Archive | November, 2012

Not If But When: Planning for the Inevitable Syrian Rebel Victory

23 Nov

Debates in the UN have, for months, have focused on whether or not military intervention should happen on Syria.  These debates have dragged on and on with little movement in any direction, and have also simultaneously ignored that the conflict is no longer a stalemate: the rebels are winning.  Not only are they winning, but there is increasing evidence that Assad has lost his ability to eventually prevail.  It’s unclear when the Syrian rebels will win, but a post-Assad Syria is now a near certainty.  Therefore, the focus for international actors needs to shift from dilly-dallying on intervention to serious planning on how to safeguard human rights once the Assad regime is toppled.

Unlike in Libya, the decision on the behalf of Western powers whether or not to intervene will not be the defining moment of the conflict.  At this point in the conflict, the effects of intervention will not be military, but rather political.  How will intervention affect the involvement and credibility of western governments in building a new regime?  In Libya, NATO members have taken a relatively hands off approach, and while there are still many problems, the country has held free elections and is relatively stable.  The west has far from a perfect record on state-building, but there are some things, such as aid money, technical expertise, and bureaucratic capacity that the international community could provide without trying to handpick Syria’s new leaders.

The sectarianization of the conflict does not bode well for the eventual losers in Syria. In Libya, the sides were definitely partially drawn along ethnic lines, but the contours were not nearly as clear as they are in Syria.  Assad has armed Christians, Alawites, and Druze, and these groups have sided with almost exclusively sided with the government.  This ethnic dynamic has caused numerous sectarian killings over the course of the war, and the hateful rhetoric is only growing louder.  Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect writes, “Indeed, as pro-democracy protests degenerated into civil war, the ideological composition of the opposition changed. The Free Syrian Army’s slogan remains, “We are all one people of one country.” But inside Syria those chanting “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to their graves!” have become more than a fringe element.”  While the Syrian National Coalition is certainly more representative than the Syrian National Council, the structural factors do not seem positive for Alawites, Christians, and Druze.  If the international community wants to have a lasting legacy in Syria, civilian protection and human rights promotion has to be the central focus.  Unfortunately, the prospects for international involvement in these areas looks grim.  There has been very little international condemnation, if any, of the sectarian killings carried out by the FSA.  Similarly, the west’s record in preventing minority persecution in Libya is dismal.  A serious change in orientation is needed to protect minority groups from likely being at the mercy of Sunni militias once Assad is defeated.

Another big question that has been largely ignored is what post-conflict justice will look like in Syria.  The ethnic dimension only amplifies the dangers of a harsh, victor’s justice.  Therefore, this is the second key area in which western governments can participate.  There are numerous routes that this effort could take, from the ICC to a truth and reconciliation commission.  Whatever method is chosen, it must apply equally to all participants in the conflict and allow the Syrian people to move one with the sense that justice has been done.  For Western governments, it is not enough to simply hasten the downfall of Assad.  In order to play a constructive role, foreign nation must begin working with Syrian partners to assure fair representation, respect for human rights, and a comprehensive justice mechanism in an inevitable post-Assad Syria.


As Swarthmore Gets to You, Articles Become Thoughts of the Day

16 Nov

Between organizing a conference, going to a lecture, working tonight, that physics problem set that I probably should have started, promising my girlfriend to see Skyfall with her tomorrow, the intramural soccer finals this weekend, and working on the Swarthmore SPJP divestment campaign, I’m a little bogged down.  Therefore, the piece on Syria, intervention, and R2P that I planned to finish today isn’t going to happen.  In lieu of a real piece, I want to quickly sketch out an idea that came into my head a few weeks ago.

In Bec Hamilton’s book, Fighting for Darfur, the author outlines how advocates were able to use the Olympics as a way to pressure China to stop supporting the Sudanese government in Khartoum.  While China is generally oblivious to human rights criticisms from the West, the Olympics were its one moment of weakness.  China hoped to present itself as a modern nation that respected basic human rights, and its dealings in Sudan contradicted that carefully cultivated image.   Sustained pressure directed toward Steven Spielberg, the director of the opening ceremonies, eventually caused his resignation.  This sustained media campaign that highlighted Chinese support of abuses in Darfur eventually slightly shifted China’s position concerning Sudan in the UN.

Fortunately, dumb luck has presented civilian protection advocates with an almost identical opportunity.  The 2014 Olympics will be hosted in Sochi, Russia.  And I’m sure almost everyone’s made the link by this point in the article, but Russia is Syria’s main supporter in the UN.  Similarly, Russia tends to be immune to criticism regarding its human rights records, but the Olympics are a legitimizing experience for any government, and no country wants the collective memory of its games to be dominated by negative associations.  It may be hard to find as clear a target as Steven Spielberg, but once advocates do find an entry point, they should jump on it.  Pressuring Russia over the Olympics won’t end the violence in Syria, and advocates should continue to use other strategies.  However, it could affect Russia’s policy for the better, so why not give it a go?

Dehumanization in Mass Atrocities: Perpetrators Aren’t the Only Guilty Ones

8 Nov

*This is the second post of a two part series in reaction to my participation in the Women and Genocide in the 21st Century Conference organized by the Darfur Women Action Group.  The first focused on realism in advocacy, and this will focus on the dehumanization of perpetrators of mass atrocities.

At multiple points during the conference, actress and activist Mario Bello spoke of her desire to “shoot” human rights violators (in this case, specifically Omar al-Bashir and rapists).  While her anger is understandable, dehumanizing the perpetrators of human rights violations and mass atrocities is both simplistic and counterproductive.  Child soldiers, for example, provide us with a complicated picture of perpetrators vs. victims, and therefore avoiding basic moral rationalizations leads to better analysis and advocacy.

The type of judgement passed by Maria Bello inherently divides those in conflict regions into two categories: the perpetrators and the victims.  In this conceptualization, the evil perpetrators become less worthy of human rights, while the victims are entirely innocent.  Reality is more complicated.  During the Rwandan genocide, moderate, vocal Hutus were the first to be killed by the radical Hutu forces.  For Hutus who did not wish to participate in the subsequent ethnically-driven massacres, there were no good options.  These complex realities problematize our conception of perpetrator vs. victim.  Where do we draw the line, and is there even a line?  If we accept that the line is not obvious, and we ourselves have not experienced such horrific situations, can we even judge where the line is?  These are questions we need to ask ourselves before deciding who deserves human rights and who doesn’t.

Dehumanizing perpetrators of mass atrocities also blunts policy options.  Lumping Bashir into the category of those that deserve to be shot presents an artificial moral barrier for advocates.  This barrier makes post-conflict scenarios that include perpetrators seem morally reprehensible, despite evidence that engaging with perpetrators is a productive approach.  Bashir, of course, is likely essential to potential change within Sudan, and dehumanizing him to the point where we cannot seek to engage with him productively is not a particularly good strategy.

Finally, we must remember that advocates’ approach to a particular conflict will influence future approaches for combating mass atrocities.  Categorizing and dehumanizing perpetrators sets a dangerous precedent for ignoring the ethical complexities of widespread violence against civilians.  In the play A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More and William Roper have a telling interaction:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Essentializing perpetrators and victims into a duality and dehumanizing the former is a slippery slop for human rights activists.  This approach lends itself to an eventual loss of moral authority for well-meaning advocates, and hampers their ability to successfully respond to current and future conflicts.  Dehumanization is an extraordinarily powerful and dangerous concept, and not taking care to avoid it is immensely harmful to effective advocacy.

‘Til the Revolution Comes

5 Nov

*This is the first post of a two part series in reaction to my participation in the Women and Genocide in the 21st Century Conference organized by the Darfur Women Action Group.  This one will focus on realism in advocacy, and the second will focus on the dehumanization of perpetrators of mass atrocities.

The conference last weekend was full of many insightful perspectives and personal stories, but there was one assertion, repeated a few times, that really irked me.  The charge was that Omar al-Bashir is the root of all the problems in Sudan, and that until he is removed by the international community, Sudan will not improve.  During these moments, my mind wandered back to my dad telling me as sixteen-year-old about the dangers of manichean theories, or as he called them, “‘Til the revolution comes” arguments.  These lines of thoughts are not productive, as they downplay the agency of everyone involved and glaze over existing political scenarios.

Firstly, this  approach is simply not realistic.  The ICC has no mechanism to forcibly arrest Bashir, and rather relies on the cooperation of signatories to provide enforcement.  Even if countries refuse to arrest Bashir, the ICC indictment puts long-term pressure on Bashir, limiting his ability to interact diplomatically and decreasing his legitimacy.  The ICC is one way to bring about Bashir’s removal, or at least his restraint, but it is not the only way.   Placing all of our eggs in the ICC basket makes us forget all of the other policy and advocacy options that are available to us.

If the only way for Sudan to improve is for the ICC to apprehend and try Bashir, then us Sudan activists should probably stop reading the Sudan Tribune, forget where Abyei is, and play more golf.  This attitude gives advocates almost nothing to do.  We can ask Kenya and Egypt to take a tougher stance on Bashir all we want, but our chances of success are about as good as Obama claiming an endorsement from the NRA.  The belief that Sudan cannot improve with Bashir in power uses moralizing rhetoric to cover-up political realities.  Omar al-Bashir, is, without of doubt, one of the worst heads of state of the 21st Century (he might even be up there with legends), but he is also beholden to outside interests and powers.  Bashir needs certain things, like a steady supply of arms, cash, and oil.  In order to maintain access to these necessities, he has to be willing to negotiate.  He’s also clearly pretty good at it: it’s not easy to stay in power for twenty-three years.  Therefore, it is possible to use leverage against Bashir to improve conditions in Sudan.  Also, improvement in Sudan does not necessarily have to go through Bashir.  The government of Sudan, while repressive, is not all-powerful, and has a limited capacity to snuff out positive change (also, it as violence against civilians is always in the interests of Bashir).  Sudan can improve, even with Bashir at the helm, and advocates shouldn’t turn to fatalist language to rally support for the cause.

Relying on the international community to bring Bashir to justice implicitly overlooks the ability of Sudanese to make organic political change.  This summer, Sudan was rocked by #SudanRevolts, Bashir is running out of money, and his governing coalition is starting to fall apart.  Movements like Girifna have organized activists and put real pressure on the NCP.  In this scenario, the main actors are the Sudanese, and relying on the ICC as an agent of change is disrespectful to the many dedicated activists risking their lives to topple Bashir’s administration.  The international community can certainly hasten Bashir’s downfall through sanctions and diplomatic pressure, but ultimately it is up to the Sudanese to make political change.  Enforced political change from the outside won’t last, and so Sudan advocates must cease relying on the ICC as an all-powerful, semi-magical tool to bring about regime change.

I’m betting that Bashir will have lost power by the time I graduate from college.  This won’t happen because the ICC finally figures out an ingenious way to arrest him, but because the internal dynamics of Sudan’s politics and economics force him out.  Therefore, Sudan advocates need to plan for the day after Bashir leaves, but also remember that there is a lot of work to be done in the interim.