Airstrikes on ISIS Bring New Dimension to Aid Worker Safety: Q&A with David Miliband

In Qaraqosh, Iraq, an aid worker checks names during aid distribution to a group fleeing Mosul after ISIS took over the city, July 22, 2014. (Vianney Le Caer/Demotix/Corbis)

Attacks on the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) by the US and its allies have forced aid workers in the region to make a range of contingency plans, said David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. “We're having to be extremely fleet of foot in the way that we continue to service the humanitarian imperative of bringing help to people in need without putting our people in danger,” he told Marie O’Reilly, associate editor at the International Peace Institute.

Mr. Miliband said the crisis in Syria has stretched the humanitarian system to its limit. “If I'd been doing this interview three years ago, and I’d said there would be 200,000 dead, chemical weapons used, nine million displaced within the country, three million refugees in the neighboring countries, many people would have said I was being alarmist.”

The crisis in Syria is forcing the humanitarian system to confront questions of impartiality, aid worker safety, and how to meet the needs of women and girls, who make up the majority of refugees—all topics covered in this Q&A with Mr. Miliband.

Countering ISIS Needs Multifaceted Approach: Interview with Iyad Madani

OIC Secretary-General Madani at the International Peace Institute, September 19, 2014. (Don Pollard)

The secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Iyad Ameen Madani, said that to counter violent movements such as the Islamic State (ISIS), airstrikes and ground troops are not enough. “This will not do it,” he said. “This is necessary, but it has to be combined with efforts on other fronts.”

Mr. Madani said countering extremism requires a multifaceted approach, the first track of which is confronting those who are spreading a wrong interpretation of Islam, including some who call themselves Muslim scholars.  “These extreme notions and interpretations of Islam were not invented by the ISIS,” he said. “And these people have to be confronted, because they don't realize that what they say is used to recruit young people with very little knowledge about Islam.”

Mr. Madani said a second track in fighting militants is to improve “the economic situation, the poverty, the exclusion, the sense of despair that most of these young people are going through.”

Four Key Global Challenges Not Discussed at the UN General Assembly This Year

Police secure an area around UN headquarters as world leaders gather for the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York.  (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Observing the annual opening session of the UN General Assembly from a certain distance for the first time in ten years, it is quite refreshing. On the one hand, it spares me the “circus” of road blocks, media vans, motorcades, receptions, and overcrowded streets around Turtle Bay in New York. On the other hand, stripped to its essence—the actual debate—the event remains a unique opportunity to take the pulse of global affairs, as I have argued in the past. The statements on the threat posed by the Islamic State and extremism on Wednesday make the new “coalition of the willing” look more like a “coalition of the ambiguous,” whose members have competing interests and divergent agendas. This properly reflects the tone of global reality beyond the rhetoric, highlighting the growing geopolitical tensions.

Leaders in New York are focusing on the crises at hand, in particular terrorism and extremism, Ebola in West Africa, and climate change. Development, and in particular the post-2015 agenda, which currently proposes 17 new Sustainable Development Goals, also takes central stage in the speeches, with countries stressing different angles, be it poverty, inequality, health, or environment, depending on their main concern. It is not surprising that governments focus on the urgent troubles under the spotlight.

Fiji Elections Open Door for Re-engagement with Australia, US

Former military ruler Frank Bainimarama claimed victory on Sunday in the country's first democratic election since he led a coup eight years ago. (Simon Watts/Getty Images)

In much anticipated elections in the Pacific island state of Fiji on September 17, Fijians elected a government led by the former military commander who usurped power in a coup in 2006. After eight years of authoritarian rule, Rear Admiral (Ret) Frank Bainimarama has secured a mandate from the people from these elections. His party, FijiFirst, won 32 seats, a clear majority in the new 50-seat parliament.

The US State Department has congratulated the Fiji people for the “steps they have taken towards restoring democracy, including conducting the historic vote on September.” Julie Bishop, the foreign minister of Australia—Fiji’s major trade and investment partner—has similarly welcomed the historic elections in Fiji but cautioned that there was more to democracy than holding elections.

Building a Sustainable Future Requires Leadership from State and Citizen

A mother and daughter walk to a polling station in Juba during South Sudan's independence referendum, January 10, 2011. (Spencer Platt)

During the next 12 months, the United Nations, its member states, and partners will define their vision for sustainable development over the next 15 years. Earlier this month, the UN General Assembly agreed that its Open Working Group’s proposals for 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) would form the basis for a transformative post-2015 development agenda. However, this noble vision can only be implemented if it has the power to inspire citizens around the world. In some regions, this will be much harder than in others, especially where the main structures of the state entrusted with leading the goals’ implementation are under severe stress. Yet the future of this visionary endeavor rests, more than anything else, on questions of governance and leadership.

The 17 SDGs define objectives for governments and multilateral agencies, with measureable targets. A product of negotiation, they will never be perfect. Critics argue that there are too many themes, that the goals are too vague, or that they are not sufficiently focused on empowering people and communities. Yet the fact is that these goals have the potential to energize a new, genuine spirit of partnership that can unite forces for goodwill around the world.

Risk and Robustness: A Conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In April 2013, structural problems caused the collapse of a garment factory building in Savar, Bangladesh, resulting in 1,129 dead and  2,515 injured. (Rijans/Flickr)

Why is orange juice more dangerous than terrorism? Why is suppressing volatility dangerous? And why does international relations tend toward anecdotal sensationalism? Nassim Nicholas Taleb, best-selling author of The Black Swan and Antifragile explains in this interview with Walter Kemp, IPI's senior director for Europe and Central Asia. Mr. Taleb—a former businessman—is a philosopher and professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute.   

How can you predict events if, as you say, dominant risks are silent?

The type of work that IPI does has a much higher degree of unpredictability than anything else because the interactions that you look at belong to complex (rather than ordinary) systems. You might be able to predict the weather tomorrow, but you cannot predict the outcome of stock markets, wars, diplomatic negotiations, or things like that. So based on that, you have to completely change your approach. Rather than naively fooling yourself into thinking that you can predict, you should focus on building systems that can handle unpredictability. By not accepting unpredictability, you are doing something wrong.

Killing of al-Shabaab Leader Throws Future of Militant Group into Question

AMISOM's Brig. General Dick Olum speaks to his soldiers before the launch of the military Operation Indian Ocean against al-Shabaab in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia, August 29, 2014. (AMISOM/Tobin Jones)

On September 1, the leader of the Somalia-based extremist group al-Shabaab, Ahmed Abdi Godane, was killed in a US-led drone strike in an al-Shabaab stronghold in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. The drone strike coincided with an ongoing military offensive launched August 25 by the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali government forces in southern and central Somalia, dubbed Operation Indian Ocean.

Godane’s death and the simultaneous territorial losses faced by the group in the Middle and Lower Shabelle regions have raised various concerns over al-Shabaab’s response and how the militant group—which controls most of southern and central Somalia, and has carried out several terrorist attacks in the region—will function under its newly-appointed leadership. While the killing of Godane may represent a significant victory to some, the impact of his death may result in an increase in terrorist assaults in the region in the short term. Long-term implications are harder to assess.

As UN Troops Withdraw from Syrian Golan Heights, Stakes Increase for Israel and Lebanon

In June 2013, Syrian opposition forces attempted to take control of the Syrian side of the Syria-Lebanon-Israel border, and in particular, the Quneitra border crossing, recognizing its strategic and symbolic importance. More than a year later, they finally succeeded. On August 27, the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate Syrian organization, took over the Syrian side of the border-crossing after fierce fighting with the regime’s army and abducted 45 Fijian United Nations peacekeepers, releasing them on September 11 only after Qatar paid a large ransom. The Irish and Filipino battalions of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were spared a similar fate thanks to the direct involvement of the Israeli army which, by providing intelligence and guidance, helped them cross the border unharmed into Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. This week, more UN forces withdrew from the Syrian side as armed groups made further advances on peacekeepers’ positions.

Twenty miles north in Lebanon, there is increasing concern the activities of the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State will surge in ‘Arqub, an area on the northern slopes of Mount Hermon, and in particular, the village of Shebaa, the largest in the region. The region has been hosting thousands of Syrian citizens who fled their country because of the civil war, and there are grave concerns in Lebanon that Shebaa might meet the same fate as Arsal, the predominantly Sunni village in northern Lebanon that, since early August, has been the site of a series of violent clashes between radical Islamists and the Lebanese Army, causing the killing of scores of soldiers, the abduction of nineteen others, and the public beheading of one them, dragging Lebanon deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

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