Archive | September, 2012

Gang Violence and Civilian Protection: Observations on Their Relation (Part I)

29 Sep

*This post is the first in a two part series that will examine how we can conceptualize gang violence in the United States through the framework of civilian protection, mass atrocities, and political violence.  This post will focus on the actual functioning of gangs and militaries that perpetrate violence against civilians, while the second will focus on conflict resolution strategies.


“Little Terry got a gun, he got from the store,
He bought it with the money he got from his chores,
He robbed candy shop told her lay down on the floor,
Put the cookies in his bag took the pennies out the drawer.

Little Kalil got a gun he got from the rebels,
To kill the infidels and American devils,
A bomb on his waist,
A mask on his face,
Prays five times a day,
And listens to Heavy Metal.

Little Alex got a gun he took from his dad,
That he snuck into school in his black book bag,
His black nail polish, black boots and black hair,
He’s gonna blow away the bully that just pushed his ass…” 

These are the first few lines from Lupe Fiasco’s “Little Weapon“.  In the song, he makes an explicit link between the culture of youth violence in the United States and violence in foreign countries.  This connection merits further examination.  I spent this summer working in a small city on the east coast where I was exposed to gang violence (I will refrain from naming the city to protect the privacy of the people and organizations I mention).  This city, which I will call Joplin, has a population between thirty and fifty thousands, but all in an urban setting.  It is very economically depressed and majority African-American.  My experiences working with issues of civilian protection prodded me to constantly make connection between the two seemingly very different scenarios.  Though there are certainly very concrete differences from, for example, rebel groups in eastern Congo and gangs on Joplin’s east side, I think it is important to note the similarities while acknowledging the differences.  I will focus on the issues that allow on the structural factors that allow gangs and militant groups to exist and then move to examine the impact of these groups on non-combatants.

In Joplin, gangs are a product of a terrible educational system, a non-existent job market, and a simple lack of activities for youth.  Joplin is not the only the victim of a federal government that feels no need to help low-income communities  but also a terribly inefficient and corrupt local government that wastes most of the funding it does receive.  From my experience, Joplin youth, in general, don’t believe that there is a productive future ahead of them.  Dealing drugs and joining gangs is one way of the few ways to make money.  These structural factors are shared by militant groups.  The military or rebel groups can offer a path for advancement for low-status individuals, and are often made up of disaffected populations.  Similarly, rebel groups, think the Democratic Republic of the Congo, often compete with both the government and rival rebels to control material resources.

Gangs in Joplin, like many rebel groups, do not exist entirely separately from the communities in which they operate.  Individuals move in and out of gangs, and social circles are not divided solely by conditional gang membership.  Several programs in Joplin facilitate mentoring from current/potential gang members and former gangsters.  Franck van Acker notes this same phenomenon in the link above.  In LRA-affected Uganda, individuals routinely experienced the conflict as a civilian, a rebel, and a soldier over the course of their lifetime.

The victims of militant groups and gangs are both disproportionately civilians.  Many more civilians die in armed conflicts than militants, and while I don’t know the statistics for Joplin (and they’d be practically useless anyway, because the line between gangster and civilian is so blurry), civilians are routinely caught in gang crossfire.  Civilians are affected in both cases, but the targets of violence differs significantly.  Militant groups have political objectives, though some of their actions can seem purely designed to inflict terror and suffering on civilians.  Gangs do not share this characteristic.  Therefore, gang violence is committed for personal and business reasons against other community members, while militant violence is committed either against opposing armed forces or civilian populations that are either in support, or imagined to be in support of those forces.

While gang violence is explicitly aimed at individuals for apolitical reasons, government response to gang violence adds a political element.  In “Little Weapon”, Lupe raps, “Government want me dead so I wear my gun.  This is not an unrealistic portrait of gangs in Joplin.  Young black men are suspicious of the police, who are more likely to be white than the rest of Joplin’s population, and have a record of harassment.  Joining a gang is a way to find protection from the police.  Rebel groups comprised of  marginalized and persecuted populations serve this same purpose.  While gangs are an avenue for social and economic advancement, they are also a way for disempowered individuals to protect themselves from an oppressive government.

Stay tuned for Part II.


Reimagining Violence: Civilian Peacekeeping in Atrocities Response Policy

29 Sep

*This post originally appeared on Securing Rights.

While military responses to mass atrocities remain an emerging tool, various forms of military intervention—including unilateral, multilateral, and covert military activity—have become increasingly popular in public discourse. As Micah Zenko has observed, militant perspectives on atrocities response have become widespread, among civilian policymakers and public commentators alike. Often, support for military interventions relies on short-term, limited criteria: that is, whether or not the intervention successfully roots out the violence.

In order for a military intervention to be truly successful, however, it would have to not only mitigate violence against civilians, but also build the target nation’s capacity to prevent further violence from occurring. As the United States’ nation-building exercises in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, however, military forces have little ability to establish resilient institutions and build a strong civil society. While military interventions may eliminate some of the forces responsible for violence against civilians, Dursen Peksen has demonstrated that foreign interventions may increase the level of human rights abuses committed by the target government. While the notion of a “neutral” force deployment has gained currency in contemporary discussions of atrocities response in Syria, the notion of a neutral intervention is a fantasy; as Richard Betts has argued, any active military forces takes a side when engaging hostile forces. The glaring ineffectiveness, as well as the inevitable non-neutrality of external interventions, should take military intervention off the table as a future response to mass atrocities.

In spite of the negative long-term effects of military intervention, many human rights advocates and hawkish policymakers reason military force as a moral imperative. Diplomacy, a crucial, if undervalued mechanism for atrocities prevention and response, is often demonized, due to the perceived moral hazard of negotiating with unsavory regimes, non-state actors, and multinational institutions. Mass atrocities are messy, and even if negotiated settlements are imperfect, they can have a positive impact on the trajectory of violence in civil conflict.

Civilian peacekeeping (CP) remains an under-utilized approach. Civilian peacekeeping has its roots in Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence: he imagined a nonviolent army of civilian peacekeepers, but was unable to complete his vision before his 1948 assassination. His vision was partially realized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Shanti Sena, a nonviolent peacekeeping force, intervened in three separate riots in India, with varying, but generally positive levels of success. Other organizations, like Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP), Peace Brigades International (PBI), Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), and Michigan Peace Team (MPT) have more recently emerged as forms of civilian nonviolent intervention in conflict areas worldwide. Civilian peacekeeping, based on the theory of third-party nonviolent intervention, relies on a diversity of tactics: interposition, observation and documentation, protective accompaniment, and modeling nonviolent behavior. NP, the largest organization of the four, maintains hundreds of professional peacekeepers from around the world. NP has successfully deployed peacekeepers on a long-term and short-term basis. NP maintained peacekeepers in Sri Lanka for almost ten years during the civil war, and has responded quickly to outbreaks of violence in Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, and South Sudan.

CP has some important advantages over traditional forms of peacekeeping. Since peacekeepers are civilians, they do not represent entire governments, nor are they burdened with the military mindset that contradicts civilian protection strategies. Civilian peacekeepers may maintain their neutrality, as they seek to prevent violence on all sides, whereas humanitarian military interventions pick a side when they engage an opponent. Civilian peacekeepers’ mediation is both more constant and non-hostile, so peacekeepers may establish a rapport with multiple conflict parties, making broad-based participation more likely. CP, as a form of non-state intervention, avoids the burden-sharing dilemmas frequently associated with military interventions. In addition to its structural benefits, CP’s emphasis on civil society participation is its greatest value-added. A strong civil society is crucial to preventing mass atrocities and a component of any well-functioning, participatory society. The presence of civilian peacekeepers is a constructive process, as peacekeepers work with the community to create sustainable domestic institutions. With their focus on constructive, rather than destructive civilian protection, CP operations should play a more prominent role in international atrocities prevention and response policy.


Is This Really Happening? Seeing Aung San Suu Kyi

28 Sep

*This post originally appeared on the STAND blog 

My journey to see Aung San Suu Kyi on her first visit to the United States since she was released from house arrest, which she had been under for the better part of twenty-four years, began with a train from Swarthmore to Phildelphia, and then the Megabus to DC. That was followed by an hour and a half walking around Washington trying to find Daniel Solomon’s house. I finally, and after a period of unconsciousness that was too short, on a couch with the same problem, I started my early morning walk to Bender Arena at American University where ASSK was due to address D.C.’s Burmese community. I had been told that the whole event was going to be in Burmese, but I decided it was still worth it to see this incredible woman who had resisted every attempted by the Burmese government to break her spirit over the course of more than two decades.

I knew no one at the event, so I found a seat and waited an hour until The Lady appeared. A huge cry went up from the crowd when she entered via a side door, and even though the president of AU spoke first, all eyes were on her. After receiving an honorary degree from AU, she gave a brief address in English, in which she talked about a need for an inclusive Burmese society for all Burmese. She then moved into the question and answer portion, in which she answered questions in English and Burmese. In a response, she praised the United States for accepting so many Burmese Americans, and expressed her hope that one day all those Burmese who had felt it necessary to give up their citizenship could come back to their homeland. She answered most of the questions in Burmese, but judging from both the applause of the audience and the laughter of the Burmese family behind me, she was both funny and articulate.

I had to leave the event prematurely to catch a cab to the Newseum, where ASSK was due to speak next at an event hosted by Amnesty International. Though it was a shame I had to leave the event early, it was a bonus talking about the political situation in Ethiopia following Meles Zenawi’s death with my Ethiopian cab driver. At the Newseum I met up with Shomya Tripathy (#DJSTANDMOM), STAND’s Community Manager, and several other senior members of STAND and United to End Genocide. As Shomya and I sat there in the heavily over-air conditioned auditorium, we kept looking at the chair thirty feet in front of us with disbelief; Aung San Suu Kyi, who had remained a mythic idol of principle and bravery in our minds would physically inhabit that seat in a few minutes. After introductions by Amnesty International staff and Alex Wagner (the NBC host who moderated the discussion, and who is half-Burmese herself), The Lady herself came on stage to thunderous applause. ASSK was presented with flowers by the husband and four-year-old daughter of one of the imprisoned Pussy Riot members. Even if she had not uttered a word, her presence in that auditorium would’ve had a transformative effect on every member of the audience.

The event format consisted of a short address by ASSK with a question and answer period that followed that alternated between questions posed by students and those posed by host Alex Wagner. In her address, The Lady focused on the task for the next generation of human rights advocates. She urged students to not only condemn hate and injustice (which lead to the political prisoners), but to try to understand their root cause, fear. She challenged students to think critically about why we are suspicious of those different from ourselves and how we can eradicate that dynamic.

The question and answer segment touched on numerous issues. She asked for American help in helping to build democratic institutions in Burma, as well as the mental liberation that former oppressors would have to experience to truly change Burma. She argued against a cultural relativist interpretation of human rights, saying that these excuses were the very ones used by the Burmese government to justify decades of military rule. ASSK also stated, quite emphatically, against the use of violence in any form. She said that violence and human rights are opposite, and that the defense of human rights with violence is both a futile and counterproductive endeavor. For her, the defense of human rights in a distinctly nonviolent effort, saying that those who wish to promote human rights must be prepared to endure violent repression. She asked businesses that invest in Burma to do so responsibly, and predicted a future change in the Orwellian language used by the Burmese government that is so common of authoritarian governments. While we all saw the symbol of defiance and hope we all knew, we also saw glimpses of the savvy politician that perhaps less of us anticipated. When asked how she could forgive the military for imposing house arrest, she responded saying that she had no reason to forgive the military, and that she was actually quite fond of the Burmese military. She cited positive memories of her father in uniform as well as the good treatment she received from military figures while under house arrest. While it is certainly possible that this woman is so incredible that she does not feel resentment for experiencing so many years of house arrest, it is more likely that doesn’t wish to offend her colleagues in government.

While ASSK was articulate and inspiring throughout most of the program, there were some awkward moments. The elephant in the room from the beginning were the Rohingya, and a student according asked ASSK, “Who are the Rohingya and why are they persecuted by the Burmese government?” The Lady immediately and strongly rejected the use of the word “persecuted,” arguing that the issue needs to be seen in the framework of communal violence and human rights instead. She stressed that the rule of law needs to be restored in Rakhine state. She said that all Burmese who are eligible for Burmese citizenship under the current law should receive it, and even hinted that the law should be re-examined. Finally, ASSK argued that the Bangladesh-Burma border needs to be strengthened to prevent illegal crossings in either direction. This answer, while certainly not satisfying to the audience, has to be placed in context. The majority ethnic group in Burma, the Burmans, of which Aung San Suu Kyi is a member, largely support the government’s persecution of the Rohingya. This then puts ASSK in a tough position, in which she has to carefully walk the line between a symbol of international human rights and a popular domestic political figure. For example, she didn’t explicitly call the Rohingya illegal immigrants (as many Burmans do), but made statements that will please both sides. Her recommendation to strengthen the Burma-Bangladesh border will appease those who wish to see the Rhingya persecuted, while her implication that the Burmese citizenship law should be re-examined (the Rohingya collectively lost their citizenship in 1982) will be read by Western human rights advocates as a step in the right direction. Despite her seeming silence on the Rohingya, she has in fact spoken out against discrimination against ethnic minorities, with is not common in Burmese politics. Hopefully, she is simply biding her time until she feels secure enough to correctly address the Rohingya issue.

I never expected I would get the chance to see Aung San Suu Kyi in person, and the chance to be within just a few feet of one of the world’s most courageous individuals had a powerful effect on everyone at both events. For the Burmese Diaspora, it was a symbol of hope from their troubled homeland, and for American human rights activists, it was genuinely inspiring experience to be able to share a room with a person who literally personifies the defense of peace, equality, and human rights worldwide. Her stance on the Rohingya demonstrated that even our greatest heroes have flaws, but also that we must look at everyone with a fair and balanced eye. Her impact on me and fellow youth activists was immense, and it is a moment that will live in our memories for the rest of our lives.