Speakers discuss border disputes and displacement in panel event

On Tuesday November 7, GPI’s programming committee—led by members Mohammed “Zain” Shafi Khan, Ivana Karastoeva, Rhea Khurana, and Melinda Xia—hosted our Border Disputes and Displacement speaker event. The event showcased three experts: Dr. Fayez Hammad, a USC lecturer on Middle Eastern politics and history; Mr. Levon Golendukin, JD, an Armenian attorney specialized in public international law; and Professor Steve Swerdlow, Esq., an expert on post-Soviet states, who discussed historic and ongoing border disputes and how they affect local populations.

GPI fellow Zain opened the discussion by prompting each lecturer to explain the background and most recent developments of the border conflict in their area of expertise. Dr. Hammad, focusing on the Israeli-Palestine conflict, responded: “This is not an ancient conflict, nor is it a conflict about religion. [This is a] modern political conflict.” Dr. Hammad argued against the conventional oversimplification of the conflict as a Jewish-Muslim disagreement, focusing on the hegemonic European politics that lay at the core of the issue. He described the historical context, explaining the creation of Israel in 1948, known by Palestinians as the “nakba” or “catastrophe,” and the 800,000 refugees it spawned. He then transitioned to the present day, where the UN has yet to fulfill its 1948 promise of Palestinians’ fundamental right of return. Dr. Hammad also touched on the question of a two-state solution by describing the historic and ongoing prioritization of Jerusalem above the rest of Palestine. In his concluding remarks, Dr. Hammad poignantly instructed his audience: “Decide for yourself, do I want to be someone who upholds universal values? Or do I want to be obligated to uphold nationalist impulses? Attempt to strive to find universal values, always be faithful to principles and uphold principles equally and universally.” 

Mr. Golendukin, specializing in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, echoed Dr. Hammad by arguing that the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict also is “not a religious conflict,” but an “inter-ethnic conflict,” stemming from “unresolved questions of self-determination” after the fall of the Soviet Union. He described how the Russian Empire’s, and later the Soviet Union’s, control over Armenia and Azerbaijan dictated the status of their conflict. When united under Russian dominion, the two communities maintained mostly amicable relations, and the division between the two nationalities blurred. As the Soviet Union loosened its grip, the two countries once again regressed into chaos as they scrambled to redraw borders, leading to today’s disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh, an area within Azerbaijan with a majority of ethnic Armenians. Today, Azerbaijan’s state-sanctioned discrimination, violence, and hate speech towards Armenians have led to a full-fledged conflict with major civilian displacements and casualties which, according to Mr. Golendukin, are partially due to “fragmentation in applicable law.” Regardless of affected Armenians’ official legal status, Mr. Golendukin advises to “never lose sight that a person who lost their home is still a person who lost their home regardless of where they have been displaced to.” 

Professor Swerdlow, speaking on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border conflict, introduced his topic by defining conflicts as “created,” “imagined,” and “often [coming] from a lack of resources or identity issues.” Like Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russian hegemony heavily dictated Kyrgyz-Tajik relations. Under Russian rule, Kyrgyz and Tajik individuals bonded over a lingua franca, forced army service, and intermarriages. In post-Soviet times, Kyrgyz and Tajik individuals struggled geopolitically after Russia’s haphazardly-drawn borders. Without Russian unity, the chasm between the two ethnic groups deepened, and clashes became increasingly intense, resulting in over 130,000 internally displaced people in Kyrgyzstan. Professor Swerdlow is particularly concerned with the rights of people displaced around the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. He noted that “central Asia is often a rights-free zone…a gap where international organizations don’t provide enough coverage.” Where international organizations or federal officials fail to act, civil society pulls through, with most progress emerging thanks to “naming and shaming” from NGOs, journalists, and other civil societies. While Professor Swerdlow called on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to act on ensuring protections for these displaced civilians, he recommends learning the language of international law to “help us get to a more fair, more objective way of solving conflicts.” 

On behalf of GPI, we are extremely grateful for our guest speakers’ insight and advice. Upon listening to our speakers, a pattern became clear amongst these different border disputes; powerful, colonizing nations are to blame for the root of the conflicts. Whether it be Great Britain handing off their Mandate of Palestine to Zionist settlers or Russia arbitrarily designating borders, the lasting effects of colonialisation are unavoidably obvious. Colonizer nations take control of an area, maintain it for a bit, and then withdraw without much consideration into the ramifications of doing so. Now that the damage is done, the nations that inspired these issues are nowhere to be found; take, for instance, the abandoned Palestinians to whom the UN promised the right of return. Or the displaced Kyrgyz who must rely upon local civil activists for assistance as international organizations turn a blind eye. And while the global superpower perpetrators divert blame, the general population dismisses these conflicts as mere “third-world” violence occurring far, far away from the safety of their suburbs. 

We thank our fantastic speakers once again for opening our eyes to these prominent global issues, establishing a factual basis for these politicized issues, and inspiring us to continue educating ourselves. They help us remember that conflicts, no matter how distant, always carry a real human cost. In the words of Mr. Golendukin: there is always “a human side to the conflict [we] can’t let ourselves get separated from. People’s lives are on the line.”  

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