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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Thursday, May 17, 2007


human rights are not zero sum

posted by Aziz P. at Thursday, May 17, 2007 permalink View blog reactions
Consider that it is nearly impossible to "compare" atrocities. How can any meaningful comparison be made between the horrific human rights violations under Saddam's rule and the ongoing violations under the grip of anarchy and civil war? And yet, partisans of various stripes - for example, anti-war leftists or pro-war apologists - routinely seize upon one or the other to make their point that somehow, one state of afffairs was "better" and another "worse".

What is even more disturbing is how perfectly legitimate and morally actionable facts get pushed to one side in favor of sexier propaganda. For example, during the Persian Gulf war, there were plenty of examples of brutality by the invading Iraqi forces; I know, because members of my own Dawoodi BOhra community in Kuwait bore witness to them. However, that "mundane" brutality was apparently not convincing enough. And so we heard the tales of Iraqi soldiers taking hundreds of babies out of incubators in Kuwait City and leaving them to die. Of course, this never happened - it was in fact pure propaganda of the basest sort:

the incubator story was the centerpiece of a massive public relations campaign conducted by Hill and Knowlton [a PR firm] on behalf of a group called Citizens for a Free Kuwait, for a fee of $11.5 million. After the war, the group revealed that it was financed almost entirely by the Kuwaiti government.

(I am quoting and the Christian Science Monitor, here. Hardly bastions of anti-war leftism.)

Now, I repeat - I have friends and family who lived through the invasion and based on their factual reports alone, it was obvious that we needed to go in and liberate Kuwait. OBVIOUS. The problem with this sort of propaganda is that it is not just redundant, it betrays a certain lack of trust on the part of those who disseminate it - a deep cynicism about the moral judgement of the American people. And I find it insulting. Deeply insulting.

To be honest I was torn about the Iraq war. Ultimately had the argument for war been solely based on human rights, liberation of Iraq, and national strategic interest in the broader war on terror, I'd have been a cheerleader from the start. But the WMD rhetoric undermined that, and insulted me, and made me doubt whether the Administration really had the vision I wanted them to have, or whether they too were just cynics about my moral judgement. Inspire me to war, don't try to scare me.

Here is the human rights record of pre-war Saddam-ruled Iraq, from Amnesty International. And here is the modern day state of affairs in Iraq (including a nice history previous), again from Amnesty International, four years later. Neither is easy, bullet-point reading.

The right question to ask is not "are things better" or "are things worse" but simply, "why aren't they MUCH better". Why are women in the fire of anarchy today rather than the frying pan of dictatorship yesterday? Why are we quibbling over mundane details? Why do we need the spectre of "rape rooms" to galvanize our moral conscience?

In fact, let us consider rape. Is a systematic campaign of institutionalized rape enough of a casus belli for moral action? That certainly is the implication when someone breathlessly screams RAPE ROOMS in a comment thread. If so, then what of Darfur?

In the killing fields of Darfur, rape is a weapon of war. Tens of thousands of women and girls have been subjected to sexual violence as a deliberate means of humiliation and degradation.

The rapists know the immense shame their actions bring to the abused women, their children, their families and their communities. It is a form of violence that is sexually and emotionally devastating to the victims - all the more so because of the conservative cultural and religious mores of the Darfur region.

This Sunday is Human Rights Day. To mark the occasion, there is a second Global Day for Darfur; this time focusing on sexual violence against women. In London and many other cities worldwide, people will be highlighting the mass rape of Darfuri women and the urgent need for UN peace-keepers to help halt the violence, both physical and sexual.

Since the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006, the reported incidence of rape has increased; in the last five weeks alone, more than 200 women have been sexually assaulted in and around Darfur's largest displaced person's camp, Kalma.

Implicated in most of these rapes are the Sudanese security forces, their allied Janjaweed militias, and police deployed to protect refugees. Women also report being forced to exchange sexual favours for food and other essential items.

Rape rooms? what about rape fields?

Here is where I stand. I advocate withdrawal of the bulk of our forces from Iraq, but not all. I advocate a larger military, trained more heavily in peacekeeping and civil works than primary combat. I advocate boots on the ground, NOW, in Darfur. Not money, not logistical support, not coalitions; Boots. on the ground. NOW. That is the war I wanted Iraq to be too. And the failure of Iraq - measured by the simple metric, why aren't things MUCH BETTER than before - is not enough for me to be disillusioned with the idea that sometimes, a hyperpower can effect direct change against injustice.

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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.