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UN Peacekeeping in Syria and Iraq: Why not?

UN Peacekeepers at Work

"Do you see UN Peacekeeping as a viable option to help solve the humanitarian crises in Syria and Iraq?” I asked Hervé Ladsous, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations. Couldn’t UN Peacekeepers help remedy the enormous humanitarian dilemma that has resulted from these two crises-- with millions now suffering from a shortage of food and clean water?

“The answer to your question is no,” stated Mr. Ladsous, without even the slightest hesitation. “We wish we could help the people suffering, but the magnitude of the two crises is simply much too large for the UN to handle.”

It was at that point I found myself disagreeing with one of the world’s leaders in peacekeeping. For if we wish to help solve two of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history, UN Peacekeepers must be involved.

They must be involved because they are undoubtedly the best and most well-trained peacekeeping group in the entire world. They are experts at delivering supplies to those who need them, and quickly. They are adept at helping to mend differences between ethnic groups, often healing situations that many had previously thought were beyond repair. They remain 100 percent committed to their missions no matter the circumstance--some even paying the ultimate price in a concerted effort to help make the world a better place.

Now, I understand that some of you may be looking at me sideways at this point, and are thinking of the various studies that have recently come out declaring that UN Peacekeeping is only marginally effective, if that. You probably want an answer for some of the UN Peacekeeping’s failures--like the Rwanda catastrophe in 1994 or Kosovo’s bloody civil war in 1999, and you deserve one.

UN Should Deliver Humanitarian Aid Without Assad's Consent

A Syrian refugee girl sits on humanitarian aid boxesin the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, Sept. 8, 2013 - Reuters

The number of people needing humanitarian aid in Syria has reached nearly 11 million – half the country’s population. Yet with Syria’s ongoing civil war, the only way for aid to reach those in need is for the government of Bashar Assad to allow aid workers into affected areas.

To say the least, this is a poor system for ensuring the basic needs of millions of people. With the country in tatters, people must have unfettered access to food, water, medicine, and other necessities: life shouldn’t be held up by checkpoints and constant threats. With mounting evidence that Assad has used food and aid access as a weapon of war – to maintain and demand loyalty of Syrians wherever they might be – the international community has clearly needed some way to take control of humanitarian aid away from those who might use its access arbitrarily or maliciously.

Iraq: What Does One Do with the Broken Pieces?

Refugees fleeing from Mosul, Iraq

There is typically a sign in shops selling china and porcelain that reads, “Do not touch; If you break it, you buy it.” Rather than portraits of Saddam Hussein, a sign like this should have been hung at the entrance to Bagdad.

With Iraq in armed confusion as sectors of the country change sides and the Iraqi government seemingly incapable of an adequate response other than to call for military help, as concerned world citizens, we must ask ourselves: what can we do?

The forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have broken down a wall on the frontier between Iraq and Syria as a symbol of abolishing national frontiers to be replaced by a community of the Islamic faithful − the umma. In some ways, we are back to the early days of the post-World War I period when France and England tried to re-structure the part of the Ottoman Empire that is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, Turkey and an ill-defined Kurdistan.

During 1915, Sir Mark Sykes, a Tory M.P. and a specialist on Turkish affairs and Francois Picot, a French political figure with strong links to colonial factions in the French Senate negotiated how to re-structure the Ottoman Empire to the benefit of England and France. Although these were considered “secret negotiations,” Sykes reported to Lord Kitchener, the War Minister, and Picot had joined the French Foreign Ministry as war service.

However, both operated largely as “free agents”. Today Sykes and Picot are recalled for no other achievement than their talent in dividing. The agreement between them was signed in January 1916 but kept in a drawer until the war was over. In April 1920 at San Remo, France and England made the divisions official.

The Expansion of the Syrian Civil War into Iraq: What Should the US Do?

ISIS in Iraq

It is undeniable that Iraq is in major trouble. Dozens of cities once thought to be impenetrable to jihadists have suddenly been overrun by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), a militant group so violent that even Al Qaeda refuses to be associated with them. Gory videos have emerged on the Internet showing militants executing vast numbers of captured Iraqi soldiers in cold blood. Images of abandoned Iraqi troop posts have become commonplace on news networks, as many Iraqi soldiers have made the decision to escape with their lives rather than fight.

As a result, all eyes have turned to the White House and how the President of the most powerful nation in the world will respond. Indeed, many people have begun to wonder: what will Obama do?

Nobody truly knows the answer to this question, but we may have gotten some hints during the last few days. For instance, Obama recently declared that the option of “boots on the ground” is off the table, to the chagrin of many Republicans. Additionally, we have learned that Obama is considering authorizing US air strikes against ISIS, a measure that the head of the Iraqi government has requested.  

In my opinion, however, Obama must respond in more ways than one if he wishes to end this recent reign of terror in Iraq. He must begin by addressing the roots of the problem, which lie in the two warring factions in Syria: the Sunnis and the Alawites. Obama must work with our allies to help end the conflict between these two ethnic groups, one that has allowed ISIS to seize control of unclaimed land and use it to further grow their terrorism base.

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?

This month, 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 there 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 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 nation's sovereignty.

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.

Will Assad Dodge Justice Again?

(Image: DaveGranlund.com)

Happy belated Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare

This sad memoriam is observed annually on April 29th to "honor past victims and liberate future generations from the threat of chemical weapons," as noted by UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon. Regretfully, there are individuals alive today who may fall under its call for remembrance next year.

President Bashar al-Assad recently attacked his countries’ citizens with chlorine and ammonia gas. The effects were deadly. Victims’ lungs were burning and contact with the gases caused burning, irritated eyes and skin. It’s maddening to think that any leader could kill their countries’ citizens using crude barrel bombs and chemical gasses. It’s more enraging to think this is happening in an era of unprecedented international law.

Let’s not forget that Bashar has already used Sarin gas against the Syrian population back in 2013. Those attacks prompted President Obama to threaten Bashar with airstrikes citing the Responsibility to Protect. Yet Russia came to the rescue of its ally and forged a deal that kept Assad in power, dismantled Syria’s chemical weapons, and made Syria ascend to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The Weaponization of Hunger in Syria

Children sit with their belongings as they wait to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs February 12, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

On Friday reports surfaced that U.N. documents obtained by Foreign Policy show that the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been consistently cutting off food supplies to opposition-held areas in order to starve rebels and their supporters into submission. This is a clear-cut war crime under the Geneva Conventions and the UN Security Council needs to provide what evidence it has for this and other crimes against humanity in a referral to the International Criminal Court.

The basic evidence is this: as the World Food Programme has been implementing increased food aid under UN Security Council Resolution 2139, they have taken note of large population movements from opposition-controlled areas to government controlled areas. For months now, experts have been warning that the Assad regime is using hunger as a weapon of war: it cuts off food access to opposition-controlled areas, forcing rebels, supporters, and non-combatants to surrender or die an agonizing death from starvation. This is clearly a war crime: the fourth Geneva Convention explicitly protects the welfare of civilians in conflict.

War crimes demand response from the international community. Many war crimes, such as the use of chemical weapons, civilian targeting, or the use of powerful weapons of mass destruction, are blatant abuses of power and humanity that can often invite immediate reprobation from the international community, often escalating quickly into discussions of the extent to which response is required and how soon.

Global Justice: The Unrealizable Promise of International Institutions

The "Pale Blue Dot" photo of Earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from beyond the orbit of Pluto. We're the tiny dot.

In recent years, we’ve come to recognize that the world is interconnected, perhaps in ways and on a scale that it never has been before. We live together and affect each other on the same small planet and we are all fundamentally equal regardless of where we are born. Global justice is about deciding how the institutions those interactions create, formal and informal, social, political, and economic, should be managed in a just, equitable way, where everyone is treated fairly and no one is abused.

New international institutions were born in the last century to cope with the consequences of depression and devastating wars in a globalizing world. The United Nations was designed to pursue diplomacy on a variety of issues, and its Security Council in particular was designed to prevent great power war. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were designed to rebuild the global economy and keep it stable, so that every state can participate and so that no single state could make a mistake with its economy so terrible that it dooms us all. Institutions keep being birthed, too: a World Trade Organization has formed to help states better manage the flow of goods and services, an International Criminal Court started work just a decade ago to hold violators of human rights to account for their crimes, and more institutions have been created, including regional courts, issue-focused IGOs, and others.

These international institutions do much good, bringing food and shelter to refugees, helping us understand human rights violations, and helping keep the world stable in ways it may not be otherwise.