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(Un)Civil Societies Report: April 23, 2003

23 April 2003, Volume 4, Number 10
IN LOOTING, A CLASH WITH CIVILIZATION. When a 20-year-old U.S. Marine from Pennsylvania, possibly on his first trip abroad, reached one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Basra in the early weeks of the war, he marveled at the opulent ceilings and corridors, remarking, "This used to be a nice place, they should make it like a Six Flags, or something," AP reported on 8 April. The young servicemen was referring to a chain of American amusement parks with rides and attractions -- a form of culture that could not be more remote from the 5,000-year-old glories of Mesopotamia, including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the "seven wonders of the ancient world." Neither the Marine nor his superiors, who had taken care to make lists of cultural targets to avoid when bombing, imagined the scale of larceny and ruin that was to take place in the coming weeks.

The looting and destruction of Iraq's museums and libraries by both professional thieves and ordinary people during the war has enraged and saddened Iraqis and many people throughout the world. In their fury, they have begun to blame the U.S. for not securing the sites. The director of the National Museum of Antiquities, Donny George, has called the tragic loss the "crime of the century." As with the Taliban's destruction of the giant Buddhist statues, people feel entitled to become as indignant about the loss of Iraqi antiquities as they would about the loss of human life because the artifacts represent the survival of an ancient civilization that is the heritage of all humankind.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld encountered a storm of criticism when he commented that television coverage of the looting showed the same man with the same vase over and over again, seemingly exaggerating reports. In fact, television was indeed showing the same man repeatedly, but he stood for the scenes the reporters couldn't capture, such as the theft of a 5,000-year-old Sumerian alabaster vase, known as the Warka vase, which weighs 300 kilograms. The National Library and other buildings housing valuable manuscripts were burned to the ground, and regional museums were also ransacked. "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 17 April that Marines were not to blame because they were fired upon from within the museum buildings, and said the extent of the theft was not as great as originally perceived. AP reported some items had been stashed in bank vaults still under rubble. Meanwhile, the scale of the devastation was said to be "horrifically extensive" by on 18 April.

Museum experts soon concluded that the thieves were professionals because they had keys to some of the vaults and also brought glass cutters to get into exhibit cases, ignoring replicas and taking only authentic items.

Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile leader who returned recently to Iraq to help with reconstruction, reports in his war diary for "The New Republic" ( that locals told him that they believe the Ba'ath Party was involved in the professional looting. This would be consistent with what is known about the criminalized, totalitarian party-states such as in the Soviet empire, where the preservation of art and antiquities, like all aspects of civil society, was totally at the service of the state. Both before and after the breakup of the Soviet Union, numerous valuable items found their way out of museums on to the world antiquities market through the efforts of organized crime, aided by corrupt security and border officials and even museum staff.

Experts concede that Hussein and Ba'ath Party officials may have been selling off items over the years, reported. Complicating the assessment of the current destruction is the fact that the museums were closed for some 10 years, and only reopened in the last two years, so that few journalists or archeologists could visit them. One art expert said the initial estimate of 170,000 stolen objects would turn out to be high. Apparently the record keeping was also poor, Iraqi museum officials say, because they lacked duplication and other equipment during the sanctions.

Throughout the decade between the wars, numerous items were looted from Iraq and archeologists working on digs took to carrying guns and bringing armed guards. In one infamous heist in Mosul, robbers cut up the head of an Assyrian bull to attempt to smuggle it abroad, but were caught and then executed on television. The draconian measure appeared to have little effect.

Less understood is the reason why ordinary Iraqis would steal or even worse -- utterly destroy -- antiquities that reason would dictate they should hold dear. "Around this central theft of high-profile objects was a huge penumbra of opportunistic looting and violence. Storage cases were dragged out into the street and passersby helped themselves. Objects on shelves were wantonly smashed," Oxford professor Eleanor Robson wrote in the "Los Angeles Times" on 17 April.

Speaking at a Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said, "Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." Yet the reasons for destruction seemed more complicated. The experience of the post-Soviet countries in part explains the psychology at work. From all accounts, Ba'athism is one of the 20th century's mutant forms of Leninist and Hitlerite socialism. The ruling party claims that all property is "the people's" and also provides some minimal means of survival, while simultaneously creating a cult of personality around the leader, his family, and his entourage, who are actually plundering the state and are seen living a lavish lifestyle in gilded palaces. This engenders a kind of "entitlement psychosis" in people who have been impoverished by the harshly controlled economic system, and in the case of Iraq, as well as sanctions imposed by the outside world due to the leader's behavior. They feel they can rightfully take what was always declared to be "the people's" because the leaders were unjust.

It is also possible that the official Ba'athist mythologizing of the nation of Iraq, as well as the merging of the state with the persona of Hussein, triggered a sense of revenge against the symbols of antiquity with which Hussein cloaked himself, calling himself the "second Nebuchadnezzar." U.S. Marines spokesmen said the looting spree was directed mainly at symbols of the state. That theory of looting as an attack against the state doesn't explain what happened to the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet, two buildings looted and trashed in recent weeks, "The Village Voice" reported in the 16-22 April issue. A teacher describes a mob of about 200 whom he tried to stop, who told him, "there is no ruler, no government" and "now, it's everything for everyone." Hundreds of musical instruments were smashed, including a rare harpsichord.

Another explanation for the wanton destruction has to do with the concept of "spite" as explicated by human rights scholar Samantha Powers, who wrote of the deliberate Serbian killings of Kosovars after the NATO bombings began in 1999.

Jane Shilling writes of an even deeper psychology at work, saying in an essay published on 18 April on, "In the looting of their own past, the Iraqis may be, half-unconsciously, seeking to hurt us, their assailants, in the only way remaining to them."

While the dramas of the looters and those who failed to stop them grips the world, not everyone looted, and many ordinary Iraqis stepped in to try to stop the lawlessness. A few people in Iraq, moved by conscience or shamed by clerics, returned about 20 of the stolen pieces this week, although none of the most valuable turned up anywhere else, despite rumors of sales in France. Students of the Fine Arts Faculty, one of whom wept as he described the losses to reporters, armed themselves to serve as vigilantes to guard against looters in Baghdad, the Egyptian weekly "Al-Ahram," reported this week. Still, they held the U.S. ultimately responsible. "If the Americans came to protect us from Saddam, why don't they protect our precious things?" "Al-Ahram" of Egypt quoted one of the students as saying.

Whatever the immediate responsibility of international organized crime or disorganized ordinary Iraqis, there are likely to be many who will hold the U.S. ultimately accountable. Prevailing armed forces are bound by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Already the rhetoric used about American negligence and violation of the convention (the British are usually not mentioned) is heating up. "The U.S. troops are guilty of crimes against humanity for not protecting the Mesopotamian treasures, many of which stem from the cradle of civilization," German art historian Michael Petzet was quoted as saying by on 18 April. "A minimal effort would have been enough to prevent the events."

Most tellingly, no one can be sure if Hammurabi's Code, the tablets on which the first laws known to humankind were said to be written, are missing or not.

NEW EMPHASIS ON DISABLED RIGHTS. For the first time this year, the U.S. State Department's "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" ( contains a section on the rights of disabled persons. While some skeptics have scoffed that transitional and developing countries could hardly be expected to make investments in such advances as sidewalks with curb cuts when they do not even have paved roads, in fact the report illustrates vividly how repressive governments that restrict nongovernmental organizations and warehouse disabled people in inhumane conditions can be a major factor in violating disabled persons' rights, and not only the degree of wealth a nation has to help its most vulnerable citizens. In societies that have allowed NGOs to flourish not only to provide social services but to monitor government policy and institutions, disabled persons fare better, although ultimately they still require a government commitment mainly to ensure access and equality.

The appearance of the new section was credited to the persistence of advocates for the rights of the disabled such as Eric Rosenthal, director of the Washington-based organization Mental Disability Rights International. His organization has formed a coalition with similar groups to push for the drafting of a new UN treaty to protect the rights of the disabled. A resolution was passed by the General Assembly in December 2001 (56/168), "Comprehensive and integral international convention to promote and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities," which activists hope will be ratified by a majority of states to enhance the protection of the disabled throughout the world.

Although the sections in the report on disabled rights are not very detailed or lengthy, they begin to fill the gaps on official, systematic reporting on the subject in the world, and a glimpse of the grave deprivations suffered by people due to neglect of the subject.

In Albania, "Widespread poverty, unregulated working conditions, and poor medical care posed significant problems for many persons with disabilities," says the State Department's report. In April 2002, the Association of Paraplegic and Tetraplegic Invalids held a hunger strike to call attention to the lack of government services for the disabled.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, in cracking down on all forms of civil society not subservient to the state, has harmed the rights of the disabled as well, says the report. "The regime's decision to support only government-run rehabilitation facilities, which were costly for the national budget and less suitable for patients than rehabilitation facilities that were run by NGOs, had a negative effect on the quality of care," one NGO is quoted as saying.

In Bosnia, where thousands were disabled in the war, not just lack of money for basics like electricity in institutions was at issue. "The legal status of institutions for persons with disabilities was not resolved following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. As a result, local and entity governments have no legal obligation to finance such institutions, and they operated only with BiH [Bosnia and Herzegovina]-level government and international donations," says the report.

Bulgaria has an enlightened policy of exempting disabled students from tuition, but "architectural barriers were a great hindrance in most older buildings, including schools and universities." Amnesty International found squalor elsewhere, at the Sanadinovo Social Home for Mentally Disabled Women, where as punishment, women were held in a cage made of iron bars and wire, filthy with human excrement. The report prompted a swift investigation by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, and the home was closed in July 2002. Amnesty also publicized inhuman conditions at a home for men with mental disabilities in Dragash Voyvoda, where 22 residents reportedly died of starvation and pneumonia in 2001. The home's director was fired immediately, and the 147 remaining residents were scheduled to be relocated by year's end because the premises in Dragash Voyvoda could not be renovated.

In the Czech Republic, "persons with disabilities suffered disproportionately from unemployment" although businesses in which 60 percent or more of the employees were disabled qualified for special tax breaks. In Prague, 24 of 50 metro stations have been made wheelchair-accessible, although mainly not in the city's center. Two wheelchair users filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that the government violated the rights of citizens with disabilities by failing to enforce requirements for barrier-free access for persons with disabilities. The court ruled that the complaint was inadmissible, and the case was dropped.

In Estonia, the law allows for persons with serious sight, hearing, or speech impediments to become naturalized citizens without having to pass an examination on the Estonian Constitution and language. In Georgia, there are special discounts and favorable social policies for persons with disabilities provided by law, particularly veterans; however, many facilities for persons with disabilities remained closed due to lack of funding.

Hungry established a Council for the Disabled in 1999 under the leadership of the minister of social and family affairs. A decree requires all companies that employ more than 20 persons to reserve 5 percent of their jobs for persons with physical or mental disabilities, with fines of up to 75 percent of the average monthly salary for noncompliance. Still, NGOs noted that no procedures existed to oversee the treatment and care of persons with disabilities who were under guardianship and criticized the use of cages in government facilities for persons with mental disabilities. Most buildings were not wheelchair accessible.

In Kazakhstan, the International Bureau for Human Rights observed that the government provided almost no care for the mentally ill and mentally retarded due to a lack of funds and conditions in state institutions were very poor. Kyrgyzstan adopted by presidential decree a National Human Rights Program that contains provisions for protection of the rights of children with disabilities. "In practice few special provisions were in place to allow persons with disabilities access to transportation, public buildings, and mass media," says the report. "In addition, persons with disabilities often had difficulty finding employment because of negative societal attitudes and high unemployment among the general population."

Latvia has undertaken an extensive wheelchair-ramp-building program at intersections. Yet persons with disabilities lived in poverty because the state pension for a person with disabilities was lower than the minimum wage. Moldova provided tax advantages to charitable groups that assisted persons with disabilities, a crucial factor in the ability of NGOs to function.

In Russia, the State Department reports: "Special institutions existed for children with various disabilities but did not serve their needs adequately due to a lack of finances. Being a child with disabilities remained a serious social stigma, an attitude that profoundly influenced how institutionalized children were treated. Many children with physical or mental disabilities, even those with only minor birth defects, were considered uneducable."

In Serbia, persons with disabilities were excluded from the category of eligible voters in the September-October presidential elections.

The State Department praises Slovakia for a 1994 decree providing incentives to employers to create a "sheltered" workplace (i.e., a certain percentage of jobs set aside for persons with disabilities). The law also prohibits discrimination against persons with physical disabilities. However, experts have reported that accessibility of premises and access to education, particularly higher education, remained a problem. In Slovenia, "Modifications of public and private structures to ease access by persons with disabilities continued, although at a slow pace."

The best that could be said about Tajikistan, where funding was limited and facilities were "in poor condition" was that international NGOs were allowed to operate and provide limited assistance to disabled persons. Turkmenistan provides some subsidies for the disabled, but there was "some discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment," said the report. Despite a severe crackdown on all forms of organization, "many citizens engaged in activities to assist persons with disabilities," the report claimed.

In Ukraine, there were only five special vocational schools for persons with disabilities. An NGO reported that as a result, "7,000 children received an incomplete secondary education." Advocacy groups for persons with disabilities maintain that there was societal discrimination against such persons. In an effort to improve public perception of them, the government made significant efforts to raise the profile of athletes with disabilities participating in international competitions, including the Winter Paralympics in March.

Uzbekistan segregates children with disabilities into separate schools; it was not clear from the report whether NGOs had gained access to them and could report on conditions there.

WHY THERE IS NO DEMOCRACY. Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry shut down 12 opposition parties, Agence-France Presse reported on 16 April (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 18 April 2003). A law passed in June 2002 raised from 3,000 to 50,000 the minimum number of members a political party must have in order to be officially recognized and required all parties to reregister. "Violations of property regulations were the most common reason for refusing permission to reregister," Deputy Justice Minister Yogan Merkel told journalists.

Even as he handily removes his rivals, President Nursultan Nazarbaev has declared that he is pursuing a deepening democracy for Kazakhstan as part of a public-relations campaign aimed at domestic as well as international critics. Only seven parties remain legally registered now, and authorities are already moving against those who did not make the cut. Local police searched the Semipalatinsk office of the Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK) movement on 17 April and confiscated the opposition group's latest press release on their trip to the European Parliament, a DVK activist told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 April 2003).

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has pressed for registration of parties and nongovernmental groups in the last decade, but few OSCE officials are willing to endure the continual confrontation with governments in power required to keep advocating for opposition parties.

The OSCE's Copenhagen Agreement of 1990, signed before the Soviet coup at a time of political ferment and the erosion of the "leading role" of the Communist Party, was intended to bring more political pluralism to Eurasia. The document affirmed "a clear separation between the state and political parties; in particular, political parties will not be merged with the state." The signatories vowed to "respect the right of individuals and groups to establish, in full freedom, their own political parties or other political organizations and provide such political parties and organizations with the necessary legal guarantees to enable them to compete with each other on a basis of equal treatment before the law and by the authorities." In practice, few Western diplomats have the stomach to return to these pledges; by calling attention to them, some fear, they may open up the entire fragile OSCE consensus to a renegotiation which will cause such guarantees to become as watered down on paper as they are in real life.

Some observers see the weeding out of some parties as merely an episode in a long-running clash between forces wanting to democratize the state and society and those preventing its development. Andrei Chebatarev, political commentator for "SolDat" (see no. 12 [95], 10 April 2003) tells a cautionary tale for Westerners inclined to see all the troubles of dictatorships as rooted only in the persona of the dictator.

Chebatarev says the reasons for the lack of democracy in Kazakhstan are to be found in the economic crisis beginning in the 1980s as a factor leading to the collapse of the USSR, and which is continuing to be felt. The shock of independence was a "sovereignty acquired without a long hard struggle that would have created an elite that could think anew," says Chebatarev. Privatization rewarded only a few financial and industrial groups that promoted their own people to power or blatantly bought them, and politics became the lobbying of the interests of these few groups, creating a clientist system hostile to democracy. They may have divergent social backgrounds, status, and competing interests, but are united in their rejection of a broader democracy for all, says the political commentator.

Chebatarev identifies four groups as making up the opposition to democracy in Kazakhstan. As in other CIS countries, the first group is made up of bureaucrats from the former Komsomol nomenklatura, as well as new managers who were never in party structures but have come out of state agencies already involved in science and business and were quick to adapt to the new opportunities. They lived by the principle "democracy only for us," says Chebatarev, using their positions in the state apparatus to enrich themselves. Now they are just waiting for the law on privatization of land to further enhance their position. Chebatarev calls this group the "social base for corruption" for whom "democracy is undesirable" because it would mean public accountability, which would prevent their enrichment. While using the idea of democracy in their rhetoric, in fact they have "discredited it in the eyes of the public."

The second group in Chebatarev's scheme is made up of former party workers of the Soviet era. It dominates the government and actually controls the decisions about privatization which the others in the Komsomol group struggle to influence. Despite the government's claim of dedication to the path of democracy, "no real democratization has taken place," says Chebatarev flatly. These government officials are conservative, eager to hang on to their positions, and prevent anything threatening them from below in society. "For them, democracy is only an ideological cover to preserve their influence and position" and the system which gives them and their families many privileges, he explains.

The third group includes the many financial and industrial leaders, the "natural monopolists," and some foreign investors closely associated with various bureaucrats and members of parliament, who are moved "only by cold calculation and striving for advantage," says the analyst. "These people don't need real democracy because first, it would foster the creation in the marketplace of an atmosphere of diversity of economic subjects and honest competition among them" whereas these groups prefer the absolute monopolization of whatever sphere of the economy they have in their power. Democracy would prevent them from bribing bureaucrats and deputies to advance their interests, says Chebatarev.

Finally, there is the fourth group, the "lost souls," who are the most numerous group. They are people who believe that the natural costs and risks of democratizing Kazakhstan, which they saw in Russia or Tajikistan (that is, the chaos, lawlessness, separatism, and regionalism) would be far worse than the current situation with its harsh control by the state over society and the blocking of progressive reforms. These people only want to cling to their jobs or positions in society -- the Soviet-era's social guarantees -- because they fear reform will leave them worse off. They are indifferent to politics, seeking only stability. "But with good reason the proverb has it that you should fear not enemies, nor friends, but fear the indifferent. These people, by virtue of their attitude, are essentially the largest and most reliable support group and the social basis for all other opponents of democracy," concludes Chebatarev, in an analysis that ultimately blames Nazarbaev's subjects rather than Nazarbaev and his cronies themselves for the state of affairs in Kazakhstan.

Although these groups hostile to democracy rule society in their own interests, contrary to the lawful rights and interests of the majority of citizens, ordinary people actually acquiesce to this arrangement, seeing it as better than the risk involved. For these ruling groups, in fact, concepts like "people" or "society" or "citizens" don't exist, says Chebatarev. They fear openness, diversity, and honest competition in politics as well as business, and "they do not want the real participation of citizens and public institutions in the governance of the state, since they have grown used to existing and operating in the shadows, beyond the zone of criticism and oversight."

Why are they so strong? The antidemocrats control the media and have the security services on their side, but the chief factor accounting for their power and influence, says the author, is the "atomization of Kazakh society" and the weakness of civic groups wishing to bring about liberalization. The author also believes that outside forces such as investors further foster the authoritarianism of the current government and keep the system of corruption going.

Ultimately, the younger people interested in opposition parties and independent media constitute "a real threat for the opponents of democracy," which is why the government is clamping down on them, says the author, a move he finds counterproductive, since it could actually lead to nationalism, separatism, and other signs of instability that emerge in rebellion against authoritarianism. The only way out of the impasse is to educate a new alternative elite and inculcate them with a democratic political culture unlike the Soviet past. Without the dedication of even "hundreds of thousands of citizens understanding the futility of the current path and prepared to put all their energy into struggle for a better future," it won't work, he concludes.

INTERNATIONAL. "International Criminal Court Gains Momentum With Prosecutor's Appointment." The nearly 80 countries to found the world's first permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) have elected a fighting Argentinian lawyer as the court's first chief prosecutor. The appointee, Luis Moreno Ocampo, led a team of prosecutors in 1985 that handled 700 cases of people charged with kidnapping, torture, and disappearances of opponents of Argentina's 1976-83 military junta. Moreno will have broad powers as the chief of an independent unit within the ICC structure.

INTERNATIONAL. Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI), an advocacy organization working for the international recognition and enforcement of the rights of people with mental disabilities, is campaigning for an international agreement on disabled rights. Features include a study of abuses in psychiatry under UN control and opening of MDRI offices in Kosova for a new "initiative for inclusion."

IRAQ. "Raiders of the Lost Ark: Why didn't we protect the National Museum and Library in Baghdad?" By Meghan O'Rourke.

KAZAKHSTAN. Democratic Forces Forum, an opposition website with news and commentary from Kazakhstan's independent political parties, some now banned. Features include an article by Mukhtar Abliyazov, "Nazarbayev Feared His Prime Minister," about his months working with Akezhan Kazhegeldin, now in exile.