Tag Archives: armed conflict

Storm Center: The Bookend Messes Defining Modern Armed Conflict, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Oct



What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.  Chris Maser

What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?  Henry David Thoreau

We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit. David Suzuki

Who would want to live in a world which is just-not-quite fatal?  Rachel Carson

Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me; how could you be my enemy?  Erich Maria Remarque

One of the welcome aspects of our work is watching the peace and security agenda expand beyond specific weapons systems and country-specific conflict configurations to examine the spectrum of causes and consequences that bracket the horrors of armed violence.

This is no mere academic exercise.  As we have noted often and colleagues of ours have more recently been emboldened to acknowledge, our task in this policy space is not manage armed conflict, not to soften its often horrific impacts, but ultimately to eliminate it.  This objective may well be the stuff of some fantasy-induced misinterpretation of the human condition – based on an assumption that human beings are actually capable of walking back from the brink of ruin, that we are capable of loving this planet as much as we love our aspirations and aggressions on it — but such is the lot we’ve chosen.

And this lot requires a lot – including a willingness to examine both causes and consequences, to assess and profess the things that we do collectively that compel (or excuse) people to pick up arms as well as the often-devastating consequences to people and planet in conflict’s aftermath.  Indeed, if armed violence and the evermore sophisticated weaponry with which it is conducted are ever to be put to rest, those causes and consequences must be burned into our consciousness in much the same way as the health of our own child towards whom we rightly invest much practical worry, hoping to sidestep illnesses with consequences that can run the gamut from inconvenient to heartbreaking.

The bad news here is that we seem more determined in these recent days to let our predatory nature run wild, eschewing legal and legislative restraints on our acquisitive and competitive dispositions and pushing concern about a possible day of reckoning to the furthest reaches of conscious life.

The good news, though, is that there are pockets of policy resistance to this trend, states and their representatives that both seek to grasp the full complement of causes of conflict and work to highlight the consequences to future generations of “looking away,” consequences both psychological and ecological as our capacity to humiliate and destroy continues to exceed our skill in healing traumatized children and restoring denuded landscapes.

The UN was the scene this week of good faith efforts to explore both causes and consequences of conflict, focusing in this instance on environmental dimensions that attracted considerable and welcome interest.  On Tuesday, Bolivia (current president) directed the UN Security Council on a discussion of how “the control, exploitation and access to natural resources have been a catalyst for the outbreak, escalation and continuation of armed conflicts.”  In a hard-hitting concept note, Bolivia acknowledged the “multidimensional and complex” roots of conflict but also noted the long history of conflict that has been fueled by disputes over the control, exploitation and access to natural resources, highlighting “foreign interests, multinational companies, elite actors and armed groups monopolizing control over resource revenues at the expense of local citizens.”

In fairness, there have been solid international efforts to curb state corruption (through the UN Office of Drugs and Crime and other entities) and apply human rights standards to the potential exploitation of natural resources including with regard to the diversion of profits to organized crime and terror groups, and the forced labor of people fueling the supply chain in ways that mostly serves to make life more comfortable and abundant in national capitals.  Australia and other states are promoting standards that address what have been for much too long abundant violations of rights in supply chains, standards that promise better governance, fairer labor standards, reduced incentives to conflict, an end to the human trafficking and even slavery that have long stoked hostility and frustration at local level.

At the other end of this spectrum are the environmental consequences of the conflict we fail to prevent, the ruined homes and farmlands, the denuded forests and polluted water supplies, the damaged infrastructure and wasted social capital that compromise any reasonable hope of healing and restoration.   The sometimes-devastating “ecological footprint” of military activity – from basing and training to illegal occupation and full scale military assault – has long been a concern of our policy community.  And, thanks in large measure to leadership from Finland and the International Law Commission, this linkage has remained acutely in our collective policy consciousness.

This matter includes but goes beyond remnants of war that include the ongoing impact of landmines and other explosive devices whose lurking presence deters persons displaced by conflict seeking to return home and “save what’s left.”  Indeed, as armed conflict becomes more resistant to legal restraint and more destructive in its creativity and technological flexibility, its environmental and other “human security” impacts are increasingly pushing us across the threshold of remediation in all its aspects.  The displaced have less and less to “save” at home, the traumas of conflict deepen and too-often remain untreated, and more people feel that they have little choice but to turn their backs on their now-contaminated fields and domiciles-in-rubble for uncertain futures elsewhere.

In an all-day seminar this past Thursday, the “protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict” kept a small group (including my interns) riveted for hours.  This event covered environmental impacts across the conflict cycle, including the issue of establishing “liability” for conflict-related environmental harm.  Highly-qualified speakers highlighted the tools at our disposal to monitor and assess environmental degradation related to armed conflict, as well as the degree to which increasingly scarce natural resources such as water and precious minerals – a major conflict trigger in our time – might actually increase the incentive for cooperative discussions on how to manage resources fairly and effectively prior to conflict such that the potential for such conflict is effectively minimized.  And while there were calls to the international community to prepare better for the environmental impacts of climate and conflict threats, there was also a sense in the room that viable, cross-border conflict-prevention measures together with normative principles and legal mechanisms of accountability for environmental damages — including often-grave damages inflicted by occupying forces — is likely to constitute our most productive way forward.

The point of which we must constantly remind ourselves is that the misery of warfare does not end once the guns finally go silent.  No matter how we might justify recourse to armed violence in political or strategic terms, the fact remains that once the missiles fly and the bombs drop, our capacity to address already-strained human and environmental challenges diminishes significantly.  The “mess” of armed conflict perists amidst even our best, good-faith efforts to restore what we have been quick to destroy.

If the UN can continue to shine a bright light on both the environmental causes and consequences of violence, highlighting the degree to which armed conflict is and remains a major inhibitor of sustainable development and human well-being, we will be further along in our quest to create a planet fit for children and other living beings, a planet filled with people who finally and firmly grasp their diverse “contributions” to armed conflict as well as the increasingly scant prospects for healing and wholeness that follow in modern conflict’s wake.

I sometimes worry that too many of us seem resigned now to live in a world that “is not quite fatal.” It is still possible to reverse this pessimistic course, but the brick wall towards which we have been blithely hurdling looms closer than ever. We must quickly slam on the brakes, recover our enthusiasm for what can still be an exciting and abundant journey, and find a safer route to our collective destination.

No Time for Child’s Play: The UN Hones its Child Protection Responsibilities, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jul

This past Friday, the UN held a celebration of the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1612 on Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC).

The most direct institutional consequences of resolution 1612 are the Working Group on CAAC originally chaired by France, later by Germany, Mexico and Luxembourg, and now by Malaysia.  In addition, an office for CAAC was established, headed first by Olara Otunnu and now by Leila Zerrougui.  This office has had its share of controversy over 10 years, in part due to its (at the time) groundbreaking relationship to the work of the Council, and in part because of its methods (including listings) to expose states’ willful tolerance or even direct mistreatment of the children under their jurisdiction.

Both the WG and Office for CAAC successfully expanded global interest in the security dimensions of the broader children’s rights outlined in the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The Convention boasts record setting state ratifications. Moreover, virtually all other development, peace and security resolutions now highlight the special care and protection needs of the most vulnerable of persons.  The Convention itself was not without controversy, especially among those who feared the ability of children to assert rights in direct contradiction of parental wishes or who were concerned with an expansion of “compelling state interests” that ostensibly prioritized “the best interests of the child” over the wishes of family members or other guardians.  Nevertheless, the Convention and Resolution 1612 together have done much to address some of the residual “instrumentalizing” of children as mere extensions of adult expectations and needs that still exists within many societies.  In addition, as the UN’s responsibilities to protect civilians have evolved, the special protection needs of children have more readily been identified if not always addressed with sufficient urgency.

At Friday’s celebration, assessments of past practices and expectations regarding future objectives were mixed.   Many speakers representing a broad array of member states and UN agencies, including Ms. Zerrougui herself, highlighted the “architecture” that now exists to help promote CAAC objectives at country level, including national task forces and action plans, and what Luxembourg referred to as the “global horizontal note”. Along with child protection officers in peacekeeping missions and CAAC office efforts to identify and publicly list offending parties – a particular concern in this session for both Myanmar and Israel – this architecture represents elements of an evolving, system-wide commitment to end abuses committed against (and by) youth at the tip of a gun or edge of a blade.

In this instance as in others, child protection is impacted by some of the limitations characterizing our general “protection of civilians” assumptions and strategies.  We sometimes forget, as Morocco reminded event participants, that child soldiers must always be seen as victims (rather than as enemies) regardless of the crimes they were coerced to commit.   Sometimes, though thankfully in rare instances, those mandated to protect children are guilty of adding to their abuse.  Sometimes, efforts of child protection advisors to peacekeeping missions are compromised or overlooked by virtue of overstretched, under-resourced and increasingly coercive operations.  And our lack of a viable preventive strategy too often results in placing response capacities in the field long after such placement is optimal, with implications for the emotional and physical safety of children even more dire than for their guardians.

This lack of prevention goes beyond unhelpful limitations in UN capacity for early warning and mediation.  It also, as we have written previously, involves insufficient regard for effects of trauma of children in conflict zones for which the only viable remedial strategy is one that ensures their absence from such zones.   Calls during this Friday celebration from UNICEF’s Yoka Brandt, the Russian Ambassador and others for more rehabilitation services were welcome, with Brandt reminding the audience that the release of children from armed groups is only the first step in child reintegration and rehabilitation.  Children can be remarkably resilient, but for many of these abducted, brainwashed or otherwise abused children, attaining anything approaching mental health will require a long and treacherous climb.  The abuses inflicted on children will likely be visited upon their own children as well as the communities of which they are a part. There are only so many tools (and funds) at our disposal to redirect that dangerous course once it has been embarked.

On top of all this, we are often slow to adjust to a rapidly shifting security environment with active child recruiters such as ISIL and conflict-motivated migration patterns that blur lines of individual state responsibility.  The shifts to which we must respond are numerous. The representative of UNRWA highlighted the increasing uses of explosive weapons and the devastation these cause to civilian populations.  The representative of UNHCR highlighted the special monitoring and protection challenges that impact children moving across borders with our without their families.  And of course we are now regularly confronting what the French rightly noted as “shocking” instances in Syria and elsewhere where children are essentially being held hostage to conflicts that cannot even be convinced to pause in order to feed and bandage the desperate.

Despite these challenges, it appeared to be the will of most diplomats that child protection from armed violence, recruitment and related abuses become even more of a cross-cutting, systemic obligation of the UN system and its member states, an obligation assumed to bind permanent Council members as much as other UN stakeholders. Such insistences were part of what made the early work of Otunnu’s CAAC office such a breath of fresh air from the start.  That the consensus promise has yet to culminate in a consensus strategy for successfully ending abuses of children in conflict zones is a situation that many in the global public (including diplomats) can neither understand nor tolerate for much longer.

As Luxembourg noted, we need to do all we can to ensure that CAAC is much more than a “side event” to the core UN agenda, while avoiding what Belgium referred to as a “creeping cynicism” regarding our ability to fully implement the CAAC mandate. Indeed, a bit of cynicism-invoking sentimentality crept into the celebration in the form of one or two presenters saying things such as, “even if we save one child, our efforts were worth it.”  It was Canada who bluntly noted that ending CAAC violations completely and without reservation can and must be our objective.   To employ an over-used UN phrase, we fully align ourselves with Canada’s statement.

We simply must continue to set the bar high for children in armed conflict.  With all the global problems now tugging at our diplomatic shirt sleeves, it is worrying indeed that so many needlessly damaged children will become adults likely to be still reeling from the gaps between their own emotional capacity and the increasing logistical complexities of modern life.  We have full confidence that Malaysia will keep child protection issues in full view of the Security Council during its peacekeeping mandate renewals and related deliberations.  We urge other diplomats, NGOs and child advocates to keep CAAC issues in front of all relevant UN and government actors to whom they have access.