Tag Archives: United Nations

The long tail of decolonization

Apparently, this is the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, as the UN General Assembly declared last year. I didn’t even know there was a First or Second decade, which have now receded into the immediate past.

Sixteen ‘non self-governing territories’ form the list that occupies this committee’s time – the remnants of the original bursts of decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s. These span the globe, from Western Sahara and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, to Gibraltar, the Falklands and Guam. Kudos to the Associated Press for a little bit of reporting on this dusty corner of the UN machinery:

“The committee is one of the few forums in which colonialism’s last remaining subjects can make themselves heard. Its latest annual meeting, in June, featured voices as disparate as lawmakers from Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, a headman from a cluster of New Zealand-ruled islets, and a spokesman for a Saharan territory that has been fighting for independence for 35 years.

“Some may see the U.N. committee as an anachronism, little noticed by anyone other than those who attend its meetings: two dozen ambassadors of countries with a direct interest in the decolonization process, and representatives of the territories in question.

“But Ahmed Boukhari of the Polisario Front, which seeks the independence of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, says its existence is vital.

“Not only do we need the committee, we need to enhance it,” he told The Associated Press. “For the people of the territories, it’s an essential element in their struggle for self-determination.”

The long history of this committee casts a fascinating light on how new states have been created over the past half century, and how we’ve moved to a world of 193 states. The special committee that takes up this question of decolonization finds its institutional forebears in the League of Nations’ mandates system, and the UN’s trusteeship scheme, but it was the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples that effectively turned independence, or national liberation, into a goal in and of itself, rather than some means to a higher end.

This is the establishment of self-determination as a right, irrespective of the political or economic state of that territory – and self-determination on the basis of colonial boundaries and definitions of what the ‘state’ is in territorial terms. The consequence, with which all these decolonized states have had to deal with in the decades since, is a presumption against the further secession or division of the territory, which has proved problematic for the many multiethnic groups contained within states aspiring to statehood of their own.

As K.J. Holsti pointed out (in The State, War, and the State of War, 1996):

“Having been a colony was sufficient qualification for attaining immediate membership of the United Nations. There was to be no scrutiny of post-colonial political arrangements and practices…

“The process of decolonization produced a single format – the Western territorial state. The heterogeneity of political forms that had existed throughout man’s organized history has now been reduced to a single form…It is clear, however, that the universalization of the territorial state format does not mean that all states share the same characteristics. In particular, artificial states – the creation of colonial authorities and international organizations – are in many ways fundamentally different from states that grew slowly through an organic process involving wars, administrative centralization, the provision of welfare entitlements, and the development of national identities and sentiments.”

And so the sixteen territories on the list are a snapshot of a previous time when they, like much of the world’s surface area, would have been organized into colonial empires. The list is itself a reminder of that historical moment when norms about what constituted statehood and claims to sovereignty were transformed, and its existence today the long tail of the wave of decolonization.

For newer secessionist struggles or movements over the past two decades – as most recently in South Sudan – the Special Committee on Decolonization has little to say. “Finishing the job” of decolonization, as its website has it, only extends to previously recognized colonial boundaries, and not to anything in between. The world map, for any would-be new states, looks frustratingly stable – and their battles detached from the particular label of ‘decolonization’.

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The Security Council and climate change: nothing to see here

In a recent UN Security Council debate, talk of “green helmets” provides a visually compelling image of the way in which UN ‘blue-helmet’ peacekeeping could be adapted to reflect the security challenges of climate change. While others have noted the weakness of the Council’s final conclusion, I’m not sure, however, that the Security Council’s engagement with the subject would add very much to international efforts to address climate change.

In the four years since the last Council debate on the security implications of climate change, not much seems to have changed in the politics of the issue – many developing countries, China and the Non-Aligned Movement included, are resistant to the very inclusion of the issue on the Security Council agenda. While the German presidency of the Council sought to focus the debate around two specific areas – sea-level rise, particularly in the context of small island states, and food insecurity – the fundamental nature of how we think about the connection between climate change and security hasn’t changed.

The commonly-accepted way of thinking about climate change as a security issue is as a ‘threat multiplier’ – a factor that exacerbates the intensity or frequency of existing challenges, whether in famine, migration patterns, resource scarcities and so on. But when conflicts or crises that we can be say to be ‘climate-related’ do arise, there is little that is qualitatively different about these situations than the existing range of situations that the Security Council confronts. Changing weather patterns and a rise in global temperature are themselves only distant and indirect, not proximate ’causes’ of conflict. Instead, their effects are felt through phenomena already commonly experienced. For instance, climate change may induce drought or flooding, the significance of which depends on the resilience of how that society is governed, economically and socially. The length and complexity of this causal chain means that, for the purposes of what the Security Council can do, climate change drops out of the equation.

Ahead of the Council’s debate, Germany’s UN Ambassador acknowledged as much:

“As far-fetched as the idea of “green-helmets” might sound, consider the tasks that the United Nations peacekeepers already perform today — e.g. emergency aid, development and recovery, state — and peacebuilding. Repainting blue helmets into green might be a strong signal — but would dealing with the consequences of climate change — say in precarious regions — be really very different from the tasks the blue helmets already perform today?”

When crises do emerge that are related to climate change, they will be dealt with in the normal way. Through peacekeepers as a possible course of action, they’ll only be addressing symptoms – but the Security Council only ever addresses symptoms. The ‘climate’ perspective only comes in when we try and understand the causes of conflict – and dealing with deep-rooted causes is not really something the Security Council does.

Instead, to do that, we have to turn to the ultimate causes of climate change, in the sources of rising greenhouse gas emissions, with the challenge of how to slow, and eventually reverse, global emissions. And that is something that I can’t see the Security Council touching with a barge pole, in involving core questions of how national economies are to be organized and the problems of global economic cooperation.

As the Presidential Statement released at the end of the debate noted, the Security Council has to consider how the impacts of climate change will affect its other mandates and missions. That, however, is somewhat removed from the notion that talk of the ‘security implications of climate change’ provide novel missions and rationales for action. Any change in this area is at best, incremental. So could the Security Council could become an institutional hub for international efforts on the issue? Not a chance.

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What fairness on climate change looks like (Notes from the Bangkok climate talks)

Entire books and lengthy journal articles get written about what fairness and equity on climate change mean, but some of these differences were summed up in one image, courtesy of the USA.

At last week’s UN climate talks, a series of workshops and presentations preceded the main part of the negotiating, one of which focused on the emission reduction commitments of developed countries. During the US presentation by deputy envoy Jonathan Pershing, this set of graphs came up:

US Mitigation Presentation during workshops at the 2011 UN Climate Conference in Bangkok

The context of this slide was in a discussion about countries taking “comparable effort” in addressing climate change, the point of which was to show how there are different ways of measuring such efforts.

Simply put, against a 1990 baseline for emissions (the standard reference point), the US is only making a 3% reduction in its 2020 target, because of how US emissions have increased over the past two decades (top left graph). But against a 2005 baseline, the US is making a 17% reduction in its 2020 target, an ‘effort’ that is ‘comparable’ to other developed countries (top right graph). It looks on a similar scale to the EU target, because the EU as a whole has been reducing emissions over past two decades (for various reasons, some deliberate and others less so), and so reductions over the next decade match those of the US.

Pershing’s remarks during the presentation were to the effect that no single metric of measurement will suffice, and that comparability takes a number of different forms, all of which are legitimate. The point of this was to deflect criticism that the US isn’t doing as much as it should be given the size of its emissions – and in doing so, shift attention to whether the efforts of certain developing countries are “comparable” in this regard.

He also quite candidly acknowledged that US efforts prior to 2005 were “inadequate” – but the upshot of this is an attempt to try and reset the clock to 2005, saying in effect that “we weren’t really trying before 2005 so it would be unfair to judge us on that period”.

More broadly, US efforts to define ‘fairness’ litter the record of the climate negotiations: even as it was negotiating and signing the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Senate passed the Byrd-Hagel resolution that expressed its opposition to any agreement that did not include large developing countries because that would be unfair on the US economy. George W. Bush’s repudiation of, and withdrawal from the Protocol later, in 2001, echoed this same argument about Kyoto’s unfairness in comparing the US’s obligations on reducing emissions to that of developing countries.

Whether this latest effort succeeds at persuading policymakers and diplomats that the US really is doing its fair share on climate change remains to be seen. But it also takes place in a context where claims of fairness (often rephrased as ‘equity’) abound and compete – in the demands of civil society campaigners, developing countries, or the principles of the Framework Convention on Climate Change itself (Article 3.1: The Parties should protect the climate system…on the basis of equity…). Debate over what fair outcomes (not to mention a fair process) looks like has raged for two decades, and isn’t about to end anytime soon.

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The past as present on climate change (Notes from the Bangkok climate talks)

Last week’s session of the UN climate change negotiations that I attended in Bangkok, Thailand, certainly didn’t make for very good headlines: “feud”, “stall”, “division”, “bickering” and “deadlock” being common descriptions. The disdain of one report is barely hidden in its opening lines:

“Nineteen years after the world started to take climate change seriously, delegates from around the globe spent five days talking about what they will talk about at a year-end conference in South Africa. They agreed to talk about their opposing viewpoints”

It certainly didn’t seem like a very productive use of time when the agenda over what to actually negotiate about wasn’t agreed until the last evening (particularly for the technical experts who had little to do but twiddle thumbs in the meantime). But 3 days of deadlock over the meeting agenda is perhaps unsurprising because this divergence of views is as much about what to do now, as it is about what road it is that has been travelled on to get here. And where we’ve come from tells us quite a bit about where we are going, or want to go.

In this specific part of the negotiating process (the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action; AWG-LCA), competing draft agendas took their starting points from two related, but different places. One draft, prepared by the chair, focused on the elements of what was agreed to at last December’s Cancun summit; the other, prepared by the G77 and China coalition, focused more expansively on the areas set out in the agreement made at the 2007 Bali conference (which was intended to culminate at the 2009 Copenhagen conference).

This debate about history (i.e. are we taking our lead from Cancun or Bali) sets out different tasks to address. An agenda based on Cancun turns to various questions of how to design new institutions for adaptation support and technology, and how to ensure some common framework for monitoring and keeping track of global mitigation actions. But an agenda that uses the original Bali point of reference puts priority on what actions developed countries are going to be taken to bring down their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as ‘enhanced’ action on adaptation and finance issues.

Perhaps a historical footnote to current negotiations lies some 15 years ago, in the negotiations that resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. That only reached a climax at that particular point in time, because the task to agree on a legal instrument that included quantified emission reduction commitments had been agreed to at the 1995 Berlin conference, in what became known as the Berlin Mandate. The Mandate set out that the focus of negotiations would be on the emission reduction commitments of developed countries; and over the next two years, as the USA tried to force a discussion on the commitments of developing countries, this was resolutely resisted by developing countries who pointed to the Mandate’s limited scope.

Imperfect as any historical analogy might be, there are parallels here in the justifications that developing countries present for continuing to turn to the Bali agreement as the mandate for the current set of negotiations: “We are negotiating about x, and x only, because we agreed to this a few years ago.” The fear expressed by developing countries is that the larger vision of Bali will be subsumed by the specifics of Cancun, and that the latter will be the ‘ceiling’ to collective global action on climate change. The extent to which the recent Cancun Agreements mesh with the earlier Bali Action Plan is what underlies apparently circular and procedural disagreements on the agenda – resolved in some way by the finessing of diplomatic language on the agenda that was indeed agreed, but which will remain alive for the rest of this year. Watch this space.

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UN declares international day with very long name

This is a real mouthful, but important: the UN General Assembly last week adopted, without a vote, a resolution declaring March 24 to be the International Day for the Right to Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.

What is especially notable about this resolution, however, is explicit reference in its opening clauses (they’re known as preambulatory ones, if you want to be technical about it), to the assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. I have previously blogged about him, and am particularly inspired by his example of bearing Christian witness to the Gospels, and he is very much at the center of this declaration:

“Recognizing in particular the important and valuable work of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, of El Salvador, who was actively engaged in the promotion and protection of human rights in his country, and whose work was acknowledged internationally through his messages, in which he denounced violations of the human rights of the most vulnerable populations,

“Recognizing the values of Monsignor Romero and his dedication to the service of humanity, in the context of armed conflicts, as a humanist dedicated to defending human rights, protecting lives and promoting human dignity, his constant calls to dialogue and his opposition to all forms of violence to avoid armed confrontation, which consequently led to his death on 24 March 1980,”

By coincidence, this week also marked the anniversary of the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by death squads in San Salvador, on Nov 16, 1989. But two decades on, a full accounting of this massacre, as well as that of the assassination of Archbishop Romero and thousands of others in El Salvador’s civil war, remains absent – hence the ultimate purpose of this newly-declared UN day, to highlight the “right to know the truth regarding the circumstances of enforced disappearances, the progress and results of the investigation and the fate of the disappeared person.”

Last year, the 20th anniversary of the Jesuit massacre, brought a flurry of articles marking the date, such as this one from the LA Times about the continuing search for truth and efforts to open up classified government archives:

“Their killings provoked outrage worldwide; the pictures of the priests sprawled face down on the lawn of their modest home after being shot by soldiers were among the most haunting images of the war.

“It was a bookend atrocity, in some ways, to the 1980 slaying of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot by an assassin as he said Mass. His death is often seen as a marker of the start of the civil war, and the Jesuits’ killings the beginning of the end…

“…There is widespread suspicion in El Salvador and among U.S. officials that Roberto D’Aubuisson, one of the founders of the right-wing Arena party that ruled El Salvador until this year, ordered the Jesuits’ killings during a meeting with other party officials in November 1989.

“A lawsuit filed last year in a Spanish court is attempting to bring senior military and civilian officials to account.

“Next week, attorneys and witnesses on behalf of the Jesuits’ families will present evidence based on hundreds of pages of declassified U.S. documents from the late 1980s and early 1990s.”

A ‘truth and reconciliation process’ of sorts is often a vital issue in post-conflict societies facing the challenges of a transition to a stable peace and civilian rule. The dignity of victims, in this regard, depends on some sense of closure about what exactly has happened to the ‘disappeared’ and who was responsible, if the fractures in society are to be healed over time and confidence rebuilt in the governing authorities. So the struggle goes on – and as investigative researchers are finding with regards to disappearing US archival documents, the effort to uncover the truth can sometimes go backwards rather than forwards.

(hat tip: the Tablet’s daily news feed)

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World organization and organizing the world: what the UN’s founding fathers wanted

What I’m reading: Mark Mazower’s No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, 2009

In a recent post I wondered about where the limits to the UN’s modern-day influence lay, but whether one sees such limits in positive or negative terms depends on preconceptions about what the ‘true’ purpose of such an international organisation should be. Mark Mazower, in his history of the United Nations’ founding, notes:

“The intensity of present disillusionment is closely linked to a sense of despair at how far it has fallen short of the standard supposedly set by its founders…

“Drawing worthy lessons for the present has thus involved highlighting a contrast between the blinkered unilateralists of the early twenty-first century and the wise and prudent internationalists of 1945. Soon the protagonists of these accounts turn into visionaries and heroes – inspirations for our drabber and less strenuous times.

This, Mazower argues, “generates expectations that its founders were never intended to be met. The result is, if anything, to deepen the crisis facing the world organization and to obscure rather than illuminate its real achievements and potential.” (4-7)

What did the UN’s founders want? The most interesting aspect of Mazower’s argument, consequently, is in finding the UN’s intellectual genesis in British imperial thinking in the early 20th century – and how efforts to perpetuate imperial rule in the League of Nations, and then the UN, by midcentury had morphed into a vehicle for anticolonial and national liberation efforts. This is a compelling read, which upends the conventional narrative of the UN as a radical enterprise emerging out of the ashes of World War II, and that its driving force was the United States.

‘Internationalism’ is often contrasted with isolationism, frequently with regard to American foreign policy. But Mazower’s study reminds us that internationalism, rather than being of the necessarily liberal form that it is today, can also (as it did in the British empire) have an imperial character. The Commonwealth began in such a way – propounded by South African General Jan Smuts as an association of the white English-speaking nations, epitomizing the transformation of the British empire into a permanent league of democracies that would bolster each other.

Thinking about the League of Nations followed this path, in the belief that empire could be enlightened, and that a civilizing mission remained to be undertaken across much of the world, hence only a limited sanction of self-determination. Through international collaboration (and the post-World War I imperial mandate system), peace and harmony would be brought to the world. The mission of the League was practically as ‘deux ex machina’ of the British Empire – but for its advocates, morally, unmistakably for the greater good of humanity.

World organization for the purposes of imperial continuity – in the United Nations, Smuts saw the cooperation of the United States which had been so absent in the League as the key piece of the puzzle. What was clear, for Smuts as for British civil servant Alfred Zimmern (the focus of chapter two), was the moral imperative of this project: ensuring peace and a hospitable environment for the values of European civilization to be globalized.

Other fascinating themes are drawn out in the other chapters (which focus on two Jewish emigres to the United States, Raphael Lemkin and Joseph Schechtman, and Indian statesman Jawaharlal Nehru) – the shift from the protection of minority rights to that of state sovereignty; the serious contemplation and planning of mass population transfers in order to facilitate self-determination; the rise of the General Assembly as a leading platform for decolonization campaigns; and the UN’s marginalization as a central forum of world affairs with the Cold War.

But in this historical process where the membership of this world organization became globalized is a relevant question about what international ‘community’ or ‘society’ really means. For in the choice of an international organization – forgoing other possibilities of organizing the world, whether as a concert of great powers echoing 19th century rule, or attempts at actual world government – is a notion of who the appropriate members of such an organization are. Who counts as a member of the ‘international’? The standards of civilization at the beginning of the 20th century were racial; today, they are arguably ones of liberal democracy and economic openness, expressed in the hoops that WTO or EU aspirants have to jump through to qualify for membership. This story of the UN’s founding inspirations is attentive to the fact that standards of appropriate conduct – i.e. civilization – exist in every age. If truly global, heterogeneous membership lies behind great power disengagement – are exclusive clubs, with more circumscribed notions of community, the only ways of running the world?

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Where next after the Millennium Development Goals?

I still find myself amazed that we have a thing called the Millennium Development Goals: that they were agreed to in the first place; that they embody the holy grail of campaigners in being SMART*; and that a decade on, they still hold policy and political resonance. Normatively, they remain an impressive commitment about what the world should be like and how we might be able to get there.

But will the fact of their existence be the most compelling aspect of their legacy? A litany of reports offers no shortage of diagnoses about progress made and who the leaders and laggers are, about emerging developments that need to be embedded (i.e. broadband and connectivity), and about what still remains to be done and to-do lists to complete the job.

But in the stock-taking that has gone on, looking ahead to the 2015 target date for the MDGs to be met, the context in 2010 is clearly not the same as it was in 2000. In this story of global development efforts,  how contingent are commitments such as the MDGs – how much do they reflect a particular moral, political and economic climate (i.e. of the late 1990s)?  The prevailing ‘temper’ of the international community seems to be a necessary part of the explanation: the confluence of an atmosphere of post-Cold War optimism, emerging attention to ‘new’ sources of insecurity (i.e. not just nuclear armageddon but grinding poverty; not just about the state but about individual livelihoods) and some sense of spreading the spoils of globalization amid rising discontent (like the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle)

So it is in this vein that Todd Moss (at Foreign Policy) argues that rather than ‘crying crisis’, a lot more needs to be done to tell the stories of the achievements made in the past decade:

“The natural reaction of the U.N., its member states, and much of the aid community will likely be to fall back on the desperate plea-of-the-millions: there are millions of poor people, millions of young mothers dying, and millions of children out of school. We’re going to hear that, despite best efforts and billions spent, that Africa is still off track on the MDGs. So we will all have to pay more. And the world will be warned not to allow the follies of the West — Lehman Brothers’ collapse, unaffordable European entitlements, or mistakes of the U.S. Federal Reserve — to come at the expense of the most vulnerable…

…What if the U.N. and the assembled “developmentistas” tried a different tack? Instead of crying crisis, what if they celebrated success? What if they highlighted that since 1990 Mali has more than quadrupled the percentage of kids finishing school, Ethiopia’s maternal mortality rate has plunged by 40 percent, and the ratio of Burkinabe with access to safe water has more than doubled to 72 percent?

In an age of fiscal rectitude and rightful demands for value-for-money, isn’t this the kind of success that donors — and taxpayers — might want to get behind?”

But if the subtext here is perhaps one of tactics, what can it suggest about ‘the next round’ of development assistance? This is a picture where most of the world’s poor no longer live in low-income countries (i.e. sub-Saharan Africa) but in middle-income countries like India and Indonesia – places that don’t quite fit traditional images of the recipients of development assistance.

One thought-provoking suggestion (by a UN official, hosted on the New York Times’ DotEarth blog) is that rather than a wishlist of new aid money and commitments, evolution in this story of global development comes in the form of the world’s wealthiest taking on new goals – for themselves. It is far too easy to reduce ‘development’ to aid flows – even if MDG8 about a ‘global partnership’ is essentially about this – and too easy to reduce the causal relationship implicit in aid flows to that  of the developed world benevolently offering its spare change to the rest of the world without having to ask too many hard questions about itself.

“Looking beyond the next five years, wouldn’t it be interesting if the rich world — or the top billion if you wish — would commit to its own eight goals to strive towards, goals that could help us secure livable conditions for a growing world population for decades to come?”

Tackling the industrialised countries’ own greenhouse gas emissions; reducing average animal protein consumption; reforming intellectual property and toughening anti-corruption regulations – some of these are increasingly well-recognized chestnuts. Other suggestions are perhaps less well-known but are equally powerful reminders of the network of relationships – deliberately or structurally so – that we are all embedded in: regulating predatory capital; shifting the tax burden from work to the consumption of natural resources; transitioning half the world’s fishing fleet into alternative activities; and converting nearly half of agricultural land to more ecologically sustainable methods.

The MDGs of the early 21st century have their genesis in the first efforts to transfer resources from rich to poor in the 1970s – the ideas generated by the Pearson Commission on International Development, the Brandt Report, the now-totemic 0.7% target of a rich country’s GDP that should constitute international aid. The next phase of global development efforts that takes us towards midcentury builds on this legacy, and those of the MDGs – but cannot simply be more of the same.

*Smart, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound. You heard it here first.

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