Controversial American investigative journalism is usually limited to things like Michael Jackson interviews. And when our reality television toes the line, it’s because of Fear Factor episodes where contestants come into contact with disagreeable animal byproducts. Sure, political arguments get heated; sometimes, even, we end up doing it live. But our media, in no small part thanks to the power wielded historically by the FCC, generally self-regulates. For better or for worse.
Not the case in Pakistan. Two weeks ago, a reality television show where participants act like Saudi mutaween, accosting couples appearing together in public, debuted on a major TV network. For an hour, a pack of women chased teenagers and young adults through the streets of Karachi in true religious police fashion. The New York Times writeup, one of many that have cropped up over the past week, describes the show which, most incredibly, was broadcast live, the best:
Panting breathlessly and trailed by a cameraman, the group of about 15 women chased after — sometimes at jogging pace — girls and boys sitting quietly on benches overlooking the Arabian Sea or strolling under the trees. The women peppered them with questions: What were they doing? Did their parents know? Were they engaged?
Some couples reacted with alarm, and tried to scuttle away. A few gave awkward answers. One couple claimed to be married. The show’s host, Maya Khan, 31, demanded to see proof. “So where is your marriage certificate?” she asked sternly.
This hourlong spectacle, broadcast live on Samaa TV on Jan. 17, set off a furious reaction in parts of Pakistan. Outrage sprang from the Internet and percolated into the national newspapers, where writers slammed Ms. Khan’s tactics as a “witch hunt.”
“Vigil-aunties,” read one headline, referring to the South Asian term “aunty” for older, bossy and often judgmental women.
We’ve given an exorbitant amount of credit to citizen journalists in the wake of the Arab Spring. In addition to funding technologies which will increase their effectiveness and safety, the United States is actively training whistleblowers around the world as part of democracy promotion programming. These are the individuals, proponents of this spending say, who hold the key to democratic transition in places we previously overlooked.
Americans and Westerners seem to love it when media is used “for good.” But is that truly a reasonable expectation in places, like Pakistan, where media self-regulation away from extremism is almost incomprehensible? A show such as this one in Pakistan seems like no more than a logical and cultural extension than the United States’ own To Catch a Predator, which, for those not familiar, lures purported sexual predators into police sting operations using decoys posing as underage teenagers.
When the United States encourages a “gotcha” culture of new media soundbites, live feeds, and citizen activism, what more do we really expect? Journalists using new trends and technologies to enforce the moral code of a society should not surprise anyone.
A quick update on the situation of americans under travel ban in Egypt, subject of a recent post: at least two of them are being sheltered at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for fear of being arrested. The current interpretation is that this is a new low in Egyptian-American relations, and even the annual US$ 1.3 billion in aid to the country is on the line. Would it go that far? Things are definitely worse this time, but it is certainly not the first case of American pro-democracy groups being investigated and threatened. I wonder if these events will have long lasting impacts in the work of such groups, and what they could be.
“Principled and Purposeful Engagement:” US Policy on Supporting Human Rights and Rule of Law in Russia
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia, co-chair of the Civil Society Working Group of the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, today argued for “principled and purposeful engagement” with Russia in a Senate hearing on “The State of Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Russia: U.S. Policy Options.” DAS Melia and Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon outlined the Obama Administration’s position in regard to Russia. Their testimony can be downloaded and watched here. From a civil society perspective, Freedom House Executive David Kramer, Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski, and President and CEO of the US-Russia Business Council, Edward Verona, testified as well; while their testimony is not yet uploaded on the Foreign Relations website, it should be up within 24 hours of this posting.
Recognizing the backdrop of the Duma elections and dramatic citizen protests that have swept Russia, four US policy-specific issues emerged in the hearing:
The Obama Administration’s Policy of Dual-track Engagement: Bi-lateral Relations and Civil Society Support. ”We firmly believe that a credible dialogue about democracy and human rights should involve not only contacts between the American and Russian governments, but also direct communication and linkages between American and Russian non-governmental organizations, independent policy experts, and regular citizens to confront common challenges,” Melia’s written testimony stated. Further, in addition to the $160 million provided in civil society strengthening and civil society assistance since 2009, “the Obama Administration submitted Congressional Notification for the creation of a new $50 million fund to support Russian civil society” in October 2011. “The new fund would not require additional appropriations because the $50 million would come from liquidated proceeds of the U.S. Russia Investment Fund.” (also from Melia’s written testimony). Both Gordon and Melia provided statements that reflect the Administration’s new-found voice in support of democracy and human rights; while the voice had existed previously, it was arguably muffled to a whisper under the “reset” policy.
Trade: Terminate Jackson Vanik. Both Republican and Democratic Senators expressed support for the repeal, as did the Administration through Assistant Secretary Gordon and DAS Melia. The Jackson Vanik legislation, passed in 1974, has been a barrier to Russian membership in the World Trade Organization; Senator Corker provided a moment of levity by asking Gordon whether he agreed that Jackson Vanik is now causing us to “shoot ourselves in the foot” by restricting US trade with Russia with little to no benefit or human rights leverage in return. Gordon diplomatically repeated the Administration’s support for its termination. Kramer advocated for parallel legislation in support of human rights (in the form of the Sergei Magnitsky legislation or comparable legislation) to be passed if Jackson Vanik is terminated.
S. 1039: The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act. A bi-partisan cadre of senators has supported this legislation, which would impose US visa bans on individual human rights abusers, most notably those involved in Sergei Magnitsky’s tragic death. Melia noted that the Obama administration has and is “taking action to deny human rights abusers entry into the United States…Consistent with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and President Obama’s “Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Non-immigrants of Persons Who Participate in Serious Human Rights Abuses and Humanitarian Law Violations and Other Abuses.” Essentially, the position taken by the Administration is that this is already underway. The concern is perhaps that passing the legislation can open a Pandora’s Box of difficult questions: who in the US government maintains the list? What if a name is added by mistake? Is this duplicating the already successful Human Rights Reports produced by DRL? Is it going to bureaucratize issues that are too important to bureaucratize? Further, it has also been reported that the Russian government, in particular the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with orders from the top, may respond with its own list of Americans blacklisted from Russia should that legislation pass. Sponsors of the legislation, its supporters (including Kramer), and those debating whether to support it must be wary of paving the foreign relations road with good intentions. That said, this policy difference between the congress, which is seeking to institutionalize support for human rights (as Senator Cardin articulated), and the executive branch, which is seeking to proceed with dual-track diplomacy to include human rights, should not be taken as a reflection of wavering US support for justice for the 37 year old lawyer – Sergei Magnitsky - who died because he dared to investigate state corruption and because of acts of commission and omission perpetrated by the Russian authorities. Gordon, Melia, and Senators Cardin and Shaheen recognized this terrible truth, though they may differ on how the US should respond.
Appointment of Michael McFaul. McFaul was nominated to be US Ambassador to Russia and a confirmation hearing was held in the senate on October 12th. Gordon, Melia, and Kramer agreed that the US needs a permanent Ambassador – our man in Moscow – now more than ever, and asked the Senate to confirm McFaul as soon as possible. The conservative right mobilized against McFaul after his hearing, mobilization that is arguably dangerous to foreign policy goals in the region at such a critical time.
“No practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us,” asserted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a historic address delivered in recognition of Human Rights Day. Clinton strategically affirmed the rights of all peoples, calling on civil society to advocate on behalf of the LGBT community and urging governments to support the human rights of all people to equality under the law. “All people deserve to be treated with dignity, no matter who they are or whom they love,” she said.
The United States has taken a series of direct steps to translate her eloquent words into action. Today, the Obama Administration issued a directive in the form of a Presidential Memorandum calling on “all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.” The President’s memo calls on agencies to integrate into their work the following:
1. combating criminalization of LGBT status or conduct abroad;
2. protecting vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers
3. foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination
4. swift and meaningful US responses to human rights abuses of LGBT persons abroad
5. engaging international organizations in the fight against LGBT discrimination.
Section 6 stipulates: “All agencies engaged abroad shall prepare a report within 180 days of the date of this memorandum, and annually thereafter, on their progress toward advancing these initiatives,” while section 7 enumerates the agencies (including State, Homeland Security, DOD, and USAID).
From the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Assistant Secretary Michael Posner tweeted that “we have committed more than $3 million to start the fund, and we have hope that others will join us in supporting it.” Clinton also announced the creation of a guide that will be sent to all US Embassies to provide them with tools to support civil society actors advocate for LGBT rights.
The Secretary’s speech comes at a critical time. As global economies falter, and governments continue to cut funding for education, tolerance, and human rights programming in the name of austerity, she reminded us that “those who advocate for expanding the circle of human rights were and are on the right side of history.” She provided a rebuttal to those who say we cannot afford to do so: in fact, we can no longer afford to give governments a pass when they do not protect fundamental human rights (including the US local, state, and national governments) and our foreign policy cannot ignore governments that systemically violate the rights of their people.
To follow the ongoing conversation online, visit twitter and #Dignity4All
“We begin by rejecting the false choice between progress and stability.” – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
On November 9, at the National Democratic Institute’s Democracy Awards Dinner, Secretary Clinton stated emphatically that democracies “channel people’s energies away from extremism and toward political and civic engagement.” Service members, democracy activists, civic educators, and public servants in war zones, parks, classrooms, and parliaments around the world should cheer the Secretary’s recognition.
The speech is a watershed moment for the Clinton State Department and the Obama Administration. In an acutely practical way, she articulated the most fundamental question of how to balance order and chaos in political transitions and in governance. She recognized that while “toppling tyrants does not guarantee that democracy will follow,” when it does, “democracies make for stronger and stabler partners.” Clinton noted the practical nuances of citizenship that many educators and activists have embraced for decades – namely that polities with knowledge, skills, and dispositions of democratic citizenship can and must ensure a more peaceful, just, and secure world. Yet she argued beyond established policies, and for this reason, the world should take note.
Through Clinton, the United State government declared in no uncertain terms that it is in America’s self-interest to recognize the universal right of individuals to be free: “opening political systems, societies, and economies is not simply a matter of idealism. It is a strategic necessity.” She recognized the uncomfortable truth that US foreign policy is different in every country and that the promotion of popular sovereignty, freedom, and human rights abroad will forever be intertwined with other strategic interests. While she did not enumerate these specific interests, one might make a convincing case that US policy has been softer on fundamental freedoms in states like Saudi Arabia, where the US has economic interests, and in Uzbekistan and Djibouti, where the US maintains military bases deemed critical to the ongoing wars on terror. Clinton addressed this critical paradox of our time, a paradox that unfortunately has given a platform to radical Islamists and lent credence to those who might argue that democracy promotion is merely a cloak for darker American interests.
The new frontier covered in her remarks, ground that US foreign policy is now beholden to defend, is the recognition that the promotion of democracy and fundamental freedoms is a strategic interest and will be treated as such. Her own words in relation to the Middle East region must now be reflected in our own foreign policy: “The truth is that the greatest single source of instability in today’s Middle East is not the demand for change. It is the refusal to change.” While her examples included regional governments, Syria and Yemen in particular, transforming US policy to support the demands for greater freedoms in the Middle East is also integral to actualizing demands for change. The creation of an Office of Middle East Transitions at the Department of State in September 2011 is a belated but critical start.
In her remarks, Clinton attempted to answer four critical questions: “Do we really believe that democratic change in the Middle East and North Africa is in America’s interest?”“Why does America promote democracy one way in some countries and another way in others?” “What is America’s role in the Arab Spring?” and, “What about the rights and aspirations of the Palestinians?” In answering those questions, she shone a much needed spotlight on the idiosyncrasies of foreign policy while arguing that the realities of economic prosperity and security at home can reinforce democracy promotion abroad. Her assertions, while complex, are in good company. Neville Isdell, former chairman/CEO of Coca-Cola, has embraced the métier that global corporations must now embrace social responsibility rather than “philanthropy” to regain public trust and justify their existence. Corporations, he claims, do not gain legitimacy through altruism but instead gain the right to operate through a social contract with the communities in which they work. Clinton and Isdell, in both words and in action, have begun to apply Montesquieu’s concept of individual “enlightened self interest” to government and the corporate sector.
Secretary Clinton is to be commended for recognizing that we cannot stand on the sidelines of what is right simply because we think it easy; further, in doing so, we act against our own self interests and our country’s best interests. It is incumbent on the US government to answer the hard questions and to match the rhetoric to the reality; this speech is a significant and realistic step forward and should be treated as such.
“…there are going to be a lot of bumps along this road. But far better that we travel this path, that we do what we can to make sure that our ideals and values, our belief and experience with democracy, are shared widely and well. It’s an exciting time. It’s an uncertain time. But it’s a good time for the United States of America to be standing for freedom and democracy.” – Secretary Clinton
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