UN Expresses Hope; The Sun Also Rises

by Joshua Foust on 5/2/2007 · 15 comments

Oh look—Louise Arbour went to Kazakhstan on her UN Human Rights Bash 2007, and expressed hope the country would bother to enact the more than 40 human rights treaties it brags it has signed. Perhaps they could start with missing journalist Oralgaysha Omarshanova, or the unfairly imprisoned businessman Mike Seidenfeld. But there is a raft of other standards Kazakhstan boldly flouts, from not murdering dissidents to not torturing prisoners to not disappearing the inconveniently loud mouthed. It’s okay, though, because Louise Arbour has expressed hope that somehow, some day, it will all change.

Hey, remember that time “someone” accused me of “ignorant… fact-free writing” when I declared skepticism over Ms. Arbour’s tour of Central Asia, including my firm belief it would be nothing more than photo-ops for the thugs who run these countries? I certainly do. Kazakhstan is by far the least of these; what will her tour look like in, say, Uzbekistan?

(ht: Bonnie.)

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Bonnie Boyd May 2, 2007 at 7:13 am

Well, heck, Joshua,
I know I have never confused you with fact-free writing, so I feel secure in commenting here.
I think Uzbekistan has informed the world that Ms. Arbour would not be welcomed to Uzbekistan,
approximately twenty minutes after she said she would not be going there.
So she will not have any photo ops with Mr. Karimov.
P.S. What does ht stand for? Just for my own understanding

Joshua Foust May 2, 2007 at 7:18 am

Hat Tip. Blogger etiquette. I’m stating I got the links from you, so you can receive proper credit (and hopefully people will read what you had to say, which was much more insightful).

And I know you’ve never accused me of such. I was simply trying to avoid naming names.

And the bit about Uzbekistan just reaffirms my point: if she’s not going to visit or be welcome by the worst offenders, what’s the point of going?

Templer May 2, 2007 at 8:36 am

I don’t know what Kazinform is but judging from its web site I doubt it painted a full picture of what went on in those meetings. Hardly a reliable source of information as to what went on. I expect she did raise those cases — as this is usually done. You still don’t understand what the OHCHR does and you have clearly made up your mind. Being refused entry by the worst offenders also highlights how bad they are and how much they have to hide. It created press coverage of human rights issues in Uzbekistan and that is no bad thing.

But what do you expect her to do? Invade these countries with the massed armies of the OHCHR and overthrow their governments? We’ve all seen how well that worked for human rights in Iraq.

Your writing still is a little fact free on all this. A blogger’s prerogative perhaps but nothing to be proud of.

Joshua Foust May 2, 2007 at 8:43 am

There are official ways of protesting an entry refusal. And what evidence do you have that KazInform misreported what went on? Inference?

Look, my big problem with the whole charade is efficacy. Everyone knows Uzbekistan is a bad place. Simply saying as much, while traveling from official meeting to official meeting and expressing hope, doesn’t really do anything. You and I both want Ms. Arbour’s trip to accomplish something, even if it is minor. I just don’t see how it is anything other than a working vacation.

Nick May 2, 2007 at 9:18 am

I suspect Louise Arbour’s presence in Uzbekistan wouldn’t be particularly welcomed considering yet another human rights activist and journalist has been banged up. Now that free media and the human-rights/NGO sector has been muzzled, Louise Arbour is perhaps all that’s last – however ineffective she may be (or not, as I think is the case). And someone’s got to take stand from the international community.

Templer May 2, 2007 at 9:48 am

So it’s a charade … a vacation. Based on what? You don’t know what was discussed. You don’t know which cases were raised. Your knowledge of the UN extends to not knowing the difference between the OHCHR and the UNHCR. You don’t know Louise Arbour. You don’t understand the mandate of the HCHR. You don’t know much about human rights law clearly. And you don’t know much about photo ops — I’ve not seen one so far with any of the regional thugs and I doubt they’d want them to happen.

These visits are not ceremonial — they can have a profound impact in that they often get the issue of human rights to the top of governments where it is never discussed. Do you think a lot of Central Asian officials spend their time taking hr cases to their leaders? Arbour is one of the few people who speaks the truth to these people. That may not come out in the press releases but it happens behind closed doors. Her visits are often very important for human rights defenders in these countries who she meets. Believe me doing four central asian nations in about a week with dawn to midnight meetings is no vacation. It won’t rproduce instant results but believe me almost nothing does in this field.

More knowledge, less snearing on your part would go a long way to improving this blog.

Joshua Foust May 2, 2007 at 10:33 am

Besides insulting me (again) and confusing ignorance and a typo, you have yet to explain the utility of this trip.

I still have yet to see any evidence that Ms. Arbour’s office or this visit can or will accomplish anything beyond empty platitudes. Where has this office been effective in the past? Has it been effective in the last fifteen years in the region? Does it really matter if yet another international agency is drawing attention to horrible abuses, if still nothing is done to end them or prevent them further?

My critiques and deep skepticism are not borne of personal animus or dislike of Ms. Arbour. I simply think the agency she happens to head doesn’t do much.

Templer May 2, 2007 at 11:09 am

You seem willing to snear at everyone else — charade, vacation etc. but when someone corrects you for not knowing about a subject, it’s a insult and you’re all hurt. If you are that thin skinned then don’t put your ignorance on display for the world to see.

Your scepticism is born (BTW, not borne) of not knowing anything this organisation, that’s all. The OHCHR has done an enormous amount of work around the world developing the structures that protect human rights — it has had a lot do with the fact that there even is a discussion of human rights in most countries. It has worked with tens of thousands of government officials and others to improve their knowledge, it has developed guidelines and pushed through an array of international instruments. They have intervened in tens of thousands of individual cases and helped tens of thousands of people. Do human rights abuses still occur? Yes, and they always will. The failure of Central Asian state to live up to their obligations does not negate the work of this organisation.

Nathan May 2, 2007 at 11:45 am

Christ, we’re correcting spelling now? (Ahem…)

Anyhow, I think you do have a point Robert. These visits are not totally worthless, and Ms. Arbour should be given the benefit of the doubt — we should assume that she did in fact bring up specific human rights cases behind closed doors. (The US certainly did with Uzbekistan from 2002-2005, and it was a bit unfair to criticize the US as did not care about human rights based solely on what was said in public.) That said, I can’t help but think that what this argument is about a larger issue — namely whether or not dialogue is an effective means of securing human rights.

Joshua Foust May 2, 2007 at 11:48 am

Again with the sniping of typos in a comment section (and it’s “sneer,” not “snear” – maybe if you want to correct my spelling you should correct your own). I don’t correct your sometimes spotty grammar or questionable syntax… or misspellings. Moreover, on a purely stylistic note, I’m not offended that people argue with me — apparently unlike you, I rather enjoy it when people dare to question me (and there are several commenters who revel in the sport) — but the way in which you disagree with someone has much to do with how you are responded to in kind. I don’t care that you correct me, I care that you do so with such sneering (note the two Es) contempt.

Back to the topic at hand, I agree with you that OHCHR has done a lot for human rights since it was formed… in the countries that welcome it. It has been particularly effective in Afghanistan and Nepal, but that is because they were welcomed. You yourself admitted that, as an IGO dependent on its member states for power and legitimacy, it often can’t go to the worst places on earth where it is needed the most. That is why Ms. Arbour is not going to Uzbekistan, that is why she’s getting the same token head nodding Kazakhstan has made the last half decade, and that is why her trip will ultimately amount to nothing. If the countries themselves don’t wish to change, they won’t, and Ms. Arbour can’t do anything more than earnestly wave her hands in their faces.

Ahem, and what Nathan said (three minutes!).

Templer May 2, 2007 at 2:28 pm

Thanks for the spelling correction. I’m always willing to admit when I’m wrong. And if I don’t know anything about a subject, I don’t write about it. There’s a lesson is there somewhere.

You clearly are insulted by being corrected. If you dole it out in your posts, it’ll come back to you. You set the tone here.

Bonnie Boyd May 2, 2007 at 2:49 pm

Whoa, whoa, whoa!
Josh, I have to come out on Nathan’s side on this one.
I do think that Ms. Arbour’s trip has positive effects, just maybe not earth-shattering ones.

For instance, four Central Asian Republics (not Uzbekistan) received information on how to register stateless persons–her trip is an acknowledgement of world attention to the area–she brought funds for specific initiatives. The statelessness program is great in itself and helps strengthen relationships by meeting states at the point of THEIR human rights concerns. Eventually training people in one aspect or another of human rights-minded procedure is going to add up, drop by drop, into a more general pool of human rights knowledge for the greater good.

I register your unhappiness with Ms. Arbour’s trip and my post, for that matter, as a part of the idealism that keeps human rights concerns to the fore. Therefore, this is really an argument about methods and pace, not about ultimate goals.

Mr. or Ms. Templer, I wish you could explain yourself in a way that would make your position more attractive. Because, as you well know, apathy is the widespread of positions on human rights. After apathy, Josh’s stance is the more publicly widespread, and you need it to end apathy. But if you want to modify his stance, then you need to meet him and other idealists in the same way you suggest Ms. Arbour has met with Central Asian officials.
Now, in my own defense (which is, after all, the most important): I picked the Kazinform article deliberately because it was Kazakhstan’s ‘officially private’ press, and I wanted Kazakhstan’s view to start my post. If people have a more critical reading of that article, that is all to the better.
P.S. Thanks for the netiquette lesson, Josh–the more I ask, the less clueless I am. . . now about that grammar thing. . . go ahead. . .

Joshua Foust May 2, 2007 at 3:32 pm

Bonnie, I’ll give you that I shouldn’t write off Ms. Arbour’s trip in its entirety, even though I will be deeply (though happily) surprised if anything comes of it. You’re right, too, in that what Templer and I are bickering out is methods and pacing, not outcome. We both want the situation to improve, we simply diverge quite sharply on the value of talks and dialogs (though in fairness this is a skepticism Nathan has also expressed to little outrage).

A lot of my deep frustration actually comes from my former students there, many of whom complained bitterly about the fall of the USSR, not because they were any worse off (most actually weren’t), but because Karaganda was run by the mob. You could live well, so long as you kept your mouth shut and didn’t get out of line.

How awful is that, that the USSR felt more fair than modern day Kazakhstan!

That’s why I become so mentally tangled at yet more dialog, yet more discussions. They deserve better, and while their friends are beaten in the streets by bored cops, while their teachers are harassed by the KGB-remnant for daring to be Western, while people who think differently than Uncle Nazzy are thrown into prison and tortured (and murdered), we talk. It is maddening.

Nathan May 2, 2007 at 3:41 pm

Oh, I’ve gotten plenty of outrage, especially when I was criticizing Craig Murray’s foreign policy prescriptions. I was called all sorts of fun things, but my favorite was Murray’s own term, “Nathan and the Bush Boys,” to refer to me and a handful of others who agreed with me.

What I’ve found is that there’s less anger if one explicitly attempts to shift the discussion over to the theoretical from the specific.

Though I agree with you, I’m kind of at a loss for what we should be doing, especially in places like Kazakhstan where, on balance, things are going fairly well for a country at its level of economic development. I think that contact with the West through investment, exchanges, military cooperation, etc. stands to have a very good long-term effect. But in the short term, it seems that sometimes all we can do is encourage better behavior.

Joshua Foust May 2, 2007 at 5:13 pm

The only short term thing I can think of is (to borrow a previous century’s terminology) carrots without sticks: create incentives for better behavior, but don’t punitively penalize the status quo. So, if Nazarbayev eases up on dissident persecution, we pump money into development. Such a strategy has a very mixed success rate, however, especially when everyone involved knows it will eventually result in his having to relinquish control. I’m fully with you on more engagement, rather than less… which is why, to shift the debate slightly, I am equally as frustrated by President Bush’s total neglect of the region as a whole.

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