Sunday, 23 September 2012

A Sober Comment: Youth and Violence

I am greatly disturbed and distressed by the outpourings of violence following the release of the anti-Islam video 'Innocence of Muslims'. I'm not putting up a link to that movie, because I'm not going to advertise it freely. I'm sure it is easy enough to find.

Instead, I want to make a comment. While most reports, both in mainstream media and social media, tend to focus on issues like Freedom of Speech, about the Muslim World (#MuslimRage), and about US foreign policy, I want to pay attention to something slightly different: Youth Violence.

Over the past few years, there have been quite a number of instances of outbreaks of mass violence. Some for completely mundane reasons (the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot in Vancouver), some on the basis of one incident that mutated into something larger (the 2011 Tottenham Riots), and now the widespread rioting and embassy-burning violence associated with this video.

This isn't something new, either - the 2007-8 post-election violence in Kenya was largely carried out by groups of young men (See a research study done by the Mercy Corps). A famous part of the 1994 Rwandan genocide was the training and devastating use of the Interhamwe youth to carry out the massacre.

My more suspicious side always sees some sort of planning, some sort of manipulation behind the outpouring of violence. There is always a tendency to label rioting as 'senseless' violence, without particularly examining the spark that catalysed the whole thing - it may be about the movie, but it's not just about the movie.

What's going on? Because every time I see news articles about this I see these kids, mostly male, and all I think of is what it was like for me being a teenager. And all I see is the young person wearing a mask, turning to the camera after throwing a stone at the police and flashing the peace symbol. What's going on?

I feel like it really needs to be stated - there is nothing inherently violent about youth. I know that there is a tendency for people to look at teenagers and young adults and feel mildly threatened by them, by their energy, and yes, sometimes by their rage. But we were all youths once - I find it hard to remove myself from that thought. Especially when I think about all the factors, the privileges, I had going for me in my life. I was 17 once. I lived in a stable country, with stable, upper-middle class family, at a good school, with good friends. Was I just lucky?

I had my energy, my rage, too. I sacrificed my time and damaged my body playing soccer and basketball, and things like that. And I enjoyed the camaraderie, which made it all worth it. What if that energy was focused on fundamentalism? What if I was disenfranchised, poor, and living in conflict? What if I was denied opportunities simply because of my ethnicity? What if I was sitting around with nothing to do all day?

Sometimes, the problems feels like there is just fear everywhere. And that skews perceptions. What would happen if we gave youth more responsibilities, rather than less? I don't know. In the latest Canadian elections, the NDP party was more successful than they'd anticipated, and now there is an MP who was an undergraduate student, and one that was in Las Vegas when she won. In Uganda, a 19 year-old won a by-election to become an MP. The tendency is to always focus on their youth, and not their work. To excuse their 'youthful indiscretions' while at the same time limiting their capacity to take responsibility. Or, worse, to just outright dismiss them from our collective consciousness. What's going to happen to these three youth leaders in the next few years? I don't know, and I am fairly certain the popular media won't update us on their successes and failures.

At least from the perspective of Africa, there is a real focus on either (a) the starving child, (b) the political elite, or (c) the religious/ethnic/socioeconomic ideologies at play. These are important things. Nowadays, there is a push for aid, policy-making, and development to included women and girls, people living with disabilities, non-discrimination, and a host of other critical issues.

But the pictures right now are of 15-25 year old men/boys, with rocks. We've forgotten something.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Complexicated: Lessons from Gulu

From August 27-30, I was in Gulu, in Northern Uganda, attending a 'Consultative Forum on the Future of Amnesty in Uganda: Listening to Victims'. That's a mouthful, but hey, we're lawyers working at NGOs, and we like using tons of words to express ourselves. In this case, though, I think they managed to actually achieve the title of the event. It was an extremely informative event, and there was great discussion between members of the local government, religious and cultural leaders, CSOs, community members, and especially victims. The Army, Police, and Prison officials were present too, but they were noticeably silent.

The discussions and opinions from this diverse group radically shifted my perspective of the issues in Gulu. So much so, that I felt the urge to think up a new word. The title might sound a bit irreverent, or even a bit silly, but that's not my intention. It's the best I could do, using one word, in an attempt to describe what the situation is like in Northern Uganda. It's not trivial. It is confusing. It is multi-faceted.  It is deep-seated. It seems intractable. The lines between 'right' and 'wrong' are not very clear. Yes, it's complex. And yes, it is very, very complicated.

I had previously written about Invisible Children's KONY2012 movie, but interacting with the issues first-hand made my rebuttal of their work too simplistic. That movie, and the Stop Kony initiative, is so narrow and misses the major issue of the conflict in Northern Uganda. My question was "what happens after?"

But the real question is - "what now?" What now for the victims, the ex-combatants, the children, and the communities? What to do about the physical harm, the mental suffering, the stigmatization, and the deep distrust?

Certainly, Kony is a wanted criminal, responsible for human rights violations, atrocities and most likely international crimes. He is an evil, bad man. He needs to answer for his crimes surely. But there are other, more pressing stories that need to be addressed.

There are women, who were abducted and taken to the bush when they were young. They were used as sex slaves, or simply as cooks, cleaners, and childcare. Some were combatants, some never touched a weapon. But Ugandan law, and to an extent, community perspectives, view them as 'ex-rebel combatants', regardless of their role, when they leave the bush. If they aren't simply chased away from their own communities, they face stigmatization. If they manage to resettle, their 'bush babies' are shunned. And even if they reintegrate, they face crippling poverty. Stopping Kony doesn't address this.

There are stories of atrocities, human rights violations, and possible international crimes committed by the Ugandan government forces. This is not just against the rebels, but also the communities as well. To date, no investigations, either domestic or international, have looked into the conduct of the UPDF. Invisible Children says that despite this, they are still a 'necessary part' of stopping Kony. But, this leads to an interesting situation - northern Ugandan communities hate the rebels, yet they also deeply distrust the Ugandan government. They have been victimized by both sides. By proxy, they also distrust international interventions, especially those that work with the government. Not to mention that it is all too often the case that international actors come in to 'survey', research, or implement activities. Often these activities show no tangible or long-term benefits to the affected individuals or communities. There is a tangible sense of fatigue towards 'outside interventions'.

Instead, the communities and victims advocate for 'homegrown' solutions. But it's unclear what that means. It is equally unclear whether the Ugandan government or the international community will ever treat them with enough respect to let them come up with their own forms of reconciliation.

But these are all words, and they are all arranged in a way that seems to suggest that the situation can make sense. It takes on another flavour to hear these stories from a 19 year-old girl with mutilated hands and burns all over her arms from rebel torture, who recounts her torture with a straight face, but breaks down when she explains that she can't go to school.

Complexicated. But, with the level of discussions and passion I saw, still room for hope.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Week 4: IPSI Hague Symposium (Simulated Transition)

Week 4: the penultimate week of the Hague Symposium.

Not ones to let us languish in the wonderful weather, cafes, and ambience in the Netherlands, the IPSI staff had prepared a comprehensive 'Transition Simulation' for all the students to participate in. By comprehensive, I mean three days of immersive role-playing. It was live-action role playing at its finest. Unfortunately, it was based on reality - instead of dressing up as knights, wizards, or elves, we were Presidents, Rebel Leaders, Military Commanders, and NGOs. Before you start fantasizing about a group of characters dressed up like characters from Star Wars, the simulation, while fictional, was based on the situation in Afghanistan.

First, on Monday, we were given a nice lecture on Negotiation strategies, tactics, and theory by Dr. Perlot from the Clingendael Institute. Vastly overconfident, I found out that I have the 'People' negotiation style, which tends towards interpersonal relationships - I am the type that tries to be empathetic, and tries to put the needs of people first. Very sweet. How would that play out in the Transition Simulation?

Before discussing the simulation itself, let's set the stage. Kanrayistan (the fictional Afghanistan) had various domestic and international players in the field. For example, there was the USA, Coalition forces, India, Pakistan, Iran, Chinese business interests, and the UN as international players. More domestically, there was the President, Warlords, the Taliban, The National Army, Oxfam, Pakistani intelligence, the ICC, and Dutch and Australian commanders of the coalition forces. Each one of those positions had player roles, as well as a few other roles (the Media).

I got the role of US Ambassador.

I hope you can imagine the impact of getting that news - I'm a pacifist, anti-imperialist, and a 'people' person. I was now in charge of implementing the ideologies and policies of the most powerful nation on Earth. Ideologies and policies that I don't particularly agree with. That's putting it mildly, but 'hate' is only a word I'll use about things I understand better.

So, now, I'm in a position, with 60 friends, where everyone is now viewing me as a huge bully, as being slightly morally corrupt, and looking to get 'special deals', in order to further the transition of US troops out of the country. A very difficult position to be in, after 3 weeks of getting to know, respect, and become good friends with everyone.

So, now, we have 3 days (which represents about 18 months) to 'transition' Kanrayistan. Here's the recap:

Day 1: We are all friendly, and are working (somewhat slowly) towards trying to find some 'transitional solutions' for the US to pull out its troops while maintaining peace, security, and some form of democracy in the area. First major challenge - despite the fact that the US refuses to 'negotiate' with terrorists, the Taliban really deserve a place at the negotiation table. Putting them there leads to massive unrest, and many different people threaten to leave the negotiation table. When we finally get that sorted, we get a press release saying that the Dutch have left the country, effective immediately, after public pressure back home, and because of a recent suicide bomb attack. That pretty much scuttles all the plans that we had made up until that point.

All in the meantime, everyone is taking time to have side-meetings and caucuses - plotting and scheming - and me and my team are forced to mediate small disputes, while at the same time try and come up with broad strategies for peaceful transition. More soldiers die in suicide attacks.

We continue to work, after dinner. I'm given a note at 2 am about the non-cooperation of the Taliban. I'm also told to prepare for a press briefing, which occurs at 4am. I'm still wearing the same suit, and struggle through the press briefing. But it goes well. (I think?).

Day 2: After an hour of sleep, we move into the next day. Sleep-deprived and feeling overwhelmed, the day passes in a blur. More side-dealings, more major news releases that threaten to overturn everything. There is a decision to exclude the Pakistani secret services from the negotiation table. It passes - the characters playing the Pakistani ISI storm our strategy meeting, I get (softly) assaulted, and the pakistani ambassador leaves in tears. We're all functioning on empty tanks by this point. With an hour left in the day, I take stock of what we've accomplished. Virtually nothing - everything has been about fighting fires and dealing with controversy. The negotiation day ends, and one person, out of character, apologizes if she's been rude. Being the suave character I am, I jokingly say 'yes, you are SO rude'. Tears flow, and I learn a good life lesson - I'm not funny on 1 hour of sleep. At the end of the day, the 'warlords' come in, offer us some M&Ms, and just want to chat. The thought of chocolate made me feel sick, so I left...just as someone snapped a picture.

Final Day: The 'Simulation Control' team made sure to shut things down early, so I managed to get a full 8 hours of sleep. I feel more tired than ever, though. Especially when one of the first things I have to deal with is a 'newspaper article' entitled - "US Ambassador at secret Warlord party with narcotics". Tensions are high, cohesion within my team is crumbling, and my grip on reality is starting to crack a little bit. More 'reports' of people killed in suicide bombings. More communications about side-dealings and double-crossing that undermines everything that we're trying to accomplish. I'm unsure if people are acting in character, or if they are no longer my friends. I'm exhausted.

I give my final press briefing at 12:30. Everyone is there. I am to highlight the 'gains made' in the transitional process. I say a bunch of words, but feel like the whole thing was a total failure. The organizers say "and that brings the simulation to a close!" Everyone applauds. I am a bit in disbelief. After debriefing, the truth comes out - this simulation, this game, was never supposed to be successful. In fact, any time things progressed well, specific measures were taken by the organizers to undermine the progress. It's an interesting thing to think about - I conscientiously strived to create a stable peaceful society, in a mythical nation, in an illusory situation, that was never going to possibly work.

There is a deep, philosophical life lesson there. I'm not sure I've figured it out yet.

On a brighter note - we all hugged and made up afterwards. The next day, we graduated, and it sunk in that this was the ending part of the month-long training.

The IPSI group, freshly graduated
(Courtesy of Khaled)
It is incredible how in a four-week span, a group of 60 people can change from a group of utter strangers to very close friends. Over and above all the things I learned at the conference, it's always a great feeling to connect with a great group of individuals from all over the world.

Afterwards, I spent the weekend in Amsterdam with some of my old friends. They took me on a boat ride in the canal, a bike ride of the streets, visited relatives, we lounged in the sun at their garden cottage, and took their kids for a swim at the pool. After such an intense month, it was just the sort of pleasant, mundane, and utterly relaxing visit I need.

Emily and I met this Dutch couple 5 years ago, in a random island on a lake in Uganda. You meet some of the most wonderful people in the most random places. It's a good reminder that doing awesome things generally increases your chances of meeting awesome people.

A Pleasant bike ride through Amsterdam