Friday, May 23, 2008

Can't the UN Do ANYTHING Right?

I've spent a fair amount of time on this blog bashing the United Nations. From its insistence on championing sovereign equality to making Zimbabwe the chair of the Sustainable Development Commission to the absurdity that is the Human Rights Council, the UN provides no end of opportunities to ridicule it. But, I am willing to give credit when its due. In my classes, if not on this blog, I often discuss how one thing that the UN is good at is peacekeeping. The UN is really good at peacekeeping, in fact, and may be the only actor really capable of doing it. Peacekeeping, as opposed to peace building, peace making, or peace enforcement, happens when two warring parties are ready to end the conflict between them, but do not have sufficient mutual trust to lay down their arms. A neutral third party is needed to, almost literally, stand in between the warring parties, to ensure that the terms of the settlement are followed and to reassure each side that the other is adhering to the rules. The UN, as a non-state actor with a reputation for neutrality and impartiality, is very good at doing this, and is capable of drawing peacekeeping forces from smaller, non-aligned states. From the Sinai to the Golan, from Cambodia to Cyprus, UN peacekeepers can take pride in the fact that their efforts have helped end numerous conflicts around the world.

Which is what makes this piece in today's New York Times so distressing. Written by Matthias Basanisi, a former deputy chief investigator with the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services in Congo, the piece asserts that there is credible evidence of "gold smuggling and arms trafficking by [UN] peacekeepers in Congo." Basanisi was previously in charge of the investigation into these allegations, but claims that:

the investigation was taken away from my team after we resisted what we saw as attempts to influence the outcome. My fellow team members and I were appalled to see that the oversight office’s final report was little short of a whitewash.

The reports we submitted to the office’s senior management in 2006 included credible information from witnesses confirming illegal deals between Pakistani peacekeepers and warlords from the Front for National Integration, an ethnic militia group notorious for its cruelty even in such a brutal war. We found corroborative information that senior officers of the Pakistani contingent secretly returned seized weapons to two warlords in exchange for gold, and that the Pakistani peacekeepers tipped off two warlords about plans by the United Nations peacekeeping force and the Congolese Army to arrest them. And yet, much of the evidence we uncovered was excluded from the final report released last summer, including corroboration from the warlords themselves.

Basanisi claims that the impetus for the cover-up is an unwillingness to offend Pakistan and India, two countries that provide large numbers of troops for UN peacekeeping missions.

Beyond the criminality and sheer audacity of these actions (not to mention reports of rape, pedophilia, and prostitution), it is absolutely imperative that the UN not only address these allegations, but move swiftly to punish those responsibility. The success of the UN in peacekeeping rests on its reputation; only if peacekeepers are seen to be unbiased, neutral, and fair can their missions succeed. If actors worry that UN peacekeepers will give preferential treatment to whichever side can pay more and that the UN itself will do nothing in response, it will become less and less likely that warring parties will be willing to end their conflict and allow peacekeepers to deploy. This scandal is about much more than criminal actions; it threatens to undermine one of the vital tools for ending conflict that the international community has at its disposal.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Good Thing the UN Has Its Priorities Straight

UN Watch is reporting that while the UN Human Rights Council has responded positively to Cuba's request to investigate rising food prices, the Council isn't interested in looking into the refusal by the ruling junta of Myanmar to allow relief to the millions of people suffering in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. When asked why the Council was h0lding a special session on food prices (an important, but long-term issue) but not on the situation in Myanmar, Rupert Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights responded that "the Council had a very full programme, including the Universal Periodic Review, so it was a pretty packed schedule at the moment and it would be difficult to fit it in."


This would be shocking, if it wasn't so unsurprising. Bashing the UN is like shooting fish in a barrel. A country's government blocks and steals humanitarian relief aid, and the international body tasked with investigating human rights abuses can't be bothered to find time to even look in to it? The Human Rights Council should be abolished and not replaced unless the UN can get beyond its slavish devotion to sovereign equality and create an institution that works.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Kiva It Forward

It's a very exciting day in my career as a micro-financier! My first loan, made on August 1, 2007 to Dung Truong Thi of VietNam, has been repaid! Dung borrowed $75 from three lenders to expand her pig raising business. Dung repaid her loan $9 per month, and made the final payment today. Congratulations, Dung! I hope your business is thriving and that you have been able to allow your children to continue their educations.

Once a Kiva loan is repaid, you have the option of getting your money back, or relending the funds. I have chosen the latter option. The newest recipient is Phou Ly of Cambodia, who is borrowing $1,200 to expand her restaurant in Phnom Penh. She will be repaying her loan over the next 10 months.

As for my other loan, the news isn't quite as good. Julita Milka Aoko Onyango of Kenya borrowed $350 back in August to add charcoal and paraffin to the stock of goods she can offer for sale in the Kongowea Market in Mombasa. While Julita had been repaying her loans, the ethnic violence that erupted in Kenya back in January interrupted her business and she hasn't made a payment on her loan since December. Kiva has not been able to provide any news about specific borrowers, so I don't know what's going on with her, or even if she is still alive. A small payment was made last month, but not by Julita, and it's not clear to me what's going on. I hope Julita is alive and that her business is still extant, and that she will be able to repay her loan as the political situation in Kenya continues to stabilize.

Once again, let me say that there is simply no better way to address the problem of international development than through microfinance organizations like Kiva. The money goes directly to those who both need it and can best make use of it. A look at the website reveals scores of people asking for second and third loans to expand their businesses. I am proud that I have been able to help Dung, Julita, and Phou, and I hope to expand my lending in the future. Please consider lending!

Monday, May 12, 2008

To Send Aid Or Not To Send Aid, That Is The Question

In the wake of the destruction left by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar (Burma) -- the government is announcing 23, 335 deaths and 37, 019 people missing, while international humanitarian organizations are putting the death toll at more than 100,000 and more than 1 million displaced people -- the international community is faced with a difficult decision of how best to aid the suffering people. Initially, the ruling junta obstructed relief efforts, stopping aid shipments at the airport, seizing UN food packages, and holding off US naval ships coming to help. On Friday, the junta reversed course, announcing that it would "accept aid from any corner"and allowing emergency UN food shipments to enter the country, delivering food and temporary shelters (although a shipment from the World Food Programme that arrived on Friday was seized). On Saturday, the Myanmar government began handing out food packages emblazoned with the names of the junta members and taking credit for the relief. Despite the devastation wreaked by the cyclone, the junta was intending on proceeding with a previously-scheduled "referendum" on a constitution that would further entrench the power of the junta, and the provision of aid seems to be a propaganda exercise designed to cement support for the vote.

Meanwhile, as the government controls and exploits relief supplies for its own ends, relief experts are warning of impending catastrophe if help is not provided soon:
A total of 23 international agencies were providing aid to people in the devastated areas, said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Byrs said another U.N. flight with 33 tons of plastic sheets, water and sanitation items and mosquito nets got clearance to take off from Brindisi, Italy later on Saturday.

But a large number of organizations still were awaiting government clearance for more aid shipments, staff and transport.

"It's a race against the clock," Byrs said. "If the humanitarian aid does not get into the country on a larger scale, there's the risk of a second catastrophe," she said, adding that people could die from hunger and diseases.

Health experts have warned there was a great risk of diarrhea and cholera spreading because of the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation.


"We think we need to be moving 375 tonnes of food a day down into the affected areas. We are doing less than 20 percent of that," World Food Program spokesman Marcus Prior said in the Thai capital.

At the United Nations in New York, Ban delivered his most critical comments so far of the Myanmar authorities' response.

"Today is the 11th day since ... Nargis hit Myanmar," Ban told reporters. "I want to register my deep concern -- and immense frustration -- at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis.

"We are at a critical point," he said. "Unless more aid gets into the country very quickly, we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today's crisis."

Myanmar's reclusive military government was accepting aid from the outside world, including the United Nations, but refused to admit foreign experts waiting in Bangkok for visas from the Myanmar Embassy.

Whenever humanitarian emergencies occur in the most repressive countries of the world, as is the case here or during famines in North Korea, the international community is faced with an exceedingly difficult political and moral choice: Provide aid, knowing that much of it will be diverted for use by the government and hoping that some of it will trickle down to the people, or refuse to help, believing that helping the government remain in power is the worst option. Usually, the international community chooses to help.

In this case, the decision is complicated by the blatant manipulation of the aid in connection with the constitutional referendum. If the reports are accurate, the relief effort will end up further entrenching the junta in power, now with the cloak of democratic approval. That does not bode well for the future of the Burmese people.

So what else should be done? Assuming that doing nothing is off of the table, there are really only two options: Provide relief without going through the government through airdrops or invade the country to force the government to allow access to relief experts and the depoliticized distribution of food, medicine, and shelter. None of these is really an attractive option.

Many people have begun discussing the possibility of providing aid without going through the junta. Mark Faramaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, argued that the UN should begin providing aid throughout the country without permission from the military leaders, but Douglas Alexander, the British Secretary for International Development, argues that doing so would be "incendiary":
"Our responsibility is to make sure that our sole focus is getting the aid to the people who desperately need it."

He said carrying out forced air-drops of supplies would be the wrong action to take.

"We believe that the best way forward would be for the junta to provide access, which the whole international community - including Ban Ki-moon [secretary general of the UN] - is requesting.

"That's why we've been making direct approaches, but we've also been speaking to other governments, including the government of China, urging them that there should be a united front to say that the access needs to be provided immediately."

Even those in favor of airdropping relief supplies acknowledge that doing so may not provide relief in anything approaching an efficient manner:

Former Liberal Democratic leader Sir Menzies Campbell said air drops were a "possibility" because of the scale of the disaster, but were not the most efficient way of distributing supplies.

"I don't think we have any legal right to impose it - we might have a moral obligation.

"But I don't believe we could give effect to that moral obligation for this reason - Burma is essentially a state run by the generals with an extremely powerful army.

"Any effort to impose humanitarian aid might well be the subject of resistance which would have the effect of damaging yet more of the people of that blighted country."

Former Conservative deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine said air drops should only be considered if they could be guaranteed to be effective.

"Who is going to be at the receiving end of the air drops? It could be the Burmese army. It could be the very people least affected by the tragedy that is going on."

Meanwhile, arguments for invading Myanmar have been raised as well. Writing in the Asia Times, Shawn Crispin argues that:

A unilateral - and potentially United Nations-approved - US military intervention in the name of humanitarianism could easily turn the tide against the impoverished country's unpopular military leaders, and simultaneously rehabilitate the legacy of lame-duck US President George W Bush's controversial pre-emptive military policies.


In the wake of the cyclone, the criminality of the junta's callous policies has taken on new human proportions in full view of the global community. Without a perceived strong UN-led response to the natural disaster, hard new questions will fast arise about the UN's own relevance and ability to manage global calamities.

This week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher suggested that the UN invoke its so-called "responsibility to protect" civilians as legitimate grounds to force aid delivery, regardless of the military government's objections. On Friday, a UN spokesman called the junta's refusal to issue visas to aid workers "unprecedented" in the history of humanitarian work.

Because of the UN's own limited powers of projection, such a response would require US military management and assets. US officials appear to be building at least a rhetorical case for a humanitarian intervention. While offering relief and aid with one hand, top US officials have with the other publicly slapped at the Myanmar government's lame response to the disaster.


This time, it is almost sure-fire that Myanmar's desperate population would warmly welcome a US-led humanitarian intervention, considering that its own government is now withholding emergency supplies. Like his father then, Bush is now clearly focused on his presidential legacy, which to date will be judged harshly due to his government's controversial pre-emptive military policies, waged until now exclusively in the name of fighting global terror.

In an era when the US routinely launches pre-emptive military strikes, including its 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2003 Predator drone assassination attack against an alleged al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, a similar drone attack in 2006 in northwestern Pakistan, and last week's attack against a reputed al-Qaeda ringleader in Somalia, it is not inconceivable that the US might yet intervene in military-run Myanmar, particularly if in the days ahead the social and political situation tilts towards anomie.

Whether or not a US military intervention in the name of humanitarianism would, as in Somalia, eventually morph into an armed attempt at regime change and nation-building would likely depend on the population's and Myanmar military's response to the first landing of US troops. Some political analysts speculate that Myanmar's woefully under-resourced and widely unpopular troops would defect en masse rather than confront US troops.

While Myanmar ally China would likely oppose a US military intervention, Beijing has so far notably goaded the junta to work with rather than against international organizations like the UN, and more to the point, it lacks the power projection capabilities to militarily challenge the US in a foreign theater. Most notably, the US would have at its disposal a globally respected and once democratically elected leader in Aung San Suu Kyi to lead a transitional government to full democracy.
But, in Time magazine, Romesh Ratnesar writes that:

A coercive humanitarian intervention would be complicated and costly. During the 2004 tsunami, some 24 U.S. ships and 16,000 troops were deployed in countries across the region; the mission cost the U.S. $5 million a day. Ultimately, the U.S. pledged nearly $900 million to tsunami relief. (By contrast, it has offered just $3.25 million to Burma.) But the risks would be greater this time: the Burmese government's xenophobia and insecurity make them prone to view U.S. troops — or worse, foreign relief workers — as hostile forces. (Remember Black Hawk Down?) Even if the U.S. and its allies made clear that their actions were strictly for humanitarian purposes, it's unlikely the junta would believe them. "You have to think it through — do you want to secure an area of the country by military force? What kinds of potential security risks would that create?" says [Jan Egeland, the former U.N. emergency relief coordinator]. "I can't imagine any humanitarian organization wanting to shoot their way in with food."
So, what to do? Despite the rafts of criticism I have leveled at the institution, this is a case where the UN can potentially be a critical asset. The problem here is, of course, one of sovereignty. Myanmar is a sovereign state that has the right to determine how it receives international aid. But the UN should invoke its "responsibility to protect" doctrine (the logic that enabled the UN to retroactively approve of NATO's intervention in Kosovo) and declare that sovereignty does not confer the right to deny one's people of basic supplies and relief. The UN should, as it did in 1990, put together a global coalition of humanitarian and military forces to deliver relief supplies to Myanmar. Most of the coercive force would, of course, come from the US, but the international community could, as it did during Operation Desert Shield/Storm, bear much of the financial burden (and provide much of the relief as well). While obtaining China's assent may be difficult (China is both a patron to Myanmar and exceedingly wary of authorizing international violations of state sovereignty), the recent negative publicity of the problems in Tibet may lead Beijing to seize this as an opportunity to burnish China's image leading up to the Olympics.

The US needs to look at the disaster in Myanmar through a strategic, as well as a moral, lens. Just as US relief in the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami was a major boost to US soft power, taking an aggressive approach to helping the victims of Cyclone Nargis can have a similar effect. The US must realize that doing the right thing here is clearly in the US national interest as well. The US should pressure China and the UN Security Council to authorize a humanitarian mission with or without official sanction. Such a move could save tens or hundreds of thousands of lives, help the US image, and even force the UN to reconsider its slavish devotion to the concept of sovereign equality. All of these are excellent goals for US foreign policy.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

More Strikes Against Russia

A few weeks back, I blogged about what the US, NATO, and the Western powers should do about Russia, writing that while "Russian security concerns should be taken into account, to allow those concerns to move NATO away from its pacific mission is the wrong choice." Today, I find more support for my position with specific regard to NATO expansion.

Today comes reports from Georgia that war is "very close" between Georgia and Russia. Perhaps in response to Kosovo's breakaway from Serbia, Russia has been increasing the number of peacekeepers it deploys to protect the ethnically-Russian region of Abkhazia. Russia has accused Georgia of threatening war against the region, while Georgia sees the Russian troop deployment as a not-so-subtle move to create de facto independence there. So far, Russia has kept troop levels under the maximum number (3,000) allowed by a UN agreement, but a self-proclaimed "foreign minister" of Abkhazia has announced that "[Abkhazia] agrees to Russia taking this territory under its military control. In exchange, we will demand guarantees of our security." The US, in response, has "urged the Russian government to reiterate its commitment to Georgia's territorial borders and sovereignty, reverse the troop movements and "cease from further provocation."

The Russian government is behaving extremely irresponsibly here, likely using blunt threats and posturing to send messages over the nature of Russian strategic interests and the need to preserve state integrity and sovereignty. But such ham-fisted attempts merely reinforce the questions over Russia's intentions and strengthen the case and need to get Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Russia's actions clearly throw into doubt whether Russia can be seen as a long-term status quo power and overall trends do not show even the kind of progress that can be seen in China. While the Cold War is not reemerging, the US, NATO, and the West should make it abundantly clear to Russia that its own interests will only be respected so far as Russia adheres to legitimate means to pursue those interests.