Monthly Archives: May 2012

Show trials and war crimes

I admit to having some reservations about the trial of Ratko Mladic and others like it… and that’s a hard thing to say because from the evidence I am aware of there does seem to be a very strong case against him. War crimes and crimes against humanity are obviously a big deal and should be punished but the very nature of them as political, high-profile events makes the trials of accused perpetrators very tricky affairs. For a start, the accused can use them as a place to bandstand and promote more hate in a semi-legitamised context. Then there are, as always, the questions about the fairness of such trials in the first place. The delay in the Mladic case as the result of errors in the handling of prosecution evidence was unfortunate but at least shows the tribunal is not overtly biased towards the prosecution. However, has any defendant ever been found not guilty in a modern high-profile war crimes trial? Not as far as I’m aware, and that is slightly worrying for me (if anyone knows of an example, please let me know).  I’m willing to bet that Mladic will be found guilty too, which does make you wonder about the extent to which war crimes trials are really show trials, enforcing the victor’s justice. Of course there is nothing new about this. After all, no Allied airmen or leaders were ever held accountable for the crime of carpet bombing Germany and Japan (not to mention twice nuking Japan) in WWII despite such actions clearly being in violation of the principle of proportionality as laid out in International Humanitarian Law.

The best way to dismiss these worries would be to bring some of the West’s alleged war criminals up for trial at the ICC (that’s the International Criminal Court, not the International Cricket Council) – but that particular body seems more concerned with Africans, and the US and others are not party to it anyway.

All of which raises an interesting question for me: is it better to have a system which selectively tries war crimes in a seemingly biased fashion, or to have no system at all? If the only war criminals who get caught and convicted are those from marginalised or weak states it clearly is not fair, but not convicting anyone at all is even less fair. So we end up with the current situation, as imperfect as it is. Mladic will be found guilty, his supporters will claim it was never a fair trial, and people in powerful states who are responsible for violations of the war of law will go unpunished. Such is the nature of the international political landscape – liberal institutions only operate in as far as it’s in powerful states interest for the to do so. At least some war crimes are punished, and that fact alone should be applauded. It’s just a shame that moving beyond this point seems so unlikely at the moment.

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The future of the EU… and the world

I’ve been thinking about the European Union and Europe a bit recently – partly because of the obvious reasons, such as the media saturation of the Hollande/Merkel showdown and the Greek crisis, and partly because I’ve applied for a job working with the EU delegation here in New Zealand. This has led to ponder on the future of the EU and what that means for the world in general. With the Eurozone on shaky ground, little has been written about what any sort of rush for the exits will do for the wider EU as a whole (at least that I’ve seen) but to me this raises some very serious questions.

The EU can be viewed as an experiment in liberal international relations theory and the results of this experiment could influence global politics for years to come. Should the EU manage to evolve and strengthen through dealing with the current crisis then other regional unions such as ASEAN might see it as a reason to pursue closer economic and political cooperation. However if the Eurozone crisis damages the EU’s credibility and weakens its institutions then the future of regional unions as important units in international relations will presumably be less rosy. On top of this, there is the simple fact that Europe is still a major player in global affairs even in the post-colonial era. The EU is home to half a billion people and represents 20% of global GDP. Although some experts think its influence is in decline these numbers alone show that it is still a big player, while the impact of its history on the way the rest of the globe works today is undeniable.

So where does theat leave the EU today? Even if we assume that Greece exits the Eurozone in the near future and triggers the other troubled countries (Ireland, Spain etc) to do the same, would that necessarily be bad for the EU? Some say it would, some say it wouldn’t.

I would personally answer this question with a definitive “maybe”. Sure, that’s a cop-out but with no real precedent to compare to that I’m aware of this is all dangerous new territory. The EU is already considered by some to be undemocratic, and there is at least some popular support for its dissolution, but whether this would reach critical mass following a Eurozone collapse is hard to say. I think the safest thing to predict is that the EU would continue to exist but its powers would be limited to what they are today (excluding the Eurozone bit of course) and it would take a very long time for Europe to move towards closer integration again, if it ever could. While Russia at least would probably welcome this move, from a broad historical perspective it would be a rather tame and sad end to one of the first real attempts to develop a post-nation-state way of approaching global politics. On the other hand, if the EU deals with the Eurozone crisis well it could signal a way forward for states to surrender sovereignty to a higher power in order for economic and political security – which is after all the whole point of the EU anyway.

In some ways the EU’s current problem with the Eurozone shows that it is stuck in the  middle of the pull of nation-states and state sovereignty on one side, and the push to closer integration and a possible federation of Europe on the other, and the halfway point has not been a compromise that has worked. At a deeper level though I think this reflects a constant in European history – the diverging sides of the European experience as it were. There’s the Europe of the enlightenment and humanism, and the Europe of bloody conquest and rampant nationalism. Not that I’m equating nation-states with evil deeds, or saying that a post-nation-state way of governing peoples would be superior, but simply that it is mistake to think of Europe purely in one sense or the other. Although Europe has historically been progressive, it has also historically been reactionary. Another example of this duality is the fact that Europe itself was the birthplace of the modern nation-state yet it still retains some pre-nation-state entities, such as the city-state of Monaco, or San Marino, or even the Vatican.

Even if the EU comes out of the Eurozone crisis stronger, there are still a number of challenges facing it. Foremost among these is where to stop expanding – check out the GIF on this Wikipedia page to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Will Turkey become a member? Georgia? Armenia? How far can the European Union expand and still be European? As it expands eastwards it also run up against the Russia’s sphere of influence and this could be a very difficult relationship to manage, especially considering the partnership between the EU with NATO. If the EU stops admitting new member states will Europe fall back into a division like that between communist and capitalist, or Orthodox and Catholic? As well as these concerns, there is the question of the way forward for the EU – how should it develop its institutions to be more democratic? How much sovereignty are its members willing to cede, and what can be offered in return?

The rest of the world will learn lessons from how the EU handles this crucial point in its history. This isn’t Eurocentrism but simply a reflection of the fact that the EU is sailing into uncharted waters. How it navigates them will ultimately decide if anybody wants to follow in its wake.


China’s awkward rise

China’s rise to being the world’s most powerful state makes for some awkward posturing from Chinese leadership. China has taken a position in world affairs as a leader of developing, post-colonial states but this means that China’s leaders have to play down their own neo-colonial ambitions (securing diplomatic support and resources for continued economic expansion). This makes for some interesting interactions between China and other developing states, especially in Africa.

Western discourse continually paints China as a boogie-man and a threat to freedom and liberty. If China’s rise continues on its current trajectory then its narrative of the Middle Kingdom as a developing post-colonial country will become unsustainable, but it’s hard to see it dropping its role as a counterbalance to Western powers (Huntington FTW!). Managing the perception of China’s role in the world will be a priority for both Western powers and China itself, and with the West’s massive head-start in global cultural presence and the fact that English has become the lingua franca China is already on the back foot. As China continues to expand economically and militarily, its soft power needs to catch up. I’m not sure that the current Chinese narrative about its role in world affairs can be maintained, and with similar pressures growing internally an evolution of China’s portrayal of itself seems both necessary and inevitable.

NB: I got thinking about this subject again when I uploaded an old paper I wrote which was an analysis of China’s official discourse on its engagement with Africa. The full text is in PDF form under the “Essays and Papers” section at the top of this blog, if anyone wants to read it.


Post-conflict trauma: who deals with this?

When I went to Bougainville last year to conduct research the region had officially been in a state of peace for a decade and yet the effects of the war were still obvious. A lot of this was physical: burnt out buildings etc;  several parts of the island where there are still warlords operating;  gun crime is common, even against aid agencies such as Oxfam (whose truck was stolen at gunpoint while I was there). Aside from these issues there was an obvious psychological aftermath as well.

The people who had been adults when the fighting started in the late 1980s seemed to have dealt with the trauma of the conflict through a variety of ways, including traditional reconciliation ceremonies (check out the documentary Breaking Bows and Arrows if you want to know more about this). However those who grew up in the decade of fighting have not been as able to cope and this has caused huge social problems. Violence, sexual violence, substance abuse, and anger and depression issues seem worryingly commonplace amongst the youth, and the older generation are painfully aware of this but do not have the capacity to deal with the scope of the problem. These children grew up seeing violence and suffering everywhere and now it has become part of their personalities.

So I’ve been thinking: who deals with PTSD and other trauma issues in post-conflict environments? Ex-combatants were offered counselling by church groups and international NGOs in Bougainville but there was not the resources to help civilians at the same time. Without addressing this issue the long-term security and prosperity of Bougainville is at risk, and I imagine it is similar in other post-conflict areas. Trauma has serious long-term consequences yet addressing it is much harder than the reconstruction of infrastructure and so on. Specialist training and a lot of time is required. Also, as a long-term issue it is harder to get internaional funding. Sadly there are a lot of places where people are suffering in the world and high profile cases get more aid for obvious reasons. The general public donates to causes based on what they know of them, and NGOs, IGOs, and states operate where there is pressure from the public to do so or there are other gains to be had. This sucks, but it’s hard to see it changing any time soon.

This raises more questions for me: how did the trauma of war affect the civilian populations who suffered during the world wars? How have civilian populations in places like Vietnam coped over time since they endured war? Is Bougainville particularly bad because of the nature of the conflict there (which saw it cut off from the outside world for years by a naval blockade) or is it representative of most post-conflict states? Are there any NGOs or other groups dedicated to addressing trauma issues out there?

Does anyone know the answers to any of these questions? I’d like to think Bougainville will pull through because there are a lot of amazing people doing amazing work, but the scale of the problem is immense and the resources at their disposal are, well,  not so immense.


My theory on why the USSR collapsed

Ever had to deal with a government department to sort out your taxes, get a driver’s license etc? Notice how frustrating and annoying the paper-pushing process is? Now think about a whole country where everything you do goes through that process….

Exactly.

NB: Before anyone thinks I’m a crazed anarcho-capitalist or something, I’m not against the government providing social welfare, healthcare, etc. I don’t think the free market can provide those things well enough for all citizens, so dealing with government bureaucracy is a necessary evil sometimes. But a whole country like that? Yikes!


Pity the UN

I pity the poor old United Nations. It seems to get a lot of stick from people – often for wildly contradictory reasons. On the one hand there are those who consider it part of the Illuminati’s plan to dominate the globe, while others claim (perhaps more eloquently) that it is ineffective, weak and hypocritical. To this first position I say: “Really? Have you looked at the UN in action?” To the second: “Yes, but…”

Lets start with the Security Council because that’s what most people think of when they use the term “UN”. The Security Council votes on matters relating to international security (whoa) and has five permanent members who can veto any decision if they don’t agree with it. Those countries are the USA, Russia, China, France and the UK, and the reason it is them and no one else is because they were the important ones when the UN Charter was written up. Now some say Russia does not deserve a permanent seat because it is not the USSR anymore (as it was when the UN was founded) and is no longer a superpower.  I must have missed the memo about the UK and France’s superpower status, but anyway the real reason people seem to not like Russia is its use of the veto on issues that affect its allies, like when it vetoes resolutions condemning Israel… oh wait, wrong country. I mean like when Russia vetoed a resolution on Syria, or Kosovo. China has also raised ire with its use of the veto as well.

The reason the veto power is there is so that the big powers would want to be a part of the UN in the first place. There is no way to enforce international law except through other states so if a state is big enough and powerful enough to not fear retaliation then it has no need for international law, except to give it legitimacy and credibility. Therefore the big, nuclear armed powers that existed when the UN was formed needed something to sweeten the deal so they got the right to veto stuff they didn’t agree with. Not fair, but a necessary compromise. Now they have that power why would they let it go? It is better to accept it exists and try to work around it. The UN Security Council still achieves things in a lot of cases, mandating the Libya intervention for instance, or reinforcing laws banning child soldiers.

Most people are used to the idea of a government with complete control over the right to use violence within its borders (thank you Max Weber) and seem to have problem understanding that the UN does not function as an international government in this sense. It has no independent armed force (members contribute troops to missions) and even if it did it would not be able to take on the likes of Russia or the USA anyway. It is a compromise between absolute state sovereignty and the rule of law at an international level, and like all compromises it gets messy sometimes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful compromise though, at least in many cases.

Finally all those aspects of the UN that aren’t the Security Council or the General Assembly, like UNICEF, UNDP, and UNESCO etc perform useful functions around the world and the UN itself creates a perfect framework for such operations.

So yeah, the UN isn’t perfect, but much of what is claimed about it is inaccurate and misinformed. Reforming the UN system to remove the veto powers of the Big 5 is appealing but I honestly can’t see it happening. Maybe I’m just too much of a realist (in the international relations sense) but I can’t see the big powers giving up an advantage they currently have in return for no net gain. The structure of the UN is now embedded in global politics and that makes it very difficult to change. It could be worse though: we could still have the League of Nations.

 

*I wrote a paper for an honours course (4th year at college for those outside NZ) about humantarian intervention without a UN Security Council mandate a couple of years ago, which covered some of this kind of stuff in a bit more detail. It compared the war in Kosovo in 1999 with that between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and drew some conclusions from this. I have uploaded it here if anyone cares! (Be warned, its about 9000 words long)


Greece is now a failing state (in my opinion)

The most common definition of a state one is likely to encounter in the social sciences is Max Weber’s one which say that a state is an entity which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders. An interesting take on this which reframes it in a more day-to-day metaphor is Charles Tilly’s description of the state as a protection racket – effectively saying that citizens pay tax to be protected from external (and internal) aggressors, and if citizens fail to pay the state then the state uses its force against them in the form of criminal prosecution.  If we accept these broad definitions then a failed state is one which can no longer exercise a monopoly on violence, or to use Tilly’s idea, can no longer maintain its protection racket. A failing state is one heading towards this position.

I like both these definitions for their simplicity and for capturing the essence of the nature of states. They also tie in nicely to the idea of the social contract, which is a prominent part of political science theory discourse. I think that Tilly’s protection racket concept could be widened to encompass the idea that the violence the state protects its citizens from is not just physical but economic. Economic violence could be the effects of poor fiscal and monetary policy, or external forces such as being out-competed by other states, but the idea is that if the state cannot protect its citizens from prolonged economic hardship then it is not living up to its end of the protection racket bargain. In social contract terms, the state has broken the contract to provide for its citizens.

Watching coverage of the Greek elections today, I was struck by the shambolic state of affairs this rather important country has found itself in. It seems to me with my limited understanding of economics that the adoption of a single currency by  group of sovereign states could never work in the long-term… but I digress. I think its time to stop kidding ourselves and admit that the Greek state is failing. One obvious example of this is the rampant tax evasion in Greece, which by some estimates has cost the government a third of its potential revenue. The Greek state has not been able to enforce its protection racket by collecting its dues, and now it can’t protect the people from the economic violence being wrought on them. This is not just the specific government in power’s problem, but the actual state artifice itself. It doesn’t matter who is elected in if the underlying structure is not being honoured by everyone. Those people who are avoiding tax are not going to start paying because someone new is in charge. Other taxpayers stopping paying because of the failures of their state is also a potential problem. Of course, tax collectors could be hired or new methods of enforcement could be tried but until these measures actually start to make headway the Greek state will continue to be “failing” at least in my eyes.

How far Greece can go before total state collapse is an open and very scary question. I think it will most likely avoid that path, but it is still definitely a possibility. European leaders should quietly be making plans for this outcome because if it does happen a whole world of sh*t will follow.