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Human Rights Program


  • Security, Terror, and Human Rights

    Comments on a November in Paris: Terrorism, Security, and Human Rights
    -Joachim Savelsberg, Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota.

    I was asked to comment on questions raised after the November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in France. I do not claim to have grand and authoritative answers to these questions. In fact, I share a sense of helplessness, engulfing many who seek to make sense of the events and to find appropriate responses. I also depend on information that reaches all of us via news media, having no access to the intelligence possessed by some in our governments in the US and abroad. Let me begin with two personal notes that may color my comments.

    During the summer of 2015 I lived in the very neighborhood of Paris, in the 11th arrondissement, where the worst of the recent violence unfolded. Across from our apartment was a large mosque, established in an unremarkable building that must have served some other purpose in the past. It was frequented by hundreds of pious Muslims, mostly immigrants from North Africa, especially during the days and nights of Ramadan. A few hundred yards down the street began the Paris described in media reports about the attack, hip places, bars and restaurants, filled with young people, mostly French, some foreign visitors, spilling out onto the sidewalks far into the warm summer nights. Interspersed were, throughout the arrondissement, synagogues and Jewish child care centers, many attended by immigrants who had also come to France from North Africa. The seemingly high level of mutual tolerance was remarkable. Yet, following the January attacks, not everything was normal. During pick up times at Jewish child care centers and during services at synagogues groups of soldiers in battle gear, armed with heavy machine guns, were posted on the surrounding sidewalks. Occasionally armed units were also to be seen in Metro stations across town – innovations introduced after the January attacks against Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket.

    I am writing these brief comments while at a conference in Washington, DC, where my new book, Representing Mass Violence, was subject of an author-meets-critics session. The book addresses conflicting responses to mass violence. While examining the case of the Darfur, some broader lessons can be learned: representations and associated responses do not only vary by country (despite interventions by global institutions such as the UNSC and the International Criminal Court), but also across social fields. Human rights NGOs generate narratives quite similar to those of international criminal justice institutions. But representations emerging from the humanitarian aid and diplomatic fields focus less on culpable individuals and victimization as a direct result of violence. They instead highlight factors such as climate change and the resulting desertification of land, structural features of the Sudanese state (center-periphery conflict), long term historical trajectories and the suffering in refugee and IDP camps. Differences result from field-specific goals and distinct power dynamics, especially the position of the Sudanese state vis-à-vis actors in the respective fields. Importantly, each type of representation of mass violence is associated with specific response strategies, focusing alternately on criminal prosecution to achieve justice, delivery of humanitarian aid to heal and save lives, or negotiations to achieve peace. This insight is important if we hope to understand responses to the current wave of violence: different fields generate different representations and associated responses, and the consequences of adopting one instead of the other can be substantial. The human rights field will certainly have to contend with powerful representations that differ substantially from its own.

    Discussions on Security, Terror, and Human Rights
    The Human Rights Program reached out to Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Professor Steven Miles, and Professor Joachim Savelsberg, scholars of human rights and ethics at the University of Minnesota, to comment on the attacks in Paris, Beirut, Egypt, and Iraq. The dialogue below represents their diverse viewpoints on the recent events.

    In regards to the recent terrorist attacks (Paris attacks, Beirut bombing, plane crash in Egypt, Baghdad bombing) allegedly carried out by the Islamic State, what sort of security measures do you see states taking in response to these acts of aggression. Do you anticipate the actions of states, such as France, to diverge from the approach taken by the United States in the post-9/11 era, both in rhetoric and in policy? If so, how and why?

    Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (Director, Human Rights Center, Law School):  

    There is not one set of security responses, and it is important to segregate out the phenomena in each place. Often, we tend to lump together places where ISIS is acting. Though groups are affiliated with ISIS, it would be a mistake to presume they are all precisely the same sort of group. As a result, not every response should be the same, as each country doesn’t have the same capacity to respond.

    In the case of France, it is a Western democracy with strong rule of law, with an effective police force and a highly equipped military—more resources than the Iraqi state, for example. We need a nuanced approach to understanding what we can do at the national level in these places.

    At the international level, responses can be taken by states through various mechanisms—for example, the Counter-Terrorism Committee at the United Nations. This committee has huge technical and cooperative expertise, but there are also various regional organizations (for example, NATO, the Arab League, etc.) and global responses that can be coordinated. However, national level responses will still vary.

    We recognize now that the American response to 9/11 (invasion of Iraq and Guantanamo), which may in part be viewed as having helped create the conditions that produced entities like ISIS, is an approach that countries should avoid. The US created a national security strategy with and a new infrastructure, the Department of Homeland Security, and sought a military coalition to invade a sovereign state: Iraq. Therefore, there are certain international structures in this new era that allow states to coordinate and cooperate in their counter-terrorism efforts, and France can use those mechanisms. But we have to recognize that the European context is very different from other places. France is more limited in regards to foreign policy because it is a member of the EU, so comparing France to America is like comparing apples and oranges: These countries have different legal structures and capacities.

    Professor Steven Miles (Center for Bioethics):
    A proper response to the current situation of ISIS and refugees must involve 1) replacing the Assad regime, and 2) naming and placing strong economic and cultural sanctions on the governments that are allowing or providing material support for ISIS most notably Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Sanctions can work, and they are infinitely preferable to bombing these insurgent groups, which is destructive of human life and serves to promote their recruitment.

    Professor Joachim Savelsberg (Department of Sociology):  

    The attacks started earlier, of course. Even if we focus the lens to France of 2015, they included the killings of Charlie Hebdo journalists and those in a kosher supermarket in January as well as the attempted massacre in a high speed train between Brussels and Paris in August. And the violence continues. One week after the Paris massacres, more than 100 people were taken hostage and some twenty were killed in a hotel in Bamako, Mali. Today [Sunday, November 22, 2015], public life in Brussels came to a halt due to a concrete terror warning.

    French responses abroad will resemble but also differ substantially from those applied by the United States after the 2001 attacks. One of the first words uttered by President Francois Hollande in reaction to the Paris attacks was that France is at war. Using the war frame suggests military responses. And indeed, France has already intensified its bombing campaigns in ISIS-held territory, including Raqqa, seat if ISIS with a large civilian population. France also has coordinated military action with Russia, unthinkable only weeks ago. Its government strongly objected to Russia’s support for President Assad of Syria and had earlier cancelled the delivery of two navy vessels to Russia in response the Russia’s engagement in Ukraine.

    The French government has thus applied the war frame and engaged in the associated military response. Yet, France’s military budget is miniscule compared to that of the United States, and its forces are already spread thin due to its engagement in countries such as Mali. Military intervention like that pursued by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq is clearly not an option. But again, France is not alone. It has already activated Article 222 of the EU treaty, requesting support from other European countries that might include military support. Use of Article 5 of the NATO treaty has been discussed, but its activation may be less likely in light of Russian sensitivities.

    Domestic responses are a different matter. France declared a state of emergency, the first time since the respective law was passed in 1955, and its National Assembly voted almost unanimously to extend it by three months. The state of emergency would allow the dissolution of mosques run by radical groups, the blocking of website that encourage terrorism, and the use of electronic bracelets for those under house arrest. Hundreds of raids have already been carried out. Almost two hundred persons have been arrested or placed under house arrest. Importantly, under emergency law, raids and arrests do not require a warrant. President Hollande also seeks measures that would ease the expulsion of foreign nationals and the revocation of French nationality. Belgium has mobilized a similar arsenal of measures. These restrictions generated by European countries in 2015 are possibly more intense than those imposed by the US Patriot Act, which had been passed in response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of 2001. We should note though one other remarkable difference between Europe and the US: America has a great wall of protection against the troubled regions of the Middle East (which in European countries accordingly is called the Near East): the Atlantic Ocean – no need to roll out barbed wire fences! Further, immigration restrictions continue to be tight, and the acceptance of Syrian refugees, already dismal, is currently subject to heated debate (reminiscent, actually, of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII and the refusal to permit the landing of a ship filled with Jewish refugees from Europe during the years of the Holocaust).”

    What concerns, if any, are there for the protection of human rights as states respond to these recent events?

    Professor Ní Aoláin:  

    There are far more robust constraints on France in particular. It is a member of the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights, and it possesses a value for international human rights standards. There is a strong capacity to challenge France’s actions in domestic courts through international standards, which is not possible in the US. However, of course, because of the pervasive fear, there is great pressure to respond in visible ways. Leaders always feel the pressure to respond in crisis, and choices are made, which can be detrimental in the long term to fighting terrorism and transnational violence, which is huge challenge. The reaction often fails to address the root causes of terrorism--unstable and fragile states like Iraq and Syria. There is no solution to terrorism without looking at the fragility of these states. Initial retaliation is like putting a band aid on the problem but not looking at the conditions in place to create a breeding ground for this violence: absence of the rule of law, stability of the state, state ability to provide security, a lack of accountability. In Syria, the leader is committing systematic atrocities, and this needs to be appropriately addressed—in a serious manner. 

    Moreover, we saw how European states were skeptical of invading Iraq after 9/11, but the natural reaction in the aftermath of vulnerability is to show strength—robust military strength. This reassures the public that something is being done to keep them safe, but such a response could encourage even more radicalization in France and Belgium. In order to address homegrown radicalization in democracies after this moment of initial reaction, we need to recognize the importance of putting more thought into what is causing radicalization. As such, it is important that we look beyond short-term solutions.”

    Professor Miles:  

    With specific regard to refugees, the United States and European Union must recognize that the increased flow to Europe not only is the result of a crisis in Syria and Northern Iraq but also occurs in the context where the refugee carrying capacity of multiple critically important neighboring democracies of Jordan and Lebanon has been reached. The refugee load in these countries is draining aquifers and exceeds the food productivity of those countries. Those immense populations have been well vetted and are not a security threat. The irrational responses of the US state governors who do not wish to admit refugees is inhumane and counterproductive.

    The United States could well afford to admit two million people from these front line states. This would help stabilize these important strategic allies and would result in a measurable increase in GDP growth in the US in a matter of a few years. Since 9/11, a tiny number of young people have left the US to join various jihads in Africa and the Middle East. Aside from the singular event of 9/11, domestic right wing terrorists have killed the most people in the US.

    Finally, the concept of "war" is a political metaphor of limited value. Groups like ISIL, Al-Qaeda, or Boko Haram are criminal cartels. They are not state actors. Pursuing them as criminal cartels, including selectively using special forces for some tactical missions will be most effective, decrease the radicalization of populations by warfare and is more likely to preserve civil liberties.”

    Professor Savelsberg:  

    Times of threat make calls for the mighty Leviathan, the law and order state, all the more attractive. It is in such times that Hobbes’ depiction of man as man’s wolf becomes appealing. (Hobbes himself had written his famous book in response to the horrendous religious wars of his life time.) And it is then that people are willing to follow Hobbes’ advice that the public should transfer individual rights to Leviathan, delegate authority so that he may pacify civil society in return. Attractiveness of a strong state, authoritarianism, or a state of emergency, is further enhanced when political forces stir up fear for the benefit of political gain. They do so most effectively when the presumed attacker is the “other,” portrayed as different (by race, ethnicity, or religion) from society’s majority. In this situation mainstream parties may resist popular sentiments, but they would do so at the risk of yielding political ground to populist, typically right wing parties. In today’s France the Front Nationale party is already strong; and regional elections will be coming up in a few weeks. Or they may tighten control within society, as the French government does today (and the US government did in 2001), with the risk of offending against human and civil rights principles. They also run the risk of further alienating immigrant and Muslim populations and thus prepare the ground for future violence. It is easy to see the threat of a vicious circle: more security-measures, more alienation, more violence, more security-measures etc.

    What do you anticipate the human rights discourse to be surrounding states’ responses to these events? What role do you see the human rights community, in general, to be in light of both the terrorist attacks and states’ responses?

    Professor Ní Aoláin:  

    The human rights community, in the aftermath of atrocities, will refer to standard bearing language (dignity of all, human rights, non-discrimination, proportionality, etc.), which seems inadequate in the face of atrocity. Human rights activists face challenging decisions on how to best situate themselves after the moment. They need to consistently reiterate the values of the international order because they are fundamentally necessary to the creation of secure, safe, and rights-compliant societies.

    Likewise, security includes the protection of human rights. They are not separate. The human rights community needs to articulate the view that rights are part of security: We are not secure unless we have rights. In making that link, we create an understanding within the advocate community but also with security strategists and military personnel. Activists need to show that preserving human rights is not just morally right but utilitarian and expedient. The idea that human rights people do not care about security creates a false dichotomy—these are not separate values. Human rights activists are to be held responsible to not reinforce this dichotomy. Defending tolerance and treating the most dangerous of society with the same rights and dignities of others is a marker of a strong democracy with human rights principles, but so is upholding every citizen’s security.

    Professor Savelsberg:  

    Human rights groups will clearly warn against the populist reactions to new risks, against the curtailment of human rights. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have already done so in response to new French policies. But their voices will be faint compared to those who plead for security at the expense of rights. They must insist and speak loudly enough. But they will also have to adopt new strategies in response to a new situation. Historically human rights organizations emerged to fight modern nation states that sought to curtail human rights. Today, however, it is not just nation states that pose a threat to grave human rights violations. Non-state organizations that are not marked by national boundaries do so as well. Human rights activists and organizations must speak out to them as well. They will also have to learn to translate their human rights messages so they can be understood among populations from which potential terrorists may be recruited. They must sit down, for example, with Imams to help cultivate a humane Islam, one that differs from the brand advanced by US-ally Saudi Arabia, one that respects and cherishes human rights. Finding the right language to do so will be more difficult than in traditional campaigns vis-à-vis governments of Western liberal democracies or even of authoritarian and dictatorial governments. Social science research on ‘vernacularization’ of human rights principles and work by scholars such as [the University of Minnesota’s] Jim Ron on the many ways in which peoples outside the global north speak about human rights may provide helpful tools. Building bridge positions across social fields through which such dialogue and spread of human rights principles can be achieved is the order of the day.
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  • University of Minnesota Hosts Discussion on United States Torture Policies

    “Torture is always a crime” was printed across the flyer for the event, and it was the common thread running through each discussant’s lecture. This past Thursday, November 12, former-CIA counterterrorism operations officer John Kiriakou, Professor Bradley Olson of National Louis University, and James V. Roth, local human rights attorney, discussed the role of the American military and government, the American Psychological Association (APA), and themselves in the United States’ implementation of torture techniques in the War on Terror.

    “Out of the fourteen, I was the only one to have said ‘no,’” explained Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst. In the period following the September 11th terrorist attacks, Kiriakou was approached by his supervisors to gain a training in what was referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He declined, but the use of torture on detainees expanded.   In December 2007, Kiriakou made an appearance on ABC News to confirm the use of waterboarding in interrogation of Al Qaeda detainees, which.  According to Kiriakou, in that interview he spoke of three key points: the CIA was torturing, torture was an official US policy, and the policy was approved and signed by the president.  Kiriakou was a frequent source for press interviews and as a result, he came under intense scrutiny by the CIA, FBI, and IRS. 

    In early 2012, Kirakou was charged with disclosing classified information to journalists. On October 22, 2012, in Federal District Court in Virginia, Kiriakou pled guilty to one count of passing classified information to the media, and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.  Kiriakou is the only CIA agent who has been tried for offenses related to the harsh interrogation techniques used against detainees in the “war on terror.”

    Bradley Olson explained the role of the APA in acquiescing to the role of psychologists in the torture of detainees. According to Olson, as well as the recently-published Hoffman Report, the APA issued ethical guidelines in 2002 and 2005 regarding whether and how psychologists could ethically participate in national security interrogations.  These guidelines supported loosed ethical standards which, according to Olson, condoned APA psychologists who were involved in torture by designing detention conditions and reinforcement paradigms, locating psychological vulnerabilities of the detainees, and acting as safety officers for CIA agents and military personnel.

    Olson and his colleagues engaged in a campaign for accountability for the APA’s legitimation of torture. After the results of the independent Hoffman Report, the APA changed its ethics policy, prohibiting its psychologists from participating in national security interrogations. 

    Likewise, Jim Roth spoke about his role in drafting a federal-level anti-torture bill for the Senate Intelligence Committee: the McCain-Feinstein Anti-Torture Measure. The legislation, if passed, will act to codify certain limitations on torture and act as a permanent legislation combating torture as an “enhanced interrogation technique.”  It has recently passed the Senate and a congressional reconciliation committee.

    In their conclusion, all three men mentioned that they view their position as activists—not only in bringing the truth to light but also in preventing the use of torture in the future. 
    (Continue Reading)
  • Wahutu Siguru on representations of genocide and Mass Violence in the African Media

    The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS), the Human Rights Program and the Department of Sociology continued on November 4th its Holocaust, Genocide and Mass Violence Studies (HGMV) bi-weekly workshop by hosting PhD. candidate in Sociology, Wahutu Siguru, who presented his research on representations of genocide and mass atrocities by African Press.
    Wahutu’s inquiry focused on the question of how African journalists and media sources write about atrocities that take place on the continent. Journalists are involved in a sort of knowledge production, constructing and giving meaning to reality by framing events. Wahutu therefore suggests that newspapers are repositories of this knowledge; they often represent society’s understanding of contemporary events. Consequently, dominance of foreign news serves to “other” the foreigners, creating a dichotomous world.

    An interesting finding of Wahutu’s research, is that most Africans obtain their images of atrocities in Africa through Western based news agencies. Wahutu also discovered that rank and file journalists in Africa see this as a failure by local media organizations, demonstrating frustration with the New York Times for example for producing inaccurate coverage of African events, but evading criticism due to its esteemed reputation. Wahutu concluded that stories in African newspapers don’t really reflect a truly African media, and outlets like Reuters shape news about Africa more than anyone else.

    In a cross-cultural comparison, Siguru looked at media in Kenya and South Africa, because both of these countries are engaged politically or militarily in the Sudanese conflict. Siguru carried out content analysis of news reports dating from 2004-2005 (these years signifying the 10 year anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda the current conflict in Darfur), and also conducted a series of interviews of South African and Kenyan journalists from 2012-2015. Of the 198 articles collected from 2004-2005 on Darfur in Kenya, 119 came from wire services (e.g. Reuters). Around 24.7% were written by Kenyan journalists and 9.5% were written by journalists from the Global North. Pieces about Darfur were largely derived from wire sources and were seen as necessary due to a lack of financial resources. However, he also found that certain newspapers did have a designated journalist working exclusively on Sudan yet still relied on stories from wire services. In South Africa, he found that readers were largely uninterested in following the atrocities in Darfur, and as a result, wire sources were most commonly published.
    (Continue Reading)

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Human Rights Beat

  • Chicago police detain Americans at abuse-laden 'black site'

    The Chicago police department operates an off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or attorneys while locked inside what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site. The facility, a nondescript warehouse on Chicago's west side known as Homan Square, has long been the scene of secretive work by special police units. Interviews with local attorneys and one protester who spent the better part of a day shackled in Homan Square describe operations that deny access to basic constitutional rights. Continue reading on The Guardian's website.

    March 6th, 2015
  • Amnesty International requests letter signing for Syrian asylum seekers pressured to return

    Reports in the media show that staff at the Manus Island, Papua New Guinea detention centre, run by the Australian Government, are pressuring Syrian asylum seekers to return to Syria where they will be in extreme danger. Read more on the Amnesty International website.

    June 10th, 2014
  • The ICRC releases video on Colombian human rights situation

    It's a crucial time for Colombia with presidential elections slated for this Sunday and ongoing peace talks between the government and FARC guerrillas continuing in Havana, Cuba. In a new Intercross video, the head of the ICRC's delegation in Bogotá, Jordi Raich, says Colombia is at a crossroads -- poised on the verge of economic growth, shrinking poverty, and the potential to put an end to half a century of war. Watch the video on the Intercross website.

    May 28th, 2014
  • US: A Nation Behind Bars

    Far too many US laws violate basic principles of justice by requiring disproportionately severe punishment, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The 36-page report, "Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution," notes that laws requiring penalties that are far longer than necessary to meet the purposes of punishment have given the United States the world's highest reported rate of incarceration. These laws have spawned widespread and well-founded public doubts about the fairness of the US criminal justice system. Continue reading on the Human Rights Watch website.

    May 7th, 2014

External Human Rights Events

  • Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop Public Reading Organized by Human Rights Scribe

    On Saturday, October 24th, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) will hold a reading at Hamline University. The reading, organized by MFA candidate Mike Alberti as part of the Scribe for Human Rights Fellowship, will feature the work of several writers currently incarcerated in Minnesota state correctional facilities. MPWW instructors will read pieces of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction on behalf of their students, and two formerly incarcerated alumni of MPWW classes will read their own work aloud for the first time. 

    This is a free reading, open to the public, so please come and invite a friend. A short Q&A and informal discussion will follow. Plus, there will be snacks! It’s sure to be a very powerful evening. We hope you can make it!

    Where:  Hamline University,
                  Klas Center, Kay Fredericks Room
                 1537 Taylor Avenue
                 St. Paul, MN 55104

    When:  Saturday, October 24th, 2015, 7:00 PM

    To learn more about MPWW and their work, please visit
    (Continue Reading)

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