June 23, 2013.
The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has just dealt a significant blow to its reputation among human rights activists and progressive academics by deciding to award Barack Obama an honorary doctorate in law.
Awarding an honorary doctorate to a person by an institution of higher learning is a prestigious symbol which honours the person for their contribution to a particular academic field or, more generally, for their work and accomplishment in one or more areas relating to the world and humanity.
It is also a reflection on the institution awarding the honour.
Those honoured reflect the values of the institution, its moral compass and its ability to ensure that it honours and aligns itself with those who support justice, equality, freedom and a just peace.
But the UJ senate and council decision to award Obama an honorary degree is both deeply disappointing and insulting to the rich tradition of struggle for justice, equality and freedom in South Africa.
It sullies the reputation that the university earned when, in 2010, it became the first one in the world to break off ties with an Israeli university because of the latter’s support for Israeli apartheid and the occupation of Palestinian land.
The argument made by some of its academics that the award was made to Obama and not to the US regime was absurd.
It can be compared to honouring FW de Klerk because he was a much nicer man than PW Botha and that De Klerk, rather than his apartheid regime, was being honoured.
Under Obama, the number of US-drone attacks and extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia has risen dramatically, in clear violation of the international law prohibiting extrajudicial killings.
He has perfected the art of reducing war to mechanical acts of murder by computer games.
The administration has also employed drones in increasingly repugnant ways including in “signature strikes”, which choose targets based on computer-detected patterns of behaviour rather than specific, corroborated information.
The vast majority of the more than 4 000 people who have been killed in these drone attacks are innocent civilians and the others are alleged “terrorists” or “militants”.
Democracies which affirm the rule of law always refer to “alleged” criminals until they are judged otherwise in a court of law.
And yet here, Obama has set himself up as accuser, detective, protector, judge and executioner of a country that maintains military bases in 60 countries.
And now he is being honoured because he is the first coloured man to get into the position to so?
Moreover, the Obama administration has employed misleading techniques for counting drone fatalities – seemingly in order to obscure the actual collateral damage inflicted by these ostensibly “surgical” strikes.
The administration has automatically defined males of a certain age as “enemy combatants” for purposes of death-toll tallying.
Before his May 2013 announcement on new policies supposedly limiting presidential use of drone attacks, many drone strikes appear to have been either directly co-ordinated by the CIA – effectively rendering it a paramilitary group outside of direct congressional oversight – or a secretive military unit known as Joint Special Operations Command, which itself appears to co-ordinate strikes with the CIA.
Despite paying regular lip service to his desire to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, Obama’s administration has, in fact, continued the practice of indefinite detention.
The Guantanamo prison currently holds more than 150 detainees, most of whom have never been formally charged with a crime.
Some of them entered there when they were 13 years old and the oldest prisoner was incarcerated in his 70s.
That was 12 years ago – how can anyone with a pretence to the values of freedom and democracy hold anyone in detention without access to a fair trial for so long?
What a justly deserved outcry apartheid South Africa received when in the name of security it introduced detention without trial for periods of up to 90 days.
In recent months, as a number of those imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay have initiated a hunger strike to protest against their detention, the Obama administration has approved repeated force-feeding, in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
In June 2013, the Obama administration revealed for the first time that there are 46 detainees it plans to hold indefinitely without trial.
Since the inception of the non-civilian military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, only seven convictions have been handed down and five of those have been overturned on appeal in federal district courts. None has been upheld on appeal.
Obama’s Justice Department has charged six individuals with leaking “classified information” under the Espionage Act of 1917, a law enacted shortly after the US entry into World War I to prevent the government interfering in military operations, and later used to threaten labour leaders during the Red Scare – and, over the years since, imprison several other “enemies” of the government.
All previous US presidents combined had only charged three individuals under the provisions of this law.
But of the six individuals charged by Obama’s Justice Department, one revealed information regarding potential financial mismanagement at the National Security Agency, two revealed information on potentially illegal abuses of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan by the US military, and two revealed information they believed might help prevent a US invasion of Iran.
Now, UJ, an institution that appears to have forged a new path of progress, equality and justice from its racist and oppressive foundations, has opted to confer an honour on a person who does not personify any of these noble ideals.
The UJ community and all those who value justice must rise against this retrogressive move.
Professor Esack is the head of the Department of Religion Studies at UJ.
*****Comment: Deputy Vice Chancellor of UJ, Tinyiko Maluleke, provided the following argument as the rationale for awarding Obama the war criminal an honorary doctorate, as reported in the Mail & Guardian (June 28):
"UJ is giving Obama an honorary doctorate. It is not honouring the policies of the US,” said Maluleke. "He's failed in some instances [as president]. We can debate that issue. But let's not say he can't be honoured.”
Obama's academic achievements alone were enough to honour him, Maluleke said, pointing out that Obama graduated with a law doctorate degree magna cum laude in 1991.
"You don't have to like Obama to know that he is an extremely gifted, talented and influential world leader who rose from an unlikely and a very humble background to the helm of the most powerful country in the world.”What uncritical nonsense. It never ceases to amaze me how influential political and establishment elites - particularly those of the new post era - will flock to integrate themselves into the global power structure.
Obama's personal achievements are not so singularly outstanding that he deserves an honorary doctorate.
And even if you think they are there is certainly reason enough to see that his wholesale destruction of human rights principles makes him an unlikely candidate for such a worthy recognition at a post-apartheid university.
What this decision amounts to is spurious and uncritical ass-kissing by an institution that is supposedly working to distance itself from the apartheid role it was created to play.
I am disgusted at UJ's decision to kiss the ass of Obama but it is usual fare in a post system more influenced by elite replication than standing for justice.
The Deputy Vice Chancellor should go and tell the families of the murdered innocents in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere that he thinks Obama's personal achievements trump his war crimes against humanity.
And we are not free.