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Tag: "human rights"

The Trump Administration Continues to Prioritize Ideology over US National Interests and Security: State Department Edition

[ 50 ] August 1, 2017 |

I’ve been working on a post detailing the ways that the Trump Administration is destroying the State Department, but it looks like I can outsource it to this Foreign Policy article by Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce, and Colum Lynch. A sample:

More than six months into the Trump presidency, career diplomats worry that the administration’s assault on the State Department will cause lasting damage to the workforce.

Tillerson’s controlling front office — and its focus on squeezing the budget — threatens to slow the hiring and assignment of new foreign service officers to positions around the world. All the while, numerous top career officials with decades of experience have quit, leaving a vacuum of talent and institutional knowledge in their wake.

While the State Department hemorrhages its own talent, it has also cut itself off from new talent by ending several distinguished fellowship programs to recruit top university graduates during its redesign.

The cumulative effect of a marginalized State Department, coupled with a freeze on hiring and budget pressures, could mean the next generation of diplomats will wither on the vine, current and former officials warn.

In a May 5 speech celebrating foreign affairs day at the State Department, William Burns, who retired in 2014 after a long diplomatic career that included a stint as ambassador to Russia, sounded the alarm bells.

Without mentioning the Trump administration, Burns warned against “pernicious” attempts to question the loyalty of career diplomats “because they worked in the previous administration,” as well a dismissive attitude to the role of diplomacy. Political and economic openness and a “sense of possibility” enabled America’s success abroad, but that is now threatened by a “nasty brew of mercantilism, unilateralism, and unreconstructed nationalism,” Burns said.

“Morale has never been lower,” said Tom Countryman, who retired in January after a diplomatic career serving under six presidents.

In the past, politically charged issues, such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq, created moral dilemmas for some diplomats, he said, but this is a problem of a different magnitude.

Countryman said he has been approached for advice by younger members of the diplomatic corps, many of whom are deeply disheartened. “My advice was to do your best to stay and serve the American people until it becomes truly unbearable for you in a moral sense,” he said. “I sought to encourage them by reminding them that no administration lasts forever.”

Tillerson himself appears to be exasperated by the job, caught between ideologues in the White House, competing congressional interests, and shell shock after jumping from the private sector, where he ran the U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil as a powerful executive in a highly centralized organization.

“He doesn’t have the same authority as a CEO,” one Trump insider told FP. “I know the White House isn’t happy with him and he isn’t liking the job.”

It’s worth stressing the advantages generated by an extensive and skilled diplomatic corp. Our diplomats are the lifeblood of extensive international networks that the United States uses to mobilize international support for its foreign-policy goals. In recent history, declining great powers have been able to hold onto outsized leverage via, in part, the accumulated institutional knowledge, skills, and connections of their diplomatic service. In conjunction with the State Department’s successful recruitment of a diverse, dynamic talent pool, the US looked in very good shape. Now the Trump Administration seems intent on shredding one of the most cost-effective foreign-policy instruments that the country enjoy—likely out of ideological animus toward the imagined machinations of globalism.

This particular act of geopolitical suicide comes along with signals that the administration intends to shutter functions that promote core American values. The war crimes office may be on the chopping block. Today, news comes that the administration is considering “scrubbing democracy promotion” from the State Department’s mission.

I know that, among many on the left, the reaction is likely to be eye-rolling—accompanied by mentions of Washington’s long history of support for coups, human-rights abusers, and autocratic leaders. All of this is true. But the United States has also played the role of “white knight,” supporting democratization movements in many countries across the globe. As Zacchary Ritter, one of my students at Georgetown, shows in his PhD thesis (huge PDF), the success or failure of these movements often depends on the United States putting its thumb on the scale in their favor. Of course, the United States can still do that even without the official mission. To its credit, the Trump Administration is taking at least some action in response to Venezuela’s slide into outright authoritarianism.

Overall, though, scrubbing the mission will be a major step backward, and not just as a signal about US priorities. The State Department primarily supports these goals through nonviolent means: naming and shaming, support for civil-society building, and the like. The infrastructure that supports the mission also ensures democracy remains on policy makers’ radar screens; when they overrule democracy and human-rights concerns, they have to proactively do so. Absent all of this, the international system is likely to be uglier and more authoritarian.

Indeed, the evisceration of the State Department is part of a larger story in which the worst elements of the Trump Administration are slowly winning in their battle to destroy competent, effective governance when it conflicts with their ideological priors. Peter Beinart on the resignation of George Selim:

George Selim, the federal counterterrorism official who works most closely with the organized American Muslim community, tendered his resignation on Friday. His ouster is a victory for Trump officials like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who see mainstream Muslim organizations as Islamist fronts, and for those American Muslims who oppose any counterterrorism cooperation with Washington. “There were clearly political appointees in this administration who didn’t see the value of community partnerships with American Muslims,” Selim told me. It is the clearest sign yet that government cooperation with Muslim communities, which has proved crucial to preventing terrorist attacks, is breaking down.

it turns out that the administration can do enormous damage to American domestic and international security without passing a single piece of legislation. Sometimes incompetence doesn’t get in the way of ideology: it just makes things worse.

Image by Loren (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Shameless Self Promotion: Theater of Witness

[ 14 ] July 19, 2017 |

My research has mostly revolved around virtual witnessing, but after attending a recent show at Amnesty International headquarters in London I decided to look into another kind of witnessing. I was a “drama geek” through most of middle school and high school and then got involved in Shakespeare acting in college while studying International Relations almost solely as a social activity. So I’m looking at an old interest in a completely new way!

Live theater is a thriving business in big cities like London and New York, and has a long history of political involvement in places like Russia, so it really should be no surprise when societies start looking toward the theater to tell difficult stories and inspire change.

That’s part of the premise of my new article at openGlobalRights. Here’s an excerpt:

Theater is also a highly adaptable medium, able to be molded over and over according to the vision of its social and cultural location. How many places in time and throughout the world have versions of Romeo and Juliet been produced? What if the two leads were not male and female, but male and male? What if one was a black African and the other white and British? What if one was Hindu and the other Muslim? The story remains the same and yet the meaning is given new life. Old texts adapted and applied to human rights issues can help us understand the universality and timelessness of struggle.

This was the vision for Queens of Syria, which mixed Euripides’ 410BC text of The Trojan Women with the real-life stories of women refugees from Syria. The UK based charity Developing Artists, which seeks to support the arts in post-conflict nations, worked with a drama therapy group, as well as British and Syrian directors, to translate the ancient play into Arabic while journalists added archival footage that played on a screen above the women. Queens of Syria sold out in a number of venues throughout its three-week UK tour in 2016 and was featured in The Guardian, Financial Times, and on the BBC. Audiences were given supplemental materials about the conflict and the actors in their programs and encouraged to learn more about the refugee crisis.

I attended the show already knowing a fair amount about the subject, and the play itself was very light on context, focusing instead on emotion. While I may not have learned anything new, what I felt while watching and being in the presence of these women who were engaging in a creative form of post-memory work was certainly an arresting experience. To do so in the presence of others, who laugh when you laugh and who applaud when you applaud, creates a form of consensus. The audience members certainly already had empathy for the actors, which is why they bought the tickets, but the experience created a new and intimate connection.

Thanks for checking it out. Maybe share some of your experiences with live theater in the comments?

Human Rights Work and Political Advocacy

[ 9 ] June 15, 2016 |


A long-time human rights worker, who has written reports for Human Rights Watch, focusing primarily on Africa, takes to the Boston Review to revisit his own sins, mistakes, and regrets, ultimately questioning the role of the human rights worker entirely.

On-the-ground humanitarians learned tough lessons in Somalia, Sudan, and central Africa in the 1990s. Relief agencies adapted to the emerging sociological critique of humanitarian action. But human rights organizations and their practices of documentation and advocacy were not compelled to change, even though they had faced similar dilemmas and made similar mistakes. But, rather than reflecting on where they had succeeded and where they had failed, human rights organizations turned their agendas into the philanthropic version of a Jurassic Park sequel: bigger, louder, more teeth. They consolidated as a kind of Global Ethics, Inc., accommodating their own critique to power, especially American power. Too often, their concern has been to influence U.S. government power at the margin. Achieving that goal has blunted their political principles. The ascent of Samantha Power—whose 2002 book A Problem from Hell excoriated American inaction in Rwanda and elsewhere—from critical journalist to senior member of the Obama administration speaks to the rise of this liberal interventionism.

The fundamental tensions of human rights activism have not changed. The moral cogency of a human rights narrative is compelling but partial: it is incomplete and it takes sides. Making the human rights counternarrative into a dominant agenda is a dangerous success, whether it involves endorsing authoritarianism in Rwanda or advocating American military intervention as a remedy for mass atrocity. Human rights advocacy is a critique of power, not a directive for exercising it; humility is not only a necessary character trait but also an ideal. I now believe that a fully emancipatory human rights practice must be based on an agenda set by the affected people. This requires challenging the iniquitous structures of power that too often stand in the way of emancipation or co-opt narratives of human rights for their own ends.

I don’t know; certainly the trajectory of Samantha Power is one that should make us cautious. But there are many aspects to interventionism and in the modern world, there are really no isolated peoples or population that already lack western interventions, even without the human rights community getting involved. The internet of course is a huge propagandistic force for whoever can use it. The arms manufacturers seek to sell their wares to horrible people abroad who will use those weapons to kill. Disney and Nike are everywhere in some form or other. When I was on a small island off the coast of Sumatra in 1997, where indigenous people still dressed in traditional dress and lived in traditional homes, their sons were wearing Michael Jordan t-shirts, even though they had probably never watched television. American companies seek to intervene all over the world, seeking cheap labor and new frontiers in their supply chains.

So the principles of this essay are good. Human rights workers should show humility and admit their mistakes. They should try to learn from their mistakes. Co-opting narratives for their own political aims is less than optimal. Absolutely, an emancipatory human rights practice should be generated from the agenda of affected people. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s useful to become so cautious as to back away from doing the best you can in the moment. Responding to horrific violence is hard to do at the moment. It’s hardly surprising that in raising awareness in the West to try and get someone to do something about this awful event, like the Rwandan genocide, that human rights workers would screw some of it up. But it’s still almost certainly better than doing nothing at all.

Malaysia: A Leader in Human Rights Once It Joined the TPP!

[ 10 ] July 10, 2015 |


It’s amazing the progress Malaysia has shown in human rights ever since Obama decided the Trans Pacific Partnership was his top priority.

The United States is upgrading Malaysia from the lowest tier on its list of worst human trafficking centers, U.S. sources said on Wednesday, a move that could smooth the way for an ambitious U.S.-led free-trade deal with the Southeast Asian nation and 11 other countries.

The upgrade to so-called “Tier 2 Watch List” status removes a potential barrier to President Barack Obama’s signature global trade deal.

A provision in a related trade bill passed by Congress last month barred from fast-tracked trade deals Malaysia and other countries that earn the worst U.S. human trafficking ranking in the eyes of the U.S. State Department.

I wonder if there has been any news out of Malaysia recently on its human trafficking problem?

Lawmakers are working on a compromise that would let Malaysia and other countries appearing on a U.S. black-list for human trafficking participate in fast-tracked trade deals if the administration verified that they have taken concrete steps to address the most important issues identified in the annual trafficking report.The graves were found in an area long known for the smuggling of Rohingya and local villagers reported seeing Rohingya in the area, but Malaysia’s Deputy Home (Interior) Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar has said it was unclear whether those killed were illegal migrants. The discovery took place after the March cut-off for the U.S. report.

The State Department would have needed to show that Malaysia had neither fully complied with minimum anti-trafficking standards nor made significant efforts to do so to justify keeping Malaysia on Tier 3, which can lead to penalties such as the withholding of some assistance.

In its report last year, the State Department said Malaysia had reported 89 human-trafficking investigations in the 12 months to March 2014, down from 190 the previous year, and nine convictions compared with 21 the previous year.

In the latest year to March, Malaysia’s conviction rate is believed to have fallen further, according to human-rights advocates, despite a rise in the number of investigations. That reinforced speculation Malaysia would remain on Tier 3.

“If true, this manipulation of Malaysia’s ranking in the State Department’s 2015 TIP report would be a perversion of the trafficking list and undermine both the integrity of this important report as well as the very difficult task of confronting states about human trafficking,” said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who had pushed to bar Tier 3 countries from inclusion in the trade pact.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said he was “stunned” by the upgrade.

“They have done very little to improve the protection from abuse that migrant workers face,” he said. “This would seem to be some sort of political reward from the United States and I would urge the U.S. Congress to look long and hard at who was making the decisions on such an upgrade.” Malaysia has an estimated 2 million illegal migrant laborers, many of whom work in conditions of forced labor under employers and recruitment companies in sectors ranging from electronics to palm oil to domestic service.

Malaysia has done all it needed to do–become important to Obama’s trade agenda. At this point, it can use all the slave labor it wants, knowing Obama will do nothing. Promoting pharmaceutical companies’ rights for long monopolies over profitable medicines and allowing corporations to sue nations for raising their minimum wage or implementing new pollution controls is far more important than the human rights of migrant laborers in southeast Asia for this administration.

Foreign Entanglements: Efrain Rios Montt

[ 11 ] May 15, 2013 |

On this week’s episode of Foreign Entanglements, long-time friend of the blog Colin Snider and I talk about the conviction of Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt:

See also Corey Robin’s review of “The Last Colonial Massacre.”

Contraception: A Human Right

[ 60 ] November 15, 2012 |

Once again, large swaths of the Republican Party oppose international definitions of basic human rights:

For the first time, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) explicitly described family planning as a “universal human right.” In its annual report, the organization said that improved access to contraception and other methods of family planning could greatly improve the lives of women around the world:

“Family planning has a positive multiplier effect on development,” Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the fund, said in a written statement. “Not only does the ability for a couple to choose when and how many children to have help lift nations out of poverty, but it is also one of the most effective means of empowering women. Women who use contraception are generally healthier, better educated, more empowered in their households and communities and more economically productive. Women’s increased labor-force participation boosts nations’ economies.”

The report effectively declares that legal, cultural and financial barriers to accessing contraception and other family planning measures are an infringement of women’s rights.

Of course, no doubt this is just part of the secret UN-Obama mind control conspiracy to take over the United States.

The Desperation of a Tyrant is an Ugly Thing

[ 14 ] February 10, 2011 |

Not surprising, of course:

The Egyptian military has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured, according to testimony gathered by the Guardian.

The military has claimed to be neutral, merely keeping anti-Mubarak protesters and loyalists apart. But human rights campaigners say this is clearly no longer the case, accusing the army of involvement in both disappearances and torture – abuses Egyptians have for years associated with the notorious state security intelligence (SSI) but not the army.

The Guardian has spoken to detainees who say they have suffered extensive beatings and other abuses at the hands of the military in what appears to be an organised campaign of intimidation. Human rights groups have documented the use of electric shocks on some of those held by the army.

Well, yes, but how do we know that the protesters weren’t torturing themselves? Certainly, that seems much more plausible than a regime with an extensive history of torture using torture against dissidents that pose an immediate threat to his regime…[/Althouse]

…in case you were wondering why Althouse would bother to come up with a nutty conspiracy theories in an attempt to discredit anti-Mubarak forces, here you go.

Breaking Points

[ 22 ] June 29, 2010 |

I’ve been using a local coffee bar as my office for parts of this summer when not in the coding lab for my agenda-setting project. Besides some excellent lattes and a new appreciation for white wine, my visits have yielded me a chance to observe and connect a bit with the people who work there.

Something I’ve noticed is the absence of regular shift breaks among the staff, with the exception of those who occasionally duck out for a cigarette during lulls while still keeping an eye on the counter. Thinking back to my earlier days in the service industry, I began wondering why these hardworking baristas were not automatically required to take short breaks when they were on the clock for more than seven hours. Had something changed over the years?

So I checked into the OSHA regulations and the Fair Labor Standards Act and was surprised to learn that in fact, federal law does not require employers to offer breaks of any kind to adult workers. (The standards are different for minors, which explains what has “changed” since the days when I was working in fast food and diners – I grew up. One other exception: as of just this year, the FLSA was updated to mandate breaks for breastfeeding mothers.)

Everyone else? Forget about it. States may pass laws requiring breaks, but as far as I can determine only seven have done so, not including Massachusetts. (MA does require a lunch break.) Some workers receive mandated breaks through collective bargaining agreements, but these are few and far between in the service industry. Employers may of course choose to offer breaks and many do, but this is at their discretion. Meals, snacks, coffee, even bathroom breaks can be limited by employers – the latter having been a significant issue among assembly line workers (just read this Cornell University Press study entitled Void Where Prohibited: Rest Breaks and the Right to Urinate on Company Time).

At a place like Amherst Coffee, when employees sneak breaks I have observed it is often with the excuse of “stepping outside for a cigarette.” Indeed, although the law doesn’t provide for smoke-breaks anymore than it provides for bathroom breaks, many people (not all) seem to feel that their best chance of legitimating a five-minute break from work is to claim they need a cigarette. I have noticed a similar pattern at my workplace – it is smokers in our building who regularly step outside for air and respite.

All this has raised two questions in my mind. First, is there a connection between the lack of mandated employee breaks and smoking patterns? I don’t know about food service workers, but a study has been done among nurses that shows that those who smoke are much likelier to take (be allowed to take?) breaks than those who do not. (There are also some interesting gender dynamics at play when it comes to smoke-breaks.) What an irony if cigarette smoking, known for its ill-health effects, turns out to be the predominant means by which employees can reap the health benefits of regular, short work-day breaks. Perhaps if we want to truly address tobacco addiction in this country we also need to do something about workers’ rights to breaks in general.

Which leads to my second thought: why the heck shouldn’t we have laws mandating shift breaks in this country? It’s true that such breaks are already common in some industries. At Amherst Coffee, for example, there is an informal system in place with which the staff seem pretty happy, judging by their general enthusiasm about their jobs and the sense of family you feel at the coffeeshop. Indeed, one can imagine such an informal system might in fact work to food service employees’ benefit, since my guess is it allows them to split tips between fewer employees per shift than might be required if breaks were regularized into a one-size-fits-all system that did not account for the ebb and flow of traffic into the shop.

Still, the problem with leaving this up to employers’ discretion should be obvious – not all businesses will engage in the kind of employee-friendly practices you find at Amherst Coffee. By not treating this as a basic workers’ rights issue, we are as a nation also missing an opportunity to utilize shift breaks to promote public health more generally.

But it’s not just about regulating businesses. It’s also about creating a culture of respect for labor rights among consumers. In the restaurant business, the incessant demand for speedy service and the disincentive to split tips among additional workers per shift means there would be a minor trade-off between breaks for employees and customer service. Laws to protect employees might help disseminate a sensibility of patience among the consumer population that would make it easier for small businesses to ensure their staff are well-rested.

At any rate, all this has made me realize that I too ought to get out of my office more during the work-day. One of the downsides of academic work where you set your own schedule is that we often don’t allow ourselves breaks (or at least, not breaks that actually take us away from our computers…) I for one can’t recall the last time I stepped outside my office just for five minutes of sunshine or fresh air. But I’d sure be a lot healthier and more productive if I did.

For now, I’ll just keep relying on my friendly neighborhood baristas to make sure I don’t work too hard. And in return, I won’t begrudge them their fresh air / smoke breaks, even if it means I have to wait a little longer for my next drink. I hope many LGM readers follow suit as you frequent local businesses in your communities this summer.

Shameless Self Promotion

[ 6 ] May 19, 2010 |

My new book Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond is finally out from Columbia University Press.

Basically, it’s all you never wanted to know about why children born of wartime rape have been overlooked by the human rights movement for the last two decades, and how this could be changed. Here’s what’s on the back cover:

Sexual violence and exploitation occur in many conflict zones, and the children born of such acts face discrimination, stigma, and infanticide. Yet the massive transnational network of organizations working to protect war-affected children has, for two decades, remained curiously silent on the needs of this vulnerable population.

Focusing specifically on the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, R. Charli Carpenter questions the framing of atrocity by human rights organizations and the limitations these narratives impose on their response. She finds that human rights groups set their agendas according to certain grievances-the claims of female rape victims or the complaints of aggrieved minorities, for example-and that these concerns can overshadow the needs of others. Incorporating her research into a host of other conflict zones, Carpenter shows that the social construction of rights claims is contingent upon the social construction of wrongs. According to Carpenter, this prevents the full protection of children born of war.

Saudi Woman Beats Up Virtue Cop

[ 4 ] May 17, 2010 |

The Saudi Gazette reports:

Al-Mubarraz police are investigating a complaint that a Saudi woman in her twenties allegedly punched and beat up a staffer of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the Hai’a). The staffer had to be taken to a medical center because of the bruises to his face and body. Apparently the Hai’a staffer suspected the young woman of being in the company of an unrelated man in an amusement park because the couple appeared to be acting in an inappropriate manner.

When the Hai’a staffer approached the couple to confirm their identities and the relationship between them, the young man collapsed. It was then the young woman allegedly unleashed a fierce attack on the Hai’a staffer with her fists.

Plenty of “you go girl” accolades like this percolating outside Saudi Arabia. It’s actually kind of serious though: the woman could be penalized with jail time and flogging if she is charged for assaulting a government official, so the human rights movement had better prepare a campaign to protect her from the predictable backlash from the state. But as described in the Jersualem Post, this incident may also be symptomatic of a gradual yet significant shift in Saudi society away from its entrenched culture of gender apartheid.

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Computer Geeks: “Give Us Your Huddled Facebook Masses”

[ 3 ] May 15, 2010 |

Recently I wrote about the need for Facebook alternatives. A team of NYU computer science students may have just the thing:

Why can’t privacy and connectedness go hand-in-hand? That’s the question being raised by those behind the new Diaspora project, an ambitious undertaking to build an “anti-Facebook” – that is, a private, open source social network that puts you back in control of your personal data.

Envisioned by four NYU computer science students, the Diaspora project would replace today’s centralized social web (yes, they mean you, Facebook) with a decentralized one, while still offering something that’s convenient and easy for anyone to use.

And not a moment too soon. More from the New York Times.

“And Justice For All”?

[ 1 ] May 12, 2010 |

Gary Haugen and Victor Boutrous have a useful article in the new print version of Foreign Affairs, pointing out that all the human rights standards in the land mean nothing if they’re not translated into practical justice for every human being. Particularly, they point out how the ability to enjoy one’s legal rights is related to wealth.

Efforts by the modern human rights movement over the last 60 years have contributed to the criminalization of [various] abuses in nearly every country. The problem for the poor, however, is that those laws are rarely enforced. Without functioning public justice systems to deliver the protections of the law to the poor, the legal reforms of the modern human rights movement rarely improve the lives of those who need them most…. Helping construct effective public justice systems in the developing world, therefore, must become the new mandate of the human rights movement in the twenty-first century.

An important and timely argument that may constitute a major reframing of human rights discourse and practice. Two minor rejoinders, however: Read more…

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