18/05: The name of the rose


By Huma Yusuf

The oft-quoted phrase about roses by any other name smelling as sweet sometimes bears recollection. Indeed, synonyms, euphemisms, and metaphors can make reality a tad more palatable, but language cannot alter the facts. And so it was with international media coverage of the events that unfolded in Karachi over the weekend. Actions that were initially being described as rallies, demonstrations, calls for democracy, activism, protests, and initiatives for democratic participation were soon identified more accurately as clashes, showdowns, and, simply, violence. When stripped of its rhetorical and politicised garb, the mayhem that left 41 people dead, paralysed the city for three days, damaged urban infrastructure, and compromised press freedom, can only be referred to as unfettered, senseless violence. In this context, I would argue that there's a value to depicting things exactly as they are. After all, speaking in tongues never helped anyone fumble towards moral clarity or sound judgement.

Student activists at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently exemplified the idea that describing something for what it was could lead to increased fairness and ethical decision-making. The Alliance for Justice in the Middle East (AJME), a student group, is campaigning against Harvard's policy of admitting and hiring people who boast public, well-documented records of war crimes and human rights abuses. The students are calling for the university to screen for human rights violations as part of its admissions and hiring procedures. As of now, AJME's website identifies seven "abusers" who are -- or soon will be -- in a position to describe themselves as "Harvard-trained".

The individuals identified by the site as war criminals include six Israeli army officers and one former minister of defence from Guatemala. By asking the university to revise its admissions procedures, its students are essentially asking the institution to scrutinise and decode the notion of 'military service' and determine whether or not it is a veiled way of referring to a history of war crimes or abuse. In other words, Harvard is being asked to call a rose by its name, or, more aptly, address the thorn in its side. Interestingly, the student activists are not shirking from using the term 'war criminals' to describe defence officials because the transgressions that AJME is denouncing include genocide, torture, the taking of hostages, targeting civilian populations, unlawfully deporting citizens, killing protected persons, or destroying extensive property.

Currently, AJME is focusing its protest around Dan Halutz who recently arrived in Cambridge to attend the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School (HBS). Halutz's claim to fame is that he was the head of the Israeli military during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. During that conflict, he sanctioned a policy of indiscriminate aerial bombardment that included the saturation bombing of southern Lebanon, air strikes aimed at civilian areas in Beirut, and the destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure and manufacturing base -- activities that amount to war crimes as defined by international human rights organisations. According to AJME, Halutz's aerial strategy and use of Israeli jets led to the death of 1.200 Lebanese civilians in 33 days. As such, the students argue that a man like Halutz with a known record of human rights violations should not be able to benefit from the legitimacy, social capital, access to power and resources, and personal clout that an affiliation with an institution of Harvard University's calibre affords.

Unfortunately, Halutz is not the only abuser and criminal to taint the crimson hue and creeping ivy of Harvard. Gabi Ashkenazi, who attended the Advanced Management Program at HBS in 2004, is decried by AJME for twice having command responsibility for the Southern Lebanon Army, Israel's proxy militia with a notorious record of human rights violations and infamous detention centres where people were tortured and detained in horrifying conditions.

AJME also exposes the war crimes record of Hector Gramajo Morales, who earned a Master's in Public Administration at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government (KSG) in 1991. Gramajo was army vice chief of staff and director of the Army General Staff in Guatemala from 1982 to 1983, when the military killed up to 75,000 people in a counterinsurgency campaign targeting the country's Mayan inhabitants. Interestingly, it was while heading to his Harvard commencement that Gramajo was informed that eight Guatemalans were suing him for human rights abuses they had endured at the hands of forces under his command. Although he fled the US soon after, the US courts ruled against Gramajo and awarded damages to the plaintiffs under the Alien Tort Stature, which allows courts to process lawsuits regarding foreign human rights violations.

Similarly, the student activists highlight the case of Doron Almog, who was head of the Israeli military's Southern Command from late 2000 to mid-2003, bore overall responsibility for Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip, and went on to attend KSG in 2004. At Harvard, Almog was a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. In September 2005, the Chief London Magistrate issued a warrant for Almog's arrest on suspicion of war crimes, specifically, the demolition of homes and other property in the buffer zones of Rafah in January 2002. In order to evade his arrest, Almog left London and returned to Israel.

Other "rogues" identified by AJME include Moshe Kaplinksy, who is expected to attend HBS in the fall this year after serving as the deputy head of the Israeli military during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict and sanctioning the firing of more than 3.5 million cluster bombs in the last three days of the war. Noam Tibon, who also received a Master's in Public Administration from KSG in 2002, is also 'outed' as the commander of Israeli forces in Hebron in the West Bank from 1999 until 2001. Meanwhile, Yitzhak Eitan, who attended HBS in 2002, earned his wartime criminal record as a commander of the Israeli army in the West Bank.

The student activists' demands that stringent screening processes be implemented by Harvard University essentially translate into a request that no violence of any kind be condoned or celebrated by an esteemed academic institution. No doubt, the call for screening is controversial since it could potentially open up the floodgates to having activist groups on campus influence admission committee decisions in a variety of cases, both military and non-military. Moreover, no one wants to suggest that a career in the military, no matter where, when, or under what circumstances, translates into a history of war crimes.

Still, an attempt should be made to distinguish between military service and human rights violations. Perhaps international codes of humanitarian conduct should consider the predicament of academic institutes faced with the violent and inhumane actions of their applicants, graduates, and current students. Could international human rights organisations and conventions require certain screenings of students? And could they also support a university's decision to strip a student or alum of academic credentials if they participate in violence, human rights violations, or war crimes? Returning to Karachi, perhaps, if empowered to do so, institutes of higher learning here could begin the process of identifying and condemning unacceptable violence, rather than clothing it in the rhetoric of social, ethnic, or political unrest.

The writer is a media analyst currently pursuing a master's degree at MIT's Comparative Media Studies programme. She was previously features editor at an English monthly. Email: huma.yusuf

This article can be read here too. The copyright for this article rests with Miss Huma Yusuf.
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