Stephen Zunes : Human Rights
I have rarely ever come face to face – only inches in fact – with such anger. Certainly not at an academic conference. And certainly not from such a prominent figure: chancellor of Australian National University, former attorney-general and foreign minister, former head of the International Crisis Group, and one of the world’s most prominent global thinkers.
Well before the launch of the Arab Spring, the people of the Maldives, a Muslim nation located on a tropical archipelago in the Indian Ocean, were engaged in widespread nonviolent resistance against the 30-year reign of the corrupt and autocratic president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The growing civil insurrection forced the dictator to finally allow for free elections in October 2008, which he lost.
Of the popular pro-democracy civil insurrections that have swept the Middle East over the past year, none were as large — relative to the size of the country — as the one that took place in the island kingdom of Bahrain. And while scattered resistance continues, none were so thoroughly suppressed.
The crackdown against the overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy struggle launched in mid-February was brutal. More 40 people have been killed, including a number in custody, and more than 1,600 have been arrested. Those targeted were not just human rights activists, but journalists who covered the protests and medical personnel who treated victims. In October, a military court sentenced 20 doctors and nurses to up to 15 years in jail for assisting the wounded.
An ad on my Facebook page from barackobama.com reads, “Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich say they would start foreign aid to Israel at zero. Reject their extreme plan now!”
This struck me as odd for two reasons:
First, it is disingenuous and misleading. The actual position taken by these Republican presidential candidates is that all foreign aid should initially start at zero as means of reducing the deficit, to be immediately followed by the resumption of aid on a case-by-case basis. As they themselves have acknowledged, they would immediately resume aid to Israel and perhaps even increase it. Ironically, U.S. “aid for Israel” goes almost exclusively to U.S. arms manufacturers, with which the Republican candidates have a close relationship.
The Obama administration appears to have given a green light to an Israeli attack on an unarmed flotilla carrying peace and human rights activists — including a vessel with 50 Americans on board — bound for the besieged Gaza Strip. At a press conference on June 24, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the flotilla organized by the Free Gaza Campaign by saying it would “provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.”
Since Obama came to office in January 2009, U.S. security assistance to the Yemeni regime has gone up 20-fold. Despite such large-scale unconditional support, however, the 32-year reign of autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh may finally be coming to an end. Yet the Obama administration has been ambivalent in its support for a democratic transition in this impoverished but strategically important country.
The Obama administration’s continued support of the autocratic monarchy in Bahrain, in the face of massive pro-democracy demonstrators, once again puts the United States behind the curve of the new political realities in the Middle East. For more than two weeks, a nonviolent sit-in and encampment by tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters has occupied the Pearl Roundabout. This traffic circle in Bahrain’s capital city of Manama – like Tahrir Square in Cairo – has long been the symbolic center of the city and, by extension, the center of the country. Though these demonstrations and scores of others across the country have been overwhelmingly nonviolent, they have been met by severe repression by the U.S.-backed monarchy.
It’s been two years since Israel initiated the “Operation Cast Lead” military assault on the besieged Gaza Strip. Since then, the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has launched an unprecedented wave of intimidation against Israeli peace and human rights groups. These groups say they are “working in an increasingly hostile environment,” according to a New York Times report, and that Israeli government leaders are fostering “an atmosphere of harassment” by turning “human rights criticism into an existential threat.”
However, Congress has chosen to look the other way — and wants the executive branch to do the same.
It was the second week in January in 1991. I was in the sanctuary of a large Catholic Church in Baghdad. Every votive candle in the place was lit, no doubt in support of prayers for loved ones in anticipation of the massive US bombing campaign — which was to be known as “Operation Desert Storm” – that was soon to commence. A member of our group asked the priest whose side the church would be on in the forthcoming conflict. He replied that “The Church can only be on one side. That of the victims.”
Well, we’re looking at a situation that bears striking parallels to East Timor: on the verge of decolonization from a minor colonial power, the large neighbor came and gobbled up the country, with the United Nations Security Council, along with the International Court of Justice, ruled that this takeover was illegal, called for Morocco’s withdrawal, but Morocco, like Indonesia, had some powerful friends on the UN Security Council, including the United States, which has blocked the world bodies from enforcing their mandates. And so, in fact, the invasion took place just six weeks prior to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, in November of 1975. So, for more than 35 years, the people of Western Sahara have been suffering under a foreign military occupation….