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How Not to Build a Culture of Human Rights

This a cross-post from Meredith Tax

Back in August, when I first heard that the Committee for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU were bringing suit against the US government’s targeted assassination policy on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, I wrote Vince Warren, the director of the CCR, raising some questions. I hate the idea of drone strikes—against anyone, not just US citizens. But I was very uncomfortable about the idea of defending al-Awlaki at the same time that he was publicly calling for the murder of a woman cartoonist in Oregon, among others. I felt that further debate was needed, and asked,

Is there some reason not to pursue a legal or political strategy explicitly calling for him to be captured and brought to the US to stand trial, a la Eichmann, rather than just not killed?… By what means will the CCR distance itself from al-Awlaki’s opinions while defending his right not to be assassinated?… Most importantly, if the CCR becomes identified as defenders of al-Awlaki, will women who are victims of salafi-jihadists feel they can trust you with their own cases?”

The CCR never responded to my letter and the case went forward; it is now in the US District Court in Washington.  But the questions that rise from the case were too serious to go away, and are dividing the human rights movement. This is clear from an article in today’s Guardian:

…a CCR board member has distanced herself from the group’s decision to represent Awlaki’s interests. Karima Bennoune, a law professor at Rutgers school of law, Newark, New Jersey, has gone public with her misgivings at the CCR’s decision, reflecting a debate within human rights groups on how to deal with Islamist fundamentalists.

“Since the inception of the case,” she said, “there has been increased mystification of who Anwar al-Awlaki is in liberal and human rights circles in the United States. This may in part have resulted from the fact that a highly reputable organisation like CCR was willing to represent his interests, and described him only as ‘a Muslim cleric’ or ‘an American citizen’, and repeatedly suggested that the government did not possess evidence against Awlaki.”

The CCR has come under fire in the UK, too. Chetan Bhatt, director of the centre for the study of human rights at the LSE, who was approached by the CCR for advice on Awlaki, said: “I have considerable respect for CCR. But in this case they have made a serious error of ethical judgment. Does a highly respected organisation, founded in the midst of historic struggles for civil rights and racial justice, now wish to be perceived by some as al-Qaida’s legal team? Can you fight extra-judicial assassinations by standing alongside someone who advocates extra-judicial assassinations?”

Five prominent Algerian non-governmental organisations, including associations of victims of terrorism and women’s groups, have also sent a strongly worded letter to the CCR expressing their dismay that the group has decided to represent Awlaki’s interests

The tone of the Algerian letter is extremely sharp:

At no time did the CCR, in its unconditional defense of Anwar al-Awlaki, publicly call for and emphasize that while no one should be assassinated, it remains imperative that criminals of his like be brought to justice. At no time, did CCR indicate its intention to support the innumerable victims of al-Awlaki, with at least as many resources and as much publicity as the Center now gives to his case.  The double standards you employ in these circumstances are unacceptable to us.

While there may be a CIA threat against al-Awlaki, what are you doing about the threats Awlaki makes himself and that his movement in fact executes against people like us?  He is still alive while many of our friends and family members are dead, thanks to him and people like him, to his incitement and to the forces that he helps to organize.  Are we less threatened or less important in your eyes?

I got my political education during the Vietnam war, as did many in the CCR. Unlike our liberal allies at the time, who also opposed the war, people on the left felt that the war was not just a mistake, but a symptom of an imperialist system; this meant we had to oppose American imperialism as well as call for peace. It is as crucial to do this now as ever. The CCR is one of the few law organizations that are reliably and consistently anti-imperialist. It has a long and distinguished history of defending dissidents and political prisoners, fighting for civil rights, and developing legal strategies to help women. For these reasons I have always supported the CCR and still do.

But today’s political landscape is very different from that of 1968. In the intervening years, some of us have learned that opposition to US imperialism is a necessary but not sufficient basis for leftwing political strategy, and that progressives who do not couple their opposition to imperialism with a serious universalist commitment to human rights—a commitment of the kind called for by the Algerian letter—risk losing their moral and political bearings.

Anyone who doubts this danger need only look at Ramsey Clarke, who, along with some other US leftists, had dinner recently with Ahmadinejad, president of Iran. Like Ramsey Clarke, I know that war with Iran would be a disaster for all concerned, and I completely oppose the war-talk of the right. At the same time, I know that Ahmadinejad is the leader of a theocratic dictatorship, horribly repressive to women, secularists, and moderates, chosen in an election as compromised as the ones in Burma and Afghanistan. Since his election, he has spent his time reinforcing the power of the militia, crushing the Iranian labor movement, and killing, jailing, and torturing his critics. Did Ramsey Clarke or his colleagues mention any of this during their dinner? Of course not. They were too busy discussing their common opposition to US imperialism.

The CCR is hardly Ramsey Clarke, and, as an organization of human rights lawyers who can only proceed by doing case law, it cannot make up for the deficiencies of the left as a whole. We need to build a culture of human rights throughout the progressive movement. But at a time when much of the left is ideologically at sea, lawyers who see this need have an obligation to make sure that the human rights benefits of every case they take on outweigh the detriments, rather than to jump at any case that allows them to expose or frustrate the imperialist state. The “war against terror” will present many opportunities to defend the Constitution. It would be wise to concentrate on cases that can unite all of us around clear principles, rather than cases that involve trading one group’s human rights for another’s, which run the risk of splitting whatever movement we have.

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