Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The U.S. Military in Iraq: Were Human Rights Ignored?

Philip Alston, a United Nations human rights official, warned the U.S. Government in 2006 that he had received information indicating that Iraqi reports of American troops executing an Iraqi family were true. Five of the victims were children five years old or younger. According to Alston, the troops “entered the house [after a 25 minute gun battle], handcuffed all residents and executed all of them.” He noted that the troops attacked the house in part because they suspected that the family was involved in the killing of two American troops earlier in March, 2006. If this is true, both the vengeful attack and the subsequent investigation by the U.S. military, which concluded that the report of the execution was false, demonstrate what can go wrong when conflicts of interest are ignored.

In his Two Treatises of Government, John Locke writes that government is necessary because victims cannot be trusted to act as judges in meting out sentences in their own cases. At the very least, the aggressors could be expected to receive unduly harsh punishments because of the weight of vengeance on the victims’ judgment. So too, American troops cannot be trusted to take matters into their own hands concerning the shooting of other American troops. Moreover, the U.S. military cannot be expected to judge its own. So too, regarding the massacre of 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli on June 29, 1996, which would prompt the protests that ultimately led to the fall of Qaddafi, the question of an independent investigation even by the rebels themselves should involve making certain that the ex-guards and government officials are not allowed to vitiate an investigation or its verdict. “We want a fair investigation to discover what exactly happened,” Jamal Bashir al-Gorgi said. His brother Faraj was killed. It is the ethical principle of fairness that is so easily discarded from justice when the victims become the victimizers.

Besides the matter of a military, whether African or American, “taking care of its own,” there is a danger, moreover, in having violence itself coming to be tacitly accepted simply because vested interests eviscerate accountability—which itself can foster a culture wherein spontaneous violence is not sufficiently held back from a normative standpoint. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, it could be that the world had become so accustomed to the continued existence of standing armies that violence itself had come to be expected, or at the very least engrained in societal norms. Hence, the U.S. military was thrust into Iraq as a clumsy reaction of vengeance after the terrorist attack in New York City in September, 2001. Incredibly, the military itself was trusted to investigate “its own” while Alston’s letter that was submitted to the U.S. Embassy in Geneva 12 days after the killings in March 2006 was virtually ignored.

It could be that the very existence of a standing army relegates human rights while potential vengeance is given a ready instrument. Indeed, the U.S. is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the American union is one of the most militarized alliances in the world—ready to be engaged by a commander in chief who can de facto declare war on his own in spite of the conflict of interest. Perhaps if human rights were more valued in American society, such large standing armies as those in the U.S. would not be necessary. That is to say, perhaps there would be less hatred around the world directed at the American union.


Richard Oppel, Jr., “Cable Implicates Americans in Deaths of Iraqi Civilians,” New York Times, September 2, 2011. 

Kareem Fahim, “Rebels Yank Open Gates of Infamous Libyan Prison, Seeking Clues to a Massacre,” New York Times, September 2, 2011. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Extrapolating from the Arab Spring to Corporate Social Responsibility

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic and a myriad of other companies, sees a natural extension or follow-through from the pro-democracy protests in the Middle East and North Africa to more corporate social responsibility. As much as I would like to think that the twenty-first century proffers a new world, I think we have to acknowledge the weight of the political, economic and social strictures that we have uncritically inherited.

The Russian Conscience: Human Rights in Syria

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, warned on January 18, 2012, according to the New York Times, “that outside encouragement of antigovernment uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa could lead to ‘a very big war that will cause suffering not only to countries in the region, but also to states far beyond its boundaries.’” A very big war, it would seem, with very big stick, would be the result of “outsiders” stepping in to protect the Syrian protesters from their own government. In fact, the Times reports that “Lavrov said Russia would use its position on the United Nations Security Council to veto any United Nations authorization of military strikes against the government [of Syria].” It made no difference to Lavrov that the United Nations, including the Secretary General, had “repeatedly called for Syria [to] end a crackdown on opposition demonstrators, which Arab League monitors say resulted in hundreds of deaths over the past month.” In other words, the U.N. was officially impotent in being able to act on the basis of its “demand” because one of its members has a veto.

Lavrov’s position forces potential “outside” interventionists to justify their position. I would have thought that stepping in to stop people from being killed is a good thing. Lavrov was insisting it is bad. “If someone conceives the idea of using force at any cost—and I’ve already heard calls for sending some Arab troops to Syria—we are unlikely to be able to prevent this,” he said, “(b)ut this should be done on their own initiative and should remain on their conscience. They won’t get any authorization from the Security Council.” In other words, stopping people from being killed—from their own government no less—is a matter that would weigh on one’s conscience. One might ask Lavrov whether the Syrians killed because of his veto ought to weigh on his conscience. He was undoubtedly putting an absolutist view of national sovereignty before any right of “outsiders” to stop killing that at the very least, given a government’s formal monopoly of lethal force, unfair. Were he to relax his view of national sovereignty, would he still say that stopping the killing would remain on a conscience? There would not be much daylight between insisting even that and saying that interfering with Hitler’s concentration camps (or Stalin’s mass killing of the Polish elite) from abroad would have weighed on consciences. In other words, Lavrov can almost be read as being in favor of Assad’s killing spree, irrespective of national sovereignty needing to be respected for the world of nations to have order.

Of course, it could be objected that there was not much order in Syria at the time, and, moreover, that national sovereignty is not absolute on account of human nature, and that far from weighing on consciences, “outsiders” have a moral obligation to step in to stop killings when there is a reasonable expectation that they would otherwise happen. This obligation can be based on Kant’s imperative that there is a duty to treat rational nature, which humans have, as an end in itself and not merely as a means. This duty presumably includes stopping those people who would otherwise treat others only as means to their own designs. Alternatively, the obligation could be based on Hume’s moral theory, which holds that “immoral” simply is the sentiment of disapproval that humans naturally feel in watching something like a protester being dragged down the street and killed. In other words, what we naturally feel as a reaction to watching footage from Homs Syria is a valid basis for moral action.

Therefore, from both a rationalist and a psychological basis, moral theory can be used to justify the obligation of intervention by “outsiders.” This directly refutes Lavrov’s contention that there is an obligation not to intervene. Were one to talk with the family of a murdered Syrian, which position do you suppose the family members would say concurs with conscience? I’m thinking it’s not good ole Sergey’s. Fortunately, the rest of us can move on, past even our limp, even crippled U.N., to formulate and implement a mechanism with teeth for dealing with governments that engage in wholesale slaughter of their own citizens. Our consciences naturally demand nothing less.

Ellen Barry and Michael Schwirtz, “Russian Warns That Western Support for Arab Revolts Could Cause a ‘Big War’,” The New York Times, January 19, 2012. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

UN’s General Assembly as Nonbinding on Syria

According to the New York Times, “In a powerful rebuke to Syria’s government, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on [February 16, 2012] to approve a resolution that condemned President Bashar al-Assad’s unbridled crackdown on an 11-month-old uprising and called for his resignation under an Arab League peace proposal to resolve the conflict.” The reporter immediately undercuts his use of powerful by observing that the 137-12 vote (with 17 abstentions) is “a nonbinding action with no power of enforcement at the world body.” The “action” does represent “a significant humiliation” for Assad. I doubt very much if he felt humiliated. His UN ambassador “denounced the resolution as a politically motivated scheme to intervene in Syria by the Western powers and others who ‘would like to settle accounts with Syria.’” Altogether, the first two or three paragraphs of Gladstone’s article can be read in terms of logic as “X, not X.” Of course, the first X gets more attention, so the article gives the impression that the UN did something powerful when in fact the exercise was one of exposing the impotence of the world body.

That the resolutions of the General Assembly are nonbinding even for the UN is perhaps the epitome of self-emasculation. That the Security Council, on which just a fraction of the UN’s 193 members sit at any time, could have resolutions binding on the UN while the GA, on which every member sits, is allowed only non-binding “actions” suggests a democracy deficit in the UN itself—or at the very least a serious problem of priorities. The UN would have more legitimacy were its resolutions that are binding on itself voted on by all of the members—none of which having a veto and thus able to dominate the world body. This change would hardly be earth-shattering, as even “binding” resolutions have trouble finding enough respect to be acted on unless by certain members having a strategic geo-political interest in “volunteering” on the enforcement end. It is striking how Assad’s government can kill over 5000 citizens—whom Gladstone curiously refers to as “an uprising” as if Assad had met rather than led with weapons—and still be a valid member of the UN. I’m not convinced that unconditional love should apply to the organization that has a declaration of human rights, after all.

Therefore, rather than being “powerful” or “humiliating,” the nonbinding resolution of the UN’s General Assembly makes transparent just how bad that world body’s inherent flaws are. This conclusion is utterly hidden in the title that Gladstone went with: “General Assembly Votes to Condemn Syrian Leader.” A better, more realistic title would have been: “A lot of UN members mad at Syrian Government.” Let’s not gild the lily. With global warming and nuclear proliferation each being a viable threat to the continuance of our species, not to mention ourselves in particular regions, we can no longer afford to rely on the UN.

I envision a new world body with a General Assembly capable of enacting resolutions that are binding for still-existing members, none of which has a veto, and a Security Council consisting of rotating members that meets only to handle emergencies (again, no veto). The GA would be authorized to instruct the Security Council how to implement enforcement, using members as it will. Of course, countries would be free to leave the body and face isolation with respect to the benefits that membership provides. Behind this new organization is the realization that our species has stepped onto new land in the twenty-first century. This is not exactly a brave new world of terra firma (the frozen tundra melting in fact). We as a species now know that we can put our entire lot at risk.

We are even beginning to suspect that the historical absolutist interpretation of national sovereignty is now too dangerous, given what damage we can inflict on each other and on our species itself. Even for people not buying into this “new era” thinking, it must be obvious that the UN is an embarrassment and an utter failure with respect to protecting human rights and even ourselves from ourselves. Even just on the surface, a resolution that is non-binding even for the body that does the resolving suggests that the body itself is seriously flawed and deserves to be replaced. Yet as apparent as this reasoning may be, politicians are typically creatures of the status quo and won’t likely make a peep—preferring instead to cite Gladstone’s report of the “powerful rebuke.” Both the rebuke and Gladstone's characterization evince a case of the blind leading the blind. The beguiled followers blindly put still more clothes on the emperor while congratulating themselves on such a fine appearance having been achieved. “It looks good to me,” one blind man says to another. “I quite agree,” the other replies. All the while, the world sleeps, dreaming that it is wide awake.

Rick Gladstone, “General Assembly Votes to Condemn Syrian Leader,” The New York Times, February 17, 2012. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

A World Eschew: National Sovereignty Eclipsing Climate Change

U.S. President Obama announced after he left the UN global climate conference at Copenhagen in 2009 that five major nations—the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa—had together forged a climate deal. He called it “an unprecedented breakthrough” but acknowledged that the agreement was merely a political statement and not a legally binding treaty and might not need ratification by the entire conference.  Essentially, it was merely a statement of the five countries’ respective goals, as if someone had announced, “I want to lose ten pounds.”   The political statement did not meet even the modest expectations that leaders set for this meeting, notably by failing to set a 2010 goal for reaching a binding international treaty to seal the provisions of the accord.  Nor does the plan firmly commit the industrialized nations or the developing nations to firm targets for midterm or long-term greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Claiming that the conference was a success was not to stop the spin. Obama, for example, said, “For the first time in history, all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change.” To be sure, the accord does provide a system for monitoring and reporting progress toward those national pollution-reduction goals, a compromise on an issue over which China bargained hard, and it calls for hundreds of billions of dollars to flow from wealthy nations to those countries most vulnerable to a changing climate.  That is, the political statement is not a binding treaty, but the document does lay out a framework for verification of emissions commitments by developing countries and for establishing a “high-level panel” to assess financial contributions by rich nations to help poor countries adapt to climate change and limit their emissions. Lastly, it sets a goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2050, implying deep cuts in climate-altering emissions over the next four decades.

However, in a news conference, Obama said the accord was only a tentative start down a long road. The accord sets no goal for concluding a binding international treaty, which leaves the implementation of its provisions uncertain. In other words, any developing country can opt in or out of the monitored pot of money, and China may well still view the monitoring aspect as voluntary—meaning to be determined by the Chinese Government what can be examined.  The Chinese had been intransigent on the matter of verification by non-Chinese.  Citing national sovereignty, the Chinese had claimed that the rest of the world should take Chinese law as being a sufficient basis for verification.  This, I submit, is an extremely odd proposition—that people extrinsic to China should rely on Chinese law when the legitimacy of such law stops at the country’s borders.  The statement is telling because it demonstrates how antiquated the Bodinian notion of absolute national sovereignty is in the modern world.  The interdependence occasioned not only by global warming, but also nuclear proliferation and an increasingly global financial system, makes an insistence on the absoluteness of national sovereignty an extremely dangerous proposition.   The fecklessness of the Chinese approach to “verification” and the resulting diluted “political statement” (rather than a treaty) coming out of the conference suggest that we urgently need to thwart the historical insistence from our global vocabulary and institutions. 

The immediate implication is that the veto in the UN Security Council is no longer legitimate.  Further on, the binding nature of international law backed up by international governance structures that do not include vetoes needs to be developed and applied to the domains determined to be rightfully global.  Countries still insisting on the absoluteness of their national sovereignties, such as China on pollution-controls and the US on international criminal law, would have to bend or be boycotted by the rest of the world.   In other words, international relations and economic exchanges ought to be dependent on being subject to a governance structure beyond the nation-state.  If China is left as the only country insisting that nothing can supervene Chinese law, then no one in the world should have anything to do with that country.   In contrast, those subject to a governance structure that supervenes in particular enumerated powers (with sufficient safeguards against their encroachment…given the history of the US) should be able to enjoy benefits beyond the binding nature of such powers, such as privileged positions in trade and visas.   I would argue that governments that insist that their law is insurmountable deserve to be marginalized by the rest of the world.  I write this as an American knowing that the US may well be marginalized under this scenario unless there is some movement on international criminal law (i.e., being subject to the International Criminal Court, which in turn would be given the ability to go into any country and extract defendants).  

The technological development during the twentieth century means that political development is necessary in the twenty-first century.  We are so used to viewing change in terms of technology that we are perhaps unaccustomed to the sort of change that should ensue in order to obviate the new dangers from the technology.   In other words, we need to shift gears in terms of the domains wherein change is expected or thought to occur.   In some respects, we are still in the dark ages, and being in the dark when the planet could come to equilibrium unsuitable for human habitation—whether via carbon or radioactivity—represents a level of danger that ought to move us to action against the default of national sovereignty.  In some respects, we are so primitive; we tend not to see this because we identify change and development with technology.

Duplicity in International Affairs and Eclipsed Democracy: The Case of Afghanistan

Abdullah Abdullah withdrew on November 1, 2009 from the runoff election in Afghanistan.   Interestingly, Hilary Clinton and a spokesman for President Karzai characterized Abdullah’s withdraw in virtually identical terms—namely, as “his personal decision.”  Such a stance makes sense because both the American Government and Karzai had an interest in the Afghan electoral process being perceived as legitimate.   It is interesting, however, that the identical interpretation was instantly available to the press.   Perhaps U.S. Senator John Kerry had urged Karzai to agree to the runoff by telling him of a secret deal between the American Government and Abdullah that would have Abdullah pull out with a statement affirming the legitimacy of the electoral system.   That is, I wonder if the U.S. senator promised Abdullah something that essentially short-circuited the electoral process.  Karzai would look like a statesman without having to risk losing power, and Abdullah would get something rather than a probable election defeat.  The US would get stability in a Karzai government without having to worry about another controversial election.
As it turned out, Abdullah did not keep to the script; he denounced the continued corruption in the continued occupants of the Karzai-hired electoral commission (a blatant conflict of interest for any electoral body, to be sure).   Also, the runoff itself was cancelled. Was this part of the deal?  If so, the deal I suspect took place was very well hidden, or subterranean in nature and intention.

What concerns me overall from this case is the extent to which such a deal would deviate from the story that we, the public, were told.  If there was such a deal, it would have been at odds with the democratic process, which really needed a fair runoff election rather than a collapse (or fait accompli).  A runoff could have served as an opportunity to fix or strengthen the democratic process while demonstrating that electoral fraud can be extinguished without resort to revolution.  Not only was the world left with no such hope; we saw the democratic process truncated ,and thus as still deeply flawed. 

This might be naive, but for many years American presidents have been giving lip service to supporting representative democracy around the world.  It would be sad were the same presidents actually thwarting it on account of political expediency (such as clearing the way for a decision on a new troop surge).   I refuse to accept that integrity in place duplicity is too much to realistically ask for.  Ironically, had the US and UN invested people and energy into building fire-walls in Afganistan’s electoral process such that the runoff would have truly been free and fair (including from threats of violence), the American goal with respect to the country would have been much closer to being realized than by sending in a surge of miltary force.   In going for the expedient route, the American elected representatives and their appointees looked corrupt or compromised themselves.  In the end, it is up to us, the citizens—of whatever republic—to say enough is enough and to resist the temptation to pull the lever in the voting booth as we did last time.  Otherwise, we are to blame—as enablers rather than as game changers.


Afghani Electoral Fraud in 2010: A Precursor to the Protests in the Middle East?

The UN’s Electoral Complaints Commission recommended in 2009 that Afganistan’s Independent Election Commission invalidate 210 polling stations where the ECC found “clear and convincing evidence of fraud.”  The IEC in turn announced a run-off election because Karzai no longer had over 50% of the vote.  MSNBC reported that “the Karzai-influenced election commission may refuse to call for a runoff.” CNN reported that Karzai and Abdullah were trying to “cut some sort of deal” on a coaliation government that would have obviated, or skirted, a run-off.  Such a compromise would have been woefully inadequate from the standpoint of democratic process.

Even Karzai’s announcement that he would go along with a run-off can be read as presumptuous.  If he didn’t want to go along with it, he need not have taken part.  That one candidate’s feels his refusal to participate would or should cancel an election suggests a rather squalid presumptuousness that ought to be made transparent to the voters.  It is a sad commentary on representative democracy that the Afghan IEC’s decision was probably dependent on Karzai having been under international pressure to agree to the run-off.   Is it too idealist to insist that the candidate should have been informed by the IEC of its decision rather than permitting it?   For one of the candidates to have had a de facto veto on the election commission evinces a lack of democratic infrastructure.  It is like a cart pulling the horse.

In retrospect, we know that Karzai’s victory was fraudulent, even though he continued on in the campaign as a viable candidate.  What does it say when fraud is not punished?  Is having a run-off sufficient punishment?  Were all of the candidates benefitting from the fraud tossed out and a new open election held, would this be so catastrophic? I contend that the protests that occurred in the Middle East in 2011 for greater democracy can be interpreted as having been occassioned by years of frustration stemming from the sort of electoral facade perpetuated by dictators such as Karzai.  If so, the costs of not nipping electoral fraud in the bud far outweight any trouble involved in insisting on electoral accountability.  In the case of the U.S., foreign aid to Afghanistan could have been cut off in 2009 unless or until an open and fair election could be verified. With such a substantive signal given and repeated with regard to other dictators in the Middle East who were using the facade of democracy for legitimacy, some of the mass protests taking place two years later might have been obviated and lives saved that were otherwise lost.