Normative Narratives


1 Comment

Ferguson, MO: Justice is a Dish Best Served Well Done

I will not comment on the actual decision not to indict Darren Wilson; I was not at the scene of the crime, and even amongst those who were, there are differing accounts of what happened.

I trust the judicial process (although there does seem to be a conflict of interest when prosecutors are asked to indict police officers; having special prosecutors for police trials makes sense); anybody who is trying to sell you an “obvious” answer is being insincere (lots of clickhole “this changes everything” type nonsense out there). Even after months of deliberation, a jury could not find sufficient evidence to indict Wilson–there is no “obvious”explanation of what happened.

I will say this–indicting and convicting Officer Wilson because a lot of people are angry would not have been justice, it would have been mob rule, the exact opposite.

For their part, Michael Brown’s family have urged protesters to remain peaceful and constructive. Unfortunately, their wishes were disregarded by many.

It is not surprising people disregarded calls by the Brown family to remain peaceful. Those who disregarded this message where protesting underlying social injustices–Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Officer Wilson was merely the spark which ignited decades of racially-charged tinder.

Unlike the exact events leading to the death of Michael Brown, these injustices are irrefutable. The ways forward are clear, if the leadership exists to mold people’s outrage into something sustained and constructive.

Police Accountability

Their is a deep mistrust between police and minority communities across America. History of racial profiling, and the failed “war on drugs” which disproportionately targets minorities, exacerbates the vicious cycle of poverty, crime, and mistrust.

One way of making police officers more accountable is a lapel camera. A lapel camera could have answered many of the unanswered questions surrounding the fatal Brown-Wilson confrontation. Wilson alleges Brown charged at him, certainly a lapel camera would have shed light on this claim.

I have heard many reasons why lapel cameras would not work, ranging from “cameras are too expensive”, to “officers will forget to turn them on”, to “recordings would be an invasion of privacy”.

Privacy can be protected by strict rules governing under what circumstances footage can be used (for example, yes in trials, no in performance reviews).

Expense should not be an issue; even a bulletproof top-of-the line lapel camera, should not be prohibitively expensive. Create a demand, and someone will supply lapel cameras at a reasonable price. Furthermore, in response to events in Ferguson, President Obama proposed spending $75 million on lapel cameras as part of a larger $263 million police reform package.

And of course officers can forget to turn on their cameras, just like they can forget to turn on the safety on their guns, or read someone their rights. By setting up proportional penalties, their is no reason to believe lapel cameras would be misused anymore than other equipment.

Camera’s do not just benefit the public at the expense of police officers. Lapel cameras can validate necessary use of force, and protect police officers from unjust complaints. As Cpl. Gary Cunningham of Rialto California put it “I think it protects me more than it protects the public,”

Before implementing its program, Rialto police launched a yearlong study in 2012, deploying wearable cameras to roughly half of its 54 uniformed patrol officers at a given time. The results were remarkable. The department saw an 88 percent decline in complaints against officers and use-of-force incidents plumetted 60 percent.

“After we got the data, we kind of sat down and went, ‘Wow, look at these numbers. There’s something to this,’” said Chief Tony Farrar, the program’s brainchild.

The debate about lapel cameras is taking place in municipalities across the country, and now at the national level. This is a good start towards building trust, transparency, and accountability between police officers and those they serve and protect.

Personal / Social accountability

Why aren’t there more minority police officers in places like Ferguson, MO? I do not believe their are any discriminatory hiring practices at work here, such a barrier could not exist in modern American institutions without being exposed. If anything, municipalities often have affirmative action mandates to hire more minority officers. So then, what is the issue holding back more representative police forces?

I think at least part of the problem is cultural (or in economics speak, a “demand side” issue). Minorities often face ridicule for pursuing a career in public service. Instead of being labeled a “hero”, they are labeled “snitch”, “rat”, “traitor”, etc. Facing ridicule and rejection from their communities, is it really surprising more minorities do not pursue careers as police officers?

Cultural change can only occur at the community level. It could be complemented by highly visible campaign of celebrities / athletes / entertainers on a larger scale, but the grass-roots community element is indispensable.

And this social / personal accountability goes beyond encouraging minorities to become police officers. No matter what a person decides to do for a living, we all have civic duties; to effect change, people must become more politically active:

Though two in three Ferguson residents are black, the city government is almost entirely white.

Local African-American leaders say that’s because, for a variety of reasons, blacks across the region simply haven’t participated in city elections. Until that changes, they add, Ferguson’s racial tensions aren’t likely to get better.

Black political leaders in the area say it’s not surprising that Ferguson’s government isn’t responsive to their community’s concerns, because blacks across St. Louis County simply haven’t turned out to vote in large numbers, or run candidates for office. 

No one collects data on turnout by race in municipal elections. But the overall turnout numbers for Ferguson’s mayoral and city council election are discouraging. This year, just 12.3% of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to numbers provided by the county. In 2013 and 2012, those figures were even lower: 11.7% and 8.9% respectively. As a rule, the lower the turnout, the more the electorate skews white and conservative.

“I think there is a huge distrust in the system,” said Broadnax, a Ferguson native. Many blacks think: “Well it’s not going to matter anyway, so my one vote doesn’t count,” she said. “Well, if you get an entire community to individually feel that way, collectively we’ve already lost.”

But State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes Ferguson and who has been involved in the protests, said she thinks the anger over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown will translate into increased political engagement among the region’s blacks.

“I think this issue is changing the game completely,” said Chappelle-Nadal. “People are upset.”

Still, for [John] Gaskin, a board member of the national NAACP, the current lack of participation among the area’s minorities makes it’s tough to hear older activists talk about the sacrifices made in the civil rights struggle.

“It brings me to tears hearing from Julian Bond and everyone how important it is to vote, for the people that lost their lives,” Gaskin said, “when we’ve had to almost try to convince people to utilize this precious tool that so many people in the world don’t have access to.”

To help facilitate political engagement in Ferguson, mayor Jay Nixon today announced the “Ferguson Commission“:

An African-American pastor and a white civic leader will lead a state-appointed Ferguson Commission that will work toward “healing and positive change” in the St. Louis area, Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri announced  Tuesday.

The diverse 16-member panel has about 10 months to listen to residents, study social and economic issues and make recommendations for changes. The commission includes lawyers, activists, pastors, a police sergeant and a professor.

Inclusive political institutions should be the norm, not an ad hoc response to tragedy.

Mainstream development economics is predicated on a rights based approach. In America we no longer have to fight for basic political and civil rights, but simply exercise them.

But the ease of our modernized society has bred comfort and complacency. Events such the shooting of Michael Brown, and the ensuing protests, serve as a stark reminder that being at the frontier of progressive values requires constant effort.

If these protests can remain peaceful, and fuel sustained political activism, they will serve as a testament that our democratic system–while not always pretty or linear–is still capable of pushing the frontier of progressive values.

Let the concepts addressed in this blog–accountability (of police officers, but also of ourselves and our communities), inclusive politics, and a politically engaged citizenry–be the legacy of Michael Brown.

Let his death be the catalyst of a new Civil Rights movement, one which bridges racial divides and addresses underlying socioeconomic injustices which hinder Americans of all races and creeds.

Such cultural shifts would amount to a much more meaningful legacy than any individual indictment / conviction ever could have.

Update: The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were completely separate incidents.

In the case of Eric Garner’s murder, video evidence clearly showed a non-threat–and perhaps a good Samaritan who broke up a fight–being choked to death (a claim confirmed by a medical examiner’s autopsy).

In his defense, Officer Pantaleo said he never meant to cause Eric Garner harm:

…the officer’s testimony, as recounted by Mr. London, seemed at times to be at odds with a video of the encounter, such as his stated attempt to get off Mr. Garner “as quick as he could.” 

It is not even controversial, but I do forcefully condemn the decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo on charges of at least manslaughter.

The Justice Department is launching a civil rights investigation into Mr. Garner’s death; hopefully justice is served in this clear case of police misconduct and brutality.

Advertisements


2 Comments

Rest in Peace, Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

As you have probably heard, Nelson Mandela died today; he was 95 years old. He “died peacefully at his Johannesburg home after a prolonged lung infection” according to current South African President Jacob Zuma. Even though the world had plenty of time to come to terms with Mandela’s impending death, it makes his loss no easier to bare.

Mandela was a human rights leader and a proponent of peace and democracy. He showed the world that forgiveness and reconciliation can be more powerful forces than hatred and retribution. He is widely credited with unifying South Africa after its apartheid era. He was and continues to be an inspiration to civil / human rights activists, peace advocates, and progressive politicians / people around the world. He changed the world for the better, and will be sorely missed.

The best way to honor his legacy is to continue to champion the ideals he stood for.


Leave a comment

Transparency Report: (In China) the Appearance of Human Rights Laws Must be Upheld, Especially When they are Being Broken

This is a picture of William “Boss” Tweed, one of the most notoriously corrupt politicians in American history. His character, in the critically acclaimed movie “Gangs of New York”, has a particularly memorable line; “the appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it is being broken”.

The Chinese government does not supporting human rights, as exposed in a recent government white paper on the subject. According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, “China’s white paper is oblivious to the indivisible and universal nature of human rights, and that guaranteeing human rights requires action and not just mere hollow proclamations.”  While Tibetan’s are admittedly not unbiased observers, this does not change that fact that this statement is 100% correct.

International human rights law is not only about economic development; this is just one element of the human rights based approach to development. Human rights consist of economic rights, as well as social, cultural, political and civil rights. These rights are understood as universal (must be granted indiscriminately), interdependent, indivisible, and mutually reinforcing. One right begets other rights (leading to empowerment and sustainable human development), while one violation enables another (leading to undesirable ends such as “extreme poverty”). This broader definition of [sustainable] human development is about far more than GDP per capita – that tells us remarkably little about the state of a society, particularly where gross inequity prevails, according to Helen Clark, UNDP administrator.

It seems the Chinese government believes in the economic rights portion of human rights, but not the other essential components. It may pay lip-service to these other rights, but this is simply a facade to appease the international community and it’s own civil society. However, neither of these parties seem fooled. Microblogs have become a popular outlet for Chinese citizens to voice grievances against the government, prompting stricter monitoring / regulations. The international community also recognizes a deterioration of human rights in China, according to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council:

“We’re concerned that China suppresses freedoms of assembly, association, religion and expression…, harasses, detains and punishes activists…, targets rights defenders’ family members and friends and implements policies that undermine the human rights of ethnic minorities,” Zeya said.

“I think that there wasn’t really an openness to criticism,” Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, told a news briefing. “It was clear from the Chinese delegation’s responses that ‘objective and frank’ meant no criticism, or at least no criticism that they didn’t control.”

Some experts had thought the administration of Xi would be less hardline than his predecessors. Instead, critics say Xi has presided over a clamp down that has moved beyond the targeting of dissidents calling for political change.

For example, authorities have detained at least 16 activists who have demanded officials publicly disclose their wealth as well as scores of people accused of online “rumor-mongering”.

“Xi Jinping has definitely taken the country backwards on human rights,” prominent rights lawyer Mo Shaoping told Reuters.

Three specific examples support the theory that China does not uphold international human rights standards, but rather pays lip service to them: 1) the governments reaction to smog in China, 2) the corruption trials of Bo Xilai, and 3) the treatment of Tibetan monks.

1) Smog in China:

Schools, major roads and an airport remained closed Tuesday, as a thick cloud of filthy smog smothered the northeastern city of Harbin.

Pollution levels remained far above international standards, as the city’s monitoring stations on Tuesday showed that concentrations of PM2.5 — the tiny airborne particles considered most harmful to health — were more than 30 times the World Health Organization’s recommended standard, the state-run China Daily reported.

However, the government has responded with token measures. To the extent the government cares about pollution, it is arguably for economic reasons (reduced tourism, stopped economic activity), as opposed to the health aspect (premature deaths due to dangerous smog)

China said on Monday it would give rewards amounting to 5 billion yuan ($816.91 million) for curbing air pollution in six regions where the problem is serious, underscoring government concern about a source of public anger.

Protests over pollution in China are becoming common, to the government’s alarm. Authorities have invested in various projects to fight pollution and even empowered courts to mete out the death penalty in serious pollution cases.

But the results have been mixed. Enforcement of rules has been patchy at the local level, where district authorities often rely on taxes from polluting industries.

State media said in July the government planned to invest 1.7 trillion yuan ($277 billion) to fight air pollution over the next five years.

Despite new enforcement rules, without empowering people with civil and political rights, top down measures never become ground level realities; a prime example of the interdependence of different aspects of human rights.The Communist party can be seen taking a tough stand on pollution, without adequately addressing the problem.

Such a response will not result in better air quality; which is bad news for the vast majority of Chinese people who cannot afford a purifier; top of the line airs purifiers run between $2000 and $3000, and basic standard models range from $320 to $480 a piece. Meanwhile, the average annual family income of the 712 million urban Chinese is $2100. Do the math!

2) Bo Xilai Trial

The sentencing of former Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai to life in prison on bribery charges over the weekend effectively brought to a close China’s biggest political crisis since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.  Bo’s exit is significant in that it leaves the neo-Maoist “New Left” without a star. But the trial was also noteworthy for the many questions it raised about the future of China’s much-scrutinized legal system.

The trial of Bo, presided over by the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court in eastern China’s Shandong province, caught many off guard with its apparent openness. While politically sensitive trials have typically been cloaked in secrecy, the proceedings in the Bo trial were broadcast online in unusual detail through the court’s official feed on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

This “apparent openness” was by design, as is everything done by the Communist Party in China. The purpose was to show Chinese citizens, and the world, that leadership has gotten “serious” about corruption. Here’s the problem, China has over 10 million civil servants, it is impossible to stamp out corruption on an ad-hoc basis. In effective democracies, corruption is kept at bay by the democratic process; if a civil servant is proven unfit for service, he is dismissed. Absent these political rights, the Chinese people must rely on the benevolence of the parties internal auditing.

The Chinese judicial system is controlled by the government (and therefore not independent or transparent)  and is highly reliant on confessions as opposed to evidence. Confessions can be forced, especially when people lack the civil rights to challenge the interrogation / judicial processes. The Chinese judicial system allows government leaders to push out strategic foes under the guise of fighting corruption. Again, the Communist party appears to be upholding peoples rights, without making any meaningful reforms.

3) Tibetan Monks:

One of the most important sites in Tibetan Buddhism, Labrang presents an idyllic picture of sacred devotion that is carefully curated by the Chinese government, which hopes to convince visitors that Tibetan religion and culture are swaddled in the Communist Party’s benevolent embrace.

But behind closed doors, many of the monastery’s resident monks complain about intrusive government policies, invisible to tourists, that they say are strangling their culture and identity.

“Even if we’re just praying, the government treats us as criminals,” said a young monk, who like others interviewed recently asked for anonymity to avoid government repercussions.

Such frustrations, many monks say, are what has driven more than 120 Tibetans to set fire to themselves since 2009, including 13 in the Labrang area, in a wave of protests that has gone largely unreported in the Chinese media.

International human rights advocates say that rather than address the underlying grievances — including Beijing’s deeply unpopular campaign to demonize the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader — Chinese authorities have responded with even harsher policies that punish the relatives of those who self-immolate and imprison those who disseminate news of the protests to the outside world.

Monks here describe a largely unseen web of controls that keep potential troublemakers in line: ubiquitous surveillance cameras, paid informers and plainclothes security agents who mingle among the busloads of tourists. Hidden from the throngs are the political education sessions during which monks are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama. Stiff jail sentences await those who step out of line. “If we don’t obey, it will be terrible for us,” the monk said. 

With an eye on the lucrative prestige of a Unesco World Heritage listing, the central government is giving the monastery a $26 million face-lift. Around 1,000 monks and 65,000 volumes of Buddhist scripture are housed in the sprawling complex, which local officials say is in dire need of structural improvements.

Yet locals complain that much of the construction is aimed at increasing tourism, rather than benefiting Tibetans. “It looks fancy, but in reality all the improvements are for Chinese people,” one said.

Such complaints appear to be falling on deaf ears. During a tour of the region in July, China’s top official in charge of ethnic minorities, Yu Zhengsheng, insisted that economic development was the panacea for what ailed Tibetans. In the same breath, he condemned the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” which calls for genuine autonomy in Tibet but not independence, saying it conflicts with China’s political system.

“Only when people’s lives have been improved can they be better united with the Chinese Communist Party and become a reliable basis for maintaining stability,” he said, according to Xinhua.

Notice a common thread? You should. In each of these cases, the Chinese government is going to great lengths to paint the picture of a society which respects the human rights of it’s citizens. At the same time, it continues to crack down on dissenters with relative impunity. It is no secret that people do not have political freedom in China’s one party system, but apparently there is also no respect for civil or rights, religious freedom, or concern for health-related socioeconomic rights. By denying political and social rights, as well as media independence, the Communist party can appear to be making reforms while in reality it roles back China’s human rights record by cracking down on dissenters.

It would appear that the only rights the Communist Party of China truly cares about are economic rights. Am I being too critical? Read Mr. Zhengsheng’s comment again and decide for yourself; it would appear the Chinese government is openly concerned only with economic rights. The appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it is being broken–international human rights law is no exception. Perhaps this is all for the good of the Chinese people; if that is so, let them decide that for themselves.   

Can China perhaps uphold specific human rights, notably economic and educational, while denying others? There is certainly an element of Chinese exceptionalism; there is no parallel political structure in the world that compares the Communist Party of China–it’s experiences are unique. Even if China ultimately proves that sustainable human development can be achieved by picking strategic human rights and denying others (which I do not think will happen, I try not to make predictions but growing unrest in China’s future is more of a hypothesis anyhow), this would be the exception (albeit an incredibly large exception), not the rule.

The political organization and homogeneous society present in China simply does not exist in the vast majority of the developing world. Furthermore, without the “production engine” that over a billion Chinese workers represent, other developing countries will need to rely on less labor intensive, more diversified / entrepreneurial growth; which are cultivated by upholding all human rights and allowing them to realize their full potential. 


2 Comments

Transparency Report: You’ve Gotta Fight, For Your (Human) Rights

This past week marked the well documented 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom and the “I Have a Dream” speech. Despite being known as a civil rights leader, Dr. King was irrefutably a human rights activist. Human rights include the economic and civil rights, as well as social, political, and cultural rights. Human rights, Dr. King realized, we indivisible, interdependent,non-excludable / universal (human rights are for all people, and are rooted in our common humanity) and mutually reinforcing; upholding certain rights (for example freedom of assembly, speech, political rights, the right to employment, access to information) empowers people to claim other rights, while one human rights violation tends to beget others (culminating in a life of poverty and social exclusion). Today, these concepts are largely accepted by the international community and domestic development organizations–in Dr. King’s time they were pioneering concepts. Dr. King understood the difficulty of claiming rights, which involves mobilizing an oppressed group to overcome vested interests, power asymmetries, and collective action problems which sustain these human rights violations.

Furthermore, Dr. King understood the role an accountable and effective democratic government plays in upholding human rights obligations–as evidenced by the location of this historic rally. An effective democracy creates an enabling environment for people to claim their rights, which is one of the main reasons that democracy and human rights are so closely related. However, this enabling environment is only the beginning of the determination and thick-skin needed to make meaningful advances in human rights.

There is no doubt in my mind that, had Dr. King not been assassinated, he would have continued his work both for civil rights specifically and human rights more generally. Dr. King would have undoubtedly endorsed UN Human Rights Treaties enshrining the rights to development and employment, as well as other economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. As a man, Dr. King died to young; as a symbol he will live forever–I hope in some small way I am helping to further the work of this great American hero.

I would like use this blog as anopportunity to reflect on two themes I have noticed in my time as a student of the political economy of development, as a human rights worker for the UNDP, and as a generally informed global citizen:

1) You’ve got to fight for your rights:

A play on a popular Beastie Boys Song, but the message is 100% true. When I think of advances in human rights in America (the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the gay rights movement), they all have in common a struggle to mobilize people to claim their rights. Furthermore, sacrifices must be made–Dr. King made the ultimate sacrifice for his cause. Progress will not be linear or fast, but through hard work over time meaningful progress can be made.

2) The dehumanization of minorities:

We live in the “age of human rights”. A quick historic overview: the concept of human rights in international governance and development took root in the aftermath of WWII. However, it was not until the end of the Cold War that the opportunity to champion human rights globally presented itself. Since that point, the UN and other similar government and non-governmental organizations have taken up this call. This summer, as an intern with the UNDP democratic governance group’s human rights team, I had the opportunity to participate in an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and
Programme of Action
, which commemorated advances in human rights and mapped out future opportunities in human rights advocacy.

This “age of human rights” does not mean that human rights violations no longer occur. If anything, advances in ICTs and social media have exposed the extent to which human rights violations take place, particularly in least developed / authoritarian countries. Here at NN, I have written extensively on how human rights violations are at the heart of the majority of armed conflicts today; it is worth mentioning that development goals are rarely sustained in a conflict-affected country.

In this day and age, human rights violators justify their actions by dehumanizing the people whose rights are being violated. In Egypt and Syria, opposition groups are deemed terrorists by those in power. Just as media independence is a feature of a pluralistic democratic society, controls on media outlets–combined with propaganda campaigns–aim to drive home dehumanization in order to justify virtually any human rights violation (including murder). Racism, stereotyping and scapegoating can reinforce dehumanization campaigns.

We see dehumanization take place most often in the name of religion or “traditional values”. Any governing document, be it the Constitution of the United States, the Koran, or the Bible, interpreted too strictly, can be used to justify human rights violations; extremists may argue that if you do not subscribe to their beliefs, then you are less than human and do not deserve basic rights.

Governing documents are meant to be living, amenable to the context of the times. They are amended and reinterpreted to reflect changing societal norms; religion tends to be less adaptive, perhaps explaining part of the decline in religious observance in America. Islam’s  inability to reinterpret itself for modern times is a root cause of Islamic extremism.

I too have a dream, or a normative vision, for the world. This vision depends on greater investments in human rights education and human capital at a young age, recognizing youth as an extremely important period of personal development. It depends on an understanding of the importance of sustainable human development and both domestic and extra-territorial human rights obligations. Sustainable human development cannot take place to the detriment of future generations or at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Anybody can do their part to help realize this normative vision; challenge anybody trying to sell a strict interpretation of any ideology and / or trying to dehumanize any group with stereotypes / racism. The vast (silent) majority of the global community wants peace and prosperity for all–together we can overcome this global collective action problem in the years and decades to come.


8 Comments

Transparency Report: Unrest in Egypt and The Democratic Process

Original article:

“On Friday, Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood and their allies will gather in Cairo, as will some opposition groups. On Sunday, the opposition hopes millions will heed the call, a year to the day since Mursi became Egypt’s first freely elected leader.

‘I am more determined than ever to go out on June 30 to demand the removal of an absolutely irresponsible president,’ Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for a coalition of liberal parties, said on Thursday after Mursi’s marathon late-night address.

It is hard to gauge how many may turn out but much of the population, even those sympathetic to Islamic ideas, are deeply frustrated by economic slump and many blame the government.”

“Mursi described his opponents as “enemies” and “saboteurs” loyal to the ousted dictator, whose “corruption” had thwarted him and driven the economy into crisis, though he conceded he had made some mistakes and promised reforms.

He also offered talks on “national reconciliation” and changes to a controversial new constitution to end the polarization and paralysis that he said threatened democracy.

Opponents dismissed that as nothing new. Mursi and his allies complain that their opponents, defeated by the highly mobilized Islamist groups in a series of elections last year, are bad losers who have repeatedly snubbed offers to cooperate.”

‘Our demand was early presidential elections and since that was not addressed anywhere in the speech then our response will be on the streets on June 30,’ said Mahmoud Badr, the young journalist behind a petition which has garnered millions of signatures calling on Mursi to quit. ‘I hope he’ll be watching.'”

“Warning ‘violence will only lead to violence’, Mursi urged his opponents to focus on parliamentary elections, which may be held this year, rather than on “undemocratic” demands to overturn his election on the streets: ‘I say to the opposition, the road to change is clear,’ he said. ‘Our hands are extended.'”

I have written many times about the democratic experiment in Egypt here at NN. Egypt is an interesting country, it is the most populous country in the Middle-East, and has a long history of cooperation with Western powers (the U.S. funds the Egyptian military). Egypt’s armed forces will play a crucial role in preventing the Syrian Civil War from turning into a regional conflict (and in maintaining regional security in general). While Turkey is another example of an Islamic state attempting to reconcile democracy and traditional Islamic values, there is something about Egypt’s geographical position that makes it seem like a more robust test of the compatibility of the two ideologies (perhaps Turkey seems European-ized–it is actually seeking EU membership–which may isolate it from more conservative Muslim’s, whereas Egypt is in Africa, which could be more agreeable to those same factions).

For these reasons, alongside the human rights and modernization implications of effective democratic governance, I have been cheering Morsi on in his attempt to bring democracy to Egypt. Sometimes I have been too understanding; Morsi has made mistakes along the way, including targeted violations of the civil rights of his opponents in the name of national security / democracy. President Morsi has owned up to these mistakes, and now seems to have learned what it takes to lead an effective democracy.

Transparency, rule of law, accountability / anti-corruption, personal and societal security, an inclusive and participatory governing process, and the indiscriminate protection of human rights are among the most important aspects of an effective democracy. Morsi has (hopefully) learned that seeking to strengthen the legitimacy of his regime by violating these aspects of democracy, even in the name of national security, is counter-productive. Self-defense is fine, but short of that the opposition must be allowed to assemble. In a religious dictatorship the opposition are terrorists / saboteurs / infidels; in an effective democracy they are simply the opposing political party (again, so long as they use political and not military means to advance their goals). 

So now we have two sides at odds, and in this case I must again take the side of President Morsi, and here is why:

President Morsi has proposed national reconciliation efforts, including making amendments to the constitution (which was open for vote to begin with, the opposition simply refused to participate). He has also proposed the opposition take part in parliamentary elections. Judicial independence has been tricky, as many of the judges in Egypt were assigned under former dictator Hosni Mubarak (packing the courts with his own judges would not ease concerns of a Morsi power-grab either; anyone he appoints, regardless of his background, would be seen by his opponents only as a “Morsi appointee”. Nevertheless, Morsi has offered basically every legitimate democratic avenue available to address the concerns of his opposition.

The opposition, on the other hand, has refused to take part in the democratic process. It will be satisfied with nothing short of Morsi’s removal from office, calling for early presidential elections. Is that any way to establish the credibility of a brand new democratic process, by tossing that process aside instead of trying to work within it? Early elections would undermine the future of democracy in Egypt by setting a bad precedent.

The opposition also continues to emphasize the “15 million signatures it has calling for Morsi’s removal“. Last time I checked, there were 83 million Egyptians, more than half of which are over the legal voting age. Since when has 30-40% of a population been enough to be considered national consensus. If anything the 15 million signature mark–if it is even legitimate–suggests a majority of Egyptians want an end of the political turmoil (with Morsi remaining in power), in order to begin addressing the deteriorating economic and social conditions in Egypt.

So this minority, which refuses to take part in the democratic process, is demanding a step that ultimately undermines the sustainability of democracy in Egypt–thanks but not thanks, I will stick with supporting the imperfect Morsi regime which is at least attempting to make democracy work.

This is not to say that Morsi cannot do things better to ease peoples fears, but the opposition must be willing to come to the table and compromise through democratic channels. One such channel is the National Council For Human Rights in Egypt. Being an “A” rated NHRI (national human rights institution) according to the UN International Coordinating Committee (ICC), the Egyptian council should be a trusted institution in holding the Morsi regime accountable for its human rights duties not only to its constituents but to all Egyptians.

The issue is that the Egyptian NCHR was last reviewed in 2010 (before Morsi came to power), and is not scheduled to be reviewed again until late 2014. In other words, the NHRC has not been reviewed since Morsi has come to power.

The only information I was able to find on the role of the Egyptian NCHR during the Morsi regime comes from the UN Sixty-seventh General Assembly Third Committee 37th Meeting (PM) (November 14th 2012):

MONZER FATHI SELIM (Egypt) said the Council played an important role in supporting States in their primary responsibility to protect all human rights, and it should work to ensure the realization of those rights with full respect to the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in order to avoid the politicization, selectivity and double standards that affected its predecessor.  The report reaffirmed the Council’s important role in building national capacities, monitoring human rights, protecting the human rights of Palestinians and strengthening efforts to combat racism, among other things.”

So according to the Egyptian NHRC, its ability to monitor human rights issues has not be compromised since Morsi took office. However, one could argue there may be a conflict of interest if a Morsi crony is running the show. Therefore, Morsi should invite Human Rights Watch, The Center for Economic and Social Rights, Transparency International–literally every and any intentional human rights based organization that wishes to come–to verify the ability of the NHRC to fulfill its functions. Morsi should also extend an invitation to the ICC to perform a formal UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the immediate future, instead of waiting almost a year and a half for the scheduled review.

If Morsi takes these steps, it should separate the legitimate opposition from the Mubarak-era vested interests who want Morsi gone for illegitimate reasons. Additionally, the Morsi regime must stop shooting itself in the foot by denying people their human rights, as this feeds into the claims of the opposition and hurts his regimes legitimacy (which it gained by being the first democratically elected regime in modern Egypt).

There are both domestic and international reasons I want democracy to work in Egypt. Have my own desires clouded my judgment? I think I have been pretty even handed in this analysis, but as always I would like the hear what my readers have to think in the comment section!


1 Comment

Transparency Report: PRISM, The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, Civil and Human Rights

There has been understandable concern over reports that leaked last week which tied the US government to the collection of peoples personal phone and internet records through a sweeping government program known as PRISM. One questions brings about more questions. Are whistle-blowers hero’s or traitors? Is PRISM a necessary component of national security or an infringement of civil rights? Has PRISM actually been effective in stopping terrorist attacks? Has the leak compromised America’s national security? Perhaps due to still murky details, American’s are still largely divided on these issues.

The New York Times editorial board was particularly one-sided in its assessment of the programs; such a response is not surprising, as a major representative of news Media, the New York Times ability to produce meaningful content relies on civil rights.

“Perhaps the lack of a broader sense of alarm is not all that surprising when President Obama, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, and intelligence officials insist that such surveillance is crucial to the nation’s anti-terrorism efforts.

But Americans should not be fooled by political leaders putting forward a false choice. The issue is not whether the government should vigorously pursue terrorists. The question is whether the security goals can be achieved by less-intrusive or sweeping means, without trampling on democratic freedoms and basic rights. Far too little has been said on this question by the White House or Congress in their defense of the N.S.A.’s dragnet.

The surreptitious collection of “metadata” — every bit of information about every phone call except the word-by-word content of conversations — fundamentally alters the relationship between individuals and their government.”

Tracking whom Americans are calling, for how long they speak, and from where, can reveal deeply personal information about an individual. Using such data, the government can discover intimate details about a person’s lifestyle and beliefs — political leanings and associations, medical issues, sexual orientation, habits of religious worship, and even marital infidelities. Daniel Solove, a professor at George Washington University Law School and a privacy expert, likens this program to a Seurat painting. A single dot may seem like no big deal, but many together create a nuanced portrait.

The effect is to undermine constitutional principles of personal privacy and freedom from constant government monitoring. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Tuesday, challenging the program’s constitutionality, and it was right to do so.

The government’s capacity to build extensive, secret digital dossiers on such a mass scale is totally at odds with the vision and intention of the nation’s framers who crafted the Fourth Amendment precisely to outlaw indiscriminate searches that cast a wide net to see what can be caught. It also attacks First Amendment values of free speech and association.”

It should be noted that the open and multifaceted discourse relating to these leaks is hard evidence that our first amendment rights continue to be upheld despite government surveillance–sometimes you just have to look up to see that the sky isn’t falling.  

The ACLU is perfectly within its rights to file a lawsuit, but I believe the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold the constitutionality of PRISM. It is true that PRISM violates the 4th Amendment , in that the government is indiscriminately collecting “metadata” on Americans phone and internet data. The American people want answers. The European Commission wants answers (further complicating US-Euro Free Trade talks). And it seems answers we will get, although perhaps not all the answers we desire:

” The director of the National Security Agency said on Thursday that he would release more information about the top secret programs that sweep up vast quantities of communications data on people here and abroad, and vowed to clear up what he said were inaccuracies and misperceptions about how the programs work.”

“”We have pledged to be as transparent as possible,’ he said after emerging from a classified briefing with House members. “I think it’s important that you have that information. But we don’t want to risk American lives in doing that. So what we’re being is very deliberate in this process so that we don’t end up causing a terrorist attack by giving out too much information.’”

“Among the inaccuracies he said he wanted to clear up was that the N.S.A. is listening to Americans’ phone calls.”

“Mr. Rogers stressed that grave damage was done by the disclosure of the programs, which involve a huge database of the logs of nearly every domestic phone call made by Americans, and the collection of information from American Internet companies like Google without individual court orders if the request is targeted at non-citizens abroad.”

We will get answers, hopefully answers that shed light on previous  terrorists acts thwarted by PRISM. But it is also clear that we will not get answers that compromise national security.

The Constitution was drafted as a living document, a foundation upon which our nation could grow upon. There is no possible way our forefathers could have foreseen modern security risks–in revolutionary times wars were fought with single shot muskets! Reading into any document too literally, be it a legal or religious document, is likely to lead to extreme conservative values which ultimately restrict human rights. For these documents we’re written in different times, and need to be amended to remain relevant today. As a legal document, the Constitution was understandably focused on civil and political rights and liberties. 

The Declaration of Independence, as a more general declaration, was based on what are now known as human rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…”

Subsequent constitutional amendments have been aimed at expanding the universality of civil rights (3/5’s compromise revoked, women’s and minority rights). It was never the intention of the founding fathers for civil rights to constrain the government from upholding basic human rights–such as the right to personal security. In fact, “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” referred to in Declaration of Independence are almost identical to Article 3 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ,”Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.

I would argue that America was founded not only on the principles of civil rights, but on the principles of human rights (which include civil rights). The idea government is responsible for providing the services and resources necessary for personal freedom and happiness is 100% consistent with human rights law. That these rights come before the power of government, and with the power to overthrow a government that does not fulfill these duties, places human rights even ahead of constitutional rights (as overthrowing the government would in effect render The Constitution null, but the legitimacy of such action is upheld right there in the Declaration of Independence).

Enough about 200+ year old documents; it is interesting to interpret the wording (many people have made careers out of it, our own President Barack Obama was a professor of Constitutional Law the University of Chicago, one of the most prestigious law schools in the world), but I would like to set my sites on something a bit more modern–the NYT editorial attack on the PRISM system.

The issue is not whether the government should vigorously pursue terrorists. The question is whether the security goals can be achieved by less-intrusive or sweeping means, without trampling on democratic freedoms and basic rights. Far too little has been said on this question by the White House or Congress in their defense of the N.S.A.’s dragnet.”

Of course there are other means of achieving our security goals; we have been actively attempting them for the past 12 years. The problem is that fighting wars is incredibly expensive and often counter-productive. We do not have to live within the constraints of colonial times in our legislation or our military conduct. Technology has evolved since the 18th century, allowing us to change the ways in which we protect our national security.

Expensive wars have compromised the ability of the government to pay for basic goods and services. Inequality of opportunity and social mobility are huge problems facing modern American society. Our civil and political rights cannot come at the cost of our economic and social rights. If gathering intelligence keeps American safer, and does so in a way that relies less on military expenditure, then the resources saved have to factor into societies C-B analysis at some point. 

The tangible benefits of reduced military expenditure should not be dismissed due to unfounded fear of government intrusion. The government has been collecting this data for years already. Has it changed the way people go about their lives? No, until a week ago we had no idea the program existed (although I am sure people have speculated) . Is there even one example of the government using personal information for nefarious or deviant purposes? Not that I have heard of.

The absence of evidence may not be the evidence of absence; but in America everyone is still innocent until proven guilty, and the government has yet to be proven guilty of misusing personal data ascertained via the PRISM program.

It would be nice if the government could be more transparent about its national security programs, but information travels to easily in today’s digital world–there is no way to release America’s national security information to Americans while not allowing anyone else to see it.

This is not 1776, the threat of tyranny is not a real one. In order to use our national resources in the most efficient way, we must focus them on containing real threats (terrorism, and general deterioration of equality of opportunity, meritocracy, and social mobility which is hurting America’s long run economic growth potential and compromising the “American Dream” itself), not hypothetical violations of our rights.