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PHOTO ESSAY: Israeli election fever

By Zahava Moerdler

For spring break, I traveled to Israel, and I was privileged to witness the 2015 election fever firsthand. From cars decked out with streamers and flags to people campaigning ardently for their parties and candidates to voters heading to the booths on Election Day (March 17), the photos in this essay illustrate the excitement and political fervor of the Israeli electorate. This election in particular was an important one for Israel. Netanyahu presented to the U.S. Congress in the beginning of March on the importance of preventing a nuclear Iran. The left-wing parties all endorsed platforms focused on social reform and domestic issues. Thus, as usual, the right and the left each took up their respective mantles: security and social welfare. But aside from the clear divide in Israeli society, this election saw the largest turnout of Arab-Israeli voters. Their voice and their preference led their party to outstanding election gains.

In Israel, the country runs on the parliamentary system. As such, although there is a candidate at the head of the party, the population votes for a particular party rather than for an individual. Some people vote for a particular party because of individual candidates and their records. Others may vote based on party issues and platforms. For example, Ale Yarok’s (Green Leaves) major platform was legalizing marijuana. They did not get any mandates, otherwise known as government seats. By contrast, those who voted for Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, may have done so because of Netanyahu’s past acts and their belief in his strength as a Prime Minister. The two major parties in the election were the left-wing Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog and Tzippi Livni, and the right-wing Likud party. Additionally, the Habayit Hayehudi, another right-wing party led by Naftali Bennett, and the Joint List, the Arab-Israeli party led by Ayman Odeh, were also strong contenders. For more information on each of the parties, check out this great resource.

Unlike in the United States, people get really into the election spirit in Israel. They hang banners everywhere, hand out pamphlets and flyers and even dance and sing in the streets. On Monday evening, March 16, I went to have dinner with a friend in Mahane Yehuda, a market in the center of Jerusalem. As we were eating, a group of young men began singing and dancing in the middle of the street outside the restaurant. One was waving a flag and the other young men were grouped around him with their arms around each other jumping. I have never witnessed anything like that in the United States. One of the most incredible things about Israel is how passionate the population is.

I spent the majority of my time in the center of Jerusalem and as such I did not make my way to East Jerusalem or to any of the Arab villages throughout the country. I was unable to take pictures of the Arab-Israelis voting or of any of the banners, flyers or pamphlets the candidates handed out to entice people to vote. Despite a lack of photos in this piece, Arab voters played an important role in this election. In record-breaking proportions, the Joint List, which is the party representing the Arab-Israeli community, gained 13 mandates, making it the third largest party in government. This may be a controversial statement, for both the right and the left, but I firmly believe that the more involved each segment of the population becomes in politics, the closer the country will come to peace. The more Arab-Israelis and other minority groups in Israel begin to feel heard and a part of both the society and nation, the more likely peace will come.

1On Yaffo Street, a beautiful street where the light rail runs and no cars can drive, there are a number of cafes, restaurants and stores. Above “The Coffee Bean” building, someone hung up a poster for Moshe Kahlon’s party, Kulanu (All of Us). The slogan for the party is “A Win for You.” Some call him the “Kingmaker” because his mandate of 10 seats could make or break a right-wing or left-wing coalition. He has yet to align himself with a party.

2As I was walking down one of the main streets in Jerusalem, I noticed a car covered in Likud paraphernalia. Along with the Likud flag, and a poster of Netanyahu’s face, the owners of the car attached an Israeli flag to the top of the car.

3Ben Yehuda Street is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Jerusalem. It is a long pedestrian street down a hill with stores and cafes in the center of town, a 20-minute walk from the Old City. On the ground is a flyer someone was handing out. Now it lies discarded on the ground. The slogan for the party is “Choosing in Happiness.”

4Many people in t-shirts of their respective parties walked the streets in the days before the election handing out flyers. The men above were handing out flyers for Habayit Hayehudi.

5In the center of a wall full of advertisements for concerts and educational programs is an election advertisement for Yachad (Together), a right-wing party whose slogan is “Watching over Bennett from the Right.”

6In front of one of the voting centers, a number of party supporters set up posters and even little tables. For example, here Likud set up a small booth with copies of the tickets people use to place their votes and pamphlets in order to encourage people to vote. “Only Likud, only Netanyahu” reads their slogan with a copy of the ticket name “Machal” and a picture of Netanyahu.

7Next to the Netanyahu table stands a picture of Naftali Bennett with a cut-out where anyone can put their head and take a picture with the politician. On the empty face’s shirt reads the slogan for Bennett’s party, Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), “I stopped apologizing.” Bennett won only 8 mandates this election, partially because many of his supporters feared Netanyahu would lose the election and voted for Netanyahu instead to solidify a right-wing government.

8Camera crews and people of all faiths and beliefs turned out to vote. This poster features the Israel Beiteinu (Israel, our Home) party. In the background an individual in a green Meretz t-shirt, one of the left-wing parties, which won four mandates, stands next to a Likud table.

9I have never seen slogans like this on American buses, but in Israel, it is common practice for parties to buy space on buses for their posters. Above is a picture of the Shas party, a right wing Ultra-Orthodox Jewish party. Their slogan, “Continuing on his Path,” refers to the leadership of a Rabbi from the community who recently passed away and who was a prominent member of the party.

10This yellow box distributes bags to clean up after dogs. Two election campaign stickers sit on top of on another.

11Voting takes place in schools, like in the United States. On the board next to one of the voting rooms is a notice with instructions and a list of the parties and their symbols. The list is in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian, the three most spoken languages in Israel.

12In Israel, unlike in the United States, the voting is not electronic. Each person steps into a booth, picks up one of the cards above and places it into the envelope, which reads “the elections for the twentieth Knesset.”

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.


BRIEFING: Everything you need to know about Colombia’s peace process


Memorial to the victims of FARC violence.

By Guillermo Farias

The government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest and most-organized rebel group, started holding peace talks with the government in November 2012 in Havana, Cuba. The talks have the potential to end the longest armed conflict in the western hemisphere.

In the past few weeks, the talks have entered a crucial stage and gathered momentum. In late February, the United States appointed a special envoy, Bernard Aronson, to the peace talks. Prior to Aronson’s appointment, the United States had only been peripherally involved in the talks. Adding to the momentum, on March 2, President Santos announced that five Colombian army generals would join the negotiations in Havana. While the generals won’t take part in the negotiations directly, their arrival marks the first time that active duty members of the military attend talks. At this stage, the generals’ role is to develop a framework for discussion on a permanent and verifiable cease-fire that would go into effect if the talks succeed. Most recently, the two parties agreed on a joint-program to clear landmines. Colombia is one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. Over the past 15 years, 11,000 people have been killed or injured by landmines. Unarmed guerilla fighters will work side by side with the Colombian military and Norwegian advisors will oversee the mine-clearing program. These developments indicate that an agreement, while far from certain, is within grasp.


Territorial disputes among the Colombian military, leftwing guerrilla groups, and rightwing paramilitary groups have left more 220,000 dead and 5.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs) over the past fifty years. According to the latest annual report from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only Syria has more IDPs than Colombia.

FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN), the two main rebel groups operating in Colombia, were founded shortly after a period of civil unrest and war known as La Violencia. The civil war, in which the Liberal and Conservative parties battled for control of the country, lasted from 1948 to 1958. La Violencia ended with a power-sharing agreement. However, both the FARC and ELN were excluded from the deal and took up arms against the new government.

The FARC and the ELN share some broad aims but draw support from different sectors of society. The ELN was made up primarily of Catholic radicals inspired by the Vatican II Conference, students and intellectuals inspired by the Cuban Revolution. FARC, on the other hand, draws support from rural areas and is composed of peasant self-defense groups and communist militants. Despite their different support bases, both the ELN and FARC oppose the privatization of natural resources, American influence in Colombia, right-wing paramilitary groups and claim to represent the oppressed rural population in its struggle against the wealthy elite.

Both FARC and ELN have lost significant strength over the last decade. Former President Alvaro Uribe, in office from 2002 to 2010, took an aggressive stance against the rebel groups. Uribe’s aggressive efforts to weaken FARC were supported by the United States, which trained, equipped and provided covert support to the Colombian armed forces. The aggressive military strategy, despite carrying high costs, succeeded in weakening the rebel groups.

According to Colombian government statistics, the FARC had around 7,000 members in 2013, which is a steep drop from 16,000 in 2001. And the ELN is has approximately 1,400 members, significantly less than its membership in the 1990s when it was at its peak. Despite their diminished ranks, both FARC and ELN continue to attack civilians on a routine basis and continue to use antipersonnel landmines. Both groups are also involved in drug-trafficking and other organized crime activities.

The conflict in Colombia also triggered the formation of right-wing paramilitary groups. Most of these groups were demobilized in 2003, when the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the largest group, entered a peace deal with the government. Under the deal, paramilitary leaders surrendered in exchange for reduced jail terms and guarantees that they would not be extradited. The framework for demobilizing paramilitary fighters has so far, over 10 years after it came into effect, allowed those responsible for atrocities to escape prosecution and punishment. Only 37 out of the more than 30,000 members of paramilitary groups who demobilized have been convicted of crimes under the framework as of September 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. Further, many members of demobilized paramilitary groups reorganized into new, less cohesive groups that routinely commit serious abuses, including disappearances, sexual violence, and killings.


The current peace negotiations began in secret in 2010 and were made public in 2012. This is not the first time that the government and FARC have sat at the negotiating table. Several previous efforts at peace have failed. However, this round of peace talks has gathered more momentum than previous efforts.

Who are the participants?

Humberto de la Calle, a former Vice-President, leads the government’s negotiating team. The government’s team also includes retired generals from the armed forces and former police officers. The FARC party is led by Ivan Marquez, a member of the FARC secretariat, and includes other high-ranking members of the guerilla group.

Cuba is hosting the talks. Norway, Chile and Venezuela are acting mediators and observers.

The recently arrived active-duty generals won’t take part in the negotiations directly, as they are in Havana in an advisory capacity. Bernard Aronson, the United States’ special envoy, will also play a behind-the-scenes role.

How are the talks structured?

In 2012, at around the time the talks were made public, the two sides agreed to a five-point negotiating agenda that covers:

  • Land reform
  • Political participation
  • Drug trafficking
  • Victims rights and reparations
  • Disarmament and implementation of the peace deal

The talks have two key structural features. First, the government has refused to agree to a bilateral cease-fire until the agreement is finalized. Allowing for a cease-fire before then, it argues, would incentivize the rebels to extend the talks. In December 2014, FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire. Second, there will be no partial implementation of the agreements. If the sides fail to agree to a resolution on all the agenda points, no part of the agreement will not go into effect. President Santos believes that unless the agreement completely ends the conflict, voters will think that the government made unnecessary concessions to the guerrilla.

After both sides reach an agreement on all five agenda items, they will review and finalize the agreement. The final agreement would be ratified by in a popular referendum.

What has been agreed so far?

The two sides have so far reached agreement on the first three points of the negotiating agenda: land reform, political participation for the rebel groups and drug trafficking.

The land reform agreement focuses on improving the economic and social conditions of Colombia’s beleaguered countryside and on providing land to poor farmers. The agreement on counter-narcotics policy is centered on a promise to eliminate drug production, the rebel group’s main source of resources. The partial accord on political participation provides FARC with an opportunity to enter into formal politics. The rebel group aspires to become a political party after the deal is signed.

Details of the agreements have not been released and the two sides have not been widely available to the media. This is likely an effort to limit posturing and the pitfalls that have doomed previous peace efforts.

What remains to be negotiated?

Transitional justice, the fourth agenda point, is extremely sensitive and the two sides appear to have found little common ground. The FARC has so far insisted that its members serve no time in jail. The government, on other hand, has publicly stated that it will not guarantee impunity as a condition for peace.

Former President Cesar Gaviria, who was in office from 1990 to 1994 and later served as Secretary General of the Organization of American States, has issued a proposal that centers on a transitional justice model. Gaviria’s proposal would exempt non-combatants from prosecution if they confessed their involvement in human rights abuses. Lower-ranking officers of the Colombian military and those that committed crimes by “omission” would also avoid prosecution and jail time.

While Gaviria’s proposal is worthwhile and has attracted significant attention in Colombia, it has also raised some thorny and difficult issues as analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) points out. For example, why should all non-combatants avoid jail time? Many civilians were extensively involved in the conflict and likely bear responsibility for serious abuses. Should crimes of “omission” go unpunished? Many massacres committed by paramilitary forces appear to have been enabled by military inaction. Finally, lower ranking soldiers acting on their own are likely responsible for serious crimes, why should they avoid jail time simply because of their rank?

The debate over transitional justice has just begun and is likely to prove extremely complex.


The Colombian peace process has made significant progress. Peace, long outside the realm of the possible, is now within the grasp of both parties. Not only is a negotiated peace the best solution to Colombia’s deep structural problems, many of which were at the core of the conflict. It is also the best way to avoid renewed violence. If the peace talks were to collapse at this stage, the Colombian government would likely embark in a new all-out offensive to defeat FARC. That would inevitably bring new bloodshed and suffering to a country has already been through more than enough.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Natalia Diaz/Creative Commons

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Women and ISIS: debunking the myth of gender and violence

By Zahava Moerdler

Men are squarely at the center of the popular image of wartime violence. They are cast as the instigators and inciters, while the women are relegated to the relatively two-dimensional role of passive bystander or victim. This is a gross misconception. In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower tells the stories of women who perpetrated violence under the Nazi regime. She writes, “these women displayed a capacity to kill while also acting out a combination of roles: plantation mistress; prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over her slave laborers, infant-carrying gun-wielding hausfrau.” These women were not sparse outliers working in concentration camps. More often than not mothers, they were involved in violent attacks against women and children. While Lower’s work is focused on the atrocities committed during the Nazi regime, the portrait of female violence she paints is not limited to that time or place. She notes, “Terror regimes feed on the idealism and energy of young people.” While disturbing, it is not surprising that Western women are flocking to ISIS controlled territory.

There are a variety of narratives on what becomes of the women who join ISIS. According to Malaysian sources, women are joining ISIS to serve “sexual jihad” or “jihad al-nikah.” These women become comfort women when they enter ISIS territory. This may seem obviously anathema to Muslim teachings, but it is in fact a model that has been in use since the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan in the 1990s. Such women had to be careful to maintain their services despite the specter of Taliban raids and execution. The militiaman would come to the brothel, “marry” the woman, bed her and in the morning he would say “I divorce you” three times, pay a small alimony and then leave, according to news outlets. In this way, operations in the brothel maintained a semblance of religious normalcy. Although it is unclear how many women have traveled to ISIS territory, some have estimated approximately 600 Malaysian women and 100 British and Australian women. There are concurrent reports of forced sexual jihad, rape and sexual slavery.

Yet, there is another narrative that portrays the women who travel to ISIS territory as women excited and prepared for a domestic role in a state they wholeheartedly believe in. These women, known as the muhajirat (“migrants”), are drawn to the role of women in the caliphate, as outlined in a recent manifesto released by ISIS on the role of women in the caliphate. In the article “Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS,” Carolyn Hoyle, Alexandra Bradford and Ross Frenett present the findings of a study that examined the social media postings from a cohort of women who had migrated to join ISIS from Western countries. The study found that many of the women who are traveling alone to ISIS (rather than with a husband and children) do so because of “grievances, solutions or personal motivations.” They are motivated by three primary beliefs: (1) the world is overwhelmingly against Islam, leading to the rigid binary characterization of the world as consisting of those who are either with or against them and their Muslim faith; (2) a desire to construct an “ideologically pure state,” and, accordingly, the imperative to build a community based on strict Shariah law; and (3) that it is incumbent on all individuals to help realize such a new world order. Once they reach ISIS territory, they partake in domestic roles, uphold Sharia law through all-women patrol brigades and engage actively in online recruitment. While they may not participate directly in violence, the muhajirat certainly glorify and justify it through religious texts and teachings.

Despite these feelings of duty, one of the most difficult challenges the muhajirat face when preparing to migrate is the decision to leave their families, according to the study. Many posts talk about homesickness, love for the women’s mothers and the difficulty of the final goodbye and phone call home before entering ISIS territory. While there is clearly emotional difficulty in leaving family, families can also act as obstacles to women leaving in practical ways, such as holding onto their passports and withholding money. The authors suggest that policymakers should help families prevent migration through intervention, and support.

Though familial intervention may be helpful, deeper solutions to combat alienation, marginalization and inequality are necessary. After all, women flocking to ISIS territories are an indication of dissatisfaction and lack of integration at home. The muhajirat frequently write about a sense of camaraderie and friendship that permeates the community, in contrast to the fake western relationships they had before. The authors of “Becoming Mulan” write, “This search for meaning, sisterhood and identity is a key driving factor for women to travel.”

While the muhajirat idealize ISIS as a community of sisterhood and righteousness based on Shariah law, there are many disturbing reports that ISIS has “released a guide to the capture, punishment and rape of female non-believers.” The guide also outlines using the captured women as sex slaves and justifies child rape. About 2,500 women have been kidnapped and around 4,600 are still missing, according to reports. These are staggering numbers. Although there is no indication that the muhajirat interact with these women, it seems implausible that they do not know about the rape and kidnapping. Additionally, although the muhajirat claim that life is normal and peaceful in ISIS territory, ISIS pamphlets describe a very different treatment of women. Some reports indicate that the muhajirat know about the horrors ISIS commits and live in this horror but instead choose to pretend that life is peaceful and idyllic.

Whether migrants to ISIS do so for purposes of jihad al-nikah or to become a muhajirat and join the community, one clear fact remains: there is a disconnect between perception and reality. Migrants to ISIS see the creation of a fundamentalist state as returning to the principles and precepts of tradition. In truth, however, it is the creation of an extremist state comfortable with the use of murder and rape to realize its goals, neither of which are endorsed by the fundamental teachings of Islam. Will these women become “Furies” involved in the violence, and even perpetrating it themselves? During World War II many women were sent to the Eastern front to support their husbands, run plantations or work in secretarial work. Some of these women perpetrated acts of violence and murder. Embedded within a culture of extreme violence and destruction, will it be possible for the migrants to ISIS to maintain a distance from this influence? Do they even want to?

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann/Creative Commons


Addressing an urgent need for increased monitoring of right-wing extremist groups and domestic terrorism

By Shruti Banerjee

With incidents like neo-Nazi Keith Luke raping a woman and murdering three people in 2009 because he wanted to kill all non-whites and Richard Poplawski, a white supremacist and gun enthusiast, killing three cops in 2009, it’s obvious that right-wing hate groups in the United States are active and prevalent. In a report for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Analyst Daryl Johnson warned of increased recruitment and radicalization amongst right-wing hate groups in light of current events, such as the candidacy and election of an African-American president. His predictions couldn’t have been more correct.

While conducting an internet survey, I was unsurprised to find a plethora of fear mongering, bigoted propaganda (Fox News has made me accustomed to this). But I was disturbed to come across a video of right-wing militia men training their followers to “kill fags in a way they won’t enjoy you touching them,” as well as right-wing extremist videos on how to make your own bomb and horrific images of judges and government officials being lynched [not linked for graphic and safety reasons]. These types of multimedia are unfortunately aplenty on YouTube and other sites, speaking to the prevalence of these extremist groups and their ideologies.

Despite these blatant messages to commit acts of domestic terrorism by over 900 active right-wing extremist groups, as of 2012, the U.S. government only had one analyst researching all right-wing hate groups’ activities in the country. As Johnson correctly predicted, a lack of surveillance and accountability for these hate-driven recruitment messages has ultimately led to more instances of domestic terror. By looking at a history of right-wing extremist groups from the 1990s to present and analyzing the government’s response to these groups, it’s evident that our failure to take Johnson’s warnings seriously has left our country more vulnerable to acts of domestic terrorism.


In the U.S., there are four main categories of right-wing extremist groups: militia groups, white supremacist groups, sovereign citizen movements and various single issues movements, according to the book Right-Wing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat is Being Ignored by Daryl Johnson. Militia groups are defined by federal law as domestic organizations that have two or more members who retain and use firearms, teach or endorsing paramilitary training and advocate for violent resistance or overthrowing of the federal government. They tend to be against government regulation—for example, anti-taxation and anti-gun regulation—and have a history of attacking federal buildings. White supremacists groups tend to believe in the intellectual superiority of Caucasians over all other races and have a history of violently targeting minority groups such as African-Americans and Latinos. Sovereign citizen movements aim to disassociate themselves with the U.S. by giving up citizenship and creating a self-sufficient environment. These movements generally have anti-government agendas and have attempted to rename U.S. territories. Single issue movements are comprised of groups that dedicate their time to a certain issue, such as anti-abortion and anti-immigration groups. These groups have been known to physically attack institutions that they do not agree with, like medical clinics that provide abortions.

According to a DHS report, there are many factors that lead to the rise of right-wing extremist groups, including slow economic growth, high unemployment, a liberal political climate (i.e. the election of the first African-American president), heavy recruitment of veterans, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-abortion sentiment, anti-LGBT movements, general anti-government and anti-authority sentiments and prevailing racism. For example, the report documents that there was an uptick in right-wing extremist activity during the early 1990s, a time characterized by high unemployment, slow economic growth, the appearance of a liberal political climate during the 1992 presidential election and the passage of more restrictive gun laws. This surge in right-wing groups and extremist rhetoric culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. This act of domestic terrorism, which was carried out by Timothy McVeigh, killed 168 people and injured over 600 others.

After the Oklahoma City Bombing, there was a decline in militia groups from 165 active militia groups in 1997 to only 60 active groups in 1999, according to Right-Wing Resurgence. Unfortunately, this decline did not last long, and Johnson was shocked by the uptick in extremist groups his department witnessed in the mid-2000s. The DHS documented in its report the formation of 45 new anti-government militia groups in an abrupt six month period (from October 2007-March 2008) after witnessing a gradual decline in these groups over the last decade. Johnson noted in his book that this drastic increase in extremist groups was the largest recorded in fifteen years, and the Southern Poverty Law Center currently reports that this number has further increased to 939 active hate groups. During this period, Johnson’s department at the DHS also noticed a sharp increase in hate speech and death threats directed at Barack Obama.


In January 2005, Johnson was asked to help draft a five-year budget plan for the DHS. He noticed that the edited version listed Islamic groups and left-wing groups as domestic terror threats, but failed to mention a single right-wing group. As Johnson recounts in his book, he was assured by his supervisor that this was not an actual assessment of the domestic terror threat and will just be used for budgeting purposes. This DHS budget plan garnered significant political attention, especially from Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson from Mississippi. According to Right-Wing Resurgence, at a hearing Congressman Thompson said:

“As the bombings of the Alfred. P Murrah Building in Oklahoma City ten Years ago demonstrated, right-wing domestic terrorists are capable of harming America in ways similar to al-Qaeda. Indeed, white supremacists, violent militiamen, anti-abortion bombers, and other right-wing hate groups have shown a remarkable ability to resist law enforcement authorities. In 2003, for example, the American radical right staged a ‘comeback’ with the number of skinhead groups doubling from the prior year.” Thompson continued, “If DHS’ long term planning documents do not consider these and other risks posed by right-wing domestic terrorists, then lower-level agents working to fight these groups may not be receiving enough budgetary, policy, or administrative support from their superiors. This means possible threats to our homeland could go undetected”.

At the time of this report, Johnson was the only analyst researching non-Islamic domestic terror threats.  After this critique of the 2005 DHS budget, Johnson was allowed to hire more analysts to build a team specifically designed to detect and analyze right-wing domestic terror threats, though this team would later be dismantled due to political backlash.

Prior to this initiative, the government paid very little attention to domestic terror threats from right wing groups. Johnson recalls in his book that “between 2004 to 2009, virtually no one in DHS leadership had expressed an interest in non-Islamic extremists,” and Janet Napolitano was the first Secretary of Homeland Security to ask him about these right-wing threats. This seemed like a new era of surveillance of these right-wing groups until a DHS employee leaked Johnson’s DHS report in 2009 titled, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” which outlined the factors that were promoting the formation of right-wing terrorist groups (mentioned above).

Conservative news media immediately picked up the leaked report and used it as a political tool to undermine the Obama administration by distorting the analysis. For example, conservative figurehead Lou Dobbs argued that, “the report says that people who are opposed to restricting Second Amendment rights to bear arms or who are concerned about illegal immigration and border security could well fall under the Department Of Homeland Security definition of an ‘extremist’.” Dobb’s analysis is incomplete and incorrect under the actual definition of “extremist” provided in the report, but a lack of government responsiveness to these attacks allowed the conservative media to continue to distort and politicize the report, arguing that DHS monitoring directly targeted conservatives.

Napolitano showed some initial support, but the White House eventually distanced itself from this report and downsized Johnson’s unit, virtually dismantling the only government department monitoring non-Islamic domestic terror threats. A few days after the report leaked, the government also suspended all domestic terrorism-related training and reporting. Ironically, this report, which was used by conservatives as a political tool to criticize the Obama administration, was written by the epitome of a “good conservative.” Johnson is a family man, a gun owner, a registered republican and a devout Mormon.


In the aftermath of the leak, the political discourse surrounding the report completely overshadowed its resounding message: that right-wing groups pose a legitimate threat to our domestic safety. Caving to political pressures when we have compiled hard numbers proving the prevalence of a terrorist threat and ignoring the direct connection between propaganda, recruiting and instances of domestic terror creates a dangerous environment that allows extremist groups to stay active. As Congressman Thompson rightfully feared in 2005, the refusal to properly monitor these extremist groups has led to undetected and underreported human rights violations on our own soil. For example, the rise of anti-immigration propaganda, publicized rallies against immigrants and legislation endorsing racial profiling in Arizona and elsewhere, were all directly correlated with an uptick in violent crimes against Hispanics, as documented in my previous article.

It is appalling that law enforcement and government officials repeatedly call calculated crimes driven by hate ‘isolated incidents’. For example, John Stack, an anti-establishmentarian, was very open about his hatred for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and government regulations. He outlined his frustrations in a six-page manifesto before flying a plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas in 2010. Texas law enforcement insisted this was an ‘isolated incident’, which is hard to believe when instances of anti-government violence are common in Texas. Writing off these cases of domestic terrorism by right-wing extremists as ‘isolated incidents’ is a rhetorical tool used by politicians and law enforcement to make sure they are not liable for failing to protect their constituents from known and active domestic terror threats.

We need to be more critical of the deference we give to the first amendment rights of extremists when they are clearly promoting domestic terrorist activities. As President Obama acknowledged, we need a multifaceted approach to combat international terrorism because relying solely on military force does not thwart recruitment efforts, leaving individuals ‘ripe for radicalization’. We must combat domestic terrorism by impeding recruitment efforts with the same fervor that we do for international terror threats. This begins by combating hate speech and radical ideologies that preach intolerance, recognizing domestic extremist threats as systemic in nature and adequately monitoring right-wing extremist groups.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: David Ingram/Creative Commons

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On military intervention, ISIS and human rights

By Chris Beall ISIS

On Feb. 11, President Obama submitted a draft proposal to Congress, seeking to “authorize the limited use of the United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” (ISIL, otherwise known as ISIS and the Islamic State. Following John Kerry’s recognition of the immense power of symbols in this conflict, I will also choose to employ, Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIL.). On one hand, President Obama’s latest Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) request is little more than symbolic. As every reader will know, we’ve been flying sorties over Iraq and Syria for a good six months now, raining war from the sky, casually aiming to “degrade and destroy” Daesh from above. By the White House’s own logic, the President has two perfectly good and non-expiring AUMFs leftover from the previous administration with which to legally combat the latest Sunni insurgency in Mesopotamia.

But on the other hand, Obama’s new AUMF request is surely a sign of further escalation regarding the US role in the regional fight against Daesh. The fact that the President seeks to endow a bipartisan aura on future intervention in the region amounts to, perhaps cynically, a political hedge and risk-sharing exercise with his Republican counterparts. With his hands freed of potential partisan fallout, Obama may finally confront Daesh in a way that properly addresses the situation in Iraq and Syria.

However, partisan politics is just one shallow layer of the constraints involved in adequately confronting Daesh. At a more foundational level, one might reasonably ask whether or not anybody in the administration (or elsewhere) has the slightest idea what properly addressing the Daesh catastrophe should actually look like. Beyond the relatively easy military component, what does our strategy look like diplomatically? Does it conform to the social and political realities of the region? What does it mean to the Middle East’s wider, ongoing power struggles? Who, exactly, are we trying to help? What, exactly, are our ultimate goals? And presuming we do have such a plan, presuming we do possess a comprehensive and well thought-out strategy which addresses these and other concerns, perhaps the most damning question of all: does the United States posses the political maturity to carry out such a strategy?

I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s talk about Daesh.


Clearly, the horrors unfolding daily in Iraq and Syria prove that these are troubling times for human rights in the region, both substantively and discursively. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the violence itself. Beyond the usual tragedies inherent to armed-conflict, displaced populations, sectarian strife and failed states, Daesh represents a particularly brutal malignment to the state of human rights in 2015. Summary executions, ethnic cleansing, mass kidnappings, mass rape, enslavement, beheadings, immolation: these sorts of things make the headlines, so I’ll say little about such barbarity here.

But, as alluded to above, Daesh has also raised a conflicting state of unease in the human rights discourse more generally. Given the movement’s ruthlessness and special mastery of atrocity—captured on film, nonetheless, and waved in our faces through a savvy social media campaign—it is now incredibly easy for even the most ardent pacifist to find him or herself tempted by the prospect of asymmetrical military intervention or any military solution to this grotesque and intense violence. If there’s ever been such a thing as an “evil adversary,” Daesh has put forth a compelling audition for that notorious role. If there’s ever actually been a “good fight,” this feels pretty close.

And yet, we should ask ourselves what is accomplished in these sorts of conclusions. What are their consequences, and what might they obscure?


In what might be called a positive byproduct or very small victory in nearly fifteen years now of a U.S.-led War on Terror, our past conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have birthed a compelling and insightful body of academic literature, related to the role of human rights in the public mobilization for war, including the work of Lila Abu-Lughod, Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood. To take just one quote, their basic premise goes something like this: “In the crusade to liberate Afghan women from the tyranny of Taliban rule, there seemed to be no limit of the violence to which Americans were willing to subject the Afghans, women and men alike.”

Now, clearly, Daesh is not the Taliban of Afghanistan, and I don’t mean to reinforce the problematic and all too common practice of thinking of these sorts of movements as some essentialized and monolithic radical Islamist monster identity. But the lessons learned retroactively in 2001 and 2003 are lessons that human rights advocates would be wise to keep in mind proactively, as we think about intervening on behalf of those currently suffering under the brutality of Daesh.

On one level, we should ensure that our well-intentioned motives are not used to overlook America’s past failures in Iraq and our very real hand in making the region’s current human rights crisis. The destabilizing force of the U.S. intervention in 2003 unleashed decades worth of pent up Sunni-Shia divisions within Iraq, previously held in check only by Saddam Hussein’s oppressive Ba’ath Party. After thirty-some years of disenfranchisement and routine state violence at the hands of Sunni Ba’athists, Iraq’s majority Shiites (and Iran, for that matter) unsurprisingly viewed 2003 as their turn at the helm.

Seemingly oblivious to the fact that this social dimension even existed in Iraqi society, or perhaps sick and tired of our own unpopular war, the U.S. stood by silently while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki extolled revenge on the nation’s previous power wielders. Watching their rights and livelihoods erode under their feet, Iraq’s Sunnis, naturally, began to look for alternatives. Hence the support base that Daesh currently thrives on.

To think that the U.S. has magically gained the ability to better navigate Iraq’s sectarian landscape, as we talk about returning to the region, is, frankly, an optimism that I cannot share with our president. As such, it feels incredibly naïve to think that our presence can offer anything beyond further destabilization to an already destabilized region.


Cue, also, Rumsfeld’s old “unknown unknowns.” Beyond our hand in stoking sectarian tensions generally, we should also note that we quite literally birthed Daesh within the walls of our occupation-era military prisons. According to The Guardian, just about every senior official in Daesh—including self-appointed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—are all alumni of the U.S.-administered cells of Camp Bucca. After meeting and brainstorming jihad together during their early-occupation periods of confinement, members of the future Islamic State practically left American prisons with Sunni insurgency phone books smuggled out on the waistbands of their underwear. While this raises obvious policy questions concerning how the United States administers occupation, it also emphasizes our disturbing ability to make a bad situation worse, without our even realizing it.

While our role in creating this monster might itself give weight to the notion that we hold some moral obligation to combat Daesh—to quell the brutality that we have unleashed in the region—I return to the idea of political maturity, mentioned above.

In an article by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, Roth poignantly recognizes that there cannot be a feasible U.S. military solution to the Daesh crisis, without simultaneously addressing “the other side” of this bloodshed: both murderous Shia militias in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing civilian massacres in Syria. Simply put, any intervention that fails to consider the legitimate security concerns of all sides of this conflict has little chance of achieving meaningful or lasting results.


The United States has demonstrated an unsettling track record, when it comes to these sorts of gray areas. We like good guys and bad guys, Manichean struggles that break down along the lines of “with us” or “against us.” Unfortunately, the conflict in Syria and Iraq fails to fit in such neat and clean boxes.

And so if tackling Daesh requires an equal pressure applied to Iraq’s Shia militias and Assad’s own Alawite regime, as Kenneth Roth suggests, it starts to appear that there can be no military solution here, short of drastic U.S. cooperation alongside the Shia/Alawite benefactors in Tehran. To actually pull off a meaningful military intervention against Daesh would require a serious reevaluation of our relationship with Iran, which would itself require a serious reevaluation of our relationship with the State of Israel, at least in its current form under the Likud. For all of our bombs and brute force, we simply lack the seriousness to see through this kind of reevaluation.

If we cannot take seriously the necessary conditions of a successful military intervention in Iraq and Syria—one that seeks to achieve a political balance and sustainable peace in the region—then it seems that anything short of this can only prolong and increase the suffering of all sides wrapped up in the conflict. With the latest official numbers of foreign fighters standing at 20,000 recruits flocking to the banners of Daesh, the U.S. does nobody any favors by bolstering their ranks with a new deployment of force in the region. Such a move would only provide Daesh with a propaganda victory in their ongoing struggle for legitimacy across the Islamic World.

Providing them with this victory, in exchange for an actual military-based rescue of human rights in the region, might hypothetically be very well worth it. Unfortunately, such a solution in today’s Syria and Iraq will not prove so easy. If a military rescue of human rights is beyond feasibility, then what can possibly be gained in any half-hearted attempt?

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Day Donaldson/Creative Commons

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The human rights of climate change: a report back from the symposium “On Thin Ice: Climate Change Action From an International Human Rights Perspective”

By Jennifer Li2015 ILJ symposium 11x17

As temperatures outside hovered around the zero mark on a recent Friday last month, the Fordham International Law Journal held its annual symposium, this year titled “On Thin Ice: Climate Change Action From an International Human Rights Perspective” (no correlation asserted here). The symposium, sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Section on Energy, Environment and Resources, convened academics, practitioners and distinguished guests from around the world to discuss legal issues of climate change. The discussion, however, was not confined to the boilerplate rhetoric – greenhouse gases, carbon footprints, fossil fuel emissions and so forth – but rather homed in on the consequences of climate change from a human rights law perspective. A question posed in subtext might have been, “What is the extant legal framework to address the linkages between climate change and human rights, and how is that framework changing?”

That climate change exists is no longer a matter for equivocation. However, as industries and nations argue over the effects of global surface temperature increases – whether at an average of 1°C or 4°C – countries of the Global South are experiencing the brunt of the impact. As Margaux Hall and David Weiss have explained, “Analyzing climate change through a human rights lens is … appropriate because, in the worst-case scenario, climate change spells human catastrophe – rising seas, the spread of disease, and ecosystem collapse – particularly for the most vulnerable persons in the global community. Human rights analyses can frame proactive strategies to try to preempt human harm as well as to respond to such catastrophic events ex post.”

Indeed, the effects of climate change on human rights are substantial and implicate a variety of legal instruments. Food and water shortages, disease and home and community displacement are just some of the human costs of climate change. This potential loss of life, dignity, personhood and self-determination is proscribed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, among other instruments. While states are obligated to fulfill these rights, accountability has been challenging in practice. The most comprehensive international agreement on climate change is the two-decade old United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and entered into force in 1994. Parties to the Convention, which has the distinction of having been ratified by all 193 UN member states, have since met annually at Conferences of the Parties (COP) to review and assess its implementation and enforcement. The climate change conference in Paris at the end of the year (COP21) has the lofty – and many argue unrealistic – ambition of achieving a binding and universal agreement on climate.

International human rights treaties, however, are difficult to enforce, as the success of treaty body monitoring mechanisms is at the mercy of its level of access to information and the cooperation of the states under review. An additional barrier is the issue of financing, as the question of who fronts the money for mitigation and adaptation projects becomes all the more pressing. What is the role of treaties to address the funding gap, if that potential exists at all?

These lingering questions framed the discussion at Fordham’s symposium last month. Three sets of speakers presented on the theoretical framework linking human rights and climate change; the viability of a treaty-based approach to mitigation and adaptation measures; and litigation strategies addressing the human costs of climate change. Some, including Professor Katrina Wyman of New York University School of Law, were skeptical of treaty-based responses on the basis of practical difficulties – e.g., challenges to implementation and enforcement – and lack of moral incentives. Stephen Kass, Chair of the New York City Bar Association’s Special Task Force on Legal Issues of Climate Adaptation, was no more optimistic that the upcoming conference in Paris will be any more successful in yielding firm, binding caps on greenhouse gas emissions levels than previous COPs. As an alternative, rather than pressuring countries to place a cap on their economic development, Kass favored the soft cap approach, whereby countries make corresponding annual payments to adaptation funds if and when they exceed predetermined target emissions levels. Others, including Niranjali Amerasinghe of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), spoke of innovation in litigation, which now has the opportunity to use the latest advances in technology and science to make claims against not just producers, but also emitters of greenhouse gases. Further, rather than adopting merely a rights-based approach to climate change and human rights litigation, attorneys are increasingly looking toward tort law principles by raising claims relating to products liability and using language such as “duty to warn.”

The bottom line remains that countries that are contributing the least to climate change are paying the highest costs. Ahmed Sareer, Ambassador of Maldives to the United States and Permanent Representative of Maldives to the United Nations, represents an archipelago nation where 99 percent of the territory is ocean, with just one percent land. On average, the islands sit only five feet above sea level; the vast majority of residents live on an island not much bigger than Roosevelt Island in New York. Residents of his country have already faced the impact of climate change, with thousands forced to emigrate from the islands when their homes and communities became uninhabitable. In the symposium’s keynote address [video below], Ambassador Sareer stated the international community’s obligation simply and clearly, “We know that neither our country nor any vulnerable nation is capable of fully addressing the climate crisis and human rights of its citizens. It depends on others taking action as well.”

Jennifer Li is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire. She is also the Symposium Editor of the Fordham International Law Journal.

Rights Wire is pleased to present a video recording of the keynote address given by Ahmed Sareer, Ambassador of Maldives to the United States and Permanent Representative of Maldives to the United Nations.

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Reconciling freedom of expression and religion after the Charlie Hebdo attacks: France’s struggle for laïcité

By Marie-Cassandre Wavre

On January 11, millions of people throughout France and the world marched in an anti-terror unity rally in honor of the victims of the terrorist attacks against the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 14 people were killed. Yemen’s al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the deadly assault, saying it was “revenge for the honor of the Prophet.” Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, is known for its controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which is blasphemous in Islam. Before the attacks, however, the magazine was not very popular and was constantly sued for slander, libel and defamation. So what led so many people to proclaim, “Je suis Charlie”? It was freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is one of the most important values in France, dating back to the French revolution of 1789. During the monarchy, the common practice of lettre de cachet—a letter signed by the king and closed with the royal seal that contained an order to arrest—allowed the King to imprison any person at will and without due process. It was usually used against political opponents of the regime who were “too loud,” and was one of the root causes of the revolution. Freedom of speech is now a constitutional right that protects “the pluralistic expression of opinions”

The implementation of this right is closely linked to the French tradition of secularism: laïcité. According to this version of secularism, which is strongly tied to French universalism, the particularities of individuals and groups are subjugated to the larger idea of the “Nation.” Therefore, all citizens are required to respect the neutrality of public space regardless of their religious or cultural background—the practice of religion being allowed only in the private sphere. Contrary to the United States’ communitarian policies and ideals that favor multiculturalism and the recognition of difference, French citizenship is intimately tied to acceptance of universalism. Rather than integration, assimilation is seen as the best way to protect human rights from the “tyranny of the minority.” Indeed, under the Ancien Régime, religion was often used to justify abusive power. For example, King Louis XIV was an absolute monarch because he was “the representative of God on Earth.” The French people believed that true democracy and freedom could only be achieved by completely separating the church from the state. Under the laïcité doctrine, no one can be barred from criticizing a religion or idea. This is why, although Charlie Hebdo was sued around 50 times in 22 years by many religious organizations, it was actually convicted less than ten times.

The controversial part of laïcité is that despite protecting free speech, it bars public displays of religion. In 2010, France passed a law making it illegal for anyone to cover their face in a public place, which de facto prevents Muslim women from wearing the burqa in public. For many, laïcité is seen an excuse to force Muslim immigrants to conform with French culture without regard for religious beliefs or cultural differences. Indeed, Catholicism is not as deeply affected by laïcité because many Christian traditions are part of the French national identity and culture. Nevertheless, in 1990, France adopted a law outlawing Holocaust denial. One might question the constitutionality of the law with regard to the laïcité principle since it obviously favors Judaism. However, French law clearly distinguishes between simple expressions of opinion and hate speech against a particular group. This limitation on free speech is permitted by international human rights law to protect national security. In other words, France protects individual rights and the people, but not their churches, doctrines or ideas. This had a rather confusing consequence when the French humorist Dieudonné was charged with “defending terrorism” after declaring “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” (from the name of Amedy Coulibaly, who allegedly killed four hostages at a kosher supermarket and a policewoman following one of the Charlie Hebdo attacks).

French law is shaped by its history and traditions, but is still stuck in its past. France has one of the biggest Muslim populations in Europe (7.5 percent in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center), but laïcité laws directly affect their integration and religious rights. Furthermore, France’s Muslim population, which is mostly of North African origin, is deeply disenfranchised socioeconomically, causing resentment and lack of integration. The Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attacks were born, raised and marginalized in France. They belonged to a second generation of immigrants who criticize their parents for having denied their Muslim identity, which is sometimes seen as an acceptance of past colonial domination. Their alienation from French society and turn towards violence shows that France suffers from an important identity crisis. Many groups in France are discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity or religion while, at the same time, they have French citizenship and do not share the same history as their parents.

Overall, French Muslims are being more and more marginalized and geographically segregated. Many immigrants live in housing projects of the banlieues, where poverty, unemployment and crime rates are high. In this kind of environment, Islamic fundamentalist recruiters offer an alternative to drugs, marginalization and poverty. This increases social tensions which benefit far-right parties like the National Front, which openly promotes xenophobic policies.

There is an urgent need to promote cross-cultural integration and understanding through education and economic support. France’s laws on laïcité should be more flexible and compatible to allow for religious expression, even in public places. The prohibition of the veil in school, for example, is too aggressive towards Muslims. A first step towards solving the problem is to recognize the nature of the separation between the banlieues and the rest of France. The Kouachi brothers are the result of a society failing at integration and producing alienation. France does not need a law prohibiting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad because freedom should not yield to extremism. But laïcité and freedom of speech do not mean the same thing. By tying the discussions about Charlie Hebdo with the issue of laïcité, France is evading a tougher debate about how to address the problems of integration. Liberty creates a responsibility to exercise freedom of expression in a more careful manner, respectful of religion and non-offensive, to avoid tearing apart a country that is already broken.

Marie-Cassandre Wavre is a French LL.M. student at Fordham Law School.

Photo credit: Olivier Ortelpa/Creative Commons

Agents of the Guatemalan National Police at their graduation.

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Getting away with murder in Central America

By Guillermo Farias

Guatemala is an excellent place to escape the consequences of committing murder. According to official 2013 figures, only 2 percent of crimes are prosecuted. Honduras and El Salvador present similar opportunities to murder with impunity and have criminal violence levels to match. According the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the three countries of Central America’s “northern triangle” have faced homicide rates above 40 murders per 100,000 inhabitants for much of the last decade. The high levels of violence are the result of a myriad of factors, including the entry of Mexican drug trafficking organizations into Central America, deteriorating socio-economic conditions and an increase in gang-related violence. However, the governments of the region have poured gasoline on the fire by adopting shortsighted security strategies that sacrifice human rights for a false sense of security.

In the face of the security crisis, the governments of the region have chosen to follow security strategies that emphasize arrests and violent action over effective prosecutions and institutional reform. Over 20,000 soldiers are currently deployed in a public security role in Guatemala and the government recently announced the creation of an inter-agency task force to address drug trafficking that includes military personnel. Simultaneously, the administration of President Otto Pérez Molina has undermined efforts to reduce impunity and increase accountability for abuses by security forces. In an opaque decision that many saw as motivated by outside forces, the Constitutional Court removed the Attorney General from office seven months before her term was due to end. Pérez Molina has also announced that the mandate of the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has supported efforts to investigate and prosecute organized crime, will not be renewed when it expires in 2015. Guatemala’s neighbors have followed a similar path.

Honduras deployed the military to carry out public security duties in 2011 and created a military police force that has the power to carry out arrests and seize control of violent neighborhoods in 2013. In 2014, the military police was deployed. Despite these drastic actions, the 2015 murder rate in the country remained the highest in the world. As in Guatemala, the aggressive security strategy has been accompanied by an assault on judicial and prosecutorial independence. Four judges that were removed from the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber in 2012 reported being subject to police harassment and death threats. Even more alarmingly, over 40 judges have been suspended by the Council of the Judiciary, a body created in 2011 and given authority to appoint and dismiss judges that has been criticized for lacking safeguards against political interference.

The director of the El Salvador’s national police recently urged officers to use their weapons against criminals with “complete confidence” and aggressively defended the use of lethal force in security operations. In tandem, the appointment procedure for judges has been weakened, raising concerns that appointments will be made based on political affiliation.

The aggressive use of force and the parallel weakening of the judiciary and other rule of law institutions in these three countries lays bare a raw political calculation: security requires action, not checks and oversight. In other words, you can either have security or you can respect human rights, but doing both is impractical. The international community, especially the United States, should put pressure on the governments of the region in order to change this calculation. Reducing impunity and focusing on institutional reform will go further in improving security than the fight-fire-with-fire approach that the governments of the region have adopted.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Gobierno de Guatemala/Creative Commons

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Genocide memory and commemoration in Rwanda and Cambodia: combating government sanctioned and silenced memory (part 2 of 2)

By Zahava Moerdler 

Collective memory is critical to the way society shapes its perceptions of the world and the way it enforces certain value systems. However, according to Katherine Conway, a scholar on transitional justice, “The government and social institutions control much of the collective memory, limiting discussions of ethnicity and events that took place outside of the specific time frame considered in the official memory.” When governments construct and control collective memory, they may simultaneously hinder the process of healing. As seen in the trajectory of Holocaust memory, the suppression of certain narratives will only allow dominant narratives space in public discourse and in the process of reconciliation. Governments must play active roles in embracing all narratives of survival in order to facilitate the healing process in post-conflict regions. Stifling forms of memory will not only inhibit justice and reconciliation, but it may also serve alternative governmental goals. What tools are available to survivors of the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia to shift the focus of their respective memory narratives?


Modern day Rwanda represents a complicated memory narrative. On the one hand, since the genocide, a Tutsi-controlled government has been in power and has worked to create perceived forms of reconciliation. On the other hand, Rwanda “experienced failed memory through the experience of chosen amnesia, whereby not only was the society encouraged by the government to forget but forgetting was also employed by the general population as a strategy to cope with their daily lives,” writes scholar Tamara Hinan in an article on collective memory and reconciliation. The government has both promoted a narrative of forgetting ethnic differences in an effort to unite a fragmented country and deemphasized ethnicity in order to legitimize Tutsi minority control. Thus, the government has actively engaged in memory work in order to promote certain narratives over others.

As a result of this, communities within Rwanda are suspicious of efforts to recreate or highlight new collective narratives and restore social balance. Even with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the gacaca court system, efforts to expand narratives have been met with limited success. Restorative justice is essential for societies to move past the events of conflict and towards peace. However, justice initiatives must be domestic if they are to be successful because the population will more likely accept bottom-up changes rather than top-down impositions. In the aftermath of the genocide, the Rwandan judicial system was in shambles, with only 20 judges in the entire country (previously, there were 785 judges). In 2001, a new initiative called gacaca began. Gacaca (meaning grass) was a court system at the local community level that allowed perpetrators and victims to present their cases in court before the entire community. Despite being hailed as a success, the system had significant problems including: fear of judicial bias, fear of coerced apologies by perpetrators and hesitancy by the victims to tell their narratives in front of the entire community.

Although there have been a variety of legal frameworks working to promote justice and reconciliation in Rwanda, a number of concerns remain, especially since the gacaca courts ended in 2012 and the ICTR is coming to a close: (1) local communities should take more active roles in promoting healing and openness; (2) the government must move past the narrative of deemphasizing ethnicity and embrace all narratives; and (3) each of these levels must work together, or at least simultaneously.


One issue Cambodia faces today concerning healing and reconciliation stems from the nature of cultural memory itself. Cambodian culture focuses much less on interrogating and memorializing the past than Western culture does. As such, Cambodians living abroad in Western countries like the United States and Canada play a large and prominent role in memory narrative construction along with their counterparts inside Cambodia. While many push for memorialization of the genocide by the Khmer Rouge, some forces in Cambodia continue to attempt to suppress the memory. According to Prime Minister Hun Sen, “Cambodia must dig a hole and bury the past.” The Prime Minister is a Khmer Rouge defector and has both personal as well as political reasons for hoping the past can be buried.

Luckily, there are also forces within Cambodia who want to memorialize the past rather than forget. Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia said during an interview in 2010 with the Washington Post, “Confronting the past is just what Cambodia must do to move forward.” He continued, “Reconciliation in Khmer terms is reconnecting the broken pieces. It’s our obligation to put these broken pieces together so that we can understand.” The Documentation Center has taken an active role in promoting narratives and education about the genocide. Along with collecting documents, testimony and video of the genocide, the Center published a textbook in 2008 and has run the Genocide Education Project, a program preparing teachers to teach the genocide, since 2010. Thus, there is a narrative divide within Cambodia as to how to deal with memory of the past and how that relates to shaping the future.

Beyond this, there is a need for a more rights-protective culture as a means of justice in this post-conflict society. Dicklitch and Malik assert that a culture that secures “both civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights (as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)” is necessary for any legal process to be truly successful. According Scholar Renee Jeffrey, one of the provisions brought by victims to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCOC) was for “social services, support for agriculture and ‘justice,’ vaguely define[d].” This provision is indicative of a general trend in Cambodia, where people desire more socioeconomic change rather than mere prosecution and punishment for the genocidal crimes.


Both Rwanda and Cambodia are post-conflict nations seeking to rebuild and unify a fragmented population. Both countries have endured the intrusion of foreign powers in the process of restoration and prosecution (Rwanda through the ICTR and Cambodia through the ECCOC). Both are poor countries working hard to revitalize their economies. Finally, both face similar problems concerning memory of the genocide. In Rwanda, the government both controls the narrative and refuses to address ethnicity. In Cambodia, the government wants to bury the past in order to move on. However, in Rwanda, despite the issues it faced, a local form of reconciliation that recently came to a close may have helped push society to embrace all narratives and remember the past. After all, one of the most successful aspects of the gacaca courts is that it forced acceptance of individualized guilt by perpetrators rather than mass generalized guilt amongst the Hutu population. By contrast, Cambodia is generally still enforcing a program of suppression. Cambodia requires a transition to a rights-based society before any form of reconciliation and true healing can begin. For both countries, it is clear that until a diverse memory narrative is accepted, healing will be limited.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Trocaire/Creative Commons