President Obama announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board a year ago today. Less than four months later, my colleague Michael Rubin pointed out the futility of the board, noting that it would “never be able to enact policies against the will of the White House, the State Department, or Congress.” Over the past year, the board has been conspicuously invisible, and not just on Syria. Robert Skloot and Samuel Totten lament the on-going atrocities committed by the Islamist regime in Sudan, and note that:
The Atrocities Prevention Board seems to have accomplished little to nothing over the past year. It has issued no pronouncements in regard to any of the ongoing humanitarian crises in the world — not about the appalling situation in Sudan, in Congo, in Syria and so on. Members of the board have also refused to respond to correspondence from dozens of scholars of genocide studies and human rights activists (ourselves included) calling on the board to urge Obama to insist that the United Nations support actions that would protect vulnerable and suffering populations. Our letters have gone unanswered and unacknowledged.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is threatening to end relief operations for Syrian refugees, who currently number 1.3 million and counting, if it doesn’t receive the necessary funds soon. The agency says it has received only a third of the $1 billion it needs through June, and only $400 million of the $1.5 billion donors pledged earlier this year. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned explicitly that absent more funds, UNHCR will have to stop distributing food to refugees in Lebanon next month. And Jordan, which has the largest population of Syrian refugees, is threatening to close its borders to new entrants unless more aid is forthcoming urgently.
Meanwhile, another UN agency enjoys comfortable funding of about $1 billion a year to help a very different group of refugees–refugees who generally live in permanent homes rather than flimsy tents in makeshift camps; who have never faced the trauma of flight and dislocation, having lived all their lives in the place where they were born; who often have jobs that provide an income on top of their refugee benefits; and who enjoy regular access to schooling, healthcare and all the other benefits of non-refugee life. In short, these “refugees” are infinitely better off than their Syrian brethren–yet their generous funding continues undisturbed even as Syrian refugees are facing the imminent loss of such basics as food and fresh water. I am talking, of course, about UNRWA.
It’s hard to believe German politicians truly understand what is at stake in Iran. Back in 2008, a German diplomat in Tehran attended—and so gave diplomatic legitimacy—to one of the Islamic Republic’s “Death to Israel” rallies. Last year, several German companies paid money to a sanctioned Iranian bank in order to reserve booths at an Iranian investment fair in Tehran. More recently, the head of the German Green Party high-fived an Iranian diplomat, never mind the Greens’ rhetorical embrace of human rights, women’s rights, and civil society.
Now, according to Germany’s Stop the Bomb campaign, a German federal ministry is subsidizing a conference in Germany hosted by the Evangelische Akademie Loccum which will feature Iranian official Ali Reza Sheikh Attar. As Stop the Bomb explains:
The New Criterion and PJ Media might have to retire their Walter Duranty Prize named after the infamous New York Times correspondent who whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s crimes during the 1930s. I think Dennis Rodman has earned a lifetime achievement award in this category, as Bethany’s post makes clear. It is hard, certainly, to top his fawning tribute to the current and past dictators of North Korea. As the AP reported:
Ending his unexpected round of basketball diplomacy in North Korea on Friday, ex-N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman called leader Kim Jong-un an “awesome guy” and said his father and grandfather were “great leaders.”….
“He’s proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him,” Rodman said of Kim Jong-un. “Guess what, I love him. The guy’s really awesome.”
Those words are accompanied by pictures of Rodman yukking it up with Kim Jong-un at a basketball game involving North Koreans and some Harlem Globetrotters that ended in an improbable 110-110 tie.
I am guessing Rodman missed this Human Rights Watch report, which notes:
For the first time in at least a decade, the world is talking about former basketball star Dennis Rodman. The former Chicago Bull, known for his “quirky” behavior while winning championships with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, made news this week with a short trip to North Korea with members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.
The news out of North Korea, both this month and in general, often revolves around its nuclear program and bellicose threats of violence against its neighbors and the United States. Rodman’s visit has stirred outrage thanks to his outspoken support of the country and its dictator Kim Jong-un. Upon leaving the country, Rodman promised that Kim would have a “friend for life” and declared that Kim Jong-un was an “awesome guy” and that his father and grandfather, other homicidal leaders of the country, were “great leaders.”
Sometimes you have to wonder whether the editors of the New York Times have a secret wish to sabotage the causes they promote.
Consider the International Criminal Court, the controversial tribunal set up as part of the United Nations human rights system. For years, the Times has promoted the ICC as a modest, last-resort, long-overdue prosecutor of such heinous offenses as war crimes and genocide.
For just as long, ICC skeptics have been warning that the Hague-based tribunal will not always stay confined to its original jurisdiction and will someday seek to prosecute a wider class of less obviously atrocious offenses. Some advocates might even try to turn the court into a roving tribunal mounting show trials against the hated Western power structure. The Times has always dismissed such worries as groundless paranoia.
One of the hallmarks of Israel’s international critics is their tendency to blame Israel for all the bad things that happen when the Jewish state’s enemies try–and fail–to destroy it. Yet it is rarely so perfectly distilled with such righteous indignation as the statement offered by the NGO Amnesty International today. Amnesty International should be thanked for its honesty, but its behavior represents yet another new low for the human rights community. Reacting to the news that Israel would not participate in the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of all member states’ human rights records, Amnesty released a statement that began:
If the Israeli government is not careful, it will ruin an important global human rights process for everybody.
Yes, you read that right. The Israel-obsessed behavior of a corrupt UN body that exists solely to scapegoat the Jewish state while having counted as members Qatar, China, Russia, Libya, and Cuba is not ruining an important human rights process. What is ruining the process is Israel’s unwillingness to participate in its own rigged show trial. But all that is nothing compared to the way Amnesty closes its statement:
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has announced an inquiry into the use of drones in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Territories, and whether drones violate international law. The inquiry comes at the request of Russia, China, and Pakistan, a triad of countries not known for their concern about human rights. That Syria is not also a co-sponsor is probably an oversight on the part of the UN.
Human rights lawyers are notoriously myopic, but this might take the prize. States have made drones a key tool in the fight against terror for one major reason: Drones can access areas inaccessible by ground troops and attack targets with precision. Absent the use of drones, the other option available to states challenged with terrorists operating from hostile or ungoverned territories is to mount an expedition. It is the difference between conducting surgery with a scalpel versus an axe.
In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied. She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:
My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.
My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)
She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.
Much of the criticism of Chuck Hagel has focused on his positions on Iran and Israel, and his offensive comments about a gay ambassador. But he also has a troubling record on environmental and human rights issues–and not just based on his votes in the Senate. After leaving elected office in 2009, he joined the board of the Chevron Corporation, an oil company that has been criticized for outreach to Iran’s oil sector and other authoritarian regimes, and its involvement in environmental catastrophes like the recent Campos Basin spill.
Hagel joined the board in the spring of 2010, when Chevron was reportedly in negotiations with the repressive government in Turkmenistan. Shortly after, Hagel was confronted about this at a shareholder meeting by an environmentalist group called Crude Accountability.
The UN General Assembly, as Elliott Abrams noted yesterday, just passed nine resolutions in a single day condemning Israel, mainly for its treatment of the Palestinians, while completely ignoring the real disaster that befell the Palestinians this week: the Assad regime’s bombing of the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, which reportedly killed dozens of Palestinians and caused about 100,000 to flee. But the situation becomes even more surreal when one examines the actual content of the resolutions–because it turns out that while the UN is voting to condemn Israel, its alleged victims are voting the opposite with their feet.
One resolution, for instance, slams Israel’s 1981 annexation of the “occupied Syrian Golan” and demands that Israel “rescind forthwith its decision.” Given what’s happening across the border in Syria, where the ongoing civil war has killed over 44,000 people and created over 500,000 refugees, I suspect most of the 20,000 Syrian Druze on the Golan are thanking their lucky stars to be living safely under Israel’s “occupation.” But you needn’t take my word for it: According to the Hebrew daily Maariv, whose report was subsequently picked up the Winnipeg Jewish Review, Israeli government statistics show that the number of Golan Druze applying for Israeli citizenship (for which the annexation made them eligible) has risen by hundreds of percent since the Syrian civil war erupted, after 30 years in which very few did so.
It is no secret that when it comes to staffing, the most famous U.S.-based human rights organizations are skewed more toward Democrats than even universities. The most professional organizations try not to allow partisanship to corrupt analysis, but they are seldom successful. They loved to hate George W. Bush, never mind that many of the policies to which they most objected had their roots in the Clinton administration and have been continued by the Obama administration. When it comes to broader foreign policy, Bush did more to stand up to dictators and thugs than his predecessors. Reagan sought to appease Saddam Hussein, and Clinton repeatedly tried to cut a deal with the Taliban. When it came to unilateral sanctions, Clinton took a far tougher line on Iran than George W. Bush. And when it came to Africa, Bush did more than all his predecessors combined: Clinton’s Africa legacy was his ineffective response to the genocide in Rwanda and the civil war in Sudan.
The coming four years, however, should force real soul searching among the human rights community. President Obama’s reported pick of John Kerry to be secretary of state and the looming choice of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense will cement in his cabinet two figures that lack a moral compass in international affairs. If Kerry considered Bashar al-Assad “a dear friend” and a genuine reformer because they had a nice coffee and bike ride together, sympathizes with Latin America’s new populist dictators, and believes human rights should be shunted aside because Vladimir Putin is a sincere democrat, dictators will understand they have a free pass and democratic dissidents will realize they have no friend in the U.S. government.
Under other circumstances, I might enjoy watching “human rights” activists decry the very international justice system they lobbied so hard to establish. But not when reactions like this one, by David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, show just how much resistance there will be to the important norms established last month by the appellate court of an international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. In a verdict ironically issued just as the world was obsessing over Palestinian civilians killed in the latest Hamas-Israel war, the court essentially upheld, in a Balkan context, all the arguments Israel routinely makes about the legitimacy of its own military operations. Consequently, the judges acquitted and freed two Croatian generals whom a trial court had convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 18 and 24 years, respectively.
The appellate court’s first important move was acknowledging the obvious fact that in wartime even the most careful army makes mistakes. The trial court had convicted the Croats of illegally shelling four towns they were trying to capture. The appeals court said the lower court’s criterion–“that any shell that landed more than 200 meters away from a military target must have been fired indiscriminately–was arbitrary and ‘devoid of any specific reasoning’,” to quote The Guardian’s apt summary. In short, it accepted the fact that soldiers are human beings who make mistakes, and errant shells don’t necessarily mean the soldiers fired indiscriminately.
In the third presidential debate, President Obama highlighted his administration’s policy toward Egypt to buttress his foreign policy legacy. He said: “In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence there is no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed.” But in fact at the time, the latter statement wasn’t true, and by now the former appears to have evaporated as well. In June, months before Obama bragged about Egyptians’ opinion of the U.S., Pew released the findings of its poll on global attitudes toward America. It found that opinion of the U.S. in the age of Obama had returned to its low point, and that Egyptians overwhelmingly, according to Pew, wanted Obama to be a one-term president.
It is unlikely that with the president’s virtual silence over Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s power grab those numbers will improve much. In the latest of several days of protesting, Egyptians chanted at Morsi: “Shave your beard, show your disgrace, you will find that you have Mubarak’s face!” Funny, yes–but it shouldn’t be disregarded as a joke. In fact, as the realist approach to the region lay in ruins around the Middle East, the Obama administration may be making the very same blunders in pursuit of the mirage of stability in the desert.
On the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis, the latest headlines on the situation Cuba might give some cause for celebration. The New York Times‘s headline reads: Cuba Dropping Its Much-Reviled Exit Visa Requirement and Fox News is even more optimistic: Cuba to allow citizens to travel freely for the first time in 51 years. Undoubtedly this announcement from the Castro government was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the crisis that many historians have called the hottest moment of the Cold War, the moment the world came closest to nuclear war. While many journalists may have been writing pieces about the lack of political, social and economic progress in Cuba in the last fifty years before today’s announcement, they are instead cheering this latest development that makes the island nation seem like less of a prison for its citizens.
Close watchers of Cuban policy aren’t exactly optimistic about Raul Castro’s “reforms.” Capitol Hill Cubans, an influential website dedicated to “the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Cuba” is thoroughly unimpressed:
The Castro regime — like Assad, Obiang and most other dictators — seeks to buy itself time by propagating the narrative of “reform.”
Because, of course, decades of brutal rule were somehow distractions to their “real” intentions all along.
Sadly, the media echoes this narrative.
But don’t forget to read the fine print at the end.
If you want to understand why much of the Arab world is a basket case, it’s worth considering Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s address to an Islamic Solidarity Conference in Mecca this week. Morsi came out in favor of regime change in Syria. But the most urgent problem facing the Muslim world today, he said, is the Palestinian issue.
Now consider a few simple statistics: Since the Syrian uprising began 17 months ago, more than 19,000 people have been killed, including more than 2,750 in July alone, according to the Syrian opposition. The number of Palestinians killed by Israel during those 17 months is around150, according to B’Tselem – less than 1 percent of the Syrian total. In fact, according to Palestinian casualty data compiled by the University of Uppsala, the Syrian death toll over the last 17 months is greater than the total number of Palestinians killed by Israel over the entire 64 years of its existence.
There is no doubt whatsoever that what is occurring in Syria is a humanitarian tragedy. The Assad regime has concluded that Western governments do not have the will to back up their rhetoric with action, and so have accelerated the atrocity and mass slaughter to new levels. While reports once spoke of a dozen people being killed in a day, some recent reports from Syria suggest an order of greater magnitude is now the norm.
Human rights groups wring their hands that Russia and China are not on the same page at the UN Security Council, but representatives from several prominent groups hold out hope that there can be some sort of magic formula that will bring Moscow and Beijing onboard. Such hope is, of course, misplaced. Syria hosts Russia’s only military base outside the confines of the former Soviet Union, and Vladimir Putin will always prioritize strategic position above averting humanitarian tragedy.
The questions human rights groups need to face is whether it is moral to, in effect, sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of Syrians upon the principle that no action is legitimate unless the United Nations says it is. They may not like the question framed in that way, but there is no avoiding it.
Yesterday, the Russian Duma ratified Russia’s World Trade Organization (WTO) entry. The Obama administration has supported Russia’s membership from the get-go, and therefore has put is clout behind repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Act, the substance of which the WTO would make illegal. Passed in 1974 at the height of the Cold War, Jackson-Vanik tied trade to the freedom of emigration. While it was targeted mostly toward the Soviet Union’s Jewish community, it provided a broader foundation for Cold War human rights advocacy.
To replace the Jackson-Vanik Act, a bipartisan array of senators supported The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved unanimously on June 26. Named after a Russian anti-corruption lawyer tortured and killed in prison after he uncovered a multimillion-embezzlement scheme, the Magnitsky Act sanctioned Russia’s worst human rights violators by denying them visas and freezing their assets held in the United States. At least, that was the way it was supposed to be. Committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) was for the Act before he was against it before he was for it again. Alas, somewhere in the flip-flopping—done at Obama administration behest so as not to antagonize Russia–Kerry got the Act watered down.
Senate Democrats corralling bipartisan support for commonsense sanctions legislation are experiencing a bit of déjà vu. In late 2011, the Senate agreed to new Iran sanctions by the widest possible margin: 100-0. Yet the Obama administration sought to delay the sanctions, and then worked to water them down. New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez finally went public with his frustration toward President Obama for working so hard to protect Iran from the sanctions everyone had agreed to.
Now Senate Democrats are facing the same obstacle–President Obama–in trying to levy penalties on major human rights violators in Russia. Called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, named after one prominent victim of those rights violators, the bill was sponsored by Ben Cardin and immediately obtained broad support. But on behalf of the Obama administration, John Kerry kept the bill bogged down in committee. So the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed its own version of the bill, and the White House finally dropped its open opposition to the bill. Now, as Reuters reports, Obama is trying to work changes into the bill that would essentially render it useless:
The measure would require the United States to deny visas and freeze the U.S. assets of Russians linked to Magnitsky’s death. The bill as originally written in both the House and Senate would make public the list of offenders and broaden it to include other abusers of human rights in Russia.
A reworked draft circulating in the Senate and obtained by Reuters would allow the list to “contain a classified annex if the Secretary (of State) determines that it is necessary for the national security interests of the United States to do so.”
Backers of the Magnitsky bill want the list of human rights violators made public both to shame those on the list and to keep them from doing business with U.S. financial institutions.
“How can an individual’s assets be frozen, if his or her name cannot be disclosed to financial institutions?” the aide asked.
Earlier this week, I noted the fact that while President Obama has chosen not to visit Israel since taking office even when visiting the Middle East, Russia’s Vladimir Putin will be making his second trip to the Jewish state this month. The fact that Obama is still so resentful of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he couldn’t bring himself to go to Jerusalem even when it would clearly be in his political interests to do so, while Putin thinks it is good politics to go there, struck me as interesting. But our friends at the Forward have a very different take on the story. In an editorial published this week, they think it is wrong for Israel to receive Putin and urge it to cancel the visit.
In assessing this position, we need to start by saying this is the sort of editorial that explains why there is a difference between government and journalism. In seizing the moral high ground on Putin, the Forward editorialist is taking a stand that no Israeli government, no matter how righteous or devoted to the cause of human rights in Russia, Syria and Iran it might be, can possibly take. Israel has enough enemies without picking a fight with Putin even the United States would be wary of starting. This is the sort of unrealistic moral preening that we journalists love to indulge in. There is also the fact that the Forward, whose idolatry of Barack Obama seems to be boundless, has been noticeably quiet in expressing criticism of the administration’s desire for a “reset” with Putin or his appeasement of Russia on a number of different fronts.
But having said that, I’m prepared to concede the editorial has a point, especially with regard to the egregious praise of Putin on the part of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and that the question of how moral Israel’s foreign policy should be is not solely a matter for idle journalistic posturing.