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Reflecting on Japan’s pacifism and the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings

By Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

On Sept. 17, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial security bill passed, marking the biggest shift in Japan’s defense policy in half a century, despite months of protest nationwide. These protests have distressed many within the country who are despondent at the divisive polarization of opinions on whether Japan should be able to intervene militarily overseas to aid allies. Mass scale protests themselves are generally uncharacteristic for Japan, however, this issue has inspired aggressive opposition for the security bill within parliament itself. Scenes from the night of the vote were broadcast on national television, including opposition politicians piled on top of the committee chairman, wrestling away his microphone to prevent the voting process. Meanwhile, lawmakers from Prime Minister Abe’s party pulled them away and formed a physical barricade around the podium.

The debate surrounding the constitutionality of affording Japan’s defense forces a larger role overseas continues to obscure the larger underlying question: how will this symbolic shift play out practically? Japan’s self defense force has already been recognized as one of the strongest military forces in the world, with technologically advance air, sea and land capabilities. The extent to which Japan will change practically has yet to be seen, but the public response to the bills’ passing alone has been substantial.

The passage of the security bill effectively reinterprets Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, a pacifist provision stating that Japan “forever renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation.” At the very least, it represents a symbolic shift towards a more hawkish Japan. Domestic opinions on this bill are often polarized, including some people favoring Japan becoming a “normal nation,” while others fear that this change will enable Japan to help the United State wage “an illegal war” in the Middle East.

Much of my work towards the end of this summer focused on speaking with individuals, in both Nagasaki and Tokyo, about their reaction to these historic changes during the 70th anniversary memorial ceremony for the atomic bombing and end of the Pacific War. Japan’s defense policy is inextricably linked to collective war memory, which has added fuel to public polarization on the topic and entrenched the media in a partisan framework.

Both Nagasaki and Tokyo’s memorial ceremonies are rooted in commemorating the past, and both used the same history to advocate for or against increased defense forces, ultimately cautioning against repeating the mistakes of the past. Whereas Nagasaki’s pacifist message for peace has usually focused on the abolition of nuclear weapons in order to ensure a peaceful future, this year marked a shift towards eliminating all forms of war, including even the potential for war. Prior to the security bill controversy, much of the protests in Tokyo focused on decommissioning Japan’s nuclear power plants and speaking out against the human rights problems in Fukushima, following the historic Great East Japan Earthquake in March of 2011. Tokyo’s memorial ceremony was not known for massive protest turnouts, but the introduction of the security bill set the stage for pacifists and hawkish nationalists to have something to rally around or against.

Some American press omitted exploring the relevance of these important memorials in contemporary politics. The New York Times described Hiroshima’s ceremony in detail, briefly touching on the city’s skepticism towards the authenticity of Prime Minister Abe’s declaration for peace. Conversely, for Nagasaki’s memorial, the Times opted to leave out any discussion of the ceremony altogether in favor of reopening the tired debate of whether it was right or not to have used the atomic bomb.

To address the deficit in content covering the nationwide protests, I’ve included below two videos that capture the concern and energy of the protests on both sides of the debate in two cities that represent its extremes, Nagasaki and Tokyo. Although the security bill has passed, the diversity in emotional response has not, and thus, a reflection on public reaction remains relevant. I intentionally left both clips as raw as possible to invite reflection, not political imposition, on viewers to experience viscerally the unfolding historic political protests within Japanese society. What is lacking in domestic debate and discussion is a safe space and public forum for compromise and discussion between both sides. Many historians and political theorists have debated the pros and cons of Japan’s militarization, as well as the relevant implications. In order for Japan to move forward in a rights-respecting way, all of these considerations should be publicly aired.

Nagasaki City, Japan (August 2-9, 2015)

Compared to five years ago, Nagasaki City’s peace events felt different. The city’s rhetoric and messages during the official peace ceremony subtly shifted away from nuclear weapons and towards war as the primary anathema. The city’s Peace Park, always decorated in symbolic crane offerings for peace, included illustrations and posters villainizing the security bill. Many communities from around Japan, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hometown, travelled to the city to distribute flyers in protest of the security bill and in solidarity with Nagasaki, one of two cities martyred in collective Pacifist memory as a symbol for eternal peace.

The city also seemed less concerned with international response. Whereas five years ago, I was chased down by Japanese journalists for interviews on my thoughts on the lack of American diplomatic presence at the peace ceremony, this year, the media and public shifted focus towards domestic targets and, arguably, persona non grata, Prime Minister Abe.

Nagasaki City Hall commemorated the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing by inviting hundreds of international boy and girl scouts from over ninety countries to an International Youth Peace Conference. At the conference, a boy scout from Okinawa, a city rife with controversy over the American military presence, asked the keynote speaker, an atomic bomb survivor, what his views were on the security bill. This was not the typical nuclear weapons-related fare. His response was that only two good things that came out of the war: (1) he appreciated his family infinitely more, and (2) Japan adopted Article 9 of the Constitution as a commitment to never wage war again. In addition to participation at the conference, British, French, and even Iraqi global citizens roamed the peace park and city in observance of this special anniversary and its significance in a greater collective wish for peace.

The Peace Ceremony itself was split along partisan lines, and the audience was not afraid to chime with applause and verbal attacks depending on the speaker. Despite the unbearable heat, seating was filled to maximum capacity one hour prior to the opening remarks. Prime Minister Abe remained silent on general security matters, but restated Japan’s commitment to uphold the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles,” and to continue to provide support for aging atomic bomb survivors through the 20-year-old Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law. An angry voice in the audience yelled out during the Prime Minister’s speech, but was overpowered by the consistent wave of cicadas chiming before he was pulled away by security. When Sumiteru Taniguchi spoke on behalf of Nagasaki’s atomic bomb survivors, he described the security bill as “a return to wartime era” and that it “will lead to war.” He further described it as “an attempt to overturn the nuclear abolition activities and wishes held and carried out by the hibakusha and those multitudes of people who desire peace,” which drew a round of applause. Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue directed his speech towards the Prime Minister and Diet, urging them to listen to the voices of unease and concern regarding the destruction of the pacifist ideology “engraved in our hearts 70 years ago.” More applause from the crowd ensued, changing the tone of the ceremony from memorial to impassioned debate forum.

Tokyo, Chiyoda Ward, Japan (August 15, 2015)

Every year on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, the Japanese Emperor and Prime Minister deliver memorial speeches from central Tokyo (Chiyoda Ward) to the nation, amongst invitation-only members of government and surviving family of wartime victims. Near Nihon Budokkan, the indoor arena typically used for this official speech, is the controversial Yasukini Shrine, which has been internationally and “indelibly associated with unrepentant historical revisionism, and a resurgent ethnic nationalism,” according to Christopher Pokarier, a professor of business and governance at Waseda University in Tokyo. In plain terms, it is a shrine to commemorate soldiers and other military officials fallen in war. It is central to the way many honor those who have passed in service, sometimes family, during the Pacific War. Pokarier, writing for Australia’s The Independent, notes that “right-wing groups, militaria aficionados and very many ‘ordinary’ Japanese, visit the shrine. Their motives are as diverse as their social identities, and belie simple generalizations about the meaning of Yasukuni.”

While this memorial has always been normatively divisive, this year, people in favor or against a militarily stronger Japan were faced with contemplating how society may soon be affected. One woman expressed support for the security bill on paper, but was concerned about its execution, specifically the potential for future political abuse, which could result in the unnecessary deaths of many Japanese citizens.

While it is typical to see a diverse crowd of nationalists, military-garbed hawks, ordinary citizens and fringe minority groups around Chiyoda during the commemoration ceremony, the main drag turned into ground zero for marches in support of the security bill by late afternoon this past year. Once more, the heated debate was taken to the streets, literally, as thousands of citizens marched with Japanese flags shouting “頑張ろう日本” or “Try your best/you can do it Japan.” Some citizens stood on street corners with microphones imploring passersby to “get worried” and “to think of the children because China is coming.”As I found myself on the corner of the main intersection, I filmed and watched for about two hours as thousands of people passed by, repeating these messages as others applauded.

Eventually, at least fifty police, in full body armor and helmets, blocked off the street, set up barricades right in front of where I was standing and proceeded to stop traffic by driving their squad buses into the center of the street. While at first it was unclear to me who needed protecting, the group around me suddenly turned sour and began angrily yelling at a group marching through the center of the street. It turned out to be pacifists making their way through the area, sharing their own views on the security bill.

Carolina van der Mensbrugghe was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She conducted an independent project documenting the stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki, Japan with help from the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace and Nagasaki City Hall.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Video and Photo credits: Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

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The uses and abuses of history for both Japan’s government and atomic bomb survivors

By Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

久しぶり、日本。Japan, it has been a while. My seventh time returning to Japan has not rendered me immune to the excitement and anticipation, akin to a homecoming of sorts or reunion with an old friend. As I begin another chapter, comprised of almost a decade’s worth of work, I can’t help but be reminded of how fundamental socio-political and legal questions impacting Japan’s future have changed considerably since I began my undergraduate studies.

Some of my initial questions included: Will Japan reaffirm the US-Japan alliance treaty, or move past it towards a more autonomous security vision? Will Japan uphold or reinterpret Article 9 of its constitution (which renounces war as a sovereign right)? How will these decisions alter Japan’s dynamic with other Asian countries in the region? These question have been largely answered recently, setting the groundwork for historic changes. In July 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, announced a “reinterpretation” of Article 9 to allow for military action with allies. This is a significant departure from the original pacifist meaning, popularly imbued in Article 9 of the 1947 Japanese Constitution, which took a more literal approach to the text’s pledge that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Public response was seen in extremes, with one man setting himself on fire in central Tokyo in protest. In May 2015, Prime Minister Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint meeting of Congress. Together with President Obama, he announced a joint vision for security, trade and historical reconciliation between the two allies. New bilateral defense cooperation guidelines were announced, some of which were newly made possible due to the divisive reinterpretation of Article 9 the previous year.

Tangled up in this fundamental question of sovereign military might—an unquestioned afterthought in most developed nations—is Japan’s postwar legacy, which remains an ever present force in contemporary domestic and international politics. How Japan deals with its history, its complex relationship with America, and civilian experience of that lived history, is central to my current work in connection with the Nagasaki City Hall and the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace. Prior to law school, I received a Kathryn Davis Grant to document the lives and stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki as a project for peace. There, I interacted with and interviewed the Hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings. Their stories and experiences are important components of Japanese history that are barely accessible in film and writing, let alone within the United States. More than ever, as the hibakusha pass away, I knew action was required to collect substantial video documentation of the stories of Nagasaki that barely exists.

This summer, I am building upon this work with a team of transcribers and translators that are combing through interviews and hours of footage and testimony. The translated testimonies are beginning to reveal the complexities of humanitarian downfalls in modern warfare and the difficulties of creating legal structures to address postwar civilian ailments. Historian John Dower documents in his book, Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World, that it was not until 1952, seven years after the atomic bombing and end of the war, that the Japanese government began to extend special assistance to bomb victims. This decision, he says, was due in part to censorship of Nagasaki photographs and testimony, sanitized reporting of the approximately 75,000 deaths in Nagasaki and a desire to move past a visible reminder of the horrors of war.

This delay in aid had terrible consequences. While reading interview transcripts this summer, I am sitting in Espresso D Works, a New York-style hipster café enclave, hidden in ex-pat haven Ebisu, Tokyo. As I continue to sift through my translations, I come across my interview with Sakue Shimohira, age ten at the time of the bombing. Ms. Shimohira has dedicated her life to sharing her story in hopes that future generations remember the past, deepen their empathy towards others, and work toward “the dream of peace.” Her interview breaks down the results of aid-delay in shockingly personal terms:

Before, those injured by the bomb would come together and ask for reparations to cover the medical expenses of their injuries, but they didn’t get any money, and all died. Many people couldn’t bear the pain, and committed suicide. My younger sister committed suicide. Her stomach was infested with maggots [a common side effect as the result of open wounds from exposure to the atomic blast]. At night, it was too dark in the room to remove them. In the morning, I told her to get up so that I could pluck out the maggots, but they were already deep in her flesh. They writhed and fell out in droves. My sister wanted me to commit suicide with her, but since I had been fortunate enough to survive the bomb, I said that I wanted to continue to live, on behalf of my mother and other deceased family. The Hisaisha Kyogikai was [later] established in 1956 for these atomic bomb survivors. With the establishment of the organization, we continued to appeal to the government for support, but they told us to be patient, and offered no help. A lot of people couldn’t afford to go to the hospital, and died.

My concentration is broken by a barista, who approaches and asks me in Japanese whether I like Nagasaki while pointing to a book sharing the same title at my side. I respond with a short explanation of why I am here in Japan and the work I am doing this summer. Surprised by my response, the barista thanks me and remarks that I am “so Japanese” for doing this. This is not an atypical response I receive from Japanese people, many who find it surprising an American would take interest in this history and become so involved. Nevertheless, I find it surprising given that the hibakusha experiences are not isolated, but rather a unique example in an array of cases in the developed world where governments struggle to develop legal structures for victim compensation (including the recent natural and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan).

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Jennifer Mason from the Brookings Institute predicts that Prime Minister Abe will be under added intense scrutiny from the United States and Japan’s Asian neighbors, as he prepares for his August 15 speech commemorating this historical landmark. During a tense and rapidly changing time of nationalism in Asia, the uses and abuses of history continue to pervade. However, as John Dower reflects—and I must agree—most of these particular historical considerations leave out the fate of the nuclear victims themselves and yet they are inseparable. I will be traveling to Nagasaki shortly to document these important memorial events as they unfold. Nagasaki City Hall has graciously granted me press access to document some of the key political and educational events surrounding this anniversary. With newfound political importance, I look forward to the historical and personal narratives that will be delivered in favor of reconciliation and memory of these events, as well as what this may mean for the near future.

Carolina van der Mensbrugghe is a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She is conducting an independent project documenting the stories of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki, Japan with help from the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace and Nagasaki City Hall.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Carolina van der Mensbrugghe


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The nuclear obsession and human rights: how human rights abuses are swept under the rug during peace talks with Iran

By Zahava Moerdler

Iran. Nuclear weapons. Diplomacy. Sanctions. Peace. These words have been in the news almost every day for the past two months. With a potential nuclear accord is on the table and President Obama working on finding a consensus with Congress, the lifting of sanctions and a “sort-of” peace with Iran is finally within reach. Yet as these words circle in the air and press, it seems that policymakers and diplomats are consistently sweeping Iranian human rights infringements under the rug, with negotiations failing to factor in human rights at all.

Iran executed 544 people in 2012, second only to China, according to Amnesty International. At least 63 of the executions were carried out in public. Most of the individuals were executed for drug-related crimes following “flawed trials in revolutionary courts,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. Additionally, Iran executes children for various criminal offenses, allowing capital punishment for those who have reached puberty, meaning age nine for girls and age fifteen for boys. Many believed that under President Hassan Rouhani, who assumed office in August 2013, the executions would relax, but the contrary has proved true. 773 individuals were executed during Rouhani’s first year in office, which was a marked increase from President Ahmadinejad’s administration, according to statistics from the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. In 2013, Iran had the highest execution rate per capita. While Iranian media sources report 200 executions in 2014, opposition leaders claim the number is closer to 400 people, HRW said. These numbers alone are staggering. When placed in context, they are even more disturbing. For example, sixteen people were executed in 2013 for crimes of “enmity against God” because of connections to opposition groups. In 2014, at least nine people were executed for this crime. How can the contrasting images of Iranian Ministers shaking hands with Western Diplomats in Geneva and bodies hanging in public squares in Tehran be reconciled? With a nuclear deal on the horizon, the world cannot continue to keep silent about Iranian human rights abuses.

Another major human rights issue is gender discrimination in Iran. According to a report published by Amnesty International, women in Iran face increased restrictions on their use of contraceptives and exclusions from the labor force unless they have a child, if two proposed laws will be passed. The bill also reinforces discriminatory stereotypes about women. Other bills that will be discussed in Parliament in the coming months could further isolate and discriminate against women in Iran, the report said. For example, the Bill to Increase Fertility Rates and Prevent Population Decline (Bill 446) outlaws voluntary sterilization and the Comprehensive Population and Exaltation of Family Bill (Bill 315), discriminates against women who choose not to marry or are unable to have children.

Though some human rights organizations have launched campaigns to stop or counter these bills, these groups face incredible pushback from the Iranian government. Amnesty International has a global campaign, My Body My Rights, that aims to stop governmental “control and criminalization of sexuality and reproduction rights.” Additionally, grassroots organizations like the One Million Signatures Campaign, which seeks to work within the law to collect signatures to support the repeal of laws that discriminate against women, are targeted by security officials in Iran and individuals from these groups are detained on “national security” grounds. Anyone who does not heed these warnings faces severe reprisals.

Critics of the Iran deal also accuse President Obama of turning a “blind eye” to Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East and its motives for providing funds and arms for these wars. These critics believe that President Obama is too focused on a “legacy-enhancing push” that could “lift his presidency’s historic potential” after years of tension between Washington and Tehran. Unfortunately, regional conflicts and tensions have created an environment that promotes radical groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who threaten both American and Iranian interests. Yet, Iran continues to foster breeding grounds for these radical groups. In Syria, Iran continues to support President Assad, even when the U.S. has supported the opposition. In Iraq, Iran’s support of Shiite proxy groups continues to stir up trouble for the U.S., even while both countries fight the Sunni ISIS. Iran also has connections to Hezbollah in Lebanon and rebels in Yemen and Bahrain. Although these examples do not point to direct Iranian human right infringements, Iran’s continued support of rebel groups, militias and terrorist organizations in the Middle East is destabilizing the region and fostering human rights abuses. Thus, Iran’s abuses extend beyond homegrown discrimination, persecution and rampant executions and into regional abuses by proxy.

By contrast, many Iranian dissidents fear that a breakdown in the nuclear talks could bring about a wave of repression. So although human rights might be a rallying point for why the Iranian nuclear discussions are problematic, the deal could potentially promote increased human rights within the country. Some believe that the lifting of sanctions would combat economic suffering and thus take away one of the major arguments hardliners in Iran use when infringing on the population’s basic rights. Thus, a nuclear deal could lead to more opportunities for activists in Iran to push for increased human rights, while those who oppose such rights will no longer be able to respond with cries against the evils of the West.

The important nuance is that while there is a clear need to promote an end to sanctions and democracy, and all that it entails, there is also a need to address the clear human rights violations in Iran. According to Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most prominent dissident, imposing sanctions and threats of war rarely promote more human rights in developing countries for a number of reasons. First, dictators often use the threat of war as a way to delegitimize their opponent’s arguments and ideals, Ganji argues. Second, sanctions hurt the entire country, including the rising middle class and thus affect all socioeconomic strata. And third, he pointed out that American wars often threaten human rights on their own. These points clearly articulate the need for peace, for on its heels trail the seeds of democracy and human rights.

Today, however, at a governmental level, there is no accountability for human rights abuses. Despite a number of organizations working to promote human rights in Iran, the nuclear peace talks have not had a rights-based approach. The American government should encourage reform in Iran as an important component of the agreement. At the very least, a conversation about ongoing abuses must occur. If local human rights groups in Iran see global support for their movements, it could help promote their work and push for more discourse between the organizations and the government. Furthermore, with human rights on the agenda, the American government will be more conscious of how a breakdown in negotiations and continuing sanctions will directly impact the Iranian people. Human rights are not an excuse for bullying; they are important and fundamental to human freedom, liberty and happiness. With a heightened focus on human rights, perhaps real change can finally come in Iran.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State/Creative Commons


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Colombia: the peace talks hit a bump, but move forward

By Guillermo Farias

On April 15, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacked a group of Colombian army soldiers in the department of Cauca, in the southwest of the country. 11 soldiers died and another 20 suffered injuries, according to official reports. The attack broke the unilateral truce implemented by the FARC since last December.

At first glance, it would be easy to interpret this development as catastrophic or even fatal to the peace process. That is not the case. While the attack by FARC and the government’s subsequent decision to restart airstrikes against the rebels will have serious consequences and might change the dynamics in Havana, Cuba, where peace talks are taking place, the talks will go on. In fact, the government will likely be in a stronger negotiating position going forward.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, both sides sought to frame the events in a favorable way by using the language of human rights and the laws of war. So far, the government’s version of events seems to have gained more traction with public opinion in Colombia and the international community.

FARC attempted to frame the events as a defensive action, and were quick to point out that the government has continued offensive actions even after the guerilla group declared a unilateral ceasefire. FARC negotiator Félix Antonio Muñoz, who goes by the nom de guerre Pastor Alape and is in Havana for the negotiations, repeated FARC’s claim that the flare-up showed the need for a bilateral ceasefire.

The government, on the other hand, has presented some evidence that the soldiers were ambushed. Relying primarily on forensic reports, the government claims that the soldiers were attacked with explosives and high velocity rounds fired from various angles, all of which point towards offensive action on the part of the guerillas. The Attorney General, Alejandro Montealegre, said that the soldiers were attacked while they were resting and that the attack qualifies as a war crime due to the use of unconventional weapons.

So far, it seems like the government has succeeded in discrediting FARC’s claims that its fighters were defending themselves from offensive action by the military. As a result, FARC has fallen back to claiming that its high command, which has representatives in Havana, did not play a role in planning the attack.

The attacks complicate life for both sides. FARC must address the uncomfortable reality that it is not in complete control of its forces. Further, with the government going on the offensive and restarting air-strikes, the rebel group does not have time on its side.

The government, for its part, once again finds itself having to defend its decision to negotiate with FARC in the face of a public whose patience was running low even before the attack. The political opposition, including former President Alvaro Uribe, lost no time accusing the government of being soft on the guerrillas and falling into a trap by negotiating with them. However, President Santos seems to have found a way to turn the situation in his favor.

On April 18, three days after the attack and immediately after attending a ceremony for the fallen soldiers, President Santos gave an impassioned speech in which he made clear that he understood the rage Colombians felt towards FARC and put pressure on the guerrilla group to speed up the peace process. President Santos also called for the imposition of a clear time frame on the negotiations.

The implications of a demand for a time frame are clear. The government is not willing to remain at the negotiating table indefinitely, and FARC needs to seize the moment and end the conflict now, while it still has a chance to gain concessions from the government.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: n.karim/Creative Commons


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One last in memoriam: the Oslo Accords

By Chris Beall Oslo

Since the reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s Likud party in Israel’s Knesset election on March 17, there’s been a lot of talk about what these results mean for whatever still exists of a “peace process.” For many commentators and onlookers—human rights advocates among them—five more years of a Likud government brings a deep pessimism concerning the likelihood of foreseeable peace between Israel and Palestine. I, myself, tend to share this pessimism, and I don’t think it very hard to buy into the premise that, in some abstract way, a vote cast for Likud is kind-of-sort-of a vote for extremism on all sides of the battle lines.

Seriously, imagine the jubilee that must be sounding from the yellow-bannered bunkers of Dahiyeh and South Lebanon, or the under-reconstruction tunnel networks in Gaza, right about now. Rather than facing the domestic scrutiny and credibility crises that groups like Hezbollah and Hamas certainly deserve among their own constituents (and the world, for that matter), these groups may instead cite Netanyahu’s particularly ugly campaign tactics, and get back to business as usual. Whether they point to the Prime Minister’s reversal of his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, his rejection of a two-state solution under his watch, or his fear-mongering warnings of Arabs “voting in droves,” it seems that at least in the short term, Bibi’s bought them some time.

Violent non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas justify and publicly legitimize their own acts of violence and/or terrorism under the politically calculated assumption that actual coexistence alongside Israel is not, and has never actually been, on the table. With campaign comments like the above, Netanyahu has single-handedly provided a great deal of weight to the skepticism that asks whether such coexistence is possible, in the absence of external pressure. And external pressure, in its vilest form, is exactly what groups like Hamas are selling.

To be clear: nothing justifies terrorism or the indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians. Even stripped of such moralism, there’s a million pragmatic flaws in the idea that such violence can ever accomplish these sorts of groups’ espoused political goals. But any analysis would be remiss if we overlooked a certain problem of democracy here. Without diving too deeply into my fuzzy undergraduate memory of Rousseau and social contracts, there’s something especially depressing in the fact that Netanyahu’s revolting, xenophobic green light comes with the backing of a democratic majority (technically a plurality, but you get what I’m saying). On the last days of the campaign trail and behind in the polls, Bibi stood ideologically naked, exposing to the world how he actually feels, or at the very least, how he strategically would have needed to feel in order to get reelected in Israel—and it worked.

There’s real hazard in talk like this. When the workings of representative government mutate a toxic elected official or political party into a toxic body politic writ large, then, at least in this conflict, it becomes dangerously easy to casually slip into overblown common denominators: the essentialized and “inherently” dichotomous fictions of Israeli v. Arab or Muslim v. Jew. Stated differently: What is undoubtedly a century-old political problem—surely one with a political solution—suddenly starts to feel a lot more explainable and readily understandable in terms of the binary narratives offered by the extremist opponents of that exact, hoped-for political solution. These sorts of groups, which have existed on both sides in various forms well before 1948, are the ultimate antagonists of lasting peace in the region.

Instead of accepting such narratives, which can only exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the question right now should become, “How else might we make sense of all this?” As discussions about the status of a two-state solution heat up internationally, we must revisit the political circumstances that have birthed this Likud reelection—a victory fueled by ethnic tensions and toxic dichotomous language.

THE MANY SLOW DEATHS OF OSLO

Palestinians, Israelis and the international community alike have all grown increasingly frustrated and wary of the Israeli-Palestinian peace framework first adopted under the 1993-1995 Oslo Accords. At risk of bulldozing the nuances, a crude summary: The Oslo I Accord, negotiated in Norway in 1993, established mutual recognition between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and created the Palestinian Authority to semi-autonomously govern some of the occupied territories for an intended interim period. The Oslo II Accord, signed in Taba, Egypt in 1995, created the current Areas A, B and C jurisdictional schema in the West Bank, which is still in force today, and established a degree of economic and security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Collectively, neither plan promised Palestinian statehood, but created a procedural apparatus for hashing out an embryonic prototype of an eventual two-state solution. By showing tangible and immediate acts of goodwill on both sides, the goal was to build a negotiating relationship that would foster a final-status agreement. The Oslo Accords promised mutual-recognition and small steps towards peace, with the ultimate goal of reaching a final agreement based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 within five years of the Accords’ adoption.

To some, the degree of step-by-step conditionality structurally built into the Oslo Accords meant that they never realistically stood a chance from the start. Perhaps. But it is also true that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority did take tangible measures—sometimes at great political cost—to meet and exceed their obligations under Oslo. Indeed, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin paid for Oslo with his own life, assassinated by a Zionist fanatic just weeks after signing Oslo II. And yet, by and large, the Accords were met with popular support from both Israel and Palestine. Although Hamas and Islamic Jihad boycotted Palestine’s post-Oslo 1996 elections, the results do represent a high-water mark for hopes of peace and mutually negotiated Palestinian sovereignty. Yasser Arafat’s landslide victory with 88 percent of Palestinian presidential votes represented more than tacit approval for the PLO’s peace efforts, and a popular mandate for Oslo itself.

Things fell apart, of course. A brutal terrorism campaign launched by Hamas, combined with Israel’s own lackluster implementation of Oslo initiatives (settlement freezes, to take just one example), would mean that by the end of that five-year Final Settlement deadline in 1999, both parties had largely forgotten those mutual acts of goodwill first birthed by the process. The failure of the Camp David peace attempt in 2000, the Second Intifada and Israel’s launch of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 represented the first major death of the Oslo Process.

In the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election, Hamas’ radical Islamist coalition won a shocking 74/132 seats in Palestine’s interim-legislature, causing a subsequent civil war between Fatah and Hamas. This election, the lasting rift between Gaza and the West Bank and monolithic statements made about Palestinians being untrustworthy partners in peace could easily be said to represent a second deathblow to Oslo. The loss of popular support for the formalized peace process among Palestinians would mark a much more difficult derailment of peace, not easily fixed by any forced-sit down among the parties.

As hinted above, such a loss of popular support should not have surprised anybody. The Palestinian disillusionment with the Oslo Accords was entirely reasonable, in the face of ongoing Israeli colonial projects, renewed direct occupation, shattered optimism at sovereignty and the Palestinian Authority’s own crippling corruption and gross maladministration. With a constricted Bantustan economy (or an outright blockaded economy in Gaza, post-2007) and unceasing loss of dignity under the brutalities of occupation, ordinary Palestinians failed to ever see any tangible and concrete benefits stemming from the political trust-building process that was the Oslo Accords.

FIVE MORE FOR BIBI: THE LAST DEATH OF OSLO

Until recently, little had changed in the lives of Palestinians. The period since 2006 has been marked by continual settler expansion, the demolition of Palestinian homes and agricultural crops, restricted access to resources and sources of Palestinian livelihood and intermittent periods subjected to direct and disproportionate Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) violence. Whether one supports or condemns the Palestinian Authority’s recent efforts to pursue heterodox, perhaps even quasi-unilateral solutions to their ongoing plight, what we are seeing today is a logical ending and a final release from the paralyzing aftermath of the Oslo Accords.

Truthfully, nobody knows where this leads us. And it is this exact renewed sense of wilderness that in large part explains Netanyahu’s latest electoral miracle: a development that will likely position him as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister since David Ben-Gurion. Change is scary. With Abbas pursuing justice in international forums entirely beyond the horizons of the traditional peace process, and with Palestinian nods toward ending security cooperation in the West Bank (the definitive ending of Oslo), the political utility of Bibi’s cheap resorts to xenophobic provocation isn’t exactly surprising. For a man who has furiously opposed the Oslo Accords since their inception, Bibi now finally gets to be the political leader who will steer Israel beyond whatever remains of their grasp. He’s finally won.

Granted, the immediate outlook of peace under Netanyahu is unsurprisingly bleak, and will almost certainly get worse before things can get better. But as we collectively watch the Oslo Accords die one last death in Israel/Palestine, there is still immense hope to be shared that all parties involved will learn something from the Accords’ presently unwinding failed legacy.

Above all else, Oslo’s last shot at a noble death would entail the recognition that, while this century-old conflict’s solution will surely be political in nature, this does not mean that peace can exist solely as some gentleman’s agreement, between politicians. Rather, a future peace must address the immediate and tangible concerns of the conflict’s most direct stakeholders, those that have suffered most viscerally and shed the most blood: ordinary Palestinians and Israelis alike. People actually have to care about peace, or at least be shown its rewards and its benefits. Political goodwill is important, but cannot survive in the absence of popular support. While the failure of Oslo reveals that public patience is a limited resource, it is also, thankfully, a renewable resource. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.

Whatever comes next, Oslo should haunt us and influence how we approach peace in the future. Otherwise, the Oslo Accords will be remembered as little more than a photograph in our children’s history textbooks—two guys shaking hands on the White House lawn, and none of it meant a damn thing at all.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Vince Musi/The White House/Creative Commons


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

FARC

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.

BACKGROUND

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.

PEACE TALKS

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.

CONCLUSION

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