Monthly Archives: March 2012

Syria — International Community Finding Unity

A consensus has formed among the great powers about the desired next steps in Syria — a cease-fire, humanitarian aid, and political negotiations for a government transition, all led by Kofi Annan as the Envoy of the UN and Arab League.

Perhaps because of continuing ambivalence from Russia and China, the UN Security Council adopted its new position in a “Presidential Statement” agreed unanimously by the UNSC members but simply read as a statement by the UNSC president. It is weaker than a regular, numbered resolution, partly because it is not binding the way resolutions are. However, it does still show the parameters on which the great powers agree. As such, it is an overdue step in the right direction (and indeed just what I called for last week, although a regular resolution would have been better). Today UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon emphasized the Security Council’s unity and strong backing of the Annan plan.

Russia came around to supporting this position, watered down from earlier proposals that would have explicitly called for Syrian president Assad to step down, after the head of the international Red Cross went to Moscow to ask for help with the worsening humanitarian situation in Syria. Russia came out first in support of a daily two-hour cease-fire to allow for provision of humanitarian aid in areas of fighting. Later Russia expanded its support to include a cease-fire initiated by the government and followed by the opposition, instead of insisting on all sides’ ceasing simultaneously. The Security Council statement also calls for a transition to a more democratic government in Syria, which Russia also agreed to after it was made clear that military intervention or forced regime change were not on the international community’s agenda.

However, the actual path forward to such a transition is extremely challenging. It is widely assumed that a relaxation of violent repression by the Assad government would lead to an upsurge in opposition protests, and probably violent opposition as well. The situation also became more complex as three recent bombings (two in Damascus) appear to have been the work of al-Qaeda type Islamic militants, perhaps from next-door Iraq.

Notwithstanding all the problems, the UNSC statement represents a significant step forward. It “fully supports” a six-point Annan plan:

“1) commit to work with the Envoy in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people, and, to this end, commit to appoint an empowered interlocutor when invited to do so by the Envoy;

“2) commit to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilise the country.

To this end, the Syrian government should immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.

As these actions are being taken on the ground, the Syrian government should work with the Envoy to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism.

Similar commitments would be sought by the Envoy from the opposition and all relevant elements to stop the fighting and work with him to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism;

“3) ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and to this end, as immediate steps, to accept and implement a daily two hour humanitarian pause and to coordinate exact time and modalities of the daily pause through an efficient mechanism, including at local level.

“4) intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons, and persons involved in peaceful political activities, provide without delay through appropriate channels a list of all places in which such persons are being detained, immediately begin organising access to such locations and through appropriate channels respond promptly to all written requests for information, access or release regarding such persons;

‘5) ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists and a non-discriminatory visa policy for them;

‘6) respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.

“The Security Council calls upon the Syrian government and opposition to work in good faith with the Envoy towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis and to implement fully and immediately his initial six-point proposal.

“The Security Council requests the Envoy to update the Council regularly and in a timely manner on the progress of his mission. In the light of these reports, the Security Council will consider further steps as appropriate.”

One further step that the Council should consider is to pass a regular numbered resolution along the same lines. But the important point for now is that the great powers are on the same side in terms of the next steps. That’s a glimmer of hope among the dark clouds of continuing violence.

Syria and the “United” Nations

Today marks one year of the uprising in Syria, which has now taken nearly 10,000 lives according to the opposition. The response of the international community has been more or less a complete failure so far — failure to end the violence, to resolve the political stalemate, to help civilian victims, or even to establish enough unity among the great powers to chart a course forward.

In recent months, the western powers have seriously misplayed their hand and set back the effort to find a solution. They pushed a resolution at the UN Security Council that called for President Assad’s ouster from power, bringing a Russian and Chinese veto (which Hillary Clinton then called “despicable”). That only emboldened Assad to ramp up more violence against his armed and unarmed opponents, shelling the city of Homs for a month. Russia was pushed into actually supporting Assad more closely, and a new irritant in U.S.-Chinese relations was created. The overwhelming support for a similar resolution in the UN General Assembly highlighted the isolation of the Russia-China-Iran-Syria group, but did nothing to help the Syrian people. In recent days the Syrian government has blasted the opposition out of Idlib in the north, and has turned to blasting Dara’a in the south, where the uprising began a year ago.

The United States and its friends — led by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states — have been considering arming the Syrian opposition, and there have been calls for a Libya-style military intervention by the west. Trouble is, none of these options are at all practical. Arming up Syria’s fragmented, sectarian, underpowered armed opposition would only lead to a long bloody civil war that probably would not dislodge the Assad regime in the end.

While Clinton and other western officials have ramped up their rhetoric and pledged their undying support for the Syrian people in their just cause, etc., the only effect has been to make the Syrian opposition think, wrongly, that someone is going to give them arms or airstrikes to hold off their government’s brutality. When it doesn’t happen, they rightly feel a bit betrayed.

The underlying problem here is a familiar one for the international community when dealing with governments that do wrong — do you work to change the government (Iraq, Libya, Cuba) or do you work to change its behavior (North Korea, Burma). Western powers have been repeating lately that Assad must go, but as long as Russia backs him and China opposes forced regime change, the west has no way to make that happen. A strategy to try to force or induce Assad to change his behavior, on the other hand, has a chance to unite the international community and might begin moving things in the desired direction. Even Russia says that Syria’s government must stop using violence on its people.

The right path forward, the only path, is through the United Nations. The UN has been working to put very modest measures in place, such as humanitarian aid and monitoring missions. A humanitarian assessment mission is to visit this weekend. Meanwhile the most respected, experienced diplomat in the world, former secretary-general Kofi Annan, has been negotiating with all sides to try to find a solution. He is to brief the Security Council tomorrow.

Ban Ki Moon on Tuesday said, “First end the violence, all the violence; second engage in an inclusive dialogue for a political solution; and thirdly, establish an access for humanitarian assistance.” He asked the Security Council to pass a resolution that (quoting Colum Lynch’s summary) “would call on Syrians to immediately halt the violence there, permit the delivery of humanitarian assistance to besieged communities, and endorse the efforts of his envoy, Kofi Annan, to start political talks between the government and opposition over the future of the country.” These are the right steps. Indeed, what else do we have that could work?

The key first step, as in quite a few other violent political conflicts around the world, is to achieve a cease-fire. The western powers should focus on getting Russia and China to press Assad to agree to one. Since all the great powers agree on the need for a cease-fire, especially by the Syrian government which is doing most of the firing, it is perfectly feasible to get the international community back together, pass a resolution aimed at behavior change rather than regime change, and get the United Nations united. Tomorrow’s Security Council meeting to hear Annan’s report is a chance to move forward.

As 200 international aid and human rights groups from 27 countries said in a statement today demanding a Security Council resolution against Syria’s violence, torture, and detention, “the international community must unite and help Syrians bring an end to the horror.”  Yes we can!

Global South Rising

Amidst all the bad news from Syria and the Middle East, three amazing new datapoints show that economic development in the global South has legs. Economies are working better, governments have learned lessons, and the international community is far more effective than in the past at helping very poor countries claw their way out of poverty.

The first datapoint is a new report from the World Bank about the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty, defined as less that $1.25 per day (in today’s dollars). In 27 years from 1981 to 2008, the ranks of the extreme poor fell from more than half the world population to less than a quarter. The lion’s share of this dramatic progress has come in China, where economic growth of about 10 percent annually has been sustained over these three decades, with the result that extreme poverty fell from 84 percent to 13 percent. Meanwhile in the world’s poorest region, sub-Saharan Africa, the rate had increased in the 1990s but fell from 56 to 48 percent just in 2002-2008.

In the past few years of economic turmoil and recession in the global North, the big countries of the South (China, India, Brazil) have kept growing robustly. This has kept commodity prices relatively high, unlike most past recessions in which lower demand forces prices down. The higher commodity prices favor exporting countries throughout the global South (as well as Russia, notably). Despite the recession in the North, and high food prices that have hurt the poor in the past few years, the World Bank preliminary data show the decline in extreme poverty continuing unabated through 2010. Charles Kenny argues that the World Bank data are actually too pessimistic — things are getting better even faster than reported. And the spread of technology like cell phones into poor countries is accelerating the progress.

Ten years ago the UN adopted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to assess progress in economic development and the provision of basic human needs in the global South. The first of the eight goals is to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015 relative to 1990 levels. I figured it was an ambitious goal that we’d get halfway to, and that was probably good enough. Instead the world has met the goal in full, five years early. As I said, “amazing.”

Another MDG is to cut in half the number of people worldwide without access to safe drinking water, relative to 1990s when one quarter of humanity lacked that access. A new report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the 2010 number at 11 percent of the world — again meeting the MDG five years ahead of schedule, and again amazing. It translates to billions of people getting safer water over the past twenty years.

The third datapoint is a series of reports and findings in recent months that add up to tremendous progress in improving health in poor countries. For years UNICEF has promoted low-cost methods of saving children from preventable deaths, especially from disease. UNICEF says it is “off track” in meeting the MDG to reduce child mortality by two-thirds, and other MDGs such as sanitation also lag behind schedule (African leaders meet today to review progress on the MDGs). But sub-Saharan Africa’s under-five mortality rate still dropped by almost a quarter from 1990 to 2008. Maternal mortality has also made progress, though mostly outside Africa, in the past two decades.

Vaccination campaigns (boosted by the Gates Foundation’s efforts) have made relentless progress against measles, polio, and TB. “Measles vaccination resulted in a 78% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2008 worldwide,” reports the WHO. Polio is just being eradicated entirely from India, with tangible (if still a bit elusive) prospects of eliminating the disease worldwide, following the smallpox model. Rates of tuberculosis are falling, though slowly, and the terrible setback in global health from the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been reversed, with new infections now on the decline although years of pain are still ahead with tens of millions infected globally. Finally, malaria mortality rates have fallen by a quarter worldwide in the past decade, with mosquito netting and other programs reaching more and more people.

This is more than a humanitarian success. The economic growth in the global South that underlies much of this progress, and has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty in China alone in recent decades, is reshaping the world political economy. The list of biggest economies — total GDP measured at purchasing-power parity — now reads:  USA, China, India, Japan, Germany, Russia, and Brazil (which, at $2.3 trillion, has just passed the UK, France, and Italy which occupy spots 8-10 on the list). In other words, the global South now accounts for two of the top three, and three of the top seven, economies in the world. Small wonder that the old G7 (with four from Europe, two from North America, and Japan) has all but retired in favor of the G20 with representatives of the South.

Good news never seems to get as much attention as violence and disaster, so perhaps we should not be surprised that the monumental progress in reducing poverty made it only to the bottom of p.4 in today’s New York Times. As for the great report on safe drinking water, well there it is in the last paragraph of that story on p.4 about the World Bank poverty report. And the progress in public health worldwide does not seem to be newsworthy at all. But it really is.