Normative Narratives


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Its Human Rights, Stupid!

Two weeks ago, the Obama Administration hosted a summit in Washington D.C. on countering violent extremism. With terrorist organizations such as ISIL and Boko Haram massacring people with relative impunity, high ranking government officials from around the world, representatives from the United Nations, and experts in the field came together to discuss how best to counter such groups.

Without trivializing the essential role of military operations, there is a growing consensus that a comprehensive, multi-dimensional approach is needed to effectively counter terrorism. A military response alone does not address the root causes which enable the formation and continued operation of extremist organizations, and can be counter-productive by fueling anti-Western propaganda (drone warfare has been particularly contentious in this regard).

An important component of this multi-dimensional approach is the promotion and protection of human rights. This sentiment was echoed by both President Obama and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Obama:

As he sought to rally the world behind a renewed attack on terrorism, President Obama argued on Thursday that force of arms was not enough and called on all nations to “put an end to the cycle of hate” by expanding human rights, religious tolerance and peaceful dialogue.

But the challenge of his approach was staring him right in the face. His audience of invited guests, putative allies in a fresh international counterterrorism campaign, included representatives from some of the world’s least democratic and most repressive countries.

Critics say the terrorism fight has simply enabled autocratic regimes to go after their political foes without worrying about American disapproval. Egypt’s leaders, for instance, have moved to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition group they deem too radical. “It is futile to distinguish between bad terrorists, which must be defeated, and good terrorists, which can be accommodated,” Mr. Shoukry said.

The White House acknowledged the disconnect between advocating human rights and teaming up with human rights violators. But aides said it was one Mr. Obama had learned to live with, given the importance of maintaining an international coalition to fight the Islamic State and other terror threats.

“It’s a perennial challenge of the U.S. government that some of our partners are much more aggressive than others in how they define their domestic terrorist challenge,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. That dynamic is “most obvious in Egypt, where essentially there’s been a very broad brush in terms of who represents a terrorist threat.”

“When people spew hatred toward others because of their faith or because they’re immigrants, it feeds into terrorist narratives,” Mr. Obama said. “It feeds a cycle of fear and resentment and a sense of injustice upon which extremists prey. And we can’t allow cycles of suspicion to tear the fabrics of our countries.”

Ban Ki Moon:

“Let there be no doubt,” Mr. Ban proclaimed to a room full of high-level delegates including US Secretary of State John Kerry, “The emergence of a new generation of transnational terrorist groups including Da’esh [or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and Boko Haram is a grave threat to international peace and security.”

“These extremists are pursuing a deliberate strategy of shock and awe – beheadings, burnings, and snuff films designed to polarize and terrorize, and provoke and divide us,” the UN chief added, commending UN Member States for their political will to defeat terrorist groups and at the same time, urging them to stay “mindful of the pitfalls.”

“Many years of our experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership and an utter disregard for human dignity and human rights have causes tremendous frustration and anger on the part of people who we serve,” the UN chief said.

…preventing violent extremism requires a multi-pronged approach. While military operations are crucial, they are not the entire solution. “Bullets are not the silver bullet,” Mr. Ban said, emphasizing that while missiles may kill terrorists, good governance kills terrorism.

“Human rights, accountable institutions, the equitable delivery of services, and political participation – these are among our most powerful weapons,” the Secretary-General stressed.

Why Isn’t More Done?

If such a consensus exists around the significant role human rights violations play in a variety of negative outcomes (including violent extremism), why don’t policymakers do more to promote human rights? One explanation is that human rights encompass many issues: economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights. Furthermore, no consensus exists with regards to the hierarchy of human rights. Fulfilling some human rights obligations are inherently expensive (economic and social rights), while others have more to do with those in power loosening their grip (political, civil, and cultural). In other words, human rights include both positive and negative rights. Which rights should be prioritized in a world of finite resources and political capital?

I am of the camp that believes human rights are inter-dependent; one human right violation enables others, culminating in armed conflict and/or “extreme poverty”. Therefore, there really is no hierarchy. The exception to this rule is the right to life / security; a violation of this right (murder) is permanent and obviously must be upheld before other rights can be considered. This reality is often bastardized to justify restricting rights in the name of security, an issue I will address later in more detail.

Another issue is that the “ends” of promoting some human rights are not immediate, which historically has made verifying progress difficult. To this end, the UN’s Post-2015 Task Force has placed an emphasis on developing indicators for previously non-quantifiable aspects of human rights. These indicators can help verify when progress is being made on longer-term goals, and when ineffective programs need to be adjusted or scrapped.

Promoting and protecting human rights, while admittedly an ambitious goal, gives direction to sustainable development agendas (likes the SDGs / post-2015 development agenda) in both “first world” countries and the world’s least developed countries. Specifically which rights should be prioritized is context sensitive and should be identified through the democratic process.

Problems With Partners

Many of America’s partners, particularly in the Middle-East, are authoritarian regimes which do not share our beliefs in pluralism and human rights. These regimes tend to fight extremism by further restricting peoples rights in the name of security, exacerbating a vicious cycle of violence, under-development / poverty, and human rights abuses. They often characterize any dissenters as “terrorists”, even if their actions are entirely peaceful.

But relying solely on “Western” actors is not financial sustainable or effective, as it fuels the “Western Imperialism” terrorist narrative. Regional partners must play a leading role in combating extremist activities and ideologies. Although imperfect, we must work with these partners as they are, while simultaneously cultivating local support for human rights. 

Even our “democratic” allies may find it in their best interest to restrict certain rights. Take Egypt for example, where extremist violence has led to popular support for an unaccountable military regime. One could certainly argue that it is in the Egyptian governments best interest to manage, but not eliminate, violent extremism.

And of course, the American-led coalition has its limits–for example, it refuses to work with the Assad despite the military benefits such a partnership would entail.

The Case for an American National Human Rights Institution:

Human rights accountability outlines the responsibilities of different actors–corporations, the public sector, international development organizations, NGOs, and civil society–in promoting and protecting human rights.

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI), which have proliferated over the past two decades, can act as human rights watchdogs. These institutions are most effective when they have a strong mandate, a working relationship with the criminal justice system, and receive their funding independently of federal budgetary decisions.

The unfortunate irony is that in the very places that could benefit the most from effective NHRIs, these conditions are not met. Critics argue NHRIs are ineffective and put in place to create the illusion of promoting and protecting human rights. While this may be true in some cases, it is not in all; ultimately, NHRIs can be as effective or ineffective as their mandates and operating space allow.

The absence of an American NHRI is particularly conspicuous. While America does have strong protections of many rights, it lags in other areas (particularly privacy concerns). A NHRI could provide a forum for people to directly address grievances against the government. Perhaps the whole Snowden debacle could have been averted with a functioning ombudsman system.

An American NHRI could be an political mouthpiece for people, helping to restore faith in the American government (which, sadly, is the lowest amongst the financially insecure–the very people who could benefit from public policy the most). Who knows, an American NHRI institution could play a part in jump-starting stagnant wages and promoting social mobility! While far from a cure-all, an American NHRI could “punch above its weight” in terms of resources required to run it.

Perhaps most importantly, an American NHRI would act as a model for NHRIs in other countries, assisting with financial support, technical knowledge, and capacity building. An American NHRI would unaccountably be a strong voice within the the international coordinating committee (ICC) of NHRIs.

These are hypothetical results, and the presence of effective NHRIs does not mean the realization of human rights would progress in a perfectly linear fashion. The closer people get to acquiring new rights, the harder vested interests dig in against them. This is what is playing out now in the Middle-East and in the Ukrainian Civil War–extremists and authoritarians clinging to the remnants of an old order.

The power of effective democratic governance and a human rights based approach to development is truly awesome. Next time someone asks how America can promote progressive values both at home and abroad, just tell them “it’s human rights, stupid!”

Note: This blog focused exclusively on the relationship between human rights and violent extremism. Click the following links for more information on the linkages between human rights, armed conflict, and economic development (which are themselves related root causes of violent extremism).

In Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen argues promoting human rights is not only a means to an end (“positive peace“, sustainable development, poverty and inequality reduction), but also an important end in itself (empowering people, enabling self-determination)–I fully agree!

Taking a holistic view of the benefits of upholding international human rights norms, an even stronger argument can be made for their promotion and protection.

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They Say I’m Lazy But it Takes All My Time

Logo: 20th Anniversary of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Hello loyal readers,

I meant to write this earlier; I will be unable to write any blogs with week, as my presence is needed to help the UNDP at an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of The Vienna Declaration, the adoption of The Paris Principles, and the formation of the OHCHR and the ICC.

All these events focus around national human rights institutions (NHRI). From less than 10 NHRIs 20 years ago, more than 100 internationally accredited institutions exist today in different forms. These institutions provide citizens and civil society organizations with a means of voicing grievances, and are essential in holding governments accountable for their human rights obligations.

There are many who believe (myself included) that these institutions can go a long way in making up for some issues that prevented the MDGs from being an even more effective poverty eradication / sustainable human development program. NHRIs were virtually non-existent when the MDGs were drafted, today they are recognized as a key actor in implementing and evaluating progress on the Post-2015 Development Goals (which are being developed with human rights at their core).

I will try to write a review of the event if I get a chance, but no promises.

Best,

Ben Zupnick


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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!