Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: In Response to the Vladimir Putin NYT Op-Ed, and the Future of the International Community

Welcome to Russia’s Syria doublespeak

A few of my responses / comments on Vladimir Putin’s NYT Op-Ed seemed to form a blog that I felt compelled to share (and expand upon without character limits) with the NN community:

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.

I had this to say in response:

Mr. Putin is using the UNSC, like he has the concept of national sovereignty, as a shield for human rights violators, and evoking the specter of past wars to paralyze the international community into inaction. Don’t trust Vladamir Putin because he writes an op-ed in the NYT. Do not trust Assad; while no one’s hands are clean in the Syrian Civil War, Assad has committed human rights violations on a drastically larger scale than have extremist elements of the Syrian opposition (perhaps supporting the argument that a legitimate Syrian opposition is still in control on the ground despite reports of increased extremist influence).

Syria’s civil war is a fight for democracy; it started as peaceful protests for basic human rights and dignity. The longer the international community is paralyzed, the further legitimate grievances are highjacked by extremists in the Syrian opposition. If Syria and Russia can hold out for long enough, there will truly be no champions of democracy in Syria–as time goes on, Assad’s assertions become self-fulfilling, explaining this desperate attempt to buy time. Assad continues to receive help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah; the opposition receives only broken promises from the West and support from extremists.

Political Islam and democracy are reconcilable, the wrong message is currently being sent in the ME (in both Egypt and now Syria). The “responsibility to protect” (R2P) is about holding governments accountable for human rights obligations, and intervening in the case the government is unable to stop human rights violations, or even worse is perpetuating those violations themselves (as is clearly the case in Syria, and has been since before chemical weapon usage). In this sense, R2P supersedes national sovereignty in certain instances The future of R2P and modernization in the Middle-East and Africa are closely tied.

This is not the end failed of the Arab spring–democratization and modernization are time consuming and non-linear processes–the freedoms, human dignity, economic empowerment and security it bestows are well worth it.The time has come when global powers must be willing to use more than words in support of their ideals. Vested interests play by their own rules in trying to secure their hold on power–this is no accountability. The forces of democratization and modernization should recognize this, and know when to work within international mechanisms (such as the UNSC) and know when such mechanisms are being used to shield for violators of the very international laws they are meant to uphold!

The international community can’t say we can’t afford to intervene due to fiscal constraints at home–FIND A WAY through joint action! Currently, autocratic regimes in the M-E are weakened and peoples’ latent desire for effective democratic governance is well cited through social media / ICT usage, and reinforced through the results of the UN “My World 2015 Survey” and the Post-2015 Global Consultation on Governance. If we do not seize this opportunity now autocracy will take deeper root, and advocates for democracy will face another era of historic precedent reinforcing the inevitability of autocratic rule / democratic failure in the Middle-East and Africa. Simply put, if the international community does not find a way to protect the interests of civil societies in the M-E and Africa now, it may not get the opportunity again for decades to come.

Ultimately, it comes down to ideological differences within the international community. The G20 leaders summit reinforced the idea that we can all agree on the need to cooperate to grow in a sustainable economic fashion–the ideological split is no longer capitalism vs. communism, but human rights v. national sovereignty. How to make capitalism work for sustainable development remains the point of contention. The growing body of both empirical and theoretical evidence pointing to the merits of a human rights based approach for sustainable human development. The UN, the foremost organization for international relations, has adopted a human-rights based approach to development. However, Russia clearly is not committed to human rights, and despite soft rhetoric and better relations between the US-China in recent months, it appears the Communist Party–like the Kremlin–is more concerned with its own survival than the sustainable human development / desires of its’ civil society.

It would appear that the ideologies of major global powers a diverging, not converging, even as advancements in the social and physical sciences point alarmingly to the need for concerted global efforts to embrace sustainable human development.

I must call into question the merits of the U.N.S.C. veto system, a system in which an individual country can hand-tie the whole international community into inaction. A resolution could be a 3/4 veto-overrule by the UN General Assembly–such a high veto threshold would ensure the U.N.S.C. is only overruled in times of strong international consensus. Permanent Security Council members, including the U.S., would likely oppose such an amendment to the UN Charter. However, if the ultimate result is a more democratic and effective UN System, this is a power the U.S. should willingly give up and a reform we should advocate for.

I also wanted to share a response to a well thought out comment in response to the Op-Ed jfx from Chicago writes: Well written. I appreciate hearing Putin’s thoughts directly, and hopefully his open letter to the US can be reciprocated, allowing Obama to directly address the Russian people on important topics.

I wanted to share my response because this seemed like a rational and logical response; the hope that Obama could prepare a similar address to the Russian people to enhance communications between the two countries and possible effect Russian national consensus. 441 people recommended the response, and the NYT shared it as a “top response”–so clearly many support this notion. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic possibility (my response):

Due to media restrictions, Obama couldn’t do it; whenever a U.S. official tries to address an issue in Russia they are accused of conspiracy. Even if he could, the Kremlin is insulated from such unimportant things (/sarcasm) as the “will of the people”.

This was a smart move by Putin, he is a very calculating man. He knows the value Americans place on the freedom of speech and press, and is playing on that knowledge. This is a move that cannot be reciprocated, and even in the special circumstances it was allowed to happen, it would not have nearly the same effect on policy.

The international community will explore a diplomatic chemical weapons deal because it is our collective duty to attempt to destroy these WMDs. However, we must continue to assert our willingness to strike militarily should Russia / Assad appear to be stalling for time and / or restricting access to potential storage sites. Furthermore, Assad must commit to isolated cease-fires within a reasonable time period in order for intentional inspectors and chemical weapons disarmament experts to do their work in relative safety (if we can keep non-extremists from the opposition out of these areas too, and provide security against extremists in the opposition, the Syrian government would be the only remaining party capability of shelling these areas). Russia must also commit to cancelling all military contracts with Assad.

Assad and Russia have a lot of social capital to make-up if they want to be able to negotiate in good faith with the international community / the Syrian opposition; agreeing to these terms are where they must start. These terms should not be preconditions for diplomatic talks, but failure to agree to any of them could be considered “red-lines” in negotiations (I know we are all sick of that saying but they are a necessary component of any negotiation) and trigger a house vote on military strikes and serve as a signal for the international community to sanction military intervention (if not through the paralyzed UNSC, then individually / through regional blocs). Failure to push for these concessions would represent a failure by the intentional community to properly leverage the likelihood of military strikes against Assad.

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Conflict Watch: Two Very Different Approaches to Global Security

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President Obama had a very productive trip to the Middle-East this week. Say what you will about Obama’s domestic policy (I for one like his ideas, and believe he inherited a terrible situation and has been handicapped by the ineptitude of the U.S. Congress, but that’s another matter entirely and not the topic of this blog), but Obama has certainly been a very effective President in terms of diplomatic relations.

One area of diplomacy that the Obama administration has not historically been very effective is the Middle-East. Obama muddle relations with Israel early in his presidency when he condemned Israeli housing development in dispute lands in the West Bank. The territory in question has been seen as vital to a potential two-state solution between Israel and Palestine—Israeli development undermines the ability to potentially return the land to Palestinians as part of a negotiated settlement.

But in his most recent trip, Obama made headway in the contentious geopolitical arena that is the Middle-East. He renewed calls for a two-state solution, calling on the younger generation of Israelis and Palestinians to pressure their governments for a peaceful resolution. It may be cliché to say “the youth is the future”, but it is also accurate, and seeing as any durable two-state solution is at least years (if not decades) away, calling on the youth is an appropriate measure.

Obama fell short of calling for Israel to halt construction in the disputed land. He did call the construction “inappropriate”, but stated that halting construction should not be a precondition for negotiations.

Obama also visited Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, as a two-state solution requires two willing negotiation partners. Obama’s visit with Abbas was mainly symbolic—showing the U.S. stands with the Palestinian Authority, and that the government has an alternative other than aligning itself with extremists groups. The closer ties the Palestinian Authority has with the U.S., the better the chances of a two-state solution. The closer the ties with extremist factions within Hamas, the less likely such a solution will occur.

Perhaps most notably was the restoration of full diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey. Turkey and Israel had a history of close relations which stopped in 2010 after Israel boarded a Turkish ship attempting to bring supplies into disputed lands. The stand-off resulted in the deaths of 9 Turkish citizens and a suspension of diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey.

Obama was able to convince Prime Minister Netanyahu to apologize and offer compensation to the families who lost loved ones in the dispute. The apology was accepted, and full diplomatic ties were restored.

Turkey is an important geopolitical ally of the U.S., as is Israel. It can only be beneficial for regional and global security to have these two important partners on the same page.

President Obama also visited Jordan, another regional ally. During this visit, he pledged further financial support to Jordan, who receives thousands of Syrian refugees a day as civil war continues to envelop the country. This is the latest measure by the Obama administration to diminish Assad’s prospects by strengthening regional opposition, while still officially keeping the U.S. out of armed conflict.

Contrasting Obama’s proactive foreign policy agenda was Xi Jinping’s (the new Chinese President) speech in Moscow. Xi stated:

“We must respect the right of each country in the world to independently choose its path of development and oppose interference in the internal affairs of other countries,”          

These words mirrored a similar ideology of Vladimir Putin, Russia longtime President:

“Putin, who began a six-year term last May, has often criticized foreign interference in sovereign states.

Russia and China have resisted Western calls to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the two-year-old civil conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people.

They both criticized the NATO bombing that helped rebels overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and stood together in the Security Council in votes on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.

Both China and Russia have bristled at U.S. and European criticism of their human rights records.

Putin said in a foreign policy decree issued at the start of his new term that Russia would counter attempts to use human rights as a pretext for interference, and his government has cracked down on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations.”

I have often condemned Chinese and Russian position of national sovereignty above all else. Surely national sovereignty is an important safeguard for good governments against malicious foreign intervention, but it should not be a tool for corrupt and disingenuous leaders to stay in power.

This is an unfortunate if not unexpected position for the Chinese President to take. Recent actions implied that Xi may be more open to protection of human rights, as evidenced by his call to support a higher standard of living for Chinese citizens over economic growth. After this most recent trip to Moscow, it appears Xi is taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back on human rights.

This position held by Russia and China also directly undermines the Responsibility To Protect initiative of the United Nations:

“The Responsibility to Protect has three “pillars”.

  1. A state has a responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility;
  3. If the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions. Military intervention is considered the last resort.[3][4]

R2P safeguards national sovereignty without compromising individual human rights. It states that it is the responsibility of a state to protect its citizen’s rights and in a case where a state cannot protect these rights, the international community will lend assistance.

In a case where the state refuses help or itself perpetuates human rights violations, the international community can impose sanctions and other means to deter such actions. As a last resort, the international community can use military intervention to stop “mass atrocities”.

It is not surprising that China and Russia fear an undermining of national sovereignty, as both nations have strong autocratic regimes (in practice, despite what formal democratic structures they may have).

However, China and Russia must abandon this slippery slope argument and realize there are different degrees of national sovereignty. The international community has no interest in interfering in Chinese and Russian affairs, but it does have an interest in intervening in state perpetuated human rights violations.

Not only are human rights violations deplorable on moral and ethical grounds, they also compromise regional and global security. Protracted Social Conflict theory places humanitarian grievances at the root of most of today’s armed conflicts—and this theory is overwhelmingly supported by both qualitative and quantitative analysis.

Human rights violations lead to instability, which can  create a breeding ground for terrorism. The inability to evoke R2P in Syria has led the opposition to be hijacked by extremist groups, confusing the legitimate humanitarian roots of the conflict with an opportunistic power grab. This has made assisting the Syrian opposition much more difficult than it otherwise could have been.

Ultimately, China and Russia have the same goals as the U.S. and Europe—prosperity and peace through an open international system. This is not the Cold War, where the two sides were so ideologically opposed that only one could survive (capitalism v. communism). Eventually, China and Russia will have to learn that in order to protect their interests, limits must be placed on national sovereignty.

A useful mechanism for checking national sovereignty already exists in R2P; the next great challenge will be getting China and Russia on board with this initiative.

Hopefully it does not take a large terrorist attack in Russia or China to open these countries eyes to the interrelation of human rights violations and global insecurity, but for the time being it seems that these two countries have (unsurprisingly) not changed their positions on national sovereignty and R2P.

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