Torture and Genocide

30 01 2012

One of the best, most compelling books I have read is Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship that Saved Two POWs in Vietnam.  You can see a description of it here: http://www.amazon.com/Two-Souls-Indivisible-Friendship-Vietnam/dp/0618273484.

I had the honor of meeting Porter Halyburton, who signed my book with tremendous sincerity and thoughtfulness.  Shaking his hand will remain most memorable.  One other person I had the honor of shaking hands with many years ago was Dith Pran, the person on whom the protagonist in the story, “The Killing Fields,” was based.

Both men suffered unspeakable horrors.  If you want to know why torture is so reprehensible, read the book.  If you haven’t seen the movie “The Killing Fields,” about the genocide in Cambodia, you should.  If you haven’t watched “Hotel Rwanda,” you should.

The next time there is a heated debate about what constitutes torture, think about the book and the bone-chilling descriptions of what Porter Halyburton and Fred Cherry endured in Vietnam.  We can add Senator John McCain to that roster.  This book should be required reading for all the presidential candidates.  Then, maybe they will think twice about being so nonchalant about the issue of torture.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.





Human Rights Laws Apply to Everyone

27 01 2012

Troubling reports are coming out of the Middle East and North Africa about detention and torture and killings of various groups and individuals.  Nearly a year ago, the international community approved NATO’s no-fly zone in Libya on the basis of the “Responsibility to Protect” civilians from violence (known as the R2P mandate).

Now, we are hearing reports of detention, torture, and in some cases deaths of alleged pro-Qaddafi loyalists.  According to a report posted on the Shabab Libya (Libyan Youth Movement) website, entitled “Canada Blasts Libya over Torture Reports” –

“Amnesty International said several detainees have died after being subjected to torture in recent weeks and months, and cited wide-spread, ill-treatment of Gadhafi loyalists.

Doctors Without Borders said it was pulling out of the city of Misrata because some detainees were brought for care only to make them fit for further interrogation…

‘There’s torture, extrajudicial executions, rape of both men and women,’ Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told The Associated Press.

‘Something has to be done immediately to assist the authorities for the state to take control of these detention centers.’

This is a terrible blemish on the Libyan interim government, although some would argue that the blemish actually appeared with the manner in which Colonel Qaddafi was abused and killed.  As bad as he was, and despite all the blood on his hands, it was imperative for the Libyan rebels to resist the temptation to stoop to his level of gross barbarity.

No doubt there is deep anger and thirst for revenge in the region, including in Syria, after an exceptionally bloody week there.  However, in the long run, it would be counterproductive for the very groups who have sought freedom and justice to resort to the same tactics of torture, abuse, and extrajudicial detentions and sentencing, especially in a post-regime change context.  Ultimately, they will lose their moral legitimacy, as they will have blurred the lines between themselves and the tyrannical regimes they have been pitted against.  Amnesty International and Doctors without Borders did the right thing.  Everyone must be held under scrutiny, not just the regimes.  No one is above the principles and laws of human rights.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.





Iran No House of Cards – My Post in Howard Altman’s Blog

24 01 2012

My posting in Howard Altman’s blog just appeared.  It’s entitled, “Iran No House of Cards.”  Take a look:

http://news.tboblogs.com/index.php/news/C979/





Condemning Democratization in the Middle East

22 01 2012

One of the first comments we heard from the Obama administration in the early stages of Egypt’s 2011 revolution was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark, “the Egyptian government is stable,” referring to the Mubarak regime.  Of course, this is a stark contradiction to the democratic and human rights principles that the US espouses.  It also contradicts the expressed objective to promote democracy in the region, as stated in the US National Security Strategy (NSS).  Since then, we have seen regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and major political reforms in Morocco, Jordan, and some of the GCC states.  One of the outcomes of all of these events and changes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2011 has been the electoral empowerment of various Islamist parties.  Now, the editorial and news pages of global newspapers are brimming with alarmist messages about the Islamists coming to power in the MENA.  And, those of us in the field of MENA Studies are hearing earfuls of complaints and “I told you so’s,” because of the Islamist tsunami.

I respond to these complaints with these observations and explications:

  • This is the price of democracy, and democracy has various components:  the electoral, civil / human rights, and some argue the civic duty component (i.e., citizens have the obligation to participate in the political process).
  • Open, fair, and free elections should translate into allowing any party, however unpalatable, to run for political office.
  • These countries in the MENA region have never seen democracy, which means that they will respectively undergo their own evolutionary processes, just like we did in US history.  The MENA countries are starting from square one in this regard.  American democracy took a long time to reach the maturity we have today.  Let’s not forget that American democracy began with slavery, a brutal civil war, racial segregation, a women’s suffrage movement in the 20th century, and a very bloody and painful Civil Rights Movement.  For the MENA region, I am dubbing the process, “Evolution after Revolution.”  And, evolution after revolution takes a very long time.
  • If anyone doubts the compatibility of Islam with democracy, consider the approximately 14% of Muslims in the 1.3 billion total population of India, the world’s largest democracy.  This core Indian Muslim population has accepted and embraced secular democracy since day one of India’s independence from British colonial rule, the creation of Pakistan notwithstanding.  We often forget this point.  I am quick to remind people, pointing to India on the map.  Of course, India’s post-colonial history has its own complexities and communal problems; no one denies that.  But, it’s still evidence that Muslims in India, in whatever nuanced manner, find Islam and democracy compatible.  Turkey is another example that has been repeatedly cited as a template for the 2011 Arab uprising.

This is not to say that some of the developments in the region don’t trouble me.  The rise of the Salafists in Egypt, in particular, bothers me to no end.  If Egypt veers in the direction of a Saudi-like theocracy, then I will indeed be biting my nails with anxiety.  However, even then, it will be up to the Egyptian people to redirect the polity towards a flourishing democracy.  The burden is on the Egyptian citizens.  The same goes for all the other countries in the MENA region.  Of course, these will be long, hard struggles for freedoms and rights.  Let’s go back to US history and remind ourselves that we also have gone through difficult struggles to bring our democracy to maturity, and even now, it is far from perfect.  No one should expect absolute perfection.  But, everyone should aspire to it nonetheless, keeping the eye on the prize:  democracy that encompasses all of the components – free, fair, and open elections, freedoms and rights, and civic participation.

Two major dichotomous arguments are circulating about this issue today.  One is the recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that calls on Western governments to, basically, suck it up and accept Islamist parties coming to power in the region, as this is what democracy embodies, and it is a better outcome than the status quo autocratic dictators in power for decades who have violated human rights for so long.

The other argument is that the Islamists have hijacked the “Arab Spring” fruits of the secularists / modernists / liberals’ labor.  Some say this hijacking threatens the rights and freedoms of women and religious minorities, and in fact, thousands of Coptic Christians have preemptively left Egypt already.

Today’s Haaretz has an article about the former argument, citing the HRW report:

“Western democracies should overcome their aversion to Islamist groups that enjoy popular support in North Africa and the Middle East and encourage them to respect basic rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Sunday.

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said in the group’s annual report that the past year’s Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings across the region have shown it is vital for the West to end its policy of backing ‘an array of Arab autocrats’ in exchange for supporting Western interests.

The West should also be more consistent in supporting pro-democracy forces in the Arab world and elsewhere, he said in HRW’s 690-page report on human rights abuses worldwide.

‘The international community must … come to terms with political Islam when it represents a majority preference,’ he said. ‘Islamist parties are genuinely popular in much of the 
Arab world, in part because many Arabs have come to see political Islam as the antithesis of autocratic rule.’

‘Wherever Islam-inspired governments emerge, the international community should focus on encouraging, and if need be pressuring, them to respect basic rights – just as the 
Christian-labeled parties and governments of Europe are expected to do,’ he said in the introduction to the report.

He added that the international community ‘should adopt a more principled approach to the region than in the past. That would involve, foremost, clearly siding with democratic reformers even at the expense of abandoning autocratic friends.’”

The counter-argument, which actually does not completely dismiss the former argument, is presented in today’s Al Arabiya News by Raghida Dergham, saying –

“Mistaken are those who demand that power be handed over to the Islamists in the Arab region of change, even on the grounds that they have been brought to power by a democratic process that must be honored, and that there is no choice but to submit to the de facto situation until the Islamists are tested in power. This is because democracy has been abortive as a result of excluding women and the youths from decision-making, and there are dangerous indications that the personal freedoms of Arab women and religious minorities are being undermined in the age of the Islamist monopoly of power. The youths of the Arab Awakening launched the revolution of change, but the ballot boxes brought victory for the Islamist movements. While they had toppled their regimes jointly in 2011, they parted ways in 2012 battle over the fateful choice between the modern state and the Islamic state.”  (my emphasis)

I close with Raghida’s last paragraph, which, I think, sums up this discourse very eloquently, and leaves you, the reader, to contemplate how the “necessity of challenging monopoly” applies to your own political system.  The checks and balances in a democracy are not just a civic responsibility, but are also imperative for upholding all of the components of democracy simultaneously.  Consider Raghida’s words –

“The change coming from the Arab Awakening is going through a frightening phase that is causing much frustration, and yet there is something in the air preventing a downward spiral into pessimism – something that awakens frustration into the necessity of challenging monopoly.”

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.





Howard Altman’s Blog, Tampa, FL

20 01 2012

Dear Readers,

My friend and intrepid reporter Howard Altman has launched his blog:

http://www.tboblogs.com/index.php/news/comments/how-should-u.s.-deal-with-iran-experts-offer-opinion.-analysis-and-advice-i/

He has kicked it off with contributions by various analysts and scholars (to be posted in a series) in an extensive discussion about what to do about US-Iranian tensions.  Please check it out, and feel free to post your comments/feedback.  Thanks.





Catch-22 in Syria

19 01 2012

Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller (for ITN Channel 4 News, London) reports:  “Omar Shakir, the opposition activist in Homs, told Channel 4 News:  ‘We are hoping and trying not to drift into civil war, but only international action will prevent it.  If the regime continues its murderous violence, we will have to defend ourselves.’  Both sides are going for broke.”

This is obviously a catch-22 situation for both the anti-Assad activists and opposition groups, as well as for the Assad regime, and even for the international community.  Hypothetically, if there is an R2P (“Responsibility to Protect” civilians) mandate implemented by the UN in Syria, much like the Libya case, there is no guarantee that civil war will not occur.  In fact, that is exactly what happened in Libya.  And, as far as I can tell, the early stirrings of civil war have already rippled inside Syria.

Yes, the odds against the Assad regime will stack up upon applying the R2P mandate, assuming it involves a no-fly zone and NATO-led airstrikes, as in Libya.  But, it does not mean that the civil war would be any less bloody.

In fact, the Assad regime will have the opportunity to accuse external powers of interfering in Syria’s internal affairs, and he’ll no doubt point his finger to them and say, “See, I told you it was foreign agitators all along” (not that the opposition will believe him, of course!).

Syria faces a delicate dance, because, unlike Libya, the Syrian government has strong allies, Iran and Russia to name the top two.  And, the Assad regime can manipulate proxies in Lebanon to widen the conflict.  The stakes are extremely high for the opposition groups as well as the Assad regime.  The international community’s potential role can either be a game-changer, or the fuse that further intensifies civil war in Syria.  It could be another Lebanon.  It’s two sides of the same coin:  It can either offer Assad opportunities to exploit foreign involvement, or it can ultimately be the nail in his coffin.  I’m guessing, sadly, that one thing Syria will not face a shortage of is shrouds and coffins.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.





Lessons for the Middle East from MLK

16 01 2012

On this Martin Luther King holiday, it is all the more fitting to shake our collective fingers at violent dictators like Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and remind them that, as MLK put it so eloquently, “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Truth and justice do not hide behind guns, bombs, and torture devices.  And, history has shown that the former carry moral legitimacy that far outweighs the morally bankrupt expediency of violence and brutality.  The former also is more powerful in disarming the bully than the latter will ever be in oppressing the innocents.

Fear is never the best weapon.  It’s a temporary emotion, and tyrants will only have temporary effectiveness.  Noncooperation, noncompliance, and disobedience will always be stronger than tyranny, especially when they are infused with an infectious stubbornness that will not die.   This is Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy, and also MLK’s.

Today Al Jazeera is reporting that Imad Ghalioun, a member of the Syrian parliament, has defected and joined the opposition.  According to Al Jazeera –

“Imad Ghalioun, who represented the central city of Homs, told the Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV on Sunday night that the city is “disaster stricken” and has been subjected to sweeping human rights violations. Ghalioun said he was able to leave Syria before a travel ban was imposed on officials.

He said there are many legislators who support the uprising but have not said so publicly.”

It’s just a matter of time, for fear is temporary.  Stay stubborn in the path of truth and justice.  I leave you with a quote by MLK:

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.