Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Jack Bauer and the Future of Human Rights

In her recent book, "The Invention of Human Rights", historian Lynn Hunt argues that to understand the development of the notion of human rights we need to look at the development of the novel as form of literary expression. In the middle of the 18th century, people were engrossed with stories that gripped their emotions and encouraged them to have a kind of empathy with the lives of fictional characters such that these imaginary worlds were mirrors of their own sentiments and feelings. From this new kind of experience, a new social and political order developed that spoke about the importance of protecting human beings from the cruelties of the state and arbitrary power. Human rights, then, develop out of a growing moral and political consciousness that was nurtured through narrative and a new understanding of the proper role of the emotions.

Slovoj Zizek points out that this moral progress is now under attack--we no longer have a benchmark that says certain kinds of practices, such as torture, are simply wrong. He hints that there is growing consciousness that sometimes "awful things" have to be done by authorities in order to provide for security and well being and that this is coming from popular culture. Television shows such as "24", "The Shield", and "Lost" have, since 9/11, presented numerous scenes of torture and mutilation by police and intelligence officers against the bad guys. What's worse is that military and intelligence officials have admitted that they have been influenced to develop interogation techniques from TV shows like this.

Hunt points out that human rights have a very shaky foundation in our political and legal traditions. Can they be supported in a world nurtured by stories of morally questionable heroes who "have to do what they have to do"? What sort of social and political worlds will develop from these tales?

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Chiquita, Coke, Nestle: The Moral Cost of Clean Hands

It was reported this past week that the Chiquita banana corporation had paid almost 2 million dollars to the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) for "protection money" between 1997-2003. The AUC are right wing paramilitary squads involved in the 40+year civil war in Colombia against the left wing guerilla movement, FARC. The AUC and the FARC are officially listed by the U.S. Government as terrorist organizations. Chiquita has agreed to pay $25 million in fines to the U.S. Justice Department. There is also discussion now that top Chiquita executives be extradited to Colombia for doing business with the AUC.

Chiquita does not seem to be alone in its dirty business in Colombia. Human rights NGOs have been accusing Chiquita, along with Coca Cola and Nestle, of collaborating with right wing paramilitaries, for many years now. As in most human rights abuses in Latin America, it is poor and indigenous people who are the ones swept up in the violence by such armed forces. The Coca Cola corporation, of course, denies invovlement, but the Chiquita case raises the question about whether or not doing business in Colombia can really be done with clean hands.

A few posts ago, I asked whether or not ordinary citizens can be held accountable for the crimes committed by their goverments. The Chiquita case raises another dimension: In this globalized world, can we, as consumers of products such as Chiquita bananas (or Coke or Nestle products) be held morally responsible for the kinds of violent crimes unleashed by multi national corporations?

A colleague of mine suggests that we might not be responsible, or at least as responsible, because consumers have a different relationship to corporations than citizens do to their governments. In a democracy, we can directly elect our leaders and hold them accountable; not so with a multinational corporation.

How responsible are people, qua consumers, for the crimes committed by corporations operating in a globalized world?

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Native Americans, Modern Science, and Globalization

A new Engage podcast is now available. It contains my interview with Allison Davis-White Eyes, Director of the Oregon State University Indian Education Office.

In our discussion, we talked about the National Geographic Society's Genographic Project and that fact that many native groups have refused to participate in the DNA sampling. The goal of the project is to provide detailed genetic maps of human migration over the entire globe. Davis White-Eyes tries to give us reasons for why Native Americans might be hesitant to go along with this collection process.

The most interesting part of this podcast for me was when we started to discuss the meaning of being a "globalized Indian". Davis-White Eyes claims that because of the interconnectivity of the planet, now in the era of globalization, native peoples might have a special responsibility to "indigenize" the world. This means more than simply promoting an end to discrimination and inequality for native peoples, but pushing for some kind of dynamic transformation of philosophical/scientific/political world views to reflect indigenous values.

There is definitely a movement underlying some her comments. In Latin America, there is now discussion of "interculturality". Indigenous leaders in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia are urging the rejection of "multiculturalism" (which means finding a way for different communities to live side by side) and the adoption of "Interculturality" (which means finding a way for different communities to inform and interact with one another and develop new principles of cooperation that reflect creative sythesis). Indeed, this principle is quickly becoming a model for building schools and designing curricula in Latin America.

A good book that examines the effect that interculturality will have in our understanding of what it means to be indigenous and the future of the Americas is Walter Mignolo's "The Idea of Latin America".

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

New Law Against Violence Toward Women in Mexico: Hope to an End of Femicide?

This photo by Jorge Urzon literally puts a face on the murdered women of Juarez. These are models of women's faces forensically reconstructed from skulls found in the Mexican desert. In honor of International Women's Day 2007 today, I offer a note of hope, but also of caution. The Mexican Congress has passed a new national law to address violence toward women. It is quite a radical move within Latin America to propose this--it goes straight to the heart of machista culture, namely that violence toward women by men is not a private matter, but one of public health and human rights.

Critics of the law are pointing out its vague definitions of harm against women. That can be handled by the legal specialists, hopefully. The big worry is that there has been no budget allocated to enforcing the new law. Some have even suggested taking some money away from the special prosecutor's office in Juarez that is charged with investigating the femicides in order to pay for the national effort. This seems like a dangerous compromise.

Reporting on this issue is dangerous business. Journalist Diana Washington Valdez claims that women are being killed simply for sport in northern Mexico. Her new book, "Harvest of Women" is now out. And she continues to recieve serious threats on her life.

Please listen the Engage interview with Alicia Gaspar de Alba, done last year for International Women's Day, to find out more about the situation in Juarez.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Breaking Jose: Psychological Torture Not so Bad?

A new study indicates that psychological torture--sleep deprivation, threatening to harm friends or family, or threats of rape--tends to result in comparable levels of mental anguish in victims as physical torture. In a study of 300 torture victims from the former Yugoslavia, those that had experienced psychological torture, but not physical, tended to develop post traumatic stress disorders at about the same rates as those that had been physically abused.

Of course, as a result of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, U.S. intelligence officials may be sactioned to engage in various forms of "torture lite" in order to extract information from detainees. International law prevents physical torture, and the U.S. military advises its personnel not to engage in psychological torture. But there do not seem to be such restrictions on the CIA.

These methods have come under scrutiny in the Jose "Dirty Bomber" Padilla case. As Naomi Klein reports, Padilla's lawyers are saying that he has been rendered mentally incompetent through the interrogation methods he has had to undergo, perhaps, including psychological torture.

Of course, enemy combantant detainees in military prisons have apparently lost the right to have their cases reviewed in U.S. courts because of the Military Commissions Act, based on a Federal appeals court ruling last February.

Should this study raise cause us to reassess whether the United States is sanctioning human rights violations in the" war on terror"?

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