From Memory to Action: “Never Again” Begins with You

by W. JAKE NEWSOME, Ph.D.

Courtesy of USHMM.org

This month the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum marks its 25th anniversary. This offers a chance to reflect on the mission and work of the Museum, and also an opportunity to look forward at how we will ensure the permanent relevance of Holocaust history for new generations, reach global audiences, and create more agents of change who will work to make the future better than the past. Working with partners like the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is vital in achieving this mission.

In the fall of 1978, President Jimmy Carter established the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, which was charged with the responsibility to submit a report “with respect to the establishment and maintenance of an appropriate memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust.” One year later, the Commission concluded that the memorial could not be a static monument. Instead, it should be a “living memorial” with a strong educational component. The result was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an institution that is both a memorial to Holocaust victims and a museum that educates visitors, collects and preserves evidence, and produces leading research and scholarship. The Commission also issued a call to action, concluding that “A memorial unresponsive to the future would also violate the memory of the past.” As such, in addition to honoring the memory of Holocaust victims, the mission of the Museum is to inspire leaders and citizens worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.

When the Museum was dedicated and opened to the public on April 22, 1993, its founding chairman Elie Wiesel told the crowd, “This Museum is not an answer. It is a question.” For the past 25 years, this is how the institution has approached its work: relentlessly exploring complex questions about history and human nature. We have designed programs and resources that not only ask what the Holocaust was, but delve deep into explorations of how and why it happened. Moreover, we aim to prompt people to recognize the importance of this history’s lessons about humankind and societies, and to take an active role in confronting divisions that threaten social cohesion.

It is a sad reality that in the near future, we will live in a time when there are no more eyewitnesses to the Holocaust alive to share their stories. It is more important than ever, therefore, to teach the next generation of emerging adults about the Holocaust as a way to ensure the lasting memory of the victims. As Wiesel says, “I believe firmly and profoundly that anyone who listens to a Witness becomes a Witness, so those who hear us, those who read us must continue to bear witness for us. Until now, they’re doing it with us. At a certain point in time, they will do it for all of us.”

In that spirit, the Museum works with diverse audiences to demonstrate the importance of honoring the memory and exploring the universal lessons of the Holocaust, even if one doesn’t have a direct connection to the history. These audiences include judges, the military, law enforcement, youth, and faith communities.

Youth Summit 2017. Courtesy of USHMM.org.
Youth Summit 2017. Courtesy of USHMM.org.

As the next generation of thought-leaders and changemakers, college students have been an important audience for the Museum. To date, through a wide range of resources, traveling exhibits, seminars, lectures, conferences, and other programs, the Museum has engaged more than 630,000 college students, faculty, and local community members on 545 college and university campuses in 49 states across the United States.

American college students’ interests with the history of the Holocaust are different across the country. Their own background, upbringing, and educational experiences shape how they approach and understand the history of the Holocaust and its relevance to their own lives. As such, the Museum recently launched an initiative to put the history of the Holocaust into conversation with local or regional histories in the United States. This initiative enriches campus dialogue by provoking critical thinking about the history of antisemitism, racism, extrajudicial and state-sanctioned violence, and the power and limits of human agency in different historical contexts. By examining themes through the lens of multiple histories, the Museum connects with new audiences and works with partner campuses to educate students about the history of the Holocaust, model how to responsibly research and talk about different historical contexts, and facilitate informed dialogue about the lessons and contemporary relevance of those histories.

Over the past year, the Museum has been working with faculty and students at universities across the Southeast region on a series of programs that explore the histories of race and society in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South. These programs are neither an equation of suffering nor meant to gloss over the uniqueness of each historical period. Instead, they bring communities together to explore what can be learned from studying the similarities, differences, and gray zones of these two histories.

Courtesy of USHMM.org.

In February 2018, the Museum, with the UAB Institute for Human Rights, organized a capstone event of this regional program: a two-day interdisciplinary symposium entitled Bystanders and Complicity in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South. In total, 401 people from 10 states — including 203 college students, 20 high school students, 47 faculty, staff, and teachers, and 131 local community members — gathered together to explore the complexity of these histories.

Through this symposium, history became a way to build common understandings, bring diverse communities together, and foster a sense of human solidarity. Although — or perhaps because — participants came from many different backgrounds, we understood that we were discussing more than just past events. Our conversations posed timeless questions: about relevance to our lives today, about the vulnerability of societies, about democratic values and human nature.

Attendees and presenters discussed how, when, and why ordinary people supported, complied with, ignored, or resisted racist policies in two very different systems of targeted oppression and racial violence. It takes a critical minority of determined leaders with the support of an acquiescent general population to introduce and establish state-sanctioned racism, antisemitism, and violence. The extreme examples of Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South show that the majority of the population in these two worlds witnessed the widespread persecution against a targeted minority and either actively or passively tolerated what they saw, thus enabling the continuation of persecution and raising pressing questions about the role of onlookers and the nature of complicity. Examining the role of ordinary people, therefore, provides us with a better understanding of how and why such atrocities like the Holocaust could happen. This focus also helps us to make a more intimate connection to the history since we often each think of ourselves as an “ordinary person,” rather than as a victim, perpetrator, or bystander.

Niemoeller Quote
Niemoeller Quote. Courtesy of USHMM.org.

Dr. Beverly Eileen Mitchell, Professor of Historical Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, delivered the symposium keynote address: “Racism and Antisemitism: Sibling Threats.” She argued that we cannot understand antisemitism and racism as separate prejudices that each affect only one particular group of people. History reveals that while the two may manifest uniquely, racism and antisemitism are children of the same father: white supremacy. “Lessons from history can shed light on what is happening in our own time, if we pay attention,” she says. A key lesson, Prof. Mitchell concluded, is that we all must actively confront discrimination, even when it does not affect us or our community directly, because hate against one group ultimately grows to affect us all. “We must remain vigilant. … There are no innocent bystanders where white supremacy is concerned.”

A highlight of the symposium was “Keeping the Memory Alive,” a session that featured a conversation between Riva Hirsch, a Holocaust survivor, and Josephine Bolling McCall, whose father was lynched in Alabama in 1947. These two women shared their powerful stories about the dangers and personal impact of racial violence and genocide. Their testimony ensured that their memories would be carried on by others. “Don’t ever stop learning about the Holocaust,” Hirsch told the crowd. “Don’t ever stop talking about it. There are people who say that it never happened, but I’m here to tell you all that it happened to me. To you youngsters out there: our memory is in your hands.” But the women also issued a challenge, urging everyone to speak up when they see discrimination. “You can’t wait for someone else to do something,” McCall said. “All it takes is one person to change someone’s mind for the good. Be that one person.”

The women’s parting words reflect a guiding principle of our Museum’s work: when you learn about how and why the Holocaust happened, you now have a moral obligation to act on that knowledge and to confront hatred and promote human dignity.

photo of Riva and Josephine
Josephine and Riva. Courtesy of USHMM.org

As we honor the memory of Holocaust victims during the Museum’s 25th anniversary, we recommit our affirmation that the exploration of this dark history must illuminate lessons that can guide us in our mission. One important lesson is that, as individuals in a pluralistic society, we have a responsibility to each other, to defend against threats to social cohesion, and to protect democratic institutions. Second, the confluence of motivations, pressures, fears, and concerns of daily life means that moral choices are not always clear or easy, yet we must commit to making the moral choice. Our (in)actions have unintended consequences and reverberate further than we may realize. What you do matters.

And finally, one of the most important lessons is that the Holocaust was preventable. “That’s not just a statement of fact,” says Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield. “It is a challenge to all of us.” After the Holocaust, the world promised “Never Again.” But this promise cannot only apply to mass atrocities or genocide. It is up to each of us to make sure that “Never Again” is a challenge to combat discrimination, prejudice, and hatred before it evolves into violence. Never Again begins with you.

 

Dr. Jake Newsome is the Campus Outreach Program Officer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where he is responsible for developing strategic outreach programs and resources for institutions of higher education throughout the United States. These programs take the lessons of the Holocaust beyond the Museum’s walls and inspire new generations of scholars, students, and leaders to engage with the history and contemporary relevance of the Holocaust. Dr. Newsome’s research focuses on Holocaust history, gender and sexuality, and memory studies.

Crisis in Myanmar: Ethnic Cleansing of the Rohingya

**This is a repost. Please make plans to join us for a lecture and discussion with Dr. Wakar Uddin on Monday, Nov 13 at 630pm, in the Edge of Chaos.

Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State – Burma.
Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State – Burma. Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Creative Commons.

Trigger warning: this blog references graphic physical and sexual violence. Please do not read if easily affected by these topics.  

“Now is the worst it has ever been. We have heard from our grandparents that there were bad things happening in the past too, but never like this.” – interviewee from Pwint Hpuy Chaung commenting on the violence in the Rhakine, Myanmar

Ethnic cleansing. State-sponsored violence. Genocide. This is what the Muslim Rohingya and most scholars would call the egregious human rights violations carried out by the state over the last eleven months. Myanmar’s government disagrees. The village-burning, mass-murdering campaign has been a legitimate effort against militant Rohingya insurgents from their perspective. The Rohingya are members of an ethnic and religious minority group that has suffered discrimination from the Buddhist-dominated state for years. A large population of Rohingya live in the Rhakine, an extremely poor area on the coast of Myanmar. Though the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for generations, the ethnic majority considers the group to be illegal Bengali outsiders. The minority group has been denied citizenship for decades and has recently had restricted travel with the institution of state-sponsored “Muslim-free zones.” The decades of discrimination came to a head in last October, when Rohingya militants killed nine police officers. In response, Myanmar government began a colossal campaign to push Rohingya into Bangladesh through burning entire towns, executing villagers, destroying food supplies, and widespread sexual violence. Officials describe the campaign as targeting militant insurgents, yet vulnerable groups like women, children, and the elderly have been beaten, murdered, and raped at a wide level. Entire communities have been devastated through arson, executions, and looting. The violence has been strategic in an effort to drive out the Rohingya. The mixing of mud with village grain supplies forces surviving villagers to flee or starve.

Interviews with refugees from the region conducted by the United Nations Office of High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) report of atrocities like murders of newborn babies, massive gang rapes of girls as young as eleven, houses set on fire with entire families locked inside, and brutal beatings of pregnant women.

“In Kyet Yoe Pyin I saw the military killing a newborn baby of a distant relative … My relative could not come out [of her house] as she was in labour so they dragged her out and hit her stomach with a big stick. They killed the baby by stomping on it with their heavy boots. Then they burned the house.” -19 year old woman from Ngar Sar Kyu (OHCHR 2017)

Much of the violence is fueled by decades of religious and ethnic discrimination against the Rohingya, a majority Muslim population within a Buddhist state. When the October 9, 2016 attack occurred, religious tension reached a boiling point. As a part of the government’s reaction, state military officers have been committing heinous crimes against innocent Muslim individuals. Survivors report their attackers as saying, while raping or beating them, “What can your Allah do for you? See what we can do?” Women systematically dragged into holy places to be gang-raped by groups of soldiers. A long beard is a religious practice among the Rohingya; however, several religious leaders have been publicly humiliated by having their beards shaved or burned off with melting plastic. Holy Qurans have been gathered and burned, and numerous religious leaders are kidnapped and murdered. There is also the denial of families to perform religious ceremonies to mourn their dead.

“I was rounded up, along with 30 others villagers, who were mainly youngsters. They tied my hands behind with a rope. They burnt plastic and dropped melted plastic on my feet and neck. They also burnt my beard with burning plastic.” – Religious leader (OHCHR 2017).

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi. Source: Global Media Sharing, Creative Commons

Activists worldwide, including Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called the Myanmar government’s response to last October’s incident “grossly disproportionate”. Many specifically criticize Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for her leadership during this period. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” (Nobel Peace Prize 1991). Today, some see this as incredibly ironic, even labelling the atrocities of her administration as crimes against humanity. In fact, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein calls the campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Harsh V. Pant suggests that while Suu Kyi, the de facto leader, does not control the military, “her refusal to condemn military abuses against Rohingya provides the generals with political cover”.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership as a prominent factor is why international forces have not yet intervened. Suu Kyi is a much-loved public figure, has garnered enough legitimacy to make the violence seem possibly justified. Suu Kyi’s struggle to gain democracy in Myanmar nearly a decade ago brought globally acclaimed; however, these new democratic processes have magnified prejudices of the public. Suu Kyi herself has expressed anti-Muslim sentiment at times. Peter Popham describes a 2013 interview conducted by BBC presenter Mishal Husain, the Nobel laureate was heard saying angrily, “no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” This statement is a strong indication that Aung San Suu Kyi’s non-violent legacy should be dismissed when considering the legitimacy of Myanmar’s claims.

The Myanmar government has recently blocked UN forces from entering the country to administer aid so refugee testimonies are the source of much of the information on the violence. Over half of the refugees report family members still missing after officers rounded up important male villagers–teachers, businesspersons, and religious leaders. Fifty-two percent of women reported experiencing sexually violence in some way – usually during public nude line-ups of female villagers, where officers grope, slap, and pinch the vulnerable women. Most reported occurrences of mass executions by knife or shooting, including babies, toddlers, children, women, and elderly people. OHCHR in January’s flash report is the source of the collected data and all the reports of violence cited earlier.

Rohingya Refugee Women Stand By Their Homes
Rohingya Refugee Women Stand By Their Homes. Source: US Department of State, Creative Commons. Source:

These issues have been ongoing since last October’s attack, but fighting began anew last month when Rohingya militants once again launched an attack that killed nearly a dozen security officers. The group that launched the attack call themselves ARSA, or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Nearly three-hundred thousand Rohingya are currently fleeing this violence, but have faced obstacles every step of the way. The path to the Bangladesh border is treacherous already, weaving through mountains and jungles, but Myanmar security forces have added additional danger. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said, “Rohingyas [are] being indiscriminately killed and injured by military gunfire, even while fleeing, and helicopters and rocket-propelled grenades being used against the civilian population.” Amnesty International reports that Myanmar security forces have been putting land mines along the route of fleeing refugees. Even if the violence dies down and refugees attempt to return home, they will likely be denied entry back into Myanmar. The government has recently released a statement that any returnees are required to show proof of citizenship — something that has been denied to Rohingyas for decades.

The international response has been halfhearted at best. Entities like the United Nations and Amnesty International have collected information through interviews and satellite surveillance, yet, Myanmar still refuses to allow international aid. India, one of the most powerful countries in the region, has shown support to the Myanmar state by condemning ARSA and being hostile to Rohingya refugees. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley seems to tiptoe around the matter by similarly condemning Rohingya violence but reminding Myanmar to “adhere to international humanitarian law, which includes refraining from attacking innocent civilians and humanitarian workers.” In a situation of clear ethnic cleansing, politically delicate statements like these are insufficient.

Human rights violations at this level and scale are painful to read about and not become stricken with grief. However, we must keep in mind that hope is still alive—the world is in the process of becoming a better place, and awareness of these topics is vital to that change. To those who are reading this, remember to treat yourself kindly. When the horrors of the world make you feel hopeless, remember the good that still exists. Remember to take a break every so often to recharge. Whenever I feel like the world is just too bad to improve, I remind myself of this quote by Anne Frank: “I hold onto my ideals because, in spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.”

The Birmingham Islamic Society (BIS) will host a demonstration for Rohingyas outside the Hill Student Center on Saturday, September 16 at 12-1:30PM. The event is free and open to the public. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kurdish Question

Kurdish soldiers salute the Kurdish flag.
Peshmerga | Kurdish Army. Source: Kurdishstruggle, Creative Commons

Many years ago, or so the story goes, a young, Kurdish man named Mem fell deeply in love with the Emir’s sister – a beautiful, young woman named Zin. This Emir, however, had in his service an ambitious young minister named Beko who coveted the affections of Zin for himself and, thus, set about conspiring to undermine his competition. Ultimately, his machinations proved to be successful, creating a tragic series of events that concluded in a similar vein to that of two far more famous, star-crossed lovers. Mem perished alone in the darkest corner of the Emir’s dungeon, and upon discovering this, Zin followed her lover into the afterlife.

At the funeral, the two lovers were buried side-by-side, but the grave was not yet full. Entranced by the beauty of Zin even in death, Beko leaned over her grave to stare, enraging the Emir:

[He] pulls out his sword and slices off Beko’s head. A drop of his blood falls between the two lovers, and a thornbush grows on the very spot, separating Mem and Zin just as Beko tried to separate them in life. It is said that every time the thornbush is cut down, it grows back. 

The mausoleum of the two lovers still stands today in the city of Cizre, the point at which the borders of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria meet. Yet this story possesses a significance far greater than simple literary achievement. It is the recurring tale of the Kurdish people and their struggle for self-determination.

In this explicitly nationalist story, Mem is a metaphor for the Kurds, while Zin represents the Kurdish homeland. As much as they long for each other, however, there is always a Beko, a meddling outsider, a Turk, a Persian, an Arab who seeks to divide them. The empires of these outsiders may fall, but each plants, in its death throes, the seeds for a new thornbush that will once again deny Kurds self-determination. Ultimately, the modern states of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey are merely the latest iteration of this thornbush.

Turkey and Iraq threaten Kurds over their independence referendum

Mountain Turks or Kurds?

In the Middle East, citizenship and nationhood strongly revolve around the concept of identity primordialism, involving, among many other factors, a common history, language, culture, and ethnicity. It is primarily on this basis that its enemies seek to deny the Kurdish people self-determination — their right to establish a nation of their own and exercise uninhibited control over their own affairs.

For centuries, states portrayed their Kurdish minorities as merely “ignorant and reactionary ‘Mountain Turks’ speaking a debased [combination] of mixed Turkish, Persian, and Arabic.” This is a sound strategy in the sense that it – if true – nullifies the linguistic and ethnic requirements needed to justify a primordial basis for self-determination. As can be expected, however, the Kurds believe otherwise. Masoud Barzani, the current Kurdish leader, succinctly rejected these claims, stating that “from World War One until now, [Kurds] are not part of Iraq. We have our geography, land, and culture. We have our own language. We refuse to be subordinates.”

Ultimately, this leads to the question of who to believe. Are the Kurds simply backwards, uneducated mountain people? Or do the Kurds constitute a distinct people who have been unfairly portrayed by their opponents?

The Linguistic Test

Despite his Marxist inclination to dismiss the nation as a purely “imaginary community,” Benedict Anderson nevertheless made a crucial observation, namely that language possesses “central ideological and political importance” as the “private property”  of a specific ethnic group. Ehmedê Xanî – the Kurdish author of Mem u-Zin – recognized this at an early date (1692 AD), exhorting the Kurds to become literate in their own language “so that people won’t say that […] all sorts of people have their books and only the Kurds are lacking.” Unfortunately, the Kurds ignored his warning, granting their enemies a powerful weapon in the fight to deny them self-determination on the claim that they lack a language of their own.

There are three criteria by which one can evaluate this claim: (1) mutual intelligibility, or the ability of two people speaking two different languages to understand each other; (2) uniqueness in terms of letters, sounds, and words; and (3) recognition.

In order for languages to be mutually intelligible, they must be descended from the same language tree. Although Kurdish is a member of the Indo-European language family, neither Turkish (Altaic) or Arabic (Afroasiatic) can claim the same, meaning that they are not mutually intelligible. Persian, on the other hand, is a member of the Indo-European language family, but it is not mutually intelligible with any Kurdish dialect either.

The origins of these differences are disputed. Some claim it is a result of the mountainous geography making communication difficult, while others claim Kurdish ultimately descended from a language that predates the arrival of Indo-European languages. However, it is known for certain these differences are significant. Aside from primarily using the Latin alphabet (as opposed to the Arabic one), Kurdish also possesses differences in sounds, grammar, and words. This is evidenced in Mem u-Zin where “out of 26,560 words, […] 19,601 (74%) of them are Kurdish, 6,015 (23%) are Arabic, 918 (3% are Farsi), and 26 (less than 1%) are Turkish.”

As in the case of nations, recognition by others represents an important signifier of linguistic legitimacy. Kurdish is recognized as an official language only in Iraq, but only under duress from the United States. Unofficially, both historic and contemporary bans on the use and teaching of Kurdish by the Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, and Turkish authorities represent de facto recognition of their distinctiveness. After all, is there a point in banning a language that is your own?

News coverage of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack on the Kurds

A History of Suffering

Despite the fact that scholars disagree on much regarding nationalism, all can agree that a nation – whether civic, primordial, or imagined – requires “a historic continuity” for use “as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion.” Such cohesion becomes even stronger when marked by having “suffered together, […] for having suffered together unites more than joy.”

Although the Arabs, Persians, and Turks deny the Kurds their right to self-determination, the Kurds arguably possess a much stronger claim to the northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, eastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran than their current owners. The Kurds resided in these lands at least as early as 2000 BC when they were first mentioned by the Sumerians. Over one thousand years later, the Kurds remained. Ancient Greek historians, such as Herodotus and Xenophanes, described them, as did Strabo during the Roman Empire. Without fail, they always resided in these same lands, even establishing independent kingdoms that still existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Throughout this period, however, the majority of Kurds were conquered by one foreign empire after another. Some Kurds, such as Saladin – the Egyptian Sultan who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders – rose to great heights, but the vast majority were not treated well, to say the least. This served as the impetus for Mem u-Zin, which was passed on orally until Ehmedê Xanî codified it in 1692 AD as one of the first explicitly nationalist pieces of literature to ever be written.

Following the First World War, the suffering experienced by the Kurds began in earnest. They were promised independence in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Covenant of the League of Nations, and the Treaty of Sèvres. Ultimately, these promises came to naught as the Turks under Atatürk forced the allies to invalidate the treaty, which was replaced by the treaties of Lausanne and Ankara. These two treaties split the Kurdish populated regions among the newly created nations of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, effectively ending Kurdish hopes for a negotiated independence at this point in history.

However, it did not end agitation for independence by the Kurds, who refused “to accept subordination to the Arabs who, like the Kurds themselves had until then been a subject race.” These feelings were magnified by the harsh treatment of the Kurds by the new nations, which colluded to help each other suppress the Kurds. The Turks executed and imprisoned tribal leaders, students, politicians, and intellectuals, while ethnically cleansing Kurds from some areas. Furthermore, Kurdish youths were forced into boarding schools through which they could be ‘Turkified.’

In Iran, a brief Kurdish state was founded, but it ended after several months following the Allied withdrawal. The leaders of the state were hanged, while other participants were rounded up and imprisoned. Today, even being suspected of being sympathetic to separatist groups can lead to torture, imprisonment, or execution. Meanwhile, the treatment of Kurds in Syria was no better. Members of political organizations were routinely arrested. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were deprived of their citizenship and deported, their property given to Arab settlers in an attempt at Arabization of the region. In all three of these countries, the Kurdish language was banned.

However, the Kurds have been consistently treated the worst in Iraq, beginning from 1961 to 1963 when the government massively bombed Kurdish towns and cities from the air. Under Saddam Hussein, a systematic attempt to commit genocide against the Kurds occurred. Almost three hundred thousand Kurds were forcibly relocated to southern Iraq, and during the process eight thousand young men and teenagers are believed to have been executed en masse. According to Human Rights Watch, this was part of a “long-standing campaign that destroyed almost every Kurdish village in Iraq […] and displaced at least a million” Kurds. The campaign ultimately ended with the chemical weapons attack on the town of Halabja that killed several thousand men, women, and children.

All of these actions constitute gross violations of every human rights document ever written, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s justification for the Kurdish independence referendum

The Last Thornbush?

Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, one would expect that things dramatically improve for the Kurds. While there was some improvement, namely that they were no longer being massacred in the hundreds of thousands, the Kurds have merely traded a Pan-Arabist government that despised them on account of their ethnicity for a Shia-dominated government that despises them on account of both their ethnicity and religion, Sunni Islam. The supposedly democratic government of Nouri al-Maliki regularly discriminated against Sunni Arabs and Kurds: delivering inadequate public services to non-Shia Iraqis, cutting power to non-Shia areas, purportedly arresting thousands of Sunnis and Kurds based on their ethnicity, and reneging on constitutional agreements with both as well.

Ultimately, this rampant discrimination pushed many Sunnis into the waiting arms of the Islamic States; however , the Kurds resisted such radicalization. Instead, they fought alongside the United States, as well the Iraqi central government that oppressed them, against the Islamic State. By all accounts, the Kurds suffered from the brunt of the fighting, retaking large portions of Iraq and capturing the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa in Syria.

It is in response to the previously mentioned discrimination, as well as their role in defeating the Islamic State, that Kurds decided that they are finally ready for an independent state of their own. The question now becomes, do they deserve it? The answer is an unequivocal yes for the following reasons:

1) The Kurds meet all of the criteria for nationhood and self-determination, including possessing their own distinct language and a common history.

2) The Kurds have been promised – through a variety of international agreements – independence for over a century. These promises should be honored in order to provide legitimacy to other international agreements on human rights, which also rely on their participants living up to their commitments.

3) The independence referendum occurred peacefully with both high turnout (72%) and overwhelming support (93% in favor).

4) The Kurds rejected radicalization in face of discrimination and persecution, and instead, fought alongside the United States against the Islamic State.

5) The Kurds have been treated harshly by every government that has ruled over them, even committing crimes against humanity against them.

6) The Kurds, unlike the Catalans, will actually be achieving sovereignty.

Throughout their history, the Kurds suffered greatly, but with uncommon resilience and strength, on behalf of their ethnicity. With each passing decade, however, it seems to grow worse. For that reason, it is high time that the world intervene on their behalf. This should be done not only to stop impending bloodshed in the aftermath of the fall of Kirkuk to Iraqi forces, but in order to assist the Kurds in permanently removing the thornbush that stands between them and their beloved, and long overdue, homeland of Kurdistan.

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.

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.

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

What is the International Criminal Court and Why Should I Care?

Windows of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Source: Roman Boed, Creative Commons
Windows of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Source: Roman Boed, Creative Commons.

What is the International Criminal Court and how did it develop?

The ICC is not a substitute for national courts. It is the only court with global jurisdiction that a state can go to when it cannot carry out the investigation and trial of perpetrators that have committed war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. It is also not to be confused with the Court of Justice which settles disputes between states.  The idea of having an international court first developed in 1948 with the United Nations General Assembly (UN GA). In order to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust from ever happening again, the UN GA adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention called on criminals guilty of committing or creating a genocide to be tried by an international court that did not yet exist. Therefore, the International Law Commission (ILC) was brought in to assess the desirability and feasibility of creating a court with global jurisdiction. During the ILC’s process of drafting a statute, the Cold War halted efforts in creating such a court.

The discussion of establishing an international criminal court was not on the agenda of the international community for many years. It finally resurfaced in 1989 Trinidad and Tobago were battling massive drug trafficking. The UN GA once again called upon the International Law Commission to continue the drafting efforts that were abandoned in the early 1950s. The 1990s brought horrendous genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes from all over the world- particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda. Due to the international climate at the time, the United Nations decided that it could not wait for an international criminal court to develop fully in order to take control of these crimes. Instead, the UN Security Council put in two ad hoc courts in order for individuals to be held accountable for these crimes – the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

The quest for a permanent international criminal court continued when representatives met in Rome, Italy, from June 15th to July 17th of 1998. A total of 160 countries participated in this conference with the goal of negotiating an international treaty that would serve as the basis for an international criminal court. With 120 votes in favor of such a court, the Rome Statute was adopted, officially creating what we know as the International Criminal Court. The ICC was established in The Hague in the Netherlands, on July 1, 2002 when the Rome Statute entered into force. However, the reach of the court was diminished by the fact that the following countries either did not sign or did not ratify the statute: Bahrain, China, India, Indonesia,  Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, the United States, and Yemen. The absence of three permanent members of the UN Security Council – the U.S., China, and Russia – has been a particular challenge for the new court. 

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The International Criminal Court in The Hague. Source: Alkan Boudewijn de Beaumont Chaglar, Creative Commons

How does the International Criminal Court function?

There are four components that make up the ICC: The presidency, Office of the Prosecutor, chambers, and registry.

The Presidency

The presidency is the head of the court that consists of three judges who are elected by an absolute majority by the 18 judges that makeup the Court. One judge is the president and the other two are vice presidents who all serve two three-year terms. The presidency takes on a significant administrative role by representing the Court as a whole to the world and safeguarding the enforcement of sentences levied by the Court itself. It also helps organize the work of the judges.

The Office of the Prosecutor

The office of the prosecutor has one of the most important roles: They conduct investigations and prosecutions. The office of the prosecutor is mandated to “receive and analyze information on situations or alleged crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC, to analyze situations referred to it in order to determine whether there is a reasonable basis to initiate an investigation into a crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or the crime of aggression, and to bring the perpetrators of these crimes before the Court.” Within the office of the prosecutor, there are three divisions: the investigation division, the prosecuting division, and the jurisdiction, complementarity, and cooperation division. The former two divisions are self-explanatory, but the latter’s duty may be a little difficult to understand. The jurisdiction, complementarity, and cooperation division works with the investigation division in analyzing information that is received, as well as, evaluating situations referred to the Court. In order to have a case heard by the ICC, one must go to this division which will either approve or reject a case to be heard. They will judge the legitimacy of a case on the basis of the analyses of information pertaining to that particular situation.

The Chambers

The chambers’ responsibility is to guarantee and carry-out a fair trial. Similar to the office of the prosecutor, there are three divisions within the chambers: the pre-trial chambers, trial chambers, and appeals chambers. The eighteen judges plus the three judges in the presidency (for a total of 21 judges) are assigned to one of these three chambers. The pre-trial chamber is composed of seven judges with one to three judges presiding over each sub-chamber. Their job is to make sure that the investigation and prosecutorial proceedings are fair in order to protect the rights of suspects, witnesses, and victims. After these proceedings are completed, the pre-trial chambers decide whether or not warrants of arrest should be issued, as well as summons to the office of the prosecutor at their request. They also are responsible for confirming or not confirming the charges the suspect has been given. Current cases in the pre-trial stage are the Barasa case of Kenya, the Hussein case of Darfur, Sudan, the Al-Bashir case of Darfur, Sudan, and the Harun and Kushayb case of Darfur, Sudan.

The trials chamber works to ensure the fairness of the trial itself and that such a trial continues to appropriately comply with the rights of suspects. They are also responsible for the needed protection of witnesses and victims in necessary. Along with those roles, this chamber is the one that decides whether a suspect is guilty or innocent of the charges and if guilty, they determine the punishment whether that be through monetary compensation or going to prison (prison time cannot exceed thirty years to a life sentence). Current ongoing trials are as follows: the Gbagbo and Blé Goudé case of Côte d’Ivoire, the Bemba et. al case of the Central African Republic, and the Ntaganda case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The appeals chamber steps in if the guilty plaintiff would like to appeal his or her trial or proceedings that the pre-trials chambers or trials chamber conducted. This chamber is made up of the President of the Court along with four other judges. Just like the appellate courts we have here in the states, the appeals chamber can amend, reverse, or uphold the prior chambers’ decision. In some cases, they may order a new trial with a different trials chamber. Currently, there is one appeals case- the Bemba case of the Central African Republic.

The Registry

The registry supports the Court administratively by ensuring  a fair, impartial, public trial. More specifically, the ICC describes the registry as “the core function of providing administrative and operational support to the Chambers and the Office of the Prosecutor. It also supports the Registrar’s activities in relation to defense, victims, and communication and security matters.” Communication matters consist of having responsibility and authority over the Court’s primary information, as well as outreach services and activities.

600 persons visited the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Sunday, 29 September 2013, when it opened its doors for The Hague International Day. Visitors engaged with speakers representing the Judges, the Prosecution, the Defence, the Legal Representatives of Victims, and the Registry during an interactive session held in the ICC Courtroom in The Hague (Netherlands). They had the opportunity to participate in a one-hour presentation in the ICC public gallery. Questions from visitors focused on the various aspects of the Court’s work, including its mandate, structure and ongoing cases.
600 persons visited the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Sunday, 29 September 2013, when it opened its doors for The Hague International Day. Visitors engaged with speakers representing the Judges, the Prosecution, the Defence, the Legal Representatives of Victims, and the Registry during an interactive session held in the ICC Courtroom in The Hague (Netherlands). They had the opportunity to participate in a one-hour presentation in the ICC public gallery. Questions from visitors focused on the various aspects of the Court’s work, including its mandate, structure and ongoing cases.

Why Should I Care?

In summary, the ICC is much more complex than one might think, and rightfully so. This Court gets the worst of the worst cases in terms of cruelty. They try individuals who have been accused of participating in genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, etc.  In order to maintain a fair and impartial trial, there are many administrative roles within each division and chamber that work to achieve the goal of accountability. The ICC was a concept that had been thought of long before it was actually established and it is the only permanent international criminal court that tries individual perpetrators.  Some may think that the ICC doesn’t really matter or holds no significant importance when it comes to trying and punishing individuals, but actually, the ICC has a very compelling role in such matters.