Justice for Syrians?

For nearly a year now, Syrians have been suffering through a living hell. The regime in Damas is clinging on to power, and the repression has been horrifying. In the last few weeks, violence has been escalating, and it’s been absolutely heartbreaking to watch the news out of Syria. Today, the “Friends of Syria” conference – hosted by the government of Tunisia – is expected to call for an immediate end to the military campaign against civilians, and the creation of humanitarian corridors for aid delivery. This follows the miserable failure of the UN Security Council to pass any kind of meaningful resolution. More than just an important step towards international action on Syria, the “Friends of Syria” conference highlights the obsolescence of the Security Council has an institution to preserve global peace and security. The UN has been side-stepped on the Syria issue – even with Kofi Annan being appointed as mediator, the limits of the international organization’s ability to implement its own mandate are, once again, laid bare.

Military intervention in Syria is not an easy proposition. Unlike Libya, Syria is more densely populated, so air strikes will likely cause more “collateral damage” (i.e. civilian deaths). Furthermore, the presence of anti-aircraft missiles means that war planes would have to drop bombs from a higher altitude, again decreasing the precision of air strikes. Recent history shows that there is very little support in the West to either send ground troops or finance such an operation – with Europe in crisis, and a U.S. election on the horizon, that possibility is essentially non-existent. That’s not to say that small contingents of “military advisers” or covert special forces cannot be sent to Syria, but it seems unlikely that these strategies would be game-changing. Sanctions on Syria are starving the regime for cash, and some analysts argue that the government will be broke soon – but I don’t have any doubts that the Al-Assad regime has access to all kinds of shadowy networks that will continue to finance his campaign.

Unless the international community is able to bring the Syrian National Council and the regime to a negotiating table, I don’t see how this conflict gets resolved. I hope that this happens, because I don’t know how many more videos such as this one we can tolerate before we decide that, as a global community, we are unable to protect our most vulnerable, that we are powerless in the face of injustice and oppression.

***

Below is a post I wrote on the same topic for UN Dispatch on February 22nd:

This morning, a harrowing video of French journalist Edith Bouvier calling for help was published on YouTube. Bouvier was injured yesterday in the bombing that killed American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, and she is currently in a precarious medical condition. In the video, she describes how her left leg has an open fracture, and a Syrian doctor explains how she needs immediate medical attention and surgery which they are unable to provide. Bouvier asks the French authorities to please provide adequate transportation for her to be able to go to Lebanon and receive treatment.

Another journalist colleague, French photographer William Daniels, emphasizes the need for Bouvier to be evacuated – as he speaks, you can hear bombs in the background. The doctor and Daniels talk about the lack of food, water and medical equipment, an assessment echoed in an interview with a French surgeon, Jacques Bérès, who has been on the ground in Homs for nearly three weeks. Dr. Bérès discusses the difficulty of working in an environment where there are constant attacks and bombardments, and notes that there has been no humanitarian evacuation of the most vulnerable. In his makeshift hospital, he sees wounded combatants but also women, children and civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Bouvier’s distressing video is yet another indication of how dire the situation is in Homs (for a chilling account of what’s happening in the besieged city, check out Marie Colvin’s last dispatch from Homs.) Indiscriminate bombings and attacks from government forces are in direct contravention of the laws of war. And while the regime in Damascus has long ago swept aside humanitarian and international law considerations, the international community has yet to respond in a meaningful manner. What will it take? According to analysts, the sanctions imposed on Syria will mean that the government will run out of foreign exchange in the next “three to five months”, and that, once starved for cash, the regime will not be able to pursue its deadly campaign. But what happens in the intervening months? The international community – and in particular the UN Security Council, which has so far has been stymied by two of its members – has a responsibility to uphold fundamental principles of global peace and security. Right now, Syrian lives are being sacrificed because of high-level political disagreements and posturing.

The targeting of foreign journalists is only one of the many crimes committed by the regime. I am sure that the recently killed reporters – Colvin, Ochlik and Shadid – would not want us to dwell on their individual stories, yet their deaths serve to highlight the insanity of the situation in Syria and will hopefully lead their respective governments to take real action.

French president Sarkozy called the deaths of the journalists “murders”, and said that “those responsible will have to be accountable.” French foreign minister Alain Juppé was even more direct, saying that the Bashar Al-Assad regime was “responsible”, and that the “regime in Damascus owes [France] an answer” and that France will be “seeking accountability for these acts”. (Whether or not these statements translate into action, particularly as France prepares for a contentious presidential election in April, remains to be seen.)

Bouvier’s video is one of many, many videos depicting the horror of what is happening in Syria. Will she be rescued by her government? More importantly, will her plight and the deaths of her colleagues at least not be in vain? Will the plight of Syrians – attacked, held hostage and targeted by their own government – continue to elicit lukewarm actions, or will the international community organize meaningful, collective action to help end the bloodbath in Syria?

The Truth About Foreign Aid

…That could be the title of a new 3-part BBC podcast, “The Truth About NGOs“. This documentary explores whether and how should NGOs be politically involved, as well as the consequences of having a large international NGO sector in a developing country. The first episode begins with a focus on Malawi, and how the LGBT rights movement has been buoyed by NGOs and their foreign donors. It’s an interesting piece, though this is not about “NGOs”, per se – it is also about the powerful influence of donors on their grantees, and even in this podcast, the politics of state-level aid are discussed. NGOs, the actors on the ground, are only one part of the puzzle.

The podcast is probably nothing new for NGO policy wonks – the discussion of whether organizations are influenced by or beholden to their funders and donors is an age old discussion. Same goes for failed, poorly designed and implemented development projects that never see the light of day and/or disappoint and anger communities. Or the notion that some NGOs only pay lip service to the notion of “participation” (the podcast actually defines “dragonfly skimming” and “helicopter consultancy.”)

In spite of going down some already well trodden paths, the podcast raises some interesting points concerning the role of NGOs in perpetuating the poverty they seek to alleviate. (I can already hear my aid/development colleagues’ feathers getting ruffled, but bear with me.) While this probably merits much more than a few sentences on this blog or a few minutes in a podcast, one of the more interesting notions explored by the podcast is the idea that international NGOs are “depoliticizing” poverty. ” I thought this line, by Firoze Manji, editor in chief of Pambazuka News, was spot on: “If the NGOs participate in the process of alleviating the nasty parts of becoming poor, they are actually colluding. It comes back to saying being brave enough to take on the “politics of impoverishement”. Either you fight that, or you’re part of the problem.”

The question posed at the end of the podcast is whether NGOs should focus on “on advocacy, on leverage, rather than delivery of aid.” What do you think? There are obviously circumstances where this might not make sense, in particular in emergency situations where NGOs provide life-saving aid. But beyond that, is advocacy, rather than aid delivery, the future of NGOs?

Listen to the podcast here.

A Seat at the Table: a Twitter-ful list of women crucial to foreign policy

Elmira Bayrasli gave “Levo her (expansive) list of women who are deeply ingrained in critical foreign policy issues, and how to follow their travails and their progress.” Among the women in that list, you will find some (if not most) of my all-time favorite lady tweeters: @texasinafrica, @scarlettlion, @meowtree, @bonniekoenig, @saundra_s, @nancymbirdsall….

That Elmira included in me in her list is such an honor; I’m truly grateful for that “tip of the hat” from her, and really pleased to be associated – if only through this list – with some of today’s leading female thinkers, journalists, politicians, artists, activists and generally awesome women.

You can find the full list here, on the Levo League website, or click the image below

Bananas from Jersey: How the world is losing trillions to tax havens

This post was originally published on UN Dispatch on November 30, 2011.

Since the economic collapse of 2008 and the ensuing recession, increasingly more attention is being paid to corporate accountability. Recently, the Occupy movement has brought into sharp relief some of the discontent with poor corporate citizenship. If you pay close enough attention, there have been many stories in the media exposing unfair – sometimes illegal – corporate practices and how they are affecting the overall health of the economy. We’ve learned, for example, how G.E. – America’s largest corporation – avoided paying any taxes in the United States in 2010 – thanks to the “clever use” of tax breaks and offshore accounting. While Republican presidential hopefuls will have you believe that reducing corporate tax rates is the best way to boost the economy, American corporate tax rates haven’t been this low (35%) since before the Second World War. Meanwhile, the United States is struggling to figure out how to cut a soaring budget deficit and continue financing key health care and welfare programs.

This situation, however, is not unique to the United States or the industrialized world. Indeed, a recent report by Eurodad (European Network on Debt & Development) finds that developing nations lose more than a trillion (yes, trillion) dollars of potential tax revenue every year because of corporate tax evasion.

The UK-based Tax Justice Network also recently published a report to highlight the negative effects of tax dodging by multinational corporations, and launched a new campaign “Tackle Tax Havens (By the way, their website, www.tackletaxhavens.com, offers myriad resources, information and data about tax evasion – I highly recommend checking it out.) Their reportshows that tax evasion costs 145 countries, representing over 98% of world GDP, more than US$3.1 trillion annually.

As noted in the executive summary of the Eurodad report, “the international community has repeatedly stressed the need to mobilise domestic resources in developing countries, as the most sustainable way of financing development and ending aid dependency […] The cross border nature of multinational companies’operations combined with the absence of adequate transparency regulations have very damaging implications for a country’s ability to mobilise domestic resources.” Mobilizing resources through taxation is not just critical for developing countries’ ability to finance development: it is, in fact, one of the most fundamental functions of modern, sovereign states – developing or industrialized. Drawing a parallel with the way in which the United States is weak on corporate tax enforcement allows us to see the depth of the problem of tax evasion.

While we continue to think about how developing nations can finance programs to support economic and social development, it’s clear that the issue of corporate tax evasion must be addressed. In the extractive industry, efforts such as the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, begin to deal with this issue, but the voluntary nature of the EITI, and the lack of enforcement mechanisms, make it an imperfect solution. Dealing with tax havens is a third rail issue. Similarly, attempting to close tax loopholes for multinational corporations is practically political suicide. The globalized nature of this problem suggests that bold, concerted action will need to take place – nothing less than the viability and sustainability of our economic and financial systems are at stake.

On global hunger & food security

I just wrote a two-part series on the changing landscape of international food aid for UN Dispatch – you can read part one here and part two here.

Rice fields in Bong County, Liberia

Only a few hours after I filed my posts on food aid, I found out that Owen Barder’s latest podcast for Development Drums was an hour-long interview with Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, about their new book “Enough: why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty“. I was a bit nervous to listen to this after having written for UN Dispatch, but I was relieved that I seemed to have covered some of the main points these experts make in their book.

If the Development Drums podcast and my recent posts aren’t enough to satisfy your hunger on this topic, here are a couple links of interest:

Ending Africa’s Hunger, September 2009, The Nation. This well-researched, in depth article is a searing critique of the Gates Foundation’s work on agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s an interesting take on the way in which agricultural development is being pursued by philanthropic and private sector actors, and the implications of current strategies. I frequently refer back to this article, which I find offers a unique perspective on hunger and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Smallholder farmers hold the key to food security, February 2010, Business Daily. Great piece on how smallholder, rural farmers have historically been overlooked by national agricultural and development policies, and how they could be leveraged to increase food security.

The podcast is here. You can also subscribe to it for free in Itunes. These hour long, in-depth discussions led by Owen Barder are highly recommend for anyone interested in development policy.

No compromise?

Ever since the dreadful events of September 28 in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, where at 157 people were killed and dozens of women raped in broad daylight during a pro-democracy political rally, the country’s social and political climate has been increasingly tense. Amid the resignation of three cabinet ministers and a communications advisor, Captain Moussa “Dadis” Camara, the head of the military junta who took power in a bloodless coup in December 2008, has been under growing pressure to step down, install a transitional government, and prepare for the free elections he promised the people of Guinea in January 2010.

Yesterday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), imposed an arms embargo on Guinea: “In view of the atrocities that have been committed … the authority decides to impose an arms embargo on Guinea under the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons.” The ECOWAS decision comes a week after the International Contact Group on Guinea (ICG-G), composed of ECOWAS, the African Union, the EU, the UN and the 5 UN Security Council members [note: China has never attended an ICG-G meeting], issued a position statement setting out the list of measures to be taken to allow Guinea to resume her transition process. These measures incorporate many of the recommendations made by the Guinean opposition coalition, the Forces Vives de Guinee, composed of various political parties, unions and civil society groups.

Meanwhile, the African Union today extended an October 17 deadline for Dadis to declare in writing that he would not run in the elections. Dadis did not respect the deadline, and instead asked for the question to be “assigned to the mediation of Burkina Faso.” The African Union is delaying its decision to impose targeted sanctions on Dadis and senior figures of the military regime in order to consult with ECOWAS-appointed mediator Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso.

In spite of all the diplomatic hullabaloo around Guinea, it seems that the international community is choosing not to match action with rhetoric. Admittedly, I’m not in a position to know what would be better than an arms embargo and a travel ban on senior regime officials. Yet, I feel that this is somewhat of a tepid response, particularly given the strong reaction the events in Guinea elicited among foreign governments, international organizations and human rights groups.

Over the course of the last few weeks, Guinea’s military junta has been the object of severe condemnations from various members of the amorphous “international community”. The International Criminal Court is launching a preliminary investigation to determine whether crimes falling under the Court’s jurisdiction were perpetrated. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also just announced an international inquiry, headed by the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Haile Menkerios, into the events of September 28 “with a view to determining the accountability of those involved.”

Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, and State Deparment officials – including Hillary Clinton – have repeatedly called for Dadis to step down, and have adopted a very firm stance…at least rhetorically: Kouchner said this weekend:

“The international community’s message is simple: murderers and rapists must be identified, judged and punished, just like the ones who ordered these acts.”

The U.S. even sent a high-ranking State Department official for direct talks with Dadis. As noted above, regional mediation efforts are also underway – Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso, was dispatched to Conakry in early October to begin a dialogue with Dadis and the opposition.

Recent events in Guinea are clearly showing that the country’s stability is at stake, and, as Nigerian president and chair of ECOWAS Umaru Yar’Adua noted “the instability in Guinea poses a real threat to the peace, security and stability of the region.”

Dadis, who was once hailed as “Obama Junior“, has apparently lost support within the ranks of the junta, as several ministers have resigned over the course of the last week, citing moral concerns as the main reason for their decision to leave the government. To complete this chaotic picture, foreign as well as local journalists have been threatened and rumors of ethnic manipulations have emerged.

Meanwhile, Guinea allegedly signed a mining deal worth $7 billion with a Chinese private company, the Hong Kong based Chinese Investment Fund, which also involves Sonangol, the Angolan oil company. This, of course, happened in the middle of this unfolding crisis, leading analysts to call out China on poor timing and a ruthless appetite for natural resources [note: Guinea is the leading supplier of bauxite and is thought to have at least a third of the world’s known reserves of the mineral, which is used to make aluminium]

Guinea’s future remains uncertain. The breakdown of law and constitutional order does not bode well for the organization of free and fair elections, and I worry that the international community will once again fail to prevent an illegitimate government from taking root. In some sense, particularly with regards to ECOWAS, it feels  a bit like a case of the blind leading the blind. Let’s take a cursory glance at the governance situation in West African countries. President Yar’Adua of Nigeria, who is currently at the head of ECOWAS, is not exactly a model of democratic leadership.

Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso, took power in 1987 through a coup during which his predecessor Thomas Sankara was assassinated. He stood (unopposed) for election in 1991 – and was reelected twice since. He will run again for election next year. Beautiful example of democracy, isn’t it? And while Compaore has garnered the support of the international community, I have doubts whether he’s in any position to advocate for a democratic transition in Guinea, as well as in Cote d’Ivoire, where he is also playing a mediation role.

The arms embargo imposed this past Saturday is, I hope, only the beginning of actual pressure on Dadis. The potential mining deal with the Chinese firm may allow Dadis to isolate himself and his country further – revenues from natural resource extraction have allowed dictators to remain in power in Guinea for the last 5 decades. I find worrying that the African Union let the Oct.17 deadline slip by, and even though Dadis is said to be cooperating with the UN investigation, he is obviously not ready to step down. The fact that he’s even still considering running in the election makes clear that he is not heeding calls from the international community, preferring, instead to string the whole of them along.

Through blogs and news sites, Guineans  have expressed a lot of concern over the current situation in their country, and, in my opinion, the supposed “intense” international pressure is not sufficient. I understand that the principle of sovereignty and non-intervention in a state’s affairs prevails, but really, is an arms embargo – the effectiveness of which depends on the political will to enforce it thoroughly – the most appropriate response at this stage? Are endless strings of UN and ICC investigations that lead nowhere really going to help the situation?

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the current chair of ECOWAS, used unusually strong language to condemn the “arbitrary and irresponsible” use of power by Guinea’s military junta.

At this stage, diplomatic efforts seem formulaic at best and useless at worse.  Dadis clearly is unfit to be leading Guinea, and the international community should be much firmer about having him step down. This is the man who once received a journalist barefoot, in the middle of the night, and then proceeded to harass her, asking her to marry him and saying things like “Dadis loves you! Dadis wants you! You make me crazy, come be with me and I will give you everything.”

Do good, do nothing?

In a recent article in The New Republic entitled “We Can’t Just Do Nothing“, Richard Just criticizes Mahmood Mamdani’s attacks on what he calls “human rights fundamentalists” in his book “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror.” Just writes:

For Mamdani, the Save Darfur movement is more or less indistinguishable from the great imperialist enterprise of our time, which is the war on terror. “The harsh truth,” he argues, “is that the War on Terror has provided the coordinates, the language, the images, and the sentiment for interpreting Darfur.”

In his piece, Just contrasts Mamdani’s perspective with contending views, as  expressed by Gareth Evans in his recent book, “The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All.” Essentially, it comes down to whether preventing, reacting and punishing gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity in a given country are not just the responsibility of that nation and its citizens, but also a common, shared responsibility for all.

This debate is not – by any means – new. Since the end of colonial times, thinkers, practitioners, politicians have brandished the moral and ethical argument on both sides of the debate. It is one of the most potent battle of ideas: is it more or less moral to intervene (broadly speaking)  in another sovereign country’s affairs? Some argue that national sovereignty is essentially sacred, and when it is breached, we are not only weakening the entire international system, but also creating space for misguided, neo-imperalist  interventions and intrusions. Others (like Just and Evans) believe that we have a shared, common responsibility to intervene, especially when sovereign regimes are committing crimes against their own population.

It have yet to fully figure out my own beliefs when it comes to this debate, because in some sense, I can see how “interventionists” can be labeled neoimperialists (although I think that term is contentious – at best). There is a part of me that understands how people like Mamdani construe “Western” (or other) intervention in the affairs of another country as neoimperialist, and the parallels drawn between the justifications for the war in Iraq and those for an intervention in Sudan are thought provoking.  Amanda, over at the excellent blog Wronging Rights, asks the tough questions about when or how foreign intervention is appropriate. Alex de Waal, a pre-eminent specialist on Sudan, recently wrote:

[I]f there is to be a solution, it will come from inside Sudan, and must be political, addressed at the structural political challenges of Sudan. A campaign focused on a genocide that isn’t happening, for the U.S. to step up its pressure to stop killing that has already ended, is just making Save Darfur look poorly-informed, and America look silly. Intermittently, “Save Darfur” has tried to rebrand itself as a peace movement—but its origins as an intervention campaign make it virtually impossible to make the transformation. Peace cannot be forced or dictated. If “Save Darfur” is interested in peace, the best it can do in the cause of peace is to fall silent.

Ouch.

Idiots?
Idiots?

While I agree that “misguided, though still well-intentioned” activism (celebrity or otherwise) is not the solution to ensuring a peaceful future for Sudan and its people, I worry that this type of argument is being used to justify inaction. And, in my mind, inaction – not just when it comes to Sudan, but also for a whole host of issues – is not acceptable.

We still live in a world where national sovereignty is elevated above individual rights – and in a very real way, this contributes to the peace and stability of the international system, as the violation of a country’s borders and sovereign prerogatives are still considered the ultimate act of aggression. But I get really frustrated when this line of argument is used to justify South Africa’s inability to take a real stand on Zimbabwe, or the support of clearly corrupt, ineffective and frankly plain crappy governments in places like Chad or Gabon.

When attempts at finding solutions or courses of action for the “international community” (you beautiful, ethereal term that signifies everything from advocacy NGOs to national armies) are devised, they are often fraught with political conflict (eg. the Security Council’s paralysis and ineffectiveness at being the guarantors of peace and security – ha!). As a result, we see many international “interventions” (again, in the broad sense of the term) that are underfunded and half-assed. Of course, the best (and worst) example of this is the disaster of the international response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

The end of apartheid in South Africa was the result of massive, long term, committed efforts from South African political activists. While Nelson Mandela and others fought for decades to bring justice to their country, at some point, the “international community” did step in, in the form of divestments and boycotts. And while these were not necessarily watershed moments or key turning points, these efforts did in part contribute to bringing down the regime in South Africa (a white regime oppressing a black majority – uncomfortable for a lot of Western nations).

While human rights activists’ efforts are not always effective, I don’t think we (or the causes they represent) would be better off without them. Pressuring governments, international bodies, corporations and other “heavy weight” stakeholders to deal with matters of crimes against humanity and serious, chronic human rights violations is a good thing – what’s the alternative? If easy answers or solutions were available to dealing with violence and injustice in places like Sudan, the DRC or Burma, surely someone would have thought of them by now. Critics of “human rights fundamentalists” and who see the “responsibility to protect” as a neo-imperalist concept also come from the same well-intentioned place as those they decry – I find it interesting that some of the harshest critics of “intervention” are people who have spent their lives working in the aid or development, or as diplomats posted in foreign, war-torn nations. At the very least, they share an ethic of responsibility with those they criticize.