Existentialism is humanism: on Bradley Manning, part 1

“I wanted my own words. But the ones I use have been dragged through I don’t know how many consciences.”― Jean-Paul Sartre, The Wall

Going through endless lines of thoughtful commentary on Pfc Bradley Manning’s (mockery of a) trial, I couldn’t precisely figure out what was exactly being judged – the man or his actions, for or against his government, betraying or upholding the army corps he had joined. The language and prism through which Manning supporters see the world is diametrically opposed to that of his judges, opponents and adversaries. Manning’s confrontation with the court martial he was ordered was supposed to be determining if he legally falls under the definition of a whistleblower. The past few days and the hundred pages scattered around my desk are asking whether Bradley Manning kept a part of his conscience alive and shared it with his country.

The rhetoric is strong around Manning, stronger than it is around Snowden because it reveals a part of government that functions outside of our daily reality, a part usually hidden from civilian sight, a part so removed from the mundane chaos of domestic policies that no one dares to touch it: the US Army is full of heroes, full of unsung characters honored in documentaries and featured films, and, more recently, missed and mourned as they increasingly leave us behind, a flag bearing the star spangled banner folded in a solemn triangle resting on someone’s bedside table. Every Army corps, everywhere in the world, acts according to its own rules: discipline and combat. Because it is inherently impossible to understand the difficulty and dire conditions of combat, we forgive and silently worship soldiers, and leave them to care and judge their peers, outside of our prying ignorant eyes. War used to be just. It used to be honorable. It used to be – maybe not fair, but at least justifiable, and understandable. Then the Soviet Empire fell, and the reign of collusion between shady, vile intelligence agencies and exploiting armed forces created dirty wars. There was nothing understandable nor honorable about war. We were disgusted by soldiers’ actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Pakistan, Yemen, and we no longer knew who to trust, or who was running these green men with rifles; we however kept our heads low, still ensconced in the belief that we could not understand the uniform, and something had to be slipping from our grasp. There was a code of honor that could not be broken. Taking care of soldiers was a collective responsibility that forced us to hold accountable not just the Department of Defense, but our very administration, the orders they were giving in our name, the actions they were commanding with our silent agreement, the places they were sent to possibly beyond the mandate we had assigned. Questioning the armed forces meant questioning society and those who represent us. Questioning the armed forces meant going through the looking glass and look at what is hidden in plain sight. Some people took it upon themselves to embark on that journey and returned with information that is hard to swallow. Yet the wall between army and civil life is one that is hard to break. But Pfc Bradley Manning did. He went on the other side of the fence and told the tale.

Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, did not linger on the definition of a whistleblower. He was arguing in front of a military court and knew Manning’s actions were going to be held against a standard much different and much more stern than a regular criminal court. Manning’s also facing a death sentence. This is not about legal technicalities or extending civilian protection to military personnel, as I initially and naively thought. This is about deciding whether an individual conscience is worth the collective’s; if the outstanding rules guarding Defense secrecy can be bent in cases of extraordinary conditions; it is, in fact, about whether a soldier can be made to forget what he believes in the name of something he doesn’t understand. It is not about Pfc Bradley Manning. We are taking this case to heart because it is about all of us.

The portrait painted by both prosecution and Coombs are of Dorian Gray proportions. Face to face, next to one another, they simply do not paint the same one. According to the Government, Manning is a cunning, manipulative sociopath motivated solely by greed, working for WikiLeaks in exchange for monetary compensation and megalomania, worshipping the complex character that is Julian Assange and conspiring in chat rooms with an unnamed and undisclosed “enemy”, that he is accused of aiding. This Bradley Manning has the maturity to know what is wrong and what is right, but has thrown any sense of righteousness out the window, along with his flag, his uniform, and his country. David Coombs paints a young, idealistic man, a little naive but animated with perhaps outdated and certainly forsaken values that he believes America was based on. Manning joined the military for a cause, like so many before him; he was thrown into deployment unprepared, like so many before him; and he witnessed horrors, like so many before him. But the world has changed and new communications have defined the way we interact with each other; Manning was no longer isolated from civilian life in barracks. He could have access to files and materials he could compare and contrast with what he saw. Assuming Manning would not realize, at one point or another, that the actions he witnessed, filmed and shared were not acceptable, that they were violations, that they were a horrifying display of disregard for human life, is an insult to his intelligence and our collective understanding. We were shocked when tales of torture in Abu Ghraib were released. But we expect Bradley Manning to see with his own eyes the destruction of Iraqi lives – along with the stench of dead human flesh, blinding clouds of dust, the deafening sound of roaring cars and planes flying ahead, and not react. Because a good soldier doesn’t react. Soldiers don’t blow any whistles; they obey orders. There are no military whistleblowers for a reason. We justify war as hard as we can and coat it in resolutions to uphold democracy and freedom to create the illusion of doing the right thing for our soldiers. We ask kids, teenagers, to risk their lives in a country they can’t put on a map – we require of them that they face deadly attacks from unidentified enemies using improbable weapons, so we create reasons for them. We create the illusion of a just war. We create the illusion of having something to fight for. When soldiers realize they lost part of their humanity in the name of neo colonialism and imperialistic expansion, something in them breaks. They’re taking that toll so we don’t have to. But let’s be clear – the burden of having sent them over is on us. And here comes Bradley Manning.

David Coombs presented Bradley Manning as someone who could not stand what he saw and stay silent. The argument that Manning would only contact WikiLeaks for fame doesn’t hold up in the face of reality: WikiLeaks has never brought safety, comfort and immunity to its contributors. WikiLeaks has never saved someone from detention. Manning is not the only one to take risks in the name of “doing the right thing”: journalists are now accepting prison sentences rather than giving away what was rightfully theirs. Edward Snowden has given up on his birth rights rather than keeping silent. Bradley Manning may have not chosen the runaway life of a whistleblower in full knowledge of the consequences. Up to his arrest, the possibility that he would have everything taken away from him – even fundamental rights as a prisoner – seemed to barely brush his mind. It is not even necessarily clear in Coombs’ closing arguments whether Manning fully grasps the extent to which he has shaken the core of the American society by bridging army life with collective civilian responsibility. Snowden requested Tolstoy in his Russian exile; has someone brought Sartre to Manning yet?

“There is no determinism; we are freedom, we are free. (…) We are not facing values or orders that can make our behavior legitimate. We do not have, ahead or behind us , in the luminous realm of values, justifications or excuses. We are alone, without excuses. That’s what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he did not create himself, but because once he is thrown into the world, he is responsible of everything he does. (…) I can not rely on men that I do not know simply based on a supposed kindness of mankind, or in one person’s willingness to act in society’s best interest, because men are free, and there is no such thing as human nature. (…) What existentialism means, is that a weakling makes himself so; that a hero makes himself so; that there will always be a possibility for the weak man to become a hero, and for a hero to stop being heroic. What matters is commitment, total commitment; and this is not one specific action, one specific case, it is what we are.”

This is not a new debate. It is as old as the Obama administration. In fact, it can be traced back to Daniel Ellsberg, the father figure of all and any whistleblower. Treating Bradley Manning like an immature idiot fascinated by America’s strange relationship to fame and only achieving exposure of war crimes to land a Rolling Stone cover is missing the point by a margin as wide as the coral reef barrier. Coombs may have described Manning as naive for the reason that he is lacking the cynicism we have learnt to accept as being a collateral to maturity: that there are no such thing as higher values (except christianity), no such thing as a higher authority (except christianity), no such thing as philosophical aspirations (only religious ones). Upon entering the military, Manning was expected to check all these beliefs at the door. It is unclear whether Manning already had such a strong existentialist vision for himself before he came upon his first deployment in Iraq. But this is clearly what he now stands for, whether he will acknowledge it or not. It is his individual sense of responsibility towards the collective that led him to release the video that made the rounds through WikiLeaks and on the rest of the Internet; the sense that he was an unwilling participant into a circus of bloody chaos and mayhem that could only lead to more destruction and more death.

Tomorrow, circa 1pm EST, a verdict will be rendered against Manning for having acted as a free man.

All thanks to Alexa O’Brien, whose coverage of the Manning trial is exemplary of journalism and responsibility. Follow her @carwinb


Remote Control: On Interventionism, Part Deux

Yesterday, the Obama administration confirmed that they would support the Syrian rebels by providing weapons. This is not interventionism, they said. This morning, the New York Times publishes an article supposed to decipher and critically analyze the decision. It miserably fails at both; what is crucial in the decision – passing interventionism, even by proxy, as legit under the Kouchner doctrine – is passed over because the New York Times does not understand the difference, however clearly stated. Three points in the article are object to contention.

Here’s pictorial evidence of my reaction reading Mark Landler’s article

1. Samantha Power does not seem to understand the purpose of her job.

Samantha Power recently made headlines in the small world of foreign policy analysts by severing diplomatic ties with Venezuela with a giant pair of scissors handed to her by the State Department. She claimed that Venezuela was dismantling civil society (as defined by Hilary Clinton in a 2010 speech in Poland). It was already bad enough that Power suddenly removed an entire country from a list for allegedly doing what the Obama administration has been pro-actively doing at home; but the world of diplomatic emissaries works in semi-mysterious ways. As the administration envoy to the United Nations, Samantha Power will bear the responsibility of sitting at the Security Council and make decisions that will impact billions of people in situation of imminent or already existing threat of political violence. There was no question more important than the one asked by Bob Corker (R-TN). Yet, as an envoy to the United Nations, she replied that the doctrine was not a legally superior authority than the one of US foreign policy.

That’s not a good start, Samantha.

While no one is questioning the national sovereignty of the United States, any member of the UNSC, or any member state for that matter, principles of the United Nations imply that it behooves the member state to apply them when requested by a majority vote. By claiming that foreign policy dominates over international law – or doctrine – Samantha Power expressed, in one sentence, the very pervasive flip side of the intervention coin: that there is hardly any intervention made solely on the basis of humanitarian, selfless higher duty incumbent to the state to save civilians in the line of fire. The matters of interest and national prevalence over intervention are precisely why R2P (“responsibility to protect”) was decided, declared, and implemented in a 2001 commission on state sovereignty and intervention (ICISS).

Corker is not stupid. There are many conflicts in which the US could have easily intervened and manifested its own interest: Egypt and Syria are two of them. But instead, the US has decided that it will, in the name of preemptive self-defense (sic) bomb children in Yemen and face the “thorny issue” in Northern Ireland. What is incumbent to Samantha Power is to justify what is only perceived by the international community as far overreach in military power and a tendency to police what is outside and clearly beyond the limits of international law. What’s fascinating, however, is precisely using international law to justify military intervention – by proxy. Which brings us to the next point.

Here, Samantha. You can borrow my copy.

Here, Samantha. You can borrow my copy.

2. “The responsibility to protect” doctrine is not obscure.

In fact, not only is it pretty clear, but it is also pretty easily available everywhere. It is, as a matter of fact, idealistic, as Mark Landler pointed out; much of the principles guarding international law are, because principles are, by definition, moral codes of conduct. It’s not obscure (it’s the dictionary). The complexity resides not in the doctrine itself, but in the way it applies to the foreign policy of the member state nominating Samantha Power in a position of diplomatic dominance. There are precisely six criteria of military intervention under the Responsibility To Protect: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospects. Those criteria are clearly listed in section 4.16. In the context of the United States intervening in Syria, two of those criteria can be raised as an issue and could potentially be a hindrance to the Obama Administration using R2P to cover the fact that they are arming one side of a conflict and taking pro-active part into what is currently a civil war. The first one, the “lesser” issue of the two, if you will, is right intention. There is no discussion regarding just cause in Syria; the body count in itself, as well as Bachar Al-Assad’s track record of constantly violating human rights, could be just cause. But with all intervention, timing is everything. Per the rules of responsibility to protect (4.33):

(…) Any use of military force that aims from the outset, for example, for the alteration of borders or the advancement of a particular combatant group’s claim to self-determination, cannot be justified. Overthrow of regimes is not, as such, a legitimate objective, although disabling that regime’s capacity to harm its own people may be essential to discharging the mandate of protection – and what is necessary to achieve that disabling will vary from case to case. (…) There should be a clear commitment from the outset to returning the territory to its sovereign owner at the conclusion of hostilities, or if that is not possible, administering it on an interim basis under UN auspices.

Clearly right intention has never been considered if only for a split second when discussing foreign policy at all in the last twelve years. This considered, the definition itself raises the complex issue of aiding a group to achieve self-determination. That is the goal of the Syrian rebels: to overthrow Al-Assad and create a new regime under which torture and constant policing will no longer be an everyday occurrance. There is perhaps no greater nor noble aim than to achieve the principle laid in Article 1 (2) of the UN Charter; same article that justified revolutions under Soviet rule, and that is still screamed out from rooftops in occupied palestinian territories today. Self-determination meant the end of all colonisation; but as sovereignty is attacked by intervention, who or what is qualified and legally authorized to decide which combatant party is holding the flame of self-determination? If, politically, the question of Syria is relatively simple, international law does not authorize “the advancement of a particular combatant group”. In short, if one state believes the Syrian rebels should be given advantage of firepower over the regime, they can choose not to invoke international law to justify their interventionism. They can call it interventionism, not responsibility to protect. You know. Which is what it is. Interventionism.

The second criteria that is perhaps the real “thorny issue” on the United Nations’ side is the question of authority. Who has the authority to decide what a sovereign state can and cannot do within its own borders? Article 2(4) of the UN Charter answers plain and simple that no other state can be legally involved in another state’s handling of its own affairs. Creating a supranational power as wide-range and far-reaching as the United Nations forced a whole article worth of reassurance. The writers of the R2P report are aware that the criteria on which military intervention is legally justified are tough “because the action proposed is itself extreme: military intervention means not only an intrusion into a sovereign state, but an intrusion involving the use of deadly force, on a potentially massive scale.” There is no precision on what constitutes strict domestic jurisdiction in the UN Charter; the fundamental text was meant to be the bedrock of the international institution the legislation was to lay on, not the law itself. The Security Council (UNSC) reserves itself in Articles 41 & 42 the right to take action on “any threat to the peace, breach of peace, or act of aggression”. There is no further mention of a possible authority being invested in one specific state. No state can individually intervene in one given conflict unless specifically authorized by the UNSC, being supervised and controlled by the UNSC, and forming an international armed force created by the UNSC. If anything, the UNSC is a substitution to individual nation-state intervention.

The UNSC fails. A lot. Sometimes it acts, but fails in its results. It would be completely unrealistic, especially in the current climate, to expect the UNSC to solve each and every problem the world encounters in its attempt to not only reach global security, but achieve total independence from former Cold War powers. As we see, the way it cyclically does, the rise of nationalism fire the spark of conflict, the authority of the UNSC is sometimes dispensed to what it calls “regional powers” – which more often than not refers to NATO. If major concerns were raised over NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, their justification of the conflict spilling over onto NATO member states’ borders was later legitimized. This is interventionism justified by containment. There is an open door, however, of jurisprudence of the UNSC on not only authorizing regional organisations to act against non-member states, but even to justify their intervention post facto. This strange addendum to criminal law – which has a non-retroactive principle – is explained in section 6.35:

The UN Charter recognizes legitimate roles for regional organisations and regional arrangements in Chapter VIII. In strict terms (…) the letter of the Charter requires action by regional organisations always to be subject to prior authorization from the Security Council. (…) There are recent cases when approval has been sought ex post facto (Liberia and Sierra Leone), and there may be certain leeway for future action in this regard.

Again, this is no way authorizes military action by individual member states. There is talk of the grave consequences of inaction, and the Syrian population has been suffering them every single day for the past two years and a half. It is time to consider action in Syria and stop being afraid of any possible intervention in the region. It is already spilling over and drowning neighbor states into its own blood. Syrian refugees are flooding over into Iraq. Lebanon’s Hezbollah has taken upon itself to intervene, and is now penalized by the European Union. Israel is upset at Hezbollah intervening. This conflict, both in its duration and its long term implication for the region, has to be stopped. Whether it is incumbent, as Power said, to the United States to effectively improvise on their means of intervention and skirt around international law by not sending troops but arming local rebels is up for debate. Syrian rebels have made previous requests for military back-up in the form of weapons to the European Union, to no avail. This is, however, definitely a form of military intervention, however avoiding the risks named in the report, meaning, occupation of territory, and foreign overthrowing of the regime. If Al-Assad is leaving is throne of bared naked human bones, it will be by and through the hand of his own people. That is self-determination in effect, in all the powerful force of the UN Charter’s “all necessary means“.

But this is not, and can not constitute a responsibility to protect. This is a responsibility to intervene, and the conditions of intervention are laid bare. It is now up to the Security Council to decide if they will give it a go. Yet I have to disagree with Dr. Albright, no matter how much this pains me: it is not up to you to decide how to interpret R2P. It is up to the United Nations, as an international force, as a collective, to decide how to possibly expand or restrict, define or lessen the clarification, update or not, what R2P meant at the time of the ICISS. The United States may have a seat at the Security Council; it has to be reminded, over and over again, that it is not the Security Council.

3. This is not a funny time in US politics. It’s a time of dissent.

But Mr. Williamson, who served under President George W. Bush, said there were deeper reasons for the American aversion to foreign entanglements, having to with fatigue after a decade of war. “It’s a funny time in American politics when you have Rand Paul allying with the left about not getting involved overseas,” he said.

This quote from the New York Times article this blog post is based on is infuriating. This is not about Rand Paul or his father allying with anyone; this is about a non-partisan, clear-cut divide between believers in interventionism, worldwide, borderless, boundless, and limitless – and those who have a distinct belief that not only is war not financially viable for the United States, it is not a viable foreign policy either, as it increases the danger against domestic security and further fuels the terrorism risk that has already impacted the country even in recent months. The nation is being drawn and quartered over interventionism. One side wants to revert to the Cold War era when Latin America was the playground for intelligence agencies and their carte blanche over regime guidance led to the torture and deaths of millions of Chileans and Nicaraguans. It was a time when the world was divided between blue america and red soviet, and the map was just a bipolar splash of color that made no sense and forgot about the human lives that tried to fit in those straight lines that were never genuine or natural borders. Another side of the country is not necessarily isolationist, but tries to believe in bigger and firmer values, such as the power of diplomatic relations, a strong and authoritative State Department led by a presidential nominee they can trust. For many, the place of America in the world has to be restored not through Washington bullets, but through trust and righteous conduct. There is nothing strange, weird, or inadequate about this vision. It may seem completely unrealistic and eerie for someone who served under W. Bush, I will concede. For many old timers of the State Department, war was the only way to assert authority, and the European Union was a weakling for no longer addressing internal or international conflicts with the tip of their bayonet. The EU was licking its wounds and waiting on East Germany to get up from its knees.
But Williamson – and Mark Landler – have to understand one thing: as idealistic international law can be, it is driven by a natural sense that security and comfort, through peace, will only be achieved through justice and unity. Those are empty words in this day and age. Believers in concepts such as the rule of law or supraconstitutionalism are seen as hippies or radicals. We see overpowered law enforcement blare through our streets and defile fundamental freedoms that we had taken for granted for centuries, simply because the T-word can no longer be uttered without sending a shiver through the collective spines. Everyone wants to be safe. No one likes to see suffering, pain, strife, blood, lives lost to meaningless power struggles and financial hunger. But there is a just war. There is a just cause. And what cause is more just than that of the people striving to be free? And what cause can be better supported but by standing by international law? I understand the quick satisfaction of winning over the system, of walking around the institution, of being the funnier and clever guy in the corner with great wit that defeated the grey hairs of the Security Council. I understand wanting to break free from those reigns, but they exist for a reason. Maybe Rand Paul and his father are not necessarily strange or funny. Maybe their allies aren’t simply sheep trying to join Molly Ringwald and the rest of the cool kids in Congress. Maybe there is this sinking feeling that unless we stop trying to be the bigger guy, we will have an army of smaller guy knocking on our door and throwing international law to the dogs just like we did. It’s not submission. It’s not feeble to decide to abide by international law, to sign the Convention Against Torture, or to send a dignified emissary at the General Assembly. It actually takes a strong nation to stand at the Security Council and waive its national interest in order to protect, worldwide, and assume its responsibility.
So, America, are you ready to be strong?

They brought death to my hometown: Northern Ireland in transition

Message carved on the Peace Line, Lanark Way.

Today marks the fifth consecutive day of rioting in Belfast, following the usual patterns of endless violence and senseless displays of sectarianism marking the Twelfth of July. The last few years, bonfires and lootings had been maintained at a relative low, but on the fifteenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, things are escalating at a rapid rate, yet failing completely at capturing European or international attention. I understand Northern Irish politics are complex; I understand a ceasefire was declared and that most of you reading this blog only learn about the division a segregation in my hometown of Belfast by reading books. You have seen movies with Liam Neeson or Daniel Day-Lewis; you know Belfast or Derry residents have a heavy burden to carry, but that it belongs in the past. The Troubles, as they were so ironically named, belong to a time of turmoil and medieval beliefs carried by men wearing green jackets or orange scarves. It’s over; there are no more bombs exploding in London pubs, and a referendum conveniently confirmed that Ulster shall remain part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and, consequently, Northern Ireland. We erected a white, square building on top of a hill and made it out own Parliament, per the Homerule Act. Our money looks different, but is still tied to the sterling pound and has the Queen on it. The world moved on to other conflicts, different types of terrorism while Northern Ireland was licking its wounds and trying to walk down the legally acceptable and beaten path towards reconciliation by setting up truth inquiries. Here’s the shocker. We’re not over it and yes, you should care.

Orange Order parade on Crumlin Rd. Photo (c) BBC

The Orange Order was founded to pay homage to William of Orange, a renowned British conquerant famous for humiliating Ireland in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Every year, Orange lodges march on their towns, wearing uniforms, carrying flags, playing traditional music, and upholding the values of the British Empire. It could be nostalgic decorum if only they were not parading in Belfast, where a portion of the population identifies as Irish Catholic, and refuses to see the commemoration of the massacre of their ancestors. But every year, on the clock, halfway through Parade Season, Orange marches travel through notoriously catholic areas, at day, at night, leaving in their wake a trail of ashes, burnt plastic, and incredible feelings for revenge and retaliation. Hell has no fury like that felt by a teenager on the Crumlin Road. Walls have been erected, and show no signs of ever coming down. Separated by concrete, barbed wire fences and something resembling a wasteland, the area around the Peace Line, between loyalist Shankill and nationalist Falls, is a complete trap during Parade Season. There may be doors in the walls opening at various times of day, but the necessity of the Orange Order to walk through them is lost on me. Every Twelfth of July, a spark is ignited in West Belfast, and everyone is cordially invited to wait it out safely inside their homes and away from their windows. I often call people around that time of year, and every year it’s the same: “oh, we decided to leave the city for a few days, you know, wait for it to come down.” Political violence is such a regular, expected occurrence that it becomes natural to plan our lives around it. Members of local Parliament are telling you it’s all over. I personally will consider it over the day I will no longer hear ominous drum rolls coming up the street and fear sundown in the middle of July. Post-conflict society and political normalcy should not and never integrate violence in their agenda or considering it an undefeatable occurrence, a random act of God, or defying rationale in a way that democratic representation can’t fix. Northern Irish politics fail to advance because they’re plagued by cowardice.

North Belfast as seen from Belfast Castle Gardens

There are efforts though, worth noticing. Creating the Parade Commission is one of them. This was finally a clear recognition that although sectarian violence is part of the northern Irish historical DNA, there are triggering factors one can no longer ignore in the name of the Shared Future agreement and its completely unrealistic expectations on togetherness and integration, to be implemented only seven years after the GFA. Peace certainly does not happen overnight; reconciliation takes generations. But the European Union – and the world – grew tired of the Northern Irish conflict. It grew tired and exasperated of hearing the same grievances over and over again, the same Curchulain / Battle of the Somme commemoration murals. Northern Ireland had exhausted its legal recourses when the European Court of Justice refused to grant the conflict the status of international armed conflict; its political salvation when Ireland shook hands with England over rendition of IRA members. Belfast was an annoyance in the face of Europe, a piece of land that can hardly be cultivated, populated by families that had been living side by side for too long to be considered natives and settlers. But memories of the Thatcherite British armed forces storming their way through Falls Road, or the persistent stench of burnt human flesh mixed with decaying plastic of IRA bombs in the city centre, collective consciousness images of the Europa Hotel being on fire – they’re all etched into the brains of a generation barely removed, seeing the faces of those they learnt to perceive as oppressors everyday. There is nothing more pernicious than a civil war; no bridge harder to build than one between extremely close riverbanks. The reality of Northern Ireland is that those 1.8 million individuals are so closely knit, entertwined with one another they don’t even know where someone’s space ends and theirs begin. Even on two sides of the same wall. There is focus on education, which may be the beacon of hope at the end of that dark,  blood thirsty tunnel. Integrated education is taking time to pick-up; arguments over what to say in history class are not resolved. This is, however, where the core of reconciliation lies. Unless we agree on a common, national narrative, there will be no possibility to bring us together. Subjectivity and personal interpretation of events will prevail; opinion will take over facts. Then comes the danger of teaching past oppression to children who already inherently carry this anger within themselves. I feel the Shared Future has been forced down our throats when we were not even ready to sit down and agree on a bus line that would finally transport residents of Springfield Road where they want to go, rather than depending on the wall on Workman Ave. Children aged 0 to 15 in Belfast haven’t known the conflict like we, my parents, my grandparents and generations before them have; but they do see the inequalities, the differences, and those they can’t spot, they are raised to notice. It’s in the haircuts, the accents; it’s in details embedded in us in ways more invasives than flying a flag. Flags are just exterior signs of indoctrination. It’s those we are told that ignite the spark.

A door ajar on a separation wall between Springfield Rd and Workman Ave

For the first time in a really long time, rioting on the Twelfth and following days is not necessarily directed against the opposite camp, but rather at the police. Over 40 members of the local police force, the PSNI – one of the more accountable police forces in the world – have been attacked with bricks and petrol bombs. Supposedly in reaction to a ban enacted against the Orange Order to prevent unlawful behavior on Crumlin Road and along the peace line, the rioting has taken over all the other parts of the city. It attacked an elected official, Nigel Dodds, and shows no sign of stopping. It’s spreading like what it is – wildfire. Just like previous anti-institutional violence over a British flag on top of the City Hall, it’s not inequality that is being questioned. Attempting to burn a Virgin Mary on a traditional bonfire was anecdotal compared to what erupted on Friday night. It’s the whole system that is being questioned, the whole executive apparatus, clearly lacking the necessary authority and direction to lead a country through the aftermath of a century-old conflict. And no doubt will any death be risen to the rank of martyr to the cause of political uncertainty and legal flexibility. Northern Ireland has been working in extremes: from Martin McGuinness to Peter Robinson as First Minister, we resort to outlandish personalities to represent a population which, in most generality, would trade the mundane of a pre-crisis Irish Daìl or the slow Labor workings of Westminster. The region is bipolar. And anchor less: as the time passes by, London relaxes its grasp on the North on account of having granted Home Rule, and Ireland itself totally dismissed the very idea of retrieving what it lost in 1921 (despite claiming sovereignty in its previous constitution). As someone told me recently, “we’re not British. We’re not Irish. We’re nobody’s child.” As the northern Irish entity emerges, it is clear that political violence will not cease in the face of rational compromise: nothing is expressed but the need to actually exist, and to exist in the name of something worth existing for. Loyalists hold onto the Union Jack because it once promised them prosperity. Nationalists clutch the tricolor in the hope it will welcome them back. Slowly but surely, in the European consciousness, Northern Ireland has been set loose, emancipated without further guidance. So we hold onto memories we have of a history once extraordinary, of myths we created and fairytales we based our identity on. But there’s nothing substantial. Throwing a brick through a window somehow seems more real than Stormont politics. Amidst these floating ideas never reaching shores, stand young elected officials, who believe in their country, feel ready to build it from the ground up, and to start from a clean base. This cannot be done without independent inquiries on past affairs of violence and trauma, or commissions such as the one on Parades that attempt a non-partisan approach to an issue that has been dividing the nation for too long, for the simple reason that even mentioning it would be cause for violence.

Entry to West Belfast and the Black Mountains

When Belfast-born band Snow Patrol wrote the beautiful Take Back The City, they certainly did not have violence in mind. They were not amnesiac either. Referring to “ten thousand craters where it all should be” and “every crack, every wall”, Snow Patrol explained that love for the city and for its surroundings – the breathtaking beauty of the Antrim Coast, the lakes of Enniskillen, the sunbeams on the river Foyle – should take over any fear, any primal impulse. There is beauty in Belfast; there is poetry in the streets Van Morrison sang so longingly. There is pain, strife, stigmata, distress and profound, deeply rooted disenfranchisement. By joining the European Union in 1973, Ireland hoped to lose its image as an unruly, violent and underdeveloped nation, and strived through European incentives and the common currency. Despite the European dream being brutally stopped, Northern Ireland could save itself by no longer being and feeling so painfully isolated, alienated from the rest of the world due to its seemingly obscure conflict that sees no end. Northern Ireland has a lot to teach us; and we could benefit from seeing it through a long recovery process. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Pat Finucane Center deserve more help, more funding, more staff, more attention. Elected officials need to be held accountable for their despicable partisan leanings in times of violence instead of mocked for participating into a sick and twisted circus of self-inflicted pain. Celebrating the Twelfth of July, in 2013, is an aberration. Northern Ireland has more common ground than it thinks it does, and days of nationwide celebration could help make the Twelfth an old tradition easy to debunk. Northern Ireland needs something to hold on to, that is hers, clearly hers, not belonging to the war stricken era of the Empires it sought to leave. I don’t expect the fighting to stop overnight. But the day we start thinking about the fight is the day we will first start to reconcile. Despite insistence on the existence of a Cause, on either side of the Lagan river, I’m afraid that the fighting in Northern Ireland will last for so long we will no longer know what we’re fighting for.

This ground you stand on is also our ground

Florida has once again provided us with a massive miscarriage of justice by acquitting George Zimmerman, who in February 2012 shot 16 year old Trayvon Martin because, well, he could. Everyone knows the story: Martin, wearing a hoodie and carrying a pack of skittles and a bottle of ice tea, was walking down the street; somehow, Zimmerman felt threatened, so he shot and killed the kid. In any other place of the world, Zimmerman would have been charged for first degree homicide, trialed by a jury of his peers and be sentenced from 15 years to life. But this not the rest of the world; this is Florida, where a specific law is actually at the root of many homicide and race issues in the United States: the completely irresponsible, unjustifiable and clearly surreal concept of Stand Your Ground.

Zimmerman, charged under second degree homicide by State Attorney Angela Corey, was acquitted of all charges. His own lawyer, Mark O’Mara, claimed he was happy with the acquittal because Zimmerman’s response was “clearly self-defense”. Defense from what? At no point did the trial explain the situation clearly. Evidence was circumstantial, and it isn’t clear whether Zimmerman was scared of the Skittles, of young Trayvon, of the dark, or of the world in general. Zimmerman, 29 years old, has been described by the prosecution as a “wannabe cop vigilante”, and sadly this is typically the kind of behaviour that Stand Your Ground laws encourage: taking matters into your own hands, substituting yourself to law enforcement, giving in to whatever raging emotions are coursing through your body at the time. Stand Your Ground laws were not made, on paper, to create a space in which mob justice could develop itself. Stand Your Ground just wanted to extend the concept of legitimate self-defense. So let’s pause Trayvon Martin for a bit and consider another Florida case that explains how the sunshine state applies their own laws to different defendants.

Marissa Alexander was an abused mother and wife who had been suffering violence at the hands of her husband, Rico Gray. In May 2012, shortly after the murder of Trayvon Martin, Marissa finds herself in a life threatening situation: her husband threatens to kill her; as a result, she fires three warning shots with a rifle. None of those shots endangered Rico Gray. She was charged with three counts of aggravated assault – and was sentenced to twenty years. In Florida, crimes committed with a fireweapon fall under the “10-20-life” arbitrary rule, and in this case, which didn’t even involve life threatening injury, she received a sentence that could equal first degree murder. Marissa Alexander, who feared for her life and that of her children, did not benefit from the protection of Stand Your Ground laws, despite being clearly in a situation in which she could have died at the hands of her aggressor – her husband. Marissa has been since then the topic of several petitions and support groups requesting a re-trial.Marissa Alexander was arrested nine days after the birth of her daughter.


Stand Your Ground laws emerge from a 1921 decision, Brown vs United States, that created the “no duty to retreat” maxim, aslo known as the Castle Doctrine. Justice Holmes argued that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife”. This is clearly a question of self-defense; the Castle Doctrine emerged in a situation of home invasion, arguing on the inviolability of property. The doctrine does provide immunity from civil lawsuit even in the case of the use of deadly force. That line in the sand – blurring the concept of homicide and turning it into justifiable homicide – is what gave birth to Stand Your Ground. Clearly, Stand Your Ground exists in a grey area where one might become the attacker through the use of deadly force, bu only in a situation where he or she is attacked his or herself, and the threat is imminent. Following this rule, Stand Your Ground should have been applied to Marissa Alexander with no question. Cases of domestic abuse could benefit from Stand Your Ground and actually make the doctrine less arguable under natural law on the basis that deadly force can sometimes be the only exist for a person under the threat of death or life endangering assault. Domestic violence, sexual abuse, home invasion, and cause belli are all situations of extreme decision making under duress that could be resolved swiftly through invoking a Stand Your Ground law. The reason why it applied to George Zimmerman and completely failed Marissa Alexander is beyond me.

Strangely enough, the concept of justifiable homicide is not as extended as one would think following the Zimmerman trial. In a Supreme Court decision from 2008 – District of Columbia v Heller – it was reiterated that self defense was primarily concerned with questions of home invasion. Usually – and according to the California criminal code – justifiable homicide covers homicide perpetrated by law enforcement; as in, escape from prison, or execution of the capital punishment. Looking outside of US domestic law, it has been made obvious by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights expects domestic law to implement a degree of leniency in favor of self defense: “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, which can translate into defending the security of your person with whichever means is at your disposal. All of this would clearly be not subjected for debate if Stand Your Ground had not been invoked for the sole purpose of justifying unreasonable assault or – in the Trayvon Martin case – murder.

This all boils down to imminent threat. Under international law, imminent threat is defined as “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” In domestic law, the Castle Doctrine explains that imminent threat is “when the actor reasonably fears imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm to himself or another“. The keyword in this definition is “reasonable”. When is fear reasonable? It is, by definition, operating on a cerebral and chemical reaction that as far from rational as one can get. Based on the Castle Doctrine, anyone in an aggravated state of fear, corroborated by circumstance, can argue that their fear justified the action they were undertaking, and hereby was no longer lawless, but covered by the Castle Doctrine. It is absolutely paramount that in defense cases where defendant argues in favor of imminent threat, the jury deliberates in a situation of reasonably – rationally, as based on empirical data – action taken on the fact that the defendant would have suffered bodily harm or death as a result of his presence in this specific time and place. We could argue on the “no duty to retreat” statement; we could argue that one should peacefully either walk away or submit to the whims of his or her aggressor, but this is not realistic, and no one wants to be deprived by law of their right to fight for their lives. We all have a survival instinct; we all act on it; and there is something about the sanctity of life and the necessity for one to stand up and fight for themselves that is the most inherent and noble idea(l) behind Stand Your Ground.

Only issue is once one has been granted the right to kill based on circumstance, the door to abuse and unlawful, extreme behavior is cracked open, and the ugliness of the society implementing that law is thrown in the face of the victims. In this case, all the swept-under-the-rug issues of race in Florida and in the South in general have not only resurfaced during the trial, but also impacted it in a way George Zimmerman probably did not think possible.

Expect ensuing surreal chaos

The fact that most states supporting Stand Your Ground laws are southern (*) does not help the race-baiting situation surrounding Trayvon Martin. In the case of PA, however, the statute clearly stipulates that the attacker must brandish a weapon for the victim to justify use of force. Other states rely on regular criminal self defense (common law principle in 1988’s R vs Beckford). Extending it beyond the limits of imminent threat leads to vigilante justice. Zimmerman was a vigilante, there is no doubt about that, but this behaviour is clearly threatening in a lawful and ordered society. The law must prohibit the use of force at all costs and never beyond the limits set by criminal self-defense; the definition of “imminent threat” must not be extended to potential or hypothetical scenarios. The case of Marissa Alexander is the perfect counter-point to Trayvon Martin. Marissa had been fearing for her life for a while; her husband, before marrying her, already had a history of abuse. There was clearly no reasonable doubt that he would act, specifically since he had made repeated attempts to injure her in fits of rage, and had even claimed he would kill her. Marissa did not even kill her assaillants. The bullet ricocheted on the ceiling. What threat is more imminent than an abusive partner threatening to kill his wife? If Stand Your Ground really intends to keep citizens safe with their own second-amendment-purchased guns, it must absolutely clarify what is a threat, and place it in a lawful, socially acceptable context.

What was imminent about Trayvon Martin? What made him a threat in George Zimmerman’s eyes? In fact, what made Trayvon Martin a threat in the eyes of Florida law? Vigilante action inserts itself when law enforcement fails to bring about justice, or any sort of action hindering the spread of criminal offences. Vigilante action seeks to substitute itself to the rule of law, because it is deeming it ineffective. The word “vigilante” might sound heroic, but it is nothing short of illegal action acting upon what are perceived offences. A vigilante does not operate under Fourth of Fifth Amendment rights. The slogan “if you see something, say something” is geared towards community work cooperating with law enforcement; at no point does it states that “if you see something, do something”. We are not supposed to act upon our own instincts for self-preservation; unless the threat is imminent, unless a weapon is brandished against us or someone is pinning us against  wall, there is room for law enforcement action. Authorizing vigilante action under law is basically accepting that citizens will hereby enforce mob justice as opposed to respecting the habeas corpus, and will use means at their disposal to destroy what they consider to be a threat to them, theirs, or their lifestyle. Trayvon Martin clearly did not register as a fellow human on the Zimmerman scale; he did not deserve to be treated like another citizen who might have committed offences that night. Zimmerman took it into his own hands, and has been protected by Florida law. This is all well and good in Florida, but law and order must prevail. We can not possibly live safely in a society where anyone is allowed to take a life at will, at random, under the perceived and unreasonable notion that they are afraid. No one should live in fear; no one should have to doubt the efficiency of their police force. Sadly, we are, because the fabric of social cohesion has been eroded to the point that owning a gun seems safer than dialing 911. Recognizing and acknowledging those feelings of disenfranchisement should not lead to opening the door to mob justice. It should lead to training a police force and changing the judicial system to make it more fair. If the Zimmerman trial showed anything, is that justice in Florida is falling down the rabbit hole it created when allowing Stand Your Ground to protect anyone with a gun. It failed, because it refused to change and see the patterns.

As a result, it is important that the Department of Justice steps in. It is important that not only is an appeal or a re-trial possible for the family and closed ones of Trayvon Martin, but for the Department of Justice – and by extension its spokesperson, Attorney General Eric Holder – to accept that those laws protecting self defense in case of home invasion are actually extended to create a lawless zone, legitimizing unlawful behaviour, and letting any twenty-something run amok after dark. It is important that the Department of Justice acknowledges that there have been failures on the part of local courts to see Stand Your Ground for what it is: protection from imminent threat, not immunity from criminal prosecution. No one should be immune to homicide, second degree homicide, or manslaughter. The very concept of “justifiable homicide” outside of the boundaries of law enforcement is sickening: it implies that taking someone’s life can be excused. That it has no impact. That it has no consequences. That homicide can sometimes be purely circumstantial. It’s not. We are gradually excluding ourselves from a normally functioning society by dehumanizing our fellow citizens, be it by failing to recognize basic women’s rights in Texas or senselessly killing a teenager in Florida. There is no equality under law when the color of someone’s skin, their gender or their creed becomes in itself an excuse for homicide. The Department of Justice must act now. In virtue of its name. In virtue of the blindfolded scales.

(*) Alabama / Alaska / Arizona / Florida / Georgia / Indiana / Kansas / Kentucky / Louisiana / Michigan / Mississippi / Montana / Nevada / New Hampshire / North Carolina / North Dakota / Oklahoma / Pennsylvania / South Carolina / Tennessee / Texas / Utah / Virginia / Washington / West Virginia

Dirty Wars: a review

Screen shot 2013-07-10 at 14.56.16

UN Charter, article 2 (4)

This is an essay on how devastating it is to watch Dirty Wars. This is an essay on why it is necessary for you to keep your eyes open so you can rebuild.

Freshman year in law school, I was told there was two types of lawyers: those who believe in the rule of law, who have read Hobbes, Berkeley and have made a career out of upholding it; and those who see the law as a mere tool to achieve the goals they set for themselves, their companies, their government. Lawyers, like any other profession, are divided between ideals and cynicism. More often than not, this dichotomy exists within the lawyer himself.

I am of the former group. I specialise in civil liberties and human rights; because of where I come from, because of my education, because of what I know, see, hear, and read. There is nothing in Dirty Wars that I didn’t already know. The difference lies between holding knowledge of a piece of information and seeing an elected official speak straight into the objective eye of a camera of the ways your beliefs, ideologies, and value system as a citizen hold little importance in the face of the overbearing, overwhelming, crushing concept of national security. At that moment, during my first screening of the movie, I uncrossed my legs, my eyes staring wide at the screen, and felt my fists clench against the arm rest. “There is a difference between what you believe your rights are, and what they actually are.” “Can you tell me the difference?” asks Jeremy Scahill. “Of course not”, the good Senator replies.

There have been two previous instances of the use of media to warn us against massive executive interference in the rule of law, domestic or international: one was Eisenhower’s 1961 declaration on the military-industrial complex; the second was the excellent documentary Why We Fight, by Eugene Jarecki. If the latter denounced the use of war for profit, Dirty Wars denounces something more pernicious. Beyond the empty concepts of safety, security, and self-defence, the War On Terror has justified the application of terror in retaliation, the use of armed force worldwide, the violation of the rule of law for national interests- and all of that, in the “dirty” way: covert, hidden, away from Congressional hearings, out of reach of a regular journalist, in unpublished memos, undebated decrees – away from democratic input. We all experienced this gloomy, ominous sense of being manipulated and instrumentalised under Bush. Obama was elected under calls for democracy, transparency, and lawful intervention. Dirty Wars carefully, calmly and factly exposes the cold hard truth that Obama has in fact escalated covert operations to the point of assuming there are no limits to the what the administration would do… Or pay mercenaries to do.

Commenting on a 2001 decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Markus Rau states that the rule of law “… Has awakened in a bygone world in which the state is ‘susceptible of no limitation not imposed by itself.'” There can be no interference in the state’s actions if said actions are not documented, reported, or even witnessed: the movie opens on a gruesome revelation that a specific armed force intervening in Afghanistan removed bullets from the bodies of its victims to get rid of any possible traces, should anyone investigate. In a post Cold War world, human rights organisations have prospered, the United Nations sought to grow in legitimacy, and from human rights lawyers to UN rapporteurs, little is left to the imagination. Or so we think. Because every organisation answers to an agenda, and each and all are susceptible to apply red tape, only the work of independent journalists can be relied on. The investigation depicted in Dirty Wars goes far beyond what I, as a human rights lawyer, would ever be allowed to do. It’s frustrating, but liberating to know it is indeed possible. Until said journalist uses all the democratic tools at his disposal to expose the violations of a force acting beyond accountability or answering to the department of Defense: testifying before Congress – and watching your own representatives, the very guardian of a system resting on checks and balances, walking out on your riveting, compelling testimony. More than the scenes of violence and pile of bodies, stories of destroyed lives and accounts of giving up and giving in, it was the wall of concrete erected around Scahill to isolate and hinder his work that is most infuriating. A nation getting in the way of journalism is a nation that no longer answers to its citizenry and turns its back on fundamental liberties to act within its own little state, hidden from view, until the next election comes up and secrets are passed on.

No nation understands theatre politics better than the United States. When Admiral McRaven emerges as a national celebrity, a true American sweetheart, a Disney hero following the death of Osama Bin-Laden, we are plunged into an abysmal display of Kafka-esque surrealism. The very convert operation unit it took so long to investigate and reveal suddenly takes center stage all by itself, the administration one-upping journalists and human rights workers by creating a situation in which they knew the people – the public – would approve: destroying the emblematic figure of Bush-era “evil”, the very justification for the war on terror.

From then on, Dirty Wars tries to maintain rational and emotional balance between images of McRaven receiving accolades, being pictured with heads of state on official websites, and the startling, devastating revelation that military intervention goes way beyond the frontiers of Afghanistan and Iraq. While the world praises McRaven for his flawless mission to keep the nation safe, Scahill goes from Yemen to Somalia to expose targeting, fixing and killing of so-called enemies of the state or the hiring of lawless warlords to execute mercilessly the figures on a seemingly endless kill list. Those dirty wars are devastating in their tentacular overreach. Watching it is like falling down the rabbit hole.

I saw people collapse and cry at the end of the movie. Again, it’s not so much the casualties of war, as horrible as they may be; it’s the realisation that collective responsibility now makes us part of those covert actions, performed by a democratically elected government, funded by tax money. “We didn’t know” can only go so far when faced with entire tribes or populations whose only resort is to fight back in rule-defying acts of terrorism or rebellion. This is not a justification of political violence: it’s a simple equation on violence breeding violence. Since creating a supranational force of peacekeeping and law-abiding states, the idea that unlawful intervention was nothing short of an act of aggression prevailed. The consequences of acting above and beyond the rule of law can only create lawlessness and chaos in response. The indiscriminate and senselessness use of force as depicted in Dirty Wars can only be stopped by implementing strong, stable and reliable accountability.

But what do we do once we finally see what’s been hidden in plain sight? I’m holding on tight to my anger, because this might be all I have left. But for as long as people nationwide make up their mind as to what kind of citizen they want to be, what kind of nation they want to live in, what role they want to play within the international community, and what rights they believe are worth fighting for, all is not lost. And it all starts here.

go to dirtywars.org for info // follow @DirtyWars on twitter

Gaslighting: the use of torture under Obama

On this most august and holy month of Ramadan, the coverage of hunger strikers at Guantanamo has taken on a whole new depth of human rights violations: piling over indefinite detention, military camp, inhumane detention facilities, we are now adding torture to the list. If abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo is sadly nothing new, the force-feeding of the hunger strikers has been widely documented. Yet, for some unfathomable reason, there is a debate on whether or not force feeding inmates chained to a chair through a nasogastric tube constitutes torture. Perfectly reminiscent of the very same kafka-esque “conversation” on the use of waterboarding as a interrogation method, it seems we are only collectively, nationally adding question marks at the end of simple statements because we refuse to believe they are true. We create subjectivity because well documented, legally astute facts become impossible to digest. This is what the Obama Administration has proved to be masterful at: the art of gaslighting.

Waterboarding was torture. In fact, it still is. There would be no need of undergoing the shock of seeing an intelligence agency’s nominee stating facts if it had been recognized as such when practiced. Beautiful, poetic euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” or slightly more ominous ones related to “stress and duress” all refer to the use of prohibited actions taken against individuals, citizens or not, charged or not, in custody of law enforcement and/or military, worldwide. As time went on and the watch of human rights organisations progressed, the use of more subtle forms of torture – like the British “five techniques” – aimed at circumventing international law. When using different methods was not appropriate, playing on territoriality laws could easily be done with the practice of rendition. Torture is reprehensible; it sends the collective consciousness back to medieval times of Iron Maidens and witches at stakes and the drawing and quartering of Guy Fawkes. Here lies the problem though: those methods belong in a distant past, when humanity was devoid of empathy, bathing in the bloodshed of constant wars, and tyranny was the only political system we had known. Revolutions, Enlightenment and the Nüremberg Trials sought to give us rules to live by. But the practice perdures; we just label them differently.

The public was shocked by Abu Ghraib because the photos released were indeed images of an obscure, dark age of cruelty and systematic dehumanisation. The war in Iraq and abuses by US armed forces were said to be provoked by extreme duress suffered by soldiers under guerrilla warfare; under lack of proper training on interaction with civilians; and a seemingly absent accountability. Soldiers were extremely young, sent to a country they didn’t know fighting a war they didn’t understand facing an enemy they couldn’t identify using weapons they could not see. Abu Ghraib was horrifying in that it brought the public closer to the atrocities of war, the destruction of the human psyche, and the compartmentalisation of conflict. It was the brutality and senselessness of the Bush era; before him, war was supposed to be not just clean, but “just”, approved by international organisations and using sanctioned weaponry by highly trained military personel. The War On Terror™ reverted back to our most basic, primal instincts. When Obama took office, he swore to change; words like “transparency” and “accountability” were used. Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize, could surely not violate the CAT so close to the 25th anniversary of its signature. A constitutional law professor could surely understand the binding principles of international conventions. Besides, America had evolved as a nation; it was understood no one could possibly win the hearts and minds of foreign populations while capturing their citizens in the night and electrocuting them in the name of intelligence gathering.

But Guantanamo has always remained a dark stain on Obama’s lyricism on foreign policy. First claiming he would close to shameful and illegal military base, he let the movement simmer down and inmates fester. To this day, among 166 prisoners, around half have been cleared for release in 2009, yet still detained. The rest are still awaiting charges. The very fact that this system exists – and does so outside of the realm of civil law – is in itself a massive human rights violation. But the abuses are rampant, in a zone outside of continental America, guarded by military, where no visitation rights are granted, and the legal status of inmates is vaguely unknown. Enemy combatants, terrorists, aiding and abaiting criminals, whichever way you look at them, the very fact those appellations are created in a text that is a constitutional exception should raise all possible red flags. How could an isolated island away from the prying eyes of Judge Kessler and consorts could be free of any abuses? Accountability exists precisely because history has proven, again and again, that use of force left to its own devices never checks itself. It runs amok and destroys. And in the case of Guantanamo, it is destroying under our very eyes. Thanks to the relentless work of Guantanamo attorneys and journalists such as Jeffrey Kaye, Jason Leopold and John Knefel, consistent reporting has been made. It would be hard for anyone now to claim that they did not know. But when the narrative becomes too painful to bear, when the ghost of collective responsibility creeps in at every election, the easiest way to cope with the deafening silence on the part of your chosen political champion is to… Change the narrative.

Because the most current example of double standards and political consciousness hypocrisy concerns the issue of state surveillance – intolerable under Bush but somewhat necessary under Obama – lets apply the same technique to the use of torture in a democratic society that is only supposedly at war in two countries. Waterboarding was severely decried under Bush by Democrats and other liberals; it was unacceptable, and Matthew Alexander had released an incredible and courageous book on the possibility of using alternative, legal interrogation methods in conflict zones. There seemed to be consensus – at least in places other than the far right and John Yoo’s offices – that torture was not only inacceptable, but that it was perfectly avoidable. But instead of understanding human rights law as a legal blanket of protection over all citizens, we legally created exceptions, and this rhetoric has persisted and bled into Obama’s foreign policy. It is not acceptable to torture, UNLESS: it is unacceptable to indefinitely detain someone without charge, UNLESS; it is impossible to waive Miranda rights, UNLESS; it is illegal to use military force in foreign lands without declaring war, UNLESS. This string of constitutional and international exception has morally – even if definitely not ethically – plagued the Obama Administration since it took office. And no place is more glaringly and obnoxiously standing in the face of the international rule of law than Guantanamo.

Kristine Huskey, from Physicians for Human Rights, testified at the time of the hunger strike:

Severe and lasting psychological trauma … caused by chronic states of stress, anxiety and dread, because these people at Guantánamo don’t know if they’re going to be released, if ever … all of this uncertainty and uncontrollability causes extreme stress on the immune system, the cardiovascular system. It leads to asthma, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, spread of cancer, viral infections, hypertension, depression, suicide, PTSD.

A hunger strike is a destructive and dangerous way to make yourself heard; but it has been the tool of the oppressed and desperate political prisoners for centuries, from South Africa to Northern Ireland. Most often these hunger strikers had nothing left to lose. They sought attention from the international community to shed a light on their plight. What a hunger strike means to convey is that the striker will willingly risk his or her life because his or her liberty is more valuable, especially if it benefits the collective in the long term. Guantanamo prisoners have nothing left to lose. They were deprived of their most basic rights under domestic and international law; they are detained for no apparent or declared reason; they know not of when their ordeal will cease; they are subjected to arbitrary abuse by armed forces which legitimacy to act is severely questioned. So, they are letting themselves die. But because the perspective of the death of an inmate in illegal US custody is a legal black hole the administration refuses to fall into, those inmates are now force-fed; put simply, nutrition is forced inside their body cavities, against their will, in the attempt to keep them alive. To save face. And this, in itself, is an act of torture. Self-inflicted starvation is destruction; medically supervised force feeding is torture and a sick twist on the Hippocratic oath. Several statements have been released against the force-feedings. And the irony of the holy month of Ramadan implying fasting until sunset means the force feedings will take place at night, in a disgustingly cynical display of pseudo respect of the inmates’ religion. There is no such thing as torturing a man according to his own religious rites. This is a farce.

Force-feeding has been declared as a form of torture and prohibited medical behavior in detention facilities by the Declaration of Tokyo, article 7; it has, of course, been classified as torture by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). The textbook reference on torture in democratic societies, compiled by Darius Rejali (1), classifies three models on the use of torture: the national security model, the juridical model, and the civic discipline model. On the topic of national security, referring to France and its control of French Algeria, Rejali explains:

What is important here is that democratic institutions were unwilling or unable to stop the turn to torture. One after the other, the judicial system, the legislature, the opposition parties, and the press failed. The police and military soon operated outside the law. In effect, they formed a closed state within the state. The military used its privileged position to establish covert torture, delay investigations, shape information, recruit political allies, and mobilize public opinion for the war. (…) In the National Security model, as France suggests, officers practice torture as part of a proactive strategy to combat an enemy in an emergency. Victims may be locals or foreigners, but they are always chosen because of their suspected political activities.

I understand terrorism is scary and may tear away at one’s sense of safety. I understand war has become a distant, professional occupation that hardly affects the general population. I understand that the fallacy of a democracy Bush put the country through for eight years needed to be changed; I saw the glimmer of hope in people’s eyes when Obama was first elected in 2008. I saw the desperate need to believe again, to hold onto a sense of security, that we would all be alright, that sanity had been restored and fear would no longer prevail. But this is over. No matter how much we try to believe our elected leader would just never sign on an individual’s torture before lunch, it is happening, and it is our collective responsibility to hold him accountable. From renewing the Patriot Act and adding new provisions; signing NDAA; not interrupting the PRISM program; and using JSOC all over our blue planet, the current foreign policy is dangerous. Do not mistake torture for what it isn’t: simply an enhanced, supersize version of interrogation. Do not believe torture is an acceptable exception (and certainly do not believe it is suddenly legitimate because it has been ordered by warrant). Do not believe torture is anything anyone deserves, under any circumstances. Human rights law has been created and enforced under the belief there is such a thing as an absolute in natural law – that unless we created a legal framework every nation would abide by with a goal to protect everyone from the horrors we suffered in the past, there would be no end to the pain we would inflict and would then receive as a result. Torture has never saved lives; it destroys them. Torture has never freed lives; it chains them. Torture is a degrading easy way out serving sociopathic purposes when acting alongside basic rules of human decency, empathy and righteousness has lost its meaning. A nation who tortures,  a nation that kills is a nation that has little left as a collective conscience.

(1) Torture and Democracy. Rejali, Darius. Princeton Press, 2007.

Hey man, nice shot: interventionism as foreign policy


There has been a lot of talk lately regarding politics of interventionism. Be it regarding Israel’s firing of a single, lonely rocket out into Syria or France sending highly trained troops into Mali, the debate always surrounds two concepts: is the intervention morally justifiable? Or more importantly, is the intervention ethically acceptable? In fact, the question is – is interventionism as foreign policy legal?

Interventionism is treading a very fine line. It is, in itself, a moral justification for violating the once unbreakable rule of national sovereignty. The flip side of post World War II isolationism, based on the fact one country could not simply sacrifice its troops, resources, equipment, and defense budget to go run to the rescue of a European country at the mercy of tyranny , was constantly challenged by the human rights violations and humanitarian disasters taking place across the globe. Interventionism, as a concept, exists because no matter how supreme we believe national sovereignty to be, no nation is an island, and there is indeed a moral impetus to intervene when a conflict takes a turn to the disastrous pandemic. But let’s not be fooled – interventionism certainly isn’t an act of legal selflessness, of political kindness. It is more often than not tainted with self-interest. And in a post 9/11, in a state of perpetual war against countries that have never actively, legally declared war on one another but are plagued with a new brand of disorganised and non-pyramidal terrorism structure, the concept of interventionism became loose, undefined, and thrown into national debate just to permit military presence where none is clearly needed, let alone requested.

On February 26, 1999, Clinton exposed what will later be soppily referred to as the “Clinton Doctrine”:

It’s easy … to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brushland in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.

In short, nation-states intervene when they believe that, through direct or indirect action, a lack of interference on their part could threaten their own safety, domestically or abroad. However, it has been long decided that interventionism could only take place in the wake of a humanitarian disaster; to avoid occupation, long-lasting intervention, unlawful government interference, and frankly, neo-colonialism, international law has framed interventionism, in a way that is often perceived as intrusive and in opposition to a state’s right to decide of their own foreign policy. Modern diplomatic history, though, is riddled with tales of failed intervention, with foul motives or poor judgement of governance. Is interventionism still absolutely necessary in global foreign policy?

In a remarkable piece of research presented by Ryan Goodman for Harvard Law, the question of interventionism in cases of conflict – Unilateral Humanitarian Intervention (UHI) rises the issue of whether international law, and by extent its executive body, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) should permit military intervention based on criterias which, regardless of how specific they might be, could still give way to an empirical act of aggression for ulterior motives. If anything, the very existence of modern international law should be made to discourage war, even those considered legal under the Geneva Convention; the role of international governing bodies is to promote the use of diplomatic and mediation tools prior to a conflict. Ideally, there should never be any UHIs; intervention should be investigated, approved and sanctioned by the UNSC, provided the case has been brought to their attention in a timely manner. A direct definition has been provided by Sean D. Murphy: “humanitarian intervention is the threat or use of force by a state, group of states, or international organisation primarily for the purpose of protecting the nationals from the target state from widespread deprivation of internationally recognized human rights.

If it wasn’t for Bernard Kouchner responding to the crisis in Bosnia and Kofi Annan developing the concept of “individual interventionism” – as opposed to the regular state variety – to consider an international response to mass atrocities, the concept of national sovereignty over humanitarian intervention would prevail. Already severely eroded by the supraconstitutional (thus supranational) creation of international organisation with legal interference in domestic law, Kouchner’s principles were secured in 2001 when an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) sought to distinguish the overbearing nature of national sovereignty from a moral compass pointing in the direction of the “responsibility to protect”. Drawing the line further away from Kouchner’s “right to intervene”, the “responsibility to protect” not only refers to collective responsibility – from a united, consensus-led international community – but also the growing need to not respond individually and economically in the face of human rights violations. Where nation-states used to express their disagreement with a trade partner with economic sanctions (South Africa under apartheid, Iraq under Saddam Hussein), Tony Blair, in a famous Chicago speech, outlined five questions one nation or organisation must answer before deciding on intervention: 1) verification of data collection 2) exhaustion of diplomatic recourse 3) “prudent” and “sensible” military intervention 4) long term consequences and 5) national interest.

It is clear that in the current context, #3 and #5 are the biggest concerns. In an era where the European Union is collapsing upon itself after failure to economically investigate Greece and where the United States is resurfacing as the world’s police force, reanimating Cold War rhetoric,  national interest’s wolf disguised in humanitarian intervention’s sheep clothing is the disgusting flip side of the interventionism coin.

in 2012, Kofi Annan turns to Iran’s Ahmadinejad for help in the Syrian conflict

Kofi Annan himself raised doubts and concerns over humanitarian intervention and its future as early as 1999. Interventionism is now seriously decried as being merely a facade for occupation. The “intervention” of the US in Iraq led to many other nations to become more prudent when interfering in foreign countries, the way France intervened in Mali (shortly to be joined by UN peacekeeping forces). The ghost of colonialism past hangs heavy in the balance; the decision to intervene in one place and not another seems not just arbitrary, but also motivated by the national interests mentioned by Blair in his speech. Places like Chechnya, suffering a war for over 10 years in a destroyed, god-forsaken way that defies all rules of humanity and hope for resolution; or in North Korea, where, despite the seemingly deterrent use of nuclear weapons, the population has been starving for over a decade and is lacking proper medical care. Because of the complexity of the game theory that governs modern international relations, it is becoming increasingly hard to believe in the possibility of intervention not justified by financial, economic, or political interest. It’s as if the über interventionism of the Cold War followed by the over isolationism of the 90s could only be matched by a hardcore cynical point of view – that what is widely considered a disaster should only be met by caritative and non-profit response. Governmental intervention is motivated by geopolitics, and it’d be foolish of the citizenry to expect their representatives to vote on financial expenses on the simple belief that one must do good. The US has been decried, denounced and protested against for acting on its dependency on fossil fuels. It’s response: so what?

Lets take the case of Syria. For almost a year the international community witnessed Bachar Al-Assad repress a rebellion in blood, with disproportionate use of force and an indiscriminate target policy. This is definitely not shocking from Al-Assad, who built his entire regime based on tyrannical surveillance and brutal use of force. When the rebellion took shape, form and political rhetoric, nation-states across the globe took a more pronounced interest, but intervention wasn’t on anyone’s plate. NGOs and humanitarians worldwide were keeping track of the death toll. Was intervention justified? While the world pondered a UNSC resolution and/or a NATO presence, Israel fired into Syria. UN rapporteurs were sent to investigate the use of chemical weapons, a clear violation of international law that would justify an ethical intervention. When Israel intervened, in a more or less sudden manner, a portion of activists claimed that finally someone had taken upon themselves to show Al-Assad we would not sit idly by. It was however hard to believe Israel would ever follow Blair’s rule of humanitarian intervention. In fact, it appeared that Israel’s actions had been led by an endless desire to provoke Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Sadly, Syria wasn’t the world’s focus because of the bloodshed, but because of its unique role in middle eastern politics and the buffer zone it had become among the Arab League.

So, if we have indeed turned the page on the short chapter that is the right to intervene on legal / moral / ethical grounds, should we simply follow Ron Paul and succumb to primal isolationism?  Is there no middle ground between policing every nation we – as a fellow state or an international organisation – believe to be misbehaving (lest you catch me use the adjective “rogue”) and withdrawing inside our own borders, letting gross human rights violations unattended, bearing witness to military coups live on CNN, expecting a flood of refugees from Gaza to bleed into Egypt, and letting it go, in the name of either financial constraints or our need to clean up domestic policies as a priority? Both are legitimate concerns. Both need to be addressed. In fact, both need to be an argument against massive, across the board, unaccountable, global interventionism. The War on Terror™ has become the poorly theorised leitmotiv for interventionism everywhere (*), in the name not of humanitarian access, but of safety, security – and once again, not global safety, but one specific nation’s safety. National interest is now overwhelmingly and obnoxiously dominating the interventionism sector in a way that neither Kofi Annan nor Bernard Kouchner could have foreseen. This is state terrorism at its finest. This is precisely the reason why isolationism is now so famous amongst political dissenter; if Sen. Ron Paul has become famous for his positions against wars, any wars, he sparked the debate on the threading the fine line between isolationism and non-interventionism. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer from 2011, Ron Paul is quoted as saying:

An isolationist is a protectionist that builds walls around their country, they don’t like the trade, they don’t like to travel about the world, and they like to put sanctions on different countries. So some of the people who call me that, are actually much more in favor of sanctions and limited trade, they’re the ones who don’t want to trade with Cuba and they want to put sanctions on anybody who blinks their eye at them. And yet, the opposite is what we believe in, we believe Nixon did the right thing by opening up trade doors with China, because that is when we quit killing each other and we are more at peace, which we better be, because they have become our banker. So non-intervention is quite a bit different since what the founders advised was to get along with people, trade with people, and to practice diplomacy, rather than having this militancy of telling people what to do and how to run the world and building walls around our own country. That is isolationism, it’s a far cry from what we believe in.

Based on strict foreign policy grounds, Ron Paul is, in fact, an isolationist – but one who has watered down the Fortress of America principle in order to open up the economic grounds that strict isolationism would forego. What is interesting in this speech is his use of the world “militancy”, which implies that the United States has been a belligerent, warmongering state – a situation that has been severely exposed during the Bush Administration, was said to be diminished under Obama, but has instead violently increased. Interventionism is not just a ideological tool of foreign policy under Obama; it is the policy itself, and is more or less called upon under imperatives of national security that somehow supersede the very concept of international law, which clearly calls on non-intervention unless granted by an international organisation claiming rights to intervene for humanitarian purposes.

Maybe the key is to re-focus on the very principles that started out international organisations with supranational goals. Maybe it’s time to reframe the concept of interventionism. Maybe Kofi Annan was right in his “responsibility to protect”:

Building on our evolved understanding of sovereignty, [right to protect] asserts that when states cannot or will not protect their populations from the worst crimes, other states, acting through the UN, should do so. The endorsement of this principle by UN Member States in 2005 was a momentous step. It made clear that hand-wringing and appeals to conscience by the international community are not enough.  We must be ready to use all diplomatic, humanitarian and other means — including targeted sanctions against the leaders responsible — to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also means that, as a last resort, the international community will be prepared to take collective action, including military force, through the Security Council to protect populations from these crimes. We must be clear, however. Military action really must be the last resort.  It may be necessary in some situations but the decision must never be taken lightly. War, even when waged lawfully and in defence of threatened populations, is destructive and inherently unpredictable. Once engaged, the resort to force has its own logic. Hostilities may escalate quickly beyond a limited objective or outside intended boundaries. War waged against “terror” or to protect civilians may, unintentionally, have disastrous consequences. We also have to be realistic. Only on rare occasions will there be an international consensus in its favour or an international coalition willing to act.

Kofi Annan’s earlier reference to Wallenberg (not quoted) is a call to act in the name of courage, to stand up – individually or as a group – against crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture. The golden age of the Empires is long gone; there is now prescription on the treaty of Westphalia, and we have become, through trade partnerships, free circulation of peoples and global media, an international community that can no longer pretend to turn a blind eye on atrocities committed in the name of what can only be considered outdated and outrageous values. Interventionism through military action and indefinite, unspecified and unaccountable use of force in countries in which one intervenes is nothing short of an act of aggression. The concept of just war still prevails, regardless of whether one agrees with it or not, and it is possible for a nation to undergo military presence in the name of defense – one of the most prevalent and unlikely to be ruled out prerogative of a nation-state. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that any interventionism in the world right now from western military power is anything envisaged by Kofi Annan or foreign policy theorists in the early 90s, when we all gaped in horror at the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The United Nations’ Blue Helmets ought to be reformed; the possibility of an armed peacekeeping force must be debated; the necessity of expanding the right to protect once qualification by data from UN rapporteurs need to be enforced.

Unilateral use of military power belongs in the past.


(*) See upcoming review of the documentary Dirty Wars.