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Economic Outlook: African Leaders Demand Better Deals in Chinese Extractive FDI

Original Article:

In Niger, government officials have fought a Chinese oil giant step by step, painfully undoing parts of a contract they call ruinous. In neighboring Chad, they have been even more forceful, shutting down the Chinese and accusing them of gross environmental negligence. In Gabon, they have seized major oil tracts from China, handing them over to the state company.

China wants Africa’s oil as much as ever. But instead of accepting the old terms, which many African officials call unconditional surrender, some cash-starved African states are pushing back, showing an assertiveness unthinkable until recently and suggesting that the days of unbridled influence by the African continent’s mega-investor may be waning.

For years, China has found eager partners across the continent, where governments of every ilk have welcomed the nation’s deep pockets and hands-off approach to local politics as an alternative to the West.

Now China’s major state oil companies are being challenged by African governments that have learned decades of hard lessons about heedless resource-grabs by outsiders and are looking anew at the deals they or their predecessors have signed. Where the Chinese companies are seen as gouging, polluting or hogging valuable tracts, African officials have started resisting, often at the risk of angering one of their most important trading partners.

“This is all we’ve got,” said Niger’s oil minister, Foumakoye Gado. “If our natural resources are given away, we’ll never get out of this.”

“We’ve got to fight to get full value for these resources,” Mr. Gado said. “If they are valued correctly, we can hope to bring something to our people.”

“The Chinese are genuinely unprepared for this degree of pushback,” Mr. Soares de Oliveira said.

China’s Foreign Ministry rejected the notion that its role had been anything but fruitful. In Niger, it said, it has improved the economy, has hired local residents and is building schools, digging wells and carrying out other “public welfare activities.” In Chad, it said, it has urged companies to protect the environment and will seek to resolve the dispute through “friendly negotiation.” In Gabon, as elsewhere, it said, it supports cooperation “on the basis of equality, amity and mutual benefit.”

Few nations in the world are as weak as Niger, where nearly half of the government budget comes from foreign donors. But the nation long had unfulfilled oil dreams that were largely ignored by major companies. In 2008, two partners came together secretively — the country’s autocratic ruler, Mamadou Tandja, and China National Petroleum — and signed an unpublicized deal that seemed to give both parties what they wanted.

But far less clear, then and now, was whether Niger — one of the world’s most impoverished countries, regularly threatened by famine — would substantially benefit from the deal.

Mr. Tandja got a costly oil refinery in an area of Niger that he needed to win over with the promise of development, but the need for such a project in this low-energy-consuming nation has been sharply questioned by experts, not to mention the mysterious $300 million “signing bonus” Mr. Tandja’s administration received….The refinery has a capacity that is three times Niger’s consumption, and the overall cost should have been only $784 million, according to a United Nations expert. Niger must still pay 40 percent of the original cost, with money lent to it by the Chinese.

In return, the Chinese got access to untapped oil reserves in the remote fields on Chad’s border on terms that still make Oil Ministry officials here wince. Beyond that, local residents have protested that the Chinese presence has brought few jobs, low pay and harsh working conditions.

“In the context of this fight, we are revisiting these contracts to correct them,” said Mr. Gado, the oil minister in the new democratic government led by an opponent of Mr. Tandja. “In the future, we will pay closer attention, to not make the same mistakes.”

“This is a lesson we are giving to the Chinese: we are keeping a close lookout on them,” said Mahaman Gaya, the Oil Ministry’s secretary general. Mr. Gado has not made his last trip to Beijing.

Niger’s lesson is being applied elsewhere as well: African governments, grateful as they are for Chinese-built roads and ministry buildings, are no longer passive partners.

“Are we going to continue to ignore what the Chinese companies are doing?” asked Mr. Doudjidingao, the Chadian economist. “I think this is the beginning of a change between African states and the Chinese. It’s a consciousness-raising, so they won’t be guilty in the face of history.”

Natural resources need not be a “curse”, but avoiding human rights violations in extractive industries takes political will, government oversight, and corporate accountability. In order to help African governments, which tend to be underfunded and sometimes corrupt, the Chinese government should hold it’s companies accountable for their extra-territorial human rights obligations (especially considering these companies are state-owned!). Sure this may result in higher costs in the short-run, but businesses thrive on consistency and stability; it is better to pay a little more now then have no idea what the cost may be in the future.

Commitments must be made on the side of the African government’s too; if the Chinese agree to work with them on vetting extractive contracts for human rights implications, then the terms agreed upon will be honored for the life of the contract. This is admittedly challenging in an unstable political climate, where the government of today may not necessarily be the government tomorrow. I am not talking about regime changes, I am talking about revolutions, coups, and other means of fundamentally altering the structure of the government. But still, deals should be made with a mutually beneficial long-term view.

Certain types of foreign direct investment, known as “market-seeking” FDI, are characterized by better deals for host-countries. Willing to forgo some of the labor and regulation saving costs, companies pay a little more because they wish to not only produce at a cheaper cost, but to also empower locals to become future customers. Unfortunately, “extractive” FDI does not lend itself to such benevolent partners. It is therefore the job of the government(s) involved to ensure that human rights obligations are upheld; in an industry with tens of billions of dollars in annual profits, paying to ensure the local poor are receiving a fair deal should not be an issue.

It is not only foreign powers that wish to exploit Africa’s natural resources, cheap labor and lax environmental standards. Natural resources can be easily stolen, especially in countries with lax security / highly organized criminal networks. Furthermore, often times corrupt government officials are willing to provide protection for oil thieves in exchange for personal riches:

Thieves steal an estimated average of 100,000 barrels a day, the report said; working in elaborate networks and protected by corrupted security officials, they tap into the huge and isolated network of pipes that crisscross the country’s swampy southern Niger Delta region. The price of oil fluctuates, but a hypothetical per-barrel price of $100 would mean an annual loss of $3.65 billion. Oil closed at $107.28 per barrel on Thursday.

“Top Nigerian officials cut their teeth in the oil theft business during military rule,” it said. “Over time, evidence surfaced that corrupt members of the security forces were actively involved. The country’s return to democracy in 1999 then gave some civilian officials and political ‘godfathers’ more access to stolen oil.” Security officials are said to extort payments from the oil thieves in return for protection, according to Chatham House.

There is no easy answer to sustainable human development in Africa. However, it is self-evident that the presence of natural resources should expedite the development process, not slow it down or reverse it. This requires political will from both host countries and governments representing foreign investors. But political will is not enough, multiple layers of accountability are needed to ensure the gains of resource extraction go to help the people in the countries which own these resources. Corporate accountability is one aspect which, alongside political accountability, can help ensure that the rule of law is upheld with respect to contracts, and that deals are properly vetted for human rights considerations.

There is, however, another part of the story. African governments would be right to instill the idea within their citizenry’s that profits from natural resource production indeed do belong primarily to the people. Bad contractual terms are more easily remedied than organized criminals and corrupt officials stealing resource rents. In order to remedy this issue, social accountability could go a long way. Empowering people with political rights, and institutions for voicing grievances (such as ombudsman offices and / or NHRIs, or institutions created specifically for extractive industry grievances) can help turn nationalism and self-interests into meaningful accountability on a scale that is otherwise unachievable.

If people in the developing world are convinced resource profits will go to development programs, and governments are committed to these programs and institutions that promote social accountability, then perhaps we can move past the point in history where the presence of natural resources is considered a “curse” and move toward a future where natural resource profits help expedite human development (as they should!). It appears the political will is slowly accumulating throughout Africa, this is great news as tighter regulations always work better when imposed regionally in order to avoid a “race to the bottom”. The UN Post-2015 Development Agenda will also help achieve this goal, as it is set to have human rights considerations and accountability at it’s core.

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Highlights From the St. Petersburg G20 Leaders Declaration

The G20 Leader’s summit was held in St. Petersburg, Russia over the past 2 days. While much has been made over the lack of an international consensus on Syria, less attention has been given to agreements made on global political economy decisions. Global leaders reinforced the importance of cooperation, transparency and trust on global issues such as renewable energy / climate change, sustainable economic development, financial regulation and tax avoidance.

Furthermore, the international community reaffirmed its commitment to the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda, with a human rights based approach to sustainable human development at it’s core. It also reaffirmed the idea that certain issues (ex tax avoidance, financial regulation) require global policy coordination to be effective, and recognized the G20’s unique ability–by representing 2/3 of the worlds population and 90% of economic output–to hold countries accountable for “cheating” on international agreements.

The resolution reaffirmed the importance of rule of law, transparency, and judicial independence for fostering trust between civil society and governments, and conversely how corruption can undermine both this trust and the trust between governments in global governance mechanisms. In recognition of the destructive power of corruption, the resolution reaffirms a global effort to combat corruption through education campaigns and empowering civil society to practice “social accountability” via ombudsman’s offices / NHRIs.

Below are the highlights of the Saint Petersburg Declaration (as I see them, I realize the post is a bit lengthy, but I was able to capture the 27 page documents essence in about 5 pages–woohoo academic / knowledge management experience). Underneath certain resolutions I included (in parenthesis) how that resolution fits into a common NN theme. For those who wish to read more in depth on G20 resolutions, I suggest the Saint Petersburg Development Outlook, the FSB report on financial reforms, and the Tax Annex to the Saint Petersburg G20 Leaders Declaration.

(It should be noted that grandiose rhetoric is often used in global policy summits. There is a difference between resolutions and implementing / financing programmes to operationalize those resolutions. However, at least on the sustainable economic development and global policy coherence fronts, important groundwork was laid down at the summit)

G20 LEADERS’ DECLARATION
Saint Petersburg Summit
5-6 September 2013
Preamble 

5. We understand that sound and sustainable economic growth will be firmly based on increased and predictable investments, trust and transparency, as well as on effective regulation as part of the market policy and practice.

6. As Leaders of the world’s largest economies, we share responsibility for reinforcing the open and rules-based global economic system. We are committed to working cooperatively to address key global economic challenges:

  • Achieving a stronger recovery while ensuring fiscal sustainability. We have today agreed the St Petersburg Action Plan, which sets out our strategies to achieve strong, sustainable and balanced growth.
  •  Unemployment and underemployment, particularly among young people. We are united in the resolve to achieve better quality and more productive jobs. Coordinated and integrated public policies (macroeconomic, financial, fiscal, education, skills development, innovation, employment and social protection) are key to reach this goal. We today committed to continue our efforts to support inclusive labour markets, with the exchange of country-specific plans or sets of actions, developed as appropriate according to our different constitutional circumstances.

(In line with the principle of self-determination)

  • Free and rules-based trade fosters economic opportunities. We stress the crucial importance of strong multilateral trading system and call on all the WTO members to show the necessary flexibility and reach a successful outcome in this year’s multilateral trade negotiations. We extend our commitment to refrain from protectionist measures and aim at enhancing transparency in trade, including in regional trade agreements.
  • Cross-border tax evasion and avoidance undermine our public finances and our people’s trust in the fairness of the tax system. Today, we endorsed plans to address these problems and committed to take steps to change our rules to tackle tax avoidance, harmful practices, and aggressive tax planning.

We have agreed and are implementing a broad range of financial reforms to address the major fault lines that caused the crisis. We are building more resilient financial institutions, making substantial progress towards ending too-big-to-fail, increasing transparency and market integrity, filling regulatory gaps and addressing the risks from shadow banking. We will pursue our work to build a safe, reliable financial system responsive to the needs of our citizens.

 G20 countries have a responsibility to ensure that all people have an opportunity to gain from strong, sustainable and balanced growth. We endorse the St Petersburg Development Outlook to focus our efforts on concrete steps to improve food security, financial inclusion, infrastructure, human resource development and domestic resource mobilization.

(The universality of human rights based development)

Corruption impedes sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction, threatening financial stability and economy as a whole. We will hold ourselves to our commitment to implement the G20 Anti-Corruption Action Plan, combating domestic and foreign bribery, tackling corruption in high-risk sectors, strengthening international cooperation and promoting public integrity and transparency in the fight against corruption. Recognizing the need for sustained and concerted efforts we endorse the St Petersburg Strategic Framework.

We share a common interest in developing cleaner, more efficient and reliable energy supplies, as well as more transparent physical and financial commodity markets. We commit to enhance energy cooperation, to make energy market data more accurate and available and to take steps to support the development of cleaner and more efficient energy technologies to enhance the efficiency of markets and shift towards a more sustainable energy future. We underscore our commitment to work together to address climate change and environment protection, which is a global problem that requires a global solution.

We will continue to develop comprehensive growth strategies to achieve stronger, more sustainable and balanced growth in the context of fiscal sustainability.

7. Too many of our citizens have yet to participate in the economic global recovery that is underway. The G20 must strive not only for strong, sustainable and balanced growth but also for a more inclusive pattern of growth that will better mobilize the talents of our entire populations. 

(“no-person-left-behind” human rights based approach (HRBA) to development, inclusive growth to reduce inequalities of opportunity / break power asymmetries)

Global Economy and G20 Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth
10. We consider the main challenges to the global economy to be:

  •  Weak growth and persistently high unemployment, particularly among youth, and the need for more inclusive growth in many economies;
  •  Financial market fragmentation in Europe and the decisive implementation of banking union;
  •  Slower growth in some emerging market economies, reflecting in some cases the effect of volatile capital flows, tighter financial conditions and commodity price volatility, as well as domestic structural challenges;
  •  Insufficient levels of private investment in many countries, in part due to continuing market uncertainties, as well as internal rigidities;
  •  High public debt and its sustainability in some countries that need to be addressed while properly supporting the recovery in the near-term, especially in countries with the highest actual and projected debt to GDP levels;
  •  Volatility of capital flows as growth strengthens and there are expectations of eventual monetary policy recalibration in advanced economies;
  •  An incomplete rebalancing of global demand; and
  •  Continued uncertainties about fiscal policy deliberations.

15. We reiterate that excess volatility of financial flows and disorderly movements in exchange rates can have adverse implications for economic and financial stability, as observed recently in some emerging markets. Generally stronger policy frameworks in these countries allow them to better deal with these challenges. Sound macroeconomic policies, structural reforms and strong prudential frameworks will help address an increase in volatility. We will continue to monitor financial market conditions carefully.

16. We commit to cooperate to ensure that policies implemented to support domestic growth also support global growth and financial stability and to manage their spillovers on other countries.

(Accountability for extra-territorial human rights obligations)

Growth through Quality Jobs

26. Policy reforms to support higher employment and facilitate job creation and better matching of skills with job opportunities are central in our growth strategies. We commit to take a broad-ranged action, tailored to national circumstances, to promote more and better jobs:

  • Invest in our people’s skills, quality education and life-long learning programs to give them skill portability and better prospects, to facilitate mobility and enhance employability.

(Human capital investment for sustainable human development)

29. Promoting youth employment is a global priority. We are committed to quality apprenticeship and vocational training programmes, finding innovative ways to encourage firms to hire youth for example by, where appropriate, reducing non-wage labour costs, moving towards early intervention measures and effective job-search assistance for different groups of youth, and motivating youth entrepreneurship and business start-ups. Tailored strategies including youth guarantee approaches, developing school and university curricula that support entrepreneurship, and facilitating exchange of best practices among the G20 countries and the social partners are crucial in this respect.

(Recognizing youth as a critical stage of personal and professional development, and adequate investment reflecting this recognition)

Growth through Quality Jobs
81. Supporting strong, sustainable, inclusive and resilient growth and narrowing the development gap remain critical to our overall objective for jobs and growth. In this regard, we welcome the progress within the forum achieved this year, in particular on:

  • Food Security: Support to the Secure Nutrition Knowledge Platform, exchange of best practices through the seminar on “Food Security through Social Safety Nets and Risk Management”, and convening the second G20 Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists, along with its ongoing work to identify global research priorities and targets and support results-based agricultural research in 2014.
  • Infrastructure: Completion of the Assessment of Project Preparation Facilities (PPFs) for Infrastructure in Africa; a toolkit on Urban Mass Transportation Infrastructure Projects in Medium and Large Cities by the World Bank and the ADB; and a public-private partnerships (PPP) sourcebook by the World Bank, IDB and ADB, and progress in implementing the recommendations of the High Level Panel on Infrastructure.

(PPP for physical and human capital investments. Both governments and businesses rely on productive societies for growth.)

  • Financial Inclusion: Enhanced coherence with the G20 finance track through the Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion (GPFI) to pursue efforts to strengthen financial inclusion including work to further reducing the global average cost of transferring remittances to 5% including through innovative result-based mechanisms, to enhance financial literacy and consumer protection for the poor and to foster access to finance for investment, for SMEs for growth, job creation and poverty reduction; and together with the IFC launching the Women Finance Hub.
  • Human Resource Development: Launch of a global public-private knowledge sharing platform on skills for employment and the development of national actions plans on skills for employment in LICs and of a database on skills indicators.
  •  Inclusive Green Growth: Further development, dissemination and implementation of the non-prescriptive, voluntary toolkit of policy options for inclusive green growth in the context of sustainable development, including a workshop with developing countries, and initiation of the G20 Dialogue Platform on Inclusive Green Investments for sustainable development and poverty eradication.
  • Domestic Resource Mobilization: Continued work on strengthening tax administrations in developing countries, particularly LIC’s, through both bilateral and multilateral programs, such as the work of the OECD and G20 members on BEPS, automatic exchange of information, the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes and “Tax Inspectors without Borders” and the expansion of the work of the World Bank Group and the IMF to support developing countries’ ability to raise domestic resources. 

83. We welcome the Saint Petersburg Accountability Report on G20 Development Commitments, which sets out the progress achieved since we adopted the 2010 Seoul Multi-Year Action Plan on Development (MYAP) (Annex). This report demonstrates that many of our development commitments have now been implemented and identifies lessons learned and it highlights the successes achieved. The Accountability Report underlines the importance of continued monitoring and identifies areas where we must continue to work and opportunities to strengthen and streamline the G20 development agenda.

84. In this spirit, we endorse the Saint Petersburg Development Outlook, which states our core priorities, new initiatives and ongoing commitments (Annex). Building on the foundation of the 2010 Seoul Development Consensus for Shared Growth, the Outlook frames the approach to our future work. We ask the Development Working Group to focus on concrete actions under the core priorities of food security, financial inclusion and remittances, infrastructure, human resource development and domestic resource mobilization, and to deliver specific outcomes at the Brisbane summit. We commit to improve working practices for more effective outcomes by:

  •  concentrating on fewer key areas where action and reform remain most critical to ensure inclusive and sustainable growth in developing countries;
  •  enhancing policy coordination across different G20 work streams in order to ensure greater impact on developing countries;
  •  implementing a forward accountability process to improve monitoring and coordination, and ensure greater transparency of our work;
  •  continuing to expand engagement and partnerships with stakeholders, including non-G20 countries (especially LICs), international organizations, the private sector    and civil society; ensuring flexible approaches to respond to new priorities and circumstances

(Post-2015 development agenda consultations—human rights (political and social empowerment) for inclusive global and national agenda setting)

85. We welcome the substantial progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) since 2000 and the success in galvanizing global action to reach specific targets globally, as well as in individual countries, particularly in eradicating extreme poverty and promoting development. However, the prospects for achieving all of the MDGs differ sharply across and within countries and regions. We remain committed to accelerating progress towards achieving the MDGs, particularly through the implementation of our development agenda and our focus on promoting strong, sustainable, inclusive and resilient growth.

86. We support the ongoing efforts in the UN for the elaboration of the post-2015 development agenda. We commit to participate actively in this process and engage in the discussion on the direction of the new framework and its key principles and ideas and effectively contribute to the timely conclusion of the process. The final outcome will be determined through an intergovernmental process in which we will all participate, but much preparatory work is still underway. We welcome the contribution of the report prepared by the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which sets out some illustrative goals We also welcome the ongoing work of the UN General Assembly Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals and Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing. We stress the crucial importance of collective action, including international development cooperation, based on the principles outlined in the Millennium Declaration, the 2012 Rio+20 outcome document “The Future We Want”, the Istanbul Declaration and Programme of Action of the Fourth UN Conference on Least Developed Countries and the outcomes of other relevant UN Conferences and Summits in the economic, social and environmental fields.

87. We call for an agreement on an integrated post-2015 development agenda with concise, implementable and measurable goals taking into account different national realities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities, focused both on the eradication of extreme poverty, promoting development and on balancing the environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainable development. We commit to ensure that G20 activities beyond 2015 are coherent with the new development framework. 

Sustainable Energy Policy and Resilience of Global Commodity Markets

95. Sizable investment, including from private sources, will be needed in the G20 and other economies in energy infrastructure in the years ahead to support global growth and development. It is our common interest to assess existing obstacles and identify opportunities to facilitate more investment into more smart and low-carbon energy infrastructure, particularly in clean and sustainable electricity infrastructure where feasible. In this regard we encourage a closer engagement of private sector and multilateral development banks with the G20 Energy Sustainability Working Group (ESWG) and call for a dialogue to be launched on its basis in 2014 that will bring interested public sector, market players and international organizations together to discuss the factors hindering energy investment, including in clean and energy efficient technologies and to scope possible measures needed to promote sustainable, affordable, efficient and secure energy supply.

Intensifying Fight Against Corruption

103. Corruption is a severe impediment to sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction and can threaten financial stability and the economy as a whole. Corruption is corrosive, destroying public trust, distorting the allocation of resources and undermining the rule of law. To provide a better understanding of the factors constraining the economic potential of countries affected by corruption, we make available the Issues Paper on Anti-Corruption and Economic Growth and encourage the OECD, in collaboration with the World Bank to continue work in this area.

104. As a group of the world’s largest economies, the G20 has the potential to create unstoppable momentum towards a global culture of intolerance towards corruption. We will redouble our efforts to achieve this goal, in particular by enhancing transparency and closing implementation and enforcement gaps.

108. We renew our commitment to ensure the independence of the judiciary, as well as to share best practices and enforce legislation to protect whistleblowers, ensure the effectiveness of anti-corruption authorities free from any undue influence, and promote the integrity of public officials.

109. We also place a high value on implementing and raising awareness regarding effective anti-corruption education programs to build and reinforce a culture of intolerance towards corruption.

(The importance of “social accountability” and access to information in combating corruption, claiming human rights / holding violators accountable)

112. We recognize that a culture of intolerance towards corruption will only be achieved if we work in partnership with business and civil society. We commit to maintain and build on the enhanced dialogue between the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group and the B20 and C20, and have taken note of the recommendations of these two groups. In particular, we welcome the business community’s initiatives to enhance anti-corruption collective actions and to develop institutional arrangements to promote anti-corruption compliance in the private sector.

(Consultative policy setting agenda, PPPs for shared programme financing, accountability / oversight, and technical assistance in realization of different stakeholders comparative advantages and common goals) 


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G20 Kicks-Off Today, A Number of Hot-Topic Issues to be Discussed by World Leaders

G20 Russia 2013

From the international financial and monetary systems to international tax-evasion to armed conflicts, the worlds leaders are getting together to figure out how to minimize human rights violations and hold parties accountable for their violations.

The ultimate goal is to put in place global and national policies needed for sustainable human development in the 21st century–an ambitious goal indeed! Difficulty must not deter our normative visions for the future; as a global community we must attack these issues proactively and in a preventative nature whenever possible.

I urge the NN community to stay up-to-date on G20 related news. I will be sure to write a blog upon the conclusion of the G20 leaders summit.


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Transparency Report: You’ve Gotta Fight, For Your (Human) Rights

This past week marked the well documented 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom and the “I Have a Dream” speech. Despite being known as a civil rights leader, Dr. King was irrefutably a human rights activist. Human rights include the economic and civil rights, as well as social, political, and cultural rights. Human rights, Dr. King realized, we indivisible, interdependent,non-excludable / universal (human rights are for all people, and are rooted in our common humanity) and mutually reinforcing; upholding certain rights (for example freedom of assembly, speech, political rights, the right to employment, access to information) empowers people to claim other rights, while one human rights violation tends to beget others (culminating in a life of poverty and social exclusion). Today, these concepts are largely accepted by the international community and domestic development organizations–in Dr. King’s time they were pioneering concepts. Dr. King understood the difficulty of claiming rights, which involves mobilizing an oppressed group to overcome vested interests, power asymmetries, and collective action problems which sustain these human rights violations.

Furthermore, Dr. King understood the role an accountable and effective democratic government plays in upholding human rights obligations–as evidenced by the location of this historic rally. An effective democracy creates an enabling environment for people to claim their rights, which is one of the main reasons that democracy and human rights are so closely related. However, this enabling environment is only the beginning of the determination and thick-skin needed to make meaningful advances in human rights.

There is no doubt in my mind that, had Dr. King not been assassinated, he would have continued his work both for civil rights specifically and human rights more generally. Dr. King would have undoubtedly endorsed UN Human Rights Treaties enshrining the rights to development and employment, as well as other economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. As a man, Dr. King died to young; as a symbol he will live forever–I hope in some small way I am helping to further the work of this great American hero.

I would like use this blog as anopportunity to reflect on two themes I have noticed in my time as a student of the political economy of development, as a human rights worker for the UNDP, and as a generally informed global citizen:

1) You’ve got to fight for your rights:

A play on a popular Beastie Boys Song, but the message is 100% true. When I think of advances in human rights in America (the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the gay rights movement), they all have in common a struggle to mobilize people to claim their rights. Furthermore, sacrifices must be made–Dr. King made the ultimate sacrifice for his cause. Progress will not be linear or fast, but through hard work over time meaningful progress can be made.

2) The dehumanization of minorities:

We live in the “age of human rights”. A quick historic overview: the concept of human rights in international governance and development took root in the aftermath of WWII. However, it was not until the end of the Cold War that the opportunity to champion human rights globally presented itself. Since that point, the UN and other similar government and non-governmental organizations have taken up this call. This summer, as an intern with the UNDP democratic governance group’s human rights team, I had the opportunity to participate in an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and
Programme of Action
, which commemorated advances in human rights and mapped out future opportunities in human rights advocacy.

This “age of human rights” does not mean that human rights violations no longer occur. If anything, advances in ICTs and social media have exposed the extent to which human rights violations take place, particularly in least developed / authoritarian countries. Here at NN, I have written extensively on how human rights violations are at the heart of the majority of armed conflicts today; it is worth mentioning that development goals are rarely sustained in a conflict-affected country.

In this day and age, human rights violators justify their actions by dehumanizing the people whose rights are being violated. In Egypt and Syria, opposition groups are deemed terrorists by those in power. Just as media independence is a feature of a pluralistic democratic society, controls on media outlets–combined with propaganda campaigns–aim to drive home dehumanization in order to justify virtually any human rights violation (including murder). Racism, stereotyping and scapegoating can reinforce dehumanization campaigns.

We see dehumanization take place most often in the name of religion or “traditional values”. Any governing document, be it the Constitution of the United States, the Koran, or the Bible, interpreted too strictly, can be used to justify human rights violations; extremists may argue that if you do not subscribe to their beliefs, then you are less than human and do not deserve basic rights.

Governing documents are meant to be living, amenable to the context of the times. They are amended and reinterpreted to reflect changing societal norms; religion tends to be less adaptive, perhaps explaining part of the decline in religious observance in America. Islam’s  inability to reinterpret itself for modern times is a root cause of Islamic extremism.

I too have a dream, or a normative vision, for the world. This vision depends on greater investments in human rights education and human capital at a young age, recognizing youth as an extremely important period of personal development. It depends on an understanding of the importance of sustainable human development and both domestic and extra-territorial human rights obligations. Sustainable human development cannot take place to the detriment of future generations or at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Anybody can do their part to help realize this normative vision; challenge anybody trying to sell a strict interpretation of any ideology and / or trying to dehumanize any group with stereotypes / racism. The vast (silent) majority of the global community wants peace and prosperity for all–together we can overcome this global collective action problem in the years and decades to come.


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Conflict Watch: Weighing in on Prospective U.S. Military Strikes in Syria

Up until this point, chemical attack allegations in Syria have been a “blame-game” dominated by circumstantial evidence, hypothetical questions / appeals to logic, murky details, and classified information. The Assad regime has blamed “terrorists”, as they have for the duration of the civil war, for launching chemical attacks. Why would we launch these attacks when UN investigators were in the country, they argue? Western powers do not believe the opposition has the capacity to launch such attacks, and blames the Assad regime of offering too little too late when it came to international investigations (this argument has been refuted by chemical weapons experts, which alongside congressional uncertainty, further complicates U.S. military intervention).

The UK dropping out of military strikes, as well as the lack of NATO, Arab League, or U.N.S.C. authorization, makes it difficult to frame a military strike as part of a global coalition. President Obama has assured war-weary Americans there will be “no boots on the ground”, and that a strike will not lead to another long-term entanglement in the region. However, direct military strikes–particularly without broad international support–will naturally lead to further engagement, particularly if  Western / American / Israeli interests are targeted in retaliation.

I actually agree with Speaker Boehner; we need more information on what intelligence the administration has and how strikes fit into Americas long term geopolitical strategy in the Middle-East. In the face of the sequester and looming budget / debt ceiling debates, how will these strikes be financed? The constraints that military spending impose on other fiscal policies affect all American’s; the citizens of this great country deserve more conclusive evidence the Assad regime used chemical weapons. Basing strikes on classified “knowledge” from unknown (to regular people) sources should not satisfy anyone’s need for a transparent and inclusive debate / decision making process leading up to possible military intervention.

Common sense tells us to wait a few days, in order to drum up more international support and get more intelligence from U.N. investigators. There is no sense rushing into action that–despite President Obama’s words and wishes–has inherent long term implications on U.S. military, foreign and fiscal policiesIt seems clear that either the Assad regime or more radical segments of the opposition as responsible for the chemical attacks in Syria. We must determine conclusively who committed this crime against humanity and hold them accountable. 

There has been a lot of talk about precedents being set; if we do not respond to the use of chemical weapons, then international laws banning their use carry very little weight. I agree with this argument, but military decisions should not be made hastily or emotionally. There is no question Bashar al-Assad is a thug who has mercilessly killed tens of thousands of his countrymen and driven well over 1 million Syrians into other countries as refugees, imposing the myriad costs of Syria’s Civil War on the region in an attempt to retain his families 4 decade rule in Syria. I also do not believe a political solution is possible, as Assad believes his rule in Syria is based on something resembling the mandate of heaven.

But the question still remains–did Assad carry out these chemical strikes? If we cannot rule out the possibility that opposition forces used chemical weapons, then a much more dangerous precedent may inadvertently be set–that extremist’s can solicit a military response by using chemical weapons on the very people they are supposed to be fighting for. While this is not what I think happened, we must be certain before making decisions with long term and unforeseeable ramifications. 

Financial considerations should ultimately be secondary once conclusive evidence is presented implicating who is responsible for these attacks. “We cannot afford to hold perpetrators of crimes humanity accountable” is not an acceptable excuse for inaction from the international community. Once conclusive evidence implicating Assad in chemical weapons attacks circulates (or at very least exonerating extremist factions within the Syrian opposition of involvement in said attacks), international intervention can be justified on any number of international law / treaty violations and/or R2P.

In an attempt to isolate these radical segments of the Syrian opposition, plans for creating a national Syrian rebel army have circulated, angering Islamist factions in the opposition:

Syria’s Western-backed political opposition plans to create the nucleus of a national army to bring order to the disparate rebel forces battling President Bashar al-Assad and counter the strength of al Qaeda-linked rebel brigades.

The latest attempt to unite the rebels coincides with fierce debates in Washington and other Western capitals over whether and how to boost support for Assad’s opponents after an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces on Wednesday.

Chaos among opposition forces and al-Qaeda’s growing role are barriers to any intervention.

Plans for an army are still under wraps but details began emerging earlier this month before the gas attack. It has the blessing of the rebels’ patronSaudi Arabia, which took over as the main regional backer of Assad’s foes earlier this year.

Momentum behind the new force comes from Saudi Arabia and Western nations who, alarmed by the growth of radical Islamists in rebel-held areas, have thrown their weight behind the Syrian Coalition, hoping it could help stem their power.

“Once we get the (battle)field organized, then everything will be organized,” he said. “This will be the army of the new Syria. We want to integrate its ranks and unify the sources of funding and arms,” the Syrian National Coalition member said.

Western-backed rebels say the new structure might be modeled on U.S.-backed militias, known as “Awakening Councils”, which drove al Qaeda from Iraq’s Anbar region six years ago.

The leader of one moderate Islamist brigade, which operates in several parts of the country, said he supported the proposal, but would not say if his fighters would join.

Leaders of more radical groups see it as a Western-backed plot to fight them. “They are undermining the work of all of us. They want to throw it in the bin, as if it never happened,” said a senior commander in Homs province.

Opposition political sources were careful not to portray the new army as a challenge to Islamists, but a senior official said it would only welcome them if they left their brigades.

“This will be an army like any other army in the world. When you join it you leave your beliefs outside. Islamists can join as individuals, not as Islamists.”

The new body is not an alliance of brigades, as in previous attempts to unify insurgency groups; individual fighters will be expected to leave their units to sign up.

Many Syrians initially welcomed the Islamists for bringing order to the chaos of rebel-held territories, but growing resentment of their puritanical rule could win popular sympathy for any new force that challenges them.

Activists in the northern, rebel-held provinces, where Islamists are most powerful, say those criticizing the Islamists are threatened or imprisoned.

“We have challenged Assad when he was strong, and now we are being bullied by radicals who are not even Syrians in our Syria,” said an activist in Aleppo who declined to be named.

With weapons and money flooding into the country, a class of warlords has emerged, including Islamists, who have grown powerful on arms deals and oil smuggling. Activists in the north complain of high levels of theft, bullying and thuggery.

“With this army the Coalition will have a military force on the ground, one that is composed of the best Syrian fighters,” said a Syrian rebel commander in a powerful brigade that has fighters across Syria.

In the meantime, most agree that the disparate groups should work together, at least in temporary alliances against Assad’s troops. But they share a skepticism that the new group will ever see the light of day, or have much impact if it does.

“During this revolution we have seen many great ideas and many great attempts destroyed because of mismanagement. The Free Syrian Army is an example of this. As long as the roots of the problems are not solved, then nothing will change.”

“They are all failed projects; there is no awareness among those leading this revolution and also there is no clear strategy. In addition to this you have got the hesitation from the West. As long as this continues, this will be a failed project.”

A national Syrian rebel army is a good idea for overcoming extremist’s influence–who are often not of Syrian origins themselves–that have tried to hijack the legitimate grievances which originally spurred the Syrian revolution . This Army will require adequate financing and training from Western backers if it is to fulfill its goals.

However, one must be suspicious of Saudi Arabia’s intentions in funding this army. Despite being “pro-Western”, Saudi Arabia and many other Middle-Eastern monarchies are fundamentally opposed to the ideas of political Islam, as highlighted by support for the Egyptian Military Coup and it’s “interim government”. It must be made crystal clear in the rebel army’s enabling legislation that the army exists to uphold the will of all Syrian people, is accountable to the Syrian people and it’s future democratic government, and is committed to a pluralistic democratic Syria and international human rights norms. Any Islamist in favor of these goals is free to join the national Syrian rebel army, provided they renounce ties and allegiances to other groups–a precondition for joining any effective and unified army.  

The last thing we need is another military backed authoritarian regime posing as democracy. These “democracies” ultimately undermine the ability for effective democracy to take root, by reinforcing the misconception that democracy and political Islam are irreconcilable.  

It would be tactically advantageous to have this rebel army armed and ready to capitalize after any U.S. led military strikes should such strikes ever occur. It seems like the timing is not right for these two military strategies to synergize, unless this army has been in the works for some time now under-wraps and is almost ready to be rolled out (which is unlikely). It makes sense now for Obama to wait at least a week before taking any action, in order to rally international support for military strikes at the upcoming G-20 talks in Moscow.


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Conflict Watch: The Deteriorating Syrian Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis

The Syria sinkhole

The Syrian opposition recently offered a dangerous ultimatum, which is symbolic of the overall deterioration for the prospect of a political transition in Syria:

“The Syrian opposition will not attend the proposed Geneva conference on the crisis in Syria unless rebel fighters receive new supplies of arms and ammunition, the top rebel military commander said Friday.

‘If we don’t receive ammunition and weapons to change the position on the ground, to change the balance on the ground, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva,’ Gen. Salim Idris said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in northern Syria. ‘There will be no Geneva.’”

“Mr. Assad’s military position has been strengthened by flights of arms from Iran and the involvement of thousands of fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. The change of fortunes on the battlefield was illustrated last week when the Syrian military and Hezbollah fighters captured the town of Qusayr.”

“The proposal to hold talks in Geneva at a point when the Syrian opposition has suffered a bitter reversal has led many in the opposition to question the West’s strategy. In effect, they say, Mr. Kerry is insisting that the Syrian opposition sit down with representatives of a Syrian president who appears as determined as ever to hang on to power and at a time when the opposition’s leverage has been diminished.”

“‘There is agreement on one point within opposition circles: the regime, Iran and Hezbollah, supported by Russia, aim to win; the U.S. aims for talks,’ said Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former senior State Department official who worked on Syria transition issues. ‘This helps to explain the opposition’s reluctance to attend a Geneva conference and the difficulties it’s having organizing itself around a coherent goal.’”

“At the State Department, Mr. Kerry and his aides have long said that it is vital to change Mr. Assad’s “calculation” about his ability to maintain his grip on power in order to facilitate a political transition.”

“At a meeting in Istanbul in late April, Mr. Kerry announced that the Supreme Military Council should be the only funnel for providing Western and Arab military support to the opposition.”

“General Idris said that while the West has been debating how much military assistance to provide to the moderate opposition, extremist groups like the Nusra Front have begun to play a more prominent role in the struggle against the Assad government.

‘They are now winning sympathy from the people,’ he said. ‘They are very well financed.'”

This is essentially textbook protracted social conflict (PSC). The Syrian government denied the majority of Syrians the human rights they believed they deserved. Peaceful protests were met with violence, turning the ideological divide into a civil war. As the war has progressed, opportunistic extremist groups (Al Nursa for example), seeing a void in Western support for the rebels, have filled that void.

This further complicates American intervention, as arming the rebels could eventually lead to greater military capabilities for anti-American Jihadist organizations.

The call for greater European intervention is well heard, and steps have been made in order for Europe to put itself in position to provide weapons to the opposition should peace-talks not bear fruit (which is not unlikely, but they must at least be attempted). But the Syrian opposition has to realize it cannot try to force military aid, that it must play ball and prove in open forum that Mr. Assad’s “calculations” will not be changed (except to be further emboldened by bolstered support while the opposition loses momentum).

It is an order of operations thing; I truly believe that if the opposition comes to Geneva and makes a real attempt to negotiate a political transition, that if that attempt failed, European powers would provide more military support to the Syrian Supreme Military Council.

Another Western ally that is being dragged into the Syrian sinkhole is Israel. This past week, fighting broke out along the Golan Heights.

“The United Nations Disengagement Force (UNDOF) monitors the buffer zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.”

“Austria – which contributes about one-third of UNDOF’s troops – has announced its decision to withdraw its soldiers, reportedly citing a lack of freedom of movement and an unacceptable level of danger to its personnel.”

“‘Everyone agreed that UNDOF should continue in its mission, even if it is temporarily reduced in its ability to fulfill the current mandate,’ Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant of the United Kingdom, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council for June, told reporters after closed-door talks on the latest developments.

“‘Everyone felt that UNDOF played a key role in guaranteeing the 1974 ceasefire disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria and also acting as a conduit of communications, including in the last few days between Israel and Syria,’ he added. ‘It was therefore an important symbol of the stability across the Israel-Syrian border.'”

Russia has offered to replace the Austrian troops. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest Russian troops would represent in Syria, the offer was rejected on legal grounds:

The UN has declined a Russian offer to bolster the understaffed peacekeeping force in the cease-fire zone between Israel and Syria. Austria has said it would be withdrawing its troops from the Golan Heights.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said on Friday that permanent Security Council members were barred from deploying peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, under the terms of the 1974 cease-fire agreement between Israel and Syria.”

Israel would like to remain out of the Syrian Civil War, but the small military power continues to collect intelligence on the Syrian military and strongly reaffirms it’s right to protect itself:

“The confluence of events confronted Israel with the complex reality of a civil war just across the border in which both sides are hostile to the Jewish state. Hezbollah has vowed in recent weeks that it would facilitate attacks on Israel through the heights. And the most effective rebel force is made up of radical Sunnis aligned with Al Qaeda, while many of the other militias are led by self-identified Islamists.

The result has been a kind of paralysis in Israeli society, where options are debated but no clear consensus has emerged about which outcome of the Syrian crisis is preferable or how to prepare for it.”

If Western powers decided to intervene militarily, they would have to rely on Israeli military supremacy and geographic position to support the operation (Turkey is another important geopolitical ally, while Egypt remains a bit of a wild card). The Syrian opposition and Israeli leaders should be in communication with each other (if they are not already) as they are likely to need to have a working rapport in the foreseeable future.

All the while, the silent majority of Syrian refugees and internally displaced peoples continue to bear the brunt of the suffering and human rights violations, threatening regional stability in the Middle-East:

“The United Nations launched a $5 billion aid effort on Friday, its biggest ever, to help up to 10.25 million Syrians, half the population, who it expects will need help by the end of 2013.”

“The appeal comprises $2.9 billion for refugees, $1.4 billion for humanitarian aid and $830 million for Lebanon and Jordan, the biggest recipients of Syrian refugees.”

“The appeal updates and multiplies the existing aid plan for Syria, which sought $1.5 billion to help 4 million people within Syria and up to 1.1 million refugees by June. The worsening conflict soon overtook those projections.

The new forecasts expect the refugee population to more than double to 3.45 million from 1.6 million now, based on current numbers arriving in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

But it assumes the number of needy Syrians inside the country will remain static until the end of the year at 6.8 million. The number of internally displaced Syrians is also assumed to stay where it is now, at about 4.25 million.

That means the current plan could again turn out to be an underestimate if the fighting goes on.”

“‘We have reached a stage in Syria where some of the people, if they don’t get food from the World Food Programme, they simply do not eat,’ the WFP’s Syria Regional Emergency Coordinator Muhannad Hadi said.”

“A few months ago I would like to recall that there was a donors’ conference in Kuwait, and Persian Gulf monarchies promised to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.N. agencies in order to help Syria,” Russian ambassador in Geneva Alexey Borodavkin added.

“I don’t think that the amounts mentioned in Kuwait ever reached these agencies and were ever used to help the Syrian people.”

World powers are famous for committing money for development / humanitarian purposes and falling short on those commitments. And often it is for understandable reasons, as it is difficult to be sure the money is going where it is supposed to go. But given the global attention and direct UN involvement in the Syrian humanitarian crisis, these fears need not prevent commitments from being fulfilled.

It is difficult to be optimistic about a political end to the Syrian Civil War. Mr. Assad seems recently emboldened, while the opposition continues to shoot itself in the foot. Hopefully the opposition rethinks its position; only with Western support can they hope to remove Assad from power, be it politically or militarily.  All Syria’s most vulnerable can do is sit back and watch, and hope the the UN can raise the aid needed to keep them alive as the conflict grinds towards its eventual conclusion.