International Crisis Group Works to Put Out Fires in Global Hotspots
International Crisis Group Works to Put Out Fires in Global Hotspots
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
Op-Ed / Global 9 minutes

International Crisis Group Works to Put Out Fires in Global Hotspots

In official Washington, the suggestion of a “report” to help solve a problem often elicits scoffs of skepticism. But when the International Crisis Group issues a report about governments and suggests ways in which they can prevent and resolve their conflicts, those governments usually sit up and pay attention. Since launching in the midst of the Balkan Wars in 1995, the Crisis Group, as it refers to itself in shorthand, has become an indispensible tool for those seeking in-depth analysis of conflicts in hotspots around the globe.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell once called the Crisis Group “a mirror for the conscience of the world.” Powell’s predecessor, Madeleine Albright, described it as a “full-service conflict prevention organization.” The Financial Times observed that the Crisis Group’s myriad reports are “an essential dose of detailed analysis and hard-nosed realism.”

Louise Arbour, the International Crisis Group’s president and chief executive officer since July 2009, first learned about the organization and its reports 15 years ago as one of the first consumers of its products. In 1996, after serving on the Supreme Court of Ontario, Arbour, a Montreal native, accepted a U.N. Security Council appointment as chief prosecutor for the Rwanda and former Yugoslavia international criminal tribunals.

Searching for a better understanding of the Balkans’ complex politics after the Dayton peace accords, Arbour came across the International Crisis Group’s reports. The organization was in its infancy, with most of its resources concentrated in the war-torn Balkans. Arbour was the lead prosecutor in the groundbreaking trial of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, and she maintained an intensive daily focus on the intricacies and nuances of international law.

“It was both politically and intellectually challenging,” Arbour recalled during an interview with The Washington Diplomat in which she also discussed Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the notion of international prosecution as a deterrent to war crimes. “At the same time, it was very hard to keep plugged into the current political development in the region. Then, I discovered this little NGO that I thought was doing really terrific work,” she said of the Crisis Group, an independent, nonprofit, nongovernmental organization.

“It was very smart, very informative. It was not critical to my work, but it was critical to my understanding of the environment in which I operated. It was very frank and it didn’t have any particular point of view that represented any national interests,” she added.

So, Arbour became a fan of the Crisis Group 15 years before she became its leader. In 1999, after the Milosevic trial, Arbour returned home to accept an appointment to the Canadian Supreme Court. Soon after, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who had also served as the Crisis Group’s chairman, asked Arbour if she would serve on the group’s board of directors. She accepted while maintaining her place on Canada’s highest bench.

In 2004, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked Arbour if she would consider serving as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. The decision wasn’t easy. It would mean leaving her Supreme Court seat — a move some colleagues thought was preposterous.

“It was very unusual,” Arbour admitted. “The Supreme Court of Canada is the same model as the U.S. — nine judges and you’re supposed to stay forever. But I had already caught the bug for international work, so I became the high commissioner for human rights.”

The international life held an intellectual and adventurous promise that Arbour could not resist.

“Working internationally is enormously rewarding,” she said. “It just opens your mind to other people, other ways of doing business and other ways of thinking. I’m sure I’m not the first one who finds it very hard, in a sense, to come back home after having worked intensely in a very international environment.”

Today, Arbour resides in Brussels and maintains a residence in Canada but spends much of her time in Washington, or in airplanes and far-flung conference rooms meeting with global leaders and diplomats.

The Crisis Group doesn’t maintain a huge roster of professionals to do its global work, but rather a carefully selected staff of 130 experts dispersed strategically across the globe. The organization has advocacy offices in New York, Washington, D.C., London and Brussels, and smaller tentacles in emerging and critical geopolitical centers such as China and Russia. A little more than half of its $15 million annual budget comes from governments, with institutional foundations and individual and corporate donors comprising the rest. More than 70 percent of the Crisis Group’s funding now comes as “core” funding, which means it is not earmarked for a certain project or region of the world.

And even though the Crisis Group is often critical of policies promulgated by governments that donate to it, the funding is rarely pulled, Arbour noted.

“Very privately they express their displeasure,” she said. “But I have to say to their credit … even the governments who are not happy with a position we take, they buy into the concept of Crisis Group to such an extent that, so far, I don’t think a major donor has cut our funding because they didn’t like a line we take on an issue.”

Arbour added that she has no intention of making any major institutional changes. “I walked in at the height of the financial crisis, so this was not the time for great ambitious planning,” she explained. “And it was not an organization, in my view, that had lost its way. It was in very good shape. I was determined walking in the door to stay the course.”

However, Arbour conceded that the Crisis Group’s current assortment of advocacy offices in New York, Washington, Brussels and London “reflects a model that is losing some of its currency.”

“There are other emerging centers of decision-making that we’d like to be more present in  — India, Brazil, South Africa,” she suggested. “We would not necessarily be there to do field research and conflict, but to engage with emerging powers. We have a small presence in China, which is extremely useful to us to better understand Chinese foreign policy and actors.”

But as for the group in general, “there is no great revolution over the horizon,” Arbour said.

There are three components to the Crisis Group’s work: field-based research, the formulation of prescriptive suggestions to fix problems via reports, and then high-level advocacy. The group’s field workers are also lobbyists of sorts, working to make sure the affected decision-makers take note of the Crisis Group’s observations.

“We don’t just say ‘things are not looking good,’” Arbour explained. “We put ourselves to the test of trying to articulate what should be done in the short term, medium term and sometimes longer term. We make recommendations that are addressed to national actors, but also regional actors — sometimes the U.N., or the EU or the United States. Then we mobilize our advocacy at all levels. When we have a prescription policy that is well articulated, we try to mobilize and advance these ideas.”

The Crisis Group issues about 90 reports and briefings each year, on topics ranging from “New Crisis, Old Demons in Lebanon,” to “China’s Myanmar Strategy: Elections, Ethnic Politics and Economics,” to “Sudan: Defining the North-South Border.” Many of the conflicts it monitors in the current environment are territorial conflicts, whether in Sudan, Sri Lanka or the Balkans.

“We do a lot of work on conflicts that arise from the question of territorial integrity,” Arbour said. “We don’t publish a whole kind of doctrine to deal with that. Our work has always been very, very contextual. We believe you have to get the local politics right. You have to understand the actors and the ground situation and take it from there.”

Arbour said there is no one set of principles the group tries to apply to every territorial conflict. “On the secession movement, for example, we came out supporting the independence of Kosovo,” she pointed out. “On the other hand, we took a very clear position against independence claims for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.”

In the case of the Balkans, a region that served as Arbour’s indoctrination into international work, the case for independence seemed clear in Kosovo, she said.

“Essentially, you have the fundamental right to self-determination for the majority of people in Kosovo, the Albanian population that could not be accommodated by the parent state, Serbia,” she explained. “There was a long, long history, including toward the end, when NATO went to war against Serbia’s oppression … against its population.

“Ideally, you try to have all these linguistic, religious and aspirational rights accommodated within the state — that’s what democracy is supposed to do. But when you reach a point where this is not only dysfunctional, but the parent state is clearly unwilling or unable to extend the protection of the state to its population, then that is certainly, I think, the foundation for supporting a secession movement.”

In Sri Lanka, the situation is different, she argues. The Sri Lankan government should be held accountable for alleged war crimes committed against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, in the government’s military campaign to squash the separatist group and end a nearly 30-year conflict.

Although the Tigers pioneered terrorist tactics such as the suicide bomb jacket in its violent campaign to achieve an independent state for the island’s Tamil minority, both the Tigers and government forces were accused of violating international laws of war in their final standoff last year.

Recently, the International Crisis Group joined Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in criticizing the government-established reconciliation commission and urging a more credible, independent body to investigate the many allegations that both the government security forces and the LTTE committed war crimes during the final months of conflict last year — events which the Crisis Group documented in an extensive report.

That report cited evidence suggesting “that the period of January to May 2009 saw tens of thousands of Tamil civilian men, women, children and the elderly killed, countless more wounded, and hundreds of thousands deprived of adequate food and medical care, resulting in more deaths.”

“Much of the international community turned a blind eye to the violations when they were happening. Many countries welcomed the LTTE’s defeat regardless of the cost of immense civilian suffering and an acute challenge to the laws of war,” the Crisis Group reported. “Today, a number of other countries are considering ‘the Sri Lankan option’ — unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues, keeping out international observers including the press and humanitarian workers — as a way to deal with insurgencies and other violent groups,” the group warned.

Arbour says that to prevent further human rights violations, a U.N.-appointed post-war inquiry is the only way to foster genuine healing and bring long-term cohesion to the war-torn country.

“I think it was absolutely outrageous that in this day and age, after so much rhetoric about protection of civilians and so on, that the government of Sri Lanka in a sense piggybacked on the war on terror to very legitimately try to finish its war against the LTTE. But it did so by means that are totally contrary to international laws of war. It was trying very hard not to have to attend for that,” Arbour argued.

“We come at it from the perspective of conflict prevention,” she added. “The only way to prevent a long-term resurgence of the LTTE-type organization is to make sure that the narrative about the last months of the war — how the LTTE was finally eradicated — is told in a credible fashion, and so far it hasn’t been.

“Until there is full accountability for the atrocities perpetrated by the LTTE, and I think also … the evidence that suggests the implication of government forces and deliberate attacks against civilians, that story has to be told,” she said. “It is exactly the same as the grievances that fester and then resurface sometimes decades later. You cannot construct lasting pieced based on lies.”

The former judge and international prosecutor obviously has a zeal for justice, especially in the realm of war crimes, and Arbour says prosecutions of bad actors like Milosevic can help deter similar crimes in the future. But she doesn’t overemphasize the effect.

“It’s dangerous to overplay the case for deterrence,” she cautioned, noting that widespread prosecution of crimes committed during armed conflicts remains elusive, although people are gradually understanding the consequences of international justice. “But whether it has reached the point where the probability of being prosecuted is so high that people will not engage in that kind of conduct, I’m not sure we’re there yet.”

Arbour also pointed out that the International Criminal Court has only been ratified by about 110 nations, excluding the United States.

“Until you have universal jurisdiction and therefore universal exposure to a potential prosecution, the deterrent effect will always be dependent on where it’s happening and who the actors are,” she said. “We’re not quite there yet, but I think there are lots of reasons to believe there is an increasing awareness and therefore compliance with this basic tenant of not doing deliberate attacks on civilians and/or disproportionate attacks on civilians. There is an increasing sense that these laws have to be respected.”

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