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At a talk on national security and the Middle East hosted by the University of Michigan’s Donia Human Rights Center Wednesday, Princeton University professor Daniel Kurtzer opened the discussion by asking attendees how to balance human rights and the United States’ involvement in conflicts in the Middle East.

“What can and should we do to advance human rights and basic freedoms internationally, and how does that relate to the challenge of reinvigorating our democracy?” Kurtzer asked.

The virtual webinar, moderated by U-M Political Science professor Mark Tessler, was organized in coordination with the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the Weiser Diplomacy Center and various University departments.

Kurtzer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, began the event by noting that conflicts in the Middle East are often complex and involve many different groups.

“In the Middle East … the conflict environment looks like a multi-tiered chessboard,” Kurtzer said. “You have Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, Kurds, Yazidis, the list goes on. You have non-state actors … you have (various religious groups), and all of these players live in a region in which borders are becoming increasingly less legitimate, in which ungoverned space is now expanding throughout that region.” 

Public Policy professor Susan Waltz said it is difficult to determine who is responsible for various human rights violations in the Middle East during times of conflict.

“They include egregious violations of civil and political rights, notably the suppression of speech and assembly,” Waltz said. “They also include the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, torture and deaths in detention … The logical alternative to casting (the U.S.) as a champion of human rights is to revert this question to the UN (United Nations), as the one multilateral body with a legitimate claim to represent the world as a community of nations. But, we have seen too often how the UN itself can be dragged into the mire and rendered ineffective.”

Kurtzer said human rights abuses in the U.S., like racism and police brutality, need to be addressed before the country will have the credibility to act internationally. 

“We can be better than to allow events such as the killing of George Floyd or the violence of Charlottesville or the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh,” Kurtzer said. “To the extent that we demonstrate a commitment to systemic change at home, we stand on much stronger ground to advocate for the expansion of freedoms and the respect for human rights abroad.” 

Kurtzer said it is difficult to manage various factors when crafting peace accords, including human costs, security and inclusion of all parties and determining causes. To begin navigating these challenges, Kurtzer said human rights demands should be included in peace agreements.

“As challenging as it is to embed human rights considerations in the process of peacemaking, the durable peace requires that governments treat their own people and those of their former adversary with respect,” Kurtzer said. “The peace agreement which is followed by crackdowns and other abuses of human rights is challenged.”

Kurtzer said President Joe Biden’s choice to join the United Nations Human Rights Council and cut ties with Arab states that are waging war in Yemen shows his commitment to addressing human rights abuses. 

“(Arab states) are as responsible for human rights violations as those who are fighting against them,” Kurtzer said. “But the United States under President Biden will not support the continuation of the kind of activities in Yemen, especially by its Saudi supporters that exacerbate and worsen the human rights situation in Yemen, specifically with regard to Saudi Arabia.”

Panelists said many recent human rights issues will need to be addressed in the future. Waltz noted the systemic discrimination against Palestinians by the Israeli government will be ongoing and not easily addressed during a Biden presidency. 

“The Biden administration is going to have to confront (the situation) with Israel and constituents here in the U.S.,” Waltz said. “That would be a very different approach from the conventional diplomatic approach of responding to particular human rights issues and concerns as they arise … I do have some hopes that the Biden administration will find some ways to be creative and push the envelope for human rights in various places in the region. ”

Steven Ratner, director of the Donia Human Rights Center, emphasized the importance of involving the general student body in these foreign policy conversations.

“It’s really important for our students to be able to learn from experts and people who’ve worked on these issues for many years about the various aspects of a problem so that they can then make up their own mind and become, at a minimum, informed citizens and maybe (become) more agents for change,” Ratner said.

The article has been updated to better reflect the Donia Human Rights Center’s role in organizing the event.

Daily Staff Reporter Ivy Muench can be reached at ivmuench@umich.edu.

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