Tag Archives: Post-Conflict

The Conscientious Nation-Builder’s Dilemma

6 Nov

Why do state-building efforts fail?  It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.  To address the limitations of state-building, I want to use the perspective of the “conscientious nation-builder”: a well-educated and well-meaning foreigner working within the bureaucratic apparatus of a governmental organization undertaking a nation-building effort.  This framework problematizes the notion that nation-building is fundamentally a technical exercise and helps explore the contradictions and paradoxes faced by nation-builders that not even the most nuanced solutions can solve.

An assumption made by most political scientists and nation-builders is that most states carry out governance evenly in their territories.  Risse et al. in Governance Without a State challenge this notion, arguing that in most states in the world, state power is severely limited beyond cities.  In place of state power, local governance structures operate.  These structures interact and negotiate with the state.  This is even more true in states such as Somalia, the DRC, and Afghanistan which have undergone extended nation-building attempts.  If many developed states cannot effectively exert their power on rural areas, attempting to recreate this model in states already suffering from a severe lack of capacity presents obvious problems.  Risse’s volume argues that nation-building attempts should work with existing state-local partnerships rather than working toward an ideal-type state.

Nation-building operates on the implicit assumption that there are inherent, concrete benefits in nation-building.  Ariel Ahram, in Proxy Warriors, argues that this isn’t always the case:

“The problem is that so many efforts to strengthen states and eliminate militias have proven quixotic if not counterproductive.  Existing policy options do little to alter the fundamental incentive structure that allow leaders in most developing countries to continue to rely on localized, informal militia forces.  Peace building and international trusteeship are susceptible to subversion by both their sponsors and their recipient or target states.  Reenacting Europe’s blood-drenched history by allowing strong states to weed out the weak is dubious on both practical and moral ground.”

Similarly, Rory Stewart argues that the presence of the state is not always necessarily better than its absence in Can Intervention Work?:

“It is true that there were no police and civil servants in the villages of central Afghanistan, and there had not been for over twenty-five years.  Yet I walked entirely safely alone and unarmed for three hundred miles through them without being robbed or murdered, because the area was generally densely controlled, in a way that had little resemblance to the descriptions or prescriptions of the international community.” 

While Ahram argues that states do generally provide security more effectively to their people, he also posits that attempts to assert a state’s monopoly on violence in areas where it doesn’t exist may only further endanger the population’s physical security.  If militias are often no worse than states, and attempting to implement state primacy has negative effects, why do nation-building attempts seek to do just that?  I think there’s an element of control: it’s easier for outsiders to understand states as Westphalian, rather than dealing with local rulers, structures, and customs.  If states do not fit this blueprint, international actors have more difficulty interacting and negotiating with non-state actors that practice governance.

Ahram and Risse et al.’s functional approach to states and state-buildings is refreshing, but they miss an important point in their policy prescriptions.  People generally want states for the same reasons nation-builders do.  Even if states are abusive, they provide order and predictability that may or may not be provided by the non-state actors that fill the void.  For the conscientious nation-builder, this presents a puzzle.  While the end goal of a state monopoly on violence will likely be popular, the road to that point is littered with barriers that may make the enterprise counterproductive.  Even if the target state does achieve a monopoly on violence, human security may be no better than it was previously, and many people may have died along the way.

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State argues that authoritarian high-modernist attempts to remake society are destined to fail.  The logic of the state revolves around ordering complexity, or what Adam Elkus would call “binning“.   However societies tend to resist this attempt at uniformity.  Individual interests clash with bureaucratic logic, and local social structures do not all function in the way that the state finds easiest to control.  Therefore there is a fundamental tension between the state (order) and society (disorder) that authoritarian high modernism finds itself unable to overcome.  It is simply impossible for a state to regulate society without conceding to the society’s culture, history, and structure.  The project of nation-building can be conceived as authoritarian high modernism.  For example, Rory Stewart argues that state-building attempts in Afghanistan, and in particular a national development strategy, failed to adapt to the specifics of the Afghan situation:

“This specialized language–drawn from development theory and overlaid with management consultancy before being inserted into the multilateral policy-drafting process–was bewildering…Among the sixty-nine separate tables and charts in this 137-page plan, including ones on “predicted teledensity” and “status and accomplishment, national police and law enforcement,” the following words did not appear: Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Islam, Sharia, jihad, communism, Northern Alliance, warlord, democracy, equality, insurgency, resistance, and consent.  Were you to delete the word Afghanistan and replace it with the word Botswana, it would be very difficult to know of which country you were speaking.”

All of this puts the conscientious nation-builder in a difficult position.  Nation-building institutional culture prioritizes addressing and implementing abstract concepts, such as the rule of law and accountable governance, over deep country-specific expertise and an ability to adapt to local situations.  This isn’t a new problem: Scott notes that well-intentioned officials in 19th century Germany failed to successfully codify local forestry practices.  Even if the conscientious nation-builder wishes to get local input on nation-building plans and work with existing social structures, they face two significant impediments.  First, securing physical access to local populations can be impossible in conflict zones.  Nation-builders in Afghanistan spent almost all their time in compounds and needed enormous security details to move beyond those walls.  Second, it’s very possible these ideas that cut against the grain of nation-building culture won’t receive any support from higher-ups (akin to Ferguson’s concept of ‘development discourse’).

The conscientious nation-builder has to deal with the myth of internal sovereignty, the potential harm caused by nation-building, and an institutional culture that leans toward implementing formulaic solutions, but all these may yet be surmountable.  However, the last challenge, that of societies that stubbornly refuse to move away from non-liberal forms of local governance, may be a bridge too far.  Working with these local forms of authorities clash not only with the belief in state primacy, but also with the democratic consensus that permeates nation-building projects.  Rory Stewart again:

“There had been many regimes in the last thirty years, backed by Americans, Soviets, Saudis, Pakistanis, and now the UN mandate: royalist, nationalist, Marxist, Soviet, theocratic, and pro-Western, with many constitutions.  But there always seems to be one power in Kamenj.  Mohsin’s [the local strongman] was not the state that the international community or indeed many Afghans wanted–it was conservative and patriarchal.  But did the international community understand it, or have the formula to transform it?”

Even the conscientious nation-builder is simply not equipped to deal with this problem.  Working with rather than removing people such as Mohsin challenge the very intent of the nation-building enterprise, but so does not working with him.  Instead, as many nation-builders have done before, the conscientious nation-builder may well work with Mohsin and attempt to persuade him to liberalize his rule and surrender to state power, which he will likely agree to do without following through.  The conscientious nation-builder then has arrived at a policy destined to fail with only the best of intentions.

What is the conscientious nation-builder to do?  The problems in this post are not resolvable, but their negative consequences can be dampened.  First, the conscientious nation-builder should place the physical security of a population above everything else, and should work toward diffusing this norm within their institution.  Second, they should elicit and privilege advice from locals and country specialists who have seen previous nation-building attempts fail.  Finally, the conscientious nation-builder should be aware of the limits of the nation-building enterprise.

*A special thanks to Sara Fitzpatrick for editing and to Shervin Malekzadeh for helping me come up with these ideas.


When Reasonable Lungs are too Tired to Shout Anymore: On Arming the Syrian Rebels

15 Jun

After months of stumbling toward some sort of military intervention, the Obama administration has finally fallen across the finish line and decided to arm the Syrian rebels.  This decision, for the most part, initiated a massive collective groan in the American foreign policy community, and once we’d all come to terms with the stupidity of the decision, we, as nature dictates, started to argue about why it happened.

The reasons for the collective groan are obvious, and there have been no shortage of voices that have sketched out in vivid detail why arming the rebels (or other proposed military options) is a boneheaded idea.  Firstly, there isn’t a long-term game plan.  Arming the opposition will moderately augment the rebels’ military strength, but not enough to topple Assad.  According to past experiences with arming rebels (Afghanistan), these arms will eventually get into the wrong hands.  Other proposed options, such as a no-fly zone (NFZ), or cratering government runways, similarly won’t do enough to topple Assad or stop the slaughter of civilians.  No one’s seriously talking about military intervention, which is the only option with long-term logic, even if that logic is also fatally flawed.  Secondly, all of these “strategies” point back to the larger issue of what the goal of American policy in Syria is.  There are three possible options: civilian protection, toppling Assad, or intensifying a proxy war that taxes Iran and Hezbollah at minimal cost.  It’s obviously not the first.  And it’s not the second for the reasons explained above.  Daniel Drezner has argued it’s the third, but that explanation falls short too.  If Obama really saw Syria as the perfect place to engage in a proxy war with Iran and Hezbollah, why didn’t he do it earlier?  Why wait until chemical weapons use is impossible to deny (it was clear as day in April)?

Ultimately, arming the rebels is not the result any coherent, grand strategy.  Rather, it is the consequence of moral and militaristic pressures on the Obama administration.   Diverse sources, from John McCain to Anne-Marie Slaughter to the State Department, have nudged the White House to “do something”.  These calls to action, lacking any strategic legs to stand on, rely on two strategies: moral, emotional appeals and misleading statements regarding America’s credibility.  The first is the most common.  Moral appeals on Syria minimize crucial strategic concerns in favor emotional parallels with past atrocities and empty declarations on the moral necessity of action.  While less common, some conservative politicians and pundits have thrown down the credibility gauntlet: if America does not intervene in the face of such atrocities, it will lose respect among fellow nations.  This ignores the high probability that military intervention in Syria, in whatever form, will fail, and that there is a strong global consensus against American intervention in the Middle East post-Iraq.  The lack of any serious strategy means fractures within the decision-making apparatus (which exhibits some of the characteristics Pearlman describes) have produced exceedingly bad policy at an even worse time.  The future is bleak for Syria.

When a Government Falls in the CAR, Do Analysts Hear a Sound?: A Narrative of Current Events

25 Mar

As I sarcastically noted in the above tweet yesterday, the reaction from the foreign policy community to the news of rebels entering Bangui last night was quite underwhelming.  Though I’m about the furthest thing from a CAR expert, I’d like to do my part to fill the information gap about the collapse of Bozize’s regime by aggregating various news reports and producing a more coherent narrative.

Bozize’s (whose ascendancy to power seems to have started when he beat up a French officer) downfall began back in December, when a coalition of four rebel groups, Seleka (meaning “Alliance” in Sango) took up arms against CAR’s government.  The two most powerful groups that form Seleka, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) and the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) , both started as loosely-organized self-defense militias in northeastern CAR (and of the two, the UFDR is the most powerful).   While Bozize’s neglect of rural areas is surely a cause of the rebellion, in the New York Times, Louisa Lombard argues that a United Nations D.D.R. program that failed to understand how the CAR actually works (and seems to have even encouraged some rebels to take up arms) also shares some of the blame.

As Seleka advanced and looked as if they might well overthrow Bozize, the government took to the negotiating table.  Though the “talks”, held in the Gabonese capital of Libreville, were conducted with plenty of pomp by the four regional leaders present, they did not produce any strong comprises.  The hastily signed peace document simply rehashed previous talks from 2007 and 2008 which Bozize had failed to uphold.  Seleka itself, though present at the negotiations, was internally divided on whether or not to engage with the government, considering its then position of strength.

By mid-March, Bozize had still failed to uphold the peace agreement.  Seleka accused Bozize of not fulfilling the four main demands by the rebels that had appeared in the January talks: the release of political prisoners, an end to the curfew and road blocks, the withdrawal of foreign (primarily South African) troops from the country, and finally the integration of at least 2,000 rebel soldiers into the country’s security forces.  The accusation caused Bozize to appear on radio on March 15th and decree that his government respect the first and second demands.  However, his actions only partially placated dissenting voices.  Though Prime Minister  Nicolas Tiangaye (a Seleka representative who had been inducted in the newly formed unity government) had repeatedly encouraged Seleka to lay down its weapons and engage in dialogue with the government, on March 18th, Minister of Defense Michel Djotodia (also a newly inducted government member from Seleka) threatened to overthrow Bozize if the rebels demands were not met within 72 hours and fled Bangui to join with Seleka armed forces.  Bozize failed to meet the demands, Seleka advanced, taking Bangui and causing Bozize to flee across the river to the DRC on the 23rd.

Before I move into the nitty-gritty of what’s happened in the last three days, I’d like to ruminate on two reasons why Seleka was able to overthrow Bozize.  First, there seems to have been a strategic miscalculation on Bozize’s part.  While he had been able to maintain control after sham peace process in ’07 and ’08, it clearly didn’t work this time.  Surely, it should have been pretty clear that the rebels were both militarily strong enough to take Bangui (perhaps he was counting on international support that never materialized?) and that individuals like Djotodia could not be co-opted, even as members of the government.  One possibility is that Bozize himself was not the final power broker here.  Perhaps decision making power in his government was diffuse, meaning hardliners ultimately overruled and paralyzed Bozize, but considering the perfunctory nature of January’s peace talks, the first explanation, a pure political miscalculation, seems more likely.  Second, Bozize fell into a classic trap for dictators in weak states, “Observers say Mr Bozize kept the army weak because he was afraid of a military coup” (via BBC).  James Fearson wrote about this dilemma in the Monkey Cage, and indeed, it seems that dictators (ok, so Bozize won elections, but still had dictatorial tendencies) in weak states, even with ample resources, are unable to build strong security forces to safeguard their rule because of the threat of mutiny.

So what’s happening right now?  It sounds as if, at the time of writing, the skirmishes between Seleka and government forces have ended.  Despite the end of formal fighting, there seems to be widespread looting in Bangui, which may be being directed or prevented by Seleka, depending on the article you read.  Reports indicate that nine South African soldiers died defending Bozize’s governments.  Though it’s still unclear exactly why there were there in the first, the theories I’ve seen have postulated it was an attempt to extend SA’s continental influence and curry good favor with Bozize in order to access CAR’s mineral wealth.  France, which already has 250 soldiers stationed around Bangui’s airport, has deployed another 300 ostensibly to protect French citizens, and Francois Hollande has stated that he does not intend to interfere in internal CAR affairs.   This surge in fighting seems to have involved many child soldiers, and there are also unconfirmed reports of rape and torture perpetrated by the rebels.  While Djotodia has declared himself interim President (he surely has the shortest Wikipedia page of any world leader), Tiangaye was named Prime Minister, and elections are to be held in three year’s time.

The situation on the ground will inevitably change rapidly within the next few days, and in all likelihood, the full picture will become more clear with time.  Finally, I hope that this conflict will start to receive the attention it deserves.

Update 1 (12:15 am EST, 3/26/13)

News is still slow to make it’s way out of CAR.  Ban Ki-Moon has condemned Seleka’s seizure of power and expressed concern regarding reports of atrocities and the deteriorating humanitarian situation (especially in areas of the CAR where the LRA has had a presence).  Looting continues, but several regional armed forces are working with Seleka to restore order.  Seleka has pledged to name a power-sharing government, and has also suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament.  Finally, the death toll for South African soldiers has been raised to 13.

Update 2 (12:30 pm EST, 3/26/13)

Djotodia issued the following statement, “I consider it necessary to suspend the November 27, 2004 constitution, to dissolve parliament as well as the government.  During this transition period which will lead us to free, credible and transparent elections, I will legislate by decree.  We will lead the people of Central African Republic during a three-year transition period, in accordance with the Libreville Accord.”  This statement cites a recognition of the Libreville Accord, despite the fact that Seleka’s rejection of the legitimacy of this process was the main cause for taking up arms.  In light of the rebellion, The African Union has suspended the CAR and placed personal sanctions on Seleka leaders.  Water is in short supply throughout the CAR, and large parts of the country, including Bangui, are without electricity.  Ex-President Bozize, after a few days of unknown whereabouts, has popped up in Cameroon.  The US has weighed in on the issue, condemning Bozize’s ouster, but also failed to call for his re-instatement.  Finally, the BBC (surely responding to my statement on the short length of Michel Djotodia’s Wikipedia page) has published a profile of the world’s newest leader.

Ethnic Violence and Weapons Proliferation in South Sudan

17 Jan

*This post originally appeared on the STAND blog.

In South Sudan’s Jonglei state, ethnic violence between the Lou Nuer and Murle communities is a constant characteristic of South Sudan’s internal instability. Along with many structural factors, weapons proliferation is a central cause of increasing conflict. The presence of numerous armed men have increased the casualty rates of cattle raids and undermined more cautious leadership. The South Sudanese government has consistently either failed to address the root causes of the problem, done so ineptly, or lacked the required institutional capacity. It has also aggravated the conflict by relying on ethnic militias to provide short-term security, without a plan to eventually disarm these militias. There are some issues at play beyond the reach of the South Sudanese government, but even in the areas it can control, it has so far failed as a productive actor in decreasing inter-tribal violence.

To understand the role of small arms in facilitating Jonglei’s inter-communal conflict, a brief analysis of causal factors is necessary. This violence, largely between the Lou Nuer and the Murle tribes, is based around cattle raiding, a practice that has existed for generations. Recently, however, these cattle raids have ceased to be solely economic, and as a result of many factors, raiders have begun to attack individuals from the rival tribe, and not just those that physically prevent them from stealing cattle. In the past three years, individual attacks have caused up to one thousand deaths. While climate change has had some effect on increasing competition over land, population displacement, changes in farming practices and the disruption of trade routes have exacerbated the Lou Nuer-Murle conflict. The end of the north-south war has also worsened the conflict, though the militarization of the Lou Nuer and the Murle has been ongoing for more than a decade. The return of armed men undermined tribal leadership structures, which had established relatively peaceful coexistence with other tribes. Both tribes, but particularly the Murle, are politically marginalized within South Sudan, and thus generally distrustful of the South Sudanese government. Therefore, they are less willing to cooperate with government-led violence reduction initiatives. Local politicians also exploit tribal rivalries for personal gain, and though evidence is scant, they may well be involved in actually inciting raids.

The proliferation of small arms is one of the main drivers of the conflict in Jonglei. Following the end of the north-south war, soldiers returning to civilian life brought their weapons with them. Both tribes used this new supply of guns to raid cattle, which has led to higher death rates. Another factor in the abundance of small arms is the presence of anti-government rebels. Former members of the SPLA’s loose coalition of minority militias, including the late George Athor and David Yau Yau, have exploited the availability of small arms for political gain. Though the war has ended, the SPLA continuously fails to prevent its soldiers from returning to civilian life with their weapons, and ammunition is a form of currency in some Lou Nuer areas. Finally, the SPLA has armed both the Murle and the Lou Nuer to fight against Athor and Yau Yau, respectively.

Arms flow to the Murle and the Lou Nuer has risen and fallen over time, and the sources for these arms had also changed. However, the SPLA has consistently failed to effectively disarm its populace. Though South Sudanese authorities undertook disarmament in 2005 and 2006, the effort was incomplete, and the seized weapons were re-seized by ethnic militias due to poorly guarded warehouses. Other SPLA disarmament strategies have failed because they often target individuals who keep weapons solely for self-defense, and fail to target ethnic militias, mostly due to a lack of capacity. The SPLA has repeatedly sexually assaulted and beaten civilians in disarmament efforts, increasing anger toward the state and decreasing confidence in government-led violence reduction initiatives.

In response to ethnic violence in Jonglei, the South Sudanese government must cease arming ethnic militias and attempt to establish a better relationship with Lou Nuer and Murle communities. While the latter task is easier said than done, distrust between a target community and a government severely hampers disarmament efforts, exemplified by the only partially successful attempts at DDR in Burundi. Though the South Sudanese government lacks the capability to fully disarm citizens in Jonglei, it has the ability to facilitate this process. Unfortunately, its current policies are negatively affecting the possibilities of disarmament and violence reduction. If the government of South Sudan truly wishes to end ethnic violence in Jonglei, it must discontinue attempts to achieve peace through further militarization, increase its presence in Jonglei through political inclusion, and focus on community-led negotiations and solutions.

French Troops Are Not the Answer: Mali, Intervention, and Political Engagement

16 Jan

Following France’s intervention in northern Mali four days ago, the prospects for a rebel advance to Bamako look bleak.  Despite a brief resurgence of the rebel advance following initial French airstrikes, it looks as if French firepower will halt further rebel movements southward.  Though the French intervention has changed the military dynamics for the immediate future, it has done next to nothing to address the root causes of the conflict, and furthermore, regional stability.  The Mali crisis, which has now become the Sahel crisis, is too complicated for a purely military solution, and so the UN and regional actors must get serious about their diplomatic efforts.

France’s intervention, according to some critics from the far left, is simply a neo-colonial enterprise undertaken by a power-hungry former colonial power.  This reading, however, is simplistic.  The intervention came at the behest of the acting government (concerns regarding the government’s legitimacy aside), and France’s actions are widely supported south of rebel/Islamist lines.  The intervention stopped the very real threat of an Islamist advance on Bamako, a fate that no one, non-interventionists included, want.  Despite these mitigating caveats, there are still many factors that problematize a French-led military solution.  First, there are no reports on the feelings of northern Malians regarding French intervention, partly because news coming out of Islamist areas is limited, but also because even if there individual voices reaching the outside world, they would received little attention.  There is an air of arrogance surrounding France’s actions.  This is a military operation, and the opinions (or fates) of civilians are secondary.  A French officer who appeared on the BBC World Service said, “France wants peace, but the rebels want war, and so France has no choice…We intend to crush our enemies” (The quote is not exact; I am paraphrasing from memory).  Finally, France has vowed that this will not be another Afghanistan: the operation will last just a few weeks.

France’s mission, to prevent Bamako from falling to the Islamists, is a generally worthy objective, even if the means are debatable, so that’s not the problem.  The issue here is that those directing the French forces see the mission as a purely military operation, and were willing to speed up the time table, even if soldiers had to miss out on little things like human rights and civilian protection classes.  France’s generals are simply not interested in dissecting the endlessly complex dynamics of the conflict, and are much more comfortable seeing AQIM, Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and the MNLA as a monolithic terrorist mass that pose a threat to global security.  This intervention then, is based in thinking similar to the neoconservative ideology that produced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (following these abysmal failures, international norms have shifted in favor of shorter, smaller interventions).  France does not care to look at Mali’s long-term future, or think about how intervention will alter the chances of a political solution.  France wants to go in, get the bad guys, and get out before public opinion turns against the operation.  While nation-building is certainly a difficult and exceptionally risky undertaking, the rhetoric surrounding these first four days has said nothing about what, if anything, France intends to do after its intervention is over.  France has unilaterally decided to act without the support of foreign partners, an approach that is dangerous, even from a realist perspective.  The lack of a political/diplomatic front to the intervention speaks volumes to France’s attempt to achieve a “solution”.

So far, the international community response to events in Mali, like Syria, have been placed in a false framework.  The conflict is historiopolitical rather than militaristic in nature, and neither an intervention or the lack on an intervention gets at these roots causes.  Ultimately, the real choice for the international community is diplomacy or a lack of diplomacy.  So far, there can be little doubt where international actors stand.  Ban Ki-Moon named Romano Prodi, a former Italian Prime Minister, as the UN Special Envoy for the Sahel crisis, even though he is heavily underqualified for the post.  As for ECOWAS, negotiator-in-chief Burkinabe President Blaise Campaore is similarly unqualified.  Currently, the proposed solution to the crisis in Mali consists of troops numbering less than 5,000 retaking a desert region the size of Texas and reinstating Bamako’s rule while generally ignoring diplomatic options on the table.  The lack of realism is glaring.  If international actors do not get serious about parsing out Mali’s complex politics and engaging directly with all players, Mali, and the Sahel as a whole, is at serious risk.


Catharsis and Justice in a Post-Assad Syria

9 Jan

For one of my final papers last semester, I wrote an essay that touched on conceptions of post-revolutionary catharsis.  This issue is playing out in many countries around the globe, but the one the world will be watching most closely is Syria.  I’m not the only one thinking about post-conflict justice in Syria.  The Syrian Support Group (SSG), an NGO that supports moderate factions within the FSA, has come up with a post-conflict plan for Syria (as explained by David Ignatius).  The plan seeks to target one hundred of Assad’s closest allies for defection in exchange for partial amnesty.  However, if they do not defect before Assad falls, it would be these one hundred that face prosecution in a post-conflict scenario.  By granting amnesty to most of the Alawite community, the report establishes a legal framework to prevent retaliatory killings.

The plan is definitely a good step forward, as it opens the door for solutions not solely rooted in retributive justice.  Firstly, it explicitly includes the Alawites in a post-conflict Syria, an action for which there is a real need.  By presenting a post-conflict justice process, the report helps to insure that legal protections for Syria’s Alawite community will exist.    Theorists like Frantz Fanon (in his book Wretched of the Earth) argue that revolutions require cleansing and the making of a new society.  The complexity of the current conflict in Syria demonstrate that this is not the case.  Though the conflict is largely split along sectarian lines, regime supporters and opponents are not monolithic in their support for their supposed representatives, exemplified by many the defections to the opposition.  Because Fanon envisions revolutions as existing between two diametrically opposed sides, his conception of post-revolutionary catharsis is totally simplistic.  It is impossible to simply politically dispose of the revolution’s opponents if revolutionaries wish to create an inclusive, non-repressive government.  In Syria, the Alawite community must be safeguarded from retributive violence not only because of humanitarian and international law reasons, but also for the health of the future Syrian state.

Getting back to SSG’s proposal, its choice to focus on Assad’s top one hundred associates is a largely positive step (especially in such an elite-driven regime).  Cambodia post-Khmer Rouge took an alternative route, choosing to prosecute only five of the KR’s top brass.  Though the trials were also plagued by problems, the choice to focus on such a small group prevented the public from feeling that any real justice had been done.  It also allowed people like Hun Sen, the current prime minister of Cambodia, to stay in politics (despite his Khmer Rouge affiliation) without so much as a public inquiry into his activities during the Khmer Rouge’s rule.  Focusing on such a small number of individuals creates a very artificial division between those who are guilty and those who aren’t, when many more individuals were directly supporting the atrocities committed by the regime.  This approach simultaneously discourages any investigation of others’ crimes.

While the SSG’s proposal has many positives, it also contains shortcomings.  The proposed post-conflict justice process is totally top-down and does not look as if it will allow ordinary citizens to participate in administering justice.  For restorative justice attempts, participation is crucial if individuals are to feel that justice was done (as was largely the feeling in South Africa post-Truth and Reconciliation Committee, an approach that allowed for huge amounts of citizen participation).  If individuals from all backgrounds are not given the opportunity to tell their stories in an official setting, confidence in post-conflict justice will drop.  A lack of confidence in state-led justice will lead to a rise in lawlessness and retributive killings, endangering Syrian civilians.  Another issue with the plan is the rather arbitrary number of individuals that are up for prosecution.  While choosing one hundred is a comparative strength of the plan, it is also problematic.  It is still quite likely that individuals closely involved with atrocities against civilians will escape any sort of formal trial, a fact that will not be lost on Syrians.  The plan is a positive step in establishing a post-conflict justice mechanism, but the Washington-based SSG would have been better off creating a framework while allowing Syrians to figure out the details themselves.

Conflicts to Watch in 2013 (Part II)

3 Jan

Here goes part two of conflicts to watch for civilian protection advocates in 2013.


It’s deja vu all over again.  Another round of elections that comes with the potential of violence.  The elections in 2007 caused 1,500 deaths due to a disputed election split along ethnic lines.  Unfortunately, a very similar result is possible this time around.  The two main contenders are Raila Odingo, a Luo, and Uhuru Kenyetta, a Kikuyu, and both these candidates were accused of personally encouraging and directing violence in 2007.  Like last time, this an election mostly based on ethnicity, considering the similar nature of the candidates’ platforms.  Worryingly, according to some observes, ethnic tensions are even worse than they were five years ago.  Weapons proliferation means that attacks that were mostly conducted with machetes and bows and arrows in 2007 now may be undertaken with handguns and small arms.  Hopefully, everything will go smoothly, but the warning signs are there.


The new year looks exceedingly bleak in Syria.  A recent casualty estimate by UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay  puts the total at 60,000, which is 15,000 more than even Syrian opposition groups have been reporting.  Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this sort of carnage will end before Assad falls, but even then, there are no guarantees for Syria’s civilian population.  While some have argued that Assad will not fall until he runs out of money (which likely wouldn’t be this year),  the situation in Syria is more complicated than in Libya, where literally the only thing keeping Gaddafi in power was his money.  Assad will almost certainly fall this year, and that’s what the world must prepare for.  I’ve written before on the real dangers of talking about Syria in the framework of intervention while ignoring that the conflict between the FSA and Assad is not the potentially defining moment for the international community.  Post-conflict Syria will not be a paradise: there is a real danger of a genocide directed against the Alawite minority.  While the Syrian National Coalition was quick to condemn attacks against civilians (and contains a more diverse set of Syrians than its identically acronymed predecessor), the FSA’s actions have not stayed consistent with these lofty statements.  Alternatively, a post-conflict power struggle between Islamists and secularists (even if those divides are simplistic) is not out of the question.  2013 is likely to be a very bloody year as both sides increasingly resort to military solutions to political problems.  Instead of focusing on toppling Assad, the international community needs to take a more civilian-orientated approach and come up with strong, concrete proposals to stop the violence as soon as possible.

Central Asia

Central Asia is the only region to not appear on both Foreign Policy’s and the Council of Foreign Relations’ list, which isn’t entirely surprising, considering its under-representation in world media and the lack of an immediate and obvious threat.  Despite the lack of a clear, easily-definable threat in any of the four countries discussed below, poor governance and unresolved conflicts threaten regional stability and the health of each individual state.  Uzbekistan is one of the world’s most repressive countries, and there is no succession plan for 74-year-old dictator Islam Karimov.  In Tajikistan regional tensions between Gorno-Badakhshan and the central government in Dushanbe remained unresolved following a clash in July.  For Kyrgyzstan, the problem isn’t necessarily what happened in 2012, but what might happen in 2013.  While ethnic relations in Osh, the site of attempted ethnic cleansing in 2010, have improved, there has been little international engagement on prevention in the past two years.  Lastly, Kazakhstan has problems on two fronts.  Firstly, a small Islamic jihad group called Jund al-Khalifah has launched sporadic attacks.  While there are debates about how homegrown the movement is, its presence does seem to point to at least some limited organic support for the group.  Secondly, in December 2011, Kazakh police fired on striking oil workers in Zhanaozen, killing several.  Again, there are debates on how representative Zhanaozen is of social relations in Kazakhstan, and while narratives that use the Arab Spring framework to categorize Kazakhstan are simplistic, there are serious problems at the core of Kazakh state and society.

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.

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.