Commentary Magazine


Topic: human rights

How UNRWA Steals Money from Those Who Need It Most

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.

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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 has long been clear that UNRWA–which deals solely with Palestinian refugees, while UNHCR bears responsibility for all other refugees on the planet–is a major obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Since, unlike UNHCR, it grants refugee status to the original refugees’ descendants in perpetuity, the number of Palestinian refugees has ballooned from under 700,000 in 1949 to over five million today, even as the world’s non-Palestinian refugee population has shrunk from over 100 million to under 30 million. Moreover, while UNHCR’s primary goal is to resettle refugees, UNRWA hasn’t resettled a single refugee in its history: By its definition, refugees remain refugees even after acquiring citizenship in another country. It has thereby perpetuated and exacerbated the Palestinian refugee problem to the point where it has become the single greatest obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement: Israel cannot absorb five million Palestinian refugees (though it could easily absorb the fewer than 50,000 original refugees who still remain alive), yet under UNRWA’s rules, refugee status can’t be ended except by resettlement in Israel.

But an even more basic reason for abolishing UNRWA is the harm it does to the world’s most vulnerable people–real refugees like the Syrians. Were the Palestinians handled by UNHCR like all other refugees are, UNHCR would have the budgetary flexibility to temporarily divert aid from the Palestinians, who need it far less, to people who need it more, like the Syrians today. Instead, it is forced to watch helplessly as Syrian refugees go roofless and hungry while $1 billion in aid is squandered on Palestinians with homes, jobs, and all the comforts of settled life.

Thus, anyone who claims to have a shred of genuine humanitarian concern ought to be agitating for UNRWA’s abolition and the Palestinians’ transfer to UNHCR’s auspices. Unfortunately for the Syrians, it seems that many of the world’s self-proclaimed humanitarians prefer harming Israel to helping those who need it most.

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Germany Again Betrays Iranians’ Human Rights

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:

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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:

Sheikh Attar is accused to being directly responsible for numerous killings in the Kurdish areas of Iran. Michael Spaney, spokesperson for STOP THE BOMB Germany, asks the Evangelische Akademie to follow the example of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Saxony and the Neuhardenberg Foundation, which have canceled similar events with the Iranian ambassador due to protests.

Iranian-German activist Saba Farzan is absolutely correct when she writes, “To pretend that this conference is designed to strengthen the Iranian civil society is a mockery of the young Iranian generation and their courage.” In his first Nowruz (Persian New Year) message to the Iranian people, Obama broke with tradition to conflate the regime with the people. The Iranian regime’s crushing of the 2009 post-election protests should have put an end to the illusion that the regime had anything to do with civil society. Why the Germans refuse to learn that lesson probably has less to do with ignorance and more with a cynical drive to ingratiate themselves to Iran’s leadership in the hope of making a quick buck, consequences be damned. Even if that is too cynical an interpretation, this conference shows the notion that either the German government or the Lutheran church (which owns the Evangelische Akademie Loccum) care about human rights is risible.

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Vice Media’s Foolish North Korea Stunt

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:

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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:

Kim Jong-Un’s succession as North Korea’s supreme leader after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, has had no positive impact on the country’s dire human rights record. More than 200,000 North Koreans, including children, are imprisoned in camps where many perish from forced labor, inadequate food, and abuse by guards. Arbitrary arrest, lack of due process, and torture are pervasive problems. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Government policies have continually subjected North Koreans to food shortages and famine.

Admittedly, Rodman has no reputation to lose to here; this latest foray only reinforces the impression of an out-of-control wild man that basketball fans so vividly remember. But this trip was not just Rodman’s doing. It was underwritten by Vice Media, a documentary film production outfit that is under contract to HBO, a division of the giant Time Warner media empire.

One wonders what Time Warner Chairman and Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes thinks about the use of his shareholders’ money to fund a public-relations extravaganza on behalf of the worst regime on the planet? Did the filmmakers clear this little foray with Bewkes in advance, or was he as blindsided as the rest of the world?

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Rodman Inadvertantly Shines Light on North Korean Human Rights

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.”

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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.”

What could have prompted this effusiveness from Rodman? Despite the country’s total lack of infrastructure, freedom and food supply, enormous shows and basketball matches were put together for Rodman, the Harlem Globetrotters and their entourage. It’s not likely Rodman was aware of the dire situation for most North Koreans given that as he boarded his flight he tweeted about looking forward to meeting South Korean pop star Psy. Even as he was about to enter the country, Rodman couldn’t differentiate between the poverty-striken North and the affluent and capitalist South.

Many stories in the news media of the visit included reports of the human rights situation in the country. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer declared Rodman achieved a “diplomatic triumph,” however a report from his own network told a different story:

It was unclear whether Rodman, who is accompanied by Globetrotters Bull Bullard, Buckets Blakes and Moose Weekes, will be taken to North Korea’s countryside, where aid groups say malnutrition is rampant.

According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of thousands of people remain enslaved in prison camps, which are “notorious for horrific living conditions and abuse.”

It appears the North Koreans provided the group with “a feast” amidst a reported famine. Gawker, a site not exactly known for its moral compass, put together a fantastic “slideshow” of Rodman’s visit, with excited tweets from group members about their hosts interspersed with pictures of starving North Korean babies and children. TIME Magazine had an equally forceful post shedding light on the reality for the average North Koreans Rodman wasn’t allowed to meet. The human rights group Freedom House told BuzzFeed:

“History is cluttered with the examples of academics, philosophers, renowned writers, and eminent advocates of humane ideals who have aligned themselves with or apologized for the world’s most despicable tyrants,” said Arch Puddington, vice president of research. “Given this context, Dennis Rodman’s choice to pal around with a leader who oversees one massive, countrywide concentration camp is very much in the minor leagues of dictator worship.”

“At minimum, however, Rodman should ponder the fact that he is the product of a free society which allowed him to develop his athletic skills, earn millions of dollars, travel the world, and articulate his often very quirky opinions,” Puddington said. “Those freedoms, and especially the last one, are totally absent under the regime of the man he calls his ‘friend for life.’”

Thanks to Rodman’s visit, the world might actually be paying attention to human rights abuses in the country for the first time in a long time.

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Putting Capitalism on Trial at the ICC

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.

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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.

So what turned up in the Times on Wednesday of last week? An op-ed demanding that the ICC be given broad new power to prosecute business people and corporations for taking part in “a vast and unregulated system of extractive capitalism.” “Treat Greed in Africa as a War Crime” blared the headline.

In the op-ed, Yale anthropology professor Kamari Maxine Clarke itemizes a varied list of offenders she seems to think should face ICC prosecution. Chocolate companies based in the West, for example, buy cacao from African farmers so poor that they have their small children work on the crop. The Chinese national oil enterprise plays footsie with the regime in Sudan so as to preserve its favored position. (Yes, in Times-land you can be a Communist state-owned enterprise colluding with another authoritarian government and still count as a representative of unregulated capitalism.) Professor Clarke also thinks the ICC should step in where a multinational enterprise did get punished for misconduct, but should have been punished more. Thus, in one widely noted case where a shipping firm allowed dangerous wastes to be disposed of improperly in West Africa, the firm paid more than $200 million in fines and compensation and two of its employees were sentenced to long prison terms, but critics say the penalties should have been set higher than that. So call in the ICC prosecutors!

Clarke appears to accept without question the various charges of abuse against global business that circulate among cause groups in what is called the human rights community. One complicating factor is that when such complaints are brought before legal systems that accord due process to both sides, we very often discover exaggerations, contradictions or downright inventions in the original sensational claims.  Last week a Dutch court threw out much of a highly-publicized complaint charging Shell with oil pollution in Nigeria. At one point in discussing the chocolate controversy, Professor Clarke recites the contentions of a U.S.-based class-action law firm. Is it necessary to point out that such allegations, levied by firms that face little or no downward risk if their charges don’t pan out, make a doubtful basis for criminal prosecution?

What is certain to happen, if the ICC gains an expansion of authority along the lines Professor Clarke recommends, is that more businesses will be hauled into the dock as a part of what has been called “lawfare,” the use of human rights complaints to provide leverage in the pursuit of international politics. In one of the best-known episodes along these lines, activist lawyers went after Caterpillar Tractor for having sold tractors to the Israeli government, which thus supposedly made the company legally at fault for the bulldozer death of pro-Palestinian protester Rachel Corrie. The suit failed as a legal matter, but might have succeeded in raising the perceived cost of being an American firm willing to trade with Israel.

No doubt some Times readers nodded in approval at Professor Clarke’s argument. But others, I suspect, passed the paper to colleagues with a comment like, “See, I told you the ICC was a bad idea.”

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The Shameful Attack on Israel from Amnesty International

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:

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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:

If Israel fails to fully engage in its examination under the Universal Periodic Review during 2013 as required, will the victims of human rights violations, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, thank the Israeli government?

Amnesty wants Israel to take its beating or it will not-so-subtly suggest to the victims of the Taliban that they can blame the Jewish state. It would certainly be convenient for Amnesty to do so, since the organization could simply stop putting researchers at risk in dangerous countries and just consolidate its branches in its office in Tel Aviv, where its staffers can unironically fault Israel for every human rights violation unharassed by the democratically-elected Israeli government it is scapegoating.

Israel’s review was supposed to take place this afternoon, and be conducted by three nations–one of them Venezuela. As if it’s unclear why a country would opt-out of such a sham, the United States was apparently engaged in a last-minute push to convince Israel to take its medicine. The Times of Israel reports:

“Tough talks” were held on the matter between senior State Department officials and the head of the Foreign Ministry’s department for foreign organizations, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, the paper reported Sunday. The US officials also said that even though Israel’s boycott might be justified, it would eventually harm Israel’s reputation in the international arena.

“We have encouraged the Israelis to come to the council and to tell their story and to present their own narrative of their own human rights situation,” Eileen Donahoe, Washington’s ambassador to the UNHRC, told reporters in Geneva last week. “The United States is absolutely, fully behind the Universal Periodic Review and we do not want to see the mechanism in any way harmed.”

Israel is also expected to not cooperate with a probe into the country’s reported use of drones against Palestinian targets, launched last week, Haaretz reported. Israel does not admit to using drones in aerial strikes. The US and Britain are expected to work with the investigation, which does not have official backing from the UNHCR, but was prompted by requests from China, Russia and Pakistan.

I don’t know exactly what the story means when it says the U.S. plans to “work with” the drone investigation, but I’ll give the White House and Foggy Bottom three guesses as to which country is likely to be the next subject of a drone investigation initiated by Pakistan.

Just as Amnesty vowed retribution for Israel’s intransigence, the UN Human Rights Council warned that “appropriate action would be taken.” For its part, the Israeli government made no attempt to hide its contempt for being lectured by the “dictator protection racket,” as the Wall Street Journal has so aptly dubbed the UN:

“It’s hard to understand how the countries that initiated this investigation have any moral right to review or to opine on human rights records of other countries,” an anonymous Israeli official said. “Such countries that have long records jailing and/or assassinating their political opponents are in no position to lecture anyone on human rights.”

That gets it about right. The UN, of course, has every right to ask Israel to participate in the review and drone investigation and take offense when they are rebuffed. But there is no excuse for the shameful comments from Amnesty, an organization that ought to be above making it official policy to blame Israel for human rights violations made by terrorists and dictators simply because the Israelis won’t lend credibility to their perennial accusers.

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Will Human Rights Activists Make War More Deadly?

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.

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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.

Human rights activists increasingly obsess about proportionality. Somehow, they believe that if terrorists or rogue groups have limited weaponry–rockets, mortars, and plastic explosives, for example–it is wrong to attack them with drones, F-18s, or JDAMs. This is nonsense, for the underlying implication is either that those conducting counter-terror operations must use substandard weaponry or that terrorists like Hamas, the Haqqani Network, and Al Qaeda should have access to F-18s and JDAMs as well. In effect, what humanitarian activists want to do is outlaw at least one aspect of the Powell Doctrine: The idea that if the United States is challenged, it should use overwhelming force against its enemy.

I’ve never been opposed to targeted assassination. In 2006, I wrote a lengthy piece for National Review arguing for more targeted killings, especially when their use can save civilian lives. (It is ironic that criticism of the piece among the left stopped when President Obama came to office and made drones his signature counter-terror tool; it seems among many progressive websites, politics trumps principle.)

This does not mean to say that the tactic cannot be over-used: Over-reliance on drones along the Af/Pak border has pushed Al Qaeda elements not into caves, but into the Punjab’s dense urban jungle, a phenomenon which promises to plague international security for decades. Still, the desire to slowly ban military tools in an undeclared war against war itself risks a blowback that few human rights activists fully understand. The best defense against civilian casualties is not for the United Nations to launch politicized crusades against those engaged in the defense of democracies against terrorists, but rather to take a no-nonsense approach to terrorists and their sponsors.

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How to Rein in Bahrain?

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.

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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.

Yet, as she notes, U.S. protests over such clear violations of human rights have been negligible. This is understandable, because Bahrain is the home of the Fifth Fleet and a close military ally. There are also fears that the Bahraini opposition, mainly Shiite in a country ruled by a Sunni royal family, is a stalking horse for Iranian influence. That, at any rate, is what the Bahrain government would like us to believe; but from everything I saw during a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this year, most of the opposition, while undeniably Shiite, is fairly moderate and not interested in creating an Iranian-style theocracy. Ironically what is most likely to drive them into Iran’s arms is if the Bahrain government continues its policy of repression in cooperation with the Saudis.

It is hard for the U.S. to apply pressure to Bahrain by cutting off arms sales (as Zainab Al-Khawaja suggests) or at least making them conditional on human-rights improvements. But it is also a step we need to seriously consider, lest we repeat the mistake we made with Egypt where we gave unconditional backing to another pro-American dictator, acting under the illusion that he could stave off the people’s demands indefinitely. He couldn’t, and, because we didn’t press Mubarak for reform, instead we got a revolution.

That would be the worst possible outcome in Bahrain. Instead, we need to push for the royal family to turn their country into a constitutional monarchy, reserving some power over the armed forces while ceding most authority to the people’s elected representatives. That is the only long-term formula for stability in Bahrain and indeed throughout the Gulf.

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Hagel Sits on Board of Oil Company Accused of Human Rights Violations

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. 

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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. 

“Senator Hagel, as a new board member, you have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to raise the bar for corporate responsibility in the Caspian to a level that is in accordance with the Chevron Way, for starters, but more importantly, in accordance with international law and practice,” said Crude Accountability’s Michelle Kinman, according to a statement posted on the group’s website. “Senator Hagel, are you prepared to insist that your company take a principled stance in favor of human rights in Turkmenistan today?”

According to Crude Accountability, Hagel did not respond to the question:

Senator Hagel was not given the opportunity to respond to this question.  Instead, Chevron CEO John Watson encouraged Crude Accountability to write to Senator Hagel at a later time.  In his response, Mr. Watson confirmed that Chevron is in negotiations with Turkmenistan, adding that “I think we can do some good in Turkmenistan” even though “we may not meet your standards”. 

No word yet on whether Crude Accountability followed up with a letter, or whether Hagel wrote back. I contacted the organization and will post when I get a reply. But according to Reuters, Chevron was still pursuing a deal to develop Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves as recently as last month.

This isn’t the first time the company has been criticized for its involvement with repressive regimes. A 2010 report by the NGO EarthRights International accused Chevron of being complicit in human rights violations in Burma, including the death of workers on its natural-gas pipeline. Other NGOs have also cited the company for involvement in human rights abuses in Ecuador.

Yet Hagel continued to sit on the company’s board. When you couple this with his opposition to Iran sanctions, a pattern emerges. Throughout his career, Hagel has shown a disturbing indifference to authoritarian regimes and human rights violators, and there’s no reason to think he’d change if he’s nominated for defense secretary.

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UN: Return Golan Residents to Syrian Slaughterhouse “Forthwith”

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.

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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.

“More and more people comprehend that this [Israel] is a well-managed country and it’s possible to live and raise children here,” one Druze who acquired Israeli citizenship explained. “In Syria there is mass murder, and if [the Druze are] under Syrian control they would likely be turned into the victims of these atrocities. People see murdered children and refugees fleeing to Jordan and Turkey, lacking everything, and ask themselves: Where do I want to raise my children. The answer is clear–in Israel and not Syria.”

But what the Golan’s own residents want, of course, is of no interest to the UN: It would rather Israel return the area, and its Druze, to the Syrian hellhole “forthwith.”

Then there was the resolution condemning Israel for violating “the human rights of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.” But in East Jerusalem, too, the number of Palestinians requesting Israeli citizenship has risen sharply in recent years (West Bank and Gazan Palestinians aren’t eligible for citizenship, since Israel hasn’t annexed those areas). And while the number of Palestinians actually receiving citizenship remains small, Haaretz reports, “everyone involved agrees” it would be higher if Israel’s notoriously slow Interior Ministry would just process the applications faster.

The number of East Jerusalem Palestinians registering for the Israeli matriculation exam rather than the Palestinian one has also recently risen by dozens of percent, meaning these young Palestinians aspire to study at an Israeli university and work in Israel rather than studying and working in the Arab world. This, too, is a sea change: For years, Palestinians refused to allow their children to study the Israeli curriculum; now, private preparatory schools are springing up to enable these children to pass the Israeli exams.

Moreover, repeated polls have shown that if Jerusalem were redivided, many Palestinians–at least a sizable minority, and possibly a majority–would want to remain in Israel. But again, what East Jerusalem residents want is of no interest to the UN.

All of which just goes to show, if anyone had any doubts, that the UN and its member states have no interest whatsoever in the actual wellbeing of those under Israeli “occupation.” All they’re interested in is bashing Israel.

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Is GOP the Party of Human Rights?

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.

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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.

Hagel’s gut instincts are even worse: He is not naïve like Kerry, but rather cold and callous when it comes to human rights. His instincts are to dismiss his opponents’ worst excesses as a domestic affair. Hagel embraces traditional appeasement, unaware that rather than satiate dictators, it only emboldens them. It won’t take long for dictators to understand that, with both Kerry and Hagel at the helm, they will have carte blanche to repress and murder their own people in a manner unseen for decades.

Democrats might like to say they stand for human rights and progressivism, but increasingly they do not understand that human rights are impossible to enjoy without basic human liberty. The question for the human rights community will be if they will hold water for such men and confirm the political corruption which infuses the professional human rights community.

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Human Rights Activists vs. the International Court

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.

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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.

Second, it acknowledged the obvious fact that even the most careful army can’t prevent civilian casualties. Some 150 civilians died in the generals’ four-day bombing campaign. But the appeals court said these deaths didn’t constitute war crimes, because the troops had aimed at legitimate military targets. In other words, it ruled that civilian casualties aren’t ipso facto illegal; they may be unavoidable consequences of legitimate military activity–especially when military targets are located in crowded urban areas.

Third, it acknowledged that even when genuine war crimes occur, they may be the acts of errant individuals rather than deliberate policy: It concluded that acts of looting and murder following the bombing campaign occurred not on the generals’ orders, but despite them.

Finally, it acknowledged the obvious fact that fleeing a war zone is normal, so a civilian exodus isn’t necessarily proof of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In short, the court recognized a simple truth that “human rights” activists try hard to obscure: War is always hell, but not every act of war is a war crime.

Unfortunately, this welcome breath of sanity has been under assault from the moment it was issued. The first attack came from the court itself: The dissenting judges in the 3-2 verdict publicly termed it “grotesque” and said it lacked “any sense of justice.”

Now, activists like Harland are joining the chorus. Unlike the court, he can’t accept that civilians might spontaneously–and sensibly–flee a war zone: “If the acquitted generals were not responsible for this ethnic cleansing, then somebody was,” he declared.

Even more disturbing, he appears to think “fairness” requires convictions for all parties to a conflict even if only one side committed war crimes: “Convicting only Serbs simply doesn’t make sense in terms of justice, in terms of reality, or in terms of politics,” he wrote.

I can’t imagine a worse indictment of the “human rights” community than that: Justice be damned; convictions must be issued to both sides for the sake of “politics.” It’s precisely that monstrous idea against which the appeals court struck such a welcome blow last month.

But as reactions like Harland’s show, restoring sanity to the concept of “international human rights law” is going to be a long, hard haul.

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U.S. Policy Toward Egypt Shouldn’t Revert to Mubarak-Era Form

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.

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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.

Of course, the pursuit of stability is reasonable enough. But what we’ve learned from the last few years is that stability purchased by selling out the rights and freedoms of the people of the Arab world presents not only as a moral problem, but also as one of efficacy. So-called realists disregard the dignity of the oppressed as mere idealism, but this practice just plain fails at its objective: Arab police states provided the illusion of stability, but in effect undermined it.

This was certainly Mubarak’s approach. While the political dominance of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly a welcome development, to say the least, it was made nearly inevitable by Mubarak’s policy of suppressing any and all political organization he could. Only the Brotherhood’s Islamism, kept alive underground and in the mosques, and long preceding Egypt’s current political establishment, was able to withstand the regime’s tyranny.

The other institution that was and remains strong is Egypt’s military. The Brotherhood allied with the military to hold early elections before the non-Islamist movements could coalesce into a more serious rival, and they were rewarded by Morsi. As the Washington Post editorializes today, “The Egyptian military is given virtual autonomy, with a defense minister appointed from within its ranks and a budget determined by a national security council rather than by parliament.”

The Post continues:

The deeper problem is that Mr. Morsi’s government appears content to steamroll, rather than seek accommodation with, secular opponents. While his spokesmen say they recognize that some of the protesters are peaceful members of the movement that overthrew Mr. Mubarak, they claim that the crowds contain paid thugs and provocateurs.

Obama shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to defend the rights Egyptians finally thought they had within their grasp out of fear of upsetting a stable balance; it isn’t there. Nor should Obama worry about the perception that he would be insulting the Egyptian people’s religious sensibilities; Morsi’s reputation as “Mubarak with a beard” is an indication that many Egyptians believe Morsi has hijacked and abused their faith as a means to subjugate them and collect power for himself. And with regard to his popularity, Obama doesn’t have much to lose there either; as Pew showed, Egyptians don’t think much of him–and he’s not giving them a reason to reconsider.

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About Those Cuban “Reforms” …

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.

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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.

For example, this morning CNN reports:

Starting next year, Cubans traveling abroad will face fewer hurdles leaving the country.

The official news site Granma reported Tuesday that the Cuban government will no longer require a travel permit and a letter of invitation.

The move is part of the reforms that President Raul Castro promised when he took office in 2008.”

But don’t forget the fine print:

The new change, however, does not mean that anyone wanting to travel will get a passport.

‘The ordinary passport will be issued to the Cuban citizens who meet the requirements of the Migration Law,’ which is being modified, according to the report in Granma.

While the report does not say how the law will be altered, it does add that the government will fight brain — and money — drain ‘from the aggressive and subversive plans of the US government and its allies.’ It will do so by leaving in place measures to preserve ‘human capital created by the Revolution from the theft of talents practiced by the powerful nations.’”

In other words, nothing is really changing, other than the verbiage.

With Raul Castro’s takeover of the Cuban government four years ago from his brother, many hoped that the totalitarian government would ease its grip on power, instituting reforms that could bring Cuba into the 21st century. Like with North Korea’s recent leadership change, we have seen nothing of the sort. Yesterday Max discussed how, despite some surface reforms instituted by the newly appointed Kim Jong-un, North Korea remains a wasteland for the majority of its citizenry. Cuba, like North Korea, has spent the majority of the last century ruled by a family that has no desire to give up the luxurious lifestyle they lead for the sake of democracy. Max explained it perfectly yesterday in regards to North Korea, and unfortunately, the same applies to Cuba: “Sadly, we cannot expect real change as long as [insert Communist tyrant's name here] remains in power because he knows that a serious opening will jeopardize the good life that he has inherited. To expect otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.”

Sadly, as with the stories about North Korea’s relaxation of dress code standards to allow more Western attire, the media appears to have fallen for this distraction, playing right into the hands of yet another Communist dictator. For the victims of Castro and their family members in the West, it will soon become clear that today’s headlines don’t signify any shift from the status-quo.

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Syria Reveals Arab Leaders’ Hypocrisy

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.

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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.

So by any objective standard, the Syrian problem would look incomparably more urgent: Solving it would save far more Muslim Arab lives than solving the Palestinian problem would. But for Morsi, and for all too many others in the Arab world, securing the well-being of his fellow Muslim Arabs is evidently less important than undermining the well-being of the hated Jewish state. The Syrian crisis being a purely intra-Arab conflict, solving it doesn’t contribute one iota to the latter goal. But an obsessive focus on the Palestinian problem does.

Of course, it’s also possible that Morsi doesn’t actually believe in the primacy of the Palestinian cause, but is merely playing the time-honored game that Arab opinion leaders – politicians, journalists, artists and intellectuals – have been playing for decades: Let’s divert attention from the internal problems of Arab society by focusing on an outside enemy. But either way, the message is the same: What really matters isn’t what the Arabs do to themselves, but what the Jews do to them, even if what Arabs are doing to themselves (or each other) is far worse. And therefore, the focus of Arab activity must be Israel, not the Arab world’s internal problems – even if focusing on the latter would do more to actually improve the lot of ordinary Arabs.

More than half a century ago, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously said that “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” Sadly, that’s still true. But it’s equally true that as long as Arab leaders accord higher priority to their campaign against Israel than they do to the welfare of their own people, the Arab world will continue to lag far behind the West by almost any standard of human well-being.

In fact, the Arab world has paid a far higher price for its Israel obsession than Israel ever has. The Jewish state has grown and thrived despite being continuously at war. But ordinary Arabs can still be slaughtered by their own government while their Arab brethren look on and yawn – and continue prating about Israel.

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Human Rights Groups Sacrifice Syrians for Misguided Principle

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.

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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.

There are many military strategies which might provide immediate protection to the Syrian people. Max Boot and Reuel Marc Gerecht have discussed some of them. Syrians point out to me that limited airpower would be effective in stopping the pulverization of neighborhoods and towns by Syrian artillery. Syrian forces are afraid to set up mortars and artillery too close to urban areas, because residents will attack and lynch them. So much of the artillery barrages are launched from open fields, meaning that Western air forces could target the perpetrators with little risk of collateral damage.

It is time human rights groups recognize that the embrace of human rights and support for predominance of the United Nations in the international system are often mutually exclusive values, and be open about whether human rights advocates now place a political agenda above protecting and preserving human rights.

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Why is Obama Protecting Human Rights Violators?

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.

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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.

Not only does it not single out Russia any longer, but it also gives the State Department discretion to keep the list of human rights violators secret. So much for naming and shaming. Now, for sanctions to occur, the targets of the sanctions must be known to banks and other agencies.  If the State Department, for diplomatic reasons, refuses to divulge the list of human rights violators, not only is there no shaming, but also there are also really no sanctions. Anna Borshchevska (full disclosure, my wife) explains.

It is ironic that the Obama administration prides itself on being the standard bearer of human rights protections, but it also has done more than any other administration to protect the guilty at the expense of the innocent.

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Obama Remains Obstacle to Sanctions

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.

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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.

The answer is: they wouldn’t. The move also comes as the bill received an endorsement from the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, which supported the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment sanctioning Russia for its refusal to allow Jews to emigrate. Jackson-Vanik will be repealed this year in order to establish permanent normal trade relations with Moscow as it joins the World Trade Organization. Rights groups here, in Europe, and in Russia want the Magnitsky Act to replace Jackson-Vanik so rights abusers can be sanctioned without disadvantaging American businesses.

The debate about the Magnitsky Act is playing out against the backdrop of Vladimir Putin’s rigged election and post-election crackdown on protesters. Pro-democracy activists and politicians in Russia have been trying to convince Western leaders to show support for their struggle. As opposition politician Garry Kasparov tweeted last night: “Foreign laws that punish Putin’s crooks and thugs are not anti-Russian. They are pro-Russian people and anti-Putin. Critical distinction!”

But as with Iran, the Obama administration remains unmoved by that distinction and continues to try to block sanctions in favor of “engagement.” Yet if Obama is truly dedicated to a policy dominated by engagement, he should take the advice of Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer, writing in the Financial Times about Russia’s pro-Western reformers:

For the moment, the Kremlin has managed to ignore these voices, acting like neither a Bric nor a G8 member in good standing. Washington should not make the same mistake. If U.S. and European leaders genuinely want to build new ties with Moscow, these are the people they should be talking to.

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Can Israel Afford a Moral Foreign Policy?

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.

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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.

Since its birth in 1948, the State of Israel has been under siege and has almost never been in a position to pick its friends with impunity. Indeed, so desperate has it been for any sign of friendship from other countries, let alone genuine cooperation or alliance, that it led to the development of a deep cynicism about its place in the world, which led it to be willing to sometimes take the hands of some unsavory regimes. Friends of Israel were right to take umbrage at the notion that an embattled nation was expected to be more punctilious about its foreign policy than greater and far more secure nations. Nevertheless, as Israel’s position grew stronger in recent decades, it was fair to say that its willingness to embrace apartheid-era South Africa or any Third World dictator who would stand apart from the global chorus of Israel-haters was often ill-considered and sometimes counter-productive.

Though Israel’s governments were justified in prioritizing security and defense, a public posture of moral blindness ill befit a nation that also sought to play upon the international community’s sense of justice. Even if it could not expect fair play for itself, brazen cynicism on such questions did nothing to enhance its position. Israeli leaders of both the left and the right have generally been uncomfortable taking stands on disputes elsewhere in the globe. But this shyness about defending human rights when Jews were not the victims only fueled the unfair comparisons of its own complex problems vis-à-vis the Palestinians to real tyrannies that are often voiced by anti-Semites and other Israel-haters.

So while it is clearly unreasonable to expect Israel to attack Putin directly or to rebuff his overtures, it is not wrong to point out that Lieberman’s coziness with the Moscow regime is an embarrassment.

In his defense, it should be noted that although he was widely considered unsuitable for his task when he took office in 2009, Lieberman has been as good a practitioner of cynical realpolitik on his country’s behalf as any of his seemingly more accomplished predecessors. Though he gets little credit for it, it was his diplomatic skills — often exercised with unsavory Third World governments — that helped stave off the so-called Palestinian “diplomatic tsunami” at the United Nations last year.

But behind the scenes diplomacy is one thing; public endorsements of Putin’s tyranny are quite another. Though only a fool would think it is not in Israel’s interests to keep Russia from sliding back to the open hostility that characterized relations during the era of the Soviet Union, there is no need for Israel to go as far as that.

As much as Israelis have vainly hoped for a normal existence, the Jewish state has also always aspired to stand for Jewish values and the Jewish people. As such, it is far from wrong to expect it to support not merely democracy for itself but the rights of all peoples.

I should add that I myself have written in the past to chide some Israelis — even those whom I greatly admired — for being willing to treat the question of human rights as somehow not being their business. In February of 1997, I even tweaked Natan Sharansky, a man whom I consider a genuine hero and then serving as Israel’s Trade Minister— for not using a meeting with his Chinese counterparts to raise the topic of the status of prisoners in the Chinese gulag. The piece (written originally for the Jerusalem Post under the headline “Say it Ain’t So, Natan,” is not available on their website, but can be read here on the site of San Francisco’s J Weekly which subsequently picked it up) motivated Sharansky to use a second meeting with the Chinese to do exactly as I had asked him to do. That earned him a rebuke from Israel’s Foreign Ministry but confirmed my high opinion of his integrity.

The standard here should not be, as the Forward’s piece seems to want, to demand that Israel be tougher on Russia than even the United States, but that it must be prepared to speak up about human rights, even when it is inconvenient. The Jewish state may still be beleaguered, but it is not so weak that it must be compelled to prostitute itself on behalf of Putin, as Lieberman appears willing to do. A completely moral foreign policy is a luxury that not even a superpower can always afford, but we have a right to expect that Israel’s approach to the world should consist of more than raw cynicism.

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Human Rights, Aid Groups Flak for Hamas

Fifty international organizations issued a public appeal yesterday for an immediate end to the blockade of Gaza, which they deemed a “violation of international law.” The signatories were the usual suspects: human rights groups like Amnesty International, aid organizations like Oxfam, and six UN agencies.

As Haaretz Palestinian affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff points out, this appeal is sheer nonsense. Israel ended restrictions on civilian imports to Gaza two years ago, and today, the only civilian product not available “in abundance” is fuel – which isn’t Israel’s fault:

The source of that problem stems from the Hamas government’s refusal to pay the high price for a liter of fuel (like every Israeli citizen pays) and its insistence on receiving smuggled fuel from the Egyptian side at a cheap price, facing off against the Egyptian regime’s complete refusal to allow the continued smuggling of fuel into Gaza (also in light of the serious fuel crisis in Egypt itself).

And while Israel does maintain a naval blockade of Gaza, that blockade was deemed legal by no less an authority than the UN itself, in last year’s Palmer Report.

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Fifty international organizations issued a public appeal yesterday for an immediate end to the blockade of Gaza, which they deemed a “violation of international law.” The signatories were the usual suspects: human rights groups like Amnesty International, aid organizations like Oxfam, and six UN agencies.

As Haaretz Palestinian affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff points out, this appeal is sheer nonsense. Israel ended restrictions on civilian imports to Gaza two years ago, and today, the only civilian product not available “in abundance” is fuel – which isn’t Israel’s fault:

The source of that problem stems from the Hamas government’s refusal to pay the high price for a liter of fuel (like every Israeli citizen pays) and its insistence on receiving smuggled fuel from the Egyptian side at a cheap price, facing off against the Egyptian regime’s complete refusal to allow the continued smuggling of fuel into Gaza (also in light of the serious fuel crisis in Egypt itself).

And while Israel does maintain a naval blockade of Gaza, that blockade was deemed legal by no less an authority than the UN itself, in last year’s Palmer Report.

So why are these agencies suddenly trying to resurrect a nonexistent issue? Granted, most of them need no excuse to attack Israel, but there’s a more urgent motivation – a need to divert attention from the real culprit before the world, and the Palestinians themselves, cop onto the truth: Gaza’s real problem is that the Palestinians’ own elected government couldn’t care less about its people’s welfare.

Last week, Gaza’s only power plant shut down because armed gangs in Sinai hijacked a fuel convoy, and there were no fuel reserves to cover the shortfall. Given the ongoing security chaos in Sinai, that is likely to recur with increasing frequency if Hamas continues to insist on relying exclusively on smuggled fuel.

But the alternative, importing fuel legally via Israel, is unacceptable to Hamas – not only for financial reasons (legal imports both cost more and deprive Hamas of the taxes it collects from the smuggling tunnels), but as a matter of principle: It would rather see its own people suffer than cooperate with Israel.

Consider, for instance, what happened in February, when another shortage of smuggled fuel shut down the power plant. Egypt promptly offered to send an emergency shipment via Israel, beause the Egypt-Gaza border terminal isn’t equipped to handle large cargo shipments. But Hamas refused, saying it would only accept the shipment if it came through Sinai. In other words, it preferred leaving its people without power during one of the coldest months of the year to accepting a shipment via Israel.

Nor is this exceptional: As I noted last week, it would also rather have its people drink polluted water than let Israeli firms help build a desalination plant.

But if the world woke up to the fact that the party that actually won the last Palestinian election was more interested in hurting Israel than in helping its own people, it might question the Palestinians’ readiness for statehood. And that, of course, would undermine one of these agencies’ most sacred dogmas. So instead, they’ve decided to flak for Hamas: to cover its own sins by redirecting international anger at Israel.

In short, organizations founded to defend the little people against oppressive rulers are now instead defending the government that oppresses them. It’s a sad commentary on how low these groups have fallen.

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