Normative Narratives


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Transparency Watch: Who Will Hold the UN Accountable?

Haiti is one of the worlds poorest countries, both in terms of GDP per capita (adjusted for standard of living expense, 2012 PPP GDP per capita is estimated at $1,242) and HDI (0.456, 161st out of 187 countries and the lowest in the Western Hemisphere). Any other measure of well-being will turn out similarly dismal results. It is therefore unsurprising that Haiti is the target of many international and multilateral aid campaigns, aimed at increasing the standard of living for Haitians. However, even the most well intended campaigns can have unintended negative consequences, and those responsible must be held accountable.

Original article:

Advocates for Haitian victims of the deadly cholera epidemic that first afflicted their country three years ago said they were taking the extraordinary step on Wednesday of suing the United Nations, asserting that the organization’s peacekeeping force in Haiti was responsible for introducing the disease through sewage contamination from its barracks.

The lawsuit, which the advocates said they would file in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Wednesday morning, will be the strongest action they have taken in pressing the United Nations to acknowledge at least some culpability for the outbreak of cholera, a highly contagious scourge spread through human feces that had been largely absent from Haiti for 100 years.

Cholera has killed more than 8,300 Haitians and sickened more than 650,000 in the earthquake-ravaged country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, since it first reappeared in October 2010. While the worst of the epidemic has eased, it still kills about 1,000 Haitians a year.

United Nations officials have said they are committed to eradicating the cholera, but they have not conceded that the organization was inadvertently responsible for causing it. They also have asserted diplomatic immunity from any negligence claims, a position that has deeply angered many Haitians who consider it a betrayal of United Nations principles.

Haitian leaders, while dependent on the United Nations to help maintain stability and provide other important services, have also expressed unhappiness over the cholera issue. In an address last Thursday at the annual United Nations General Assembly opening session, Haiti’s prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, spoke of what he called the “moral responsibility” of the United Nations in the outbreak, and said the efforts to combat it had been far from sufficient.

Forensic studies, including one ordered by the United Nations, have identified the culprit bacteria as an Asian strain imported to Haiti by Nepalese members of the United Nations peacekeeping force, known as the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, which was first authorized in 2004 and maintains about 8,700 soldiers and police officers there, drawn from more than three dozen member states. The forensic studies have also linked the spread of the cholera to a flawed sanitation system at the Nepalese peacekeeper base, which contaminated a tributary that feeds Haiti’s largest river, used by Haitians for drinking and bathing.

It was far from clear that the lawsuit would be accepted by the court, which affords broad latitude to diplomatic protections for the United Nations against such litigation. These protections are partly rooted in the formal legal conventions created with the inception of the United Nations after World War II. “The majority view is that the U.N. and U.N. entities are immune from domestic lawsuits,” said Jordan J. Paust, a professor of international law at the Law Center of the University of Houston.

Eight months ago, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, informed Haitian leaders that it would not accept claims for compensation made by victims of the outbreak, citing a provision of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations.

Ms. Lindstrom said the United Nations had also rebuffed her group’s attempts to address the issue. “They’ve refused to sit down for a conversation with the victims, or with us,” she said.

Navi Pillay, the top human rights official at the United Nations, suggested on Tuesday from her headquarters in Geneva that Haiti’s cholera victims were entitled to some compensation, although she did not specify who should provide it.

I am generally very supportive of the United Nations; despite widespread cynicism about the efficacy of international development efforts, I believe the United Nations has played an integral part in establishing / maintaining peace in conflict regions and empowering the worlds most impoverished marginalized since its inception. However, all these positive elements does not exonerate the UN from being held accountable for it’s transgressions.

During my time interning with the UNDP, I was given an assignment to assess survey responses  received from countries with a UNDP country office. While the responses were overwhelmingly positive, there were some caveats. On questions relating to the UNDP’s transparency / accountability / inclusiveness / respect for countries self-determination, little over half of the responses were positive. I noted that since the UNDP was advocating for precisely these aspects in domestic politics, it should lead by example and make it a point to champion these qualities in its day to day activities. Failure to do so, I argued, was hypocritical, paternalistic, and ultimately undermined the UNDPs credibility.

I have written about the Post-2015 development agenda a number of times. At its heart is a human rights based approach to development, with international human rights law spelling out “who will be accountable” for various human rights obligations / violations. In addition, the UN has gone to great lengths to make develop the Post-2015 agenda in an inclusive and consultative manner. As someone that has seen firsthand all the lessons learned from MDG’s shortcomings and hard work that has gone into the Post-2015 agenda, I am cautiously optimistic that the Post-2015 development goals will have a significant positive impact on the worlds most impoverished.

People often talk about the UN losing influence due to it’s inability to enforce its security rules; however the UN has difficulty enforcing it’s norms on these issues, as there is a layer of national sovereignty preventing full implementation of UN principles. The Haitian case is different, the only thing holding the UN back from championing it’s own principles is the UN itself.

The UN’s strength, in my opinion, comes not from influence on security decisions. Rather it is it’s function as a forum for voicing grievances and it’s technical expertise accumulated over decades of employing development experts , alongside it’s country-level presence, that makes the United Nations an integral part of the international community. 

However, failure of the UN to be held accountable for its role in spreading cholera in Haiti could undermine support for the Post-2015 development agenda. Who is the UN to demand accountability from a wide variety of actors (government, business, civil society), when they themselves are not accountable for their own human rights violations (they may ask)? Even if the UN is not legally accountable to the Haitian people, Haiti’s prime minister is right to invoke the idea of the UN’s “moral responsibility”.

OHCHR Chief Navi Pillay understands the importance of accountability and leading by example, and I commend her for coming out and saying the UN should be held accountable for it’s role in the Cholera outbreak in Haiti, especially given (her boss) Secretary General Ban’s unwillingness to even meet with victims and/or their representatives.

It would be nice if the UN realized the importance of it’s own accountability, and settled outside of court. If this does not occur, it will be up to some court to hold the UN legally accountable. 

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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.