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How to Break the Israel-Palestine Deadlock

Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters/Abir Sultan/Pool)

There’s one hope, one last hope, to revive the pretty-much-dead Israel-Palestinian peace talks that the indefatigable Secretary of State John Kerry has been pursuing since last year, and whose deadline, albeit artificially imposed, falls at the end of April. And that would be this: that the United States stop going back and forth between the intransigent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the weak, divided and powerless Palestine Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas and simply say what it thinks, and offer its own, detailed outline of what a solution should look like. In the long history of American Middle East diplomacy—indeed, even going back to 1967, to the post-1973 Sinai accord, to the late 1970s Sadat-Begin accords, the Oslo agreement and the Bill Clinton–led talks at the very end of his second term—that’s never been done. Midway through the current round, there were plenty of reports that Kerry was considering doing exactly that, specifying what the United States believes the “final status” should be.

Maybe—probably not—but maybe, that’s what’s coming. In its report today on Kerry’s return to Washington, where he’s consulting with President Obama about what comes next, way down in its article The New York Times says that Kerry might release “an American peace plan”:

For all that, some experts said Mr. Kerry was so committed to his Middle East initiative that it was more likely he would push for a change in diplomatic strategy, perhaps by offering an American peace plan, instead of simply walking away from the negotiations.

Let’s first say why it’s unlikely to happen, and then why it is important that it does.

Why it’s unlikely is because there’s little or no sign that Obama, even deep into his second term, is prepared for a showdown with Israel. (That, of course, puts him in the company of every president since, well… of every president.) It isn’t even clear that Obama has done anything more than watch Kerry’s intensive, nonstop shuttle diplomacy with bemused detachment since it started last summer. Since then, even White House officials and others have taken potshots at Kerry’s efforts, enough so that the president himself had to weigh in, damning Kerry with what looked like faint praise while acknowledging the naysayers inside his administration. Said Obama:

I see a lot of senior officials quoted about Kerry and Middle East peace but I’m the most senior official, and I have nothing but admiration for how John has handled this.

Maybe Obama does support Kerry, but it isn’t clear what that means. Were Kerry to release an American plan, obviously with Obama’s support, it would henceforth be clear that the president and the secretary of state are on the same page.

The central problem in the US-initiated round of talks—which almost never involved the Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other, just Kerry going back and forth—is that not once did the United States indicate that it was willing to put the squeeze on Israel to force Netanyahu to make the necessary concessions needed to get things moving. In fact, Israel holds all the high cards: it has a iron grip on the occupied West Bank and a viselike hold around Gaza, an almost impossible-to-challenge intelligence and security blanket smothering West Bank towns and villages and a military that is overwhelmingly the strongest in the region—plus, it faces a weak and divided PA, whose leaders are unelected, which reigns over an economically devastated region and which is undermined by the religious-right Hamas, both in Gaza and, to a lesser extent, in the West Bank itself. So, unless the United States is prepared to put its thumb on the scale, to use its enormous leverage over Israel—which, after all, it sustains, on virtual life support—then why would an ultra-right Israeli government make a deal that it opposes on political, security and even religious grounds?

So why is it important that the United States put forward its own plan? First, because the United States has its own national interest, independent of Israel’s and independent of Palestine’s, in the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it ought to say so. Second, because anyone and everyone who’s looked at the problem knows pretty much what a deal would include: the near-total withdrawal from the West Bank by Israel, the removal of Israel’s illegal settlements, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza on land approximating the 1967 lines, the readjustment of the 1967 lines by swapping at least a little territory between the two, the division of Jerusalem to serve as the capital of both states, a long-term security plan that demilitarizes the new Palestinian state while providing US and/or other international military forces in key areas, such as the Jordan Valley, a mutually acceptable plan for Palestinian refugees (few of whom will be able to go back to Israel proper) and many billions of dollars: to finance the removal of Israel’s 500,000 settlers, to prop up Palestine economically, to compensate Palestinian refugees resettling in the new state and more. That’s pretty much the plan, so why not say so?

Here’s why it’s important: stating that forthrightly as American policy would create enormous pressure on Israel. Yes, the Palestinians will object to parts of it, and they’ll demand a lot on the issue of refugees, under the heading of the “right of return.” But, even though there’ve been polls showing that the majority of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state, the far-right coalition led by Netanyahu is exceedingly unlikely to go along with anything like the plan just outlined without some coercion. Indeed, for such a plan to be implemented, it would probably mean the collapse of Netanyahu’s coalition, the realignment of Israeli politics and the emergence of a pragmatic bloc within Israel designed to win and keep the American life-support aid flowing. Netanyahu, faced with such a plan, would either have to quietly leave politics or realign himself with centrists and pragmatists.

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But note that implicit in the announcement of an American plan—and it wouldn’t have to be stated explicitly—would be that the United States would have to hold over Israel’s head the vast US economic, military and political support it provides to Israel. That doesn’t mean cutting Israel off, and don’t forget that the obstreperous US Congress, in league with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, would fight any lessening of American aid. But there are plenty of things that the Obama administration can do without cutting off aid: change the way it votes at the United Nations Security Council, reduce US military cooperation with Israel, begin contacts with Hamas, reduce its special-relationship exchanges with Netanyahu’s government and simply change the language it uses about the conflict. (Recall the flap in Obama’s first term when he simply said that the United States supports a solution based on the 1967 borders, even though that’s been the American position since, well, the passage of Resolutions 242 and 338 after the 1967 war.)

In the end, after all of Kerry’s efforts, Netanyahu didn’t even bother to keep the commitments he made at the start. Instead, his government has announced the expansion of Israel’s West Bank settlements and refused to release the latest group of Palestinian prisoners. (Remember, back in 2009, how Netanyahu openly defied Obama, when he flatly rejected Obama’s public urging that Israel halt settlements.)

So Kerry has one more play to make: to outline what he thinks a final status agreement would look like. It’s time to show his hand.

For Obama, there’s a political risk. Not only would he draw fire from pro-Israel hardliners and neoconservatives, but he’d risk open defiance from Netanyahu. But so what? By negotiating with Iran toward an accord over that country’s nuclear program—talks that will have another round this week—Obama is implicitly threatening an open break with Israel, which is certain to reject any deal that emerges. Might as well risk it all now.

Based on past events, it doesn’t seem likely that Obama will do anything like what I’ve suggested. It’s unlikely, though not inconceivable. But it’s the right thing to do.

Read Next: Chase Madar on why bankrolling Israel prevents peace in the Middle East

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Since FDR We’ve Been Fighting To Get Money Out of Politics

Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

Demonstrators marking the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, January 20, 2012. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

The Supreme Court’s decision last week in McCutcheon v. FEC is only the latest in a long line of setbacks for the cause of campaign finance reform. The robust, if insufficient, state and federal regulations which took decades to establish are being rapidly dismantled by what Bill Moyers and Bernard A. Weisberger dubbed “the 1 percent court” in our October 2012 special issue of that name. But the darkness of the present situation only throws into starker relief the need for genuine, radical reform—specifically, a mechanism for publicly financing political campaigns and a constitutional amendment ending the truly inane notion of corporate personhood.

As we wrote in our editorial after the disastrous Citizens United decision of 2010, “The Nation is committed to the struggle as one that is in the noblest traditions of this magazine.” Indeed, as early as 1936, our Washington Weekly columnist Paul W. Ward wrote in “Can the Presidency Be Bought?” that American politics was dangerously close to being entirely controlled by the richest people in the country.

Enormous sums are spent on printing or broadcasting the output of the campaign committees’ research and publicity divisions, and most of it is stupid, ineffectual stuff. At best the output of one division tends to do nothing more than cancel out that of its rival…The money that counts, the money spent on getting out the vote, goes for hiring cars to take voters to the polls and for hiring runners to see that the cars are kept busy and filled.

The big money comes of course form the only possible source—the men and corporations that have it to give.

Thirty years later, former Nation managing editor Victor H. Bernstein wrote in “Private Wealth and Public Office: The High Cost of Campaigning” (June 27, 1966), that only a public-subsidy system for financing campaigns could ensure the absence of purchased influence and outright corruption:

Aside from affirming the logical principle that running for public office is properly a public enterprise, and therefore should be publicly financed, the subsidy system offers certain specific advantages. It involves every taxpayer in every election, at least financially; it makes the legislator more (or entirely) independent of private interests, and it increases the political opportunity of men without access to wealth.

Two months after President Nixon signed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and two months before Nixon-aligned burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and Office Building, Richard Max McCarthy, a former congressman from upstate New York, wrote an article for The Nation titled “A Little Law for a Big Job” (April 3, 1972). McCarthy argued that the new bill—the first substantive campaign finance reform in American history—“continues to allow millions of dollars to flow into campaign chests from wealthy individuals and special interest groups, who expect and usually receive favors in return,” whereas a true genuine reform “would provide for the public financing of campaigns for all federal offices and thus rid politics of the corrupting influence of private-interest money.”

Soon enough, the Watergate break-in—financed by Nixon campaign funds—demonstrated conclusively that radical changes were needed to restore integrity to the democratic process.

In “How to Cure the Corruption” (September 17, 1973), Senator Alan Cranston of California wrote candidly about the need for candidates to accept large campaign donations and the influence donors inevitably then have on the crafting of national policy and law:

The effect of large contributions on the victorious candidate is sometimes blatant, but usually subtle. He knows his victory was won in part by the generosity of those individuals who made large donations. He knows who they are; he remembers their names and the names of their companies.

If he is an honest man, he will not let big contributors determine how he is going to vote. But even the honest public official finds that he must give to the big donor’s concerns his time and attention, his sympathetic ear, his willingness to intervene when he can do so legitimately.

The officeholder recognizes that while some big givers contribute solely for the sake of good government and a belief in the candidate and his principles, they are a minority. He knows that the majority expect their contributions will at least give them access to him. And access, at the least, means the ability to drop in anytime for an informal visit or to present their views before the officeholder acts on an issue.

Cranston argued that the only solution was publicly financed campaigns, which would enable candidates to spend more time winning votes from ordinary Americans than soliciting checks from powerful corporate interests. He also noted that the minor surtax rendered on citizens to pay for campaigns was actually much less than they were already paying when their tax dollars are used to pay back the corporations to whom elected officials owe their electoral victories:

The fact is that big campaign contributions buy economic privileges of various kinds, like tax breaks, exceptions to the law, special subsidies or careless law enforcement. Every one of these economic privileges takes money out of the pockets of the average American taxpayer. By spending $1 to $2 a year the average citizen could get back literally hundreds of dollars in the form of fairer taxes, more competitive prices and better quality consumer products…. Ending our electoral system’s dependence on large private donations may be the most crucial issue of our time. It goes to the very heart of our democratic process. How we resolve it will in turn determine how we resolve every other problem our nation faces.

* * *

On May 5, 1997, The Nation published a special issue on campaign finance: “Dollar Democracy: Can We Stop It?” featuring an investigation by Ken Silverstein, “My Life as an Undercover PAC.” Silverstein, posing as a moneyman for the fictional United Broadcasting Corporation, gained access to powerful officials and their aides of which ordinary Americans can only dream. He reflected on what he had learned:

As my brief career as a Beltway power broker indicates, Washington remains supremely unmoved by the public’s growing contempt for business as usual in the capital. Indeed, no one here believes that Congress will approve serious campaign finance reform anytime soon. “Everybody’s wringing their hands and calling for change,” says Kenneth Gross, the former F.E.C. enforcer, “but there’s nothing in the cards beyond reform around the edges.” He foresees no more than a crackdown on foreign contributions and some limits on soft money.

The wild card is public opinion, which is sufficiently inflamed could force more dramatic action. Thus far, however, the public appears to be angry but apathetic. “Most Americans believe Congress is a cesspool but people are very cynical,” says Bill Hogan of the Center for Public Integrity, a D.C. watchdog group. “They don’t believe that anything is going to be changed by Congress, which created the current system and all of the loopholes in it.”

Meanwhile, for corporate America and other high-rollers, democracy remains a commodity. A Democratic Party official once summed up the situation perfectly in explaining to me why offering perks to big donors didn’t result in unwarranted access for private interests. “It’s like flying,” she said. “Some sit in first class and some sit in coach.”

In the same issue, Dan Hamburg, a former congressman from California, took readers “Inside the Money Chase,” where the need for raising money—as Cranston and McCarthy had previously argued—undermined the very legitimacy of the United States government.

The issue of campaign finance points to a deeper problem in U.S. politics: the subservience of the political system to the economic system. The real government of our country is economic, dominated by large corporations that charter the state to do their bidding. Fostering a secure environment in which corporations and their investors can flourish is the paramount objective of both parties. Campaign finance works to place and keep in office those who willingly reproduce this culture. The covenant between the citizen and the law, as recapitulated through the electoral process, has lost its meaning. Campaign finance is a useful way of looking into a larger question: In an era of increasing economic globalism, when the state itself is fast becoming a subordinate entity, what is the relevance of being an American citizen?

* * *

In “Democracy Inc.” (February 15, 2010), our lead editorial after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to independent political expenditures by corporations, unions and business associations, The Nation called the case “a dramatic assault on American democracy, overturning more than a century of precedent in order to give corporations the ultimate authority over elections and governing. This decision tips the balance against active citizenship and the rule of law by making it possible for the nation’s most powerful economic interests to manipulate not just individual politicians and electoral contests but political discourse itself.”

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As we had for decades, The Nation reiterated that public financing of public campaigns—and the ejection of private wealth from the public sphere—was the only way to reclaim American democracy for ordinary people.

We will do everything in our power to further it, with no quarter for cynicism or compromise. We will encourage the development of a transformational movement to protect free elections and free government, and will do so with the understanding that the cause is not a narrowly partisan one, or a project merely of progressives, but of all who want democracy to flourish.

Committed to open dialogue, at the one-year anniversary of Citizens United we opened our pages to a debate between the constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams, who supported the court’s decision, and the former ACLU director (and Nation contributor since 1984) Burt Neuborne, who opposed it.

Abrams wrote that Justice Kennedy’s decision was rightly based in “two well-established legal propositions”: first, that political speech is protected by the First Amendment, and second, that corporations are entitled to protection under the First Amendment. “The notion that no serious First Amendment challenge was raised in Citizens United is itself a myth,” Abrams argued.

For the nays, Burt Neuborne wrote:

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United granting corporations a First Amendment right to spend unlimited sums to win an election, we are facing a second Gilded Age where American democracy is for sale to the highest corporate bidder. Justice Kennedy’s opinion, touted by some as a great victory for free speech, begins with a glaring First Amendment mistake. Kennedy claims that the case is about the constitutionality of discriminating between two categories of First Amendment speakers—corporations and human beings. But that just begs the question. The real issue in Citizens United was whether corporations should be viewed as First Amendment speakers in the first place. The business corporation is an artificial state-created entity with unlimited life; highly favorable techniques for acquiring, accumulating and retaining vast wealth through economic transactions having nothing to do with politics; and only one purpose—making money. Human beings, on the other hand, die, do not enjoy economic advantages like limited liability and, most important, have a conscience that sometimes transcends crude economic self-interest. Those dramatic differences raise a threshold question, ignored by Justice Kennedy, about whether corporations are even in the First Amendment ballpark.

McCutcheon shows that this Supreme Court—as currently constituted—will stop at nothing less than a complete rollback of all the hard-won campaign-finance protections which, despite their limitations, at least acted as a counterforce to the tidal waves of money in politics that the court’s recent decisions have allowed to flow unimpeded. If there is any silver lining to McCutcheon, it is that this new reality lays bare for all to see that the only truly democratic solution, the only genuine reform, is the same as it has always been, the one The Nation has advocated for decades: take the money out of electoral politics and return democracy to the people.

Read Next: David Halperin: The Perfect Lobby: How One Industry Captured Washington, DC.

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It’s Not Just Uganda: Behind the Christian Right’s Onslaught in Africa

anti-gay Uganda

Ugandans cheer their country's new anti-gay laws, March 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Rebecca Vassie)

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

In Uganda, being gay can now earn you a lifetime in prison.

In February, the East African country was again thrust into the international spotlight after President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a draconian bill that criminalized homosexuality. The high profile, on-and-off battle over the so-called “kill the gays” bill has drawn headlines for years as the most extreme example in a wave of antigay legislation on the continent. But homophobia in Africa is not merely an African problem.

As the gay rights movement has gained traction in the United States, the more virulently homophobic ideologies of the religious right have been pushed further out of the mainstream and into fringe territory. But as their influence has waned at home, right-wing evangelists from the United States have been flexing their sanctimonious muscles influencing policymakers in Africa.

For years now, evangelical activists from the United States have been injecting themselves into African politics, speaking out against homosexuality and cheering on antigay legislation on the continent. The influence of these groups has been well documented in Uganda. The now-defunct Exodus International, for example, sent Don Schmierer, a board member, to Uganda in 2009 to speak at a conference alongside Scott Lively, a pastor who was later sued by a Ugandan gay rights group for his role in promoting human rights violations against LGBTQ people. The two participated in a disturbing antigay conference, where speakers blamed homosexuals for the rise of Nazism and the Rwandan genocide, among other abhorrent acts. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a hard-right Christian group that is active in US politics as well, similarly supported antigay laws in Uganda. At the peak of the controversy over the “kill the gays” bill, Perkins praised the Ugandan president for “leading his nation to repentance.”

But such groups aren’t just active in Uganda. They have promoted antigay legislation in Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, just to name a few other places. The support ranges from popular agitation and sideline cheerleading to outright intervention.

In 2010, for example, when Zimbabwe began the process of drafting a new constitution, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a Christian law firm founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, launched a Zimbabwean counterpart called the African Centre for Law and Justice. The outpost trained lawyers for the express purpose of putting a Christian stamp on the draft of the new constitution.

The African Centre joined forces with the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ), an indigenous organization, to promote constitutional language affirming that Zimbabwe is a Christian nation and ensuring that homosexuality remained illegal. These and other hardline views are outlined in a pamphlet distributed by the EFZ and ACLJ. Jordan Sekulow, the executive director of ACLJ, announced that his organization would lobby for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in political and religious circles in the event of any controversy over the provisions, despite the fact that Mugabe has been sanctioned by the United States and the European Union for violating human rights. Last year, Zimbabwe’s new constitution, which includes a ban on gay marriage, was approved by an overwhelming popular vote.

ACLJ’s Kenya-based offshoot, the East African Center for Law and Justice (EACLJ), lobbied against Kenya’s progressive new constitution as well. In April 2010, a report on the group’s website called homosexuality “unacceptable” and “foreign” and called for the Kenyan constitution to clearly define marriage as between a man and a woman, thus closing the door on future laws that could attempt to legalize same-sex marriage. In this case the EACLJ was unsuccessful, and the new constitution was approved without any language regarding same-sex marriage.

Pat Robertson’s entanglements in Africa go well beyond Zimbabwe and Kenya.

In 1960, Robertson created the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which broadcasts through cable and satellite to over 200 countries. Robertson is a co-host on the 700 Club, arguably CBN’s most popular show. From his perch on the show, Robertson has made a seemingly endless variety of inflammatory remarks about LGBTQ people and just about everyone else that does not fall in line with his own religious thinking.

In the United States, Robertson’s vitriol can be brushed aside as the antiquated ravings of a fringe figure. Not so in much of Africa. A survey conducted in 2010 found that 74 million people in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, had watched at least one CBN show in the previous year. That’s a remarkable reach, considering Nigeria is home to about 80 million Christians in all.

Robertson’s influence plays into an increasingly hostile political climate for gays in the country. Last January, President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which provides punishments of up to fourteen years' imprisonment for a gay marriage and up to ten years for membership in or encouragement of gay clubs and organizations. The enactment of the law was followed by a wave of arrests of gay men—and widespread denunciation from the international community.

The religious right, however, doesn’t see Nigerian laws regarding homosexuality as a gross violation of human rights but rather as protection of “traditional marriage.” In 2011, on the heels of the Nigerian Senate passing an earlier version of the antigay law, President Obama announced that the United States would officially promote LGBTQ rights abroad as part of its development framework. In response, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute denounced the administration’s directive for putting “U.S. foreign policy on a collision course with religious freedom.”

MassResistance, a Massachusetts-based organization that bills itself as a “pro-family” activist group, praised Nigeria when the Nigerian House passed an earlier version of the bill that President Jonathan signed into law on January 7. In a statement, the group said that African nations are “feeling the brunt” of the gay rights movement, claiming that the “huge spread of AIDS” and the “breakdown in society caused by the homosexual movement seems to bring more general social destruction in African cultures than in the West.” Antigay laws in Nigeria have enjoyed unequivocal support from some hardline evangelical groups in the United States, with some going so far as to travel to Nigeria to spread antigay sentiment.

One such group is the “pro-family” advocacy group Family Watch International. Formed in 1999 and headed by Sharon Slater, FWI boasts members and supporters from over 170 countries. In 2011, Slater was the keynote speaker at a meeting of the Nigerian Bar Association, where she touted her beliefs on homosexuality, telling delegates that they would no longer have religious freedom and that homosexuals would prey on their children if they supported “fictitious sexual rights.” To Slater and her ilk, the rights of LGBTQ people are imaginary.

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FWI even wields influence within the United Nations. In early 2011, FWI co-hosted a “Global Family Policy Forum” in Phoenix. Over the two-day event, FWI coached twenty-six UN staffers from twenty-three different countries in attendance on how to resist UN initiatives on gay rights. An FWI newsletter claimed that conference attendees were finally hearing scientific and clinical “evidence” that homosexuality was not genetically determined and could be cured by therapy.

To some, the belief that homosexuality is a disease that needs to be cured may seem too ridiculous to even entertain. But if the devout can’t win at home, they’ll take their message abroad. It’s up to the international community and African activists dedicated to human rights to put an end to this export of hate.

 

Read Next: Adam Federman on how US evangelicals fueled the rise of Russia's ‘pro-family‘ right.

This Activist Gave His Life to Sound the Alarm on Bangladesh’s Labor Crisis

Press conference held by Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and the Banglad

Press conference held by Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and the Bangladesh Garments & Industrial Workers Federation in Dhaka (courtesy of International Labor Rights Forum)

Sometimes the worst disasters come with warning signs, but we realize them only in retrospect. Months before the historic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, workers protested oppressive and unsafe working conditions in New York garment factories, but their outcry was continually ignored by employers until the preventable tragedy erupted and extinguished scores of lives.

Fast forward a century to 2012. Roughly a year before Bangladesh was hit with its worst modern industrial disaster, the murder of a trade unionist portended the lethal dangers looming over the country’s booming garment industry. This month, labor advocates are commemorating the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed and injured thousands of garment workers and shook the global fashion industry. And they’re also mourning the second anniversary of the death of Aminul Islam, which should have been seen as an early sign of the human rights crisis roiling in Bangladesh’s factories.

Islam’s murder was emblematic of the oppression besieging Bangladesh’s labor movement, as well as the collusion between the state and the booming garment export industry. He was a prominent advocate for workers in the factories of the Savar and Ashulia areas of Dhaka and an organizer with the internationally renowned Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). On the eve of his death, he was helping to organize workers embroiled in a labor dispute with suppliers for global brands like American Eagle.

Islam knew he was courting trouble, as the BCWS’s intrepid grassroots organizing campaigns had made activists like him a prime target for harassment and intimidation by the police and security forces. In 2010, security officers detained and beat Islam, and he was eventually “charged with a number of spurious and unsubstantiated criminal offenses despite his verifiable alibis,” according to a chronology of the case published by International Labor Rights Forum.

The trouble finally caught up to him on April 4, 2012, when he vanished suddenly after going to meet a worker who is now suspected to have been an informant, according to an investigation by the international watchdog group FORUM ASIA. His body turned up the next day, “dumped by a roadside…almost 100 kilometers north of Baipal where he was last seen,” damaged beyond recognition. He had been beaten and tortured; a hole had been bored into his right knee. His corpse was later identified by his wife only after a photo appeared in the local paper.

The savagery and secrecy surrounding Islam’s murder were, to his family and colleagues, a clear sign that the authorities were behind his killing. And the silence surrounding the case two years on, despite international condemnation, is perhaps even more telling: his killers have never been brought to justice and the government has continually stonewalled activists’ demands for a transparent investigation.

Human rights and labor groups are demanding that Bangladesh reopen the investigation, and recently sent a letter to the Prime Minister calling on government authorities to “ensure that the perpetrators of the torture and murder are prosecuted…. Your government has a responsibility to exhaust all possible leads.”

Labor advocates, meanwhile, are exhausting all possible avenues for seeking justice.

Sara Ziff, a US-based labor activist with the Model Alliance, is producing a documentary about the case. In this clip, Kalpona Akter, who now leads the BCWS, recounts the trauma of Islam’s murder and his legacy in the ongoing labor struggles in Bangladesh.

Ziff tells The Nation, “It is naïve to think that this won’t continue if those responsible are not held accountable. There needs to be a credible, independent and transparent investigation into Aminul’s death.” With the documentary project, she adds, “I hope that those who knew and loved Aminul will find peace and that his death will not be in vain.”

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The Rana Plaza disaster seems like a horrific vindication of labor issues that Islam militated against. Like the labor protests that preceded the Triangle fire, Islam’s death was a signal of deeper tragedies to come—whether they would take the form of an industrial disaster, or brutal oppression of activists. Both Islam’s case and Rana Plaza were consequences of the industry’s systemic violence and the lack of labor power in the factories. And the fight continues today on both fronts, for decent working conditions and for a labor movement that can protect workers from the ferocious greed that drives the fashion supply chain.

Labor activists continue to press for change in the industry in the wake of Rana Plaza, and recent incremental victories—new factory regulation programs and labor law reforms—show that Islam’s fight has not been in vain. Yet the silence that continues to surround his case reveals that Bangladesh’s factories remain not only unsafe places to work but also unsafe places for workers to speak up for their rights. But listen closely; there will always be those who refuse to stay quiet.

 

Read Next: Michelle Chen asks, “Can Western Corporations Be Held Accountable for Deaths in Factories Halfway Around the World?

After Lawsuit, ICE Releases Hunger Strikers From Solitary Confinement

ICE protest

Activists rally outside the ICE Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, on March 11, 2014. (Reuters/Jason Redmond)

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials removed immigrant hunger strikers from solitary confinement Thursday, according to attorneys representing three of the detainees.

The move comes shortly after the American Civil Liberties Union Washington and Columbia Legal Services (CLS) filed a lawsuit claiming ICE officials placed the detainess in isolation cells in retaliation against their protest activities. The lawsuit argued that punishing inmates for staging a hunger strike violates their free speech rights.

“We’re very pleased that ICE has stopped retaliating against detainees engaged in peaceful protest. Punishing hunger strikers by putting them in isolation cells was an unlawful attempt to chill free speech rights,” said ACLU Washington Legal Director Sarah Dunne.

ICE officials denied that they acted in retaliation, claiming that the detainees placed in solitary had intimidated other inmates into joining the strike. “While ICE fully respects the rights of all people to express their opinion without interference, when these expressions infringe on the civil rights of others, ICE has an obligation to act,” the agency said in an email to the Associated Press.

More than twenty immigrant detainees were punished at Northwest Detainment Center in Tacoma for participating in the strike, said Melissa Lee, an attorney with CLS, who is representing three detainees.

Attorneys say prison officials called a March 27 meeting with hunger strikers, purportedly to discuss their protest demands. When about twenty detainees volunteered to attend, they were placed in handcuffs and moved to isolation cells, where they’ve been held for twenty-three hours a day since.

At least 750 detainees participated in the hunger strike, initiated March 7, to protest poor conditions at Northwest Detention Center, which is privately owned by GEO Group. Some detainees renewed the protest on March 24, demanding better food and an increased wage for prison jobs, currently set at one dollar a day.

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“Basically this facility is run by the detainees. If we everybody stopped working, we could negotiate the pay raise because right now everyone’s working for a dollar,” said Hassall Moses, an Army veteran and detainee who is being held in solitary confinement, in a recorded interview. “We could talk about the quality of the food, the living conditions, and put into practice having detainees who come in with petty offenses be eligible to be released on their own personal recognizance or conditional parole or humanitarian parole to be with their families and to be working so they can afford their own attorneys.”

For more information on the hunger strike and conditions at Northwest Detention Center, see Rose Arrieta’s report for In These Times.

Read Next: How UK law ties immigrant domestic workers to their abusive employers.

How UK Law Ties Immigrant Domestic Workers to Their Abusive Employers

Migrant workers gather for a rally across from the Houses of Parliament

Migrant workers gather for a rally across from the Houses of Parliament, in central London (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Last November, the British tabloids were ablaze with headlines about a sensational case of “modern day slavery”: three women were reportedly rescued from forced “domestic servitude”—a captivity that had lasted three decades under the grip of a mysterious expatriate couple. The Brits were outraged that such an atrocity could have gone on seemingly unnoticed for so long in a busy metropolis.

The idea that “slavery” was still possible in twenty-first century England sparked a heated political debate, generating support for an “anti-slavery bill” that included long prison terms for perpetrators of trafficking and forced labor. But now that the media spotlight has faded from the salacious slavery house, softer forms of indentured servitude still flourish across London—and the law actually allows this bondage. These are immigrants imported legally, as household servants for foreign nationals, from the Global South. And their exploitation is less shocking to the conscience because it is so integral to the economic status quo.

An extensive investigation published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals how the exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Britain has been aided and abetted by Parliament. Under United Kingdom visa law, affluent foreign nationals are allowed to bring “the help” with them, granting special work authorization to the servants they kept before moving to the UK. The scope of human rights laws and UK labor regulation seems to stop at the doorstep of the homes where these workers toil in isolation.

Of the roughly 15,000 migrant domestic workers entering the UK each year on special labor visas, an untold number are subjected to brutal, restrictive work regimens. The workers interviewed, mostly women from the Philippines, India, Morocco and Nigeria, are hired as servants and caretakers for children and the elderly, endure a range of abuses (working around the clock without adequate food), are denied their promised wages, and are even barred from going outside. “Andrea” told researchers:

They locked me up in the house in London, and when we went outside, sometimes they didn’t give me food. I didn’t have a sim card, I didn’t have money. My boss sent my salary to the Philippines.

The violations documented in HRW’s surveys and interviews include: “the confiscation of passports, confinement to the home, physical and psychological abuse, extremely long working hours with no rest days, and very low wages or non-payment of wages.” UK authorities should hardly be shocked by the fact that this is happening in an affluent Western democracy—the law allows for the direct importation of a type of traditional labor indenture known as the Kafala system from Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, a country that Western politicians have condemned for human rights abuses against migrant workers.

What’s extraordinary about their labor arrangement in the UK is that recent legal reforms have made them more, not less vulnerable to abuse. The government amended its visa regime in April 2012 to restrict migrants to a “tied visa system,” making it virtually impossible for a worker to change their sponsoring employer. By eviscerating the right to change one's workplace, the government effectively tethers domestic workers to the dominion of the householder, where the workplace is also the place one depends on for food and shelter, as well as their legal authorization as immigrants.

Although the abuse of domestic workers is not a new problem—and indeed, the systematic exploitation of housekeepers and caretakers is a major labor issue in many rich countries, including the United States—the UK's new employer-bound visa has dramatically heightened risks of mistreatment. They are subject to their boss's oppressive maltreatment and economic coercion, and yet the idea of breaking away from an abusive employer is unimaginable for many, as losing their visa means risking deportation and losing the overseas jobs that, despite the intense hardships, remain a critical way for these women to support their families in their home country.

UK law technically requires that foreign domestic workers have a formal contract outlining “written terms and conditions” of employment, and be generally informed of their labor rights. But the regulation of these labor arrangements is haphazard and relies on an honor system. “Once they are here, there are no checks, there's no mechanism to make sure how employers are treating them and if they're complying with those terms and conditions,” says HRW researcher Izza Leghtas. “So they could say [on the initial visa application] that they're giving them a good salary, that they're giving them time off, etc.—and not respect that at all once they're here.”

HRW found that workers often had little understanding of their labor rights and so were not even aware that they were, for example, entitled to a minimum wage. Many also did not know where to turn for help after suffering abuse. One Filipina worker reported that for several days after she ran away from her employer, she was sleeping in the park because she didn’t know anybody there: "I felt like a beggar.”

Pointing to the intersection of a dysfunctional domestic social policy and a twisted immigration policy, HRW notes that the government’s recent austerity measures have undermined resources for social services and legal aid for undocumented survivors. Meanwhile, UK politics percolate with sensationalized reporting and alarmist rhetoric about “combating human trafficking”—reflecting the notion that the everyday exploitation of migrants is somehow separate from the moral abomination of modern-day slavery. The public often fixates specifically, and disproportionately, on sex trafficking—which draws headlines as an especially scandalous form of enslavement—as opposed to more quotidian, less sensationalized systems of worker exploitation.

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In fact, qualifying as an official trafficking victim is often the only means of immigration relief for abused domestic workers. They must petition through a bureaucratic process known as the National Referral Mechanism under the UK Human Trafficking Centre, an arm of the National Crime Agency. Advocates point out that many survivors are too traumatized, or simply unwilling to cooperate with criminal justice authorities, particularly without any guarantee that they will be granted residency in the end. (The UK has also failed to ratify the International Labour Organization's Domestic Workers Convention, a key accord establishing basic labor protections and standards for migrant domestic workers.)

So the UK's existing immigration and labor laws place the burden of proof on the survivor, showing the cruelty of its immigration policy toward workers whose only “crime” is being caught up in a system of labor that is criminal by design.

For a country that claims to be wielding the rule of law against “modern day slavery,” the UK seems keen on abandoning its most vulnerable workers to the rule of the master of the house.

Read Next: $2.13 an Hour? Michelle Chen Argues Against the Inhumane Tipped Minimum Wage

Questions Arise About Staged or Faked News Photos From Syria

Homs, Syria

Men unload boxes of UN humanitarian aid in a besieged section of Homs, Syria (Reuters/Yazan Homsy)

Once again the site BagNewsNotes has done a service for journalists and readers by raising concerns (following on recent work by others) about possibly staged or faked news photos widely-published by Reuters from Syria in recent weeks. 

BagNewsNotes focuses on analysis and "literacy" of images in the media. As they explain, "No other site is as committed and singularly focused on the social, cultural and political 'reading' of the individual picture. Given the power of photos to influence and persuade, we feel it is vital for citizens to become better 'readers' and consumers of visual news, messaging and spin."

No other site is as committed and singularly focused on the social, cultural and political “reading” of the individual picture. Given the power of photos to influence and persuade, we feel it is vital for citizens to become better “readers” and consumers of visual news, messaging and spin. - See more at: http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/about/#sthash.OGsQrq9g.dpuf

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This email from the site's longtime publisher Michael Shaw provides key links and background (you'll see many of the photos in question) so I will excerpt here:

Over the last three weeks, serious questions have been raised about the accuracy and integrity of photos and photo stories by freelancer/activists in Syria affiliated with Reuters. The first story was published by the New York Times Lens blog, the second by the NPPA. We published two more stories last week at BagNewsNotes:

Were the Reuters “Boy in a Syrian Bomb Factory” Photos Staged?—with analysis provided by photojournalists, photo editors and reporters familiar with the workings of these rudimentary factories in Aleppo.

The Dysfunctional Guitar: More on the Reuters Syria Photo Controversy—details the repeated appearance of the same damaged instrument in multiple images along with a look into a Reuters explanation.

In a post published last night by the British Journal of Photography, Reuters’ resistant stance -- and a hostility toward those raising questions -- was specifically called out. Because the news sphere has a short attention span and Reuters is such a powerful player in the world of news photography, there's a real risk that time will pass (while compromised pictures might even keep coming) and this situation will just be forgotten. Given the risk to the industry for the loss of integrity – including the integrity of all the talented and ethical people working for Reuters — that would be quite a blow.

That post closes with these questions:

When asked whether Khatib still worked for Reuters, the news agency refused to comment.

When asked whether the recent allegations had resulted in a change in Reuters’ news-gathering practices in Syria, the news agency refused to comment.

When asked whether Reuters would consider opening another investigation following the recent and specific allegations against its news operations in Syria, the news agency refused to comment.

And, more importantly, when asked why Reuters had been using Syrian activists as freelance photographers without informing its clients, the news agency again refused to comment.

We'll update as needed.

Read Next: Tom Engelhardt: How Sensational News Stories Distract Us From Real Crises.

Fort Hood: A Tragic Reminder of the Military’s Mental Health Crisis

Fort Hood

Sergeant First Class Erick Rodriguez stands guard before a news conference at Fort Hood, Texas April 2, 2014. (Reuters/Erich Schlegel)

Ivan Lopez, the man military officials say opened fire yesterday at Fort Hood, Texas, killing three and wounding sixteen, reportedly suffered from depression and anxiety, and had trouble sleeping. Doctors prescribed him a number of drugs, and evaluated him for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to Secretary of the Army John McHugh, who spoke to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, nothing on his record or in a psychiatric evaluation last month indicated he would harm himself or others.

If the shooting shocks and discomforts, the fact that more than half of all service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan say their mental or physical health is worse after their deployment should, too. Lopez’s act of mass violence distinguishes him from his fellow service members; still, he appears to have shared with many others the experience of coming home to a country unprepared to meet his needs. Of the 2.6 million men and women sent to Iraq and Afghanistan or to supporting operations overseas, more than half report that the government is failing to meet theirs. Nearly 60 percent say the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing only a fair or poor job. And one in two know another service member who, like Lopez, committed or attempted suicide.

Since at least 2008, more American soldiers have killed themselves at home than have died abroad. The VA has responded by expanding its mental health funding and adding thousands of people to its mental health staff. But less than a quarter of veterans are enrolled in the agency’s healthcare system, and more than a third of enrolled veterans who sought psychiatric appointments in 2013 faced at least a two-week wait.

“Frankly, we have got to do more,” Vermont Senator and Veterans Affairs committee chair Bernie Sanders said Thursday on MSNBC. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of men and women. So if we’re serious about reaching out and helping those people, we’ve got to provide the resources to do that.”

Doing “more” doesn’t only mean boosting the VA budget. Veterans experience poverty, homelessness, unemployment and improper foreclosures more acutely than Americans overall, meaning that slashing the safety net, failing to extend unemployment insurance and other moves towards austerity create extra challenges for veterans grappling with the aftershocks of service and navigating re-entry to civilian life.

Congress had an opportunity in February to act on one of the largest legislative packages for veterans in decades, which Sanders sponsored. But Senate Republicans killed the measure, saying it was too expensive, never mind that the $21 billion price tag would have been paid for largely by the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan. For perspective, $21 billion represents about .6 percent of government spending in 2013.

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Montana Senator John Walsh, a Democrat and combat Veteran, introduced legislation last week with a variety of measures directed at preventing veteran suicide. The bill would give service members leaving active duty fifteen years to receive care from the VA, significantly extending the current window that, at five years, is sometimes shorter than the onset of PTSD or other mental illnesses. The legislation also creates incentives for mental health care professionals to work within the VA system, streamlines electronic health records and prescription protocols, and requires the Defense Department and VA to review mental health care programs annually. When asked about the cost of his legislation, as Republicans surely will, Walsh told CNN, “That is the cost of war.”

Lopez’s mental health issues may have had nothing to do with his military service, and it would be a mistake to project his crimes onto other soldiers seeking treatment. The point remains that lawmakers spent trillions taking violence abroad. It’s hard to deny that some of it is coming home again, in the form of suicide and domestic abuse, and in the daily violence of homelessness and unemployment. It’s simple enough to tally what price Congress thought worthy for the armored vehicles and the aircraft carriers and the missiles used for our recent wars. What about the people?

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on why we keep hearing about Benghazi

Parsimony

A solver recently wrote to express confusion over this clue from Puzzle #3316:

   CHEER  Coming back, get to loud ovation (5)

He understood, he said, that the clue was intended as a phonetic reversal: "reach" ("get to") read backwards ("coming back") to yield "cheer." But what was there in the clue to indicate that the reversal was phonetic?

A quick glance at the clue with fresh eyes was enough to reveal the source of his perplexity. Our solver was taking "loud ovation," quite plausibly, as the definition part of the clue; our intention was that "ovation" alone would suffice, leaving "loud" as the phonetic indicator. This was a misstep on our part. A more carefully crafted clue would have—and should have—eliminated that ambiguity.

But as it happens, this minor glitch did throw some light on an often-overlooked aspect of cryptic clues: Namely, the need for a certain amount of parsimony in the definitions. Even though a definition can be long-winded—and heaven knows we've written some wordy ones over the years—it should never risk spilling over into the wordplay part of the clue. It's bad form, in other words, to leave any doubt on the solver's part about where the definition ends and the wordplay begins (or vice versa).

Note that we're talking here about a clue that's already been solved, because up to that point, the constructor's goal is to keep the solver bamboozled. But although the location of the break can be hidden, it should never be ambiguous.

What that means in practice is that a definition generally shouldn't include words that aren't strictly necessary (and thus might plausibly be part of the wordplay) and moreover, that the wordplay shouldn't place words next to the definition that might plausibly be part of it. That was the weakness in our CHEER clue.

However, we retain the right to try to mislead solvers, as long as we do it on the up-and-up. This clue, for example, drew criticism from some unwary solvers:

   SMETANA  Inside, Brahms met an Austrian composer (7)

More than one person wrote to object that Smetana was Bohemian, not Austrian. But in this case, "composer" was the sum total of the definition, and "Austrian" part of the wordplay. So the clue, though tricky, was legitimate and unambiguous—because the wordplay requires the A from Austrian, and especially because the definition cannot include "Austrian" and still be correct.

This week's cluing challenge: can you to come up with a cryptic clue for PARSIMONY? Please share here. To comment (and see other readers' comments), please click on this post's title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver's blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.