Interview with William Schabas, former Chair, UN Commission of Inquiry for 2014 Israeli Attack on Gaza

16 Feb

[Prefatory Note: I am posting an interview conducted by email in recent days with Professor William Schabas in the immediate aftermath of his resignation as Chair and Member of the three person Commission of Inquiry appointed by the UN Human Rights Council last August to investigate allegations of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as state crimes associated with Israel’s military attack on Gaza (code named by Israel as Operation Protective Edge) of July-August 2014. The depleted commission now consists of the remaining two members (Mary McGowan Davis of the United States as the newly designated Chair, and Doudou Diène of Senegal) and is due to submit its final report to the HRC in March; Professor Schabas, a distinguished specialist in international criminal law with a worldwide reputation is on the faculty of Middlesex University in London, had participated fully in planning the inquiry, the gathering of evidence, listening to witnesses. His exclusion from the drafting of the report deprives the Commission, and hence the HRC and the international community, of the member with the greatest professional credibility and reputation for no acceptable reason.

 

As has so often been the case when Israel faces the prospect of criticism it mounts an array of charges of bias directed at both prominent individuals and their institutional sponsors. This was my experience as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine during the entire period of 2008-2014 in which I was subject to continuous defamatory attacks, spearheaded by UN Watch, a notorious NGO that avoids the message while mounting a furious attack on the messenger, seeking to blacken my reputation by writing letters of personal denunciation to a variety of prominent persons, who took such tactics far more seriously than they deserved. Israel officially charged me with bias at the time of my appointment, including issuing a Foreign Ministry declaration of non-cooperation, implemented in December 2008 when I tried to enter Israel on a HRC mission on behalf of the UN and was expelled after being held in a detention cell overnight.

 

In September 2009 when the Goldstone Report was issued after an inquiry similar to the one that Scshabas was chairing, prompted by the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead). Richard Goldstone, a prominent liberal figure at the time but also a dedicated Zionist with close personal and professional connections to Israel, was put under pressure from the outset to decline the appointment, and Israel as in this case refused to allow the UN to enter Israel to carry out its fact finding mission in the most efficient manner. Although the Goldstone Report was fair and balanced, it was viciously attacked from the first moment of its presentation as ‘a blood libel’ against the Jewish people, and Goldstone personally was vilified by Israel’s most prominent political leaders, including the Prime Minister and President. This relentless pressure led Goldstone to retract on his own a crucial finding of the report as to the deliberate use of force by the IDF against Palestinian civilians, an action mainly discrediting of Goldstone himself, as the finding of the report continued to enjoy the support of the other three distinguished members of the inquiry group, including by Christine Chinkin of LSE, one of the world’s leading experts on international humanitarian law.

 

William Schabas’ resignation has its own disturbing specific context, although it bears the imprint of Israel’s determination and skill in mounting campaigns of bias to discredit whoever has had the professional willingness to present unpopular truths concerning allegations of state crimes by Israel arising out of its controversial uses of force in Gaza and overall unlawful occupation administration. As explained in the interview, Schabas was responding to Israeli charges of bias from the outset of his appointment, but with a recent emphasis on the fact that he had some years ago prepared as a modestly paid consultant a short technical report for the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the international law questions associated with a possible Palestinian application for membership in the International Criminal Court. Schabas’ attackers had gained enough traction in recent weeks to induce the President of the HRC to propose referring the question of Schabas’ bias to the UN Legal Affairs Office for resolution. Rather than see the work of the COI diverted and delayed by this side issue, Schabas chose to resign. As is usual in these cases, when a person who stands forth in public for truth and principle as Schabas has done since the beginning, there follows a flow of hate mail and death threats that appear to be the work of pro-Israeli extremists who consider critics of Israel as ‘Jew-haters’ or worse. It is important that those of us who seek a sustainable and just peace for the region stand in solidarity with William Schabas who knowingly stepped into this toxic environment because of his lifelong commitment to strengthening the role of international criminal law in protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty. It is a shameful reality that Israel has been so successful in mounting these campaigns within the United Nations against its more visible critics, and by so doing divert needed attention from its own persistent and flagrant wrongdoing from the perspective of international law. ]

 

 

Interview with William Schabas, recently resigned under pressure as Chair of the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to Investigate Allegations of State Crimes associated with Israel’s military attack on Gaza, code named Operation Protective Edge

 

  1. When you accepted the position of Chair of this Commission of Inquiry into allegations of criminality directed at Israel and Hamas in relation to Israel’s military operations in Gaza during July and August 2014, what were your hopes and worries? Were these borne out by your actual experience?

 

This was not the first time I have been asked to do something by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I have never said no when asked. I am a loyal and enthusiastic supporter both of the High Commissioner and of the Human Rights Council. Thus, when initially requested by the High Commissioner if I would agree to have my name submitted as a candidate for the Commission and then by the President of the Human Rights Council if I would agree to be a member of the Commission I did not hesitate. I considered it an honour that both of them thought I could do this challenging job of participating in the Commission. I should add that I was never asked whether I would be the Chairman and only learned that I had been selected for that job when the announcement was made.

This was not the first such Commission. In particular, in a sense it follows in the footsteps of the Goldstone Commission. But there have been other inquiries since Goldstone and a huge amount of work conducted by special procedures of the Human Rights Council and by other UN institutions over the decades. When the most recent Commission of Inquiry was established, I think I believed that we would be a small piece in this much bigger mosaic of initiatives. I hoped the Commission would contribute both to justice and peace but my expectations were modest. On more than one occasion, I said that the difference between this Commission and its predecessors was that this time the International Criminal Court was standing in the wings. The State of Palestine had already begun ratifying international treaties. It acknowledged that accession to the Rome Statute was on its agenda.

 

  1. How did the work of COI proceed? Were you pleased with the workings of the undertaking as a whole? Do you expect that your resignation will have effects on the conclusions of the report, the reception of its findings, and their likely implementation?

 

I need to be very careful here because the Commission has not been very public in its activities. It has gathered a huge amount of material. It has also met with many individuals – victims, experts, human rights activists, UN officials, representatives of governments, diplomats – but these ‘hearings’ were not open to the public. Some of those who met with the Commission, in particular a delegation of Israelis that travelled to Geneva in January 2015, publicized their meetings with the Commission. But as a general rule, the identity of those who met with the Commission has not been divulged.

I regret not being able to contribute to the drafting of the report. That job was only beginning at the time of my resignation. I am confident that the professional staff of the Commission, consisting of a dozen specialists, and the two Commissioners will produce a fair and effective report.

Although Netanyahu has called my departure a victory, my own sense is that he has shot himself in the foot or, as they say on this side of the Atlantic, scored an own goal. His strategy seems to be based on the idea that he will be able to prevent the report from appearing. But I think he is very wrong here. Instead of keeping his powder dry, he has fired one of his best pieces of ammunition in order to eliminate me. Now, it is harder for him to attack the Commission and its report.

 

  1. Can you explain your rationale for resignation more fully? Were you influenced by the experience of Richard Goldstone and the Goldstone Report?

Were you not aware when you were approached that these issues of supposed ‘conflict of interest’ would be used to challenge your credibility in a defamatory manner? Was the decisive factor the unanticipated response of the President of the Human Rights Council to the contention about your consultancy with the PLO on Palestinian statehood?

 

There had been calls for me to resign from the moment I accepted the mandate in early August 2014. I did not ignore them but I concluded that they were not substantial. I do not think that I was biased or that there was a reasonable apprehension of bias. The allegation about the legal opinion I delivered to the PLO in October 2012 only emerged in late January. It seems the Israeli ambassador raised this informally with the President of the Human Rights Council who then drew it to my attention and asked me to explain, which I did. Subsequently, Israel made a formal complaint. The President proposed that legal advice from the United Nations in New York be requested in order to determine the procedure to follow in examining the complaint. The five-member Bureau of the Council agreed to this. Within minutes of its decision, I submitted my resignation.

I think that when there is an inquiry or investigation into the impartiality of a member of a tribunal or similar body, it is problematic for that body to proceed with other matters until the issue of impartiality is resolved. It was my own assessment that it would be difficult for the Commission to continue to work until my status had been determined. That was likely to take weeks. At best, it would distract the Commission from its important work at a crucial phase. At worst, it would prevent the Commission from completing its report by the March session, as it was required to do. Although I would have preferred to fight and defend myself from the unfair charges of conflict of interest, I considered that I had become an obstacle to the Commission completing its mandate. The least bad solution was for me to get out of the way.

Your question seems to imply that I should have seen all of this coming and extricated myself from the business much earlier. I cannot say I did not consider this in August when I saw how brutal and vicious the attacks on me had become. An important difficulty then was that already one of the three members who had been appointed had taken the step of withdrawing. Amal Clooney had initially been named along with myself and Doudou Diene. It seems there was some kind of misunderstanding. Within a few hours of the announcement of her appointment, she said that she could not serve. For me to withdraw subsequently would, I thought at the time, have been disastrous for the Human Rights Council. Bear in mind that the conflict in Gaza was still raging at the time. I decided that I would tough it out. I did not accept the charges of bias. It is easy today to second guess this. I should add that despite the nasty attacks from predictable directions, there was great support for the Commission of Inquiry. In September, the President of the Council reported to the plenary Human Rights Council. UN Watch and its friends howled about the composition of the Commission but there was no reaction from the members of the Council. In particular, on various occasions the European member states, who had abstained in the resolution establishing the Commission, reassured the three Commissioners of their support for its work and its activities.

 

  1. In retrospect, do you find any substance to the charges of bias or conflict of interest? How can one be both an expert on this subject-matter and not have some pre-existing opinions? Should not the proper test be one of professionalism and objectivity with respect to the evidence and applicable law? For instance, would a person who had been critical of Nazism or apartheid be rendered unfit to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity or racism?

 

The word ‘bias’ gets thrown around a lot in this discussion. My attackers constantly claimed that I was ‘biased’. All that they meant was that I had an opinion different from their own. When one talks about bias in the context of judicial independence and impartiality, the issue is not whether the individual in question has opinions that have been expressed in the past. Everyone has opinions. Some conceal them. Others, like myself, wear them on their sleeve. But bias only occurs when an individual charged with a task requiring fairness and impartiality is unable to set his or her opinions aside. There is absolutely no evidence to support such a charge against me on this basis.

Lawyers often talk about ‘perception of bias’ or ‘fear of bias’. This is more subjective. It will occur when someone has a close personal relationship with a litigant or when financial interests are involved. There is reasonable concern that someone placed in such circumstances would have difficulty being impartial. But again, there is nothing of the sort in my situation.

Until the issue of the legal opinion that I provided in 2012 for the PLO arose, the only serious charges against me concerned a couple of statements I had made about Netanyahu. They were presented out of context to suggest that I had some kind of obsession with the man. In one case I was reacting to Netanyahu’s attack on Richard Goldstone. Netanyahu had said that Goldstone was one of the greatest threats to the survival of Israel. I said that I thought Netanyahu was the greatest threat to Israel’s survival. In the other I was talking about double standards at the International Criminal Court. I cited Desmond Tutu, who had criticised the African focus of the Court and said that he wanted to see Tony Blair brought before it. I said that my choice would be Netanyahu. Otherwise, I had not really thought much about the man. I of course stand by what I said. I have never said that I regretted making those remarks. I have never retracted them. I had a right to say them.

Could the UN have found someone who would be qualified to work on a Commission of Inquiry who did not have opinions about Israel and Palestine? Perhaps. Is there a thoughtful, well-informed individual on the planet who does not have an opinion on this?

The Israeli complaint about the legal opinion I had done for the PLO precipitated the chain of events that led to my resignation. Israeli called it a blatant conflict of interest. That is simply wrong. I did the opinion about two years before my appointment. It concerned Palestinian accession to the Rome Statute. I’ve done this for other governments too, helping them to address the legal issues involved in joining the International Criminal Court. I’ll gladly do it for others too, including Israel and the United States, if they ask me. The legal opinion for the PLO was the work of a recognised expert in the field. Although the PLO later acceded to the Rome Statute, it seems it was unimpressed with my legal advice because it did not accede in 2012. But that’s the nature of a legal opinion. Political leaders respond to other imperatives, which is quite understandable. I was not giving the PLO political advice. I was not their advocate or lawyer. I was simply providing a technical service. From beginning to end the whole matter lasted a couple of weeks. I received the request by e-mail and delivered the opinion by e-mail. I was paid a modest amount for my work. This is not a conflict of interest.

I have been struck by the failure of those who have challenged my presence on the Commission to engage with the legal authorities. For example, in 2004 Israel applied to have Judge Elaraby removed from the International Court of Justice in the advisory opinion on the Wall. The application was dismissed almost unanimously by the Court. Judge Elaraby had been a senior diplomat in Egypt and had frequently expressed views about Israel and Palestine. Judge Elaraby had been legal advisor to Egypt for part of his career. He certainly gave legal opinions to Egypt about the conflict over the years.

An Israeli academic friend of mine has drawn my attention to Hersch Lauterpacht, who was a strong supporter of Israel. He even wrote a draft of the declaration of independence, and provided advice to the Zionist movement and the State of Israel at various times. He was elected a judge of the International Court of Justice. Lauterpacht sat in the Israel v. Bulgaria case, which was dismissed at a preliminary stage but with Lauterpacht in dissent. Israel didn’t object that time.

Your reference to a person with views on Nazism is of interest because this was precisely the argument raised by Eichmann against the Israeli judges. There was never any suggestion that the three judges, all of them German Jews, did not have strong views about the Holocaust. It was assumed that they did. How could that not be the case? The Supreme Court of Israel ruled that professional judges would set aside their opinions and judge in an impartial manner.

 

  1. On the basis of this experience, would you accept future assignments from the HRC or OHCHR? Were you a victim of a campaign of defamation waged by UN Watch, NGO Monitor, etc.?

 

Of course I will continue to serve the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. These two institutions are central to the international protection of human rights.

The charges of bias against me were nothing more than a witch-hunt, something reminiscent of McCarthyism. Shortly after I was appointed, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach published full-page ads in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post attacking my appointment. These were full of vicious lies. They dealt with matters that had nothing whatsoever to do with the mandate of the Commission. For example, I was described as a ‘friend of Iran and its genocidal former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’. This is simply a lie. In 2012, I was a member of the Iran Truth Commission that condemned the Iranian regime for gross violations of human rights. In 2011, I accompanied filmmaker Sandra Schulberg to Tehran in order to show her film Nuremberg, Its Lesson for Today. I spoke there about the Holocaust to young Iranians, confronting denialism and anti-Semitism in the lion’s den, so to speak.

 

  1. Overall, what did you learn from this experience that bears on the role and limitations of the UN? Is the Israel/Palestine conflict a special case? What can be

done to depoliticize the process of such fact finding and policy making undertakings? Did the approach of the Canadian Government of not backing its own citizens play a role in making you more vulnerable to the Israeli pushback?

 

I think that Israel and Palestine is indeed a special case in UN activity because of the highly politicized context. Fact finding commissions dealing with Syria, Libya and North Korea simply do not confront the hysteria associated with Israel and Palestine. Israel argues that it is a victim of double standards at the Human Rights Council. But it is a beneficiary of double standards at the other Council. This is a nasty, toxic matter. But the job must be done. I hope that those who will be called upon to pursue these issues within the United Nations will not be intimidated by stories of the intense and vicious attacks to which I was subjected, including death threats and unceasing abuse on the internet, much of it quite vile, violent and even racist. The language employed by Israel’s leaders contributes to this terrible atmosphere and, at least indirectly, incites the more fanatical participants. Last week, Foreign Minister Liberman likened me to Cain, a man who murdered his own brother. I must confess to having punched my brothers a few times, when I was much younger, but I have never murdered anyone! The Israeli representative to the UN described me as ‘Dracula’. But such analogies only contribute to the violent tone of the discussions.

Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird, denounced my appointment. I’m a Canadian citizen who has served his country in a variety of ways. I am an Officer in the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honours. The current government of Canada is run by a nasty, right-wing bunch who have greatly tarnished the country’s once rather noble position in the field of human rights. Their reactionary positions are well known within the Human Rights Council and, more generally, the United Nations. It would have been an embarrassment if Baird had approved of my appointment.

 

  1. On balance, how would you compare this COI with that chaired by Goldstone? My impression is that with Goldstone, there was a posture of noncooperation, but no public campaign until the report was issued, and then an ugly multi-level campaign took shape, and led to his partial retraction and total discrediting (especially as he acted without the support of the other three members with whom he apparently did not even consult). How should such COIs be structured in the future? (you may know that my successor as SR had no prior knowledge, and has made the position almost invisible, which may have been the intention).

 

I wish I had a good answer to your question. It is tempting to say that in the future, the UN should vet appointees in the way that US government officials vet judicial nominees and similar appointments. As you know, there is no shortage of judges in the US who get through congressional approval because they don’t seem to have ever had an opinion about abortion or capital punishment and similar issues. Maybe the UN can identify a similar cohort of human rights experts who have never had opinions on important issues. Given that the nature of human rights work involves participating in various forms of activism, that may prove more difficult than similar exercises in the US judiciary. And it is also likely to eliminate some of the best qualified candidates from the pool.

What I would like to see is more pushback on these wrong and unfair charges of bias and conflict of interest. Some clarification on what is and what is not acceptable would make things clearer. I would like to see some UN guidelines that spell out the fact that the mere fact of having expressed opinions about a situation or a crisis does not disqualify someone from being a member of a Commission of Inquiry or serving in some similar function. It could also be made clear that providing a legal opinion in the past on a matter not directly related to the subject-matter of a commission is not a conflict of interest. The charge of bias seems far too easy to throw around. When it gets before courts, as it did in the International Court of Justice and the Supreme Court of Israel, it doesn’t get much traction, however. Let us get more clarity on this within the UN so that demagogic charges of bias can be knocked out early.

On the North Carolina Killings

14 Feb

[Prefatory Note: a short interview on how to interpret the ghastly murder of three young Muslims living in the North Carolina university town of Chapel Hill. Should such a grisly event be viewed as a tragic response of a deranged neighbor whose emotions took a violent turn after a dispute over parking in their common residential community or is it better understood as one more indication of the toxic realities associated with the interplay of gun culture and Islamophobia? My responses seek to give reasons for adopting this wider understanding of why such incidents, although horrible on their own, are also bringing death to canaries in the mines of American society. As such the embrace of the movie American Sniper can be seen as another dimension of how ‘the long war’ unleashed after 9/11 to satisfy a range of global ambitions is increasingly casting its dark shadow across the domestic life of the country. We are, indeed, living in a globalizing world where the wrongs done without will be in due course superseded by the wrongs done within. I thank Dan Falcone for his questions that gave me the opportunity to offer these responses.]

 

 

 

Dan Falcone: In light of the recent shooting of Muslims in North Carolina, Russian Television was pondering if the killings would have received a quicker, more widespread and more responsive media reaction had the perpetrator been a Muslim, instead of victims, as seen in this case. My thought is that this question is beyond the hypothetical. What are your thoughts?

 

Response: I think there is every reason to believe that the identity of the perpetrator influences the media response and approach taken by the public. If the actors are Muslim, whether linked or not to a political network, there is an aura of suspicion surrounding the crimes committed. In contrast, if the perpetrator is white, and Christian, he will be considered a lone actor suffering a severe mental disorder even if he is shown to have links to wider extremist communities as was the case with Timothy McVeigh and Andrew Breivik who engaged in terrorist acts in Oklahoma City (1995) and Norway (2011). The Islamophobic cultural mood predisposes the media and public to incline toward worst case interpretation of Muslim perpetrators and best case scenarios of Christian perpetrators, especially when the victims are Muslim as is the case for the murder of the three young Muslims in North Carolina (Daele Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammed, and Razan Mohammed Abu-Sahla) being partially trivialized as a ‘parking’ dispute among neighbors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DF: Electronic Intifada and The New Republic reported on the case relative to what they call, “New Atheism,” a social and political secular movement that tends to use classical liberal views to masquerade the advance of reactionary behaviors. Furthermore, when coupled with neo-conservatism, new atheism cherry picks which socio-political groups are targeted in the name of freedom. Do you see this as an attempt in double-speak to intentionally cloud the issue?

 

Response: There may be an element of insight into some particular cases on this basis, but by and large this kind of discourse obscures the far greater relevance of the Islamophobic atmosphere prevailing in the United States and Europe, and also removes from consideration the linkage between overseas American militarism directed at Muslim societies and recourse to extremist behavior by Muslims. Both the views of the Tsarnaev brothers who exploded the bombs at the Boston Marathon and the Dzhokhar brothers who carried out the recent Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris seemed shaped by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the Abu Ghraib pictures confirming the torture and humiliation of Muslim prisoners.

 

DF: I noticed many educated readers and citizens and the popular press exhausting ways to explain how the killing of Muslims might not be a hate crime, whereas in the coverage of many killings around the world, there seems to be an automatic subtext anticipated in the first hour of reporting: “No word yet if terrorism played a role.” Does this type of thinking remind you of Edward Said’s work in Unveiling Islam?

 

Response: Yes, definitely. The journalistic tropes used to describe incidents of this sort, especially the initial take when little has been firmly established, are revealing of underlying cultural biases and self-serving governmental ways of processing sensationalist news. To ignore the Muslim identity of the victims, and explain the behavior of the killer as an exaggerated reaction to a dispute over parking is illustrative of this effort to avoid treating Muslim victimization as an expression of ‘hate.’

 

The insertion of a terrorist possibility is immediate and reflexive if the persons accused are Muslim, and avoided if not even when involving the mass killing of innocent civilians. Why was the Sandy Hook less of a display of a terrorist mind set than that of those who acted in Boston or Oslo?

 

 

DF: New atheism seems to suggest that hate crimes are symmetrical and are both color and religiously blind. Given the fact that all three victims had a Palestinian origin or background will this motivate the United States and take say, Israel to discuss the issue with the most minimal amount of complications? And do you think this tragedy provides the Palestinian community a chance to foster additional solidarity?

 

Response: I do feel that what is being described as the ‘new atheism’ is bound up with the recent popularity in some circles of the secularist idea that most of the evil in our midst can be blamed on religious belief that fuels fanaticism. Authors such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and media impresario Bill Maher all feed such views by adopting reductive views of religion that end up associating religious belief with sociopathic extremism. In one respect, such secular thinking is itself fundamentalist in ways that can result in violent behavior on the part of disturbed individuals. It is worth noticing that Craig Stephen Hicks, the North Carolina killer, was self-described as ‘a gun-toting liberal’ (former auto parts dealer now studying to be a paralegal professional) proclaiming his hostile attitudes toward religion on his Facebook page, making the fact that two of the victims wore headscarves possibly an element that heightened his lethal anger to the point of uncontrollable rage. That such a person, whose previous erratic was widely known, should be authorized to possess and wield guns in an intimidating fashion is itself a severe indictment of what ‘the right to bear arms’ has come to mean here in America.

 

I do not think stressing the links between atheism and extremist violence is helpful as it minimizes attention to the cultural and religious prisms through which political behavior is being predominantly shaped, especially with respect to foreign policy. It is likely that there will be a temporary surge of sympathy with those who share an Islamic identity with these victims, and a realization that such politically and cultural tainted crimes are a serious threat to the moral order of the country, including the maintenance of a sense of political community. I doubt that it will translate in any meaningful way into sympathy for Palestinian victimization, which as far as I have been aware is not given much attention in the mainstream reporting of the incident. It is true that the pro-Palestinian boycott groups associated with the BDS campaign have seized upon these events to indicate their solidarity with the victims of the North Carolina crime, as they did earlier with African American victimization in relation to the recent police killings in Ferguson (Michael Brown) and Staten Island ( Eric Garner).

A Presumption Against Intervention

11 Feb

(Prefatory Note: The post below is a revised and modified version of my chapter in David Held & Kyle McNally, eds., Intervention in the 21st Century [online by Durham, UK: published by Smashwords for Global Policy Journal, 2015]

 

 

 

A Presumption Against Intervention

 

 

            Participating in the intervention debates that have raged periodically ever since the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, and of course earlier in less contested settings, I have been struck by the defining encounter between those who are dogmatically opposed to intervention per se and those who rarely confront a call for intervention that they do not feel persuaded by, limiting any doubts as to matters of feasibility and strategic interest. The traditional focus of policy discussion proceeds on the assumption that it is about forcible intervention by governmental actors to coerce some kind of change in a foreign sovereign state. Those in favor usually rely, at least in part, on a rationale that such an undertaking is necessary and desirable as it would rescue a captive people from a regime responsible for massive crimes against humanity or genocide, or operate as counter intervention (currently the controversy over intervening in the Ukraine to offset and discourage alleged Russian intervention) or as in relation to ISIS where the stated objective of the American led coalition is to destroy or defeat a non-political actor that is exercising governmental control over territory in portions of Iraq and Syria.

 

  1. Systemic Developments

 

            Four developments over the course of the last half-century are radically reshaping the debate on the viability and advisability of forcible intervention as a diplomatic option. The first, and most important, is the collapse of European colonialism, which has often motivated the West, and especially the United States, to assert its goalsf and protect their interests by way of intervention in what were formerly colonies or states whose sovereignty was curtailed by hegemonic authority. A feature of this post-colonial global setting is that the intervening state, if Western, will tend to justify its actions by setting forth an altruistic and self-justifying argument with strong moralizing overtones. Related to this matter of motivation on the side of the intervener is the prospect of effective and persevering national resistance creating formidable obstacles to succeeding with an intervention even with the benefit of military dominance. The combination of motivation and anticipated resistance helps explain why so few major interventions have been viewed as successful. One notable continuity linking colonial memories to post-colonial realities is the invariable geographical location of the intervening political actor in the West and that of the target society being in the non-West.

 

            The second development is the rise of human rights as a dimension of world order and a central feature of the foreign policy rationalizations relied upon by liberal democracies, which in a globalizing world makes boundaries seem less inhibiting from the perspective of international law for a prospective intervener. The implicit major premise of the human rights framework is an affirmation of species solidarity. This means that responsibilities for the wellbeing of others extends beyond the boundaries of one’s own state, and reaches to the most remote parts of the planet. In other words, intervention is supposedly undertaken mainly for the sake of securing the rights of others, and territorial ambitions and the quest for economic benefits are denied. The 21st century intervener claims a purity of intentions, but the configuration of interventions and non-interventions is far more ambiguous, and is more convincingly explained by strategic priorities than by the protection of human rights, especially given the cartography of intervention as situating the locus of intervention in the Global South while identifying the intervening political actors as invariably from the West.

 

            The third development is the increased reliance on military technologies that reduce sharply the casualties of the intervener while shifting the burdens of death and devastation to the target society. This reflects thin political support that accompanies subjecting citizens of Western countries to risks of dying, especially for undertakings that are justified as ‘humanitarian’ rather than ‘strategic.’ This discourse of justification places a premium on weaponry and tactics that minimize the likelihood of casualties even at the cost of battlefield effectiveness. The Kosovo intervention under NATO auspices in 1999 was expressive of this new war fighting paradigm, with the military campaign consisting exclusively of air attacks from fairly high altitudes that increased the casualties on the ground but spared the intervening side altogether from experiencing combat deaths or injuries. A similar pattern was present in Libya in 2013 employing NATO airpower to tip the internal balance of forces in favor of an anti-regime uprising without casualties, the new paradigm being dubbed ‘zero casualty wars.’

 

            The fourth development is the acceptance of the validity of a positive international law rule prohibiting forcible intervention by a sovereign state regardless of justifying circumstances. The only exceptions to this prohibition involve a use of force that can be justified as self-defense against a prior armed attack or an intervention that has been authorized by a Security Council decision. Since controversial interventions tend to involve non-defensive or aggressive uses of force that have been neither authorized by UN procedures nor can be convincingly categorized as instances of self-defense as defined in international law. The result of this pattern of ‘lawlessness’ in recent decades has been an erosion of respect for international law and the UN Charter as constraining the behavior of major sovereign states, and especially the United States in relation to the core norm of the UN Charter (Article 2(4)) regarding recourse to force. The authority of international law in these settings has also been undermined by the extent to which the most pronounced forms of conflict are no longer be territorially circumscribed and involving normal sovereign states as principal antagonists. The most important adversaries in the present world order setting are the United States as a global, non-territorial state and various non-state political networks and formations (such as Al Qaeda and affiliates, and Isis and affiliates).

 

  1. Assessing the Debate

 

            Participants in debates about a prospective intervention are influenced by a variety of considerations that shape their assessments. The pro-interventionists frame their public arguments mainly or exclusively by reference to humanitarian concerns, insisting that when a state severely abuses its own people it inflicts harm on the whole world, and that intervention should follow regardless of its country of origin or its mix of governmental motivations. Ideally, such an intervention should be mandated by the United Nations so as to comply with international law, but if political obstacles prevent such a green light from being obtained, intervention should go ahead anyway if seen as likely to be effective in ending such patterns of severe abuse. Such so-called liberal hawks as Samantha Power, Michael Ignatieff, Susan Rice, and Anne-Marie Slaughter are illustrative North American exponents of interventionary diplomacy, but there are Europeans who take similar positions. One characteristic of the pro-interventionists is their unquestioning good faith in maintaining the claim that interventions are genuinely about helping vulnerable or suffering people, and not about protecting access to oil reserves or ensuring market access. Another feature of such lines of advocacy is its rather blind confidence that if military superiority is brought to bear it can be translated into desired forms of political outcome at acceptable costs in blood and treasure. This confidence in military solutions overlooks the record of repeated failure associated with interventionary diplomacy in the period since 1945, especially in relation to large-scale interventions that generate a strong nationalistic resistance.

 

            The anti-interventionists approach these policy issues differently. They look below the surface of humanitarian rationalizations for the use of force to discern what they believe to be the real motives. They are quick to distrust and dismiss humanitarian explanations for intervention, and search for the presence of strategic interests as revealing the true explanation of a proposed intervention. Most anti-interventionists are extremely suspicious of the justifications given by the pro-interventionists, especially government officials and think tank experts, and skeptical about the claims that positive results will be achieved even if the question of strategic interests is put to one side. Such skeptics, often self-identifying as leftists or progressives, are likely to refer to the failures of past interventions such as Vietnam, or more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, as cautionary reminders of how often interventions failed from a policy perspective in the period since the end of World War II. They also oppose the tendency of those advocating intervention to ignore the past, seeking to devote their primary attention to questions of feasibility, thereby ignoring the notoriously bad track record of intervention. Since 1945, few of these Western interventions have reached the goals set by their advocates, especially if the target country has a population of over three million and mobilizes a national resistance movement. For anti-interventionists, such as Noam Chomsky, nearly every intervention that is politically endorsed by the West is a poorly disguised example of ‘military humanism,’ and should be viewed as unacceptable. From this perspective, one cost of such interventions is to weaken international law and the UN, as well as respect for sovereign rights. Such a selective use of force imposes the stigma of ‘double standards’ and hypocrisy on the practice of intervention. Chomsky, for instance, asks rhetorically why intervention was undertaken in Kosovo but not on behalf of the large Kurdish minority in Turkey who in the same time period were enduring a cruel counterinsurgency campaign conducted by the Turkish government.

 

            The pro-interventionist tends to stress the moral responsibilities of the United States as a global leader and intervening liberal democracy. In contrast, the anti-interventionist generally dismisses such moral claims as a cover story for the pursuit of strategic interests in a post-colonial world order where the rules of the game are the same, or similar, but the language of justification has changed to make it more acceptable to rely upon ethical rationalizations when seeking to legitimize the use of international force. It is no longer permissible or prudent to admit selfish national motivations, and for this reason a humanitarian and human rights discourse has become fashionable, but it has also obscured the true wellsprings of policy. Anti-interventionists are sometimes so beholden to their suspicions about the maneuvers of the powerful that they can be oblivious to the depth and reality of suffering or the severity of abuse being endured by a people entrapped in genocidal circumstances. Such dogmatic anti-interventionism rejects on principle practical pleas to rescue entrapped and victimized peoples even in situations of genuine emergency. They are so distrustful of authorizing uses of force by those few political actors that possess long distance force projection capabilities and accompanying political will that they refuse to consider the context or weigh the pros and cons of the particular case.

 

Five Sets of Conclusion

 

            Against such a background of antagonistic views about interventionary diplomacy, I would support several general propositions in seeking to develop an approach that was not ideologically predetermined and sensitive to context, yet overall leans toward the adoption of an anti-interventionist position:

            –assess the pros and cons relating to a given situation, including taking due account of the radical uncertainty that arises from unknown and unknowable aspects of the national context and an inability to assess accurately the risks associated with a prospect of national resistance to intervention; such considerations on balance in most situations uphold policies reflective of the presumption against intervention;

            –such a presumption can be only overcome by solid evidence suggesting that a true humanitarian emergency exists, that the persons and communities facing a dire threat can be rescued by a proposed scale of intervention that is effective without encroaching upon rights of self-determination, and to the extent possible, that the intervening political actor receives authorization from the UN Security Council;

            –in situations of exceptional danger to a civilian population as posed by a genocidal campaign the presumption can be put aside even without UNSC authorization, provided there exists a regional consensus supportive of intervention of the character as existed in the Middle East in reaction to Iraq’s occupation and annexation of Kuwait in 1990 and in Europe in relation to Kosovo in 1999; the quality of the regional consensus is inescapably a matter of interpretation, although formal endorsement of or opposition to a proposed intervention by a constituted regional organization deserves serious respect in the absence of clear signals at the global level from the UN Security Council;

            –such a presumption deserves deference if the intervention seems contrary to the wishes of the people engaged in a struggle or if the intervention will tip the internal balance in civil strife contra popular will and the dynamics of self-determination or if it is likely to give rise to proxy wars of regional and global scope as has been the tragic fate of Syria since 2011;

            –it may be possible and desirable to support nonviolent initiatives shaped and carried out by civil society actors. In such circumstances, the presumption against intervention should remain in the background, yet relevant to the avoidance of militarizing the conflict. Even then it is important that civil society actors are independent of government influence and not vehicles for an intrusion upon unresolved civil strife. It is also relevant that there exists convincing evidence of a humanitarian crisis and a realization that the territorial government is incapable of acting protectively or is guilty of crimes against humanity; a strong precedent for such intervention from below was exemplified by the global anti-apartheid campaign that exerted major pressures on South Africa in the early 1990; a more controversial example is the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement currently challenging certain Israeli policies and practices involving Israel’s unlawful settlements, continued occupation of Palestine, and overall interference with Palestinian rights under international law.

 

            These five propositions are rough guidelines for reaching a contextual assessment in relation to any debate proposing a specific intervention or civic action aimed at achieving change in a foreign state. By its nature, there is an imprecision associated with such a framework, but it is an alternative to the sort of doctrinaire approach that has been so common in the polarized public debates about intervention during the past 20 years. Relying on these guidelines I opposed the 2003 intervention in Iraq because of the absence of either a Security Council authorization, an existing humanitarian emergency, and the likely prospect of sustained national resistance. In relation to Libya in 2013, I favored a limited humanitarian intervention to protect the civilian population of the city of Benghazi because there was a UN authorization and a genuine humanitarian emergency, but strongly opposed the NATO enlargement of the mandate to encompass a regime-changing mission. Syria has been the most daunting of challenges as there has existed for several years a severe humanitarian emergency, but there is neither a global nor regional consensus supportive of military intervention. Worse than this, the Syria strife has been greatly intensified by become the scene of multiple interventions by political actors from the Middle East and beyond. Additionally, the uncertainty factors depicted in the first guideline have made it impossible to have sufficient confidence that any foreign military intervention in Syria would not intensify the violence and work against achieving a sustainable peace based on inclusive governance respectful of the human right of all inhabitants. The complexities of the dynamics of self-determination makes it often impossible to reach any kind of clarity with respect to proposed initiatives by external actors. It is important to recall that self-determination remains the most significant anti-intervention norm in a post-colonial global setting, and is so often marginalized in debates for or against intervention. This neglect of the relevance of self-determination has often deepened the tragic plight of state-building in the aftermath of political independence.

 

My Tribute to Serena Williams

5 Feb

My Tribute To Serena Williams    

 

There have been so many reminders in the past few months that racism remains alive in America that it is worth celebrating an occasion of its transcendence. I am referring to the announcement that Serena Williams,likely to be remembered as the greatest woman tennis player ever, has announced her return to the Indian Wells tournament after a 14 year boycott.Beyond her consummate skill and competitive exploits as a durable champion, I have always found Serena gracious, humble, generous to her opponents, full of fun, and as magnetic off the court as she is domineering and fierce while playing.

 

The boycott was her reaction to a hostile crowd reaction in Indian Wells back in 2001 when an injury to her sister, Venus, led to her withdrawal from a semifinal match in the tournament when they were scheduled to play one another. Many in the crowd assumed that the cancellation was arranged between the siblings, and shouted racist taunts from the stands during the finals that were directed at her father and then coach, Richard Williams and Venus when they entered the stadium to watch Serena play. Despite the taunting by the crowd, accompanied by racist slurs, Serena nevertheless prevailed in the match. She calls this experience one of the darkest in her long career, remembering the many tears that she shed after it was over, and being reminded at the time of her father’s stories of growing up amid a racist atmosphere in the South. She recollects her feelings with these words: “I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.” Her boycott of Indian Wells seemed both self-protective, and in a sense punitive, depriving this high profile tournament of two of its star attractions (as Venus also refused to play).

 

In a story in the NY Times (Feb 4, 2014) written by Christopher Clarey, Serena explains her decision as partly prompted by a film on the life of Nelson Mandela that taught her the healing benefits of forgiveness. It was this sentiment that she mentions as the basis of the decision, which was enthusiastically welcomed in the most affirming way by those tennis officials associated with the tournament, including its billionaire sponsor, Oracle chief Lawrence Ellison. Of course, a cynic would dismiss this kind of reaction as purely driven by commercial considerations, giving the tournament at Indian Wells to be played in March 2015 greater prestige and commercial success. Undoubtedly these motives were in the mix, but I believe that for mainstream America there has been an important shift away from the sort of racist responses that Serena Williams encountered in 2001. Call it ‘political correctness’ or a change of heart, but I believe it exhibits a deeper cultural appreciation that this form of racism directed at African Americans is no longer ethically, socially, and politically acceptable. Of course, to some extent this brand of racism has been displaced and replaced by a new racist menace, that of Islamophobia.

 

By returning to Indian Wells Serena Williams has made the double point of at once acknowledging the pain of her past victimization and the healing power of forgiveness. It is one more stage in her remarkable journey that started in the harshness of the racially segregated and impoverished Compton neighborhood Los Angeles. It is a journey that is personally moving for me. My mother was a highly ranked tennis player for fifteen years at a time when African Americans were excluded altogether, and also making me aware of the rigors of training and discipline that such a life of athletic dedication requires. Beyond this, for me tennis (and squash) was my daily therapy for many decades, and the source of several enduring friendships—certainly cheaper, more enjoyable, and even more effective than what most professional therapists have to offer. And so I take this moment to thank Serena Williams for who she is and what she has done for herself, and for all of us, especially for those of us who love the game of tennis.

Viewing American Sniper

26 Jan

Viewing American Sniper

 

[American Sniper was released on Christmas Day, 2014. It is a movie version of Chris Kyle’s memoir, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, with 255 kills, 160 officially confirmed by the Department of Defense. The movie set in Iraq is directed by Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper plays the part of Chris Kyle, and Sienna Miller is brilliantly cast in the role of his wife, Taya]

 

American Sniper is a fictionalized movie version of the war stories associated with Chris Kyle’s experience as a Navy SEAL in the Iraq War as recounted in his best-selling memoir. The film can be viewed from a variety of angles, including even as one more indictment of war as hell. A second line of interpretation focuses on the intense psychological tensions experienced by this single American soldier and his comrades caught up in the horrors of urban warfare in Iraq.  A connected theme are the adverse impacts of Kyle’s war service on his family that is made to cope with the complex and contradictory traumas of his absence (confronting his potential death on a distant battlefield) and his alienated presence whenever he returns, a scarred individual who longs to go back to Iraq to resume his assigned role as ‘legendary sniper.’  Multiple scenes in the movie portray Kyle as haunted by his service. In his book, Kyle consistently treats his victims as “savage, despicable.” At one point he makes such statements as “I only wish I had killed more,” “I loved what I did. I still do. If circumstances were different – if my family didn’t need me – I’d be back in a heartbeat. I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.” The film avoids giving emphasis such to extreme statements, but it does portray this sniper as convinced he was cut out for the combat role given to him, and that he seems more alive and content when active in the killing fields of Iraq than when back home.

 

 

Kyle’s own violent death is also metaphorically significant—actual events disclosed by text in the film but not depicted, Kyle was killed by an American soldier wounded in Iraq whom he had helped at a nearby veterans’ hospital where he worked at the advice of a psychiatrist to overcome his own version of PTSD. Such an ending of his life conveys the irony that for Kyle the more dangerous battlefield turned out to be in the neighborhood of his family residence, his assailant not the evil ‘savages’ he mowed down in Iraq but a fellow American veteran who had experienced those very same encounters. Kyle had survived four tours of duty as a sniper in the midst of the most bloody military operations in Iraq, but these survival skills proved irrelevant to the minefields of innocence that now made the American countryside a dangerous war zone.

 

From box office success and right-wing praise, American Sniper, is obviously most commonly regarded as a celebration of Chris Kyle as war hero who deserves the thankful praise of the country. From this outlook, Kyle killed enemies of America at great risk and cost to himself, and spared the country a repetition of the 9/11 attacks. It is this self-serving and essentially distorted vindication of the Iraq War that the film presupposes, even to the extent of having Kyle watch on TV as the plane strikes the World Trade Center, with a quick scene shift in the movie to waging war against those presupposed to be the foot soldiers of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Embedded in this view was a double false narrative that the American mission in Iraq was to carry out a necessary counter-terrorism operation linked to the 9/11 attacks and that the Iraqis being killed in Falluja and elsewhere should be perceived as ‘terrorists’ rather than as fighters against an invasion and occupation of their country by a foreign power that disrespects their religion, culture, and sovereignty.

 

These narratives dominated my perception of the movie, although those associated with its production deny such lines of interpretation. Clint Eastwood (the director and producer) and Bradley Cooper (who plays Kyle in the film) have publicly questioned employing a political optic in commentary on the film. They insist, in contrast, that the movie was ‘a character study’ of Kyle and ‘apolitical’ in the sense of not taking a position pro or con the Iraq War. Eastwood has tried to lend credibility to his claim by pointing out that he opposed the Iraq War, and was even skeptical about Afghanistan. Yet whatever he privately feels this not how most viewers most viewers would experience the film, either being enthralled by Kyle’s exploits or appalled by them. Eastwood may have aspired to tell an apolitical story, but if so, he has failed badly.

 

The Iraq War was a war of aggression undertaken in 2003 despite the rejection of a well-orchestrated (and misleading) American plea to the UN Security Council for authorization. Against such a background,  the attack on Iraq and subsequent occupation were widely regarded as international crimes bearing resemblance to the category of aggressive warfare for which German and Japanese leaders were punished for waging after World War II. In this light, the Iraqi violence associated with the hostile American occupation needs to be portrayed as a unilateral repudiation of the limits set by international law and the UN Charter on recourse to war by the world’s most powerful country. Additionally, American Sniper depicts the doomed efforts of an outgunned society to resist a militarily dominant foreign invader that is imposing its will on the country’s future by force of arms. Such a viewing is not meant to imply that we need to endorse some of the horrific Iraqi tactics relied upon, but it should remind us that presenting the Iraqis as ‘evil’ and as ‘savages’ functions in the film as an unchallenged display of Islamophobic propaganda, and cannot be credibly explained away as a realistic exploration of a war hero’s temperament and struggle for sanity and survival. American Sniper also presents Kyle’s story in such a way as to avoid any self-criticism directed at the American mission in Iraq.

 

The movie also lacks redeeming artistic merit. It is relentless and repetitive in portraying battle scenes of intensity intertwined with Kyle’s tormented relationship with his wife and efforts to become a father to their two children during his brief interludes of home leave between military assignments. We learn nothing about the realities of our world beyond a tired rendering of the embedded post-9/11 polemic on the necessity of foreign wars to keep America safe from evil forces lurking in the Islamic world. This orthodoxy is not even interrogated, much less rejected. And no where in the film is there any acknowledgement that the United States in Iraq was acting in defiance of international law and causing great devastation and suffering to a totally vulnerable foreign country, as well as producing a massive displacement of the civilian population. Leaving behind a devastated country and widespread chaos. The Iraqi experience of such carnage in their own country is treated as irrelevant, and is reminiscent of Vietnam War films that were mostly devoted to explorations of the victimization of the young Americans caught up in an experience of war that they could neither understand nor win, while overlooking almost altogether the massive suffering being inflicted on a foreign people in a distant land. That is, even most anti-war portrayals of these American wars accept the dehumanization of the foreign others.

 

For me the most significant impressions resulting from American Sniper’s narrative of the Iraq War are as follows:

 

            –the striking imbalance between the sophisticated military technology at the disposal of the United States versus the primitive weaponry in the possession of the Iraqi adversaries, creating an overwhelming impression that the Iraq War was more ‘a hunt’ than ‘a war;’ such an impression is somehow deepened by a scene in the film in which Kyle is teaching his very young son to hunt for deer;

            –the failure to make any effort at all to understand the experience of this war from the perspective of the Iraqis, creating the absurd impression that the only victims deserving empathy were Americans like Kyle who had endured the torments of warfare and suffered its admittedly disorienting consequences; the emotions of remorse as associated with the harm done to Iraq and Iraqis is no where to be found in the film.

 

What may be disturbing is the radical subjectivity of likely audience responses. In America, great popularity of mostly uncritical commentary on American Sniper, reinforcing the regressive national mood of glamorizing bloody military exploits as the most admirable expression of true patriotism. Elsewhere in the world the perception is likely to be quite opposite: American Sniper inducing anti-American attitudes either out of fear or resentment or both, solidifying the global image of the United States as a cruel geopolitical bully. That is, American Sniper is wildly pro-American for most domestic viewers, and severely anti-American for most foreign viewers. This gap in subjectivities exhibits the degree to which Americans are living in a bubble of their own devising.

 

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-US
JA
X-NONE

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:12.0pt;
font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

It is highly unlikely that many Americans will appreciate this disparity of perception, and even fewer will pause long enough to assess its significance. If more of us could see ourselves as we are seen in the mirror of foreign reactions it might help end this unhealthy national romance with permanent war that started after World War II with the Cold War and continues now in the form of the ‘War on Terror.’  Such a pattern of delusional geopolitics will never produce peace and security in the 21st century, and will fatally divert attention from meeting the challenges of humanity associated with climate change, nuclear weapons, poverty, and extremism. To question this American domination project is to antagonize the entrenched bureaucratic, media, and neoliberal forces that benefit from endless war making and its associated expenditures of trillions. In the end it is this grand project of late capitalism that American Sniper indirectly vindicates, thereby burdening the nation and the world, perhaps fatally.

Pope Francis, Salman Rushdie, and Charlie Hebdo

20 Jan

 

 

(Prefatory Note: This post is a much modified piece published a few days ago in AlJazeera English, and republished elsewhere on line. As many have now done it tries to enlarge the context in which the Charlie Hebdo events are understood beyond a highlight film clip in ‘the war on terror.’ The alleged link between the Chouachi brothers and Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) allows the attack on Charlie Hebdo to be experienced as the French 9/11, and with this a return of France to a status of post-colonial geopolitical relevance. Without grasping the relevance of how the dominant treat the dominated within our societies and throughout the world, we are consigning ourselves to many repetitions of the private and public horrors experienced in France on January 7, 2015.)

 

 

There is some common ground, but not much. The killings in Paris last week were horrifying crimes that expose the vulnerability of democratic societies to lethal vigilante violence, whether facilitated from outside or as a spontaneous expression of homegrown psychopathic alienation. Beyond this naked, morbid reality associated with the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, police officers, and the supermarket hostages there is nothing but darkness, and in that darkness some dangerous monsters lurk.

 

We can be again thankful for the moral clarity of Pope Francis who a few days ago in the impromptu setting of a plane taking him from Sri Lanka to Manila shined a light upon the darkness. Unlike those who so ardently wielded the slogan “Je suis Charlie” the pope understood that free speech without limits is an invitation to indulge the worst negative impulses that will then operate as viruses destroying the vital organs of the body politic.

 

What Pope Francis underscored was the impossibility of reconciling dignity with hurtful insults, especially as directed toward the already marginalize and socially vulnerable. He illustrated his view by saying that if one of his companions on the plane, Dr. Alberto Gazparri a Vatican official, hurled obscene insults at his mother Gazparri could expect to receive a punch. The pope called such a physical response normal: “It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Perhaps, this is too strong an expression of limits, but it does indirectly raise the Derrida urgent question of how and whether we can ever learn to ‘live together’ in peace, with respect within globalizing social space, while swallowing differences of race, class, religion, ethnicity, gender.

 

Francis went on to say the obvious, that to kill in response to any provocation, however severe, hurtful, and lewd, is not compatible with religion properly understood. If it claims a religious motivation, such behavior is an expression of “deviant forms of religion.” He goes on to say “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.” At the same time, how lines are drawn with respect to acceptable and unacceptable forms of provocation is highly political, changeable, and culturally influenced and even constructed.

 

In one respect France and other governments understand both sides of this argument, but twist it for political purposes. The popular African comedian Dieudonné has been repeatedly charged with criminal offenses because his humoraous routines deeply offend Jews, Zionists, and Israel. He is being currently prosecuted in France for ‘defending terrorism’ It turns out that there are no less than 54 pending cases in the country associated with ‘condoning terrorism’ by way of speech. The Associated Press reports that despite present tensions and the public celebration of free speech the government in Paris has “ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism, and glorifying terrorism.” But note no message by the French government is sent mentioning ‘hate cartooning’ or addressing the surge of ‘Islamophobia’ in the country in the days following the January 7th attack on the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices. A large number of mosques in France and elsewhere in Europe have been desecrated in the last week. There are numerous reports of harassment of Muslims as they walk the streets of the country, and indeed throughout Europe. It is understandable that the Muslim community as a whole feels on edge given the ambiguity of the ‘je suis Charlie’ fervor that includes a new press run of 5 million, compared to the former figure of 60,000, that features a cover demeaning the prophet Mohamed. The ambiguity arises because there is a merger of solidarity with the victims and their families after such a shocking attack and an endorsement of their depiction of the Muslim religion as depraved and degrading.

 

This kind of double standards toward these two kinds of hate speech performs a variety of insidious functions for the French state. It uses the language of ‘terrorism’ or ‘anti-Semitism’ to demonize its political enemies and ‘freedom of expression’ to insulate its political allies from any adverse consequences. It blends the criminalization of terrorist advocacy and anti-Semitism with public action taken in the face of strong criticisms of Israel, especially if proposes concrete nonviolent action as is the case for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign. And it makes it even clearer to Muslims that they are fair game for Islamophobes and xenophobes. In effect, a French political community is being upheld that seeks to include Jews as valued and protected members while reinforcing the Muslim understanding that their residences and social standing can be fully understood by reference to the negatively imaged banilieus of the country depicted by the corrupted custodians of public virtue as virtual no-go zones for ordinary Frenchmen, and hazardous neighborhoods even for public officials and the police.

 

In the wake of these events, there is in the West the mainstream media has given a renewed prominence and sympathetic look back at the ordeals that Salman Rushdie endured after the publication of his satirical novel The Satanic Verses in 1988. Rushdie, appearing as a guest on Bill Maher’s talk show and delivering a lecture at the University of Vermont, understandably defended freedom of expression as an absolute right. His words, deeply felt, are worth heeding as the counterpoint to the views expressed by Pope Francis: “And so artists who to that edge and push outwards often find very powerful forces pushing back. They find the forces of silence opposing the forces of speech. The forces of censorship against the forces of utterance..At that boundary is that push-and-pull between more and less. And that push and pull can be very dangerous to the artist. And many artists have suffered terribly for that.” To speak as an ‘artist’ is not a warrant for hate speech that is directed at a group where there needs to be a balance struck between opposed societal values.

The context of Rushdie’s recent remarks was the Charlie Hebdo incident, but his outlook was intended to be sweeping in its generality as applicable to Islam in general. And yet he did not, nor did Bill Maher, pause to take note of those powerful forces in the West that have tried to shut down critics of Israel by shouting ‘anti-Semite’ at the top of their lungs. Some sensitivity to Jews is certainly appropriate as a social value in our post-Holocaust world, but such sensitivity should not be coupled with insensitivity to the victimization of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel. Without some degree of consistency it is difficult to consider clearly how societal balance should be struck in a given situation. The intermingling of East and West has given rise to deep grievances among many Muslims throughout the world, and calls attention to exploitative structures of political, economic, and cultural life within our world that link the domineering to the dominated, giving rise to desperate forms of resistance in response to despicable forms of domination by the powerful and rich.

 

It should not be surprising that the killers in Paris were moved to action by Abu Ghraib pictures portraying the torture and humiliations of Muslims held in American run Iraqi jails. In 2007 Chérif Kouachi said these words in a French court: “I was ready to go and die in battle. I got this idea when I saw injustices shown by television on what was going on over there. I am speaking about the torture that the Americans were inflicting on the Iraqi.” Was it wrong for Kouachi to be appalled? Was it wrong for him to want to act in support of his beliefs? What were his real life options? Of course, it was wrong to do what he did. As W.H. Auden wrote in a famous poem: “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.” This is essence of blowback, a kind of warning to the rich and powerful to act justly. Yet we find the rich and powerful in denial, and so the vicious cycles of blowback persist in their fury.

 

What makes this confrontation so difficult to resolve is that it engages at least two truths, not the single one that has dominated public space. The essential beginning of ethical credibility is an insistence upon consistency. Either Rushdie and France have to uphold the freedoms of Dieudonné whose humor they find abhorrent as well as safeguard the publication of Charlie Hebd discriminating as between various ethnicities and religions in its midst when it comes to drawing lines between protecting the freedom of expression and punishing hate speech.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court long ago decided that free speech does not entitle someone to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. This is what courts are for, to draw these lines in specific cases, balancing opposing truths in the light of practicality and the evolving values of the community. What a judicial body had to say about race or homosexuality a century ago is different than what is says today. And as we in American know too well, the prevailing ideology among the justices is often of greater relevance in determining how such lines are drawn than are the legislative, constitutional enactment, and cultural norms being interpreted. In some respects, then, such determinations are more part of the problem than of the solution.

 

I find myself siding with the abstract sentiments of Pope Francis, but in sympathy with Rushdie’s view of minimizing the role of law and the state. In this respect, if we impose limits by way of government we are entering the domain of censorship. At the same time, we need to protect individuals and groups against malicious forms of defamation and hateful attacks on identities without confusing such protection with efforts to channel public awareness in certain prescribed directions. My own experience suggests that ‘freedom’ of this sort has been used by some pro-Zionist and pro-Israeli organizations to discredit and deter and criticism of Israel, and especially of Israeli state crimes victimizing the Palestinian people. In Rushdie’s case we need to protect his right to publish The Satanic Verses, while condemning the fatwa imposing a death sentence for blasphemy and apostasy, yet respecting the right, and possibly the duty, of non-Western political communities to prohibit distribution of such a book due to its provocative nature in certain civilizational settings.

 

Obviously, there are no cookie cutter answers. The proper limits are a matter of history, ethics, cultural priorities, political leadership, societal circumstances, and most of all, spiritual sensitivity. I feel that the central question is raised by Derrida’s inquiry into how we can learn to live together as well as possible, or at least better. For me living together, given the originality of our historical moment, involves the construction of overlapping communities of destiny—from family to world, with a major focus on national and sub-national political communities without forgetting the wholeness of humanity, our too often suppressed or distorted species identity. Such an undertaking needs to be combined with a greater effort to establish a global political community so that challenges posed by climate change, nuclear weaponry, infectious disease, religious and ethnic intolerance, world poverty, and societal marginalization can be addressed more effectively and humanely.

 

 

Pope Francis and Religious Cosmopolitanism

10 Jan

 

Points of Departure 

Perhaps, the most hopeful recent development in human affairs is the emergence of Pope Francis as the voice of global conscience. Although Francis speaks with papal authority to the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, he also increasingly speaks with human authority to the rest of us. How significantly this voice will resonate might be viewed as the ultimate test as to whether ‘soft power’ is overcoming the geopolitical death dance that imperils the human species as never before.

 

When visiting occupied Palestine in May of 2014 Francis prayed at the notorious Israeli separation wall in Palestine that the World Court had ordered dismantled as unlawful back in 2004. The pontiff chose to pray near a scrawled graffiti that read ‘Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice.’ While in the Holy Land Francis articulated what justice should mean in relation to the Palestinian reality: the pope called the existing situation ‘increasingly unacceptable,’ defied Israel by speaking of the ‘State of Palestine’ while touring the West Bank, and urged the establishment of a ‘sovereign homeland’ for the Palestinian people where there would be freedom of movement (so long denied). By this visit and declaration, Pope Francis indirectly underscored the ethical insight of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu that after the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the great symbolic moral challenge directed at the conscience of humanity is the empowerment and liberation of the Palestinian people. Such an affirmation also confirms Francis’ credentials as an independent world leader who will not defer to Washington’s craven submission to Israel’s continuous trampling upon Palestinian rights.

 

More broadly, Pope Francis has made it repeatedly clear that he is a critic of global inequality and of a capitalist world economic system that has produced ‘plunder of nature,’ a ‘frenetic rhythm of consumption,’ and worship of ‘the god of money.’ Above all, according to the German cardinal, Walter Kasper, this is a pope who “wants to lead faith and morality back to their original center” in authentic religious experience. Such leadership is definitely taking a form that is responsive to the array of unmet global challenges that threaten future harm to all peoples in the world, as well as to those most marginalized and vulnerable due to their particular circumstances. The spirit and substance of Pope Francis’ pastoral ministry is clearly within the framework of the Roman Catholic tradition, but its outreach is essentially ecumenical, touching deeply all who care about spirituality, survival, and global justice.

 

The Failures of Secular Global Leadership

 

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 there was a hope throughout the world that he would provide the kind of inspirational leadership that could nurture political confidence in the human future. Surely, such expectations are the only conceivable explanation for awarding Obama the Nobel Peace Prize the following year while America was involved in two major wars of aggression (Afghanistan, Iraq) and was pursuing a militarized foreign policy of global scope involving navies in every ocean, hundreds of overseas bases, and the potential weaponization of space. It still seemed plausible in 2009 to suppose that only a charismatic American leader possessed the will and ability to forge cooperative solutions serving the human interest in response to global challenges. The United States at its best managed to combine the pursuit of its national interests with some sense of responsibility for upholding global interests. This role was played by the United States with varying degrees of success. It has been a characteristic of world order since 1945.

 

In the months after his inauguration as president, Obama seemed to share this sense of historic mission by making in the Spring of 2009 rather visionary speeches in Prague proclaiming a commitment to achieving a world without nuclear weapons and then in Cairo about turning a new page in the Middle East, including exerting pressure on Israel to create finally the political basis for resolving the conflict. Unfortunately, all too soon it became apparent to all who observed the scene that Obama was a president committed to the continuity of American global power and influence, and not at all ready to engage in battles against entrenched forces that would be required to achieve global justice. On both the Middle East and nuclear weapons Obama quickly yielded to those who insisted on the absoluteness of Washington’s support for Israel and gradually showed his willingness to appease the American political establishment that was far more interested in modernizing the nuclear weapons arsenal than considering prudent moves toward its abolition.

 

On a global scale, the failure of all efforts to heed the warnings of climate scientists to curb carbon emissions on an urgent basis or continue the trend toward global warming with dangerous intensifications of its attendant harms. Conference after conference each year under UN auspices have exhibited the inability of states to cooperate for the global common good to nearly the extent called for by a prudent response to what the scientists are saying about climate change. What prevails in these gatherings of over 190 states is the unwieldy interplay of national interests, and a grim recognition that the only practical way forward is to rely on the voluntary pledges of governments, and in doing so, abandoning the goal of imposing ‘common but differentiated’ legal obligations on all states. In effect, this shift to voluntary undertakings gives up any pretense of establishing an effective public order of climate protection. There is no doubt, as has been evident since the failure of the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, that the domestic political situation within the country makes it unrealistic to seek a responsible climate change treaty if it makes encroachments on national sovereignty, as it must, as well as likely on profit-making, economic growth, and employment. In effect, the structure of international society based on the interplay of sovereign states and market driven economic actors makes it politically impossible to reconcile patterns of global governance with upholding the human or global interest. This structural reality of statism has become more relevant given the inability of the United States to any longer possess credibility as the chief promoter of global interests of benefit to all peoples of the world.

 

There are also ideological resistances to acknowledging limits with respect to human activity, mainly associated with the persisting strength of nationalism as compared to competing transnational belief systems. As became evident as long ago as World War I, working class solidarity promoted by socialist values was no match nationalist sentiments supportive of European colonial interests overseas. In effect, political leaders of states, whether democratic or authoritarian, are products of political cultures that continue to be shaped by the predominance of nationalism. Such a reality underscores growing tension between the human exploitation of the natural environment and a variety of threats to ecological sustainability.

 

Pope Francis as an Agent of Global Revolution

 

It is precisely here that Pope Francis’ entry upon the scene has potential revolutionary consequences. In line with this, it seems entirely appropriate that his most concerted commitment to date is to awaken the world to the menace of global warming arising from unchecked climate change. The Vatican has announced the Pope’s intention to issue a major encyclical that will set forth an authoritative statement of the Catholic Church’s thinking on climate change. This will be followed by a speech to the UN General Assembly in the Fall and after that, by a Vatican call for a global summit of religious leaders drawn from around the world. What the Pope brings to the table is a meta-political promotion of the human interest that has so far been absent from all efforts, including those of the UN, to meet global challenges. In this sense, mobilizing the pope’s Catholic base and reaching out to other religions is the kind of global leadership needed to have any prospect of fashioning the sort of robust response to climate change that is needed with growing urgency.

 

I have long believed that within each of the great world religions there exists an ongoing struggle between sectarian and universalist tendencies. Both tendencies can draw on their respective traditions to support contradictory claims about the nature of the core religious message. What is exciting about Pope Francis is that he seems to be moving the most globally constituted and influential world religion in a distinctly universalist direction at an historical time when such an orientation is directly related to building a positive future for the peoples of the world, and even more generally, for the human species and its natural habitat. Whether he is able to attract other religions to exert their influence in similar directions remains to be seen. As has been already observed, there are some influential doubters within his own Catholic hierarchy, seemingly threatened by his assaults on their bureaucratic positions of prestige (he has notably accused the Vatican Curia of ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s and a ‘funereal face’) and privilege associated with its proper custodial role of administration and the protection of the traditions of the Church. Some forces within the Catholic hierarchy hostile to Pope Francis’ ministry are allied with predatory political and economic interests. It has also been reported, for instance, that the great majority of Christian evangelists are deeply suspicious of this pope’s emphasis on climate change as arising from human activities. They even accuse Francis of propagating a ‘false religion’ by undermining their religiously based belief that global warming and extreme weather are clear signs of an approaching apocalypse rather than being negative byproducts of a fossil fuel world economy.

 

There is a further concern. Even if the religious summit is a glowing success, it will not by itself exert a sufficient impact on the political system to get the job done, given the hegemony of the state structure of world order and its supportive nationalist ideology when it comes to the adoption of global policy norms. Overcoming statist resistance will only be brought about if religious pressures are backed up by a transnational mobilization of people, a popular movement that alters the political climate within which leaders of states act. We need to remember that even the most inspirational of religious leaders does not have access to the policy mechanisms at the disposal of sovereign governments that alone have the ability to solve problems through institutionalizing cooperative action. Only with a surge of bottom-up politics can there be mounted a sufficient challenge to status quo forces resistant to change.

 

Note should be taken of the relevance of the US-China Agreement (Novemeber 2014) to place certain modest limits on carbon emissions, less for the substance of what was agreed upon by these two governments that account for about 50% of the buildup of greenhouse gasses, then to illustrate that if a populist movement calls for change and is then reinforced by the top-down initiatives of the dominant geopolitical actors, it becomes much more likely that a prudent globally oriented policy on climate change will finally emerge. Most optimistically viewed, the US/China agreement could be a breakthrough if it heralds a recognition by these dominant political actors to combine their pursuit of national interests with assuming geopolitical leadership in defining and promoting the global interest, thereby merging 21st century humanism with geopolitics.

 

Of course, what makes Pope Francis’ presence on the global stage so welcome extends beyond climate change. It involves the entire gamut of global justice issues. It represents a dramatic move toward what might be described as ‘moral globalization.’ It challenges the statist character of world order, the nationalist hold on the political imagination, and the predatory manipulation by neoliberalism of our wants and desires. In the end, what is being offered is a spiritual and cosmopolitan alternative to human fulfillment and the meaning of life. Such a worldview is not presented through an exclusivist prism of Catholicism, but rather through a renewed nurturing of the deep roots of the human condition. These roots include a coevoultionary reenchantment of nature as the indispensable bio-political partner of humanity in the work of safeguarding this planet against the rising dangers of ecological implosion. Such a realignment of fundamental attitudes also involves subordinating the technocratic and calculative sides of modernity to more holistic cosmopolitanism. This will involve reestablishing contact with the deeper emotional and spiritual sides of our being mainly lost in the modern quest for a scientifically validated technocratic salvation.

 

At a time when there are many strident voices insisting that religion is irrelevant or worse, the example and messages of Pope Francis offer cosmopolitan hope. It has never been more important to counter the widely disseminated view that religion is inherently responsible for political extremism, and more destructively, to blame Islam as a religion for sociopathic violence when the culprits are Muslim. True, religious doctrine can be twisted to serve any values, however demonic, as can secularist thinking.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,818 other followers