Daily Archives: 08/05/2011


Human Rights = Less Poverty

The global economic crisis is driving millions more people into poverty and placing them at increased risk of human rights violations such as food insecurity or forced eviction. The world urgently needs a different kind of response and a different kind of leadership if we are to reverse this dramatic escalation of human misery.

This is a human rights crisis. Billions of people are suffering from insecurity, injustice and indignity around the world. The solution can only be found through a coordinated and concerted response rooted in human rights and the rule of law. This requires strong leadership.

Amnesty International’s Demand Dignity campaign aims to end global poverty by working to strengthen recognition and protection of the rights of the poor. The campaign will demand the leadership, accountability and transparency that are essential to end the human rights violations that keep people poor.

This is a campaign about all rights. It is the combined abuse of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights that drives and deepens poverty. By demanding dignity we are demanding that all states adopt and implement the laws, policies and practices that will end deprivation, insecurity, exclusion, and voicelessness.

Participation and involvement in the decisions that impact on our lives are essential to human rights. By including all rights holders in policy making governments are at once creating a framework for accountability, transparency, inclusion and empowerment. These are the prerequisites to ending poverty.

The Demand Dignity Campaign will put rights at the centre of poverty eradication, and make rights protection efforts work for all people. The stories and solutions that people living in poverty have to tell will be the centrepiece of this worldwide mobilisation. Together we will amplify their voices and demand effective responses from political leaders.

Global demand to the superpowers

The two superpowers, the United States and China, both accept only part of the human rights agenda relevant to ending poverty. China has ratified the major treaty reaffirming economic, social and cultural rights, but not the treaty covering civil and political rights, and the US the reverse. The decision not to ratify in both cases is deliberate and has ramifications that extend well beyond their national jurisdictions.

US failure to embrace economic, social and cultural rights results directly in a domestic health system that skews maternal health care away from the poorest communities. The US is the only country that votes against the right to food resolution annually in the UN. The ‘global gag rule’, removed by President Obama this year, had profoundly negative implications for women’s rights in Africa.

The Uyghur community and other minority groups in China face repression of their civil and political rights. China’s indifference facilitates the Cambodian government’s practice of widespread forced evictions, and provides the cover that sustains human rights violations in Sudan and Ethiopia.

This global and local mockery of human rights by the G2 is perhaps the most potent and urgent example of how global leadership must change. Amnesty International is calling on the government of China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and on the US government to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. By holding the superpowers to account we are starting at the top, demanding a new kind of leadership to end poverty, demanding dignity.

Global calls

We have selected three initial calls to focus the Demand Dignity campaign on egregious concerns, illustrating that human rights are a solution to poverty. By focussing on these issues we seek to highlight how a combined campaign for accountability, access and active participation can end poverty. Read more…

( Fears mount that regime of Bashar al-Assad is planning to repeat the siege tactics it deployed in Deraa

Syrian tanks rolled into the Mediterranean coastal town of Banias on Saturday and opened fire on demonstrators as President Bashar al-Assad continued the violent assault on his opponents.

A day after clashes with anti-government protesters that left at least 30 dead nationwide according to activists and an eyewitness, fears mounted that the Syrian regime was planning to repeat the siege tactics it deployed in Deraa, another key opposition centre.

Those fears were bolstered by reports yesterday that Syrian forces had shot dead four women demonstrating on a coastal road near Banias. Ammar Qurabi of the National Organisation for Human Rights said the women, part of a small all-female gathering, had been protesting against the siege and the cutting of power lines when they were killed by plainclothes security forces or pro-government gunmen. Their bodies were taken to hospital in a Sunni district of the besieged town.

“Banias is now surrounded from all all directions, not a single person can go in or out,” said a resident, who did not wish to be identified. He added that electricity and phone lines had been cut and residents were charging their mobile phones on car batteries. Activists said gunboats could be seen off the Banias coastline and gunfire was heard after tanks approached from three directions in the early hours.

As civilians made human chains to protect neighbourhoods, eyewitnesses added that Sunni rather than Alawite neighbourhoods were being targeted. Banias, which has an oil refinery and is the main point of export for Syrian oil, is a predominantly Sunni city close to the Jebel Ansuriya stronghold of Assad’s minority Alawite sect. It has a potentially explosive mix of religious groups and sects.

The latest attacks came in defiance of a US sanctions regime already imposed and despite the expected announcement that the EU will announce sanctions next week against 14 regime officials, although not Assad .

The eyewitness said an atmosphere of fear and apprehension had taken over the town, adding that two-thirds of the population had already fled, notably women and children.

Activists in touch with residents confirmed his account, saying the town, which has become a leading focus of anti-regime demonstrations, was now besieged. The activists also spoke on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns.

The moves came after human rights groups said at least 30 were shot dead in anti-government protests on Friday’s “day of defiance” and rights group Sawasieh raised the total death toll since mid-March to 800.

“The use of tanks makes us think they are planning to siege the city like Deraa,” said one analyst in the capital. Banias’s persistent restiveness – like that of the southern stronghold, which was surrounded by tanks on 25 April – has irked the government. And, like Deraa’s Omari mosque imam Ahmed Sayasna, Banias has a prominent cleric, Anas Airout, who has come out in support of the protesters.

As news of the tanks’ arrival broke in the capital on Saturday , supporters of the protesters said the international community’s response had been too slow, allowing a brutal crackdown to push to the limit the protesters’ resolve.

The international community, like Syrian protesters, has rejected military intervention and has struggled to find ways of putting pressure on the Assad regime.

On Saturday some Syrians in the capital expressed frustration at the lack of momentum, claiming that many more people wanted change than the protests numbers suggested.

“When a television show gets one complaint, you know there are 100 more who are unhappy but couldn’t be bothered to write,” said one young man who identified himself as Omar. “It’s the same here, but each protester may be worth 200 or 300 people who are too scared to come out.”

by Katherine Marsh
~ is the pseudonym of a journalist living in Damascus

(The Nation) When Howard Zinn died last year, the commentary about his life relayed his warmth and humor, his many protests against war and racism, and the wild popularity of his book, A People’s History of the United States. As a friend and student of Zinn’s, I find these descriptions incomplete. At the same time, “serious” historians dismissed A People’s History as superficial and ideologically driven. In both views—much less in the condemnations from the right-wing—something very central about Zinn is overlooked: throughout his life and work, he was fashioning a living concept of what it means to be a good citizen.

Howard Zinn as the paragon of righteous citizenship would strike many, including some in his legions of friends and admirers, as a peculiar way of describing this remarkable man. In the more commonplace view, he spent decades angrily decrying America’s treatment of every downtrodden minority, avidly protested against every US military intervention, and excoriated America and capitalism for the impoverishment of large swaths of the country and indeed of the world. Is this the stuff of citizenship?

That so many of his insights about US policies at home and abroad were spot on and often prescient is a sidelight. What emerges most powerfully from his voluminous writings about the civil rights movement, US war and imperialism, class in America, and related matters is a deep sense of involvement—with the forgotten people, the causes to reverse injustice, the outrage against senseless killing—framed by a consistent set of ideas that are in fact the fundaments of the American Republic. In this deep immersion in American society and ever mindful of the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a vibrant citizenship was nourished.

Like all the great progenitors of American democracy, he was so many things in his 87 years that this doubtlessly enabled him to grasp the core ideas of why and how an American should learn and care and act. He was a longshoreman on the Brooklyn docks, a bombardier in the Second World War, a teacher and scholar, an organizer, a journalist, a playwright. In a deprived childhood and from the docks he understood economic injustice. In the unnecessary bombing raids in France he witnessed the absurd violence of war. He wrote about these experiences in compelling essays (such as “The Bombing of Rouen” in The Politics of History) and a short autobiography.

It was in the South in the 1950s and early 1960s where he found his voice and his characteristic style of citizenship. Here was the great struggle for black emancipation. Zinn and his young family had moved to Atlanta in 1955 to take up his first teaching post at Spelman College. There he mentored the likes of Alice Walker, Marian Wright Edelman and Julian Bond, among others, but at the same time he was experiencing, chronicling and interpreting the civil rights movement in articles for The Nation and other political journals. He was, quite unlike most academics, writing from the inside as an activist, aiding the uprising in many ways. The sit-ins, the marches, the protests, the bold challenge to segregation and its legal underpinnings were outbursts of citizenship, of ordinary people demanding rights and protections that had been guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

Much of Zinn’s most memorable writing about the civil rights movement was reportage from Selma, Hattiesburg, Atlanta and other venues where black people sat-in or marched or simply stood defiantly to bear witness to the segregation and indeed the degradation of centuries. Using the method of oral history that he helped pioneer, he gave voice to these activists as they moved from acquiescence to action: the sit-ins and other protests, more than anything, awakened blacks and whites to the actual circumstances of oppression and to the obligations for equal standing guaranteed by the America’s founding documents. The Freedom Day actions in Mississippi left the movement “battered and uncertain,” he wrote in SNCC: The New Abolitionists. “It moved on to Greenwood and other towns in the Delta, grew in numbers, gathered thousands of supporters throughout the state. In places like Hattiesburg it took blows, but it left the town transformed, its black people—and possibly some white people—awakened… The long silence was over.”

This notion of awakening ordinary people to their rights, that the powers-that-be are not reliable protectors of rights, was Zinn’s relentless theme. At a commemoration of the Bill of Rights in 1991 in Faneuil Hall, Zinn made it clear that rights conveyed by the Declaration or Constitution are not automatically put into practice. Free speech is constrained in war time (“exactly when free speech is most needed”); the protections against search and seizure are different for the rich than for the poor; even the simplest expression of citizenship, voting in elections, was blocked for decades after the Civil War. “We are not given our liberties by the Bill of Rights,” Zinn declared, “certainly not by the government which either violates or ignores those rights. We take our rights as thinking, acting citizens.”

While drawing from the nation’s founding documents, Zinn was keen to expand the notion of rights to benefit ordinary people. As he often said, there are no guarantees in the Constitution for livelihoods or decent housing or nourishment. (Political activism did in fact make these more permanent in federal offerings, possibly fulfilling the Constitution’s opening clause, “to establish Justice… promote the general Welfare.”) What this demand for rights to basic necessities reflected is a vibrant and sustainable form of citizenship, however: the act of caring about others and sharing national wealth to make sure no one goes hungry, homeless or jobless. Defining the purpose of our commonwealth in human terms—to serve the nation, which is to say, the people, and not the state or private wealth—has a corollary in America’s actions abroad. We should, Zinn insisted, create a foreign policy that is not about protecting friendly (often ruthless) states and warring with the inconvenient ones, but about protecting people through our capacity to lead nonviolently.

I think Zinn struggled with how one personally puts into practice the ideals of citizenship he promoted. He did protest racism and war, often getting arrested. He walked picket lines for workers seeking better wages. He delivered fiery speeches intended to spur his audiences to defiance. He testified at trials of dissidents (famously in Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers trial) and took up the cause of many prisoners. What set him apart more than any other acts of solidarity and caring, however, was his role as an intellectual. Not only did he write a breathtaking array of books, articles, pamphlets and plays, but he undertook two distinctive tasks that manifest his thinking about citizenship.

The first is his insistence on encouraging ordinary people to speak up, and indeed recording and utilizing these voices in his writings. “One day I walked unannounced into the Zinn apartment” in Atlanta, Staughton Lynd, another leftist historian, recalls. “Howard was tape recording an interview with two African American young men, [civil rights organizers] who had just been released from jail in Albany, Georgia. A light bulb went on behind my eyes. It was not Studs Terkel, nor was it my native genius, that led me to oral history: it was Howard Zinn.” His “bottom up” perspective not only made A People’s History the all-time best-selling book on America’s past, but it revolutionized historiography. The days of focusing only on the “great men”—the presidents and senators and business tycoons—were gone. History writing and presentation has not been the same. But the device is more than merely innovative. In oral history, the intellectual steps aside, sacrificing, in effect, the role of the omniscient interpreter of events. Citizens speak, and are built a platform to be heard.

The second of these signature contributions was his openly self-conscious discourse about the responsibility of the intellectual, and particularly that of the historian. This was a battle he fought with the academic and journalistic establishments over many decades. “We ought to welcome the emergence of the historian,” he wrote in an essay for the New York Times Book Review in 1966, “as an activist-scholar, who thrusts himself and his works into the crazy mechanism of history, on behalf of values in which he deeply believes. This makes of him more than a scholar; it makes him a citizen in the ancient Athenian sense of the word.”

But this was not only about the engagement of intellectuals in the great causes of the day. It was about how knowledge is created, for what purposes, and who controls it. Anticipating French critical theorists like Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu (and along with his friend Noam Chomsky), Zinn constructed a withering critique of academic “objectivity” and the trivialities scholars often choose as their life’s work.

The objectivity debate—which attends journalism as well—is often misconstrued, however. Engaged intellectuals needn’t (and shouldn’t) distort history to make their case, Zinn argued. Rather, it is the initial choice of topics where the value judgments come into play. “Whether a metalsmith uses reliable measuring instruments is a prerequisite for doing good work, but does not answer the crucial question: will he now forge a sword or a plowshare with his instruments?” he asked in a Saturday Review essay in 1969. “That the metalsmith has determined in advance that he prefers a plowshare does not require him to distort his measurements. That the scholar has decided he prefers peace to war does not require him to distort his facts.”

Tilting at ivory towers was central to the citizenship project because of the way so many intellectual elites have not merely served the interests of the powerful but how such knowledge production fails to address, as completely as it should, real human needs. It would be too large a claim to say that Zinn and his cohort drove universities to be more socially responsible, now with large and diverse programs of service learning and problem solving, but the activism beginning in the 1960s that shamed academe for its insularity and its servitude to monied interests helped create a social conscience on campuses that is lively and expanding.

So the citizen wherever he or she works or lives, of whatever circumstances, is one who questions injustice, demands common rights and does so not for him or herself alone but for all others. “We must begin now to liberate those patches of ground on which we stand—to ‘vote’ for a new world (as Thoreau suggested) with our whole selves all the time, rather than in moments carefully selected by others.” Zinn consistently held—optimistic perhaps to a fault—that people can and do act precisely in those ways to secure a decent society. His role, ultimately, was to shine a light on those acts, those rights and the obstacles to their fulfillment.

He was fond of quoting Rousseau’s famous challenge, “We have physicists, geometricians, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, and painters in plenty, but we no longer have a citizen among us.” America did, or does. His name is Howard Zinn.


( We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.

t’s increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law. There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 80 commandos facing virtually no opposition—except, they claim, from his wife, who lunged towards them. In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects.” In April 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, informed the press that after the most intensive investigation in history, the FBI could say no more than that it “believed” that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan, though implemented in the UAE and Germany. What they only believed in April 2002, they obviously didn’t know 8 months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know, because they were instantly dismissed) to extradite bin Laden if they were presented with evidence—which, as we soon learned, Washington didn’t have. Thus Obama was simply lying when he said, in his White House statement, that “we quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda.”

Nothing serious has been provided since. There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.

There is also much media discussion of Washington’s anger that Pakistan didn’t turn over bin Laden, though surely elements of the military and security forces were aware of his presence in Abbottabad. Less is said about Pakistani anger that the U.S. invaded their territory to carry out a political assassination. Anti-American fervor is already very high in Pakistan, and these events are likely to exacerbate it. The decision to dump the body at sea is already, predictably, provoking both anger and skepticism in much of the Muslim world.

It’s like naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Tomahawk… It’s as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy.”

We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.

There’s more to say about [Cuban airline bomber Orlando] Bosch, who just died peacefully in Florida, including reference to the “Bush doctrine” that societies that harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves and should be treated accordingly. No one seemed to notice that Bush was calling for invasion and destruction of the U.S. and murder of its criminal president.

Same with the name, Operation Geronimo. The imperial mentality is so profound, throughout western society, that no one can perceive that they are glorifying bin Laden by identifying him with courageous resistance against genocidal invaders. It’s like naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Tomahawk… It’s as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy.”

There is much more to say, but even the most obvious and elementary facts should provide us with a good deal to think about.

Copyright 2011 Noam Chomsky