Archive for Middle East

A Year After Jamal Khashoggi’s Assassination, The War On Truth Continues

By: Kyoko Thompson, staff writer at RightsViews

“A commission is coming from Saudi Arabia tomorrow; they have something to do in the Consulate. They will have something to do on my floor in the office.” – October 1 2018, 21:48

At 1:15 PM on Tuesday, October 2, 2018, Washington Post contributor and longtime journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and was never seen again. His death was not the first of its kind. According to the United Nations, more than one thousand journalists have been murdered since 2006. Yet it drew international attention from governments and individuals alike, many of whom demanded justice. The events that followed challenged the limits of international law and U.S. foreign policy. One year later, an investigation yields more questions than answers, such as: What does justice for Khashoggi look like? Is his death a manifestation of a deeper, more insidious trend? And: What is the future of free speech in an era where authoritarianism and misinformation are not an outlier, but the norm?

 

“He has arrived.” – October 2, 2018; 13:13

 

In November 2018, Turkey shared audio of Jamal Khashoggi’s October 2nd visit to the Saudi consulate with Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. In it, Saudi officials can be heard discussing Khashoggi’s imminent arrival and assassination. The recordings, obtained from inside the consulate itself, provide gruesome confirmation of what was already strongly suspected by journalists and politicians alike: Jamal Khashoggi was lured to the consulate under the false pretense of obtaining documents required for his marriage to then-fiancee Hatice Cengiz, and brutally executed, dismembered, and disposed of by Saudi authorities. 

Much of the narrative available to the public today is the result of the efforts of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Dr. Agnes Callamard—who, with the assistance of the recordings, consulate security footage, and Turkish authorities, was able to piece together the events immediately leading up to, and following, Khashoggi’s death. An expert in human rights, Dr. Callamard possesses extensive experience in the field, having previously worked with Amnesty International, Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP), and ARTICLE 19. In December 2018, she began a six-month investigation that culminated in the release of her report on the inquiry into the unlawful death of Jamal Khashoggi at the 41st session of the Human Rights Council in June of this year. Her findings, which criticize the international response to Khashoggi’s murder—including the response of Saudi and U.S. officials—shed a harsh light on the consequences of free speech, and the limitations of international law. Her official opinion? This was a state-sanctioned killing. 

While Saudi authorities have continued to insist that Khashoggi’s death was a domestic matter, “I completely disagree with this analysis,” said Dr. Callamard at an event at Columbia Law School last month. On the contrary, she says, Khashoggi was murdered by fifteen Saudi officials—named in her report—“fourteen of whom in my opinion have worked together before.” And, while she did not assign individual liability, she did strongly assert that Khashoggi’s death “constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.” Moreover, the killing—and Saudi Arabia’s procedural and official response to it—violated multiple international laws, including the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. According to Dr. Callamard, the impact is clear: this was a crime “of such a nature, in my view, that it qualified as an international crime, and therefore that it could lead to universal jurisdiction.” 

 

“How could this happen in an embassy?” – Jamal Khashoggi, October 2, 2018; 13:22

 

Khashoggi, who left Saudi Arabia in self-imposed exile in September of 2017, was a well known Saudi dissident and critic of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. He claimed that the government had banned him from using Twitter and pressured his publishers to fire him; and in fact his column in Al-Hayat, a popular Arabic daily, was canceled earlier that year. Determined not to be censored, Khashoggi moved to the United States so that he might continue to write for the Washington Post. In an opinion piece shortly after, he wrote “I have made a different choice now. I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.” 

Human Rights Watch has confirmed that Saudi Arabia has a history of stifling free expression. In 2015 alone, more than six writers and advocates were arrested and punished for peacefully expressing their opinions. According to Human Rights Watch, “One was sentenced to death and the others to lengthy prison terms. At least four were also banned from traveling abroad for five to 10 years.” Usually, the sort of opinions that cause pushback from the Saudi government are those that characterize it, or its leadership, unfavorably. Khashoggi, however, believed he was being silenced because of remarks he made at an event in November of 2016. At the event—a panel discussion at the Washington Institute for the Near East—Khashoggi warned that Saudi Arabia should be wary of a Trump presidency because his stances on the Middle East were contradictory, which wasn’t likely to change. Ironically, Trump has actually remained steadfastly supportive of Saudi Arabia since taking office—so supportive, in fact, that he turned a blind eye to Khashoggi’s murder.

Trump and Prince bin Salman in 2017

Nearly two months after Kashoggi’s disappearance and after weeks of seeming to avoid commenting on the incident, President Donald Trump finally announced that he was “standing with Saudi Arabia.” In many ways, this is not surprising; according to the Council on Foreign Relations, Saudi Arabia is a “critical strategic partner in the region,” and the countries’ cooperation in mutual business and security interests survived even 9/11.  In his statement, issued in November 2018, Trump cited mainly economic reasons—not the least of which was oil—for his continued support of a state that even the CIA concluded ordered the extrajudicial killing and dismemberment of a U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist. “After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States.”

If Donald Trump was to radically diverge from the course set by previous administrations and stand against Saudi Arabia, one imagines that it would not be spurred by the untimely death of a journalist. He has, after all, shown little respect for journalists and their trade. Notorious for denouncing publications that describe him unfavorably, Trump has referenced “fake news” in his Tweets no less than 578 times since winning the 2016 presidential election—that’s once every two days. Perhaps even more appallingly, on October 24th, 2019, Trump canceled subscriptions to two publications that will henceforth no longer be delivered to the White House. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham defended the decision, saying that “hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars will be saved” as the administration moves to force other federal agencies to cancel their subscriptions, as well. The publications that were banned? The New York Times and the Washington Post—two publications that frequently criticize Trump and his administration (the infamous September 2018 op-ed in The New York Times is a rather memorable example). 

Is it a coincidence that the very publication Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist whose government made numerous attempts to silence before murdering him in cold blood, contributed to is one which Trump himself has slandered and suppressed? Maybe. It is certainly eerie, though, that months before Khashoggi’s death, in February of 2017, the newspaper—which has not had an official slogan since its founding in 1877—changed its headline to “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward said it wasn’t so much a response to Trump as it was about “the dangers of secrecy in government, which is what I worry about most.” In fact, Woodward credits federal judge Damon J. Keith for the slogan. Keith wrote “Democracies die behind closed doors” in his 2002 ruling on Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, which centered around closing immigration cases off from the press and public if they were of special interest to national security. He continued, “The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately…When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.” 

Judge Damon Keith passed away earlier this year, but his contributions to the law, civil rights, and free expression endure; and so do his parallels to today’s events. Because, you see, Judge Keith was famously sued personally by President Richard Nixon over his 1971 ruling against warrantless wiretaps—the sort of warrantless wiretaps used in the Watergate break-in a year later. Nixon, the president who used executive privilege to defy subpoenas, concealed information from Congress, and fired those that opposed him. The president whose close advisors were indicted for obstruction of justice. The president who was certain to be impeached in the House after a single, revelatory phone call. 

Free expression is a human right. It is protected in international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among a plethora of others. Its significance is explicitly described and protected in documents such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights General Comment No. 10, 11, and 34; not to mention the U.S. Constitution. So important is free expression, says the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), that without it, no liberty is secure; without it, “other fundamental rights, like the right to vote, would wither and die.”

There is no denying it: the United States is at war with information. Perhaps it always was. From Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election to Mark Zuckerberg’s and Rupert Murdoch’s meetings with Trump officials, information is actively hidden, obscured, and weaponized by those in power at great risk to our Republic. And on the front lines of this battle are the warriors of free expression; that human right upon which so many others precariously stand. Warriors like Jamal Khashoggi—activists, advocates, and journalists. Courageous individuals who face the darkest of dark, where democracies go to die, and dare to turn on a light.

“The stout man with the gray goatee and the gentle demeanor dared to disagree with his country’s government. He told the world the truth about its brutality toward those who would speak out. And he was murdered for it.” 

– Karl Vick, Time Magazine, 2018 “The Guardians and the War on Truth”

Gaza On Screen: An Interview with Film Festival Curator, Nadia Yaqub

By: Laura Charney, RightsViews Staff Writer

This April, the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University hosted the “Gaza on Screen” film festival highlighting films made by Gazans and about Gaza. Curated by Dr. Nadia Yaqub, “Gaza on Screen” offered an invitation to not only bear witness to the lived struggles and resilience of Gazans, but also the opportunity to engage the ways that Gazans articulate and envision their own experiences.

For over twenty years, Palestinian film festivals across North America and Europe have brought Palestinian stories to international audiences. However, Palestinians in Gaza face particularly prohibitive measures that inhibit the communication of their stories. Since 2007, Israel has maintained a blockade on Gaza, controlling its airspace, coastline, and borders, and restricting the movement of goods and humans entering or leaving the territory.

It was not until this past April at Columbia University that a film festival focusing exclusively on Gazan stories came to life. In an attempt to shine light on the issues specifically facing Gazans, “Gaza on Screen” strove to unsettle some of the borders that hinder the circulation of Gazan stories.

The three-day-long film festival programmed feature-length films, documentaries, short films, and a master class with Abdelsalam Shehada, a Gaza-based film director who has made over 20 documentaries.

There was also a Q&A with some of the student filmmakers who directed the short films. Mohammed S. Ewais, a student at Al-Aqsa University, joined the film festival over Skype from Gaza City to discuss his film, We Love Life (2015), a documentary-style portrait of Gaza-based graffiti artist Belal Khaled, who transforms architecture gone derelict from Israeli explosions into works of art. The title of the film comes from the Mahmoud Darwish poem: “We love life if we find a way to it.” When asked if there was a political message in his film, Ewais responded, “To spread awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. No one knows what is going on here.”

 

Because of the embargo, Gaza faces a water crisis, constant electricity outages, destroyed infrastructure, and a deteriorated economy. Israel’s multi-layered apparatus of state control is justified under the pretense of security, while denying Gazans the tools to secure their own livelihoods. The intensive border regime means that international perceptions of Gaza are often marred by the impossibility of accessing and understanding the actual experiences of Palestinians in Gaza.

In the keynote speech at the Dreams of a Nation Palestine Film Festival at Columbia University in 2003, Edward Said said that “the whole history of the Palestinian struggle has to do with the desire to be visible.” Palestinian-produced films, like those shown at “Gaza on Screen,” engages this struggle, through bringing to the fore the names, memories, and personalities of individuals and families who are often represented in broad and stereotypical strokes in dominant media narratives.

The pursuit of being “visible” is also bound within the limitations that Palestinians face when attempting to access their own written histories. Since Israel invaded Beirut in 1982, Palestinian national archives have been in the hands of the Israeli Defense Force. The Israeli state has placed restrictions and legal obstacles that hinder access to the Palestinian archives, effectively controlling the possibilities of generating Palestinian-produced historical knowledge by rendering it inaccessible to its traditional owners.

Visual material is one force that disrupts this censorship. Film affords the potential of narrating stories that have been displaced in the archives. Palestinian cinema – factual and fictive – has been a crucial force in making visible political realities that authentically reflect lived experiences.

The circulation of Palestinian film allows stories to speak to audiences across borders. When describing his feelings on visual narratives, Ewais stated: “Cinema is my only way out.” Because of the blockade, he has never left Gaza. Ewais is one of the many directors and filmmakers who contributed to telling Gazan stories at “Gaza on Screen.”

“Gaza On Screen” was curated by Nadia Yaqub, Professor and Chair in the Department of Asian Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC Chapel Hill. Dr. Yaqub’s research critically examines Arab cultural texts, and has recently focused on Palestinian literature and visual culture. Her latest book, Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution (2018), analyzes films of the Palestinian national liberation movement through the late 1960s and 1970s.

I spoke to Dr. Yaqub over the phone to discuss Gazan self-representation on film, the possibilities of visually and transnationally communicating resistance, and the urgency of telling stories that are meant to be silenced.

 

 

Dr. Nadia Yaqub

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Laura Charney: What did you want to illuminate about Gaza when curating this film festival?

Nadia Yaqub: The idea was Hamid Dabashi’s [Hagop Kervokian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University]. He approached me and asked me to curate this film festival. I had never done any work specifically on Gaza, but it immediately sounded interesting. I have done many years of work on Palestinian cinema, and I had thought a lot about the difference between filmmaking in exile, filmmaking under occupation, and the filmmaking among citizens of Israel.

Gaza as a particular unit has an interesting, distinct history within the larger Palestinian history because of its relationship to resistance. The resistance movement, the PLO as a militant organization, the first Intifada, all have their origins in the Gaza Strip.

Geographically, it’s this little piece carved out of Israel. Gazan residents live in close proximity to the homes that they lost in 1948. The huge influx of refugees in 1948 utterly changed the demographics of the area, and that has just been exacerbated ever since, through rapid population growth. If you can define the Palestinian condition as one of exile and displacement and ongoing dispossession, Gaza is always the extreme case.

There is a lot I couldn’t include in the film festival, but I was immediately interested in the variety of film material – the ways in which Gaza had been manipulated by different actors in film, the ways in which Gazans had represented themselves, the ways in which Gazans or others have tried to intervene in the visual materials about Gaza such that it is not only defined by conflict and dispossession, but also in fiction film, experimental film, in documentaries.

What I tried to do with the festival was very briefly trace a history of image making. At the same time, include these various types of representations and to represent different perspectives, but always varieties of what I would call a Palestinian-centric perspective. I wasn’t interested in including how Israel views Gaza, or how Iran or Hezbollah, who are close allies of Gaza, support or use Gaza for their own ends. Those are all interesting questions that I did not want to broach. There is a lot of film that is made from the perspective of solidarity activists – people who were on the ground in 2008, 2009, who participated in various flotillas, for instance. I wasn’t interested in those stories for the purposes of this film festival. That’s what I mean by a Palestinian-centric view.

LC: Because Gaza is under blockade, this film festival provided an opportunity for many to be let in on how Gazans view themselves, and Gaza itself. International understanding of Gaza often comes from how journalists cover it, or how the Israeli media portrays it. The student films provided a kind of radical disruption from these dominant representations – hearing their stories, the way they want to tell them, is quite rare.

NY: Yes. Film is obviously a form of communication. People make films in order for other people to see them: there’s something sort of inherently transnational about it. In some ways that are different from literature, film is about communicating outward. Films about Palestine are almost always made for outside audiences. Within that framework that’s kind of messy and transnational, it’s hard to define – what is a Palestinian film? Does the director have to be Palestinian, and what does that mean? Do they have to have Palestinian blood in their veins? Do they have to have lived in Palestine or within a Palestinian community? Those are messy questions. Nonetheless, we somehow, through that messiness, have to sift out the Palestinian voices, and the Gazan voices, and attempt to recognize what they are saying. Some films in the series – Antoni Akacha’s film Voices from Gaza, and Savona’s film Samouni Road – were not made by Palestinians, but I did feel as if they fit within this framework.  That is probably a product of those filmmakers’ long engagement with Palestine and Gaza.

LC: I noticed that a lot of the films on the lineup were documentaries, ethnographic, or experimental of some kind. I’m thinking about what metaphor can do to express the inexpressible, and the choice behind not including so many fictional films. Is there a draw in Gaza toward experimental or documentary films? How does this reflect the landscape of filmmaking in Gaza, and how Palestinian and Gazan filmmakers articulate their own stories?

NY: In my research, I found that there are about 15 feature-length fictional films that have been made about or in Gaza. Five of them were made in Egypt in the fifties and early sixties – they’re Egyptian films, where Gaza is this territory where Egyptian characters go to work our their problems. They’re very melodramatic.

11 feature films have been made from the early 90s until today. That’s not insignificant if you think about how tiny Gaza is. But the vast majority of films are documentary. The number of essay and experimental films in the program are not reflective of their percentage of output.

A lot of documentaries made about Gaza are international – to tell an international audience, ‘this is how difficult it is to cross borders,’ ‘this is what’s going on with fisherman,’ ‘this is what it’s like to live in a refugee camp.’ Where you draw the line between a reportage, which is a bit longer than a news story, and address in a little more depth a current situation, and a documentary, is almost impossible to decide sometimes. There’s a huge amount of this material, but it makes it a conversation about journalism, rather than about filmmaking. There is a bias toward the unusual in the film festival that I did.

LC: Considering the history of stolen Palestinian archives, or archives that are inaccessible to the public, I would imagine that you faced some limitations in putting this selection of films together. What were some of the challenges you faced in curating this selection?

NY: For this film festival, the issue wasn’t really stolen archives. Of course, there is the famous case of the five PLO archives that disappeared during the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, including the archive of the Palestinian Cinema Institute, but bear in mind that that filmmaking did not include very much material about Gaza. I did include one of those films which has been found – it has not yet been restored so the copy that was screened was scratchy – but that may be the only film from the early period, before 1982, that the PLO made that focused on Gaza.

The problem of the archive more generally was definitely a challenge. This is a particularly Palestinian problem in the sense that there is no national Palestinian archive or archive project. To be fair, if you look across the Arab world, the difficulty of accessing archives of Arab film in other Arab countries has not necessarily helped film scholarship on the Arab world. There’s the notorious case of Syria. From the mid-60s until the Syrian civil war, they funded, produced, many hugely interesting films. Those films would be released, often during the Damascus International Film Festival, perhaps some of them would screen at, say, the Carthage Film Festival in Tunis, and then they were locked up and no one got to see them. Film scholarship on Syrian film has been severely limited for that reason. This may be one of the most extreme cases, but it is also not easy to do research on Algerian film, Tunisian film, Moroccan film.

I could imagine if the PA [Palestinian Authority] were to form a film archive, the problem of Palestinian politics – the Fatah/Hamas split, for instance – would be the big issue, and how the PA has dealt with the PLO’s militant past. Those questions would probably give rise to a problematic archive.

LC: Something that came up among audience members throughout the film festival was how resistance and political struggle is framed in these films. Abdelsalam Shehada’s films, for instance, are gorgeous, but they also represent an ideal of nonviolent resistance. This is something that some people grappled with. At the same time, I think the goal of a lot of these films was to disrupt normative assumptions about Gaza. How do these films situate themselves within a wider history of Palestinian political struggle in cinema?

NY: I would say that filmmakers are quite savvy in responding to the global context in which they are working. In the 1970s, when you had a militant Palestinian film movement, the idea of national liberation through armed struggle was global. It was accepted as a legitimate means for oppressed people to achieve their rights. There was, for instance, the Vietnam War, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the struggles in Latin America – they are allies of the PLO. The PLO were not, by themselves, advocating armed resistance.

The struggle was placed within the context of the Cold War, so it’s complex. Of course, many of these organizations were labelled as terrorist within mainstream media in the West, but there were also allies. It was a completely differently landscape. Now, the ideological battle line is drawn between the Muslim world and the rest. So, Palestinian militancy is really only alive within an Islamic militant movement. There’s only very little marginal support for that in the West, and there’s lots of reasons for that – I’m not arguing by any means that leftists in the West should support Hamas or Hezbollah, but we also don’t need to glorify or romanticize the nature of armed resistance from the 1970s. That was really problematic and compromised, both in terms of the Palestinian movement, and globally.

For a Palestinian filmmaker who wants to engage with a western audience, there is no space for any kind of claim of violent resistance. Nonviolence is the only space. You have to work within the space you’re given.

LC: This is a really crucial distinction – understanding who the films are made for. Not to sound insensitive, but there is a need to humanize Gaza, because of the dominant narrative that associates Gazans with terrorism. That was, to me, why a film like Samouni Road was so powerful.

NY: I think that’s an extremely powerful film. There was a scene that really stood out to me, where the family talks about their apolitical stance. They’re not a part of any political party, they don’t want money from Hamas, they don’t want their tragedy to be exploited. It seemed to me – that was a message to us.

LC: Yes – it also makes me wonder, as a western audience, the complexity with which we are prepared to give Palestinian subjects on film. The dichotomy between peaceful resistance – being apolitical, nonviolent – versus active political resistance, is reductive. Yet it is only the former that tends to be palatable to western audiences.

NY: This is interesting in the context of the history of human rights filmmaking. Monica Maurer is a German filmmaker who worked within the PLO in the last years of Beirut. 1979 was declared the UN International Year of the Child, so a lot of filmmakers took advantage of that to create films about children. [Maurer] made a film called “Children of Palestine.” The film is structured around the declaration of the rights of the child – they have the right to family and freedom, to work and education and time to play, a national identity, and several other rights. She structured the film around each of these rights and shows how the PLO, through its armed struggle, is working to mitigate the ways in which Israel is denying children these rights. The film won first prize at the International Human Rights Film Festival in Bulgaria in 1980. So militancy, as a way of working towards human rights, used to not be incompatible. Returning to what we were discussing earlier, the discourse has changed around the world. There are things you could say in the early 80s that you cannot say now.

LC: It is fascinating to think of the construction of victimhood on film – how constructing the ideal victim often necessitates taking away any kind of political agency.

NY: Yes, and that is the central challenge that Palestinian filmmakers face today. I suppose that this was one of the things I was working through in curating the film festival: exactly how you can communicate Palestinian experiences in a way that works in this context, without reinforcing that image of the Palestinian as a victim.

Technology and Privacy in Refugee Aid

By: Parima Kadikar, guest contributor. Parima is a rising senior at Columbia College studying Middle Eastern Studies and Human Rights.

In an exceedingly digital world, humanitarian aid for refugees is being revolutionized by technological innovation. International non-profit organizations and UN agencies have begun to employ strategies like biometric scanning and blockchain technology to streamline aid delivery and prevent identity fraud. While these strides are noteworthy examples of progress, it is also important to address the potential privacy concerns that could result.

In the context of conversations sparked by the Patriot Act— Congress’s response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks which expanded federal jurisdiction over private data and communications for the purpose of intelligence gathering– and, more recently, by the Cambridge Analytica data-mining campaign which harvested the data of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge or consent for conservative political campaigning, many Americans are protective of both their physical and digital privacy. The evidence of this can be seen from taped webcams in college classrooms to frustration with the TSA at airports to the rising popularity of secure messaging apps for activists.

For refugees, however, concerns about privacy permeate all aspects of life. If they are living in a country with strong xenophobic sentiments, refugees may wish to  conceal their identities due to fear of discrimination. Additionally, many escape or resettlement routes taken by refugees as they flee their home nations require unauthorized border crossings. BBC has produced a video simulating the privacy dangers associated with this when an asylum seeker has a cell phone; if their location is being tracked as they flee to safety, they could be targeted by border authorities and their asylum requests could be denied for entering unauthorized.

As well as the concern about losing asylum status in their destination, refugees face the possibility that the group(s) persecuting them– whether it be a government regime, militia, or other non-state actors– could also discover their location or involvement in activism through technology usage. Such a discovery could present immediate threats to a refugee’s life, or at the very least prevent them from ever returning to their home country.

One attempt to secure refugee data is the World Food Programme’s (WFP) use of biometric scanning and blockchain technology to distribute aid in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, the second largest refugee camp in

Aerial view of Jordan’s Zaatri refugee camp, where technology is used by WFP

the world. “Eye Pay,” a project within the organization’s “Building Blocks” program, allows refugees to access a digital wallet by scanning their irises at participating shops within the camp.

While this technology is impressive, it raises concerns about feasibility. Building Blocks runs on a private-permission blockchain, which addresses data security concerns but is difficult to expand in scale.The WFP’s technology is supported by the cryptocurrency Ethereum, meaning that users who buy, sell, and mine this currency validate the chain. Therefore, the market for Ethereum must grow significantly before a program like Building Blocks can be increased in scope.

In order to successfully manage the data for large refugee populations, WFP is faced with a question of how to incentivize Ethereum holders to increase the level of coordination in these initiatives. As

Biometric scanning such as “Eye Pay” uses technology to create digital wallets accessible via iris imaging

blockchain technology provides a significantly more secure alternative to storing refugees’ data on UN databases, a successful means of incentivizing coordination so as to expand the existing program could lead to outcomes that redefine refugee aid.

However, until such technology can be implemented on a larger scale, the threat of privacy breaches remains very real for refugees. In order for a displaced person to receive official refugee status from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (and, as a result, access to aid earmarked for refugees), they must submit a great deal of personal data to the agency. While it is understandable that UNHCR needs to collect information like employment and health records from applicants to prevent identity fraud, Privacy International, a non-profit organization that pressures companies and governments to implement better data privacy regulations, warns that issues arise when it shares jurisdiction over this data with other groups.

It is difficult to know about specific instances of UNHCR privacy breaches as the agency does not publicize this information. A 2014 breach of Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), however, led to the publication of the personal details of over 9,000 unsuccessful asylum seekers on the DIPB website. These details included full names, gender, citizenship, date of birth, period of immigration detention, location, boat arrival details, and the reasons that each applicant was denied refugee status.

A lawsuit was subsequently filed against the DIBP, alleging that the asylum seekers whose information was publicly revealed were treated unfairly during the review process. While the High Court of Australia ruled that the representative litigants in this case were treated fairly by the government, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) is currently (almost 5 years later) assessing whether or not the affected asylum seekers should be compensated for the violation.

Though the Australian breach occurred within a national government and not the UNHCR, it offers a high-profile example of how displaced people can suffer when their privacy is violated. As the global refugee crisis continues to intensify with each passing year, it is imperative that the UNHCR and its partners dedicate more resources and manpower to addressing privacy concerns. The few examples discussed in this blog, such as the WFP’s Building Blocks program, are steps in the right direction. However, until they can be implemented on larger scales, refugees remain especially vulnerable.  

Manufacturing Citizenship : The Ongoing Movement Against Citizenship Amendment Bill in Northeast India

The following is an opinion piece authored by ISHR visiting scholar and activist, Binalakshmi Nepram.


“When you single out any particular group of people for secondary citizenship status, that’s a violation of basic human rights” ~ Jimmy Carter, Former US President & Nobel Peace Laureate

History show us that in the 1500s, an estimated 10 million plus Indigenous people lived on land now known as the United States of America (US). In 1830, the US passed the Federal Indian Removal Act, which forced thousands of Indigenous people out of their homelands. For hundreds of years, conflicts with colonizers, introduction of diseases, atrocities and discriminatory policies devastated the Indigenous People of North America. It is estimated that over 9 million Indigenous People died during this time. In the present day, many Indigenous Peoples in the US now live in areas designated as “Reservations.”

The story of what happened to Indigenous People in the US is the story which many Indigenous People living in what is currently known as “Northeast Region of India” are now facing–a fear of becoming outsiders on their own land.

Protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Bill

Recently, the Indigenous areas of the Northeast Region of India were rocked by a series of protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that was tabled in the Indian Parliament on January 8, 2019 by the BJP Government of India. The region with the highest concentration of protests against the bill is inhabited by 272 Indigenous communities speaking over 400 languages. It is also home to one of Asia’s longest running armed conflicts. 

On top of seven decades of violence, the Indigenous peoples of Northeast Region of India are wary of the newly minted Citizenship Amendment Bill as the Bill sets to amend the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955 to make it illegal for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. The Bill also reduces the 11 year requirement of citizenship to 6 years. Sources say that 2 million people (20 lakhs), mostly belonging to the Hindu religion from three countries could potentially be granted Indian citizenship as a result of this. 

At around the same time, another initiative has been taking place in Assam, Northeast India called the “National Register of Citizens” (NRC). The NRC is a list of  all Indian citizens of Assam. A Supreme Court order in 2013 began its process of implementation. Under this initiative, around 4 million people (40 lakhs) in the state were found to be stateless and without a nation due to lack of proper documentation that could prove their citizenship. Most of them were of Muslim faith.

Due to the above factors, there is fear that the Indigenous People of Northeast India who are living in Assam may suffer as a result of the huge influx of migrants. The partition of Bengal in 1947 changed the demography of Tripura. In two decades, the Indigenous People of Tripura were reduced to a minority. The percentage of Indigenous Peoples in Tripura declined from 64% in 1874 to 28% in 1981. Migrants, constituting 70% of the population now decide politics, rather than Indigenous Peoples who have become minorities. Indigenous Peoples who have begun protesting have been met with violence. Recently, Tripura state police forces belonging to the dominant population shot at unarmed Indigenous students protesting the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

A group of women protesters in Northeast India

A closer study of the histories of the world show that what is currently being attempted in India with Citizenship Amendment Bill has also been done in other parts of the world. Take the case of “Project IC,” which is the name used to describe the allegation of systematic granting of citizenship to immigrants in the state Sabah, Malaysia. Sabah was a multiracial state with no clear majority race. Some claim the government’s aim with this “Project” was to alter the demographic pattern of Sabah to make it favorable to the ruling government and certain political parties by changing the electoral voting patterns. 

The project reportedly began around the 1990s. Some years later, the population of the Kadazan-Dusun Peoples was reduced to 17% while non-citizens rose to 25%.  It was reported that Harris Salleh, a political leader, admitted to planning to change the demography of Sabah in favor of a specific religious community. During the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Illegal Immigrants in Sabah in 2013, Harris Salleh justified his actions by stating that the granting of citizenship to refugees was done per the Federal Constitution. He further stated that Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman had announced in the 1970s that certain refugees belonging to a certain “religious” group could stay in Malaysia.  

There are many parallels between the Northeast Indian introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill and others  that have been introduced historically around the globe, such as the United States Indian Removal Act of 1830 “Project IC” in Malaysia and the population engineering that happened in Tripura. 

 The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that States must obtain the pre, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples before making any political changes that will affect them. The Citizenship Amendment Bill would affect the cultural and linguistic existence of the Indigenous peoples of the region. However, although 90% of the current population of Northeast India is Indigenous, India has yet to sign the Declaration to demonstrate their commitment to protect the Northeast Peoples. India also has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which is a binding international agreement enforceable by states and the International community. 

It is likely that the Citizenship Amendment bill would create politically motivated divisions between the communities, regions, and ethnic groups of India, rather than focus on listening to the many concerns and voices of the people residing in the territory.

The people of the Northeast Region are diverse. They speak multiple languages, have multiple histories, struggles and religions. The concerned peoples of the Northeast Region continue to protest the Bill with the hopes that the Indian Government will recognize the serious issues it raises. 


By Binalakshmi Nepram

Binalakshmi (Bina) Nepram is an internationally renowned award winning scholar and activist who was a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University’s Institute for Study of Human Rights 2017-2018. Nepram is the founder of Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network and Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace and currently convener of The Global Alliance on Indigenous Peoples, Gender Justice and Peace. She was recently awarded 2018 Anna Politskovaya Award along with Nobel Laureate from Belarus, Svetlana Alexievich 

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.