Is the Flood of Violent Images Further Dividing the West and the Middle East?

Two photos from Syria, 2012. (Flickr)

Since 9/11, the Middle East has been the main focus of international media. The image most commonly conjured by outsiders of the region is that of violence and Islamic extremism, not least due to the series of wars that have for years plagued the countries stretching from Afghanistan to Morocco, and which only have intensified since 2001. It is hard to recall a single day since that year when violence in the region has not made front-page news. 

In today’s world, images have an enormous influence. In conflict settings and during times of upheaval, powerful images can bring people closer together or drive them apart; they can help countries reconcile or put strain on relations between them. Consider the compassion provoked by the image of a lone man in a white shirt halting a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989, or the damaging impact of the photos of US soldiers abusing Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. 

By highlighting the existing conflicts in the Middle East, the media raises public awareness of the suffering; by concentrating overwhelmingly on the violence, however, it narrows the public’s focus and obscures all else related to the region, including, most importantly, the humanity of its people.

Humanitarian Action, Bucking the System, Trends Toward New Approach

Using mobile-phone-based cash transfers is becoming more common as a way to aid populations during a humanitarian crisis.  (World Food Programme/Philippines).

Does the fundamental construct of humanitarian action need to change from providing aid to facilitating people's access to help? The responses to the Syrian crisis and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines point to three humanitarian trends heading in that direction: the changing role of governments beyond requesting international assistance; the increasing use of cash and technology, giving rise to the phenomenon of "enabled self-help"; and the increasing significance of parties whose core mandate, or interest, is not aid. These trends indicate that real improvement to humanitarian effectiveness cannot be achieved by relying on one dominant international system, or one that is organized primarily for aid distribution. 

From the battlefields of Solferino in 1859 onward, international humanitarian action has been about organized outside intervention. Over the years, the notion of "the humanitarian imperative", i.e., the obligation to provide humanitarian assistance, even overriding all other considerations, was developed as justification for this intervention. The post-Cold War era gave room to create a more organized "international humanitarian system." It envisioned a model of rich countries funding multilateral and international humanitarian organizations, coordinated by and with the UN, to distribute aid in poor and fragile states (to put it crudely). This can be referred to, for the sake of simplicity, as the “IASC system,” in reference to the centrality of the Inter-agency Standing Committee (IASC) in it.

In examining the crises in Syria and the Philippines, one can find key illustrations of how much the humanitarian landscape—and its relationship to this system—has evolved. 

Can Russia Reshape Ukraine Without Firing a Shot?

Unidentified gunmen on patrol at Simferopol Airport in Crimea, February 28, 2014. (Elizabeth Arrott/VOA)

A few months ago, no one seemed to predict Russia’s grab of Crimea and the fast-moving events that are now threatening to further destabilize the political, social, and economic situation in Ukraine. As events unfold, it seems clear that Russia is intent on changing Ukraine’s governance system by forcing it to implement a new constitution that would devolve power to the eastern parts of the country. 

The Kremlin’s ideal outcome is a loose federation, which, unlike American federalism, would allow for far greater independence of Ukraine’s provinces. This independence would allow Russia to cooperate with the eastern provinces without having to go through Kyiv, which could be beneficial to various sectors of the Russian and local eastern Ukrainian economies—especially their arms industries.

This is why, in my opinion, Russia is trying to inspire a revolutionary mindset in eastern Ukraine and use pro-Russian inhabitants and forces as a way to destabilize the situation in the whole country and provoke the Ukrainian government into using force against the separatists instead of concentrating on societal reforms. The unrest is certainly proving to be a test for the Ukrainian government, and could allow Russia to determine if Kyiv is really able to control all of the country’s territory, while also providing a possible pretext for Russian armed intervention, ostensibly to protect the separatists, especially if some kind of civil war starts. Nevertheless, the cost of an intervention would be very high, which is probably why Russia is pressing for the federalization of Ukraine by using other tools of influence, most of them economic. 

The first such tool is the price of Russian natural gas on which most of Ukraine is dependent. After the new government came to power in Kyiv, the giant Russian monopoly Gazprom terminated an existing gas contract with Ukraine and imposed an increase in gas prices from about $268 to $485 per thousand cubic meters. This dramatic increase not only will hurt the Ukrainian economy but also the pocketbooks of ordinary people who will suffer large increases in heat bills; food and household costs will also increase to reflect associated fuel costs. Moreover, Gazprom is pressuring Ukraine to pay back its outstanding gas debt of $2.2 billion, accrued over recent years, knowing full well that Ukraine doesn’t have the money to repay it. These two issues are being used by Gazprom to conjure a threat that it will turn off the tap. With summer coming, this threat does not hold as much power, but come autumn, it could find traction, translating (the Kremlin may be hoping) into people protesting against the government in Kyiv. 

As Nature of Conflict Changes, Is International Humanitarian Law Still Relevant?

After a deadly airstrike in Douma, Syria, men carry a casuality out of the rubble, April 13, 2014. (REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh)

Against the backdrop of appalling violence against civilians in Syria, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, along with the persistent obstruction of humanitarian aid around the world, international humanitarian law may appear redundant in the twenty-first century. Initially designed with interstate wars in mind, one of the main objectives of this body of law is to limit the effects of conflict on people who are not, or no longer, participating in hostilities, especially civilians. Nowadays, the lines between combatants and civilians are often blurred, and improving compliance with the law remains a significant challenge.  

However, Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, legal director of Doctors Without Borders and author of the book The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law, has a different take. “If humanitarian law is not respected today, this does not show that it is ill-adapted to conflict,” Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier said in an interview with the Global Observatory. Acknowledging that the law is more often violated than not, Ms. Bouchet Saulnier stressed that “what is important is that [the] law frames what must be respected.”

The issue of protecting civilians is at the center of the humanitarian challenge today because armed groups and armies try to avoid direct confrontation and find soft targets, according to Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier, but the fact that “civilians are the soft target of war” is “not new at all.” As such, “the protection of civilians and humanitarian relief to the civilian population and victims of conflict remains an essential battle, and it has to be fought,” said Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier. “This is as old as the history of conflict,” she said, “Things have never been better before.”

While Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier agreed that there is “a real legal asymmetry” between state and nonstate armed groups in today’s mostly internal conflicts, which creates “practical problems,” international humanitarian law is not only applicable and relevant to international conflicts—for which it was initially developed—but also to those that happen within states.

In Syria, “the fact that you cannot clearly identify the hierarchical chain of command of the opposition and the fact that it’s not one single nonstate armed group fighting with the governmental forces—this is just the reality,” Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier said. “But still, the distinction between civilian and combatant is possible.” 

In addition, the protocols added to the body of international humanitarian law in 1977 “get rid of this distinction between civilian and combatant,” she said.  “What is really of interest is the situation of the victim of the conflict,” and even a combatant can become a victim: “a civilian or a combatant is of interest to international humanitarian law when he has become a victim—meaning he has lost power, because he’s wounded, because he’s sick, because he is detained.” 

Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier also addressed the tension between the growing body of international criminal law, which abides by strict rules of interpretation, and the interpretation of humanitarian law, which should remain “very broad, to make sure it encompasses every situation that has not been envisaged before.” The strict rules of interpretation of international criminal law have nurtured the position promoted by some states, especially in the war on terror, that some of today’s wars—such as in Yemen or the Central African Republic—would fall into a third category of conflict not regulated by international humanitarian law. Such an approach is contrary to the spirit of humanitarian law where “every situation and individual must be covered with a system of mutually exclusive categories.” 

In addition, to be effective, the International Criminal Court needs to be wary of building its cases on “the weakest elements of the system, which are the victims and the humanitarian organizations,” Ms. Bouchet-Saulnier said. In general, she suggested that pressuring humanitarian agencies to hand over evidence as part of a criminal case can negatively impact humanitarian access.

In Lebanon, Clerics Support Efforts to Bring Men on Side of Equality

A woman distributes information about gender sensitivity and gender equality to a man in Beirut, Lebanon, 2012. (ABAAD)

 "In Lebanon, many of the religious leaders seem to have a very negative stigma as being opposed to gender equality or gender issues, things that they do not see themselves as opposed to,” said Anthony Keedi, a program manager at ABAAD, a resource center for gender equality in Lebanon.

ABAAD produced a video last year that features top Muslim and Christian clerics from Lebanon denouncing gender violence and citing religious texts to support these views. Mr. Keedi said the clerics “don't want to be seen as haters of women or people who are against gender equality.”

“Sadly, in our [Lebanese] culture, there's very little awareness of what gender entails, and a lot of the ways that gender has been explained has been misconstrued by a lot of men in our country and our culture,” he said. “They don't even understand how positive feminism is for women, for men, and for society as a whole.” 

Mr. Keedi noted that working with men on gender and equality "will inherently make their lives better, as it will the lives of women in our country, and we're really focusing on that." 

He said his organization has a psychological center called the Men's Center “where we see men—anonymous, confidential, and free of cost—and we work on issues of masculinity.” His organization is also raising awareness of gender with young people. “Rather than having these discussions of what gender is and moving from there with men aged forty, we'll begin those discussions at age eight through eleven or twelve years old.” 

“We will never be a truly developed society that is fundamentally peaceful without the integration of women into politics, into economy, into decision-making in everyday life—without the integration of men into domestic life and being child caretakers, and being loving partners," he said, adding that this approach includes, "letting each individual live according to what they see fit, [and] especially not infringing upon other people." 

He said this holistic approach might be more difficult, but moving forward is "just not going to happen unless we incorporate these [gender] issues.”

The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Religious leaders do not always come to mind as key advocates for women's rights, though they have a very important role to play. In Lebanon and across the MENA region, what brings religious leaders in to work for gender equality?

I think religious leaders do care for the people, and I think one thing that really brings us to work together is that we both want to do things that are beneficial for the people. That has been a very difficult sea to navigate, for lack of a better way of putting it. In Lebanon, many of the religious leaders seem to have a very negative stigma as being opposed to gender equality or gender issues, things that they do not see themselves as opposed to. It's evident that more dialogue is needed to let them understand exactly where we're coming from on a gender perspective and the issues we have with how organized religion is sometimes interpreted to be something that is opposed to gender equality or can be gender discriminate. 

So I believe that a lot of religious leaders are motivated to change that stigma,  which is a very positive thing. They don't want to be seen as haters of women or people who are against gender equality. 

With UN Withdrawal, Sierra Leone Takes Lead of Own Peacebuilding Process

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) marked the completion of UNIPSIL with ceremonies in Sierra Leone. He met with President Ernest Bai Koroma, right. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

The closing of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL) on March 31, 2014 was a celebrated milestone in the UN’s work in the small West African country. The UN took over from the Economic Community of West African States in 1999 as a result of the Lome Peace Agreement, and helped end a long civil war; 15 years later, the UN reports that Sierra Leone has shown remarkable achievements in the strengthening of institutions and in safeguarding stability and promoting democracy. 

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used Sierra Leone as an example of one of the most successful post-conflict recovery, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding processes in recent years. UNIPSIL showed that steady engagement, assistance in the development of capacities, and engagement with local and national leadership can effectively support peacebuilding in a country. Thus, the withdrawal of the mission is an important indicator that the process is increasingly less in the hands of external actors and more in the hands of Sierra Leone nationals. And for that, there is still a lot of work to be done, as Sierra Leonean actors themselves recognize.

In a previous paper, Cedric de Coning, Leslie Connolly, and I presented some ideas on how external actors can support and contribute to resilience in peacebuilding processes. In that paper, we argued that the peacebuilding environment can be supported by stimulating the development of institutions that are sufficiently resilient, in a process that should be inherently led by national actors. And in this context, we stated that it is important to recognize that peacebuilding is often an irregular process; thus, external actors should identify ways in which to deal with the complexities of its non-linear nature.

In Crucial Afghan Election, Signs Democracy Is Taking Hold

Afghan men wait in line outside a polling station in Kabul to cast their ballots, April 5, 2014. (UN Photo/Fardin Waezi)

On April 13, just over a week after balloting took place in Afghanistan’s crucial 2014 presidential election, the Independent Election Commission released the first batch of preliminary results. Accounting for approximately ten percent of the vote, and covering 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, these results yielded at least three important conclusions. First, Afghans seemed to vote across ethnic lines far more than what was predicted. Second, Ashraf Ghani, who won only 3% of the vote in the 2009 election, is indeed a front-runner. He won 37.6% of the votes in the preliminary count, in second place behind Abdullah Abdullah, President Hamid Karzai’s main challenger in 2009, with 41.9%. Third, the candidate who was widely presumed to be backed by President Karzai, Zalmai Rassoul, earned only 9.8%, putting him in a distant third place. If no candidate receives 50% in the first round, a run-off between the two top vote-getters will be held.

Rassoul’s poor showing is revealing insofar as it suggests that the presidential palace either did not have the will or did not have the capacity to rig the vote. Given the widespread fraud that took place in 2009 to support President Karzai’s re-election, this dog that did not bark is an intriguing and important development. This is the first presidential election in which President Karzai can’t run. A peaceful handover of power from one democratically elected president to another has never occurred in Afghan history. The mostly positive reports from election day have brought that achievement one large step closer. 

While Seeking Stability, Yemen Builds Momentum Against Child Marriage

Sisters Nana (16 years old) and Zakia (20, at right) in the Abu Shouk camp for displaced people in Darfur, Sudan. Nana was married at 13, and Zakia at 17. (Albert González Farran/UNAMID)

In Iraq, a draft law tabled in the Parliament this week would legalize marriage for nine-year-old girls. In Jordan, Syrian refugees are increasingly pressing their daughters into early marriage—for the economic survival of the family, or with the belief that it might protect their daughters from sexual assault. In Yemen, child marriage captured the spotlight last September when an eight-year-old girl died from internal bleeding on the night of her wedding to a man five times her age. 

In the Middle East and beyond, girls in countries experiencing conflict, instability, or humanitarian crises are most vulnerable to early marriage. While families often perceive early marriage as a protective response in times of crises, its underlying drivers include poverty, weak legal frameworks, gender discrimination, and harmful traditional practices. 

Parents often fail to recognize the implications of an early marriage for their daughters, who are left vulnerable to domestic-based violence and often life-threatening adolescent labor. For society at large, the consequences extend far beyond the child’s physical insecurity: one of the strongest indicators of state security across the globe lies in a state’s treatment of its women and girls. Where women gain more political power and attempt to reverse structural inequalities that threaten their physical security, this could also improve peace and stability writ large.

Yemen, which is ranked as the poorest and most fragile state in the Arab region, could present an interesting case in this respect. Fifty-two percent of women are married before the age of 18 in Yemen, and 14 percent before the age of 15. Efforts to set the minimum age for marriage at 17 years were blocked by the Parliament in 2009. Hardline Islamic conservatives, whose influence grew significantly in Yemen over the past two decades, contended that setting a minimum age for marriage would be contrary to sharia law. At the same time, most child marriages in Yemen happen in rural areas with low literacy rates and high levels of poverty, where tradition and custom are often more powerful than the laws of the state.

But a shift in gender relations following the 2011 Yemeni uprising could have a profound effect on child marriage. Despite Yemen’s traditional conservatism, women led the Yemeni revolution alongside men, toppling the country’s 33-year-old authoritarian regime in a bid to reclaim their human rights. The level of women’s mobilization, participation in public demonstrations, and expression of independent political views was unprecedented. When the president publicly called women’s participation in the demonstrations “un-Islamic,” they continued to flock to the streets in the thousands. 

In some cases, this created a blend of old and new ideologies. For example, the Islamic conservative political party, al-Islah, called on their women supporters to join the public demonstrations, while women who joined agreed to respect tradition and sleep in separate sections of street tents throughout the uprising. 

One female member of the Islah party, Tawakkul Karman, won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle for women’s rights, democracy, and peace. Yemeni women rose to prominence on the international stage, and women’s political participation was increasingly viewed with respect. 

In light of their role in the uprising, women were also granted a role in the transitional process that followed. After the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered a deal that saw the departure of Yemen's entrenched president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a 30-percent quota was set for women participants in the National Dialogue that would propose the tenets of a new Yemeni constitution. 

The dialogue lasted nearly a year, and women made up 22 percent of participants in practice. In its final report, the Rights and Freedoms Working Group, which was chaired by a woman and in which 45 percent of the delegates were women, proposed setting a minimum age for marriage at 18 years—a significant acknowledgement of the plight of girls forced into child marriage. 

While considerable efforts will still be required to now get this kind of legislation passed and to transform the landscape of child marriage in society, the shift in gender relations during the revolution and the opening up of the political process thereafter have allowed for this crucial first step. And over the past year, amid newfound political power for women, momentum has been building (reported also here and here).

For policymakers concerned with Yemen’s security, capitalizing on this momentum could also offer some relatively low-hanging fruit. Half of Yemen’s population lives on less than $2 a day, democracy will take a long time to build, and religious extremists are likely to remain in the picture for the foreseeable future. But if there’s any truth to the statistics, it’s not wealth, democracy, or religious identity that makes the strongest predictor of a society’s peacefulness—it’s how well women are treated. So where better a place to start than with girls?

Waleed Alhariri is a Research Assistant in the Middle East program at the International Peace Institute. Marie O’Reilly is associate editor at the International Peace Institute.

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