EU Program 2017

Dr. Birchfield has always described the EU program as “real-world politics in real time,” and this summer’s program definitely proved that to be true. As we learned about the challenges of European integration in the classroom, we saw exciting political events up close.

We arrived in France just one week after Emmanuel Macron’s historical election to the presidency. After the Brexit vote, this election was critical to the future of the European Union. Because we were in France, students could discuss with French citizens (and even policymakers during our site visits) the importance of this election to the future of French and European foreign policy.

A few weeks later, we visited Paris during the French legislative elections. In another historic result, Macron’s En Marche! party won a majority in the National Assembly. This second show of support for a centrist, pro-European government in France was another indication that France will continue to positively contribute to the European Union.

Students also had the privilege of visiting the George C. Marshall Center in Paris. 2017 is a special year for the Center because it marks the 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan. The success of this plan to break the cycle of European conflict endures today, and despite challenges to Transatlantic relations.

During a day trip to the German city of Trier (or Treves, as the French call it), we saw a protest through the city center. It was clear from the signs that the protest was about the refugee crisis, but we were uncertain at first whether the march was pro- or anti-refugee. Luckily, an English-speaking protester explained to us that the march was in support of refugees. Specifically, a family of refugees that had settled in Trier was then sent back into a dangerous country, and the people of Trier were protesting to bring them home to Germany. Seeing this show of support shed light on the complex and controversial issue of refugee resettlement.

Students visited the European Court of Justice while in Luxembourg, and they heard a briefing on a case against Google regarding privacy protections. While we were in Brussels, a major judgment against Google came down from the Court. Lucky for us, we had an appointment at Google Europe in Brussels the very next day. After a tour of the facility, we got to sit down with policy analysts and discuss the possible implications of the judgment for the future of tech companies in Europe.

Also while we were in Brussels, the European Parliament hosted a High Level Conference on Refugees, which we were thrilled to attend. The question of refugees is a critical current issue that we’d been discussing throughout the summer, so to learn more about viewpoints on the subject was a great opportunity. Furthermore, we’d learned about the big names in European politics — High Representative Federica Mogherini, Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, Parliament President Antonio Tajani– and we got to hear them speak on this pressing issue in person.

These are just a few examples of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences we took advantage of this summer! Getting to see these things in person after learning about them in class is one of the many unique benefits of a study abroad like the EU program.

Berlin Museum Visits

On our free day, Sean and I went to Tempelhof Airport, which was constructed by the Nazis in the 1930s, and was one of the world’s busiest airports before the start of World War II. The airport and the land it was built on has been at the center of German history for hundreds of years. The land initially belonged to the Knights Templar in the middle ages. It was then used as a parade field for Prussian forces and then unified German forces until World War I. It was also used as a parade ground for massive Nazi demonstrations. The airport was used for commercial travel before the war, but closed down after Germany banned commercial flights during the war. The Nazis used the airport terminal as a huge factory to build and repair airplanes damaged in fighting, and then flew the repaired planes back to return to fighting. After the War, the airport was in West Berlin, and became the terminus of the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49.  The Airlift was an operation that was so hugely symbolic and really highlighted the competing economic and ideological trajectories of post-war Europe. After Stalin cut off land route from West Germany to West Berlin, the people of Berlin had no other supply of outside food and fuel, and relied on the Allied forces to keep the supply corridors open. The Allies flew over 200,000 flights in just one year, landing a plane every 30 seconds at Tempelhof Field. The sheer scale of the operation really showed the Allies’ commitment to the people of Berlin, and against the oppressive regime of the Soviets, and the stark differences in ideology of the two sides.

We also visited the DDR Museum, which was an interactive museum covering the history and society of the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, during the Cold War years. It was an interactive museum, which was interesting because I got to see a lot of the propaganda and advertising the GDR utilized. They had mock classrooms, houses, and examples of state-sponsored music. When the GDR was in charge, they outlawed popular music like rock and roll because it was said to be suggestive and provocative. Along with this, the government actually made up dances that students had to learn and perform. Because of this extreme oppression, citizens became very creative in their methods of protest. People wanted Western music and culture, and oftentimes secretly played banned music or held dances that were not state sponsored. The museum also had examples of “underground” publications and newsletters that citizens produced secretly, with news other than what the GDR supplied. I was shocked by the number of spies that were secretly working for the government during the cold war era.  I enjoyed actually seeing examples and artifacts from this era, and seeing how far reaching the government of the GDR really was.

The Reichstag Building and the German Foreign Ministry

The day began with a trip to the Reichstag building, the home of the Bundestag: the German Parliament. The Reichstag building has a rich history dating back to the late nineteenth century. It has been the home of the German Parliament under three different forms of government: the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and now under the modern German government. In 1933, the building was badly damaged by fire, which the Nazi government used as an opportunity to suspend regular meetings of the Reichstag Parliament. The building fell into disuse during the Cold War and was badly damaged in World War II by Soviet forces. However, after German reunification in the 1990s, the parliament relocated from Bonn to Berlin, and the building was restored to become the home of the Bundestag. When we visited, the parliament was not in session, but we were still able to take a trip to the top of the building to enjoy the panoramic views of Berlin.

The glass dome at the top of the Reichstag building was added when the building was restored in the 1990s. While the dome was closed for cleaning when we visited, we were still able to see the outside of the dome. The glass dome offers 360 degree view of the city, along with a history of the building. Inside the dome, there is a direct view into the meeting chamber of the Bundestag. This is intended to represent transparency to the public, and remind the parliament that the public is always watching. Anyone can visit the dome and the top of the building, even if the parliament is in session.

The second trip of the day was to the German Foreign Ministry. However, during our break between our visit to the Reichstag and the Foreign Ministry, Dr. Weber guided us to a memorial to those who had lost their lives trying to escape East Berlin during the Cold War. Located near the Brandenburg Gate, this memorial is made up of white crosses with the names of those killed and the dates they died. This memorial reminded us all of what length people were willing to go to in order to escape the Communist regime in Eastern Berlin.

We arrived at the German Foreign Ministry, the building has gardens all through out it, including one on the roof of the building. We were briefed by a young German diplomat who explained German foreign policy in a variety of areas during an hour long Q&A. We were able to discuss many different issues, including the strained relationship between Angela Merkel and Donald Trump, the Nordstrom Two Pipeline, and German military objectives such as the 2% NATO spending target.

These two visits gave us a brief glimpse into the workings of the German political system and the changing transatlantic relationship. Not only that, they also provided us an understanding of the German place in the world, including the relationship between Germany and the EU, Germany and the Middle East, and Germany in Africa. When discussing German roles in different arenas, we were able to better understand how the country takes an active roles in some areas, but remains neutral in others. For example, when discussing peace in the Middle East, Germany takes a very passive position due to complicated relations with Israel, but supplies Israel with non-nuclear submarines. However, when dealing with the European Union, Germany is more likely to push Brussels to achieve their specific policy objectives.

After visiting both the French and German foreign ministries, it is clear why these two nations are known as the “Twin Engines” of the European Union. The two most important founding members of the EU must work together on a variety of complex issues to help the EU be as efficient as possible. Because these two nations do differ on a variety of issues, the relationship between them is complex and ever-changing. As the diplomat mentioned, the relationship between Germany and France has been reinvigorated by the election of Emmanuel Macron due to Macron’s pro-EU stance. The diplomat even pointed to Macron’s walking out to “Ode to Joy” as an omen for future EU cooperation between the two pro-EU nations. After visiting Brussels, Paris, and Berlin, it is clear that these three cities are vital to the every day and long term functions of the EU, and they are at the heart of global and European issues.

The Binnenhof and the Peace Palace

After spending the last eight and a half weeks focusing on the EU and other International institutions one could be excused for temporarily forgetting the importance of national governments. Nonetheless, we stepped back into the slightly smaller world of national politics this morning with a trip to the Binnenhof, the headquarters of the Dutch government. After receiving VIP passes for our guided tour we were taken into the complex that has stood since the 13th century.  We followed our guide into an old wine cellar where we watched a short video explaining the history of the Binnenhof. The complex had been built by Dutch nobility in the mid 1200’s and was slowly expanded over the following centuries. It served many roles under differing Dutch, Spanish, and French governments but eventually became the location for the Senate and the House of Representatives. Though the House grew too large and recently moved to a different complex, the Binnenhof still houses the Senate, the Prime Minister’s office and serves as the center of government in the hearts of the Dutch people.

Probably the most well-known event that happens at the Binnenhof is Prince’s Day or Budget Day, where every year, on the third Tuesday of September, the King gives a speech to the House of Representatives, the Senate, and many high-level diplomats in the Hall of Knights. In this speech, he outlines the major governmental objectives for the coming year. This day is also important because it is when the finance minister outlines the country’s budget for the coming year. In the hall, there is an upper balcony where the public can come and watch. However, it is quite small and our guide said that the waiting list to get in on Prince’s Day is ten years long.

Out guide then took us out of the hall and, from the courtyard, showed us where Dutch leaders were currently debating as they try to form a coalition government. The Netherlands is primarily represented by the 150-member House of Representatives. The members of the house are chosen by proportional representation with around 70,000 votes resulting in one seat in parliament. This system, while effective at including many different viewpoints, also leads to a body with many different political parties. Our guide informed us that since the current governmental system came into place, the Netherlands has never had a single party gain a simple majority and there are currently 13 parties represented in the House. The largest party in the house, the leftist VVD headed by current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, has 33 seats while the smallest party, the Forum for Democracy, holds just two seats. The largest four parties are currently working on creating a coalition government. Worryingly, these negotiations have been going for over 110 days as compared to the historical average of 90.

We then were taken into the historical Senate chamber. The room is a majestically decorated portal to the golden age of the Netherlands. Portraits of some of the most important Dutch citizens surround the room. Along the ceiling, painted by students of Rembrandt, are caricatures of people from across the word trying to get a glimpse of how the Netherlands was so successful. In the center of the painted ceiling was a portrait of Dutch children watching the politicians to remind them that they are setting an example for posterity. Over the President’s seat in the center of the chamber hangs a portrait of King William the first, who ceded much of his power to the people. Officially this happened because the good king recognized the need for representative government and wanted to help his citizens. Our guide had a different understanding. He told us that the King was worried about two things, first his large outstanding debts to his cousin, the Russian Tsar. Secondly, he was worried about the possibility of political blackmail from his opposition due to his many affairs with both women and men. Afraid of damaging his public image, our guide suggested that he ceded his power to remain popular in the eyes of the citizens. Nonetheless, King William’s portrait hangs proudly in the Senate and is remembered for his actions that benefit the Dutch people.

The Senate as a legislative body is also interesting. Rather than being directly elected, the 75 Senators are selected by regional legislatures. This separates the body from the public and leads to it being slightly different in makeup from the House. Another interesting quirk about the Senate is that it is only a part time position. The body only meets once a week and the members have other jobs in politics or industry outside of being Senators. This gives the members the ability to see the impact of legislation in real life. In the passing of legislation, the Senators review all the bills after they are passed by the House. However, the Senate can only approve or deny legislation, not write their own or make amendments. Because of this inability to act there have been some proposals to disband the Senate entirely but for now it remains a traditional part of the Dutch legislative process.

After our short foray into national politics we wandered back into the realm of supranational organizations by going to see the Peace Palace, the location of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). Sadly, we were not able to take a tour of the building but we were able to learn about the important work done there by visiting the Palace Museum. The Palace was built in the early years of the 20th century after two peace conferences in 1899 and 1907 and a sizable donation from Andrew Carnegie. Initially only supporting the PCA, the project seemed fool hearted in the first half of the 20th century which saw the worst conflict that the world has ever seen in WW1 and WW2. However, after the founding of the ICJ in 1945 as the principal judicial body of the UN the Palace began to see a resurgence. In modern times both the PCA and the ICJ help nations to resolve international conflicts without resorting to military means. There were case studies highlighting the successes of the organizations such as a dispute over Red Sea islands between Eretria and Yemen or a conflict over the building of a dam between Slovakia and Hungary. The ICJ and the PCA play an integral role in maintaining peace in our modern world and will be increasingly necessary as technology accelerates the pace of change.

The Peace Palace is also home to the Hague Academy of International Law and the Peace Palace Library. The Academy draws professors and students from around the world in the study of international law. Students can attend lectures from some of the world’s most prestigious international law academics and receive an internationally recognized and valued honor in having attended the Academy. The Palace is also home to the famous library, created as Carnegie’s one requirement for his funding of the building. The library is one of the most important international law libraries in the world and serves both the legal professionals in the ICJ and the PCA as well as the Academy’s students.

Our day saw a wide breath of information packed into two relatively quick site visits. Along with giving us a basic understanding of how Dutch government operates, our trip to Binnenhof also gave us another glimpse at a democratic alternative to the US legislative system. Being able to compare other systems around the world can help us see the strengths and weaknesses of our own system and think of opportunities for improvement. The trip to the Peace Palace gave us another consider how international organizations based on cooperation are essential to maintaining the current peaceful world order. The museum gave us a wonderful, interactive consider the two bodies and gave us a reason to come back and spend more time in a full tour. Tomorrow we are looking forward to a day trip to Amsterdam to take advantage of some of great museums, cultural, and historical landmarks that this region offers.

Witnessing International Law

After having some great traditional Dutch Pancakes and a cool walk down the beach the evening before, we went back to business. Our first site visit in The Hague was to the International Criminal Court. It was a beautiful glass covered building with a nice “moat” in between the security clearance and the actual entrance of the building. After passing the security check we were all busy admiring the picturesque view of the building, which unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures of.

(A fact we learned after this picture was taken)

A very insightful intellectual conversation with our lovely TA Emma Smith followed where she mentioned the criticisms that surround the court’s impartiality and legitimacy. We learnt that the United States was one of the countries that opted out of the Treaty of Rome which ratified by 124 countries established the International Criminal Court.

We had a short tour of the history and purpose of the court. Using iPhone-like devices and headsets we went through the exhibition learning about the procedures the court undergoes in order to persecute those who commit crimes against humanity in the world. A particularly interactive segment of the tour involved a camera and microphone that displayed how the evidence provided by witnesses is distorted in order to keep them anonymous and safe. Following this tour, a representative of the communications division of the court gave us a briefing on the current cases of the court. We learnt about previous convictions the court had made and about the big role that cooperation between the member states and the court played in order to make the process work.

We were given a choice over which on-going trial to observe and were taken to the gallery to do so. It was a unique experience. It really changed our perspective of the court to actually get to see it in action. The prosecuting team announced to the judge that they were going to play a video as evidence. The defense objected and said the video hadn’t been presented at the start of the trial and therefore they hadn’t had the chance to confirm its origins and accuracy. This discussion brought forward another case in itself where the accused had to be taken out of the room while the court decided whether the video should be played. After a 30 min recess the decision was that the video could be played. We were all awaiting to watch it but then the prosecution decided to do a “short” interrogation of the accused to preface the video. This turned into a showcase of the poor management of the translators, where the English and French versions contradicted each other and the accused had to repeat his testimony over and over. At some point, he even spoke in English to clarify a fact contested by the translators.

Long story short, we sat in the gallery for 2 hours in order to watch a 30 second video that at the end got pushed back to the afternoon session which we couldn’t attend. So much for efficiency in the International Criminal Court I guess.

Next up was the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). We started with a short briefing where the position of the ICTY under the MICT was explained, as well as its own characteristics. The ICTY was scheduled to finish its cases and close permanently on December 2017, so we felt very lucky to have the chance to visit it before then. We got to observe an ongoing retrial of two politicians of the former Yugoslavia who were accused of purposefully pushing away Serbians from the areas of the country they were in charge of. The first trial had acquitted them, but now they were being retried. This case had more information and seemed to be moving forward much more efficiently than the one at the ICC, however a large part of it was held in private session. This meant that in order for confidential information to be discussed in the court room, the recording was silent and us observers couldn’t hear what was being said in the room. A particularly long private session brought us to leave the court.

Overall, we had a very exciting day where we had the chance to watch on-going trials in two widely recognized international courts. We had never been so close to the inner operations of international law as today. It was a unique experience to see how the courts operate and formulate our own opinions and views on the efficiency and accuracy of each of the courts.

 

Meeting Sophie in ‘t Veld

Today was our last day in Brussels, and we visited the European Parliament for our final time.

Our speaker was Sophie in’ t Veld. in ‘t Veld is a Member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands. She is currently a part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, and she previously served on the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs. She also was a member of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.

She briefly introduced herself to us, and we got to ask her questions right away. Our first question concerned women’s rights in Europe. in ‘t Veld began with a simple statement, “It is everyone’s duty to promote gender equality.” She emphasized that external policies are required to effectively fight against inequality. As well, she believes that standards must be set in terms of EU policy areas–issues such as abortion rights should not be dealt by the European Union but by local and national governments.

In terms of current immigration issue, she explained that she simply cannot accept the fact that many European countries are so unwilling to receive more immigrants. It is not fair to say, she said, that Italy needs to process paperwork for such a big number of immigrants simply due to its geographical location. She compared the percentages of accepted immigrants by different countries, and it was clear how so many countries can do so much more, yet many of them continue to live under fear of the new influx of unknown faces. Along with that, she talked about how the new rise of conservative beliefs and populist ideas are related to the “fear of the new” that the people have today. People tend to stick to what they know during the times of instability and uncertainty. They attempt to counter the flow of new development and go back to how it was in the old days, and such phenomenon can be explained through recent events such as the presidential election of the United States and Brexit.

She continued to respond to more of our questions in areas of environmental policies, data protection and privacy, and security. Despite the less-than-an-hour time that was given for this meeting, Sophie in ‘t Veld gave us so much insight and her own views on the issues that we considered pressing. One thing she said that stuck to me the most: “The fact that we can be sure that we will not have a war… that already means that we are incredibly successful.” We thanked her for her time and her passionate talk. I really wished we had more time to talk to her, because she was certainly my favorite speaker that we got to talk to throughout the program.

We headed back to our homes right after the meeting, and we got our (packed) suitcases and headed to the Brussels Central Station! Our last visit to the European Parliament was an excellent way of finishing our three-weeks-and-a-half journey in Brussels. We said final goodbye to the country of delicate chocolates, mannequin pis, frites, convoluted government system, and genuineness. On our seven hour ride to Berlin, I got to reflect on the days that I truly got to enjoy in Brussels. I am more than sure that I will come back in the future–hopefully with my much improved French.

Brugges

Today we started out meeting at the train station Starbucks for a one hour train ride to Brugges. Along the way, a lot of us studied for our upcoming “security” quiz which was to take place at the College of Europe conference room once we got there. However, upon our arrival we were informed that there was not a room ready for us, so instead we took the quiz sitting against one of the canals. It wasn’t too bad. Immediately after, we hopped aboard a canal tour which was to take us through the city. One of the first things the tour guide said was that we were not to trust her, because as she was not an officially train tour guide, everything she was about to tell us could have possibly been a lie or myth. Either way, she did have some very interesting facts to offer.

~For one, the bell tower in the city’s center leans exactly one meter to the right.

~Religion was very important in this city, which is why the 7 words of charity were engraved on the city’s gable.

~At one point all of the swans in the city were kept together in confinement because they were believed to have carried a disease, and upon release there existed a social hierarchy with certain swans dominating other inferior swans.

~At one point we passed by a statue of Nyobi, who was laying down looking into the river. She apparently was the extremely proud mother to 14 children, but lived to see the slaughter of all of them because she wasn’t humble enough. And thus, she cried so much that her tears created a river. So we were wading through Nyobi’s tears.

~Animals on the tops of buildings were carved there so that they would scare away ghosts.

After the boat tour, we went our separate ways to get lunch. The place that a few others and I went to was like a fast food pasta place. Quite good and filling for only 5 euros. After that we did some walking around, and ended up at a bakery that served some delicious cakes and tartes. Very delicious. At this point it started raining, so for the rest of the time we just walked around. We saw the city center with the market area, as well as the bell tower (although we didn’t go inside.) It was a very cute little town, and had a nice sort of charm to it. In a way in reminded me of a smaller version of Amsterdam, at least with the canals and the way it set up. Although it was definitely is a mix between French and Dutch cultures,  there was definitely a strong German vibe there.

 

 

 

NATO Part 2

*Disclaimer: all comments made to us at NATO were made off the record, and are not official statements*

After a long lunch and a trip to the gift shop, we continued our visit to NATO with a briefing from Geta Medeleanu, a member of the Romanian Delegation to NATO. Mrs. Medeleanu has only been a part of the Romanian Delegation for one year, as a counselor in the political section of the delegation, but spent 18 previous years in the Romanian Diplomatic Service.

The primary focus of our briefing was the impressive strength and duration of the relationship between Romania and the U.S (145 years!). Mrs. Medeleanu reiterated a fact made to us earlier by Dr. Markley, that Romanians have a very positive view of the U.S., even if they aren’t the biggest fans of Donald Trump. She also elaborated on the extent to which the Romania-U.S. relationship goes by describing the “Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century Between the United States of America and Romania”. This partnership includes measures for ballistic missile defense where the U.S. assists in protecting Romania’s eastern border, promotion of economic cooperation through trade and investment between Romanian and American companies, and even educational connections through scholarships and student exchanges.

Logo for the ten year anniversary of Romanian membership to NATO in 2013

As for Romania’s role on NATO, Mrs. Medeleanu described Romania as punching above its size, meaning Romania contributes significantly more to NATO than people would expect. Romania is a contributor to several ongoing NATO missions including Afghanistan (of which Romania also contributes additional support to the U.S. effort in Afghanistan outside of NATO), preserving stability in Kosovo, improving cybersecurity in Ukraine, and supporting one of their neighbor countries, Moldova. Romania is also an advocate for Georgia’s membership to NATO, and has an expert on the team helping to support this goal in Georgia, as well as being one of pilot states for the #WeareNATO campaign. In terms of the controversy of President Trump’s statements on the burden sharing of NATO members and the 2% defense spending threshold, Mrs. Medeleanu assured us that Romania was one of the few countries who met the 2% threshold. This, I later discovered could be false, given Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said in his press conference with President Trump in Washington D.C. that he was committing Romania to increasing their defense spending from 1.4% to 2% by the end of the year.

Romanian President Iohannis meeting with President Trump at the White House in June

As we came to the end of our time with Mrs. Medeleanu, she described to us the fun tradition of the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest’s 4th of July parties, of which the theme this year was baseball. I think I can speak for my fellow students in saying that this celebration of U.S. Independence Day by Romanian citizens was an interesting and authentic view of the deep relationship between the two nations.

Our next and last speaker of the day was Commander Don Dasher, a Georgia Tech alum (go jackets!). Commander Dasher started in the Navy using his prestigious civil engineering degree from Tech before coming to NATO and becoming involved in the more international affairs related side of the military.

Our briefing started in a different style from the ones previous with more of a quiz on our NATO knowledge, instead of having it lectured to us for the millionth time. We hopefully impressed him by knowing when and why NATO started (1949, to combat Soviet expansionism), how many members there are (12 in 1949, 29 now – 2 North American and the rest European), the article from which the NATO members derive the right to create the organization (Article 51 of the UN Charter), and the most well-known article of the two-and-a-half-page NATO treaty (Article 5, collective defense).

The next phase of our discussion was more question and answers based, about topics we didn’t know as much about. One of the topics I found most interesting, was about the functioning of NATO meetings in several different languages. NATO has two official languages, English and French, but people can still use their native languages to speak, which requires dozens of interpreters and translators. The translation process can sometimes make the negotiation process difficult because the same words or phrases can’t always be translated into different languages. Commander Dasher gave us the example of the U.S. saying at English that they want to walk, but perhaps there isn’t a word for “walk” in another language, so the French, for instance, hear “run” and start reacting because that’s way too fast. So then, the U.S. has to communicate to the French that they want to do as clearly as they can, so both sides understand the process, method, or whatever is being discussed. Commander Dasher said himself that this wasn’t the best analogy, but I think we all understood the underlying concept.

After this briefing, our long day at NATO (and separation from our cell phones) was over. Overall, our briefings today gave us interesting insights into the role and functioning or NATO through several different personal perspectives. I believe that we all left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, even though they took our phones.

Group photo outside of NATO in front of the member state flags

NATO Part 2

As soon as we stepped off of the bus at the NATO stop, two daunting buildings came into view- one the new NATO building, not yet ready for use, and the NATO building that has been used by NATO since its establishment in Brussels. Immediately, security came up to us to lead us to the security booth. We had to leave all electronic devices at the gate, so sadly (but understandably) there are limited pictures from the day. We were given visitor passes and then ushered into a conference room for our first speaker.

Our first speaker’s name is Allison Hart, and she is the Executive Officer of the Public Diplomacy Division of NATO. The first thing that she said was that we all must agree that everything that she and the next speaker said was strictly off of the record. Because of this, I cannot cover the exact things that were said and discussed; however, I will give a general overview. She laid out the structure of NATO and how decisions are made and actions are implemented. NATO is an organization where decisions must be made unanimously, meaning more times than not it takes extensive talks and debates before any actions are decided upon as a body. She also reiterated the point that the well known Article 5 has only been used once, and that was after the 9/11 attacks. Surprisingly, the United States was not the one to ask to invoke the article. Rather the other nations were the ones asking to help. Additionally, the initial help was not to begin attacking in the middle east, but to come to the United States and assist with securing the air space. After outlining NATO’s structure and past actions, we were able to ask questions about her opinions on current events. As stated previously, I cannot state her responses, but topics that were covered include the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Crimea, and cybersecurity.

The next speaker’s name is Diego Ruiz Palmer, and he is the Special Advisor to the Secretary General and a part of both the Economics and Security Assessments Unit and the Emerging Security Challenges Division. He went over his roles in all three parts, as well as covering some of NATO’s history in decision making. His views on why NATO sometimes chose to not take action or could not agree on an action to take were insightful. He too left time for questions, and the class mainly asked questions regarding his role on the Emerging Security Challenges Division. NATO has to think both in the short term and long term when it comes to this division to ensure that they will be prepared for any risk that could come their way, including things like nuclear deterrence.

Both speakers engaged all of the students and provided us with information and insight that we could have not gotten anywhere else.

 

Human Rights Watch

Today we had the incredible opportunity to visit Human Rights Watch, an American-founded international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights. While there, we were able to meet and talk with Andrew Stroehlein, the European Media Director at Human Rights Watch. As a media director, Stroehlein basically acts as the spokesperson for HRW on the European stage. He is extremely active on social media and noted that his work days tend to start at 6 am because that is the best time to reach journalists and prominent news outlets. He then briefed us on how Human Rights Watch works and the major human rights issues that the NGO is dealing with today.

Stroehlein began by explaining that HRW does three main things: investigate human rights abuses, expose these abuses and push for change in the areas they are committed. HRW also covers a wide range of human rights from LGBT rights to refugee rights. Each year, HRW publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on human rights conditions in some 90 countries. HRW implements public and private advocacy by meeting with governments, the UN, regional groups like the European Union, financial institutions, and corporations to fight for changes in policy and practices that promote human rights around the world.

Stroehlein encouraged more of a discussion-based briefing and urged us to ask questions. A range of topics were covered by our questions. For instance, someone from our group asked how HRW deals with uncooperative governments when HRW wants to enter a country for research. Stroehlein said that sometimes HRW struggles to obtain visas or even be able to talk to people once in the country. He used North Korea as an example by saying that HRW obtains most of their information regarding North Korea’s human rights abuses by people who have escaped the authoritarian regime. He also added that HRW had been denied visas to countries like Israel and Azerbaijan recently.

Someone then asked which country has the most investigative funding going into it, and to my surprise, the answer was that the US has had the most articles published on its human rights abuses annually. The reason being, as HRW is an American NGO they are more easily able to look within their own country and identify when individuals’ rights are not being recognized. It was also explained that the human rights abuses in the US are not systematic as they might be in other countries and may be less severe. Most investigation in the US is about domestic issues, but there are still a good number of issues that arise out of how the US projects its power in the international arena. Stroehlein then mentioned how HRW was highly critical of former President Obama and his administration regarding issues like the use of drones and the closing of Guantanamo Bay.

I’m amazed at Human Rights Watch’s power to affect change, especially given that they are a staff of 450 covering 100 countries. When asked how they got to be so widely known Stroehlein responded “be big and be loud.” This site visit was definitely one of my favorites so far as we learned a great deal of information. The briefing was a great introduction to our human rights course and Stroehlein was an engaging and enthusiastic speaker!