Monday, April 23, 2012

What can the UN do about the likes of Assad?

Picture: Reuters, via
For a full year, Bashar al-Assad has waged war on his own people, killing around 10,000 democracy activists and civilians.  With agonising slowness, the international community has responded, but the effectiveness of the UN's current peace initiative is still in doubt. Eventually, the world will blunder through to some partial resolution that involves Assad stepping down, but it will be messy and slow, and even then we will be faced with the same situation in Bahrain and many other dictatorships throughout the world.

This is not good enough. 
But what can be done?
Military intervention would be even more problematical and complex than it was in Libya.  

We need a more efficient and effective pathway to dealing with this kind of dictator crisis.

The basic problem is that each crisis brought on by a dictatorship is treated as a novel, one-off event, and brings out a slow, ad hoc political response from the international community, treating each case as if it were the only time in history that it has happened. The response is affected by the regime's trade with other nations, especially with members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

The regime will try to manipulate its allies, and the response of the international community is modified by economic considerations, especially whether the country affected has oil resources.

This unstructured political situation encourages political maneuvering and time-wasting.

Instead of this situation we need a clear, consistent framework which applies to every nation equally,  where disincentives are applied to unwanted behaviour and incentives reward better behaviour.

This approach is based on sound psychology. It is a well established of behaviour management that everyone needs to know that they stand in a framework of fair, reasonable and consistently-applied rules, which cannot be manipulated and circumvented.

To improve the response, there are three reforms that the United Nations needs to bring in.

1 Set up a Global Index of Human Rights

The Global Index of Human Rights, initiated by the Green Party of England and Wales and adopted (among others) by the Global Greens, sets up a framework that provides an incentive for all governments to improve their performance in the field of human rights.

The UN simply publishes annually a league table of countries ranked according to a measure of their human rights performance.

The Index will produce a continuous upward pressure on human rights throughout the world.
It is a good start, but it needs specific measures directed towards problem regimes.

2  Discourage the move towards dictatorship

Using the Global Index of Human Rights and other feed-backs, the UN will be able to identify regimes that are headed down the slippery slope that leads towards dictatorship.

Paul Kagame of Rwanda is a current example of someone who is on this path, and Vladimir Putin is another.

There are a number of clear markers on the pathway to dictatorship:
  • Banning opposition political parties, or putting blocks in the way of their registration
  • Closing down opposition newspapers and broadcast stations 
  • Intimidation at the polling booths
  • Ignoring the results of a democratic election
  • Imprisonment, torture and "disappearances" of political opposition 
  • Lavish expenditure on palaces for the dictator
  • Disproportionate spending on arms and the military
Each of these steps should be met with a specific response. For instance:

  • Banning opposition parties could lead to financial support to opposition parties who support democracy and human rights.
  • Intimidation at the polling booths could result in the regime being denied eligibility to serve on certain UN bodies, for example, the Human Rights Council.
  • Ignoring the result of a democratic election  could result in a ban in foreign travel for members of the regime.
  • Lavish expenditure on palaces for the dictator could result in a ban on imports of luxury goods.
These are given as suggested examples only.

The overall aim is to create a tariff  of measures that become active as the regime takes unwanted measures, and equally, are removed immediately when the regime steps away from its progress towards dictatorship. The measures will not be fully automatic; a designated UN appointed authority, answerable to the UNSC, will oversee the responses to ensure that they are appropriate to the situation.

3  Deal with illegitimate regimes

The world needs a specific, effective set of responses to dictatorships that are actively committing atrocities against their own people, as Assad is at present.

The true purpose of any government is to protect and serve the people.

If a government begins to attack its own people, using lethal force against non-violent demonstrators, it immediately, by definition, loses its legitimacy.

This point has been established in the UN's doctrine of Responsibility to Protect,  introduced in 2005. In fact, the three points set out in this post can be viewed as a logical expansion of the idea of Responsibility to Protect.

Sovereignty is a responsibility, not a God-given privilege.

The point at which a regime starts to use live rounds on unarmed demonstrators should be the trigger for organised and pre-planned UN action.

Instead of waiting for a year, wringing its hands on the sideline and slowly getting the UNSC to agree as the evidence of inhumanity builds up to a level where even permanent members can no longer deny what is happening, there will be a set protocol for dealing with dictatorships that are no longer legitimate.

As soon as reports of lethal force against non-violent protests come in, the UN will set up an board of inquiry. The inquiry will be given a tight time limit - say one or two weeks - to produce its first report, and will continue to function until the situation is resolved. It will be given information from UN rapporteurs, and will be open to representations from citizens and NGOs.

If the facts of the case warrant it, the inquiry will present a case to the International Criminal Court. The regime will be invited to attend the ICC, and if they refuse to attend, the case will be heard in absentia.

The ICC will be able to issue a legal sentence on the president and responsible members of the regime, if the evidence is sufficient. However, this legal sentence will also be balanced by the offer of an amnesty that will come into force if the named parties step down from office.

When the existing regime steps down, they will hand over power to  a caretaker government that will have the task of organising a fair, democratic election within a stated time - say, within six months.  This is to avoid the situation in Egypt, where Mubarak left, but power effectively fell into the hands of other members of his regime.

This dual-track approach, offering a choice between legal consequences if the regime tries to remain in office with a comfortable exile if they choose to leave office, is unusual in law but absolutely vital from the standpoint of psychology. It reflects what often does happen when dictators are persuaded to leave office. In the absence of the soft option of exile, the legal process may make the situation worse by making the regime more determined than ever to cling to power.

The approach reflects a trade off between justice and pragmatism. Although it is distasteful to allow criminals to escape, we are dealing with global politics. The pragmatic result - saving thousands of lives, saving the economy and the society, is the desired end result.

In addition to, and in parallel with the legal action, other specific measures will need to be put in place.

The opposition parties, provided that they support democratic governance, can be recognised and supported.

All arms sales to the regime should be terminated as soon as the regime begins to use lethal force.
(Here is an Avaaz petition to stop arms sales from the US and India via a Russian company - a petition, incidentally, that may have influenced the turning back of a consignment of helicopters bound for Syria.)

Targeted sanctions will be applied to the regime in a progressive way. The number of officials under sanction and investigation should be raised every week. First the ruler, then his inner circle, then a widening circle of the regime's supporters will be indicted. This means that a growing number of the regime's officials and supporters will begin to realise that the game is up. It will be made clear to them at every point that defection will automatically wipe the legal slate clean for the defector.

Freezing the financial assets of the regime should be used at an early stage.

State broadcasting is an important means of control for any regime. If there is any practical means of blocking, commandeering or terminating the signal used by the regime to broadcast radio and TV, this should be used. Physical destruction of broadcasting masts and stations may be used.

Finally and regrettably, it has to be recognised that military force may become necessary as a last resort. This will be   focused on creating safe havens and escape routes for refugees.


This outline of the measures needed to prevent the Syrian situation from being a recurrent nightmare is simple and clear, but will take many years to be installed. We are habituated to reading about this kind of mess, and regard it as a normal part of political reality. But it does not have to be like this. The trauma, murder and bereavement that we see on YouTube and sometimes on our TV screens is simply unacceptable. It is a result of a form of disordered behaviour on the part of absolutist regimes, and all behaviour can be managed.

The principles of behaviour management are clear: what is needed is a framework of rules, consistently and evenly applied. This is precisely what is lacking in the chaotic political world that responds to each situation as if it is the first and only time it has occurred, and where responses are variable according to the economic relations that exist between the illegitimate regime and its significant allies.

The measures set out here are designed to create the necessary framework of rules. They are clear and simple measures, but implementing them will be anything but clear and simple. One of the key problems is to maintain coherence of the United Nations. The UN is under attack from many quarters: from psychopathic regimes themselves, from neo-conservative ideologues who see the UN as a communist plot, and from laissez-faire political activists in the West who see any interference in another nations affairs as neo-colonialism.

Despite this unholy alliance of opposition, this three point plan is the best possibility that we have for avoiding the kind of agony that we are witnessing in Syria, Bahrain and many other places.

It's not going to be easy to get it accepted.

On the other hand, it is not easy to sit and watch mass murder take place every day.  By studying, thinking, and discussing these proposals, by getting them adopted as policies in the many institutions and NGOs that have an interest in human rights, conflict and development, we can help to bring about the adoption of these measures in the UN.


This Bloke said...

There is a lot not known about Syria. For one thing, Assad may be bad, but he has at least made successive moves to improve conditions within the country (as did Saddam Hussain and as did Colonel Gaddafi).. perhaps it is this reason why suddenly there is an armed (with foreign weapons) group within Syria who are as tight knit, right wing and as power mad as Assad who have risen and taken arms against the regime.

Firstly, Gaddafi was widely reported to have bombed his own people using his airforce, but this didn't happen (which is why the Financial Times did not report it), but now Gaddafi is gone, France's own oil company Total is reaping the rewards with massive concessions on oil from Libya!

In Syria, there are very close links between Iran and Lebanon. In Lebanon dwells Hizbollah who are armed and highly motivated and highly successful at what they were formed to do ~ defend Lebanon from invaders! This group was spawned from the invasion and 18 year occupation of Lebanon by Israel in 1982. Hizbollah have now successfully evicted and then stopped Israel from their occupation of Lebanon, although in 2006 it did not stop Israel bombing the entire country's infrastructure into dust including all major road networks and the civil airport!! All for the 'kidnapping' of two active duty soldiers who strayed into Lebanon!

So, Syria is a connection between Iran and Hizbollah. The ranting and (almost lunatic) raving from Israel and the USA and other quarters regarding the perceived threat to the world, and Israel in particular, from Iran... and then this!!

The group who are claiming to be fighting for democracy in Syria are Assad clones, but without the socialist elements which Assad has, e.g. installing public toilets so people don't have to soil the streets, adding litter bins so rubbish can be collected, and so on..

Pretty much all the Middle East is made up of family centred dictatorships, with the exception of Palestine. When Palestine held elections seen to be 'free and fair' by outside, international observers, the people chose Hamas as their government and were immediately punished for it. First a coup was organised and armed, via Israel, with US weapons but it failed. Then Gaza was sealed off, and remains virtually so, with blame landing on Hamas for 'attacking Fatah', the group armed by the West.

In many countries where we stick our noses, it's not for the benefit of the local populous and is often, perhaps mostly, detrimental.

I wonder what good the list will do, when Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International already have such things.. and nothing much gets done to change things for the better?

DocRichard said...

Thanks for all that info, Bloke, but the key point is that any ruler becomes illegitimate - that is, loses his or her legitimacy (i.e. right) to be regarded as a ruler, the moment when he or she starts using lethal force against non-violent demonstrators.

If you can prove beyond all doubt that the 10,000 deaths ascribed to Assad by human rights organisations, witnesses on social media, in newspapers and broadcast media are all made up, then please do so. If you cannot, then I ask you to join the rest of us in calling for Assad, whether he claims to be a "socialist" or not, to leave office and leave Syria.

Thank you.