Confronting the Challenge of "Political Will"
Prepared for the:
Instability Warning and Genocide Prevention Symposium 2010
Vanderbilt University Law School
March 18, 2010
Since the end of the Cold War the world has witnessed outbreaks of mass violence along ethnic or religious lines in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan, Congo and, most recently, in Nigeria. These and other cases of violence in diverse societies around the world present us with a truly global problem. Since the Holocaust we have often heard the words “never again.” Yet, too often the world has failed to mount serious action to prevent genocidal violence, making “never again” an empty slogan.
There have been numerous initiatives to better understand this problem and chart a better way forward. Notable among these was the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict that David Hamburg organized in the 1990s. The Commission’s “Final Report” included “three inescapable observations”: First, deadly conflict is not inevitable; second, the need to prevent deadly conflict is increasingly urgent; and third, preventing deadly conflict is possible. More than a decade later, these observations remain conceptual. They have yet to be translated into policy and operational capacity. Thus, we still search for answers to key questions required to make the prevention of extreme violence against civilian populations an actionable policy: How can we provide effective early warning of where and when mass violence is most likely to occur? And above all, how can we get policymakers to do something to reduce identifiable risks before it’s too late? In short, how do we generate the will to act?
About USIP and the Genocide Prevention Task Force
For those who don’t know about the Institute’s concern with this issue: Our charter from Congress is to develop and educate in non-violent approaches to managing international conflict. We think, act, teach, and train in conflict management skills. And there is no more compelling issue for our efforts than preventing mass violence against civilian populations.
One of the ways USIP tries to advance understanding and prevention of genocide is by convening high-level bipartisan commissions, task forces and study groups that bring the country’s best minds and most experienced practitioners together to grapple with tough policy challenges related to war and peacemaking. Examples include the Institute’s Task Force on United Nations reform , the Iraq Study Group, the Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, and currently, a congressionally mandated independent review of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.
A recent and quite successful project of this kind was the Genocide Prevention Task Force, led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Their blueprint report, released in late 2008, recommended a series of steps that would enable the U.S. government to be better organized to anticipate and prevent extreme violence and genocide. Many of the task force’s recommendations have been implemented, including the creation of a new committee under the National Security Council dedicated to the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide.
A new NSC director for War Crimes, Atrocities and Genocide Prevention will lead this committee. The director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, also endorsed several of the report’s recommendations. In his annual threat testimony to Congress this year, Blair also referred to the risks of new outbreaks of mass killing. Finally, today’s symposium itself was partly inspired by Albright and Cohen’s recommendations to improve early warning, intelligence support, and international cooperation.
The Challenge of Generating Political Will
The structural and organizational reforms taken in recent months are encouraging. Yet, the greatest challenge in preventing mass violence is generating the political will to act. Even the most effective organizational reforms will prove insufficient if government leaders do not have the motivation to prevent or curtail mass violence. The most senior decision makers in governments and international organizations are political animals--for better or worse. As much as the moral imperative to prevent genocidal violence may appeal to them in the abstract, lofty arguments to act rarely defeat practical political opposition to interventions. Questions that typically thwart action include:
- Are core national interests involved?
- What capabilities do we have to apply? How much would it cost, both in terms of resources and lives put at risk, to take preventive measures?
- Would our efforts be perceived as infringing on state sovereignty?
- Do regional powers, key allies, or U.N. Security Council members have interests that run counter to proposed preventive actions?
- Is there a domestic constituency on either side of the proposed action? Is there support, or opposition, in Congress?
History tells us that simply calling on our leaders’ better angels or humanitarian instincts is not enough. Recognizing dangers of impending violence early on, and taking effective action before crises become fully blown, requires overcoming bureaucratic caution, and public skepticism or ignorance. Effective responses require political leadership, in particular when practical considerations or politics stand in the way of action. In this regard, it is worth noting that the context within which political leaders make decisions relevant to this issue is changing--and changeable. Four factors affect the decision-making context, factors that can help mobilize the political will to act: (1) the changing media environment, (2) the emerging U.N. norm of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), (3) enhanced institutional capability to prevent and respond to mass violence, and (4) improved cooperation between governments, NGO [nongovernmental organization] world, and within governments.
From the “CNN effect” to Twitter and YouTube: Harnessing media for effective political action
In the 1980s, a new phenomenon emerged in the relationship between 24-hour television news and the domestic politics of U.S. engagement with the world--what we called “the CNN effect.” Other new communication technologies--fax machines, cell phones, and further down the road, the Internet--exert significant influence as well. But the influence of round the world, round the clock television news jerked around political leaders, pulling their attention from crisis to crisis in rough proportion to how disturbing the images confronting Americans on the nightly television news were. As former USIP fellow and journalist Warren Strobel wrote in his book “Late-Breaking Foreign Policy,” “Dramatic real-time reports…can exercise a powerful agenda-setting function, forcing a sharp and sudden change of focus at the upper levels of government.”
On the one hand, the CNN effect can increase public and political pressure for the United States to become engaged in international situations where large numbers of civilians are in dire need of protection or support. This dynamic was visible recently with the massive mobilization in response to the earthquake in Haiti. Such pressure is most effective if the crisis is seen as directly affecting U.S. national security or the interests of an important domestic constituency. That said, the CNN effect, by implication, makes truly preventive action--steps to reduce the chances that violent crises will erupt in the first place--even harder. Without shocking images on TV, it is very hard to generate political support for involvement in a far-away conflict. In essence, one of the major tools of mobilizing political will--leveraging the public’s revulsion to images of death, destruction and destitution--is absent before mass murders or refugee crises begin. As a result, insightful analysis by government and external analysts lacks the political force that might spur policymakers to initiate preventive action.
Today’s world of media is, of course, vastly different than it was when CNN was at the cutting edge. The effects on public attitudes and political motivations of the Internet, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere, and a world connected by smart mobile phones--even in impoverished regions of the world--are profound and complex. These communication vehicles create new capacities to mobilize populations and coordinate mass action quickly. For example, the use of cell phones by non-violent political movements is a phenomenon that goes as far back as the 1986 "people power" revolution in the Philippines. This phenomenon was seen more recently in the "colored revolutions" in Eastern Europe.
At the same time, however, we have seen SMS text messaging used to incite people to violence in places like Kenya, and the use of hate radios in Rwanda and the Balkans for the same purpose. These new--and old--communication technologies bring the world closer together emotionally through near real time sharing of video footage, which has a unique power to move people to action and build international pressure on repressive regimes. From the iconic image of the student standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to the amateur video of the Iranian woman, Neda Agha Soltan, shot to death in a Tehran protest last year, repressive regimes have an increasingly hard time controlling the flow of information within and outside their borders.
Technologies themselves, of course, are value-neutral: they can be used equally for good or nefarious ends. If we want new information and communication technologies to help mobilize public and political action against mass violence, it will require governments and NGOs to develop deliberate strategies for their development and use.
The “responsibility to protect”: making global norms matter
The increasing transparency of events all around the world--whether governments like it or not--continues to erode state sovereignty. Public awareness of violence and human misery puts political pressure on governments that use sovereignty as a defense as they commit massive human rights abuses or respond inadequately to a circumstance of human suffering--as in the Burmese government’s flaccid response to the massive impact of a typhoon two years ago.
A decade ago, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan pleaded for the international community to find a way through the argument that pitted the notion of absolute state sovereignty against the claims of the international community of a right to humanitarian intervention. One result was a Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty co-led by Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun. The commission articulated a new concept: “the responsibility to protect.” Merely four years after the release of the commission’s report in late 2001, heads of state and government at the 2005 U.N. World Summit declared, “Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” They went further to state, “We are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner…should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations.”
To its supporters, the 2005 Summit Outcome represented a watershed in the evolution of global norms. No longer could governments easily hide behind the defense of “sovereignty” as they abuse--much less massacre--their own people. Yet, as is often the case in international politics, moving from words in a formal document to implementation in real world situations has proven extremely difficult. Since the 2005 Summit Outcome we have seen a continuing crisis in Darfur, grave risks for civilians caught up in the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, and flares of extreme violence--including sexual violence on a massive scale--in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo]. Unfortunately the adoption of R2P has not led to more effective international action in these cases. The Sri Lanka situation illustrates the challenge: Despite U.N. estimates of 7,000 civilians having been killed in the first half of 2009, the security council refused to take up the matter, and the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution largely commending the government’s actions.
A more encouraging case is the international response to violence in Kenya after the December 2007 election, which the U.N explicitly called an R2P situation. With support from the U.N., the U.S., the AU and others, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan led a rapid response mediation effort that generated a power sharing agreement, stanching the violence. Yet, two years on, the coalition government has proven ineffectual, making little progress in mitigating the underlying causes of the ethnic strife, with the resulting threat to civilian security.
With last year’s debate about the responsibility to protect in the U.N. General Assembly behind us, it is time to push R2P forward. We need to work now to demonstrate that R2P has practical, action-inducing value to match its rhetorical appeal.
Developing the capability to prevent and respond
It may be true that our failures to prevent or respond effectively to instability, conflict and mass violence have not been primarily about a lack of capacity, but rather the absence of political will. All the same, further developing institutional capabilities should improve the likelihood that action will be taken. There is a broad consensus that the U.S. government’s national security structures are ill suited to meet many of today’s challenges. As Secretary of Defense Gates put it recently, “America’s interagency toolkit is a hodgepodge of jerry-rigged arrangements constrained by a dated and complex patchwork of authorities, persistent shortfalls in resources, and unwieldy processes.”
There are several current streams of activity in and around the U.S. government that have the potential to enhance the capability to prevent and respond to mass violence. On the military side, these include the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, which identifies responses to mass atrocities as a mission for which the Department of Defense should be prepared. In the academic world, the Mass Atrocities Response Operations (MARO) project at Harvard’s Carr Center aims to develop military planning tools specifically tailored for R2P-relevant operations. On the civilian side of government planning there is the State/USAID Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which seeks to create a blueprint for “more agile, responsive, and effective institutions of diplomacy and development.” Meanwhile, the White House has initiated a study at the National Security Council on global development policy, and Congress is trying to rewrite the Foreign Assistance Act, which dates back to 1961. While these efforts are not explicitly designed to promote conflict prevention or an R2P agenda, they represent systematic efforts to rethink and update important techniques of intervention, which are relevant for efforts to prevent mass violence.
A major theme of nearly all these current reform efforts is the need to “rebalance” our investment in national security capabilities. As one measure of the current imbalance, for every American tax dollar that went to the State Department and USAID in FY09, about 17 dollars went to DoD. This resource disparity is longstanding, and is one reason for the major deficits in staffing and training of the Foreign Service. The imbalance has forced successive administrations to call on our military to engage in “non-military” tasks.
A larger, better resourced, and appropriately trained Foreign Service, if deployed in efforts at conflict management, could help recognize the roots of mass atrocities before they break out into open violence. A more coherent process for developing, funding, and implementing a U.S. national security strategy adapted to today’s world can help manage low level conflicts before they escalate. We need truly fundamental change when it comes to the role of our Foreign Service. We need to reconceptualize the role of FSOs [foreign service officers] from being agents of “representation and reporting” to being conflict managers. To make this adaptation, our civilian officials in the State Department and USAID must be retrained. Symposia and workshops such as this conference can help kick-start such a shift in thinking by detailing what FSOs need to know and do in identifying and reducing the risks of mass violence.
Enhancing cooperation between governments and the nongovernmental sector
One of the great changes in foreign policy today is the growing recognition that governments alone cannot achieve their own policy objectives. There are numerous areas where governments are ineffective because they do not have the requisite human resources base: personnel with the skills to engage with different traditional justice mechanisms, to prevent gender-based violence or to facilitate the reintegration of former combatants, to name a few. USIP’s practical work in conflict management involves mobilizing civilian talent for such efforts, and bridging between the U.S. government-including the military-and the non-governmental sector in areas like post-conflict stabilization and humanitarian assistance. It is clearer each day that fostering deeper cooperation among the disparate worlds of government, academia, the NGOs, and IOs [international organizations] is increasingly critical to effective conflict management.
To those working in government, we need to recognize the deep seated institutional resistance to seeking outside help or embracing ideas from outside official institutions, a mindset usually referred to as the “not invented here” syndrome. Recognizing the talent and superior information that does exist within government agencies, it is also true that not all the smart people work for Uncle Sam. Expertise on many important issues may well be deeper outside the government than within. If serious efforts are not made to tap private sector knowledge, talent, and experience, an official’s job becomes much harder. While concerns and constraints on sharing information are legitimate, open-source information continues to grow--and becomes increasingly relevant--in the world of 21st century communications. Thus, safeguarding sensitive information and engaging experts from outside of government need not be in tension.
Those working in academia and the NGO world hardly need be reminded that potential colleagues in government make decisions great and small that affect the stability of countries and the security of people in all corners of the globe. But if specialists in the private sector take their independence from government as a license to criticize without engaging in real dialogue and collaboration, they should not expect governments to be receptive to their advice or opportunities to cooperate. If academics and NGO workers want to influence government decision making or support foreign assistance operations in zones of distress and conflict, they need to accept that government officials operate in a difficult environment with political and institutional constraints and little time to deliberate on complex problems. This means communicating insights and offering operational support in ways that conform to real world requirements. There are more than a few examples of productive collaboration, though success often emerges only after periods of friction and frustration. Examples include civil-military and government-NGO cooperation in Iraq, joint efforts between anthropologists and agricultural experts in Afghanistan, and Navy-NGO collaboration during tsunami relief operations in Asia.
Beyond this simple advice, how can we improve modes of cooperation? Let us suggest three models:
First, as already mentioned, USIP, the Council on Foreign Relations and others in the policy development world can convene task forces or study groups to bring together experienced people, including former officials. Such groups can include individuals with substantial political influence such as media stars Bono, Angelina Jolie or George Clooney, who have the capacity to generate “political will” in mass publics and raise large funds for disaster relief. These individuals and groups can be created at the request of the government, as USIP did for the U.N. reform task force and the Iraq Study Group, or without a specific government mandate, as was the case with the Genocide Prevention Task Force. Getting the right mix of people--commissioners who are thinkers and doers as well as political figures and supporting experts who understand the government as well as the substantive issues--is a prerequisite to success.
Second, NGOs or academic research centers can convene topical meetings of experts when it might be hard for counterparts in the government to do this for political or practical reasons. If a small-scale massacre or a bloodless coup raises concern about a particular country, NGOs are often in a better position than government agencies to convene academic and other regional experts along with officials from across the government. For example, the State Department’s Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization periodically turns to USIP to convene outside experts to assess conflict dynamics in a particular country as an input to interagency conflict assessments.
Third, nongovernmental actors can engage in operational collaboration with governments, including work “on the ground” in conflict zones to help prevent or resolve disputes and promote reconciliation in the wake of war. For example, the State Department engaged USIP to facilitate a peace agreement between the government of the Republic of the Philippines and a Mindanao insurgent group known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva has conducted or supported mediation efforts in countries such as Sudan, Kenya, Timor-Leste and the Philippines. In addition to mediation, operational collaboration can include conflict management activities in many forms, such as negotiation skills training, building capacity for democratic governance, facilitating inter-ethnic dialogue, supporting transitional justice, and much more. When NGO and government efforts are aligned toward common objectives, the positive effects go far beyond what either could achieve alone.
Enhancing international cooperation
The international system--as we are all aware-- is currently experiencing dramatic changes. Old alliance patterns are breaking down; new major powers are emerging; and the leading status of the US, for complex reasons, has been diminished. Non-state actors and computer hackers are increasingly able to influence physical and cyber security on a mass scale. We all face new challenges in coping with this more fragmented and fractious global environment. Yet, the international community of governments still operates largely on the Westphalian notion of state sovereignty. Regimes that perpetrate mass atrocities are all-too-frequently able to build effective coalitions--including U.N. P-5 countries like China and Russia--to resist applications of R2P, arguing that sovereignty must be protected at all costs.
In this context, the imperative for greater cooperation applies especially to the relationships among concerned governments. Even in the most progressive vision of enhanced government-NGO cooperation, many important decisions and operational capabilities will remain in the official domain of governments. But fewer and fewer objectives of any one government can be accomplished without engaging other governments in cooperation. Several interesting initiatives are already underway to promote intergovernmental cooperation in preventing genocide. For example, the Swiss government has taken an initiative to convene a series of regional conferences on genocide prevention, most recently in Arusha, Tanzania. The Hungarian government is launching a new Budapest Foundation for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities this month. Two ongoing projects aim to facilitate networking among mid-level officials across the globe: the Engaging Governments in Genocide Prevention program led by Andrea Bartoli at George Mason University, and the Raphael Lemkin Seminars on Genocide Prevention at the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. Finally, the Global Futures Forum is an innovative multinational, multidisciplinary effort to help make sense of a variety of emerging transnational issues, including genocide prevention. These are necessary and commendable efforts that hopefully will attract broader support and interested partners.
Yet, our current mechanisms for international cooperation are imperfect. This is especially true for a challenge like preventing mass or genocidal violence, a crime committed most often by governments themselves. We have repeatedly seen the international community fail to mobilize the will to prevent or halt extreme conflicts. But this does not mean we can afford to give up on existing mechanisms of intergovernmental action such as the U.N. As long as the security council is the principal intergovernmental decision-making body on peace and security matters, its success or failure to legitimate action will reverberate to success or failure in preventing mass violence.
There is no simple or quick path to a more effective security council. Individual governments can push the council to be more forward looking, fulfilling its pledge in Resolution 1366 to “give prompt consideration to early warning or prevention cases.” One way to do this would be to invite the U.N.’s special adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, currently Ambassador Francis Deng of Sudan, to address the council regularly on situations on his radar. The new joint U.N. office on genocide prevention and R2P presents another opportunity. Governments should work with the Secretariat to make sure that any new mechanism is designed to enhance attention to preventing mass violence, while avoiding the risk of creating redundant or confusing bureaucracy, or worse, weakening existing mechanisms for promoting human rights and protecting civilians.
These four areas--the changing media environment, the new norm of the Responsibility to Protect, enhancing our institutional capabilities to prevent and respond to violent conflict, and enhancing inter-agency and international cooperation--represent important opportunities for action to prevent mass violence and genocide. But as yet, they are still opportunities waiting to be fully developed and applied. It is easy to imagine a situation in five or ten years in which observers are still lamenting the “political will” problem, and “never again” remains an empty slogan. As we have stressed, generating political will for action is the central challenge in preventing mass violence. Recognizing this fundamental truth “should be the occasion not for lamentation, but mobilization,” as Gareth Evans has written in his book “The Responsibility to Protect.” Political will, according to Evans, “has to be painfully and laboriously constructed, case by case, context by context. And all of us have a role in this respect.”
We have discussed several ways in which this difficult challenge can be addressed. Use new media to shed light on situations at risk of mass violence. Work now to build new capabilities and then apply them in practice. Deepen cooperation across governments and NGOs. “Proof test” potentially successful concepts and strategies in effective action. If we work assiduously, we can ensure that today’s opportunities are not missed and tomorrow’s violence is thwarted. In this way R2P can become a relevant norm, and “never again” will have acquired some reality.