Tag Archives: Conflict Analysis

Checking Outrage: A Chess Strategy to Change Iran

Last week, a Georgian-American chess world champion, Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, went on social media to express her disapproval and subsequent boycott of the 2017 Chess World Championship that is to take place in Iran on the grounds of Iran’s religious law that would require her to wear a hijab. As she posted on her Instagram:

I think it’s unacceptable to host a Women’s World Championship in a place where women do not have basic fundamental rights and are treated as second-class citizens.

It is difficult not to have a knee-jerk reaction and jump on the Paikidze-Barnes bandwagon, and fully support her boycott. After all, it is true, women are treated as second-class citizens in Iran from the policing of their dress by the state, their ban to attend male sporting events in Iran, to inheritance and custody laws just to name a few. However, in light of the position, many Iranian women have taken to news outlets and blogs to express their concern and disapproval of Nazi’s stance. They argue that boycotting such a major competition actually hurts progress for Iranian women. As one Iranian international master put it:

This campaign against the tournament is against Iranian women and it doesn’t help at all…It’s the first time we are hosting a world championship [for women], not only in chess but [in any] sport, and I think it’s very important for Iranian women to have this chance to hold such major events.

In a New York Times op-ed, Azadeh Moaveni asked Jila Baniyaghoob, a journalist and activist in Iran who had spent some time in prison, on the matter:

[S]he said it was crucial to take the long view…While she herself opposes mandatory hijab, she points to the athletic wear Iranian female athletes wore in the 2016 Olympic Games, outfits that 30 years ago would have been inconceivable. “Women’s progress goes step by step here, and the route forward isn’t a boycott,” she said. “When a woman shines in a sports competition it boosts women’s rights in all areas, it reverberates everywhere, beyond those games.”

In Ms. Baniyaghoob’s words is where we find the strategic nougat of women’s rights and progress in Iran. The strategy of showcasing talent and championing the abilities of women on the international stage not only benefits women in Iran, but benefits the entire country as a whole.

In chess, it is important to not become distracted by nonsense movements of an opponent or easy attacks that can put your overall strategy out of position. Fighting Iran’s mandatory hijab dress code for women seems like a valiant, immediate crusade (indeed, it is). It is visual. It directly attacks a nonsense law that imposes the state’s will on women (although, nobody in the West seems to care too much about the mandatory dress code for men). And it “feels” like it is the right course of action to make a backward system backpedal.

Check.

However, the reality is that overt protests from Western media and public figures does little to progress women’s rights in Iran. In fact, it is often used as a pretense to crackdown on Iranian women’s rights activists that fight day-in and day-out in schools, courts, mosques, stadiums, streets, gyms, and even across the chess board. Therefore, when Western fanfare over “Iranian oppression of women” rears its head into mainstream media, it often does more harm than good. This is why Iranian women urge for a different strategy: worry less about the attire for now, and focus more on empowering Iranian women by participating with them in sport on the world stage.

Iranian women are taking the approach of showcasing their talent and abilities – both domestically and internationally; no matter how small the event – as the means to gain support and empower their voices when fighting against laws that oppress them. By entering the halls of Iranian sport  champions and heroes, Iranian women gain greater leverage through their newfound status of Iranian heroes to fight oppression. Therefore, when that ability to showcase their ability is marred or covered by tabloid like media coverage, it takes away the very achievements that Iranian women are fighting for every day.

It is important to remain resolute in the long approach of Iranian progress. The long approach, in this case, meaning Iranian women showcasing their ability on the world’s stage and being international contenders in every world competition that is available to them. With each success, the country increasingly rallies behind Iranian women to succeed and, through this increased support, a culture of championing Iranian women is erected and widely accepted.  This also has a trickling affect into other areas of Iranian society whether in employment, politics, or other areas in which Iranian women are currently shut out. Iranian women understand this nuance and urge their Western counterparts to come halfway by keeping this long term strategy in mind. When enough opportunities are won and they outnumber the men in key positions (which they will), the veil will come off; at which point it is no longer a symbol of oppression, but just a simple headscarf. It’s only a matter of time.

Checkmate.

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Damascus is Burning


Click here for more pictures of the Syrian Civil War. Warning: Graphic.

About a couple of months back, I had the opportunity to meet former CNN reporter Rudi Bakhtiar. She had returned from the Syrian-Turkish border region doing an investigation on the Syrian Civil War’s effect on Syrian children. She happened to be already speaking to my cousin when I had arrived, and when I came to introduce myself, my cousin casually mentioned my background in conflict analysis and resolution. She asked me what I thought about the civil war and what could be done about. I replied, “Nothing,” which seemed to startle the group that was presently speaking with her.

She responded, “Why?”

I answered, “It’s an election year.”

She smiled her million-dollar smile and she agreed, “Precisely.”

While the cute little exchange holds truth, it is only one factor that contributed (temporarily) to the U.S. government doing “little” to actively stop the conflict. Even with the elections out of the way, the United States is (and will be) quite hesitant in raising the Syrian government as a top foreign policy issue. Why? Because Syria isn’t Libya and, more importantly, al-Assad isn’t Ghaddafi.

That seems like a no-brainer, but it is significant in how the international community can approach in dealing with the situation. It only helps the international community to intervene with prejudice if you’re a touch like Dr. Evil. When Ghaddafi’s son,  threatened “rivers of blood would flow with ‘thousands’ of deaths if the uprising does not stop,” — along with Ghaddafi going on Libya’s state television and exclaiming he will hunt down the “rats and cockroaches” (referring to the Libyan rebels) “to purify Libya inch by inch, house by house…street by street, person by person, until the country is clean of the dirt and impurities,” — it evoked memories of Bosnia and Kosovo in the international community to what they perceived would be a certain genocide.

This is politically significant because the fallout from Bosnia and Kosovo changed the UN Charter to include a “Right to Protect” (R2P) clause. The clause states:

“[W]e are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a  case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

 The evening of Ghaddafi’s speech, the Arab League suspended Libya’s delegation and called for a no-fly zone to be put in place a few weeks later, which gave the ratification at the UN a significant boost a week later. So significant were these formal announcements of spilling blood that it even caused Russia and China from using their veto (both countries abstained). Russia and China didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history if another Bosnia were to have happened had they vetoed a no-fly zone. This is how Ghaddafi found himself in the firing line of Tomahawk missiles.

The Syrian case is quite different. Assad has a lot of friends. Most notably Iran and Russia. While Iran and Assad’s regime are religiously similar (though not the same), their friendship runs deeper. Most significantly is Syria’s support of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war followed by both countries’ involvement in Lebanon. This is why it should not come to anyone’s surprise that Iran provides not only weapons and supplies, but actual troops in the form of the Revolutionary Guard for Assad’s use. Russian-Syrian relations revolve around long-standing military cooperation and Russia’s only military base outside of the former Soviet bloc, the Tartus naval base located in Tartus, Syria. The latter most likely assures that a no-fly zone would be vetoed if it were to ever reach a vote at the UN. Besides friends, Assad mutes any sort of sabre-rattling from his speeches when it comes to the opposition. Even in the context of the Houla massacre, Assad uses political language to mitigate an international backlash.

A game changer is whether (or when) the Syrian government will use chemical weapons in its civil war. Syria sits on a large stockpile of chemical weapons that has many in the international community very concerned. President Obama has already declared that the use of chemical weapons is the “red line” Assad cannot cross with France and the UK following suit. The Assad government has announced that it will not use chemical weapons in its civil war, but recent events such as chemical weapons testing in August and a defected general having “high-level” discussions on the use of chemical weapons on the rebels prior to his defection have the world on high alert. If the Syrian army decides to use the weapons, it would certainly estrange Russia and China from supporting Assad, and would likely catalyze an R2P intervention.

Another game changer would be whether the Syrian military can keep the weapons secure or if the Assad government is overthrown, what kind of government would take its place. If an unstable or radical government were to take over, the seizure of the weapons can prove to be particularly destabilizing without outside intervention. It is hard to imagine the U.S., Israel, or Russia for that matter not intervening and destroying the weapons in a military strike.

So what will happen or what can be done? It is difficult to say. Syria’s opposition is a far cry from uniformity in comparison to Libya’s opposition, which is an egregiously low standard in and of itself. The U.S. and various Arab nations have just put together a new opposition bloc that they hope can recognized and legitimized by all the different Syrian opposition groups. They have already been recognized by the Arab League, but it remains to be seen if they can get all parties to work with them. If they can secure a majority of oppositional political and paramilitary parties then perhaps they stand a chance at entering negotiations with the Syrian government. However, what unites them is at odds with a segment of the international community. The fundamental question revolves on whether Assad should step down from power. For Russia and Iran, this is a no. For the West and the Syrian opposition, this is a yes.

In the meantime, R2P remains dormant due to Russia, while lives continue to be lost as Syria’s Civil War continues its slow burn.

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It Gets Emotional

During the election hubub that has gripped the attention of the American people, a few stories have emerged in the DC area in the last couple weeks that have stayed with me. The first story is the posting of anti-Muslim ads on DC Metrorail systems that have sparked an outcry from civil and religious groups about it promoting hate speech. However, there’s little debate that it shouldn’t be protected and rightfully so, for while it does foment hate, it clearly falls within the guidelines of the First Amendment. Therefore, a concurrent ad campaign has been waged by various Jewish and Christian organizations that either condemn the hate-speech ads or promote inclusivity.

As I have followed the story through listening to NPR, one particular segment (regarding the issue) caught my attention. NPR was interviewing a Jewish Rabbi that had condemned the anti-Muslim ads and had contributed to the ad campaign against bigotry when a woman intervened (or interjected) during the interview. A debate ensued between the two with the woman arguing that people of the Muslim world do not respect the same “values and freedoms” as those in the West and, as a result, should not be respected or tolerated. After the Rabbi made his rebuttal that her beliefs are not grou, the woman brought up the story about the 14-year-old girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating education for girls. She made the argument, how can one say that the Muslim world holds the same values of human rights and respect if they get up-in-arms regarding charicatures of the Prophet Muhammad, but not the horrible incident that almost took this little girl’s life?

I was taken aback, for that resonated with me. I did not hear of any protests condemning the attack on this young girl. Especially not from the Muslim world.

I got emotional.

I was upset with Muslim peoples committing acts of violence because someone drew Muhammad, but barely cried out against the violence toward this young girl (and all other girls who desire education). I had not heard of any protests against the Taliban on my regular news outlets – CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, France 24, NPR, Times, Newsweek, Guardian, or any other English language news outlet – so what the woman was saying must have been true. I wanted to lambast my Muslim friends for being part of a religion that allowed such hypocrisy to exist. I saw some political cartoons that satirized the situation of the Taliban fearing little girls getting educated, and felt that it embodied the true nature of patriarchical Islam.

I was being swayed to loathe Islam and Muslim peoples.

And as suddenly as I started to embrace bigotry a certain switch got flipped within me. I thought to myself, there must be more to this story. Did Muslims actually not protest? I sat down in front of my computer and did a simple google search. Lo and behold, I was proven wrong from just 5 minutes of searching. Thousands came out to protest against the attack with the Pakistani people demanding the government to take action. Vigils not only took place in Pakistan, but in neighboring Afghanistan and India as well.

It should come to no surprise that U.S./English-speaking-media did not cover such protests, but I still remain dumbfounded. Even the google search yielded a handful of articles on the protests versus the thousands upon thousands that covered the Taliban shooting little Malala. It makes one wonder whether media outlets actively refuse to cover such events or they simply find it unimportant to the American people.

Whatever the case, this woman in the NPR story and I share a bond. We are both individuals who feel outraged that a girl is shot for wanting an education. Such outrage is noble. But our nobility is quickly corrupted because we’re not given the whole story. Therefore, with the whole truth and little effort being made to cover (or active effort is made not to cover) the fallout, our outrage – unchecked – leads us down a dark, angry path. That path leads us to lash out with bigoted ads and/or actual physical violence on those we deem guilty by association. We add to the divide and contribute to the conflict. The cycle continues.

In the end, I was almost brainwashed with hatred. Thank goodness it was “almost”.

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The Leaderless Need Leaders, and Leaders Need the Leaderless

What started as the “Arab Spring” has transitioned and transformed – like seasons– to the “American Autumn”, and now perhaps something else entirely. Countless pundits, experts, and academics have opined on what it is, whether it is good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, or something unique or a continuation of the past. But every article, blog, TV plug, or radio interview seem unable to explain this global protest phenomenon with certainty and in its entirety. It may be because that participants in these movements are experimenting with new ways to organize, though they may not be aware of it themselves. But for these movements to be successful, they will need a little help from their friends (pun intended)—practitioners in the field of conflict.

What mainstream media did cover about these new social movements is the seemingly unorganized demonstration over a very palpable frustration. Such movements in the past, though having participants from a large number of “unaffiliated”, had activists that were part of formally structured and hierarchical organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless and organize their communities to become active, in which they would articulate demands through various communication mediums.

Social media and mobile telephony – unlike communication tools in the past like TV/Radio, cassette tapes, and, yes, the internet (we are that old) – in new social movements has for the most part freed the rigid categories of producer and consumer of media and information.  The past required formally structured organizations and/or groups with clear roles and strategies to get the information out for consumption to the public, but today anybody can be a producer and consumer of information. This loosens (though does not dismiss) the need for formal organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless.

The leaderless Occupy movements that are taking place around the world is this theory manifested. Individual active participants in the movement become the producer, interpreter, filter, and consumer of information, and exchange ideas – in an antiquated Athenian democracy sort of way – to come up with the demands they want to protest for. However, articulating and deciding how a proper economic system should function is a lot harder than demanding the ouster of a leader like their Arab counterparts.

Demanding a leader to step down is not nuanced, nor is it subject to statistics, figures, or theory. It is clear and emotional enough to bring many groups together. In fact, demanding a leader to step down requires less (not none) organizational or community development to drive it in comparison to more abstract concepts such as economic policy or system design. However, even in cases were the demands were clear, like the case in Tunisia and Egypt, the less formally organized students – in comparison to their elite or Islamist counterparts –lost out to the quick turnaround in elections that followed.

What this means for the conflict community is that now, more than ever, community and organizational development through techniques and/or skills in facilitation, dialogue, and problem solving in conflict practice are needed. The advantage of formal organizations is that the leaders formulate and articulate demands, but in leaderless movements that is just moot. With proper training in dialogue and conflict management, participants of leaderless movements can remain “leaderless”, while making adequate progress in formulating and articulating demands.

I do not suggest that remaining leaderless is better than being formally organized or vice versa, but perhaps they reinforce each other in a truly positive direction. In other words, the unaffiliated – usually the common denizen – have been unable to contribute, and has caused societies to simply take down one leader for a formally organized other. Therefore, the leaderless need leaders, and leaders need the leaderless.

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Digital Governance

On a june weekend I took part in a class workshop lead by TechChange, an organization that is dedicated to utilizing information and communication technology for positive social change. The workshop familiarized students, including myself, with various technological tools that are currently being used to support various weakened institutions around the world, such as crisis response & management, health response, education, and governance to name a few.

Two technological tools that we got to acquire hands on experience was FrontlineSMS and CrowdMap, which helped facilitate communication and information during election monitoring and medical emergency simulations. The tools utilize SMS (text messaging) – the predominant source of communication in even the most remote and/or underdeveloped regions of the world – and leveraging them to aid in some kind of monitoring or crisis management capacity.

Aside from monitoring tools, new innovative uses of ICT technology are helping to leverage and/or support governance in regions where it has been primarily absent. Tools like FrontlineSMS:Legal and the Internet Bar Organization’s Internet Silk Road Initiative help extend the reach of formal state legal institutions to the remotest of areas. This is particularly useful in places like the remote mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan’s northwest frontier where formal state penetration is limited. When disputes arise, citizens residing in these areas can call or text their dispute to a legal authority connected to this “mlegal” technology, which can help facilitate various legal needs such as discovery, facilitation, or representation just to name a few. Furthermore, these projects can also work with informal justice systems that may have greater legitimacy in a region. In the case of Afghanistan, working with Jirgas can provide greater legitimacy, collaboration, and enforcement on legal decisions made by formal and informal judges and juries.

However, questions do arise on how one monitors and maintains the enforcement of decisions made on legal disputes. In remote regions, monitoring is very difficult and having adequate witnesses may pose a problem in remote locations. In the case of Afghanistan, if state institutions are so remote, enforcement will require greater cooperation from jirgas – a community of tribal elders that specifically addresses disputes in the community. This can pose a problem as jirgas are not monitored and may become privy to dubious dealings. In other words, there is no regulatory system or body to help maintain the jirgas honesty.

Also, the technologies that were supposed to aid and support governance seemed limited to institutions. While institutions are important, they cannot function correctly without having a strong civil society. Aisha Ghaus-Pasha presents an excellent case on the role of civil society and how it promotes “good governance like transparency, effectiveness, openness,
responsiveness, and accountability.” (page 3) Therefore, it would be very interesting to see how technology can aid in the strengthening of civil society and create better relations and cooperation between civil society and formal state institutions.

The overall experience of being part of the TechChange workshop was quite eye-opening. It brought me face-to-face to many technologies that are simply daring to create change. Obviously, technology is not the answer to social woes and the organization makes no case that it does. However, they do argue that technology can certainly help and that it is simply daring to create positive social change as best it can through feedback and trial and error.

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The Spark

I begin with Thanksgiving 2010.

I was invited by a good friend of mine from my conflict resolution program to have Thanksgiving dinner with her and her family and friends. There was great food, great discussions, warm atmosphere, and laughter. At dinner, each person shared their interesting, eclectic life experiences and worldviews as so many dinners with newly acquainted friends do. When the conversation got to me, I attempted to articulate what I was studying and future plans I had in mind after I graduate. I failed miserably.

———————–

Minutes of the dinner (and I paraphrase):

Bardia: “Based upon my experience and knowledge of conflict resolution so far, the majority of people in my field pursue a career in an NGO or government agency. These organizations, though beneficial, often lack the resources and synergy to create ‘real’ change in the world. Furthermore, people in my field often find working with private organizations as anathema to their ideals, as they are often the culprits of producing much of the systemic problems in the world. However, while many private firms have pursued wrong or illegal policies, many firms do not. Furthermore, greater public scrutiny and access to information has pushed many emerging firms to fall in line with “positive goals” for image is often key to a company’s success.

With the turn of the twenty-first century and the awareness of global climate and environmental problems, we see an emergence of companies pursuing “green” ventures and investors desiring to invest in “green” or socially constructive projects. Now more than ever good ideas are getting funded in order to pursue these problems.

Therefore, I desire to start a business that provides “green” and socially conscious solutions and services to the public. The main product would be green produces and solutions such as urban farming plans and green construction. It would be interconnected with local communities that work in these projects to help spark field education and experience, along with opportunities for entrepreneurship–creating a sustainable venture…”

Mom at table: “So what would your role be?”

Bardia: “Bring the necessary elements together to pursue such goals. Acquire engineers, business administrators, project managers, social workers…”

Mom at table: “So what is it that you offer at the table?”

Bardia: “Being able to see the intersection of problems that need to be addressed for positive social change.”

Mom at table: “Couldn’t you have done this with any other background or degree?”

Bardia: “Uhm…errr….uhhh…yea…no……….”

———————–

Despite my excitement of having come to a relative conclusion of what I want to pursue in my life and how much it made sense to me in my head, I realized that my “elevator talk” has serious holes. Therefore, this blog – while not necessarily starting out with a bang – is to document my dilemmas, depressions, optimisms, and overall thoughts as I pursue a field that – to the perceptions of many (not necessarily the mom in my story, for she had very valid questions) – has no real distinctive value. I hope to change that perception/perspective by perfecting my “elevator speech” and improve my role in collaborating with others that might find insights and/or benefits from this blog.

Perhaps an adequate response:

“What does it take to create a good government or society? It takes a number of factors. Having functional and stable markets, law and order, education, political systems, defense, avenues in which people can improve their daily lives, etc. Who do we turn to for consulting in improving these systems for good governance and society? Academics and experts in economics, law, politics, military strategy, sociology, psychology, and the list goes on. However, why do we fail time and time again in addressing system domestic and global problems keeping over a billion people in penury and violence with another few billion on a shaky foundation? Because academics and experts in each field see the world in a unique way and speak a unique language that is dissonant with academics and experts in other fields. If these consultants and the public that attempts to understand them fail to understand each other – which their collaboration is a fundamental requirement for good governance and society to work – it creates conflict.

This crossroads in collaboration is where conflict analysts and resolvers can find themselves: by being the keystone that unites all the different fields, viewpoints, and language together. How? Because conflict analysis and resolution requires their students to learn as many different, complex fields as possible and find unique ways to bridge the conflict in language, viewpoints, and understanding. The curriculum includes economics, law, politics, international relations, sociology, psychology, and a multitude of other fields that require its students to decipher and make sense of this crossroads, or in other words, conflict.”

Perhaps this is what I could have said, and hopefully this makes more sense. I hope that somebody can poke holes in this conclusion to make my goals and ambitions clearer and better. All-in-all, this is an interesting journey in conflict analysis.

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