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Tag: "human rights"

What "They Called?"

[ 0 ] July 26, 2009 |

I can understand the journalistic conventions that avoid characterizing particular views during disputes, but I must admit being amused by the opening paragraph about this story about now-resigned NYU law lecturer Thio Li-ann:

A Singapore law professor who was to teach a human rights course at New York University Law School this fall has withdrawn after students protested what they called her anti-gay views.

Hmm, I have to admit I’m not really seeing the ambiguity here:

Homosexuality is a gender identity disorder; there are numerous examples of former homosexuals successfully dealing with this. Just this year, two high profile US activists left the homosexual lifestyle, the publisher of Venus, a lesbian magazine, and an editor of Young Gay America. Their stories are available on the net. An article by an ex-gay in the New Statesmen this July identified the roots of his emotional hurts, like a distant father, overbearing mother and sexual abuse by a family friend; after working through his pain, his unwanted same-sex attractions left. While difficult, change is possible and a compassionate society would help those wanting to fulfill their heterosexual potential. There is hope.

“Heterosexual potential”?

I suppose it should go without saying that this rabid bigotry is embedded within an argument that is exceptionally weak, replete with reactionary talk-radio debating points whose fallaciousness should be especially evident to an alleged advocate of human rights (“people who oppose legal discrimination are intolerant…of intolerance! Nyah-nyah!”) And it’s also dismaying to see a law professor see no problem with laws that she concedes will only be sporadically and arbitrarily enforced.

Goldberg on HRW

[ 0 ] July 17, 2009 |

Matt Duss has a nice post on Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent silliness regarding Human Rights Watch. Yesterday Goldberg, following up on a WSJ editorial, gave the impression that by talking about their work regarding Israeli human rights abuses while in the anti-Semitic world of Saudi Arabia, they were guilty of some grave but unspecified wrong. This prompts a reader to ask “Are you suggesting in your criticism of Human Rights Watch that its officials shouldn’t talk to Arab audiences about Israel?”, which as Matt notes would seem to be a plausible inference. Goldberg’s response is that he didn’t mean HRW shouldn’t talk about Israel in Arab countries, but rather than they shouldn’t fund-raise in them (at least not while mentioning Israel). Perhaps to fend off further objections, he gestures towards universalizing his new ad-hoc principle of ethical fundraising by suggesting that “Human Rights Watch shouldn’t raise funds in Israel, either” because if they were talking about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia while in Tel Aviv, that might upset people in the Arab world.

Duss says most of what needs to be said, but I’ll simply add that one position he seems to be arguing is that HRW should not engage in any fund-raising activity in countries which meet the following two conditions A)human rights are not universally well-respected, and B) they have less than cordial relations with other countries with human rights abuses. If the Goldberg principle of ethical fundraising were applied, HRW would rather obviously be somewhat severely restricted, presumably to the detriment of the cause of human rights. Two further comments:

1) Organizations like HRW should be at least a little concerned about the appearance of bias, as their reputation to some extent depends on being perceived as being against and opposed to human rights abuses wherever they may occur. However, at the end of the day this is simply a lost cause in the world we live in–the reputation they seek is going to be unattainable in the eyes of a great many people, whose own views on who violates human rights, and which violations of human rights are worthy of condemnation are driven by a variety of political allegiences and commitments. If everyone thinks HRW is wonderfully even-handed and unbiased, they’re doing it wrong.

2) An additional problem here is what might be called the methodological nationalism of Goldberg’s principle. Governments that commit human rights violations are tainted in a way that their citizens are not. Cultivating connections and commitments to the human rights movement in countries with poor human rights records should be welcomed.

Update: edited to make non-sensical sentences less so.

Carriers and Trident, or Body Armor?

[ 0 ] July 11, 2009 |

This is well out of my normal terrain, but a couple weeks ago a high profile commission reported on the future priorities of UK defense spending.  The commission, operating out of the Institute for Public Policy Research and led by a couple Lords (in this case Ashdown, the former LibDem leader and all purpose go-to guy, and Robertson, a former Defense Secretary) argued against big ticket items, such as the Trident nuclear deterrent and the two planned aircraft carriers.

There is a lot about this that is logical.  This island I live on is running a bit short on cash, the MoD is perennially underfunded, and stories are common that the soldier on the ground is under-equipped, (though see here for a counterpoint), to the point where it now may even be considered criminal under EU Human Rights law.  If more money can be shifted to offering these guys and gals better kit, then all the better.
However, it’s an open question, and well beyond my expertise (even when I fake it), as to whether or not the UK requires a nuclear deterrent, and I’m interested in hearing opinions on this matter.  On the carriers, I have a more emotional reaction: I grew up in a navy town (from which I understandably fled as soon as I could), Plymouth is a navy town, and FFS this is the Royal Navy we’re discussing.  Replacing their current three fake carriers with two that are almost real carriers makes sense in terms of both my emotional well being, and the admittedly far less important criterion of force projection.
That said, there’s not a lot of money floating around the UK these days (even though the Bank of England is trying to make up for that through the beautifully termed quantitative easing), and these are my tax dollars not at work.  It’s probably best to outfit the front line soldiers with proper kit than invest in big ticket items.
But what do I know?

European political leader who believed in Iraqi WMD has sophisticated foreign policy opinions about Iran, too

[ 0 ] June 28, 2009 |

Um, no one cares what Jose Maria Aznar thinks, but this is an especially useless effort. The comparisons between Iran and the Soviet Union are delivered with the stupidity that’s customary for the genre; it’s hard, for example, to know where to begin his claim that Western support for Soviet dissidents (a) made Soviet leaders fearful of treating them badly, and (b) eventually brought town the government itself. Whatever force “the Free World” was able to exert upon Soviet human rights was a direct result of the fact that the US and the Soviet Union had, from 1963 through the mid-1970s, established a reasonably successful record of negotiating on a variety of issues of mutual interest (e.g, nuclear testing and arms limitations, grain shipments, etc.) So far as dissidents were concerned, their treatment during this period was mild by the obviously unpleasant by historical standards — not because the government feared Johnson, Nixon or Ford (who were, it’s worth pointing out, not hollering conspicuously about Soviet dissidents) but because Soviet leadership saw little to be gained domestically from “ruthlessly [doing] away with them,” as Aznar insists they would have. After Khrushchev’s disclosures, a full revival of Stalinist brutality was probably an impossibility; whatever ill needs to be spoken of the post-Stalin era, it’s insane to claim their behavior was held in check simply out of fear of external punishment. The state viewed dissidents as enemies of the regime and suppressed them as best they could, but by the late 1970s and 1980s — when Aznar presumably believes US support for dissidents was most consequential — the Soviet leadership hardly required the aid of dissenters (or critiques by American leaders) to bring discredit to its own project.

That said, it’s hard to imagine what sort of guidance Aznar thinks his flawed history might provide for the Obama administration. This is of course a problem for anyone who’s been insisting that Obama Must Do SomethingTM, but Aznar captures the vagueness of the argument with impressive brevity:

This is no time for hesitation on the part of the West. If, as part of an attempt to reach an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, the leaders of democratic nations turn their backs on the dissidents they will be making a terrible mistake.

President Obama has said he refuses to “meddle” in Iran’s internal affairs, but this is a poor excuse for passivity. If the international community is not able to stop, or at least set limits on, the repressive violence of the Islamic regime, the protesters will end up as so many have in the past — in exile, in prison, or in the cemetery. And with them, all hope for change will be gone.

See, I’d been under the mistaken impression that the US would be hard-pressed to find a constructive role to play with respect to the Iranian crisis. But I forgot that by simply not hesitating* and by facing the protesters squarely in solidarity**, we could actually set limits*** on the behavior of the Iranian state!

* Whatever the hell that means.
** Ibid.
*** Ibid.

Section 5 of Voting Rights Act Narrowed But Not Struck Down

[ 0 ] June 22, 2009 |

The Supreme Court today, by an 8-1 vote, narowed but did not strike down the “preclearance” provisions of the Voting Rights Act that require certain jurisdictions to get federal approval for any changes in their election laws. The opinion of the Court, written by Chief Justice Roberts, declined to address the question of whether the Voting Rights Act is constitutional but rather ruled on the narrow grounds that the utility district in question was eligible to apply for a “bailout” from the preclearance provisions if they meet certain conditions. Justice Thomas, in partial dissent, argued that Section 5 should have been ruled unconstitutional.

Despite how it looked after oral argument, I’m not actually surprised by the outcome. The Court’s conservatives have generally been much more likely to narrow civil rights legislation and major Warren Court precedents than overturn them outright, and it seemed especially unlikely that they would start a new trend with a provision of the Voting Rights Act however much they disliked it. And while I tend to be skeptical of “minimalism” in general and how the Roberts Court has used it in particular, in this case I actually think it’s meaningful and appropriate. The outcome in this case is both reasonable on its face and doesn’t completely gut the statute.

While I’m engaging in rare praise for John Roberts, I should also say that I think that conservatives do have one objection to Section 5 that I consider reasonable. As regular readers know, I have less than no use for arguments that the “sovereign dignity” of states should trump human rights, and also think that the localized American electoral system is a disaster that should be mitigated as much as possible. However, I do think Roberts has a good point when he questions the ongoing selective applicability of the preclearance provisions: “The evil that §5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance. The statute’s coverage formula is based on data that is now more than 35 years old, and there is considerable evidence that it fails to account for current political conditions.” It’s not obvious to me that, say, Indiana is less likely to enact legislation restricting minority access to the ballot than Virginia or Kings County New York. To the extent that the Supreme Court is signaling that the legislation would be more easily defensible if it applied to everyone, I think they have a point (although I suspect that the Court’s conservatives may be planting a Catch-22 in which the legislation will turn out to be under- or over-inclusive depending on how Congress deals with this question.)

Sunday Book Review: Hide and Seek: Searching for Truth in Iraq

[ 1 ] June 21, 2009 |

This is the third installment of a seven part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. World of Nations, William Keylor
  2. The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
  3. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer

Charles Duelfer worked for UNSCOM, the agency that investigated Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions mandating the elimination of chemical and biological stockpiles during the 1990s. He later came to fame as the head of the Iraq Survey Group, which turned in the final administrative report on the state of Iraq’s unconventional weapons programs at the time of the invasion. The former job meant that he was uniquely suited for the latter, as he had more experience with Iraq than most living Americans. He has now penned Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq, an analytical memoir about his experiences in Iraq. Duelfer isn’t a natural writer, and the seams are visibile; in some places Hide and Seek seems a touch incoherent. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable contribution to the growing literature on the Iraq War.

Duelfer continues to believe that the decision to invade Iraq was sound, but that the execution of the war was fatally disrupted by US ineptitude. This isn’t quite the incompetence dodge; he doesn’t attempt to excuse his support of the war by suggesting that he thought it would end up better than it did. Rather, he favored war because he believed that the other options were even worse. He argues that continued disengagment with Iraq would, in fairly short order, have resulted in the reconstitution of its unconventional weapons programs and itsbthreat to US interests in the Gulf. Direct engagement with Iraq could have borne fruit, but was impossible given the domestic situation within the United States. War, thus, was the only remaining option. Interestingly enough, Duelfer was largely indifferent to the central justification for war. He thought it possible that Iraq had retained stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, but was by no means certain. He didn’t, however think that the presence of such weapons was a key element of the case for war.

I found Duelfer’s argument that Saddam was a threat that required action uncompelling. It’s entirely correct to say that Iraq wanted out of the sanctions regime, and that elements of the regime wished to preserve the capability to produce unconventional weapons. It’s also true that some parts of the sanctions regime were untenable. This doesn’t, however, add up to very much. In four years of absence of inspections, the Iraqis had not reconstituted their unconventional weapons programs, in spite of the belief that the United States wasn’t playing fair. Moreover, Iraqi conventional capabilities had deteriorated substantially relative to the United States, and to every other state in the region. Without conventional capability, even a robust chemical program would have had only a limited effect on regional politics. Finally, I simply don’t believe that the sanctions regime was dead; an energetic, enthusiastic, and intelligent US administration could have used the political capital generated by 9/11 to reinvigorate and restructure the sanctions regime, such that it allowed Iraq to develop its economy while seriously restricting Hussein’s ability to reconstruct his conventional army. This, as they say, was the road not taken. To his credit, Duelfer gives absolutely no creedence to the notion that Hussein could transfer WMD to terrorist organizations.

Duelfer discusses Iraqi entreaties toward the United States on several occasions. Saddam and the rest of the regime believed that the United States and Iraq could cooperate on several fronts, and that the US and Iraq were natural allies. It seems that the Iraqis believed this during almost the entire period between 1991 and 2003, although the feelers became more serious after 1996. Hussein suggested collaboration on the Palestinian issue (including an offer to resettle Palestinians in Iraq), the growth of Islamic extremism, and Iran. It’s not quite true that none of this was taken seriously by the US government; rather, it’s more accurate to say that no one was listening. Duelfer, who worked in Iraq for much of this period, was sometimes the conduit through which such feelers were made. The Clinton administration, however, had not the faintest interest in reconciling with the Iraqi regime. Duelfer argues that the Iraqis could have offered the world and the moon, but that the balance of power in the US government precluded the possibility of diplomacy. Clinton wouldn’t pursue rapproachment with Iraq because of fear of Congressional criticism. This effectively foreclosed the “reconcile with Iraq” option.

I think that Duelfer is broadly correct; it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the United States government, at least in the short term, could have pursued reconciliation with Iraq. The problem was primarily (although not wholly) with Congressional Republicans; I suspect that even the Bush administration would have taken heat for openings with Hussein. Human rights advocacy groups would also, correctly, have denounced any rapproachment with Hussein’s regime. I think it’s also true that the blame for this situation fell on both sides. Had the Hussein government made a series of strong statements of denunciation of the attacks of 9/11, followed up by concrete and public offers of assistance, a dialogue might have been easier. The rehabilitation of Qaddafi demonstrates that anything can happen. Hussein, however, lacked vision.

As an unreformed war advocate, Duelfer is understandably agitated at the amazing ineptitude with which the war was conducted. He compellingly argues that the two biggest mistakes the US undertook following the invasion were the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the process of de-Baathification. These moves alienated two groups that the United States should not have alienated; large formations of heavily armed young men, and Iraq’s technical and bureaucratic elite. Duelfer was familiar and friendly with much of the latter from his time in Iraq in the 1990s, and is confidant that it could have been co-opted. In effect, the United States gutted the Iraqi state while simultaeneously creating a motivated resistance. Obviously, I don’t think that these moves were entirely responsible for the creation of the insurgency, but it’s hard to argue that they didn’t make the situation much worse. Duelfer blames both decisions on the influence of the INC and on ideologues within the Defense Department. Neither group understood anything about modern Iraq, and the latter had only the faintest notion of what a state was.

Duelfer makes a tepid defense of the administration and the intelligence community against charges of lying and intentionally deceiving the American public, but doesn’t do a very good job. He makes the point, correctly, that pushing for a particular interpretation within a bureaucracy and intentional deception aren’t quite the same thing. He fails, however, to acknowledge the aura of absolute certainty that surrounded the administration’s insistence on the presence of chemical and biological weapons. In other words, it’s possible to imagine an administration that was forthrightly erroneous rather than intentionally deceptive, but the Bush administration ain’t it. Moreover, Duelfer fails entirely to discuss the most egregious deception undertaken by the administration, the implication that the Hussein regime was in league with Al Qaeda and could potentially supply the latter with effective WMD. A man with Duelfer’s expertise and experience in Iraq must have known that this was utter nonsense, both in terms of the likelihood of such a relationship and in terms of its fruits for either side. It is particularly disappointing that Duelfer ignores this deception, as it provided the logical foundation for linking the September 11 attacks to the invasion of Iraq.

Perhaps the most interesting contribution that Duelfer makes is insight into the bureaucratic machinations of the UN, Iraq, and the United States government. He details his slow realization that bureaucratic organizations depend on the production of their own internal realities, and that the realities that one organization requires to operate do not necessarily coincide with the realities of others. He discusses how the US, UNSCOM, and Iraq could have completely (and often wildly) different interpretations of the same event, and how these interpretations precluded meaningful cooperation. Duelfer is pretty hard on all of these bureaucracies; he faults the US bureaucracy for having an incoherent approach to Iraq, the Iraqi bureaucracy for perpetuating an unrealistic set of expectations, and the UN bureaucracy for limiting the scope of his investigations. On the latter, Duelfer falls into a common trap that afflicts UN critiques; he sees only how UN politics hindered the operations of UNSCOM, without thinking too much about how the Security Council enabled the investigations in the first place. This is classic trees-forest thinking. Without the Security Council, and without the will to conquer and occupy Iraq in 1991, there would have been no inspections whatsoever, and no investigation of Iraqi weapons program. Duelfer is fond of comparing the containment of Iraq post-1991 to the post-Versailles containment of Germany, but misses out on how the existence of the Security Council provided the former with far bigger teeth than the latter. Duelfer’s account will hold some interest for science and tech geeks, although not as much as I expected; Duelfer shies away from detailed discussions of the technical aspects of his work, although he does make clear that the details are, well, detailed.

This is a useful volume. There is much to disagree with, but that’s not really the point; read, disagree, and at the end you’ll still have a better understanding of how what Iraqis and Americans did after 1991 led to 2005. There is not and will never be a single narrative of US involvement in Iraq. The best we can do is try to piece together bits from different sources, in order to produce a narrative that makes sense. I suspect, moreover, that no single narrative will make sense to everyone. Duelfer’s contribution is an important one, largely because he was working in and thinking about Iraq while few other Americans were.

This Is Your Court On Conservatives

[ 0 ] June 19, 2009 |

In light of two controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decisions this week, Matt is reminded of Jeffrey Toobin’s point that “In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff.”

On Osborne, Matt does a good job of pointing out the obvious injustice of a state preventing a prisoner from presenting potentially exculpatory evidence at his own expense. I would add that we should add to Toobin’s litany that Roberts and his right-wing colleagues share another longstanding trait of American conservatives: prioritizing “state’s rights” over human rights. And as in most cases, the benefits of this as applied to this case are hard to discern. While federalism may promote liberty in some respects, there is no tangible benefit to permitting states to imprison potentially innocent people when assessing exculpatory evidence would entail little expense. And interpreting the due process clause to give the defendant a right to present exculpatory evidence in this case can only be a threat to the “sovereignty” and “dignity” of the states if one believes that there should be virtually no federal supervision of the state criminal procedure, which the 14th Amendment precludes even if it wasn’t a stupid idea on the merits. If preventing illegal detention isn’t at the heart of due process, I’m not sure what is. (And why the abstract “dignity” of states should trump the very real dignity of human beings I can’t tell you.)

Gross v. FBL
‘s denial of an age discrimination claim was equally predictable. The key dispute in the case is whether statutory language that makes it illegal to fire an employee “because of” age means that (as Thomas asserts) a plaintiff must prove that she would not have been fired “but-for” her age, while the dissent argues that any firing motivated in whole or in part by age discrimination is illegal. As Stevens points out, the context of the legislation and Supreme Court precedent makes Thomas’s read of the statute highly dubious:

The “but-for” causation standard endorsed by the Court today was advanced in Justice Kennedy’s dissenting opinion in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, a case construing identical language in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not only did the Court reject the but-for standard in that case, but so too did Congress when it amended Title VII in 1991. Given this unambiguous history, it is particularly inappropriate for the Court, on its own initiative, to adopt an interpretation of the causation requirement in the ADEA that differs from the established reading of Title VII. I disagree not only with the Court’s interpretation of the statute, but also with its decision to engage in unnecessary lawmaking.

It should be noted as well that these cases demonstrate another point made by Toobin: the argument made by Roberts that Supreme Court Justices are simply “umpires” making judgments about clear rules are absurd. In these cases, as in most interesting appellate court cases, the relevant constitutional and statutory provisions admit multiple plausible interpretations, and choosing among these interpretations inevitably involves value judgments. If you don’t place a high value on protecting the ability of states to arbitrarily detain individuals and protecting the ability of employers to discriminate against their employees, you don’t want justices like Alito and Roberts on the Court, and this has nothing to do with whether or not they’re competent lawyers.

[X-Posted to TAPPED.]

Nice Reproductive Freedom You’ve Got There, Shame If Something Would Happen To It

[ 1 ] June 10, 2009 |

Given that many people have already critiqued the latest Douthat nonsense on abortion (see also here), for some variety I thought I’d address similar arguments made recently by Megan McArdle. From her response to Hilzoy:

My argument is that abortion, like slavery, is becoming in this country an issue upon which people have no reasonable political recourse. I’ll go further, and say that the process by which 7 judges enforced their consciences on the American public was itself borderline illegitimate; it was first, not in their proper job description, and second, a bad way to run a government.

[...]

Questions of fundamental human rights that have been closed off from the normal political process are very likely to produce violence. I can simultaneously, as I do, want Tiller’s murderer given a long jail substance, and worry that we’ve left his fellow lone gunmen no other outlets for their legitimate moral beliefs.

Is it naive to think that the political process would tame this rage? I don’t think so. The political process would always offer some always offer some marginal victory worth fighting for, whereas now, any marginal victory is more likely than not to be struck down by a court.

So much illogic here:

  • The most obvious problems are the ones that afflict all arguments about countermobilization against the Courts: the utter lack of evidence that people respond to judicial policymaking differently than policymaking by other institutions. For example, if judicial intervention into the abortion issue greatly increased political violence, the effect should travel — but it doesn’t. Judicial intervention in Canada hasn’t produced the level of terrorism that we’ve seen in the United States, and indeed hasn’t even produced a major political party that wants to recrciminalize abortion.
  • Even more bizarre is her analogy to slavery. Let’s leave aside the normative offensiveness of the comparison and just discuss how McArdle couldn’t be more wrong about its implications. The issue of slavery, of course, was essentially left to ordinary political processes, with not only the court but the text of the Constitution itself being silent on most of the most important issues. Is she repeating the canard that Dred Scott led to the Civil War? If so, the obvious problem with the argument is that it’s completely false (certainly, Buchanan’s bungling over Lecompton was much more important.) Indeed, the Supreme Court’s decision, while grossly immoral, had pretty much zero policy impact. There was no chance that further restrictions on slavery in the territories would have passed before 1861 (Congressional elites for the mst part strongly supported Dred Scott), Lincoln just ignored it, and then it was overturned by constitutional amendment within a decade. Even more puzzling, Dred Scott created exactly the same kind of arrangement that McArdle claims will stop political violence — leaving fundamental human rights issues “to the states.” State legislatures remained perfectly free to abolish slavery, but somehow this didn’t stop John Brown. Roger Taney was wrong to think that leaving things to the states would decrase political conflict about slavery, and McArdle is wrong to think that allowing some states to force women to carry pregnancy to term would decrease political conflict about abortion.
  • The slavery analogy is also useful in demonstrating that in addition to having no empirical support McArdle’s assumptions make no sense even in theory. Just as abolitionists didn’t think that being established by normal political processes (at least by 19th century standards) made human bondage more acceptable, it seems vanishingly unlikely that terrorists who think that abortion is murder will be content with abortion being legal because of legislative decisions. I don’t know about you, but I would not find the legalization of murder any more acceptable if it was the result of a legislative decision.
  • In addition, I note again the trademark Douthatian claim that there is no possibility of “marginal victories ” for forced pregnancy advocates, when of course for nearly two decades the Supreme Court has made clear that all marginal restrictions on abortion, pre- or post- viability, would be upheld (with the exception of the extremely rare ones that might equally affect women similarly situated to Sandra Day O’Connor.) Most abortion policy, in other words, is left to ordinary political processes. The one major exception — bans on pre-viability abortion — would not be politically viable in many states and almost certainly would allow for a substantial gray market even in states where bans were viable.
  • Finally, McArdle rests on traditional but erroneous assumptions about the independence and “countermajoritarian” nature of the judiciary. In fact, Roe has stood up for as long as it has because it has very substantial political support. It is not correct, for example, to say that the only political option for anti-choicers to oppose Roe is a constitutional amendment; in fact, what they need is five votes on the Court. Abortion remains legal in the United States not because courts were omnipotent but because Robert Bork was defeated by a bipartisan majority in the Senate. Proponents of a virtually unlimited state power to criminalize abortion had access to the political process. They lost.

So I’m afraid I’m not going to sign on to the idea that women’s reproductive rights should be sacrificed for alleged speculative benefits that have pretty much no empirical or theoretical basis. It makes rather more sense to combat terrorism with state power.

Medical Professionals and Torture

[ 0 ] May 28, 2009 |

Randy Paul has been writing an excellent series on medical professionals and torture, stemming from his attendance of a symposium on the subject two weeks ago. Long story short, “enhanced interrogations” often require the presence of a medical professional in order to make sure that the person who is definitely not being tortured doesn’t, you know, die. Randy notes that there is a bill floating through the New York State Assembly intended to create consequences for medical professionals who participate in such interrogations. Physicians for Human Rights has a petition in support of the bill; check it out.

Advocating for Civilians in Sri Lanka

[ 0 ] May 13, 2009 |

Some professors in Canada are attempting to “bridge the theory/policy divide.” 125 Canadian academics circulated a statement last week calling on the Canadian government to spearhead efforts to resolve the worsening humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka.

The group makes a compelling case:

“Most independent observers estimate that more than 200,000 Tamil civilians, many already displaced multiple times, have been under siege in the tiny coastal strip with at least 50,000 still there. Confirmed reports indicate that more than 6,400 civilians, including 700 children, have been killed since January 2009.

Displaced persons who have managed to flee the fighting have been placed in de facto detention camps by the Sri Lankan government where they are denied freedom of movement, in contravention of international standards. There are over 40,000 displaced people being held in 13 sites in the Vavuniya District in overcrowded conditions without adequate access to healthcare, food and water. There are reports of rape, torture and killings in the camps (Medico International, Germany, April 16, 2009). Civilians who are suspected of LTTE ties have been taken into government custody, leading to fears of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, tactics the government and its allied militias have employed in significant numbers over the past few years (Amnesty International, ASA 37/004/2009).

Recent artillery attacks by Sri Lankan forces have indiscriminately targeted civilians and civilian objects, in contravention of international humanitarian law. There are credible reports that the Sri Lankan army may be using illegal cluster bombs as well as thermobaric bombs in the safe zone with high civilian casualties. There have been more than two dozen incidents of artillery shelling or aerial bombardment on or near hospitals, in flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions. The presence of wounded combatants in hospitals does not turn them into legitimate targets. Deliberately attacking a hospital is a war crime. At the same time we deplore the LTTE’s forcible recruitment of civilians, including children, for untrained military duty and for labour in the combat zones as well as its practice of forcing civilians to retreat with its forces, deliberately preventing civilians under its effective control from fleeing to safety. Nevertheless, violations of the laws of war by one side to a conflict do not justify violations by the opposing side. They do not permit the indiscriminate use of force by the Sri Lankan forces in response (Human Rights Watch, 20 Februrary 2009).

Amen. However, reading this left me with a few questions about this group’s strategy. First of all, while most of the claims above are indisputable, a few leave me wondering, and for a statement prepared by academics, there is a dearth of sources cited (a few parenthetical citations give too little information for me to follow sources online so that I could link to them in this post).

What, for example, is the authors’ “credible source” on Sri Lanka’s use of thermobaric weapons? I have seen this concern raised (e.g. here) and (the LTTE has also been accused of using thermobarics as long ago as 2005). But these do not strike me as particularly credible sources, especially given the authors’ misperception that thermobaric weapons are banned in international law (they should be, but they’re not). And David Hamblin at Danger Room points out that none of these claims are verifiable - not that they should matter, slaughter is slaughter, thermobaric or not. Anyway, I’d have expected the academics writing this statement to distinguish between clear-cut facts and the variety of claims out there, or at least provide a citation to some independent report of which I, and more importantly their target audience, might simply not be aware.

I completely support this group’s aims. But I worry that failing to distinguish facts from claims and provide documentary evidence of such statements undermines these scholars’ very worthy case, and more importantly their value-added as academics.

Which leads to a different question. Were these concerned citizens really writing as academics or as Canadian citizens, and what’s the difference if anything? In a statement to the press, Sherry Aiken who initiated the petition said:

“The fact that so many Canadian Tamils are continuing to lose family members and riends in the ongoing crisis is what prompted us as concerned Canadian academics to stand in solidarity with them.”

I wonder if you need to be an academic in order for such concerns to have resonance. And I wonder whether academics should be taking stands as academics on issues that concern them primarily for personal reasons.

OK, lots of different issues raised here, comment away.

The Keep Arbitrary Detainees in a Geographic and Legal No-Man’s-Land Chosen Deliberately to Enhance Dick Cheney’s Hard-On for Executive Power Act

[ 0 ] May 8, 2009 |

Republicans might as well be specific here. I suppose it’s possible that some people are willing to accept the argument that Guantanamo was chosen as a detention site because “illegal combatants” posed a grave threat threat to Americans that could only be adequately contained on an isolated naval base. (Certain law professors, for example, wondered if Jose Padilla might actually “communicate in code by blinking.”) And some people are probably dumb enough to overlook the fact that Republicans are eliding the difference between “releasing” and “transferring” detainees to the US.

But all that really needs to be pointed out is that Guantanamo Bay was selected because people who mattered in the Bush administration did not want to place captives anywhere that would subject their policies to another country’s laws (or another country’s willingness to care if human rights obligations were minded). Alternately, the Bush administration did not want to negotiate a SOFA with, say, Guam or American Samoa, because these were US territories were US laws would apply. Indeed, if keeping “terrorists” out of the US had been the sole priority, a site like Wake Island would arguably have served just as well — it’s unpopulated, geographically remote, and under the control of the US Air Force. But detainees on Wake Island would likely have received the very legal protections that would have made Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales cry, and so the Bush administration elected to use Guantanamo. As it turned out, the Supreme Court was unwilling to allow the administration to do as it pleased; with Rasul, Hamdan, and Boumediene, the policy of arbitrary detention was undermined to the point that Guantanamo could no longer serve the lawless purposes for which it was created.

Republicans who boast of their concerns about “fascism” are apparently worried that Guantanamo won’t be available any longer for arbitrary detention and torture; by contrast, they’re in a simulated panic that the Obama administration is preparing to release an army of jihadi Willie Hortons into the streets. Pathetic.

Careless Warfare or Lawfare? A Pointless Debate

[ 0 ] May 7, 2009 |

Enough civilian body parts to fill two tractor-trailers remained after an incident in Farah province of Afghanistan Monday, according to the NY Times today. Afghan civilians blame US airstrikes for 100+ civilian dead; the United States is investigating the possibility that the Taliban executed the civilians with grenades in order to blame US forces.

Either scenario is pretty plausible; but either way the PR fiasco falls in the lap of the international forces, so the bottom line is the US needs to rethink its counterinsurgency strategy.

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict released a report last month entitled Losing the People: The costs and Consequences of Civilian Suffering in Afghanistan. Based on interviews with 143 civilians harmed by conflict operations in the country since 2001, the report (p. 11) details both “lawfare” deployed by the Taliban, in which civilians are intentionally used as shields, and massive casualties from US “collateral damage.”

In November 2008, villagers attending an Afghan wedding party in Kandahar provice said insurgents entered the area, fired on international forces, and then forcibly prevented the villagers form fleeing the area before IMF retaliated with an air-strike that left 37 members of the wedding party dead.

Haji Nasaib lost nine family members and suffered significant property loss due to an IMF air-strike in Wardak province. “I could see all the dead and injured bodies. My daughter was baking bread inside the house when the bomb hit. Due to the blast, she was thrown into the oven. Her body was totally burned. She was taken to the hospital, but she died… My son had injuries on his feet and the force of the blast had thrown him over a tree. Another daughter – she was blasted into so many pieces that we still have not been able to find her body.”

The first example is a war crime; the latter, unless the result of intentional targeting of civilians, is not. But the difference is lost on the civilian population of Afghanistan, and ultimately it is the US who pays the political price. The popularity of the international troops in the country has been plummeting since last year, and there is a resurgence of anger since this week’s incident.

In fact, given the regularity of such incidents, one wonders why the Afghani people have not risen up more forcefully already to kick out the occupiers – who on the one hand are seen as cowards who fight from the skies, and on the other hand have been ineffective at protecting them from militias?

Currently, international forces maintain the moral high ground in three ways. First, they kill fewer civilians than insurgents and pro-government forces in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International data suggest the number of casualties from IMF mistakes has been around 25% of the overall total for the past three years; the Afghan NGO Security Office numbers are slightly lower for 2006. Second, they often apologize when they make mistakes, unlike the Taliban who sometimes target civilians directly. And third, they often compensate the families of civilians who are killed or maimed through carelessness.

But international forces also fight an uphill battle in other respects: they are outsiders, their disproportionate power is resented, and they are seen as out of touch with the needs of the Afghan people. It is clear that the US and other ISAF countries will need to take greater steps to reduce the “collateral damage” associated with Operation Enduring Freedom, and to streamline the programs in place to mitigate the unavoidable effects on civilians.

CIVIC’s report outlines a variety of such measures, including quicker apologies (not “regrets,” not “excuses,” but apologies); better coordination of existing compensation policies so that families don’t fall through the cracks; quicker public acknowledgement of errors, and more transparent investigations; and “the establishment of a Pentagon position to strategically address potential and actual civilian casualties.”

In my view, an important item should be added to this list: the ISAF, led by the US, should rethink the use of airpower and strafing as a legitimate means of waging a counterinsurgency war within areas populated by civilians. Even with the most discriminate means available – precision targeting by unmanned drones – the civilian/combatant death ratios we are seeing in Afghanistan and Pakistan are ridiculously disproportionate. It’s time to put our money where our mouths are and fight insurgents on the ground.

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