As I reported to the United Nations for my first day of actual volunteering, I felt enwrapped by excitement, anticipation and fear. Working at the United Nations had been a goal of mine for years, and after a tour of the UN just a couple of months before, I left telling myself that my long nights of studying and research for my masters in the anthropology of peace and human rights would be worth it. That May morning, when I walked into the UN, with a purpose, not just as a visitor, I felt important and like I was on my way to making it. At the end of the experience, however, I had other career goals in mind.
Personally, one of the most memorable parts of the whole experience came on that first morning, when my coworker and fellow graduate student, Ajanet Rountree, made me march onto the floor of the General Assembly Hall to find the volunteer coordinator, Fred Doulton. The security guard told me when I walked in that I strictly was to stay off the floor, as those spots were reserved for state representatives and UN workers. Ajanet spotted Fred, and her confidence led me to where I needed to be. Stepping onto the plush green floors of the General Assembly was electrifying; I simultaneously felt like somebody, as tour groups walked across the upper floor, and nobody, as I walked past ambassadors and other state representatives. I am particularly thankful for that moment and the ability to witness such an intricate and important session.
During the opening session when states stated their progress since the last conference, I became aware of the many moving pieces and challenges states must grapple with in advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities. Lack of awareness and resources as well as increased social exclusion have all impeded progress in protecting and ensuring rights of persons with disabilities. Many nations implored the other members of the conference for more concrete data on persons with disabilities in order to better tailor advocacy measures to persons with disabilities. However, the second session I took notes on truly opened my eyes to the other pieces of the advocacy puzzle, in addition to states, and tempered my opinion of a United Nations career as the ultimate goal for a human rights worker.
My second volunteer session incorporated statements given by several nongovernmental organizations. These organizations seemed to have specific goals and methods of implementation that might drastically improve lives of persons with disabilities. I realized that a great deal of the accomplishments that states reported on were often directly because of the work of NGOs. I previously thought of work with NGos as stepping stones to the ultimate career with the United Nations. And while working at the United Nations is still a career goal of mine, I have come to realize that meaningful necessary work is not a stepping stone, but rather the ultimate career in and of itself. When I heard NGO workers talk about the most important aspects of rights of persons with disabilities, I left feeling personally challenged to advocate for others in an inclusive manner that promotes full participation and addresses the impact of multiple discriminators on persons with disabilities, specifically women and children. I realized that day that no matter the name on the door, doing good work for people would always be admirable.
Before volunteering at the United Nations’ Conference of State Parties on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, I do not think rights of persons with disabilities were at the forefront of my mind of imminently pressing human rights issues. My previous studies have mostly focused on the rights of persons in areas of conflict, and those studies more specifically have been focused on the right to life. But following my experience volunteering at the Conference of State Parties on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, I left having learned that any study on human rights violations should be inclusive of the particular violations persons with disabilities face. I left feeling a call to action, to advocate for persons with disabilities by listening to persons with disabilities, hearing their opinions, and acting accordingly. As I returned to UAB and Birmingham, I operate with a heightened sense of the lack of accessibility in our city, and I feel equipped with the drive and tools afforded me through my week at the UN to do something about it.
I was given the opportunity to work as a rapporteur for the Conference of State Parties to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) at the United Nations in New York City. As a rapporteur, it was my duty to report on each event and assembly that I attended by drafting a summary of what took place respectively. I was able to attend the opening ceremony in the General Assembly Hall, which is where the meetings of the 193 Member States originally take place; an event on data mining, which is when one uses a large database to come to conclusions, and the importance of technology for persons with disabilities, where Dr. Reuter presented her research; a Roundtable Debate, where each party was able to ask questions and address any concerns they may have; and finally, a panel discussion with members, one of which was Dr. Reuter, who had the opportunity to present their findings from their research and answer questions from the audience.
When we were getting our duties and learning our roles, the Director for the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) Division for Social Policy and Development, Daniela Bas, came in to speak to us. It was a humbling experience, as she made an effort to get to know everyone in the room. I was also able to meet delegates from Canada, Zambia, and New Zealand. I remember Zambia’s representatives standing out specifically, for many reasons. Zambia is a country in southeastern Africa, where resources are limited. However, with the resources they have left, they have made efforts to allocate some of them to persons with disabilities. They also reported on their progress in implementing the CRPD, and it claimed to have many positive strides despite the fact that there is still much to be done.
During the Roundtable Debate, the issue of travel complications was raised. It was an eye-opening moment for me personally, as someone who loves to travel. I learned that a lot of individuals and families must plan business trips and vacations around accessible places and there will more than likely still be difficulties during their travels due to accessibility issues. Catalina Devandas Aguilar, who is the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities then spoke on how there must be a greater political commitment to combat this issue. As the Special Rapporteur, she is trusted to be impartial and knowledgeable when she reports on a country’s trials. She was not speaking of a certain country in this case, but what she had examined across the globe. She also called for more respect, dignity, and a gender-equal approach when concerning persons with disabilities and the obstacles they face. It is important for all of these prongs to be met for persons with disabilities as they are seen as lesser or incapable at times. In reality, it is not feasible for persons with disabilities to accomplish something due to inaccessibility.
Prior to my week of working for the United Nations, I had a vague idea about how it was operated. I assumed it was similar to a business, but on a much larger scale. I imagined that the employees, directors, and delegates would be strictly focused on the Conference. I now have a small, but a clearer understanding of how the United Nations works. Those mentioned were certainly focused, but they were open to chatting and encouraging to others. Ms. Bas went out of her way to come speak to us, and the employees that I sat beside during the events were extremely welcoming and helpful. They asked about who I was, where I am from, and what I hope to accomplish one day. I expected to have to aggressively network to get to meet higher-up employees, but they were the ones who made the efforts to get to know me and the rest of the team. It changed my perspective of the United Nations in a positive way and fanned the fire inside of me to want to work there more. I was unsure of what a day at the United Nations would be like for an employee, and I only received a small glimpse of it, but I am thrilled to have gotten the experience.
Throughout the course of the Conference, I was able to see the importance of a global approach to handling persons with disabilities’ rights and implementing the CRPD. When it comes to a community so large and diverse, the United Nations must act cohesively to reach the 2030 agenda of sustainable development, and this Conference was a testament to their commitment. Doing so would ensure the world would be more accessible for all and lessen the issues faced by persons with disabilities.
This opportunity was heavily impactful for me. I was introduced to the world of the United Nations, and the humanitarian world outside of it. I met people who are involved in advocacy and fighting for rights around the globe, whether they are employed by the United Nations or not. I always envisioned myself being truly fulfilled by working for the United Nations alone, but I learned that there are many different outlets to accomplish the types of things I want to one day. It is still my end goal to be employed by them, but I have realized that I can have a fulfilling career. I am beyond grateful to Dr. Reuter for her research and advocacy, as she is truly making a difference. I am also grateful to have had her bring me along to experience the United Nations from the perspective I was given.
I was fortunate to attend a lecture by Dr. John Pace who served in the United Nations for thirty-three years. He distinguished himself as a champion of human rights. He was Secretary to the Commission on Human Rights (1978 to 1994) and Coordinator of the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights (1991 to 1993) with many other posts and special envoys on human rights. I asked Dr. Pace specifically about Aleppo–whether the armed humanitarian intervention (AHI), right to protect (R2P) or the International Criminal Court (ICC) will ever address the glaring human rights abuses by many actors internal and external to Syria. His reply gave me pause. First, he related that AHI as a term is useless. It needs to be debated and defined. AHI is like saying: (paraphrasing) Here is a poisonous sandwich that will nourish you. Second, Syria and in particular Aleppo, will in time be reviewed and the ICC or some other UN commission will tackle the issue. In the meantime, not much will change. I was not surprised by his assessment.
Aleppo, we hear much about the death and destruction, lives forever lost, families forever marred by the violence. Communities wiped out. Horrors that we can barely grasp or fathom as we sit idly by as hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The following will not comfort you, but I do hope it makes you think, make you reflect, make you pause, even if just for a moment about our world politics, and question the reasons why we have allowed something so heinous occur. We have often heard our politicians say things such as ‘never again’, ‘we must not let the human suffering of this magnitude occur’, and ‘don’t cross the red line or we will act’. The reality is, that is all bluster and posturing from politicians. We have just war theory and responsibility to protect as accepted doctrines that can be used to stop an Aleppo from happening. This blog will challenge your thinking in a way that will force you to engage in finding a way to prevent future Aleppo.
We have seen the politics of the UN and in particular the UN Security Council many times before. The failure of the UN has prompted regional coalitions to band together to tackle issues. The UN Security Council is supposed to be the framework for the use of military forces against all forms of aggression. This is particularly the case when forces are piercing the territorial and political sovereignty of a nation. If regional alliances decide to invade on humanitarian reasons but are not sanctioned by the UN, does this destabilize world order? If the politics of the UN fails to protect human rights do regional alliances have a right to intervene? The politics of the UN leads me to my concern: What are the barriers to human rights? What is more likely to succeed in the protection of human rights in a conflict zone?
I will lay out my argument that just war theory (JWT) is justified for humanitarian intervention. The role of the United Nations (UN) Security Council cannot be overstated in this process. My argument lays out how the UN in its political machinations refuses to address the shortcomings of humanitarian intervention (HI). By refusing to address the shortcomings, the UN is a body politic who is complicit in the loss of life and displacement of refugees. Before we go into Aleppo and why it has not ‘triggered’ HI let us first look at intervention, R2P, AHI and HI, and see if we can discern them and come to an understanding of how we can understand them.
R2P is a doctrine that has evolved and used much like JWT to justify military action. It has most of the same elements as JWT: just cause, right authority and right intention, used as a last resort, proportional means, and a reasonable chance at success. The significant difference from JWT is that R2P is for humanitarian reasons or protection of civilians. In other words, JWT seeks political justification for using military force while R2P is not about the political justification but the humanitarian justification. This justification is a fundamental change in the notion of sovereignty. R2P attempts to move from the Westphalian notion of the state being supreme to the R2P claim that an individual’s sovereignty is supreme.
R2P has three distinct responsibilities: responsibility to prevent, responsibility to react and responsibility to rebuild. AHI, HI, and intervention can all be represented in R2P, in essence, R2P evolved from AHI, HI, and intervention. R2P has become part of the UN framework in dealing with a humanitarian crisis. The inclusion is seen by the UN appointing a Special Adviser to focus on the R2P in 2008 and 2009, the release of a report entitled ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect.’ R2P is not internationally accepted nor is the basis of intervention (whichever terminology used AHI, HI, or R2P) without controversy. For this commentary, R2P will be synonymous with intervention, HI, and AHI. Is R2P legal? If so, why is it not used more often to secure human rights? If not, how do we legally protect human rights in places like Aleppo?
War, armed conflict, police actions, intervention, right to protect (R2P), and armed humanitarian intervention (AHI), all have common threads that run through them that connect them to just war theory (JWT). The 1648 Peace of Westphalia gave rise to the current idea of the nation state and the sacredness of its territory. This concept of sanctity has led the world to accept that international order works best when there is respect for non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. The atrocities of the Nazi regime in World War II has challenged that Westphalian notion of the nation-state but has not resulted in an accepted form of humanitarian intervention. We are left wondering: Is humanitarian intervention (HI) a right to use force based on JWT or human rights? Walzer, in his legalist paradigm, tells us that the international community has established that the rights of territorial integrity and political sovereignty is above all else. He also says that the political reality must give exceptions, one of which is humanitarian intervention. JWT recognizes that there are extreme cases where HI is needed. We leave this thought for a moment as we look at R2P.
Simon Chesterman, in his book Just War or Just Peace? Humanitarian Intervention and International Law, argues that there is no ‘right’ to use humanitarian intervention in the UN Charter nor customary international law. If this is correct why and how do we use R2P or apply it in future cases, or more importantly apply it to Aleppo? He claims that humanitarian intervention has no legal basis, and yet we have many examples where interventions have taken place. In his analysis, he argues that it is dangerous to have a checklist of additional justifications to engage in humanitarian intervention. By having a list, states are more likely to engage in bad faith interventions (US Iraqi invasion 2003). How do we reconcile the notion of a world based on law if R2P is illegal? He suggests we should view an intervention based on humanitarian reasons as illegal but that the international community may well tolerate it. Let us apply this to Aleppo. If as he says R2P is illegal, but the UN has embraced it, WHY is Aleppo happening? For me, it is political. The UN and specifically the UN Security Council is playing politics. The politics are shaped by the doctrine of R2P and the Westphalian use of JWT. R2P and JWT both agree that HI may be necessary, but there is no agreement on which one may take precedence over the other.
The JWT and R2P conundrum leaves us with what is happening in Aleppo. R2P to date has not been invoked by UN Security Council due to the veto power of Russia and China (and I am unsure if the US, Britain, and France would vote in favor due to strategic interests). The sheer amount of deaths, suffering, and destruction clearly shows HI should have occurred sooner. Why not R2P? Only the UN Security Council can answer that one. From an outsider’s perspective, it is due to political maneuvering and unlike Libya, Syria is not a major oil producer and supplier of oil to the EU like Libya is.
The argument gets sticky here, and some may cringe at what I am about to say. JWT for HI has been invoked – by Assad. Follow me on this. Back to Walzer, his legalist paradigm says the territory and political sovereignty is above all else with exceptions. Within that framework of exception is that the sovereign nation can ask for help with insurrection or anything that threatens to overthrow or pierce their sovereignty. By Assad ‘asking’ Russia for help, they invoked JWT. In doing this, they cut off R2P from occurring. Why? A sovereign nation (Syria) has asked for help (Russia) to defeat an insurgency. Legal and ‘just’ according to JWT. If another country (countries) declared R2P, they do not have a legal basis to intervene, especially without a UN Security Council resolution. If R2P were invoked, it would be declaring war against Syria and Russia. The moment for R2P has fallen to the wastelands of missed opportunities. Why did this happen? R2P has been used recently in Libya, and the aftermath that has ensued in Libya has made everyone pause. For this writer, Libya may have ended R2P from fully realizing its potential. However, why has it failed?
We need to look at the structure of the UN and in particular the sovereignty of the nation-state. We have established under Walzer that the territorial and political sovereignty is above all else. The UN also guarantees this under UN Charter Article 2 (7). As with Walzer the UN Article 2 (7) gives exceptions. This non-intervention can be revoked if the state fails to protect their citizens from repression and internal armed conflicts. Back to my discussion with Dr. Pace. I asked when has the UN ever kicked out a member or declared them minimally unjust? His response “never.” I checked the UN website and could not find any nation expelled or declared minimally unjust. That is where the UN, JWT, and R2P have an issue. If the sanctioning body (UN) and the body that authorizes intervention (UN Security Council) fail to call out leaders of nations who are not minimally just and are not protecting their citizens, how can human rights be upheld? In my opinion, this is the core issue. The UN and the international society have given the state more rights than the individual. R2P tried to change the sovereignty from the state to the individual but as Chesterman points out the law is not on the individual’s side when the nation-state is involved.
Where does this leave us? Is it safe to say that humanitarian intervention is in competing doctrines? Which doctrine is correct? JWT based on national territorial boundaries and political sovereignty or R2P which has no basis in law? If we listen to David Rodin (2002) in War and Self-Defense, he proposes that we should resurrect Kant’s two-tier moral strategy. First, by seeking to mitigate and moderate the evils of war. Second, create a program for achieving a just international system based on an official international rule of law. What Rodin wants is the realization of the ‘cosmopolitan view’ as he pushes for a radical reworking of JWT and international relations.
The basic lesson we should take from the present argument is that our traditional conceptions of international law and international ethics need to be fundamentally rethought. There is a great scope for real and substantial progress to be made in this area. We need a framework of international ethics which gives greater recognition and protection to the rights of individuals as against states, which can address the problems of civil war and internal oppression, and which is able to more effectively restrain international aggression. (Rodin 2002, 199)
Perhaps Rodin has it right. We need to listen and take a lesson from Aleppo. We do need a framework of international ethics, and we have no international body to provide it. The UN is continuing to fail us. The world is suffering. Our human history has never been strong about individual rights. We have had Kings, Queens, Arch-Dukes, Czars, Khans, and Emperors who have ruled empires. We have had conquests to rule the world with no thought of the individual. Human rights are new in the timeline. The Enlightenment ushered in a new awareness of the unalienable rights of the individual, but that has not triumphed over the rights of the state.
History is full of examples of the state trampling on human rights even after the Enlightenment. Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, and many others have killed millions, and yet an individual’s right to life is second to the sovereignty of the nation.
We must face that Aleppo suffers because it is the wrong class, race, and religion of people being harmed. A current list of emergency alerts, published by Genocide Watch, reveals there are no alerts from a global North, or any countries part of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) nations; listed are Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Central African Republic, Myanmar (Rakhine and Kachin), Burundi, and Boko Haram – Borno State. We have had some regional responses to some of these areas; however, I wager that if this were happening in the global North, we would have seen intervention a long, long time ago.
What will it take to shape the future of human rights? I wager a global North event, an event that rivals that of which we do not like to compare to, I hate to say it but, on the level of the Holocaust. Why? It is because of the failure of the UN to evolve past political manipulation. The League of Nations and the subsequent United Nations was born from the horrific event of the Holocaust. For the UN to evolve once more, I fear it will take something so drastic as to shake the foundations and cause the international society to evaluate itself and what it is doing for humanity.
How can human rights best be protected in a conflict zone? By the UN enacting strong, swift, and a just response to any nation that violates and commits atrocities against humanity. The UN has to act. The UN has to become apolitical when it comes to crimes against humanity. As long as there is a failure of the state to protect the right to life, we must understand that human rights are being pushed backward and not forward. Until the UN becomes able to deal with internal politics, we will continue to have Aleppo’s in our future. So far, the nation-state’s sovereignty reigns supreme, and that does not bode well for the future of humanity.
Russ Hunter Expertise: Civil/Military Operations, Intelligence, WMD Operations Russ is currently in the Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Otago. He holds a Master Degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Richmond, a Post Grad Certificate from the University of Stirling, Scotland and is a graduate of the U.S Army Sergeants Major Academy. He retired from the U.S. Army as a Sergeant Major in 2009 with over 24 years of distinguished military service in both Operations and Intelligence. He has been a guest lecturer at the University of Richmond. The titles of Russ’ past lectures have been Drone Strikes: A Case for a Moral Response, Evolution of Unmanned Air Systems (Drones in the Sky), and Counterterrorism/Antiterrorism Strategy. He co-taught a Drone law course for law, paralegal and Masters students. Russ has multiple awards and citations both professional and academic.
Chesterman, S. 2001. Just War or Just Peace? Humanitarian Intervention and International Law. New York: Oxford University Press.
The Declaration of the Right of Peoples to Peace, issued by the UN in 1984, “solemnly proclaims that the peoples of our planet have a sacred right to peace.” Issued in the decade of extreme unrest in the nation of Somalia, this human right is particularly vulnerable in the war-torn state. In the past two hundred years, Somalia has been through an extremely complex series of conflicts that has included colonization, dictatorship, civil war, widespread violence, and UN intervention. Only declared to be no longer a failed state within the last year, Somalia is still in its fledging phase as an independent nation. Last week, Somalia elected its second president since the establishment of its current government, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. To understand the issues of today, first we must delve into the rich history of the nation.
The nation of Somalia was never originally a nation by its geographic boundaries today, but an area encompassing individual sovereign clans. In the late 19th century, in a period known as the “Scramble for Africa,” several European powers colonized the area as authorized by the Berlin Conference of 1884. The actors included Britain, colonizing the north-west area formerly known as Puntland, and Italy, colonizing the large area of Somaliland. France also conquered a small corner in the northeast. The colonizers were not interested in populating the area, but rather chose to exploit natural resources and use land for trade routes. The roots of the conflict begin here, as the European powers dismantle clan hierarchy and institute central governance. After World War II, the European powers begin to disengage and decolonize the area. In 1960, both Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland have both established independence from their former colonizers and then united, founding the United Republic of Somalia. This democratic state was successful for nine years, but the country succumbed to a coup by Mohamed Siad Barre.
Barre instituted a dictatorship under the new government, the Somali Democratic Republic. His reign, lasting for twenty years, amassed tremendous human rights abuses including targeted attacks on cultural groups and forced allegiance to the state (Metz 45-51). Caught in the middle of Cold War tensions, the country received funding and arms from both the Soviet Union and from the United States after the Soviet Union cut ties in the late 70’s. Cold War politics, when combined with post-colonial factions and the Ogaden War, proved to be a lethal blow to Barre’s dictatorship. The state collapsed in 1991, causing a power vacuum that provoked massive clan warfare. Within four months in the capital alone, “25,000 people [were killed], 1.5 million people fled the country, and at least 2 million were internally displaced.” Somalis know this period as burbur, or catastrophe (Bradbury and Healy).
As one of the first large-scale humanitarian aid projects that the UN attempted, Somalia took the role of a laboratory of peace making and nation building. UNOSOM (United Nations Operation in Somalia) and their 30,000 troops did assist in stimulating economic and political infrastructure, aid in food security, and drive warring factions out of certain areas. However, the mission did not result in a conclusive peace settlement; it actually strengthened warlords and substantially increased terrorism. UNOSOM left in 1995 as an internationally known example of UN failure (Bradbury and Healy).
Movement towards Peace
The years following the departure of UNOSOM were neither peaceful nor war-struck. In fact, the rise of militant terrorist groups causes them to grab attention. A series of peace conferences hosted by neighboring countries attempted to find a solution for peace, but only successful session was the Mbagathi conference in 2004. The conference formed the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) with the election of elected President Abdullahi Yusuf. The TFG was given a mandate to rule until the country was stable enough for independent governance. The mandate expired in 2012, and the election for the newly established Federal Government of Somalia began, resulting in the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Mohamud lead the country for the past five years, but lost the elections that occurred just last week. The newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a Somali nationalist, is popular among the people and expected to bring an era of prosperity.
After the UN’s infamous failure in Somalia, outlook on global humanitarian aid became more critical. Though global aid operations became less popular, the need for assistance and justice did not die. It is of utmost importance that the global community keep a close watch on human rights abuses anywhere. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Peace is an essential human right, and violation of that right is intolerable. Somalia’s outlook today is much brighter than it was twenty years ago; however, acts of terrorism and high levels of crime still plague the nation. President Mohamed may bring great things to the Somali people, but it is the duty of our global society to uphold the Somalians’ right to peace.
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