Youth Combatant Recruitment in the Levant Part II: Alternatives to a Propaganda War

“As the acronym shifts daily, we don’t know if these videos are actually being produced by a ragtag force seeking to provoke a superpower and her allies into war or if Isis is rather a front for more institutional actors, even states, pretending to be such a grassroots group. This is vital for knowing whether this development is one toward or away from the democratisation of the narrative.”

American documentary maker Eugene Jarecki

While some have attempted to distinguish between the disassociated “romantic freedom fighters” and actual terrorist cells, the concern is that these young volunteers, some now radicalized and combat-trained, will wreak havoc and become uncontainable. The driving question here is why, precisely, have these young civilians turned combatants elected in a life of insurgency? Namely, why would anyone with an entire life ahead of them even want to risk their life to fight in someone else’s war?

With a special reference to the factors motivating drivers of violent extremism amongst youth foreign fights, one must take pause to summarize what is it that we actually already know about youth participation in violent extremism in the first place– be it as a foreign combatant recruit or otherwise. Some of the most common misconceptions in the study of youth violent extremists are propagated by misinformed theories supported by inherent limitations, i.e. those which rely heavily on generalist, macro-level “root causes.” Amongst youth scholars and experts one such diminutive general theory of conflict is the “youth in crisis” paradigm whose premise juxtaposes the youth specific opportunities for violence and rebellion with the econometric “greed versus grievance” model of human development and conflict manifestation. In discussing the different factors motivating youth recruitment, this debate attracts attention. While the opportunity structure arguments emphasize the preeminence of rational choice, grievance arguments specify the role of identity, disparity in intergroup relationships, and the effect of unmet basic needs.

However romantic, this argument disregards new empirical knowledge evidencing that the majority of youth affected by the underlying conditions linking them to violent extremism are not clear; few among them are actually motivated primarily by these so called “youth crisis” conditions in question. It is important to note that youth foreign fighter recruitment has manifested itself in a wide variety of socioeconomic settings across both impoverished societies to advanced industrialized countries. Therefore, it is very difficult to generalize about these underlying conditions since violent organizations emerge in radically different social, political, and economic environments. Furthermore, these explanations often framed in terms of causality or “root drivers” disregard the importance of the role of human agency. With a solitary focus on rationalist presumptions and explicit concerns with particular social and economic conditions, the role of essential push factors have been largely overstated. Such assumptions underestimate the potentially critical role played by the important pull factors like the appeal of a particularly inspirational leader or the material, emotional, or spiritual benefits which affiliation with an extremist group may confer to potential youth recruits.

Recent research has begun to look at how parties of conflicts have effectively used social media to increase their visibility, spread their message, and communicate to scale. Noting “Why Terrorists Love Twitter,” Time Magazine addressed ISIS and the challenge social media sites face when violent groups use their platforms in social media to engage and converse amongst themselves as well as to effect change on a global level. In recent years, policymakers, practitioners, and the academic community have begun to examine how the internet influences the process of radicalization extremist activities are recurrent theme to this topic. As a place where individuals find their ideas supported and echoed by other like-minded individuals, it is difficult to argue against the idea that the internet plays an important role in the process of recruiting young violent extremists. Many violent groups see organization on social media as a way to get money from wealthy foreigners sympathetic to a cause. This fits well within the widely utilized tactic of putting a young face at the forefront of campaigns deploying youth to combat zones.

This may be the reason why, in combination with many other strategies, the US State Department headed by the tiny Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) has ramped up efforts to strategically neutralize jihadist propaganda online as violent militants flood social media. Every attempt from the production of a State Department branded Youtube Channel to a Facebook Group and Twitter account has been generated under the US’s newest approach to use their PR and communication skills as a way to “engage in our very particular brand of adversarial engagement.”

Considering the idea of internet based self-radicalization, at the individual level, evidence does not necessarily support the suggestion that social media and ideological fit can alone accelerate extreme violent action. The spectrum of potential radicalizing factors and the triggers prompting an individual to move from extreme beliefs to violence vary widely. Committing terrorist acts does not necessarily require radical beliefs and extremist beliefs do not lead one directly down the path to terrorism. The confounding of radical beliefs with terrorism remains a highly contested topic exacerbated further by the role of individual and group processes. There remains a significance to localized grievances as well as the need for creating credibility among those who seek either to radicalize or to counter such resistance; group dynamics are a powerful component in pressuring individual action. In regards to the ISIS experience as it relates to youth combatant recruitment, a particular focus on ideology and self-identification highlights the complexity of cause and effect.

Beyond the international coalitions sending troops and conducting airstrikes over Iraq and Syria, perhaps one of the most valuable but unsung approaches thus far has come out of the underfunded State Department CSCC office. Taking it one step farther, and in considering the lack of knowledge in addressing the phenomena at hand, one must look specifically at the constructed perceptions and individual experiences of youth combatants before making any broad assumptions about the trajectories of this situation. With a commitment towards communicating a message for social good, strategic communication here is key to countering the narrative of terrorism. When it comes to new media technology, research shows that access to the internet via social media platforms cannot justifiably replace the need for recruits to meet in person during their radicalization and/or de-radicalization process. However, seeking to account for how young individuals have come to support certain forms of extremism associated with terrorism experts have since argued that the internet may have the ability to enhance and/or catalyze pre-existing opportunities available to young people seeking to become radicalized by providing a greater opportunity than offline interactions to confirm existing beliefs.

Though this does not prove causality for their mobilization in the first place, what is does show is that the internet facilitates the radicalization of individuals, but it is only one part of the whole process. Focusing on the potential interplay between the offline and online worlds of personal history and social relationships, communication across various formal and informal platforms offers a counter narrative supporting opportunities for peaceful coexist.

Right now is our lynchpin moment in terms of positive outreach to young people in the region. Playing upon their identities and experiences, there is opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with the young leaders responsible to shape the outcome of this protractedly violent situation, both off and online. The assumption that there is one singular ISIS brand of socio-political religious doctrine which is uniquely extremist will not help us understand the cycles of brutality that have festered for decades. Our approach must acknowledge first through the many means available the circulating narratives and images of torture, violent murder, and desecration. Rather than engaging in useless propaganda banter, and potentially alongside a greater and well planned long term strategic communication strategy, the US and its allies should align not behind their weapons but their words in order to seek out and show solidarity with those young persons resilient enough to risk their lives in the fight for a positive change. With that, perhaps next time it will be to the benefit of social good.

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Youth Combatant Recruitment in the Levant Part 1: Challenges and Misconceptions

Going by the commentary on Iraq and Syria in recent days, many would assume that the region has already past the breaking point under the lightning campaign of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria (herein referred to as ISIS). Reinforced by resources and fighters from sympathetic communities at home abroad, the insurgents’ powerful control is news to few these days. What remains to be explained, however, is the genesis by which this phenomena came to be about.

Coming out of the +Social Good Summit, I cannot disregard the sense that the international community is desperately seeking support in facing challenges such as these. They recognize that the face of civilian uprisings across the globe is getting younger and, as such, have sought out young leader’s opinions in evaluating approaches to the problem. Many of us at the summit met to discuss how we are affected by and have experienced this issue in more detail during informal conversations. The following two posts are to serve as a summary and recap of those reflections. They are neither a full solution nor strategy for our leaders. Instead, let them serve as a means to open the inadequate dialogue we currently have as young constituents and leaders in order to set in motion the positive changes necessary to transform the conversation.

First off, what remains evident about the threat of terror coming out of groups like ISIS—at least amongst some of the socially attuned young scholars and practitioners I had met in New York—is that our collective knowledge about the functional activity and recruitment strategy of such entities is minimal. Beyond the sensationalist and propagandized accounts that we are fed through mainstream media channels, little factual knowledge is known about ISIS’ activities on the ground. We have very inconsistent and unreliable information about its social base, how it has made its military gains, the nature of the coalitions into which it has entered with various local tribes and political groups (Islamist and/or secular), or how it manages and administers the daily lives of millions of people residing in the territories it now controls.

At the same time, and concurrent with the markedly high levels of peaceful youthful participation in the Syrian uprisings since 2011, we see the simultaneous and rapid counterbalance of youth recruitment by the various combatant forces now vying for power inside the Levantine region. Those who have successfully recruited young people willing to traverse the continent for a fight reflect perhaps the most salient feature of terrorist mobilization occurring across the Middle East, namely, the notable presence of internationally sourced and exceptionally young combatants.

In recent months there has been much alarm about young Muslims joining Islamist oriented combatant groups in Iraq and Syria. That is the so called “foreign fighter” syndrome of unpaid militants with no direct link to the political substance of the conflict other than their religious affinity to Islam and, in some more specifically extreme cases, the foundation of the Islamic State. During the initial stages of the pro-democracy opposition movement in Syria in 2011, many foreign fighters are documented to have fought for the country’s originally secular oriented Free Syrian Army as well as other more radical and Islamist factions including the Sunni backed Jhabat al Nusra, known colloquially as “al Nusra Front”. While Western attention has focused on preventing and mitigating the conflict infiltration by transnational terrorist groups (such as, for example, the coalition in the US House of Representatives voting to authorize the training and arming of Syrian rebels to confront ISIS), disassociated and youthful foreign groups are continuing to infiltrate the conflict all the way from the Gulf Arab states, Northern Africa and other Arab states, Bosnia, China, Russia’s Chechnya and North Caucasus region, and even Western countries in Europe and the United States.

More challenging, however, is the rate and trajectory in which these young (typically, but not exclusively male) combatants purport to have been drawn to the vague ideology of radical violence. Estimates on the total saturation of young foreign fighters currently traveling as combatants across the region since the initiation of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 range from around 5,000 to over 10,000 combatants. Ostensibly, the international community’s capability to effectively differentiate between and intervene amongst the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ youthful rebel groups mobilized within the context of the situation vary broadly and, as such, our global leaders’ inclination to develop an actionable strategy to address it regrettably stagnates further.

Further demonstrating the scarcity in information regarding the identities of militants who fight for ISIS, most of what experts claim to know has been gleaned from the few unreliable resources available to them: recruitment videos and propaganda. Though the USA and its allies have asserted their plans to solve the problem by “eradicating the ideology of terror,” there is little tangible data on the backgrounds and motives of those individuals choosing to join the cause in the first place— especially the non-Western recruits it absorbed from Syria who actually form the bulk of ISIS’ fighting force. Instead, the European and US strategy of mere “ideology eradication” seems to have focused narrowly on pinpointing and stopping the recruitment pathway (estimated at 3,400 people per month through successful social media and online campaigns) rather than changing the orientation of the terror and threat based conversation as whole.

In the absence of clarity on this information, it is difficult to define and predict the actions of ISIS beyond the group’s self-representations. Coming out of +Social Good filled with positive endorphin induced inspiration to tackle even one of the most daunting challenges of our globe’s social stratosphere, we lament at least partially that older generations are continuing to treat the situation of youth combatant recruitment as an entirely novel problem. The next post here on The Global Present will look into the origin of the problem and propose an alternative viewpoint from the reflective eyes of some youth grappling with defining and fostering “Social Good.”

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A Post 2015 To Do List, Welcome back to +Social Good!

Lauren - vision for 2030 copy

+Social Good speakers Robi Demelin, Idris ELba, Tara Abrahams, and Jeff Martin discuss their vision for 2030.

“Young people should be at the forefront of global change and innovation. Empowered, they can be key agents for development and peace.”

-Kofi Annan

Checking in on the second morning of the 2014 +Social Good Summit immediately following an impromptu brainstorming session with the Blogger Fellow cohort facilitated by UNA-USA Executive Director Chris Whatley.

With the city abuzz in constant meetings, summits, and committees, one simply cannot walk into any discussion without the sometimes subtle but more often overt attention to the overarching objective of this year’s General Assembly.

Our leaders are gathered here in New York right now to collaborate in setting into motion a comprehensive post 2015 global development agenda. While most agree that about three of the eight original Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 have been achieved prior to the final deadline this month, the sentiment remains that progress and reporting on impact has been uneven within and across countries at a local level.

Interestingly enough, our leaders at the UN are still grappling with the foundational questions regarding the world’s post 2015 to do list. In fact, they even recently put out a survey to assist them in determining the issues that matter most to those most impacted by its activities.

This is what Chris Whatley calls “crowdsourcing sustainable development”….how #millennial!

In maintaining our thematic approach intended to open to discussion a conversation about solutions to the greatest challenges of our time, #2030NOW has united our diverse group of bloggers and participants at +Social Good in order to foster partnerships between those of us willing to accelerate progress and reach targets come 2030.

This is a massive task intensified by the nuanced complexities of global development priorities. Assuming that we can solve these problems in a few moments of discussion is injudicious at best.

In light of this, the blogger fellows took a few moments with Chris Whatley to solidify a clear list of items we see as key inflection points able to galvanized efforts. Find here our top items we want to see on the world’s post 2015 to do list:

  • Access to clean water and sanitation
  • Action on climate
  • Support for newborn health and further prevention of infant mortality
  • Technology expansion in education
  • Pressure for responsive governments
  • Mitigation of conflict and support for positive peace
  • Transparent communications pathways for impact reporting
  • Youth leadership and engagement

As practiced policy wonks, it comes as no surprise that our goals line up nearly identically to that of the UN’s (at least thus far). What I found most important though, is the renowned consensus for a commitment to fortify our youth leaders.

In recognition that young people have managed to creativity become more involved and informed about the topics that matter most to them, there remains a need to come up with a unified strategy to engage young people. Many of the above referenced challenges will be confronted by this young generation. Nevertheless, there is still an insufficient attempt to proportionately have a youth voice here in New York.

One such correlated example is the precedent we are setting forth as a young force for “social good” (more on what that means to come). Beyond the traditional self-gratifying “slacktivist” approach to engagement (i.e. live tweeting high-level events like the +Social Good Summit), we spent the morning founding a list of easily digestible and actionable items required for imitating a movement for change on the complex issues that define our generation.

The first step is to eliminate dilatory language. US Under Sec. of State Richard Stengel demanded the audience at +Social Good to refer to youth as the present, not the future. Though we haven’t resolved world hunger, transformed a conflict, or stopped environmental degradation, we do have our own “To Do” list and there is much more of that to come…perhaps even today.

Emily Herrick graphic1 stop copy

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#2030Now United Nations Foundation +Social Good Summit

Greetings from New York City’s 92Y‘s world-class cultural and community center!

SGS 2014 Share Graphic 4

Get a glimpse at the conversation that will change the world: #2030Now #SocialGood

As many of you know, this week marks the commencement of the 2014 UN General Assembly in New York. I am excited to announce I am spending a hectic two days reporting to you live as a Blogger Fellow and participant at the UNA-USA sponsored +Social Good Summit!

The Social Good Summit is a two-day conference examining the impact of technology and new media on social good initiatives around the world. Partnered with Mashable and the United Nations Foundation (amongst many other influential platforms), the Social Good Summit unites a dynamic community of global leaders and grassroots activists to discuss solutions for some of the greatest challenges of our time.

Coming up on the culminating anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals, this year’s UN week is shaping up to be one of the most historic to date. From terrorizing violence, health epidemics, and the much-deserved attention on global climate change, it is safe to say that the world’s top-level diplomatic leaders have their hands full. Adding to that the overtures to address the post UN-MDG situation as an institution, the stress level on the East Side of Manhattan is certainly intense.

The genesis of the summit circulates around the theme #2030NOW and asks the question, “What type of world do I want to live in by the year 2030?”

But really, I must ask …. what is social good?

On that note, I am grappling with the potential prescriptions I can offer in my response to this question. Considering the oftentimes pessimistic tone staining the post MDG conversation, it seems time to consider the growing sense of change in the air here in New York. Our leaders have since begun to realize that their constituencies are looking to shift their focus away from the proliferation of crisis towards strategic solutions. The data show that, though perhaps bumpy at times, the pathway towards sustainable peace is widening.

Going into my experience at the +Social Good Summit as a young and often times exuberant voice for youth leadership in the pursuit of peaceful resolutions to conflict, it seems finally apparent that some of the most influential institutions in the world have finally come to the realization that the time is ripe to open a dialogue about the ways in which young people. This is the most “connected” generation in human history and we can act as catalysts to unlock the potential of technology to make the world a better place.

During the Social Good Summit, our UNA_USA cohort will be blogging and engaging through social media to address some of these seemingly boundless questions. Some common perspectives will surely circulate around the topics of gender and female empowerment, progress in the pursuit toward sustainable social development and humanitarian support, innovations for combating violence, and, more broadly, communication the notion of social good.

Granted the challenge ahead, my goal moving forward is simple: reach out to (in whichever way possible) those who can offer defining examples and actionable approaches for our collaborative effort towards establishing social good.

Please be sure to follow me and UNA-USA on Twitter and Facebook for updates. You can pose questions, attend a local meet up, and watch the summit live via web-link. Also be sure to check in here for regular reflections, musings, and direct insights from the leaders themselves!

Livestream available here:

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April 6th…20 Years Later

On this day 20 years ago began one of the worst atrocities the world has ever witnessed.  While a single event acted as if a switch was flipped to start the genocide, there were many things leading up to April 6, 1994 that paved the way for a nearly countywide policy to exterminate fellow countrymen.  Today, and for the next 100 days we remember those who died. And we stand with their families, their loved ones, and their friends.  But while we remember we must also look to the present and the future.  We must take the harsh lessons that Rwanda taught us and put them to use.  We must not say “never again” while we habitually fail again and again. Still, to this day, 20 years since Rwanda, the prevention and mitigation of episodes of mass atrocities and genocide are not a priority for the world.

While more needs to be done for the international community to be able to respond better in the face of horrific events, we must also look to affect real, lasting and sustainable change domestically around the world so that mass atrocities and genocide are never a possibility. Ending genocide and mass atrocities is both an external and an internal struggle. 

Externally we need to be better able to assist in capacity building, education, reconciliation, and support.  We need to be able to stand up for those who may otherwise be unable to and we need to speak truth to power to those who would seek to exploit or exterminate others.  Internally we need to look to our own actions, our own issues, and behaviors.  The only way genocide and mass atrocities are able to occur is if people are willing to carry them out.  People like you and me, just people.  So long as the voices and actions of those who seek to profess hate and do harm are louder and more forceful than those who extol compassion and kindness, we will never achieve “never again”.  For never again to be a reality, for genocide and mass atrocities to be something that kids only learn about in history class instead of from first hand experiences, we have to take it upon ourselves to write our own future.  

Today on the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda I ask you to think about the world 20 years from now. Will we be commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and looking at comparisons to other places fraught with genocide and mass atrocities as we do today in places like CAR, Syria, and South Sudan? Or will we be commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and celebrating a shorter but equally meaningful anniversary of the last instance of genocide or mass atrocities? I sincerely hope for myself and for my children that it is the latter. 

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Lets Hear it for the Girls! Contextualizing female leadership in conflict transformation


In honor of celebrating International Women’s Day this year, let us reflect on the status of women across the world. Considering the pedagogical debate playing out between the various feminoti (i.e. those currently embroiled in a spate over whether modern women should be leaning in, reclining, or throwing in the towel altogether), it appears necessary to step back and reflect on the emblematic resilience women have demonstrated in the face of such adversity.

Whilst many self-proclaimed feminists from the likes of Anne-Marie Slaughter to Beyoncé vehemently support the increasing volume of media attention concerned with female equality and leadership—a non-existent conversation as little as five years ago—the primary paradox inherent to these so called “mommy wars”  is the misplaced attention to equity in defining female empowerment for ALL females.

A year since Sheryl Sandberg urged women to “Lean In,” Rosa Brooks has equally fought for women to “Recline.” In the fields of conflict transformation and international development, both points miss the mark. Regardless of how modern executive women and girls perceive themselves in terms of leadership, it remains that the majority of the globe’s females have dispelled little effort in contemplating their new found “empowerment” as a reference point for the broader social evolution of their communities. As of right now, and coinciding with 2014 International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8th, women make up nearly 70 percent of the world’s absolute poor where those aged 14 to 44 are as likely to die from violence as from cancer.

At the turn of the century, concerned with the specific needs of adolescent girls, all 189 UN member states and at least 23 international organizations pledged to help achieve a greater commitment toward addressing a series of measurable health and economic livelihoods indicators by the year 2015. Set up by the Millennium Development Committee, The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) defined a new set of global targets to promote mainstreaming gender equality. They have since recognized that equality in expenditure for adolescent females can be a central driver of development success or, the lack thereof, a symptom of its failure. As such, the inclusion of socially marginalized groups like women and girls has spearheaded the conversation of effective programming for inclusive development and peacebuilding efforts across many regions. After years of planning and progression, the human rights and conflict transformation fields have also arrived at a pivotal moment: there is now documented proof that female education, engagement, and leadership has had tangible benefits for transitional communities. Billions of dollars have been funneled into aid agencies over the past fifteen years whose programs have strived to elicit female leadership in order to both meet the targets set up by the MDGs and to promote women’s leadership rights in the face of conflict.

Much to their chagrin, and in defiance of well-researched econometric projections for development in transitional states, many countries will not come close to meeting the targets of the MDGs before 2015. The general understanding of the criteria for evaluating the impact of the MDG on female empowerment remains nebulous and its’ generalizable results are largely mixed. Questions surrounding the returns to scale of such statistical findings indicate the large amount of work still to be done within the field of targeted programming for the most marginalized young female individuals.

Well founded as it is, one should always maintain a critical eye to the ways in which terms are defined. In projecting the conversation of female leadership to a globalized audience (as one should be doing on IWD), is there really any universally exemplified version of female leadership? How much crossover is there between this concept as expressed up by a high-status American CEO to that of young female leading oppositional uprisings in a conflict affected state like Syria? Perhaps very much but, the crux of this philosophical war on, between, within, and among women leaders has yet to address it.

IWD commemorations range from general jubilant celebrations of respect, appreciation, and love towards women to a much more contextualized acknowledgement for the economic, political, and social achievement of females. In order to shed some light on the actual lived experiences of contemporary women striving as leaders across the globe’s diverse communities, we must attune our critic’s eye to the received narratives of power, privilege, and exceptionalism amongst women. We must learn and respect how these factors are what actually impact the many ways in which we can talk about women leading change across the world. This is all even before tackling misogyny and patrimony!


The question here is: does it even matter? Taking the exceptional case of women’s leadership in combat such as Syria’s all-female battalion fighting on the front line against President Assad’s government forces, how does one define contemporary feminist ideals of leadership alongside the more radical activities of females making do with what they have inside the lifecycle of protracted hostilities?

In charting a way forward after 2015, it is clear that women and girls must be more clearly classified as valuable stakeholders. Though statistically better off than their mothers and grandmothers because of investments in poverty alleviation, health, and education, much of the world’s female population continue to live in insecure environments. The definitional terms and identities as well as the challenges and barriers to their overall level of civic engagement operate within larger socio-political contexts beyond that of singular individuals. Their experiences are unique and they should be classified in light of their environment and the differences in needs they have from other minority populations. Unfortunately, the overall impact of the MDGs has been exploiting attention to young impoverished females as marginalized and incapacitated victims. Such assumptions are made worse by policies that exist inside toxic social contexts where young women are subjugated to other serious problems like sexism. These issues are exacerbated by the fact that traditional peacebuilding and development programs rarely address the diversity of ways in which females deal with the challenges that impede their activities.

Power and privilege in civic participation is often granted on the basis of identity; structural inequalities are linked to collective narratives and are also considered to be a starting point for a large portion of organizing and civic engagement activity. Female identities are not monolithic. Young men and women experience differences in equity impacted by their daily environment. They are a diverse group whose dissimilarities and commonalities often reflect the societies and communities in which they thrive. An individual’s quality of life is likely shaped by a multitude of factors including, but not limited by, gender.

Because they tend to be lumped together with other marginalized groups, organically established female leaders and social entrepreneurs are oftentimes snubbed in peacebuilding and diplomacy efforts. Recent measures of increased participation of young women in education and the workforce have demonstrated the existence of new patterns and opportunities for some. However, old patterns of gender division and new developments in gendered patterns are only a snapshot of change.

In making the case for female empowerment during the initiative activities of the MDG committee back in the year 2000, there were no Sheryl Sandberg and Rosa Brooks quarreling over nonsensical definitions of leadership. Today, global leaders have come to the realization that, for one thing, the MDGs must be reissued in terms of feasibility and, therefore, the targets must incorporate the constrictions that civil conflict and war have had on socio-economic development. Though it is highly unlikely that female combatants, political leaders, and business entrepreneurs making strides in the developing world have read anything of the “mommy wars” (occupied themselves with wars of their own), the data show that effective female engagement is a recipe for success. Young girls must be considered throughout project cycles. Understanding girls not as a homogeneous group, but as a diverse population with many needs and issues related to their age and environments depend on the project’s management.


While the impetus of Sandberg’s social movement here is in 1) broadly addressing the various socio-structural roadblocks preventing the meaningful participation of women as leaders and 2) justifying that females can and do manage multiple career and family oriented identities (mother, executive, community organizer, etc), her concepts extend only to those aspirational identities assigned to westernized wealthy women climbing upwardly mobile career trajectories.

Considering this, and in order to implement sustainable peacebuilding plans, perhaps we should first parse out what female leadership even looks like. A mammoth endeavor as it seems, rest assured that it may not be as complex as our assumptive blinders lead us to believe. While the “leaners” and “recliners” spend time debating the level of time, space, and energy women should and should not employ within social spheres typically designated to men, women all over the world are actively addressing adversity, defiantly breaking down archaic and patriarchal social expectations, and collectively organizing to stand up against injustice.

While countless causal factors continue to undermine womens’ ability and inspiration to participate in conflict and/or its resolution, the core take away here is that women are not affected any more negatively by conflict than men. Both Sandberg and Brooks would agree that we should not build up our definition of female leadership in terms of vulnerability and weakness; regardless of gender, females can and do empower themselves to address adversity in their lives.

Adding to that the dimension of protracted civil conflict, development initiatives and international aid aside, our prescriptions for ‘solving’ the issue of female empowerment need to first address the lived experience of females, the perceived narratives and capabilities they already retain, and how we can turn the global conversation away from impractical examinations of “How to Balance the Work/Life Nexus” to, “What can we learn from the resiliency of females in the face of adversity?”

 (Images: Getty Images launched the “Lean In Collection” in partnership, featuring more than 2,500 photos of female leadership in contemporary work and life)

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Cloudy With a Chance of Drones: The Case for US Government Transparency

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States government – under two different administrations – considers itself at war with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their “associated forces.” In a speech to the National Defense University in May 2013, President Barack Obama maintained that this war has been “waged proportionately, in last resort, and in self-defense.” That statement is debatable, especially considering the surge in covert drone strikes ordered by the Obama administration over the last six years. Human rights and legal arguments revolve around accountability, methodology, transparency, and legitimacy, including the ability of the United States government to target individuals outside its borders and carry out attacks through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) rather than the Armed Forces.

A significant issue with drone strikes and covert action is the legality of attacks on groups or individuals outside US sovereignty. Without a direct declaration of war, the President cannot maintain ongoing military action. But since the Bush and Obama administrations have declared war on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated terrorist elements, actions taken against these groups are considered acts of war and therefore legal under US law. The Congressional directive used by the Obama administration to domestically justify the drone program is the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), a joint resolution passed by Congress on September 18, 2001. After September 11, Congress authorized the use of force against these organizations, and thus actions undertaken by Presidents Bush and Obama are seen as aspects of a legal war, albeit waged across continents and decades.

Legal scholars debate the finer points of US code and constitutional powers, and the difference between requirements for military force and covert action complicates the discussion. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 (50 U.S.C. 1541-1548) requires the President to consult with Congress on deployment of US Armed Forces “in every possible instance,” and to end combat in foreign territory after 60 to 90 days unless Congress approves further action. As a covert operations organization, the CIA is not subject to the same types of disclosure regulations as the military. According to its mandate, the CIA is exempt from public disclosure and publication of its functions, official titles, names of personnel, and other aspects of its operation. This presents issues for the reporting of lethal force, as the regulations focus on the Armed Forces and official military operations rather than covert programs.

Congressional committees such as the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee are supposed to receive updates and briefings on military action and operations around the world, but in the case of drone strikes these groups find their requests for information repeatedly brushed aside by the Obama administration. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations writes extensively about drone strikes, and in January 2013 authored a report on “Reforming US Drone Strike Policy.” He covered Congressional reporting in this way:

Congressional oversight of drone strikes varies depending on whether the CIA or the US military is the lead executive authority… According to senior staff members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, many of their peers have little understanding of how drone strikes are conducted within the countries for which they are responsible for exercising oversight. Even serving White House officials and members of Congress repeatedly make inaccurate statements about US targeted killings and appear to be unaware of how policies have changed over the past decade. At the same time, the judiciary committees have been repeatedly denied access to the June 2010 Office of Legal Counsel memorandum that presented the legal basis for the drone strike that killed US citizen and alleged leader of AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011. Finally, despite nearly ten years of non-battlefield targeted killings, no congressional committee has conducted a hearing on any aspect of them.

In May 2013, the White House released a summary of a classified Presidential Policy Guidance regarding the criteria necessary for the use of lethal force, in which the President shared aspects of “the Administration’s rigorous process for reviewing and approving operations to capture or employ lethal force against terrorist targets outside the United States” so that the American public “can make informed judgments and hold the Executive Branch accountable.” Included in the summary document were presidential guarantees that Congress would continue to be informed of relevant updates on counterterrorism efforts. The attempt at transparency still left many questions about the nature of the drone operations program, and continued administration redirection to previous speeches by President Obama, former White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, and others contribute to the cycle of secrecy surrounding the program.

Government transparency is a key feature of a democracy and a system based on the rule of law. Democracy’s very foundation is based upon the accountability and responsibility of the government to the people who vote its officials into power. A democratic system of governance is intended to protect the rights and interests of all citizens, especially minorities. The famous words of President Lincoln from the Gettysburg Address – “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – elegantly describe a system of rule where elected officials must abide by the interests and desires of the people over whom they exercise authority. Transparency is not only in the interest of human rights promotion, but also in the national interest of the US government.

The main arguments for government transparency on the use of lethal force are:

  • Protecting civilians: Transparency in drone strikes, covert action, and other uses of lethal force outside the borders of the United States would clarify that the US government is upholding domestic and international standards of human rights law. In its recent report regarding the strike on a Yemeni wedding convoy, Human Rights Watch encourages the US to disclose the processes and nature of drone strikes in order to verify that it is doing everything in its power to minimize civilian casualties. Amnesty International also conveys the need for government transparency to ensure that the right to life of all people is being respected. While many Obama administration officials, including the President himself, have assured the American public and the international community that stringent criteria are followed in the process of conducting drone strikes, the actual nature of this process is not revealed, and therefore cannot be verified by non-administration sources.

  • Upholding domestic and international human rights and humanitarian law: In conjunction with the protection of civilians, transparency about the use of lethal force will ensure that the US government is operating in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law about proportionate attacks. Under international human rights law, individuals cannot be targeted for past illegal behavior, but rather only if they pose an imminent threat. If the US government were to disclose the methods of drone strikes, it would be clear whether the process follows these human rights considerations. The Obama administration holds that its operations are legal under domestic law because the US is at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates, but increased transparency would clarify whether the operations are also legal under international human rights law.

  • Maintaining credibility of the US government: Ongoing covert actions and the use of lethal force without adequate reporting and accountability only serve to weaken the credibility of the US government, on both the national and international arenas. Amnesty International argues that the questionable methods of drone strikes and the secrecy surrounding the program undermine the US government’s reputation as a human rights advocate, sets a dangerous precedent that other governments could follow, and the idea of the “global war” legal argument could undermine the international institutional framework of human rights law that the US purports to protect. Not only does the practice of secret drone strikes undermine US credibility, but arguably strengthens targeted enemies by fostering deep resentment toward the United States among affected populations. Kenneth Anderson of the Brookings Institution and Washington College of Law, American University, wrote in The Washington Post that it “undermines public trust to have a democratic government say that it’s not lying to the public, not technically lying, merely because it refuses comment.” Similarly, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) contends that the “administration shouldn’t be permitted to pretend that everything about the program is a secret while its most senior officials conduct a public relations campaign about it.” Therefore, the Obama administration should increase transparency of its lethal force programs in order to strengthen the national security of the US, as well as promote a more positive reputation at home and abroad.

  • Bringing government actions in line with previous statements by the administration: Finally, the Obama administration should increase transparency of its lethal force operations in order to bring its actions in line with previous statements. Remarks by former counterterrorism advisor John Brennan in April 2012, the President’s speech in May 2013 to the National Defense University, and the Presidential Policy Guidance the same month all suggested an increase in transparency and rigorous criteria for carrying out drone strikes. But, as previously described, the actual process of transparency has not been carried out. Congressional committees have not received full briefings or accounts of practices, and the administration and CIA have avoided acknowledging participation in drone strikes or unintentional consequences of such strikes. President Obama made the case for government transparency himself, in an open memorandum titled, “Transparency and Open Government,” arguing that government should be transparent and participatory because “transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing,” since “public engagement enhances Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.” President Obama should work to bring the actions of the US government into line with his administration’s stated commitments to transparency and accountability.

The US is at risk of being left behind by the rest of the world, and losing its position as a respected advocate for democracy and human rights. A recent report released by Ben Emmerson, UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, found 30 drone strike cases where additional information is needed. Emmerson writes, “in any case in which there have been, or appear to have been, civilian casualties that were not anticipated when the attack was planned, the State responsible is under an obligation to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation of the results.” President Obama has the opportunity to provide information about these strikes identified by Emmerson, and in doing so would bring US government practices in line with international human rights and humanitarian law. The President should act to increase transparency on drone strikes before the image of the US is degraded any further.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Fleeting Hope for the CAR


(Photo Credits: Deutsche Welle; UN Photo/Mark Garten; Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

The announcement by the Secretary-General that the situation in the Central African Republic has descended into an organized state of chaos forbodes a chilling near-term future for the perennially-struggling African nation. What we are seeing, those of us who have looked beyond the ‘CNN factor’ of CAR’s news being drowned out by talk of the Olympics in Sochi, the situation in Syria, the Iran nuclear negotiations, and even the catastrophic ice storm (a hyperbole conflagrating a weather emergency to mass atrocities), is that the international community has yet again failed to live up to the motto of ‘never again’ and has resigned itself to a more passive statement of ‘oh, not again.’

What is so depressing about the situation is that every actor involved resides somewhere on the scale of bad to most bad. For starters, take the news of the first female president of the CAR assuming office, a feat many Western nations have yet to accomplish. Under normal circumstances, this laudable news marks a step along the road to greater gender parity among the upper echelons of global power. However, even this, the ‘good’ among the titular portion of this article, cannot be received with much enthusiasm when placed against the backdrop of poor institutional capacity among the CAR’s governing bodies, lack of regional buy-in to the presidency of a heretofore municipal leader, and a general lack of rule of law or even unified legitimate force.

Even if Catherine Samba-Panza were to unite all of the disparate forces once comprising the armed group that removed Bozize from power, she would still be confronted by the massive Disarmament Demobilization Reintegration/Security Sector Reform effort needed to transform the militia into an effective rule of law force. Not to mention she would also have to face down the deep division between Christians and Muslims now sowed in the country by the series of retributive attacks. Only transforming one side of the conflict would also run the risk of alienating the now frighteningly effective ‘anti-balaka’ armed groups.

If she and her team were to adopt the more realistic thinking of systems-based governance, she would also have to address the recurring water crisis her country faced even before this current political and military catastrophe (used in the more literal sense of the word here). To complicate the resource problems, the flight of many of the Muslim communities also means an evacuation of many of the food trading routes which have fed her country, leading to what many are stating as an impending food crisis. Additionally, Samba-Panza would need to adopt economic reforms to complete infrastructure projects to make the western and eastern portions of the CAR more interconnected and to create more jobs for her citizens, most importantly for the former soldiers she is trying to reintegrate. As national employment opportunities had been scant prior to the conflict, Samba-Panza has the even tougher job of building new sectors for the economic future to take hold. Last, but most definitely on even footing with the other reforms and programs mentioned here, a robust national system of justice, reconciliation, and trauma healing is needed, especially if she is to keep to her word of making the atrocity perpetrators answer for their actions. These are all very big ‘if’s’ for a regime which is seemingly crippled from the start.

Now for the ‘bad.’ An alarming number of reports and photojournalists’ catalogues have demonstrated that the international community, to date represented by the presence of French troops and a small African peacekeeping force, has been ineffective at stopping the commission of acts of violence, even with what could be deemed as a ‘robust’ footprint already established. It is possible to attribute the limited abilities of the intervention force to the small mandate permitted by the deploying governments and the hesitancy of the UN to use any proactive force outside of the DRC. But this begs the question: if we are able to fully recognize the looming and already committed atrocities, why are those who are responsible to act under the Responsibility to Protect (Pillar III, if you please) acting as if they are helpless bystanders? The distaste for intervention left by Libya has perhaps ruined for the near future any hope of robust international action, in crises like Syria and the CAR. One of the actionable items advanced by R2P-advocates is that UN Security Council members must forgo the use of the veto in the face of atrocities. It is important that Council members adopt this policy so that an organized international response can be put into effect.

What is truly ugly about the situation is that despite the lack of a central authority to command a civilian mobilization toward atrocity-level violence, a sort of ‘grassroots organized horror’ has taken hold. With the intercommunal perception of existential threats by Christians and Muslims alike, the country has organized into pockets of interreligious cleansing, with the result that any reported figure of the actual death tolls are best guesses. Indeed, the Secretary-General has indicated that the future of the country may default into a religious/political partition of the country, partially in response to the mass exodus of Muslim refugees into neighboring countries like Chad and Cameroon. As a solution to a crisis, a potential partition of the country may be the best of the worst options, as the country has not historically been cleanly halved. It is not as if the west or east, north or south could be clearly delineated, with Bangui and say Bossangoa or N’Délé serving as the prospective capitals. Indeed, the reason some of the violence has been so striking is that neighbors have turned on neighbor, and survivors know who exactly killed their loved ones. Christians and Muslims, while pocketed in cities, live alongside each other, and have peacefully coexisted until the mainly Muslim Seleka fighters began fomenting interreligious resentment.

The mobilization of anti-balaka Christian communities into organized ethnic cleansing units portends a calamitous future for the Central African Republic. If the international community is to heed their own creed of never letting an atrocious situation occur again on the scale of what happened in the 1990s, it must read the warning signs as they are and imbue its peacekeeping force with the operational ability to quell intercommunal violence, in essence, a proactive force mandate. Under the current mandate, which could otherwise be seen as extensive, troops are tasked with the protection of civilians, stabilization, and security sector issues. It is obvious that the mandate is not sufficient. Greater intervention seems to be needed, through such actions like implementing a municipal curfew in order to lock down certain corridors for violence and confiscation of weapons of mass atrocities like machetes and small arms.

Of course, greater action on the part of the intervention force also requires a larger troop contribution, something unlikely given the current international political climate. Even then, it is uncertain that at this stage in the evolution of these atrocities that simply a larger force with an expanded mandate will be sufficient. The only hopeful news is that the presidential mission to increase national security institutionalization by Samba-Panza will accompanying a crackdown on communal violence which is driven by organized militias will bolster the international force’s ability to provide CAR citizens with a sense of security – a feat which would go a long way to discouraging the shared sense that violence is the only recourse to survival. In keeping with the motif, truly ‘a few dollars more’ is all that is needed to greatly affect the outcome of the crisis (of course, the dollar figure is more along the lines of millions and represents strong commitments to a large, stabilizing force on the ground and substantial support to the fledgling national government, but please forgive this particular artistic license). When faced with the knowledge that such a gruesome result waits at the other end of this particular rabbit hole, the more appropriate question is: how can we afford not to act?

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South Sudan Discussion

There has been some recent developments on the violence in South Sudan that began December 15th of last year.  A nascent ceasefire deal was signed which both sides claimed was almost immediately violated and on January 29th the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) released seven of the eleven detainees with four remaining in custody.  Mixed messages from the GOSS on the fate of the remaining four detainees range from “will definitely be released” to facing trial for treason. The release of the detainees can be seen as a gesture of good faith and an adherence to the deal that was struck in Addis as a part of the ceasefire negotiations.  However, the GOSS’s decision to hold onto four of the detainees and potentially charge them with treason could derail the entire peace process.

In light of these recent developments and ongoing speculations on what the future of South Sudan will look like, contributors to The Global Present (Ian, Mike, and Shayna) have gotten together for a conversation on the issues.

Ian Proctor: It certainly is hard to determine what to make of the situation in South Sudan. It seems that the adage of “out of the frying pan, into the fire” surfaces. We get a Cessation of Hostilities (CoH), residual criminal violence still plagues the collections of IDPs. A formal declaration to the end of the armed conflict is reached, the state decides that it will seek to imprison and try Machar as the coup leader while seeking to negotiate with him. Deeper still, latent social rifts among the population of South Sudan, namely the political divisions along ethnic lines, threaten to undermine the supposed negative peace sought after by the leaders on each side. I’m doubtful, as most are, that a lasting cessation to the violence will stick without some deeper societal transformations.

Mike Brand: It’s really disconcerting as Ian says. Another major piece of this puzzle is Uganda’s role.  Uganda has had a number of troops in South Sudan as well as heavy air support (helicopters and planes) available for bombing during the campaigns to take back the town of Bor.  Reports from the Small Arms Survey state that less than 20% of the troops that took back Bor from the rebels on the 16th of January were from the SPLA.  The rest were Ugandan troops. Similarly external forces were used to push back into Malakal with support from the SPLM-N, the same group that Kiir recently pledged to cease supporting in a series of talks and deals with Bashir. One has to wonder, if Uganda eventually fully pulls out of South Sudan due to external pressure from the region and the larger international community, if Kiir’s forces can hold onto key points within South Sudan if the peace process goes sideways and the rebels decide to return to violence.

Shayna McCready: Another fundamental aspect of this protracted situation is the often complex roles managed across the international community’s leading authorities. While the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) treads the delicate diplomatic/humanitarian role in facilitating ceasefire agreements whilst fulfilling its Chapter VII mandate, it must also maintain functionality in appeasing the GOSS (in order to potentially set the seeds for future dialogue and conflict transformation). Similar to many civil conflicts erupting across the globe where millions experience increasing levels of violence and forced displacement, we’ve seemed to reach the chicken or the egg ultimatum: to primarily support social infrastructure to rebuild fractured governance or to immediately focus attention on fulfilling their moral role in alleviating humanitarian needs for civilians and noncombatants suffering amidst the strife. Severely limited by its mandate, there is obvious danger in devolving away from the need to support the government AND simultaneously positively engage without endorsing the opposition. Following last week’s ceasefire and today’s news that Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin has announced the release of the remaining detainees in time to join scheduled peace talks on Feb. 7, perhaps one can argue, at least hypothetically, that the mechanisms of Track I diplomacy are suddenly on the move. Therefore, if we want to really hone in on addressing the core issues of this conflict, it is time to meaningfully engage with civilians and combatants experiencing the pure dynamics of this conflict on the ground and in real time.

Ian Proctor: There is no denying the regional implications here Mike. Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, two days ago granted asylum to seven of the leaders of Machar’s counter-movement and armed opposition. More and more, the international community embodied in the UN and its components has devolved responsibility to regional organizations like the EU, AU, and ASEAN to tend to crises within their areas of oversight. Partially, this is due to the international financial atmosphere, causing regions to turn their security sights to situations closer to their borders, an inward-looking view strategically adopted by policy experts for those organizations. Shayna raises an interesting point as well. Accompanying the Track I diplomacy should be Track II efforts to bring civil society actors into the peace-making and -building fold. My question would be: is there sufficient civil society development to absorb the responsibilities for longer-term structural change?

Shayna McCready: Interesting to note, at a recent UN special event in New York running up to April’s 20th anniversary commemorating the 1994 Rwandan genocide, attendees committed to understanding and acting on the early warning of mass atrocities. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson emphasized the fulcrum of humanitarian crisis in stating that,  “the demonization […] of people of different faiths or ethnic belonging is one of the most toxic deeds of which human beings are capable. It undermines the fundamental principle that must lie at the heart of human interaction – and in fact of the United Nations – the incontrovertible truth of every human being’s equal value”. In trying times such as these, I wonder how many South Sudanese civilians interpret UN rhetoric from local action? More specifically, how do they evaluate their referenced human value within their  capacity to engage in the necessary Track II approaches to conflict transformation? 

Mike Brand: Wow, there are a lot of good points to weigh in on. Ian you definitely made some good points about the ethnic divisions and social rifts within South Sudanese society. And Shayna and Ian both mentioned some important points about Track I and Track II diplomacy and how the peace effort should be carried forward as well as the role that UNMISS should be playing.  Looking at the way the conflict has evolved and has drifted towards divisions along not only political but also ethnic lines further reiterates the social divisions and fissures that were never addressed during the last peace negotiations through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and independence which I spoke about briefly in an earlier post. It’s definitely something that needs to be addressed if there is to be a lasting peace in South Sudan and civil society, and by this I do not mean just NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) but local community based organizations (CBOs) as well as religious groups, women’s groups, youth groups, community leaders, etc.).  Many of these groups are not registered nor do they have the same sort of standing that a larger recognized NGO would but they are still hugely important to the conversation and have a lot of buy-in and influence within the population in various regions. So I would say beyond Track I and Track II efforts there should be a wider reaching multi-track effort that is pursued in the effort to create a nationwide dialogue which various experts have also called for.

Moving to Shayna’s point about UNMISS’s role; it’s definitely a big question. Some have been praising UNMISS for their quick reaction to allow for civilians to take shelter in their compounds and actually provide protection to the civilians. However, others have criticized the peacekeeping mission for not going beyond their compounds to protect civilians outside of their fences. Something that is within their Chapter VII mandate but perhaps is beyond their capabilities with limited troops, munitions, and logistical capabilities.  Another point about their role that is quite interesting is that the Cessation of Hostilities (COH) that was signed by the GOSS and the rebels outlined that the Monitoring and Verification Team (MVT) who would monitor the COH’s implementation would not include UNMISS.  Leaving them outside of the process for monitoring the ceasefire in the country is an interesting move and outside what many DPKO missions are tasked with doing.  It remains to be seen exactly who will make up the monitoring team and how that will work but it should be interesting to see how effective they are at monitoring the COH if it is implemented. Lastly on UNMISS, Salva Kiir, and other members of his government, have recently had some very inflammatory remarks about the UN and the UNMISS mission.  Some of the most antagonistic rhetoric came from South Sudan’s Information Ministry spokesman John Kelei when he said, “We are not just at war against Riek Machar’s rebels but also the U.N.”

Ian, to your point about Kenyatta and the detainees the big question now remains whether or not they will be able to play a role in the further negotiations and peace talks as well as the status of the remaining detainees still in South Sudan.

The Global Present:

The situation in South Sudan is quite bleak at the moment. However, it does not have to remain that way.  There will be a lot of developments in the coming months and The Global Present will remain active in commenting on the situation as it evolves.

Thank you to the contributors who participated in this discussion forum.  The Global Present will post more discussions like this periodically on important world events and issues. Have a question or comment for our contributors? Join the discussion and leave a comment below.   


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Cessation of Hostilities Signed but What Does Peace Look Like for South Sudan?

South Sudan President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar. Photo Credit: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters; Mike Segar/Reuters

The Government of South Sudan (GOSS) and the rebels led by former vice-president Riek Machar have reportedly signed a cessation of hostilities (COH) Thursday that should bring the violence to an end within 24 hours.  Whether or not the COH can be implemented due to the serious command and control issues on both sides of the violence—especially the rebels which are not one unified force—remains to be seen.  If the COH agreement holds it will bring an end to fighting that has displaced more than 400,000 individuals from their homes and caused the deaths of anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 (or more) people since fighting first broke out on December 15th of last year.

What seems to have started as a dispute between members of the presidential guard (which may or may not have been along ethnic lines) quickly spiraled out of control amidst the backdrop of rising ethno/political tensions in the fledgling country.  While never fully stable, South Sudan had recently seen an increase in political strife.  The political tensions came to a head when, in July of last year, President Kiir dismissed his entire cabinet including his vice president Riek Machar, throwing the barely functioning government into further disarray.  Some feared then that the tensions within the party could lead to a tense standoff between the two major ethnic groups (the Dinka and the Nuer) in South Sudan, of which Kiir and Machar belong to (respectively).  Others specifically warned that if the crisis goes unaddressed it could very well “spiral into a full-blown catastrophe.” Apparently those warnings have fallen on deaf ears.

The initial outbreak of violence was erroneously reported as a coup attempt. However, in the days since, it spurred not only open rebellion but also vast ethnic violence.  Seeming to be grabbing at the opportunity, as opposed to a well thought out plan, Machar took the lead on the rebellion and with that leadership came a level of ethnic division between the conflict parties.  The rebellion was not made up of one unified fighting force but instead was an amalgamation of defected SPLM soldiers and other militia groups like the now almost infamous White Army who reportedly has been conscripting child soldiers amongst their ranks.

During the fighting ethnic tensions were further exacerbated.  With numerous reports of killings and other atrocities being committed by both sides the rebellion quickly spiraled out of control and was on the verge of sparking a countrywide ethnic conflict.  In an interview with the BBC, Ivan Simonovic the United Nations’ Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, after visiting South Sudan on a fact finding mission, said that there were reports of “mass killings, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, widespread destruction and looting of property and use of the children in conflict.”

The COH agreement that was negotiated in Addis Ababa under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) was an exclusive process with only the top tier ‘big guns’ represented; exactly the opposite kind of peace negotiation that activists like me and others have called for repeatedly.  Choosing to exclude the voices of civil society and religious leaders from the process is a step in the wrong direction.  And while this was only the first in what will likely be a long process, a more inclusive approach could have been taken.

The good and bad news is that the COH is just the beginning.  A lot more work will need to be done before South Sudan is at peace but a peace process can be successful if the right measures are taken. Moving forward, it must be recognized that a ‘quick and dirty’ peace deal with only the top actors will not solve South Sudan’s woes.  Worse, it could send the wrong message to other factions that the way to achieving power is to stage a rebellion and force the government into a power sharing deal—one needs only to look at the Central African Republic’s history for a lesson in what not to do. If the two parties and the negotiators think that a simple power sharing arrangement is going to solve the issues plaguing South Sudan they are sorely mistaken.  A power sharing deal already existed…that’s what led to President Kiir and Riek Machar to be united in governing South Sudan after secession.  One cannot even imagine what creating a ‘government of national unity’ now would look like, not to mention the inherent irony that would be attached to such a government.

Moving Forward:

So what should be done?  While the road to peace in South Sudan will be long and bumpy (not unlike many of the ‘roads’ in South Sudan) peace can be achieved only if the process is inclusive.  A concerted effort needs to be made by all parties—on the ground and internationally—to include civil society and the South Sudanese people’s voices in the process.  There are a lot of unresolved issues that never were addressed internally during the endeavor of creating a new nation.  These issues need to be addressed. The South Sudanese people were fractionalized before, during, and after secession.  Efforts to unify the people should be undertaken.

Accountability for human rights abuses committed during the violence must be sought on both sides. Blanket amnesties, inclusions of former rebels into the SPLA (the government’s military), and giving rebel commanders the rank of general is not the solution. A plan and path toward reconciliation must be created.  The mechanisms for both justice and reconciliation should be a mixed system that incorporates formal justice mechanisms as well as locally-led truth telling efforts to maximize effectiveness and community buy-in.   

The government needs to undergo a serious restructuring that focuses on incorporating the democratic and inclusive ideals that the country was founded on. Serious security sector reform is also a crucial piece of the puzzle.  Since the nation was born the SPLA has had a troubled human rights record. Perhaps the worst example of which occurred in 2012 when reports of widespread abuses including torture, shootings, and sexual violence occurred during a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program in Jonglei State.

There is clearly a lot of work to be done but the important thing to note is that it can be done. South Sudan does not need to become another failed state that the international community writes off. It will take a united effort from within South Sudan and without from diaspora, international aid agencies, governments, the UN and the AU.  Most importantly the South Sudanese people need to have a role to play in the future of their country.  Moving forward, including the people in the process will be fundamental to sustainable peace.


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Stuck in the Middle with You: Hubris’ Cost on Humanity in Syria

“Call him a Shakespearean tragic hero, like Macbeth. Macbeth didn’t really want to kill anyone at first, but once he started there was no turning back.”

[Nabeel Khour, Chicago Council on Global Affairs Fellow formerly involved in Syria policy as a senior State Department Official, referring to President Bashar al Assad.]
By H. Murdock, VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By H. Murdock, VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Amidst the daily brunt of violence, international politics, and insurgent clashes born by Syrian citizens over the course of nearly three years of civil warfare, it appears that the international community has defaulted to supreme levels of procrastination and game playing like never before.

The situation has only digressed in the most obvious of fashions as vile activities lie beyond notice. In referring to our blog’s recent coverage of the tit-for-tat geopolitics and controversial drama surrounding Iran’s contingent invitation to come to Switzerland for the Geneva II peace talks, many have missed some real newsworthy gems (namely, this happened).

Though not singularly one hundred percent culpable, what is happening, or rather not happening, is simply an expression of the international community’s misguided commitment to addressing mass atrocities. Furthermore, And while the Iran v. United Nation’s permanent five clique of ‘frenemies’ debacle is a real embarrassment for the powerful participants orchestrating Geneva II, it is their flagrant disregard to the impending humanitarian monstrosities that inflame it’s critics (the Syrian National Coalition and the various moderate oppositionist groups among them).

Since this past July the death toll associated with the unending conflict surpassed six figures. Commencing in 2014 the war entered its’ thirty fourth month of ongoing violence. Despite the UNHCR’s pronouncement that the refugee crisis ranks the worst in a generation, with more than 2.4 million having fled the country and another 6.5 million internally displaced, the U.N. announced that it had decided to stop counting casualties in Syria. Apparently, numbers past 100,000 are simply not worth the effort of quantifying. It is relevant to note that their calculations must also justify lack of access on the ground and their ability to verify data source material. It’s not hard to empathize with the monotony of challenges faced by those operating on behalf of peace and humanitarianism on the ground; terror linked entities are infiltrating the opposition, insurgent rebel groups are fighting one another, government forces are using siege as a weapon, and civilians get caught in the middle. But perhaps they’ve got other things on their mind and, thus, are comfortable in chalking non-combatant deaths up as ‘collateral damage’ in their grand trajectory for approaching the current impasse of negotiations. With that then, we have lost all together the sacred notion of a ‘civilian’.

Unfortunately, and as it always seems, things can only get worse before they improve. As if by fate though, the light at the end of the tunnel may have appeared in the form of a tripartite of international lawyers bent on undermining the regime’s cuckold over the failed diplomacy between Assad and the West. Through the publication of an official inquiry report we now have insight into the credibility of certain evidence with regard to torture and execution of persons incarcerated by the current Syrian regime. Such ornate legal jargon is based on the official circulation of an arsenal of evidence in the form of photographs and files regarding the execution and torture of Syrian detainees recently smuggled out of the country by a deflected military policeman.

Based out of a London firm and compiled by three former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, the experts say that the incriminating evidence provided is detailed on a much more wide reaching scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the three year long conflict. They go as far to implicate the Bashar regime for the “large scale, industrial sized, and systematic killing of detainees”. With that, and pending international acknowledgement and recognition, there is now clear evidence capable of bringing key players to a tribunal for the systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government. The evidence supports further findings that the current Syrian regime could be prosecuted in a court of international law like the ICC or an ad hoc court such as the ICTY for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This is huge and unprecedented if we consider the stagnant impasse of previous attempts at resolution. Still though, even in today’s age of information overload, the stories that will cover newspapers, flash across evening news briefs, and clog Twitter feeds are not often the atrocious images that we do not want to see. By and large, they are the juicy ones and those that elicit the controversy. The media-worthy spate between US backed coalition forces, Iranian delegates, and other important UN power players garners influence over media consumers. Al-Qaeda-linked insurgency infiltrating the opposition and spreading terror across the region facilitates the reactionary feedback which media pundits need in order to advocate on behalf of their domestic and individual political platforms before addressing broader ethical and moral commitments for protecting non-combatants in war.

Not ironically, after evidence of chemical gas attacks surfaced this past summer, similar arguments were made in terms of “thresholds“ and “red lines“ for humanitarian crisis… but then they weren’t. The inquiry report is prolific but it has yet to have the same viral effect as the bombastic image of 1,400 people, and specifically the visible suffering of children, who were being gassed by the nerve agent sarin in an attack on the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus on the morning of 21 August.

Just maybe, for the first time across the innumerable atrocities that have occurred throughout the course of the conflict, and coinciding with the buildup of catty indecisive tensions encircling Geneva II, the release of the inquiry report will finally engage the international community to consider the option to fully utilize the International Humanitarian Law frameworks available to them—apparatuses whose sole function is to be employed in such capacities. If an armistice remains concurrently out of reach for Geneva II conference, at minimum we must concur to restore basic humanity to the conduct of war: addressing the situation of Syrian civilians trapped by the fighting is a step.

In a comment to Buzzfeed, Nabeel Khoury, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, alluded to the element of tragic heroism in citing the Shakespearean quality of the Assad regime’s tactics (as referenced above).  I take it one step further by stressing that, to date, and as a global community of international partners, our feeble attempts to meaningfully address the broken lives of Syrians does not expunge us of the tragedy inherent in our kind of gallantry.  Whether consciously choosing to or otherwise, the implicit failure to actively acknowledge the issues of utmost pertinence—human dignity —is an un-absolved default of responsibility.

This all raises the questions pertaining to what the right kind of action should be. To some degree, as bystanders to atrocities we have an ethical commitment yet our complacent stratagem from the beginning has been no more morally superior than that of the regime’s head orchestrators. The Khoury quote blemishes the Assad regime as “Macbeth-like” and enamored by authority yet, in their superfluous commitment to political dominance, the international community plays Lady Macbeth; obsessively infuriated and repeatedly incapable of washing the blood spots from their own hands. In order to offer concrete alternatives, it is imperative of the participants at Geneva II to set aside politics, economies, and ancient grudges. Now, more than ever, if they see themselves in any position to positively affect sustainable transformation in this conflict, Syrian civilians, combatants or otherwise, need to be offered the opportunity to reclaim their right to human dignity. This means bringing to the table those otherwise unsavory patrons and engaging them in narrating their sentiment. It means returning the power to Syrians to act on behalf of their own capability to settle disputes of their own accord. It means practicing restraint from once again capturing from the rightful their authority to determine a peaceful future for the sake of power and authority in the hands of the international barons of peace and development.

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