Guns don’t kill people – people kill people, with guns

Houston Chronicle - Nick Anderson
Houston Chronicle - Nick Anderson
Houston Chronicle – Nick Anderson

The cartoon above has made the rounds on the Internet in the last few days, alongside the argument that massacres such as the murder of 20 children in Newtown are not an issue of gun control, but an issue of access to mental health services. While I agree that mental health care should be more readily available for people suffering from mental illness, to me this issue IS about access to guns. Look at the cartoon again. What would happen if the gun store didn’t exist, or if it was up a steeper set of stairs than mental health care? Across the world, there are plenty of deranged people with serious mental health conditions, but they don’t all have access to semi-automatic or automatic weapons that make it possible to kill 20 people in a matter of moments.

One of my father’s friends suffered a terrible tragedy earlier this year when his brother was murdered in cold blood by a lunatic with an assault weapon in a cafe in Seattle.My family friend’s brother, a musician, was playing a gig with friends when the murderer walked into the cafe and started killing people. Why did this person have access to assault weapons and military-strength ammo? In the wake of the unspeakable acts in Newtown, my father’s friend took to Facebook to say that anyone who is getting his hands on military equipment – kevlar vests, massive amounts of ammo, etc – does not have good intentions. While this may be something of a generalization, there is some truth to the fact that nobody – no civilian – needs access to this type of equipment. It is simply unnecessary, and it is clearly dangerous.

How many more children need to accidentally discharge their families’ weapons? How many more times are we going to allow such disturbing, life-shattering events of violence to take place before we look deep into ourselves and acknowledge the problem: access to guns – and most especially deadly, military-strength, automatic and assault weapons, what Sen. Dianne Feinstein calls “weapons of war” – is creating opportunities for unstable people to commit insane acts of violence.

The statistics also speak for themselves. Compare the amount of people who die from gun violence in the States to similar statistics for any other industrialized nation. According to statistics from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the US ranks 28th in the world in terms of percentage of homicides by firearm (per 100K people). Ahead of the United States? Countries such as Colombia, Brazil, South Africa, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala…. The United States beats any other country in terms of firearm ownership (270,000,000 guns in the US; second highest is India, with 46,000,000). According to the CDC, in 2009, there were 16,799 homicides in the United States. Of those, 11,493 were firearm-related. Look at the graph below, which charts deaths due to assault (firearms and other weapons included( in OECD countries. The US is an outlier, no matter which way you want to look at this information.

OECD countries: Deaths due to assault per 100,000 population from 1960 to the present

The issue is clearly not just one of access to guns, but also a culture that glorifies gun ownership. Gun advocates tout their 2nd amendment rights – sure, when the founding fathers sat down to write the constitution, clearly, gun ownership to protect Americans from the British was a necessity. But we no longer live in those times. And gun ownership these days has absolutely nothing to do with the “well-regulated” militia cited in the 2nd amendment. There are of course plenty of people who own guns responsibly, but their hobby is not reason enough to continue to sell instruments of death widely across the country. A lot of the sick, crazy monsters who shot up crowds of people in the US in recent years obtained their weapons legally. In some cases, there is no history of mental health problems, nothing detectable at all – only their purchase of hundreds of rounds of ammo may have raised red flags.

Seriously, who *needs* a gun? The answer is no one. I don’t care if it’s your favorite weekend past time, I don’t care if your family spends its quality time shooting stuff up – it’s time to put them down and seriously reflect: is your selfish desire to own an assault weapon more important than the lives of 20 innocent children in a school? More important than the lives of countless innocents that are murdered in cold blood and for no reason whatsoever in malls, movie theaters, universities, high schools?

I get that guns don’t kill people – yes, people kill people. But the presence of dangerous assault weapons sure makes it a whole lot easier for lunatics to wreak havoc on communities. Yes, we need better access to mental health services, but it’s not because these services exist that a) they will be used; b) they will be effective. For me, it’s obvious that better mental health care services are needed, but that actually has very little to do with preventing mass murder. It has a lot more to do with being a civilized society where we care for one another, where the government is able to demonstrate that it is – at least! – attempting to prevent people from falling through the cracks, whether they are a potential murderer or simply living a difficult, lonely life because of a condition that isolates them from their family and community.

Look at other countries: there are plenty of mentally unstable people everywhere, but when they don’t have access to weapons of war, they don’t go – cannot go! – on shooting rampages.

I’ll conclude by quoting Barack Obama, who, I hope will live up to the promise of his words:

We can’t tolerate this anymore.  These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change.  We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true.  No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.  Surely, we can do better than this.  If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.  Because what choice do we have?  We can’t accept events like this as routine.  Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?  Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

Justice for Syrians?

syria

For nearly a year now, Syrians have been suffering through a living hell. The regime in Damas is clinging on to power, and the repression has been horrifying. In the last few weeks, violence has been escalating, and it’s been absolutely heartbreaking to watch the news out of Syria. Today, the “Friends of Syria” conference – hosted by the government of Tunisia – is expected to call for an immediate end to the military campaign against civilians, and the creation of humanitarian corridors for aid delivery. This follows the miserable failure of the UN Security Council to pass any kind of meaningful resolution. More than just an important step towards international action on Syria, the “Friends of Syria” conference highlights the obsolescence of the Security Council has an institution to preserve global peace and security. The UN has been side-stepped on the Syria issue – even with Kofi Annan being appointed as mediator, the limits of the international organization’s ability to implement its own mandate are, once again, laid bare.

Military intervention in Syria is not an easy proposition. Unlike Libya, Syria is more densely populated, so air strikes will likely cause more “collateral damage” (i.e. civilian deaths). Furthermore, the presence of anti-aircraft missiles means that war planes would have to drop bombs from a higher altitude, again decreasing the precision of air strikes. Recent history shows that there is very little support in the West to either send ground troops or finance such an operation – with Europe in crisis, and a U.S. election on the horizon, that possibility is essentially non-existent. That’s not to say that small contingents of “military advisers” or covert special forces cannot be sent to Syria, but it seems unlikely that these strategies would be game-changing. Sanctions on Syria are starving the regime for cash, and some analysts argue that the government will be broke soon – but I don’t have any doubts that the Al-Assad regime has access to all kinds of shadowy networks that will continue to finance his campaign.

Unless the international community is able to bring the Syrian National Council and the regime to a negotiating table, I don’t see how this conflict gets resolved. I hope that this happens, because I don’t know how many more videos such as this one we can tolerate before we decide that, as a global community, we are unable to protect our most vulnerable, that we are powerless in the face of injustice and oppression.

***

Below is a post I wrote on the same topic for UN Dispatch on February 22nd:

This morning, a harrowing video of French journalist Edith Bouvier calling for help was published on YouTube. Bouvier was injured yesterday in the bombing that killed American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, and she is currently in a precarious medical condition. In the video, she describes how her left leg has an open fracture, and a Syrian doctor explains how she needs immediate medical attention and surgery which they are unable to provide. Bouvier asks the French authorities to please provide adequate transportation for her to be able to go to Lebanon and receive treatment.

Another journalist colleague, French photographer William Daniels, emphasizes the need for Bouvier to be evacuated – as he speaks, you can hear bombs in the background. The doctor and Daniels talk about the lack of food, water and medical equipment, an assessment echoed in an interview with a French surgeon, Jacques Bérès, who has been on the ground in Homs for nearly three weeks. Dr. Bérès discusses the difficulty of working in an environment where there are constant attacks and bombardments, and notes that there has been no humanitarian evacuation of the most vulnerable. In his makeshift hospital, he sees wounded combatants but also women, children and civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Bouvier’s distressing video is yet another indication of how dire the situation is in Homs (for a chilling account of what’s happening in the besieged city, check out Marie Colvin’s last dispatch from Homs.) Indiscriminate bombings and attacks from government forces are in direct contravention of the laws of war. And while the regime in Damascus has long ago swept aside humanitarian and international law considerations, the international community has yet to respond in a meaningful manner. What will it take? According to analysts, the sanctions imposed on Syria will mean that the government will run out of foreign exchange in the next “three to five months”, and that, once starved for cash, the regime will not be able to pursue its deadly campaign. But what happens in the intervening months? The international community – and in particular the UN Security Council, which has so far has been stymied by two of its members – has a responsibility to uphold fundamental principles of global peace and security. Right now, Syrian lives are being sacrificed because of high-level political disagreements and posturing.

The targeting of foreign journalists is only one of the many crimes committed by the regime. I am sure that the recently killed reporters – Colvin, Ochlik and Shadid – would not want us to dwell on their individual stories, yet their deaths serve to highlight the insanity of the situation in Syria and will hopefully lead their respective governments to take real action.

French president Sarkozy called the deaths of the journalists “murders”, and said that “those responsible will have to be accountable.” French foreign minister Alain Juppé was even more direct, saying that the Bashar Al-Assad regime was “responsible”, and that the “regime in Damascus owes [France] an answer” and that France will be “seeking accountability for these acts”. (Whether or not these statements translate into action, particularly as France prepares for a contentious presidential election in April, remains to be seen.)

Bouvier’s video is one of many, many videos depicting the horror of what is happening in Syria. Will she be rescued by her government? More importantly, will her plight and the deaths of her colleagues at least not be in vain? Will the plight of Syrians – attacked, held hostage and targeted by their own government – continue to elicit lukewarm actions, or will the international community organize meaningful, collective action to help end the bloodbath in Syria?

No compromise?

Ever since the dreadful events of September 28 in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, where at 157 people were killed and dozens of women raped in broad daylight during a pro-democracy political rally, the country’s social and political climate has been increasingly tense. Amid the resignation of three cabinet ministers and a communications advisor, Captain Moussa “Dadis” Camara, the head of the military junta who took power in a bloodless coup in December 2008, has been under growing pressure to step down, install a transitional government, and prepare for the free elections he promised the people of Guinea in January 2010.

Yesterday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), imposed an arms embargo on Guinea: “In view of the atrocities that have been committed … the authority decides to impose an arms embargo on Guinea under the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons.” The ECOWAS decision comes a week after the International Contact Group on Guinea (ICG-G), composed of ECOWAS, the African Union, the EU, the UN and the 5 UN Security Council members [note: China has never attended an ICG-G meeting], issued a position statement setting out the list of measures to be taken to allow Guinea to resume her transition process. These measures incorporate many of the recommendations made by the Guinean opposition coalition, the Forces Vives de Guinee, composed of various political parties, unions and civil society groups.

Meanwhile, the African Union today extended an October 17 deadline for Dadis to declare in writing that he would not run in the elections. Dadis did not respect the deadline, and instead asked for the question to be “assigned to the mediation of Burkina Faso.” The African Union is delaying its decision to impose targeted sanctions on Dadis and senior figures of the military regime in order to consult with ECOWAS-appointed mediator Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso.

In spite of all the diplomatic hullabaloo around Guinea, it seems that the international community is choosing not to match action with rhetoric. Admittedly, I’m not in a position to know what would be better than an arms embargo and a travel ban on senior regime officials. Yet, I feel that this is somewhat of a tepid response, particularly given the strong reaction the events in Guinea elicited among foreign governments, international organizations and human rights groups.

Over the course of the last few weeks, Guinea’s military junta has been the object of severe condemnations from various members of the amorphous “international community”. The International Criminal Court is launching a preliminary investigation to determine whether crimes falling under the Court’s jurisdiction were perpetrated. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also just announced an international inquiry, headed by the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Haile Menkerios, into the events of September 28 “with a view to determining the accountability of those involved.”

Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, and State Deparment officials – including Hillary Clinton – have repeatedly called for Dadis to step down, and have adopted a very firm stance…at least rhetorically: Kouchner said this weekend:

“The international community’s message is simple: murderers and rapists must be identified, judged and punished, just like the ones who ordered these acts.”

The U.S. even sent a high-ranking State Department official for direct talks with Dadis. As noted above, regional mediation efforts are also underway – Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso, was dispatched to Conakry in early October to begin a dialogue with Dadis and the opposition.

Recent events in Guinea are clearly showing that the country’s stability is at stake, and, as Nigerian president and chair of ECOWAS Umaru Yar’Adua noted “the instability in Guinea poses a real threat to the peace, security and stability of the region.”

Dadis, who was once hailed as “Obama Junior“, has apparently lost support within the ranks of the junta, as several ministers have resigned over the course of the last week, citing moral concerns as the main reason for their decision to leave the government. To complete this chaotic picture, foreign as well as local journalists have been threatened and rumors of ethnic manipulations have emerged.

Meanwhile, Guinea allegedly signed a mining deal worth $7 billion with a Chinese private company, the Hong Kong based Chinese Investment Fund, which also involves Sonangol, the Angolan oil company. This, of course, happened in the middle of this unfolding crisis, leading analysts to call out China on poor timing and a ruthless appetite for natural resources [note: Guinea is the leading supplier of bauxite and is thought to have at least a third of the world’s known reserves of the mineral, which is used to make aluminium]

Guinea’s future remains uncertain. The breakdown of law and constitutional order does not bode well for the organization of free and fair elections, and I worry that the international community will once again fail to prevent an illegitimate government from taking root. In some sense, particularly with regards to ECOWAS, it feels  a bit like a case of the blind leading the blind. Let’s take a cursory glance at the governance situation in West African countries. President Yar’Adua of Nigeria, who is currently at the head of ECOWAS, is not exactly a model of democratic leadership.

Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso, took power in 1987 through a coup during which his predecessor Thomas Sankara was assassinated. He stood (unopposed) for election in 1991 – and was reelected twice since. He will run again for election next year. Beautiful example of democracy, isn’t it? And while Compaore has garnered the support of the international community, I have doubts whether he’s in any position to advocate for a democratic transition in Guinea, as well as in Cote d’Ivoire, where he is also playing a mediation role.

The arms embargo imposed this past Saturday is, I hope, only the beginning of actual pressure on Dadis. The potential mining deal with the Chinese firm may allow Dadis to isolate himself and his country further – revenues from natural resource extraction have allowed dictators to remain in power in Guinea for the last 5 decades. I find worrying that the African Union let the Oct.17 deadline slip by, and even though Dadis is said to be cooperating with the UN investigation, he is obviously not ready to step down. The fact that he’s even still considering running in the election makes clear that he is not heeding calls from the international community, preferring, instead to string the whole of them along.

Through blogs and news sites, Guineans  have expressed a lot of concern over the current situation in their country, and, in my opinion, the supposed “intense” international pressure is not sufficient. I understand that the principle of sovereignty and non-intervention in a state’s affairs prevails, but really, is an arms embargo – the effectiveness of which depends on the political will to enforce it thoroughly – the most appropriate response at this stage? Are endless strings of UN and ICC investigations that lead nowhere really going to help the situation?

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the current chair of ECOWAS, used unusually strong language to condemn the “arbitrary and irresponsible” use of power by Guinea’s military junta.

At this stage, diplomatic efforts seem formulaic at best and useless at worse.  Dadis clearly is unfit to be leading Guinea, and the international community should be much firmer about having him step down. This is the man who once received a journalist barefoot, in the middle of the night, and then proceeded to harass her, asking her to marry him and saying things like “Dadis loves you! Dadis wants you! You make me crazy, come be with me and I will give you everything.”

Fix your Conflicts

You can listen to my first ever radio interview here – had I known this would be completely unedited, I would have probably been better prepared. Nonetheless, it was a great experience, and the host, Doug Noll, lawyer turned peacemaker, is a very interesting guy – I hope I get invited back!
In any case here it is: Penelope Chester on Fix your Conflicts, June 16th 2008

(scroll down the content library, it’s the first item in the archive)

Will Justice Prevail?


Buduburam camp.


I am exhausted.

After one week of intense campaigning, I feel like our little coalition is being met by brick walls and glass ceilings, no matter who we turn to.

I have to say that I am truly disappointed by the lack of interest in this situation demonstrated by the authorities and the media – a few grassroots media organizations have been following the situation closely, but what we’ve read in the news so far mostly misrepresents the situation – of course, when the dominating discourse is that of the authorities it becomes the legitimate Truth, and the voice of the forgotten is suppressed, or simply ignored.

I am absolutely heart broken by the current state of affairs – following today’s police raid on the camp, and ensuing beatings, arrests, and imminent deportation of innocent refugees, I am honestly considering changing the name of my blog to “Meanderings of a Young Deluded Idealist”

How is it possible that these people’s rights are being so blatantly trampled upon, and that no one shows a sign of caring? Where are the Angelina Jolies of this world? I suppose painting Easter eggs with their rainbow family, while innocents’ rights are being violated, as I write this.

I’ve contacted media organizations, press agencies, embassies, international organizations, and pulled every string I could think of – but, obviously, to no avail.

Here is our petition, calling for the safeguarding of the rights of refugees in Ghana – I don’t know if this will effect change in any way shape or form, but the least we can do is try.

Same Old Story

Turmoil in Kenya

“More than 800 people have been killed and 300,000 have fled their homes […]The United Nations says about half a million people have been affected by the violence and has appealed for $42 million in humanitarian aid. Food, shelter, water, sanitation and disease prevention are among the top priorities. The worst displacement is in the Rift Valley where the United Nations said in early January that 100,000 people could face starvation. Many of those who have been uprooted are too frightened to return home. Others have nothing left to go back to.”
(Source: Reuters Alernet: Kenya Violence Briefing )

Let’s take a moment to think about the long term implications of this on a human, political and socio-economic level. These 300,000 people are now unemployed and homeless, all the while Kenya’s economic is but short of coming to a grinding halt. Regardless, the current situation will have short and long term repercurssions on levels of foreign investment, as well as international development aid (which comes with strings attached). It will take a long time for Kenya to recover from this crisis, which is seriously tarnishing its image. And, as this astute writer notes, this will also have consequences for the image of the continent as a whole.

So in the context of political and social instability, how are those affected going to respond? They will employ desperate measures, and, once again, livelihoods that have been destroyed will perpetuate themselves, and breed anger, resentment. The social effects of this crisis are going to run deep – besides the obvious ethnic tensions this has revealed (created? exacerbated? it’s hard to say), let’s keep in mind that hundreds of thousands of people are traumatized, and have to rebuild their lives as best they can, with little public or international help.

This blogger, writing from Kenya, explains that he thinks the worst is behind. He notes that Kenya is getting regional and international attention, that the Kenyan civil society is pulling together…. But fails to mention that the African Union – in spite of the exhortations of various Heads of State to end violence – is not taking any concrete steps. The UN’s Ban Ki Moon is making only meager efforts, and its the former Sec-Gen, Kofi Annan, who has been most involved. Oh, and the American involvement? The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer. Clearly, the American government cares about this…

Yes, the concept of non-intervention is easily deployed here to excuse the lack of international mobilization…. I’m willing to bet that, in retrospect, this stand will be condemned. The consequences of this will primarily impact the most vulnerable, and you can rest assured that greedy politicians will continue to manipulate and abuse them.

Al Jazeera reports on violence in Kenya, 01/28/2008