The International Crisis Group is an independent organisation working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world.
Crisis Group was founded in 1995 as an international non-governmental organisation by a group of prominent statesmen who despaired at the international community’s failure to anticipate and respond effectively to the tragedies of Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. The group was led by Morton Abramowitz (former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Thailand, then President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Mark Malloch-Brown (former head of the UN Development Programme, then UN Deputy Secretary-General and UK Minister), and its first Chairman, U.S. Senator George Mitchell. The idea was to create a new organisation with a highly professional staff to serve as the world’s eyes and ears for impending conflicts, and with a highly influential board that could mobilise effective action from global policymakers.
Crisis Group today is generally regarded as the world’s leading source of information, analysis and policy advice to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.
Read Crisis Group’s 15 Year Anniversary brochure Fifteen Years on the Frontlines [PDF].
In January 1993, Mort Abramowitz, then President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Mark Malloch Brown, then World Bank Vice President for External Affairs and later Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, are seated next to each other on a flight out of war-torn Sarajevo. The two men debate why it had been so difficult for the international system to effectively respond to Bosnia and other conflicts. An idea is hatched: to create an independent organisation that could serve as the world’s eyes and ears on the ground in countries in conflict while pressing for immediate action. The concept of the International Crisis Group is born.
Abramowitz establishes a small team to move the idea forward. Fred Cuny, an American engineer and veteran aid worker, becomes involved. Initially, the plan is for Crisis Group field teams to be composed of experts from peacekeeping, relief operations, engineering, logistics and medicine. The hope is that Crisis Group could give the international community a unique tool: a private organisation with the expertise and stature to comprehensively address complex emergencies.
Discussions continue throughout 1994 as to what form this new organisation should take. There are heated debates about whether the organisation should be an operational outfit directly involved in delivering aid, or an advocate for action by others.
On 17 November, Abromowitz’s Carnegie Endowment publicly announces “a concerted effort to consider the launching of a new International Crisis Group” with three main functions: assessment, advice and advocacy. George Soros’s Open Society Institute provides US$200,000 to finance continued planning activities. Over the latter half of the year, former US Congressman Stephen Solarz travels to over twenty countries to discuss the proposed organisation and raise funds. Not everyone welcomes him, One senior European government minister complains, “What you are trying to do is to get us to give you a golden stick with which to beat us over the head, in order to get us to do what we’ve already decided we do not want to”.
In January, Abramowitz puts together a meeting in London for members of the Steering Committee and a large cast of other international luminaries – including former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, the founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and future French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Indian industrialist Ratan Tata, former Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Allan MacEachen, and future Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo – to consider the case for a new organisation.
They agree that the focus of the International Crisis Group will be on assessment, advice and advocacy. It will try to determine the forces driving conflicts and persuade the international community to take effective action. An ambitious proposal outlines plans for an annual budget of $8 million and 75 full-time staff. Most of those present in London agree to become Board members, and George Soros pledges further seed funding.
Between February and July, plans move forward quickly: Crisis Group formally registers as a non-profit organisation and secures tax-exempt status in the United States.
But April brings devastating news: Fred Cuny, who had contributed so much to the concept, and was widely seen as a natural to assume the post of director of operations, is killed in Chechnya.
But plans continue, and in July, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell is elected Crisis Group’s first chairman, and Nicholas Hinton is appointed its first president.
In early September, Crisis Group opens for business in London. Charles Radcliffe comes onboard as the organisation’s Policy Coordinator and the first field mission is dispatched to Sierra Leone. At the first Board meeting in New York in October, members approve an initial budget of around $2.5 million.
Crisis Group rallies international support for Sierra Leone’s elections, helping to raise $10 million for the process. Following the polls, Crisis Group helps create and fund the Campaign for Good Governance that include training workshops for public officials and a civic education program.
In February, Crisis Group establishes its first field presence in the Balkans financed by a $1 million contribution from George Soros following the signing of the December 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. The Bosnia program is to essentially define the organisation’s early years.
Within a month of the program’s start-up, Crisis Group deploys a team of experts to Bosnia. In August, Crisis Group issues a report calling for Bosnia’s elections, scheduled for October 1996, to be postponed (see Why the Bosnian Elections Must be Postponed). The report sends ripples through the international community, earning Crisis Group its first major public attention. While the national elections are not delayed, the warnings quickly prove prescient. Bosnian and international officials are embarrassed when the election is revealed to be deeply flawed, bolstering hard-line nationalists. Mort Abramowitz observes of Crisis Group’s efforts, “We fought hard and we lost”, but the organisation has made a distinct impression.
By the end of 1996, Crisis Group is working on a variety of other issues, from the risk of genocide in Burundi to possibilities for a democratic transition in Nigeria. In May, a group of Board members make the case for preventive action in Burundi with the UN Security Council, an early example of concerted high-level international advocacy. The Board meets twice during 1996, and the organisation begins to attract substantial funding, including from a number of government sources. In short, 1996 is the year Crisis Group begins to make its mark.
In January 1997, Crisis Group President Nicholas Hinton collapses and dies after a massive heart attack while visiting a field team in the Balkans. The Daily Telegraph obituary notes of Hinton: “He led by example and was particularly adept at using the powerful to help the impotent”. Following on the heels of Cuny’s death, this new tragedy plunges Crisis Group into an organisational crisis.
Mort Abramowitz steps in as acting president, and a presidential search committee is immediately convened. The Board appoints Belgian senator and former Médecins Sans Frontières International Secretary-General Alain Destexhe the next president. The decision is made to close the London office and shift headquarters to Brussels.
By year end, Crisis Group has established a new project in Central Africa and expands operations into Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania.
The Balkans continue to be Crisis Group’s main focus but new, small projects are established in Central Africa, Algeria and Cambodia, and report output increases.
The Board’s decision to open a Central Africa project in January marks an important shift. Its first report on Burundi really puts Crisis Group on the map in Africa because it is the first public call to lift regional sanctions on that country – a policy which comes to fruition about a year later.
Back in Europe, Crisis Group sounds the alarm weeks before ethnic violence explodes in Kosovo in March with a book-length survey, Kosovo Spring, which makes clear the province is headed for disaster. The report quickly becomes the most widely read Crisis Group publication produced up to that point.
The Economist notes, “It takes the International Crisis Group to raise such troublesome issues because the other foreign groups that brave the world’s trouble spots are generally biased toward discretion.”
But in 1999, the momentum of the organisation as a whole falters. In October, Destexhe resigns to devote himself to his political career.
This period could easily have marked the beginning of the end for Crisis Group. Fred Cuny had been killed in Chechnya, Nicholas Hinton had died of a heart attack in Croatia and Destexhe’s presidency had been brief. The fact that Crisis Group survives is testament to the energy and drive of its staff, the inherent merit of its work and the continued labours of senior Board members, led by Mort Abramowitz.
Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans is invited to take on the role of President. Former Finnish President – and later Nobel Peace Prize laureate – Martti Ahtisaari is elected Chairman. In both cases, the appointments are effective from the beginning of 2000.
As a former foreign minister, Evans has a distinct view of Crisis Group’s added value, arguing that the organisation can operate in effect “as a private foreign office, doing things that well-focused and well-resourced governments ought to be doing but often do not.” To the surprise of field analysts, Evans demands to read, clear and often edits every report produced, ensuring much-intensified quality control.
This is the year in which Crisis Group “goes global” and moves beyond the Balkans and Central Africa. It opens advocacy offices in New York and Paris and new projects across Africa and Asia, and begins a process of rapid expansion. Over the next five years, the organisation more than quintuples in staff size and budget, and develops a profile among policymakers to match.
But it is also a period in which some important lessons are learned. In mid-August, Crisis Group issues a report on Serbia declaring that most analysts feel “Milosevic will be able to stay in power indefinitely”, and advocating a boycott by the Serbian opposition of the forthcoming federal elections. This call is dead wrong – the previously fractious Serbian opposition rapidly unites, wins the election and takes power after large street protests – and Crisis Group’s reputation takes a deserved hammering. The post-mortem is clear: the field work has been two-months old and not updated. Crisis Group fails because it has strayed from its core methods, and Evans and others in the organisation take the wake-up call to heart.
By contrast, another Balkans report later in the year underscores the best of Crisis Group’s approach. After years of Western officials claiming that it is too difficult to apprehend the indicted war criminals still at large in Bosnia, Crisis Group issues a report that tells a different story. It shames the international community into action.
The attacks in the U.S. on 11 September 2001 have a dramatic impact on Crisis Group’s work. Crisis Group had long argued that the connection between failed states, unresolved grievances and the interests of modern nations are too alarming to ignore. After 9/11, the organisation embarks on a major series of new terrorism-related reports around the world.
A major influx of funding allows Crisis Group to open a new field office in Islamabad to cover both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In addition, major new projects are launched in the Horn of Africa and Kashmir, as well as in the Middle East, where analysts based in Amman cover a range of issues in Iran, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf States. A New York advocacy office opens alongside the UN. By year end, annual expenditure has grown to $6.7 million and staff size to 75.
Crisis Group publishes a book-length report on Sudan, God, Oil and Country, which details a peace process with a self-determination referendum for the south at its heart. The report is widely seen as the most thorough and systematic treatment of Sudan’s civil war to date, and is ultimately reflected in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that finally ends Sudan’s long north-south civil war.
The Colombia/Andes project and the new Middle East project produce their first reports. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan describes Crisis Group as a “global voice of conscience, and a genuine force for peace”.
Iraq dominates international affairs early in the year, and the debate over the the U.S. invasion causes the most difficult divisions in Crisis Group’s Board to date. The organisation produces a series of reports assessing the arguments for and against going to war, as well as analysing the serious problems which emerge in the war’s aftermath.
In June, Crisis Group raises the alarm over Darfur with the publication of Sudan’s Other Wars, making it the first major international organisation to warn about mass violence and atrocities against civilians there.
The Middle East Program – through Director Robert Malley – provides support to the independent Israeli and Palestinian framers of the Geneva Initiative. The plans closely resembles Crisis Group’s earlier “endgame” proposals of Arab-Israeli peace published in mid-2002. The organisation helps to sponsor an opinion poll that reveals broad support for the proposed plan among Israelis and Palestinians. It also arranges for 58 former heads of state and government, foreign ministers and heads of major international agencies to sign a public statement of support.
In addition, Crisis Group launches a new publication, CrisisWatch, a monthly bulletin providing succinct updates on conflicts and potential conflicts around the world. It quickly becomes one of the organisation's most valued products: top U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, for example, later praised it as, “superbly designed – sheer genius by your team. Nothing I saw in government was as good as this”.
The organisation, now with over 90 staff covering some 40 crisis- or conflict-affected parts of the world, is a foreign policy actor in its own right. Output from projects across four continents grows dramatically, with 100 reports and briefings published; by year end, annual expenditure is $10 million.
2004 sees Crisis Group devoting increasing attention to outreach and advocacy, with Darfur becoming the organisation’s largest-ever campaign. It leads calls for international action to stop the atrocities: the campaign webpage becomes one of the most visited sites about Darfur online.
In February, The New York Times praises a report on the terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiya, produced by the Indonesian project, led by Sidney Jones: “American, Australian and Asian intelligence and police officials are in general agreement that she has done a better job of understanding and analysing the organisation than have their own agencies”.
In March, Crisis Group releases a report on Uzbekistan. Together with a sustained advocacy campaign in Washington, Crisis Group is a leading voice in the successful campaign for the U.S. to cut aid to Uzbekistan because of serious human rights abuses.
The downscaling of Crisis Group’s activities in the Balkans sees the organisation formally ending its field presence in Croatia and Macedonia at the end of the year. In both countries, Crisis Group’s departure is taken as a favourable sign that the nation is moving ahead and leaving conflict behind.
Meanwhile, Chris Patten – former European Commissioner for External Relations and former Governor of Hong Kong – signs on as Co-Chair of Crisis Group. By year end, expenditure is nearly $12 million and staff size reaches 110.
Along with Crisis Group’s ongoing work in Darfur, the Africa Program concentrates on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Northern Uganda – together the “big three” African conflicts, as measured by continuing high war-related death rates.
In Central Asia, Crisis Group plays a key role in the Kyrgyzstan government’s resistance to pressure from Uzbekistan to forcibly return the hundreds of refugees who fled the May 2005 massacre in Andijan.
A new project opens in Haiti following the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Meanwhile, a report published early in the year, Understanding Islamism, becomes a major reference source on the many varieties of both Sunni and Shiite Islamic activism.
In Iraq, Crisis Group’s warning that the rushed constitutional process could hasten the country’s violent breakup without a last-ditch effort to bring Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs together, helps spur the U.S. to broker a crucial pre-election compromise.
In September, the Responsibility to Protect principle is unanimously adopted by heads of state and government at the UN World Summit following a drive by Evans.
Crisis Group launches a major advocacy initiative on Israel/Palestine including publication in major newspapers of a statement of support signed by 135 respected former leaders.
Meanwhile, divisions develop internally over the direction of the Darfur advocacy campaign. Crisis Group works with the U.S.-based Center for American Progress in late 2006 to create a new grassroots campaign aiming to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities: the Enough Project.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the organisation conducts an advocacy campaign with the UN and donor governments, highlighting the importance of reforming the security sector and helping to draft U.S. legislation for increased financial assistance.
Back-to-back reports on the Iraqi insurgency and the growing sectarian conflict generate huge international attention and shape the debate over how to prevent and prepare for civil war.
Thomas Pickering – former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Russia, India, Israel, Jordan, El Salvador and Nigeria, joins Patten as Crisis Group Co-Chair.
Crisis Group and the Enough Project decide it would be more effective for the latter to become an independent operation and for each to focus on its strength: Crisis Group on field-based policy analysis and high-level advocacy; Enough on grassroots efforts in the U.S.
Crisis Group opens a liaison office in Beijing, making Crisis Group one of the first foreign policy NGOs to establish a presence in China. Crisis Group also scores a significant success in Pakistan, persuading the international community to withdraw support for the military dictatorship.
Key figures in the Bush Administration highlight the influence of Crisis Group. Richard Armitage, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State from 2001-2005, notes: “I don’t think there’s any other group globally that has the global presence – the global reach – that it has. Crisis Group forced me to get out of my usual thought patterns, to get out of my usual comfort zone … listening to a new set of voices and seeing through a new set of eyes.”
In February, Kosovo declares independence based on the plan of former Crisis Group Chairman – and later Nobel Peace Prize laureate – Martti Ahtisaari. The plan strongly reflects the organisation’s recommendations.
Evans announces his intention to stand down as Crisis Group President after nearly a decade of leadership.
Early in 2008, the organisation launches a capital endowment fund to provide long-term financial stability. The plan is to raise $50 million, with more than $18 million invested at the start thanks to commitments by George Soros, Frank Giustra and the MacArthur Foundation. But like many, Crisis Group is hit by the global financial crisis that kicks off in the autumn.
In July, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour becomes president of Crisis Group. Prior to her work as High Commissioner – between 2004-2008 – she served as the Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and later as Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
September sees Arbour’s first major news crisis as Crisis Group president. Guinea erupts after the security forces of the military junta massacre at least 160 participants in a peaceful demonstration in Conakry on 28 September. Following this, Arbour leads Crisis Group in an all-out advocacy campaign to force the junta to move the country to democracy. West Africa project staff produce the briefing Guinea: Military Rule Must End on 16 October 2009, less than three months after the massacre.
In November, the organisation’s first Board Meeting in Africa takes place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
In June 2014, Louise Arbour announces she will be stepping down as President & CEO. In recognition of Louise’s remarkable career and, in particular, her impact on the field of conflict prevention and resolution, Crisis Group launches The Louise Arbour Fund for Emerging Conflicts, to ensure the organisation is equipped to respond swiftly to new and deadly conflicts.
A new President & CEO is announced as Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations from 2000-2008, and former Deputy Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States on Syria, assumes the post on 1 September.