Words Matter as We Fight to Eliminate Stigma

Jolene and PaulDecember 7, 2010 is a day I will never forget, though its not so much a memory as it is this vivid video I’m trapped in as it plays back in my mind. The phone rang. Matt answered it. Looking scared and confused, he passed the phone to me saying, “It’s your mom,” and I felt my stomach drop. My mom didn’t even say hello, all she said was, “Jolene, you need to come home.” I knew something terrible had happened. And then, those two words that caused more pain than anything I had ever felt in my entire life, “It’s Paul.”

Paul was my brother, the only sibling I had, who at eighteen committed suicide.

At the time, Paul was an undergraduate student at Brock University studying business. He wanted to be an accountant. While we fought like most siblings do, my brother was one of my best friends—the only person who really knew me. I couldn’t believe I was living in a world where Paul no longer existed.

In the days, and weeks, and months following my brother’s death, one of the most difficult things for me to deal with was the stigma of suicide and mental health issues. People told me my brother was selfish for ending his own life, and whispers circulated about how kid from such a good family could choose to end his own life.

I didn’t want to be known as ‘the girl whose brother committed suicide,’ and it was until years afterwards that I started to realize why. The sticking point for me is on the verbage: “committed suicide.” People commit theft, commit treason, commit murder, commit adultery—all things this that society has deemed inappropriate, and which have even been criminalized by law. The word ‘committed’ in front of the word ‘suicide’ then naturally perpetuates the stigma that suicide is bad, and someone who committed suicide is a bad person.

My brother was NOT a bad person; he was my best friend—my partner in crime, my study buddy, my rock when things got rough. I’m not ashamed that he took his own life, but I am frustrated with the stigma of suicide that continues to persist.

This year the theme of the United Nations International Youth Day is Mental Health Matters. Over 280 million youth around the world suffer from a mental health condition, but only one out of every five will receive the help and support they need. For many of these youth, the stigma attached with mental health is a major fact in their decision to ask for help and received treatment. I know it was a reason for my brother.

So how do we break the stigma to increase youth access to mental health programs? Promotion and awareness are definitely important, but it starts with the words we use. The continued marriage of ‘committed’ and ‘suicide’ will only continue to mitigate progress in breaking the stigma. Words matter. And to break the stigma, we need to change the words.



Unpacking the Syrian Conflict: What’s Next?

Syria made the headlines again today. In more than two year of fighting, the Syrian civil war has resulted in over 90,000 deaths, displaced over 4 million people, and has caused more than $80 billion in damage. Yet, there is still no end in sight. As described in the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and the New America Foundation’s June 2013 Report, Dissecting an Evolving Conflict: The Syrian Uprising and the Future of the Country, the conflict in Syria has reached a stalemate, a condition if not resolved soon could spiral Syria into becoming a failed state.

Syria was the fifth Arab spring country, following in the footsteps of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. What began as a peaceful call for political reformation in March 2011 quickly took up the slogan of the Arab Spring revolution – “the people want to overthrow the regime” – and was consequently met with stark regime crackdown. The regime’s use of violence transformed the nature of the conflict from one of rebellion, seeking political reform, to one of revolution, seeking the overthrow of the Assad regime. As the protests gained momentum, the Syrian governments stepped in with increasing force, perpetuating further protests. Each time this cycle occurred, the conflict escalated a little bit further.

The militarization of the rebellion came in response to Assad’s implementation of the security solution—a plan that involved breaking up protests but quickly escalated to include the use of military might to disband the unarmed protesters. Syrian soldiers, who are now being asked to fire on unarmed civilians, began to defect from the Syrian army. The defected Syrian military officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July 2011 to combat the unchecked Syrian army in its campaign of human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

After the 18 July 2013 bombing of Syrian regime’s National Headquarters and the killing of four high ranking Syrian personnel, the opposition gained momentum and provided the catalyst of numerous opposition victories. Despite immediate successes, the progress of the rebels has since been slowed and has been met with immense opposition. With Assad’s government backed by Russia and Iran, the question in the last six months has been whether the West would intervene and support the rebels. For President Obama, the Syria’s use of chemical weapons was the ‘red line’ the eventually prompted the US to support the Syrian rebels.

An end to this conflict is in the interest of regional stability. The conflict has already spilled over into neighboring countries, putting tremendous stress on the region. Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey have all experience shelling and/or fighting as a direct consequence of the Syrian conflict.  Moreover, the conflict has forced the creations of regional alliances, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar supporting the Syrian rebels, while Iran continues to support the Assad regime.

The stability of the region is now tied to the stability of Syria, a country locked in civil war stalemate. If the support of the US is able to tip the scales in favor of the rebels, this alone will not be sufficient to bring stability and security to the region. Over time the rebel movement has become fragmented and the success of the rebels would not bring stability alone. This is all to say that the road to regional stability in Syria may be longer than is immediate apparent. The end to civil war will not equate to stability. There are many difficult steps in between.

Press Freedom: A Necessary Condition for Democracy?

Somalia has been seemingly moving in the direction towards great development and democratization. As of August 2012, Somalia has a new Constitution, elected a new government, put a new cabinet into place, and has been working to advance talks with Somaliland. Given the recent successes in this country, the United Nations voted to remove the arms embargo against Somalia and international embassies have, once again, begun to open in Somalia. Somalia’s human rights record, however, specifically in the case of press freedom, demonstrated that this movement towards democracy is stagnant.

The Provisional Constitution of Somalia, adopted on August 1, 2012 outlines the essential rights and freedoms of every Somali. As such, article 18 contains the prescribed freedom of expression and opinion. Article 18 (1) states “every person has the right to have and express their opinions and to receive and impart their opinion, information, and idea in any way,” and article 18(2) states “freedom of expression includes freedom of speech and freedom of media, including all forms of electronic and web-based media.” Inherent in these articles is press freedom, the capacity for one to publish an article using any outlet, on any topic, provided that it does not violate the rights of another (ie. defamation). Yet in Somalia, this is not the case 

The Press Freedom Index ranked Somalia 175th in 2013. This ranking, out of a total 179 countries, means Somalia has one of the world’s lowest rankings in terms of press freedom, surpassed by only Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Syria. Not only is media censorship in Somalia a problem, but Somalia also continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to operate. In 2012, 18 media workers were killed in Somalia, most of which were the result of targeted killings rather than frontline fatalities. The Somali government has vowed to stop the attacks against journalists, but has not followed through on its promise. In the first quarter of 2013, 5 journalists were killed in Somalia. The country’s problems with press freedom, however, are not limited to killing journalists; they also include suppression of the journalist voice through imprisonment.

Adbiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim, a Somalia freelance journalist, faced charges including insulting a government body, making false accusations, and seeking a profit for these accusations. The reason for these charges: Ibrahim interviewed a Somali woman who was allegedly raped by 5 government soldiers.  The Somali woman who was interviewed was also imprisoned. Even though the article was never published, a Mogadishu court sentenced both Ibrahim and the alleged victim to one year in prison on the basis that medical evidence proved that the woman was not raped. The case was brought the Somali high court where both parties were eventually released. In reference to Ibrahim, Adidi Abdillahi Ilkahanaf, Chairman of the Somali High Court, stated that there was no evidence to support the charges brought against him and consequently, on March 17th, Ibrahim was released.

This case is of particular concern as it not only is a clear violation of press freedom, but this violation was an attempt to suppress victim’s right. Whether she was raped or not is not the issue at hand here, but rather that her case was dealt with through imprisonment and media suppression, rather than through the use of the judiciary. Human rights activists contended that the imprisonment was politically motivated, aimed at covering up the rampant sexual abuse of women in Somalia. The fact that the Somali President refused to intervene is evidence in this regard.

Democracy is supported by freedom of the press. When the press is able to report on issues of interest, be they in favor or against the government in power, the system is legitimized by its transparency. When people are able to express their opinions in a non-violent way,  feel as though those opinions are being heard, and feel as though they are inspiring change with in the government/country, then the transition towards a democratic society can progress. However, a society that continues to block press freedom, freedom of expression, and cover up human rights violations will not be able to make the transition towards democracy.

Yes, Somalia has made some great strides in the past year, and yes, they are on a path towards something, but Somalia is a critical fork in the road. It can either choose to continue moving towards democracy, opening its country the rights and freedoms inherent in a democratic society, or it can choose to continue restricting human rights and consequently risk loosing any gains it has previously made. Press freedom in an instrumental step in the process towards democracy.


For more on press freedom, see PeaceMedia:





Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law. You can email her at jah340@georgetown.edu or follow her on twitter @joleneh340. 

International Corruption Eruption

 The phrase ‘corruption eruption’ was coined in 1995 by Moises Naim, a Senior Associated in the International Economics program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The phrase is in reference to the eruption of outcry against corruption in the post-Cold War period and subsequently asks the question: “why have societies, which have traditionally tolerated corruption at the highest levels in government and the private sector, suddenly lost their patience and their citizens willing to take to the street to topple high officials accused of wrong doings?” (Naim, 1995).

The fall of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc gave way to the rampant spread of democracy. This spread of democracy in turn exposed the corruption inherent in many government systems, both in established democracies such as the United States, Italy, and France, and in newly developed democracies. Exposing corruption resulted in public outcry and consequently the beginning of the ‘war on corruption’.

The war on corruption was characterized by an effort to combat corrupt at all levels. Countries enacted anti-corruption legislation to fight governmental corruption, corporations adopted strict codes of conduct to combat corruption in the private sector, and non-governmental organizations such as Transparency International were created to expose corruption and to hold both governments and private corporations accountable. The hallmark of this struggle against corruption is the creation of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption of 2003 (hereafter “the Convention”). As of December 24, 2012, the Convention has 140 signatories and 165 state parties.

The Convention demonstrates the concern of the international community in reference to the seriousness of the problems corruption poses to the stability and security of the state, the creation of democratic institutions, establishment of ethnic norms and justice, fostering sustainable development, and the creation of rule of law (Preamble). It’s purpose, as defined by article 1, is to promote/strengthen measure to prevent/combat corruption more efficiently/effective; promote/facilitate/support international cooperation and technical assistance in the prevention of and fight against corruption; and promote integrity. accountability, and proper management of both public affairs and public property. Moreover, it calls on the state to develop/implement/maintain effective coordinated anti-corruption policies that reflect the principles of rule of law, proper management of public affairs, public property integrity, transparency, and accountability (article 5).

How is Corruption Harmful to Civilians?

According to Naim, the word ‘corruption’ has become the “universal diagnosis for a nation’s ills” (Naim, 2005). This has the lead to perspective that if one can curtail the culture of greed in a given society, all other problems will be easy to solve. The problem, however, corruption is not necessarily correlated with economic prosperity. In countries such as Hungary, Italy, and Poland, a certain degree of prosperity has been able to coexist with systems of corruption. Furthermore, China, India, and Thailand provide examples of countries deemed to been highly corrupt while simultaneously experiencing high levels of economic growth.

Additionally, the fixation on corruption as the ‘ends-all’ problem drives the public debate away from other critical problems affecting a given state. Media outlets are more likely to publish on topic regarding corruption or scandalous activity, perceiving this to be more newsworthy. In doing so, they neglect to draw attention to other critical problems such as education, healthcare, infrastructure, or the economy. Although these problems may be aggravated by corruption, they were not created by corruption alone. They are the result of underdeveloped institutions that have been exploited by corruptive practices. Thus, the tendency to assume that the abolition of corruption will bring about prosperity is a very limited perspective.

Finally, the focus on corruption as the source of a state’s problems creates unrealistic expectations as to what is required to improve the standard of living within that state. There is a belief that by simply removing a corrupt leader, prosperity will follow. However, there is no direct correlation between theses two factors; the situation is more complex, involving a multitude of factors. If the expectations is that lustration will result in improved standards of living, this sets the stage for societal discontent and possible social unrest.

What is the Relationship between Corruption and Rebellion?

In keeping with the theme of ‘corruption eruption’ (ie. societal response to state corruption), there seems to be a correlation between rebellion/situations of social unrest and levels of corruption. Analysis of this correlations is draw from Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (hereafter ‘the Index’).

Libya provide the best example of this. Between 2008 and 2011, Libya’s ranking on the Index continually dropped. The same can be said for Mali between 2008 and 2011. The table below demonstrates this trend. Rankings are on a 10 point scale, 10 representing no corruption and 1 representing complete corruption.



































As these two countries moved towards revolution/opened violent conflict, it appears as though they also became more corrupt. The problem remains, however, that there is no real way of qualifying corruption, given its covert nature. Thus, although there appears to be a relationship between increase corruption and the eruption of violence conflict, it is difficult to easily quantify this this relationship. Nevertheless, the relationship between corruption and rebellion warrants additional research. If more direct and specifies correlation can be established (ie. that kind corruption and by who tend to lead to rebellion), than it may be possible for this to act as an indicator for the likelihood rebellion.

Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law. You can email her at jah340@georgetown.edu or follow her on twitter @joleneh340

Cambodia: the Geopolitical Chessboard


ImageThe history of the cold war boiled down to one sentence would go as follows: The world’s two opposing superpowers – Capitalist United States and Communist USSR – contending for international power and influence through the engagement of militarily armament, military engagement, and proxy wars. The United States commenced with a ‘roll-back policy’ – an attempt to rejuvenate democracy in those countries that had become communist, but this policy was soon shifted to one of containment – the prevention of future countries from becoming communism. When one thinks of the Cold War the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the proxy wars fought in South America, Africa, and the Middle East immediately come to mind. Cambodia is not at the forefront of the discussion, yet it was victim of the geopolitical climate created by the Cold War environment.

Cambodia was declaredly neutral during the Cold War. In fact, to was part of the Non-AlignedImage Movement, a group of states that chose not to align themselves with either the community or capitalist bloc. However, Cambodia became of tremendous interest to both sides of the conflict during the war in Vietnam. Cambodia shares its eastern border with Vietnam, and despite declaring neutrality, it permitted the Viet Cong to use the eastern portions of the country as access routes to the American military forces. When the US discovered this, they proceed to carpet bomb the eastern region of Cambodia, causing immense destruction. The turmoil and destruction of the US bombings in Cambodia gave rise to civil war from 1970 to 1975, in which the Khmer Rouge was eventually victorious. Rumors began to circulate about the atrocities being committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, so much so that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights launched an investigation into the Pol Pot regime in 1978. The resulting report, the Boudhiba Report, however, was never presented before the United Nations, largely due to the geopolitics surrounding Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979.


In January 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, overthrew Pol Pot’s regime, and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. What needs to be noted on this topic, and which is often forgotten in Cold War history, is that in Asia, China and the USSR were positioned against one another – Maoism vs. Leninism. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, they were backed by the USSR. This immediately incited fear into China who opening opposed Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia and called for the immediately withdraw of all Vietnamese troops. The United States, have just established economic relations with China and not wanting to hinder those relations, sided with China against the USSR backed Vietnamese government in Vietnam. At this time, the remaining Khmer Rouge member had fled to the forest and continued to receive support from the United States and China. Their support of rebel groups in Cambodia was so much that the Khmer Rouge remained the official representative of Cambodia at the United Nations until the after the Peace Agreement of 1991, despite the fact that the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was effectively running the country. In the midst of all this politics, the Boudhiba Report was given little attention. In fact, when its presentation was proposed before the United Nations General Assembly in February 1979, the USSR, the entire Soviet Bloc and the Non-Aligned Movement voted against its admission.

In the wake to the mass atrocities committed in Cambodia, no western government came to Cambodia’s aid, in spite of international commitments made to end such atrocities. “Never Again” was the slogan for the Nuremberg trial, the justification from bringing the Nazi perpetrators to justice, yet in the Cambodian context this pretense did not exist. Not until much later, almost 30 years later. To make matters worse, because to the geopolitical climate of the region, the United States and Great Britain sought to block NGO attempts to get emergency humanitarian aid into the country.

With the developing global conscience, the situation, the exploitation of a country due to geopolitical interest, is simply not acceptable. The Cambodians that died under Pol Pot’s regime were human too and deserve the same rights, protection, and international support as any other person in the world. The movement to end such atrocities requires the active engagement of all countries to create a standard that such crimes are simply unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Geopolitics should never be a consideration when it comes to human rights violations.