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The Responsibility to Protect: An Idea Whose Time Has Come ... and Gone?
The Responsibility to Protect: An Idea Whose Time Has Come ... and Gone?
Speech / Global

The Responsibility to Protect: An Idea Whose Time Has Come ... and Gone?

Lecture by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to David Davies Memorial Institute, University of Aberystwyth, 23 April 2008.

When the 2005 United Nations World Summit embraced the concept of “the responsibility to protect”, it was an extraordinary moment.  Heads of state and government from 150 countries, meeting as the UN General Assembly, unanimously accepted not only that  that sovereign states have a very explicit responsibility to protect their own people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, but when they manifestly fail in that responsibility – as a result of either incapacity or ill-will – the responsibility falls upon the wider international community to take whatever action is appropriate, including in the last resort, and if the Security Council agrees, military action. Within just four years of the first articulation of the concept  – a mere blink of an eye in the history of ideas – consensus seemed to have been reached on how to resolve one of the most difficult and divisive international relations issues of our,  or any other, time.

An idea whose time has come…

To appreciate how far the world came in 2005, it is important to understand where it had been. For an insanely long time – centuries in fact, going all the way back to the emergence of the modern system of states in the 1600s –   the view had prevailed that state sovereignty is a license to kill: that it’s no-one’s business but their own if states murder or forcibly displace large numbers of their own citizens, or allow atrocity crimes to be committed by one group against another on their soil.

After World War II and Hitler's Holocaust some progress was certainly made in challenging this absolutist concept of sovereignty, with individual and group human rights recognized in the UN Charter and, more grandly, in the Universal Declaration; with the Nuremberg Tribunal Charter in 1945 recognising the concept of 'crimes against humanity'; and with the signing of the Genocide Convention in 1948.

But the overwhelming preoccupation of those who founded the UN was not in fact human rights but the problem of states waging aggressive war against each other. And what actually captured the mood of the time, and the mood that prevailed right through the Cold War years, was – more than any of the human rights provisions – Article 2(7) of the UN Charter: "Nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State". The state of mind that even massive atrocity crimes like those of the Cambodian killing fields were just not the rest of the world’s business prevailed throughout the UN’s first half-century of existence: Vietnam’s invasion, which stopped the Khmer Rouge in its tracks, was universally attacked, not applauded.

With the arrival of the 1990s, and the end of the Cold War, the prevailing complacent assumptions about non-intervention did at last come under challenge as never before. The quintessential peace and security problem, you will remember – before 9/11 came along to dominate everything – became not interstate war, but civil war and internal violence perpetrated on a massive scale. With the break-up of various Cold War state structures, and the removal of some superpower constraints, conscience-shocking situations repeatedly arose, above all in the former Yugoslavia and in Africa.  But old habits of non-intervention died very hard. Even when situations cried out for some kind of response, and the international community did react through the UN, it was too often erratically, incompletely or counter-productively, as in the debacle of Somalia in 1993, the catastrophe of Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the almost unbelievable default in Srebrenica, Bosnia just a year later, in 1995.

Then the killing and ethnic cleansing started all over again in Kosovo in 1999. Not everyone, but certainly most people, and governments, accepted quite rapidly that external military intervention was the only way to stop it. But again the Security Council failed to act in the face of a threatened veto by Russia. The action that needed to be taken was eventually taken, by a coalition of the willing, but in a way that challenged the integrity of the whole international security system (just as did the invasion of Iraq four years later in far less defensible circumstances).

Throughout the decade of the 1990s a fierce argument raged between on the one hand, advocates of “humanitarian intervention” – the doctrine that there was a “right to intervene” militarily, against the will of the government of the country in question, in these cases – and on the other hand defenders of the traditional prerogatives of state sovereignty, who insisted that internal events were none of the rest of the world’s business.  It was very much a North-South debate, with the many new states born out of decolonization being very proud of their new won sovereignty, very conscious of their fragility, and all too conscious of the way in which they had been on the receiving end in the past of not very benign interventions from the imperial and colonial powers, and not very keen to acknowledge their right to do so again, whatever the circumstances. And it was a very bitter debate, with the trenches dug deep on both sides, and the verbal missiles flowing thick and fast, often in very ugly terms.

This was the unpromising environment in which the concept of the responsibility to protect was born. The deadlock was broken by what seemed initially destined to be a rather obscure international commission initiated by Canada – the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty – which I had the privilege of co-chairing with the distinguished Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun, which came up in 2001 with the idea of ‘the responsibility to protect’.

The core idea of the responsibility to protect (or “R2P” as we are all now, rather inelegantly, calling it for short in this age of acronymphomania) is very simple. Turn the notion of “right to intervene” upside down. Talk not about the “right” of big states to do anything, but the responsibility of all states to protect their own people from atrocity crimes, and to help others to do so. Talk about the primary responsibility being that of individual states themselves – respecting their sovereignty – but make it absolutely clear that if they cannot meet that responsibility, through either ill-will or incapacity, it then falls to the wider international community to take the appropriate action.

Focus not on the notion of “intervention” but of protection: look at the whole issue from the perspective of the victims, the men being killed, the women being raped, the children dying of starvation; and look at the responsibility in question as being above all a responsibility to prevent, with the question of reaction – through diplomatic pressure, through sanctions, through international criminal prosecutions, and ultimately through military action – arising only if prevention failed. And accept coercive military intervention only as an absolute last resort, after a number of clearly defined criteria have been met, and the approval of the Security Council has been obtained.

Well, as many blue-ribbon commissions and panels have discovered over the years, it is one thing to labour mightily and produce what looks like a major new contribution to some policy debate, but quite another to get any policymaker to take any notice of it. But the extraordinary thing is that governments did take notice of the R2P idea: within four years it had won unanimous endorsement by the more than 150 heads of state and government meeting as the UN General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit.

It seemed to be time at last to break out the champagne, or at least the sparkling brut. The foundations for consensus were laid. We have in the new language a strong basis for finding common ground on hugely divisive issue (rather in the way that the Brundtland Commission years earlier, with “sustainable development”, found a way to bridge the chasm which then existed between environmentalists and developers). We have something in place which can properly be described as a new international norm, and perhaps on its way toward becoming a new rule of customary international law.

And it’s fair to say that since the 2005 World Summit there has been at least a reasonably steady trickle of good news.  The Security Council adopted in April 2006 a thematic resolution on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict which contains, in an operative paragraph, an express reaffirmation of the World Summit conclusions relating to the responsibility to protect. And this was followed by a further resolution in August 2006 specifically invoking this in the context of the ongoing conflict in Darfur. A General Assembly resolution may be helpful, as the World Summit's unquestionably was, in identifying relevant principles, but the Security Council is the institution that matters when it comes to executive action. And at least some toeholds there have now been carved.

There was further reason for optimism in the very enthusiastic embrace of R2P by the new Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who succeeded Kofi Annan in January 2007: in both his public and private statements he made clear from the outset that he understood very clearly the significance of the conceptual shift involved (and the risks to his own and the UN’s reputation if anything remotely like Rwanda or Srebrenica ever happened again), and there was no indication at all that he would distance himself from the new norm as his predecessor’s legacy, not his own.  On the contrary, as for example when he addressed the African Union Summit on 31 January 2008: “I am fully committed to keeping the momentum that you the leaders have made at the 2005 World Summit and will spare no effort to operationalise the responsibility to protect.” And the Secretary-General took some steps down that operationalisation path when he appointed a Special Adviser to work on institutional process issues, and replaced the retiring Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide with an impeccably credentialed candidate – but, as we will see in a moment, not without a degree of controversy in both cases.

A further encouraging indication that R2P continued to have resonance in the post World Summit period was the way in which it was publicly called in aid to describe the response required to the alarming situation in Kenya. After allegations of a rigged national election in the last days of 2007, an explosion of very overtly ethnic-related violence broke out in which over 1,000 were killed – including dozens in a church-burning incident horribly reminiscent of Rwanda thirteen years earlier – and some 300,000 displaced within a few weeks, before a mediation team led by Kofi Annan was able to negotiate a political settlement that dampened the violence and hopefully would prove sustainable. They did so against the background of the Secretary-General  Ban being very quick to characterize the situation as an R2P one; his newly appointed Genocide Adviser, Francis Deng, being very clear in warning political and community leaders that they could be held accountable for violations of international law committed at their instigation in urging them to “meet their responsibility to protect the civilian population”; and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu being very explicit  in a widely published opinion article that “what we are seeing in Kenya is action on a fundamental principle, the Responsibility to Protect”.

And capping off all that, we had Pope Benedict XVI in New York last week, visiting the UN for the first time in his papacy, devoting a substantial part of his address to a packed General Assembly to a very explicit and full-throated defence of the responsibility to protect, using among others these words:

Recognition of the unity of the human family, and attention to the innate dignity of every man and woman, today find renewed emphasis in the principle of the responsibility to protect. This has only recently been defined, but it was already present implicitly at the origins of the United Nations, and is now increasingly characteristic of its activity. Every State has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made. If States are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations Charter and in other international instruments.

… and gone?

But for all that, there has been a good deal of other news about the embrace of R2P which has not been nearly so encouraging, not least that emanating in recent times from the UN General Assembly itself.

One might have thought it beyond argument that when in 2005 the General Assembly, sitting at head of state and government level, unanimously endorsed the language that became paragraphs 138 and 139 of the World Summit Outcome Document, the words they used actually meant something.  After all, the first of these paragraphs begins with the words “Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations…” and the second “The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility …to help to protect populations…” And that section of the document does have a heading of its own reading  ‘Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’. Surely, with this kind of international endorsement, R2P now had the pedigree to be described, at the very least, as a broadly accepted international norm?

Not so, it seems, in the minds of a number of governments who joined in this endorsement, or at least their representatives in New York. It never takes much more than a few days around the corridors and meeting rooms of the UN to learn that absolutely nothing there is beyond argument. The prevailing mood in at least some quarters was captured early in 2008 by the way in which, with evidently perfectly straight faces, Latin American, Arab and African delegates to UN’s budget committee took the floor to say, variously, that “the World Summit rejected R2P in 2005”, “the concept of the responsibility to protect has not been adopted by the General Assembly” and that “the responsibility to protect itself…was not accepted or approved as a principle by the General Assembly”. The occasion for this nonsense – of a class that Jeremy Bentham would have described as ‘nonsense on stilts’ – was the approval process for the appointment of the highly qualified scholar, Vice-President of the International Peace Academy (now Institute) and former head of the UN Association of the United States Edward Luck to the position of Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect.

The argument, in essence, was that the World Summit paragraphs were just about the protection of civilians from specific crimes, not the endorsement of the concept of the responsibility to protect, so if R2P was never adopted, how could the Secretary-General have the effrontery to seek approval for a special adviser on it? In the event,  the 38th floor decided to abandon the unequal struggle and accept Mr Luck as an adviser without either a job description or much prospect of  tenure longevity.  In a similar spirit, the Secretary-General’s Office abandoned under fire its initial decision – made, sensibly, to avoid unproductive legal squabbles about the scope of his mandate – to add to Francis Deng’s title as “Special Representative for the Prevention of Genocide” the phrase “and Mass Atrocities”. Deliberately unproductive such squabbles will no doubt continue to be part of the natural order.

The atmosphere in New York on these kinds of issues is often a little more heightened, and ideologically coloured, than it is in capitals, but supporters of R2P ignore these warning signs at their peril. There are problems in a number of capitals as well. For whatever reason – embrace of the concept but concern about its misuse; ideological association of any intervention with neo-imperialism or neo-colonialism; or in some cases simply embarrassment about their own behaviour – there is an evident willingness by a number of states to deflate or undermine the new norm before it is fully consolidated and operational. The language of “buyers remorse” is in the air. There has been a falling away of overt commitment to the norm in sub-Saharan Africa (although in substance still remaining a significant theme in the doctrine of the AU and some of the sub-regional organizations), and some increased scepticism in the Arab-Islamic and Latin American worlds. And in Asia there has never been much enthusiasm, although not everywhere as overtly hostile as in nationalist governing and media circles in Colombo, where I was told by a newspaper columnist during a visit in July 2007 that:

The so-called responsibility to protect is nothing but a license for the white man to himself intervene in the affairs of dark sovereign countries, whenever the white man thinks it fit to do so.

If the unanimous adoption of the R2P principles by the 2005 World Summit and the UN Security Council is not to be the high-water mark from which the tides recede – if the responsibility to protect is not to become an idea whose time has gone as fast as it came – then a serious ongoing diplomatic and other advocacy efforts have to be made to explain and defend the norm, with serious efforts being sustained over a number of years not only to enshrine R2P principles in the language of relevant international, regional and national institutions and forums beyond the UN, but also in their institutional practice. Those are efforts in which civil society organizations – and I include universities in that description – must play a key role.

The immediate objective must be to get to the point where, when the next conscience-shocking case of large-scale killing, or ethnic cleansing, or other war crimes or crimes against humanity come along, as they are all too unhappily likely to, the immediate reflex response of the whole international community will be not to ask whether action is necessary, but rather what action is required, by whom, when, and where.

There have been some encouraging signs – in particular the swift and supportive diplomatic and political response to the crisis in Kenya early in 2008 – that this may be beginning to happen, but there are still three big challenges that need to be addressed if R2P is indeed to have complete reflex international acceptance in principle, and if it is to be given practical operational effect as new cases arise.   

The first challenge is essentially conceptual, to ensure that the scope and limits of the responsibility to protect are fully and completely understood in a way that is clearly not the case now. In particular, it is to ensure that R2P is seen not as a Trojan horse for bad old imperial, colonial and militarist habits, but rather the best starting point the international community has, and is maybe ever likely to have, in preventing and responding to genocide and other mass atrocity crimes.  

The second challenge is institutional preparedness, to build the kind of capacity within international institutions, governments, and regional organization that will ensure that, assuming that there is an understanding of the need to act – whether preventively or reactively, and whether through political and diplomatic, or economic, or legal  or policing and military measures  –  there will be the physical capability to do so.

The third challenge, as always, is political preparedness, how to generate that indispensable ingredient of will: how to have in place the mechanisms and strategies necessary to generate an effective political response as new R2P situations arise.

I hope that through a new little institute that I have recently been involved in creating – with the organizational help of a number of other international NGOs, and the financial help of a number of major foundations and like-minded governments from both North and South – we will be able to significantly address and advance all three of these challenges. The “Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect” was launched at UN headquarters in February: based in New York, with a small but highly professional staff which we are presently recruiting, it will work with Associated Centres now being established or identified in a number of countries, and a network of affiliates, to provide research and advocacy support to both governments and NGOs, and to the UN, and engage over time in a major global public outreach exercise.

In the remainder of this lecture I want to focus just on the first of these three challenges that the Global Centre and those who sail with it will be trying to meet: the conceptual challenge. I do this not least because it’s the area in which scholars, in their writing and speaking, can make the most immediately useful contribution, and because there are plenty at this University, with its great  international reputation for stimulating and advancing policy debate, who can do just that.

Meeting the conceptual challenge

Why is there so much continuing resistance to a principle which has seemed to so many to be an important breakthrough, capable of resolving an age-old debate in a practical and principled way? A good part of the answer seems to lie in six big conceptual misunderstandings which seem to be very widespread about the responsibility to protect. Sometimes these misunderstandings are cynically and deliberately fostered by those with other axes to grind, or interests to protect, but rather more often they are real, and the product of quite genuine misapprehension as to what R2P is all about.  Let me address each of them in turn.

1. R2P is just another name for humanitarian intervention.

This is absolutely not the case: they are very different concepts. The very core of the traditional meaning of “humanitarian intervention” is coercive military intervention for humanitarian purposes – nothing more or less. But “the responsibility to protect” is about much more than that.

Above all, as every relevant document from the ICISS report to the 2005 Summit Outcome Document makes abundantly clear, R2P is about taking effective preventive action, and at the earliest possible stage. It implies encouragement and support being given to those states struggling with situations that have not yet deteriorated to the point where genocide or other atrocity crimes are a reality, but where it is foreseeable that if effective preventive action is not taken, with or without outside support, they could so deteriorate.  It recognizes the need to bring to bear every appropriate preventive response: be it political, diplomatic, legal, economic, or in the security sector but falling short of coercive action (e.g. a “preventive deployment” of troops, as in Macedonia in 1995). The responsibility to take preventive action is very much that of the sovereign state itself, quite apart from that of the international community. And when it comes to the international community, a very big part of its preventive response should be to help countries to help themselves.

Perhaps the best case-study we have of what R2P means in its preventive dimension is Burundi, in Central Africa. With its long history of earlier atrocity crimes and continuing ethnic tensions, the country could very easily have followed Rwanda’s path in 1994, and it remains extremely fragile to this day. But multiple international players have been working hard and long to ensure that the situation did not so deteriorate. These efforts have included Nelson Mandela’s initial political mediation; the deployment, essentially preventively, of peacekeeping troops, particularly by South Africa; the detailed analysis and recommendations for a decade now by my own International Crisis Group as to what is necessary to achieve sustainable peace; and the attention being given to it Burundi as one of the first two cases taken up by the UN’s new Peacebuilding Commission.  We have not been in the habit of using the R2P label in describing what has been going on in Burundi, but we should: it is a perfect example of the concept at work.  

Of course there will be situations when prevention fails, crises and conflicts do break out, and reaction becomes necessary. But reaction does not have to mean military reaction: it can involve political, diplomatic, economic and legal pressure, measures which can themselves each cross the spectrum from persuasive to intrusive, and from less coercive (e.g. economic incentives, offers of political mediation or legal arbitration)  to more coercive (e.g. economic sanctions, political and diplomatic isolation, threats of referral to the International Criminal Court) – something which is true of military capability as well. Coercive military action is not excluded when it is the only possible way to stop large scale killing and other atrocity crimes, as nobody doubts was the case, for example, in Rwanda or Srebrenica. But it is an absolute travesty of the R2P principle to say that it is about military force and nothing else. That’s what ‘humanitarian intervention’ is about, but it’s not R2P.

2. At least in really extreme cases, R2P does always mean the use of coercive military force.

It is easy enough to see how this misunderstanding arose, but it is a misapprehension nonetheless, and one that does not help the R2P cause because it implies much too willing an embrace of the military option. The misunderstanding arises out of a confusion, as is often the case, between necessary and sufficient conditions. In short,  it is certainly necessary for a case to be really extreme for coercive military force to be an option, but the fact that it is extreme is not in itself sufficient to conclude that such force should be applied.

The point is that military intervention for human protection purposes is a desperately serious, extraordinary and exceptional matter, which has to be judged by not just one prudential criterion but a whole series of them. The first of those criteria is certainly the seriousness of the threat: does it involve genocide or other large-scale killing, or ethnic cleansing or other serious violations of international humanitarian law, actual or imminently apprehended? But it is not just a matter of saying that if a threshold of seriousness is crossed in one or other of these ways, then it’s time for the invasion to start.

There are another four criteria of legitimacy, all more or less equally important, which also have to be satisfied if the case is to be made out for coercive, non-consensual military force to be deployed within another country’s sovereign territory: the motivation or primary purpose of the proposed military action (whether it was primarily to halt or avert the threat in question, or had some other main objective); last resort (whether there were reasonably available peaceful alternatives); the proportionality of the response; and, not least, the balance of consequences (whether overall more good than harm would be done by a military invasion).

One of the many disappointments of the World Summit is that although guidelines for the use of force of just this kind were argued for in the Canadian Commission report and two other major reports leading up to it, in the hope that this would lead to their adoption by the Security Council, they were not adopted by the Summit. The issue was caught in a diplomatic pincer movement between the US, who wanted no such restrictions to affect any decision to use force, and some in the South who argued, in a way that they at least found convincing, that to adopt guidelines purporting to limit the force would in fact, by recognizing its legitimacy in at least some cases, on the contrary encourage it. Had the proposed criteria been accepted, and made part of the Summit outcome document, it would have been very much clearer that in applying the R2P norm, the extreme nature of a particular conscience-shocking situation, and the failure of preventive attempts to resolve it, is only the beginning of the argument about the use of military force, not the end of it.

Darfur is the clearest contemporary example of this misunderstanding at work, with  the debate about how the international community should react tending to polarise into a choice between, as Lee Feinstein put it, “the stark options of Doing Nothing and Sending in the Marines”, without acknowledging the many way stations in between. There is no doubt that the “seriousness of threat” criterion has been satisfied, with since 2003, in this region of Sudan, more than 200,000 dying from outright violence or war-related disease and malnutrition, well over two million being displaced and, at the time of writing in early 2008, peacekeeping efforts proving manifestly inadequate, peace negotiations going nowhere fast, humanitarian relief faltering, the conflict spilling over into neighbouring countries, and the overall situation remaining desolate. But the argument is very strong -- and accepted by most governments, and relief organisations on the ground -- that a non-consensual military intervention (even assuming that the troops could be found anywhere to sustain it) would almost certainly be disastrously counterproductive, in terms of its impact on current humanitarian relief operations and the very fragile north-south peace process.  

Darfur still remains, on any view, an “R2P situation”, and one moreover where the responsibility to react has shifted to the international community because of the manifest abdication of its own sovereign responsibility by Khartoum. The inability here to use coercive military measures does not mean that this is a case of “R2P failure”: it just means that the international responsibility to protect the people of Darfur against the incapacity or ill-will of the Sudan government has to take other forms, including the application of sustained diplomatic, economic and legal pressure to change the cost-benefit balance of the regime’s calculations. If the concept of R2P is not to be eroded it is important that its friends apply it, here and elsewhere, in an appropriately nuanced way.

3. R2P applies only to weak and friendless countries, never the strong.  

This is a very frequently heard objection to the R2P norm, and one that must be taken seriously because it has prima facie plausibility. How could, after all, a coercive military intervention ever seriously be contemplated against China or Russia, let alone the U.S., whatever terrible situation might internally unfold?  And with the Security Council as ultimate arbiter, how could an adverse finding ever be made against those wielding the power of veto, or any country that any one of the Permanent Five might in turn choose to protect?  

But the ability to apply coercive military force in extreme cases is not and cannot be the yardstick by which the success or failure of the R2P principle is measured. The first misunderstanding involved here is a variation on that which I have just addressed.  Situations will arise where such military action is just not a realistic or acceptable option, because one or more of the five criteria of legitimacy have not been satisfied – even though lesser measures have not produced the results hoped for, and the military option seems very attractive. In the case of Darfur, just discussed, the “balance of consequences” problem remains that any such action would be likely to trigger an even greater humanitarian disaster, both in Darfur itself and in a much wider area of Sudan.

In the case, moreover, of any proposed military action against a Permanent Five member or any other major power, this particular criterion would always be a showstopper, whatever other factors (including the possible exercise of veto power in the Security Council) were in play.   The ICISS commissioners were deeply conscious of this issue, and the “double standards” criticism that would inevitably be attracted, but as they said, “the reality that interventions may not be able to be mounted in every case where there is justification for doing so, is no reason for them not to be mounted in any case”.

The reality that there will always be some countries too militarily powerful for military action against them to be likely to do more good than harm does not mean that the rest of the world is totally impotent when it comes to applying the R2P norm against them. No major country in the world, however big and powerful, is today wholly immune from peer group pressure.   In 1999 for example, Indonesia, a large and important regional power, with over 230 million people, the largest Islamic population in the world, and armed forces 300,000 strong, did in fact succumb to strong collective international pressure to allow – much against its instincts and initial will – the Australian-led intervention to protect the people of Timor-Leste in September 1999. The pressure in question was essentially diplomatic, applied here very directly and personally by President Clinton and other presidents and prime ministers in the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) heads of government meeting which happened, very fortuitously, to be meeting in Auckland just at the time the situation on the ground was exploding.

4. R2P covers all human protection issues.

This misunderstanding is at the other end of the spectrum from those which take it that R2P is only about the application of military force. The concern about it is that to use the R2P too broadly, in non mass-atrocity contexts, is to dilute to the point of uselessness its role as a mobiliser of instinctive, universal action in cases of conscience shocking killing, ethnic cleansing and other such crimes against humanity.

Of course one can argue, linguistically and as a matter of good public policy, that the international community has the responsibility to protect people from the ravages of HIV/AIDS worldwide; the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction; the ready availability of small arms, and the use of landmines and cluster bombs; the impact of dramatic climate change, particularly on specific groups like the Inuit of the Arctic circle; and much more besides. But if one is looking for umbrella language to bring these issues and themes together, it is much more appropriate to use a concept like “human security” than to say these are proper applications of the new international norm of “the responsibility to protect”.

It is not just a matter here of making the formal point that these cases are clearly not intended to be subsumed under the various descriptions of mass atrocity crimes that appear in the World Summit outcome document and the relevant lead-up reports. The argument is a more practical one – if R2P is to be about protecting everybody from everything, it will end up protecting nobody from anything. The  whole point of embracing the new language of “the responsibility to protect” is that it is capable of generating an effective, consensual response in extreme, conscience shocking cases, in a way that “right to intervene” language  simply was not. We need to preserve the focus and bite of “R2P” as a rallying cry in the face of mass atrocities.

5. Every kind of conflict or human rights abuse is a potential R2P situation.

This misunderstanding is a variation on that just discussed. The problem here is not so much R2P being stretched to deal with all the world’s ills – from HIV/AIDS to climate change – but being too indiscriminately applied to a narrower group of those ills. Of course people do need protection from the horror and misery of any violent conflict, and from the ugliness of tyrannical human rights abuse; again one can easily see how, linguistically, the “R2P” principle could be seen as having ready application. But, again, R2P situations have to be more narrowly defined.

Certainly it is the case that issues of civilian protection (from loss of life, injury, economic loss, and assaults on human dignity) are always involved in any deadly conflict, whatever its cause and whatever its scale, and in any significant human rights violation. And of course it is true that some full-fledged R2P mass atrocity situations evolve out of less extreme human rights violations, or out of general conflict environments.  But, again, to widen the focus too much is dangerous from the perspective of undermining R2P’s utility as a rallying cry. If too much is bundled under the R2P banner we run the risk of diluting its capacity to mobilize in the cases where it is really needed.

6. Iraq 2003 was an example of the application of the R2P norm and a foretaste of things to come.  

Few misunderstandings have been more persistent, or have done more to undermine global acceptance of R2P, than the perception that the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a good example of the responsibility to protect principle at work. In fact, quite apart from its obvious failings with the lack of Security Council authorization, and botched execution of the intervention, it was nothing of the kind – and stands as a classic example of how not to apply the R2P norm.

The misunderstanding is due more than anything else to the enthusiasm with which, in explaining why a military invasion was necessary, some of the coalition partners, the UK in particular, came to hang their hats on the tyrannical and murderous character of the Saddam Hussein regime. That was not the explanation of choice for President Bush, who preferred the concern about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or the alleged connection of Iraq with the Al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for 9/11. But as these rationales crumbled away for want of any serious supporting evidence, the human rights argument was the only one left with any shred of credibility, and was embraced accordingly – although, to be fair to Prime Minister Blair, his instinctive distaste for the undoubtedly brutal and ugly Saddam regime, and desire to produce a better life for the people of Iraq people, appears to have been his primary motive from the outset.

The truth of the matter is that Iraq in 2003 would have been on anyone’s R2P country watchlist, and a suitable case for a variety of preventive and reactive responses by the international community designed to improve the human rights environment. But this was simply not a case for a coercive military intervention, applying the criteria of legitimacy that the Canadian Commission and others have argued are applicable here. The problem arises right at the threshold level, when one is weighing the gravity of the threat involved. Although there were clearly significant human rights violations continuing to occur (which justified international concern and response, e.g. by way of censure and sanctions), and although mass atrocity crimes had clearly occurred in the past, against the Kurds in the late 1980s and the southern Shiites in the early 1990s, which justified close international attention to a whole variety of preventive strategies to ensure that they did not occur again, such crimes were neither actually occurring nor apprehended as being likely to occur when the coalition invaded the country in early 2003.

The irony is that while Iraq in 2003 was not an R2P situation of a kind justifying military intervention, it may well by now have become one, with more than two million people displaced so far and hundreds of people still dying violently every month, in a situation which is unquestionably capable of deteriorating further into full-blooded ethnic cleansing and genocide on a scale greater than witnessed even in the Balkans.  As much as I for one wished that the foreign troops were never sent there in the first place, I have to acknowledge now that there is every reason to fear that – if they were precipitately withdrawn – the present situation, bad as it is, will rapidly deteriorate into massive further outbreak of communal and sectarian violence beyond the capacity of the Iraqi government to control, and from which it would be unconscionable for the wider world to stand aloof.

An argument that must be won

I remain confident that the concerns and anxieties that have been expressed about R2P can all be answered – that we can clarify its scope and limits in a way that does avoid the perils of overreach, that we can demonstrate the practicability of the solutions that it embraces, and that we can, as we must, eventually create an international consensus in its support that is much less fragile than the one that exists at the moment.

I suspect that ultimately the considerations that will matter the most are those that go not to the utilitarian dimensions of the concept, but its moral heart. We can, if we need to, always justify making R2P a reality on hard-headed, practical, national interest grounds: states that can’t or won’t stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of rogue states, or failed or failing states, that can’t or won’t stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics and other global risks.

But at the end of the day the case for R2P rests simply on our common humanity: the impossibility of ignoring the cries of pain and distress of our fellow human beings.  For any of us in and around the international community – from individuals to NGOs to national governments to international organizations –  to yet again ignore that distress and agony, and to once again make “never again” a cry that rings totally emptily, is to diminish that common humanity to the point of despair.  We should be united in our determination to not let that happen, and there is no greater or nobler cause on which any of us could be embarked.

Certainly, to add a final personal note, that sense of what is demanded by our common humanity is what ultimately motivates me to pursue this issue, as I have done now for many years. I suspect that for all of us for whom the idea of responsibility to protect really resonates, there will have been some personal experience which has touched us deeply.  For many of us that will be bound to be scarifying family memories of the Holocaust; for others the experience of personal loss or closely knowing survivors from Rwanda or Srebrenica or any of the other mass atrocity scenes of more recent decades; for others still, perhaps, the awful sense that they could have done more, in their past official lives, to generate the kind of international response that these situations required.

For me it was my visit to Cambodia in the late 1960s, just before the genocidal slaughter which killed two million of its people. I was a young Australian making my first trip to Europe, to take up a scholarship in Oxford, and I spent six months wending my way by plane and overland through a dozen countries in Asia, and a few more in Africa and the Middle East as well. And in every one of them I spent many hours and days on student campuses and in student hangouts, and in hard-class cross-country trains and ramshackle rural buses, getting to know in the process – usually fleetingly, but quite often enduringly, in friendships that have lasted to this day – scores of some of the liveliest and brightest people of that generation.

In the years that followed I have kept running into Indonesians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thais, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis and others who I either met on the road on that trip, or who were there at the time and had a store of common experiences to exchange. But among all the countries in Asia I visited then, there is just one, Cambodia, from which I never again, in later years, saw any of those students whom I had met and befriended, or anyone exactly like them. Not one of those kids with whom I drank beer, ate noodles and careered up and down the dusty road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in share taxis, scattering chickens and pigs and little children in villages all along the way.

The reason, I am sadly certain, is that every last one of them died a few years later under  Pol Pot’s murderous genocidal regime - either targeted for execution in the killing fields as a middle-class intellectual enemy of the state, or dying, as more than a million did, from starvation and disease following forced displacement to labour in the countryside. The knowledge, and the memory, of what must have happened to those young men and women haunts me to this day

And it means that my attachment to the idea, and ideal, of the responsibility to protect is not just a matter of intellectual persuasion, but of very powerful emotional commitment. I know that will be the case for a great many of you too. So let’s work together to make the responsibility to protect an idea that really comes – and never goes.

EU Watch List / Global

Watch List 2021 – Spring Update

Every year Crisis Group publishes two additional Watch List updates that complement its annual Watch List for the EU, most recently published in January 2021. These publications identify major crises and conflict situations where the European Union and its member states can generate stronger prospects for peace. The Spring Update of the Watch List 2021 includes entries on Bolivia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ukraine and Yemen.

Table of Contents

Introduction

European leaders hoping that a new U.S. administration and COVID vaccines would bring some respite to tempestuous global affairs might look back disappointed at the past few months. A lot has happened since Crisis Group put out our last EU Watch List in January. Despite some bright spots, little of it has been good.

First was the Myanmar coup; an entry in this update covers where things stand. The military takeover upended the country’s short experiment with pluralism and provoked a degree of popular fury the generals seemed unprepared for. Though they appear eager for a return to the normalcy, their brutal crackdown has taken the country in the opposite direction. With the economy in tatters, a humanitarian calamity worsening, ethnic armed groups renewing violence and new militias emerging, the crisis risks paving the way for state collapse.

Then, new U.S. President Joe Biden announced he would pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan, meaning European forces will leave, too, by mid-September this year at the latest. Biden characterised the decision as reflecting his administration’s reduced prioritisation of Afghanistan amid other threats and challenges around the world. He also explained that he did not see a rationale for keeping troops in Afghanistan if it was not likely they would improve conditions there. This line of reasoning was an implicit rejection of Washington’s longstanding policy of using the deployment as an insurance policy against resurgence of terrorist threats. For many Afghans, the drawdown brings dread. Much is uncertain, but another escalation in fighting – in a country that has already suffered more than four decades of war – appears the most plausible scenario, as insurgents test how far they can go against Afghan security forces. European governments, which have put their diplomatic support behind Afghan peace talks and their financial support behind the Afghan government, will have their work cut out to promote stability if that happens.

There were troubling signs in those parts of sub-Saharan Africa Europe tends to fret about most. In January, our Watch List covered Ethiopia’s rocky transition – things since have gotten worse. The war in its northern Tigray region grinds on, with evidence of horrific abuses by all sides, including scorched-earth tactics by Eritrean forces fighting alongside the Ethiopian army against Tigrayan rebels. Trouble is brewing elsewhere in the country, with ethnic strife on the rise ahead of elections expected in June. Ethiopia is also at loggerheads with Sudan over border areas. Violence continues to destabilise much of the rural Sahel. To make matters worse, as this goes to press, the Malian military has detained the country’s interim president and prime minister, who themselves came to power after a coup less than a year ago. In Chad, President Idriss Déby died in April near front lines fighting rebels, raising fears in European capitals about Chad’s stability and what his death would mean for battles against jihadists around the Sahel and Lake Chad that Déby portrayed himself as pivotal to – though, thus far, his son, who has taken over, has kept Chadian deployments in place. Whether these events will prompt any further reflection in European capitals about the French-led military-focused strategy across the Sahel remains unclear.

Then came the latest flare-up in Israel-Palestine. After weeks of tensions in Jerusalem and heavy-handed Israeli policing at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Hamas began firing rockets into Israel, prompting an Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Over eleven days of fighting, 243 Palestinians, including scores of Hamas fighters and 66 children, and twelve people in Israel including two children, died. Much of Gaza was left in ruins. It was the fourth Gaza war since 2007 but this round was different, notably in the violence between Israeli Jews and Palestinians wracking cities in Israel itself and the displays of solidarity among Palestinians across the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and Israel. Beyond the human cost, the war should serve as a wake-up call that, notwithstanding Israel’s normalisation with some Arab governments and many European leaders’ apparent desire to wish the conflict away, it remains a dangerous flashpoint. Unless Israel and international actors re-examine their long­standing approach to the conflict by taking into account Palestinians’ shared suffering and apparent newfound common voice, and unless Palestinians have the chance to elect a new leadership, it’s only a matter of time before rockets and bombs start again.

Nor it is clear that an end to COVID-19 is in sight. If much of Europe is ploughing ahead with vaccines and anticipating summer holidays, the pandemic’s ravages in India, Brazil and elsewhere show the struggles in other parts of the world to get it under control. Until now, COVID-19 has little shaped  peace and security or the trajectory of any major war one way or the other. Yet, in many places, the pandemic and lockdowns have aggravated precisely those problems that fed discontent beforehand: rising inequality, higher living costs, scarcer public resources, fewer opportunities for young people. Today’s upheaval across Colombia, for example, or the protests in northern Lebanon some months ago, have not primarily been about COVID-19. But the pandemic played into the anger that took people to the streets. Unless the virus can be tamed and economies pick up, those protests may be a harbinger of things to come. The EU played a key role in setting up and supporting COVAX, which helps distribute vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. That support is likely to be crucial for some time to come.

As for major power politics, Biden has brought more continuity than change. European leaders can feel some relief at the shift in tone and sense of normalcy that has returned to transatlantic affairs and the UN Security Council. Still, U.S.-China ties are as fraught as ever. For Brussels, the balancing act remains largely the same: standing up to Beijing where it serves Europe’s interests, managing with as little friction as possible any divergence with Washington, and keeping open avenues for coordination on issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation. Russia’s troop build-up near its border with Ukraine earlier this year drove home again, as our entry below covers, the dilemmas it poses Western powers. Moscow appears to be withdrawing those forces, but the show of strength aggravated already toxic relations, coming together with tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions between Western capitals and Moscow, related to Czech findings of Russian sabotage, and fresh U.S. sanctions on Moscow for, among other things, its alleged cyberattacks and election interference. As we go to press, European leaders had just agreed to impose fresh Belarus sanctions in response to President Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s brazen forced diversion of a European flight over his country’s airspace – characterised by some as state terror – to detain a Belarus dissident. As yet, no evidence suggests Moscow was involved, but it has publicly defended Minsk. Increased friction between Brussels and Lukashenka, a Putin ally, is unlikely to do much for Russia-West relations.

So where were the bright spots? Those lie – perhaps unexpectedly – in early rumblings of efforts to mend the rivalries that have fuelled Arab wars over the past decade. Turkish and Egyptian diplomats appear to have agreed to tamp down acrimonious rhetoric. The Gulf Cooperation Council spat is formally over, and while bad blood remains between Abu Dhabi and Doha, there are signs of reconciliation within the bloc. (Libya’s peace deal owes mostly to a fighting stalemate but cooling hostility among the parties’ outside backers – Turkey and Qatar on one side, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on the other – is part of the story.) Even Saudi Arabia and Iran are talking; their representatives met in Iraq to discuss Yemen. These apparent recalibrations may be partly motivated by Biden eyeing a return to the Iran nuclear deal and withdrawing his predecessor’s unconditional support for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. How much they’ll achieve remains unclear: Yemen’s war, as our entry below makes clear, is still going from bad to worse; competition among Gulf powers in the Horn of Africa appears undimmed. Still, given the destruction those enmities have wrought over the past decade, any stirring of change qualifies as good news.

May 2021

Bolivia: Shifting Loyalties Complicate Route to Reconciliation

The turmoil that followed Bolivia’s disputed 2019 election has subsided, but the country’s deep political wounds remain unhealed. Credible and largely uneventful polls in October 2020 installed Luis Arce as president and returned Evo Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) to power, laying to rest fears that a fresh election dispute would trigger another round of unrest. But while citizens’ faith in the electoral authorities has mostly been restored, the tensions of the past two years linger on.

Fierce disagreement persists about the 2019 polls, which led to Morales’ resignation and were declared null after a wave of post-electoral violence. On one side of the political divide are those who continue to see that election as an attempt at massive fraud aimed at prolonging Morales’ grip on power beyond constitutional limits; on the other are those who regard it as a coup orchestrated by Bolivia’s white elites, the military and their international allies, including the Organization of American States (OAS). Political polarisation deepened under the right-wing interim government led by Jeanine Áñez, which held power between the two elections, and was widely seen to be persecuting MAS members and political allies. Now that the MAS has come back to power, Áñez and several of her ministers have been jailed, stirring up still more political resentment and mistrust, and reinforcing the perception that the courts are in thrall to the government and bend to its dictates.

The path to reconciliation is hardly clear.

The path to reconciliation is hardly clear. President Arce came to power offering conciliatory rhetoric, and his government quickly unveiled an ambitious proposal to overhaul the politicised judicial system, which is a perennial source of partisan division. But any hope for a new tone disappeared in the rancorous run-up to regional and local elections, in which the MAS fared poorly amid growing internal tensions. Public discontent with the government, meanwhile, is mounting over poor management of the pandemic and a deepening economic slump. Although the EU and UN, as well as politicians such as Vice President David Choquehuanca and presidential runner-up Carlos Mesa, have mooted various plans for political and social reconciliation, their prospects look remote.

In these circumstances, the European Union (EU) and its member states should:

  • Continue working with the UN and other donors to provide technical assistance to national and local electoral authorities so as to guarantee transparent and credible polls in the future.
  • To reduce the polarising impact of perceived judicial partisanship on Bolivian politics, encourage the Arce administration to carry out comprehensive judicial reform on the basis of consultations with all political parties and civil society, while simultaneously moving forward on short-term goals, such as legal reforms to help address violence against women.
  • Press the Arce administration to ensure that the measures it takes with respect to Áñez are consistent with constitutional requirements.
  • Together with the UN and Catholic Church, help foster local dialogues aimed at preventing flare-ups of violence and build the conditions for an eventual national reconciliation process.

Political Fragmentation

Arce was elected president of Bolivia with 55 per cent of the vote after a turbulent year during which the administration of interim President Áñez was accused of human rights violations and using the pandemic to remain in power beyond its mandate. The election went smoothly. With EU and UN support, and with the widely respected Salvador Romero at the helm of the Superior Electoral Tribunal, the electoral authorities persuaded most Bolivians that the polls were free and fair. But peaceful polls and a landslide victory for the MAS over centrist Mesa (of the Civic Community party) and right-wing radical Luis Fernando Camacho (of the Creemos party) did not mean that Bolivia has united behind the MAS, as the results of March’s local and regional elections proved. The party won only three of nine races for state governor, and it now controls only two of the country’s biggest cities.

There are several explanations for the MAS’s lacklustre showing in the March polls. Back from exile in Argentina, Morales took control of the campaign. He placed his preferred candidates on the MAS slate, shunted aside popular figures such as Eva Copa, the young woman who led the Senate under the interim government, and turned off some traditional MAS voters in the process. The party also lost the support of voters who had expected the Arce administration to chart a course to domestic reconciliation, and who were disappointed when the new president declared a broad amnesty protecting his allies from being charged with serious crimes committed during the Áñez administration’s tenure. Morales found himself openly confronted by disgruntled former supporters, and well-known candidates defected from the party.

The new MAS-led government also faced growing criticism over its handling of COVID-19, especially regarding a lack of vaccines, and the public perception that it is not doing enough to respond to the related economic crisis. These widening divisions within the party as well as the MAS’s loss of support among its traditional constituencies represent a major shift in Bolivian politics. For example, many Aymara, an indigenous group that has historically supported Morales, shifted their allegiance to a new party founded by ex-MAS members, Jallalla. Significant numbers of small-hold farmers and the urban poor, who in the past were core MAS supporters, switched to other indigenous and leftist parties, such as Movement Third System.

These widening divisions within the party as well as the MAS’s loss of support among its traditional constituencies represent a major shift in Bolivian politics.

At the same time, the opposition has fragmented. The election of Camacho, who in 2019 mobilised thousands of supporters to demand Morales’ removal from office, as governor of Santa Cruz proved his enduring popular appeal among hardline opposition forces in some areas. Mesa’s Civic Community, a more moderate movement, holds 30 per cent of the seats in parliament, but was essentially absent from the local election battle.

“Lawfare” and Justice Reform

Political manipulation of the judiciary, widely known in Latin America as “lawfare”, has become one of the most distinctive and divisive characteristics of Bolivian political life. In the aftermath of the 2019 election, the Áñez administration brought politically tinged charges against Morales and others for sedition and terrorism. In turn, the Arce administration is levelling similar charges at Áñez, leading to her imprisonment since 12 March.

While evidence suggests that Áñez should face trial for grave crimes committed during her administration’s tenure, including the massacres of Senkata and Sacaba where at least nineteen people protesting Morales’ ouster were killed by Bolivian security forces, the way the Arce administration is prosecuting her is likely to increase the public’s sense that the judiciary is politicised. Among other issues, the constitution provides that former presidents are immune from normal prosecution through judicial channels for their actions while in power, and that they can only be tried by Congress. But in the present case, the government has determined that it lacks the votes in parliament to secure a guilty verdict, and admitted that it is therefore building a case against Áñez in the courts (which are widely viewed as lacking independence) based on her alleged role in what the administration characterises as a coup against Morales, despite scant evidence of her involvement.

Human rights organisations issued rapid condemnations of the Bolivian government’s imprisonment of Áñez and apparent use of the justice system to perpetuate a cycle of political revenge. The EU, UN, OAS and U.S. were similarly critical. This outside pressure helped convince La Paz not to file charges against other members of the interim government, but Áñez remains in jail, and some MAS factions have pushed back hard against the criticism, including through social media attacks on a disapproving European Parliament resolution. It is unlikely that these factions will soften their stance.

Efforts to reform the judicial system and break the cycle of revenge justice have thus far made little headway.

Against this backdrop, efforts to reform the judicial system and break the cycle of revenge justice have thus far made little headway. A reform proposal advanced by Justice Minister Iván Lima in December 2020 foundered in the face of lack of political backing from MAS leadership. A proposed referendum that would alter the way in which judges are elected – which now allows the party controlling Congress to decide who is on the slate – has been postponed until after the next judicial election, scheduled for 2023. Several high-profile members of an advisory council formed by the Arce government to pilot judicial reform have resigned, complaining that they had met only once.

Recommendations for the EU and Its Member States

To avoid a repeat of the violence that followed the 2019 elections, it will be important for Bolivian authorities to continue building public confidence in the electoral system. The EU should impress on the Arce administration the importance of maintaining an independent and impartial Superior Electoral Tribunal, and work closely with Dina Chuquimia, who replaced Romero after his resignation, to build on the progress achieved over the last year.

Additionally, the EU, in partnership with the UN, should continue to provide support to the Tribunal to strengthen its ability to run transparent and reliable elections, through technical assistance to improve vote counting; the purchase of better equipment and electoral materials; the design of a communications strategy that explains to the public the vote-tallying process and strengthens faith in its transparency; and the training of Tribunal staff, among other measures. Similarly, the Ombudsman’s Office and others have identified specific weaknesses in local electoral bodies that need to be addressed – in particular better training of local staff, guaranteeing that poll workers speak the indigenous language of the surrounding area and providing election materials that help voters understand their choices. The EU and member states that are already active in this area, such as Sweden, should extend their partnership with the UN and other donors to provide these electoral authorities with the technical and material support they require.

Given the corrosive and polarising impact of perceived judicial partisanship on Bolivian politics, the EU should also work with the Arce administration where possible to advance judicial reform efforts. Even if key parts of the planned reform are on hold, the EU and member states should continue to insist on improving the justice system, and press, among other things, for an increase in spending in this area (currently only 0.38 per cent of GDP) to allow for the creation of specialised courts, the appointment of more judges to ease case delays in the courts, and broader public access. The Arce administration should signal its commitment to ending politicised justice by developing a strategy to ensure that Áñez is treated in accordance with the constitution.

The EU could also support the justice ministry in pushing forward changes it has highlighted as priorities and that have broad political support; for example, modifications to Law 348 to Guarantee Women a Life Free of Violence. Bolivia has one of the highest numbers of femicides on the continent, and high levels of violence targeting women in politics. It could also partner with suitable national institutions and organisations to help modernise judicial bodies and give all Bolivians access to the judicial system.

Finally, together with the UN and Catholic Church, the EU should keep mediating political and social disputes that threaten to spill over into violence, as it has done since 2019. More substantial steps toward political reconciliation of the sort proposed by Mesa – including freeing political prisoners, prosecuting violent acts that took place between October 2019 and October 2020 (which would require reversal of the amnesty), and reinstating the two-thirds majority for certain legislative procedures to encourage greater inter-party cooperation (a threshold abolished in October 2020 by the MAS-controlled Assembly) – have been dismissed by the MAS but should still be on the table.

The EU and member states, together with well-regarded institutions such as the Catholic Church, should additionally offer political and, where needed, financial support for dialogue-based initiatives around specific issues that have established their worth. For example, altercations recently flared among coca growers (controlled growth of the plant is legal in Bolivia) after the government decided to move the location of one of two national coca markets, leading to protests and then a violent crack­down on protesters’ roadblocks. International mediation on issues such as this one could help minimise the chances that local frictions provoke wider unrest and instability, and progressively build the conditions for a national reconciliation process.

 

Help Contain the Damage of Myanmar’s Military Coup

The 1 February coup d’état in Myanmar has undone a decade of liberalisation, triggered a deep economic crisis, led to renewed ethnic armed conflict and set the country on the path toward possible state collapse. The security forces have responded to widespread popular resistance to the military takeover with brutal violence against demonstrators and the broader civilian population – killing hundreds and detaining thousands with the apparent aim of terrorising people into submission. Instead, resistance movements appear to have become even more determined, continuing to organise general strikes and acts of civil disobedience. Conflict has also resumed or escalated in several of the country’s ethnic areas as armed groups have deserted the peace process and attacked security forces. The economic meltdown prompted by the coup and the near collapse of many government functions, including the health and education systems, will have far-reaching and lasting consequences for Myanmar’s 55 million people. A humanitarian emergency is already in the making, as millions, particularly in cities, are pushed into poverty and face rising food insecurity.

The EU and its member states can help address the crisis in Myanmar by:

  • Channelling significant aid to address both the impending humanitarian emergency and longer-term needs relating to health, education and livelihoods; working to improve coordination among UN agencies, donors and implementing partners to ensure this aid’s efficient delivery; and urgently funding independent media;
  • Supporting regional diplomacy, particularly Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-led efforts, to boost the ASEAN special envoy’s legitimacy in engaging with the regime in a robust and effective manner; and backing efforts to convene an international contact group on Myanmar;
  • Maintaining and expanding targeted sanctions on the regime, the military and their business interests;
  • Continuing to engage closely with the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and the National Unity Government as well as other legitimate representatives of the Myanmar people;
  • Ensuring that the EU arms embargo is strictly enforced and sufficiently covers dual-use items and technological tools of surveillance and repression; working with EU partners to develop a coordinated list of prohibited items; and sharing information with like-minded countries on efforts to block transfers on a voluntary basis.

A Multi-dimensional Crisis

After grossly miscalculating how Myanmar’s people would react to the 1 February coup, the regime appears determined to impose its will on the population through sheer brutality. Snipers have shot unarmed protesters, including children, in the head. Police and soldiers have attacked protest barricades with rifle grenades and mortars, targeted medical first responders and fired randomly into crowds, at passing vehicles and even into homes at night. State television has broadcast photos of detainees bearing clear signs of torture, possibly as a warning to others against resisting the coup. Some female detainees have been subjected to sexual and gender-based violence during interrogations. These actions, no doubt intended to terrorise, have not achieved their goals. On the contrary, they have fuelled further resistance by inflaming the already simmering hatred of the military across the country. Although the regime almost entirely shut down the internet, general strikes and civil disobedience continue – with young female activists playing particularly prominent roles – and people keep finding new ways to express their dissent, for example by replacing demonstrations with flash mobs in order to avoid arrest. Close to four months on, the military is struggling to consolidate its power grab.

As a result of the violence, absence of governance, and strikes and civil disobedience, which also affect the private sector, Myanmar’s economy is falling apart.

As a result of the violence, absence of governance, and strikes and civil disobedience, which also affect the private sector, Myanmar’s economy is falling apart. Many have lost their jobs. Income-generating opportunities in the informal sector are drying up and the banking system is at a virtual standstill. Many people have great difficulty taking out cash due to Central Bank-mandated withdrawal limits, while the regime’s internet shutdown has prevented most from access to electronic banking and payment services. The combination of the banking crisis with a collapse in business and consumer confidence, widespread insecurity, and broken logistics and supply chains has resulted in a hard stop to economic activity, and the UN Development Programme now estimates that nearly half of Myanmar’s population risks falling into poverty by 2022.

At this rate, the poverty crisis will soon become a hunger crisis. Food markets are dysfunctional, with some staples unavailable, and surging prices for others. That many people are without income or access to cash leaves them unable to buy what food there is. On 22 April, the World Food Programme warned that up to 3.4 million additional people in Myanmar would struggle to afford food in the next three to six months, particularly in urban areas.

Likewise, the public health and education systems have all but collapsed, as the vast majority of medical staff and teachers – most of them women – refuse to work for the regime. Schools, already closed for months due to COVID-19, have seen their planned reopening stall due to striking teachers and parents afraid for their children’s safety. Many public hospitals and clinics are shuttered, and soldiers have converted others, in key city locations, into forward operating bases after evicting the patients. COVID-19 testing and treatment have virtually stopped and the vaccination program is far behind schedule. With regular childhood vaccinations in jeopardy and key imported pharmaceuticals in short supply, public health experts are worried that a decade of progress in improving basic health care and tackling infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria will now be lost.

Meanwhile, armed conflict is increasing in several of the country’s ethnic areas. While full-scale conflict between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups has not yet erupted, clashes have escalated significantly since the coup. In some regions, such as Kachin and Kayin States, the situation is edging toward a resumption of all-out conflict, with the regime even resorting to airstrikes – including upon civilian targets. Several armed groups have put an end to existing ceasefires – some under pressure from their own constituencies to oppose the coup. While some may choose not to, it is now clear that the formal peace process for a negotiated political solution to Myanmar’s numerous ethnic conflicts is dead. Any hope of resolving the Rohingya crisis in the foreseeable future has also evaporated.

Another significant development is the formation of civil defence forces or militias by local communities, including in Sagaing and Magway Regions and Chin State. Armed with locally made hunting rifles as well as a small number of assault weapons and grenades, these groups are not capable of confronting experienced and well-armed army units, but they are able to use local knowledge of the terrain to harass and ambush soldiers, including in urban environments. Underground resistance groups are also carrying out improvised explosive device and arson attacks on regime targets and government administrative offices in Yangon, Mandalay and elsewhere, while hundreds of protesters have travelled from cities to non-government-controlled areas to receive military training from ethnic armed groups.

Growing conflict and insecurity in many parts of the country, coupled with a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis, may lead to significant population flows both internally and across the country’s borders.

Responding to the Crisis

With no sign of either an end to violence or a return to civilian rule, the EU and member states should take a number of steps to respond to the coup and its aftermath.

The first is to make urgent preparations to provide significant levels of support to ordinary people in order to address not only the looming humanitarian emergency but also longer-term needs related to the collapse of the health and education systems and the loss of livelihoods. The EU has already provided an extra €9 million for urgent humanitarian relief, but suspended its development assistance in March as a result of the coup. In order to deliver aid at scale while bypassing traditional mechanisms now under the junta’s control, the EU and member states should explore working through NGO and civil society channels (while protecting them from being overwhelmed or put at risk), multi-donor funds and UN agencies if possible, and local government systems as appropriate. To ensure efficient delivery of such aid, the EU should advocate for the nomination of a senior UN envoy for relief and recovery planning, who could be appointed by the Secretary-General to bring coherence and coordination to UN agencies’, donors’ and implementing partners’ responses to the crisis. With Myanmar’s media under immense pressure, Brussels should also urgently fund independent media outlets, who play a vital role in getting reliable information to the population and the outside world.

While the ongoing ASEAN-led process has significant limitations, it is the only diplomatic initiative under way and arguably the only platform for engaging both the regime and representatives of the elected civilian government.

Secondly, the EU should support global and regional diplomatic efforts to address the crisis. While the ongoing ASEAN-led process has significant limitations, it is the only diplomatic initiative under way and arguably the only platform for engaging both the regime and representatives of the elected civilian government. The EU should support it with the objective of making it more robust and effective, including by pushing for the speedy nomination of an ASEAN special envoy to help address the crisis and by pressing the junta to permit the envoy to travel to Myanmar as soon as possible. The EU should also back the convening of a contact group on Myanmar comprising key regional and Western countries, an idea that has been quietly discussed and that could usefully complement the ASEAN process. Finally, the Union and its member states should continue to engage closely with the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (a group of parliamentarians elected in November 2020) and the National Unity Government that it has appointed, as well as other representatives of Myanmar’s people, such as ethnic leaders (including Rohingya).

Thirdly, the EU should continue to develop its framework of restrictive measures. It should continue to expand targeted sanctions on the military and its business interests, members of the regime, its cabinet, senior police and military officers, and military-owned or -linked companies. It should, however, refrain from revoking Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade scheme that gives developing country products tariff-free access to the single market, as the impact would fall on workers – mainly young women from poor families employed in the garment industry – and there are no indications that such a move would create leverage over the regime.

Finally, the EU should strictly enforce its arms embargo and make sure that it sufficiently covers dual-use items and technological tools of surveillance and repression. The EU and its member states should work to develop with other partner countries a coordinated list of prohibited items and share information on their efforts to block transfers of such items. This step would create a framework for like-minded countries to coordinate constraints on the military.

Halting the Deepening Turmoil in Nigeria’s North West

Nigeria’s North West is sliding deeper into crisis. Criminal gangs, some of which started out as ethnic militias or vigilante groups, have proliferated in the region. These gangs are gaining in strength – adding recruits, arming themselves more heavily and carrying out far more audacious attacks on both civilian and military targets than they were a few years ago. The humanitarian and economic costs are enormous. As security deteriorates, jihadist groups linked to the Boko Haram insurgency that erupted in 2011 in north-eastern Nigeria are also expanding their reach into the North West. The crisis risks spilling over into neighbouring Niger.

Although Nigeria’s government has repeatedly vowed to curb bloodshed, its military response has been inadequate.

Although Nigeria’s government has repeatedly vowed to curb bloodshed, its military response has been inadequate. It has made little progress toward resolving the herder-farmer conflict that is at the root of the violence and little effort to alleviate deepening human misery in the region. It urgently needs to develop strategies that can contain armed groups and ease the humanitarian crisis in the North West, while expediting plans to promote peaceful coexistence between herders and farmers. Given the government’s resource and capacity deficits, international partners can do much to help.

The EU and its member states should assist the Nigerian government to:

  • Bolster its security presence in the North West by providing security forces with logistics and communications equipment, as well as reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering tools needed to locate gangs hiding in forests and prevent their attacks, while making such assistance subject to appropriate human rights vetting. The EU can also help the government tighten Nigeria’s borders by offering training and equipment that would improve its security agencies’ capacity to stem the influx of illicit firearms and foreign jihadists. It can further help the establishment and effective operations of the newly created National Centre for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons.
  • Increase financial allocations to roll out immediate humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in the region and others affected by the mayhem, particularly women who have been widowed, sexually abused or who have lost their livelihoods.
  • Support those initiatives and organisations working to foster local dialogues among herding and farming communities, as well as different ethnic and religious groups, and accelerate implementation of the National Livestock Transformation Plan, which aims to improve relations between herders and farmers by building ranches and rehabilitating grazing reserves in states that have endorsed the plan.

Rising Violence

The causes of the North West’s turmoil are complex and inter-related. Environmental degradation caused by the twin pressures of climate change and rapid population growth has aggravated resource competition between herders and farmers. Disputes over land and water prompted both herders and farmers to form armed self-defence groups, fuelling a cycle of retaliatory violence that has taken on a communal dimension. The herders are predominantly ethnic Fulani, while the farmers are mainly Hausa or from other ethnic groups. In some areas, particularly in the southern part of Kaduna state, these tensions are compounded by long-running animosity among the predominantly Muslim Fulani and Hausa, and smaller, largely Christian groups.

The emergence of criminal gangs, whom the Nigerian government and mass media call “bandits”, has aggravated an already precarious security situation. Some of these gangs started as herder-allied groups but now operate autonomously. Many are exclusively or predominantly Fulani, while others are ethnically diverse. Some have recruits from neighbouring Benin and Niger as well as countries as far away as Sudan. Most members are illiterate. Aided by the flow of illicit firearms and hard drugs across Nigeria’s poorly secured borders, these gangs, often storming villages on hundreds of motorcycles, engage in a range of criminal activities, from cattle rustling and kidnapping for ransom to extortion, sexual assault and armed robbery of gold miners and traders. Most gangs have taken refuge in the region’s vast woodlands – sometimes hidden in caves or mountainous terrain – including Kamuku forest in Kaduna state, Falgore forest in Kano state, Dansadau forest in Zamfara state and Davin Rugu forest, which straddles the states of Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara.

The gangs lack centralised leadership structures and are sometimes locked in bitter rivalries with one another. Some gang leaders claim they resorted to crime because successive federal or state governments neglected the welfare of the pastoralist Fulani or because security forces and vigilante groups formed by various communities abused them. Such claims may have merit in some cases, but in most they appear to be self-serving excuses for illicit profit seeking.

The gangs are continually evolving. Having originated in Zamfara state, they have since spread to all neighbouring states – Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Niger, Kebbi and Sokoto – and are growing in number and size. They are staging ever more mass abductions of students and other citizens in order to extract ransom payments from parents, families, communities or state governments, kidnapping over 700 schoolchildren and killing six between December 2020 and April 2021. But gang violence is no longer limited to hit-and-run attacks. In April, Muhammad Awaisu Wana, chairman of Niger Concerned Citizens, a civil society group, reported that armed groups had taken control of ten of fifteen wards in the Shiroro local government area of Niger state. Similar reports from Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina indicate that the gangs have established a permanent presence in parts of these states.

Gangs are also scaling up their weaponry, acquiring general-purpose machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Sheikh Ahmed Gumi, a prominent Muslim cleric who met several gang leaders in January, said they planned to buy anti-aircraft missiles to repel the Nigerian military’s aerial attacks. Gumi said: “What is currently happening … is insurgency and not banditry”. In April, gunmen stormed two military barracks in Niger state, killing at least seven soldiers; other assailants killed at least nine police officers in Kebbi state.

Rampant insecurity appears to be an opportunity for jihadists to extend their influence in the region by forging alliances with other armed groups.

Rampant insecurity appears to be an opportunity for jihadists to extend their influence in the region by forging alliances with other armed groups. A spike in jihadist activity in the North West raises the prospect that the region could soon become a land bridge connecting Islamist rebels in the central Sahel with the decade-old insurgency in the Lake Chad region of north-eastern Nigeria. Security sources point to a resurgence of the long-dormant Boko Haram splinter group, Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan (Group of Partisans for Muslims in Black Africa), better known as Ansaru, which was active in north-western Nigeria between 2011 and 2014. Elements of other Boko Haram offshoots, notably the Islamic State in West Africa Province, are arriving in the area.

At the same time, a poorly secured international boundary enables the influx of arms and facilitates the movement of jihadists to and from the Sahel, where local Islamic State affiliates have been expanding their influence. Moreover, as Crisis Group reported recently, organised banditry is spreading to neighbouring Niger’s south-western border strip between the towns of Maradi and Dogondoutchi.

The Growing Humanitarian Crisis

The violence is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the North West, which already has some of Nigeria’s highest levels of displacement, poverty, malnutrition and disease. The civil society organisation Global Rights reports that 1,527 people were killed by criminal and other armed violence in the North West in 2020, higher than the number (1,508) reportedly killed by the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East. In Kaduna state, the government reports that in the first three months of 2021, armed groups killed 323 people (compared to 628 in all of 2020) and kidnapped 949 others. The UN estimates that 279,000 people were displaced in Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina by the end of 2020, and that almost 2.6 million people across the three states are facing food insecurity in 2021.

Poverty is rising across the region. Gangs deny farmers access to their fields unless they pay levies, often making it impossible for them to plant or harvest crops. In Katsina state, Governor Aminu Masari said farmers have abandoned over 50,000 hectares of land in 2020. Amid the surge of kidnappings, ransom demands have forced many families – and sometimes entire communities – to sell property and take on debt. Some rural communities have agreed to pay taxes to armed groups to avoid attacks, an arrangement that further impoverishes residents.

Women have been disproportionately affected. Hundreds have been killed in attacks on their villages in recent years. Thousands have been widowed, leading to an increase in the number of single-income households. The violence has forced thousands more to flee their homes, abandoning farms, livestock and trades, thus losing sources of income. As gangs destroy markets and loot shops and warehouses, they cut off access to credit for many small-scale female traders. Wealthier business owners have also slashed their trade volumes in order to avoid travelling to suppliers on the region’s increasingly dangerous roads. Sexual violence is widespread. Having lost their livelihoods, some women have resorted to street begging or sex work so as to survive.

Furthermore, the violence poses a serious threat to education in the North West and Nigeria more broadly. Since December 2020, authorities shut down hundreds of schools across seven states – Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara – until better security arrangements are in place or the risk of mass abductions lowers. The use of some schools’ premises as displaced persons’ camps is also disrupting learning. Lower enrolment and attendance, resulting from insecurity, could add to Nigeria’s population of out-of-school children, already estimated at over 10 million and among the highest in the world.

Even more worryingly, the crisis is eroding the government’s capacity to perform certain core functions. On 5 May, citing the insecurity in the North West, the federal House of Representatives asked the National Population Commission to postpone the 2021 census until the situation improves. General elections scheduled for February 2023 may also prove impossible to organise in parts of the North West.

The Faltering Response

The Nigerian government lacks the personnel and resources to tackle the insecurity in the North West. Despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s repeated pledges to crush the armed groups, as well as police and military operations that have killed hundreds of gang members since 2015, attacks continue. The faltering federal response is fuelling conspiracy theories that some government officials may be complicit in, or even profiting from, the violence.

Security forces are stretched woefully thin across the region. In Niger state, the governor complained that there are only 4,000 police to protect 24 million citizens (a dismal ratio of one police officer per 6,000 citizens). In March, the emir (Muslim traditional ruler) of Anka, in Zamfara state, reported that “we have less than 5,000 security men fighting over 30,000 bandits”. The federal government, however, has undertaken no major recruitment campaigns for security personnel in several years.

A dearth of equipment further constrains security operations. In January, the Katsina state government secretary, Mustapha Inuwa, recalled an occasion where “about 292 army officers were brought for a particular operation with only four vehicles”. Residents report that troops have sometimes fled combat against the gangs after running out of ammunition. The equipment deficit is only partly due to resource constraints. Inertia in Abuja is also at play. In January, the Niger state governor complained that, three months after his government had procured drones to track armed groups, they had still not been delivered due to delays in documentation, including the procurement of end user certificates, from federal authorities.

Peace deals between state governments and gang leaders have yielded few results.

Peace deals between state governments and gang leaders have yielded few results. In mid-2019, the governors of Katsina, Sokoto, Niger and Zamfara states offered unconditional amnesties, rehabilitation and other incentives as a means of wooing the gangs to release hostages and disarm. These agreements led attacks to decline through the second half of the year. Disarmament stalled, however, for several reasons including possible bad faith by some actors, competition among groups and the failure of authorities to foster Hausa-Fulani reconciliation. Some armed groups that were not involved in the talks turned against those that agreed to negotiate. Many criminal gangs, oblivious of the peace agreements or perceiving them as a sign of government weakness, simply carried on their violent activities. The Zamfara state governor claims that his peace efforts are working despite continuing violence, but the others have since conceded defeat and terminated negotiations.

The humanitarian response has been insufficient. The federal government has made little effort to provide internally displaced persons (IDP) with food, water, emergency shelters or sanitary facilities, and its Humanitarian Response Plan for 2021 makes no mention of the crisis in the North West. Meanwhile, there are few international agencies on the ground, although the International Organization for Migration is documenting some of the displacement and the need for aid.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The Nigerian government needs considerable assistance in reversing the slide in the North West. On 23 March, the governors of three North West states – Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara – visited the EU delegation in Abuja, soliciting help. Together with its member states, the EU could render support in at least three areas.

The EU and its member states could assist Nigeria’s security agencies with logistics and communication facilities to help protect rural dwellers and respond more effectively to early warnings and distress calls.

A first priority is security support to the Nigerian government. The EU and its member states could assist Nigeria’s security agencies with logistics and communication facilities to help protect rural dwellers and respond more effectively to early warnings and distress calls. As most armed groups are hiding in forests, the EU could provide the military with reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering equipment to help apprehend them, making all such assistance subject to appropriate human rights vetting. Furthermore, the EU and its member states can help the Nigerian government secure the country’s borders by offering better training and equipment to strengthen customs and immigration agencies’ capacity to stem the flow of illicit firearms and foreign jihadists, and also by helping the Department of State Services improve intelligence gathering around border communities and target networks bringing firearms into the region. They can also support the full establishment and operations of the National Centre for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, created by the government on 3 May, as part of efforts to curb illicit firearms in the country and improve regional cooperation in arresting the transnational flow of firearms.

Secondly, the EU and its member states should help ease the humanitarian crisis. Beyond providing direct aid to the thousands of IDPs living in poorly run camps, they could help the Nigerian government survey the numerous displaced who have found refuge in cities and villages. Many victims of abduction, women and children especially, though released, remain at risk of exploitation, trafficking and gender-based violence. The EU and its member states could focus on the establishment and expansion of special community-based counselling and rehabilitation programs, providing women and children victims with physical and psycho-social support that could help reduce their vulnerability to such risks. The European Commission’s announcement, on 11 May, that it would allocate €37 million for humanitarian relief to vulnerable populations in Nigeria in 2021 is a step in the right direction. In making distributions from this fund, the EU should consider the critical needs in the North West.

Thirdly, the EU and its member states should lend greater support to measures aimed at curbing herder-farmer tensions. In the short term, they should provide assistance to various initiatives by state governments, communities and civil society organisations promoting dialogue and peaceful coexistence between herders and farmers, and also among different ethnic and religious groups. Looking ahead, they should offer technical and financial support to state governments seeking to implement the National Livestock Transformation Plan, which represents Nigeria’s most comprehensive strategy yet to encourage pastoralists to switch to ranching and other sedentary livestock production systems. Modernising the livestock sector is key to resolving the herder-farmer conflict, which triggered the crisis in the North West in the first place – and now threatens Nigeria’s political stability and food security.

Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine

Relations between Russia and the European Union (EU) are frostier than ever.

Relations between Russia and the European Union (EU) are frostier than ever. Reasons include disagreements old and new, with Europeans concerned about issues from Moscow’s treatment of opposition activist Alexei Navalny and other dissidents, to its alleged meddling in their elections, to newly surfaced reports of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot. Those reports formed the backdrop for a rash of diplomatic expulsions by Prague and other European capitals, on one hand, and Moscow on the other. But it is the continuing war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian state forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that remains the sorest point of friction.

Russia raised worries of a substantial escalation in Kyiv and among Ukraine’s Western partners when it massed forces near Ukraine’s borders in March and April. While these anxieties were largely assuaged when Russia started to pull back its forces in late April, the situation as a whole remains fraught. A ceasefire Kyiv and Moscow agreed to in July 2020 has broken down. Negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow are deadlocked. Neither side is taking steps prescribed by the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements that ended the worst of the fighting and were intended to bring peace. The Normandy Format peace process that includes France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine is largely dormant, with no new summit on the horizon. Absent changes, the coming year could bring new problems and new dangers of further outbreaks of violence. The EU, for all its difficulties with Moscow, can and should work with member states and allies to mitigate the risks and seek ways to break the impasse.

To deter future threats to Ukraine and reduce tensions with Moscow, the EU and its member states should:

  • Forge consensus with the U.S. and UK about how they would respond to evidence of Russian threats to attack or actual attacks on Ukraine, focusing on what additional sanctions they would apply and under what circumstances. Options for increasing military pressure should be viewed cautiously, given that they could bring further risks of escalation.
  • For purposes of deterrence, quietly communicate agreed-upon red lines and repercussions to the Kremlin, being careful not to rely on bluffs that Moscow would be likely to call.
  • Encourage Kyiv, on one side, and Moscow and its proxies, on the other, to return to observing the July 2020 ceasefire as a prelude to renewed talks among the Normandy Format countries and the U.S.
  • Work with the Biden administration to create incentives for breaking the long-running impasse in talks, including by delineating, and communicating, a clear plan for gradual, reversible sanctions relief for Russia in response to measurable progress.
  • Develop and propose economic incentives to aid and support Kyiv’s planning for Donbas’s eventual reintegration, to include proposals for restoring social, economic and transport links between government-controlled and separatist-held Donbas.

Political Stalemates

In December 2019, as French, German, Ukrainian and Russian leaders met in Paris to hold their first Normandy Format meeting to advance the Ukrainian peace process in three years, there seemed to be cause for hope. With a new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had averred his commitment to peace both on the campaign trail and upon taking office, the summit might have been a first step on a new path after years of stalemate and disappointment.

A year and a half later, those hopes are foundering. The conflict parties have taken only two of the seven joint steps promised in Paris: Kyiv and the Russian-backed leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Donbas exchanged detainees in December 2019 and April 2020, and Kyiv and Moscow agreed to a ceasefire starting 27 July 2020. But other important steps – including, crucially, disengagement of forces from front lines, demining, particularly around key infrastructure facilities located on the line of separation between Ukrainian and separatist forces, and full access for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission – remain outstanding.

Moreover, even the slim progress made in 2019 and 2020 has begun to unravel. By March 2021, the ceasefire, the most successful of the many reached since the war began, had collapsed. As shelling and sniper fire resumed across the line of separation, a new crisis emerged. Russian troop build-ups near Ukraine in late March and early April sparked fears of a return to large-scale combat. The Kremlin said the soldiers were conducting routine training, but the deployment of paratroopers to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and establishment of a base camp at Voronezh (a few hours’ drive from the Ukrainian border) were nonetheless unusual and, understandably, alarming for Kyiv and its Western allies. When Ukraine asked for help, European countries, the EU, U.S. and UK spoke supportively but took no overt action in response.

At the end of April, ten days after Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden discussed a possible summit in a call, Moscow announced that the troops had completed their training and would be coming home. The announcement helped assuage concerns (although leaving unclear what precisely Moscow’s motives had been), but by then relations between Russia and the West were taking new twists and turns. In mid-April, the Czech Republic made public its findings of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot and announced the expulsion of eighteen Russians affiliated with Moscow’s mission in Prague. Further expulsions by both sides ensued, with other European countries also expelling dozens of Russian diplomats. At around the same time, Washington announced its own expulsions of Russian diplomats along with new sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s alleged hack of U.S. government infrastructure through software provided by the SolarWinds company. In response, on 14 May, Russia said it deemed the Czech Republic and the U.S. “unfriendly” countries, curtailing the staff of their diplomatic missions. Then on 19 May, Washington imposed sanctions on a total of thirteen Russian vessels involved in laying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bypass traditional routes for which Russia pays lucrative gas transit fees to Ukraine and pump Russian gas directly to Germany.

Yet amid the rancour there are positive signs. Even as the new U.S. sanctions were announced, when Putin and Biden’s top diplomats met in Iceland in preparation for their possible summit in June, they noted their differences but struck an optimistic tone. Moreover, the Kremlin and Kyiv were exchanging invitations for summits of their own: Zelenskyy invited his Russian counterpart to meet in Donbas and Putin countered with an invitation to Moscow – although only to discuss issues unrelated to the war. Ukraine and Russia confirmed in late May that preparations for a meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy were under way.

But for there to be any chance of progress toward resolving the Donbas conflict, itself necessary for improving relations between Moscow and the West, the parties will need to address certain core areas of disagreement relating to implementation of the Minsk agreements. Among the most contentious is a Minsk requirement that Kyiv grant local autonomy (“special status”) to the separatist-held areas and hold local elections there in exchange for Ukraine regaining control of its eastern border. Ukraine says it cannot run credible polls in these regions until it has reassumed territorial control, and indeed its parliament has prohibited elections without first regaining such control. Russia says Minsk is clear: elections and special status come first, control only afterward. Moving past this fundamental impasse will be hard, but in theory, a deal is possible. The parties might agree, for example, that the OSCE and UN will monitor the border and region as a whole while elections are held, in order to assuage Kyiv’s concerns about their integrity.

The longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem.

In practice, however, the longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem. Complicating things further, Moscow sees Donbas-related sanctions as part and parcel of a broader Western pressure campaign, with Ukraine only one component. Russia is particularly rankled by what it perceives as the EU’s interference in its domestic politics. Russian parliamentary elections scheduled for September are likely to be a source of friction alongside the dispute over Navalny, particularly if, as appears likely, the Kremlin escalates its crackdowns on independent media and opposition. European positions may also harden due to forthcoming polls in European countries – notably Germany in September – in which European leaders will likely fear Russian meddling given Moscow’s previous alleged interference. Broader tensions make it all the harder to find mutually acceptable ways forward on Donbas.

Recommendations for the EU and Its Member States

Still, with Russia reversing its troop build-up and Washington interested in a June summit with Moscow, the EU and its member states may have an opportunity to work with the U.S. and UK to develop a joint deterrence strategy and revive the peace process.

Brussels, Washington and London should coordinate a common approach to deterrence in the face of future threats or aggression in Donbas. The first step would be to reach agreement on both red lines and consequences if Russia crosses them. For these purposes, sanctions, for all their limits, remain the primary non-military tool at the West’s disposal. Existing sanctions could be augmented through steps that would curtail lending to certain Russian enterprises, cut off Russian access to the SWIFT banking network or block Russian purchases of sovereign debt on the secondary market. Moscow is likely to be particularly concerned about the possibility of U.S. secondary sanctions, through which the U.S. could block access to the U.S. financial system for third parties that engage in prohibited transactions. The secondary sanctions could have a negative impact on EU member states, however, and risk adding to transatlantic tensions over the cost to European companies of U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream 2. (On the latter front, in a nod to ties with Berlin, the Biden administration waived sanctions on the company behind the pipeline and its chief executive.) Brussels and Washington should reach as good an understanding as possible about when Europe would back U.S. sanctions of this nature.

As for whether military pressure could be useful for purposes of deterrence, the West’s somewhat muffled response to the Russian troop build-up only reinforced awareness on all sides that neither the U.S. nor European countries want to get drawn into conflict in Ukraine. The Western powers should not make bluffs that Russia could well call. They should be extremely cautious about taking or threatening measures that would increase the likelihood of confrontation – such as putting Western advisers on the front line in Ukraine. While ramping up the provision of weapons to Kyiv might be less risky, doing so is not likely to yield the kind of battlefield advantage that would change Moscow’s calculations.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them. Sending the message through quiet rather than public channels may give Moscow more political room to absorb it without reacting counterproductively. To maximise the usefulness of sanctions as leverage, the Western powers should not threaten measures that they would be unwilling or unable to rescind in the event that Russia reverses course.

As the EU and its partners are developing their approach to deterrence, they should also be focusing on easing tensions on the ground and encouraging dialogue. This means getting the parties back to the table, ideally for a near-term summit among the Normandy Four and possibly the U.S. Either before or at the summit, France and Germany could press for a suite of de-escalatory measures: for example, returning to the July 2020 ceasefire; broader and freer access for OSCE ceasefire monitors; a roadmap to restoring civilian freedom of movement across the line of separation; and broader military deconfliction and resumption of prisoner exchanges.

Ideally, over the course of the summit and ensuing negotiations, the EU, U.S. and UK would also present Moscow with incentives for charting a path out of the current standoff. They could, for example – as Crisis Group has argued before – offer the Kremlin a concrete plan to exchange the lifting of specific Minsk-related sanctions (eg, against banks and companies) for specific Russian military and political concessions in Donbas (eg, compromises on the Ukrainian border, disarmament of combatants or flexibility on special status). The proposal would make clear that should Russia or its proxies renege, the sanctions will be reimposed. There is some risk in this course of action: should Russia pocket the concessions and then backslide, Brussels may find it difficult to cobble back together the consensus required for the reimposition of sanctions. But if the U.S. and its European partners are not ready to use sanctions relief to motivate incremental progress by Moscow, the combination of high demands and inflexible tools offers little hope of breaking the deadlock.

Brussels should also work with Kyiv to encourage flexible thinking along the lines suggested above about how to work through the impasse over “special status” and begin planning for the near-term reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk. The latter point is controversial: on one hand, Zelenskyy’s team has rallied to produce a roadmap for reintegration, but on the other, they appear to increasingly favour relegating the task to a distant and speculative future. If Brussels wants to help reverse this tide, it should keep up its promises of an EU economic support package to help rehabilitate the war-torn region, as well as offer plentiful guidance on overhauling Donbas’s fossil fuel-dependent economy. As further preparation for reintegration, Brussels should also maintain pressure on Kyiv to build an independent judiciary and adopt transitional justice legislation that encourages combatants to disarm and provides a framework for the fair trial of accused war criminals on both sides.

Arresting Yemen’s Freefall

In the spring 2020 EU Watch List, Crisis Group warned that the military, political and humanitarian situation in Yemen could go “from bad to worse”. That has happened: Yemen is in freefall. UN-led, U.S.-supported efforts to reach a nationwide ceasefire have borne no fruit. Nor have attempts to prevent a battle for Marib, the internationally recognised government’s last bastion in the north. Huthi rebels appear poised to launch another offensive on the city in the coming weeks and months. If Marib falls, and even if it does not, fighting is also likely to intensify on other fronts. A Saudi-brokered deal between the government and southern secessionists hangs by a thread, even after the sides formed a power-sharing government in December 2020. A Huthi takeover of Marib would also likely precipitate a fresh wave of conflict in Yemen’s south and west.

The humanitarian crisis continues to worsen amid huge aid shortfalls and a Yemeni government-imposed fuel embargo on Huthi-held territory. The UN has warned repeatedly that famine is imminent. Only the infusion of billions of dollars in aid has staved off mass starvation to date. But donors have pledged just half of the money the UN says it needs for 2021 amid a coronavirus-induced funding crunch. Fighting over Marib city could make aid agencies’ work harder by triggering mass displacement and further limiting the supply of basic commodities. On top of everything, a year after COVID-19’s spread in Yemen first drew global attention, the country is suffering its deadliest outbreak yet.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Send more aid, escalating Yemen’s status as a priority recipient of the EU’s global response to COVID-19 through joint initiatives between Brussels and member states; increasing humanitarian funding under the new budget programming; and accelerating discussions about investment in medium-term projects – away from front lines – that foster local stability.
  • Advocate for forming a UN-led international contact group to help coordinate the world’s response to Yemen’s disaster, including through more concerted diplomacy in support of a ceasefire and the peace process. Such a group should include the EU, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
  • Push the UN to shift its mediation efforts away from a two-party focus on the Huthis and the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi toward a more inclusive peace process that encompasses other political and armed factions as well as women’s and youth groups and other civil society actors.
  • Working within EU COVID-19 protocols, increase diplomatic outreach to the Huthis in Sanaa, the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council in Aden.

Marib Offensive and UN Mediation

Since early 2020, Huthi fighters have focused on taking Marib governorate, in particular the eponymous city, along with nearby oil, gas and electricity production facilities. The Huthi campaign has been intermittent, and the rebels have at times struggled to advance. Saudi Arabia, which is allied with the internationally recognised government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has mounted a fierce aerial defence. Thousands of Huthi and anti-Huthi fighters have been killed and injured over the course of the year. Yet the Huthis have shrugged off their losses. A clear trend has emerged on the ground: gradual if uneven Huthi progress, coupled with growing unease and falling morale among forces aligned with the Hadi government. Absent a major shift in the balance of power, the Huthis appear set to take more territory and gain greater leverage in talks with local leaders as they seek to negotiate the governorate’s surrender.

Absent a major shift in the balance of power, the Huthis appear set to take more territory and gain greater leverage in talks with local leaders as they seek to negotiate the governorate’s surrender.

Fearing a growing humanitarian and displacement crisis amid a major coronavirus outbreak, and aware that a Huthi takeover of Marib would have a knock-on effect on dynamics elsewhere in Yemen, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has sought since early 2020 to broker a nationwide ceasefire. In 2020, the Huthis told Griffiths they would agree to a truce if the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi government lifted all restrictions on Hodeida port on Yemen’s Red Sea coast and allowed the Sanaa airport to reopen to international flights after four years of Saudi-imposed closure. For much of the year, the government and the Saudis argued that the Huthi proposal gave the rebels too much and quibbled over the fine print in draft agreements.

The parties failed to reach an accord, and now the landscape has shifted. In early 2021, after making a series of rapid military gains, the rebels shifted the goalposts, insisting that the government and Saudis unblock the port and airport unilaterally before they would consider a truce. They also backed away from the prospect of a nationwide ceasefire, saying they would first consider a cross-border ceasefire under which they would stop drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabia in return for a moratorium on Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, including Marib. Riyadh and the Hadi government deemed the Huthi position a non-starter. In turn, the Huthis rejected a public Saudi offer made in March to ease restrictions on Sanaa airport and resume negotiations over Hodeida in return for a nationwide ceasefire and a mutual halt to cross-border attacks.

Fresh U.S. Energy

The recent change in leadership in Washington has injected fresh energy into international efforts to stop the fighting, with President Joe Biden making ending the Yemen war a top Middle East policy priority along with returning to the Iran nuclear deal. In February, Biden announced that he was halting all offensive support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. He also said the administration would cease some arms sales, remove the Huthis’ designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) and appoint a new U.S. special envoy for Yemen – a role now filled by veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking. Lenderking has been highly active since his appointment, travelling regularly to the Gulf (but not yet Yemen), and pushing the Huthis and Saudis to agree to a truce.

Washington’s frustration with the Huthis is palpable.

Washington wishes to engineer a conflict outcome acceptable to both itself and Riyadh. Yet its ability to do so is limited, as the Huthis hold the upper hand. By publicly prioritising ending the Yemen war, the administration may also have given the Huthis, and their main external supporter Iran, the sense that the conflict represents a more valuable bargaining chip than in the past. Washington’s frustration with the Huthis is palpable, and U.S. officials appear to be increasingly convinced that they cannot persuade the rebels to abandon their quest for victory in Marib.

Humanitarian Meltdown

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has placed greater limits on aid agencies’ ability to work in Yemen, and on donors’ generosity toward a country the UN says is already the site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Yemen continues to sit at the brink of famine. Donors pledged $1.7 billion to fund the UN’s humanitarian appeal in March, less than half the figure the UN had asked for, leaving a $2 billion gap in the UN’s budget for the year. The UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, warned that as a result the UN “doesn’t have enough money to stop famine”.

A battle for Marib would make the humanitarian crisis still graver and more complex. Local government officials claim that two million people have moved to Marib since the war began six years ago, many of them with sufficient resources to settle and live without aid assistance, while UN estimates of poorer, formally displaced people living in temporary settlements hover around 700,000. In the event that fighting reaches Marib city, the UN believes that around 350,000 people will be displaced, seeking to travel either eastward to Seiyoun, a six-hour drive under normal circumstances, or southward to Shebwa. Both routes are likely to be dangerous, and fighting could cut off the Shebwa road entirely. The UN says it has contingency plans for a battle, but the response will put further strain on its already limited aid budget.

A Way Forward

With chances of a diplomatic breakthrough slim, Yemen’s trajectory in the coming months will largely be determined by developments in Marib. If the Huthis take Marib city, or negotiate its surrender, the government will lose its last major stronghold in the north; it may then face an attempted takeover by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in southern governorates as well. A Huthi victory in Marib could also precipitate intra-Yemeni deal-making, most likely between the Huthis and one or more rival factions, potentially including the STC, at the expense of the Hadi government. Moreover, the STC and other groups are likely to press for a direct role in UN-led talks, rather than the indirect one they are afforded as part of the Saudi-brokered 2019 Riyadh Agreement. Even if the Huthis and government can reach a ceasefire in Marib, many local conflict parties remain sceptical it will last, or that it is in their interest to comply with its terms if they are not given a say in subsequent UN-led political talks.

For these reasons, whatever happens next in Marib, it is increasingly clear that the international approach to Yemen needs to be rethought. The UN’s current two-party mediation framework that focuses narrowly on the Huthis and the Hadi government (with Saudi Arabia active behind the scenes and wielding a de facto veto over any settlement) excludes many of the armed and political factions likely to influence the durability of a ceasefire or political settlement. It also boxes out political parties, civil society actors, women’s groups and youth organisations that have been crucial throughout the war to preserving local stability and social cohesion and whose buy-in and support will thus be important in sustaining any pact.

With EU support, Washington should advocate for an approach to peacemaking that takes into account the conflict’s deepening complexity and creates space for this range of actors.

With EU support, Washington should advocate for an approach to peacemaking that takes into account the conflict’s deepening complexity and creates space for this range of actors. The EU and Special Envoy Lenderking should press for the creation of a UN-chaired international contact group, which can revisit the UN mediation framework and encourage adoption of a new multi-party approach that better reflects the emerging reality on the ground. Such a body could establish a division of labour among its members to support the peace process, with sub-groups focusing on key topics such as sub-national conflicts (like the one between the government and STC), economic warfare and outreach to the Huthis in Sanaa, which has been constrained by COVID-19, with no senior diplomat visiting since early 2020.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The EU and its member states should bolster UN-led efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. They should also help coordinate the international diplomatic response to the war.

The EU’s inclusion in an international contact group would allow EU representatives to act as a force multiplier, positioning them to solicit funds and diplomatic capacity from member states for issues the group determines to be priorities. The EU and member states can also, along with P5 members and others, push for contact group members to start making regular diplomatic trips to Sanaa, Aden and perhaps Marib to ensure better contact with the Huthis, the Hadi government and other relevant groups in Yemen, providing them with a clearer picture of international thinking about the conflict. The EU and its member states can also play an important role in advocating within the contact group for a more inclusive political process, and share their practical experience in brokering local truces, reopening roads and freeing prisoners.

Whether or not as part of any contact group, to help make the peace process properly inclusive, the EU and its member states should throw their weight behind efforts to press the UN Security Council to adopt a broader interpretation of Resolution 2216 (prevalent interpretations of which have unhelpfully limited UN mediation to two-party negotiations to end the fighting) so that the UN can introduce a quota for women and other civil society figures in direct talks. The EU should also work with the UN to establish a parallel mediation track with women’s and civil society organisations, that at a minimum enjoys a direct channel of communication with UN deliberations, and ideally leads to a substantive role in the negotiation of a political settlement for those involved. The EU already funds work for women’s inclusion; it should increase its support for and engagement with groups on the ground.

The EU and member states should also begin active discussions about how to increase humanitarian funding for Yemen in light of COVID-19’s continued spread, the troubling socio-economic indicators and the huge deficit facing UN aid agencies in 2021. The EU should make it an even greater priority to allocate extraordinary humanitarian funds in response to the virus and increase its development assistance through joint programming with member states under the new EU multi-annual budget. Finally, whether or not the war continues, the EU and member states should start making medium-term plans to help improve conditions – potentially entailing local infrastructure development, capacity-building support for local government and civil society organisations, small business loans and similar efforts in areas away from the front lines that are starved of basic services and governance. Such projects could help foster at least a modicum of stability away from the fighting and may prevent the further deterioration of local institutions.