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Open Letter of California Scholar for Academic Freedom (Israel/Palestine)

22 Jul

[Prefatory Note: Below is an Open Letter prepared under the direction of Vida Samiian of State University of California at Fresno on behalf of California scholars defending against any effort to abridge academic freedom anywhere in the world, but particularly in California and the United States. The group has been recently sensitive to issues surrounding Israel/Palestine, Zionism, and alleged Anti-Semitism, but it also references attacks elsewhere in the world that encroach upon academic freedom.

The Open Letter references a defamatory article about me that recycles the by now familiar litany of mistakes, distortions, smears, and array of cherrypicking (mis)interpretations to create a false impression as to my actual views on controversial current issues. The evidentiary background of the article relies on the work of UN Watch, a supposed NGO that takes on all critics of Israel, especially at the UN, and made a habit of regularly launching harassing attacks on me during my six years as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine. Their efforts included writing long derogatory letters to UN diplomats and public officials in goverments complaining about my views, and urging my dismissal by the UN Secretary General. On this occasion as discussed in the Open Letter the attacks on me were contained in an article in the current issue of the conservative magazine written by intern, National Review, and can be found at <http://www.nationalreview.com/article/449164/un-anti-israel-bias-richard-falk-pro-iran-9-11-truther-investigates-jewish-state>

Such an attack is part of the concerted Zionist pushback against its critics, what I call ‘the Zionist War of Cultural Aggression,’ with the main current battlefields being university campus venues that host events or speakers critical of Israel or give aid and support to the BDS campaign. Unlike the South African anti-apartheid movement that relied on similar tactics to those relied upon by supporters of the Palestinian national struggle where apologists for apartheid were hostile to the movement, there was never an attempt as here, to take punitive action against those who expressed their hostility to apartheid by advocating various forms of militant nonviolence as expressive of global solidarity. Here the focus is on the role of the right-wing media in creating a climate of opinion that supports frantic Zionist efforts to intimidate and punish vocal critics of Israel, creating a crisis of confidence with regard to the exercise of academic freedom.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

OPEN LETTER

CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM

 

                     The Extremist Zionist Media Campaign Gone Too Far

 

As recently as five years ago Zionist extremists would engage campus speakers or events perceived as pro-Palestinian with substantive questions. Sometimes it was obvious that these questions were prepared in advance by some lobbying group as the student who spoke had a list of questions, was surrounded by several supporters, and usually left the conference hall without even waiting for a response. It was a disconcerting abuse of the discussion dimension of campus treatment of a controversial issue of great importance to the society as a whole.

 

This pattern of involvement has been abandoned in recent years by Zionist extremists. Instead a more insidious set of tactics has been adopted. Substantive engagement, even of a purely argumentative kind, is no longer even attempted, likely reflecting the reality that both the law and the moral dimensions of the Israel/Palestine relationship overwhelmingly support Palestinian grievances if fairly considered and give almost no aid and comfort to Israeli claims.

 

Instead of substantive engagement, the most ardent Israeli supporters smear critics of Israeli government policies, contending that criticism of Israel is ‘the new anti-Semitism,’ a position sadly endorsed by the Obama State Department and the Republican Congress, as well as several state legislatures. From such a standpoint, Palestinian supporters and their undertakings are demeaned and smeared while engaging in highly legitimate political discourse. Even the most qualified speakers are attacked before their scheduled appearances, often reinforced by back channel efforts. Usually stimulated and facilitated by more extremist national Zionist organizations, pressures are exerted on university administrations to cancel events. Additionally, local media is alerted so as to shift the focus of public interest as much as possible from message to messenger. The whole idea is to wound the messenger badly, and by so doing, create enough noise to drown out the message, a technique that often engages a compliant local media.

 

These tactics also seek a punitive backlash directed at Palestinian solidarity initiatives, especially the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Campaign, a nonviolent approach to ending abuses of the Palestinian people, which organizes advocacy of economic disengagement from commercial relationships with unlawful Israeli settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as academic, economic, and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions that serve to prolong the occupation and otherwise defy international law. Such tactics resemble the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s that proved so effective in bringing about the collapse of the racist regime in South Africa. What is most relevant to notice is that even those who opposed the South African BDS campaign never sought to ban its demonstrations or degrade and punish its leaders, which is what opponents of the Israel BDS campaign are intent on doing.

 

What we are describing amounts to a Zionist cultural war of aggression against academic freedom in the United States, but also in Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It targets professors, student activists, and campus activities, which has an overall chilling effect1. For every speaker or event that is cancelled, many more are not undertaken for fear of the backlash. These wider, largely invisible repercussions are rarely discussed, but their impact is significant. More junior colleagues are advised to avoid such zones of potentially toxic consequences that could cast a dark shadow over an entire career as has been the case with even such a notable established scholar as Norman Finkelstein, as well as disrupting the academic future of promising junior scholars such as Steven Salaita.

 

We also take note of the wider reach of these efforts to discredit scholars who undertake public service beyond the confines of the academic community. The National Review in its issue of July 1, 2017 devotes an entire article to showing what a bad organization the United Nations has become because it had appointed an allegedly notorious anti-Semite, Richard Falk, to assess the Israeli treatment of Palestinians living under occupation. In fact, Richard Falk is one of the most highly respected and recognized international scholars of human rights law. He is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus at Princeton University and has been a Visiting Distinguished Professor and Research Fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara since 2002. He taught international law and politics at Princeton University for forty years.  He has served the United Nations in several capacities, including acting as a formally designated advisor to the President of the General Assembly in 2009. He has been a vice president of the American Society of International Law and currently serves as Senior Vice President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Board of Directors.

The fact that an established conservative magazine would publish an article filled with smears, distortions, mistakes, and malicious cherry picking is of a piece with this concerted wider effort to discredit those who speak truth to power, while warning others to maintain silence or face the consequences.

 

Under these conditions two things seem imperative. First, calling attention to and seeking to counteract the alarming magnitude and insidiousness of this assault on academic freedom. Secondly, organizing support for and solidarity with those who are victimized, both directly and indirectly, by these Zionist tactics detrimental to academic freedom.

 

 

 

  1. http://mondoweiss.net/2016/10/california-scholars-academic/

 

 

Contact persons for Cs4af:

 

Sondra Hale, Research Professor

University of California, Los Angeles

sonhale@ucla.edu

 

Manzar Foroohar, Professor of History

CSU San Luis Obispo

manzarforoohar@gmail.com

 

Claudio Fogu

Associate Professor Italian Studies

University of California Santa Barbara

claudiofogu@ucsb.edu

 

Nancy Gallagher, Research Professor
Department of History
University of California, Santa Barbara
gallagher@history.ucsb.edu

 

Katherine King, Professor of Comparative Literature

University of California Los Angeles

king@humnet.ucla.edu

 

Dennis Kortheuer

History, Emeritus

California State University Long Beach

 

David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English

University of California, Riverside

David.lloyd@ucf.edu

 

Lisa Rofel, Professor of Anthropology

University of California, Santa Cruz

lrofel@ucsc.edu

 

Vida Samiian

Professor of Linguistics & Dean Emerita

California State University, Fresno

vidas@mail.fresnostate.edu

 

 

**CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM (cs4af) is a group of over 200 scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance, and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere. California Scholars for Academic Freedom investigates legislative and administrative infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, and it raises the consciousness of politicians, university regents and administrators, faculty, students and the public at large through open letters, press releases, petitions, statements, and articles.

Challenging Nuclearism: The Nuclear Ban Treaty Assessed

14 Jul

 

 

On 7 July 2017 122 countries at the UN voted to approve the text of a proposed international treaty entitled ‘Draft Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.’ The treaty is formally open for signature in September, but it only become a binding legal instrument according to its own provisions 90 days after the 50th country deposits with the UN Secretary General its certification that the treaty has been ratified in accordance with their various constitutional processes.

 

In an important sense, it is incredible that it took 72 years after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to reach this point of setting forth this unconditional prohibition of any use or threat of nuclear weapons [Article 1(e)] within the framework of a multilateral treaty negotiated under UN auspices. The core obligation of states that choose to become parties to the treaty is very sweeping. It prohibits any connection whatsoever with the weaponry by way of possession, deployment, testing, transfer, storage, and production [Article 1(a)].

 

The Nuclear Ban Treaty (NBT) is significant beyond the prohibition. It can and should be interpreted as a frontal rejection of the geopolitical approach to nuclearism, and its contention that the retention and development of nuclear weapons is a proven necessity given the way international society is organized. It is a healthy development that the NBT shows an impatience toward and a distrust of the elaborate geopolitical rationalizations of the nuclear status quo that have ignored the profound objections to nuclearism of many governments and the anti-nuclear views that have long dominated world public opinion. The old reassurances about being committed to nuclear disarmament as soon as an opportune moment arrives increasingly lack credibility as the nuclear weapons states, led by the United States, make huge investments in the modernization and further development of their nuclear arsenals.

 

Despite this sense of achievement, it must be admitted that there is a near fatal weakness, or at best, the gaping hole in this newly cast net of prohibition established via the NBT process. True, 122 governments lends weight to the claim that the international community, by a significant majority has signaled in an obligatory way a repudiation of nuclear weapons for any and all purposes, and formalized their prohibition of any action to the contrary. The enormous fly in this healing ointment arises from the refusal of any of the nine nuclear weapons states to join in the NBT process even to the legitimating extent of participating in the negotiating conference with the opportunity to express their objections and influence the outcome. As well, most of the chief allies of these states that are part of the global security network of states relying directly and indirectly on nuclear weaponry also boycotted the entire process. It is also discouraging to appreciate that several countries in the past that had lobbied against nuclear weapons with great passion such as India, Japan, and China were notably absent, and also opposed the prohibition. This posture of undisguised opposition to this UN sponsored undertaking to delegitimize nuclearism, while reflecting the views of a minority of governments, must be taken extremely seriously. It includes all five permanent members of the Security Council and such important international actors as Germany and Japan.

 

The NATO triangle of France, United Kingdom, and the United States, three of the five veto powers in the Security Council, angered by its inability to prevent the whole NBT venture, went to the extreme of issuing a Joint Statement of denunciation, the tone of which was disclosed by a defiant assertion removing any doubt as to the abiding commitment to a nuclearized world order: “We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it. Therefore, there will be no change in the legal obligations on our countries with respect to nuclear weapons.” The body of the statement contended that global security depended upon maintaining the nuclear status quo, as bolstered by the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 and by the claim that it was “the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years.” It is relevant to take note of the geographic limits associated with the claimed peace-maintaining benefits of nuclear weaponry, which ignores the ugly reality that devastating warfare has raged throughout this period outside the feared mutual destruction of the heartlands of geopolitical rivals, a central shared forbearance by the two nuclear superpowers throughout the entire Cold War. During these decades of rivalry, the violent dimensions of geopolitical rivalry were effectively outsourced to the non-Western regions of the world during the Cold War, and subsequently, causing massive suffering and widespread devastation for many vulnerable peoples inhabiting the Global South. Such a conclusion suggests that even if we were to accept the claim on behalf on nuclear weapons as deserving of credit for avoiding a major war, specifically World War III, that ‘achievement’ was accomplished at the cost of millions, probably tens of millions, of civilian lives in non-Western societies. Beyond this, the achievement involved a colossally irresponsible gamble with the human future, and succeeded as much due to good luck as to the rationality attributed to deterrence theory and practice.

 

NBT itself does not itself challenge the Westphalian framework of state-centrism by setting forth a framework of global legality that is issued under the authority of ‘the international community’ or the UN as the authoritative representative of the peoples of the world. Its provisions are carefully formulated as imposing obligation only with respect to ‘State parties,’ that is, governments that have deposited the prescribed ratification and thereby become formal adherents of the treaty. Even Article 4, which hypothetically details how nuclear weapons states should divest themselves of all connections with the weaponry limits its claims to State parties, and offers no guidance whatsoever in the event of suspected or alleged non-compliance. Reliance is placed in Article 5 on a commitment to secure compliance by way of the procedures of ‘national implementation.’

 

The treaty does aspire to gain eventual universality through the adherence of all states over time, but in the interim the obligations imposed are of minimal substantive relevance beyond the agreement of the non-nuclear parties not to accept deployment or other connections with the weaponry. It is for another occasion, but I believe a strong case can be made under present customary international law, emerging global law, and abiding natural law that the prohibitions in the NBT are binding universally independent of whether a state chooses or not to become a party to the treaty.

 

Taking an unnecessary further step to reaffirm statism, and specifically, ‘national sovereignty’ as the foundation of world order, Article 17 gives parties to the NBT a right of withdrawal. All that state parties have to do is give notice, accompanied by a statement of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ that have ‘jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.’ The withdrawal will take effect twelve months after the notice and statement are submitted. There is no procedure in the treaty by which the contention of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ can be challenged as unreasonable or made in bad faith. It is an acknowledgement that even for these non-nuclear states, nothing in law or morality or human wellbeing takes precedence over the exercise of sovereign rights. Article 17 is not likely to be invoked in the foreseeable future. This provision reminds us of this strong residual unwillingness to supersede national interests by deference to global and human interests. The withdrawal option is also important because it confirms that national security continues to take precedence over international law, even with respect to genocidal weaponry of mass destruction. As such the obligation undertaken by parties to the NBT are reversible in ways that are not present in multilateral conventions outlawing genocide, apartheid, and torture.

 

Given these shortcomings, is it nevertheless reasonable for nuclear abolitionists to claim a major victory by virtue of tabling such a treaty? Considering that the nuclear weapons states and their allies have all rejected the process and even those within the circle of the intended legal prohibition reserve a right of withdrawal, the NBT is likely to be brushed aside by cynics as mere wishful thinking and by dedicated anti-nuclearists as more of an occasion for hemlock than champagne. The cleavage between the nuclear weapons states and the rest of the world has never been starker, and there are absent any signs on either side of the divide to make the slightest effort to find common ground, and there may be none. As of now, it is a standoff between two forms of asymmetry. The nuclear states enjoy a preponderance of hard power, while the anti-nuclear states have the upper hand when it comes to soft power, including solid roots in ‘substantive democracy,’ ‘global law,’ and ‘natural law.’

 

The hard power solution to nuclearism has essentially been reflexive, that is, relying on nuclearism as shaped by the leading nuclear weapons states. What this has meant in practice is some degree of self-restraint on the battlefield and crisis situations (there is a nuclear taboo without doubt, although it has never been seriously tested), and, above all, a delegitimizing one-sided implementation of the Nonproliferation Treaty regime. This one-sidedness manifests itself in two ways: (1) discriminatory administration of the underlying non-proliferation norm, most unreservedly in the case of Israel; as well, the excessive enforcement of the nonproliferation norm beyond the limits of either the NPT itself or the UN Charter, as with Iraq (2003), and currently by way of threats of military attack against North Korea and Iran. Any such uses of military force would be non-defensive and unlawful unless authorized by a Security Council resolution supported by all five permanent members, and at least four other states, which fortunately remains unlikely. [UN Charter, Article 27(3)] More likely is recourse to unilateral coercion led by the countries that issued the infamous joint declaration denouncing the NBT as was the case for the U.S. and the UK with regard to recourse to the war against Iraq, principally rationalized as a counter-proliferation undertaking, which turned out itself to be a rather crude pretext for mounting an aggressive war, showcasing ‘shock and awe’ tactics.

 

(2) The failure to respect the obligations imposed on the nuclear weapons states to negotiate in good faith an agreement to eliminate these weapons by verified and prudent means, and beyond this to seek agreement on general and complete disarmament. It should have been evident, almost 50 years after the NPT came into force in 1970 that nuclear weapons states have breached their material obligations under the treaty, which were validated by an Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice in 1996 that included a unanimous call for the implementation of these Article VI legal commitments. Drawing this conclusion from deeds as well as words, it is evident for all with eyes that want to see, that the nuclear weapons states as a group have opted for deterrence as a permanent security scheme and nonproliferation as its management mechanism.

 

One contribution of the NBT is convey to the world the crucial awareness of these 122 countries as reinforced by global public opinion that the deterrence/NPT approach to global peace and security is neither prudent nor legitimate nor a credible pathway leading over time to the end of nuclearism.

In its place, the NBT offers its own two-step approach—first, an unconditional stigmatizing of the use or threat of nuclear weapons to be followed by a negotiated process seeking nuclear disarmament. Although the NBT is silent about demilitarizing geopolitics and conventional disarmament, it is widely assumed that latter stages of denuclearization would not be implemented unless they involved these broader assaults on the war system. The NBT is also silent about the relevance of nuclear power capabilities, which inevitably entail a weapons option given widely available current technological knowhow. The relevance of nuclear energy technology would have to be addressed at some stage of nuclear disarmament.

 

Having suggested these major shortcomings of treaty coverage and orientation, can we, should we cast aside these limitations, and join in the celebrations and renewed hopes of civil society activists to rid the world of nuclear weapons? My esteemed friend and colleague, David Krieger, who has dedicated his life to keeping the flame of discontent about nuclear weapons burning and serves as the longtime and founding President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, concludes his informed critique of the Joint Statement by NATO leaders, with this heartening thought: “Despite the resistance of the U.S., UK and France, the nuclear ban treaty marks the beginning of the end of the nuclear age.” [Krieger, “U.S., UK and France Denounce the Nuclear Ban Treaty”]. I am not at all sure about this, although Krieger’s statement leaves open the haunting uncertainty of how long it might take to move from this ‘beginning’ to the desired ‘end.’ Is it as self-styled ‘nuclear realists’ like to point out, no more than an ultimate goal, which is polite coding for the outright dismissal of nuclear disarmament as ‘utopian’ or ‘unattainable’?

 

We should realize that there have been many past ‘beginnings of the end’ since 1945 that have not led us any closer to the goal of the eliminating the scourge of nuclearism from the face of the earth. It is a long and somewhat arbitrary list, including the immediate horrified reactions of world leaders to the atomic bomb attacks at the end of World War II, and what these attacks suggested about the future of warfare; the massive anti-nuclear civil disobedience campaigns that briefly grabbed mass attention in several nuclear weapons states; tabled disarmament proposals by the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s; the UN General Assembly Resolution 1653 (XVI) that in 1961 declared threat or use of nuclear weapons to be unconditionally unlawful under the UN Charter and viewed any perpetrator as guilty of a crime against humanity; the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 that scared many into the momentary realization that it was not tolerable to coexist with nuclear weapons; the International Court of Justice majority opinion in 1996 responding to the General Assembly’s question about the legality of nuclear weapons that limited the possibility of legality of use to the narrow circumstance of responding to imminent threats to the survival of a sovereign state; the apparent proximity to an historic disarmament arrangements agreed to by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at a summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986; the extraordinary opening provided by the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which should have been the best possible ‘beginning of the end,’ and yet nothing happened; and finally, Barack Obama’s Prague speech is 2009 (echoing sentiments expressed less dramatically by Jimmy Carter in 1977, early in his presidency) in which he advocated to great acclaim dedicated efforts to achieve toward the elimination of nuclear weapons if not in his lifetime, at least as soon as possible; it was a good enough beginning for a Nobel Peace Prize, but then one more fizzle.

 

Each of these occasions briefly raised the hopes of humanity for a future freed from a threat of nuclear war, and its assured accompanying catastrophe, and yet there was few, if any, signs of progress from each of these beginnings greeted so hopefully toward the ending posited as a goal. Soon disillusionment, denial, and distraction overwhelmed the hopes raised by these earlier initiatives, with the atmosphere of hope in each instance replaced by an aura of nuclear complacency, typified by indifference and denial. It is important to acknowledge that the bureaucratic and ideological structures supporting nuclearism are extremely resilient, and have proved adept at outwaiting the flighty politics of periodic flurries of anti-nuclear activism.

 

And after a lapse of years, yet another new beginning is now being proclaimed. We need to summon and sustain greater energy than in the past if we are to avoid this fate of earlier new beginnings in relation to the NBT. Let this latest beginning start a process that moves steadily toward the end that has been affirmed. We know that the NBT would not itself have moved forward without civil society militancy and perseverance at every stage. The challenge now is to discern and then take the next steps, and not follow the precedents of the past that followed the celebration of a seeming promising beginning with a misplaced reliance on the powers that be to handle the situation, and act accordingly. In the past, the earlier beginnings were soon buried, acute concerns eventually resurfaced, and yet another new beginning was announced with fanfare while the earlier failed beginning were purged from collective memory.

 

 

Here, we can at least thank the infamous Joint Statement for sending a clear signal to civil society and the 122 governments voting their approval of the NBT text that if they are truly serious about ending nuclearism, they will have to carry on the fight, gathering further momentum, and seeking to reach a tipping point where these beginnings of the end gain enough traction to become a genuine political project, and not just another harmless daydream or well-intended empty gesture.

 

As of now the NBT is a treaty text that courteously mandates the end of nuclearism, but to convert this text into an effective regime of control will require the kind of deep commitments, sacrifices, movements, and struggles that eventually achieved the impossible, ending such entrenched evils as slavery, apartheid, and colonialism.

 

 

 

Blocking Comments: Toward a Constructive Compromise

6 Jul

 

 Almost since the blog was initiated in 2010 I have wrestled with the proper and desirable scope of my monitoring role. I wanted to avoid two things: dogmatic bickering between opposed viewpoints and hateful, hurtful comments directed at either me or comment contributors. Although I did avoid the worst instances of defamatory and insulting attacks it was difficult to draw the line when substance was intertwined with nasty innuendo, and for a long time I leaned in the direction of inclusion, tolerating a certain level of incivility, some righteous anger, some insidious efforts to undermine and discredit.

 

A further concern, not evident to me early on, was the submission of long rambling comments that bore no discernable relevance to either posts or earlier comments. I have come to view that these too should be blocked for the sake of making the blog community feel the published comments were worth their time and attention. And then there was another case of unacceptable comments, those submitted by commercial entities peddling a product or vacation package, and attempting to gain smidgeons of free advertising by piggybacking on blogs.

 

I thank especially Gene Schulman and Laura Knightly (and a few others who contacted me offline) for pushing me to be more exclusionary, especially toward the repetitive hasbara contributions of several of the more persistent comment authors. This whole issue of how and when to block was really confined to a single issue on this blog—the flurry of defamatory comments pushing back against any and all criticisms of Israel, conflating anti-Zionism and criticism of Israeli practices and policies with anti-Semitism, as well as those equating Palestinian resistance with terrorism, disregarding Israel’s defiance of international law, and placing the burden of blame for the Palestinian ordeal primarily on the slumped shoulders of the oppressed. Along similar lines were comments exaggerating calls for the end of apartheid or the end of exclusivist ethnic claims to be a Jewish state by treating such critiques as advocating the destruction of Israel as a state, or even of the Jewish people. This tendency to refute a charge inflated far beyond its obvious intention is a common hasbara tactic, and unacceptable.

 

The more common trope of the liberal wing of the mainstream is to do what Obama and J Street tend to do, which is to insist that both sides are responsible for the impasse and both must make ‘painful concessions’ if peace is to be achieved. Although I find such a diagnosis deeply misleading as it bypasses the structure of oppressor and oppressed, insisting on ‘balanced’ apportionment of blame and sacrifice in a situation of extreme imbalance, I consider dialogue possible, although rarely fruitful.

 

As I have made clear on several occasions, comments that support Israel’s positions and Zionist claims and activities will not be excluded so long as they are not fused with rhetoric that smears those who hold opposing views or not repeated dogmatically in redundant submissions. Likewise attacks on Israel’s policies and practices, Zionist ideology and tactics, and Jewish support for Israel have been and will be blocked if the comment includes demeaning and gratuitous personal insults.

 

In my view, the more restrictive approach is working. The quality of the comments section of this blog has recently in my judgment greatly improved, containing creative responses that engage with or go beyond the posts, and by and large avoid bickering and trivializing exchanges. I thank the participants for this enhanced quality, which was my hope from the beginning.

 

Finally, the blog domain is happily pluralistic in all its dimensions. There is no reason that a blog dealing with controversial issues needs to be neutral or non-partisan, including whether or not the blog manager wants to have a comments section at all. I felt that a dialogic format was the most valuable frame to adopt given my main concerns, especially in view of their often controversial character. On an intellectual level I draw a distinction between debate, which I have find rarely useful, and dialogue, which is a listening mode as much as a speaking mode, and if appropriately practiced is a lifelong learning experience.

 

Although it is somewhat more work for me, I think safeguarding this blog space for such dialogue is a better way to express my blog ambitions and goals, which implies a corollary willingness to limit access for those whose motivation is acrimonious debate. Without being too mechanical and dogmatic about it, and even acknowledging that a good debate can on occasion rise to the level of dialogue and that bad dialogue between narcissistic talkers can sink to the level of debate, the distinction justifies attentiveness if drawn with sensitivity.

 

I suppose in the end we who aspire to be good netizens all need a civics guidebook when it comes to enjoying a nomadic life in cyberspace.

Betwixt and Between: The Shadowy Politics of Political (In)Correctness

3 Jul

 

We are all discovering that Donald Trump has Olympic skills when it comes to traversing a minefield, escaping mostly unharmed from high magnitude explosions that would long ago have ended in ignominy almost any other political life. How can we explain the enigma of an American real estate magnate and raunchy entertainment celebrity who gets away with insulting a war hero like John McCain, demeaning a conservative presidential dynasty that gave the country two recent Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, making public fun of Serge Kovaleski a disabled NY Times journalist, rebuking women with extremely vulgar remarks about their bodies and minds, devaluing the service of an American soldier killed in combat who happened to be the son of Iraqi born parents? For such a man to amble into the Oval Office as the electoral choice of the American people confirms many unflattering suspicions about the body politic as it exists and functions today in the United States. And after proposing one cruel measure after another, rebuffing his gracious predecessor every chance he gets, and undermining the reputation of the American government at home and abroad, Trump’s base support holds steady as if this is just what they wanted and expected. Even the Republican Party establishment has so far held its nose, and except on a few occasions, refraining from jumping ship even in the face of Trump’s childish tantrums and utterly disastrous, mean-spirited health and tax proposals.

 

Explaining the Trump ascendancy is far more complicated than pointing out the electoral weakness of the opposing candidate, or blaming Clinton’s poor tactics at the last stages of the campaign, or attributing Trump’s rise to Russian hacking or the blustering intrusions of the now fired FBI Director, James Comey, shortly before the elections last November. These unsavory realities may have swayed votes here and there, but they do not begin to account for Trump’s overall success or ultra-Teflon sensibility, or the uncanny rapport with his base, those passionate folks that keep showing up at rallies and continue to give him a steady 40% approval rating come what may, give or take a point or two here and there. And it’s really not mainly about jobs, either. Remember a colorless fellow like François Hollande scored around 4% in the last stages of his presidency, and Obama was disliked by close to 80% in Israel despite trying very hard to exhibit unconditional support for every misstep taken by Tel Aviv, probably because his body language revealed some ambivalence and early on he had the ambition of finding a sustainable solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, apparently not aware that Israel was not the least interested in a peace crafted by Washington know-it-alls, no matter how far its framework leaned in Israel’s direction.

 

What then is Trump’s secret? Is it just that he has been anointed as the savior of the justifiably angry and alienated American underclass, not primarily of its material interests, but of its lost self-esteem that depends on the recovery of a sense of belonging and national rootedness?

Clearly, Trump provided a powerful magnet for some contradictory strivings. Some of those most alienated wanted the established order savagely attacked, and were drawn to the Trump inflammatory rhetoric about ‘draining the swamp’ and ‘locking her up.’ It seems not to matter that he doesn’t really mean it, appointing a cabinet of billionaires and insiders and leaving Hillary Clinton to lick her wounds alone in the Chappaqua woods. His credibility did not even hinge on whether he actually builds that ‘beautiful wall’ along the Mexican border as long as he gets tough with illegal Mexicans living in the country and does his best to keep out visitors from Muslim countries, while vigorously waving the American flag. It seems that if the anti-immigrant rhetoric is politically incorrect enough, inconsistencies will be overlooked if not forgiven.

 

In this period of alternate facts, outright lies, and fake news, words speak much louder than words, at least some words depending on who is the speaker. During the presidential campaign of a year ago Trump became the media center of attention night after night, with Beltway pundits parsing the broken twisted language of his tweets, acting if nothing other than Trump’s latest outrage was of any public concern. CNN panels consisting of pro and contra Trump watchers tussled, smiled, even laughed, while Syrians perished in the rubble of Raqqa or Aleppo and Yemenis struggled daily with hunger and Saudi bombs. What seemed to count was that cable ratings went through the roof, and objections were mainly mute. It is no surprise the obsessive interest in the daily doings and undoings of Trump has continued, may have even risen, since he became president: Same old panels, same old heated exchanges of antagonistic interpretations, and same disregard of serious news issues so as to give almost total attention to Trump’s frills and frolics, trivia on the surface, yet subverting the constitutional and societal order as never before.

 

Week after week Trump becomes agitated by this or that media insult. His staff make extraordinary efforts to keep him away from TV and his Twitter account, but to no avail. The latest escapade involves Trump’s response to some minor taunts from ‘Morning Joe,’ with co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski inspiring the mighty leader to tweet “low I.Q. Crazy Mika’ had been “bleeding badly from a Face-Lift’ a few years ago when he excluded her from a New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago. Responding, a spokesperson for First Lady Melania reminded the public that “..when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder,” a statement that seems a disproportionate response characteristic of the worst locker room bully. Quite incredibly Melania apparently feels that her defense of The Donald does not make a mockery of her supposed campaign against cyber bullies. The White House media deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders casually dismissed the whole incident as one of ‘fighting fire with fire.’ Somehow proportionality doesn’t matter when it comes to evaluating Trump’s behavior. We can only wonder what happens to someone flattened by a Trump riposte 10 times more severe than the blow struck to his miniscule ego and massive id.

 

This endorsement of disproportion by the Trump White House also recalls the much criticized Dahiya Doctrine relied upon in Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War when a leading general affirmed the use of ‘disproportionate power’ to destroy the civilian infrastructure of a neighborhood in south Beirut thought to be sympathetic with Hezbollah. It seems relevant to recall that one of the most hallowed and deeply rooted principles of international humanitarian law is that of proportionality. It would seem even more essential for maintaining an atmosphere of civility in a deeply divided society. It had been assumed that overall an American president, regardless of party or personal values, would throw his weight behind those elements in society who affirmed the relevance of civility to upholding trust and feelings of coherence in a democratic society. But obviously such an assumption no longer holds.

 

Is this action and reaction mostly about the proper boundaries of discourse in a democratic society? Yes, in part; the liberal insistence that nothing critical should be permitted if it is not respectful of racial minorities or gays currently collides with the Zionist all out push to have Israeli critics condemned and victimized as anti-Semites if they dare attack Israel’s policies and practices. Yet discourse doesn’t explain everything. If Trump were less thin skinned, media assaults would disappear almost as quickly as bubbles blown into the air. As it is, Trump tweets pull scabs off wounds that are not healed. Demeaning the bodies of Mika Brzezinski or Megyn Kelly is more than an insult of a person, it is a slap at the long exploited vulnerabilities of gender, which in the case of women has been endured for centuries.

 

Whose correctness? The white males that make up the most extreme Trump enthusiasts, clearly celebrate his unabashed revalidation of patriarchy, including even its ribald sexism, with a restorative effect on their self-esteem. The women these men most respect are content with their traditional roles, and do not shake the male ship of state, and further, mostly resent those women who challenge the established order of things human and divine. Sadly many religious institutions back them up. So values and worldviews as well as discourse are at stake.

 

The hung jury in Bill Cosby’s sexual assault case also seems relevant. Did it reflect some combination of the Trump gender ethos—men can do no wrong in the bedroom—and racial payback—now whites know better how blacks feel when their lethal assailants are repeatedly found not guilty. Of course, we should demand of our justice system the outcomes predicated on the search for the truth of allegations, which tells us why the goddess of justice is always portrayed blindfolded, safeguarding the judicial process from gender, racial, and class bias. But what if the real life experience of ‘justice’ over many decades has reflected mainstream racism toward minorities, is it then ‘unjust’ to return the favor when the rare opportunity arises? Of course, it is individually ‘unjust’ to exonerate Cosby or O.J. Simpson because each serve in a distinct way as a synecdoche for the numerous black men falsely accused of raping white women, and then cruelly punished? It does not lessen the criminality of their apparent errant behavior, but it may jolt the system enough to create a deeper awareness that accountability to be legitimate must apply to all equally regardless of skin color, ethnicity, or class and if it continues to reflect bias favoring the dominant race, nationality, and class then it deserves no respect from those identities being victimized?

 

Assessing the exploits of Trump, and Cosby, at least raise these difficult issues of individual and collective responsibility that need to be resolved before the country can hope to recover its moral compass, and learn to respect the dignity of all of its citizens in spite of their diversities of experience and background. This may be a more fundamental challenge to those who govern humanely than is the broad latitude accorded when the word ‘security’ is uttered by those in power.

 

 

 

 

 

UN Under Siege: Geopolitics in the Time of Trump

1 Jul

[Prefatory Note: This post is a modified and enlarged version of a talk I gave in Geneva a week ago. The audience was a blend of students of all ages from around the world, with almost none from Europe and North America, and several NGO representatives with lots of UN experience.]

 

 Why the peoples of the world need the UN: multilateralism, international law, human rights, and ecological sustainability

 

[ISMUN (International Youth & Student Movement for the United Nations), Summer School, June 28, 2017, Geneva]

 

 A Point of Departure

 

When Donald Trump withdrew American participation from the Paris Climate Change Agreement in early June of this year a bright red line was crossed. Most obviously, there were a series of adverse substantive consequences associated with weakening an agreement that was promising to provide critical interim protection against severe harms to human wellbeing and its natural habitat threatened by further global warning. U.S. withdrawal from Paris was also a rather vicious symbolic slap at multilateralism under UN auspices. We should recall that the agreement was rightly hailed at the time as the greatest success ever achieved by way of a multilateral approach to international problem solving. The Paris Agreement was indeed a remarkable achievement, inducing 195 governments representing virtually every sovereign state on the planet to sign up for compliance with a common agreed plan to address many of the challenges of climate change in the years ahead. To reach such an outcome also reflected a high degree of sensitivity to the varied circumstances of countries, rich and poor, developed and developing, vulnerable and less vulnerable.

 

The Paris withdrawal also exhibited in an extreme form the new nationalistic posture adopted by the United States in relation to the UN System, and a major retreat from the leadership role at the UN that the U.S. had assumed (for better and worse) ever since the Organization was established in 1945. Instead of fulfilling this traditional role as the generally respected cheerleader and predominantly influential leader of most multilateral lawmaking undertakings at the UN and elsewhere the U.S. Government has instead apparently decided under Trump to become obstructer-in chief. This Trump/US assault on the UN approach to cooperation among sovereign states and global problem solving and lawmaking is particularly troubling. This manifestation of the new American approach in the policy domain of climate change is particularly disturbing. To have any prospect of meeting the climate change challenge requires the widest and deepest international cooperation, and is absolutely vital for the future of human and ecological wellbeing. Such a dramatic disruptive act by the United States strikes a severe blow to the capabilities and legitimacy of the UN at a historical moment when this global organization has never been more potentially useful.

 

The credibility and severity of the threat is magnified by an evident American-led campaign to exert financial pressure to bend the Organization to the will of major funders. When the United States behaves in this manner it indirectly gives permission to other political actors to follow suit, and exerts immense pressure on the UN Secretariat and Secretary General to give ground. Saudi Arabia has used such leverage to embarrass the UN in relation to both its human rights record at home and its responsibility for war crimes against civilians, including children, in Yemen. Israel has also been the beneficiary of such delegitimizing pressures, with the UN giving ground by softening criticism, inhibiting censure, shelving damaging reports. Such backtracking by the United Nations weakens any claim to be guided in its policies and practices by international law and international morality. The weaponization of UN funding politics should awaken public opinion to the importance of finally establishing an independent funding base for the UN by way of some variant of a Tobin Tax imposed on financial transactions or international air travel. If it is desirable to encourage the UN to conduct its operations in accordance with the UN Charter and international law, UN funding should be removed from the control of governments at the earliest possible time.

 

It needs to be acknowledged and understood that this unfortunate shift in the U.S. role at the UN preceded the Trump presidency, involving a gradual American retreat from political internationalism, which reflected the outlook of an increasingly sovereignty-oriented U.S. Congress. Even an environmentally minded Barack Obama was led at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit to insist that national commitments to reduce carbon emissions be placed on a voluntary rather than obligatory basis, which was regarded at the time as a major setback in the effort to safeguard the future from the perils of global warming. The Copenhagen approach was also a negative development with respect to international law, substituting volunteerism for obligation in this major effort to protect human and global interests. We need to appreciate that international law in its more imperative forms already suffers from the weakness of international enforcement mechanisms. Putting compliance on a voluntary basis dilutes the ethos of good faith that guides responsible governments when giving their assent to obligatory instruments of international law.

 

Beyond this, the Obama presidency boasted of its unconditional defense of Israel at the UN, regardless of the merits of criticism, and even in contexts where the U.S. was willing to voice muted criticisms directed at Israel but only in discreet language conveyed in bilateral diplomatic channels. The UN was off-limits for critical commentary on Israel’s behavior despite the long history of unfulfilled UN responsibilities toward the Palestinian people.

 

 

 

 

Why the UN is especially needed now

 

It should be obvious to all of us that the UN is now even more needed than when it was established in 1945. At least on the surface the UN enjoyed the ardent support of every important government and their publics at the end of World War II. These sentiments reflected the widely shared mood of the global public that maintaining world peace and security required the establishment of global institutions devoted to war prevention. There existed post-1945 a somewhat morbid atmosphere of foreboding with respect to the dawn of the nuclear age that took had taken the dire form of atomic bombs dropped on two Japanese cities. The concerns arising from these unforgettable events strongly reinforced and underlay the war prevention emphasis of the UN Charter, and were culturally expressed by such major works of the imagination as Hiroshima, Mon Amour and On the Beach.

 

This grim mood also lent an aura of poignancy to the memorable opening words of the Charter Preamble—“We the peoples of the United Nations are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” It was evident that when the UN was established the overriding global preoccupation of public opinion and of governments was to avoid any recurrence of major international warfare, especially in light of the possession of nuclear weapons. Of course, such an impression partly reflected the absence of adequate representation at the UN and other international venues of voices articulating non-Western priorities. From the beginning the non-Western members of the UN were far more focused on anti-colonialism, development priorities, and the reform of a rigged world economy than on war prevention.

 

It is worth pondering why the formal legitimating call establishing the UN, as set forth in the Preamble, was phrased as coming from ‘the peoples’ and not from the ‘governments.’ In fact, governments were not even explicitly mentioned in this foundational document. Yet as a practical matter, despite this language in the Preamble, the UN as a political actor has always been almost exclusively an Organization reflecting the will of ‘we the governments,’ and in many cases ‘we the Permanent Members of the Security Council.’ Iddn some situations the ‘we’ over time and in situations of global crises has been reduced to the government of the United States, sometimes joined by its European allies. In other words, the geopolitical dimension of UN operations has had the effect of moving the actions of the Organization on war/peace agenda items away from international law and the framework set forth in the UN Charter. It has instead given decisive authority to the most powerful members of the UN with the intended effect of concentrating UN authority in the Security Council, whose operations are more subject to geopolitical discipline in the form of the veto than to the mindfulness toward international law.

 

An understanding of this circumstance underscores the aspirational importance of constraining geopolitics and enhancing the role of international law. Respect for international law in framing UN policy must be increased if there is to be any hope that the UN will eventually fulfill the ambitions and expectations of its strongest supporters in civil society. As matters now stand these supporters are often caught between being seen as blind idealists that are enthusiastic about whatever the UN does or dismissive cynics who dismiss the UN as a great power charade that is a waste of time and money. Both of these outlooks seems unwarranted, inducing either an uncritical passivity toward the UN or exhibiting a lack of appreciation of the contributions being daily made by the UN and what could be done to make these contributions more robust.

 

 

The UN and a Populist Reform of World Order

 

Two important questions that all of us, and especially young people should be asking: how can the UN System be made more responsive to the needs and wishes of people and less dependent on the warped agendas of many governments? And how can the Organization be made more responsive to international law and less of a vehicle for geopolitical ambitions? To make the relevance of positive global populism more concrete we can ask: ‘Would the establishment of an assembly of civil society organizations or a global parliament along the lines of the European Parliament be helpful from the perspective of world peace and global justice?’ What follows are several daunting questions concerning the feasibility of such a proposal: “Can the political will be mobilized that would be needed to make realizable such a UN reform?” “Even if a UN Peoples Parliament were established would it be allowed to exert significant influence?” We should remember that some past successful undertakings, such as the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), seemed utopian when proposed, and thus we should not be easily dissuaded if a project seems worthwhile. But we should also be aware that the ICC once established and operating has been chasing the mice while ignoring the tigers, which gives rise to another version of this clash between sentimentalists overjoyed that the institution exists at all and realists who believe that the ICC has surrendered to geopolitical forces, thereby betraying its overriding mission of administering justice as called for by non-compliant behavior.

 

For several years in the 1980s I participated annually in a large public event held in Perugia, Italy under the banner of ‘A United Nations of the Peoples.’ It made me wonder at the time whether the world was not being divided up into three distinct identies: ‘the Geopolitical Person’ who was increasingly dominating world politics, including the UN, ‘the Davos Person’ who at the World Economic Forum was mounting strong pressures on all governments to privilege the interests of market forces, essentially banks and corporations, above that of their own citizens, and ‘the Perugia Person’ who was on the sidelines whispering words to the grassroots community conveying the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, and by so doing, highlighting problems of poverty, peace, environment, biodiversity, health, and justice. In one sense, my analysis is an argument for a concerted public and grassroots transnational effort to magnify the Perugia whisper until it becomes a stentorian voice that is heard and heeded within the halls and conference rooms of the UN in Geneva and New York. Is such a call for positive global populism desirable, and if so, are there practical steps to be taken to make it happen? Will states feeling UN pressure reopen the withdrawal option, and weaken the Organization from the governmental end?

 

 

Reviving War Prevention

 

As it turned out the onset of the Cold War made it exceedingly difficult for the UN to be effective as a war prevention institution almost from the day it was established, although over the years it made many quiet contributions to peace when political conditions made this possible. The effort to prevent a third world war fought with nuclear weapons was mainly left up to the rival governments of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, relying on geopolitical arrangements that on occasions of confrontation sent periodic chills of fear down the collective spine of humanity, especially in Europe and North America. Global security was conceptualized around the abstract idea of deterrence, which was most simply understood as the prevention of a major war by the exchange of mutual threats of devastating retaliatory strikes with weaponry of mass destruction by these two superpowers with capabilities that were sufficiently resistant to preemptive first strikes to keep the capacity for retaliation entirely credible. This fundamental doctrine of deterrence was called ‘Mutual Assured Destruction,’ and more familiarly known by the ironically apt acronym ‘MAD.’ It amounted to a paradoxical permanent mobilization for war with the overriding goal of preventing the outbreak of war, which did strike the peace community as rationality gone mad, really mad. MAD was tied to a destabilizing ongoing arms race justified by a security rationale. Each superpower both sought to gain the upper hand and above all acted to make sure that its rival did not acquire ways of destroying its retaliatory credibility. This unstable and permanent war footing, always susceptible to accident and miscalculation, lasted throughout the Cold War, dominating the security policy of leading UN members, and as a side effect marginalized the UN Security Council in the peace and security domain. The intense ideological antagonisms between the Atlantic Alliance and the Soviet Bloc generated a series of geopolitical standoffs that made it almost impossible for the Permanent Members of the Security Council to reach agreement about who was responsible and what to do whenever international conflicts turned violent.

 

The world has avoided such a catastrophic war up to this point by a combination of prudent statecraft and good fortune. There were several close calls that make it apparent that it is grotesquely reckless to normalize the present role of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nine current nuclear weapons states. When the path to nuclear disarmament was abandoned, the leading global states resorted to a Plan B, a nonproliferation regime tethered to the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 (NPT), negotiated under UN auspices. It was advertised as essentially a holding operation designed to give the nuclear weapons states ample time to negotiate, as they were obligated to do, a reliable supposedly disarming treaty regime. With the hindsight of almost five decades, it has become evident that the commitment to nuclear disarmament embedded in Article VI of the NPT was never implemented, and quite likely was not meant to be. Accordingly, 123 non-nuclear states have taken a new initiative to propose a denuclearizing Plan C within the confines of the UN, a step opposed by 36 members, with an additional 16 abstentions. As with the NPT, the UN is again providing the venue and encouragement for the negotiation of a draft treaty to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons (2017 BAN Treaty; Convention to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons), leading eventually to the elimination of all nuclear weapons. This initiative enjoys the support of most non-nuclear governments, but will not pose a serious challenge to nuclearism until public opinion is effectively mounted. As yet the BAN approach is not supported by any of the nuclear weapons states nor by those governments that base their security on holding a nuclear umbrella over their country.

 

Beyond this overriding concern with nuclear weapons, the Perugia Person should be using the UN to raise questions about globally unregulated arms sales and rampant militarism as practiced with post-modern weaponry and tactics, what might be regarded as a Plan D framework. In this vein, the UN and its civil society supporters could begin to explore the potentialities of a nonviolent geopolitics appropriate for a post-colonial, post-Cold War world order in which the global policy agenda finally takes seriously several biopolitical challenges with respect to which traditional instruments of ‘hard power’ are totally irrelevant, or worse. If we wish the UN to fulfill its potential it is essential that the negativity of right-wing populism be countered by affirmative visions generated by a rising progressive populism. Such progressive populists, rather far removed from traditional left politics, need to keep in mind the biblical admonition: “a people without a vision perishes.”

 

 

Serving the Human Interest

 

Overall, there has been a failure of the UN to live up to the expectations and hopes of its founders when it came to enhancing the quality of international peace and security. At the same time, the UN has vindicated its existence in numerous other unexpected ways that have made its role in human affairs now widely regarded as indispensable, but still far below what was and is possible, necessary, and desirable. The UN validated its existence early on by offering the governments of the world a crucial platform for articulating their grievances and expressing their differences. The UN became the primary arena for inter-governmental communication. The UN, especially by way of its family of specialized agencies that have evolved over the decades has done much excellent unheralded work at the margins of world politics. These activities have made vital daily, often unheralded, contributions to the global common good in such diverse areas as human rights, economic and social development, wellbeing of children, environmental protection, preservation of cultural heritage, promotion of health, assistance to refugees, and the development of international law, including international criminal law. The UN also has provided the best available venue for cooperative problem solving associated with complex issues of global scale that reflect the uneven circumstances of sovereign states. This flexible dynamic of practices within and outside the UN provides the fabric of everyday ‘multilateralism,’ that is, the reliance on collective mechanisms for policy and law formation by representatives of sovereign states that in countless ways contribute to problem solving and life enhancement in social settings ranging from the very local to the planetary.

 

 

A strong confirmation of the value of the UN arises from the fact that every government, regardless of ideology or relative wealth and power, has up to now regarded it as beneficial to become a member and remain in the UN. True, Indonesia briefly withdrew in 1965 to announce the formation of a parallel organization of ‘newly emerging forces,’ but within a year at its request was allowed to resume its membership without even passing again through the normal admission process. Within international society, the greatest sign of a recognition of diplomatic stature has become the election of a country to be a term member of the Security Council for a period of two years. This record of universal participation is truly extraordinary, especially when compared with the disappointing record of the League of Nations. There have been no sustained withdrawals from the Organization as a whole and when the former European colonies obtained political independence they shared a uniform ambition to join the UN as soon as possible and exert some influence on global policy, especially with respect to trade, investment, and development. These efforts by the enlarged Third World membership reached their peak in the late 1960s and 1970s. A vibrant Non-Aligned Movement pursued its policy goals within the UN, its energies concentrated on the effort to create a New International Economic Order that would level the playing field internationally for trade and investment. This radical reform effort was centered in General Assembly activism, and prompted a formidable backlash led by the most industrialized states. The backlash took many forms including the formation of the Trilateral Commission as a strong undertaking led by American economic elites determined to hold the line on behalf of capitalist values, procedures, practices, and above all, privileges. Membership in the UN nevertheless continues to be regarded as not only advantageous for the legitimacy it confers on states, but because it offers weaker and less experienced countries invaluable rights of participation in the full range of UN activities, including access to knowledge and technology required for successful transitions to modernity.

 

 

Global Populism as a Threat to the UN

 

Yet despite all of these achievements and contributions the UN is again under sharp attack these days, especially by its most powerful member, the United States. Donald Trump and several other autocratic leaders around the world uniformly belittle the UN role in world affairs because they regard the sovereign state to be the ultimate source of political authority and deeply resent external criticisms of their own domestic behavior. These leaders are currently promoting ultra-nationalist agendas that are chauvinistic, anti-immigrant, hostile to international law, and are especially hostile to all forms of individual accountability and state responsibility for human rights violations.

 

This is not only a problem associated with the emergence of right-wing populist leaders enjoying domestic support. It is also a feature of dynastic autocracy, most prominently associated with the kind of regional geopolitics being promoted by Saudi Arabia, seeking hegemony over the Arabian Gulf, crushing democratizing forces even if Islamic in outlook, and waging war against any political tendency perceived to be increasing Iranian influence anywhere in the region. With respect to the UN, Saudi Arabia in particular has been following the lead of the United States, hinting at withholding financial contributions, and even bluffing possible withdrawal from the Organization, if Saudi policies should become subject of critical UN scrutiny, no matter how flagrantly these policies violate international human rights standards and the norms of international humanitarian law. Israel should also be grouped with states that push back against any and all efforts to hold them accountable. This search for total impunity with respect to UN activity gains traction to the extent endorsed by leading states.

 

 

A characteristic illustration of the detrimental global effects of this recent wave of populist nationalism revolves around the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Although Paris fell significantly short of what the scientific consensus insists as necessary if global warming is to be properly limited, it still represented what a broad consensus of informed persons regarded as a crucial step in the right direction, and a serious show of commitment to the momentous task of transforming the carbon world economy into a sustainable and benign energy system in a timely manner. For this greatest of UN multilateralist achievements to be repudiated by the U.S. Government because Trump contends that it is a bad deal for America is dramatic evidence that the UN is under assault, and what may be worse, seems increasingly leaderless and ready to submit.

 

This disappointment and concern is greatly magnified by the intimations that Washington intends to withhold funds from the UN, as well as threatens to boycott and defund activities and organs that reach conclusions that do not correspond with U.S. foreign policy, especially when it comes to Israel. A prime target of this Trump demolition brigade is the work of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that is under intense attack because it is alleged to devote disproportionate attention to the wrongs and crimes of Israel. Such criticism besides sidestepping the question as to whether Israel is generally guilty as charged, also overlooks the fact that the British dumped the Palestine problem into the lap of the UN after World War II, making the fledgling Organization responsible for the transition from colonial subjugation to political independence. Such a direct responsibility was not imposed on the UN with respect to the decolonization any other national territory, and it has never been able to carry it out its assigned task in a manner consistent with the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people. From a truly objective point of view, the UN has not devoted too much attention to Israel, and the Palestinian struggle, but too little. It has not gotten the basic job done, resulting in prolonged, massive, and intense Palestinian suffering with no end in sight.

 

In other words at the very time that the peoples of the world need a stronger UN to uphold the challenges of the present era, the Organization is under an unprecedented attack from ‘the Geopolitical Person.’ It is now time for ‘the Perugia Person’ to step forth with a strong sense of urgency and entitlement. Affirming this ‘necessary utopianism’ will give us confidence that the challenges of the present can be surmounted through the mobilization of people acting in collaboration with governments dedicated to upholding global public interests in tandem with their own national interests. For these revolutionary energies to be released within the confines of the UN will only happen in response to a new surge of grassroots transnational activism. Such a surge could foreground the hopes, dreams, and demands of people around the world, and especially the youth who have the most at stake. It has been both my pleasure and my honor to have this opportunity to meet with you today.

 

 

Jewish Ethnicity, Palestinian Solidarity, Human Identity

23 Jun

 

 

[Prefatory Note: the following interview with Abdo Emara, an Arab journalist was published in Arabic; it is here republished in slightly modified form. The changes made are either stylistic or clarifying. There are no substantive changes from my earlier responses. I think it worthwhile to share this text because the questions asked by Abdo Emara are often directed at me in the discussion period after talks I have given recently.]

 

Jewish Ethnicity, Palestinian Solidarity, Human Identity

 

  1. Many believe that all Jews are completely biased in favor of Israel. Since you are Jewish this raises some questions. Why have you supported the grievances of the Palestinians? And why does not Israel welcome you on its territory since you are a Jew?

It is a rather well kept secret that from the very outset of the Zionist movement there were many Jews, including some who were prominent in their countries who opposed or strongly criticized Zionist ideology, as well as the way Israel was established and subsequently developed. After 1948, and even more so, after 1967, Israeli supporters, strongly encouraged by Zionist leaders and Israeli diplomats, have increasingly claimed that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews regardless of whether or not they reside in Israel. If this claim of universal representation is denied or resisted that person will be identified by Zionists/Israelis either as an anti-Semite or as bad, a self-hating Jew, or some combination of the two. I have increasingly supported the grievances of the Palestinian people from two perspectives, in my capacity as an international law specialist and as a human being opposed to the oppression and suffering of others regardless of whether or not I share the ethnic and religious background of such victims of abuse. I have taken these positions without any feelings of hatred toward Jews or alienation from the Jewish people, or toward any people due to their ethnicity or brand of faith. My understanding of identity is much more bound up with common humanity and action in solidarity with victims of abuse than with worrying about whether or not they happen to be Jewish. I have drawn wisdom and insight from Jewish traditions, especially by heeding Old Testament biblical prophets, but as well from contact with the great texts of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. At the same time I am appalled by some passages in the OT that appear to counsel and even celebrate genocidal onslaughts against the ancient enemies of the Jewish people.

 

  1. How is the pretext of anti-Semitism used to silence critical voices in Israel and throughout the Western world? And what are the most influential institutions that try to silence and discredit academic voices that reject Israel’s repressive policies?

With the support of Israeli lobbying groups and ultra Zionist pressure groups and activists, there is a concerted campaign in Europe and North America to defame critics of Israel by calling them ‘anti-Semites.’ Especially since the Nazi genocide, to be called an anti-Semite whether or not there is any responsible basis for such accusations has become one of the most effective ways to discredit and distract. Even when accusations do not silence a critic, as in my case, they have detrimental and hurtful effects. Above all, they shift the conversation from the validity of the message to the credibility of the messenger. In the Israel/Palestine context this takes attention away from the ordeal experience by the Palestinian people on a daily basis. Thus, allegations of anti-Semitism function as both sword (to wound the messenger) and shield (to deflect and inhibit criticism and opposition).

 

  1. How do you interpret the Egyptian policies toward Gaza since the Sisi coup? How can these policies be changed? What is their legal status?

I interpret Egyptian policies toward Gaza since the Sisi coup of 2013 as primarily an expression of renewed collaboration with Israel with respect to Gaza as intensified by the Cairo view that Hamas is inspired by and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is enemy number one of the current Egyptian government. I am not familiar with the details of the Egyptian policy toward Gaza, although I know it imposes arbitrary and hurtful restrictions on entry and exit. Egyptian policies toward Gaza seem clearly to involve complicity with Israel’s worst abuses in Gaza, and entail potential criminal responsibility for Egyptian leaders and implementing officials. Israel seems clearly guilty of inflicting collective punishment on the civilian population of Gaza and for aiding and abetting the implementation of the unlawful blockade of Gaza that has been maintained by the state of Israel since 2007 with many cruel consequences for the Palestinians, including those needing to leave Gaza for lifesaving medical treatments.

 

  1. How do you evaluate Hamas’ new policy document?

I believe the Hamas document moves toward the adoption of a political approach to its relations with both Israel and Egypt. By a political approach I mean a willingness to establish long-term interim arrangements for peaceful coexistence with Israel and normalization with Egypt. Hamas expresses this willingness by indicating a readiness to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state on territory occupied by Israel since the end of the 1967 War. Such a shift by Hamas does not acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel as a state nor does it involve a repudiation of the 1988 Hamas Charter, although it does abandon the anti-Semitic rhetoric and seems more disposed to pursue its goals diplomatically and politically rather than by reliance on armed struggle, without giving up in any way rights of resistance, including armed resistance.

 

5- Did it became impossible for Palestinians to obtain their legitimate rights throughout international organizations in the light of the latest UN refusal of UN ESCWA report your good-self drafted?

The reaction to our ESCWA report, “The Practices of Israel Toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” did reveal a lack of independence and objectivity within the UN when placed under severe geopolitical pressure by the United States Government. It seemed clear that when the UN Secretary General ordered ESCWA to remove our report from their website, he was succumbing to pressure exerted by the United States, whose ambassador to the UN denounced the report without giving reasons as soon as it was released, presumably without it ever being read, and demanded its repudiation. Of course, the outcome was mixed. On the positive side, Rima Khalaf, the highly respected head of ESCWA resigned on principle rather than follow the directives of the SG, and the firestorm generated by the release of the report resulted in the text being far more influential and widely read than it might otherwise have been if treated appropriately. On the negative side, was the strong evidence that the UN is often unable to act effectively in support of the Palestinian people and their long struggle for their basic rights. The UN is geopolitically neutralized as a political actor even when Israel acts in flagrant and persisting defiance of international law and its own Charter.

 

6-Talk about the Trump-sponsored Century Deal between Palestinians and Israelis is increasing now … what are your expectations for such a deal? Will include what is said to be a “resettlement” of the Palestinians in Gaza and Sinai ?

 

Nothing positive for the Palestinian people can emerge from the wave of speculation that Trump will soon broker the ultimate peace deal. Israel is content with managing the status quo while gradually increasing its territorial appropriations via settlements, wall, security claims, and various demographic manipulations. Palestine lacks credible leadership capable of representing the Palestinian people. This partly reflects the low credibility and poor record of the Palestinian Authority and partly the deep split between Hamas and Fatah. Palestinian unity and credible leadership is a precondition for the resumption of genuine diplomacy. Geopolitical pressure should not be confused with diplomacy, and will not produce a sustainable peace even if the PA is force fed a one-sided outcome favorable to Israel that is disguised as a solution.

 

7- How does Israel see the current Egyptian regime? and to what extent did it feel comfortable towards Mohamed Morsi?

 

Israel seems quite content with the current government in Egypt, and the policies that Cairo is pursuing at home and in the region. This contrasts with its thinly disguised dislike of and anxiety about the Morsi government, and worries that Morsi’s Egypt would increasingly challenge Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, especially in Gaza, and possibly alter the balance of force in the region in ways contrary to Israel’s interests.

8- Does Israel hate the existence of a democratic regimes in the Arab region, especially the neighboring countries? And why?

 

Israel opposes the emergence of democracy in the Middle East for several reasons. The most obvious reason is that Arab governments to the extent democratic are more likely to reflect in their policies, the pro-Palestinian sentiments of their citizenry. As well, Arab governments that adhere to democratic values are more likely to act in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Also, it is easier for Israel to work out pragmatic arrangements with authoritarian leaders who have little accountability to their own people and have demonstrated a cynical readiness to sacrifice the Palestinians for the sake of their own national strategic interests. This has become most evident in the kind of diplomacy pursued by the Gulf monarchies in recent years, dramatically evident during the three massive attacks on Gaza by Israel during the past decade that have devastated a totally vulnerable civilian population.

  1. Why do the far right think tanks- like Gatestone Institute and Middle East Forum which is known by its absolute support of Israel praise President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Why do these centers deeply praise him?

My prior responses make it clear that the Israeli policy community is pleased with Egypt governed by an authoritarian leader who adopts an agenda giving priority to the suppression of political Islam, taking the form in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian governance under Sisi is precisely what Israel would like to see emerge throughout the region, and if not, then the second option, is prolonged chaos of the sort that exists in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. As well, the reinforced sectarianism of Saudi Arabia is consistent with Israel’s view that Iran poses the most dangerous threat, not so much to its security, but to its agenda of regional influence.

 

  1. In your opinion, what is the most Arab country supporting the Palestinian issue?

I would say that none of the Arab countries is genuinely supportive of the Palestinian struggle at the present time. With a note of irony the most supportive countries in the region are non-Arab: Turkey and Iran, and their support is extremely limited. It is a sad commentary on the drift of regional politics that the Palestinians are without governmental support in the Arab world, a reality magnified by the fact that if the publics of these countries were in a position to make policy, the Palestinians would be strongly supported. In this regard, including in the West, Palestinian hopes for the future are increasingly tied to the interaction of their own resistance in combination with a growing solidarity movement in Europe and North America. The UN and traditional diplomacy, as practiced within the Oslo framework for more than 20 years have proved to be dead ends when it comes to protecting Palestinian rights.

 

Remembering Father Miguel D’Escoto: A Voice for Peace and Palestine

20 Jun

[Prefatory Note: The following article was initially published in The Nation on June 15, 2017. It was written jointly with my friend and longtime collaborator, Phyllis Bennis. As suggested in the text below we both worked with Farther Miguel D’Escoto on several occasions in relation to different international issues involving matters of peace and justice. I was especially appreciative of his strong commitment to the Palestinian national struggle, not an easy position to adopt by a prominent UN official living in New York City. Father Miguel was particularly helpful to me during the early years (2008-09) of my work as Special Rapporteur on Israeli Violations of Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. He was a rare example of a top UN diplomat and official who combined religious dedication with progressive politics and governmental service of the highest order.]

 

 

Remembering a Priest, a Diplomat, and a Voice for Palestine

 

Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann was a man who spoke truth to power and expected others to do the same

 

Phyllis Bennis and Richard Falk

UN General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann speaks after being awarded the solidarity medal by Cuba’s government in Havana, September 3, 2009. (AP Photo / Ismael Francisco, Prensa Latina)

 

Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, who died a few days ago, was a Catholic priest and former president of the UN General Assembly. The Nicaraguan diplomat was also a leading voice of conscience on Middle East peace—as well as a cherished friend, loved and admired by both of us, who became an inspirational figure to many around the world.

 

As much as anyone we ever encountered, Father Miguel lived as he preached. He worked and lived among the poor and struggled for years against dictatorship and injustice in his country. We want to pause not only to mourn this personal loss, but also to call attention to his public role both in his native Nicaragua and as a citizen of the world—an identity expressed most powerfully by way of his devotion to the United Nations.

 

 

 

A PRIEST AND A DIPLOMAT

A Maryknoll priest, Father Miguel became an early and impassioned practitioner of liberation theology. He later gained international fame as Nicaragua’s foreign minister in the Sandinista government during the 1980s, a period during which his small country was plagued by the notorious Contra guerrilla insurgency that had been funded, equipped, and trained by the US government.

 

Years later he was elected president of the UN General Assembly—just weeks before Israel’s Operation Cast Lead began in late 2008. He quickly moved to become perhaps the world’s leading spokesperson for Palestinian rights.

Richard first encountered Father Miguel in the mid-1980s, when he was preparing a historic case before the International Court of Justice against the United States for its role in aiding the Contras and otherwise committing acts of aggression, including the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors. He worked closely with Father Miguel in a New York townhouse on how to proceed at The Hague with a legal argument that might produce a level of international accountability for Washington’s flagrant violations of Nicaraguan sovereign rights under international law.

In a stirring decision reached by the World Court in 1986, the main grievances put forward by Nicaragua were upheld, and although the United States boycotted the proceedings, it ended up complying with major findings of the decision. It was not only a moral and political victory, but a vindication of Miguel’s underlying belief that international law, not violence, was the basis of peace and justice in the relations among nations.

 

After retiring from official life in 1991, Father Miguel was only pulled away from his religious ministry on behalf of the poor when he was elected to head the General Assembly—as an individual, not as a representative of his government.

 

Miguel took on that role, traditionally considered a largely ceremonial position leading a too-often marginalized organ of the UN system, and almost immediately emerged as an influential global voice who spoke powerfully in support of Palestinian rights under international law. He courageously opposed Israel’s brutal Cast Lead military operation, defying the always present geopolitical pressures mounted by Washington on behalf of Israel. In his defense of Palestine throughout those weeks of war, and in his later commitment to forcing the UN to take environmental justice seriously, he aimed to transform the General Assembly into a potent force for global justice.

 

He never gave up this dream, collecting his thoughts in a widely distributed booklet bearing the title Reinventing the UN: A Proposal. The subtitle was a transparent summary of the text: “How to make the UN a functional organization capable of dealing effectively with the great XXI century challenges confronting Mother Earth and humanity.”

 

THE STAKES ARE HIGHER NOW THAN EVER. GET THE NATION IN YOUR INBOX.

 

A VOICE FOR GAZA—AND INTERNATIONAL LAW

 

Within hours of the first airstrikes against Gaza, Father Miguel condemned Israel’s actions as “wanton aggression by a very powerful state against a territory that it illegally occupies.” He insisted it was time for the General Assembly “to take firm action if the United Nations does not want to be rightly accused of complicity by omission.”

 

In following days, the UN Security Council—which under the UN Charter is supposed to take primary responsibility for peace and security issues—discussed and debated and consistently failed to respond to the growing Gaza crisis, mostly because the veto-wielding United States was active in blocking action. Then–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in the midst of the slaughter of Gazan civilians, famously remarked, “We don’t need a cease-fire yet.”

 

Some urged Miguel to wait, hoping that the Security Council would eventually act and the General Assembly could meekly fall in line. But such a cynical suggestion outraged the priest. As the airstrikes turned into a full-scale ground invasion, he called Israel’s war “a monstrosity.”

We were both working with Father Miguel during that frantic time. As the days passed without an Assembly initiative, his patience waned, and he asked for help drafting a speech to respond to the urgent moment. Afterward he convened a special session of the entire General Assembly and delivered a stirring address condemning the assault, which had already killed over 1,000 Palestinians—a third of them children. “If this onslaught in Gaza is indeed a war,” he said, “it is a war against a helpless, defenseless, imprisoned population.” The small territory “is ablaze,” he lamented. “It has been turned into a real burning hell.”

As the “unlawful” but internationally recognized explained, Israel owed Gazans protection—along with “food, water, education, freedom of religion, and more.” Instead, “Gaza’s civilians find themselves locked inside a lethal war zone behind a wall surrounding their densely populated territory.” Under assault and hemmed in by an illegal Israeli blockade, “they have no means of escape.”

 

In such circumstances, the priest insisted, “it becomes the responsibility of the international community as a whole, represented here in the United Nations, to provide that protection.” Yet he charged that “some of the most powerful members of the [Security] Council”—like the United States—were bent on “allowing the military action to continue” while the façade of a diplomatic process unfolded. That, not coincidentally, “matched perfectly the unambiguous goal of the occupying power.”

 

To that end, Father Miguel urged an uncompromising General Assembly resolution calling for both an immediate cease-fire and an end to Israel’s blockade. Remarkably, he linked those demands not only to international law, but to the international social movements that had emerged to support the same calls under it:

 

Our obligation is clear. We, the United Nations, must call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire and immediate unimpeded humanitarian access. We, the United Nations, must stand with the people around the world who are calling, and acting, to bring an end to this death and destruction. We must stand with the brave Israelis who came out to protest this war, and we must stand with those in the frightened city of Sderot who called for “Another Voice” to answer the fear of rocket-fire with reconciliation and not war.

 

We must stand with the hundreds of thousands of people who have stopped the trains, petitioned their governments, poured into the streets around the world, all calling for an end to war. That is our obligation, our responsibility, our duty, as we work, mourning so many deaths, for an immediate ceasefire.

 

Father Miguel will be long remembered and deeply missed by friends and the many lives that he touched forever. He was not only a religious figure, but a truly spiritual presence. So many times we were told at the UN that Father Miguel was not a politician or diplomat, but something far more valuable and rare at the UN, a man of unquestionable integrity and spirituality who fearlessly spoke truth to power and rather innocently expected others to do the same.