Tune in to PBS tonight to watch a great documentary about justice

Tonight, PBS will premiere The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court. This documentary film was produced by Skylight Pictures, an outstanding team of filmmakers who collaborated with AIUSA on our 2007 documentary Justice Without Borders.  Click here for local listings, as times vary.

The broadcast date is significant, in that it marks the week eleven years ago that more than 160 governments came together to negotiate the treaty creating the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Reckoning follows the ICC’s Prosecutor as he and his team confront the most challenging of armed conflict situations, compiling evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in order to build cases against leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, militia leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the President of Sudan.

I’ve had the privilege of viewing and commenting on various stages of the film as it was being developed.  It’s a great piece of work.  With each viewing, something new strikes me.  I wanted to share with you some of the themes in the film that resonate with me today.

First, The Reckoning builds to what feels like a “Law and Order: War Crimes”- style finale, with the Prosecutor and his team closing in on a target — a sitting head of state — considered by many to be out of reach.   The crime thriller analogy is actually very appropriate, because some of the footage we see in the film is, when you think about it, crime scene footage.  It’s easy to forget that.  Mass rapes, murders, mutilations and starvation are often treated as the tragic and inevitable consequences of war, instead of as crimes which are planned — which actually require planning to implement on a mass scale — and for which specific individuals are responsible and can be held accountable.

Secondly, The Reckoning is very much a “David and Goliath” story.  Critics of the ICC’s work try to portray the Court as a big, Western-dominated bully out to get Africa.  I think you will come away from The Reckoning struck by how small the Prosecutor’s team really is in comparison with the massive crimes they are confronting.  I think you will also be struck by how relentless they are in pursuing justice for the victims, who they stress are the millions of Africans subjected to human rights abuses, instead of the few who try to obscure their culpability by hiding behind the mantle of nationalism.

Finally, The Reckoning tells the story of what is essentially an unfinished revolution.  The film explores both the breakthroughs in the advancement of human rights and the rule of law that made the ICC possible, as well as the lack of political to make enforcement a reality.  Former Nuremberg prosecutor (and one of my heroes) Benjamin Ferencz recalls how the entire body of human rights law that we take for granted today came to be in his lifetime, demonstrating how much is possible in what is essentially a blink of the eye in historical time.  Yet most of the world’s governments — some of whose representatives we see celebrating the ICC treaty at the start of the film — continue to fail to give any meaningful support the ICC in apprehending indicted war criminals.  We may still have a long way to go, but it’s possible to get there.

I encourage you to tune into PBS tonight, and if you’re as moved as I was, please take action.  Write to Secretary of State Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Rice and urge them to support the ICC’s work on Darfur.

Roma persecution – Antiziganism – intensifies in Europe

Perhaps the most oppressed people in history, Roma – commonly referred to as Gypsies – have been persecuted since they arrived in Europe in 1300 C.E.

The New York Times reports that institutionalized and societal prejudice against Roma is enflaming violence in Europe:


Prejudice against Roma — widely known as Gypsies and long among Europe’s most oppressed minority groups — has swelled into a wave of violence. Over the past year, at least seven Roma have been killed in Hungary, and Roma leaders have counted some 30 Molotov cocktail attacks against Roma homes, often accompanied by sprays of gunfire.


In addition to Mr. Koka’s death, there were the slayings of a Roma man and woman, who were shot after their house was set ablaze last November in Nagycsecs, a town about an hour’s drive from Tiszalok in northeastern Hungary. And in February, a Roma man and his 4-year-old son were gunned down as they tried to escape from their home, which was set on fire in Tatarszentgyorgy, a small town south of Budapest.


Experts on Roma issues describe an ever more aggressive atmosphere toward Roma in Hungary and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, led by extreme right-wing parties, whose leaders are playing on old stereotypes of Roma as petty criminals and drains on social welfare systems at a time of rising economic and political turmoil. As unemployment rises, officials and Roma experts fear the attacks will only intensify.


Persecution against Roma, as detailed in just one Amnesty International press release from yesterday, is nothing new. Neither is the unwillingness of authorities to stop the oppression. In the Czech republic, for instance:


Roma… continue to suffer discrimination at the hands of both public officials and private individuals, including in the areas of housing, education, health care and employment.

Not only do they face forced evictions, segregation in education and racially motivated violence, but they have been denied justice when seeking redress for the abuses against them.


The history of Roma persecution goes back hundreds of years ago. Throughout 16-18th century, Roma were hanged without trial in Europe. In 1921, nonetheless, Czechoslovakia shortly recognized Roma as “nationality.” In 1933, Hitler ordered sterilization of Roma. Later, up to half a million Roma were killed in the Holocaust. In just one act, 4,000 Roma were gassed and cremated in Auschwitz on August 2, 1944. Unlike the Jewish victims, Roma victims of the Holocaust are rarely researched or commemorated.

With some activism in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Roma still face institutional and social discrimination in Europe. In Italy, the government fingerprints them. In 2008, bodies of two drowned Roma children were left at the beach while Italians and tourists vacationed a few feet away.

As late as 1998, the state of New Jersey in the US had anti-Roma laws. Popular American TV star Judge Judy has used the word “Gypsy” at least once as a synonym for a “thief” on her show after 2005. While Judge Judy’s remark can be explained perhaps by her lack of knowledge of Roma issues, the same cannot be said about influential people in countries with large Roma populations. In one such state, Romania, the president called a journalist “dirty Gypsy” in 2007.

While many Roma have historically assimilated (accepted, for example, Islam in the Middle East and Christianity in Europe), scores of them choose to keep their ancestral, migratory way of life despite hundreds of years of slavery, universal persecution and genocide. Others have established enclaves in different countries where they demand integration and respect. Roma supposedly left India as a result of foreign invasion to avoid persecution. Their common name “Gypsy” is a misconception that Roma originated in Egypt.

Many of the unassimilated Roma demand freedom of travel and not be regulated.
A unique case of stateless people, Roma do not demand independence or even political autonomy. The Roma persecution has brought about little outrage throughout the world. The problem, in this case, is definitely the lack of awareness.

In my home country Armenia, for instance, the word “Bosha” is an insult – while it used to be the ethnic name for the Roma who have either entirely assimilated or prefer to be called Lom. Their language, Lomavren, a unique mixture with medieval Armenian, has long vanished.

It is time that the world stand up against Antiziganism. Perhaps Amnesty International should adopt the cause of fighting Antiziganism as one of its main goals?

MIA Drops the G Word

MIA on the Tavis Smiley show

MIA on the Tavis Smiley show

In an interview on the Tavis Smiley show, British born musician MIA likened the Sri Lanka government’s targeting of its Tamil minority to be genocide. She said:

there’s been a systematic genocide which has quiet thing because no one knows where Sri Lanka is. And now it’s just escalated to the point there’s 350,000 people who are stuck in a battle zone and can’t get out, and aid’s banned and humanitarian organizations are banned, journalists are banned from telling the story.

In the interview, MIA said that one of the reasons for the global inaction on Sri Lanka was the underreporting of the crisis in Sri Lanka, something the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon echoed comments as well.

MIA said:

You don’t know more about it because due to the propaganda — when you think Tamil, you automatically thing tiger, and that is completely disproportionate. So human beings around the world have to be taught to go Tamil equals Tamil civilians first, and the Tamil Tiger is a separate thing.

But in a story in the NY Times, published the day after MIA performed at the Grammy’s on her pregnancy due date, the Times raised questions that MIA might be a supporter of the Tamil Tigers. “Frankly, she’s very lucky to get away with supporting, even indirectly, perhaps the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world,” the Times quoted a Sinhalese musician as saying. (The Sinhalese comprise the majority in Sri Lanka as well as the government; many alledge that Tamils–which comprise a minority of the population–have been targeted unfairly in lopsided violence and attacks.)

However in numerous interviews, MIA has denied her links to Tamil Tigers and decried the manner in which all Sri Lankan Tamils are accused of being Tiger supporters if they are critical of the Sinhalese government.

But despite efforts to accuse her of being a terrorist sympathizer, MIA continues to speak up against the violence that displaced her family and continues to displace so many others right now. She says,

…we’re managing to wipe out the whole Tamil population, the civilians, and that is why you don’t hear about it, because the propaganda in the media, because if you’re a terrorist organization, you don’t have the right to speak, that is passed on to the Tamil civilians. The Tamil civilians don’t have the right to speak or right to live, they don’t have any liberties.

So that’s been the key thing, that when you think al Qaeda, you’re not thinking Afghanistan. That if you want to go and fight and kill al Qaeda, then you can, but you can’t wipe out Afghanistan. And that’s what’s happening in Sri Lanka, and I think it’s really important for America to understand that, because they set the precedent on how you fight terrorism around the world.

And it’s really important that just that sort of throwaway comment, “Oh, Tamil, she must be a Tamil Tiger,” actually, the repercussions of that is killing people back home.

Terror vs. Terror

“‘In order for the violence to stop, Hamas must stop firing rockets into Israel and agree to respect a sustainable and durable cease-fire,’ a White House spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe, told reporters in Texas. ‘Hamas has once again shown its true colors as a terrorist organization.'” From “Gaza Toll Passes 350 in 3rd Day of Israel Strikes” in the New York Times.

Again and again we see states try to justify murder with murder, torture with torture, barbarism with barbarism, genocide with genocide.

The words “terror,” “terrorism” and “terrorist” obscure this hypocrisy. What is it that states want to counter by “countering terrorism?” The killing, injuring and frightening of civilians. How are states going to do it? By killing, injuring and frightening civilians? Come on.

The human rights community should drop the “terror” framework. There are individuals, armed groups, unarmed groups, companies, states and groups of states. Some of these terrorize civilians. Some don’t. Let’s stop confusing “who” with “what.”

Or at least let’s insist on using the word “terrorist” to describe all who qualify.

Wanted: US Leadership to Prevent Genocide

Dear President-elect Obama,

As a candidate for president, you clearly stated how you will respond to mass atrocities and genocide:

“The United States has a moral obligation anytime you see humanitarian catastrophes. We are the most powerful nation in the world. We have the most stake in creating an order in the world that is stable and in which people have hope in opportunity. And when you see a genocide, whether it’s in Rwanda, or Bosnia, or Darfur, that’s a stain on all of us. That’s a stain on our souls. (…) We can’t say ‘never again’ and then allow it to happen again. And as President of the United States, I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.

With your victory in the presidential elections, you will soon have a chance to put your words into action. And that’s not where the good news ends. To tackle the challenges ahead, the Genocide Prevention Task Force, a group of experts including staff from Amnesty International, worked for a year to develop a practical framework to assist you in responding to genocide and mass atrocities. The task force, jointly convened by the United States Holocaust Museum, the American Academy of Diplomacy, and US Institute of Peace, released its final report today. Co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, the report makes several key recommendations in the areas of early warning, preventive diplomacy, the use or threat of force and the power of international action.

However, all these areas are topped by one priority: “Nothing is more central to preventing genocide than leadership – from the president, Congress and the American people. Making progress requires leaders to summon political will not only after a crisis strikes, but also before one emerges.” Coming from a country in which genocide was perpetrated more than 60 years ago, I could not agree more.

In addition to carefully studying the report’s recommendations, I urge you to recall the following quote by Martin Luther King: “The greatest sin of our time is not the few who have destroyed but the vast majority who’ve sat idly by.”

I hope you get a chance to take a look at the report soon – I’d be happy to send you a copy. Let me know what you think!



A Stronger US Stance Against Mass Atrocities?

With every day that passes, grave human rights violations continue in places like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma. President-elect Barack Obama’s recent personnel decisions have fostered speculations that we will see a stronger US stance against the mass atrocities that are perpetrated in these countries.

Obama’s most recent pick: Today, he nominated Susan Rice as US Ambassador to the United Nations. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007, Rice has described US policy towards the crisis in Darfur as “Inaction in the Face of Genocide”. Jerry Fowler of the Save Darfur Coalition praised the appointment and said Obama’s decision “sends a very strong signal about his approach to the issue of Sudan and Africa in general”.

Recently, Obama selected Samantha Power as a member of the Agency Review Team that will review the US State Department to make policy, budgetary and personnel recommendations. With her seminal work, A problem from hell. America and the Age of Genocide, Power has inspired scores of people in this country – including myself – to act against mass atrocities.

Will Rice and Power’s expertise and commitment to stopping mass atrocities be enough to actually change the priorities of US foreign policy?

Posted in USA