After Afghanistan

In the latest of our #progressivedilemmas we consider what Labour’s approach to failing states should be.

2014 is the last year of British military involvement in Afghanistan and the end of a long phase of ‘nation-building’ efforts since 9/11. While David Cameron has unconvincingly declared ‘mission accomplished’, in reality the next Labour government will wrestle with an agonising set of dilemmas about the UK’s future involvement in stabilising failed and failing states. Iraq and Afghanistan cast a long shadow.

Saudi Arabia’s national shame

A couple of weeks back I posted about Saudia Arabia’s mass deportation of Ethiopian migrant labourers. Now, with 7,000 migrants returning on flights back to Addis Ababa every night, their stories are starting to emerge in earnest. Humanitarian experts based here who are supporting them and the government are aghast at what they’re hearing.

It seems to be becoming clear that rape of female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is not just frequent, but endemic. 95% of women coming back are either pregnant or lactating, according to the EU humanitarian organisation, ECHO. Some women who had children in Saudi Arabia have reportedly not been allowed to take them back to Ethiopia.

Many women are also reporting being raped multiple times by Saudi Arabian security and prison staff after being detained prior to deportation. Others held in the temporary detention camps (the FT says there are 64 of them) report that they were forced to purchase their food and water at inflated prices.

2,500 returnees and counting – about 2.5% of those returned so far – have been referred to hospital here, with high rates of both psychological trauma and sexual and gender based violence.

The Saudi authorities are reportedly confiscating many people’s money and valuables before they’re allowed to board the plane – and even their shoes, so that returnees arrive back here in the middle of the night, in temperatures as low as 5 degrees C, in bare feet. Many families are being split up and put on separate flights, including in some cases kids separated from their parents.

The Saudis (30th richest country in the world on GNP per capita) aren’t even deigning to pay for the cost of the charter flights bringing the migrants home – instead leaving it to Ethiopia (175th richest country in the world) and humanitarian agencies to pick up the tab.

Why Russia might favor humanitarian corridors into Syria

Here’s more exciting Syrian news from the Security Council after last week’s chemical weapons resolution:

The president of the U.N. Security Council said Monday that many members are pressing to follow up on last week’s resolution to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons with a demand that the government allow immediate access for desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Australian Ambassador and council president Gary Quinlan said a draft Security Council statement calls for delivering access in “the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries …” if necessary to bypass meddling from President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus.

And here is the really striking news:

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told The Associated Press that Russia approved of the draft statement on humanitarian aid as well.

Now why on earth would Russia support such a proposal now?  This map suggests one answer:

As the map shows, a majority of border towns and cities are held by rebels or Kurds.  So if the UN tries to open up humanitarian corridors from other countries, the burden will be on the rebels to safeguard them.  There are notable exceptions, like Qusayr.  But Russia can support this initiative safe in the knowledge that (1) it reflects facts on the ground and (2) it may create more headaches for the rebels than for Assad.  Will rebels let aid into government-held areas?

The UN’s struggle for moral authority

I have a 3,000 word essay in Aeon, the online magazine of ideas, on the United Nations and morality. Here’s the opening…

‘We will integrate human rights into the life cycle of all staff.’ This phrase, with its strange mix of bureaucratic and moral ambitions, might sound like a piece of Orwellian doublespeak. In fact it is a sincere statement from a policy paper circulated among senior United Nations staff this summer on the need to renew the organisation’s ‘vision’ in the face of massive human rights violations. UN officials have been despondent over their failure to halt the Syrian war and the organisation’s performance in persistent trouble-spots such as Darfur, so the soul-searching is timely. But will it make any difference?

You can find the answer to that question, and the full article, here.

Iran’s biggest headache

A coda to my post a couple of weeks back on the role of climate change and resource scarcity as conflict threat multipliers in Syria, via Tom Friedman in the NY Times:

“Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran. Is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. … Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, and no one is thinking about this.

“I am deeply worried about the future generations. … If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate.

“All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up: Lake Urumieh, Bakhtegan, Tashak, Parishan and others … deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances. … If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.”

- Iran’s former agriculture minister Issa Kalantari (now an adviser to Hassan Rouhani), writing in the Iranian Ghanoon newspaper.

Did climate change help cause Syria’s civil war?

That’s the argument made by William Polk, a historian who worked on the State Dept’s Policy Planning staff under Kennedy, in a long piece sent to James Fallows at The Atlantic. The whole piece is excellent – a carefully argued weighing of the evidence (which concludes, by the way, that the jury is still very much out on whether the Assad regime was actually responsible for the use of chemical weapons) – but here’s what he has to say about climate change in a section on the conflict’s context:

Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011.  Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well.  But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

In some areas, all agriculture ceased.  In others crop failures reached 75%.  And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger.  Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies.  Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3  million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”

The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population.  Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq.  Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers.  And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.

Of course, academic conflict experts are always sceptical of the notion that a conflict can be attributed to one cause alone. But it’s very hard to argue against the idea that climate change is a very big threat multiplier – see e.g. this paper (pdf) of mine for the World Bank a few years ago, or this terrific report on the Arab Spring and climate change from the Center for American Progress in which Anne-Marie Slaughter, another State Dept Policy Planning veteran, argues that,

Crime-show devotees will be familiar with the idea of a “stressor” — a sudden change in circumstances or environment that interacts with a complicated psychological profile in a way that leads a previously quiescent person to become violent. The stressor is by no means the only cause of the crimes that ensue, but it is an important factor in a complex set of variables that ultimately lead to disaster.

The Arab Spring and Climate Change does not argue that climate change caused the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world over the past two years. But the essays collected in this slim volume make a compelling case that the consequences of climate change are stressors that can ignite a volatile mix of underlying causes that erupt into revolution.

But back to the specific case of Syria – which gets worse. For Polk then describes how the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) made desperate pleas to USAID for humanitarian assistance, warning that Syria was facing a “perfect storm” and “social destruction”, and noting that Syria’s agriculture minister had said publicly that the drought was “beyond our capacity as a country to deal with”.

Instead, USAID’s reaction (set out in a subsequently leaked cable dated November 2008) was to “question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time”. And, as this FT piece from October 2009 makes clear, the US wasn’t alone in declining to assist: a whole year after FAO’s call for help, UN OCHA was saying that it hadn’t received any money from donors despite seeking $53m in emergency funds.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government – in normal times, a major exporter of wheat – was also making its own catastrophic errors of judgement:

Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year.  The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive. So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire.

As a Syrian economist quoted in another FT piece published a year before the first protests observed with eerie prescience, “now we have drought, I hope it will not create political problems”.

Ten thoughts on the UK Parliament vote on Syria

1. You can totally understand why the British public is where it’s at. Last time they heard about WMD from the JIC, it was the 45 minutes claim. They’ve also drawn pretty much the correct conclusions about the net effect of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

2. But it strikes me as crazy for Parliament to have ruled out all military action without having either all the facts or all the options in front of it.

3. For once I agree with Dan Hodges - Ed Miliband comes out of this looking terrible.

4. I also agree that this is a tipping point for British foreign policy. Maybe Suez / Iraq order of magnitude. Coupled with where the Tories are taking us on Europe, our approach seems be not to have alliances with anyone anymore.

5. That said, foreign policy people always obsess about influence for its own sake (being ‘in with the cool kids’), rather than on what we’re trying to achieve with it. Show me a concrete win we’ve secured on an issue that matters (climate, development, human security) that we’ve secured by being in the EU or having a ‘special relationship’ with the US.

6. I take the point that way more people have been killed with conventional weapons in this war than chemical weapons. But chemical weapons are different. Same way that landmines are too. Rory Stewart’s post on his blog this morning was good on this.

7. I can totally understand why many internationalist friends of mine are in a state of despair. I feel it too. We really are watching the last gasp of the idea of the Responsibility to Protect for the foreseeable future.

8. (For which we have Tony Blair to thank. Yeah – that guy who wants to bring democracy to the Middle East while applauding the coup in Egypt as a positive development.)

9. But what’s our theory of influence here? “Something must be done” as a response to humanitarian crises has rarely led to good outcomes – from Somalia in 91 onwards. No-one’s willing to consider boots on the ground (and it’s totally unclear that it would be helpful to peace anyway). I can’t see that missile strikes will achieve much beyond making us feel better, and they’re by no means risk-free either. I’m sceptical of all the people on Twitter saying we have to find a political solution (thanks, Einstein). I honestly don’t know what’s the right thing to do.

10. But ruling out all military action wasn’t it.