Sunday, March 30, 2008

Slavery of the 21st century

One of the most important characteristics of a working democracy is TOLERANCE towards the oppressed, the disadvantaged, all types of minorities... In this political season we hear a lot of debate about illegal immigrants. Some of the debate is reminiscent of the Civil Rights Era-- what rights and privileges should a group get...

The story is dark and sad. Forceful refuge and migration into a country symbolized by the Statue of Liberty and to a great dismay finding oneself shackled into poverty and slavery. This is a new type of slavery-- the slavery of the 21st century. Some say, they voluntarily came to this country. Well, when you cannot find means for providing basic needs--food and shelter-- for your family, your migration is not voluntary, and is by force. Why is this slavery? Illegal immigrants do the most humiliating type of work for the most humiliating amount of money. They live deprived of dignity, self-respect, self-appreciation, getting by one day at a time... They get the worst treatment. Of course, nobody is lynching them nor is there KKK running to eliminate them. But they are hanging on the very margins of this society, always perceived to be 'outsiders,' 'aliens' and temporary providers of cheap labor. The path towards legalization as the only hope, they live their lives without even realizing what is life.

I have lived around these people all my life in the United States. I know the story. When I hear the debates about illegal immigration among those in the Ivy Tower, I simply wonder whether they realize that they are talking about the very fundamentals of a democracy. If tolerance of minorities has become a meaningless concept, then perhaps empathy and compassion could turn into a useful substitute.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Secessionism and the so-called Kosovo precedent is seeing its countertrend too. Moldova, a former republic of the Soviet Union, and some groups in neighboring Romania are contemplating a union. Like many other republics Moldova has severely deteriorated in many aspects as a result of the independence and the collapse of the USSR. With a weak economy and high poverty numbers it is in search for unification, this time not with Russia, a long-time ally, but with European Union. Who would resist such a temptation? Ethnically, culturally and linguistically Moldovans and Romanians share a lot. While not every country in the EU would welcome the move given the economic advantages and inherent responsibilities, it is something to watch for in the coming future... In the upcoming NATO summit it is quite possible that Romania will seek the 'blessing' of the Alliance for this interesting possibility. For more read.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Portrayed simple and flawed

While our Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are making oversimplified assertions about Iraq and the US occupation (one side arguing the war was completely wrong, the other making similarly simple argument that the war was right and our occupation should continue), international law scholars are examining the real complexity of the issues. Their conclusions are sophisticated and derive from knowledge of international law concepts. While they acknowledge that under the formal international law parameters the invasion of Iraq was unlawful, they also are beginning to admit that it had some collateral positive effects (as well as negative, of course) ultimately. They have tried to trace and acknowledge some transformative trends in Iraq as a result of the US occupation. Their views may collide with mine or yours, but I encourage everyone to examine them more closely and understand how both political camps, Democrats and Republicans, are flawed in their assertions... It is because their views stem largely from the standpoint of 'national security', not international law. And 'national security' in their eyes unfortunately is composed of many dogmas and ideologically flawed assumptions which are diametrically in opposition to the philosophy behind international law... They also simplify things to get votes of many uninformed people... Sadly, even those who are pretty informed fall into the trap of oversimplification...

Click here for more information regarding a Symposium at Loyola Law School on this subject.

Click here for an article by Peter Danchin on this subject.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hopes high too soon

These last 4 or 5 years a lot of people have been wondering whether the Cold War is renewed... Pausing and thinking about it leads to an even more thought-provoking conclusion that perhaps it never ended. The Bush Administration's ambitions about world superiority and continued presence of the NATO in the region when the Warsaw Pact disintegrated and the Berlin wall came down refreshed the deep-seated insecurity of Russia. Putin's leadership restored the Russian sense of national pride and brought a set of ambitions surrounding prospects of world leadership. Now continued expansion of the NATO and probable joining of Georgia and Ukraine is troubling to Russians. Medvedev in tune with Putin has reiterated his concerns (for a story). What has been going on in Georgia and Ukraine in these last couple of decades stems in large part from Moscow's unwillingness to 'surrender' its radar influence on these former republics, determined to follow the political schedule and agenda of the United States. Naturally, these two republics will be hot spots for a long time because of the division between pro-Russian and pro-American philosophies. Some of the Central Asian republics and the Caucasus will also be included, specifically Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.

Wasn't this story dominating during the entire Cold War? Each superpower fought for bringing others into its sphere of influence in opposition to the other. This whole mentality is continuing... We took a sigh of big relief when the Cold War was 'announced' to have been over... While the Soviet Union is gone and will exist only on the historic maps, Russia/Moscow as the focal center remains as a player...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Color and color-blind

I have talked a lot about race... Just to continue musing on this hot topic nowadays. When you stand up and say loudly, 'I am black,' you will draw a line between you and me. And if I stand up and say, 'I am white,' I will definitely offend all non-whites. So, standing up and claiming 'white' is entirely unacceptable. I think, it works the other way too. I think, not only whites can discriminate, but also blacks can. It is 'reverse racism', in my opinion. Some may say there is a distinction between minorities and the white Caucasian majority. Minorities tend to cling to their community for 'security' and point of reference. Armenians have their community, the Jewish have theirs, the blacks theirs, the Latinos theirs, and so on... The majority does not have to do that by sheer numbers and the absence of the need to cling to someething. They are not as insecure as the minorities. But I want to stress to you that discrimination is not confined to the white Caucasians. Everyone is capable of discriminating. And I assert that the first step in that direction is standing up and drawing a line between oneself and others. Of course, identity is an issue here. You are what you are and denying that or trying to 'hide' it is simply not possible. But asserting one's identity should not come at the expense of alienation and line-drawing. For example, if I stand up and constantly say, 'I am Russian-Armenian', I will basically separate myself from mainstream Americans, I think. Instead what I do psychologically, I say to myself, 'I am a human being generally and specifically I am an American with a different ethnic background.' That works very nicely for me. In these multiple layers of identity, you psychologically posture yourself in the larger group, not separate from the rest. For example, I really do not like the Armenian cultural tendency in America to raise children 'culturally pure' and as true Armenians. I will ask you this question, does being an American exclude you from also being Jewish, Armenian, Russian? No.

But going back to race. Historically, the most oppressed and disadvantaged group in America is blacks. History defined much of their present today. Lingering anger, insecurity, frustration and distrust against whites in general. Of course, this is by no means true of everyone. I am talking in generalities. While whites have learned their lesson-- that discrimination is immoral and will have legal consequences-- blacks have not forgotten the past... Certainly there is still subtle discrimination and African-Americans fill a large percentage of the poverty ranks... But all I want to say is this, discrimination is a highly psychological and irrational process and begins from that first step of line-drawing. My answer to this is to stop focusing on race. While 'color-blind' mentality also does not work because it is disingenuous and artificial, there are ways of avoiding this concept of line-drawing. For example, I do not like when in employment applications they still ask for your race (optional)... That should be completely eliminated. Race should stop being a factor in public sphere and people's lives. While cognizant of history, we need to move towards a future that eliminates that first step in the link of discrimination...

Race is only one of the many attributes of a human being and should not take precedence over others. I would also suggest that attributes can be meaningful and meaningless and race is one of the most meaningless ones.

Now you can understand why certain things in this contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton were really discomforting to me. For example, 89% of blacks voting for Obama, while whites evenly dividing their vote between the two...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rule of law and Medvedev

The West jumped to criticize Medvedev as the 'installed' and handpicked President, successor of Putin. But so far he is on the right track, in my eyes. In his speech at the 85th anniversary of the creation of the Russian Supreme Court he has urged to develop among other things the independence and accountability of the judiciary. As he has said, 'It is the quality of the work of the judiciary that defines the relationship of the citizens to the state and law.' Since the rule of law is a crucial attribute of any society, corruption in the judiciary is absolutely unacceptable. He spoke about the process of selection of judges, the delay and congestion of the judicial process, overall quality of judiciary. In addition, he stressed on increasing the means for discipline for violation of judicial ethics. Quality, accountability of the judiciary and improved access of the citizenry to the court system were the themes of his speech. For the full speech.

This is a continuation of Putin's big agenda against corruption in the government. His launch against the practices long-settled during the Soviet Union years was perhaps the biggest contribution to his country...

Saturday, March 8, 2008

International Women's Day

International Women’s Day came about as a result of the Socialist Movement in Europe, Russia and the suffragist movement in the United States. In 1910 at a Socialist conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, there was a proposal to officially commemorate an International Women’s Day. On the threshold of World War I, Russian women activists came out to the streets protesting for ‘peace and bread.’ Later in 1917 at the height of the Great October Revolution women organized mass demonstrations demanding the right to vote and asking the Czar to abdicate. The famous women’s strike commenced on February 23 on the calendar then in use in Russia, which is March 8 on the calendar elsewhere in the world. (visit)

This day is very personal to me. Growing up in the Soviet Union, March 8 was a national holiday of first importance and we had parades with flower shows on the squares of our cities. I remember very vividly the sense of pride of women on this day. Men, women and children like me were walking with large posters with international symbols of peace and solidarity. With the Cold War a reality, longing for peace was enormous. It was this international spirit that made me want to be a world citizen. I was born on March 10, 1978. But when my father went to the county office to get my birth certificate, he recorded my birthday as March 8 to have it associated with International Women’s Day. All my formal documents reflect that. I see a symbolic meaning in this. If throughout my life I make a significant contribution to international women’s rights, my life will be fulfilled.

For centuries in almost all cultures throughout the world women were severely marginalized and minimized to the role of a housewife and mother. While many tribal and pre-Roman societies were matriarchal and centered around women, that rapidly changed with the advance of the Roman law and its influence in the world. Women were perceived as completely lacking in intelligence. They were not allowed access to higher education beyond the education received at home even in the nobility. You see, their minds were too frail and they were not seen as capable of mastering sciences and arts. Any ambitious woman who set up goals for her advancement had to become a mistress to a famous man to reach them. Fortunate were those born to kings. As queens they were allowed to rule over men by Grace of God. They were divinities, not simple women. Otherwise who would have followed their orders? There were those who surpassed kings in their rule. Cleopatra, Catherine the Great of Russia, Elizabeth I of England were such. But until the end of the 19th century women were largely invisible and voiceless. Exceptionally talented women would shine like lone stars in the darkness of the night and again submerge into darkness, forgotten and rendered to oblivion. Grace O’Malley was one. But with growing industrialization at the threshold of the 20th century women began awakening from deep subjugation and slumber. Because the industrialization touched the West more forcefully than other parts of the world, women’s emancipation movement also began in the West. Women’s suffragist movement that bestowed the right to vote was an essential beginning. Till then women were not privileged to participate or contribute to the civic society except for by charitable work or patronage. This was a crucial threshold that women of the West crossed. Of course, we should also recognize that socialism with its basic egalitarian principles made a significant contribution to women’s rights. Therefore, countries with socialism as political ideology made similar progress in women’s rights. Slowly, step by step, but surely women marched on in the 20th century, acknowledging, defying, and breaking barriers. First treated as non-conformists and rebels these women were going to set new standards for the newer generations of women. Lucille Ball and Katherine Hepburn come to mind. Things they fought hard for day in and day out were already taken for granted by those of us who followed. For us, women lawyers it is simply inconceivable that there was a time, not long ago, when women were simply not found in law schools. Those who began breaking this rule were treated with ridicule and sexism.

So here we are today. For us, fortunate women in the West and some other regions, most of the barriers are no longer a reality. We are no longer perceived as intellectually inferior to men, or subordinate to them. While there are still subtle and invisible to the eye barriers and sexism is still existent, we cannot compare our condition to that of our foremothers. Yet, yet, in a large part of the world women are still mistreated, disrespected, viewed as inferior at best. At worst they are sold, abused daily, raped, as easy targets of violence. Their suffering is enormous. They take the biggest hit of poverty, economic degradation, cultural and tribal backwardness. We, women in the West, who are fortunate to have achieved so much by virtue of high development of our countries, have a responsibility to render a helping hand to these women across the Globe who are less fortunate. Women in Africa, Asia, Middle East are those in need of our help. Powerless as they are, they only need our guidance and inspiration to arise because they have all the determination, strength and maturity that characterized women suffragists in the West and those Russian women activists. The UN and human rights institutions have done a lot but it is not enough, because the suffering of women all around the world is continuing daily, hourly and by minute.

To me International Women’s Day is a day of realization of the high responsibility of all women in the world in standing up for one another. Women’s rights cannot materialize and be enforced in societies if women all around the world are inactive. On this day, I would therefore like to give a tribute to a woman who has dedicated her life and career to arousing this great sense of responsibility in other women—my favorite Professor at UC Davis School of Law, Madhavi Sunder. (here) Graduate of Harvard and Stanford, she came to teach at a very young age, feeling the sense of urgency in development of women’s rights around the globe. Her scholarship is devoted to rejecting old-fashioned, settled norms about women and culture, women and religion, women and modernity. She has courageously crossed the high threshold towards new thinking, new ‘enlightenment’ that gives new impetus to women’s rights and prepares all the essential groundwork for advancement of women in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. A distinguished Carnegie scholar, an author of numerous brilliant articles and an upcoming book, she is a superb role model for us. As an affectionate mother of two children and a wife she is a role model not only as a scholar and champion for women, but as a well-rounded woman successful in all roles. Congratulations to Professor Madhavi Sunder!
Happy International Women’s Day!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"

On this day, March 4, 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as President. In his platform he had promised a 'new deal for the American people' and pledged to help the 'little guy' in the streets. The time had come to give relief to the "forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid" and stop bailing out "the large banks and corporations." (A. James Reichley, 'The Life of the Parties'). During the first 'hundred days' of his Presidency Roosevelt proposed and Congress enacted the first measures that would lay a foundation of the New Liberalism, the so-called New Deal. These included restructuring of the national banking system, authorizing federal subsidies to agriculture, regulation of the securities industry, authorization of a big public power and conservation project, establishment of the National Recovery Administration.

The right-wing criticism was fierce. One of his opponents said, "I will take off my coat and fight to the end against any candidate who persists in any demagogic appeal to the masses of the working people of this country to destroy themselves by setting the class against class and rich against poor!" The socialist flame engulfing Europe brought a lot of concerns to the Americans and seeded many doubts in their minds about whether capitalism was working. While Roosevelt was attacked as a 'socialist', it was not a valid criticism. It was precisely thanks to Roosevelt that the free market system survived in the United States. But the New Deal was focused on regulating the free market and interjecting the government between the working people and big business to build the middle-class and restore the equilibrium.

Roosevelt was the torch-bearer of the new liberal philosophy that today makes up the Democratic Party. Both Obama and Hillary have been loyal to these principles. But I hope that the American people will see the real power of Hillary Clinton to bring about the change that America needs so desperately! Vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton for President!