Article in German Development Magazine

Im November hat das entwicklungspolitische Magazin Welt-Sichten eine Ausgabe zu UN Friedensmissionen veröffentlicht. Die ganze Ausgabe kann hier runtergeladen werden, mein Artikel zu der Situation im Kongo ist hier einsehbar. Lustigerweise ist unter den ausgesuchten Bildern mein indischer Arzt vertreten. Viel Spaß bei der Lektüre, Feedback und Kommentare sind wie immer Willkommen.

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UN Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians

Open debate

Last week I watched the 18th “Open Debate on Protection of Civilians” in armed conflict at the UN Security council. This event takes place once a year and represents an important forum for member states, i.e. the world’s governments, to discuss the issue and position themselves. As this month’s president of the Security Council, Uruguay chaired the debate, and UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, the ICRC’s Vice President Christine Beerli and Oxfam Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor Eveline Rooijmans provided briefings. Subsequently, many member states’ representatives, including Iran, Montenegro and the Holy See, gave their respective statements. As usual, these statements expressed great concern for civilian victims of today’s armed conflicts, but there also seemed to be a sense that “civilians in conflict are in greater risk now than at any time in the UN’s history” (New Zealand), which is reflected by the record high of 60 million displaced people. Statements also referred to this year’s worrying trends. Virtually every speaker condemned the attacks on hospitals in Afghanistan and Yemen, the use of starvation as a weapon of war in Madaya and 14 other areas in Syria, the increasing attacks against journalists and the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas.

Speakers were also in agreement concerning the solutions to civilian’s plight in armed conflict, again, referring to the above mentioned documents. Accordingly, they stressed the need for political solutions, specifically for dedicating more attention to preventing and meditating violent conflict. Burundi was often mentioned as a case in point, as the Security Council mission left for the country the next day – quite late but hopefully able to avoid worse. Speakers agreed that compliance to International Humanitarian Law needs to be ensured through applying and reinforcing the existing accountability tools of (international) criminal justice. Statements also referred to a number of operational issues for UN peacekeeping, such as the need for realistic and clear mandates, more engagement with local communities and regional organizations, well-equipped and quickly deployable peacekeepers, and a commitment to zero tolerance for sexual abuse and exploitation by UN staff. Speakers expressed hope that the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (May 23/24) would lead to fruitful discussions.

As someone who is interested in practice-theory, I am also trying to make sense of the event on the basis of what actually happened. First, as Jan Eliasson remarked, the high number of speakers suggests that the topic is important for many of the world’s governments. Actually, there were so many registered speakers that the chair urged orators to keep their statements brief and provide longer versions online. Second, this was not a “debate” in the classical sense. Rather statements were given about the same topic but without referring to each other. The Uruguayan delegation had provided a briefing note beforehand, which obviously guided the statements alongside three other documents: the Secretary General’s report on the protection of civilians, the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report and the SG’s report on the implementation of its recommendations. Consequently, statements mirrored each other. What was more interesting and differentiated the statements from each other was when speakers took the opportunity to connect PoC to their country’s history and interests. For example, Rwanda focused on the FDLR, Israel mentioned that Hezbollah was responsible for much of the violence in Syria, China stressed the neutrality and impartiality of UN peacekeeping, India talked about its experience in PoC since ONUC, Ukraine described Russian aggression and South Africa underlined the success of the FIB, etc.                Third, speakers obviously adhered to a set of shared norms, spending a good portion of their limited time to thank everyone and subsequently acknowledge previously stated facts and generally agreed-upon points of reference. Finally, the debate was a bit lengthy and repetitive. Some speakers made more relevant connections or, like Samantha Powers, depicted situations skilfully, but you were getting the gist of it after a couple statements. I must be one of the only people that followed it from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and quite frankly that wasn’t necessary. Many of the diplomats just came in for their statement and even the chair rotated several times.

It can be concluded that the “debate” did not seem to be about rethinking PoC or exchanging information, but should be seen more as a political process where member states expressed their commitment to the protection of civilians and broadly agreed to an agenda. While falling short of committing to tangible steps, the strong condemnation of the practice of starvation, for instance, will increase the pressure on Assad. Nevertheless, it should be taken with a grain of salt when many of the member states’ representatives ended by pointing to the forthcoming Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (May 23/24) as “an excellent opportunity to address the issue in a more in depth and comprehensive manner”.

Confessions of a humanitarian: I’ve never met a meeting I couldn’t sleep through

As you might know, my research is on inter-agency coordination. So, today’s expressive description of coordination meetings in the guardians ‘confessions of a humanitarian’ series drew my attention. The pseudonym aid worker Dara Passano starts her amusing rant with a telling opener “I’ve never walked into a development meeting that I couldn’t fall asleep in. Sometimes I resist; often I don’t.“ She continues to describe how she has tried everything to stay awake in these meetings from drinking caffeinated beverages to inflicting self-harm, but to no avail. Clearly, the author has not stayed objective but instead indulged into the full subjectiveness of her experiences. And probably, she exaggerated and simplified the spectrum of her own perceptions to one important argument: there is something fundamentally wrong with these meetings.

Some people have gotten stuck in the details, reproaching here to have invented some of these stories. In seems unlikely that she ever really invented data, and who cares? Her point is that no one would notice if she did, so it does not matter what the detailed truth is. Besides following the series’ title of making a confession, the literary writing style is probably more effective in bringing the point across. It definitely is more entertaining than a thorough analysis and finger-pointing (that is about to follow).

Some people could be offended by her text. It mocks many hard working people that spend a lot of time and energy to communicate across institutional divides. Some of the conveners, for instance Goma’s former protection cluster coordinator, are incredibly dedicated and capable. In addition, it ridicules development work which makes working in the sector increasingly difficult. Through the feedback loop of public opinion and policy-making, tarnishing the aid world’s reputation reduces trust and might just result in tightened regulations. Sympathetically, I would argue that the author is very much aware of the urgency and the consequences of flawed coordination (beyond the level of individual meeting participants). Arguably it is this awareness that motivated the piece.

Nevertheless, I have two issues with this text:
1) She does not really say why these meetings are so boring. The closest she gets to an analysis is by stating that “some organisations mandate ‘active participation’ in order to raise their profile; staff must create complications in order to be recorded, in the all-important meeting minutes”. She adds general stuff about people that like to talk, repeat themselves etc. But, if her criticism is not just making fun, then she misses out on telling us what is wrong. Is her messages so banal as that sitting in meeting is boring? Or does she think that there is something peculiar about the aid sector? I think the half-done analysis would have much more bang if she would actually address a problem. But then again, this is my interpretation, the author does not claim such a thing as an agenda.
2) Connected to the lacking identification of an issue, the character doesn’t do jack about this non-issue. The Zen challenge of the character is to sit in these meetings, not to do anything about them. Yes, the story is honest and exaggerated at the same time; the reader quickly understands how challenging and frustrating such meetings must be, but it remains a story. So then, why does the aid worker have to be mainly cynical? Given that this series is probably read mainly by aid workers, why can there not be something more inspirational than staying awake long enough to see the others napping off? Or did I just miss the wake-up call?

Lessons from Field Work

One thing that I have really learned the hard way is to always, ALWAYS do interview transcriptions and analytical notes immediately. We have all heard this before, but it really gets painful when weeks or months after your fieldwork there is so much raw data. Of course, you forget much of the context, some statements don’t really make sense anymore or you simply can’t read what you wrote. Plus a pile of transcriptions becomes really daunting to do, so starting does not get easier. Remember, you won’t have more time unless you seriously planned for it, and even then your professional and private obligations are likely to creep in, because this part of the work is simply not taken seriously enough. Instead of planning a tour de force to push through with this rather boring work, I advice to do a few hours every day. More experienced colleagues have added that you can always benefit from the data at a later point in time, which is why you need to do full transcriptions including the stuff that does not seem so relevant right now. And don’t forget to organize everything (voice recordings, transcriptions, memos) neatly so that you will intuitively find it in three years (probably form a new computer). Here is a little oath that I will make this whole process a lot easier for myself during future fieldwork.

Crisis Group Report 225: Is Democratic change possible?

International interventions can operate pretty independently from local contexts. In Congo, most of the staff from international organizations do not know much about the country’s politics, and I would argue that this is because they don’t have to. A good way to exemplify this is asking “who is Boshab”? Having failed this test myself in the past, I want to highlight that many staff members have technical professions far removed from diplomatic interaction and that a lack of (quality) Congolese media make it difficult to follow local politics. Yet, knowing the name of the Deputy Prime minister, former Speaker of Parliament (till 2012) and former Secretary General of the ruling party (till last week), might be considered good style when you are attempting to “help” another country.

During recent fieldwork in Congo, my attention was drawn to the other extreme – the “Congo nerds”. These are westerners, typically researchers and journalists, who have an applaudable knowledge about the country.  These people know the army regiments and hundreds of commanders within them; they know national, provincial and local politicians and are sometimes intimate with armed groups.  They talk about these things, are curious and ask questions. Although the name-dropping can get a little irritating, the knowledge and underlying experience is enviable.

The upcoming local/ provincial (2015) and national (2016) elections in Congo are the reason behind the Report at hand. The comprehensive report situates the analysis of the election preparations in a description of the key political moments during the recent years such as the “national consultations” and the M23 rebellion. It also explains the structural and institutional issues of Congolese politics, such as the lack of independence by the electoral commission (CENI), the highly fragmented political landscape and the tightly controlled security apparatus. In this manner, the report identifies several risks connected to the decentralization process, the overly ambitious electoral calendar and divisions within both the opposition and the ruling majority. Some of these aspects, such as the voter role, are quite technical, but nevertheless important for understanding the framework in which action takes place.

The report does justice to the role of key actors from politicians, to police, military, civil society and church leaders. More than 30 individual stakeholders are introduced. Being still quite ignorant on the Congolese actors, I appreciate this thirty something pages full of background knowledge, names and institutions as a great opportunity to study up. However, I am wondering how effective this detailed description is for people who merely want to get the bigger picture. It might divert attention from the analysis, which could have benefitted from a more central argument as organizing principle.

With a coup attempt and on-going fighting in Burundi, the intentions and action of Congo’s president deserve scrutiny. Just as in the case of Burundi and Rwanda, Congo’s constitution foresees President Kabila stepping down after having served two terms in office. But like Pierre Nkurunziza and Paul Kagame, Kabila seems to be decided to continue. He has not publicly clarified his intentions, which in itself is oil in the fire of pre-election tensions. However, there are clear indications that the regime tries to stay in power by all means. The report identifies three subsequent strategies: first, the regime attempted to amend the constitution. When that did not work, Kabila attempted to create legal obstacles to delay the elections. Since the new electoral law was abandoned due to widespread protests, the Congolese Government is now deliberately trying to produce chaos through pushing ahead with the elections and the decentralization process: “The sheer magnitude of the electoral agenda, in particular the local and provincial elections, combined with the sudden urgency in the otherwise stalled establishment of the new provinces, is likely to result in massive confusion and disarray…Such a scenario would justify an indefinite delay of the elections.” (P. 17)

The report naturally ends on recommendations. And here I see a big discrepancy between the analysis and the proposed action: While the report develops a picture of a power-hungry, Machiavellian Kabila regime, it suggests that this very regime could be compelled to a turn around through the threat of the withdrawal of international support. To be successful, this step requires that the regime would care. However, the earlier descriptions as well as other sources suggest that these men are primarily concerned with holding on to power. From the very beginning, they have been beneficiaries of this predatory state and are likely to cherish continuing more than they fear the withdrawal of international support. If they are attempting to compel the regime to anything, international negotiators ought to imply consequences for personal assets and traveling freedoms.

Moving forward against the FDLR

On Wednesday the International Crisis Group (ICG) published a new briefing on the current stalemate in DRCongo. The twenty-page report highlights that the hopes of moving towards peace and stability through regional cooperation and Congolese reforms are essentially shipwrecked by diverging interests between DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Africa. The briefing identifies the handling of the Rwandan Hutu rebel group FDLR as the “stumbling block” for the Peace Security and Cooperation framework – an agreement between the states of the region signed in February 2013. As a result no meaningful action can be taken against the plethora of armed groups, which continue to kill civilians, tarnishing the legitimacy of the peacekeeping mission and the Southern African Development Community. The briefing concludes that instead of being played by these regional actors, the UN should threaten to withdrawal the Force Intervention Brigade and incentivize the DRC, Tanzania and South Africa into finally taking effective action against the FDLR.

Book review: Thomas Turner (2013) “Congo”

I have just finished a review of Thomas Turner’s book ‘Congo’ that will be published as a slightly different and edited version. Turner is an American academic who works as a DRC country specialist for Amnesty International. He has taught in Congolese, Rwandan and Kenyan Universities and is married to a Congolese. It is probably this mix of academic background, relevant research experience and special ties to the region that enabled him to write this comprehensive yet compact and accessible book. Excellently researched and well-written, the text comes with many advantages, but none of the disadvantages of its academic peers. I recommend it as a substantial but digestible introduction for everyone working in and on the country that also offers a large number of facts and interesting reflections to those that are more familiar with it.

The chapters are organized along the lines of the most pressing issues – resources, identity, sexual violence and external involvement – yet their analysis is far from simplistic and goes beyond the usual headlines. The author skilfully draws from a substantial knowledge of the country’s different historical periods, from pre-colonial times to the Congo Free State and Zaire, to ask the right questions. He wonders, for instance, how the exploitive Belgian regime relates to Mobutu’s dictatorship and the status quo. But Turner also convinces with the way he makes his arguments: Instead of giving simple answers, he carefully balances the work of other scholars to make sense of complex realities. So when responding to the above question, Turner refrains from establishing direct causal links and instead summarizes psychological, structural, traditional and economic explanations for the persistence of structural and physical violence in the country. The particularly captivating concept of a ‘chosen trauma’ by psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan is, for instance, introduced to explain the trans-generational transmission of memory and behaviour. According to Volkan “trauma tends to generate or reinforce a political ideology of entitlement to violence” (p.135), which leads subsequent generations to respond to the pain and humiliations of the past. Through oversimplifications of the violent events, each side denies the chosen trauma of the other and instead focuses on their own victimhood, as it is tragically the case with Hutu and Tutsi.

The idea of Congo as “a playing field” for powerful Western states as well as its African neighbours, particularly during the ‘Congo Wars’, is developed over two chapters. While the analysis of western hegemony in Congo is painted in classical realist terms, the games of pawns and proxies are presented more complex in the intra-African context as “central African states are dependent on the more powerful” to advance their interests (p.72). When reflecting on the violence of the two Congo wars, Turner highlights “the number game” stating that “the topics of “mass deaths and mass rapes have generated international controversies, pitting researchers and humanitarian activists against each other” (p.212). Many readers will be familiar with the contested estimation by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) of five million war related deaths in Congo between 1998 and 2008. In a similar vein, a 2011 article published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated the number of rapes at 48 per hour. Turner holds that it is undisputed that too many people have died from hunger or disease and that the number and style of rapes have taken horrendous forms. But he also clarifies that these numbers have severe flaws given the absence of population statistics, the generalization of limited data and the interests of beneficiaries and aid agencies.

In another chapter, Turner explains how identity factors such as ethnicity, language and religion have been developed and reinforced through colonial favouritism and subsequently used by Congolese politicians to play different groups against each other (e.g. Mobutu) and gain electoral advantages (e.g. Bemba). After describing the dynamics between autochtones and allochtones in Katanga and the Kivus, Turner highlights the striking absence of class in Congolese analysis and policy-making despite the Marxist background of many Congolese intellectuals. He suggests that Congo’s Ethno-nationalism obscures questions of landownership and control over the means of production. This remark is typical for the book in so far as it demonstrates great understanding of the Congolese context, while also bringing in new perspectives. It is thus unsurprising that Turner ends on the important question of who will be protecting Congolese civilians. In the last chapter he examines the interaction between protection norms and practices, and draws a grim picture of the future. While clearly outlining the failure of the international community to bring change to Congo, the author also highlights the responsibility of the Congolese. Going beyond the standard and somewhat empty wisdom that the protection of civilians primarily is the responsibility of the Congolese state, Turner writes that “they will have to stop promoting the “myth of the yoke”, according to which all their problems come from outside, even though this myth is partly valid” (p.204). Having heard many similar stories about how the Rwandans are responsible for the current economic, political and social situation, and/or how peacekeepers are not doing there job, I full agree to this. To be sure, it is not a question of blaming my Congolese friends into being passive. Taking action in this context is easy said from the outside but difficult to implement from within. Rather, the idea is to nuance discourses on responsibility so that claiming protection or accountability from officials becomes conceivable for ordinary people.