Sunday, February 22, 2015

At Boston University, Luis Moreno Ocampo draws a crowd to talk about Argentina, Iran and terror

Luis Moreno Ocampo, former International Criminal Court prosecutor spoke to a crowd at Boston University on February 22 about the 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Argentina, the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Cultureal Center in Buenos Aires and the death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

After weeks of endless snow storms the sun finally appeared again in Boston today, and with it came a crowd of people gathered at Boston University to remember and discuss three tragic events in Argentina: the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992, the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires in 1994 and most recently the death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman. These three incidents are bound together not only in Argentine history but in the collective memory of Jewish Communities around the world as tragic examples of terrorism and violence directed at Jews. The program, which was sponsored by a wide range of organizations, including Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston offices of the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, El Planeta Boston, the ElieWiesel Center for Judaic at Boston University and the Argentine Jewish Relief Committee, drew leaders and community members representing many groups from the local Jewish and Latino communities.

Over the course of the afternoon attendees heard both an overview of the events as well as highly personal reflections from people whose lives were directly impacted by these assaults. The first speaker of the afternoon described the attack on the Jewish center, clearly outlining the crucial role that Iran and Hezbollah played in facilitating and carrying out these murders, as well as the role that corruption among Argentine government officials is alleged to have played in preventing revelations about the true role of Iran in these crimes. One particularly poignant moment in the program came in the form of remarks by Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, who lost her mother in this terrorist incident and addressed attendees in a pre-recorded video.

Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former Argentine prosecutor and the first prosecutor appointed to the International Criminal Court when it was founded in 2004 was the keynote speaker at the program. Ocampo took the stage next and began by noting that the Jewish community remains a target, saying that, "We are living in a world where pogroms are carried out differently."

In his remarks he spoke about the direct circumstances surrounding these violent incidents, touching on the complicated history and relationship between Israel, Hezbollah and Iran. He also reflected on his own personal experiences as prosecutor both in Argentina and the ICC, highlighting the difficulties often encountered in investigating international crimes, including the challenges found in competing national interests. Another key factor in attaining justice lies in fighting corruption at the societal level in Argentina, he said, noting, "Corruption is not just about individuals, it's about a network of people."

Toward the end of his remarks Ocampo specifically addressed the issue of the death of Alberto Nisman, telling the audience, "Even if he committed suicide, it was a consequence of the AMIA case," later adding that there is a compelling need for further investigation to determine the exact circumstances surrounding Nisman's death. Ocampo closed by offering his thoughts on the importance of the tireless pursuit of justice, whether at Nuremberg following World War II or in Buenos Aires in 1994.

As I sat in the room and thought about all of the innocent murdered and maimed by Iran and Hezbollah in Argentina (as well as many other places around the world), I couldn't have agreed more.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The time is now talk about violent extremism in America, and around the world

One of the most pressing challenges when it comes to counter terrorism is combating the so-called “lone wolf” or “Home Grown Violent Extremist (also known as an “HVE”). This week there has been considerable news coverage of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, and according to media reports, the troubling increase in the number of HVE’s- essentially self-radicalized individuals or small groups of individuals was one important topic of discussion. 

The thing that makes these individuals so hard to detect is that they haven’t necessarily had any direct in-person contact with representatives of terrorist organizations, but have adopted the violent ideology of groups like ISIS, Al-Queda, Neo-Nazi ,White Supremacist or anti-government groups nonetheless, often through exposure to social media. Further complicating matters, there are many more people who will view violent online propaganda without becoming violent themselves. As Bruce Riedel, Director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution noted in his report on this phenomenon, "...for the counter terrorist community, the issue is not whether an individual is “radical” or “extremist,” but whether they are violent and breaking the law. It’s likely that the prospective terrorist will hide the transition from radical to violent from all around him."

This presents a particular set of challenges for intelligence and security services around the world, since someone who travels to Syria to fight with ISIS and boasts about it on Facebook is much easier to spot than an individual who may have come to embrace the idea of violent jihad by watching Youtube videos of fighting in Iraq on their home computer.  The fact that these individuals exist in the west and are open to the distorted narrative of Islamist terror groups is not lost on the terrorist organizations themselves, as is evidenced by the high production value of the materials that ISIS and others have posted online. Clearly, they believe that they will get a return on the resources they are investing in highly-polished videos and the launch of social media campaigns,   as a tool both to recruit individuals to come and fight on the ground in the Middle East and Africa, as well as to inspire HVE's in Europe and North America. While world leaders are working on a range of initiatives, including expansion of police powers and criminal penalties for engaging in either type of activity, no government or leader has yet found a fully satisfactory solution to this multifaceted challenge.

For this reason, it is important that the Obama administration is taking the threat seriously and convening a diverse group of domestic and international stakeholders to discuss the problem of countering violent extremism, including the threat posed by HVE's. But the conference is not without some controversy, as reporter Juliet Eilperin noted recently in the Washington Post, writing that "... this attempt to enlist the aid of respected community officials has raised concern among Muslim American advocates who say that the Obama administration’s efforts have contributed to the perception that the majority of extremist threats arise from their ranks."  Such concerns highlight the sensitive nature of the topic and the balance that the administration must strike between security and respecting the rights and privacy of all ethnic and religious communities.

The need for sensitivity to this balance adds another important element to the conversation around combating violent extremism, which may point to the root cause of its apparent intractability: in open western societies and in nascent democracies around the world, how do we balance the need to address the clear and present danger of extremism, while safeguarding the rights of individuals?

That this summit has drawn not only senior government officials from around the world, but key civil society stakeholders including representatives from the Anti-Defamation League and The American Islamic Congress, as well as leading scholars on terrorism, including Professor Mia Bloom of UMass, Lowell and Dr. Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy,  speaks to the fact that the administration views this problem in a holistic way. By including scholars, community leaders and NGO's, the White House is sending a clear signal that the answer to the question of how best to counter violent extremism will not be found solely with the military or law enforcement, but from a response by society as a whole.
While the White House and those gathered there are unlikely to come up with a complete solution to this challenge this week, with the right intentions and the right people in the room, perhaps the conversation can move forward just a little, and in my mind, that means some progress will have been made.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Attacks in Denmark are just the latest signs of an assault on European Jewry and the idea of modern Europe

This past summer, as Israel and Hamas were engaged in a war, I posted a piece on this website about the intensely ugly and often blatantly anti-Semitic response to this conflict on the streets of Europe. In Paris a synagogue was attacked by an angry mob, in Belgium a doctor refusedto treat a woman who happened to be Jewish, based solely on her ethnicity, and in Denmark a Jewish school was vandalized. These are just a few examples of the kind of hate and violence which rapidly bubbled to the surface in July and August, cloaked in a filthy veneer of legitimacy by those who used opposition to the war between Israel and Hamas as an excuse for anti-semitism.

Many of these hate-filled individuals and organizations did not need the war for an excuse. Over the past few years brazen attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions have been on the rise. However, with constant media coverage of the 2014 Gaza war (much of it willfully distorted, either out of bias or because of real fear on the part of journalists as to what Hamas would do to them if they reported the truth) it became very easy in July and August for terrorist sympathizers to whip up ordinary people into a frenzy. The result was perhaps predictable: Anti-Semitic graffiti and signs in shop windows, physical assaults and vandalism.

Since the summer, the streets of Europe have remained less safe for Jews than those in America. Although many European governments have been very responsive and are working closely with the organized Jewish community to improve physical security, my sense from the media coverage is that it is probably more dangerous to wear a kippah (Jewish skull cap) today on the streets of Paris or Brussels than in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Last month, within the span of a few days, we saw the attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and the anti-Semitic terror attack on the Kosher market in Paris. This weekend, another terrorist targeted a free-speech event in Copenhagen and then a synagogue where a bat mitzvah was taking place.

Clearly Europe has a major problem when it comes to Islamic fundamentalist extremism and those carrying out these violent attacks have two major targets: Jews across the continent and European civil society itself. In the short term, there is a serious need for increased physical security, counter-surveillance and better planning around all kinds of threats between the Jewish community and security services. Doing this will at least buy some time and provide some sense of safety while European leaders, at all levels of society, begin to tackle the deeper root causes of both threats. The people who want to kill satirical cartoonists, police officers and champions of liberty and free speech, need to be removed from society in the short term, but in the long-term governments must also be willing to work directly with the communities in which young adults are becoming radicalized, to divert them from a path of death and destruction.  Another key factor in limiting terrorism in Europe and the west lies in preventing European passport holders who go abroad to places such as Syria and Iraq, for both ideological indoctrination and tactical training, from returning to Europe. 

Europe cannot afford to ignore these incidents or what they may portend – if steps are not taken to safeguard the Jewish community, as well as the institutions of civil society and the liberal values that define modern Europe, the end results will be disastrous. The resulting chaos will ultimately spread beyond the borders of the continent, damaging societies around the globe and fueling further conflict.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

In the assassination of Alberto Nisman, echoes of the region's past

Violence linked to the narcotics trade and gang activity has remained a consistent challenge throughout Latin America but the kind of politically-motivated clashes and coups which occurred across much of the region throughout the 1960's, 70's and 80's has largely faded from today’s headlines. To examine the final days of President Salvador Allende in September of 1973, for example, as he faced an all out state-sponsored military assault led by his own air force (and sanctioned by his fellow countrymen in the Chilean Senate) seems a somewhat surreal scene to imagine now. The nightmarish regime of GeneralAugusto Pinochet, which followed, is perhaps even more so.

With the recent apparent assassination of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, I can't help but hear an echo of the region's past, reminiscent of a time when revolutionaries and central governments alike turned easily to murder, torture and kidnapping to further their own political and ideological agendas. Efforts by all elements of society throughout the region to counter this culture of impunity have made strides in recent years, and yet less than a month ago the world saw that murder as a political tool remains an attractive option to some in Argentina.

Based on the excellent reporting that media outlets have done on this story, it certainly appears that Nisman had done a thorough job investigating the July 18, 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires, and was about to present compelling evidence that Iran had played a key role in the attack. The fact that he also apparently had uncovered evidence of efforts by high-level officials within the Argentine government (including potentially the current president) to conceal the hand of Tehran in this horrific act, has only fueled speculation around his untimely death.

As I have written before, the murder of Alberto Nisman is a tragedy on multiple levels - a profound personal loss for his family, friends and colleagues, as well as a denial of justice for the victims of the AMIA bombing - but as I listened to an NPR report earlier this week from Argentina, it struck me that his death has also created a trust deficit within Argentine civil society. It's not hard to see how a situation in which high-level government officials are involved with a cover-up of a state-sponsored act of terror, and this results in the murder of a prominent prosecutor whose death itself is highly suspicious, presents a recipe for a serious erosion of trust by the people.

In time, the crimes of those involved with the AMIA bombing and the Nisman murder may only continue to multiply, denying justice to the victims directly impacted, and casting a grim shadow over the leaders and institutions of this Latin American nation. How groups and individuals from all sectors of Argentine civil society respond will likely play a significant role in determining how this terrible series of events will impact the state of civil society in the weeks and months to come. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Saving victims from the darkness of modern day slavery

It happens in large factories and behind small storefronts, in bustling first world metropolises and in hidden corners of the third world - all around the globe, the scourge of human trafficking deprives innocent men, women and children of their freedom, denying them their inherent inhuman dignity and exposing them to brutal violence. While many people think of slavery as an artifact of history, this is sadly not the case.

As Polaris, an organization founded to combat human trafficking, notes on their website, "There are two primary factors driving the spread of human trafficking: high profits and low risk." At first glance, it would seem relatively uncomplicated to address these two factors - to reduce the profitability of the enterprise, the market for slave labor (in its many forms) needs to be eliminated, and the second issue can be addressed through a combination of increased law enforcement focus on the problem and greaterawareness among the public of the signs of human trafficking.

This is, of course, easier said than done, and there are already numerous NGO's and law enforcement agencies working on this issue, but if we are serious about ending human trafficking, it is imperative that we muster all of the resources available to us from within civil society. Schools, religious institutions, private businesses as well as nonprofits at the local, national and international level must be fully vested in the fight against this social ill.

In the United States we must be willing to lobby our members of Congress to tackle this issue which should clearly not divide along partisan or political lines. Fortunately, several members have spoken out on this issue and indicated a willingness to push forward legislation on human trafficking, including Representative Lois Frankel (D-FL) and Representative Bill Posey (R-FL). Each of these public servants has also sought to bring a variety of community partners into discussion around this issue, with Representative Frankel hosting a round-table in the summer of 2013 which included nonprofit organizations, local and federal law enforcement, and government social service agencies. More recently, Representative Posey organized a symposium on human trafficking in Melbourne, Florida in mid-January.

Each of these members of Congress is setting a good example by being proactive around this nonpartisan issue and engaging individuals and organizations outside of the legislative branch. These actions represent important steps forward in the US, but human trafficking is also a major global problem.

The Middle East is just one region where human trafficking is a major concern, and with so many areas either contested or under limited central government control, it’s not hard to see how the criminals engaged in this activity can take advantage of fluid borders and lax law enforcement to smuggle and exploit their victims. 

As The Protection Project at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has documented, human traffickers frequently use Egypt as a transit point to move their victims, who may also be subject to sexual exploitation and even organ harvesting while inside Egypt. While Egypt has enacted legislation to fight human trafficking, it seems unlikely to me that the security services and police are devoting much time to this particular problem, given the violent political and sectarian unrest that has gripped much of the country in recent years.

Given the destructive and wide-spread nature of this problem I think it is incumbent upon those of who care about human rights and human dignity to speak out and encourage greater awareness of the fact that this crime is constantly being committed all aroundus. To do any less would be a moral outrage and consign even more innocent victims to the darkness of modern day slavery.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A grassroots discussion of democracy yields innovative ideas at Harvard's Ash Center

For two days students, tech entrepreneurs and public policy enthusiasts gathered at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to discuss ways to improve the work of the United States Congress. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

For as long as there has been representational government, people have been complaining about the people they elect to represent them. So on the one hand, current national grumbling over Congress is nothing new, but on the other, it does seem like the country is at a point of deep polarization, perhaps as divided as we have been since the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 60's.

To argue over principles is a healthy thing and to debate the best approach to difficult problems is the essence of what we send our representatives to Washington to do.  In an ideal system, this is indeed what would happen, but in the current political atmosphere, the defining feature of which seems to be its intensely partisan nature, to ask our Representatives and Senators to engage in serious, civil debate, often feels like exercise in futility.

What makes this situation all the more frustrating is that there are indeed many thoughtful, intelligent, dedicated members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who want to make a difference. These members and their staffs spend countless hours studying the issues of the day, meeting with constituents and writing legislation, but like all politicians they are also beholden to the almighty dollar, bound to dedicate what many would consider a disproportionate amount of time to fundraising.

This need to gather as much cash, as quickly as possible, not only limits the amount of time that can be spent meeting with constituents and working on legislation, but it also curtails the ability of members to get to know each other and build the personal relationships which are vital to the healthy functioning of a legislative body. 
Establishing and maintaining these relationships is the key, I believe, to fixing many of the problems facing our political system today, and a challenge that I enjoyed thinking about this past weekend at the Ash Center for Democracy and Innovation Hack4Congress event at the Harvard Kennedy School. 

In the spirit of confronting some of the more vexing problems surrounding the function of our national legislature, this innovative program brought together people from a wide range of backgrounds and areas of expertise including policy wonks, tech entrepreneurs and student studying a wide range of topics at area universities. I was also glad to see a variety of other co-sponsors, beyond academia, involved in the two-day event, including 
The SunlightFoundation, Congressional Management Foundation, Microsoft New England, Represent Us, CODE2040, POPVOX, Capitol Bells, Generation Citizen, and the Participatory Politics Foundation.

On Saturday morning the organizers gathered everyone in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum to view videotaped messages of support for the event from Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California and Representative Jared Polis, Democrat from Colorado. The proper spirit of cooperation thus set, the hackathon was ready to begin, and participants were asked to move around the room and stand near either one of two signs reading, alternately, "disagree 100%" or "agree 100%", depending on how they felt about a particular statement on the effectiveness of Congress offered by one of the organizers. Given the purpose of the hackathon I wasn't too surprised to see that while belief in the ability of members of Congress to get things done was high, actual satisfaction with the job Congress is doing was quite low.

The larger group then divided up into smaller teams to look at a number of key areas where the legislative process might be improved, from lawmaking itself to internal communication between members and staff, to initiatives that could incentivize bipartisan cooperation. It was this last topic that interested me the most, since I've often thought that hyper partisan attitudes and politics are the number one issue contributing to gridlock in government.

Over the course of two busy days my teammates and I (representing a truly international effort, with members from France, Australia, the UK, Germany and the US each bringing their own unique experience and perspective to the endeavor) focused less on the ways in which things are broken – we identified this problem early on as the absence of strong working relationships between members of different parties – and focused instead on the idea that by selecting issues which should never be thought of as partisan, such as infrastructure or human trafficking, our project could then identify two Senators or Representatives who have an existing interest in these topics, and encourage them to work together to draft and pass bipartisan legislation on a particular issue.  

One defining feature of the project would be the involvement the general public who could participate by helping to select the issue to focus on and would effectively “vote” for the topic by making a small contribution online, which could then be matched by a donor or set of donors who also care about this topic. If the members of Congress followed the steps of the program – meeting to discuss collaboration, issuing a joint statement, continuing to work together on the issue – then eventually all of the money raised would go directly to a non-partisan non-profit working on that particular issue. The fourth partner in this project would be non-profit charitable organizations themselves (with a strong bipartisan or nonpartisan record) which also work in the same topic area, which would provide the members of congress working on this issue with impartial, expert information.

Many of the ideas presented in the final session centered around improving internal communication in Congress or better facilitating constituent access to members. The winning project, called "Dear Colleague" focused on creating a system that would make it easier for legislators and their staff to share ideas and track support for pieces of legislation among themselves, which sounded like a pretty good idea to me.

Although our project was not chosen as the winner of the two-day event, I did have a great time, met a lot of passionate people who care about the future of democracy and saw some really interesting ideas about ways to improve the overall efficacy of Congress. I think my favorite thing about the project I worked on was that it put an emphasis on the importance of relationship building, not only between members of Congress from different political parties, but perhaps most importantly, between elected officials, citizens and NGO’s all around issues of major consequence. In my mind, such cooperation and collaboration is at the heart of a healthy civil society and the Ash Center and the Kennedy School are to be commended for convening this important exercise in democracy at the grassroots level.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.