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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries since August 2010

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A Nation still Divided: Rwanda's elections provoke fierce debate at Washington briefing

August 5, 2010 ·

A tense briefing Tuesday on Rwanda’s upcoming elections held at the National Press Club in Washington demonstrated that politics still evoke a strong emotional response from many Rwandans 16 years after their devastating genocide. Despite a series of new laws aimed at promoting reconciliation and inclusion, divisions in the young democracy continue to run deep over the prospect of reelecting strongman Paul Kagame as president.

Rwandan Ambassador James Kimonyo arrived unnanounced and took the podium Tuesday to defend President Paul Kagame's controversial rule.

The briefing was aimed at shedding light on the illegitimacy of Rwanda’s upcoming election on August 9th.  In the past few months, the Rwandan government has grossly violated citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Local authorities prevented opposition parties, including the Democratic Green Party and the FDU-Inkingi, from registering by denying them permission to hold the required congressional meetings. The manipulation of the “Genocide Ideology Law”, adopted in 2008, has been used almost exclusively against political opposition leaders like presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, portraying them as genocide sympathizers and imprisoning them.  

Other opposition leaders, including Joseph Ntawangundi and Frank Habineza, have been threatened, beaten, and/or arrested. Independent journalists such as Didas Gasana, Charles Kabonero, and Richard Kayigamba have been imprisoned. Others who have vocally opposed the Rwandan Administration, such as Jean-Bosco Gasasira, have been forced to flee into exile after severe threats. Vice President of the Democratic Green Party André Kagwa Rwisereka was reported missing before his body was found mutilated. For a thorough, though still non-exhaustive, see the chronology of abuses or the submission for Universal Periodic Review by Human Rights Watch.

The briefing’s panel, consisting of human rights lawyer Peter Erlinder and Rwandan civil society advocates Claude Gatebuke and Pascal Kalinganire, began by spotlighting these abuses and denouncing the election as a “lie,” a “myth,” and a “sham” primarily because of the suppression of opposition. The unexpected arrival of the Rwandan Ambassador, however, radically changed the course of the dialogue.  After being granted permission to speak, Ambassador James Kimonyo vociferously denied the panelists’ statements, vouching for the validity of the election process, and commending the Rwandan government for its many achievements.

Ambassador Kimonyo further incited controversy by personally attacking the panelists. Seemingly bent on avoiding dialogue and the topic of the elections altogether, he accused Paul Rusesabagina of Hotel Rwanda in absentia of financially aiding FDLR rebels in the DRC. Many of the FDLR are former Rwandan genocidaires, and thus the Ambassador smeared Rusesabagina as a genocide sympathizer, or guilty of “Genocide Ideology.” Erlinder, he charged, was guilty of the same crime by association. These accusations provoked a clamor from the audience, many of whom were members of the Rwandan diaspora community, and prompted defensive refutations that derailed the discussion of the elections to political bickering. While moderator Emira Woods attempted to steer the discussion back to the U.S. government’s role in the upcoming election, explosive outbursts and defensive debate characterized the remainder of the two-hour briefing.

While this tense dialogue represented a microcosm of the deep-rooted political tensions that have no platform on which to be voiced in Rwanda today, it detracted from the objective of the briefing – to call on the U.S. to be a more responsible global partner, not recognize illegitimate, undemocratic elections, and end its support of repressive strongmen.

Prop 8 and the Struggle for Justice

August 5, 2010 ·

defend equalityOver the more than 30 years I have spent helping to raise money for social justice work, I have frequently found myself faced with the need to turn lemons into lemonade. Authentic causes for celebration in the name of democracy, human rights, peace, or justice are few and far between. Yet, because I am a congenital optimist (hence those 30 years) and because I am frequently the person tasked to persuade a skeptical and exhausted community of progressive donors that there is reason for hope, I instinctively search for silver linings and eagerly applaud windmill-tilters.  

Yesterday’s finding by U.S. District Judge Walker, ruling California’s Proposition 8 unconstitutional, evoked a memory of a nearly forgotten instance of such windmill tilting and reminded me anew that struggles for justice are incremental, that few important victories come swiftly or easily.   

One day in 1989, as the reluctant chair of the Human Relations Commission for the city of DeKalb, Illinois, I found myself testifying before the city council about the need to make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal. My colleagues on the HRC and I had recently recommended unanimously to the city government that it ban such discrimination. The city council, a majority of whom we had considered certain allies, had balked and was unexpectedly voting, on the evening I recall, to duck the issue and put the idea of gay rights on the ballot!  

I was on fire with indignation — since when, I asked the assembled councilors, did we in the United States believe that the rights of the minority could be determined or curtailed by a vote of the majority. Had we learned nothing in the 125 years since the civil war? I ended the evening in tears, devastated by the betrayal of the public officials, including the mayor, who had assured me in private that they would do the right thing.  It took another ten years for discrimination in hiring or housing on the basis of sexual orientation to become illegal in DeKalb. 

Fast forward more than two decades. A federal judge, appointed by a Republican president, looks at the facts and finds himself unable to muster an excuse for justifying discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, in this instance when it comes to issuing marriage license.  

Of course, it has been too long — more than 40 years since Stonewall — but a bit of reflection confirms that progress has been real. Consciousness has changed. Paradigms have shifted. Social movements demanding justice start small with tiny, often unconnected yet simultaneous uprisings in obscure and unnoticed locales.  But, as is the case with GLBT rights, the patent reasonableness of the claim and the simple decency of the claimants eventually become obvious and, within a few decades (when we are lucky — ending slavery took centuries) become conventional wisdom.  

The kind of overt racism that was socially acceptable in 1950 had become obscene by 2000. The homophobia that was routine in 1989 in DeKalb has, at least in one very influential federal jurisdiction in California, become indefensible in 2010. The Defense of Marriage Act will soon be as much of an anachronism as Jim Crow. 

It pays to keep your eyes on the prize.

Portrait of Marcus Raskin

August 4, 2010 ·

Four freedomsThere are many wonderful things about working for the Institute for Policy Studies. Take the dress code: Wear clothes. Seven years after escaping the corporate media and landing at this think tank, I can count on one hand the number of times I've purchased pantyhose. If you see a guy wearing a suit, chances are that he's an intern and it's his first day. The family-friendly work ethics can't be beat: If you have children or your sister is ill, you're welcome and expected to maneuver your office obligations around the obligations of being a caring parent and siblings. Best of all, we have the privilege of working with dozens of brilliant and kind people who genuinely want to save the world.

We're especially fortunate that Marcus Raskin, who together with Richard Barnet, founded our organization in 1963, is still part of the gang. Four Freedoms Under Siege, which Raskin co-authored with his longtime friend Robert Spero, is his most recent book. It's brilliant and eternally timely. The title harkens from the four freedoms FDR identified in his 1941 State of the Union address: the freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. One chapter, authored by Spero, profiles Marc.

In just 10 pages, Spero relates how this remarkably gifted pianist raised in a working-class Milwaukee family landed at Juilliard, then opted to turn his lifelong passion for music into a hobby, earning a law degree from the University of Chicago, spending a few years in the Kennedy administration, and then co-founding with Richard Barnet a progressive and boldly independent think tank. The chapter includes a great synopsis of Marc's role in galvanizing opposition to the Vietnam War, and highlights from the Institute's first four and a half decades, such as this remarkable anecdote.

"Ten years before President Ronald Reagan was credited with ending the cold war, Raskin and Barnet met in Moscow with Mikhail Gorbachev's senior advisors and learned, contrary to CIA estimates, that the Soviet Union was an overgrown third world country, its military threat was greatly exaggerated, and communist solidarity was a myth. Raskin passed their insights to the State Department, which paid no heed."

The real "I didn't know that!" part for me was learning that the actor Gene Wilder was one of Marc's junior high school friends. "It wasn't music or art (or girls) that drove Marcus," said the star of Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, who was known as Jerry Silberman back then. "But rather how, if he were ever in a position of power, he wanted to change the world so that people, like the poor families around us, would have decent homes to come home to."

The book, originally released in 2006 in hardcover, is now out as a paperback, which you can purchase online. This chapter is currently posted to our website, but will only be there for about two weeks. I also recommend watching this short video by former IPSer Farrah Hassen, which features Marc's haunting piano playing.

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