Podcast on the Situation in Armenia

Last Friday, I sat down (virtually) with Geoff Shullenberger to record an episode of “Compact Conversations,” Compact Magazine’s podcast series. Geoff and I discussed my recent essay in Compact on Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia–specifically, on how the West’s indifference to the invasion of this aspiring democracy by a dictatorship reflects a combination of hypocrisy, cynicism, and shortsightedness. Here’s the link. Listen in!

A New Book on Human Rights and Islamic States

Several years ago, I wrote an essay on the concept of human dignity in different legal systems, including the Islamic. Most legal systems honor human dignity, but the concept has different meanings, depending on history, culture, tradition, and deep political and religious commitments. I believe the same thing is true for the concept of human rights. The universal acknowledgement of human rights obscures real differences across the globe.

A new book from Bloomsbury, Human Rights Commitments of Islamic States, by Paul McDonough (Cardiff), examines questions at the intersection of international human rights and Islamic law. Looks very interesting. Here is the publisher’s description:

This book examines the legal nature of Islamic states and the human rights they have committed to uphold. It begins with an overview of the political history of Islam, and of Islamic law, focusing primarily on key developments of the first two centuries of Islam. Building on this foundation, the book presents the first study into Islamic constitutions to map the relationship between Sharia and the state in terms of institutions of governance. It then assesses the place of Islamic law in the national legal order of all of today’s Islamic states, before proceeding to a comprehensive analysis of those states’ adherences to the UN human rights treaties, and finally, a set of international human rights declarations made jointly by Islamic states.

Throughout, the focus remains on human rights. Having examined Islamic law first in isolation, then as it reflects into state structures and national constitutional orders, the book provides the background necessary to understand how an Islamic state’s treaty commitments reflect into national law. In this endeavour, the book unites three strands of analysis: the compatibility of Sharia with the human rights enunciated in UN treaties; the patterns of adherence of Islamic states with those treaties; and the compatibility of international Islamic human rights declarations with UN standards. By exploring the international human rights commitments of all Islamic states within a single analytical framework, this book will appeal to international human rights and constitutional scholars with an interest in Islamic law and states. It will also be useful to readers with a general interest in the relationships between Sharia, Islamic states, and internationally recognised human rights.

Why Armenia Stands Alone

Last week, an aspiring democracy–Armenia–was invaded by an authoritarian neighbor–Azerbaijan. The invasion threatens to reduce Armenia by half and start a new round of ethnic cleansing in the South Caucasus. And yet the West, so eager to defend Ukraine, has mostly turned a blind eye. The reason, I argue today in Compact, lies in a combination of hypocrisy, cynicism, and shortsightedness. Here’s an excerpt:

Yet the initial Western reaction to Azerbaijan’s aggression has been tepid, limited mostly to expressions of concern and calls for calm on both sides. American neoconservatives have generally been disgraceful, mocking Armenian losses and rooting for the Azeri dictatorship, mainly because they see Baku as a useful speartip against Iran and Russia. The Christian right in America, which one might think would feel affinity with the world’s first Christian nation, has remained silent.

Indifference doesn’t quite capture the Western posture. On the contrary, the West has been courting Azerbaijan in recent years, inking new gas deals and supplying millions of dollars in military assistance annually.

The contrast with the Ukraine crisis, another conflict in which an authoritarian state has attacked an aspiring democracy, is jarring. President Biden has described that war as part of an existential struggle “between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression”—a grandiose framing shared by the hawkish usual suspects on the American right. The United States alone has committed a staggering $50 billion to Kiev since the Russian invasion, in the name of democracy, self-determination, and international borders. Blue-and-yellow flags fly everywhere. So why ignore Armenia?

The answer lies in a combination of hypocrisy, cynicism, and shortsightedness. The West’s indifference to Armenia reveals once more that its concerns for democracy are highly selective, operative only where the West sees its interests at stake. Here, the West has concluded that its interest lies in appeasing Azerbaijan, which can help supply gas to Europe and check Russia and Iran in the South Caucasus.

You can read the whole article here.

Movsesian on the Karabakh Crisis

For those who are interested, at the Law & Liberty site today, I have an essay on the Karabakh War, now one month old. I argue that the war represents a civilizational clash between democracy and dictatorship and suggest what American can do to ease the crisis. Here’s an excerpt:

America should consider a range of options to help ease the Karabakh crisis, none of which would involve America as a participant in the conflict. First, it can send humanitarian assistance to the region, indirectly if necessary. Second, it can suspend the direct or third-party sale or transfer of military equipment and technology to Azerbaijan. America provided $100 million of military aid to Azerbaijan just in 2018 and 2019, much more than to any other country in the region, ostensibly to help Azerbaijan defend itself against Iran. With Azerbaijan openly purchasing weapons from Iran, that strategy seems counterproductive. America can also suspend military sales and transfers to Turkey while Turkey continues its belligerent policy in Karabakh and elsewhere. If this doesn’t work, America could impose sanctions on both countries.

Finally, America can continue to push Azerbaijan to cease hostilities, return to negotiations, and reach a diplomatic settlement of Karabakh’s status. (After agreeing to one US-brokered ceasefire last weekend, Azerbaijan immediately broke it.) A comprehensive settlement has been in sight for decades: Armenia returns most captured territories to Azerbaijan and allows refugees to return in exchange for some sort of independence for Karabakh. Michael Rubin argues in The National Interest that America should support this idea, which has a precedent in Kosovo: “remedial secession” to protect an endangered minority. After weeks of cluster bombing, not to mention the history of pogroms and other crimes, Karabakh Armenians can never be safe under Azeri rule.

You can read the whole essay here.

Video of Last Week’s Panel on the Caucasus

For those who are interested, the St. John’s University Institute for International Communication has posted a video of last week’s panel, “The Crisis in the Caucasus,” on the war in Karabakh. I participated, along with Alek Gevorkyan (St. John’s), Artyom Tonoyan (University of Minnesota), and Siobhan Nash-Marshall (Manhattanville College). Kudos to St. John’s Law 2L Isabel Arustamyan for helping to put it all together. The link is below:

Panel on the Crisis in the Caucasus

A programming note: this coming Wednesday (October 21), I will participate in a panel here at St. John’s University on the war in Karabakh, “The Crisis in the Caucasus.” Other panelists include Siobhan Nash-Marshall (Manhattanville College) and Artyom Tonoyan (University of Minnesota). The event, which will cover the history of the conflict, its religious implications, and its importance for the international human-rights community, is sponsored by the university’s Institute for International Communication. Details and login information are available at the link.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

A Critique of Human Rights

Here is an interesting-looking book from Princeton University Press that critiques the concept of universal human rights: Rights as Weapons: Instruments of Conflict, Tools of Power, by political scientist Clifford Bob of Duquesne University. (Full disclosure: Professor Bob was a participant in a conference our Tradition Project co-sponsored in June 2017, on the differing conceptions of tradition in American and Russian politics, at the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Trento, Italy). Here’s the description of the book from the Princeton website:

Rights are usually viewed as defensive concepts representing mankind’s highest aspirations to protect the vulnerable and uplift the downtrodden. But since the Enlightenment, political combatants have also used rights belligerently, to batter despised communities, demolish existing institutions, and smash opposing ideas. Delving into a range of historical and contemporary conflicts from all areas of the globe, Rights as Weapons focuses on the underexamined ways in which the powerful wield rights as aggressive weapons against the weak.

Clifford Bob looks at how political forces use rights as rallying cries: naturalizing novel claims as rights inherent in humanity, absolutizing them as trumps over rival interests or community concerns, universalizing them as transcultural and transhistorical, and depoliticizing them as concepts beyond debate. He shows how powerful proponents employ rights as camouflage to cover ulterior motives, as crowbars to break rival coalitions, as blockades to suppress subordinate groups, as spears to puncture discrete policies, and as dynamite to explode whole societies. And he demonstrates how the targets of rights campaigns repulse such assaults, using their own rights-like weapons: denying the abuses they are accused of, constructing rival rights to protect themselves, portraying themselves as victims rather than violators, and repudiating authoritative decisions against them. This sophisticated framework is applied to a diverse range of examples, including nineteenth-century voting rights movements; the American civil rights movement; nationalist, populist, and religious movements in today’s Europe; and internationalized conflicts related to Palestinian self-determination, animal rights, gay rights, and transgender rights.

Comparing key episodes in the deployment of rights, Rights as Weapons opens new perspectives on an idea that is central to legal and political conflicts.

Islam and Human Rights

In my experience, the Western human-rights community overlooks, or downplays, human rights documents that come from non-Western sources. A good example is the Cairo Declaration, a statement of human rights announced by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1990: few human-rights courses in American law schools spend significant time on the Cairo Declaration, notwithstanding its importance in global human-rights debates. That may be because these non-Western sources offer a challenge to Western understandings of “universal” concepts like human dignity. But I’ve written about that subject elsewhere.

Here is a new collection about the OIC from Penn Press, The Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Human Rights, edited by Marie Juul Petersen (Danish Institute of Human Rights) and Turan Kayaoglu (University of Washington – Tacoma). The publisher’s description follows:

Established in 1969, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is an intergovernmental organization the purpose of which is the strengthening of solidarity among Muslims. Headquartered in Jeddah, the OIC today consists of fifty seven states from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The OIC’s longevity and geographic reach, combined with its self-proclaimed role as the United Nations of the Muslim world, raise certain expectations as to its role in global human rights politics. However, to date, these hopes have been unfulfilled. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Human Rights sets out to demonstrate the potential and shortcomings of the OIC and the obstacles on the paths it has navigated.

Historically, the OIC has had a complicated relationship with the international human rights regime. Palestinian self-determination was an important catalyst for the founding of the OIC, but the OIC did not develop a comprehensive human rights approach in its first decades. In fact, human rights issues were rarely, if at all, mentioned at the organization’s summits or annual conferences of foreign ministers. Instead, the OIC tended to focus on protecting Islamic holy sites and strengthening economic cooperation among member states. As other international and regional organizations expanded the international human rights system in the 1990s, the OIC began to pay greater attention to human rights, although not always in a manner that aligned with Western conceptions.

This volume provides essential empirical and theoretical insights into OIC practices, contemporary challenges to human rights, intergovernmental organizations, and global Islam. Essays by some of the world’s leading scholars examine the OIC’s human rights activities at different levels—in the UN, the organization’s own institutions, and at the member-state level—and assess different aspects of the OIC’s approach, identifying priority areas of involvement and underlying conceptions of human rights.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web: