27 September 2007

Understanding the intensity and complexity of the Niger Delta

A sadly under-reported African conflict (admittedly, many if not all African conflicts are under-reported in U.S. media) is the ongoing wave of insurgency in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. The oil rich area has long been a bed of tension, with the oil itself as one of the main drivers of the conflict. In the summer of 2006, I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in a training put on by AU's Peacebuilding and Development Institute, where there were several participants from Rivers State, home to the main city of Port Harcourt and now at the center of recent violence. One of those participants was then a state government minister in Rivers, and I was a part of a working group at that training aimed at developing new peacebuilding initiatives in the Delta region. We've been in sporadic contact since, and it's my understanding that events have overtaken some of the initiatives we considered. I don't know how the April elections affected his job (but I'm reminded to drop him a line).

In any event, a must read article by Michael Watts has just been posted to the Online Africa Policy Forum. He gives an excellent synopsis of the many dynamics in this multi-faceted conflict. Go check it out. Clearly, the Delta conflict poses a tremendous challenge for conflict resolution practitioners, and this is a good way to begin thinking about what may need to be done.

25 September 2007

Point of clarification on sex and sexuality in Iran

Much hullabaloo has been raised over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's absurd claim yesterday that there are no homosexuals in Iran (full transcript of the insanity here). Yes, this was one incredibly dumb statement among many that President Ahmadinejad let fly yesterday. I haven't see details of his speech today at the UN to see whether or not he one-upped himself. But that's neither here nor there.

What disturbed me was reading Passport today, where the writers attempted to refute Ahmadinejad's claim by pointing to the number of transsexuals in Iran, following an article published in the Guardian. Yes, it is true that Iran provides health coverage for sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) and other procedures required by transgender persons. And, according to one activist the Guardian spoke to, some gay men go through these procedures in order to avoid persecution for homosexuality. This seemingly contradictory policy exists because Iran sees transsexuality as a treatable health condition (which isn't necessarily far from the mark), whereas homosexual behavior is seen as a violation of Islamic law and (for men anyway), punishable by death for the first offense. The underlying (and incorrect) assumption here is that transsexuals seek heterosexual relationships, and the government helps them facilitate the process necessary for that to transpire.

Yet, the existence of transsexuality itself does nothing to refute Ahmadinejad's claim that there is no homosexuality in Iran. They're two entirely different things. The activist's statement about gay men who seek SRS in order to avoid persecution does act to refute the claim in a way, but that's all in the Guardian story that does.

In short, it's as though Ahmadinejad said there are no apples in his country, and journalists and bloggers have pointed to an Iranian orange tree and said "see, you're totally wrong." This kind of error is yet another reason why I often feel the frustrations mentioned in my previous post. It's also just plain unhelpful reporting. Ahmadinejad said a stupid thing, and most educated people know it's stupid. Why not just leave it at that? Conflating human sexuality and issues of gender identity and presentation in order to make a point (that doesn't need to be made) doesn't really accomplish much. A much more beneficial story would have been to examine Iran's egregious track record of prosecuting people for homosexuality (which the Guardian did to an extent) and bringing these issues into greater public consciousness.

17 September 2007

Yes, sometimes it's personal

I was reading this article (sub req'd) the other day about the major contributions gay people made to American culture during the middle of the 20th century. The authory, Michael Sherry, dealt quite deftly with the painful-to-beneficial relationship between great gay artists (like Copland, Bernstein, etc) and the mainstream media. Society recognized that their work was brilliant, while concurrently abhorring the [real and imagined] lives these men and women lived. Thus these individuals existed in a tenuous position. Revered on one hand, reviled on the other. Indeed, many commentators feared what having a strong, yet gay, artist community would have some sort of disastrous consequences on the moral fiber of American society as a whole, and there was a sort of Lavender Scare in the early sixties as a result.

Most students of U.S. history and politics recall that various Red Scares took place during the 1920s and again in the late 40s-50s. These scares were particularly hard on both the arts community and the foreign and security policy communities, for different reasons. The common thread, of course, was that gay and lesbian people got scooped up in each of these scares. The natural resilience to societal pressures that artist communities usually possess brushed this off relatively easily. In the policy community, though, where conformism is essential, the effects were devastating.

Fast forward to today. You still can't legally be gay in the military. The military, being one massive tool of foreign and security policy, and an apparatus that interacts with almost all other segments of the policy community, clearly has an effect on culture. The current leadership at the State Department has often harped on promoting freedom and human rights. Yet it is conspicuously silent on LGBT issues. With these combined influences, it's still a pretty lonesome place for LGBT people in that community. Other oppressed groups have been able to make more visible inroads in these areas. Yet given a culture of forced invisibility, it's pretty hard for LGBT people to make the same kind of advances. Thus for an individual such as myself, with a passion for working in international affairs and a strong desire to influence policy and thus positive change, I tend to feel disempowered and silenced, because to find gay people in that world, one basically goes on a quest for the Northwest Passage. It's not completely impossible to find out LGBT people in foreign and security policy land, but you're not going to find a lot.

So why is it so much more difficult for LGBT people to feel any sense of place in the policy realm? For one, as Sherry puts it so much better than I ever could, "the labels 'gay' and 'American' do not yet readily collapse into one." There is still a lot of stigma (particularly moral stigma), and much of this is perpetuated at the highest levels of society (just think about how George Bush got elected in 2004). I once talked with a former employer of mine, a woman who was advising members of Congress on foreign affairs in a day when such women were particularly rare. She described a lot of challenges that I feel myself (I'm not trying to appropriate her experience, I'm just noting similarities).

I guess my point is that I feel stifled a lot of the time. Granted, I'm young, and part of that has to do with insufficient experience to match aspirations. But part of it is a genuine concern that making even a mention of my personal life could preclude me from work somewhere. Admittedly, I wouldn't want to work somewhere where that would be the case, but still, knowing that it could occur is still troubling. I've certainly got being white and male going for me, but not fully fitting into that archetype is a problem (in some eyes) nonetheless.

Bottom line: yes, I can talk about decorating, but I'm trained to talk about force strength, strategic planning, transitional justice, and corruption (among other things). Don't think I'm "soft" because I'm a homo. And you, yes you with the ugly blue suit and the same tired comb-over everyone else in your building is sporting: I can play ball in your court, I just happen to prefer a flashier uniform.

03 September 2007

Labor day photo post

Yesterday I ventured to Antietam National Battlefield, as part of a larger random journey through Western Maryland. Here are a few photos.

Miller Farm

Northeast from Mumma Cemetary

Antietam Creek, downstream from Burnside Bridge

Near the south end of Antietam Battlefield

It was a good trip in all, and in light of some recent discourse, helps me think that peace studies and military history actually go together quite well.

01 September 2007

Simple yet sobering call for international justice

This past week, current and former prosecutors from current and past war crimes tribunals gathered in Chautauqua, New York to discuss the history and future of international humanitarian law, sometimes referred to as the laws of war. In their declaration, the prosecutors -- two of whom had served at Nuremberg -- made it plain that now that the body of international law has become more sophisticated over the past 100 years, there is now no excuse for allowing war criminals to escape justice. They argue that because justice for such crimes is now enshrined in law, there is no room for political decisions regarding whether or not someone accused should stand trial, instead these laws are quite clear that these individuals must stand trial.

The irony here, of course, is that this meeting was held in the United States, and that two of the most vocal proponents of the enforcement of international law were the two former Nuremberg prosecutors, both of whom are American. Indeed, since the United States called for the founding of the Nuremberg Tribunals in the late 1940s, the U.S., especially under the leadership of the Bush administration, has backed off on its support of international justice, as most recently demonstrated by the refusal to submit the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to the Senate for ratification. However, many, including some of the military officials ostensibly being "protected" by ICC non-participation, have already stated that the United States has little to lose from being a full participant in international criminal law mechanisms.

While I am generally supportive of international justice mechanisms, I should also point out that there can be an incongruence between international and local demands/requirements for justice following a conflict. The ICTR prosecutor notes these in the Post article above. There is a need to be cautious in using an overly prescriptive reading of international criminal law that we then apply to all cases. Instead, we should take local concerns (eg, type of justice sought, level of retribution desired, fears of further destabilization as a result of prosecutions) into account while seeking to also fulfill our obligations under the law. This, however, often creates a paradoxical terrain for decision-making that is where the tensions between human rights oriented folks and conflict resolution oriented folks (like me) most play out.

I leave you with the final two clauses of the declaration's preamble, which illustrate this paradox quite nicely (though they also fall pretty squarely on the human rights end of things), and certainly more eloquently than I can:
Recognizing that both truth and justice create sustainable peace;

Highlighting that justice is not an impediment to peace, but is in fact its most certain guarantor.
For more information about the prosecutors' meeting, go here.