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Doctrines Derailed?: Internationalism's Uncertain Future
Doctrines Derailed?: Internationalism's Uncertain Future
Speech / Global

Doctrines Derailed?: Internationalism's Uncertain Future

Global Briefing 2013 opening speech from the International Crisis Group's President & CEO Louise Arbour.

Doctrines Derailed?: Internationalism's Uncertain Future

Global Briefing 2013 opening speech from the International Crisis Group's President & CEO Louise Arbour. CRISIS GROUP

I’m delighted to welcome you to Crisis Group’s 5th annual briefing.

My name is Louise Arbour and I’m the President and CEO of International Crisis Group.

Many of you know our work well, some are relative newcomers. In the course of today and tomorrow you’ll have an opportunity to interact with Crisis Group’s staff and board, and you will get, I’m sure, an excellent insight into who we are.

Rather than describe to you here our mission and methodology, I want to steal this opportunity to share with you some personal thoughts developed over my four years in this position, as well as during my previous work in different, related capacities.

It is well known that our work is geographically based, rather than thematic. And you will get, in the course of this Global Briefing, a very good exposure to the breadth of our geographic work, and to a wide spread of detailed views and opinions on the evolution of the conflicts in the regions and countries that we cover.

What we do less often, though, is remove ourselves from this intensely contextual approach to reflect on the state of ideas and institutions that play a more global role in the management of conflict and the advancement of peace and security. Many of these feature regularly in our work, but not always explicitly and usually through the lens of a single conflict or crisis.

Allow me therefore to look at what events over recent years tell us about some of these doctrines and institutions.

I want to look briefly at four issues: (i) the pursuit of international criminal justice; (ii) the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P; (iii) peacekeeping, or perhaps now better put peace-enforcement, missions; and (iv) the international promotion of the Rule of Law.

All these were embraced, albeit some with more enthusiasm than others, in this still relatively new post-Cold War era as desirable investments in the promotion of international peace and security.

When, by tomorrow evening, you have finished surveying with us the state of what I’m sure will appear a rather un-peaceful world, you may ask yourselves what some of these post-Cold War doctrines and institutions have actually contributed.

If the answer is “not enough”, then it might be useful to pause and examine what, thus far, has gone wrong.

Working as we are on some of the most difficult, volatile and war-torn parts of the world, this two-day briefing risks leaving a rather bleak impression and possibly even a sense of doom.  I certainly don’t want to add to that. Not all is negative, of course – the peace process in Colombia, the top-down reforms in Myanmar, potentially positive change in Iran, the first handover from one democratically-elected government to another in Pakistan – not all news is bad.

So as I begin to highlight the shortcomings of existing frameworks for conflict prevention, I want to stress that some of it is working, and that all is fixable. But not if we refuse to take a critical look at the ideas and institutions we have championed for fear of seeing modest gains unravel.

Let me turn first to international criminal justice, now anchored in a full decade of work by the International Criminal Court. We all repeat the mantra that there can be no lasting peace without justice; and that’s true enough. But I don’t think that we have yet resolved the inevitable tensions between the two in a workable fashion.  

Security Council referrals to the ICC are, I believe, particularly problematic. Two referrals by the Security Council to the ICC, in the cases of Darfur and Libya, have done little to enhance the standing and credibility of the ICC, let alone contribute to peace and reconciliation in their respective regions. Last week the judges of the ICC, at the request of the government of Libya, ruled one of the two Libyan cases inadmissible, clearing the way for President Qadhafi’s spy chief Abdullah al-Senussi, to be tried in Libya where investigations are already underway.

There have been talks about the Security Council referring Syria to the ICC, amidst a general sense that, first, it will not happen anytime soon and, second, even if it did it would do little to advance a mediated end to the war, which currently appears the only remotely feasible way of ending the fighting. The Security Council’s actions in response to allegations of human rights violations in Sudan and Libya is also in stark contrast to its silence in the face of equally credible allegations of gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by government forces in Sri Lanka, where the last few months of the war in 2009 saw tens of thousands of civilians killed in indiscriminate attacks.

It’s true that Security Council referrals expand the reach of accountability to countries that have chosen not to be parties to the Rome Statute that established the ICC. But they do so at a cost that any justice system should find difficult to bear: three permanent members of the Council are not party to the Statute and all five can use their veto power to shelter themselves and their friends from this expansion of responsibility. Indeed, Security Council Resolution 1970 referring Libya to the ICC specifically excluded nationals of states not party to the Rome Statute from the ICC’s jurisdiction – Americans for example – except, of course, Libyan nationals.  So much for the Rule of Law, premised as it is on equality before the law.

Security Council referrals therefore expose the Court to charges of politicisation, while providing the Court with no compensatory benefits such as additional financial, political or operational support. And in the end, Council referrals may in fact underscore the Court's impotence rather than enhance its alleged deterrent effect, given that in Darfur Security Council backing has achieved so little, while in Libya there is a sense in some quarters that the Court withdrew from a contentious arena leaving the indictees to be tried in a judicial system under severe stress.

Another serious challenge to the Court is emerging from the election of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, as President and Vice-President of Kenya, after having been indicted by the ICC, and their subsequent efforts to drum up opposition to the Court in Africa. The two are casting their election as evidence of national reconciliation that their trial could compromise. This conveniently obscures the failings of the Kenyan system that permitted indicted criminals to stand for public office. But it highlights the reality of post-conflict environments where justice can be brandished as a further threat to peace.

And finally we will discuss in more detail this afternoon the tensions between the objectives of peace and of justice in the negotiations currently taking place in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC.

So recent events – whether the Security Council referrals, the difficulties the Court faces in Africa, or its balancing act in Colombia – appear to challenge the assumption underlying the international justice enterprise: that holding military and political leaders accountable for war crimes would contribute to peace, by deterring such conduct in the future and encouraging national reconciliation.

This is not to say that we should abandon the fight against impunity. And there’s no question that we must support the Court’s work. But it means that we need to be more strategic about the convergence of justice with the resolution of armed conflicts.

In my view this cannot be done by either peace or justice trumping the other – as in effect it would through sequencing one before the other – but rather by seeking in every case an outcome that maximises both. This in turn requires compromise – both sides have to give. Many justice advocates, however, wary of losing ground, are unwilling to support that approach.  An alternative – creating a model whereby the political and justice tracks are parallel rather than criss-crossing – remains out of reach, although it has, in my view, considerable merit.

Let me now turn to the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, as, first, a doctrine reflecting a modern articulation of state sovereignty as entailing not just states’ rights but also their responsibility to look after the welfare of their citizens and, second, a framework for intervention in the domestic affairs of a state, including through military action, in order to prevent mass atrocities.

Despite early attempts to focus on prevention by all means short of the use of force, in reality the debate over R2P has focused mostly on its sharp end: how to mobilise international support for using military force against a government unwilling or unable to protect its own people.

Combined with some dysfunction in the Security Council – to put it mildly – the doctrine has become hostage to politics, and to public opinion.

It was designed to mitigate the harm to civilians caught in war. But in Libya it was instrumentalised also to effect a change of regime. Whether this showed its potency or will lead to its demise is unclear. Since then the doctrine has proved useless in mobilising the international community to protect civilians in Syria, where well over 100,000 people have been killed so far. In fact it may even be part of the problem: some Security Council members have been reluctant to pass any resolution on Syria claiming to fear it could then be stretched to justify military action.

Still, the idea of using external force to prevent atrocities continues to have currency. It is in fact a requirement of international law under the widely ratified genocide convention; it recently led French foreign minister Laurent Fabius to call on Security Council veto holders to undertake voluntarily not to use their veto to prevent actions designed to stop mass crimes (with the not insignificant caveat that they should feel no such restraint where their national interests are at stake).

R2P was articulated as a humanitarian doctrine, not as a conflict resolution one. Whether it can ever be purely the former remains to be seen: once Qadhafi was declared a murderous threat to Libyans, how could the NATO intervention have ended in any way other than regime change? The failure to recognise this fact opens the doctrine up, inevitably, to a politicisation that will render its utility, I suggest, questionable in the short to medium term.

Third, let me say a few words about Peacekeeping. More blue helmets are deployed today than maybe at any other time in UN history. UN peacekeepers have, undoubtedly, played crucial roles in moving societies from war to peace.

Over recent years, however, their responsibilities have changed almost beyond recognition – with perhaps the most dramatic shift being from peacekeeping to peace “enforcement”. The newly deployed intervention brigades in the DRC, the ambiguous environment in which the UN is deploying in Mali, and the latest calls by the UN Secretary General for more, and more robust, troops to take on Al-Shabaab in Somalia, may herald a new era at the UN of peacemaking by warfare.

This is particularly troublesome as the UN-deployed missions are often required to side with governments of questionable legitimacy; and the weaker these governments are or become, the more the strong arm of the UN will be called upon to prop them up.  In this emerging configuration, the structural drivers of conflict – such as poverty, marginalisation, rising extremism, resource disputes and so on – risk being further neglected.

In addition, the call, as expressed by Lakhdar Brahimi years ago, that UN missions have the means commensurate to their mandates has never been fully implemented. Mandates express ambitious protection of civilian agendas, while troop contributing countries are wary of putting their forces in harm’s way to do just that.

Given also the military vigilantism of drone strikes and special forces operation that the second decade of the war on terror has sought to legitimise, there are reasons to be concerned about the increasing appeal to the use of force in the pursuit of peace, and its search for legitimacy, including in weary public opinion.

On the Rule of Law, Crisis Group has written extensively on the importance of building rule of law institutions in fragile or conflict-affected states.

The link between the rule of law and armed conflict – particularly internal armed conflicts, the most common form today -- could not be better expressed than it was in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948:

“Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”.

Rule of law institutions are important and the development agenda has long neglected them even under the heading of governance. In most conflict-prone areas we spend, for example, more money and political capital on elections and support for the executive than on the establishment of a competent, professional and independent judiciary. This is true from Afghanistan, the DRC and Somalia to Guatemala, Sri Lanka and the Central Asian republics: weak or corroded judicial systems are both a product of crisis and a sign of crises to come.  

There is also a tendency to conflate the concept of rule of law with the security sector. We do invest in developing the capacity of police and militaries, but we should guard against pretending that this is what the rule of law is mostly about.

Law enforcement is not a bad thing in and of itself and tends to be popular even with, indeed particularly with, authoritarian regimes, as long as there are no constraints imposed on them about the content of these laws.

But understood properly and substantively, the rule of law expresses the requirement of equal benefit and equal protection of the law embodied in Lacordaire’s famous insight that “between the rich and the poor, between master and servant, between the strong and the weak, it is freedom that oppresses and the law that sets free”.

It is difficult to get any traction on recommendations that call for such a substantive and long-term investment in conflict prevention, mitigation and resolution. But short of pressing for such fundamental policy engagement in countries at risk, our work will mimic that of Sisyphus pushing that rock up the mountain.

Again I don’t want to leave you with this image of the futility of our efforts. Quite the opposite; it is only by acknowledging the inadequacies of our approaches that we have any chance of improving them. As the US prepares to pull out of Afghanistan, there will be a lot of so-called lessons learned about a wasteful decade. Throughout that decade, we have published extensively on the need to invest in the long-term effort to build rule of law institutions in Afghanistan. As others are calling for a repudiation of short-termism in addressing the defining issues of our time such as climate change and economic inequalities, so it is in the field of conflict prevention.

So I will leave you with this invitation. Keep in mind, over the next two days, that events each year expose new weaknesses and contradictions in the doctrines and institutions – the tools – of conflict management. To identify these is not to dismiss those tools altogether – they have, for the most part and despite their shortcomings, been sources for positive change.

Rather to do so should encourage further thinking on how to fine-tune them and use them more wisely to advance peace and security.

Many thanks.

Josep Borrell, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, arrives at a European Union Foreign Ministers council in Brussels, Belgium, 9 December 2019. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Seven Priorities for the New EU High Representative

As Josep Borrell steps into his role as the new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Crisis Group highlights seven countries where European leadership can combine political, financial and technical resources to rebuild and sustain peace and stability.

What’s new? Seasoned Spanish diplomat Josep Borrell became the EU’s chief diplomat last week, replacing Federica Mogherini as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Why does it matter? With the EU-U.S. partnership increasingly strained and crises threatening peace and security around the world, European leadership is urgently needed to prevent and mitigate deadly conflict. In his new role, Borrell can help the EU and its member states rise to the challenge.

What should be done? Borrell should guide Europe’s focus to crises where its political ties, economic clout, and technical acumen can help forge peace and repair the ravages of war. This briefing suggests seven priorities that should command his attention.

I. Overview

Last week, former Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell became the EU’s chief diplomat, succeeding Federica Mogherini as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission. He will face no shortage of challenges. These will include not only the peace and security matters in his substantive portfolio – from saving a fraying Iran nuclear deal to bolstering Sudan’s fragile transition – but also the hard work of building consensus among 28 European member states about how to address these challenges. Borrell’s work will be all the more difficult given the declining state of Europe’s traditional partnerships, with Washington’s foreign policy more transactional and less focused on conflict prevention, and the UN Security Council frequently deadlocked by tensions among its permanent members. Still, the EU can accomplish much good if the new High Representative can help it focus its attention wisely and summon the will to act.

Borrell’s success is likely to hinge on his ability to focus the Council on conflict prevention, forge greater member state cohesion on policy in this area, and encourage greater follow-through once Brussels decides on a course of action. This will require no small measure of old-school diplomacy – cultivating strong relationships with the European foreign ministers who serve on the Foreign Affairs Council that he will chair, and finding ways to get their ministries more invested in the EU’s common positions. Borrell’s predecessor Mogherini, for example, invited the Finnish foreign minister to represent the EU in the Horn of Africa and Gulf region in July 2019 amid negotiations over Sudan’s transitional arrangements.

The most important task for Borrell, however, will be to identify crises where the EU – through its political ties, economic clout, security initiatives or technical expertise – is well-positioned to play a positive if not indispensable role. The seven priorities listed below would be a good place to start.

II. Seven Priorities for Borrell

1. Throw Khartoum a lifeline

In the wake of Omar al-Bashir’s ouster in April 2019, the EU and its member states have an important opportunity to support Sudan as it navigates a fraught transition to civilian rule. The country has swung between hope that change is coming and impatience for the transition to bear fruit since 11 April, when the most sustained civilian protest movement in the country’s modern history swept Bashir from power. Although the generals who ultimately deposed Bashir have shown reluctance to cede power, a wave of international revulsion at security forces’ brutal 3 June attack on protesters in Khartoum galvanised support for mediation that yielded a power-sharing agreement on 17 August.

If all goes according to the deal struck in August, the country will complete its transition to civilian rule following elections in 2022. But for that to happen, the civilians in Khartoum’s transitional government – led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok – need a major assist from international partners that has yet to materialise. These civilian leaders bear the outsize hopes and expectations of a public that desperately seeks an economic lifeline after years of brutal kleptocracy. As they struggle to keep the reins of government in civilian hands, and away from a politically and economically powerful security sector, demonstrating that the transition is already producing tangible benefits for the Sudanese people will be critical.

Brussels can help. Hamdok has estimated that Sudan will need an infusion of at least $10 billion over the next two years to rebuild its devastated economy. Donors such as the EU and its member states, the U.S. and Gulf countries, should pull out all the stops to meet this request responsibly. The immediate objective should be to bolster Hamdok’s transitional government so it can begin responding to public demands for economic relief (and thereby strengthen its hand relative to the security sector). The EU announced €55 million in humanitarian aid during Prime Minister Hamdok’s visit to Brussels in November, and will contribute some €250 million in total to the country in development, stabilisation and humanitarian aid by the end of 2020. Yet these contributions – however generous – remain a proverbial drop in the bucket given the scale of support required to deliver on this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

As an immediate priority, Borrell should work with new Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen – who took up the EU’s development portfolio just as Borrell stepped into his new post – to mobilise support for Khartoum.[fn]For more on how outside actors can support Sudan, see Crisis Group EU Watchlist, Watchlist 2019 – Third Update, 15 October 2019.Hide Footnote Primarily this means mustering budget support and further quick impact development financing for the government while Hamdok pushes forward with a package of reforms and addresses core economic challenges, including stabilising the currency and commodity prices, tackling inflation and reducing youth unemployment. Brussels can also help by providing technical assistance to Hamdok and his team as they seek to put government finances on a more solid footing by consolidating revenue streams and centralising them within a transparent fiscal framework.

Khartoum also needs all the diplomatic help it can get in pressing the U.S. government to lift Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Removing this out-of-date label would help Sudan reconnect to the international financial system, spur foreign investment and – perhaps most important – pave the way for Khartoum to seek relief of its staggering $60 billion debt burden. To address U.S. concerns that the security establishment will move to retake full power, Borrell should underscore his commitment to working with Washington to marshal European support for new sanctions targeting any spoilers who impede Sudan’s political or economic transition.

2. Raise the level of EU ambition in Libya

In Libya, Borrell faces a conflict on Europe’s doorstep. A violent flare-up in April 2019 deepened the divisions between forces aligned with the UN-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the Libyan National Army (LNA) based in the East and led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Upward of 1,500 people have been killed since the beginning of the latest confrontation, neither side appears ready to embark on talks with its rival, and Haftar appears convinced that odds are in his favour to gain the upper hand via military means.

The war in Libya has also become increasingly internationalised, reflecting geopolitical divides throughout the Middle East and beyond. Qatar and Turkey are backing the GNA financially and militarily, respectively, while Haftar receives military support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, and financial support from Saudi Arabia. International support to the two sides has enabled the mobilisation of fighters and resources and prolonged this proxy war.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°69, Stopping the War for Tripoli, 23 May 2019.Hide Footnote

The EU and its member states have struggled to develop an effective approach to the Libyan conflict. One challenge is that different states support different sides.

The EU and its member states have struggled to develop an effective approach to the Libyan conflict. One challenge is that different states support different sides. Most prominently, Italy maintains closer relations to the GNA while France is more aligned with Haftar, although recently the two countries have begun to consult and coordinate more closely, hosting joint diplomatic talks at the margins of the UN General Assembly in September. Another challenge is that EU policy has tended to focus less on ending the conflict and more on blunting its impact on migration into Europe. Southern European countries, as well as migration hardliners like Austria and Hungary, have pushed the EU to invest more in technical assistance to stop migrant flows across the central Mediterranean, at the expense of focusing on finding a political solution to end the crisis.

Seeking to create momentum for a political resolution through the so-called “Berlin Process”, in recent months Germany has stepped up its support to UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya Ghassan Salamé in his efforts to broker a ceasefire, encourage implementation of the UN arms embargo on all Libyan factions and return the sides to negotiations. Germany’s efforts have so far focused on monthly consultations among UN Security Council permanent members and key countries involved in the conflict, as well as the EU, African Union, and League of Arab States, with the aim of encouraging them to get the Libyan factions to return to talks.

Germany was planning to host a conference of external stakeholders in November where it would further seek their support in pushing Libyan allies to negotiate in earnest, but that has slid to the beginning of 2020 at the earliest; in the meantime, hopes for progress have suffered a number of setbacks. The LNA have resisted calls to negotiate and are pushing for a military advantage, increasingly relying on support from Russian fighters employed through a private security contractor. Washington has vocally objected to this support, adding another unhelpful point of friction with Moscow. Moreover, in November the GNA and Turkey announced a new agreement to delineate Libya’s maritime boundary with Turkey in a way that would both infringe upon Greek maritime claims and potentially undermine Egyptian financial interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. In creating a new source of tension between Ankara and Cairo, the announcement further divided them at a moment when their cooperation is needed to advance Berlin’s process.

So what can Borrell do? For one, he should focus on the operational issues that bedevilled his predecessor. This means pressing member states to reinvigorate the EU’s maritime “Operation Sophia” so that it can maintain a meaningful naval presence in the Mediterranean (it currently has none) as a deterrent against the flow of embargoed arms into Libya, while also helping to save the lives of migrants in distress. It also means moving, as soon as the situation allows, to reopen the EU Delegation in Tripoli. At the same time, however, Borrell should make clear to both the peacemakers and the war wagers that Brussels will be throwing its weight fully behind German and UN efforts to strike a comprehensive military, political and economic settlement that can end this conflict.

3. Save the Iran Nuclear Agreement and de-escalate tensions in the Gulf

Eighteen months after the U.S. quit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the EU and the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) are at the forefront of efforts both to keep the deal from completely unravelling, and to steer Tehran and Washington away from a collision course that could set off a region-wide chain reaction.

Borrell takes office at an especially fraught moment. Just weeks ago, on 5 November, Iran announced that it would restart uranium enrichment activities at the underground Fordow facility, prompting the EU and E3 to threaten invoking the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism.[fn]“Iran adds to breaches of nuclear deal with enrichment push: IAEA report”, Reuters, 11 November 2019.Hide Footnote If they do so – either now or in response to Iran’s potential next step – this ultimately could lead to the re-imposition of UN sanctions suspended by the JCPOA and spell the end of the deal.

There is of course a backstory to Tehran’s provocations. Upon leaving the JCPOA, the U.S. embarked on a campaign of “maximum pressure” intended to force Iranian concessions through re-imposing unilateral economic sanctions. Iran initially adopted a posture of strategic patience, hoping that its nuclear compliance would encourage the rest of the world to continue trading with Iran in defiance of U.S. restrictions. As the U.S. upped its pressure (most notably, in April 2019, revoking the sanction waivers that had previously allowed eight countries to import Iranian oil) and Iran’s other partners were unwilling or unable to meaningfully circumvent American sanctions and maintain trade, Iran’s leadership shifted course.

The result has been dangerous on three levels. First, Iran has embarked on a series of steps downgrading its compliance with the nuclear accord – the 5 November announcement being the latest, though likely not the last. Secondly, it has acted in ways that threaten to push an already volatile region over the brink. These include the 20 June downing of a U.S. drone and a 14 September missile and drone attack against Aramco’s Abqaiq-Khurais facilities that the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the E3 attribute to Tehran. More recently, the U.S. has pointed a finger at Tehran in the wake of apparent attacks on American military bases in Iraq.[fn]“Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker on Iraqi Global Magnitsky Designations”, press briefing, U.S. Department of State, 6 December 2019.Hide Footnote A significant incident involving U.S. forces or U.S. allies could result in retaliation by Washington, which has twice already come close to retaliatory action against Iran (after the drone downing and Abqaiq attack). Thirdly, widespread protests across Iran in the second half of November underscore growing political and economic frustration that the government violently repressed. If the U.S. continues to squeeze Iran economically, and the Islamic Republic continues to resort to an iron fist against mounting dissent, further turmoil is likely.

If the U.S. continues to squeeze Iran economically, and the Islamic Republic con-tinues to resort to an iron fist against mounting dissent, further turmoil is likely.

Borrell should seek to marshal EU and E3 efforts to find a way out of the current escalatory cycle. The best possible off-ramp appears to be a version of the de-escalation package France put forward at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September.[fn]See Crisis Group Commentary, “U.S. Maximum Pressure Meets Iranian Maximum Pressure”, 5 November 2019.Hide Footnote A deal by which Iran returns to full JCPOA compliance and refrains from direct or indirect regional provocations in return for the E3 providing a financial reprieve in the form of an increase in Iran’s oil exports (and, importantly, the U.S. facilitating such a step through waivers) could at least freeze tensions. The window for negotiating such a deal may prove very narrow, as Iran’s upcoming legislative elections in February and U.S. presidential elections in November could make progress after February 2020 more difficult.

4. Re-launch Venezuela’s stalled talks

As Spain’s foreign minister, Borrell colourfully likened the U.S. to an overeager cowboy in its efforts to push Nicolás Maduro’s government from power through a combination of sanctions and intimidation.[fn]“The US replies to Spain on Venezuela: ‘We don’t do cowboy diplomacy’”, El Pais, 9 May 2019.Hide Footnote Although the saloon-style shoot-out Borrell seemed to warn against has not happened, the situation in Venezuela remains at a dangerous standstill. The country is caught between the government’s inflexibility and the opposition’s unrealistic expectations, which have been fuelled by the U.S. Trapped in the middle, amid a dramatic humanitarian catastrophe, are the Venezuelan people.

There were flickers of hope in the past year. Talks sponsored by Norway and backed by the EU in Oslo and later Barbados emerged as the most promising venue for promoting an agreement between the government and opposition, but were suspended after the former withdrew in early August, citing the imposition of new U.S. sanctions the day before. Then, on 15 September, the opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, pronounced the mediation mechanism was “exhausted”.

Meanwhile, both sides have turned to other strategies. The government struck a deal with five minority opposition parties excluded from the Barbados talks; together, they announced an agreement calling for the return of government lawmakers to the National Assembly, the release of some political prisoners and reforms to the electoral system.[fn]Crisis Group Q&A, “Maduro Finds a ‘New Opposition’ to Negotiate With”, 19 September 2019.Hide Footnote For its part, the mainstream opposition requested – and obtained – activation by its Latin American and U.S. allies of a regional mutual defence treaty (the 1947 Rio Treaty, known as the TIAR in Spanish), which some at the time took to herald the possibility of military intervention.

Alongside financial support and its humanitarian presence on the ground, the EU could usefully provide technical expertise to help manage movements in the region.

If the two sides could refocus their energies, however, progress is still possible. The most realistic, viable outcome would entail negotiated compromises by all sides. President Maduro should agree to internationally monitored, credible elections (probably only parliamentary in the first instance, but leading to an early presidential poll afterward) and to the institutional reforms necessary to make that happen. Guaidó and the opposition should soften their demands that Maduro quit immediately, and cooperate with the government on moves to restore fair political competition. The U.S., with opposition backing, should stop tying any sanctions relief to Maduro’s departure, instead agreeing to ease them gradually them in exchange for meaningful concessions from Caracas. And both the government and opposition should reach an understanding on political guarantees to safeguard the rights of election losers.

With Borrell’s encouragement, the EU would be well placed to champion an effort along these lines. The Brussels-backed International Contact Group, which came together (in part through Borrell’s efforts) to encourage a negotiated compromise to the crisis in Venezuela, could help – including by encouraging key allies on both sides, especially the U.S. and Russia, to persuade their respective partners to return to the table and work in good faith toward an agreement.[fn]See Crisis Group Latin America Briefing N°38, A Way Out of Latin America’s Impasse over Venezuela, 15 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Brussels can also help the region manage the spillover effects of the crisis. Venezuela’s neighbours are under great pressure; some 4.3 million Venezuelans have fled to nearby countries, including 1.6 million to Colombia alone. The EU recently pledged €157 million, but Borrell might be able to mobilise greater resources still by continuing to push for multi-donor commitments in cooperation with UN agencies. Alongside financial support and its humanitarian presence on the ground, the EU could usefully provide technical expertise to help manage movements in the region.

5. Keep pulling Bolivia back from the brink

As unrest ripples through Latin America, Bolivia is another country in political crisis that would benefit from continuing European support. After close to fourteen years in power, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, tendered his resignation on 10 November amid deepening unrest over electoral fraud and under strong pressure from the armed forces. Along with Morales, the upper echelons of the ruling Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party also quit.

Views on what occurred are deeply polarised: for Morales’ supporters, his departure from power was a coup; his opponents saw it as restoring democracy. In the days that followed the resignation, Jeanine Áñez, an opposition senator, became next in line for the presidency. On 12 November, she asserted her claim to the interim post, saying her primary tasks would be to “pacify the country” and organise elections.

It did not go smoothly. Violence flared following Morales’ ouster, as MAS supporters took to the streets and met with a fierce crackdown from security forces, leading to massacres at Cochabamba and El Alto and over twenty deaths. Áñez did little to calm the waters, stirring fears that she would reverse Morales’ efforts to ensure greater equality between the nation’s Christian and indigenous communities, and hand additional powers to the military – especially after she issued a decree granting immunity from prosecution for any crimes committed in handling the protests.

Toward the end of November, the situation started to take a turn for the better, in large part thanks to mediation by the Catholic Church, the EU and UN Special Envoy Jean Arnault. Áñez struck a deal with protest leaders to clear roadblocks in exchange for a commitment to release prisoners jailed during the violence, preserve some of Morales’ public policies and withdraw troops from areas of unrest. Under pressure from human rights groups, she repealed the military immunity decree she had issued. Perhaps more important, she also signed into law a new bill agreed with the MAS to annul the recent election, calling for new ones within 120 days and directing the reconstitution of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which will oversee them. Neither Morales nor his former vice president, Álvaro García Linera, will be permitted to stand because of term limits, but the MAS party will be allowed to participate – an important step toward a peaceful resolution to this period of crisis.

Whether or not Bolivia is fully back from the brink remains to be seen, and for at least the next 120 days it will be important for external partners to keep a close eye on the situation. Because Morales’ supporters consider Brazil, the U.S. and even the Organization of American States biased, the EU could have an especially important mediating role to play in ensuring a transition that bridges the bitter divisions in Bolivia’s body politic, and avoids a confrontation that an increasingly tumultuous region can ill afford. It should make clear that it is prepared to play this role, and that it will press the new government that emerges not to reverse the gains in economic and political opportunity for Bolivia’s indigenous majority made under Morales’ government. At the technical level, the EU should also offer to provide an electoral observation mission for the forthcoming polls, and give support where necessary for the new Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

6. In Syria, focus on refugees, the reconstruction conundrum, and repatriation

Although Syria is unlikely to stabilise during Borrell’s term as High Representative, he could focus on areas where the EU and its member states can alleviate the suffering of Syrians whose lives have been torn apart by the long-running conflict. He can also help address the situation of ISIS-affiliated European nationals who are currently held in a network of camps and prisons in Syria’s north east.

First, the EU and its member states should continue to make a priority of supporting Syria’s neighbouring countries, which host the vast majority of Syrian refugees – many of whom embarked on a perilous journey to Europe and found themselves stranded in camps. These countries are themselves under economic stress. Borrell’s overarching goal in this respect should be to work with EU member states as well as host and transit countries to identify and fund programs that can cultivate refugees’ self-reliance through employment and education, and help host countries bear the burden of supporting them.

Second, the new High Representative should work with member states to navigate concerns that funding reconstruction support without substantial reforms could legitimise and empower a Syrian regime intent on repression, not reconciliation. Although the EU has been clear that it will not provide support for reconstruction projects without a political transition being “firmly underway”, Borrell could respect this red line and at the same time encourage European leaders to develop a common framework with criteria and rules to enable small-scale rehabilitation projects. Such support should only move forward without interference from the regime in Damascus, as Crisis Group has proposed elsewhere.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°209, Ways Out of Europe’s Syria Reconstruction Conundrum, 25 November 2019.Hide Footnote

The High Representative should [...] encourage the repatriation of the roughly 1,450 ISIS-affiliated European nationals detained in north east Syria amid squalor, disease and abuse.

Supporting projects of this nature could help prevent the collapse of essential public services, which would indefinitely postpone Syria’s recovery and perpetuate current instability – an outcome that would serve neither the Syrian people nor European interests. Borrell could also work with member states on a strategy to test an incremental incentives-based approach – progressively lifting sanctions, gradually normalising relations and staggering the disbursement of reconstruction funds – in exchange for meaningful political reforms and steps by Damascus to ease repression and discrimination.

Finally, the High Representative should use regular exchanges with EU foreign ministers to encourage the repatriation of the roughly 1,450 ISIS-affiliated European nationals detained in north east Syria amid squalor, disease and abuse.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°208, Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS, 18 November 2019.Hide Footnote Constrained by domestic politics and insecure about their capacity to prosecute and police returnees, most European governments have thus far done the very least they could get away with; they should instead be stretching to do the most.

While the repatriation of European nationals remains a competence of EU member states – and is therefore not Borrell’s immediate responsibility – he can certainly make the case for more responsible national-level policies and better coordination among states. In doing so, he should urge governments to move women and children to the front of the repatriation queue. Although European governments may feel that there is no politically palatable way to bring home men – especially given the experience some states have had with returning foreign fighters and high-profile incidents like the recent London Bridge attack – children are victims of circumstance, and many women were not directly involved in ISIS operations.[fn]See “How Belgium Overcame the Threat from Returning Foreign Fighters”, Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations, March 2018 and “London Bridge attack victims died after being stabbed in chest – inquest”, The Guardian, 4 December 2019.Hide Footnote Borrell should also argue that beyond the humanitarian benefits, their repatriation could mitigate a range of security risks, from adults escaping to return home on their own terms, to children being abandoned amid the camps’ hopelessness and left vulnerable to future recruitment by armed groups.

7. Ease Ethiopia’s transition

Since coming to power a year and a half ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has taken important steps to open up Ethiopia’s politics. But his government has struggled to check intercommunal strife that has killed hundreds, displaced millions and fuelled hostility among leaders of Ethiopia’s most powerful regions over the past two years. Any wholesale destabilisation of this pivotal East African country would have disastrous consequences. Borrell and other European leaders should work to avoid this by urging Abiy to proceed cautiously with political reforms, calling on all Ethiopian leaders to dial down incendiary rhetoric and offering multi-year aid to cushion against economic shocks that would aggravate the country’s political problems.

Since taking office in April 2018, Abiy has made much progress. He ended a decades-long standoff with Eritrea. Following his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn’s lead, he freed scores of political prisoners and welcomed dissidents back from exile. He brought reformists into institutions like the electoral board and economic ministries. He has won accolades at home and abroad, including the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

But serious problems loom. The mass protests between 2015 and 2018 that brought Abiy to power were motivated by the government’s abuses and failure to tackle rising living costs, youth unemployment and other day-to-day concerns. But they also had undertones of ethnic hostility. Especially in the two regions that saw the most unrest, Oromia (Abiy’s home state) and Amhara, local leaders backed protesters hoping to reverse the long-dominant Tigray minority’s influence in the country’s federal institutions and security forces.

European allies [...] should urge Abiy to proceed cautiously with political reforms and try to mitigate risks around forthcoming elections.

Abiy has tried to strike a middle ground between continuity and reform since coming to power, but his approach has not quieted ethno-nationalist forces clamouring for more influence, and some of his efforts at change have angered coalition colleagues. Some of his moves have weakened the state, leaving it less able to contain instability. Elections scheduled for May 2020 could be violent and divisive, as candidates compete for votes from within their respective ethnic groups and parties vie for control of contested cities.

If managed poorly, Abiy’s ongoing effort to remake into one party the coalition that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991 – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which comprises the ruling parties of Oromia, Amhara and Tigray regions, as well as a fourth, the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ region – risks deepening divisions. Already that coalition is fraying, its increasing dysfunction at once reflecting and fuelling ethnic animosity. While Abiy’s merger initiative enjoys support, it also generates resistance from opponents – particularly Tigrayan leaders but also some of Abiy’s Oromo rivals – who fear it as the first step toward undoing the country’s ethnic federalist system that guarantees regions self-rule.

Borrell can encourage European allies to ease the challenges Abiy is facing, taking his cue from the EU Special Representative to the Horn of Africa, Alexander Rondos. First, they should urge Abiy to proceed cautiously with political reforms and try to mitigate risks around forthcoming elections. If Ethiopia proceeds to a May 2020 vote, European leaders could press Abiy to intensify efforts to bring together parties and civil society, with the goal of setting red lines for political behaviour and taking some of the sting out of the forthcoming contest. If conditions deteriorate further, European leaders could suggest he seek broad support for a delay and potentially some form of national dialogue to start addressing questions of power-sharing, devolution and territory. Finally, Borrell could work with his development counterpart Jutta Urpilainen to rally European support for multi-year package of financial aid to help strengthen institutions, bolster an economy undergoing structural reform and decrease risks of discontent among a restive and youthful population.

Brussels, 12 December 2019