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December 27, 2006

The Shame of Hanging Saddam

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Albert Camus’s Reflections on the Guillotine opens with an anecdote of his father’s relish as he prepares to attend the execution of a man who murdered a family of farmers. His father laments the leniency of the guillotine for such a crime, and makes his way to join the baying crowd. He says no more upon his return, instead, he lies down and begins to vomit repeatedly. Camus argued that this should be the response of any reasonable human. The sense of nausea and revulsion i feel at the death penalty was one of my earliest moral responses.

I felt that same revulsion yesterday evening when i heard that an Iraqi appeals court has resolved to apply to its former tyrant a practice which can only appeal to the basest and most brutal human instincts. When Saddam’s original sentence was passed some put the strange but recurring argument to me that the death penalty becomes of none or of lesser concern when murderous dictators are involved. The absurdity of this argument would commend it to the dustbin of history were it not for the prominence it retains, blazoned as it is across the frontpages of best-selling tabloids.

Those who argue this are perpetuating the very barbarism they claim to be punishing. By breathing new death into the worst instincts of humanity they further guarantee the prevalence of the crimes they claim to despise. As Camus saw, ‘it is obviously no less repulsive than the crime, and this new murder, far from making amends for harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one.’ Or as George Bernard Shaw argued ‘It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind.’

Too many understand the primary role of the law to be punishment. It should not be this at all, but rather the prevention of future crime. The death penalty is an emotional retaliation to murder rather than a rational, moral refutation of it. Human nature being malleable, the law should appeal to our better natures. All this applies equally to the execution of dictators. For human rights are either universal or they are nothing.

The pernicious effects of the death penalty go further. Those who argue for it help to ingrain a truly coercive conception of the relationship between the state and the individual. This has its effects in the field of nuclear weapons, the indiscriminate nature of which amount to states regarding individuals as disposable property.

Changes of leadership in Iraq have often been marked by the execution of the previous encumbents. Iraqis face a great struggle to salvage any tangible benefits from the immoral and disastrous invasion. But the abolition of state murder in their country would have been one. I should credit President Talabani and Deputy Prime Minister Salih here for taking this position. Given the chance Talabani would have refused to sign a death penalty but a special law established for the tribunal denies him this right. The trial itself fell far beneath legal standards meaning any verdict was as Human Rights Watch argued, ‘too unsound’ to stand. The political meddling that removed a judge for being ‘too lenient’, epitomised the often farcical events. All twists and turns pointed to a pre-established conclusion; that Saddam would be hanged.

Moreover, the trial has only examined the torture and murders in Dujail following an attempt on Saddam’s life. The rather different outcome that is now imminent leaves his other trial regarding the Anfal campaign against the Kurds eternally paused. His reprisals against the 1991 Kurdish and Shi’ite uprisings have been ignored. The trial has the stink of a hasty set of affairs driving towards a grimly inevitable ruling. How convenient that the Anfal campaign, when the US and UK colluded with Saddam, has only been skimmed. Destroying Saddam now means we lose the opportunity of ever achieving a lasting, comprehensive indictment of his rule. His victims are patrionised by this fumbled, half-baked trial. They are left with American platitudes and hypocrisy.

This trial should have assembled for posterity an inalienable judgement against the horrors of the old Iraq. Instead, it has been doused in the horrors of the new.

December 19, 2006

Why I've Signed The Euston Manifesto

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Well it took me a while but my thoughts over the last few months have convinced me that the purposes and principles of the manifesto need to be spoken up for. Read the Euston Manifesto yourself here linktext

As one of the main aims of the manifesto is to create new debate i’d love to hear your submissions for or against the manifesto.

For those of you unfamiliar with the manifesto it was launched in May by a group of progressive British
journalists, academics and bloggers. It reaffirms the core values of the left against those who have tarnished and trangressed them. As the manifesto puts it we “reaffirm the ideas that inspired the great rallying calls of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century: liberty, equality and solidarity; human rights; the pursuit of happiness” Some have criticised the manifesto as too general but it is precisely because of the disgraceful behaviour of some on the left that such core principles need to be reasserted. The manifesto is not a blueprint, nor the ideological statement for a new political party, but a starting point for renewed debate on the left and elsewhere.

One cannot be a neutral in the struggle between those on the left who support universal human rights and those who conveniently pick and choose according to narrow political interest. The last straw for me came with the SWP/Respect support for Hizbullah over the summer. I support the Palestinian cause for statehood and am no friend of the Israeli government. But i found it utterly contemptible that left-wingers could support a group which has targeted innocent civilians, does not support Israel’s existence, and wants to establish a fascist theocracy in pluralist Lebanon. Not a scintilla of criticism or reserve was placed in front of this rabid support. Add to this the record of the most prominent anti-war figure, George Galloway, fawning over Saddam and Bashar Al-Assad, (see previous post to this) and silence was no longer an option.

So here in summary are my main reasons for support:

- Support for universal human rights. Too often today we hear culturally relativist arguments made that fail to recognise the differences within and not just between cultures and show little awareness of the cultural progress that can be made. A century ago ‘western culture’ was one in which women and gays were explicitly treated as second-class citizens, but a few bold pioneers pushed for the changes that now form the consensus. We must support those pioneers worldwide who seek to achieve the same for their societies today and not condemn them to their countries dominant culture.

- Though a number of its authors were prominent supporters of the Iraq War the manifesto itself has no stance on the war, a war which i opposed. Nevertheless, i wholeheartedly support the manifesto’s argument that after the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime the priority of all on the left should have been solidarity with the peaceful democrats and progressives in Iraq struggling in the most difficult conditions. Those SWP/Respect figures, and other leftists who supported the murderous ‘resistance’ which has killed far many more Iraqis than ‘imperialists’ must be roundly condemned. They betray the principles of internationalism and solidarity.

-A two state solution for Israel and Palestine. This remains the most practical and ethical resolution of the conflict and must be stressed in opposition to those on the left who back a one state solution.

-Freedom of speech and ideas Threats to these are growing at the moment, particularly in light of a damaging religious resurgence (see my piece On Freedom of Speech And Religion) and we must stress that ‘offence’ can never be used as a marker to limit free debate. Religious ideas must be as subject to criticism as all others.

-Opposition to double standards. Too many on the left publicise and protest against the human rights violations of Israel and the US without doing the same for violations in other states. Human rights are universal and therefore breaches of them must be condemned universally. The fact that the US has breached human rights with Guantanamo Bay and ‘extraordinary rendition’ does nothing to lessen the charges against states such as Iran and Syria. Criticism can never be mutually exclusive on either side. But this does not preclude recongition that despite its abuses the US as a liberal democracy remains superior to dictatorships. The SWP and others are so vociferous in their critcism of the US and so muted in their criticism of states such as Iran, that they end up with a de facto acceptance of dictatorships as legitimate resistance to the ‘American Empire’. The slogan of the International Socialists, the forerunner to the SWP, was ‘Neither Washington, nor Moscow but International Socialism’. Today it is just a big no to the US.

Let us now champion the founding Enlightenment values of the left with the same force, persistence and convinction with which others have betrayed them.

December 13, 2006

Pinochet's Death Reminds Us Of Today's Terrors

The death of Augusto Pinochet provided us with a neat dichotomy. On one side, Lady Thatcher, with appalling consistency, was said by her office to be “greatly saddened”. On the other, global campaigners marked International Human Rights Day. The difference between those who support universal human rights and those who conveniently pick and choose is one of the most important and enduring political divides today.

On the weekend of Pinochet’s heart attack, another great polarising Latin American figure, Fidel Castro, remained too ill to join his postponed birthday party. He has his own friends in British politics. Ken Livingstone, visiting Cuba recently, lavished praise once more on its government. George Galloway, no doubt aware he hasn’t got much longer to fawn over his Middle Eastern dictator of choice, has just published a hagiography of Castro, declaring him the “most popular politician in the world.” If so, one rather wonders why he has never bothered to put himself forward for free election in his own country. For democracy is what it comes down to in all cases.

Right-wingers were attracted to Chile politically as a bulwark against communism, and economically as a laboratory for the neo-liberal policies developed by the ‘Chicago Boys’. Indeed, Pinochet’s end came just weeks after the death of the free-marketeer, Milton Friedman, who spoke of the economic “miracle of Chile.” Leftists back Cuba politically as a plucky upstart resisting US hegemony, and socially for its high-quality health and education services.

In reality even forgetting the 3,000 dead the Chilean ‘miracle’ was only a miracle for the rich. The majority suffered as unemployment swelled to 40 per cent. Cuba continues to have a better story to tell. Life expectancy is 77 years compared to 69 for the rest of the region, 2.5 per cent of the population are undernourished compared to 10 per cent regionally and the literacy rate is one of the highest. Indeed, I spent a holiday in Havana reciting this and more to my weary family. These being my more romantic political days I was somewhat taken with the revolution’s iconography. Even reaching the dizzy heights of Fidel’s speech-making podium.

But all of this is negated when democracy is absent. The problem remains that prominent British politicians have been willing to put narrow ideological concerns before democracy and human rights in Chile and Cuba. Democracy and human rights should be the first and foremost test of a government, not mere after-thoughts. Allende’s government had been democratically elected, though Thatcher told Pinochet he brought “democracy to Chile”. Nope me neither.

Henry Kissinger, Pinochet’s second most famous western supporter, is yet to comment on his death. As National Security Adviser at the time of the CIA-backed coup he infamously declared that “I don’t see why we need to stand idly by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” One would have hoped that by now the US could have left behind the double standards epitomised by Kissinger’s realpolitik.

Sadly the terrorist attacks on the US, the same date as Pinochet’s 1973 coup, ushered in a new generation of human rights abuses under the guise of the “war on terror”. From Guantánamo Bay to “extraordinary rendition”, sufficient evidence has now emerged of the US engaging in the kind of systematic torture they helped bring to Chile by propping up the regime. New research by academics and human rights groups details abuses including sleep deprivation, mock executions and sexual abuse. And remember this leaves out unrecorded cases. The findings of the Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project implicate more than 600 US military and civilian personnel in abuse of over 460 detainees. Only half of these allegations have been adequately investigated. It now seems that Abu Ghraib was closer to the rule than the exception; the exception was that we all found out.

The biggest irony of Pinochet’s wretched life was that it made a central contribution to human rights law. His 1998 arrest in London led to the legal precedent that former heads of state are stripped of their immunity when faced with serious breaches of international law. Such legal progress was buffeted by the creation of the international criminal court, able to step in when domestic states were either unable or unwilling to do so. That the US refuses to sign, let alone ratify, the ICC treaty is a disgrace. Though as the findings above show they have good reason to fear the court.

One by one the old human relics of the Cold War are leaving us, biology is seeing to that. By contrast, too many of the moral double standards of that age remain stubbornly entrenched. Pinochet may have escaped justice but his last days were lived out amidst a backdrop of global revulsion. Today we must similarly hound out the perpetrators of and the apologists for any abuses.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 23/01/07

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