Human Rights, Selective Perception, and the Olympics

Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s Director of Global Initiatives speaks Cantonese and German, wrote speeches for the U.S. Attorney General, and more recently penned a New York Times op-ed titled “The Olympics Leadership Mess“. It’s an informative editorial, but her argument that the next I.O.C. president should strictly assess the human rights records of bidding countries and monitor selected host countries progress towards improving that record, rests on the flawed assumption that the West has a monopoly on virtue.

Historical context compliments of Worden:

The 12-year term of the current International Olympic Committee Chairperson, Jacques Rogge of Belgium, will be remembered in large part for the glaring contradiction between the I.O.C.’s explicit vision of its lofty role in the world (as outlined in the rules and guidelines of its charter) and the fact that Mr. Rogge has been responsible for two Olympics with extensive human rights violations: the 2008 summer games in Beijing and the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia, which start in less than six months.

To host the Olympics, governments and cities pledge not only to build sparkling new stadiums but also to uphold the I.O.C.’s “Fundamental Principles of Olympism”: respect for human dignity and press freedom, and a rejection of “any form of discrimination.” But the I.O.C. under Mr. Rogge has failed to enforce its own rules.

The 2008 Beijing games, which cost an estimated $40 billion, led to a host of rights violations, including abuses of domestic migrant workers who were building Olympic infrastructure and a harsh clampdown on civil society and media, with punishment (including imprisonment) for those trying to protest.

Then she fast forwards to the present:

Now the I.O.C. is preparing to stage another Olympics in a host country that almost appears to be taunting organizers and sponsors by flagrantly flouting its pledge. Starting in 2008, Human Rights Watch has documented myriad Russian abuses associated with preparation for the Olympics. These include government harassment and intimidation of activists and journalists, abuses of migrant workers from the former Soviet bloc who are building all the major Olympic venues (including the media center) and forced evictions of some families without compensation. Some migrant workers who tried to complain have been detained.

Over the past year, Russia has also introduced repressive laws targeting certain nonprofit organizations as “foreign agents.” With raids, threats and intimidation, the crackdown has been the most severe of its kind in the post-Soviet era. Central to this campaign is a new law targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. All these efforts are at odds with the Olympic ideal, as expressed in its charter, of “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Russian authorities are apparently counting on the I.O.C. to keep quiet again.

Her argument:

The shame here is that the I.O.C. can and has used its considerable leverage to improve the conduct of host nations. Countries with repressive governments often seek to host the Olympics to improve their global reputation, and only the I.O.C. can make the Olympics happen. . . . There is no reason the new I.O.C. president could not issue a mandate to strictly assess the human rights records of bidding countries and monitor a selected host country’s progress toward improving that record.

How can Worden ignore how the U.S. and other Western developed countries are doing in regard to “respect for human dignity and press freedom, and a rejection of any form of discrimination”?

Let’s use the Wednesday, August 21st, 2013 edition of my local newspaper as a frame of reference for evaluating how well the U.S. is applying the “fundamental principles of Olympism”. The Daily Olympian does a much better job covering the Pet Parade than world events; however, on Wednesday, August 21st, 2013, there were two substantive stories that suggests the U.S. should probably focus on getting it’s own human rights house in order.

Story one, “Documents link Army to man accused of spying on anti-war protesters”. The first three graphs:

More than four years after an Olympia anti-war group accused John Towery of spying on them on behalf of the Army under an assumed name, new evidence has emerged showing that at least some of Towery’s former superiors at the Army were aware of and supported his intelligence-gathering activities.

The documents detailing JBLM’s knowledge of Towery’s activities “providing crucial police intelligence” were released as part of the discovery in the Olympia anti-war group’s federal civil rights lawsuit against Towery. . . .

Story two, “Graphic photos, testimony shed light on Bales’ actions in Afghan massacre“, is a tough read. Robert Bales is a U.S. soldier who slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians and wounded six more in a solitary killing spree at his combat outpost last year. He plead guilty in June to avoid the death penalty. Admittedly, one person does not make an institution, but every U.S. citizen should think about the details of this story:

On the night of the killings, . . . Bales stewed on his troubles at home and his disappointment in the Special Forces unit his Lewis-McChord team supported in southern Afghanistan. He wanted to be more aggressive. . . . He also was taking steroids and drinking alcohol in his down time.

Against that backdrop, Bales twice snuck out of his outpost to murder civilians in the villages of Alkozai and Najiban in a single night. He put his pistol in the mouth of a baby, and shot men, women and children in front of their families.

As Morse described those killings, jurors saw gory photos of Bales’ youngest victims on a wall-sized screen. One image showed the corpse of a 3-year-old girl.

Bales appeared to shrink from viewing the photos. He closed his eyes and glanced to the side when prosecutors presented images showing the bloodied head of a young girl, Zardana, he shot inside her home. She survived with the help of Army doctors.

Several of the young Afghan boys who testified spoke shyly about the nightmares they and their siblings still experience 17 months after the slaughter.

“I am always fearful,” said 5-year-old Khan. Bales murdered his father, Mohammed Dawud. “What do I wrong against Sgt. Bales that he shot my father?”

If Worden, a human rights expert, seems unable to think critically about our own human rights record, it’s no surprise the same is true for the rest of us. In particular, we’re unwilling to take a long, hard look at the ways in which our military often subverts the fundamental principles of Olympism.

If the Bales example is too anecdotal, how does one explain the fact that female soldiers are more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat? For too many people, anything short of unconditional praise of the military is unacceptable anti-Americanism. Far better to talk about China’s migrant workers and Russia’s outrageous homophobia.

Also, last week we learned from a Central Intelligence Agency document that “. . . the military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet (in Iran in 1953) was carried out under C.I.A. direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy; conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.” That won’t surprise Guatemalans (1954) or Chileans (1973).

And I completely lose Worden here:

Before another I.O.C. president is selected, the corporate sponsors who make the Olympics possible should insist that the president enforce the committee’s own rules about human rights. Unless sponsors and franchise-holders like NBC, Coca-Cola, G.E., McDonalds and Visa want to risk being associated with an officially homophobic Olympics, they must find their voices — before the next I.O.C. head is anointed.

In what world is Minky living? One in which major U.S. corporations care more about the human rights of gay and lesbian Russians than maximizing profits? What evidence is there for that? Corporations only act in the best interest of powerless people and the planet when their shareholders demand it of them.

Which leads to you, me, and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. I predict we’ll watch just like we always do. I suppose, when it comes to the bobsled and luge, resistance is futile. And the Russian government will feel emboldened. And the multinational corporations will make a lot of money. And for those of us sleep walking in the West, we’ll feel good that we have our human rights act together.

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Richardson, Schmidt, and North Korean Naivete—Making Matters Worse

It’s Bradley K. Martin’s fault. A decade ago, his outstanding history of contemporary North Korea, “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty” sparked my deep-seated curiosity about life in North Korea.

Next I read Barbara Demick’s harrowing “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” Then Adam Johnson’s brilliant “The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel.” Last week, Blaine Harden’s riveting “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.” Next in the queue, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad,” by Melanie Kirkpatrick.

If you’re more a viewer than a reader, watch “Inside North Korea” and “Camp 14: Total Control Zone.”

One can’t read those books and watch those films and not be alternately repulsed, saddened, horrified, angered, and ultimately, changed.

I believe most people are rational, well intentioned, and deserving of respect. From the time my daughters first started talking, I took time to explain to them my expectations, decisions, and actions. In turn, I tried to defuse conflicts by listening to them. I believe in non-violent social change. Like Gandhi, I believe that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I believe diplomacy always holds more promise for international conflict resolution than military action.

And so why did former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s trip to North Korea anger me so much last week? Because my North Korea self-study has challenged much of what I believe to be true about global politics. I’m not sure anything I wrote in the previous paragraph applies to North Korea. The leadership is not rational and the regime isn’t just evil in the context of contemporary world politics, but in the course of human history. I have absolutely no faith that diplomacy will bring about any meaningful change. I’m not sure of the best course of action, but I know Richardson and “Rock Star” Schmidt are making matters worse by helping delude the outside world that North Korea is changing for the better.

It’s reprehensible for Richardson to say, “the naming of a new U.S. secretary of state could also help reset dialogue”. Yeah right, North Korea is the way it is because of Hilary Clinton. That’s an embarrassingly stupid statement for someone with Richardson’s credentials to make. And when a CNN television anchor interviewed Richardson, all she was concerned about was 44 year-old Kenneth Bae, an American being held in North Korea. No concern for the 23 million ordinary North Koreans whose lives are the most hellish on the planet.

Blaine Harden and Suzanne Scholte explain the problem this way.

“In a media culture that feeds on celebrity, no movie star, no pop idol, no Nobel Prize winner stepped forward to demand that outsiders invest emotionally in a distant issue that lacks good video. Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney. North Koreans have no one like that.”

In part, that’s why I resolve to use this humble blog from time to time to inform others about North Korea, to agitate on behalf of impoverished and imprisoned North Koreans, and to criticize naive, misguided public figures.

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Free and Independent

While cycling in the hinterlands, I heard this read today on National Public radio. The reading left me in awe of the authors. Incredibly well constructed and powerful. Too often lost in the day’s pyrotechnics.

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Genuine Social Progress—The Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

From Margot Adler on National Public Radio:

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is no more. The policy barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people from serving in the military.

As to what really propelled the change: changes in attitudes in the country as a whole, shifting attitudes among top military brass, gay activism, legal action and the increasing needs of a military waging several wars.

In Adler’s story, Sue Fulton, a West Pointer and former Army Captain, cut to the chase:

When we’re at war what matters is: Do you have my back? Are you supporting me down range? All of this other nonsense about who is waiting for you back home, or what the color of your skin is, or who you worship, those things don’t matter when you’re down range, when you are under fire. It comes down to do you have the character and the ability to have my back. Gays and lesbians have proven throughout this conflict that they do.

In twenty-five to fifty years, we’ll look at the last few decades of anti-gay posturing and policy in the same way we do Jim Crow-based racial segregation today.

China’s Communist Rulers

Paragraphs to Ponder—From Richard McGregor’s “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.” (available in June)

Like communism in its heyday elsewhere, the Party in China has eradicated or emasculated political rivals; eliminated the autonomy of the courts and press; restricted religion and civil society; denigrated rival versions of nationhood; centralized political power; established extensive networks of security police; and dispatched dissidents to labor camps.

The rise of China is a genuine mega-trend, a phenomenon with the ability to remake the world economy, sector by sector. That it is presided over by a communist party makes it even more jarring for a Western world which, only a few years previously, was feasting on notions of the end of history and the triumph of liberal democracy.