Sunday, September 30, 2007

History as lighthouse for the future, and historian-- the guard...

It is very alarming that historians have become unimportant and people do not bother to learn history. They say, “We live in a new age, a completely different reality. What is the point of gazing at old parchments.” Even the intellectuals have fallen into the trap. They describe current problems as outsprings of a new world with unprecedented events… Ladies and gentlemen, from the beginning of time when humanity came to existence, events that marked history were defined and shaped by people. Insofar as the human nature in its basic ingredients never changes, history is bound to repeat itself. From time immemorial greed, treachery, conspiracy and oppression by the powerful of the weak were the forces behind the historic cataclysms building and destroying civilizations… From biblical times brother killed brother and the lamb was devoured by the wolf… And it was only people like Shakespeare, Dante and Goethe who were able to paint the timeless stage, where humans perform the same roles again and again, endlessly.

Thus, history informs our future and enlightens our present. It is history that can comfort us with hope that we can in fact learn from the past mistakes and perhaps not repeat them. It is also history that can point and alert to unseen and hidden for contemporaries landmines, that can explode unexpectedly… Yes, it is history that gets repeated with amazing regularity, deceptively cloaked with new robes. Only the ‘historian’ can see through these ‘new’ robes and warn of the danger looking outside his library of the old manuscripts. Only the ‘historian’ has access to the mysterious microscope to see the chemical molecules shifting and mutating into poisonous bacteria. Only the ‘historian’ can formulate the timely vaccine for the newly discovered diseases plaguing the humankind. Only the ‘historian’ can approach the telescope at night and direct it to the right spot detecting the speedy meteor about to strike the Earth.

‘Historian’ is not the scientist of the past, she is the Prometheus of our times, and foreteller of the future. Study, study world history and aspire to become that ‘historian’ who is the only one to prevent the destruction of our world. Dispassionately looking out the guidepost of the lighthouse into the ocean, she learns the past, contemplates the present and solves the enigma of the future.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Peace to the world...

On September 29, 1988 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces. Some portions of the Acceptance Speech:

We are now at a time of extraordinary hope and promise for the United Nations, after a long period when the spectre, and too often the grim reality of war have darkened our planet, there is a new mood of understanding and common sense, a new determination to move away from international conflict and devote ourselves instead to the immense task of building a better world. Recently, we have seen several conflicts give way to negotiation and conciliation...

In the past forty years we have experienced perhaps the most revolutionary period in all of human history. The instruments of war have been developed to the point where war itself has become a futile anachronism, an anachronism so expensive and terrifying that even the richest and most powerful countries can no longer afford to contemplate it. We have redrawn the political map of the world so that for the first time in history the international community is not dominated by competing empires, but consists of more than 160 independent sovereign states. Thus collective responsibility for peace can be evolved in a truly representative international system. At the same time, the technological revolution of the past forty years, which has radically changed the way people live, work and communicate, presents enormous opportunities as well as grave risks. We must now reflect upon these changes and start to assimilate them.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Fighting for the Cause...

In June of 1863 the battle of Gettysburg was to decide the fate of the US Civil War. Michael Shaara's book "The Killer Angels" is perhaps the best ever written about this historic battle. An excerpt with Colonel Chamberlain of the Union Army is bound to be copied here:

He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. This was the first place on earth where the man mattered more than the state. True freedom had begun here and it would spread eventually all over the earth... The fact of slavery upon this incredibly beautiful new clean earth was appalling, but more even than that was the horror of old Europe, the curse of nobility, which the South was transplanting to new soil. They were forming a new aristocracy, a new breed of glittering men, and Chamberlain had come to crush it. But he was fighting for the dignity of man and in that way he was fighting for himslf. If men were equal in America, all these former Poles and English and Czechs and blacks, then they were equal everywhere, and there was really no such thing as foreigner... the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land.
Yet the words had been used too often and the fragments that came to Chamberlain now were weak. A man who has been shot at is a new realist, and what do you say to a realist when the war is a war of ideals?

War is a war, because whether it is for a good cause or not, men are murdered in it. War is a mass murder which culminates in the humanity soaked in the bloodbath of its own creation... War can only be justified when it is for critical self-defense, when one's country is in grave and immediate danger... Even then self-defense must be proportionate to the attack...

The US Civil War, an extraordinary war, was fought for a good cause, a noble cause... But still it was a war between brothers and sisters, many of whom did not want to fight or die... It is hard to say that it was fought in vain, because when people die on the battlefield believing in the ideals of that war, they must be honored by recognition that they did not die in vain... We are indebted to them for their sacrifice, their courage and their faith in the cause...

But war is a war... Slavery in the US could have its natural demise without bloodshed. A free society could not endure bondage and servitude for long. Many in the South realized that even then and many generals fighting in the Confederacy did not own slaves, including Robert E. Lee.

Moreover, the slaves were freed only nominally, because servitude was replaced with complete poverty and discrimination... Even the black soldiers fighting on the side of the Union were being discriminated and were sent to accomplish impossible missions (see the movie Glory). So, discimination and segregation culminating in the shameful doctrine enunciated in Plessy v. Ferguson-- 'separate but equal'-- was to replace the slavery.

With or without the US Civil War, it took a hundred years to really end the 'slavery' of the African-Americans... It was not until the Civil Rights Movement and the Warren Court that freedom became real...

Revolutions and wars fought for sacred ideals demean those ideals once blood of a human being is shed... These are conflagrations that destroy societies, homes and whole civilizations... Their powerful wind disperses seeds of destruction-- falling on earth and burning without giving fruits, and take a long time to calm down and settle... People, gone with the wind-- they are...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Education, education, education...

According to the 2007 report by the World Education Indicators programme (UNESCO), China leads the world in the number of university graduates, surpassing the US which used to be the world leader (here). Education matters, but it is increasingly becoming less affordable for the kids in the US. First, K-12 public system is in a disastrous condition, forcing parents with middle-to-higher income to send their kids to private schools. Then the college and graduate school loans are so scary that many children end up not going to college... This is deplorable because we all cannot deny that education is first and foremost for the future of any country...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Children soldiers...

How is it possible that we have not been able to stop children being used as soldiers, especially in Africa... As the Amnesty International alerts, these are children who have no childhood and who are constantly brutalized, terrorized, tortured, raped and turned into violent machines upon survival... (here) As the Special Court in Sierra Leone ruled on May 31, 2004, it is a war crime to use children under 15 as soldiers... But has it been enforced when most children in these forsaken regions are running amok in the streets, not propely fed or clothed, with no prospects, except for turning into the military for survival. Here they get some food and clothing, and they get toys to play with-- guns. They also learn to unleash their innermost fantasies in killing others... This is absolutely similar to the inferno of Dante... How could we let children go down that path? How do you think we can stop adults being violent, when we are not able to stop even children? It is even ridiculous... While we can control children, we could hardly try to control adults... Psychologists have been shouting for more than a century that criminal behavior begins from early childhood and can only be treated at this early stage... Instead of treating, we force them to turn into criminals by not allowing them to be children...

Monday, September 24, 2007


On this day, September 24, 1862, Prussia's king, Wilhelm I, appointed Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) as the prime-minister. Later, he was to become the minister of foreign policy. Bismarck made his historic speech, where he said, "The grand questions of the century are decided by iron and blood, not by speeches or majority votes in the Parliament." He was also known for saying, "States do not have friends, states have interests."
Otto von Bismarck is known as one of the founders of modern realpolitik politics, which always propagates superiority of national interests over international obligations or human rights. His legacy is also that of unification of Germany... His political ideology was a precursor of Nazism and Stalinism. Henry Kissinger was one of his more moderate followers... Beginning from 9/11 the US foreign policy is also very Bismarckian...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Equal treatment?

We live in a society where the traditional gender roles have dissipated. Women have increasingly become the breadwinners and men-- stay-home 'Pa's. Except for certain biological differences, such as giving birth, basically today it must be recognized that there are no differences between men and women. The age-old traditional roles prescribed to men and women simply are not relevant, except to our grandparents, who still live in the old age... We can say that our society has become really 'transgender.' If sexism still persists, it is because of competition and prejudice. Why then does our society still stigmatize people who really do not recognize these gender roles, for example homosexuals. Similar to the stigma attached to the victims of AIDS in the 80s and 90s, today that stigma is still strongly attached to the gay people. Homophobia is still a virulent disease inflicting even the most 'liberal' people...

Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates equal treatment for all and Article 16 provides for the right to marry (here). I wonder, if everyone is entitled to the equal protection of the laws, including enjoyment of all Universal rights, and if men and women have the right to marry, then how can we say that by denying the gay people of the right to marry, we are not discriminating on them? Is that equal treatment? We are depriving a minority of a right that we, the majority, have... How acceptable is that?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Thus Spoke Zarathustra...

"I am teaching you about the Superman. A human being is something that must reach perfection. A human being is a rope between a beast and the Superman-- a rope over the abyss...
I have learned to walk: since then I have allowed myself to run. I have learned to fly: since then I do not wait to be pushed to move...
You, believers in me: what is the point of all believers. You had not yet found yourselves when you found me. All believers are like that; that is why all faith means so little...
All Gods have died, now we want the Superman to live...
"Willpower"-- that is the savior and beginning of all happiness... But willpower itself is still in slavery...
Those who do not want to die from thirst must learn to drink from all glasses; and those who want to remain clean must learn to wash themselves with dirty water...
Break, break the old parchments!.. Do not try to treat those with incurable diseases...
Only those are courageous who have fear but learn to overcome it, who see the abyss but can look into it proudly...
You should not seek what is above your abilities...
If you want to get ahead and high above, use your own legs. Do not let others carry you, do not sit on others' shoulders and heads..."

I would like to speak with Zarathustra, or Nietzsche and tell them that whether people believe in God or not, whether they have willpower or not, they are capable of the worst crimes and most virtuous deeds... So, it is true that the human being is a rope between the beast and superhero but often these two are co-existent in the same person... That is the most unfortunate-- the mask that the humanity is wearing is often deceiving and treacherous... And that is why we cannot predict the future of humankind with any seeming certainty. The only hope is that we can suppress the beast inside of us before it brings the end of us...
However, the problem with Nietzsche's philosophy is that he suggested that the human being must reach perfection and become more evil. As Zarathustra expressed it, "The human being is similar to a tree, the higher its branches soar towards the sky and light, the deeper its roots go down into the soil and darkness."
One would hope that perfection means kindness and the Superhero is not evil... Otherwise, I would rather not have such superheroes... But of course, the line between the Evil and Kind is very fine and there is a big twilight zone in between...

(Russian painter Vrubel, (1856-1910) painted the 'Demon Sitting in a Garden' above in 1890. In reality, it is the humanity overwhelmed with its evil and in tears as a result...)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ozone depletion and life on Earth

The ozone layer protects us from all the hazards of the sun, including the ultraviolet rays. Without this protective screen, life on Earth would be in grave danger, because the sun produces an enormous amount of dangerous substances... However, the production of chemicals and launching of spaceships have increasingly carved so-called 'holes' into this layer and today, it is thinning and thinning, becoming similar not to a blanket any longer, but to a net... Thus, the animal life on the planet has shrunk and soon the human life... Cancer and immune deficiencies of various sorts are prominent fears that could shorten human life...
The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer has entered into force on January 1, 1989. 191 countries are party, with 5 abstaining (Andorra, Iraq, San Marino, Timor-Leste and Vatican City.) Kofi Annan has said, "Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date." I wonder, if the ozone layer is being depleted at an exponential rate, how can we call this a successful agreement? If the nuclear states-- constantly testing their bombs and launching the rockets to space-- are oblivious of the substantial danger they are causing to the ozone layer, then how can we say that they are meeting their international obligations...

Monday, September 17, 2007

The United States Constitution

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

On this day, September 17, 1787 at the Philadelphia Convention the Founding Fathers proclaimed and adopted the U.S. Constitution. A historic day, when on the principles of French liberal ideals the U.S. officially proclaimed its Constitution and set forth on its journey into the future... A noble document, the U.S. Constitution was well-thought out, albeit was a product of some compromises in order to incentivize the states to ratify it.

As the time revealed, the American experiment worked pretty well because the checks and balances and federalism gave flexibility and freedom, as well as structure and a strong rule of law. But there was always struggle between the federal government and states who tried to relieve themselves of many 'chains' imposed by the Union. Thence, the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). Even to this day, the states often try to disengage themselves from the federal government and there is much litigation over issues of preemption. Many people still try to go back to the intent of the Founding Fathers in creating the US Constitution, which is often not illuminating because times have changed. The Founding Fathers could never have predicted all the scenarios.

Moreover, with globalization and internationalization, the US as a world leader, must enforce the Constitution in such a way that it does not result in abdridgement of international obligations... In 1787 the world was very different and the role of the US also.

But the model has worked and is successful if only we guard vigilantly the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Alexander Blok

Alexander Alexandrovich Blok was born on November 28, 1880, in Petersburg. His grandfather, Beketov, was the rector of the Petersburg University. His father was a lawyer and subsequently a professor of the Warsaw University, mother was a translator and a children’s writer. His first poems and prose appeared in 1887-1888. In 1898 he enrolled in the law school of the Petersburg University but three years later realized that the law was not for him and transferred to the section of philology (Slavic-Russian) of the University. In 1903 he married Lubov Mendeleeva, who was also from a highly intelligent family.

Beginning from 1904 Blok’s poems received great publicity and popularity. In 1906 he graduated from the University with the Highest Honors. He wrote and published ardently. His style was unique in that he represented symbolism and modern mysticism, while at the same time preserving the traditional rhythm handed down by Pushkin to the generations of Russian poets. So, while Blok is not similar to any Russian poet and he definitely was an original genius, he was not a loner and found his place in Russian literature very quickly. Marina Tsvetaeva (see on this blog), on the other hand, was less lucky, because her style was more rebellious and novel and it took her longer to establish herself, posthumously.

In contrast with Tsvetaeva, Blok accepted the October Revolution early and along with Vladimyr Mayakovsky he was to become the ‘Revolutionary poet.’ He wrote his famous poem “Twelve” dedicated to the Revolution and was greatly inspired by the political change that toppled the Tsar and instituted the government for the working people and peasants. However, immediately upon witnessing the ‘big lie’ of Leninism, Blok suffered enormously, realizing that he played a part of this.

On April 9, 1919 he made a speech at the World Literature conference entitled ‘The Collapse of Humanism.’ There he said:

Humanism to us is first of all associated with the powerful movement at the end of the Middle Ages which engulfed first Italy and then all of Europe and slogan of which was the human being—the free individual person. Therefore, the fundamental and central sign of humanism is individualism…. Naturally, when a new moving force appeared on the arena of European history—not the individual but the masses—it caused the crisis of humanism….

We have lost the balance… that was energizing and giving life to humanism… Today we have a choice, a critical choice that we need to make like bread for our very existence… In our catastrophic time every cultural beginning must be thought of in the same way as the first Christians were saving the spiritual treasures in the catacombs. The difference is that we can no longer hide anything under the ground; the path towards saving the spiritual treasures is not hiding them, but showing them to the world and showing them in a way that the world will perceive their sanctity and will enable their protection….

We can no longer deny the fact that a certain new and hostile to the civilized world movement is developing and sweeping the world; that the civilization is no longer a continent but a group of islands that can soon sink in an overwhelming flood, that the most valuable from the viewpoint of humanitarianism the ethical, aesthetic, legal products of civilization… —are either already flooded, or are under a grave threat. If we are truly civilized humanists we will never find peace with this; but if we do not accept it, and if we remain with the values that humanism has proclaimed as sacred, then won’t we be cut off from the rest of the world and culture, which is carrying on its spine this destructive flood?

Blok was afraid of the self-destructive force sweeping over Russia in the face of Communism and anti-humanism in the European continent as the precursor of Nazism. But he was also afraid that whether he and other humanists joined it or not, it was a force that had to be reckoned with. That struggle drove him crazy.

While he was respected and was even elected as the chairman of the Russian Writers’ Union, his mental condition was affected and was increasingly deteriorating. His wife was to get the worst of it. He would often get into an uncontrollable panic attack and deep depression and would break everything at home. Coming out of it, he would not even remember what he did. Maxim Gorky, the writer, his mentor and friend, was writing to others, begging for help for Blok. Before his death, Blok even deleted much of his work. So, what we have now is perhaps only 1/3 of his poems. On August 7, 1921 he died in his cabinet tragically and mysteriously.

Blok will remain as one of the geniuses of Russian literature. He foretold the tragedy of the 20th century. And he was to become a victim of the times he lived in, like Tsvetaeva and many of the Russian intelligentsia in the 20th century. While he embraced the ideals of the Russian Revolution, recognizing the oppression of Tsarism and the need for reform of the living conditions of workers and peasants, he realized that Leninism-Stalinism was not to do what it promised. He was an activist in his heart and thought that a true artist must partake of the reality surrounding him to be able to create. That is why, he could not help but be a part of the Revolution. But since by its nature Communism destroyed the individual and liberties, he could not accept it. He realized that Communism was inevitably going to destroy the intelligentsia. He predicted that even in 1908 when he wrote:

Tempest and culture… Feeling of catastrophe, illness, anxiety, explosion (the humanity is like people in front of a bomb.) History set up the bomb and cracked everything into pieces… The earth is burning. What type of fire will burst out of the earth’s crust—-will it save or destroy us? And will we even have the right to say that this fire, generally destructive, will destroy only us (the intelligentsia).

Destiny itself prepared me
In sacred awe
To bring light with my murky torch
At the doors of Idealism.

And only in the twilight of the eve,
Hastening with my earthly mind,
And possessed with heavenly fear,
I am burning in the fire of the Muse.

Oh, I madly want to live,
To immortalize the fleeting,
To humanize the impersonal
To realize what was a dream.
Let the life’s heavy dream suffocate me
Let me die in this dream
Perhaps, a happy youth
Will say in the future about me
“Let us forgive his melancholy
Was it his inner essence?
He was all a child of kindness and light
He was all the triumph of freedom.”

(All translations here are by Zoya)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Women and secularism

What a man believes, and what he therefore regards as unquestionable reality, constitutes his religion.” Jose Ortega y Gasset, "Concord and Liberty". “His/her” religion, not everybody’s, because faith is a very intimate endeavor, perhaps the most private human space, after family and sex.

The government is itself nothing but the self-established focus, the individual embodiment of the universal will.” Hegel, “Phenomenology of Mind.”

The idea of separation of church from state, or secularism has been a center of much debate. It is important to look at its origins in order to understand its true meaning. The Age of Enlightenment (18th century), when laying the foundation for the modern nation-state, promulgated that a state does not represent the Will of God, but the will of people. By its very nature the Enlightenment began the slow extermination of monarchs, who were ruling by grace of God, not by the will of people. In the new formula, the church as the earthly manifestation of God, was to be separate from the state. Moreover, religious scholasticism and mysticism of the Middle Ages were replaced by reason. Enlightenment was synonymous with reason. Thus, the Enlightenment thinkers recognized that the demands of religion/church are incompatible with the demands of the modern state institutions.

As these liberal institutions developed, the idea of separation of church from state deepened and became an integral component of a western liberal democracy. The state was not to establish any religion and was not to abridge free exercise thereof. Also, the state was not to let any church influence its workings. However, an unspoken dilemma was always there. The state is not an abstraction and in its functions, it is empowered by the people it purports to represent. As Hegel pointed out, the government is an embodiment of the will of people. Since religion constitutes an “unquestionable reality” for millions of people, the state is necessarily challenged with respect to religion. Therefore, it can never really and fully insulate itself from religion.

Today while most European states and America preach secularism, they do not follow what they preach. While the institutions such as Constitutions are secular in their formulations, the governments are influenced by religion. It all really revolves around how people understand faith and religion. If you subscribe to the broader definition of Gasset, the vast majority of people can be classified religious, since they all believe in something faithfully and even blindly.

The recent developments in the world have illustrated that things are not as simple as the Enlightenment thinkers envisioned and secularism needs serious review. While in its essence separation of church and state is necessary in many ways, in many others too much of it borders on suppression. Professor Madhavi Sunder called this era as the New Enlightenment (Read her brilliant article "Piercing the Veil"). Her vision is how to recharacterize secularism to serve the needs of religious minorities and first of all, women, who have made certain choices toward emancipation within religion/culture. So, the dichotomy is changing. Faith as it is understood by people, has to receive its redefinition in the state and its representation of people.

For example, when France banned the Muslim headscarf in public schools, Muslim women rebelled against it, “You are suppressing our religious faith. This is intolerance and discrimination under the guise of secularism.” The state had a lame response, “We are a secular state and cannot allow your religious symbols infiltrate the public sphere.” In fact, the real motivation behind the ban was the fear of Islamic fundamentalism and religious fervor. To give some break to the French government, it was really grappling with Islamic women—suicide bombers. Unfortunately, the ban resulted in more fundamentalism and more religious uprisings.

The problem is that while theoretically separation of church from state is a positive thing, it always ends up as a tool for religious discrimination by the majority culture of the minority, or in other situations, it simply turns into a tool to get rid of disfavored minorities. The headscarf for these women was not only a religious symbol, but a part of their cultural identity. France’s ban was to exclude them from the public sphere, or force them to choose rejection of their culture. But why should these women, already oppressed in their own culture, receive more oppression in the hands of a liberal democracy… Moreover, it seems the human rights law itself supports this. The European Court of Human Rights in Leila Sahin v. Turkey decided that Turkey was justified in prohibiting Sahin from wearing her headscarf in the public university.

I cannot pretend to have a ready answer to this dilemma, but it seems the goal should be to empower, rather than shut out these women, who have a right to choose… While Islamic extremism and militantism must be grappled with, I would search for other ways than suppression of religious minorities.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Women in India making inroads...

Women entrepreneurs in India came up with a wonderful idea-- how to teach rural women to run a small enterprise (here). Learning to make money is the path towards independence and social mobility. So, Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank, a cooperative bank run by women in the Satara district of Maharashtra, in association with the HSBC bank, set up a rural business school for women. The idea came as a result of the questions that women debtors were asking the bank. They were having technical difficulties with running their businesses. The bank owners had a great idea-- why not teach them how to manage and not close their shops. A success story is that of Vanita Jalindar Pise, the winner of the Prime Minister's National 2006 Woman Exemplor Award. She was having a difficulty of running a poultry business. Thanks to this program she learned how to survive and make great progress, now inspiring and teaching others how to run a small business.

In a place where many women are illiterate, this business school has many pragmatic training courses, such as goat-rearing. It is geared towards teaching practical skills for survival in those conditions. It also gives an incentive to learn more and continue with education. Most importantly, it empowers women so that they can take bolder steps towards further emancipation. Successful running of a small enterprise can be a beginning of a great career. Many women lawyers and politicians with non-traditional backgrounds began precisely from that.

On blogging and my blog

Friends and family have asked me, what is the point of my blog when hardly anyone reads it and I don't get paid for it... First, there are many blogs out there. I would compare blogging to newspapers or magazines/journals. Generally, they are not scholarship, but they do give the news, comments, often history... I will say that my blog is not focused on the news so much, as on thinking... I can say, my blog is a 'thinking blog.' I always like to think, think long, think hard and then express my deepest thoughts, usually in writing, sometimes in speeches... Even in my closing arguments as a trial lawyer, I try to connect my client's case to the universe... I love closing arguments because that is my opportunity to affect jurors and share my inner world with them.

As an attorney I have learned to structure my thoughts, because the law is a disciplined profession, with a rigid format. Liberal arts thinking is very different. Yet, I do think the law and legal concepts must be approached in an interdisciplinary way. Every legal issue receives a different light depending on what angle you take. I simply do not relate to lawyers who have not read the world classics, philosophy and who do not know history, political science, sociology, psychology, etc. Their horizon is simply too limited, regardless of what type of lawyers they are... To me they are technicians in their vocation... (I hope, I am not being too judgmental). But lawyering is a profession that requires much more than technical expertise.

So, now you know why I am blogging. It is for my inner satisfaction and sometimes frustration (when I cannot fully express what I think...) "I think, therefore I exist." (Descartes)

Finally, I should add that the very fact that my blog is dedicated to the memory of the Armenian Genocide and generally human rights, inspires me every day to write on this blog. Both my grandfathers were victims and miraculous survivors of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. They passed away in the Soviet Armenia when I was a child, but the memory of the genocide did not die with them and will never die as long as the world is longing for peace...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Money laundering in Armenia

With the arrest of the former Foreign Minister Alexsander Arzumanian (here) on money-laundering charges on May 8, 2007 money laundering has again drawn the attention of the Armenian government, as well as the European Union. It seems, the opposition block in Armenia, trying to raise money for the next Armenian elections could not help partaking of the illegal opportunities to make money.

The Government of Armenia (GOA) has made some progress in 2004 in bringing legislation and structural capacity up to international standards in the area of money laundering and terrorist finance. On December 14, 2004, the National Assembly adopted a comprehensive anti-money laundering law, "The Law on Fighting Legalization of Illegally Received Income and Terrorist Financing." This legislation consolidates old laws into a single piece of legislation, adds new regulatory structures, and specifically criminalizes money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

The new law is part of an anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing package with which the GOA seeks to meet the recommendations of the Council of Europe (MONEYVAL), UNSCR 1373 requirements and the FATF Forty Recommendations. In addition to the new law, the comprehensive package includes amendments to 12 existing laws and the Criminal Code, affecting banking, credit and non-profit organizations, insurance, and gaming.

The new law designates the Central Bank of Armenia (CBA) as the single authorized body to coordinate anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing activities in the country.
Financing of terrorism has been criminalized. The CBA has circulated to all banks lists of those named on the UNSCR 1267 sanctions list as associated with terrorist organizations and has instructed the banks to freeze their accounts.

Armenia is a member of the Council of Europe's Select Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures (MONEYVAL). Armenia is a party to the 1988 UN Drug Convention, the UN Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters, the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, and the European Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters. During 2004, Armenia became party to the UN International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and the Council of Europe Convention on Laundering Search, Seizure, and Confiscation of the Proceeds From Crime.

It is however remarkable that national criminal prosecution for these crimes is rather arbitrary, targeted at opposition leaders in Armenia, rather than government members... The controversy behind the arrest of Arzumanian, who is an opposition leader, and his release last week show how political is everything... (here)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"100 Siberian Postcards"

Archipelago Gulag is the cataclysm of the Soviet Union's dark past. The forced labor camps, masterminded by Lenin and established in 1919 reached their height in the 1930s under Stalin. In 1934 the Gulag, directed by NKVD had several million inmates... Here, this chilling remote region of Siberia, were sent not only criminals convicted of crimes, but mostly those who were critical of the regime, including many from the intelligentsia. Most projects, such as canals, bridges, dams were constructed by the prisoners of Gulag... Later Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was to write the true account of the Gulag, not really known to the majority of the Soviet people until Gorbachev's era...
While Gulag was closed, Siberia has preserved this dark past in its veins. Cruel by its weather and terrain, it captures one's imagination by its wildness and remoteness from civilization... A startling account of this mesmerizing quality can be glimpsed from the wonderful book by Richard Wirick "100 Siberian postcards." In his book Rick Wirick has caught the region in one swoop and memorialized it in unforgettable postcards...


On this day, September 11, 1973 in Chile by a military coup Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) ousted the government of the Socialist Salvadore Allende. The main football stadium was turned into a concentration camp where an estimated 5,000 people were executed in the first days of his rule and many more were missing. Pinochet ruled over Chile until 1990 after he was defeated in the 1988 plebiscite. At the time of his death, numerous criminal charges were pending against him for human rights abuses and corruption...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer was born in Springs, South Africa in 1923... In 1991 she received the Nobel Prize in Literature... In the Banquet Speech she said (here):

Writing is indeed, some kind of affliction in its demands as the most solitary and introspective of occupations. We writers do not have the encouragement and mateyness I imagine, and even observe, among people whose work is a group activity. We are not orchestrated; poets sing unaccompanied, and prose writers have no cue on which to come in, each with an individual instrument of expression to make the harmony or dissonance complete. We must live fully in order to secrete the substance of our work, but we have to work alone. From this paradoxical inner solitude our writing is what Roland Barthes called 'the essential gesture' towards the people among whom we live, and to the world; it is the hand held out with the best we have to give.

When I began to write as a very young person in a rigidly racist and inhibited colonial society, I felt, as many others did, that I existed marginally on the edge of the world of ideas, of imagination and beauty. These, taking shape in poetry and fiction, drama, painting and sculpture, were exclusive to that distant realm known as 'overseas'. It was the dream of my contemporaries, white and black, to venture there as the only way to enter the world of artists. It took the realization that the colour bar - I use that old, concrete image of racism - was like the gate of the law in Kafka's parable, which was closed to the supplicant throughout his life because he didn't understand that only he could open it. It took this to make us realize that what we had to do to find the world was to enter our own world fully, first. We had to enter through the tragedy of our own particular place.

If the Nobel awards have a special meaning, it is that they carry this concept further. In their global eclecticism they recognize that no single society, no country or continent can presume to create a truly human culture for the world. To be among laureates, past and present, is at least to belong to some sort of one world.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Collapse of Humanism and Faulkner

The Convention Against Torture went into force on June 26, 1987. The US ratified it on October 21, 1994 with a declaration:

... nothing in this Convention requires or authorizes legislation, or other action by the US prohibited by the Constitution of the US as interpreted by the US.

As I mentioned before, this was a characteristic style of US ratifications of treaties--always, posing the US Constitution as interpreted by the US to be superior, if in clash with the specific Convention.

Furthermore, the US made few well-known today reservations. One was in the form of limiting the definition of torture for its purposes (here):

(1) (a) That with reference to article 1, the United States understands that, in order to constitute torture, an act must be specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering and that mental pain or suffering refers to prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from (1) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; (2) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality; (3) the threat of imminent death; or (4) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality.

This was an important reservation because it basically imposed a specific intent requirement for torture. If torture is inflicted without intent, it does not count as a violation of the Convention.

Furthermore, the US also was worried about protecting its officials:

(d) That with reference to article 1 of the Convention, the United States understands that the term `acquiescence' requires that the public official, prior to the activity constituting torture, have awareness of such activity and thereafter breach his legal responsibility to intervene to prevent such activity.

So, if the public official ignores to learn about the activity, he is shielded from liability.

These reservations and the way the US understands its international obligations came very handy during the tragedy in Abu Ghraib and all the time in Guantanamo. While the US Supreme Court gave certain red lights to the Bush Administration, Congress reacted by enacting the Military Commissions Act of 2006 which was not very helpful. So, nothing happened to reinforce the lessons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. "Torture" has a very limited definition when it comes to anti-terrorism.

It is quite enlightening to compare the beginning of the 20th century with that of the 21st. It was the collapse of humanism that led to genocides and the two world wars... Now we have terrorism and 'anti-terrorism' wrongs that culminated in another collapse of humanism. William Faulkner, one of the greatest American minds, then warned people not to fight evil with the help of evil... Evil cannot destroy the evil... Only kindness and justice can destroy the evil... Today all should heed very carefully to these words by Faulkner.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Ice melting and emissions...

The US National Ice and Snow Data Center has reported that Arctic sea coverage has fallen to record lows this summer. The 2005 previous record low of 2.15 million square kilometers has been surpassed after melting rates in July. (here)
It is quite alarming to speak with people who shrug their shoulders and ask how the cutting of emissions is related to ice melting and global warming. It is all a shortcoming of our educational system K-12 when children did not get a basic course in Physics.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Gorbachev... Yeltsin... Putin

The three Russian leaders were destined to leave a lasting mark on the history of Russia, each his own way. Mikhail Gorbachev was to let the gin out of the bottle and make a courageous U-turn for Russia towards political and economic reform. When he came to power, the Soviet Union was in deep trouble, economically, sociologically and internationally. An incorrigible idealist and an admirer of the West, Gorbachev committed to reform. While his heart was in the right place, the course he took was not rational. You cannot destroy and build a new house overnight. His policies therefore were simply suicidal for his political life and for the country. The 'shock therapy,' the uncontrollable and unattended privatization were going to be a Tsunami for the Soviet way of life. A comparison of his policies with those of the gradualist Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) in China reveals how systematically wrong was Gorbachev. China was not in a better shape after the insanity of Mao Zedong, when Deng Xiaoping took over. Today China's economic boom is a product of the clever policies of this man. (For more on this read China expert, Richard Baum's "Burying Mao.")

Therefore, Gorbachev spelled the seeds of disaster for Russia, while he must be given serious credit for commitment to bring needed reform to the USSR and the end of the Cold War. Yeltsin was even more incompetent. While he was also an idealist like Gorbachev, he had no clear vision of how to forge the reforms in Russia. During his time, Russia went into a deeper depression, economically, politically and sociologically. He gave free reign to the oligarchs and oil magnets, who plundered the country's natural resources and pocketed the money without paying to the treasury. The so-called "new Russians" acting as businessmen were allowed to commit the worst financial crimes with impunity. The complete absence of social services and unregulated free markets created an abyss, a huge gap between the rich and the poor, unseen of in the former Soviet Union. The poverty in Russia during Yeltsin can be compared only to that of during the Tsars. Organized crime was infiltrating all segments of the government and bribery, worse than it was during the Soviet Union was commonplace. I know this from firsthand experience because I lived in Russia during this period.

While Yeltsin should not be held responsible for all these problems, his incompetent presidency was a scourge for Russia. His health and alcoholism contributed to it. Idealism of Gorbachev and Yeltsin was not paying the dividends because it was not rational. Bill Clinton also was an idealist, but he was very rational and therefore, successful. Of course, Bill Clinton did not inherit a post-Communist country, to give some break to Yeltsin.

Russia was sinking like a big bag of stones thrown into the river when Putin took over. In contrast with the irresponsible idealism of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, this was a realist and pragmatist. Beginning from his serious demeanor and posture and ending with his policies, finally this was a man that rolled up his sleeves and went to work. His unquestionable popularity in Russia during his entire presidency associate his figure with that of Peter the Great (1672-1725)-- not a bad accomplishment, while of course, Peter the Great was a benevolent despot, similar to Napoleon.

He began with an anti-corruption campaign-- his biggest contribution to the country. Watching Russian TV, I am amazed with the number of prosecutions commenced for bribery on a daily basis. Bribery at all levels of government bureacracy was the biggest plague in the entire history of the Soviet Union. Putin's commitment to fight it is very courageous, because behind this corruption is the Russian mafia. Second, he went immediately after people like Berezovsky and Khadorkovsky. His goal was not to exterminate the big business. He understood Russia's strategic interests in oil. But he forced them to pay the taxes that they had ignored to pay for a decade. The 'stick' was nationalization of industries. Putin did that, to the great dismay of capitalists in the West and was attacked as anti-democratic. Perhaps, people will remember Roosevelt's steps taken to take the country out of the Great Depression. Putin had no choice.

Internationally, just like Peter the Great, Putin sought European integration. While Yeltsin also should be given credit for this, Putin continued these efforts strongly than ever. He played a major role in abolishing the death penalty. Today Russia does not impose the death penalty even for terrorists. Russia surrendered to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, which now is flooded by cases from Russia. In the aftermath of the 9-11 Putin offered his genuine help to the US to combat terrorism, unaccepted by the over-confidence of the Bush administration, who chose unilateralism instead. The war in Iraq undermined the relationship between Russia and the US, because Russia's contracts in Iraq dissolved as a result.

The US plans for the Missile Defense Shield and decision to place strategic nuclear rockets in Eastern Europe further challenged Russia as a world power. Putin who set out to take his country out of the psychological depression of the 90s, has taken steps to countermand the US expansion and superiority in the world. His partnership with China through the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has many realpolitik goals.

Russia prior to Putin reminded of the Germany in post-World War I. It felt humiliated. Nationalism bordering to Nazism was flourishing. People like Vladimyr Zhirinovsky were yelling the wipe out of Jews and of all non-Russians (very similar to Ahmadinejad of Iran). While nationalism is still very prominent in Russia, Putin was able to bring stability to the country by his calm and rational behavior as a politician. Moreover, his intelligence level is much higher than that of any Soviet leader. It should be noted that most Soviet leaders were never to the liking of the people. Putin was the first in many decades to win the hearts and minds of people.

There were many downsides to the institution of stability. It came at the expense of the democracy we portray in the West. Freedom to speak your mind and uncensored criticism are still not accepted well in Russia. The Russian mafia is still strong, while is under control. Chechnya, while stabilized during Putin, still is breaking the record of human rights violations. There is still much work to be done to develop the technology, industries and social services. Also the strong leadership of Putin has created some aura of the cult of personality, very similar to Maoism or Stalinism. But Putin's figure is much akin to Peter the Great in the minds of people, not ever to Stalin-- a good sign.

Putin was able to repair the fallen image of Russia, which is a double edged sword. On one hand, it recreates the balance of powers, absent from the world arena in these couple of decades. We saw how many troubles we have had because of the unipolarism. Islamic fundamentalism was an outspring of that. On the other hand, if Russia asserts itself as a world power like it used to, we will probably be very close to the brink of another Cold War. Competition between superpowers with nuclear weapons is a Hobbesian tragedy...

With all his shortcomings and failures, Putin stopped the sinking of Russia and did many positive things for his country, hence his popularity. The opposite is true of Bush, who in fact caused the sinking of the US... Very sad, given the differences between a post-Communist struggling country inherited by Putin and a strong functioning democracy with an excellent economy inherited by Bush...

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Human Rights Enforcement: Cultural Relativism and Universalism

From the beginning of history of human rights law there has been a debate between cultural relativists and universalists. Cultural relativism presupposes the relevance of culture in human rights enforcement. Many states violating human rights use this approach when justifying their actions. "Our country has an exceptional, unique culture and history. We are doing our best, but we did not violate human rights when we upheld our laws," they say and continue the abuses or mitigate them by haphazard and uncommitted enforcement to avoid the 'sticks' from other nations.

Universalism instead proclaims the superiority of certain universal values and code of rules over a specific 'unique' culture or nation. In its quest to express, promulgate and seek obedience to these universal values, universalism much too often disregards cultural differences among the subjects-- state actors. After all, every state formulating its pathways in obeying human rights law is a mirror of the people it purports to represent and people are products of their culture, more or less. While in this interdependent world stark cultural differences among countries have superficially dissipated, they still exist under the surface, especially at a cross-regional level. European countries share many core values amongst themselves that they could hardly share with African countries and vice versa.

So both cultural relativism and universalism are co-existent and are not mutually exclusive. Both are imperfect approaches when taken separately, but in reality they enmesh very positively together. Therefore, human rights law enforcement should not be taken one-dimensionally from either perspective. When a region or a set of countries-- finding this core set of values among themselves-- proclaims their version of Declaration of Human Rights, it should not be taken negatively. The goal behind this process is salutary, if it is only not used as an excuse to violate the universal norms set by the United Nations. Islamic states have done that and have proclaimed their versions of Declaration of Human Rights-- not very different from the UN version except for their religiosity, not welcomed by universalists (for an example here). For more on this see my upcoming article "Islamic Law and Path to Peace."

Monday, September 3, 2007

Africa and its troubles...

The true story of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 can be glimpsed from the heart-aching book by Immaculee Ilibagiza "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan genocide." It is startling to read the account of this Catholic woman, born in the province of Kibuye, in the village of Mataba, who hid in a secret bathroom from the killers and survived to tell the story of her family, her friends and country enmeshed in inhuman violence... It is also revealing to read how she learned to forgive and heal guided by her new-founded faith in God.
... Wangari Muta Maathai (above) was born on April 1, 1940 in Ihithe village, Tetu division, Nyeri District of Kenya. In 2004 she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her political and environmental activism...