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Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention
Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention
Venezuela: In a Hole, and Still Digging
Venezuela: In a Hole, and Still Digging
A girl rests on a rock above a refugee camp in DR Congo’s Kivu province, in 2008. MAGNUM/Jim Goldberg

Refugee Summit Should Address Conflict Prevention

Immediate palliative care is a vital response to the world's record numbers of refugees and internally displaced. But any sustainable solution to this global crisis must go further, buttressing international law and ending the wars that drive so many from their homes.

For those millions of people whose lives have been uprooted, whether escaping conflict, unchecked violence, or political repression, next week’s summit meetings in New York on the refugee crisis might as well be taking place in a parallel universe.

The outcome of the UN summit has already been decided, and the commitments made by the world’s governments fall far short of what’s needed to address a crisis of this magnitude. The agreed outcome document does recognise the scale of the challenge and reaffirms the rights of all refugees and migrants, which is itself significant in a time of rising xenophobia and eroding international standards. It also acknowledges that the protection of refugees is a shared global responsibility and commits to working toward a strengthened regime by which to better address this phenomenon.

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However, member states have not even been able to agree to resettle a bare minimum of 10 per cent of refugees annually, or indeed to any concrete measures to improve an untenable situation. Most importantly, the agreement lacks detail on the most vital issues of all: how states will prevent or resolve those conflicts driving mass migration, and how they will reinforce their fraying commitment to uphold international law and standards.

The scale of the disaster is staggering. There are over 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, more than ever recorded. Overwhelmingly, this is a problem that affects the global south. Countries from Asia, the Middle East to Africa and Central America are both the primary sources and principal hosts of the displaced. Well over 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are located in the developing world.

Worsening conflicts are mostly to blame for the rise in displacement. The Syrian war alone is responsible for driving some 12 million people from their homes since 2011. But many of the world’s displaced have been stuck in limbo for years, even decades, like most of the 5.2 million Palestinians registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency or some of the 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Failure to adequately cope with the influx risks further instability, whether because of immense pressures placed on host countries or because of the lost opportunities incurred by those forced to flee, millions of whom are children denied schooling.

Immediate palliative care is vital, but any sustainable solution to the crisis must go further. The outcome document for the UN summit is vague in its commitment to preventing conflict and resolving those currently in progress. Its focus, overwhelmingly, is on how to better manage the situation of people only after they become refugees.

A continuation of the current strategy of short-term triage more or less guarantees that we will face even more conflict and humanitarian suffering in the future.

By many counts, the past five years have seen a rise in the frequency and intensity of deadly conflict. The increasing range of interests at play in these conflicts, both domestic and international, the weakening of the world’s security architecture, and rising geopolitical tensions have made resolving this violence much more challenging. Further, a sense of overwhelming crisis, financial pressures, domestic political constraints, and memories of recent failed interventions have, for many actors, encouraged a dangerous narrowing of foreign policy interests.

Globally, the top ten source countries for refugees account for 76 per cent of the total, and constitute in large part a list of those places where war prevails over peace; predatory state behaviour over benign. If past is prologue, this issue is not going to disappear any time soon. The overall problem of violence-triggered flight is longstanding in the cases of nearly all of those countries on the list. Indeed, it’s getting worse. Last year alone, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 12.4 million newly displaced; the last five years have seen a near 50 per cent increase in this phenomenon.

In this treacherous landscape, world leaders must address squarely the driving cause behind mass migration. And they must start by making better use of the global institutions they created and upholding the international legal framework they built. States must reassert the primacy of international humanitarian and human rights law, including by unequivocally calling out transgressors and mobilising action to halt – and if need be, to prosecute – violations.

The UN system must be made more functional. A Security Council in a state of near paralysis on too many issues will not make the world safer. As its members seek consensus on a new Secretary-General, they would do well to choose for that post an individual with the skills, energy and independence required. The next leader of the UN should be prepared to harness the organisation’s formidable mediation, peacekeeping, humanitarian and development capacities for the better management of conflict. Even if Council members find agreement on key issues elusive, they should at least give the next Secretary-General the space to bring them together.

The failure to get to grips with the fundamentals of the refugee crisis – including in concrete follow-up to the September summit in New York – risks a damning judgment on the many states with the capacity to effect positive change. A continuation of the current strategy of short-term triage more or less guarantees that we will face even more conflict and humanitarian suffering in the future. The human costs are already too high, and they are rising exponentially.

Demonstrators barricade the front of an office of the Supreme Court of Justice during a rally in Caracas, Venezuela, on 8 April 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Venezuela: In a Hole, and Still Digging

Venezuela’s neighbours are at last contemplating tougher measures to counter its dangerous and undemocratic behaviour. The government, helped by outsiders, should now negotiate with the opposition on a transitional regime to lead the country out of its grave social, economic and political crisis.

Images of the bloodied face of Venezuelan opposition MP Juan Requesens, a vicious, diagonal gash across his left temple, graphically conveyed in recent days the lengths to which the government of President Nicolás Maduro appears prepared to go in order to stay in power. Requesens needed more than 50 stitches after an attack by government supporters during a protest over the decision by the Supreme Court (TSJ) to assume all legislative powers. Although later partially reversed, the ruling in late March by the government-controlled Supreme Court caused dismay across Latin America, and triggered long-awaited moves by Venezuela’s regional neighbours to get tough over its increasingly undemocratic behaviour.

Life is hard for the 112 members of parliament from the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition, who form a clear majority in the National Assembly. Just trying to walk with supporters to the assembly can get you beaten, tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed. Several have had their passports annulled: two members of the foreign affairs commission had to cross the Colombian border on foot, without passports, on their way to a session of the Organization of American States’ Permanent Council in Washington late last month. The Supreme Court has recommended opposition members be court-martialed for treason and one MP is already facing a military tribunal. If that weren’t enough, they receive no pay because the government, which claims the parliamentary leadership is in contempt of previous Supreme Court rulings, regards the legislature as illegitimate and has cut its funding.

If Maduro is to stay in power purely through repression, at some point the army may be called onto the streets.

On 1 April, Mercosur, the regional trading bloc from which Venezuela has already been suspended on technical grounds, voted to apply its “democracy clause” – known as the Ushuaia Protocol – which provides for joint action in the event of a breakdown of democracy in a member state. Two days later the Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution declaring a “breakdown of constitutional order” in Venezuela and exhorting the government to restore democracy.

The demands are the same as those made by the Vatican after a failed effort to facilitate talks in November: free political prisoners, who number over 100; restore the legislative and oversight functions of the National Assembly and the autonomy of the Supreme Court as well as of the electoral authority (CNE); call elections; and allow in humanitarian aid. The electoral authority last year blocked a recall referendum against Maduro and suspended elections for state governor. It has given no sign that these elections are to be held this year.

The president and other government officials have responded with insults and accusations of a Washington-inspired plot to put a stop to their “socialist revolution”. Far from restoring democracy, the government last week barred one of the MUD’s top leaders, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, from standing for office for the next fifteen years. But their defiance cannot conceal the grave difficulties they face. Not only is their international support dwindling but their grip on power seems less solid than it did just a few weeks ago. Even some longstanding allies, such as Spain’s Podemos party, have found it hard to maintain uncritical support, although the governments of Cuba and Bolivia, among others, have not wavered.

Maduro is trapped in an electoral maze of the regime’s own making. After years of using elections as plebiscites ... the government can now neither muster the electoral support nor find a convincing reason not to hold a vote.

The U-turn over the Supreme Court decision came after the once-loyal Attorney General (fiscal general) Luisa Ortega Díaz stated in a live television broadcast, which was promptly taken off the air, that the Supreme Court had violated the constitution. Such explicit public dissent by a leading regime figure is unprecedented, and the fact that her view prevailed suggests she is not acting alone. The attorney general is the country’s chief prosecutor and Díaz has played a major role in putting leading dissidents behind bars. But since the opposition victory in the 2015 legislative elections she has moderated her stance, generating clashes with hardliners running the intelligence services.

There is speculation that Díaz’s intervention to prevent a further slide into outright dictatorship is viewed favourably by elements of the army. It would not be the first time that the Armed Forces intervened on the side of democracy. In December 2015 the high command ordered polling stations closed when the government was trying to keep them open in an after-hours bid to affect the election result. If Maduro is to stay in power purely through repression, at some point the army may be called onto the streets. This is a scenario military experts say would present officers with a major dilemma, since they are well aware of the danger of subsequent prosecutions for human rights abuses in the event of a change in government.

Maduro is trapped in an electoral maze of the regime’s own making. After years of using elections as plebiscites, confident that oil revenues and the charisma of the late strongman Hugo Chávez would always ensure victory, the government can now – with Chávez gone – neither muster the electoral support nor find a convincing reason not to hold a vote. And with foreign reserves at their lowest in over two decades and billions of dollars in debt payments due this year, it faces the prospect of defaulting or forcing Venezuelans to face even greater hardship from lack of food, medicines and other basic goods than they already are. Political turmoil has exacerbated an already critical financial situation. Many fear the president may use the alleged threat of foreign intervention to close down even the limited democratic space still available. Some government politicians have said they would mount armed resistance to any attempt to oust them from power. But it is unclear whether the army, on whose goodwill they depends, would accompany them down that road.

Dire though the prospects for Venezuela appear to be, the events of the past few weeks have clarified some issues. The OAS, under its activist Secretary General Luis Almagro, has been shown to be the key platform for applying international pressure. Its Inter-American Democratic Charter, which provides for diplomatic initiatives in the event of a breakdown of democracy, and in extreme cases the suspension of a member state, is no magic bullet. But it does offer a legitimate framework for action, having been ratified by all 34 active OAS member states. Almagro has taken the lead, arguing for suspension from the organisation and making even the U.S. appear moderate in comparison. The coalition of some 18-20 countries now backing a regional initiative to persuade the Maduro government to negotiate includes all the region’s most influential nations – Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru, as well as the U.S. It is not only Venezuela’s immediate neighbours who have an interest in seeing the crisis dealt with promptly. Mexico will be hosting the OAS General Assembly in June and does not want it wrecked by skirmishes over Venezuela. Curiously Washington – which on so many other issues is at odds with Mexico – is working closely with it on this issue.

If the opposition are prepared to negotiate a calendar of elections and a transitional arrangement for Maduro ... then it is possible the split between government hardliners and pragmatists could widen.

Moreover, the Maduro government’s ability to use ever increasing repression to contain an ever more restive population is much less apparent than at the beginning of the year. In recent days, large demonstrations in Caracas and other cities have been met with tear gas, water-cannon and plastic bullets, as well as armed civilians on motorcycles, but crowds have often stood their ground. With opposition MPs leading from the front, enthusiasm for protests seems to have been restored after the doldrums of early 2017, although how long the MUD can keep up the pressure is uncertain.

The government has shown little inclination to compromise in negotiations with the opposition, and internal and external pressure has thus far been met with vows to intensify the “revolution”. It is significant that its only important climb-down of recent times – the U-turn over the Supreme Court rulings – was prompted by high-level, internal dissent. If the opposition, and those in the region pushing for a restoration of democracy, are prepared to negotiate a calendar of elections and a transitional arrangement for Maduro and other leading members of the regime should they lose power in these polls – which will necessarily include some form of immunity from prosecution – then it is possible the split between government hardliners and pragmatists could widen, and an agreement be reached. This would need to be brokered by an agreed cast of outside actors, possibly foreign ministers from neighbouring countries. A reappearance of the Vatican in a facilitation role might also be useful.

The alternative is ongoing social misery, with the lid kept on through military dictatorship. Or a collapse brought on most probably by a chaotic default on the foreign debt. Time is running out for a creative solution to the mess in Venezuela.