Sunday, May 31, 2009

Remembering the Tiananmen Square protests twenty years later

This is the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests that took place in April, May and June of 1989 in Beijing, China. The protests were for a liberalization of China’s politics and culture to coincide with the liberalization that was already taking place in the economy. The conservative forces in China’s ruling Communist Party panicked at the possibilities of some form of political democracy and brutally crushed the movement.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Jack Kemp and voter restoration for felons

The late Jack Kemp was a Republican who believed advocacy for voting rights, especially for minorities, was a conservative idea. The problem was this ran contrary to his party’s “southern strategy” and had few takers in the GOP. However, Kemp never backed down from what he believed was in the best interest of the country for the sake of political expediency including advocacy for voting rights of society’s least popular citizens – convicted felons.

Kent Willis, the Executive Director of ACLU of Virginia, remembers Kemp for his passion about voter restoration reform:
Much has been written about Jack Kemp since his passing a couple of weeks ago. Kemp was a former football star turned congressman who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the first President Bush and was the 1996 Republican vice-presidential nominee. He was a pragmatist who became well known for reaching across party lines to get things done and, in particular, for his passionate efforts to include more people of color in the Republican Party.

But Mr. Kemp had a less well-publicized passion that occupied much of his time in recent years -- restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated persons -- and I had the honor of working with him, albeit all too briefly, on this issue here in Virginia.

I first met Mr. Kemp, via telephone, while he was on vacation a couple of years ago. He had agreed to take part of his day to discuss voter disfranchisement in Virginia with a handful of advocates.

While we were prepared to educate Mr. Kemp on the issue in Virginia, it became clear at the beginning of the conversation that he was no novice to the subject. He was well aware that Virginia was one of only two states in the nation -- Kentucky is the other -- that permanently disfranchises every person convicted of a felony, requiring an order of the Governor to regain the right to vote.

He knew that as many as 300,000 people in Virginia who had completed their sentences and returned to their communities were unable to vote because of Virginia's antiquated law. He also knew that the Virginia law was a product of the Jim Crow era, and that, along with poll taxes and literacy tests, its purpose was to make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote.

And, he knew perhaps the most important thing for any pragmatist -- that voter restoration works. According to studies, formerly incarcerated persons who vote are far less likely to commit another crime and return to prison. Participating in our democracy as a voter, it seems, is a valuable part of the rehabilitation process and contributes to public safety.

Although Kemp was a politician, there were no politics behind his forceful support for restoration of voting rights. He simply believed restoring voting rights was the fair thing to do for the individual and that the results benefitted everyone.

Mr. Kemp first spoke out on the issue several years ago when testifying at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act. When asked by a member of Congress if he supported the right to vote for formerly incarcerated persons, he unhesitatingly responded "yes," saying "voting in America is the quintessential part of our democracy."

After he made that statement, voting rights advocates reached out to Kemp to involve him in felon enfranchisement work throughout the country, and he became an important partner in the fight to expand the right to vote to all Americans.

Inspired by his work with prison ministries and because the issue, in his words, "is a matter of simple fairness," he supported legislation to require automatic restoration of voting rights for persons participating in federal elections, urging Congress to take action on what he deemed a "historic civil rights reform."

By the time we were following Mr. Kemp's advice on how to bring about voter restoration reform in Virginia, he had already helped immeasurably in Florida and Maryland, which significantly updated and expanded their voter restoration procedures in recent years. He had also worked for reform in Kentucky, Virginia's voter disfranchisement twin.

In the future, when Virginia has finally shed itself of this shameful and counterproductive law, I believe we will look back over the last 12 months as the time in which Virginia finally started in earnest on the path to voter restoration reform.

Last summer, for example, Governor Kaine promised to expedite the process for restoration of rights so that disfranchised persons could vote in the November elections. The 2,535 individuals who managed to have their rights restored in 2008 are a drop in the bucket of 300,000 disfranchised voters, but the number is a record for one year, exceeding the totals of most Virginia governors during their entire four-year tenure.

In the General Assembly this year, there was, finally, a concerted effort to reform the restoration process. Eight bills were introduced, more than ever before. One measure easily passed the Senate, while its companion in the House was barely killed when a committee blocked it from a floor vote by a narrow 12-10 margin.

A few weeks ago, at a forum in Richmond, all three Democratic Party gubernatorial hopefuls said they supported automatic restoration of rights for most felons after they complete their sentences. This is remarkable not only because of the uniformity of thought on this issue, but the mere fact that it is a campaign issue. In the recent past, I cannot recall this subject even surfacing in a statewide political campaign.

Unfortunately, our work with Mr. Kemp in Virginia was cut short by his untimely passing. I only hope that we will honor Mr. Kemp's memory by moving forward on voter restoration reform, as he wanted us to do.

I think it is best to end this piece with Mr. Kemp's own words:

“For a nation that depends on the participation of its citizens, it is fundamentally un-American to deny the vote to people who are living and working as law-abiding citizens…The continuing expansion of the franchise - to the poor, women, minorities and young people - is one of the greatest stories in our country's history.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What did Nancy Pelosi know about torture and when did she know it? (And, why is this important?)

What are the defenses congressional Republicans use to defuse the controversy about the use of torture by the Bush administration? First they denied torture took place. Then they admitted torture took place but claimed it wasn’t that bad plus it produced useful intelligence. Finally they admitted the torture was pretty bad and produced very little useful intelligence but Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi knew all about it!

E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post is just bewildered by the attention on Pelosi:
There is something very strange about seeing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the middle of a controversy over the Bush Administration’s policies on torture. Pelosi had nothing to do with the policy, yet she is facing all of the what-did-she-know-when questions. Republicans who opposed disclosure of the memos on the torture policy now want Pelosi to tell all about herself. …
And Matthew Yglesias in the Daily Beast thinks congressional Republicans are working a little too hard to be clever:
… Under George W. Bush, the United States government embarked on the repeated torture of terrorism suspects in violation of American and international law. This fact was kept secret from the American people for the normal reason presidents like to keep illegal activity secret. It's illegal, after all, and "keeping it secret" is what people normally try to do after they commit crimes.

That basic logic hardly amounts to a proof that Pelosi was kept in the dark, and she almost certainly knew more about what was going on at the time than, say, I did. But it does suggest deception is a plausible scenario. And more to the point, it gets us refocused on the real issue here, which is not about what briefings were or were not given to Congress but about the underlying activity that was the subject of the briefings. We've had, for example, a steady drip of evidence, most recently from Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, indicating that one main use of Bush-era torture was to compel people to "confess" to the existence of various ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

And here's where the right's tactical acumen comes up short. Various conservative commentators have expressed their hope that gunning for Pelosi will blunt progressive calls for a "truth commission" to thoroughly investigate what really happened on Bush's trip to the "dark side". Fox's Neil Cavuto said we might be in a "Mexican standoff" wherein Pelosi would agree to drop the idea of investigations to prevent herself from attracting scrutiny. Steven Hayes, Dick Cheney's official biographer, said, "Democrats who have been so enthusiastic about truth commissions have to be stopping and saying, OK, wait a second." What conservatives are missing here is that this is a fight they were winning before they started gunning for Pelosi. Their best ally in this fight was Barack Obama, whose desire to "move forward" rather than focusing on the past had been the subject of much consternation. Had conservatives simply reached out to grab the hand that was being extended to them, they could have gotten what they wanted.

But in their zeal to score a tactical win, the right has made a truth commission more likely not less likely. Obama wanted to avoid a backward-looking focus on torture in part because it distracted from his legislative agenda. But if we're going to be looking backward anyway, thanks to conservatives' insistence on complaining about Pelosi, then the move forward strategy lacks a rationale. And far from forcing a standoff in which Pelosi will abandon her support for an investigation, the right has forced her into a corner from which she can't give in to moderate Democrats' opposition to such a move without looking like she's cravenly attempting to save her own skin.

There's no sign that Pelosi or anyone else is backing off the truth-commission idea. And, indeed, by suggesting that Pelosi could be a target of an investigation, conservatives have helped cleanse the idea of the odor of victor's justice. The question of CIA briefings of congressional leaders would, after all, be a legitimate subject of inquiry. And it's very possible that, done rigorously, Pelosi and other Democrats, such as Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), could wind up getting a black eye or two. But however bad an investigation might make the members of Congress who were supposed to be preventing illegal conduct look, the people actually doing the misdeeds are going to look even worse. Today, the congressional Republicans look extremely clever. But in a few months' time, we'll look back on this as yet another example of a conservative tactical victory that winds up backfiring. …
It’s time for a truth commission to investigate this whole sordid affair of the use of torture including what exactly happened, who ordered it, and how is it that certain leaders and agents working on behalf of this country felt they were above both American and international law.

Friday, May 08, 2009

A revival of the belief in witchcraft in Papua New Guinea leads to the torture and murder of an increasing number of women

Papua New Guinea hosts hundreds of indigenous ethnic groups who speak over 800 different languages. The majority of the population lives in traditional societies and practice subsistence level agriculture in an area that is mostly mountainous. The country occupies the eastern half of the island New Guinea in the southwestern Pacific Ocean and gained its independence from Australia in 1975.

When bad things happen on a communal scale all too often scapegoats of one sort or another are sought out in different societies around the world. The reasons a person or group of people are singled out doesn’t have to be rational and often these reasons can be a cover for ulterior motives. The repercussions of being scapegoated can range widely but sometimes it becomes violent.

As reported here two years ago, women have been singled out as witches in Papua New Guinea for the AIDS epidemic. According the Sunday Herald there is a revival in the belief of black magic and evil curses and according to a story in today’s Independent witch-hunting along with the torture and murder of women is overwhelming efforts of the police.

This from the Sunday Herald:
Once hailed as an untouched Shangri-La, the mist-shrouded highlands of Papua New Guinea are undergoing a dramatic resurgence in sorcery and witchcraft.

Age-old beliefs in black magic and evil curses are back with a vengeance in jungle-clad mountain valleys which were unknown to the outside world until the 1930s.

The revival is being fuelled by a spiralling Aids crisis and the collapse of health services, sapping villagers' faith in Western medicine.

Barely educated villagers living in remote mountain valleys are blaming the increasing number of Aids deaths not on promiscuity or not using condoms, but on malign spirits.

Alleged witches - mostly women but also some men and even children - have been subjected to horrific torture before being hanged or thrown off cliffs.

The number of witch killings has been estimated at 200 a year in the neighbouring province of Simbu alone, although definitive figures are impossible to come by. A report by Amnesty International in September found there was a "conspiracy of silence" surrounding the murders.

"The police do little to penetrate this silence. Very few sorcery-related deaths are investigated and the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice," the report concluded.

Belief in magic is ubiquitous in Papua New Guinea, where more than 850 languages are spoken by 5.5 million people. In the highlands they are known as "sangumas" and can assume the form not only of humans, but animals such as dogs, pigs, rats and snakes.

When Papua and New Guinea were separate Australian colonies, colonial patrol officers and their native auxiliaries suppressed sorcery killings. But since independence in 1975, the old ways have gradually undergone a gruesome renaissance along the spine of saw-toothed peaks which divides Papua New Guinea in two.

A surge in the illegal growing of marijuana in the emerald green valleys has contributed to black-magic paranoia, experts say. The recent acquisition of automatic weapons, replacing traditional bows and arrows, has also emboldened the groups of young men who typically carry out the torture.

"We're seeing a big rise in witchcraft cases. We hear of a killing almost every week," said Hermann Spingler, a German Lutheran pastor who heads the Melanesian Institute, a cultural study centre in Goroka.

"If someone in Papua New Guinea dies prematurely, people ask not what caused the death, but who. They take the law into their own hands and torture people to make them confess'. They drag women on ropes behind vehicles, burn them with hot wire, chop off hands, fingers. People have been buried alive."

As in mediaeval Europe, accused sorcerers face a ghastly Catch-22 predicament. "If you don't confess, you die. If you do, they'll kill you," said Spingler.

He expects more witch murders as Papua New Guinea's Aids crisis worsens. The country has the highest rate of Aids in the Pacific region, with the government estimating that 2% of the population is HIV-positive. That is almost certainly an underestimate.

"The problem is far worse than the official statistics show. In some antenatal clinics 30% of women are positive," said Claire Campbell, an Australian Aids campaigner working for the World Health Organisation. The fear is that promiscuity, prostitution, sexual violence and a tradition of men having several wives could drive the country into an Aids epidemic of African proportions, with half a million infected with the disease by 2025.

The problem is exacerbated by the remoteness and less developed nature of the highlands, which were only penetrated by Australian gold prospectors in 1930. The Australian colonial government had assumed that the highlands were too wild to be inhabited; instead the prospectors stumbled on a thriving culture of more than a million people, living in a "land that time forgot" which had never been encountered before.

More than 75 years on, most villages are still miles from the nearest road, their inhabitants subsisting on a traditional diet of sweet potato, pigs and the game they can hunt in the forest.

Schools and aid posts established by the Australian colonial authorities have been abandoned, their funding siphoned off by corrupt politicians. Three decades after independence, there is still no road linking the capital, Port Moresby, with any major town.

To travel from the south coast to the north you must catch a plane - or, if you are a local, take to the vast network of paths that wind their way through the jungle.


"Villagers believe they have to kill the so-called witches, otherwise the whole clan is at risk from black magic," said Jack Urame, a member of the Dom tribe who has researched sorcery killings for the Melanesian Institute in Goroka.

Witchcraft killings, once confined to the highland provinces, are now occurring in coastal areas as mountain people migrate to towns such as Lae and Port Moresby in search of jobs.
You can read previous blog post referred above here, the Sunday Herald article here and the Independent article here.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Civilized people can be moved to indecent, uncivilized behavior

Lillian B. Rubin on the implications of the torture memos:
…Wasn’t the I-was-just-following-orders line the defense of the guards in the Nazi death camps when we tried and convicted them at Nuremberg?

If it didn’t count then, why should it count now? Yes, I know that we can’t compare the systematic torture that was the policy of the German government then with American CIA agents who tortured a few prisoners? But where do we draw the line? Is it okay to torture two but not ten, ten but not one hundred? Is waterboarding a prisoner once acceptable, but 183 times crossing the line?

And who should be held accountable? The torture memos make clear that the actions on the ground rested directly on the green light from the American government’s Justice Department. True, our government wasn’t targeting a whole people, just a few terrorists who may have had information that endangered our security and the lives of our people. But whether the few or the many, those who torture always have what they think is a good reason to do so.

What’s so interesting about it is how decent, civilized people can be moved to indecent, uncivilized behavior by the fear that enables them to dehumanize the other. It’s what makes war and torture possible. Ironically, the torturer doesn’t get off scot free. For in dehumanizing another, we must inevitably dehumanize some part of our self. How else is it possible to inflict unbearable pain on others, to listen to their screams, their pleas for mercy, if not to step outside the self we’ve known—the good son, father, husband, colleague, friend? We become, for that time, someone else, someone whose sadistic impulses are given free rein, and we don’t return to the self we knew without psychological consequences. We see it in our returning warriors who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It isn’t just what others did to them that plagues their inner l lives, it’s also what they did to others.

Whatever the psychological consequences, the release of the torture memos has opened a spirited debate among Americans, revealing yet again the ideological chasm that separates us. Indeed, we can’t even agree on whether we actually tortured detainees. So while some of us are aghast at the revelations; others insist that we didn’t torture anybody—that waterboarding, a torture technique that despotic governments have used since the Spanish Inquisition, was just another one of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” we needed to get information that was vital to our national security. And anyway, it’s not torture if you’re careful not to step over some imaginary line that’s so thin it’s indistinguishable.

Well, I don’t know if the Japanese guards who waterboarded American prisoners during the Second World War were careful or not, but I bet they told themselves similar tales about why what they did wasn’t torture. Or if it was, it was okay because our guys were the enemy, invading their territory and trying to destroy their way of life. Unfortunately for them, the American government considered waterboarding prisoners of war in pursuit of information reason enough to try and execute the Japanese soldiers who did it.

So where does this leave us? I’m not sure. But I’m reminded of Abu Ghraib and Lynndie England, who was tried and convicted for violating military regulations about the treatment of prisoners. Depending on which side of the torture argument you were on, it either seemed appropriate to the crime or a travesty of justice. In fact, it was both. Appropriate, because she brutalized people over whom she had complete power; a travesty, because those who created that atmosphere in which her behavior was acceptable—the officers both on the ground and in Washington—were never held accountable.
You can read the entire piece here.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Civilians suffer as the army surrounds rebels in Sri Lanka

Civil war has plagued Sri Lanka since 1983. The on-and-off conflict in this multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation has pitted a separatist movement led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) against the central government. The Tamils make up one of the larger ethnic groups on the island nation and are concentrated in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka army has now surrounded Tamil Tiger fighters in a tiny area less than three square miles. Trapped in this war zone are thousands of civilians. The Tamil Tigers are accused of holding these people as human shields while the army indiscriminately bombs the area. In the meantime, another 200,000 civilians who already fled the fighting are overwhelming displacement camps in the north. A humanitarian crisis is very much in the making on this island.

This from the Christian Science Monitor:
As the fighting has shrunk to a narrow strip of rebel-held land, currently less than three square miles, Sri Lanka's military has framed its offensive against the LTTE as the world's "largest hostage rescue mission." On Friday, it air-dropped leaflets into the area that urged Tamil civilians to seek sanctuary in the cleared areas.

That's what happened here on Apr. 20. Overnight, Army commandos crossed the shallow lagoon and captured the LTTE's defensive embankment. The next morning, watched by spy drones, huge crowds of ragged men, women and children streamed out on foot. By 10 a.m., 5,000 had crossed into government-held territory. At 10 p.m., the number rose to 35,000, in addition to those who escaped north along the sands. In total, 115,000 civilians escaped this way, the military says.

Commanders say that if they can penetrate the final LTTE redoubt, the remainder of the trapped civilians can flee, leaving the rebels to surrender or die. More than 3,000 have surrendered so far. The military insists that no bystanders are harmed in the rescue efforts. "We continue this operation with the aim of not causing any casualties to civilians," Gen. Dias said.

A recent internal UN report, however, estimates that nearly 6,500 civilians had died in the war zone prior to the Apr. 20 outflow. On Saturday, medical officials in the LTTE-held area told the BBC and other news agencies that scores had died during two days of government shelling that hit a makeshift hospital. The government denied the claim.

It has also pushed back against leaked UN satellite data that appeared to show recent aerial bombardment of civilian areas. The release of the satellite images, which Sri Lankan officials say are inconclusive, appear to be part of an internal UN row over how far to expose what some UN officials are calling war crimes by both sides.

Human rights groups and other observers warn that any final offensive would spell disaster for those caught in the crossfire. A repeat of the Apr. 20 exodus is complicated by the area's topography and the ruthlessness of the LTTE, which is killing anyone caught escaping by boat or land, says another aid worker in direct contact with civilians there.

Ramani Hariharan, a retired Army colonel who was an intelligence chief during India's 1987-1990 peacekeeping operation in Sri Lanka, says it would be almost impossible to distinguish civilians from fighters in the densely packed area. "It's not a neat operation. It's going to be messy. Messy operations lead to casualties," he says.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Outwitting internet censorship around the world

The cyberwar continues. As governments set up new barriers to censor free speech citizens find new ways to bypass the digital equivalent to the Berlin Wall. Software created by Global Internet Freedom Consortium, the Tor Project, and Psiphon among others allow users to avoid various roadblocks set up by governments to block unrestricted access to information.

This from today’s New York Times:
The Iranian government, more than almost any other, censors what citizens can read online, using elaborate technology to block millions of Web sites offering news, commentary, videos, music and, until recently, Facebook and YouTube. Search for “women” in Persian and you’re told, “Dear Subscriber, access to this site is not possible.”

Last July, on popular sites that offer free downloads of various software, an escape hatch appeared. The computer program allowed Iranian Internet users to evade government censorship.

College students discovered the key first, then spread it through e-mail messages and file-sharing. By late autumn more than 400,000 Iranians were surfing the uncensored Web.
The software was created not by Iranians, but by Chinese computer experts volunteering for the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that has beem suppressed by the Chinese government since 1999. They maintain a series of computers in data centers around the world to route Web users’ requests around censors’ firewalls.

The Internet is no longer just an essential channel for commerce, entertainment and information. It has also become a stage for state control — and rebellion against it. Computers are becoming more crucial in global conflicts, not only in spying and military action, but also in determining what information reaches people around the globe.

More than 20 countries now use increasingly sophisticated blocking and filtering systems for Internet content, according to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group that encourages freedom of the press.

Although the most aggressive filtering systems have been erected by authoritarian governments like those in Iran, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria, some Western democracies are also beginning to filter some content, including child pornography and other sexually oriented material.

In response, a disparate alliance of political and religious activists, civil libertarians, Internet entrepreneurs, diplomats and even military officers and intelligence agents are now challenging growing Internet censorship.

The creators of the software seized upon by Iranians are members of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, based largely in the United States and closely affiliated with Falun Gong. The consortium is one of many small groups developing systems to make it possible for anyone to reach the open Internet. It is the modern equivalent of efforts by organizations like the Voice of America to reach the citizens of closed countries.

Separately, the Tor Project, a nonprofit group of anticensorship activists, freely offers software that can be used to send messages secretly or to reach blocked Web sites. Its software, first developed at the United States Naval Research Laboratories, is now used by more than 300,000 people globally, from the police to criminals, as well as diplomats and spies.

Political scientists at the University of Toronto have built yet another system, called Psiphon, that allows anyone to evade national Internet firewalls using only a Web browser. Sensing a business opportunity, they have created a company to profit by making it possible for media companies to deliver digital content to Web users behind national firewalls.

The danger in this quiet electronic war is driven home by a stark warning on the group’s Web site: “Bypassing censorship may violate law. Serious thought should be given to the risks involved and potential consequences.”
You can read the entire article here.