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Syria: ISIS Iconoclasts Leave a Bloody Trail of Destruction

In Cultural Bridges, Current Events, International Justice, Middle East & North Africa, Religious Freedom, Solidarity, The Search for Peace, United Nations, War Crimes, World Law on August 25, 2015 at 11:31 AM

SYRIA: ISIS ICONOCLASTS LEAVE A BLOODY TRAIL OF DESTRUCTION

By René Wadlow

On August 18, 2015 Dr Khaled al-Assad, retired director of the Palmyra museum and an officer of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums, had his neck cut and his body hung from a traffic light pole. The 83 year-old archaeologist had been held in seclusion (and probably tortured) for three weeks. In the public square of Palmyra an accusation was read out that he was “the director of pagan idols”. Khaled al-Assad had been born in Palmyra and had spent most of his career there, writing numerous articles as well as directing archaeological sites. He had few rivals in his knowledge of the ancient crossroad city of Palmyra, an important link on the trade routes between Asia, North Africa, and Europe.

The public killing of Khaled al-Assad renewed concern for the historic sites. It was widely believed that many of the sites had had explosives placed in them to provoke their destruction. Sites in Palmyra had already been damaged during the fighting in the spring as the soldiers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or Daesh in Arabic) took control of the city and the surrounding area. Then on August 23, some of the explosives were set off, damaging the important Temple of Baal, one of the most visited sites in Palmyra. Baal – the Lord of the Heavens – was represented by an eagle. He was also a storm god shown holding a lightning bolt in his hand.

From a distance, it is hard to know what elements within ISIS are responsible for the destruction and what are the motivations. ISIS has attracted fighters from a good number of countries, and it is impossible to know the chains of command or the motivations. Many Syrians are proud of the vestiges of pre−Islamic civilizations, proof that the area was an important actor and in some ways a rival of Rome. The Directorate General of Antiquities has some 2,500 employees with a record of preserving Syria’s cultural heritage. In addition, some Syrian citizens, risking their lives, have tried to defend heritage sites or to hide away cultural objects. Moreover, ISIS agents as well as persons belonging to other armed factions have been looting objects to sell outside the country, either for personal gain or to finance their political faction, rather than destroying them.

When ISIS/Daesh took Palmyra last May, many people feared they might blow up the ancient city at once. They didn't, but now the vestiges of the ancient civilization there were soon turned into a stage for ISIS/Daesh to use toward propaganda purposes.

When ISIS/Daesh took Palmyra last May, many people feared they might blow up the ancient city at once. They didn’t, but now the vestiges of the ancient civilization most inappropriately serve as a stage for ISIS/Daesh to use toward propaganda purposes.

Thus, it is not clear who wants to destroy works of art and cultural heritage. Are there sincere iconoclasts for whom any object that recalls pre-Islamic worship is an insult to the Islamic faith? Are there people who just want to destroy and will blow up most anything? Are there people who believe that public killings and destruction of heritage will facilitate military expansion and control of the population? Is there any possibility of rational discussion and good-faith negotiations with ISIS authorities to preserve cultural sites in Syria and Iraq?

Conserving a cultural heritage even in times of peace is always difficult. Weak institutional capabilities, lack of appropriate resources and isolation of many culturally essential sites are compounded by a lack of awareness of the value of cultural heritage conservation. On the other hand, the dynamism of local initiatives and community solidarity are impressive assets. These forces should be enlisted, enlarged and empowered to preserve and protect a heritage.

ISIS/Daesh members enthusiastically destroying a historical ancient site. They may bring down every reminder of the past they come by, but try as they might, they cannot change history.

Are there ways that those of us on the “outside” can reach those in Syria and Iraq who wish to preserve cultural heritage and to defend the lives of those who work to preserve protect and inform?

My belief is that the current military action against ISIS, either with ground troops or bombing from the air, will have little positive impact. Armed force may lead some of the ISIS forces to a “burned earth” policy, destroying as much as they can before retreating. I think that there needs to be initiatives taken by those currently living under ISIS rule but who do not share ISIS values. They need to take actions to show ISIS leaders that their policies are an error and will lead to greater divisions within the population.

There is always a certain irony for someone in a safe area to encourage others to take actions which can put their lives in danger. Therefore, the least that we can do is to have a loud outcry from cultural workers throughout the world so that those in Syria and Iraq who will act positively know that they are not alone.

 

Prof. René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

The Continuing Humanitarian Crisis and Violations of Human Rights in ISIS-held Areas in Iraq and Syria

In Current Events, Human Rights, International Justice, Middle East & North Africa, Solidarity, The Search for Peace, United Nations, War Crimes, World Law on August 25, 2015 at 9:00 AM

THE CONTINUING HUMANITARIAN CRISIS AND VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN ISIS-HELD AREAS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA

By René Wadlow

In an August 25, 2014 statement, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the “appalling, widespread, and systematic violations of human rights” by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The violations mentioned included targeted killings, forced conversions, abductions, trafficking of women, slavery, sexual abuse, destruction of religious and cultural sites of significance and the besieging of entire communities because of ethnic, religious and sectarian affiliation.

Among those directly targeted have been the religious communities of Christians, Yezidi (also written Yazidi) and Sabeans (also called Sabean-Mandaeans). In addition to the violation of human rights, the High Commissioner cited other UN reports stressing the humanitarian crisis and the severe shortages of food, water and the lack of medical services.

This sign, here painted in red on a wall with a circle around it, is the letter N in Arabic. When the IS started seizing predominantly Christian-inhabited areas of Iraq by force, its militiamen immediately painted this on houses they knew or thought were owned by Christians, N being for “Nasrani” which is itself the Arabic for “Christian”. A long echo of the Nazis’ practices in pre-World War II Germany, when Hitler’s own militiamen would paint a Star of David on the front door of each Jewish-owned business. That was just before the “Final Solution” which claimed over 6 million lives.

This sign, here painted in red on a wall with a circle around it, is the letter N in Arabic.
When ISIS started seizing predominantly Christian-inhabited areas of Iraq by force, its militiamen immediately painted this on houses they knew or thought were owned by Christians, N being for “Nasrani” which is itself the Arabic for “Christian”.
A long echo of the Nazis’ practices in pre-World War II Germany, when Hitler’s own militiamen would paint a Star of David on the front door of each Jewish-owned business. That was just before the “Final Solution” which claimed over 6 million lives.

One year later, the situation remains much the same, but with an increased number of people uprooted as internally displaced persons and refugees. The political situation has grown more complex, with Turkey playing an increasing if unclear role. Efforts at mediation by the UN of the Syrian aspects of the conflict have not given visible results. Russian diplomats have been meeting with some Syrian factions as well as with the Syrian government, but there seem to be no advances toward broader negotiations. The political and military actions of ISIS have effectively linked Iraq and Syria so that each conflict is linked to the other. A global approach for conflict resolution is needed.

The conflict has increased religious sectarian attitudes. It is hard for an outsider to know to what extent religious differences are deeply felt or if religion is used as a “cover” for ethnic, tribal, and economic interests. It is certain that ISIS has tried to give a religious coloring to its policies, with forced conversions and destruction of non-Islamic communities which refused conversion. Therefore, there needs to be an emphasis on freedom of religion or belief as set out by the United Nations.

An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on November 16, 2014 by al-Furqan Media allegedly shows members of the Islamic State jihadist group preparing the simultaneous beheadings of at least 15 men described as Syrian military personnel. In the highly choreographed sequence, jihadists march the prisoners by a wooden box of long military knives, each taking one as they pass, before forcing their victims to kneel in a line and decapitating them. (C) AFP PHOTO

An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on November 16, 2014 by al-Furqan Media allegedly shows members of the Islamic State jihadist group preparing the simultaneous beheadings of at least 15 men described as Syrian military personnel. In the highly choreographed sequence, jihadists march the prisoners by a wooden box of long military knives, each taking one as they pass, before forcing their victims to kneel in a line and decapitating them. (C) AFP PHOTO

One of the major UN declarations confirming a deep sense of inherent dignity is the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, adopted by the General Assembly on November 25, 1981 after a number of years of study and discussion in which the Association of World Citizens (AWC) took an active part. The Declaration states “that it is essential to promote understanding, tolerance and respect in matters relating to freedom of religion and belief and to ensure that the use of religion or belief for ends inconsistent with the Charter, other relevant instruments of the United Nations and the purposes and principles of the present Declaration is inadmissible.”

Article One states clearly that “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice.”

World law as developed by the UN applies not only to the governments of Member States but also to individuals and non-governmental organizations. The ISIS has not been recognized as a State and is not a member of the UN. Nevertheless, the AWC is convinced that the terms of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief applies to the ISIS and that the actions of the ISIS are, in the terms of the Declaration, “inadmissible”.

Syrian demonstrators in Paris, France, vowing for "a democratic future" in Syria "without [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] and without Daesh [ISIS]". (C) AWC/Bernard J. Henry

Syrian demonstrators in Paris, France, vowing for “a democratic future” in Syria “without [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] and without Daesh [ISIS]”. (C) AWC/Bernard J. Henry

Life in the emerging world society requires world law and certain common values among all the States and peoples of the world.  The challenges which face us all require inclusive ethical values based on a sense of responsibility for both present and future generations.  Such values are, I am sure, in the heart of many individuals who are now living in areas under the control of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. We must find ways to reach such people with the message that the policies of the ISIS leaders are deliberate violations of world law and ethical standards.  The majority of the world society is not hostile to the people living under ISIS rule and we look forward to the time when human rights standards will be the law of the land. In the meantime, they need to work as best they can for a tolerant and open society.

Prof. René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, of the Association of World Citizens.

OSCE: Strains and Renewal in the Security Community

In Being a World Citizen, Conflict Resolution, Current Events, Democracy, Europe, Human Development, Human Rights, The Balkan Wars, The former Soviet Union, The Search for Peace, World Law on August 2, 2015 at 9:29 AM

OSCE: STRAINS AND RENEWAL IN THE SECURITY COMMUNITY

By René Wadlow

On August 1, 2015, the Helsinki Final Act, the birth certificate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) turned 40. The Final Act signed in Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall was the result of three years of nearly continuous negotiations among government representatives meeting for the most part in Geneva, Switzerland as well as years of promotion of better East-West relations by non-governmental peace builders.

Basically, one can date the planting of the seeds that grew into the OSCE as 1968 in two cities: Paris and Prague. The student-led demonstrations in Paris which sent shock waves to other university centers from California to Berlin showed that under a cover of calm, there was a river of demands and desires for a new life, a more cooperative and creative way of life.

In Prague, the Prague Spring of internal reforms and demands for a freer European society was met by the tanks of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in August. Yet some far-sighted individuals saw that 1968 was a turning point in European history and that there could be no return to the 1945 divisions of two Europes with the Berlin Wall as the symbol of that division. Thus, in small circles, there were those who started asking “Where do we go from here?”

A Security Community: A Halfway House

In 1957, Karl W. Deutsch (1912-1992) published an important study, Political Community and the North Atlantic Area (Princeton University Press). Karl Deutsch was born to a German-speaking family in Prague in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His family was active in socialist party politics and became strongly anti-Nazi. Seeing what might happen, Deutsch and his wife left Prague in 1939 for the USA where he became a leading political science-international relations professor. I knew Karl Deutsch in the mid-1950s when I was a university student at Princeton, and he was associated with a Center on International Organization at Princeton. It was there that he was developing his ideas on types of integration among peoples and States and that he coined the term “security community” to mean a group of people “believing that they had come to agreement on at least one point that common social problems must and can be resolved by processes of peaceful change.” For Deutsch, the concept of a security community could be applied to people coming together to form a State: His approach was much used in the 1960s in the study of “nation building” especially of post-colonial African States. A “security community” could also be a stage in relations among States as the term has become common in OSCE thinking. For Deutsch, a security community was a necessary halfway house before the creation of a State or a multi-State federation. Deutsch stressed the need for certain core values which created a sense of mutual identity and loyalty leading to self-restraint and good-faith negotiations to settle disputes.

Core values established and quickly disappeared

During the negotiations leading to the Helsinki Final Act, a set of 10 core values or commitments were set out, sometimes called the OSCE Decalogue after the “Ten Commandments”. “Sovereign equality, respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty and non-intervention in internal affairs” set the framework as well as the limitations of any efforts toward a supranational institution. The two other related core values were “the territorial integrity of States and the inviolability of frontiers.”

The core values were not so much “values” as a reflection of the status quo of the Cold War years. By the time that the Charter of Paris for a New Europe was signed in November 1990, marking the formal end of the Cold War, “territorial integrity and the inviolability of frontiers” as values had disappeared.

The 1990s saw the breakup of two major European federations − that of Yugoslavia and the USSR. Most of the work of the OSCE has been devoted to the consequences of these two breakups. Yugoslavia broke into nearly all the pieces that it could with a few exceptions. I had been asked to help support the independence of Sandzak, a largely Muslim area in Serbia and part of Montenegro. I declined, having thought at the time that with a few modifications the Yugoslav federation could be kept together. I was wrong, and the OSCE is still confronted by tensions in Kosovo, renewed tensions in Macedonia, an unlikely form of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as social issues of trafficking in persons, arms, drugs and uncontrolled migration.

The breakup of the Soviet Union has led to a full agenda of OSCE activities. The republics of the Soviet Union had been designed by Joseph Stalin, then Commissioner for Nationalities so that each republic could not become an independent State but would have to look to the central government for security and socio-economic development. Each Soviet republic had minority populations though each was given the name of the majority or dominant ethnic group called a “nationality”.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, there have been recurrent issues involving the degree of autonomy of geographic space and the role of minorities. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh had already started before the breakup, but continues to this day with its load of refugees, displaced persons and the calmer but unlikely twin, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. Moldova and Transdniestria remain a “frozen conflict” with a 1992 ceasefire agreement. The armed conflicts in Chechnya and violence in Dagestan highlighted conflicts within the Russian Federation. The 2008 “Guns of August” conflict over South Ossetia between Russia and Georgia showed that autonomy issues could slip out of control and have Europe-wide consequences.

(C) Sadankomitea

(C) Sadankomitea

A Cloudy Cristal Ball

Predictions, especially about the future, are always difficult. In 2013, the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Leonid Kazhara, said “We wish to contribute to the establishment of the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security community free of dividing lines, conflicts, spheres of influence and zones with different levels of security … There is a pressing need to, first of all, change our mindsets from confrontational thinking to a cooperative approach. I am confident that Ukraine, with its rich history, huge cultural heritage and clear European aspirations is well placed for carrying out this mission.”

Today, Ukraine’s rich history has a new chapter, recreating old dividing lines and spheres of influence. The shift in “ownership” of Crimea indicates that “territorial integrity of States” is a relative commitment. The large number of persons going to Russia as refugees and to west Ukraine as internally-displaced persons recalls the bad days of displacement of the Second World War. NATO has dangerously over-reacted to events in Ukraine.

It is not clear that the current leaders of the 57 governments of the OSCE have the wisdom or skills to lead to a renewal of the Security Community. Yet when one looks at the photos of the government leaders who did sign the Helsinki Final Act 40 years ago, there are few faces indicating wisdom or diplomatic skills so perhaps all is not lost today. Very likely, as in the period between the events of 1968 and the start of government negotiations in 1972, there will need to be nongovernmental voices setting out new ideas and creating bridges between people.

Prof. René Wadlow is President and Chief Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.

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