Chomsky and Harris – Making and Crossing the Bridge

HarrisChomskySam Harris recently published e-mail correspondence between him and Noam Chomsky which was, to say the least, unhelpful and downright useless as it stands. What is needed, it seems, is a bit of distillation. We need to understand where the difference between them is. Anyone who has read enough Harris and Chomsky (who have apparently not read much of each other’s work) may understand where that difference truly lies. Seeing nothing but banal summaries and shameless side-taking, I feel it worth it try to make some inroads. Here is how I see the difference and how to resolve it.

Harris sent to Chomsky his section in the “End of Faith” that discussed, as he saw it, Chomsky’s lackluster, if not absent, attention to intention as a motivating factor in his moral condemnation of America’s bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan. He sent to Chomsky his explanation which included the following questions and terse answers:

“What did the U.S. government think it was doing when it sent cruise missiles into Sudan? Destroying a chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda. Did the Clinton administration intend to bring about the deaths of thousands of Sudanese children? No. Was our goal to kill as many Sudanese as we could? No. Were we trying to kill anyone at all? Not unless we thought members of Al Qaeda would be at the Al-Shifa facility in the middle of the night. Asking these questions about Osama bin Laden and the nineteen hijackers puts us in a different moral universe entirely.”

Harris asserts that the specific intent of the Clinton administration had in bombing the factory was not to cause human harm, though he concedes that was the ultimate result. Harris concludes, both in his writing and in a recent Joe Rogan podcast that he does not believe that the administration had any intent to kill anyone and ostensibly bombed the factory because they believed it was manufacturing chemical weapons in aid to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

If that was indeed the case, the moral culpability of the bombing is much less on Harris’ terms than if the Clinton administration had intentionally bombed the factory to bring about the deaths of thousands, which was, after all, the end result. Collateral damage, based ostensibly on a mistake, simply does not rise to the same level of culpability as if they had coldly intended to bring about those deaths. Harris does not consider that the possibility that the Clinton administration bombed the factory out of retaliation for the embassy bombings that happened just before the attack. Chomsky adamantly asserts in response and explains that it was, for the worse, representative of cold indifference to the results that is the most morally corrupt aspect of the bombing given the available evidence at the time. Harris does not consider that it may have been a wag the dog situation (that the 9/11 commission denied) to distract from the failures of Clinton administration policies, which has also been suggested. Harris takes the government at its word, and further bolsters that belief by saying in the Rogan conversation that he couldn’t fathom Clinton rationally behaving to the contrary. That, needless to say, gives Bill Clinton far too much credit.

This is precisely what Chomsky is annoyed about. It is part of the reason he, poorly in my view, categorized Harris and Hitchens as “religious fanatics” of the “state religion.” It seems to me that Chomsky ought to, at minimum, clarify his position and to walk back from his irresponsible turn of phrase, a kind he so uncharacteristically engaged in here. That being said, and not to defend his unnecessary callousness in his personal emails with Harris, he has legitimate concerns about the nature, truth, utility, and indeed rationality of Harris’ position regarding the bombing of the Al-Shifa factory and the presumed intentions and moral culpability of the Clinton administration.

What Chomsky failed to adequately express to Harris is Harris’ fundamental misunderstanding of American foreign policy, propaganda and the moral aspects of both. He assumed that Harris would understand this point because he assumed Harris had read him but only because he hasn’t read any Harris, which Harris assumed. That fundamental mistake helps to understand why Chomsky dismisses Harris and Hitchens arguments as “fanatics” of the “state religion.” He sees Harris like the follower of a prophet, simply buying the American exceptionalist position, as mouthed by that government. Harris, it seems, believes America (at least vis-a-vis the government) is a genuinely positive moral agent, because it is so in contrast to ISIS or some other horrific group. But when our (America’s) agency creates moral hazards, Harris sees them as an aberration of our inherent moral worthiness, whereas Chomsky sees it as indicative of the precise opposite character that America holds.

Basically Harris believes that America is good and has made mistakes; Chomsky believes those “mistakes” are in fact the intended, or allowed collateral results of our actions which show our amoral (if not immoral) nature. This is the fundamental difference. Chomsky is unwilling to believe or apologize for American actions which have, as intended or at least collaterally “tolerated” resulted in the deaths of hundreds to millions of people, as merely moral mistakes. Harris it seems to take, a priori, America as a positive moral agent and when it fails to be so, it is because something went wrong, or something was coopted by other immoral forces. Chomsky denies this, suggesting the evidence just is not there to support such a claim.

Harris suggests a way to think about his point by way of two thought experiments. The first he made in the correspondence. In the first case we are to imagine that al-Qaeda is filled with genuine humanitarians.

“Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. They have communicated their concerns to the FDA but were rebuffed. Acting rashly, with the intention of saving millions of lives, they unleash a computer virus, targeted to impede the release of this deadly vaccine. As it turns out, they are right about the vaccine but wrong about the consequences of their meddling—and they wind up destroying half the pharmaceuticals in the U.S.

Harris says this would be “a very unfortunate event—but these are people we want on our team. I would find the FDA highly culpable for not having effectively communicated with them. These people are our friends, and we were all very unlucky.

Counterpoised to the la-Qaeda humanitarians Harris then asks us to consider that “al-Qaeda is precisely as terrible a group as it is, and it destroys our pharmaceuticals intentionally, for the purpose of harming millions of innocent people.

Then Harris would simply “imprison or kill these people at the first opportunity.”

The second thought experiment asks us to consider the results of the possession of a “perfect weapon” by different forces. The perfect weapon is one that insures against the possibility of collateral damage. Armed with this weapon how would the various agents in the world use them? Harris argues that terrorist or religious extremist forces would use them to cause wanton destruction of their apostate enemies, civilians and military forces alike, despite their ability not do so. Harris believes, and has good reasons to believe, that these forces want to destroy a world that does not conform to their religious conservatism.

Harris rejects, through silence it seems, another potential of the use of this perfect weapon for the Islamists. It is possible that they would be used to rid the Middle East or other “Muslim Lands” of infidels (Westerners) and would do so without collateral damage. It may go further, with a Muslim conquest of the whole world, yet without civilian deaths or “terrorism.” Harris has to admit this is, at least, a possibility. Those who have studied modern warfare understand that guerrilla war tactics (which may include suicide bombings, car bombs, hostage taking or other “guerrilla” activities) is the only one capable of successfully contesting something like the American military. There is at least the potential that they are related, albeit distorted through the realm of religion with all its vulnerabilities, to military and other international interventions. Harris is silent on all of this.

However, the fear that Harris presents is understandable. There is something to the fact that there are people who would act in conscious disregard for the value of human life. That is a real threat, one Chomsky too easily dismisses. After the seeming demise of the Communist opposition to capitalist imperialism, Islamic Jihad has taken its place. The difference between these ideologies is crucial to understand why Harris is right to be concerned, and Chomsky is dismissive. Whereas the Communist revolutions of the late 20th century attempted to usurp the power of capitalism with socialism, the Islamic “revolutions” are reactionary in nature. They seek to pull the world back to the 5th century, all with 20th and 21st century technology. This is not a situation to take lightly. Chomsky, unfortunately, does just that.

The odd result of this concern for Harris appears to make America, as the countervailing and therefore morally benign (or indeed superior) force without exception. Going back to his perfect weapons thought experiment America would likely use them to advance democracy and freedom or at least to minimize casualties in pursuit of its otherwise noble interests. In this sense, he has bought – hook, line and sinker – the propaganda campaign of American bourgeois forces to convince its population that it is not the imperialist juggernaut the way the majority of the rest of the world sees it. The thought experiment leads to an absurd and useless line of questions with corresponding untenable answers regarding a false analogy with Iraq from Harris book.

“Consider the recent conflict in Iraq: If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields? (What are the chances we would have used human shields?) What are the chances that a routed American government would have called for its citizens to volunteer to be suicide bombers? What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily? You should have, in the ledger of your imagination, a mounting column of zeros.”

While this might sit well with a generally liberal audience, one that accepts the rhetoric and propaganda of American moral virtue, it does not conform to the realty that Chomsky has diligently spent his life carefully and methodically attempting to dismantle. It is more a representation of the success of the propaganda that Harris seems to accept without exception. Chomsky has become famous as someone consistently critical of the way America both behaves in the world, as well as how it perpetrates that myth at home. His catalog is a robust denunciation of the very myth that Harris appears to accept. Harris’ misunderstanding of Chomsky is clear from this confusion, as is Chomsky’s of Harris’ perspective. They really need to sit down and read one another’s work.

If Harris is right in his presupposition of American moral virtue, then his argument would make sense. But Chomsky has the lead here, because America and its foreign policy is not positive, or even benign, it is quite the contrary. This is not to say that America could not change this, but there is no evidence that these policies would change without mass action by the population of the US. Chomsky has shown time and time again that American military force is consistently used, in contradiction to international law and general moral principles, not as an aberration of American virtue but a representation of its malignancy.

Chomsky expressed his dissatisfaction by bluntly dismissing the thought experiments especially when the assertions of whatever reasonable intentions the administration may have had, the truth is they do not have “even the remotest relation to Clinton’s decision to bomb al-Shifa – not because they had suddenly discovered anything remotely like what you fantasize here, or for that matter any credible evidence at all, and by sheer coincidence, immediately after the Embassy bombings for which it was retaliation, as widely acknowledged.” Beside the lawyerly argumentative tone, not helpful for the kind of dialogue Harris intended to foster, the point remains the same.

Chomsky roundly rebuffed both of the thought experiments in his responses, again not in useful ways or with a respectful tone. Basically he explained to Harris that he is not in the business of hypotheticals. He wants to live in the real world where the decisions and resulting consequences are real. He used the words “ludicrous and embarrassing” to describe the thought experiments. That seems unnecessarily rude and contrary to Chomsky’s own assertions that one ought not to convince but to explain. The thought experiments help make Harris’ philosophical point, but at the expense of understanding the applicable actual material conditions that are at play. This is useful for armchair philosophy, but not for moral, political, and policy analysis. You can abstract things to make your point, but the world is not abstract. This, I believe, is the source of Chomsky’s consternation, but also representative of his ignorance of Harris intent. That is not necessarily merely as personal misunderstanding, yet the exchange certainly went there. That is what made it useless.

America was the lone superpower for a while in the last century. It maintains this hegemony in relatively 19th or 20th century fashion. It maintains control through neo-imperial policies of intervention and outright invasion, followed by business integration into the world market. A foreign policy truly based on genuine desire to raise the standards and freedom of people would not look like what American has consistently (not contrarily) engaged in. However, if America is a neo-imperial superpower, with the intention to ensure the stability and lucrative nature of the world capitalist economic system for which it’s ruling class gains the windfall, then it would behave precisely as it has.

The main difference, the ships that are passing in the night in their exchange, is that Harris does not consider the geo-political and economic components of American foreign policy and therefore its intentions, whereas Chomsky not only considers those factors, but identifies them as the mechanism by which the intention of American action arises while failing to consider the relative importance of the intentions of those who would, if able, do mass harm to much of the world. For Chomsky, intention is evidenced by prior and consistent action. For Harris it is implied by relation less moral agents. Chomsky looks through the record to see how decisions are made, and understand why in the context. Harris uses abstraction to make a larger philosophical point. There is value in both, but this fundamental difference must serve as the starting point to further communication.

To not bridge this gap is to fundamentally misunderstand the value and utility of both sides. Add to that public and seemingly disparaging comments and we the readers lose (in Chomsky’s words) the value of a public discussion in which this fundamental difference can be explored. I do think this was Harris’ intent, and Chomsky just shut it down before it really got going. Both Chomsky and Harris’ fame and public personas are based on the validity and truth of their statements. For both to feel as though the other spoke so flippantly about the other shows that fundamental misunderstanding and then immediately stalls it. Harris is right that the medium of e-mail was, in retrospect, a less than valuable way of attempting to get something resolved.

Harris and Chomsky would do well to speak to one another in private with the specific intent to come to the understanding I have outlined here. In doing so, hopefully the dialogue may carry a different tone and allow for the noble, if not slightly naive, desire that Harris attempted to engage Chomsky in the first place. I would be interested to hear from either Chomsky or Harris if my reading of the situation is correct.

The Poverty of Philantropy

On Thursday the New York Times published Jo Becker and Mike Mcintire’s story suggesting potential impropriety between the Clinton Foundation and a Canadian Mining company. The story is an illustration of the realpolitik of modern philanthropy. The notion that private money coming from multinational corporations and the wealthiest individuals will not influence the goals and direction of foundations and charities demands a level of trust in private organizations that cannot be justified. Given the track record of the wealthiest companies and individuals in the world regarding their institutional role as the exploiting class, the idea that they are ones who can best direct aid to communities that are directly impacted by their policies and decisions is to have their cake, and eat it too. The question arises: What is the value of Philanthropy?

Origins and Development

The word philanthropy comes from the Greek φιλανθρωπία meaning “love of humanity.” In the Hellenistic tradition this meant subjects we now call the “humanities” – art, literature, politics, and science – were undertaken because they promoted what it meant to be human. In focusing their efforts in this way, the Greeks were able to achieve incredible things. Societies around the world still retain reverence for this ancient culture. But with the fall of the Greek city states and the rise of Rome this love for humanity was transformed into the love for the state and done in furtherance of this less noble but still advantageous goal. After Rome fell, and Christianity and Islam came to be the dominating political entities, these pursuits, if engaged in at all, were not pursued merely from that impulse that arises out of a general love for that which is human, but rather in service of the Almighty.

During the long dark period of the Middle Ages these vestiges of philanthropy took a totally ecclesiastical tone. As humans, we simply cannot refrain from such activity and so we are left with the likes of Dante, Aquinais, the Hagia Sophia and St. Peter’s Basilica. It was not until the Italian Renaissance and the following enlightenment period that the ideas of philanthropy were again resuscitated not to please apostolic authority, but for their own sake and the obvious benefits that these advances in technology and science gave to those who investigated them. The Italian Renaissance ushered in a new period of human advancement in which the thousand year rule of the church was contested and the formerly subjugated fields of inquiry like astronomy or chemistry released a new productive capacity. With this advance in technology rose a new class, the bourgeoisie, which sought to replace the old ruling class – that of Monarch and feudal lord – with themselves as the new ruling class of the advancing economic system that we call capitalism.

For the bourgeoisie, science was essential for their rising power, and was in many ways the basis of it. Therefore this new class was a very strong proponent of science and technological development. This however did not promote the philanthropic aspect of the humanities, but instead transformed these activities from pleasing God to serving the interests of the capitalist economy. That gave rise to the emergent ideas of intellectual property and copyright. Instead of being pursued for its own sake, scientific advancements, art, literature, and politics were oriented to serve the interests of the capitalist class, thereby making owners of property out of scientific inquiry. Philanthropy, it seems, was dead. The value of doing activities for a love of humanity instead of profit was antithetical to the philosophical underpinnings of capitalist society.

The rise of capitalism’s productive capacity came with it the birth of a new class: the proletariat. This class – thrust from the village to the city and from simple agricultural work to atomized factory production – saw their material condition change but not dramatically improve. In fact, as they continued to urbanize and fill the streets of ever-growing cities the new working class was subjected to all manner of new social ills of a kind the world had not previously seen. Poverty and pauperism in the urban poor was ubiquitous during the entirety of the 19th century. Because of this there was rising resistance to the inequalities capitalism produced.

Many theories, most notably Marxist, critique the capitalist system particularly because it is unable, even given its great productive capacity, to cure the worst social pariah: poverty. Marx sought to replace the system through revolution of the proletarian class, while others argued that we ought to not go that far. Instead, they sought to fill the gaps that capitalism creates through charity. The church, having lost its leading role in society, now found a niche by which it could use its historical lessons as well as its great cash reserves to provide least some assistance to the worst off. But the church was not the only player in this game and by the mid-to late 19th century several large-scale charitable organizations sprang up and were providing aid to proletarians. Some of them are still around today; think the United Way, the YMCA so of course Catholic Charities. While these reasonable efforts were appreciated by those for which they assisted, they were unable to tackle all of the issues and growing animosity between the working-class and the bourgeois class became ever more ardent. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, the bourgeoisie recognized that if they continued these policies, the their dominant position in society couldn’t long endure.

Because a class is hard to hate as a whole, it is much simpler to pick out the most famous of those who represent the class to hurl your anger in that direction. In America it was directed at the likes of John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. Recognizing this animosity, these prominent capitalists sought to repair their public image. Notably, John Rockefeller hired Frederick Taylor Gates to do just that. Gates’ understanding how public opinion can be manipulated paved the way for the rise of modern field of public relations which Edward Bernays would later revolutionize and entrench in American society. He would do so all while claiming what he was doing was simply propagandizing, but the euphemism was much easier to swallow by the American public. Gates convinced Rockefeller to start his own charitable foundation in which his name would not be attached to the destruction of unions, deaths of striking workers at Ludlow among others, and the overall continued oppression class, but instead on public houses for the arts and humanities and medical research and outreach. In order to attach more weight to these charitable givings the word “philanthropy” was resuscitated as a way to describe his activities. This public relations scheme changed the names Rockefeller and Carnegie from the capitalist juggernauts with all the attributes thereof – selfishness, greed, capriciousness – into the most charitable Americans ever known.

If one is, as I am, in the business of critiquing capitalism, this is a common argument. It states that capitalism and wealth concentration can actually be a social good rather than social ill because it allows those who make the most to give a lot back. The campaign to change social attitudes regarding the bourgeois class from anger and frustration to appreciation and idolization was a great success.

Philanthropy as a Social Good

Philanthropy, like all charity, has many positive components. Namely, charity does in some ways overcome the failure of the current economic system to provide all of the mean that people need to survive. It is not news to anyone that there are countless people within even the most advanced economies, to say nothing of the Global South, who suffer economic woe on a daily basis. Charities attempt, sometimes nobly, to target these individuals and to do their best to aid them in whatever means they have at their disposal. Philanthropic foundations and other charitable organizations have the advantage of being flexible whereas governments and other political institutions may have significant barriers or bureaucratic hurdles that make them less able to quickly and specifically target all the various needs. Likewise, charitable organizations are able to focus their energies in a very limited field such as the Gates Foundation focusing on disease or women’s organizations funding better women shelters. When they grow to significant size, these organizations become institutions in and of themselves and are recognized and institutionalized as nonmarket players that can be counted on. These include the Red Cross, United Way, the YMCA, among others. There is no doubt that these charities and foundations have saved or improved the lives of millions of people around the world. They can and should be commended for doing so, but they are not without their own problems and shortcomings.

Charities and philanthropy are stopgap measures. They take as a presupposition the failures of capitalism and instead of working as powerful institutions to change those dynamics they instead focus on ameliorating the problem as much as possible. Though in some senses a virtue, the specific focus of many charitable organizations means that not all manners of social exclusion or economic hardship are covered by every charity. On top of that, as Janet Poppendieck and Robert D. Lupton have shown that charity has two poor consequences for recipients. First, it is demeaning and inhuman – it makes those in poverty feel personally responsible and immoral for needing “handouts.” Second, it can solidify a dependency culture in which the aid given to a community or individual becomes a lifeline that they depend on but one in that is constantly insecure. For more on this, check out Quinn Zimmerman’s blog about his time in Haiti. Simply put, charities are not enough to fix the real problem.

There is a large propaganda campaign which Nicholas Kristof is one of the notable apologists. He promotes charitable organizations, especially the Christian ones, as more than what they really are. Charities plug the hole in a cracked dam in which leaks spring up every day. A band aid cannot heal a wound that is continuously reopened. Charities also serve a different function. They stand as symbols that this capitalist epoch is not run by capricious and self-serving individual but indeed philanthropists are capitalism’s greatest achievement in that those who have reaped so much of the benefit feel in some ways compelled to give back.

As I said before, this urge or compulsion to give back is not for the love of humanity but for the rehabilitation of public image. Though tempered by the experience of the Cold War and the seemingly internationalization of class conflict, the animosity between workers and owners appears to have waned. Philanthropists only serve to decrease that animosity through the public relations firestorm that they create to promote and raise awareness of their so-called altruistic endeavors.

In Andrew Carnies book, “Gospel of Wealth,” he attempts to outline this obligation but does so not by criticizing the system for having produced the great inequalities and failures of capitalism but to suggest that it may well be the engine by which society as a whole can be made better, all through the contributions of the wealthiest individuals. They have shown themselves to be capable in business, why not in charity? This self-serving justification is the very basis of all modern capitalistic philanthropy. It doesn’t, and will not, suggest there is anything structurally wrong that produces these inequalities but instead the fact that these inequalities exist creates some kind of obligation in them. This is a perverse manifestation of philanthropy.

The Limits of Charity

If those who have benefited the most from this economic system truly feel compelled to do something about its worst consequences, charity is not the most effective means. It should also be noted that very few, if any, wealthy individuals give away their entire fortunes. And, though Americans are very charitable overall, most of it comes not from the rich, but from the working class itself! (The article uses “middle class” which is a misnomer and should be translated to “working class”) The rich, and the most rich are by in large unwilling to give up their class position or to throw themselves off the rolls of the millionaires or billionaires club. Instead they commit just enough to be able to form a public image that sees them not as the exploiters of labor that they are, but as kind and generous people. The two richest Americans, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are perfect examples of this sort of disinformation campaigners. The way in which both of those men made their billions is not through some sort of hard work or smarts, but by being able to promote and engaging in business practices which produced for them the most profit.

Economics 101 teaches us that the way companies make profits is to charge more for the commodities they produce than the cost to do so. In order to make profit or to increase profits a company must either lower the cost of production which normally comes through as the stagnant or lower wages which we have seen over the last 50 years or by adjusting their business practices to make their production capacity more efficient, usually by introducing some technological implement. That of course has the consequence of lowering the need for additional human labor. This and this alone, is how the rich, and all other wealthy people, make their fortunes. It is important to say that all that wealth that is being used to promote charitable causes comes from money that was stolen from the very people who now need their services. In that since, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, are essentially responsible for the ills that they supposedly are working to eliminate.

If they truly want to make a difference they would use their vast wealth to argue for systemic change in our economic system and to foreclose the possibility of the kind of exploitation that they engage in and has made them ungodly amounts of money. There are obvious reasons why they do not do such a thing. It would make them an enemy of their own class. It is neither rational nor justifiable for them to do so. Why indeed would the rich argue against the system that made them rich, even if it demands countless others to be poor? There is decidedly no good reason for them to do so.

Given this state of affairs, we can see that being truly beneficial would necessitate more systemic transformation that would prevent the kinds of difficulties charities are in the business of assisting. By using their vast resources to focus not on the systemic problems but on individual issues, philanthropists get to have their cake and eat it too. They are allowed to exploit and to oppress the vast majority so that they may one day be remembered, not necessarily as a baron of industry, as we do Rockefeller and Carnegie, but instead as “philanthropists.” One thing is very clear. Modern philanthropy is clearly not done for the love of humanity as the word may suggest, but instead for the love of themselves and their public image. For all the good that charities and foundations and philanthropic endeavors have done, which is ample, they have done nothing to prevent these problems from continuing ad infinitum.

Therefore, we should be compelled not to praise these charlatans but to expose them for what they are: self-serving, egotistical, oppressive, capricious, greedy, exploiters. The dark history of philanthropy casts a long shadow and makes charity something done for the image of the rich rather than for its own sake, or even in the service of God. This is decidedly actions which are not undertaken for the love of humanity.

Just Before It Hits

Sit back and take in the moment just before the first note arises from behind and in front. Look out, the lights positioned just right so that only the figures in front of you appear. Three very lose silhouettes dancing in light beams. Beneath them the first row or so, and that’s enough. That could be all that’s here. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the note that’s just played, and the waves hitting the ear. Head bouncing, the beat is infectious, and it’s only just began. A small twitch of an ankle is all that’s needed. Just the slightest touch.

Perfect position.

One breath. Don’t think about it.

That first hit, no matter what – is the sweetest thing on earth. The eruption of relative calm. There may be music playing, but when it stops, and the crowd quiets, there is that  same moment. Just before it all begins. A miniscule moment, but its perfect, and lasts forever.

That is transcendence.

That moment is perfect.

It is an instant.

But its mine.

Al Mezan Reports on UN Concerns Over Israel’s Use of Administrative Detentions Against Palestinians

by Magister, licensed under GFDL

Originally Appeared in Human Rights Brief

Al Mezan Center for Human Rights reported that the United Nations Human Rights office (OHCHR) recently “expressed concern” over the increasing use of “administrative detentions” by Israeli authorities. Recently Palestinian legislator Khalida Jarrar was arrested and administratively detained on April 2, 2015 and will likely be charged with six months detention without trial which is indefinitely renewable. Jarrar’s case is typical of these detentions and the UNHRC has several times condemned them with no significant action on behalf of Israel. As of today over 400 Palestinians remained detained which is double the amount over last year. These detentions are in violation of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

To learn more about this topic:

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Condemns Continued Mistreatment of Thulani Maseko

by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, public domain

Originally Appeared in Human Rights Brief

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights strongly condemned the movement of Swaziland human rights defender Thulani Maseko to solitary confinement. The move was prompted by the publication of a prison letter marking the one year anniversary of his original detention. Thulani was sentenced for publishing articles critical of the non-independent judiciary of Africa’s last monarchy. Additionally Thulani was critical of the laws restricting freedom of expression and access to information. In response, RFK Human Rights sent a petition to King Mswati III demanding the release of all political prisoners, replacing the current Chief Justice among other measures.

To learn more about this topic:

Al Mezan Center for Human Rights Reports on Increase in Israeli Forces’ Attacks in Gaza

by Russavia, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Originally Appeared in Human Rights Brief

Al Mezan Center for Human Rights reports that Israeli Occupation forces near the “access restricted area” in Gaza have conducted over thirty attacks since September of 2014 which has resulted in two deaths, thirty-six injuries, nine of which were children. This comes with increased attacks on Palestinian fishermen in Gaza waters. Notably, on March 7, 2015 Israeli boats opened fire on a Palestinian fishing boat damaging the boat’s engine and killing one member of the crew. The rest of the crew was arrested; their boat confiscated and was not returned upon the release of the remaining crew. Al Mezan contends that the killings, for which the international community stays silent, are violations of the legal obligations under international humanitarian law and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

To learn more about this topic:

The Situation of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in Venezuela | La Situación de los Derechos Económicos, Sociales, y Culturales en Venezuela

Originally Appeared in Human Rights Brief and

State Responds to Petitioners’ concerns at the IACHR (courtesy of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights)]
State Responds to Petitioners’ concerns at the IACHR (courtesy of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights)]

Commissioners: José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, Felipe González, Rosa María Ortiz, Tracy Robinson

Petitioners: Coalición de organizaciones por el derecho a la salud y la vida

/ Amigos Trasplantados de Venezuela / Acción Solidaria en VIH / Asociación Venezolana para la Hemofilia / Funcamama / SenosAyuda / Asociación Venezolana de Amigos con Lin foma / Programa Venezolano de Educación – Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA) / Federación Nacional de Sociedades de Padres y Representantes (FENASOPADRES) / Padres Organizados Venezuela (PADRESORGANIZA2) / Federación Nacional de Estudiantes de Educación Media (FENEEM) / Padres por la Educación / Unión Metropolitana de Estudiantes (UNIMES)

State: Venezuela

In 1999, the people of Venezuela elected Hugo Chavez as president. Chavez campaigned as a socialist and strongly against corruption and poverty. His landslide victory ushered in the so-called “Bolivarian Revolution,” which sought to take Venezuela from a neo-liberal, impoverished, and marginalized nation to one that would be strong, independent, and socialist. Soon after his re-election, Chavez ushered in a series of social programs called “Missions” which set their goals toward curing the country’s worst ills. The Missions focused on poverty reduction, housing, access to healthcare, and education. Since the reduction in global oil prices and the death of Hugo Chavez, the progress these Missions made for Venezuela has been put in serious jeopardy.

In response to growing economic and political crises, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights conducted a hearing March 17, 2015, concerning economic, social, and cultural rights under the American Convention on Human Rights. At the hearing, Petitioners focused on three categories: poverty, health, and education. Regarding poverty, Petitioners admitted that Chavez’s Missions had been successful in reducing overall poverty. Despite this, Petitioners asserted that since Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, was elected, there has been a drop in the overall economic situation of most Venezuelans. Before the Missions, they noted, 46.3% of the Venezuelan population was in poverty. That number dropped to 21.2% in 2012. However, Petitioners noted that figures for 2013 showed that poverty rose to 27.2%. Petitioners alleged that President Maduro has promoted economic measures that have led to a commodity shortage and has removed subsidies and aid to poor communities. This has only added to the problem of poverty. If something is not done, Petitioners warned, poverty could rise back to pre-Missions levels.

Concerning education, Petitioners claimed that the Government is mandating a more communal model of education, a form that was rejected by a referendum a few years ago. This has resulted in restrictions on equal access to education, often based on parents’ political affiliations. In schools under strict government control, Petitioners stated there is a wide variety of politically motivated required readings. Petitioners further alleged that even though laws demand public participation, parents and other education organizations are not being heard by government officials; the Government uses intimidation and even violence to persecute opponents of the educational reforms.

Lastly, the Petitioners turned to the topic of health, remarking that the biggest concern is that the whole population is not getting access to basic care. Several health groups, Petitioners represented, have attested to a pronounced disintegration of health related facilities. Petitioners alleged that this inequality in health access has led to a decrease in the population’s general health. The shortage of medicines, Petitioners reiterated, has made the situation much worse. Petitioners made clear to the Commission that lives are being lost.

The State responded by looking through the UN Millennium Development Goals and judging how well Venezuela had done since the beginning of the Bolivarian Republic in 1999. When the United Nations (U.N.) created the goals, the UN noted that the single worst violation of human rights in the world is poverty. Therefore, Venezuela argued, the first thing to do when tackling human rights is to reduce poverty. The State noted that Venezuela is one of the twenty-eight countries that has addressed this issue. Before Chavez’s Missions, nearly half of Venezuela’s population was in poverty. The State pointed out that there were no inquiries into the human rights abuses of the former regime. The State wondered why that was the case and mused that it is most likely because of Chavez’s politics, rather than his policies.

The State claimed that Venezuela has met or is close to meeting almost every other Millennium Goal. Officials expressed concerns that both the opposition within Venezuela and Petitioners at the hearing have only looked at a small period of time when justifying their concerns. A year-by-year analysis can be used to obtain some information, but it does not provide the whole picture, Officials cautioned. The poverty rate changes and, the State admitted, it has gone up and down, but the policies to combat it are still in place. They accused the Petitioners of taking figures out of context and cherry picking them in order to make their case.

Commissioner González was struck by the volatility of the figures regarding poverty and questioned if looking at how poverty is measured might give some insight. The Commission wondered openly about whether both sides were using the same information and figures. Finally, Commissioners assured the parties that they would investigate the impact of new recent economic crises on health and poverty and any restriction to the access to education with the goal of ensuring the continued commitment to human rights in Venezuela.

La Situación de los Derechos Económicos, Sociales, y Culturales en Venezuela
por Kevin Gustafson
traducido por Nancy Medina Sigampa

State Responds to Petitioners’ concerns at the IACHR (courtesy of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights)]
Foto: cortesía de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos.]

Comisionados: José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, Felipe González, Rosa María Ortiz, Tracy Robinson.

Peticionarios: Coalición de organizaciones por el derecho a la salud y la vida
/ Amigos Trasplantados de Venezuela / Acción Solidaria en VIH / Asociación Venezolana para la Hemofilia / Funcamama / Senos Ayuda / Asociación Venezolana de Amigos con Linfoma / Programa Venezolano de Educación – Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA) / Federación Nacional de Sociedades de Padres y Representantes (FENASOPADRES) / Padres Organizados Venezuela (PADRESORGANIZA2) / Federación Nacional de Estudiantes de Educación Media (FENEEM) / Padres por la Educación / Unión Metropolitana de Estudiantes (UNIMES)

Estado: Venezuela

En el 1999, el pueblo de Venezuela eligió a Hugo Chávez como presidente. Chávez hizo su campaña como socialista y se opuso firmemente a la corrupción y la pobreza. Su aplastante victoria marcó el comienzo de la llamada “Revolución Bolivariana”, que trató de llevar a Venezuela de una nación neoliberal, empobrecida y marginada, a una que sería fuerte, independiente y socialista. Poco después de su reelección, Chávez inició una serie de programas sociales llamados “Misiones”, cuyos objetivos eran resolver los peores males del país. Las Misiones se centraron en la reducción de la pobreza, y el acceso a la vivienda, la salud y la educación. Desde la reducción mundial de los precios del petróleo y la muerte de Hugo Chávez, los progresos que estas Misiones realizaron en Venezuela se han puesto en grave peligro.

En respuesta a la creciente crisis económica y política, la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos realizó una audiencia el 17 de marzo de 2015, respecto a los derechos económicos, sociales y culturales enunciados en la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos. En la audiencia, los Peticionarios se centraron en tres categorías: la pobreza, la salud y la educación. En cuanto a la pobreza, los Peticionarios admitieron que las Misiones de Chávez habían tenido éxito en la reducción de la pobreza en general. A pesar de esto, los Peticionarios afirmaron que desde que el sucesor de Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, fue elegido, se ha producido un descenso en la situación económica general de la mayoría de los venezolanos. Antes de las Misiones, señalaron, que el 46.3% de la población venezolana estaba sumergida en la pobreza. Ese número se redujo a 21.2% en el 2012. Sin embargo, los Peticionarios señalaron que las cifras del 2013 muestran que la pobreza aumentó a un 27.2%. Los Peticionarios alegaron que el presidente Maduro ha promovido medidas económicas que han llevado a una escasez de productos básicos y ha eliminado las subvenciones y ayudas a las comunidades pobres. Esto sólo ha agravado el problema de la pobreza. Si no se hace algo, advirtieron los Peticionarios, la pobreza podría aumentar de nuevo a los niveles que estaban antes de la implementación de las Misiones.

En cuanto a la educación, los Peticionarios afirmaron que el gobierno venezolano estaba obligado a cumplir con un modelo más comunal de educación, una forma que fue rechazada por un referéndum hace unos años. Esto ha dado lugar a restricciones en el acceso igualitario a la educación; a menudo la disparidad en educación proveída a los niños es basada en afiliaciones políticas de los padres. Los Peticionarios afirmaron que en las escuelas bajo estricto control gubernamental hay una amplia variedad de lecturas obligatorias por motivos políticos. Los Peticionarios alegaron además que a pesar de que las leyes exigen la participación del público, los padres y otras organizaciones de educación no están siendo escuchados por los funcionarios del gobierno; el gobierno venezolano está utilizando la intimidación e incluso la violencia para perseguir a los opositores de las reformas educativas.

Por último, los Peticionarios discutieron el tema de la salud, señalando que la mayor preocupación es que toda la población no tiene acceso a una atención médica básica. Varios grupos de salud, representados por los Peticionarios, han atestiguado una desintegración pronunciada de las instalaciones relacionadas con la salud. Los Peticionarios alegaron que esta desigualdad en el acceso a la salud ha llevado a una disminución en la salud general de la población. La escasez de medicamentos, reiteraron los Peticionarios, ha hecho que la situación sea mucho peor. Los Peticionarios claramente le dejaron saber a la Comisión que en Venezuela se están perdiendo vidas por la falta de asistencia médica básica.

El Estado respondió revisando los Objetivos de Desarrollo del Milenio de la ONU, y juzgaron el estatus de Venezuela reiterando que el Estado había hecho un bien trabajo desde el inicio de la República Bolivariana en 1999. Cuando las Naciones Unidas creó las metas, la ONU señaló que la peor violación de los derechos humanos en el mundo es la pobreza. Por lo tanto, argumentó Venezuela, lo primero que se debe hacer al abordar los derechos humanos es reducir la pobreza. El Estado señaló que Venezuela es uno de los veintiocho países que ha abordado este problema. Antes de las misiones de Chávez, casi la mitad de la población de Venezuela estaba en la pobreza. El Estado señaló que no existieron investigaciones sobre los abusos contra los derechos humanos cometidos por el régimen anterior. El Estado se preguntó por qué era ese el caso, y reflexionó que probablemente fuese debido a la política de Chávez.

El Estado afirmó que Venezuela ha cumplido o está cerca de alcanzar casi todos los Objetivos del Milenio. Los funcionarios expresaron su preocupación de que tanto la oposición en Venezuela, como los Peticionarios en la audiencia, sólo hayan tenido en cuenta un pequeño periodo de tiempo a la hora de justificar sus preocupaciones. Los funcionarios advirtieron que un análisis año por año se puede utilizar para obtener alguna información, pero no ofrece la imagen completa. Las tasas de pobreza han ido cambiando, admitió el Estado, han subido y han bajado, pero las políticas para combatirla se mantienen. El Estado acusó a los Peticionarios de tomar cifras fuera de contexto y escogerlas con el fin de presentar su caso.

El Comisionado González se sorprendió por la volatilidad de las cifras relativas a la pobreza y cuestionó que si de acuerdo a cómo es medida la pobreza, las cifras podrían dar una idea del la situación de la pobreza en Venezuela. La Comisión preguntó abiertamente si ambas partes estaban usando la misma información y cifras. Por último, los Comisionados aseguraron a las partes que investigarían el impacto de la nueva y reciente crisis económica en la salud y la pobreza, y cualquier restricción en el acceso a la educación con el objetivo de garantizar el compromiso con los derechos humanos en Venezuela.