Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Northern Iraq as “an island of democracy and peace”

It seems that wherever there is fighting in the Arab world, somehow you see French Bernard-Henri Levy. One is tempted to think that Levy is a man interested in visiting conflict zone to advocate for human rights and rally support for those rising against authoritarian regimes.  Not so.

In a column in the Wall Street Journal of 10/10/2017 Levy writes* defending the Kurds right to secede from Iraq. He wrote that the Iraqi Kurdish Northern region is being denied the right to “be free, to flourish as an island of democracy and peace.” This is after the Kurdish Iraqi separatists have engaged in a violent land grab and ethnic cleansing of territory clearly beyond the boundaries of the Kurdish-controlled province. [Not too long ago a writer in the Wall Street Journal wrote a column critical of Catalonia’s referendum on secession. That writer made a compelling argument against secession. That very same paper provided space for Levy to advocate for Kurdish separatism.]

No serious person would call Northern Iraq’s Kurdish province “an island of democracy and peace.” There is overwhelming evidence of the authoritarian rule of the Barzani faction and the Talabani faction that divide among themselves the spoils of the Kurdish province. Barzani’s term has long expired and was extended making him a de facto president for life. Barzani has announced that he would not run for president in the upcoming election this November. We will see. If he does not run again, he will probably have another Barzani lord over the Northern fiefdom.

So much for democracy, as to human rights, there is an ample record of human rights abuses and authoritarian rule as documented by the US State department, human rights organizations and others. Excerpts and links below:

I.                  On unlawful detentions without any fair process:
Human Rights Watch:
The authorities should release all children who have not yet been formally charged, as international law allows authorities to detain children before trial only as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, and only if they have formally charged the child with committing a crime. Authorities should ensure that children detained solely for suspected ISIS affiliation are rehabilitated and reintegrated. KRG authorities should ensure prompt independent judicial review of detention and allow detainees to have access to lawyers and medical care and to communicate with their families.

II.               On ethnic cleansing of non-Kurds in areas Kurds take over and the destruction of the property of non-Kurds to destroy their hopes of return to the homes the Kurds want to incorporate into their future state.
Human Rights Watch:
“In village after village in Kirkuk and Nineveh, KRG security forces destroyed Arab homes – but not those belonging to Kurds – for no legitimate military purpose,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “KRG leaders’ political goals don’t justify demolishing homes illegally.”  

III.           The US State department 2017 Country also criticized the human rights record of the Kurdish-controlled region and outlined the violations of the human rights of detainees and the rights of journalists, among other violations. Excerpts from the report:

Abusive interrogation under certain conditions reportedly occurred in some detention facilities of the KRG’s internal security unit, the Asayish, and the intelligence services of the major political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) Parastin and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) Zanyari. During monitoring visits to IKR prisons and places of detention between January 2015 and June 2016, UNAMI reported 70 detainees had raised allegations of torture or other ill treatment during the interrogation phase, or both.

Both the government and the KRG operated secret detention facilities during the year, according to international observers and to the head of the KRG parliamentary Human Rights Committee. There was no information available to verify whether--or the extent to which--they remained in use.

The two main Kurdish political parties, the KDP and PUK, had their own security apparatuses. Under the federal constitution, the KRG has the right to maintain regional guard brigades, supported financially by the government but under the KRG’s control. Accordingly, the KRG established a Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. There are 14 infantry brigades and two support brigades under the authority of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, but the PUK and KDP controlled tens of thousands of additional military personnel. The KDP had its own internal security unit, the Asayish, and its own intelligence service, the Parastin. The PUK also maintained its own internal security unit, known also as the Asayish, and its own intelligence service, the Zanyari. While the PUK and KDP took some nominal steps to unify their internal and external security organizations, they remained separate, since political party leaders effectively controlled these organizations through party channels. The KRG Independent Human Rights Commission routinely notified the Kurdistan Ministry of Interior when it received credible reports of police human rights violations. Local NGOs reported a sense of impunity among KRG security force officials; local human rights monitors reported an allegation of rape and manslaughter by mid-ranking officers during the year

KRG authorities also reportedly held detainees for extensive periods in pretrial detention. According to local NGOs and the head of the Iraqi Kurdistan parliamentary Human Rights Committee, prisoners held in regional governmentadministered Asayish prisons sometimes remained in detention for more than six months without trial. According to IKR judicial officials, IKR law permits extension of pretrial detention of up to six month under court supervision.

KRG officials noted that prosecutors and defense attorneys frequently encountered obstacles in carrying out their work and that prisoners’ trials were unnecessarily delayed for administrative reasons. According to the IKR’s Independent Human Rights Commission, detainees have remained in KRG internal security service facilities for extended periods even after court orders for their release.

On April 9, security forces wearing civilian uniforms reportedly attacked a Kurdistan News Network (KNN) cameraman in an Erbil mosque while the KNN crew was covering a protest there. As the cameraman attempted to film the protest, one of the uniformed security force members placed a weapon against the cameraman’s head to force him to stop. In the IKR, government authorities continued to try, convict, and take legal action against journalists, despite a 2008 law that decriminalizes publication-related offenses. According to Kurdistan Journalist Syndicate officials, the 2008 law is the sole basis for prosecution of journalists for publication offense under the regional counterterrorism law, for public morality violations and other crimes. While in December 2015 the KRG reopened Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) offices that it originally closed in October 2015, Gorran-affiliated KNN offices in Erbil and Dahuk Governorates remained closed because of KRG pressure.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Dr. Ghazzoul will keynote AHRC's Refugees' Awareness Day

Mr. Imad Hamad, AHRC Executive Director

Dr. Nahed Ghazzoul

Dr. Ghazzoul will keynote AHRC's Refugees' Awareness Day Presentations and Reception on October 26:

On Thursday, October 26, 2017 at 6 p.m., the American Human Rights Council (AHRC-USA) will be hosting a special Dinner Reception regarding the world's refugee crisis, one of the most pressing crises in recent memory. The reception will be held at the Greenfield Manor Banquet Hall located in Dearborn, Michigan.

The American Human Rights Council (AHRC-USA) is pleased to announce that Dr. Nahed Ghazzoul, an assistant professor at Al- Zaytoonah University in Amman, Jordan will serve as the reception's special guest and keynote speaker. Dr. Ghazzoul's is internationally recognized as an authority on the subject of refugees, especially the Syrian refugees. She has participated in numerous forums and international conferences related to this most pressing challenge facing the modern world.

October 26 event include special presentations and the screening of a documentary highlighting the refugee crisis and its impact on America and the rest of the world. The events of the day will provide the attendees a deep understanding of the refugee crisis today and will be a rare opportunity to hear from Dr. Ghazzoul and learn from her expertise.

AHRC calls upon friends, supporters, community organizations and anyone interested in human rights to help support this important event to help spread more awareness and education about the pressing refugee crisis.

"We are heartened by the strong interest to this one of a kind event in the State of Michigan," said Imad Hamad, AHRC Executive Director. "We look forward to a day rich in activities the highlight of which is hearing from Dr. Ghazzoul," concluded Hamad.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Zionists and Jerusalem: Tactically flexible, strategically inflexible

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lebanese Personal Status Laws II

Interview with Women’s Rights Activist Caroline Succar Salibi: 
Women are not treated equally in Lebanese family courts, prospects for an optional modern civil family law are dim 

Last June I telephonically interviewed Lebanese women’s rights advocate, Caroline Succar Salibi, about the treatment of Lebanese women in Family courts.  Ms Salibi has done extensive work on Lebanese women’s rights issues and is recognized as an expert in the field. Below are edited excerpts of the interview:  

-How are women treated in Lebanese family courts? Unequally. The way they are treated many times denies them their humanity. Many women who leave their husbands due to violence often say that the legal violence the system imposes on them is worse than the mental and physical violence they faced from their abusive husbands. 

-But the system allows women to have lawyers and fight for their rights? Yes. But that takes a lot of money and a lot of time. First, the case starts in the religious courts. But enforcement is a function of the civil courts. Even if a woman after a lot of money and a lot of time is able to win a judgment, let’s say for spousal support, she has to incur more legal fees in the case process in the civil court. It’s a complex and complicated process that by design or by default exhaust the women trying to get their rights through the legal system. And most importantly she is not treated as equal to the husband. The system favors the men. 

-What is at the heart of the challenge Lebanese women face in family courts? They are not considered equal. If a man decides to leave his wife she loses everything. Unless the title to property is in her name, she gets nothing. In the rest of the world marriage is considered a partnership and the woman has rights to the property accumulated during the marriage. In Lebanon a woman could be married for twenty years and help her husband accumulate wealth and when the marriage ends she walks out with nothing. That’s a grave injustice. The contributions of women to the family are not recognized.  

-What is the challenge to reforming the system? The idea of sacredness. Whenever you speak about the injustice to the women in the religious court the response is that you are attacking religion, the sacred.  The practices and procedures that deny women their basic humanity should not be treated as sacred and untouchable. Technically Lebanon is not a religious state, it is a civil state that has no religion. But it is a state that recognizes the “faith communities” and gives them a lot of authority to run their “own affairs”- mainly personal status matters. So, in effect, you a Lebanese citizen not a citizen of a modern civil state but a subject of the faith community you are born into. It does not matter whether one is religious or not. From birth to death that faith community’s clergy decide matters of the most personal nature. In a civil state the people elect legislators and these legislators make the law that applies to all the citizens. If the people are not happy with the law, they can change it. The legislators discuss the law, hear testimony from professionals and draft the best law given what society knows at one point in time. But in Lebanon that is not the case at all. The Lebanese citizen has no power to change the laws that determine the most personal matters to them. The citizen is a subject of the sect he or she, due to accident of birth, is a member of. [Article 9 of the Lebanese Constitution reads: There shall be absolute freedom of conscience.  The state in rendering homage to the Most High shall respect all religions and creeds and guarantees, under its protection, the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed.  It also guarantees that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, is respected.] 

-What is the solution? What is needed is a modern civil family law that applies to all the Lebanese.  We as women’s rights organizations have been advocating for an optional civil family law that would apply to all Lebanese equally. We want a family law that puts the best interest of the child front and center. We want modern civil courts that have judges that are trained in the law and in the sciences.  But unfortunately what is happening in our world makes this aspiration very hard to make into a reality. Instead of enlightenment and increased tolerance what we see today is more intolerance, more insularity and less trust between the different communities. Also, there is this broad power given in the Lebanese constitution to the different faith groups. It gives the different faith communities veto power over laws or practices they disfavor. The Constitution’s preamble reads: “There is no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the 'pact of communal coexistence'.” This provision has been interpreted to mean that every community has a veto power over proposed change.  

Interview appeared in the Forum and Link of 7/20/2017.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Lebanese Law and Women’s rights- I

Lebanese Law and Women’s rights- I
The issue of Lebanese law and women often comes up in American courts in matters involving Lebanese American litigants. A review of material published by the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering* and Human Rights Watch** helps shed light on important questions. Below are commonly asked questions and their answers.
1. Is Lebanon a Muslim country? Lebanon is a Muslim- majority- country. About 30% Shia, 30% Sunni and 30% Christian and 10% other minorities such as the Druze.  Demographically, Lebanon is a Muslim country. The Christians dispute these numbers arguing that counting all the Lebanese in the diaspora makes Lebanon a Christian- majority country. But fact is, as to those Lebanese living in Lebanon that have Lebanon as the place of their habitual residence, the majority are Muslims.

2. Is Lebanon then just like Saudi Arabia or Jordan as to its being a Muslim country? Lebanon is a Republic. It is not an Islamic republic. In many countries in the world, the state has an official religion. Lebanon has no official religion-it is secular in that important sense. Article 9 of the Lebanese Constitution*** reads: “There shall be absolute freedom of conscience. The state in rendering homage to the God Almighty shall respect all religions and creeds and shall guarantees [sic], under its protection the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed. It shall also guarantees [sic] that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, shall be respected.” The provision about respecting all creeds and their personal status and religious interests has produced the complexity that characterizes Lebanon as to the various communities and the law.

3. How does Lebanon respect these religious interests of the recognized communities? Lebanon has 15 recognized confessional groups that are allowed to run their personal status matters such as family law matters- marriage, divorce, custody, support, etc. They have their own courts and their own judges. They have the authority of the law to make important decisions that affect the lives of the Lebanese from birth to death. The state uses its force to execute the decisions of the religious courts.

4. How does that work? Does it work? It depends on whom you ask. The system has a number of stakeholders with divergent interests.  Obviously the clergy like it and want it. They consider the legal authority they have a precious and fundamental right that cannot be alienated. On the other hand, the secular, the leftists, human rights activists and others consider the confessional personal status system a problem since they discriminate against women and for other reasons.

5. Why is the confessional system that is as old as Lebanon seen as problematic? It is seen as preventing the emergence of a unified Lebanese populace. They consider these religious courts as islands of law keeping people separate and apart preventing the emergence of a Lebanese identity and consciousness.  The state does not provide civil marriage in Lebanon- even atheists who want to marry in Lebanon have to have the clergy officiate their marriage. The religious courts have jurisdiction over all family law matters. Islamic courts also have jurisdiction over inheritance matters.  Couples from different confessional minorities have to choose  either the bride’s or the groom’s religious authorities to officiate the marriage. Then that court will have jurisdiction on all matters arising from that marriage. So if a Maronite wants to marry a Sunni it is either the Maronite Church or the Sunni religious court that marries them. But if they leave the country and marry civilly, the state recognizes the marriage just as it recognizes any marriage that takes place in Lebanon. Quite a few Lebanese travel to Cyprus, which is a less than an hour flight from Beirut, to get married civilly. The general principle is that a marriage valid where it was held is valid everywhere else. Accordingly, their marriage is valid in Lebanon.

6. If a couple marries civilly in Cyprus or in another country, and they decide to end the marriage, do they have to go to the confessional courts? No. They go to Lebanese civil court. And the principles of Conflict of Law require that the Lebanese court apply the law of the jurisdiction where the valid marriage was held.

7. Are women disadvantaged in confessional courts? Yes, they are. There is no equality of the sexes in religious law, across the board. There are Lebanese women who are pushing a reform agenda as to the treatment of women under Lebanese law. Simply put, women are not equal to men under the personal status laws of the confessional groups and this causes injustice to the women. This inequality is not limited to religious law, it also extends to secular law in matters such as domestic violence, spousal rape, the nationality law and adultery law.

8. What is the Lebanese women’s argument for challenging the legal status quo? The Lebanese Constitution itself, Article 7 and Article 8.  Article 7 promises equality to all Lebanese. Article 7 reads: “All Lebanese shall be equal before the law. They shall equally enjoy civil and political rights and shall equally be bound by public obligations and duties without any distinction.” The Lebanese, women and men, are largely equal before civil courts. But not before the confessional courts, Christian or Islamic. Also, the state engages in a number of practices that the women’s rights activists consider state violence against women.

9. The U.S. Declaration of Independence states that all men have the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, does Lebanon promise the same? The activists lobbying for change of the status quo make arguments based on Article 8 of the Lebanese Constitution. Article 8 reads: “Individual liberty is guaranteed and protected by law. No one may be arrested, imprisoned, or kept in custody except according to the provisions of the law. No offense may be established or penalty imposed except by law.” The women argue that Lebanese law that takes away their liberties violates Article 8 of the Constitution.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Interview with Imad Hamad, American Human Rights Council Executive Director

The American Human Rights Council (AHRC) is holding its annual banquet on Thursday May 18. I interviewed Mr. Imad Hamad with questions about the banquet and about AHRC. Below are excerpts.

Q: Another year, another banquet. What are the highlights of this year’s banquet?

A: This year we are having our third banquet. We are awarding remarkable individuals from diverse backgrounds for their work advancing human rights. We expect a strong turnout, a full house- just like last year. Last year we had over 800 attendees. This year we have a special guest whose appearance is a great honor for the banquet.

Q: Human rights is a new type of advocacy in Arab and Muslim circles, does this present a challenge to AHRC?

A: It used to present a serious challenge. Before AHRC, I advocated for years for civil rights and civil liberties, locally, nationally and internationally. Advocacy for civil rights and liberties has been around for so many years that almost everyone understands the concept and the work. Human rights advocacy in Arab and Muslim circles is relatively new. When we started AHRC many people would ask me: What are human rights? How are they different from civil rights and civil liberties? We don’t get these questions anymore and I consider that a benchmark of success.  Human rights are largely God-given rights or natural rights while civil rights are largely man-made rights. That’s a key distinction here. Our goal at AHRC is to create a culture of awareness of and respect for human rights. The fact that people know what we do and understand it is a measure of our success.

Q: Do you still do civil rights work?

A: Yes, very often we have a case where an individual would insist that we get involved and help them. It’s not our primary goal but we don’t see a conflict- human rights are inclusive of civil rights. We are selective in which cases we get involved in. One constraint is capacity- our office is very small staffed. We have a high success rates in our involvement in civil rights matters. Constructive professional credible engagement is the key to our success. We have an open door policy if we can’t help them, we direct them to where help could be obtained.

 Q: You are based in Dearborn. How would you respond to someone saying that AHRC is yet another Dearborn organization added to a myriad of others?

A: Our office is in Dearborn. We are part of the Dearborn/Detroit organizational network. We are proud to be based in the great city of Dearborn. But we are not a parochial organization- our focus is local, national and global. Take our board for example and compare to other organizations’ boards. Our board is impressive in its diversity and talents. 90% of our board is outside Dearborn. Our awardees and banquet attendees are also very diverse and not limited to Michigan.

Q: What are the biggest human rights challenges of this year?

A: Syria and Yemen by far are the most challenging. There are also ongoing crises in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to the domestic challenges that drastically increased due to the new political era in the United States.

Q: How has the challenge of sectarianism affected your work?

A: Sectarianism exists overseas and in the US as well. It is a universal challenge. We stay true to our mission- human rights. We advocate for human rights regardless of the identity of the victim and the identity of the perpetrator. Human rights are about our common humanity.

Q: Is funding an issue- What we hear from secular activists is that there is strong religious giving in the Arab and Muslim American community while secular organizations struggle. Is that still true?

A: To a large extent yes. You always see new religious centers being built and added. These institutions are important. But what we don’t see the support needed to keep secular organizations advancing missions that help everyone- including the religious. It is relatively easy to get money to build a religious center or to dig a well or feed the needy but harder to get contributions to secular organizations. We advocate for everyone- we help everyone. Everyone should contribute.

Q: You have a prisoners’ rights program, how does it work?

A: We advocate for the religious rights of prisoners with the Michigan Department of Corrections- the Ramadan issue for example. Muslim prisoners need to be accommodated as to meal time during the month of fasting. We have succeeded in improving Michigan’s accommodation of the fast of the inmates. This issue continues to be a challenge and requires more work.  We also partner with a great Michigan based charity, Life for Relief and Development (LIFE), in providing family gift to inmates. We complement the work of other organizations in this area. What counts to us is helping people not the credit for it.

Q: You worked at one time on government-community engagement. Are you still involved in that?

A: I still believe in the community-law enforcement partnership model that provides a channel for dialogue that builds trust- genuine dialogue and partnership. But take Detroit now. I was the co-founder, along with the former US Attorney Jeff Collins, right after the national tragedy of September 11 attacks, of  BRIDGES. BRIDGES is a premier law enforcement- community forum that I co-chaired until 2013. I was invited nationally and internationally to speak about BRIDGES. Now, sadly, you hear many are questioning the integrity of the process itself- it has lost its inclusivity. Those who are allowed to participate in it are chosen on the basis of who knows who and other ill- defined criteria. As a founder of BRIDGES, I urge all, especially the government stakeholders, to objectively reassess and evaluate the engagement process.

Q: What do you think needs to be done with BRIDGES?

A: The value of engagement is measured by keeping it an inclusive body that is not mandated or governed by parochial, irrelevant to the forum, political agendas and limitations. This is a forum of dialogue to all and it should include all the stakeholders- not only those who are of politically convenient. These days this engagement is direly needed given the many divisions we see and the challenges the community, the country and indeed the whole world faces. Time is overdue to return it to its original mission. BRIDGES is valuable and a model of community-law enforcement engagement. It has to be restored to its old inclusive self. Otherwise, it is perceived that the government stakeholders are taking sides in small community politics and community rivalries that are irrelevant to the process. The government stakeholders have to be careful not to be perceived as taking sides in internal community disputes.

Q. The DHS Secretary visited Dearborn about a month ago. What happened there?

A: That meeting was a good example of dialogue done wrong. Key voices were excluded- it defeats the purpose. AHRC and others were excluded from the meeting. This violates the letter and the spirit of BRIDGES. Many people feel the same way.  I feel I have an obligation to speak out on this issue since I am a co-founder of BRIDGES.

Q: How is AHRC’s relationship with the media?

A: The media is crucial to our message and they have been great. We have a great relationship. AHRC is often sought for comment on matters related to human rights. I also write a guest column on human rights matters in the Detroit News. Our voice is definitely heard.

Q. What challenges do you see for NGO work in the Arab and Muslim American community?

A: There is a need for a strategic plan. There is some progress but we still see that our work overall is reactive and crisis driven. We need to respect specialization. We can’t all be doing everything at the same time regardless of our mission. We should complement each other’s work. The Muslim Ban issue brought us all on the same page, but what happens after a crisis fades? We need a strategic plan.

Q: What are you thankful for?

A: The donors, the board, the supporters and the volunteers. Our board consists of diverse talented people who are vital to our success. The young interns we have are extraordinary and reassure us that the future is promising.

Northern Iraq as “an island of democracy and peace”

It seems that wherever there is fighting in the Arab world, somehow you see French Bernard-Henri Levy. One is tempted to think t...