Sunday, April 1, 2007

Editor's Introduction - April 2007

“Women Come Last in Afghanistan ” by Ann Jones. February 6, 2007.

An Annotation:

Ann Jones, in this month’s focal article, details the impact of the 2001 U.S.-led NATO intervention, and subsequent adventure in nation-building, on the women of Afghanistan, in light of the fact that the war was sold to the world as a means to alleviate human suffering and install a rights-respecting regime. Beginning with an historical account of women’s rights under the Taliban and then bringing readers up to speed with the current situation on the ground, Jones tells a discouraging tale of sexual violence, human trafficking, suicide, illiteracy, and systemic societal repression.

“Afghan women and girls are, by custom and practice, the property of men.”

When culture and history dictate a group’s status and role in society, how does the modern international human rights community advocate for change? Do we maintain distance and respect the “social harmony” that tribal codes dictate, or do we take steps to empower women, potentially throwing into disarray local social structures? If we decide to intervene, how do we act so as to actually help people and minimize unintended consequences? These are central questions that human rights advocates need to struggle with, especially because our experience with military intervention has been notoriously checkered. The recent interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are evidence that the current model based on physical force is neither the most creative nor effective means to protect human rights.

“[President Hamid Karzai] also advised a British reporter that Westerners shouldn’t even mention women’s rights when more important things are at stake. As if security is not a women’s right.”

As we discussed in last month’s Roundtable, the well-being of vulnerable subgroups (homosexual men in the March installment, women herein) are commonly dismissed outright as a secondary consideration when a state or a clan is confronted with threats to its security. Often it need not be anything as severe as a true existential threat, but rather when there is any excuse whatsoever to continue oppressive policies, the excuse is leveraged to its fullest capacity. The argument usually proceeds as if human rights are luxuries only enjoyed in Eden, instead of recognizing the potential interdependence of the exercise of rights and political stability.

“The war against the Taliban was supposed to have liberated Afghan women, but the reality is that little has changed.”

A confluence of dangerous elements has created the current situation in Afghanistan: a traditionally oppressive cultural sphere; an arrogant superpower responsible for a well-intentioned but poorly executed intervention; a recent history of armed resistance to invasion; and a thriving and hostile Islamist movement. These issues taken together should clearly indicate the necessity to tread lightly before action is taken or judgment passed. The reflections for this month’s Roundtable share an emphasis on complexity and sophistication in elucidating the nuances to be considered before making a decision as difficult as committing personnel to military intervention.


Oppressing Women: Who Benefits and How?

by Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann

“In a society in which women are mere pieces of property, men monopolize education, employment, and the public sphere. Moreover, however inferior some of these men may feel in public, in private they are petty dictators.”

Women are the world’s oldest marketable commodity. “Good” women are marketed by their fathers, or brothers, to other men as wives. “Bad” women are incarcerated, raped, killed, or prostituted. Methods of marketing women range widely in kind: from simple one-on-one bargains, where two men exchange daughters or sisters; to exchange of women for material goods; to use of women to pay debts; to renting out women by the hour or minute to other men for sex.

The standard question in political science is “who benefits?” How do Pashtun men in Afghanistan today benefit from the seclusion of women—particularly in the areas of work and education—and from their persecution if they try to participate in the public sphere? One might simply argue that these men do not benefit; that these practices are so extreme as to simply be a reflection of a pre-Islamic culture, reinforced by cultural rage against both Afghanistan’s various invaders, and the emergence of an urban, modernized society in which women begin to enjoy some human rights.

Certainly, one cannot argue that Pashtun men “benefit,” in a moral or ideological sense, by a rigorous adherence to Islam. Pashtun cultural beliefs about women pervert Islam. Islam permits women to work and own property and it encourages women’s education. Even the most conservative readings of the Qur’an do not permit the violence against women endemic in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan today.

But, perhaps (some) men do benefit from this severe oppression of women. In a society in which women are mere pieces of property, men monopolize education, employment, and the public sphere. Moreover, however inferior some of these men may feel in public, in private they are petty dictators. They enjoy the services of the women in their households. They also enjoy sexual freedom, for enslaved and prostituted women are always available. However, hypocritically, these same men disapprove of prostitution when they are in public or in their house of worship. And some men can enjoy, with impunity, the sadistic/sexual pleasure inherent in being a torturer. Where women have no rights men can be as sadistic as they wish, without censure of any kind. Women, to them, are chattel, to be raped, tortured, or killed at their convenience.

Ann Jones blames George W. Bush for the situation of women in Afghanistan today. I agree that he bears part of the blame, for diverting resources from Afghanistan to Iraq. Prior American administrations also bear part of the blame, for supporting various ethnic armies in their fight against the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The former Soviet Union itself also bears some of the blame. All Afghans are victims of all these international actors.

Another set of actors that perhaps bears some responsibility are those who advocate cultural relativism in human rights. Women are both carriers of and victims of culture. Women are made to stay at home and embody traditional values, even as men migrate, adopt Western clothes and mores, and populate public space. Freedom for Afghan women and female children requires severe cultural change, just as it required severe cultural change in Western and other societies before women and female children began to enjoy their human rights. The culturalist “left,” denying universality of human rights, is a handy Western ally of all who oppress women and female children—and other social groups such as gays and lesbians, or India’s Dalits—in the name of culture.

But those Afghan men who advocate and engage in the oppression of women bear the chief responsibility for denial of women’s rights. They are the ones who enjoy sadistic and sexual pleasure, as well as material benefit, in the control of “their” women. They may believe that they are merely protecting their family “honor” in so doing, but it is incumbent on them to consider the price “their” women pay for such honor. Men elsewhere have learned to function in a world in which individual honor and respect is not based on control of other human beings: Taliban men can learn this too.

If we are to respect the “agency” of the people of the global “South”—a fashionable academic position nowadays—then we must acknowledge everyone’s capacity to do evil as well as good. The members of the Taliban who arrest, torture, rape and murder women can see the suffering they cause. Their actions are no more excusable than the actions of anyone who rapes, tortures, or murders for political reasons. Culturally-entrenched or not, religiously sanctioned or not, violation of women’s rights is inexcusable, wherever it occurs, for whatever reasons, and regardless of the stress the men who maltreat women may be suffering themselves.

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann is Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfrid Laurier University, where she is affiliated with the Global Studies Program and the Department of Political Science, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She has published on human rights in Africa and Canada, on women’s rights and gay and lesbian rights, on economic rights, and on various theoretical and methodological aspects of international human rights. Her current research project is on Reparations for Africa. She has also established a website on political apologies and reparations.


Global Health and Global Hegemony

by Randall Kuhn

“We must reconcile ourselves to the role of American hegemony in perpetuating the very global inequalities that we hope to in some small way redress."

As the new director of a unique graduate program in Global Health Affairs, coming from the world of basic research, I have been faced with the need to reconcile a central paradox of American power and hegemony: I conduct my work as an American citizen and often with U.S. government funding in the hope that it will make a positive or at least neutral impact on my world. Yet my government (not only under the present administration) initiates imperial adventures that cause untold damage to the health, welfare, and survival of individuals throughout the world. Last year the work of Dr. Les Roberts and colleagues offered a startling quantitative accounting of the direct mortality consequences of the war in Iraq. In this month’s HRHW Roundtable selection, “Women Come Last in Afghanistan,” Ann Jones offers a personal account of the more lasting consequences of U.S. intervention for women in Afghanistan. A full account, whether via personal or statistical narrative, of the consequences of U.S. intervention for women’s health, mobility, opportunity, and safety necessitates serious introspection into the relationship between global health and global hegemony.

It is all the more fitting, then, that I read Jones’ piece on a flight home from a workshop on “Global Health Diplomacy” at the University of California at San Diego. As the attendees tried to imagine a meaningful and honest contribution for global health education to diplomacy, I could not help thinking of Herbert Marcuse, who spent his final days in sunny La Jolla railing against the deep psychological and moral toll of the exercise of power, and the Vietnam War in particular, on a society’s mental health:

The consequence is a “psychological habituation of war” which is administered to a people protected from the actuality of war, a people who, by virtue of this habituation, easily familiarizes itself with the “kill rate” as it is already familiar with other “rates” (such as those of business or traffic or unemployment). The people are conditioned to live “with the hazards, the brutalities, and the mounting casualties of the war in Vietnam, just as one learns gradually to live with the everyday hazards and casualties of smoking, of smog, or of traffic.”

The re-branding of “international health” into “global health” reflects a growing sense of shared risk, a sense that the “reservoirs of infection” precipitated by abject living conditions, emerging infectious diseases, and the sort of gross inequities in access to care witnessed on a daily basis in Afghanistan would literally blow back on rich and powerful nations in the form of global pandemics of Avian Influenza, Extensively Drug-resistant Tuberculosis, and the like. Of more immediate concern to Marcuse, however, was the toll these conditions would take on our mental health and our moral imagination. That argument is just as true now as it was when Marcuse reached San Diego in 1965—a potent argument in favor of an honest reckoning of global health and global justice.

America ’s awesome hegemony can numb us to some stark realities. First, American scientists and practitioners abroad are all, in the loosest sense of the word, diplomats representing our nation for better or for worse. Second, calling our own work “apolitical” is a highly political statement, not to mention an overt act of delusion. We must reconcile ourselves to the role of American hegemony in perpetuating the very global inequalities that we hope to in some small way redress. Finally, we must humbly recognize that some global health crises are so unspeakably awful, unforgivable, and seemingly irreparable that it is painful even to view them as part of the same package of basic research, intervention, policy, and evaluation that are the mainstays of the fields of international health and global health.

This is where I hope that programs in Global Health Affairs, in general, can make their mark. Not just by promoting better global health and encouraging “global health diplomacy,” whatever that may entail, through better policy. And not just by making difficult observations about the parlous state of global health politics and the key role of U.S. hegemony in creating these conditions. But by doing both at the same time, so that we may convince our citizens and our leaders that even the most effective policy and programs cannot undo the harm wrought by power wielded without thought or accountability.

Only through a coordinated and intensive combination of programming and political action is it possible to begin to address both the mundane and abject forms of discrimination that pervade our world. Otherwise, the NATO commander’s prognosis for the Afghan campaign will be equally relevant to global health and to the mental health of the American people: “We could actually fail here.”

Randall Kuhn is Assistant Professor and Director of the Global Health Affairs Certificate Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. A demographer and sociologist by training, Randall's research focuses on the impact of kinship, socio-demographic change, migration, and community on health and well-being in disadvantaged communities throughout the world. His key projects presently focus on the impact of migration on health in migrant-sending communities in Bangladesh and Indonesia, and on the impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami on community health and well-being in Sri Lanka.


The Limits of “No-Limit”

by J. Peter Pham

“...the reality which must be recognized is that progress in human rights will be made not so much because outsiders, whether governmental or civil society actors, push it, but because individuals, cultures, and nations appropriate it....”
One must acknowledge and even admire the passion that writer and photographer Ann Jones brings to the different causes she embraces as she meanders along the paths of her rather eclectic career, now spanning over three decades. Her first book, Uncle Tom’s Campus (1973), examines how her students, in a predominantly African-American college, were being shortchanged by the system. In the late 1990s, she took off across Africa in search of a legendary tribe ruled by women and supposedly noted for its embrace of “feminine” principles of tolerance, diplomacy, and compromise, and returned to publish a travelogue-cum-utopian Weltanschauung set in an African Eden, Looking for Lovedu: A Woman’s Journey through Africa (2001).

Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan by American-led coalition forces, Jones set off for Kabul. As she explained in her subsequent book Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (2006):

I’d seen George W. Bush come to town to strut and bluster over among the ruins, and as I watched him lugged the stunned country to violence, my sorrow turned to anger and a bone-deep disappointment that hasn’t left me yet. Surely America was capable of something more creative than bombing a small, defenseless, pre-destroyed country on the other side of the world, or so I believed. Four thousand collateral civilian deaths in Kabul brought no consolation for the deaths of thousands, from around the world, in the fallen towers of the city that had for so long been my home. I thought America had lost its bearing too. So I left (Jones 2006: 3).

Returning to America after the Afghan situation also failed to live up to her ideal, Jones penned a number of pieces, in addition to the book, in which she gives expression to her frustration, including the op-ed from (which was an adaptation of a longer piece published in the February Marie Claire Brazil). In particular, she worries—with cause—about the future of the gains made by women in Afghan society as the expected spring offensive by the apparently resurgent Taliban looms on the horizon. And she is unambiguous about who bears responsibility for this regression:

I blame George W. Bush, the “liberator” who looked the other way. In 2001, the United States military claimed responsibility for these provinces, the heart of Taliban country; but diverted to the adventures in the oilfields of Iraq, it failed for five years to provide the security international humanitarians needed to do the promised work of reconstruction (§16).

I agree with Jones insofar as I have argued elsewhere that the decision to go into Iraq in 2003 may indeed go down in history as a “dangerous distraction”—to borrow the terminology from Charles Peña’s Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism(2006)—in America’s post-9/11 military campaign against the perpetrators of the attack on the U.S. homeland. Like her and others concerned about human rights, I also worry about the fate of women—and also Christian, Hindu, and other non-Muslim males—in the increasingly Islamist Afghan state. However, I diverge from both Jones’s search for the ideal “other” abroad and her faith that somehow she or other “international humanitarians” can bring about radical transformation that is both legitimate and self-sustaining.

Their project, however well-intentioned, is based on three questionable presuppositions. First, they presume there are no limits to our understanding of other peoples, cultures, and polities: we comprehend the obstacles and injustices which need to be removed, and the remedies which need to be prescribed. If successive U.S. administrations have suffered from “failure of intelligence,” here their critics suffer from “failure of intelligentsia.” David Kennedy has wisely observed in The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism (2004): “Policymakers can also overlook the dark sides of their work and treat initiatives which take a familiar humanitarian form as likely to have a humanitarian effect. It is always tempting to think some global humanitarian effort has got to better than none” (Kennedy 2004: 112; also see my review essay of Kennedy’s book in Human Rights & Human Welfare, 2006).

Second, they presume there are no limits to our discourse. I argued in a Human Right & Human Welfare review essay on Antony Anghie’s Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (2005), that whether it is in a revealed religion, the mission civilisatrice, law, human rights, or some other ordering principle of international society, the essential structure of discourse about the “other” is far from being as universal. Rather, it is historically-grounded and frequently politically expedient in its judgments.

Third, they presume there are no limits to our capabilities to affect transformation through interventions, military or otherwise, or the willingness of the objects of concern to absorb the changes brought to them. Thus the case made by Jones: if the Bush administration had dedicated sufficient forces to Afghanistan, and the NATO contingents in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had more effectively executed their mission, then expatriate do-gooders like herself could deliver the “promised work” of erecting their utopia amid the valleys of the Pamir and Hindu Kush mountains—and ensure that such structures would become legitimate.

In short, Jones and other have opted for a version of “no-limit Texas hold’em.” In the card game, players may bet or raise any amount over the minimum raise, usually employing a strategy of “tight-aggression” (playing few hands, but betting and raising often with those that one does play). Likewise, while there is widespread consensus that certain minimum standards for international behavior exist, it is quite a leap from that starting point to an ambitious agenda for global transformation which predilection, ironically, Jones shares with the administration she criticizes rather extravagantly in her writings.

The United States and other countries with a liberal democratic tradition can and should support the efforts of men and women everywhere to secure for themselves the rights and freedoms we often take for granted. But we should also not be surprised that some societies will push back, sometimes even aggressively. Further, outside advocacy—to say nothing of external intervention—may lead to worsening conditions for those on whose behalf action was undertaken. In the end, the reality which must be recognized is that progress in human rights will be made not so much because outsiders, whether governmental or civil society actors, push it, but because individuals, cultures, and nations appropriate it for themselves.

I am concerned about the future of Afghanistan, especially the prospects for the most vulnerable members of Afghan society. Yet, I truly fear that both sides of our Western political spectrum have yet to learn to temper their idealism with a proper realist regard for the lessons of history and culture, the verities of politics and logistics, and the limits of human nature. To that end, poker champion David Sklansky’s “fundamental theorem,” elaborated in The Theory of Poker, represents good counsel on both the world stage and the card table: “ Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose.”

J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, served as an international diplomat in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, from 2001 through 2002. His research interest is the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as for religion and global politics. Among other works, Dr. Pham is the author of two recent books on African politics, Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004) and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005), as well as a chapter on “African Constitutionalism: Forging New Models for Multi-ethnic Governance and Self-Determination” in Africa: Mapping New Boundaries in International Law, edited by Jeremy I. Levitt (Hart Publishing, forthcoming 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of Human Rights & Human Welfare.


The Trouble with Rights

by David L. G. Rice

“When weapons-based endeavors are undertaken in the name of human rights, and instead result in violations of those rights, human rights advocates need to be especially careful to keep other modes of action both visible and viable.”

Do human rights imply enforcement powers? Do they require police or armies? How many soldiers would it take to secure universal human rights? What sort of weaponry would suffice?

I offer these questions in response to some troubling implications of Ann Jones’ implied theory of rights. Jones has spent years on the ground working for women’s rights in Afghanistan, and in the longer version of her article she provides compelling accounts of the trials Afghan women face. I do not want to challenge her sense of urgency or her assessment of the stakes for women in Afghanistan. However, her argument adopts a state-centric point of view that, perhaps in spite of her intentions, lends legitimacy to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, as well as to some of the authoritarian regimes that preceded it.

Within Afghan culture, Jones identifies an intractable strain of “customary codes and traditional practices” (§10) that obstructed the best efforts of “Afghan rulers—from kings to communists—” (§14) to liberate women. She portrays these traditions, such as the “tribal code of the Pashtuns” (§2), as primordially and essentially violent toward women. As evidence, Jones supplies a litany of horrific practices with long histories.

A couple of possible responses seem obvious. If the traditions themselves are the problem, the solution might be cultural transformation, a decades or centuries-long project of agitation, education, and, in all likelihood, hard sacrifices. On the other hand, by referring with apparent approval to the efforts of Afghan rulers to liberate women, Jones suggests that top-down legislative fiat may be the solution.

But, toward the end of the piece Jones declares, “I blame George W. Bush” for the current violence (§16). The communists and kings tried but were defeated by circumstances. Afghan ultraconservatives escape effective blame because Jones takes their behavior as given, and she does not find the answer in any hard-won change in cultural attitudes. According to Jones, Bush is culpable because he bungled an opportunity to impose women’s rights through superior firepower. Where kings and communists lacked sufficient power to resist conservative rebellion, Bush had both the power and the opportunity to secure women’s rights at last. But because he “looked the other way” (§16) and spent those resources elsewhere, the fate of Afghan women is now tied to that of NATO’s beleaguered troops. While the British NATO commander worries that a new spring Taliban offensive could represent defeat for his forces, Jones echoes that worry for women’s rights. They were not secured through force of arms when the opportunity presented itself, and now all hope may be lost by insufficiency of arms.

This is an ungenerous, but not unfair, reading. I suspect that Jones, who links from her homepage to several websites that criticize American adventuring in the Middle East, would not have called for a war of women’s liberation in Afghanistan. And yet, I worry that Jones succumbs to the temptation to look first to coercive force for the securing of human rights, and that she thereby contributes to the legitimation of the socially organized mechanisms of violence we call “the state,” “law,” and “war.” I am fully prepared to believe that Afghan women fared better under Soviet rule. But if, as Jones says, rights depend upon “peace” and “security” as achieved through coercive imposition, and neither kings nor communists were powerful enough to obtain those goals, could Bush’s army conceivably do any better? Is winning respect for human rights just a matter of finding a sufficiently powerful army and then asking it to do the right thing?

I maintain that using the language of rights does not necessarily condemn us to state-centric (and thereby to gun-centric and bomb-centric) thinking. Rights are a powerful rhetorical device that gives activists and dissidents critical purchase against the very same mechanisms of violence to which Jones turns for the securing of women’s rights. They provide a conceptual framework for criticism of the status quo regardless of their realization or enforcement. Even ruling out the option of armed enforcement, rights have value.

For residents of the U.S., the image of national guardsmen escorting a young girl to school powerfully illustrates a possible association between rights and arms. But such images can overpower the recollection of other moments of non-violent struggle that enabled the moment in which rights were accompanied by guns—that is, by social mechanisms of violence that had to be made to act against their inclinations and, I would argue, against their very nature. When weapons-based endeavors are undertaken in the name of human rights, and instead result in violations of those rights, human rights advocates need to be especially careful to keep other modes of action both visible and viable.

David L. G. Rice is a graduate student in political theory at Duke University, where he has worked on campus labor issues with the community organizations Duke Organizing and Durham CAN. He was a volunteer human rights monitor for the Guatemala Accompaniment Project from ’03 -’04, and returned to accompany genocide witnesses and case lawyers in the summer of ’06. His dissertation is on nonviolent and peacemaking practices.