Sunday, November 18, 2012

The UN and Human Rights: Who Guards the Guardians?

This review was first published in Irish Left Review here.

Book Review: The UN and Human Rights: Who Guards the Guardians? Gulglielmo Verdirame, Cambridge University Press, 2011
“One should always be aware of the risk that the distance between ‘might on the side of human rights’ and ‘human rights on the side of might may be a short one.’
The UN and Human Rights: Who Guards the Guardians? is based on the premise that UN operations around the world involving humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and implementations of sanctions have resulted in extensive human rights violations. Yet the UN continues to cite democracy to defend its legitimacy. The book’s author Guglielmo Verdirame quotes David Chandler; professor of International Relations at the University of Westminster and author of Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton, to assert the UN’s defence of illegitimacy.
“… democracy can be taught or imposed by international bodies on the basis that some ‘cultures’ are not ‘rational’ or ‘civil’ enough to govern themselves … a transitional lack of sovereignty and the denial of self-government is necessary in certain situations.”
According to Verdirame, though the UN is bound by international human rights law and international humanitarian law, institutional concerns for liberty and accountability have faltered in certain cases due to the UN’s legal incompetence, impunity and lack of adherence to human rights standards.
The overstepping of mandates by international organizations bound to the UN has often been shielded by immunity, resulting in conquests of power granted by influential UN member states. As article 105: 1 of the UN charter states, “The Organization shall enjoy in the territory of each of its Members such privileges and immunities as are necessary for the fulfillment of its purposes.” Therefore, human rights violations have been committed by international organizations affiliated to the UN with impunity, impunity which undermines the UN’s accountability.

A historical overview of the UN shows that legislation was always influenced by social, political and economic interests, leading to international human rights discourse which lacked “moral concern” and relied heavily on international relations. Humanitarian discourse plays upon conscience in society, usually bringing about a form of political hegemony which derives its strength from exploiting divisions within a state. The hegemony within human rights discourse has impacted both theory and humanitarian practice, influencing the humanitarian agenda without emphasizing the necessity to maintain human rights.

The lack of clear legislation on human rights in UN member states makes accountability a distant phenomenon. This is combined with the fact that most UN operations are carried out in fragile states or areas where tribalism and civil war have created unsustainable situations. After NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo, Secretary General Kofi Annan declared the Responsibility to Protect as a measure which calls for international responsibility of protecting civilians when the state in which violations are occurring is either unable or unwilling to address the problem. Adopted in 2005, the Responsibility to Protect implementation was decreed to cover genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. However, Verdirame argues that this doctrine has not changed the law on humanitarian intervention; it simply reinforces already established principles that necessitate foreign intervention.

Peacekeeping missions have been replete with human rights violations. In Mozambique, UN troops driving UN vehicles picked children off the streets, creating a ring of child prostitution. The incidence of prostitution in fragile states is higher where UN troops are stationed. The absence of a clear legal framework which would allow criminal proceedings against a perpetrator exacerbates the level of impunity. Also, while the International Criminal Court can start criminal proceedings against a perpetrator, agreements exist in which prosecution is not carried out without state consent.

The UN also creates victims through illegality. Taking the example of refugee camps, Verdirame argues that the UN is sustaining and aiding illegality by the existence of camps, which violate basic human rights such as freedom of movement and the right to work. Other punitive measures applied by agencies include food suspension and forced relocation to other camps. An Ethiopian refugee was forcibly relocated to another camp in Kenya after raising human rights awareness with other refugees. UNHCR justified this decision by stating “It is the view of the UNHCR that the series of human rights lectures was a direct cause for the wave of tension and disruption of public order in the camp.” The administration of the camps usually reflects power relations between humanitarian agencies and host countries.

UNHCR exacerbates the powerlessness of refugees by misrepresentation. By using statistics, camp administrators shift attention from the reality of camp imprisonment, focusing instead on the attainment of minimum standards which fail to address the fact that refugees’ incarceration is illegal. On the other hand, in order to promote an ideal picture of camps, visits by high commissioners to the area are greeted by scenes of false utopia. Verdirame quotes an excerpt of a short story written by James Appe.
“… a show is organized with refugee dances and music, and the Commissioner receives little presents from refugees.”
Verdirame states that since UN operations such as peace keeping, international administration, refugee camps management and relief operations are carried out by the UN through other entities, any human rights violation is attributed to the UN, and therefore the UN should be held accountable. “Liberty and human rights do not exist in a political vacuum; the state provides a political space which no international organization has been able to match.” Without UN accountability for atrocities, the state may be destined to succumb to a higher power which wields immunity at will.

Verdirame suggests that a process through which international organizations are held accountable for human rights violations would enhance UN responsibility for atrocities committed by its troops, instead of allowing the matter to be judged solely in national courts. Semi judicial administrative processes, such as ombudsmen roles in violation investigations, member state control over violations and strengthening the international judicial process to assert UN compliance with international law would also serve to weaken the organization’s immunity which also extends to ‘representatives of member states, officials of the UN and experts on missions.’ While immunity does not free the organization from any obligation, it may frustrate the enforcement of law, as stated by Schermers and Blokker, authors of International Institutional Law (2005)

In The UN and Human Rights: Who Guards the Guardians? Verdirame’s analysis of UN operations dispels the myth that international organizations always provide an effective solution to the consequences of war, displacement and poverty. By shifting discourse to the fundamental principles of human rights and moving beyond the established charters, Verdirame places the UN in a position of profound scrutiny. He reverses the prominent human rights propaganda, shedding light on the intricate web of violations to expose a thriving illegal and inhumane administration supported by the rhetoric of peace and democracy.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

His Hands were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Victor Jara

This review was first published in Irish Left Review here.

His Hands Were Gentle: Selected Lyrics of Victor Jara (2012) captures a spectrum of lyrics which explicitly portrays social upheaval and the struggle against injustices. Victor Jara’s poetry resonates with memory and history woven into relics of resistance and triumph, culminating into an unfinished poem narrating the decadence of the dictatorship and initiated annihilation of socialism.

Thirty nine years after his death, Victor Jara remains a symbol for the Chilean left. Joan Jara’s foreword to the book shifts between memory and exile, explaining the commitment towards imparting Victor’s legacy in the aftermath of his murder. Living a constant battle against the right wing’s coveted practice of oblivion when confronted with dictatorship atrocities, Joan reiterates that Chilean justice is hampered by secrecy and impunity.

A founding member of the nueva canción movement together with Isabel Parra, Angel Parra, Rolando Alarcon and Patricio Manns, Victor gave constant support for Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular political campaign. Epitomised by songs such as El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido and the ubiquitous hymn of Venceremos, Allende’s campaign amalgamated social struggle and culture into a popular movement. Nueva canción served as a medium of expression for the left wing and, following Allende’s electoral triumph, many musicians travelled abroad as ambassadors for Unidad Popular.

This collection portrays Victor’s tenacity to challenge inequalities which, at times, manifested themselves into atrocities. Born in Lonquen, Victor witnessed and experienced the ramifications of poverty, finding solace in music and later conducting extensive research in folk music. Songs such as Canción del minero (Miner’s Song) and Plegaría a un labrador (Prayer to a Labourer) assert the indignity of exploitation with regard to human labour and natural resources. The helplessness exhibited in Cancion del Minero is transformed into a yearning to defeat the oppressor in Plegaría a un Labrador – unity embracing revolution and hope. Acknowledging armed struggle as a possible means to achieve dignity is implied in the last verse – evolving from solitary lament into social consciousness.

Victor pays homage to Miguel Angel Aguilera in El alma llena de banderas (Our Hearts are Full of Banners). A communist and member of Brigada Ramona Parra, Aguilera was killed during a street demonstration in Santiago in 1970. Victor contrasts the inspiration of Aguilera with the traitorous attitude of his murderers, stating “In the hiding place of rich murderers/ your name will stand for many names/ The one who burnt your wings as you flew/ cannot put out the fire of the poor.”
Preguntas por Puerto Montt (Questions about the massacre of Puerto Montt) earned Victor the rancour of right wing sentiment after singing the song at a boys’ secondary school in 1969. The song is addressed to Mr Perez Zujovic, the Minister of Interior who ordered a massacre upon a peasant community occupying a stretch of wasteland in Puerto Montt. Ninety one peasant families were attacked by 250 armed police, leaving 11 dead and many injured. The youngest victim was a nine month old child.

A particularly poignant song, Manifiesto (Manifesto) articulates Victor’s testimony as a singer, reaffirming his dedication to alleviate and revolt against violations. “My guitar is not for killers/ greedy for money and power,/ but for the people who labour/ so that the future may flower.” Victor’s declaration of “… a man who will die singing/ truthfully singing his song” was no vague metaphor but an assertion of his loyalty towards the people and a premonition of his own fate. The song is reminiscent of El Aparecido (The Apparition), dedicated to Che Guevara a short while before he was ambushed and murdered by CIA trained troops in Bolivia.

On the day of the military coup, Victor Jara was taken prisoner along with other workers and students barricaded inside the Technical University. Estadio Chile, Victor’s last poem, was written during his brief imprisonment at the stadium, which was transformed into the first detention and torture centre during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Written on scraps of paper and smuggled out of the stadium by a detainee who was later released, Victor inscribed what would be one of the initial endeavours in memory narrative, describing the brutality of the dictatorship. The incomplete poem describes the terror inflicted upon the 5,000 detainees in the stadium, documenting the soldiers’ beatings and psychological torture inflicted upon the prisoners. “One dead, another beaten as I could have never believed/a human being could be beaten/ … one jumping into nothingness,/ another beating his head against a wall,/ but all with the fixed look of death.”

Despite efforts to reveal the identities of officers responsible for Victor’s murder, most details are shrouded in secrecy and strengthened by oblivion and impunity. The Armed Forces of Chile refuse to reveal information which would further investigations into Victor Jara’s murder. In May, a documentary entitled Quien Mato a Victor Jara? (Who Killed Victor Jara?) revealed the name of Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nuñez as the lieutenant who allegedly pulled the trigger on Victor. Barrientos has been living in Florida since Jose Paredes, an ex-conscript, was indicted for his role in Victor’s murder and refuses to return to Chile. Other officers refuse to collaborate, since the impunity laws of the dictatorship still govern Chilean society.

This poetry collection furthers Victor’s testimony of political turmoil in Chile, the years of Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular when metaphors transcended the realm of illusion, and the initiation of the subsequent US aided military coup. The figure of Victor Jara has, throughout the years, become synonymous with the fight for justice despite the repression of dictatorship relics still governing Chilean society. An endeavour which strikes against impunity and oblivion, His Hands Were Gentle imparts a revolutionary consciousness, ensuring that the cry of “ni perdon, ni olvido” (neither forgiveness, nor oblivion) enters the realm of internationalism.