What Are Human Rights?

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Some might say there is no such thing as ‘human rights’ and the concept itself is merely a made-up human construct. After all, humans, like any other animal on the planet evolved with the law of the jungle, a view most commonly cited by atheists. Most people now believe there are certain human rights, although what is considered and not considered a human right varies widely. 

Here in the U.S., our very wise founding fathers came up with the concept of ‘inalienable rights’ and reasoned these rights were granted not by government, but by the creator and a birthright to all. At the time this was considered a brilliant innovation for the cornerstone of our government, a guiding light for us to aspire. Today, we have grown accustomed to freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In fact, we expect and demand it.

Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy

When it comes to human rights and U.S. foreign policy pragmatism is more commonly practiced rather than sticking to any sort of straight definition. This was recently noted in a well-penned Op-Ed on ‘where human rights come from’ in the Wall Street Journal. Although we often perceive that the countries we trade with or align with have common values when it comes to human rights, all too often we allow exceptions when it is politically expedient in achieving a different goal such as winning a war, preserving peace, improving economics, acquiring resources, or involving issues of national security.

There are endless examples of the United States letting human rights violations slide in order to negotiate a peace accord, secure oil, or bring a somewhat rogue nation back into the fold of the international community. Still, our record on human rights has been pretty strong overall, comparatively speaking.

What Are Human Rights, Who Decides and Why Does It Matter

Recently, Secretary of State Pompeo asked about Human Rights. He put forth a number of questions. He explained the problem in making policy without any clear definitions, explaining that it gets complicated when there is such a diverse view of just what ‘human rights’ is actually supposed to mean. The definition varies greatly between nations and amongst human rights’ organizations, or organizations parading around as human rights groups.

What is included and not included in these definitions are also often contradictory and puzzling. Even more problematic is the ever-changing nature of what human rights encompass, and how fervently politics come into play when the topic comes up.

Should the United States take a leadership role in fostering a set of standards for human rights around the world? Should the U.S. focus on this now? If not the U.S. then whom, if not now, then when? One of the biggest challenges in international diplomacy is that when the United States makes a stand against human rights violations, we often test the strength of our alliances. All too often we end up making an enemy, and other nations who could care less about human rights go out and make a new friend of that nation or nation’s leader which we’ve inadvertently alienated.

Walking the Talk

 Standing on the moral high-ground can serve our nation well and do a great service to all of humanity. Are we up for the challenge or will this latest push for human rights come across as a threat to the leaders and cultures of other nations far and wide? Is it possible to get everyone on the same page? Is it a fool’s errand to try? Clifford May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies analyzes human rights and breaks down the politics, conflicts, and reasoning behind how we got here and how we must proceed.  

The leading researchers on human rights aren’t just looking towards the past for answers to humanity’s future. Now they are also focusing on better-defined definitions void of political agenda and based on discussions from human rights experts.  There appears to be a good opportunity here. That is ‘if’ we can get everyone on the same page and ditch some of the dark political agendas behind the scenes.

According to the latest news on foreign policy and human rights, the Trump Administration’s Mike Pompeo is serious about taking this dialogue to a higher level. Considering the past failures on human rights issues at the United Nations, it is about time the pendulum swung back in favor of humanity. All too often the biggest abusers of human rights violations were enabled by the very groups claiming to uphold those values. Maybe it is once again time to start calling out these abuses when and where they occur.

Hungary is Being Strong-Armed by the European Union

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If proof was needed that oppression and invasion can occur without arms being raised, then look no further than Hungary, according to Mark Dubowitz of the FDD, expert on foreign policy. A country which is no stranger to armed assaults on its culture and independence, from the Mongols to the Nazis, is once again being subjected to the assertive influence of a powerful outside force. The only difference is the new opponent to Hungary’s sovereign status is the EU, and especially German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

 

In the past decade, civil unrest and economic collapse spurred by a growing armed conflict in the Middle East has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II. Millions of Syrians have been displaced, with hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the crossfire. The resulting refugee population has fled the warzone by any means necessary to try to stay alive – and now the resulting mass migration is a source of conflict between the European Union and the Hungarian people. 

 

While Germany, France, and other countries of the EU have made a firm commitment to allow the mass immigration of people into their borders, not all member countries have appreciated the decision to provide this form of relief from the conflict. The Washington Times reports that the process of relocating the countless families displaced by the conflict has created a great deal of strife between countries willing to help and those determined to keep control of their own borders- instead of allowing the EU to dictate who  constitutes their own country’s populations.

 

According to Fox News, Hungary has persisted and even strengthened its efforts to resist the mass immigration plan set in place by the EU. Critics of Hungary’s resistance have called the demonstrated nationalism a form of xenophobia. 

 

But expert analysts at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies explained that while nationalism can lead to hyper-nationalism, chauvinism, and classism – that the extremities of Word War II’s Nazism and Faciscm were manifested by imperialist states who based their ideologies on the creation of empires. They were not nationalist states.  Nationalism is the belief in self-governance and self-determination of a people. In the context of the Syrian immigration crisis and the EU and Hungary, there is only one party attempting to assert itself over other nations.
According to sources in Hungary, the government doesn’t want to stop all migration efforts, it merely wants to control it and mitigate potential security risks. To that end, Hungary deems it inappropriate for the U.N. to demand Hungary house it’s “fair share” of refugees. According to FDD, analysts on foreign policy, Hungarians don’t want to change who they are or give up more control of their country the EU.  They believe it’s their right to challenge Chancellor Merkel and other EU leaders for attempting to coerce them to go against their wishes. See more videos from The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

A Deal with Iran Needs to Stop More Than Nuclear Weapons

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In July 2015, the five permanent members of the UN security council, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States reached an agreement with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Germany and the European Union also signed off on the deal as part of a multi-national effort to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons development and bring peace to a region long-fraught with political instability.

In exchange for taking steps to end their nuclear weapons development, the co-signers of the JCPOA agreed to lift economic sanctions that had been crippling the government and caused a great deal of civil unrest within the divided nation. Then President Obama, as well as his European counterparts touted the agreement as a significant step towards mitigating the risk of Middle-East instability turning into an outright nuclear war.

According to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, authorities on Iran deal, under the Trump administration, the U.S. pulled out of the JCPOA deal as abundant evidence showed the agreement failed to reduce Iran’s ability to covertly produce nuclear weapons, while economically enabling the corrupt government to keep a stranglehold on their oppressed people. FDD.org is also known as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

While much could and has been said about the flaws with the JCPOA’s ability to meet its stated objectives there’s a greater issue at play with the way world-powers have dealt with Tehran so far. Experts say virtually nothing has been done to end the serious human-rights violations within the country’s borders and negotiators have acted as if achieving a nuclear-free Iran is worth it at any cost. Learn more about the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Linkedin.

This past January, the world saw once again what that cost is as the Islamic Republic of Iran executed a man in violation of the country’s anti-gay laws. This disgraceful humanitarian violation was done publicly while European leaders sought ways to usurp U.S. sanctions. A sign of the lengths some powers will go to have any deal with Iran.

Fox News Reports that Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany stated recently Iran’s actions “should be a wake-up call for anyone who supports basic human rights. Politicians, the U.N., democratic governments, diplomats, and good people everywhere should speak up – and loudly.”

This is not the first time the Iranian regime has put a gay man to death with the usual outrageous claims of prostitution, kidnapping, or even pedophilia. And it won’t be the last time they do it either. Read more about Iran’s history on persecution according to The Guardian.

Public executions are all too common and consensual homosexual relationships are punishable by death under the law. Children as young as nine have been sentenced to death under these laws and it’s unconscionable for any world leaders to consider a deal to lift sanctions that doesn’t put an end to these atrocities, and many prominent U.S. officials agree, The JPost writes.

While the controversy surrounding the U.S.’ withdrawal from the JCPOA was focussed on the agreement’s ability to enforce nuclear non-proliferation, many experts believe that any future deal will have to make a serious effort to put a stop to Iran’s civil rights abuses. See the latest videos on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies here.

Alliances in the Middle East- Iran and Syria

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In recent years tension in the Middle East has led to more and more division among the countries in the region. Local powerhouses Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran have strengthened relationships among their global backers like the US, EU, and Russia for protection and influence on the world stage. As a result, smaller nations have become splintered over their own alliances and forced to choose sides.

The country of Syria has experienced a great deal of conflict within its own borders due to the Syrian civil war which was started in 2011. The Bashar al-Assad regime has committed mass atrocities against its own people and fights for control of land dominated by ISIS. During this time, Syria’s already strong relationship with Iran has strengthened. As a result of these ties, Iran has provided the Syrian government with support in the form of technical, financial and combat training. They have even gone so far as to supply the Syrian government with ground troops.

Photographic evidence was captured by Israeli intelligence, proving that Iranian military forces have established a training facility outside Damascus. Some estimates put the total number of Iranian trained and financed extremist fighters at 80,000.

Syria’s relationship with Iran goes back to the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi due to his ties with the United States. Iran relies on Syria as a vital ally in the region. The philosophical similarities between the governments and the country’s geographic location–which provides close access to Israel, Iran’s sworn enemy–are two of the most likely motivators for Iran’s assistance to the Syrian civil war effort.

For many years the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has utilized the Syrian city of Zabadani as a strategic mid-point to supply Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. Before the war broke out it was not uncommon for Iran to station as many as 3,500 troops at a time in Syria to provide extra training and protection of supply routes.

Experts believe that Iran provided significant training to National Defense forces in Syria at the beginning of the war. Foundation for Defense of Democracies, led by Mark Dubowitz briefed members of Congress and State Department officials on evidence that suggests Iran flew supply missions to help Syrian forces.  You can follow Mark Dubowitz here:   https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-dubowitz-746301

The most vocal opponent of a Iranian supported Syrian military is Israel, Syria’s Southwestern neighbor. For decades Iran has stated unequivocally that it views Israel as an enemy and has expressed hostile intentions clearly. The Iranian forces’ proximity to Israel has given Western nations enough cause for alarm that the US intelligence agencies have increased use of satellite and surveillance aircraft monitoring along the border to identify Iranian forces and ballistic missiles hiding within the country.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government has been equally opaque about their determination to prevent an Iranian military stronghold from building up so close to their territory. The Minister of Defense, Avigdor Lieberman stated: “We will destroy every military site in Syria where we see an attempt by Iran to position itself militarily.” Western powers are in agreeance that Iranian weapons in Syria do pose a legitimate threat to the country’s security, but there are fears that a preventative strike would set off a powder keg–sending both countries to war and dragging along their web of allies with it.

Turkey’s Anti-NATO Behavior

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In recent years alliances have been significantly tested all around the world. With every new conflict comes disagreements of policy which lead to otherwise friendly countries being at odds. Mark Dubowitz on his site, The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has outlined numerous drastic changes between powerful nations over recent months, including the U.S. withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.

One such battle is between Turkey and the rest of the NATO member countries. Turkey is a critically important ally to the U.S. and NATO as a whole. Its geographical location makes it vital when responding to a crisis in the Middle East and it remains to be one of the strongest presences in the region. However, recently Turkey’s leadership, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has exhibited anti-NATO behavior.

To fight the Islamic State in Syria, the U.S. enlisted the help of a Syrian-Kurdish militia group known as YPG. This past January, Turkey began attacking those same forces in Afrin, (a district in northern Syria). The Kurdish people have a long history of seeking separation from the existing powers to create a sovereign Kurdish state. Since the 70’s, there have been a series of armed conflicts between the Turkish government and various Kurdish insurgent groups.

Due to this history, President Erdoğan has made it explicitly clear that he will never allow a Kurdish state to form, especially on Turkey’s Southern border. He views the YPG forces as a potential first step in such a state. What’s worse is these attacks against the U.S. backed forces were made with Russian support. Moscow controls the skies in that region, so Turkey needed their approval to carry out its assaults.

Mark Dubowitz of FDD states that Western nations have tried to persuade Erdoğan to cease attacks, but they have failed to condemn Turkey publicly. In the past several years NATO and the EU haven’t responded appropriately to Erdoğan’s numerous human rights violations. When one NATO member acts against the interests and values of the organization it significantly undermines the entire NATO community. Turkey’s recent actions show a disturbing willingness to abandon Western norms.

Turkey’s relationship with Moscow is also a sign of trouble for NATO. At a time when NATO is trying to isolate Moscow for its track record of aggression and hostility towards its neighbors, FDD warns this decision sends the wrong message globally and weakens NATO’s image. Learn more about FDD.

Within Turkey’s borders, the government under Erdoğan’s control has acted in ways that widely sway from NATO founding values. Since the 2016 attempted coup, Erdoğan has arrested hundreds of journalists and clamped down on its judiciary. Any NATO member that weakens its own democracy tarnishes the entire alliance. All NATO countries are bound to the same founding document, the 1949 Washington Treaty, the preamble of which states, “all members are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”

NATO is not just a military organization. It is a political alliance with the preservation of democracy as a core value. All indicators suggest that Turkey is leaving democracy behind. An independent organization, Freedom House, recently downgraded Turkey from the status of “Partly Free” to “Not Free.” As a vital NATO member, Turkey’s military actions in the Middle East and the way it operates its government within its borders could jeopardize the entire organization.

 

 

 

Syria and Civilian Abuse

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In the past year, the Syrian regime has engaged in massive human rights abuses as it sought to suppress the civilian population rising up against the government and as it sought to protect itself from Bashar al Assad’s war crimes. Mark Dubowitz (CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies)estimates that since the war began in 2011 as many as half a million lives have been lost. (learn about Mark Dubowitz) An additional 5 million Syrians are living abroad as refugees, and 6 million are displaced internally.

Unlawful and indiscriminate attacks against medical facilities, schools, and mosques have worsened the death toll. The Syrian government, controlled by Bashar al-Assad, utilized support from Russian and Iranian forces to reclaim control over parts of Aleppo killing nearly five hundred civilians in the process. The regime’s uses of cluster munition, incendiary explosives, and barrel bombs, in particular, has raised the risk to civilians.

The Syrian government has also used chemical weapons against civilian targets on multiple occasions. Evidence suggests the weapons are primarily nerve agents which when inhaled shut down the victim’s nervous system causing loss of life through cardiovascular paralysis.

Last September, the UN released a report that concluded that the Syrian air force used sarin gas in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Dozens were killed, the majority of whom were women and children. Human Rights Watch documented at least eight chlorine gas attacks by the Syrian government during the assault to retake Aleppo.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has documented more than 4,500 instances of arbitrary arrests conducted by government forces. As many as 80,000 individuals remain missing and are believed to be held within government custody. Detained prisoners are subjected to malnutrition, prolonged isolation, unsanitary conditions, insufficient medical treatment and in some cases torture.

This past August, the wife of a computer engineer and freedom of speech activist, Bassel Khartabil, who had been arrested in 2012 finally received confirmation of her husband’s fate. He was executed in 2015 while being held at a Syrian detention facility, but the government withheld this information for nearly three years.

Despite the substantial loss that ISIS suffered during the previous year of conflict the group has continued abuses against the civilian population. ISIS used civilians as human shields during its defense of Raqqa and deployed landmines in populated areas to hold off advancing forces.

Last May, ISIS attacked a Shia Muslim community in the town of Aqarib al-Safiyah and utilized snipers to kill residents who attempted to flee the area. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry, over 100 civilians were injured, and 52 were killed including a dozen children. The UN also confirmed that ISIS has used chemical weapons against civilian populations in the past, specifically sulfur mustard gas.

A Britain-based watchdog group (the Syrian Observatory) found that around 1,100 civilians have died during airstrikes by coalition planes since the campaign to retake the city of Raqqa began. Human Rights Watch investigated the bombing of a school in Mansourah last March that killed over 80 civilians, including 30 children. This and other strikes have raised concern that US-led coalition forces have not taken adequate precautions to minimize civilian casualties.

Famine and illness are rampant with many high-population areas wholly cut off from humanitarian aid. Government forces and armed opposition groups have managed to prevent UN aid workers and non-profit volunteers from being able to provide proper medical care, food, and water to places in desperate need all across the country. The UN estimates that around 540,000 individuals are trapped in areas cut off from outside support. As tensions in the region escalate widespread starvation is only expected to get worse with the majority of those affected being children.

 

To learn more about this and other Middle Eastern issues please see Mark Dubowitz website here.

Evolution of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities

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Iran possesses one of the most extensive ballistic missile arsenals in the Middle East, with many of those weapons capable of carrying a nuclear device. This is mainly due to several technological advancements the country has made in the field of aerospace engineering over the past decade. Some of these accomplishments include the deployment of satellites into low Earth orbit, the construction and successful testing of multi-stage missiles, improved missile guidance, and improved fuel efficiency. These, among other advancements, have extended Iran’s firing range, improved missile speeds, and lowered costs.

 

The growth of Iran’s missile armament has increased global fears surrounding the country’s intentions. One concern is that Iran plans to build a fleet of long-range missiles that could act as a substitute for the country’s aging air-force. Another concern is that Iran could use these improved ballistic missiles to deliver nuclear payloads. Due to the tense political climate in the Middle East, many fear the potential for escalation on both a regional and global scale, were Iran to become a nuclear power.

 

Though an international deal preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons was reached in July 2015 under the Obama administration, there remain many who are skeptical of the agreement’s strength. Speaking with Politico, Mark Dubowitz of FDD said: “the day was a bitter setback.” The arrangement, which was supported by the UN and many U.S. allies, requires the Iranian government to submit to inspections of military facilities in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions.

 

Mark Dubowitz doesn’t believe Iran is living up to its end of the bargain, and he is not alone. President Trump has repeatedly criticized the deal for being unenforceable. FDD explains that the way the agreement is written requires the president to waive the US sanctions against Iran on a prearranged timetable (every 120-180 days). If the president refuses to waive the US sanctions, the deal will crumble.

 

In January President Trump vowed not to waive any further sanctions.

 

Push-back against the agreement has drawn criticism from both parties, as well as leaders abroad. The heads of Russia and China have both denounced the current administration’s refusal to cooperate with the deal, calling it “efforts by the US o change negotiated treaties.” However, the US’s position, both under the Obama administration and the Trump administration, as well as the European position, is that the deal might already be void by Iran’s refusal to allow proper inspections.

 

One subject the treaty doesn’t cover, which many wanted included, is Iran’s non-nuclear missile program. The country has been able to continue with its efforts to expand the scale, reach, accuracy, and speed of its projectiles uninhibited by global sanctions. In a last-ditch attempt to keep the United States from leaving the deal, European allies have promised to work on a version of the treaty that would require Iran to halt efforts on its ballistic missile program, or face the return of global economic sanctions. While the future relationship between the U.S. and Iran remains uncertain, many are hopeful that some arrangement will stay in place for the time being.