care after being charged with throwing stones at a group of armed Israeli soldiers. Another, Ahed Tamimi, turned 17 in an Israel detention facility after being detained from her home in the middle of the night.

The wall built by Israel in Abu Dis, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem. // Flickr

Equating the Israeli treatment of Palestinians to the South African apartheid, Sfard is passionate about his work but can’t help but feel discouraged by the results of it.

“Where there is a hegemony and an elite, a community of those who have next to a community of those who have not— it’s only natural that an apartheid community will be created,” Sfard said.

Ido Dembin, an attorney from Israel and a blog writer for RightsViews, noted that it is important to understand that the Israeli courts are stuck between a rock and a hard place: “On one hand, it’s an institution of the State of Israel that was never meant to be the flag-bearer of justice in the occupied territories but only areas where Israeli law applies (it does not apply in the West Bank or Gaza). On the other hand, it is perceived as a last-ditch option for those, like Sfard, who have given up on winning elections and changing the government in favor of minor, step-by-step court-sanctioned progress,” he said. “In this sense, the court is expected to balance Israeli national narratives as well as fears and security concerns, with the rights of three million Palestinians in the West Bank who, in turn, have no other system to go to and rely on it for solutions. The court needs not only balance justice and law, but also individual rights with group rights.”

Sfard lamented the contradictory foundations on which Israel was founded: Israel was “built on a premise of raging nationalism, militarism, the Zionist idea that a Jew would never again be a victim even at the expense of victimizing others,” he said. “The thought was, if we have to choose between being victims or victimizing others, we will choose the latter. A disregard for those who are paying the price of national revival and independence makes racism a part of this issue.”

Dembin added that “paradoxically, the more the government shifts to the right, the more the courts are forced to counteract— thus pushing it slowly out of mainstream Israeli consensus and risking its position as an authority and important part of the checks and balances system.”

“The Wall and the Gate: Israel Palestine and the Legal Battle for Human Rights,” written by Michael Sfard, was published in 2018. // Amazon

The Israeli court system as the predominant means through which Palestinians can seek justice begs the questions: what justice, whose justice, and is justice delayed really justice at all?

In response to these unanswerable and multifaceted queries, Sfard emphasized the importance of choosing one’s battles and avoiding defeatist mentalities.

“The Israeli High Court is an occupier’s court and it does not provide justice, but from time to time it does provide remedy. We have a role from within even though there is a fight being waged from outside,” he said. For Sfard, facilitating remedies for the Palestinian people, even if only incrementally, is progress in the right direction.

His review of over four decades of human rights litigation in Israel pertaining to the occupation, which serves as the primary content of his 500-page book, has led him to a few conclusions. The first is that while law cannot be the primary vehicle to ending the occupation, it does have a role in advancing political movement for change. Secondly, it is important to refrain from dichotomizing the legal system: not every court victory leads to success and not every court defeat leads to failure. If court decisions are measured by bringing an end to a civil regime, then one risks overlooking the importance of remedies facilitated through the court. Finally, and certainly not last, while lawyers must master language, human rights lawyers must also invoke values through identifying rights violations and means of remediation.

It is for this reason that Sfard believes human rights activists are at the epicenter of the movement to end the occupation.

Olivia Heffernan is a student at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in social and urban policy and specializing in journalism. She is president of the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group (CJR) and has previously worked for human rights-related nonprofits. She is originally from Washington, D.C., but she has spent multiple years living abroad. Olivia is a blog writer for RightsViews.

 

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: War, Gender, and the Silent Victims of the Syrian Conflict

By Philip Belau, guest blogger from Connecteer

Over the last few years, the topic of sexual violence in armed conflict has received an unprecedented level of attention from the media. It seems that not a single day passes without horrific reports about the crimes committed by the so-called Islamic State. In a veritable ‘war of images’, the media coverage of relief organisations, press agencies, and social media activists alike depict a world in which women are illustrated as defenceless, suffering from sexual harassment and exploitation.

However, while it is true that women are disproportionately affected, they are not the only victims of sexual violence and rape within the Syrian conflict. It seems that our belief in a rigid gender binary has biased perceptions, prohibiting us from developing a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of the conflict.

In other words: “Patriarchy has been stealing the feminists’ clothes”.

In the environment of war, gender binaries appear reified, and while it would of course be exaggerating to claim that ‘masculinity’ itself generates war, “militarism and heteronormative gender identities are co-constitutive[,] draw[ing] on and exaggerat[ing] the bipolarization of gender identities in extremis”. The different narratives of war and armed conflict usually rely on the logic of hegemonic masculinity. They construct a reality in which women and girls represent both the peaceful non-combatants, and the silent victims of the conflict. In this war scenario, a biopolitical discourse identifies the female body as the symbol of the nation, whose vulnerable geography has to be protected by men against a foreign enemy.

"Texting Syria" by Liam Maloney. Thirty minutes from the Syria–Lebanon border, 16 families seeking refuge from ongoing conflict in Homs, Syria, live in tents erected inside an abandoned slaughterhouse. At night, they text friends and family still under siege.

“Texting Syria” by Liam Maloney. Thirty minutes from the Syria–Lebanon border, 16 families seeking refuge from ongoing conflict in Homs, Syria, live in tents erected inside an abandoned slaughterhouse. At night, they text friends and family still under siege.

Despite growing recognition that women and girls are not the only victims of sexual violence, there is still a taboo around viewing men and boys as potential victims of sexual assault and abuse. There is a general supposition that women are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and rape, a perception linked to the construction of the feminine gender and its associated characteristics of passivity and submissiveness. Patriarchal societies that promote a heteronormative sexuality and the image of a strong, self driven and powerful masculinity make it particularly difficult for male victims to admit to being sexually violated.

Amongst the different horrors of war and armed conflict, sexual violence and rape are considered one of the most shameful violations the civilian population can experience. Rape as a weapon of war has especially proven its ‘effectiveness’ in numerous conflicts worldwide, including in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Central African Republic. This enormous ‘success’ is a result of rape being cheaper than traditional warfare. Its effects, however, are devastating, leaving shattered communities, and lifelong psychological and physical scars.

Syria is now irrevocably linked with the long list of countries in which sexual violence and rape constitutes an institutionalised practice. Since the outbreak of armed conflict in March 2011, rape has been systematically used as a weapon of war  by both the Syrian government, as well as the different rebel groups.

While the topic of sexual violence and rape is a permanent feature in ‘Western’ media outlets, the issue remains extremely sensitive for many Syrians. ‘Thaqafat al-‘aib’ (the culture of shame) considers the honour of the family to be of primary importance, to be upheld at any price. Along with religious beliefs it leaves many victims traumatised and unwilling to report assault.

Another tremendous obstacle preventing many men from seeking help is the fear of being labelled ‘gay’. Although men in Syria do not face the death sentence for ‘homosexual behavior’, as in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan or Yemen, homosexuality is neither socially nor legally accepted, and is sanctioned with up to three years of imprisonment. Men accused of ‘homosexual behavior’ are considered a ‘disgrace’ to their families and are often the target of honour killings. Therefore, many victims of sexual assault in the form of ‘MSM’ (men who have sex with men) fear being labelled and persecuted as ‘gay’.

Despite the enormous challenge of gathering data on the issue, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, along with different non-governmental organizations, has managed to document cases of sexual violence against men and boys perpetrated during the Syrian conflict. The Commission’s report exposed many cases where men and boys have been subject to sexual torture during detention. Methods included rape, forced oral sex, and electrocuting or burning  the genitals with cigarettes and lighters. Other testimonials from detainees revealed repeated threats of being raped in front of their family. Although 90 percent of the reports of sexual violence have been allegedly committed in detention facilities run by the government, there is strong suspicion that there are more cases to be uncovered, hidden within areas controlled by different rebel groups.

"Texting Syria" by Liam Maloney

“Texting Syria” by Liam Maloney

According to estimates of the project Women under Siege at least 20 percent of the victims of sexual violence and rape are men, illustrating that men are more than just witnesses to sexualized violence in armed conflict. Yet, despite this growing recognition from the international community, there is still a clear dearth in adequate initiatives. A first step in the right direction was the UN Security Council Resolution 2106 which marked the first reference to men and boys in a resolution on women, peace and security.  This kind of recognition is vital and needs to be articulated further, in order to ensure affected men receive adequate support in conflict and emergency situations.

In the context of the conflict in Syria however, the reality is that victims have much to lose and little to gain by coming forward. If you are labelled ‘gay’ you have many enemies: the government, the so-called Islamic State, al-Nusra, even your own family. Furthermore, the ordeal does not necessarily end at the border. Prejudice and persecution against rape victims in neighbouring countries leave many survivors alone with no safe haven.

Unfortunately there are no simple solutions to address the problem of sexual violence and rape against men and boys. The first step in addressing the problem – whether in Syria or elsewhere – begins with questioning the simplistic and stereotyped gender binary norms which prevent men from coming forward with their stories. Instead of focusing on the dichotomy between genders, we should undress patriarchy to first uncover the full scope of the problem. Only when ordinary people start realising that sexual violence can happen to anyone regardless of their race, religion, social status, sexual orientation, or gender, can they address the topic with the best possible response to the needs of those affected.

Philip Belau is Executive Director and Founder of Connecteer, a grassroots organisation for refugees. He holds a masters degree in Human Rights from the London School of Economics and Political Science and has been involved in several humanitarian projects in the Middle East. He recently joined Amnesty International Switzerland as Country Coordinator for Syria.

How International Media Outlets are Failing the Peace Movement in Israel and Palestine

By Rachel Riegelhaupt, a graduate student in human rights.

On Tuesday October 4th, the day after the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah, approximately 2,000 Israeli and Palestinian women set out on a 200 km peace march across the country, walking from Israel’s border with Lebanon to Jerusalem.

This March of Hope will officially culminate on Wednesday October 19th, and is being mirrored across the country with local rallies, treks, and cycle rides. Tens of thousands more women are expected to join the movement on the final day, marching from the Supreme Court, past the Knesset, and towards Prime Minister Netanyahu’s house where they have organized a rally demanding that “[Israeli and Palestinian] leaders work with respect and courage towards a solution to the ongoing violent conflict, with the full participation of women in this process.”

Women are at the forefront of the non-violent peace movement occurring in Jerusalem.

The march has been organized by Women Wage Peace, a non-partisan women’s movement founded by Jewish and Arab Israelis after the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, that promotes cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian women working together towards a peaceful solution to the conflict. Notably, Nobel-Peace-Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist who helped bring about an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, has participated in the march and will be helping to organize the peace rally in Jerusalem.

Despite the fact that this is a non-violent march of historic proportions, with Israelis and Palestinians demanding peace side by side, there has been no mention of the March of Hope in any major international news outlet. In contrast, nearly every episode of violence that occurs within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to warrant international attention. A sampling of last month’s recurring headlines speaks for itself:

 Israeli troops kill Palestinian who stabbed guard at West Bank checkpoint
“Israeli military says Palestinian teenager killed after trying to stab soldier

Israeli police stabbed amid fears of resurgence in Palestinian attacks

This is not the first time the media has been blind to a notable non-violent protest in the context of Israel-Palestine.  In 2004, the village of Budrus staged a ten-month non-violent protest against the construction of the West Bank security barrier through their village; as a result, the Israeli government decided that instead of cutting across Budrus and other Palestinian villages, the barrier would run along the Green Line (the 1967 armistice line separating Israel from the Occupied Palestinian Territories). Despite its successful outcome, that struggle failed to make headlines amongst most major international outlets.

13618PostcardMarchEng

Flyer advertising the March of Hope.

Similarly, news sources such as the New York Times, the Guardian and BBC, rarely cover the non-violent protests that occur ever more frequently throughout the occupied territories. Notably, assemblies protesting the ongoing occupation  have been occurring every Friday in eight villages throughout the West Bank since 2010. However, Nabi Saleh, the village where this movement began, has since called an end to its own non-violent rallies due to the lack of substantial international attention and recurrent arrests.

Turning a blind eye to non-violent protests is not without implications. In her Ted Talk Pay Attention to Nonviolence, Julia Bacha explains that the impetus for both violent uprising and nonviolent social movements can be simplified to one common denominator: theatrics. Those who participate in both types of movements do so in order to bring attention to a cause, with the hope of evoking social change. By focusing on violent movements and ignoring non-violent ones, international media outlets implicitly affirm the effectiveness of violence as a strategy, while devaluing the successes of non-violent tactics. As Bacha explains, “If violent actors are the only ones getting front-page attention, it makes it hard for leaders to convince others that civil disobedience is a viable option to fight the occupation.” This situation, she explains, discourages those frustrated by the conflict from opting towards non-violent forms of protest, stagnating non-violent movements rendering them unlikely to grow.

Women

Israeli and Palestinian women march in support of a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By idolizing figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, the international community has demonstrated its support for non-violent tactics as laudable in a movement’s struggle for peace and independence. Indeed, a recent study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan investigated 323 political conflicts from 1900 to 2006 and found that “campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts” at achieving peaceful solutions to conflict. They also found that when nonviolent campaigns are successful, they typically lead to more peaceful and democratic societies.

In the immediate future of Israel-Palestine, conflict is unfortunately inevitable. What is not inevitable is the manner in which that conflict will be waged.

As such, failing to report on a non-violent protest involving thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women protesting the conflict for two weeks side by side has further ramifications than a negligible act of misreporting. As the March of Hope culminates in front of Netanyahu’s residence on Wednesday, media outlets should afford the protest the international attention it deserves, and play their pivotal role in supporting the growth of non-violent movements working towards peace and an end to occupation in Israel-Palestine.

Rachel Riegelhaupt is an M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses primarily on women in armed conflict, corporate responsibility in conflict zones, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The U.S. in Yemen: Worth the Human Cost?

By Alan Williams, an M.A. student in human rights

Ten months in, the role of the United States in the GCC-led bombing of Yemen needs to be reevaluated.

The campaign was initiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council in order to destabilize the Houthi militia controlling the government in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, and to reinstate deposed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hundreds of airstrikes later, the UN has reported 8,100 civilian casualties with 2,800 deaths. At this point in the conflict, 93% of the deaths have been civilian. Starvation is at critical levels, and delivering aid to those in need is becoming increasingly difficult. Mirroring the numerous attempts at reaching a lasting ceasefire in Syria, all attempts at making peace have been quickly subverted. At its outset, the United States reluctantly supported the Saudi-led campaign, but such support has proven more harmful than helpful.

Aftermath of a coalition airstrike on a home in Sana’a, Yemen. This airstrike killed five people and destroyed three three-story homes in the Old City which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Aftermath of a coalition airstrike on a home in Sana’a, Yemen. This airstrike killed five people and destroyed three three-story homes in the Old City which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On March 25th 2015, the National Security Council (NCS) spokesperson announced that President Obama had authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to GCC-led operations in Yemen. Prior to the start of coalition bombing, the United States had acted as a neutral party, maintaining diplomatic relations with the Houthis. Despite a Houthi takeover of the government in Sana’a in September 2014, the American Embassy remained opened until early February. Other American personnel, including roughly 100 Special Forces troops were not evacuated until two days before the White House announcement that made the United States an active party to the conflict.

To borrow from Micah Zenko’s article in Foreign Policy, two of the most important reasons for the United States to support the GCC coalition were to make the GCC comfortable with the Iranian Nuclear Agreement, and to prevent the establishment of an Al-Qaeda presence in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) safe haven. Ten months into this plan, progress has not been made on either goal. Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the nuclear agreement has not waned, and AQAP has not been on the retreat – in fact, they have taken new swaths of territory as recently as this February.

If the United States was only involved to protect its core interests in the region, it has failed. Saudi Arabia has come no closer to détente with Iran, and local extremist elements have only been further enabled by the deteriorating security situation instigated by this campaign. Al-Qaeda’s presence has only grown stronger because of the security vacuum, and ISIS has used this opportunity to ramp up suicide bombings at Shia mosques and other public gatherings. To add to this, the campaign has done nothing for America’s image in the region, an image President Obama has sought to improve since his 2009 speech in Cairo. If anything, American involvement in this campaign has further antagonized those who see the United States as an imperialist presence in the region.

As one of the Arab world’s poorest countries prior to the bombing campaign, Yemen has experienced a catastrophic past ten months. At the beginning of 2015, Yemen imported more than 70% of its fuel, 90% of its food, and 100% of its medicine. Accessing these goods has been made immensely more challenging, as the GCC imposed a blockade on the country’s seaports last year, which remains in effect. Of the population of 24 million, 21 million are in some need of humanitarian assistance. While humanitarian groups have been allowed access to Yemeni civilians, the delivery of goods has been sabotaged by coalition forces, as convoys delivering aid and warehouses storing aid are attacked by airstrikes. The plight of humanitarian groups in Yemen is likely to continue in the near future, based on the Saudi government’s recent letter to the United Nations and aid agencies operating in Houthi-controlled territory, advising evacuation in order to guarantee their safety and security. This ominous message seems to forecast indiscriminate bombing in the near future.

The aftermath of a suicide bombing outside of the Presidential Palace in Aden, Yemen that killed seven people. ISIS has utilized the security vacuum in Yemen to increase its presence there.

The aftermath of a suicide bombing outside of the Presidential Palace in Aden, Yemen that killed seven people. ISIS has utilized the security vacuum in Yemen to increase its presence there.

One does not need to think hard about the violations of international humanitarian law such actions would entail. The Fourth Geneva Convention requires that states “allow the free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital stores”. Urging aid groups, such as the ICRC and MSF, to evacuate Houthi-controlled areas implies that they do not plan on living up to this provision. The prohibition of indiscriminate attacks is considered settled state practice and has obtained the status of customary international law; however, the Saudi government’s letter indicates that they cannot ensure the protection of aid workers, meaning that they are not planning precision strikes against military targets. A panel of experts appointed by the United Nations Security Council documented 119 previous coalition airstrikes that could qualify as violations of international humanitarian law. These cases involve strikes against “camps for internally displaced people and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses.”

The United States has provided tacit support to a military campaign that has nearly decimated a nation. From all angles, becoming involved in this campaign was a mistake. However, American support remains largely due to a continued capitulation to Saudi demands, following a growing presence of the Houthis on its southern border, which they claim to be a proxy of Iran. The reality of the Iranian-Houthi connection and the threat it posed to Saudi territorial integrity prior to the campaign is not fully known, however, given that this is the most popular reasoning for American involvement, it remains insufficient for rationalizing such actions.

Immense damage has already been done to the people of Yemen, damage that will take many decades to mend. However, if the United States and President Obama are interested in protecting their core interests, repairing a damaged legacy, upholding international law, or promoting human rights, they must pull their support from the GCC-led campaign in Yemen.

Alan Williams is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research interests include civil society activism in the post-uprising Middle East, Islam and Politics, and freedom of expression.

The Shia Against ISIS: From Karbala 680 to Iraq 2015

By Roukhsar Nissaraly, a graduate student in human rights

The recent bloody attacks by extremist groups on innocent civilians in Ankara, Brussels, and Lahore have provoked outrage across the globe. In an effort to understand the ideology of one such group, ISIS, it is perhaps fitting to look back five months to the 1335th annual Shia commemoration of Ashura, as a reminder that the victims of ISIS’ politics of terror are often Muslims themselves. 

On October 24th, 2015, defying bullets, bombs, and hostile glares from ISIS and its supporters, Iraqi Shias marched to the holy city of Karbala for the commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, and the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom the Shias follow as their first Imam and caliph. This ritual is widely observed in the Shia world, and marks a primordial facet of the sect’s identity: every year on the 10th of Muharram, also known as the day of Ashura, believers clad in black march to mourn the martyrdom of Hussain as the saint who stood up for social justice, and sacrificed his entire family for the sake of humanity in the battle of Karbala.

In 680AD, Umayyad caliph Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah rose to power through corruption and violence, and demanded Hussain’s allegiance. Being a man of justice and truth, Hussain refused to give in to Yazid’s threats and rose against this religious, political, and social oppression. As he stated himself:

Karbala

Karbala

“I am not rising against Yazid as an insolent or an arrogant person, or as a mischief-monger, or tyrant. I have risen against Yazid as I seek to reform the Ummah (Islamic nation) of my grandfather. I wish to bid the good and forbid the evil.”

Hussain then left Medina, the city of Prophet Muhammad, for the barren and scalding desert of Karbala. Along with his 72 loyal companions, including his friends and family members, he was left thirsty for three days under the burning sun, and brutally murdered by Yazid’s army of at least 30,000 men. Hussain and his men fell as martyrs, refusing battle until the very last moment.

The historical event of Karbala is not only remembered for its ferocity as a battle; rather, it has set the stage for countless human rights narratives that not only empower the Shia community, but also resonate with human beings around the world. Hussain and his family were denied water for three days. That same resource has become a weapon for ISIS to force resisting villages to give in to its rule. Hussain and his family were cruelly massacred for the values and beliefs they held. Today, ISIS is ruthlessly killing Shias and labeling them as apostates and heretics. Hussain’s women and children were looted, taken as war prisoners, and paraded through the streets of Kufa and Damascus. As of today, ISIS loots villages, and owns a flourishing slave market in which women and girls from religious minorities in Iraq are sold.  

The teachings at Karbala have become faith’s weapon against injustice, and the revolutionary symbol of Hussain is the banner that Iraqi Shias are holding against ISIS today. Seen as infidels by the extremist group, the Shias are targeted for the perceived crime of being followers of Ali ibn Abi Talib and his progeny. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, ISIS has destroyed seven places of worship in June 2014, and frequently executes Shias, including through mass killings in the city of Tikrit. In July 2015, a car bomb killed 120 people in the town of Khan Bani Saad, where the population is mainly Shia. The accounts confirm that the group engages in selective killing, separating Sunnis from Shias after checking their identity cards, and does not make any kind of distinction between men, women and children, let alone combatants and civilians.

The Shrine of Imam Hussain

The Shrine of Imam Hussain

ISIS’ treatment of the Shia population is at odds with not only the principles of international law, but Islamic tradition as well. The right to religious freedom, in private and in community, is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is emphasized in Article 18 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, granting individuals the right to manifest their beliefs in practice, such as through rituals and processions. Additionally, the Islamic doctrine, which ISIS claims to follow scrupulously, protects religious minorities and defends their right to practice as conscience dictates. The Qur’an, which is the final word of God for all Muslims, summarizes the notion of religious freedom in one verse, among others: “let there be no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256). With its oppression of Shias and other religious groups in Iraq, ISIS undoubtedly violates human rights principles that are arguably too fundamental to be challenged by cultural relativism.

In the wake of this escalating persecution, Shia religious leaders have drawn strength from the symbol of Hussain. Ayatollah Sistani, the  foremost religious voice for Iraqi Shias, issued a strong statement in which he reminded the Shia resistance fighters of their obligations to uphold justice. Echoing the words of Hussain, he advised in his statement to, “strive to act in the same righteous manner as the Prophet and his progeny (…) let your righteous actions, your just conduct, and your sound admonition serve as an example for them. Do not resort to oppression.” Lebanon’s Shia leaders have often used similar rhetoric when speaking to the masses, urging Shias to continue resisting for the same values Hussain held – justice and freedom.

Hussain’s actions on the plains of Karbala 1335 years ago, and his unflinching determination to stand up for righteousness, serve as timeless examples for Shia believers fuelling the resistance movement to stand up against ISIS’ human rights violations in an ethical way. Although not all Shia militias have respected this condition, the core of the defense movement is nevertheless anchored to the notion of a just revolution, a standard set by the battle of Karbala.

In 2014, a supporter of ISIS tweeted, “Shiites, prepare yourselves for our bombs. Ashura is here and Karbala is not far anymore.” From Karbala 680 to Iraq 2015, the dynamics of horror today remain the same.

Roukhsar Nissaraly is currently a graduate student in human rights at Columbia University. Her research interests include Shiism, the rights of religious minorities, and the interplay between Islam and human rights.

How the Iran Deal Affects Ordinary People’s Lives in Iran

By Roya Pakzad, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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Iran Deal 1

Chinese ambassador Wu Hailong; French foreign secretary Laurent Fabius; German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier; EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini; Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif; Alexey Karpov, the deputy director of the department for nonproliferation and arms control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia; British foreign secretary Philip Hammond; and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Iran and the world powers reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

Earlier this week, President Obama gathered enough votes for the Iran Deal, by securing the support of 34 Senators and thus the ability to sustain a veto in Congress. According to the deal, Iran will significantly limit its nuclear program activities. In return, the international community will lift oil and financial sanctions that have been imposed on Iran for more than a decade.

For many people around the world this news showed the victory of diplomacy over aggression. For me it was an instant journey two years into the past, when I received a call from Iran informing me that my 41 year-old cousin, Azim, was suffering from liver cancer. There was not sufficient medical access, no way to receive the necessary medications through official International postage, and the currency was falling to a record low, making dollars hard to come by and proliferating black markets for fake medications. And it is this context that led to the death of Azim, who died struggling to receive proper care and medication.

As I look at the news headlines I am reminded that Azim was far from the only Iranian citizen who lost his or her fundamental right to live because of these intolerable medical, technological, and economic sanctions. For more than a decade, ordinary Iranians bore the brunt of penalties imposed on the Iranian government. Multiple sanctions imposed by the international community have isolated Iran from the global financial system, limited oil exports, and prohibited US and some EU firms from trading with and investing in Iran. Collectively, these sanctions have taken a severe toll on the country’s economy.

Some opponents of the deal in Congress defend their negative vote by citing massive violations of freedom of speech and of the press in Iran. But have they considered that not letting Iran import food, medicine, and life-saving technologies violates the right to an adequate standard of living? Have they considered that isolating Iran from the international community in the name of human rights not only contributes to the economic hardship of ordinary citizens, but also eases the path to further civil rights violations by the Islamic Republic Regime? The interdependence of rights means we have to consider how attempting to protect one’s freedom can negatively influence other rights including health, food, and life itself.

An Iranian dancing on a street of Tehran,celebrating nuclear agreement.

An Iranian dancing on a street of Tehran,celebrating nuclear agreement.

I do not deny the regime’s persecution of journalists and activists. In fact, I myself was threatened with expulsion from university in Tehran when I was nineteen, simply for being a member of an Iranian women rights and gender equality campaign. Yet many of those same human rights activists supported the Iran Deal because they believe isolating Iran and imposing more sanctions (and more aggressive alternatives, like the threat of military strikes) will not solve the human rights issues in the country, and will certainly not bring more freedom and democracy for ordinary Iranian people. Furthermore, a lack of monitoring and communication could result in what we now witness in North Korea, a completely isolated state with a government that refuses to answer for any of its abusive actions. In this era of globalization, politicians should come to understand that isolating states is not only politically impractical, but harmful to the interests of the global community as a whole.

Thousands of miles from my homeland, I celebrate through the photos of Iranians dancing in the streets. I am delighted by the thrill in their eyes and pleased that finally diplomacy has finally worked. However, with joy in my heart and a lump in my throat, it is hard not to think of the hundreds of Azims who could have been there in those streets with their fellow Iranians, laughing, enjoying, celebrating.


Roya Pakzad is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the impact of technology on women’s rights.

Unintended Consequences of Striking Syria

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at ISHR 

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However limited or narrow in scope, striking Syria will have consequences across the “Shiite Crescent” that spans Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The term was coined in 2004 by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who warned that Iran’s support for Shiite forces in the Middle East sought to “alter the traditional balance of power between the two main Islamic sects and pose new challenges to U.S. interests and allies.” Military action in Syria could embroil the United States in civil wars from the Tigris to the Levant; U.S interests could also come under direct attack. A steely-eyed view of regional dynamics and contingency planning are critical to optimizing U.S. objectives.

Iran

Iran gains strategic depth by supporting Syria. As Iran’s proxy, Syria serves several Iranian goals, including rivaling Saudi power in the region. Syria is also a launch point for terror attacks against Israel. Iran provides Hezbollah with advanced surface-to-surface missiles through a transit pipeline across Syria to Lebanon. Iran also funnels arms to militant Palestinian groups via Syria. Iran helped Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad establish his stockpile of chemical weapons in the 1990s. Today, it is financing Syria. Ground forces from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Quds Force, and Iranian intelligence services have also joined the battlefield. The defeat of Assad by Saudi-backed Sunni Arab extremists with ties to Al-Qaeda would be a big blow to Iran.

U.S. officials say bombing Syria would send a strong message to Iran, proving America’s resolve and deterring its pursuit of nuclear weapons. However, it might have the opposite effect. Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have signaled a more flexible approach in nuclear negotiations. Iran historically refuses to negotiate under duress. The Supreme leader will surely limit Rouhani’s options if the U.S. intervenes in Syria. Iran could suspend diplomacy and accelerate its uranium enrichment activities. In a worst case, Iran could break-out and weaponize its nuclear energy program.

The Obama administration can mitigate these risks by engaging Iran. Now is the time to start a dialogue with Tehran about collaborating on shared interests, such as limiting Sunni extremism and Al-Qaeda’s penetration in Syria, as well as constraints on Iran’s enrichment activities.

Iraq

The risks of intervention in Syria closely resemble the challenges of Iraq in 2003. Despite the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), during which Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian troops, Iran and Iraq – majority Shiite countries – have forged close cultural, economic and security cooperation since Saddam’s downfall in 2003. Iranian pilgrims regularly visit Shiite holy sites in Iraq. Iranian goods flood Iraq’s consumer market. Iraq is officially neutral in Syria’s civil war. However, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki facilitates military assistance to Syria by allowing over-flight of Iranian military transport planes, ignoring strong objections of the United States.

Inspired by the struggle of their Sunni Arab brothers in Syria, radical Sunni groups in Iraq are resurgent. Today’s sectarian violence in Iraq is at its highest level since peaking in 2006-07. More than 1,000 people were killed in July alone. Sectarian slaughter over the Eid-al-Fitr holiday, marking the end of Ramadan, was especially intense. Maliki responded with a heavy-hand, establishing check-points and rounding up Sunni political and community leaders, many of whom have disappeared.

The violence has also spread to Kirkuk, threatening stability in Iraqi Kurdistan. Over20,000 Syrian Kurds fled to Iraqi Kurdistan last month after the Al-Nusra Front, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, issued a fatwa condoning the killing of Kurdish women and children. Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, has vowed to protect Syrian Kurds from Arab extremists. If Syria fragments, Kurds in Syria – so-called Southern Kurdistan – may seek territorial union with Iraqi Kurdistan, further polarizing Kurds and Arabs in Iraq.

The United States has little leverage over Maliki after failing to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement, which would have left a residual force of U.S. troops in Iraq. However, it can affirm support for Kurds by subsidizing Iraqi Kurdistan’s humanitarian assistance to refugees from Syria. Washington should also suspend its sale of sophisticated weapons, such as F-16s, to Baghdad until Maliki closes Iraqi air space to the transfer of Iranian weapons.

Lebanon

Iran’s most valuable client is Hezbollah, established in the 1980s as a popular resistance movement to fight Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. Iran supports Hezbollah through Syria, which has occupied parts of Lebanon and dominated Lebanese politics for decades. As reprisal for steps by the Future Movement to evict Syrian forces, Syrian intelligence assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

More than 700,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon since Syria’s civil war erupted 27 months ago. The influx disrupted Lebanon’s delicate ethnic balance, destabilizing the Taif Accords that established a tenuous power-sharing agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war. Syria’s conflict has bled across the border into Lebanon. Sunnis in Tripoli, who back the Free Syrian Army, have targeted Hezbollah and its Shiite supporters. Attacks intensified after Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, sent Hezbollah militias to fight alongside Assad’s forces. They went house-to-house killing Sunnis in Qusair, tilting the balance of power and enabling Assad to retake the strategic border town in June. A massive bomb blast killed scores in al-Dahiya al-Janoubiya, a Shiite suburb in south Beirut, on July 9, 2013. Nasrallah, himself, promised to join the fight in Syria against Sunnis, whom he disparages as “takfiris” apostates.

Nasrallah will calibrate his support to Assad so as to avoid alienating his constituents in Lebanon. However, Hezbollah will not sit on the sidelines if the U.S. attacks Syria. It could attack Israel with conventional weapons or use WMD-tipped missiles smuggled provided by Assad. It could also attack U.S. interests in the region, or activate sleeper cells in the U.S. to carry out strikes against America’s homeland. Other than dispatching ships from the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean to help defend Israel, there is little the United States can do to counter Hezbollah’s asymmetric terror tactics.

Gulf Arab Shiites

The Shiite Crescent is more than a contiguous territory. The restive Shiite majority in Bahrain would protest a U.S. strike against Syria. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, which patrols the Persian Gulf and waters off East Africa. Violent unrest can also be expected against other U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf with Shiite minorities, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Bombing Syria won’t stop the war, nor create conditions for either Assad or the insurgents to prevail. More likely, the grinding conflict will go on. Syria will become ghettoized with ethnic groups defended by local armed militias. Kurds and Christians will pay a dear price for fence-sitting, as the failed state fragments into cantons.

General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, struck a cautious tone at Congressional hearing last week. For sure, the U.S. military can degrade Syria’s war-making capacity. After attacking Syria, however, it will face multiple threats including stateless adversaries motivated to defend sectarian interests across the Shiite Crescent.

This article previously appeared on The Huffington Post on September 11, 2013.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former Foreign Affairs Expert for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

Intervention Lessons From Kosovo for Syria

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at ISHR

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President Bill Clinton intervened in the Balkans to end a war in Bosnia and stop the slaughter of civilians in Kosovo. As the United States considers military intervention in Syria, the Obama administration should reflect on America’s Balkan engagements in the 1990s, considering what was done right — and wrong.

The international community took more than 3 years to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. While it dithered, more than 100,000 people were killed and millions displaced. The response to Serbia’s aggression in Kosovo was faster and more effective. NATO launched a 78-day air campaign that prevented what happened in Bosnia from happening in Kosovo. The diplomacy and military operations were imperfect, but Kosovo is the gold standard in humanitarian intervention.

Here are some lessons from Kosovo that are relevant to Syria:

-Diplomacy comes first: After more than a quarter million Kosovo Albanians fled to the mountains during the summer of 1998, the U.S.-led Contact Group, which included Russia, negotiated the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) to verify the withdrawal of Serb forces, enable the return of displaced Kosovars, and ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies. The KVM was suspended after 40 Kosovo civilians were massacred in Racak, including women and children.

-Back diplomacy with the threat of force: After Racak, NATO approved an “activation order,” the last step in force readiness before launching an attack. U.S. Special Envoy Richard C. Holbrooke issued an ultimatum, but Slobodan Milosevic scoffed at Holbrooke’s threat. NATO launched limited operations, then paused. Holbrooke called Milosevic to give him a last chance, but his entreaties were ignored. NATO’s full force was unleashed only after all diplomatic options were exhausted.

-Build international coalitions: With the UN Security Council paralyzed, the U.S. abandoned efforts to gain a UN resolution and focused its diplomacy on building consensus among NATO Member States. NATO did not act alone. It was backed by the Organization of Islamic Conference and statements by the UN Secretary General.

-Gain Congressional and public support: The Clinton administration worked effectively with civil society groups and the media to expose Milosevic’s criminal regime and make the case for military action. Intervention was supported by a broad bipartisan group of lawmakers. Albanian-Americans played a key role garnering support.

-Keep all options on the table: Clinton pledged no U.S. ground troops. Milosevic believed he could withstand NATO’s air campaign, and hunkered down. Milosevic finally capitulated after 78 days of intensive bombing.

-Expect retaliation: Serbia intensified its ethnic cleansing when NATO attacked. Serbian forces went door-to-door, assassinating Kosovo Albanian leaders and displacing more than one million Kosovars. The U.S. had conducted extensive contingency planning. Expecting population flows, humanitarian supplies were pre-positioned in Macedonia and Albania.

-Anticipate collateral damage: NATO mistakenly bombed a convoy of Albanian refugees fleeing Decani, killing 73 civilians. In the fog of war, NATO also accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Clinton personally apologized, but the incident entrenched China’s opposition to the war.

-Work with insurgents: Target selection became more difficult as the bombing campaign dragged on. NATO cooperated with the Kosova Liberation Army to identify targets and track Serbian troop movements. The KLA was an essential force on-the-ground that helped guide NATO air operations.

-Hand-over power to a credible local partner: American diplomats worked intensively to forge cooperation among Kosovar leaders. The Kosovo “Unity Team” became the nucleus of post-Milosevic administration in Kosovo.

-Walk-the-talk: In the middle of the Kosovo conflict, dignitaries from around the world gathered in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NATO’s founding. The Clinton administration understood that Kosovo was more than a test of Western diplomacy. The future of the North Atlantic Alliance was also at-stake.

Has the Obama administration taken on-board lessons from Kosovo?

Picture from: http://www.infoplease.com/atlas/country/syria.html

Picture from: http://www.infoplease.com/atlas/country/syria.html

The United States is diplomatically isolated, except for France which endorsed air strikes against Syria. Even Great Britain, America’s erstwhile ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, has balked. The Obama administration released its intelligence verifying Assad’s use of chemical weapons too late to influence the British parliament’s vote to authorize use of force. After the vote, Obama offended Britain by referring to France as America’s “oldest ally.”

Though Russia and China have vetoed three resolutions designed to pressure Assad, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to work with Russia on talks between the regime and opposition. The Geneva conference was stillborn from the beginning, and has recently been overtaken by events. Hezbollah entered the battlefield, rolling-back gains by the insurgents and further regionalizing the conflict.

Indignation is the right response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. However, the threat of military action is more effective when demanding compliance rather than as a punitive measure. With U.S. tomahawk cruise missiles locked and loaded, the Obama administration should demand that Assad sequester chemical weapons under UN control or hand over field commanders to the International Criminal Court. It could also give Assad a deadline to relinquish power.

Some Members of Congress want air strikes to advance the goal of regime change. But who will succeed Assad? Syria’s insurgency is dominated by the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliated terror group murdering Alawites, moderate Arab Sunnis, and Syrian Kurds. Just like Kosovo when more than 100,000 Serbs fled after Milosevic was defeated, reprisals resulting in a bloodbath are a real possibility when Assad steps down.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been a passionate point man in the recent flurry of public diplomacy. However, the administration has not done enough to explain why it is in America’s national interest to attack Syria. Given public skepticism, Obama’s decision to consult lawmakers is a high-stakes gambit. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton launched strikes against Libya, Afghanistan and Kosovo without asking Congressional authorization.

Obama repeatedly characterized military action as “limited and narrow.” He called it a “shot across the bow.” He also publicly ruled out the possibility of ground troops. Taking the middle ground satisfies no one. Opponents to military action are not convinced. At the same time, moderation may be alienating some senators clamoring for a more robust response.

Obama is clearly a reluctant warrior. He understands that Americans are weary from a decade of conflict in distant lands. However, Obama has boxed himself into a corner. Speaking at an impromptu news conference more than a year ago, he went off-script saying that President Bashar al-Assad’s use or movement of chemical weapons represents a “red-line” that would change his administration’s “calculus,” with significant consequences including the possibility of more direct U.S. intervention in the conflict.

Drawing a red-line is morally correct. It is also in America’s national security interest. I visited Iraqi Kurdistan after chemical weapons were used to kill thousands. It was a horrific scene. Indiscriminate use of the world’s most heinous weapons against civilians violates international humanitarian law and norms of decency. Just like Milosevic’s murderous rampage in Bosnia and Kosovo, it cannot be tolerated.

However, military action is a tactic not a policy. The decision to go to war should be linked to a broader strategy of creating a safe haven on Syria’s border with Syria and Jordan. The safe haven would be protected by a no-fly-zone, enforced by NATO. As was the case in Kosovo, a Russian contingent under NATO’s command could be deployed. The safe haven would allow refugees to return to Syria. It would also provide a buffer between Syria and front-line states, furthering stability in the region. Creating a safe haven could also change momentum on the battlefield, revitalizing prospects for a Geneva conference and bringing the grinding conflict in Syria closer to an end.

This article previously appeared on The Huffington Post on September 3, 2013.

 

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. His most recent book is Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention.

The Human Rights Council and Libya: an historic precedent and missed opportunity

By Deborah Brown, former student at Barnard College

Late last year, with little fanfare, the UN General Assembly voted to reinstate Libya’s membership to the Human Rights Council (HRC). Libya was suspended from the body last winter amid the mass killings of protestors and other egregious human rights abuses perpetrated by Muammar Qaddhafi’s regime and credible threats of continued violence.

For human rights advocates interested in reforming and improving the HRC, the way in which Libya’s membership was restored represents a lost opportunity to build the credibility of the institution by creating stronger criteria for reinstating suspended members.

Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Geneva Human Rights Council

An unprecedented step

On March 1, 2011, the General Assembly unanimously took the bold step of suspending Libya’s membership from the Council for committing “gross and systemic violations of human rights.” This action was historic as it marked the first time that a member state was suspended from either the HRC or its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, for violating human rights. It also helped to boost the credibility of the Council, which is often criticized for having countries with poor human rights records among its membership.

According to the resolution establishing the HRC, “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights [and] shall fully cooperate with the Council.” The problem is that these criteria are aspirational and are enforced only by the voting choices made by UN member states at the General Assembly, which are supposed to take into account the human rights records and voluntary pledges of candidates in annual elections.

The reality is that because the membership criteria are not enforceable, states often vote according to political considerations, which explains how Libya (not to mention China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia) was elected to the HRC in the first place.

Credit: UN Photo/Iason Foounten

Libya’s liberation

With the fall of the Qaddhafi regime in August, and the establishment of a transitional government formed by Libyan rebels, the General Assembly had to decide whether, and under what standard, to reinstate Libya’s HRC membership. Curiously enough, while the founding resolution provided guidelines on suspending an HRC member, — a two-thirds majority vote by the General Assembly when a Council member commits “gross and systemic violations of human rights”, — it did not provide any guidelines whatsoever for restoring membership.

Restoring rights in Libya?

Logically, to have one’s membership restored, a country should have to prove that it meets the initial criteria, i.e. that it is upholding the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights and fully cooperating with the Council. Implicitly, this means that it should also be able to demonstrate that it is no longer committing gross and systemic human rights violations.

In the test case of Libya, the UN’s own human rights mechanisms didn’t inspire confidence that the transitional authorities met either benchmark.

Back in February, when the violence in Libya first broke out, the HRC established an independent commission of inquiry (COI) to investigate alleged human rights violations in Libya and to identify measures that would hold perpetrators accountable.

In the last oral update from the COI at the Council’s 18th session in September, the COI’s chair relayed a bone-chilling account of abuses that were still taking place in Libya. In addition to the cruelty perpetrated by Qaddhafi and his cohorts, which by now are well known, the COI reported that the transitional authorities may have committed a range of violations of international human rights law including extra-judicial killings, mass arrests and arbitrary detention, as well as possible violations of international humanitarian law. (The Commission’s final report is due in March 2012).

Politics trump reform

With such serious allegations, member states could have waited for the COI’s final report, or at least conditioned Libya’s HRC membership with concrete commitments from the transitional authorities. For example, they could have required that the transitional authorities carry out (or take tangible steps towards carrying out) the COI’s core recommendations from its first report. These include:  conducting “exhaustive, impartial and public investigations into all allegations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law violations with a view to: prosecutions”; “the provision of adequate reparations to victims and their families”; and “taking all appropriate measures to prevent the recurrence of such violations.”

Unacceptably, HRC member states ignored the COI’s account (ironic, considering they requested the oral report) as well as its recommendations and accepted a mere promise by Libya’s transitional authorities of “cooperation” with the HRC. In September, the HRC unanimously agreed to recommend that the General Assembly restore Libya’s membership.

Dead on arrival

By the time the issue crossed the Atlantic, few states were willing to expend any political capital on fighting for what could have been an important credibility booster for the HRC. Most countries, like the U.S., that had taken on the membership issue in the past were also supporters of the NATO intervention and have been eager to push forward with the transition in Libya. This position is rather clear from the U.S. representative’s remarks after the vote on Libya’s HRC membership in which he recognized the transitional authorities’ “clean break” from the former regime despite remaining “concerned about continuing violations of human rights occurring in Libya.”

The only countries that voted against restoring Libya’s HRC membership did so on the basis of opposing the intervention in Libya, and cited manipulation by “imperial Powers” as part of the reason for their “No” vote.

Pushing for stronger criteria would have also provoked resistance from the so-called proceduralists or spoiler states, i.e. states that seek to limit the Council’s activity by rejecting any measures that are not laid out specifically in UN resolutions. This argument has been successful in thwarting past reform efforts and it would seem that reformers did not see the importance in pressing the issue with this case.

Returning the Focus to Rights

Competing world views and political prerogatives will always temper any discussion of human rights; however in the last year there have been a few moments when the severity of a human rights issue led to robust and committed diplomacy to ensure that the substance of the issue overshadowed the politics.  This was the case when the member states acted swiftly to suspend Libya last March, triggering further international action.

Strengthening the HRC as an institution requires leadership and commitment by member states who want to see it develop into a more credible and effective body. Those states that are committed to promoting and protecting human rights through the HRC should not have let political concerns over Libya’s future distract them from the larger goal of improving the institution.

By Deborah Brown. Deborah is the first Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow of the UNA-USA, a program of the United Nations Foundation (UNF). She advocates for and supports constructive U.S. engagement with the UN and its human rights mechanisms. Deborah graduated with a BA in political science and human rights from Barnard College in 2007 and an MA Democracy and Governance and Arab Studies from Georgetown University in 2011.