How quickly a year goes when the international architecture is coming down around your ears

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its not really the twelve months since Maidan that counts. Sure, that was heady, scary stuff, a slightly compressed version of the astonishments of Tahrir, but with every reason to be aware this time of just how quickly the other shoe was likely to drop. The anniversary of real note will come in March, at one year since we realised the magnitude of that other shoe. To wit – a permanent, nuclear-armed member of the UN Security Council engages in aggression against a neighbouring country. Thump.

I was probably less surprised than some. Before moving to Stockholm in 2009, I’d lived in Finland for five years, where I grew used to neighbourly behaviour ranging from aerial incursions to shock increases in finished wood duties that doubled the cost of a house extension. So when the Swedes suddenly woke up to Russian submarine raids, simulated bombing runs and other anti-social behaviour, it felt a bit like deja-vu.

The difference between then and now is of course Crimea. An aerial incursion on its own is a misdemeanour. But a pattern of incursions by the country that just jettisoned the taboo against aggression is in a different category. And, without justifying Iraq in 2003 for a moment, there really is no comparison. If Bush had formally annexed Saskatchewan to punish Canada for withdrawing from NAFTA, maybe then we could talk.

The silver lining in all this is that Putin’s regime is exposing itself as a rogue government rather than actually rolling back the non-aggression norm. For a sense of what the world would look like if Russia was the rule not the exception, one needs to look to earlier anniversaries. In my research on the Åland Islands of Finland, for instance, I came across a 77-year old article from the Spectator setting out a far more unruly Baltic in which the centrally-located archipelago constituted “the most important strategical issue in Northern Europe.”

At the time, various groupings involving Sweden, Germany, Russia and forces in Finland actively considered occupying and re-militarizing Åland in order to pre-empt the damage that could result from others doing it first. In effect, security was to be won at the expense of your neighbours rather than achieved in cooperation with them. Tensions around Åland never fully went away as indicated by recent revelations (here in Swedish) that Sweden maintained a secret occupation force in case the Soviet Union were to invade Finland.

But we truly are living in a different world now than in 1938, and one in which collective security is being tested as rarely before, but remains an article of faith. A striking example comes from Ben Judah’s recent reportage in Politico on the long lead-up to the annexation of Crimea. Former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski describes attempts in 2013 by Russia to offer Poland a stake in the partition of Ukraine – an offer that fell entirely flat in a democratic country that had long since oriented itself toward European integration:

Russia has attempted to involve Poland in the invasion of Ukraine, just as if it were a post-modern re-run of the historic partitions of Poland. “He wanted us to become participants in this partition of Ukraine,” says Sikorski. … This was one of the first things that Putin said to my prime minister, Donald Tusk, [soon to be President of the European Council] when he visited Moscow. He went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwow is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together. Luckily Tusk didn’t answer. He knew he was being recorded.”

The fact that Russia’s behaviour increases and emphasises its isolation will remain cold comfort as long as it remains unclear what Putin really wants. If, as some maintain, he just wants de facto security guarantees, then Minsk II can be the end of the Ukrainian conflict if the West can show enough strategic patience to calm the situation down. If as others claim, he will continue to push as far as he can go on every front, then Western strategic patience will be seen as encouragement. Hard not to be somebody’s useful idiot in this brave new world.

Article on HLP rights and durable solutions in GPC Digest

by Rhodri C. Williams

A short piece I wrote on the relationship between ‘housing, land and property’ (HLP) rights and durable solutions for displaced persons has been published in the Global Protection Cluster Digest, vol. 1/2014, and can be accessed in pdf form here. I have also added the last draft before final edits just below.

The thrust of the piece will be pretty familiar to any regular readers of this blog. I’ve been going on about the steady demise of the Pinheiro Principles and their exclusive focus on restitution (over other forms of reparation) for some time now. As precedents like the ECHR Demopoulos decision and humanitarian changes in tack like the IDP Durable Solutions Framework crowded in, it became ever more clear that a more balanced approach was justified.

Indeed, even before the spike in global displacement seen since 2011, growing awareness of the problem of protracted displacement had put local integration front and center in international discussions of durable solutions. Where displacement persists because return is not on the table, continuing to emphasize the future hope of restitution can distract both displaced persons and host communities from practical steps to ameliorate the here and now. Meaning that a more balanced approach was also necessary.

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TN mellows out at five

by Rhodri C. Williams

Up till as late as last year, it was still possible to kid myself that having a title like “program manager” was compatible with having a family and raising a blog. Sadly, its not. Not entirely, in any case. At the end of the day, I couldn’t short the day job and I couldn’t short the family, so the blog has suffered as a result. While a bit of my online life has shifted to the newsfeed at the ILAC website, there is definitely a gap.

Most obviously, I’m not posting as often as I used to and, sadly, neither are you. The year that passed saw a total of 28 posts, of which five were guest postings. Compare this with last year’s numbers (64 and 11), or the year before’s (80 and 25) and a trend emerges. Happily, there seem to be enough fumes in the tank to keep the hits coming. The current total is just shy of 79,000, meaning about 14,000 hits since last February. That is only slightly shy of the previous annual total of 15,000 despite the lower number of posts this year.

As usual, I also want to praise the quality of last year’s guest posts, which included repeat guests Massimo Moratti (on how the Kosovo Constitutional Court is handling the legacy of a flawed restitution process) and Alexandre Corriveau-Bourque (on forest tenure trends), as well as first time guests Christina Williams (on ongoing land grabs in Sri Lanka), Paula Defensor Knack (rounding out the environmental peace-building series with a piece on Mindanao), and Rebecca Marlin (with a sobering assessment of how little progress has been made in implementing the ACHPR’s Endorois decision).

I was also pretty happy with my blogging year, which began with reactions to the deepening Syria crisis (here and here) and the emerging Ukraine crisis (here, herehere and here). In fact, the Crimea issue raised such strong associations with my ongoing research on the Åland Islands that I ended up posting my first guest piece in Opinio Juris on the topic and following up on TN. I also blogged on a book review related to Åland, and other matters of European interest including the Scottish referendum, xenophobia in Europe and in Sweden, and, God help me, the Eurovision song contest.

Some thematic pieces too, on current rule of law debates, IHL dilemmas and refugee law debacles. Some advocacy work with Inclusive Development International (I am privileged to be on the advisory board) regarding the World Bank’s depressing start to its safeguard policies revision process. A continuation of my picaresque crusade against the efforts by the IRS to grind Americans abroad into pulp and print them as freshly minted dollars. And a tribute to an extraordinary Libyan who did more in the space of a single revolution to improve the lives of vulnerable people than I may do in my lifetime.

All that next to working with some wonderful colleagues to get a huge rule of law program up and running across a broad range of countries in the Maghreb and Mashriq that have clung to a modicum of stability or representativeness (or in the best case both) in the wake of a very turbulent Spring. And, perhaps most significant, the kids have learned to ski, discovered Minecraft without abandoning books, and spent one more summer waking to loons in Vermont. Not a bad year.

New book review on “the Åland example”: Balancing engagement and exclusion in autonomy regimes

by Rhodri C. Williams

I am very pleased to announce that my review of the Åland Island Peace Institute’s book on “the Åland example” was just published in the Nordic Journal of International Law. The editors at NJIL were quite generous in allowing me seventeen pages to discuss the contribution that the book makes to charting the lessons a distant Nordic language conflict that embraced peace may have for the numerous contemporary ethnic conflicts that evade it.

The review can be downloaded in full here so I will not go into detail in this post. However, it is worth noting that one of the consistent strengths throughout this volume is the emphasis on the process by which an autonomy regime is created and sustained, rather than the substance of its rules, as being crucial to its viability. This echoes one of the fundamental lessons of the ‘new constitutionalism’ described in my earlier research on constitution-building for the Folke Bernadotte Academy, namely that founding documents in ethnic conflict settings should emphasize ongoing dialogue rather than finality in order avoid the recurrence of conflict.

The ironic lesson to be drawn here is that the Ålanders ability to maintain a sustained and constructive engagement with the Finnish authorities in Helsinki has been crucial to securing their highly asymmetrical political status within the Finnish state. However, there is a further irony that will come as little surprise in light of my earlier writings on Åland in these pages. This involves the fact that the strong land rights of the Åland Islanders, including a limited right to exclude outsiders from the rest of Finland from acquiring property, may be a crucial part of the Ålanders bargaining power.

Openness resulting from the right to be closed. Hardly an easy sell in conflict-management settings, but far better than most of the alternatives.

Rest in peace Mohamed Al-Sweii

Mohamed images-63221My colleague from my time with UNHCR in Libya, Sam Cheung, passed on the tragic news that Dr. Mohamed Al-Sweii was killed in the heavy fighting in Benghazi earlier this week. In the laconic delivery of the Alwasat article, as filtered through google translate:

…the deceased came out of his workplace Benghazi Medical Center to check on his family and as soon as he entered the area which is witnessing violent clashes was shot in the head, killing him instantly.

The first time I met Dr. Al-Sweii, in March 2012, he was waiting for us at a beachside cafe in Tripoli’s fashionable Gargaresh district. He received us with a dazzling grin, in big fashionable traffic cop glasses and an immaculate suit. I can’t recall exactly what I made of him at the time but I probably assumed at first he was just another one of the good-time boys cruising around liberated Tripoli in shiny cars and tight Italian t-shirts. My notes from early in the meeting are not without a dose of humanitarian snark in the margins (“not clear if has heard of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement”).

Whatever my first impressions, though, the rest of my notes spoke volumes. As the sun sank red to the Mediterranean, Mohamed walked me through a comprehensive aid delivery program built on the same goodwill and amateur enthusiasm that was powering every other government function and public service in Libya at the time. The difference being that his efforts targeted the virtual untouchables of the revolution, the communities driven out from their homes, persecuted and made to bear collective guilt for four decades of humiliation under the ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The next time I met Mohamed, it was in the cavernous bullet-riddled former Mercedes dealership in the center of town where he spent his days coordinating aid delivery, escaping to unwind in the cool breezes of Gargaresh only late in the afternoon. It was perhaps at this time I heard the whole story of how he had been a medical student in Benghazi when the revolution broke out and volunteered to fly back and forth to the front lines at Ajdabiya, rescuing battle-wounded overnight revolutionaries in a jerry-rigged ambulance.

Dr. Mohamed put a face on those turbulent times for me. It was him, young and idealistic, suppressing his fear by the things he could do with his own mind and his hands, who would build up a new and better country.

Now, three years after the revolution, Mohamed found himself back in Benghazi, once again risking his own life to save those injured in a far murkier and more ambiguous conflict. People like Mohamed, or the human rights lawyer Salwa Al-Bugaighis murdered last June in Benghazi are the most important resource Libya has. A country denied institutions cannot afford to lose the individuals who give of themselves most freely.

Rest in peace Doctor Mohamed. Libya, heal thyself.

“Endorois decision” update – Kenyan task force appointed

Last Tuesday, Minority Rights Group International Legal Fellow Rebecca Marlin contributed a guest post on the failure of the Government of Kenya to take any meaningful steps to implement the groundbreaking “Endorois decision” issued in 2010 by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. However, by Friday, the situation had improved, if only slightly.

My first notice came in a comment to a subsequent post by Sam Marigat, the head of the Endorois Welfare Council, but the news was also quick to make the Kenyan press. While the details remained nebulous, it seemed that the Kenyan Government had finally appointed the task force responsible for looking into the concrete modalities for implementation of the decision.

Today, a hat tip to colleagues at MRG, who have acquired a copy of the appointment order and given their first analysis of it in a press release. While the order is a welcome sign of progress, MRG has noted a number of serious concerns, not least the fact that the task force is not required to consult with the Endorois community, nor is there an Endorois representative included.

Meanwhile, the phrasing of the mandate, which refers to assessing ‘the practicability of restitution’ and ‘the potential environmental impacts on Lake Bogoria… of implementation’ leaves ample room for skepticism. While the appointment of the task force is a necessary and overdue step toward implementation of the ACHPR’s findings, it must be watched carefully to ensure that it does not simply become a means of thwarting them.

As Mr. Marigat pointed out in response to MRG’s original post, the signs have been grimly clear so far:

Our Kenyan government has not demonstrated any iota of commitment to implement the ACHPR recommendations. Some of the Endorois elders who suffered personal injury are either terminally ill or dead. We buried 2 recently.

Upcoming discussion of restitution at Stockholm University

Just a quick note to say I will be giving a talk on the right of restitution in two weeks at the Stockholm Center for International Law and Justice. Any TN readers locally-based or passing through are welcome to join!

SCILJ V Rhodri 6 oktober copy 2