International Human Rights Lawyer Dr. Curtis F. J. Doebbler discusses the destruction of the Middle East by outside forces and how international law must be applied to resolve the precarious situation.
About Dr. Curtis F. J. Doebbler
Curtis F.J. Doebbler is an international human rights lawyer who since 1988 has been representing individuals before international human rights bodies in Africa, Europe, the Americas and before United Nations bodies. He is also an American lawyer authorized to practice before the courts of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC and several federal courts in the United States, including the Supreme Court of the United States.
Doebbler was born in 1961 in Buffalo, New York, and has American, Palestinian, and Dutch nationality.
He is known for his outspoken opposition to human rights violations by the U.S. government and his support of individuals in countries that have been subject to armed attacks by the United States. He has worked almost two decades in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East teaching international human rights law and representing individuals in human rights cases.
In the case of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Doebbler argued before the Iraqi Special Tribunal that the court was illegal and did not respect human rights.
He has made representations before the UN Human Rights Council and at numerous side-events of the Council calling for an impartial, fair and equal application of international human rights law and an end the selective punishment of human rights violators, especially by taking steps to end the impunity of powerful countries.
He has advised governments, including the Palestinian National Authority and the Hamas government.
He is currently Research Professor of Law at the University of Makeni, Department of Law in Sierra Leone and a visiting professor at Webster University in Geneva.
G & E Podcast: Dr. Curtis Doebbler is an international human rights lawyer who has represented governments, heads of state, and millions of refugees or displaced persons. He is also a professor who researches and teaches at a number of universities. He’s constantly traveling between the US, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. We’ve currently caught up to him at the UN in New York. It’s great to have you on the podcast Dr. Doebbler.
Dr. Doebbler: Nice to speak with you.
G & E Podcast: The Middle East has been in crisis since time and memorial, but there seems to be a renewal of tensions given the Syrian war of intervention, the Israeli/Palestine crisis, and the latest temple mount incident, the Saudi sponsored war in Yemen, and now fallout between GCC countries and Qatar due to what some say is Qatar’s pursuit of more independent policies and desire to work with Iran. For the first part of this interview, I wanted you, somebody with great authority on this subject and who has skin in the game so to speak, who’s on the ground, to give an overview of what you consider to be the main sources of chaos in the Middle East, who’s destroying the Middle East? Is it US/EU intervention, Russian meddling, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the struggle between Wahhabism Sunni-Islam? What do you consider are the main driving forces behind the chaos and the human rights violations?
Dr. Doebbler: I think it’s probably all of those that you’ve mentioned and maybe a few more. The Middle East, as many parts of the world, but particularly perhaps the Middle East because of it’s geopolitical status over the last at least 100 years, perhaps the most complex geopolitical status of anywhere on the globe. It’s been subject to a lot of forces and I would say mainly outside forces that did not always produce good, in part because they weren’t concerned with the interest of the people in the Middle East.
If you look at the countries in the Middle East that have been destroyed, Syria, one of the most advanced countries in the Middle East, Iraq, a developed country, Libya, the richest country in Africa, an impoverished continent to a large extent, but the richest country in that continent was destroyed. All of those were destroyed by actions taken or promoted mainly be people outside our countries government outside the Middle East.
I think certainly there’s a very strong element of outside meddling that has not contributed to the betterment and the development of the lives of the people in the Middle East. I find that very unfortunate. This body where I’m in today, the United Nations headquarters I think has made a half hearted effort to try to address these issues. I think it’s right now in very grave danger of becoming part of the problem and the part of the problem where people will lose faith in it. If you remember, some of these problems were existing, in fact many of them, but some of the more longer standing ones were existing before the creation of the United Nations.
For example, the situation in Palestine, that predates the United Nations by quite a few years. It was on the agenda of the United Nations was created and I think it’s unfortunate that it is something that has not now been resolved to date. The United Nations has put some time and energy into it, but they don’t have a lot to show for that. I think these types of situations certainly indicate that there were a lot of outside forces at work, either promising solutions, or creating problems in these areas that has not been very valuable.
Having said that though, you can’t absolve the people in any country of some degree od responsibility for their own fate. Palestinians as you know are right now the biggest enemy of Palestinians is probably each other. Hamas and Fatah are fighting against each other rather than Israel. In fact, they have a Golden opportunity right now to show the injustice of what Israel is doing, but often that opportunity is handicapped by one side not wanting to show that the other side is being treated unfairly. I think that’s unfortunate.
One of the more recent examples that you mentioned is the example of Qatar where the problem in Qatar, although I think it had a hand from outside, but still you can certainly not absolve the countries involved that are pressing against them. I think in my view, I am not hesitant to say in I think a very unfair way, particularly I think that’s shown mainly by the fact that one of the conditions that they want to impose on Qatar is the fact that they want to shut [inaudible 00:05:07], a media out. I can’t imagine anywhere in the world a country that’s not free or that is free that they would accept a condition that they close a media outlet, even their own state media, much less send a more independent one. That is something that the countries that are demanding that should be embarrassed of. Again, it’s an example of how Middle Eastern countries are sort of feuding with each other.
G & E Podcast: You mentioned the UN and how it seemed to be losing its legs or influence. Can you tel us a little bit more about that with the recent developments in the recent years? What’s happened at the UN and the level of enforcement it has or that it’s lost?
Dr. Doebbler: As you know, there’s been a lot of resolutions adopted, but very few of these resolutions have been implemented. At least when they don’t have a strong country like United States behind it. For example, the resolution against Iraq in August 1991 was implemented, but it was implemented more because of the will of one of the major powers than it was because of the commitment to the standard to the rule of law. I think that that’s unfortunate. I think that in fact, is one of the biggest problems that we have right now in the United Nations.
The United Nations is a body, like any international organization, whose heart and soul is its mandate. The mandate of the United Nations is a charter of the United Nations. It’s not a country that has an army and political or that same type of political weight and monetary weight that a country has that it can throw around its political power. It is an international organization made up of a community of states in which the different states are technically sovereign equals, but at least have to balance different interests and where it should be able to move forward on areas of consensus. The area bar none that we have that we that we call consensus is international law, either customary international law or treaties. It has not been very successful in implementing the rules that are laid down in those treaties.
The right to self determination is in the UN charter. It’s in the first article of two of the three instruments that make up the international bill of rights. Two treaties, legally binding documents signed by each over 160 countries, I should say ratified. State parties of over 160 countries of the United Nations states. Yet still we have Western Sahara where the international court of Justice of 1974 decided said that these people have the right to self determination. They’ve been giving that right. Again, that’s almost two Arab states fighting with each other, the Palestinian people that have the right to self determination, had the right even before the creation of the United Nations and have still not had that right acknowledged.
I think these ongoing failures of the United Nations to ensure respect for the rule of law are eventually going to catch up with them as they do with any government or any body that cannot enforce its own internal rules.
G & E Podcast: You mentioned the right to self determination then if we could go back to Syria, what would you say to Syria and their right to making their own sovereign decisions and self determination as well as Russia’s role. Would you agree that Russia’s participation in the war in Syria has been following the rule of law, an international law because they have been invited by president Assad to participate? What can you tell us about that?
Dr. Doebbler: I think Syria is a good case to look at how the rule of law should be implemented because the rule of law provides that states should not use force against another state. It also provides, or international law I should say, the rule of international law provides that one state should not use force against another state. It also provides though that a sovereign state is responsible for the security and the public order in its country.
We might not like a particular government, but that’s not really somebody outside the country’s interest to say they like or don’t like a country. That’s what none interference is all about. It’s the people in their country that decide on their government. That’s what self determination is all about. In the case of Syria, I think we’ve violated both of those provisions. That’s first of all within the country, the people have even during this war elected the president of a country that is still the president. You can argue is that was fair election, but that’s a different argument. That’s something that could be considered in the context of a sovereign country, but to provide resources to people, non state actors who use force against a sovereign government, that is clearly outside the realm of international law.
Within the realm of international law, since you asked the question about the comparison, is for a state to ask for assistance from another state to help it secure its own responsibilities towards its people, including keeping public order and maintaining security in the state. In fact, if you look at what Russia has done in Syria, it’s really been more productive for the people of Syria than what the outside community has been doing before and after Russia got involved in it. It’s really the state’s decision and the people of that state’s decision to choose a government that decides then how best to protect its people and maintain public order.
To ask another state to assist is possible, but when a state intervenes in the affairs of another country without being asked, we know very clearly since 1986, we’ve known that that is clearly illegal. In 1986, the international court of justice at the behest of prestigious gentleman who just passed away Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann who was then the foreign minister of Nicaragua, they brought this question to the international court of justice in relation to the United States support of Contras in El Salvador that were intervening in Nicaragua. The court unambiguously said it is illegal.
These are not issues that you can have so much debate about in terms of the principles of international law that are being contravened. Again, I think that leads back to your last question that that undermines the authority of a body like the United Nations when a rule of law has been determined and interpreted in a certain way and it’s not respected. I think the United Nations should be doing more to do that. Instead, you’ve seen several of the bodies created by the United Nations looking at just criticizing the government of Syria instead of working towards a resolution that recognizes the responsibility of all sides.
G & E Podcast: What are your thoughts about how the situation in Syria will resolve? Do you see it becoming another Iraq? Do you see things winding down and the Assad government regaining control again?
Dr. Doebbler: I think, certainly I think the government … I don’t think you call it an Assad government. I call it the Syrian government. I think the Syrian people have to decide who they want their leader to be now and in the future. They’ve voted not so long ago, but they will have to do that again in not too long a time. They will have to decide. But I think what is important for us is people looking at this as part of the International community is that we respect the sovereignty of Syria. I think it would have been a very serious matter if again an outside intervention had succeeded in destroying essentially and the sovereign integrity of a country. I think Syria will make it through this. I think it’s not 100% now, but I am much more confident than a couple years ago, or even a year ago.
I think that they’re moving in the right direction. They still have strong responsibilities. The government seems to recognize those. It has the responsibility to rebuild its country. It has the responsibility to give redress to people who have been injured. It has the responsibility to respect the human rights of the people in Syria. The government has never denied these responsibilities. I think that’s already a good starting point for a rebuilding process, but I hope that very soon we will start to consolidate some of the gains that have been made militarily there and turn them into political process to start rebuilding Syria.
As I said, Syria was one of the leading countries in the Middle East, one of the most developed countries in the Middle East. It translated more english or other language books to Arabic than every other country in the Middle East put together. Just in terms of knowledge and education, it had a tremendous impact. Really I don’t think the Middle East and the people there deserve to lose another sovereign state like that that has had such a strong impact in building the history of the globe.
G & E Podcast: What can you say about the media and propaganda and the west? You mentioned that a lot of these things seem to be straight forward, documented and clear, yet we find in Europe and the West that they’re still toeing the same line, repeating the same lies. Still what you’re saying that still doesn’t seem to have broken through, or is it? How do you see the media involvement in all of this?
Dr. Doebbler: Although I’m an international lawyer now, I actually did my university degrees in journalism and worked for a few years as a journalist. I am very sensitive to journalistic integrity. I’m very troubled by what we see in today’s, particularly main stream media. What I think is good is the proliferation of media. Even though I don’t agree with everything people like Press TV and RTV say and Al Jazeera, I think it’s very important we have this other media having a voice there. I think that’s good. Even programs like yours are very important.
I’m not at all somebody who’s against the proliferation of small media outlets. Sometimes they do the best reporting. Here at the United Nations, a little group called Inter City Press, who the reporter is Matthew Lee, is probably the best media outlet here, even though his budget is 1% of what some of the mainstream media’s budget is for covering the United Nations. I think the media is very important and we need to maintain the integrity of it to have it continue to have that importance. Otherwise, it just becomes advertising. Advertising is something that just tries to push people in a direction that the advertiser wants and not to get them to really make up their own mind. News is supposed to give people information in a society of where people participate. That’s what we’re trying to strive for. That’s what it state actually in article 25 of the international covenant of civil and political rights that every individual has a right to participate in their own government.
That means they have a right to know what is happening in their government and be to be able to contribute to either by voting or by running for election, or by even campaigning for others in a knowledgeable form. When you’re not knowledgeable, when you’ve been giving things that are not true or that are biased or you’re not being told the whole story, then you participation is handicapped and you can’t participate to the extent that the right requires or that the right allows. I think that is a very dangerous thing we have right now with the media.
We’ve had cases where the BBC, where american networks, CNN even, Fox news, have been caught falsifying news. That is a very serious matter when you do that. As a journalist, I’ll tell you when I was studying journalism, someone who did that would not only be immediately fired, the news outlet would be possibly closed down for doing something like that. I think that’s something that needs to be much more attention to and I don’t think there is right now.
G & E Podcast: Just to summarize again, if you could add anything else to it, you believe that a lot of foreign intervention has systemically been causing problems in the Middle East as well as problems that predate the creation of the UN, as well as you say the responsibility of the individuals in the countries and the problems they have between themselves. If you want to add anything to that, and then if you could mention what you think would be prudent measures that would be taken towards resolving some of these conflicts, you’ve mentioned the UN again and the application of international law.
We know that representatives like in the US Tulsi Gabbard have proposed bills such as the stop arming terrorists act. What recommendations do you have for civil society for regional organizations or international organizations or even states themselves?
Dr. Doebbler: My recommendations as an international lawyer would probably be where I started that really we need to take more seriously the respect for the rule of international law. I don’t say that just because I’m a lawyer. I say it for the same reason I mentioned at the beginning. It forms the lowest common denominator that we have agreed on in the international community. It is something that we have already agreed on. It’s not holding people to my moral or ethical standards. It’s holding people to what they have agreed in solemn agreements to be the minimum standard that they need to coexist together peacefully. I think that’s extremely important. I think whether you’re in NGO, whether you’re in government, whether you’re an inter governmental organization whose heart and souls as I mentioned is based on international law, you need to ensure respect for the rule of law as a Sine Qua Non for being able to progress further than that.
If we can’t ensure respect for the rule of international law, we’re never going to be able to achieve development to the level of the SDGs that we talked about. We’re never going to be able to live in a peaceful society. Having said that, I think we have made some progress on it.
One of the things I was surprised to hear, I’m here for the high level of political form which is the form for the implementation of the SDGs, but it’s mainly just a discussion forum. There’s not really credible implementation mechanism, but I was very surprised to hear that at the opening of this when the secretary general retiarius has spoke, when the president of the Eco-socks spoke, when even Jeffrey Sax, an american academic gave a speech, none of them mentioned what I think is one of the most important instruments, a legal instrument that has the text now has been adopted by the general assembly and it will be open for signature on the 20th of September of this year when the general assembly’s next session opens. That’s a text of the nuclear weapons ban treaty which would ban nuclear weapons around the world.
The nuclear weapons ban treaty is probably one of the most important steps that the United Nations has taken almost since its existence. I think it will go into force when it is open for signature, for states to start to join on the 20th of September of this year, but I was surprised to see it not mentioned by anybody during the high level political form. Even though peace was mentioned as being a condition Sine Qua Non for the accomplishment of the SDGs, no leader, including the secretary general of the United Nations who has said that peace is one of his priorities mentioned the nuclear weapons ban treaty. I think that is a example of how it is affective, the rule of law, and if it is respected because it is an instrument of international law, it could make a significant contribution to development as well as peace in the international community.
I think that that will be these types of instrumentalists more so than things like the STGs which are not legally binding. The legally binding instruments will really be the litmus test of whether or not the United Nations still has relevance in today’s world.
G & E Podcast: Indeed, the nuclear treaty is very important. In fact, in a few months, I’m moving to a country that harbors the principle soviet nuclear test site. I will be living not too far from it, so it will be good to get rid of these weapons. Finally, your final thoughts or comments. Do you see a future that is a bit brighter the way things are going or darker?
Dr. Doebbler: What I do see that I think is for me a little bit hopefully is some of the young people that I’ve seen, like yourself that are trying to work for a better world. I’ve worked with a lot of older people. I work with Nelson Mandela, [inaudible 00:23:03] Ramsey Clark, Stokely Carmichael, people who are really the past generation. Now I’m becoming the past generation. I’m somewhat fortunate. As a professor, I work also with young people. I have to teach young people at universities. I’m quite optimistic about many of the young people that I’ve seen. They have … Not all of them certainly and I think unfortunately today, a lot of times it’s difficult to be able to maintain that type of optimism with all the material pressures on you just to be able to survive.
Remember, I teach in one of the poorest countries in the world, Sierra Leone, but I still see even in Sierra Leone people with the willingness and the intrinsic ability, particularly young people try to change the world for the better. They understand. Not all of them have studied international law, but they understand a lot of the basic principles of international law. They understand that to have development, you need to have peace. You need to have a respect for the sovereignty of your neighbor. That is a good sign. I think a lot of them understand human rights even again, if they don’t understand them in their legal context, they understand that people want to have healthcare, want to have education, want to have enough food, clean water, sanitation. All of these are human rights. I think that makes me optimistic.
I think right now I’m in the stage that you are often in a generation. It’s always said that as you get older, you get more cynical about the world. I think I’m maybe becoming a bit more cynical, but I do see the relief in that cynicism coming from the young people. I hope and I’ll try to do all I can to empower them because I think they’re sincere about trying to make this place better, not only for themselves, but for future generation. That’s one way I think, that’s how the UN was established. It was established not thinking of just the people who were living after World War II. Most of them were not going to live much longer. It was thinking about future generations and how we can keep this planet sustainable, leviable for as long as possible.
It’s good to see young people thinking about that. I hope this generation will move more in that direction. My generation didn’t do such a great job, but I’m more optimistic about the next generation.
G & E Podcast: That’s a good, hopeful optimistic message to leave us with. We thank you for your time and your work. I wish you the best for your work at the UN, for your teaching, and trying to save the world.
Dr. Doebbler: Just trying to do a little bit. Thank you very much. I think your work is also tremendously important to try to cover issues that might not be covered fully in the mainstream media. Good luck with that and thank you very much.
*Podcast intro music is from the song “The Queens Jig” by “Musicke & Mirth” from their album “Music for Two Lyra Viols”: https://musicke-mirth.de/en/recordings.html (available on iTunes or Amazon)