Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Americans in Baku: The Azeri Spirit

In my last post I described the superficial features of our temporary home – Baku, Azerbaijan. Here I will focus more on the Azeri people and their spirit, which I have gotten to know better over the last three weeks.

Azeris are stoic. They accept adversity easily and march on, without ever questioning the adversity, or any status quo for that matter. This is most likely a trait of their Soviet experience, and it is unlikely that it will change in the near future. They are also polite and extremely hierarchical. On the crowded metro, young men and women routinely get up to yield their seat to an elderly person, or to young children. Our five-year-old twins, falling into the latter category, are usually offered a seat within seconds of boarding on an overly crowded train. New Yorkers would have a lot to learn from this (on a crowded, rush-hour Manhattan subway, nobody leaves their seat – unless the train has arrived to their stop). Students are also respectful and deferential to their teachers. When I enter a classroom, they all rise (we were taught to do this in the communist Yugoslavia schools, but I do not think that this custom extended all the way up to the university level). When they need to leave the room to use the restroom, they politely ask. They address me as “teacher” – not Professor, not Mrs. or Ms. Sterio, simply “teacher.” Apparently, in the Azeri language this is a common term that students use to address their teachers, and it means more than just teacher. It means someone in a position of authority whom you respect, and in many ways I feel honored that they address me this way.
Azeris are also resourceful. Because many rigid rules exist about various things, people are always coming up with ways to (semi)-legitimately bypass the rule. It suffices to know the right person and to come up with the right strategy.
Azeris rarely smile. Not because they do not like you or do not like to smile, but because smiling is reserved for close family members and friends. Otherwise, smiling is considered inappropriate. I have seen many official portraits of the president, his family, of the university president and various deans and nobody ever smiles. And in public, Azeris are very quiet. Nobody raises their voice about anything, even when ten people cut the line in front of you, or when you are experiencing any other kind of a frustrating situation (and there are many here in Baku), you simply do not shout, yell, or otherwise exhibit any other kind of abnormal behavior. Again, New Yorkers would have a lot to learn! Everywhere we go, our children are the loudest. Azeri children do not scream, yell, or act unruly. Or maybe they do, but not in public. We recently went to a health center to get medical exams (this is part of a ridiculously cumbersome procedure for obtaining our long-term visa or residency permit); two boys were chasing each other and just going crazy. I was surprised at first, because I had not seen that kind of behavior here, but then they started speaking to each other – in English!

Azeris do not easily share information. Many times so far, I was in a situation where my Azeri counterpart had crucial information for me, yet chose not to share it with me at first. Not because they were trying to intentionally subvert or harm me, but simply because it never occurred to them that the information may be valuable to me. Or because they thought that I did not need the information right away. As much as this kind of attitude can be frustrating, one has to accept that Azeris simply do not believe in information overload – as the French say it, “chaque chose en son temps.”

I will post more soon about the university, and the Azeri spirit at play in that setting.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Americans in Baku: So Far, So Good

Due to popular demand, I have decided to temporarily devote this blog, which I otherwise use for professional posts, to weekly updates about our stay in Baku, Azerbaijan. Enjoy! It has been two weeks since we arrived to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan and our temporary home for the next five months. Baku is a fascinating city in every sense of the word. It is a metropolis at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Asia, influenced by both its Persian origins as well as decades spent under the Soviet rule. Baku, or Baki in the Azeri language, is today a city of 3 million people along the shores of the Caspian Sea. It has developed incredibly over the past few years. Construction sites and cranes can be seen everywhere throughout the city, having popped up to restore old buildings, to erect new ones, and to transform Baku into another Dubai – a modern, elegant, luxurious, dreamy city of the future. Our apartment is a large 3-bedroom, on the third floor of a 10-story tower, a few minutes away from so-called Fountain Square, a large, marble-floored and fountain-ornamented square, which for all purposes constitutes the city center (one of only two McDonald’s restaurants in Baku is located in Fountain Square). The city has several other squares built in the same style – with elegant marble floors and spectacular fountains. All squares are immaculately maintained, and city-employed cleaners can be seen everywhere, wiping marble tiles, fixing any fountains that do not work, picking up garbage. Littering is inexistent, either because people are culturally predisposed to not littering, or because garbage cans can be found everywhere, literally within 20 feet of one another. We haven’t tested it, obviously, but littering could also be punishable by heavy fines and/or cause one many problems with the local police (police officers can also be seen everywhere throughout the city). Another beautiful feature of the city is a 5-mile long promenade along the Caspian Sea, the so-called “bulvar.” Although the Sea is polluted and grayish during winter months, the promenade is gorgeous. It is wide, marble-tiled, beautifully lit at night, neighbored by parks and more fountains, and full of Azeri couples, families, young families, and teenagers, strolling and just enjoying the scenery. On weekend mornings, runners can be spotted as well (yours truly also), but most of them seem to be foreigners with light skin and Nike running clothes. For local purposes, our apartment is luxurious. It is centrally-located and big, with ornamental hard-wood floors and flashy crystal chandeliers in every room. For our spoiled American standards, it is fine but lacking in basic amenities, such as a clothes’ dryer, a coffeemaker, or a proper wall-mounted shower. These would be luxuries in Baku, and would require another $1000 if not more in monthly rental payments. We have learned to live without them – we line-dry our clothes, make Ness instant coffee in the morning, and take showers while crouching in a large bathtub and holding the shower head (I had of course learned this skill while growing up in the former Yugoslavia, but after years in the United States, I do long for a long shower while standing up). Our landlord does not speak English, but his son does – sort of. When Fred texted the landlord’s son to ask him what to do about our electricity bill, which had been just glued to our front door, he texted back: “Mister, I do not understand.” He did show up at our place the next day, and when we showed him the bill, he was able to explain to us what to do with it. When we first met the landlord, the night that we arrived to Baku, he met us in the apartment, and after we discussed all the rental details and he was satisfied with our general appearance, he shook hands to seal the deal with Fred only. As a woman, I did not have the cultural right and privilege to conclude such an agreement with an older man. Even though I am the reason that we are here, and even though the landlord knew that I was the one working here and teaching at the university. This is a remnant of the Azeri Persian, and Muslim, heritage and culture. Although Azerbaijan is officially a secular nation, and although most people are not religious in the true sense of the word, the Azeri society is de facto segregated, with women mostly hanging out with other women and with each gender holding a specific post within their society. Women dress in provocative clothes (tight skinny jeans and high heels seem to be the norm here), drive cars, attend the university, and work, but they are not really equal with men in the family structure and the traditional culture. Teenage boys and girls do not really hang out, and it is common to see large groups of girls or boys hanging out at Fountain Square or drinking tea (“chai”) at a local cafĂ©, but not boys and girls together as friends. The exception to this seemingly predominant norm is if a boy and a girl are dating – young couples holding hands and lovingly looking at each other routinely stroll the Bulvar along the Caspian Sea. Another way in which the Persian history and culture manifest themselves is through the local cuisine, and in particular, the local obsession with rice. Rice here is excellent; it is difficult to describe what it tastes like, but let’s just say that Uncle Ben would have a lot to learn from the local rice producers! Meat also seems to be a local staple, but only chicken, beef and lamb (pork is virtually nonexistent, except at foreign restaurants and European-style grocery stores). Finally, although the state is officially secular, every morning at 6:30 we hear the call for prayer from a local mosque. I am not sure how many people actually pray at the requisite times, but the calls for prayer continue throughout the day, for a total of five times. On another level, Azerbaijan seems still heavily influenced by its Soviet past. Azeris are stoic and orderly; they never lose their temper, even in the face of chaos and adversity (my kids need to learn from this, but more on that later). This is most likely something that they learned through decades of the Soviet rule – that it is not possible to change things and that you should just keep going, without complaining, no matter what happens. They are polite, with Soviet-instilled values, such as yielding your suit to an elderly person on the metro, or rising when the professor enters the classroom. They are hierarchical – it is normal for a professor to cut the line for the elevator at the expense of students, as it is normal at the university to have separate bathrooms, the nice ones for the professors and the Turkish-style hole-in-the-ground for students. A young person does not address an older one in a position of authority without being spoken to first; a younger colleague does not challenge an older one; a child obeys his or her parents (again, my kids could learn here too!). A final point on Baku State University, where I am teaching at the law department. The university is state-owned and operated; all curriculum is state-dictated and all class instruction is filmed (I was warned against engaging in any political discussions with my students). The class schedule is determined literally the day before the semester starts, and during the first few weeks, schedule changes are frequent. Students do not seem to mind; they consult daily bulletin boards which tell them where to go and at which times. It seems that professors are routinely asked to switch classes – I had to decline when I was asked, a week before the semester started, if I wouldn’t mind teaching Intellectual Property Law instead of ADR (I have zero knowledge of the former). My students seem very nice and glad to have me here; we will see whether this continues throughout the semester. So far, so good. More updates will follow on a regular basis.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

UN Contact Group on Somali Piracy Meeting

Here is a link to a blog post which I wrote recently for Intlawgrrls:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On Dependent Independent States: South Sudan

This post has been cross-listed at In recent years, several new states have been created: East Timor, Kosovo, and South Sudan, to name a few. While these entities’ statehood may appear unquestionable and almost universally accepted in the global community, their existence poses difficult questions about the contours of statehood and the desirability of supporting statehood for regions which remain heavily dependent on external aid. South Sudan, the most recently created state, illustrates some of these difficult questions. South Sudan, in other words, may be an example of a dependent independent state. South Sudan celebrated its independence a year ago, when its inhabitants voted in a popular referendum to separate from their mother state, Sudan. Sudan was a product of decolonization and of the principle of uti possidetis, whereby colonial powers created independent states throughout the African continent pursuant to pre-existing colonial borders and with little regard of the wishes of local populations. Sudan was doomed from the outset, as its predominantly Arab Muslim inhabitants of the north shared little in common with the predominantly black African southerners. Despite civil wars between the north and the south, Sudan remained a single state for several decades, possibly because of Cold War politics which dictated the continuation of status quo. Post-Cold War and post-9/11, the people of South Sudan ultimately succeeded in garnering enough support in the world community in order to assert their bid for independence and statehood. In the summer of 2011, the South Sudanese held an independence referendum, at which the overwhelming majority of the population voted to separate from Sudan. Thus, the new state of South Sudan was created and subsequently recognized by most world powers. Yet, from the outset, South Sudan has been plagued by existential problems. Border skirmishes threatening to evolve into full warfare have continued between Sudan and South Sudan. Many accuse the Khartoum regime of orchestrating deadly raids on the populations of the southern portion of Sudan, which have resulted in a massive refugee crisis and migrations toward South Sudan. Oil production has been cut off in South Sudan, resulting in hardship for its civilian population. Finally, the newly established government of South Sudan is by all accounts extremely corrupt, preventing the flow of foreign aid from reaching populations of South Sudan most in need of such help. Foreign investors have been turned off by the threat of warfare with Sudan and by the overall state of corruption, and the South Sudanese economic development has been stalled. Under such dire circumstances, South Sudan may survive only with external help: through United Nations Security Council involvement which could prevent war with Sudan; through economic aid by world economic, financial and trade organizations; through foreign investment; through the world powers’ willingness to support the statehood of South Sudan at all costs. South Sudan is thus a dependent independent state, a phenomenon which calls into question the legitimacy of its existence. The four criteria of statehood under international law include territory, government, population, and the capacity to enter into international relations. It is the fourth pillar of statehood which seems difficult to fulfill in the case of South Sudan, as its capacity to engage in any sort of international affairs remains dependent on external aid. Moreover, the phenomenon of dependent independent states sheds light on the (un)desirability of creating and supporting statehood for entities which cannot survive on their own. A better model for such entities could be the creation of a transitional period of shared governance between the independence-seeking entity, its mother state, as well as the United Nations or another international organization. During this type of a transitional period, the independence-seeking entity could strive to develop its own institutions, to promote economic development and to strengthen its borders, so that when it becomes truly independent, it no longer depends on its supporters for the protection of its sovereignty. Sovereignty and statehood typically co-exist and are mutually necessary; the phenomenon of dependent independent states creates artificially sovereign states which do not qualify for statehood under international law. Hopes for a better future for South Sudan remain slim, despite its independence and achieved statehood.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Attorney General Holder on Targeted Killings

Eric Holder, the Attorney General of the United States, recently clarified the United States' policy on targeted killings of American citizens abroad. According to the Attorney General, the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen would be lawful under the following circumstances:

“[A]n operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful at least in the following circumstances: First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

For the first time ever, the Obama Administration has attempted to clarify legal parameters of the use of force against American citizens in a counter-terrorism operation. While this is a laudable endeavor, many questions remain unanswered, as other scholars have already pointed out. Who in the Administration is supposed to make the determination of which individuals pose such imminent threats? What kind of a review is necessary? What does the concept of "imminent threat" entail? And what does the feasibility of capture imply - would the promise of an otherwise unfriendly foreign government to help in the capture of a wanted suspect suffice?

Another important point to emphasize is that the Attorney General seems to imply that a variant of human rights law applies to the targeted killing of American citizens abroad. The Attorney General stated that the operation would have to be conducted consistently with applicable law of war principles; however, law of war principles do not contain the above-mentioned conditions of imminent threat and non-feasibility of capture. In other words, enemy combatants can be targeted under the laws of war at any time, irrespective of whether they pose an imminent threat and of whether they can be captured easily. On the one hand, it is reassuring to hear that the Attorney General believes that human rights law is applicable to targeted killings. On the other hand, it is disappointing to think that, according to the Attorney General and the Obama Administration, human rights law only applies to targeted killings of American citizens, but not to targeted killings of other countries' nationals. Marko Milanovic on EjilTalk has already made this point, in an excellent blog post. I agree wholeheartedly with Marko: the distinction between American citizens and non-citizens for the purposes of targeted killings is not only morally repugnant but potentially unlawful. Our Constitution, in the 5th Amendment Due Process Clause, states that “no person … shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The Constitution does not state that "citizens" should not be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. And our Bill of Rights fails to make this distinction as well. As Marko has written in the post mentioned above, "Why exactly is Al-Awlaki’s life deserving of more legal protection than (say) Osama bin Laden’s is simply beyond me."

Finally, what is also normatively incomprehensible is the distinction between the possibility of targeting American nations on U.S. soil versus the same kind of targeting outside the U.S. Why would it be lawful to target and kill American citizens when they are found abroad when it would be perfectly unlawful to target and kill the same citizens if they were to be found home? In the United States, it would be illegal to shoot any suspect at point blank, without due process of law. Why such killings should become lawful the minute that the suspect crosses the border to Canada or to Mexico remains a mystery.

New Post on IntLawGrrls

I posted the following on IntLawGrrls:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Guantanamo: 10 Years Later

Exactly ten years ago, the first group of detainees arrived at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In the wake of 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld referred to them as "the worst of the worst." Some of them were exposed to harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, the use of stress positions and sleep deprivation in the early days of their confinement. While some have been cleared of enemy combatant status and released, either to their home countries or to third states, some are still at "Gitmo." Why? How can a presumably law-abiding nation, like the United States, justify the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects?
The simple answer is that we are engaged in the so-called "global war on terror." According to this theory, constructed by the Bush administration, 9/11 was an act of war; the United States thus became involved in a global war against terrorism. The parameters of the war are truly global: the battlefield is found wherever the combatants themselves can be located, and the United States can strike in any location where it situates such a combatant. The United States can choose to kill an enemy combatant, and this option has been exercised through drone attacks in Pakistan, and most recently in Yemen, when al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen suspected of terrorist activity was killed The United States can also choose to detain enemy combatants and bring them either to Guantanamo Bay, or to another location such as the Bagram prison in Afghanistan. Enemy combatants brought to Gitmo can be held until the end of hostility - thus, indefinitely (when does the global war on terror end? presumably never as terrorists will always exist throughout the world......). Because of clever human rights lawyers and their work, which has resulted in Supreme Court cases such as Hamdi, Hamdan and Boumediane, some detainees have successfully challenged their detention at Gitmo in our federal courts. Some of such detainees have been released. However, other detainees, because of newly passed federal laws, have not been able to challenge their detention. Some will be tried in the military commissions, an option inferior to federal court prosecutions but infinitely better than indefinite detention without any access to court. Some will be prosecuted in federal courts. Yet, some of those same detainees may never be released because, despite a court or commission ruling that a detainee is not an enemy combatant, the United States' position is that it does not have to release such detainees because they may nonetheless constitute a threat.
The Obama administration initially opposed this view, and in his first days in office, President Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay. The President explored options, such as bringing the alleged terrorists to the United States for trial, but has faced political backlash and tremendous opposition because of security concerns. The current position of the Obama administration is that Gitmo is here to stay. In a recent law, signed by the President, transfers of detainees into the United States for trial are prohibited, while transfers of cleared prisoners to third countries are restricted. The same law, which has been debated hotly on other blogs by experts in national security law (see, e.g.,, reaffirms the presidential authority to detain and hold, without trial, other suspected members of Al Qaeda, Taliban, or other associated forces (read the article here: This position by the Obama administration is more than troubling, and it seriously tarnishes the image of the United States as a law-abiding citizen of the world. Let's hope for changes after the forthcoming presidential election, and for a world without Guantanamo Bay.