Category Archives: Human rights

En Memoria: Professor Guillermo O’Donnell

It is with great sadness that I learnt of the death of Professor Guillermo O’Donnell in Buenos Aires on Tuesday 29, November 2011.  O’Donnell was one of the most brilliant and influential political scholars of his generation, and an inspiration to generations of students tackling the complex issues of democratisation and authoritarianism.  You can read a tribute to him here by Professor Scott Mainwaring of University of Notre Dame.

For my part, Guillermo O’Donnell was and remains a seminal influence in my work on democratisation, political accountability and human rights.  His conceptual innovations including delegative democracy, horizontal accountability and appointed institutions have done a lot of heavy lifting in my own research on human rights institutions in Latin America.

O’Donnell’s work has been a source of inspiration and an indispensable companion in making sense of a complex and often murky Latin American political landscape. The extraordinary contrasts I observed as a DPhil student fresh off the plane in Peru between Lima (the capital of Peru) and Huancavelica (the high Peruvian Andes) made a lot more sense when looked through O’Donnell’s prism of ‘brown areas’; territory where liberal guarantees and the rule of law are absent and subject to violations by state agents.

In short, O’Donnell’s work has been a gateway to my own more careful examination and appreciation of the Latin American lived reality. In his own words:

The compelling challenge in ‘societies marked not only by pervasive poverty but also, and even more decisively for our theme, by deep inequalities, is how to ensure that the weak and poor are at least decently treated by [state] agents…’

On a more personal note, O’Donnell was a long-term collaborator of my DPhil supervisor, Laurence Whitehead and a frequent visitor to Nuffield College, Oxford.  In my first year as a DPhil student, I found myself in a seminar with Guillermo and was introduced as a ‘horizontal accountability’ enthusiast.  Guillermo graciously expressed an interest in reading my draft work.

Upon emailing it over that afternoon, I received a short message of thanks and thought that might be that. An hour later, another email popped into my in-tray: “I’ve just read your very interesting texts…”

The following Tuesday afternoon we spent the best part of an hour discussing my MPhil study of the Peruvian human rights ombudsman, accountability theory, and where I might take the project as I made the leap to a comparative frame.  Listening again to the recording of the conversation, I am struck anew by his enthusiasm and gentle encouragement: “I thought it was very good, excellent, I learnt a lot…”

The US on the Palestinian Statehood Bid: Weighing the Costs

Reflecting on the controversy surrounding the Palestinian bid for statehood, Richard Falk neatly subverts the opening words of the UN Charter, “we the people,” as having always surrendered to “we the governments,” and, in the modern era of American empire, “we the hegemon.”

This may well be true. The UN Security Council (UNSC), in particular, is viewed in Washington as a vehicle for hegemonic ambitions—to be indulged when it serves its purpose and vetoed and sidelined when it does not. Unfolding events at the UNSC, reportedly due to vote on the Palestinian resolution on November 11 but now postponed perhaps indefinitely, do much to affirm this assessment.

But what are those hegemonic ambitions? Prominent moderate and more conservative thinkers are struggling to answer this central question, with experts of diverse political stripes expressing concern at the political fallout of Israeli and US belligerence towards the Palestinian bid. As Washington Post columnist Thomas Friedman reports: “I’ve never been more worried about Israel’s future…”

The difficulties encountered by the Obama administration in pursuing a policy deeply at odds with much of the international community in the “Global South,” and the possible costs to the US and its regional allies and clients—both foreseeable and unintended—of opposing the largely symbolic Palestinian bid at the UN, certainly raise the question: what is the payoff?

The default position of many commentators is to point to the inordinate influence of the Israeli lobby on domestic politics in Washington, especially as the 2012 election year approaches. This would appear to be borne out in a recent opinion poll, which suggests that a majority of Americans actually support the Palestinian resolution. But is the Israeli lobby really powerful enough to “force the [Obama] administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s”?

Reflecting growing alarm in Washington, US officials have embarked—some would say rather belatedly—on a concerted push to derail or pre-empt a vote at the Security Council, without success. Diplomatic entreaties in recent weeks have given way to last ditch efforts at arm-twisting as momentum has built around the Palestinian bid. However, the US has struggled to get a grip on the situation.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, has signaled that there is “no greater threat” to US support and funding of the UN than the prospect of Palestinian statehood being endorsed by member states. UNESCO has become the first test of US resolve, with the organization voting to recognize Palestinian statehood (a vote not subject to US veto).

Reaction has been swift and decisive. The US withheld $50 million in funds from the organization, sending a clear signal to the broader UN community. For its part, Israel has responded to the UNESCO vote by speeding up settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Neither action is likely to be looked on kindly by allies or adversaries; indeed, the White House and the British Foreign Secretary have expressed deep disappointment in the Israeli response. This provocative move by Israel further undermines the already tenuous credibility of US insistence on a negotiated settlement.

This round of retribution follows the earlier punitive decision by the US Congress to freeze $200 million of economic aid destined for the Palestinian Authority. That move drew criticism from across the political divide, including from Hilary Clinton, who voiced concern that it will provide an opening for radical groups to fill the vacuum.

Unable to deter the Abbas administration, US attention has turned to the Security Council. With the majority of UNSC members having signaled their voting intentions, diplomatic maneuvering has focused on those few remaining undeclared members, Gabon, Nigeria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in an attempt to secure the nine votes necessary to avoid a US veto.

At the time of writing, this approach appears to have worked. With Britain and France declaring their intention to abstain – despite the latter voting in favor of Palestinian statehood at UNESCO – and Colombia, Portugal, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Germany expected to oppose the resolution, the Palestinian leadership can count on only eight votes in support (China, Russia, Brazil, India, South Africa, Lebanon, Nigeria and Gabon).

The costs to the US of checking Palestinian ambitions may be significant, in so far as doing so further diminishes US influence in the Middle East. US foreign policy commentators have singled out repression of Shia minorities by US client regimes and the enduring plight of the Palestinians as the two key issue areas undermining US efforts to win hearts and minds in the region.

Only last year, Barack Obama declared his ambition that a negotiated agreement “will lead to a new member of the United Nations.” However, the apparent inability of the US to halt Israeli settlement activity, combined with the revelations of the Palestinian papers, which documented Israel’s rejection of historic concessions by the Palestinians, have left many observers deeply disillusioned about the prospects for peace through negotiation and the sincerity of Obama’s rhetoric.

Stalwart US allies in the region have counseled the US to support the Palestinian bid. Saudi Arabia has declared that its “special relationship” with the US risks becoming “toxic.” Recent reports of Saudi Arabian nuclear ambitions indicate the regime’s growing sense of vulnerability. Similarly, Jordan has expressed deep concern at the prospect of the Palestinians being “really short-handed on this issue.” Turkey has also signaled its intention to defy US entreaties.

In the background lies the bigger uncertainty for the US regarding the growing influence of Iran, its alleged development of nuclear weapons, and the continuing fallout of the Iraq invasion. The refusal by the Iraqi government to allow continuation of a US military presence (under current immunity laws) after 2011 was widely reported as a major diplomatic and military rebuff.

Against this backdrop of deep uncertainty, can the US afford to further alienate the Arab world by blocking the Palestinian bid for statehood? Are the hands of the hegemon tied by the Israeli lobby? No doubt, many of those who argue that the preponderance of the Israeli lobby has forced the hand of the US are sincere.

However, to sound a more skeptical note, it is also likely that US policymakers have conducted their own risk assessment and concluded that the costs are either acceptable or largely immaterial given the country’s unrivaled hegemonic status. Some decision-makers may argue that opposition to the Palestinian bid actually serves US interests by signaling cast-iron support for Israel.

Israel is a de facto US aircraft carrier in the region—an important asset for the projection of US power by proxy. However, as part of this arrangement, Israel’s dependence on US patronage is absolute, which raises the question: is Israel really in a position to dictate terms to Washington on the Palestinian bid, or on any other issue for that matter?

As for US allies in the region, Washington may view their continued allegiance over the long term as uncertain in any case. Strongly worded support by Clinton and others for democratization in the region is likely to jeopardize relations with autocratic allies, such as the Saudi royal family.

Despite arguments to the contrary, this reading of events suggests that it is still, very much, a case of “we the hegemon”.

Published here: 

The UN Security Council on Syria: Radical Change or Continuity?

The Presidential Statement issued by the UN Security Council on August 3 condemning the widespread violation of human rights by Syrian authorities was hailed by some as signaling the collapse of the pro-Syrian “defiance coalition”

This “defiance coalition,” comprised of the so-called “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) along with Lebanon, did indeed relent, begrudgingly, to growing international pressure for action on Syria. However, whether a statement containing little actionable contentsignals the crumbling of defiance rather than a diplomatic maneuver as calculations are recalibrated in light of developments is another matter.

Recent history offers little comfort to those who suggest that there has been a radical change in stance among the countries on the Security Council regarding their responsibilities when faced with humanitarian crisis. Indeed, the defiance of the BRICs towards tougher action on Syria is as much, if not more, driven by “anti-interventionist” principles as narrow “pro-Assad regime” interests.

Despite endorsement by the UN General Assembly of the idea of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005, the Security Council—the sole UN body with the authority to sanction enforcement action—has proven deeply reluctant to combine words with action.

In particular, the more overtly coercive dimensions of human rights enforcement contained in R2P—be they military or non-military—are disputed by its detractors as running counter to the norm of sovereign equality affirmed by the UN Charter.

Recognition of certain fundamental principles enshrined in R2P—that sovereign states have a duty to prevent atrocity crimes—does not diminish the hard realpolitik of Security Council debate, which invariably subjugates such principles to the national interest of individual countries. States remain to be convinced that human rights crimes constitute a threat to their own or the collective’s security.

The Security Council’s hesitant response to the unfolding Rwandan genocide in 1994 is widely documented. Chinese and Russian opposition to the use of force in the Kosovo conflict led to the de facto outsourcing of responsibility to NATO, the legality and legitimacy of which remains disputed. The extra-legal Iraq intervention in 2003 has been widely perceived as an abuse of humanitarian justification for war.

In the post-Iraq era, difficulty in reaching consensus on the appropriate response to massive violations of human rights has confounded demands for decisive Security Council action on Darfur. Claims that Sudan had manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect were repeatedly rejected by the BRICs.

The failure of the Security Council to compel the Sudanese government to cease its genocidal policies led to an estimated 300,000 civilian deaths and is attributable in large part to the principled and self-interested objections of anti-interventionists.

Responsibility to protect may now be a mainstay in the language of diplomacy. However, different interpretations of scope and threshold continue to dog its operationalization—especially with regard to the use of the UN’s coercive apparatus.

Potential R2P crises in Kenya (2007), Sri Lanka (2009), Burma/Myanmar (2010), Guinea (2010), Kyrgyzstan (2010), Ivory Coast (2011), South Sudan (2010), and Congo (2011) have arguably served to muddy the waters further, resulting in little concrete action. Russia appropriated the language of R2P to justify its unilateral intervention in South Ossetia in 2008.

It is against this backdrop of post-Rwanda inaction and the ill-fated hope of “never again” that the Libyan intervention has been seized upon as a possible game changer. The NATO action in Libya, under the auspices of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, has been hailed by some R2P advocates as a vindication of “military humanitarianism.”

However, with few exceptions, the action has provoked predictably strong opposition from the global south, with China, Russia, the African Union, and the Arab League (after initial endorsement of a no-fly zone) accusing NATO of acting outside the boundaries of the resolution and using humanitarianism as a pretext to engineer regime change.

What are the spillover effects on the Syrian situation? It is notable that the BRICs along with Germany abstained from the vote on Resolution 1973. Given this precedent, coupled with their professed alarm and surprise at NATO’s actions in Libya, a resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Syria is a remote prospect.

Making the judgement call that military intervention in Syria would do more harm than good, the Security Council might still impose non-military sanctions to apply pressure— also envisaged by R2P—such as arms embargoes, asset freezes, and the controversial ICC referral. However, the window for the UN to meet its R2P commitment to timely and decisive action is fast receding as the death toll continues to mount.

Indeed, on this basis, we might also include the US in the coalition of defiance, with Washington vacillating for months before finally calling for Assad’s departure. We might also question the US stance on other “kingdoms of silence” in the region that have experienced waves of civil unrest followed by (more successful) brutal crackdowns, notably in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Judging by the Presidential Statement of August 3, the Security Council stance on Syria is not so much one of radical change, but rather one of continuity. In affirming a “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Syria,” the Security Council perpetuates its inconsistent and underwhelming record of response to human rights crimes perpetrated by states against their own populations. If Libya is ultimately deemed a glimmer of hope for humanitarianism over power politics, Syria may well prove a defeat.

Originally published: