The Egyptian paradigm

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morsi-outThe Arab Spring was an exercise in irony, nowhere more so than in Egypt. On the surface, it appeared to be the Arab equivalent of 1989 in Eastern Europe. There, the Soviet occupation suppressed a broad, if not universal desire for constitutional democracy modeled on Western Europe. The year 1989 shaped a generation’s thinking in the West, and when they saw the crowds in the Arab streets, they assumed that they were seeing Eastern Europe once again.

There were surely constitutional democrats in the Arab streets in 2011, but they were not the main drive. Looking back on the Arab Spring, it is remarkable how few personalities were replaced, how few regimes fell, and how much chaos was left in its wake. The uprising in Libya resulted in a Western military intervention that deposed former leader Gadhafi and replaced him with considerable uncertainty. The uprising in Syria has not replaced Syrian President al-Assad but generated instead a war between him and an Islamist-dominated opposition. Elsewhere, revolts have been contained with relative ease. The irony of the Arab Spring was that in opening the door for popular discontent, it demonstrated that while the discontent was real, it was neither decisive nor clearly inclined toward constitutional democracy.

This is what makes Egypt so interesting. The Egyptian uprising has always been the most ambiguous even while being cited as the most decisive. It is true that former President Mubarak fell in 2011. It is also true that elections were held in 2012, when a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s election as president illustrated the reality that a democratic election is not assured to produce a very democratic result. In any case, the now deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, won by only a thin margin and he was severely constrained as to what he could do.

But the real issue in Egypt has always been something else. Though a general was forced out of office in 2011, it was not clear that the military regime did not remain, if not in power, then certainly the ultimate arbiter of power in Egyptian politics. Over the past year, so long as Morsi remained the elected president, the argument could be made that the military had lost its power. But even if the fall of Hosni Mubarak had been engineered by the military in order to force a succession that the aging Mubarak resisted, it is no less true that while the military had faded into the background, it remained the decisive force in Egypt.

Modern Egypt was founded in 1952 in a military coup by Col. Nasser. Nasser was committed to modernizing Egypt, and he saw the army as the only real instrument of modernization. He was a secularist committed to the idea that Arab nations ought to be united, but not Islamist by any means. He was a socialist, but not a communist. Above all else, he was an Egyptian army officer committed to the principle that the military guaranteed the stability of the Egyptian nation.

When the uprisings of the Arab Spring came, Nasser’s successors used the unrest to force Mubarak out, and then they stepped back. It is interesting to consider whether they would have been comfortable to retain their institutional position under a Muslim Brotherhood-led government. However, Morsi never really took control of the machinery of government, partly because he was politically weak, partly because the Muslim Brotherhood was not ready to govern, and partly because the military never quite let go.

This dynamic culminated in the demonstrations of this « Egyptian Summer. » The opposition leadership appears to support constitutional democracy –but nothing is less certain. Whether the masses in the streets do as well or whether they simply dislike the Muslim Brotherhood is difficult to tell, but I suspect their interests are about food and jobs more than about the principles of free-thinking. Still, there was an uprising, and once again the military put it to use.

Northern Africa: A Choice between Reform and Stability

In the wake of uprisings in North Africa, West may be forced to make a choice between much-needed reform or stable dictatorships. NATO will need to reconsider its newest partnerships, beyond the interest of its allies, and start guaranteeing actual security.

Doused in paint thinner, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in Tunisia on Dec. 17, sparking a string of protests throughout northern Africa. The 20-year old college graduate, angry after the government confiscated his source of income- a fruit cart- and beat him, has been credited as the beginning of a series of uprisings in North Africa.

Protests have now spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, as well as Morocco and Algeria. Citizens have taken to the streets in protest of high food prices, and even higher unemployment rates, and general discontent with, in many cases, decades of inefficient dictatorial regimes.

With protests mounting from country to country, igniting passion for reform in nations’ citizens, the uprisings of North Africa may be the 21st century’s Berlin Wall. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recognizes the potential effect the uprisings could have on the world order, but says, “The outcome of this turmoil remains unclear.”

Resource-rich North Africa has become a strategic battlefield among the US, Europe, China and Russia. The US and Europe seemed to prevail under two NATO initiatives: the Mediterranean Dialogue and a military alliance with the 53 countries of the African Union (AU).

Member nations of the AU and the Mediterranean Dialogue are believed to benefit from the initiatives under the broad public goals of countering security threats against Africa and using NATO as a model for the African Standby Force. But NATO members will receive more concrete benefits, such as limiting Russian and Chinese expansion and blocking arms suppliers of non-NATO members.

The interests of NATO fake ahead, devoid of serious regard to its public objectives. Rasmussen has outlined his concerns with the uprisings in terms of its impact upon the Middle East peace process and a possible increase of illegal immigration to Europe, validating NATO-centric concerns to the world under a “we don’t interfere in domestic politics” stance. Forget about partnerships, dialogues, and goals.

This lack of response from NATO is only amplified by a muted response from the US, with Europe following suit. Though Obama exercised caution in denouncing violence against peaceful protesters in Libya out of fear that the Gadhafi regime would target American nationals in Libya, Washington was also slow to react to protests in Egypt earlier in February.

Only after receiving strong criticism in the media did Obama denounce Mubarak, a long-time ally to the US, calling for transition “now.” Washington has supported up dictatorial regimes, such as that of Mubarak, for decades, benefiting from such stable relationships with dictators. In Egypt, which has been known to hold and torture terrorist suspects for the US, there has been a “protect us in our war and we will forgive your human rights abuses” policy. It seems US policy is in support of stable dictators, rather than fledgling democracies. Why would the US and NATO, which so avidly promote democracy, not have supported it in North Africa?

“The US and allies pull out no stops to prevent democracy because of major energy resources,” says Noam Chomsky, a well-respected American intellectual. In fact, as the protests spread to Libya, the major concern in the US was rising gas prices, not Gadhafi dropping bombs on his own citizens and executing Libyan soldiers who refused to kill their compatriots. Oil prices, which could reach $220 per barrel if Libya and Algeria, both dealing with internal protests, were to cut off oil supplies, could slow down economic recovery.

Both NATO and the US have screened selfish intentions behind national sovereignty, but after decades of support for allied dictators and more recent initiatives for a firm grasp on African affairs, perhaps it is not an honest stance to take. And if the US and NATO do not take a stance, we should hope they set aside potential gains and focus on allowing the internal movements of Africa choose the next step.

Recently, NATO has urged all parties to stop violence and ensure peaceful transition to democracy. A little less recently, Mubarak urged protestors for ‘orderly transitions’ that only served to postpone change. While we can hope and urge for peaceful transitions, we must remember that NATO should not be just a collection of military power, but also a political entity with a widely stated goal to “promote democratic values to build trust and prevent conflict in the long-run. To prevent conflict in the long run, might it be in the best interests of North Africa to allow reform?

West cannot both call for stability and advocate reform. It will need to reconsider its newest partnerships, beyond the interest of its allies, and start guaranteeing actual security.

Way forward for the Palestinian recognition is underway

After direct peace talks with Israel failed last autumn, Palestinian leaders have stepped up their drive to gain global recognition for a Palestinian state. Israel has warned the move could hamper further peace efforts.

Map showing states having recognized or have special diplomatic arrangements with Palestine. ©Wikipedia

Since Brazil in December officially recognized a Palestine as a sovereign, independent state within its borders prior to 1967 a whole wave of other Latin American nations have followed. In recent weeks Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador have done the same. Chile and Peru also recognized a Palestinian state, but declined to mention particular borders in their recognition.

South American and Arab states are due to discuss these developments at a summit in Lima this weekend.
Ireland last month upgraded the status of the Palestinian delegation to that of a mission, thereby elevating the head of the mission to the rank of ambassador. A spokeswoman for the Irish foreign ministry said, the country was following the example of France, Spain and Portugal.

Israeli irritation

Israel has criticized the recent wave of recognitions. It called Latin American countries’ recognition of a Palestinian state “highly damaging interference” by countries that were never part of the Middle East peace process.
Ireland’s decision drew an angry response from Israel, which condemned Dublin for a “long-standing biased policy on the Middle East”. “This will only strengthen the Palestinians’ rejection of any return to direct dialogue and peace negotiations,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
Currently, more than 100 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, have recognized a Palestinian state. Palestinian authorities are hoping for a diplomatic domino effect to back their claim for a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel disputes the Palestinian claim on all the West Bank and East Jerusalem, land it captured from Jordan in a 1967 war and has extensively settled.

Revolts put focus on Arab civil society

Youth revolts in Tunisia and Egypt could spread throughout the Maghreb and the Arab World as the discontented masses take to the streets.

Street clamor is not exactly the same in Egypt as in Tunisia

In Tunisia, a popular insurrection knocked down a dictator for the first time in Arab history. In the meantime, the largest protests in decades have broken out in Egypt. Could Morocco and Algeria be next?

Tunisia’s revolution generated tremors not just in Egypt. Throughout the Maghreb, authoritarian regimes like those in Morocco and Algeria have a difficult time addressing the frustration and despair of their young populations. Could the revolutionary example set in Tunisia take root among its neighbors?

The revolution arose on mid December when a desperate, unemployed computer scientist named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the small town of Sidi Bouzid. Bouazizi’s death symbolized the despair of a generation, triggering a series of general protests that ultimately swept longtime dictator President Ben Ali from power.

“We have 13 percent unemployment but the figures in the interior of the country are significantly higher, sometimes upwards of 70 percent,” said Adelwahab El Hani, a Tunisian human rights lawyer from Sidi Bouzid. “80,000 Tunisians have just finished up with their studies and they need jobs. That’s an enormous challenge for the government.”

Extreme imbalances and poor human rights records
One Tunisian student said it was like the top cover had shot off of a pressure cooker. He wasn’t just alluding to his homeland, but to the entire Maghreb. In Morocco, half the population is under 25 years old and 40 percent of them do not have a steady job. Young graduates are especially hard hit. The grumbling from the streets has become audible. Sure, there are limited political freedoms, woman’s rights, a parliament and a government – but no genuine open democracy. The military and secret police are omnipresent. The social imbalances are extreme.

“Motives for these kinds of revolts are all over the Maghreb,” said Francis Ghiles, from the Center for International Studies in Barcelona. “The elites in Morocco live the high life, but that doesn’t guarantee social stability. The pie can’t just belong to the rich. When there’s no redistribution of wealth, when the upper class parades around arrogantly, then there will be revolt someday.”

In Algeria it has already reached that point. This massive land is a social barrel of gunpowder. In January there were wounded during protests against high grocery prices. In many Algerian cities, the young expressed their rage in a flurry of stones, tear gas grenades and Molotov cocktails.

Algeria’s government promised to take decisive action, but the country is politically stagnant. Longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is supported by a corrupt clique of military officers and secret police. Three-fourths of Algerians are under 30. Most of them do not have jobs, lodging or perspective. All this despite the fact that the state strongboxes are full with money from oil and gas exports.

Algeria “has accumulated 150 billion euros in foreign exchange,” Ghiles said. “The problem is not a lack of money, but a clientele economy. It’s a casino. There’s no order, no plan, no perspective. And on top of that the government is autistic. Those in power just don’t listen, they don’t see the problems of their people, or they simply just don’t want to see.”

But now they have to see. A growing number of desperate, well-educated young people are extinguishing themselves in gasoline and lighting themselves on fire: In Egypt, in Yemen, in Mauretania and also in Algeria. Just like Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, whose final act of self-determination set a whole country in flames.

Domino effect
Ghiles believes that the so called “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia is a historic event that has shaken the entire Maghreb. However, he does not believe that it will set off a domino effect which collapses other authoritarian regimes throughout the region. The Moroccan King Mohammed VI has a broad power base and his role as the highest religious leader of the Moroccan people lends him additional legitimacy.

In Algeria the middle class, which played a critical role in Tunisia, has largely disappeared. There has been social turmoil for years, but the regime has never been seriously threatened. The military and secret police are so tightly connected with the halls of power and the oil and natural gas industries that they have too much to lose in a revolution.

In glaring contrast to Tunisia, the Algerian army would gun down demonstrators. And nobody wants a new civil war in Algeria – the last one cost 200,000 lives. Even if the states of the Maghreb do not fall like dominoes, Tunisia serves as a warning. When these kinds of events repeat themselves, like recently in Algeria or a few years ago in Morocco, or even in Tunisia or Egypt, then governments have to draw some conclusions. If they don’t do that, then the pressure cook will explode – just somewhat later.
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Francis Ghiles, The Maghreb refuses to share, Le Monde Diplomatique, Feb. 2010; El Coste del No-Maghreb, IEMed and ToledoPax, Madrid, May 2006 and Barcelona, Nov. 2007.

WikiLeaks reveals essentials of the ‘dirty war’ in Iraq

The disapproval coming out of Washington and Baghdad aimed at the publication by WikiLeaks of secret Iraq war documents is hypocritical.

Actually, the secret files made public by WikiLeaks offer little new information. At the very latest, since Abu Ghraib, the international community had come to the realization that the war in Iraq was a ‘dirty war’. There were killings. There was torture. Mercenaries operated as brutal aggressors. Shiites and Sunnis took turns massacring each other.

That one of the most barbarous dictators was overthrown in the process has practically been forgotten.

Instead, the image of a dirty war has now been even more enduringly anchored in our collective consciousness. Thanks to the revelations made by WikiLeaks, we have possibly been given a more accurate insight into the course of events and a more precise figure on the brutal human rights violations and number of deaths.

According to the files, more than 150,000 people were killed in Iraq between 2004 and 2009, if we can believe the documents from US military sources.

Documents appear to be credible
Can we believe them? Yes, we can. The documents appear, in principle, to be credible. However, it is important to consider them for what they are: one source among many, and a one-sided one at that, originally intended for internal, domestic consumption.

Not everything in these documents can be characterized as a bitter truth intended to be camouflaged from public view.

This or that bit of information could be a half truth or ‘pseudo-fact’; for example, when the person reporting draws the wrong conclusions due to their subjective perspective, or wishes to hide personal lapses or errors from superiors.

Few things in life are more regularly “air brushed” or openly manipulated than reports to supervising superiors, and this is very probably no different for the US Army in Iraq.

WikiLeaks also needs monitoring
Critical questions, therefore, are certainly permissible: Did WikiLeaks do everything possible when checking the documents to ensure that no human lives will be put at risk? We can only hope and wait.

And, by the way: where are the checks and balances on WikiLeaks?

The group is going to have to accept questions like these – just as traditional mass media or outlets like Facebook and Youtube have done – in view of the fact that its political influence has much grown.

They all bear a major responsibility, without ever having been elected. Of course, it also depends on who is asking the question and with what motive.

The criticism of WikiLeaks, expressed by Washington and Baghdad, is hypocritical, as described above.

Both are concerned about their reputations. US President Barack Obama only appears to be in a comfortable position. He cannot really sit back and claim that all the missteps and consequences are the fault of his predecessor, George W. Bush. In the selective perceptions of many people – and not just in the Arab world – the United States is once again on the pillory.

Risky files for Iraqi leader
The publication of the documents, conversely, is just as much of a blow to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He now stands there in public as a political leader who condones torture, including the abuse of supporters of political and religious groups, whom, for the last seven months, he has been trying to win over as coalition partners in a new government.

Not surprisingly, al-Maliki suspects intrigue behind the WikiLeak revelations. He knows that the publication of new, shocking details could cost him his political career.

In as far as the documents are not proven to be fake or seriously inconsistent – for which there is no evidence at the moment – then the blame for them lies with him and George W. Bush – and not with WikiLeaks.

As with Vietnam decades ago, the same holds true for the war in Iraq today: Dirty details need to be thoroughly evaluated and dirty truths brought to light with no holds barred. The people of Iraq, in particular, deserve nothing less.

Obama gives way to recognition of a Palestinian state

Impressive Speech from Barack Obama at the UN on the Israeli-Palestinian issue: either we act as in the past – great speeches without changing anything – or everyone rolls up his sleeves. The whole meanwhile, bearing in mind that in 2011 the UN General Assembly might welcome a new member: the Palestinian state.

“The conflict between Israelis and Arabs is as old as this institution. And we can come back here next year, as we have for the last 60 years, and make long speeches about it. We can read familiar lists of grievances. We can table the same resolutions. We can further empower the forces of rejectionism and hate. And we can waste more time by carrying forward an argument that will not help a single Israeli or Palestinian child achieve a better life. We can do that.

Or, we can say that this time will be different — that this time we will not let terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty politics stand in the way. This time, we will think not of ourselves, but of the young girl in Gaza who wants to have no ceiling on her dreams, or the young boy in Sderot who wants to sleep without the nightmare of rocket fire.

This time, we should draw upon the teachings of tolerance that lie at the heart of three great religions that see Jerusalem’s soil as sacred. This time we should reach for what’s best within ourselves. If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

Palestine at the UN – where Palestinians have just now an observer status – new idea or recycling? This wish of President Obama reminds a provision in the “roadmap“, the peace plan finally endorsed (with reservations) by Israel and the Palestinians. The plan, which would lead to a Palestinian state by December 2005, included in the transition phase (June-December 2003) the following measure:

“Quartet members promote international recognition of Palestinian state, including possible UN membership.”

Then it was about recognition of Palestine in temporary borders, but 2003 passed as 2004 and 2005, and nothing happened. Suffice to say that the wish of the President of the United States, which coincides with the publication in France of a book under a deliberately provocative title – There will be no Palestinian state, Ziyad Clot, Ed. Max Milo – will no doubt be greeted with caution by those most affected.

Related Posts: The Impossible Palestinian State

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The Impossible Palestinian State

>> Haga aquí para la versión en Castellano.

When you look at the vast and unstoppable proliferation of illegal Jewish settlements scattered throughout the occupied Palestinian West Bank, you don’t need to be a specialist in geopolitics to become aware of the problem which lies under the foundation of a Palestinian state.

@ The Far Queue

A West Bank cut, framed by a concrete wall, protected itself by barbed wire with turrets; a territory ran through forbidden roads to the Palestinians and which connect together the numerous Jewish settlements; a space, in short, fragmented and dispersed, can not become the territorial base of any State. And if the territory issue appears as something impossible to sustain a viable state, the issue of capital splits hairs. The eastern sector of Jerusalem –  traditionally Palestinian and occupied as a result of the war in 1967 –  where the capital of the impossible Palestinian state lodged, is being strangled by illegal settlements invariably while the native population is displaced from their homes and an Israeli unstoppable tide is thriving suburbs that were only Palestinians. In such circumstances we do not make out any possibility of creating a new practicable Palestinian state, according to the various peace plans so far devised for solving this complex problem. If Gaza was abandoned to its fate –the exceptional fact that Israeli troops evicted Jewish settlers from illegal settlements – no Israeli leader can promise to evacuate settlements extended over the West Bank without suffering a serious political breakdown. Likewise, no Palestinian leader could accept a state whose capital is not in the eastern part of Jerusalem. There is nothing new or surprising in this situation, visibly outlined after the 1967 war. Do not forget that the State of Israel – possessing a nuclear arsenal and an increasingly militarized society – would not hesitate to ignite the Middle East if its national security is threatened by a little: more than four decades of bloody conflict and increasing risks to international security have shown the need to end this unstable and risky political dynamics. Here comes into play the deciding factor: the U.S., as the historical guarantor and main responsible for the security of Israel. Obama can not keep closing his eyes to this situation, as his predecessor did, whereas he has shown he is determined to address it without delay. The hard part is however deciding how and when. The recent misunderstandings between the U.S. and Israel, during Netanyahu’s refusal to stop building new settlements around Jerusalem, are produced in a moment of weakness for the coalition that governs Israel and serious disagreements within the Palestinian officials. Even after the initial disagreement between the U.S. and Israel, on the occasion of the visit of Vice President Biden – and yet both sides have publicly reaffirmed the validity of the bonds that link both countries – mistrust between them grows and deepens. Does Obama have a concrete plan, with details of boundaries and limits, among other things, to put on the table and enforce its application? Would he dare it? Would he run the risk of bump into a rejection of the parties involved? How would this affect his weakened position against a Congress progressively more openly hostile?

The Palestinian dilemma does not arise in an isolated space. Closely linked to it are other conflicts that shake that critical space between the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and the western frontier of India: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan … This is an open system, in technical terms, where any intervention in one element inevitably affects the others. Moreover, the manner in which such an impact comes about depends on a lot of variables with very difficult — if not impossible — identification and quantification. It seems that the club members of the so-called Quartet (U.S., UN, Russia and EU) have not enlightened any miracle brew, apart from repeating the usual good intentions and some timid threats.

To achieve something new – and not just a minimal agreement – it would be hypothetically necessary to assemble a complete “symphony orchestra”, more than a quartet, where all the musicians who have a voice in this complicated score, and not just four of the many elements that make up the “system” that we have previously pointed out. Things being so, it is not uncommon that discouragement goes widespread, nor that, given the overwhelming complexity of the problem, some resort to the (surreptitiously) old formula “let things settle themselves”. What fatally lead into a new string of failures…

From time to time, further meetings and talks between U.S. and Israeli officials are made known, but it is to be feared that, after any compulsory revenues on image that propaganda would improve both for Obama and Netanyahu (without forgetting the brief visit of Baroness Ashton to the conflict zone, to show the presence of the European Union), everything should go away again as the smoke vanishes – while the Palestinians go on facing the insurmountable obstacles that separate them from their old dream of owning finally, their statehood, free and sovereign, as they quit their status of occupied people, humiliated and hopeless.

Unrepentant Blair

Protestors called Blair a 'liar' and a 'war criminal'

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has been appearing before an inquiry looking into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War. Blair said he did not wait for UN backing, because he believed it would never be given.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he wanted the backing of the United Nations in the Iraq war, but believed that he would never get it. Giving evidence to a UK public inquiry into the decision to go to war, he said he thought that it would be pointless to continue debating the war with fellow United Nations Security Council members.

The inquiry is examining the legitimacy of the war as well as when the decision on providing military support for the 2003 US-led invasion was made. Blair, now an international envoy to the Middle East, said he doubted at the time that it would be possible to secure a UN “second resolution” that would add legitimacy to the war under international law.

“It was very, very clear to me that the French, the Germans and the Russians had decided they weren’t going to be in favor of this (…) There was a straightforward division, frankly, and I don’t think it would have mattered how much time we had taken; they weren’t going to agree that force should be used.”

Blair denied the accusation that he made a secret agreement with his US counterpart George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq. The former Labour Party leader was asked whether he had pledged to support the war during a visit to the then president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. Blair said he had told Bush, “we are going to be with you in confronting and dealing with this threat,” but that no promises were made.


9/11 attacks changed judgement

The September 11 attacks changed the “calculus of risk” and meant it was no longer possible to contain Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein through sanctions, Blair also said. Britain committed 45,000 troops to the war. It was the most controversial episode of Blair’s 10-year premiership, provoking huge protests, divisions within his party and accusations he had deceived the public about the justification for invasion.

Under close questioning, Blair said the September 11 Qaeda attacks on the United States – and the threat of weapons of mass destruction – were the main factors in Britain’s decision to invade Iraq.

“We were advised that these people would use chemical or biological weapons or a nuclear device if they could get hold of them; that completely changed our assessment of where the risks for security lay.”

Unrepentant Blair defends war in Iraq without UN backing

No regrets over decision

At the end of the session, Blair said that he did not regret the war despite the fact that weapons of mass destruction were not found.

“If I’m asked if I believe we are safer, more secure, that Iraq is better with Saddam and his two sons out of power, then I believe indeed we are.”

The British inquiry has already heard from senior civil servants who said intelligence in the days before the March 20, 2003 invasion indicated that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had already been dismantled.

Protesters outside of the building where the inquiry was being held chanted “Tony Blair, war criminal!” as he entered through a back door amid high security.

Observers say that Blair’s appearance may not only affect his personal political legacy but also damage the Labour government of his successor Gordon Brown, who was chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of the Iraq invasion.

The United States and the Human Rights Council

The hopes quickly went on smoke at the end of the 12th session marking the official attendance of the United States to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

H. Cartier-Bresson · Séville, 1933. © Cartier-Bresson & Magnum

H. Cartier-Bresson · Séville, 1933. © Cartier-Bresson & Magnum

When the United States announced their candidacy to the Human Rights Council earlier this year, many had welcomed the decision with the hope that some cases completely blocked under the government of George W. Bush could finally move forward, including those involving Israel, Gaza and the occupied Palestinian Territories. But hope quickly went up in smoke at the end of the twelfth session, which marked the United States official entry to the HR Council. The US administration had sent specially from Washington Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. He defines America’s standing in the council:

We see our role as broadly engaged in a range of issues. Our intention is to address all issues and suggest ways to advance the Council over its program to help the greatest number. We are in new relationships, new alliances. For example, we worked with Egypt on a resolution on freedom of expression that resolves disputes that we had. The Council needs this type of exchange. Our intention is to apply universal principles to everyone, including ourselves. We know that the US must lead by example in its own affairs and participate actively in the Council. Our situation of human rights will be reviewed next year with the procedure of Universal Periodic Review, and we encourage other countries to do likewise.[1]

The intentions were initially positive but Americans have widely criticized the Goldstone report on Gaza and US pressure has resulted to postpone the vote on the resolution at the next session in March 2010. The recommendation of the Goldstone mission to seize the International Criminal Court if no independent investigation is conducted within six months scared off Israel.

In turn, the US, who refused to join the ICC, might be revising its position:

We are currently reviewing our policy regarding the ICC and the ratification of certain conventions, like the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which could pose a challenge for the USA. It’s a fresh start. And we will consider all treaties this way. I think this will be a long process. No doubt, priority will be done to the elimination of discrimination against women. We will create a new dynamic.[1]

But these are all political considerations that have taken hold in the Human Rights Council, although many NGOs have welcomed the opening created by the joint resolution between the US and Egypt on freedom of expression. Other resolutions which have been voted are at least as important as those on the Aboriginal peoples, the right to truth, the effects of toxic chemicals on human rights or access to care.

On the merits, the important thing for Fred Abrahams, senior researcher for HRW on the Middle East, is the implicit message by the reaction of the USA, Israel and the European Union – the latter very discreet on the Goldstone report:

If Europe and the US want to promote justice, for example in Africa, they must apply equally the concept of justice to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Otherwise, there will always be a double standard.

The Human Rights Council is criticised for its too political positions at the expense of serious violations of human rights situations. The United States have disappointed by their position on the report on Gaza. They will be very expected for the next March session of the Human Rights Council.

Related Posts:
· U.S. faces criticism from HR abusers at Universal Periodic Review
· The Spanish Law of Universal Jurisdiction, now in Brackets?

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[1] Véronique Gaymard, RFI – Chronique des droits de l’homme, Paris 3 oct. 2009

Troubled Waters in the World of Human Rights Watch

Some like fishing in troubled waters.

It appears that Ms. Sarah Leah Whitson is the deputy director of Women’s Rights division at Human Rights Watch (as indicated in the English version of the HRW site) and the NGO responsible for the Middle East (as specified in the HRW web site in Spanish). Several journalists have reported a supposed lack of ethics by Sarah Leah Whitson during her fund-rising trip to Saudi Arabia last May. Action that these media use to cheerfully extrapolate to the HRW’s overall activity…

It is curious that, once again, these unconstructive criticisms have just come in recent dates from quite conservative forums as The Wall Street Journal or the Barcelona based La Vanguardia. It is less surprising on other media less conservative but much more implicated such as The Jerusalem Post.

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What about the circumstances to keep equity.
On the one hand it is really shocking that an online support clearly linked to the Wahhabi monarchy as Arab News reflects a fund-raising dinner where HRW Global Action in the Middle East is celebrated. I quote it literally:

Human Rights Watch is gaining more recognition and support in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. During their recent visit to the Kingdom, senior members of the organization were given a welcoming dinner in Riyadh hosted by prominent businessman and intellectual Emad bin Jameel Al-Hejailan [...] Other prominent members of Saudi society, human rights activists and dignitaries were invited to the dinner held to honor the guests.

Could anybody imagine the hilarious scene of an enjoyable party kindly assorted of “prominent members of Saudi society” and human rights activists where the latter receive the HR patent of nobility from the satraps?

It seems that when the NGO Monitor learned about this story at the end of May, they immediately contacted Ms. Whitson or other HRW officials looking for any comments or corrections on the fundraising event:

Neither responded. In any event, Ms. Whitson’s protests to the contrary hold little weight: The Arab News report makes clear that Whitson was seeking donations from the Saudi elite on the basis of HRW’s anti-Israel bonafides rather than on its work challenging the Saudi regime. However, if Ms. Whitson has documentary evidence that this is not the case (unlike HRW’s other reporting on the Middle East), then she should presente it.

It is disappointing that some journalists get on well with the biased Bernstein’s [1] opinions or the much caricatured views of NGO Monitor just quoting words as if they were facts. For the reason that it is certainly easier to a conservative newspaper such as the WSJ,  the ONG Monitor or La Vanguardia, to exploit the misfortune of the HRW’s naive action (otherwise much more independent than some other of higher reputation) instead of coming across more reliable sources. Someone has forgotten contrasting views here. HRW’s action is reprehensible indeed, but it is useless to generalize and cover of opprobrium an NGO whose work is praised by many. Bernstein’s opinion is rather ideological than factual: so it deserves to be compared at least to other points of view, also disagreeing with that organization but more self-controlled, moderate and responsible than the WSJ journalist’s.

The umpteenth David Bernstein’s caricature of Human Rights Watch points this time to a HRW official that had the temerity to criticize Israel in Saudi Arabia during a fundraising dinner:

A delegation from Human Rights Watch was recently in Saudi Arabia. To investigate the mistreatment of women under Saudi Law? To campaign for the rights of homosexuals, subject to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia? To protest the lack of religious freedom in the Saudi Kingdom? To issue a report on Saudi political prisoners?

No, no, no, and no. The delegation arrived to raise money from wealthy Saudis by highlighting HRW’s demonization of Israel. An HRW spokesperson, Sarah Leah Whitson, highlighted HRW’s battles with “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations.” (Was Ms. Whitson required to wear a burkha, or are exceptions made for visiting anti-Israel “human rights” activists”? Driving a car, no doubt, was out of the question.)

Apparently, Ms. Whitson found no time to criticize Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record. But never fear, HRW “recently called on the Kingdom to do more to protect the human rights of domestic workers.”

In the past, Bernstein has formerly portrayed HRW as “almost cartoonishly biased against Israel.”  The only thing cartoonish, however, is Bernstein’s barefaced distortion of Whitson’s work.  Have a look of her recent comments on Saudi Arabia, which take no more than 30 seconds to find on HRW’s website:

  • Criticized Saudi Arabia’s failure to protect rights, including “giving women better access to work, education, health and justice, and easing restrictions on their travel.”
  • Urged governments to criticize the lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.
  • Criticized Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty for non-serious crimes.
  • Demanded that Saudi Arabia release political prisoners.
  • Criticized Saudi Arabia for imposing draconian discipline against a lawyer who attempted to represent a rape victim.
  • Asked Saudi courts to stop trials for “insulting” Islam.

One cannot assume what Bernstein says in his article is factual. Journalist Pilar Rahola in La Vanguardia, just do it. Echoing the aforementioned article, she sarcastically attacks Sarah Leah Whitson for not criticizing Saudi Arabia for X, Y, and Z during an event, an attack obviously intended to make her seem soft on the Saudis, without mentioning that Whitson has repeatedly criticized Saudi Arabia for X, Y, and Z in the recent past. Arguments spot in situ and ad hominen with a critical eye, not from the easy distance of a fashionable journalist’s office. Here is one of her most interesting releases:

Some should note for future reference and occasions instead of playing into the hands of propaganda. And Mrs Whitson should clarify the objectives, circumstances and results of the Riyadh meeting in order to enlight her integrity but most of all,  HRW’s trustworthiness (HRW enlightening here.)

hrw_israel_lebanon_campaignIncidentally, the photo above is from the very same HRW awareness campaign  -both in Israel and Lebanon-  for rights of domestic workers entitled Put Yourself in Her Shoe .  Isn’t brilliant ?

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[1] Not to be confused with Robert L. Bernstein, founder and former chair of Human Rights Watch !