Archive | August, 2014

Fire and Rain:  The Council Divides its Urgent Attentions

31 Aug

The world is, to reference the Washington Post and virutally every other media outlet, beset with crises.   From Mali to Ukraine, hardly a day goes by without at least one new eruption of hostility, one new warning that the armed violence we struggle to manage may well be entering a new and more potent phase.

At such times, eyes are cast towards the UN Security Council hoping that its ‘maintenance of peace and security’ mandate will translate into policies and actions that can put out some of the fires ranging across half the world, or at the very least lower their searing heat.

The Council is trying hard to do just that, but there are simply too many fires raging, too many escalating conflict zones, any one of which could take up Council members’ full attention.  We find the Council careening from one issue to another, focusing on Syria one week but not the next; obsessing on the ISIS threat while diverting attention from Gaza; assuming that a soon-to-be-deployed peacekeeping operation in Central African Republic will stop that bleeding while Libya disintegrates before our eyes.   Only Ukraine, and that in large measure because of the involvement of permanent Council members and their large militaries, tends to keep its Council focus.

Under the presidency of the United Kingdom, the Council had a busy and varied August, which including a ‘field trip’ to the Hague, Somalia and other locations; some forceful efforts to limit the length of statements, even by governments that have limited access to the Council and are party to grave conflict; and at least two important discussions – one on protection of humanitarian workers and the other on UN capacities for preventive response to violence prior to its full eruption.

Both of these discussions brought out a range of deep UN member state anxieties.   The loss of life from the community of humanitarian workers is shocking and worthy of both great honor and urgent response.  Most of us can barely imagine the challenges of bringing relief to people isolated by violence and abandoned by governments and insurgencies alike.  In the case of the prevention discussion, it is somehow reassuring to those who carefully follow Council deliberations that there be an acknowledgement of how untenable the current situation is, a situation that lends itself to short-term crisis management rather than the longer term crisis prevention which  is closer to our common hope.

In life as in policy, it is often the things left unsaid that are of more significance than those which are named.  This also pertains to webcast Council meetings where statements too often traverse well-worn paths that seem to be designed to ‘inform’ constituents more than sharing thoughtful policy assessment.  In these discussions, there is much text devoted to what Council members care about and occasionally even what they are prepared to do about it.   But much of that is in the form of general recommendations that offer neither kernels of lessons learned nor honest assessments of the failures of past policy.   When the Council speaks of the disintegration of Libya, for instance, while defending (or ignoring altogether) the Council’s resolution authorizing ‘all necessary means’ to stop Gaddafi and the ethnic chaos and the grotesque and highly fluid arms market that were left in its aftermath, it is natural to wonder if Council members are paying enough attention to the longer-term implications of their own decisions.   The rest of us, after all, can ignore the potential consequences of our life choices only at our peril.

So what about those unmentioned items with significant policy reference?   Briefly, two stood out.   In the case of humanitarian workers, we were hoping that someone on the Council would raise clearly the uncomfortable relationship for these workers being protected by peacekeepers who are increasingly seen as partisan, in part because of the expansion of peacekeeping mandates, especially regarding use of coercive force beyond the mantra of “self-defense and the defense of the mandate. “  Such forward projection of force, which in the DRC seem to have won the confidence of diverse UN officials, need to be more carefully vetted from the standpoint of their implication for the safety of already beleaguered humanitarian operations.  As we have seen in South Sudan and just this weekend with capture of Fiji and Filipino peacekeepers, there are legitimate concerns about playing with peacekeeper neutrality in a manner that can jeopardize the safety of more than peacekeepers.  The more that others – states as well as ‘spoilers’ — see PKOs as partisan forces, the more likely that affiliated UN humanitarian workers and other ‘country team’ members could be dragged into threatening situations caused by such ‘partisan’ conflict.

On prevention, the ‘debate’ style format elicited many comments from non-Council members, most of which were laced with anxiety about the state of the world and the Council’s often tepid responses.  From our standpoint, there needed to be more commentary from Council members about the dangers of continually ignoring the smoke that signifies potential danger.   We would also have liked to see more representation in the debate from the people who manage the understaffed and too often ignored preventive architecture of the UN system.

We are extremely grateful to outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and felt that her presence at the debate added considerable value.   But there are others who also should have been in that chamber, including the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. The Council is unlikely to successfully shift its distracted gaze towards prevention responsibilities without routinely acknowledging and consulting with those already tasked with preventive functions.

As our understanding of conflict-related threats continues to grow, opportunities for Council over-stretch will grow likewise.   The discussions this month pointed again to the grave need for Council members to engage the full measure of the UN’s preventive capacity as well as to demonstrate to an anxious global public why they believe that the  current crop of Council resolutions and related responses to the many violent outbreaks now on its agenda are both sufficiently mindful of the needs of humanitarian workers and also more likely to suppress violence in the end than to inflame it further.

Dr. Robert Zuber

The Plague Year: The UN’s Ebola Response

23 Aug

Last week at UN Headquarters, a meeting was convened under the auspices of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) that represented some of the best (if not most time sensitive) of UN capacities in action.

This gathering was actually a joint session focused on three of the countries on the PBC agenda – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.   The agenda was not security sector reform or gender violence, but rather the implications of the recent outbreak of Ebola that has immobilized national services and caused hand wringing and finger pointing both within the affected societies and in the West.

Readers of this blog have surely followed the unfolding drama in the media.   The security lapses along and across common borders;   the quarantine of thousands of persons in makeshift camps; the courageous response of medical workers operating at great personal risk and without adequate diagnostic equipment and treatment options; and perhaps most shockingly the lack of vaccines to prevent further infection.

The discussion was led by Ambassador Lucas of Luxembourg, chair of the Guinea configuration, and featured briefings from the three country teams, all of whom competently outlined the threats and responses that offered some glimmer of hope for recovery amidst daunting social and medical challenges.

The responses of PBC members to the country teams’ testimony blended gratitude, sadness and pragmatism. Some states expressed concern that some Peacebuilding Funds might be diverted away from mandated tasks towards Ebola response, while others questioned how a plague of this magnitude could remain unaddressed by medical science for so long.   Others wondered about the often slow pace of response.  Ambassador Lucas herself noted that there was likely a time when concerted action could have stemmed the Ebola menace, but she also wondered aloud about current prospects for effective threat response.

Almost all understood the implications for pandemics and other plagues on the very fabric of community life.   In all three countries, each one a relatively recent survivor of other forms of horrific violence, the shock and fear caused by Ebola are proving to be debilitating yet again. But this time there is an added twist – the worry that those with whom you have lived and grown up may be the very persons to infect you with a grave disease for which there is no apparent cure.  These are the worries that can strip away social cohesion – motivating a deeper form of quarantine than even the one imposed by officials.

This for us is more than a sad and cautionary tale.  It is a dry run for what might become a more common occurrence – bacterial and viral infections that have become immune to our potent medicines or are transmitted beyond the reach – or attentiveness — of our otherwise sophisticated medical technologies and research facilities.

Ebola is the latest sign of an evolving constellation of threats to stable and peaceful societies emanating from the viruses in our bodies more than the hatred in our minds.   We applaud efforts by the PBC to understand and address the security implications of Ebola; but we also urge the PBC to do what it can to help prepare more rapid responses to what is almost certain to be a next, deadly, medical emergency.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Hedging Bets: Vultures and Their Economic Prey

15 Aug

Much of the Latin American civil society community is rightfully distressed about a recent decision by a US judge who ruled that hedge fund (vulture) debts incurred by Argentina would have to be paid in full.  This came on the heels of a missed deadline (June 30) for Argentina to pay off creditors as noted by Kathy Gilsinan in The Atlantic. Gilsinan placed part of the responsibility for this financial mess on the willingness of Argentinian officials in the 1990s to submit to US jurisdiction over some of its bonds. Certainly there is more responsibility to go around.

As explained in part by the Buenos Aires Herald, vulture funds represent a type of highly profitable (if nefarious) financial investment, in which a fund buys sovereign debt cheaply and then sues to enforce payment. Benefiting from tax and jurisdiction loopholes, vulture funds purchase debt from generally highly distressed countries as it is about to be written off. They then sue the debtor/borrower for the full value of the debt, plus interest and penalties, in courts located in the US, Paris or Brussels. The original holders of the debt are usually more than willing to rid themselves of these liabilities as many of these debts are soon to come into default or face protracted restructuring negotiations.

With regard to the Argentina case, a move by OAS delegates to void the judge’s decision was rejected by the US.   Moreover, there has been relevant commentary in the US regarding the incompetence of Argentina’s lawyer who allegedly urged Argentina to threaten rather than negotiate a settlement.  Other commentators have placed responsibility on a system that fails to properly regulate market volatility (or even enforce existing regulations) let alone to sufficiently acknowledge the vested interests of sovereign states in lending relationships.  As noted by Larry Elliot in The Guardian, “The problem is simple. Individuals and corporations have recourse to bankruptcy codes that give them protection from their creditors. Sovereign states do not.”

As noted both by civil society and by many in the financial community, this ‘vulture’ crisis is not at all confined to Argentina.   Many of the nations that face vulture fund lawsuits are Heavily Indebted Poor Countries, including several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. As Elliot notes, “There are wider implications. If the so-called “vulture funds” that have brought the current action emerge victorious, it will not only encourage legal action in other cases where creditors have been forced to take a “haircut” but will make future debt restructurings more difficult to organise.”  Clearly this benefits none but the vultures.

In many ways, the Argentina ‘vulture’ decision mirrors larger problems with the international financial system:  political leaders in the global south desperate for working capital, anxious to maintain their political standing and, in some cases even lining their own pockets.   This combined with loose or uneven regulations in the centers of global capital virtually invite predation of the sort that seems to have occurred here.

Many in civil society fear that another financial crisis is likely, perhaps even around the corner.  If that happens, the burden of debt will fall less on the governments that negotiate credit agreements and more on the farmers and bus drivers and other workers whose employment is subject to both the lending ‘bets’ made by their leadership and the predatory and opportunistic mindset of the ‘vultures’ circling around weakened economies.

In many ways this process of decisionmaking by government leaders reflects a more common practice – many of us in the so-called developed world hedge our bets all the time.   Our ‘calculus’ allows us to make economic and related decisions based on a short term logic that virtually dismisses the rights of generations to come, let alone the rights of persons whose sole purpose seems to be to provide raw materials for our often mindless consumption.   We live, as Wendell Berry once noted, beyond the effects of our own bad work, manifest in our propensity for building bridges we’ll never cross, but also for entering into agreements without sufficient consideration for the people who will be required to meet the obligations that we recklessly incur.

As highlighted by Brooke Sample in Bloomberg View, “The problem is that at any given time, it always looks better to delay — and the worse a crisis gets, the more attractive a delay looks, because the reckoning is already very painful.”  Clearly, we all must do more and speak louder, reminding leaders that pushing burdens and their accountabilities away from their authors and on to their progeny is ethically dubious at best and certainly corrosive of a viable community life.  For many in civil society and their constituents, the pain that accrues from bad economic agreements is a pervasive fact of life.  However, pain based on an honest assessment of previous practices that can lead to fairer economic arrangements and more accountable economic relationships is somewhat easier to bear.

As human demands grow and government leaders find themselves responding more to short-term private financial interests than longer-term public ones, the avoidance of conflict and accountability will remain tempting.   And as we continue to defer real leadership the vultures will remain ready to capitalize. But the conflict born of an often fundamentally unfair economic system will not disappear.  Its consequences can only be pushed forward for so long. As the global community prepares to embrace a new set of sustainable development goals, there is no time like the present to place those consequences in sharp relief and deal with them forthrightly.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Dharavi: A Place of Paradox and Misconceptions

14 Aug

Editor’s Note:  This is from Kritika Seth, an associate from Mumbai who previously managed GAPW’s youth effort. Kritika now works for an NGO in Mumbai where her compassion, attentiveness and thoughtfulness have resulted in the following reflections.  

Lakshmi Dhadke – A star, a ‘sorter’, a lady that oozes dynamism and passion from every ounce of her body; her laughter lights up the entire room; her effortless ways of dealing with life’s problems and her smooth ability to deal with the full range of human emotions will leave you awe struck. She seems almost limitless. Lakshmi Tai, as we like to call her, is a simple Marathi lady, a mother of two adorable sons and a wife to a rickshaw driver living in the labyrinthine slums known as Dharavi.

The first time I met her and realized that she possessed all of these creative, life-affirming qualities, I wondered, what is she still doing living in Dharavi?

With more than 60,000 structures, many of them shanties, and as many as one million people living and working on a triangle of land barely two-third the size of Central Park in Manhattan, Dharavi is one of the world’s most infamous slums. It is often seen as a cliché of Indian misery, a visual eyesore and a symbol of raw inequality that epitomizes the failure of policy makers to accommodate the millions of rural migrates searching for an opportunity in the magical city of Mumbai. Paradoxically, it is also a churning hive of shops and workshops resulting in an annual economic output estimated to be $600 million and perhaps as much as $1 billion.

Perhaps those who have not seen Dharavi would consider it to be nothing more than a huge slum, but when I have looked, I see Dharavi as a city within a city, a city of many faces and many facets.

Despite India being a rising economic power, a huge portion of its economy operates in the shadows. In most developing countries, there is only one economy, but in India, there are two. The formal economy consists of businesses that pay taxes, abide by labor regulations and polish the country’s global image. The ‘informal’ economy is everything else: the hundreds and millions of shopkeepers, construction workers, taxi drivers, tailors, street vendors, middlemen and more. The informal economy is responsible for the overwhelming majority of India’s annual growth and as much as 90 percent of all employment. Thus, Dharavi could welll be referred to as one of the self-created, special economic zones for the Indian poor.

“What do we make?” questioned, the ever-enthusiastic Lakshmi Tai during our brainstorming session intended to help her start and run her own business. “We live in a world where we can get almost anything and most of it is made in Dharavi. What can I do to make my creation different?”

It is not an easy question to answer.  Leatherwork is now a major industry in Dharavi. Small garment factories have proliferated throughout the slum, making children’s clothes or women’s dresses for the Indian market or export abroad. According to a 2012 study by the United States Agency for International Development, Dharavi contains at least 700 larger garment workshops and about 40,000 smaller ones. Then there are 5000 leather shops. Then there are food processors that make snacks for the rest of India. And then still more: printmakers, embroiderers and, most of all, the vast recycling operations that sort, clean and reprocess much of India’s discarded plastic.

As Lakshmi Tai rightly puts it, “Every slum has its businesses. Every kind of business is there in the slums.”

Plans to raze and redevelop this informal city of Dharavi into a “normal” neighborhood has stirred a debate about what would be gained but also about what might be lost by trying to control and regulate Dharavi. Every layer of Dharavi, once exposed, reveals something far more complex and organic than the image of a slum serving merely as a warehouse for the poor.

Discrimination is still common practice towards Dharavi residents. They often complain that they are routinely rejected for credit cards if they list a Dharavi address. Private banking institutions are reluctant to make loans to business owners in Dharavi or to open branches there. Part of this stigma is as much about traditional social structures as about living in the slum itself.

But money talks in Mumbai, and Dharavi now has money, even millionaires existing alongside its misery and poverty.

Dharavi’s fingerprints continue to be found across Mumbai’s economy and beyond, even if few people realize it.  And thus, after zooming out, looking at the bigger picture, I believe there is no other place that Lakshmi Tai be other than the eccentric hive of Dharavi.

The area is imprinted in the Indian imagination, depicted in books or Bollywood movies, and even featured in the Oscar-winning hit “Slumdog Millionaire.”  Dharavi has been examined in a Harvard Business School case study and dissected by an army of urban planners all over the world. Yet efforts to fully capture Dharavi’s diverse character are elusive.  May they remain so.

Kritika Seth, GAPW Junior Associate

Regions of Hope

2 Aug

On the last Monday in July, under Rwanda’s leadership, the Security Council held an open debate on peacekeeping operations, specifically on an examination of the evolution of relationships binding the UN with regional operations such as those developed and maintained by ECOWAS and the African Union.

This issue of ‘regionalization’ had come up earlier in the year when the Council was set to authorize a peacekeeping operation for the Central African Republic, now scheduled for deployment in mid-September.   This authorization, which would involve substantial ‘rehatting’ of troops already committed to the African-led International Support Mission (MISCA), bred some discontent.  At the time of authorization in April, AU officials expressed concern that the Council was undermining the authority of MISCA, authority that would be crucial over the coming months of perilous duty required to protect as many civilians in CAR as possible while patiently awaiting deployment of the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission (MINUSCA).

While AU representatives were less challenging of the Council during the July debate, it is clear that fault lines persist.  Among those lines, the following should receive more policy consideration:

First, there is general agreement that authorization of regional peacekeeping activity by the Security Council increases its legitimacy.  And, as Russia, China and others noted, it is critically important for regional security organizations to stay connected to the Council.  But at what point does ‘connection’ look too much like ‘permission?’   The Council must find the right balance between fulfilling its Charter obligations and supporting, in the words of the US, the actions of ‘neighbors’ taking responsibility for protecting each other.

Second, the Council must continue to refresh its list of core peacekeeping partners including, as urged by Pakistan, the League of Arab States.   In this context, the apparent willingness of the European Union to consider a return to a more robust engagement with UN peacekeeping is a suggestion that should be readily seized.  Moreover, the increasing capability of regional security organizations, including UNASUR in Latin America, gives comfort that, under the right circumstances and with sufficient confidence building, we can sustain the capacity needed to prevent and protect.

Third, there has been much discussion about the need for ‘rapid response’ capacity, which seems to have evolved steadily from a focus on standing UN capacity to regional iterations. Given the slow speeds at which an over-burdened Council often makes decisions, at what point does the need for authorization undermine the benefits of rapid response?  In other words, at what point in a protracted negotiation with a regional organization seeking to respond to the threat of conflict is ‘rapid’ no longer rapid?

With fires raging on so many regional fronts, it is clear that the Council needs to integrate and support as many partners as possible, not only in Africa but wherever competent, accountable, rapid-response capacity can be found.   It is equally clear that more attention to fire prevention and less to fire extinguishing remain in order, both for the UN and its growing roster of regional partners.

However, the Council has generally and, as noted recently by Jordan, Luxembourg and other members, given short order to early warning, mediation and other prevention measures.   Later this month, the UK as Council president for August will convene a general debate on prevention.   In this effort, partnership development is important, both with existing UN capacities such as the Joint Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect as well as with regional entities organized and committed to diverse and robust forms of violence prevention.

At this upcoming debate and elsewhere, the Council must find ways to give places of honor to both sets of partners.   The pattern of addressing conflict past its formative phases and with capacity that is both late arriving and insufficient to some of the massive conflicts that peacekeepers and other agents of UN response are expected to address is one that simply must evolve.    In this context, we especially welcomed Argentina’s recent call for more ‘strategic thinking’ with the entire UN membership that could lead to fewer ‘emergency Council meetings,’ thinking that can help us find the ways and means to fight fires before they actually ignite.  Such thinking could also increase the participation and confidence of member states with their own strategic ties to the regional organizations that have become so critical to the success of UN peacekeeping efforts.

For so many victims or those fearing to become victims, timing is everything; getting the right capacity into the right positions as quickly as possible.   The Council has a moral imperative to ensure diverse and timely capacity to regions in conflict, but an equally critical imperative to ‘maintain’ the peace and not only react once the peace has been shattered.   There is hope that more regional engagement and more preventative measures, together with a Council increasingly seized of its own burdens and limitations, can result in a more effective spectrum of response in these dangerous times.

Dr. Robert Zuber