Discover Your Passion: The Quest for Social Justice and Human Rights Begins Within Ourselves

This is the sermon that Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of the Institute for Human Rights, gave on April 23 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham.

A visitor during exhibition ” Luminarium ” sculpture is designed challenge diplomats, UN officials, school children and communities to think more creatively about how to make the work of the Human Rights Council better understood and applied around the world. Source: Creative Commons, Photos by the United Nations, Jean-Marc Ferré

When we talk about our understanding of justice, many of us will most likely have to look to our upbringing for clues. For me, this is certainly true – the trajectory my life took to where I am today, standing before you as the Director of the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, begins with my childhood in Switzerland. I’d like to share two defining moments from my life that have influenced who I have become. Growing up in Switzerland in the 1980s, my family was fairly traditional. My dad worked outside the house as the main provider, my mom was for the most part a stay at home mom. When I was a teenager, my mom decided that she would like to run for public office. She ended up the first female mayor of the town I grew up in, and I admire her greatly. She has been a true role model in my life, showing that women can achieve whatever they want. I must say a word though about my dad. When my mom ran for public office, my dad, who had a very successful career at one of Switzerland’s major banks, supported this endeavor. At the time, he had a job that required a lot of travel, but he decided to switch internally to a position that would enable him to be home more, realizing that my mom’s commitments would often happen at night and that we, his kids, would need him (even though as teenagers we might not have communicated that very clearly). I would say my dad is a true feminist, even though he would probably cringe to hear me say that. He never gave me the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do anything I wanted because I am a girl and he supported my sister and myself (and my brother, too) in any endeavor we were looking to engage in. My parents – through their achievements and by supporting one another – instilled in us a true sense of equality and I will always be very grateful for that early lesson. I am lucky to have found a husband who agrees with this model – I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today here in Birmingham without his support and encouragement. I think this is why Maya Angelou’s poem really resonated with me, even though it was obviously written in a completely different context. Equality, for ourselves and in the way we treat others is the basis for social justice and the basis for one of the most important principles for human rights, which is non-discrimination.

The second defining moment came when my mom was elected to the social affairs council of our town. This was in the early nineties and the wars in the Balkans had just started. Switzerland was overrun by refugees, mostly from Kosovo and Bosnia. It used to be the case that refugees were processed and housed in the large urban centers in Switzerland, but because of the sheer numbers of new arrivals, mid-size and smaller towns had to start taking refugees as well. My mom found herself in a position that all of a sudden, she was responsible for finding ways to accommodate asylum seekers in our town that was completely unprepared. I will always remember waiting at the train station for the first family to arrive. We went in person (again, there wasn’t anything in place) to pick them up and bring them to temporary housing that was put up on an empty lot. I remember them when they arrived, mother, father, and two boys, thin, with haunted eyes, and nothing but their clothes on their backs. I remember sharing our toys and other personal things with them because they had nothing.

Ever since, I have been interested in the why and how does it happen that people fight and kill each other and commit the worst imaginable atrocities. I realized relatively quickly though that what interested me was not only the why, but also what to do about it. This is how I came to the topic of human rights and peace. I’m interested in what we can do to combat human rights violations, empower those who are suppressed, and frankly, how we can make the world a better place. You might have guessed it – I’m an idealist at heart.

 

UAB Institute for Human Rights

This is how I approached the establishment of the Institute for Human Rights at UAB. The Institute was approved in 2014, but didn’t officially start until my arrival in February of last year. I started off as a one woman show, but now have a diverse team of researchers who work with me. The Institute has three areas of focus: education, research, and outreach. Our educational mission focuses mainly on UAB students, but also includes community training. We’re in the process of developing a minor in human rights and are an integral part of the new MA degree in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights. We offer internships for undergraduate students to learn about human rights, advocacy, and to perfect their writing skills. A big part of our educational mission that goes beyond UAB is our blog and I encourage you to take a look. We cover as diverse topics as the chemical attack in Syria, LGBTQ rights in the United States, the intersection of HIV and human rights, and the issue of child marriage around the world. As an institute at an academic institution, research is a core part of what we do. My own interests focus on empowering marginalized voices in global governance. I’m interested in the patterns of marginalization and suppression and what people have done to be heard and break out of their suppressive situation. I’ve focused on ethnic conflict resolution, international law, and human rights approaches to some of the world’s most deeply rooted conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the conflicts in the Balkans, and the tensions in Northern Ireland. In addition, I am an expert and advocate for rights of persons with disabilities and a lot of the work we do today focuses on empowering persons with disabilities and talking about rights of persons with disabilities on a global scale. The last part of our mission is outreach. We do community training on human rights, are in the process of developing a curriculum for elementary students, and engage in solidarity efforts. You might have heard about our public speaker program, which is an important part of our work. We bring speakers to town to discuss global human rights topics and organize panel discussions on the world’s most pressing topics. Past speakers included Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee and Ambassadors from Kosovo and Syria, Tibetan monks, and professors from other universities. I often speak about human rights and human rights violations myself, too, especially as it concerns refugees, persons with disabilities, and human rights education.

The question I get asked the most is “what can I do?” and this is what I want to talk to you about briefly. You need to ask yourselves is two questions: first, what is my passion? And two, what am I good at? When Leymah Gbowee was in town last September, she gave a lecture to our students at UAB. In her talk, she spoke about how she became the leader of the women’s movement that ended the Liberian civil war and enabled the election of the first female head of state in Africa. She said that for us to become active in the field of human rights, social justice, and peace, we have to “find our fire”. This is what I encourage you to do. Look for the defining moments in your life, just as I had mine. You might find that what really captures you is ending the wage gap, focusing on ending economic inequality, battling institutional racism, advocacy on behalf of refugees, which I know is a passion for some of you in this congregation, or advocacy on behalf of children. This is a very individual process and I encourage you to think deeply and reflect. Only if you find your own passion and your “true fire”, you will be able to be an agent of change and social justice.

Pipedreamer. Source: new 1lluminati, Creative Commons

Obviously, not all of us will be Martin Luther Kings, Leymah Gbowees, Ghandis, or Mother Theresas. What we have to realize though is that none of these social justice leaders would have been able to achieve what they achieved without the support of others. Just like my mom wouldn’t have been able to become mayor without the support of my dad or I wouldn’t be able to stand in front of you if it weren’t for the support of my husband. We might not remember their names, but let me tell you, their support is just as important as the one of the leaders. This brings me to the second question – what are you good at? Even if you think you have nothing you can contribute, let me tell you this is not true. Everyone of us has something we are good at. Maybe your strength is to build relationships – why don’t you reach out and connect people who have similar interests? Maybe you like to knit or sew – you can contact a shelter and see what kind of needs there are. You can sew clothes for little babies who were born too early. Knit sweaters for the homeless. Maybe you have great writing skills – why not volunteer your time for an underfunded public school to write grant applications? You see where I am going with this.

When we want to inspire social change, we need to first start with ourselves and then with our communities. Unless we become UN Secretary General, US President, or any other highly visible position, we won’t be to tackle the big problems of the world. I know it is easy to give up when looking at the many issues we face today. Famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria. Dying children in Syria. Refugees who try to cross the Mediterranean on rubber dinghies. Decaying neighborhoods. Members of the LGBTQ community beaten and put in concentration camps in Russia. How can you not resign, throw up your hands and say, what can I do in the face of all this suffering? Let me tell you, there is so much you can do. Social change starts small – in our neighborhood, in our group of friends, in our community. Just because you can’t personally solve the Syrian crisis doesn’t mean that you can’t be part of social justice. So – ask yourself: what am I good at? And how can I use this power or skill to change my community? Personally, I realized pretty quickly that my calling is not to be a community organizer, but that my strength is to be an educator. This is why I am professor and the director of the Institute for Human Rights today, because my “fire” is to educate others, to give them the tools that they need to change their own communities.

Let me end with a word of caution. Some of you know that I am the mothers of two little boys. When I see what they watch on TV, I can distinguish two narratives. One is that the world can be divided into good guys and bad guys, and the other is that we have to help and rescue people. I’m not going to say much about the first assertion besides that human nature is not absolute but relative, and so much depends on the context. The world is a complex place with lots of shades of grey. It is the second point though that I find important in the context of human rights and social justice. This idea that we have to rescue others seems deeply ingrained in the American culture and – please forgive my bluntness – related to white privilege. It’s good to care for others, but personally, I think the approach of rescue is wrong. What unites marginalized communities is that they lack agency to make themselves heard. This doesn’t mean that they are vulnerable. Many members of marginalized communities are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met. We need to focus our social justice efforts on empowering those who don’t have voice, to give them the tools they need to build agency. They don’t need us to speak for them. We need to listen carefully to what they are saying and not to come in with our preconceived notions of what they need. This, I think, should be the premise of social justice work and it is a principle that I apply in my own work advocating on behalf of others. The goal is to build a world in which everyone can reach their full potential. I am excited for you to join me in this endeavor. As Maya Angelou said, let’s keep on marching forward. Thank you.

The Syrian War: a Needless, Unending Act of Violence

Photo of a White Helmet looking up to the sky, while the city behind him is in ruins
The White Helmets Documentary Cover, courtesy of Netflix

The Netflix documentary, The White Helmets, takes place in the midst of a war zone – on the ground, capturing the horrors of Syria during the present war. The Syrian War is extremely complex, but the documentary gives small amount of insight. The film is important because it peers into the horrifying life of Syrians, living in and through war. The airstrikes are horrifying to watch, taking the lives of innocent people in hospitals, schools, churches, and destroying families. Nowhere is safe in Syria. While the glimpses of children screaming for their parents, or begging them not to leave them in death are blood chilling and heartbreaking, it is impossible to take in all that happens and is happening. Enter The White Helmets, volunteer citizens who train and serve as first responders; normal men who held normal jobs, have families and seek peace while rescuing others. They search through homes and other buildings trying to locate survivors, facing the danger of another strike taking their lives while trying to save others. Since their beginning in 2013, the White Helmets have saved over 58,000 lives but lost more than 130 White Helmets. In light of all the strife their country faces, the White Helmets remain optimistic.

Photo of Qaboun, Damascus, where the city has been destoryed
Qaboun, where you will not find place to stand and take a picture. Source: Dimashqi Lens, Creative Commons.

“I am willing to sacrifice my soul for the sake of the people. This job is sacred.”

Why are the White Helmets necessary? They are necessary because there is no protection for Syrians civilians. No one is fighting for and defending them; the White Helmets are doing what they can to preserve life. Without them, the death tolls would be monumentally more. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states everyone has a right to life and security of person. This brings me to a two-pronged question. First, where is the justification for protesting Planned Parenthood in honor of “pro-life”, while remaining silent as war, as a result of political policy, decimates an entire country? The pro-life or right to life stance is described as being against abortion, or euthanasia, as those who are pro-life considers a fetus to be a human at fertilization. For those on the pro-life side of the abortion argument, a fetus possesses the same rights and protections as a human outside of the womb. This leads me to my second question: does pro-life apply only to the unborn? In other words, do the same rights apply outside of the womb as inside? Syrians are human beings. Under the pro-life position, they deserve the same protections as the unborn. However, the war in Syria provides evidence that this belief does not apply to all human beings. War and violence do not discriminate against gender, race, or age; they are two sides of the same coin. The infringement on the right to life applied to the unborn is the same infringement that should be applied to the lives of Syrians in a war zone or crossing the borders. It is seemingly the true definition of pro-life.

The impact of violence in the molding and shaping of a generation is, I believe, overlooked. On the one hand, children in Syria are able to tell the difference between a warplane and a normal aircraft, just by listening to them. They are growing up and associating much of the world with destruction, alienation, and isolation. For many, war is the only life they have known. The terrors of the Holocaust reveal, through research, that traumatic experiences are generational, meaning it transcends those experiencing the horrors and is passed down through DNA into future generations. It is theorized that generational trauma is responsible for the rapid growth in radicalism. The children who grew up seeing that the world is against them have been conditioned to be radical to feel like they have to fight to preserve themselves and survive. Therefore, it is of little surprise that if they grow up believing that some in the world despise their existence, they may feel the need to join together and fight back, in order to protect themselves. On the other, some children in America can hardly tell the difference in a helicopter and an airplane. Syrian children are found buried beneath the debris of buildings and are lucky if they are found; American children are found playing on a playground with their friends and are lucky if they find a four-leaf clover.

Governments create a façade of complete falsehood. They say they are doing something notable or acting in their country’s best interest but are killing citizens – other human beings – every day. These governments include our own in the US, along with several other first-world governments. Just two weeks ago, the US was responsible for performing an airstrike on Mosul. The attack resulted in killing over 100 civilians in the attempt to attack ISIS. In a statement issued from the US-led coalition, they said, “Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the coalition will not abandon our commitment to our Iraqi partners because of ISIS’s inhuman tactics terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods.” At what point does one become the object of their vengeance or hate? We say that we are fighting terrorists, stamping every Muslim or Middle-Eastern with a scarlet letter of terrorism, shouting that they are the terrorists; yet, Syrians are not flying over our cities and dropping bombs on us.

“They say they are fighting ISIS, but they are targeting people.”

The horrors faced by the people of Syria transcend this documentary. Syrian civilians are not ISIS. ISIS is a child born of fear and hatred, oppression and violence; a factor in the loss of 200,000 lives. It is not a religion. The Islamic faith, taken in context, promotes peace and forgiveness, not murder and destruction. The fractured infrastructure of the cities, the tear-stained faces, and wailing of children over the parents and parents over their children reveal the unimaginable suffering. Earlier this month, a chemical attack on the province of Idlib has killed at least 70 civilians, mostly children. Following the Holocaust, nations declared “Never Again“, then there was Cambodia, Chile, Rwanda, Kosovo, among others. And now Syria.

Photo of a sign reading: "#Aleppo Is Burning
#AleppoIsBurning. Source: Dimashqi Lens, Creative Commons.

The United Nations has declared that children possess their own set of rights. Originally drafted as a declaration under the League of Nations in 1924 and amended in 1959, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was codified in 1989. The CRC maintains the rights of children are universal, indivisible, and inalienable – the same as adults. Vanessa Pupavac states that the CRC gives children protective welfare rights as well as enabling rights. Both of these rights are infringed upon in Syria. Their welfare is threatened each day, and have no opportunities for escape or growth. The Convention recognizes children as autonomous rights holders; however, the meaning of their rights is problematic. They are seen as incompetent and unable to exercise their rights, forcing them to pay for the sins of extremists such as ISIS. The global model “seeks to empower the children but fails to recognize the rights of autonomous self-determination,” according to Pupavac. This goes against exactly what the Convention stands for by denying their autonomy.

Article 2 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child asserts, “The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom  and dignity.” Governments have failed to uphold this protection for the children of Syria, as facilities like hospitals and schools are destroyed. Article 6 of the CRC, State Parties must recognize that every child has the inherent right to life, and must ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child; while Article 9 states that “State Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will”. The requirements of these articles are not met for Syrians. A child with the inherent right to life is losing their life; children are found under the debris of buildings without a chance for survival; parents are being killed, leaving their children alone in a war-torn country. If children are seen as human beings by the United Nations, then the children who are suffering daily in Syria are experiencing an infringement of their collective rights.

To show exactly what happens when we infringe upon the rights of the children of Syria, CJ Werleman, columnist for the Middle East Eye, shared this tweet on April 8th:

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White Helmets accomplishes the first step into fighting against situations like this: bringing it to public attention. Civic responsibility is a social force that morally binds you to an act. Therefore, it is our civic responsibility to fight for the rights of those who cannot fight for them themselves. While we may not be there physically, we can join their fight. We have seen that through diligence and passion, civil societies can change the world. Without movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the present day would be entirely different. The White Helmets, on their own, are a civil society, which is here defined as a group of people with similar interests acting together. These interests include protecting the lives of their spouses, children, brothers, sisters, and friends;  interests we all support. They are not fighting back, they are simply trying to preserve what little they still have.

As a part of a marginalized group that confronts the complexities of a loss of personal security as a results of threat or attack, due to fear-based hatred, I find that I can identify with the Syrians, in a small way. I am in no way placing a comparison; I simply recognize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere because all oppression is connected as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.points out.  We are all connected.

We can all be White Helmets.

The White Helmets’ website (https://www.whitehelmets.org/en) has an open letter to the UN for anyone to sign. If you are moved by this documentary, or just feel it necessary to support them, please go to the website and sign it. It reads:

“Barrel bombs – sometimes filled with chlorine – are the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today. Our unarmed and neutral rescue workers have saved more than 85,228 people from the attacks in Syria, but there are many we cannot reach. There are children trapped in rubble we cannot hear. For them, the UN Security Council must follow through on its demand to stop the barrel bombs, by introducing a ‘no-fly zone’ if necessary.” – Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defence.

Bangladesh: The Forgotten Genocide

April is Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. The word genocide brings to mind the well-known horrors of the Holocaust, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia; yet, numerous atrocities that have gone unnoticed and unmentioned.  I will focus on dehumanization, extermination, and denial for this blog to bring awareness by shedding light on and bearing witness to the history of the Bengali people. For clarity, dehumanization is defined as when one group denies the humanity of another group, extermination is the action of mass killing itself, and denial refers to the perpetrator’s effort to disprove that the genocide ever occurred.

Three refugee Bengali women look sad.
“Bengali Refugees in India, 1971” by Bruno Barbey. “মুক্তিযুদ্ধ ই-আর্কাইভ ট্রাস্ট.” Creative Commons.

During the 1970s, a genocide took place in present-day Bangladesh. Rough estimates approximate a death toll numbers of nearly 3 million. The systematic annihilation of the Bengali people by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War, targeted Hindu men, academics, and professionals, spared the women from murder, but subjected nearly 400,000 to rape and sexual enslavement.

Bangladesh, as a nation, did not exist prior to 1971 because it was part of an area called “East Pakistan”. The pursuit of independence for Pakistan came following India’s independence from Britain. At the time, religion and culture separated the East and West sections: West Pakistan was populated by mostly Muslim Punjabis, while East Pakistan was more diverse with a considerable population of Hindu Bengalis (Pai 2008). West Pakistan looked down upon their eastern neighbors, calling the area “a low-lying land of low-lying people” who “polluted” the area with non-Muslim values (Jones 2010). This is a clear demonstration of dehumanization which Stanton says “overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder” by equating the victimized groups to vermin and filth. Lacking empathy for their disregarded neighbors, the people of West Pakistan abused their eastward neighbors economically and through lack of aid. West Pakistani elites, living and working in the political center of the country, siphoned most of the country’s revenue, initially generated by East Pakistan (Jaques 1999). Additionally, West Pakistan neglected to send adequate aid following the Bhola Cyclone that ravaged East Pakistan, and left close to 500,000 dead in 1970 (Pai 2008). The amalgamation of denied human rights contributed to the commencement of the Bengali independence movement. In response to the Bengali’s call to secede, West Pakistan developed Operation Searchlight.

Operation Searchlight is seen by many as the first step in the Bengali genocide (Pai 2008). Per the Bangladesh Genocide Archives, the operation, initiated on March 25, 1971, resulted in the death of between 5,000 and 100,000 Bengalis in a single night. Forces of the Pakistani Army targeted academics and Hindus, specifically murdering many Hindu university students and professors. The goal of the operation was to crush the Bengali nationalist movement through fear; however, the opposite occurred. Enraged at the actions of the Pakistan Army, Bangladesh declared its independence the following day (Whyte and Lin Yong 2010). Over several months, the Pakistani Army conducted mass killings of young, able-bodied Hindu men. According to R.J. Rummel, “the Pakistan army [sought] out those especially likely to join the resistance — young boys. Sweeps were conducted of young men who were never seen again. Bodies of youths would be found in fields, floating down rivers, or near army camps” (Carpenter 2016).

Refugees sit in cement pipes while other refugees cook.
“Bengali Refugees 1971” photographed by Raghu Rai. Uploaded by মুক্তিযুদ্ধ ই-আর্কাইভ ট্রাস্ট. Creative Commons.

Men became primary targets (almost 80 percent male, as reported by the Bangladesh Genocide Archives). The abduction and subsequent rape of women by soldiers took place in camps for months. Many more were subject to “hit and run” rapes. Hit and run rape explains the brutality of forcing male family member–before their own death–view the rape of their female family member by soldiers (Pai 2008). The use of rape, as a weapon of war by Pakistani forces, violated 200,000-400,000 Bengali women during March and December 1971. The high number represents the complicity of religious leaders who openly supported the rape of Bengali women, referring to victims as “war booty” (D’Costa 2011).

Archer Blood, American ambassador to India, communicated the horrors to US officials. Unfortunately, the United States refused to respond because of Pakistan’s status as a Cold War ally. President Nixon, taking on a flippant and discriminatory attitude, regarded the genocide as a trivial matter, assuming a disinterested American public due to the race and religion of the victims. His belief that no one would care because the atrocities were happening to people of the Muslim faith (Mishra 2013), created an uninformed and disconnected America concerning the Bengali genocide of 1971.

 “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities… Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy.” – Archer Blood, American ambassador to India

Pai (2008) suggests the Pakistani Army strategized the genocide into three phases over the course of 1971:

  1. Operation Searchlight was the first phase as discussed earlier, which took place from late March to early May. It began as a massive murder campaign during the night of March 25, 1971. The indiscriminate use of heavy artillery in urban areas, particularly in Dhaka, killed many, including Hindu students at Dhaka University.
  2. Search and Destroy was the second where Pakistani forces methodically slaughtered villages from May to October. This is the longest phase because this is when Bengali forces mobilized and began to fight back; rebel Bengali forces “used superior knowledge of the local terrain to deny the army a chance to dominate the countryside”. This was also the phase in which the Pakistan army targeted women to rape, abduct, and enslave.
  3. “Scorched Earth” was the third phase beginning in early December, and targeted and killed 1,000 intellectuals and professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers in Dhaka. The Pakistani Army surrendered to Indian forces days later, ending the genocide on December 16, 1971. Though Bangladesh established its initial independence directly following Operation Searchlight, the people of Bangladesh established themselves and their nation as a peaceful country, and began the reconciliation process.

 

An old man with a beard and child sitting on his shoulder in a yellow dress celebrate 40 years of Bangladesh Independence.
“Sadhinota 16/40” by Shumona Sharma on Flickr. A man and child celebrate 40 years of Bangladesh Independence.

The American government has never acknowledged the actions of the Pakistan Army as a genocide. Henry Kissinger characterized it as unwise and immoral, but never termed it to be genocidal. The horrible acts that occurred to the Bengali people was clearly a genocide under the terms of the UN Convention on the Convention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 (CPPCG). The CPPCG defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • Killing members of the group;
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
A boy has the flag of Bangladesh painted on his face.
“Sadhinota 8/40” by Shumona Sharna. Creative Commons.

Pai (2008) asserts, “That the genocide took place in a context of civil war, communal riots (which include instances where Bengalis did the killing) and counter-genocide, should neither mitigate nor detract us from the fundamental conclusion that casts the Pakistan army as guilty of perpetrating genocide.” To this day, Pakistan has continued to explicitly deny the occurrence of a genocide.  Despite this, the atrocities that mark the journey to Bangladesh’s independence have not swayed the Bengali people; their rich culture and flourishing country provide clear evidence. Today, Bangladesh is a prosperous country, ranking 46th of 211 countries in terms of GDP. They are one of the largest contributors to UN Peacekeeping forces, and the Global Peace Index ranks them as the third most peaceful country in South Asia (behind Bhutan and Nepal).

Works Cited

Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The Genocide the U.S. Can’t Remember, But Bangladesh Can’t Forget.”Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.

Carpenter, R. Charli. ‘Innocent Women and Children’: Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians. Routledge, 2016. Print.

D’Costa, Bina. Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Jones, Adam (2010). Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-415-48618-7.

Pai, Nitan. The 1971 East Pakistan Genocide – A Realist Perspective. International Crimes Strategy Forum, 2008. Print.

Weber, Jacques. “THE WAR OF BANGLADESH: View of France.” World Wars and Contemporary Conflicts, No 195.1999, pp. 69-96.

Whyte, Mariam, and Jui Lin Yong. Bangladesh. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2010. Print.

MOAB: Blown Out of Proportion?

BY: Russ Hunter

a picture of the MOAB bomb
A Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) weapon is prepared for testing at the Eglin Air Force Armament Center. The MOAB is a precision-guided munition weighing 21,500 pounds and will be dropped from a C-130 Hercules aircraft for the test. It will be the largest non-nuclear conventional weapon in existence. Source: National Museum of US Navy.

As the news of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs, was used in Afghanistan this last week I was at first amused by the commentaries from spin doctors and political pundits from around the world. I found myself dismayed at the lack of understanding of what happens on a battlefield… then came the sensationalism some commentators within my circle were streaming out. I found the comments not only baffling but somewhat maddening. The comments have led me to write this blog. I will use my experience and training to try and explain some of the reasons I think the MOAB was used and why it may be the right tool for the job. I will do this by way of answering five questions that were posed to me.

1. What is the possible reasoning behind this decision? Many different theories are being pursued in the media (to include social media) regarding the reasons behind the dropping of the MOAB. They are that, theories. Some may even reach conspiracy level madness. My professional point of view as a career soldier is that a commander on the ground, who had authority, chose a tool that was best suited for the mission.

I have some concerns with the extreme points of view on both sides of the political spectrum. One side is saying that President Trump has allowed military leaders to assume control. President Trump did not abdicate his authority; he delegated. Those that have served in the military understand this. We also know why we delegate. It is called the span of control. One person is only able to supervise a very limited number of subordinates, that is why there is a chain-of-command. On the battlefield, there is nothing worse than someone who is not there, someone who has no situational awareness or the training and experience saying to a commander: ‘Don’t use that munition, it is not the right one.’ I defer to the battlefield commander in this instance.

The other side is joyfully extolling it as great and about damn time. To those I say, there is nothing great about dropping a massive bomb. The MOAB is a tool and professionals do not brag about how big their bomb is. Get out of the business of bragging and get to the business of bringing the fight to a close as quickly as possible within the limits of jus in bello.

I am sure the political implications are there. Does it send out messages: yes, of course it does. Coupled with the Tomahawk strikes in Syria it sends a very clear message. A message that this is not the same US military posture of the past. It sends a psychological message as well within the battle space and without, we have many tools, and we will use them. So, proceed with caution when you (the enemy) think of attacking X or using Y chemical.

2. The implications of this decision? The implications are multifaceted. I will concentrate on my training and experience. We have a munition that has, at first battlefield damage assessment (BDA), proven to be effective. It is a tool in the commander’s arsenal. The implications for the battlefield are that they will not have to do large area bombings to attain the same effect. The use of the MOAB may be a good thing. The more bombs in the air, the more chance one will miss the target area and harm civilians. The MOAB is proving effective on tunnels and bunkers within the blast area. This may lead the ‘enemy’ to decide that tunnels and bunkers are no longer a safe haven and move out of contested areas. I do caution those who think this will be a game changer in the battle front. We have had that thought before when we shelled an area with such saturation we thought the enemy would be ‘softened.’ That battle turned out to be one of the worst in the Pacific theater in WW II, Iwo Jima. More recently, let us not forget all the munitions dropped on the cave complexes of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, and people thinking Osama bin Laden was dead in a cave.

3. The possible global security – as a human right – implications of this decision? I will hazard an opinion on this. The global security aspect may be the one area whereby using the MOAB may have done the most harm. Though the MOAB is a tactical weapon, the sensationalism surrounding its use causes me concern. The comparison to a nuclear weapon gives the impression that it is more destructive than it truly is. This comparison can raise fear in places like North Korea and Iran. I am afraid those who want to vilify the US and the West will use the sensationalized articles and soundbites from pundits within their propaganda machine. We have already seen the rise of tensions on the Korean peninsula and Iran’s recent unveiling of a new fighter jet with the accompanying rhetoric with its debut. The human right aspect to all of this I fear will be the loss of life.

4. Was this a violation of international law, given that there was no direct threat to the US? This one is easier to answer. There is no violation of international law. Afghanistan is a recognized conflict zone. The conflict is being waged under a coalition support force. This coalition has been granted through a status of forces agreement (SOFA) between the US and the Afghanistan government. The US/Afghanistan agreement is coupled with the SOFA agreement between NATO and the Afghanistan government. This legally allows NATO and the US to be there to assist the Afghanistan government against insurgents. The MOAB is not on the list of banned weapons; it is a conventional bomb. The two central jus in bello principles are satisfied: Discrimination and proportionality. Discrimination: Was it a legitimate target? Yes. Proportionality: Was the force morally appropriate? Yes. You may argue against this view but the commander weighed out what it would take in human lives to clear out this tunnel complex. The commander determined the MOAB as the best tool to save those lives under his command.

5. Is it possible this was a good decision? I think anything is possible. In this particular case, yes it was a good tactical decision as qualified by the combatant commander. As a strategic decision or a political decision; that warrants further consideration. As the rhetoric spins up and sabers are rattled, it can become problematic. The decision to use the MOAB may prove, in the end, not to have been a good decision outside of the combat zone (Question 3).

Once again I caution equating this weapon to more than it is. First off, it is a conventional weapon. Delivered by conventional means. It is not a banned weapon nor is it something that changes the strategic landscape. Bear with me here. To use this particular weapon, you have to have air superiority, control the skies. It is not self-propelled. It is not launched via a submarine. It is not an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM). It is not radioactive. It is not chemical (as in banned chemical weapons). It is not a biological weapon. However, as long as the media sensationalizes and people do not educate themselves as to what this weapon is, a tactical weapon, we will have questions about its use and when is it a good decision to use it.

The last issue I wish to expound upon is this notion of the comparison of the MOAB to a nuclear weapon. Let me be blunt. Whoever does this type of comparison is disingenuous about what the differences are between a conventional bomb and a nuclear bomb. They are keeping to a political narrative, or they are ideologues who cannot see past their entrenched views. The comparison is by no means within a reasonable frame as comparable to a nuclear bomb.

Yes, it is a tool of war and no, I do not see it as a push of boundaries of nuclear and conventional bombs. The MOAB is around 11 tons of TNT while the Hiroshima nuclear bomb was 15,000-16,000 tons of TNT (equivalent – it was not a TNT bomb) or better understood as Hiroshima at 15-16 kilotons and MOAB at 0.1-0.2 kilotons. No radioactive material involved. I do understand the concern about the use of such weapons, but I feel we must not conflate the abilities. I have seen 500-pound bombs detonate and fully appreciate the destructive power that the MOAB represents but the MOAB is not close to a nuclear event, and it does not help the debate to misrepresent its destructive power.

The debate about the MOAB should be in two realms. First, is it a good tactical weapon that helps the combatant commander achieve his goals? Second, if it is a strategic decision to use a tactical weapon, then we should be debating why and what its function is. If it is not the right tactical weapon for use on a target and is not proportional but used to make a strategic point, then we need to debate the jus in bello principles. Now I ask a question to you the reader. Consider the just war theory principle of winning the war as quickly as possible, while adhering to jus in bello requirements. This principle requires us to ask: Why would you not use the MOAB as a tactical weapon if it can bring this prolonged war to a close?

 

Russ Hunter Expertise: Civil/Military Operations, Intelligence, WMD Operations
Russ is currently in the Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Otago. He holds a Master Degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Richmond, a Post Grad Certificate from the University of Stirling, Scotland and is a graduate of the U.S Army Sergeants Major Academy. He retired from the U.S. Army as a Sergeant Major in 2009 with over 24 years of distinguished military service in both Operations and Intelligence. He has been a guest lecturer at the University of Richmond. The titles of Russ’ past lectures have been Drone Strikes: A Case for a Moral Response, Evolution of Unmanned Air Systems (Drones in the Sky), and Counterterrorism/Antiterrorism Strategy. He co-taught a Drone law course for law, paralegal and Masters students. Russ has multiple awards and citations both professional and academic.

“Sesame Street” and Autism: An initiative about Inclusion

Sesame Street. Source: Gavin St. Our, Creative Commons.

Sesame Street introduced viewers to the newest “live” Muppet on the block, earlier this month. Her name is Julia and she is on the autism spectrum. Initially introduced in 2015 as part of Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children Initiative, Julia’s interaction with the other residents on Sesame Street teach them how to befriend and include individuals who are different, without being afraid. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause substantial social, behavioral and communication challenges. Individuals with ASD communicate, interact, and learn in ways that are different to people without ASD. Dr. Stephen Shore believes that “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Every individual diagnosed with ASD has diverse functioning abilities and level of autistic symptoms, making each individual case distinctive. Currently, 1 in 68 children worldwide are diagnosed with ASD. ASD crosses every social and economic sphere. The goal of the Sesame Street and Autism Initiative is to remove the stigma of autism. Julia optimistically reminds viewers that individuals with disabilities have the talent and ability to positively contribute to our society while making the world a more unique and interesting place.

Over the past two decades, the human rights perspective on disability has shifted from viewing people with disabilities as problems towards recognizing them as holders of rights. A universal victory for people and families with disabilities came with the ratification and adoption of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) by the United Nations in 2008. For children who Julia represents, the CRPD guarentees that those children can go grow up and have the same opportunities to achieve their goals just like children without disabilities. The United States has not ratified the CRPD, although there are continuous adjustments to domestic policies, ensuring the protection of the civil and human rights of persons with disabilities. There are currently numerous federal civil rights laws that safeguard people with disabilities so equal opportunities in employment, education, voting without discrimination are made available. The Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) became law under the Obama administration on October 8, 2010. This law increases the access of persons with disabilities to modern communications, and is up to date with 21st century technologies. Technology can revolutionize how people with disabilities interact and live in a society intended for those with no developmental or functional disability. The ratification of CRPD and continued promotion of the general welfare of all citizens should remain the focus of future government administrations.

People with disabilities have been marginalized and excluded from society within all cultures. National and international laws and conventions do not protect from discrimination on an individual level, with common responses of pity or disgust, which reinforced disabled peoples segregation in society. The lack of understanding regarding ASD and other disabilities can make life more stressful and challenging for individuals with developmental differences. The societal treatment towards people with disabilities lead to the phenomenon of invisibility. The phenomenon of invisibility rationalizes that society has the “tendency to construct everyday life with only the able-bodied in mind and the greater the lack of a physical presence of disabled persons in the mainstream, the more “natural” this assumption appeared to be (OHCHR).” As of March 2017, the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) disclosed that only 20.4% of people with disabilities are employed compared to 68.7% employed individuals without disabilities. Likewise, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10.6% compared to 4.3% for people without disabilities. Furthermore, in 2015, Cornell University approximates 20.1% of non-institutionalized individuals with a disability aged 21 to 64 years in the United States have less than a high school education. The invisibility of people with disabilities has a drastic effect on their enjoyment of civil and human rights because they have been excluded and isolated.

a picture of a child smiling a big grin
Smile for the camera. Source: Arielle Calderon, Creative Commons.

The stigmatization of people with disabilities will persist until society embraces disabilities as adaptable differences, rather than with negative connotations. For example, a study analyzing parental perspectives on the diagnosis of ADS found that parents of non-diagnosed children described the potential diagnosis as scary, dangerous and frightening. The study also found that parents with diagnosed children sometimes go through denial, and try to find other reasons for their child’s behavior because they are reluctant to label their child as having a disability. However after the denial stage, parents elaborated on how they are started to reconstruct their beliefs about ASD, and began to project ASD from a positive perspective. This is why initiatives like “Sesame Street and Autism” are so important; not only do they educate children and adults about ASD, but also normalizes and cultivates respect for people with disabilities such as ASD. In order to communicate, Julia expresses herself in different ways that other characters on Sesame Street, who are not on the ASD. She flaps her arms when she is very bothered or happy, avoids direct eye contact, and repeats words. Even though Julia’s behaviors are different, Elmo, Big Bird and the other characters have learned to adapt, accept through understanding, and intentionally include her in their play dates.

Autism made nation headlines was during the vaccination causing autism controversy, which misinformed millions, and portrayed a diagnosis and prognosis as a hindering, negative characteristic. Julia’s addition to Sesame Street has generated significant discussion about about autism specifically, and disabilities, generally, and the societal stigma surrounding them. Recently appearances on popular network shows such as the “The View” and “60 Minutes” allowed for explanation and clarification as to why “Sesame Street” felt it was finally time to introduce a character like Julia into the show. Stacy Gordon, the women who plays the voice of Julia, very much understands the hardships of autism and inclusion. Stacy’s son is on the autism spectrum. In an interview with 60 Minutes, she admits that her sons classmates did not understand how to react to his breakdowns and social differences. She truly believes that exposing parents and children to Julia is going to help progress our society into a more disability friendly world. Sesame Street‘s leadership and dedication to teaching children love and acceptance continues to pave the way for a brighter and inclusive future. This initiative constructs a conversation about disabilities and autism while it reinforces the positive narrative about differences and inclusion.

Indian Removal Act: The Genocide of Native Americans

a picture of a Native American headdress
Native American Headdress. Source: Chris Parfitt, Creative Commons.

Genocide is the systematic destruction of peoples based on ethnicity, religion, nationality, or race. It is the culmination of human rights violations. There are numerous examples of genocide throughout history, some being more infamous than others. For example, Hitler and the Jewish Holocaust is probably the most well-known case of genocide in modern history. There are other cases that are not as well known, especially in our American culture where, historically, we tend to focus on the atrocities of others and ignore our own. One such case is Native American genocide by European colonists, and later, the United States government. The purpose of this blog is to objectively examine a few of cases of genocide against Native American peoples, by European settlers and the United States government, and understand why they occurred.

Thanksgiving, a traditional holiday in the United States, would not have been possible without the Algonquian tribes that befriended early English and Dutch settlers in the New World. In fact, many early 17th century European settlers died, in the first few years of colonization, due to starvation and disease. Turkey, pumpkin and Indian corn are three traditional foods of Thanksgiving were actually introduced to the Pilgrims by the Algonquians. Initially, some of these foods were foreign to the struggling European colonists. However, over the course of several years, the colonists learned how to survive in their new environment with the help of their Native American neighbors. The first Thanksgiving was a three-day harvest festival, with ninety-one “savages” in attendance, who gifted the Pilgrims with five freshly killed deer, as their contribution to the festivities. The Pilgrims were impressed with the deer, one noting that it would have taken them (the colonists) a week to hunt five deer, yet the “savages” accomplished this in one day (Heath 82). The Pilgrims viewed their Native American neighbors as “savages” due to ethnocentrism and a worldview based on natural law, or a natural hierarchy based on God’s design. This hierarchy is a Eurocentric philosophy placing the white man as superior and other races, such as, Black, Asian and Native American as inferior.

Source: Mike Licht, Creative Commons

In the following years, as the alliance between the colonists at Plymouth and their Native American neighbors grew, social conflicts began to erupt. The death of Captain John Stone was the first misunderstanding between the Pequot, a neighboring tribe, and the Puritans. There was a failure in justice, as the Puritans saw it, as they wanted the Pequot responsible for Jones’ death to face English law, rather than allow the Pequot to administer justice themselves. Also, one must take into account how the Pequot were viewed by the Puritans  as “savages”. This affected how the Puritans interpreted the actions of the Pequot and their place in God’s plan. These views were first reinforced through ignorance of medical knowledge. The pandemic of 1617-1619 killed many Puritans as well as Native Americans, and served to reinforce a worldview based on religious mysticism rather than objective knowledge. Neither the Puritans nor the Native Americans understood how disease was transmitted. This lack of knowledge made it difficult to comprehend their susceptibility, due to a compromised immune system, to foreign microorganisms. The Puritans being affected by the New World microorganisms and the Indians succumbing to European microorganisms brought by the colonists fostered distrust, accusation, and death (Cave 15).

The Puritan worldview consisted of two parties: God’s party being white; Satan’s party being dark, heathen and doomed.  The New World was a spiritual battleground, and it is amazing that peace lasted as long as it did, with war being the primary vehicle of God’s deliverance and justice, in the Puritan mind. In short, the Pequot War was a war of misunderstandings and natural law, in which the Puritans were righteous and justified, while the Pequot were heathens, soldiers of Satan, and inhuman (Cave 18). The Pequot War lasted almost a year, from 1636 to 1637, with both parties being experienced warriors. In the end, the Pequot were defeated and this relatively short, small-scale conflict served to justify the killing of Native Americans by creating an image of untrustworthy savages that were plotting to destroy those doing God’s work in the New World. This became the bedrock of American frontier mythology (Cave 168).

The Pequot were not the last Native American tribe in New England to suffer what the Puritans believed to be divine mandated justice. The Narragansetts and the Wampanoags, once friends of the English in the early 17th century, both discovered, before the end of that century, that the Puritan conception of God’s providential plan for New England left no room to assert Native American autonomy. Such assertions were an offense to the Puritan sense of mission. As the population ratio between the English and the Native Americans in New England shifted in favor of the English, the Puritans authorities became increasingly overbearing in their dealings with their Native American counterparts. Puritan Indian policy, from its inception, was driven by the conviction that if Puritans remained faithful to their covenant with God, they were destined to replace the Indians as masters of New England. By the end of the 17th century, economic changes, such as the declining importance of the fur trade and the expansion of English agriculture and industry, effectively reduced the need for Indian commerce, further jeopardizing the status of Native American communities in New England (Cave 174).

The intolerance of Indian cultures reflected essential elements of the Puritan worldview as a struggle between heathen savagery and Christian civilization. Puritan ideology was founded on three premises, which later translated into vital elements of the mythology of the American West. The first was the image of the Native American as primitive, dark and of evil intent. The second was the portrayal of the Indian fighter as an agent of God and of progress, redeeming the land through righteous violence. And finally, the justification of the expropriation of Indian resources and the extinction of Indian sovereignty as security measures necessitated by their presumed savagery (Cave 176).

By the 19th century, this mythology began to reflect itself within Unites States governmental policy, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The United States went through a major reorientation in race relations during this time. The growing abolition movement led the way to the sectionalism of the Civil War and the consequent emancipation of the slaves. This dramatic transformation in racial policy did not include the Native American tribes of the Southeastern United States (Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles), who were considered “the most civilized tribes in America” because of their adoption of the agricultural system of their white neighbors, including the institution of black chattel slavery (McLoughlin xii). By 1838, the Cherokees were forcibly expelled from their ancestral homeland and relocated to the Oklahoma territory, by way of what is now known as the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee tried to prevent this and maintain their sovereign “nation” by adopting a constitution, based on that of the United States, to govern their own land under laws and elected officials. At the same time, the sovereign state of Georgia was attempting to abolish the Cherokee Nation and incorporate the Cherokee under their own laws. Andrew Jackson became president in 1828 and one of his first priorities was to resolve this issue.

Jackson, being a slave owner and a renowned Indian fighter of the Western frontier, sided with Georgia, supporting states’ rights to supersede treaty rights. The issue was brought before the Supreme Court twice, once in 1831 in Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia and again in 1832 in Worchester vs. Georgia. Chief Justice John Marshall described the Cherokees as “a domestic, dependent nation” and he proclaimed the unconstitutionality of Georgia’s laws, asserting that federal authority overruled states’ rights regarding Indian treaties. However, Jackson had already persuaded Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that made it virtually impossible for any eastern tribe to escape ceding its land and moving to “Indian territory”, west of the Mississippi River (McLoughlin 2). It is worth noting that, in modern times, these acts would be violations of U.N. Charter, Article 1.2 which asserts, “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace”.

Source: John Perry, Creative Commons

Thus, in 1838, the Cherokee were forced from their land and “escorted” west. The trip was estimated to take eighty days, but some of the contingents took almost twice as long due to inclement winter weather, unrelenting sickness because of exposure, and dangerous ice flows while crossing the Mississippi River. Before the Cherokee left on this epic trek, almost 1,500 had died from epidemics in the camps they were housed in; another 1600 died on the journey. As a result of their weakened condition, along with the absence of housing and food, many more died soon after reaching their destination. The United States government had guaranteed supplies for the Cherokee’s new home, for a year after their arrival, but rations were hired out to private contractors who made extra profits by providing less than they had agreed to supply. Oftentimes, what they did provide was rotten meat and moldy corn and flour (McLoughlin 7).

In current times, the Dakota Access Pipeline represents another affront to Native American sovereignty and further marginalization of Native American peoples; in this instance, the Sioux tribe located in Standing Rock, North Dakota. There are two primary issues the Sioux have against the pipeline: The pipeline will contaminate drinking water and damage sacred burial sites. Originally, the pipeline was designed to go through Bismarck, North Dakota but was rejected by the citizens there because they didn’t want to risk contaminating their drinking water. The ensuing Standing Rock protests that took place, after the pipeline was redirected through Sioux land, arguing they deserve the same rights and considerations as the citizens of Bismarck.

Throughout American history, the treatment of indigenous Native Americans has violated numerous articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These violations resulted in the loss of numerous Native American homelands, the Cherokee being only one example, and the genocide of numerous other smaller tribes since the beginning of European colonization. This is largely due to Eurocentric ideals, like the natural law of the Puritan worldview, which elevates the status of European peoples over that of indigenous, Native American peoples through a biased worldview. This mindset is so pervasive and powerful that it still prevails today, evidenced by modern films and television that paint Native American tribes as savage, ignorant and of ill intent toward the “white man”, and the policies of the current United States government. These governmental policies have resulted in the alienation and marginalization of Native American peoples throughout American history. These violations include the removal of Native Americans from their traditional homeland to reservations, oftentimes very far away from their ancestral lands, and in many cases, the genocide of Native American tribes altogether. The violations were masked in the form of “treaties” between indigenous tribes and the U.S. government, though these treaties were often a choice between the survival of a tribe or their complete and utter destruction. In short, the Native American tribes were never in a position, or held enough power, to ever guarantee a fair deal with the U.S. government in these negotiations. The result of this imbalance of power and lack of respect manifested itself in the form of genocide and the loss of human rights, and their homelands, for many indigenous peoples of North America.

 

References:

Cave, A. A. (1996). The Pequot War. The University of Massachusetts Press.

Heath, D. B. (1963). A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Corinth Books, Inc.

McLoughlin, W. G. (1993). After the Trail of Tears. The University of North Carolina Press.

Are We Failing Syria Yet Again? Response to the Chemical Attack on Syrian Civilians

Destroyed city of Azas, Syria. Source: Creative Commons, Christiaan Triebert.

One of the worst chemical attacks turned a rebel-held area in the north of Syria into a death zone. Bombs were dropped from war planes in the early morning of April 4, 2017 and the spread of poisonous gas started shortly thereafter. Close to 70 people died, with pictures of dying children and grieving relatives going around the world. The Syrian military accused insurgents, but it seems clear that only  the Syrian government has the ability to carry these types of bombings. Shock and condemnation was the reaction of governments and the public around the world. Two days later, President Trump ordered airstrikes, his first military action while in office.

Why this outcry and action now? People have been dying in Syria for months and years  – think Aleppo – and the response has been, for the most part, fairly limited. We have seen dying children and assaulted women, airstrikes on civilian areas, and death and suffering everywhere. I would argue there are three reasons for this strong response, both in the public and in the political realm.

  1. The footage of the attacks themselves.
  2. The violation of most important rules of international law.
  3. A new administration in the White House.

Let me explain.

Source: Creative Commons, Códice Tuna Colectivo de Arte.

 

First and most obviously, it is the footage of children and older adults struggling to breathe, frothing at their mouths, and lying motionless in the mud as aid workers desperately try to help. It is the incredible grief by a father, who lost 22 members of his family in the attack, and who can be seen clutching the bodies of his 9-month-old twins. It is the level of individual suffering that most of us can relate to as human beings with families of our own, and the gruesomeness of the attack shakes us to the very core.

However, there is a second reason why this attack is cause for special consideration. The use of chemical weapons rises to the most serious violation of fundamental principles of international law: (1) the  deliberate targeting of civilians is a crime against humanity, the “worst of worst crimes” and on par with genocide, and (2) the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons in warfare is one of the most widely acknowledged and respected rules of the international law of war.

Crimes against humanity are deliberate, systematic attacks against civilians or a significant part of the civilian population. Crimes against humanity were first described and prosecuted in the Nuremberg Trials at the conclusion of WWII and have since entered international criminal law as one of the major crimes for prosecution of individuals. While there is no international treaty specifically dealing with crimes against humanity, the Statute of the International Criminal Court lists mass murder, massacres, dehumanization, genocide, human experimentation, extrajudicial punishments, death squads, forced disappearances, recruiting of child soldiers, kidnappings, unjust imprisonment, slavery, cannibalism, torture, mass rape, and political or racial repression (e.g., apartheid) as crimes that reach the threshold of crimes against humanity if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.

The prohibition of the use of chemical weapons has its origins in the late 19th century. Shortly after the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1864 – the institution that oversees international humanitarian law, also known as the “law of war” – states decided to regulate and ban weapons that inflict excessive and unnecessary harm to the people affected by war (e.g., the Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases of 1899).  The horrific injuries sustained by soldiers from poisonous gas in WWI and experiences of both combatants and civilians in later conflicts (e.g., in Vietnam) accelerated these efforts, which resulted first in the Geneva Gas Protocol (1925) and then in the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993). The Chemical Weapons Convention  prohibits the use of chemical weapons in all circumstances, which means in both international (meaning between states) and non-international war (any other type of conflict, including civil wars). Only 13 states have not signed either the Geneva Gas Protocol or the Chemical Weapons Convention (Syria is not one of them). The prohibition of chemical weapons is a universal norm, which means that it binds all parties to armed conflicts, whether state or non-state actors, as a rule of international customary law.

This ban of chemical weapons is strengthened by the fact that it is illegal under international humanitarian law to use weapons that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets. So-called indiscriminate weapons are those that cannot be directed at a military objective or whose effects cannot be limited. Similar to the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, this rule is not only international custom, but has also been affirmed in various international treaties, including the statute of the International Criminal Court and the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention. The UN General Assembly and other UN organs have supported this principle in multiple resolutions and the International Court of Justice, the highest court in the world, reaffirmed the principle of distinguishing between civilian and military targets in the Nuclear Weapons advisory opinion (ICJ, Nuclear Weapons case, Advisory Opinion). While there is no definite list of indiscriminate weapons, the ICRC generally cites chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, anti-personnel landmines, mines, poison, explosives discharged from balloons, cluster bombs, booby-traps, certain types of rockets and missiles, and environmental modification techniques.

In other words, the chemical attacks by the Syrian regime on its own population broke two fundamental rules of international law.

Third, we have a new administration in the White House whose policy towards Syria and the Middle East is most likely to be very different than the one of its predecessor (it is too early to tell for sure).  President Trump expressed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria “crossed a lot of lines for me” and changed the way in which he views the Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad. The decision to use airstrikes against Syria was made shortly thereafter. President Trump’s words, and in some way, his actions, remind us of President Obama’s reaction to the use of chemical gas against civilians in Syria in 2013. President Obama, who used the word “red line” in connection with the 2013 attack, also contemplated air strikes. However, in an unexpected turn around, Obama decided to seek congressional approval for military action against Syria. The proposed bill never received a floor vote because the Syrian government accepted a U.S.-Russian deal to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile and sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Conventions.

Sunset at the White House. Source: Creative Commons, Ted Eytan.

 

What does this mean? Were the airstrikes legal? What are the political consequences? From a legal point of view, the situation is complicated, but more easily explained. Under international law, the  use of force against another state is illegal, unless it is in self-defense, authorized by the UN Security Council, or on the invitation of the state affected. Security Council authorization is unlikely to happen considering that Russia is a veto-power holding member of the Security Council and has made it clear that it does not see the need for a condemnation of the attack. The U.S. has not given any indication that the airstrikes were in self-defense. Syria has certainly not invited the U.S. to strike its airbase. So, in most interpretations of international law, the airstrikes are illegal. President Trump said in a press conference in the evening of April 6 that “it is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” which could hint at a future justification of the airstrikes within framework of self-defense. There is some discussion over whether the unilateral use of force on behalf of civilians, also known as humanitarian intervention, should be seen as legitimate, if not legal. However, considering the situation in Syria and the U.S. military involvement against the Islamic State, Russia’s engagement, and the geopolitical situation, it would be very difficult for the U.S. to argue for a purely humanitarian justification of U.S. action. While the airstrikes authorized by President Trump were very limited – hitting a somewhat remote airbase – and no formal declaration of war has been made, Syria could very well see the airstrikes as an informal act of war.

Under U.S. law, the President may authorize military action for defense, but not for offensive wars. Offensive wars require congressional approval. Congressional approval was given for military action after the 9/11 attacks, which gives the President far reaching authority to combat terrorism. The Obama administration has interpreted this rule to include and authorize the fight against the Islamic State, and so far, the Trump administration seems to go along with this interpretation. Regardless, a war against Syria, a state, not a non-state actor, is a completely different beast. A war against Syria would most certainly need congressional approval, and members of Congress have already called for the administration to bring any future military action before Congress.

In terms of political consequences, it’s too early to tell if this was a one time engagement and what the Trump administration will do next. Russia’s involvement in Syria complicates matters as not only U.S.-Syrian relations, but also U.S.-Russian relations are at stake. Russia has reacted strongly and called the airstrikes a “significant blow to Russian-U.S. relations.”   Either way, an in depth discussion of strategy will be important, especially considering that interventions tend to be much more complex and complicated endeavors than they first appear. America, as many countries before her, has learned this the hard way. And if we really want to help the “beautiful babies” in Syria, as President Trump claims, we need to open our borders to allow Syrian refugees to find safety.

However, while these discussions over legality and Russia-U.S. relations are certainly important, they are not sufficient. What we need to focus on is the question over what the consequences of military action will be. We cannot be distracted from what has to be the end goal: a political settlement of the conflict. Only a termination of violence and war will end the tremendous suffering of Syrian children, women, and men. Any military action has to be judged on whether it advances or hinders an end to the conflict.

Show me your papers. Show me your humanity.

 

a picture of a bunch of passports
All mine. Source: Baigal Byamba, Creative Commons.

The Significance of Following Asylum Seekers’ Stories, from a Human Rights Student’s Perspective

Over the past year I have had the opportunity to be involved, peripherally, in cases of Mexican nationals seeking asylum in the United States. The first case that Dr. Chris Kyle involved his students in was a woman fleeing Mexico with her very young children after an extortion attempt and death threats. My involvement was to research in ethnographies, books, and other sources to provide the woman with a claim to a “particular social group.” The assignment was to prove that this woman was targeted for persecution on account on her membership in a “particular social group”. Because drug cartel activities and government corruption produce victims indiscriminately, demonstrating membership in a particular social group is arguably one of the most difficult aspects of asylum claims for Mexican applicants. The argument I made placed the applicant in a PSG of ‘women whose husbands are migrant workers’. She was recognizably vulnerable in her community without the protection of an adult male in the household, as well as vulnerable to extortion due to possible remittances from her husband. (The woman and her children were granted asylum and this case set a precedent for this particular social group to be recognized in future asylum cases.)

This semester I have shadowed Dr. Kyle when he is asked to be an expert witness for asylum applicants, testifying to the credibility of their claims due to violence in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Much of what I have done this semester is to listen in to conversations between Dr. Kyle and immigration lawyers, research the obstacles that Mexican asylum seekers face, and explore the moral and legal arguments in human rights claims. It has been my experience while shadowing Dr. Kyle through a few asylum claims, that humanizing issues of asylum, immigration, and migration, is invaluable to understanding these issues in an academic setting. Having the opportunity to be involved even minimally in these asylum cases has been crucial to my perspective on human rights. For me, studying human rights isn’t about broadly philosophical, conceptual ideals. My experience with asylum cases over the past year has provided a more intimate understanding of human rights as the recognition of intrinsic human dignity and the use of law and institutions to affirm the value of human life.

When immigration lawyers ask for an expert witness to attest to a specific aspect of an asylum claim they send their client’s affidavit to the expert. Asylum seeker’s affidavits are essentially an outline of every trauma the claimant and their family have endured that could justify their need for asylum. In one particular case this semester the list of traumas I noted included the following: child sexual abuse, child molestation, rape, attempted gang rape, kidnapping, extortion, physical violence, death threats, torture, and PTSD. In this particular case the lawyer feels confident that the family will be granted asylum, but there are still uncertainties and possible complications in the legal argument on their behalf.

Reading each of these individual’s asylum claims has provoked me to question the ways in which we interpret and practice asylum law. Do we consider our moral responsibility to fellow humans often enough? Do we consider the ethical implications of political biases of immigration judges? Is the United States meeting its obligations under international law to accept and protect legitimate asylum seekers? My answer is consistently, no.

At one point during my research on international refugee laws and mobility rights, it became suddenly clear that who we ascribe human rights to is tied up in the symbolism of an object that societies have conjured as proof of humanness: documentation. In the United States, legal rights such as those provided through citizenship are paramount to our notion of humanity. Migrant workers are protected with certain rights… as long as they are documented as a migrant worker. Who is worthy of protection under the law? Who is worthy to work in order to shelter and feed their family? Being protected from harm and having the ability to provide for our families’ survival are human rights. Yet we ascribe value to a person based on the papers they carry, and devalue them based on the papers they don’t carry.

In the US, we use “undocumented” and “illegal” synonymously. Being “undocumented” is a crime worthy of prison detention and deportation to certain harm or death. Without “proper documentation”, people may be denied their rights, arbitrarily detained, and unprotected from abuse. Are we living in an era of human history where compassion is contingent on papers? Documentation is important for security matters, but it shouldn’t be the scale for whose life is valuable.

 

 

Kara is a graduate student in the UAB Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights program. In the coming weeks, Dr. Kyle and Kara will host a lecture to discuss their work.

TIBET: A 58 YEAR PROTEST

The nation and people of Tibet are hardly on anyone’s radar during most of the year because the atrocities here remain overshadowed by the happenings in other places like Syria or Sudan. Ven. Geshe Lhakdor, translator to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and directory of the library of Tibetan Works and Archives, lectured here last Tuesday. Using the Compassion in Exile DVD as the basis for this blog, I will shed light on the plight of Tibetans.

a picture of a Tibetan Lhasa man
Tibet – Lhasa. Source: Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn), Creative Commons.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has systematically eradicated the people of Tibet since 1950. The invasion of Tibet by the PRC army, under the guise of liberation, took place in 1950 because of its natural resources, wealth, and geopolitical high ground; an invasion meant the doubling the land mass for the Chinese empire. Sixteen year-old Tenzin Gyatso assumed leadership responsibility of the Tibetan people, culture, and traditions as the 14th Dalai Lama. For eight years, he attempted to protect the Tibetan identity. However, in 1959, the intimidation tactics and brute force of the Chinese, overtake the land and push the Tibetans–known for their peaceful and gentle nature–to flee to India.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader and head of state of the Tibetan people. He is also a refugee. Living in exile in Dharamsala, India with millions of Tibetans desirous of the maintenance and preservation of their identity, he is the source of their hope. The flood of refugees continues into India where the people can practice religion, maintain culture, and glean from their cherished leader. A faithful followers says, “When His Holiness fled to India, it was as if the sun went down in Tibet… we were living in darkness.” His manner is one of humble laughter. His thoughts are on the consciousness; many believe he is the incarnation of compassion. He is a man seeking to fix thing. Tendzin Choegual, his younger brother, claims, “His Holiness has moral power, which the world used to have before but, right now it is overshadowed by political power. And whatever he does it is based on goodness of maximum number of human beings; so it’s based on altruism.” Michael C. Davis assigns peaceful resistors as a characteristic of the people and government. Tibetans, following the example of His Holiness, are nonviolent and compassionate people despite their oppressive struggle. He asserts the notion that many indigenous cultures, particularly Tibet, sustain periods of repression, resistance, and resilience as they pursue identity.

The PRC signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (DRIPS) in 2007. Articles 1-3 of DRIPS guarantees autonomy, self-determination, and the right to enjoy all human and fundamental freedoms. Tibet has a government in exile. An exiled government possesses the power of governing and leading, but has no authority to legitimacy because there is no territory over which to govern. For more than 50 years, His Holiness the Dalai Lama symbolizes resistance to an authoritarian regime. This nonviolent protest spawned a “conspiracy of silence” that generated rejection of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a political leader, for more than 30 years. The conspiracy of silence–fear of Chinese government backlash if/when recognizing the people, traditions, and culture of Tibetans—created a vacuum of turning a complicit blind-eye, allowing China to continue the human rights atrocities against the Tibetans. “Our only hope is to rely on the outside world, and people from free countries”, the Dalai Lama revealed.

US Foreign Policy has participated in the conspiracy of silence, yet a change seemed to arrive in the early 90s. During a 1991 visit to US Congress, the Dalai Lama pronounced, “Here I enjoy the freedom of speech, the freedom of thought, and the freedom of movement. When I was about 15, I lost that freedom”; freedoms identified within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they are universal, inalienable, and indivisible. Kent Wiedemann of US State Department Head of the China desk, stated, “Official US policy has consistently regarded Tibet as a part of China, although an autonomous region within China. We have no evidence at this point that the Chinese government is engaged in any policies or any actions aimed at wiping out the Tibetans, or in short, reflecting a policy of genocide, either against the Tibetan people themselves or against their culture.” When asked about self-determination for the Tibetan people, he stared blankly at the camera before smiling without an answer. No country possesses a policy of genocide. Genocide, as noted in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, is the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation. When reflecting on genocide, most people know of and point to Rwanda, Cambodia, and the Holocaust. The filmmakers attribute genocide to the behaviors of the Chinese towards the Tibetans, while the international community has not. Ellen Bork, in her 2012 article, “Will Washington Take a Stand”, questions Washington’s commitment to the plight of the Tibetans because of its relationship with China. She argues that the past is a representation of the future when it comes to the US’ failure to champion Tibet against China.

a picture of Tibetan monks
Monks. Source: Andrew Dyson, Creative Commons.

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann stresses there are three key contributing elements in the complex subject of human rights: criticism within the field, identity politics and their expression, and the volatile nature of violations as a precursor to genocide. First, criticism is located, specifically, in the habit of denying the universality, indivisibility, and interdependent nature of human rights. Second, identity politics, particularly in terms of a Western versus non-Western dichotomy, utilizes time as the unseen factor to frame the past, the present, and the future. Lastly, genocide is a byproduct of the symptomatic human rights violations, compounded by criticism and inadequate remembrance of time. The combination of these components permits the complication of Western and non-Western human rights discourse to fail in recognizing rights as universal. This failure, she contends, leads to habitual and unaccountable violations, that if unchecked, have the potential to manifest in genocide.

“Each time I talk of what I saw in Tibet, I have to be in tears.” – Jetsun Pema, the younger sister of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Human rights violations began following the Dalai Lama’s visit with Chairman Mao Tse-tung in China, first in the form of religious prosecution. At 19, His Holiness argued for the fate of Tibet. Mao believed religion was poison and damage for the country, plaguing the population and potential material development. The Chinese sought to destroy religion through the destruction of monasteries, which were also schools and universities, libraries and hospitals. The goal was to abolish the depths of understanding that comes from training the mind. His Holiness affirms that Tibetan Buddhism is not simply about the religious aspect but the technique of training and settling the body and mind, as a method and tenet that can benefit humanity. One believer cries, “Although the Chinese say there is freedom of religion, they don’t allow us to practice our faith.” The practice of Tibetan Buddhism is safe outside of Tibet.

In the film, His Holiness cites two things–immeasurable human rights violations in the form of torture, beatings, and killings, and population transfer in the form of birth control—as most pressing for Tibetans. Imprisonment and torture is the judgment for Tibetans expressing a strong cultural identity. Rape is a weapon of intimidation against Tibetan women and girls, and sterilization as a means of forced birth control, including on women pregnant in their final trimester. Additionally, due to the decimation of monasteries, Tibetans parents, living in under occupation, often send their children over the Himalayas into India in order to have a chance at living in freedom and gaining an education. In an effort to continue cultural identity with a modern understanding of the world, school lectures consist of music, drama and philosophy, in addition to the rituals and religious ideals of Buddhism. It is a similar education path to His Holiness, who achieved his degree while leading a nation under occupation.

Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the wind
Les chevaux de vent. Source: So_P, Creative Commons.

Fang Lizhi in a 1991 speech remarked that Tibetan culture continues to survive because of the resilience of the people, and a mutual respect “between fair-minded people” on a personal level, though not on a political one. “Even though many Tibetans see the Hans as being responsible for the destruction of Tibetan culture and religion, mutual respect is still strong on a personal level… we all want democracy. We both need democracy and human right if we are to find a way to live together peacefully, but something more is needed.” He continues by explaining the positives and negatives of nationalism, stating that commonality is located in a true comprehension of nationalism. Negative nationalism is suppressive, extremist, and leads to distrust and hatred, while positive nationalism is cohesive, cooperative, and leads to dialogue.

To Davis, the window for dialogue is closing on the Chinese. In March 2008, Tibetan demonstrators and rioters “offered a middle way” in the form of Tibetan Memorandum that sought negotiation for the restoration of independence and autonomy. An uninterested China refused to come to the table, arguing, “Tibet has always been an inseparable part of China”. Bork points out self-immolations have brought attention to the plight of Tibetans, providing a measure of symbolic and unwavering commitment to the restoration of Tibet. “China’s policies have provoked rather than crushed Tibetan resistance”, she proclaims.

Masahide Tsujimura states when His Holiness retired from politics in 2011, a unique expression describing the unity of polity and compassion was coined. Chos srid zung ‘brel has several definitions but ultimately boils down to the duality of religion politics manifest through compassion and nonviolence. “To the Dalai Lama, nonviolence and compassion are synonymous… Compassion is one of the most important concepts of Buddhism as a ‘religion’…[he] considers that compassion is common to all religions, and that everyone can be compassionate because no one wants to suffer. Compassion is also a ‘secular’ concept that implies mutual tolerance and respect for all faiths, as well as for those of no faith.” Tina Lauer points out political activism among second-generation Tibetans is seemingly second nature, some seeing it as a means for both preserving culture and identity, and cultivating commonality. Additionally, unlike their parents or grandparents, many second-generationers respect the Dalai Lama as a man—a political peacemaker like Mandela or Gandhi, rather than a ‘god’. The nonviolent ethic of Tibetans challenges the international narrative of normative strategic power-grabs without compromising their personal integrity,religious beliefs, and cultural identity.

 

Additional Resources:

The Lost World of Tibet