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How Violence and Uncertainty Can Deter Displacement

Guest post by Justin Schon.

A Ugandan soldier with AMISOM on the frontline in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo via United Nations Photo.

Between the end of 2006 and the end of 2008, two-thirds of the population of Mogadishu fled amidst fighting between Ethiopian forces, AMISOM, al Shabaab, and dozens of other armed groups. Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, more than 50% of the Syrian population have fled their homes to become internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees. Such massive displacement levels can be observed in many other conflicts as well.

Intuitively, and as empirically demonstrated in an extensive research program (here, here, and here), armed conflict tends to displace large numbers of civilians. Here, rather than asking why so many people flee their homes during conflict, we should ask why everyone does not flee. In my recently published article in Civil Wars, I argue that the violence and uncertainty at checkpoints are crucial factors.

Through a statistical analysis of the impact of violence on internal displacement in Somalia from 2007 – May 2013, I provide additional support to arguments that violence in residential areas (home violence) motivates displacement. Yet, I also find that violence along migration routes (road violence) deters displacement. Uncertainty about home violence (home uncertainty) and about road violence (road uncertainty) amplifies these effects. In fact, home uncertainty and road uncertainty appear to influence displacement just as much, if not more, than violence itself.


To explain these relationships, I conducted interviews with Syrian and Somali refugees in the summers of 2014 and 2015. These interviews suggest that the deterrence of road violence and road uncertainty primarily comes from a unique type of location: checkpoints. Checkpoints, ideally created in order to help governments protect their citizens, are also significant sources of violence. Even worse, this violence often does not follow patterns recognizable to civilians. Depending on the context, this can result in institutionally-driven or individually-driven uncertainty. Such uncertainty amplifies the deterrent effect that checkpoint violence already creates.

I argue that armed groups tolerate, and even intentionally create, violence and uncertainty at checkpoints in order to facilitate the spread of displacement-deterring propaganda. While propaganda is often associated with media sources, recent work on “propaganda of the deed” also shows that the violence and activities of armed groups can create propaganda.

Civilians widely discuss the vivid images that checkpoints can produce. One Syrian respondent told me about how a bus full of civilians was blown up at a checkpoint. A Somali respondent recalled the stench of the corpse of a Hawiye poet filling the air, as soldiers at the checkpoint would not allow civilians to collect the body. Discussions of these experiences, beyond just the experiences themselves, can very effectively deter displacement. As another Somali respondent explained:

“Every time we would arrive at a checkpoint, we were scared. My mother would tell all of us [the children] to be quiet. Tense negotiations would occur, after which we prayed the soldiers would not just shoot us for fun.”

Civilians who stay home due to displacement-deterring propaganda are arguably in the most vulnerable category of civilians during conflict. As Stephen Lubkemann put it, they face “involuntary immobility.” Involuntary immobility exists when civilians want to move but they are unable to do so due to violence or other constraints. Civilians who stay home willingly and civilians who move when they want to move are able to assert their agency. Civilians facing involuntary immobility are not. Once in this position of vulnerability, we should expect that these civilians are more likely to suffer violent attacks, sexual violence, and forced recruitment into armed groups. Therefore, since displacement-deterring propaganda contributes to the likelihood that civilians will face involuntary immobility, humanitarian efforts during conflict must seek methods to counter it.

Violence in the Somali and Syrian conflicts is ongoing. Despite such high displacement levels in recent years, more people remain who wish to flee their homes. Yet, they often do not because they do not feel that it is safe to move. Helping civilians escape conflict zones must be about more than protecting them from violence. It must also involve countering displacement-deterring propaganda.

Justin Schon is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington.

Weekly Links

By Patrick Pierson.

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 - 1906 ), At the Water's Edge, c. 1890, oil on canvas, Gift of the W. Averell Harriman Foundation in memory of Marie N. Harriman

Paul Cézanne, “At the Water’s Edge,” c. 1890. Photo via National Gallery of Art.

Earlier this week, George Soros announced he would invest $500 million in migrants, emphasizing that the private sector can play a more meaningful role in helping to address the crisis. This article further explores the role of business in response to the crisis, while the White House announced that over four dozen US companies have pledged a collective $650 million. St. Louis saw a greater increase in foreign-born residents than any other major US city over the past year.

Authorities in Italy are stunned by a recent wedding spectacle carried out by the grandson of a mafia boss. A network has been established to support state officials who openly oppose the mafia. The daughter of a former British aristocrat was killed in the Philippines this week. The niece of Spanish Football Federation president Angel Maria Villar was abducted and killed by Mexican gangs outside of Mexico City.

Malian President Keita warns that unrest in his country is providing a window of opportunity for al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated groups. Morocco has officially submitted a request to join the African Union. Electoral unrest in Congo has many observers concerned. UN investigators have also noted serious human rights violations in Burundi. President Ian Khama of Botswana says that its time for Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to go. And according to President Obama, African economies are on the move.

Violence in Turkey Is Increasingly Resembling Violence in Syria – Here’s Data to Show Why

Guest post by Güneş Murat Tezcür & Clayton Besaw.

PKK and Peshmerga fighters. Photo via Kurdishstruggle.

While the world has been focused on the violence and humanitarian tragedy in Syria, violence and civilian killing in Turkey has soared as well. Part of the reason this surge has not captured the attention of the media is the lack of data. The extent of the violence, its location, and the number of civilians killed in Turkey have not been clear. That has now changed and the patterns we see are eye-opening.

We have spent the last several years collecting data on the armed conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The new and regularly updated Kurdish Insurgency Violent Events (KIVE) dataset covers the conflict since January 1, 2000, and contains systematic information about the identity, number, and types (soldiers, police, pro-state village guards, PKK militants, and civilians) of fatalities, the day and specific geographic location of the violent event, the direction of violence (e.g., security operations, insurgent attacks, etc.), and the nature of violence (e.g., bomb attack, firefight, etc.).

In constructing the KIVE dataset, we employed triangulation and obtained information from a plurality of sources with different biases including announcements by the Turkish government and security forces, the PKK, Turkish media, pro-PKK media, and reports by local human rights associations in both Turkish and Kurdish. We only included well-documented fatalities (i.e., multiple and opposing sources acknowledging the death, the identity of the victim reported). Since each side has a tendency to exaggerate the number of casualties of the other side, we relied primarily on self-acknowledgements. While we cannot completely eliminate political biases in reporting and the fog of war contributes to uncertainty, the detailed and precise nature of the information in the KIVE makes it possible to identify the long-term evolution of the armed conflict in Turkey. In fact, this is the only dataset that currently exists with this information and time-frame on the conflict. Analyzing this data, we find two striking patterns. The first is a significant increase in casualties, not only since 2000, but especially since 2015.  As Figure 1 reveals, a surge in deaths occurred starting in August 2015. The second is a period of almost no conflict-related deaths immediately prior to that – between early 2013 and mid-2015.

[Figure 1]


What might be causing these periods of peace and violence? When we looked more closely at the data, we found two explanations related to political processes. The most serious attempt to achieve a negotiated settlement took place in late 2012 when the Turkish government initiated a series of meetings with the PKK leader kept in a Turkish prison since 1999. During this time, fatalities were reduced to very low levels. The only exception was the riots in Kurdish cities in October 2014 in reaction to the self-styled Islamic State’s siege of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobanî. After the collapse of truce in July 2015, however, violence has returned with much greater intensity. This suggests that a temporary ceasefire can successfully reduce civilian suffering at least for a period of time.

Of particular concern, however, is the significant rise in the number of people killed once the ceasefire broke down. Again, when we looked more closely at the data we found that two distinct dynamics were associated with this escalation.

[Figure 2]


As Figure 2 reveals, most of the deaths prior to 2015 took place in remote rural areas (primarily in the border zone with Iraqi Kurdistan) between the Turkish army and PKK militants. In this locale it followed a cyclical-seasonal pattern based on geography. Summer and fall months characterized by high levels of violence were followed by winter and spring months with limited military activity.

All that changed in the fall 2015. The major change that occurred post-ceasefire is that violence suddenly spread to urban centers. The PKK’s urban wing has established an extensive system of barricades and trenches in several cities and towns. In response, the Turkish security forces imposed indefinite curfews and staged sweeping operations supported by heavy weaponry.

This urban warfare led to a significant increase in civilian deaths – something we have seen in the Syrian civil war, but not yet in Turkey. As shown in Figure 3, the number of civilian deaths skyrocketed with the rise of urban fighting. Around 37 percent of all civilian fatalities (326) between January 1, 2000, and June 30, 2016, took place since July 20, 2015.

[Figure 3]


There were two reasons for this increase in civilian victimization. A primary factor was operations that pitted security forces against well-organized militants in heavily populated areas. Urban warfare destroyed entire neighborhoods and brought violence closer to civilians. Another important factor was PKK bomb attacks that directly targeted civilians in Western cities or security buildings in heavily populated areas.

What do we take from this? First, serious negotiations and ceasefires have the potential to stop the killing if they are successful. They were not successful in Turkey because the gap between the insurgent demands and government reforms remained vast and there was no mutually hurting stalemate given the relatively low intensity of the conflict until 2015. Second, civilians are much more likely to be the victims of war when insurgencies infiltrate cities and government forces undertakes extensive counterinsurgency operations after failed negotiations. Finally, the conflict in Turkey and the civil war in Syria are very much intermingled. The PKK adopted urban warfare tactics employed in the Syrian civil war. The Turkish state views territorial gains by the PKK-affiliated-PYD in Syria as a direct threat. Consequently, political violence in Turkey would unlikely end without a modus vivendi between the Turkish state and insurgents regarding the Kurdish question in Syria.

Güneş Murat Tezcür is the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies at the University of Central Florida. Clayton Besaw is a doctoral student at the University of Central Florida.

Challenges to US-Russian Military Coordination in Syria

By Sara Bjerg Moller.


US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, March 30, 2014. Photo via U.S. Department of State.

Last week’s announcement of a cease-fire agreement between the United States and Russia seemed to be a major diplomatic breakthrough. The accidental US bombing of Syrian forces instead of the intended Islamic State forces over the weekend represents the first hurdle for the new US–Russia military partnership. It is unlikely to be the last.

Months of lobbying by Secretary of State John F. Kerry helped produce the initial seven-day cease-fire arrangement. Assuming both sides proceed to the next step, the proposed US–Russian military coordination that is expected to follow will be even tougher to implement, however.

The US government has been divided over what to do about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Russia has been resolute in its support for the regime from the beginning. US officials have long maintained that the Russians were more interested in bombing Assad’s opponents than taking the fight to Islamic State rebels. Although Russian planes have struck ISIS targets in the past, the new agreement is Washington’s attempt to ensure that the Russians from now on target the “right” groups.

Greater military coordination is the next step

US and Russian officials have been exchanging information about their respective airstrikes for nearly a year, seeking to avoid an accident in the skies. These military exchanges did not involve direct military coordination such as joint planning or joint action, so the Sept. 9 cessation-of-hostilities agreement marks a steep change.

To longtime observers of multinational conflicts like myself, the move toward greater military coordination is a predictable step. My research has shown how multinational wars follow a familiar pattern: From relatively independent beginnings, participating militaries coordinate far more closely as battlefield conditions deteriorate.

The movement toward greater military coordination often goes hand in hand with a shift toward more integrated command and control arrangements and structures. Typically, of course, this pattern unfolds among countries that already are allied or fighting on the same side.

But the United States and Russia have been on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict from the beginning, pursuing different objectives and fighting different militant groups.

How is this move toward greater cooperation going to play out? Here are three specific concerns about the implementation of this unusual agreement:

1) How will the United States and Russia share sensitive information? Although the text of the US–Russian agreement has not yet been released, the two militaries are expected to coordinate far more closely on targeting by establishing a US–Russia Joint Implementation Center (JIC). According to one official familiar with the details, representatives from the United States, Russia, and 11 other nations will be “sitting down in a room together” to identify targets and coordinate strikes.

But Pentagon officials (including Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter) have voiced their concerns that this level of coordination would entail disclosing sensitive information with the Russians, including the location of US forces in the area. As Gen. Philip Breedlove stated this week, “There are a lot of concerns about putting out there where our folks are.”

2) Are the logistical channels in place for joint military actions? My research indicates that interoperability and standardization problems have historically been a major impediment to the effectiveness of coalitions. Mismatches in military equipment and ordinance among militaries make it difficult to wage combined operations: Ammunition sharing is impossible, and one country can’t help resupply another.

During World War II, for instance, British and American small weapons and artillery used different caliber ammunition — a point that hurt Allied combined combat operations in North Africa and Italy in the early stages of the war.

3) Do the United States and Russia have the right communication tools? Russia is not a NATO member, and the United States and Russia have limited experience sharing wartime communications.

But multinational military operations need standardized communications equipment and procedures to be effective. Without secure and interoperable communication interfaces, multinational forces cannot execute time-sensitive and dynamic targeting of the enemy’s assets.

During the first Gulf War, for instance, the United States had to lend the United Kingdom critical communications equipment because of incompatibility problems. The United States had to bring in additional resources to ensure communication interoperability with non-NATO members of the coalition.

Although NATO is the most integrated military alliance in history, communication and intelligence sharing has been a major challenge for members over the years. During Operation Deny Flight, NATO’s 1993-1995 mission in Bosnia, some allied fighter planes lacked the cryptography equipment to allow pilots to make secure radio transmissions.

There are lessons from Libya

Challenges in NATO’s ability to share classified information such as air tasking orders and surveillance and reconnaissance images also emerged more recently during the alliance’s 2011 air campaign in Libya. The commander of NATO’s Allied Air Command, Gen. Mark Welsh, later described the Alliance’s inability to pass targeting and other intelligence among members as a “critical shortfall” of the mission.

But the greater challenge was communicating mission-tasking information to non-NATO members. The Swedish Air Force, for instance, could not plug into NATO’s communications and information systems — so relied on Danish bicycle messengers at Sigonella Naval Air Station in Italy to ferry USB drives with operational information (including mission orders) back and forth.

As these short vignettes demonstrate, “military coordination” can be difficult, even among friends. It is likely to be harder still among rivals and former enemies — a reality US and Russian officials will grapple with in the coming weeks and months as they seek to coordinate their activities in Syria.

Sara Bjerg Moller is Assistant Professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.

*This piece is a cross-post that originally appeared at The Monkey Cage. 

What’s So Important About Territorial Disputes in International Relations?

Guest post by Sam Ghatak, Aaron Gold, and Brandon Prins.

Map of the world, 1903. Photo via Internet Archive Book Images.

Recent events demonstrate how difficult territorial disputes are to manage. In July a United Nations tribunal ruled that China’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea, and its aggressive attempts to enforce them, violate international law. China’s response has been to ignore the Tribunal’s decision and continue its militarization of the Spratly Islands. Neighbors, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, all challenge Chinese authority and reject its nine-dash line, but all also seem fearful of provoking an incident with Chinese forces. The US, while officially neutral when it comes to disputes over ownership of the South China Sea, could be drawn into any conflict that erupts. Not only does the US have an interest in protecting sea lanes that are vital to global commerce, but also its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines commits the US to assist Manila if a confrontation with China arises. 

Territorial disputes, it turns out, are incredibly difficult to manage. Take the case of Kashmir, which appears to be heating up again as well. The killing of Burhan Wani, a leader in the Kashmir insurgency, on July 9, 2016, by Indian security forces has aggravated feelings of mistrust and apprehension. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, termed the killing “India’s barbarism” and declared the observance of a “black day” in Pakistan on July 19 in protest. India reacted by condemning Pakistan’s meddling in India’s internal affairs. Kashmir has been in dispute for nearly 70 years and the territorial disagreement seems unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Indeed, India and Pakistan each continue to view the land as inviolable and thus not subject to negotiation. China’s control of approximately 20% of Kashmir further complicates settlement as well.

Territorial conflicts in Central Asia also remain difficult to resolve. Despite a ceasefire brokered by Russia, the United States, and France, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to contest control over Nagorno-Karabakh as well as other surrounding territory (here and here). An escalation of tensions in April 2016 between ethnic Armenians from the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijani military resulted in the largest number of fatalities since the Russian-brokered 1994 cease-fire. Leaders in Armenia and Azerbaijan both confront domestic opposition to territorial conciliation and the recent fighting has only strengthened hardliners and deepened distrust. Consequently, a peaceful resolution to the conflict has become even more difficult to achieve.

Finally, Putin’s annexation of Crimea following President Yanukovych’s removal in late February 2014 and Russia’s subsequent support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine also demonstrates the salience of territorial conflict. Seizing Crimea appears to have bolstered Putin’s favorability at home, demonstrating the political benefits of power politics, and since Sevastopol hosts the Russian Black Sea fleet, control of Crimea further provides Russia with critical access to the Black Sea to project its naval power. Given the strategic value of the peninsula, it seems unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin will negotiate a return of the territory to Ukraine at any point in the near future.

Why Are Territorial Disputes So Risky?

The role of territory in inter-state conflict, as these events illustrate, is not only a significant feature of modern foreign relations, but it is quickly becoming an increasingly promising and dynamic research program in political science. Territorial disputes are the most conflict-prone, the most fatal, and the most likely to escalate into inter-state wars (Vasquez 2009). Such disputes are also the most difficult to resolve. This is no surprise, since scholars associate territorial conflict with high audience costs and the promotion of hard liners; however, research also shows that the resolution of territorial disputes and stable borders is associated with higher bilateral trade flows and a higher likelihood of joint democratization (Owsiak 2012; Simmons 2005). Clearly, the issue of territory is a broad yet progressive and influential research agenda.

In June 2015, a conference was held at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville called “New Directions in the Study of Territory and Political Violence” where original research on territorial conflict and conflict resolution was presented and discussed. The highlights of this conference are presented in a forthcoming special issue of Conflict Management and Peace Science – check it out if you’re interested in new advancements in the study of territory. Three themes emerge from the special issue: 1) new and exciting advancements are being made in the collection of data on the classification and characteristics of territorial disputes; 2) border delimitation appears to significantly affect a broad array of inter-state interactions; and 3) the perception of threat and the bargaining environment affect and relate to the territorial dimension of armed conflict. Here’s a sneak peek into some of the findings.

The Issues of Threat and Bargaining Explain Important Aspects of Territorial Conflict

In 1999, India and Pakistan fought a short war over disputed territory along the Line of Control (LOC) that separates military forces in Kashmir. In addition to challenging the conventional theory of nuclear deterrence, the Kargil War presents a direct affront to the principle of democratic peace since both states had democratically elected governments at the war’s beginning. Do liberal institutions always push leaders toward conciliation and compromise or is the democratic peace conditional on the presence of regional stability? Ghatak, Gold, and Prins (2016) argue that democratic leaders find it increasingly difficult to resolve quarrels non-violently when states face salient external security threats, such as the presence of territorial claims or strategic rivalry. The pacific effects of dyadic democracy appear limited to nonthreatening neighborhoods. What’s more, given that Pakistan initiated a war by intruding into the Indian side of the LOC, the Kargil war raises a second question: who initiates a war in the presence of a territorial claim? Contending that conflict resolution depends on both the distribution of capabilities and possession of disputed territory, Bell (2016) finds that both democratic and autocratic leaders may be driven to military confrontation if a weaker adversary holds the disputed territory, suggesting further limits to democratic passivity.

When States Delimit their Border They Increase the Likelihood of Peaceful Interaction

Territorial disputes remain exceptionally dangerous, but it appears that certain quarrels are more dangerous than others. Gibler (2016), for example, shows disputed ownership of territory, such as Chaco, Kashmir, and Turkey’s claim to Cyprus as well as state system changes such as the birth of Israel and the break-up of Imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire involve territorial distribution and are most likely to produce inter-state war. Such ownership disputes fundamentally concern identity and therefore remain difficult to resolve. Still, if territorial disputes propel states toward armed conflict, resolution of such disputes should enhance international peace. Owsiak, Diehl, and Goertz (2016) argue that when states settle their borders through delimitation it increases the likelihood that they will transition from rivalry to peace, pushing leaders away from escalatory and aggressive foreign policy actions.

The articles in the special issue of Conflict Management and Peace Science all agree on the importance of territory for understanding and explaining inter-state conflict and conflict resolution. Indeed, all suggest that diplomatic measures designed to facilitate boundary settlement will have powerful and long-lasting conflict reducing effects. Further, salient issues, such as boundary questions, push even democratic leaders away from conciliation and toward more aggressive policy actions. As such, a more focused effort at addressing issues of land and territoriality may prove fruitful in addressing interstate conflict and promoting democracy in the long run.

Brandon Prins is Professor of Political Science and Fellow with the Howard Baker Center at the University of Tennessee. Sam Ghatak is Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Tennessee. Aaron Gold is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee.

Power Politics Meets Personal Persuasion: The Role of the Next UN Secretary General

By Anjali Kaushlesh Dayal and Devin Finn for Denver Dialogues.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signs the Mayor's guest book at the Mexico City Hall. At right is Marcelo Ebrard, Mayor of Mexico City. 8/Sep/2009. Mexico City, Mexico. UN Photo/Evan Schneider.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signs the Mayor’s guest book at the Mexico City Hall, September 8, 2009. Photo via United Nations Photo.

As the 71st United Nations General Assembly brings world leaders and diplomats together in New York City for conversations and handshakes, high-level diplomats, mediators, and analysts at the organization are consumed with several enormous challenges. These include negotiating aid access and an end to violence in Syria; managing a global refugee crisis; and ensuring governments’ commitments to emissions reductions as part of the Paris Agreement. Shadowing all these decisions is the knowledge that by the 72nd General Assembly, the UN will have a new leader at its helm.

Critically, the advent of a new Secretary General has implications for global patterns of cooperation and security and for the international community’s ability to manage complex humanitarian, environmental, and diplomatic crises. Thus far, much of the buzz surrounding the ongoing selection process of the next UNSG has focused on the expectation that a woman will succeed Ban Ki-Moon – no woman has held the post – and that the race itself demonstrates greater transparency and inclusivity. After four straw polls among Security Council members, it appears the former may now be unlikely and the latter may ultimately have little consequence for the outcome, both goals having fallen prey to predictable jockeying between the powerful states on the Security Council who recommend a candidate for the General Assembly to elect.

The SG’s office, by virtue of being comparatively undefined, leaves the officeholder space for creative innovation in managing violent disputes; much of how he or she approaches the diplomatic duties of the office will rest on his or her personal commitments and personality. The process by which this individual is selected, however, privileges consensus candidates whose most important qualification is that no great power will veto their advancement.

Despite the fraught nature of the process and the comparatively slight scholarly and public attention the SG role receives, the selection warrants attention from scholars of political violence and those interested in future prospects for multilateral action on climate change, conflict resolution, and humanitarian aid.

The Role of the Secretary General

The Secretary General is the United Nations’ chief administrative officer—sitting atop the diplomatic ranks of independent international civil servants—and as a political, administrative, diplomatic, and legal actor who coordinates the work of the UN in the context of member-state interests. Yet both the office and the process by which its occupant is selected are, practically speaking, procedurally underspecified.

The UN Charter assigns to the office both the functions entrusted to it by the UN’s “deliberative organs” and an independent political role: Article 99 notes that “the Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” The office is thus simultaneously charged with being responsive to UN member states and exercising an independent, potentially activist role – imperatives that are often at odds. If we add to this the SG’s lack of material power and comparatively undefined formal authority, then ultimately, as Ian Johnstone argues, the SG’s “influence depends largely on his persuasive powers.”

Different occupants of the office have interpreted the role of the SG in the world differently. One of the most distinctive and far-reaching of SG’s diplomatic functions as we understand it today — the use of his or her good offices, or “steps taken publicly and in private, drawing upon his independence, impartiality and integrity, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading”— was an innovation of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General. Since then, different SGs have interpreted the tasks of managing violent conflict and disputes based on their own priorities and the pressures they receive from powerful states.

Independent of their own commitments to mediation and conflict resolution, however, the SG’s office holds ultimate operational control over peace operations. Today, this role is central to the provision of international peace and security: UN peacekeepers, and the centralized bureaucratic apparatuses that support them, represent a crucial and consistent presence in civil wars around the world. By the end of 2015, there were over 120,000 personnel serving in sixteen UN-led operations. Peace operations have an independent budget that are larger than the rest of the UN’s operational budget; and they are the preferred conflict management tool among the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council, even when these great powers often agree upon little else. Moreover, most of the UN’s missions are in places of comparatively little strategic interest to the P5, granting the Secretariat more space to use his or her good offices in the service of conflict management.

The UNSG selection process, despite being driven by the P5, informs our understanding of what kinds of multilateral involvement in conflict processes its members seek, and what kind of imprint the UN is likely to leave on civil wars over the next decade. 

Process, Vision, and Politics

Nine votes (of 15) are required to elect a Secretary General, while the successful candidate can have no veto cast against him or her. Smoke and mirrors have traditionally suffused the process. The current, non-permanent members of the Security Council – Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Venezuela – will likely be unable to challenge the P5’s selection. Antonio Guterres, the former Portuguese PM and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has polled the best. Bulgarian Irina Bokova, who previously headed UNESCO, is the candidate endorsed by Russia, but her straw scores have declined since early rounds (Bokova’s initial success accorded with the expectation that it was an Eastern European’s turn to take the UN reins).

For the first time, public interview hearings were held at the General Assembly this year, permitting each candidate to lay out their plans for the UN’s future. Multiple nominees, like Croatian Vesna Pusić, called for the organization to focus more comprehensively on women and invest in empowering them to fulfill roles in development, security, and peacebuilding. Helen Clark has emphasized efforts to combat extremism as critical to international security. Former Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremic argues that stronger UN peacekeeping forces have an important role to play and that evidence of sexual violence by peacekeepers “must be addressed aggressively and completely.”

In the end, however, the kingmakers seem to privilege other factors, including contemporary geopolitical dynamics, over the content of candidates’ visions or proposals for the work of the world’s peace and security body. The US likely prefers someone who can manage a large bureaucracy and is proactive on human rights and protecting civilians, and sufficiently pragmatic to work with governments to get things done.

In his memoir, former US Ambassador John Bolton admitted that Indian Shashi Tharoor’s 2006 candidacy broke “one of the UN’s unwritten conventions, namely that SGs should come from smaller fry [countries].” The notion that the Security Council selected Ban because its member governments, including the United States, perceived him as weak and unlikely to challenge their will, is unsurprising to those who follow UN politics. Reality impels us to call the SG competition what it is: a political decision made by the world’s most powerful governments.

If the role is “one of the world’s most high-profile bully pulpits,” many consider that Ban Ki-Moon, in particular, has fallen short in exploiting his voice for political and moral authority when it comes to Syria and UN peacekeeping. Despite intensification of his advocacy efforts over the last year, Ban’s bully pulpit cannot transcend great power interests. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the International Human Rights Covenants. The next SG will face, without doubt, pressure to undertake cultural and bureaucratic changes to protect civilians from violence, a moral commitment that has long defined the UN’s mission, but has proven its most serious and difficult task. The organization’s most powerful members may dictate the course of these efforts, too – the SG’s role will continue to be constrained by great power politics. Even so, the selection of a new SG, and his or her own commitments to – and ideas about – the uses of force and protection of civilians will shape violent conflicts and prospects for cooperation and peace.

Anjali Kaushlesh Dayal is Assistant Professor of International Politics at Fordham University. Devin Finn is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver.

Is Zimbabwe Headed Towards Civil War?

Guest post by Aaron Stanley.


President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe at the 70th Annual UN General Assembly Debate, September 28, 2015. Photo via United Nations Photo.

A number of recent reports out of Zimbabwe note a fracturing of Zimbabwe’s military elite. It appears that opposition to the Mugabe regime, which most recently has been articulated through the vocal #thisFlag movement, is spreading into the military. Up until this point, the military has been a stalwart supporter of the Mugabe government. Despite one thwarted small-scale coup attempt, President Mugabe has been able to control the military’s elites and its broader apparatus – this support has been crucial to the regime’s longevity. Yet, like war veterans and other groups that have been loyal supporters of the regime, it appears dissent is now boiling over into the open. This makes the political fracturing of the armed forces even more worrisome. Without significant changes, the Mugabe regime might be closer to its end than ever before. Moreover, there is a real possibility that the fight for succession could turn bloody.

History indicates that the signs of military fracturing in Zimbabwe should be taken seriously. This phenomenon has long been associated with increased violence and civil wars. For example, in 1861, large swaths of the US military left to support the secession movement of the southern states. This political fracturing of the US military, in part, enabled the civil war. In the African context, military fractionalization along ethnic lines was a critical part of the Biafran War in Nigeria. A South Sudanese military split along ethnopolitical lines ignited the country’s first civil war only three years after its independence.

Warning signs, like active military officers openly expressing opposing political positions, can indicate military fracturing and the potential for large-scale violence. Leading up to and during the Yugoslav Wars, politicians and military commanders were complicit in taking ethnopolitical sides and publicly stating their prejudices to stir violence. The Yemeni Civil War in 1994 resulted from the failure of the political union that had not yet integrated the northern and southern militaries. As the political union began to deteriorate, the divided military provided an obvious backing to their respective sides. This resulted in full-scale military attacks between southern and northern forces with heavy weaponry such as tanks and air bombing.

In part, this is why military integration plans and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs are prioritized in post-conflict situations. Unified militaries are critical to the stability of political institutions and divided militaries are threatening to peaceful processes. As in the previous examples, the failure of integrating forces into a unified military structure is seen as a cause of the Yemeni Civil War and, now, the South Sudanese Civil War.

Of course, military fracturing is not the only cause nor the only reason for the continuation of all large-scale violence and civil war. In Rwanda, forces organized largely outside the country engaged the country’s military. Likewise, in recent examples such as Syria and Libya, it is largely militia groups – as opposed to the military – that have taken over the fighting. In Syria, the top-brass of the Syrian Army has remained remarkably loyal. However, despite the many factors that can contribute to high levels of violence and civil war, the fractionalization of the military stands out as a key indicator of problems in the making.

There should be serious concern over the reports of military fractioning coming from Zimbabwe, in particular, because of the country’s militaristic and authoritarian past, which can exacerbate military fracturing. The division of the military along political lines, as with other scenarios, should be a seen as warning sign warranting preventive engagement. Unfortunately, more often than not, these situations are not responded to with great urgency and the appropriate resources. This has resulted in a relatively limited set of examples of how best to respond. Preventive Diplomacy remains one of the few non-military options available to the international community. As defined by Michael Lund and adopted into documentation by the United Nations, preventive diplomacy has a checkered history. Despite its imperfect use and inadequate achievements, many continue to tout preventive diplomacy as the best approach to mitigating violent conflict.

Regardless of preventive diplomacy’s limitations, the indications of military fracturing in Zimbabwe today seem to be pointing towards the need for high-level and intensive engagement – one that allows for broad and robust political engagement, while also mitigating the possibility of high levels of violence.

Aaron Stanley is on the International Peace and Security team at Carnegie Corporation of New York. 

Weekly Links

By Patrick Pierson.

Edouard Manet, Still Life with Melon and Peaches, French, 1832 - 1883, c. 1866, oil on canvas, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer

Edouard Manet, “Still Life with Melon and Peaches,” c. 1866. Photo via National Gallery of Art.

Two oil tankers were seized in a Houthi-controlled port in Yemen this week. The Houthis are currently considering a truce proposal put forth by the United States. Meanwhile, the targeting of civilian sites by Saudi forces continues. Data indicates that a third of strikes hit civilian sites, such as this attack on a house or the recent UN report of thirty individuals killed at a water well.

Signs of greater Russian involvement in Nicaragua has caught the attention of some US lawmakers. Central American migrants are increasingly turning to sea-based routes in efforts to reach US soil. Meanwhile, gang violence continues to result in high levels of internal displacement. A mayor in Honduras was recently arrested on suspicion of directing a group of local assassins. A proliferation of assault rifles in El Salvador is a bad sign for the country’s efforts to reel in gang violence. Colombian officials are on alert in response to the killing of five human rights activists in recent weeks.

In a development success story, Sri Lanka was declared free of malaria this week. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte called for the withdrawal of US special forces from the country. Long-range drills were carried out by the Chinese air force earlier this week. The crisis in Venezuela has China rethinking some of its strategic ties to the country. Internally, the recent arrest of a Chinese Catholic bishop appointed by the Vatican reveals an ongoing tension between the state and religious institutions.

Internet Shutdowns During Political Unrest Are Becoming Normal – And It Should Worry Us

Guest post by Anita Gohdes.

President Ali Bongo of Gabon at the World Economic Forum on Africa, May 5, 2011. Photo via World Economic Forum.

Last night, for the eleventh night in a row, Internet access was shut down in Gabon. Starting again at 7pm, network accessibility almost came to a halt. These “Internet curfews” come in the aftermath of highly contested and controversial national elections. Just over a week ago, Gabon’s incumbent president, Ali Bongo, declared himself winner of the elections by a narrow margin with 49.8 percent of all votes. His opponent, Jean Ping, who allegedly lost with 48.2 percent of votes has demanded a recount, and the international community has backed him up. Amidst the uncertainty surrounding the election results, protesters took to the streets and set fire to a parliamentary house, while the opposition reported attacks against their premises by incumbent forces. Throughout the post-election tensions, the government has resorted to extreme digital censorship. Prior to the nightly Internet curfews, connections were cut for more than five days across the country while protesters took to the streets across Libreville, and according to Reuters, thousands were arrested under the charges of rioting.

Gabon is only the latest in a series of countries that have taken to shutting down the Internet during heightened political unrest within their borders. The scenes are reminiscent of Internet shutdowns in the aftermath of Iran’s elections in 2009, or Egypt’s blackout during the 2011 Tahir protests. Recent shutdowns occurred in Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, Congo, and Sudan, and the non-profit organization Access Now documented a total of 15 Internet shutdowns in 2015, and 20 shutdowns in the first six months of 2016 alone. So while some countries – such as China – try to only censor what they see as dangerous content, many still rely on brute force methods of cutting all access.

While the cutting of communication channels can, in and of itself, be seen as an alarming impediment on the freedom of expression, the fact that these shutdowns are so frequently linked to increases in violent repression is extremely worrisome and beckons more attention from the international community than is currently the case. While governments oftentimes justify the outages under the pretense of preventing violence, research suggests the opposite.

 Internet Shutdowns Often Go Hand In Hand With State Violence

Research on the Syrian conflict suggests that national level Internet outages go hand in hand with increases in government violence against civilians. But even in less militarized contexts this pattern can be found. Last month during protests in Ethiopia, the government shut down Internet access and reportedly killed almost a hundred protesters. In September 2013, Internet access was cut in Sudan amidst violent crackdowns against anti-government protesters.

Internet shutdowns can be understood as both an act of desperation on the side of governments doing their best to suppress unrest, and a sign of clear willingness to resort to even extreme measures in order to regain control.

Ample research has discussed the opportunities social media platforms provide for disenfranchised citizens to mobilize against repressive governments. It is thus unsurprising that when nowadays people take to the streets, fearful governments will do their best to clamp down on those digital channels associated with uprisings all over the world.

Shutdowns Are Costly

Nonetheless, shutting down the Internet doesn’t come without costs: countless businesses are dependent on digital communication and a web presence in order to go about their day-to-day business. Every day of disrupted services stifles economic activity and is likely to displease the oftentimes highly connected and influential elites.

But even outside of the professional sphere, the Internet is a crucial way for many people to communicate with friends and family and access their favorite channels of entertainment. Blocking these channels has the potential to alert parts of the population that were previously unaware or unbothered by political controversies or unrest, thus inadvertently increasing the number of disgruntled citizens.

Governments faced with political unrest thus face a trade-off: shut down the internet in the hope of stifling organized dissent, but risk angering more citizens while also harming the economy; or watch anger and protest spread across the Internet while still hoping to regain control.

The fact that the authorities in Gabon have limited the shutdowns to the evenings and nights speaks to their simultaneous fear of increasing unrest and their need to provide digital infrastructure to keep their citizens content. The fact that they are continuously doing it amidst unrest and uncertainty suggests the incumbent administration is going to continue its course of violent repression to maintain power.

Anita Gohdes is an Assistant Professor at the University of Zurich.

“Sí” o “No”: Who Supports the Peace Process in Colombia?

Guest post by Nicolás Liendo and Jessica Maves Braithwaite.


An anti-FARC demonstration in Colombia, 2008. Photo via AICortés.

After more than fifty years of conflict and multiple failed efforts at negotiating peace, on August 24th the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebels have reached an agreement to end their civil war. As historic as the accord is, myriad tasks remain before the terms can be implemented (see this explainer from the Washington Office on Latin America).

The next major step is a popular referendum scheduled for October 2nd, where Colombian voters have the chance to decide whether or not to approve the terms of the agreement with the FARC. In order for the peace process to proceed with a binding vote, at least 13 percent of eligible voters must turnout to polls and over 50 percent of them must vote “YES.” Recent polling shows considerable variation in public opinion regarding the agreement and its terms, leaving many to wonder what will happen next month and how best to go about campaigning for their desired outcome.

In spite of the incredible human costs associated with this conflict, a substantial number of Colombians are skeptical of the terms of this peace agreement and efforts to negotiate with the FARC in the first place. Recent posts on PV@G sketch some of these issues. Findley, Ponce de Leon, and Denly write about popular concerns over the potential for spoiling by elements within the FARC. Matanock and Garbiras Díaz discuss experimental survey evidence indicating that people view policies less favorably when seen as efforts to make concessions to the former rebels, while research by Carlin, McCoy, and Subotic suggests similar dynamics with respect to political opportunities and amnesty for members of the FARC. We are engaged in research that explores whether individual-level traits, and the conflict-specific experiences of different segments of the Colombian population, influence peoples’ likelihood of voting “YES” or “NO” next month. Our working paper provides insight to how the “YES” campaign might target its resources most effectively in order to sway voters who are (moderately) unconvinced about supporting the peace process.

We use survey data from the 2014 LAPOP Americas Barometer survey to investigate how conflict exposure (direct victimization as well as general proximity to violence), political preferences, and various socioeconomic characteristics shape Colombian attitudes toward the peace process. We wonder: do characteristics such as an individual’s educational and economic situation, their political and religious beliefs, ethnicity, age, and wartime experiences systematically influence one’s support for the peace accord, and thus might inform us about which segments of the Colombian population are more (or less) likely to vote “YES” in the referendum?

We find that political preferences – namely, support for the far-right Centro Democrático (CD) party led by former president Álvaro Uribe – are by far the most robust and important predictors of attitudes towards the talks. Even when taking into account factors like age, education, income, and wartime experiences, CD supporters are far less likely to hold favorable views of the peace talks (and logically might be expected to be less likely to vote “YES” in the referendum), preferring instead to see a military solution to the conflict. Conversely, supporters of the ruling Unidad Nacional coalition are very supportive of the peace process.

Figure from Liendo and Braithwaite (2016) presenting the estimated effects of various individual characteristics on support for the peace process. Points to the left of the center line indicate less support while points to the right indicate more support.


Colombians seem to remain divided with respect to their support for the talks and the particular elements of the peace accord. In recent days, months, and years, public opinion has fluctuated greatly on this topic; however, over these last four years of peace talks the tendency has been that every time the FARC and the government announced an agreement on a topic, trust and support among the broader public increased.

It is possible that the brief five-week period between the announcement and the holding of the referendum vote will benefit the “YES” campaign, riding the tide of optimism surrounding signs of progress in the peace process. However, if the CD is able to mobilize a meaningful contingent of its supporters, the “NO” campaign may  prevail. If the results from both stages of the 2014 Presidential Election (and the saliency of the civil war in Colombian politics generally, as detailed by Weintraub, Vargas, and Flores) is any indication, the margin of victory in this plebiscite could be incredibly close.

Our research suggests that the “YES” campaign would be particularly well served in its efforts to make terms of the accords (or at the very least the general prospect of peace) appealing from the perspective of a CD voter – at least more appealing than a return to civil war. However, many of those individuals may be difficult to sway given the hardening of political preferences over time. Focusing efforts and resources of the “YES” campaign to reach segments of the population that tend to be marginally more skeptical than optimistic of the Havana talks could also be particularly beneficial for those wanting to see the current peace process continue beyond the referendum. This would likely involve targeted contact with Catholics, individuals with higher levels of education, and voters in urban areas.

We stress that this referendum campaign, while critical for moving the peace process forward, is but one part of a much larger effort that will be necessary to ensure the complete termination of civil war in Colombia. Phayal and Thyne highlight a number of factors that are important for minimizing recidivism and increasing satisfaction amongst former rebels following participation in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs. More broadly, Zech discusses a number of cultural solutions to engage wider communities in fostering long-term solutions to social conflict in the region. Post-conflict recovery after decades of civil war in Colombia will necessarily be multi-faceted and slow-moving at times, but an essential task at this moment is mobilizing voters for the “YES” campaign.

Nicolás Liendo is a PhD student in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Jessica Maves Braithwaite is an Assistant Professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona.