Archive for ‘The UN’

October, 2013

Reflections on using an interdisciplinary lens

The blog posts this week have explored different aspects of international human rights. My research interests include the United Nations human rights machinery, political processes around human rights and the developments occurring at the international level. Human rights are not static. They evolve as global society changes. The field constantly adapts and responds to new challenges. Understanding the mechanisms and processes involved requires a bridging of the gap between scholars of international law and international relations. International law depends heavily on politics, diplomacy and international relations. Using an interdisciplinary lens to view the UN and international human rights enables a greater understanding of what ought to occur and what actually happens ‘on the ground’.

One main area of my work is on the United Nations Human Rights Council. My book on that body,  The United Nations Human Rights Council: A critique and early assessment,  explores the extent to which the Council is fulfilling its mandate. I use international relations theories to understand the political processes that affect the Council undertaking its duties. It is only through an understanding of the politics that occurs within that body that we can find solutions to enable the Council better to protect and promote human rights.


My second book (to be published in May 2014) is entitled ‘Failing to Protect: The United Nations and Politicisation of Human Rights.’ The UN has three human rights mandates – to develop, promote and protect rights. The book focuses on the protection mandate. It explores how and why the UN fails adequately to protect human rights. While the Organisation does wonderful work in developing and promoting rights, it is the systematic and grave violations that make the headlines; and rightly so. In order to find solutions, there needs to be greater understanding of the problems. Aimed at a non-specialist audience, the book explains the overlap between international law and politics and how that impacts on protecting rights. It demonstrates the need for stronger protection mechanisms and for ways of enforcing human rights.


Sparking conversations and discussions about the UN and human rights is crucial for ensuring that the system continues to be refined and honed in such a way as to afford better protection to individuals. Those conversations ought not to take place solely at the academic level. Nor is it sufficient for them only to take place between scholars of law and political science. Involving policy-makers, activists, the media, the wider public and other interested parties will enable more effective protection of rights. Academic research informs those discussions. My aim to ensure that my research is disseminated to as wide an audience as possible in order to fuel ongoing debates.

Rosa Freedman @GoonerDr

October, 2013

Refugee camps

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan
Click image for source

In my post on Monday I wrote a bit about refugee camps. The words seem to go together naturally: where there are refugees there are also camps. But the practice of putting displaced persons in camps is historically fairly new, a twentieth-century phenomenon, and as I suggested on Monday, the camps themselves are politically and morally complex places. They may provide refugees with shelter, and make it easier for aid agencies or host states to provide food and medical assistance; but they serve other purposes, too, and they create political logics of their own. They’re not an unproblematic means of saving humans.

Most Syrian refugees today aren’t actually in camps, though camps provide most of the images of refugees we see. (The picture at the top of the post actually comes from a photo-essay entitled Beyond the camps, accompanying a fine recent piece on the refugee ‘catastrophe’ in the New York Review of Books, and most of the pictures in it are of refugees outside camps.)

Turkey has established a kind of refugee-camp archipelago in and beyond the border zone (the high quality of the camps being widely recognized), but even there refugees outside camps outnumber refugee inside them by three to two—or, more precisely, three hundred thousand to two hundred thousand. Jordan has a similar number of ‘encamped’ refugees, all concentrated in a single vast camp, Zaatari, which is said to have become Jordan’s fourth-largest city; a second vast camp is being built at al-Azraq, but Jordan also has even more refugees living outside camps than Turkey does. Lebanon, meanwhile, which hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees—about three quarters of a million of them—doesn’t have any camps at all.

Al Azraq Refugee Camp (as of 25 Jul 2013)

Construction of al-Azraq refugee camp (as of 25 Jul 2013)
Click image for source

This makes it harder to track individual refugees, and for humanitarian agencies to gather reliable and comprehensive information about refugees’ needs—let alone provide assistance to meet those needs. The flood of refugees has sent the cost of living soaring in parts of neighbouring countries and put enormous pressure on essential services. Rents in some parts of Jordan rose 300% in the six months to April 2013 alone (and have certainly risen further since). The half-million refugees there have added nearly 8% to the total population—which in one of the world’s most water-scarce countries is a serious matter. Putting refugees in camps would be one way of limiting some of these impacts, and ensuring that the international community can shoulder some of their cost.

But there are reasons why the refugees themselves may be reluctant to move into camps, and why not all governments want to establish them—and a historical perspective can help explain them.

For example, uprooted Syrians have, since 1948, lived their lives in close proximity to generations of Palestinian refugees. In Syria, Palestinians were reasonably well-integrated into the host society (the camps weren’t ‘closed’), but only up to a point: ‘Ibn al-mukhayyam [the child of the camp] will never be like ibn al-balad [the child of the country]’, as a young Palestinian from the Yarmouk camp told an interviewer a few months before the war in Syria began. And Syrians are well aware that in Lebanon, Palestinians in their camps were excluded from the host society in all sorts of ways: barred from many occupations, for example. During the civil war, Palestinian civilians in Lebanese camps were often targeted directly: the massacres at Sabra and Chatila in 1982, or later during the ‘war of the camps’. For Syrians informed by the Palestinian experience, camps may represent exclusion from the host society, the risk of massacre—and the possibility of permanent exile.

Wariness of camps exists on the side of states too, for related reasons. When Palestinian refugees housed in camps started to organize themselves politically in the 1960s, their aims and aspirations clashed with those of the host governments: ultimately they came to threatened state sovereignty. The camps, where refugees lived in isolation from the host societies and exclusion from their political institutions, became fiefdoms of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), and it was difficult or impossible for host governments to control them, even when they launched attacks across the border on Israel and the occupied territories. In its conflict with PLO militants, Israel did not hesitate to target the host states. In Jordan this process led to the expulsion of the PLO leadership, after a short but bitter conflict in 1970, to Lebanon—where the same process contributed to the outbreak of the civil war, in which camps themselves became targets. It is little wonder that Jordan is uneasy about placing Syrians in camps, and Lebanon positively allergic to it.

Getting assistance to refugees—and host communities—becomes more complicated, and perhaps more costly, when the people you want to help are dispersed through towns and villages. But my own view is that it’s a necessary effort, and history can help us understand why. The UN increasingly takes the same view: “You cannot lock people into a camp”, the UNHCR’s representative in Turkey said recently, while talking about mechanisms for supporting refugees outside camps, like cash assistance programmes. So, even though the UNHCR has its own complex and not always positive history, I’ll end by linking to its current appeal on behalf of Syrian refugees. The UN’s appeals to help those displaced inside and outside the country are barely 50% funded (and their relative success may be making it harder for the UNHCR to attract support for other refugees). And the crisis isn’t going to go away.

October, 2013

Middle Eastern refugees, then and now

My current research project is on refugees and state-formation in the post-Ottoman Middle East—roughly 1918–1939. It grew out of my earlier project on minorities in French mandate Syria: I’d collected quite a bit of material on refugee communities, but realized that I wouldn’t use it in my PhD (and later book) because refugees in Syria weren’t considered ‘minorities’ but, precisely, refugees.

UN OCHA Humanitarian Snapshot, SyriaWhen I started the project, I didn’t expect that long before I’d finished it Syria would collapse into an appalling civil war, and become the crucible of a vast new refugee crisis: about 10% of the country’s entire population (roughly two million people, out of a bit over twenty million) has fled to neighbouring or nearby states, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and a much larger number of people have been displaced within Syria. Click on the map here for the latest figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Immense—and depressing—though these numbers are, the displacement crises that afflicted the late Ottoman and interwar Middle East were comparable both in absolute terms and in proportion to population size: the flight of Muslims from the Caucasus as the Russian empire expanded in the 1860s; the expulsion of Muslims from breakaway states in the Balkans from the 1870s on; internecine expulsions and exchanges between those breakaway Christian states in the early 20th century; genocidal deportations of Ottoman Armenians (often perpetrated by people who themselves had been, or were descendants of, recent refugees) and other Christians during the first world war; the great Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923–4; and the smaller exoduses and expulsions that persisted through the twentieth century—from Assyrian Christians fleeing Iraq in the 1930s to late communist Bulgaria kicking out Muslims in the 1980s, with plenty of other examples: the Palestinian refugees are only the best-known of many. The states of the modern Middle East, like the states of modern Europe, were largely formed out of processes of population displacement.

Dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire since 1683.

Dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire since 1683. From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923.
Approximately ten million refugees not shown.
Source: Perry-Castañeda Library map collection, University of Texas at Austin (click image for link)

All this means that my historical research has led me to get more involved than I might once have expected with contemporary humanitarian issues—partly through an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research network that some colleagues are coordinating, and partly through collaboration with the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute in London. Both sets of initiatives are premised on the idea that historical research can offer useful perspectives to humanitarian planning and interventions in the present.

But after a summer where I was more focused on the contemporary issues, I’m now returning to my research, with a paper to write for a seminar at the School of Oriental and African Studies next month. It’s about a small but significant instance of population displacement within this much larger history I’ve been sketching out: the exodus of at least fifty thousand Armenians from Cilicia in what is now southern Turkey at the end of a two-year period of French occupation following the first world war, and what I’m calling the ‘grudging rescue’ of perhaps twenty thousand of them, by sea and rail, in the final two weeks of 1921. I’ll post something about that tomorrow.

October, 2013

Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler: Following the UN route on Syria

After two years of paralysis in the face of the growing humanitarian catastrophe engulfing Syria, the UN Security Council finally took centre-stage last Friday. Resolution 2118 that was adopted unanimously on 27 September at ministerial level broke new ground in the Council’s history. For the first time, the fifteen-member body agreed ‘that the use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to international peace and security.’  The significance of this language is that as the body responsible for maintaining ‘international peace and security’, such a determination is a prior condition for the Council activating the use of coercive enforcement measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. 

Although UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, described the passing of the resolution as a ‘historic’ moment, a sentiment echoed by Security Council members speaking after the vote, it is important to insert some caveats here. The Security Council has failed to act in the face of past violations of the international norm – some might say taboo – against the use of chemical weapons. The most notorious case is Iraq’s use of poison gas against the Kurds at Halabja in March 1988. In this sense, Resolution 2118 is highly significant because the Security Council is acting to uphold the norm in the face of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  The resolution does not take a position on where culpability lies for their appalling use on the 21 August that led to the horrific deaths of hundreds of civilians, since the United States and Russia remain divided on this question. Nor crucially, despite the language of ‘international peace and security’, does the resolution fall under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France sought a Chapter VII resolution that would have strengthened the legal basis for any future military action against the government of President Al-Assad, but the Russian government would not have accepted any resolution that was adopted under Chapter VII.  As Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister and formerly its UN Ambassador emphasized, ‘The resolution does not fall under Chapter VII of the Charter….and does not allow for any automatic use of coercive measures of enforcement’.

In addition, it is highly questionable how far the Russian government would have accepted Resolution 2118 had Syria not shown a willingness to comply with the US-Russian disarmament process that laid the groundwork for the resolution. In the weeks prior to the adoption of the resolution, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and Lavrov drew attention, when speaking after the vote in the Council, to Damascus having already provided the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) with an inventory of its chemical capabilities.  He also considered that the Syrian government could be trusted to act ‘in good faith with the international inspectors’ from OPCW who have the highly demanding challenge of placing Syria’s chemical arsenal under international control, leading to its eventual destruction. Russian pressure on Syria is a major factor in Damascus’s willingness to cooperate, but the fact of Syrian consent made it much easier for Russia, and indeed other members of the Council sensitive about upholding the principle of sovereignty, to accept the resolution.  

The real test of how far the Council is prepared to enforce the norm against the use of chemical weapons, and impose disarmament of its chemical arsenal on Syria, will come if the Syrian government fails to comply with Resolution 2118. The most blatant violation would be further uses of chemical weapons that could be unambiguously attributed to the government of Al-Assad. But as the UN’s experience of disarming Iraq of its WMD in the 1990s showed, governments can play cat and mouse games as they seek to deceive the inspectors as to their real intentions and capabilities. The most the Russian government would concede in the negotiations over the drafting of the resolution was the following wording: ‘in the event of non-compliance with this resolution, including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter’. As we have seen, the Russian foreign minister was explicit in his view that any use of coercive measures to enforce the resolution would require a new UN mandate adopted under Chapter VII.

The Russian government has been determined to avoid a situation, such as happened with Iraq in 2003, and indeed Kosovo in March 1999, where the United States could claim the authority of existing Chapter VII resolutions to use force against Syria without explicit Security Council authorization. In contrast, the United States has wanted to leave the door open as to how far it would require a new resolution to take coercive measures, including the use of force, in the event that Syria fails to comply.  Speaking after the vote in the Council, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, ‘should the regime fail to act, there will be consequences’.

Resolution 2118 became possible, in part, because the US and Russian governments were able to subordinate their backing for opposed sides in the brutal civil war to the common interest of preventing any future use of chemical weapons on the territory of Syria. The other key motivating factor on the Russian side was the imperative to restrict Washington’s military options whilst demonstrating that they could be responsive to the international outcry over the use of chemical weapons in Syria. From the Obama administration’s perspective, the resolution rescued it from military action that looked increasingly unpalatable given the lack of support from a key ally in the United Kingdom, and the impact this was likely to have on Congressional approval for the use of force.

The concern is that US-Russian common interest will weaken if there are disagreements over whether Syria is complying, and crucially, even if the Council agrees that Damascus is not acting in good faith, how far this justifies the use of force. The Council agreed in both Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq in 2003 that governments were not complying with prior resolutions that had been adopted under Chapter VII (but which did not authorize the use of force), but profoundly disagreed that this justified the use of force.  In this case, disagreements over Syria’s lack of compliance, and the international community has no experience of trying to disarm a state of its WMD in the middle of a brutal civil war, will sharpen if Moscow is suspected of conniving in President Al-Assad’s deception. At which point, the military option could well come back on the table, and this time the Obama administration would have an existing UN resolution (albeit one not adopted under Chapter VII) to bolster its case with Congress.

The worry is that the two powers, whose backing of different sides has prevented any de-escalation of the Syrian conflict for the past two years, whilst thousands have perished, might fall back into a competitive mindset. This brings with it the prospect of yet more violence if the Obama administration decides to follow through on its threats to ‘deter and degrade’ Syria’s chemical weapon capabilities.  And if this happens, the prospect for saving humans in Syria will be bleak.

Further links and information on this topic:

Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler is co-lead on the Saving Humans theme and Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham.

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