Ahmed Seif al-Islam: In dark times

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human RIghts Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif el-Islam, photographed by Platon for Human Rights Watch, 2011

Ahmed Seif al-Islam died one year ago today. I had meant to write something then, but I didn’t have the heart. No one had much heart in those weeks. I went to his wake at the Omar Makram Mosque three days later. Evening, like fusty crape, had settled on Midan Tahrir, five minutes’ walk away. It felt evident that this was also a funeral for the revolution, which had started there and dragged itself this short distance in four years, to die: a valediction not just to a person but to a history of dreams. Thousands of people filed through the small mosque; all of Egypt’s Left was there, but also students and graffiti artists and football fans and people who had only heard, but knew the significance of, his name. His daughter Mona received them, exhausted, by the door. His son Alaa had been released from prison to participate; he was beside her, wearing his prison whites, a garment which in Egypt always makes me think of pilgrimage. Inside, people looked down and said little, to the ebb and swell of the recited Qur’an. Hamdeen Sabbahi — the twice-failed presidential candidate whom Sisi had crushed in a rigged vote two months before — stood against the wall, with a tiny remaining entourage. His chin jutted; he was posing for invisible cameras; he reminded me how, even under dictatorships, politicians acquire the kinds of ego cultivated in our celebrity-sated media democracies, a self-regard that failure cannot shatter. (I’d learned this before in Egypt: in 2003 I met with Ayman Nour, a daring opposition MP who had the privilege two years of later of being similarly crushed by Mubarak in another gimcrack ballot. We were supposed to talk about some arrested demonstrators — he was their lawyer; instead he spent two hours talking about himself.) But no one paid attention to Sabbahi; the flashbulbs had flown like swallows. He’s a tall mountain of a man, but he seemed like hollow papier-mâché compared to Seif’s missing figure, friable and insignificant against the absent corpse.

11070278_981885211844003_7553989013040307034_nYou would have thought then, with the new dictator rigidly ensconced, that things couldn’t get any worse. But they did, as the autumn darkened. By October several of the most famous human rights activists in Egypt had to leave the country. Others were being jailed on pretexts, or banned from travel. I remember the months from then through January as a kind of delirium, when everybody I know — rights workers, journalists, café owners, gay men — believed we were all going to be arrested at any time. Things alleviated a little in the spring: perhaps because the state felt it had intimidated everyone enough, perhaps because the fear had simply become second nature; in any case, those are more or less the same thing.  In fact, the methods of repression only shifted. People were vanishing. Security forces disappeared more than 150 between April and June, pulling them off the streets or from their homes and dropping them (without trial, without hearing, without lawyers, without law) into the country’s immense Gulag. Sometimes they reappear, months later, in a security court; sometimes what surfaces are the corpses. There are death squads now. Torture used to happen behind bolted shutters in police stations; these days security forces will torture and kill you in your own house. Death does home delivery. The government wages a widening war against burgeoning insurgencies, and the insurgencies bomb and kidnap with spectacular impunity in the heart of Cairo. I remember lines by Edwin Muir:

                                                       We have seen
Good men made evil wrangling with the evil,
Straight minds grown crooked fighting crooked minds.
Our peace betrayed us; we betrayed our peace.
Look at it well. This was the good town once.

That is Egypt in the summer of 2015.

All this makes thinking about Seif the more painful, if the more necessary, a year on. I need to remember him, to make sense of everything since. The obituaries and memorials back then recited the key facts. As a young Communist activist, he faced the first of many arrests in 1972 (at the age of 21). In 1983, the Mubarak dictatorship jailed him for five years. They tortured him: “I was turned into a wreck of a human being,” he told Human Rights Watch. “A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes.” Finally freed, he made the hard choice to change the methods of his dissent. He became a lawyer, defending everyone from labor activists to accused apostates. In 1999, he helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the main human-rights legal defense group in Egypt. He practiced an activism that transcended the usual insularity of the left. He worked with religious fundamentalists, with accused “terrorists,” with religious minorities, with liberals of all stripes, with LGBT people, with feminists. He constantly looked for common ground between disparate but cognate ways of resisting state control, digging for a deep politics where joint action could begin: in similar visions of social transformation, in congruent loathing of arbitrary power, in shared experiences of torture.

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R_ at Ahmed Seif al-Islam's wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

Alaa Abd el Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Leila Soueif (L -R) at Ahmed Seif al-Islam’s wake at Omar Makram Mosque, August 30, 2014. Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid for Al Masry Al Youm

And then there is his family: his wife Laila Soueif, a mathematician and relentless political activist; his daughter Mona Seif, who has spent almost five years fighting military persecution of civilians; his son Alaa Abd el Fattah and his daughter Sanaa Seif, both now serving prison terms for protesting “illegally” — jailed, they could not join him at his deathbed. And his sister-in-law Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and activist (who chronicled some of the family history in her early fiction, In the Eye of the Sun); and her son Omar Robert Hamilton, who writes about the revolution, in Cairo and London. There’s something almost theatrical about a family life lived so intensely in public action; acting and activism are akin, after all, except the second comes without a script. At times they remind me, not exactly of the Barrymores, but of Ferber and Kaufman’s play about the Barrymores, The Royal Family — if it were somehow transported to the world of 1984. One striking thing (and one level, I suppose, of defying the surveillance state) is that, while they live in public, their private lives and loyalties are intensely rich and full. If you raise your kids to be rebels, almost always they eventually rebel against you. I’m sure Seif’s children had their moments of rebellion, but the other striking thing is that their father’s legacy is in their bones and they are unceasingly faithful to it. This is what happens when the political is also personal: a turn on a feminist adage that bears remembering.

I didn’t know him as well as many others. The best tribute I can pay now is to remember some things I learned from him.

The first dates to the first time I met him, in November 2001. Most Western obituaries of Seif stressed how, staring down political and social risk, he provided lawyers for men arrested for homosexuality in the famous Queen Boat case and the years after. Seif himself never made much of this: certainly not because he was embarrassed, nor because he thought it unimportant (he knew how important it was to the victims) but because it did not strike him as extraordinary. At the time, I was program director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). I came to Egypt that month for the verdict in the Queen Boat trial; Hossam Bahgat (then a 22-year-old university student) and I went to meet Seif in his office. I’d e-mailed and phoned him often from the US, but I wanted to thank him personally. (This was, it strikes me, one of the first times that Hossam had sat down face-to-face with Seif as well; they later became firm allies.)

I launched a little speech of gratitude for a difficult and dangerous decision. Seif listened, sucking his teeth ruminatively. This he often did. The mannerism seemed to have a deeper meaning, a way of coming to terms with an unpleasantness buried in life’s innards: as though the world had just given him something bitter to eat, a cosmic rotten quince or a transcendental grapefruit soaked in alum, and rather than spit it out, he was trying to decide what this implied about the universe. After I’d rambled on a while, he cut me off. “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I was startled. I stammered, we didn’t exactly, we were an LGBT group, but we understood the (fill in some words).

“No, no,” he said. “Really, I just want to know simply. Does your organization take a position on the freedom of Palestine?”

Well, not quite, it was not entirely within our mandate, but

Seif’s lips set. “I want you to know that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

Seif, in his office at the HIsham Mubarak Law Centre

Seif, in his office at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre

The next time I saw Seif, I was working for Human RIghts Watch — which did have a position on Palestine and Israel, though not one he respected. But he wasn’t looking for a final answer. He wanted me to understand that I was a political actor whether I wanted to be or not, and he was going to treat me as one.  He wanted me to understand that “universality” is a choice and practice, not a generalization. Principles weren’t the opposite of the quid-pro-quo he posited; it was principle that demanded we both widen our horizons. For Seif human rights weren’t Platonic ideas glassed in some abstract realm; they took meaning in the concrete world through politics. They are absolute values we work out in real life. Their reach becomes universal through the labor of arguing out alliances to make them so. Seif’s turn to the law hadn’t changed his basic beliefs at all. He worked for human rights, but he was a revolutionary, and he thought only radical change could make them real. And only through the give-and-take of politics would change begin.

This political precision also affected his attitude toward lawyering. Seif was one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Egypt. This meant he was expert at finding cracks in a document crafted for repression. He had little of the craven fetishism with which American lawyers approach their own constitution, hammered out in slavery times. He knew legal argument was a means to an end, and the end was change, not the reification of a text. “Do you believe in this constitution?” I asked him when we were talking about Egypt’s emergency laws. He smiled. “I believe in the tools we have.”


Seif at a seminar on “contempt of religion” laws, 2012

A second memory. I saw Seif in Cairo in the summer of 2011, when the military government — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — was deepening its grip on the country. I sat in on a meeting Amnesty International organized for human rights activists. There were some 25 people at the table, and we went through a round of introductions and saying what our “core concerns” were. Seif looked half-asleep. When his turn came, he mumbled something almost inaudible. Then suddenly, as if someone had stuck an electric wire in his spine, he jolted to life. “I will NOT,” he shouted thunderously —  slap of palm on table — “accept that the American government, or Amnesty, or anyone will tell me that I need to tolerate military dictatorship in order to avoid a takeover by Islamist people. I will not accept such false choices. Anyone who wants to dictate that should leave this country alone.” I don’t remember the rest of what he said, but I don’t remember a word of what anyone else said either.

And that was a second lesson about politics. You may compromise on strategies or goals. You don’t have to compromise on saying what you believe. Seif would sit with almost anybody on a panel if it advanced a just, joint cause — Salafi preachers or American human rights organizations; but not if he had to mince his words, or lose his capacity to be critical.  He would sign an open letter sponsored by Human Rights Watch one day, and start an open letter blasting Human Rights Watch (usually about Palestine) the next. Coalitions don’t mean abandoning all confrontation.

A third lesson. While I lived in Cairo for a few months in 2003, demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq wracked the city. The Mubarak government arrested over a thousand students and activists when the war broke out, torturing most of them. My work for Human Rights Watch was to document this; and so for hours every day I camped at Seif’s chaotic desk in the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, where, as I’ve written before, “He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest.”

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defense attorney in one of his son Alaa's trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Seif and daughter Mona outside a military court in Cairo, October 30, 2011; Seif was defending his son Alaa in one of his trials. Photo by Sherif Kouddous

Everybody who had been demonstrating, and their families, knew Seif. This was true of Salafis, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Nasserists, of every political complexion. The Hisham Mubarak Centre was on the sixth floor of a leprous Belle Époque building in Souq el-Tawfiqiyya downtown; the offices branched off from a common room with blue chipped-plaster walls, once a pasha’s airy and erudite salon, and that vaulted space was always available for any group to meet, anybody to hold a press conference or a debate, any agitators to plan their agitation. Seif had turned his headquarters into the crossroads of dissent in Cairo. I remember, during those desperate days, interviewing a hijabi woman of about twenty, a college student who’d been active in the demonstrations. One night at her parents’ home, she’d received a phone call from Amn el-Dawla, from State Security cloaked in all its terror, demanding she come in the next day for interrogation. I asked her what she did. She said, “I called Seif, of course.”

But my point, the lesson, is: never did Seif make himself central. He had no interest in advertising himself or “leading.” His work was about others, not himself. (One detail is telling. Seif taught his lawyers what he called the “bag rule,” which sounds like a Mafia custom but was quite simple. He ordered them never to neglect to look at the bags of documents that poor and working-class Egyptians carry around with them when they have a dispute with the government: scraps of forms and records that often they can’t even read. I’ve seen these bags so often. They don’t just matter because they might contain overlooked evidence of malfeasance. They matter because they matter to the people. To immerse yourself in their experience of their wrongs is to show them the respect they demand.)

The idea of having his role publicized would have appalled Seif. True, he lived a public life; he was always on a stage, in some sense, but he was never any kind of star. The picture at top is almost the only posed photograph of him I’ve ever seen. It’s from a photo shoot that Human Rights Watch hired Platon to do in Cairo in 2011, a rather silly series of images of key figures from Egypt’s revolution. You can see the handlers couldn’t talk Seif into changing the moth-eaten sweater he usually wore, which is why the picture is in such close-up. You can also see he looks — well, not uncomfortable, just resigned, as if he’s finally realized this is the firing squad, and you’ve got to face it. When the ordeal was over, he must have felt like Dostoevsky getting his unexpected reprieve from execution: Now, I have time to write. 

Seif -- I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

Seif — I believe at one of his summer parties for friends, extended families, and especially kids. Photo by Marwa Seoudi

The danger in dictatorship is not only its technology of repression. It’s the dictatorial personality it imbues — not just in its servants, but in those who fight it. Human rights activists, because so hard to criticize, are if anything especially vulnerable to this warping of ego and moral sense. Seif had none of it. Our strange postmodern confusion of celebrity and power, so insidiously tempting to so many activists, was alien to him. It is impossible to imagine him talking about himself to strangers; he repelled flashbulbs as if he’d sprayed himself against them. It’s impossible to imagine him on the cover of a magazine, or on a red carpet with Brad and Angelina, or Menna Shalabi or Khaled Abol Naga or anybody. It’s just as impossible to imagine him participating in the games of power, holding a press conference with a UN ambassador or a foreign minister, or basking in the shared, pale light of some ambitious politician. Even the pictures wouldn’t have come out. The power of his presence would have exposed those beings as incorporeal fictions — vampires, creatures who don’t show up on photographic film.

Alaa, Seif’s son, is serving a five-year sentence, for joining a protest in November 2013. Recently his mother interviewed him during a visit to Tora prison; she memorized his answers and passed them to a reporter when she emerged. You can read the exchange in Arabic and English. Because Alaa seems almost forgotten in the West now, I will quote at length. He said:

Prisons in our country are the embodiment of “violation.” For me personally I’ll quote my father when, shortly before he died, he said that my conditions were “a lot better than others’ and, on the whole, bearable in comparison with what the political prisoners from the Islamist movement suffer.”

The authorities are being totally intransigent, though, in forbidding me books. Not just political books — any books from outside prison, including books published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. … They’re trying to isolate me, intellectually as well as physically, from the community. …

I was in court recently [for an “insulting the judiciary” case, another charge he still faces] and they brought in Magdi Qurqur [from the Brotherhood-sympathizing National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy] by mistake. He was in really bad shape. He told me that the day the prosecutor general was assassinated, prison officers went into the cells in Tora’s maximum security prison and stripped them of everything — prisoners’ clothes and bathroom stuff, but also medicines, even medicines which are really dangerous to stop suddenly, like for chronic heart problems, for example.

He added:

There’s no hope at all in reforming the Egyptian state or any of its institutions, including the presidency. These institutions and their heads deserve a revolution….[But] there is no longer one revolution that would let us to talk about “its forces.” Now we have multiple revolutions, and we need to think carefully about what this means.

Seif was Alaa’s defense attorney, until he became too sick to go on. At a press conference about his son’s trial eight months before he died, he said: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son. But instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”

Ahmed Seif al-Islam speaking about his son’s trial at a January 2014 press conference

But that, of course, isn’t all. His legacy rests in a myriad small lessons — about politics, consistency, personal integrity, and more. These bear the seeds of multiple revolutions: some infinitesimally small at first, happening only in the circle of a few friends who decide on freedom, but with the capacity to grow. Egypt now is divided starkly into light and darkness. And these are dark times. “If it is the function of the public realm is to throw light on the affairs of men,” Hannah Arendt declared,

by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by “credibility gaps” and “invisible govenrment,” by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Against this stands the illumination that “may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on this earth.”

These days I sit at home; I struggle against the heat; I think of past and future; and I read Brecht. Brecht wrote:

Truly I live in dark times!
Frank speech is naïve. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Born Later), 194o

And he also wrote:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

Motto to the Svendborger Gedichte (Svendborg Poems), 1940

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam's burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

Hundreds of marchers attend Ahmed Seif el-Islam’s burial in Tonsy cemetery in Basateen, Cairo, August 27, 2014. Photo by Amira Salah-Ahmed for Mada Masr

A clarification: What international human rights activists really do


International human rights activists as they see themselves

In my first post on Mona Seif, I objected to an e-mail that Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, sent to the New York Times. Specifically, he explained to the newspaper that “HRW staff nominated two human rights defenders” for the Martin Ennals award, “and one made it through as a finalist (not Mona).”

Now, I want to be clear about what my objection was, because it is bruited that various people both outside HRW and in have misunderstood it.  It’s not that HRW didn’t nominate Mona; that’s fine; there are other worthy candidates; it’s nobody’s business but the participating groups. Nor did I mean that HRW staff in general failed to do right by Mona — the HRW office in Egypt quite rightly regards her as one of their most valuable allies; they rely on her in their own work, and they support her and No to Military Trials if and whenever they can. The issue is that pesky little parenthesis. Ken is an admirably smart and thorough person for whom no punctuation lacks a purpose. He went out of his way to reveal that HRW didn’t nominate Mona, in a way that could only damage her case at a moment when she’s under unjustified attack, while preserving (or at least trying to preserve) Human Rights Watch from criticism. In my book, this is called selling your friends down the river.

I have a dim memory of the procedures for the Martin Ennals award — HRW directors were periodically solicited to suggest nominees. And my understanding is that the 10 groups participating are supposed to keep who-nominated-whom confidential, just as the ultimate balloting is secret. That’s certainly how it should be. So that Ken in letting this slip seems to violate the process, in spirit if not in letter.

More importantly, though, international human rights organizations have an obligation to defend their allied organizations and activists on the ground when they face such vicious attack: not just on principle, but because it’s those activists who make their work possible. There’s a macho movie-style illusion that international groups much too willingly promote: the heroic myth that their agents all put on combat boots and stride boldly solo into depopulated war zones, to extract Stories from Victims and be their Voices without help or mediation. This is هراء, which is one way of saying bullshit. I did research for Human RIghts Watch for years in Egypt as well as many other countries — I was HRW’s sole Egypt reseacher during several tense months in 2003 — and I know perfectly well that the organization couldn’t get one tweet’s worth of information about human rights violations anywhere between Alexandria and Aswan (or anywhere between the Arctic and Antarctic) unless activists like Mona, Aida Seif el-Dawla, Hossam Bahgat, and countless less-paid others were on their side, made the contacts, did the outreach and often all the work, and frequently provided the documentation for them. International organizations would wither up and die, or become (as they often threaten to become) completely useless, without this support.

Grassroots and domestic defenders enable Human Rights Watch to perform its vital and reputable services. But one serious problem HRW has — we in the LGBT Rights Program fought against this for years — is a belief at the highest levels that it’s the other way around: that HRW makes the work of other human rights defenders possible.

That’s wrong. Until it gets this straight, HRW will continue to embarrass itself, in ways like the New York Times article.


International human rights activists as they are

Hillel Neuer: Liar. Mona Seif: Hero.

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square: © Matthew Cassel,  justimage.org

I know Mona Seif only slightly. She’s one of the few human rights activists in Egypt (or anywhere) whom almost everybody likes. She’s utterly unpretentious. As I wrote a year ago, “Her complete immunity from the vagaries of ego is like a genetic quirk, so uncommon is it in the profession; it’s like meeting someone who never caught the common cold.” This year she’s one of three finalists for the Martin Ennals Award, a signal honor in the human rights field, usually given to those who have much to be pretentious about. She’s also facing a smear campaign by Hillel Neuer of so-called “UN Watch,” a former corporate lawyer and lobbyist for Israel, who has mobilized cohorts of the libellous and ignorant to grind down her reputation.

First, about Mona. Shortly after Mubarak fell, presciently, she started fighting the ruling military junta’s practice of trying detained civilians in military kangaroo courts. She was one of the first democracy activists to perceive the malign persistence of the Mubarak-era security state. Over the next 18 months, as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces tightened its grip on the country, some 12,000 people faced these tribunals. The group Mona helped found, No to Military Trials for Civilians, was the pre-eminent organization in Egypt opposing these abuses. She’s also helped to document police torture and a range of violations by security forces. Police arrested and tortured Mona herself at a demonstration in December 2011, so she knows what they do first-hand.  No to Military Trials is also one of the few decentralized, grassroots human rights movements, as opposed to NGOs, in Egypt today. It brings human rights back to its roots, in the passions of ordinary people making demands unmediated by boards of directors. It’s changed the landscape of rights advocacy in post-Revolutionary Egypt.

Big bupkes is watching you: Hillel Neuer

Big bupkes is watching you: Hillel Neuer

In the other corner: the appalling Neuer and his organization. “UN Watch” can be said to watch the UN (which certainly bears watching) only if I could be said to read the New York Times by doing the crossword puzzles obsessively and throwing the other 100+ pages away. Founded by the American Jewish Committee, and still largely funded by them, the posh Geneva-based outfit’s mission is to discredit anything the UN does or says that’s critical of Israel. The rest of the UN’s work interests it only insofar as it can be used against some rapporteur or resolution that questions Israel. This ambition has grown with time: now UN Watch prosecutes Thoughtcrime even if lurking in other institutions. Mona is caught in the crossfire. She’s a very big figure in Egypt; but Neuer, whose knowledge of Cairo is limited, could care less, except he can tar Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International, for having laid laurels upon an evil Arab and thus encouraged perfidy and terror. And there are certain relevant grudges he holds relating to Israel’s economic interests in the adjoining country. More on these later.

10 international human rights organizations jointly award the Ennals prize: Amnesty, HRW, the International Federation for Human Rights, the International Commission of Jurists, and others. Suddenly, Tuesday, Hillel Neuer struck. UN Watch had spent hundreds of man-hours going over Mona’s 93,000 tweets. (That’s Neuer’s version of human rights work, folks!) Neuer found three. I am reluctant to quote the man, but let’s turn to his press release:

On July 6, 2011, Ms. Seif advocated the blowing up of pipelines exporting Egyptian gas to Israel. She praised those who commit such crimes as “heroes” and wrote “Fuck Israel”. Many have been killed and injured in violence connected to these attacks.

On November 6, 2012, Ms. Seif endorsed Al Qassam Brigades attacks on civilians. On that day, Amnesty International—another jury member—tweeted a“Demand that @netanyahu & @AlqassamBrigade stop attacks on civilians.”Ms. Seif rejected the call, writing:“you don’t ask an occupied nation to stop their “Resistance” to end violence!!! SHAME ON YOU!”

On November 20, 2012, Ms. Seif endorsed the arming of Gaza terrorist groups. On that day, Amnesty International tweeted: “Stop the madness! Share this image if you want an arms embargo on all sides #Israel #Hamas #Gaza.” The image showed innocent civilians in Israel and Gaza. Seif responded: “@amnesty & @hrw r leading a shameful campaign asking Palestinians under occupation & non stop air strikes 2 stop their resistance!”

Naturally this went viral among the Jeffrey Goldbergs and likeminded bigots, who saw a chance to attack their least favorite organizations:

goldberg tweet  copy

By this morning, the professional liars at Breitbart.com were declaring Mona an “avowed anti-Semite.” And by afternoon the Washington Free Beacon was dubbing her a “radical Egyptian Islamist” — sickly hilarious, in that Mona is secular, comes from a family of atheistic leftists, and has been one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most militant opponents. But the pure racism beneath all this is palpable, barely buried. You know the Arabs, terrorists all, and there is only one motive for terrorism: Islam.

Three tweets: and on that basis Neuer has launched a repellent war of defamation against a heroic opponent of dictatorship and torture. Let’s go through Neuer’s “proofs” twit by twit.

Tweet I:  The pipeline. Hillel Neuer likes corruption.

Exhibit A for Neuer is this:

blow up pipelines tweet copy

To start with, Hillel claims that Mona has blood on her hands: “Many have been killed and injured in violence connected to these attacks.”

Neuer is blatantly lying. There’ve been at least 16 assaults on the Sinai pipeline(s) since the Egyptian Revolution, mostly minor. No one was killed, though this January saw seven policemen wounded — more than 18 months after Mona’s tweet. The army and Interior Ministry regularly blame these on “Islamic terrorism,” mainly because that’s a sure way of bolstering their international image as guardians of order against chaos.

"Restoring security and stability to Sinai": Egyptian police doing what they do best ( © Egypt Independent)

“Restoring security and stability to Sinai”: Egyptian police doing what they do best ( © Egypt Independent)

Facts are a good antidote to these stories. What underlies the attacks is complex and manifold. Most of Sinai’s population loathes the central government, which represses them politically and exploits them economically. Sinai’s Bedouin were in virtually open revolt even before the Revolution (facilitated by the terms of the peace treaty with Israel, which partly demilitarized the peninsula and left the task of fighting a near-insurrection to the incompetent and viciously brutal police). The instability has only grown since, as Nicolas Pelham has documented. (See an excellent article by the researcher here, and a longer report here.)

Meanwhile, Egyptians all over the country despise the pipeline because for years it shipped the national wealth to Israel, also the result of a peace treaty that an unelected dictatorship imposed. (The fact that Israel got to siphon off resources while their own government colludes in keeping Gaza’s borders closed to desperately needed aid also rankles severely.) Egypt has the 16th largest known natural-gas reserves in the world –1.6 % of the global total. Some good that does. Last year, the Petroleum Ministry announced that Egypt would now be a net gas-importing country.

A way in to a walled-off country: Gas enters Israel, Gazans and Egyptians can't

A way in to a walled-off country: Gas enters Israel, Gazans and Egyptians can’t

The industry’s lobbyists blame the usual suspects for this disaster: political uncertainty, “labor costs,” and so on. But you can do the math. Egypt produced about 2.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2009. It consumed almost 1.6 trillion — about 70% of Egypt’s electricity is gas-generated, and gas is the main (highly subsidized) source of cooking and heating fuel. (Consumption has surely gone up since). The country exported about 650 billion cubic feet in 2009– which, if you add it all up, leaves zero room for either reserve stocks or error. For years, over 250 billion cubic feet of that went to Israel, through the pipeline, at bargain prices: probably way more, since government statistics have every incentive to undercount.

Finally, in 2012, thanks in part to attacks on the pipeline, pressure from an enraged public, and campaigning by people like Mona, Egypt cancelled the Israel gas sales and the seven-year-old contract behind them.  The sales were sweetheart deals that had impoverished the Egyptian economy as a whole while enriching a Mubarak-era elite. Issandr el-Amrani explained this in detail in 2011, not long after Mona’s tweet:

Egypt was selling the gas to Eastern Mediterranean Gas (EMG) — the private firm that then sold the gas to the Israeli National Electricity Company — at around $3 per mbtu (that’s million British thermal units — the standard measurement for these things). EMG then sold it to the Israelis for around $4.5 per mbtu, pocketing a 50% profit margin for no more than the transaction costs and some of the [taxpayer-built] infrastructure between the two countries. The market price for gas … is currently around $4.40 for futures in North America, but spot markets in recent years passed the $10 per mbtu mark. Either way, there is no doubt that the price of the gas sold by Egypt to EMG was well below market prices, and that the company made an easy profit without investment of its own.

Other analysts put the prices even lower — “as low as between $0.70 and $1.50” per mbtu for Israel, with even less paid by EMG to the Egyptian government.  (Naturally, the government has never revealed the price.) What’s certain is that the magnates of EMG made a killing. The deal fed corruption in both countries. Where did that 50% profit go? El-Amrani writes:

EMG is owned in large part by an Egyptian business[man], Hussein Salem, who has long been known to be a frontman for the Mubarak family (and is a former security official), and Yossi Meiman, an Israeli businessman close to the Sharon clan in Israeli politics (he owns the Israeli energy company Merhav), as well as some additional minority investors from South East Asia.

There was a snake in Eden: The Sinai pipeline

There was a snake in Eden: The Sinai pipeline

The corruption behind the Israel sales resulted in one of the major post-Mubarak trials: Hussein Salem and the former oil minister were sentenced to 15 years for stealing over $700 million through the unequal contract. (Salem is hiding in Spain. Last month, the Cassation Court ordered a retrial.)

Plenty of things came together in the pipeline: the security state, the cliques that profit from it, the “special relationship” with Israel that the dictatorship constructed in exchange for US largesse, the way elites in two countries ally for lucre and offer their middle fingers to democratic oversight.  “Fuck Israel” is, from an Egyptian perspective, the mildest thing you can say in return. The contract may be history, but few people believe the government — under US pressure — won’t renew sales at some point in the future. Electricity blackouts are now routine in Egypt. Yet John Kerry and Binyamin Netanyahu are both pushing the country to sacrifice the prospect of energy self-sufficiency to the politics of “stability.” Sensible Egyptians who want economic independence and justice dream fondly of seeing the pipeline bombed.

The people of Sinai bear an extra grudge — because that serpentine eyesore symbolizes a government that ignores them except to brutalize them. Of course, any serious revolutionary in Egypt wants to understand and share the struggle of folks who have been resisting the government for years; but they don’t steer the rebels. Nobody in Sinai needed a tweet from Mona to instigate a raid on the pipeline (I doubt the attackers are on Twitter, Hillel). By now it comes as second nature.

Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian rights activist, pointed out to Neuer that he lied about the nonexistent deaths in Sinai. But the man cannot be deterred; he corrects his lies not, neither does he explain. He promptly tweeted:

I lied about you, Mona. Now will you please apologize for it?

I lied about you, Mona. Now will you please apologize for it?

Consider that: it’s astonishingly disgusting. A former corporate lawyer, defender of Raytheon and other innocent victims of injustice, a cushioned and blinkered fool who neither has a clue nor cares about conditions in Egypt, sits in his comfortable office with a view of the Swiss Alps and dares to lecture one of the foremost campaigners against abuses by the Egyptian police that she should apologize … to the Egyptian police. Hillel Neuer claims to be a human rights activist. He’s just a contemptible, destructive little thug.

The truth, of course, is that if the pipeline carried energy to Chad, Neuer would never even notice the attacks. If Sudan or some other malevolent Muslim state were the destination, he’d applaud them. The only reason he gives a flying falafel is that the gas once went to Israel. Indeed, Neuer even vilifies Mona Seif for urging a peaceful boycott of Egyptian gas companies that sold to Israel! Till 2011, Egypt supplied 43% of Israel’s natural gas needs. What Neuer is doing is taking his revenge on Mona Seif for Egypt’s scrapping of the gas deal. That, not “terrorism,” is Neuer’s worry.

Tweets II and III.  The right to resist. For Hillel Neuer, violence is … well, irresistible.

Neuer’s Exhibits B and C are this –

Mona Gaza tweet 1 copy

and this –

Mona Gaza tweet 2 copy

In November 2012, of course, a war was going on in Gaza. Seif was defending the right of Palestinians to fight back against a massive Israeli attack. The violence of Operation Pillar of Defense provides the specific context here. There’s a broader one as well.

Neuer knows nothing about the history of rights activism in Egypt, but these 280+ words summarize an old argument with Amnesty and HRW in which most of the human rights community in the country shared. (The deprecation in the middle of Tweet III is from my friend Aida Seif el-Dawla, the founder of the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and a Human RIghts Watch honoree in 2004.)  There is profound frustration at both organizations’ insistence on moral and political equivalence between resistance movements armed, in many cases, only with stones, and a massive military machine capable of obliterating opposition. There is profound frustration at what activists see as the organizations’ determination to depoliticize the conflict, to focus only on how it is fought while treating its origins as irrelevant and the demands on either side as beyond the reach of rights affirmation or critique. There is profound frustration at what they regard as a refusal to wrestle with the fact and the consequences of a 46-year occupation. There is discontent with what they interpret as a false, specious, and factitious objectivity.

Aida Seif el-Dawla meets with families of detained Islamists, 2005 (@ Nora Younis)

Aida Seif el-Dawla talks with families of detained Islamists, 2005 (@ Nora Younis)

Human Rights Watch, where I worked for many years, strains all its muscles to be completely objective on Israel/Palestine — an effort that has never gotten it a scintilla of credit from the militant pro-Israel side. Its releases on Israel and Palestine are the only ones in the entire organization that are routinely edited by the executive director himself. An informal arithmetic dictates that every presser or report criticizing Israel has to be accompanied by another criticizing the Palestine Authority or Hamas — or, if that isn’t possible (the PA barely retains enough authority to violate anybody’s rights) at least one of the surrounding Arab states. A mathematical approach to balance may help accountants detect embezzlement or captains keep ships afloat, but that kind of objectivity looks ridiculous in the political world, where the incessant fluidity of action disrupts the illusions of double-entry bookkeeping. (The call for an “embargo on arms” to “all sides” is an excellent example of “objectivity” that benefits one side much more than the other. As often noted during the Yugoslav civil war — when extremely well-meaning people urged that unarmed Bosnians and the Serbian army both go cold turkey on acquiring arms — a cutoff will matter much more to those who have only scant resources than to those flush with weaponry. If you want to stop that kind of fighting, an embargo alone won’t do it.  It’s like the majestic equality of the law as Anatole France described it, forbidding both rich and poor to sleep under bridges.)

Whatever you think of the neighboring conflict, Egyptian activists are undoubtedly reasonable when they ask what a similar “objectivity” would have looked like in their 20-year struggle with Mubarak. Should each documented act of torture by State Security have been followed by a search for some malfeasance by human rights organizations?  Do the immense power of a state and the vulnerability of a people’s movement carry the same responsibilities? At what point do you acknowledge (as Human RIghts Watch did in Egypt) that, though both sides may do wrong, one side’s core demand is right and the other’s is wrong?

Naturally, I‘m only paraphrasing ineptly here. But I can directly quote Aida Seif el-Dawla, who if anything is even more iconic among democrats in the region than Mona:

HRW is a human rights group and, by definition, human rights groups have limits. The human rights perspective might sometimes be what they call ‘objective’ but it’s not from the victim’s point of view.

That goes for the victims of torture whom Aida has served for 20 years: their wounds cry out for advocates, not impartial referees. And Aida adds: “Take, for example, martyrdom operations. Regardless of my opinion, it needs serious awareness-raising so that people understand the language of martyrdom as a last weapon people use to tell the world about what’s happening to them.”

Demonstrators hold an image of Mohamed el-Gendy, a young activist tortured to death by police, 2013

Demonstrators hold an image of Mohamed el-Gendy, a young activist tortured to death by police, 2013

This is absolutely different from “advocating terrorism.”  It means — I take Aida to mean — understanding that those with their backs against the wall act by definition under more constraint and desperation than the wall-builders. If you want to condemn “martyrdom operations,” or stop them, you need at least to comprehend what conditions create them and what they are trying to tell. Meanwhile, Egyptian activists, who have had to resist three ruthless regimes (Mubarak, the military, and the army-supported Muslim Brotherhood) in three years, insist that human rights are empty unless supported by the concrete right of resistance to oppression. That’s a right articulated by figures as diverse as St. Thomas Aquinas and Amira Hass. You can’t have the right to the “self-determination of peoples” (expressly stated in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the major UN treaties) without recognizing that, in the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, it’s been achieved by resistance fighters rather more often than by diplomats; and even the diplomats usually needed the resistance fighters to give their arguments some heft.

Mona Seif said as much in a brief statement yesterday on her Facebook page:

I have never called for nor celebrated attacks on civilians. My position is very clear: I support people’s right to resist occupation and I resist all attempts at portraying the siege of a predominantly civilian population by the world’s 4th most powerful Army as one of ‘equivalence.’

Of course, Hillel Neuer is in a self-contradictory place here. On the one hand, he believes that Arabs don’t have the right to resist much of anything, least of all Operation Pillar of Defense. On the other hand, he sees violence as a constant temptation for the Israeli side, one so enticing that the state can hardly be expected to resist it. Violence is irresistible for both parties, but in rather different senses.

Aida Seif el-Dawla and Mona Seif

Aida Seif el-Dawla and Mona Seif

Neuer, for instance, was assiduous in defending Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara: on the grounds that Israel has a right to resist anybody anywhere, armed or no, and that killing such people is something the state apparatus must do, irresistibly. What good is a monopoly of force if the state doesn’t use it?  What good is a gun if you don’t shoot somebody? Ali Abunimah summarizes Neuer’s rants far better than I can:

On 2 June 2010, three days after Israeli commandos murdered nine unarmed civilians aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters, UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer justified the lethal attack on what his organization termed the “terror flotilla” based on chants some passengers aboard the flotilla had allegedly been heard making. …

Neuer has never revised nor apologized for his justifications for Israeli violence against the flotilla even after the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Inquiry … found that many of the unarmed victims had been executed by the Israeli soldiers. …

The official report also concluded that “No evidence has been provided to establish that any of the deceased were armed with lethal weapons.”

“Forensic evidence showing that most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range has not been adequately accounted for in the material presented by Israel,” the report found. And so on. The truth is that Hillel Neuer likes violence, with the armchair enthusiasm of someone who knows his friends will wield it and he’ll never have to suffer it first-hand. He loves it because it sorts the powerful from the powerless, the valued from the unwanted, the wheat from the chaff. He’s exactly the opposite of Mona Seif, who has confronted state violence here in Egypt as Neuer would never dare, and wants to see people empowered to end it. These two — the guy who holds the gun and the dissenter who wants to take it away — will never have anything in common. Only one of them has anything to do with human rights.


Neuer knows that, although he can mobilize the usual suspects to support his libels against Mona, he has few facts to back him up. So he scrounges for some Egyptian allies to give him a more — well, objective look. Unfortunately, he has only two. One, “Amr Bakly, who heads the Cairo Liberal Forum, tweeted: ‘The Martin Ennals Award is not for terrorist supporters.'” The Cairo Liberal Forum is a small circle of “free market” advocates in Egypt whose irrelevance to the Egyptian revolutionary scene can be seen in their Facebook page: it’s almost wholly in English and for foreign consumption. Bakly has neither constituency nor credibility.

Alaa Abd el Fattah

Alaa Abd el Fattah

Neuer’s other enlistee, Maikel Nabil, is a more complicated story. Nabil, an advocate for conscientious objection and against military conscription, suffered a hellish year in jail for “insulting” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011. I’ve written about him before, and I travelled to the military prosecutor’s office to show support at one of his hearings last December. Nabil rightly felt angry that his case drew less attention than the jailing of other activists, including Alaa Abd el Fattah, Mona Seif’s celebrated brother. Only a handful of people stood outside the grim army building when I went there for him, as opposed to hundreds who regularly turned out for Alaa. But Nabil has let anger and jealousy corrupt his judgment. His condemnation of Mona Seif is more about his resentment of Alaa than over anything she tweeted; it’s particularly sad because Mona spoke out strongly for him while he languished in prison. It’s reprehensible of Neuer to exploit Nabil’s rage in this divisive way. Since his release, Nabil has left Egypt, his reputation more and more marginalized there. (UN Watch organized an ill-advised junket to Israel for him last year.) Like Bakly, he has little constituency in Egypt, and it’s mendacious of Neuer to pretend otherwise.

I don’t expect Hillel Neuer to know the difference between real human rights activists and ersatz ones: he’s so emphatically the latter. Neuer — despite grandly inflating himself into a rights defender and UN Watch into a rights organization — has simply never done human rights work. He sits in his office and peruses the tweets of his enemies. Mona Seif, meanwhile, has worked for the imprisoned, spoken to their families, documented their cases, confronted the oppressors face to face. Three successive repressive regimes have found common ground in hating her. There’s hardly a catastrophe in Cairo they don’t  blame her for. A fire at pro-military candidate Ahmed Shafiq’s offices? Mona was lighting matches in a car nearby!  A crowd attacks the HQ of the Muslim Brotherhood, Shafiq’s opponents? Mona planned it all!

The odd thing is that, accusing her absurdly of “terrorism,” Hillel Neuer mimics the rhetoric and paranoia of the Egyptian powers that be. I doubt he’d be happy to hear he imitates the Muslim Brotherhood. But apologists for injustice and flacks for authority are always alike, no matter their disparate beliefs.

Ahmed Seif al-Islam

Ahmed Seif el-Islam

In thinking of Mona, I always remember her father. Ahmed Seif el-Islam is one of the most respected rights activists and constitutional lawyers in Egypt. He has inspired me. He also taught me a valuable lesson.

I saw the intensity of Seif’s dedication back in 2003, when I was researching for Human Rights Watch. Demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq convulsed Cairo, and the Mubarak government lashed back by arresting and torturing over a thousand students and leftist activists. Seif was then the head of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, the country’s premier human rights litigation group. He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest. Seif, a veteran of Egypt’s political prisons and concentration camps, lived on a shoestring — I don’t think he paid himself more than a few hundred pounds a month as director — and never stopped working.

I had first met Seif in 2001, when I was on the staff of a different organization — IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission — and came to Egypt for the trial of 52 men arrested for homosexuality in a massive police raid. The Hisham Mubarak Centre had been one of the first groups to offer the men legal help, despite the case’s unpopularity. I wanted to thank Seif for his courage. He brushed away my compliments and asked, politely: “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I hesitated; IGLHRC had nothing of the kind. “I want you to know,” Seif said, “that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

That was the lesson.

Ahmed Seif al-Islam and Mona Seif

Ahmed Seif el-Islam and Mona Seif

There are ample reasons to dislike human rights as a profession. As a set of principles, though, it has one great virtue: it forces you to think beyond the walls of self, and face the frightening differences and similarity of others. The premise of universality (much misunderstood) is that what others do and suffer cannot be entirely divorced from you. If you ask an Egyptian to talk about your concern, they can ask you to remember theirs; and, with that moral sophistication I find characteristic of Egyptian thinking, they may require you to consider not Egypt, but Palestine, and the suffering next door. (It’s typical that the great mobilizing issue for Egypt’s anti-government activists from 2001-2005 was not just the Mubarak regime’s domestic criminality, but its callousness about the Palestinian crisis across the border.) IGLHRC never did develop a position on Palestine; but in a discussion about it, years later, one board member plaintively wailed: “Why do we have to be a human rights organization? Why can’t we just be a gay organization, and ignore this stuff?” He had it right, actually. Once you start speaking the language of rights, an inexorable logic compels you to connect, connect.

Mona, like her father, knows this. In her defiant statement, she wrote:

One of the rights that we, the young people of Egypt, have succeeded in seizing is the right to insult our own government and to insult anyone whose policies are bad for our people. We insist on this right.

It’s about freedom to offend, but also freedom to choose your solidarities. People who don’t want Egyptians feeling an affinity with Palestinians should just ask for the Revolution to be rolled back, to a point where all politics can be state-dictated and all opinions served prefab. Hillel would like that. Mona, no.

Protesters confront Central Security Forces, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, November 2011

Protesters confront Central Security Forces, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, November 2011

I hope the 10 human rights organizations that decide the Ennals award have Mona’s consistency and courage. I hope they understand universality enough not to cower away from the connections. No issue awakens the pusillanimity of rights groups like Israel and Palestine; no other subject can turn self-vaunted Voltaires quite so quickly into quaking cowards. Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, sent an ominous signal last night in an email to the New York Times. 

HRW staff nominated two human rights defenders, and one made it through as a finalist (not Mona). Voting on the finalists will take place in October in a secret ballot by the 10 human rights groups on the jury, including HRW. … HRW never takes a position on whether a country or rebel group should go to war or engage in “resistance.” Our focus is on how wars are fought, and we oppose any deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians. I haven’t seen anything indicating that by “resistance” Mona means attacking civilians.

That’s all quite objective and proper, but note the parenthesis. We didn’t nominate Mona Seif (though she’s worked closely with and assisted Human Rights Watch in Egypt); it’s not HRW’s fault!  This is how human rights organizations sell someone down the river.

Ken should stiffen his spine. Some Egyptian spirit would be a good tonic for the groups that will make this decision. Shame on them if they let the liars sway them.

Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (1)

lesbian invisibility

Still hazy after all these years

This is Part 1 of a three-part post

Missed connections; or, how not to find lesbians

Here’s some of what a friend of mine, an Egyptian lesbian, 33 and butch, told me about days and nights during the Revolution in Midan Tahrir, where she put her life on the line.

We felt the presence of women, very strongly — and the presence of queer people very, very strongly, on the front lines, at essential moments. How amazing it was when people were just dealing, without judging. On February 2, the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] were there, and in a couple of hours they organized an assembly line to break the stones, to carry them to the front lines, with water and food supplies — they organized a hospital. I was with the shock troops, in the front line.   … We needed to frighten the other side, so they would think that we were stronger than they’d thought. They had guns, Molotov cocktails. We were fighting them with sand and rocks.  I was up there wearing a hood, to protect me, and you couldn’t tell if I was male or female. There was this Salafi near me, and he kept eye contact. He came down to me, to give me water. He said, I’ll take you further up, to the real front, the most dangerous zone. Just keep me in your line of vision, we can support each other.

I stayed there for hours, with eye contact with this man, on the line—and in the end I was positive that he realized I was a female. And he helped me stay there. …

It was moving for me, later, when I got to know about other protests in the global North inspired by Egypt. I’m not into this kind of petty nationalism—I believe in human rights.   But I am tired of being told: you are a second class individual, because you’re from the global South. You’re third class, because you are female. You are fourth class, because you are lesbian.   Suddenly we are at the center of the world. And suddenly we know that we can do it.

After the Revolution, Human Rights Watch, like other rights groups, sent hordes of workers to Cairo to interview Important People and figure out what had happened. One was Minky Worden, a colleague of mine, who’s editor of HRW’s spanking new anthology, “The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights.” I doubt they found my friend, a grassroots activist, Important enough to spend time on; zero of her passion or vision animates the book.  The volume claims to be a comprehensive picture of “the recent history of legal and political battles to secure basic rights for women and girls”; it banners a rah-rah quote from Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee: “Women are not free anywhere in the world until all women in the world are free.” Well: some women. In 332 pages, the book doesn’t contain even one substantive mention of lesbian or bisexual women, their struggles, or their human rights.* Talk about being fourth class.

Ugandan demonstrator in New York, 2011

It’s 2012, and this should not happen. It’s shocking on many grounds. You can’t describe the international women’s movement in the 20th and 21st centuries without describing lesbian and bisexual women. They’ve been there at every juncture — as Charlotte Bunch and Claudia Hinojosa, for instance, have shown in documenting just one part of this rich history, lesbians’ activism at the UN. (Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights owes a lioness’ share in its creation to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was, by modern biographers’ estimation, bisexual.) These fighters, like my friend, have stayed on the front lines: they’ve helped keep feminist movements conscious of difference and honest about the raw realities of sexuality. If they’ve been a target for violent attacks on feminism — more reason for HRW to acknowledge their importance! — they’ve also been among its boldest thinkers as well as bravest defenders.

I won’t even obsess here over the volume’s complete silence about the massive rights violations against transgender women and men — or its indifference to trans activists’ amazing successes at encoding progressive conceptions of gender in national laws. Some things no longer surprise me. But as a former Watcher, I do wonder what HRW was thinking, or failing to think. There are only a few possible interpretations of its perspective:

  • There are no serious human rights violations against lesbian or bisexual women.
  • Lesbians are not women.
  • Lesbians are not human.

It would be interesting to know which of these reflects HRW’s current official position.

Lesbians are real women, and sometimes it bears repeating: Dyke March in Soweto, 2007, © Behind the Mask

Of course, I started the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, almost nine years ago. We did a slew of reporting on lesbian, and bisexual, and transgender women, and trans men. We hired the first-ever researcher at a a major human rights organization to work primarily on lesbian issues. One therefore feels particular disillusion that all this hasn’t filtered into the organization’s understanding of women’s rights. It’s tempting to mutter, with the grandpaternal gruffness of encroaching senility, that this omission wouldn’t happen if were around. Non ego hoc ferrem calidus juventa consule Planco: feed that to your Babelfish. But that’s absurd. The silence speaks to deeper structural problems as pressing during my tenure as they are today. It illuminates at least three things:

  • how a large organization like Human Rights Watch fails to foster conceptual or practical connections within its work;
  • how lingering insecurities about sex (especially visible around sex workkeep it from accepting sexual autonomy as a fundamental value;
  • and how human autonomy itself remains a problematic principle for institutions across the rights-defending business.

Let’s start with the first.

I’ve pretty much spent twenty years trying to mainstream sexuality within the work of human rights. We rolled back many prejudices at Human RIghts Watch; but barriers in attitude persist. Three, hardly confined to the organization, remain relevant here:

Demonstrator in Windhoek, Namibia, 2001

Sexuality is not respectable. You may have a right to exercise it, but don’t expect me to bring it up in decent conversation. One sees this in the diehard reluctance of human rights researchers to raise the matter in their colloquies with “mainstream” partner organizations. I can easily imagine Minky thinking you can’t really promote the positions of lesbians (or, God forbid, pr-st-t-tes!) in a volume with a contribution by one Nobel winner (Shirin Ebadi) and a blurb by another (Gbowee). Never mind recent events in Liberia, which suggest Gbowee may not need a reminder that sexuality is always politically central. Sometimes they grasp these things better in Freetown than in New York.

Sexuality isn’t that important. Here what I’ve often called the “humanitarianization of human rights” kicks in: in an era of massive humanitarian catastrophes, cases seemingly on the scale of individuals shrivel in significance next to the gargantuan, aggregate anonymity of a Rwanda, a Darfur, a Sri Lanka. Without a queue of zeroes trailing the numbered victims, a situation can’t merit the diligence of crisis. Of course, if you tabulate the women and men jailed every day under (for example) anti-prostitution laws, many tortured or raped as a direct result, the zeroes start to accumulate, and the crisis becomes real. More below. But it’s still hard to persuade rights institutions of the simple, obvious fact that asserting one’s sexual autonomy is one of the major triggers for abuses worldwide.

Sexuality is private. It’s something you only do (legally) behind closed doors, and it can’t possibly be implicated in grand public events like revolutions. This is a delusion sustained by never talking to revolutionaries about why they were really there. Suffice it to remember Audre Lorde, who wrote that

In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives. …

During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag … Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.

I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.

This goes without saying

All three presumptions, however diminished at Human RIghts Watch, still haven’t gone away. Moreover, the organization’s structure reinforces them.  For the uninitiated, the group (typical of large rights institutions) is proudly centered on its regional divisions, dealing mainly with “mainstream” issues on the several continents. Then there are a range of thematic divisions — LGBT, women, health, business, and others. The latter are small, generally underfunded (during the seven years I was there, the LGBT program never got access to Human RIghts Watch’s general support money), and distinctly understaffed.  In order to do the work they need to do, they must depend on other divisions’ cooperation: not only to propose press releases or take on reporting on their own, but to assume the yeoman labor of talking to groups that represent thematic interests, not just “mainstream” ones, in their areas.

Connections: sign from a lesbian feminist march, June 30, 2011, Aguascalientes, Mexico

My staff worked extremely hard to sell sexuality issues to other divisions as, well, sexy. Yet overcoming the three attitudes above was a challenge. Ordinary practice and accumulated prejudices whispered to an ambitious researcher that an interest in LGBT issues would not, in the long run, embellish one’s career. What was needed and not forthcoming was a clear mandate from the group’s governance: a message that thematic issues were not poor stepkids, a child among the ashes doing work ancillary to the great stream of human rights, but were intrinsic to its current and core — and the organization’s “mainstream” sectors had to take them up.

Habit is a great deadener: so Beckett said. In 2009, someone in the organization’s program office analyzed which thematic division’s concerns were most or least taken up by other parts of the organization in their work. Not surprisingly, LGBT issues came out near the bottom. The program office (responsible for overseeing all the programmatic work) attended on me with a guilty hangdog-Hamlet look, saying This was an organizational failing and was there anything they could do? I had plenty of suggestions, starting with a general instruction from the leadership that each relevant division propose at least one project on LGBT rights. But the conversation faded at the crowing of the cock, as Shakespeare wrote in a famous play about a Denmark where nothing quite gets done.

The wrong kind of activists: LGBT rights demo in Beirut, 2009 (Photo: Alexandra Sandels)

This anthology is the result. Minky — the book’s editor, and, as I say, a colleague whose work I generally respect — writes how in April 2011 she spent her time in Egypt “interviewing human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and organizers of the Tahrir Square protests.” Now, I don’t know all the questions she asked, but I’m 99% sure some never occurred to her: “Do you know any lesbians? Were there any lesbian women in Tahrir? What were sexuality’s roles in the revolution?” The third would have gotten plenty of interesting responses. The other two, asked of most people, would have led ultimately to my friend, and to quite a few other women whose stories would have been compelling. But moral hesitation, or a monolithic category of “women” that foreclosed any subdivisions, or some other internal censorship kept the idea, I’m betting, from transiting her mind. And as a result, she never learned. The problem at Human Rights Watch is that the information to establish the urgency of the issues doesn’t arrive in sufficient quantities, because the questions don’t get asked across the organization. So the organization still doesn’t learn.

Part 2 continues below.

*The word “lesbian” occurs exactly twice in the book, both in an article by Gara Lamarche, HRW’s former Associate Director. One instance refers to his efforts in 1994 to expand “Human Rights Watch’s mandate to include lesbian and gay issues” — which the rest of the book might leave you supposing hadn’t succeeded. The other mentions Atlantic Philanthropies’ funding in South Africa “to address gender-based abuse and hate crimes against lesbians.”

CORRECTION: I’m reliably told the demonstration against Ugandan legislation shown above was in London, not New York.

Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (2)

This is part 2 of a three-part post. Part 1 is above.

It's still the same old sex panic: cover of "Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls," 1910 book on white slavery by Ernest Bell

The traffic in ”trafficking”: or, Nicholas Kristof rescues Nicole Kidman from a Paris brothel

Inhibitions over sex lead to a more encompassing problem: failure to acknowledge sexual autonomy as a guiding principle, as an integral concern of both feminist activism and human rights.

My first work with Human Rights Watch dates back to 1997, when, as a director at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), I researched and wrote a joint volume our two groups did on Romania’s sodomy law.  It was HRW’s first full report on LGBT rights. At the book’s close, I included recommendations for Romania to repeal other laws repressing sexual rights, taking for granted that the analogies were evident. One was the criminalization of adultery. The legal reviewer at the Watch wrote in large letters on my draft: “Human Rights Watch takes no position on adultery, nor is it likely to.” 

In ensuing years, I often felt this should be carved in stone above the reception desk, rather like “Abandon hope, all ye that enter here.” If you substitute consistency for hope, in fact, the two sentences say the same thing.

Why would you frown on jailing men for boffing men, but gaze benignly on the clink for those who copulate outside marriage? The answer had to do with a jittery reluctance to put sex at the center of one’s thinking about sex laws. It was easy to condemn sodomy laws as offending the equality, or the privacy, of gay people as a group. It was less easy to admit the provisions struck, much more basically, at an individual’s power to put her equality or privacy to one particular use: to have sex, consensual sex with adults, in a way the state didn’t like. Sodomy laws aren’t about equality or privacy, though they infringe them. They’re about sex. To campaign against them means taking on that fact, and affirming the right to have sex. A queasy uneasiness made this analysis difficult for the Watch; defending abstractions is one thing, but defending sex itself? This fed its fidgets over rogue, rutting individuals breaching the marriage bond. They weren’t even part of a self-defined group, Wedlock Warriors or Adulterers Anonymous, so what equality argument could possibly fix a distracting fig leaf over the ungarnished act?

Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (Lucas Cranach the Younger): If it's all right with Human Rights Watch, it's all right with me

The result was that, for years, while advocating for women who faced stoning for adulterous sex in Nigeria (for example), Human Rights Watch wouldn’t condemn the law itself: it would only say the penalty was disproportionate. I take partial credit for the organization’s finally assuming a position on adultery. A few days after I was hired as LGBT rights director, I pointed out the Nigerian absurdity to Ken Roth; and some time after, an invisible ukase saw the website language on stoning change.

Yet the same inconsistencies persist in other areas.

Think sex work, a realm where women (and men, and transfolk) around the world face brutal repression from governments, with no protection from violence in other quarters. HRW has done truly vital work documenting state persecution of sex workers: mostly through its Health and Human Rights Division, with some small contributions from my old LGBT program. But its full impact is stymied by HRW’s inability to arrive at a coherent policy on the criminal-law regimes repressing sex work. It can’t bring itself to say: Decriminalize.

One sign of the problems this causes is the presence of an article by Mark P. Lagon in HRW’s new anthology. What the hell is he doing there?

Probably you haven’t heard of Lagon. My own first encounter with him, back in 2006, was when he served as chief defender of one of the Bush administration’s most homophobic UN votes. This renders it doubly offensive to find him published in the book: not only does HRW’s anthology completely ignore LGBT people, it invites their opponents under its covers. (I’m sure the International Lesbian and Gay Association, which he falsely accused of pedophilia, will not be charmed to see HRW embrace him.)

Who is that strange man? Mark Lagon, eyed by suspicious child, presents 2007 US State Department report on trafficking

Lagon brings bigger baggage than that to the assignation, though. In his last Bush gig, from from 2007-2009, he headed the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. This put him in charge of some of the worst policies the W. presidency carried out anywhere other than New Orleans and Iraq.  Ann Jordan, an authentic expert on trafficking – she advocated against all its forms for years at Global Rights, before heading the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor at American University  – writes:

[T]he Bush administration, supported by the evangelical right-wing and some radical feminists, spent eight years promoting laws to criminalize prostitution and clients as the means to abolish prostitution and stop human trafficking into the sex sector. The ideology-driven approach is notable for the absence of any concrete evidence that it works. Proponents of such an approach have also failed to demonstrate that it avoids harming women or provides other livelihoods for those it aspires to help. It reduces all adults in the sex sector (even highly paid “call girls” and those working legally) to victim status and considers all prostitution to be a form of trafficking.

After leaving government, Lagon steered the Polaris Project, a right wing anti-trafficking group. SWAAY (Sex Work Activists, Allies and You) calls it an organization “fighting against improving conditions for sex workers, especially in the developing world.” And in the global North too: Lagon has led anti-free-expression campaigns to censor sex ads from Craigslist and other venues.  Although he talks a pseudofeminist line from time to time, little about Lagon’s positions suggests sustained concern for women’s rights – or well-being. (As I’ve observed here, closing down sex ads eliminates one of the safest ways for sex workers to select clients. It puts them in danger by driving them onto the streets.)

From the perspective of those who value sexual autonomy and sexual rights, Lagon’s views are destructive and appalling. He’s a militant proponent of using the punitive extent of the criminal law to eradicate consensual commercial sex between adults. He piously descants of freedom, while demolishing the freedoms of others.

Banner from the late $pread magazine, a US mag produced by sex workers for sex workers and others who support their human rights

In government, Lagon did shift State’s attention slightly from a single-issue focus on sex trafficking toward addressing forced labor.  But he avidly promoted, and still promotes, the Bush coterie’s main moralistic point: that all prostitution is exploitation, that sex work and sex trafficking are the same thing. As the administration helpfully explained in a “fact sheet“:

The U.S. Government adopted a strong position against legalized prostitution in a December 2002 National Security Presidential Directive based on evidence that prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing … Few activities are as brutal and damaging to people as prostitution.

When an embarrassed Obama administration tried to back off slightly from this weird dictum, Lagon damned them in testimony before Congress. “Emphasizing that prostitution is not trafficking,” he told lawmakers, “is counterproductive.” What a cynic! He doesn’t say it’s not true: just not productive. Acknowledging that sex work can be freely chosen undermines his “abolitionist” goal, to hawk its unattainable utter eradication.

Lagon’s article for HRW says little that’s specific. It shares with most eradicationist arguments a deictic indifference to evidence, the equal of Ring Lardner’s immortal sentence: “’Shut up,’ he explained.” His main point is to paint the trafficked –or  the “prostituted,” which is how he refers to sex workers in his other writings — as pure creatures of the passive voice, victims skinned of volition and humanity.  (In the past, after all, Lagon has said that sex workers lead “nasty, immoral” lives for which they can’t be found “culpable” only because they don’t have the choice.)** Usually this kind of vague allegation-mongering wouldn’t make its way through HRW’s editing process. (The editors seem to have collapsed before the intransigent problem of Lagon’s prose, unable to correct either dangling participles or his false claim that Karl Polanyi was a Marxist.)

It’s impossible, though, not to notice three key things Lagon leaves out: He never defines trafficking. In his one stab at explaining it, he simply says, “Human trafficking is indeed about people being turned into commodities.” Of course, he sees sex as central:

Moreover when those ‘commodities’ are girls or women who are sold for their bodies’ sexual consumption, left, right, and center can agree this is an acute violation … At its heart, human trafficking involves groups of people being consigned to less-than-human or non-person status.

I loves me some hot commodity fetishism on a Saturday night

This defines nothing. It could be (and has been) said of any form of commodified labor in a capitalist society. Mark, go read Marx, or Mrs. Warren’s ProfessionBut it’s a bastard crib of socialism or Shaw, and it’s insidiously corrosive.  No credible economist would so deliberately obscure how both trafficking and stigmatized work really work.  Ann Jordan writes of the similar rhetoric of Siddharth Kara, a widely-read eradicationist and “poverty tourist”:

The most seriously flawed assumption he makes is to equate human beings — trafficked persons and sex workers — with commodities. His economic model treats women as passive objects that are pushed and pulled by exploiters using forced labor to lower costs to meet demand, and ignores the poverty, discrimination, and violence that compel women to make risky decisions. Adults who make rational choices from among limited options are actors who don’t fit a neat supply/demand economic model, and so they are factored out of the equation in order to situate trafficking as a commodity business.

Such broadbrush simplification is routine in sex work debates. Brandishing the “trafficking” term as a synecdoche for horror drives off serious thought. Fiona David, of the Australian Institute of Criminology, finds this rooted both in racism and in history:

[M]uch of the discussion today reflects and reinforces outdated stereotypes of Asian (or other developing world) women as passive, helpless victims, in need of rescue, thereby ignoring the reality of the difficult choices that these women might have made. I will note that present approaches to the issue strongly reflect the approaches that were taken to the issue in the nineteenth century, when European migrant sex workers were said to be victims of the “white slave trade.” Now, as then, interested organisations and the media are relying on what is really a “myth” of trafficking – a simplistic explanation for a messy and complex reality.

And the brilliant Gayle Rubin shows how views like Lagon’s draw on older, visceral fears about migration, race, and morals. “The constant conflation of trafficking and prostitution is neither accidental nor new. In fact, these contemporary confusions derive from the discourse about trafficking that emerged in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.”  The age of the anxieties doesn’t at all detract from the present fact that forced labor happens, in many forms. Yet it means we must analyze both presumed causes and proffered answers, to sort out superannuated prejudices from real solutions.

Human Rights Watch prostitution

Panic comes in both waves and articles: Graphic shows use of terms "white slave traffic," "traffic in women and children," and "human trafficking" in publications 1890-2008. Note how with the Bush ascendancy (and passage of a US "anti-trafficking" law) in 2000, the latter goes off the charts. Hat tip for the idea to Edwired.org

Lagon also omits any reliable figures about the size of the problem. This imprecision is epidemic in the trafficking panic.  Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist who has studied sex work extensively in many countries, writes,

Interest groups, the media, and the U.S. government have given very high estimates of the number of persons trafficked each year into the sex industry or other labor arenas. In some instances, the numbers appear to be pulled out of thin air, as in a Washington Post editorial … declaring that “trafficking is understood today as a global phenomenon exceeding 20 million cases each year.” [emphasis added]

The US government’s figures for trafficking victims globally (including trafficking within national borders) oscillated wildly, between “2 to 4 million” in 2006 and more than 12 million four years later. No real evidence backs either number. In 2006, when the government tossed around a “600,000 – 800,000” figure for worldwide trafficking across borders, its own internal watchdog, the General Accounting Office, studied the issue and found

such estimates of global human trafficking are questionable. The accuracy of the estimates is in doubt because of methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies. For example, the U.S. government’s estimate was developed by one person who did not document all his work, so the estimate may not be replicable, casting doubt on its reliability. Moreover, country data are not available, reliable, or comparable. There is also a considerable discrepancy between the numbers of observed and estimated victims of human trafficking.

1913 US film about "white slavery"

That last difference, between the numbers bandied around and those actually counted, is especially disturbing. Look at the State Department’s 2010 estimates again: 12.3 miliion allegedly trafficked around the world.  And how many concrete “victims identified” among those? 49,105.

Get out your calculator. That means only four-tenths of one percent of the people supposedly trafficked, from that heady 12m number, were actually identified as such.  By State’s alarmist reckoning, this shows a failure of services. But what if it’s a failure of the math? What kind of insane statistician observes x number of victims, then “estimates” the total by multiplying this by 250? Surely many trafficked people are invisible to law enforcement.  But 99.6% of them?  It’s not just a matter of the tip of the iceberg we’re talking here. The anti-trafficking paranoiacs think like drunken sailors who infer an abysmal berg from a snowflake melting in the waves.

No one would claim the unreliable numbers mean trafficking is insignificant. They do mean, though, that we need investigations first, not intemperate persecution. Yet Lagon’s métier is neither facts nor figures. It runs rather, as with other sex eradicationists, to rhetoric and morals. Tellingly, the blog of Lagon’s Polaris Project seems to have abandoned trying to find any individual sex-trafficking victims at all.  It’s turned to identifying fictional characters who may have been trafficked without the viewer’s knowing. These include Nicole Kidman’s role in Moulin Rouge (Nick Kristof, raid that movie now!), Verdi’s Aida, and Bizet’s tempestuous temptress.  The blog says:

The character Carmen is a joy to sing because she is active and aggressive where so many female characters in opera are passive and abused. But even with this, Carmen had many other ways to express her sexuality without taking money for it. Perhaps she sold sex because she had to. We as a society need to decide if we should force anyone into that position.

This concludes our 10 week series of posts on human trafficking in musical theater.

You cannot make this nonsense up.

Rare scenes of enslaved sopranos from an Andalusian brothel

Weitzer summarizes:

We are left with a set of farfetched claims about trafficking, claims that hardly lend themselves to evidence-based policy-making. The available evidence does not allow us to draw any conclusions about the magnitude of the problem. There are no reliable statistics on trafficking in any one nation, let alone worldwide. Even ballpark estimates are guesswork, given the clandestine nature of the sex trade. But precisely because the asserted numbers, trends, and proceeds cannot be verified, they can easily gain a life of their own and a veneer of credibility when repeatedly cited by the media and in government reports.  And such grandiose claims certainly have shock value.

Alas, the vaunting claims and the plausible veneer are how Lagon makes his living. Armored in moral nostrums, armed with ersatz estimates and a manufactured aura of emergency, the brave protector of Carmen from the pimps is able to convince Human Rights Watch he has serious things to say about women’s liberation.  Again, though, anybody can see his third omission: he has nothing workable to propose.

Lagon says his approach is “idealist,” not “materialist,” in solidarity with the old Bushite core constituency: the ideology-based rather than reality-based community. “It is true,” he admits to HRW grudgingly, “that the root cause of trafficking is poverty,” and

This materialist premise leads to the conclusion that fighting poverty broadly and creating economic opportunities is the solution … But we cannot just wait for the end of poverty. We need to act now and address the ideas that reduce women to second-class citizens … Of course, changing perspectives and cultures is enormously hard. [emphasis added]

This sounds cool. “Addressing ideas” is both a really long-term project – no irritating quarterly reports required — and cheap. We won’t be raising taxes on the 1% here!  But it doesn’t feed anybody. For people who have actually been trafficked (and people who chose domestic work or sex work but want a job that will let them leave), neglecting the material conditions that made them vulnerable is a map of failure.

The Bush administration liked failure. That was one thing it was good at!  Reporting on the “crusade against sex trafficking” for the Nation, Noy Thrupkaew tells of a USAID-supported Philippine NGO that, over two decades, “developed a rigorously holistic program for children in the commercial sex industry. It reaches out on all fronts–offering the families and children comprehensive psychosocial counseling, livelihood initiatives, microloans and tutoring and vocational training.”  Their programs showed a high success rate compared to evangelical Christian projects. But why encourage “materialism”?  Bush defunded them. Thanks, Mark.


In truth, Lagon aspires not to change minds but chain bodies. He falls back on the criminal law, that bluntest of instruments. His concrete call here and elsewhere is to criminalize demand, a project commonly named the “Swedish model” (not to be confused with “Stockholm syndrome,” though it reflects a similar confusion between captivity and freedom). This simply shifts state repression of sex from worker to customer (and everyone else around her). Laura Augustin, an anthropologist and expert on sex work who lives in Sweden, finds this “naïve” policy founded on a fantasy

that without a demand for commercial sex there will be no supply, ignoring the complicated ways sex-money markets work in cultures with different concepts of family and love, reducing a wide range of sexual activities to an abstract notion of violence and brushing aside the many people who confirm that they prefer selling sex to their other livelihood options.

It won’t end sex work; it’ll ensure it’s all underground. Two Swedish researchers discover no tangible decrease in commercial sex since the model strictures against clients took force. “The general estimate … is that sex workers have begun using other means [than public spaces] to find clients, and vice versa.” Meanwhile,

The most common and perhaps most serious complaint [from] sex workers themselves is that they experienced an increased stigmatization after the introduction of the Sex Purchase Act. … Sex workers object to the fact that they were not consulted in the making of the law. Since sex workers feel they are not able to influence their legal or societal situation, they feel powerless. And since the ban builds on the idea that women who sell sex are victims, weak and exploited, many claim that the law propagates stereotypical notions.

As Ann Jordan concludes, but Lagon implicitly denies, “To develop effective, evidence-based, do-no-harm policies, advocates and policy makers must work collaboratively with persons who may be helped or harmed by the proposed laws and policies.”

My body is my business: sex workers and their allies march for decriminalization in Nairobi, Kenya, March 6, 2012. For more images (and facts!) see http://africansexworkeralliance.org/

This leads to the question: Who most publicly treats women as commodities bereft of will? Answer: Eradicationist campaigners, who refuse to ask them what they want. Eradicationist videos rarely allow sex workers to speak. The women, Agustin comments, “are left in the background and treated like objects.” SWAAY says of Lagon’s last org, “By treating all sex workers as passive victims who can’t be allowed to make their own decisions, Polaris dehumanizes and objectifies us to serve their own conservative goals.”

Unfortunately, Human Rights Watch’s lack of a policy on the criminal penalties for sex work also leaves it lacking an “effective, evidence-based, do-no-harm” principle to inform its interventions. This makes it intellectually vulnerable to a doubtful character like Lagon trafficking its good name.  But there are worse consequences. The silence damages a highly competent organization’s ability to achieve all it needs to in the field. There is no good reason to equivocate in defending people’s autonomy.  But absent recognizing that criminal penalties for consensual sex are wrong, the group is left fatally hesitant about who its allies are and what it can demand abusive governments do.

Some years back, after speaking to sex worker activists in Cambodia, researchers urged a report on the devastating impact of a new anti-trafficking law passed there (at the Bush administration’s behest). Comments by HRW’s legal office on the preliminary proposal show how leery the leadership can be over suggestions that sex workers should own their sexualities:

We are not taking a position that sex work should be legal, and we have to be careful not to cross that line. We can make clear that sex workers have rights – just as undocumented workers have rights –that must be protected, and which enforcement of the law against those involved in abuse, exploitation etc should not trample on etc.  – but we are not advocates for establishing a sex industry. …

Regarding the legal framework, the report is going to have to try hard to position itself as anti-trafficking and at least neutral on prostitution per se in order to have impact. The goals should be focused around how to better prevent trafficking, and not how to protect prostitutes from the law. …

We [should] challenge the basis of detentions of sex workers as not complying with international human rights standards on detention, not on the basis that they should not be arrested simply for sex work. …

Banners at a 2008 "Day of Action" in Phnom Penh, organized by Womyn's Agenda for Change and Women's Network for Unity (WNU). WNU, a Cambodian sex worker union, has over 5,000 members. © Heidi Hoefinger

Even looking down from the high balcony of years, I am still embarrassed by the reluctance to “protect prostitutes from the law.” The law is what they usually need protecting from. I’d just note one thing here. None of us ever asked HRW to be “advocates for establishing a sex industry.”  A sex industry is established in every country, thank you, and it will flourish whether the Watch wishes or no. The line, with its nervous exaggeration, doesn’t reflect legal reason. It’s the language of fear: fear of the slippery slope and the corrupting precedent, fear of sex, fear that if you support the basic rights of sex workers to deploy their bodies you will find strip clubs under your desk by morning and a brothel in your refrigerator next week. Laura Agustin cites the arguments the state made in fighting Canada’s recent court decision commanding regard for sex workers’ rights. Decriminalization, lawyers claimed, would carry “irreparable harms to the public interest,” “more drug trafficking, violence, garbage, noise and traffic from johns,” rampant red-lightery,  police “powerless to protect residents in vulnerable neighbourhoods.”  In other words, Agustin says, “they are afraid of Change. They are fantasizing all the scary things that could happen, but they cannot provide any evidence that they will happen.”  Similar anxieties inflect Human Rights Watch’s inability to come up with a policy respecting sex workers’ sexual rights.

The resulting report on Cambodia was a disastrous mess, one that alienated sex worker activists across Asia. Although focused on the anti-trafficking law, it couldn’t manage to condemn its key provisions. Andrew Hunter, of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, has declared on this blog:

The recommendations are shockingly inadequate, and internal arguments over them delayed the whole report until it was really too late for it to be of any use at all. We argue[d] and argued about recognizing sex workers’ right to livelihood, but to no avail.

The same reticence and insecurity will continue to erode HRW’s relationships with sex worker activists.

Sex workers in a small town in Maharashtra, India, march for their human rights , March 3, 2012

Indeed, The Unfinished Revolution shows a suspicious inability to recognize that sex workers can be activists for themselves. Consider this misleading sentence from its introduction:

Meena Seshu, the founder of the Indian non-governmental organization Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) is an example of a human rights defender who has used education in her organization’s efforts to prevent HIV/AIDS in the provinces of Maharashtra and northern Karnataka, particularly among sex workers who have a relatively high risk of contracting the disease.

I know Meena – even before she was an HRW awardee in 2004 – and this picture of the rights defender as elevated educator-from-on-high couldn’t be less accurate in SANGRAM’s case. The landmark NGO’s focus is empowering sex workers to protect their rights as sex workers, as well as beyond sex work. SANGRAM and groups that grew out of it (such as Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad or VAMP, the Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice) helped start a wave of sex worker activism sweeping South Asia, with politicized prostitutes demanding decriminalization, legal protections, and workers’ rights. To watch a coven of empowered Indian sex workers slap down earnest white people who imagine they know better, check out this fierce VAMP video – in answer to a Western film that falsely claimed they were trafficked and coerced:

Message to HRW: Don’t mess with these folks.

It’s sad that a book like this fails to applaud these heroes and furnish them a platform. By contrast, when The Unfinished Revolution addresses the exploitation of female domestic labor, the chapter stresses domestic workers’ struggles for their own rights. But when it comes to sex workers’ activism, the anthology is silent. Instead, if sex is at issue, it falls back on tired, imperially tainted fantasies of victimhood and Western intervention. The book claims sex workers are deprived of agency; but it does the depriving itself.

Across South Asia, sex worker activism has reshaped women’s movements as well as ideas of the public sphere. Propped next to HRW’s anthology in my local bookstore was a collection on South Asian Feminisms.  It had an entire section on “Feminism, Sex Work, and the Politics of Sexuality,” with analyses of sex worker movements from Bangalore to Bangladesh. Ha! You wouldn’t guess any of this from the HRW tome. And here’s the irony: the ivory-tower academics are more in touch with activism actually happening than the supposedly hard-nosed realists of human rights, who persist in denial. The former have to see things as they are; but the latter’s perceptions stay bound to an iron wheel of ideological presuppositions.

Where sex is concerned, HRW’s anthology succumbs to ideology, a compendium of suppositions. Its pages treat sex as danger. Quite correctly, the volume emphasizes sexual violence as one of the worst and most widespread rights violations targeting women. But it never stretches to acknowledge sex as also a resource and a right, as something plenty of women want, as a precious possibility that people – lesbians, prostitutes, adulteresses, “respectable” women – will fight and die for.

Poster by Boy With Arms Akimbo, 1989, US.

In reproductive rights, HRW has been pathbreaking, affirming abortion as a basic freedom before most “mainstream” groups would. But even then, there’s been reluctance to admit that women might seek contraception, or the legal power to end a pregnancy, not just for medical or economic reasons, but because they want to have more sex. And what about admitting those women are right to do so? As with sodomy and adultery, the question here drives down to bedrock: what are we talking about, when we talk about sex?  How important is it, and why do people want it? Isn’t sex something you should have full power to enjoy, reject, revel in, even sell as you desire? I once heard one of HRW’s leading figures refer in a meeting to “sexual rights, which are a subset of reproductive rights.” Rick Santorum couldn’t more succinctly phrase his beau ideal of sex as purposive.  But that’s simply not how most people fuck, live, or love – and certainly not how most sexual rights defenders see it. Human Rights Watch needs to accept and fight for sexual autonomy as part of personhood to be prized, a benefit and a universal entitlement and an end in itself.

Sex can be an arena of wounding vulnerability – frequently for women and trans people, often for gay men, sometimes even for straight males or others. It can also be a wellspring not just of pleasure but of independence and power, as Audre Lorde and many others knew. To stress the one aspect without paying homage to the other is to fling acid in one of its Janus faces, to deny the deep flow of freedom through one of the most elemental human experiences.

Of course, there are plenty of feminists as well as moralists, committed carers and anti-sex militants  alike — within as well as outside the human rights world — who would doubt or disagree. Lagon’s positions, and the eradicationist approach, have supporters: powerful ones. And ample room remains for debate.

But there’s a basic ethic of human rights work: one should present the facts in full, not cherrypick them to fit one’s preferences. When Human Rights Watch’s book endorses Lagon’s views with no indication that they occasion massive controversy within the field of human rights itself; when it suggests that “traffickers” and “victims” (and “saviors”) are the only roles that prostitution affords, while deliberately ignoring the voices and advocacy of sex workers themselves who have laid claim to their rights as sex workers – all this isn’t just a gross failure to give the facts.  It’s a failure of ethics.

Part 3 continues below.

** The statement appeared on Lagon’s blog at the Polaris Project in 2009, but seems to have been taken down since, after it aroused a small storm of indignation.

Human Rights Watch on women’s sexuality: Nice women don’t have one (3)

This is part 3 of a three-part post. Parts 1 and 2 are above.

Campaign poster for Proposition K, a 2008 initiative to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco, US

Professionally, we prefer victims:  or, the rescue trap

Does human rights – the Western human rights movement  — respect human autonomy?

I don’t just mean “sexual autonomy” now. I mean autonomy that encompasses and goes beyond that, the power of everyone to speak for themselves, represent themselves, be the selves or unselves they desire.

What a silly question. Of course! That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

And yet.

Other people ask the questions better than me. Teju Cole, for instance, countered the save-Africa panic churned up by the Kony 2012 viral video by naming and shaming the “White Savior Industrial Complex” and its attentions to the continent. He doesn’t single out the human rights industry, but it’s implicit in the way he describes social movements doing it for themselves:

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. … [A] nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. …

… How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.

Let me draw into this discussion an example from an African country I know very well. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians took to their country’s streets to protest the government’s decision to remove a subsidy on petrol. … But what made these protests so heartening is that they were about more than the subsidy removal. Nigeria has one of the most corrupt governments in the world and protesters clearly demanded that something be done about this. …

This is not the sort of story that is easy to summarize in an article, much less make a viral video about. … There is certainly no “bridge character,” [Nicholas] Kristof’s euphemism for white saviors in Third World narratives who make the story more palatable to American viewers. And yet, the story of Nigeria’s protest movement is one of the most important from sub-Saharan Africa so far this year. Men and women, of all classes and ages, stood up for what they felt was right; they marched peacefully; they defended each other, and gave each other food and drink; Christians stood guard while Muslims prayed and vice-versa; and they spoke without fear to their leaders about the kind of country they wanted to see. All of it happened with no cool American 20-something heroes in sight.

Women in fuel protest, Lagos, Nigeria, January 2012 (Photo: AP/Sunday Alamba)

It’s interesting how often Nick Kristof serves as symbolic figure for folks who want to critique the white savior complex. But he sets himself up for it. His telegenic stunt activism – live-tweeting his raid on a brothel to “rescue” women, congratulating himself on his flirtations with peril, all with a cool eye on divine Reputation and its Valkyrie paparazzi – lays out a seductive pattern for the type. (He comes up for approving mention in The Unfinished Revolution too.)  Laura Agustin, as always, is incisive:

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save miserable victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. … The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. …

Like many unreflective father figures, Kristof sees himself as fully benevolent. Claiming to give voice to the voiceless, he does not actually let them speak.

Instead, as we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, desire. Did anyone rescued in his recent brothel raid want to be saved like that, with the consequences that came afterwards, whatever they were? That is what we do not know and will not find out from Kristof.

Placard from sex workers' human rights march, March 2012, Cape Town, South Africa

The temptations of this kind of self-aggrandizing self-delusion are all the stronger in international human rights work, which carries both the armor of moral impeccability and the obligation of representation. Its job is carrying stories across borders; it takes on representing people in absentia, a strange, dangerous task.  Who’d be surprised if, in the process, its practitioners begin to acquire a creeping indifference to the wills and voices of those they represent?

Human Rights Watch is not overcome by those impulses, but it’s certainly not immune either. It used to say, in its self-descriptions, that it provided a “voice for the voiceless.” This phrase, so malignly common among those who work and talk across borders, neglected the fact that the movements and activists and even victims it supported usually had plenty of decibels at their disposal, and could scream with the best of them; it was just that the West preferred not to listen. But if you say that about yourself enough, you start acting that way, around the edges.

The effects showed when, for years, rights activists who were recipients of HRW’s prestigious annual award – articulate spokesmen at home — arrived in the US, only to be handed the speech the organization had written for them. They showed in a film screened at one of the Human Rights Watch gala annual dinners, full to the gills with gazillionaires: a very nice production about the organization’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The problem was that, as the minutes wore on, you realized not a single person from the DRC was speaking. You saw them them in footage, interviewed by an HRW researcher, who diligently took notes; but the soundtrack and the voiceovers drowned them out. The organization did’t think them relevant: They cannot represent themselvesthey must be represented. Instead, HRW talked to itself about its own efforts in the DRC. It felt like a cross between Heart of Darkness and Krapp’s Last Tape.

Oh, Krapp

Some shows up in The Unfinished Revolution, as well. Although it calls itself “Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights,” two thirds of the book’s chapters are by present or former HRW staff. And with two articles on Afghanistan, you’d think an actual Afghan could have been found to write perhaps one. It’s hard not to read in this an unconscious confidence that the organization knows best about the world and its countries, better than the countries’ citizens do. As the old Oxford doggerel went:

First come I. My name is Jowett.
There’s no knowledge but I know it.
I am master of this college;
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.

For far too long information in the international human rights movement has flowed from periphery to center, from Congo and Cairo and Buenos Aires and Bangladesh to London, Geneva, New York. Only there, once edited and published in the capitals, did it mature into Knowledge. And there it stayed, little bartered back and no returning current. Sometimes it festered, and the gangrene of arrogance set in.

shut up, he explained

I’m certainly not calling this universal, in Human Rights Watch or anywhere else. Nor is it some sinister, deliberate plot to deprive others of their voices and agency. It’s rather a danger built into the practice of representation, the art and politics – Faustian with a touch of Edgar Bergen – of speaking for somebody else. The exercise of lending vividness to the lives of others tends to shale into the assumption that one knows what they want, and what’s best for them. You get more used to their desperation than their autonomy. You start seeing victims even when they’re not there.

There is a less tendentious dimension to this problem as well – one not just about the problems of practicing politics in a still-imperial world, but about democratic politics itself, and its discontents. A line of thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Raz, and John Gray, has emphasized that a coherent liberalism, unlike most philosophies, can imply no single vision of the Good Life to which members of a community should aspire. The old moral philosopher’s vision of existence cut to one dress pattern is motheaten now. Modern democratic society must embrace the maximum diversity of life projects without tilting its overt or intangible preference toward any.

Human rights, which expressly aims only to set out basic ground rules for the functioning of political societies, in some ways models this modern claim to neutrality in values. Yet maintaining the pose of studied impartiality is particularly hard both for communities and for individuals accustomed to subjecting not just acts, but lives, to moral scrutiny. And political life, as well as the practice of rights protection itself, keeps slipping back over into an idea that freedom implies a positive commitment, is about you living the life I like for you, one fulfilled not just in itself but by certain external standards. Some versions say: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which means wearing gray pajamas, saluting the Leader, and bathing in cold bilgewater every morning at 5. But it hardly has to be that extreme. More commonly they tell us: Now you are free to live the Good Life, which is the life of political struggle and engagement. Or the life of appreciating Beauty and Art. Or the uxorious life of family with someone whose genitals differ from your own.  Or the life which certainly does not include selling your sexual services online.

What kind of self-correction can we build into human rights movements — especially with the moral exemption from critique they often claim — to keep them understanding victimhood as an exceptional breach rather than a definitional condition of people’s lives; to keep them respecting autonomy in all parts of all people’s lives, including that most charged and symbol-laden sphere, sex?

Me, I have no answer. In fact, the best self-correction I know is asking questions.

However. This has been as long as a human rights report; and since reports end with recommendations, I’d feel amiss if I didn’t offer a couple, at least to Human Rights Watch. Here goes:

  • Human Rights Watch needs to work much, much harder on integrating thematic issues across all its work, so that no wasted opportunity like the untruthful, unfinished Unfinished Revolution occurs again. And donors have a role to play in this. You need to support the LGBT Rights Program, and other thematic divisions, because their work is vital. But supporters who care about sexual rights should press HRW to make it part of all its relevant reporting. Before you sign the check, ask HRW’s leadership to tell you in concrete terms what they are doing to change both the mindset and the structure of the organization, to implement and cement that integration. If you’re going to show you think the work is important, so should they.
  • I’ve got no idea whether, after years of being dissed, sex worker movements are really interested anymore in nicely asking the mainstream organizations to recognize their rights to bodily autonomy and livelihood. A sex worker picking up The Unfinished Revolution couldn’t be blamed for saying, Why bother? But in principle, one should press the organization to do the right thing. And I recommend bypassing the lawyers and their obfuscations, and going to Ken Roth and the leadership directly. If anybody still cares to make an effort, the World AIDS Conference is coming up, and Washington is just a short train ride from New York. This might be a good time to demand a meeting.

Sexual rights are too important to get screwed again.

Lesbian Avengers flyer, US

N.B. This piece draws on the draft of the volume I’m finishing, tentatively titled Out of Here: Sex and Rights in the World. If you like it, look to buy the book when it’s published. If you don’t like it, buy the book anyway and deface the margins.

O Canada, just out of curiosity I was wondering how much an hour for thee?

Tell it to the judge: Plaintiff Terri-Jean Bedford, a profesional dominatrix

Action Canada for Population and Development points out that on Monday, the Court of Appeal in the Canadian province of Ontario plans to release its decision on the legality of the province’s repressive prostitution laws. If not earth-shaking, this ruling could at least be street-shaking. Three laws stand under review: they criminalize pimping, keeping a brothel, and communicating for the purpose of prostitution. The last is especially egregious only because its assault on free speech should be evident; in fact, of course, it’s only one of innumerable such laws around the world. An Ontario defense lawyer explains people’s rights, or lack thereof, under the provision, and the catechistic formula makes this darkly funny:

Is it a crime in Canada to engage in prostitution or to obtain the sexual services of a prostitute? Yes.  Either stopping or attempting to stop a person in order to communicate for the purpose of prostitution or alternatively, communicating or attempting to communicate for the purpose of prostitution will be sufficient to ground a conviction for the offence. This means that both the prostitute and the person seeking the prostitute’s services can be found guilty of this offence.

What if I wasn’t successful in my attempt to obtain a prostitute’s services? It is not necessary to be successful in one’s attempt to communicate for the purpose of prostitution. Merely attempting to communicate with a prostitute is sufficient to be convicted of the offence.

What if I was asking the prostitute how much s/he charged out of curiosity and NOT with the intention to solicit their services as a prostitute? The Crown must prove as a fact that it was the intention of the accused person to solicit services for the purpose of prostitution. The accused must be “serious”. S/he must mean what s/he says and be willing and ready to carry out the transaction.    Simply being curious or joking is permitted under the legislation and is not evidence of the required intention to communicate for the purpose of prostitution….

Must there be a monetary transaction for the offence of communicating for the purpose of prostitution to be completed? No. Money does not have to be tendered for the offence of communicating for the purpose of prostitution to be complete. All that is required is an intention to engage in the sexual act.

It’s a relief that joking about prostitution is permitted, as well as simple curiosity about price ranges. It’s hard to imagine how either capitalism or democratic politics could continue without some legal leeway for the latter.

A lower court struck down all three laws in 2010. The primary rationale was that the provisions increase the dangers sex workers face. The question of personal freedom was not entirely circumvented, but the judge found centrally that “These laws, individually and together, force prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” According to the Globe and Mail,

Ontario Superior Court Judge Susan Himel based her decision on a broad conclusion that current laws offer little protection. She pointed at evidence that violence against sex workers is endemic – from serial killings by Vancouver farmer Robert Pickton, to missing prostitutes in Alberta and frequent violence against sex trade workers in the Atlantic region.

“By increasing the risk of harm to street prostitutes, the communicating law is simply too high a price to pay for the alleviation of social nuisance,” Judge Himel said. “I find that the danger faced by prostitutes greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by the public.”

The case could eventually head to the Supreme Court of Canada. If Himel’s ruling is upheld, however, the protection grounds on which she based it could open the way not for a general liberalization of Canadian laws, but for a shift to targeting only the client, not the sex worker — the so-called “Swedish model.”  The restrictions on sexual autonomy would simply be moved, at least formally, to the consumer.

Canada, that happy if chilly non-colonial and rights-based country, too often gets a free pass for its frequently appalling treatment of sex workers, both by and beyond the law. One reason is that its laws are not globally atypical, however at odds with the country’s professions of respect for freedom. Another, though, is that the disparity between its reputation and its record simply doesn’t register with many “mainstream” human rights activists. After all, Human Rights Watch and other players in the field don’t recognize that sex workers have any right to be sex workers. If the Ontario court hands down a progressive ruling, perhaps it might stimulate both reassessment and remedy for a persistent, wounding blindness among human rights practitioners.

Why won’t Obama arm Human Rights Watch?

Video of a Bahrain Defence Forces unit on the Budaiya Highway near al-Qadam, March 16, 2011. Visible are an M113 in front, with three others behind it on the ground and on the flyover, a Humvee, and a tank, possibly an M60. All are likely there thanks to US arms sales.  Bahiya al-Aradi, a Bahraini woman, and Stephen Abraham, an Indian guest worker, were murdered nearby the same day, probably by the same forces.

A couple of good pieces in Salon yesterday bear on the street cred the Obama administration has been getting for its embrace of LGBT people’s human rights. Kudos to Barack and Hillary again. Just remember: other people are getting killed.

Justin Elliott notes that the Obama administration has been delivering arms to Bahrain, despite the royal regime’s penchant for killing protesters. For some time, the administration has had a $53 million arms package for Bahrain on the table, but has put it off due to Congressional qualms and human rights groups’ opposition.  But this is a different package.   Obama is so eager to get hardware to the killers that he’ll exploit any technicality to permit it. Foreign Policy explains:

The State Department has not released details of the new sale, and Congress has not been notified through the regular process …The State Department simply briefed a few congressional offices and is going ahead with the new sale, arguing it didn’t meet the threshold that would require more formal notifications and a public explanation. …

Our congressional sources said that State is using a legal loophole to avoid formally notifying Congress and the public about the new arms sale. The administration can sell anything to anyone without formal notification if the sale is under $1 million. If the total package is over $1 million, State can treat each item as an individual sale, creating multiple sales of less than $1 million and avoiding the burden of notification …

We’re further told that State is keeping the exact items in the sale secret, but is claiming they are for Bahrain’s “external defense” and therefore couldn’t be used against protesters. Of course, that’s the same argument that State made about the first arms package, which was undercut by videos showing the Bahraini military using Humvees to suppress civilian protesters.

It’s not just Bahrainis. Glenn Greenwald observes that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has reaffirmed, with no public scandal attending him, that Obama can kill any US citizen he likes without a trial. In other words, what happened to Anwar al-Awlaki, US passport-holder killed by a drone in Yemen, could happen to you.

President Obama’s hit list of those he approves for assassination is completely secret; we only learned that Awlaki was being targeted because someone happened to leak that fact to Dana Priest. The way the process normally works, as Reuters described it, is that targeted Americans are selected “by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions”; moreover, “there is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel” nor “any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.”  …

Panetta’s whole case rests on simply asserting, without proving, that Awlaki was a Terrorist trying to “kill Americans.” That, of course, is precisely what is in dispute: actual Yemen experts have long questioned whether Awlaki had any operational role at all in Al Qaeda (as opposed to a role as its advocate, which is clearly protected free speech). No evidence has been publicly presented that Awlaki had any such role. We simply have the untested, unverified accusations of government officials, such as Leon Panetta, that he is guilty: in other words, we have nothing but decrees of guilt.

The whole interview with Panetta is here: 

Obama loves his drones. As the Washington Post summarized, in an extensive report on the program last month,

In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force­ ­cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents. Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.

George Monbiot in the Guardian elaborates on the consequences:


As a report last year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism showed, of some 2,300 people killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 until August 2011, between 392 and 781 appear to have been civilians; 175 were children. … As soon as an agency claims “we never make mistakes”, you know that it has lost its moorings, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn suggested in his story of that title. Feeling no obligation to apologise or explain, count bodies or answer for its crimes, it becomes a danger to humanity.

It may be true, as the US air force says, that because a drone can circle and study a target for hours before it strikes, its missiles are less likely to kill civilians than those launched from a piloted plane. (The air force has yet to explain how it reconciles this with its boast that drones “greatly shorten decision time”.) But it must also be true that the easier and less risky a deployment is, the more likely it is to happen.

In other words: it might be the case that a drone kills fewer civilians than targeted bombings by humans. But we’ll use the drones even more than bombers, as Obama does, because they don’t put any humans on our side at risk. Hence more civilians will end up dead anyhow.

Protest against drone attacks, North Waziristan, Pakistan, January 2011

There is always something absurd, however murderous, about technology taking over the supremely personal job of exterminating persons.  Death is the one inalienably human thing about each of us, the one thing we cannot trade or give away. The more killing is alienated from human beings and handed over to machines, the less our own deaths seem our own property, somehow. What machine, in what hospital or killing field, will take responsibility for the last act?   But for sheer and sick absurdity, I don’t think you could go farther than the New York Times op-ed this morning, “Drones for Human Rights,” by the “co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network.” They note that “Drones are not just for firing missiles in Pakistan” anymore: “In Iraq, the State Department is using them to watch for threats to Americans.” Hooray! “It’s time we used the revolution in military affairs to serve human rights advocacy. With drones, we could take clear pictures and videos of human rights abuses, and we could start with Syria.”

There’s hardly a sentence here I cannot quote with morbid delight. “Drones are increasingly small, affordable and available to nonmilitary buyers. For hundreds of thousands of dollars — no longer many millions — a surveillance drone could be flying over protests and clashes in Syria. …  It isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But … We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work?”


“Graphic and detailed evidence of crimes against humanity does not guarantee a just response, but it helps,” they conclude. “If human rights organizations can spy on evil, they should.”

Drone in flight: Tremble, puny evildoers

I suppose no one will get far by arguing that evil has a right to privacy, or even a “right to be forgotten.”  But what about the ordinary person who finds her life monitored and recorded by sleek rockets overhead, in the name of “spying on evil?”  After all, the evil will come intermixed with a lot of snippets of normal life, and even normal peccadilloes, all for the human back somewhere at the end of the monitoring chain to sort into the appropriate categories. And does anyone really think the drones will stop at “monitoring” evil?  Won’t the pressure be enormous for somebody — if not the human rights groups themselves, then some friendly government — to use a drone to strike down the evildoer instantly with a virtuous lightning bolt, without the bother of a trial?  After all, these guys’ group is called the “Genocide Intervention Network,” not the “Genocide Observation Network.”

Indeed, why wait for the evil to be done? If you can predict someone is going to commit atrocities, by recording their conversations, or watching who they meet with, or Googling their blogs for “genocide,” why not act pre-emptively? (Oh, my God, how can I keep Google from registering this post? Now I will look up every time I step outdoors.) After all, that’s what the Obama administration says it’s doing: Didn’t al-Awlaki die, ostensibly, to save others from dying? And you do have to wonder. Human rights activists tout their endorsement of due process; but in secret, all too many long to become due process, expropriating the roles of police, prosecutor, judge and jury.  “Granted the chance,” as George Monbiot says, “to fulfil one of humankind’s abiding fantasies: to vaporise their enemies, as if with a curse or a prayer, effortlessly and from a safe distance” — granted the chance, how many of our unco guid, our insistently righteous, could keep on saying no?

Davos, occupied

The World Economic Forum is taking place in Davos, Switzerland. CNN is full of Important People being interviewed in front of snow-hung pines; at first I thought it was the Winter Olympics, which I suppose it kind of is.   Over at that notorious nest of economic radicalism, the New Republic, even Timothy Noah is moved to remark:

The Wall Street Journal reports that there are 70 billionaires among the 2,500 attendees. That makes Davos the only place on earth where a billionaire, for a few days anyway, can bust out of the top 1 percent (not to mention the top 0.01 percent). When billionaires represent roughly 3 percent of WEF attendees, that means, arithmetically, that about two-thirds of those billionaires get to slum it for a few days in the bottom 99 percent. What a lark!

He also notes that in all its history, Davos seems to have held only one panel on global inequality.  There’s none this year; obviously there are more significant things going on. Anyway, with the 70 billionaires compelled to share seating with around 2,400 non-billionaires, they probably figure that’s equal enough.

Human Rights Watch, my old employer, which was in love with power, used to love boasting about the senior staff it sent to Davos. Part of the frisson was lobbying those in possession of power; part of it was meeting the billionaires. By contrast, it never sent anybody of importance to the World Social Forum, which is full of the unwashed and uninfluential 99% who comprise most human rights movements around the world. This always seemed to me an unfortunate expression of priorities.

This year, however, and happily, there is an Occupy WEF, and they have set up an igloo encampment near the main deliberations. Its website says,

Every year, self-proclaimed «global leaders» allegedly committed to improving the state of the world meet up for the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss mountains to propagate their own businesses and network amongst the so-called global economic elite. This year, we will not let them exclude us, the 99%!

Nothing, of course, would draw the billionaires into conversation with the (real) ice-dwelling 99%, unless they run out of icecubes for their cocktails. But maybe the human rightsters can wander over there for a talk.   It might be interesting.



Cameron’s “imperial mentality”: A Caribbean perspective

Gifford (second from R) with J-FLAG activists in a 2010 Kingston protest

Watch this video, from Jamaican TV, of an interview with British – Jamaican human rights lawyer Lord Anthony Gifford. As a strong supporter of scrapping Jamaica’s sodomy law, he lays out the arguments against the UK’s noisy and confused promises to tie development aid to LGBT rights.

He’s right that open threats to Jamaica from abroad almost always create a “converse reaction.” But one thing I find troubling is his blanket claim that Jamaica, as a democracy, is in a different class from dictatorships, and can work this out for itself.  “To use this stick against a democracy like Jamaica –we are capable of having this debate within Jamaica … and I think it’s counterproductive.” How exactly does this differ from arguments that Israel supporters (including one of Human RIghts Watch’s founders) use to contend that human rights activists should leave the country alone?

Thirty years ago, Gifford was lead counsel for the plaintiff in the landmark case of Dudgeon v United Kingdom, where the European Court of Human Rights compelled Britain to eliminate Northern Ireland’s sodomy law. And the video below shows  Gifford and my activist friends Maurice Tomlinson and Yvonne McCalla Sobers discussing their new challenge to the Jamaican law before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: