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Somalia’s iceberg problem

A day after representatives from more than 35 countries and international organizations met in Rome to discuss piracy off the coast of the Somalia, the UN today reports the astonishing figure that over 100,000 Somalis have been displaced in the last month.  Even by the standards of Somalia's recent turmoil, this is a shockingly high rate -- the highest, in fact, in "many, many years."  Amidst this gross displacement, all sides of the conflict have committed egregious human rights violations, with an appalling frequency of rape, impressment of child soldiers, and reckless shelling of civilians.

Compared with the widespread travesties faced by these thousands of Somalis, the international community's focus on piracy, whatever its impact on the global economy, seems almost an affront to human dignity.  Yet there are signs that leaders in Rome yesterday understand the connection between Somalia's humanitarian crisis and the headline-grabbing antics of pirates.  From Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini:

The minister said that piracy is linked to phenomena like the "criminality and infiltration of extreme elements easily recruited also by Al-Qaeda".

"Piracy is only the tip of the iceberg," Frattini said. "We are convinced that piracy is related to the political and socioeconomic crisis on land, not on the sea.

He said piracy and terrorism, illegal immigration, human trafficking are " a threat not only to Somalia but to the entire international community".

How they choose to address this larger problem is, of course, the big question.  Pirate courts and an enhanced Somali coast guard are nice steps, but the iceberg is much, much bigger.

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Ethiopia to Somalia: “Okay, fine, we’re here.”

Which everyone pretty much knew already, of course.  But, says Ethiopia, it's just "reconnaissance."

"We have no plans to go back to Somalia... [but] there are reconnaissance missions," Information Minister Bereket Simon told reporters.

"When there is a threat, you can send some scouts here and there," he added.

A few scouts here and there for Ethiopia, a few blocks here and there in control of the Somali government in Mogadishu. Meanwhile, Eritrea continues to deny the charge that it is arming Somali insurgents as "a CIA lie."

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Stopping civilian casualties in Afghanistan

In the simmering controversy over U.S.-caused civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Washington has been sending decidedly mixed signals. It has acknowledged that civilian protection must become the top priority for U.S. forces, and, in appointing counter-insurgency acolyte Stanley McChrystal to lead the mission in Afghanistan, has sent the signal that military operations must undergo a top-down shift in strategy and focus. A U.S. military report has even agreed that troops who conducted a particularly devastating air raid in early May committed grave errors that jeopardized civilian lives.

Yet, even as it has castigated its own, the U.S. has still insisted that the Taliban was responsible for the deaths of the 30 (the U.S. number) to 140 (Afghanistan's number) civilians in the raid. (And, for that matter, the continued squabbling over mortality figures, which are consistently lower than either Afghan or UN totals, does not ultimately help the cause of reducing these fatalities.) Even if Taliban fighters did force these civilians to remain in the combat zone, the U.S. military's use of this rationale belies the purported goal of civilian protection: if the primary aim of the operation was to attack the Taliban, then it was not, by definition, to protect civilians.

A stronger critique than the United States' own has come from UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, who issued this sharp rebuke:

"The government has failed to effectively investigate and punish lower-ranking soldiers for such deaths, and has not held senior officers responsible," Alston said. "Worse, it has effectively created a zone of impunity for private contractors and civilian intelligence agents by only rarely investigating and prosecuting them."

Actual prosecution is less important than creating an atmosphere of deterrence. All 68,000 American troops that are to be deployed to Afghanistan under President Obama's plan will need to embrace the principle that civilian protection comes first. Criticism from a UN envoy is ultimately less important than negative reactions from those who matter most -- the Afghan people.

(image of a U.S. drone in Afghanistan, from flickr user jamesdale10 under a Creative Commons license)

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An issue bigger than even Lord Voldemort

As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Ralph Fiennes -- who takes a turn at playing evil as He Who Must Not Be Named in the Harry Potter films -- has focused on the decidedly UN-evil cause of calling attention to the plight of child soldiers. His trip to eastern Chad, for example, occurred alongside -- and most probably generated the media coverage of -- a UN operation to release and demobilize more than 80 child soldiers in the region. This is a great work, but, as this illuminating Foreign Policy story makes clear, reintegrating former child soldiers into society is anything but easy -- and there are over 300,000 around the world, creating a far more prevalent and destabilizing phenomenon than is commonly understood.

We think we know what a child soldier looks like: the AK-toting, drugged-out boy "with anger burning in his eyes." But that isn't necessarily the case. To dispel the myths about child soldiering, read the whole piece. This is what hit me hardest:

Sending children home via disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs is another favorite method of post-conflict planners. These programs are meant to get children and adolescents out of armies and back where they belong -- in schools or in jobs. But here again, results are mixed. Many organizers make the mistake of excluding girls from their programs. They often fail to understand the local economy and therefore train children for the wrong professions. In Liberia, for example, too many ex-combatants were educated as carpenters and hairdressers. Nor do the programs target the roots of intergenerational violence that will long outlast the active fighting. DDR initiatives are often too short term to do much more than superficial training, as even officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development will admit. [emphasis mine]

Forgive the crude example, then, but Voldemort himself could renounce evil and free his child Death Eaters, but if the DDR process isn't done right, or followed up with rigorous attention to development concerns, then they will still not be able to return to society, or, worse, will be prone to returning to combat. DDR is one of the hardest of peacekeepers' tasks: convincing former partisans and killers to give up their arms, rejoin the nation they were fighting against, and live amongst their former enemies. With children who have been traumatized in myriad ways, abused and exploited, raised on a diet of economic, sexual, and military conscription, the process is even harder. And it's discouraging to think that it may not be working that well.

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Diplomacy and causation

This Wall Street Journal editorial wants to argue that diplomacy is somehow the culprit behind the expansion of North Korea's nuclear program. The inconvenient fact, of course, is that the reinvigorated six-party talks did result in the shutting down of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Did Pyongyang ignore other provisions of the agreement? Yes. Did it not fulfill all of the expectations brought about by the talks? Yes. This is a wily and confrontational regime we are dealing with, after all. But this seems to me a reason for more talks, not fewer.

Plus, look what happens when military strikes are involved:

Amid this Western accommodation, in September 2007 Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear facility that U.S. and Israeli intelligence believe was supplied by North Korea. Pyongyang denied any role, and the U.S. kept its diplomacy active. However, North Korea ignored its end-of-year deadline for producing its nuclear declaration. When it did finally produce one, six months later, it included an incomplete plutonium record and nothing about its uranium nuclear program. The North did publicly destroy the cooling tower of its reactor at Yongbyon for the TV cameras, but it balked at any credible verification process.

The editorial doesn't even try to argue that any positive results in terms of relations with North Korea followed from the Israeli strike. Nor, of course, does it suggest that North Korean intransigence was a result of this bombing. Yet some positive results -- destroying the Yongbyon reactor has to count for more good than to just television cameras -- and some negative results ensued from both military and diplomatic pressure points.

And this is the problem of attributing causation, with crazy paranoid regimes no less (in fact only more) than with anything else. There are plenty of examples to pick and choose, then mix and match, to befit whatever ideological bent one already has. But to assume diplomacy claims an ability reduce nuclear stockpiles at a stroke misses the point. This is not an easy game, and the only thing we can pretty much be universally assured of is that that oft-hinted at option of "try[ing] something different" -- presumably involving missiles -- will only result in disastrous consequences.

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No, the S-G was not “blackmailed” by Russia

To the spat over the wording of a UN report on security in Abkhazia, Georgia has added the charge of blackmail.

"It is very unfortunate (and) alarming that the (U.N.) Secretariat submitted to the Russian blackmail," Georgia's U.N. Ambassador, Alexander Lomaia told, Reuters.

This is getting silly. At issue between Russia and Georgia is Abkhazia's national status; it is still an autonomous part of Georgia, but after declaring its sovereignty after the war last August, Abkhazia's independence was recognized by Russia (and Nicaragua). At issue for the UN here, though, is quite simply the status of its observer mission, regardless of what you call where it is stationed.

The geopolitical situation is complicated, contentious, and needs to be resolved, to be sure. But it shouldn't impede on a relatively anodyne report on the current security situation in Abkhazia. The question of wording is tricky, but in not using this report to wade into a Russia-Georgia sovereignty dispute, the UN Secretariat is not being "blackmailed" by Russia. It'd help for both sides to stop levying accusations of bias at the UN and to focus on coming to a meaningful accord over Abkhazia instead.

(image from flickr user openDemocracy under a Creative Commons license)