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Global Voices Weigh in on a Nation in Crisis

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The U.S. is currently suffering multiple overlapping crises. Simultaneously, the country is confronting a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a political crisis that is threatening the foundations of U.S. democracy. At the same time, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, we have witnessed the largest set of protests in U.S. history, protests that have both raised awareness of, and demanded an end to, anti-black violence and systemic racism.

Many Kroc School international students and many of our partners around the world have been confronting issues of inequality and injustice, and working to build more peaceful societies in their home countries for many years. So, as these issues become ever more acute in the U.S., we at the Kroc IPJ wanted to hear from them.

In this piece, we hear from students and partners in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Colombia. We asked them to discuss both how what is happening in the U.S impacts their work and also the ways in which these crises creates opportunities for new kinds of partnerships and new forms of solidarity between those working for change in their country and those working for change in the U.S.

Nasema Zeerak, Kroc School of Peace Studies, University of San Diego

I was born in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Soviet troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and during an intense civil war. While I lived in displacement and later as a refugee, I grew up hearing stories of violence and abuse from the Soviet era and later the Taliban regime from elders in my family and others around me. These stories have always been coupled with deep grievances and a sentiment that, unless addressed, Afghans will not be able to come together as a nation. Decades have gone by and in the near absence of meaningful transitional justice mechanisms, Afghans continue to hold these stories and along with them their grievances in the face of injustice and endless violence.

Similarly, deep-seated grievances and frustration were at the heart of protests that erupted across U.S. cities in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Undoubtedly, the context is different. Afghans have fought a long and bloody war since the 1970s, while the issue black Americans are facing is institutionalized racism long after abolishment of slavery. However, the grievances in both contexts, for Afghans in the face of endless violence and for Black as against structural racism, signal the need for facing the past and for reconciliation.

The raw state of violence that unfolded in the U.S. streets was surreal for Americans. There was shock and disbelief as reality of violence was juxtaposed with the narrative of the U.S. as a beacon of freedom and equality. The U.S.’ founding story portrays it as a “City on the Hill” and as a model for other countries. It’s a notion that the U.S. is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage. As, Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under the Clinton administration, said, the U.S. is the “indispensable nation.” However, the poor human rights record of the U.S. at home and abroad, and the failure to acknowledge it, indicates otherwise.

Importantly, as an Afghan researching conflict and peacebuilding in Afghanistan, I find the U.S.’ Afghan policy and its efforts regarding the ongoing peace talks deeply concerning, particularly for minorities. When the U.S. intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, the military engagement was partly billed as “a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Later, Afghan women’s narratives of abuse were carefully constructed for Western audience to sustain the military intervention. Today, women’s rights, their hard-won gains, and continued struggle for justice and equal rights, has been excluded from the U.S.-Taliban agreement – and been rendered a side issue that Afghans must negotiate for themselves with the Taliban, who are known for their brutal treatment of Afghan women.

Other minorities have comparable concerns over the outcome of a rushed peace deal with the Taliban and fear the reversal of progress that has been achieved since 2001. While all Afghans have suffered, Hazaras, the minority ethnic and religious group I belong to, are particularly vulnerable due to their historical persecution and marginalization in the hands of the Afghan state and their deep animosity with the Taliban. In the absence of concrete mechanisms in the peace deal to promote and protect their rights, mechanisms which the U.S. has a responsibility to shape, Hazaras will be the biggest losers of an eventual deal with the Taliban.

All of this signals that, despite the progress in advancing rights and justice for all, Americans must acknowledge that there is more work to do to live up to the ideal of “City on the Hill”. More importantly, as Sarah Mendelson has contended, lack of accountability for the past and reconciliation is a “driver for today’s development, and, often of conflict.” Much like Afghans, Americans must take steps to come to terms with its racist history and work towards equity and equality.

Today, many have come to recognize that advancing rights at home and abroad is interconnected and should lead to appropriate domestic and foreign policy changes. Lack of accountability has led the U.S., to enable human rights abusers abroad. In other instances, the U.S. military has been allegedly responsible for grave war crimes. Americans addressing human rights abuse at home can raise their voices against injustices and demand accountability for the U.S. in foreign affairs as well. Similarly, foreign policy experts are presented with a historical opportunity to reckon with their country’s legacy of slavery and work to address the racial injustice and other human rights abuses at home.

Beatrice Kizi Nzovu, Life & Peace Institute, Nairobi

‘Everything becomes a little different as soon as it is spoken out loud’ Herman Hesse.

This is the significance that the protests in the U.S. against George Floyd’s death hold for the city of Nairobi, Kenya. Initially, in Nairobi, riots bringing a few individuals together were held in resonance with those happening in the U.S., but they did not have much traction.

Some people opined that this issue and response strategy was not our own. We not only had our problems that needed homegrown solutions, but we also were not angry or ready enough to take to the streets en masse. Supporting it while ignoring our problems here in Kenya was escapist, a classic case of scapegoating. These sentiments lit the match that sparked different actions in Kenya. Human rights and peace activists grabbed the opportunity to restart conversations on a variety of injustices. The ‘I can’t breathe’ slogan has been used to address both direct and structural forms of violence.

It has been used to raise voices against cases of gender and sexual-based violence that had increased exponentially since March 2020 when the first COVID-19 case was announced. It was used to speak out against extrajudicial killings by the police on individuals who had either broken the curfew or been found not wearing masks with 15 killed by mid-June 2020 including 13-year-old Yasin Moyo killed while standing on his balcony at home. The slogan was also used to speak to structural violence including corruption, environmental pollution, high levels of youth unemployment, repression against certain ethnic groups, nepotism, poor governance, and unlawful arrests.

As a peacebuilder, the riots in the U.S. represented a new way of social organizing that brings in everyone in the community to play their part in influencing positive social change, and not only individuals engaged in civil society as is often the norm. It opened space for every single person to have a voice. This is an aspect that needs to be nurtured as it will have a ripple effect and contribute to sustainable peace.

The challenge, however, is how riots fit with the traditional dialogue approach in peacebuilding. In Kenya although the riots are quick, loud and grab attention, the gains tend to end just as quickly, the dangers, including police retaliation, are greater, and people tend to revert to the status quo soon after. Technology is still a challenge with many still not having access to mobile phones making communication and common messaging difficult and increasing the risk of sabotage. 

The collective voice that was evident in the U.S. provided opportunities for learning on how to push for an issue by creating coalitions around it and a sense of joint ownership, thus creating pathways for change. The spirit of coalescence and the accompanying skills are needed here in Kenya and collaboration with organizations in the US is critical, because although peace actors have been working towards social change, it has been slow, one-off, and not systemic leading to recurrence and creating a never-ending cycle of violent conflict.

However, the concept of local solutions for local problems must be foregrounded and we must always remember that what works in the U.S. may not work here locally. For U.S. actors, the onus is on them to ensure that the momentum is kept up, that this results in attitudinal and systemic changes, and that lessons learned are shared locally and globally. The most important factor though is that the timing for action needs to be ripe, this is what will make a difference. For indeed, ‘Everything becomes a little different as soon as it is spoken out loud’ Herman Hesse.

Daniela Reina, Commissioner for International Cooperation, Mayor’s Office of Palmira, Colombia

During the COVID-19 emergency, we as first responders are facing challenges daily and taking decisions without a handbook or lessons from previous experience to guide us. I am convinced that networking with other cities is a tremendous tool to learn while we govern during this unprecedented time. In this piece, I will describe some of the challenges in terms of peace and justice that Palmira is facing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and will relate those to challenges being faced in the U.S. I hope that this comparison opens the debate about the different manifestations of the pandemic around the world and how working in networks is a key mechanism that can help us respond to these challenges.

First, the pandemic, and especially the lockdown policies, have had an indirect impact in terms of homicide violence in our city. Before COVID-19, homicide rates in Palmira were down 29.7%. With the lockdown policies implemented, the homicide rate fell further and the first six months of 2020 were the most peaceful six-month period since 2005. The pandemic provides an opportunity to keep these rates low. However, during the lockdown the homicide rate in youth has seen a small rise compared with the previous year and we are facing more stabbing homicides. These types of homicides could be explained as co-existence homicides.

We are aware that certain cities in the U.S. have also seen a rise in homicides, similar to us. Do they also involve youth? Can they also be explained as co-existence homicides? And what are other cities doing? We could certainly benefit from other cities' experiences.

Second, at the beginning of COVID-19 in Colombia, the disease was a disease of the rich, because it affected those who were able to travel abroad or those who were in contact with foreigners. Once the disease began to spread locally, most of the cases in our city are located and continue to grow in the poorest, most vulnerable, and most violent neighborhoods, bringing another pressure onto those already in need. This situation is similar to the U.S. where COVID-19 has impacted disproportionately certain groups of people such as Blacks and Latinos. We are thus facing a threat that undermines equality, and sharing experiences is key to face this challenge.

Finally, lockdown policies have created a lot of pressure on the local economy - businesses have closed their doors and thousands of jobs have been lost. This situation could drive two scenarios. First, those who have been economically affected could mobilize and that mobilization could turn violent. Second, it could bring a rise in crime, including theft and homicide. Considering that in 2019 in Palmira, 54% of homicide victims were youth between 16 and 30 years old, and youth were also the main perpetrators of violence, it is key to promote opportunities and income generation programs for our youths. We need to share ideas about economic revitalization that center the needs of vulnerable youth.

To solve these unprecedented challenges, city leaders, through networks, can share information in almost real-time, helping make decisions or solve problems with the best available information.

Nawaz Mohammed, Search for Common Ground, Colombo

At the Kroc IPJ, we are the bridge between learning and practice within the Kroc School, driving forward its mission to create engaged, applied learning for positive social impact. Interested in learning more? Check us out here



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Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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