Friday, September 27, 2013

Let's Give the Middle East a Break (Week in Review)

What with all the discussion in recent weeks of Syria, Iran, and the situation in the Middle East in general, I think I speak on behalf of my colleagues when I say we are growing a bit tired of the repetitive writing (as I'm sure our readers are growing tired of reading repetitive pieces!) It's highly relevant though, not to just to the immediate region but to the entire global political arena, and therefore is high priority on our list of things to discuss each week - and will continue to be. However, this Friday I thought it would be nice to do a broader week-in-review, highlighting some other important events and situations taking place around the globe. For those who want to read about Syria and Iran, I would recommend this article and this interview. Otherwise, here are some other notable things from the last week:

Sudan: Over the past week, Sudan has seen some of the worst unrest in years - perhaps in a decade. This is interesting when put in the context of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir being the recipient of virtually universal vitriol over his publicly expressed desire to apply for a U.S. visa and attend the UN General Assembly this week. Sudan has officially lifted major subsidies on fuel, substantially raising the prices for consumers in the country, which resulted in inevitable protests. Things turned ugly when the police cracked down on these protestors, injuring and killing several. The Sudanese public retaliated with a much more violent protest of over 3,000 people, who have been clashing with police in Khartoum for several days now. Death tolls are estimated at around 50 so far - all civilians with gunshots to the head or chest.

Qatar: The publication the Guardian has revealed egregious and horrific mistreatment of Nepalese workers helping Qatar prepare for the 2020 World Cup, their report shows. These workers, of which there are thousands, have been dying at almost one-per-day since the World Cup work began. Numerous human rights groups across the globe have spoken out, calling the situation "modern slavery" and urging for international humanitarian intervention or, at the very least, Qatar to assuage concerns and begin to improve the workers' living and working conditions.

Italy: The Italian government is (shocker) on the verge of political bedlam in the coming weeks, as numerous center-right MPs vowing allegiance to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have threatened to resign from government should he lose his seat in the Senate. Mr. Berlusconi was recently convicted of tax fraud, and faces a vote from a Senate Committee October 4th which will decide whether or not he loses his Senatorial seat. President Napolitano will then face a choice - should his acolytes in Parliament follow him out of government, Napolitano will either have to dissolve Parliament altogether, or dissolve and rebuild a new coalition government (neither an optimal choice).

Pakistan: Pakistan has been in the news a lot this week. On Tuesday, Pakistan experienced a 7.7-magnitude earthquake that left behind a death toll upwards of 250. Later this past week, Pakistan announced plans to continue developing a gas pipeline that will stretch into Iran - a brazen violation of U.S. economic sanctions currently imposed on Iran. It looks like the U.S.-Pakistan relationship will continue to be strained.

Finally, Pakistan has experienced a surge in terrorist-related violence this past week, the most recent occurring yesterday in Peshawar as a bus explosion killed 18 and wounded at least 44. Given that Pakistan will continue needing U.S. aid and encouragement in combatting terrorist cells that wreak havoc weekly in the country, it is probably in Pakistan's best interest to try and reach a compromise regarding their proposed pipeline.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Terror in Kenya: A Firsthand Account from Nairobi

On April 15, 2013, shock hit me as I sat at work reading 140 unbelievable characters on Twitter. Tweets claiming that a bomb had gone off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon were unbelievable. Immediately I scrambled, were my friends OK? Who was in that area? What is the situation? Information could not come quickly enough to my office across the river in Cambridge.

On September 21, 2013, I was enjoying the largest rugby tournament in Kenya just north of Nairobi, when I received a call informing me there were gunshots near Westgate Mall in Westlands, Nairobi (.5 miles from the city center). Not thinking too much of it, I pledged I would avoid that area and be vigilant about my security the rest of the day. The rugby tournament turned out to be an amazing event with over 45,000 Kenyans attending, mostly between the ages of 18-35. It was lively, welcoming, and fun.

One my way back home, I was required to pass through Westlands, the part of town where the attack was occurring. Besides minimal traffic for a Saturday night, nothing seemed to be out of place. The bars two miles away from Westlands seemed full judging by their parking lots. I wouldn’t have suspected that a hostage situation with 30 plus dead (at the time) was ongoing within walking distance.

Smoke rises from the Westgate Mall. Courtesy AP.
Immediately, when getting home I realized the gravity of the situation: the numbers of the dead, the hostage situation, the ongoing nature of the conflict, and the possibility that someone I worked with or knew was in the building. Westgate is one of the most popular malls in the city. The news has not exaggerated its popularity. It’s probably the most well maintained shopping center and has some of the best restaurants in town. It’s a classic place to go for lunch during the week, perhaps because the restaurants would rival Europe and the US.  I found myself often having a meeting over coffee at ArtCaffe or Java, and often found myself at the Sushi restaurant Onami, which is one of my Somali colleague’s favorite places to go.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Will Diplomacy Really Save the Middle East?

Two weeks ago, President Obama was carefully weighing his options for a U.S. response to allegations that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on civilians – options that included a unilateral military strike. In a world where these days, many countries choose to impress influence on others militarily, a military strike was certainly not out of the realm of realistic and understandable possibilities. However, the past week has demonstrated that countries can still work together, and get things done, without military force. Between the Syrian chemical weapons deal and the latest developments in Iran, President Obama has averted the political mess of a military strike and has new hope for peaceful negotiations in the Middle East.

I will be the first to admit that at the news of Russia’s diplomatic proposal for Syria to surrender their chemical weapons, I was extremely skeptical. The feasibility of actually destroying the weapons seemed not to have been considered, and Russia’s track record with cooperation did not reinforce any confidence in their ability to execute the plan successfully. And while I still have my reservations, things have moved forward as they were supposed to. Syria is documenting their chemical stockpiles, and once this assessment has been made, the next steps will be securing and eventually destroying them.

Meanwhile in Iran, the recently elected Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani has seemed more open to nuclear negotiations with the United States than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ever was. After years upon years of crippling sanctions imposed upon Iran not only by the U.S. but much of the Western world, perhaps this has simply been a long time coming. However, as my colleague Vicky pointed out, Prime Minister Rouhani and President Obama are the most politically aligned counterparts in the Iran-U.S. relationship in at least 20 years. Political incompatibility cannot foster cooperation, and it’s important to keep this in mind as Iran and the U.S. move forward in hopefully assuaging our nuclear fears once and for all while preserving Iran’s dignity and allowing nuclear energy creation in some capacity.

Diplomacy hinges on trust, though – something that the U.S. more or less lacks entirely when it comes to Syria and Iran. There is certainly reason to remain leery of these processes as they continue to unfold over the next several weeks and months. However, for the time being, this is a victory for Obama and a monumental indication to the rest of the world that diplomacy is not obsolete.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

War without End in the Congo

It is a civil war (or rather a series of them) that has led to the deaths of 5.4 million people since 1998. More than 2.6 million people are displaced within the country, and after nearly two decades the conflict is heating up, not abating. Yet the Democratic Republic of the Congo captures few headlines and elicits only low-level diplomatic attention. In one of the world’s only failed states, more than 30 armed groups murder and rape thousands every year, including the March 23 Movement (M23) that is leading the largest offensive against the central government in Kinshasa and is widely believed to be funded and organized by the Rwandan government. The Congolese government itself knows it is involved in a shadow war with neighboring Rwanda, and the extreme levels of sexual violence and the exploitation of conflict minerals are its result.

As was pointed out by Jason Stearns in a recent Foreign Affairs article, outside observers have done little to address the conflict’s roots, instead fueling the fires by providing “over 40 percent of the budgets of Congo and Rwanda.” While conflicts in high-interest areas such as the Middle East (I am of course referring to Syria) are at least paid commensurate high-level diplomatic attention, the conflict in the DRC is swept under the rug and ignored to the degree possible by the international community. This isn’t the first time since 1998 that the rest of the world’s response – or rather lack thereof – has failed the DRC. It should thus come as no surprise to anyone that one of the world’s oldest civil wars has not been halted by multiple peace agreements and elections of 2006.

An M23 rebel displays his munitions. Reuters.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Human Rights Council 24 : A Game of Inches

Being back in Geneva for the 24th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has given me a fresh perspective on the work of human rights bodies, the politics of the HRC, and the role civil society plays within these structures. When most people think of human rights, they imagine the broad, liberal ideals for mankind that only seem to be demanded by political dissidents and touted by the global North. The reality, as seen through the prism of various human rights mechanisms and their processes, paints a far different picture of political and
diplomatic maneuvering and the relatively universal demand and application of human rights. Today, the fight to protect, promote and enshrine human rights principles is indeed a globalized endeavor complete with the complexities and nuances that come with it. It is within this context that HRC member states implement human rights strategies for their countries and others.

This past week, the HRC began with the backdrop of human rights abuses old and new. The massive humanitarian crisis in Syria and Egypt’s troubling leap away from democracy via military coup took center stage in the early proceedings, briefly overshadowing both enduring abuses and relatively new issues, such as LGBT rights. Recurrent human rights abuses, like sexual and gender-based violence and the criminalization of freedom of expression and opinion, also received attention and spurred discussion. And aside from the hot-button issues that dominate the main chambers of the Council, states and NGOs hold their own side events that typically shed light on narrower issues, such as informal negotiations to extend the mandates of Special Rapporteurs (human rights experts appointed by Special Procedures) and the human rights situation in the Middle East and North Africa.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Truth Behind Russia's Proposal on Syria

The world breathed a collective sigh of relief after President Obama's speech last night, a speech in which Obama indicated that a vote from Congress on military force in Syria would be put on hold while we once again revisited the idea of diplomacy. In fact, it's safe to say President Obama himself was breathing a sigh of relief, having averted what would have been a dramatic failure when Congress undoubtedly voted against authorizing military force. Instead, the world's attention has been turned towards Russia, who days ago unveiled their proposal for seizure of Syrian chemical weapons by the international community in place of any military action. True, this alternative satisfies the international community's need to stand up against chemical weapons and show that there are repercussions to their use, and also avoids dragging any other country's army into the conflict - nobody will argue that these are the main stipulations for any proposal put on the negotiating table. However, the proposal is nothing more than a vapid, empty attempt by Russia and Syria to delay any international reaction of substance. President Obama may have successfully avoided an embarrassing defeat by Congress of his authority to use military force, but the time for that will ultimately come when the veil has been lifted and Russia's proposal is seen for what it really is.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Bread over Bombs: Why the US Should Not Strike Syria

Over the last week, The Global Atlas’s metaphorical lights have been off as the three lead contributors were either out of town, dealing with Allston Christmas, and starting the new school year and the flood of students and work that comes with it. In that week, Pres. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have raised the decibel level on the rhetoric surrounding the Syria crisis. Both have confirmed their belief that a chemical attack took place in late August, possibly followed by another; both have pointed the finger at Syrian President Bashar al-Asad; and both have hinted that military strikes will begin soon, but only with congressional approval. The likelihood of a strike increased this morning with the State Dept. ordering all of its non-emergency personnel out of Beirut, and issuing travel warnings for Turkey and Lebanon.

I’ve been pretty vocal in my criticism of the handling of the Syrian crisis, and I’m not about to change now: bombing Asad’s forces would be a huge mistake. It could have the allegedly unintended effect of toppling Asad; it could also very well prevent the use of chemical weapons by either side or others in the future, which of course is a desirable outcome. Yet its other effects would be so negative and detrimental to finding a sustainable peace in Syria that they would vastly outweigh any positives that could result from such a strike. As I have written before, the time for a military intervention has long passed, and toppling Asad without a negotiated settlement in place leaves us with unsavory choices for his replacement.