Category: Human Rights

Coronavirus: The Governmentalization and Medicalization of Safety, an article by David Garyan

26/08/2021
Trento, Italy

 

Coronavirus: The Governmentalization and Medicalization of Safety

Today, thanks to the miracles of science, along with the generosity of the Italian government, I was able to receive my second Pfizer COVID shot at no charge. While I do feel eternally grateful to all the men and women working in the scientific and governmental sector who’ve made vaccination for all possible, I nevertheless have hesitations about the direction our society is taking. To be clear, this article will not engage in debates about the pros and cons of vaccines because there’s really just one stance a responsible person can take in the midst of a pandemic: Whatever risks these substances may pose—and they certainly do pose some as the recent deaths of these young individuals demonstrate—the threats presented by the actual virus will always be far greater than any given vaccine trying to prevent the spread of said virus. In short, more people have died of COVID than COVID jabs; at the same time, it must be admitted that long-term effects are difficult to measure and it’s often impossible to tell whether something years down the line was caused by a jab, by the virus itself, or whether any manifestation was simply due to the natural progression of a person’s physiology, regardless of vaccination, virus, or other variables.

In short, despite trying to avoid a discussion on the safety of vaccines, we’ve nevertheless managed to go off-topic—let’s get back on track and state that it’s not science and government which are the problem, but an overreliance on medicine and politicians. Before I get into a discussion about what I mean precisely, it’s important for me to go on record and state the following: Firstly, as a student of human rights, my appreciation for honest, paradigm-changing world leaders runs deep, and, secondly, my parents (father a medical profession, mother an engineer) were and continue to be sensible people who both ensured that I had all the proper vaccinations done as a child.

So, what’s the problem here? Let’s start with the fact that governments, along with their respective nation-states are only interested in protecting their own skin; the wealthiest and most powerful don’t really care about your health and well-being—they’re only concerned with it insofar as it either corresponds with promoting their treasured agenda, or, more importantly, they strive for “safety” because any degree of uncertainty in the public and private sectors can seriously damage not just their reputation, but also the depth of their pockets.

It seems that the most powerful figures on the planet have fixated on coronavirus at the cost of everything else—they’ve done this to such an extent that your health and well-being paradoxically no longer matter. What do I mean? Well, simply that at the height of the lockdown one year ago, when millions of people were forced to endure months of isolation, no politician or police officer cared to inform themselves about the various problems that such measures could inflict upon the individual. We were told that by isolating ourselves from each other, we would all become “responsible” citizens who would ensure that this particular virus wouldn’t spread, and somehow, in the midst of all the frenzy, we forgot all our other needs; more importantly, we failed to remember everyone else who perhaps wasn’t capable of such feats, whether due to financial reasons, or psychological ones. Just for clarity, below is a picture not of India, but of a ghetto in Camden, New Jersey, meaning this problem ranges far and wide.

Let’s, however, forget for a moment, these oft-discussed places, where the combination of geography, population, and economics, makes it difficult for poor city workers living with twelve other people in one apartment to self-isolate. Instead, let’s talk about things which have been rarely discussed: When the pandemic peaked, and even now, there were and there continue to be almost no studies which focus on the correlation between isolation and physical well-being. In other words, if before the pandemic it was someone’s habit, and perhaps even with the recommendation of his doctor, to take a one-hour or two-hour walk after dinner, why was this essential need repeatedly denied to many people by those in the highest spheres of government, and why were these policies so strictly enforced? Aside from the fact that mental health is also an aspect of well-being, and the effects of isolation on rising depression rates have been well-documented, it’s already becoming clear that the elite aren’t interested in protecting the fragility of the human body and spirit when those measures may not only expose, but, more importantly, threaten the fragility of their respective nation-states. In times of crisis, the safety of the flag will always supersede the safety of the bodies which carry it and represent it, metaphorically speaking, because it’s after all the masses who ensure its security.

The government, ultimately, isn’t keen on being creative; during the most desperate moments of the pandemic, it wasn’t interested in the well-being of the poet, who simply wanted to walk the street alone at night and look at the stars; it wasn’t interested in the claustrophobic athlete who yearned to jog in the early hours of the morning; it wasn’t interested in the artist who suffers from panic attacks if he spends too much time in the tiny studio he can barely afford; it wasn’t interested in the old widow—that surely must exist somewhere—who’ll incur a nervous breakdown unless she visits the grave of her husband every week to lay flowers, but florists are inessential and all shops are closed until further notice; it wasn’t interested in the single mother with three young kids who would surely drive her crazy if they couldn’t spend at last two hours at the park, which was located far across town, where no supermarkets could be found—ah, the excuse of going shopping; it wasn’t interested in the countless Alberts, Jacks, Sophies, Amandas, or whoever else it may be that had heart conditions and lived in the heart of the city, but couldn’t do their usual walk because it didn’t fall into the category of “essential” activity. No, with the well-being of these people the government wasn’t in the least bit concerned—they did what they needed to do, and, in many cases, placed individuals in far greater danger than COVID could’ve ever presented.

Other than the rising and falling coronavirus numbers, there was and continues to be hardly any data on which illnesses or diseases people may have contracted as a result of following the lockdown strictly as prescribed. For my own safety, mental health, and overall well-being, I’m not ashamed to say that I broke curfew laws many times, and had I not done that, perhaps the effects of the quarantine may have manifested themselves in more serious psychological, and God forbid, physiological ways. Thus, it was only a small inconvenience to be stopped occasionally, to have my paperwork checked, just to know, at the end of the day, that I was still human—a person with feelings, needs, and emotions who considered looking at the night sky an “essential” activity (despite what the government might tell us) not only for my creativity, but for the vitality of my body and spirit. I’m not ashamed to admit this.

This is the freedom I’m talking about—the human right to exercise one’s individuality, to know what’s best for you and your body, mainly because a generic measure to stay at home can’t possibly apply to everyone. Responsibility in this sense, then, isn’t just about making sure other people are safe, but also about making sure that you can likewise protect yourself while looking out for others. If our leaders had been more creative, many governments around the world could’ve instituted measures like designated meeting areas with specific dates and times for everyone, configured with an app or QR code system, for example, but they didn’t do that. For students, they could’ve introduced initiatives to hold classes in parks or even stadiums, which naturally weren’t being used, with respect for social distancing rules, but nothing of the sort was attempted—and not only because these things are difficult, costly, and time-consuming, but, more importantly, because the elite don’t really care about your well-being, unless it threatens their own status and pocket. Words like safety, responsibility, and health are hollow catchphrases, thrown around to give the illusion of compassion, concern, and duty, all things which the ruling classes supposedly embody, but most of this rhetoric is meaningless at best and dishonest at worst.

It seems to me that progressively-minded thinkers, something I consider myself to be, aren’t consistent in the way they apply the doctrine of choice: Why is it that we view abortion, more correctly, a woman’s right to decide what’s best for her body, in very positive terms, while the decision regarding vaccines can’t be left to the will of the individual? In both cases, we’re dealing with matters of life and death, and while irresponsibility in either scenario must not be tolerated, we should ultimately settle the issue of who has ownership over our bodies— individuals themselves or the bureaucracy of the state.

Having spoken about government, it’s now time to discuss science, and my opinions about the topic are really not much more positive, despite the supposed altruism of the field. For one, science, like government, has made us believe that it alone can solve our problems; whereas politicians claim this right in the sphere of social issues, scientists, arrogantly, claim it on the medical front. Vaccines, as I wrote, are safe and effective, and especially during pandemics, they’re an indispensable element in containing the spread of a virus—but that’s just it; they’re only one small part of the matter, not the whole substance. Just like government alone can’t eradicate mass poverty or even a single person’s destitution without individual initiative (hard work, education, proactiveness), so too science, let alone vaccines, can’t eradicate pandemics or even one person’s disease without our freedom to choose what’s best for us (the perfect diet for each individual body, appropriate exercise for every person, proper rest, pleasure, and other activities); in amount and duration, all these requirements will naturally vary, depending on psychology and biology, and this is precisely why people must be given the freedom to choose—responsibly—when it’s best for them to go outside, eat, play, and so on, without the government placing blanket restrictions on its subjects.

Science has become so powerful that it has miraculously been able to solve most of our problems, but that’s precisely its flaw. Those who believe that a vaccine will eliminate the coronavirus are deeply mistaken, and, likewise, forcing people to get jabs shows, in fact, that we’re interested only in the easy way out—we encounter a difficulty and we aspire to kill it immediately, without examining its root causes or underlying motives that are driving us towards such behavior. There’s no vaccine for the complications of global poverty, intolerance, ignorance, and greed. Unfortunately, while there’s also no vaccine for depression, thankfully, at least, there are drugs, and so, if you’re in bad shape, take something immediately without thinking about why you may be feeling that way—for the love of God, just take a pill and don’t worry about whether you could’ve recovered more creatively with the help of music or friends, perhaps. Science, in this respect, has come to dominate our lives to such an extent that the totality of the individual is being sacrificed for the benefit of the nation state—the classic definition of fascism.

It’s precisely this aforementioned medicalization of safety that I have a problem with—unlike the East, we don’t believe that art, prayer, and meditation, just as examples, can really solve the most difficult issues plaguing our society. Yes, we have incredible venues for art in Europe and the US; there are magnificent churches in which people still conduct prayers to this day, but these things, ultimately, are considered “inessential.” In other words, we don’t take artists and religion seriously—most of us engage in these activities mainly because they add decorum and entertainment to our lives, but the belief that art and prayer are in fact necessary to make the functioning of a harmonious, prosperous society possible isn’t really genuine; the proof for this lies right in the fact that art and faith were the first to suffer during the pandemic.

Instead of the government reaching out to creative individuals with the hopes of finding unique solutions, they shut them down in the name of safety because it doesn’t pay to have a “healthy” public when the goals of that healthy public don’t align with the values of the status quo. The attempt to build the complete individual as envisioned by the Ancient Greeks, for example—strong body and mind through the study of art, philosophy, and sports doesn’t seem to be a priority in the modern world. Depression and pandemics are better cured with drugs and vaccines alone, than with the holistic combination of music, healthy lifestyles based on individual choice, art, and a little self-reflection (perhaps even philosophy); these measures are inconvenient, time-consuming, and expensive, and, most of all, they can even threaten the elite, which is why no one cares to implement them, and why also politicians stipulate to their citizens that “responsible” people can only win the fight against the coronavirus with quarantines and vaccines—everything else is a conspiracy designed to discredit government and science. How convenient for them! We must demand more accountability and creativity from our leaders, and those who speak out regarding such matters, demanding precisely those things, shouldn’t be labeled as anti-vaxxers, agitators, right-wing fanatics, or any other disparaging epithet, because you may find that they aren’t any of those things.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He recently graduated from the University of Bologna with a degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage. He lives in Trento.

Looking in From the Outside: The Arab-Israeli Conflict, an article by David Garyan

12/05/2021
Ravenna, Italy

 

Looking in From the Outside: The Arab-Israeli Conflict

For a sensible person, aware of history’s complexities, it should not be difficult to feel sympathy for the plight of the Jewish people; aside from the well-known atrocities committed against them during WWII, the more “obscure” cruelties, such as those perpetrated by the Russian Empire, for example, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are mostly topics for academics; in other words, everyone knows places like Auschwitz or even Dachau, but rarely do you ever hear about the Odessa pogroms, which, starting in 1821, occurred on average every twenty years or so until 1905.

In addition, the historical persecution of Jews, which, according to some scholars can not only be traced back to a place in antiquity, the Roman Empire, but also be given a specific date, 38 CE—the advent of the Alexandrian riots, which began under Emperor Caligula when he sent the King of Judea, Herod Agrippa, unannounced to Alexandria, something that angered the Greeks, causing riots to break out. Subsequently, the more brutal 66 CE riots of Alexandria reveal a continuation of tensions between Jewish inhabitants and their neighbors. A primary account by the historian Josephus describes the following: “The Romans showed no mercy to the infants, had no regard for the aged, and went on in the slaughter of persons of every age, until all the place was overflowed with blood, and 50,000 Jews lay dead. And the remainder would have perished as well, had they not put themselves at the mercy of city’s governor, Tiberius Julius Alexander. He felt pity and gave orders to the legionaries to retire.” A gruesome picture and it only gets worse four years later, when Emperor Titus together with that very same governor, Alexander, at his command, go on to capture the city of Jerusalem, totally razing both the city and its Temple (indeed, this is that destruction which many Jews to this day view as the ultimate catastrophe for their people because, for one, unlike the first time under Nebuchadnezzar II, it was never rebuilt, and secondly, in many ways, the Jews once again became an “exiled” people).

Throughout the Middle Ages, things don’t change much for the better. Jewish communities are blamed for the Black Death, accused of witchcraft or poisoning wells, and many innocent people are killed as a result in massacres such as those which occurred in the German city of Erfurt in 1349.

Indeed, right down from antiquity, the Jews have not had the most pleasant historical legacy, and this by any stretch of the imagination. Consequently, the curious question we must ask ourselves, hence, is the following: Why do Jewish authorities in Israel now subject Palestinians to experiences which aren’t radically different from the ones they themselves suffered living under the Roman Empire, and later all across Europe? With poverty rates as high as eighty-five percent in some Palestinian areas, the conditions depicted below not only rival but exceed those of the historical Jewish ghettos.

After the 2007 Battle of Gaza, the narrow stretch of territory with access to the sea, bordering Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, fell under the control of Hamas, which can be considered the more “militant” wing seeking Palestine’s liberation, and things have not improved one way or another; the problem is that, precisely, in some ways, it may not really matter who ultimately governs Gaza—saints or sinners, for lack of better words; the area, although under de facto Palestinian control, remains utterly dependent on Israel. According to a recent article in Al Jazeera, Gaza “relies on Israel for most of its energy needs. Its population of two million currently receives about six hours of electricity followed by a 10-hour power cut.” In addition to this, Israel has exacerbated the situation by closing “its lone commercial crossing with Gaza and banned sea access, shutting down commercial fishing.” Routine actions like this are naturally a response to Hamas’s occasional escalations of violence; these phenomena, however, can likewise be interpreted as a reaction to the frustration of living under Israeli occupation, and it would be rather hard to believe that the only thing Hamas really wants to do is harm innocent Jewish civilians.

Aside from electricity, water sanitation is another major problem. As with electricity, Palestinian water resources are largely controlled by Israel, and, according to a report published in 2017 by the Rand Corporation, “a five-year-old boy died in the Gaza Strip after swimming in seawater polluted with sewage.” Further, the report states that incidents like this, unfortunately, are more common than we want to believe. While the West Bank certainly fares much better in terms of the aforementioned issue, “less than 11 percent of Gaza’s population had access to safe drinking water through the public network,” according to the same report. In addition, the highly-prized Area C of the West Bank, where, according to the UN, Israel retains near exclusive control,” is precisely the place in which most of the “West Bank’s natural resources and open spaces, including the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, are located,” according to a National News article. And yet, according to a 2013 World Bank report, less than “one percent of Area C, which is already built up, is designated by the Israeli authorities for Palestinian use; the remainder is heavily restricted or off-limits to Palestinians, with 68 percent reserved for Israeli settlements, 21 percent for closed military zones, and 9 percent for nature reserves.” Having access to Area C, hence, would perhaps not cure all of Palestine’s economic woes, but it could “expand their struggling economy by a third and halve their budget deficit if Israel allowed them to use the 61 per cent of West Bank territory that is now largely off-limits.” The image below from Gaza summarizes the entire situation quite well.

It can thus be said that the majority of Palestinians living in Gaza and some of those in the West Bank as well have nothing but poisonous water to draw from their wells, literally and metaphorically speaking; this is unacceptable and regardless of which position we may choose to take in this conflict, the dignity of people must be protected, but this is merely the humble opinion of a human rights student.

Being Armenian, I sympathize greatly with Palestine, mainly because of Jerusalem, which, as many know, is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Armenian, and Muslim (listed in no particular order of preference); appropriately, then, we can say that the city is neither Jewish, nor Christian, nor Armenian, nor Muslim, but it’s all of those things at the same time. In this respect, the easiest way for Christians, let’s say, to best feel the plight of Palestinian people is to be told that Jerusalem is entirely Jewish in character and has no connection to Christianity whatsoever. Just for a second, take a look at this photo—it depicts the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it has stood there since approximately 335 CE; this, however, isn’t the most fascinating part. In the most unexpected fashion, the main caretakers and guardians of this church, for over a thousand years, have been the Nusseibehs—an aristocratic family of neither Christian, nor Jewish origin, but, followers of Islam, capable of tracing their roots back to Jerusalem more than 1,300 years, all the way to the prophet Muhammad, that is. As you may have noticed by now, Jerusalem is complex, and it belongs to everyone who has a genuine claim.

It’s infuriating, hence, to hear Israel tell not only Palestinians but also the entire world exactly the opposite—indirectly for years and now overtly with the 2018 Nation State Law, that Israel is a country “that is different from all others in one way, that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” And yet, even the most ignorant simpleton strolling through Jerusalem’s Armenian or Muslim quarter will somehow sense that Israel isn’t just the nation-state of the Jewish people. For thousands of years, different people have inhabited the Holy Land—some are still there while others are gone—and telling Palestinians that Israel is a Jewish state is precisely like telling me, an Armenian, for example, that I have absolutely no connection to Jerusalem, even though there’s a quarter there. A well-written Reuters article from ten or so years ago describes how with gradual measures such as refusal of identity cards and withdrawal of residence rights, Israel is slowly trying to edge out its Armenian presence as well.

The 1980 Jerusalem Law, which is nothing but a covert guise for East Jerusalem’s annexation—utterly and totally unrecognized by the UN—is an ideology that not just politicians hold in high regard. Initially-innocent-looking, well-meaning, but really rather ridiculous articles such as this one from 1975, by what must’ve been, and probably still is (if alive) a disgruntled rabbi by the name of Yakov Goldman have attempted to use words instead of missiles or rather a missile of words to achieve their political objectives.

Ah, fascinating! Indeed, quite fascinating, Rabbi Goldman. So, you’re telling me that if other people live in the Armenian Quarter and we call it the Armenian Quarter that, somehow, is a travesty? Well, if that’s the case, why don’t we go ahead and stop calling Jerusalem a Jewish city, and, while we’re at it, let’s also stop pretending that Israel is a Jewish state, because, clearly, the Palestinians have and continue to live there, and if, by God Almighty, it has to have a name, as you’ve so correctly pointed out, let’s find a different moniker for your state—isn’t that a more wonderful suggestion? I think so.

Both the American historian David Howard-Pitney and US President Barack Obama (two figures whose level of fame is diametrically opposed—nothing we should hold against one or the other) believe that history is a burden. “For both of them,” according to Jennifer Mercieca and Justin S. Vaughn, authors of The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations, “it was as much a burden foisted upon them by tradition as one taken up by choice. And for both of them, this burden inspired action. Whether it is the divine history of the Exodus or the divinized history of the Founders, the memory of the past functions as a goad to social action, a profound investment of political agency.” History, in this sense, has been precisely that burden for both the Israelis and Palestinians; for the former, the Holocaust was and continues to be viewed as a great tragedy and yet it was exactly this event which at once and finally convinced later Zionists of the key tenet in Herzl’s philosophy—that anti-Semitism will always exist and, thus, the only resolution is a Jewish state, which was eventually formed.

For Palestinians—a people fortunate enough never to have experienced the horrors equivalent to such destruction—the burden of history has paradoxically been far less kind than it has to the Jewish people; as of today, they’re individuals of a nation without a state living under the occupation of a nation who for the longest time didn’t have a state themselves, but were forced to create one precisely on those territories which the current people without a state had historically inhabited, and the reason for the creation of this state had to do with the persistent historical persecution of those people who had lacked statehood before but are now inhabiting precisely those territories on which the current people without a state feel they have a right to establish their own.

It’s all very complex and the history isn’t something that will be dealt with here, but what isn’t complicated at all is something I’ve not only hinted at but have said directly: Human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and Israel, being the occupying power, has largely not lived up to those ideals. Problems largely stem from Israel’s aggressive expansionist and annexation policies, most of which, if not all, are considered illegal under international law. To be fair, as part of the peace plan with Egypt in 1979, along with agreements in the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel did dismantle many of the settlements in Palestinian territories, but since then, it has largely continued its previous modus operandi of encroaching on lands which aren’t meant for them. When Israel annexed the Golan Heights (territory internationally recognized as part of Syria) only two years later, along with Trump’s subsequent recognition of that annexation in 2019, it was under the guise of providing a safety buffer for its actual borders, but, in reality, such encroachments are merely strategies to give Israel a more Jewish character; tactics like this may seem appealing in the short-run, but given that no nation state is really composed of one homogenous population, the subjugation and repression of minority voices is always bound to backfire, and, indeed it has.

Not only have the decisions of Israel and Trump led to an escalation in the conflict, but they have also seriously crippled whatever diplomatic channels may have existed in helping to foster dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 has formally brought an end to what was achieved during the Oslo Accords in 1993—the PLO’s recognition of Israel and its right to exist, along with Israel’s recognition of the PLO as the sole voice of the Palestinian people. Since those most recent events two and four years ago, respectively, the PLO has withdrawn its recognition of Israel and cut ties with the US; in addition, Palestine threatens to sever relations with all those nations which move their embassies to Jerusalem, a move which could potentially further isolate Palestine, as some US allies will invariably choose to go ahead anyways.

Most news outlets, naturally, portray the conflict with broad brushstrokes—Palestinian “terrorists” launch rockets from Gaza and Israeli “forces” defend against this “aggression.” No subtlety, little historical awareness, and even less understanding, in many ways, also of current events—strangely. For some odd reason or other, no one is really quick to point out that Netanyahu’s constant, and, more unfortunately, blatant disregard of international law is a type of terrorism—indeed, there are no guns or rockets fired, but people’s lives are uprooted and metaphorically disfigured forever. Why should Palestinian residents freely give up their homes to illegal Jewish settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, for example? In addition, the (not) good PM’s pledge to annex all Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories have led a major Jewish newspaper to label him the “undertaker of the two-state solution.”

It’s no secret that this so-called funeral director for all non-Israeli ambitions has repeatedly stated, according to The Guardian, that no Palestinian state will ever come into existence so long as he’s in power; this, ladies and gentlemen, is terrorism in its most white-collar form, and yet the only thing that most major credible news outlets besides Al Jazeera choose to focus on are the horrible actions of perhaps some frustrated Palestinian “terrorists” in Gaza who’ve somehow managed to get a rocket past Israel’s incredibly sophisticated air defense system (the notorious Iron Dome in service since 2011); when the rockets, however, start flying the other way—to a place which cannot shoot down 90 percent of trajectories coming their way, it’s all for the sake of defending the state, all because Palestinians simply don’t have one, and, thus, have nothing worth defending.

In response to a friend’s despair that General Burgoyne had been defeated at Saratoga, which effectively brought about the end of British ambitions in Colonial America, Adam Smith said the following: “Be assured, young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” The quote has been interpreted in a number of ways—from strong countries can cope with poor policies to it takes a whole lot of work (in this case bungling) for political leaders to bring down a country which is prosperous and powerful. Despite what Smith may or may not have meant, I prefer the following interpretation: For a new nation to rise, it must first be ruined in order to be truly born anew. It’s hard to deny that Israel has done anything but bring Palestine to that brink. If Palestinians can hang on long enough, I truly believe that like all people who’ve ever wanted to be free, they may not get everything they wanted, but they will eventually find their freedom.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

Nestor Fantini, Human Rights Activist, Interviewed by David Garyan


Nestor Fantini

Nestor Fantini, Human Rights Activist, Interviewed by David Garyan

Interlitq 
Interview Series

 

DG: We live in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. The fragility of the democratic values we cherish are being tested by a virus that in many ways requires people to set aside their personal liberties for the greater benefit of society, and for good reason; in this respect, especially, the frailty of the nation-state—if we see it as the representation of a single individual’s will—is being exposed. In a globalized world, however, no nation can really exist by itself, and yet, these are precisely the principles on which nation-states are grounded: independence, self-reliance, and a strange sort of homogenous unity. From a human rights perspective, how has COVID impacted nation-states and what does this mean for minority populations living within them?

NF: From a human rights perspective, COVID has, in a strange way, greatly impacted nation-states, and, at the same time, the influence of the pandemic has only shown what we’ve known for a long time, yet repeatedly refused and still refuse to acknowledge—that minorities have and continue to be the ones who must bear the greatest burden of society’s ills; in this respect, the pandemic has done very little to alter the age-old problems of minority discrimination. From the suffering imparted by economic stagnation to the dangers and inconveniences of navigating poor infrastructure, it has always been and it still is to this day the ones on the fringes of society who’ve had to struggle most in order to ensure their own survival—overcoming a pandemic like the one we have right now is certainly no exception to this rule. Take, for example, a country like India; it offers a fascinating case study related to our discussion because we can look at this very pressing matter from different perspectives, an economic one and that of human rights; in terms of the former, we know that people are having a hard time dealing with the virus because there’s a great deal of poverty to be found there; in addition, those people already disadvantaged must deal with the fact that the infrastructure which is available to them is mostly neither spacious enough nor even safe by any means to accommodate proper quarantine measures required by the very governments who institute those “safety” regulations to begin with—in some cases, these authorities are even responsible for the construction of such dwellings, government housing, for example. What I’m trying to say, hence, is that there are many problems like the ones people are facing in India also to be found in the US—perhaps not to the same extreme degree, but the characteristics, certainly, the nature of the difficulties are not that drastically different, at least from the economic side of managing a pandemic. At the same time, the problem, as you say, isn’t just an economic one—it plays out along racial and ethnic lines as well. Neither I nor anyone will be very much surprised to hear that the privileged are going to encounter far less problems getting their hands on the vaccine first. In India, the caste system will contribute to this dilemma while in the US the issue will be determined by equally predictable factors—ethnicity and race. In both cases, the social constructs of skin color and cultural hierarchies, and that’s precisely what they are—things created by humans—will determine how nation-states are going to react to the problem. So, I’m afraid there’s no simple answer to the question of how COVID has impacted nation-states from a human rights perspective, since we can say that it has impacted them quite a bit, yet, at the same time, almost not at all because minorities are in many ways fighting the same battles for justice they were fighting hundreds of years ago.

DG: We are precisely seeing what might happen when the existence of democratic governments is threatened; it was, after all, only a year ago that Italian authorities—in their attempt to control the outbreak—orchestrated an unprecedented shutdown of the entire country, which, according to the Italian paper Avvenire, constituted the largest suppression of constitutional rights in the history of the Italian Republic. Almost exactly a year later, Italy has blocked vaccine shipments to Australia. As someone who has directly experienced how authoritarian measures can be justified to stop threats real or imagined, how concerned should we be that, perhaps in the future, even more extreme measures might be employed, if and when the situation does worsen? Let us hope not.

NF: I happen to see the issue in a somewhat different way. If we look at WWI and WWII, for example, many of the genuine and necessary sacrifices, which we might today interpret as “constitutional suppressions of our rights,” were an indispensable part of the machinery which successfully combated fascism. The famous WWII poster Loose Lips Might Sink Ships comes to mind now. Indeed, from a retrospective viewpoint, we can look at the matter as a hackneyed piece of propaganda—something to dismiss simply on principle altogether, and many of us would feel comfortable doing just that, mainly because we, as of today, know very well there were no elaborate German plots to ruin the country from the inside, merely as an example. However, it’s important to remember that at the time—during the most critical moments of the war—we had no real way of gauging the extent of the danger we could’ve or could not have found ourselves in. Of course, freedom of speech and all other constitutional rights are always important and should be upheld wherever and whenever it’s possible to do so; at the same time, during periods of national emergencies or wars, we must seriously and critically reevaluate those rights—the best way to implement them in unpredictable circumstances, for instance—if we’re to consider ourselves responsible, politically engaged citizens. Another example I would like to bring to your attention is the League of Nations and its failure to stop WWII from happening; it was precisely the inability of the respective governments to work in unison which brought this second crisis about. In this respect, I admit, it certainly is a bit concerning to see political maneuvers such as blocked vaccine shipments and other things of this nature, but, really, what’s more frightening to me is how the pandemic is being used as an excuse for governments to become more authoritarian; indeed, it’s one thing to say that we must work in harmony to make certain sacrifices that will become beneficial for all of society, and it’s an entirely different thing for the government to use the pandemic as a cover to achieve exactly the opposite—making society even more authoritarian to the detriment of us all. Do you see the difference? To definitively answer your question so that there can be no doubt about it: There are genuine sacrifices which are worth making, even when they happen to encroach on the so-called human rights, if only for the benefit of a better world in the future, while those disingenuous sacrifices—the ones which authoritarian governments falsely portray as being “necessary” are not the ones I’m referring to when I speak of democratic societies implementing cautionary measures (in this case sanitary ones) with benevolent intentions for its citizenry.

DG: With the election of Donald Trump, it has become clear that economic problems, coupled with a majority population’s grievance over whom a nation really “belongs” to, can lead to some unfortunate consequences. Alas, such problems have existed for centuries, always leading to disaster. It is safe to say that throwing a pandemic into this equation does not help matters. Is it too much of a stretch, then, to draw a connection between COVID and the economic/political problems that plunged the entire European continent into not only two world wars, but also genocides, and countless other human rights abuses? Given how the US loves to frame its problems in militaristic terms (the war on drugs or war on poverty, for example), it is quite appropriate to say that we have now lost more people “fighting” COVID than all the casualties our troops suffered in WWII. Is this the end of American prestige?

NF: I don’t believe so. Perhaps I might consider the argument that Donald Trump himself was the end of American prestige but even that wouldn’t be correct. Many people still look to the US for leadership and guidance. Donald Trump did much to undermine that faith and trust; however, our ability to contribute towards the effort of making this a better world—and, yes, fighting the pandemic—has by no means disappeared; that’s not to say the task will be easy. Changes must come and they must be substantial. I’ve already spoken at length about minorities and those in underprivileged positions; more specifically, however, at the national level, the government has to roll out vaccination programs with greater efficiency and speed. With regard to international measures, we must reengage not only the European continent but also the entire world in those cooperative efforts which Trump abandoned during his term—the World Health Organization, of course, but also pacts like the Paris Agreement. Already this is starting to happen with meetings between top officials of institutions such as the aforementioned WHO. As I said before, indeed, we can draw a connection between the forces of history, which seem to be running parallel to our times—precisely as many historians and scholars would expect them to—but if that’s the case, there’s a more positive side to such developments as well, at least in terms of arguing against the end of American prestige. This line of thinking—the decline of America—is really nothing new and from my perspective, I really begin to see it emerging during and after the American Civil War. The country was in ruins—certainly as divided as it could ever be—and we’re not even mentioning the economic and political tolls that came about as a result of those events. Many people couldn’t imagine how a country so divided and broken could rebuild itself after such an experience. Undoubtedly, in 1865, the nation had overcome the worst disaster, which was secession, but at what price? We know that the war had done a great deal in leaving a legacy of economic backwardness and polarization that, in many ways, is still felt today across large parts of the land. Why do I say this? Precisely for the fact that the US was by no means the most powerful and influential country after the Civil War, but it nevertheless managed to become that very beacon, despite suffering circumstances which were far worse than what we’ve now endured under Donald Trump. Still, people may argue that the difference isn’t so great between what transpired during those four years of 1861 through 1865 and our own four years of 2016 through 2020—let me just state that they would probably be right in making such a claim, but even if they’re not wrong, I maintain that it wouldn’t be unjustified to believe, at the same time, that America has likewise not seen its best days yet. In other words, if people want to think this is our 1865, then so be it, but there are nevertheless two roads still facing us—the question hence becomes: Do we take the right one or the wrong one? I say only that choice, and that choice alone can really determine whether the end of American prestige has in fact come or not.

DG: Politics have always been a sensitive issue—in the sense that it has mostly been students and young people who have been at the forefront trying to make real changes. Despite the substantial progress achieved over the years, things have not gotten “easier,” however. Just last February, for example, Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian student studying at the University of Bologna, was arrested after traveling back to his home country. He was beaten and tortured and remains incarcerated to this day, due to his work as a human rights activist. In a way, for the college students who’ve never experienced what it feels like to be incarcerated, the “idealism” runs high, meaning they really believe in being able to change the world, which, inherently, is not a bad thing; and yet this is precisely the attitude which can also lead to a lot of unnecessary grief not only for them, but their parents as well. What advice, looking back on your own life, would you give the younger generation? What is the right course for those looking to “change” the world—political idealism, apolitical intellectualism, detached pessimism, or a combination of all three?

NF: I completely understand the cautionary advice surrounding political idealism, and, yet, I also neither see apolitical intellectualism nor detached pessimism as the answer. Perhaps I can get on board with balancing the three, but, despite the difficulties which I’ve had to endure myself, I’m still inclined to say that political idealism is important. Real change can’t come without idealism; we can think of it almost like a polar star—we will never reach the celestial body, the so-called promised land itself—but we can use its light as a guiding point for where we need to go and what needs to be done. I’m familiar with the Zaki case and it’s another one of the many unfortunate incidents this generation has had to endure. The truth about political prisoners such as Zaki in Egypt lies precisely in the fact that for Egypt the matter really has very little to do with Zaki himself, while, for the world at large, the matter really has little to do with Egypt. What do I mean? My point is that Egypt has decided to detain Patrick Zaki not because of who he is or what he’s supposedly done or not done, as a matter of fact; no, they’ve imprisoned him precisely because of what he represents. The detention of Zaki, and others like him, is a form of deterrence, of psychological warfare, if you will, utilized by authoritarian governments to send the following message to all would-be dissidents: See what happens if you disobey. In reality, the actual person of Patrick Zaki—the sole man in the flesh—poses very little existential danger to a state like Egypt, and not because he hasn’t done anything wrong, but even if he did, his isolated actions by themselves would still not be able to bring down an entire state; this is something the status quo knows very well; thus, what governments really fear is the non-corporeal ideology within the flesh of Zaki—something less “unique” than the individual of whom only one “copy” exists in the world. Ideology, on the other hand, is easily transferred, replicated, and much harder to kill because you can neither touch it, nor even see it. Ideology can infect great amounts of people just as quickly as a virus can—funny that we should be talking about that during a pandemic—and it is precisely that which governments really dread the most, especially during a pandemic. Authoritarian governments, hence, view dissident ideology with both a great suspicion and unease because it represents a sort of virulent revolution, a type of revolutionary movement guided by entities even more dangerous than COVID. For this reason, countries like Egypt quickly try to quarantine any and every “host” of “threatening” ideology they can get their hands on—all in the attempt to prevent their ability to spread it, but like our pandemic, for example, COVID itself isn’t dangerous unless it proliferates. And since authoritarian governments view political dissidents like viruses, it makes sense for them to try and keep people locked in “labs” to prevent their doctrines from diffusing. The second issue I raised is the one for the world at large. What do I mean? There are hundreds of democratic countries out there and only one Egypt. Why haven’t those powerful democracies managed to free Zaki from his Egyptian jail cell? Precisely because, like with Zaki, the matter has little to do with Egypt. As we’ve already discussed, the issue revolves exactly around the concept of nation-states—they are, in fact, based on a strange mixture of self-reliance, independence, and homogeneity, as you pointed out earlier. By nature, hence, nation-states love conformity, and while many can handle some forms of dissent, it’s not the way they would inherently prefer to operate, at least not on a consistent basis. I can think of no country in which the status quo prefers, more often than not, to have its views challenged rather than accepted. At the same time, I want to make clear that this isn’t an argument attempting to justify the silence of many nation-states on such matters—my point is that even the democratic countries like the US still have a long way to go in ensuring that minorities are protected, underprivileged voices are heard, and everyone’s needs are basically met, but this is a subject we’ve already discussed and I’m quite sure there’s no justification to repeat it. Instead, I’d like to say that the work of fighting for a better world must not stop, regardless of those difficulties; additionally, the efforts of securing the release of such prisoners of conscience like Zaki must continue like before. Believe it or not, just like those fighting for justice feel the pressure to conform when they witness the imprisonment of their fellow activists, so, too, the countries which imprison them likewise feel the pressure from the international efforts that try to secure their release. My message and advice, to answer your question, is the following: Do the best you can—call your local representatives, write to lawmakers, demand that action is taken; the key is consistent action, and, like I said, when governments do mobilize to demand the release of prisoners like Zaki, the status quo which has imprisoned them does consequently feel the weight of its own actions. These things take a long time, I know, but as you’re well aware, Amnesty International, along with their supporters, contributed a great deal in securing my own release. The work is difficult but it must never end.

DG: Speaking of idealism and optimism, the recent election of Joe Biden as President of the United States has certainly brought great aspirations—at least equaling and perhaps even surpassing the hope we had after Barack Obama’s election; and yet, a 2008 Gallup poll reveals the utter lack of enthusiasm people had for his selection as Vice President back then: “The only recent vice presidential choices to spark less voter reaction than Biden were Dick Cheney in 2000 (net 4%, with 14% more likely and 10% less likely) and Dan Quayle in 1988 (net score of 0, with 10% more likely and 10% less likely).” Additionally, people were concerned that should anything happen to Obama, Biden would consequently become president—clearly, the hope and optimism surrounding Obama was based on entirely different ideals than the positive surge that propelled Biden to the top; in the case of the former, it was a real belief in the possibility of change, while in the case of the latter it was the reassuring comfort that we would be returning to “normal,” meaning no more Twitter rants and a lot more “presidential” behavior. In this sense, what can Biden do to become more than just the anybodyisbetterthanTrump president?

NF: With regard to the numbers, they’re just that—numbers, and I’ll leave it that. I’m sure it’s not necessary to repeat the age-old maxim about statistics and lies. Personally, I tend to place a higher value on circumstances and the situational context. Okay, so in retrospect Biden wasn’t well-received in 2008. What difference does that make? All kinds of trends, ideas, and individuals were not popular at some point in time, but they managed to capture the public’s admiration later on. I can give many examples of people like Socrates, Galileo, and Darwin who were all basically loathed by one or another in their day and now most of us (the sensible ones, at least) revere them. And so, the Gallup poll might be right, and I have absolutely no doubt that it is, but, perhaps, this is precisely the reason to love Biden even more today. Let me say that, firstly, we’re no longer living in 2008, and, secondly, Biden himself isn’t the person he was thirteen years ago. When the poll was taken, he had no experience in the White House—something he has now, and this is a quality which I believe changes the game completely, rendering the argument more or less irrelevant. It’s certainly possible for people that you didn’t think of highly before to add new skills to their repertoires and this may go a long way in changing your opinion about any given individual. For example, a high school dropout might be the hometown punk, but there have been plenty of those who’ve turned their lives around for the better. Now, let’s reflect for a minute: Biden, as a senator running for vice president in 2008, was certainly not a loser before he ran for president, even if people didn’t think highly of him then, but with the additional experience he’s gained along the way, the prospect of having him as president instead of Trump must certainly, at this point, be much more desirable than the nuclear option, if I may be so blunt. To answer the second part of your question, I believe Biden has many opportunities to stand out—and success with the pandemic is his biggest opportunity. Earlier you mentioned that more people have now died from COVID-related complications than all the casualties our troops suffered in WWII. Well, wouldn’t it be something if Biden were to create a cohesive, targeted set of policies that were to not only substantially reduce the country’s burdens as they relate to the pandemic, but maybe even get rid of many ills altogether. We can no longer ignore the fact that people are in desperate situations. Businesses have been closing, individuals are being laid off, and young people are frustrated with both their immediate and future prospects. Indeed, it’s unfortunate, like you said in your previous question, that the US has historically approached its problems with a warlike mentality, but if Biden can successfully win this so-called “war,” it would instantly propel him to the rank of the more desirable presidents we’ve had over the course of this country’s recent history, if not its entire course. Having said that, containing a pandemic is no easy task, let alone completely beating one, but as a man who’s overcome many difficulties in his life already, I don’t see why this particular challenge isn’t within the realm of possibilities for him. Biden would need to surround himself with a skilled, knowledgeable staff capable of getting the job done—a tall proposition, certainly, but not too idealistic. The fact of the matter is that he’s been in office for just over two months—let’s see where the road leads.

DG: Many people are not only delighted but overwhelmed by excitement at the prospect of returning to normal under Biden’s leadership, but is that really what we want? In other words, might there still be a chance to shake up the system a little bit, to actually bring some change, for lack of better words, and if you’ll allow me the expression—to drain the swamp, but in a democratic, politically inclusive way, and what would such a presidency look like? We may even ask whether such trailblazing administrations can actually exist—Biden’s reluctance to do anything about the Khashoggi murder seems to be another discouraging sign that further reinforces the point: One cannot be a politician and idealist at the same time. How do you see it—should we resign ourselves, yet again, to the fact that nothing will really change, at least from the perspective of human rights?

NF: I’ve already spoken about the importance of political idealism for the youth and I understand how that can be a more pressing issue for politicians, especially those like Biden who are holding a high office; in this respect, too, I believe in moderation. The Khashoggi murder was a quite a surprise, but Biden’s reluctance to act appropriately right then may have been more due to circumstances than to his own ethical code of conduct. I can’t stress enough that Biden has been in office for just over two months. Punishing a major ally, even if they are one of the worst human rights offenders in not only the region, but also the world, is certainly the noble thing to do, but perhaps not the most sensible foreign policy objective carried out so early into one’s presidency, at least from the perspective of regional stability. Politics is, above all, about relationships and it’s best to be on safer grounds before embarking on such controversial decisions. From a human rights perspective, Biden’s actions aren’t possible to defend, but we must also think about the possibility of those very same human rights—which we do cherish so much—deteriorating even further if Biden had decided to act differently. What do I mean? Increased hostility, violence, and repression that could’ve sprung forth in the region as a result of the president’s decision to sanction a few of those actors. As far as changing things for the better, some revolutions, if you will, are better made gradually than quickly. I know this seems like an excuse, but I really do believe in progress and I think Biden is far more capable of giving us that, as opposed to Trump, at least from the much-needed perspective of human rights.

DG: It is not an overstatement to say that Donald Trump will be remembered as the worst president in recent US history. The only one who can really come close is Nixon, and, yet, aside from the Watergate scandal, he was actually pretty popular during his term; additionally, unlike Trump, it must be admitted that he was not nearly as deranged; that we should refer to Trump using such words is unfortunately necessary. What is truly regrettable, however, is Trump’s destruction of the Republican Party. In a country whose mindset was already insulated by the two-party system, it seems that the Democratic Party has really done it this time—with this election they have completely crushed their opponent for the foreseeable future; the silver lining in all of this is that Democrats now have an unprecedented opportunity to accomplish many of the things they could perhaps not have accomplished in other years, which may not be a bad thing altogether. And yet, as an American living in Europe, I tend to see party plurality as a largely positive development—something I wish we could have back home. How do you see the issue? What is the future of the Republican Party and can it ever really free itself from the legacy of Trump, from the mob who stormed the nation’s most hallowed place of democracy, trying to overturn a fair election?

NF: What you say about pluralism is interesting and I would agree with you, except for the fact that US politics have, for the most part, had priorities and intentions which could be considered different from their European counterpart; at the same time, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what those differences are, but what remains essential is that the Republican Party has been the one to stall many of the reforms that would’ve greatly benefited minorities, along with other deserving people in need. I don’t know if the Republican Party can ever win the trust of those populations again, but that point, also, may be an irrelevant one because the demographics of the nations are changing anyways. It has become an indisputable fact that by 2050, more or less, the composition of the country will have changed so much that White Americans will no longer be the majority. Now, when that happens, Republicans will be faced with two choices: Either get with the program, as they say, or fade from existence. For too long, the GOP has been trying their best to subjugate people in inner cities and low-income neighborhoods in general. From Reagan’s infamous trickle-down economics (but even before that) to Trump’s aggrandizement of the one percent, we’ve seen this movie play out too many times. What many people don’t know, however, is that a substantial number of these policies first arose in California. Those who are more or less my age will remember the Pat Buchanans and Pete Wilsons. Years upon years of discriminatory social and economic policies ultimately contributed to the fact that California has not sent a Republican to the Senate since 1992—almost thirty years. Part of that has to do with the effects of the ongoing demographic shift which I’ve already mentioned, but also the frustration and anger over not only state but also national policies endorsed by Republicans. As I’ve said already—big changes have to come. The future of the Republican Party will rely mainly on the following premise—its ability to embrace the future or not, simple as that. Already we’re starting to see Biden overturn many of Trump’s discriminatory policies, along with appointing minority candidates to top cabinet positions. Incidentally, we were speaking earlier about his ability to stand out as a president—in two months he’s already shown an aptitude for doing that. The appointment of Deb Haaland, the first Native American elected to serve in a cabinet secretary role, is an encouraging sign that we’re heading the right way. As far as the Republican Party, they will have to be receptive to similar changes if they want to be embraced by the representatives of the shifting demographic.

DG: What are you working on at the moment? Any interesting projects you would like readers to know about?

NF: I recently finished teaching a couple classes on criminology at Rio Hondo College. Although I retired some years ago, the urge to get back into teaching did catch up with me, and I plan to continue this activity on and off, naturally with a much lighter load of courses than I had before. These days I’m also contributing to the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión. Life in retirement is wonderful but staying busy here and there isn’t bad either.

 

About Nestor Fantini

Nestor Fantini, born on May 11th, 1953, in Cordoba, Argentina, is a human rights activist, writer, educator, and former political prisoner. He has contributed to the Huffington PostLa Opinión, and has served as the editor of the online Spanish-language magazine HispanicLA.

The Curious Case of Democracy in Ethiopia and Armenia, an article by David Garyan

06/12/2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

The Curious Case of Democracy in Ethiopia and Armenia

What might two landlocked countries—one in the Horn of Africa and the other thousands of miles away in the Caucasus, sandwiched between two hostile powers—have in common? Well, more than the fact that they’re landlocked, actually. I’m talking, of course, about Ethiopia and Armenia; for the former, having no access to water is a condition, we might say, that developed relatively recently, at least in historical terms, while for the latter, the same predicament has held for at least a hundred years. The event which brought about Ethiopia’s loss of its Red Sea coastline was the Eritrean War of Independence, lasting from 1961 to 1991, which resulted in Eritrea becoming an officially recognized country in 1993; for Armenia, meanwhile, the loss of its access to water came about because of Turkey’s refusal to uphold the terms set out by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, which would’ve granted the small Christian country access to the Black Sea, along with regaining some of its historical lands, such as Kars. For the geographically, inept, here’s the Horn of Africa with the current post-1993 borders. Having placed it in many other articles, I won’t bother with the Armenian map this time.

Already, we have touched upon one general feature both countries have in common—loss—but this term is so vague, loose, and abstract that everyone, from the Chukchi people living on the tip of Russia’s shores all the way back round to the coast of Alaska inhabited by the Inuit, have experienced it. More interesting and to the point is the other commonality (quite uncanny, indeed) between Africa and the Caucasus—and this is Christianity.

A fact perhaps recognized by a large number of Ethiopians and Armenians—yet something almost universally unknown by the majority of people—is that both nations are among the first official Christian states in the entire world. Indeed, the religion was practiced in a clandestine capacity throughout Greece and Rome, with apostles such as Paul traveling to Athens, where he gave a speech on the famous Areopagus (once the place for the city’s council of elders 500 years before Christ’s birth), and Peter, arguably the most famous among them, whose upside-down crucifixion in the Eternal City has come to be viewed as the ultimate sign of humility towards God. Below is Caravaggio’s famous depiction of the event.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Christianity, at that time, was nothing more than a cult, really—a threat posed to the establishment no different than the one many controversial sects project today, which is why it was brutally oppressed beginning with Nero all the way down to Diocletian, and probably subsequent emperors as well.

It wasn’t until Constantine’s own conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, an event that brought about the Edict of Milan, which finally decriminalized Christian worship in the Empire. We can, thus, see Rome as one of the first Christian states, but not the first, which was Armenia (having adopted the religion officially in 301 AD) followed by Rome twelve years later, and then Ethiopia, after it likewise made Christianity its formal state religion in 330 AD.

Besides its unique Christian heritage, Ethiopia is an incredibly fascinating, complex country, full of linguistic diversity and ancient culture. Like Armenia, it managed to preserve its Christian heritage during the rise of Islam, and it’s the only country to have resisted colonial rule; in this sense, it attained the privilege of being born with the legacy of having already been a free, independent state after the Scramble for Africa (many scholars also include Liberia in this respect, but since the country’s existence began with the settlement of the American Colonization Society, it’s Ethiopia, with its ancient history, that truly represents the definition of what it means to be free of foreign powers). Indeed, it was 125 years ago that Ethiopia, under the command of Emperor Menelik II, defeated a heavily armed Italian force at the Battle of Adwa, securing its independence; in this respect, Ethiopia is the only African country to have won a decisive military victory against a European power.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the colors of the Ethiopian flag figure so heavily not only in the African cultural consciousness, but also the imagination of the entire world. The ever-present green, yellow, and red are even highly emblematic of Reggae music and the genre’s most famous proponent, Bob Marley, was, in fact, Jamaican.

It’s likewise no coincidence that both the establishment and headquarters of the African Union (a continental body consisting of fifty-five African states, roughly equivalent to that of the EU) have their basis in Addis Ababa, the capital and largest city of Ethiopia.

The country is widely considered by many scholars to be the place where modern humans originated from. The unearthing of two fossils have been recognized, according to a report by Nature magazine, to be “the oldest known members of our species,” and additionally the “discovery adds yet more weight to the argument that Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, was the birthplace of humans.” Pretty impressive.

That’s a lot of responsibility for a country to bear, which is why it was a founding member of the UN and continues to be one of the strongest economies in East Africa—accomplishments which have not managed to bring the country out of poverty, hunger, and corruption. Armenia, in many ways, suffers from the same problems. Although the distinction of being the civilizational cradle can’t be conferred upon this tiny Caucasus country, its problems nevertheless can be traced back to the Soviet influence that took hold of the society. Much less known is the fact, however, that Ethiopia, too, was under communist rule for quite some time. Naturally, although geography prevented the nation from becoming a part of the USSR, it was nevertheless ruled by the Derg, which was essentially a Soviet-backed military dictatorship.

Another aspect that’s not often mentioned is that the Cold War is in many respects a misnomer, especially as it relates to Africa. Everyone is aware of the events surrounding Vietnam, but not many know that the US and USSR, in fact, conducted the majority of their proxy wars in Africa. In this sense, the conflict was very much a “hot war” because there was actual fighting and much of it was fierce, as in the Angolan Civil War, which continued until 2002.

Besides the communist influence that couldn’t be any more foreign to the cultures of both countries, there are also modern civilizational ties between Ethiopia and Armenia. In 1924, on a trip to Jerusalem, Haile Selassie I, visited an Armenian monastery and there he encountered forty orphans who had escaped the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide. The so-called “Arba Lijoch” children made such an impression on him that the Emperor decided to adopt them all and bring them to Ethiopia, where they apparently received instruction in music. Thus, according to an article in How Africa, the Armenian influence on modern Ethiopian music is clearly visible. Under the tutelage of musical director, Kevork Nalbandian, also an orphan of Armenian descent, Selassie asked Nalbandian to compose a coronation hymn on his behalf, and on November 2nd, 1930, “the anthem, Marsh Teferi, was unveiled with the Arba Lijoch performing and Prince Ras Tafari becoming the Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Haile Selassie I.” The group of orphans continued to perform in the imperial brass band. Emperor Selassie is pictured below.

According to the Joshua Project, there are still 700 Armenians living in Ethiopia today, although a March BBC article from this year puts the figure at under a 100.

Despite the fact that their numbers were never very big, Armenians have contributed positively to the development of Ethiopia throughout the years; ever since their arrival, they’ve “played a vital role in the court of Emperor Menelik II. And later, in the early 20th Century, a community settled that went on to have an economic and cultural impact,” according to the same BBC article quoted above. It must also be noted that trade between the two peoples can confidently be traced back to the first century AD. Under Emperor Haile Selassie, the country embarked on a rapid modernization program and “Armenian courtiers, businessmen and traders played an important role in this transition,” further highlighting the impact this small, yet influential community had on Ethiopian society.

Besides their contributions to music and culture, the alphabets of both countries also bear uncanny resemblances to one another. The similarities are indeed incredible and, according to a 2003 article published in the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Ayele Bekerie provides three hypotheses for the emergence of the Armenian alphabet: The first is that it was entirely invented by one man, Mesrop Mashtots, which is the commonly-held view among the majority of Armenians; the second hypothesis states that the alphabet emerged out of previous, older alphabets that were present or known to Mashtots at the time; the third hypothesis, and perhaps the most interesting, is that “Jerusalem, the most sacred city of Christianity, is the likely candidate for the place of scholarly exchanges between Ethiopians and Armenians,” and this is why the similarities arose in the first place. Given that both countries are pretty much the first Christian states in the world, it’s highly likely that their interaction in Christianity’s holiest city may have been responsible for shaping Armenia’s writing system, which was invented in 405 AD.

The so-called Geʽez script, which the Ethiopian language uses, had already been in existence for approximately 300 years by that point so its presence in Jerusalem before the invention of Armenia’s alphabet wouldn’t have been a far-fetched possibility, by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s not really surprising, then, that both countries decided to round out this strange year, 2020, much the same way, embroiled in political turmoil and war. The similarities between PM Abiy Ahmed and PM Nikol Pashinyan are almost eerie; they’re basically the same age—44 and 45, respectively; they both assumed office in 2018, promising to bring sweeping, revolutionary political changes, which they did bring. Pashinyan, for his part, took radical steps to rid the state of corruption, which brought unprecedented freedoms and economic growth to the nation while Abiy made similar reforms to allow for greater liberties and transparency; he made peace with Eritrea, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 2019 and reconciled religious tensions within the country.

Both leaders were widely praised for their liberal, progressive reforms, until those measures started to backfire. In the case of Pashinyan, the liberalization measures alienated Armenia’s closest ally, Russia, which made the fragile Republic of Artsakh (Armenia has a mutual defense agreement with Russia) very much susceptible to war and Azerbaijan certainly took advantage of that—by starting a conflict which they were sure to win and the aftermath of this victory ended up erasing all confidence that the public had in Pashinyan’s ability to lead the country (external events destabilizing internal progress, in a sense); Abiy’s problems, on the other hand, emerged internally. On his part, the democratization caused some ethnic groups within the country, such as the Tigrayans, to feel excluded, mainly because Abiy was an Oromo, and the hallmark of his political career had been fighting for the social and economic rights of his own ethnic group.

When the Tigrayans decided to revolt, Abiy started an offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (a regional political party of considerable power that for 27 years dominated the Ethiopian political landscape until Abiy came to power) on November 4th, and roughly three weeks later, captured the Tigray capital of Mekele. This should’ve ended the war but a recent article in the Washington Post paints a much bleaker picture: “The TPLF’s leadership remains largely intact despite abandoning Mekele last week. On Thursday, in a message aired on a regional television network, one prominent leader called on supporters to ‘rise and deploy to battle in tens of thousands.’ TPLF officials did not respond to requests for comment and have kept their whereabouts secret.” That the TPLF, like Azerbaijan, is willing to fight until the very end isn’t promising, at least so far as the status quo is concerned. Below is an image of the horrors currently engulfing the country.

The strange thing is that these occurrences aren’t anomalies. In fact, much of Africa in the 90’s was experiencing rapid waves of democratization, and contrary to the expected positive results people were hoping for, the outcome was utterly negative. Take a nation like Ivory Coast, for example; it achieved independence from France in 1960 and saw a man by the name of Félix Houphouët-Boigny come to power. Under his moderate political leadership, the country prospered and became one of the most stable in the entire continent. Like other African states at the time, the government functioned with one-party elections, which ensured stability and efficiency.

During the 1970’s and 80’s, however, when the oil crisis and the neoliberal reforms of the Washington Consensus began to take a toll on the “economic miracle” of Ivory Coast, conflicting interests and dissenting voices could no longer be appeased and placated with the same success. Calls for multi-party elections were increasingly on the rise and although Houphouët-Boigny conceded to these reforms (he nevertheless ended up winning his first contested election in 1990), his death in 1993 brought an end to the stability the country had enjoyed for so long.

The generally favorable attitude towards immigrants under Houphouët-Boigny’s leadership subsequently disappeared, with ethnic clashes occurring regularly, and a full-scale civil war eventually erupted in 2002. Occurrences like these were quite common throughout Africa in the 90’s and 2000’s, further highlighting the fact that democratization, while appealing and preferable, is nevertheless a risky business, especially if it opens the door for conflicting interests and gives those previously excluded the “right” to fight for them in a liberalized environment which has invariably allowed it.

Indeed, both Pashinyan and Abiy entered the political scene at the same time with similar idealistic visions for their countries, but their premierships have increasingly focused on repressing those voices which either have a different vision of what “freedom” means to them or the ones who feel like they’re excluded from it. Only time will tell how people will remember the legacies of these men.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.

Why Armenia Can’t Survive Without Artsakh, an article by David Garyan

09/10/2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

Why Armenia Can’t Survive Without Artsakh

In 2011, my cousin, Ashkhen Arakelyan, who lives in Armenia, visited Ankara, Turkey to participate in a chemistry and mathematics olympiad. At the young age of 26, she’s already the mother of three boys, and although it seems like parenting is all she was destined for, Ashkhen is actually a very smart individual. For her academic achievements she was recognized by the former president, Serzh Sargsyan himself. In the end, and for our purposes, it really doesn’t matter what prize she won at the olympiad or that she got to shake the hand of the most powerful man in Armenia at the time—what matters is the thing she witnessed during her journey almost ten years ago. Walking into one of the rooms where the competition was being held, she saw this “map” hanging on a wall—go on, take all the time you need; it shouldn’t take long, however, to realize that this isn’t really a map but an ambition, an ideology, a dream, even.


(Photo by Ashkhen Arakelyan)

Images like this are rarely circulated outside Turkey proper—and for good reason. If you’ve ever heard of the word “pan-Turkism,” you’ll probably understand the meaning of this cartography—you’ll understand why the tiny nation of Armenia is nowhere to be found in between the two aforementioned countries and why Artsakh is depicted with the colors of Azerbaijan’s flag—it is after all recognized as a part of that country’s territory by international law; it’s a strange thing, however—this so-called international law. What power does it have anyways when Turkey has illegally occupied Northern Cyprus since 1974 and that very same international community which tries to do Azerbaijan justice has been unable to punish Turkey for the very thing that Azeris have accused Armenians of doing—occupying their territory; that’s another point, however. Turks have a right to protect Turkish-speakers in Cyprus, but Armenians can’t use the same justification to protect their own in Azerbaijan simply because the “brotherly” countries have already committed a genocide against us more than a hundred years ago and they won’t do it again. Thus, we should simply return all of Artsakh to a country which has already been complicit in trying to cleanse our populace and happily receive the highest autonomy they’re willing to give us in exchange, along with accepting the promise that they’ll protect our people—if you believe that, I have four words for you: Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic.

The Talysh people are an Iranian ethnic group who are indigenous to a region that’s shared between Azerbaijan and Iran, a territory spanning the South Caucasus and the southwestern shore of the Caspian Sea. They have their own language (called Talysh), and it’s one of the Northwestern Iranian languages. While this is all good and interesting, the problem was that in 1993, the Talysh decided they wanted to be independent—so they seized some territory in the southeast and formed their own state—which lasted a grand total of 66 days; this is the flag of their long-lived republic. Nice, isn’t it?

All jokes aside, however, the plight of the Talysh proves that Azerbaijan can’t be trusted with protecting the minority rights of Armenians—a Christian people their own children are taught to despise in grade school. If they couldn’t protect the rights of a Muslim minority—the Talysh—they surely won’t protect those of Armenians; this fact is even harder to deny for the very simple reason that an Azerbaijani historian by the name of Arif Yunusov has himself revealed that school textbooks describe Armenians with slurs such as “bandits” and “aggressors.” In Russian he writes: “В дальнейших разделах учебника авторы все больше и больше внимание уделяют армянам, которые и начинают восприниматься как ‘главные неверные в черных одеяниях.’ При этом, в отношении армян также используются все возможные негативные эпитеты (‘бандиты,’ ‘агрессоры,’ ‘коварные,’ ‘лицемерные’ и т.д.). Именно ‘коварные’ армяне помогли России в покорении Азербайджана, именно в результате ‘восстания армянских бандитов’ в Карабахе в 1920 г. основные силы азербайджанской армии оказались оттянуты от северных границ, чем воспользовалась 11-ая Красная Армия и вторглась в Азербайджан. Таким образом, ‘неверные в черных одеяниях вновь сделали свое черное дело.'” And so on and so on, tovarish.

With my more or less functional Russian, I’ve translated Yunusov’s statement in this way, but you’re more than welcome to copy and paste the text into Google: “In subsequent sections of the textbook, more and more attention is devoted to the Armenians, who are perceived as ‘the main traitors in black robes.’ In this respect, all the possible slurs (bandits, aggressors, insidious, hypocritical, and so on and so on) are also used in relation to Armenians. It was the insidious Armenians who helped Russia conquer Azerbaijan; it was due to the ‘uprising of Armenian bandits’ in Karabakh in 1920 that the main forces of the Azerbaijani army were pulled from the northern borders, which made possible the Red Army’s invasion of Azerbaijan.” Can the citizens of a country who go through such a school system possibly protect the rights of Armenians? This is a country in which hate against the Armenians isn’t just a fact, but an institution.

Moreover, according to Akram Aylisli, an Azerbaijani author and the first Turkic writer to publish a story on the Armenian Genocide, “The word ‘Armenian’ is a terrible curse in Azerbaijan, akin to a ‘Jew’ or ‘Nigger’ in other places. As soon as you hear ‘you behave like an Armenian!’ — ‘No, it’s you, who is Armenian!’ — that is a sure recipe for a brawl. The word ‘Armenian’ is equivalent to ‘enemy’ in the most deep and archaic sense of the word, something like ‘Tatar’ for our Russian forefathers, an evil and an age-old enemy.” Well, it’s good to know all that the next time I travel there. Wait a minute—with the “yan” at the end of my name (a dead giveaway of my ethnicity), I don’t think they’ll let me in anyways.

Although there’s really no time for any asides here, I must take a moment to acknowledge the contributions of Akram Aylisli. A highly decorated author in his native Azerbaijan, Aylisli was awarded the most prestigious honors that President Aliyev could bestow upon a writer; after publishing Stone Dreams, however, a novella about the Sumgait and Baku pogroms, the People’s Writer award so generously presented to him was revoked by the very same president who had conferred it; but the state didn’t stop there—his wife and son were fired from their jobs and he endured countless instances of harassment.

I’ve stated many times before that it’s always the artists who make real changes, rarely the politicians. As Thomas De Waal, an expert on the region and author of the book, Black Garden, writes, “With the dispute still unresolved, it is too much to ask to have the leaders acknowledge their own side’s guilt for these episodes—as a Serbian president finally did in 2013 for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. But both Aliyev and Pashinyan are actively obstructing conflict resolution by recycling conspiracy theories.” Indeed, this is also true for everyday people. For the Armenians all that matters is the pogrom of Sumgait, and for the Azeris they only remember the massacre of Khojaly.

Despite the existential danger Armenians face in Artsakh, international law has largely remained oblivious to the plight of minorities in general. The fact that bona fide independence is no longer so easy to win as it was before has something to do with the changing norms and attitudes about self-determination. According to Neil MacFarlane’s book, Western Engagement in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the international community, in the modern day, prefers to protect minority rights within the borders of existing states: “For better or worse, the West is committed to the attempt to address problems relating to minority rights within the context of acceptance of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the new states.” What does this signify? Well, that self-determination today has come to mean protecting the rights of persecuted individuals within the territory of an existing state, rather than compromising territorial integrity to safeguard the population—even a child can tell this formula is a little ridiculous. If the people are persecuted it’s because the dominant group hates them, so why would you expect the territorial borders (which are inherently there to secure the majority from invasion by foreign powers) of that country to protect a minority population residing precisely within the very boundaries of a nation that considers them “foreign” to itself?

As with almost everything in international law, however, which, after almost fifty years, hasn’t managed to kick Turkey out of Cyprus or prevented a single genocide, nothing really makes any sense, and this is just another reason why Oded Haklai writes the following in his own academic article—the title of which is much too long: “Thus, whereas self-determination provided the premise for the formation of new states on territories ruled by empires and colonial powers, in the contemporary statist world, the principle of territorial integrity checks the capacity of minorities within existing states to win independent statehood.” Again, all that’s good and well in the context of international law, but theory often conflicts with the facts on the ground. It has already been shown that Azerbaijan is more or less incapable of protecting minority rights, and should the Armenians of Artsakh give up their ancestral homeland in exchange for the highest autonomy, it’s almost certain that within a short time, Azerbaijan will “find” some excuse to intervene in the territory—any reason will do here, but let’s try this one: The Armenians are acting up, and in the interest of the state we must quash their “rebellion” which is threatening the existence of Azerbaijan; shortly thereafter, the government will “encourage” Azeris to settle the area and that will be all she wrote for the “autonomy” that an authoritarian state had so generously bestowed upon Artsakh Armenians. It’s not like Artsakh has the privilege of being Basque Country or Catalonia—autonomous states within a peaceful, democratic country, allowing them to be (relatively) sure that Spain will keep on respecting their rights, should they never attain independence.

No, especially after the murder of Gurgen Margaryan in Hungary by an Azeri officer whose name I won’t pronounce (my article on this), it’s especially evident that Armenia can’t settle for anything but full recognition, no matter how much that demand goes against the norms of modern international law. Why should Kosovo be allowed to secede and not Artsakh? In this sense, the international community is picking and choosing. Territorial integrity for Ukraine, independence for Kosovo, territorial integrity for Azerbaijan, and so on and so on. Perhaps, the Armenians of Artsakh could accept a deal in which they agreed to return everything in exchange for the highest autonomy possible—were it not for this map. Look at it again and tell me if we can really do that?

The image above will show you precisely what the ambitions of those two “brotherly” countries are; it will show you that Armenia is the last obstacle between the existence of an entire nation and the “fraternal” desire to revive the Ottoman Empire. Where is Armenia? If you don’t see it, you’re not alone, because in the eyes of Erdogan and Aliyev, it doesn’t exist. Who cares, however, what two dictators think? According to the Armenian Community Council of the UK, “Armenia is the only country remaining from 3,000 year old maps of Anatolia,” and even though two dictators would like to change that, they won’t wipe away our borders. They can’t achieve their goal unless Artsakh falls and they know this very well.

Take a look at the more modern cartography which depicts Armenia’s territorial boundaries precisely according to international law. On the left, you have the exclave of Nakhichevan (belonging to Azerbaijan) and on the right you have Azerbaijan itself; the tiny strip of land that separates the two is called Zangezur and it’s not difficult to imagine where the offensive to swallow up Armenia would begin if Artsakh were to fall. Look at this map and tell me how long Armenia can survive without holding on to the territory that neither exists in the eyes of international law, nor in the minds of Erdogan and Aliyev?

This is no longer a war about territorial integrity; contrary to their claims and assertions about international law, it’s never been about that. Why does the enemy need to recruit Syrian jihadists to fight for them (a fact which can no longer be disputed) if this is a war for their own righteous goal of territorial integrity? Do they really want to win it with the help of terrorists? And if this is really just a war for that aforementioned goal and nothing else, why bomb a nineteenth century church that’s situated in a place where no military or even civilian targets are in the immediate vicinity? This is the cathedral in Shushi before it was shelled. Do you see anything worth targeting around it?

Of course, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry has denied singling out the religious site, saying its army “doesn’t target historical, cultural and, especially, religious buildings and monuments,” but if that’s the case, what exactly were they aiming at and how did they miss it so badly?

Many often wonder why Armenians are so “hysterical.” They don’t understand why we amplify our grief beyond reason. They can’t grasp why we subject ourselves to suffering more than we should. It’s because very few people really understand our history. Almost no one notices the precarious position we find ourselves in, surrounded by rocks upon rocks, which are harmless, and two hostile powers with whom both our borders are closed.

One of the most important American novelists of the twentieth century, William Saroyan, wrote the following in a short story called “The Armenian and the Armenian,” published in his second book, Inhale and Exhale in 1936:

Saroyan was wrong, however. He died in 1981 and didn’t live to see Artsakh return to Armenia; Artsakh is Armenia—it can only be this way if we’re to survive as a nation. I know this statement will offend some people. I know that as someone studying human rights, I must be objective. I must protect the lives of all individuals. In my eyes, a persecuted Azeri must be no different than an Armenian in the same circumstance, and I’ll always believe in that; however, the loss of this territory doesn’t threaten the very existence of Azerbaijan, whereas Armenia’s survival depends entirely on holding it.

Many individuals I study with are afraid of speaking out—afraid of offending anyone, but that’s precisely what human rights work will require of us. If you can’t stand to be uncomfortable and risk making others angry, how will you ever protect the rights of those who are persecuted by a government that hates you for protecting them? No, if you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t embark on this profession and that’s why I must offend my colleagues at this time to stand up for the truth in which I believe, a fact which is captured in the statement made by the great Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov: “For Azerbaijan, Karabakh is matter of ambition; for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life and death.” May peace come to you all.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.