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Category: Prevent War

September 11, 2001: The Day the World Shifted

World Trade Center tribute in lights

This piece was originally published on September 11, 2011. It has been reposted to reflect on the tragic events and impacts of 9/11 and on our international strategy going forward.

Ten years ago, while driving to work, I watched in horror as smoke and flames billowed from the Pentagon from across the Potomac River. Later, huddled in a basement office, our small staff overcame its fear that this was "the beginning of the end" and got to work.

The message sent that day to our members began, "The world has shifted."  Like the first few moments after an earthquake, we didn't know how bad the damage was, but we knew the world would never be the same again. I wrote then:

"Right now, I am as fearful of the knee jerk reaction that our nation could embark upon, as I am by the damage that those forces behind these attacks can inflict.

We who work for a more peaceful and just world must be the voice that says more than 'strike back.'  We must talk about what we can do to stop this from happening again.... Military might is not enough to halt a determined foe that is willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe in and use all means available to lash out.  The United States should seek to find those behind this attack and bring them to justice.  But at the same time it should evaluate what damage it has done by hamstringing the growth of a democratic system of international governance that will allow members of every society to feel that they are stakeholder, rather than downtrodden serfs, in our global village.

I ask all of you in the days ahead to be the courageous voice of sanity and reason and help turn this tragedy into the beginning of a healing rather than the beginning of the end."

May 29: UN "Blue Helmets" Day

How effective are UN peacekeeping operations in preventing and stopping violence? What about in addressing the root causes of conflicts? How does one measure this effectiveness? Are there alternatives to the ways that UN and regional organizations currently carry out peacekeeping operations?

May 29 is the date that the UN General Assembly has designated as the day to honor the efforts of UN Military peacekeepers. Honor is due. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the “Blue Helmets” in 1988 − a testimony to the respect and confidence placed in them.

However, we must also examine their effectiveness and question whether these military personnel should be complemented by other forms of peace-building.

There have been recent news stories of UN peace operations in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo that highlight the inability or unwillingness of UN troops to stop the systematic rape of local women.  Rape has become standard practice in the area, on the part of both members of the armed insurgencies as well as by members of the regular Congolese Army. This is just one example of “failure” being a key word in evaluating UN forces.

One problem is that there are no permanent UN-trained and -motivated troops. There are only national units loaned by some national governments but paid for by all UN Member States. Each government trains its army in its own spirit and values, though there is still an original English ethos as many UN troops come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Nigeria. Now China is starting to provide troops with a non-English tradition.

Syria: Back to Square One for Good-Faith Negotiations

With the resignation of Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi as the UN-League of Arab States mediator in the Syrian conflict, I fear that we may be “back to square one” in terms of negotiations in good faith.

After the failure of Geneva II, where the Syrian government representatives and those of different armed opposition movements were unwilling to deliberate seriously—often refusing even to meet in the same room—the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi was openly discussed by participants, including Brahimi himself.

Brahimi had to walk between the two rooms in the UN Palais des Nations − one where the government representatives sat and the other filled with some representatives of the armed opposition. (Fortunately, the rooms were on the same floor). However, despite Brahimi’s skills and experience as a negotiator and help from the UN Secretariat, Geneva II negotiations went nowhere.

Although an NGO representative does not have the standing of official mediators, I have been involved since the early days of the armed uprising in Syria in discussions with some members of opposition groups in Paris and Geneva. I have also worked at some length with the Syrian Ambassador to the UN to find ways to encourage negotiations in good faith.

My hope was to find issues that were negotiable and thus create a sort of agenda for face-to-face negotiations. I knew from the start that there were certain issues that were not negotiable. The departure of President Assad and the creation of a transition government on the Yemen model always seemed to me to be a “non-starter,” although the Geneva I negotiations, which were only between US and Russian diplomats, had pushed for such a transition.

The Peace of Westphalia?

The Peace of Westphalia?

Nearly 300 young girls are still missing in Nigeria where they were kidnapped nearly a month ago by a murderous group of extremists calling themselves Boko Haram. They have claimed credit for this crime and intend to sell the young girls as sex slaves to help pay for future murders and crimes.

There are many contributing factors to this mass kidnapping, but the primary reason these girls were not rescued immediately or shortly thereafter is the world's persistence acceptance of "national sovereignty" as the dominant paradigm of global governance.

In other words, humanity still accepts the right of every national government to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, to whomever it wants within its own borders. This barbaric paradigm was established nearly 400 years ago by the Treaty of Westphalia and remains today as the primary agreement between nations.

President Obama recently claimed there is nothing we can do about this crime against humanity because Nigeria is a Sovereign state. We offered some help once that government responded to our diplomatic cries, but that took weeks. Now it will be infinitely harder to find these girls and return those that are still alive to their grieving mothers.

The mind-numbing reality is that even if the UN had decided to take action immediately, it couldn't have done so without first getting a decision by the UN Security Council. And, even with it, the UN has no established police force or SWAT team with a mandate or the capacity to protect innocent lives on short notice. National governments, including the US, has made sure of that. That is how strongly we still believe in the supremacy of nations' sovereignty.

Conflict is Not the Way Forward

"Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it."

The Washington Post recently published an article entitled “In the long run, wars make us safer and richer” by Ian Morris. In the article, Morris argues that through “10,000 years of conflict, humanity has created larger, more organized societies,” greatly increasing human safety and promoting economic growth.

In the Stone Age, 10-20% of all humans died at the hands of other people. By contrast, in the past 100 years, only 1-2% of the world’s population died violently. Similarly, prosperity has increased, with life expectancy more than doubling (from 30 to 67) and average income rising from $2 to $25 per day. According to Morris, all of this happened because “war made states, and states made peace.” While he admits that war “may well be the worst way imaginable to create larger, more peaceful societies,” Morris asserts that it is the only way.

This argument, however, assumes that pacification and suppression of dissent equals peace. It does not. Violent conflict merely creates the illusion of peace, which is broken as soon as those who have been suppressed garner the strength to rise up against those who beat them down. If violent conflict had really created peace through pacification, it would have ended after the first war. Instead, the cycle of conflict continues.

A very obvious example is World War II. Hitler was able to rise to power on the wave of support he gathered by speaking out against the allies and reparations that bankrupted Germany after the first World War. If peace rather than revenge had been sought in the wake of WWII, Hitler would have had no platform from which to acquire power.

Polio’s Resurgence and the Globalization of Disease

A health volunteer vaccinates a one year old boy against polio in Kabul, Afghanistan, 2009 (UN Photo/Jawad Jalali)

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global health emergency stating that polio is rapidly re-emerging as a threat – its expansion in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Cameroon is truly concerning despite the disease being nearly eradicated in the last few years. The emergency status used includes requirements that people cannot travel from affected countries without evidence of vaccination, and each country is taking additional steps where possible to step up its anti-polio programs.

It didn’t have to be this way. While polio is a devastating illness that paralyzes and sometimes kills its victims, vaccination usually prevents the disease from taking hold. The problem isn’t just that these states have remote or tribal areas that are difficult to reach with vaccines – many states have remote regions and have been able to reach them with state-, UN-, or donor-operated vaccination programs.

Stop the War on International Law

The Senate’s failure to adopt a single global agreement dealing with human rights, arms control, or the environment since 1997 has damaged the United States’ security, economy, and global leadership.

“The children were all asleep in bed and I was just going off to sleep…when I heard people outside saying chemical bombs were being dropped around us,” said Samer, a Syrian refugee. His children survived the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus in 2013.

Thankfully, by mid-April of this year, 93% of the Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles have been removed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the watchdog arm of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The United States and other parties to this treaty had worked through the UN Security Council and pressured Syria to accede to the Convention.  They are now pushing for the remaining chemicals to be destroyed. 

But despite the successful use of international law to take these horrendous weapons out of play in the Syrian civil war, another kind of war is being fought within the United States.  The frontlines of the War on International Law stretch from the Senate floor to the living rooms of home-schoolers. 

A coordinated and well-funded opposition is doing everything it can to stop the US from ratifying any multilateral treaties. And, to the detriment of our nation and the world, they’re winning.  The Senate’s failure to adopt a single global agreement dealing with human rights, arms control, or the environment since 1997--when it agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention--has damaged the United States’ security, economy, and global leadership. 

Globocop? No Thanks.

It ought to go without saying that, as Lorraine Schneider’s legendary 1966 peace poster put it, “War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.”

Unfortunately, even something that seems so abundantly obvious is now up for debate.  Washington is atwitter with the proposition that “in the long run, wars make us safer and richer” – an argument put forward by Stanford University professor Ian Morris in a new book, which he condensed into a column published in the Washington Post on April 27.

Morris’ rationale goes something like this: People today are much less likely to die from violent causes than at any time in history.  This is because people are safer inside states, even repressive ones, than they are under anarchy.  Since the creation of states was made possible only by war, it is ultimately war that has made people safe.

In the course of making his case, Morris goes on to dismiss the extermination of Native Americans and the murderous regimes of Hitler and Stalin as, in effect, unfortunate byproducts of a historically beneficial trend.  He defends imperialism as part of the “civilizing process” and warns that the world could be thrown into chaos “unless Washington embraces its role as the only possible globocop in an increasingly unstable world.”

Morris’ thesis, aside from being offensive on its face, suffers from numerous errors in logic. 

Is Russia Assaulting Sovereignty?

Pro-Russian Demonstrators Beat an Activist in Kharkiv, Ukraine on April 13, 2014 - See more at:

Russia’s intervention into the internal affairs of Ukraine may seem like a breathtaking assault on the international system. After all, Ukraine and its citizens have the right to determine their own future without the interference of other states, an international norm that has also become international law.

But Russia’s rather blatant meddling isn’t so much groundbreaking as it is a feature of the system. The question is less whether we’re okay with Russia breaking what had been a stable equilibrium in Ukraine (we shouldn’t be okay with it, though), but whether we’re okay with a system that favors the powerful, especially powerful states, over the weak, especially those in weak states.

While Russia denies allegations that it is supporting pro-Russian militias and demonstrations in Eastern Ukraine, there are good reasons to doubt those denials. More importantly, the norm of non-interference has clearly been broken: Russia admits to sending forces to Crimea and directly influenced various events leading up to its alliance with Russia; claims that Russia can get pro-Russian militias in Eastern Ukraine to stand down and obvious troop buildups along the border are meant to influence the policies of the Ukrainian government in ways that are typically out-of-bounds for international politics.

Is South Sudan Sliding Into Chaos?

South Sudan soldiers ride on a truck in Bor, about 100 miles outside the capital.(Photo:James Akena/Reuters /Landov)

Violence has re-escalated in South Sudan as a new wave of attacks this month have included a UN base, places of worship, and other sites typically treated as neutral ground in conflicts. With the conflict taking on an increasingly ethnic and retaliatory tinge, we now must worry about how we might prevent these setbacks from spiraling into something far worse.

The last few months of conflict in South Sudan originate from a political falling out between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, when Kiir dismissed Machar and the entire cabinet in July 2013. After months of recriminations, a rebel movement began attacks in December 2013. Machar took responsibility for this movement and its continued operations just two weeks after a public ceasefire agreement between Kiir’s government and rebel groups in January.

That ceasefire has been broken repeatedly in the months since, and is all but dead in the wake of this recent wave of attacks.