Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: Bringing Democracy To The U.N.S.C.

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The Syrian Civil War has raged for over 3 years and claimed an estimated 150,000 lives, with no sign of abating. During this time, reports from Syria have documented every violation of humanitarian law and human rights norms imaginable, including: the targeting of civilians, including children, in armed combat; mass displacements; the use of chemical weapons / “barrel bombs” / other indiscriminate means of killing; kidnappings / torture / forced disappearances; and the reemergence of Polio to name a few. The International Community, led by the U.N., has been powerless to stop these horrific acts:

The United Nations on Tuesday rejected calls for it to deliver humanitarian aid across borders into Syria without the approval of the government in Damascus, saying such operations would be possible only under a stronger U.N. Security Council resolution.

It’s the longstanding and consistent position of the United Nations that consistent with its charter … the organization can engage in activities within the territory of a member state only with the consent of that government of that state,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday.

The only exception is where the Security Council has adopted a binding resolution under Chapter 7 of the (U.N.)Charter, authorizing the organization to act without the government’s consent,” he said.

Diplomats also said Moscow would likely be opposed to a Chapter 7 resolution to allow cross-border aid deliveries without the consent of Assad’s government.

Russia, supported by China, has shielded its ally Syria on the Security Council during the war. They vetoed three resolutions that would have condemned Syria’s government and threatened it with possible sanctions.

The purpose of this blog is not to assign blame for the situation in Syria–I have been very straightforward about my beliefs on this issue. Instead, I would like to turn attention on the inability of the U.N., in its current framework, to uphold international law in general.

In instances where governments are either ineffective in dealing with, or are themselves perpetrating gross human rights violations, the responsibility to protect (R2P) is supposed to give the U.N. authority to intervene. With the vast majority of today’s wars occurring within country borders, the R2P was a necessary modernization of U.N. peacekeeping initiatives. But R2P has not been as effective as its supporters may have hoped; [apparently] the U.N. still needs a Security Council authorized Chapter 7 approval whenever it enters a country without government approval, rendering R2P useless without unanimous Security Council support.

As a proud American, a student of the political economy of development, and a former UNDP Democratic Governance Group Intern, it is fair to say I believe in the importance of effective democratic governance from both an ideological and practical stance; I believe there is no alternative path towards sustainable human development. Democratic governance is not only a “means” to important “ends”, it is also an important “end” itself, providing and protecting the political freedoms people needed for self-determination and a life of dignity.

Under the current U.N. framework, permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States) each hold veto power. Two of these members, China and Russia, are decided opposed to concepts of democratic governance. These two countries find themselves in a position where they do not vote on individual issues (such as whether to invoke the R2P in Syria), but rather on ideological issues (should anything trump “national sovereignty”). China and Russia are engaged in an existential battle, fighting for an authoritarian identity in an increasingly democratic world; they will NEVER vote against a national government, afraid of the precedent it may set. All the while, the actual issue at hand goes unaddressed, leading the U.N. to abandon the very people who risk their lives championing U.N. principles.

Democracy is one of the universal and indivisible core values and principles of the United Nations.” It seems antithetical that an organization dedicated to the principles of democracy, human rights, peace and international law, would leave its most important decisions to such a decidedly undemocratic process.

It is time for the U.N. to bring the democratic process to the U.N.S.C. In the event of a Security Council veto, the U.N. General Assembly should have a vote as to whether it should uphold the veto or not. This vote could either require 3/4 of member states (there are currently 193 states) to vote to overturn (an abstention could be viewed as a vote in favor of the veto; if the issue is important enough to veto, a representative will be present to vote), or it could be weighted based on member state population (similarly to many legislative branches, like the U.S. Congress).

The details at this point are unimportant, what’s important is the concept that no one nation should be able to veto the will of the vast majority of the international community. Such a resolution (which would require an amendment to the U.N. Charter, a process which itself is subject to the unanimous will of the Security Council) would cost all permanent U.N.S.C. members (including the United States) some power in U.N.S.C. decision making. The Permanent members of the Security Council must accept the necessity of such an amendment. The alternative is an ineffective U.N., leading to the eventual breakdown of the international norms which made the second half of the 20th century the most peaceful and prosperous era in history.

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Conflict Watch: Machiavelli, Democratic Transitions, and The Great Recession

Polity IV Regime Types

Global Democracy, 1946-2008

(Disclaimer: This blog is based on generalizations, specific democratic movements deviate by varying degrees from theoretical democratic transitions explored here)

By happenstance, years ago I ended up in an undergraduate elective class at SUNY Binghamton– “Machiavelli and the Renaissance”. Although it was a random elective course from what seems like a lifetime ago, the analyses of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” have stuck with me (particularly, the concepts of virtú and l’occasione).

(I suppose Machiavelli would have said there is no happenstance, and that fortuna dictates the future of men. Furthermore, Machiavelli is regarded by many as a father of modern political science, so these concepts sticking with me is not so coincidental either. But I digress…)

it would appear if they owed anything to fortune except opportunity (l’occasione), which gave them matter into which introduce whatever form they thought good; without the opportunity, their virtú would have been wasted, and without virtú the opportunity would have been in vain…The more the innovator is though of as subverting and replacing a previously existing structure of custom and legitimacy, the more he will have to cope with the contingencies of suddenly disoriented behavior and the greater will be his exposure to fortuna.”

Scholars debate exactly the meaning of Machiavellian virtúbut most agree it has something to do with strength, cunning, and an element of ruthlessness; the characteristics needed to maintain rule in a principality. L’occasione refers to the opportunity for these characteristics to shine through. Fortuna refers to chance, or things outside individual control.

Machiavelli was referring to ideal characteristics of a Prince; during the time he lived, the predominant governmental structure was the principality. I believe these lessons are still appropriate today, in the context of democratic transitions.

In the context of modern political theory and democratic transitions, virtú takes on a different meaning. In the following analysis, virtú refers to the popular sentiment for human rights that underlies attempted democratic transitions. L’occasione refers to the opportunity for virtú to crystallize into a concerted democratic movement.

The virtú of democracy–the human rights based approach to development–is not going away; it is a central foreign policy tool of “Western” powers, and is championed at the highest level of global governance (the U.N.). Furthermore, due to their empowering nature, human rights and liberal democracy are concepts that will continue to be championed by the masses. L‘occasione, however, is fleeting.

I recently wrote how time is an enemy of legitimate democratic grievances. Over time, legitimate grievances are overrun by opportunistic forces seeking wealth / power. However, other forces also oppose democratic transitions.

One of these forces is those seeking to maintain the status-quo; vested interests invoke the specter of chaos and insecurity–the fear of the unknown–to undermine the legitimacy of their opposition.

Another opposing force in the current context–financial constraints due to The Great Recession–has lead to lackluster support for budding democracy movements. It is due to the very nature of democratic governance that The Great Recession has hindered support for democratic movements more-so than it has hindered support from those supporting authoritarian rule.

Financial aid for democratic movements, whether it comes from individual governments or IEOs such as the I.M.F, tends to come with constraining preconditions. These movements need to be able to prove they are legitimate and in control of different factions present in the oppositions. They have to prove they are committed to human rights and liberal democracy. They also have to agree to unpopular fiscal decisions, in order to prove they will be able to pay back loans in the future.

Democracies are accountable to their people (indirectly through freedoms of press / expression / assembly, as well as directly through elections). In the context of The Great Recession, it is difficult to “sell” sending aid abroad with pressing social problems at home and austerity proponents calling for budget cuts. In order to garner support, democratic governments impose conditions on loans to prove they are not throwing money away.

Authoritarian governments are naturally more insulated from domestic concerns. They are also more sensitive to currently authoritarian states transitioning to democracies; they see democratic transitions in the context of the global democratization movement and an existential threat to their survival. Therefore, they are generally willing to provide support under the condition that it will help the incumbent regime stay in power. Furthermore, authoritarian regimes tend to be high organized and built on a system of loyalty; the issues of organization and unity are not present (unlike in the opposing democratic movement).

Democracies tend to be the countries with the highest levels of wealth and standard of living. Therefore, one would expect that democracies would be better equipped to financially support democratic transitions than authoritarian regimes would be to support their allies.

However, there are many contextual realities (addressed earlier in this blog) that buck this expectation. Authoritarian regimes are more insulated from domestic pressures, and believe they have more at risk from losing an ally than democracies believe they have from gaining a new ally.

Democratic transitions need to be supported, or else they will be overrun by opportunistic factions /vested interests who wish to remain in power. Countries do not stay in political limbo for long, either democratic aspirations are realized or a pivot back towards authoritarianism is cemented. Once an opportunity for democratic transition is gone, there is know telling when it will present itself again.

Those supporting authoritarianism do not hold back in their support. A mechanism for supporting budding democratic movements must be established and adequately funded–perhaps alongside the UN Democratic Governance Trust Fund. Failure to do so sends the wrong messages, that the international community does not care about people with legitimate democratic aspirations, and/or that democracy cannot work in certain contexts.

Neither of these messages are true, but the international community must put its money is; as the saying goes, “actions speak louder than words”. Perhaps instead of extending loans, we should consider supporting democratic transitions as part of development aid, money which will be paid back in the future through increased trade opportunities and greater regional / global security


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Conflict Watch: Snapshot of Middle-Eastern Turmoil

Obama Military Spending

The NYT released an article today, highlighting the rare opportunities for diplomacy between the U.S. (presumably representing the interests of the international community) and various Middle-Eastern nations. First I will recap some highlights of the article, then I will give my input on the situations in Syria, Iran, and Egypt:

Only two weeks after Washington and the nation were debating a unilateral military strike on Syria that was also intended as a forceful warning to Iran about its nuclear program, President Obama finds himself at the opening stages of two unexpected diplomatic initiatives with America’s biggest adversaries in the Middle East, each fraught with opportunity and danger.

For Mr. Obama, it is a shift of fortunes that one senior American diplomat described this week as “head spinning.”

In their more honest moments, White House officials concede they got here the messiest way possible — with a mix of luck in the case of Syria, years of sanctions on Iran and then some unpredicted chess moves executed by three players Mr. Obama deeply distrusts: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Iran’s erratic mullahs. But, the officials say, these are the long-delayed fruits of the administration’s selective use of coercion in a part of the world where that is understood.

“The common thread is that you don’t achieve diplomatic progress in the Middle East without significant pressure,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said Thursday. “In Syria, it was the serious threat of a military strike; in Iran it was a sanctions regime built up over five years.”

Skeptics — and there are plenty in the National Security Council, the Pentagon, America’s intelligence agencies and Congress — are not so optimistic. They think Mr. Obama runs the risk of being dragged into long negotiations and constant games of hide-and-seek that, ultimately, will result in little change in the status quo. They argue that the president’s hesitance to pull the trigger on Tomahawk strikes on Syria nearly two weeks ago, and the public and Congressional rebellion at the idea of even limited military strikes, were unmistakable signals to the Syrian and Iranian elites that if diplomacy fails, the chances of military action ordered by the American president are slight.

All these possibilities could evaporate quickly; just ask the State Department diplomats who in the last years of the Bush administration thought they were on the way to keeping North Korea from adding to its nuclear arsenal, or the Clinton administration officials who thought they were on the verge of a Middle East peace deal.

Iranians are desperate for relief from sanctions that have cut their oil revenue by more than half, crashed their currency and made international banking all but impossible, but they may not understand the price of relief. “I suspect they are heading for sticker shock,” one official deeply involved in developing the American negotiating strategy said recently.

I am by no means a war-hawk; as a political / development economist, I understand that no MDG has ever been sustained in a conflict region. Peace and political stability are necessary preconditions for sustainable human development, which is the ultimate goal of development practitioners / human rights advocates around the world (it is also at the core of the UNDP’s strategic plan  for 2014-2017, which is where I was introduced to the term). Sustainable development requires development not be achieved at the expense of the environment / future generations. The human-rights-based-approach to development requires that development not be achieved by exploiting the worlds most impoverished / violating their human rights. Put together, these two concepts form the concept of sustainable human development; this is the only truly sustainable form of development as it reduces the probability that conflicts–which tend to have human rights violations at their core–will undo otherwise environmentally sustainable development gains.

But I am also a realist. I understand that sometimes revolutions are needed in order to overcome structural impediments to sustainable human development, such as an autocratic regime. Such regimes are not accountable to their people, and while there may be “benevolent dictators”, there is nothing sustainable about someones rights being granted by an individuals benevolence (he may change his mind, or be succeeded by a less progressive ruler). In this vein, effective democracy is the only means to sustainable human development. It is not some “western value” that drives my passion for democratic governance, it is my belief in the power of people, self-determination, and “development as freedom” which fuels this passion.

In the real world, concepts such as human rights and effective democracy are kept at bay by vested interest who would lose power if civil societies as a whole were empowered. These vested interests rely on collective action problems (I gain a lot as-is, by changing each person only gains a little) to maintain the status-quo. When collective action problems are overcome (a process which has been aided by innovations in social media / ICTs), vested interests often turn to military power to maintain their positions. I find this to be unconscionable, and therefore give some of my time to doing what little I can to try to shape the world as I believe it should be.

Diplomacy is a powerful preventative tool. However, I am less sold on diplomacy’s “soft-power” when the gloves come off and all-out war begins. Diplomacy is always more effective in democracies (where governments are accountable to the will of the people) than in autocracies (where the survival of the regime is the governments number one priority).

Syria: As you could probably tell, I am not sold on the “solution” to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. I think this is a stalling tactic, which will further entrench Assad’s grip on power and further marginalize the legitimate Syrian opposition. I hope I am proven wrong, but I am not optimistic.

The Syrians now face a series of deadlines. The first comes this weekend, when they must issue a declaration of their chemical stocks that “passes the laugh test,” as Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s former top adviser on unconventional weapons, put it earlier in the week.

It is also concerning that, so soon after a deal was reached and before any part of the deal has been carried out, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is already calling for Western Nations to “force” the Syrian opposition into peace talks with Assad. Mr. Lavrov does not seem to understand that democratic governments cannot “force” people to do things; furthermore, Western powers do not have that sort of leverage as they have till this point been largely absent in aiding the Syrian opposition. It is not surprising Mr. Lavrov had this misunderstanding, in Russia the government can indeed force people to do things.

Even more concerning is President Putin’s recent assertion that the UN chemical weapons report, which did not explicitly accuse Assad but does does implicitly suggest his regime was responsible for the August 21st chemical weapons attacks, is “biased”. He later goes on to say the Assad regime has evidence suggesting the rebels are responsible. So Putin would have us believe the UN is biased, but Assad is not? Sorry, but I’m not buying that and neither should you.

The French seem to finally be willing to arm the legitimate syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army:

“On delivering weapons we have always said that we want to control these supplies so that they do indeed go to the Free Syrian Army … because they represent the Syrian National Coalition that we recognise as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and today they are caught between a hammer and an anvil,” Hollande said.

“The hammer is the air strikes and actions of the Syrian regime and the anvil is radical Islam,” he said.

If the U.S. also agrees to arm the FSA, and can garner international support to strike Assad in response to confirmed chemical weapons usage, the Syrian-stalemate can be overcome and the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people realized.

Egypt: With Chemical weapons use in Syria dominating news, unrest in Egypt has taken a back-seat on the international communities agenda. However, fighting between Islamic Militants and the Egyptian Army continues. It is the job of the Egyptian military to rid Egypt of these extremists and ensure stability. It is not the Egyptians army’s job to condemn all Muslim’s as terrorists (as it has in the aftermath of the Morsi ouster). The Egyptian military wishes to remain unaccountable to the Egyptian people–it is not committed to effective democratic rule–as expressed in a draft of the new Egyptian Constitutional Declaration.

(Original article):

The Islamist assembly pointedly excluded prominent feminist, activist and secularist voices. It’s unclear to whom the current committee — appointed by an interim president, backed by the army, packed with the heads of official institutions — is accountable beside the state itself. Organizations such as the Journalists’ Syndicate have already complained that their recommendations on press law and freedoms of speech have been overlooked.

And this assembly, just like the previous one, is rushing its work, and conducting it with little transparency. In fact, the Islamist assembly may have been better at sharing information about its progress: It maintained a Web site tracking the latest discussions and amendments. We learn of the workings of the current assembly only through sporadic interviews its members give to the press.

This issue could be addressed in the coming weeks. And there are many ways in which the current constitution could improve upon the last. Hoda Elsadda, a founding member of a prominent feminist research center who heads the freedoms and liberties subcommittee, says she want to include an article prohibiting discrimination and human rights violation by the security services. Several members of the assembly have voiced their opposition to military trials of civilians. The rights of religious minorities, women and children — given short shrift in the last document — will probably receive greater emphasis now.

But In a country  ruled by the military, and amid a declared war on terrorism, it seems very unlikely that the constitution’s biggest shortcomings will be addressed. The draft as it stands now subjects fundamental freedoms to vague qualifications that render them meaningless: These freedoms must be exercised “according to the law” or as long as they don’t hinder “national security.” The document places the army above oversight and accountability.

And it sets many Egyptians — not just supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood — on the sidelines of what should be a national conversation and a fresh start.

To be fair, Morsi’s constitutional drafting process was not exactly inclusive either. But Morsi’s regime was willing to work within the democratic process, while General Sisi is not. The democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people will likely come second to ensuring the military’s grip on power.

Iran: Iranian President Rouhani, a relative moderate, has been much more diplomatic towards the West than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian economy has been crippled by 5 years of economic sanctions, and in order to have those sanctions lifted, Iranian leaders appear willing to negotiate an agreement on ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program (which it denies having):

American officials say they understand that Iran will need some kind of enrichment ability to assure its own people that it has retained its “nuclear rights,” as its negotiators say. The question is how much. Unless a good deal of the current infrastructure is dismantled, Iran will be able to maintain a threshold nuclear capability — that is, it will be just a few weeks, and a few screwdriver turns, from building a weapon. It is unclear whether Mr. Obama can live with that; the Israelis say they cannot.

The NYT article talked about “sticker shock”, the price Iran will have to pay in order to keep its nuclear rights and have sanctions against it removed. In a previous post, I laid out conditions I thought Iran should have to agree to in order to have sanctions removed:

The issue comes down to transparency, accountability, and ultimately governance. Can countries without the traditional checks and balances present in Western democracies be credible partners? Can they actually uphold their promises, or are they merely trying to buy time / have sanctions eased until it is beneficial to renege on their commitments?

The burden of proof falls on Iran and North Korea on this one. If either country wishes to be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes without dealing with crippling international sanctions, certain conditions must be met. Most notably, independent international inspectors must be given unrestricted access to known / suspected uranium enrichment facilities; if either country can fulfill this condition, then it will have earned the right to enhance uranium for peaceful purposes.

I still believe these conditions should be part of any talk to ending sanctions against Iran.

Iraq: Sectarian violence has gripped Iraq since the U.S. pulled out, and is in some ways worse than before the Sadam Hussien ouster. Iraq is a case-n-point of the limits of armed intervention in other countries.

Diplomacy is a powerful tool, but it has it’s limits. Both diplomacy and military action, as well as economic leverage and intelligence sharing, combine to form the D.I.M.E foreign policy paradigm I believe the U.S. should pursue.

5 years of sanctions were needed to bring Iran to the bargaining table, and the threat of force was needed to get Assad to admit he had chemical weapons / agree to dismantle his arsenal. Only time will tell how / if these complex issues can be resolved thought diplomacy. One thing is certain; we cannot trust dictators or take them at their word, their commitments must be verifiable. In order to hold a dictator accountable for his concessions, international investigators must be given unfettered access to any point of interest. This requires relinquishing some “national sovereignty”, something no country–democratic or otherwise–likes to do.

The U.S. failed to drive a hard enough bargain (in my mind) on chemical weapons with the Syrian regime. At least as a starting point, Western powers should make their demands clear and strong heading into negotiations with otherwise unaccountable regimes.