Browsing articles in "Human Rights"
Jan 31, 2014
PEstrada

Motherland Lost

Yesterday, Georgetown’s MA in Democracy and Governance alumn and Research Fellow at the Hudson Group’s Center for Religious Freedom, Samuel Tadros, discussed his recently published book Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity.

In his work, Tadros goes against the idea that Copts, native Egyptian Christians, being a minority have remained completely separate of political developments in Egypt. Instead, he argues that in one way or another they have always been present in the political processes of their country. Further, this presence has been largely related to the issue of what it means to be a Copt. During the modernizing attempts in the late 19th century, Copts, along with Muslims, were expected to give up their religion in favor of a secular state. However, Copts, whose identity is defined entirely by religion and land (Copts have no language or folklore of their own unlike, for instance, Jews), claimed it was them, not Muslims, the original inhabitants of Egypt and the true descendants of the Pharaohs. Hence, it would not be possible to rescind their religious identity in favor of the “Egyptian” one; for them, both were ancestrally inseparable. In order to prevent the emergence of conflicts, these identity issues were not dealt with.

A confrontational time begins in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the appearance of political Islam in response to the failures of democracy. Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood has claimed to fight for an Islamic state, leaving for Copts and other religious minorities in uncertain positions. With such a threat posed by politicized Muslims, the Coptic Church has sought to maintain a somewhat close relationship with the secular governments in Egypt and try to ensure some protection against their aggressors. This is one of the reasons for which the Coptic Pope has been seen in occasions next to authoritarian leaders of the country, most recently sitting right byo President Gral. Al-Sissi. In turn, this is what some Islamist leaders use as a pretext to attach Copts, associating them as supporters of the repressing actions against the Muslim Brotherhood after the fall of Mohamed Morsi.

The tension between Copts and Muslims is accentuated by the fact that Copts pass substantial portions of their lives within the walls of their churches, without having many interactions with other religious or social groups. Inside Egypt there is little knowledge about what Copts are, believe, and how they see the world. Yet the Copt diaspora maintains such a trend: the Church remains the center of the life of Copts residing outside Egypt.

Tadros’ book makes the case for a situation that many could have thought was surpassed in the 21st century, but it has not. Identity and minority conflicts prevail in many countries. Not only this, but they pose substantial obstacles for political development. This can be due to, as Professor Daniel Brumberg noticed in the discussion in yesterday’s event, the fact that a minority group could suffer under a liberalized political environment (as the prosecutions suffered by Copts at the hands of the Brotherhood for associating them with dictators). From another point of view, the situation of Copts in Egypt makes us wonder the extent to which democracy can thrive in a country with substantial fractioning among its social groups. Several authors have proposed some solutions to this problem. Notably, Arend Lijphart suggested a consensual government in which elites of the different groups make decisions, rather separate from grassroots conflicts. Another exit could be secession (which would not work in the Egyptian case because Copts are not geographically concentrated). However, as noted by Professor Brumberg retrieving an idea of Clifford Geertz, many of these situations are very primitive in the sense that the force driving the political actions of social groups is bare fear. The Egyptian attempts to build a new regime offer a real-time answer to the question of how democracy can deal with fear.

Other
Jan 30, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Dreamed Olive Branch

Demolition of Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood, Hama / HRW report on Syria

Demolition of Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood, Hama / HRW report on Syria

Negotiations to achieve peace in Syria are resuming now in Geneva’s UN headquarters, after a brief start in Montreux, Switzerland. United Nations special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, indicated that the ice between the government and the opposition is slowly breaking. Negotiations started with venting feelings and pro and anti-regime journalists pointing fingers towards each other. In order to find a solution to any conflict, oftentimes feelings need to be aired out. However, it is not clear whether both sides will listen to each other in Syria’s case. Particularly when other interested parties that have the power to solve the conflict are not present. Such is Syria’s current state of affairs. Peace negotiations seemingly not including key parties are taking place amidst new revelations that the regime has purposely demolished thousands of homes of families supporting the opposition. Another key indicator complicating the peace talks is the unfortunate delay by the Syrian government in surrendering its chemical weapons materials.

First, according to UN Security Council Resolution 2118, al-Assad’s government has not complied with the first deadline to surrender the “priority one” target of chemical weapons of December 31, 2013. Additionally, Reuters indicated that sources close to the regime report that the regime has no intention of meeting the “priority two” deadline for the February 5 delivery. Accordingly, the main reason for this delay are security concerns and the need for ‘additional’ equipment such as containers. At the negotiations table in Geneva, the Syrian regime has been accused by the opposition journalist Ahmed Zakaria in using, allegedly, food aid delivery as a bargaining tool. If this is so, then such a bargaining tool would contradict the UN SC resolution where the international community demanded that humanitarian aid be provided with no qualms. However, the frankness on the weapons delay appears to be questionable when looking at the Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) recent report on Syria.

In its report, HRW reveals seven large-scale demolitions that took place between July 2012 and July 2013. It also provides satellite images where the demolitions took place. The report also mentions that such destructions took place in neighborhoods that had supported the opposition. A total of, at least, 145 hectares were destroyed which are comparable to “200 football pitches.” With this, credibility of the al-Assad regime by global civil society and several members of the international community, albeit secretly, is under suspicion. Yet, is it the al-Assad regime the only one to blame? Quite honestly, we must look deeper down the rabbit hole so as to perceive a clearer picture.

Syria’s conflict is not only run by the government and the opposition. The government’s weakening has created a power vacuum that non-state actors have taken advantage of. In an article, the New York Times mentions that President al-Assad’s government does no longer hold control of its oil and gas resources. Rather, two splinter groups from Al Qaeda are the ones holding power over these resources and even selling them to the al-Assad government. These groups are the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front. The opposition has been accusing the government for working with these radical groups and protecting them. Some experts also indicate that the Syrian government has been relying on regional oil imports from Iran and Iraq. Perhaps, it is in the government’s best interest to keep this armed and rebel groups on their side, in case they need their help to fight the opposition. Moreover, perhaps one of the reasons against intervening in Syria is that, if Bashar al-Assad’s government were to lose power, then Al Qaeda related cells could take over the state.

Other opposition groups are seemingly not present in the table. Pablo Estrada’s previous post mentions the Syrian National Council, the National Coordination Committee and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It is highly likely that the parties sitting on the negotiations table are the softliners in the government and in the opposition. In this regard, we should first question what is the role of these former Al Qaeda cells and how are they preventing the conflict from being solved. Are they influencing the government from abstaining from offering the olive branch? If so, to what extent is their influence? This could be key. In every negotiation, softliners are the ones sitting on the table. However, what happens when we realize that we may be missing key decision makers (in this case, non-state actors)? Then, we are clearly avoiding to advance democracy and preventing any possible progress in any political transition. Indeed, some may say that it is unethical to deal with non-state actors such as Al Qaeda because it would imply their recognition and giving them unnecessary attention. Yet, in order to reach peace, some degree of empathy must be shown by listening to our greatest enemy.

Jan 24, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Need for Politics of Compassion

 

Protests supporting Edgar  Tamayo in the state of Morelos, Mexico. Source: AP.

Protests supporting Edgar
Tamayo in the state of Morelos, Mexico. Source: AP.

This Wednesday, Edgar Tamayo –a Mexican by birth– died through lethal injection in Texas. Texan authorities denied Edgar the right to use Mexico’s consular services and opposed to cancel such decision as advocated by the International Court of Justice and by Obama’s Administration. Whether Edgar was guilty or not for having killed a policeman, such issue reveals a deeper issue in the U.S. That of attaining inclusiveness. An important feature that any democratic polity bares is to cover all, if not most, of its societal groups under its umbrella of policies. Despite Martin Luther King’s fight to expand civil and political rights to African-Americans here, the first and most recent minority is not yet fully included in American policymaking –Hispanics.

In 1994, policeman Guy Gaddis, captured Edgar Tamayo for having committed robbery. Edgar tried to escape and shot officer Gaddis in the head. Twenty years after, he was charged with dead penalty and died. Indeed, anyone who bypasses the rule of law needs to be judged for his or her acts. Yet, what happens when the polities of a subnational unity, such as that of a local state, clash with those of the national unity which has adopted treaties protecting human rights? Well, in this case, we get a clash between a majority and a democratic polities.

The U.S., Mexico and other 174 countries have ratified the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of the United Nations. However, in 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that the U.S. had breached its obligations by having detained 51 Mexican nationals and deprived them from consular assistance, such as the right to gain legal representation. Through its Embassy in Washington D.C., the Mexican government tried to influence such decision but the attempts were futile. The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also tried but no echo resonated in Texas. With the hopes of having Edgar avoid the death penalty, citizens his hometown in the state of Morelos, congregated either to pray or protest his death.

Regardless of these appeals, the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry eloquently declared that this was not about racial discrimination but that of equality before the law. Through the State Department, the Obama Administration carefully cautioned the Governor that such measure could negatively impact the treatment of Americans abroad. This is of particular importance since there are around 1 million American expats living in Mexico. The administration condemned such action and called upon Congress to pass the Consular Notification Compliance Act. Whether the law passes or not, the lack of inclusion is more serious than what we might consider. As of 2011, nearly 60% of the inmates in the United States were minorities –blacks and Hispanics. However, both groups are only 28% of the American population and are greatly overrepresented in jail. Is it because racial profiling makes easier to catch criminals? Is it because poverty leads many steal to feed their families? Is it because resentment causes them to behave socially unacceptable? Or is it because the system simply does not offer them equal opportunities to thrive?

Whatever reasons you may want to attribute, the fact is that figures show the need for a better approach to this subject. A better and more inclusive approach or engaging in “politics of compassion” would be beneficial for the U.S. in different arenas. For starters, “politics of compassion” would be consistent with Martin Luther King’s calls for social justice. These new policies would also reinforce the core values of the American melting pot –no matter where you come from, this is the land where many come to make their dreams come true. First, Mexico and the U.S. are now deeply intertwined in several different dimensions: political, economic, trade-wise, social, among others. So, disregarding the rights of foreign nationals’ can foster resentment that can affect other areas of the bilateral relation. And second, the presence of Hispanics here is undeniable. True, some Hispanics are illegal and break the law. But this doesn’t make them undeserving of their human rights. If in a democracy all members are to abide by the rule, then they should also be equally incorporated. Whether documented or undocumented Hispanics, they constituted a reality in the states that can no longer be ignored. Such reality has already had a far-reaching impact. President Obama was voted in with and by the Hispanic support but he contradictorily paid back by increasing the number of Hispanics deportations. For now, it seems plausible that politics of compassion could drive the next presidential candidate into office.

Jan 23, 2014
PEstrada

The Magic Mountain

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria (from BBC).

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria in a hotel of the town (from BBC).

On Wednesday, a long-expected international conference backed by the United Nations began in Montreux, Switzerland. Its participants, representatives from 40 countries (including the U.S. and Russia) and delegates from the Syrian government and some factions of the Syrian opposition, discuss the so-called Geneva communiqué. This document was issued in 2012 as a result of another international meeting about the Syrian conflict. In general, it provides a framework within which the war will come to an end, including the stop of violence, the formation of a transitional government with full executive authority, and the holding of elections, among other things. After a one-day break, the meeting will resume on Friday in Geneva.

The first day of the encounter was dedicated to speeches from all the delegations attending it. Leaving rhetoric aside, this first glance at the conference illustrates the obstacles that very likely it will find in the near future. The most salient point of divergence is that while the U.S., most of the foreign delegations, and the Syrian opposition insist that Bashar Al-Assad must step down and cannot be present in a transition government, the official Syrian representatives assure that the continuation of Al-Assad as president is not to be discussed. Further, for the Syrian government the conference is not about discussing the formation of a transition authority (even more, Syria is the only participating delegation that did not subscribe the Geneva communiqué), but about the Syrian people’s demands of “eliminating terrorism”, “terrorists” being how they refer to Al-Assad opponents (in addition to the fact that there have been reports of Al-Qaeda activity in Syria). Therefore, there are different and diverging goals among the attendants to Montreux and Geneva.

Another aspect that could complicate the conference is its measures of success. It would be very unlikely that the main goal of the Geneva communiqué, the constitution of a transition government, is achieved. However, there are other more specific goals that will be discussed in the second part of the meeting. While the Montreux event featured speeches from each delegation, Geneva will hold more head-to-head mediated conversations between the parts in conflict. It is expected that the talks in these sessions go around issues such as the provision of humanitarian assistance and the protection of human rights in the areas of conflict, the facilitation of the flow of people between zones controlled by the government and by the opposition, or the continuation of the provision of basic public services throughout the country. The extent to which deals can be struck in these issues is still to be seen, but it appears they have more chances of success than topics related to the transitional government.

But even within that reduced set of expectations about the conference, whatever results it could bring could find further difficulties to be implemented in the ground. This is mainly due to the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. Its largest and arguably most visible section for external viewers, the Syrian National Council, is not sitting at the table because it refuses to discuss anything until Al-Assad leaves power. The leader of another large group, the National Coordination Committee, refused to participate because its delegation did not have sufficient time to prepare itself. Finally, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces yielded to pressures from other countries and agreed to take part in the discussions, although many of its members did not agree with this because they wanted guarantees that Al-Assad would step down.

The picture above could suggest that the prospects for the conference in Geneva are grim. However, it must also be underlined that the current assessment is made taking as after just one day of work in which top-level diplomats (mostly foreign ministers from the participating countries) gave speeches. The session in Geneva could be more productive, constructive, or at least less polarized, given its interactive nature and the presence of mediators. At the same time, the top objective, the formation of a transition government without Al-Assad, could almost be ruled out. Once works in Geneva begin and some time as gone by we can have a clearer idea about what to expect from this conference.

Jan 17, 2014
PEstrada

Cuba and the European Union – Moving Ahead

This week the European Union announced the decision to begin the process of ending with its “common position” of suspending relations with Cuba. Proposed in 1996 by then Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, the objective was to create some pressure on the island to foster democratic change. After twenty years of this policy and apparently much more for pragmatic reasons than for having achieved, even partially, its goal, the tentative date to normalize relations is 2015.

The EU common position is a rare tool in European foreign relations. Within its framework, all EU members adopt a single stance in relation to a specific issue or country. Common positions have been notably used for Congo, Zimbabwe (both of which have ended), and Cuba. Somewhat similar to the embargo imposed by the US, the EU common position had diplomatic and economic components. On the one hand, there wereare no bilateral agreements which would serve as a framework for any kind of relation between Cuba and the EU or its individual members. On the other hand, investment and business opportunities practically came to a halt.

Since some years ago, members of the EU (among those Spain) noticed the ineffectiveness of the agreement. They relied on a number of arguments. First, aside from Cuba, the EU common position was only used for Al-Qaeda. For some European foreign ministers, it was inadequate or exaggerated to place in the same category a Communist country and a terrorist organization. Second, they witnessed some, albeit arguably superficial and selected, changes in the island. The replacement of Fidel Castro by his brother Raúl as the president of the country, the relaxation of some controls (such as those related to international travel, for instance), and the release of more than seventy prisoners identified by the EU as political were taken as symbols that some things were occurring in Cuba. They are clearly far away from a full respect to the human rights of Cubans and from the openings that are conductive to a democratization, but they were enough for some to assess that the situation was not the same when the common position began. Thirdly, there were some instances in which the common position was ignored. For example, the release of political prisoners took place after a dialogue between Spain and Cuba, which should not have taken place because the policy did not allow for bilateral dialogues of any kind. As well, there were reports about visits between members of the Cuban and European Catholic Churches, which, again, were prohibited under the common position.

Spain successfully pushed for an ending of the economic embargo against Cuba in 2003 (its negotiation token was the release of the political prisoners). Ten years later, the Spanish newspaper El País mentions that the EU is the first foreign investor in Cuba, and that the EU is Cuba’s second foreign trade partner, after Venezuela. So, there was a material benefit to extract from finishing with the economic component of the common position. With the elimination of the diplomatic part, agreements could be reached between the two parts to improve their economic relations.

However, there are some caveats to ending with the European policy. For instance, Poland and the Czech Republic have notoriously insisted on the inclusion of a human rights observation clause in any bilateral agreement with Cuba, still to be negotiated. It remains an open question how the Cuban government reacts to this and, eventually, how it will be enforced. Additionally, members of the Cuban opposition have requested the EU to have a broader vision of its relation with Cuba. Blogger Yoani Sánchez criticized that in his visit to Cuba last week, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans had meetings only with government representatives and not with the dissidence, who have many human rights and democracy projects that also need assistance from Europe.

The ending of the EU common position towards Cuba can be taken as an example of pragmatic foreign policy. Although its maintenance could have had some relevance in the discourse and in ethics (democracies not having relations with a non-democratic regime), the EU came to terms with the reality that the common position was not serving its objectives and that ending with it could yield material benefits. The European experience can thus be added to the list of cases of embargoes failing to promote democracy or which were surpassed by another set of goals.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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