World-renowned international human rights lawyer and activist Saman Zia-Zarifi ’90, the new Director of the Asia Division of Amnesty International, spoke to students and faculty yesterday at Myron Taylor Hall in a speech entitled, “Counter Terror with Justice: The Dispatches of Terror and the Axis of Evil.”
“[Zia-Zarifi] is such an important person in our community, and is such an amazing role model for students wanting to do international human rights work,” Larry Bush, executive director of the Clarke Center for International and Comparative Legal Studies said. “He’s at the pinnacle of human rights advocacy and activities in the whole world.”
Zia-Zarifi, who also received his undergraduate degree at Cornell, received one of seven Exemplary Public Service Awards awarded to Cornell Law School alumni this year. Zia-Zarifi was in Afghanistan and Iraq soon after September 11th, where he reported about human rights issues and advocated to international military officials for changing policies and addressing abuses.
“There is a perception that human rights activists are liberal tree huggers who get together and sing Kumbaya. I want to assure you that that is not the case … We are not soft on terrorism or on perpetrators.”
Zia-Zarifi and his colleagues initially intended to search for abuses perpetrated by Saddam Hussein in Basra after it fell, to find exactly what had happened in hopes that an accountability mechanism would address these injustices.
A document found in the remains of a burnt down government ministry with the names of people who were killed by firing squads in a Sunni uprising by “Chemical” Ali, Saddam Hussein’s cousin, corroborated evidence found by Human Rights Watch at one mass grave site in Basra. Yet, because the FBI could not be called in as it had in the Balkans to identify victims of human rights violations, there was no ability to identify most of the people or to establish the perpetrator of the violence and enact justice at most sites like this one.
Zia-Zarifi and his colleagues found their mission expanding as they witnessed chaos in the occupation of Iraq. Although the Geneva occupied population, Zia-Zarifi said British and American officials were not following these standards. This allowed looters to set government buildings ablaze, destroying records of abuses perpetrated by Hussein.
In addition, officials said they did not have the resources or the mandate to close an open, insecure gun market in Fallujah or to remove millions of rounds of ammunition that Hussein left exposed from artillery and anti-tank shells across Iraq. Such weaponry impose a serious threat to troops and civilian children, who presented in Basra General Hospital five to six times daily for serious related injuries.
Zia-Zarifi addressed these breaches of the Geneva Convention and the U.S. Army Field Manual with military legal advisors.
“The government failed to uphold its legal obligations … This is not a political issue about should we or shouldn’t we have gone. This is basic international law,” he said.
In addition to sharing his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, Zia-Zarifi made an appeal to law students and faculty about reforming the inadequacies of the international legal human rights framework.
“We need your help … not financially, but intellectually,” he said. “Policy and reality have galloped so far ahead of the law, that there is a serious disconnect … We are looking at [the academy] and asking you to give us some answer because the law is starting to run out on the issues that we are identifying. It is clear that the rights of individuals are being violated, but is no longer clear who is going to be held accountable for those violations.”
According to Zia-Zarifi, the inadequacies of international human rights laws are particularly evident in the case of Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, where some Taliban officials are being held. He said that because the officials are non-state actors, the international legal grounds for trying them for human rights violations is unclear. The current system is state-centric, and the operation of international law is not clearly defined.
“It’s a tragedy and a genuine policy mistake that not a single one of these men has been put on trial for a single thing they did in Afghanistan,” Zia-Zarifi said. “If you are the U.S. government, don’t you want to put these people on trial and say to the Afghan people that these are the people we freed you from?”
Zia-Zarifi was on one of the first teams of international observers who witnessed trials at Guantanamo Bay, which has many legal problems in human rights because of the fact that the Taliban officials are not state actors. After lawyers debated during a trial over who could decide on objections, and on what grounds, the trials stopped.
“As a former litigator, and someone who has seen lots of trials in other countries, few things could be as sad as watching American-trained lawyers come up with a new system of legal process when due process was off,” Zia-Zarifi said.
Zia-Zarifi expressed concern about the fact that little of the evidence presented in Guantanamo courts is permissible because it is either outdated, hearsay or has been gathered under cruel punishments that have been deemed illegal by the United States. Ultimately, he explained, the Afghan government tells the U.S. that it cannot receive Guantanamo detainees because with such poor evidence there is no case against them.
Joana Foster, a visiting scholar at the law school and former United Nations senior gender policy advisor to the Peacekeeping Mission in Liberia, said that Zia-Zarifi’s concerns with the current structure of international human rights law resonated with her own experiences with women’s rights.
Zia-Zarifi expressed concern about the low level of concern many people have for the messages of human rights violations occurring worldwide.
“When people aren’t interested, it’s impossible to get their attention,” Zia-Zarifi said. “Even at Cornell, I’ve been going to a couple classes and talking to students and professors about how politically involved they are and I don’t see any political activism. I don’t get the sense that the student body is that engaged. I understand that there’s no conscription, the war is distant, but I don’t know what energizes people anymore. So we try to reach them individually … through their computer screen.”
Zia-Zarifi earned a law degree from Cornell in 1993 and a Master of Laws degree from New York University in 1997. He then studied the responsibilities of non-state actors as a senior research fellow at Erasmus University in Amsterdam. He worked for Human Rights Watch, a private advocacy and research organization, in New York City from 2000 until just last week, when he began a position as the Director of the Asia Division of Amnesty International.