Analysis of foreign affairs and policy that emphasizes global cooperation and grassroots participation.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Following a week of accolades abroad, President Enrique Peña Nieto returned home to face the worst political crisis of his administration. Protests rage after local police forcibly disappeared forty-three students of Ayotzinapa, a rural teaching college in the southern Mexico state of Guerrero. As the investigations continue, the crisis has laid bare the violence and corruption that control large parts of the nation.
Led by youth, protesters across the country blame the government for the attack and others like it. As the father of one of the missing students said, “The government knows where they are.” His tone expressed deep fatigue and even deeper pain.
On the night of September 26, police patrol cars from the city of Iguala blocked the buses his son and other students were traveling in, and opened fire on the students. In a bizarre series of events, an armed commando attacked the students in the same spot hours later. During the night, more students from Ayotzinapa arrived to rescue their companions, and members of the state teachers’ union came to help. The shooting went on.
Nearby, a third attack—on a local soccer team possibly made up of Ayotzinapa students as well—left another youth dead. Videotapes in the hands of the Guerrero state prosecutor’s office reportedly show that local police also participated in this attack, which appears to be a case of mistaken identity. Federal police arrived at the scene at least two hours later and refused to tend to the wounded.
By all accounts, law enforcement agents limited their activities to firing on the students and carrying off the forty-three who are now disappeared. No law enforcement officials—at local, state or federal levels—protected the young people under attack, despite massive deployment to fight the war on drugs. Survivors report that they carried the wounded to a nearby army base, where army personnel refused to aid them. Not one soldier stepped forward to try to stop the massacre of the youth.
The Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of Guerrero issued an urgent alert on September 29 stating, “These events demonstrate an excessive use of force and an intention to deliberately extrajudicially execute students by the Municipal Police and an omission on the part of state and federal authorities for failing to implement appropriate security measures that would have prevented a second aggression and the disappearance of 55 local students.” (Forty-three remain missing, as twelve were subsequently located alive.)
Why Did the Mass Shooting Occur?
It may be impossible to fit together logically all the pieces of who ordered the attack and why. It’s also possible that the attackers may not have acted logically.
We know that the ambush was planned beforehand and that it targeted the Ayotzinapa students. Beyond that there is a hot debate over whether organized crime ordered the local police under their power to attack, or the government used its relations with organized crime to terrorize and murder the students.
To make matters more complex, within that debate there is a consensus that the line between organized crime and government in the city was long ago erased by collusion between the two. The attorney general recently announced that investigations showed that the mayor of Iguala ordered the attack on the students. He is accused of having close ties to the regional organized crime cartel Guerreros Unidos, allegedly run by his wife’s brothers until two of them were assassinated and the third went into hiding.
The government is also blamed because it has entirely failed to keep the peace in Guerrero, a state that combines the worst aspects of government abuse and criminal violence. The area outside Iguala is one of the most important drug production regions of the country. The state’s political corruption guarantees protection and impunity. Its history of opposition, including by armed groups, makes it a nodal center for repression as well.
The local, state and federal governments have been hostile to the rural school for years. Founded in the post-revolutionary period for children of peasant families, the school has staunchly defended revolutionary values as a series of governments has moved to privatize, globalize and atomize Mexican society. The students protested the recent education reforms modeled after US programs. When they were attacked, they were raising funds to participate in a march to commemorate the October 2, 1968, massacre of students at Tlatelolco in Mexico City.
Young men from impoverished rural families with revolutionary ideals and a penchant for direct action are the natural enemies of politicians building new kinds of state-business ties—especially ties that include the business of illegal drug trafficking.
There are also precedents for these events. On December 12, 2011, state and federal police shot and killed Ayotzinapa students Gabriel Echeverría de Jesús and Jorge Alexis Herrera Pino at a roadblock. No one was ever held responsible.
The criminal group Guerreros Unidos, an ultraviolent splinter from the Beltran Leyva cartel, had a less obvious motive to abduct the students but more capacity to carry out the crime. The history of Guerreros Unidos reveals the insanity of the war on drugs. As US-backed security forces arrested or assassinated successive cartel leaders to enforce US prohibition, the splinter groups went rogue and used territorial control as carte blanche for any criminal activity that benefited them. Embroiled in a turf war with Los Rojos in Chilpancingo, the Guerreros Unidos could have ordered the hit for a number of reasons without necessarily thinking through the consequences, which now include fifty members of their cartel arrested in the past three weeks.
But the students are convinced that the criminal group is not behind the killings. A student who prefers to remain anonymous due to the climate of persecution stated, “This was the government because they’re the only pigs that would dare to kill innocents like that. Criminals kill each other. Not the government: the government attacks the people directly.”
Regardless of the actual interplay between state and criminal organizations, this is typical of youth reaction in Mexico. In marches and on social networks, young people express a sense of being under attack. The Ayotzinapa massacre and disappearances occurred just months after the army killed twenty-two youth in Tlatlaya in circumstances that suggest extrajudicial executions.
Clash of Images
In Iguala, reality reared its ugly head just as the international press was tripping over itself to praise the well-groomed president. The Peña Nieto administration has spent millions of dollars to improve its image, hiring the US lobbying firms Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates and APCO public relations, among others. Part of that effort has been a calculated move to downplay the violence as well as the war on drugs of Peña Nieto’s predecessor, which had become a political liability. The US government has encouraged a new public emphasis on economic reforms and cultural ties, while still directing the majority of its aid to the war on drugs.
But despite his overdue declarations to investigate and punish the perpetrators of the Ayotzinapa attack, Peña Nieto has a dilemma on his hands. A full investigation and prosecution would undoubtedly touch members of his own cabinet—particularly Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam and Secretary of the Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong. The attorney general’s office allowed Iguala mayor José Luis Abarcato to escape and now admits there were errors in digging up twenty-eight bodies from a clandestine grave that informants said were the students. Murillo Karam reported that DNA testing showed the bodies are not the missing students, although tests continue.
The federal government also did not respond to many warning signs regarding corruption and illegal acts in Iguala and the region. In a too-little, too-late measure, federal police were sent out to take control of thirteen municipalities suspected of ties to organized crime. Security forces under the secretary of the interior failed—by all appearances purposefully—to protect the students.
The parents of the missing students and many others accuse the government of being more concerned with its image than with finding the kids. They say that the government is not carrying out an earnest search and instead is trying to wear them down.
But sweeping the scandal under the rug of oblivion and mass-media control is not an option in this case. This time, hundreds of thousands of youth throughout the country will not take spin for an answer.
On October 22, Mexican youth and people throughout the world joined in demanding that the students be brought back alive. Nothing is as important as this demand. It’s essential for the families, for the reputation of the nation and for restoring a modicum of faith in the government. If the students have been murdered, their families have a right to know as soon as possible.
After that, huge challenges will remain. The Mexican government must begin to enforce the law, even against those with money and power. And the US government must finally face up to its responsibility to suspend the Mérida Initiative’s security aid to Mexican forces that murder their own youth.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Haitians have seen their fair share of dictators and despots since their country gained its independence in 1804. But for the 1 million Haitians currently living abroad, one dynasty looms above the rest.
For nearly three decades, Haiti was ruled by the notorious Duvaliers—first by Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and then by his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc.” That era came to a close in early October, when Baby Doc died in Haiti at the age of 63. He had been facing charges of corruption and human rights abuse.
Baby Doc’s death has revived memories of repression and violence throughout Haiti. But one of his most significant legacies lies outside the country—in the flourishing Haitian Diaspora that fled the poverty and repression of the Duvalier era.
Papa Doc ruled Haiti with terror and impunity from 1957 until his death in 1971. With help from the Tontons Macoutes—a secret police force that took its name from a folk bogeyman who devours misbehaving children—Papa Doc presided over the murders of an estimated 30,000 people. Thousands of others simply disappeared or were imprisoned at the notorious Fort Dimanche, a prison known for torture, mutilation and death.
When Papa Doc died, his youngest and only son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” became a teenage dictator at the age of 19. Baby Doc lived an extravagant lifestyle as the president of Haiti, driving luxury cars while his wife pampered herself with fur coats. But beneath the flashy exterior, Papa Doc’s legacy of terror continued. Corruption, imprisonment and repression remained staples in Haiti’s government during Baby Doc’s fifteen-year rule.
And so did abject poverty, with over half of the population living on less than $1.25 a day in the early 1980s. The lack of jobs in rural areas caused a massive influx of workers into Port-au-Prince, where they took low-paying factory jobs with foreign companies lured by Baby Doc’s tax incentives. Paying low wages and benefiting from cushy tax breaks, these factories did little to improve Haiti’s economy. Instead, expansive slums spread out around Port-au-Prince, putting immense pressure on the weak Haitian infrastructure. Prospects for economic mobility were bleak.
A staunch anti-communist, Baby Doc managed to restore Haiti’s relationship with the United States—which had been strained during his father’s rule—by releasing a few political prisoners and loosening restrictions on the press, earning his otherwise oppressive regime support from the Reagan administration. But while the US government was supporting Baby Doc, Haitians were fleeing to the United States by the thousands.
A Nation in Exile
Initially the numbers were modest: In 1960, about 5,000 Haitians were living in the United States. But in the late 1970s, the flow quickened into a torrent. Approximately 220,000 Haitians immigrated to the United States between 1960 and 1990, including 25,000 in 1980 alone. Today over 600,000 Haitian-born people call the United States home.
Haitian migration started making US headlines when shoddily constructed boats filled with people began to wash up on the shores of Florida. The trip was perilous and often deadly, and because the US policy on boat migrants was to accept Cubans but not Haitians, there was always a chance of being sent back. However, not everyone left by boat. Wealthier and more educated Haitians who had the means to purchase plane tickets became known as the “Boeing people”—a sharp contrast to the “boat people” arriving by sea.
But for Boeing people and boat people alike, settlement patterns were quite similar. Many stayed right where they arrived in Miami, transforming neighborhoods into their own little enclaves. New York City—and in particular Brooklyn and Queens—also attracted a high density of Haitian migrants, as did Boston and northern New Jersey.
Haitians, however, were not welcomed with open arms. Though they fled brutal repression in Haiti, the US government considered them “economic migrants,” making it difficult to secure refugee status. Haitian migrants also suffered from racism and dangerous social stigmas.
In the 1980s, for example, the Centers for Disease Control listed Haitians alongside homosexuals, hemophiliacs and heroin users as key carriers of HIV. This malicious claim reared its ugly head again in 1990, when the Food and Drug Administration restricted Haitians (and sub-Saharan Africans) from donating blood. In a sign of the growing strength of the community, an estimated 50,000 Haitians, sub-Saharan Africans and their allies marched on the Brooklyn Bridge to protest the FDA that year.
While the diaspora struggled to dispel debilitating myths and build new lives abroad, the Haiti they left behind continued to suffer. The brain drain that began in the 1970s and ’80s hollowed out the country’s labor force, with some 70 percent of Haiti’s skilled workers still living abroad today. A shortage of teachers, doctors, scientists and engineers has left a huge hole in the economy and slowed down the country’s development. Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Yet in their absence, expatriate Haitians have become the country’s most valuable resource. The $1.5-1.8 billion they send home each year is more than half the national income of Haiti, and they have proven a crucial source of emergency funds in times of disaster. After the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake, which killed an estimated 300,000 people and destroyed 70 percent of buildings in the capital city, US-based Haitian groups sent doctors and nurses to aid in the recovery process, along with an additional $360 million in remittances to family and friends struggling to restart their lives.
End of an Era
A little over a year after the earthquake, Haiti’s political scene was struck by a quake of its own when Baby Doc, who had been deposed in 1986, returned to the country after over two decades of exile in France. Some speculated that his return was politically motivated. Others guessed that because of his sickly appearance, he had returned to die. Baby Doc himself claimed that he returned because he wanted to help in the reconstruction process.
His return was met with mixed reaction. Duvalier supporters, like current president Michel Martelly, welcomed him home. But expatriate Haitians who had suffered under his regime felt anger and jealousy that he was in Haiti and they were not: He was the reason they left, and now he was back on Haitian soil—a free man, but hopefully not for long.
Human rights groups scrambled to get Baby Doc to face trial for the crimes committed during his regime. He was arrested on charges of corruption and human rights abuses, but the justice process in Haiti moves slowly. After pleading not guilty to the charges, Duvalier died of an apparent heart attack before he could face trial. Immediately, President Martelly took to Twitter to release a statement of sorrow, reaffirming his support for the Duvalier regime by calling Baby Doc a “true son of Haiti.”
The Haitian Diaspora and their children, however, saw Baby Doc’s death differently. Patrick Gaspard, a child of Haitian emigrants who is now the US ambassador to South Africa, recalled “the look in my mother’s eyes when she talks about her brother Joel who was disappeared by that dictator.” Other Haitians called in to US radio stations to demand an investigation of the deaths and disappearances during the Baby Doc years.
Though they will never see Baby Doc imprisoned for his crimes, human rights groups in Haiti remain committed to moving forward with the case. Perhaps sensing this resolve, Martelly opted not to throw the deceased dictator a state funeral.
The Duvalier era remains an open wound in Haitian history. Baby Doc leaves behind two surviving children, an ex-wife, a Haiti still struggling to recover and a 1-million-strong diaspora—who remain Haitian to their core, but will likely never return home.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti was recently sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of separatism.
The former economics professor, who resided in Beijing for most of his career, is internationally known for his countless articles promoting stronger interethnic dialogue between Uighurs and China’s majority Han population. Through writing and peaceful advocacy, Tohti tried to lessen the friction between Uighurs and the Han community while advocating for Uighur rights.
Cynically, Chinese authorities treated his dedication to broader understanding among Chinese ethnic groups as a threat to the country’s territorial integrity. Tohti’s supporters consider him a peaceful yet passionate advocate for human rights. Instead he has been treated as just another Islamic extremist from Xinjiang.
In recent years, minority groups all over China have grown progressively more restive, with peaceful demonstrations increasing alongside violent terrorism. Separatists in the western regions have launched attacks against government buildings and innocent bystanders, while others have engaged in civil disobedience—including hundreds of self-immolations.
These are not arbitrary actions. Uighurs and Tibetans, among other underrepresented ethnic groups in China, have long felt oppressed by Communist Party policies. The government’s initial response has been to crack down on these “separatist forces” with an iron fist as a means to maintain social order and a semblance of unity.
Yet this response has only led to deeper resentment, prompting the government to explore alternative measures.
Although the government has not completely abandoned the “iron fist” policy, as the story of Ilham Tohti reveals, the Communist Party has devised a number of other strategies to address ethnic unrest. Many of these fall into the category of “soft power.” Nowadays the Chinese leadership is vigorously pursuing both approaches, deploying a carrot or a stick depending on the circumstances.
Tibet is populated overwhelmingly by ethnic Tibetans, while Uighurs constitute a plurality in Xinjiang. Han Chinese have increasingly settled in both regions—especially in Xinjiang, where their numbers nearly match those of the Uighurs, which has led to clashes.
Even though China’s official language is Standard Mandarin, Tibetan and Uighur are the preferred tongues, and sometimes the only spoken ones, among many natives of the western regions. Unlike the generally nonreligious Han, Uighurs and Tibetans are highly religious—the Uighurs overwhelmingly Muslim and Tibetans overwhelmingly Buddhist. Many Uighurs and Tibetans do not consider themselves actual Chinese citizens, or their homelands part of China. For example, Uighurs in Xinjiang often refer to their region as East Turkestan and refuse to use any other name.
Even though minorities are exempt from certain national laws, such as the one-child policy, the Chinese government’s rigorous political oversight of their territories has created friction among the various ethnic groups. Many Muslims in Xinjiang believe that government policies pose a threat to their cultural identity and dignity. In 2014, for example, Chinese authorities restricted the observance of Ramadan. Drastic measures were taken to prohibit the use of the Quran in educational settings, discourage attendance at madrasas and curtail customary fasting habits.
Younger generations have been the most vulnerable to these sanctions, since they find themselves obliged by their teachers and superiors to ignore their Islamic traditions. The government in Beijing is not only targeting children and average Uighur citizens, but also the local authorities. Xinjiang officials themselves have been reprimanded for openly expressing their religious beliefs.
The people holding the highest positions of power in China tend to come from the dominant Han ethnic group. Smaller communities have been perennially marginalized and overshadowed. Lately, this underlying animosity has escalated, resulting in outbursts of violence—not only in Tibet and Xinjiang, but all over the nation.
One of the most recent tragic events took place in the province neighboring Tibet known as Yunnan. Last March, knife-wielding assailants assaulted crowds in the Kunming train station, resulting in twenty-nine deaths and over 140 injuries in a bloodbath the Chinese government blamed on Uighur separatists. Another dramatic attack followed two months later in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, when attackers crashed cars and threw explosives at a crowded marketplace, killing thirty-one.
An earlier incident occurred in October 2013, when a car crashed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and burst into flames in a suspected suicide attack. Five people were killed, including three in the car, and dozens were injured. Last August, the Chinese government executed eight Uighurs it accused of fomenting terrorism, including one allegedly linked to the Tiananmen attack.
The situation in Tibet—where there have been few reports of violent resistance since the uprising of 2008—has been somewhat different.
There, protesters have relied on “passive aggressive” tactics, including more than 120 cases of self-immolation. The Communist Party has blamed the Dalai Lama for inciting these activities and incarcerated many Buddhists who have attempted the same or urged others to do so. Most of these “separatist revolutionaries” have been labeled as traitors, given death sentences or put behind bars.
But without forsaking its “iron fist,” the government in Beijing is now experimenting with different approaches to balancing majority-minority relations without the use of force.
One such unorthodox tool has been encouraging interracial marriages. In order to promote these matches, economic and social incentives have been offered, including paid vacations, social security and employment prospects. Even though there are still few interracial marriages, the numbers have more than quadrupled since 2008, going over the 4,000 mark.
Not everyone is thrilled at the strategy, however. Many minorities view intermarriage, like the earlier efforts to relocate Han to the Western regions, as just another strategy to absorb and integrate non-Han Chinese into the dominant Han culture. The ultimate goal, they warn, is the destruction of minority cultures.
Other parties are experimenting with media outreach. A Chinese film company known as Shenzhen Qianheng, for example, is developing a 3D cartoon called “Princess Fragrant,” a love story about an eighteenth-century Han Chinese emperor and his Uighur consort. The cartoon’s Han creators hope it will encourage curiosity and communication between Uighurs and Hans.
Intermarriage and cartoons are certainly preferable to violent suppression. But they will not ease the tensions that have been boiling over for decades. The Chinese government needs to address the structural issues that have generated the mistrust and resentment. But Beijing is not going to allow the vast, geopolitically significant territories of Xinjiang and Tibet to secede from the country. A common ground has to be found and more freedoms have to be granted if China is indeed going to maintain its internal cohesion in a peaceful and productive way.
Tohti’s imprisonment and the higher degree of surveillance imposed in Xinjiang and Tibet show that the Chinese government will not hesitate to keep the country unified by any means. The long-term effects of such actions, however, might potentially escalate the existing conflict. Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China, believes that the Tohti verdict is only going to aggravate the overall domestic situation: “Rather than encouraging sensible, moderate voices like Tohti’s,” she said, “this will exacerbate the tensions in the region.”
After Tohti was incarcerated, many lost hope for the peaceful road to ethnic equality that he actively supported. It’s not too late, however, for the Chinese government to realize that a policy of carrots will be more successful in the long term than the sticks that it has recently deployed.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The US stance on Iran’s uranium enrichment program, according to recent media reports, is softening.
In other words, Washington might agree to a technical workaround on the issue of dismantling centrifuges or accept a higher number of active centrifuges than it had previously been seeking in international negotiations with Iran.
But if the P5+1—that is, the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—and Iran fail to reach an agreement on a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program by the November 24 deadline, the reason will be quite obvious, as this quote from a Western diplomat reveals: “On the core issues, we remain pretty far apart,” the diplomat told a group of journalists on September 26. “On enrichment, we are not there yet.… There are significant gaps, but we are still expecting significant moves from the Iranian side.”
Like Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, waiting the length of the play for a character who never appears on stage, the P5+1 have been “expecting significant moves from the Iranian side” on uranium enrichment for over seven months now, since talks on a comprehensive deal began in late February. Those moves haven’t materialized. Some politicians in the United States and Europe are both irritated and mystified at Iran’s “intransigence” in the face of US “flexibility.”
But they shouldn’t be.
Iran already made some pretty significant moves to reach last year’s interim agreement. Iran’s leaders agreed to freeze their nuclear program in place, to drastically cut their stockpile of enriched uranium, and to cooperate with stringent monitoring and verification processes—agreements that they have kept.
In return for these concessions, they got about $7 billion in sanctions relief and the promise of more negotiations. The deal to extend the talks that was reached in July gave them another $2.8 billion in sanctions relief. So, the total to date is $9.8 billion—which is a lot of money, but it’s less than 3 percent of Iran’s 2013 GDP. That number is similarly unimpressive when compared to the $100-plus billion in Iranian assets still frozen under the sanctions regime.
Also working against the possibility of “significant moves from the Iranian side” is that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, by all available evidence, has more to lose politically by making major new concessions to the P5+1 than he does by walking away from the table. The Iranian public is prepared for the nuclear talks to fail, and they’ve already decided that the United States and the rest of the P5+1 will be primarily responsible for their failure. That’s not to say that Iranian hardliners won’t use the failure of the talks to score political points against the moderate Rouhani. But whatever damage he would take in such a scenario pales in comparison to the amount of public hostility he would engender by agreeing to a deal that drastically cuts Iran’s enrichment capacity from where it is now—a concession that nearly three-quarters of the Iranian public would reject.
Logically, the P5+1 position makes little sense. If Iran were going to concede to the P5+1′s wishes with respect to uranium enrichment, why hasn’t it done so already? What has changed since July, when the first deadline for a deal came and went, that would make Iran more amenable to the P5+1 position now? If anything, the extension of talks has placed so much attention on Iran’s commitment to its enrichment program that to acquiesce to American demands would likely be more politically damaging for Rouhani now than if he had done so in July.
Rouhani’s recent speech to the UN General Assembly did not have the air of someone who was desperate to reach a nuclear agreement under any terms, given its emphasis on protecting Iran’s nuclear rights. He said:
We are committed to continue our peaceful nuclear program, including enrichment, and to enjoy our full nuclear rights on Iranian soil within the framework of international law. We are determined to continue negotiations with our interlocutors in earnest and good faith, based on mutual respect and confidence, removal of concerns of both sides as well as equal footing and recognized international norms and principles. I believe mutual adherence to the strict implementation of commitments and obligations and avoidance of excessive demands in the negotiations by our counterparts is the prerequisite for the success of the negotiations.
Rouhani made sure to place blame, should the talks fail, on unfair Western (i.e., American) demands and a desire to stifle Iran’s development, both points that polls say are critically important to the Iranian public:
Arriving at a final comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran will be a historic opportunity for the West to show that it does not oppose the advancement and development of others and does not discriminate when it comes to adhering to international rules and regulations. This agreement can carry a global message of peace and security, indicating that the way to attain conflict resolution is through negotiation and respect, not through conflict and sanction.
What’s worse is that, by waiting for Iran to concede on a few thousand centrifuges in order to lengthen its “breakout time,” the P5+1 risks missing the opportunity for a historic chance to reintegrate Iran into the international community. MIT nuclear security expert Jim Walsh has pointed out that in past arms control agreements, it is inevitably the process of reaching the agreement itself—and the political and diplomatic changes the agreement enables—that ensures the long-term success of the arms control process. The painstakingly negotiated details about numbers of armaments or uranium enrichment capacity are never as important as that political change.
A comprehensive nuclear deal has the potential to reincorporate Iran into the international community for the first time in thirty-five years and could cement the strength of Rouhani and his fellow moderates within Iran’s fractious internal political system. Changing Iranian politics and the way Iran interacts with the rest of the world would have immense benefits for arms control as well as on a vast array of other regional and international fronts, benefits that can’t be boiled down to a simple—and flawed—calculation of Iran’s nuclear breakout potential.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has observed that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” But the definition of a “bad deal” needs to be about more than breakout metrics and minimizing Iran’s enrichment capacity. The P5+1 must stop defining the success of a comprehensive deal purely on metrics and instead consider the intrinsic value that such a deal will bring with it. President Obama’s own address to the UN included a call to Iran’s leadership to “not let this opportunity pass.” The United States and the P5+1 would be well-advised to heed the same call.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
If Barack Obama owes his presidency to one thing, it was the good sense he had back in 2002 to call George W. Bush’s plans to go to war in Iraq what they were: “dumb.” (The war was many other things too—illegal, cynical, not to mention disastrous—but “dumb” was pretty good for a guy running for Senate back when both parties had largely lined up behind the war.)
Since then, Obama’s had his ups and downs with the antiwar voters who delivered his 2008 nomination and subsequent election. But throughout the arguments over drones, Afghanistan, Libya and NSA spying—among other issues—Obama could always come back to these voters and say: Hey, at least I ended the war in Iraq. What do you think the Republicans would have done?
But now, with scarcely a whisper of serious debate, Obama has become the fourth consecutive US president to launch a war in Iraq—and in fact has outdone his predecessors by spreading the war to Syria as well, launching strikes not only on fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) but also on the Al Qaeda–linked Nusra Front and Khorasan.
This was no minor escalation. According to The Washington Post, the United States and its Arab allies dropped more explosives on Syria in their first engagement there than US forces had dropped over all of Iraq in the preceding month. It was the largest single US military operation since NATO’s intervention in Libya was launched back in 2011.
War planners are predicting that the latest conflict could rage for three years or longer, meaning Obama will bequeath to his successor a quagmire much like the one he inherited—the one he’d so distinguished himself by opposing and subsequently ending. That’ll make five US presidents at war in Iraq and beyond in a row.
Polls show some significant public support for air strikes against IS, albeit alongside ample wariness about getting dragged in too far. Support for action against IS is easy enough to understand: Many fair-minded people otherwise weary of war in the Middle East are appalled by the brutality of IS and feel compelled to “do something” to stop them.
And we should do something. But not this.
We’ll come to regret this war, potentially long before it’s had three years to run its course. Here’s why.
This War Is Illegal
So, first thing’s first: this war is unmistakably illegal.
Under international law—at least as defined by the UN Charter, to which the United States is a founding signatory—one country can only legally launch attacks inside another under one of three conditions: if the intervention is authorized by the UN Security Council; if it’s a cut-and-dry case of self-defense; or if assistance is requested by the other country’s government.
It’s true that in Iraq at least, the government requested US assistance in stemming the spread of IS—an intervention promoted in Washington as part of an effort to prevent the genocide of Iraqi religious minorities like the Yazidis (remember them?). Yet the United States has continued launching strikes on IS positions in Iraq long after the crisis on Mt. Sinjar was putatively resolved.
But in Syria, not a single one of these conditions applies.
In a letter to the United Nations explaining its strikes on Syria, the Obama administration claimed that it had the right to attack IS positions that the Syrian regime was “unable or unwilling” to eradicate itself. IS, the administration argues, has used its strategic depth in Syria—where no US intervention has been formally invited by the still-sovereign Assad regime—to attack Iraq, which has requested US assistance.
Here it almost seems like the US and Iraqi governments are taking a page from IS itself and attempting to erase the Iraqi-Syrian border. It’s true that IS is a big problem on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, but the government of Iraq simply has no legal authority to direct a third country to attack Syria. (Imagine a hypothetical scenario in which Russia attacks the United States because Syria requested help in warding off foreign intervention in its territory. This won’t happen, but it shows the inane implications of the administration’s rationale.)
Additionally, any claims the White House makes about “self-defense” at this stage are spurious, since US intelligence agencies have confirmed that IS presently poses no threat to the US homeland. This makes sense—after all, who has time for international terrorism when you’re also trying to conquer and govern new territory? No need to attack the “far enemy” when your objectives are achievable where you’re already fighting (unless, of course, the far enemy suddenly starts bombing you).
Domestically, congressional authorization (if not a formal declaration of war) is required to launch sustained new military operations. Here the Obama administration is on even weaker ground. It claims that Congress’s 2002 war authorization in Iraq gives it some standing. But again, while the Middle East’s post–World War I borders may be arbitrary and problematic for a host of reasons, IS is currently the only party attempting to seriously argue that Syria and Iraq are not two different countries.
The administration is also leaning on the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorized using the military to track down the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. This has been quite liberally interpreted to authorize strikes against “Al Qaeda and its associated forces”—a reading of the law the Obama administration has used to justify drone strikes from Somalia to the Philippines—but even these legal gymnastics don’t seem to cover a group like IS, which split very publicly from Al Qaeda earlier this year.
That may be why the initial strikes targeted not only IS but also the Nusra Front and a group called Khorasan, which do appear to be linked to Al Qaeda. But while the White House has claimed that Khorasan—a previously unknown organization—was in the “execution phase” of some planned attack against the United States or Europe, the legal rationale for such “pre-emptive” strikes was thoroughly discredited by the last Iraq War. Moreover, US counterterrorism officials have cast doubt on the administration’s claim that Khorasan posed an imminent threat to the United States. (And journalist Glenn Greenwald doesn’t believe the group exists at all.)
So why attack these other groups now? A likely explanation is that the White House is using these Al Qaeda–linked forces as a fig leaf to justify attacking IS—and getting involved in Syria more generally—under the previously passed AUMF. But getting mired down in Syria’s civil war—a war that began more than a decade after 9/11, and for entirely unrelated reasons—is a far, far cry from tracking down the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
This Plan Won’t Work
It should bother you that this war is illegal and unconstitutional. But even if you’re fed up with the legal niceties of the UN Security Council and the US Congress, there’s simply no reason to believe that might is going to make right here.
Obama says the plan is to hammer IS targets from the air while bolstering partners on the ground—including the Iraqi Army, Kurdish fighters in Iraq, and “moderate” Syrian rebel groups—in a bid to roll back the advance of IS throughout Iraq and Syria without putting US “boots on the ground” (never mind those 1,600 troops and advisers that have already been sent to Iraq, along with a likely undisclosed number of special forces).
As my colleague Phyllis Bennis is fond of saying, you can’t bomb extremism out of existence. She’s right.
For one thing, bombs cause civilian casualties, which are inherently radicalizing. “The U.S. bombs do not fall on ‘extremism,’” Bennis has written of the strikes on IS’s capital in Syria. “They are falling on Raqqa, a 2,000 year-old Syrian city with a population of more than a quarter of a million people—men, women, and children who had no say in the takeover of their city by ISIS. The Pentagon is bombing targets like the post office and the governor’s compound, and the likelihood of large number of civilian casualties, as well as devastation of the ancient city, is almost certain.”
A protracted air campaign is likely to cause a raft of unintended consequences. In Yemen and Pakistan, for example—the targets of the vast majority of US drone strikes on alleged Al Qaeda “militants”—civilian populations have grappled with severe trauma and stress from living under the constantly hovering drones. Terrorist recruiters have repeatedly sought to exploit this trauma—especially among the thousands of Yemenis and Pakistanis who have lost innocent loved ones. The best that can be said of these years-long campaigns from a national security perspective is that they’re holding actions. Al Qaeda has certainly not been destroyed in either country, and it’s entirely possible that the drones themselves are providing a continued rationale for the group’s survival. It’s unclear why the Obama administration seems to think it can effect a different outcome in the vastly more complicated theater of Iraq and Syria.
Then there’s the problem of what comes after the bombs. If IS falls back under the weight of US airstrikes, who moves in to secure the territory on the ground?
In Iraq, there are a few possibilities at this stage: the Iraqi Army, one of a number of Shiite paramilitary groups or, in the north, Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
We saw the limitations of the Iraqi Army most dramatically earlier this summer in Mosul, where, after firing scarcely a shot, some 30,000 Iraqi soldiers turned the city—and millions of dollars’ worth of US-supplied military equipment—over to just 800 attacking IS soldiers. In the years leading up to its capture of the city, IS had freely operated a lucrative protection racket among Mosul’s private businesses and cut deals with corrupt local leaders and members of Iraq’s security forces. So despite the Iraqi Army’s heavy footprint in Mosul—including a burdensome and much loathed system of traffic checkpoints—IS had been consolidating power there long before formally taking over.
The Iraqi Army turned Mosul over without a fight, but the result is often even worse when it decides to dig in its heels. While thousands of civilians fled Mosul fearing religious persecution by IS, thousands of others fled because they feared indiscriminate reprisal attacks by the Iraqi Army. These fears were well-founded—the Iraqi Army’s fondness for internationally banned barrel bombs was on full display in its failed efforts to retake Fallujah from Islamic militants earlier this year. The fact that so many Iraqis are more afraid of the Iraqi Army than they are of IS says worlds about the political conditions that enabled IS to flourish in the first place.
Shiite militias, many of them backed by Iran and deeply implicated in Iraq’s post-invasion sectarian bloodletting, may prove more willing to fight than their counterparts in the military. Thousands of Shiite volunteers heeded a call by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani over the summer to help the Iraqi government protect Baghdad and Shiite holy places. But unleashing these irregular fighters amid a period of heightened sectarian tensions is a fraught proposition, particularly with IS deliberately baiting them by wantonly murdering Shiites and other non-Sunni Muslims. If these militias launch reprisal attacks against Sunnis—and scattered reports suggest that a few of them have—Iraq could descend back into full-blown sectarian war just when Iraq’s government needs to be courting Sunnis more aggressively than ever. Meanwhile, Shiite militias like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Corps—some of which cut their teeth fighting US occupation forces—are happy to fight IS but have refused to cooperate with American forces.
Finally, Kurdish fighters may prove more professional than their Shiite counterparts, but they also have a different set of goals. Kurdish groups have fought IS forces for years in northern Syria, and, with help from US airstrikes, peshmerga fighters in Iraq (and their PKK allies from Turkey) have fiercely resisted IS’s efforts to push into Iraqi Kurdistan. But these fighters are ultimately most concerned about consolidating Kurdish territory—for example, they used the chaos of IS’s initial advance to seize control of the disputed (and oil-rich) Arab-Kurdish city of Kirkuk—and it remains to be seen how willing they’ll prove to risk their lives on behalf of Iraq’s central government, with whom the Kurds have a fraught relationship. Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, has suggested he will push for a referendum on Kurdish independence as soon as it’s practicable, even if he’s working with the new Iraqi government for now.
In Syria, the options are even worse.
Outside IS itself, the most competent and cohesive fighting force in the country is probably the Syrian Army, which fights on behalf of a regime the Obama administration has refused to cooperate with and whose human rights abuses have been well documented. Though the Syrian government never formally consented to the strikes against IS on its territory, its evident pleasure at the development was hard to miss. After all, here was a coalition of Syria’s enemies abroad, scarcely a year removed from threatening to topple the Assad regime itself, now bombing its most formidable enemies at home.
Instead of dealing with the Syrian regime, the White House is betting it can vet, arm and transform a gaggle of “moderate” Syrian rebels into a suitable counterweight to both Assad and IS. This has been a pipe dream of Washington’s war hawks for years, but it’s so fraught with problems it’s hard to know where to begin.
First, it’s extremely unlikely that the rebel forces considered acceptable by the Obama administration are suitably strong at this point to seriously contest either IS or Assad, much less both of them. The most effective rebel forces for the bulk of this conflict have been radical Islamists hardened by battle against US forces in Iraq or the Russians in Chechnya, and amply funded by governments and private donors from the Gulf (and in IS’s case, a huge network of protection rackets, stolen bank assets and oil sales).
Despite Congress’s approval of $500 million in new funds to train and arm other Syrian rebels, the CIA—which has already been conducting a smaller-scale program in Jordan to do just that—is reportedly deeply skeptical about the plausibility of this plan, with one member of Congress reporting that CIA sources had described it as a “fool’s errand.” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, has argued that, given the diversity of rebel groups jockeying for influence in Syria, funneling more arms into the conflict is likely to complicate and prolong it, not help resolve it. And the University of Michigan’s Juan Cole has pointed out that even “moderate” groups forge tactical battlefield alliances with groups like IS and Nusra when the need arises, leading to a virtual certainty that arms supplied by the United States could be traded to or seized by IS. This happened even with the Iraqi Army, so it’s a good bet that it would happen with Syrian rebel groups too (and indeed, some reports suggest it already has).
If IS falls back, the United States is going to be responsible for the actions of whoever takes its place. And while many of these groups currently seem preferable to IS, we should not be enamored of our choices. In entering an extraordinarily complex conflict that has harvested hundreds of thousands of lives, the Obama administration stands to make hundreds of thousands of new enemies, whichever side it takes. And if anyone in Washington still remembers funding Osama bin Laden’s crusade against the Soviets in Afghanistan, they’ll know that even friends are fickle.
Finally, what if IS doesn’t fall back? What if it hides from US airstrikes, harvests recruits from the families of slain civilians or appropriates the weapons shipments sent to its putative rivals? Alternately, what if, bolstered by US airpower, the Assad regime emerges triumphant in Syria? The Obama administration has defined both of these outcomes as unacceptable, but the White House has not outlined a contingency plan in either case. It’s an open secret in Washington that many of Obama’s generals are eager to send ground troops. That could lead to a major escalation of a war whose current scope has hardly been debated at all.
In a way, we’re still fighting the blowback from the first US intervention in Afghanistan back in 1979, when the United States launched an ambitious campaign to support anticommunist jihadists in their fight against the Soviets—an effort that helped produce groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. How long will this new war echo, and through what yet unforeseen corridors?
There Are Other Options
War, in short, is a terrible option.
But the fact remains that IS is a determined and brutal threat to millions of people on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border (and beyond, if you believe the ambitions expressed in some of its more fanciful maps). And given IS’s origins in Al Qaeda in Iraq—a group born and nourished in the chaotic years following the 2003 US invasion—the United States bears no small share of responsibility for the current state of affairs. That means Washington should shoulder some of the responsibility for fixing it.
There’s plenty that the United States can do to weaken IS on the more technocratic front. To start, it can freeze the bank accounts of IS’s funders, negotiate partnerships with villages where oil pipelines run to cut IS’s oil revenues and work with partners in Europe and Turkey to stem the flow of Western fighters into the conflict. The United States should also dramatically increase its support for the UN’s badly underfunded humanitarian assistance programs in Syria, and send support to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey that have absorbed millions of refugees.
More fundamentally, the White House must recognize that IS flourishes not simply because of its resources—and much less on account of its ideological appeal—but because of political breakdown on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
In Syria, a grinding civil war has been exacerbated by fits of sectarian bloodletting and the absence of competent administration in rebel-held areas. In Iraq, a Shiite government has ruthlessly repressed the country’s minority Sunnis, turning a blind eye to roving death squads, arresting and torturing nonviolent Sunni activists, and discriminating against Sunnis in the public sector (especially in western Iraq, where jobs and patronage promised to the tribes that had previously turned on Al Qaeda, at great risk to themselves, withered on the vine). One wonders if the Obama administration saw the New York Times feature, published on the eve of its expansion of the war into Syria, which reported that six weeks of US airstrikes in Iraq had failed to peel away IS’s support among the Sunni tribes still deeply suspicious of the Iraqi government, despite a recent change of personnel in Baghdad.
The answer, then, is political. But the current campaign of airstrikes and arms peddling threatens to deepen the political crises in Iraq and Syria, not resolve them. Instead, the Obama administration should work to ameliorate political conditions on each side of the border.
In Syria, it should convene rebel groups, the regime, civil society activists and regional players like Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Gulf States to restart negotiations for a political solution to the war. If there’s a silver lining to these latest airstrikes, it’s that the administration can use them as leverage to get Assad and the rebels to the table.
In Iraq, it should condition all further assistance on the development of a more inclusive political order that protects the country’s minorities—not just smaller groups threatened by IS like Christians, Turkmen and Yazidis, but also the country’s millions of Sunnis. The administration could also link its nuclear negotiations with Iran to the political crisis in Iraq—quietly exploring, for example, an agreement to allow Iran to enrich more uranium for peaceful nuclear power generation in exchange for a pledge from Tehran to rein in the Iranian-backed militias most likely to sow sectarian discord in Iraq.
These are tall orders, and they’re unlikely to see quick results even if pursued aggressively. But given the horrendous legacy of US wars in the region—and not to mention America’s failure to destroy even a single terrorist group after over a decade of continuous military mobilization—diplomacy is a much better option than the guaranteed failure we’re currently embarked on.
It’s Not Too Late to Change Course
Obama and his military planners have announced that they expect this new war to last for years. But that’s assuming Congress authorizes it.
Support for some kind action is quite broad in Congress, especially among party leaders. But as Frank Rich has observed, this support is about “an inch deep.” Few members are willing to vote on a protracted new war before a contested midterm election. They may take the issue up after the election if the war doesn’t look too disastrous yet, but that gives opponents of the conflict plenty of time to organize against it before a vote is held.
Arguing that some kind of authorization is inevitable, groups like the Congressional Progressive Caucus have focused their efforts on pushing a resolution that restricts the scope of the conflict while still permitting strikes on IS. Others, like Just Foreign Policy, have organized petitions urging a firm “no” vote on any kind of authorization whatsoever.
Personally I favor the latter approach—I don’t think this poorly considered war deserves a congressional vote of confidence, much less domestic legal authorization. If the last time the United States was on the edge of the abyss in Syria—when public opinion was much more resolutely opposed to intervention than it is now—is any indication, a vote could potentially be avoided altogether if it looks doomed to fail. Last year, the Obama administration resigned itself to jettisoning its war plans and pursuing a diplomatic track to dispose of Assad’s declared chemical weapons arsenal, illustrating the power of organizing to avert a war even when it enjoys widespread elite support.
It’s not yet too late to educate your friends, neighbors and lawmakers about the pitfalls of this new war and the availability of alternatives—you can send them this article, or one of many others like it, and find local groups in your community organizing against military intervention.
Maybe you’ll launch the career of the next rising star to recognize a “dumb war” before it’s fashionable.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
May: Banani, Dhaka, Bangladesh
“Mariah” is a small woman with an unexpectedly intense stare. All of us in the hotel conference room crane our necks to see her as she rises to address the table of advocates and NGO representatives gathered for a meeting on safe migration.
She declares her story: she has just returned from Jordan, where she had been working as a domestic worker. To get there, she had sold her land—she needed every penny she could scrounge.
When she arrived in Jordan, Mariah soon discovered that she would be forced to work in “five different houses, for five different wives.” She slept only three hours a night and was beaten when she finally worked up the courage to ask for her salary. Eventually her desperate husband was able to reach a local NGO and start the process for her rescue.
While Mariah is free, she has nothing to show for her work, and the NGO interpreter next to me pointedly notes she is lucky that her husband accepted her back, implying sexual abuse at the hands of the employer family.
I am here as part of a delegation of labor rights advocates organized through the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center to exchange ideas around human trafficking, migration and union organizing in Bangladesh. In the evolving global economy, migrants facing virtual indentured servitude abroad—and coming home to debt and social isolation—feels like the new normal.
Next to Mariah at the table is “Akhtar,” who trembles as he tells the group that his wife has been missing for five months. Tears fill his eyes as he shares his futile efforts to go through the recruiting agency that sent her overseas. He spreads out papers: contracts, identity documents and correspondence, creased and discolored—like he has been carrying them around in the hopes of meeting someone who can intervene.
I watch from the other side of the room as he points and explains each paper to the two government officials who had spoken earlier—the same government officials whose pitiless advice following Mariah’s story had been, “People should know the name of the agency they are giving money to, and memorize the phone number of the embassy.” I feel a flicker of hope as they study the documents while we watch, but it’s hard to tell what the outcome here will be. Several days after this meeting I learned that the Bangladeshi embassies in countries where migrant Bangladeshis work are not able to properly respond to workers in crisis.
In Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, more than 157 million people live on about 57,000 square miles of land. That’s a population greater than Russia’s living in a country smaller than the state of Illinois. We heard over and over again that Bangladesh’s prime economic resource is its abundance of people—and indeed, alongside agriculture and garment manufacturing, “labor exporting” is a pillar of the economy. In 2013, more than $13 billion was sent home from Bangladeshi migrants working overseas.
The national government officials we met with seemed at once detached from the suffering of migrant workers yet proud of the quality of their “exports.” On the local level, where officials and NGOs seem to work collaboratively to educate Bangladeshis about safe migration, we saw a more complicated picture. Labor migration is a rare viable option to support a family in a poor country like Bangladesh, but these small local partnerships are not reaching enough of the population. Because of these gaps, potential migrants might still take risks in desperation, like working with dalals (middlemen) who cheat them with few consequences.
But the dalals are not the only problem. The Bangladeshi government has yet to effectively regulate even the “registered” recruiting agencies, which charge enormous and erratic fees. And even as they are quick to point to unscrupulous middlemen as rogue actors, these agencies often contract dalals to find them potential migrants. Bangladeshi recruiters told us that they have to bid for the contracts from the receiving countries, which hold all of the bargaining power, and the costs are passed on to the migrant. Migrants sell property and borrow huge sums in order to pay the fees to migrate—only to have no guarantee that they will actually be paid fairly, if at all, when they arrive.
Advocates in Bangladesh are pushing for lower, fixed fees based on destination country, but acknowledge that the best outcome for migrant workers would be a “zero fee” system implemented on a global level.
In the Unites States, where migrant and domestic workers are excluded from many of the federal protections extended to other workers, labor rights activists are also pushing for such a system.
May: Mirpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh
At the Technical Training Center (TTC) in Mirpur, one of forty-two centers in the country that teach more than thirty trades, we tiptoe into ongoing classes for domestic workers. In Bangladesh, outgoing domestic workers are required to have twenty-one days of training before they depart. Most of that time is spent learning practical skills like using household appliances. Through an innovative partnership with the Bangladeshi Migrant Women Workers Association (BOMSA)—a group founded by returned female migrants—domestic workers also get three days of “know your rights” training.
The first room we enter is hot, the lights are off and two ceiling fans whir above us, working diligently to cool the room. Twenty-five women sit in neat rows on mats on the floor. Two desks are situated at the front of the room, though they are not being used by the two teachers—organizers from BOMSA, who are pacing energetically as they question the students about what they’ve learned so far. “Where are you going?” they ask the students for our benefit. Ten are going to Dubai, six to Lebanon, five to Jordan and two each to Qatar and Oman.
The teachers review some tips for self-preservation, encouraging the women to surreptitiously carry a phone number for BOMSA and to record their passport numbers. Some women will hide the numbers on an Arabic prayer card, while others will sew them into the hem of their clothing. It’s hard to fathom that this level of concealment would be necessary for someone going on a government-sponsored work visa, but one returning worker told me that it’s not uncommon for employers in the Gulf to require the newly arrived domestic worker to immediately shower, and then search and confiscate all her documents while she bathes.
Finding creative ways to hide these lifelines is just one part of the “technical training” offered by the TTCs. Other advice included opening two bank accounts (one for yourself and one that your family at home can access) and learning some “shaming” words and gestures in Arabic to thwart aggressive husbands who may try to cross boundaries. Our interpreter and Solidarity Center staffer, Liya, works hard to keep up with the energetic, almost shouting, teachers who lead the students in repetitions of these phrases.
Moving into the next room, a much bigger crowd of women have already taken their seats on the mats. The room is a rainbow of brightly colored cotton and silk set against a spartan model kitchen and living room. Our BOMSA teacher squeezes past the crowd, gets to the podium and asks the students to recite the rights of migrants. They hold one finger up: “I have the right to a job.” They hold a second finger up: “I have the right to be paid.” A third finger, “I have the right to be free from harassment.” Fourth: “I have the right to contact my family.” All five fingers go up: “I have the right to safely return to my family.”
At this point, I expected their fingers to form into a fist, a sign of power. But instead, they wiggled their fingers and used the imagery of a star. A star: an acknowledgment that these women are driving the economy, that they’re stars and heroes for taking this risk of migration in order to help themselves, their families, and their country.
Paradoxically, I learned later that the reason the Dhaka TTC was so crowded compared to other regional centers was because many women wanted to take their training secretly, or at least privately, in a city far from their villages because they were ashamed of being migrant domestic workers. As important as they are to the economy, not just in Bangladesh but globally too, domestic workers still face marginalization and a lack of respect for their contributions.
Back in the BOMSA office for a lunch break of rice and vegetables, I immediately spot a poster proclaiming: “DOMESTIC WORKERS ARE WORKERS!” and urging support for International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189.
The convention, passed in 2011 and since ratified by fourteen countries and counting, was historic: it was the first convention to specifically address the widespread labor exploitation of domestic workers—including migrants as well as natives. Domestic workers, including members of an AFL-CIO delegation from the United States, were present and active in the discussions, reports and voting that led up to Convention 189′s passage. In the time leading up to the convention, domestic worker organizing groups from across the globe formed into the International Domestic Workers Federation. The IDWF has the potential to restore power and pride in domestic work and to amplify community organizing as a tool in places like Bangladesh.
While Bangladesh has not signed on to Convention 189, there is an IDWF-affiliated national domestic workers association working to push for ratification. And the Solidarity Center, BOMSA and other local organizations are working overtime to educate potential migrants about safe migration and labor rights. Our delegation observed everything from courtyard meetings of fifteen people to an event in an open-air market with more than 100 people. The groups are filling a critical information and services gap, yet they are struggling to keep their doors open.
While our group was there, we met with workers from many sectors—garment manufacturing, construction, domestic work, technology—who all shared similar challenges related to poverty, fraud, debt, discrimination and abuse—whether at the hands of the factory owner, the dalal, the recruitment agency or the household employer.
September: Washington, DC
It has been four months since I returned to DC from Bangladesh, but I can see the faces of the women I met just as clearly as ever.
As a social worker turned organizer on the issues facing domestic workers here in the United States, I’ve noticed that my work hasn’t changed as much as I thought it would. Cultivating identity, power and self-determination are steps not only to healing, but also to justice in the workplace.
The incredible, growing union movement in the Bangladeshi garment sector that sprung up after the horrific tragedy at Rana Plaza is one example of what can be achieved when anger and devastation are channeled into organizing. That movement is being led by an army of young women organizers. There is so much potential to create change, but a labyrinthine global system of recruiters, subcontractors and employers is complicating the pathway to decent work.
Beyond organizing and services on the ground in Bangladesh, government action is sorely needed. The United States has a supportive role to play here: from including stronger labor rights as a condition of trade and development assistance to supporting the government of Bangladesh as it negotiates agreements with destination countries to level the playing field for Bangladeshi workers, who remain among the most vulnerable in Asia.
On the global level, a commitment to banning recruitment fees charged to workers and guaranteed inclusion of all workers, including migrants, in fundamental labor rights protection is a starting point to make a dent in this kind of exploitation.
The United States can set an example by expanding federal-level protections for domestic workers who were cut out of the New Deal, and by finally passing legislation that would ensure transparency and monitoring of foreign labor recruiters who bring workers to the United States. As in Bangladesh, domestic workers on temporary visas in the United States face exceptional risk. They include women working for diplomats and international officials at the UN and World Bank, but also young people who come on J-1 visas as au pairs to provide essential domestic work to American families yet are virtually invisible in the eyes of the US government.
There’s an inkling of change on the way, but making it real will require a global culture shift beyond legislation. Last year’s Senate immigration bill included strong provisions on transparency and monitoring for workers on temporary visas. But the au pair recruitment and placement agencies are aggressively lobbying lawmakers to remove au pairs from the protections should a new bill be introduced this year. As other sectors of organized domestic work gain bills of rights and wage increases through worker organizing, we’ve witnessed pressure to keep this invisible sector of domestic work underpaid, isolated and poorly regulated so it can remain a source of cheap childcare and, increasingly, eldercare.
From Bangladesh to Qatar to the United States, legislation protecting migrant domestic workers is sorely needed. But with the lack of legislative action, education and organizing within migrant domestic worker communities—and the public—appears to be the best hope to put the brakes on this downward spiral.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Six months into West Africa’s Ebola crisis, the international community is finally heading calls for substantial intervention in the region.
On September 16, President Obama announced a multimillion-dollar US response to the spreading contagion. The crisis, which began this past March, has killed over 2,600 people, an alarming figure that experts say will rise quickly if the disease is not contained. Obama’s announcement comes on the heels of growing international impatience with what critics have called the US government’s “infuriatingly” slow response to the outbreak.
Assistance efforts have already stoked controversy, with a noticeable privilege of care being afforded to foreign healthcare workers over Africans.
After two infected American missionaries were administered Zmapp, a life-saving experimental drug, controversy exploded when reports emerged that Doctors Without Borders had previously decided not to administer it to the Sierra Leonean doctor Sheik Umar Khan, who succumbed to Ebola after helping to lead the country’s fight against the disease. The World Health Organization similarly refused to evacuate the prominent Sierra Leonean doctor Olivet Buck, who later died of Ebola as well. The Pentagon provoked its own controversy when it announced plans to deploy a $22 million, twenty-five-bed US military field hospital—reportedly for foreign health workers only.
One particular component of the latest assistance package promises to be controversial as well: namely, the deployment of 3,000 US troops to Liberia, where the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) will establish a joint command operations base to serve as a logistics and training center for medical responders.
According to Think Progress, this number represents “nearly two-thirds of AFRICOM’s 4,800 assigned personnel,” who will coordinate with civilian organizations to distribute supplies and construct up to seventeen treatment centers. It’s unclear whether any US healthcare personnel will actually treat patients, but according to the White House, “the U.S. Government will help recruit and organize medical personnel to staff” the centers and “establish a site to train up to 500 health care providers per week.” The latter begs the question of practicality, and where these would-be health workers will be recruited from.
According to the Obama administration, the package was requested directly by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (Notably, Liberia was the only African nation to offer to host AFRICOM’s headquarters in 2008, an offer AFRICOM declined and decided to set up in Germany instead.) But in a country still recovering from decades of civil war, this move was not welcomed by all. “Every Liberian I speak with is having acute anxiety attacks,” said Liberian writer Stephanie C. Horton. “We knew this was coming but the sense of mounting doom is emotional devastation.”
Few would oppose a robust US response to the Ebola crisis, but the militarized nature of the White House plan comes in the context of a broader US-led militarization of the region. The soldiers in Liberia, after all, will not be the only American troops on the African continent. In the six years of AFRICOM’s existence, the US military has steadily and quietly been building its presence on the continent through drone bases and partnerships with local militaries. This is what’s known as the “new normal”: drone strikes, partnerships to train and equip African troops (including those with troubled human rights records), reconnaissance missions and multinational training operations.
To build PR for its military exercises, AFRICOM relies on soft-power tactics: vibrant social media pages, academic symposia and humanitarian programming. But such militarized humanitarianism—such as building schools and hospitals and responding to disease outbreaks—also plays a more strategic purpose: it allows military personnel to train in new environments, gather local experience and tactical data, and build diplomatic relations with host countries and communities.
TomDispatch’s Nick Turse, one of the foremost reporters on the militarization of Africa, noted that a recent report from the US Defense Department “found failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting such projects,” raising big questions about their efficacy.
Perhaps more importantly, experts have warned that the provision of humanitarian assistance by uniformed soldiers could have dangerous, destabilizing effects, especially in countries with long histories of civil conflict, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. At the outset of the crisis, for example, efforts by Liberian troops to forcefully quarantine the residents of West Point, a community in the capital of Monrovia, led to deadly clashes. Some public health advocates worry that the presence of armed troops could provoke similar incidents.
The US operation in Liberia warrants many questions. Will military contractors be used in the construction of facilities and execution of programs? Will the US-built treatment centers be temporary or permanent? Will the treatment centers double as research labs? What is the timeline for exiting the country? And perhaps most significantly for the long term, will the Liberian operations base serve as a staging ground for non-Ebola-related military operations?
The use of the US military in this operation should raise red flags for the American public as well. After all, if the military truly is the governmental institution best equipped to handle this outbreak, it speaks worlds about the neglect of civilian programs at home as well as abroad.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
For miners, investors and artisans, few things are more precious than gold. But for human life itself, nothing is more precious than water.
Just ask the people of El Salvador.
Nearly thirty years ago, the Wisconsin-based Commerce Group Corp. purchased a gold mine near the San Sebastian River in El Salvador and contaminated the water. Now, according to Lita Trejo, a native Salvadoran and school worker in Washington, DC, the once clear river is orange. The people who drink from the arsenic-polluted river, she says, are suffering from kidney failure and other diseases.
On September 15, Trejo and more than 200 protesters—including Salvadoran immigrants, Catholic priests, trade unionists and environmentalists—gathered in front of the World Bank to support El Salvador’s right to keep its largest river from suffering the same fate as the San Sebastian River. The event was co-sponsored by a raft of organizations, including the Institute for Policy Studies, Oxfam America, the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and the Council of Canadians, among others. Over the past few weeks, similar protests have taken place in El Salvador, Canada and Australia.
Mining for gold is not as neat and clean as the harmless panning many Americans learned about as kids. Speakers pointed out that gold-mining firms use the toxic chemical cyanide to separate gold from the surrounding rock, which then leaches into the water and the soil. And they use large quantities of water in the mining process—a major problem for El Salvador in particular, which has been described as “the most water-stressed country in Central America.” Confronted by a massive anti-mining movement in the country, three successive Salvadoran administrations have refused to approve new gold-mining operations.
That’s where the story should end. But it’s far from over.
An Australian-Canadian mining company, OceanaGold, is suing the Salvadoran government for refusing to grant it a gold-mining permit to its subsidiary, Pacific Rim. Manuel Pérez-Rocha, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies, explained the situation: “OceanaGold is demanding more than $300 million from El Salvador. They are saying, ‘If you do not let us operate in your country the way we want, you must pay us for the profits that you prevented us from making.’”
That sounds absurd, but it’s true: The company is claiming that under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, it has the right to sue the Salvadoran government for passing a law that threatens its bottom line.
El Salvador is now defending its decision to prevent OceanaGold/Pacific Rim from operating the El Dorado mine near the Lempa River before the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, a little-known World Bank–based tribunal.
As several protesters pointed out, El Salvador’s decision is grounded in its need to protect its limited water supply. More than 90 percent of the surface water supply in El Salvador is already contaminated, and more than 50 percent of the country’s 6.3 million people depend on the Lempa River watershed for their water.
Francisco Ramirez, a Salvadoran who grew up in Cabañas, the department where the El Dorado mine would operate, spoke from experience about this reality. “If you look at the contaminated rivers in El Salvador, there are no fish left in the water. Not even toads, which are usually resistant to certain levels of contamination, can survive. We do not want that contamination to spread,” Ramirez proclaimed.
Ana Machado, a Salvadoran member of the immigrant rights group Casa de Maryland, another co-sponsor of the event, added: “The Lempa River is the main drinking source and an important source of livelihood for a majority of people in my country, including my family. They fish there. They clean their clothes there. If the company contaminates the river, Salvadoran life as we know it will end.”
Another Salvadorian immigrant and organizer with Casa de Virginia, Lindolfo Carballo, linked this lawsuit to larger struggles over sovereignty and immigrant rights. “This country created institutions to legally rob its Southern neighbor,” he said, referring to the “free-trade” provisions that permit corporations to sue governments over public safety regulations they don’t like. “And after they rob us of our natural resources, after they contaminate our water and land, they tell us that we are undocumented, that we are ‘illegals’ and that we have no right to be in this country. They have no right to throw us out of the United States if they are robbing us of the resources we need to survive in our own country,” he alleged.
John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, explained the goal of the protest: “We are saying to OceanaGold: ‘Drop the suit. Go home.’ To the World Bank, we say: ‘Evict this unjust tribunal. It deepens poverty and stomps on democracy and basic rights.’” Cavanagh pledged to continue pressing the company to back down, promising that protesters would return to the World Bank in larger numbers when the tribunal makes its ruling in 2015.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Once again, Washington claims Bolivia has not met its obligations under international narcotics agreements. For the seventh year in a row, the US president has notified Congress that the Andean country “failed demonstrably” in its counter-narcotics efforts over the past twelve months. Blacklisting Bolivia means Washington will withhold aid to one of South America’s poorest countries.
The story has hardly made the news in the United States, and that is worrisome. While many countries in the hemisphere call for drug policy reform and are willing to entertain new strategies in that vein, it remains business as usual in the United States.
The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), meanwhile, seems to think that Bolivia is doing a great job, lauding the government’s efforts to tackle coca production and cocaine processing for the past three years. The Organization of American States (OAS) is also heaping praise on Bolivia, calling its innovative new approach to coca control an example of a “best practice” in drug policy.
According to the UNODC, Bolivia decreased the amount of land dedicated to coca plants by about 26 percent from 2010 to 2013. Approximately 56,800 acres are currently under production.
Bolivia has achieved demonstrable successes despite—and perhaps because of—a complete lack of support from the United States: the US Drug Enforcement Administration left in 2009 and all US aid for drug-control efforts ended in 2013. Bearing in mind that US drug policy in the Andes has always emphasized “supply side” reduction like coca crop eradication, the decision is of course a political one. It reflects the US frustration that Bolivia isn’t bending to Washington’s will. Interestingly, most Bolivian-made cocaine ends up in Europe and Brazil—not the United States.
At the same time, Peru and Colombia, both US favorites given their willingness to fall in line with US drug policy mandates, were not included in the list of failures. To be sure, those countries have recently decreased coca crop acreage as well, in some years by a lot more than Bolivia has. Still, they had respectively about 66,200 and 61,700 acres more coca under cultivation than Bolivia in 2013, according to the UNODC’s June 2014 findings. Peru currently produces the most cocaine of any country in the world.
Bolivians have been consuming the coca plant for over 4,000 years as tea, food and medicine, and for religious and cultural practices. Coca, the cheapest input in the cocaine commodity chain, cannot be considered equivalent to cocaine, since more than twenty chemicals are needed to convert the harmless leaf into the powdery party drug and its less glamorous cousin, crack. Still, coca is listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic under the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (the defining piece of international drug-control legislation).
When Evo Morales became president of Bolivia he worked to modify the Convention, and in 2013 eventually wrested from the UN the right to allow limited coca production and traditional consumption within Bolivia’s borders. In the process, all Latin American countries except Mexico (which supported the US-led objection) supported Morales’s mission.
The Bolivian Model
The basics of Bolivia’s approach to reining in coca cultivation are fairly simple. Licensed growers can legally cultivate a limited amount of coca (1,600 square meters) to ensure some basic income, and they police their neighbors to ensure that fellow growers stay within the legal limits. Government forces step in to eradicate coca onluy when a grower or coca grower’s union refuses to cooperate.
This grassroots control is possible because of the strength of agricultural unions in Bolivia’s coca-growing regions and because of growers’ solidarity with President Morales, himself a coca grower.
Another incentive is that reducing supply drives up coca leaf prices, which means that producers can earn more money for their families. As one longtime grower and coca union leader from the Chapare growing region put it, “It’s less work and I make more money.” This income stability, combined with targeted aid from the Bolivian government, means that many coca growers are able to make a living wage and diversify their livelihood strategies—investing in shops, other legal crops and education.
It also helps that the violence and intimidation at the hands of the previously US-backed Bolivian military has come to an end. People remember what is was like, and many still suffer from injuries sustained during different eradication campaigns. One coca grower, for example, had her jaw broken so badly by a soldier as she marched for the right to grow coca that she cannot be fitted for dentures to replace her missing teeth. She emphasized that life is so much better now because it’s less stressful. People do not want to see a return to forced eradication campaigns.
No one is pretending that Bolivia’s coca control approach means the end of cocaine production. Some portion of coca leaf production—by some estimates, about 22,200-plus acres’ worth—is still ending up in clandestine, rudimentary labs where it is processed into cocaine paste.
Furthermore, because it is squeezed between Peru, a major cocaine exporter, and Brazil, a growing importer, Bolivia has found it increasingly difficult to control cocaine flows. As a result, despite increased narcotics seizures by Bolivian security forces under Morales’s government, drug trade activities within Bolivia’s borders by some accounts have actually increased over the past few years.
Nevertheless, and for better or worse, the country’s new method of coca control yields results and undeniably satisfies the US supply-side approach, yet Washington maintains its hardline stance against the county. In the present geopolitical context, when even US drug-war allies Colombia and Mexico are calling for new approaches to controlling narcotics, the US rejection of the Bolivian model further undermines Washington’s waning legitimacy in the hemisphere.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
I’m going to guess you’ve heard of the People’s Climate March by now. It’s been all over Facebook, the blogosphere, buses and subway cars—it’s even shown up on network news, which has been something of a black hole for climate activism.
But in case you’re just getting back from vacation (or a cave), here’s the deal: on Sunday, September 21, tens of thousands of people are expected to flood the streets of New York City to call on global leaders to take action on climate change.
What’s been somewhat forgotten in the truly herculean effort to make this the biggest climate mobilization ever is what global leaders are doing in town in the first place.
The truth is, they’ve been called to New York by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to meet in an unofficial capacity, because formal negotiations for a global treaty to stabilize the climate aren’t going so well.
In fact, little more than a year out from the December 2015 deadline for signing a deal, countries can’t even agree on a fundamental approach to curbing heat-trapping greenhouse emissions.
One option is a binding treaty that mandates a clear target for reducing overall emissions and assigns each country a fair share of the work. The second option is a nonbinding “pledge and review” process by which each nation records what pollution cuts it thinks it can make. According to this plan, we’d add up those pledges, hope they’re enough to avoid climate chaos, and come back in a few years to see how governments have done.
The United States is the primary proponent of the latter option, for the record.
But emissions cuts are not the only hang-up.
If there’s frighteningly little political will to take common-sense action in the face of devastating ecological disruption—i.e., to stop burning fossil fuels and put clean renewable energy in place as fast as possible—there is even less appetite to pay for it.
At the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, industrialized countries promised to create a Green Climate Fund to channel money to poorer countries to support their shift to clean energy and climate-resilient development. Since the global North made much of its wealth polluting the planet, it seemed only fair that it would pick up part of the tab to help the South grapple with the result.
But five years later, the fund lies conspicuously empty.
Rich countries say that in order to muster political support for climate finance, they need to see developing countries going out of their way to earn it. Poor countries wonder how they’re supposed to act first when many of them are on the front lines of climate chaos largely caused by pollution from rich countries.
Making Space for Polluters
These debates are nothing new. They’re repeated every year at the UN climate convention.
What’s different about the upcoming New York climate summit is its unofficial nature, which is meant to provide a “neutral” space where heads of state can have a more productive conversation. But by holding the summit outside of official negotiations, the Secretary General has set a table where corporations and banks are on equal footing with governments. Literally.
The one-day climate summit will feature a high-level private-sector luncheon where businesses will share actions they are taking “to demonstrate leadership on climate change and measures that governments can take to enable the private sector to develop long-term climate change solutions.”
The guest list includes global oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell, international coal financier Barclays Bank and South Africa’s power utility Eskom, which is currently building one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants with funding from the World Bank. They’ll be joined by more than 130 other companies and banks.
That means our leaders aren’t just dithering at the edges while the planet burns—they’re actively inviting the very companies that are causing this crisis to help fix it.
The Bottom Line
“So what?” you might wonder. “Don’t companies have a role to play?”
Of course they do. But there’s no solution to climate change that doesn’t threaten the bottom line of companies that currently profit from dirty energy. That doesn’t mean that their interests never line up with what’s good for the climate. But when they don’t, it’s tough luck for people and the planet.
Unfortunately, governments have been abetting this “tough luck” for years. Look no further than the Green Climate Fund.
At the behest of governments—mainly from developed countries, where most multinational corporations are headquartered—the private sector has played a central role in the institution from the beginning. There is a special facility specifically to support the private sector, a private-sector advisory group that makes policy recommendations on all aspects of the fund and two private-sector observers who comment on the proceedings of the fund’s board.
Ironically enough, one of these observer seats is filled by Bank of America, whose shareholders have pushed back against its financing of the coal industry.
Unsurprisingly, corporate influence is threatening the very purpose of the fund. The rules governing investment and what institutions can receive funding are being written with the express purpose of making the Green Climate Fund as attractive as possible to financial investors.
In a board discussion about whether to exclude oil, coal and gas projects from receiving money from the green fund, for example, one private-sector observer argued that “ruling out technologies” would tie the hands of governments trying to address climate change.
But wasn’t financing a transition away from these “technologies” the point of the fund to begin with?
At this point the small group of social movements and nonprofit organizations trying to keep corporate influence in check at the fund is severely outflanked.
So while turning out in big numbers in the Big Apple is critical, it will take more than marching to compel governments to stop supporting the fossil-fuel industry and start regulating and reducing climate pollution.
Imagine the collective power we could bring to bear if the 1,400-plus organizations endorsing the climate march—representing the labor movement, people of faith, youth, immigrant rights activists and, of course, environmentalists—pulled out all the stops and poured their resources into an uncompromising, coordinated “no more dirty energy” campaign: one that forced governments to cut taxpayer subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry, put our bodies in the way of fossil-fuel extraction and transport, and moved money quickly to community-centered renewable technologies that already exist.
In the meantime, we can and should keep flexing our political muscle. One way is to “flood Wall Street,” as activists staying on in New York are planning to do after the climate march.
Kicking corporations and big banks—and their government enablers—out of the Green Climate Fund is another.
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