Still No Good Options in Syria


Governments, including those that are democratically elected, often display a propensity and determination to act contrary to their self-interest. The quagmire in which the US administration finds itself on Syria is, to a large extent, of its own making. It is unlikely that anything President Barack Obama heard at the G-20 summit or since then will discourage him from ordering surgical military strikes against Syria. Only the US Congress can provide the required discouragement.

The fact that Bashar al-Assad has used brutal force to maintain his repressive regime is not in any doubt. Equally, the situation today is largely due to the pursuit of regime change by the Gulf states and Turkey supported by the US, UK and France. The rebels fighting the regime, all Sunnis armed to the teeth by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and their Western allies, are affiliated either directly or indirectly to al-Qaeda and are engaged in a sectarian war against the Alawites or Shias and Christians. Violence unleashed by them has matched the brutality of regime forces.

The use of chemical weapons is immoral and unacceptable, and must be condemned. Given the nature of the conflict, jumping to conclusions before all the evidence has been analyzed, and conclusively holds one party responsible, is fraught with additional danger. Apart from placing the military might of the US at the disposal of al-Qaeda, military strikes, which appear increasingly likely, will result in another paradoxical situation. Deaths from chemical weapons constitute less than 1 per cent of fatalities since the Syrian civil war began more than two years ago.

Limited enthusiasm for military strikes against Syria is the least of the problems confronting decision-makers in Washington. A concerted campaign to convince the skeptics, both within Congress and outside, may rectify the situation. The more serious implications that need to be factored in include the near certainty that such strikes will strengthen the very forces that constitute a threat to the US’s national security.

Is MONUSCO Lost in Translation?

info-human-righOn August 28, the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) suffered its first casualty since Security Council Resolution 2098 in March authorized an offensive Intervention Brigade tasked with “neutralizing” rebel groups. During fighting near Goma in eastern Congo, between Congolese armed forces backed up by MONUSCO’s new brigade and M23 rebels, one Tanzanian peacekeeper was killed and several others wounded by artillery fire.

The same evening, MONUSCO promptly denounced the incident, tweeting a statement from Martin Kobler, the new special representative of the secretary-general (SRSG) and head of the UN mission.

While this type of statement is expected following such an incident, the choice of the wording used reveals that the mission has yet to adapt its language to its new offensive mandate. This is especially true in the French version, which is presumably the original one since the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a French-speaking country. The use of the French word “meurtre”—meaning “murder” and not the more neutral word “killing” used in the English statement—is at best ill-adapted and at worst misleading in a context where MONUSCO has arguably become a party to the conflict and, therefore, a legitimate target under international law.

Key Conclusions

  • The applicability of international humanitarian law to MONUSCO is widely accepted, despite continuing debate on the scope of its application. This implies that peacekeepers involved in combat become a legitimate target under international law.
  • The creation of MONUSCO’s Intervention Brigade raises serious—although not entirely new—policy and legal questions regarding the impartiality of the mission, the security of UN staff, and the legal standards it must abide by.
  • The deployment of the brigade makes it urgent to seriously address ambiguities that, for the most part, date back to the robust mandate given in 2009 to MONUSCO’s predecessor, MONUC. A good first step would be to adapt the mission’s language to the new operational realities.


The applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL)—also known as the law of armed conflict—to UN peacekeeping forces directly participating in combat has been widely accepted since the UN secretary-general’s adoption of the Bulletin on the Observance by United Nations Forces of International Humanitarian Law in 1999. Nonetheless, the UN has always been reluctant to admit it might become a party to a conflict under IHL, not least because of the implications it has on the safety of blue helmets, as one legal scholar recently noted. Indeed, the prohibition of attacks on peacekeepers, which is considered a war crime by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, is valid “as long as they are entitled to the protection given to civilians or civilian objects under [IHL].” When the UN becomes a party to the conflict, it forfeits this protection and, as fighters, its peacekeepers consequently become legitimate targets.

As Peacekeeping Becomes More Complex, Progress Needed on Training


UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are being asked to take on ever-more complex tasks. They need to be able to take offensive measures against rebels, but they also need to understand the ramifications of their actions under international humanitarian law. They need to ensure the physical protection of civilians but also need to contribute to security sector reform, promote the rule of law, and engage in the protection of human rights. Are UN peacekeepers being trained to carry out their multifaceted roles effectively?

Training is a key element in the success or failure of UN peacekeeping operations. The UN’s historical experience has shown that under-prepared peacekeepers cost lives and endanger missions. Yet training is often taken for granted or considered less relevant than the outcome of an operation.

Key Conclusions

  • In the face of increasingly multidimensional operations, UN peacekeepers need specialized training.
  • Despite advances in training over the last two decades, common standards across trainings and systematic performance indicators are absent.
  • To ensure that peacekeeping operations have access to the right people with the right skills, a more strategic and coordinated approach to training is needed from the UN, member states, and training institutions alike.


“Peacekeeping is not a job for soldiers, but only soldiers can do it.” Former UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld’s famous “paradox” implies that a typical soldier is not naturally a good peacekeeper, unless she or he acquires critical knowledge and skills that only specific peacekeeping training can provide.

In practice, special training is needed because UN peacekeeping involves more than the basic military tasks for which soldiers are—or should be—already trained. If soldiers without peacekeeping-specific training might have managed to get by in early UN observation missions with straightforward and limited mandates, this is not the case in modern multidimensional operations, where a number of different and sophisticated skills are required.

For this reason, the Brahimi Report stated that peacekeeping training needs to be understood as a crucial part of effective UN operations. In recent years, the UN has taken steps to implement the Brahimi Report’s recommendations with regard to training. In particular, in May 2008 the Department of Peacekeeping Operations set out a three-year UN Peacekeeping Training Strategy, accompanied in October that year by the first Strategic Peacekeeping Training Needs Assessment. These documents are the cornerstone of ongoing efforts to establish a coherent but constantly evolving training strategy.

Key Global Events to Watch in September

At the start of every month, the Global Observatory posts a list of key upcoming meetings and events that have implications for global affairs.



Peace & Security

      • September 5–6: G20 Leaders’ Summit, St. Petersburg, Russia
        The Russian presidency of this year’s G20 summit will focus on three drivers of growth: effective regulation, jobs and investment, and trust and transparency.  Within these broad themes, the summit will discuss several issues indirectly related to security, such as structural unemployment, employment of vulnerable groups, food security, infrastructure, and the fight against corruption. Syria is likely to be discussed only on the margins of the meeting, despite some calls to prioritize it in the meeting’s agenda.
      • September 10–13: Meeting on the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Lusaka, Zambia
        The fourth meeting of states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions will address implementation and universalization of the convention; stockpile destruction; clearance of affected regions; and victim assistance, among other items. “A large number of States Parties and States not Parties have condemned or otherwise expressed concern with the use of cluster munitions in Syria in 2012 and 2013,” a report released in advance of the meeting said. The summit will focus on obstacles and best practices to move forward. 
      • September 10–27: 24th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, Geneva
        Over 17 days in Geneva, the 24th Session of the UN Human Rights Council will evaluate periodic reviews on states from Cambodia to Colombia. Updates on human rights situations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, and Sri Lanka are likely to be of particular interest. In addition to reports on individual states, the Council will discuss many thematic topics, such as the protection of human rights defenders and the safety of journalists.
      • September 16: Conference on the New Deal for Somalia, Brussels
        This conference co-hosted by Somalia and the EU will endorse the "New Deal Compact" that will commit the Somali people and their international partners to a set of key priorities and provide new support for the reconstruction of Somalia over the next three years.
      • September 24: Opening of the General Debate of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, New York
        This year’s general debate will run from September 24 to October 2. Ambassador John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda will preside over the debate as the new president of the General Assembly. In addition to their annual speeches in the Assembly, heads of state and ministers from the 193 member states will participate in the usual flurry of side events and bilateral meetings.
      • September 24 & 25: General Assembly Meetings on Post-2015 Development Agenda, New York
        Following a high-level meeting on disability and development on September 23, the post-2015 development agenda is likely to dominate many of the General Assembly discussions this year. On September 24, the Office of the President of the General Assembly convenes the first meeting of the high-level political forum on sustainable development, titled “Building the future we want: from Rio+20 to the post-2015 development agenda.” On September 25, a special event will follow up on efforts made toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, which will also look forward to post-2015.
      • September 26: General Assembly Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament, New York
        This one-day event will be the UN General Assembly’s first high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament. The meeting follows the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, which took place in Oslo in March 2013. The General Assembly meeting seems to have received little publicity, despite the Secretary-General’s strong support for this cause, perhaps because member states themselves are divided over the idea of nuclear-weapon-free world.

With Democracy, Security at Stake in Egypt, How Should the West Respond?


Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the confrontation in Egypt have so far failed. The refusal of coup leader General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now the defense minister, to go along with diplomatic de-escalation, and the excessive force used by security agencies signal that the Egyptian army does not aim at repressing only the Muslim Brotherhood. They are trying to frighten the general population and restore autocratic rule to an Egypt that has tasted freedom and expressed itself repeatedly at the ballot box since 2011.

The US and Europe want to get Egypt back on a more orderly democratic path. This path entails restraining the Egyptian security forces, maintaining relative openness, and moving towards an inclusive polity with Islamist and, if possible, Muslim Brotherhood participation. It also means restoring a modicum of order and stability so that ordinary Egyptians can go about their business without fear of violence or intimidation.

Yet, the security forces are continuing their violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which is pledging to continue its protests against the July 3 military takeover. Some Islamists are resisting with arms. About 1,000 people have been killed. What can the United States and the international community do to mitigate the situation?


The civilian government the Egyptian army installed after the coup has pledged an amended constitution by the end of the year, to be approved in a referendum and elections early next year. This is a fast timeline. What can the international community do to try to ensure it is met?

The United States has already postponed delivery of F16s to Egypt and canceled joint military exercises scheduled for the fall to protest General Sisi's crackdown. Inevitably the question of America's $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt will now arise in Washington. It would make sense to refocus the civilian assistance of about $250 million tightly on democratic objectives. Those most concerned with getting Egypt back on a democratic path are recommending suspension of the military portion ($1.2 billion).

This will be opposed by those more concerned with security issues, including maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel. A proposal in the US Senate to redirect all Egyptian aid to domestic American priorities was defeated last month by a wide margin (86-13), but that was before the worst of the crackdown. The margin would likely be much closer next month.

Even if the US Congress or the Administration acts to suspend military aid to Egypt, the financial impact will not be immediate. This year's tranche has already been transferred. It will be the better part of another year before money can be blocked. More weapons scheduled for delivery can be delayed, but American industry will spend the year lobbying hard against a funding cut-off, as much of the money is actually spent on US contractors who supply the Egyptian military with materiel and services.

Why Citizens Shrug at Regional Organizations


Last week, the Security Council held a debate on how to strengthen cooperation between the UN and regional and subregional organizations. The discussion specifically focused on cooperation in the fields of conflict prevention, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. Regional and subregional organizations are increasingly expected to play a bigger role in the international peace and security architecture, and while they seem to be better positioned to address regional challenges as outlined by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the debate, they also face significant shortcomings.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges shared by many of these organizations is the need to overcome the skepticism among their citizenry about the effectiveness of their work. In many cases, multilateral organizations have not shown that they add value and are useful instruments to the people they represent.

Key Conclusions

  • As the nature of armed conflicts change and new security threats emerge, regional organizations should re-formulate their security mandates to promote not only national security but human security.
  • The effectiveness of regional and subregional organizations will increasingly be measured in relation to their added value in issues such as the promotion of democracy and human rights, the protection of civilians in armed conflicts and their ability to respond to new security threats, among others.
  • Enhanced collaboration with civil society organizations (CSOs) will contribute to incorporating a bottom-up approach to security, bring people closer to the work of these institutions, and leverage their operational capacities.
  • Moving in this direction requires the establishment of appropriate mechanisms to enable meaningful participation from different actors in the identification and collective management of peace and security risks.


While regional multilateralism can be traced back to the late 19th century in what became known as the “Concert of Europe,” it was really after World War II when it started to have significant developments. Forums such as the Organization of American States, OAS (1948) and the League of Arab States (1945) were established as spaces for political concert linked to regional military alliances.

The process of decolonization of Asia and Africa brought along a second wave of regional multilateralism with the creation of organizations such as the Organization of African Unity (1963) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN (1967), and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC (1985), among others.

After the end of the Cold War, encouraged by factors such as the success of the European Union, an increasing interdependence, and a trend towards the creation of regional blocks, new regional multilateral forums like Mercosur (1991), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (2001), the African Union (2002, replacing the Organization of African Unity), or the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR (2005) were established.

Is There a Human Right to Information During Disasters?


The volume of data generated by disasters is skyrocketing. During the Boston Marathon bombing, more than 500,000 tweets related to the explosions were generated in a few hours after the attacks, according to researchers at Syracuse University.

The exponential growth in streams of data generated during disaster events are not the only ways information communication technologies (ICT) are complicating humanitarian action. Governments from Sudan to Syria have reportedly attempted to block and interdict civilian communications, preventing whole populations from digitally dialing 911.

While crowd-sourcing, high-resolution satellites, smart phones, and social media are transforming the operational landscape for responders and affected populations alike, recent incidents such as these have made apparent the lack of best practices and professional ethics—and the absence of intentionally designed systems—for using and accessing ICT during complex disasters.

In this dynamic context, humanitarians are struggling to adapt not only their methods to the networked age, but their theory and practice as well. The present lack of doctrine and international legal precedent to guide ICT use during disasters is arguably one of the most urgent issues facing humanitarian responders in the 21st century.

Two important publications this past April began to confront some of these gaps in theory and practice. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) published Humanitarianism in the Networked Age, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released an updated version of Professional Standards for Protection Work. The OCHA report is the first major UN document to acknowledge "information as a basic need in humanitarian response," and the ICRC protection standards now begin to take into account the implications new technologies have for human security.

However, the crucial question that remains unanswered is whether an inherent human right to information during emergencies exists.

If the answer is yes, then a second equally consequential question follows: What obligations do states, humanitarian agencies, and the private sector have to realize this right?

Key Conclusions

  • "Needs-based" approaches to ICT use in emergencies alone no longer suffice
  • A "rights-based" approach by governments, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector is also required
  • A human right to information during disaster should be explicitly articulated and enshrined
  • The responsibilities of states, non-state actors, and the private sector to realize that right must be determined


The prevailing approach to issues raised by ICTs and emergencies, as demonstrated by the OCHA report, only addresses these topics in terms of the needs of populations. What is currently absent from the discussion is: What rights do affected populations have to information, and are they able to access it in a timely and safe way, especially when their lives may depend on it? The difference between the two approaches is stark and significant.

At present, the international community, companies, and aid providers are not explicitly obligated to share unique information they may have that is relevant to populations affected by conflict and natural disaster. Also, governments, corporations, and aid groups do not have an articulated and correspondent responsibility to provide those communities with the technical and programmatic infrastructure they need to consume that information.

As such, the needs-based approach to ICT during emergencies falls short of the new and evolving challenges vulnerable populations face. But a rights-based approach could overcome these challenges. The increased recognition of the right to health due to the work of Dr. Jonathan Mann, the former head of the World Health Organization's global AIDS program, and others, provides a potential framework towards a specific right to information during disasters.

Brazil's Wired Protests

The mass demonstrations that convulsed Brazil in June and July 2013 are more than a raw display of people power; they confirm that we are living in a new era of digitally enhanced protest.

The storyline is by now well rehearsed. What started out as a modest protest by the little-known Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement)–a group calling for free public transport over the past decade–went viral. Only a few thousand members initially turned up in São Paulo to reject the equivalent of a $0.09 hike on bus fares and corrupt tendering processes for the issuance of transportation licenses. 

When their protest was brutally put down by the military police, over a million people from more than 350 cities in Brazil and around the world took to the streets to march against all manner of grievances. The rapid spread of these demonstrations is the ultimate expression of open empowerment–the emboldening of millions of wired young people worldwide to press for change.

Brazilian protesters jubilantly rallied around a constellation of causes including systemic corruption, poor services, insecurity, and runaway spending on mega sporting events such as the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Their voices were diverse and included left-wing and right-wing pundits as well as hacker outfits such as Anonymous and the more obscure anti-globalization outfit, Black Bloc. As the rallies grew in scope and scale, more extremist conservative voices emerged, calling for, among other things, the death penalty, impeachment of leftist politicians, and fewer taxes. While these latter groups were rebuffed, they are symptomatic of the widening of grievance claims in Brazilian society. In the process, innovative visualizations emerged that captured the spread of protests across Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other social media platforms such as Tumblr, Instagram, and Whatsapp. These spontaneous efforts underline the transformative effects of technology in shaping Brazil’s digital revolution.

As in the case of mass protests in Bulgaria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey, Brazil’s political establishment was caught utterly off guard. Predictably, they first dismissed the demonstrators as “vandals.” They quickly changed their tune after police were filmed deploying excessive force against protestors and journalists. In a bid to lower the temperature, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff tried instead to initiate a dialogue with the protestors, and hastily unveiled a five-part reform plan. With uncharacteristic speed, Congress also overturned controversial legislation–known as PEC-37–that would have limited the ability to investigate corrupt officials. A number of the proposed reforms have stalled, but they are still very much on the public radar.

While the protests diminished somewhat in intensity after a few weeks, they left a lasting impression on public consciousness. They are also demonstrative of a wider protest meme that has swept the planet since the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi in December 2010.

Brazil is one of the world’s most unequal societies, but the recent protests are not the preserve of the country’s rich or poor. They are instead an expression of disgust by the country’s rapidly expanding middle class. Marching alongside anti-establishment activists and extreme right nationalists were students, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and shopkeepers. They represent what sociologist Manuel Castells labels creative chaos, and the remarkable diversity of Brazilian society. Rather than being channeled through traditional political parties and unions, grievances were paraded on the real and virtual street. Local media outlets counted more than 490 protests over three weeks–an average of one protest an hour. The speed at which they spread, and the solidarity and political purpose they inspired, were unlike anything anyone had ever seen or imagined possible.

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