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Of human and inhumane circles

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — infernal and celestial geometries ]
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It is well known that the Platonic “ideal” circle is not to be found in the “real” world of people and things, since it would be composed of an infinte number of non-dimensional points. Human and inhumane circles, however, are another matter.

SPEC DQ circles

The upper circle shows spectators who gathered around the mangled body of an alleged homosexual, thrown from the roof of a seven-storey building by members of the Islamic State, and stoned the still breathing victim to death.

The lower circle is intended as a counter-weight to the atrocity shown above it. It is the Zen master Hakuin’s enso or zen brush-and-ink circle, perfect in its imperfection, its human spontaneity, and certainly not in the Platonic “ideal” sense.

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The Topological Musings blog quotes Plato from The Republic, deftly avoiding any mention of circles…

And do you not also know that they (mathematicians) further make use of the visible forms and talk about them, though they are not thinking of them but of those things of which they are a likeness, pursuing their inquiry for the sake of the square as such and the diagonal as such, and not for the sake of the image of it which they draw?… The very things which they mold and draw, … they treat in their turn as only images, but what they really seek is to get sight of those realities which can be seen only by the mind.

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Three circles: the utterly inhumane, the perfectly imperfect, and the impossible.

For a “transgressive” study of the issue of homosexuality and the seventh circle of Dante’s Inferno, see John Boswell‘s Dante and the Sodomites, in Dante Studies, No. 112 (1994), pp. 63-76. What exactly “transgressive” means, I have yet to understand. I do however, personally, abhor people throwing other people off high buildings and / or stoning them to death.

UN Human Rights Commissioner Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — WINEP hosts Countering Violent Extremism and Ideology discussion ]
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Addressing the Washington Institute for Near East Policy earlier this month, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Jordanian Ambassador to the United States said of the IS / Daesh “caliphate”:

I think it requires a much deeper sort of analysis than what we often see coming through to us via the media outlets.

He went on to explain what he meant — emphasizing not military force but an Islamic theological response to the Daesh doctrinal claims:

We listened very carefully in Geneva to the remarks made by Walid Muallem, the foreign minister of the Syrian government, and he was dismissive of the efficacy of the airstrikes. Now this is something that I think has to be studied because we have learned from other sources that this may well be the case – or at least, if they were not supplemented by a concerted discussion within the Islamic world to confront, line by line, the thinking of the takfiri groups, that the results may not be what we hope they will be, and fall short of where we want them to be.

The letter that I have alluded to [..] was issued by a hundred and twenty-six Muslim scholars back in September as a response to the July Jumaa sermon issued by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And what I found really quite unfortunate is that this letter which was remarkable, in the sense that it was scholarly, it was backed by Muslim scholars from all over the world, it dealt by each of the points raised in the sermon, rebuttal followed by another rebuttal to each of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s points, that this received far less in the way of media attention than the decisions to launch airstrikes and take very active military operations. Because I felt at the time and still do that this letter needs to be supported and alluded to and spoken about and referred to by politicians in the Islamic world and beyond — not least because if it isn’t shown that the Islamic world is responding, at least from a scholarly angle, then we will continue to see the phenomena we see in Europe and we saw in germany yesterday, of demonstrations basically targeting Islam as a religion, as opposed to the takfiri ideology where the denunciations should be properly be directed.

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Here, then, so that we can better grasp these issues as they can be understood within Islam, is the Letter al-Hussein spoke of:

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The Letter can also be downloaded as a .pdf. Among the highlights of the Executive Summary:

9. It is forbidden in Islam to declare people non-Muslim unless he (or she) openly declares disbelief.
10. It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’.
11. It is obligatory to consider Yazidis as People of the Scripture.
12. The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus.
13. It is forbidden in Islam to force people to convert.
14. It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.

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For those of you who watch the video of the WINEP discussion, I should warn you that the close captioning is inexcusably poor. I’m betting, eg, that Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein did not say “jihadi nostra” (cute though that might be) when the context clearly suggests “Jabhat al-Nusra”.

Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!

On eating one’s enemy

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — not good branding, not Islamic, dumbstruck? — not a whole lot else to say ]
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Commander Abu Sakkar / the Farouq Brigades logo


Let’s take the bald facts first:

Commander Abu Sakkar of the Farouq Brigades, Free Syrian Army, had himself videotaped this month cutting open and seeming to eat the flesh of a just-killed Syrian soldier loyal to President Assad — to send a message. According to a New York Times “Lede” blog-post, he preceded this act with the words:

I swear to God, soldiers of Bashar, you dogs — we will eat your heart and livers! … God is great! Oh, my heroes of Baba Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take their hearts out to eat them!

His rhetoric as reported speaks of eating the heart: in the event, it is a portion of lungs that he eats, or mimics eating.

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This has to be seen in many contexts — one of them, the branding of the Syrian rebels in general and the Farouq Brigades in particular.

This is taken from an article a couple of weeks ago on a WSJ blog titled For Some Syrian Rebels, It’s a Battle of the Brands:

Twelve activists in an office in Reyhanli, Turkey near the border run Farouk’s Facebook page, web site, and Twitter account. They’re working on the TV channel, which Mr. Awad says they’ve envisioned as a tool to resocialize fighters off the battlefield.

“The regime will fall one day,” he says. “We have 20,000 fighters–they all won’t stay fighters. They will put down their weapons, and need to integrate into the world. TV, radio, these things will help.”

The media office’s latest brand offering? A three-dimensional version of the Farouk logo, which will be used in videos and other online material.

“The guys complained the logo wasn’t nice enough,” Mr. Awad said, laughing. “They wanted a 3D one.”

**

Moralizing about someone eating the flesh of a deceased enemy is pretty easy to pull off — unless one still thinks it’s a potent way to acquire one’s enemy’s courage, which is now something of a curiosity in the anthropologist’s cabinet of concepts. Here, dug up from the section on Homeopathic Magic of a Flesh Diet in Sir JG Frazer‘s 1922 edition of The Golden Bough, now long out-dated, is the picture as it used to be seen:

When Basutos of the mountains have killed a very brave foe, they immediately cut out his heart and eat it, because this is supposed to give them his courage and strength in battle. When Sir Charles M’Carthy was killed by the Ashantees in 1824, it is said that his heart was devoured by the chiefs of the Ashantee army, who hoped by this means to imbibe his courage. His flesh was dried and parcelled out among the lower officers for the same purpose, and his bones were long kept at Coomassie as national fetishes. The Nauras Indians of New Granada ate the hearts of Spaniards when they had the opportunity, hoping thereby to make themselves as dauntless as the dreaded Castilian chivalry.

Even as a cannibal delicacy, the white man’s heart seemed to have special virtue! As I say, though — that’s all a little out of date.

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Eating one’s enemy, however, is a distinctly un-Islamic behavior, whatever century we’re in. One early Islamic narrative concerns Hind bint ‘Utbah avenging deaths in her own family by eating the heart of a great Muslim warrior, dear to the Prophet — far from being an example of what is permitted in Islam, she’s an example of what Muhammad was up against by way of enemies in the early days of his preaching:

Hind Bint `Utbah, the wife of Abu Sufyaan, ordered Wahshiy to bring her Hamzah’s liver, and he responded to her savage desire. When he returned to her, he delivered the liver to her with his right hand, while taking the necklaces with the left as a reward for the accomplished task. Hind, whose father had been killed in the Battle of Badr and whose husband was the leader of the polytheist army, chewed Hamzah’s liver hoping to relieve her heart, but the liver was too tough for her teeth so she spat it out and stood up shouting her poem:

                    For Badr we’ve paid you better
                    In a war more flaring than the other.
                    I was not patient to revenge the murder of
                    `Utbah, my son, and my brother.
                    My vow’s fulfilled, my heart’s relieved forever.

Hind did eventually become a Muslim — but on account of this very event, was never fully included among “the Companions of the Prophet”.

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I don’t want to moralize over Commander Abu Sakkar‘s act, not having been in his shoes — but it is vile under pretty much any moral standard you might choose. A problem arises, though, when one attempts to use it to justify one side or another, in a conflict in which brutality of one kind or another seems to be present on both sides. As Sakkar himself told a Time correspondent:

You are not seeing what we are seeing, and you are not living what we are living. Where are my brothers, my friends, the girls of my neighborhood who were raped?

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Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch is quoted giving another kind of context to the affair:

Abu Sakkar is just one man, and there are many other armed fighters in Syria who reject such sectarian actions and would be horrified by the mutilation and desecration of a corpse — let alone an act of cannibalism. But he is a commander in a decisive battle in Syria — hardly a marginal figure.

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Not without reason did Kurtz whisper at the end of Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness, as in Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now:

The horror! The horror!

Red lines and the credibility arms race

Friday, April 26th, 2013

[The views and opinions expressed here are solely the responsibility of Lynn C. Rees. They may not necessarily reflect the official views or opinions of Zenpundit] 

To deter, Barack Obama has publicly drawn a red line between tolerable and intolerable. We now watch to see and (perhaps) learn if open signaling of red lines has deterrent effect.

Open red lines intended to stave off the intolerable without ending in blows are as ancient as territorial instinct. Red frequents coloration of animals who’ve evolved warning signals embedded in their anatomy. Lines, though marked more by scent or suggested by signal, are also abundant among Man and nature.

“Bear”, my brother’s late Shar-Pei, vociferously defended my brother’s chain-linked fence line. All his toing and froing facing down suspicious pedestrians even wore a second line into the front lawn that paralleled the fence. His vigorous bark emerged from wolven ancestors to draw lines red in tooth and claw in wolven mind so it didn’t come to lines red in tooth and claw in wolven reality. 

But, if bluffs are called and barks prove to have more volume than bite, a red line will prove only as substantial as the bite and fight beyond it. If warning is not credibly conveyed and things fall apart, nothing may remain except bite and fight.

Bear’s bark proved a poor red line. While it sounded loud and formidable, when you opened the front gate and entered the yard, Bear would casually mosey up, sniff you, and promptly return to the barking line. Shar Peis are renowned for even-tempers. Bred as guard dogs in China, they often had to be brutalized or drugged into fight and bite. Bear was neither brutalized nor drugged so he lacked credible fierceness.

There is no certain calculus in drawing red lines. My calculus teacher wisely taught that variables have only one invariable certainty: they tend to vary. Man is not only variable, he is contrary. His contrariness not only votes present, it votes with real impact. If it were otherwise, you’d have a sort of Clausewitzian “red line by algebra: tally up one side of a red line in one column and tally the other side in another column. Then, when clearly displayed in public, those on either side would be forced to agree on how substantial the red line was and openly acknowledge its deterrent psychology.

Politics, the division of power, varies most in the intensity in which its division of power escalates confrontation toward violence. Some political contestants’ escalation is too hot. Others’ escalation is too cold. For others, their escalation will be just right. Some draw red lines and aggressively escalate political intensity based on broken red line theory: one small crack in your red line, like someone publicly urinating on it, means the entire red line will be stripped down to its bare chassis overnight if small infractions aren’t predictably and promptly punished. Others use them to draw folks along, perhaps as bait, perhaps as stalling tactics, while they do something else somewhere else. Some red lines are implicitly understood by all as being for entertainment purposes only.

Unfortunately, we’re armed with only a few rules of thumb to guide us in drawing and escalating red lining, most centered on creating intrinsic credibility:

  • …every power ought to be commensurate with its object…
  • …the means ought to be proportioned to the end…
  • …there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose, which is itself incapable of limitation…
  • A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.
  • As the duties of superintending the national defense and of securing the public peace against foreign or domestic violence involve a provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned, the power of making that provision ought to know no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community.
  • As revenue is the essential engine by which the means of answering the national exigencies must be procured, the power of procuring that article in its full extent must necessarily be comprehended in that of providing for those exigencies.
Beyond that, it’s a matter of converting intrinsic credibility into fully mobilizable and then field-deployable credibility. Angelo M. Codevilla writes:

John Quincy Adams, a student as well as a practitioner of statesmanship, believed that governments understand their own and others’ interests quite well. His involvement in diplomacy, which lasted from 1778 to the end of his presidency in 1829, convinced him not that negotiations are superfluous, but rather that they ratify the several parties’ recognition of existing realities regardless of agreements or lack thereof. Diplomacy can make it more comfortable to live with reality by clarifying mutual understanding of it. On the other hand, Adams’ magisterial notes on his 1823 recommendation that America spurn the invitation to join Britain in a declaration disapproving any attempt to recover Spain’s American colonies—that jointness would have added nothing to the reality of parallel British and U.S. opposition to such a venture—underlines the central fact about diplomacy: though it conveys reality, it does not amend it.

In 1968, Fred Ikle published How Nations Negotiate, which is used by diplomatic academies around the world. Too many graduates, however, forget its central teaching, which is that the diplomat’s first task is to figure out whether agreement is possible on the basis of “the available terms”—in short, whether both sides’ objectives, though different, are compatible. Only if they are can negotiations proceed according to what Ikle calls “rules of accommodation”—making sincere proposals, honoring partial agreements, etc. If the objectives are incompatible, the diplomats may choose to walk away, or to “negotiate for side effects”—to use the negotiations to undermine the other side’s government, sow dissention among its allies, deceive it, pocket partial agreements and renege on commitments, buy time, gather intelligence, etc. Disaster looms when one side follows the rules of accommodation while the other negotiates for side effects. The essence of Ikle’s teaching is that the negotiator’s primordial job is to judge correctly whether the other side is negotiating for “available terms” or is waging war through diplomatic means, and hence to choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat the diplomatic table as a battlefield. That choice is “perpetual,” he writes, because human motives are variable.

When the president publicly drew his red line:

Michelle and I have used a strategy when it comes to things like tattoos — what we’ve said to the girls is, ‘If you guys ever decide you’re going to get a tattoo, then Mommy and me will get the same exact tattoo in the same place,'” he said. “And we’ll go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo. And our thinking is that it might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that’s a good way to rebel.

He’s made his “primordial job” as a parent public. Under public scrutiny, he has to “judge correctly” whether Maliah or Sasha are negotiating for “available terms’ or “waging war” through tattooed means. He has to publicly choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat tattoos as a battlefield. As a parent, his choice is “perpetual”.

His credibility in deterring tattooed rebellion does have some fight and bite behind it. The Christian Science Monitor observes:

They’re still kind of young. Malia is 14 and Sasha is 11. They’re not marching into any tattoo parlor near Sidwell Friends School in upper northwest DC. First, there aren’t any – they can’t afford the rents there. Second, you’ve got to be 18 to get a tat in the city, we believe. The City Council approved that move recently.

This move may represent sufficient “provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned” coupled with “the power of making that provision”. But whether tattoos escalate to where parent-child disagreement knows “no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community” is the other half of Maliah and Sasha’s measure of President Obama’s credibility amd the deterrent quality of YouTubed shame over their coming teens.

The CSM doubts it. Conceding the president’s stratagem is “sort of based on assured mutual deterrence. Or preemption – you could call it that, too” and that it’s “interesting, in the sense that it’s a fairly coherent and intellectualized way to approach this common parental problem”, it observes:

…the real reason the preemption strategy probably appeals to the Obamas right now is that their daughters still listen to them. They can process cause and parental reaction and weigh options. They haven’t entered that period where common sense gets suspended, and they focus mostly on their own needs and wants, because that’s what teenagers do…

Once they are 18, they will be away from daily parental authority and tattoos might seem like a better idea. At that age, they don’t really think about long-term consequences, so they might get body art just to spite their parents. Or because they forgot their parents’ we-will-do-it-too vow. Or because they don’t care. Or just because… 

And then what happens? The president of the United States will probably feel obligated to get a tattoo of a butterfly at the base of his neck, because he vowed he would; and if he does not follow through, opponents will doubt his strength of will, or something like that.

I disagree. Rather than being “obligated”, the president retains his God-given agency. America’s greatest strategic thinker of the last fifty years will give him some advice:

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away, know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table,
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done

His choices as a parent are there “because human motives are variable”. As such, they will tend to vary, moment by moment, place by place, tattoo by tattoo. The president should carefully consider where and when he draws red lines, especially in public and especially when publicity is a key component of his red line’s hypothetical deterrent effect. Better to learn to gauge when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em now before the sarin calls of adolescence come around. Only then maybe there will be time enough for counting when the teenage years are done.


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