(Arab) Spring Reading

While over three years have passed since the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, which marked the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring, the outpour of literature on the subject continues at a rapid rate. New books across a multitude of disciplines continue trying to document and analyze the cataclysmic events that are reshaping the Middle East: from historical overviews on resistance movements to photographic volumes on Tahrir Square.  One of the latest additions to this eclectic and ever-expanding genre is Carnegie scholar Marwan Muasher’s The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism.  

Unlike many of its counterparts, this book does not treat the Arab Spring as a “soundbite, oxymoron, spectacle, a screen on which to project abstracted hopes and fears,” to borrow a phrase from Maria Golia. Instead, Muasher offers a concise and practical treatise from the perspective of a policymaker-turned-scholar, which puts the events in their important historical—and regional—context while making critical recommendations for enhanced state-society relations in the Middle East.

The title alone is deep in scope. The first phrase—the second Arab awakening—is a nod to George Antonious’ 1938 classic on what could now be considered the first Arab awakening (it’s also the title of a less succinct work published last year by the Washington-based Iraqi scholar Adeed Dawisha). It immediately places the events in the context of a longer—and significant—history of independence and revolutionary movements in the Middle East. More specifically, it interprets them as a continuation of the 19th century intellectual “awakening” that sparked a wave of independence movements in the 1940s and 1950s, ultimately falling short of its protagonists’ aspirations. That initial liberal promise was aborted when foreign despots were replaced by homegrown ones who went on to rule the region for more than half a decade. As Muasher rightly points out, the first awakening laid the groundwork for the wave of uprisings that broke out across the region in 2011; “many of the same issue are at stake,” he says, “many of the same dangers loom.”

Justice in Syria Could Help Break the Cycle of Revenge: Interview with Jeffrey Howell

A man walks amid bombed buildings in Homs, Syria, February 2014. (flickr/Freedom House)

While the war in Syria rages on, the concept of justice may seem like a distant ideal. But one group is collecting documentation on war crimes and crimes against humanity so that perpetrators may be brought to justice when the conflict ends. At that time, “the decision to prosecute should be made so that the victims of this conflict have not died in vain,” said Jeffrey Howell, Chief of Staff for the Syrian Accountability Project, which was started at Syracuse University’s College of Law in 2011. In the long term, this can also contribute to peace by breaking the cycle of revenge, according to Mr. Howell, since “you can't rebuild your country on revenge; you can only rebuild your country on justice.” 

This interview was conducted by Margaret Williams, Research Assistant at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

What is the Syrian Accountability Project, and how might its investigation efforts help the international community to eventually prosecute crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Syria?

The Syrian Accountability Project is a cooperative effort between practitioners, students, and nongovernmental organizations to investigate potential war crimes and crimes against humanity occurring in the context of Syria. What it's going to enable the international community to do, we hope, later on is to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. We use primarily open-source documentation up to this point. 

We provide a little bit of analysis as to the information that is out there, putting different pieces of information together in a way that we hope will reveal patterns of conduct that we can use to prepare sample indictments for the individuals that either bear the greatest responsibility or those who are the most responsible—of course, both of those having different legal significance. But we think this will really assist the international community later on in not having to go back and start from scratch when the prosecution efforts do start.

Building off of this idea of not wanting to start from scratch, the head of the Syrian Accountability Project is Professor David Crane, and he, as you know, was chief prosecutor of the special Court of Sierra Leone from 2002–2005. What is the connection between the lessons he learned in Sierra Leone and the current proposal for a war crimes court for a post-conflict Syria?

Again, I can speak through my experience working with him. I'll do my best to give my insights on that. I think the primary connection that I've seen in our work together is the subject of representational charging. Obviously when you're dealing with a conflict on the scale of something like Sierra Leone or Syria, you've got so many crimes it's impossible to possibly charge all of them. So, what we try to do through representational charging is, through our sample indictments, we try to give the Syrian people a sense that justice was done for the crimes that they suffered in their home town. 

Key Global Events to Watch in April

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

      • April 1: US-ASEAN Defense Forum, Honolulu
        US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discusses Pacific regional issues with his counterparts from Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, and other ASEAN countries at the first US-hosted US-ASEAN Defense Forum, an informal meeting of the defense ministers of 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. However, Thailand’s defense minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is also the country’s prime minister, is not expected to attend due to ongoing domestic political uncertainty. This gathering happens at a time when tensions are growing in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, with a more assertive China in the Southeast Asian region. Although the US rebalance toward Asia goes well beyond the military dimension, hosting the US-ASEAN defense ministers' meeting on US soil reinforces the military angle of the US as a Pacific power. 
      • April 1–2: NATO meeting on Ukraine, Brussels
        Foreign ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meet at the military alliance’s headquarters to forge a response to the crisis in Ukraine on its eastern frontier. Items on the agenda include training for Ukrainian forces and a possible suspension of cooperation with Russia. With joint NATO military exercises planned, which are likely to bring US forces in proximity with their Russian counterparts in Crimea, tensions remain high.
      • April 7–9: P5+1 Resume Talks with Iran, Vienna
        Six world powers continue to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program. Although a final deal is sought by July, negotiations will likely continue beyond then. In exchange for lifting sanctions, the six world powers want Tehran to downgrade many aspects of its civil nuclear program, with the US especially concerned about the Arak heavy water reactor. With American and Iranian conservatives drawing hard lines on Iran’s ability to produce weapons-grade uranium and Tehran’s autonomy, respectively, overcoming domestic resistance is one long-term obstacle. In the short term, though, some observers are waiting to see if tensions over the crisis in Ukraine affects the P5+1 diplomats’ ability to stand united on this historical agreement with Iran.
      • Mid-April: Arria-Formula Meeting on North Korea
        The UN Security Council meets sometime midmonth for an informal discussion on the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, which has detailed various human rights abuses in the isolated nation. Although the Commission's report suggests North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and others be referred to the International Criminal Court, China would almost certainly block any such Security Council action. However, further sanctions—including additional blacklisting of high-level military personnel—are a possibility.
      • April 29: Israel-Palestine Peace Accord Deadline
        April 29th marks the end of the current period of US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which began in July 2013. As the negotiation process hits another snag over prisoner release and mutual party mistrust, envoys and diplomats on all sides are engaged in last-minute negotiations to agree to a “framework” for future peace talks in order to extend the process beyond the April 29th deadline. 

Citizens Circumvent Turkey's Bans on Social Media

Turkish graffiti says "let your bird sing" next to Google's DNS servers’ IP addresses, used to circumvent the government's Twitter ban. Image via @FindikKahve/Twitter.

There is an informal rule that the more one attempts to hide, remove, or censor information on the Internet, the more widely publicized that information becomes. We’ve seen this in a number of cases. Some have been serious, like the 2009 attempt by a multinational oil company to suppress The Guardian’s reporting of a toxic waste dump scandal, which resulted in the corporation’s name trending negatively on Twitter. Others have been humorous, such as the 2003 case of Barbara Streisand attempting to suppress photos of her mansion in Malibu, California, from a series of stock photographs of the Malibu coastline, which resulted in half a million additional visits to the website hosting the stock photos. This last incident is where the rule gets its name: the Streisand Effect.

The efforts by the Turkish government to shut down citizens’ access to Twitter offer a telling example of the national security implications of the Streisand Effect. On March 20th, the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan banned the use of Twitter in the country. A week later, it banned YouTube too. This comes in the lead up to local and presidential elections taking place this year and amid a series of wiretap leaks that allegedly show corruption at the heart of the Erdoğan administration. 

Erdoğan has claimed that social media outlets are enabling shadowy actors to spread false information without fear of repercussions. In the case of Twitter, the prime minister went so far as to say that he would “eradicate” the site from the country. 

In actuality, Turks use of the social media service rose after the prime minister’s announcement about Twitter—by 138 percent. One analytics group counted 1.2 million tweets in the 24-hour period following the ban. 

Humanitarian Aid vs Resilience Debate Should Put Priorities in Context

Humanitarian workers from the Dominican Republic prepare to distribute food  after the earthquake in Haiti, January 19, 2010. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

A heated debate over whether humanitarian aid should also include building  longer-term resilience in communities was triggered in the blogosphere in February by Jonathan Whittall, Mit Philips, and Michiel Hofman from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). They argued that the resilience concept, as a bridge between humanitarian response and development aid, distracts humanitarian actors from short-term life-saving activities by focusing on supporting local and national systems to better face and recover from shocks over the longer term. 

Paul Harvey from Humanitarian Outcomes then rebuffed the argument, stating that, by being de facto involved in decades-long protracted emergencies, humanitarian actors have the responsibility to plan long term by building resilient systems and therefore avoid recurrent relapses into crises. This elicited reactions from Simon Levine from the Overseas Development Institute and Alyoscia D’Onofrio of the International Rescue Committee, as well as further arguments and counter-arguments by Paul Harvey and Jonathan Whittall.

Beyond the rhetoric, what is really at stake in this debate from MSF’s perspective is a worrying “decrease in the emergency capacity of so-called humanitarian organizations” in conflicts such as the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of the Congo—especially in areas under the control of nonstate armed groups— and that they correlate with the growing focus on resilience building. As Levine emphasized, “development is about choices a society makes on how to create and share out resources—so it’s always inherently political.” This makes development a “deliberate contradiction”—in MSF’s words—to humanitarian aid that should stay at arm's length from political controversies (thus preserving neutrality) in order to deliver aid wherever it is needed (in keeping with impartiality), including in al-Shabaab or Taliban areas. With its focus on building systems, the argument goes, the resilience concept facilitates the co-opting of humanitarian aid by political stakeholders—including Western donors’ statebuilding and stabilization agendas. 

Are We Sleepwalking Towards War? Interview with Chris Clark

Chris Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

“Looking at the current crisis in Crimea, there is only one sleepwalker—Vladimir Putin,” said Chris Clark, referring to his bestselling book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, which describes how leaders during the First World War made decisions without thinking of the larger consequences. In 1914, he said, all five major powers were sleepwalking towards war.

Mr. Clark, Professor in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St. Catharine's College, was interviewed while in Vienna to receive the 2014 Bruno Kreisky Prize for Political Literature.  

The interview was conducted by Walter Kemp, Senior Director for Europe and Central Asia, and Maximilian M. Meduna, Policy Analyst, both based at the International Peace Institute's Vienna office. 

In your book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, you meticulously examine the complex developments that led the leaders of 1914 to a calamity, the First World War. One hundred years later, are the leaders of today sleepwalking into something unpredictable?

First, we have to clarify what we mean by “sleepwalking.” In my book, I argue that the leaders of 1914 were not acting in an unconscious way as the analogy might suggest. It would be a mistake to attribute no responsibility or guilt to these leaders and the decisions they made. I don’t think that in 1914 the “nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay,” as Lloyd George put it. World War I was not an accident; we must understand the complex web of effects of agency that pushed Europe into the catastrophe. “Sleepwalking” in this context means that despite the rational and—within their subjective logic—intelligent decisions they made, the leaders of 1914 had a limited awareness of the larger consequences of their decisions—the systemic outcome of individual, rational decisions was irrational and not induced by any single one of them.

Today, the world is different—modern democracies tend to have transparent and well-considered decision-making mechanisms. Looking at the current crisis in Crimea, there is only one actor prepared to escalate the situation—Vladimir Putin. Yes, the European Union could have integrated Russia more into its policy making in early phases of its bilateral relations with Ukraine, as the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently conceded. But right now it is important to exercise caution to avoid a further escalation. What is needed is the rhetoric of restraint. The Western powers have options for maintaining the pressure on Russia in the medium term, but for the moment leaders must uphold efforts to keep available channels of exchange open. In any case, a system-wide escalation like a hundred years ago is highly improbable with only one “sleepwalker” on the stage. As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango,” and in 1914 there were five powers eager to hit the dance floor.

As CAR Peacekeeping Prepares to Expand, National Commitment Could Prevent Past Mistakes

Soldiers from the Rwandan Defense Force arrive in Bangui to join the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA), January 17, 2014. (US Army Africa/Tom Byrd)

Yesterday, the head of African peacekeepers in the Central African Republic (CAR) declared the anti-balaka, a violent militia that is party to the current conflict, “enemies” of the peacekeeping force, adding another layer to the complex and multifaceted crisis that has killed thousands and displaced a quarter of the country’s population.  

The crisis, which first caught international attention in March 2013 when Seleka rebels ousted CAR President François Bozizé, led the United Nations Secretary-General to announce in February a six-point initiative for CAR, followed in March by a proposal to transform the African-led International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA) into a UN peacekeeping operation. While the African Union has acknowledged the need for a comprehensive UN peace operation, it has also recommended several elements to be considered ahead of the deployment of the new mission, some of which can prove useful in overcoming the recurring crises in CAR. 

However, beyond the necessary coordination of the UN Security Council’s partnership with an increasingly assertive regional organization, sustainable peace and stability in CAR will remain as elusive as in the past unless national actors demonstrate the necessary political commitment that will ensure the sustainability of all regional and international efforts poured into the country to address the current crisis.

Elections Not Enough to Bring Stability to Troubled Guinea-Bissau

A voter education poster displayed in Biombo, Guinea-Bissau, during the parliamentary election, November 2008. 

It is widely accepted that elections do not make a democracy, but they are generally viewed as a key first step in that direction. As the campaign for legislative and presidential elections kicked off in Guinea-Bissau last Saturday, it was clear that hopes for this first step may be overstated.

Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s poorest nations, and the West African country of 1.7 million people has been plagued with political problems over the last several years. No president has ever fully completed his term. And though the late 2000s were marked by a modest yet cautious increase in international confidence in the country, the most recent period of unrest was triggered by the March 2009 assassination of the head of the armed forces and the apparent revenge killing of the president shortly afterwards. Three years later, the military carried out a coup in April 2012 as a new government was being formed, removing the front-runner for the presidency, Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior. 

Ever since, the military has continued to hold a tight rein on power. Several times after the coup occurred, plans to hold elections have failed; they are now slated for April 2014, though there is a strong possibility that these will be delayed. 

However, even if these elections are held—providing some increased legitimacy to the new government and putting the international community more at ease—it is unlikely that stability will follow. The elite level power struggles perpetuated through certain individuals and groups will remain intact and undealt with. 

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