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Foreign Policy In Focus

Foreign Policy In Focus

Analysis of foreign affairs and policy that emphasizes global cooperation and grassroots participation.

Can China Pacify Its Restive Minorities Peacefully?

Chinese Soldier

(Reuters/Petar Kujundzic)

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.

Rising Unrest

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.

Soft Power

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.

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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.

Read Next: Why are we using prisons to treat the mentally ill?

Waiting for the Iranian Godot

Hassan Rouhani

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani (Reuters/Majid Hagdost)

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’s Concessions

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 Maneuvers

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.

Beyond Metrics

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.

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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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Here’s Everything Wrong With the White House’s War on the Islamic State

ISIS bombed home

The damaged base of the Al Qaeda–affiliated Nusra Front in Syria after American-led airstikes. (Reuters/Abdalghne Karoof)

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.

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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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Bangladeshi Workers Organize to Protect Their Most Valuable Export: Themselves

Bangladesh garment workers

Garment workers in the Banglaeshi capital of Dhaka. (Reuters/Andrew Biraj) 

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.

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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.


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Why Are We Sending Soldiers Trained for War to Respond to the Ebola Crisis?

Ebola victim

Health workers remove the body of an Ebola victim in Liberia (Reuters/James Giahyue)

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.

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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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The Fight to Keep Toxic Mining Out of El Salvador

A protestor in El Salvador holds a sign reading "No to Mining." (AP/Luis Romero)

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.”

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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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Washington Snubs Bolivia on Drug Policy Reform, Again

Coca leaves for sale in Sucre, Bolivia (Photo by Julie Laurent, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

US Opposition

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.

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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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While We March for the Climate, Governments Meet With Polluters

climate marchers in Washington D.C.

(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

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.

Circular Debates

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.

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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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How Hard Times Are Healing Bosnia

Protesters form a human chain outside their parliament building in Sarajevo. (AP

Protesters form a human chain outside their parliament building in Sarajevo. (AP/Amel Emric)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Over the past year and a half, Bosnia-Herzegovina has experienced social upheaval that outstrips any other political turmoil since the end of the 1992–95 war. Along with these events, recurrent flooding has taken place that is worse than any previous incident in the country’s 120 years of recorded weather history. The combination of these events, in a year of national elections, brings the dysfunctional condition of Bosnian society into high contrast.

In June 2013, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo, to protest an absurd legislative snarl that, for several months, prevented newborn babies from being registered and receiving identification numbers. This essentially rendered the newborns as non-citizens, without the rights to healthcare and passports that were, in some cases, urgently needed. At least one infant died as a result of the inability to travel to a neighboring country for treatment. Although the proximate cause of the demonstrations was the government’s apparent indifference to the rights of its youngest citizens, the unrest was meanwhile directed at the larger problems of pervasive corruption and the careerism of governmental officials.

Demonstrations spread to Mostar and several other cities in the Croat- and Muslim-controlled Federation, and there was some show of support from activists in the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska. The protests were larger than any others since the war—Bosnia’s parliament building was surrounded and blocked for a couple of days.

After several weeks the protests subsided and people went back home. But the action resonated throughout the country, where historically it has been difficult for people of different ethnicities to cooperate with each other, not only because of geographical separation in the ethnically divided postwar state, but also because of political divisions and the memory of the four-year-long war.

Then, in February of this year, far greater protests took place that more directly addressed the economic ills of a society with a clumsy government that boasts more ministers than the far more populous Japan; where those in power earn more than the average European politician; and where unemployment is pushing 40 percent. The demonstrations, growing out of protests by workers laid off from privatized companies in the Tuzla area, spread to every city in the Federation and gained support in the Republika Srpska as well.

One of the results of the February-March uprising, in which governmental buildings and party offices were torched in several cities, was the formation of grassroots citizen assemblies known as plenums. These informal bodies, intensively active for a couple of months, communicated among each other throughout the country and developed a set of demands confronting the politicians‘ corruption and cronyism.

Although grassroots activism is cyclical in Bosnia, in each new phase it grows, spreads and becomes more sophisticated. International commentators habitually ignore such activism as an element in the possible resolution of Bosnia’s systemic ills. But that is a mistake—and the events of spring 2014 have shown that ordinary Bosnians are, albeit episodically, a force that cannot be ignored.

The Floods

Quickly following the spring rebellion, epic flooding struck Bosnia in May. Starting in the middle of the month, in a matter of three days the skies dumped three months’ worth of rain.

The results were cataclysmic. Nearly 100,000 residents of the northern and eastern parts of the country, from Prijedor to Bijeljina and down to Zvornik, were temporarily displaced. Thousands of houses were completely destroyed, and bridges were dislodged—as were landmines left over from the war. Farm plantings were sloughed away along with the top layer of land as, hard on the heels of the flood, several thousand landslides wreaked further damage in the mountainous sections of the country.

The human and economic toll was staggering. While the death toll did not exceed several dozen, thousands of people were displaced on a long-term basis—many of them for the second time since the 1990s. Thousands of livestock were killed in the flash floods and landslides, creating an urgent public health hazard. Schools were rendered useless, and some local administrative offices and libraries were washed away.

One local resident reported, “The material damage caused by the floods is far worse than after the war”—even though the war itself had resulted in half a million destroyed housing units.

The destruction caused by natural disaster was quite possibly greater than that caused by armies in some parts of the country, and it is probable that recovery from the economic setback affecting all of Bosnia-Herzegovina will take many years. Mines were flooded and rendered useless, and many factories severely damaged as well, putting hundreds out of work.

The Uses of Adversity

On the positive side, ordinary people mobilized in many parts of the country and volunteered to help with emergency assistance. Students and activists from Sarajevo donned boots and work gloves, and bused to afflicted areas to help dig out. A recreational rafting outfit from Bihać took its equipment to Doboj to help pluck stranded flood victims off roofs and balconies.

Ethnic boundaries often melted away. Some of the worst flooding took place in the Republika Srpska, and Muslim volunteers paid no attention to the inter-entity borderline as they traveled to help out whoever needed help. Solidarity thus developed quickly among the flood victims and volunteers from various parts of the country, with Serbs, Croats and Muslims often working together.

On the personal and community level, assistance was forthcoming immediately. Here and there, the plenums that had been formed a few months before played a significant role in coordinating assistance. Likewise, emigrant communities abroad raised funds and sent hundreds of truckloads of aid into Bosnia.

One volunteer reported, “Today I was in Prijedor. People, the closer you are to misfortune, you encounter better and better people; they speak with you as if they have known you for years. Before you say anything, they ask how things are with you, are you alright. People in trouble have that wonderful characteristic…to smile sincerely. These people have lost everything that they have, and still they have a smile that heals. In Prijedor everyone is helping each other, regardless of what their name is. While we were loading food in Doboj, two vans arrived from Sarajevo; in Šamac I saw an aid truck from Gradačac.”

Doboj and Sarajevo—as well as Šamac and Gradačac—are towns that lie on opposite sides of the inter-entity borders, but people were eager to help those in need regardless. In response to the assistance, there were public expressions of thanks to those of another ethnicity, without whom, as one flood victim expressed, “we would have died of thirst and hunger.” News articles bore headlines such as “Catastrophic floods bring down Bosnia ethnic barriers” and “Faith Restored in Humanity in the Mud of Doboj.”

In the official realm, help was not as efficient, leaving politicians the target of widespread criticism. The state and entity governments were slow to react to the disaster. When they did, officials competed for publicity—with politicians vying to be seen as “on the spot” and concerned. Too often, they were only concerned about their own ethnic constituency. Indeed, in the Republika Srpska, local officials tended only to help Serb communities, leaving communities of returned Muslims to fend for themselves or depend on help from the Federation.

Sadly, floods struck again in August for a brief period. With the rainy season around the corner, it is certain that there will be more calamity. Public officials have thus had renewed opportunities to show their concern and efficiency, but the government remains sluggish in allocating the millions of euros it has received in international donations.

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Flooding has altered the course of rivers in some places, but emergency management agencies have not gotten around to repairing levees and taking other measures to prevent future damage. Hundreds of schools, which should have opened at the beginning of September, remain closed, and there are still hundreds of displaced people in collective centers without early prospects for return.

Low Trust

Public trust in government has for years hovered around the bottom of the scale, but it is even lower now, as ordinary people voice suspicions about embezzlement of donations. In some areas, villagers whose roads have been cut off by landslides have blocked nearby highways, demanding assistance.

All this is taking place in a period leading up to the four-year national elections that will be held in mid-October. With over 7,000 candidates and two dozen parties vying for seats in parliaments at several levels and for the three-part presidency, the challengers are alternately promising to help the flood victims and accusing their incumbent rivals of failure to help. Those incumbents have shown that they are more interested in expending resources to ensure their electoral victory than to improve public safety.

But prospective voters have less faith than ever that elections can lead to relief, as new faces in the electoral lists are all but non-existent. Political contests and natural disasters both seem to be events that ordinary people have to suffer through.

Elections come and go, and so do floods, and the survivors are left on their own to cope as well as they can. It is to be hoped that in the course of increasing protests, citizens of all ethnicities will continue to unite and build pressure for real change.

Read Next: Kingdom of Slaves in the Persian Gulf

Kingdom of Slaves in the Persian Gulf

Construction workers rest during their lunch break in Doha. (Reuters)

Construction workers rest during their lunch break in Doha. (Reuters)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Since FIFA picked Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, the tiny and über-rich Gulf emirate has increasingly come under scrutiny for its failure to protect the human rights of its huge foreign workforce.

Qatar’s 1.8 million foreign workers—who vastly outnumber the country’s 300,000 native citizens—are frequently deprived of wages, trapped into permanent debt, exposed to hazardous working conditions and denied the right to unionize. Approximately 1,000 foreign workers have died in Qatar since 2012, according to Qatar’s government. Independent human rights organizations claim that the figure is even higher.

Amid growing international calls to pull the Cup from Qatar, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has promised new reforms aimed at safeguarding workers’ rights. It remains to be seen whether he is serious.

The large-scale use of foreign labor is widespread throughout the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, where traditional royal elites, businesses and private individuals have accrued high levels of wealth despite the region’s small domestic workforce. Bolstered by its natural gas exports, Qatar, for example, has the highest gross domestic product per capita of any country in the world. Through energy exports and financial services, the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—have also cultivated substantial financial reserves.

This wealth has enabled Gulf countries to invest heavily in massive new infrastructure works, but the region lacks a sufficient indigenous workforce to staff these projects. Additionally, many Gulf states provide robust social benefits for their native citizens, which decreases the incentive for natives to work in hazardous fields like construction.

Consequently, demand for migrant workers is substantial. The Gulf’s construction boom has been fueled by a massive influx of workers, primarily from Asia, who also take jobs in domestic work and other low-wage fields. These foreign laborers are driven to the Gulf by poor economic prospects in their home countries and the perception that a steady income can be earned easily in the Gulf. But many arrive to find a waking nightmare.

Indentured Servitude

A key plank in the Gulf’s foreign labor apparatus is called the kafala, or “sponsorship,” system.

The system entails middlemen who travel to Southeast Asia and sell the right to work in the Gulf to prospective migrants. Once in debt to the middlemen, who “sponsor” the workers’ right to travel to the Gulf, the laborers are expected to pay off their debt to the sponsor by working long hours—often in the construction industry, where workers labor away in temperatures that can rise above 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

The physical toll on these workers is brutal. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, an estimated 700 Indian workers died in Qatar, and Nepali authorities say that hundreds of their own nationals have perished there as well. According to estimates by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), without reforms to the region’s labor laws and proper enforcement, some 4,000 workers could die on construction projects related to the 2022 World Cup alone. The ITUC reports that workers are often denied access to water and shade, and that the shelter reserved for them is unsanitary and dehumanizing.

Yet because permission from their sponsor is required to seek a new employer, foreign laborers are often trapped in their jobs. This ensures that their paltry wages are used to pay off the debt incurred by their travel. Without citizenship or any political rights, and unable to exit the country—their passports are frequently seized by authorities upon arrival—these foreign workers are trapped in what can only be described as virtual slavery or indentured servitude.

Foreign women employed as domestic workers for the GCC’s wealthy residents are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Secluded in private homes and typically denied the right to leave, they’re often trapped with employers who withhold pay and subject them to appalling episodes of physical assault and sexual violence.

And there is not much they can do about it, as this April 2014 report from Amnesty International makes clear:

Women [in Qatar] who have been physically or sexually abused face major obstacles to getting justice. None of the women researchers spoke to had seen their attackers prosecuted or convicted. In one horrific case, a domestic worker broke both her legs and fractured her spine when she fell from a window as she tried to escape a rape attack by her employer. Her attacker then proceeded to sexually assault her as she lay on the ground, injured and unable to move. Only afterwards did he call an ambulance.

When researchers interviewed her six months after the attack, she was still using a wheelchair. Despite her appalling injuries, the Public Prosecutor dismissed the case due to “lack of evidence” and she returned to the Philippines last year. Her employer has never been held accountable.

While there have been some reforms for domestic workers put on the table by GCC leaders, the language has largely been vague and thus far inconsequential.

A Regional Phenomenon

Recognizable patterns recur throughout the GCC.

In Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s economic powerhouse, human rights organizations have documented widespread labor rights abuses that include long working hours, wage theft and violence against domestic workers.

A particularly egregious case was the beheading of Rizana Nafeek, a 24-year-old Sri Lankan woman working as a maid in Dawadmi, in January 2013. She was charged with strangling the 4-month-old baby of her employer to death. Evidence against Nafeek was limited to a “confession” that she signed following her arrest, which Nafeek said was coerced and undertaken without the assistance of a translator. Complicating matters, Nafeek’s family said she had lied about her age on her passport application, meaning that in 2005—the year of the alleged offense—she was only 17, and thus a minor under standards set by international law. She was tried without legal representation and subsequently executed over the fervent protests of the Sri Lankan government.

The United Arab Emirates, where guest workers outnumber citizens nearly 8 to 1, has been taken to task for deporting workers who strike, housing workers in poor conditions and stealing the passports of employees. Like FIFA’s embarrassment over the World Cup in Qatar, Western artistic, academic and cultural institutions that have established operations in the UAE have been repeatedly embarrassed by the emirate’s treatment of its workers.

New York University, for example, has faced a public relations nightmare over the construction of a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi. Although the university’s officials issued a “statement of labor values” after deciding to build the campus in 2009, the New York Times reported in May that workers on the NYU campus, who were employed by the BK Gulf Corporation, were paid as little as $272 per month, which doesn’t go far in a country famous for its opulence. The paper reported that up to fifteen workers were forced to share rooms scarcely bigger than 200 square feet. Eventually, the workers launched a strike which, on its second day, was met by a violent police crackdown. Hundreds were subsequently deported.

Similar problems have been reported in oil-rich Kuwait, where 2 million expatriate workers live next to 1.8 million natives, as well as Bahrain, where guest workers face the additional challenge of navigating political tensions since the failed uprising of 2011, when Shiite-led protests against Bahrain’s ruling monarchy were quashed by troops from Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.

Prospects for Reform

In response to widespread criticism over its World Cup preparations, Qatar’s government has promised several reforms for guest workers, including changes in the kafala system that would enable foreign workers to exit the country or change jobs with less difficulty.

However, the ITUC and others are highly skeptical about what, if anything, the reforms will achieve. An ITUC spokesperson stated that foreign workers in Qatar still have “no freedom of association, no minimum wage, and no effective labor compliance system. None of the laws seem to apply to domestic workers.” Moreover, migrant workers will still require exit visas to leave the country, giving the state the authority to decide if and when the workers can return to their countries of origin. That means that nearly 1.8 of Qatar’s 2.1 million residents are trapped there, with virtually no legal protection, at the state’s discretion.

Unfortunately, while such staggering figures highlight an imperative for reform, many human rights observers are pessimistic. The Qatari economy has become massively dependent on foreign workers, especially for construction. Without these workers, the Qatari “miracle” of breakneck urbanization, sky-high average incomes and rapid modernization would have been impossible. As the number of migrant workers grows, the cost of providing them with even basic labor protections will only rise, further increasing the economic costs of real reform.

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But if Gulf leaders prove indifferent to pressure from global civil society, economic factors might move them to act. As the GCC makes an economic pivot toward Asia, demands from source countries could force them to improve conditions for migrant laborers.

For example, earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia inked an agreement to grant Indonesian workers in the kingdom greater rights, including the right to keep their passports, communicate with family members, get paid on a monthly basis and have time off. This agreement followed Indonesia’s August 2011 ban on sending migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, where reports of horrific abuses of Indonesian workers had circulated for years. While Human Rights Watch assessed that these new regulations amounted only to “slow moves in the right direction,” the pressure from Jakarta underscored the leverage that Asian governments can wield over the GCC states that rely on their migrant laborers.

But change won’t come easily. Only a few months ago, GCC states unanimously refused to endorse a protocol by the International Labor Organization for the improvement of labor standards.

The plight of foreign laborers in the Gulf underscores a dark underside to the modern, glossy exterior the GCC states like to showcase to the world. In the absence of a powerful labor movement in the Gulf, the GCC’s millions of suffering foreign laborers will have to hope that their home countries can protect them abroad, even if they couldn’t provide jobs at home.

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