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The International Crisis Group: The Role of a Global NGO in Preventing and Resolving Deadly Conflict
The International Crisis Group: The Role of a Global NGO in Preventing and Resolving Deadly Conflict
International Crisis Group Works to Put Out Fires in Global Hotspots
International Crisis Group Works to Put Out Fires in Global Hotspots
Speech

The International Crisis Group: The Role of a Global NGO in Preventing and Resolving Deadly Conflict

Presentation by Gareth Evans, Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, speaking to the School of Social and Political Sciences Centre for Public Policy Challenging Crises Series, University of Melbourne, on 17 May 2012.

In a world where civil society organisations are playing an ever more active and visible role both domestically and internationally, and a great many of them are overtly attempting to influence policymaking, increased attention is being focused on how all that activity and visibility translates into actual policy influence. What works and what doesn’t? What makes for an effective non-governmental organization? And how can any NGO make a difference when it comes specifically to the prevention and resolution of crisis and conflict?

I have been asked in this context to analyse the role of the International Crisis Group. I am happy to do so – with as much objectivity as I can muster, now that I am no longer part of it – but of course it’s the case that no single NGO can ever aspire to be much more than a fragment of a much larger mosaic, and is certain to be howled down by its peers and competitors if it ever purports to speak for anyone but itself!

Where Crisis Group Fits. There are an estimated 40,000 NGOs operating across state borders, and many millions more within them, and the overwhelming majority of them focus primarily on health, education, welfare, economics, development, industry, energy, the environment, human rights, justice and other social policy and governance issues – not in the peace and security area that is occupied internationally  by Crisis Group and a few hundred other organizations.

Within that peace and security band of the spectrum, Crisis Group does seem to be generally regarded around the world as the pre-eminent international organisation of its kind working on the prevention, management and resolution of deadly conflict and man-made crisis – although the sceptics among you might well say that’s for the good reason that it’s the only one of its precise kind, not fitting exactly into any of the familiar descriptive boxes by which we usually catalogue organizations in this space!

NGOs that work wholly or significantly in the peace and security area do usually fit squarely within one or other of three such boxes, sometimes rather unkindly labelled as ‘thinkers’, ‘talkers’ and ‘doers’ respectively. They tend to be either pure think-tanks, research institutions or policy forums (like Chatham House, CFR, IISS, Brookings or own Lowy Institute); or overwhelmingly campaign-focused advocacy organizations (like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, Enough, Kony2012 or Global Zero); or field-based, on-the-ground operational organisations, engaged on the one hand in activities like mediation, capacity building and confidence building (like Search for Common Ground, or the Community of Sant’Egidio, Independent Diplomat or Martti Ahtisaari’s Crisis Management Initiative), or on the other hand  humanitarian relief  operations (like Oxfam, World Vision, MSF and a myriad of others).   

Crisis Group is best thought of as a rather distinctive combination of all three categories. It is by no means wholly a think tank (although it consistently ranks very highly in the University of Pennsylvania’s annual McGann rankings of the world’s top think tanks), because its work is both narrower (in the sense of being geographically rather than thematic-issue focused) and wider (because regularly involving intense advocacy of positions taken, not just analysis), and also different methodologically (because of its strong field-base) than most think tanks. It is not a campaign organization in the familiar grass-roots, or now social-media sense, but it is certainly a high-level advocacy one, seeking constantly to communicate directly with government policymakers and those who influence them, and with a strong media profile.

Crisis Group is not really an operational organization either. It is certainly not a humanitarian relief body (though it started life with some aspirations in that area, as I’ll mention in a moment), and nor is it engaged directly in conflict resolution activity like mediation (though we have certainly closely advised behind the scenes many who have played those direct roles). But it is an organization that that shares with the ‘doers’ the characteristic of being very strongly field-based in its staffing profile  – not something very commonly found in either international think tanks or campaign organizations.

What Crisis Group does, in short, is three basic things. First, it produces field-based, analytical research seeking to identify, understand and describe in detail the dynamics of situations where there is concern about the outbreak, continuation, escalation or recurrence of deadly conflict. Second, it seeks to translate that analytical understanding into policy prescriptions that are both imaginative and practical – identifying levers and tools that can be used, and the actors, local and international, best placed to use them.  Third, it engages in high-level advocacy, designed to persuade policymakers, directly or through those who influence them, not least the media, to undertake the necessary action.

I’ll come back shortly with specific examples of how all this works in practice, but first let me give you a brief description of how Crisis Group originated and evolved, its current size and scope of activity, and  how it is structured and funded.

History and Structure. The idea for the Group was born in Sarajevo in 1993 during the horror of the Balkans war, in conversations involving US diplomat Mort Abramowitz, World Bank Vice President official (later Deputy Secretary-General) Mark Malloch Brown, and a larger than life Texan engineer by trade, and energiser by disposition, Fred Cuny, who had almost single-handedly saved Sarajevo during the siege by constructing a water supply system. They felt there needed to be a new kind of international organization, with which many familiar and forceful names could be associated, which could effectively send wake up calls to the international community to respond more effectively to unfolding man-made catastrophes. The idea was basically to get policy leaders to think about things they didn’t want to think about, and do things they didn’t want to do.

A series of preparatory meetings took place over the next two years in the UK and US, involving a significant cast of former presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers, potential financial supporters like George Soros, and journalists and activists like Samantha Power – who later all became Board members, with former Senator George Mitchell the first Chair. One of the liveliest issues to be debated was whether the new group should play not only an assessment, advice and advocacy role, but also aspire to do the kind of coordination of humanitarian relief efforts that Fred Cuny had begun to pioneer. Given the notorious problems, which continue to this day, of herding NGO cats (let alone government ones)  in this area, that role was probably always hopelessly ambitious, but although it took several years to finally fade from the screen, it became largely academic for the group following the tragic abduction and murder of Cuny, who would have led it, on a mission to Chechnya in early 1995.

Followed by a tin-shaking exercise around the world led by former US Congressman Steven Solarz, who persuaded me as then Australian Foreign Minister to provide some start-up funding, but was less successful with others (one European foreign minister telling him ‘so you are trying to get us to give you a golden stick to beat us over the head’), enough resources were put together for the International Crisis Group to start life in 1995 as a tiny two-person operation in a small back-room office in London.

Its initial focus was on building a presence in, and energising an effective policy response to, the ongoing crisis in the Balkans, and it quickly built a high-quality field staff there.  It rapidly acquired a reputation for shrewd analysis and hard-headed advice (on issues like the dangers of an early rush to elections in Bosnia, before new civil-society actors could consolidate support), and first came into public prominence in the late 1990s working to mobilise support for military intervention in Kosovo in the face of another looming genocidal catastrophe. Crisis Group acquired from the outset a reputation for being, if the circumstances demanded it, at the non-wimpish end of the NGO spectrum!

But there was still a long way to go before the initial dreams of its founders were realised. The first director, former Save the Children head Nicholas Hinton, died in 1997 during a field visit, and the initial managerial replacement arrangements did not work out. Crisis Group had moved its headquarters to Brussels – partly so that it would more like a genuinely international and less an Anglo-American organisation, and partly to expand its fund-raising reach – and built up a small central team there, as well as having small teams in the field in the Balkans and Central Africa, but by late 1999 the total size of the organisation was still only around twenty, some serious internal morale problems had become evident, and forward funding commitments – then running at around $2m a year, mainly from government contributions – were beginning to dry up.

This was the situation I inherited when I took over as President and CEO of the organization in January 2000, recruited by its founding fathers – all of whom I had known as Foreign Minister, and who knew both that I had some understanding of what the organization was capable of achieving, and was in the market for a potentially interesting international job following three years suffering acute relevance deprivation syndrome (as I labelled it at the time) after the Labor Government was defeated in 1996. What I had thought of initially as a two to three year job -- and what I thought after my first week of getting my head around the organization’s problems would be more like a two to three month  one! – eventually turned into nearly a ten year one, unquestionably (with the exception only of my period as  Foreign Minister) the most stimulating and satisfying I have ever had.

I won’t burden you with a blow by blow account of how things evolved during that decade, except to say that two early factors were crucial: the willingness of the Board to support a rapid and ambitious expansion from a strong Balkans and very small African focus to a genuinely global one, and the willingness of George Soros to support that ambition with a grant of $2.5 million, made on the condition that I leveraged it to get double his contribution elsewhere.  With this kind of backing, and the contribution of the incredibly talented people I was able to retain or recruit, and an incredibly distinguished Board (whose chairs since George Mitchell have included Marti Ahtisaari, Chris Patten and Tom Pickering) Crisis Group had grown very dramatically indeed, by the time I left to return to Australia three years ago.

In terms of staff it grew from just over twenty to over 130 (with 60-90 interns a year as well, working three months or more); in terms of budget it grew from just over $US 2 million to over $15 and heading for $17 million; and  in terms of countries and conflict situations covered, it grew from a handful to over 60 across four continents. Crisis Group was also by 2009 producing annually around 100 substantial published reports each year (each of which were sent to over 25,000 specifically targeted recipients and over 130,000 subscribers). And it was generating over 200 authored op-eds in the world’s major papers, over 20,000 separate media mentions, and some 2.4  million visits to our website.

That growth has continued under my successor Louise Arbour – the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Chief Prosecutor of the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals, and Canadian Supreme Court justice. Crisis Group now, in 2012, has over 150 staff (representing 53 different nationalities, and speaking 50 different languages between them), and is working from major advocacy offices in Brussels, New York and Washington, smaller advocacy offices in Moscow and Beijing, and 27 other field offices from which it covers conflicts and crises on a full-focus or close-watching-brief basis in a total of 74 countries. And it has not only maintained the pace in publications-output and media mentions, but is now playing the facebook-twitter social media game with an  intensity and effectiveness that just wasn’t part of my own repertoire at all.

The budget of the organisation for 2011-12 is over $20 million, and projected to grown by another million next year. In round figures that income comes, and has been coming for some time, roughly 50 per cent from governments (twenty of them, mainly European, at last count); 20 per cent from major institutional foundations (mainly in the US), and 30 per cent from individuals, corporates, and gala dinners and other fundraising functions. Very importantly, and unusually, the bulk of Crisis Group’s funding comes in the form of core rather than specific project support, which gives the organization a hugely welcome degree of flexibility in the way it mobilises its resources: in recent years the ratio has been running at around 80: 20 core to specific purpose.

Activity and Impact. What matters more than all the size and output figures is of course the impact on policy and action that Crisis Group can reasonably claim to have made.  However much donors yearn for quantitative benchmarks, measuring the achievements of an organisation like Crisis Group is a very inexact science, particularly given that its mission is at least as much about conflict and crisis prevention as well as resolution – where the desired outcome is for something not to happen, rather than to fix it when it does.  One way of measuring may be to count the take-up rate on the many specific recommendations that are made in Crisis Group reports – and when that is done, it has usually been possible to count over a third of those recommendations bearing fruit within a year of publication.

But sequence doesn’t prove causality, and much will depend on how timidly or ambitiously the recommendations are framed. The general approach that I adopted towards crafting recommendations – and I think this continues to be Crisis Group orthodoxy – was to have recommendations that were ‘over the horizon, but not out to space’. They would not the state the obvious or  trivial, but try to identify courses of action that would be genuine game-changers – and that while perhaps outside the relevant players’ current comfort zones, nonetheless were by no means unachievable in the real world if the necessary political will and leverage were exercised.

At the end of the day, assessments of the Group’s effectiveness have to be essentially qualitative, made by those not trying to count numbers but rather bringing experienced judgement to bear on whether, and to what extent, it has actually made a difference. By that score – with multiple high level endorsements of  the group’s value-added on the record from senior figures across the globe, and with governments (the hardest taskmasters of all, when it comes to justifying expenditure on a largely intangible product) voting with their purses year after year  – Crisis Group’s impact has been ranked very highly indeed.

That impact is perhaps best understood by describing three distinct dimensions in which Crisis Group’s role plays out. The mission is always the same – the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict; and so is the basic three-legged methodology – field-based analytical research, practical recommendations, and advocacy to achieve action. But there are three different kinds of intended impact.

First, identifying the right policy responses. Crisis Group’s core business remains the production of full-length, 20-30 pages on average, reports and briefings – scores of them every year – analysing in meticulous detail challenges and opportunities for good policy arising at all stages of the conflict cycle: long term prevention, short term prevention, conflict management, conflict settlement, and post-conflict peacebuilding. Whether it’s been showing the impact of educational institutions on Islamic extremism in Pakistan and Indonesia, or identifying ways  of making the national army in the Congo or the police in Haiti behave better, or finding methods to  defuse tensions over ethnicity and resource access in Northern Iraq, or securing better control of public revenues in post conflict-Liberia, or what’s been described as ‘gold standard’ analysis of the Jemaah Islamiyah movement in South East Asia and how to respond to it, or addressing literally hundreds of other similarly important problems, Crisis Group has been there, explaining, cajoling and very often succeeding in achieving the necessary policy changes.

And those analytical reports and briefings have been the foundation for the often-important behind the scenes support for conflict mediation processes that the Group has given – offering a flow of information and ideas about both process and substance – in situations like Southern Sudan, Kosovo, Northern Uganda and Aceh.

Second, ringing early warning alarm bells.  Crisis Group has played a widely acknowledged central role in early warning alarm bell ringing, month after month through the CrisisWatch bulletin, which monitors the deterioration or otherwise of conflict and potential conflict situations across the world, and in specific cases like Darfur in 2003-04  and Ethiopia-Eritrea in 2007 where we could reasonably claim to have been among the very first urging government, UN and regional organisation action, and in the latter to have actually energised the Security Council process which  stopped the  outbreak of a whole new war.

In addition to alarm-bell ringing in specific cases, Crisis Group worked hard, certainly during my time there, to put in place the general intellectual and institutional foundations for effective early warning and response in the specific case of mass atrocity crimes.  Drawing from our early organisational experience in responding to such catastrophes in the Balkans and Central Africa (and in my own case Cambodia), Crisis Group played a quite central role in supporting the emergence and application of the new global norm of ‘the responsibility to protect’, which offers for the first time in centuries the prospect of a reflex, consensual, effective response to future catastrophes of this kind – with the global reaction to the killing and ethnic cleansing in Kenya in early 2008 being in dramatic contrast to the indifference and impotence which greeted the Rwandan genocide fourteen years earlier, and the full potential reach of the norm being on graphic display in the last year in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya (if not, unhappily, Syria).

I’m not sure that the Group rang the alarm bells as loud as it should have, and as a number of others indeed were, in the lead up to the international intervention in Libya last year, but the quality of the analysis of every other step of the Arab Spring revolutions – keeping pace with and sometimes ahead of the game on the ground – has been outstanding.

Third, reconceptualising issues. Beyond all that again, I think it is fair to say that Crisis Group has had a major impact – significantly greater than other comparable organisations – on the way in which a number of major, intractable conflict situations have been conceptualised, and where necessary reconceptualised, by the international policy community. It has challenged received wisdom, and been way ahead of the curve, on a number of important issues. For example:

  • Arguing the need (spelt out in a long series of reports since 2002) to recognise that the Musharraf military regime in Pakistan was the problem there, not the solution.
     
  • Insisting in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict that Oslo-style incrementalism was dead, and it could only ever be resolved by an endgame-first rather than incremental policy approach (first spelt out in a series of reports in 2002 that lay behind the Geneva initiative and most of the detailed debate since). That this conflict remains at an impasse is I think not a comment on the proven inadequacy of that policy approach, but rather of leadership on all sides willing to apply it.
     
  • Arguing that the Iran nuclear issue was potentially solvable (and I believe this is still the case today) by an approach which did not seek to reverse Tehran’s fissile material capability, but rather to draw the red-line against actual weaponisation.
     
  • Arguing the need to understand the huge differences between different strands   of  Islamic activism (missionary, essentially democratic, and intractably violent respectively),spelt out in the seminal Understanding Islamism report in 2005;
     
  • Recognising the impossibility of trying to outlaw or marginalise Hamas, given the reality of its popular support in Palestine.
     
  • Arguing over and again in relation to Myanmar – long before the recent events that have given us all some hope –  that the West should recalibrate its hardline sanctions policy as counterproductive to achieving the necessary political change.

What Makes for NGO Success.  In my experience of working in and with a number of NGOs, not just Crisis Group, over the course of my now rather long public policy career, I have come to regard four criteria as absolutely essential for an NGO to become successful, and to remain so over time.

Meeting a need.  It is crucial for a start to be seen to be adding value: meeting a need that is not currently being met well, sufficiently or at all.  In the peace and security area the primary unmet need seen by Crisis Group’s founders was to compensate for the growing incapacity of governments to have an accurate take on what was happening on the ground – the issues that were resonating and the personalities that were driving them. For a variety of reasons, mainly security and budgetary, traditional diplomats have not been performing this function in as much breadth and depth as they previously have – it’s hard to get out and about when you are locked up in a fortress or have minimal staff resources – and both early warning and effective prevention capacity have suffered as a result. Another endemic problem with diplomatic reporting is its tendency to stick within unadventurous analytic boundaries, over-conscious of positions already staked out by ministers – or alliance partners.

Open source reporting and commentary by the media has not done much to fill  these gaps; because of resource shortages, particularly in the quality print media, international media coverage of sensitive and difficult situations has been dumbing down to a perhaps even greater extent than professional diplomacy.

With its teams of highly mobile, linguistically expert analysts on the ground, and uncluttered by existing orthodoxies and inclined to support Deng Xiao Ping’s dictum that what matters is not whether the cat is black or white but whether it catches the mouse, Crisis Group has  been seen as very much helping to fill some of these clear gaps.

Clarity of mission.  The most successful NGOs tend to be those that find a very clear niche and stick to it. When Amnesty International broadened its focus from traditional political and civil rights to the whole range of economic, social and cultural rights, it for quite a long time seemed to lose its direction and impact. Crisis Group has resisted the temptation to broaden its focus from conflict prevention and resolution issues to human rights advocacy, which sometimes does lead to a different take, e.g. on peace v. justice issues  (especially amnesties in ongoing conflict situations) where Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch have on occasion been very much at odds. It has also regularly resisted the perhaps even greater temptation to move into think tank territory and apply its experience in individual cases writing reports which theorise and  proselytise on thematic issues. An occasional exception has been made, e.g. the report on Understanding Islamism, but only in contexts where the organization felt a strong practical need to clarify and issue that was inhibiting conflict prevention and resolution. 

The most insidious temptation to muddy an organisation’s mission comes when money is potentially available for some project which is not its core business, and for which it does not have readily available internal expertise. Resources get hired which are then difficult to fire, more project funding in that marginal activity is then chased to keep the organisation ticking over – and the organisation is on a fast track to losing its way.

Independence.  Any non-governmental organisation in the business of giving advice it wants to be taken seriously must be absolutely scrupulous about being, and being seen to be, independent of particular vested interests.  Some organisations like Human Rights Watch solve the problem of potential government influence by banning government funding absolutely. Crisis Group doesn’t do that but has always been absolutely insistent on saying whatever needed to be said, however much it might offend current or potential donors, and letting the chips fall where they may, and in practice governments have been remarkably tolerant of specific criticism, provided it is well-evidenced and well-argued.  The Group has been periodically attacked for the makeup of its Board – what the New Left Review described in 2010 as a ‘rogue’s gallery’ of ‘poachers turned gamekeepers’ – but I don’t think any fair-minded observer would claim that that has translated into any consistent ideological position in its reporting and recommendations.   If there has been any dominant ideology over the years it has been simply pragmatism – what is most likely to works in preventing and resolving deadly conflict.

Nor do I think it possible to find any trimming of any kind in response to the views of foundation, corporate or individual supporters. George Soros has been from the beginning a significant donor, and a key member of the board, but he deeply believes in the contest of opinion, and he has been the last person to insist on his own views being embraced. Of course it makes it easier, at least optically, if no one donor has a really dominant stake in the organisation, and Crisis Group certainly now (if not during its earliest years) has that luxury, with no one stake-holder contributing more than 10 per cent of the yearly budget.

Professionalism.  The final criterion that has to be met by an NGO that wants to be taken seriously, at least by government policy makers, is absolute professionalism: if you want meet governments on their home ground, you have to provide product of a quality that the best of them are used to.  That meant for me, when I was leading Crisis Group, being absolutely obsessive about the quality of research, writing and presentation in our reporting; being obsessive about making corrections on the record if we  ever made an error  – easy at least on the website if not in already distributed printed material; and obsessive about consistency of  our policy positions over time – not to the extent of never changing positions if circumstances changed, which would be mindless, but always, if such changes were demanded,  explaining why they were made in subsequent reporting. I have never doubted the extent to which professionalism in these senses played over time in Crisis Group’s favour,  distinguished our product from a great deal of lighter weight journalism, and distinguishes it now from a great deal of  the rapid fire blogging which is now clogging so much of the internet.  But maybe I am just an old fogey in this respect.

Just a final personal note in conclusion. There's no doubt that you need a certain masochistic streak to get involved in the conflict prevention and containment business, and even more so to do it – after you have been in government – at the NGO level, when you are at least one remove from the decision-making action.  When the focus is on prevention, and the blood isn't yet running in the streets, the media don't find it nearly as fascinating as peacemaking, and the attention of decision makers is hard to grab. The most frustrating thing of all is that when a government or an intergovernmental body, urged on by NGOs like Crisis Group, does actually put together a conflict prevention or containment strategy which triumphantly succeeds, so that instead of the feared violence nothing at all happens, then you can be almost certain that nobody will notice!

The frustrations notwithstanding, I found this a deeply satisfying business to be in. Nothing is worse to contemplate - against the background of all the horror that has been wrought this last century - than the thought of the pain and terror and misery that lies ahead for so many men, women and children if we fail yet again to prevent what is preventable, and deadly conflict again breaks out. To play a part, however small, in making that horror just a little less likely, as I think Crisis Group can reasonably claim to have done, is to be as richly rewarded as one could ever be.

Op-Ed / Global

International Crisis Group Works to Put Out Fires in Global Hotspots

Originally published in The Washington Diplomat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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