Focal Points Blog

Check Out the Green Party on Israel-Palestine Before Calling It a “Wasted” Vote

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein arrested while protesting against Fannie Mae.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein arrested while protesting against Fannie Mae.

Voting for a third-party candidate in a presidential election is considered by many to be a waste of their vote. At its worse, as when Ralph Nader supposedly siphoned off votes for Al Gore in 2000, it’s blamed for aiding and abetting the victory of a nightmare candidate such as George W. Bush.

On the other hand, justifications exist for voting third party in the 2012 presidential election. At the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky alludes to one.

Liberals are too nervous to think it, reporters too intent on a “down to the wire” narrative, and conservatives too furious and disbelieving, but it’s shaping up to be true: An extremely close election that on election night itself stands a surprisingly good chance of being not that close at all.

In other words, if Candidate X, who we dread, seems unlikely to win, we can afford to vote for a Candidate Z, about whom we’re enthusiastic, rather than Candidate Y, who has the best chance of blocking him or her. The more salient justification, however, presents itself when the extent to which Candidate Y (President Obama, in this case) reflects the interests of the rich and favors an expansionist foreign policy to only a marginally less degree than Candidate X (Romney). When the difference in the threat that the two candidates pose to the republic is negligible we need to find an alternative to both.

After the Green Party convention, where Jill Stein was nominated for president and Cheri Honkala for vice president, Nora Caplan-Bricker of the New Republic reported on yet another reason for voting third party.

By far the most common answer to my question—“Why vote for a candidate who won’t win?”—is that it’s important to “vote your values.” Greens talk about voting as a form of self-expression, as if it’s irrelevant whether you put someone in office by doing it. … Stein says her campaign is like “political therapy” for people who have had “self-destructive relationships to politics, like being stuck in an abusive relationship.” And her supporters think it will eventually work: Greens between the ages of 27 and 92 told me they think it’s possible they’ll see a president from the party in their lifetimes—that if they keep offering “political therapy,” mainstream voters who are frustrated by politics will start to want it: maybe in four years, maybe in eight, maybe in 50 or more.

At the New York Times, Susan Saulny reported:

A general internist who grew impatient with the social and environmental roots of disease, Ms. Stein said, ‘I’m now practicing political medicine because politics is the mother of all illnesses.’”

In other words, shifting the electorate to where it will stop voting out of fear is a long process, but one that needs to begin at some point.

Ms. Stein and Ms. Honkala’s key platform, reports Yana Kunichoff at Truthout, “is the Green New Deal, a jobs program which she says will both build on the success of the New Deal in the 1930s and also help move the United States toward a sustainable, green economy.” As an example of their foreign policy platform, which fundamentally revolves around drastically cutting military spending, let’s examine excerpts from their stance towards Israel and Palestine.

We recognize that Jewish insecurity and fear of non-Jews is understandable in light of Jewish history of horrific oppression in Europe. However, we oppose as both discriminatory and ultimately self-defeating the position that Jews would be fundamentally threatened by the implementation of full rights to Palestinian-Israelis and Palestinian refugees who wish to return to their homes. …. We reaffirm the right and feasibility of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel. … We reject U.S. unbalanced financial and military support of Israel while Israel occupies Palestinian lands and maintains an apartheid-like system in both the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel toward its non-Jewish citizens. Therefore, we call on the U.S. President and Congress to suspend all military and foreign aid, including loans and grants, to Israel until Israel withdraws from the Occupied Territories, dismantles the separation wall in the Occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, ends its siege of Gaza and its apart­heid-like system both within the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel toward its non-Jewish citizens.

For those of us who refuse to be guilt-tripped with charges of vote-wasting … for those of us who are tired of dragging ourselves into the polling both with heavy hearts and with only a sense of obligation — a vote for the Green Party’s presidential ticket is not just a vote against two parties that reflect the interests of a small minority of citizens, but a vote against the act of holding your nose while voting.

In other words, a vote for the Green Party is a vote for voting. And a vote for voting is also a vote for democracy.

Damaged Historical Sites and Stolen Antiquities Fray Syria’s Links to the Origins of Civilization

At the Independent, Robert Fisk writes:

“The destruction of Iraq’s heritage in the anarchic aftermath of the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 – the looting of the national museum, the burning of the Koranic library and the wiping out of ancient Sumerian cities – may now be repeated in Syria.

“… The priceless treasures of Syria’s history – of Crusader castles, ancient mosques and churches, Roman mosaics, the renowned “Dead Cities” of the north and museums stuffed with antiquities – have fallen prey to looters and destruction by armed rebels and government militias as fighting envelops the country. While the monuments and museums of the two great cities of Damascus and Aleppo have so far largely been spared, reports from across Syria tell of irreparable damage to heritage sites that have no equal in the Middle East.”

Three things are going on at once: concern for historical sites is trampled by the hostilities; looting; and even ethnic cleansing. Fisk again.

In Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s, I saw the same thing. The pulverisation of mosques and Catholic and Orthodox churches, the smashing of gravestones – even the bulldozing of graveyards – were a form of cultural cleansing that reached its apogee in the burning of the old Sarajevo library.

The souls of Iraq and Syria are irreparably damaged when their link to their heritage as the cradle of civilization is frayed. Indeed, the world is much the worse for it. “This is why it is so important,” writes Fisk, “to have an inventory of the treasures of national museums and ancient cities. Emma Cunliffe, a PhD researcher at Durham University, published the first detailed account of the state of Syrian archeological sites in her Damage to the Soul of Syria: Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Conflict, listing the causes of destruction, the use of sites as military positions and what can only be called merciless looting.”

Ms. Cunliffe’s report, issued in May of this year, can be viewed or downloaded free at the Global Heritage Network in May of this year.

Ploughshares Makes Life Hell for Oak Ridge Nuke Plant

Y12Before dawn on Saturday, July 29, reports Frank Munger at his Knoxville News column Atomic City Underground,

“…three peace activists — including an 82-year-old nun — were able to sneak into the [Y12] nuclear defense installation [in Oak Ridge, Tennessee] and maneuver their way into the plant’s highest-security area, where work on nuclear warheads takes place and where the nation’s primary supply of bomb-grade uranium is housed. The trio, who labeled themselves the “Transform Now Plowshares,” reportedly used bolt-cutters to slip through high-security fences.

“Once inside the so-called Protected Area, they attached protest banners to the uranium storage site, splashed it with human blood and spray-painted slogans and messages on the walls.”

Of course, the groups intention wasn’t to show terrorists how it’s done or to, per se, shame the facility’s security — and 82-year-old nun! But (Munger again)

In an extraordinary effort to address growing security concerns following Saturday’s break-in by protesters at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, the government’s contractor shut down all plant nuclear operations, placed the stocks of enriched uranium in secure vaults, and set up a schedule for thousands of Y-12 workers to take refresher courses on security do’s and don’ts. …The shutdown of operations is expected to last about a week, but officials said that’s not been fully determined.

Some background on Ploughshares:

On September 9, 1980, the “Plowshares Eight” carried out the first of what have come to be known as plowshares actions. Eight peacemakers entered the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where the nose cones from the Mark 12-A nuclear warheads were manufactured. With hammers and blood they enacted the biblical prophecies of Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) to “beat swords into plowshares” by hammering on two of the nose cones and pouring blood on documents. Thus, the name “plowshares” has been used to identify this action. The eight were subsequently arrested and tried by a jury, convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 1 ½ to 10 years. After a series of appeals that lasted 10 years, they were resentenced to time served—from several days to 17 ½ months.

As a disarmament advocate, I’ve long been in awe of the work Plowshares does. They not only dive headfirst into the legal system with significant risk of jail time, but what many don’t know is that they risk their lives. On Thursday, Munger wrote:

A federal spokesman at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant said it was fortunate that nobody was hurt or killed …. Steven Wyatt of the National Nuclear Security Administration said deadly force is authorized against those who enter the area without permission. “The protesters put themselves at a high risk of losing their life in performing this act,” Wyatt said.

The Term “Nuclear Security” Is a Modern-Day Koan to the Japanese

Japanese kanji for karma.

Japanese kanji for karma.

From the long-prevailing Japanese perspective, it’s foolhardy for the state to consider developing nuclear weapons.

Twice victimized by their use, Japan is uniquely positioned to know how engaging in nuclear war inevitably results in attacks like the ones it experienced in World War II. It’s also able to empathize with the prospect of another state struck by nuclear weapons and envision the negative karma (or gou in Japanese) their use generates.

Alas, many Japanese have focused on their victimization and, especially with North Korea nearby, bow down to the gods of deterrence in hopes of preventing another nuclear attack on Japan. In fact, as Yuri Kageyama reports for the Associated Press, arming Japan with nuclear weapons has long been part of the national and internal debate.

Historical documents released in the past two years show that the idea of a nuclear-armed Japan was long talked about behind-the-scenes, despite repeated denials by the government. …

In a once-classified 1966 document, the government outlined how the threat of China going nuclear made it necessary for Japan to consider it too, though it concluded that the U.S. nuclear umbrella made doing so unnecessary at the time.

In meeting minutes from 1964, 1966 and 1967, Japanese officials weigh the pros and cons of signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which would mean foregoing the nuclear option. Japan signed the treaty in 1970.

The government denials continued, even after former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone wrote in his 2004 memoirs that, as defense chief, he had ordered a secret study of Japan’s nuclear arms capability in 1970. The study concluded it would take five years to develop nuclear weapons, but Nakasone said he decided they weren’t needed, again because of U.S. protection.

Lately confusion arose when

… parliament amended the 1955 Atomic Energy Basic Law in June, adding “national security” to people’s health and wealth as reasons for Japan’s use of [nuclear-energy] technology. Given the secretive past, former diplomat Tetsuya Endo and others are suspicious about the June amendment adding “national security” to the atomic energy law. Backers of the amendment say it refers to protecting nuclear plants from terrorists. Opponents ask why the words aren’t then “nuclear security,” instead of “national security.”

As you can see, much more than semantics, the term “nuclear security” may be obfuscation intended to throw up a smokescreen behind which to advance the development of nuclear weapons. In any event, the phrase is a riddle. But, unlike a koan,* which can lead to enlightenment, this phrase has the potential to help usher Japan into a post-apocalyptic world of darkness.

*koan A paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.

There May Be a Method to the Madness of Apathy and Ignorance

Note: This post suffers from a case of style drift. That is, it’s only tangentially related to foreign policy.

At AlterNet, Chris Hedges recently made a strong case for individuals taking responsibility for how their actions (or lack thereof) affect society at large.

The greatest crimes of human history are made possible by the most colorless human beings. They are the careerists. The bureaucrats. The cynics. They do the little chores that make vast, complicated systems of exploitation and death a reality. … Good. Evil. These words do not mean anything to them. They are beyond morality. They are there to make corporate systems function. If insurance companies abandon tens of millions of sick to suffer and die, so be it. If banks and sheriff departments toss families out of their homes, so be it.

I used to characterize apathy and lack of conscience as the enduring enigma of the American public. In fact, though, as I wrote in a post titled for Scholars & Rogues in 2010, apathy may be socially redeeming.

Apathy, of course, aids and abets corrupt leaders. But it wasn’t until the publication of a book in 1996 that I realized apathy might be socially redeeming. Titled Who Are You, Really? (Carroll & Graf), it was written by Gary Null, the noted (and controversial) nutritionist who is also that rarity in this day and age — a Renaissance man.

You may have heard of a personality assessment questionnaire used by prospective employers, among others, called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. If it was an acknowledged product of Carl Jung’s book Personality Types, Myers-Briggs, in turn, seems to have been the inspiration for the categories into which Null divides us humans. You can find the heading under which most of us fall in his chapter “Most of the People You’ll Ever Meet: Adaptive Supportive.”

What, you ask, is an Adaptive Supportive? Null explains:

Adaptive Supportives generally do functional work. They may be clerical-level employees or blue-collar workers in government agencies or factories. They may work at the checkout counters in retail establishments or at construction sites. … sticking with a job year after year sometimes constitute an unrecognized act of heroism on the part of members of this group.

In fact. . .

Adaptive Supportives play an absolutely essential role in our culture, as in any. Without them, the inner workings of society would simply cease to function. … Because there are so many of them, their values and way of life pervade our culture.

Summing up. . .

Adaptive Supportives are the followers in life — the vast majority of the people who adapt their lives to prevailing belief systems. … Their whole lifestyle is supportive of the status quo and they thrive on the sense of belonging that comes from “fitting in.”

In other words, it’s time to stop libeling them as apathetic. It’s just how they’re wired: Their passivity is in the service of fulfilling their role as the bedrock of society. But, as with all personality types, you take the good with the bad. Of course, the liberal left is more familiar with how harmful they can be to society, as well as themselves. Gary Null again:

The real danger with Adaptive Supportives is that they will cling to faulty belief systems. They have a strong sense of trust in one authority, and they feel vulnerable and threatened if an idea or person challenges that authority. … They relinquish control over their own lives, giving more power to authority figures than they do themselves. That gives them a myopic view of life and closes off many avenues of growth and transformation.

Can They Transcend Their Limitations?

Here’s Null’s answer:

When Adaptive Supportives do change, it’s usually because an authority figure has given them “permission” to do so. When the authority in their lives changes, they’ll shift course and go along with whatever the leader expects of them. If the pope were to allow women to become priests, the masses would adapt to the change and support it. … The irony is that Adaptive Supportives could be a tremendous force in society, simply by virtue of their numbers.

Resolving to act against injustice tends to result from personal growth, about which Null writes:

. . . Adaptive Supportives must recognize that there is nothing intrinsic about them that prevents personal growth. … But they have to take charge of their own development. They can’t wait for some big boss figure to give them permission to change, to say it’s okay. The few Adaptive Supportives who do break through the “big-boss barrier” become very excited about their own untapped potential. … The catch is that they may need someone to work with them — generally a more dynamic personality — to keep them motivated and to supply structure and direction.

Just because Adaptive Supportives embody the turning-ship cliché doesn’t mean we should be discouraged. In fact, Null’s analysis should encourage us to cease lecturing them and throwing up our hands in exasperation. Instead, engaging them individually, we can draw out their needs and fears, and address them without the harshness — toward themselves as well as others — to which Adaptive Supportives are accustomed.

Still, it can’t be denied that engaging them on subjects such as politics, culture, and the future of the planet can be a thankless task. The most hidebound are best left to stew in their own juices. But, in the long run, most Adaptive Supportives would probably be glad to be weaned off those who prey upon their insecurities.

Exactly Which “Terror Plots” Are Relevant to the Bulgarian Bombing?

Following U.S news media coverage of the Burgas, Bulgaria bombing, one would conclude that the Hezbollah provenance of the attack can be determined from recent alleged Hezbollah terrorist plotting against Israelis in Cyprus and elsewhere. The New York Times quotes anonymous U.S. officials as saying the Burgas attack bears “all the hallmarks” of “the Hezbollah plots, including the arrest in Cyprus earlier this month of a suspected operative on the suspicion of scheming to kill Israeli tourists.”

So an arrest of a “suspected” Hezbollah operative who is “suspected” of a plan to kill Israeli tourists is the equivalent of an actual terrorist attack that has killed Israeli tourists? Bibi Netanyahu talked about the case on Fox News Sunday as though the Lebanese man arrested in Cyprus had done everything that was done in Burgas except actually detonate the bomb. So has the Israeli press.

But as I reported earlier this week, the Cyprus case is far murkier than Netanyahu and those U.S. officials have been suggesting. A senior Cypriot official told Reuters, “It is not clear what, or whether, there was a target in Cyprus.” Furthermore, the Cypriot investigators believe the Lebanese they suspected of planning to harm Israeli tourists was acting alone, which doesn’t make it sound like a Hezbollah operation at all. And perhaps most significant of all, there has no sign of a bomb or even of materials with which to make a bomb in conjunction with the Lebanese detainee. The Cypriot government has not yet decided whether there is enough evidence to prosecute the man on any violation of Cypriot laws.

The need for skepticism surrounding the Cyprus arrest applies even more strongly to the arrest in Bangkok in mid-January of another Lebanese with a Swedish passport who was suspected of being a Hezbollah operative. The arrest came after what was described by the Thai Deputy Prime Minister as “weeks of coordination with Israel.” The Israelis convinced the Thai police chief of their speculative allegation that the man was planning a massive terrorist attack along the lines of the 2008 Mumbai massacre that would include the Israeli Embassy, synagogues, tour companies and kosher restaurants.

The Lebanese who was arrested was charged with possession of ammonium nitrate and urea fertilizer, which are potential bomb-making materials, but none of the other necessary components for bomb-making, such as fuses and timing devices were ever found. And the former police chief, who is now the Secretary General of the Thai National Security Council, expressed doubt that the man was actually a terrorist.

Given the fact that the Israelis were then planning the assassination of an Iranian scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan in early to mid-January, the Israeli tale of a massive terrorist threat coming in mid-January, which first passed on to Thai authorities on December 22, was extremely convenient in terms of distracting attention from the inevitable negative press accompanying the Israeli terrorist action.

While the Obama administration has pointed to these murky allegations in Cyprus and Bangkok as relevant to Burgas, it has exhibited no apparent interest in the historical record of actual suicide bombings against Israeli tourists. The reason, apparently, is that, all of the terrorist attacks that fit that description have been claimed by al Qaeda or an affiliate.

The first suicide bombing against Israeli tourists was an al Qaeda attack in Mombasa, Kenya in November 2002. That operation involved an effort to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet as it took off from Mombasa’s airport, using shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, and then the triple suicide car bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa. The missile missed the aircraft, but the suicide bombing killed three Israeli tourists and 10 Kenyans.

The small number of Israeli deaths did accurately reflect al Qaeda’s intentions. In claiming responsibility for the Mombasa attacks, Al Qaeda proclaimed that it was targeting “The Christian-Jewish alliance” and promised future and more lethal attacks on Jews around the world.

In October 2004 three suicide bombers detonated a truck bomb and car bombs at the Hilton Hotel in Taba and two other Red Sea resorts which were favorites of Israeli tourists in Egypt, and most of the 34 dead were Israeli tourists. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, took responsibility for the attack. The organization said the attacks were intended to “purify the land of Taba from the dirt and corruption of the grandchildren of monkeys and pigs.”

In July 2005, three more terrorist attacks by suicide bombs killed at least 88 people at a shopping area and hotel packed with tourists, including Israelis, in the Egyptian Red Sea resort city of Sharm el Sheik. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades again claimed responsibility for what it called an attack “on the Crusaders, Zionists and the renegade Egyptian regime.”

The Abdullah Azzam Brigades organization was designated by the State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on May 24. Strangely, the designation ignored the history of the organization in suicide attacks on Israeli tourists in Egypt and said it was established only in 2009. But it did point out that the organization has bases in Lebanon which have launched rocket attacks on population centers in northern Israel.

Even if the U.S. national security state does not wish to acknowledge that the Burgas bombing fits the profile of an al Qaeda terrorist operation rather than Hezbollah, there is no excuse for the U.S. news media failure to report that inconvenient truth.

Gareth Porter, an independent investigative journalist and historian covering US foreign and military policy has been awarded the Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 by the UK-based Martha Gellhorn Trust.

Tunisia Culture Wars: Ruling Ennahda Party Refuses to Rein in Salafists

Cross-posted from Open Democracy and the Colorado Progressive Jewish News. This series, of which Part Two is below, is dedicated to the memory and contributions of Alexander Cockburn. See part 1 — Tunisia’s Culture War: Salafists Run Amok.

Until late last November, when a Salafist storm broke out at the University of Tunis’s Manouba Campus, Habib Kazdaghli, the dean of the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences, was living a generally quiet life. But since late last November, much has changed both for Kazdaghli and the University at Manouba.

Kazdaghli is currently the defendant in a law suit, forced to face charges stemming from an incident earlier this year in which he manhandled two female students, both wearing full veils (niqab in Arabic) who had barged uninvited into his office and were destroying his papers. Originally charged with assault and facing 15 days in prison, on July 5, Kazdaghli’s case was postponed until October 25, but the charge was changed to ‘violence committed by an official while carrying out his duties’, which could result in a five-year prison sentence.

Among his academic interests, Kazdaghli was known as one of the few Tunisian non-Jews with genuine interest and expertise concerning the long and rich history of Tunisian Jewry. He has been an active member of the Société d’Histoire des Juifs de Tunisie, a secular historical society bringing together historians of different religions and backgrounds to study Tunisian Jewish history. While this affiliation is perhaps not the central reason for the Salafist campaign against Kazdaghli, it undoubtedly added fuel to their bigoted fire.

Manouba’s calm was shattered in late November of 2011 when angry Salafist demonstrators began what would become more than six months of protests at the Manouba campus. There are some 13,000 students at the Manouba campus; left-wing and secular influences are strong there. It is likely that this explains why the Salafists have targeted the place and why Ennahda, the ruling party, has done so little to interfere with the disruptions and put an end to them. I happened to be in Tunisia at the time that this incident erupted and kept waiting, to no avail, for the authorities to step in and defuse the situation. They never did for the three weeks I was in the country. Instead, for its own reasons, the government simply let the crisis fester.

Reshaping Tunisia’s political class

Breaking the influence of the country’s student movement, an integral part of the coalition that overthrew the corrupt Ben Ali regime, is a key strategy of the current Tunisian ruling elite in its attempt to form a new political consensus, stripped of the more left-oriented and secular elements involved in the uprising. While the coalition that overthrew Ben Ali did not have a coherent programme – the themes that emerged from their demonstrations were clear enough: end to corruption, an economic programme that could raise wages and shrink unemployment, freedom of speech and expression, including for previously repressed religious institutions and an independent (independent of foreign powers – France and the USA in particular) foreign policy.

Why might global powers like the United States, Great Britain and France be so blasé about the rise of the Islamic fundamentalism in Tunisia (and elsewhere in the Middle East) they so criticize to home audiences? The unspoken, but unambiguous goal of Tunisia’s Salafists is to help the country’s new ruling elite split the revolutionary movement that toppled Ben Ali in the first place. That alliance which came together with such speed included a goodly portion of the country’s youth, its student movement, its trade union, human rights fighters, its intelligentsia as well as many from the country’s professional and entrepreneurial class.

Rather than integrating the students, the labour movement and the like into the new order, the ruling Ennahda Party has gone a long way to integrating many elements of the Ben Ali regime along with the country’s hitherto marginalized extremist radical fundamentalist elements – the Salafists – into its new coalition, leaving many of those who actually brought down the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans out of the mix, in the dust.

Key to isolating the more democratic and militant elements of the revolutionary coalition was to dampen and then in large measure to silence the national narrative that had exploded with the revolutionary upsurge: it was about jobs, higher wages, some reshaping of the economic model, ending corruption and extending democracy, neutralizing the role of the country’s secret police and ensuring greater freedom of expression.

What stood out about this national dialogue at the time Ben Ali was forced to flee (January 14, 2011 – now a national holiday), is how little religious considerations entered into the discussions. The atmosphere was not anti-religious, religious elements were involved in many levels of the revolt. But they were just a part of the mix, and by no means the dominant part; nor were their more radical Islamic fundamentalist elements a part of the revolutionary upsurge at all.

Tunisia: the socio-economic crisis discussions turn to religion

Shortly prior to the October, 2011 national elections for a constituent assembly, the national narrative shifted sharply from the socio-economic crisis which fuelled the revolt in the first place to matters of religion. (I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere.) The issue shifted from being a good citizen, regardless of religion or ethnic background, to one of being a good Muslim. More and more, the essence of ‘good Islam’ was shaped by the more radical, medieval elements within the Muslim community, elements essentially foreign to Tunisian Islam, Salafism.

The political consequence of this shift was to tear at the fabric of the left-centre coalition that had given their blood, sweat and tears, and their lives to kick out Ben Ali. Unable to stand the religious pressure, that coalition has lost a good deal of its energy and finds itself more and more isolated. A key element in undermining the revolutionary energy which could have propelled Tunisia to new political and economic vistas has been the sustained and completely cynical attack on the country’s university system in an attempt to tame it, bringing it under the control of more conservative (and not just religiously, but politically conservative) elements now in power.


Salafists are radical Islamic fundamentals whose stated goal is to turn Tunisia (and other places) into Islamic states ruled by Shari’a law. The Salafist movement is essentially foreign to Tunisian Islam, but has gained something of a foothold in the country since the overthrow of the Ben Ali government. Salafists had no role whatsoever in overthrowing the former regime. Their ranks continue to grow, especially among Tunisia’s rural and increasingly unemployed youth whose anger and frustration the Salafists are effectively manipulating.

Salafists thrive in increasingly dysfunctional societies; theirs is a toxic effect. They are beneficiaries of the chaos they have done much to create and enhance. In the end, they help the powers that be ‘divide and conquer’, pitting potential strategic allies against one another: religious against secular, men against women, etc. In Tunisia they are being used in an effort to change the political and social map of the country through what are in essence brownshirt tactics.

What is the end game? Where is all this cultural turmoil headed? The goal is nothing less than to re-shape the Tunisian national project away from its more secular origins as far as possible. To accomplish this, the Ennahda-led coalition needs to deconstruct, if not destroy, the great social movement that brought down Zine Ben Ali, while at the same time claiming to be the inheritors of that revolution.

One hypothesis put forth is that the Salafists are heavily infiltrated by elements of the former Ben Ali secret police, a 250,000 member spook and intimidation force. There is probably some justification to this allegation, although its main argument falls flat as it lets the current government off the hook for its collusion/cooperation with the Salafists. It also ignores the deals that have been cut between the Ministry of Interior, where most of these spooks were employed, the cadre of the former ruling Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD) Party of Ben Ali, and the post Ben Ali ruling elite in which Ennahdha has a decisive role.

The growing Salafist influence in Tunisia can be explained both by the refusal of the ruling Ennahda Party to prosecute Salafist excesses – on the contrary it has in many cases encouraged them – and as a result of considerable financial and political support of the movement by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Add to this that the United States and its European allies have turned a blind eye to Tunisian Salafist excesses and an explanation to their rapid growth in influence emerges.

Habib Kazdaghli (APF)

While a few of those demonstrating for the niqab at Manouba are university students, many were outsiders, shipped in from one Salafist demonstration to another. The demonstrators had three demands, cutting edge of what is surely a more encompassing agenda: to turn the University of Tunis into an Islamic University based upon Salafist values. Among the specific demands: the ‘right’ of women to wear the niqab to class – including exams; separate spaces within the university for prayer; and a curriculum that reflects ‘Islamic values’ to a greater degree than at present. The niqab is something virtually never seen in Tunisia in the past 60 years until now. It was illegal to wear it until a year ago.

The Salafist demonstrations provoked counter demonstrations from university students wanting to protect their hard-won academic space. The confrontations between the groups turned increasingly angry and violent and eventually had to be broken up by the police. As has been the case with many other Salafist intimidations, the police, held back by the authorities – the latter now controlled by Ennahda – reacted with glacial slowness, letting the crisis fester far beyond reasonable bounds.

As dean of the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences, Kazdaghli stood right in the Salafist line of fire. His integrity, openness to serious academic inquiry and dialogue, his refusal to give an inch to Islamic fundamentalist thuggery and more than likely his interest in Tunisian Jewish history, together made him – and the faculty he leads – a target. The Salafist protests continued into the new year with the tactics becoming more and more aggressive.

What is a bit curious is how few pro-Salafist people participated in ‘defending the right’ for women to wear the veil. There were no more than a handful of them – maybe 50 in all – trying to intimidate a campus of 11,000 students. The Salafists could have been easily countered by the authorities if the will had been there. But aware that they could function with impunity with the weight of the currently constructed Tunisian state on their side, the Salafists compensated for their paltry numbers with increasingly aggressive tactics.

University entrances were blocked preventing normal access; students were harassed and prevented from studying, disruptions caused class cancellations; 2011 end-of-year exams had to be cancelled and the university temporarily closed; female students were intimidated for their dress and bullied; they occupied a part of the faculty permanently.

Salafists target Tunisia’s Jews and women

These Salafist protests also contained extreme expressions of anti-semitism and overt hostility to women’s rights. Understanding well that the women of Tunisia are in a harsh battle to defend hard-won human and social rights, there was a marked female presence among those students protesting against the Salafist presence and demanding that the authorities act.

In response to this religious offensive, Habib Kazdaghli attempted to maintain the dignity of the University of Tunis as an academic institution based upon Tunisian law and university policies. On November 2, 2011, about three weeks before the Salafist disruptions began, the faculty board had voted to ban the niqab on campus. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “in practice though, niqab-wearers were allowed on campus and in the library but barred from classes and exams.” It was probably this faculty vote, initiated in response to the growing Salafist influence nationally that provoked the Islamic fundamentalists to act.

At about the same time, similar provocations took place throughout the country, suggesting an orchestrated campaign. There were Salafist disruptions at the business school of the University of Manouba (same campus as the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences), at the School of Arts and Humanities of Sousse, the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts in Kairouan and the Higher Institute of Theology of Tunis. Demands varied with the institutions. At Manouba they focused on the niqab; at the Institute of Theology in Tunis Salafists were demanding that moderate Islamic scholars be replaced by those more closely in tune with Salafist thinking and values.

His continued refusal to be cowed by this Salafist offensive made Kazdaghli a target of the demonstrators, but apparently also of the Tunisian authorities. The latter are probing – using the Salafists as their battering ram – just how far they can go to undo the achievements of the country’s founder and first president, Habib Bourguiba, in terms of secular education and women’s rights.

Kazdaghli’s initial response to the Salafist disruption was to deny outsiders permission to enter the campus in order to maintain order and the continued smooth functioning of the university. Upping the ante, two niqab-ed female students forced their way into Kazdaghli’s office and started to disrupt his papers. His response was to bodily toss them out of his office and in the aftermath, to press formal charges against them. These charges were never processed by the Tunisian police. But when the two women responded by pressing charges against Kazdaghli, the authorities acted swiftly, indicting the dean on charges of assault.

Kazdaghli rejects the charges and describes the lawsuit as having no merit. Defending himself, he commented, “This case was brought up by people who want to reshape our society, but I trust Tunisian justice.” One of his lawyers, Ahmed Brahim added to this, “The dean who represents the university, is being sued, while those who have disrupted classes and attacked Manouba University are free. This is not the message this country has been waiting for… Protecting our universities from aggression should be the primary concern.”

Quest for Human Rights Justice in Peru Suffers Serious Setbacks

Prime Minister Juan Jiménez Mayor.

Prime Minister Juan Jiménez Mayor.

Cross-posted from WOLA.

On July 20, the Peruvian Supreme Court emitted a highly controversial sentence in a case involving the members of the Colina Group death squad.

According to human rights defenders and the victims in the relevant cases, the sentence is a major step backward in Peru’s tortured quest for truth and justice in cases of egregious human rights violations. WOLA has long supported the efforts of the Peruvian human rights community and the victims of human rights violations seeking truth and justice, and strongly condemns this setback to overcoming impunity in Peru.

The sentence refers to three crimes committed by the notorious Colina Group, a military unit responsible for a series of human rights violations between 1991 and 1992: the 1991 massacre of Barrios Altos in which 15 people, including an eight-year-old child, were murdered and four others gravely wounded, and the forced disappearance in 1992 of journalist Pedro Yauri and of nine peasant leaders from the community of Santa.

The verdict not only reduces the sentences of renowned criminals, including former security chief Vladimiro Montesinos, but also turns on its head established jurisprudence of previous Supreme Court decisions, decisions by Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal, and rulings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Minister of Justice, Juan Jiménez Mayor (recently named Prime Minister), criticized the sentence as “shameful.” Eduardo Vega, Peru’s Ombudsman, stated that the verdict represented a “serious setback” in Peru’s efforts to achieve accountability for grave human rights violations and called for its rectification. President Ollanta Humala also noted his surprise at the verdict. Human rights groups have criticized the sentence and have stated that they will pursue actions domestically and internationally to challenge it.

The initial investigation into the Barrios Altos massacre was closed in 1995 after the Fujimori government passed two amnesty laws that granted impunityto state agents accused of human rights violations during the internal armed conflict (1980-1995). The victims and their legal representatives took the case to the Inter-American system, and in 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights emitted a verdict in the case, determining the responsibility of the Peruvian State for the massacre and ordering the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of those responsible. The same verdict determined that the 1995 amnesty laws violated international law and lacked legal standing.

As a result, the Barrios Altos case was reopened. The case is a complex one, involving 15 fatal victims and 31 defendants; later the cases of Pedro Yauri and Santa were incorporated into the legal proceedings as part of a “mega-trial” against the Colina Group members. However, the process was plagued by delays. The investigation lasted five years before the public trial started in 2005; then, due to a number of factors, but especially the delay tactics of the defendants’ lawyers, the public trial lasted another five years. Finally, in October 2010, a sentence was emitted finding 19 of the 31 members of the Colina Group responsible for the crimes. The most severe sentences, the maximum of 25 years, were reserved for the intellectual authors of the crime—Vladimiro Montesinos, the de facto head of the National Intelligence Service (SIN), Gen. (r) Julio Salazar Monroe, actual head of the SIN, and Gen. (r) Nicolás Hermoza Ríos, former army chief, and Gen. (r) Juan Rivero Lazo, former head of Army Intelligence—as well as for the chief operational heads of the Colina Group, former Army Major Santiago Martin Rivas and Carlos Pichilingue. The ruling was appealed by the defendants.

The Controversial Ruling
The Supreme Court announced its sentence in the case on July 20, 2012. The most controversial measures include a reduction in the sentences for virtually all those convicted, including Montesinos and Hermoza Ríos, which Supreme Court justice Javier Villa Stein, who presided over the court that emitted the ruling, said was in “compensation” for the lengthy legal process. But rights advocates say that the most questionable measures are related to a number of legal arguments that overturn the original sentence’s determination that the Barrios Altos massacre and the forced disappearances of Pedro Yauri and the peasants of Santa constituted crimes against humanity; that these crimes were committed by an organized apparatus of the State that constituted an unlawful association created for the purpose of committing criminal acts; and that Montesinos, Hermoza Ríos, Rivero Lazo and Salazar Monroe were responsible as autores mediatos of the crimethe same legal concept used to prosecute Alberto Fujimori for the Barrios Altos massacre, the La Cantuta murders, and two kidnappings. Of special concern, say human rights advocates, the sentence states that the Barrios Altos massacre does not constitute a crime against humanity. Although the sentence acknowledges that the crimes committed by the Colina Group were part of official State policy, it also states that this policy was not directed against the civilian population but rather against terrorists.

Human rights groups have challenged each of these arguments point by point. The systematic nature of the Colina Group’s crimes was documented by the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and has been recognized in sentences emitted by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Barrios Altos case as well as in the case of La Cantuta. The sentence emitted by the Special Criminal Court for the Fujimori case, which was ratified in December 2009 by the Supreme Court, recognized Barrios Altos and La Cantuta as crimes against humanity not only because they were directed at civilians but because they were part of official State policy, they were the result of a planned operation, and they occurred in a context of systematic violations of human rights. Additionally, the Peruvian Constitutional Tribunal recognized in 2005 that the crimes committed by the Colina Group—including the Barrios Altos massacre—constituted “crimes against humanity.”

The Supreme Court sentence has been sharply and widely criticized. The Vice Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Daniel Figallo, presented a recourse of amparo before the Constitutional Tribunal, the only legal remedy available within Peru to challenge a verdict of the Supreme Court. Several Parliamentarians have said that they would present a constitutional challenge against the Supreme Court judges who emitted the sentence. Diverse civil society groups, from labor organizations to human rights groups, criticized the sentence on a variety of grounds and said that they would petition the Inter-American Court to nullify the sentence.

Gloria Cano, head lawyer for APRODEH, one of the organizations representing the victims in the criminal proceedings, sharply questioned the ruling for its legalistic sophisms and its clear intent to favor not only those convicted in this legal process, but ultimately former president Alberto Fujimori Fujimori, who was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 25 years in prison for the Barrios Altos and La Cantuta cases. In this regard, Carlos Rivera, head lawyer for the Instituto de Defensa Legal, another NGO representing the victims in this case, stated: “The Villa Stein court has provided a magnificent political tool [to Alberto Fujimori] to challenge his guilty verdict.”

As WOLA has noted in the past, international law prevents pardons for crimes against humanity. By removing the status of “crime against humanity” in the Barrios Altos massacre, the Villa Stein sentence could provide new arguments for Fujimori’s supporters to propose if not a challenge to his guilty verdict, then a pardon for Fujimori. However, it is important to note that according to Peruvian law, those sentenced for the crime of aggravated kidnapping, as is the case for former President Fujimori, cannot receive a pardon.

Also of concern has been the attitude assumed by Supreme Court Justice Javier Villa Stein, widely seen as the architect of the sentence. In the wake of the wave of criticisms against the Barrios Altos-Yauri-Santa sentence, Villa Stein assumed a combative tone, accusing Minister of Justice Jiménez Mayor of “stoking the fire” and being a “polarizing figure” for his comments criticizing the verdict. He stated that he would welcome a challenge to his sentence before the Inter-American Court, which rights advocates have said they will pursue. Most shockingly, Villa Stein mocked human rights groups, saying they should not continue to “whine” (“lloriquear”) about the sentence.

It is important to note that previously, APRODEH sought to have Villa Stein recused from this and other legal processes involving human rights cases due to his political positions. According to APRODEH, with regard to the Chavín de Huántar case, another highly controversial legal process involving the accusation against Montesinos and others for carrying out at least one extrajudicial execution in the aftermath of the hostage rescue operation in the Japanese Ambassador’s residence in 1997, Villa Stein asserted that NGOs defending victims in human rights cases were motivated by a desire to undermine the prestige of the Peruvian Armed Forces. The Constitutional Tribunal rejected APRODEH’s petition, saying that Villa Stein had a right to emit his personal political views and that these would not prejudice the legal proceedings. However, in the wake of the sentence, as well as Villa Stein’s dismissive comments, broad sectors of civil society are calling for his removal as a Supreme Court justice.

Justice on Trial
The victims of political violence in Peru have fought long and hard to overcome diverse forms of institutionalized impunity, including two amnesty laws that prevented them from knowing the fate of their missing loved ones and seeing those responsible for these crimes prosecuted and punished. After the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 2003 report recommending the criminal prosecution of several cases of grave human rights violations, special bodies were set up in the Public Ministry and the Judiciary to investigate and prosecute these crimes and facilitate the rights of the victims to truth and justice. A number of important sentences, including the Fujimori verdict, were emitted staring in 2005. In recent years, however, human rights organizations in Peru have denounced a number of obstacles that have emerged that have undermined these special human rights courts and the broader process of justice for victims of state-sponsored human rights violations in Peru. The Villa Stein sentence is one more factor contributing to new forms of impunity in Peru today.

Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Mexicans Sidestep Rigid Gun Control to Arm Themselves

“Americans look at Mexico and see a country of relentless bloodshed, where heads are rolled into discos, where mutilated bodies show up a dozen at a time and where more than 60,000 people have been killed since the government began its assault on drug traffickers in 2006,” reports Damien Cave for the New York Times.


… Mexicans see their northern neighbor as awash in violence, too. They look with amazement at the ease with which guns can be purchased in the United States and at the gory productions coming out of Hollywood, and they shake their heads at the mass shootings last year in Tucson and last week in Aurora, Colo.


Many Mexicans acknowledge that Mexican violence would not disappear even if American laws were more restrictive.

Turns out guns can’t be legally purchased with ease in Mexico. In fact, as Cave reports, only one licensed gun store exists in the entire country, as opposed to 49,762 in the United States. In light of all the violence in Mexico, who would have guessed?

In fact, the Mexican citizenry may be at least as well armed as America’s. Besides from the United States, guns are illegally imported from Europe, China, Russia, and South America. Who are the gun traffickers in Mexico?

At the Guardian, Chris McGreal reported last December.

“The United States is the easiest and the cheapest place for drug traffickers to get their firearms, and as long as we are the easiest and cheapest place for the cartels to get their firearms there’ll continue to be gun trafficking,” said J Dewey Webb, the special agent in charge of pursuing weapons traffickers in Texas at the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

That’s right: the drug cartels not only import guns for themselves but to sell.

As Drones Grow More Precise, Their Targets Become Increasingly Vague

At the New York Times blog Opinionator on July 22, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps wrote a post titled The Moral Hazard of Drones. Using a passage from Plato’s Republic they concluded: “To say that we can target individuals without incurring troop casualties does not imply that, we ought to.” Meanwhile, this jumped out of the piece.

… the impressive expediency and accuracy in drone targeting may also allow policymakers and strategists to become lax in their moral decision-making about who exactly should be targeted. Consider the stark contrast between the ambiguous language used to define legitimate targets and the specific technical means a military uses to neutralize these targets. The terms “terrorist,” “enemy combatant,” and “contingent threat” are extremely vague and do very little to articulate the legitimacy of military targets. In contrast, the technical capabilities of weapon systems define and “paint” these targets with ever-greater definition. As weaponry becomes more precise, the language of warfare has become more ambiguous.

Then, of course, as first publicized by Daniel Klaidman at Newsweek, there’s the signature strike*: “the targeting of groups of men who bear characteristics associated with terrorism, but whose identities aren’t known.” In other words, while drone strikes grow more accurate, defining a target is relegated to the realm of inexact science. It’s as if a zero sum relationship exists between the accuracy of targeting and those targeted.

*In this context, “signature” is an unfortunate choice or words: it suggests that ill-defined targeting is the defining strike of the drone force.

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