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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Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Proxy War in Syria

Between domestic political scandals here in the United States and the developing nuclear deal with Iran, the civil war in Syria has largely fallen out of the news in recent months, despite the ever-rising death toll and destruction continuing to ravage the country. Some discussion of late has focused on the radicalization of Syrian opposition forces and the influx of foreign fighters, including the growing number of al-Qaeda affiliates competing for influence. The violence also continues to be characterized by the proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Since their founding, the modern states of Iran and Saudi Arabia view themselves as protectors of true Islam, and compete for a monopoly on Islamic interpretation and legitimacy, whatever the cost may be. Increasingly, the conflict has transformed into a Sunni-Shi’a divide, with the Saudi clerics and royals pitted against the ayatollahs in Iran. This is no less true in the wake of the Arab Spring and unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Mohsen Milani commented in Foreign Affairs, “With plenty of petrodollars at their disposal, two powerful clerical establishments that push their own unique versions of Islam, and proxies and allies spread out across the Islamic world, Iran and Saudi Arabia will aggressively seek to reshape the new Middle East to preserve and expand their power.” The ongoing war in Syria is now the most significant proxy conflict for Iran and Saudi Arabia, the culmination of years of distrust, mutual fears, and oppositional ideologies.

Syria operates as the conduit for Iranian funding and weapons to its closest ally in the region – Hezbollah in Lebanon. This tripartite relationship, functioning since Hezbollah’s formation in 1982, has incurred international outcry and fears from neighboring countries for decades; the United States estimates that $100 million in equipment and weapons is sent from Tehran to Hezbollah annually. Thus, when the civil war began in Syria, Iran was not hard-pressed to establish a foothold in the conflict. Aid, training, and equipment entered the country from Iran as early as April 2011, followed not long after by Iranian fighters and members of the elite Quds force. Iran and its coalition of Shi’a factions have a concrete interest in maintaining the status quo in Syria, motivated by fears of historic Sunni influence. Joseph Bahout writes for the US Institute of Peace, “For the Shi’a community, the potential fall of the Assad regime is a vital blow to the resistance axis linking it to Iran, and beyond this, the basis for a Sunni continuum from Lebanon to Iraq through Syria, that will threaten to return the Shi’a community to an era of subordination and Sunni domination.” This collective memory of recent and not so recent history foments ongoing violence between the ‘Alawite Assad regime and its Shi’a allies and the opposing bloc of mainly Sunni powers.

Ultimately, the Saudi state’s interest in Syria is countering the possible continuity of Shi’a power. The government in Riyadh does not benefit from the fixture of Hezbollah, Damascus, and Tehran’s alliance, and seeks to break the connection of the Shi’a crescent to its north. This manifests itself in the support of Sunni forces in Syria against the ‘Alawite regime and its Shi’a backers. Recently, the Saudi grand mufti provided tacit support for an Egyptian cleric’s call for all Sunnis to join the fight in Syria, while another cleric spoke from the Grand Mosque in Mecca encouraging Sunnis all over the world to support the Syrian rebels “by all means.” As the war continues past its second year, reports have surfaced that Saudi Arabia has stepped up its support to the Syrian opposition, especially the Free Syrian Army. By moving arms and supplies through Jordan, the Saudis and other donors from the Gulf have managed to distribute equipment to rebels fighting the regime in Syria. Another report discussed the emergence of a new coalition of Syrian rebel groups, Jaysh al-Islam, that Saudi Arabia is heavily supporting as a counterbalance to the jihadist branches of al-Qaeda also fighting in the country. The force is referred to as “Muhammad’s Army,” utilizing the religious language so common to Saudi discourse to validate and legitimize its presence. Claiming this connection to Muhammad, Saudi Arabia reinforces its particular brand of religious nationalism and preeminence in Islamic interpretation.

In a statement in November, an advisor to the Saudi royal family declared that the Kingdom would not sit idly by and let Iranian forces interfere in Arab countries, saying, “We cannot accept Revolutionary Guards running round Homs.” In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, continued to employ existential language to justify Saudi support for the Sunni rebels in Syria. By calling into question the motives of the West in dealing with Iran and Syria, the ambassador warns of regional destabilization if “the foreign policy choices being made in some Western capitals” continue. The reference to Saudi Arabia as the “cradle of Islam” and the rhetoric of absolute exclusion couches the fight in Syria in existential terms, where the Iranians cannot be allowed to influence the outcome of the conflict for fear of the possible Shi’a satellite were Syria to be completely consumed by Iran’s ideology.

Demonstrating Syria’s role as the proxy battlefield for Shi’a and Sunni conflict, especially between Iranian ideology and Saudi protection for Sunni Islam, is the involvement of thousands of outside fighters in the civil war. In July 2013 it was estimated that around 5,000 Sunni fighters from over 60 countries had joined forces with the Syrian opposition since the conflict began in 2011, making the country the “second-largest foreign-fighter destination in the history of modern Islamism,” after the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s. Shi’a fighters from all over the world have flooded the country as well, represented especially by Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah members. While some incoming Shi’a allege that their interests lay only with protecting Shi’a mosques in Syria, others are directly engaged in hostilities. Hezbollah, Iran’s most significant instrument against Sunni incursions in the Levant, actively fights against the Syrian opposition in the south of the country, and other groups are reported as combating Sunni forces in and around Damascus.

Meanwhile, over 130,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war, millions are displaced and have been made refugees both in the country and beyond, and the conflict seems even farther from resolution than previous months. The deal over Iran’s nuclear program has largely shifted international attention away from Syria, leaving Saudi Arabia and Iran to continue their proxy war unperturbed. It is estimated that by the end of 2014 over 10,000 foreign fighters will be engaged in the Syrian civil war, contesting the Sunni or Shi’a nature of the country. While many international analysts and governments fear the victory of an al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria, there should be just as much concern about the battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the region. As long as the two countries compete for political and theological power within the borders of other sovereign states, there can be no resolution to the conflicts in the Middle East. These two countries have emerged from centuries of conquest into political entities replete with religious nationalism and exclusionary tendencies, enacted on stages from the United States to Afghanistan to Bosnia to Iraq to Syria. Overcoming centuries of distrust and collective memories of subjugation is extremely difficult, but for the sake of the millions of Syrians and neighboring countries affected by the conflict, Saudi Arabia and Iran should attempt the impossible.

In just a few days, on January 22, the Geneva II conference is scheduled to convene peace talks to address the Syrian civil war. The talks will be driven by the UN, EU, Arab League, and many individual states, including Saudi Arabia. Until yesterday, Iran was not included in the list of participants, despite being the Assad regime’s closest ally and having a direct role in the fighting. The sticking point is the exclusion of President Bashar al-Assad from the future of the Syrian state, which Iran opposes and many Western powers support. This difference of opinion is of course nothing new, and should not bar Iran from contributing to the talks. At the last moment, the UN extended an invitation to Iran to join the conference, and Iran agreed, although refusing to conform to any preconditions, including the rejection of President Assad’s leadership. The inclusion of Iran is an important step, because as a participant in the conflict, the Iranian government should also be a participant in the peace process, especially since Saudi Arabia occupies the same responsibility and is already a party to the talks. The Geneva II conference continues to hang in limbo though, as the Syrian National Coalition threatened to pull out of the talks if Iran is included. While Saudi Arabia and Western powers remain skeptical about the role Iran plays in the Syrian conflict, the talks should be given the chance to end the bloody civil war.

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Thinking Small: A Trend Toward Miniaturization?

A trend in manufacturing, business, and technology is called miniaturization, whereby more tasks are done with less and less hardware. A perfect example of such a phenomenon is the progression in the hardware of computers. The foundational machines like those of Konrad Zuse, while innovative in their time, required entire rooms to house their hardware, all to produce computing processes considered very basic by the standards of today’s handheld devices. Miniaturization rests on the premise that each new generation of technology begets abilities for inventors to create even smaller, more efficient versions of the former devices. Such miniaturization may not be isolated to the advancement of technology and manufacturing processes. In fact, conflict analysts may want to adopt the trend as a way of thinking about how systems produce conflict.

In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker discusses how violence overall and specifically related to conflict has declined. His claims are based on studies like those by the Uppsala Data Conflict Program, which show a decline in the number of total conflicts. These studies note, however, that just because the number of conflicts have declined, the number of deaths related to battle has not followed suit. A potential explanation for such a trend is that munitions have increased in magnitude, that global weapons flows into unstable zones have spurred violence recorded outside the confines of what is traditionally considered a conflict, or that the conflicts which do occur tend to be more fierce than those in the past. All seem reasonable rationalizations and each may in part be true.


Incidence of conflict has changed so that more countries are contending with violence inside their borders rather than from another state.
Source: Uppsala Conflict Data Program

However, it is hard to reconcile the competing notions that the world has gotten more peaceful because of the decline in the total number of wars with the trends we see of increases in intrastate conflicts and sporadic upward spikes in the number conflict-related deaths. So what else do these notions say? One explanation is that the nature of conflict has miniaturized while the means by which humans conduct their battles have not. As can be seen, the number of minor scale conflicts has almost tripled since the end of World War II, most occurring after the end of the bipolarity of the Cold War, which removed the stopgap of superpower jockeying and allowed smaller states to confront their internal conflicts. The plethora of new, self-determined states has proved fertile ground for new conflicts to emerge. These conflicts, however, are waged by small insurgent, opposition, rebellion, or extremist groups against still-developing governments. Thus, each new generation of states begets abilities of politicians and military commanders of all sides of a conflict to create new, more minute versions of older conflicts or longstanding grievances.

Certainly, new conflicts will always find their roots in new causes. The impending ‘next generation’ of conflicts will almost certainly be about resources, regimes, and scarcity. But the conflicts of past decades, those deterministic state-creation conflicts, have begun to level off in recent years after the mid-1990s spike. Amid these changes, it has become evident that the conflicts which have their roots in state-level institutional failings or international inability to reach accord are giving way to those which start over local resource usage or political and economic disenfranchisement of certain identity groups. While the international community will always have a role to play in conflicts around the globe, it is also evident that the traditionally-conceived state has yet to devise a feasible response plan to complex conflicts in places like Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

What are the implications for such microscale conflicts? The biggest, quite literally, is that the world may not see global-scale conflicts – those on the level of the World Wars and other interstate conflicts – for quite some time. Instead, the trend toward international intrastate wars may become a permanent fixture in proceedings of the UN Security Council. Instead of mediating a dispute between old Cold War opponents over geo-political posturing, the international community may find itself attempting to resolve competing claims over seemingly-remote resource – something these international institutions were theoretically designed to do.

As these new conflicts come to the forefront, another implication is that each conflict will play out on the global stage, despite its very local impact. This global stage, embodied in the auspices of international institutions like the United Nations, has become increasingly ineffectual at responding to modern crises, as the cumbersome nature of state-based policy making has impeded more substantive intervention. Hence, the proliferation of non-traditional Track II and Track III actors and international NGOs has brought forth new leaders in the conflict management profession. These actors will continue to play a role in connecting local level actors to international resources outside of the confines of state-based action. Also, unless significant advances are made in global arms treaties to stem the flow of small arms and munitions, as well as the higher capacity weapons of war, the impact of conflict – in terms of lives lost or casualties incurred – will continue at the current levels.

With the plethora of new, relatively small-scale conflicts, conflict analysts and managers will also increasingly find new avenues to engage with interlocutors, armed parties, and members of civil society. However, this will require a specialization of the field. While there will always be generalists, those who manage the operations and leadership teams of international organizations, conflict managers will be required to engage with the knowledge of topic specialists. For example, a conflict manager may be called upon to respond to an escalating situation over disputants water policies, requiring a diplomat well-versed in water management.

The miniaturization of conflicts, whereby the slew of violence emerging in recent years concentrates on local causes, could be an explanation for how the nature of conflict has changed since the end of the Cold War and for how the international community has not yet formulated adequate responses. Like technology and its consumers, the pace with which innovators have moved conflict into the 21st century has fast outpaced statecraft. What is the ‘nextgen’ conflict? Perhaps it too can be waged via the touchscreen in the palm of your hand.

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