Archive | August, 2012

Waiting and Seeing in Syria

27 Aug

Media and policy commentary on Syria seems to rely on a stark split: pro-Assad and anti-Assad. Certainly this is the main fault-line in the country, but it strikes me as overly-simplistic. Humans love oppositional binaries; they play a key part in explaining the social world. Thus good versus evil, traditional versus modern, rational versus irrational are crucial in constructing and maintaining narratives on everything from world affairs to family dynamics. And so the reportage of Syria in which there seem to be pro-Assad loyalists and anti-Assad activists coalesced around the Free Syrian Army … and nobody else in between.
I suspect that this is simply too clean. Large numbers of Syrians are doing what any sensible person would be doing: waiting to see which way the wind is blowing. If Assad clings on then it might be prudent to be loyal to the regime. If he topples, then it would be prudent to be on the side of the Free Syrian Army. People like to be on the winning side. Thousands of people claimed to be on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin on Easter Monday in 1916 when Patrick Pearse read out the proclamation of independence. In reality, there were just a few dozen. But once Irish independence became a realistic prospect, the number of retrospective 1916 rebels swelled.
Of course, many Syrians do not have the luxury of waiting in the long grass. Because of kinship, faith or professional affiliation they have to identify with one side or the other. For many others, the civil war has come to them: forcing them to flee or to offer help to what ever troops are parked outside. But for a good proportion of the population, it is wait-and-see time. Yet the Manichean narrative persists.


White collar crime pays

26 Aug

Turkish Cypriot businessman Asil Nadir received a ten year jail sentence for stealing almost £29m from the Polly Peck company.* Nicolas Robinson, a 23 year old student, was jailed for six months for stealing water worth £3.50 from the Lidl supermarket during the 2011 London riots.** By my reckoning, had Nicholas stolen goods worth £29m, he would have been jailed for over 4 million years!
There’s a serious point here: the disparity in sentencing between so-called ‘white collar’ crime and other crimes. There are, of course, differences between these two crimes (and the criminals). Nicolas Robinson acted on the spur of the moment amidst the London riots. He had no previous convictions, pleaded guilty, and was in full-time education. Asil Nadir, on the other hand, has a long history of organizing business in what the Financial Times called an ‘autocratic’ manner. *** He fled to Northern Cyprus on his private jet in 1993 when the Serious Fraud Office was assembling a case against him, and stayed there for 17 years. Northern Cyprus has no extradition treaty with the UK. The case hinged on 13 sample cases of fraud. The Guardian reported that the true sum involved in the fraud is closer to a staggering £380m.**** Nadir was feted by the City of London as an entrepreneurial genius and became a large donor to the Conservative Party.
Nicolas Robinson must wish he was wearing a shirt, collar and tie.


Just out: ‘Indicators + : A proposal for everyday peace indicators’

15 Aug

This is just out in Evaluation and Program Planning, 36 (2013): 56-63. The abstract is below and I’m happy to send on a pdf of the article if anyone is interested.

Many of the approaches to measuring peace favoured by international organisations, INGOs and donor governments are deficient. Their level of analysis is often too broad or too narrow, and their aggregated statistical format often means that they represent the conflict-affected area in ways that are meaningless to local communities. This article takes the form of a proposal for a new generation of locally organised indicators that are based in everyday life. These indicators are inspired by practice from sustainable development in which indicators are crowd sourced. There is the potential for these to become ‘indicators +’ or part of a conflict transformation exercise as communities think about what peace might look like and how it could be realised. The article advocates a form of participatory action research that would be able to pick up the textured ‘hidden transcript’ found in many deeply divided societies and could allow for better targeted peacebuilding and development assistance. 2012 Elsevier Ltd

White Vans

13 Aug

The Sri Lankan government won a decisive and comprehensive victory over the LTTE in 2009. Luck had little to do with the victory. Instead years of cynical planning went into the campaign: loans were secured to fund the military, western INGOs with their bothersome talk of human rights were booted out of the country, local civil society was threatened, weapons and know-how were acquired from an unlikely bunch of countries, and strong domestic support for the war was cultivated. Newspapers that asked awkward questions were burned down and journalists murdered. Aside from the usual conventional military hardware, the Sri Lankan military had another weapon in its armoury: the humble white van.
These white vans were operated by military intelligence and ran an undercover abduction and murder operation. A key part of the military campaign was to intimidate civil society and to undermine the social capital of Tamil society. Civil society activists, Tamil community leaders, and people who got in the way started to go missing. The stories told by the families of the missing persons were suspiciously similar: the victim was last seen being taken away in a white van. Sometimes bodies were found, sometime not. In all cases, the police knew nothing. The government was ready with glib explanations. All of this is well documented, not just by organizations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.* The US State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report noted that ‘The government and its agents continued to be responsible for serious human rights problems. Security forces committed arbitrary and unlawful killings …. Disappearances continued to be a problem’.**
Despite the comprehensive victory over the LTTE, the white van abductions have continued. Rumours abound that the white vans are for hire with drug barons finding their services useful or that they are engaged in ‘social cleansing’. And earlier this year there was a startling event: a white van team was captured! They had been attempting to abduct a town mayor (whose brother had been abducted several months earlier) but were overpowered by his supporters. When the police arrived they found that the white van occupants were members of the military, carried military ID, military rations, and military weapons.*** The team is even captured on YouTube:
Despite this embarrassment, the prospects for change are poor. President Rajapaksa is well-entrenched and has a track record of overlooking human rights abuses. The Minister of Defence is the President’s brother. Crucially, by raising money on the open market – especially in Asia – the Government does not have to worry about human rights conditions tagged to western donor aid.

* and

The withering of the United Nations

6 Aug

Kofi Annan’s resignation as the UN special envoy to Syria was greeted by a few hours of mock disappointment and then the news agenda moved back to the Olympic Games. The fundamental explanation for the failure of Annan’s mission does not lie in Damascus or Aleppo. Sure neither the Assad regime nor the Free Syria Army cooperated, each preferring to try and win on the battlefield. The main explanation for Annan’s failure though can be traced back to the sapping of the UN’s moral authority over the past decade and a half.

The UN has always had a contested moral authority. It was (and still is) a victors’ organisation. Its first decades were hamstrung by the Cold War, but the end of that conflict gave the organisation a new chance. It seized that chance, or rather it was allowed to seize that chance by member states. We saw an increase in the number and complexity of peace-support operations in the early 1990s. The UN was the planet’s premier collective security organisation. Sure, nation states still put their interests first, but the UN was an organisation to be listened to and states contributed money and personnel to its operations. Over the past decade and a half much of the moral authority associated with the UN has ebbed away.

Let’s go back to 1997 and the establishment of the Project for the New American Century. This self-described ‘not-for-profit educational organization’ sounds like a mom and apple pie outfit, though a scan of the signatories of its opening letter give some indication of the ideological pedigree of its founders: Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Elliot Abrams. Sound familiar? These guys were the neo-conservatives who served in the George W. Bush White House. The Project for a New American Century advocates American leadership, based on military strength and ‘moral principle’, for the ‘good of the America and the world’. All of this would be laughably patrician if it wasn’t for the fact these guys came to power. Multilateralism, the principle upon which the UN is founded, was seen as a threat to American hegemony. Thus it became US policy to side-line the United Nations.

NATO and ‘coalitions of the willing’ were seen as the primary vehicles for security and continued American hegemony. The UN was useful for picking up the pieces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for dealing with humanitarian crises in strategically unimportant parts of the planet, but it was not part of the plan. Perhaps the greatest illustration of the downgrading of the UN’s importance has been the US enthusiastic support for a South Korean non-entity to become Secretary General. But there have been lots of other illustrations of the chipping away of the UN’s standing in US policy circles. For example, in June 2012 the United States (world’s greatest military power) contributed 12 soldiers to UN peacekeeping missions. Yes, that figure was 12. That great military powerhouse Tanzania contributed one hundred times that number. Western states have virtually ceased providing peacekeeping troops over the past decade.*

Of course, the issue is far more complex that a dastardly US plot. The United Nations is merely the sum of its constituent states and US is not alone in downgrading the role of the UN. Important too in this story has been the Manichean lens encouraged by the War On Terror. Humanitarian and neutral space became squeezed in the unforgiving ‘you’re either with us or against us’ atmosphere that occurred post 9/11. The UN compound in Baghdad was attacked in August 2003 because the attackers could see little difference between the UN and the coalition of the willing. The UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs found that attacks on humanitarian workers tripled between 2001-2011. The line between humanitarian and military personnel – always blurry at the best of times, was further blurred by the ‘armed humanitarianism’ of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and other humanitarianism with muscle.

All of which brings us back to Syria and the descent into civil war. The stakes are so high that mediation was always a difficult task. For the Assad regime there can be no halfway house: it must be complete power or nothing. For his opponents also, there can be no semi-resistance: it must be violent uprising or cowed silence and state recriminations. As Kofi Annan noted in his resignation statement, a mediator cannot want peace more than the antagonists. Yet, Annan as a representative of the UN, should have been able to draw on one trump card – the moral worth of the UN. But that legitimacy has been eroded away.

None of this is to romanticize the UN. It was an organization forged out of the realpolitik of a victors’ peace. It has always been embroiled in global and regional struggles, with one side or the other attempting to use it as a proxy ally. Yet the notion of a universal collective security organisation is an important one. It must rest on a sacred trust, or the belief that the collective will of humanity carries more trust and worth that the narrow concerns of individual states or peoples. That collective trust, summed up in the phrase ‘We the Peoples …’ in the Charter of the United Nations, has been cynically undermined over the years. Kofi Annan hadn’t a chance.