Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Probably different than your weekends

This goes on all across the West Bank every Friday.

Protest against the occupation, Nabi Saleh, West Bank, 7.12.2012

Israeli forces use massive amounts of (usually) non-lethal weapons to prevent people from using or accessing their land. Villagers in Nabi Saleh, where this photo was taken, attempt to walk to a natural spring on the outskirts of their village, which has been de facto annexed and controlled by Israeli settlers. The Israeli army prohibits villagers from reaching their spring.  

Monday, October 01, 2012

There are only 50 months left to save the world

From the Guardian
The world has 50 months to go before the dice become loaded against us in terms of keeping under a 2C temperature rise. We asked Guardian readers and public figures what they would do to lead us out of this climate predicament. From mass protest to pensions to personal carbon targets, here are their suggestions...

Below I excerpt some of the more interesting answers (but you should check out all of the answers), my thoughts follow:
Saci Lloyd, Author of The Carbon Diaries
Don’t be timid. When did trying to pull humanity back from the brink of ecocide become confused with Buddhism?

Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive, Oxfam
The hard truth is that our lifestyles in rich countries are not compatible with our efforts to confront climate change. Our over-consumption of resources comes at the cost of the life chances of those who are denied their fair share of access to water, energy and food.

Bill McKibben, Author of The End of Nature, & founder of
We're going to have to work harder - in the next 50 months we're going to go straight at the fossil fuel companies, whose business model means the destruction of the planet's climate system. It's us or them, and I'd rather it be us.

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP
Instead of treating the climate crisis as an environmental issue, to be dealt with by environment and energy departments alone, we need to reframe it as the overwhelming threat to national and global security which it is.

Ruth Bond, Chair of the National Federation of Women's Institutes
The huge threat we all face from climate change means that the day to day decisions made about the food we buy, our travel and how we heat our homes are more important than ever.
Caroline Lucas' quote stands out above the rest; climate change is truly an "overwhelming threat to national and global security."  There were several answers on the site which suggested that mass movements (a globalized Tahrir square, of sorts) and changes to the consumptive behaviors and habits of the global citizenry are of utmost importance.  I agree that mass mobilization and changes to our eating and transportation habits are necessary and important, but I don't think these changes are of utmost immediate importance for leading us out of our climate change predicament.  What we must immediately realize and emphasize is that big business and the fossil fuel industry are contributing in a disproportionately large way to climate change.  Their emissions must be curbed drastically.

If I decide to grow all of my own food. or buy food with 50 food miles or less, and only ride my bike or take public transportation, I won't put a dent in carbon emissions.  If I convince all of my friends to do the same and we have a community garden and organize our own midnight mass bike rides, we won't put a dent in the projected increase in global temperatures.

But I don't want to discount the reasons why these individual changes in behavior are important.  We will be creating a more healthy world, and will be leading healthy and fulfilling lives.  Our actions will also raise the consciousness of those with whom we interact as I talk about my delicious tomatoes and that day I got two flats on the way to work but my boss didn't care because she thought it was cool that I ride my bike to work.  There is a need to raise the public's awareness of climate change and the negative impacts of our current food delivery and transportation models.  There is a need to start living out more healthy practices and lifestyles instead of just talking about them: growing our own food, driving less (if at all), using non-toxic chemicals in our cosmetic and cleaning products, etc.

However, those changes in lifestyle and advances in the popular awareness of climate change and humanity's role in it will not stall the already increasing global temperature.  We need to push for global legislation and  demand that governments immediately address this issue. We need to take the fight to business and industry. They are the big emitters.  Their profits can afford to come down a few percentage points while instituting more earth-friendly practices.  After all, it's for the survival of our planet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

It matters how we choose to remember 9/11

We'll never forget. 

We'll always remember.

Remember 9/11. 

It's right to remember the victims of that day, to build memorials for the victims and the capacity (locally, nationally, and globally) for dealing with grievances in a nonviolent manner. But I wonder who "we" are, and I wonder what it is that we are "remembering."

I assume "we" is meant to be U.S. citizens, people who have lived most of their lives in the United States and identify as "Americans."  "We," in the context of 9/11 remembrance, seems to include those who identify as being in the same community as those who were killed in the World Trade Center. But I struggle with national categories because I've come into contact with the ugly side of nationalism: when it's manifested as xenophobia rather than positively, as a sense of community.  National communities are certainly imagined communities, "socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group."    I also struggle with national identity because I may have more in common with a street vendor from Bangladesh than I do a farmer from Kansas or a banker from California. The farmer, the banker, and I might all know the rules of baseball and the first line of the Gettysburg Address, but the vendor and I might share values and life aspirations (and the vendor probably knows cricket, which is like baseball but with British costumes and weird throwing motions).

I also wonder whether those of us who have mixed feelings about the popular national narrative of 9/11 are included in the "we." What if I'm conflicted about the jingoistic narrative of 9/11 and downright appalled at all that was done in response to the attacks on 9/11?  Which leads me to the politics of remembrance.

What if I think that we should remember the innocent Iraqis and Afghanis that were killed as a result of the wars that my country waged shortly after 9/11? Most of them were innocent just like the firefighters and businesspeople that were killed in the World Trade Center, no? But if I happen to mention the innocent civilians killed, who happen to be of a different nationality, then I am perceived as less than a full member of my own national community.  Those who question the national narrative of 9/11 are dismissed in explicit and implicit ways.  And I'm white. The situation has been downright ugly for many Arab, Arab-looking, and Muslim Americans, even those who haven't uttered a word of critique about the U.S. national narrative of 9/11.

What we choose to remember and how we choose to remember matters. Do we only remember our own, or do we remember all those who were lost as a result of hatred, sectarianism, nationalism, and intolerance: NYC firefighters and police, World Trade Center workers, Afghan women, and Iraqi children. There were hundreds of victims of suicide bombings last week in Iraq, a phenomenon that only arrived after the U.S. invasion of the country, and continues (according to many analysts) as a result of U.S. counterinsurgency policies (such as allying with and arming Sunni militias) which radically fomented sectarian divisions in Iraqi society.


I was recently in New York (for the first time!) and solicited advice for things to do. A couple of friends suggested that I visit the 9/11 memorial as it was quite moving and meaningful for them when they visited.  I thought about their suggestion but decided it wasn't the right time for me to visit the memorial.

I remember all of the details of that morning just like the rest of you, but I don't know how to handle all of the pain that has resulted from the ripples of that day, especially the pain and tragedies that have not been recognized by the American people.  Thousands killed that morning. Hundreds of thousands killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan as the War on Terror has spawned more and more foreign militants who want to combat the War on Terror.

Going to the memorial would make me feel like I was remembering our dead at the cost of forgetting their dead. It matters how we define "we," and it matters how we remember.   

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Must-read on Lonmin massacre

I had the opportunity to visit Marikana, two hours outside of Johannesburg, approximately one week after the massacre of 34 miners at the hands of South African police. I've written a bit about the visit for organizational purpose and unfortunately my ability to provide new thoughts or analysis is worn a bit thin.

But before I offer anything (which I'll do in a later post), I find it vital to read one piece. Daily Maverick reporter, Greg Marinovich, spent two weeks in Marikana, trying to figure out how 34 miners were killed. Information gleaned from eyewitness testimony and from good ol' PI work led him to believe that approximately 12 people were killed when they moved towards police (however, according to many accounts they were running away from tear gas and rubber bullets fired from behind them), and somewhere around 14, or more, miners were killed in cold blood by police. They were targeted and summarily executed; murdered as revenge for police officers slain several days before. Marinovich's piece should make its way around blogospheres and twitter feeds, and should inform reporting by international media. If it interests you, Marinovich wrote a follow-up piece after again visiting Marikana and gathering more information.

Secondly, there was a statement released by a number of civil society organizations, including Centre for the Study of Reconciliation, where I am working, that addresses a number of the issues surrounding this incident and the government's response. An excerpt:

We stand for the interests of the poor and marginalised and believe our Constitution’s greatest strength is its promise of equality and the advancement of the political, social and economic rights of the poor.

The Marikana massacre is a defining moment in our history and cannot be allowed to pass without establishing the full truth, ensuring justice and providing redress for the victims and their families.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The massacre at a South African mine: government in bed with industry, union battles, and substandard wages

South African police opened fire on a group of miners protesting insufficient wages, killing 34 and wounding 78. It was the single most lethal use of force since the end of the apartheid era. The workers were employed at the Lonmin-operated mine (a London-based Platinum corporation) near Marikana, some 50 miles from Johannesburg. It's been all over the news and the photos and videos have caused many South Africans to liken the incident to similar massacres and instances of police brutality that occurred during the apartheid era.

Al Jazeera English has a report:

From the outside, looking in, it probably appears that a group of poor, low-wage workers were disgruntled, feeling their bosses, union leaders, and government, were failing to listen to their demands, and violence ensued when the miners took up arms (mostly machetes) against the security forces. However, the issues are layered, and significantly more complicated.

Some of the issues at play:
  • Dueling unions: NUM vs. AMCU.  NUM is the most powerful union in South Africa, boasting 300,000 members, and is a part of COSATU, the national trade union federation which is allied with the dominant ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).  NUMSA, the second-largest metalworkers union, is left-leaning and advocates for that nationalization of resources, something that President Zuma and mainstream ANC leaders (along with, obviously, the IMF and the World Bank) have opposed. The third-most-powerful metalworkers union in the country is the Association of Mining and Construction Union (AMCU) and there are reports that 25% of the workers at Marikana recently switched their membership to AMCU. Thus there's been a bit of a turf battle between unions that resulted in something quite sinister.   
  • Wages: The underground mine workers are earning 4,000 Rand per month ($480). The work is extremely difficult and dangerous, and the wages are low. The workers also live near the mine in informal housing that does not have water, sanitation, or electricity.  The workers were demanding a 300% increase in wages to account for their substandard living conditions and the taxing nature of the work.  
  • Platinum: The cost of platinum has spiked since the killings -- partially because of the mine's closure, a result of striking workers, that has continued into Tuesday -- now nearly $1500/ounce.  However, this short spike has balanced the price of platinum that had been falling over the last couple of years. As a result of the closure, and some bad press, Lonmin's stock has dropped 13%. Platinum is highly valuable metal that is used for catalytic converters, electrodes, dentistry equipment, and jewelry, among other things.  South Africa is the largest victim-of-extraction producer of platinum in the world.
  • Precipitous violence: The striking workers had killed two policeman and two private security officers in the days preceding the massacre. The heavy presence of police at the mine wasn't completely inappropriate from a public order point of view.  The fact that more than 100 people were shot, while the vast majority of protesters (maybe all of them) did not have guns, is an entirely different matter.          
While these issues are central to the tragic, and large-scale, loss of life, there is an overarching theme that I have yet to mention.  18 years after the fall of the apartheid government, South Africa remains a profoundly unequal society.  Income inequality has only increased since the end of apartheid and a majority of South Africans live below the poverty line, out of the line of sight of World Cup visitors and international businesspeople.

South Africa does have a strong and growing economy, but most South Africans remain poor. South Africa's Constitution, established during the transition to democratic government, is quite progressive, and has economic provisions and guarantees similar to those found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: rights to housing, property, and access to basic amenities. Yesterday as we brainstormed as an office about the implications of the tragedy in Marikana and how we thought we should respond, I was jotting down thoughts.
[To help you make sense of my sketch: I drew a rough outline of South Africa. Money flows out of the country to multinationals and also flows to economic and political elites. Violence and other negative results of the mining operations cascade to poor laborers.] 
Extractive mining operations don't contribute to development in any meaningful way.  Profits largely leave the countries borders and into the offshore accounts of multinational corporations. Also, the level of corruption and cronyism in the South African government suggests that money also flows into the pockets of economic and political elites who allow contracts to be established outside democratic and transparent processes.  While the benefits of mining operations (profits) leave the country and flow to the haves, the have-nots (the miners and their families) are faced with the consequences of the mining operations.  Health complications from years of underground labor, ecological and environmental problems (which tend to disproportionately affect poor communities), and police brutality are forcibly borne by mineworkers and their families as well as the communities living in the proximity of the mine's toxic output.  Expressed differently, the mining operations create a series of outputs; the majority of positive outputs are delivered to economic and political elites while the negative outputs are left in the hands of southern Africa's poorest.  

Update: Their is a good column along these lines -- pointing out the role of inequality and the connections between government and industry -- in the National. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Where rape, murder, and gross income inequality are classified as "peace"

Over the last week, a common theme has randomly emerged out of lectures I have attended and blog posts I’ve read: scholars and practitioners of conflict (resolution), international affairs, peacebuilding, and transitional justice are fixated on political violence, often at the expense of other, more discreet, but equally as menacing forms of violence.

At a seminar hosted by the Institute for Security Studies in Cape Town, Australian academic, John Braithwaite spoke about “cascades of violence” that tend to move and morph in location and in type.  Violence in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo seeps across the border to Rwanda.  Policymakers often fail to see the impacts of their political decisions and military movements. One acute example of a violence cascade is the Iraq sectarian war that was fomented (or mobilized) by the US invasion and occupation of that country. Not only did the sectarian divide contribute significantly to the more than 100,000 Iraqis that are now dead as a result of the war, but sectarianism is increasingly problematic throughout the region.  Iran and Saudi Arabia’s feud is starting to resemble US-USSR relations during the Cold War period, albeit on a much smaller scale. Iran funds Shia, and non-Sunni, movements and regimes while Saudi Arabia generally supports Sunnis. 

Not only does political violence cascade from one place to another, but violence can shift and cascade from one type to another.  In South Africa, political violence has decreased in the last 18 years, since the political transition to democracy in 1994.  However, other types of violence in South Africa have remained static or have even increased. Violent crime in South Africa remains quite high.  According to 2010 data, the southern Africa region has the highest rates of intentional homicide in the world, followed closely by Central America.  South Africa, as a country, ranks in the top 10 for intentional homicides per 100,000 people.  As of the early 2000s, South Africa had the highest rape rate per capita in the world.

In addition to high rates of violent crime, South Africa remains one of the most economically unequal societies on the planet.  South Africa has an incredibly high GINI coefficient, a World Bank statistic that measures the level of economic inequality in a given country (however, comparing GINI coefficients between countries is difficult because of the different ways that data is gathered and because the type of numbers that go into the production of a GINI coefficient aren’t uniform from country to country). South Africa also ranks among the top 10 most unequal societies in the world when the average income of the top 10% is compared with the average income of the bottom 10%, the same holds when the top 20% is compared with the bottom 20%.

Many community organizations working in townships and formal/informal settlements in South Africa will also attest to the disparity of quality service delivery in townships as compared with wealthier (and usually whiter) areas.  Crime, income inequality, and high rates of HIV (among many other health and education indicators) attest to acute forms of structural violence in South Africa.  Many donors and scholars have turned their attention away from South Africa, yet continue to refer to it as a prototypical success story, despite the ongoing economic and social maladies that plague the country. 

In his new, highly-touted book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Steven Pinker suggests that violence has decreased over time.  However, Christian Davenport recently pointed out that Pinker doesn’t look at the full scope of violence.
OK, so maybe the magnitude of violence has been diminished (which Pinker says) but the form may have shifted (which he does not).     
Davenport goes on to suggest that governments aren’t more angelic towards one another, nor to their own citizenry; instead, the forms of violence have simply changed.  States have also become quite effective at silencing voices of dissent and weakening movements that attempt to change the status quo and dethrone the throne-sitters. 

Will H. Moore also gets in on the conversation and suggests that the fixation of violent political conflict fails to account for structural violence and the connection between justice and peace.  Peace is too often (mis)understood as the absence of political violence.  Within this (misunderstood) understanding, peace can be at hand when wealth is disproportionately in the hands of whites while black South Africans don’t have access to electricity or proper toilets and peace can be manifest while women have a better chance of being raped than getting an education.     

Therein lies South Africa: high rates of violent crime, income inequality, and a plethora of social structures and social institutions that prevent the vast majority of South Africans (and a disproportionate number of non-whites) from meeting their basic needs; yet, there is a relative absence of overt political violence.

Has political violence in South Africa cascaded into more severe forms of structural violence? Have social and economic agreements made during the political transition only entrenched the (unequal) economic and social status quo while the political landscape changed without benefit for South Africa’s poor (black) majority?          

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Threats of demolitions; These are real people

From the NY Times:
The Israeli government has asked its Supreme Court to allow the demolition of eight Palestinian hamlets in the South Hebron Hills so the area can be used for military training.
Amira Hass at Haaretz clarifies the villages that are slated to be demolished:
The villages slated for demolition are the larger villages in the region: Majaz, Tabban, Sfai, Fakheit, Halaweh, Mirkez, Jinba, and Kharuba, which have a total of 1,500 residents. The villages to be spared are Tuba, Mufaqara, Sarura and Megheir al-Abeid, which have a total of 300 residents.

The southernmost villages on this map are the villages that are threatened with demolition.  The army currently operates a firing zone in this southern region of the West Bank. There are signs that warn residents to not cross certain expanses of the territory; however, is appears the Israeli defense minister needs more land to train his troops.

All demolitions and cruel, and enraging, but these newly-requested demolitions are especially painful for me because I know these places and I know the people.  I'll include some information about these villages to hopefully humanize the residents.
  • Fakheit - In April 2009, Fakheit school opened to accomodate students living in Maghayir Al-Abeed, Markaz, Halawe, Fakheit, Majaaz, and Jinba. Previously, children from these villages attended school in Yatta, which required them to live in the city during the school week. Now the teachers at Al-Fakheit school travel from Yatta each day and pick up schoolchildren along the route.  The school has grown significantly in the last several years, from three tents in Fakheit, to numerous cinder block structures in both Fakheit and Jinba. The growth in the number of students suggests that more families with children are able to live permanently at their homes in the south hebron hills because their children can attend primary school there.  
  • Majaz - Many of the kids that attend the Fakheit school are from Majaz. I'd often ride in the pick-up that transports the school kids from their villages to Fakheit school.  All the kids would be waiting outside their houses, donning their blue, UN-provided backpacks, grinning from ear-to-ear and jumping with excitement as the pick-up approached. They absolutely loved going to school.   
  • Halaweh - Halaweh is also the name of a popular Palestinian (maybe Arab) desert.  When I was at the school I'd chat with the kids, asking them their names and where they were from.  When kids answered, "Halaweh," I'd always make a remark about how I loved Halaweh and it was nice to know it was made in their village. That would usually get the kids laughing while they explained to me that Halaweh wasn't made in their village, it just happened to be the same name. I'd play dumb every time and thank them for informing me about the coincidence of names.  
I could write more about Jinba and Kharuba and the other villages that are slated for demolition.  The point is that there are real people living in these villages.  The title of the NY Times article says that the Israeli army is looking to use this "West Bank area," but that's misleading, Israel is looking to use the land on which these Palestinians live, it's seeking to erase Palestinian villages and Palestinian people from the landscape.

This can't be allowed to happen.  

Kids at Fakheit school

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Notre Dame needs a gay-straight alliance

On May 1, 2012, the application for Notre Dame's unofficial gay-straight alliance, AllianceND, to gain official club status was deferred until the fall 2013 semester. The deferral marked the first time an LGBTQ student club was not outright denied club status. Although the decision came before the last day of classes, support for AllianceND and the LGBTQ community was shown through letters to the student newspaper and over 2,000 undergraduate signatures on a 'Letter of Solidarity.' To continue this momentum into the fall semester and to demonstrate to the Offices of Student Activities and Student Affairs that the need for AllianceND is widespread and deep-seated, the 4 to 5 Movement at the University of Notre Dame invites and encourages supporters of AllianceND to write a short letter detailing why having a GSA at Notre Dame is important.

Here's why the GSA is important to me:
Because all students, of any common identity or interest (as far as it is not harmful to others), should be able to gather in an official capacity on University property.

Because people that are discriminated against -- in this case LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff -- should be able to gather in a safe space to voice their joys, frustrations, hopes, and fears to their friends and allies without fear or reprisal or penalty.

Because not allowing a gay-straight alliance tells the world that Notre Dame is far behind the curve in its acceptance of those who identify as LGBTQ.

Because not allowing a gay-straight alliance is discriminatory.   
Why is it important to you? Tell them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Demolitions and forced evictions; Palestine and South Africa

Pre-demolition District Six
The District Six Museum memorializes a diverse Cape Town neighborhood that was demolished by the apartheid government. District Six, renamed Zonnebloem by the apartheid government, was a diverse neighborhood that housed “a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, labourers and immigrants.”      

In 1966, District Six was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950. By the early 1980’s the neighborhood has been entirely depopulated through forceful removals. More than 60,000 residents were relocated from District Six to the Cape Flats townships, a flat-lying, sandy region that lies southeast of the Cape Town business district. All homes in District Six were demolished.  

District Six after demolition  - District Six Museum

A satellite image from Google (captured yesterday) shows the remnant of the razed neighborhood.  The Cape Peninsula University of Technology was controversially built in District Six, however, most of the demolished area remains undeveloped.  

Undeveloped lands mark the demolitions in District Six
The floor of the museum is covered with a map of District Six as it appeared before the forced removals and demolitions.  Former residents of District Six who have visited the museum have marked the locations of their family homes before the demolitions.

As I read the stories of those forcibly displaced and looked at images of bulldozers razing homes, I couldn’t help but think of Palestine. Demolitions have become emblematic of Israeli oppression in Gaza and the West Bank and are a sign of the callousness of the Israeli state in its treatment of Palestinian communities.  

While there is some speculation about the reasons for the demolition of District Six, as the apartheid regime suggested several different reasons for the removals, a piece of the answer lies in District Six’s proximity to the city center, Table Mountain, and the harbor. In other words, in was a valuable piece of land that the government decided should be cleansed and re-inhabited by the preferential people group: whites.  The cosmopolitan nature of District Six also scared the government as the mixing of races would inevitably lead to camaraderie stemming from shared oppression, resulting in alliances that the minority white government could not afford.

The Israeli government also has various ambiguous reasons for carrying out demolitions of Palestinian homes. One category of responses is, “their homes are built illegally,” while the other set is, “it’s for security.” Or more ludicrously, Israel's previous policy of demolishing the homes of suicide bombers (even if an entire family still lived there).

The Israeli state demolishes Palestinian homes to safeguard land for Jewish settlement in addition to demolishing Palestinian homes under the pretense of protecting existing Jewish communities that were built in close proximity to Palestinian areas.  

The South African apartheid government and the Israeli state carried out demolitions for slightly different stated reasons, but the baseline rationale was the same: to distance, invisibilize, and margianalize the racial ‘other.’  The immigrants that settled on South African and Palestinian land took power (through various military, political, and legal maneuvers) and then sought to group the racial other into camps, bantustans, townships, or ghettos while leaving the most desirable and resource-laden lands in the possession of the ruling minority (the Palestinian and Jewish populations are now nearly equal between Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank but this is only a recent development -- after the war of 1948, Jews were a ruling minority population). Unfortunately, Israel carries forward the legacy of demolitions while South Africa has moved beyond de jure racial segregation.  

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Robben Island and national narratives

I’ve now been to a couple of island prisons: Alcatraz and Robben Island.  There are similarities and differences between the two. For starters, the ferry ride to Alacatraz has beautiful views of San Francisco and is quite peaceful.  The boat trip to Robben Island also has amazing views of Cape Town but the ride is significantly longer (around 45 minutes) and travels over rough seas. As a result of the tumultuous seas, I had my head buried in a white paper bag for about 30 minutes, it was…memorable.  Alcatraz is known for Sean Connery and hardened criminals; Robben Island is known for Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid. 

Robben Island is a small piece of land off the coast of Cape Town.  The island weighs in at five square kilometers (or two square miles), but the small size of Robben Island contrasts with the great historical significance that it carries.  Robben Island had been used as a detention center for political prisoners since the 17th century when Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island as a prison.  Robben Island’s most famous prisoner was former South African president and Nobel laureate, Nelson Mandela.  Mandela, alongside many other anti-apartheid leaders and freedom fighters, were imprisoned on Robben Island for up to 27 years.  The prominent members of many Coloured, Indian, and African political organizations were imprisoned by the National Party apartheid government.  Other notable prisoners were Robert Sobukwe, head of the Pan African Congress, a South Africa liberation movement; Walter Sisulu, a well-known activist of the African National Congress (ANC); and Jacob Zuma, current South African president and leader of the ANC. 

After taking a short bus tour of the island, we were guided through the once operational maximum security prison by an ex-political prisoner imprisoned on Robben Island.  Ironically, the maximum security prison on the island held all of the political prisoners that had not carried out violent crimes, while the minimum security prison housed all of the hardened criminals that were deemed too dangerous to be housed in mainland prisons.

We saw ‘B section’ of the prison which housed the leaders of South African political organizations.  The prison cells were filled with the names of the prisoners housed in each cell, along with stories, and items associated with the stories, told by the prisoners.  We stood in the courtyard, the only outdoor access that many people had for their 27 years of imprisonment.  B-section prisoners constructed a concrete pad that was used as a tennis court.  One of their ways of communicating with A section, where other political prisoners were housed, was through the use of a special tennis ball.  The ball could be opened and stuffed with a message and then ‘mistakenly’ hit over the concrete wall which surrounded the courtyard.  A-section prisoners would then read the message, respond, and return the ball back over the wall.

We saw the quarry where all political prisoners worked 6 days a week; 8 hours per day in the winter and 10 in the summer.  Originally the prison wardens had prisoners work in the quarry to extract limestone to be used on roads and for whitewashing houses on the island.  Eventually there was no use for the limestone but the prisoners continued the backbreaking work in the quarry as the political elites and prison wardens attempted to break the prisoners’ spirits. 

But what amazed me as we looked at the white walls of the quarry and the concrete walls of the courtyard was thinking about the determination and resolve that prisoners hung onto despite decades of imprisonment.  Mandela emerged from prison ready and eager to lead a new democratic South Africa.  I imagine it was a battle some days to not give up the struggle, amidst cruel treatment and torture, blistering days in the quarry, and years disconnected from those organizing for political reform in the outside world.

I was also struck with the courage it must take an ex-political prisoner to give tours of the place he was imprisoned and maltreated.  The man who gave us a tour walked with a cane as he strolled through the cell blocks and eagerly answered our questions.  When asked about the current situation in the country, he was quick to critique the ANC and the educational system for not doing enough to inform young South Africans about the history of their country.  He suggested that foreign students know more about the apartheid era and figures like Mandela than many South African students.  This obviously says nothing about the students themselves but speaks about the constructed national narrative and the place of South African history in the schools.  I imagine it also has something to do with how South Africa deals collectively with race, colonization, and apartheid as part of national history and collective memory.  

And then we took our 'long walk to freedom' from the prison down to the boat harbor, or based on my previous bout of seasickness, it was my long walk to torture.  

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Spokeswoman admits to US State Department's duplicity

The AP's Matt Lee is at it again in this exchange with State Dept spokeperson, Victoria Nuland:

VICTORIA NULAND, spokesperson for State Department:

Listen, before we leave Syria, I just want to take the opportunity, if you didn’t see it, to draw your attention to the Human Rights Watch report that was released today that identifies some 27 detention centers that Human Rights Watch says Syrian Government intelligence agencies have been using since the Assad crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. The report found that tens of thousands of Syrians are in detention by regime security and intelligence agencies and that the regime is carrying out inexplicable, horrific acts of torture, including – well, I’m not going to repeat them here, but I’ll leave it to you to read the report. And in many cases, the Human Rights Watch asserts that even children have been subject to torture by the Assad regime.

MATT LEE: Do you see that report as credible and solid, and you’re putting – you’re endorsing it? I mean, you’re saying –

MS. NULAND: We have no reason to believe that it is not credible. It’s based on eyewitness accounts, and they’re reporting from a broad cross-section of human rights figures inside Syria.

LEE: So the next time Human Rights Watch comes out with a report that’s critical of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, I’ll assume that you’re going to be saying the same thing, correct; that you think that the report is credible, it’s based on eyewitness accounts?


LEE: And you’re not going to say that it’s politically motivated and should be dismissed?

MS. NULAND: Matt, as you have made clear again and again in this room, we are not always consistent.


LEE: So, in other words, anything that Human Rights Watch says that is critical of someone you don’t like, that’s okay; but once they criticize someone that you do like, then it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on?

MS. NULAND: Matt, I’m not going to get into colloquy on this one.


RAGHUBIR GOYAL (India Globe): India.


Thursday, July 05, 2012

Personal Life Update

To contextualize things, I am living in Cape Town, South Africa for six months.  I am entering my second year of an MA in international peace studies program at the University of Notre Dame.  While in Cape Town, I will be interning at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.  From now till December, my posting here will likely be inspired by life here in Cape Town.  

Romanticizing South Africa and hidden inequality

Following the general election of 1948, the National Party took control of South Africa and instituted apartheid policies that placed South Africans into four racial categories: Asian, black, coloured, or white.  Non-white political representation was completely abolished in 1970 when non-whites  were completely stripped of their rights and were contained (and forced into) ten self-governing regions called bantustans. Public spaces and neighborhoods were segregated and non-whites were provided with education, medical care, and other services that were far inferior to the services provided to their fellow white South Africans. 

Apartheid fell was defeated in 1994. After years of popular struggle, armed resistance, and long prison terms, the African National Congress (ANC) took power through a democratic election. Discussions between the National Party and the ANC reportedly began in 1990 when the National Party’s leadership realized the strength of non-white South Africans, along with the changing tide of international public opinion, forced serious reforms.   Opening the 1994 elections to all South Africans assuredly spelled the end of the National Party’s racist ruling structure.

That much I knew before I arrived in South Africa. That’s the inspiring part, and it should be.  I wouldn’t have stated outright that South Africa had ‘arrived,’ but that was the lingering, rose-colored sense I had. I had read about the neoliberal economic arrangements that have increased inequality in South Africa, making it (by almost any measure) one of the most unequal countries on the globe.  I knew the Western Cape, the province where Cape Town lies, was governed by a historically white party rather than by the ANC.  I had read critiques of the ANC in addition to hearing about several recent cases of corruption at the highest levels of the ANC. Some friends who had spent time in South Africa had told me that the ANC needs major reform, possibly a strong political contender or a split of the ANC, and it might take the death of Mandela to make that reform possible.

However, less than two decades ago, a system of institutionalized racism was in place, in which a minority white population created second-class services for non-whites and did what they could to invisibilize the majority, non-white population.  And then it was gone, through a popular movement organized by tens of thousands of dedicated individuals.  Less than two decades ago; remarkably recently.  It is hard to not romanticize it.

But no state is a perfect state and no society has ‘arrived.’  The GINI coefficient measures the degree of family income inequality within a given country.  1 is perfectly equal, 100 is perfectly unequal.  Based on 2006 data, South Africa scored 67, a remarkably high number.  When looking at income inequality in terms of deciles, the richest 10% earned 58.07% percent of the total income in South Africa.

Yesterday we visited Khayelitsha, an informal settlement southeast of central Cape Town that houses between 500,000 and 1 million inhabitants, accounting for nearly one-fifth of Cape Town’s population.  Khayelitsha is a township comprised of black South Africans, primarily of Xhosa decent 1.   

Khayelitsha houses a sizable portion of Cape Town’s residents but gets a sliver of the city’s attention and resources.  Many residents build homes (one-room tin shacks) without permits and jimmy-rig electrical lines into each structure.  Because much of the township is informal and unplanned by city urban planning officials, residents often have to walk long distances to chemical toilets and water sources.  Sanitary toilets are a major deficit, leading to health issues, and are often the site of opportunistic crime as people have to walk far from their home in the dead of the night.  The city of Cape Town has failed to follow through on its commitment to monitor the status of chemical and portable toilets and is being held accountable by the Khayelitsha-based Social Justice Coalition (SJC), among other groups. The SJC is also calling for reform in the policing of Khayelitsha and in the handling of criminal cases, which are subject to a disproportionate number of delays and shortcomings in evidence handling. 

South Africa hasn’t ‘arrived,’ no society or country has.  Joseph Young recently said it well:
The term failed state is a failed concept. It suggests that the modern state is a binary outcome—there is or is not one. States in the international system are more fluid. The ability of the state to be a state—provide security, services, rule of law, and other important public goods can vary even within a single country.
 All countries have their ghettos, barrios, favelas, and townships that are neglected by TV cameras, Lonely Planet researchers, and city officials.  Celebrating historical accomplishments, like defeating apartheid, is necessary, but not at the expense of continuing to call for societal advancement and economic and political reform.  Challenging the assumption that economic success equals GDP growth remains a noble mission, as income inequality is a stark and increasing reality in much of South Africa. 

Nelson Mandela turns 94 in a couple of weeks and there’ll be parties everywhere, as there should be.  And communities and civil society organizations will keep calling out the ANC and Western Cape officials, as they should.            

1 ‘Black’ in South Africa refers to black Africans that speak a number of different indigenous languages and whom comprise nearly 80% of South Africa’s population. ‘Coloureds’ are a heterogeneous ethnic group (see their ancestry here) that is concentrated in the Western Cape Province. Coloureds are a majority population in the Cape but make up only 8% of the nationwide population.       

Why I criticize my own government most of the time

A quote from Noam Chomsky that deserves airtime:
My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.
I share his thoughts. (h/t to GG)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Militaristic Heating and Air Conditioning

A friend and I had just returned to civilization after four days of backpacking.  I was curious what was happening in the world, I wondered how the Egyptian election had turned out - turns out the military usurped even more power from elected officials and the civilian population in a soft coup.  And then I saw a truck that brought me back to reality in 'Merica. 

It's a truck owned by Southern Comfort Heating and Air Conditioning based out of Loomis, CA. Inexplicably, on the side of the truck there were WWII-era fighter planes, Predator and Reaper drones, and a group of special-ops soldiers in a desert landscape.  The text across the truck's panel reads, "PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE" (sorry that I can't make that text blue with a red, beveled edge), I have no idea what that means in this context.

The side panel was funny enough, because it doesn't relate to heating and air conditioning whatsoever, but the rest of the stickers on the truck were far more appalling disgusting repulsive confusing.

A large piece of white-lettered text on the back window of the truck cab read, "It's God's responsibility to judge terrorists, it's our military's responsibility to arrange the meeting."  

If that wasn't enough to turn your stomach inside-out, on a side window of the truck, there was this sticker. 
Feel free to call Southern Comfort H/AC at (916) 533-3962 and tell them they are a scourge on society, or they'll never have your business, or just ask them if their refrigerator is running. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Galtung says NATO forces in Afghanistan as misguided as Breivik

Johan Galtung, the founder of peace studies (my field), on the the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, the anti-Muslim Norwegian militant who massacred 77 people last summer, and the connections to the Afghanistan war:
[Breivik is] quite well-read, he's an intelligent man, autodidact, very hard working, and the nonsense that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, they got rid of, and they have declared him normal. He's politically, I would say, as midguided as anyone could be, but not much more than the Norwegian government killing Afghans in Afghanistan. I do not get very popular in Norway for drawing that parallel, but I stand behind it.  

The rest of his (brief) interview is available below.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Your daily dose of Iranian wisdom

When I am sober,
I don’t feel lighthearted;
but when I’m drunk
my reason is defective.
There is a state 
between being tipsy
and clearheaded.
I’m a slave to that state
because that is life.

-Omar Khayyam
Translated by Juan Cole

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Can murder be commensurate with justice?

Ed Note: I found this while going through files from this past semester. I wrote it, for a class, back in November following the killing of Libyan leader, Colonel Qaddafi. The news is months old, but the point of the piece remains salient. 

Deceased former Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi
What we know: Qaddafi was captured alive, beaten and dragged behind a vehicle, and shot in the head. The exact details of those events are unclear, but numerous reports and witnesses have corroborated that Qaddafi was intentionally shot in the head after he was captured.

Qaddafi was a cruel and ruthless dictator who undoubtedly oversaw the torture, disappearance, and killing of many Libyans over his four decades of tyranny.  Qaddafi was wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, crimes which were great in their quantity and severity.

The local and global reaction to Qaddafi's killing has been varied, but the enormous majority of state representatives and media outlets have heralded the end of a dark era in Libyan history, the demise of a cruel dictator.  On the other end of the spectrum, human rights advocates and lawyers have condemned the killing of Qaddafi because it eliminated Qaddafi's right to due process and undermined the court's ability to seek truth and accountability for his crimes. Absent from the discussion has been analysis of the ubiquitous acceptance of justice by execution.

Pundits in Washington, Paris, and London didn't outright condemn the killing of Qaddafi because it's actually the solution they sought from the beginning. Several possible Qaddafi hideouts were bombed throughout the course of NATO's offensive in Libya, and to my understanding, bombs are usually intended to kill, not read Miranda rights.

The United States has been incredibly consistent, especially under the Obama administration, in its insistence on using targeted assassinations and extrajudicial killings in a handful of countries. The United States recently assassinated U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, while he was in Yemen, and shortly thereafter, another U.S. drone strike also killed his teenage son, also a U.S. citizen.  In an aura of secrecy, the Obama administration has refused to release information about the rationale for those targeted assassinations and has even declined to name the intended targets of those strikes.

The United States also felt no obligation to explain why Osama bin Laden was killed instead of captured.  Initially the U.S. described the events at Bin Laden's compound as a “firefight” but later conceded that Bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed.

The most shocking element of these examples is the flippancy with which a major world power, theoretically subject to the confines of international law, decides who should be killed instead of given due process. In today's world, the burden of proof for execution is as simple as making a statement, such as, “it was not possible to subdue and arrest the individual, so we used the necessary force.” Period. End of Q & A.

This lack of consideration for seeking justice through the legal process was recently demonstrated by former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, in her NPR interview regarding the sending of US troops to stop Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army leader. Frazer was asked, “and what would success look like in this situation? How will you know if this mission has succeeded?” She responded, “Kony's dead. I think that's the most important strategic goal, is that he's dead. Obviously, if you capture him, that's just as well. But basically, to remove him from the battlefield.”  Frazer's inclination to cite killing Kony as the primary objective of the mission, and only later adding the footnote that capturing him would serve the same purpose, speaks volumes about the U.S. approach to “justice.” Clearly, justice by murder is possible, even preferable.

Many of those disgusted with the killing of Qaddafi, the subsequent celebrations in the streets, and the days-long display of Qaddafi's body in a meat locker have asked how the Libyan people could celebrate death in such a manner.  But our critique of 'justice by execution' would fall short if we failed to broaden the scope of our discussion beyond the acts of the Libyan rebels.

The fact is that the United States has cornered the market on executions, targeted assassinations, and arbitrary killings. We would have done the deed with a drone, I mean, hell, we tried a number of times but just couldn't finish him off.

The decision to kill Qaddafi – Awlaki, his son, and Bin Laden – fails to consider the function of the legal process and blurs the distinction between ourselves and those we abhor.

In death, there can be no truth-telling, no explanation of disappearances or cruel repression.  Peace will not magically arrive to Libya's doorstep because their dictator has a bullet in his head.  Qaddafi's regime has come to and end, and would have likewise ended if Qaddafi was sitting in a cell awaiting a national or international criminal trial.  The killing of Qaddafi demonstrates the incongruity of the US seeking to establish more democratic societies around the world while, at the same time, teaching the world the benefits of killing those whom you deem worthy of death.  

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

U.S. turned on the sink and refuses to turn it off or pay for clean up

I am reading a fine book by the practical philosopher, Peter Singer, called One World.  Singer suggests that the world is increasingly becoming one, and therefore, as the human race we must adapt our ethic to account for a singular, globalized world.  One of Singer's chapters, called One Atmosphere, argues that the reality one global climate, increasingly subject to rising temperatures, necessitates that we embrace an ethic that recognizes our responsibility to maintain and protect the environment.  Much of the chapter highlights the responsibility of industrialized countries, particularly the United States, in the dramatic acceleration of greenhouse gases, and subsequently, the industrialized world's contribution to global warming.  Sadly, those most culpable for gross emissions refuse to commit to legally-binding agreements that would reduce emissions and the possibility for continued global warming.  One passage struck me as particularly profound:
It is true that there are some circumstances in which we are justified in refusing to contribute if others are not doing their share.  If we eat communally and take turns cooking, then I can justifiably feel resentment if there are some who eat but never cook or carry out equivalent tasks for the good for the entire group.  But that is not the situation with climate change, in which the behavior of the industrialized nations has been more like that of a person who has left the kitchen tap running but refuses either to turn it off, or to mop up the resulting flood, until you -- who spilt an insignificant half-glass of water onto the floor -- promise not to spill any more water.  Now the other industrialized nations have agreed to turn off the tap (to be strictly accurate, to restrict the flow), leaving the United States, the biggest culprit, alone in its refusal to commit itself to reducing emissions.