This was the title of a two hour BBC 4 TV documentary shown on 9 December – unfortunately no longer available on iPlayer. The film charted the course of humanitarian assistance over the last 45 years and was followed by a studio discussion. The documentary has already been expertly reviewed from the perspective of humanitarian ethics by Oxford’s Hugo Slim. In this post I argue that it has more to say about the wider shortcomings of international intervention than the advertised and somewhat facile question of whether humanitarian assistance does more harm than good.

Some of the morally difficult choices aid agencies face were exhibited in seven case studies from Biafra in 1967 to Afghanistan today. These revealed often diametrically opposing views within the humanitarian aid community. Thus we heard Bernard Kouchner, a founder of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), dismiss critics of intervention: “Even if you can save one person, it’s enough”; while some of his successors at MSF argued equally passionately for a more consequentialist approach. Others, like Save the Children’s John Seaman, maintained that one could be “sternly impartial” even when dealing with the devil.

Ricardo Pollack, the film’s director, claimed that these debates take place within the humanitarian community but rarely among the general public, who nevertheless believe they are fulfilling their moral responsibility by supporting the agencies. The journalist Philip Gourevitch argued that in consequence agencies play down their own failings: “We defend against the knowledge that our solution is so very imperfect, and that the humanitarian response isn’t necessarily serving the end it wishes to and claims to. Because it leaves us without a good answer, and we want one.”

I would argue that there are two distinct, although related, questions here: (i) does humanitarian aid sometimes do more harm than good? and (ii) do we expect too much of it in the first place? Although the documentary focused on the first question, it missed an opportunity to address the second.

The story began with the Biafran conflict 1967-70. Here, it can certainly be argued that the emergency relief operation prolonged the war. But the real scandal is that the agencies were left to provide the only significant intervention in this humanitarian disaster. For example, throughout the crisis there was no effective attempt at international mediation between the two warring parties by the UK, US, UN or anyone else.

Similar criticisms of international intervention – or the lack of it – could be made of Cambodia in 1979. In the Cold War context of the time the West was more concerned that the Soviets were supporting the Vietnamese who had toppled the Pol Pot regime than about the unknown but significant humanitarian needs of the civilian population inside Cambodia. The aid agencies may have exaggerated the scale of the suffering, but at least they were there to help.

In Ethiopia in 1984 and again in the refugee camps in Goma following the 1994 Rwanda genocide there was undoubtedly manipulation by the government and the former leaders of the genocide respectively. Organisations responded differently; some, like Save the Children and Oxfam, stayed put; others, in particular MSF, left. People still argue about who was right and who was wrong. But more significant was the UN’s lack of a political strategy for ending the long-running civil war in Ethiopia that directly contributed to the famine, or for intervening in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide that it had failed to prevent.

The cases of Somalia in 1993, Kosovo in 1999, and Afghanistan in 2001 raise different issues, flowing from the emerging liberal interventionist ambition of Western politicians. This was characterised by changing attitudes to so-called “humanitarian intervention”, which became synonymous with coercive, military, intervention. As stated in the film, one consequence of Somalia was that it gave the term a bad name. However this was not the result of failings by the relief agencies but of the strategically inept way the US military allowed itself to become embroiled in conflict with Mohammed Aideed, with disastrous results for both Americans and Somalis.

In Kosovo, the agencies may have been embarrassed by the presence of NATO troops in the refugee camps on the Macedonian and Albanian borders, but this reflected more a failure by NATO to anticipate how Milosevic would respond to its bombing campaign by stepping up his attacks on Kosovar Albanian civilians – causing them to flee across the border – than any naïveté by the agencies about the dangers of getting too close to Western powers.

In Afghanistan the US-led Coalition definitely overstepped the boundary between military and humanitarian action, resulting in a damaging blurring of the lines between the two. Again, while the aid agencies must take some responsibility if they have allowed their neutrality to be compromised, the real fault lies with a poorly conceived and executed strategy for international intervention in Afghanistan, with no clear objectives or defined end state and doomed from the outset to ignominious failure.

In conclusion, as Randolph Kent of KCL argued in the studio discussion: “To look at humanitarianism outside of the wider context of influencing and influencers is a mistake”. Humanitarian action plays an important part in responding to the world’s problems, but only a small part, and can never be a substitute for political action. It is certainly true that by “wanting a good answer” the public risks having unrealistic expectations of the aid agencies – and the agencies need to be mindful of this. But the response should not be to call into question the nature and validity of humanitarian action. Instead we should demand from our governments and the United Nations a more principled, coherent, and consistent approach to international intervention – not just in response to humanitarian crises but to prevent them. Meanwhile, aid agencies will do the best they can, dealing with difficult moral dilemmas along the way – and we shouldn’t be surprised if the solution they reach is sometimes less than ideal.

This post first appeared on 17 December on the e-IR website at: http://www.e-ir.info/category/blogs/aaronson/

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On 14 November, under the headline “UN ‘failed Sri Lanka civilians’, says internal probe”, the BBC gave extensive coverage to a leaked UN internalreport on how the UN system had handled the crisis that unfolded in the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war. This ended in May 2009 with the military defeat of the LTTE (‘Tamil Tigers’) in a bloody campaign that also saw many civilian deaths and widespread abuses of human rights. These had been described in searing detail in the May 2010 Report of a ‘Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka’ (the ‘PoE Report’) set up by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. One of the recommendations of this Report was that the SG should also conduct a review of how the UN had carried out its humanitarian and human protection mandate during the conflict.

Shortly after the BBC broke the story the new Report (hereafter the ‘Internal Report’) appeared on the UN website, although it was subsequently taken down and eventually reappeared with portions redacted and minus its Executive Summary (helpfully posted here by Inner City Press). This inevitably raises the question of whether it would have been published had the BBC not got hold of a copy. Be that as it may, the full Report is essential reading for anyone interested in the role of the United Nations in international intervention. It is an excellent examination of the difficult issues faced by the UN in the Sri Lankan crisis and contains detailed recommendations as to how the system needs to change if the UN is to do better in future.

Public comment on the ‘United Nations’ often conflates the ‘UN’ as the Secretariat and UN agencies with the ‘UN’ as the Member States that make it up – and this case was no exception. In fact the Report points the finger at both (more diplomatically in the case of the latter as UN officials are bound to be polite in the face of failures by their political masters). On the shortcomings of the UN bureaucracy the Report is detailed and forensic, describing failures of structure, process, and leadership (para 80). But it is equally critical of Member States, saying they “failed to provide the Secretariat and UNCT [UN Country Team] with the support required to fully implement the responsibilities for protection of civilians that Member States had themselves set for such situations” (para 79). Tellingly, “throughout the final stages of the conflict, Member States did not hold a single formal meeting on Sri Lanka, whether at the Security Council, the Human Rights Council, or the General Assembly” (para 33).

The key issue underlying the Report is the difficulty in a crisis such as Sri Lanka’s of balancing (a) the imperative of retaining humanitarian access to civilians needing assistance and protection with (b) the need to speak out where abuses of human rights occur – particularly where a host government, as in the Sri Lanka case, denies this to be happening. This issue is not unique to Sri Lanka, nor to the UN, and illustrates a fundamental dilemma that often faces organisations – like the UN, but also international NGOs – that combine a practical assistance and protection role with a mission based on the notion of human rights.

The Report makes clear that there were significant differences of opinion within the UN hierarchy, including between very senior officials, as to the best way of dealing with the evidence of atrocities, in particular with the Sri Lankan government. The original PoE Report had concluded that “the public use of casualty figures would have strengthened the call for the protection of civilians” (Executive Summary- page vi). The Internal Report considered this, and also acknowledged the contrary views of others who argued that putting these figures into the public domain would have been counter-productive, leading to reduced access. This has to be seen in the context of a Sri Lankan government which had systematically kept the UN at arm’s length within Sri Lanka and successfully used its diplomatic muscle in New York and Geneva in order to remain free to pursue its objective of defeating the LTTE militarily.

In its most widely quoted statement the Report concludes: “There was a continued reluctance among UNCT institutions to stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist. In Colombo, some senior staff did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility – and agency and department heads at UNHQ were not instructing them otherwise” (para 76). Given this apparent lack of clarity about the fundamental purpose of the UN it is easy to understand why the first of the Report’s many recommendations is: “Renew a vision of the United Nations” (para 87).

What is one to make of this detailed review of the UN’s failure in Sri Lanka? First, although it has been described as Ban Ki-moon’s ‘Rwanda moment’, it sadly seems unlikely to have the same lasting impact as the independent enquiry into the Rwanda crisis did, partly because Rwanda commanded more public attention than Sri Lanka does and partly because of the current focus on other crises, e.g. Syria. This is deeply unfortunate as in many ways Sri Lanka raises exactly the same issues as Rwanda as far as international intervention is concerned. “Never again” already rang hollow after Rwanda; after Sri Lanka, Syria, Gaza, and others it sounds positively empty.

Second, while it is manifestly clear from the Sri Lanka example that the UN bureaucracy could work much better than it does, it is equally evident that this alone would be insufficient to prevent war crimes, as indeed the Syrian case shows. Here Ban Ki-moon did speak out forcefully against human rights abuses – to very little effect as he was not supported by a unified Security Council. The critical element – missing in both Sri Lanka and in Syria, albeit for very different reasons – is the appetite of the Permanent 5 Members of the Security Council to support the efforts of the Secretary-General and Secretariat to protect civilians by intervening in whatever way is necessary and appropriate. The Report reflects on the essentially “political character of human rights crises and the role of UN Member States regarding such situations”. It concludes: “The single most effective UN action to protect civilians from gross human rights violations is early and robust political consensus among UN member states in favour of protection” (para 86). Clearly this was completely lacking in the Sri Lankan case, for reasons beyond the scope of the Report and of this analysis.

In this context there is a telling comment in the Internal Report about the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the doctrine that was supposedly agreed by UN Member States in 2005 as the new framework for intervention to prevent war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide:

“Differing perceptions amongMemberStatesand the Secretariat of the concept’s meaning and use had become so contentious as to nullify its potential value. Indeed, making references to the Responsibility to Protect was seen as more likely to weaken rather than strengthen UN action” (para 74).

This is a deeply depressing comment for those of us who believe that R2P offers the best way yet of securing international consensus on how to deal with mass atrocity crimes such as occurred in Sri Lanka.

Finally, perhaps the most important thing about the Internal Report – important though its findings are – is that it should not be allowed to overshadow the findings of the original PoE Report. This concluded:

“The final stages and aftermath of the war in Sri Lanka were characterised by a wide range of violations by both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, some even amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. More than 300,000 people became the victims of the reckless disregard for international norms by the warring parties. Indeed, the conduct of the war by them represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace. The victory of one side has emboldened some to believe that these rules may now be disregarded in the cause of fighting terrorism” (para 258).

The Civil War in Sri Lanka ended in May 2009. Due largely to successful delaying tactics by the Government of Sri Lanka the Panel of Experts was only established in June 2010 and its report was not published until May 2011. To date there have been no international prosecutions for the war crimes and crimes against humanity identified in that Report. That is the gravest failure highlighted by these recent disclosures.

This post first appeared on 27 November on the e-IR website

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Mark Olssen and John Turner

One question that is still to be asked regarding the series of rebellions and protests in the Middle East that have come to be known as the Arab Spring concerns the possible parallels that can be discerned with those great liberal revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

At a first look certain similarities seem obvious. The rebellions of the Arab Spring, manifesting themselves across the Arab world in countries as different as Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Bahrain and Syria, have been a demand expressed for both liberty and rights more generally. Perhaps, what has been most common across all these countries has been a demand for certain specific freedoms which have been essentially economic and political. On the one hand they have been a call for economic entitlements to a decent living and viable future; on the other, and related to this, a questioning of the role of the state with concern to its legitimacy. Peoples in these Arab nations have, for really the first time in any major vocal way, come to question the state according to its justification for rule as well as for the ancillary privileges it confers on certain elite groups who have historically participated in rule, monopolized access to the power institutions whereby rule is conducted, and seen it as their largely undefined right to be able to continue to rule. For common to all of these Arab states has been a new demand that their states extend rights more generally to the population, and institute democratic mechanisms of accountability, transparency and representation to all, as well as justify their legitimacy in terms of such criteria.

No more obvious example is the case of Egypt which saw the end of the 30 year rule of Hosni Mubarak and his replacement, eventually, with a democratically elected legislative led by the Freedom and Justice Party and President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The same is true, despite the differences in the forms of state formation and civil society of these countries, with Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria. What has taken place and continues still, have been protests concerning the rights of individuals as citizens concerning democratic representation, as well as economic and political entitlement and inclusion more generally; demands that each individual, race and religious grouping, should have a fair and equal right to participation and assured rights of future continuance, based on transparent and generally accepted ideas of legitimacy, which motivate at this historical juncture such demands.

A further parallel between the rebellions of the Arab Spring and the seventeenth century revolutions consists in a reconfiguration of the dualities in the relation between representation and divine power. Just as Locke argued against Robert Filmer and the doctrine of the divine right of kings to open up and extend a space for popular representation and political obligation grounded in the individual, so too, a singular commonality of the Arab Spring has been a protest by the citizenry on behalf of securing a greater accountability of rulers to the demos in a refashioning of the basis of political legitimacy, away from justifications in terms of caste, tribe, family or religion. Such protests were not against religion per se, but rather for a re-spatialisation or re-positioning of the religious in relation to the secular whereby both the manner and rationale for governance will be rendered newly accountable to the people as citizens in what must now be seen as the emergence of a new, albeit early, form of social contract. Influenced and inspired by the messages emanating from new forms of electronic and digital technology which communicate comparative models of global governance experience and rights, Arab peoples have begun the slow demand for secured rights against oppression, or, indeed, as is just as likely, from being simply ignored, as well as new demands of justification by rulers for the rule they maintain and the basis by which they adhere to power.

Affinities with the earlier liberal revolutions and movements of change should be carefully qualified, however. Although these new demands can be represented as an expression of liberal rights and freedoms, they are of a narrower scope than those theorized by Locke and which came to prevail in the West, through the revolutions of 1688, 1776, and 1789. The qualified questioning of the legitimacy of Arab states over rights and democracy constitutes only a limited expansion of the secular to incorporate specific entitlements. It certainly constitutes a demand that states are responsive to the wishes of citizens generally, but in a very qualified way. Such protests also clearly articulate a demand that the state represents the citizenry and justifies the conditions in which it continues rule. Implicit within such demands, further, there is clearly a call for an expansion of the secular and a re-alignment of the legitimate role of religion resulting in the incorporation of a more formal clarification and institutionalization of the rights of each within the society overall. These result in a more limited demand for rights than was historically expressed in the West. Rather than the wide libertarian conception of individual rights, conceived by Locke as a natural right, giving each individual sovereignty over their own bodies and minds, with clear autonomous rights of saying and doing more or less anything they liked, constrained only by a conception of law that was negatively defined in relation to a laissez-faire state, the conception being demanded by the Arab world is more limited, and must be tailored to the more communitarian context that dominates their lives. Religion is one core dimension of this context. Tribal and community relations which are inextricably tied up with economic activity and local political structures, constitute others. This is why in the Arab world the indigenous uprisings have to a large extent been misinterpreted by a Western media who too readily have been willing to confuse what is being articulated with those ideas of liberty that we have in the West. Only by a more nuanced analysis can we differentiate and reconcile the demands for liberty being called for with the equal continued relevance within the Arab world of conceptions of Western decadence, which still hold sway.
By correctly understanding the call for freedoms and state accountability as a limited demand to increase individual rights of citizenship within a limited sphere we can more easily make sense of episodes such as the Dutch cartoons uproar, or more recently, of the shooting of the US Ambassador to Libya, as a response to religious outrage over perceived slurs to Mohammad. Although positive political and economic rights are being demanded, the rebellions must be seen as a qualified re-alignment of the relation of the secular in relation to religion. What are not being granted are rights of open expression in relation to sacred values or texts. In the Arab world, the type of liberty being called for excludes such hurts. As a further corollary of course, the parallel rise of violence concurrent with the demand for rights testifies to the absence of any institutionalized principle or mechanism which has agreed recognition or acceptance for the management or processing of such discontents. That rights should be more precisely defined is perhaps the lesson here that the West should contemplate. Simply defined freedom to act within the law raises the question as to what sort of law and on what basis it should be understood. Needless hurt to other peoples’ religious views in acts of gross insensitivity by proclamations through the public media must surely be seen as akin to gross violations of legitimate privacy, whether via phone hacking or with the assistance of a powerful telephoto lens. In this sense, we could say that the new demands of the Arab world should not be read as a blanket demand for liberty which tolerates either cultural or social insensitivity or hurt and that violence will be a likely result of such reckless irresponsibility. The liberty and rights sought can thus be seen to constitute a necessary realignment of the secular and the religious at a particular historical juncture without eradicating the demands for respect, responsibility, caution, and care.
Within this context we can understand also what perhaps may emerge in respect to democracy. If our analysis is correct, then calls for greater democracy are of a potentially different sort to those models that have been implemented in the West. What is being called for is more limited mechanisms of transparency and legitimacy concerning political representation and state power, and individual rights and freedoms must be interpreted in this light. Freedom in this sense should not be seen as countenancing individual rights to openly trade in insulting or insensitive religious criticisms. In this sense there is a clear distinction between the type of freedom being called for in the Arab protests and the way freedom is understood in the West. Individual rights should not be confused with collective cultural or religious rights. What is clearly needed here is the development in the West of more nuanced rules and theory which can distinguish these different types of freedom. Should freedom of individuals allow open rights for anyone to promote grossly insensitive and abusive discourse against other peoples’ religious or cultural lifestyles? Should such matters be left to individual legal remedy through such institutions as libel actions through the courts and be beyond the intervention of states? For Barack Obama to simply shrug, and say ‘that is not how our legal system works’ as a way of acknowledging the impotence of the state with respect to the release in the US of an abhorrent and insensitive film slurring Islamic beliefs may no longer be sufficient! Or can a meaningful conception of liberty with suitably restricted focus on socioeconomic, cultural and political rights be developed which can also prohibit individuals or groups from insensitive and socially irresponsible and provocative commentary likely to inflame protests and engender global discord? In other words, can we justify individual or sub-group restrictions over such things as criticizing religion, being publicly insensitive to other groups’ religious or cultural codes, or enforcing community architectural norms against libertarian economic ‘ínvaders’ from the West who expect to be able to transgress age-old community norms concerning such treasured values and codes? Seen in this light, it may be that what transpires in the Arab Spring, a protest now spreading throughout the Islamic world, is an attempt to balance the values of liberty with community responsibility in a way altogether different to what we in the West have historically understood that dividing line to be.
There are many other misunderstandings associated with the vagueness and generality of the concept of democracy. It is certainly far from clear that any simple, liberal-capitalist, Western, view of democracy can be straightforwardly exported to other parts of the world. Much clarification is indeed called for. Even in Western political theory, democracy is far from being a straightforward doctrine without ambiguities. There is always a potential problem with a conception of democracy as ‘rule by the people,’ lest, as has frequently happened, the majority in a society should act in illiberal or grossly unjustified ways. It is in addressing this type of problem that the philosopher Ronald Dworkin, in his recent book, Justice for Hedgehogs (2011, pp. 384 – 388), rejects majoritarianism as the basis for democratic decision-making, preferring what he calls a ‘partnership’ model of democracy. On this basis, he is willing to support practices, such as judicial review, which do not have ‘majority support’ or which are not subject to ‘electoral validation.’ The argument against majority decision-making is simply that majorities are not always right. He imagines a majority supporting a policy of ‘sticking pins into babies for fun’ as an obvious example of his objection in principle to majority rule. Expressed more philosophically, he means they sometimes depart from what is for him the essential normative principle upon which democracy is based: “the equal concern and respect that the community together, as the custodian of coercive power, has for each of its members” (p. 390). Yet the ‘partnership model’ that Dworkin prefers to the majoritarian model seems poorly defined at the level of practicalities to ensure such an outcome of equal respect. For Dworkin, “the partnership conception of democracy…holds that self-government means government not by the majority of people exercizing authority over everyone but by the people as a whole acting as partners” (p. 384). As Dworkin expands:
This must inevitably be a partnership that divides over policy, of course, since unanimity is rare in political communities of any size. But it can be a partnership nevertheless if the members accept that in politics they must act with equal respect and concern for all other partners (p. 384)
This explanation obscures what must be seen as a nagging doubt that Dworkin’s ‘partnership’ is one between majorities of ordinary people and established policy elites. This means that the conception of legitimacy, as embodying the principle of equal concern and respect, is what is central to the partnership conception, and that majorities’ decisions are only acceptable if they accord with such specialist groups made up predominantly, for Dworkin, of lawyers and judges. Some people might think that this is a bit like having the wealthy and powerful keep an eye on things! Specifically, says Dworkin, it means respect for the rule of law, and that the law be “consistent with [a] good-faith understanding of what every citizen’s dignity requires” (p. 384). While one would like to agree with Professor Dworkin that some principle or mechanism must be introduced in order to safeguard against possible abuses of majoritarian rule, the extent to which his ‘partnership’ conceals the ever-present possibility of rule by elites, with strange echoes of Plato’s class of guardian rulers, supposedly imbued with democratic values of respect and equality, leaves a great deal to be desired.
Arab communities and non-Western societies generally, would likely be suspicious of Dworkin’s so-called ‘partnership’ model as yet another version of Western hegemony seeking to discipline the Middle East according to Western standards, in what may well be claimed is a new form of imperialism. It would be better, we think, to accept that majoritarian democracy is itself a limited discourse which well may permit abuses, and to seek to forge consensus between West and East at a purely ethical or normative level of adherence to a global public good. While this would require a robust global discussion as to which elements and values were to be included and excluded, it is not judges who should constitute the partners with majorities, but rather globally constituted committees made up of ordinary citizens of the world, operating through already established structures such as the United Nations. Such a global public good based on what best continues life for all, at an abstract enough level to accommodate different cultural groups’ aspirations, comprising such elements as health, parrhèsia, or liberty of thought and action, legal access to institutions of support and guidance, respect for other values and principles, tolerance towards difference, education and training, and so on. The Arab Spring shows a new consensus on these values now emerging in a global world more interconnected than ever before under the impetus of new technologies of communication and publicity. Although the crucial issues and values will be mediated both culturally and historically in very different ways, hopefully they permit enough convergence to enable globally constituted panels to express judgments upon the practical workings of democracy if and when it errs. Rather than a partnership between different status and employment groups from different levels of society, as Dworkin suggests, what rather is required are overlapping networks representing the diversity of the world’s citizens organized variously in a plurality of cross-checking constituencies (ccc) and structures (ccs). What is needed to consolidate the expectations and stirrings of the Arab world then is the participation of refereeing bodies that can be seen to represent a genuine national non-partisanship in the opinions rendered.

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by Ciaran Gillespie

Recent reports that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has successfully shot down a Syrian Air Force jet have perhaps come as a surprise to many as this is no small feat for an irregular band of fighters. The jet was a Mig-23BN Soviet-produced aircraft of the type that had just days before been used to bomb militant positions in the east of Allepo, killing and injuring dozens of civilians in the process.  The successful downing of such a potentially destructive tool in the Assad regime’s arsenal is perhaps symbolic of the struggle of the rebels in the conflict, illustrating the vast gulf in material war making capabilities between the two sides. While Syria’s MIG jets are a hangover from its support from the Soviet Union during the Cold War (Gaddafi had approximately 50 of these jets as well), Assad’s position has continued to be bolstered by Russian military aid. As Hilary Clinton stated recently: ‘They have from time to time said that we shouldn’t worry, everything they’re shipping is unrelated to [Syrian] actions internally. That’s patently untrue and we are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically’. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to such criticism by admitting that indeed weapons had been sent but assured concerned parties that they could not be used against the population, echoing similar, rather baffling denials made by the US as it shipped weapons to Mubarak during the Egyptian uprising and likewise from the UK when shipping arms to Bahrain.

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“You can’t say that civilisation don’t advance, however, for in every war they kill you in a new way.” – Will Rogers

This piece appeared first on the e-IR website at www.e-ir.info

Targeted killings – increasingly effected through weapon systems housed in unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones”, have become a tactic of choice in the Obama Administration’s continuing pursuit of its global counterterrorism strategy. They are highly controversial, but they are only the latest example of so-called “precision strikes”, practised in the aerial campaigns in e.g. Kosovo, Iraq, and more recently Libya, and which reflect the enormous technical superiority of the US and its resolve to use it to secure foreign policy objectives.

But what exactly is “precise” about these killings? Only, it would seem, the ability of an operator several thousand miles away to launch a deadly weapon to hit a predetermined target. Just about everything else, according to papers presented at a recent workshop convened by cii – the Centre for International Intervention – at the University of Surrey, is rather less than precise.

Much public debate has centred on the morality of these killings. Yet that in turn hinges on whether or not they are considered to be acts of war. One would hope that international law relating to “jus ad bellum” would provide a precise answer to this question, but it does not. Lawyers happily argue opposing positions, depending on their viewpoint. Thus opponents of the killings claim that the US is acting illegally by carrying them out in countries – such as Pakistan and Yemen – where it is not at war, whereas the Administration claims that since 9/11 it has been engaged in a “transnational armed conflict” with Al Qaeda and its allies. Arguments rage about whether the criterion of “imminence” of the threat is met and therefore whether pre-emptive strikes are justified; the criterion itself may be well established but its application is notoriously imprecise.

The “jus in bello” arguments are no less contested. Basic data about the effect of drone strikes on civilians are hard to ascertain, partly because casualty recording – as opposed to counting deaths – is not given sufficient importance, partly because of disagreements about what constitutes a “combatant”. A term which in ordinary parlance has a clear meaning is thrown wide open by an Administration that uses it to cover all military age males in a strike zone. Thus estimates of civilian casualties and death lose all precision – along with traditional “in bello” notions of “proportionality”, “collateral damage”, “necessity”, etc – falling foul of a new kind of warfare that traditional frameworks struggle to accommodate. Some argue that a new – and less precise – logic, that is able to make sense of the middle ground between right and wrong, is needed to restore some precision to this debate.

When it comes to human decision-making, the lack of precision is even more evident. Psychologists know from experiments that the borderline between logic and intuition in human behaviour varies according to circumstances and can be manipulated. In the high-tech world of remotely controlled weaponry the speed and complexity of decision-making can be awesome; gathering more information can often lead to worse decisions in more complex situations. For example the window in which humans can make re-tasking decisions about strikes when information arrives that contradicts the original planning assumptions is small and shrinks very rapidly. The precision of the strike is thus highly dependent on the agility of the operator.

Even the distinctions between “human controlled”, “automatic”, and “autonomous” weapons are not as precise as we might assume them to be. Positioned between modern weapons and the humans who fire them lie algorithms of varying complexity. A traditional handgun may be at one end of the spectrum and a robot at the other. But even a so-called “autonomous” weapon depends on the programme that a human has written for it. The real question is what kind of decisions are delegated to the machine without further reference to a human operator – but this could be asked of a battlefield tank gun with an interval of only a few seconds between the instruction to fire and delivery just as much as it could of a drone strike where the interval may be several hours. In this sense there is nothing particularly special about “drones”.

Confused? In sum, the only thing that is precise about drone strikes is the machine that delivers them. Unlike human warriors it will not suffer from battlefield stress or a lack of discipline with regards to the civilians it encounters: no PTSD, sexual exploitation, or prisoner abuse. Barring accidents it will do entirely what it is tasked to do. The lack of precision comes from our own human confusion about morality, law, language, truth, and logic – and our own inability to behave as robots do. That, of course, is part of the richness of our human experience – but perhaps we would do well to be more realistic about how much we think we can programme imprecision out of our lives – and more modest about the true nature of “precision strikes”.

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by Dr Maxine David

On June 19th, a Russian cargo ship, the Alaed, allegedly carrying military equipment to Syria, was forced to turn back after its London-based insurers, the Standard Club, withdrew cover. The move was received with approval in the UK, where diplomatic efforts to bring Russia round to their way of thinking on Syria have so far failed. It seems self-evident that in the absence of (more) Russian helicopters and missiles, the number of civilian deaths in Syria will be reduced. Cause and effect is notoriously difficult to establish. Not so here. Standard Club withdraws insurance cover. The Alaed is forced to turn back because without insurance, it cannot refuel, nor unload its cargo in any port. The lives of innocent people are saved.

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This blog was first published by e-IR on 30 May and is available at: http://www.e-ir.info/

This might appear to be a naive question. The cold-blooded execution on 25 May in the town of Houla of over 100 civilians, including women and children, followed by the discovery on 30 May in Deir Ezzor of 13 bodies with their hands tied, some shot in the head, are but the latest examples of the atrocities committed against civilians in the Syrian crisis. Leaving aside the inevitable claim and counterclaim as to who was responsible for these outrages (although the UN’s 27 May Press Statement condemning the killings in Houla points the finger squarely at the Assad regime) it is clear that the relevant provisions of the “Annan Plan” (ceasefire, withdrawal of forces, guaranteed humanitarian access, and protection of civilians) have not come about. Even Kofi Annan himself, while striving to retain his neutrality as an impartial mediator, has warned that Syria is at a “tipping point”, while the increased incidence of explosions in and around Damascus and other violence across the country seems to presage Syria’s slide into civil war.

So one can see why some would argue that the Annan plan has failed. However it is important to retain a realistic perspective about how much a third-party mediator can hope to achieve, particularly when he or she is appointed in circumstances such as those faced by Annan. From the start of the Syrian crisis in March 2011 the UN Security Council has been divided over how to deal with it. This came to a head in February of this year when Russia and China vetoed a Resolution calling for the Syrian President to step down and this was described as “disgusting and shameful” by the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice. The subsequent face-saving compromise was a joint appointment by the UN and the Arab League of Kofi Annan as the Special Envoy to the Syrian crisis. Annan’s first task, therefore, was to mediate, not between the Syrian regime and its opponents, but between the P5 members in the Security Council. He made it clear that if he were to succeed there could only be one effective mediation process and that all members of the UN needed to put their weight behind it. Only subsequently was he able to turn his attention to trying to establish common ground between the warring parties in Syria.

Again, it is important to understand that this is all a mediator can do: to help people who are unable or unwilling to talk to each other to see the advantages of doing so. The true extent of the mediator’s power is very dependent on the specific context. For example, when in early 2008 Annan was asked to intervene to help stop the violence threatening to drag Kenya into civil war following the contested presidential elections he was able to play a forceful role knowing that he had the full weight of the African Union, UN, and key donor governments behind him. In Syria four years later this unreserved international support has been denied him, despite his tireless diplomacy taking in visits to Moscow and Beijing as well as Arab capitals. The continuing role of the US-led and anti-regime “Friends of Syria” group, alongside unwavering Russian support for Assad, has undoubtedly complicated his task. In addition he has had to deal with a fragmented and much weaker opposition within Syria, compared to Kenya where he was mediating between two well matched opponents, neither of whom could reasonably hope to win if the violence continued unabated.

When the Annan mission started many poured scorn on it, asking how anyone could trust the Syrian Government to keep any promises it might make. It was claimed that a mediation process merely gave the regime a legitimacy it had long since ceased to merit. Again, subsequent events might suggest this scepticism was justified, but the harsh reality is that there was no other obvious strategy available. Encouraged by Russian and Chinese acquiescence over Libya, from the start of the crisis the US, UK, and France took an uncompromising stance with the Syrian government, from which they were eventually obliged to make a humiliating retreat. When the history of the Syrian crisis is written historians may suggest that had mediation being attempted much earlier – before the disaccord in the Security Council became so pernicious – it might have succeeded. When it did eventually come about it still offered a remote prospect of securing a halt to the fighting and the beginnings of an inclusive political process. Better to support that, surely, than to continue to shout ineffectually from the sidelines. In the absence of US willingness to mount a coercive military intervention – or of Russian willingness to persuade Assad that enough is enough and that he should step down – mediation may still be the only game in town.

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This piece is available on SecEUR: http://www.seceur.info/en/euro-view-mike-aaronson-on-natos-chicago-summit.html

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by John Turner

Three concerns confront policy makers and the international community in general when engaging with the Islamic Republic of Iran: Nuclear proliferation, the exportation of terrorism and the stability of Iraq. It may be reasonable, as many have done, to simply label Iran as a rogue state that defies the will of the international community, supports terror organisations and attempts to subvert the security of its neighbours. In fact Iran does indeed act in such a way. However, as much as contentious statements by Ahmadinejad and the fire brand speeches of the Ayatollahs may concern policy makers in the West and Arab world, these are not so much the boastings of a powerful regime. They are more reflective of the insecure actions of school yard bullies who are well aware that those around them may be catching on to the bluff. It is imperative to understand why Iran acts as it does. In doing so it may give clues as to how the international community should respond to the security questions that are posed when encountering Iran.

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by John Turner

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iranmarked the beginning of the second Middle East Cold War. Saudi Arabia and Iran along with their allies have been engaged in cold confrontation since that time. However, in large part this began to thaw in the years following the election of Muhammad Khatami to the Iranian presidency in 1997. Recent events, most notably the Arab Spring along with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, have renewed old tensions.  Some have argued that the uprising in Syria has now set the country up to be a proxy conflict in a renewed Cold War between Russia and the West, dividing the world along the lines of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab states on the other. Indeed Syria is in danger of becoming a proxy conflict in a cold war, but this conflict is not reflective of the Cold War that consumed the world in the 20th century. It is rather a Middle East Cold War. It is driven not by external actors seeking to exploit regional uncertainty for advantage, but by internal rivalries that position the world’s great powers, the US, EU, Russia and China, in an awkward position, actors who for the most part prefer regional stability.

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