Wahlen in Sri Lanka: Das Reformfenster schließt sich

Krisenprävention bedeutet, Länder, die sich in einem Übergang von Krieg und Gewaltherrschaft befinden, bei Reformprozessen zu unterstützen. Dies ist in Sri Lanka nur begrenzt gelungen – die mögliche Rückkehr eines nationalistischen Präsidenten bei den Wahlen am 16. November steht bevor. Die Bundesregierung sollte nun Lehren aus den Erfahrungen der letzten fünf Jahre ziehen.

Poster mit Präsident Sirisena und Premierminister Wickremesinghe, Februar 2018.

Dieser Beitrag erschien am 14.November 2019 auf dem PeaceLab Blog.

Über 250 Tote und mehrere hundert Verletzte: die Terroranschläge vom Ostersonntag 2019 in Sri Lanka erregten weltweite Aufmerksamkeit. Mittlerweile ist bekannt, dass die Sicherheitsbehörden zahlreiche Hinweise auf die Täter im Vorfeld ignorierten, nicht zuletzt aufgrund der Zerstrittenheit politischer Kräfte an der Staatsspitze. Die Anschläge wurden in Sri Lanka geplant, finanziert und organisiert – auch wenn ISIS die Inspiration und globale Vermarktung lieferte. Das dysfunktionale politische System erwies sich als Gefahrenfaktor für sri-lankische Bürgerinnen und Bürger sowie ausländische Touristen. Im Nachgang der Anschläge folgten Übergriffe gewalttätiger Mobs auf Muslime. Präsident Maithripala Sirisena heizte die Stimmung weiter an, indem er einen bekannten Scharfmacher begnadigte, der sich direkt anti-muslimischen Protesten anschloss.

Die Gewalt in Sri Lanka zeigt, welch hohe Risiken mit Übergangsprozessen nach Krieg und autoritärer Herrschaft verbunden sind. Die Bundesregierung hat sich in den Leitlinien vorgenommen, eine Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik zu betreiben, die Krisen und massenhafte Gewalt verhindern will. Deutschland und die EU haben den Reformprozess in Sri Lanka führend diplomatisch und wirtschaftlich begleitet. Auch wenn die Hauptverantwortung für mangelnde Reformen bei der sri-lankischen Regierung liegt, haben deutsche und europäische Diplomatinnen und Politiker nicht immer ausreichend Anreize für sichtbare Reformen gesetzt. Vor allem müssen sie sich nach dem Chaos in der sri-lankischen Regierung auf die Rückkehr eines ihnen gegenüber skeptisch eingestellten Nationalisten einstellen.

Das Wiedererstarken der Nationalisten ist eine Gefahr für das Land

Am 16. November sind die Bürgerinnen und Bürger Sri Lankas zur Wahl eines neuen Präsidenten aufgerufen. Sirisena tritt nicht wieder an. Der Favorit ist Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ein Bruder von Mahinda Rajapaksa, der von 2005 bis 2015 Präsident war. Der ehemalige Verteidigungsstaatssekretär verspricht „nationale Sicherheit“, eine „disziplinierte“ Gesellschaft, und eine größere Nähe zu China, von dem sich die aktuelle Regierung abgewandt hatte. Sein Hauptgegner ist Sajith Premadasa, stellvertretender Führer der United National Party (UNP) und Wohnungsminister der aktuellen Regierung. Der Sohn eines früheren Präsidenten verspricht vor allem soziale Wohltaten. Die exekutive Macht des Präsidenten will er nicht antasten, redet aber von mehr Dezentralisierung und „sauberer Politik“.

Ein Sieg Rajapaksas würde eine ernsthafte Gefahr für Rechtstaatlichkeit, Menschenrechte und das Verhältnis der Volksgruppen in Sri Lanka darstellen. Während der Amtszeit seines Bruders Mahinda (und möglichem neuen Premierministers nach einer Parlamentswahl in wenigen Monaten) wurden weiße Vans zum Symbol eines übergriffigen Sicherheitsapparats, welcher Menschen einschüchterte, überwachte, einsperrte, folterte oder sogar für immer verschwinden ließ. Als Verteidigungsstaatssekretär unter seinem Bruder pflegte Gotabaya Rajapaksa  ein enges Verhältnis zu radikalen buddhistischen Organisationen, die muslimische und christliche Einrichtungen angriffen. Bekannte Journalisten wurden auf offener Straße ermordet. Hinweise, die auf eine von Gotabaya kontrollierte Einheit des militärischen Geheimdiensts deuteten, führten zu einer Anzeige gegen Rajapaksa in den USA, deren Staatsbürgerschaft er zum Zeitpunkt der Tat besaß. Entsprechend diesem früheren Verhalten wäre unter einer Präsidentschaft Rajapaksas auch ein deutlich schärferes Auftreten gegenüber westlichen Staaten zu erwarten – Sri Lanka wäre kein zuverlässiger Partner in multilateralen Gremien mehr. Das Fenster für staatliche Reformen würde sich vollends schließen. Das Risiko von Gewalt und Gegengewalt würde weiter steigen.

Regierungsinterne Spannungen unterminierten die gewünschten Reformprozesse

Rajapaksa werden gute Chancen eingeräumt, weil der gegenwärtige Präsident Sirisena und die Regierung unter Premierminister Ranil Wickremesinghe viele Erwartungen enttäuscht haben. Die Regierung der „nationalen Einheit“, eine Art große Koalition Sri Lankas, hatte bei ihrer Wahl 2015, unterstützt von nationalen Minderheiten, Hoffnungen auf weitreichende Reformen geweckt. Eine breite Regierungsmehrheit und gesellschaftliche Unterstützung nährten die Hoffnung, sie würde die Ursachen der Konflikte, welche Sri Lanka seit Jahrzehnten zerreißen, beherzt angehen.

Die Fliehkräfte zwischen dem sozialkonservativen Präsidenten Sirisena aus der Provinz und seinem wirtschaftsliberalen Premier Wickremesinghe aus der Hauptstadt Colombo waren jedoch zu groß, ebenso zwischen ihren Parteien. Anstatt die Reformen, Einheit und Versöhnung des Landes zu verfolgen, schielte Sirisena häufig auf den parteipolitischen Gewinn.  Zudem sendete die  Regierung widersprüchliche Signale: Einerseits beschloss das Parlament bereits im April 2015 eine Beschränkung der Amtszeit und der Befugnisse des Präsidenten als 19. Verfassungszusatz. Andererseits blieb die Ausarbeitung einer neuen Verfassung mit umfassenderen Veränderungen wie mehr Dezentralisierung im Parlament stecken. Sirisena selbst stellte die von ihm vorangebrachten Reformen dieses Jahr in Frage.

Die Spannungen in der Regierung erreichten einen Höhepunkt am 26. Oktober 2018, als Präsident Sirisena Premierminister Wickremesinghe für abgesetzt erklärte und durch seinen vormaligen Gegner Mahinda Rajapaksaersetzte. Die folgende Verfassungskrise erschütterte das Land. Friedliche Demonstrationen und gezielte Klagen der engagierten Zivilgesellschaft brachten die Krise im Dezember zu einem Ende – und Wickremesinghe zurück in sein Amt. Doch fortan schloss der Präsident den Premierminister von Sitzungen des nationalen Sicherheitsrats aus. Hinweise des indischen Geheimdienstes und eigene geheimdienstliche Erkenntnisse zu den Anschlagsplänen für den Ostersonntag 2019 blieben in den sri-lankischen Sicherheitsbehörden stecken, wie ein parlamentarischer Untersuchungsausschuss feststellte.

Bemühungen zur Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit blieben unvollendet  

Im Menschenrechtsrat der Vereinten Nationen gab die sri-lankische Regierung die Blockadepolitik ihrer Vorgängerregierung auf und bekannte sich zu einem umfassenden Programm der Vergangenheitsarbeit und Versöhnung. Sie richtete Institutionen ein, die das Schicksal tausender vermisster Personen aufklären, sowie Projekte für Versöhnung und Gewaltprävention anstoßen sollten. Doch einen Mechanismus für die juristische Aufarbeitung der Verbrechen des Bürgerkrieges auf allen Seiten richtete sie nicht ein. Stattdessen ernannte sie Shavendra Silva, der in einem Untersuchungsbericht der Vereinten Nationen als ein Verantwortlicher für mögliche Verbrechen am Ende des Krieges 2009 genannt wird, zum Chef der Armee.

Zwar begannen mehrere Verfahren wegen Korruption und Misswirtschaft gegen hochrangige Angehörige des früheren Regimes, einschließlich Gotabaya Rajapaksa, aber bis heute wurde keiner von ihnen verurteilt. Gleichzeitig verwickelte sich die neue Regierung gleich zu Beginn ihrer Amtszeit in einen Skandal um den vergünstigten Verkauf von Staatsanleihen. Insgesamt gab es nur wenige Mitglieder der Regierung, welche sich aus voller Überzeugung für die Aufarbeitung des Bürgerkriegs einsetzten. Aus Beispielen wie diesen sollte die Bundesregierung für die Umsetzung ihrer neuen Strategie zu Vergangenheitsarbeit und Versöhnung lernen.

Die EU sollte Druckmittel wie Handelserleichterungen gezielt einsetzen

Transformationsprozesse verlaufen selten linear. Sri Lankas Politik leidet seit Jahrzehnten unter einem populistischen Überbietungswettbewerb der großen singhalesischen Parteien, der wenig Raum für Minderheiten bietet. Staatliche Institutionen wie Polizei, Militär, Behörden und Justiz werden von der singhalesisch-buddhistischen Bevölkerungsmehrheit dominiert. Die Öffnung der letzten Jahre bot eine Gelegenheit für Reformen. Diese blieben zwar hinter den Möglichkeiten zurück, bieten aber dennoch Ansatzpunkte für die internationale Gemeinschaft, um Rückschritte unter einem neuen Präsidenten zumindest abzufedern.

Mit starker Unterstützung deutscher Diplomatinnen und Diplomaten entschied sich die EU Kommission 2017, Sri Lanka wieder in das Programm „GSP+“ von Handelserleichterungen aufzunehmen. Das Besondere an dem Programm ist, dass die Zollpräferenzen an die Einhaltung von 27 internationalen Konventionen aus den Bereichen Menschenrechte, Arbeitsschutz, Korruptionsbekämpfung und Umweltschutz gebunden sind. Ein wichtiger Knackpunkt in den Verhandlungen mit Sri Lanka war die Anfälligkeit der Terrorismusgesetzgebung für Polizeifolter. Indem die EU-Kommission die Zollpräferenzen ohne eine neue Gesetzgebung gewährte, verfehlte sie eine wichtige Weichenstellung. Besonders der sri-lankische Textilsektor profitierte zwar von dem Programm, einschließlich dort beschäftigter Tamilen im Norden des Landes. Doch der drakonische Prevention of Terrorism Act ist bis heute geltendes Gesetz. Nach den Terroranschlägen vom Ostersonntag verhaftete die Polizei hunderte von Personen auf Basis dieses Gesetzes. Die EU sollte deshalb das GSP+ Programm aussetzen, wenn ein neuer Präsident Rechtsstaatlichkeit einschränkt oder Gewalt gegen Minderheiten nicht ausreichend unterbindet– wie sie bereits während der Verfassungskrise 2018 angedroht hatte.

Deutschland kann sich im UN-Menschenrechtsrat für Vergangenheitsarbeit in Sri Lanka einsetzen

Ein weiterer Ansatzpunkt für internationalen Druck ist der UN-Menschenrechtsrat. Deutschland gehört dort zur sogenannten „Kerngruppe“ von Mitgliedsstaaten, welche die Resolutionen zu Sri Lanka federführend verhandeln. Seit 2012 übten regelmäßige Befassungen des Rats und Berichte des Hochkommissariats für Menschenrechte zunehmenden Druck auf die sri-lankische Regierung aus, sich mit Vorwürfen auseinanderzusetzen, dass während des Bürgerkriegs Massaker, gezielte Tötungen, Folter und weitere schwere Kriegsverbrechen verübt wurden – sowohl von staatlichen Sicherheitskräften, als auch Rebellen. Von der Rajapaksa-Regierung eingesetzte Kommissionen waren unzureichend, schafften aber auch eine sri-lankische Berufungsgrundlage für weiteren zivilgesellschaftlichen Druck. Nach dem konstruktiveren Verhalten der Regierung von Premierminister Wickremesinghe seit 2015 hätte der Menschenrechtsrat schon früher als im März 2019 auf einen Umsetzungsplan mit konkreten Fristen drängen sollen, um die Versprechen der Regierung zur Vergangenheitsarbeit einzulösen. Diesen Kanal sollte Deutschland auch in Zukunft gegenüber einem neuen sri-lankischen Präsidenten verfolgen. Um dem Anspruch der Leitlinien, „eine Krise frühzeitig zu verhindern“, zu entsprechen, sollte die Bundesregierung auch konstruktiv gesinnte Regierungen zu klaren Umsetzungsstrategien verpflichten. Auf diese Weise könnte sie früher als bislang institutionelle Weichenstellungen für die friedliche Entwicklung einer Gesellschaft unterstützen, um für mögliche Rückschläge gewappnet zu sein. Die Unabhängigkeit des Rechtsstaats und menschenrechtlicher Institutionen zu verteidigen bleibt ein wichtiger Grund für weitere internationale Aufmerksamkeit in Sri Lanka. Die Erfahrung hat gezeigt, dass sich auch eine nationalistische Regierung in Sri Lanka mit abgestimmtem diplomatischem Druck auseinandersetzen muss. Sri Lankerinnen und Sri Lanker haben in den letzten Jahren eindrücklich bewiesen, dass sie ihre Gesellschaft gegen Machtmissbrauch zu schützen suchen. Ihr Mut und ihre Ausdauer verdient deutsche und internationale Unterstützung.

Peace in South Sudan: Don’t repeat the same mistakes

Germany should advocate in the UN Security Council for a course correction on the international approach to peace in South Sudan. If high-level mediation, addressing impunity, and grassroots reconciliation are not prioritized, international pressure to form a transitional government by November 12, 2019, is likely to lead to renewed violence.

UN Security Council delegation visiting South Sudan, October 2019. Photo: Isaac Billy, UNMISS.

This text was published as DGAP Standpunkt on 29 October 2019.

In Juba, South Sudan’s capital, it seems to be Groundhog Day, with the same events reoccurring in a never-ending loop. The current run-up to a November 12 deadline to form a transitional government closely resembles the predicament of just half a year ago, when the parties had extended the initial deadline from May.

Under intense regional and international pressure after the collapse of the original peace agreement of August 2015, the government and opposition parties signed the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) in September 2018. It included a ceasefire, which largely still holds across the country, at least among signatories. R-ARCSS also foresaw the creation of a transitional government of national unity, with positions for the various negotiating parties, including five vice-presidential posts.

A delegation of the UN Security Council, led by the United States and South Africa, visited Juba on October 20, 2019. Its mission: impress upon all signatories to the R-ARCSS the need to abide by their commitments, including forming the transitional government by the agreed deadline. The United States has already hinted at additional sanctions if the parties fail. Yet with no adequate security arrangements and political agreements in place, such international pressure risks repeating the same mistakes made at key junctures since the start of South Sudan’s civil war in December 2013.

The issues hindering the peace process and the formation of the transitional government of national unity are well-known. In a statement from early October 2019, the UN Security Council listed them itself: not only is there no agreement between the parties on the internal borders of South Sudan’s federal states and the cantonment and training of government and opposition security forces, but the government is also dragging its feet in releasing funds to support these processes.

Unsatisfied with the lack of progress, the most prominent opposition group – the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) led by Riek Machar – announced in early October that it would not participate in the transition government. Machar maintained his objection during the Security Council’s mid-October visit. Similarly, the South Sudan Opposition Alliance, another signatory of the peace agreement, said that its participation hinged on the resolution of the outstanding issues. President Salva Kiir has maintained that he will form the transitional government even if some opposition groups choose not to participate. Meanwhile, there are already allegations that Kiir is training new forces.

Déjà Vu of the Original Peace Agreement

The current peace deal risks sharing the fate of the original peace agreement of August 2015, which quickly collapsed three years ago amid the escalation of fighting, spread of violence, and fragmentation of the parties involved. Then, international pressure brought Kiir, Machar, and a smaller opposition group together to sign this agreement, which included a ceasefire, a power-sharing arrangement, and a commitment to establish a hybrid court under the aegis of the African Union. As became clear in the following months, the parties never intended to follow through with many of these commitments. Worse, the regional and international guarantors of the agreement let them get away with it.

Barely two months after he signed the peace agreement, President Kiir announced the reorganization of South Sudan’s federal states, increasing their number from 10 to 28. As the power-sharing arrangements were tied to the original number, his move was a clear violation of the peace agreement. Furthermore, the government failed to withdraw the bulk of its security forces from Juba to cantonment sites on its periphery. Machar and Kiir agreed on security arrangements that brought hundreds of opposition forces to Juba to guarantee the safety of Machar and his team, further militarizing the capital.

Under international pressure and in a weak military position, Machar went to Juba in April 2016 to form a unity government. The arrangement proved to be deeply dysfunctional. When Machar’s and Kiir’s forces clashed at an illegal checkpoint in the city in July of that year, heavy fighting broke out, during which hundreds of civilians and fighters were killed. Machar fled Juba accompanied by a contingent of his rebels, with government security forces in close pursuit. The government later revealed that it had paid Paul Malong, then chief of military staff, five million US dollars directly from the central bank to pursue and kill Machar, then the country’s first vice president.

International and regional reactions to these events were underwhelming. Beyond verbal criticism, there were neither repercussions for Kiir’s reorganization of state borders, nor for the July 2016 crisis. In addition, international and regional partners implicitly accepted that Taban Deng Gai, who had represented the opposition during the peace negotiations, had replaced Machar as first vice president while Machar was on the run.

Waking Up from Groundhog Day

Around 380,000 people are estimated to have died because of South Sudan’s civil war. The South Sudanese need a different international engagement. Germany supported the negotiations that led to the revitalized peace agreement last year with expertise and additional staff for the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional organization in the Horn of Africa. As a donor and a current non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Germany – along with its European partners – now has the chance to steer international policymaking on South Sudan in new, more effective directions.

First of all, in partnership with the AU and IGAD, the Security Council needs to push for continuous mediation between the parties. Security arrangements and the internal political order were already at the heart of the failure of the previous transitional government. Therefore, it is baffling that IGAD has not yet managed to appoint a permanent head of the peace agreement’s monitoring body. South Sudan should not just be seen as an issue to shape US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft’s public profile; rather, it deserves sustained political attention from the region, as well as from international decision-makers, including in Europe. There is no shortcut around negotiations between the parties. High-level mediators not only need to bring all the main players to the negotiating table until there is a consensus, but they also need to quickly follow-up with sanctions in the event of serious violations.

Secondly, donor countries like Germany need to spell out their conditions for support of the peace process more explicitly. Right now, the South Sudanese parties shape the narrative by calling for international donors to release further funds for the implementation of the peace agreement, in particular the retraining of government and opposition forces. Instead, donors should insist on the South Sudanese government’s pledge to release 100 million US dollars for this process. While the government currently spends millions on a presidential jet and foreign medical treatment for MPs, it is neither paying security services nor providing sufficient food and water at cantonment sites. Any support of the peace process by external donors should be bound to financial audits and transparency of South Sudan’s oil sector.

Thirdly, peacemaking in South Sudan needs to move away from a purely transactional model of power-sharing, in which government positions are meted out to the parties according to their negotiating strength. As Lotje de Vries and Mareike Schomerus argued in 2017, a peace deal alone will not end the war in South Sudan. Europe needs to follow the US example by going after the cash flows funding the violence more aggressively than in the past. Thanks to investigations by the Sentry, a US civil society organization; the panel of experts appointed by the UN Security Council; and the UN Human Rights Commission on South Sudan, detailed evidence already exists of the patronage networks benefiting from the civil war. The EU should freeze the assets of more corrupt members of the South Sudanese elite. Addressing impunity by getting the proposed hybrid court on South Sudan up and running under the aegis of the African Union also deserves a higher priority.

International pressure on the parties needs to focus on resolving the outstanding issues, not on forming a bloated transitional government with minimal trust. Machar can be forgiven for not trusting the UN’s assurance of his and his team’s safety if they return to Juba. In July 2016, UN troops were bogged down amid the urban fighting in the city and did not even intervene to halt an assault on humanitarian and UN workers at a nearby compound, let alone protect civilians in the vicinity of its camps. While the UN Mission has been bumped up to include additional forces with a robust mandate and improved procedures, it is unclear whether these forces would be able to engage with the thousands of government troops stationed in Juba if the 2016 scenario were to repeat itself.

For the moment, sustaining the ceasefire needs to have priority. It has enabled the conclusion of more than 130 local reconciliation efforts in South Sudan’s myriad inter- and intra-communal conflicts. The UN Mission in South Sudan, as well as the South Sudanese Council of Churches, has supported many of these efforts. Both deserve the Security Council’s full political support. Over time, local peace agreements can help build national peace and development from the ground up – until, one day, South Sudan can break the loop of renewed violence for good.

Enhancing Germany’s Conflict Prevention Strategies

The German government’s three new prevention strategies set high conceptual standards. In order to be effective, they need more focus, specificity and greater attention to the growing demands on embassy staff.

German Embassy in Juba, South Sudan.
German Embassy in Juba, South Sudan.

This text was first published in the Berlin Policy Journal on 22 October 2019.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly at the end of September, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas promised more “sustainability” in foreign policy. Crisis prevention would play an essential role in this, he said. On the same day, the German government presented three new policies on crucial areas of preventive action: security sector reform (SSR), rule of law support, and transitional justice. They represent a welcome step forward but need to be developed further to be effective.

Since 2014, the German government has significantly increased its involvement in fragile states. The German Foreign Office’s project funds for crisis prevention, stabilization, and peace-building alone have quadrupled since then—to €396 million in the current budget. These funds are in addition to Germany’s development aid, the majority of which is spent in fragile states as well. Iraq, Mali, Afghanistan, and Niger are some of the countries where the Auswaertiges Amt uses the stabilization funds to support humanitarian mine clearing, police training, or peace mediation.

Three Sectors Shaping Transition Processes

Security sector reform, transitional justice, and rule of law shape social transformation processes in fragile states. What sounds quite technical actually has real-life consequences for millions of people in countries undergoing transition periods after war and authoritarian rule. Germany’s new strategies recognize the most important challenges related to these concepts.

For authoritarian leaders, the police, armed forces, and government-aligned militia are key instruments to secure their rule. Retraining forces, demobilizing militias, and reducing the military’s control of the economy are crucial for conflict transformation. International support for security sector reform needs to be finely calibrated. There may be considerable resistance to giving up power and access to resources. Moreover, training and equipping government forces may deepen distrust among parts of the population that see them as representatives of a deeply discriminatory state.

After war and tyranny, smoldering grievances can trigger new conflicts if left unaddressed. Truth commissions, special tribunals or compensation mechanisms can make an important contribution to reconciliation and help prevent renewed violence. There has been considerable international experience since the Nuremberg trials in the 1940s and the truth commissions in South Africa and South America in the 1990s. One of these lessons is that there is never a straightforward path toward transitional justice, and that the expectations for truth, justice, reparations, and healing may differ widely between national and international actors, as well as among different victim groups.

In countries marked by repression, violence, and weak state capacity, the justice system is often deeply dysfunctional. In Sri Lanka, a relatively wealthy and capable state, it still takes 10 years for a serious criminal offence to reach an indictment at the High Court, and an additional seven years for the appeals process. Moreover, powerful politicians or business people have substantial resources to delay or evade judicial proceedings altogether. Authoritarian regimes stuff courts with biased judges or adopt discriminatory laws. Reforming the justice system is thus not just a technical task but touches on politically sensitive areas as well. Lastly, informal, traditional and religious mechanisms may offer complimentary sources of justice, but international actors like the German government are right to insist on their alignment with the protection of fundamental rights, including those concerning minorities and women.

Focus, Details, and Embassies

There is strong conceptual thinking in the document that are going to underpin the German government’s work on prevention and stabilization. At the same time, Berlin needs to develop them further to ensure they are not just policies, but strategies worthy of that name. Three areas stand out.

First, focus. The three strategies differ widely in their discussion of the value-added that Germany can provide. The transitional justice strategy shows the greatest coherence. It identifies four priorities and allocates individual measures to them. The German government wants to embed transitional justice in a “prevention agenda” of political reforms, empower victim groups, promote gender equality and make use of Germany’s specific experience in dealing with its Nazi and communist past.

In the area of promoting the rule of law, the strategy mentions that the focus should be on binding administrations to the rule of law. However, this is not further explained or used as an ordering principle. The SSR strategy even manages to not set any priorities. This is surprising in so far as Germany’s system of parliamentary control of the armed forces and the leadership concept in the Bundeswehr (“Innere Führung”) could provide valuable lessons for its SSR support.

Second, details. Monitoring and evaluation are important, and they are mentioned in all three strategies. On SSR, the government commits itself to conflict-sensitivity, the “do no harm” principle and “more exchange” between the ministries. Except for such generic commitments, it remains unclear, however, to what extent the government will vet individual participants in SSR programs and trace their deployment after their training. On rule of law, the strategy mentions the rule of law dialogues with China and Vietnam as examples of long-term engagement. Here it is important to reflect more on the ambition of such dialogues: While individual legislative proposals may be defused, the overall one-party-system remains in place. On transitional justice, it is baffling that the strategy doesn’t mention the on-going practice of German law enforcement to pursue mass atrocity crimes under the principle of universality, for example in Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Third, embassies. All three strategies emphasize the importance of political dialogue accompanying programmatic efforts. Significant portions of this political dialogue will fall on German embassies in fragile countries, which are frequently ill-equipped for the growing demands placed on them. With often less than a handful of staff, German diplomats not only need to provide country analyses, but also spot opportunities for programmatic efforts, monitoring their progress and ensuring continued political buy-in with national stakeholders. In addition, the more projects there are in fragile countries, the more likely are visits by German policymakers, which absorb significant bureaucratic resources. Embassies will also need to replicate the growing cooperation between government ministries and non-governmental organizations in Germany at an operational level in their respective country. Only if embassies have enough qualified staff can they adequately fulfill these tasks, and remind their counterparts of their political commitments, if necessary.

Overall, the strategies are a demonstration of Germany’s growing investment in prevention and stabilization. They are testament to a new way of doing business marked by growing transparency, agility, and cooperation with outside experts. This is not enough though. Credibility and larger issues matter, too. Global trade, economic, climate and arms export policies can be structural drivers of conflict. A sustainable foreign policy worthy of the name needs not only verifiable strategies, but also a holistic approach.

Präventive Außenpolitik braucht überprüfbare Strategien

In drei neuen Strategiedokumenten zur Krisenprävention formuliert die Bundesregierung hohe konzeptionelle Ansprüche an ihre Arbeit. Als Schwerpunkte sollen Sicherheitssektorreform, Rechtsstaatsförderung und Vergangenheitsarbeit unterstützt werden. Um diese Konzepte auch wirkungsvoll umsetzen zu können, müssen die Aktionspläne aber konkrete Maßnahmen enthalten. Auslandsvertretungen in fragilen Staaten kommt dabei eine besondere Bedeutung zu.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena visiting the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin in 2016. Germany has supported the transitional justice process in Sri Lanka.

Dieser Beitrag erschien als DGAP Standpunkt am 30.September 2019.

In seiner Rede vor der UN-Generalversammlung Ende September versprach Außenminister Heiko Maas eine „nachhaltige Außenpolitik“. Krisenprävention nehme darin eine besondere Stellung ein, sagte er. Am gleichen Tag stellte die Bundesregierung drei neue Konzepte vor, die zeigen sollen, wie präventives Engagement aussehen kann. Bei der ersten Jahrestagung des Beirats zivile Krisenprävention in Berlin stießen diese auf ein weitgehend positives Echo. Den Strategien sollten jedoch Aktionspläne mit konkreten Zielen für Personal, Ausstattung und Koordinationsmechanismen folgen.

Seit 2014 hat die Bundesregierung ihr Engagement in fragilen Staaten deutlich gesteigert. Allein die Projektmittel des Auswärtigen Amts für Krisenprävention, Stabilisierung und Friedensförderung haben sich seitdem etwa vervierfacht – auf 396 Millionen Euro im aktuellen Haushalt. 2017 verabschiedete das Kabinett die Leitlinien „Krisen verhindern, Konflikte bewältigen, Frieden fördern.“ Ein Ergebnis dieser Leitlinien sind drei themenspezifische Dokumente, die ressortgemeinsam abgestimmt und von einem öffentlichen Konsultationsprozess begleitet wurden. Diese beschäftigen sich mit Sicherheitssektorreformen (SSR), Rechtstaatsförderung sowie Vergangenheitsarbeit und Versöhnung.

Diese drei Bereiche prägen gesellschaftliche Transformationsprozesse. Heike Thiele, Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Zivile Krisenprävention und Stabilisierung im Auswärtigen Amt, nannte den Übergangsprozess im Sudan bei der Jahrestagung als aktuelles Beispiel: Die Richterbänke sind besetzt mit Leuten des alten Regimes. Armee, Polizei und Milizen müssten sich das Vertrauen der Bevölkerung erst verdienen und massive Gewaltanwendungen aus dreißig Jahren Diktatur müssten aufgearbeitet werden. Nur so könnten die Menschen in Sudan wieder anfangen, den staatlichen Institutionen zu vertrauen.

Gute Konzepte, zu wenig Strategie

In den Dokumenten sind zentrale Konzepte, Instrumente und Handlungsfelder aufgelistet. Damit wird das deutsche Verständnis für die Herausforderungen präventiver Arbeit in drei zentralen Bereichen aufgelistet. Um wirklich ihren Anspruch als Strategien zu erfüllen, muss jedoch noch jeweils klarer werden, wie sich die Arbeit der Ressorts in absehbarer Zukunft messbar ändern soll – außer einer neuen gemeinsamen Arbeitsgruppe.

Ein effektiver und bei allen Bevölkerungsgruppen legitimierter Sicherheitssektor ist Voraussetzung für langfristige Stabilität. In der SSR-Strategie erkennt die Bundesregierung an, dass es sich bei der Reform von Polizei und Militär nicht nur um technische, sondern machtpolitische Prozesse handelt. Denn die Sicherheitskräfte sind ein zentrales Instrument der Unterdrückung und Herrschaftssicherung in autokratischen Staaten. Unter ihnen gibt es zahlreiche Gegner von mehr Transparenz und Rechenschaftspflichtigkeit.

Internationale Hilfe für SSR ist stets mit dem Risiko verbunden, durch einseitige Unterstützung neue Vorbehalte zu schüren, wie auch die SSR-Strategie erwähnt. Allerdings legt die Bundesregierung nicht dar, welche genauen Mechanismen sie einsetzt, um diese Risiken zu managen. Dazu sollte auch die Überprüfung des menschenrechtlichen Hintergrunds der Teilnehmerinnen und Teilnehmer an von Deutschland finanzierten Maßnahmen zählen. Ein allgemeiner Hinweis auf konfliktsensibles Handeln reicht nicht. Die Zusammenarbeit mit nichtstaatlichen Gewaltakteuren wie Selbstverteidigungsmilizen stellt die Strategie allerdings zu Recht unter einen hohen Vorbehalt.

Die Beziehungen zwischen Staat und Gesellschaft beruhen auf Regeln. Die transparente, gleichmäßige und konsequente Einhaltung dieser Regeln berührt das Rechtsstaatsprinzip. Auch hier erkennt die Bundesregierung an, dass eine rein technische Unterstützung von Gerichten, Strafvollzug und Rechtspflege nicht ausreicht, sondern politisch flankiert werden muss. Hilfreich ist auch, dass die Strategie auch nichtstaatliche Quellen von Recht anerkennt und Bedingungen für deutsche Unterstützung von informellen, traditionellen oder religiösen Rechtssystemen nennt. Zu diesen Bedingungen zählt ihre Ausrichtung an Frauen- und Minderheitenrechten. 

Gleichwohl liest sich die Strategie wie eine Liste von Instrumenten und Handlungsfeldern, deren jeweiliges Ambitionsniveau die Bundesregierung nicht ausreichend reflektiert. So nennt sie die Zusammenarbeit mit China und Vietnam als Beispiele für Rechtsstaatsdialoge. Während einzelne Gesetzesvorhaben durch die Dialoge entschärft werden können, bleibt das von Staatsparteien kontrollierte System jedoch bestehen.

Die stärkste Reflexion findet sich in der Strategie zu Vergangenheitsarbeit und Versöhnung. Nach Krieg und Gewaltherrschaft kann schwelendes Unrecht Auslöser neuer Konflikte sein. Wahrheitskommissionen, Sondertribunale oder Entschädigungskommissionen können einen wichtigen Beitrag zur Aufarbeitung leisten. Die Strategie der Bundesregierung spricht dabei offen mögliche Spannungen zwischen Wahrheitsfindung, Strafrecht und Versöhnung als auch zwischen den Erwartungen verschiedener Opfergruppen, staatlicher Stellen und internationalen Akteuren an. 

Deutlich wird, dass die Bundesregierung auf internationalen Lehren im Bereich Vergangenheitsarbeit aufbaut. Die Strategie konzentriert sich nicht allein auf strafrechtliche Aufarbeitung, sondern betont die Bedeutung des jeweiligen Kontexts und die Beteiligung von Opfergruppen. Allerdings verwundert, dass die Arbeit von deutschen Strafverfolgungsbehörden unerwähnt bleibt, die nach dem Weltrechtsprinzip Verbrechen in Drittstaaten aufklären können. Zu Verbrechen in Syrien, Irak und der Demokratischen Republik Kongo hat es bereits Prozesse in Deutschland gegeben.

Deutscher Mehrwert und nächste Schritte

Deutschland bewegt sich in keinem der drei Bereiche allein. Umso wichtiger ist eine klare Vorstellung davon, welchen Mehrwert deutsche Unterstützung im Vergleich zu nationalen und anderen internationalen Akteuren leisten kann, und wo die Bundesregierung ihre eigenen Prioritäten sieht. Hier unterscheiden sich die drei Strategien stark.

Die Strategie zur Vergangenheitsarbeit zeigt die größte Kohärenz. Sie identifiziert vier Bereiche für eine eigene Schwerpunktsetzung und ordnet ihr einzelne Maßnahmen unter. Die Bundesregierung will Vergangenheitsarbeit in eine „Präventionsagenda“ von politischen Reformen einbetten, Opfergruppen stärken und einbeziehen, Geschlechtergerechtigkeit in diesen Prozessen fördern und die spezifischen Erfahrungen Deutschlands beim Umgang mit der eigenen Erfahrung aus NS- und DDR-Unrecht nutzbar machen.

Im Bereich der Rechtsstaatsförderung erwähnt die Strategie, dass die Rechtsbindung von Verwaltungen im Vordergrund stehen soll. Allerdings wird dies nicht weiter erläutert oder als ordnendes Prinzip genutzt. Die SSR-Strategie kommt sogar ganz ohne Schwerpunktsetzung aus. Dies überrascht insofern, da sich die parlamentarische Kontrolle der Streitkräfte und das Prinzip der inneren Führung in der Bundeswehr als Erfahrungen anbieten würden.

Nach dieser konzeptionellen Ausarbeitung sollte der nächste Schritt darin bestehen, Aktionspläne zu jedem der drei Handlungsfelder aufzustellen. Denn noch wird kaum klar, wie die Dokumente die Arbeit der Bundesregierung in Zukunft tatsächlich verändern werden und wie sich die Ziele zum gesetzten Datum 2025 überprüfen lassen. Gesellschaftliche Transformationsprozesse sind stets von Unsicherheit und Rückschlägen gekennzeichnet, aber zumindest für die eigene Arbeit sollte die Bundesregierung messbare Indikatoren aufstellen. 

Die Bundesregierung sollte ihre Prioritäten klären, diese mit Mitteln unterlegen und ihr Personal weiterbilden und ausreichend ausstatten. Deutsche Auslandsvertretungen in fragilen Staaten verfügen oft über zu wenig politische Referentinnen und Referenten. Sie müssen aber in die Lage versetzt werden, die deutschen Stabilisierungsprojekte zu verfolgen, wie es die Strategien vorsehen. Die beteiligten Ressorts sollten weiterhin eng mit zivilgesellschaftlichen Akteuren zusammenarbeiten, die häufig seit Jahrzehnten in der Krisenprävention tätig sind. Über Indikatoren und Aktionspläne hinaus sollte der „gemeinsame Lernprozess“ weitergehen, wie bei der Jahrestagung des Beirats zivile Krisenprävention deutlich wurde.

Zudem muss die Bundesregierung auf ihre eigene Glaubwürdigkeit achten. Eine globale Handels-, Wirtschafts-, Klima- und Rüstungspolitik ist oft struktureller Konflikttreiber. Eine präventive Außenpolitik, die den Namen verdient, braucht nicht nur überprüfbare Strategien, sondern auch eine ganzheitliche Ausrichtung

Independent inquiry fails to answer important questions on the UN’s role in Myanmar

An independent inquiry into the UN system’s response to the mass violence against the Rohingya population in Myanmar found “systemic and structural failures”, echoing an earlier finding of a similar investigation on Sri Lanka. At the same time, the inquiry conducted by former Guatemalan diplomat Gert Rosenthal leaves important questions unexplored. Crucially, Rosenthal did not explore allegations that the UN Country Team in Myanmar was complicit in the regime’s discrimination against the Rohingya population. For the UN to learn from the past, it needs to have a more detailed record of the decisions taken.

This text first appeared on medium.com on 15 September 2019.

Learning lessons from past mistakes is important. That is true both on an individual level as well at the level of the United Nations. Rwanda, Srebrenica, Sri Lanka, Haiti, South Sudan: there have been many independent inquiries into the UN’s actions in a situation where serious human rights violations took place. They have spurred influential, albeit imperfect reform processes of the organization’s institutional architecture, processes and policies. Unfortunately, the latest such report, into the UN system’s response to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar between 2010 and 2018, is too shallow and generic to allow for substantial learning to take place how the UN system could have used potential leverage to prevent the atrocities. It also fails to investigate allegations of the UN’s complicity in the systemic discrimination of the Rohingya population that are already part of the public record. 

The Rohingya people have suffered from systemic discrimination by the Myanmar government for decades. In a Buddhist-dominated country, the government and many Buddhist citizens regard the Rohingya as foreign, rejecting even their name and calling them “Bengali”, i.e. belonging to neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya have lacked citizenship and associated rights since the 1982 nationality law. Amid the democratic reform process in Myanmar since 2012, discrimination against the Rohingya has increased, including restrictions on their freedom of movement. In reaction to an attack on police stations by a Rohingya armed group in August 2017, the Myanmar security forces engaged in indiscriminate violence against the civilian population, killing thousands and driving around 700,000 people across the border into Bangladesh. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein described these attacks as “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. A fact-finding mission recommended that senior military commanders should be investigated for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It found six indicators of “genocidal intent”, including in its most recent report evidence of sexual violence by the security forces, with hundreds of women and girls gang-raped.

Existing allegations: timidity or even complicity?

For several years, there have been serious allegations of misconduct by the UN Country Team based in Myanmar and senior UN officials elsewhere, including through leaked internal reports, statements by former employees, and investigative reporting. These allegations are complex, but essentially fall into either of two main points. The first concerns a lack of coherence both within the UN presence in Myanmar and among the UN leadership in New York. Even though the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his deputy Jan Eliasson had spearheaded a reform to improve the UN system’s processes and internal mechanisms in the wake of the Sri Lanka inquiry, these reforms were not effective in Myanmar. Specifically, public reports charged that the Resident Coordinator, the highest UN official in the country, excluded critical voices from meetings and suppressed a report warning of a deterioration of the situation in early 2017. Mirroring differences between public advocacy and quiet dialogue at the country level, senior UN officials disagreed on the organization’s overall approach, with Eliasson and al-Hussein on one side, and the head of the UN Development Programme, Helen Clark, and Vijay Nambiar, special advisor for Myanmar, on the other side. Limited public or private criticism by the UN after an earlier massacre, “proved to the Myanmar government that it could manipulate the U.N.’s self-inflicted paralysis in Rakhine”, a UN official told the journalist Column Lynch. In other words, the activists allege that contradictory messages from different parts of the UN system and relative muteness on major human rights issues signaled to Myanmar’s security forces that it could get away with them.

The second point that those reports make goes even further. They allege that the UN Country Team was complicit in the discriminatory policies of the Myanmar government towards the Rohingya people. The UN and its international partners sustained displaced Rohingyas in internment camps, which the government did not allow them to leave, and collaborated with the government in the so-called Rakhine Action Plan. The plan, supposedly aimed at improving the humanitarian situation, included the registration of Rohingya as “Bengalis”, thus erasing their identity. Liam Mahony, an international consultant, spoke with representatives of the humanitarian community in Myanmar and observed in a critical report in 2015: “The State benefits not only from having the cost of minimally sustaining the population carried by others, it also gets a legitimacy benefit from having all these international organizations present (and better yet, present and quiet.)”

Explaining “systemic failure”

In his report, Gert Rosenthal largely confirms the first allegation, and ignores the second one. He identifies the tension between quiet diplomacy and public advocacy as the core challenge for the UN in dealing with the situation in Rakhine state, and “systemic and structural failures” in resolving them. In a chapter of just six pages, Rosenthal describes five reasons for these failures: lack of support from member states; the absence of a common strategy by the UN leadership; too many points of coordination; a dysfunctional country team led by a Resident Coordinator out of her depth but unable to receive more expert support from headquarters because of government opposition; and competing lines of reporting from the field, muddling information and analysis available in New York. Because the problems were systemic, no single entity or individual should be singled out, he concludes, pointing to the “shared responsibility on the part of all parties involved”.

The report’s observations are pertinent, and in mentioning the lack of executive decision-making by the Secretary-General go beyond the findings of the Sri Lanka inquiry that was published in 2012. As a new generation of UN Country Teams has started to deploy since the start of the year, extracting lessons for their engagement would be important. Rosenthal acknowledges that pushing for change in the government of Myanmar’s behavior towards the Rohingya while simultaneously working with it on humanitarian and development issues as well as supporting the democratic transition process was “a difficult balancing act”.

Diplomacy on human rights issues often involves such balancing acts for the UN. The restrictions present in Myanmar – a repressive government, divided member states, and lack of dedicated UN capacities on political and human rights issues – were not unheard of. The Resident Coordinator was in a very difficult position to engage in advocacy, as Mahony had already concluded in 2015: humanitarian organizations were “expecting UNHCR and the Resident Coordinator to do it all for them.” Yet it is difficult to conclude from Rosenthal’s synoptic account which kind of advocacy and at what points in time could have been successful in dissuading the security forces from their attacks.

Lack of detail, counterfactuals and potential leverage

A detailed narrative investigating incidents where the UN was faced with a concrete incident and needed to make a choice between advocacy and diplomacy would have been helpful. Which information did which UN entity have, how was it handled within the system, and who used it in which form in any engagement with the government? In which ways did the actions of the government, member states and the UN entities interact to inform decision-making in the UN Country Team and at UN headquarters? For example, the journalist and Myanmar expert Francis Wade writes about the way in which an incident in the village of Du Chee Yar Tan had instilled greater caution in the UN’s advocacy. Based on initial reports of a massacre, the UN had raised the issue with the government authorities, only to be rebuked and find out later from further sources that the alleged incident was apparently not as serious as initially assumed.

Closer attention to such incidents would have been important. But Rosenthal had very limited capacity, having to work on its own without support staff or colleagues. He did not travel to Myanmar. Investigating inflection points would have helped to persuade the reader of his conclusions. It would have also allowed to point out more counterfactual decisions, or the consequences of the choices that were made for the calculus of the security forces and for how events unfolded on the ground. The only benchmark that Rosenthal mentions is an observer mission in Rakhine state that could have monitored the actions of armed groups and the military. Such a mission could have investigated incidents such as the attacks on police stations in 2016 and 2017 that provided the excuse for the security services’ “clearance operations”. But, as he himself acknowledges, such a mission was impossible without the agreement of the government.

Lastly, Rosenthal hardly enquires into the potential leverage of the UN system, or any other actor to change the government’s behavior. He briefly mentions China, India, Indonesia and ASEAN as “privileged” partners of the UN, but does not discuss any specific efforts UN officials made to convince them to put pressure on the government, including for the failed upgrade of the UN presence in the country. Nor does he inquire whether the US gave in too quickly to Chinese opposition to dealing with Myanmar in the UN Security Council earlier on. Rosenthal observes that even when Guterres wrote a stern letter to the Security Council in early September 2017 after the start of the ethnic cleansing campaign, it did not lead the council “to respond in either a forceful or a timely manner.”

In contrast, Mahony’s 2015 assessment talks of the “uniquely privileged position” of the UN and member states in relation to a government that desperately sought international legitimacy for its democratic reform process and the “huge financial rewards that this new leadership brings”. It would have been essential to learn if UN actors felt the same and in what ways they used such leverage.

Why accountability matters

The shortcomings of such an internal review matter. Not only does the UN owe greater accountability to the Rohingya victims of the systemic discrimination, forced displacement, and indiscriminate killings, but also to its own staff, and to the wider public. The Secretary General’s Office is currently leading a follow-up process to the Rosenthal report. Its first task will need to be to expand on Rosenthal’s very short recommendations.

Even though Rosenthal does not say so explicitly, some commentators have drawn the conclusion that his report “assigns collective responsibility for the atrocities committed during the 2017 Rohingya crisis to both the UN civil service and UN member states.“ That is misleading – there is nothing in the report to suggest how a more coherent UN system supported by member states could have prevented the atrocities. Maybe more pressure could have emboldened the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi to try and stand up to the military, or earlier and more widespread targeted sanctions could have influenced the military leadership. Without a more thorough analysis of international engagement, we can only guess.

In the meantime, the UN’s reputation further deteriorates, potentially undermining its work elsewhere as well as the reform of the country team system. No official, diplomat, or government representative has been held accountable for a responsibility that is shared collectively. More than one million Rohingya refugees continue to live in horrid conditions in Bangladeshi refugee camps.

A Question of Leadership: Lessons from the UN’s Actions in Myanmar

The UN’s inquiry into its own actions in Myanmar since 2012 draws significant parallels with a similar exercise that focused on the UN’s role during the end of the war in Sri Lanka. Once again, the UN found itself in a situation where a government was committing atrocities, but the UN showed an incoherent, ineffective response. Without clear leadership adjudicating differences among key stakeholders in the UN system, the principled engagement to which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had committed himself remained elusive.

This text first appeared on Strife Blog hosted at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

Engaging with severe human rights violations requires courage and coherence, setting clear principles and the readiness to stand by them if they are under pressure. An independent inquiry on the UN’s action during the Rakhine crisis in Myanmar, which came out in June, observed that the international organisation showed a “systemic failure” in dealing with the state’s repression of the Rohingya people between 2010 and 2018. Choosing his words carefully, its author, the former Guatemalan foreign minister Gert Rosenthal, echoed a similar exercise on the UN’s behaviour during the end of the war in Sri Lanka in 2008/09. Importantly, the UN system’s shortcomings were not a simple matter of failing to speak out, but of incoherence across the system, exacerbated by the lack of executive decision-making in Myanmar and at headquarters level. The lack of leadership by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, despite his strong rhetorical commitment to human rights and atrocity prevention, deserves further attention.

From the UN’s perspective, the situation in Sri Lanka and Myanmar showed uncanny parallels, despite all objective differences. In Sri Lanka, the armed forces pursued a relentless final assault on the Tamil Tigers’ last hold-outs in Sri Lanka in 2008-2009. In Myanmar, the security forces attacked Rohingya civilians repeatedly, culminating in full-scale ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population in 2017. In both countries, governments were the major perpetrators of violence, the presence of armed groups notwithstanding. Both governments were opposed to a strong human rights presence by the UN, and frustrated efforts by the UN Secretariat to increase its relevant capacity.

Myanmar and Sri Lanka, though both at the time host to significant armed violence, had successfully objected to any political or peacekeeping presence. The Resident Coordinators (RC), the head of the UN Country Team, in both countries had been chosen at a time of relative peace and with a strong development focus, not a profile in international humanitarian and human rights law. There were even some personal overlaps: Vijay Nambiar, the special advisor on Myanmar between 2012 and 2016, had been one of the most important UN officials during the Sri Lanka crisis, as Ban’s chef de cabinet. Lastly, there were strong geopolitical divisions that manifested themselves in a reluctance of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation as an official agenda item. In short, they were among the most difficult situations for the UN to work in.

The central challenge, as identified by Rosenthal, is a familiar and highly pertinent one: “how the United Nations can maintain some type of constructive engagement with individual member states where human rights abuses are systematically taking place, while at the same time pressing for those states to uphold their international commitments.” In other words, the UN needs to find an adequate mix of “quiet diplomacy” and “outspoken advocacy”, approaches that are associated with different parts of the UN system. For such a mix, the UN needs an inclusive organisational structure to produce a coherent policy, communicated across the system, owned by the leadership, and based on current, on-the-ground information and analysis.

The failure in Myanmar, according to Rosenthal, was that none of those prerequisites were present. Both at country and at HQ level, there were stark differences of opinion regarding the most adequate modus operandi. These manifested themselves in an increasingly polarised  working environment, as a function of the high stakes involved in the crisis in Rakhine state. Both sides of the argument thought that the other approach was not only wrong-headed, but potentially dangerous and counterproductive to de-escalate the violence and reduce discrimination. The emotionally charged atmosphere explains the reports about critical individuals being excluded from key meetings by Renata Lok Dessalien. The UN also had difficulty accessing the most volatile areas of Rakhine state and providing independent monitoring after alleged incidents.

Perhaps most importantly, there was a lack of strategic leadership, not just at the country level, but also at the highest level of the UN system. Differences between Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who pressed for advocacy, and Special Envoy Vijay Nambiar and UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, who stressed quiet diplomacy and development efforts, respectively, were never resolved by Secretary-General Ban. Rosenthal writes, “even at the highest level of the Organization there was no common strategy.”

These shortcomings are particularly salient because Ban and Eliasson had vowed to turn a page after the damning findings of the Sri Lanka inquiry. They launched the “Human Rights up Front” initiative in late 2013 with the aim to improve coordination, information management, engagement with member states, and the UN’s organisational  culture. One of the new mechanisms established as part of the initiative was the so-called Senior Action Group (SAG). The SAG brought together the system’s most important parts at the top leadership level, including the UNDP Administrator, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, and other high-level officials. It was chaired by Deputy Secretary General Eliasson.

In the SAG’s discussion of the crisis in Rakhine state, Helen Clark, then UNDP administrator, protected UNDP and her RC, insisting that investing in development would also benefit the Rohingya, which should not be jeopardised  by an overly focus on human rights advocacy. Allegations of specific incidents required more investigation, she often insisted. According to a UN official familiar with these discussions that I interviewed, “any time there was a contentious issue, a dilemma between quiet diplomacy, public diplomacy and so on, the differences were simply discussed, and no executive decision was taken.”

While the UNDP administrator is appointed by the Secretary General, he or she also reports to the UNDP Executive Board. At the time, Clark had the final say on appointing or replacing RCs. The UN official that I interviewed described her behaviour as “territorial.” In any case, Ban could have insisted on a common position on the Rakhine crisis, not the least since Helen Clark had officially signed up to Human Rights up Front. Eliasson, who knew the destitute situation of the Rohingya from his time as Emergency Relief Coordinator in the early 1990s, had pressed for the replacement of the RC as early as 2015. Still, Ban did not overrule Clark nor did he “arbitrate a common stance between these two competing perspectives,” as Rosenthal writes.

The lack of leadership was highly problematic: the whole purpose of such high-level meetings as the SAG was to deal with questions that UN officials at the country level had not been able to agree on, and to create a common analysis and joint ownership of decisions. The different perspectives are ingrained in the distinct mandates and ways of working of the parts of the UN system; it falls to the collective leadership of the UN system to resolve tensions arising from the operational work. “Systemic failure” sounds like the reasons for incoherence lie mainly in structural differences. While these are important, ultimately responsibility for ensuring that the whole UN system works falls to its leadership, including the Secretary General and member states.

Clearly, the UN system is subject to the same cleavages and divisions that characterise  the international system as a whole. As Renata Lok Dessalien herself points out in a paper written after her assignment in Myanmar, conceptual differences regarding the meaning and interpretation of basic principles are ingrained in the UN Charter, for example between the promotion of human rights and the respect for national sovereignty. No internal UN reform such as Human Rights up Front can do away with those tensions, or abolish geopolitical differences. What it can do, and it has done with some mixed success, is change the way the organisation works, improving communication, analysis and decision-making procedures.

If the UN can hope to influence events in situations like those in Rakhine state in Myanmar at all, a coherent and coordinated policy across the whole system is a prerequisite. Otherwise both governments and critical member states are always able to play different parts of the system against each other, muting their respective effectiveness.

Luckily and despite significant opposition from key member states, the UN has started to improve its coherence in dealing with the crisis in Myanmar. Shortly after he came into office, Secretary General António Guterres appointed a permanent monitoring group within the UN, and prioritised strategic dialogue with Myanmar’s government, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. He also championed a reform of the RC system. When Myanmar’s armed forces began their military offensive that included ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state in August 2017, Guterres resorted to public diplomacy. In a rare step, he wrote to the UN Security Council, urging its members to take action. Also in 2017, Renata Lok Dessalien finished her position as RC in Myanmar. Her successor, the Norwegian Knut Ostby, emphasized communication and principled engagement, for example threatening to reduce all but essential aid to IDP camps in Rakhine state if the government did not improve the Rohingyas’ freedom of movement. At the same time, renewed fighting between the ethnic Rakhine Arakan armed group and the government as well as continued denial of citizenship have left around a million Rohingya refugees stranded in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.

UN diplomacy consists of difficult balancing acts, in particular in dealing with unrepentant governments committing atrocities against their own population. Faced with an increasing emphasis of state sovereignty, including by the United States, Guterres has, at times, appeared to waver on human rights. If his prevention agenda is to succeed, he needs to mobilise all pillars of the UN to support each other, not just in Myanmar.

Preventive Diplomacy: Invest in the Skills of Frontline Diplomats

In conflict-prone countries, diplomats must employ a special skill-set that allows them to escape from biased conventional wisdoms and balance the personal and the professional in negotiations. Ministries and international organizations should foster mechanisms such as structured spaces for reflection and frequent exchange with fellow diplomats from relevant missions in the region.

This post summarizing some key insights from my PhD thesis was first published on the PeaceLab Blog on 4 July 2019.

European diplomats visiting Abyei, May 2019. Source: https://twitter.com/SWalshEU/media.

Conflict prevention is an important objective for international organizations as well as in many countries’ foreign policies. However, engaging in state-society conflicts presents a fundamental challenge for diplomats and United Nations (UN) officials posted in “at risk” countries – those on the precipice of violence. State-society conflicts are defined as those relating to the distribution of power between and within societal groups as well as their respective access to state resources; in other words, nothing could be more political. Diplomats, however, are supposed to refrain – by law and convention – from meddling in another country’s domestic affairs. At the same time, for a reform process to be credible and sustainable, it ultimately needs to be driven by local actors – not outsiders. In short: diplomats are caught in a conundrum of seemingly contradictory conventions and political objectives.

So, how do frontline diplomatic actors handle this fundamental challenge on a practical level? This question was central to my PhD research, in which I found that such situations require careful balancing acts. Engaging in state-society conflicts is always marred by trade-offs, e.g. between inclusion and exclusion or legitimacy and effectiveness. There is hardly ever a perfect combination of international objectives. It often falls to frontline diplomats posted in countries experiencing such conflicts to balance the trade-offs presented by those objectives. Trying to influence state-society relations also involves balancing the level of coerciveness and the level of intrusion in diplomatic interventions. Fostering this duality in a competent manner requires closer attention to the ways in which frontline diplomats make sense of conflicts, interact with national stakeholders, and coordinate with their diplomatic peers.

This analysis is based on an empirical analysis of diplomacy in South Sudan since independence as well as in post-war Sri Lanka, where I interrogated the views and everyday practices of frontline diplomats. In total, I conducted 165 semi-structured interviews with diplomats, UN officials, civil society representatives, policymakers, and experts.

Prevention needs to balance actors and structures

As the American academic Barnett Rubin poignantly observed in 2002, “all prevention is political”: Constraining the repertoire of elite actions is inherently disruptive. Preventive action rests on a forward-looking, proactive and conflict-sensitive attitude, requiring courage and close interaction with people in the target society. International influence, though, is heavily circumscribed, and may be subject to geopolitical interests, regional rivalries, economic priorities, and divergent political preferences of local elites. Prevention is also disruptive within bureaucratic organizations, as it often entails questioning established relationships and accepted analyses in addition to imagining scenarios and new ways of engaging. In short: Prevention is not a separate activity, but rather a normative objective that affects diplomatic interactions across conflict stages.

Politics in countries at risk of armed conflict is often highly personal and informal. A thorough understanding of the nature of elite bargains by national stakeholders must incorporate both psychological factors and an analysis of a conflict’s political economy. Leaders in state-society conflicts may be geared more towards immediate political survival than reputational concerns, which has consequences for preventive diplomacy. Standard diplomatic appeals to leaders’ legacy or long-term interests may thus be ineffective. Diplomats need to balance the respective roles of structures and actors operating within them. In my research, I discuss how they do so across three levels of the diplomatic process at the country level: Knowledge production, political engagement, and international coordination.

Frontline diplomats are exposed to cognitive short cuts

When analyzing the politics of their host countries, frontline diplomats are exposed to cognitive shortcuts. Knowledge production involves balancing countervailing interpretations. Organizational rules and professional conventions dispose frontline diplomats towards a bias favoring the legitimacy held by formal state institutions. Even beyond the state, external actors easily assume a strong link between national stakeholders and local sources of power, and patron-client relations are often difficult to identify for outsiders. Diplomats need to reconcile structural forces such as ethnicity, religion, economic inequality, and ideology with the agency of their local interlocutors: Is their behavior an aberration or an expression of the governing political economy? Diplomats with long-term expertise are often more adept at recognizing such structural forces – but may also fail to update their beliefs and perceptions with changing elite incentives. This was the case following the independence of South Sudan in 2011, when many long-term observers struggled to recognize how the creation of the state had exacerbated internal tensions in the ruling elite. Such changes can be difficult to identify in bureaucratic systems that talk to each other mainly in writing, and that value conformity over questioning an internal consensus.

Diplomatic engagement with national stakeholders is often most effective when it is based on dialogue and clear principles. Mediating the intra-party dispute in South Sudan before the start of the war, a seasoned diplomat insisted, was essential – but it was absolutely integral to ensure transparency and avoid even the impression of favoring one contestant over the other. When domestic leaders find themselves in a hole, external actors need to hand them a ladder to climb out rather than a shovel to dig deeper. If nationalist leaders insulate themselves, working through interlocutors can help to create space for constructive dialogue. At the same time, the risk of constructive engagement is abuse and impunity that normalizes extra-legal methods in political competition. Following the protocol of state-to-state relations is thereby no longer neutral, but may end up legitimizing the concentration of power in a central government. Informal politics often require personal engagement, using institutional networks and individual experience to gain access to key people and facts. When diplomats engage on a personal level, they may increase their risk of being dragged into domestic political fights.

Diplomatic coordination can provide the political cover for preventive diplomacy and reduce the exposure of informal engagement. This often poses a dilemma for principled engagement: Those international actors with the most influence may not be those with the most transformative approach. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-led mediation in South Sudan was a prime example of this phenomenon, with its member states deeply divided and opposed to freezing the assets of certain South Sudanese elites. At the same time, international pressure is more effective when there exists a broad consensus. Shifting geopolitical power structures mean that alternative sources of legitimacy are readily available, as China’s role in Sri Lanka and its close support for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa demonstrates. International organizations such as a UN Country Team may convene a range of diplomats, and maintain a long-term knowledge base of international engagement – if diplomats regularly share and reflect upon their experiences.

Promoting skills to balance trade-offs and creating spaces for reflection

As my research project demonstrates, the individuals engaged in preventive diplomacy matter. Governments and the UN, which have both committed themselves to conflict prevention, should promote mechanisms, policies, and skill-sets that foster diplomats’ ability to make judgements about balancing trade-offs, weighing countervailing interpretations, savvy engagement, and efficient coordination.

Bureaucratic organizations should establish mechanisms to regularly reflect on the disruptive nature of threats and preventive possibilities. Escaping conventional wisdom requires structured spaces for reflection within missions and across government and international organizations. Too often, missions and regional desks are too thinly stretched to be able to conduct structured conflict analyses regularly. External expertise, regular facilitation, and dedicated support mechanisms from capital/HQ can help overcome the limited capacity of missions in at-risk countries.

In situations with strong regional dimensions such as South Sudan, diplomats from all relevant missions in the region should hold frequent videoconferences and meet for internal workshops. Bureaucracies would do well to revamp human resources practices to ensure that diplomats with appropriate experience and skills are deployed where they are needed. At least for heads of missions, experience in a similar context and some basic country training should be compulsory. Top policymakers must give more weight to principled engagement in at-risk countries and foster an organizational culture that encourages individual responsibility, accepts risks, and allows dissent.

Frontline diplomats, in turn, can benefit from maintaining a detailed overview of national stakeholders, including possible agents of change and spoilers. They need to be prepared to combine personal and professional interactions, based on consistency, integrity, and transparency. For them, what matters is a clear-eyed awareness of risks and benefits, and the readiness to seize opportunities where they arise.